New potting soil for our marriage

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potting soil  With Valentine’s Day approaching I’ve been thinking about our marriage.  When Mike and I exchanged vows in church, although churchgoers, we ‘lived and moved and had our being’ in contemporary American 20th-century culture. If you had asked us the very strange-sounding question:  “What is your marriage grounded in?” we would have answered with a blank stare of incomprehension.

Had you gently probed with a further query like, “What is the basis for those wedding vows you just spoke?” I know I would have said, “Love!”  Having gotten to know Mike over 9 months, I knew simply that I wanted to be with him permanently.  Marriage made sense, for that reason.  Plus, as Army officers, we couldn’t be guaranteed joint assignments unless we were married.

But as any wedded couple can attest, living with another sinful person is very hard, whether Christian or not.  We experienced the same stress common to husbands and wives.  And at one point, year 20, separation looked like a real possibility.  Why?  Because our marriage was firmly planted in the soil of contemporary American culture where ‘what makes me happy’ is normative.  Worldly colleagues at school counseled me to ‘move on’ if my needs were not being met.

But the Divine Gardner gently repotted us into different soil, through other friends who spoke God’s truth into us.  Gradually their counsel plus sermons centered on teaching on the Biblical God, books on Christian marriage plus our participation in Bible Study Fellowship changed our individual-centered worldview for a God-centered mindset.  This steady feeding gradually weakened the lies we had accepted as true.  That ‘Mike and Maria’ died.  A new ‘Mike and Maria’ continues to grow stronger as God fertilizes and prunes us.

The dirt made all the difference.

Over time we came to understand the true purpose of marriage.  Not at all what I would have expected, certainly not the way I was brought up.  Certainly not what best selling movies and books describe.

Paul describes marriage like this, in his letter to the Ephesians. He writes:

  •  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)

Mike and I are still learning that marriage is NOT about our own ‘happily ever after’, but about covenant keeping and reflecting  (very imperfectly most of the time) the marriage of Jesus and the Church.

As Tim Keller, a pastor in NYC writes: “If we want to be happy in marriage we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy, not happy. Happiness is a byproduct.”

Mike and I now realize that becoming holy takes a lifetime! Being married IS sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, often ordinary.  But a ‘happy ordinary’ is SO much better now than it was the first 20 years of our relationship.

Just as Jesus will never abandon his commitment and pledge to love his bride, the Church, so too we must not abrogate the earthly union with our spouse that our Father has blessed.

Have ‘fights’ and ‘frustrations’ disappeared?  No, but they are less frequent and not as emotionally charged as they used to be when ‘getting what I want’ was each of our goals.  Mike and I still struggle, but we are learning to love one another sacrificially.  For me, this means keeping my mouth shut instead of letting loose with a sarcastic or unloving response.  A new practice of putting myself in his shoes to understand his perspective feels more right.  I now take very seriously the Father’s charge to me as Mike’s wife – to pray for him and his growth in holiness.  I know that is what will make Mike happiest and me most fulfilled as his wife.

As Peter says in his 1st letter:  ABOVE ALL, love one another deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4: 8)

 

Why pray? The power of love, hospitals and gifts.

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1 Peter 4:7-10 (NIV)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 

Are you stuck in a trying situation or have a problem for which there seems to be no imaginable solution?  Life is full of problems. No surprise for Jesus promised such tribulation, in case you thought something was amiss and there shouldn’t be all this pain.  (But He also encouraged us to cheer up because of what He would do on our behalf.- see John 16:33)

I like to commit Scripture to memory.  So I’ve been living with the Apostle Peter as I’ve made my way slowly through his first letter to scattered believers.  Memorizing the book, verse by verse, since January 2017, has provided me with rich meditation.

Recently a new insight in the above passage struck me.  ‘The end of all things is near.”  The straightforward plain reading of the text seems to be that Jesus will be back sooner than we think.  However, from our perspective (and if you think about the recipients of the letter 2 millennia earlier) the end is taking A LONG time in arriving!

Last week as I rehearsed what I ‘have’ inside of me from chapter 4, I saw something different in the above verses.  I thought about my friend Pat.  This pen-pal friend is in her late 60s and suffers from late-onset depression.  She was 60 before this darkness descended.  Meds appear to work for a while and then stop and her doctor tries out something else that might provide relief.   My new insight was this: what if God means, ‘the end of this particular trial that dominates her life right now’ is near?

If that’s the case and since God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, what can I, Maria, do to hasten Pat’s imminent relief from this disease?  Peter provides a prescription.  I’m to:

  • Be clear minded, or as another translation renders it sober up, that is ‘get a grip’ about what is important in the eternal scheme of things (and it’s not 75 % of what I churn about!)  Why?  So I can pray.  I’m to pray for my suffering sister.  We Christians are to corral and curate our thought life so we can pray for others.  Why?  Because God uses our prayers to bring an end to our brothers’ and sisters’ pains and trials.
  • Next, I’m to love this friend, that is to do what I can to make her life easier.  God gives us imaginations so we can put ourselves in someone else’s situation and understand what we would like in terms of relief and assistance.  Pat lives in Texas and I live in North Carolina.  So besides praying, I can keep in touch through mail, phone calls and texts.
  • Then what about the hospitality Peter mentions?  I love knowing that reaching out to those in need is also the origin of our centers for medical care – hospitals.  We are to be mini-hospitals to fellow members of God’s family.
  • Finally, we are to know that God specifically wired us and gifted us with the means to serve one another according to needs we find around us.  I have a friend who knits.  She works to hasten the trials of others by praying over shawls that she creates with love and care.  God did not endow me with that beautiful skill.

So you see, dear friends, God involves us in the very shortening of others’ trials.  But we have to get OUT of ourselves.  The call to pray, love, and provide healing service to those in need is a HIGH CALLING!

If you wonder what is the purpose of your life this day, then look no further.  God has equipped you and me to participate in a God-honoring and life-affirming way.  To Him be all the glory and to us be much joy.

Do you have to know how He’s going to work?

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Phil 4:6-7  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  and the peace of God, which SURPASSES all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

God had already prepared me last week by focusing my attention on His term ‘surpasses’.  I spent quite a bit of time nosing around Blue Letter Bible to see just what ‘hyper-echo’ revealed.  Paul uses it 3 times to mean:

  • is vastly superior
  • stands above

What struck me was what God promises – in return for handing over problems and worries.  He guarantees nothing short of supernatural peace – quite the opposite of what we’re feeling as beleaguered worriers.  Moreover, He asserts that this holy peace of His brings us life-giving energy.  In contrast, anxiously wanting to know HOW and WHEN He’s going to work out the issues SUCKS away life and joy.

But human as we are, we WANT to see the provision, the solutions. Our minds race ahead, exploring options and play-by-play ‘if THIS, then THAT’ scenarios.

Getting back to how God prepped me for a bigger problem by means of this command cum promise.  Going into Friday of last week,  I practiced meditating on Phil 4:6-7,  how His peace counts more than knowing how He was going to fix 2 problems that have dogged me this summer.  Each day I practiced restating out loud Paul’s advice like this:

“Your divine peace is worth more than seeing or knowing how you’re going to handle these 2 issues, so I choose to leave them with You!”

Silly me – I thought God had opened my eyes to the value of God-sized peace for THOSE two problems.  But now I see that the gift of His insight readied me for Friday’s ‘surprise’.

Year 26 of teaching French starts tomorrow, Monday.  Typically I spend the day before we have to report for teacher workdays organizing my room and taking stock of class rosters and supplies.  Friday morning I walked into school around 9 am, carrying two bags of this-and-that. On the way up the steps, my principal fell in beside me and broke the news that only 3 students had signed up for level 1 French class.  I had heard from one of the 2 Spanish teachers that this year’s entering 6th-grade class was small.  With that information in my mind, I had figured a class size of maybe 8-9 instead of 12-15 as in previous years.

The news stunned me.  Only THREE?  Really?  Throughout the day I kept turning over the implications of such a tiny group.  The Holy Spirit did prompt me to text 4 friends who understand what it’s like to teach a ‘minority’ language in America.  They started praying.  And I returned to worrying and casting on Him and feeling sad.

The dark gray cloud sunk deeper into my heart, despite repeating Paul’s promise.  Joy-smothering heaviness lingered.  It felt personal, for I had taught most of the rising 6th graders in an Intro to French last year.  Students in our lower school study Spanish from Kindergarten through 4th grade.  In 5th grade, one of the middle school Spanish teachers continues with a semester of Spanish and I offer them a taste of French.  The idea is they can better choose the language they like or value to continue in Middle School.

I shared the news with Mike when I got home.  The pall lingered through the evening and dogged me during the wakeful night. The next morning my loving husband handed me an essay about waiting on God.  The author wrote from painful personal experience how these situations are exactly the kind that produces the fruit of patience.  Hmm….I had forgotten that patience is one of those 9 traits of holiness cultivated by the Holy Spirit.

If we really trust God’s goodness, then we can rely on and WAIT for Him to act, exercising patience by means of the faith He gives us.

A few hours later Mike followed up with a written-out specific prayer for me, asking God to give me supernatural patience and peace.  And God DID!

This prayer has SUPER-NATURALLY helped me.  In a tangibly different way, I KNOW the power that a believing child of God can access through prayer and have sent by the Holy Spirit to someone else.  It’s not that I FEEL any different.  I have been enabled to believe that God WILL indeed take care of the situation.  I don’t need to know the HOW or the WHEN.

Within an hour of reading Mike’s prayer for me and after typing it up for myself, my spirits lightened.  I regained my ability to think about other things.  What other things?

To be frank, thinking about ME, my concerns or the future is boring and life-sucking. So what is there to think about?  I’m tired of rolling them around in my mind.

Uncle Paul wastes no time in helping us there.  As soon as he describes the gift of God’s peace for those who off-load their worries, he tells us just what remains to be done, one final thing:

Phil 4:8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (NLT)

Here’s what Blueletter Bible says about the Greek word Paul uses (dwell or fix your thoughts on) “This word deals with reality. If I reckon (logizomai) that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise, I am deceiving myself. This word refers more to fact than supposition or opinion.”

So, what about that small class? I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Lot’s of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes are likely in store for me.  I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Knowing God, He’s likely to have planned, just for me, lots of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes. I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

But He is good and whatever He brings me is designed to ripen and multiply my fruitfulness, conforming me to Christ.

 

 

How you can help someone

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It started out as an ordinary church supper.  But two events transformed the occasion into a memorable one.

What do you take to a potluck?  For years I’ve relied on my standard, easy-to-assemble quiche.

  • Roll out a commercial pie crust into the plate
  • Add chopped cooked ham
  • Spread evenly 8 ounces of grated cheese (Swiss or Cheddar)
  • Beat up 3 eggs together with 2 cups of heavy cream (or 4 eggs and 1 1/2 cups of Sour Cream for less fat).  Pour on top of the ham and cheese
  • Bake at 400 for 50 minutes

There are rarely any leftovers, but the ingredients have grown pricey.  So I asked my ‘go-to source of practical wisdom, my hairdresser, for some fresh ideas.  What I wrote down was one of those Jiffy corn muffin mix-based dishes that also calls for an egg, sour cream, creamed corn, cheese and a stick of butter.

The little old ladies RAVED!  Not a finger-swipe remained in the 9×13 dish.  Note to self – keep making this for future potlucks.

The next surprise is weightier.  One of our elders shared a 20-minute message whereby he wove together and linked 30 or so Biblical promises from God to us, His people. This man’s goal was to encourage us to believe how much God loves us.  As I let wave after wave of strengthening truths bathe my heart, one couplet of verses startled me. Something new in Ephesians caught my attention, sparking some thoughts.

Whispering, I asked Mike to locate the passage on his phone’s ESV app.  I scanned the screen.  Sure enough, I noticed an anchor in Paul’s most famous prayer on behalf of this particular church.

Ephesians Chapter 3, verses 14-17 records the former legalist confidently asking God to grant the people strength to know His love so that they can be filled up with ALL of God. No new news there. But the structure of that clause-laden Greek invocation arrested me.  Here’s how I parsed it out looking at the Greek words on the Blue Letter Bible Website.

(Paul prays) I ask God to grant you all

  • to be strengthened with power
  • through the Spirit of God
  • by means of Christ dwelling in your heart by faith (both His presence and the gift of faith are permanent realities in the heart of believers)
  • whose presence makes it a given that you are rooted and grounded in LOVE and empowered with effective force
  • So that you all are enabled to seize and possess (meaning of  ‘to comprehend’) both the ‘physical dimensions’ of Christ’s love and the intimate knowing of Him that go way beyond knowledge
  • So that you all may be filled with the fullness (full measure of His grace and provisions) of God

What fascinated me was God’s supernatural interlinking of His Power with His Love. He then transmits to us intimate knowledge about Himself.  Thus, God’s power, love, and knowledge synergistically work, filling us up with Himself!

What a God! And what a prayer!  If you’re anything like me, you might be filled up with a churning mixture of anxieties, fear, doubt, pride with a touch of scorn for others tossed in to sour the pot.  Who would not rather be filled up with just God?

And just how do we replace the junk with the life-giving alternative?  By echoing Paul’s prayer for ourselves and then directing our thoughts to savor these God-given treasures that are rightfully ours.

Without a complete sifting through the Bible, these promises seem to constitute the most powerful prayer we can offer for others and ourselves.  And since I’ve been writing about power prayers, have you ever seriously thought about Jesus’ plea to His Father for us, His brothers and sisters?   Chew on this:

John 17:24 (NIV) “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

Jesus is asking His and Our Father for transfer to heaven.  Do you think that the Father will deny His Son this request?

Don’t scorn patience

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“Don’t pray for patience, or God will give you many exasperating circumstances!”

Doubtless you have heard versions of that adage.  As true as it is, the one who utters it seems to do so with a tone of frustration and resignation as though having to wait were a curse.

A quote by William Gurnall, 17th century English pastor, recently arrested my attention and transformed my view of the fruit of patience.

Here’s the context for Gurnall’s teaching on the value of patience: What are we to think when God is silent after we pray earnestly an ‘acceptable’ prayer?

(Gurnall qualifies prayers as acceptable those tied to one of God’s promises and those that are offered from a ‘clean’ heart, that is a heart that has repented of known sin among other qualities.)

This pastor labored to persuade readers (or listeners to his sermons) to appreciate God’s delay in answering our prayers.

“Be patient, and thou shalt find, the longer a mercy goes before its delivery, the more perfect it will come forth at last…(then giving an example from Abraham’s long wait for a son)….when the date of God’s bond was near expiring, and the time of the promise drew night, then God paid interest for his stay. None gain more at the throne of grace than those who trade for tie, and can forbear the payment of a mercy longest.”

180 turn

Reading that quote the other day flipped my heart 180 degrees. All of a sudden I saw this onerous, groan-worthy quality trait as a priceless treasure God desires and wills to give us. But not as in, cut open my heart and pour in high-octane patience. Were it that easy!

No, instead, He sets out to offer me many, many occasions to wait on Him.  Whether:

  • at the grocery store or
  • for someone laboriously telling a story to get to their point or
  • the arrival of a job offer after multiple interviews or
  • for rain or
  • for a diet to work or
  • for a publisher finally to say YES!

Considering the payoff for this kind of inner strength, I now see the KINDNESS of God in giving us multiple opportunities to practice the skill of waiting on Him.  For what else are delays but God’s sovereign schedule of life’s events?  And what else is Biblical faith, but a treasuring of all that God is for us and all He promises to be in the future? Doesn’t that kind of faith require PATIENCE since we don’t physically SEE what is promised?

Does this kind of waiting on something in the future seem vague and like a discipline involving self-denial?  Then maybe shifting the focus to the reward will help.  Here are just a few of the many payoffs?   Consider some staggering promises of reward:

  • face-to-face seeing God (Rev 22:4)
  • renewed strength (Is 40:31)
  • compassion from God (Is 30:18)
  • food and satisfaction for all our desires(Ps 145:15-16)
  • all the gifts from God due us (1 Cor 1:7)
  • adoption by God the Father (Rom 8:23)
  • help and protection (Ps 33:20)
  • salvation from many dangers (Gen 49:18)
  • grace that is promised when Jesus comes back (1 Peter 1:13)

And if reflecting on some of these pledges of future blessing were not enough to help one see the payoff for patience, God brought to mind James’ motto for the ‘Saints Club’. Consider it PURE JOY my brothers when you face trials of various kinds….(James 1: 2-4).  Why?  because, as this apostle explains, trials grow patient, cheerful endurance in us.  The Greek term for that character quality is hypomone. Literally it means to STAY UNDER.

I take that counsel to instruct me NOT to fight the trying circumstance but to practice patient waiting, praying for God to resolve it or for it to resolve itself or for my God-dependent efforts to have their effect.  Whatever the outward action, the inner state of a follower of Christ is calm, patient, cheerful trust in God who ordained this particular trial and circumstance.

What is ‘driving you nuts’ that God is allowing or bringing back time and time again in different forms to GIFT you with patience? 

This baby bird got fed!

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Baby bird gets fed   Psalm 86:4    Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.

I felt like crap Friday night.  And I woke up feeling the same.  In a complaining, whiny mood, not content.  Why?  just the same ole-same ole reason – ‘not enough Maria time’ to satisfy me. (yes, school is back in session)

When I went to bed, I wisely made the decision to forgo exercising in the morning. I reasoned that just MAYBE I needed more time with God.  If I could start my quiet time earlier, then maybe I could find refreshment for my soul before we headed out the door with our planned Saturday’s activities.

Providentially, I had noticed the above verse from Psalm 86 the previous day and written it down. God used my hand-copied Psalmist’s plea to revive me.  It occurred to me – If the writer was begging God to give him joy, then he obviously wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about anything.  Why would he ask for what he already had?

A very weak, half-hearted request formed in my mouth.  No fervor or confidence accompanied this prayer.  It wasn’t mixed with strong faith.  It was all I could do to THINK the words.  No sound waves left my lips.

Praise be to my good Father who has planted His Spirit in me! For one of the happy jobs of the Spirit of Christ is to intercede for those saints in whom He resides.

Here’s what happened:  the Lord DID gladden my heart.  Just like the baby bird in the nest who can do nothing but open his mouth (thereby blocking sight of mom and dad arriving with food), I lifted my soul to the One who could fill it.  The invisible but real supernatural and almighty Sovereign Lord of the Universe filled my emptiness:

  • Our dreaded ‘change-the-water-filter-under-the-house-all-the-while-praying-the-seal-holds‘ bi-monthly task proceeded stress-free.
  • Our hike along a section of the Appalachian Trail out of Hot Springs turned out to be delightful.  The incline worked our bodies but didn’t punish our calves or thighs.  God provided a beautiful summer day.  The vista views and the close-up trees and bushes together with the pine straw smells and QUIET, all worked together to calm and renew our souls.
  • Grilling pork chops and spotting examples of grace in a Downton Abbey episode blessed us.
  • Coffee and reading on the deck as dusk approached and the mountains darkened quieted us for the night
  • A solid 8-hour sleep brought us to a new morning, thoroughly equipped with new soul and body strength.

And this morning, during my quiet time I gave thanks to the Lord who showed me mercy yesterday when I didn’t deserve it and hesitantly asked

Matthew 12:20a – He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

 

 

 

Fighting discontent with prayer

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Father, you who SHOULD be enough, forgive my discontent!

You specifically command us NOT to covet. And I continue to disobey you. Coveting, wanting what I don’t have, is the very opposite of loving you with 100% of my mind. As the sun of summer passes over the yardarm, I find myself internally grumbling and focusing on the countdown to the end of my quiet mornings and longer evenings. As though Jesus’ purchase of eternal life were not enough, my disquieted heart is MORE focused on my dread of going back to school. To the point that:

  • not only am I not reveling in these pristine mountain mornings,
  • but I’m deliberately avoiding your will for me that I rejoice, pray and thank you in every thing.

But you have not left me to fight this by myself. If so, then as Martin Luther so rousingly portrayed:

a mighty fortress

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing

So just how do you propose to help me, Father?  Your word to me in fear and anxiety has always been –  Armor-up, Maria!  Dread, that wicked picturing of a scary future, is simply a different flavor.  (And just as much a violation of your command to count ALL things as joy – whether trial or trove, since they come from You, for my good.)

I thank you, that your word in Ephesians 6 has taught me the following tactic:

  •  we’re to pick a weapon from the arsenal of your Word and fight the fear with spirit-indwelt force.

Here is what you gave me this morning during church and I’m going to make it mine in this battle with discontent:

James 5: 11-12 Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course! You’ve heard, of course, of Job’s staying power, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end. That’s because God cares, cares right down to the last detail.

When I personalize your encouragement I find it easier to remember your promise. But I need your Holy Spirit to prompt me, to remind me of your sure pledge each time I’m attacked by those Satan-suggested gloomy pictures of the coming school year.  Then I can substitute your word to me for the fear scenario I’ve assembled.

Just like Job’s assignment was not what he chose, but he stayed under your heavy hand, honoring your name, with your strength I will stay in the seat you have seen fit to assign me this day, this season. In return for his loyalty, you blessed Job more richly than he ever could have pictured. So I will look to my future blessings.  You’re more kind than I can imagine, so just maybe you have woven treasure into what I’m dreading.  But if nothing else, may my sure inheritance in the next life fill me with enduring energy to be faithful to your will.  Help me to savor and daydream about what full fellowship with you, and overflowing joy may be like.   

God, you KNOW that I can’t successful win the battle against fear and dread without your supernatural help. But woe is me if I don’t daily take up the spiritual weapons you’ve handed me and use them throughout the day and night as the enemy lobs in artillery shells of discontent.

In Jesus’ name, whose intercessions I’m counting on, I pray.  Amen!

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