Unfulfilled longings

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

I have 3 such vivid memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How can I rejoice?

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Luke 1:47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pursuing or pursued?

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passion

Today it seems as though everyone is chasing after something.  Twenty years ago the rousing motto meant to motivate Christians and humanists alike was ‘Pursue your passion!’.  Christians added a further motivation, something to the effect that ‘where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need’, this then is where God is calling you.

It seems fair to say that people of all stripes and walks of life seek something.  The thousands of possibilities fall into several predictable categories like:

  • safety
  • peace
  • health
  • work
  • meaning
  • relationships
  • security
  • identity
  • control over one’s future
  • freedom
  • acceptance

I’m sure some of those are worthwhile.  Who doesn’t want to reap the benefits of clean water and the cessation of war. But as significant as may be these many directions in which we focus our life’s energy, maybe it’s more important to do a 180 and ask a different question.  Instead of what vision we place in front of us, how about considering who might have US in His sights.  Who might be chasing US!

“….surely your goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”  Psalm 23:6

I was looking up the Hebrew word ‘pursue’ in a different passage and when I scanned all the places God uses this verb, I came across the familiar and beloved 23rd Psalm.  My mother used to joke about the 3 angels, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy when she talked about this well known promise.

David’s prayer reminds me of a more contemporary vision of divine pursuit. You’ve heard of the poem, The Hound of Heaven.  The image is of a God who WILL have His way, who never stops persistently tracking us, setting up roadblocks to direct us to the point where we give up and ‘reluctantly’ yield to His will.

CS Lewis admits that when he finally gave in, exhausted, to God’s decision and deliberate ‘hounding’ and handed over his life to this God, he did so with great reluctance.

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words “compelle intrare,” compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”  (taken from his book, Surprised by Joy)

I don’t know how you look at your life, but I for one am glad that God has and continues to pursue me.  If there is a driving force in my life, it seems to be one ceaseless message.  In the Old Testament Hosea sums up this directive best:

Oh, that we might know the LORD! Let us press on to know him. Hosea 6:3

and in the New Testament, Jesus exhorts us to follow the sane and life-giving goal:

Matthew 6:33 – Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteous way……

Yes, justice and peace are important and we should pursue them in God’s strength and in His way.

But our significance comes NOT from what we pursue, but from WHO pursues us.

 

 

 

What are you hungering after?

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CS Lewis writes something to the effect that if you have a desire that nothing on this earth can satisfy, then that unfulfilled longing points to a future fulfillment in another dimension, that is later when we have new bodies on a new earth.

He bases that argument on the simple truth of:

  • hunger pointing to food for satisfaction and
  • fatigue being remedied by sleep and
  • work as the antidote to the desire to make a meaningful difference in life.

I recently was re-comforted with Lewis’ explanation when I gazed out at the beauty of our Smokey Mountains here in Western North Carolina.  Sometimes my heart is stunned and unable to drink in God’s splendor.  I want to absorb it, holding on to it forever,but can’t. And then I feel sorrow and regret at having fallen short.

138 - Misty view of Smokeys toward TN

Per Lewis’ logic, however, one day you and I will have the capacity to take in beauty, to digest it.  But in these limited bodies, we can only gaze and marvel and leave what God has created outside of us, underused.

Moving from external beauty to the beauty of God’s word, I recently came across a glimpse into how pastor John Piper views Scripture.  His words gripped my heart because they were echoes pointing to my longings, too!

Early one Sunday morning my discipline was taking me through Luke 18. It was one of those times when God came near with unusual force. Christ stood out from the pages as irresistibly compelling. Every paragraph made my soul yearn to be radically obedient to Jesus. I felt that no one ever spoke like this man. No one ever lived free like this man. No one ever demanded what he demanded and gave what he gave. So I wanted to take this chapter with me all day and feed on it and fight unbelief with it. I didn’t have time to memorize it. What could I do? I decided to tag each paragraph and remember a key statement from each paragraph under that tag. I noticed that I could think of tags that began with the same letter…..

This man wanted to ingest God’s words just like we do when our hearts are pierced by nature.  When we know we can’t quite take it all in.  We lack the dimensions, the faculties, the capacities to do justice to God’s creation to His Word.  But if we apply CS Lewis thinking, we can reassure ourselves with THE FACT that:

  • If we have a longing that can’t be satisfied on earth in these bodies, then we can be confident that somewhere and at a point in the future, God WILL satisfy, fulfill and meet those good desires with what He created them for.

Our hungers are ultimately longings for God.

Can you wait?

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”  1 Cor 2:9

 

Food and the Kingdom of God

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Gluten-free, slow foods, farm-to-table, organic, paleo, real food, vegan – who knows HOW or WHAT to eat anymore!

The Table Comes First

I just finished reading a compelling book The Table Comes First.  Adam Gopnik explores the history and philosophy of meals and restaurants.   At the end, however, he reveals that he belongs to that segment of the population who doesn’t worship God.  Therefore, in lieu of the salvation paradigm of Christianity, he makes the assertion that the elevation of the pleasures of dining and sharing a meal can provide meaning, purpose, depth and a sort of rescue to otherwise unmoored humans.

If I look at my own idolizing of ways of eating, I also plead guilty to seeking ‘salvation’ through food.  But with Gopnik’s bold claim, I was struck by how unnecessary it is to place food and Christianity into opposite camps.

Consider the following tangible examples:

  1. Human history originates in a garden with an abundance of fruitful trees for the sustenance and pleasure of God’s image-bearers.  The other bookend of the Bible and the human story are set as a heavenly feast with the host of the Party Himself!
  2. The resurrected Jesus asked for a piece of broiled fish to eat. (Luke 24: 41-42)
  3. A fair number of Jesus’ signs and miracles produced, transformed or multiplied food and drink.  Think of the wedding at Cana and the fine wine.  And the two accounts of the feeding of the 5000.  And manna and quail for the wandering Jews in the desert, accompanied by water from a rock.
  4. Honey revived King Saul’s son Jonathan after a long battle. (1 Sam 14:27)
  5. Gleaning in the barley fields led to Ruth’s marriage, the great-great grandma of King David from whose line Jesus came.
  6. Jesus dined with women and the marginalized segments of society, to the shock of the elite and rule-following average Hebrew.
  7. And let’s not forget the setting for the inaugural New Covenant of Grace, a Passover meal.

And if the above are examples of material food and drink, then there are all the image passages that point beyond food qua food:

  1. We are commanded to, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps 34:8)
  2. Jesus likened himself to the staff of life. “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35)
  3. Paul himself chose covenantal wine to symbolize his final days when writing to encourage Timothy – “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” (2 Tim 4:6)

What good news that we don’t have to choose either secular society’s view of food and drink or an ascetic version of Christianity!

My husband reminded me last night of one of CS Lewis’ main teachings about human desires.  These ‘hungers’ are NOT ends in themselves, but signposts to something greater that can only be satisfied in a better and deeper way.  So if we find that we are hungry for earthly food, then we were created for a more satisfying food that will be provided us upon receipt of our inheritance.  The desires ARE real and they WILL BE fulfilled, but in ways that we cannot begin to imagine.

My take away in thinking this through is to be BETTER prepared when describing true Christianity the way it really is to a world jaded and blasé about life.  This world doesn’t satisfy.  And it never was MEANT to.

Recall the excitement you might once have lived when you were very little and Mom and Dad treated you to one of your first outings for lunch or an ice-cream.  Or think back to one of your initial dining experiences as a young adult on a date in a fancy restaurant. The way they thrilled you can never be quite the same.

But Christians don’t have to be wearied with this present world.  The best truly IS yet to be.  We won’t miss out by being a Christian.  We get it all with Christ.

Bon appétit!

Bon appétit

Should a Christian have a bucket list?

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bucket list

2 Cor 2: 8-9 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”

Bucket lists – those impressive lists that both trumpet to the world what we deem important (Can’t die until I have done X, Y, Z) as well as showcase our time, money and wherewithal to make IT happen.

I mention this because a gal at church attributed her several-week absence to checking another item off her bucket list, a cruise to Alaska.

I didn’t think much about this until I read a comment that reminded me of the mind boggling, spectacular splendor that awaits believers in heaven.

What are we Christians doing, acting like the ‘pagans’ for whom this one life on earth is as good as it is going to get? If this is as close to heaven that non-believers will ever come, then maybe THEY have reason to pursue these recreational dreams. After all, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is woven into the American fabric.

But as Christians, the very idea of a bucket list of

  • exotic places to visit or
  • exploits to accomplish or
  • adventures to taste

as a guide for what we do in retirement (or even earlier!) doesn’t line up theologically with God’s call on our lives.

Not that God is against His children taking joy in His good gifts, such as natural beauty, or trips with family and friends, or even His distribution of interest, talent and grit to hone skills. No, God is NOT a killjoy. It’s just that ALL THAT and MORE is promised believers for later.

For now, God has set us on Earth to reflect HIS glory (not ours) through our day-to-day lives. In our ordinary work and communities, we are to showcase the magnificence and worth of God primarily in two ways:

  • by treasuring and loving Him and
  • by serving and loving our neighbor

…..NOT in our own natural strength, but in humble dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit. As flawed men and women, we are bent inward. It takes SUPER-natural strength to focus outside ourselves, whether we look up at God or horizontally at our fellow human beings.

So a bucket list is inherently self-centering. Let’s be real – we’re talking about a list of what I want to do. This is so 21st century-ish, so indicative of a Western culture awash with money and leisure. If you’re wondering where the idea of a ‘before I die’ set, chosen from the catalog of possible dreams, slate.com attributes the initial usage to:

“the book Unfair & Unbalanced: The Lunatic Magniloquence of Henry E. Panky, by Patrick M. Carlisle. That work includes the sentences, “So, anyway, a Great Man, in his querulous twilight years, who doesn’t want to go gently into that blacky black night. He wants to cut loose, dance on the razor’s edge, pry the lid off his bucket list!”  Quote taken from this site

Don’t worry, dear brothers and sisters. We HAVE an eternal REAL ‘bucket’ filled with fascinating and splendid activities and pleasures to enjoy all guaranteed to each of us who is in union with Christ.

I’m reminded of that famous C.S. Lewis quote contrasting mud pies with a seaside holiday from his essay, The Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I’ll leave you with 2 further resources:

  1. the poem below
  2. a Christian pastor’s version of a bucket list.

A portion of John Piper’s poem, “Justified for Evermore,” found in his book, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God, rev. ed. (Multnomah, 2012), 379-82. (Taken from this website – Blog post by Justin Taylor

And as I knelt beside the brook
To drink eternal life, I took
A glance across the golden grass,
And saw my dog, old Blackie, fast
As she could come. She leaped the stream –
Almost-and what a happy gleam
Was in her eye. I knelt to drink,
And knew that I was on the brink
Of endless joy. And everywhere
I turned and saw a wonder there.
A big man running on the lawn:
That’s old John Younge with both legs on.
The blind can see a bird on wing,
The dumb can lift their voice to sing.
The diabetic eats at will,
The coronary runs uphill.

The lame can walk, the deaf can hear,
The cancer-ridden bone is clear.
Arthritic joints are lithe and free,
And every pain has ceased to be.
And every sorrow deep within,
And every trace of lingering sin
Is gone. And all that’s left is joy,
And endless ages to employ
The mind and heart, and understand,
And love the sovereign Lord who planned
That it should take eternity
To lavish all his grace on me.

A Christian version of a bucket list

A radical solution to my ‘red lizard of sin’

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red lizard of sin  It can be reassuring to be surprised by what one reads. Reassuring because I’m encouraged to know God has plenty for me still to learn; therefore, there is no danger of growing bored!  But surprises can also deliver blows to the solar plexus.

It was just a few nights ago, April 23rd to be exact, when I opened up Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening devotional classic. See the text here. Dishes done, I relaxed cozily into a favorite spot on the sofa, coffee in hand, relishing the time to read.  The Holy Spirit had anything but a peaceful few minutes in store for me.  ‘Au contraire!’ A mini-torrent of conflicting thoughts captured my full attention.  Spurgeon opened like this:

We go to Christ for forgiveness, and then too often look to the law for power to fight our sins.”  Thereupon followed quotes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

Illustrating his point by using the example of the sin of an angry temper, Spurgeon pressed on, saying in essence, STOP trying to cope with the evil of the temper yourself (through willpower and good intentions) but deal with it in the same way that you trusted God for your salvation.

Curious and so far, in agreement, I read on.  Spurgeon’s verbs grew fierce.  He wasn’t talking about reducing the frequency or minimizing the damage from this sin, but KILLING it.  How? – By taking it to the cross for JESUS to give the deathblow.

About to sputter back, No thank you! I’m handling my sins in my own sweet time, with help from the Holy Spirit, I shut my mouth.  The Holy Spirit, through the bold words of this London preacher, had cut me off: I realized that WERE I to hand over a sin to Jesus to kill, FIRST OF ALL, I’d have to:

  • name the sin
  • then actually be willing to relinquish it, ALL of it!

Lock, stock and barrel

What’s the big deal, Maria?  Don’t you WANT to be free from your # One sin?

Well….., I’m not sure.  You see, over the past few days as I have I thought about what that FIRST besetting sin is, I have come to understand that before I hand it over, I actually must NAME it………

Drum roll copy

as……..(and this is embarrassing!)

  • the sin of being preoccupied with myself – of thinking of ME and what I want before I think of anything or anyone else.

When I thought of the occasional GOOD days when I TRY to be ‘other-centered’, those efforts don’t do anything more than assuage my conscience.  Resolves and self-control DON’T decrease my desire for and pleasure in indulging this sin – thinking about ME!  My ‘attempts to be good’ just make me feel self-righteous (more preoccupation with #1!)

Just when I was about to despair over this perpetual cycle, I heard a reminder of Jesus’ commitment to set us free with His truth! Jesus names sin for what it is – SLAVERY!  (John 8:32-34)  His audience sputters and reacts predictably (like me!) that as Abraham’s children, they’ve never been slaves. But Jesus counters with this shocking statement:

Whoever commits and practices sin is the slave of sin.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be enslaved any more.  So (picking up with Spurgeon’s reasoning) here is how to deal with this sin – trust Jesus to kill it just as we trusted Him to save us.  We can’t do either (save our souls, or spring free from sin), BUT we can turn to Him, trust Him and give Him free rein.

To that end, Spurgeon instructs us how to pray:

  • Lord, I have trusted You, and Your name is Jesus, for You save Your people from their sins. Lord, this is one of my sins; save me from it!”

Finally, as an ‘Amen’ Spurgeon eliminates all escape routes: “Your prayers, and your repentances, and your tears – the whole of them put together – are worth NOTHING apart from Him.  Only Jesus can do helpless sinners good, and helpless saints too.”

If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering what the red lizard at the start of this post symbolizes.  He embodies ‘sin’ on the shoulder of a fictional character in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Read about how God kills THAT creature, thereby freeing the poor soul from bondage.

Passage here

A couple of conclusions I have drawn about this sin of shameless preoccupation:

  • I’m not the one to kill sin, Jesus is.  I just have to hand it over to Him.
  • For, the forceful sway of each and every sin has already been severed.  Jesus gripped that true indictment of Maria in His hand when the nail pierced it (and ALL the sins of His to-be-adopted brothers and sisters).
  • The power comes from re-calling the historical and effectual fact of the Cross

All that remains is to go out and enjoy new freedom, walking with the one and only champion and liberator, and heralding to all who would listen this good news.

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