Friday, December 16, 2011

Are We Missing the Point?

"Then Peter said, 'Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk."
~ Acts 3:6 (NIV)

There is a song that is often played around Christmas, The Christmas Shoes.  The lyrics may be familiar to many of you, but just in case they are not I will type them here. 

The Christmas Shoes

It was almost Christmas time, there I stood in another line
Tryin' to buy that last gift or two, not really in the Christmas mood
Standing right in front of me was a little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing 'round like little boys do
And in his hands he held a pair of shoes

His clothes were worn and old, he was dirty from head to toe

And when it came his time to pay
I couldn't believe what I heard him say


Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please
It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight

He counted pennies for what seemed like years

Then the cashier said, "Son, there's not enough here"
He searched his pockets frantically
Then he turned and he looked at me
He said Mama made Christmas good at our house
Though most years she just did without
Tell me Sir, what am I going to do,
Somehow I've got to buy her these Christmas shoes

So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out

I'll never forget the look on his face when he said
Mama's gonna look so great

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please

It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight


I knew I'd caught a glimpse of heaven's love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me just what Christmas is all about

The first time I heard that song, it made me cry.  The sentiment is sweet, and the circumstances tragic.  Our hearts should indeed be stirred by those whose lives are filled with heartbreak and need a miraculous touch from God. 

By the hundredth time I had heard it, though, I started to get angry.  I could not understand why, and thought that maybe it was how hopeless the boy's situation was.  Even if he got the shoes, he was still going to lose his mother, and I maybe it made me angry because I did not want to be reminded of that.  But as I sat in my living room the other day, it struck me why this song makes me so angry.  I heard them sing, "I knew that God had sent that little boy to remind me just what Christmas is all about."  And everything that is in me fumed, "This is NOT about YOU!  And God did NOT send that little boy JUST to teach you a lesson, YOU had an opportunity to touch that boy's life and you MISSED it!"

Now, I realize, this song is based on a popular story that has been published all over the internet. Whether fact or fiction, every question and answer site has a different take on it; so I cannot say for sure.  So know that this is not exactly a condemnation of Newsong or any of the myriad of Christian artists who have covered the song, nor about the person who penned the story in the first place, nor the original man who may or may not have stood in the original line on Christmas Eve.  Rather, it is a call to action.

You may be thinking, "But he bought the kid those did he miss his opportunity?"

It makes me angry to think that all we have to offer the world, as Christians, is a comforting arm on someone's shoulders when they are in the midst of life's most difficult circumstances.  Or a few nickels to "fix" a circumstance.  When Peter was in this situation, he said, "Here's what I have for you, healing in the name of Jesus!"

Why, if this man was a Christian, did he not say, "Okay, I will buy these shoes for you, but after that, take me to your mother. I will lay hands on her, and pray for her healing in the name of Jesus!"  We are missing the point of Christmas if we think that comfort in sorrow is all we are here for.  Christmas is all about what Jesus was all about, right?  What did Jesus believe his purpose on the earth was?

 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”e
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21

According to this passage, Jesus purpose was of course salvation, but also to heal!  Yes, all those spiritual and emotional things like freedom for the oppressed, preaching the good news, proclaiming God's favor were all included, but so was sight for the blind.  Similar passages of Jesus explaining his purpose include Matthew 11:

2When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosyb are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” 
Matthew 11:2-6

The lame walk, the dead are raised?!?!  That is POWER!  And that is what we have in Christ Jesus.  That is what we offer to the world!  It is true, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:3 that we comfort others with the same comfort we have received; but comfort is not all we were called to give.  If Jesus said, "greater things than these," should we not be at least striving to follow in the same works He did?  Jesus called the lame out of their paralysis, the blind out of their darkness, the deaf out of their silence.  Jesus raised the dead.

Those things sound so huge and intimidating to us in our modern age.  And they are a "big deal," of course.  But it is what Jesus came to do, and what WE are called to do.  And if that is what Jesus is all about, then it is "what Christmas is all about," too.  We are not called to do anything on our own, but only in the power of God, so what are we so afraid of??

We are afraid God is not going to show up.  But, the only reason God does not show up in our everyday lives is that we do NOT invite him! We actually expect that our prayers for healing will be unanswered, and praying for the dead to be raised...well that just sounds ridiculous!

So I am realizing that The Christmas Shoes makes me angry because we have so much more to offer the world than simply kind words and kind actions, and I feel like this song (which claims to understand the point of Christmas) is missing it!  We can offer hope, and a real and tangible healing. We are offering Jesus, and everything He came to accomplish on the earth.  When the sick came to Jesus, the Bible does not record one instance where Jesus said, "actually, I am going to let you stay sick a while longer because it is going to touch so-and-so's life."  No, it says He healed all who came to him.

What would happen if we actually prayed for healing every time we came across a person who needed it?  What would happen if we prayed until we actually saw something happen (or truly felt the Spirit release us from praying, instead of just saying that because we are afraid we will not see results)?

Christmas is not just about thinking nice thoughts, saying nice words, and even doing nice things for people. Those things are the RESULT of what Christmas is about, and more than that they are only PART of the picture.  And God does not send hurting people our way because we benefit from it.  We certainly benefit from it, but that is the aftermath, not the purpose.  He sends hurting people our way because He longs for us to draw them to Him.

Christmas is about God loving us and desiring relationship with us SO MUCH that He sent His only son to earth in the form of a fragile little baby. A fragile little baby that was destined for a brutal crucifixion, no less!  But that baby grew up to be a man (who was and is also God), who touched the lives of everyone he encountered. He lived, died, and rose again to bring us back to life in every sense.  Not just "in Heaven," but here on earth.  John 10:10 says Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  I am not saying we will not have heartache and trials, but I am saying that we should remember in the midst of all of them who God is and what He can do.  What he longs to do. 

Hearing that song over and over and over again during the Christmas season just keeps reiterating to me, "We are missing it! We are missing it!"  And, because it is a tear-jerker, many people revel in this song. In the heartbreak, in how touching it is that the man bought the shoes, in how sweet the idea is.  But where is the power?  The power of Jesus to heal, to touch lives, to make a real difference is completely missing from this song.  Where is the Jesus who said, "She is not dead, but only asleep?" Where is the Jesus who said, "Rise, and walk, your faith has made you well?"

Jesus offered real hope to everyone who came to Him, should we not do the same?  Let us not miss the point, this Christmas (or any other day of our lives).  Every day we should be looking for opportunities to lavish God's love on people, to offer tangible hope, to lay hands on the sick, to liberate the oppressed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This Doesn't Look Like I Thought it Would...

There is nothing quite like getting a glimpse of what God is doing, especially when you can see what your role is. When God calls us, the excitement is fresh, and new. We see just a glimpse of what He has for us and are inspired and elated.  When we are caught up in the presence of God, it is no stretch of the imagination for us to believe that man lives – not on bread – but on the very Word of God.

Imagine Moses, spending forty days on the mountain of God, talking with Him “as a man talks with his friend,” and watching the finger of God carve out His laws onto stone tablets.  It is too amazing for the mind to really grasp!

Imagine, then, how startling it must have been for Moses to come down from the mountain, only to see the very people he was called to lead prostituting themselves before an idol.  Not only that, but his brother – the person God gave him as his mouthpiece – lied to him about the whole thing!  After he had spent so much time on the mountain learning how to lead them – and learning from the very God who led them out of captivity – he sees the most appalling thing anyone in his position could see: People being exactly what they are, human and sinful to the core.

We can empathize with Moses when his gut (and completely fleshly) reaction is exactly as ours would be. He throws the tablets in a rage and shatters them. How could these people act so contrary to what God had just shown him?  But, as I’ve already said, his gut-reaction was wrong (and based totally on his anger at the people). When dealing with the things of the Lord, we cannot allow momentary feelings – even entirely justified ones – to distract us from the vision.

The thing about God’s plan for us is this: It really is not about us.  Not only that, but it generally involves others. Other humans.  Other sinful people, still trying to realize God’s plan in their own lives. We make mistakes, and we wrestle with our own flesh, trying to get what we want at the very same time that we are trying to crucify our flesh and give God what He wants.  In all of our learning to surrender and figuring out what it means to walk out the vision, our lives affect each other.  In Moses’ case, the people thought surely – being gone 40 days – Moses must have died; they did not know what to do without him. They panicked, and did what came naturally to them: they sinned. Big time.  Moses saw the faithlessness of these people God had just redeemed, and was so discouraged and angry he gave up (even if but for a moment)!  Don’t think that his hurling the tablets to the ground was anything other than giving up.  God had taken him to the mountain top and given His own Word to Moses, but when Moses got angry the first thing He did was throw the written Word of God on the ground! 

However, Moses had an advantage on us: He knew he was going down to confront the people in sin already, and so after he expressed his anger he rallied the people (not without separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak). And then Moses reminded God of everything He’d said to Moses, and clung to what God promised.

So what do we do when our situation does not look like we expected? What do we do when doors close, people fail us, or we fail ourselves?

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs all this. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).”
When we find ourselves in such a place that we question either God’s plan, words to us that God has confirmed through the body around us, or who we are in Christ; we need to cling to what we know, even if it is what we do not see.  Go back. Remind yourself of those words, and speak them aloud.  Pray them into existence even if we feel like we don’t even want them to be true anymore. Pray for any people who may have offended you: that God would heal your heart and that He will enable you to forgive; as well as for them to be restored to God’s plan for their life. Pray for the circumstances to come into alignment with God’s Word. Pray that God would strengthen your faith (Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!). Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray. And remind yourself of who God is, of His promises (both in Scripture in general and to you specifically).  And take every doubting, accusing, or despairing thought captive to obedience to Jesus Christ.

Some Scriptures to meditate on this week:

2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Hebrews 11:1-2, 13-16
2 Corinthians 10:3-5
Mark 9:14-29
Exodus 32:1-35

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Freedom From Accusation and Despair

Some friends of mine and I got back in touch some months ago.  We went to school together and all have felt a calling to this ministry or that, and we have been spending a lot of time (via phone and Facebook) encouraging, challenging, and strengthening each other in our walks and specifically in our callings. We are planning a women's conference together, and are just at the beginning stages. A few weeks ago, though, I was feeling quite unsettled. Every time I would sit down to try and figure out a few details here or there, I would hear in the back of my mind, "What does it matter? This is not going to happen, anyway.  You are not the type of person who follows through. This will just fizzle out like everything else."

Well, to some extent these thoughts rang true. I do have a tendency to start a million projects and never finish any of them. I will make a big meal and leave the clutter after because now I am in the middle of this other project instead. No follow through.  That is what has tended to be true.  I say it is what has been true before, rather than, "it is the truth," because I am now learning to differentiate between what is true of myself in Christ, and what the devil would have me believe.  I did not come to this conclusion on my own, however.

Almost two weeks ago, now, I was at the Encounter God Service at IHOP in Macon. The speaker had some really great things to say, but the message itself was not even what really struck me. It was the prayer time after the service. He moved from his message into the prayer time by saying that the primary tool Satan is using against this generation is "accusation and despair."

As soon as he said it, I knew in my spirit that it was right. And I knew exactly what accusation I was dealing with.The enemy has launched it at me with different words and in different forms over the years, but the message has always been the same. Unreliable. "You are flighty. You are fickle. You cannot finish what you start. You do not follow through. None of these big goals you have will ever happen. Your dreams are bigger than you are capable of, and you do not have the follow through."

I moved out of my seat and down to the front rather awkwardly and timidly, and I could hear the devil raging all the way (though, I must admit, he disguised himself in my own insecurities). "Why are you even going? He is going to pray for you, and then you still will not be able to follow through. You will still give up on every idea you start. What is the point?"

There comes a point, though, where the devil - in his own panic - gets a little too obvious for his own good (any fans of The Screwtape Letters here?). And I knew that the prayer line was where I needed to be.  I received prayer, and I was encouraged by the words I heard being prayed over me, though there were still a few lingering doubts on my end. "Lord, help my unbelief!"

I sort of tried not to think of it for a few days. Then, on Saturday, something changed. And it was big. I had some family over that day, and they had all just left. My husband and I were figuring out what the next few hours looked like (who had to do what, dinner, etc), when suddenly I started thinking of this women's conference.  All these aspects of a situation that never occur to me just began flooding my mind out of nowhere. I had started with writing things down, but after just a few minutes had gone to get my laptop up and running instead. My head started pounding from one of those, "it was just really busy here and I am tired now" headaches and I did not care in the slightest.  Ideas came rapidly, and with them, confidence! Not in myself, mind you, but on myself in Christ.  I needed to get this stuff down ASAP and send it to the girls, and that is exactly what I did.  The next day was Sunday, and I found myself up and out of bed earlier than I thought I would be, so that by the time I was ready for church we still had an hour before we had to leave.  I asked Jeff to take the baby so I could get a quick twenty minute power nap, but no sooner had my head hit the pillow when the sermon for a talk I am going to give at the conference began filling my mind.  Up I went, and to the computer, and started typing away. The whole thing was quite amazing, because by the time I was done (it was just the intro, but still), I was so energized it was like I had napped and had two cups of coffee.  I told Jeff what happened and said, "I am so excited about this, and if the devil tries to tell me I can't do it because I don't follow through, I'll just tell him it doesn't matter because God is the one doing this, anyway!"

That afternoon I was praying and thinking, when a few things were revealed to me. For starters, I have nearly always believed this lie about myself. I did not even get my driver's license until I was twenty-five because I had just always believed it would never happen, until I moved out to a remote area where I needed a car to get around and I was forced to get my license. As I prayed, I also realized that after twenty-some-odd years of listening to and believing the same lie all the time, my body had even started to believe it. I endured two weeks of prodromal labor with my son, and I now realize that it was due to this lie. All throughout my pregnancy I could not envision myself with a son. I have always wanted to be a mother, but even as my belly grew I struggled to believe that I would be a mother, and I would raise a child. Well every time contractions started, they would fizzle out shortly thereafter. And they were not false labor. These same contractions broke my water in the wee hours of the morning, and then fizzled out again (that was nearly at the end of the two weeks). Every person who was with me and every resource on pregnancy I had suggested there was some kind of mental block whose cues my body was following, but knowing that was not enough for me. In the back of my mind, I knew what it was, but I had been thinking, "Surely, going into labor will erase these strange doubts from my mind."

Well that revelation was just enough to get me angry (and finally at the right individual!), and I got moving. What are some other lies I have believed about myself through this accusation?  I have always believed that I cannot keep a house for the same reason - no consistency or follow through. "Alright, then, devil. You want to play this game? I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13)."

I have been taking small steps, but they have been liberating ones. I will not be bound by this lie any longer. If God is for me, who can be against me (Romans 8:31)? It does not matter whether this trait came about because it was a simple human flaw, or from believing the lies in a systematic attack the devil waged on my life; either way, no human flaw stands up to the redeeming work of Christ. If I am bound to Christ, I do not need to be enslaved to my "personality." There is healing.  There is redemption.

I have been so joyful in this last week. Enthusiastic, optimistic, and hopeful.  While I know that feelings may fade, I also know that I have found an enduring truth, and found myself able to cling to it. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. If God wills something for me, if He has called me to a specific purpose, who am I to say that I cannot do it?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fitting In

So, as my husband and I have gotten settled in our new home and town, there has been this sense of purpose sort of hovering in the air, and we have been a bit restless as we sought to discern where God was directing us in our community.

We have found a church, and because neither of us has really done a lot of church hunting before, we took several weeks in this one community before deciding to commit. It is a little awkward to do that, because as we are getting to know everyone and they are getting to know us; we were still trying very hard not to say either, "Yes, we are staying here for good," or "We might try some other church and get back to you."  We just wanted to focus on being where we were, hearing from God, and seeing if there was a place in that particular body where our particular gifts could be of use. That said, we are both very excited to have finally decided that our new church is indeed our home church; and to already be looking into joining ministries and even pioneering one.

As if that were not enough, this last week some friends of mine decided that we needed to start asking God for the money to attend an amazing conference in Pasadena, CA. The two of them felt very strongly that we needed to be there, but I only really felt strongly that they needed to be there, to be quite honest. At first I thought it was because I hesitated to make a definite plan when God would need to miraculously provide us with about $1500 in order to facilitate the trip. So the girls and I got together and prayed.  I asked God to show me if He wanted me to go by providing what we would need for the trip.

Over the next few days, God really began to lay it on my heart that I need to live in a state of expectancy. I need to be expecting Him to act, to intervene, to direct my steps. This was really heavily pressed on me while I was making my grocery list before going shopping on Wednesday. So while I made out my list, I added an item at the bottom: Divine Appointment.  I know it seems a little silly, but for me it was taking a physical step saying, "God, I believe that you order my steps, and that you have something for me in the day-to-day that I am missing."  I knew that we were going to be out and about for the next few days, so I decided to go about our grocery shopping trip expecting a divine appointment with someone, somewhere along the way; but knowing also that even if it was not Wednesday, God would come through some other day.

Today, my husband and I were running errands in the biggest neighboring town. As were were wandering a little bit (we knew where in the city we were, but were suddenly not quite sure how to get to the easiest route home), we both suddenly saw an International House of Prayer!  Back when we were dating we used to go to the IHOP in Atlanta, and when we got married and had so many expenses suddenly to budget (and gas prices started creeping back up), we simply did not get down there as often. The model of 24/7 prayer though, is something that we both are inspired by and encouraged by, and as we saw the sign for this house of prayer, Jeff did not even hesitate. Into the parking lot we went, and headed inside. We met a couple of people there, and learned that there is going to be a solemn assembly August 5&6 (the same dates as the conference). While we were in there, we both just felt like this was the whole purpose to this trip, which -- when starting out this morning -- seemed to have so many other purposes.

We had a very encouraging talk with the director and another man, and were jubilant at finally having the divine appointment I had been praying for, and feeling still clearer direction in God's purpose for us here.  I finally knew, too, why -- as much as the conference looked amazing and I wanted to see the girls -- I never really felt a clear sense that I was to be there.

We are looking forward to our next visit -- this time on purpose -- to the house of prayer, and we are so excited to see what God does. He is always doing something.  Even when we cannot see it, we can know, God is always working out His plan for those whom He has called.

It seems a little crazy that it is nearly three months since we moved, and I am finally feeling plugged in. In the same week we are getting involved in our local church and in a broader Christian ministry; with opportunities for us to use the gifts God has given us abounding in both situations.  Praise the Lord! He truly does direct the steps of His children!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Disapproval and Insufficiency: Freedom in Disguise

Only the losers win
They've got nothing to prove
They'll be the ones with nothing to lose
I've been thinking, thinking
I've got a plan, to lose it all...
~Switchfoot, "The Loser"

Very often, we forget that we cannot earn God's affection and approval. It is not that we actually forget, but really that this knowledge makes us want to try harder to earn it. We come face to face with the fact that nothing we do in our own flesh will ever be good enough for God, and suddenly we kick it into overdrive, trying to do something (still in our own flesh) that will earn His favor.

That is not how it is supposed to work.

First of all, it is not like God is just being mean, sitting way up above us on His throne, refusing to accept that we might have anything to offer Him. That may be how people work, but it is not how God works. God made us. He knows what is in our hearts, and He knows how that flows over into our words and actions. He is God. He is wholly other than us, and He is holiness personified. He created us in His image, sure, but we were pretty quick to step away from that and try to strike out on our own. Which is precisely what we did (and continue to do): strike out.

So there is good reason why our best efforts are still "as filthy rags." Because He is God, we are not, and yet we keep trying to be.

Instead of being infuriated by the fact that our best will never be good enough, the insufficiency we exude while acting in the flesh is supposed to motivate us differently. We can never, ever earn God's favor. That being true, we are still faced with the fact that He offers it up to us. He sent His Son to die on the cross (bearing our sin and shame), and be raised from the dead (giving us victory over it). We cannot earn that, and yet...He offers it to us freely.

This fact should motivate us to humble ourselves, accept His grace, and move forward to please God by His grace alone. You see, we can please God. We just need His help to do it. Hebrews 11:6 -- while listing a long line of people whose actions pleased God -- puts it this way: "Without faith, it is impossible to please God (emphasis mine)."

When we find ourselves lacking the approval of the God who longs to lavish His love on us, the only action that makes sense is to receive His means of acquiring holiness and righteousness.

Stop striving. You cannot do this on your own. But God wants to give you the means to please Him. He wants to pour out His grace on your life in ways that will just continually amaze you.

Our inability to please God on our own is actually freedom, because it means we can stop trying to. We can stop wearing ourselves out to "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God (Micah 6:8)," and start allowing Him to work that in us. This does not, of course, mean turning our backs on righteousness, but on our ever-striving flesh.

But people...people are another story...

Why not take a moment here and be blatantly honest. When people disapprove of you, it is not so much because they are so much better than you that they have a right to, as it is fear. I personally think it goes back to the fact that God is absolutely true, absolutely right, and absolutely God. Because we know that no one can be right but Him, we have this unspoken (most of the time) need to be right all the time. We (wrongly) fear the repercussions of being wrong.

Thus, when faced with another way of doing things...we usually react by stating (either through our words or actions), "Absolutely not. You HAVE to be wrong, because I HAVE to be right!"

So, there will often be times when people disapprove of us. This, too, is freedom.

You are probably thinking, "What? How on earth can that be freedom??"

In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus gives the sage advice of only inviting the poor over for banquets, because there is no way we can pay them back. (Be patient with me here, this is not evidence of my ADD, this actually directly correlates).

If someone does not know how to humble themselves and learn from you, if someone does not know how to open their heart to you, or offer you their approval or respect; they are truly poor. I do not say this so that you can condescend to people like this, bolstering yourself with the idea that you are better than them; because chances are that as much as someone may treat you like this, you treat someone else like this, too.

We are all poor, in our flesh. None of us has the grace and the strength on our own to put ourselves aside and hear someone else out. And as much as we, as Christians, are inviting Christ continually into these areas where we are weak, in order to grow us into His likeness there, there is always an area or two that will still need work (and this side of Glory, that is how it will be. We are works in progress, waiting for our true completion on the "day of Christ (Phil 1:6).").

But Jesus said to show our acts of kindness to those who cannot repay us. If someone has decided that they want you to do things their way, and they will not be happy with you until you do...

If someone has decided that no matter what you do, you will never be good enough, even if you mimic their every action and word...

If someone has decided that, while they like a lot about you, there are certain things/traits/facts they will never accept....

Stop Striving!!

Accept the freedom we have in Christ to love these people completely. I am not saying that you should do everything they say (that would be striving, people!), but that you should love them.

Recklessly. Deeply. Truly. Pray for them, ask God to show you ways to pour out His grace into their lives, knowing that -- until and unless He transforms their heart -- they will never be able to pay you back with their approval, words of praise, or affection.

The fact is, there is no way you can possibly please everyone. There is a very good chance that more than one person will disapprove of you in your life, and that those people would disagree with each other on exactly what is wrong with you (or the way you do things). The odds are that you disapprove of some of these people, too. It is by no means a one way street.

This fact is freedom. If you cannot please man, then you can stop trying. Be who God made you to be. Walk in the light of His grace and mercy. Seek His approval (but only in His grace and strength, not in your insufficient and sinful flesh). Lavish His love on everyone around you, especially those who cannot return it.

He has shown you,O mortal,what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.
~Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Getting Un-Stuck

I wonder now if the choice was mine
The door was open I walked inside
Nobody had my arm twisted
Nobody made me stay
The face of freedom can show up small
A tiny crack in a prison wall
A song that rises up from silence
A voice that wants to say
No more chains...
~Nichole Nordeman, "No More Chains"
No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog entry.

While my husband was away recently, I had to take care of the baby chicks we had just received.  They needed to be fed several times a day, and on one of these occasions I found that the chicks had knocked the bottle out of their feeder.  The chicks are fed with a gravity feeder, which is a plastic bottle that screws into a feeding trough. I picked up the bottle and was shocked to feel a tiny little heart pounding away inside!  One of the chicks had found its way into the bottle, tempted by the remaining food that lay inside.

The bottle is similar to a Nalgene, or even a Mason jar.  There is a lip after the opening, so the chick could not just back out of the bottle.  He was stuck!  I called my mother (my parents have chickens, too) for help, and had her on speakerphone while I tried to extricate the poor bird.

I tried shaking the bottle upside down -- cruel as it sounds -- to no avail.  Every time I turned the bottle upside down the poor little chick was trying to climb farther up into the bottle.  He did not realize that in this instance, gravity was his friend.  Mom suggested that I try and reach for one of his feet, so after gently shaking him one more time, I was thrilled to see a little foot slip down, and I latched on (gently) with my finger and thumb.  I then tried to find his other foot.  In the effort, the chick managed to get the first foot back...and I cried out (with tremendous exasperation), "Why won't you let me free you?!?!"

"Do you think that maybe God feels like that sometimes?"  My mother, still on speakerphone, transformed this little part of daily life into a prophetic moment.  Wow. I let the gravity of that question really sink in for a minute, before continuing to free the bird.

Eventually, I was able to get hold of both of the chick's feet and slowly, cautiously pull him out of the bottle. It was not a comfortable experience for him, and -- once he was freed -- he did not even stop to show any gratitude. I set him down in the pen and he scurried across to the other side and was immediately lost in a sea of frightened chicks (we had 81 chicks at the time). Again I was struck by how often this rings true in my walk with God.

Sometimes we cannot see beyond a situation. All we know is that we are stuck, and being stuck is frightening. How do we know if we will ever be able to get out again? What will happen to us if we cannot get free? 

But then, just when we start to resign ourselves to our fate, something happens to jolt us, shaking us out of our comfort zone and into a frightening new place.  

When all we know are the walls around us, those walls can start to look pretty good.  I mean, at least we know what life looks like, here.  We know exactly how much (or how little, to be more accurate) is expected of us, and we know the boundaries. Freedom is...well...unknown. And the unknown is scary.

I imagine all that the little chick could think was, "Why are you trying to pull off my leg?  How can I save myself from you?"

We might say something like, "God, what did I do to deserve this situation? Why are you punishing me?  Why can't things go back to normal?" Sometimes the only alternative to where we are looks so scary, that we think the prison we are in is a palace. Sometimes we would rather be in a dark, rotting dungeon, than have our eyes blinded by sunlight.

When the Israelites were leaving Egypt -- a place where they were persecuted, horribly oppressed and abused -- the uncertainty of the road ahead had them all crying out, "At least we had food in Egypt! (Numbers 11)"  Really? You are telling me that you would rather be forced to kill your new born sons, be beaten all day long, and be forced into heavy labor, than traveling with your people to someplace new? It sounds so ridiculous to us, yet we make these decisions all the time. We complain about not knowing where God is bringing us, when we were stuck in a place of bitterness, of guilt, of pain, or of uselessness. We only want freedom if we recognize it as such right away. 

We only want freedom if we can gain it without growing. We only want freedom if it requires no faith.

When a "dangerous" new sect threatened the time-honored faith of a man named Saul, he railed against these "heretics" with a murderous vengeance.  When he was finally brought face to face with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, the Lord said to him, "Saul, is hard for you to kick against the goads (Acts 26:14)?" Another word for "goads" might be "restraints," but they were restraints designed to cut into an animals hooves should he decide he wanted to go a different way.  God was basically saying, "Dear one (using a name twice was an indication of affection), you are only hurting yourself.  Please try this my way." 

How many times have we all, like the chick in my story above, seen something that looked good.  We go after it, only to find ourselves ensnared.  We walked into it of our own free will, and here we are, crying out to God for deliverance.  Then, the walls start to shake. The floor falls out from underneath you. Suddenly, you do not even know which way is up anymore. "Never mind, God!  I will stay stuck in here if it at least means I know what is going on!"  Sound familiar?

Maybe it was, "OK, God, I would rather have a job where I am taken advantage of and unappreciated, than to be unemployed and actually have to depend on You. I know I prayed that you would get me out of this job, but I meant I wanted you to give me a new job FIRST!"

Or maybe it was any number of other situations where we feel like the sky is falling. It is true.  Too many times, I will opt for the security of a prison cell, if it means I will never have to wonder what the next step is, or where my next meal is coming from, or who will pay my bills.

But when we -- no matter what is going on around us, whether God caused it or He is simply using it for our good to His glory -- choose to trust Him, we feast on manna and quail, drink water from miraculous springs. Or like Paul (who was Saul), we heal the blind and lame, reach many for the Kingdom of Heaven, and find a new life beyond anything our old life could have promised. Is it all rosy? Absolutely not.  But it is liberty!

"Because sometimes the things we call freedom enslave us." (quote on a OneTruth T-Shirt entitled "Liberty")

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Who Are You Hearing?

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you (Romans 8:1-9a, Bible in Basic English, emphasis mine)."

Recently, I found myself thinking about the differences between my faith when I was in college, and my faith now.  I was reminded of late night prayer sessions with some close friends, where we called on the Lord at the top of our lungs, and for long hours into the early morning. Now, trying to sit and pray for an hour seems next-to-impossible, some days.

Memories like this flooded my mind, and I instantly felt a sense of shame.  How could I let myself get so off-track and so distracted?  Why would God even want to still use me?  I still believe the same things I believed back then, but the fire has not always been burning quite as bright as then.  I allowed these thoughts of shame and guilt to pummel me, with no regard to what the memories were meant to accomplish.

People very often respond to these memories in one of two ways: They either write off their youthful zeal as ignorant and naive, or they feel condemned, and beat themselves up for not fanning the flames.  Neither of these ways bears any fruit.

Romans 8:1 tells us, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  What God brings up in our minds and hearts, He never brings up to condemn us (I will break here to say that the antonym of "condemn" is not "condone." God does bring up things to challenge us, to keep our hearts broken before Him, and to discipline us -- as well as to encourage and strengthen us --but He does not condemn. There is a big difference between discipline and condemnation).  What use are we to God if we deem ourselves useless?  God is not trying to beat us over the head with our own humanness.  If -- as in my case -- the sin I recognize is inconsistency, complacency, and lack of zeal; then the appropriate response when God brings to mind the passionate faith of my youth is, "God, make me even more hungry for You now than I was then!"

God brings the former days to mind to make us hungry, to give us something to hope for, to aim past.  It is not that He is not looking for repentance. Make no mistake about it, He is!  But repentance does not sit about it sackloth and ashes saying, "Woe is me! I will never be of any use to the Lord! I used to be on fire for Him, and I will never be zealous like that again!" Repentance does an about face. Repentance says, "Lord, I have been so complacent! Fan those flames into an even greater fire than they were back then."

Isaiah 6 recounts Isaiah meeting God in the temple. When Isaiah sees the Lord "high and exalted, seated on a throne," his first thought is of his own sin. Isaiah cries out, "Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."  This is his gut reaction, the recognition of his own sin.

Now, Isaiah could have fled the temple, realizing that his own sin made him kindling wood, in a very real way.  Or he could have tried to brush it off (which, in that day, would have led to the kindling wood idea, again). But when God provided a way out, Isaiah repented.  An angel pulled a hot coal off the fire and touched it to Isaiah's lips, removing the offense. Then, we hear the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"  Does Isaiah say, "Well, I am a man of unclean lips, remember? I cannot go."  NO!!  He says, "Here am I. Send me!"

My memories of my earlier passion for the Lord do not have to evoke a sense of self-loathing or shame. What God intended from those memories is that I be hungry. Hungry to see Him working in my life in the same way now as He did then. Hungry to see even greater things than those. Hungry to walk in the Spirit in such a way that the rest all just falls to the wayside.  Not self-condemning, not nonchalant; just hungry to be used by God and to see Him move.

The Enemy of our souls will try to sneak in with shame. He knows that shame renders us useless.  When times in your life where you were more or less "holy" than you are now, you need to choose how you will respond.  Do you listen to the Enemy, and beat yourself up (even thinking that this self-abasement is holy or humble...gross!); or will you submit your heart to Christ, knowing that you are free from condemnation?  Repent and move forward, do not hold yourself back, or put yourself willingly into shackles when Jesus paid everything for your freedom.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!