Not my strength, but His

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I was thinking of my dad this morning while reading Isaiah 12.  Pop used to say as he was aging, “Maria, come lend me your eyes!” or “You’ve got young eyes, you be my eyes right now.”

That memory produced a new insight, a helpful distinction as I pondered verse 2:

Isaiah boldly proclaims some faith-building personal commitments. He reprises Moses’ words from Exodus 15:2 and announces joyfully for all to hear: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” (Is 12:2)

The Spirit rotated the kaleidoscope of my understanding just a click through the memory of Pop’s words. Previously I have asked for and expected that the Lord GIVES strength. I’ve begged for me or loved ones to be delivered out of narrow dark places that shout NO EXIT!

But Isaiah and Moses don’t say that.  They announce that HE IS what they need. If that is the case, then they did not need to become strong themselves. They did not need to create their own song of acclaim and accomplishments.  They didn’t need to effect their own rescue.

That implies and means that normal is: 

  • Maria being weak, broken, tired and sometimes ill
  • Maria having no record of notable, distinctive accomplishments, but living an ‘ordinary’ life
  • Maria falling into pits, facing danger, getting stuck, wandering toward harm

I don’t have to TRY to be UN-ordinary. I just have to hang on to my Savior and stay in His arms.

Whew! Of course, in one sense, I already knew this.  Jesus says throughout the Gospels: I am the truth, I am the light, I am the life, I am bread…….not that He supplies them but that He IS them.

Reading God’s word and thinking about it day after day is what drives it deeper into our hearts.

Repetitio est mater studiorum. Repetition is the mother of learning.

Does joy look different in each of us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!  I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

Glad to be dependent on God

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But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  2 Cor 12:9

I recognize that I am needy.  I experience my inadequacy most often as a teacher.  There never FEELS like enough time to get my plans done.  And to think on my feet and change gears to meet the interest and energy level of my middle-schoolers stresses me.

So DAILY I ask God for His help.  And He comes through.  Always.  As He has done for the past 27 years of teaching.

So what’s the problem? Plain and simple, I just don’t like having to depend on God day after day.  That’s the truth of the matter.  This past Monday, God enabled me to be sharp, to sparkle, and to adjust rapidly to my students.  It was a packed day, but because of the grace He supplied, I made it successfully to the end.  My heart response after thanking Him was pathetic and belied my spoken gratitude:  “Oh no, now I have to depend on Him all over again. Tomorrow!”

Then by God’s kind providence, on my drive home I listened to a John Piper sermon.  Piper was preaching on the duty and joy of delighting in God, his favorite topic.  IN PASSING, he spoke of Paul’s personal reaction to being needy.  Linking to some recent teaching by Nancy Guthrie, I recalled how she pointed out the POWER Paul describes as a benefit to neediness. (See above verse clause highlighted in red).

I also remember previously looking up the Greek word for ‘boast’ because that English translation didn’t seem to fit the context Paul was describing.  Why use a word that means to vaunt or strut?

The Greek word is kauchaomai and it means to glory in, to take joy in, to be glad about.

There you go! Paul is glad about being needy because God’s power episkēnoō or ABIDES WITH him. 

Do you see it? Not only is it NOT a bad thing to be needy and dependent on God, but it is a gift, a BLESSING. After our salvation, awareness of our state of neediness is another advantage or aspect of our divine endowment. How so?  Our weakness or ‘poverty’ keeps us calling on Him, keeps us close by, in His shelter.  This is how we have ‘communion with God’.  Do you recall how David says, It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. (Psalm 119:71 KJV)

When we rely on God for everything, instead of depending on our ‘gifting’ or strengths,  we receive Christ’s supernatural power.  He ‘tents’ over us, descending and RESTING on us.

Just picturing God’s power hovering over me prompts connections to other facts.  For instance, James (1:2-4) exhorts us to…. Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

This morning I affirmed how good my Father is to create me to be needy, for then I cling to him.  And that is the conduit for communion with Him and power from Jesus, via the Holy Spirit.

Father, please remove that deep groove of wrong thinking that values ‘IN-dependence’ over neediness.  Carve a new and permanent default pathway in my thinking, through constant gratitude for such a mighty God like you!

 

 

The shadows

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 ‘Once, for sure, you belonged to the shadows, but now, by means of your union with the Lord, you belong to the light. ‘  translation of Ephesians 5:8 from the French  ‘Bible du Semeur’ –  (Autrefois, certes, vous apparteniez aux ténèbres, mais à présent, par votre union avec le Seigneur, vous appartenez à la lumière.)

I’ve been praying for and encouraging a good friend as he has sojourned amongst the shadows this year.  Depression is hard.  Hard on the one afflicted and painful also for those who love the sufferer.  How to encourage, support, and pray for such a one in a dark time requires listening well and prayerful dependence on God

So yesterday, while studying Ephesians, I read the verse at the top of this post with fresh eyes, aware of my friend who has been dwelling “….in this parched and weary land where there is no water” – Psalm 63:1 (NLT)

Here are the Gospel facts the Holy Spirit impressed on me:  Believers who have been adopted by God used to be subject to the king of darkness, Satan.  No more.  We are now subject to King Jesus.  Colossians 1:12-13 states – giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,

So how can it be that believers might walk in and out of the shadows, or feel trapped in dry and dark pits?

I don’t know.  There are many reasons.  Some chemical, some temperamental and some the result of a piling on of one blow after another.  Aka, suffering.

Why God allows or orders these circumstances is not as important as what He has to say about His rescue plans.

So how do we help our suffering friends?

  • First and foremost, keep praying Scripture OVER them.  Don’t cease.  Maybe in their presence, but mostly when we are alone with God.
  • When appropriate, we can gently point them to one Truth from God’s word to cling to.  A short promise or fact.  Like, ” You belong to the Light of the World who is Jesus.”  or…”there is an appointed end to this trial” or “Jesus is our Rescuer, always!”

Much more can be said, but here is an image that helps me. I pray that God will show me a time when my friend might be receptive to this idea.  It’s this:

Jesus has placed an open door directly in front of us.  We don’t have to hunt for it, like the holy grail or the fountain of youth.

What open door is that?  The one Jesus mentions to the church in Philadelphia:

Rev 3:8  I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

There are several possible interpretations of this open door.  Commentaries I checked mentioned:

  • a way to take the Gospel to those who have yet to hear the good news of Christ the Savior.
  • access to spiritual resources to help in persecution.
  • close proximity to those in need.

But I like yet another way of looking at the ‘Open Door’ Jesus has placed prominently before our eyes.  I read this in a French devotional yesterday, called La Bonne Semance.

Here is the translation:  “Jesus is also the open door to depart from our personal thoughts, our failures, our past……” 

Jesus places the Open Door wherever believers are, to include in those depressing, demoralizing, energy-sapping dry places in the shadows. By God’s powerful Spirit working in His children, the depressed believer CAN leave behind the cheerless gloom and step through the door into the ‘Marvelous Light’ (1 Peter 2:9).  By God’s grace.

Let us remind our dear friends AND us, whether in the shadows or simply engaged in fighting sin, about Jesus’ open door policy!

And for you who faithfully accompany your struggling friend, here’s a strong promise of future Rescue:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Zech 9:11

 

Putting God’s peace on the shelf

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Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

John 14:27  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV)

John 16:33 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (NIV)

What strikes me from the three promises above is that God’s providential peace and God’s providential trouble form the ‘normal’ for the Child of God. (Those outside of God’s family face the suffering without the grace of His peace)

The supernatural spiritual peace we have received is a GIFT.  Yet when I think of all the gifts I have been given by friends and family, I shudder at how I have disposed of them.

Some intrigued me for a while and I used them, a lot.  But then I either put them aside and forgot about them or threw them away. Some I didn’t know what to do with, like the rubber tube about an inch or so in diameter open on both ends.  When I finally took it to my daughter-in-law to ask her ‘What in the heck is this for?’, I laughed to find out it was a garlic skin remover.  Others I regifted, immediately.  A few I even returned for the cash!

Similarly, I have treated God’s gift of peace, without the awe and gratitude it deserves.  Thankfully, a prayer I read this morning reminded me NOT to fear present or future suffering but to cling to the peace that is part of my inheritance from God.

So…. YES, trials ARE ordained for us, for our sanctification.  But God has given us His peace, which surrounds us on all sides.  This beyond-words peace (“….God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand – Phil 4:7 NLT) IS larger than our troubles and suffering.  The gift has been given.  Let us not put this beautiful provision out of sight, on the shelf.

But instead may we fix our gaze, that is, the eyes of our heart, on our costly birthright purchased for us by Jesus at the Cross.

 

Jesus’ 4 invitations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why pray? The power of love, hospitals and gifts.

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1 Peter 4:7-10 (NIV)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 

Are you stuck in a trying situation or have a problem for which there seems to be no imaginable solution?  Life is full of problems. No surprise for Jesus promised such tribulation, in case you thought something was amiss and there shouldn’t be all this pain.  (But He also encouraged us to cheer up because of what He would do on our behalf.- see John 16:33)

I like to commit Scripture to memory.  So I’ve been living with the Apostle Peter as I’ve made my way slowly through his first letter to scattered believers.  Memorizing the book, verse by verse, since January 2017, has provided me with rich meditation.

Recently a new insight in the above passage struck me.  ‘The end of all things is near.”  The straightforward plain reading of the text seems to be that Jesus will be back sooner than we think.  However, from our perspective (and if you think about the recipients of the letter 2 millennia earlier) the end is taking A LONG time in arriving!

Last week as I rehearsed what I ‘have’ inside of me from chapter 4, I saw something different in the above verses.  I thought about my friend Pat.  This pen-pal friend is in her late 60s and suffers from late-onset depression.  She was 60 before this darkness descended.  Meds appear to work for a while and then stop and her doctor tries out something else that might provide relief.   My new insight was this: what if God means, ‘the end of this particular trial that dominates her life right now’ is near?

If that’s the case and since God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, what can I, Maria, do to hasten Pat’s imminent relief from this disease?  Peter provides a prescription.  I’m to:

  • Be clear minded, or as another translation renders it sober up, that is ‘get a grip’ about what is important in the eternal scheme of things (and it’s not 75 % of what I churn about!)  Why?  So I can pray.  I’m to pray for my suffering sister.  We Christians are to corral and curate our thought life so we can pray for others.  Why?  Because God uses our prayers to bring an end to our brothers’ and sisters’ pains and trials.
  • Next, I’m to love this friend, that is to do what I can to make her life easier.  God gives us imaginations so we can put ourselves in someone else’s situation and understand what we would like in terms of relief and assistance.  Pat lives in Texas and I live in North Carolina.  So besides praying, I can keep in touch through mail, phone calls and texts.
  • Then what about the hospitality Peter mentions?  I love knowing that reaching out to those in need is also the origin of our centers for medical care – hospitals.  We are to be mini-hospitals to fellow members of God’s family.
  • Finally, we are to know that God specifically wired us and gifted us with the means to serve one another according to needs we find around us.  I have a friend who knits.  She works to hasten the trials of others by praying over shawls that she creates with love and care.  God did not endow me with that beautiful skill.

So you see, dear friends, God involves us in the very shortening of others’ trials.  But we have to get OUT of ourselves.  The call to pray, love, and provide healing service to those in need is a HIGH CALLING!

If you wonder what is the purpose of your life this day, then look no further.  God has equipped you and me to participate in a God-honoring and life-affirming way.  To Him be all the glory and to us be much joy.

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