Saturday, January 30, 2010

Even Though I Walk Through The Valley

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters
he restores my soul
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil, for you are with me
your rod and your staff, they comfort me
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
~Psalm 23: 1-6

Just over a month ago Jeff and I found ourselves with a totaled car, due to being rear ended while visiting his family the weekend before Christmas. I feel it is necessary to preface this story with some information.

1) While we were still pregnant, I was praying fervently that God would provide us with a new (new-to-us, really) car that would be safer and more practical for our new family. A car with more room for the car seat and that was in better condition. I told God I did not care how He brought it about, but that I knew He would provide.
2) This accident happened about 6 weeks after we lost the baby. It was, in many ways, the straw that broke the camel's back in my own life. It prompted a cry of "Really?? Could anything else possibly go wrong right now? I just want this season [of grief and setbacks] to be over!"

The other driver admitted total fault, and their insurance had us set up with a rental car in no time. We had medical bills, and they are also being taken care of by the insurance. Jeff's brother offered us his car. A 1995 Dodge Neon, this car was 2 years older than Tetra (yes, I had named my car. I am not ashamed to admit it.), yet it was in much better condition. The Neon has 44,000 fewer miles on it, and the body was still in good condition, as well as the engine. From what we knew, all that needed fixing was that the clutch needed to be replaced.

Well, Jeff drove back down to his mother's to swap out the tires from Tetra to the Neon (we had just put new tires on, as well as just had it aligned and just changed the oil. Talk about the best laid plans..), and discovered that the tires had an inch difference in size, he would not be able to swap out the tires after all. Now there is added expense for tires, and I was already feeling frustrated that this whole car-switch was not as easy as it was supposed to be. Then we also find out that not only did the clutch need replacing, but basically the whole brake system, as well as a few other additional details. After a process of trying to get in touch with the mechanic and figure out what would cost how much, when it could be finished, we had to leave town on a business trip for a week. The week of reprieve from all of these details was nice, but instead of coming back fresh and ready to face it all...I really just wanted it to be over.

The end was in sight. Jeff headed down to get the car, and then called me to tell me that when he picked it up, he'd made it to a town about 3 hours from here and one of the cables connecting the gears popped off. He had to wait for the mechanic to come back and re-tighten that. But that was it for me. I was finished. I had had it waiting for all of this to be over. I knew God was going to work something beautiful out of our circumstances, but I was sick of the circumstances.

In speaking with a friend about it, she gently pointed out that it was not like we were going through this alone. God was carrying us.

Something struck me in that. I was wanting life to be easy enough for me to "do it by myself." How very like a two year old, exclaiming to her parents in frustration, "ME do it my OWN self!" Yes, I wanted things to be simple enough for me to handle on my own, and that is what so many of us want, but it is a lie.

Just what are we capable of, outside of the grace of God? Is not God's grace what wakes us up in the morning, fills our lungs with breath all day long, spurs our muscles and bones on to move and bring us through our days? I depend on the grace of God for my very survival, even when lying in Green Pastures! How, then, is the Valley of the Shadow of Death any different? Grief is more apparent in the Valley, I can see and feel threatened by more harm; but God is carrying me there, just as God carries me along the still water in the Green Pastures. God is protecting me in both cases, from the evils I cannot see in the pasture and the evils that surround in the Valley. As far as my dependence on God's grace is concerned, the Green Valley by the Quiet Waters is exactly the same as the Valley of the Shadow of death. All that has really changed is that I do not like being so frightened, frustrated, and thwarted at what I perceive to be all my best opportunities; and I do not seem to comprehend just Who it is who carries me.

What I was longing for, really, us just to be in control. And I have seen how far "me in control" gets me. It is not very far. When not being ruled inwardly by the wisdom of Christ, I do not make choices that are wise at all.

This realization did an amazing thing. It ushered in this incredible peace. Peace. Realization that even though I was not in control of things now, neither had I ever been in control during the Green Pasture moments. Peace because I realized it was far better to be in the Valley of the Shadow of Death with the comfort and protection of God's rod and staff than it Could ever be to be in the pasture without Him.

This peace, and the sharpening of our faith and our character through these turbulent moments, is what Isaiah spoke of when he prophesied that the Lord would "provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of morning, and a garment of praise instead of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor (Isaiah 61:3)." This is what James talks about when he says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything(James 1:2-4)."

Things are settling down the the vehicle situation, everything is falling into place. I feel like this chapter in our life with the loss of our baby, the loss of Jeff's job, and the loss of our car is finally coming to a close. It is coming to a close with our realization that God had always known that the miscarriage, the layoff, and the accident were going to happen (I am not saying He caused it, but that in being both inside and outside of time God knows these situations ahead of time), and the loss of all these things (baby, job, car) was very literally the valley of the shadow of death for us. But God in His faithfulness as the Good Shepherd walked through that valley with us, and used these situations to draw us closer to Him, and even to meet our needs (of a better car), and to strengthen our relationship in the face of situations that tear many couples apart. What this fallen world and the enemy of our souls has meant to work for our destruction in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, The Lord - in walking through the Valley with us - has worked (and will continue to work) to our good and His glory.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Do You Play The Fool?

Imagine yourself on a busy road, hastily trying to run some errands on your lunch break. Just as you approach a side street, another vehicle turns left in front of you from that road, as though he was waiting for you to get close enough to make his turn exciting. "What are you, a squirrel?" you exclaim to no one through your gritted teeth; as you hit your breaks just in time to not hit this apparent thrill-seeker.

Or imagine this: You have been busily trying to clean up today's mess before climbing into bed, and finally after turning off every light and appliance, are just peeling back the covers, when your spouse says to you, "Dear, could you bring me some water?" Do you roll your eyes and make sure they know through your tone that, though you will comply, this "sacrifice" on your part is costing you dearly?

Or someone parks in your spot at work, church, the gym, or wherever else you may find yourself. Do you walk in loudly complaining of the fact that you had to walk farther or longer because your usual spot was taken by someone who is obviously inconsiderate?

Or someone blatantly, callously insults you to your face. Are you justified in a loud and angry display in return?

Proverbs 12:16
A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult (NIV).

I have to say, when I read this proverb, there were so many fingers pointing back at me already I really did not have any to spare for accusing others (don't you hate it when that happens?)!

I take things personally. It is understandable, to an extent. I am an individual who feels things very deeply. Whether it be my own feelings, or bearing empathy for the feelings of someone else, there is little that does not have the ability to cut me to the quick. But above and beyond that, I really do take things personally.

If I was to sit down and ask myself why that was, I could give you a lot of answers about how this affected me while I was growing up, or someone in college said something like this to me once; but the honest truth is much simpler. For whatever baggage might be in my past, for whatever reason I could think to muster, I care far too much about what other people think, and not nearly enough about how God sees me.

Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and 12:16 says a prudent (wise) man overlooks an insult. So the fear of the Lord is the means to being able to overlook an insult. Not to reduce a proper reverence of God to a "means to an end," because revering and honoring God is an end unto itself, it is why we were created. But it is impossible to truly overlook an offense if our focus is on ourselves. But while we learn to honor God, we also learn to love like Him, to forgive like Him, and we learn that no one else has an opinion of us that matters more than His.

If you are "fearing the Lord," in the true meaning of that verse, you are awed by Him. You understand that God is wholly Other, completely Holy, totally above even the highest thoughts we could possibly think about God while we are so limited here on earth. That does not mean that you are afraid He will harm you. I think many will agree that C.S. Lewis's description of Aslan in the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe shows the perfect perspective of a heart that "fears the Lord," in the sense of reverence, awe, and honor:

“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

Or perhaps another great Lewis passage comes from The Horse and His Boy, also in the Chronicles of Narnia:

Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh, and trotted across to the Lion.
"Please," she said, "you're so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I'd sooner be eaten by you then fed by anyone else."
"Dearest daughter," said Aslan, planting a lion's kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, "I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours."

The fear of the Lord is not succumbing to the heretical notion that God Almighty is nothing other than some kind of cosmic vending machine, or a buddy just here to pal around with you from now and throughout eternity. Do not mistake me, God loves us. He wants us to experience "fullness of joy" in His presence, and "pleasures forevermore" at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). But God is God. He is the Lord and Ruler of the universe. A Righteous Judge who demanded payment for our sins, and paid it with the blood of His very own perfect spotless Son. He is to be honored, glorified, magnified; even while we are drawing near to Him and laying bare our hearts.

I think, particularly, the horse's response to Aslan is very relevant to this discussion. "You are so beautiful I'd rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else (paraphrase)."

What is the approval and praise of others if not "food" for our ego? So Fear of the Lord looks like this: being more concerned with how you can get even just a little bit closer to this incredible, amazing God than you are concerned with making sure you have the approval of man. And "just a bit closer," is never enough. How could you ever get close enough to the glory, the magnificence, the splendor of who God is? The Psalmist encourages the young bride of a king with a verse that well applies to any Christian learning about the Fear of the Lord:

Listen, O daughter; consider and give ear: Forget your people and your father's house. The King is enthralled with your beauty; honor Him, for He is your Lord.
Psalm 45:10-11

The person who is living for the Lord's approval will not care if you call them any sort of name, they will not care if you think they are a little crazy. God constantly asked the prophets to do all kinds of weird things, and if they were more concerned with man's opinion they never could have served Him the way that they did. What does that have to do with overlooking an offense? Simple. If you do not care what people think of you, you will not care when they persecute, insult, pick on, annoy, frustrate, or aggravate you.

I have to be honest with you. Most days I am pretty sure I will never achieve that level of "water off a duck's back"-ness this side of Glory. I am pretty impatient, and I do not easily overlook an offense. I have always been one who wants to know that she is approved of, loved, even just liked. But, the good news is that I am not the one who needs to achieve this. I seem to recall that "nothing is impossible with God (Mark 10:27)." And that God will not start something in us that He cannot finish (Philippians 1:6).

So what is our job in this? Serve the Lord. Know who it is we are serving, love Him, fear Him (reverently, not with terror); and allow God to make you wise through your closeness to Him.

And, you know, next time you feel your blood boiling over a minor offense, remind yourself: A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult (Proverbs 12:16).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Come Hungry. Leave Happy.

So many of us who fall into the "charismatic" spectrum actually go to fairly mellow churches. My church is no exception, there. Do believers in our church often practice in the gift of tongues? Certainly. Will you here people babbling in tongues incessantly and loudly on Sunday mornings? No. Do we believe in healing? Certainly. Have people been healed there? Absolutely. Will you find the preacher looking for unsuspecting persons in wheel chairs to drag out in front of everyone? Definitely not.

In churches where the gifts are used visibly, audibly, and all the time, there is of course the danger of "inoculating yourself" against the Holy Spirit. "You want me to do what, God? That is so yesterday!" And of course the danger of getting into a habit of "drumming up" the same old same old instead of waiting on God for fresh fire. But before us "normal" Pentecostals get too proud, there is a great danger lurking in our churches, too!

Just as you can get used to a lot of "action," you can get used to a lot of "normalcy." And, any way you slice it, complacence is sinful. We have a Sunday or two where there are Words of Wisdom given, and Sundays where nothing happens. A Sunday where someone is healed of something, and then Sundays where nothing happens. Eventually, those times where a clear move of God punctuates the litany of Sundays where nothing happens are fewer and farther between.

What has gone wrong? Is God any less real today than He was yesterday? Are people any less broken than they were yesterday? Do people need the Lord less today than they did yesterday? No, no, and no. Absolutely not. But if the power of the Holy Spirit has not decreased, and the desperation has not decreased, what has? Our hunger. Our expectancy. We get so used to "something could happen, but it might not" day in and day out that we forget to expect great things of our Great God. We get so caught up in the drama of a close-knit community that we take our eyes off of Christ and focus instead on what people think of when we said/did this, and if Sister Soandso really liked my sweater, or was just trying to make me feel good. We stop seeing the Spirit move, and we stop expecting to.

Friday night the ladies from my home group met for a girls night. There was, as always, fun and silly girl talk and catching up on our lives. But then, the talk turned to more serious things. Significant spiritual moments in our lives, what we felt like God was saying to us in the New Year. Sharing with these ladies began to get me hungry. As my previous post indicates, there already were things God was laying on my heart in the new year. And to have other people willing to invest prayer into that on my behalf is a wonderful thing. To be able to invest prayer into the work God is doing in these other ladies' lives is also amazing! More than that, though, it got us ravenously hungry to see what God would do on Sunday morning.

This last week my church participated in something called the Global Bridegroom Fast. Basically the first Sunday-Wed of every month is a fast to focus our hearts on the Lord's return, on intercession for our communities, on a spirit of revival and of repentance; but primarily cultivating a longing for the Lord's presence in our daily lives, and a longing for His return. The name of the fast is taken from Matthew 9:15. What Bridegroom time means is that more people in the church will be visiting the prayer room than usual. More time in the prayer room + not eating = a real physical hunger + a greater spiritual hunger.

The combination of these two factors (ladies' night at home group generating so much hunger and the timing of Bridegroom fast) plus other possible factors (maybe other people gathered to pray to that same end as our ladies' night, maybe more people are reading their Bibles than usual because they have begun anew their New Year's Resolution to stick with their quiet times), is a recipe for an amazing Sunday morning service. And we had an amazing service! God showed up in a very real and tangible way, people committed to allowing God to use them more wholly, dreams were shared along with Words of Wisdom; the body was edified, and Christ was glorified. Every Sunday should be like this.

No, really. Every Sunday should be like this. When we cultivate that expectant heart, that hunger, that desperation to see God move; He meets us in the middle of our desperation and does incredible things. I am not saying every Sunday should look the same, sound the same, or even feel the same. I do not want to ever get into a pattern that could become a spiritual rut. I do not want to ever lose my sense of awe and wonder at the things God does. But we should be inviting Him at every second. We should be welcoming Him into our worship with our desperate hearts. If God inabits the praise of His people, why do we not notice Him more? I can only say it must be because we are not expecting Him to show up. We are not expecting to see Him heal the sick, deliver the oppressed, or embrace the lonely.

I am not a formula person. I think that when people try to put spiritual things into technical formulas few good things can happen. But I think that one formula is the exception. There is a formula for a consistent and satisfying church "experience."

Come hungry. Leave Happy.

Even if the amazing that happens in church this time does not instantly repair your problems, it will still ease your burden. You have an opportunity, when you come to church expecting to meet with God, to surrender those issues to Him, gain His perspective on your situation, and cry out to the Lord for deliverance. You have the opportunity to walk back out of the church when it is over knowing that the Lord cares for You, and your times are in His hand. Come Hungry. Leave Happy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Eating the Scroll

I would not describe myself as an important person. I would not even say I am a particularly influential person. But it would be dishonest to say that God did not have a call on my life. I would be dishonest to say I do not believe He has a plan for me, and that His plan is important. His plan is for the salvation of many and the glory of His Name.

I say all of this because it is important to establish a few things:
1) I believe God has a purpose for my life that is bigger than myself; but I do not think it is because of anything I could or would do outside of the Grace of God. Except that God has called me (as it is also important to note I believe He calls all of us), I am no one special.

2) I am a singer, I am a writer, I am a theologian; but above and beyond all of these I am a seeker. I seek a closer relationship with God, and I seek to have a more obedient heart when it comes to following Him. I seek to be a better wife to my husband, a better daughter to my parents and sister to my siblings, a better friend to those I hold dear, a better employee to my boss, a better coworker to those I work with. It is this context, all of these situations and relationships, that informs my singing, my writing, and my theology.

I can be a bit of an impulsive person. Excitable. In the past, when God has led me in a direction, I have found it very easy to try and run ahead and see where He's taking me - as though I would be awarded points for figuring it out ahead of time. That was not really passion, that was worry. "Where are you taking me, God? Will I know what to do when I get there? What if I screw up? What if I mess up? I better lift the lid off of the saucepan and have a look at what is cooking inside, just so I can develop a game plan. I want to know what my role is, here."

In recent years, exhausted from constantly jumping to the wrong conclusion and having messes to clean up and frustration at "not getting it right," I had swung to the other pole. "God, I am not going anywhere unless You pick me up and move me, because I want to be absolutely certain - beyond the shadow of a doubt - that this is coming from You, and not from my own vanity or my own silly ideas." I called that "resting," But it was also fearful. It was restless resting. Anxious, afraid, refusing to take a leap of faith.

This blog was born out of a recent realization that neither way was right. I was sitting and having coffee with my husband one day, and just realized out of the blue, "If God has given me a vision for a ministry, I need to be spending all the time until it gets here preparing my heart and being obedient. If God has given me a passion to write I need to be writing, spending as much time as I can in the Word and in prayer, and writing out of the overflow that comes from that. I need to be practicing guitar instead of just daydreaming about how one day I would like to be able to accompany myself when I sing. I need to be walking in the calling God has placed on my life, even if I have no idea how it will come about. Especially because I have no idea how it will come about."

Several months ago our church congregation experienced a sudden loss of a much loved member to our family. I began writing a song about "The Valley of Dry Bones" while I was praying for this woman's family. Grappling with God over things through prayer is where all of my songs have come from. And they all have come right away, in one complete package: music, lyrics, everything. I got stuck, though, after the first verse and chorus, which horrified me.

In the Valley of Dry Bones, I'll wait for You
In this place of darkness and death
In the Valley of Dry Bones, I'll wait for You
Till You fill me with Your breath
And they that look upon this body that they have called death
They will see only life
And they that look upon this body that they have called death
They will not know how to believe their eyes

In the valley, in the Valley of Dry Bones
When I was sure that all my hope was gone
And every chance I'd ever had lay dashed to pieces on the floor of the valley
Of the Valley of Dry Bones

I knew that, if I did not have an end to that song in sight, it was because God was still working the end. I did not want to deal with any death or any loss, even in a strictly spiritual sense. I was not looking forward to the pain that might have to come, in order for me to finish the song. I hastily forced together a horrid second verse and chorus and called that "done."

Summer came, then Fall, and my husband and I were trying to have a baby. We became pregnant right away, and just when I was finally beginning to believe I was really going to have a baby (It is hard in those first months when you are not showing yet, and I did not have much morning sickness), we had a miscarriage. On that same day, my dear husband got a notice of separation from his state job, stating that he had 30 days remaining in his time under their employ. I knew, deep in my spirit, that this place is where I would finish that song from. NOTE: I am not at all saying that I believe God caused this loss, but I do believe that God desires to work through our brokenness to create strength and beauty. I do believe that He will redeem even the most horrible of circumstances.

That day, my husband still had to go into work, and he worked late at night. My mother had advised me that under no circumstances should I allow myself to be alone in my house while all of the pain from this was still fresh. So, even though I had almost decided not to go to the ladies' fellowship that was already scheduled for that evening, I went. My thought was, if I should not be alone, and I cannot be with my husband, where else would I want to be but in a room full of sisters who all love me and could be of some comfort to me). And it was good: I had moments of "normal" followed by crying moments with one or two close friends who were completely there for me. At the end of the evening everyone prayed for me, and two things in particular struck me with particular significance. One woman prayed for me and had seen a picture while she was praying, and the picture was of a fire smoldering to ashes, and a bird rising from the ashes. She kept hearing, "It's a Phoenix," but she did not know what a phoenix was, so she texted her husband and asked him to look it up for her, and he sent her a description back. Though I already knew of this mythical creature, I was glad that she had no idea what she was seeing, because it was much easier to accept that this was from God and not from her. The idea rung very true with something I already believe, God redeems our present suffering in ways that are completely unfathomable.

It is significant to note that the cry of a phoenix is said to be a beautiful song. Some years ago, I was at a prayer meeting of sorts (at Justice House of Prayer in Cambridge, MA), and a man I did not know walked up to me. He said, "Excuse me, are you a writer?" I answered that I was, though somewhat tentatively because I had no idea who this man was. So he asked me again, "Are you a writer?" I told him that I was and he said to me, "God wanted me to tell you that He is going to give you a pen." The very next day I was at work, and some people my friend and I had just met at JHOP walked into the store we was working in. There was no one else in the store, so these teenagers who had come just asked if they could pray for my friend and I. They did, and one of them said to me, "God is going to give you an anointed song." The man who spoke to me the day before was from MA and had just arrived at that meeting that day, the teenagers were from South Carolina. They did not know each other (the girl who spoke about the song and the man who spoke about the pen), and I was certain these two were tied together. However, at the hearing of these things, I proceeded directly into the pattern I described above: trying to write everything and anything that came to mind, or not writing anything at all until God somehow downloaded whatever to my brain. Neither place was a faith-filled one, and no song had yet come. Which brings us to my friend Mandi seeing a picture of a Phoenix while she prayed for me.

And then another lady, our pastor's wife, came up to me after and said to me that, while she was praying for me God told her that I had a deep-seeded fear that I would never be able to have children. I told her that was true, but that there was more and she said, "Yes, actually. You are afraid that everything good in your life will be ripped from you." And that was exactly true, and echoed a conversation I had already had with my mother before I miscarried, where I told her that I felt like God was using this pregnancy to confront that fear (just for all of you skeptics out there, my mother and my pastor's wife have met before, but they do not have any contact with each other. My mother lives 1100 miles away in another state, and the two have only met once or twice briefly in church.). I was now convinced that, though God did not cause this heartbreaking circumstance, He was already planning to use it for His glory and our good, as He brings us through that healing process.

It was this set of circumstances that preceded my coffee shop epiphany mentioned above. This whole situation - including a car wreck in which we were rearended and our car totaled at no fault of our own - has been the catalyst for a season of expectant preparedness. I will read my Bible. I will press on in prayer. I will allow God to prepare my heart for whatever is to come, however we get there. I need to. And I need to write. Write everything He lays on my heart to write.

The following verse from Revelation speaks to more than just this one prophetic incident in John's life; it speaks to the prophetic life in general. We love the idea of knowing the truth, of spreading the truth. We feel, sometimes, that knowledge makes us important. The truth of the matter is, it is sweet to be God's instrument. But sometimes the words or pictures we are given, sometimes even just the circumstances we must be in for a time, will often turn your stomach sour. I know that at the end of all of this I will finally be able to say that I would not - had I the chance - rewrite our life story so it did not include the heartbreak of miscarriage, the insecurity of job loss, the fear and frustration of car accidents; because I will know even more fully then what I already know (as far as I presently can) now: God is in control, and He cares for us. His heart breaks right alongside ours in loss, and He longs to be our everything - not just when we are hurting - but when life is good and we are happy, too.

"So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, 'Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.' I took the little scroll from the angel's hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach tured sour. Then I was told, 'You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.'"
~Revelation 10:9-11