Who or what dominates your thinking?

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Is it just me, or do you find that living by faith and not by sight grows HARDER and HARDER as the years go by?  The ‘pop quizzes’ that used to land on me every few weeks now seem to show up every couple of days.

Not one to spot my unbelief right away, I sense God gently but firmly taking my face between his hands (so to speak!) to make me look at my unbelief. My pride recoils at yet more evidence for my lack of trust in the Lord as Good Father, Faithful Shepherd, Wise Counselor.

This past week has been that kind of personal attention or ‘handling’.  I have struggled to let go of persistent worry. It’s not that I have been anxious about anything, rather I have OBSESSIVELY ‘angsted’.  My personalized version of Phil 4:6 is now “Do not OBSESS over anything!” rather than the tame ‘do not be anxious’.

I KNOW what I’m supposed to do and I do try!

  • Daily I hand over my needs à la ‘Cast your cares on Him….’
  • Hourly I pray with much fervor à la ‘The fervent prayers of a righteous man…..’
  • I recollect many blessings, the good things about God, who He is and what He has done and the promises laid up for me……

Yet, I feel bound up in worry.

So, it was no surprise to me that the Sovereign Lord, the One who reigns over all creation, used a portion of yesterday’s assigned Scripture from 2 Sam 19: 1-8 to show me exactly what happens when I make a created thing PRE-EMINENT in my life.

Just so you’ll know how I recognize something as being preeminent in my life, it’s those occasions when my thoughts ‘glom’ onto a created thing like sewing pins sticking to a magnet.

Here’s a synopsis of events 2 Samuel 19:

  • King David’s rebel son Absalom has been killed by David’s men and the coup squelched.  David acts ‘un-kingly’ as he indulges his natural grief in an unceasing, over-the-top inconsolable fashion.
  • He does not publicly thank the valiant ones who risked their lives and their homes to flee Jerusalem and side with him.  He does not acknowledge the cost to his loyal citizens who probably fought against some family members supportive of Absalom.
  • He obsessively wails to such an extent, to such a danger point that General Joab, his chief of the army, has to shock him into acting like a king.  Joab point blank tells him that if he doesn’t stop crying about his son and get back to doing his job as God’s anointed king, then he’ll find himself at the end of EVERYONE’s spear.

That’s the narrative in a nutshell. In what way did I see this biblical example as a gentle rebuke from God to abandon my anxious obsession?  Reading this account revealed the evil of disobedience. God had appointed David to shepherd God’s people for Him. David courted danger, almost to the point of no return, when he inverted God’s priorities. This observation is what convicted me.

The king harmed good people when he made his son more valuable, more meaningful than the welfare of those in his care.

I do the same when I place a created thing over the Creator.

Our pastor’s sermons on the preeminence of Christ have bathed my thoughts over the past several weeks (when I wasn’t anxiously obsessing!) The Greek word for preeminence ‘proteuo’ is described in two ways:

  • Ranking first
  • Exercising the most influence

So even as I have struggled with handing over a particular problem to God and then taking it back, I’ve been asking myself:

Maria, who or what is preeminent in your life?”

It’s a piercing question that demands honesty.  I have felt bound up in the time I’ve invested in trying to ‘solve this suffering’ of a loved one.  And God keeps throwing me reminders to ‘JUST STOP IT!’ (you’ll smile if you’re old enough to remember TV actor Bob Newhart as the UN-empathetic counselor). Our good Father gave me the very same counsel but from a different source.

Margin

Dr. Richard Swenson, an author whose book about regaining margin I’m re-reading, penned this arresting statement

The purpose of life is not to solve suffering but righteousness.

Bolstering that truth has been the realization that EVERY single human being on earth in every epoch has lived or is experiencing now a life of suffering.  The purpose of life cannot then be to ‘solve’ suffering.  I have known this but now I KNOW it more deeply. My purpose, your purpose if you belong to Christ, is to be content in Him, to enjoy Him, to seek to please Him, to sing new songs of who He is and what He has done.  In the midst of suffering.

I think we can fall into the trap of making an idol out of a problem-free life, a life without suffering.  At least I am beginning to see that about me. And if that is my or your goal, then we are setting ourselves up for misery.

May God help us all to be joyful obedient servants of our loving God.

 

 

 

Shutting doors on lesser things

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Journeying through Genesis again, I’ve seen how God closes and opens wombs.  Wombs are a sort of door, a door to fruitfulness. When Abraham passed off his wife Sarah as his sister (for the second time!), Abimelech took her into his harem.  Immediately, we learn in Genesis 20:17-18, that God afflicted Abimelech, his wife, and his slave girls so they could not have any children.  God took away their fruitfulness.

Catching my attention after this account were the words: Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Gen 21: 1-2

God opened a door; he made Sarah fruitful.  Yes, Sarah and Abraham came together as husband and wife so a baby could be conceived.  But the conception and subsequent birth were entirely OF the Lord!

God has been shutting doors in our lives, specifically in Mike’s life.  We finally have seen and come to the decision to go in the direction God is leading. We don’t yet know the where or the when.  That is up to God.  However, we are doing what he gives us to do: apply for jobs, list our house.

The Holy Spirit has yet to close any doors at this point in my life.  Instead, He has recently shown me a door I am to close.  As an act of worship.

Those who know me well, put up kindly with my seeming insatiable quest for information.  Over the past 7 months, I have binged on podcasts and books about Keto.  Keto is a health-promoting low-carb, high-fat way of eating.  Mike and I switched to this protocol for brain health and disease prevention.

Keto is what I talk about.  Constantly.  My computer password has included a reference to Keto.  I have listened to at least one Keto podcast a day on my long commute to and from school.

Two days ago, God opened my eyes to this idolatry.  Painfully, and in a way that fit me.

  • My weight climbed, something that always ‘sends’ me into self-preoccupation and temporary depression.

How did He connect that with my idol worship?  That very first morning of weight gain something came up in one of my prayers. Scotty Smith, a PCA pastor who writes daily prayers, had used the example of  Betsy Ten Boom urging her sister Corrie to thank God for the fleas in their Nazi concentration camp barracks.

Convicted, I thanked God for the weight gain, not an easy thing for a weight-obsessed Maria to do.  During this same morning time with the Lord, I read another prayer and wrote this down: “Whatever we treasure in our hearts will be reflected in the stream of our words.”

Ouch!  What a closeup snapshot of me!  Almost daily I have flooded poor Mike with what I have newly absorbed in a Keto podcast.  A clear illustration of the principle:  what you dwell on and talk about reflect what is important to you.

The final gentle but firm push from the Holy Spirit was something Charles Spurgeon had written this week, based on a text from Psalm 109:4 ……but I give myself to prayer.  At the time I read it, I had said to myself:  I am a woman who gives herself to prayer.

Two days later, I saw that my conclusion was NOT true.  I had become a woman who gave herself to Keto (the latest in a long string of a ‘passion of the month/year’).

I knew what I had to do. Unsubscribe from the podcasts and the email newsletters.  Go back to podcasts about God. Change my password.

During our nightly prayer check-in, where Mike and I open our hearts to one another and write down what we need God to do for us, I confessed my sin and how the Holy Spirit had revealed it to me.  He prayed for me.

This morning, God has kept up the training.  I wrote in my journal:

  • Maria, repent when you are more interested in a created thing than in the Creator!

God then directed my mind to this exhortation from Isaiah 55:2:

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.

To eat what is good, I have to stop putting garbage into my mouth.

I almost fell into temptation this morning. There remained ONE Keto podcast I had not unsubscribed from.  I started to justify, “Surely ONE podcast a week won’t hurt me…..”

(the Serpent’s lies feel so palate-pleasing and harmless!)

I unsubscribed.

My conclusion?  In this case, God did not shut the door for me, He instead urged me to shut the door myself.

I now understand that giving up this lesser thing IS a sacrifice He calls me to make.  Worship is about sacrificing the best-created thing to show yourself, God, maybe some of the watching world, and all of the invisible world, that our triune God is worth MOST OF ALL!  Sacrifice and worship are not about earning God’s favor.  His children already HAVE received His grace and can’t lose that.  But we need a constant reminder of Who is supreme.  The world, the flesh and the devil all can look mighty satisfying.  All a lie.

Eating what is good trains our palate for the Holy.

I wonder what other doors He will reveal.  More doors to close?  Or maybe new doors to fruitfulness.  Eat up, Maria!  But only what is good.

Focusing in on the wrong words!

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A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  1 Tim 2:11

How’s that for a controversial admonition!  Why it’s enough to stir up some of us gals into a frenzy!

The other day, I listened to a podcast conversation where a woman, well-equipped to handle the Bible in a way faithful to the text, respond to some pushback about this thorny passage.

She handled it by pointing out that most ’21st century moderns’ pass over just how counter-cultural and preposterous was the idea, this new tradition, of women being included in LEARNING! Up until then, only men enjoyed the privilege of being taught.

Jews and gentiles alike would have balked initially at women acquiring any kind of education beyond that necessary for running a household. But Paul viewed men and women from God’s point of view. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:28

For as many years as I have read this section of Scripture about women who are to be ‘quiet’ in church, I had missed the main point.  That emphasis being that women were actually encouraged to LEARN.  What other facts have I missed by not giving each word of God equal attention?

Here’s one more example –

He (Jesus) answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ Luke 10:27

I’ve always focused on the ‘ALL’ as a modifier, as in: “You’ve got to be kidding!  love God with ALL my heart, strength etc.  How is THAT possible? I love too many other things as well!”

Having shifted my attention to examine each word for meaning, I realize that one possible interpretation of this admonition is this:

Given that every person is going to love something with all his or her BEST energy, that something must be GOD instead of something like…

  • a job
  • another person
  • oneself
  • money
  • the favorable opinion of others
  • one’s family or kids
  • leisure
  • one’s country

Doesn’t Jesus’ command change everything?  For it acknowledges that human beings are wired to be devoted to SOMEthing.  If we don’t wholeheartedly worship God as worthy of our full attention and energy, we will shift our soul and strength to something created.  And that is idolatry.

How about looking at a familiar passage to see if you can read it through fresh eyes?  What might you have missed?  Let me know in the comment section.

 

 

How God changes people

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For 9 years I struggled with bulimia; 6 years before I married Mike, followed by 3 more years.  A favorite activity of ours as young lieutenants stationed in Germany was to explore the German countryside by means of a nearby ‘Volksmarch’.  These organized 3-4 hour walks through villages and wooded beauty gave us time to talk.  I would ask Mike each week while we traipsed, “What am I going to do?  How can I manage or handle this scourge of bulimia!!?”   Poor guy!  My supportive and loving husband probably felt frustrated as he offered his comfort and solutions time and time again.

In my mind, it was all up to me to find a solution AND the motivation to implement it.  The problem was, I couldn’t trust myself to follow through, no matter how sincere my intentions were.

We were new Christians and I prayed my heart out, week in and week out.  But God didn’t give me a way to free myself from this addiction to food.  Instead, he removed the burden himself, in a creative way.  I got pregnant.

With that dramatic change in circumstances, I had a new, compelling interest and desire.   Caring for this baby growing inside of me replaced the desire to binge and purge.  Up until now, I hadn’t felt enough self-love to take care of my body. But now, for the sake of this new life growing inside of me, I WANTED to nurture myself with good foods and healthy practices.

The 7 1/2 conscious months of carrying another human being turned out to be what I needed to break the binge and purge cycle.  God be praised!

God CAN and DOES change people and we know that.  If you are a Christian, there was a time when you weren’t. Maybe you can’t remember that period if you have loved Jesus from an early age.  But many of us do recall feeling either indifferent or luke-warm about God.  And then something happened.  All of a sudden we were interested in reading our Bibles.  The things of God drew us in.  We might have attributed that newfound growing fascination as something we did. But we would be incorrect. Dead men don’t make decisions!

Paul writes to the believers in Colosse: When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. (Col 2:13)

That means that any interest, any LOVE for Jesus comes from outside of us.  As Paul so bluntly argues in his letter to the Romans – ……God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:5b)

Mike, too, has experienced this ‘from the outside to the inside change of heart’ regarding cars.  After those couple of years stationed in Germany, the land of VERY fast and powerful automobiles, Mike returned stateside with a growing, almost insatiable love for cars.  About 15 years ago Mike started noticing the decreasing pull of all things automotive.  During the span of 37+ years of marriage, we have bought, owned and sold 28 cars, not counting motorcycles.

But God!  Yes, God removed the interest, the mania, the seemingly insatiable desire for new wheels.  Mike didn’t set out to change.  In fact, he didn’t think he needed to change.  God has been working on Mike’s heart and shifting his values.

When we married at 22 (we’re now 60), we were not even believers.  Over the years, what has emerged as our favorite time of the day is something we would never have imagined in the first 25 years together.  The dinner-prep time, those 90 minutes when we’re in the kitchen fixing dinner and tomorrow’s breakfasts and lunches, we talk and listen to music.  Before we sit down to dine, we each get out our notebooks where we’ve observed and written down what we noticed in the day’s Scripture reading.  Inevitably Mike will have picked up something that passed me by and vice versa.  This in-depth exchange deepens our love and appreciation for God’s holiness and his Word. In our twenties and thirties, talking about God held no place in our daily exchanges.  God has planted and cultivated this now-cherished habit.

Last year I witnessed two other new desires that ‘came up out of nowhere’. (I’ve written previously about ‘dining with my school colleagues’ and ‘wanting to continue teaching and working on my craft of helping students with Second Language Acquisition’). What I love about God is how he surprises and delights me.   Maybe that’s what my family should etch on my tombstone, “Surprised by God!”

Recently, God did it again.  The change caught me unaware.  But this time, I connected it to a pattern.  (Why had no one comforted me with the FACT that change IS possible in God’s kingdom and that it is not all up to us!?)

Here’s what happened.  As I described above God rescued me from bulimia in my mid-twenties. Although the binge-purge pattern no longer ran my life, my obsession with eating and how I looked and felt about my body still plagued me.  The scales have been a powerful idol for decades.  Gradually God has weaned me mostly away from them.  But I still don’t trust myself to stick to any resolutions.

But God!  Yes, he has changed my desire.  Visiting with Shay and Graham over Christmas prompted an unexpected change.  They have been following a plant-based way of eating for 2 years.  Whereas I have always enjoyed the occasional vegetarian meal I considered it extreme to avoid all meat and dairy.  I like meat and dairy.  But watching the documentary Forks over Knives changed me.  I happened to ask Shay a question about the smoothie she was preparing.  It was Christmas Eve and we had a block of time before heading to church.  She asked me if I wanted to see for myself what caused them to switch.  I did and I was convinced.  Plant-based eating IS healthier and CAN minimize one’s risk for disease.  For me, it was a ‘no-brainer’.

And with that, I switched.  Mike, a very good-hearted, generous and supportive husband, agreed to drop his morning yogurt and share a smoothie with me. My lunches, breakfasts, and snacks are plant-based. And I agreed to prepare an ‘every-other-night’ entré of meat.    After all, Graham and Shay have adopted a ‘reasonable’ 80 %-of-the-time- vegan lifestyle.  This allows for eating what is served them by friends, or the occasional desire to sample something not plant-based.

A few weeks into this way of life, I recognized that I no longer care what the scale says.  What I value is eating healthy.  Surprise!  When we drove down to Tampa for Christmas, this new world of plant-based cooking was not on the radar.

So here is the principle.  Don’t angst about a change you can’t seem to make for the better.  Give it to God to bring about:

  • in his perfect way
  • in his perfect timing
  • to his glory and your blessing

Psalm 37:4  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

PS:  I think the desires the Psalmist had in mind are not what WE think we want, but rather what God wants for us as his beloved children!

 

 

What God commands – impossible!

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May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors. 1 Kings 8:58 (NIV)

I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.  Psalm 119:112 (ESV)

I argued ALL day long!  Conversing with God throughout the hours, using Gospel logic. And at the end of the day, I was exhausted and still miserable and STUCK!

What was the matter?  Nothing more than not being happy with a number on a scale.

You’d say that my battle with the idol of the scales and an arbitrary weight I have self-assigned is IRRATIONAL.  And you’re right.  But I can’t seem to respond to unbiased logic.

The two-day battle took place on a Monday and a Wednesday (the one-day reprieve provided some emotional rest).

What made things worse was seeing that appealing to God’s promises and statements of Biblical fact did not appear to help.  In times of suffering, my go-to verses are these verses that I have personalized:

  • No good thing do you withhold, Lord, because I belong to you. – Ps 84:11
  • I know you do ALL things well, Jesus. Mark 7:37

Between affirming those truths, I tried to OBEY him.  Repeatedly I cast THIS care onto Him.  (1 Peter 5:7) But when no emotional or spiritual relief came, I concluded ‘it hadn’t worked’ and told my Father again, “Look, I’m casting this on you.  Help me!  I’m trying to do what you ask!”

I finally told my husband what I was struggling with, sheepish and ashamed, because we’ve been married 37 years. He has listened to me many a night pour out the same grief and pain.

Besides sharing a powerful insight that maybe this ‘thorn’ is a permanent gift from God, meant to drive me even closer to him, he offered this advice:

Maria, you can’t even begin to do what God commands, such as handing this issue over to him.  He has to help you even with this!  In fact YOUR acknowledged helplessness and powerlessness is what God wants from you, not your obedience.  He knows you are incapable of obeying.

Further tender counseling on his part revealed that I have a ways to go to think rightly about this burden.  Mike pointed out that I’ve been living and functioning as though eating and my body-care were something I could manage or control.  I realize this is a lie, an illusion that I have WANTED to believe. What betrays me is how often my prayers have been:

  • God, Father, just show me HOW to eat and WHAT to eat so I can be done with this.  I’m sick of focusing on me.  I want to be free of thinking about me.

A young friend shared recently how her days are REALLY hard and painful. She’s a young wife with a baby.  Continually she cries out to God for help.  But he doesn’t seem to respond.

Her experience and mine find company in the Psalms.  Some of those dark, hope-less accounts of David and Heman, one of his musicians, don’t end with cheer and relief from God.  Read Psalm 88, all of it.  Here are just two verses:

13  But I, O LORD, cry to you;

in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14  O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?

Why do you hide your face from me?

What I’m concluding is that God DOES care.  And if He isn’t answering me in the way I expect him too, it’s because he’s still up to something good in my life.  The story is not over yet.  I just thought that BY NOW, I’d have put THIS struggle to bed.

One byproduct of this misery is this:  I find that I am far more compassionate with some of the ongoing patterns of sin and pain other struggle with, especially the kind we bring on ourselves!

But I’m tired.

What about you? Do you feel saddled, still, with the ‘same ole, same ole’ sin?  What has helped you?

 

Why do we dread events?

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Deut 7:21 – You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God.

  • The doctor’s appointment
  • The confrontation
  • The all-important exam or presentation
  • The looming busy week with one event after another
  • Going to bed and the potential of another sleepless night

I sometimes find myself dreading what is next in the week or in my day.  Why is that?

I’ve been chewing on this for a while.  The days when not a single dread-laden happening threatens are days I anticipate with relief. As if I could predict the future?

I seem to gravitate toward this illusion of ease because I prefer to cruise on neutral.

The truth is, my idols are comfort and success.  We all know that the nature of idols is that they take the place of God.

Hebrews 13: 5b to 6 – …..be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

If God is ALL THE TIME with me, and I value His presence more than anything else, then comfort, time, success, money, work, country, family, friends, health – all those arenas in which the tides move in and out, don’t matter as much as what I already have.  Him.

And the other feature of dread (or happy neutrality) is the baseless assumption that I know what is going to happen in my day!  I am  not omniscient.  Thank you, Father!  For what I might fear, why do I act as though God has not already planned and stockpiled mercies and provisioning grace?

thermometer   Maybe dread is actually a helpful alarm or indicator that I’m worshipping a false God.  That I’m loving and treasuring something MORE than the God.

Paul prays for believers in Colosse that they will GROW in the knowledge of the true God.

Col 1:9-11   For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.

Who is this true and living God?  Only the One who left perfect fellowship to live in a human body and experience my pain.  Only the One who chose to live and die FOR me so I could experience and enjoy intimate fellowship with the most loving and happy triune personal God. When I talk myself into how bad something might be, I am blind to this God.  That’s why I need to preach Gospel truth to myself daily.

Enough of the churn!

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Up until last Friday, I lived with churn. You know that confused, lingering, heavy problem for which no solution is evident? The one that weighs you down and dominates your thoughts?  Yeah, that kind of burden.

churn-1

It takes a lot of energy to keep switching sides, changing one’s mind.  I did that for a number of years with the dilemma – DO I invest time and energy into weighing myself every day, working to maintain a certain weight? or DO I trust God about how He wants my body to be and choose NOT to have my weight be such an identity issue?  Come 5 December 2017, I will celebrate one year of FREEDOM from that enslaving idol.

That particular ‘giving it up/over to God’ final act came after a lot of churn.  Looking back, the churn and my wishy-washiness contributed to much of my pain.  I have felt so much freer since that once and for all decision 11 months ago.

But the back and forth of making and breaking my word to myself has made me gun-shy. I am leery of the sticking power of any decision I make.  The question is – will I truly leave the issue with God or will I take it back into my hands?

I teach French in a school that is 50 minutes away from our house in Western North Carolina.  The days are long and during the school year, I have very reduced personal time. I also find it daunting most days to challenge and teach middle-schoolers with creativity in a way that best makes a way for them to acquire facility with the language.

Yes, my lazy self would love a job that is closer to home and easier AND paid as much as this teaching job.  But as they say in French, ‘ça n’existe pas’ – that doesn’t exist. Apparently.

Why apparently?  Because I have sought other positions over the past 3+ years, AND God has firmly kept all other doors closed AND maintained the financial limits on us that make it necessary for me to earn what I do.

Finally, last week, after knocking on one more door, I gave up.  I’m tired of ‘kicking against the goads’ as Paul worded it in his account of his conversion en route to Damascus. The New Living Translation renders it this way:

We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will. Acts 26:14

I have a hunch, that when and if God wants me to work in a different setting, He will facilitate the move in a way that clearly is of Him and without churn. When Mike and I prayerfully decided to leave suburban Tidewater, Virginia in June 2013, God opened the doors. He sold our Virginia house, found us an affordable house here that is set in the stunning Smoky Mountains and secured a French-teaching job for me.  There was plenty of prayer, but no churn.

I’m a slow learner but I think this lesson (one that the Holy Spirit repeats creatively in different ways) might be sinking in!  Time will tell, but please pray for me to leave this matter in God’s hands and not invest any more mental and emotional energy into it.

 

 

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