What do we do when life goes south?

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We all face disappointments, some minor, some crushing.  God, I have learned, does not waste our trials.  In fact, He explicitly tells us that we WILL have trouble in this life – all of us, whether Christ-follower or not.  As believers who have God’s Word,  we should expect to suffer.  I read just this morning in Acts 14: 21b – 22:  “Then they (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, ‘ they said.” 

So how do we think when yet another blow comes?  Recently I’ve been gifted with a situation that requires me to regain my balance and ‘prepare my mind for action’, as Peter exhorts.

The elevator synopsis is this:  While enjoying my best year of teaching kids French and anticipating staying on at my current school for a while longer, the tables turned abruptly and I know I need to look for a different job for after this contract year ends in June.

Here is how I am bookending or ‘sandwiching’ these new circumstances, using God’s exhortation through Paul to me:

Philippians 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

The background is this:  two believing Philippian gals were upset with each other and the entire family of God was affected. Even Paul at a distance had received reports of this disruptive and sinful conflict.  By NAME, the apostle exhorts these two sisters in Christ to drop the issue and focus on the stupendous fact that both their names are written in the Book of Life.  How’s THAT for putting a dispute into context?

Paul’s thoughts then run to a myriad of OTHER reasons to find greater joy in the Lord than being right or vindicated in a disagreement.  Hence his double directive – ‘Think over all the gifts you have as a child of the Living God! Now THOSE are worth rejoicing about, over and over again, not just once!’

Philippians 4:5  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

I think the logic goes like this:  the über-rejoicing about being in Christ should result in you being mild in temperament, easy to get along with.  Let THAT quality be what people talk about when they mention you, not that you are quarrelsome.  And if you need help with self-control, take heart – Jesus is close by, ready to enable you to build this new habit.

And if you say, ‘But what about my grievance with my sister?  It’s a real problem and still bothers me!’  Take heart, because Paul goes on to provide THE way to deal with that need and all others:

Philippians 4:6 …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

Jesus is our Lord and aims to take care of ANYthing that weighs on us.  But we have to hand it over, for good!  How?  By asking Him to take it on.  I see the thanksgiving part of this teaching as what we do each and every time we forget that the problem NOW belongs to Him.  Instead of worrying, we must say something like:

‘Oh, right, there I go again!  I have started dwelling on the fact that I need a new job.  But I have handed that problem over to You, my Lord.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are managing this for me.  Help me to NOT to take it back, as I am prone to do.’

With the abruptness last week of finding out I need to start a job search, I have succumbed several nights in bed to thinking, thinking, thinking about lots of ‘what ifs’.  That is just plain ‘ole’ sinful WORRY!  Each time I catch myself, I repent and ask for His help to do what He commands.

What carrot does God offer as an inducement to rely on Him to bring about a resolution to my situation?  Something the entire world longs for, pagan and believer alike – true and lasting peace!

Philippians 4:7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Our hearts are the seat of our longings and desires.  And our minds are a thought-generating factory.  As Christians, we need supernatural help to protect and block wrong desires and sinful ideas.  It’s no secret that our strong hankerings and thoughts fuel our actions.

I take Paul’s teaching in verse 7 to mean this:  God’s powerful peace, strong enough to shield you and me from harmful wants and musings, is ONLY given to those who STOP trying to handle their needs and manage their problems on their own.  We only get His peace if we abandon our situation entirely, 100 %, to Him.  But if you’re like me, worrying sneaks up on us unaware.  We often pretend and call it ‘being concerned and responsible’.  Phooey!  Bottom line, how bad do we want to be steadied by this promised gift of peace?  The way to HAVE and to HOLD it is by exercising God’s gift of faith – trusting in and relying on His character and His promises to provide.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Why this advice?  Paul has learned that even when he has set his mind to:

  • rejoicing a lot about all that Jesus is for Him
  • committing to His Lord and Savior all his stressful situations and those of believers he dearly loves
  • he still has mind-space to worry.

His remedy is to fix his thoughts on the many beautiful and true God-given gifts, worthy of his mental energy.  You and I are to do the same.  For instance, when I notice the cleaning lady at school treating her job with dignity, consider her example. Or when I learn about one or two honest, earnest politicians who take their responsibility seriously, I can praise God for His goodness.

But just in case, my mind has such a large capacity that I run out of ideas that are healing and safe, Paul gives us a challenge that should take up the rest of our mental energy:

Philippians 4:9  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do you know how hard it would be to copy Paul and to practice, over and over, his habits of speech and rest and trust and thinking well of others?  That’s why I say that God has given us plenty, more than enough, to fill and steady our minds and hearts.  His promise of reward is not just PEACE, but Himself as the God of peace.

Wasn’t it the bus company Greyhound who advertised:  ‘Leave the driving to us’?  One of the reasons for traveling with them was so passengers could relax and focus on the scenery and enjoy the people around them instead of stressing over the traffic.

In the same way, we are to leave the worrying to God.  We’re NOT the driver, nor the captain of our souls.  Those jobs are way beyond the abilities God in His wisdom has deemed good and safe for us.

So, this job situation, I see as another opportunity to enjoy God’s peace and practice my Uncle Paul in contentment.  How about you?

Trials in a new light

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Emerg Procedures

School is back in session and we’ve been briefed on emergency procedures.   I got to thinking about how trials are like fire drills for the Christian.  How so?  Their purpose is to put instructed procedures to the test, to see if they are sufficient.
So it is with hardships, problems and sufferings that try my faith. Instead of recoiling from difficulties, I should be glad to see whether there are any gaps or weak spots in my spiritual armor. For then I can take steps to strengthen and shore up my faith in God’s Word to me.
Why is testing and building up armor a good thing and how can that make me glad?
Joy comes from relying on God.  And an adequate spiritual defense is needed to live in this fallen world. Life is filled with devils and skirmishes are around every corner. The war is real. But with perfected, tested armor I can be assured that God’s provision is sufficient.
And sufficiency is connected with contentment.
Who doesn’t want to be content?  Ponder the originality of our Verbal Creator!  The Greek word – 714 arkeo, refers to these three aspect of the same state of being:
  • It is sufficient
  • I am satisfied
  • I am content

How cool is that!

Father, supernaturally grow in me the same state of mind that Paul learned – to be ‘arkeo’ or content because with You continually present, he carried his sufficiency within him.

Phil 4:12  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Christian Life Internship – Stage #25

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Interns The summer’s sabbatical has refreshed and delighted me. The school year is underway.  My quiet time is shorter now.

Typically I struggle with resenting the reduced margin in my days as I step back into commuting and teaching Monday through Friday after the summer.  I cherish that restful season.  I take advantage of the each morning’s leisure to ‘noodle’ around in my Bible, to linger in prayer, to investigate Hebrew and Greek word meanings via the Blue Letter Bible app on my phone or laptop.

And already toward the end of July as I anticipated the reality of HAVING to budget my time again, it occurred to me that I was looking at my upcoming transition all wrong.

God gives me the 9+ weeks of summer time out of school for intense study.  Then he sends me from my home-based classroom back to my workplace for another residency in servanthood.  The internship goes from mid-August through the first week of June.  But there are classroom periods scheduled each Saturday morning and for an occasional week or so throughout my annual residency. These are called ‘national holidays’ and ‘spring break’.

Through Holy Spirit empowered faith, I am trying to approach each residency day with this greeting to my heavenly schoolmaster:

  • Okay, dear teacher, what do you have planned for me this day?  What practical exercises have you, in your wisdom chosen and laid out? What summer study lessons do you intend for me actually to apply this fall among my students, colleagues and family?

I think I can trust him to be a perfect tutor.  After all, the Greek word that sometimes gets translated as ‘discipline’ -paideuó, means to educate or train. Discipline is just part of the formation process.

Acts 7:22  Moses was educated/trained/instructed in all the learning of the Egyptians

Acts 22:3  (Paul says of himself that he was)….educated under Gamaliel

PS:  If you’re curious to know why I wrote “Stage # 25” in my blog post title….It’s because this is my 25th year teaching French!

 

 

 

My inner murmurer

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Do everything without complaining….– Phil 2:14a

And they complained in their tents and they did not hear the voice of Lord Jehovah. – Psalm 106:25

Here’s a typical Maria tape – a transcript of my inner narration:

  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to go for my cove walk (it’s painful because of the hills)
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to water the plants
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to make supper AND get a crockpot ready for tomorrow night
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to wash my hair today
  • Sigh….I’ve GOT to start back to work, which will REALLY cut into ‘my’ time

I tend to dread chores/events that are either discomforting or ones that reduce my time to sit down and do what I truly love – reading and catching up on correspondence with friends via email.

I think that inner wingeing voice has had free reign for longer than I know.  For a while now I’ve been aware that I am the source of most of my discontent.  But looking back, I think I have lived for years, accompanied by that unceasing inner complaining.

It’s only in the past week that I have suddenly awoken to the fact that I, Maria, a born-anew person, am endued with the permanent Holy Spirit of power, love and even-keeled understanding. Hey, I don’t have to continue struggling with discontent. I can kill the fleshly default. How?  By believing and acting on the many promises He has given me as part of my equipment.

And this idea to break my complaining habit is not just a good Maria plan.  God WANTS me to turn away from such sin.  No matter how ‘natural’ it may be.  No matter how common, accepted and normative in our culture it seems.  But come on, maybe verbalizing discontent, even to myself, might be something God frowns on, but is it really such a big deal, such a huge sin?  Isn’t it just one of those ‘little-ole-lady’ sins, as my husband used to call them?

Um, nope.  There’s an entire commandment devoted to it.  #10 – Do not covet!  What is coveting but wanting what you don’t have, wishing things were different.

Just this awareness that I CAN conquer my grousing habit has been enough to change the quality of my inner life.  The insight that inner complaining is wicked and evil has motivated me to find a new narrative.

I find that as soon as a thought forms like, “Oh…the dreaded up-and-down hill walk faces me before I can sit down with coffee and Bible” I’m quick to substitute a new script:

I GET TO go exercise my body.

That one little 2.5-word replacement for “I’ve GOT TO” apparently is sufficient to halt the complaining and block my mood from souring.

So for sure I’m encouraged by my waning discontent, but even more significant is the growing realization that I was engaging and practicing sin.  For according to Psalm 106 as quoted above, my inner murmurer was preventing me from hearing God.

Thank you, kind Father, for giving me your Holy Spirit who keeps on working to make me holy so I can see you and hear you more clearly.

Romans 7:25 – I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

My seat….

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Ephesians 2:6

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.

My Seat

Thank you, Father, for raising me from the dead and giving me new, different and everlasting LIFE. Thank you for the seat you have assigned me.

I didn’t pick this seat. You selected it for me.

I’m sorry for all the times I compare my seat with others’, longing for a different one. Forgive me for the many times I get out of my seat, just like those squirmy boys in my French class.

Help me to trust that You know just what I need in a seat.

May I practice sitting contentedly in my seat. After all, I’m going to be spending a long time next to my older Brother and knowing how kind and loving You are, I bet my seat will turn out to be just the one I would have picked out had I known all the facts. Amen.

What are you attached to?

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Did your attachment tendancies start with a pacifier or your favorite ‘blankey’?

linus Or were routines, like story-time right before bed your go-to comfort? Whatever it was for you as a child, you probably have some items or practices or even a person in your life that make you feel more secure.

Reading 2 Chronicles 26 about King Uzziah of Juda this morning raised the matter of attachment. Here’s how verse 5 reads:

He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper.

The French translation of this verse adds a richer understanding.  The verbal phrase reads:  “Il s’attacha à Dieu…” (He attached himself to God…)

This amplification feels like a quartz vein shot through with gold, worth the effort to mine it.  Here are 2 questions to kick off our digging:

  • Why do we attach?
  • and, how do we attach?

First, why do we attach?

I think humans and animals are wired by God to crave certainty and security.  But He has designed us to look to Him to meet that need, not to anything He has created.  Given that the Fall fractured both us and all of creation, we are misguided. We look for substitutions for God that FEEL real.  For even though God is as real as anything we can see or touch, He is spirit, thereby immaterial and invisible to us at present.

On to the second question –  how is it that we attach?

Primarily by thinking about, talking about, keeping near, and treasuring.  A small child keeps his blanket close by.  A crying baby calms down with his trusted pacifier. When I was bulimic, I grabbed cookies or M&Ms to tame the stress.

For some, a variation of attachment might be an acted-out routine that has brought peace. I know friends who routinely undertake remodeling projects as a diversion from anxiety or for stop-gap immediate relief some go shopping or clean out a closet (me!)  More dangerous measures include gambling, porn indulgence, use of drugs or even some extreme sports.

(If you are curious to learn about some non-biblical, psychological reasons for attachment, here is a link to various views.)

Beyond inherent and obvious dangers, what’s wrong with the above attachment items or practices?

The only reason that counts is simply this: these stress-relievers are just as uncertain as the uncontrollable circumstances that bring suffering.  When LIFE happens, pressuring us, what if we are circumstantially kept from our go-to stress reliever?  Maybe that’s the origin of the expression ‘going postal’! Our God knows there are times we humans explode in anger or act otherwise irrationally.

God offers a different way of handling life’s uncertainties and stress, one that the apostle Paul learned.  This morning, while reading a bit of Puritan pastor William Gurnall’s teaching on holding on to faith in the Triune God, I glimpsed a connection to Paul’s teaching on contentment.

You are familiar with this early Christian boasting in having acquired the ability to be content in all circumstances.  ‘All’ included the gamut of experiences ranging from physical comfort and ease all the way to the many times he suffered beatings, imprisonment or calumny from his fellow Jews. (Phil 4:12)

I think Gurnall provides the method for Paul’s method of ‘learning’. Gurnall writes that in times of blessings, plenty and the absence of suffering, we should practice  “Keep(ing)…(our)..minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth.” Col 3:2

Then when the times of suffering and deprivation come, we should be more equipped to continue to feed ourselves on the rich truths of heaven, the expectations of one day enjoying our inheritance presently kept for us by Jesus.  Directing our imaginings Godward takes practice. You’re probably like me.  My thoughts DO NOT automatically tend toward meditating on the ‘diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ’ (Jonathan Edwards). It takes effort to dig and work a groove in my mind, through much exercise.

I mention Edwards’ line above about what to think about when meditating on Jesus. Because when I first considered devoting time to building a habit of thinking about ‘things above’, my first reaction was:

  • just what should my mind focus on?

John Piper gave me a clue when he quoted Jonathan Edwards in a sermon I recently heard. An example of these very different but astonishing qualities of Jesus would be how He is both the Lion and the Lamb.  Powerfully fierce and humbly submissive, all at the same time.

There ARE multitudes of rich treasures to be mined in the Bible.  And I think this is what is meant by God’s teaching us to ‘attach ourselves’ to Him.  We attach primarily by what we think about and talk about.  If I’m attached to my children, then I will pull out pictures and extol all the cute things they do.  Likewise, if I’m attached to God, I will boast in how great He is.

Contrary to what a material naturalist might argue, we are NOT deterministic beings.  We have been given the gift of imagination, of choosing what to think about.  Paul knew that. Therefore, I think his secret of learned contentment was harnessing and directing his thoughts God-ward.

That encourages me.  I know that I have plenty of time when my mind can float.  I do have the power to direct and focus those thoughts.  I CAN practice a new and different way of thinking.   I want to build up these mental and spiritual muscles of my mind during those periods when I’m not struck down by suffering.  Then when pain does come, I will know how to flee to my true refuge.

I’ll leave you with the French exhortation:

Attache-toi à Dieu!

God’s individual curriculum plan for your life

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Hebrews 12:10b  ….God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.

2 Cor 1:8-9  For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

Does it surprise you to consider that God has designed both specific pain and specific pleasure for your holiness?

The verses above clearly indicate purpose with lead-in phrases like:

  • in order that…..
  • that was to make us…….

In a previous blog I reflected on the truth that God’s will for our lives is our holiness, our sanctification (same word in Greek).

And if we accept that God is sovereign over every molecule in the universe, then Romans 8:28 brings both truths together. God not only CAN work the bad and the good for our benefit, He designs all things to increase our capacity for holiness and Christlikeness (these two are one and the same).

Two brothers in Christ I know are struggling with different issues that trouble them deeply.  As I’ve been praying for them and specifically reflecting on the pot-holed and often painful path God has proscribed for me, I am beginning to feel some liberation that I want to pass on to these men and to others.

From numerous examples in the Bible we can ascribe afflictions like cancer or a car accident or anti-Christian persecution at work to God’s directing hand:

Isaiah 45:7I form light and create darkness,
    I make well-being and create calamity,
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

In fact, if you don’t subscribe to the idea that God controls these events, you’re left with a powerless God who just sympathizes with you, but can’t direct/stop/influence the universe. That’s Deism, not a god worth worshipping or one in which to rest and seek refuge.

What has been a hurdle for me to get over is the idea that God might have ON PURPOSE designed me with and allowed to develop in me certain:

  • sin patterns
  • unhealthy tendencies
  • wrong ideas
  • harmful dependencies

I’m not saying that God is evil, wrong or even unloving for doing this.  But if He is sovereign, then He created you and me with these flaws for His good purpose. Since His goal for each of His children is holiness, it follows that you and I would receive a tailor-made plan, designed in love by this perfect Father for His perfect ends.

IEP

My main sin struggle has been with food/body image/weight as idols. I’m 58 and that issue blossomed when I was 16.  I have suffered years of pain. Yet, I am beginning to see that over these years God has been using my disgusting eating/vomiting/compulsive exercise patterns and embarrassing self-absorption to wean me off of myself and on to Him for everything.

I could also describe my runner-up sin, that of a clutching need for ‘enough time for Maria’, but I’ll spare you. Just know that God is getting lots of mileage out of THAT particular design feature.

The very GOOD …….NEWS (new to me) is that the bad stuff I’ve done and still do is part of God’s ‘individual education program for Maria’.  And you have such a life-long plan, too, if you are one of God’s born-again children!

So what’s uplifting or encouraging about that?  Glad you asked!

I was out on an overnight experience with the 8th grade class this week.  We ate camp food.  The oatmeal tasted REALLY good!  So I ate 2 big bowls at breakfast (plus some fruit, an egg….)

As soon as I did and felt FULL, my default ‘beat-up on Maria/self-absorption shtick’ kicked into high gear.

But THIS time, I talked about IT to myself and said:

  • What’s done is done.  And God knew, allowed and even ordained this.  He is sovereign over each sin/lapse/mistake.  It’s part of His plan for me. Sure I have to deal with the consequences, but ‘good’ is being worked IN me right now.  As I repent and rest in His wisdom, I’m growing in holiness.
  • and even more important (Listen up, my two brothers in Christ!!!) we don’t have to be grim and beat ourselves up. These painful days are ordained for a beautiful end.  You might protest like I have, ‘But I thought I was better than this!….I hate my sin and the fact that I’m letting myself and others down when I wrap myself up in X’!

Believe me, I understand.  But where did our idea that we would NOT be dirty or a slave to something or able to control our behaviors come from? Why are we surprised at our junk?  I think it’s a line straight from Hell:

Satan:  How can you be a real Christian if you are doing THAT!!!!

Before I call it quits on this post, I want to go back to my declaration that God has designed our pleasures, too, for growth in holiness. Paul mentions that he has LEARNED how to be content in Phil 4:12 – I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Having what we want, enjoying prosperity can be burdens, too.  We have to gain God’s perspective on success, material well-being and happiness.  Just think of the suffering that befalls lottery winners!  I’m not saying that all the beautiful and pleasing circumstances or gifts are meant as trials.  Just beware that the good stuff can lead to sin, too!

How’s THAT for something to chew on!

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