A Rule of Life

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I feel blah, relishing nothing in the future.  It’s a Friday night, on the cusp of summer and 9 weeks off from school.  My mind thinks about upcoming trips.  I should be excited.  I’ll be with family; there’s even a 5-day cruise in my future.  But nothing stirs.

I finish dinner.  It tasted good! But it’s over.  I briefly ponder the merits of having some chocolate with me tea.  Maybe that’ll make my unhappiness and blah-ness go away.

But I don’t indulge and the next morning I’m glad.  The dessert would not have made me content in the long run.

I go to bed before too long, for even my book doesn’t satisfy.  My husband checks in with me a couple of times, ‘You okay?’  He cares, but I rather not go into it then.  After all, he has his ‘Ecclesiastes Moments’ too, when, as penned by Solomon, nothing under the sun satisfies any more.

The next morning, Saturday, I start my morning with a John Piper archived sermon.  He’s preaching from Isaiah 58: 8-11 about how a certain kind of fasting brightens your day.

“Then shall your light break forth like the dawnand your healing shall spring up speedily; if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”

That’s the kind of light and satisfaction I yearn for!

There’s time for one more sermon as I exercise and I listen to John Piper in a current commencement address at Boyce college talk about ‘Sacred Schizophrenia.  Truth marinates as I finish up my exercise routine.  I settle in with a cup of hot coffee and open up God’s Word to read today’s assigned chapters according to the Chronological Reading Plan Mike and I follow.   

One foray into Scripture leads to another and I come upon Jesus’ harsh words to Peter that seem to reinforce Piper’s call to deal harshly with the unholy self (one of the two selves living in a kind of schizo struggle).  He corrects his outspoken disciple, Peter, admonishing him to move his mind OFF of man-centered priorities and onto what matters to God.  Matthew records what follows like this: 

Then Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Matt 16: 24-25

I’ve always shied away from the idea of denying myself.  After all, I’m an arch hoarder of time, of energy.

But I’m feeling empty….maybe that’s where fencing off daily time and space for myself has gotten me. Bankrupt and unsatisfied.

Turning 60 this year has stimulated a lot of this kind of self-reflection.  In my 20s, 30s and early 40s, I was busy with children and work.  And then our sons left home for college, work and marriage and I had time to think.  A lot.  Mike has gone through this soul reflection as well.  The kind of wondering ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’.  Looking at others rushing to and fro and asking: ‘What is any of this for, any way?’

But this morning, I see a glimmer.  Piper says that once we have been born again, we have a new self.  But the facts are like this:  our old man is continually at war with our new man until the day we die.  This old man is a liar, as are Satan and the world.  But God doesn’t leave us clueless and alone.  Thankfully, He points us to what will TRULY satisfy, every time.  Speaking through the prophet Isaiah and then in Jesus’ words to His disciples, He instructs:

Only by putting to death the desires prompted by the old man and giving to those who are hungry and oppressed and naked will we find a life, daily, which satisfies.

So what does that look like, practically, when I’m on the cruise this summer, at my mother-in-law’s for a week, at home this summer, in my classroom?

Solomon has the last word and I find the peace that I need from Eccl 2: 24-26

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness,

From Matthew and Isaiah I have already seen what pleases God:  

  • when someone hungry crosses my path, I can offer food in the form of a listening, sympathetic ear, some of God’s Word and a prayer right then and there when appropriate

But it starts with a daily re-commitment to suffer with Christ as necessary, to deny my old worldly self that hoards time and energy and a willingness to travel this day WITH Jesus, depending on Him to guide and supply and protect me.

And that’s not all.  God intends for me to also enjoy the simple pleasures of every day life, eating, drinking and working.  These are, indeed, gifts from God TO me.  When I do them acknowledging His goodness, I bring glory to God.

Later on during the day while we hike, I share with Mike what He has revealed. Already light has dawned.  I HAVE a mandate of how to live, a new rule of life.  I know what to do at each stage, whether now, almost 60 or at age 93 and in assisted living!  The burden and gloom have lifted. I revel in the beauty of the day and how good it feels to move my body and be with the man whom I love.

What’s at the bottom of your cup?

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Has someone bumped into you recently?

spilled-coffee

What was your reaction?

What came out of your mouth the last time your flight was cancelled and the airlines lost your luggage, upsetting your plans?

John Piper repeats often that what we are REALLY like is made evident in how we respond unconsciously to life’s ‘bumps’.  In fact he goes so far as to teach that only about 10 % of our thoughts/actions and words are pre-meditated. The vast majority turn out to be unconscious.

But, we can influence our subconscious mind.  It turns out that our life and its impact on others depend on what we pour into our ‘cup’.  Just what is this ‘cup’?

If we consider that we carry around a perpetual reservoir of feelings, thoughts, and desires out of which spring our reactions, we might take care to pre-pack the tank with some truths that will soak up any acid that life’s bumps might activate!

Recently I heard Tim Keller refer to the sweetness at the bottom of his heart.  The context was the very fact or existence of a Christian’s inheritance, something about which we meditate little.

John Newton, puritan pastor from 200 + years ago also nurtured himself in Gospel facts. Quoting from Newton’s preface to The Olney Hymns (a Newton- William Cowper collaboration) Pastor John Piper shared this encouragement: “The views I have received of the doctrines of grace are essential to my peace; I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without them.

I’ve taken to heart this wisdom from the past.  Given the political and social chaos of our times, I am choosing to limit my intake of what is fleeting in favor of focusing proportionally far more on what I know to be True, Beautiful, Good and forever. Those are the truths of my inheritance, purchased for me by Jesus, imparted to me by the Holy Spirit and lovingly planned for me by Father God.

But unless I meditate on them, they won’t seep down into my ‘reservoir’.  They won’t line my cup.

Listen to Thomas Manton, another puritan pastor from a previous century: “The promise of eternal life is left with us in the gospel, but who puts in for a share? Who longs for it? Who takes hold of it? Who gives all diligence to make it sure? Who desires to go and see it? Oh, that I might be dissolved, and be with Christ! If these hopes have so little an influence on us, it is a sign we do not cherish them more in our hearts.”  (published originally in a book, By faith, sermons on Hebrews – volume two, pages 16 and 17)

I don’t SET MY MIND enough on things above, where Christ is seated. (Colossians 3:2)

But what about those mornings when you don’t wake up with a ‘full tank’ of Gospel truth? What about those times when you can’t find it in yourself to rejoice?

Dig into this rich food for your breakfast.  (before any screen time!) Your cold heart can’t help but warm up if you soak awhile in this series of facts from the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort in life and death? 

That I am not my own, 1
but belong with body and soul,
both in life and in death, 2
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. 3
He has fully paid for all my sins
with his precious blood, 4
and has set me free
from all the power of the devil. 5
He also preserves me in such a way 6
that without the will of my heavenly Father
not a hair can fall from my head; 7
indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation. 8
Therefore, by his Holy Spirit
he also assures me
of eternal life 9
and makes me heartily willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

 

 

Trials in a new light

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Emerg Procedures

School is back in session and we’ve been briefed on emergency procedures.   I got to thinking about how trials are like fire drills for the Christian.  How so?  Their purpose is to put instructed procedures to the test, to see if they are sufficient.
So it is with hardships, problems and sufferings that try my faith. Instead of recoiling from difficulties, I should be glad to see whether there are any gaps or weak spots in my spiritual armor. For then I can take steps to strengthen and shore up my faith in God’s Word to me.
Why is testing and building up armor a good thing and how can that make me glad?
Joy comes from relying on God.  And an adequate spiritual defense is needed to live in this fallen world. Life is filled with devils and skirmishes are around every corner. The war is real. But with perfected, tested armor I can be assured that God’s provision is sufficient.
And sufficiency is connected with contentment.
Who doesn’t want to be content?  Ponder the originality of our Verbal Creator!  The Greek word – 714 arkeo, refers to these three aspect of the same state of being:
  • It is sufficient
  • I am satisfied
  • I am content

How cool is that!

Father, supernaturally grow in me the same state of mind that Paul learned – to be ‘arkeo’ or content because with You continually present, he carried his sufficiency within him.

Phil 4:12  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

My inner murmurer

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Do everything without complaining….– Phil 2:14a

And they complained in their tents and they did not hear the voice of Lord Jehovah. – Psalm 106:25

Here’s a typical Maria tape – a transcript of my inner narration:

  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to go for my cove walk (it’s painful because of the hills)
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to water the plants
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to make supper AND get a crockpot ready for tomorrow night
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to wash my hair today
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to start back to work, which will REALLY cut into ‘my’ time

I tend to dread chores/events that are either discomforting or ones that reduce my time to sit down and do what I truly love – reading and catching up on correspondence with friends via email.

I think that inner wingeing voice has had free reign for longer than I know.  For a while now I’ve been aware that I am the source of most of my discontent.  But looking back, I think I have lived for years, accompanied by that unceasing inner complaining.

It’s only in the past week that I have suddenly awoken to the fact that I, Maria, a born-anew person, am endued with the permanent Holy Spirit of power, love and even-keeled understanding. Hey, I don’t have to continue struggling with discontent. I can kill the fleshly default. How?  By believing and acting on the many promises He has given me as part of my equipment.

And this idea to break my complaining habit is not just a good Maria plan.  God WANTS me to turn away from such sin.  No matter how ‘natural’ it may be.  No matter how common, accepted and normative in our culture it seems.  But come on, maybe verbalizing discontent, even to myself, might be something God frowns on, but is it really such a big deal, such a huge sin?  Isn’t it just one of those ‘little-ole-lady’ sins, as my husband used to call them?

Um, nope.  There’s an entire commandment devoted to it.  #10 – Do not covet!  What is coveting but wanting what you don’t have, wishing things were different.

Just this awareness that I CAN conquer my grousing habit has been enough to change the quality of my inner life.  The insight that inner complaining is wicked and evil has motivated me to find a new narrative.

I find that as soon as a thought forms like, “Oh…the dreaded up-and-down hill walk faces me before I can sit down with coffee and Bible” I’m quick to substitute a new script:

I GET TO go exercise my body.

That one little 2.5-word replacement for “I’ve GOT TO” apparently is sufficient to halt the complaining and block my mood from souring.

So for sure I’m encouraged by my waning discontent, but even more significant is the growing realization that I was engaging and practicing sin.  For according to Psalm 106 as quoted above, my inner murmurer was preventing me from hearing God.

Thank you, kind Father, for giving me your Holy Spirit who keeps on working to make me holy so I can see you and hear you more clearly.

Romans 7:25 – I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

My seat….

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Ephesians 2:6

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.

My Seat

Thank you, Father, for raising me from the dead and giving me new, different and everlasting LIFE. Thank you for the seat you have assigned me.

I didn’t pick this seat. You selected it for me.

I’m sorry for all the times I compare my seat with others’, longing for a different one. Forgive me for the many times I get out of my seat, just like those squirmy boys in my French class.

Help me to trust that You know just what I need in a seat.

May I practice sitting contentedly in my seat. After all, I’m going to be spending a long time next to my older Brother and knowing how kind and loving You are, I bet my seat will turn out to be just the one I would have picked out had I known all the facts. Amen.

What are you attached to?

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Did your attachment tendancies start with a pacifier or your favorite ‘blankey’?

linus Or were routines, like story-time right before bed your go-to comfort? Whatever it was for you as a child, you probably have some items or practices or even a person in your life that make you feel more secure.

Reading 2 Chronicles 26 about King Uzziah of Juda this morning raised the matter of attachment. Here’s how verse 5 reads:

He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper.

The French translation of this verse adds a richer understanding.  The verbal phrase reads:  “Il s’attacha à Dieu…” (He attached himself to God…)

This amplification feels like a quartz vein shot through with gold, worth the effort to mine it.  Here are 2 questions to kick off our digging:

  • Why do we attach?
  • and, how do we attach?

First, why do we attach?

I think humans and animals are wired by God to crave certainty and security.  But He has designed us to look to Him to meet that need, not to anything He has created.  Given that the Fall fractured both us and all of creation, we are misguided. We look for substitutions for God that FEEL real.  For even though God is as real as anything we can see or touch, He is spirit, thereby immaterial and invisible to us at present.

On to the second question –  how is it that we attach?

Primarily by thinking about, talking about, keeping near, and treasuring.  A small child keeps his blanket close by.  A crying baby calms down with his trusted pacifier. When I was bulimic, I grabbed cookies or M&Ms to tame the stress.

For some, a variation of attachment might be an acted-out routine that has brought peace. I know friends who routinely undertake remodeling projects as a diversion from anxiety or for stop-gap immediate relief some go shopping or clean out a closet (me!)  More dangerous measures include gambling, porn indulgence, use of drugs or even some extreme sports.

(If you are curious to learn about some non-biblical, psychological reasons for attachment, here is a link to various views.)

Beyond inherent and obvious dangers, what’s wrong with the above attachment items or practices?

The only reason that counts is simply this: these stress-relievers are just as uncertain as the uncontrollable circumstances that bring suffering.  When LIFE happens, pressuring us, what if we are circumstantially kept from our go-to stress reliever?  Maybe that’s the origin of the expression ‘going postal’! Our God knows there are times we humans explode in anger or act otherwise irrationally.

God offers a different way of handling life’s uncertainties and stress, one that the apostle Paul learned.  This morning, while reading a bit of Puritan pastor William Gurnall’s teaching on holding on to faith in the Triune God, I glimpsed a connection to Paul’s teaching on contentment.

You are familiar with this early Christian boasting in having acquired the ability to be content in all circumstances.  ‘All’ included the gamut of experiences ranging from physical comfort and ease all the way to the many times he suffered beatings, imprisonment or calumny from his fellow Jews. (Phil 4:12)

I think Gurnall provides the method for Paul’s method of ‘learning’. Gurnall writes that in times of blessings, plenty and the absence of suffering, we should practice  “Keep(ing)…(our)..minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth.” Col 3:2

Then when the times of suffering and deprivation come, we should be more equipped to continue to feed ourselves on the rich truths of heaven, the expectations of one day enjoying our inheritance presently kept for us by Jesus.  Directing our imaginings Godward takes practice. You’re probably like me.  My thoughts DO NOT automatically tend toward meditating on the ‘diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ’ (Jonathan Edwards). It takes effort to dig and work a groove in my mind, through much exercise.

I mention Edwards’ line above about what to think about when meditating on Jesus. Because when I first considered devoting time to building a habit of thinking about ‘things above’, my first reaction was:

  • just what should my mind focus on?

John Piper gave me a clue when he quoted Jonathan Edwards in a sermon I recently heard. An example of these very different but astonishing qualities of Jesus would be how He is both the Lion and the Lamb.  Powerfully fierce and humbly submissive, all at the same time.

There ARE multitudes of rich treasures to be mined in the Bible.  And I think this is what is meant by God’s teaching us to ‘attach ourselves’ to Him.  We attach primarily by what we think about and talk about.  If I’m attached to my children, then I will pull out pictures and extol all the cute things they do.  Likewise, if I’m attached to God, I will boast in how great He is.

Contrary to what a material naturalist might argue, we are NOT deterministic beings.  We have been given the gift of imagination, of choosing what to think about.  Paul knew that. Therefore, I think his secret of learned contentment was harnessing and directing his thoughts God-ward.

That encourages me.  I know that I have plenty of time when my mind can float.  I do have the power to direct and focus those thoughts.  I CAN practice a new and different way of thinking.   I want to build up these mental and spiritual muscles of my mind during those periods when I’m not struck down by suffering.  Then when pain does come, I will know how to flee to my true refuge.

I’ll leave you with the French exhortation:

Attache-toi à Dieu!

Agreeing with Satan = my self-condemnation

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There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1

There it was, PROOF!  – a ‘poochy’ in a photo we asked someone to snap of us at the peak.   I was horrified to SEE it.  Two days earlier I had realized the evidence of what I had been reluctant to admit, I had gained a few pounds over the past few months. I could feel it and see it in the mirror, but now here it was in living color, digitally for the world to see!

The self-recriminations had set in 60 hours earlier and I had been battling them armed with God’s truth SOME of the time.  At other points, my brain buzzed in the high RPM range, figuring out what I was going to do to lose the 5 pounds.

What also bothered me was I thought I had put the Weight and Body Image Battle behind me, having even declared VS Day – Victory over the Scales Day on 5 Dec 2015.  That day marked a turning point when I symbolically moved the scales off the throne of my heart to make room for Jesus as supreme treasure and pleasure.

But by the full force of this self-recriminating skirmish, all I had done was substitute a different but equally deadly joy-sucking idol for that morning metric measurer, the bathroom scales.   What was this new enemy? –  the concept of leanness as my supreme good.

After the hike, I took my journal outside on the deck to see if I could get to the bottom of this seeming forever struggle.  And God was faithful to spark some gut-wrenching insights into the sin underneath this internal drama.

Here are the questions I wrote down:

  • Why does having a ‘poochy’ bother me more than my sin of idolatry and scorn against a Holy God?
  • Why is ‘leanness’ my ultimate and mostly elusive good?

The first question brought immediate remorse over my topsy-turvy value system.  The scales were just the outward and visible manifestation of my inward and wicked heart as represented by ‘the leanness idol’.  Abandoning my quest to maintain a certain weight didn’t take away what I still valued most in life.

The second question led to digging beneath the visible layers in my heart. By continuing to ask WHY, I tried to reach the bedrock of what drives me.

  • Why do I value leanness?  Because I most admire those women who are lean and fit
  • Why do I admire those kinds of women? Because they are free of self-loathing.
  • Why would NOT being ‘perfectly’ lean bring self-loathing? Because in myself, I can’t stand the feeling of a roll of fat or pudginess or tight rings or clothes.  They make me mad and I feel stuck and depressed.  And all that negative emotion pushes me inward into a seemingly self-perpetuating prison. I do all this to myself!

And then a question that directed healing light to that dark place in my heart.

  • What is the opposite of all that yuck I just described? Contentment with myself.  When content, I find it natural to forget about myself and focus on God and others.  Balled up in myself distracts and distorts the destination of my energy.
  • So if I seek a more lasting and better contentment and inner peace, what would God rather me choose as a source?  Why pleasing Him by being satisfied in Him, of course! The answer was clear as day.

Just at the moment that the Holy Spirit enabled me to ponder this pleasant place of happy and restful contentment, He called to mind Paul’s words about having LEARNED to be content in all seasons.  Hmmm.  If Paul could learn, through practice, then so could I!

A bit energized I started to reason biblically:

  • If God is FOR me, who can be against me?  (not even Maria’s self-criticisms count or SHOULD be able to pierce my peace)
  • If I have been declared ‘just’ by God (as a gift, through the mechanism of grace, and secured by Jesus’ redeeming payment with His life – Romans 3:24), then I already possess a permanent unshakeable peace with God.
  • When I beat myself up for having gained 5 pounds, I am participating in condemnation – Satan’s hideous and soul-eating handiwork.  He is the Accuser par excellence.  Agreeing with Satan mocks Jesus’ extravagant gift to me.

I was almost at the point of echoing my ‘Uncle Paul’s despair-filled cry, Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” – Romans 7:24.  At that very moment, I think a whimsical but life-giving picture came to me. I imagined Jesus looking at me with a twinkle in His eye and saying:

Maria has a poochy and I LOVE her poochy!

What a startling but gentling image. Is it really so far out of the realm of divine possibility?  After all, it was my husband who used to say with tender and happy love about our cat Calvin, Calvin has a poochy!  And Calvin was his favorite cat!

If it’s TRUE that there is nothing I can do to make Jesus love me more or less than He already does, then why not THIS scenario of Holy Joy in one for whom He died?

I think the healing took root at that point, Saturday afternoon, on our deck in the sun, journal and pen in my hands.

Almost with embarrassed hesitation I shared these new insights with my husband.  I felt that unless I articulated them out loud to another person, then I might slink back into the dark, dreary cave where I have beat myself up for far too long.  But there it was, in the light of day, publicly proclaimed for the person most dear to me and uttered out loud ALSO in case that the devil, himself, might be lurking.  And I, too, heard this new ‘fact’.  Maybe it was more important for ME to hear those words spoken out loud, witnessed by my husband and the Holy Spirit.

So I’ve been saying to myself several times a day, ‘I have a poochy and Jesus loves my poochy!’

 

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