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!

 

 

 

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!

Perfection and futility

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clay pot  “There I go again!”  as hammering self-condemnation reprised.  I had just done what I didn’t want to do, overeat.  Nothing really sinful in that per se, except that overeating is a gateway to my sin of self-centered, interior moping. More familiar than any other melody is my original adaptation of the human ‘Ode to my Pitiful Self’.

But thanks be to God and Bible-centered preaching and writing! Pastor and teacher John Piper rescues imperfect sheep prone to turn inward by proclaiming a recurring life-giving message of: “Don’t waste your disappointments, trials, suffering, failures,……”

God must have thought it was time to break my bent towards control and perfection with this sovereignly ordained ‘trip-up’.  So what galls me the most?  What sends me into despair each time I let myself down and overeat? Certainly not His condemnation, but MY disappointment with myself.

Here’s the rub:  Why am I even surprised that I can’t do what I want to do?

Like Paul, I wail: I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. Romans 7:15

“Stupid!,” this home-grown expectation or gateway toward self-chastisement. A recent podcast drove that home.  The speaker had been in therapy for a broken marriage and started to heal when she made the connection between her:

  1. Assumption that I CAN be perfect (do what I want to do)
  2. Anxiety over the burden of trying to be perfect
  3. Bondage to control in order to gain perfection

I suddenly saw the futility when I realized that we were never meant to strive for perfection.  In fact, God has intentionally designed us the opposite!  The human model comes with abundant limitations.  We see them as flaws; He ordains them as gateways for God’s glory and grace to show.

...we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. 2 Cor 4:7b

Breakable clay is the term for earthenware. In Paul’s time, vessels, plates, jars, cups were made of a clay mixture containing oyster shell pieces. God has purposefully made us out of crumbly stuff.  The Almighty Father and Creator made us delicate and fragile so that we would depend and rest on Him to do all that He calls us to do.  He didn’t aim to populate His kingdom with self-sufficient, sturdily consistent perfect little beings.

That is good news, brothers and sisters.  Let it go, all those expectations of how you want to act.  Yes, we are called to be imitators of Jesus, to be holy because God is holy.  But He knows we are going to blow it, multiple times a day.  Why are we the last to accept that?

Holy Spirit, remind me straight away when I miss the self-assigned mark I naïvely think will make me feel good about myself.  Grow me a new song,

a melody of music“Here I go again, a perfectly designed child of my Father who just sent me a love note that says, ‘Maria, come to me with your mess; don’t be surprised, you just need to give it a rest and flop down and swim in my grace and love!‘”

 

 

Agreeing with Satan = my self-condemnation

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There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1

There it was, PROOF!  – a ‘poochy’ in a photo we asked someone to snap of us at the peak.   I was horrified to SEE it.  Two days earlier I had realized the evidence of what I had been reluctant to admit, I had gained a few pounds over the past few months. I could feel it and see it in the mirror, but now here it was in living color, digitally for the world to see!

The self-recriminations had set in 60 hours earlier and I had been battling them armed with God’s truth SOME of the time.  At other points, my brain buzzed in the high RPM range, figuring out what I was going to do to lose the 5 pounds.

What also bothered me was I thought I had put the Weight and Body Image Battle behind me, having even declared VS Day – Victory over the Scales Day on 5 Dec 2015.  That day marked a turning point when I symbolically moved the scales off the throne of my heart to make room for Jesus as supreme treasure and pleasure.

But by the full force of this self-recriminating skirmish, all I had done was substitute a different but equally deadly joy-sucking idol for that morning metric measurer, the bathroom scales.   What was this new enemy? –  the concept of leanness as my supreme good.

After the hike, I took my journal outside on the deck to see if I could get to the bottom of this seeming forever struggle.  And God was faithful to spark some gut-wrenching insights into the sin underneath this internal drama.

Here are the questions I wrote down:

  • Why does having a ‘poochy’ bother me more than my sin of idolatry and scorn against a Holy God?
  • Why is ‘leanness’ my ultimate and mostly elusive good?

The first question brought immediate remorse over my topsy-turvy value system.  The scales were just the outward and visible manifestation of my inward and wicked heart as represented by ‘the leanness idol’.  Abandoning my quest to maintain a certain weight didn’t take away what I still valued most in life.

The second question led to digging beneath the visible layers in my heart. By continuing to ask WHY, I tried to reach the bedrock of what drives me.

  • Why do I value leanness?  Because I most admire those women who are lean and fit
  • Why do I admire those kinds of women? Because they are free of self-loathing.
  • Why would NOT being ‘perfectly’ lean bring self-loathing? Because in myself, I can’t stand the feeling of a roll of fat or pudginess or tight rings or clothes.  They make me mad and I feel stuck and depressed.  And all that negative emotion pushes me inward into a seemingly self-perpetuating prison. I do all this to myself!

And then a question that directed healing light to that dark place in my heart.

  • What is the opposite of all that yuck I just described? Contentment with myself.  When content, I find it natural to forget about myself and focus on God and others.  Balled up in myself distracts and distorts the destination of my energy.
  • So if I seek a more lasting and better contentment and inner peace, what would God rather me choose as a source?  Why pleasing Him by being satisfied in Him, of course! The answer was clear as day.

Just at the moment that the Holy Spirit enabled me to ponder this pleasant place of happy and restful contentment, He called to mind Paul’s words about having LEARNED to be content in all seasons.  Hmmm.  If Paul could learn, through practice, then so could I!

A bit energized I started to reason biblically:

  • If God is FOR me, who can be against me?  (not even Maria’s self-criticisms count or SHOULD be able to pierce my peace)
  • If I have been declared ‘just’ by God (as a gift, through the mechanism of grace, and secured by Jesus’ redeeming payment with His life – Romans 3:24), then I already possess a permanent unshakeable peace with God.
  • When I beat myself up for having gained 5 pounds, I am participating in condemnation – Satan’s hideous and soul-eating handiwork.  He is the Accuser par excellence.  Agreeing with Satan mocks Jesus’ extravagant gift to me.

I was almost at the point of echoing my ‘Uncle Paul’s despair-filled cry, Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” – Romans 7:24.  At that very moment, I think a whimsical but life-giving picture came to me. I imagined Jesus looking at me with a twinkle in His eye and saying:

Maria has a poochy and I LOVE her poochy!

What a startling but gentling image. Is it really so far out of the realm of divine possibility?  After all, it was my husband who used to say with tender and happy love about our cat Calvin, Calvin has a poochy!  And Calvin was his favorite cat!

If it’s TRUE that there is nothing I can do to make Jesus love me more or less than He already does, then why not THIS scenario of Holy Joy in one for whom He died?

I think the healing took root at that point, Saturday afternoon, on our deck in the sun, journal and pen in my hands.

Almost with embarrassed hesitation I shared these new insights with my husband.  I felt that unless I articulated them out loud to another person, then I might slink back into the dark, dreary cave where I have beat myself up for far too long.  But there it was, in the light of day, publicly proclaimed for the person most dear to me and uttered out loud ALSO in case that the devil, himself, might be lurking.  And I, too, heard this new ‘fact’.  Maybe it was more important for ME to hear those words spoken out loud, witnessed by my husband and the Holy Spirit.

So I’ve been saying to myself several times a day, ‘I have a poochy and Jesus loves my poochy!’

 

Do we work for our salvation?

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“….Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,  for or it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure.…” Phil 2:12b-13a

Work out your salvation

Do you ever feel like you’re on the outside of a certain Bible passage, looking in? Like you can’t unlock what the verses mean, no matter how much you chip away at the word meaning or greater context?  I’ve felt that way for a LONG time, about MANY verses that seem too short and too cryptic.  Recently John Piper explained what is beginning to happen to me.  And it’s a welcome change.  Let me share a recent example and maybe you’ll find some hope for how you, too, can be rewarded with nuggets of gold after some hard-core mining.

A piece of that reward arrived this past Sunday as I was poking around Blue Letter Bible to research the Greek meaning of ‘work out’ in the cited verse.  In that rich soil, God brought forth a new ‘aha!’ moment as He opened up my understanding of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians.  I’ve always struggled to understand two aspects of his ‘strong suggestion’.

  • what are we working out?  are we actually working toward our salvation?
  • what does working out one’s salvation have to do with what God is doing IN me?

What I have found is that some of the Bible seems to be written in a shorthand form.  A lot of explicit explanation just isn’t there.  Reminds me of poetry, which often stumps me. Or maybe some of these puzzling lines are like the parables Jesus told, meant to keep out those whose only interest in Truth is passing.

But I WANT to know, to understand, to OWN more and more of God’s Word.  So I dig around and soak in the Bible A LOT.  And after 18 1/2 years, things are beginning to ‘pop’.

What got me soaking all those years ago?  I started actually STUDYING the Bible systematically through an in-depth Bible study called Bible Study Fellowship (BSF link here).

I had become a Christian 16 years earlier, but my scripture reading was hit or miss and except for about a year in a British Anglican church, we weren’t around ‘Christians’ who actually believed that the Bible was God’s authoritative Word, alive and full of power.

BSF changed all that.

So now, although we have moved and don’t find ourselves near a BSF class, we continue to read and study our Bible and belong to a church that submits to the authority of the Word.

And I’m beginning to reap my investment of time and energy.  Verses and passages which previously remained closed to me are now opening up.  And it’s exciting!

So what about the WORKING OUT conundrum?  Here’s what I figured out or WORKED OUT from reading the Greek meanings of katergázomai/work out.  When we take something and think it through and see how it applies, then it becomes OURS.  We’re fashioning it to fit into what we already know.  It’s like making room in your house for a new painting.

I was relieved to conclude that NO, we don’t do works to earn our salvation, but we have to renovate our entire understanding of who we are and why we exist in the first place by yielding to God as our Creator, Redeemer and Happy Master.  And the comforting good news is that God does not leave us to do this home renovation on our own!  Look at Philippians 13:a.  It’s God Himself who is at work in us both to DESIRE (will) and WORK to please Him.  What a sweet deal for us.

Knowing God so far, it’s safe to assume that He has many more treasures for me.  If I stay rooted like a tree, near His living and life giving water, then as I draw up cool refreshing nourishment, I will continue to grow.

Tree by a stream

Am I harder on myself than God is?

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1 Peter 4:8 – Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

James 5:20 – Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Psalm 103:12 – As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Faith's Hall of Fame

Have you ever wondered at the accuracy of God in his assessment of major Biblical personalities such as David, Lot, Noah, Moses and Abraham?  A few of the sins in their lives include:

  • murder
  • adultery
  • parenting of daughters that is abusive by its shameful neglect
  • drunkenness
  • pride
  • self-protective lies that potentially jeopardized the line of God’s chosen people?

Come on, God! You know everything.  Don’t these ‘biggie’ sins disqualify all but maybe Enoch, about whom you report only positive behavior and character in Scripture? How can you even love, let alone acclaim these men You created, called and commissioned?

I thought about this incongruity when struggling a few days back with heavy thoughts of what a poor mom, mother-in-law, friend and grandmother I am.  Maintaining relationships in the way I think they should be cultivated is difficult for me.  Oblivious in my earlier years, but increasingly aware since I turned 35, I have grown in both my appreciation of and commitment to investing time in the dearest of people.  Yet….I often beat myself up for not “X-ing” enough (substitute multiple action verbs for the X).

In the middle of the current ‘I’m not enough’ doldrums, I passed on to one of my daughters-in-law as worth reading a blog post that resonated with my current bleak self regard. She immediately shot back some probing questions that forced me to look even closer at my pity party.  One of her arresting thoughts was this:

  • The more I love my ‘I don’t do this well’ self-assessments, the freer I am to see God work IN those weaknesses.

Hm….

That was last Sunday morning, right before church.  So I worshipped God while all the while thinking through what might be God’s perspective about my ‘muck’.  It occurred to me that nary a ‘Bible Giant’ such as the five I mentioned did everything well.  In fact, when they worked on their own, they fell into big sin.  Only when they served in humble and thankful dependence on God did they experience supernatural results that pointed to God’s intervention.

And isn’t that what God wants?  If we humans, we Christians succeeded in our own wisdom and strength, how would God look good and desirable?

If my weakness is NOT something God despises, then, why do I grant myself freedom to indulge in such negative introspection?  After all, God provides a quick and effective way out of sin, out of my moral debilities long marinated in self-condemnation.

  • If we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from ALL wickedness and unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9  And what is unrighteousness, but doing something in our own strength and wisdom.  God calls that sin, because…. 
  • Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. Romans 14:23

There’s actually another sin going on in my stewing in my ‘I don’t do this well’ muck.  It’s plain ‘ole’ fear, mixed with shame.

What do I fear?

  • I’m ashamed that relationships with others, including family, friends and grandkids do not come easily due to my selfish nature
  • Just as I felt insecure as a young mom…that sense from long ago has carried over into feeling unsure as a grandmother
  • If any of my friends or family knows that I have to ‘work at’ a relationship they will feel less loved or think I’m being artificial.
  • My pre-supposition (and fear) must therefore be, “anything that doesn’t come naturally, spontaneously from the heart, is 2nd rate and not authentic. If you have to work at loving someone, you must not really love them. And if you KNOW that about me, you will think less of me.”

Self-criticism  In those ‘I don’t this well’ areas, I obviously have been listening only to these fear voices.

But if I think back to Old Testament ‘giants’, I also see how God assesses them throughout other passages.  For instance, the so-called Hebrews Hall of Fame spotlights the noble actions of some well-known personages.   It doesn’t take much study to notice that those God acclaims as praiseworthy are also ones about whom we have read many unsavory accounts.

What does that say about how God views His children and perhaps how we should view ourselves?

Could it be that as forgiven, adopted and beloved sons and daughters what count are the actions done IN faith, IN dependence on Christ, with no subtraction due to our gross sins? (or ‘little’ sins for that matter – since all sin is forgivable by God when we confess)

And if that is how God evaluates us, sinful as we are, should we spend more time than say, Paul, who acknowledging himself as the ‘worst of sinners’, yet does not allow that fact to deter him from moving ahead.  (1 Tim 1:15 – This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”–and I am the worst of them all.)

So, bottom line for Maria, and maybe for you:

  • Yes, there are areas of my life where I am wobbly (my Mom’s term), but they should point me all the more gratefully to God’s promise to be sufficient for me.
  • It is WRONG and SINFUL to fear and beat myself up (a form judgment and of self-atonement – 2 jobs God has explicitly told me to leave alone.  See Ex 20:3 – Thou shall have no other Gods before Me!)
  • With plenty of areas of weakness, why not look at these situations as prompts to practice turning straight away to God for my supply?

Final thought to marvel over and give thanks: 

Because God the Father has already forgiven my past, present and future sins thanks to Jesus’ substitution for me in death and life, God can justly keep track of those deeds done in faith and happy dependence on Him.

Dear Father, send your Holy Spirit to remind me to STOP beating myself up, even though that is a familiar habit.  Remind me, supernaturally, to look to Jesus for both forgiveness and provision to believe and to do what and where and how You are calling me as your child.  Resting in the sure promises of Jesus, I ask this.  Amen

 

 

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