Do you struggle to have joy?

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The joy of the LORD is your strength, Nehemiah 8:10 NIV

I’m reading a book by Simon Sinek that my son Wes recommended, Start with the Why. One of his teaching points is that if employees sense their company respects them, including them in the company’s vision, the ‘why’, then profitable outcomes will follow naturally. Getting employee buy in and creating a work environment where they feel safe and valued increases retention and allows for innovation.

Would that had been my experience in my last school where I taught French! As much as this private school publicized their values and vision for education, in reality they optimized keeping clients happy, i.e., parents. The administration feared losing paying families.  They talked a good talk of being a progressive school which used ‘best practices’, but in reality, teachers were expendable and always at fault in any conflict with parents. The head and his staff cared most about keeping the bottom line in the black.

Just as building employee loyalty and confidence starts with decision makers optimizing a happy and safe work environment, so too does our God know just what will make us feel most safe, loved and cared for.

Look again at how God describes his people’s strength and safety.  He announces it’s connected to HIS joy.  Whose joy?  I used to struggle with this verse because I never feel consistently joyful about God.  I often wondered, ‘Is the strength of my faith dependent on the amount of joy I can gin up?’  Since my feelings go up and down, that thought offered no comfort.

But then I wondered, maybe the Levites weren’t talking about the people’s joy, but the Lord’s joy.  If that’s the case, wouldn’t that change everything?

So, is the Lord joyful? Is he a happy God?  What would you say?

I thought of two places in the Bible that present a cheerful God, one from each testament.

  • Psalm 2:4 NLT reports:  But, the one who rules in heaven laughs.
  • Jesus went to the cross, for the joy awaiting him. Hebrews 12:2 NLT

Closely connected to laughing and joy is pleasure.  At Jesus’ baptism, God audibly announces that he is ‘well pleased’ with his son. The Father repeats this at the transfiguration. 

I conclude that our triune God is a happy God.  So, how does that lead to our strength?  Think about parents.  What provides security to children? Happy and contented parents, for kids can then conclude, ‘If Mom and Dad don’t seem worried, then I guess we’ll be okay,’ despite difficulties. That parental quality might not be the only quality of a healthy home, but I’ll argue that it’s essential.   

To the degree that I can trust that God is not worried about life on planet earth in 2021, then I will feel safe.  Strength to face difficulties comes from knowing that we will always be secure, since God is in charge. Our heavenly Father is not rocked by world events. He can laugh and be carefree because he controls all events. As PCA pastor Scotty Smith repeats, ‘God’s sovereignty is my sanity.’

Finally, let’s connect God’s manifest joy and happiness to his peace.  Isn’t it logical that the one who controls all events and people, directing them according to his plan, is a God who is at peace?  He’s not stressed.  We all know that joy and peace flee when worry dominates.  Maybe this is why Paul’s exhortation to hand over all cares is a path to enjoying God’s supernatural peace, that state of tranquility that can only be explained by God being in control of everything.

It’s not my self-generated peace or joy that will steady me in this life.  Peace and joy from above flow downhill, whether from the executive headquarters of a company or parents in a family. As Christians our confidence in life comes from knowing that our God is enjoying himself and is cheerfully happy.  His joy is our strength.

How God used a Daddy Longlegs

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Creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:21 Berean Study Bible

Each morning during the summer I like to sit out on the back patio to watch the birds, study the day’s Bible passages, pray, journal and read a bit in a theology book.  Right now, I’m savoring my way through John Piper’s Providence.

I love hearing and glancing up at the birds as I soak up early morning beauty. I don’t spend a lot of time watching their playful antics at our birdfeeder. I simply appreciate sharing the morning hour with them. But this morning at one point, not a bird, but an insect caught my attention and I became fixated.  A struggling Daddy Longlegs spider was nursing one of her eight legs which didn’t seem to working right.  She was trying to move closer to one of our plants, but kept falling over and resting.  Had she suffered a stroke, or broken a leg? Was she old? I couldn’t move my eyes off of her persevering move-and-rest struggle.

My eyes suddenly filled with tears.  Startled, I asked myself ‘What is going on?’ I’m not often moved to tears. But when something goes right to my heart, tears signal a deep feeling that I dare not ignore.

The Holy Spirit wordlessly whispered and I journaled: ‘Don’t you want to live in a world where no one and not a single living thing dies?  Where insects, birds, animals, flowers, trees, people flourish forever?’  Of course, I do.  I thought of the local pregnancy resource center where I volunteer.  Each of our appointments with gals who find themselves pregnant give us an opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I feel nervous sometimes and pray for a way to gently lead a gal into a conversation.  But this morning, I thought: ‘Why am I afraid to ask people that very question prompted by observing a handicapped spider? Afterall, God has wired all of his image bearers to protest death.

Don’t we struggle to let go of our beloved, aging pets?  Why do we shrink back from the ravages of disease or even old age in those whom we love?  Because it’s not supposed to be this way. We know that.  Even secularists feel this. 

Think about what drives the ‘health space’ here in America, where one can find fitness training programs, multitudes of supplements to buy and eating plans promoted with religious fervor. Engineers playing with artificial intelligence also come to mind. I don’t know a lot, but I hear enough about well-financed research projects to extend human life span, or clone versions of one self. None of this is new.  Weren’t we taught in our history classes that Ponce de Leon explored the new world, partly motivated to locate a fountain of youth?

Back to Mr. or Mrs. Daddy Longlegs who by the way, per Wikipedia live longer than I would have imagined such a fragile being could endure, 1 year for males and up to 3 years for females.  What brought me to tears is what the writer of Ecclesiastes 3:11 penned, He has planted eternity in the human heart’ (NLT)

I pray that the next time someone brings up an aging and infirm person or beloved pet or even if someone laments the harm done to trees and baby seals, I pray that I gently ask them my Holy Spirit-inspired question:

  • Don’t you want to live in a world where no one nor any living thing dies? Yes? Then let me tell you how. That kind of world depends on one person, whose name is Jesus.

Friends, we have good news of a coming new and forever creation, where all will be made beautiful and meant to last. It’ll be better than Eden because we won’t be able to harm anyone or anything.  Finally freed from our sin because of Jesus, we will joyfully enjoy God, one another and the rest of the created world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m retired, now what?

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For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Romans 11:36 ESV

I’ve been churning and angsting these days, trying to pinpoint my organizing principle, my ‘why’ for how I spend the time God allots me each week.  I retired from classroom teaching 28 months ago.  For decades teaching and other work occupied the ‘big rock’ position in my jar of time. The others hours in a week filled up the space around that central commitment.

Having actively participated in the work force all my life has made adjusting to ‘no more big rock’ a source of stress. When you don’t work for money, choosing wisely how to spend time is more difficult.

By grace, Mabel and Tom Kenney visited last week, bringing me a tool in the form of four questions. At one point Mabel had been at a similar crossroads in her life when a friend and fellow pastor to Tom suggested a way to think about new commitments. The first question pierced my heart: ‘What is it that no one else but you can do?’  As my thoughts flew to skills, Mabel shared her answer, stunning me: ‘No one else can be Tom’s wife!’ This had nothing to do with talents or life experience, but with God’s providential choice of her primary relationship.

“I and no one else am Mike’s wife!” How freeingly simple! Loving, tending, guiding and enjoying this man of mine is my primary calling.  With that direction, it was easy to consider my role with each of our family members. My time connecting with family is of highest value.

The second and third questions Mabel shared had to do with what we just absolutely LOVE and DON’T love doing. Priorities and activities began to fall naturally into a hierarchy of value.

Reading Paul’s proclamation from Romans 11 this morning gave me a new idea.  I laid verse 26 over my current struggles and rewrote it this way:

 FROM the Lord is this churn over priorities and time.  I am getting THROUGH it with him and it is TO him that I offer my efforts, my stumblings, my back-and-forths, so that he GETS the glory when he has completed this segment of the painting, the tapestry that is my life.

What helped me this morning after that written affirmation was to make two lists.  My dad used to deal with decisions about time and activities by dividing them into the ‘have-to-dos’ and the ‘nice-to-dos’. So, I formed two columns, writing down all the Maria-scheduled events of my week.  Bible reading, study, prayer and journaling claim first position of all my chosen commitments.  Then follow appointments for health maintenance such as exercise class, regular chiro adjustments, sleep, stretching. Home and food prep have their assigned days and times. Next come particular times during the week when I meet by Zoom with Hispanic friends for mutual Spanish and English progress. Then there are those ministries I participate in weekly at church and at our local pregnancy resource center.  Zoom calls with Mike’s mom show up twice a week. And once school starts back up, Noah and Vera will each have a weekly slot for their Zoom Spanish and French lessons. Last and certainly not least are two dear friends with whom regular interactions both support and feed my soul. Finally, reading in Spanish each afternoon while Mike takes his shower and gets cleaned up for dinner rounds out my list.  Those twenty minutes feed and settle my soul after a ‘full day of work’.

Then there are the ‘nice-tos’.  I starred and highlighted just one, writing this weekly blog.  Everything else falls below that, if there is time.  Activities like the weekly video for my ‘EnglishwithoutFear’ YouTube channel, writing vignettes about second language learning as well as life stories to pass on to my kids.  I do like to write.  The occasional walk and talk with a friend fit into this category of ‘if there is enough time in the week, let’s do it.’

When company comes or we travel, the schedule changes, of course. But most of my days are spent at home and starting with the ‘what can I do that no one else can’ served as the impetus to see and order all these activities.  I feel relief!

Then the Lord added his heavenly perspective. Regina called me this morning less than 2 hours after I made my list and gave me a section of Isaiah that she was praying specifically for me.

In a time of favor I have answered you……I will ….. give you as a covenant to the people……saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture…..Isaiah 49:8-9 ESV 

I saw immediately how I am one of Jesus’ heralds of life and light and hope. I have good news for prisoners of darkness and hungry sheep.  Feeding myself first in the morning and then daily self-care give me the ballast and energy to minister to others through my presence and through my writing.  This is enough.  I am content.  Thanks be to God.

From rule to rest

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He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Psalm 18:19 NIV

Friends often describe me as intense or focused. What I feel on the inside is driven and rarely spontaneous. I plan out each day’s activities. I set a Schedule and follow it. What do you think my # one idol is? Having ‘enough’ time to get done what I want to do.

As I turn 64 in this national-liberty-from British-rule month of July, I’ve been yearning to be set free from the mindset of living by a ‘rule of life’.   Thanks be to God who has been meeting me in that yearning and drawing me slowly toward green pastures and quiet waters.

How have I sensed a new direction? During the past few years, as I have grown to trust God’s sovereign control over every detail of my life, I have practiced releasing the day’s agenda to God.  Bumps and detours don’t tend to bother me as much, any more. I can chuckle at the Holy Spirit’s redirection.

But what still drains me is this ‘delightful’ problem:

‘How do I stay connected with so many Christian sisters I have known and loved over the years across our multiple moves? These are gals with whom I have enjoyed deep and rich sharing.  I LIKE them, I MISS them.  And I’ve been searching for a formula, a way to organize my weeks to keep up with these gals.  Just thinking about this has drained me, especially in light of Oswald Chambers’ idea of the Christian life being one marked by ‘spontaneous creativity’.  I have felt anything BUT spontaneously creative.  More like, a prisoner of a system that I have devised.

So, when God created a space for an overnight meet-up with Regina, one of those sweet sisters, I hoped that through sharing with her, the Holy Spirit would bring some healing perspective to my feeling stuck. I wrote down in my journal, “I don’t like my first instinct to want another rule, a practice to trust.  I’m tired of being responsible for maintaining connections. If it’s possible, I would dearly prefer relying on Jesus to direct me each day in whom ‘to love’. 

Regina and I met up in the small town of Carrollton, Georgia – equidistant from both of us. Although we know each other from teaching languages in Yorktown, Virginia, she now lives in North Augusta, South Carolina and I live in Huntsville, Alabama.  Our last ‘spiritual retreat’ happened twenty-one months ago, pre-pandemic. Our pattern in the past has been to spend a night in a hotel, enjoy a leisurely dinner out and get down to serious Bible reflection in the morning before returning home.

Regina is as much a thinker as I am, and has a wicked sense of humor. As an artist, she thinks in pictures.  As a Latin scholar, schooled in the classics, and lover of military history, she brings a different perspective to our spiritual walk with Jesus. I took my notebook with me to dinner, knowing I wanted to jot down where our conversation led us.

‘What I want, Regina, is to rest,” I shared, diving right in.  Continuing, I explained, “But I don’t know how to get out of my way of seeing and doing life. I’m exhausted AND I know that I am the one who is setting the pace.  After all, I left classroom teaching 27 months ago!  However, this habit of getting things done, this drivenness dates back to high school days.”

We ping-ponged back and forth between my issue as well as what Jesus was showing her in the midst of some heart-aches. The Holy Spirit gently worked in my heart during dinner in the cute historic square of this delightful town, and especially as we sat on a bench enjoying some ice cream.

The next morning, He would bring it together for me with a simple but radical way forward.

We spent two full hours down in the lobby with coffee, our Bibles and notebooks. Thoughts and scripture tumbled out, firmly directing me toward freedom. Regina’s reflections, supported by the Word brought me liberated me. As we parted ways until our next meet-up, Jesus willing, I felt released.

The freedom commenced with two words: Rest and Receive. Both concepts felt like living water to this very parched girl. Through Regina, He showed me the following:

  • The Good Shepherd doesn’t push or drive his sheep, he gently leads.
  • He invites us to rest, to receive, to reset which he calls restoration.
  • He has already released his children from Satan’s kingdom of DO, DO, DO.
  • I don’t have to plan my life, for I have a shepherd.

Those two freedom-bringing concepts started a torrent of other ‘re’ words like reject Satan’s way, his modus operandi of DO. (Did I forget again that we are human BE-ings, not human DO-ings?)

So, full of new paradigms on the way home, I thought about my dad, an Infantry officer whose motto is: ‘Drive on all the way’.  That’s a great motto for soldiers who have an objective to conquer, but as far as a rule of life for you or me, it’s a ball and chain.

Suddenly, I recalled the number of times Pop would say proudly to me, “Maria, you and I are DO-ers!”   The unspoken message blared loudly, “….unlike your mother.”

For sure, Mom was a gal who loved life, who found joy in smelling the flowers, in beautiful things, in pursuing lengthy conversations with ANYone she met. No one was a stranger. 

As a teen and then in my adult life, I disparaged her ways, feeling superior, reveling in my dad’s pride that I was a DO-er!  I rue and regret with shame how I judged her. 

My prayer, my desire now on the cusp of starting a new chronological year is simply to let the Shepherd lead me, leaving it to him to sort out who I stay in contact with.  I can rely on him as I give up making and following ‘rules of life’, that left-brain approach to DO-ing life.  Instead, I will let God-implanted desires lead me.

Two thoughts from this morning resonate with me: ‘Love the one you’re with’, that is the person God brings across my path today.  And the idea of ‘rivers of delight’ described in Psalm 36:8.

Doesn’t being led by a gentle shepherd sound good to you?  Green pastures, still waters, soul restoration, all speak of a better way, a more ancient way.

PS:  One final thought: m name is Maria, which is Spanish for Mary.  My mom did NOT name me Martha, the resentful DOING sister in the kitchen.  I am Mary/Maria, the gal who wants to sit at Jesus’ feet to rest and receive.  When he moves out, I plan to follow.

All those ‘shoulds’!!!

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July 6, 2021

Maria CondemnationConvictionHoly SpiritRomans 8 Church familyIntroversionOne-anotheringshoulds and oughts Leave a comment [Edit]

The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace. Romans 8:6 (Berean Study Bible)

I’ve been wrestling with how to distinguish between condemnation from Satan and conviction by the Holy Spirit.  I find myself often thinking, ‘I SHOULD be doing more with people, especially those at church’.  Why am I bothered?  Because when I think about all those people I ‘should’ connect with, I feel depressed.  I just don’t know how to THINK about all these ‘shoulds’. And they continue to hammer me.

I’m an introvert and I’m aging, and I no longer want to gather with people as frequently as I did as when our boys were little. 

Our life is so different from when I was a busy mom, teaching French, serving with Bible Study Fellowship, and teaching adult Sunday School. On top of those commitments, we still enjoyed getting together with church family for mid-week potlucks, weekend retreats, picnics, and even a weekly small group.

Other engagements also dotted our calendars. Mike sang with a professional choral group whose performances I would attend. We occasionally took in other concerts as a family.  Finally, during many years of my dad’s later years, we would spend Sunday evenings enjoying dinner at his place.

But these days, I prefer quiet evenings at home, just with Mike. When he asks “Do we have anything going on this weekend?” and I answer with a cheery NO, I share his delight.

So, why am I telling you all this?  Because I feel ‘wrong’, condemned. Thoughts like: ‘you’re supposed to be ‘one-anothering’ those in your church family’. Multiple ‘shoulds’ assail me. Almost daily.

In my defense, I do connect throughout the week with lots of people, mostly through emails and zoom calls. I also volunteer in two different places.  This fixed amount of extroverting does stimulate me. But my calling, what I DELIGHT in doing, is writing and speaking other languages. They, I absolutely look forward to.

So, how have I handled these voices that steadily announce what I ‘should’ be doing, and how selfish I am?

I’ve been praying, reading scripture, journaling, talking with Mike and my friend Joyce and then writing some more, as I wade toward clarity.

Joyce offered this thought, ‘We should distinguish between what we want to do in our day that pleases us and the activities that have eternal value.’

Do dinner prep and sharing with Mike have eternal value?  Do keeping the house clean and kitchen stocked have eternal value? Do reading and thinking have eternal value?  Do they justify pulling in a bit more?

God has been letting me churn, prayerfully ‘stew’.  But not alone. That other helper, the Spirit of Truth, has been guiding me, too. Mostly through scripture.  For example, this statement of fact penned by Paul brought me relief a few days ago:

There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1 (NLT)

Satan condemns and the Spirit convicts.

Despite feeling reassured for that particular day, Yet, once again, I fell back into uncertainty when the calendar turned over. 

Then Tuesday morning, I saw something else in Romans 8.  That verse about having the mindset of the Spirit. 

I looked up the Greek in my phone app Blue Letter Bible.  Seeing the grammatical form of ‘of’ excited me.  It’s genitive and it expresses possession!

I scribbled a re-write: …the mind belonging (of) to the Spirit!

I continued, connecting it with the rest of the verse:

Romans 8:6b….the mind belonging to the Spirit is life-giving and peace-filled.

I jotted down two synonyms for life offered by the Blue Letter Bible: vigor, energy, both with a sense of abundance. 

My interpretative conclusion THIS day is:

Since I belong to the Spirit (and soak in God’s word daily), He guides me, he leads me toward what gives life, bringing energy and what keeps me filled with Jesus’ peace.  When I notice an idea that is anti-life, i.e., draining or something that steals my peace and starts me angsting, that is the tip-off to ‘taking THAT thought captive to Christ’ and rejecting it.

Of course, I intend to keep praying and seeking direction in God’s word, as well as asking for wisdom from select mature Christian friends. As I keep Mike in the loop in this process, I am trusting the Lord to corral me if I tend to go off track.

Oh, Father, keep me teachable and don’t withhold your wisdom from me!

Is God sovereign over technology?

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Being taught something, without putting into practice what you have received in theory is futile. All good teachers teach by that principle.  We know what we know, when we can DO something with it. When we first start applying and using ‘book learning’, we will make a lot of mistakes.  That’s why teachers regularly give us homework and evaluate our progress, often by means of unannounced ‘pop’ quizzes.

It’s no surprise, then, that the model teacher, Jesus, fondly employs this same method.

Fully aware of Jesus’ motives and desire for me to grow through his tailored lessons in ‘being holy as God is holy’, I wasn’t initially thrown off guard yesterday when he handed me an unannounced practical exam. I’ve been working very slowly through John Piper’s latest book, Providence. His developed arguments reinforce what Mike and I have known for some years, that nothing occurs in this world that is not designed and sent forth by God.  The Bible explicitly proclaims this truth throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

For example, Isaiah 45:7 is one of many places where the LORD testifies to his purposeful, planned happenings: I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things. ESV

Mike and I are slowly learning to relax and trust God when ‘things don’t go as planned or as hoped’.  That’s why we regularly pray for each other when problems pop up. These days, it seems that many of these unexpected ‘gifts’ are tech issues that suddenly confront us with the potential both to frustrate and rattle us.  God sends them for his good purposes, but Satan uses them, trying his best to cause us to vent, feel anxious, distracted or even angry.

Yesterday, God gave me one such ‘gift’.  Immediately, when a major problem with the raw recording of my latest English without Fear video suddenly occurred, I did not panic. Seldom does a week go by without a few divinely-initiated ‘monkey wrenches’ thrown into the mix.

Since I’m learning to expect problems, I immediately saw and attributed this issue as an opportunity to count on God.  I pictured a smiling God handing me a practice session to see if I really believe what I SAY I believe, that he controls all events in my life.

I talked with him as I worked through one possible fix after another. Nothing helped. 

While I kept trying to fix this issue, my mind played with many thoughts such as:

  • Does God always provide?
  • Can I count on him for this?
  • Is he who he says he is?

I googled the problem and learned that because I had updated the IOS of my MacBook Pro, my video recording software needed an upgrade.  That took time to install. 

Once squared away, a new issue presented itself – the settings! When I recorded a trial video, there was no sound.  I fiddled around, still proclaiming my faith in my sovereign and good Father. Bungling through one change after another, I grew hungry and frustrated.  Yet, I kept practicing patience.  ‘This is from my Father, so he means this for good.  I will NOT let Satan rattle me.’

Time was marching on.  I had a Zoom class to teach at 2 pm, so I temporarily gave up to clean up the kitchen before my class.  Wiping the counters and loading the dishwasher gave Satan the opportunity to heat up the temptation toward self-pity. I could actually imagine myself giving in to a vent: ‘I’ve wasted all this time and I’m still no closer to a solution!’

By grace, I called out to God and told him all the truth I could think of so as NOT to yield to Satan’s whispers. Suddenly, I remembered what I had written in my journal earlier in the morning.  My mom used to say, “For this, I have Jesus.”  I combined that truth with something I heard Kathy Keller share at a conference: “I trust the One who died for me.”

At 2 pm, as my English-language learners entered my Zoom room for our weekly conversation class, I had to leave the entire problem with God.

Ninety minutes later, I ended the Zoom session and checked a text from Graham, our video-content-creator son.  He told me which setting to check in my recording software.  I did and it worked!!! Hallelujah! I texted him and Mike the good news.  God had come through and I had NOT given in to Satan.

‘Well, there’s this week’s blog topic!’ I thought with a smile. Victory in Christ, thanks to his grace.

But God wasn’t finished with me. I woke up this morning and started to edit what had worked perfectly yesterday afternoon.  No sound!!! What?  There’s a Part 2 to this lesson? That DID catch me by surprise.

I had to laugh, though. ‘You must REALLY want me to get this lesson, that from you and through you and to you are all things’ (Romans 11:36).  Nothing happens or fails to happen except by you.  You are the first cause of every event.

What did I do?  I took screen shots of my recording, still in the recording studio software and sent them to Graham and Mike.  Then I had to leave for a doctor’s appointment. Again, I talked to God on my drive to and fro, affirming my complete confidence in his goodness and his plans. And I asked for help.

What happened?  I don’t know.  I couldn’t get the sound to work on what I had successfully recorded yesterday.  So, I did a test video.  There was sound. For the umpteenth time, I recorded my English without Fear episode and it worked. Praise God!

What will happen next time?  He only knows.  But today, I’m rejoicing in his help and in ‘passing the pop quiz of faith’.  Satan, you lost that one.  My God is sufficient.

Incoming artillery barrage from Satan: You’re not doing enough!

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There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set you free. Romans 8:1-2 Berean Study Bible

Oh, the places we have lived and the friends we have made.  England, Virginia and North Carolina enriched us the most. We now live in Alabama. My former school colleagues, church friends, neighbors with whom I WANT to stay in contact now number in the 20s, I would imagine.  These are people for whom I still pray and feel close, but in different degrees. Deciding who is in my ‘inner circle’ has been challenging.  I have limited emotional energy and time to invest. I imagine that’s the same for you.

Add to those different groups of friends from our past, God has planted us in yet another community with new neighbors, church friends and colleagues at Mike’s office.

How have I organized those in whom I invest? There’s my mother-in-law with whom I spend 30 minutes twice weekly on a Zoom call, keeping up with her. Two grandkids I occasionally (depending on their schedules) teach either French or Spanish by Zoom. Then there are two close friends I’ve chosen to invest in. With one gal, I connect daily through Voxer, an asynchronous audio messaging platform.  My other regular friend and I leave lengthy video messages for each other once a week, using Marco Polo. They are the gals who are closest to my heart. 

Yet, I feel overwhelmed with how to ‘handle’ other friends. ‘Shoulds’ distract me and cause me guilt:  

  • I need to schedule a catch-up call with Jane
  • We should reach out to neighbors and get to know them over a meal
  • Martha is a young mom at church with whom I click, I should schedule a walk and talk.
  • I haven’t talked with my sister-in-law in a while; I should find a time soon to connect.

So, what’s the problem?  There is not enough time to schedule in all these people, given my other responsibilities. Plus, I feel guilty in admitting that these ‘shoulds’ feel like a burden.  The background music in my mind keeps playing the same-ole refrain, “Something is wrong with me that I don’t want to stay in touch with everyone; that’s selfish!”

This morning I woke up heavy with, “I don’t do enough to stay connected to people, past and present.”

Journaling my raw thoughts during my morning time with Jesus and my Bible always help me process what I’m feeling and thinking. The Holy Spirit always helps me sort through the yuk and bring me out into the light.

Here’s how once again, he came to my rescue. 

With relief, I wrote down exactly how I was feeling condemned and distracted.  Having finished reading the appointed scriptures for the day, I then opened up my Oswald Chambers app on my phone. The first whiff of freedom emerged. ‘Don’t worry anymore about yourself….’

Copying Oswald’s exhortation, I then wrote this conclusion: ‘Every time I start to think I’m not enough, recognize that I am focused on the wrong issue. Leave it alone and hop over to the most important issue: ‘Jesus, YOU did enough for me.  I am enough IN you.’

That triggered this idea: ‘What if I focused and meditated on your ‘enufness’, Jesus? Oh! Didn’t I recently read something about being sprung from prison?  Yes!  Here it is, from yesterday’s scripture:  Psalm 116:16 You threw open my prison door.

That truth set me to considering a daring suggestion that seemed to spring up from inside.  ‘What if I DIDN’T initiate contacts with my other old friends and new acquaintances here?  What if I just trusted the Holy Spirit to lead people to contact me if they want to catch up?  Could I DARE give that a try?  That would feel SO freeing!

But what about all the exhortations to ‘one another’ and love brothers and neighbors?’

God encouraged me by bringing Philippians 2:13 to mind. You know that statement Paul makes where he writes that it is God himself who gives us the desire to work for his good pleasure.

I looked up ‘desire’ in the Greek.  Glancing down at the various meanings, I dared to hope that this was the answer.  Desire can also be expressed as:

  • being gladly inclined toward something
  • taking delight and pleasure in doing XYZ

With mounting energy, I asked, ‘What excites me?’ I didn’t have to think.  The answer flooded my heart:

  • Writing! Having time each day to write energizes me.
  • Learning Spanish fills me with joy

You know, that line in Philippians clearly teaches that it is God who plants desires in us that conform to his purposes and good pleasure. ‘Could it be that simple? To follow my God-given desires, especially this urge to write?  Is my craft, my calling to express myself beautifully in order to connect and encourage others? Is that why the Holy Spirit daily brings me fresh ideas that link his word with my life?

And the Spanish, well that’s clear. The absolute joy and pleasure of growing more proficient. For years, I taught French to adolescents. Now, I get to expand my areas of fluency, giving me entrée into a different world with fascinating people. Describing my language acquisition process and what I feel inside as a second-language learner thrills me.’

I put my pen down and closed my journal to get ready for my exercise class. Throughout the day, I have been letting these ideas sink in.  I think I’m on the right track, for not even three weeks ago one of my friends reminded me that the Holy Spirit corrects with gentleness.  He doesn’t condemn.

More than just a solution to ‘what do I do with all the people from my past’, God confirmed what he has called me to do.  Satan apparently likes to suck away our joy and burden us with duties that God maybe hasn’t appointed. I’m quicker to recognize Satan’s ploys, that shame-producing condemnation together with distracting thoughts.

Return to your rest, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you! Psalm 116:7 Berean Study Bible.

I’ll let you know what happens, as I leave to the Lord my other friends and acquaintances. I believe I can trust him to let me know when I should engage.

First the heart, then the actions

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Create in me a pure heart, O God, Psalm 51:10 NIV

Let’s face it.  Relationships are hard!  No wonder, since we live in a sin-saturated world.  After all, our perfect world Eden didn’t last long. Eve and Adam disobeyed God, breaking our world’s order and harmony forever. But instead of fix our world at that point, he set about fixing us, with the promise (future – dated for a set kairos event to come) to give us a new world, a renovated earth 2.0.

Back to difficult relationships and today’s focus on the heart.  Like you all, Mike and I live with some regrets and painful sadness about how our interactions with others have gone over the years.  Thinking about an upcoming visit with some family members caused me to worry this morning. I turned to a fresh page in my journal as I started scribbling down my thoughts.  I wrote in clear declarative sentences:  I feel anxious thinking about what we can do differently to reduce the awkwardness we feel around this couple. Even writing this down caused more angst.

I continued: How am I going to have the wisdom to know just what we should change in our interactions? And if God does bring something to mind and we agree about it and then attempt to implement it, that might make us feel even more uncomfortable resulting in us looking ‘pained’. Likely we’ll be so focused on monitoring our behavior and their response that it will appear like we are NOT enjoying them! 

I now felt worse than when I started to identify my worry. But the sweet Father gifted me with wisdom from above. He sidestepped the ‘what should we do, how should we act’ aim of my worry and presented a new and different approach.  What would happen if Mike and I directed our prayers not to relational tools, but instead asked God to purify our hearts?

I stepped further into this new idea and started to write, Father, you who swap out dead hearts for living hearts that incline toward you, YOU know how to get rid of all the junk in our hearts. It’s no big deal for you to drain away impurities such as: regrets, past hurts, memories of visits that did not satisfy, mindfulness of having to ‘walk on eggshells’, fears about what they think of us, disappointments, and unwelcome feedback that we didn’t see coming.

What if you really removed all that ‘yuk’ and replaced it with a heart totally filled with delight and love toward them? Wouldn’t they notice and respond in kind? Wouldn’t we all feel more natural?

All of a sudden, lightness flooded my whole being and the heaviness and sense of being weighed down vanished.  I realized that it’s not first a matter of deeds and actions, but the heart.  Out of the heart flow our actions.

We wouldn’t even have to game plan our responses and actions. What a concept!  We might actually be able to sit back and enjoy their visit AND look forward to it, as well.

I bet you have relationships that perk along quite naturally.  You feel comfortable with a friend or family member.  You don’t TRY to act a certain way.  You simply are who you are and it all works.

Of course, we can still hurt those who are this easy to love.  That’s why good friends still need to practice forgiveness.  We’re going to step on others’ toes because we’re sinners. Genuine friends aren’t afraid to say with soft and gentle directness, ‘ouch….that hurt when you said/did that just now!’.

Thank you, Father, for providing your wisdom from above.  Please, we ask you, do this supernatural work in us.  It feels like it’s impossible, but nothing is impossible for you.

My words were NOT full of grace.

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A soothing tongue [speaking words that build up and encourage] is a tree of life, But, a perversive tongue [speaking words that overwhelm and depress] crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:4 Amplified

God recycled an earlier lesson. Obviously, I had not internalized his teaching in previous versions of the training. To my shame and with some pain, that is.

It happened like this.

Before I dump some details on you, you have to know that I often indulge in prideful practices.  My go-to reflex is to assume that I have the scoop on the best way to do some things.  And I don’t hold back from letting you know.  What works for me, I assume will work for you. I also take it as a given that you actually want to hear my solution for your particular problem.

Anne, my daughter-in-law, has been softly saying otherwise. By nature, she doesn’t try to solve anyone’s problem.  She just listens and absorbs. In that way, we are very different. I probably want solutions, so I have believed that everyone else does, as well.

I recognize in Anne a better way.  And I need lots of repetition for this and every truth to sink in and for new practices to take root.

I have a young colleague where I volunteer.  We see each other one morning a week.  Gradually, over time, she has shared a huge source of sorrow in her life.  Each time we served together, she has told me more of the context and story encompassing this painful issue.

I made some assumptions.  I took her on as ‘an encouragement project’ and started sending her bits of scripture and prayers from others that I thought might help.  And I think they did. So far, so good.

But then I stepped on her toes.  I wrote a blog piece with her in mind.  Then I sent it to her and said that her situation had inspired it.  Ouch!  How little did I reflect ahead of time about how my frank words would make her feel, would wound her?  Not for one moment did I put my feet in her shoes.  I let fly, confident in my ‘diagnosis’ and ‘remedy’.

By God’s sovereign grace, she had the guts to text me last week and let me know that 40 % of the time my ‘advice’ has harshly wounded her, that I have gotten her wrong.

Immediately, I felt shame, sorrow and regret. It has taken me a week to process what happened.

When I read her text, though, I absorbed her criticism humbly and immediately fired back an apology.  I affirmed her response to question my assumptions and discard what she didn’t think was true about her.

Here’s some humor, though. Three days prior to this sobering text, Mike and I had sat under one of our teaching elders as he led a class from Proverbs about having a humble spirit. That’s an attitude which accepts ALL criticism with a meekness that prayerfully sifts through it to find truth.

My colleague had been speaking truth to me when she wrote to set me straight. 

The day after her pride-bursting announcement, I asked for Anne’s perspective. Again, by grace, God provided a good hour with her in person.  She admitted that she almost never gives advice unless someone asks for it. What she DOES do is ask gentle questions as she carefully listens:

  • Can you explain what that has looked like in your life up until now?
  • Walk me through what led up to your decision.
  • What most frightens you in this situation?
  • How does that make you feel, that you can’t seem to ‘X’?  
  • (and for someone who is a believer, ‘What is it you are asking Jesus to do?’)

Nowhere does she offer advice or a solution. Until or unless they pointedly ask.

Wow!  What a novel concept for me!  Not really, though.  Anne explained all this seven months ago on an earlier visit.  She described a distinction between people who share burdens. Some people unload a problem WANTING a solution, but that most (she included) don’t want someone to fix them or the situation.  They just want a safe place to explore their thoughts with leisure.

Although I was intrigued then, I never attempted to change my ways, to adapt to this possible distinction regarding counsel.  I saw it as intriguing, rather than something I should implement.

I’m so glad my friend had the courage to confront me. Yes, it hurt, but it intersected with a growing desire in my spirit to BE gentle, mild and humble.

Something she wrote convinced me to WANT to steward my words, listening twice as much as I speak. About herself she shared, ‘The Holy Spirit always corrects me gently, never harshly.’  She’s so right!  Jesus treats me that way, too!

So, here is my plea.  Knowing I will fail again to change my natural thought-less response of ‘How about trying X?’ I pray daily:

“Father, keep conforming me to Christ, no matter how much it hurts.  I want to be gentle with others and listen more. Please help me.  For the blessing of others and for my own good. And to please you!”

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