Adding to my spiritual toolkit

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Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will_______…… Habakkuk 3:17,18 ESV

Anne and I have been talking about one’s particular, received identity that Jesus gives if we ask him.  If we listen to Jesus, open to what he communicates over time, he will guide us to know that specific distinctiveness we bring to every part of our lives.  As in: ‘Maria, child of God by grace, called to BE a _____.’

Out of that identity, flows purpose.  Since God intentionally created each one of us as one-of-a-kind family members and gave us life in a specific time and place, it is not unreasonable that he calls us to BE a certain person. Jamie Winship and others teach Christians how to hear and receive one’s particular identity and calling.

Something Anne wrote in a text this week has gotten me thinking.  Not looking forward to traveling during Thanksgiving week with a baby and 3 children, she found a way to deal with her anxiety. 

What works for her is to describe the scenario that has her anxious. Then, as she looks that square in the face, she reminds herself that her identity as ‘nurturer’ is something she can continue to ‘work’, no matter what.

That is not to say that she nurtures out of her own strength and wisdom.  She depends on the Lord for his supernatural, ongoing presence to be with her as she brings life to whomever she is with. Whether in the ‘best of times’ or the ‘worst of times’.

I like this approach.  It provides space to be real with God and then to acknowledge that our ‘work’ does not change, no matter the circumstances.  Anne can always nurture someone, even when she herself is undergoing trials.

Ever since I read the Winship book and listened to his trainings, I have been thinking and praying through what I believe is my Jesus-given identity.  Tentatively, I believe I am ‘gently provoking beacon’.

I’ve been a ‘provocatrice’ since my teen years.  Pop used to say, “Maria, you’ve got to stop pulling wings off of flies!’  He meant that I needlessly (and with a mean spirit) stirred the pot, saying things to people to provoke a reaction.

That’s the destructive side of this identity.  But over many years, Jesus has slowly gentled me.  Provoking someone to make them squirm is far different than using a question to stimulate an interest in God.

When I researched the etymology of ‘to provoke’, I found that the Latin root means ‘to call forth or stimulate the appetite for….’

That is something I DO practice. A lot. But gently, and often with a thought-provoking question. My desire is always to shed light on some aspect of God, that might be new to the person.

What encourages me is that the actions that follow from my identity are not constrained by circumstances.

At first, I wasn’t sure if ‘worst-case-futurizing’ might be healthy, but now I see the wisdom in Anne’s approach. She doesn’t dwell on that picture. She simply faces it, I think, and concludes, ‘Well, if that’s the worst, I can still be who God has called me to be.’

Applying this approach personally, I foresee that identity-prompting actions will also shift my attention away from possible circumstances and back to the present and to the person in front of or next to me.

Father, fortify me with your grace to do as Anne, recalling that mindful of my identity, who I am and what you call me to do are gifts.

When you don’t know what to do.

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If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. James 1:5 ESV

I drafted a different kind of post yesterday, thinking that God wanted me to take a break from writing these weekly blogs.  When I talked it over with Mike, he responded that this is one of those neutral issues, that I am free to cease or to continue. When we prayed before dinner, he asked the Lord to guide me in this decision.

After dinner, since I always check emails before settling down to read, I caught a text that gave me pause. Valerie had written me to say how much my last blog piece had helped her in the midst of some self-reproach. Wow!  I took that a guidance from Jesus to keep writing. And then this morning, Linda reenforced that encouragement with her kind words.

So, I will continue.  Below is what I THOUGHT I was going to post.  But, God!

***

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:a time to keep silence, and a time to speak….Ecclesiastes 3: -1, 7 ESV

I have been blogging regularly since 23 November 2009.  That is thirteen years.

I started writing publicly in order to capture those thoughts God generated in me based on Scripture. I had filled notebooks with them, but never went back to read my ‘nuggets’.  I ended up throwing my journals away. In shifting to blogging, my reasoning went like this:  ‘At least I’ll have a permanent record of this growing in understanding God.’

Sometimes something I heard on a Christian podcast or read in a book would prompt me to think more deeply and apply what the Lord was showing me.

No doubt you recognize my vanity in believing that my reflections can help others see something new and fresh about God.

But, even if these posts don’t connect with anyone, my life is proof of one of Mike’s favorite quotes, ‘Writing is thinking’.

But recently I have wondered if my self-generated weekly commitment to post something publicly hasn’t caused me to think too much and too often about myself and what I am feeling or going through.

This morning, the Holy Spirit focused that line of thinking, directing me to the suggestion that I ‘fast’ from writing these blogs.  I noted in my journal: “Is my blogging perpetuating this ongoing inward focus on Maria?”

You’ve heard the description of humility, no doubt: “Don’t think less of yourself, just think of yourself less.”

To that end, I am initiating an Advent fast. Will I still write?  Yes, but with a focus on magnifying God.  And privately. 

My goal is to grow into the kind of woman described in 1 Peter 3:4 and 6.  You remember that glimpse of Abraham’s wife Sarah whose inner beauty came from her faith in God during scary times?

And you are her (Sarah’s) children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening…..” Verse 6.   Peter has just written earlier in verse 4, You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.

I want to cultivate that quiet spirit.

Thank you to all of you who have written kind comments and thoughtful responses. You have encouraged me in both what I have shared and my writing skills. 

So, faithful and kind readers, I bid you ‘au revoir’ or possibly ‘adieu’.  The Lord will direct me. In the meantime, keep mining the Word for the gold that is there.  Our God promises that if we seek him with a sincere and persistent heart, he will meet with us and reveal previously hidden things.

‘Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’ Jeremiah 33:3

What do you hope people notice about you?

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Let your ________ be evident to all. The Lord is near. Philippians 4:5 NIV

If you know your Bible well, you can easily add the missing word without checking.

Before you do pull out your phone to verify what you think Paul wrote, just play with me for a moment. What other quality might Paul have exhorted us to strive for? 

Paul COULD have said, ‘Let your…..love be evident to all’. That would make sense given that in 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle says that love is the greatest gift of the Spirit.

 Or, let your good deeds, or holiness, or Bible knowledge or wisdom

But no. Paul mentions ‘gentleness’. Checking synonyms, I found patience and moderation as possibilities. Paul provided more clarity in Titus 3:2, where he describes ‘gentleness’ as ‘showing humility to everyone’.

What convicted me this morning when thinking about this verse, is how I try to make some pretty shallow qualities be evident to all.  Such as my intelligence, or fitness, or even Bible knowledge.

But what I think I ACTUALLY exhibit, at times, is my selfishness.  One way this shows up is in the way I ‘naturally’ go about helping someone.  What I’m learning is that my natural response has been to provide the kind of encouragement or assistance that would help me. This means I have assumed the person is like me and shares the same needs, or receives love as I do.

Loving others takes intention and effort.  What kind of effort?  I’m realizing, again, that I have to study someone to learn what a need is and what would actually meet that need.

Just because I feel helped or loved a certain way doesn’t mean my friend processes her need the same way.

I’m a work in progress in this journey towards holiness. Progress, not perfection, is what I’m striving for.  I truly do want to be more like Jesus.

Another tool to fight fear

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Humble yourself……casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV

My mom used to say, “Maria, most things we worry about never come to pass!”

I know Mom believed that, yet she still struggled with fear and worry. As do I.

If we Christians look simply at the low probability of our fears coming to pass and don’t find peace in statistics, then surely with God’s presence, character and promises we will be free from anxiety. One would think. But I don’t think that is the case for most of us.

Sunday, at church Katie shared something that is helping her to let go of worry and fear. One of our pastors’ wives mentioned it in a Bible study and Katie has passed this nugget of freedom onto me.

“Worry is assuming the worst outcome.”

I have been turning that thought over and over in my mind since Katie blessed me with this definition. Notice she did not use the verb to ‘imagine’ the terrible.  To assume is a much stronger action. It’s to take as true, as real, as FACT, even.

I am beginning to notice just how often fear thoughts drop into my mind.  Maybe that’s normal for all humankind. What troubles me is the ease with which I accept those projections as true and start to worry.

After my week with Anne in El Paso, I am consciously practicing catching myself each time this happens. And I am learning to respond with:  I reject you, Fear!

These depressing visions of the future spring from my imagination. An imagination I have trained to assume the worst outcome.

But rational thinking would pause and ask:

  • What is the statistical probability that this is happen? Telling the truth helps.
  • And if ‘it’ DID come to pass, what would be the implication? Would it really be that awful? Habakkuk faced the possible reality of food scarcity and forecast his reaction in this worst-case scenario.

The Holy Spirit is helping me move toward freedom from fear IN Christ. For example, this morning, the verses below popped into my Prayermate feed.

The righteous…..they do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the LORD to care for them. Psalm 112:6-7 NLT

I wrote this in my journal:

“When bad news comes or a major problem arises, instead of assuming the worst outcome, I choose from this day forward to assume a God-directed good outcome.”

The situation or the problem might have a harmful effect, but I am daring to opt for believing God when He says that His grace will be sufficient and that He is working ALL circumstances for long-term good for those who love God and whom He has called.

Although I am 65, it is NOT too late to change my modus operandi. For far too long I have kept myself in that waterless pit of fear that Bunyan referred to as the Castle of Giant Despair.

I’m not afraid of that mountain!

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Then he said to me, “This is what the Lord says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.  Nothing, not even a mighty mountain, will stand in Zerubbabel’s way; it will become a level plain before him!  Zechariah 4: 6-8 NLT

What looms as an impassable mountain in your life these days?

For us, it’s been getting Mike and Steve’s mom from Seattle to Asheville.  She’ll be 94 mid-month. After a hospital stay in July, she has had to use a wheelchair to supplement her former total reliance on a walker.  When she did not bounce back after three weeks in rehab, she realized she could no longer live independently in her retirement center.

The ’mountain’ facing all of us has been her recuperation and emptying out of her apartment in preparation for her move back East, near Mike’s brother Steve and his wife. In August all that loomed large. I felt totally overwhelmed by what lay ahead. 

But now, this first week in November, the mountain has grown smaller. Steve and Mike, the brothers and Eve and I Mom’s daughters-in-law have been working out one detail after the other.  Mom has remained pretty cheery despite the emotional stress of leaving the Pacific Northwest where she has lived for over 50 years.  But downsizing with all the  letting go of possessions, some yellow with memories, has been painful.

When I read God’s words this morning, I felt the power and truth behind them. I DO trust the Lord that before too long Mom will be settled into her new surroundings, with the circumstantial mountain in distant view. 

Yet, I recognize that the Lord will bring us face to face with other seemingly insurmountable issues.  I want to hold on to the Bible’s supernatural facts to fight the fear that likely will come:

1) No power of mine will avail in difficult circumstances.

2) The Holy Spirit alone is sufficient for the situation.

3) With God, what looks like an imposing obstacle will become as gentle as a rolling green meadow.  

One of the Lord’s overall principles and promises is that we are NOT to fear scary things. Isaiah 8:13 records this truth: It is the Lord of armies whom you are to regard as holy. And He shall be your fear and He shall be your dread.

Father, help us to order our fears.

And cause us to remember that when we deal with frightening circumstances, we can be peaceful for you have said that you will be with us as we walk in those valleys filled with menacing shadows.

May I honor you as I take you at your word, trusting your goodness and power.

How I am worrying less

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I’ve been struggling with the temptation and sin of worrying, of mulling over all my anxious thoughts. There’s a lot going on with my mother-in-law’s cross-country move. Plus, Mike and I are trying to sort out some of our financial matters with Social Security and that is daunting. But that’s no excuse for fretting!

When do any of us NOT have lots going on, producing anxiety in our hearts and minds.

Recently, the Holy Spirit brought a sobering image to mind that is helping me think twice before worrying, a practice that Jesus commands us NOT to do.

When you and I worry about anything, we are actually declaring that Jesus is NOT God, that we can’t trust him, that he is not ‘enough’ to help us in our neediness.  We also proclaim that we don’t believe the Bible and all of God’s covenant promises of supernatural wisdom, help, rescue, strength, guidance, peace. 

During the 9 days I spent with Mom in Seattle, my mind at night often scattered to various details about Mom’s move.  I would settle into bed, handing over everything to Jesus and fall asleep. But in the middle of the night, I would awake and fall into worry.

One night in my refusal to give back my worries to Jesus, I pictured him saying to me, “If you want your worries back, then pick up that mallet and the rusty stake next to it and pound it into me. If I am not worthy of your trust, then I deserve to die as an imposter.”

Ever since then, I have often gone back to this reality of what my continued preoccupation with problems means.  My desire to honor Jesus as God, as worthy of my complete confidence is growing.  He absolutely DOES merit my devotion and trust.

This morning Paul’s quote in Romans 10:11 (from Isaiah 28:16) reinforced my faith. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” (NASB)

I hear you, Lord.  Strengthen my faith in You!

Self-promoting or Christ-promoting?

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But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves,……Romans 2:8 NLT

Last week, I found myself inserting a comment about my own fitness as I witnessed someone helping my mother-in-law practice standing without falling. What I said was totally unnecessary. I meant it to garner this young physical therapist’s admiration that someone my age was so fit. 

The blue letter Bible translates ‘who live for themselves’ (eritheia in Greek) this way:  self-promoting. Apparently, in the NT a courting distinction, a desire to put one’s self forward.

That’s Maria, for sure.

When the Holy Spirit pinged me the next morning, I had to ask myself this pointed question, ‘Maria, so just how do you think your physical strength is going to showcase Christ? And are you really that desperate for recognition for something about your appearance?’

I cringe now to think how presumptuous I was to imagine that a young gal would even think I look fit. From her point of view, I’m old!

Paul did say something about physical exercise.  Do you remember? He said it was of ‘a little’ use.

…..for bodily training is just slightly beneficial, but godliness is beneficial for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 1 Timothy 4:8 NKJV

What will catch someone’s attention more, my toned body, or my patient, calm kindness to someone who doesn’t deserve it?  Which shows off Christ’s powerful work in me?  Yes, the latter, and 1000 times over!

Patience and kindness in the midst of provocation, a non-anxious demeanor whenever those around are flailing and panicking, these are signals of something supernatural.  This kind of person creates curiosity as in, “What’s up with you?  Don’t you realize what he just said to you? Aren’t you worried about…….?”

So….am I going to stop working out at my gym? No, of course not. I’m just praying that the Holy Spirit will cut me off before I try to self-promote again.  Whether I am boasting (modestly, of course) about fitness or my ability with languages, I want to point to Christ….not Maria.

Futile speculations

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Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is one who keeps the Law. Proverbs 29:18 NASB

I worked hard last night.  Thinking.  No wonder I woke up, already tired.

Just how did I spend hours in the night speculating about scenarios? I’m in Seattle helping my mother-in-law sort through what to discard, donate, sell and move across country. 

Since Mom is mostly wheelchair bound, I imagined her actual flight across country and the actual move in and set up in her new Senior Living apartment. I examined and lived through future scenarios as I imagined them to be.  That is, from THIS point and time stamp on the horizontal.

This morning, with my Frenchpress coffee, I listened to one of John Eldredge’s Pause meditations and immediately SAW how I had exchanged God’s gift of rest for time spent focused on the cares of this world.

I journaled my conversation:

  • ‘Jesus, I disconnected myself from you. I see now what happened, where I went wrong.
  • Did I even ask you, before turning out the light, to increase my focus on you?  No!
  • Did I pray for you to fill me with more of you, crowding out temporal thoughts? No!’

Then I wrote my plea.  ‘Tonight, Father, please!  Remind me…give me a compelling picture of you, so I can hand over my cares.’

I didn’t have to wait until tonight. Immediately, an earlier ‘vision’ or picture of Jesus’ night vigil, watching over me popped into my mind.

At times during the past several months, I have settled into sleep picturing Jesus and me sitting cozily together on a leather sofa in front of a fire crackling with warmth and light.

I tell him my cares, humbly off-loading them as Peter instructs us in 1 Peter 5:7.  He receives them and bids me good night.  I move off into the bedroom and leave the door cracked.  My situations are with him for the night.

This morning, I took that vision a step further.  I imagined Jesus reminding me before I left my warm spot next to him: ‘Remember, Maria, I will work out the details and give you instructions for these events when it is time.’  I nod and go off to bed.

Do you remember the words before that ‘Cast all your cares on Him….’ promise?  God instructs us to give him our situations by humbling ourselves.  That means, we let go of them.  We release the illusion that we know best. 

Hm. That’s hard.

The Lord brought Solomon’s God-inspired teaching to mind right after my cabin scenario. Using the various Hebrew slants of several terms, I worded Proverbs 29:18 like this:

Part A – Where there is no mental sight or dream, the people neglect, overlook (God).  They are uncovered, open to unbridled human thoughts.

Part B – But he that guards and treasures God’s instruction is HAPPY, blessed!

That truth-seeking treasure hunt down the paths of words led me to God’s reminder in Psalm 40:4  How happy (blessed) is the man who has made the Lord his trust!

With those reflections in my journal, I moved on to one of the morning’s readings in Romans 1.  God clobbered me with more reinforcement.

Romans 1:25 –  Just as non-Christians who turn their backs on God, I am guilty of exchanging the truth about the Lord for lies. 

Such as:  I have to figure this out myself!

Just four verses earlier in Romans 1:21 I read and wrote down:  When I am not thanking God and honoring him, I indulge in futile, empty speculations.

How am I to honor or celebrate God?  By surrendering my cherished worries. Those patterns of preoccupying thoughts that lead to exhaustion.

Okay, Father, I get it.

Tonight, before I turn out the light, I will ask you to strengthen my resolve to hand over everyone and everything to you. Then by your supernatural power, I will trust you and expect you to help me fill my thoughts of your ‘able-ness’, willingness and goodness.

I need God’s light!

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Light shines in the darkness for the upright – Psalm 112: 4 NASB

Right now, all is dark regarding the ‘Mom Move’. Our almost-94-year-old mom lives in Seattle. Due to her hospitalization in July, she no longer can live independently. The plan is for her to settle in a care facility near Steve and Eve who are moving to Asheville, NC. However, their new construction occupancy permit date keeps being delayed. These constantly changing details about their relocation are making Mom’s transfer to the East Coast appear logistically complicated and huge, a veritable mountain.

We need wisdom, clarity, a plan.  Darkness surrounds us. What does darkness represent?  Confusion, fear, unknowns, questions, blockage, and ignorance about the way to move forward. We need God’s light!

For You are my lamp, LORD; and the LORD illuminates my darkness. 2 Samuel 22: 29 NASB

Whew!  What good news that we actually have access to a source of light in our darkness.  Actually, there is no better light.  We fool ourselves when we think we can furnish our own wisdom. As creatures and living on the horizontal, we see ‘dimly’ as Paul mentions. We focus on human options, common sense.

By design, on purpose, God limits what we can know and understand.  His plan is for us to depend on him.  As the source of all that exists, seen and unseen, he holds all resources, including the supernatural. He will reveal them when the time is right.

When His lamp shone over my head, by His light I walked through darkness. Job 29: 3 NASB

Job experienced a long period of darkness.  I can imagine his depression, sadness and fear. Nothing good to look forward to on earth as he cast his mind forward. No light to reveal his actual past faithfulness to God, vindicating his character. Nothing but nothingness.  But then God’s light broke through his gloom, bringing hope and life and something new.

He reveals mysteries from the darkness, and brings the deep darkness into light. Job 12:22 NASB

Boy, do we need to see God’s plan for Mom’s move, up to now still a ‘mystery’ to us.  What a relief that he promises to bring our dark path into the light. 

…..for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move…..Matthew 17:20 NASB

Okay, Lord, I’m taking you at your word.  You promised your followers that if they trust you, if they believed what you said, they could declare that the mountain be moved. Therefore, we, Mom’s kids and spouses, also exercise our right as your adopted children.  We say: “Father, move Mom to Asheville!”

I know she WILL get moved.  I feel reassured.  I don’t know just how or when the Father will unfold his plan.  But that he will provide the path and the energy, I don’t doubt.  Today, that is enough for me to enjoy his gift of supernatural peace.

My favorite word about resting in his promise is this: 

…..(the one) who keeps faith….you keep in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts you. Isaiah 26: 2-3 ESV

How being like a clingy toddler is good

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He (Jesus) called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:2-3 NIV

One summer day when I treated Graham and his little brother to a day at Water Country in Williamsburg, Virginia, Wes got lost.  This experience scarred him for about four years. I had put Graham in charge of his younger brother when they went into the men’s locker room to change.

Seeing Graham coming out alone, I said, “Where’s Wes?” He turned around puzzled then responded, “I thought he was following me.” I quickly sent Graham back. I wasn’t prepared for what he discovered.  This changing facility had TWO entry points.  We figured that Wesleigh must have gone out the other door, which meant that Graham didn’t pay much attention to his brother like I had instructed. Being only five years old, I often placed young Wes under the supposed ‘watchful eye’ of Graham who was ten.

With this news that Wes was nowhere to be found, I panicked, prayed and ran around shouting his name. Even with a security guard helping me it took about fifteen minutes before I spotted my youngest.  He was walking toward me as though coming from the ticket takers. “Wes!!!! Where have you been?” 

This little kid had gone out to the parking lot thinking we had left him alone. I felt horrified just imagining him among the hundreds of cars.

Hugging him tightly, I rejoiced in God’s goodness.  What I didn’t anticipate was the emotional impact this event had on Wes.  He had experienced it as trauma.  For the next few years, each time I dropped him off at school in the morning, he would seek hearty assurance that I would indeed return.  Now a nervous child and fearful of being abandoned, he would press me for an exact time I’d swing by to pick him up.  The waterpark experience had transformed him into a very clingy child.

The other day, pondering Jesus’ words about being as a LITTLE child, I thought of that long-ago experience.  I imagined a three-year old clinging to his daddy’s leg, not wanting to let him leave.  Don’t little ones feel safe when they are in the presence of their parents?  They don’t want to let them out of their sight.

Jesus is teaching us to be like the toddler who needs that constant reassurance. Physical nearness represents safety.

Of course, we want our children to grow up and develop independence.  But what if Jesus doesn’t mean for us to outgrow our need to be that kind of close to him? What if he prefers that we remain children who crave his constant company?

May we retain the best of being a child and stay glued to our savior and older brother.

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