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)

The danger of NOT being needy

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A friend unburdened herself to me last month that she was scared to find herself in the midst of a dry spell with God.  She doesn’t sense His presence any more.  He seems distant.   When she reads her Bible, she feels nothing.  She once felt alive to God, close to Him.

Now she finds herself going through the motions.  When I gently probed about what brought on this change, she didn’t know.  She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when her intimacy with God, her excitement of belonging to Him had waned.  She had woken up one day, all of a sudden aware that He ‘was gone’, as she explained it.

She asked me what she could do to get the old feelings back.  We talked about the external behaviors of Christian discipleship such as prayer, worshipping with other believers, thanking God, regular Bible reading, journeying.  She admitted that although she still attended church most Sundays, she had stopped both reading her Bible on a daily basis and pursuing regular time with God in prayer.  She felt hypocritical and mechanical in doing them.  Doubt about the efficacy of our prayers had crept into her mind.

As we were brainstorming and thinking about the practices of believers, God suddenly brought to mind what I think is the key to a close relationship with God.  Neediness.

I feel needy EVERY DAY and many times throughout the day.  I could chalk it up to my age and growing awareness of the fragility and incertitude of life’s circumstances. Or maybe I simply have no more qualms in admitting that in my own strength and resources I can’t do much of anything well, I’m just plain NEEDY!

Stop a moment!  Isn’t ‘neediness’ the very essence of being a created being?  But God as Creator, what does He need?  Not one thing!   To be God is to be self-sufficient.  To be creature is to be needy.

O, the happiness of being in want! That neediness keeps me begging God, scouring my Bible for His sure promises of provision, guidance and wisdom.  Daily, I journal about what I find in Scripture.  Likewise, I talk about the truth of God with my husband, other family and many friends.  I pepper emails with encouragement from God because when I point to God and His greatness, I FEEL renewed and strengthened.  All through the day, I thank Him as I see His provision.  When I start to dread tomorrow, I’m learning to rehearse why I don’t need to be afraid.  When I catch myself worrying, I repent of my unbelief and ask my husband to pray for me to trust God. I’m in constant dialogue with God because I live out of the insufficiency of Maria.

Yes, His mercies are new every morning, because my needs are new every morning!

Financial and health needs, relationship challenges, work problems, decision conundrums and other suffering have turned out to be God’s greatest gifts to me. I knew that at one level. But listening to all my friend is suffering and trying to DO to regain her once close relationship with the happy Triune, all-powerful God of the universe scares me.  I don’t EVER want to lose that.

Nothing compares to knowing God.

Where I used to begrudge any circumstance of neediness, I now THANK Him specifically.

Here’s how I have reworded Paul’s description in 2 Cor 12:10

Original: For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

My version:  For the sake of a close relationship with Christ, then, I am content and thankful to be given weaknesses, neediness, hardships and problems.  For when I am needy, I am strong in the Lord.

For…..The fear of (losing) God is the beginning of wisdom” Proverbs 9:10

What are you hungering after?

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CS Lewis writes something to the effect that if you have a desire that nothing on this earth can satisfy, then that unfulfilled longing points to a future fulfillment in another dimension, that is later when we have new bodies on a new earth.

He bases that argument on the simple truth of:

  • hunger pointing to food for satisfaction and
  • fatigue being remedied by sleep and
  • work as the antidote to the desire to make a meaningful difference in life.

I recently was re-comforted with Lewis’ explanation when I gazed out at the beauty of our Smokey Mountains here in Western North Carolina.  Sometimes my heart is stunned and unable to drink in God’s splendor.  I want to absorb it, holding on to it forever,but can’t. And then I feel sorrow and regret at having fallen short.

138 - Misty view of Smokeys toward TN

Per Lewis’ logic, however, one day you and I will have the capacity to take in beauty, to digest it.  But in these limited bodies, we can only gaze and marvel and leave what God has created outside of us, underused.

Moving from external beauty to the beauty of God’s word, I recently came across a glimpse into how pastor John Piper views Scripture.  His words gripped my heart because they were echoes pointing to my longings, too!

Early one Sunday morning my discipline was taking me through Luke 18. It was one of those times when God came near with unusual force. Christ stood out from the pages as irresistibly compelling. Every paragraph made my soul yearn to be radically obedient to Jesus. I felt that no one ever spoke like this man. No one ever lived free like this man. No one ever demanded what he demanded and gave what he gave. So I wanted to take this chapter with me all day and feed on it and fight unbelief with it. I didn’t have time to memorize it. What could I do? I decided to tag each paragraph and remember a key statement from each paragraph under that tag. I noticed that I could think of tags that began with the same letter…..

This man wanted to ingest God’s words just like we do when our hearts are pierced by nature.  When we know we can’t quite take it all in.  We lack the dimensions, the faculties, the capacities to do justice to God’s creation to His Word.  But if we apply CS Lewis thinking, we can reassure ourselves with THE FACT that:

  • If we have a longing that can’t be satisfied on earth in these bodies, then we can be confident that somewhere and at a point in the future, God WILL satisfy, fulfill and meet those good desires with what He created them for.

Our hungers are ultimately longings for God.

Can you wait?

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”  1 Cor 2:9

 

Do we work for our salvation?

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“….Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,  for or it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure.…” Phil 2:12b-13a

Work out your salvation

Do you ever feel like you’re on the outside of a certain Bible passage, looking in? Like you can’t unlock what the verses mean, no matter how much you chip away at the word meaning or greater context?  I’ve felt that way for a LONG time, about MANY verses that seem too short and too cryptic.  Recently John Piper explained what is beginning to happen to me.  And it’s a welcome change.  Let me share a recent example and maybe you’ll find some hope for how you, too, can be rewarded with nuggets of gold after some hard-core mining.

A piece of that reward arrived this past Sunday as I was poking around Blue Letter Bible to research the Greek meaning of ‘work out’ in the cited verse.  In that rich soil, God brought forth a new ‘aha!’ moment as He opened up my understanding of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians.  I’ve always struggled to understand two aspects of his ‘strong suggestion’.

  • what are we working out?  are we actually working toward our salvation?
  • what does working out one’s salvation have to do with what God is doing IN me?

What I have found is that some of the Bible seems to be written in a shorthand form.  A lot of explicit explanation just isn’t there.  Reminds me of poetry, which often stumps me. Or maybe some of these puzzling lines are like the parables Jesus told, meant to keep out those whose only interest in Truth is passing.

But I WANT to know, to understand, to OWN more and more of God’s Word.  So I dig around and soak in the Bible A LOT.  And after 18 1/2 years, things are beginning to ‘pop’.

What got me soaking all those years ago?  I started actually STUDYING the Bible systematically through an in-depth Bible study called Bible Study Fellowship (BSF link here).

I had become a Christian 16 years earlier, but my scripture reading was hit or miss and except for about a year in a British Anglican church, we weren’t around ‘Christians’ who actually believed that the Bible was God’s authoritative Word, alive and full of power.

BSF changed all that.

So now, although we have moved and don’t find ourselves near a BSF class, we continue to read and study our Bible and belong to a church that submits to the authority of the Word.

And I’m beginning to reap my investment of time and energy.  Verses and passages which previously remained closed to me are now opening up.  And it’s exciting!

So what about the WORKING OUT conundrum?  Here’s what I figured out or WORKED OUT from reading the Greek meanings of katergázomai/work out.  When we take something and think it through and see how it applies, then it becomes OURS.  We’re fashioning it to fit into what we already know.  It’s like making room in your house for a new painting.

I was relieved to conclude that NO, we don’t do works to earn our salvation, but we have to renovate our entire understanding of who we are and why we exist in the first place by yielding to God as our Creator, Redeemer and Happy Master.  And the comforting good news is that God does not leave us to do this home renovation on our own!  Look at Philippians 13:a.  It’s God Himself who is at work in us both to DESIRE (will) and WORK to please Him.  What a sweet deal for us.

Knowing God so far, it’s safe to assume that He has many more treasures for me.  If I stay rooted like a tree, near His living and life giving water, then as I draw up cool refreshing nourishment, I will continue to grow.

Tree by a stream

What are you dreading?

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Dreading I have to admit that when I think about a very busy week ahead with what ‘looks like’ too much, given the time available, I start to dread the days ahead.

My version of dreading events is probably mild compared to those who at the other end of the spectrum fall prey to panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms.  But my projected unhappiness feels heavy and it does sap the joy and energy right out of me – ahead of time!

Since January, however, I have begun to reject the ‘automatic dread response‘ that has accompanied me since high school days.

What happened to cause this unexpected change in mindset?  Walking through a dark valley with Mike from November through the New Year, that’s what!

This flavor of suffering focused my theology like nothing else since our marriage floundered and almost broke up on the rocky shoals of individual selfishness in 2000.

Trials tend to focus one’s attention on what is important.  As Mike and I dealt with his heart-related sleep and anxiety issues, I came to trust God’s promise in Psalm 84:11:

No good thing does He withhold from him whose way is blameless*

Jesus also taught me through the onslaught of what I call ‘pop quizzes’ or opportunities to put His Word to the test, that His presence truly was my one and only good.

So when that first Sunday in January landed and I thought about school resuming the next day after 2 weeks off for Christmas, I started to dread the constricted daily schedule.

But all of a sudden the Holy Spirit applied Psalm 84:11 to this new situation, reduced time and increased tasks.  Another way to phrase ‘no good thing withheld’ is ‘all good things provided‘.  Logically then, if God’s provision of X hours and Y minutes is what He deems good, and if I only get done 5 of 8 tasks for the day in the time He provides, then THAT is exactly what He deems ‘good’ for me this day.

That may seem like a small change, but that incremental adjustment has produced an out-of-proportion effect on my outlook.

Zech 4:10a – Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin….

I think I had begun to make a move in that direction last fall with my evening reading. Some nights Mike and I catch up with each other and dine later than other nights. After tidying up the kitchen 20 minutes might remain to read.  Other nights during the school week I relax with 45 minutes.  After fighting resentment the previous 2 years, the Holy Spirit had already begun to help me accept that whatever God gave me was ‘good’.

The ‘health issues’ sped up the process.

And let me tell you, this unforeseen silver lining of the suffering is a gift.  If I START to dread tomorrow’s schedule, which might include an anticipated burden like:

  • shepherding a group of 7th graders during an outing to cook lunch for 60 women at a shelter
  • missing a planning period due to an assembly
  • an evaluative observation by my principal
  • having to make sub plans AND do my regular planning and fearing not enough time for either
  • a meeting at night  which will interfere with relaxing with Mike
  • a difficult phone call with a parent or about a large bill
  • a doctor’s appointment whose outcome is uncertain

It doesn’t take long, now, to recall one or all of these FACTS:

  • I’m only looking at the anticipated circumstances as I see them from my vantage point and I could be mistaken
  • I have NO idea of God’s planned provision
  • I might actually find something surprisingly delightful and of great worth in what ‘looks’ like an unpleasant event

VERY recently, the HS has also reminded me that it’s pretty arrogant (i.e. sinful) of me to THINK I know what is best for me.

So now, when I do indeed ONLY accomplish 5 of the 8 tasks I had for the day I can say with a light freedom:

  • I guess it was God’s will for me ONLY to complete the 5 items on my ‘to do’ list. 

After all, am I in charge?  Am I the Creator of the entire universe, the Creator of time itself?

Actually, I’m very glad I’m not in charge!  I just want to report for duty with a joyous sense of anticipation about the day and leave the results to my Master.  If I please Him in the HOW and the WHAT I accomplish in HIS empowerment and resources, then it’s a good day.

One last encouragement.  Not only have I ‘lost’ the dreading, but I am finding out that the events that I call my ‘mighta dreaded‘ ones sometimes actually provide unexpected nuggets of unforeseen joy.  Isn’t that in keeping with a loving and good God and Father!

Sleepless nights – when are they a good thing?

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Restless and troubled by this persistent dream, she could not sleep.  Foreboding thoughts and feelings flitted along the edges of her semi-conscious mind. What did her dream mean? Why was THAT man even in her husband’s presence? Pontius had not mentioned last night at dinner that he was holding in the dungeons this Rabbi and Healer, the talk of all Jerusalem.

Pontius Pilate's wife

She fell back to sleep and the dark drama continued. She watched with horror as the man called ‘The Christ’ silently endured beatings and taunting.  The soldiers who jeered, smirked and spat on the suffering, compliant victim were HER husband’s men. Her heart felt like it was about to leap out of her chest, her mouth ready to shriek in protest.

In her dream, compelled forward to watch the horror of merciless mocking and abuse, she had pressed around her imposing husband’s back. But this stocky man, transfixed and silent, would not let her edge around him to see.  Blocked then, she nonetheless heard the snapping whips, thudding and biting torn flesh. She recoiled as each whistling lash found its mark.

She had woken with a start, shivering in a cold sweat. What was she to make of this dream?  Resolve forming, she called her maidservants to fetch water to wash and dress for the day.  Maybe she could stop from happening that which no earthly person in the palace had told her about.

*

It is vain for you to rise early,
To retire late,
To eat the bread of anxious labors—
For He gives [blessings] to His beloved, even in his, sleep.  Psalm 127:2

What keeps you awake at night?  I remember reading about Andrée Seu Peterson years ago and how for about 18 months, God kept her from sleep-filled nights.  What I recall is that she eventually accepted this suffering as a gift from God and used it to pray and read her Bible. Then, all of a sudden, God restored her sleep.

Then there are those Bible characters whose sleep is interrupted by Divine dreams. Heroes of faith like the two Josephs: Jacob’s son from Genesis and the much later legal dad of Jesus – THAT Joseph.  There were also those traveling sages from the East who were warned in a dream NOT to report back to Herod.  And you remember Paul who recounted in Acts 16:9 about when he received specific guidance – “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Not only God’s people, but major players in history have puzzled over dreams like Egypt’s Pharaoh with the fat cows and lean cows (as well as the baker and the wine steward sharing a prison cell with Joseph, Bar Jacob). King Nebuchadnezzar also suffered nightmares that no one but Daniel could interpret, thanks to God’s wisdom.

Divine dreams that communicate a message are positive, GOOD reasons for sleeplessness. But I know you are probably as familiar as I am with the negative and sinful impediments to a rest-filled night.  Yes, I’m talking about not being able to sleep due to the anxieties of the previous 24 hours or of the morning soon to break.

Sometimes, my mind races with too many thoughts and I can’t settle it.  Not that I am worried……but I can’t shut it off.  Is that sinful?

The other night I didn’t get home until 13 +hours after I had descended our Smoky Mountain cove en route to Asheville.  Then, after school, I had headed to an evening meeting, eventually walking into our home a little before 8 pm.  I go to bed fairly early on school nights, so there was little decompress time – especially since I shared with Mike about the day (I had been professionally reviewed by my principal) as well as the meeting later on.

My mind was running at an RPM speed normal for my active day.  The thoughts continued as I settled into bed a little after 9 pm. I know we are commanded to count on (trust) Jesus and hand over ALL of our cares, for He promises to take them on.  I wasn’t ‘worried’, nonetheless the grey cells labored on.

Eventually I fell into a deep sleep, but awoke exhausted the next day.  Was it my fault? Could I have handled the night differently?   My first defense was: “I couldn’t help it!” Normally I DO slow down after dinner; the conversation is less intellectually engaging, I read the paper and then a book to prevent electronic stimulation.

But saying ‘it’s not my fault’ is irrelevant and doesn’t help.  Our good Father actually gives us tools to use.  Thinking about this kind of night since then I’ve come up with a plan.  I’m going to do what Christ exhorts us through Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. ………And the God of peace will be with you. Phil 4:8, 9b

I want that kind of peace at night, don’t you?  But what assurance do you and I have that we’ll be able to KEEP our thoughts fixed on the above worthy topics? Just the fact that what God commands us to do, He gives us His strength to do. (I’m encouraged by Paul’s teaching in the same letter: “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Phil 2:13)

And just which topics are true, noble, right,…..?  We can start with recalling truths about God – who He is, what He has done and what He promises those who call Him Father.

PS:  Back to the story at the beginning of this post – what do you think?  Will we encounter Mrs. Pontius in heaven?  What about her husband?

A sheep’s reflection on the Shepherd

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Sheep

The Lord is my Shepherd:

Jesus is my protector, guide and provider.  And I belong to him.  Shepherds take care of helpless animals who can’t look after themselves.  That must be God’s assessment of me.  I’m not fit to go it alone.  I need to be with other vulnerable ones in Jesus’ flock.  He’s also not just ‘any ole’ shepherd.  He’s MY shepherd.  That makes me HIS sheep and he knows me by name.

I shall lack nothing:

Jesus is a good shepherd.  He provides all I need.  That promise, that he will give me the time, energy, desire and ability to do what is needful this day, comforts me.  Especially when not a day goes by that I don’t struggle with trusting that he really will come through.  He’s ‘forcing’ me to learn NOT to live each day based on the provision I see waiting for me.

Having a shepherd also means I don’t have to hoard my own supplies. Besides, sheep don’t have pockets! AND I don’t really know what the day will bring.

He makes me lie down in green pastures:

I obviously don’t know a green pasture when I see one.  Or else my shepherd wouldn’t have to lead me to one.  And the fact that he forces me to lie down there speaks of my needing to learn to wait patiently and keep my eye on him. If I were in charge of my life, I’d move on, ‘knowing’ what was best for me.

He’s a good guy and I can trust him, because these abundant grazing areas are first on his agenda. Because of our stubbornness, he has to drive us, his flock, to rich and nourishing pastures both to feed and to rest in security.

He leads me beside still waters:

Gosh!  I was thirstier than I thought!  The calm quality to the stream implies no danger or threats.  And along with food and rest, Jesus takes care of all my other most basic needs and desires.

We all thirst for something, whether recognition or accomplishment or truth or comfort. My good shepherd can sort all that out and give me what is best.  The fact that I require him to herd me and the other sheep along implies I don’t know what I’m really thirsty for or how to satisfy that need.

He restores my soul:

My French Bible translates this as ‘He gives me renewed strength‘.  Boy, do I need to know the shepherd cares about that!  Especially since my energy is depleted about 9 pm each day.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his own sake:

The direction Jesus takes us is ‘God-ly’ and in keeping with the characteristics of the happy, triune Godhead.  And since all his decisions accord with his divine nature, I can trust him.  If Jesus’ next step were contingent on how I acted or thought, my life would be precarious.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death:

The way is dark and confusing at times. I don’t see where I’m headed.  And I probably don’t detect all the dangers.  The text also reassures me that I’m not meant to live there.  I’m walking through it.  There’s an end to this scary trial.

I will fear no evil, for your rod and your staff comfort me:

I may not see you (Where are you, God???) but I know you are near me for I feel your correcting rod when I start heading in a dangerous direction. And when I ignore your warning, then I know from experience that you will haul my little sheep derrière out of each pit I stubbornly choose.

You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies:

Spiritual forces of wickedness directed by Satan seek to plant rebellious and wicked fear thoughts in my head almost every day:

  • Why trust what you can’t see?
  • There’s no way God can do that!

Often I have to battle anxiety that takes the form of ‘what ifs’:

  • What if I don’t have enough time to get all my schoolwork done this week?
  • What if Mike doesn’t sleep well tonight?
  • What if my Christian witness at school, as cautious as I am, gets me in trouble?

But Jesus feeds me daily with encouragement from the Bible, from devotional books, from others’ prayers, from podcast sermons AND most especially each time a prayer is answered.   Whether a need on behalf of a friend that I repeatedly and insistently brought before the Father or help I received via others’ prayers for me.  Seeing God come through is the biggest boost!  We, his sheep, get the help and I love to give God the glory. Each time God provides an answer to prayer, my faith deepens, even if by just a bit.

You anoint my head with oil:

Jesus has a job for me, one of his sheep!  And it’s work that he has planned just for me from before the creation of the universe. Tailor-made work meant to advance his kingdom, pushing back the darkness.  I’m reassured again that each one of us, his sheep, is individually important.

My cup overflows:

I receive more goodness from your hand than I need or desire. You keep pouring it on! It never ends.

It’s a fact!  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

I’m hemmed in by the holy, happy, loving and compassionate community of the one true and living God.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever:

My life is only going to get better. Living near Jesus forever means I will always be safe and completely satisfied.

**

Often on my morning walks I personalize Psalm 23 or the Lord’s Prayer. Talking it through TO the Father reminds me of these realities and reconfirms to ME my status as a child of God and the privileges and responsibilities that go with my position.  My life DOES matter and this day is a gift. The morning conversation reassures me of those facts and of the one who will be with me throughout the next 24 hours.

 

 

 

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