What do we do when life goes south?

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We all face disappointments, some minor, some crushing.  God, I have learned, does not waste our trials.  In fact, He explicitly tells us that we WILL have trouble in this life – all of us, whether Christ-follower or not.  As believers who have God’s Word,  we should expect to suffer.  I read just this morning in Acts 14: 21b – 22:  “Then they (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, ‘ they said.” 

So how do we think when yet another blow comes?  Recently I’ve been gifted with a situation that requires me to regain my balance and ‘prepare my mind for action’, as Peter exhorts.

The elevator synopsis is this:  While enjoying my best year of teaching kids French and anticipating staying on at my current school for a while longer, the tables turned abruptly and I know I need to look for a different job for after this contract year ends in June.

Here is how I am bookending or ‘sandwiching’ these new circumstances, using God’s exhortation through Paul to me:

Philippians 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

The background is this:  two believing Philippian gals were upset with each other and the entire family of God was affected. Even Paul at a distance had received reports of this disruptive and sinful conflict.  By NAME, the apostle exhorts these two sisters in Christ to drop the issue and focus on the stupendous fact that both their names are written in the Book of Life.  How’s THAT for putting a dispute into context?

Paul’s thoughts then run to a myriad of OTHER reasons to find greater joy in the Lord than being right or vindicated in a disagreement.  Hence his double directive – ‘Think over all the gifts you have as a child of the Living God! Now THOSE are worth rejoicing about, over and over again, not just once!’

Philippians 4:5  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

I think the logic goes like this:  the über-rejoicing about being in Christ should result in you being mild in temperament, easy to get along with.  Let THAT quality be what people talk about when they mention you, not that you are quarrelsome.  And if you need help with self-control, take heart – Jesus is close by, ready to enable you to build this new habit.

And if you say, ‘But what about my grievance with my sister?  It’s a real problem and still bothers me!’  Take heart, because Paul goes on to provide THE way to deal with that need and all others:

Philippians 4:6 …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

Jesus is our Lord and aims to take care of ANYthing that weighs on us.  But we have to hand it over, for good!  How?  By asking Him to take it on.  I see the thanksgiving part of this teaching as what we do each and every time we forget that the problem NOW belongs to Him.  Instead of worrying, we must say something like:

‘Oh, right, there I go again!  I have started dwelling on the fact that I need a new job.  But I have handed that problem over to You, my Lord.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are managing this for me.  Help me to NOT to take it back, as I am prone to do.’

With the abruptness last week of finding out I need to start a job search, I have succumbed several nights in bed to thinking, thinking, thinking about lots of ‘what ifs’.  That is just plain ‘ole’ sinful WORRY!  Each time I catch myself, I repent and ask for His help to do what He commands.

What carrot does God offer as an inducement to rely on Him to bring about a resolution to my situation?  Something the entire world longs for, pagan and believer alike – true and lasting peace!

Philippians 4:7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Our hearts are the seat of our longings and desires.  And our minds are a thought-generating factory.  As Christians, we need supernatural help to protect and block wrong desires and sinful ideas.  It’s no secret that our strong hankerings and thoughts fuel our actions.

I take Paul’s teaching in verse 7 to mean this:  God’s powerful peace, strong enough to shield you and me from harmful wants and musings, is ONLY given to those who STOP trying to handle their needs and manage their problems on their own.  We only get His peace if we abandon our situation entirely, 100 %, to Him.  But if you’re like me, worrying sneaks up on us unaware.  We often pretend and call it ‘being concerned and responsible’.  Phooey!  Bottom line, how bad do we want to be steadied by this promised gift of peace?  The way to HAVE and to HOLD it is by exercising God’s gift of faith – trusting in and relying on His character and His promises to provide.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Why this advice?  Paul has learned that even when he has set his mind to:

  • rejoicing a lot about all that Jesus is for Him
  • committing to His Lord and Savior all his stressful situations and those of believers he dearly loves
  • he still has mind-space to worry.

His remedy is to fix his thoughts on the many beautiful and true God-given gifts, worthy of his mental energy.  You and I are to do the same.  For instance, when I notice the cleaning lady at school treating her job with dignity, consider her example. Or when I learn about one or two honest, earnest politicians who take their responsibility seriously, I can praise God for His goodness.

But just in case, my mind has such a large capacity that I run out of ideas that are healing and safe, Paul gives us a challenge that should take up the rest of our mental energy:

Philippians 4:9  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do you know how hard it would be to copy Paul and to practice, over and over, his habits of speech and rest and trust and thinking well of others?  That’s why I say that God has given us plenty, more than enough, to fill and steady our minds and hearts.  His promise of reward is not just PEACE, but Himself as the God of peace.

Wasn’t it the bus company Greyhound who advertised:  ‘Leave the driving to us’?  One of the reasons for traveling with them was so passengers could relax and focus on the scenery and enjoy the people around them instead of stressing over the traffic.

In the same way, we are to leave the worrying to God.  We’re NOT the driver, nor the captain of our souls.  Those jobs are way beyond the abilities God in His wisdom has deemed good and safe for us.

So, this job situation, I see as another opportunity to enjoy God’s peace and practice my Uncle Paul in contentment.  How about you?

Do you have to know how He’s going to work?

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Phil 4:6-7  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  and the peace of God, which SURPASSES all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

God had already prepared me last week by focusing my attention on His term ‘surpasses’.  I spent quite a bit of time nosing around Blue Letter Bible to see just what ‘hyper-echo’ revealed.  Paul uses it 3 times to mean:

  • is vastly superior
  • stands above

What struck me was what God promises – in return for handing over problems and worries.  He guarantees nothing short of supernatural peace – quite the opposite of what we’re feeling as beleaguered worriers.  Moreover, He asserts that this holy peace of His brings us life-giving energy.  In contrast, anxiously wanting to know HOW and WHEN He’s going to work out the issues SUCKS away life and joy.

But human as we are, we WANT to see the provision, the solutions. Our minds race ahead, exploring options and play-by-play ‘if THIS, then THAT’ scenarios.

Getting back to how God prepped me for a bigger problem by means of this command cum promise.  Going into Friday of last week,  I practiced meditating on Phil 4:6-7,  how His peace counts more than knowing how He was going to fix 2 problems that have dogged me this summer.  Each day I practiced restating out loud Paul’s advice like this:

“Your divine peace is worth more than seeing or knowing how you’re going to handle these 2 issues, so I choose to leave them with You!”

Silly me – I thought God had opened my eyes to the value of God-sized peace for THOSE two problems.  But now I see that the gift of His insight readied me for Friday’s ‘surprise’.

Year 26 of teaching French starts tomorrow, Monday.  Typically I spend the day before we have to report for teacher workdays organizing my room and taking stock of class rosters and supplies.  Friday morning I walked into school around 9 am, carrying two bags of this-and-that. On the way up the steps, my principal fell in beside me and broke the news that only 3 students had signed up for level 1 French class.  I had heard from one of the 2 Spanish teachers that this year’s entering 6th-grade class was small.  With that information in my mind, I had figured a class size of maybe 8-9 instead of 12-15 as in previous years.

The news stunned me.  Only THREE?  Really?  Throughout the day I kept turning over the implications of such a tiny group.  The Holy Spirit did prompt me to text 4 friends who understand what it’s like to teach a ‘minority’ language in America.  They started praying.  And I returned to worrying and casting on Him and feeling sad.

The dark gray cloud sunk deeper into my heart, despite repeating Paul’s promise.  Joy-smothering heaviness lingered.  It felt personal, for I had taught most of the rising 6th graders in an Intro to French last year.  Students in our lower school study Spanish from Kindergarten through 4th grade.  In 5th grade, one of the middle school Spanish teachers continues with a semester of Spanish and I offer them a taste of French.  The idea is they can better choose the language they like or value to continue in Middle School.

I shared the news with Mike when I got home.  The pall lingered through the evening and dogged me during the wakeful night. The next morning my loving husband handed me an essay about waiting on God.  The author wrote from painful personal experience how these situations are exactly the kind that produces the fruit of patience.  Hmm….I had forgotten that patience is one of those 9 traits of holiness cultivated by the Holy Spirit.

If we really trust God’s goodness, then we can rely on and WAIT for Him to act, exercising patience by means of the faith He gives us.

A few hours later Mike followed up with a written-out specific prayer for me, asking God to give me supernatural patience and peace.  And God DID!

This prayer has SUPER-NATURALLY helped me.  In a tangibly different way, I KNOW the power that a believing child of God can access through prayer and have sent by the Holy Spirit to someone else.  It’s not that I FEEL any different.  I have been enabled to believe that God WILL indeed take care of the situation.  I don’t need to know the HOW or the WHEN.

Within an hour of reading Mike’s prayer for me and after typing it up for myself, my spirits lightened.  I regained my ability to think about other things.  What other things?

To be frank, thinking about ME, my concerns or the future is boring and life-sucking. So what is there to think about?  I’m tired of rolling them around in my mind.

Uncle Paul wastes no time in helping us there.  As soon as he describes the gift of God’s peace for those who off-load their worries, he tells us just what remains to be done, one final thing:

Phil 4:8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (NLT)

Here’s what Blueletter Bible says about the Greek word Paul uses (dwell or fix your thoughts on) “This word deals with reality. If I reckon (logizomai) that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise, I am deceiving myself. This word refers more to fact than supposition or opinion.”

So, what about that small class? I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Lot’s of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes are likely in store for me.  I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Knowing God, He’s likely to have planned, just for me, lots of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes. I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

But He is good and whatever He brings me is designed to ripen and multiply my fruitfulness, conforming me to Christ.

 

 

Entering a new decade with God

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Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)

It was early fall; I shared lunch with a fellow teacher about 15 years older than me. “How did you cope with turning 40?” I asked.

Her response startled me: “Have you ever heard of Bible Study Fellowship?”

Intrigued, I joined as soon as I could.  And God changed my life.

At 50 I switched schools. Summit Christian Academy in Yorktown, Va hired me, a French teacher, to teach civics, US history and LOGIC!  My qualifications?  An initial BA in Foreign Affairs from UVA.

I had to google ‘Logic’.  And God changed my life.

Sweet 60 is my soon-to-be demographic.  A new decade.  I ponder this significant celebration. It feels different. I know God so much better now.

Over the past 20 years, He has taught me to live by some fundamental facts. (Does that make me a ‘fundamentalist’?)

  • He does all things well (Mark 7:37)
  • He is good
  • He is sovereign
  • I belong to Him, for He has given me His Spirit. (Romans 8:9)

Those truths settle me.  His holy gift of peace permeates.  Being one of His sheep is enough.

No, I don’t know what my Father has in store for me as this new decade dawns. But one thing I do know: I trust Him.  And He promises a happy future for every son and daughter, liberated by Christ. (Matt 25:34)

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. Proverbs 4:18 (ESV)

Downton Abbey and Why Jesus Came

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downton-final-season  Mike and I just finished watching this series.  You have to understand how we ‘do movies’.  Thirty minutes at a time, while enjoying supper on trays.  So we have have moved through Seasons 4, 5 and 6 (with a break of several years) at a enjoyably slow pace, savoring each scene as well as imagining what would happen next.

After our hiatus, we noticed a shift from what seemed like an intentional soap operatic purpose of shocking the viewer TO a peppering of events with grace.

We could be mistaken in assigning a perceptible shift in the screenwriting of Julian Fellowes.   It could be that over the years we have grown both more desperate for and in love with God’s Grace, so that we spot it wherever its fragrance wafts.

One dramatic category of this Grace pervaded that final show.  All the broken relationships were healed.

Yes, some might call this contrivance, a tying up with a pretty bow this microcosm named Downton Abbey.

But we loved it!  Reconciliation between humans is a powerful, supernatural and divine blessing.  God has so wired each of us with the need and longing to be ‘right’ with each other and ultimately with God Himself.

  • Deep calls to deep……Psalm 42:7

I’m not ashamed to admit this: we sobbed, both of us.  Tears painted with the recognition of this holy ache planted deep inside.

Realistically, we all know that harmony doesn’t last, at least in this world. Edith’s parents, Robert and Cora Crawley, articulated as much. But the desire for it and the joy that sweeps into our hearts when we are made right with one another point to a world where that kind of peace will be its warp and woof.  That life exists.  Jesus’ birth is proof.

This is one meaning of Christmas.  Creator and Father God intruded into our broken world as the God-Man Jesus to provide the one and only way for us sinful creatures to be reconciled to Him.  And being reconciled to Him, we have hope for harmony at the horizontal level.

By the time you read this, Christmas day will be waning or already past.  Invariably, if you are older than 7, your expectations have not been met.  The hype, YOUR hopes for a mystical, otherworldly taste or experience of Joy bigger than you were not met.  Either in the gifts or in the relationships.

Tomorrow looms as another cold-water, ordinary or even painful day.  But cheer up, reality is actually better than we imagine.  Because of Jesus, Christmas’ promises will neither disappoint nor fade away.

Jesus really did come at that point in history, when Augustus demanded a registration of all his subjects.  And His predicted death and resurrection are the evidence you need to safely trust His words about your future.

There is a new earth and new heavens awaiting Christians, one where true reconciliation with God and with each other will be played out forever.

Downton Abbey gives us a glimpse of what we long for and what is possible.  Thank you, Julian Fellowes!

Not my strength

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Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships,in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Cor 9: 8-10

It’s been, like, 523 times that I have asked God to give me another job over the past 3 school years and 2 months.  Yet each morning as I walk up the steps to the middle school, I climb the evidence that FOR TODAY, I am in God’s will, here.  That today THIS is His plan for me.  Today my job is to work for Him as a happy, dependent ambassador…and serve my students, colleagues, parents and principal to the best of my ability as I depend on Him.

Often I FEEL that I am not up to motivating and engaging 11-14 year olds through the creative means that are required.  Teenage taste buds for anything that is not ‘fun and different’ have grown dull.  The challenge daunts and fatigues me.  Add to that, faculty meetings where I hear of and witness the creativity of my colleagues who seem to really love these kids in ways I don’t.  Together, these combustible materials fuel that inner narrative that is more excuse than accurate report:

  • I’m too old to relate to this age group
  • I can’t connect with them like my younger colleagues who are late 20s, 30s and even 40s.

But because God has seen fit to fence me in (income needs), I’m compelled to DEAL with the job He has assigned me.

In His kindness, He lightened the load last week.

Wednesday morning I was desperate. I was applying make-up and braiding my hair and musing over how to engage the bored, dull, tired 8th grade first period class. I was praying, too.  Just before I hit ‘PLAY’ to roll out the well-worn monologue of why I wish I had a different job, a new script for the day emerged!    What occurred to me was God’s promise to Paul, cited above.  As I applied it to me, I reasoned:

  • If God won’t let me escape today’s challenge, then He must be willing to provide for me.

That conclusion turned into a prayer:

  • Father, HELP!  I need to modify the plan so as to engage these students who complain of being bored. Give me an idea!

And a possible activity came to mind – one that involved a bit of partner work to engage everyone.

And you know what?  It worked.

That was Wednesday.  Then on Friday, we had one of those faculty meetings I described. Again as my inner voice intoned, “I’m too old….” But then, for some ‘strange’ reason, I stopped it and realized that it WAS possible for me to change the narrative…… from:

I’m just not good at reaching/connecting with MS kids anymore…not that creative…or fun like all these other teachers….(as in giving myself an excuse)

to:

Your grace IS sufficient for me in this area that I lack, for Your grace is made perfect in MY weakness…So please, give me the will to keep asking You for what I need today and EACH day.  By your power I CAN do this job.

Mike and I have a rule of thumb in our house.  If the cats get away with something naughty two times in a row, it’s a pattern.  If we don’t break it then and there before the 3rd occurrence, it will become ROUTINE for them.

I am now on the lookout for that 3rd time, so my new tape will be my TOP of the queue go-to one.  Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

 

The gift of neediness

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needy  How does our society view neediness?  Is it commendable or deplorable?

not-good-to-be-needy

I’m beginning to view my neediness differently.

Up until this year, a packed school week with meetings, evening obligations and reduced time for lesson planning routinely has stressed me out and caused me to DREAD the days ahead.

For example, last year on Friday afternoons, my extra duty was to arrange for and supervise a small group of 6th and 7th graders in a weekly community service activity.  We prepared meals at a women’s shelter in Asheville.  Just the idea of the motivating and encouraging and CONTROLLING these young students sufficiently to focus, work together and clean up all on a time schedule without devolving into a noisy chaos AND missing the bus back to school was painful.

I ‘griMMed’ and bore it.  Yet despite my faithless and pathetic prayers,  (yes I prayed and simultaneously ‘angsted’) God always came through.  You’d think I would have learned how NOT to trouble my heart and the futility of creating this fear and dread picture of what lay ahead.

If the utter uselessness of worry, fear and dread were not enough to convince me, wouldn’t you think I’d be horrified at the idea of disobeying my God and my Savior?  You know Him, our God who COMMANDS us NOT to fear, but to offload all our burdens onto His shoulders?  If I’m not going to believe His words, then why not tap into my God-given ability to imagine?  To what am I referring?

It turns out that I’m actually quite creative when it comes to painting MY personal dread pictures of what I THINK likes ahead.  Can I not use those same artistic faculties to picture  Jesus’ ordeal in Gethsemane?  That awful night when bloody sweat globules bathed His body as He anticipated taking on my sorrows and sins?  He conquered sin and sorrow so I wouldn’t have to take them on, single-handedly.  I don’t HAVE to dread any future moment.  For reality is if I abide in Him, if I walk yoked together with Jesus, then I won’t ever dwell a second deprived of His provision and presence.

John 14:27  I leave peace with you; I give my peace to you: not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it fear.

Somehow over the summer and now into September, my thinking is changing.  I’m beginning to view my neediness, my lack of sufficient time, energy, ideas as a gift.  How is that?

Each day when I feel strapped and resourceless, I am much quicker to select a promise and hug it for all its worth as I move into what frightens me.  And because I’m repeating God’s pledge to myself, because I’m praying it to Him as I tell Him how much I’m relying on Him to provide what He says say He’ll do, I feel CLOSER to Jesus. 

Talking to God throughout my days from the moment the alarm breaks into my sleep to when I settle back into bed at night, makes me sense Him next to me.  You might call it only my imaginings.  But I imagined enough dread scenarios to know that what I picture causes my feelings, both good and bad.

My conclusion? Here’s what both startles and delights me: this neediness, this insufficiency to do most anything given the time and resources I can see for the day ahead is turning into a gift. A ‘practicing the presence of God’ by turning my thoughts to Him makes me feel happier.  When I’m not need, my thoughts float elsewhere.

Could it be that this is what Jesus meant when He taught:

Happy are the needy, the beggars, those who are not self-sufficient and who know it, for they get the presence of the happy holy triune provisioning God!      (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God – Matthew 5:3)

 

Fighting discontent with prayer

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Father, you who SHOULD be enough, forgive my discontent!

You specifically command us NOT to covet. And I continue to disobey you. Coveting, wanting what I don’t have, is the very opposite of loving you with 100% of my mind. As the sun of summer passes over the yardarm, I find myself internally grumbling and focusing on the countdown to the end of my quiet mornings and longer evenings. As though Jesus’ purchase of eternal life were not enough, my disquieted heart is MORE focused on my dread of going back to school. To the point that:

  • not only am I not reveling in these pristine mountain mornings,
  • but I’m deliberately avoiding your will for me that I rejoice, pray and thank you in every thing.

But you have not left me to fight this by myself. If so, then as Martin Luther so rousingly portrayed:

a mighty fortress

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing

So just how do you propose to help me, Father?  Your word to me in fear and anxiety has always been –  Armor-up, Maria!  Dread, that wicked picturing of a scary future, is simply a different flavor.  (And just as much a violation of your command to count ALL things as joy – whether trial or trove, since they come from You, for my good.)

I thank you, that your word in Ephesians 6 has taught me the following tactic:

  •  we’re to pick a weapon from the arsenal of your Word and fight the fear with spirit-indwelt force.

Here is what you gave me this morning during church and I’m going to make it mine in this battle with discontent:

James 5: 11-12 Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course! You’ve heard, of course, of Job’s staying power, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end. That’s because God cares, cares right down to the last detail.

When I personalize your encouragement I find it easier to remember your promise. But I need your Holy Spirit to prompt me, to remind me of your sure pledge each time I’m attacked by those Satan-suggested gloomy pictures of the coming school year.  Then I can substitute your word to me for the fear scenario I’ve assembled.

Just like Job’s assignment was not what he chose, but he stayed under your heavy hand, honoring your name, with your strength I will stay in the seat you have seen fit to assign me this day, this season. In return for his loyalty, you blessed Job more richly than he ever could have pictured. So I will look to my future blessings.  You’re more kind than I can imagine, so just maybe you have woven treasure into what I’m dreading.  But if nothing else, may my sure inheritance in the next life fill me with enduring energy to be faithful to your will.  Help me to savor and daydream about what full fellowship with you, and overflowing joy may be like.   

God, you KNOW that I can’t successful win the battle against fear and dread without your supernatural help. But woe is me if I don’t daily take up the spiritual weapons you’ve handed me and use them throughout the day and night as the enemy lobs in artillery shells of discontent.

In Jesus’ name, whose intercessions I’m counting on, I pray.  Amen!

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