Monday, July 30, 2018

A Straight Path

My husband was out of town last week so I mowed the grass. Try as I might, my mowing job is never as neat and tidy as his. When I asked what his trick is, the veteran farmer in him said, "Don't look at where you are. Look at where you're going." He picks a landmark on the horizon and, with his eyes fixed ahead, his lines are clean and his path is straight.

The same is true in our Christian walk. It's so easy to get distracted by the here and now, moving right and left to tackle the nearest obstacle instead of looking to Jesus, the "author and perfecter of our faith." He wasn't distracted by His suffering, loved ones, mocking, jeering, or surroundings. Instead, "for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).

That is how we can "lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and... run with endurance the race that is set before us": by "fixing our eyes on Jesus."

Today, let's not just get the job done. Let's determine, by God's grace, to live each day with clean, straight paths of dependence on our Author and Finisher.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your body
And refreshment to your bones.
Honor the Lord from your wealth
And from the first of all your produce;
So your barns will be filled with plenty
And your vats will overflow with new wine.
My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord
Or loathe His reproof,
For whom the Lord loves He reproves,
Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.

How blessed is the man who finds wisdom
And the man who gains understanding.
For her profit is better than the profit of silver
And her gain better than fine gold.
She is more precious than jewels;
And nothing you desire compares with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
In her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways
And all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her,
And happy are all who hold her fast.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,
By understanding He established the heavens.
By His knowledge the deeps were broken up
And the skies drip with dew.
My son, let them not vanish from your sight;
Keep sound wisdom and discretion,
So they will be life to your soul
And adornment to your neck.
Then you will walk in your way securely
And your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Do not be afraid of sudden fear
Nor of the onslaught of the wicked when it comes;
For the Lord will be your confidence
And will keep your foot from being caught. (Proverbs 3:5-26)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Courage and Faith

PS--I have been coming back to and adding to this entry because it's so basic (and I missed some important thoughts the first time around). If you think you've already read it, there's more here.

As a child, I was afraid of everything. I was terrified of swimming lessons: moisture muted windows let in eerie light, the air was choked with chemicals, no one wore proper clothing, noise clattered and echoed. It was not a natural environment. In addition, my life was entrusted to a person  too young to drive (or so it seemed). Other children jumped in the water willingly. I couldn't breathe, let alone relax or trust that this was a good idea--to submerge myself in chemically-imbalanced water? Let it cover my head? Plug my ears, fill my nose, burn my throat? And they wanted me to "show them what I could do?" Really? I didn't know what that meant. It was too loud to ask...or understand the answer.

I was afraid of being alone, of carrying the train in a wedding, gathering eggs from chickens, walking through a barn, visiting extended family. Based on observation, I am not the only child who lived with fear. Adults do, too. Maybe you can relate.

My parents faithfully enrolled me in baseball, piano lessons, and I volunteered for track (which was a disaster). They wanted me to succeed and gain wings. Little by little, I ventured out. But courage is not found in adventure. Courage is formed in the kiln of adversity, loneliness and pain. The answer was in realizing my limitations and submitting them to Jesus Christ. If you've never been there, you may not understand. Let me explain.

I was 9 years old when I realized I was not good enough to meet Jesus. It was the night before Easter and, as I thought of the yellow pleated dress in the closet, I knew it wasn't what Jesus was looking for. I could be clean on the outside, but He knew my heart--and it wasn't clean enough. In that time of reflection I asked God to forgive my sin and make me clean inside. Because of Jesus, I knew He would. And He did. For three years I sat on that decision, tried and tested it. Then, at the age of 12 I was baptized to show my desire to follow Christ.  From that moment on I was still afraid of chickens and unknown children, but I wasn't afraid to tell others about Jesus.

Wouldn't you know, teenagers don't invite Jesus to keggers. It's not that my classmates weren't friendly; it just wasn't a good mix (of course there were other factors to consider, like popularity and beauty). As an adult I see the hand of God and the heartbreak I escaped, but those were lonely times. I kept journals and spent much time alone with God pouring out my heart with a rawness and trust that became precious and comfortable.

A year of college was the real courage-maker: away from home for the first time, I knew no one. That year I spoke to worried, tearful parents, counselors, deans, RA's and young women caught in the clutches of other's sin. And as I carried a full load of classes and planned our wedding, the Lord restructured my priorities. Grades lost their luster. Sleep lost its attraction. Food brought no comfort. The things that once brought fear and anxiety faded with the reality of life. Sin. Brokenness. Despair. Burdens.

In and through it all, God kept showing Himself faithful. He provided a counselors, parents, and friends. Through prayer and constant time in His Word, I was fed enough to feed others. The loaves and fishes of my daily quiet time, Bible study, and chapel were broken off in pieces and fed, not only to my own soul, but to others as well. I found that Jesus is enough. He is there. He sees. He knows. He cares. And He sends help.There was nothing I could give or do to "fix" my friends' lives, help their parents, or family. But God could. In living out the truth of the vine and branches--being an extension of Christ as He ministered to and through me--became the foundation of courage. Courage is not about me or my experiences. Courage is based on the unending love, power, and grace of God through our Lord Jesus who never changes.

The object of faith is Jesus. The result of faith is not just courage, but hope. Freedom. Joy. Peace. God does not take us through difficulty simply to teach and try us (although that happens). He wants something better--something we would not gain any other way than when we come to the end of our own resources. He wants our obedience and trust because with them come fulfillment, satisfaction, and joy. That's what He wants us to experience--Himself.

To realize that life is more than what I eat and wear, who I hang out with or how I am regarded, is to see God more clearly. His provision exceeds my need and it always will. Faith is stepping onward and upward based on who God is, believing He will provide. Courage is nothing more than faith in action. May you and I continue to walk in courage and faith, doing the impossible by His grace and in His loving care.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 11-12:3)

Friday, July 20, 2018

When All Around My Soul Gives Way

You've probably noticed that our world is messed up. Whether you're looking at financial, political, or social needs and frustrations, things seem to go from bad to worse. The harder you look, the more helpless you feel, the less sleep you get, and the harder it is to get up in the morning.

We seek and find escape or relief in different ways--entertainment, friends, busyness--but we always return to the difficulties and challenges of daily life.

I found it interesting to note that the people of Jesus' day experienced those same things: an oppressive government, inequality of power and resources, violence, discord, racism, disease, hunger.  And when Jesus walked the earth they came to Him for different reasons. The scribes and Pharisees sought to straighten Him out. In the event that didn't work, perhaps a sign would appease them. His disciples wanted to please the Pharisees--and be fed. The people wanted immediate healing, relief and comfort. Everyone wanted something from Jesus.

But Jesus is who He is. He doesn't change according to our need. He doesn't change according to our wants, our influence, importance, wealth, or demands. Nor does He change according to His. He is who He is.

To the hurting, He brings healing. To the hungry, He is the Bread of Life. To the thirsty, He is Living Water. For those in despair, He is the Light of the world. For the proud and rebellious, He is the Judge of the living and the dead. For the lost, He is the Good Shepherd.

Jesus' provision looks very different than our expectation, but it is always better. The question then, isn't "Why doesn't Jesus do _____ for me?" The question is, "What do I want from Jesus?" and "Why?"

God graciously brings us to the point of needing Him for who He is instead of what we want. It's so easy to fall into wanting Jesus to meet my wants and needs, seeing myself at the center of life instead of turning it around and putting Him at the center, giving myself to be used according to His purpose and design.

The world will continue to spin out of control, but I can set my heart and mind on His way and provision, giving thanks and experiencing joy in spite of it.

To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in You I trust,
Do not let me be ashamed;
Do not let my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none of those who wait for You will be ashamed;
Those who deal treacherously without cause will be ashamed.

Make me know Your ways, O Lord;
Teach me Your paths.
Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
For You I wait all the day.
Remember, O Lord, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses,
For they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
According to Your lovingkindness remember me,
For Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.

Good and upright is the Lord;
Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in justice,
And He teaches the humble His way.
All the paths of the Lord are lovingkindness and truth
To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies.
For Your name’s sake, O Lord,
Pardon my iniquity, for it is great.

Who is the man who fears the Lord?
He will instruct him in the way he should choose.
His soul will abide in prosperity,
And his descendants will inherit the land.
The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him,
And He will make them know His covenant.
My eyes are continually toward the Lord,
For He will pluck my feet out of the net.

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
For I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
Bring me out of my distresses.
Look upon my affliction and my trouble,
And forgive all my sins.
Look upon my enemies, for they are many,
And they hate me with violent hatred.
Guard my soul and deliver me;
Do not let me be ashamed, for I take refuge in You.
Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
For I wait for You.
Redeem Israel, O God,
Out of all his troubles. (Psalm 25)

Thursday, July 5, 2018

No Jesus

I've been working my way through a gospel Bible study, reading passages from the various gospels and answering the same questions each day. God has certainly been revealing Himself--and my own thoughts and heart. There are things a person can justify in the mind, but as soon as they're spoken or given words, they turn to sinful sludge.

This is here, not because it's greatly insightful, or because I need a place for confession, but because I saw it in others this morning--and myself--and it may open some thoughts in your own mind.

There is a sense in which I want to see everything as just fine, perfect, not needing change. In my head, I know that can't be true; it's all touched by sin and if I look closely, there are flaws here, there and everywhere. But I want to think it's all good. And it's not just me, it's others, too. We keep working toward, and wishing for, the perfect family, the perfect home, the perfect job, the perfect future. Even if we substitute the word, "better" for "perfect," our thoughts are that the next purchase, relationship, or life change will solve our current problems and fulfill us. It just will because, well, that's what's what we want; it's what's in our heads and hearts.

In my biblically-thinking mind, I chalk up that desire for wanting good, or perfect, things to Ecclesiastes 3:11: "He has also set eternity in their heart." It makes sense that as beings created in the image of God that, with a sense of longing captured in a world of imperfection, we would seek perfect, God-like things. And that is not wrong.

The piece that so easily eludes me at times--and perhaps you, too--is wanting them without Jesus. There's a rebellious, prideful corner of my heart that wants what I want, when I want it, without bowing the knee to the perfect, all-powerful Son of God. Not His way. Not in His time. Not with His restraints of goodness, righteousness, and humility. I want it big. Even, if I may admit it, a bit of selfish greed (just enough to suit my style, not yours or anyone else's--remember, this is all about me). I want to have life my way without Jesus. And that, friends, when it pervades our hearts and finally makes it to the surface, is what nails me to the cross every time.

In that moment of realization it becomes very clear that there is nothing I can do, even on my best days, to deserve or earn the blessings of life. There is nothing I can sacrifice or pledge that begins to make up for the sinful sludge in my heart. I. must. have. Jesus. There is no other hope. No other goodness. No other grace. No other mercy, peace, kindness or source of joy. He alone is the Giver of life. He alone is worthy. He alone is deserving of praise, adoration, and the gifts of my life, polluted as they are, and He will have them.

Whatever it is, whether it's the next good gift--or the present one--I will never experience it fully apart from the grace of God through Jesus. I won't. I can't. The only place "my way" exists perfectly without Jesus is in the tainted imaginary world in my head. And, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, I must decide to pursue my kingdom at the cost of my life or surrender it to His--and gain it. That is the choice.

This morning, I choose Jesus.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24-26)