Why are we surprised at how American society treats Christians?

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When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”  “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?”   Judges 6:12-13

As a marginalized Christian, do you ever feel like Gideon? The warp-speed of cultural change week to week has startled many, me included.  We feel less welcome to voice our values in the public sphere.  But it wasn’t that long ago that we FELT as though we fit in with the majority of Americans.   Not that we were ever in harmony with ‘mainstream’ America.  For we’ve accepted for years that we were as different as chalk and cheese when measured against the Hollywood or the academic and media names in the news.

However, these days a feeling of fear and despair is seeping under the doorways of our conscious mind and we find ourselves, if not anxious, at least bewildered.   Is this the way God treats His children?

Yes!!! and we should not be surprised. After all, God’s Word describes the very same situation throughout biblical history.

In my Bible-reading this morning I read two of the assigned psalms with much more interest and attention than previous years. The unnamed Psalmist minces no words as he describes how he and fellow believers suffered during what many commentators posit as the likely precipitating distress:  the siege of Sennacherib in 721 BC.

Psalm 66: 10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
    you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
YET you have brought us out to a place of abundance

Yes, the Psalmist is on the OTHER side of hardship, but 3 facts remain:

  1. God was the source or ultimate originator of the suffering
  2. The horrific and painful trauma was real and distributed to all the Hebrews
  3. God brought them THROUGH the tribulation to a joy-filled destination

Yes, that was then.  But do we American or Western Christians HAVE to suffer…like THAT…now in 2016?????

Let me ask this: Why should God treat us any differently than His chosen people?  He specifically selected the Hebrews out of whom would come His Messiah.  In the same way, He has chosen us, for His purposes.  We belong to Him.  He has the power and the authority and the very RIGHT as our Creator to do with us as He sees best.  We forget THAT ‘inconvenient truth’.

2 Tim 3:12 –  Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted

But that is SCARY!!!!  We all shrink back from the idea of calamity, of hardship and real damage, whether to our reputation, our jobs and income, our families, our churches. or EVEN to the very liberties we once considered safeguarded by the US Constitution!

So why is God doing this?  Does His Word tell us anything?

Fortunately it does, but the reason might not be something we moderns like.

Psalm 69:7 – I am being mocked because of you. Dishonor overwhelms me

Psalm 44:22 – Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered

Acts 5:41- So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name

Psalm 44:11 – You give us as sheep to be eaten And have scattered us among the nations

What we know is limited, but many verses tell us that for the sake of God’s name or character, those who follow Him WILL be mocked, persecuted and even killed.  And even though we don’t know ALL the whys or wherefores, we can take comfort that God does have a plan and IN THE END, those who mocked God and us shall be punished.

Prov 11:21 Be assured that the evil person will certainly be punished, but the descendants of the righteous will not suffer unjust judgment.

So how can we prepare ourselves to handle this suffering?

Here’s encouraging advice from a man who faced suffering with courage- Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Link here.  In short, he says that gathering with the local church to HEAR the Gospel truth preached and exposited gives us strength and perspective to endure with grace.

So ‘do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength’. Neh 8:10

 

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’

 

Why wonder?

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We need to be awed and astounded in order to be happy. Or put another way, those who have retained the ability to be ‘wowed’ and astonished are the happiest.

Who comes to mind when you think about what kind of person is easily dazzled?  Little children!

Wonder

I once heard Ravi Zacharias, a defender of the truth of Christianity, talk about his three children and what it took to wind-up each with that night-time story fear.  His littlest one needed only to hear Daddy read with a dramatic voice:

  • “The door creaked open slowly.”

The 5-year old, past being stirred by that preamble, was sent into a paroxysm of shivers with:

  • “The door creaked slowly open as an ominous but invisible voice growled, “Are there any children here?”

And the more ‘savvy’ seven year old needed more drama and suspense.  It wasn’t until Dad described the perilous predicament of the three children, cowering under the bed, when:

  • “All of a sudden, a slimy but firm green hand snatched a bare ankle and dragged forth the oldest child from under the bed.”

Ravi continued in his account of bedtime stories from 30 years ago to make the point that adults who have lost the ability to be awed grow weary of life.  Why is that?  We are wired, by God, to wonder, to feel awe, to find ourselves comforted by something immensely more grand and powerful than us.  It’s that combination of being scared yet knowing that one is safe.  Like being caught on a mountain ledge in the midst of a raging storm and finding a shallow cave in which to ride out the tempest.  One feels secure AND at the same time swept up in the grandeur of so much power.

Maybe that is why the Bible teaches over and over again that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ Proverbs 9:10.

Are you feeling blasé, bored with life, lost in the ho-hum seeming monotony of daily life? I think this hits most first-world people, many starting around the age of 40. Bored people are not happy people. I know.  From experience!

So what do we have to do to regain the habit of holy awe?  First – admit our boredom to God as sin!  A people blasé about the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer doesn’t KNOW God. Second – pray and ask His help, for we are helpless to do anything good for ourselves. Third – find a promise from God, claim it and pray it.  How about Psalm 119:18 – Open my eyes so that I may contemplate wonderful things from Your instruction.

 

Night sky awe

What’s the point of praying?

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ER  Two visits this week to the ER, one around 4:45 am and the other around 6 :00 am (earlier time gets you more attention) have made this week difficult to say the least.  What began with tooth issues and extreme pain for my husband in mid-November kicked off an occasional inability to sleep. Occasional turned into more the norm. Struggling to breathe due to heart palpitations sent Mike to Urgent Care during the day on Monday and then to ER at night the other times.

Several EKGs, X-rays, lab work and data from a 24-hour heart monitor have ruled out heart damage.  And we thank God for that.  But the inability to sleep remains and that affects his outlook.

So what about prayer?  I texted many praying friends Friday morning when we arrived for the 2nd time at the hospital.  And what I found was this.  As I affirmed God’s sovereign and loving control in this frightening situation I felt protected by God. Composing messages to these dear prayer warriors asking for their prayers of mercy for Mike, I wrote that God allows/sends trials for our ultimate good, to strengthen our faith. And God’s presence steadied me and calmed my fears.

Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. Proverbs 11:25

Each time I spoke/wrote words of truth, echoing the Spirit-powered promises that God has given us, a settled peace steadied me.

One of my close friends, texted back those encouraging verses from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he describes the God of all comfort who comforts us in our troubles so we can later reach out and help others. These truths expand our view to see the long-term purpose in suffering. We are not alone.  We belong to a community.

Yet, what startled me was that as helpful a reminder as her words were, my faith was not strengthened nearly as much as when I prayed through writing.

Here’s my application:

If you’re on Facebook or you hear in an email or phone call about a need, don’t just write: “Praying!”  Pray!

Take the time yourself to compose a specific prayer that links a quality of God with a specific request to Him to DO something specific and measurable in this situation.

Here’s an example.  Let’s imagine your friend Susie who is nervous about surgery tomorrow and has asked you to pray. You decide to pray on the spot.

  • Open or start your prayer by addressing God and mentioning the attribute you are depending on:

Father, You who created our bodies and sustain us through your power each moment of our lives, 

  • Ask specifically what you want God to do for this person:

grant Susie Your supernatural peace.  Remind her that You are in control of the medical team’s competency, attention and wisdom as well as her body’s recovery.  Take away her anxiety and replace it with the truth that You have given her the Holy Spirit who is a spirit of LOVE and not one of FEAR.  That this very Holy Spirit who is in her is also one of POWER and SOUNDNESS OF MIND.

  • Now tell God WHY you are asking Him to do this:

I ask You this for Susie’s sake and also for the fame of your name, so many will come to know what a great God You are.

  • Close your prayer by reminding God why You are privileged to ask Him for anything:

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen 

What I find now is that by taking the time to write or pray out loud on the spot, my reliance on God grows.  And having prayed specifically and tied it to God’s character that doesn’t change and His reputation, my faith multiplies as I see Him come through time and time again.

Vague prayers, while better than nothing (we are told that the Spirit intercedes for us when we can’t), don’t allow us to see specific answers. When we pray, Dear God, please bless Susie!”, how do we know when He has answered that prayer?

My point is that WE benefit the most by praying. Paul paraphrases Jesus when he reminds us that we get MORE blessed/happy when we give than when we receive. (Acts 20:35)

And if you want some practice, please pray for us!  That we find a solution for Mike’s palpitation-induced sleeplessness AND that God would grow our faith so we have strength for future trials and give comfort to others.

 

What makes you happy?

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We all want to be happy.  Even our birth announcement as a new sovereign nation enshrined the pursuit of happiness as one of the top 3 values of the former colonies.

Pursuit of happiness

But how do you define ‘happiness’?

If you look at our culture, that concept changes almost daily.  It used to be ‘choose your own sport or extra-curricular activity in school’ to ‘choose our own profession or college or place to live’.  Now it’s choosing your own definition of marriage, your own gender and even your own racial identity.

Since the definition of happiness seems to shift so frequently, are you and I even in a fixed position to judge what makes for lasting happiness?  The Bible asserts in multiple places, “No! Don’t trust your heart or your mind.”

Jeremiah, spokesman for God said, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick-who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9)

Therefore, in light of that truth,it makes good sense that the Book of Proverbs counsels us NOT to: “…lean on our own understanding” Prov 3:5  Rather we are to…Trust in the Lord (not us)..”

Here’s where God recently has shown me the truth of His Word.

For years I have taught French using a methodology called TPRS Here’s a link to a useful explanation.

I have worked on the skills which are more akin to improvisational theater than anything I’ve experienced.  Workshops, personal coaching, 7 national conferences, teaching blogs have all helped to train me to improve my teaching.

But early on, I absorbed ‘being a skilled TPRS teacher’ as a tool for measuring my worth.  I saw the professionals who could ‘do TPRS’ with such ease, enjoyment and results (aka – engaged students who participated without hesitation).

As a result, I instinctively started judging my school day as a ‘good day’ if the kids responded with their creative energy and focused attention.  And it was a ‘bad day’ if I didn’t feel them eating out of my hand, so to speak.  With that much self-imposed pressure, driving to school would cause me to get anxious and nervous.  My daily question quickly grew to be: Would I be able to ‘pull it off’ again?  My faithful husband prayed daily for me.

Yet, I never questioned the wisdom of this method of self-justification. And my happiness continued to wax and wane according to my ‘success’ with this skill.  And I measured success by my students’ responses to my teaching each day.  But then I realized something about my on-going ‘morning mood’ and connected it to the following truths from God’s Word.

Psalm 1a, 3a – “Happy is the man…..whose delight is in the Law of the Lord and on His law he meditates day and night” 

Psalm 41:1 – “Happy is the man who considers the weak/powerless/poor…..

What a different way to look at happiness!  So here is what occurred to prompt me to SEE these verses in a new light.

In the couple of months between spring break and the end of the school year, I began to notice that I actually FELT happy during my drive to school each day.  That sense of peaceful contentment had kind of snuck up on me.  As I began to analyze the WHY, I saw that I was no longer measuring my day, my worth as a teacher by how well I taught my French classes.  In other words, I had stopped evaluating my skills and my students’ response to how I taught.  That was part of it, for sure. More significant was the impact that change of focus had on my unconscious thoughts while commuting.

Bu there was another change. I don’t know when it started, but sometime I consciously decided NOT to check email or any social media before I arrived at school.  That meant from the time I arose I either listened to podcast sermons while feeding the cats, exercising, and driving to school or I was reading my Bible over breakfast.  I was feeding, meditating on Truth.  And what I took in not only made me feel happy; it also caused me to be more in tune with my colleagues and students at work. Many around us often feel weak, powerless and poor. It’s a feature of this world broken by sin that everyone is battered and suffers.  Hence, souls are more fragile than we realize.

Freed from the compulsion to ‘prove’ myself each day, I have apparently allowed myself actually to enjoy teaching students and interacting with my colleagues. Schooldays turn out NOT to be all about me and how well I teach.  I’ve stopped using my classes to measure my skills.

I do thank my good Father for this wiser and healthier perspective.  Furthermore, He has given me a contract to teach again in August.  And to top it off, this summer doesn’t quite feel like a temporary pass from the galleys, but a continuation of a life learning to put into practice George Mueller’s advice to all Christians.  That is – to make oneself happy in the Lord first thing in the morning. Link here about George Mueller.

Now if I can only transfer THAT revelation to other areas of my life where I’m still imprisoned by the need to calculate how well I am ‘doing’!

Question: What’s an area of your life where you have been ‘sprung’ from one of your former SUBTITLES and the burden of maintaining it?

Lost in thought – musings about abiding in the Vine

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Lost in thought

 

 

 

John 15:5

 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

I came across my friend, lost in thought. He didn’t hear me approach. Reaching out gently, I touched his shoulder so he wouldn’t jump. “Where ARE you? You look deep in thought!”

Don’t we sometimes refer to the content of our thoughts as a place?

At the very least, this illustration from ordinary life helps me to understand and apply what it means to abide in Christ.

Pondering again the whole viticulture analogy Jesus uses to differentiate HIS role from ours yielded some clarity.

If Jesus is the vine (think: TRUNK) and you and I are branches growing out of the vine, we are dependent on nourishment from the trunk. We need to stay connected, no matter how forceful the storms of everyday life blow. Our ‘soul’ survival and our spiritual vitality while inhabiting this current Earth depend on our on-going union with Jesus.

What role does the Father play? God the Father is the farmer, the vinedresser whose job it is to (superin)tend HIS garden. That means He sometimes cuts away new growth if it isn’t headed in the direction He deems best. His pruning sheers clip away the dead stuff as well. And He occasionally transplants us somewhere we didn’t choose, sometimes in soil that doesn’t seem to suit! But apparently, in His wisdom, He knows this particular dirt is rich and will cause us to produce more. I don’t always like the TASTE of His nourishing compost piles. There’s other plant food I would prefer, (namely, my COMFORT)!

Not only does the Master Gardner govern our physical setting, His Son as the vital vine, instructs us in how to be a ‘good branch’. Seems the only job He assigns us is to ‘abide’ in His Son, the vine.  But what does THAT mean? And how are we to do that?

Remember my lost-in-thought friend? We actually abide wherever our thoughts go. If we want to stay connected to Jesus, then we need to think often and hard on what He says in His word. Applying a quote from my favorite puritan, William Gurnall, we must ‘suck hard at the breast of the Covenant’. I think the idea is to be like a dog, working over a bone, aiming to get every last drop of tasty meat and residual flavor that he can.

In the same manner, I want to make it my chief daily activity to turn over Jesus’ promises, His deeds, His words, in order to gain as much nourishment and joy as I can.

What about the Holy Spirit? What role does He play? Ah, this is what is cool and encouraging. God’s Spirit is the One who actually produces the grapes, that is the fruit, through us.

Until recently I thought that ‘bearing fruit’ meant PRODUCING fruit. It doesn’t! It means to be the living stalk attached to the trunk from which the 3rd member of the Godhead grows the fruit. Our branch mission or job, therefore, is to focus on Jesus and His living Word.

This is actually work? Just pondering and thinking?   I know, I know, it’s pretty humbling, isn’t it! We think we’re to do GREAT things for Christ. But remember how Jesus actually addressed our labor?

John 6:28-29 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.

That’s all! Think on and believe what Jesus says.

If it is we who produce the fruit, then we could claim credit and look for glory. The way God has set it up, He alone gets the credit. Well, what about us? At least we get the fruit, right?

Yes and no. The fruit isn’t primarily meant for the branch that holds it up, that bears it; it’s for others. Nonetheless, we get the privilege of being part of God’s provision to the Church and the confused world. And when God’s fruit grown in us nourishes others, we ourselves are replenished! What a good deal!

Proverbs 11:25b ….those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Bottom Line? What we think about matters!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why God wants to be the one to take care of our worries

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Last week I practiced handing over each worry/anxiety/problem/’concern’ as it came up as an act of obedience to God’s call to humble myself by transferring/dumping/casting them on Him. (…when I remembered!)

Not my problem

 

 

 

 

God’s words as recorded by Peter was my guide (1 Peter 5: 6-7):

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

The new thought that pressed in on me, though, was the ultimate reasons God gives for why we MUST hand over our burdens.  The first one is explicit, a kind of ‘DUH’:

  • we are to hand them over to God because it is actually HE who is the one handling them!  It’s not something He says He WILL do, but that He right now is undertaking. So when we hold on to them and ‘think about‘, aka WORRY, we’re just spending precious energy in a maelstrom of anxiety that is accomplishing ZILCH.

But here’s what is even cooler about God’s command. I’ve always stopped after verse 7, not noticing what follows.  There happens to be an even MORE crucial reason why we are NOT to invest energy into our problems.  Look at the next exhortation as verses 8 and 9 continue the thought:

  • Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith.

When I really read these words, letting them sink in, the Holy Spirit reminded me that ‘…I am not my own.  I was bought with a price….I am an ambassador for Christ..I am on duty – always!’

And what good is a soldier on duty if he is distracted?  Our orders are to be alert and watchful:

Enemy the devil

 

 

 

 

I’m beginning to see that my thinking has been too small.  My error was believing – falsely – that my worries were my own business and didn’t impact anyone else.

I obviously have forgotten that I am responsible ALSO to my brothers and sisters in Christ, to look out for their spiritual well being.  And if I am so self-absorbed; if I am acting like a functional atheist who has no good and loving Heavenly Father, I am hurting the Church.

Here’s what I want to remember this week, that with Holy Spirit power I am both encouraged and am capable to:

  • trust in my good Father at all times (Ps 62:8)
  • not depend on MY understanding of the problems, worries, concerns, needs that concern me and my loved ones (Prov 3:5)
  • not do anything from selfish conceit, but be concerned and interested in the lives of others (Phil 2:3-4)

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