What I munch on when bad stuff happens

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Two truths are keeping me together, are feeding me these days:

Mark 7:37 – …..He does everything well! (ISV)

Ps 84:11 – …..No good thing does He withhold.(NIV)

When something ‘bad’ happens, I find myself talking to Jesus – You do EVERYTHING well!  No GOOD thing do you withhold from me!”  These two truths act as the sandwich bread bracketing/holding each particular set of circumstances.  Only with the bread in place, is it safe to draw any conclusion from the ‘bad stuff’ of suffering or evil.

This week, someone dear to me received news that she wasn’t expecting.  I know that she considers Jesus her treasure, that she is a believer.  So I know that the Psalm 84 promise belongs to her.  As I have fought back sinful worry on her behalf, I have reminded myself of these 2 promises.  And that helps me continue to pray for her, but without the worry or anxiety.

Pain and suffering are not ruled out in this fallen world.  We all know that. But they knock the wind out of us at times.  What helps me is intentionally to recall, that God has a purpose, and a good one. And reminding myself that He administers the circumstances ‘just so’, tailored for each one of His children helps dispel the fear.  The suffering and sorrow can still linger, but the fear and anxiety don’t.

  • ‘Come on, Maria, be realistic!  Do these truths work for the really awful stuff – the Sarin attacks that burn Syrian children, old grandmothers and young men alike? How can that be a ‘good’ type of suffering?’

Friends, if Christianity can’t address the toughest questions, then how is it any better than other explanations?

Here’s what I DO know.  Every worldview has to explain suffering and evil.  It’s not a solo burden meant only for Christianity.

But there are many ways to draw false conclusions about God, so we have to be careful. If we start from ourselves with what WE deem good, reasonable or right, then we have already derailed and are headed away from Truth.  The only safe and right place to start is with God.  The times I head away from God, I thank the Holy Spirit who brings back to Him (the Spirit’s job, per Jesus, is to guide us in ALL Truth – John 16:13) . Here is what grounds me in the Truth:

  • God alone created us, therefore He has every right to do what He wants with His creation.
  • God is GOOD and I can trust Him.
  • Just because I can’t see the good in this particular suffering doesn’t mean God isn’t working out good purposes.  Perhaps, one day having completed my earthly trek, I may learn what those good purposes were.
  • As a Christian, I am called to mourn with those who suffer and do all that is within my power as a fellow human indwelt by the Spirit of the all-powerful and loving God.

Coming back down from the mega-worldview to my little corner, I settle back and quiet my soul and munch on my ‘sandwich’:  ‘You do all things well and no good thing do You withhold’.  This is where I live.  This food is sweeter than honey and leaves no bitter aftertaste.

Psalm 131:2 – But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (NIV)

 

 

The cost of trusting God

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Charles Spurgeon: “(do) You want to see….how (affliction) can bring good to the soul; you must believe it.  Honor God by trusting him.” (as tweeted by Randy Alcorn, 20 Mar 2017)

So many friends waiting, waiting, waiting.

There’s D, whose husband got let go from his job at age 61.  It’s been 3 months and he’s gone through two REALLY promising and lengthy job interviews.  Only to hear back in emails, ‘Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to go with someone else.”

In addition to my friend D, several other friends pray for, search and await jobs.

And then there is J who holds on for a solution to a leak in her roof.  It’s not like she and her husband have oodles of money in savings, available to try first one remedy or another. That’s part of the problem.  The house has turned into a money pit, drawing from their retirement funds. They believe they should sell it to protect their savings.  But they can’t list the house until the leak is repaired.  Biding their time, they communicate, encourage and remind contractors, hopeful that each successive remedy will be THE one.

My other friend has endured countless medical procedures and tests and been the subject of panels of medical boards convening to seek the best way forward for an aggressive cancer.  Chosen routes have revealed dead ends.  Patience, while suffering, is her familiar journey partner.

Trying, painful situations hit believers and non-believers alike. We could despair, were it not for knowing the Truth.  For as Jesus teaches, “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  John 8:32  

What is that truth that blocks our natural response to fall into a gloomy permanent pit? That God loves us and that the suffering has a good purpose!  That He has planned each trial to conform us to our older brother, Jesus.  To avail ourselves of that truth, God has given us FAITH to believe the manifold and rich promises that are the rightful property or resource of all who ‘love God and are called by Him, according to His purposeful plan.’ (Romans 8:28)

Just as we have been given physical muscles to exercise in daily life, so too have Christians been given the spiritual muscle of faith.  But the gift of believing God comes with a concomitant responsibility.  We have to use faith, to move out, do what is good in the moment, depending on the invisible but real promises that God will come through just as His word says. We have to exercise or actively depend on God’s written pledge to provide, protect, guide, comfort us.

How do we do that?  By deciding to ‘believe (sight unseen) every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt 4:4).  And that FEELS costly and painful at times.

Who doesn’t suffer the pains of temptation to despair over circumstances that seem to be perpetual?  Yet God commands us to not look at the way things appear, but to see through the circumstances to the God who promises good to those who believe Him and cling to the truth of His promises.

The other night as we were discussing the day’s Bible readings, Mike and I pondered the the connection between trusting…..believing…..expecting…..waiting ….hoping…exercising patience……  All these actions sparkle as many sides of the one diamond called FAITH in God.  But what do those actions LOOK like?  How do you DO expecting, waiting, hoping….?

An insight has recently enriched my mind, an answer to a dilemma. I’ve often struggled to grasp how to live out Jesus’ command, in a self-deflecting, God-glorifying way: “…. let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Matt 5:16    I’ve gotten hung up on the concept, ‘your light’.  How can I have any light in myself?  The answer: this ‘light’ is the gift God has given me to BELIEVE Him.  My responsibility is to show the world in a visible way (light) how much I treasure this invisible but precious reality of relying on and belonging to Jesus. God calls that way ‘patience’ or ‘trust in God’.

Given that He commands me to make visible this divine, inner light, I pray daily to WANT to do just that (and follow through) a – to live in such a way that the world (my colleagues, family and friends) sees my Godward trust, hope-filled expectations, and patient waiting and be STUNNED and chalk it up to God!  (that Maria is so patient during suffering.  She must REALLY love her God and be satisfied by Him!!!)

Patience is a virtue recognized in the western world.  Yet most joke about it and cavalierly let themselves off the hook by admitting they have little.

When I feel strong, I affirm this fact:  God is kind to give me multiple occasions to practice and improve this muscle of contented waiting on Him.  Yet, I seem often to succumb to despair, sometimes multiple times in a week.

But what other choice do you and I have? We can either face the sufferings in life kicking and screaming, or we can submit to the wise and loving hand of the potter who keeps us on His wheel and won’t stop until we are beautifully fashioned into the family likeness.

Potters' Hands

This last truth stunned me this morning when I heard it again: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4

I’m a Friday person with my eye on Sunday

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I recently changed my ‘business card’.  For God has been weaning me from my dependence on merit badges or self-promoting tag lines. For years I felt the need to trumpet how great I am because I do XYZ. In my case – I teach French and many people have ‘oohed and aaahed’ appropriately upon learning that.

In the stripping away or burnishing off the tarnish, I have gone to a simple card that communicates my name, email, blog links and one verse.

Selecting just one God truth or promise as representative of what I believe challenged me.  I settled on:

  • sorrowful, yet always rejoicing from 2 Cor 6:10

Christians and non-believers look at life through different lenses – either via God and His good sovereign control over every molecule or via the haphazard, random circumstances of life.  This divide even extends to how we view the days of the week.

‘Worldlings’** or non-Christians live in the fog of Monday, but live for foggy Friday, which the world sells as the best day of the week.

Christians live in the Friday of this world (remembering the Cross) – that is they acknowledge that life on earth before Jesus returns is primarily one of suffering and sin, punctuated by joy and glimpses of beauty and goodness all the while bounded by God’s grace.

But Christians live for Sunday. For a restored and resurrected, categorically new and different heaven and earth.

Why am I writing about such heavy matters one week into the New Year?  For one, I am a happy realist.  The Bible has made me that way.  I’m learning, slowly, that through the school of neediness and suffering, our good Father blesses me.  In a recent broadcast (26 Dec 2016) Joni Eareckson Tada mentioned that very truth, a truth universal to Christians who rely on a Biblical lens to make sense of life. She explained Jesus’ challenge to His followers….

  • ….whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  Matthew 16:24 

….as an invitation to know Him through suffering.  That’s it in a nutshell:  the only path to know the 2nd person of our Triune God in an intimate, satisfying, joy-producing way is to walk yoked with Him in what has been named the Via Dolorosa, or ‘Pain Street’.

But our pain is NOT meaningless pain.  God’s directed hardships have many purposes. I give thanks for how they keep me desperate for Him.

I’m slowly learning the futility of trying to duck or avoid His purposeful pain.  I’m acquiescing to the fact that it’s easier, safer and quicker to cling gratefully to Jesus.

If you dipped into my blog posts from 2016 I think you’ll notice that I am growing to embrace this truth:

  • My neediness is God’s best gift to me.

Unable to handle life on my own (and willing to proclaim that truth to anyone who cared to listen) has taught me to call constantly on God.  And He always comes through.  This inability to live independently of my Heavenly Dad also keeps me glued to what He has to say to me in His inspired Word. I HAVE to meet with Him each morning, just like I HAVE to eat.

So ‘clingy’ to Jesus have I now grown, that wanting to advertise THAT central fact about Maria is what I want people to know about me.  In this area, I rejoice to see some progress, growing more like my Uncle Paul.

  • As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Galatians 6:14

 

**worldling

noun

1. a person who is primarily concerned with worldly matters or material things
Modern Language Association (MLA):
“worldling”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 28 Dec. 2016. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/worldling>.

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.

Exercising the right muscles….

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Weights

I don’t like working out.  Whether it’s with the weights above or just my daily trek.

In fact, I dread that strenuous cove walk here in the mountains of western North Carolina. Yes, it’s beautiful and the trees and birds point to God’s glory.  But the average incline is 13% and my route takes me up and down the gravel roads.  It never gets easier.

I thought about the difficulty of my daily routine, rereading that Hebrews truth (12:11)…

  • No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Boy, does THAT describe my early mornings – Unpleasant but worth it!

From that reflection, it’s easy to connect to God’s training plan for our character. He uses suffering and difficulties of all stripes to build up our faith and hope muscles.  Just look at what these many God-sent trials accomplish for us:

1 Peter 5:10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

The 4 verbs listed are powerful encouragements to persist through the God-ordained ‘workouts’.  If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I love looking up the Greek or Hebrew words to help me understand God’s teachings. So here’s a glimpse of some of God’s many purposes in designing our suffering along with what He promises to do through or by means of the difficult times:

  • Restore – this verb sometimes gets translated as ‘to perfect’.  It means to kit out, equip completely.  Obviously I lack qualities God deems necessary and can only be given me through hanging onto Him when tested.
  • Confirm – you can see the ‘firm’ part of the verb.  Troubles endured in Christ are the means to set us fast, to fix or place us more ‘immovably’ than we’ve been.
  • Strengthen – means just what we think – to make us vigorous in our minds and hearts.  Think resolute and determined!
  • Establish – to ground, shore up the foundation.  Imagine a house being constructed in a hurricane or earthquake-prone area.  The structure of the building would be reinforced and enhanced to withstand intense natural thrashings.  We, too, need this kind of bracing that will not give out.  Strengthening trials ready us for greater ones, kind of like skirmishing with the Varsity team grows the JV team’s abilities.

Do any of us like trials?  NO!!!!

But just as you and I recognize the value gained from physical workouts, let us not fight the spiritual and emotional training that our good God ordains for us.  Besides, we have a workout partner meant to encourage us at all times.  This Comforter will bear us up when the struggles are too much.  The truth is, our faith grows best amidst storms.  Think of giant trees, windswept and battered, strengthened through the storms.  Think of pearls, formed by the irritating grains of sand within an oyster.

So, I say to you just as I have to remind myself: God means my circumstances for good. Fighting against Him just makes us tired!

Why are we surprised at how American society treats Christians?

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When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”  “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?”   Judges 6:12-13

As a marginalized Christian, do you ever feel like Gideon? The warp-speed of cultural change week to week has startled many, me included.  We feel less welcome to voice our values in the public sphere.  But it wasn’t that long ago that we FELT as though we fit in with the majority of Americans.   Not that we were ever in harmony with ‘mainstream’ America.  For we’ve accepted for years that we were as different as chalk and cheese when measured against the Hollywood or the academic and media names in the news.

However, these days a feeling of fear and despair is seeping under the doorways of our conscious mind and we find ourselves, if not anxious, at least bewildered.   Is this the way God treats His children?

Yes!!! and we should not be surprised. After all, God’s Word describes the very same situation throughout biblical history.

In my Bible-reading this morning I read two of the assigned psalms with much more interest and attention than previous years. The unnamed Psalmist minces no words as he describes how he and fellow believers suffered during what many commentators posit as the likely precipitating distress:  the siege of Sennacherib in 721 BC.

Psalm 66: 10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
    you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
YET you have brought us out to a place of abundance

Yes, the Psalmist is on the OTHER side of hardship, but 3 facts remain:

  1. God was the source or ultimate originator of the suffering
  2. The horrific and painful trauma was real and distributed to all the Hebrews
  3. God brought them THROUGH the tribulation to a joy-filled destination

Yes, that was then.  But do we American or Western Christians HAVE to suffer…like THAT…now in 2016?????

Let me ask this: Why should God treat us any differently than His chosen people?  He specifically selected the Hebrews out of whom would come His Messiah.  In the same way, He has chosen us, for His purposes.  We belong to Him.  He has the power and the authority and the very RIGHT as our Creator to do with us as He sees best.  We forget THAT ‘inconvenient truth’.

2 Tim 3:12 –  Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted

But that is SCARY!!!!  We all shrink back from the idea of calamity, of hardship and real damage, whether to our reputation, our jobs and income, our families, our churches. or EVEN to the very liberties we once considered safeguarded by the US Constitution!

So why is God doing this?  Does His Word tell us anything?

Fortunately it does, but the reason might not be something we moderns like.

Psalm 69:7 – I am being mocked because of you. Dishonor overwhelms me

Psalm 44:22 – Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered

Acts 5:41- So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name

Psalm 44:11 – You give us as sheep to be eaten And have scattered us among the nations

What we know is limited, but many verses tell us that for the sake of God’s name or character, those who follow Him WILL be mocked, persecuted and even killed.  And even though we don’t know ALL the whys or wherefores, we can take comfort that God does have a plan and IN THE END, those who mocked God and us shall be punished.

Prov 11:21 Be assured that the evil person will certainly be punished, but the descendants of the righteous will not suffer unjust judgment.

So how can we prepare ourselves to handle this suffering?

Here’s encouraging advice from a man who faced suffering with courage- Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Link here.  In short, he says that gathering with the local church to HEAR the Gospel truth preached and exposited gives us strength and perspective to endure with grace.

So ‘do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength’. Neh 8:10

 

What are you dreading?

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Dreading I have to admit that when I think about a very busy week ahead with what ‘looks like’ too much, given the time available, I start to dread the days ahead.

My version of dreading events is probably mild compared to those who at the other end of the spectrum fall prey to panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms.  But my projected unhappiness feels heavy and it does sap the joy and energy right out of me – ahead of time!

Since January, however, I have begun to reject the ‘automatic dread response‘ that has accompanied me since high school days.

What happened to cause this unexpected change in mindset?  Walking through a dark valley with Mike from November through the New Year, that’s what!

This flavor of suffering focused my theology like nothing else since our marriage floundered and almost broke up on the rocky shoals of individual selfishness in 2000.

Trials tend to focus one’s attention on what is important.  As Mike and I dealt with his heart-related sleep and anxiety issues, I came to trust God’s promise in Psalm 84:11:

No good thing does He withhold from him whose way is blameless*

Jesus also taught me through the onslaught of what I call ‘pop quizzes’ or opportunities to put His Word to the test, that His presence truly was my one and only good.

So when that first Sunday in January landed and I thought about school resuming the next day after 2 weeks off for Christmas, I started to dread the constricted daily schedule.

But all of a sudden the Holy Spirit applied Psalm 84:11 to this new situation, reduced time and increased tasks.  Another way to phrase ‘no good thing withheld’ is ‘all good things provided‘.  Logically then, if God’s provision of X hours and Y minutes is what He deems good, and if I only get done 5 of 8 tasks for the day in the time He provides, then THAT is exactly what He deems ‘good’ for me this day.

That may seem like a small change, but that incremental adjustment has produced an out-of-proportion effect on my outlook.

Zech 4:10a – Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin….

I think I had begun to make a move in that direction last fall with my evening reading. Some nights Mike and I catch up with each other and dine later than other nights. After tidying up the kitchen 20 minutes might remain to read.  Other nights during the school week I relax with 45 minutes.  After fighting resentment the previous 2 years, the Holy Spirit had already begun to help me accept that whatever God gave me was ‘good’.

The ‘health issues’ sped up the process.

And let me tell you, this unforeseen silver lining of the suffering is a gift.  If I START to dread tomorrow’s schedule, which might include an anticipated burden like:

  • shepherding a group of 7th graders during an outing to cook lunch for 60 women at a shelter
  • missing a planning period due to an assembly
  • an evaluative observation by my principal
  • having to make sub plans AND do my regular planning and fearing not enough time for either
  • a meeting at night  which will interfere with relaxing with Mike
  • a difficult phone call with a parent or about a large bill
  • a doctor’s appointment whose outcome is uncertain

It doesn’t take long, now, to recall one or all of these FACTS:

  • I’m only looking at the anticipated circumstances as I see them from my vantage point and I could be mistaken
  • I have NO idea of God’s planned provision
  • I might actually find something surprisingly delightful and of great worth in what ‘looks’ like an unpleasant event

VERY recently, the HS has also reminded me that it’s pretty arrogant (i.e. sinful) of me to THINK I know what is best for me.

So now, when I do indeed ONLY accomplish 5 of the 8 tasks I had for the day I can say with a light freedom:

  • I guess it was God’s will for me ONLY to complete the 5 items on my ‘to do’ list. 

After all, am I in charge?  Am I the Creator of the entire universe, the Creator of time itself?

Actually, I’m very glad I’m not in charge!  I just want to report for duty with a joyous sense of anticipation about the day and leave the results to my Master.  If I please Him in the HOW and the WHAT I accomplish in HIS empowerment and resources, then it’s a good day.

One last encouragement.  Not only have I ‘lost’ the dreading, but I am finding out that the events that I call my ‘mighta dreaded‘ ones sometimes actually provide unexpected nuggets of unforeseen joy.  Isn’t that in keeping with a loving and good God and Father!

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