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.

Unfulfilled longings

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When was the last time excitement and happy anticipation filled all your waking thoughts about the future?  Like you were on the cusp of a grand adventure?

I have 3 such vivid memories.

The first was when I was 8.  It was summer.  Mom woke me up to the day of our trip to Europe.  With a rush of happiness I dove into my clothes.  We probably spent a couple of months in Europe that summer.  But I remember no details of that trip, just those few moments waking up and knowing something good was about to happen.

The next such memory was the summer before college.  My parents, my grandmother and I took off on a cross-country road trip from Hampton, Virginia with the goal of sampling the rich variety of America.  I don’t remember any place we visited.  Just the intense longing and excitement for the début of my college experience.  That 3rd week of August could not come fast enough!

The last thrill-providing time, flavored also with a touch of carefreeness, was when Mike and I were in between Army assignments.  We had officially ‘signed out’ of our duty stations in Germany and had NO responsibilities.  We leisurely spent 10 days, all expenses paid, staying in a cute German hotel, while we completed the out-processing steps typical of a bureaucracy.  Ahead of us were 30 days of visiting family, traveling coast to coast while angling south to our next assignment at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.  We also were expecting our first child and toyed with the idea of buying our first home.  The future glittered bright.

Since then?  It sounds sad, but I can’t recall anything else that has filled me with such pure joy, as intense as that very first morning.  But I keep longing for that something.

The other night as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I wallowed in some self-pity and dread about work on the morrow.  Once again, I found myself tugging at God’s shirtsleeve and pleading for a new job to replace the one He has given me.  Yes, I am grateful for the income, but I long for something different.  Yet I fear more often than not that He only gives what is ‘hard’ and a ‘pain’ because through suffering we learn how to lean into Him. And I don’t give up asking and praying.

This morning I had my thinking tweaked in a helpful manner by John Piper.  His sermon about our inheritance as children, heirs and fellow sufferers with Christ reminded me that the way God has created this world is NOT for us to find ultimate satisfaction in earthly pleasures.

Yet He has wired us to WANT to be satisfied, to be thrilled, to be delighted and excited about the future.  So what’s up with that?  Is God a ‘cosmic kill-joy’?

May it never be thought so!  CS Lewis wrote once about unfulfilled desires when he penned:

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

So, what I concluded last night was this:  My longing for a job or SOMETHING that will thrill me is not wrong.  God put that ache in me by design.  But He never intended me to seek to satisfy it HERE on Earth with activities like: hot cars, extreme sports, binge shopping, or completing one’s bucket list.

He has told us in His Word that we ARE to stoke up our desire and longings, but not for what this world offers.  Rather we are to focus our yearnings on what He has promised and prepared for those who belong to Him.

“and we have a priceless inheritance–an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.” 1 Peter 1:4

Just knowing and meditating on the FACT that ONE DAY all those hungers will be über-fulfilled IS enough for today.  In fact, each day I live brings me one day closer to my inheritance and that forever life WITH our happy, triune God.

“….in Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” Psalm 16:11

 

Communion – an engagement promise reminder

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engagement-ring  I’ve struggled for years to grasp the spiritual richness of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

Many Catholics and Episcopalians regard this sacrament as the highlight of their weekly worship experience.  I know.  I’ve talked with them, trying to glimpse and sense what it is that nourishes them so richly.

It’s NOT like I don’t make an effort to meditate on what Jesus suffered for me personally by going to the cross. It’s just that I feel enriched more through the sermon and corporate prayer.  And because some of my friends and family wax on about the centrality of the Eucharist to their worship experience, I keep feeling like I must be missing something.

Reading  Ann Voskamp’s  recent book  the-broken-way The Broken Way, I grasped a fresh understanding of what this sacramental liturgy might represent.

Voskamp reminds her readers that what Jesus performed during that last meal with his friends was a covenant, similar to a wedding vow.  Think about Hebrew culture two millennia ago and and how couples were first betrothed and then married. You’ll recall that the engagement itself bestowed legal status and rights. The initial commitment was the BIG DEAL.

When God births us the first time, we receive the spirit of life. When He births us the second time, He gives us His very own Holy Spirit.  Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians at 1:14 – The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.

So you could call the indwelling Spirit of God Jesus’ engagement ring – a very real promissory note whose presence we are meant to sense intimately and enjoy.

But knowing that we humans NEED tangible concrete reminders, Jesus instructed His Bride (us, the Church) to reenact often the engagement ceremony.   Re-reading the account of His vows would be a start, but incomplete.  Jesus put into place a practice of sharing a scaled-down version of the original covenant meal, meant to be enjoyed with re-awakened awe among fellow members of Jesus’ Bride.

Each time we eat and drink tokens from that historic and singular Covenant, we recall what Jesus performed FOR US in order to ‘win’ our hand. A few of those ‘challenges’ He embraced ‘for the joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:2)included these deeds:

  • He temporarily emptied Himself of His divine status and privileges and happy community
  • He accepted the weaknesses and degradations of Hebrew poverty under cruel Roman rule
  • He endured hateful and murderous scorn from family, neighbors, church leaders
  • He suffered abuse and murder due to false charges
  • He showed the entire Creation a righteous life, down to the last jot and tittle of the Law’s requirements.  He even exercised complete patience and strength to withstand every temptation Satan could throw at Him.
  • He took on to His perfect body and life all the sins of His Bride and paid off the debt she had accrued.

The New Covenant ceremony Jesus enacted was His announcement of His coming marriage to US!!!! And until the wedding date, He promised a Helper who would be the deposit guaranteeing this promised union and subsequent inheritance.  During the Covenant Supper He described the home He was going off to make ready for His Bride. And He told His Bride not only to ponder the reality of her new status as legally betrothed bride, but also to cash in the promises and call on her bridegroom’s Father who would now be her Father, too!

Can you catch a glimpse of the rich layers of this Covenant Reenactment and how much we need it?  

I frequently forget that you and I are legally engaged to Jesus.  With rights and privileges that make a difference in this life.  And although our Bridegroom has gone ahead to make our home ready, He has not left us alone.  He has given the Church His best friend who is His stand-in until He comes for us.  This supernatural Helper is the same as Jesus; only He is inside of each born-from-above believer, whereas Jesus in His resurrected flesh is with the Father. For the time being!

Ann Voskamp’s lavish unpacking of ‘Communion’ has made me very glad that our church holds to a regular reenactment of the engagement covenant.  I easily forget.  

Thank you, Jesus, that You have commanded that we DO this to remember You.

Use your imagination!

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Do you know how to worry?

Then you are an expert imaginer.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach expert level in any skill.  So how many hours do you think you have invested in your worry habit?  Let’s do the math.

  • Let’s assume you didn’t start worrying until you reached 7th grade, age 12
  • Assume also that you have worried only 10 minutes a day ever since then
  • Add in a ‘day off’ per week from worrying and you will have racked up an hour a week

At that rate, it’ll take you 192 years to become an expert.

But is there a possibility that you have invested more than 10 minutes a day into this skill?

In an informal poll with ‘the man on the street’ regarding time invested in anxious thoughts, I heard 5-6 hours per day as a possibility.

That seeming a bit high, I checked Google and found the average to be 1 hour and 50 minutes a day. 

Let’s round that number up to 2 hours a day.  That’s equivalent to 730 hours a year.  At this rate, you’ll reach ‘expert’ status in only 13.7 years.  For the twelve-year old novice, he can reasonably expect to reach ‘success’ at age 25 1/2.

Of course if our hypothetical boy or girl is truly motivated and invests MORE than 2 hours a day, he’ll arrive at his goal sooner.  So maybe those represented by my informal poll, the ones who throughout the day and night practice imagining their fears make up the ELITE worriers, expert by the age of 17. It probably also helps to have grown up in a household of skilled practitioners who daily performed the liturgy of anxiety.

Back to what the practice of worrying requires – imagination.

Here’s the rub.  God has not given us the blessing of a fertile imagination for the sake of becoming a fantastic ‘fretter’!  He’s blessed us with a mind that WE can direct.  What we think about matters.

In Hebrews 3:1, God exhorts us through the writer to think about Jesus:

Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, set your minds on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.

What can help us focus on Jesus?  God, who wants us to know Him, has given us the written Word so we can read and SEE with Spirit-empowered eyes who Jesus is. We who are believers have been given ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16).  We CAN know and receive power from what He did and what He has promised.

But habits are hard to change!!!  Yes…..,so what?  Plenty of things are hard.

It’s a fact – bad habits are difficult to break.  But our kind Father has given us a Helper, the Divine Spirit, the third person of the Triune God.  Paul tells us that this Spirit is not one that brandishes unending, peace-robbing ‘what-ifs’ as a tool (think Satan, the father of lies).

Au contraire, this Spirit is by definition POWER, LOVE and INTEGRATED SOUND THINKING. (look up 2 Thessalonians 1:7)

With Him planted permanently inside of us, we CAN stop feeding the worry habit with imagined fears.

With Him, we CAN change and start feeding the happy habit of focusing our imagination on all that Jesus has done and is for us.  Where’s the food?  God’s Word!  There’s more than enough nourishment in the Bible.  Feed on Him and not just 3 times a day. But snack continuously.  In fact God challenges us to move from little kid food to grownup food. He intends for us to mature in Christian practices.  And that takes intentionality and time on task.  Habits begin in the mind.  So we have to feed our minds, conforming them to Jesus.

There are so many benefits to using our imagination for this reason.

We won’t get fat, feasting on spiritual food.

And we’ll be a lot happier, more like our older Brother Jesus who was anointed with gladness:

You love justice and hate evil. Therefore, O God, your God has anointed you, pouring out the oil of joy on you more than on anyone else. Hebrews 1:9

Now THERE’s a New Year’s Resolution worth taking up. And one with a powerful promise of supernatural help.

 

 

 

 

How can I rejoice?

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Luke 1:47

…and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior…

It was an ordinary day.  Maybe 13-year old Mary was kneading bread for the evening meal, a chore her mom might have left her to complete so she could head to the market. Maybe this young Hebrew girl was alone with the goats, distributing straw.

Whatever she was doing, she might have been musing about whether life with Joseph would be all that different than life at home.  She’d still working with other women in a family similar to hers. The daily and weekly tasks would be the same:  to supply Joseph’s household with food and clothing.  Of course, there would be children to raise, but not that first year, or at least not for 9 months…..

When I read Mary’s reaction to both the news AND the reality of her changed circumstances, i.e surprise pregnancy, I was struck by the wording of this New English Translation (NET) of Luke 1:47.  The text reads that Mary BEGAN to rejoice.

And that made sense.  Until her encounter with Gabriel and his announcement, Mary’s understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures would have been from her parents’ treatment of God’s word, from annual celebrations and local worship traditions.  I can well imagine that God’s truth had yet to penetrate her very soul.  There’s a hearing and there’s a HEARING.

But then….God’s word intruded into her life in more than a figurative sense.  Her Instagram hash tag might well have read #lifeinteruppted!

So how did Mary react?  She BEGAN to rejoice.  Before she encountered living Truth, I doubt she even thought of rejoicing.  For sure I can imagine she was happy to be engaged to a kind and hard-working man like Joseph.  Most likely she enjoyed her girlfriends in the village and felt comfortable in knowing the routine of Roman-occupied Galilee.  But rejoicing?  What was there to rejoice about?

Nothing,….that is until God’s Truth became real to her.  And so it is with us.  I don’t think I ever rejoiced in a deep and meaningful sense until the facts and promises of Jesus began to sink in to my consciousness. Yes, I was excited to travel to Europe, to leave home to attend college, to start work as a new lieutenant, to marry Mike, to give birth to Graham and then Wes.  But rejoice?  That is something categorically different.

Christians who have been ‘surprised by joy’ like CS Lewis or Blaise Pascal, startled by God’s heavy presence (Best Annotated version of The Pensées by Peter Kreeft) know a bit of what Mary experienced.  And they have rejoiced.

So what about us?  The truth is, even if we never experience the Holy Spirit’s heavy presence like Pascal or talk to an angel, we STILL have God’s living Word, given to us in written form.  We have access to TRUTH, which provides fuel for our rejoicing.  The facts and promises we receive by grace are precious.

Ps 119:162 – I rejoice in your word like one who discovers a great treasure.

If you haven’t BEGUN to rejoice, then this time of year is the perfect time to start reading and receiving as truth what the Bible declares and promises. Nothing else is going to last forever.  Nothing else is secure, unchanging, liberating, power-filled and life altering. Nothing else is worth this kind of exultation.

God’s sense of humor – my lunch hours

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For 3 years I resisted.  Finally, BEGRUDGINGLY, I gave Him one lunchtime per week. After all, that Holy Spirit can be a pretty persistent Friend and Counselor.

As a busy teacher, I cherish my lunchtime to catch up on personal email when neither duties nor meetings take precedent.

Most of my fellow teachers share lunch and conversation in the foyer, eating and socializing at an oblong table.  I have KNOWN I should join in, especially if I want to develop relationships and be available for Gospel opportunities.  But I have selfishly hoarded lunchtime, justifying my choice by reasoning that I use those minutes to encourage friends via emails and catching up on reading some quality posts.  All true, but……as God teaches in Ecclesiastes 3:1 There’s a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun.

So under the gentle but persistent pressure of the Holy Spirit I yielded and agreed to dine with my fellow teachers once per week.  I even taped an index card on my desk to keep myself accountable, jotting down the date of my ‘ weekly sacrifice’.

To my surprise, I have found that I truly enjoy this social time with colleagues, even to the point of choosing more than once a week to join in the group.  God does have a sense of humor and doesn’t give up on stubborn daughters who think they know what is best for them.

Two benefits:

  • A tangible reminder that God changes our desires so we can find delight in obeying Him

Luke 11:28 – ……how blessed are those who hear God’s word and obey it!

  • I actually was given an opening to share why I am happy as a Christian and to explain the Gospel briefly at one of those lunchtime table talks.

May this experience make me more willing NEXT time to obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit!

 

Not my strength

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

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

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

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

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

In His kindness, He lightened the load last week.

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

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

That conclusion turned into a prayer:

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

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

And you know what?  It worked.

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

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

to:

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

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

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

 

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