A new year, a new word

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For this is the will of God, your sanctification.…..1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

I’ve never chosen a ‘word’ for the new year, have you?  One of my principals, Marilyn Lane, introduced me to this concept at our first meeting of a new calendar year when teachers had returned to prepare for the new semester. Since this was a Christian school and we were a small faculty, we always began our morning with prayer. I don’t remember Marilyn’s particular word she chose, but the concept, as yet untried, has stayed with me.

Something interesting akin to the ‘word of the year’ ritual happened to me this past July, 2021.  A letter of the alphabet chose me!  Let me be more accurate. It wasn’t a single letter which happily invaded my life, but two: the prefix ‘re’.

It happened like this.  Regina and I met for a quick retreat and connect time in a town equidistant from her home and mine.  I had been struggling for some time with feeling both driven and unsettled due to an unplanned, abrupt retirement from teaching French mid-year when Mike accepted a new job here in Huntsville.  I did not know how to adjust to being at home full time.  I could have sought out another teaching job but I had actually longed to leave the classroom and pursue language interests in other more freeing and flexible ways.  The problem was I had not prepared emotionally or mentally for this transition.

I knew I was in crisis when Regina and I caught up and I shared from the heart.  That’s when my new friend re dropped into my life.  What do I mean?

During our short time together and with Regina’s patient and probing questions, the Holy Spirit gently began to invade my soul with the fresh breeze of God’s truth.  Words and concepts awakened, encourage me and gave me peace. They all happened to begin with ‘re’. I listed 31, but here are just a few. She and I both caught God’s ‘wink’, when we noticed that Regina’s name just happened to begin with ‘re!

  • Retreat
  • Release
  • Restore
  • Reset
  • Return
  • Repent
  • Rejoice
  • Revive
  • Retire
  • Rely
  • Receive

The six months’ worth of the Spirit’s counsel through ‘re’ truths have brought growth and healthy change in how to think. I can now say I am no longer driven, having set boundaries in my week in order to savor being with God and other people, as well as read for pleasure.

Now, on the cusp of a new year, some other words, not a prefix though, have percolated to the level of conscious thought. I recognized the process when ‘Purification‘(sanctification, holiness) emerged. I realize that THIS is something I want the Holy Spirit to work in me.  I’m weary of being an alloy of faith and works as well as a mix of part reliance on Jesus and part on me. I am praying that my longing and desire to be whole and genuine grow so that the pure trust and pure love and pure peace ratios increase.  Don’t some of us accept the cost we have to pay for 100% pure extra-virgin olive oil?  

That first ‘p’ word started me musing about other words that begin with the letter ‘p’, such as peace, patience, power, privilege, poor (in spirit), placed.

So, this year I’m embracing not one word, nor a prefix, but a letter of the alphabet and biblical words that begin with it.  We’ll see what the Lord Holy Spirit does next in my life.

Spiritual fruit takes a while to show itself

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

I’ve been asking God for a long time to change my heart when it comes to how I view time.  I know full well that it’s an illusion to think of time as ‘mine’. As a Christian, I don’t actually own anything, whether material possessions, talents, the body I inhabit or the hours in a day.  I’ve known that in my head, but I don’t seem to have power over that kind of internal change.  And since God’s word teaches us that he, God, is the one who gives us desires, it seems logical to me to ask him to change my heart.

So, when I noticed a less selfish heart response one day this week, I felt encouraged.  “He’s really doing it; he’s changing my heart!”  But it wasn’t 6 hours later that my cheery demeanor evaporated.  This was the proverbial 2 steps forward – one step back, for the Lord humbled me, showing me how much holy spirit heart surgery remains to be done.

Last week I read the book by James Clear, Atomic Habits.  In an early chapter Clear described how the Chinese bamboo tree grows.  Apparently, if you plant a seed for this species of bamboo, you won’t see any green shoots for about 5 years.  No, your seed hasn’t died.  Growth has been happening steadily, but underground with the solitary focus of developing a foundational root system. It takes years to create a sufficient and extensive root network strong enough to support bamboo stalks that can tower 90 feet and higher.

Here’s what’s fascinating about this kind of bamboo tree.  One day, with no warning and after about five years of invisible but real growth below the surface, a shoot will abruptly appear and shoot up 3 feet in 24 hours!  By the end of a month, your Chinese Bamboo Tree towers 90 feet. Whoa!

Do you see why this plant example might illustrate how our faith grows? Jesus, himself, used the example of a large mustard. I don’t know how long it takes the tiny mustard seed to emerge, but a big tree will need strong and deep roots. 

You might know someone who has heard and received the gospel truth of what Jesus Christ did to save and redeem sinners. But you might not see any ‘fruit’, that evidence of a changed life.  Take heart, if your friend has been sitting under good teaching and/or reading his Bible, the roots have been growing. We humans simply tend to be impatient.  In many endeavors, when we don’t see the results we expect, we easily give up, resignedly concluding, “That didn’t work….I’m no good at…..he’ll never change!”  When all along, we didn’t exercise patience.

Back to my ‘growth’ in heart. The good news this week was when my volunteer shift at the local crisis pregnancy center went almost an hour longer than normal, I found myself unexpectedly NOT impatient.  I had no thought of, “It’s past lunch time, I won’t have enough time to do….” I simply felt pleasure in spending time with this late-to-walk-in gal who needed pregnancy and spiritual counseling.

I high-fived God on the way home.  The afternoon passed quickly with barely 30 minutes for lunch.  We had no food in the house since we had arrived home the previous night from a week out of town.  By the time I put away the groceries, it was practically time to start dinner prep. I started to feel sorry for myself.

When Mike passed through the kitchen, I remarked, “I’m almost finished with all the grocery sorting and storing and I’ve only had a short break all day!”  He remarked, “Are you feeling resentful?”  I wanted to deny that, but explained, “Well….maybe a little, because I’ve been so busy.”  When he explained he picked up on my tone, my pride was hurt.  I HAD been telling God it was not right to feel sorry for myself. After all, I had enjoyed ample time on our trip….but that was my head talking and not my heart.

After asking my husband to pray for my heart, I settled into the realization that God both encouraged me and gently scolded me, all in one day.  He’s still at work on my root system! More growth needed.

My sin exposed, the good and the bad of it.

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For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Romans 7:19 NIV

For the very first time ever, I can say: ‘I hate my sin!’ I realize that until this morning, I have never seen my sin from God’s perspective: ugly, shameful and with a will of its own.

A trail of broken confidences follows me. Heart-sharings from Christian girlfriends who have trusted me as they confide and unload burdens. Issues that they would not want me pass on to anyone else.  And I have betrayed them.

A gentle malaise, a warning from the Holy spirit recently came over me when I contemplated ‘confiding’ in someone else what a friend recently had revealed to me. I ignored divine counsel and pandered to my naked lust to feel superior at the expense of a friend.  I have known this side of me for years.  And in the past, with ‘sincere and well-intentioned’ human sincerity tried to tamp it down, to resist indulging it. No success, nor any progress, evidently!

Writing this early in the morning, I now see the wisdom in John Owen’s advice: ‘Be killing sin or sin will be killing you!’ Constant vigilance is our call.  This is the ‘denying yourself’ that Jesus teaches.

What happened this morning, then?  I woke up from a deep sleep and rescue from a Holy Spirit nightmare.  I know it was from the Lord because conviction pierced my heart.  And I felt shame.

How can I call this good? Because the Lord has finally brought me to a place where I can say with true conviction: “I hate my sin.!”  No more will I harbor the illusion that I can control this behavior. Cold Turkey is the only remedy. Give it up, girl!  Yet, I know I have no power.  I don’t trust myself.  I am addicted to those sweet morsels of corruption, that once digested putrefy in my heart. Excuse my coarseness, but the results are far worse than those embarrassing farts!

I think THAT is the point, to know that I can’t control my sin.  It’s not a habit to be controlled.  I must be willing to eradicate it.  Is this the living sacrifice that God calls for?  To lay ourselves on God’s altar with honest vows and pleas? 

This morning, I begged, ‘Take this away from me, Father! Make me willing to keep offering it freely to you. Yet, you know I can put no confidence in Maria’s mind or heart to do this even five minutes from now. Like Paul who shared with the Roman Christians I admit…’

22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

I see the way forward and it is daunting. For how will I and any of us put to death this insatiable monster named ‘Me!’? My and your only hope is a moment-by-moment alert, desperate, clinging, dependence on the Holy Spirit who IS our Ezer, our ‘Helper, par excellence’.

May the Lord give us that victory that is in Christ who is our righteousness and our sanctification. We already have his forgiveness. But I NOW want to be conformed to Jesus MORE than indulge this evil habit. Keep me abiding in that NOW.

Are you preoccupied with how someone else needs to change?

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Be still, and know that I am God Psalm 46:10 NIV

I’m noticing a pattern among women, myself included. Often, we find ourselves in a desperate situation or worried about someone we love.  Well-trained as believers, we start praying for God to rescue us or the other person.

We faithfully keep praying and nothing happens.  Then we start questioning God: ‘What’s up with this?  Why are you not answering my desperate prayers? What I’m praying for is a good thing.  It’s not for money or fame or anything ‘selfish’ like that.  I’m asking you to do what the Bible records as your own desires, Father!’

I first experienced God’s silence, his apparent unwillingness to answer ‘a spiritual need’, when I was about 30. Living in England we worshipped at a local Anglican church. As we got to know people, we were invited to participate in a weekly house group.

I felt hungry to go deep into God’s word and to draw closer to him.  I can’t recall what caused me to think that Mike was less ‘spiritual’, but I vividly remember frequently tugging on God’s sleeve, so to speak, begging him to grow my husband’s faith.  Nothing changed.  I even started privately lamenting my unanswered prayers about him with a couple of mature women at church. 

Here’s the catch.  My tone when I would share why I was praying, sprang from a boastful position.  Picture in your head: ‘I’m so spiritual.  I just wish my husband would catch up with me!’

I know.  It’s awful.  I’m ashamed to pull back the curtain and give you a peak into my heart.  But it’s the truth.

It was a good 12 or 13 years before the Lord changed Mike.

Only in looking back do I see how my good Father first chose to straighten me out. I oozed spiritual pride. My heart was ugly.

Here’s my conclusion.  We can’t see or know all the details in our lives or those of others.  Only God does.  He is God and his point of view is from above.  You and I live horizontally; hence our information is limited.

A promise from Psalm 84:11 has helped me adjust my assessment of God and his slow or strange ways of answering our requests.  In this psalm he pledges that he will withhold NO good thing.

If that’s the case, then we are wrong to write off those events as ‘this should not have happened!’  What we deem as bad, horrible, painful, devastating, unfair, exhausting could actually be circumstances he deems good. These are circumstances that he has ‘planned to permit’, as John Piper notes. They are all for good purposes, plans that only the unique all-wise loving God of the universe knows.

Thinking about a friend whose husband seems to have walked away from believing God, I jotted down in my journal what she might respond to me about Psalm 84:11,

  • ‘But this is a good thing I’m asking God for!’
  • I reflected back to her on paper, ‘But maybe there is a better thing God wants for you or your husband!’

God says in Psalm 46:10 (with my paraphrase):  Stop fretting and worrying.  I am God.  I have the highest vista over this situation.  I know what I am doing.

The Bible teaches that God is providential, that he controls every subatomic particle in the universe and directs each one in a way that does not violate our free will nor inculpate him in sin. That being the case, then we must reason outward, starting from his word, not from our perspective.

My conclusion about answered prayer, based on anecdotal accounts and my life is that often we prideful women need a lot more holiness training than our men.  Our good Father loves us SO much that he will stop at nothing, even delaying ‘fixing our husbands’, to get us right.  When we’ve been ‘pruned, cut and cauterized’, only THEN does he turn his purifying gaze on our guys.

Don’t you want to get on with ‘it’ then? I know I do!

May we turn our attention (not our prayers) away from how much someone else needs to change and focus on becoming more holy, like Jesus. We can trust the Master.

A bit of vulnerability

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Our Father is a very personal parent.  He treats each of us differently, according to what we need. In His holy judgment obviously. I like to think of His discipleship training course as an IEP, an individual education plan, in ‘educator speak’. 

This week has been no exception to tailor-made lessons for Maria.  Painful ones, yes, but kind.

**

May the God of peace…(be) working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ….Hebrews 13:21 ESV

I woke up feeling blah today. Usually cheery, I checked the usual suspects (sleep, pain, problems).  Fact is, I didn’t sleep well and my body feels off. But the REAL issue is that my heart is cold.

Two days ago, I read an email from a ministry we support. Once a year, they launch a focused prayer season.  I didn’t print out the attached guide.  It just felt too much, to add something else to pray for every day.

Then yesterday, our pastor sent out his weekly email detailing the upcoming Sunday. This year, 2021, we’re back worshipping in person. And two other services are planned for Passion Week.  My reaction?  Not interested.

Now THAT is the real reason for ‘the blahs’.  God made me look fully into a picture of my unholiness, my sin.

But, God prompted a friend…..who just ‘happened’ to send the above verse. Firmly nudged by the Spirit, I made a ‘deal’ with God. “If that Good Friday service is during the day, I’ll go!”

I checked the email. Sure enough, it’s scheduled for noon.

*****

He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive. Acts 20:35 NASB

God’s timing, as always, was impeccable. I listened to an interview with a Christian comedian while cleaning yesterday. He described how his comedy improved once he changed the question (and purpose) from ‘How can I get people to laugh?’  to ‘How can I give people what they need?’

This morning I felt hurt when Anne texted, cancelling Spanish class for Noah because of her surgical appointment.  I have been longing for more contact with her.  So, not even knowing that she had scheduled a procedure stung.

I sat quietly with God, journal open.  Providentially, I had been on the cusp of writing down that comedian’s advice.  By grace, the Holy Spirit prompted me to ask, “What can I give Anne right now in this relationship?” Then I knew!  I can write her a newsy, encouraging card.

Immediately, I felt happy, hurt feelings dissolved. I had let go of “I’m not getting what I want” to something better and more freeing.

And you know what?  About an hour after I experienced the bigger blessing of looking at how I could serve this dear gal, she texted and suggested we face time tomorrow. A sweet smile from my Father.

Sticking to my word is costly

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But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes ‘ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil. Matthew 5:37 (NASB)

I bet you’d agree with me, that it’s easy to fall into trouble through what comes out of our own mouths.

Just a couple days ago I had one of those pop quizzes from God. It wasn’t new material; in fact it was a review of a character trait that he is working to form in me – that of being true to my word. Apparently, I still need the reinforcement!

I have a cousin in another state. Let’s call her ‘Sue’. Sue and her husband ‘Pete’ and I usually check in with each other by phone once every couple of months. She works during the day, so our catch-up calls are in the evening. The least convenient time for me.

When Mike gets home from work, I focus on him during our ‘sacred’ happy hour/dinner prep/sharing prayers and dining part of the evening. Then when the dishes are done, I enjoy sipping my tea, nibbling on my 100 % cacao dark chocolate and reading – ‘Maria Time’.

I knew that Pete’s oldest grandson was to start college this fall, so while I was cooking blackened salmon on Monday night, I texted Pete and asked for an update. He immediately called back, but I didn’t answer because it was time to flip the blackened salmon in my cast iron pan. Once safely searing on the other side I texted back: ‘Can’t talk now, I’m cooking salmon!’

He texted back: Call us when you finish dinner and I’ll tell you about the grandkids.

I inwardly grimaced and said, ‘How about tomorrow night!’ And so, it was settled.

The next day, my selfishness started kicking in. The urge to postpone grew stronger and stronger. Finally, I decided to ‘just be honest’ and propose a different time, maybe during the day (when it isn’t so costly to me to spend time with someone on the phone). But if it were during the day, I knew it would have to be a chat just with Pete who is retired, because Sue works full time still.

After dinner I texted Pete with that proposal. We ate dinner. I was relieved that I had been forthcoming with Pete, sharing that the reason I wanted to reschedule the chat to a day time was because I focused on my husband during the evenings, (leaving out the ‘Maria Time’ part of the truth).

But God began to chide me! I was not at peace.

Ignoring the lack of peace while we cleaned up the kitchen, I made some tea, sat down to check my texts and emails before settling in to read. I saw a response from Pete.

He simply had texted back: “Call Sue’s cell, mine is dying.”

There it was…foiled by God! Cornered into keeping my original word to Pete.

So, I called Sue’s cell. The three of us chatted, catching up. Toward the end of our call Sue asked me to pray about an important meeting happening the next day. I realize that had I allowed my selfishness to rule, I would have missed knowing about Sue and her need. I even took the opportunity DURING our chat to pray out loud for her.

When she wrote me after her meeting, she thanked me and reported that knowing that I was praying for her had kept her calm and at peace. Pinged!!!

Had it NOT been for the persistent nagging of the Holy Spirit I would not have kept my word. Thank you, Father!! I think I understand why keeping one’s word is important.

But I don’t think the Father believed I had REALLY learned my lesson. Two days later, He gave me another opportunity to practice faithfulness to what I had assured a friend I would do. She had asked me to listen to one of her pastor’s sermons. I replied that I would the next time I was on the treadmill.

I did set my iPhone to the podcast and started to listen to the 40-minute sermon once I hopped on the treadmill. But halfway through Satan ganged up against me WITH my natural selfish bent and whispered: ‘You can stop now, halfway through and shift to what you rather listen to. As long as you are honest and tell your friend that you listened to a good chunk of the sermon…..’

My response THIS time was immediate. I spoke back: ‘But I TOLD her, my words were explicit, that I would listen to the sermon during my treadmill time!’

This time it felt good to stick to my word, the FULL intent of my word. And you know what? I finished the sermon and STILL had time to listen to the podcast I wanted to hear.

God is SO good and gentle. And I am SO selfish, but…..I take comfort in his promise in Phil 1:6: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in ME will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (ESV)

The gift of a small church family

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And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)

Dear Hazelwood Church,

Almost 6 years ago (16 June 2013) Mike and I walked into Hazelwood PCA in Waynesville, North Carolina and sat down for Sunday School.  You all greeted us with warm smiles and interest.  Starting that Sunday morning, God thrust us into your midst and you drew us into your lives.

Now as we head on to the next God-adventure, we are filled with gratitude toward God and to you, this tiny but vibrant outpost of saints in the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

Looking back, I clearly see how a small church family is uniquely structured both to love and to sanctify its members, provided each allows himself to be stitched into the fabric of the family. Hovering on the periphery is NOT conducive to receiving the Father’s purifying love.

Here are several ways you loved ME well, working symbiotically with the Father to sanctify me.  (Mike, too, received your love, trust, and support in many ways!)

  • You trusted me by welcoming my experiences and passions. I like to teach, to read and to pray.  Patrick, our pastor, allowed me to offer two workshops (one on contentment and one on prayer) to the women of the church.  My monthly submissions from different on-line ministries were always included in the monthly church newsletters.  You, the body, supported initiatives to publicize weekly prayers for church-funded missionaries, for Muslims during Ramadan and for God to open the hearts of the French during several spring campaigns.
  • You challenged me to move a bit more OUT of my selfish inclinations (I’m an Enneagram 5!). Sometimes I felt ‘guilted’ to attend a function, like the monthly potlucks. In keeping with transparency, I don’t like to go out at night once I’m home from work.  I went to my first women’s circle one night about 15-16 months after our arrival.  It went on TOO long, in my opinion.J The next meeting was the annual December supper meeting.  Thanks to God’s sense of humor, I found myself volunteering to take on the ministry of facilitating those monthly evening circle meetings.
  • You then allowed me to move the focus of our small group of gals to a book study and prayer time. Yes, some of you ‘grumbled’ a bit about having to READ something else, but all in love.
  • You corrected, challenged, and (when you felt led by God) rebuked me for my good. You also cried with me and prayed with and for me.
  • You allowed me to get to know the ‘real you’ by sharing your pain and your needs. Inviting me to pray for you gave me a sense of participating in your lives. Then when God DID come through by answering our prayers, my faith thickened and deepened.  I saw MORE of God and how good He is.
  • Just as these past 6 years of teaching in a school with colleagues of diverse beliefs broadened me and grew my compassion, so did living in your midst. Getting to know ‘small town’ folk with roots and older believers grew my appreciation and understanding of God’s love of variety. God exposed me to courageous men and women who suffer ill health and aging issues with dignity, faith in God and cheery smiles.
  • Finally, but not less significant, those of you whom I found a bit annoying at times were intentional GOOD gifts from God for my sanctification. I’ve known for a while that just as in the friction of marriage, the differences between friends, close neighbors and colleagues (ministry or job) are meant for our growth toward being like Jesus.  They are part of our Father’s individualized, curated, and planned course in His ‘School of Sanctification’.  Here’s a humbling supposition:  maybe ‘Aggravating Andy’ will remain a nuisance until I, Maria, have learned from my unholy reactions and thoughts how displeasing I have acted and how sinful/displeasing my responses have been.  If the Father’s will for my life is growth in holiness to be like His Son, then He will repeat the necessary lesson until I pass that section.  And it might be at the expense of ‘Aggravating Andy’. (disclaimer – I have no one in mind when I use that sobriquet!)

So, dear church family, thank you for embracing me and drawing me into the local body.  Thank you for earnestly wanting to know me, even the annoying parts!  Thank you for your love.

Mike and I have never before been prayed for and ‘commissioned’, sent off to be ‘missionaries’ to any people group.  But that is what you did this morning by means of Patrick’s prayer and the reception you gave us after the service.  You are sending us out from little but power-filled Hazelwood PCA, nestled right up against the Smoky Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina to go and serve the people of northern Alabama in Huntsville.  God has equipped us well in these past six years to take the Good News of His Grace and make it known far and wide, yet up close and personal with our presence.  We will pray to discern His leading in selecting a new church family.  We don’t want to disappoint you or our good God.  So, continue to pray primarily for our ‘obedience in faith’, by grace.  We will pray for you as well.

With much love and affection,

Maria & Mike Cochrane

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:2

The pain of childbirth – a picture of holiness

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Consider Mary.  Pregnant with God’s glory.  (see Luke passage at the end)

Like some of you, I have given birth to two children.  As each pregnancy advanced, my growing state became more and more of a hindrance to my ‘normal’ pattern of life prior to conception.

And THEN, that final couple of days of growing and UNBELIEVABLY intense, painful contractions – it was far from pleasant.  But effective.  And new life, when fully formed and ready for THIS world, was born.

Both pregnancies acquainted me with the thickness of a normal cervix and the size of an ordinary womb of which I was only vaguely aware each month.

But pregnancy and delivery taught me new things, through suffering.  Were those experiences worth the experiences?  Without a doubt.

How does this relate to holiness?

Picture the Spirit of God who comes to take up residence inside a new believer.  As C.S. Lewis has written, this new inhabitant starts to do major renovations that a baby Christian hasn’t even asked for, let alone heard about.

Adding to Lewis’ illustration, another picture, other than ‘flipper of homes’, came to my mind this morning.  I’ve been reading John Owen and John Calvin about God’s purpose in curating suffering for our growth in sanctification.

(Recall God’s will for our lives IS sanctification – 1 Thess 4:3 and how important He considers holiness, ‘without which no one will see the Lord’ – Hebr 12:14)

These classic Christian authors prompted me to think of expanding holiness WITHIN me, akin to a baby expanding in the womb.  The more I submit to God’s will with humility, patience, and gratitude, the more the Holy Spirit, aka my doula or birthing coach, grows this new spiritual life within me.  I’m reminded of John the Baptist’s statement about Jesus as recorded in John 3:30 –  He must increase but I must decrease.

This new spiritual life IS Christ in us, the promise of future glory. (Col 1:27)  Just as a pregnant mom undergoes a growing baby stretching out her womb, making room for new life, so, too, the Holy Spirit pushes against some of the old self-centered us, crowding it out to create space for His growing presence.  Pain and suffering are part and parcel of pregnancy and childbirth.  And so are they also in our progress toward holiness.

That Holy Spirit-induced ‘new you’ is expanding and pushing against the boundaries and walls of the ‘old you’.  That thick ‘flesh’ is being thinned out, which HURTS like Hades (as my mom used to say).

That image of being ‘pregnant with God’s glory’* resonated with me this morning.  Our Father is not content to let that presence of holiness engrafted in us through the Holy Spirit remain the same size.  You and I must be glad, therefore, of His expansion plans to complete the work, He has pledged to do.  We must learn to accept suffering as from the Hand of God, lovingly intended for our good:  our holiness and thus our happiness.  After all, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.’ John 16:21

Luke 1:27b-38 (NIV): 

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

 

*pregnant with God’s glory, like Mary – a phrase I read somewhere but don’t know to whom I can attribute it.

The Gift of Humiliation?

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“I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then I must watch my reaction to it.”  Father Richard Rohr

That line bites!  Asking God?  for humiliation?  daily?  How is that wise or even safe?

But what if….

  • my justification for how I act/think needs correcting?
  • I think too highly of myself in some area(s)?
  • the only way God can get my attention is if someone I HAVE to heed points out a mistake, a failing, some negligence in duty, a SIN, a way I’ve hurt him?

The recent painful conversation with my boss three weeks ago certainly has given me much about which to think, pray and discuss with a few friends and family.  And I’ve sought God’s counsel through what He daily reveals in reading and chewing on His Word.

Last Monday, a parent of a former student dropped off some French newspapers she had collected for me in July on her and her daughter’s inaugural trip to Paris.  She had ‘re-discovered them in a corner’ and was just now, in December, bringing them by my classroom.  She included a long, handwritten letter where she detailed all the ways I had supported and counseled and guided her daughter during the 3 years I had her as an advisee and French student.  The timing could not have been better.  I saw that in this very school where I’ve encountered so much painful indirect criticism and chastisement (parent to principal to me)  I AM making a difference in some lives.  Maybe not with the particular student whose parent said I wasn’t supporting to her daughter’s satisfaction, but with others.  Thank you, Father!

Furthermore, my desire to improve how I teach French lives on.

So this morning I thought – What if…this BIG and PAINFUL thing is NOT meant by God as an indication that I should leave my current school but is actually just one of His good gifts of correction, designed to make me more like one of Jesus’ little sisters whom He is molding through many trials?

I’m not the only one suffering through a hardship.  Many brothers and sisters currently or soon will face the challenge of discerning God’s will.  These weighty decisions feel like a foggy business, with no clear step-by-step process to follow.  Some of you are grappling with decisions about business direction, moving house, changing jobs, whether to say something important to a loved one, what to do about aging parents, health treatments or any number of other issues.

I heard or read, and it resonates as so true that:  MORE important than knowing the right decision IS knowing the right person – the One, True God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Christ and giver of His divine Spirit.  This triune God IS the One who continuously shows steadfast love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness because that is who HE is!

So, do I dare pray Richard Rohr’s outrageous request and look for the humiliation vitamin to heal and strengthen me? (and you and I thought to pray for patience was a dangerous business!)  Well, if we believe God’s Word that the more we grow in holiness, the more we see Him and the more joyful we become, then why not?

Let’s look to God for a reassuring word from Deuteronomy 31:8:

It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.

They don’t think like I do!

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‘Everyone’ has discovered the Enneagram!  So it seems these days.  This lens into how each of us classifies life at an early age, whether accurately or not, points to the self-defense strategies we have cobbled together.  These tools or personality coping strategies appear to be set by age 5 and then we unconsciously hone them as we grow up.  They are NOT the real us, for they are just protective layers or a persona that we craft and wear to cover up our vulnerable self.  Finding out which type each one of us is, requires that we look at our heart motives, not our behaviors.

And that requires inward work.  No one can typecast us by evaluating how we act. Knowing oneself requires courage.  It takes ruthless honesty to pull back the layers of past shame and fear, guided by the gentle Holy Spirit. For as God says through His prophet in Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Well, with God’s help, we can know some things about our heart.

My journey with the Enneagram began in April.  I met my friend Mandy for one of our infrequent coffees.  She and I share a love for books and thinking, but she lives in Nashville and I live in western North Carolina.  As we were catching up, Mandy told me about a book whose wisdom and insights had NAILED her good!  Instantly mesmerized, I asked her about it.  The title of the paradigm she began to unfold sounded a bit new-age-ish – the Enneagram.  So instead of buying the book she was studying, I asked our library to order The Road Back to You.

When it arrived and I opened to page one, I knew I had to get my OWN copy so I could write in it.  And then the ‘binge’ began – 3 more books and all the podcasts that the authors Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile had recorded etc.

What appeals to me about this system of 9 (‘ennea’ is Greek for 9) different ways of looking at life are several key benefits that accrue to the one who decides to glean and use the useful bits:

  •  it confronts me with the incontrovertible fact that MY way is not the only way to view life and react to others and circumstances
  • there’s a reason I am weird (or maybe I’m not weird, but normal!)
  • there are ways I can grow up and discard some of my coping mechanisms that might have worked in the past. I’m learning that they are not healthy NOR are they what God is calling me to be as His beloved child and servant. Awareness, however, precedes change.

The ways each of the 9 personality types differ have to do in part with wounds we interpreted as young children.  As I understand it, Mom might have been scowling at us and as a 2 or 3-year-old, we drew the conclusion that we were to blame.  That could have been the case, or more likely, she was preoccupied with something else.  Nonetheless, very early on, from our environment, we crafted a way to protect ourselves and get our needs met.

How have this knowledge and understanding concretely helped Mike and me?   When one of us is ‘having one of those moments!’ we are beginning to offer grace more quickly and NOT take the emotional reaction personally.  “Oh, that is Maria’s 5-ness or Mike’s 1-ness acting out.”

Being an ‘Observer’, the 5 who conserves her physical, emotional and rational energy out of fear of depletion, I live in my thoughts.  I honestly believed that everyone else did as well.  So for all the 37 years before April 2017, I trumpeted to Mike: “If you would JUST change your thinking, you could automatically change your emotions.”  He never seemed to ‘get it’, or so I concluded.  But then after April,  I learned that he and others don’t view life like I do.

Call me naïve!  Or a slow learner.

So what is Mike as a 1 on the Enneagram circle like?  He is a ‘Perfectionist’ who operates out of his ‘gut’ or body.  He’d call it instinct.  Visceral feelings lead and color his thoughts.  I’m less likely these days to SAY out loud: “You don’t have to think like that!”  (code for:  Your thinking is wrong!)  I’ve realized not only how unloving that response has been, but also how ineffective it is. So these days I practice stopping myself from correcting his thinking and focus my energy toward understanding just what he is feeling.

Do I have feelings?  Yes, but they trail an event by at least 24 hours.  Often when I have hurt Mike by an action or a tone or a look, I can apologize and I do so, but I don’t FEEL sorry.  I THINK sorry.  And later, the feelings hit me. It’s then that I taste shame and sorrow and it rocks me when I FEEL how I’ve hurt him.

But as a rule, I’d much rather talk to you about your thoughts and my thoughts and what we’ve been learning Questions fascinate me because they lead to more inquiry, which gives new understanding.

This past summer, however, I actually experienced an immediate feeling of anger at someone close to me.  (Can you actually count the feelings you have had in the past year? – that would be like asking me to count the thoughts I have had.) The other intense feeling that hit me happened in early April.  So that’s TWO immediate feelings this year…..but who’s keeping track?

On this rare occasion, there was an event, triggered by another person, followed by an instant intense feeling.  In tandem with that feeling, my thoughts raced.  I stood outside the scenario and evaluated this rare occurrence.  I actually felt GOOD that a strong feeling had barged in, even if uninvited, for to me it represented growth!  I CAN feel and identify an emotion!  In between marveling over the presence of this stranger, I also rationally thought through the consequences were I to choose to welcome him fully and allow him freedom of expression.  I knew I dared not, at the risk of ruining an evening among family members.  But the cost of NOT sharing the feeling was that I withdrew and projected ‘Ice Princess’.  My protective stance.  Yes, and a bit passive-aggressive.

Back to the present.  It’s been 8 months since Mandy introduced me to this personality index.  ‘Everyone’ else as well seems to be discovering this ancient ‘spiritual’ tool toward wholeness and integrity. Or I’m finding that since it’s been in the marketplace of ideas of America since the ’80s, some of my friends have known about it for a while.  But no one I have personally encountered, other than Mandy, actually uses it.

One thing DOES annoy me.  There’s a Facebook group of Enneagram devotées.  Some of them seem to have adopted the stance that their type is the correct way to look at things.  One practitioner invited group members to offer suggestions on how to ‘help’ a 5 in her small study circle to “go deeper and learn to share feelings”.   I suggested that ‘feelings’ might be the tool and term that everyone else feels skilled at employing, but the 5 turns to thoughts as his/her tool of choice for expressing what is meaningful. And that the leader should allow this person to communicate in that way.  The advice-seeker lightly chastised me for offering the suggestion that what some call feelings, 5s might call thoughts.  No such beast allowed, apparently.

Dear Friends, one of the beauties of the Enneagram is how it shows us that we are all different. The wisest way to help a 5 or any number let go of his/her preferred, but stunted coping strategy is to model healthier ways of living in a winsome, uncritical manner.   Being around non-judgmental broken fellow sojourners who are walking with God both gentles me and encourages me.  Chastisement does not.

How about you?  Are you an Enneagram practitioner?  If so, I’d be interested in learning how the Enneagram is helping you grow more integrated, more like Jesus.  Please leave a comment!  And if you are a Five like me, please let me know.

 

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