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!

Communion – an engagement promise reminder

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engagement-ring  I’ve struggled for years to grasp the spiritual richness of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

Many Catholics and Episcopalians regard this sacrament as the highlight of their weekly worship experience.  I know.  I’ve talked with them, trying to glimpse and sense what it is that nourishes them so richly.

It’s NOT like I don’t make an effort to meditate on what Jesus suffered for me personally by going to the cross. It’s just that I feel enriched more through the sermon and corporate prayer.  And because some of my friends and family wax on about the centrality of the Eucharist to their worship experience, I keep feeling like I must be missing something.

Reading  Ann Voskamp’s  recent book  the-broken-way The Broken Way, I grasped a fresh understanding of what this sacramental liturgy might represent.

Voskamp reminds her readers that what Jesus performed during that last meal with his friends was a covenant, similar to a wedding vow.  Think about Hebrew culture two millennia ago and and how couples were first betrothed and then married. You’ll recall that the engagement itself bestowed legal status and rights. The initial commitment was the BIG DEAL.

When God births us the first time, we receive the spirit of life. When He births us the second time, He gives us His very own Holy Spirit.  Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians at 1:14 – The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.

So you could call the indwelling Spirit of God Jesus’ engagement ring – a very real promissory note whose presence we are meant to sense intimately and enjoy.

But knowing that we humans NEED tangible concrete reminders, Jesus instructed His Bride (us, the Church) to reenact often the engagement ceremony.   Re-reading the account of His vows would be a start, but incomplete.  Jesus put into place a practice of sharing a scaled-down version of the original covenant meal, meant to be enjoyed with re-awakened awe among fellow members of Jesus’ Bride.

Each time we eat and drink tokens from that historic and singular Covenant, we recall what Jesus performed FOR US in order to ‘win’ our hand. A few of those ‘challenges’ He embraced ‘for the joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:2)included these deeds:

  • He temporarily emptied Himself of His divine status and privileges and happy community
  • He accepted the weaknesses and degradations of Hebrew poverty under cruel Roman rule
  • He endured hateful and murderous scorn from family, neighbors, church leaders
  • He suffered abuse and murder due to false charges
  • He showed the entire Creation a righteous life, down to the last jot and tittle of the Law’s requirements.  He even exercised complete patience and strength to withstand every temptation Satan could throw at Him.
  • He took on to His perfect body and life all the sins of His Bride and paid off the debt she had accrued.

The New Covenant ceremony Jesus enacted was His announcement of His coming marriage to US!!!! And until the wedding date, He promised a Helper who would be the deposit guaranteeing this promised union and subsequent inheritance.  During the Covenant Supper He described the home He was going off to make ready for His Bride. And He told His Bride not only to ponder the reality of her new status as legally betrothed bride, but also to cash in the promises and call on her bridegroom’s Father who would now be her Father, too!

Can you catch a glimpse of the rich layers of this Covenant Reenactment and how much we need it?  

I frequently forget that you and I are legally engaged to Jesus.  With rights and privileges that make a difference in this life.  And although our Bridegroom has gone ahead to make our home ready, He has not left us alone.  He has given the Church His best friend who is His stand-in until He comes for us.  This supernatural Helper is the same as Jesus; only He is inside of each born-from-above believer, whereas Jesus in His resurrected flesh is with the Father. For the time being!

Ann Voskamp’s lavish unpacking of ‘Communion’ has made me very glad that our church holds to a regular reenactment of the engagement covenant.  I easily forget.  

Thank you, Jesus, that You have commanded that we DO this to remember You.

Use your imagination!

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Do you know how to worry?

Then you are an expert imaginer.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach expert level in any skill.  So how many hours do you think you have invested in your worry habit?  Let’s do the math.

  • Let’s assume you didn’t start worrying until you reached 7th grade, age 12
  • Assume also that you have worried only 10 minutes a day ever since then
  • Add in a ‘day off’ per week from worrying and you will have racked up an hour a week

At that rate, it’ll take you 192 years to become an expert.

But is there a possibility that you have invested more than 10 minutes a day into this skill?

In an informal poll with ‘the man on the street’ regarding time invested in anxious thoughts, I heard 5-6 hours per day as a possibility.

That seeming a bit high, I checked Google and found the average to be 1 hour and 50 minutes a day. 

Let’s round that number up to 2 hours a day.  That’s equivalent to 730 hours a year.  At this rate, you’ll reach ‘expert’ status in only 13.7 years.  For the twelve-year old novice, he can reasonably expect to reach ‘success’ at age 25 1/2.

Of course if our hypothetical boy or girl is truly motivated and invests MORE than 2 hours a day, he’ll arrive at his goal sooner.  So maybe those represented by my informal poll, the ones who throughout the day and night practice imagining their fears make up the ELITE worriers, expert by the age of 17. It probably also helps to have grown up in a household of skilled practitioners who daily performed the liturgy of anxiety.

Back to what the practice of worrying requires – imagination.

Here’s the rub.  God has not given us the blessing of a fertile imagination for the sake of becoming a fantastic ‘fretter’!  He’s blessed us with a mind that WE can direct.  What we think about matters.

In Hebrews 3:1, God exhorts us through the writer to think about Jesus:

Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, set your minds on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.

What can help us focus on Jesus?  God, who wants us to know Him, has given us the written Word so we can read and SEE with Spirit-empowered eyes who Jesus is. We who are believers have been given ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16).  We CAN know and receive power from what He did and what He has promised.

But habits are hard to change!!!  Yes…..,so what?  Plenty of things are hard.

It’s a fact – bad habits are difficult to break.  But our kind Father has given us a Helper, the Divine Spirit, the third person of the Triune God.  Paul tells us that this Spirit is not one that brandishes unending, peace-robbing ‘what-ifs’ as a tool (think Satan, the father of lies).

Au contraire, this Spirit is by definition POWER, LOVE and INTEGRATED SOUND THINKING. (look up 2 Thessalonians 1:7)

With Him planted permanently inside of us, we CAN stop feeding the worry habit with imagined fears.

With Him, we CAN change and start feeding the happy habit of focusing our imagination on all that Jesus has done and is for us.  Where’s the food?  God’s Word!  There’s more than enough nourishment in the Bible.  Feed on Him and not just 3 times a day. But snack continuously.  In fact God challenges us to move from little kid food to grownup food. He intends for us to mature in Christian practices.  And that takes intentionality and time on task.  Habits begin in the mind.  So we have to feed our minds, conforming them to Jesus.

There are so many benefits to using our imagination for this reason.

We won’t get fat, feasting on spiritual food.

And we’ll be a lot happier, more like our older Brother Jesus who was anointed with gladness:

You love justice and hate evil. Therefore, O God, your God has anointed you, pouring out the oil of joy on you more than on anyone else. Hebrews 1:9

Now THERE’s a New Year’s Resolution worth taking up. And one with a powerful promise of supernatural help.

 

 

 

 

One-year anniversary of freedom

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Scales in bathroom

It was a year ago today, 5 December 2015 that I walked away from my self-imposed dungeon sentence of measuring my worth by what I weigh.  I had lived in that dark and despair-filled place since my junior year in high school. And I’m almost 60!

But after MANY years of pain and many attempts to free myself, God gave me the courage to let the scales and a number go.

I have felt SO free this year.  No more early morning self-condemnation.

Instead, I TRY to measure my day by pleasing Him.  How?

  • by relying on His Spirit to do every task in the day.

Do I forget?  Yes, but encouragement from other Christians retools my focus. Just last week a gal wrote about battling unbelief.  The takeaway for me from her article was this:

Each hour I DON’T pray, I’m saying to God:  “I got this next hour, God.  I don’t need your help!”

John 8:36 – So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free

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