Are you as close to God as your underwear is to you?

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I almost missed it!  Mike and I were sharing our ‘take-aways’ from the day’s Bible reading when I realized I had stopped short and not read Jeremiah 13.  So, after dinner I sat down outside with Mike while he worked on his nightly NY Times crossword puzzle. Bible and notebook in hand I caught up.  Boy, did I get an ‘eye-fill’. Chapter 13 portrays a startling view of intimacy our Father desires with us.

Like my dear friend Regina, I visualize much of what I read in God’s Word. Just ‘look’ at what God proclaims to His prophet:

Jeremiah 13:11 For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the LORD, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen. (ESV)

Okay, let’s think about underwear, about loincloths.  Various translators have used other English words such as “belt” or “waistband” to render this Hebrew word less earthy.  But the sense of the Hebrew is ‘that which covers one’s intimate private parts‘.

With THAT in your mind’s eye, reread the verse.  What is God saying to us?

WE are to CLING to the LORD as closely as underpants cling to our private parts. That’s pretty darn intimate, wouldn’t you say?  (as Mike just chuckled to me: “No boxer shorts here! Nothing unmanly about wearing ‘whitey-tighties’ “)

Since the LORD is the One saying this, we have to go by His words and the plain meaning of the text. But why would He use this word picture?

In some way I don’t quite understand but I accept as true, the Bible affirms over and over that when we move closer to our God, our clinging to Him showcases His perfection, love, goodness, power, and holiness.  Those parts of our body that we cover and whose odors we try to mask are not shameful to our Creator.

I mean, husbands and wives can be intimate and feel secure about their bodies when they enjoy a safe relationship. But even though Mike and I are blessed with that kind of  GOOD marriage, I still don’t want him smelling my underpants!

But our God is different. This means that NOTHING about us, in our personality or experiences or in our frail humanity, nothing makes us repugnant to our Father.  Maybe we can think of it more easily when we recall how it’s no big deal to change our own babies’ diapers, however stinky and explosive they are! After all they are our kids.  We love them completely. So it is with our Holy and earthy Father.

Something else in Jeremiah’s account of loincloths spoke to me of how God and I are different – how we react to clinginess.

I don’t like clingy love.  My instinct is to draw back a bit.  I felt great guilt about this as a teenager because my mom and grandmother were affectionate in that clingy sort of way.  I don’t know why their spontaneous display of love bothered me, but I could not bring myself to respond in kind.

But our God is not like that!  He doesn’t say:

  • You gotta stand on your own two feet
  • Okay, that’s enough.  I have work to do
  • Stop hanging around! Give me some space

Au contraire – our Father DESIRES that we:

  • get and stay as close to Him as we can
  • not be ashamed at all of that which makes us smelly and soiled
  • depend on Him 100 %
  • obey Him because we love Him and need Him
  • KNOW that He will never grow tired of us

And if this gentle, wooing, loving posture of God toward us is not enough to make us want to be close to Him, then we need to consider God’s evaluation of us if we DON’T cling intimately to Him. For in that case, we will be as the loincloth Jeremiah removed from his body and buried near the Euphrates:

Jer 13:7 Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. And behold, the loincloth was spoiled; IT WAS GOOD FOR NOTHING.

The only conclusion that makes sense to me is that we were meant to stay that close to God all the time, as close as our underwear is to our body. If not, then we are ‘as good as nothing.’

 

The sovereign Father and the persistent momma bird!

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Momma Bird's Nest Yes, it’s a dying petunia we have hanging up over our back patio.

A dried up, intentionally left plant that reminds me of God’s sovereign timing and the trust of a little ordinary sparrow.

Mike and I love birds and as soon as we moved into this house in March, we hung up our bird feeders. Our new house backs up onto a disc golf park and greenway.  Big shady trees housing many birds hang over our postage-sized back yard, satisfying us with a feeling of the spacious outdoors.

But not one bird came to the ‘table’.  Maybe that’s how Jesus felt when his banquet invitees provided excuses for why were choosing not to attend the readied feast!

Mike and I asked God daily to direct his birds to our feeders.  I even enjoined my friend Jill in the UK to pray !  FINALLY…..they flocked.  We rejoiced, thanking God for the gift of observing and savoring these happy feathered members of creation.

So….. you would think, that when a momma bird chose my hanging petunia to construct her nest, I would have felt proud to aid the cause of providing for the next generation of birds.

Sadly for momma bird, my miserly side dominated.

By July in Alabama, the plants we had first put out in late April had withered with the heat.  So I replaced some of my flowering hanging baskets mid July. Now here was this bird choosing one of the new pots to feather her nest.

Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to water the petunia any more, I removed her construction work, throwing it away.

Two days later when I set the hanging basket down to water, I saw the new nest.  I tossed it in the trash as well, reasoning that this bird would soon get the message and build her nest somewhere else.

I was not counting on her determination to stay put.

She built a 3rd nest. It, too, went the way of the others.

And then God! Immediately I thought: ‘I bet this bird SENSES her body about to lay those eggs! She must feel desperate to have a safe place for them, one where she and they can be out of sight and protected. AND I HAVE INTERVENED 3 TIMES, to the potential possible murder of baby birds!

I repented and prayed that she would persevere yet again.

And praise Jesus, who loves his creation, she did build yet another nest, a FOURTH time.  I was so relieved.

She was just in time, for the very next day, she lay her eggs.  Whew!

All I could think about was how much stress I must have caused that little bird just because I wanted to save $12.99!

But God rewarded my repentance with some valuable, illustrated lessons, such as:

  • His control of all events including when the Holy Spirit pinged me, bringing forth my repentance IN TIME for that momma bird to lay her eggs
  • The example of perseverance in the cause of life, the next generation of baby birds
  • The reality that being in God’s will does not block hardship.  That bird was doing what He created her to do – prepare for and care for family.  Despite huge obstacles and persecution – ME!!!

Momma Bird is still there; the babies haven’t hatched yet.  Even when they grow strong enough to fly off, I might keep that dead petunia on my back patio as a reminder.  Our LORD and Savior doesn’t waste a thing.  Definitely worth the $12.99

Luke 12:24 Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!

Matthew 10:31 Fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.

Last week’s birthday present from God

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Last Thursday was my birthday and it ranks the best I’ve celebrated in a long while.   One I won’t forget, for sure.

What made it so meaningful? Was it the fact that when I walked into my Orange Theory fitness class, the manager had written a ‘Happy Birthday, Maria!’ message on the tripod chalk board?  What a way to kick off and energize MY day. I felt special, being made much of by the staff

Was it that I got to tutor a 10-year old Russian gal in English and we had a breakthrough in how best to learn English?  No…although that was very satisfying.

Could it be that my husband Mike planned, shopped for, prepared, and plated a delicious steak dinner for me? A first in our 40 years together? We WILL be calling this a new tradition, adding it to our treasure chest of cherished rituals.  I ABSOLUTELY loved this gift, because Mike had announced to me more than 2 weeks prior just what was in the works.  The anticipation of my meal gave me great joy as ‘my day’ approached.

All the above delightful activities marked my celebration.  But the ‘highlight’ was how my heavenly Father humbled and rebuked, via my hairdresser.

Every 8 weeks I sit for 2+ hours in Shannon’s chair.  She ‘refreshes’ my color, washes, conditions and trims my hair.

The salon had rescheduled last week’s original appointment two times. They didn’t check with me first to verify that the new times would work with my calendar.  They just shifted them, notifying me by text.  The new time of 10 am left me with little margin to eat lunch and tutor the Russian gal.  This TIME boundary directed my thoughts and words.  Once the receptionist verified my normal temperature, my first words to Shannon attacked:

” I have to be out of here by 11:45 at the latest because I have another appointment…AND…. (intended to punctuate my seriousness) YOU ALL moved my time twice, putting me in this position!”

Shannon shot back, “Well, THAT’s aggressive!”

Bulls eye!  Her rebuke penetrated my heart. The LORD got me! The Holy Spirit convicted me in meteor-like speed.

Shame filled me!  She was right.  I hadn’t even greeted her with a friendly, “Hi, Shannon. How are you doing?”

Had I treated Mike that way….. launching into a blame-wrapped demand for something from him…….well, I like to think I wouldn’t have.

Yet, here I was entering Shannon’s salon and treating her like a machine, not another human being.

Profuse apologies poured from my mouth as I told her that I was SO sorry and that she was SO right to call me on that.  I knew this was from the Lord.  What kind of ambassador for Christ am I with that kind of interacting?

So, what I did next, was to ask her: “Shannon, can we rewind the scene and start over?”

Desire granted.  I backed up 5-6 feet and walked up to her with a smile: “Hi, Shannon, how are you? Thanks for fitting me in, today.  I know scheduling with Covid restraints is a challenge.”  She played the part with warmth and proceeded to seat me in her chair.

What a gift from my heavenly Father, to see how my self-preoccupation led me to sin. Human beings are all image bearers of Almighty God, worthy of respect and kindness.

I will not forget THAT reminder.  On my birthday, too.  Conviction and the ability to ask pardon and receive forgiveness from the offended, hurt person is a gift.

Oh, Father, take not thy Holy Spirit from me! Thank you that You forgive me when I sin. Because of Jesus. Keep me meditating on your kindness, rather than my schedule.

Psalm 94:12 Blessed is the man You discipline, O LORD, and teach from Your law,

 

 

 

Do you use reason to strengthen your faith? God does!

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Isaiah 1:18-20 Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

As the plane rumbled through the sky, I asked myself: Why did you EVER want to come and do this crazy thing, Maria!!!!

Helmet on, hooked up, ‘trapped’ in a shuffling line of other scared young men and women moving toward the open backside of the C-130 military cargo plane, I was about to step out into the air from 1500 feet above the ground.  Trusting that the parachute would open.

Tears stained my sweaty cheeks, but no one saw. I didn’t care, anyway.  I had to make a decision. And I did.

By force of will, I shifted my thoughts AWAY from the terror of stepping out into nothingness and focused on facts:

  • Most people DON’T die when jumping out of planes
  • This is a static line jump; my chute WILL open.  I don’t have to deploy it.

And you know what?  I made it!  The next 4 jumps that week were not nearly as scary. I successfully completed the Army’s Airborne School at Ft Benning, Georgia earning my Parachutist Badge.

I was thinking about that first jump last night when I couldn’t sleep. How I had to simply stop looking at my fears and focus on statistics, on facts.  Immediately I saw the connection to the life of faith over sight.

God teaches us throughout his word to focus on TRUTH, that is ‘divine facts’, to reason FROM them to more truth. To move logically from the following two categories of truth:

  • Who he is, his unchanging characteristics or attributes
  • His promises, bought for Christians by Jesus

Plus, a third and growing category of unshakeable evidence:

  • God’s ‘record’ of coming through for me, in answer to prayer, time and time again.

How long have these 3 categories been my source of strength?

I believe that God swapped out my old heart for a new heart warm toward him when I was 24.  I didn’t grow much until I was 40 and started studying my Bible in Bible Study Fellowship.  I turn 63 next week.  Therefore, my Christian experience was Bible-bereft for 16 years, but now has been Bible-enriched for 23 years. These past 23 years have built my confidence in both our Triune God AND his word.

Even before I was a believer, I knew God answered prayer.  In that very same 3-week Airborne School experience, I called on God to help me. It was Day 1 and we had to run 5 miles and then pass a physical fitness test.  I failed the pull-ups. The next morning, an ‘airborne sergeant’ retested me and gave the green light.  I had been praying fervently.  God came through.  I wasn’t even a believer.  But I have never forgotten God’s goodness to this unrepentant sinner. It was the first time I had prayed a specific, measurable prayer and God came through, immediately, undeniably.

If I add the fears of these Covid times together with ‘normal’ fears, I am getting plenty of practice in CHOOSING to shift my focus from current circumstances to God-facts. I am obeying God’s inviting command to reason prayer-ful-ly with HIM and refocus my view of circumstances through the lens of Ultimate Reality and not through the looking glass of my fears.

This is the only AND sure way I find inner peace:  when I shift my thoughts upward.

 

Can we be content ALL the time?

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Have you ever looked at and analyzed those ‘Blessed are the….’ in Matthew 5?  You know, that famous hillside occasion when Jesus preached to many?

They seem to promise complete, 100 % satisfaction ONE DAY.  In the future.  Not now.  For instance, Jesus mentions:

  • A future Kingdom
  • Seeing God
  • Acknowledgement as sons of God
  • Mercy
  • Possession of the entire earth
  • Comfort

He teaches that the desperately needy, hurting, sad CAN BE those who GET what they crave.  He calls them ‘blessed’ because, the relief of the need is guaranteed. One day.

Some of the verbs Jesus uses in that discourse mention longings:

  • mourning
  • desiring an inheritance
  • craving mercy
  • wanting persecution to stop
  • needing one’s name to be cleared
  • hoping for peace amidst all current rancor and bitterness

I’ve been thinking about contentment a lot these days.  Lots of ‘my wants’ continue to be BLOCKED.  These desires tend to be short-term longings.  I’d like to see family and friends. I’d like to travel.  I’d REALLY like this time of anxiety-riddle uncertainty to end.

What do I tend to do with my anxious thoughts?  Journal about them, read my Bible and see how God corrects my thinking.  Here’s what happened Friday morning that prompted me to slow down and think:

  • God has given me confidence (faith) that he is who the Bible says he is.
  • Therefore, I start from the presupposition that the Bible is God’s true word to me.  His promises and his characteristics are FACTS.  They won’t go away. They won’t change because of WHO God is PLUS his nature and his commitment to honor his word.  He IS his word.
  • I can’t read the Bible knowing that God is God and NOT do what he tells me.

So, what I wrote in my journal on Friday was that reasoning with faith produces actions, which in turn produce FEELINGS! (I had gotten this from John Piper several years ago)

Then it dawned on me!  I wrote: “The only real and worthwhile category of contentment is BEING CONTENT IN YOU, because OF YOU!”

I sat back, wondering at the simplicity of all this.  If I want permanent contentment, then I need to be glad about EVERY thing God has done for me and ALL that he promises to continue to do unceasingly.

Three gifts immediately flew into my mind:

  • You opened my eyes to KNOW what kind of person I am and who YOU are: Holy God = knowledge and faith
  • Through Jesus’ life and death on my behalf, I now have a permanent relationship of favor WITH you = repentance and forgiveness
  • Your holy, supernatural, perfect spirit is IN me, permanently = matchLESS companion and counselor

Then this morning while thinking about what Jesus promises us, his sisters and brothers, brought this clarity:

  • God created us with real desires and longings
  • They WILL be perfectly fulfilled…… one day!
  • Nothing here on what I call Earth1.0 can ever meet ALL of them or any of them in a satisfying way that leads to contentment

When I brought my thinking to a close (it was time to get ready for church) I summarized in my journal:

“The only way to have genuine contentment right now in this broken, fallen world is to be content with who God is and what awaits me from his hand.  Those without Jesus as their savior and friend have no hope of real or permanent contentment.”

Okay….so with whom can I share these thoughts? Thankfully you! – who spend a few moments scanning or reading these posts.  So my question to you is this: How do you see and seek contentment? Do you keep struggling to BE content or SEEK contentment? Has what makes you content changed over time?

Matt 6:33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

 

 

 

Why do they hate that I love Jesus’ words?

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I live my days partially immersed in the Spanish-speaking world. Desiring to become proficient in the language, I spend 3 hours most days listening to podcasts, reading my Bible and novels, watching news in Spanish on YouTube and speaking with local Spanish-speaking natives. During the past two years I have come to understand more about the lives of many immigrants in our country.  Our pastor’s sermon yesterday morning caused me to see a similarity between ‘outsiders’ seeking a new home in America and those of us who are Christian, who are also ‘others’ and temporary residents in this world.

Joe’s text was Ezra 4. Returning Jews from 70 years of Babylonian exile had laid the foundation to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. But the pluralistic, syncretistic locals did not like these new developments.

What did they do? First, they offered to help out with the reconstruction, hoping to redirect it to their ends. Rebuffed and rejected, they then turned their energies into “discouraging the people of Judah and making them afraid to go on building. They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans (during) the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia down to the reign of Darius king of Persia(Ezra 4: 4-5). That’s a LONG time.  Years of persecution, harassment and hatred.  In a word – afflictions meant to derail the Lord’s work.

With a change in leadership in Persia, these persistent enemies of the Jews then wrote flagrant lies about the returnees convincing the King Artaxerxes to mandate a halt to all building in Jerusalem.

Joe used this section of God’s word to emphasize that Christians, those who love Jesus and follow him, will ALWAYS be hated and persecuted.

Why? Because we actually believe what Jesus says, what the Bible teaches, like:

  • There is only one way to be saved from hell and eternal separation from God – through Jesus.
  • There is only one true and living God, the God of the Bible.
  • Sexual unions other than what the Bible teaches are sinful. (Marriage between one man and one woman for life)
  • Complementarian roles for men and women are God’s plan for mankind.
  • Humans are created male and female.

Just to name a few biggies.

Since March 2020, when Covid19 brought an end to ‘normal’, I and most everyone have longed to return to the way things were.  In a similar way, I think American Christians have been looking back over their shoulders wishing that life would do a reboot to 30-40 years ago when being a Christian was ‘acceptable’ and even commendable.

Joe’s sermon confirmed in my heart that ‘normal’ is NOT what I think it is.  Normal IS persecution.  I’ve just been living in a bubble.

Back to my Hispanic friends and my growing empathy for ‘aliens’ and recent arrivals to the States. Many don’t feel as though they belong, whether they are documented or not. What does ‘not belonging’ look like?  Degrees of persecution are routine experiences just because they are Hispanic. Like what?

  • The mildest poor treatment is indifference. Ignoring those who are not like the majority happens even in moms’ morning-out groups at a church.
  • The sting of jokes and epithets
  • Language barriers that hinder immigrants from finding community resources.

Exclusion hurts!

Then there are those in detention camps, waiting and hoping, living in difficult conditions, in a kind of limbo between appointments with lawyers and court dates, at the mercy of any kindness.

Thoughts during the sermon made me realize:

  • How I and other believing Christians need to accept that WE, Jesus’ followers, are the aliens, the unwanted and unwelcome in many parts of our country. Often scorned, mocked and intimidated into being quiet.

Somehow knowing this and embracing this REALITY cheered me as a tonic to my soul. Coming to terms with the ‘logic’ of persecution allowed me to shed that, “I just want things to go back to normal, when being a Christian was accepted.”

What a pipe dream. Let’s get real: the ruling majority KILLED Jesus. Furthermore, this Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity taught: Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)

Don’t you think it’s easier to live with the truth? Do we really want a return to ‘normal’?

At this point in my life, I now know that I want to complete my work and my training here as an exile. ‘Graduating’ to REAL LIFE in the presence of Jesus seems more appealing. AND I trust God’s timetable for me.

As our Sunday school teacher mentioned after the sermon: ‘The Good News is not that things are going to get better but that Jesus died once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous.” (1 Peter 3:18). That was good news for the persecuted church in Peter’s day and it is just as true and meaningful today.

 

 

 

 

I’m still scared of God

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It was that silent part in today’s service, the private confession, where we are encouraged to share unconfessed sins with our Father, counting on the safety of His promise to forgive us because of Jesus. Something from this morning sprang to mind, surprising me.

Earlier, sitting outside with my coffee and the birds, I enjoyed a time of study and prayer. At some point, I started reflecting and then savoring right now, this particularly SWEET time in my life, in OUR lives. God has answered MAJOR prayers, some going back decades.  What kind? Here are the biggies:

  • Repeated cries for healing from work-induced anxiety for Mike that has affected his body 28 of our 40 years together.
  • Prayers for healing and freedom for me regarding eating, fitness and body weight.
  • Pleas for job contentment for Mike.
  • Repeated requests for release from my difficult job situation.

I can’t recall a time in my life that has been this restful, this satisfying. Ever.

So, what is the problem? What did I confess this morning?

That I am afraid.

That I am afraid that the Lord will remove these gifts that mean so much, that are so wonderful and refreshing. That they won’t last.

Why would He take them away?

  • He has every right to for two reasons: He created us and He redeemed us. We are His possession.
  • I know from Scripture that our Father has committed Himself to sanctifying me, to making me holy like Jesus.  In His wisdom, He might take these gifts away. To deepen and strengthen my faith, testing (for my benefit) just exactly where my happiness is rooted.  In the gifts, or in Him.

So, during the service, those 45 seconds or so, I confessed that irrational fear to my Father.  I called it what it is. Sin. A slap in the face of the One whom I should trust most. (Am I listening to Satan’s lies, I wondered? With malicious reason that enemy of God doesn’t want me to trust the Father’s love for me.) And I asked for supernatural, divine help.  Wordlessly, I off-loaded this weight in those silent few moments:

  • Father, I am so ashamed to tell You that I don’t trust You. That I’m clinging to these gifts that You have given us, not You.  I see now that I fear losing THEM more than I fear displeasing and dishonoring You. Forgive me. You’ve got to help me, though. Help me to trust You. To trust that You are good. That all that You have planned for Mike and for me IS for our ultimate happiness. It’s just hard. And this time You’ve granted us is SO restful. Soothing balm after many years of pain.

After that confession, I didn’t sense any response from Him. But now, as I write, I see how His Spirit is working. Prompting me to use this ‘shalom’ as a springboard to proclaim to others what my Father, the One and Only Living God, the Lord and Giver of Life has done.

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

I don’t have to fear what He will do.

‘Satan – depart from me. I reject your suggestions. I know that Christ’s Spirit is in me and He is truth and light and He is more powerful than you.  I will not listen to you anymore!’

Here is what I commit to, with help! Instead of meditating on the ‘what ifs’ of circumstances, may I keep declaring my Father’s works to everyone I meet. May I honor His holy name in my prayers, my words and my actions. By faith, I will rely on the strength that He provides to bless Him.

Father, thank You for your promised grace: strength to direct my thoughts and words.

Psalm 126:3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.

What are you most afraid of?

I am Jacob’s evil sons

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In recent years better biblical teaching has reframed how I see accounts in the Bible. Sunday school teachers in the past (and probably some now) present stories like David and Goliath in a way that children long to take on the giants in their lives. Or teachers inspire their students to ‘dare to be a Daniel’. The truth is all Bible men and women were sinful failures who, if they did do something valiant and praiseworthy, performed it only through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s enabling power.

These days I see how the Boazes, the Esthers, the Jonahs and the Jospehs foreshadow the perfect hero who will one day defeat ALL enemies of God – Jesus.

I can now spot when the Scriptures point forward from the weaker, sinful man or woman to the original ‘archtype’ or prototype who is Jesus.

Here’s a current example.

Last week while reading Charles Spurgeon’s reflections on Titus 3:4 ‘The goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior”  my thoughts turned to Pharaoh’s righthand man during the famine, Joseph. Spurgeon references Joseph’s abundant granaries, bursting to overflowing, as an example of God’s grace to sinners.

Joseph displays this grace to his evil brothers who thought they had gotten rid of him 20 years earlier. We read about their speechless shock and horror upon discovering that not only is Jospeh alive and well, but that he is the one in charge of famine food sales. After the big reveal, this assistant to Pharaoh showers the 10 evil brothers with kindness, seeing to the transportation and permanent settling of the entire family in the choice Goshen perfect for flocks and herds.

Picturing that initial encounter through the eyes of the brothers birthed the sudden realization that I am like the brothers. I had to acknowledge this Holy Spirit ‘reveal’. How similar I am to those men, the ones who:

  • hated their brother
  • who enjoyed mocking him out of jealousy
  • allowed evil to drive them to thoughts of murder
  • then settled for making some money off of him

Not to mention the lying cover-up they maintained for 20 years, causing on-going grief for their dad and youngest brother, Ben.

From my early years in the Episcopal church I recall the Good Friday ritual of reading chorally parts of the mock trial drama of Jesus where we, the congregants, shout out loud: ‘Crucify Him!’

King David’s adultery and murder episode is another scene I think we could all play with a good degree of authenticity. With us reading role of David during the time of his infidelity and deception. If we haven’t betrayed a spouse or murdered a friend, we certainly have been disloyal and lied toward and about someone close to us.

But in THIS instance, by grace, the Holy Spirit revealed to me how much my heart is like those brothers arriving in Egypt. I felt their shame AND their fear about getting what they deserved from Joseph – from the super powerful and authoritative hand of the # 2 regent of the Egyptian empire!

But then, with kindness, the Holy Spirit carried me on to the best part of the story: ……….seeing and beginning to understand the marvel of UNREASONABLE, BOUNTIFUL, unmerited ASSURANCE of forever provision and loving care.  Grace suddenly took on texture and dimensions. Euphoria is what I sensed, theirs and then mine.

That response should be mine ALL the time when I think of Jesus’ gift to us. The fact that I don’t stagger with overflowing joy highlights my pathetic and uncaring imagination. Not that I have to pretend or make up this generous Jesus. We have his very character and actions on full display in God’s Word, in black and white and digitally for all time.

I believe! Help my unbelief, dear Father.

 

Is God behind all this global suffering?

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News agencies world wide report droughts, floods, murders, homelessness, job loss, disease and more.

Christian organizations such as Open Doors post pleas for prayer:

  • Unprotected, Christians murdered in Nigeria
  • West Africans suffering from Fulani, sickness and little food
  • Locusts in East Africa destroy crops
  • Daily assaults on Christians in Asian country

Is all this suffering from God’s hand?

I am a Christian who believes that the Bible is the true word of God. I thus accept as fact what God teaches, that nothing happens outside His sovereign will. (some thoughts about ‘two wills’ of God)

Isaiah 46:9-10  I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me.
 I make known the end from the beginning,
    from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
    and I will do all that I please.

I am thinking, thinking a lot these days and reasoning from what I know, from what God says in His Word. He doesn’t answer all my questions, but there is enough truth for me to ponder and think clearly.  He expects me, as one of His, to apply my mind. ‘Think on these things’, Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8.

I know that all that has befallen me in my 6 decades: the bad, the painful, the shameful, the sicknesses, the sin, the blessings, the rescues, the deliverances, the joys, the ‘pleasants’….all have been planned for my good, to bring me to Jesus (rescuing me from the right judgement of my guilt and fair eternal penalty) and to make me holy like Him.  If God is God and if He is good, wise, all-powerful, faithful and loving, then He has good reason, good purposes for what He does.  Whether I see His reasons. Whether I agree with them or not.

I don’t struggle with that anymore IN MY OWN LIFE. 

But recently I’ve been thinking those who are REALLY suffering in the world, in what we call the 3rd-world areas. (Is there a ‘second-world’ label??)

My pain and struggles have been those of an advantaged American born in the second half of the 20th century.  Past and present – far more people have been and are overcome by poverty, hopelessness, violence, hunger, sickness, disastrous weather and terrorism.  Does God work all those imagination-defying ‘awfuls’ to bring SOME to Christ and make THEM more like Jesus? Are these conditions His tailored will for their lives, just as my circumstances are for me?

That is what I have been wondering.  And it’s a new idea for me.

Not for a moment do I think this is merely an intellectual exercise, that God intends for me just to ponder logically when I read of 3rd-world suffering.   Why not? Because all through the Bible, God’s people are commanded to take care of and provide for the down-and-out in our reach.

  • Deut 15:11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.

In just the week that this topic has been on my mind, my conclusion is that somehow, in God’s wisdom, those who are His, those whom He is calling from each people group, He has placed in the designed location, time and circumstances best suited for their hearing and responding to the Gospel.  No, He doesn’t condone violence and oppression of the poor. But He does ordain what is at the ‘moment’ an evil for a greater good since He KNOWS has PLANNED and will bring about the eventual outcome. All through the Bible we read that His hand is behind droughts (think Naomi and Ruth), slavery (Joseph to Egypt) leprosy (Naaman), murder plots (Esther and the Jews), imprisonment (Paul and the Philippian jailor).

I choose to hold fast to what I know is true about our God.  I have learned that He is trustworthy.  I don’t have to understand or see His reasons to accept that what breaks my heart will one day be the cause of my praise for the resulting beauty of his Grace revealed.

In the meantime, may He keep my heart soft both to call on Him for justice and relief and to be part of His provision.

Protection against Prosperity

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The Lord has done great things for us, whereof we are glad! Psalm 126:3

God has come through with an extraordinary mercy to us in answer to much fervent prayer – our own cries for help along with sustained prayers offered up by family and faithful friends. I’ll tell you more in a bit.

I’ve been reading in Scripture examples about the dangers that ‘good’ times can present. King David gives us many examples. His most notorious is his complacency (leading to the Bathsheba incident) after God’s divine help in driving away Israel’s enemies. Were it not for Biblical narratives of his downfall and his own writings in the psalms we would not be warned. Yet despite his astonished and grateful joy in God’s forgiveness, over time, David’s gladness waned. He grew distracted by comfort, helped along by an increasing lack of attentiveness to his Master, the LORD.

Merriam-Webster explains complacency this way: “self-satisfaction, especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” Com means ‘with’ and if you recall the verb ‘to placate’ (to please) the idea of being pleased with oneself is obvious.  But self-pleasure can be dangerous, especially if we grow über-SELF-confident.

But what does prosperity in the title of this post have to do with complacency?  We can see that it was God who had made King David prosperous. And in the beginning, David’s gratitude over his ‘prosperity’ or successes was real. But he didn’t nurture that spirit of thankfulness. As life grew easier after years of hardship, his attentiveness to God slackened. He let himself get preoccupied with the gifts.  Not only was David wealthy he enjoyed multiple blessings of regional peace, family, friends. For sure during those painful, difficult years he had followed Moses’ advice to Joshua about how to be ‘prosperous’:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Josh 1:8

But once God was gracious to him, David FORGOT the part about ‘meditate on God’s law day and night.’ A change came over the prosperous David. Enjoying God’s bounty, he let down his guard. 

I don’t want that to happen to us! 

As Mike and I have come to know our Bibles, we understand how to please our Father.  Ultimately it’s because He has changed our hearts that we WANT to obey Him. We also have grown to realize that afflictions are gifts from God that keep us clinging to Him.  They keep us needy and very close. Desperation keeps us ‘meditating on God’s Word night and day’.

Since June 2013, when we left Virginia and moved to the Asheville, NC area, we have been especially needy.   How so? through hardships right and left, one after the other. Like what, Maria?

  • a blatant closed-door, dead-end to Mike’s plan to work from home in NC as an operations research analyst
  • no open doors to other significant work for him during our time in NC
  • perplexing difficulties for me in a new school teaching French – each year in that school was laden with painful experiences. Nor could I couldn’t find another teaching position
  • Mike’s frightening heart crisis that lasted some weeks
  • his slide into depression during our 6 years in North Carolina, alienating some people
  • a surprising decision to leave mountains we loved for Mike to go back into full-time engineering work
  • then after God’s good gift of a job and sale of our house in NC, a recurrence of a physical stress symptom that had dogged Mike for 25+ years but had been absent during the previous 7-8 years. ‘Complacently’ we had assumed it would never come back.

The return of this latter affliction seemed to be the most painful of all the above. It colored Mike’s world and spilled over to me.  He could hardly avoid noticing it, because it affected his body, every day and all the time. I prayed fervently.  We both did. As did friends and family.

What else did we do?  We journaled, we tried functional medicine, Mike met with a Christian counselor.  Friends and family continued to pray and stay connected. Most of all we went deep into God’s Word. As we did, He began to change our thinking to align more with His Word. Whether you believe that He ‘allows’ or ‘sends’ suffering, in God’s hands He wills all things for our good.  We began to ask God to change our desires – that we would desire HIM more than an affliction-free life.

Then, about 4 months ago God seemed to be directing us to have Mike go back on a medication that had ‘stopped working’, one he had gone off of.  He visited his doctor, asking for a higher dose. We prayed on, willing to live with this suffering if it were God’s best for our holiness and ultimate joy.

It took a full 10 weeks for any relief to be evident.  His body started slowly to respond, in fits and starts.  Mike kept meeting with his Christian counselor.  We continued to pray, to journal, to study God’s Word. 

It is now almost the end of May 2020 and we rejoice. Mike DOES have relief. The symptoms have subsided. His body feels normal. He is visibly relaxed and cheery.  I can tell he is enjoying life in a new way. 

I check in with him each evening as we write down our God-directed thank-you’s in our prayer journal.  Then we pray for one another mentioning the next day’s needs. We don’t hesitate to ask Him for another day of relief for Mike.  Just as we ask Him to grant me a good night sleep. We take NEITHER gift for granted. We also know that God has the right to withhold both. They are not our due.

Hence my meditating on the ‘danger’ that comes with answered prayer, when the pressure lets up.  Not that God is dangerous, but that a cavalier attitude on my part can easily endanger my heart. I want to lay in place good habits of thinking. Yes, our Father IS good and He delights to give us rest and periods of joy-filled relaxation.  Mike and I are grateful for these broad or open spaces where ‘enemies have been driven back, bodies have healed, children have been born, and the harvest is plentiful.’ 

Psalm 18:9 He also brought me out into a broad place; He delivered me because He delighted in me.

So how DO I guard against complacency?  I have landed on two ways: 

  • Gratitude and
  • Humility

Gratitude looks like this for me:

  • recognizing and chattering my thanks to my Father throughout the day for all the gifts I can see 
  • mentioning His kind provision of what I might not even think to ask for, like safety or how loving my friends are

Humility looks like this for me:

  • Recognizing that I am a contingent being, that I cannot do ANY thing on my own.
  • Acknowledging daily that God, the Creator and Sustainer, gives me life moment by moment. Unless He wills that I KEEP LIVING, I am but dust molecules
  • Talking out loud to Him about what I need Him to provide NEXT in order to do the task at hand

This, then, is how I am trying to ‘walk humbly with my Lord’.

Friends and family, we want YOU to know how glad we are for the great things He has done.  Thank you for your prayers and years of encouragement throughout these past years. This new broad and fertile time is refreshing us.  We are savoring it.  It feels sweet.  We don’t deserve it, and we are grateful.  May we continue to keep our eyes on Him!

 

When did God wake you up?

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How do I know if I TRULY believe?  What if I am fooling myself in thinking I have saving faith?

Have you ever feared or wondered if you really were saved?  In other words, is the faith you have, I have, is it enough and is it the ‘right’ kind of faith?

I occasionally flirt with these thoughts.  But when I think about how I now enjoy reading and studying my Bible, I find reassurance.  Not that one is not a Christian if one doesn’t read his Bible.  There have been and will always be illiterate Christians, young and old.

But since for years I never READ my Bible and now it’s what I look forward to most each morning, I fall back on that change in desires as a substantial piece of evidence for having genuine faith.  That’s evidence for me.  I DO know that there are Bible experts who are not believers, even some pastors who are not authentic Christians.  So, when I say I love reading God’s Word, it’s because I NEED it.  I come hungry to the Scriptures. And those few times when I feel stone cold and NOT hungry, then at least I know that I need this kind of spiritual feeding.  The French sometimes cajole their children with this advice: “Eat so you’ll be hungry!”

I say all this because I found reassurance of the genuineness of my faith this morning from reading William Perkins.  Perkins, a preeminent reformed protestant theologian (1558-1602) shaped many fellow English scholars and pastors in Tudor times.

Perkins Here’s what I copied in my journal from chapter 17 of his writings:

(Caveat: this is not a step-by-step process I’m writing, just some conclusions.)

When Jesus endured the curse of the Law in my place, I, too, as one in union with Christ by faith, was set free from the law.  Romans 8:2 goes like thisFor the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

This good news means that I don’t have to heed the hard but righteous taskmaster of the Law who has one standard: “Do this and live!”

Perkins writes on page 73: The law requires perfect obedience at our hands, yet God of His mercy looks more at the will to obey than the perfection of obedience. (bolding is mine)

When I was 16 and 17, sitting in the Episcopal church, nonchalantly assuming I was a believer, I NEVER wondered or worried or even pondered about my faith?  Sadly, I was not one of Christ’s, though I had been baptized and confirmed and participated in youth group each Sunday night.

What comfort I draw now, knowing that the Father accepts as enough the DESIRE to believe, the WILL to please Him through obedience, the LONGING to have a Savior. That I know that I don’t have to keep proving myself is one evidence of my belonging to Jesus, of being IN the family of God. Savoring and resting in that freedom pleases Him!  For it means I take Him at His word.

In many ways, I am thankful for having that pre-believing time of indifference and nonchalance. I know what it felt like to be on the other side of the dividing line.  I DO rejoice most days with amazed thankfulness and praise for the God who woke me up to my sin and to the Savior.

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