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.

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)

 

My first duty of the day – to make myself happy in God

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My hero in the faith is George Mueller, the 19th-century British pastor who together with his wife established and ran orphanages for four to five decades.  He intentionally journaled throughout those years in order to encourage the ordinary Christian to live and work by simple but powerful faith.  He wanted the average Christian to KNOW that learning to pray in reliance on Jesus was a tool and blessing that all could learn to do, with powerful results.

One of his personal resolutions that he followed to the benefit of thousands goes like this:

“The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day is to have my soul happy in the Lord.

Life may be falling down around us, but to be a Christian means to be the possessor of the most precious and lasting treasures imaginable.

It’s probably like this for you, but when that morning alarm breaks into my oblivion, it’s like I have forgotten all that is true and unchanging.  What hits me is the immediacy of the day’s circumstances.  And given this suffering and corrupted world, many days seem to loom difficult and heavy-laden when I get up.   If I let my feelings take their cue from those first thoughts, I will stay depressed throughout the day.  Or I will use something created to distract myself, what God calls an idol. (food, email, escape reading)

God offers an alternative if we but follow it.  Christian are called to rejoice always (1 Thess 5:16). Therefore, Mueller’s advice is not optional if we are to obey our Father in heaven.

I don’t intend to talk about how I go about making myself happy in God.  What I rather mention is why God wants his children to be happy they belong to him.  I’m learning the reason God commands me to exult in him is because joy in God is key to loving others.

Listening the other day to a sermon by John Piper I actually felt capable for the first time of LOVING OTHERS.  You remember how Jesus summed up the Law in Matthew 22:40 by saying in effect:

  • Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

Because I seem to be wired more as a rational person than a loving, emotional person, I’ve struggled with what love looks like according to God.  I often feel guilty that I don’t FEEL love towards my neighbors.

But the way John Piper explained love, it sounded doable for a Christian empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Piper explained what God means by love like this: “Love is the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others”

Given THAT definition, making myself happy in God each morning is not only life-preserving to me, but equally necessary for those around me.  When I have re-established and reconnected with WHY I can be happy no matter how crummy the day’s circumstances may be, then I have strength and energy to move out of myself toward others.  That is the ONLY way to love others.

Have you ever had someone do something for you out of duty?  How does that feel?

It’s like when we tell a child, “Tell Sammy that you are sorry!”

and the child’s “Sorry” doesn’t satisfy at all.  It’s not from the heart.

Same with our deeds done to meet a neighbor’s needs.  If we help out of obligation, it’s not the same as initiating something out of the energy and God-given strength borne of joy in Him.

Joy in God is a pervasive and persistent theme in the Bible.  It doesn’t seem optional or healthy to neglect.

May this truth from Nehemiah 8:10b find its roots in you and me:

“Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!”

 

What do you want for your kids – Happiness or Holiness?

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Scales - balance

For years I was a ‘normal parent’, that is I would echo the other moms in my peer group at school: “I just want my kid to be happy!” Happy in what, about what?  Happy at school, happy with their friends (that they HAVE a friend!) happy with their teachers, with their sports or music activities, happy with our family.  I was an insecure mom!

Then I started to grow in my Christian convictions and practices as I was “being transformed by the renewing of my (your) mind.” Romans 12:2.  

I changed sides to the “I just want my kid to be holy!” I felt smug and in the know. In my mind I diminished the moms who cared only that their child was ‘happy’.  How shallow and worldly, I would remark to myself.

Recently I’ve had my beliefs changed for the better by Randy Alcorn’s book, Happiness

Happiness by Randy Alcorn

Having re-discovered the abundance of scripture verses that command and describe happiness in God, his actions and his creation I am convinced that there is NO conflict between happiness and holiness.

We were wired BY GOD himself to be happy in him and to be dissatisfied with anything less.  How ‘novel’, to find out that God is not against us being happy.  Not only is God a happy God, he in fact both commends happiness and joy AND commands it:

  • Happy are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will tread on their heights – Deut 33:29
  • Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God – Matt 5:8
  • Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!  Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!   See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9
  •  Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Phil 4:4

Having considered happiness, what about holiness?  I know I don’t need to articulate any texts, but what I do want to do is show the connection between holiness and happiness.

Take a look at Deuteronomy 6:18 – And you shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the LORD: that it may be well with you,…..

I first read this verse in French and was startled – ‘be well with you’ in French was rendered ‘happy or heureux’.  Intrigued, I looked up the Hebrew translation and found out that YATAB (Strongs # 3190) lists as a primary translation – to be joyful or happy.

I think it’s safe to claim that ‘do that which is right and good in God’s sight’ is equivalent to ‘do holiness (or be holy)’.

I’m beginning to see how when we OBEY God (exercising holiness), we are happy!

Sometimes favorable circumstances ALSO accompany this ‘happiness’ but not necessarily.

This discovery greatly encourages me.  Not only does God COMMAND me to be holy, He also COMMANDS me to be happy.  And the way to be happy in God’s kingdom corresponds to how He has wired us.  We are happy when we are holy.  No conflict there!

So in light of this insight, were I to be raising children again, I would teach: Be happy by being holy!

 

 

Why wonder?

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We need to be awed and astounded in order to be happy. Or put another way, those who have retained the ability to be ‘wowed’ and astonished are the happiest.

Who comes to mind when you think about what kind of person is easily dazzled?  Little children!

Wonder

I once heard Ravi Zacharias, a defender of the truth of Christianity, talk about his three children and what it took to wind-up each with that night-time story fear.  His littlest one needed only to hear Daddy read with a dramatic voice:

  • “The door creaked open slowly.”

The 5-year old, past being stirred by that preamble, was sent into a paroxysm of shivers with:

  • “The door creaked slowly open as an ominous but invisible voice growled, “Are there any children here?”

And the more ‘savvy’ seven year old needed more drama and suspense.  It wasn’t until Dad described the perilous predicament of the three children, cowering under the bed, when:

  • “All of a sudden, a slimy but firm green hand snatched a bare ankle and dragged forth the oldest child from under the bed.”

Ravi continued in his account of bedtime stories from 30 years ago to make the point that adults who have lost the ability to be awed grow weary of life.  Why is that?  We are wired, by God, to wonder, to feel awe, to find ourselves comforted by something immensely more grand and powerful than us.  It’s that combination of being scared yet knowing that one is safe.  Like being caught on a mountain ledge in the midst of a raging storm and finding a shallow cave in which to ride out the tempest.  One feels secure AND at the same time swept up in the grandeur of so much power.

Maybe that is why the Bible teaches over and over again that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ Proverbs 9:10.

Are you feeling blasé, bored with life, lost in the ho-hum seeming monotony of daily life? I think this hits most first-world people, many starting around the age of 40. Bored people are not happy people. I know.  From experience!

So what do we have to do to regain the habit of holy awe?  First – admit our boredom to God as sin!  A people blasé about the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer doesn’t KNOW God. Second – pray and ask His help, for we are helpless to do anything good for ourselves. Third – find a promise from God, claim it and pray it.  How about Psalm 119:18 – Open my eyes so that I may contemplate wonderful things from Your instruction.

 

Night sky awe

Love my boundary lines!

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Sheep in a pen

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Psalm 16:6a

My thorn in the flesh that keeps driving me back to God in desperate need is my tendency to overeat and then get down on myself. I thought I had been liberated from that vicious cycle back in December.  It was then that I renounced once and for all slavishly weighing myself and tracking my exercise day by day.  But then, 10 days ago, I noticed that a certain pair of pants felt tight.  Immediately I spiraled into fear and loathing.

In a nutshell, I suffer from conflicting desires of wanting both to be lean AND to eat as much as I want.  I also fear future hunger and despise feeling stuffed. Taking liberty with the apostle Paul’s cry,

Oh wretched woman that I am! Who will deliver me out of this ….(ceaseless struggle!) – Romans 7:24

As I went round and round with God both in prayer and reading my Bible, He brought to mind that psalm snippet above about limits.  Yes!  I NEED boundaries, both to feel safe and to forget about myself. I’m not much different from a dog that escapes from his restrictive yard only to find himself in a big, scary world on the other side.  Once he’s back home on the safe side of his fence or wall, he might then trust his owner’s wisdom and leave off future waywardness.  Actually I bet a dog needs far fewer repeat lessons than I do! After all, I’ve been fighting that wall with God since I was 16.

The Holy Spirit also reminded me what I have recently absorbed, that as Christians, our primary ministry is to our family. For me, my husband must be my focus. And if I am sucked inward, feeling bad about MY body, MY choices and MY satisfaction, I am NOT ministering to this man God has lovingly brought me.

Quickly my plea for guidance, “What am I to do, Lord?” turned into thanksgiving and praise for His Truth revealed in my heart.

Yes, I DO need limits and they DO make me happy.  Once THAT fact was settled, what I was to do fell into place.  No, I would not go back to weighing myself each day.  But I could cut out certain foods and reduce my portion size of others.

And if those parameters are what allow me to forget myself and focus on Mike and others in my sphere, then they truly ARE my happy limits.  Staying INSIDE the parameter is best.

Well, what about this fear of hunger and desire to eat abundantly?  I MUST ‘risk’ taking God at His Word and rely on His promise that I can do ALL things through him (Christ) who strengthens me – Phil 4:13. And all things means happily living with limited portions and occasional hunger pangs. For ifGod is leading me to stay within my boundary lines, then what He commands me to do, He will likewise enable me to do with Holy Spirit power.  As a Christian, it’s a fact that the Holy Spirit resides IN me. 2 Timothy 1:7 – For God has NOT given us a spirit of fear, but One of love, power and integral/sound thinking.

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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