Who determines your outcome?

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Romans 9:16 So then, it depends NOT on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.

Do those words make you feel stymied or relieved?  Angry or grateful?

Fellow pilgrim, this fact about our God and those who receive the gift of a permanent place in God’s family achieves two ends.  First, we are humbled.  If ever we entertained the idea that our works were good enough to leverage God into owing us anything, this verse in Romans affirms otherwise.

But doesn’t our world trumpet the opposite with THIS success formula:

Dream big and work hard.  Results go to the man in the ring who perseveres!

Second, and for me, this is burden lifting, Paul teaches that God alone determines family membership.  If I rightly suspected that no amount of good works or sincere effort to avoid sinning could meet God’s standard of perfect holiness, my gut feeling correctly aligns with reality.

Illusions dispelled should leave in their place only stunned awe and awakened gratitude.  If meriting this privilege never was likely, but God in His mercy has freely given it, then I have more than hit the jackpot.

Moreover, energy spent trying to drum up desire and work hard enough to impress the Creator and Sustainer and Judge of all with my ‘worthiness’ can be properly channeled.  And you probably know the counter-intuitive truth that shifting one’s life’s energy and focus off of self and onto God and His Kingdom satisfies us far more. Celebrating God’s sheer goodness and inviting others to step out from the crushing weight of performance won’t sap us of energy but multiply our joy.

Too remarkable to be true?  Not for the God of Truth!

 

Do you have to know how He’s going to work?

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Phil 4:6-7  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  and the peace of God, which SURPASSES all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

God had already prepared me last week by focusing my attention on His term ‘surpasses’.  I spent quite a bit of time nosing around Blue Letter Bible to see just what ‘hyper-echo’ revealed.  Paul uses it 3 times to mean:

  • is vastly superior
  • stands above

What struck me was what God promises – in return for handing over problems and worries.  He guarantees nothing short of supernatural peace – quite the opposite of what we’re feeling as beleaguered worriers.  Moreover, He asserts that this holy peace of His brings us life-giving energy.  In contrast, anxiously wanting to know HOW and WHEN He’s going to work out the issues SUCKS away life and joy.

But human as we are, we WANT to see the provision, the solutions. Our minds race ahead, exploring options and play-by-play ‘if THIS, then THAT’ scenarios.

Getting back to how God prepped me for a bigger problem by means of this command cum promise.  Going into Friday of last week,  I practiced meditating on Phil 4:6-7,  how His peace counts more than knowing how He was going to fix 2 problems that have dogged me this summer.  Each day I practiced restating out loud Paul’s advice like this:

“Your divine peace is worth more than seeing or knowing how you’re going to handle these 2 issues, so I choose to leave them with You!”

Silly me – I thought God had opened my eyes to the value of God-sized peace for THOSE two problems.  But now I see that the gift of His insight readied me for Friday’s ‘surprise’.

Year 26 of teaching French starts tomorrow, Monday.  Typically I spend the day before we have to report for teacher workdays organizing my room and taking stock of class rosters and supplies.  Friday morning I walked into school around 9 am, carrying two bags of this-and-that. On the way up the steps, my principal fell in beside me and broke the news that only 3 students had signed up for level 1 French class.  I had heard from one of the 2 Spanish teachers that this year’s entering 6th-grade class was small.  With that information in my mind, I had figured a class size of maybe 8-9 instead of 12-15 as in previous years.

The news stunned me.  Only THREE?  Really?  Throughout the day I kept turning over the implications of such a tiny group.  The Holy Spirit did prompt me to text 4 friends who understand what it’s like to teach a ‘minority’ language in America.  They started praying.  And I returned to worrying and casting on Him and feeling sad.

The dark gray cloud sunk deeper into my heart, despite repeating Paul’s promise.  Joy-smothering heaviness lingered.  It felt personal, for I had taught most of the rising 6th graders in an Intro to French last year.  Students in our lower school study Spanish from Kindergarten through 4th grade.  In 5th grade, one of the middle school Spanish teachers continues with a semester of Spanish and I offer them a taste of French.  The idea is they can better choose the language they like or value to continue in Middle School.

I shared the news with Mike when I got home.  The pall lingered through the evening and dogged me during the wakeful night. The next morning my loving husband handed me an essay about waiting on God.  The author wrote from painful personal experience how these situations are exactly the kind that produces the fruit of patience.  Hmm….I had forgotten that patience is one of those 9 traits of holiness cultivated by the Holy Spirit.

If we really trust God’s goodness, then we can rely on and WAIT for Him to act, exercising patience by means of the faith He gives us.

A few hours later Mike followed up with a written-out specific prayer for me, asking God to give me supernatural patience and peace.  And God DID!

This prayer has SUPER-NATURALLY helped me.  In a tangibly different way, I KNOW the power that a believing child of God can access through prayer and have sent by the Holy Spirit to someone else.  It’s not that I FEEL any different.  I have been enabled to believe that God WILL indeed take care of the situation.  I don’t need to know the HOW or the WHEN.

Within an hour of reading Mike’s prayer for me and after typing it up for myself, my spirits lightened.  I regained my ability to think about other things.  What other things?

To be frank, thinking about ME, my concerns or the future is boring and life-sucking. So what is there to think about?  I’m tired of rolling them around in my mind.

Uncle Paul wastes no time in helping us there.  As soon as he describes the gift of God’s peace for those who off-load their worries, he tells us just what remains to be done, one final thing:

Phil 4:8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (NLT)

Here’s what Blueletter Bible says about the Greek word Paul uses (dwell or fix your thoughts on) “This word deals with reality. If I reckon (logizomai) that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise, I am deceiving myself. This word refers more to fact than supposition or opinion.”

So, what about that small class? I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Lot’s of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes are likely in store for me.  I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Knowing God, He’s likely to have planned, just for me, lots of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes. I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

But He is good and whatever He brings me is designed to ripen and multiply my fruitfulness, conforming me to Christ.

 

 

How you can help someone

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It started out as an ordinary church supper.  But two events transformed the occasion into a memorable one.

What do you take to a potluck?  For years I’ve relied on my standard, easy-to-assemble quiche.

  • Roll out a commercial pie crust into the plate
  • Add chopped cooked ham
  • Spread evenly 8 ounces of grated cheese (Swiss or Cheddar)
  • Beat up 3 eggs together with 2 cups of heavy cream (or 4 eggs and 1 1/2 cups of Sour Cream for less fat).  Pour on top of the ham and cheese
  • Bake at 400 for 50 minutes

There are rarely any leftovers, but the ingredients have grown pricey.  So I asked my ‘go-to source of practical wisdom, my hairdresser, for some fresh ideas.  What I wrote down was one of those Jiffy corn muffin mix-based dishes that also calls for an egg, sour cream, creamed corn, cheese and a stick of butter.

The little old ladies RAVED!  Not a finger-swipe remained in the 9×13 dish.  Note to self – keep making this for future potlucks.

The next surprise is weightier.  One of our elders shared a 20-minute message whereby he wove together and linked 30 or so Biblical promises from God to us, His people. This man’s goal was to encourage us to believe how much God loves us.  As I let wave after wave of strengthening truths bathe my heart, one couplet of verses startled me. Something new in Ephesians caught my attention, sparking some thoughts.

Whispering, I asked Mike to locate the passage on his phone’s ESV app.  I scanned the screen.  Sure enough, I noticed an anchor in Paul’s most famous prayer on behalf of this particular church.

Ephesians Chapter 3, verses 14-17 records the former legalist confidently asking God to grant the people strength to know His love so that they can be filled up with ALL of God. No new news there. But the structure of that clause-laden Greek invocation arrested me.  Here’s how I parsed it out looking at the Greek words on the Blue Letter Bible Website.

(Paul prays) I ask God to grant you all

  • to be strengthened with power
  • through the Spirit of God
  • by means of Christ dwelling in your heart by faith (both His presence and the gift of faith are permanent realities in the heart of believers)
  • whose presence makes it a given that you are rooted and grounded in LOVE and empowered with effective force
  • So that you all are enabled to seize and possess (meaning of  ‘to comprehend’) both the ‘physical dimensions’ of Christ’s love and the intimate knowing of Him that go way beyond knowledge
  • So that you all may be filled with the fullness (full measure of His grace and provisions) of God

What fascinated me was God’s supernatural interlinking of His Power with His Love. He then transmits to us intimate knowledge about Himself.  Thus, God’s power, love, and knowledge synergistically work, filling us up with Himself!

What a God! And what a prayer!  If you’re anything like me, you might be filled up with a churning mixture of anxieties, fear, doubt, pride with a touch of scorn for others tossed in to sour the pot.  Who would not rather be filled up with just God?

And just how do we replace the junk with the life-giving alternative?  By echoing Paul’s prayer for ourselves and then directing our thoughts to savor these God-given treasures that are rightfully ours.

Without a complete sifting through the Bible, these promises seem to constitute the most powerful prayer we can offer for others and ourselves.  And since I’ve been writing about power prayers, have you ever seriously thought about Jesus’ plea to His Father for us, His brothers and sisters?   Chew on this:

John 17:24 (NIV) “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

Jesus is asking His and Our Father for transfer to heaven.  Do you think that the Father will deny His Son this request?

Commands & promises that simplify life

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Parents mean well, but they can unwittingly burden their children.

My father was one of those ‘can-do’ men who had reduced life’s collective wisdom to short statements meant to both encourage and teach.  Some of this military man’s words of advice were:

  • Drive on all the way (Infantry motto)
  • Your wants won’t hurt you
  • Don’t borrow trouble
  • Do your best

That last one has caused me much grief.  Why?  Because I never knew what was my best. By what objective standard did one measure one’s best?  How would I know if I had reached ‘my best’?

There was one time in my life when I obsessively worked a side business while teaching school full-time and mothering 2 sons.  I almost wrecked our marriage, so driven was I for ‘success’ in that part-time fashion venture.

One week in particular stands out.  Push-push-push!  Striving to reach a sales goal in order to be recognized and applauded at the national sales conference one month later, I drove myself nuts (and probably the rest of the family!).  My dad’s motto about one’s BEST compelled me to keep making phone calls.  My goal consumed me.  I couldn’t rest.  That target named ‘MY BEST’ kept inching further away.

This past week, 2 verses have both grabbed my heart and resurrected painful memories of drivenness.

  1. Psalm 105:4   Seek the LORD and His strength, seek His presence continually
  2. Psalm 37:3  Trust in the LORD and do good

Yesterday was a difficult day teaching.  I dreaded one of my classes.  As I was walking up the stairs to the building, praying, I affirmed over and over again: All I need are the LORD’s strength and His presence.  God has commanded me to seek and pray for these things.  He must really want me to have them!

And He came through!  (why do I doubt????)

This morning, bracing for that same first-period class and sensing the familiar creeping dread, I recalled Pop’s adage about doing my best. I prayed for God’s strength and His presence; and the above verse from Psalm 34 came to mind.  Tim Keller in his devotional on the Psalms had reflected on that psalm the previous night.  And I had been encouraged by the simple command to ‘do good’ in the context of trusting/resting in God.

Far from being burdened by having to aim for my best, I felt relief flooding me.  One’s best might be the way of the world, the mantra of certain motivational speakers, but not the path that the Triune God teaches.

Prior to any effort or work God commands from us, He assures us in numerous places what He has already accomplished FOR us. (chose, created, sought, rescued, redeemed, and saved us). And in view of THOSE mercies, we are to TRUST HIM. For hasn’t He already proven to us that He is worthy of our trust?

How that command to trust Him relieved the burden of my dreaded class was in this way:

  • I don’t know what God is doing in the interactions between my class and me.  Most of the time I FEEL ineffective with them.
  • But I willed myself to trust Him, the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign of the universe.
  • And having committed myself to trust Him this day, I resolved to DO GOOD.

But what did ‘do good’ look like? For me, this morning, I taught French to my class in a way that was sensitive to their moods, abilities and comprehension and did not fret with what they gained from the class.  I did not take personally their bored 13-year-old faces or their chattiness about other topics IN FRENCH class!   I trusted God, did ‘good’ and let it rest.

This particular crop of students is weak. Their abilities probably don’t have as much to do with my skill as a teacher as I think. But God has placed me at that school with those children for His purposes. His plans are good and I will commit to being faithful in my assignment through the power the Holy Spirit gives me.  That is all He expects.

 

 

Not my strength

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Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships,in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Cor 9: 8-10

It’s been, like, 523 times that I have asked God to give me another job over the past 3 school years and 2 months.  Yet each morning as I walk up the steps to the middle school, I climb the evidence that FOR TODAY, I am in God’s will, here.  That today THIS is His plan for me.  Today my job is to work for Him as a happy, dependent ambassador…and serve my students, colleagues, parents and principal to the best of my ability as I depend on Him.

Often I FEEL that I am not up to motivating and engaging 11-14 year olds through the creative means that are required.  Teenage taste buds for anything that is not ‘fun and different’ have grown dull.  The challenge daunts and fatigues me.  Add to that, faculty meetings where I hear of and witness the creativity of my colleagues who seem to really love these kids in ways I don’t.  Together, these combustible materials fuel that inner narrative that is more excuse than accurate report:

  • I’m too old to relate to this age group
  • I can’t connect with them like my younger colleagues who are late 20s, 30s and even 40s.

But because God has seen fit to fence me in (income needs), I’m compelled to DEAL with the job He has assigned me.

In His kindness, He lightened the load last week.

Wednesday morning I was desperate. I was applying make-up and braiding my hair and musing over how to engage the bored, dull, tired 8th grade first period class. I was praying, too.  Just before I hit ‘PLAY’ to roll out the well-worn monologue of why I wish I had a different job, a new script for the day emerged!    What occurred to me was God’s promise to Paul, cited above.  As I applied it to me, I reasoned:

  • If God won’t let me escape today’s challenge, then He must be willing to provide for me.

That conclusion turned into a prayer:

  • Father, HELP!  I need to modify the plan so as to engage these students who complain of being bored. Give me an idea!

And a possible activity came to mind – one that involved a bit of partner work to engage everyone.

And you know what?  It worked.

That was Wednesday.  Then on Friday, we had one of those faculty meetings I described. Again as my inner voice intoned, “I’m too old….” But then, for some ‘strange’ reason, I stopped it and realized that it WAS possible for me to change the narrative…… from:

I’m just not good at reaching/connecting with MS kids anymore…not that creative…or fun like all these other teachers….(as in giving myself an excuse)

to:

Your grace IS sufficient for me in this area that I lack, for Your grace is made perfect in MY weakness…So please, give me the will to keep asking You for what I need today and EACH day.  By your power I CAN do this job.

Mike and I have a rule of thumb in our house.  If the cats get away with something naughty two times in a row, it’s a pattern.  If we don’t break it then and there before the 3rd occurrence, it will become ROUTINE for them.

I am now on the lookout for that 3rd time, so my new tape will be my TOP of the queue go-to one.  Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

 

Know your heart AND your bowels!

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feelings

Proverbs 3:5  Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding

Good life advice for Christians, right?

But wouldn’t you think the inspired author of Proverbs would have called us to trust with our mind or our will instead of our heart?  After all, don’t we decide matters rationally?

Hebrew heart language is NOT an anomaly.  Here’s another verse from the Old Testament:

Proverbs 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

Looks like the Bible is again telling us that our actions stem from what’s in our heart.

Here’s advice from Moses that reinforces that point:

“The word is very near you,says Moses to a rescued Israel, “in your mouth and in your heart (from Deut 30:14)

My husband and I have a running friendly disagreement.  I say that feelings flow from thoughts. And he maintains that feelings surge up unbidden with no connection to thoughts. He maintains that he has little control over those very strong emotions that seem to take over in extreme situations like:

  • being blocked unfairly, whether in the car or in a conversation
  • being accused of having let someone down with that wrench to the gut and tell-tale invasion of red flush across the face

The Hebrews AND the Greeks did recognize and identify the source of THOSE powerful emotions.  They sprang from the gut or the bowels!

Lamentations 1:20 refers to this organ as the origin of the strongest feelings – no rational thinking or deciding going on here!  Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death.

What about the New Testament?  Jesus gives us a vivid example of deep anger arising from within.  Do you remember when he and his disciples journeyed to Lazarus’ house? Before they even reach the house, sister Martha meets him and dialogues rationally with a calm Jesus.  Martha slips back in the house and notifies her sister Mary who runs out to see Jesus. Mary’s weeping when she meets him triggers a responsive emotional echo in the Son of God that is other than rational.  Jesus allows Mary to lead him to Lazarus’ burial site accompanied by a growing crowd.  John 11:33 – When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,

That groaning is the same gut feeling that wells up unprompted by rational thought or beliefs.  I’ve heard pastors explain that Jesus practically snorted like a horse, so indignant at death was he.  Rationally Jesus understands the cessation of earthly life, but his physical reaction is beyond thinking and feeling.  It’s in a different category.

Why does this matter, this distinction between gut feelings/bowels and the heart?

It turns out that my husband and I ARE both correct in how we evaluate feelings.  There are those that well up from our depths over which we seem to exercise little control.  More often, though, we deal with the ‘ordinary’ and frequent feelings that flow from our thoughts and beliefs.

And because ordinary feelings spring from what Bible language terms, ‘the heart’, then we CAN learn to change them and that is GOOD NEWS!

Not only CAN we replace and rework the content, we must!  God emphasizes the heart and commands us to control this mind/thought/feeling/-deciding organ.   Garbage in , Garbage out goes the prosaic adage. When we DO filter the content of thought and ideas , our heart changes.

Since having recently recognized that the Bible tends to look at the heart more as the thinking organ of will and choice, I see this distinction all 0ver the Bible!  And I am helped.  Before, I had concluded that I had little chance to fight worry, fear or anxiety, but now I know that I CAN, due solely to the Holy Spirit in me.

God, through Paul writing in Romans 12:2b exhorts us…..continuously be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to determine what God’s will is—what is proper, pleasing, and perfect.

My current ‘go-to’ steadying truth these days seems to be:

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about (at fearful circumstances, either real or potential) for I am your God!  I will strengthen you; Surely I will help you; Surely I will hold you up with my victorious and righteous right hand! Isaiah 41:10 (Amp)

With practice (like in any other skill) I am learning both to desire and to obey my Dad’s commands.  I want to please Him!

More details about the Bible’s understanding of ‘the heart’

 

Stockpiled grace to rescue us

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For we walk by faith, not by sight – 2 Cor 5:7

The Martian

Mike and I just finished watching Matt Damon in the movie The Martian.  We both thoroughly enjoyed the humor and the human drama that unified world wide all human beings for a few moments.

One of the God-moments that I spotted in the film involved the Matt Damon character finding a vehicle sent up by NASA years before. I don’t know if the scene was planned to point to God or just that ‘the eyes of my heart’ have been opened to see ALL truth as God’s truth.

The stranded astronaut, unable to contact anyone with equipment at his base station, sets out to explore on foot.  When his space boot scrapes something hard in the sand, he digs like crazy and discovers the Pathfinder, a device sent up by NASA in 1997.  With it, he begins the time-intensive and convoluted process of establishing a way to communicate with those back home.

What struck me immediately was how very God-like this discovery was – a perfect example of what I call, God’s stockpiled grace, planned since before the creation of the universe and pre-positioned for just the right moment in the midst of a TRIAL.

What a blessing that Pathfinder turned out to be!  That fictional provision is akin to the grace we Christians receive from God when we walk by faith.  God commands us to FEAR NOT in tough and desperate situations, but to count on His promised future grace. He has already planned and positioned what we need.  All the resources for life and godliness await us for WHEN we need them.  We usually don’t see them ahead of time, which is WHY God calls us to walk by faith and not by sight.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godly living through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 2 Peter 1:3

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:19

We ordinary mortals who belong to Jesus are not the only ones who have to trust in God’s promised provision for the future (next minute, next hour or next year).  Jesus Himself exercised this kind of dependence.  I was struck by this fact the other day in Sunday school.  We were reading the Luke passage where Jesus is praying to His Father as He wrestled with the lonely path that lay before Him.

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.  And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.               Luke 22:41-44

An angel appeared and strengthened Him!  Isn’t that amazing? God sent just the right help at the right moment WHEN His Son needed it.  Jesus received grace JUST as He entered into anguish.

So here’s some Gospel logic – if the Father provided perfectly for Jesus to accomplish the atoning sacrifice that would later be applied to us, His chosen children, don’t you think we can trust this SAME Father to provide what WE need in the moment of our need?  Just like Jesus didn’t see the angel and feel the empowerment until he showed up, neither will we SEE or FEEL the future provision.

Jesus has demonstrated living by faith in God’s future grace.  That encourages me to trust God to venture out and do the same, through the Holy Spirit’s enabling.

 

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