How can I rejoice?

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Luke 1:47

…and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior…

It was an ordinary day.  Maybe 13-year old Mary was kneading bread for the evening meal, a chore her mom might have left her to complete so she could head to the market. Maybe this young Hebrew girl was alone with the goats, distributing straw.

Whatever she was doing, she might have been musing about whether life with Joseph would be all that different than life at home.  She’d still working with other women in a family similar to hers. The daily and weekly tasks would be the same:  to supply Joseph’s household with food and clothing.  Of course, there would be children to raise, but not that first year, or at least not for 9 months…..

When I read Mary’s reaction to both the news AND the reality of her changed circumstances, i.e surprise pregnancy, I was struck by the wording of this New English Translation (NET) of Luke 1:47.  The text reads that Mary BEGAN to rejoice.

And that made sense.  Until her encounter with Gabriel and his announcement, Mary’s understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures would have been from her parents’ treatment of God’s word, from annual celebrations and local worship traditions.  I can well imagine that God’s truth had yet to penetrate her very soul.  There’s a hearing and there’s a HEARING.

But then….God’s word intruded into her life in more than a figurative sense.  Her Instagram hash tag might well have read #lifeinteruppted!

So how did Mary react?  She BEGAN to rejoice.  Before she encountered living Truth, I doubt she even thought of rejoicing.  For sure I can imagine she was happy to be engaged to a kind and hard-working man like Joseph.  Most likely she enjoyed her girlfriends in the village and felt comfortable in knowing the routine of Roman-occupied Galilee.  But rejoicing?  What was there to rejoice about?

Nothing,….that is until God’s Truth became real to her.  And so it is with us.  I don’t think I ever rejoiced in a deep and meaningful sense until the facts and promises of Jesus began to sink in to my consciousness. Yes, I was excited to travel to Europe, to leave home to attend college, to start work as a new lieutenant, to marry Mike, to give birth to Graham and then Wes.  But rejoice?  That is something categorically different.

Christians who have been ‘surprised by joy’ like CS Lewis or Blaise Pascal, startled by God’s heavy presence (Best Annotated version of The Pensées by Peter Kreeft) know a bit of what Mary experienced.  And they have rejoiced.

So what about us?  The truth is, even if we never experience the Holy Spirit’s heavy presence like Pascal or talk to an angel, we STILL have God’s living Word, given to us in written form.  We have access to TRUTH, which provides fuel for our rejoicing.  The facts and promises we receive by grace are precious.

Ps 119:162 – I rejoice in your word like one who discovers a great treasure.

If you haven’t BEGUN to rejoice, then this time of year is the perfect time to start reading and receiving as truth what the Bible declares and promises. Nothing else is going to last forever.  Nothing else is secure, unchanging, liberating, power-filled and life altering. Nothing else is worth this kind of exultation.

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

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bible-reading-in-the-am

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 God does by setting our boundaries

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The boundary/inheritance lines have fallen for me in pleasures….Psalm 16:6  (literal meaning from Blue Letter Bible)

Fences

We normally recite Psalm 16:6 with the phrase ‘pleasant places’ as describing the boundary lines.  So ‘pleasures’ should have jarred the ear a bit.  But that phrase happens to refer just as often to ‘pleasures’ and to ‘sweet things’ as it does to ‘pleasant places’.

If you’ve journeyed long enough in your life to reach your 30s, then surely you’ve accumulated your personal list of disappointments and closed doors.  Whether prom date rejections, cuts from the cast or team, wait listing at your first choice college or job terminations, sorrow is part of life.

For a while I have recognized that dead ends and startling abrupt turns are God’s intentional means to direct His children along the paths He has chosen. We, of course, don’t see all of his reasons and certainly God has many purposes. But one goal of God’s that I now understand more clearly is that, as my good Father, He is determined to maximize my enjoyment of Him.  He arranges my circumstances and structures my days to include ‘lessons’ (trials and suffering) that will increase my holiness.  I’m learning that as my holiness expands, so does my pleasure and joy in God.

This day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength – Nehemiah 8:9

Nehemiah exhorted the people to put an end to their sincere sorrow over past sins and move on to holy happiness in God.  He knew that their repentance was real  – a prerequisite to being cleansed or made holy. Now it was time to enjoy God and experience genuine joy and receive divine strength.

What is NOT explicit, but is built into the text is the understanding that AS we are increasingly sanctified or made more holy (more like God), THEN we enjoy Him more and more.

  • Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

A recent revelation has startled me:  All those disappointments, which I might lament, MAYBE they have been expressly for my joy.  Maybe had God allowed me to fulfill my dreams, I would have been ‘ruined’ for the real kind of joy.  It’s like a child who first eats sugar is ‘ruined’ for the taste and delight of fresh fruit and vegetables.

So maybe all the closed doors and thwarted plans, which have set my boundaries, (THIS far and no further!) have been sovereignly arranged with the EXPRESS purpose of maximizing my joy in God.  Could it be? Well, I wouldn’t put it past Him!

A further insight settled on me last week as I was listening to a secular colleague share his story of desires and closed doors.  His dreams of being a film producer had led nowhere and with mounting debt and a family to support, he finally came to grips with putting that career goal to bed and applied for a teaching job out of state.  He now teaches in the classroom next to me.  We’ve talked about God before and he’s easy to talk with but doesn’t seem to have any divine stirrings…yet!

But if God shuts doors and redirects my plans to maximize my enjoyment of Him, might this gentleman’s blocked efforts to move into another career along with desperation over increasing debt have God’s fingerprints all over?  Would it be unlike God to place him at this school in MY sphere to hear life-saving news?

I’m now praying for a soft heart on his part and alertness to know when to speak up.

Food and the Kingdom of God

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Gluten-free, slow foods, farm-to-table, organic, paleo, real food, vegan – who knows HOW or WHAT to eat anymore!

The Table Comes First

I just finished reading a compelling book The Table Comes First.  Adam Gopnik explores the history and philosophy of meals and restaurants.   At the end, however, he reveals that he belongs to that segment of the population who doesn’t worship God.  Therefore, in lieu of the salvation paradigm of Christianity, he makes the assertion that the elevation of the pleasures of dining and sharing a meal can provide meaning, purpose, depth and a sort of rescue to otherwise unmoored humans.

If I look at my own idolizing of ways of eating, I also plead guilty to seeking ‘salvation’ through food.  But with Gopnik’s bold claim, I was struck by how unnecessary it is to place food and Christianity into opposite camps.

Consider the following tangible examples:

  1. Human history originates in a garden with an abundance of fruitful trees for the sustenance and pleasure of God’s image-bearers.  The other bookend of the Bible and the human story are set as a heavenly feast with the host of the Party Himself!
  2. The resurrected Jesus asked for a piece of broiled fish to eat. (Luke 24: 41-42)
  3. A fair number of Jesus’ signs and miracles produced, transformed or multiplied food and drink.  Think of the wedding at Cana and the fine wine.  And the two accounts of the feeding of the 5000.  And manna and quail for the wandering Jews in the desert, accompanied by water from a rock.
  4. Honey revived King Saul’s son Jonathan after a long battle. (1 Sam 14:27)
  5. Gleaning in the barley fields led to Ruth’s marriage, the great-great grandma of King David from whose line Jesus came.
  6. Jesus dined with women and the marginalized segments of society, to the shock of the elite and rule-following average Hebrew.
  7. And let’s not forget the setting for the inaugural New Covenant of Grace, a Passover meal.

And if the above are examples of material food and drink, then there are all the image passages that point beyond food qua food:

  1. We are commanded to, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps 34:8)
  2. Jesus likened himself to the staff of life. “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35)
  3. Paul himself chose covenantal wine to symbolize his final days when writing to encourage Timothy – “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” (2 Tim 4:6)

What good news that we don’t have to choose either secular society’s view of food and drink or an ascetic version of Christianity!

My husband reminded me last night of one of CS Lewis’ main teachings about human desires.  These ‘hungers’ are NOT ends in themselves, but signposts to something greater that can only be satisfied in a better and deeper way.  So if we find that we are hungry for earthly food, then we were created for a more satisfying food that will be provided us upon receipt of our inheritance.  The desires ARE real and they WILL BE fulfilled, but in ways that we cannot begin to imagine.

My take away in thinking this through is to be BETTER prepared when describing true Christianity the way it really is to a world jaded and blasé about life.  This world doesn’t satisfy.  And it never was MEANT to.

Recall the excitement you might once have lived when you were very little and Mom and Dad treated you to one of your first outings for lunch or an ice-cream.  Or think back to one of your initial dining experiences as a young adult on a date in a fancy restaurant. The way they thrilled you can never be quite the same.

But Christians don’t have to be wearied with this present world.  The best truly IS yet to be.  We won’t miss out by being a Christian.  We get it all with Christ.

Bon appétit!

Bon appétit

The blahs or joy-less-ness

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Psalm 51:7–12 “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice.  Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”

By God’s gifting, I am more a joy-filled gal than not. I wasn’t always so, but as I have come to know more and more the Biblical God, I have grown happier.  Multiple events each day cause me to look forward to getting up.  But occasionally, God blesses me with a short period of the ‘blahs’.  My dad used to say he had lost his ‘perk’.  He meant physical energy to move about, but I apply the same principle to the state of my emotions.  I say this is a gift, because feeling like there is NOTHING that excites me connects me to those I love who live in that place more time than not.  My empathy grows as a result.

depressed Snoopy

I’m not sure what prompted this recent attack of the blahs, but they came on last Thursday and lasted through Friday. Nothing appealed.  Nothing beckoned.  I felt bored and in that state of mind, I could see no change on the horizon.  I know, it sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?  And pathetic!  That’s what emotions do; they cloud our reasoning.

Knowing WHAT to do, I started preaching to myself, on my commute home from school, instead of listening to myself as many advice.  Truths about my identity in Christ; facts about God’s character; my treasure awaiting me in heaven….everything that I knew to be true.  None of that seemed to lift the mood.

But ‘out of the blue’ came a new thought: “The best is yet to be!” That’s a line either from a poem or a song but those 6 words actually express a truth taught throughout the Bible.  I took it and ran – in logical fashion:

  • If we live in a fallen world and are flawed people…..
  • If one of the consequences of the fall is painful labor…..
  • If God gives not only faith in Himself but suffering as gifts (for it is granted to you to believe and to suffer in Christ – Phil 1:29….)
  • AND if in the presence of God, there is fullness of joy and pleasures evermore (Ps 16:11)…..

Then….I don’t have to expect that I will experience fullness of joy HERE and NOW!!

It’s so easy to self-medicate to erase the joylessness.  Numerous times have I turned either to food or to purchases or to withdrawing into my world of books.  But if periods of joylessness are to be expected, then there is nothing that needs remedying.

Those thoughts in themselves were liberating.  “Well no wonder that I experience some of the blahs….true full joy is promised later!  I can wait,” rang this fresh understanding.

After a sigh of relief, my rescued thoughts (still in the car) turned to the possibility of calling ‘so-and-so’ and catching up with her.  I reached her and sealed my renewed thinking by getting my mind off myself, a comfort.  By the time I reached home, I had forgotten that I was feeling blah.

Okay, I can hear you say, “Well, bully for her!  My condition is chronic. I seem to have been born melancholic by temperament.”  I recognize that compared to you, I don’t even know what suffering is. And my heart goes out to you. I think after these 2 days becoming familiarized once again with what you awaken to daily, I can better understand your struggle.

Here are my two cents’ worth of advice, for what you can glean from it:

  • DO NOT beat up on yourself.  You are not being a bad Christian.  Soak in the fact that the Father loves you and chose you IN THIS STATE, if melancholy is your natural bent.
  • DO take care of yourself physically and keep up the habits of Bible-reading and prayer, especially when you don’t feel like it!

I bring up prayer because David models for us a Godly man who experienced periods of the blahs or joylessness.  Why would he ASK God to restore to him the joy of his initial salvation, if he were not missing it?  And look how he frames that request?  Make me to HEAR all about true joy and gladness.  Initial and on-going hope and assurance, i.e. FAITH, come from hearing the Word. But if we are talking to ourselves about how flat we feel, then we can’t give any attention to facts contrary to our feeling.

So prayer which arises from within Bible reading is life-rejuvenating.  In fact, the two most encouraging words I know from Scripture are:  But God!

He is the unpredictable (at times) God who does more than we can ask or imagine.  Those 2 words happen to pop up in numerous passages, but I’ll leave one to encourage you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  Psalm 73:26

What’s the big deal?

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dust

And God said to Adam and Eve: “…… you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (or as the Amplified version puts it….you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt. (Genesis 3:19b)

I was upset with myself for messing up, YET AGAIN.  When I go down that road of self-recriminations, I tune out others and withdraw, my pride wounded.  It’s hard to shake that mood.  But the next morning during my Bible reading, I read God’s reminder to our first parents.  The next thought was: “Why do you expect more from yourself, Maria?  After all, you’re just DUST!”

What an equalizing and humbling assessment.  Taken a step further, if I am just an animated collection of dust, then so are you. So why fear or worry what a fellow assemblage of dirt thinks of me!

Lest you feel TOO wormy, remember God’s words in Isaiah – “Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord”, Isaiah 41:14)

Though we are little and powerless without God, we who belong to Him are fiercely loved.  Consider what God says via the prophet Jeremiah: “The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” – Jeremiah 31:3

Can you even take that in?  That the all powerful, omniscient, holy God has always and forever loved you, if you are His redeemed child?

  • Even before He created the universe…
  • Even before Jesus walked on this planet and died for you….
  • Even before your parents were a couple and then birthed you….

….the happy, triune God set His love on YOU!!!  And He will continue to love you.

Yes, we are dust and worms in one sense.

But we are special collections of dust with certain characteristics that image Him.  And evidently His plans to showcase His glory and magnify His joy include loving, creating and redeeming us!  Now THAT’s the big deal!

What makes you happy is a clue to who you are

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Matthew 16:26 – What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

“I need to get an A on my Psych test this week!”

  • Why?

“It’ll make me happy!”

  • Why?

“If I do well in my major, then I can get into a good grad program.”

  • Why do you want that?

“So I can have a career as a clinical psychologist”

  • Why?

“I think I’ll be happy in that profession and find it rewarding!”

  • Why?

“When I was a child, my family and I were greatly helped through some sessions with a counselor.  I think that I’d be happy assisting people the same way.”

The pastor who shared this scenario did not go any deeper with his questioning of the college student.  But had he probed closer, a possible subsequent question might have been:

  • Why does it make you happy to help people?

I think the truthful answer to that question is key to revealing the source of our hope, joy, value, identity, purpose – in a word, our VERY essence.

Here is why it matters.  If our hope, our happiness-source is anything but Jesus, we have engaged in a DOOMED quest for 2 reasons:

1) we’ll never be satisfied the way we are wired to be

2) we can lose THAT which we might gain

This reality came to a head for me on Friday.  I started my day at 4:20 am with my ritual worship at the alter of MY WEIGHT, aka the bathroom scale.  Talk about God’s sovereignty – He controls my body to such a degree for His good purposes, that just like previous days and weeks, I was stuck 5 pounds higher than I want to be…..a fact painful to me since November when I realized that I had added to Maria’s substance.

I KNEW that this moment was crucial, that I was battling idolatry and who and what was most important in my life.  I wrestled with this truth on my morning walk, recognizing the approaching ‘line in the sand’.

Line in the sand

Was I going to worship MY happiness or submit to God as Lord of my life?

So once again, I decided to abandon this morning ritual. (I don’t need the scales to help me eat in the manner that provides me with the most energy – we’re talking about something SICK in my soul, an obsession with the scales and a numeral!)  This time, I pray, the decision stays final.  (cynics or realists might rightly ask, “Where have I heard THAT resolve before?!”

Listening to John Piper’s sermon in the car on the way to school and applying his line of probative questions to what I describe as that which makes me happy, I saw the foolishness and futility of imbuing 5 pounds with THAT much power over me.

For MY bottom line with the weight idol is this: If I weigh X lbs, I’ll be happy.

That’s stupid!  Our lives are just a vapor,

As James says in chapter 4, verse 4- ….You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Why should you or I allocate that many resources of mind, heart and strength to the shell, the temporary? Where is my concern with the main part of me that will last eon upon eon of time?  And if, as the Bible teaches, we are going to be completely changed upon seeing Jesus face to face, why am I angsting over what will drop off and decay?

As our pastor Patrick quipped this morning: When we die, the nut that we were leaves behind the withered shell of our body. (That got me pondering: Am I a peanut, a chestnut, a walnut, a pistachio????)   I’m 57 years old.  This weight issue is OH,SO temporary and 40 years from now I won’t be even thinking about it.  So why waste my earthly energy TODAY worshipping the outer casing that is going to disintegrate?

Back to the title of this reflection:

Who are you?  Who am I?  Are we our own god?  or are we worshippers and lovers of the only true and living God?  Truth is – we have souls. We were created and wired only to be satisfied by the best – God, Himself.  Why waste our happiness on junk when we can experience a partial joy NOW learning about and savoring God, all along knowing that ‘fullness of joy‘ awaits us. (Psalm 16:11)

PS:  One final thought about the student who might have answered that her idea of happiness was helping others.  If we help others to FEEL good about ourselves, that is sin.  If we help others to PLEASE our heavenly Father and do that work in His strength, honoring Him in the process, that is what the Bible calls ‘good’.  Inner motivation DOES matter. The Pharisees sought man’s approval and esteem through outward ‘righteous’ behavior.  (Read again Jesus’ words in Luke 18:9-14)

 

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