Who or what dominates your thinking?

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Is it just me, or do you find that living by faith and not by sight grows HARDER and HARDER as the years go by?  The ‘pop quizzes’ that used to land on me every few weeks now seem to show up every couple of days.

Not one to spot my unbelief right away, I sense God gently but firmly taking my face between his hands (so to speak!) to make me look at my unbelief. My pride recoils at yet more evidence for my lack of trust in the Lord as Good Father, Faithful Shepherd, Wise Counselor.

This past week has been that kind of personal attention or ‘handling’.  I have struggled to let go of persistent worry. It’s not that I have been anxious about anything, rather I have OBSESSIVELY ‘angsted’.  My personalized version of Phil 4:6 is now “Do not OBSESS over anything!” rather than the tame ‘do not be anxious’.

I KNOW what I’m supposed to do and I do try!

  • Daily I hand over my needs à la ‘Cast your cares on Him….’
  • Hourly I pray with much fervor à la ‘The fervent prayers of a righteous man…..’
  • I recollect many blessings, the good things about God, who He is and what He has done and the promises laid up for me……

Yet, I feel bound up in worry.

So, it was no surprise to me that the Sovereign Lord, the One who reigns over all creation, used a portion of yesterday’s assigned Scripture from 2 Sam 19: 1-8 to show me exactly what happens when I make a created thing PRE-EMINENT in my life.

Just so you’ll know how I recognize something as being preeminent in my life, it’s those occasions when my thoughts ‘glom’ onto a created thing like sewing pins sticking to a magnet.

Here’s a synopsis of events 2 Samuel 19:

  • King David’s rebel son Absalom has been killed by David’s men and the coup squelched.  David acts ‘un-kingly’ as he indulges his natural grief in an unceasing, over-the-top inconsolable fashion.
  • He does not publicly thank the valiant ones who risked their lives and their homes to flee Jerusalem and side with him.  He does not acknowledge the cost to his loyal citizens who probably fought against some family members supportive of Absalom.
  • He obsessively wails to such an extent, to such a danger point that General Joab, his chief of the army, has to shock him into acting like a king.  Joab point blank tells him that if he doesn’t stop crying about his son and get back to doing his job as God’s anointed king, then he’ll find himself at the end of EVERYONE’s spear.

That’s the narrative in a nutshell. In what way did I see this biblical example as a gentle rebuke from God to abandon my anxious obsession?  Reading this account revealed the evil of disobedience. God had appointed David to shepherd God’s people for Him. David courted danger, almost to the point of no return, when he inverted God’s priorities. This observation is what convicted me.

The king harmed good people when he made his son more valuable, more meaningful than the welfare of those in his care.

I do the same when I place a created thing over the Creator.

Our pastor’s sermons on the preeminence of Christ have bathed my thoughts over the past several weeks (when I wasn’t anxiously obsessing!) The Greek word for preeminence ‘proteuo’ is described in two ways:

  • Ranking first
  • Exercising the most influence

So even as I have struggled with handing over a particular problem to God and then taking it back, I’ve been asking myself:

Maria, who or what is preeminent in your life?”

It’s a piercing question that demands honesty.  I have felt bound up in the time I’ve invested in trying to ‘solve this suffering’ of a loved one.  And God keeps throwing me reminders to ‘JUST STOP IT!’ (you’ll smile if you’re old enough to remember TV actor Bob Newhart as the UN-empathetic counselor). Our good Father gave me the very same counsel but from a different source.

Margin

Dr. Richard Swenson, an author whose book about regaining margin I’m re-reading, penned this arresting statement

The purpose of life is not to solve suffering but righteousness.

Bolstering that truth has been the realization that EVERY single human being on earth in every epoch has lived or is experiencing now a life of suffering.  The purpose of life cannot then be to ‘solve’ suffering.  I have known this but now I KNOW it more deeply. My purpose, your purpose if you belong to Christ, is to be content in Him, to enjoy Him, to seek to please Him, to sing new songs of who He is and what He has done.  In the midst of suffering.

I think we can fall into the trap of making an idol out of a problem-free life, a life without suffering.  At least I am beginning to see that about me. And if that is my or your goal, then we are setting ourselves up for misery.

May God help us all to be joyful obedient servants of our loving God.

 

 

 

Do you dread anything?

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If you’re somewhat like me, there are certain things you dread.  They could be activities like doing laundry, sitting through meetings, resolving a hurt between you and someone else, packing for a trip, exercising or doing taxes!

What I’ve begun to see in my case is that when I ‘dread’ something, it’s because I have a pre-determined picture or scenario already fleshed out in my mind.  The imagined mini-drama is never fun, somewhat or majorly painful and an ordeal to ‘get through’ in order to arrive at an anticipated more pleasant activity that I enjoy.

At age 61, however, I have to admit that my actual experience of what I dread compared to what transpires is rarely in sync.  The dread is far worse than the event.

What helps me, these days, is to say to myself:  “Maria, who made you clairvoyant? You only THINK you can predict how something will be.  You don’t know at all.  And past experiences do not determine future experiences.”

This FACT should be obvious for Christians, when they actually reflect, for God teaches that He is sovereign over every molecule in the universe.  Remember, if He is NOT in control, then He is not God.

So now,

  • when I dread the army combat movie my husband has picked out for us to watch, I say to myself, “Who knows, maybe you WILL enjoy it tonight!”
  • when I dread doing my exercise routine in the morning upon rising, I say to myself, “Who knows, maybe you’ll feel really strong and finish encouraged!”
  • when I dread going back to school on a Monday morning, I say to myself, “Who knows, maybe a student’s eureka moment will leave you feeling grateful to be teaching French!”
  • when I dread a meeting, I say to myself, “Who knows, maybe I’ll acquire some new information that makes my work easier!”
  • when I dread being with someone who ‘always’ complains or adopts a negative or critical demeanor, I say to myself, “Who knows, maybe God has transformed his/her heart and I’ll be surprised!”

I find I can catch and correct my inner monologue more easily these days.  I also draw heart from God’s Word in Isaiah 43:19:

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland. (NIV)

 

Functional Pauper

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Joshua 5:12: The manna ceased on the day after they had eaten some of the produce of the land, so that the sons of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate some of the yield of the land of Canaan during that year.

The point of this verse is that God provided food each and every day, even AND MOST ESPECIALLY during the transition from a wandering tribe to a settling-down people.

If God so sustained the complaining, idolatrous, disbelieving Hebrews, will He not all the more provide for me, for whom He has already died?

You would think that I would understand the logic of this example.  I do, but I still don’t trust God.  Not really.

I’m a FIVE on the Enneagram.  I’ve written before how helpful I find this way of understanding oneself.  As a FIVE, I see life and live from out of the lens of scarcity; I hoard time above all.  I also hold tight to money.

God has recently convicted me of what this hoarding represents – the sin of UNBELIEF!  Operating out of insufficient resources is my day-to-day norm.  Whether at school (I don’t think I have enough time to get all this planning done) or in the evenings with the dinner prep (preparing whole foods takes time, and YES, I realize it’s a choice I make) or even on Sunday afternoons, the time I catch up with church committee work and a phone call to a friend or family member. Bottom line, I never feel/believe/trust God that He will provide enough time to get done all that I think is necessary.

Before you think I might simply need some lessons in time management, I want you to know that I have LEARNED to be content with the tasks that don’t get completed. I somehow am able to trust God’s plan for my day regarding what gets done.  The problem is this:  I can’t cast off that feeling of pressure.  I catch myself rushing, attempting to speed up my pace in order to shorten the overall time it takes for each task.  And I don’t LIKE that.

I know rushing is wrong.  I can FEEL it. I hate it. Yet, like Paul, I do the things I don’t want to do.  Even though I know the truth.  And just why can’t I LIVE what I believe? Why do I find it so hard to trust Jesus’ assurance that ‘If one knows the truth, it will set one free’? (John 8:32)

This unbelief spreads tangled roots that smooth the path for deceitful lying. Saturday, I found myself in dialogue with God, planning and carrying out something that would require deception on my part.  I returned a product to a grocery store that I had not purchased there, but one they carried. To make it even more shameful, it was a product I had ordered from Amazon. They had shipped the wrong product and refunded me the $5.76 and said I didn’t need to return the incorrect items.  Somehow I believed that gaining an EXTRA $5.76 would make a difference in my life.  I knew it was wrong.  And I did it anyway.  The self-justifying litany continued OUT of the store, money in hand, all the way to the car.  But then came the Lord’s Supper, yesterday, in church.  As I was contemplating Jesus dying for my sins, He kindly shone the spotlight on yesterday’s ‘LITTLE’ episode so I could confess it and come clean.

Not to drop the matter before He was sure I had internalized the lesson, this morning, Jesus returned to the subject by whispering in my mind’s ear: “You could have donated those two bags of dried black-eyed peas that you didn’t want.”  One of my ‘justifying’ excuses for my deceit had been, “What am I going to do with these legumes I don’t like and that I didn’t order?”

Mike left me an encouraging word this morning on our frig whiteboard.   He had remembered my discouragement last night about my lingering scarcity mindset.  He reminded me to pick a promise from God and then count on Him to fulfill it.

Sure enough, God brought just the appropriate Word during my quiet time: Psalm 23:1

  • The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall lack NOTHING.

What comfort!  What power!  The truth is this; I’m sure you can follow the logic:

  •       If God created all time and matter
  •       and If He has adopted me into His forever family
  •      Then, He will provide for me

He will provide THE precise quantity of time and money that HE knows is best, not what I think.

I’ll let Ken Boa have the last word.  I read in his latest Reflections something that is apparent but which I had never considered.  Quoting 1 Cor 6:19b-20a You were bought with a price; you are not your own, Boa wrote, “God has invested a lot in you already!

What a reassuring fact!  It follows from God’s investment of Jesus, the most valuable person in Eternity, that He is going to take GOOD care of me.

God help me to relax and just be a little lamb moving about and lying down at your direction.

One thing is necessary

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40. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations to be made. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” 41  “Martha, Martha, the Lord replied, “you are worried and upset about many things. 42 But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, and it will not be taken away from her.”…  Luke 10: 40 – 42

A new school year started last week.  My anxieties came back to life after their sabbatical of 2 1/2 months.

What is at the root of these worries?  What I focus on during the school day.  Here’s my list of concerns – those situations where I lack confidence, occasions that intimidate me a bit:

  • Will I be able to capture and hold on to the attention of middle school kids?
  • Will I be able to create and carry out effective and engaging lessons, which actually result in them acquiring French?
  • Will I have sufficient time in my school day to complete teaching, planning, grading and handle all those extra duties teachers seem to have?
  • Will I feel free to spend time with my colleagues, listening and encouraging them, all the while accurately representing Christ?
  • Will I be able to grow the French program in the Middle School?

Those 5 matters I have turned into individual and multiple prayers that I send up to God frequently throughout the week.  Better to pray than to worry, right?

Yes and no.

Reading how Jesus corrected Martha and how He described her sister, Mary, caused me to think again.  Maybe I have miscalculated where I should invest the bulk of my energy. Rather than prioritizing and investing all my mental energy on ways to meet all these challenges, I should focus first on what actually might energize me and provide life.

Luke’s account of the two sisters who have just lost their dear brother Lazarus prompted me to imagine what Martha’s list might have looked like (had she written down what caused HER stress and anxiety:

  • Oh no!  Jesus just showed up and with his group of guys, too.  I’ve been feeding well-wishers and mourners for a week now.  What am I going to serve?
  • I’m exhausted!  Where am I going to find the strength and energy to fix more food. And who is going to butcher the lamb, now that our brother is gone?
  • I was going to send Mary around to the family that supplies our wine because we’re all out!  But look at her.  She just sat down with the men to listen to Jesus!  Where’s her head!  With all this work to do?  Doesn’t she care about me?  So this is the way it’s going to be now that Lazarus is gone. I should have figured!
  • Oh, my – Lazarus IS gone.  How are we ever going to make it, two women alone?

What is Jesus’ response, the God who knows all our thoughts and cares?   Read the 4 statements at the beginning of this post.   Freedom calls me with those enigmatic words of His: One thing is necessary.

What is Jesus NOT saying?  Does he tell Martha to skip all the food prep?  No!  Hospitality is a good thing.  But ultimately it doesn’t rank # 1.  We CAN live without food.

But we can’t live without Jesus.

So what did I see afresh in Luke’s account of a very familiar vignette?

It was how I evaluate a ‘good day’.  In past years, I’ve called it a ‘good day’ if I taught well. If I had a fruitful-for-the-kingdom conversation with someone.  If I completed my work.

But I can’t control any of those outcomes, hence my anxiety and uncertainty day to day.

So what IS necessary?  What is ‘the one thing’?

I can see more clearly how God has been moving me over the past 5 or 6 years to rely on Him throughout the day.  To look to and depend on His divine, supernatural Spirit for EVERY thought, word, action, and decision about the future.

Jesus and Paul challenged followers of Christ to stay ‘grafted in the Vine’, to ‘remain in union with Him’.  We actually are not meant to do anything apart from Jesus.  He even tells us we can’t.

  • John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.

So I have redefined what Maria calls a ‘good day’.  The one responsibility I have as Jesus’ lamb is to do all in His strength, aware of my position IN the Vine.

Teaching a ‘good’ lesson, completing my list, engaging in a fruitful conversation with a colleague – yes, these are important.  But I can’t control the outcomes.  Hence – perpetual anxiety.

But I CAN control my thoughts.  That ability is given to every Christian in whom lives God’s Spirit.

My goal and focus this school year is to rely on Jesus and seek to please Him that way. And when I forget my source for everything and start angsting about X, Y and Z, I can still please Jesus by repenting of sinful AND needless worry.  And call it a GOOD day!

One-year anniversary of freedom

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Scales in bathroom

It was a year ago today, 5 December 2015 that I walked away from my self-imposed dungeon sentence of measuring my worth by what I weigh.  I had lived in that dark and despair-filled place since my junior year in high school. And I’m almost 60!

But after MANY years of pain and many attempts to free myself, God gave me the courage to let the scales and a number go.

I have felt SO free this year.  No more early morning self-condemnation.

Instead, I TRY to measure my day by pleasing Him.  How?

  • by relying on His Spirit to do every task in the day.

Do I forget?  Yes, but encouragement from other Christians retools my focus. Just last week a gal wrote about battling unbelief.  The takeaway for me from her article was this:

Each hour I DON’T pray, I’m saying to God:  “I got this next hour, God.  I don’t need your help!”

John 8:36 – So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free

Truth ‘trumps’ fear

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No, I don’t mean Donald.

Truth, God’s truth, is the only remedy against fear and foreboding.

Truth by TK

2 Cor 5:7    For we live by believing and not by seeing

Hebrews 11:13  All these people died having faith

A dear friend in his late 50s struggles with the reality of sharing life with an aging church family, many of whom daily face diminishing health and abilities.  Yes, he IS a believer and he DOES rely on the FACT of his salvation. He DOES depend on the GRACE of God throughout the day and he most definitely DOES exercise faith by asking God for what he and others need. Yet, he is afraid of his own physical and mental decline and eventual death.  He views his life here on earth as DECLINE.  And ‘heaven’ is nebulous.

I have NOT responded well.  Nearing 60 myself, I lack skill in showing empathy.

At one end of my response spectrum, I shine at’ arguing logically’ WHY people should not think or feel a certain way. I am practiced at exhorting friends and family to view X situation in the light of T, that is God’s Truth.

And I do know how to offer sympathy – sort of.

But empathy?  What’s that?

Thanks to our guidance counselor at my secular middle school (God’s common grace!), I’m learning this different response that actually spreads balm.  EMPATHY offers this to a hurting soul:

  • That must feel frightening (frustrating, draining….) or THAT must be a relief (a welcome response, a comfort…).

Empathy does nothing more; it simply holds out a non-judgmental and safe space for someone to communicate just how they feel.  And often, THAT is the best gift you can give to a friend.

And if the friend WANTS or ASKS for help, only then should you offer a suggestion.

But….next time if my dear friend asks me, as a Christian,  how I handle the prospect of physical and perhaps cognitive decline followed by death,  here is what I might say:

Me: You believe God saved you, right?  How do you know?

Friend: I know because I believe the Bible passages that lay out the requirements for salvation, specifically Ephesians 2:8 – For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.

Me: Good!  And how do you handle the daily challenges and needs of life?

Friend:  I pray and ask God for His help.

Me: And well you should.  How about applying that same act to THIS situation, THIS fear. Exercise the faith that God has given you and turn to Him for His help.  For here is the TRUTH about God:

Psalm 68:19 –  Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.

Since that is true, then we should…..

Psalm 55:22 – Cast on the LORD whatever he sends your way, and he will sustain you.

And since we know THAT fact, we then can turn to another promise….

Isaiah 46:4a – Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you

Therefore, we can confidently obey God when He commands:

Isaiah 41:10 – Do not fear [anything], for I am with youDo not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, be assured I will help you; I will certainly take hold of you with My righteous right hand [a hand of justice, of power, of victory, of salvation]. (Amplified)

So, if we go back to the 2 promises at the start of this post about how we live and how we die, we are told and shown that ALL of life, breath to breath is by faith.

I know you would agree that we DON’T live by seeing the provision and direction ahead of time, but we trust by faith that the God of the Bible WILL come through and do what He promises to do.  That has GOT to be enough.

Sleepless nights – when are they a good thing?

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Restless and troubled by this persistent dream, she could not sleep.  Foreboding thoughts and feelings flitted along the edges of her semi-conscious mind. What did her dream mean? Why was THAT man even in her husband’s presence? Pontius had not mentioned last night at dinner that he was holding in the dungeons this Rabbi and Healer, the talk of all Jerusalem.

Pontius Pilate's wife

She fell back to sleep and the dark drama continued. She watched with horror as the man called ‘The Christ’ silently endured beatings and taunting.  The soldiers who jeered, smirked and spat on the suffering, compliant victim were HER husband’s men. Her heart felt like it was about to leap out of her chest, her mouth ready to shriek in protest.

In her dream, compelled forward to watch the horror of merciless mocking and abuse, she had pressed around her imposing husband’s back. But this stocky man, transfixed and silent, would not let her edge around him to see.  Blocked then, she nonetheless heard the snapping whips, thudding and biting torn flesh. She recoiled as each whistling lash found its mark.

She had woken with a start, shivering in a cold sweat. What was she to make of this dream?  Resolve forming, she called her maidservants to fetch water to wash and dress for the day.  Maybe she could stop from happening that which no earthly person in the palace had told her about.

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It is vain for you to rise early,
To retire late,
To eat the bread of anxious labors—
For He gives [blessings] to His beloved, even in his, sleep.  Psalm 127:2

What keeps you awake at night?  I remember reading about Andrée Seu Peterson years ago and how for about 18 months, God kept her from sleep-filled nights.  What I recall is that she eventually accepted this suffering as a gift from God and used it to pray and read her Bible. Then, all of a sudden, God restored her sleep.

Then there are those Bible characters whose sleep is interrupted by Divine dreams. Heroes of faith like the two Josephs: Jacob’s son from Genesis and the much later legal dad of Jesus – THAT Joseph.  There were also those traveling sages from the East who were warned in a dream NOT to report back to Herod.  And you remember Paul who recounted in Acts 16:9 about when he received specific guidance – “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Not only God’s people, but major players in history have puzzled over dreams like Egypt’s Pharaoh with the fat cows and lean cows (as well as the baker and the wine steward sharing a prison cell with Joseph, Bar Jacob). King Nebuchadnezzar also suffered nightmares that no one but Daniel could interpret, thanks to God’s wisdom.

Divine dreams that communicate a message are positive, GOOD reasons for sleeplessness. But I know you are probably as familiar as I am with the negative and sinful impediments to a rest-filled night.  Yes, I’m talking about not being able to sleep due to the anxieties of the previous 24 hours or of the morning soon to break.

Sometimes, my mind races with too many thoughts and I can’t settle it.  Not that I am worried……but I can’t shut it off.  Is that sinful?

The other night I didn’t get home until 13 +hours after I had descended our Smoky Mountain cove en route to Asheville.  Then, after school, I had headed to an evening meeting, eventually walking into our home a little before 8 pm.  I go to bed fairly early on school nights, so there was little decompress time – especially since I shared with Mike about the day (I had been professionally reviewed by my principal) as well as the meeting later on.

My mind was running at an RPM speed normal for my active day.  The thoughts continued as I settled into bed a little after 9 pm. I know we are commanded to count on (trust) Jesus and hand over ALL of our cares, for He promises to take them on.  I wasn’t ‘worried’, nonetheless the grey cells labored on.

Eventually I fell into a deep sleep, but awoke exhausted the next day.  Was it my fault? Could I have handled the night differently?   My first defense was: “I couldn’t help it!” Normally I DO slow down after dinner; the conversation is less intellectually engaging, I read the paper and then a book to prevent electronic stimulation.

But saying ‘it’s not my fault’ is irrelevant and doesn’t help.  Our good Father actually gives us tools to use.  Thinking about this kind of night since then I’ve come up with a plan.  I’m going to do what Christ exhorts us through Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. ………And the God of peace will be with you. Phil 4:8, 9b

I want that kind of peace at night, don’t you?  But what assurance do you and I have that we’ll be able to KEEP our thoughts fixed on the above worthy topics? Just the fact that what God commands us to do, He gives us His strength to do. (I’m encouraged by Paul’s teaching in the same letter: “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Phil 2:13)

And just which topics are true, noble, right,…..?  We can start with recalling truths about God – who He is, what He has done and what He promises those who call Him Father.

PS:  Back to the story at the beginning of this post – what do you think?  Will we encounter Mrs. Pontius in heaven?  What about her husband?

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