Good News for Christmas Blahs

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When did Christmas last feel magical to you? I can’t put a picture to that feeling.  I don’t know where I was living or how old I was, but I KNOW the feeling. The awe, the bigger-than-life impending, wonder-filled reality.  Grownups have a word for that – transcendence.

Sadly, my transcendent experience had nothing to do with the sublime Creator God.  My mom wasn’t a believer then.  She was a single parent raising me with the help of her mother. We three lived together in ‘old-lady’ apartments. (poor me!)  She worked a part-time job and Mimi had some money; I think.

But I remember the pleasure of anticipation, at least one year.  Something mysteriously big was imminent.  And my desire for it mounted.

That vivid memory-moment returns annually this time of year, not to cheer me, but as a sobering reminder.  Seasons leading up to Christmas have never come close to matching that intense joy-filled awareness.

I thought about this last week. It was a Wednesday.  Returning home from sharing a lunch out with a Columbian friend, I walked into the house feeling blah. Nothing to look forward to, was how I felt.  Nothing interested me at that moment. I had no real plans.  Oh, I did have some work I wanted to complete. Another video for my English without Fear channel. But nothing new or exciting waiting for me around the corner.

It was then that a cheerful thought showed up.  A premise of C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote that if we have a longing (Sehnsucht in German) or a craving that nothing in this life seems to satisfy, it’s because we were made for a different world. A place where there IS a matching fulfillment for each and every yearning.

That God-sent truth rejuvenated me with fresh energy.  King Solomon wrote an entire book about unmet longings. Read all of Ecclesiastes in one setting. It’s short.  This wealthiest and wisest monarch at the time tried EVERY experience under the sun.  And was bored by all.

Nothing at all thrilled him?  Nope! That’s because our hearts are made to be satisfied ALONE by God. Only God is big enough to enrapture us forever. Psalm 16:11 …in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Once God reminded me of how He fashioned me, my blahs disappeared. New energy arrived.  I bargained with myself to work for an hour on my video and then I would sit down and read the newspaper.

Since that change in mood, I’ve been able to apply the same truth to Christmas.  Especially in the realm of gift giving.

We all want to give a brief transcendent moment to those we love. Parents delight in doing this for their young children.  But have you looked at the ideas presented in the TV and newspaper ads?  Can a piece of jewelry do that for a woman?  Or a new wallet for a man?

My hairdresser recounted a recent errand she ran with her husband to Lowe’s.  Walking down one aisle, he stopped by one of those metal-finding tools people use at the beach to hunt for ‘treasure’.  He mentioned that he had always wanted one.  So, they bought it right then and there. She’s going to wrap it up for him and put it under the tree!  How’s that for transcendence!

The point is, NO thing here on earth can or should satisfy.  My early magical feeling of excitement is simply proof that I was made for something BIG, LASTING and not fully comprehensible – in other words something BOREDOM-PROOF.

For Christians, we have a guarantee of just such a world.  Waiting for us.  As Paul says, nothing here on earth is, (Romans 8:18)  …..worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Why? How?  (1 Cor 2:9) But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, …..God has prepared for those who love him.

Comfort yourself, friend.  It’s okay that the traditions and rituals of the season no longer move you.  They are but shadows of the real thing. Immerse yourself in the facts. The real Christmas is coming. Christ with us and we with Christ. A forever joy, excitement and über-satisfaction that will grow in its power to thrill us.

 

 

 

Feelings and facts – right ordering

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A new friend from our new church gave me a journal for my birthday.  She didn’t know, but gifts are my love language:) Really!

This morning, I inaugurated this beautifully-bound book with its inviting lined pages of such a quality that they will absorb the black ink of my favorite pen. Since it was Sunday, I had plenty of time early this morning.  I’m reading a book about Martyn Lloyd-Jones about how and why he taught doctrine as essential fuel for living the Christian life.  In a paragraph that grabbed my attention, he explained that if we want to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, we don’t focus on this third member of the Trinity.  Instead we look to Jesus and what He has done.  The more we study and meditate on our Savior, the more power we will experience.  Here is the money sentence:

  • The joy of the Spirit is the joy we FEEL from the promises of Christ.

That thought resonated deeply with me, so I decided to use my new journal to write down one promise at a time and then analyze it, suck on it, pull it apart, think about it to get as much as I can out of it.

The one I chose had nothing to do with today’s reading in the plan we follow (Nahum 1-3) but I think from now on, I’ll keep an eye out for promises in each day’s reading.  I didn’t go back to scan Nahum because a promise popped into my mind. It was Jesus’ last words to his disciples (and hence to us)

  • ….and surely I am with you always to the end of the age. Matthew 28:20

I looked at each word in this verse and thought, pulling out a few implications, such as:

  • He IS with me now, not he will be with me
  • No need to doubt to his intention to keep his promise: “most assuredly/for sure”
  • Never is there a time when he is not with me in this life/age
  • Jesus announced this FACT after giving his disciples and me an ‘impossible mission’
  • True – he is not physically present with me so I can touch him or hear his voice through sound waves, but scripture affirms that he is with me via his Spirit. (John 16:7 ……it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.)
  • From the previous fact, his presence through the Helper implies that he knows what I am going through and he won’t stand by idly. Why else would he be called the helper?

The last take-away or derivative benefit from Jesus’ presence that I jotted down is:

  • the more I talk with him and think about him the more I’ll be like him.  For we become like whom we hang around, for better or for worse.

After this leisurely time in my new journal, I pondered the relationship between feelings and facts, gospel facts.

With those thoughts swirling in my mind we headed off to church where our senior pastor, Joe, taught, explained and exhorted from Colossians 2:13-15.  Communion followed the sermon and somewhere in his instructions and encouragement Joe mentioned that we can’t use our feelings to determine facts.  We need to put Gospel facts at the top, first and foremost and THEN draw out conclusions and inferences from Truth.  He mentioned that we often (or for some of us all the time) DON’T feel saved, DON’T feel forgiven, or at peace with the Father, and probably not at all cherished by him.  Joe explained that this was an easy pit to fall into. Furthermore, since it was Communion Sunday, he also cautioned us NOT to expect to feel different when partaking in the elements. That was REALLY helpful to hear from a pastor!

But where do feelings fit in?  After all, the Martyn Lloyd-Jones quote at the top of this post said that we will FEEL joy as we think about Jesus’ promises.

There’s the key, the way to order feelings and facts/promises.  Feelings ARE important.  (Think about all the times we are told: Be glad!  Rejoice! Exult in! Have compassion for! Be tender-hearted!)

Here is the key:  If we are saved and are one of God’s children, then ALL the promises of God belong to us in Jesus.  Feelings flow from what we believe to be true.  The Word of God IS true!  So if we reason from Gospel fact, we can trust our feelings.

  • 2 Cor 1:20 For all the promises of God are “Yes” in Christ. And so through Him, our “Amen” is spoken to the glory of God. (Berean Study Bible)

The big ‘IF’ is, are we saved?  Just what is the grounds for being one of God’s kids?  Simply this: IF we have believed that Jesus lived and died in our place, with all our sins transferred to him and his righteous deeds accounted to us, and that we bring NOTHING, NADA, RIEN, ZIP to the judicial trial before God, then we are forgiven, loved, restored to a right relationship with the Father forever. We need to ACCEPT these truths as fact, as accomplished.

Meditating on those truths – who God is and what he and the other members of the Trinity have done on our behalf WILL produce correct feelings we can trust. They in turn will rightly, naturally motivate and fuel our deeds, the good works God has planned for us.

Yet, you and I know that we have an enemy.  We need to arm ourselves with truth to block his lies. Although thoroughly defeated and ‘pulverized’ as Joe said today in his sermon, Satan will STILL speak and breathe noxious, vile lies to us to discourage and destroy us.  His words, if we believe them, can cause us to FEEL guilty, FEEL burdened, heavy hearted, troubled, fearful, ashamed, etc.

So, how do we order feelings and facts?  They are both important. God created us in his image with a mind, a heart and a will.  Living whole-heartedly in union with Christ is our mandate and our privilege.  Our hearts are entitled to peace and joy and relief and rest.  But this kind of glad happiness has to be based on gospel facts.

What’s going to be YOUR promise to feed on this day?  Start with one.  Chew on it, share it with others, write it to a friend, look it up in another language you know or a different English translation.  Work it deep into your tissues. And let THAT be the medicine you take this and every day.

 

Does joy look different in each of us?

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For the joy of the Lord is your strength Neh 8:10

I desire joy and you probably do as well.   But, do you or I always know it when we see it?  Can we recognize joy in another Christian?

For sure, there are those fellow believers who seem to bubble over with a happy passion for Jesus. We recognize that as ‘the joy of the Lord’.

My husband, Michael, prays daily for that kind of joy.  He really wants it, but seems burdened by the belief he bears that he is not anywhere NEAR feeling or displaying that kind of visible, expressive contentment in the Lord.

But is he making a fair self-assessment? I wonder if we do ourselves harm and cause a disservice to fellow believers when we narrowly define the expression of joy, when we expect a joy-filled Christian to look and act a certain way.

This morning I read a definition of JOY in a Tabletalk article. The following two sentences brought relief:

  • “Joy is an apprehension of our great God. It is a realization of and a trust in His promises.” (Rev Kevin D. Gardner)

Oh!  So, joy doesn’t HAVE to look like that constant jovial, spilling over, unrestrained child-like delight that I imagine in ‘real’ Christians?  Is it possible that we’re not ‘less’ of a Christian if our sense of and expression of joy is different?

Here is what I think happens. God has wired each of us, his image-bearers, as one-of-a-kind individuals, assigning us temperaments per his wisdom. Could we be incorrect in assuming that OUR particular experiences of God will be or should be the same for each believer?   Could we be burdening brothers and sisters when we describe AND prescribe God’s way of relating to us as normative?

I don’t doubt that you have people in your life who admire you for something, who look to you as a role-model.  By observing you in person, they have bestowed upon you a degree of power to speak into their lives.  You might not even know them.  They may in fact be social media followers who respect you from a distance and want to be more like you.  That is a weighty responsibility, my friend.

I have accorded others that kind of influence over my life.  And it has not always been good for me.  At my very weakest moments when I have measured myself against that ‘Admired One’ and come up short, the self-flagellation has been toxic to my soul and well-being.

In the past, my insecurities as a mom left me ‘that kind of’ vulnerable.  These days, my self-generated critical tapes can play over and over about how I grandparent and how I ‘ezer’ or help my husband. Those times of self-doubt tempt me to look at other older women and draw incorrect conclusions about them.

The result?  I feel bad about myself and think….”I gotta do something different.”  That thought alone feels like pressure and I grow anxious.

Now isn’t ‘anxiety’ another word for ‘discontent’!

Is that what God wants for us, his beloved children?  Does our Father mean for our sense of falling short (of the kind of joy my fellow believing brother or sister displays) to cause doubt about his love for us?  Does he want us fearful that we might not be a Christian?

No!  I don’t think so.

Brothers and sisters, be gentle with yourself.  I believe that joy as a trait or marker of believers comes to fruition by the operative power of Jesus’ Spirit implanted in us at our RE-birth.  Believing, trusting, taking as TRUE all of God’s words in Scripture is what nurtures and grows the kind of joy Jesus had. Jesus loved his flock, his posse of friends and supporters.  But he was a serious Man, the God-Man who suffered in a real body.  I don’t get the picture from Scripture that he was the bubbly type, but the always trusting type, the God-Man who believed his Father.

Brothers and sisters, be wary of describing and prescribing YOUR experience of God’s joy (or forgiveness, peace, guidance, love, mercy etc) as the only fitting expression and communication of God’s goodness.  Yes, be real and share about God and his goodness in your life. But be responsible and wise with your words. Remember those weaker and younger in the faith and be aware of your impact on them. As for me, I don’t assume that everyone enjoys or experiences God the way I do. I am analytical and feel fed through reading and studying and meditating on true ideas about God.  Others feed on God through music or nature or movement.  Our God loves diversity!

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  1 Cor 12: 4-7

PS: As I was editing this post, I decided to see if I could find out what kind of ‘of’ is meant in the phrase, “The joy of the LORD”.  Does ‘of’ mean FROM, or PART OF or……?  I googled it and found this helpful blog post that shifted my understanding of the verse in Nehemiah.  Please invest the time to read it.

Jesus’ 4 invitations

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A French devotional I read each morning gave me the gift of noticing 4 invitations in the Gospel of Matthew.  Each offer Jesus extended to His hearers began with the verb, “Come!”

I looked up the four verses, spotted a progression and jotted down what I noticed.

So ‘come’ ponder and reflect with me.  Then evaluate which invitations you have already accepted and which ones remain unanswered.

# 1 Come, follow me, ”Jesus said, – Matt 4:19a

This seems to be the starting point of the Christian life.  Jesus invites us to move toward Him, stay close and watch what He does.  But notice:  He is not stationary but on the move. We have to keep up with Him if we are to see what He is doing.

When did this invitation penetrate my consciousness?  One Sunday evening when I was about 24.  It was…..

  • after I HEARD for the first time that I was a rebel, devoid of any self-directed means to make things right between me and God, the Father….
  • after I gratefully accepted the Father’s pardon, based on Jesus willingly being punished for me

it was THEN that I took hold of the invitation to follow Him, gratefully acknowledging my new clothes of His righteousness to cover my sinful nature.

What changed for me outwardly? I would say it was …….opening the Bible and understanding for the first time the truth of who God is.

That phase lasted a LONG time.  Numerous distractions interfered.  My obsession with overeating and body image…..family worries…..work stuff.  We all have our version of worldly idols.

Eventually, my ears noticed a new message on God’s frequency:

# 2 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matt 11:28-29

I like to dial down, translate or re-word verses for me.  So I saw Jesus’ invitation like this:  Come and off-load your burdensome agenda and priorities. Notice that you are harnessed WITH me.  With freed-up shoulders, take up and share MY much lighter burden and My plan for your and My life together. (I’ll handle your issues and preoccupations.)  Move along WITH me, at MY pace…as you still complete your tasks and fulfilling your obligations.

Every day I have to pause and ask myself, “Maria, can you even take in this amazing offer?  to actually work with Jesus, to share His heart?  to offer encouragement and comfort and a pair of hands to hurting neighbors and enemies?”  What I find is this –  that often when I’m not even thinking of Jesus, I discover, AFTER the fact, that He has guided my words, my hands, my presence for His purposes.

As for the next call of Jesus, I’m JUST beginning to hear and respond, intrigued, captivated by His words:

# 3 “Come to the wedding feast.” Matt 22:4  Right now?  in this body, on this earth?  I thought the wedding feast was in the world to come!  Yes and no.  It appears that the festal preparatory celebrations have already started.  Now. For those who are IN Christ.

My re-worded, dialed-down-for-Maria version is this:  The wedding party for My Son has already begun. And you, Maria, one of my elect, have been invited.  You already have your wedding clothes on.  I recognize My Son’s style of dress.  Life here on this earth is NOT all suffering and work. There is joy to be had NOW! 

I am slowly noticing the connection between LEARNING to experience the many moments of joy and pleasure He gives and the final invitation that is assured me.

# 4 Then the king will say to those on His right, “My father has blessed you! Come and receive the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world was created. Matt 25:34

Jesus tells His followers that one day soon, on the other side of this life on this earth, we WILL hear this last invitation.  If we have accepted the first invitation, then even if we miss numbers 2 and 3, we are still guaranteed this culminating honor and gift.

The way I think of it is this:  Psalm 16:11 gives us a hint of the future by mentioning total joy and limitless pleasures. ‘In Your presence is fullness of JOY and pleasures evermore’  

The joy and pleasures I experience now are minuscule tastes and weak sips of what is to come. But they are REAL.

Your most intense joy is probably different from mine.  Without a doubt, my top earthly joy are those moments of reconciliation with Mike after a painful misunderstanding.  When I experience peace, oneness and total love for and from him.  I KNOW this savoring of intense joy is a glimpse and guarantee of the joy to come.  And in the future world with God, it won’t be an occasional moment, here and then.  But FULLNESS of joy. Really!  God promises.

Pleasures?  There are too many and I can’t rank order them.  Some are: that intense sexual moment with my long-time dear husband, a satisfying shared meal, drinking in outdoor beauty, whether the Smoky mountains or a rose or the salty smell of the sea, reading something well written when I’m fully alert, emptied healthy bowels, 8 hours of solid sleep, speaking FRENCH with someone, seeing something new in God’s Word, connecting with a friend in a CS Lewis sort of way, ‘You, too?’ and that happy tired feeling after a hike.

Again, these are tokens of the pleasures that await.  The future pleasures will not be fleeting and they will last forever.  A happy challenge to my imagination.

So, dear reader, which invitations have you accepted?  And how are you using your creative mind to build up your anticipation for what awaits?  Why else do you think the good Father gave us the skill of picturing something not yet?  To worry and angst about circumstances in the here and now?  Not!!

 

 

What do we do when life goes south?

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We all face disappointments, some minor, some crushing.  God, I have learned, does not waste our trials.  In fact, He explicitly tells us that we WILL have trouble in this life – all of us, whether Christ-follower or not.  As believers who have God’s Word,  we should expect to suffer.  I read just this morning in Acts 14: 21b – 22:  “Then they (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, ‘ they said.” 

So how do we think when yet another blow comes?  Recently I’ve been gifted with a situation that requires me to regain my balance and ‘prepare my mind for action’, as Peter exhorts.

The elevator synopsis is this:  While enjoying my best year of teaching kids French and anticipating staying on at my current school for a while longer, the tables turned abruptly and I know I need to look for a different job for after this contract year ends in June.

Here is how I am bookending or ‘sandwiching’ these new circumstances, using God’s exhortation through Paul to me:

Philippians 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

The background is this:  two believing Philippian gals were upset with each other and the entire family of God was affected. Even Paul at a distance had received reports of this disruptive and sinful conflict.  By NAME, the apostle exhorts these two sisters in Christ to drop the issue and focus on the stupendous fact that both their names are written in the Book of Life.  How’s THAT for putting a dispute into context?

Paul’s thoughts then run to a myriad of OTHER reasons to find greater joy in the Lord than being right or vindicated in a disagreement.  Hence his double directive – ‘Think over all the gifts you have as a child of the Living God! Now THOSE are worth rejoicing about, over and over again, not just once!’

Philippians 4:5  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

I think the logic goes like this:  the über-rejoicing about being in Christ should result in you being mild in temperament, easy to get along with.  Let THAT quality be what people talk about when they mention you, not that you are quarrelsome.  And if you need help with self-control, take heart – Jesus is close by, ready to enable you to build this new habit.

And if you say, ‘But what about my grievance with my sister?  It’s a real problem and still bothers me!’  Take heart, because Paul goes on to provide THE way to deal with that need and all others:

Philippians 4:6 …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

Jesus is our Lord and aims to take care of ANYthing that weighs on us.  But we have to hand it over, for good!  How?  By asking Him to take it on.  I see the thanksgiving part of this teaching as what we do each and every time we forget that the problem NOW belongs to Him.  Instead of worrying, we must say something like:

‘Oh, right, there I go again!  I have started dwelling on the fact that I need a new job.  But I have handed that problem over to You, my Lord.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are managing this for me.  Help me to NOT to take it back, as I am prone to do.’

With the abruptness last week of finding out I need to start a job search, I have succumbed several nights in bed to thinking, thinking, thinking about lots of ‘what ifs’.  That is just plain ‘ole’ sinful WORRY!  Each time I catch myself, I repent and ask for His help to do what He commands.

What carrot does God offer as an inducement to rely on Him to bring about a resolution to my situation?  Something the entire world longs for, pagan and believer alike – true and lasting peace!

Philippians 4:7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Our hearts are the seat of our longings and desires.  And our minds are a thought-generating factory.  As Christians, we need supernatural help to protect and block wrong desires and sinful ideas.  It’s no secret that our strong hankerings and thoughts fuel our actions.

I take Paul’s teaching in verse 7 to mean this:  God’s powerful peace, strong enough to shield you and me from harmful wants and musings, is ONLY given to those who STOP trying to handle their needs and manage their problems on their own.  We only get His peace if we abandon our situation entirely, 100 %, to Him.  But if you’re like me, worrying sneaks up on us unaware.  We often pretend and call it ‘being concerned and responsible’.  Phooey!  Bottom line, how bad do we want to be steadied by this promised gift of peace?  The way to HAVE and to HOLD it is by exercising God’s gift of faith – trusting in and relying on His character and His promises to provide.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Why this advice?  Paul has learned that even when he has set his mind to:

  • rejoicing a lot about all that Jesus is for Him
  • committing to His Lord and Savior all his stressful situations and those of believers he dearly loves
  • he still has mind-space to worry.

His remedy is to fix his thoughts on the many beautiful and true God-given gifts, worthy of his mental energy.  You and I are to do the same.  For instance, when I notice the cleaning lady at school treating her job with dignity, consider her example. Or when I learn about one or two honest, earnest politicians who take their responsibility seriously, I can praise God for His goodness.

But just in case, my mind has such a large capacity that I run out of ideas that are healing and safe, Paul gives us a challenge that should take up the rest of our mental energy:

Philippians 4:9  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do you know how hard it would be to copy Paul and to practice, over and over, his habits of speech and rest and trust and thinking well of others?  That’s why I say that God has given us plenty, more than enough, to fill and steady our minds and hearts.  His promise of reward is not just PEACE, but Himself as the God of peace.

Wasn’t it the bus company Greyhound who advertised:  ‘Leave the driving to us’?  One of the reasons for traveling with them was so passengers could relax and focus on the scenery and enjoy the people around them instead of stressing over the traffic.

In the same way, we are to leave the worrying to God.  We’re NOT the driver, nor the captain of our souls.  Those jobs are way beyond the abilities God in His wisdom has deemed good and safe for us.

So, this job situation, I see as another opportunity to enjoy God’s peace and practice my Uncle Paul in contentment.  How about you?

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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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

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