Finding a Safe Distance

So we are into our second week of “temporary isolation,” and already the culture is molding into a new normal. The ads coming onto my screen have shifted from Easter outfits to cozy pajamas for staying home. Recipes in my inbox are all about comfort food and using pantry staples. People who have been too busy pursuing life to stop and chat are suddenly sending texts and Friend requests as if they would love nothing better than to catch up. The jokes keep getting better. And we finally have the time to watch our favorite TV series on Netflix, paint the living room, or learn to crochet.

It’s strange how a crisis will bring out both the worst and the best in people. I think every one of us wrestles with anxiety… feels the gnawing uncertainty of the future. And maybe it is easy to think of our own family’s needs and risks as being most pressing. But it’s not all bad. If this pushes us to pray more about where we are, and depend on God, then we are a step ahead of where we were a month ago. If this causes us to appreciate family and friends more, or to engage in deeper conversations with others, then we are growing into a healthier and better place. If our hearts go out to others and the burdens they are bearing, whether financial or physical or emotional, and we extend ourselves toward those needs, then we are learning how to be the hands and feet of Christ in real life. If this separation from all our everyday pursuits allows time for families to work together and play together and talk about serious life issues together, then are we not building stronger homes in our togetherness? It seems that distancing from our busy lives and personal pursuits might give us a nudge to draw closer to the relationships that really matter.

As I listen to different voices speak about the current crisis over the past week, the contrasts are striking. Voices of alarm and anxiety. Voices of wisdom and hope. There is beauty in hearing the Family of God giving thanks, in hearing their words of encouragement and appreciation to one another, in expressing love and unity and a desire to serve. And what if this is how we grow into who God wants us to be? This very situation and how we respond to it can be the cultivating fertile ground of the next level of growth in our faith. Maybe it really is all a matter of distance– and I’m thinking the safest place to be right now is as close to the Good Shepherd as possible. I can hear the promise written down for us: “Come near to God and He will come near to you.” (James 4:8) He is always right there, as close as my next breath– it is me that must practice opening my eyes to see Him at work…slowing down enough to pay attention…being quiet and still to hear His voice.

That’s one thing that has not changed: We can always have more of Jesus, if we are willing to pay the price. Because saying yes to one thing always means saying no to something else, and I get to choose what I want more. So in this time of saying no to so many things, let me say yes to His doing a new and deeper thing in my life. And help me seek out the certain things He has for me to do in this strange new season of life.

~~~~~~~

What we think, how we feel, our motives, and both the large and microscopic choices that make up our days are the environment the Spirit’s work is planted in. When the environment is right, the fruit of the Spirit grows. We are asked, even commanded, to cultivate a place where the Spirit of God remains.

Heath Adamson

~~~~~~~

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:12-17
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Peace Is A Choice

Originally published on October 28, 2013.

“…you and I make the sacrifice of trust when we face the painful and distressing realities of our life and then choose to trust God instead of panicking and falling apart. When circumstances in my life might tempt me to panic, feel terrified, become a nervous wreck, or be filled with dread, I can choose either to give in to those feelings or to trust in God and present myself to Him to be filled with His peace. And I must make this conscious choice each and every day….” (Elizabeth George)

This is the practical truth of God’s Word applied to our everyday. If Jesus is our Prince of Peace, then dwelling in His presence is all the peace we could ever hope for. Not the absence of stressful circumstances but the presence of the God who holds all things in His hand. When I know down deep in the very core of my being that He is Who He says He is, then I can echo the song-writer: “The Lord is my light and my salvation— so why should I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

I see this, that if I am worried and frightened, it says more about the state of my heart than it does about either my surroundings or about His ability to do all things well for me. So each day I will choose to lay down my fears at His feet, sacrifice my fretful worries on the altar of faith, trust the One who is bigger than all of us.

~~~~~~~

You hear me when I call;
You are my morning song.
Though darkness fills the night,
It cannot hide the light.
Whom shall I fear?
You crush the enemy
Underneath my feet;
You are my sword and shield
Though troubles linger still.
Whom shall I fear?
I know who goes before me;
I know who stands behind;
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side…

Chris, Tomlin, The God of Angel Armies

~~~~~~~

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7
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When Nothing Seems Certain

The familiar path of Lent winding in and out of weeks toward Easter has led us into unfamiliar landscapes this year, and it’s easy to feel like we are suddenly adrift. But I open the curtains to greet a new day and the morning rains have soaked the ground again. Daffodils are pushing slim green stalks out of the ground and the birds are twittering in the puddles. The earth is coming alive around us, no matter what the Evening News said last night. It anchors my spirit, seeing how these simple things do not change…and maybe they are the largest most important things of all, because they are the foundations on which we stand.

This earth in all its complexity, springing forth from nothing at the words of a Creator God, is held in its rhythms day by day with the strength of His will, and all of us are born and die within its seasons. I can get wound up in the worries and needs of my own life, and forget the larger perspective. It is good for me to stop and look at the softening ground and the budding trees that continue to do what God made them to do, despite the growing stresses of human governments. It calms my spirit to remember that the Winter was turning to Spring without fail, long before I was born, and that my own seasons have come and gone through the years. Time will flow on– what presses so hard now will soon only be memory, and I will change and grow within its movement. This is truth that remains. The Musician-King said God wrote His name in the skies as a reminder for us: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth…” (Psalm 19:1) And isn’t this the purpose of Lent, to slow down and listen, pay attention to the truth woven into creation and remember that we were made to worship Him?

So today I remind myself that the days will keep counting down to Easter resurrection, and nothing can change the miracle that happened in that Garden Tomb so long ago. This is big-picture truth to hang onto, an unmoving foundation for our spirits no matter what comes into our everyday life. We cling to this promise, that “…He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you.: (Romans 8:11) Our lives are bound up in Christ’s death and resurrection, a miracle much too large to be affected by the shifting curves of statistics or the fears of what if. We do not know what the next months hold, but God does, and He is already working all things out. His song echoes down through the centuries, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)

The grass is turning green this week under the grace of rain, and the Creator’s compassions are new every morning, as they have ever been. Easter is coming.

~~~~~~~

Grander earth has quaked before,
Moved by the sound of His voice;
Seas that are shaken and stirred
Can be calmed and broken for my regard.
And through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You;
And through it all, through it all
It is well…

It Is Well, Kristene DiMarco

~~~~~~~

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10
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Almost Spring

Originally published on March 26, 2014.

Here in this season of Lent, instead of fasting and acts of self-denial, we are counting our thanks out on paper, feasting on grace. We are looking ahead to Easter and the resurrection, and rejoicing in the Giver of life.

And I find this to be true, that when eyes are wide open to see “Every good and perfect gift…from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17), there is joy welling up that has little to do with visible circumstances. The Musician-King’s song echoes here: “You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11) Maybe not that we get some unspecified list of treats, as if we were spending the weekend with grandparents, but that the more we live in His presence, the more we experience the depths of His grace and goodness. No wonder the saints of long ago wrote down that the primary purpose of man was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever…getting to know an Eternal Almighty Being is liable to take forever, and the Psalm-Writer says it is all joy.

And you can tell, when you spend time with people, the ones who get this mystery of thankfulness, because the daily choice to recognize grace– when you name it in every little manifestation and offer your praise back up to the Giver– has a way of changing you on the inside. The daily discipline of humble thanks-giving stocks my Thought Closet with more of Him and less of me. Thankfulness chases away resentment and discontent, calms the spirit, focuses my thoughts on the things that are true and honorable and lovely, just like the Apostle Paul advised. He made that same connection between rejoicing and thanksgiving– said it should shape our lives and our prayers, promised good results: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

So as we prepare for Easter and look forward to new life springing out of the ground into green, we go on counting, day by day, tuning our hearts to see the gifts around us, to sing God’s praises–and it’s like we are setting the cross of Christ in the middle of all our days. Because these many little blessings are only glimmers of that one great rugged signpost to grace, where God’s Passion made everything new.

~~~~~~~

Speak to me…
You’re the only voice I want to hear.
Walk with me…
Show me who You are as I draw near.
If You’re not in it
Then I don’t want it;
Let all else fade away.
Take the whole world
But give me Jesus;
Let all else fade away.

Fade Away, Passion

~~~~~~~

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

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Faith Answers the Door

Originally published on March 10, 2014.

Fear came knocking this week. I am not by nature a brave or adventurous person, so I know that visitor well. I am very familiar with it in all of its manifestations, have learned in the trenches to fight back with the Truth of God’s Word, found that maybe faith isn’t so much about banishing fear as it is about stepping off the cliff anyway and believing that there is Someone whose everlasting arms are beneath you.

Nevertheless, this week fear showed up on my doorstep again. It underlined the uncertainties of trying something new, pointed out all the ways this could flop sideways into chaos and frustration for a whole roomful of people, and I would be responsible. It called on the telephone with a whole list of what if’s for the future, all the possibilities for pain and loss. It chirped in text messages about questions left unanswered and days long waiting, wondering what end will be written to their stories. It tied itself in knots about wrong choices made that will have any number of miserable consequences, and fretted about people not having more sense. It crept in through the cracks… seeping into my dreams at night, hovering in the background of everyday activity, piling up in my heart till I could hardly breathe under the weight of it.

And by the end of the week I could see how George MacDonald was right in that old classic children’s tale, when he observed “But that is the way fear serves us: it always sides with the thing we are afraid of.” (The Princess and The Goblin) And I see yet again how fear magnifies the waves around me, drains my strength, makes me forget the One who walks with me and speaks “Peace, be still” to the storm. I am no Peter, to jump out of the boat at a moment’s notice. Never mind that he actually managed to walk on water with his eyes on Jesus for even a few minutes; the fear-tentacles pulling Peter down into deep dark water is what always stands out to me in that story, and the way Jesus grips His hand hard. ” ‘You have so little faith,’ Jesus said. ‘Why did you doubt me?’ ” (Matthew 14:31)

See, it wasn’t about the stormy waves at all. It was about what a man could trust and where he could plant his feet solidly enough to stand. And if there is one thing I have found, it is that Jesus keeps calling us into the unknown, asking us to follow Him, and we need to know what to stand on. Someone remembered in our small group about a saying she always heard at home: “When fear comes knocking, answer it with faith.” Indeed, faith is the only good answer to that familiar, unwelcome visitor. Faith ignores all the uncertainties, all the what-ifs, all the unknowns and mistakes and regrets, and does what is right anyway. Faith stands in the middle of the dark amid crashing waves that threaten to swallow up the world, and fixes its eyes on Jesus, finds peace.  Paul wasn’t writing a pleasant Thought for The Day when he said “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.” (Philippians 4:6) He was telling us what to do when fear rises, giving directions on how to find calm when storms surround.

Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) Pray, ask specifically for help, give thanks…. it reads like a prescription for peace.

It’s a choice, of course, like everything else in our faith-growth process: which voices we will listen to, what we will focus our thoughts on…how to answer the door when fear comes knocking.

~~~~~~~

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7

~~~~~~~

You call me out upon the waters:
The great unknown, where feet may fail.
And there I find You in the mystery;
In oceans deep,
My faith will stand….
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders;
Let me walk upon the waters,
Wherever You would call me.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander,
And my faith will be made stronger,
In the presence of my Savior.

Oceans, Hillsong United
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The Moment of Truth

One of the worst things about adding on the years is that feeling that you are running out of time– to get it right, to fix the broken things, learn how to live well– and after all this time, shouldn’t you be getting better at all of this? What if there simply aren’t enough second chances in life, or even third, fourth, or fifth ones? Maybe after all the blind alleys you’ve run down, and all the winding detours, you just stop wherever you are someday, and that’s as far as you get. It’s a recurring thought that haunts me.

But we talk around the table about recognizing the real Enemy of our souls. About fighting the real battles in life instead of the flesh-and-blood people we see everyday. And how we have been hearing the roaring lies of that Adversary all our lives, until it is just so much background noise. We encourage one another to examine the words we tell ourselves, and replace the lies with Scripture-truth, one line at a time. A habit has to start somewhere, so we take the first step again and again every day. It takes practice to build any skill, and the beloved disciple John reminds us that it is our responsibility to seek out truth and walk in its light, because “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). He is crystal clear about the outcome of our efforts: “…if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) And as we ask for wisdom and eyes to see, the truth takes root in our souls.

A sister-mentor writes this week in startling black and white that “you aren’t all you want to be and neither is anyone you love” (Ann VosKamp), and there is a sudden burst of clarity– what CS Lewis called undeception— that reveals my haunting fear as nothing more than the Enemy’s roaring in the night. Every glossy magazine article out there, each stunning decorating idea and delicious recipe we pin, every beautiful photo in a blog post, each crammed-full calendar page is subtle pressure to measure up. Every opinion from someone we care about, even the helpful book on how to improve this-or-that weighs in on the phantom scale measuring the worth of our lives. It’s no wonder that women suffer from anxiety and depression. But you know, even if everyone is convinced of the same lie, it doesn’t make it any less false. I could work myself to the grave and never satisfy those impossible standards. I bow broken to realize that I will never be enough….we are all not-enough…. and that is the bare truth that takes a certain kind of courage to face. It feels like fighting my way through the shell of this world, splintering through the veneer of perfection into a freedom that admits my inability and is content to be real and imperfect, because Christ is sufficient in all of His glory. Happy are the poor in spirit, who know they are beggars in every way that matters, for the King of Heaven has come down to them with outstretched arms.

Who I am is not about what I have done but about the Creator who made me and knows me by name, calls me His own and beloved. Nothing I fear, and nothing I have done will change who He is or how He sees me. This is truth to stand on and truth that can fight the Enemy’s lies. For every misdirection the Adversary throws at me, there is an answering Word of Scripture that solidly defends against his attack. The Church-planter Paul sums it up in one of his most beloved paragraphs, and I can only imagine the joyful tears and hallelujahs that were offered up in the gathering when this letter was first read aloud to the early believers: “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us….I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:34, 37-39) Amen and amen.

The years of my life will be full of mistakes and detours and slow-learning lessons. But they will also be full of the grace and lovingkindness of the Savior. And there will be just the right number of years for this honestly real and not-enough girl to do the things He has for me to do. The Church-planter writes confidently, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6) He will be enough for me in whatever time I have left.

~~~~~~~

Shame takes what we’ve done and uses it to attack who we are….Shame can only operate in the shadows of our fears, but when we bring those fears to light they lose their power….See, truth does the opposite of shame. Truth takes who we are and uses it to attack what we’ve done….We do all of this with God’s word because nothing is truer than what God has said.

Paul Jenkins

~~~~~~~

In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one…. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Ephesians 6:16,18

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Wise Women Build Strong Houses

(Originally published January 29, 2014.)

It really does matter what you believe down inside. It is neither abstract nor separate from everyday life. It’s what the Wise King warned about: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23) It’s easy to apply that to the importance of keeping a heart pure from sin, but his caution is so much deeper and more vital than that. Above everything else you do in life, guard what you believe to be true, for that will form the framework of the life you build; it will determine the way you perceive the world around you, others, God, yourself.  What you believe about reality will determine your values, your goals, your decisions. What you believe will shape your responses to everything you experience, so be careful and guard your heart– this is vital for living.

And yet, when you think about it, how unconsciously and gradually those beliefs and perspectives were built, most of them when we were too young to even question or evaluate them. My worth depends on my performance…or my looks…or my possessions…or my position. My happiness depends on being loved and approved of…or being in control…or satisfying my desires…or having everything go well. All childish sandcastles that could never sustain the weight of a real life. It doesn’t matter precisely how or when we acquired them– they are all only variations of the first lie we listened to, way back at the beginning of time, when the Serpent whispered in Woman’s ear that maybe God wasn’t really Who He said He was, wasn’t really enough for them. Try something else, he said, and she did. And we did. All of us, building fragile on things that shift with the tide.

The children sing on Sunday morning, little fists thumping gleefully one atop the other as they lay up bricks: “The wise man built his house upon the rock, the wise man built his house upon the rock, and the rains came tumbling down…” Because the storms do that, in life, full floods bursting in when you least expect it, or even just the slow steady dripping that rises till it is mountain-high, and that’s when you get to see what a house is really made of, no matter how it looks on the outside.  I ask the children if the song is really about building houses and they quickly shake their heads no. They anticipate my question now, because we talk about it every time we sing the song. We talk about how we are building our lives, and it matters what we build on; any foundation other than Jesus’ teachings is shifting sand, like sandcastles on the beach when the waves rush in. “The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the rains came tumbling down.” The little ones love to crash to the floor at the end, laughing at how the house on the sand collapsed as the floods came up.

But I have seen whole lives collapse under the weight of losing a career…the sheer pain of carving up a marriage…the inexorable advance of cancer…the slow despair of years that eat up dreams. Those kinds of floods bring utter ruin, unless your house is built on solid Truth.

No matter what I have or don’t have, my house can stand if I have this: “Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ ” (Hebrews 13:5) Regardless of what sorrow comes, and no matter how hard the winds blow, we have an unshakable foundation: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Relationships may fail to nourish, and people we should be able to trust can prove wildly undependable, but Peter shouts out joyfully that we are valued and loved by the One who sent His Son to die for us: “… you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) There is Truth to put down in the center of our hearts and guard with all our might, if we know where to find it.

James urges his readers: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5) Just go looking in the right place, the Elder Brother says…go right to the source, and you will find the wisdom you need.  But you had better be ready to look deep inside yourself and confront what is really there, because many of us have learned the right words– what we say we believe– even while living out a different set of beliefs at the core of us. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we are building strong, when all we are really doing is painting the same old flimsy structure and planting flowers. No wonder the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the power of Scripture in our lives, calling it  “…alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) If you want to know what you really believe, God’s Word is the measuring stick and the light that shines into the darkest, most hidden closets.

And the Wise King waxes eloquent about the benefits of building strong. “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.” (Proverbs 24:3-4)

~~~~~~~

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ Alone, Keith Getty

~~~~~~~

A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.

Proverbs 14:1

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Who Are You?

(Originally published on January 18, 2014.)

It’s odd, really, the way we define ourselves in terms of what we do and who we know. Daughter of these parents…accountant for this firm…mother of this child…horse-lover…nurse…artist…wife…good cook…best friend. We spend our whole lives looking for where we fit in, searching for the labels that will tell us who we are and make us feel good about ourselves….and then hanging onto those for dear life, because what if we lose those definitions and have nothing left? I guess when we come into this world under the proud gaze of two young parents, the first label is already waiting for us with the name they choose, and it never even occurs to us to stop collecting as we go, to step back and question the whole mind-set.

But we who know the Creator have a larger picture to consider, because our lives are not bounded and defined by what happens on this earth. Long before we were laid in our parents’ arms, Someone dreamed us up and designed us down to the smallest detail, saw all of our decisions in all of our days, knew what we would do and who we would become, chose where to put us down into those parents’ arms. “I am God’s workmanship. I am valuable to God.” He who calls all the stars by name and holds them in their places knows the real me– the person I am on the inside– and loves me for that, just because He made me. “I am God’s treasure. I am capable.” And we who know the Savior have an identity that He gives us– Truth to live by that is so much bigger than what we do, or who we know. “I am forgiven. I am free. I am being transformed. I am welcome in Gods’ presence.” Because when you know God for Who He really is, you can begin to know yourself for who you really are.

There is stability in knowing who you are on the inside, in laying aside the outside labels that come and go, that may be ill-fitting and even destructive, or may not ever fully materialize the way we wish they would. There is a freedom in being who God made you to be, laying down the worry about what others want you to be. There is security in knowing you are completely loved, no matter whether you succeed or fail.

And when we go around the room and read these truths to one another, I see it on each face, hear it in the voices soft and reverent: the power of Truth to nourish souls. “I am a new creation. I am gifted with power, love, and a sound mind. I am an heir of God. I am God’s delight.”

~~~~~~~

 
The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become – because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be. . .It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.
 

CS Lewis

~~~~~~~

Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea;
A great High Priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands;
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in heav’n He stands,
No tongue can bid me thence depart…

Before the Throne of God Above, Bob Kauflin
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Happiness Makes the Heart Grow Stronger

It catches my eye every time I walk through the kitchen– that poster on my fridge, with the flowers in the border reminding me that we need a new ink cartridge in the printer– and I keep reading it over and over, trying to wrap my brain around words I know are true, but sound as off-kilter as the oddly colored flowers around them. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…”

Everyone gets to decide? Even the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not free at all, and have no choice in the matter. And who gets to decide a quantity of happiness, as if it were an opportunity or a favor granted? Isn’t everyone allotted a certain measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge– balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears; can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give it all up and do whatever we can to pretend the tug-of-war doesn’t even exist. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart doesn’t completely get it yet. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that he was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

This happiness is something stronger and braver than we give it credit for: no whim of emotion but the obedience of an unswerving heart. The answer to all the hurts of this world is the Savior who came for us, and because of Him we can always rejoice, can always give thanks for Grace. But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always a valid option. Choose to see Grace, be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.

 

 

 

 

 

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

 

 

 

 

“Life is a battle — and Joy is a kind of courage and a smile slays all kind of dragons.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Of Faith and Fleece

In this world of so many things gone wrong that we cannot fix, uncertain outcomes, unpredictable circumstances, sometimes all you want is assurances to hang onto. Super-powers would be nice, but I would settle for a burning bush, or fiery chariots, or a shepherd’s rod that can turn into a snake. In our small group we sometimes joke about how neon signs would be helpful when we go looking for direction and assurance, but the joking is just a cover-up for a little bit of frustration and a very real fear that we might get left on our own.  

I think how I might cheerfully throw myself at new under-takings, could bravely face the unknown, if I only had a fleece like Gideon did, letting me know for sure that God’s power was overshadowing me and everything would turn out well. But then I realize how crazy that sounds, because I have seen a fleece in real life: a shaggy, raggedy thing of indeterminate color, and smelling to high heaven when wet. Gideon’s confidence-booster was not very impressive when you take a good look at it– no more significant than any of the things I might hang onto as divine signposts, and isn’t it funny how seriously we wish for them to help us out? Especially when Jesus says to Gideon and to us, “I will be with you….I will stay…” (Judges 6:16,18) Shouldn’t the promise of the Almighty be sufficient?

When I really think about it, what made the fleece significant was the concrete evidence of God living and active, reaching down into the gritty everyday details of a farmer’s life. Because that is what Gideon needed to know most of all– that he was not alone and that there was a God who could work in the many situations Gideon could not control….things like where the dew fell… and who lived and died…and the future of his family. Isn’t that what we all need to know, when it comes right down to it? No wonder we are so keen about that smelly bit of wool.

God was very patient with Gideon’s need to see with his own eyes, touch the wet wool with his own fingers, smell the evidence of divine power with his own nose. But then, Gideon was just meeting the Almighty for the first time, had nothing but old stories handed down through generations to inform his faith. And I hold the God-breathed record in my hands, the revelation of who God Is, the inked words of the Word coming in flesh, and I feel ashamed. Why do I sometimes think it would be easier to understand a piece of wool or wood or weather for answers (just because I can touch them and see them) rather than God Himself? If I cannot put my trust in God’s assurances, cannot trust the Spirit who has made His habitation with me, isn’t looking elsewhere just a fancy word for idolatry? And why would I expect God to indulge my desire for control, even if it is only an illusion after all? Granted, there is a learning curve in following the Spirit’s leading, and God is still very patient (and we do have to be ever wary of our tendency toward deception), but sometimes I just need to step out and act on what He has already said, and trust Him for the outcome.

Interestingly, when Gideon saw God face to face, he named Him Jehovah-shalom…The Lord is Peace. There was an old superstition that to see the face of God meant certain death, so when Gideon realized that it was the Lord Himself who had come to visit him, he was sure it was all over. The Lord is Peace came from his relief that God intended good, not ill, for him. That is what stood out to Gideon about the whole encounter. But after the fact, when he was neck-deep in the logistics of leading an army of beaten-down farmers against a superior foe, when the memory of Voice and Fire had blurred at the edges, he needed to know for sure that the calling was true, and the power was real, and the Presence remained. So he pulled out that raggedy fleece and laid it out under the stars, begging God to do all the things he could not, in this very real, very uncertain world; I’m not sure which is more remarkable, that the farmer trusted enough to ask for yet another sign, or that God stooped to touch his dirty rags, or that the Lord’s promise to His people still rings out clear through the centuries: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Because this is still what we need to know most of all, and God still bends to assure us of His presence: His presence is peace, and He is good, and He is with us. “…Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) No temporary fleece, but a blazing Presence in our hearts, the Living One who is able to control all the things we care about most and are unable to change. “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.'” (2 Corinthians 6:16)  What more do we need?

 

 

 

 

 

“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (James 1:5-8)

 

 

 

 

“We pray for wisdom, Your voice to hear;
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near;
We doubt your goodness, we doubt your love,
As if every promise from Your word is not enough.
And all the while, You hear each desperate plea,
And long that we’d have faith to believe.”
(Blessings,Laura Story)

 

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