Who am I, functionally?

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Do you recall Aesop’s fable about the scorpion and the frog? It goes like this.

A frog was about to cross a stream.  A scorpion sitting on the bank asked him for a lift on his back.  The frog hesitated: “What guarantee do I have that you won’t sting me?” he probed. The scorpion reassured him: “If I sting you, then I’ll die, too, as you sink into the water.”  Reassured, the frog started off across the stream with the scorpion on his back. Sure enough, in the middle of the journey, the scorpion stung the frog.  “Why did you do that?” blurted out the frog as paralysis set in. “It’s my nature,” shrugged the scorpion.

I’ve been thinking about identity and actions and the interplay between them ever since I read this verse in Nehemiah 9:8: You have kept your promise, for you are righteous.

What I realize is that the pattern of actions flowing from character and identity work both ways.  Whether we talk about God or you and me.

You can SEE my identity from what I do and say.  Not my true identity but what I functionally believe is my identity.   A lot of times I don’t ACT as a chosen child of God.

The Bible gives us many descriptions of who we are IF we are in Christ, that is if we have been made alive by Christ.

Here are just 3 of these ‘who you are’ statements:

Galatians 4:7 So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God.

Hebrews 2:11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

From these facts above, this is who I am:

  • I am a son/daughter of the living God, PLUS an heir.
  • I am the brother/sister of Jesus.
  • I am the recipient of the permanently assigned Holy Helper/Counselor/Teacher.

First off, I hear, that is I learn, that I have a family.  I have a holy Father and a divine Brother who is NOT disappointed or ashamed to call me sister.  On top of that, I am coming into an inheritance. Furthermore, I have a protective tutor and guide who will be with me every day on this earth.  I will NEVER be poor, overlooked or ill-advised, ever!

What’s the problem, then?

Just that, if you judged me by my thoughts, my words, my fears, my obsessions or actions, you would NEVER know my identity, that I belong to such an amazing Family.

I know I am not alone in this case of ‘identity amnesia’.  There is, after all, a war going on.  A spiritual battle against the evil, dark, power-full, hate-filled sworn enemy of God.  He uses our brokenness and the pressing needs about which we daily/hourly petition the Lord.

Isn’t this so? Aren’t you dealing with, as-yet unanswered prayers regarding:

  • broken or breaking marriages
  • unsaved family members
  • on-going health issues that drag one down because there seems to be no possible resolution
  • work problems – not enough work or painful work with no immediate relief in sight
  • addictions, whether porn, alcohol, food or pain meds
  • fears of children committing suicide
  • money issues

We say, HOW LONG, LORD!!!!

We get tired.  I know I do. We fall prey to discouragement and fatigue and maybe even some cynicism.  We get used to living with our fears, of worrying. We get used to the voices that say, “It’s never going to change.”

But no!!!  All this may be so, but I don’t want it to be so.  No more!  I don’t want to smear the character, the good name of my Father, the Spirit or my Brother.   I praise God that He is helping me by SLOWLY rearranging my ‘wants’ and priorities:

  • He is increasing my desire to be holy, like Him.
  • He is ordering what prayer tops my daily list.

How so?  It has finally sunk in, that when Jesus taught his disciples, Pray like this…., the first 3 petitions (what should be our TOP PRIORITIES each day) are that the Father’s name BE hallowed, that His kingdom COME, and that His will BE DONE‘DONE’ as is done in heaven by the angels.

When I reflect on my words, thoughts and feelings, I see just WHO I believe myself to be.  As a daughter and a sister of the Holy Family, I have no business being fearful, anxious or discouraged. Those patterns of behavior and speech reflect really horribly on God.

I’m beginning to check myself daily:  If I am the only Christian people meet, well, would they want to join a family and gain a sister like me, one who is grumbly, worried and not sure if she can trust her Dad and Big Brother?

My hero and role model has feet of clay

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Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands,  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.  1 Peter 3:3-6

I love this report about Sarah. I find her refreshing.  I am relieved that it is her Peter exhorts us to copy.  Yet I know the full story of Sarah.  I know that Peter, guided by God’s Spirit,  has selected the characteristics of Sarah WHEN SHE WAS AT HER BEST!  Yes, Moses wrote the unvarnished account of this matriarch who didn’t trust God all the time.  She is the one who thought she knew best how they could ‘get a baby’.  So she made her personal servant sleep with an old, old man.  And then she treated Hagar shamefully.

(One sin I think we women all share is that we, too, think we know best – pretty arrogant for a finite creature, don’t you think?_

Yet God holds her up as a role model. For me, for you (even if you are a man)

This time in life when our future feels as uncertain as that of Abraham and Sarah’s, I draw comfort from the realism-laced prescription that Peter writes.  I (and Mike as well)  am to cultivate a gentle and quiet disposition or attitude.  None of the crazed, “But what are we going to do!!!”  No need for that stress and unrest if we trust God!  We don’t HAVE to know today what we will do next week.

No, I am to be like Sarah and the other ‘holy women’ of the Bible ‘who hoped in God’.  That is they trusted, believed, counted on God to do and be what He said he would do.

But what sells me on wanting to be like my mother, or older sister Sarah is how Peter writes, “She didn’t fear what was frightening!”

We live in a scary world.  And it’s always been that way since the Fall.  That’s reality.  Yet because we have the happy, sovereign, good and all-wise triune God, we are NOT to fear.

So, do I know what will happen, what our future holds?  No.  But I am growing more able to rest and feel assured that God does know and is sovereignly working out the details.  We are to rest, trust, watch and be ready to move out.  To travel light.

Sarah left her home and friends behind in Ur. No mention is made of her pining away about what she left behind.  She moved and tented wherever her husband led.  Trusting and submitting to this fallible husband BECAUSE she trusted God.  And she was at rest.

I bet she didn’t have a worry line in her old face!

The pain of childbirth – a picture of holiness

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Consider Mary.  Pregnant with God’s glory.  (see Luke passage at the end)

Like some of you, I have given birth to two children.  As each pregnancy advanced, my growing state became more and more of a hindrance to my ‘normal’ pattern of life prior to conception.

And THEN, that final couple of days of growing and UNBELIEVABLY intense, painful contractions – it was far from pleasant.  But effective.  And new life, when fully formed and ready for THIS world, was born.

Both pregnancies acquainted me with the thickness of a normal cervix and the size of an ordinary womb of which I was only vaguely aware each month.

But pregnancy and delivery taught me new things, through suffering.  Were those experiences worth the experiences?  Without a doubt.

How does this relate to holiness?

Picture the Spirit of God who comes to take up residence inside a new believer.  As C.S. Lewis has written, this new inhabitant starts to do major renovations that a baby Christian hasn’t even asked for, let alone heard about.

Adding to Lewis’ illustration, another picture, other than ‘flipper of homes’, came to my mind this morning.  I’ve been reading John Owen and John Calvin about God’s purpose in curating suffering for our growth in sanctification.

(Recall God’s will for our lives IS sanctification – 1 Thess 4:3 and how important He considers holiness, ‘without which no one will see the Lord’ – Hebr 12:14)

These classic Christian authors prompted me to think of expanding holiness WITHIN me, akin to a baby expanding in the womb.  The more I submit to God’s will with humility, patience, and gratitude, the more the Holy Spirit, aka my doula or birthing coach, grows this new spiritual life within me.  I’m reminded of John the Baptist’s statement about Jesus as recorded in John 3:30 –  He must increase but I must decrease.

This new spiritual life IS Christ in us, the promise of future glory. (Col 1:27)  Just as a pregnant mom undergoes a growing baby stretching out her womb, making room for new life, so, too, the Holy Spirit pushes against some of the old self-centered us, crowding it out to create space for His growing presence.  Pain and suffering are part and parcel of pregnancy and childbirth.  And so are they also in our progress toward holiness.

That Holy Spirit-induced ‘new you’ is expanding and pushing against the boundaries and walls of the ‘old you’.  That thick ‘flesh’ is being thinned out, which HURTS like Hades (as my mom used to say).

That image of being ‘pregnant with God’s glory’* resonated with me this morning.  Our Father is not content to let that presence of holiness engrafted in us through the Holy Spirit remain the same size.  You and I must be glad, therefore, of His expansion plans to complete the work, He has pledged to do.  We must learn to accept suffering as from the Hand of God, lovingly intended for our good:  our holiness and thus our happiness.  After all, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.’ John 16:21

Luke 1:27b-38 (NIV): 

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

 

*pregnant with God’s glory, like Mary – a phrase I read somewhere but don’t know to whom I can attribute it.

What God means to do in your life

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I’ve been memorizing the first chapter of 1 Peter.

What I like about memorizing Scripture is that it causes me to think through and meditate on the words as I try to lock them down in my brain.  I started to memorize Bible verses when I was 48 years old. Wes, our youngest son, was a senior in high school.

One fall Sunday, a layman’s sermon delivered (not read) and peppered with Bible verses he clearly knew from heart wowed us both.  As head of the finance committee, he had been invited to the pulpit that morning to share with us the joy and experience of giving sacrificially.  After the service we both approached him to ask how he had managed to recite all that Scripture – a true feat! He told us about the Topical Memory System from the Navigators.  Wes and I were immediately sold and committed ourselves to memorizing and being able to recite all 60 key verses before he left home in June for West Point.

Since then, I have worked through entire SHORT books like Colossians and whole chapters.  I don’t work to retain these long chunks forever, for that would take constant practice and my practice sessions would expand as the months passed by.  But for the duration of the ‘work’, I am chewing on some portion of Scripture every day, often throughout the day.

The payoff is rich.

Which brings me to this morning’s ‘aha!’ moment from verse 2 of 1 Peter 1:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,
who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
I’ve put the ‘chunks’ I was meditating on in different colors.  What HIT me this morning during my walk was the ‘sanctifying WORK’ of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s how my thoughts took off:
  • Maria, the Holy Spirit is working in you ON PURPOSE.
  • His work actually probably overrides MY plans as He directs my circumstances,
  • These circumstances of my life are part of His plan to sanctify me.
  • I wouldn’t choose MOST of these ‘detours’ if I were in control of my days, months and years.
  • No wonder these trials are painful at times!!!

A few significant activities of my life FEEL HARD these days:

  • Morning exercise is HARD and I have to fight my natural feelings of reluctance and dread when I get out of bed and lace up my shoes.
  • Losing these 6 pounds is HARD.  It’s taken me 6 weeks so far to lose 2.
  • Teaching school is HARD.  It takes effort and I fight laziness and just wanting to stay home with NO expectations hanging on me.
  • Practicing NOT worrying, but entrusting family needs to God is hard.  When you love someone and they suffer, you suffer too!

What helps counter all those energy-depleting concerns that tend to occupy large parts of my mental and emotional life is the idea that these details are very much intentionally part of the Holy Spirit’s plan to sanctify.  Random suffering drains, discourages and disheartens.  Knowing that God has planned and intends ALL this for my good strengthens me to endure.

I don’t think I’ve grown enough to rejoice in the trials, yet, but I know that I need to reach that point.  As I walk these days in fellowship with the Spirit of Christ, I am learning His methods.  EVERYthing He does is for my good, to sanctify me.  I can trust Him.  I MUST trust Him, if I am to flee from fear and discouragement and enlarge my capacity to enjoy God.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matt 5:8

 

What I munch on when bad stuff happens

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Two truths are keeping me together, are feeding me these days:

Mark 7:37 – …..He does everything well! (ISV)

Ps 84:11 – …..No good thing does He withhold.(NIV)

When something ‘bad’ happens, I find myself talking to Jesus – You do EVERYTHING well!  No GOOD thing do you withhold from me!”  These two truths act as the sandwich bread bracketing/holding each particular set of circumstances.  Only with the bread in place, is it safe to draw any conclusion from the ‘bad stuff’ of suffering or evil.

This week, someone dear to me received news that she wasn’t expecting.  I know that she considers Jesus her treasure, that she is a believer.  So I know that the Psalm 84 promise belongs to her.  As I have fought back sinful worry on her behalf, I have reminded myself of these 2 promises.  And that helps me continue to pray for her, but without the worry or anxiety.

Pain and suffering are not ruled out in this fallen world.  We all know that. But they knock the wind out of us at times.  What helps me is intentionally to recall, that God has a purpose, and a good one. And reminding myself that He administers the circumstances ‘just so’, tailored for each one of His children helps dispel the fear.  The suffering and sorrow can still linger, but the fear and anxiety don’t.

  • ‘Come on, Maria, be realistic!  Do these truths work for the really awful stuff – the Sarin attacks that burn Syrian children, old grandmothers and young men alike? How can that be a ‘good’ type of suffering?’

Friends, if Christianity can’t address the toughest questions, then how is it any better than other explanations?

Here’s what I DO know.  Every worldview has to explain suffering and evil.  It’s not a solo burden meant only for Christianity.

But there are many ways to draw false conclusions about God, so we have to be careful. If we start from ourselves with what WE deem good, reasonable or right, then we have already derailed and are headed away from Truth.  The only safe and right place to start is with God.  The times I head away from God, I thank the Holy Spirit who brings back to Him (the Spirit’s job, per Jesus, is to guide us in ALL Truth – John 16:13) . Here is what grounds me in the Truth:

  • God alone created us, therefore He has every right to do what He wants with His creation.
  • God is GOOD and I can trust Him.
  • Just because I can’t see the good in this particular suffering doesn’t mean God isn’t working out good purposes.  Perhaps, one day having completed my earthly trek, I may learn what those good purposes were.
  • As a Christian, I am called to mourn with those who suffer and do all that is within my power as a fellow human indwelt by the Spirit of the all-powerful and loving God.

Coming back down from the mega-worldview to my little corner, I settle back and quiet my soul and munch on my ‘sandwich’:  ‘You do all things well and no good thing do You withhold’.  This is where I live.  This food is sweeter than honey and leaves no bitter aftertaste.

Psalm 131:2 – But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (NIV)

 

 

Sanctification through novels

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Stepping Heavenward I downloaded the Kindle version of this book a few weeks ago.  It’s the last reading I do before turning out the light.  My bedtime routine is to check Instagram, read John Piper’s Solid Joys on my phone and then close out my waking thoughts with a few minutes in a Christian book.  God increasingly seems to make good use of those final 2 activities.

Twice now, the journal entries of this 19th century fictional gal have chided me gently, as though I were she, a Christian who is growing in fits and starts.   Most recently ‘Katy’ detailed the frustrations of a day filled with unexpected interruptions.

Annoying visitors, an incompetent kitchen maid, boisterous children and fatigue battle for her peace of mind.  Her goal this particular day is to prepare a special dessert for her overworked doctor husband.

Almost abandoning the dessert because distractions have eaten away most of the day, the Holy Spirit gently redirects her thoughts from self-pity and complaining to persevering. A grateful, loving and very tired husband rewards her sweetly when he finally arrives home to enjoy dinner and dessert.  As she reflects on all the frustrations, the Holy Spirit reveals to her just how He uses these precise types of circumstances to grow her more like Jesus.

As I read through this particular journal entry the Holy Spirit immediately opened my eyes to see the same thing in my life. So often I complain à la ‘Martha’ who wanted her sister Mary to relieve the burden of hosting Jesus.  I indulge a feeling of being overwhelmed by all there is to do and the seeming inadequate time to accomplish them (and have some Maria-time left over, truth be told!).

But that night in bed, the yeast of insight began to work its way into my conscious thoughts as I fell asleep. The Holy Spirit continued the process the next morning while listening to a John Piper sermon.

My teaching days that feel so packed are exactly what the Great Physician has prescribed.  I KNOW He desires me to REST in the assurance of His provisioning grace for all the good works He calls me to do.  And if I do them my own way, depending on my own resources, I usually start to tighten up and feel burdened.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

But like Katy in this novel, I sometimes have to learn the hard way.  And because our Father is wise as well as loving, He lets me ‘kick against’ the burdens on my own.  But not for too long.

If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it.  It’s charming AND sanctifying.

Gorge on power food

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Psalm 119:11  – I have hidden your word in my heart in order that I might not sin against You.

This truth stopped by to visit the other night.

It was one of those typical but painful scenes that happen from time to time.

You know those kind – when one person has spun himself into such an annoyed, touchy, tither that he can’t get out of it gracefully.  And you find your interactions adding fuel to the fire.  Furthermore, you feel justified in your self-righteous response as ‘victim’ to the high emotional detritus from the other.

We had eased into the evening routine gracefully AND gratefully, happy to be together after a day at work.  But something little set him off while we were fixing dinner.  The irony is that it occurred while we shared what God had revealed to each of us in our reading and study of the day’s assigned two chapters in Leviticus (Chronological reading plan).

We stepped over that blip and in the course of the next few minutes talked about Noah’s sons and how Shem and Japheth had graciously covered their dad’s nakedness when Ham had sported to them gleefully about the effects of too much wine.  Through our remarking about the grace given, God moved that scene into my active memory drawer.

Then came the blow-up.  Over something minor.  But anger and some internal self-recriminations took over his emotions/thoughts.  I catalogued his reactions to the file of ‘jerk-like’ behavior.

In silence we finished dinner.  I cleaned up and he headed downstairs to the ‘man-cave’ to smoke his post-prandial cigar.

While feeling self-righteous, though lamenting what had just transpired, the Holy Spirit reminded me of this fact:  He loves Mike just as much as He loves me!  My heart softened, climbing down off my high horse.  Two feet back on earth, the quick divine jab brought me to repentance.   How so?  God used the Genesis Bible passage recently moved to the easy-access memory drawer.

Shem had shown his father grace by covering his sin (sprawled-out drunken naked body) with a blanket. (Genesis 9:23)  “Can’t you do the same for your husband?” came the Holy Spirit question.

It was gentle but forceful and it caused tender love to well up.  No condemnation from God, just a sweet push forward toward my husband.  I texted him downstairs, writing how much I loved him cum ’emoticon’.   No response. But when the tired thud of reluctant steps mounted toward the living room, I was ready to enfold him in light and love.  He started to explain that he didn’t know what had come over him.  That he didn’t know how to get OUT of the pit.  I stood up, moved toward him and embraced him in my arms, soothing my wounded, now-softened best friend and husband.

“It doesn’t matter why or how it happened.  Just rest.  I love you.  It’s okay.  We all get ourselves in messes.  Let’s put it behind us and enjoy the rest of the evening.  Whatever ‘it’ was about, our fleeting time together is more precious to us.”

Just like that, we dropped it, relieved.

Score another victory for God’s Word – sovereignly pointing out my sin and enabling me to counter Satan’s false murmurings. My gratitude to the dear Spirit of God deepened, as did my desire to offer this grace covering more widely and more frequently.  It felt good!

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