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!

One antidote to lessen anxiety

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We all know that fear and anxiety tend to be the common human response to the unknown future.  I say ‘future’ because few are anxious about the present moment.   It’s already here! Our stress tends to be when we anticipate what MAY lie ahead.

But here’s where I think we go wrong.  When we imagine the next 5 minutes, or tomorrow with trepidation, we anticipate what I call ‘NAKED’ trials or suffering.  All we can picture is the worse that we think might happen.  But without taking into account God’s mercies and grace that He promises to provide IN the suffering.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end

They are new every morning; Great is your faithfulness!  Lamentations 3:22-23

What do we think all those promises in the Bible are for?  Poetry?  Or maybe they are true only for people ‘back then’ or ‘super Christians with a lot of faith’?

Here’s the good news.  If you have ANY modicum of faith in Jesus as your rescuer and substitute, those promises are YOURS!  How do I know?  Because the faith that you have is not something you initiated. God GAVE it to you.  You wouldn’t have even asked for the gift of faith or wanted it!  It’s ‘unnatural’ to desire God.  Only the man or woman or child who has been brought to spiritual life finds Jesus appealing.   So if you have ever exercised any measure of reliance or faith in the biblical Jesus, you belong to God as His child.

I once heard John Piper talk about his fear of betraying God were he to face a martyr’s death like those burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English.  What he finally realized that overcame this fear was that even in that extreme a circumstance, God provides GRACE for the moment to endure and die well.  How can we possibly imagine what that grace would look like or feel?  We can’t.

That is why we walk by faith and not by sight.

Take heart, dear fellow Christian.  Bank your all on God and His Word.  His promises and His character keep Him faithful to all His children.  God can NOT lie or change.

God in the future

Which governs your walk with Christ – knowledge or feelings?

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Patrick’s definition of Biblical wisdom in today’s sermon stopped me cold.  Our pastor has begun preaching through the book of James in view of the many trials to befall our church family in recent months.  He has sensed, rightly so, a need for us to know HOW to think properly about what God has sent.

I’ve always joked about being a member of the ‘pure joy club’ as in:

  • Consider/Count it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds...James 1:2

But when you are suffering, it’s nothing to laugh about. No matter the flavor or extent of pain and difficulty, we all require good teaching and counsel in how to deal with the trials. James’ instruction, therefore, directing his listeners to ask God for wisdom in the suffering makes sense.

But here’s the new wrinkle:  I had always thought that praying for wisdom meant asking for guidance in what TO DO!  Today, Patrick took a different angle.  He explained that the kind of wisdom we need is help in thinking correctly/truthfully about the trial.  If we can’t imagine how to view this current suffering as falling into the category of ‘complete joy,’ then we are to pray for the ability to take what we know about God and his Word and apply both to our circumstances.

In essence we are begging God:

  • Father, help me to understand and trust that you are working in this awful circumstance!  Help me TO THINK correctly!

From THAT new definition of Biblical wisdom, it occurred to me that Knowing WHAT TO THINK is more important than knowing WHAT TO DO. And since our actions or lack of actions affect our emotional state, right knowledge must rule our feelings.  

So here’s a question?  In your life is your  knowledge more important than your feelings?

God, speaking through the prophet Hosea, says: My people perish for lack of knowledge -Hosea 4:6

and in Isaiah 5:13, God warns: Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; those of high rank will die of hunger and the common people will be parched with thirst.

And in this teaching from Philippians 2:5, Paul counsels – Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.

What he means is THINK, or DIRECT YOUR MIND…about a certain topic.

A recent conversation with a close friend provides an appropriate illustration of the importance of correct thinking.  This dear gal has been suffering from what I call:

ADHD – Anxiety, Despair, Hopelessness and Depression

Like all of us, she is pulled in many directions as a mom of 2 under the age of five as well as being pregnant with her third child.  Her self-chosen priorities feel like burdens because of some INCORRECT thinking.

Here is one example of the unintended consequences of false ideas. Her life presupposition has been:

  • I am what I do.  Therefore, if I’m not doing, then I don’t exist.

In her case she has chosen to define herself as the kind of mom who:

  • cooks healthy meals for her kids
  • spends time reading to them and homeschooling the eldest
  • exercises every day
  • keeps an organized house

So when circumstances (aka God’s providence) interfere and block her ‘doing’, then she has felt herself coming undone, like she doesn’t exist.

She has been living off of, feeding on her emotions with NO input from God’s word.  She truly is perishing for lack of true knowledge.

Truth will set you free

The only solution is to throw herself onto God’s mercy and ask Him for wisdom in how to think correctly, that is Biblically about her circumstances, given accurate knowledge of God’s character, ways, past rescues and promises of future grace.  The right kind of knowledge trumps feelings.

Here’s one final bit of evidence that our God considers true knowledge vital.

The apostle John comforts us in the most important knowledge or reality that any Christian wants – assurance of one’s salvation.  The good news is that our feelings do not enter into the facts.  Listen to his words in 1 John 5:13

  • These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

We all know the source of this life-giving knowledge – God’s written Word.  Don’t starve! “Mangia! Mangia!” as all good Italian moms exhort!   Let us taste and see that the Lord IS good.  Why do you think I named this blog, “Feed on Him”?

 

 

Take your heart medicine this morning!

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Heart Meds

Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:13

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is willing; I will sing and give praise. Psalm 57:7

Gospel heart medicine is crucial to preparing our mindset or outlook for the day.  To keep our physical bodies running, we don’t neglect to take our daily medicine along with our energy-providing food and drink.  It would be folly to assume that the meds we took and the food we ate yesterday would serve us today.

So too must we bathe our thoughts in the truth of who we are and whose we are.  This requires getting ready. What does this preparation consist of?  Here are a few truths I meditate on each morning:

  • As born-from-above Christians, we belong to Jesus.  Our inheritance and future are secure.  The Bible teaches that our eternal life after we die will be categorically better than our current circumstances now in earthly bodies.
  • Since we are with Jesus, we are in a real war against spiritual forces of wickedness, all who hate Jesus.  If they loathed Him, count on being targeted as well. It is naïve to think otherwise.
  • If we claim to be followers of Jesus, we have to prepare ourselves to die this day.  That is reality.  How do I know?  Here is what Jesus said:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”  Matthew 16:24

What is taking up one’s cross but being prepared to die for Jesus?  Jesus’ realistic call at the very least requires His followers to look not to their own interests.  That’s what self-denial means.

And Paul echoes this theme in his letter to the Romans:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1

William Gurnall, a 17th-century English pastor whose sermons I’ve been reading, taught his church about the necessity of establishing this ‘living-sacrifice’ frame of mind each morning.  Without spiritual mental preparation, one would be unequipped to respond with readiness to the call ‘to up and die’, as Gurnall penned it.  In fact, we might not have the advanced warning and time to plan for our death that a lingering sickness affords. We might be faced with a sudden in-your-face execution like the kind of:

  • Columbine High School’s Cassie Bernall when the teen killers spotted her Bible on her desk and asked her if she were a Christian
  • John the Baptist’s sudden beheading one evening after Herodias’ daughter requested this cousin of Jesus’ head from Herod. This drunk and proud king had publicly announced he would give the young girl anything for having danced for him and his friends.
  • the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded on the beach by ISIS. They refused to comply with their murderers’ demand to renounce Jesus.

I know this is pretty sobering and might be difficult to swallow.  But look at it this way, if God DOES grant us to live through this day, we can climb gratefully into bed and give sincere thanks to Him for the gift of a completed day in His grace and care. Furthermore, preparing to die enables us BETTER to handle the suffering, trials, difficulties and discouragements that are woven into the fabric of a fallen world. At the very least, this gospel-rich mindset should make it easier to let go of material goods that are guaranteed to breakdown and end in a landfill one day.

Landfill

I want to be like those unknown heroes of the faith chronicled, in chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews.  But without Bible-saturated preparation, morning-by-morning, I won’t have the faith-fueled mind; ready for whatever Jesus has planned for the day.

And if we need an example, just look at the verbs describing what flowed because of the FAITH (not out of their confidence in their own abilities) of early believers:

33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.

I would assume that if you are like me, you won’t wake up this kind of ready for the day. So join me in taking the right kind of heart medicine.  And let’s face the day, JOYFULLY prepared for whatever comes our way since we too look forward to our ultimate future with Jesus: 

You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. Hebrews 10:34

 

 

Provisions for the day

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Pill containers

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. – Phil 4:19

Give us today our daily bread. – Luke 11:3  (Keep us alive with three square meals – The Message paraphrase)

I’m getting ready to take students to Québec for a French class ‘field trip’.  Planning ahead for the 6 day absence, I bought this pill container so I can leave Mike’s vitamins and meds for him clearly marked and safe from the cats.

Each color-coded plastic mini box will supply what he needs for a specific period of time. The clear markings and different colors broadcast sufficiency and timeliness. It would not make sense nor be healthy for my husband to take from other than the scheduled provision.

God provides the same way, by giving us enough grace (strength, wisdom, money, work, SLEEP, knowledge, whatever we need) for the moment. If I worry about ‘later’, I’m actually stealing from future stockpiled grace.  (Our cousin calls it – ‘stepping out of the circle of God’s grace.’) Just like I will set out pills for Mike before I depart, so God has furnished supplies for our future needs.  The verb to pro-vide, if you break it into component parts, means:

  • in advance
  • seeing

God sees what will sustain us, minute by minute, our entire life, that is –  in advance of NOW. And we know that our God is loving, good and personal.  So it’s not like He is going to peer into the future, observe our needs and then shrug, “Hope they can handle THAT event. Good luck to them!”

Here’s the point.  Just like Mike is going to trust me that I’ve pre-positioned the requisite pills he requires for the appropriate segment of the day, so too we Christians should trust our Father in heaven to do the same. In the 35 years of our marriage, Mike has learned to place his confidence in me, assured that I will do him good and not harm.  Can’t we at least trust God THAT much?

During the past 2 months of ‘health issues’ (2 unexceptional little words that pack a punch), we’ve seen God come through time and time again.  My daily mantra has become:  ‘Manna for the day; Grace for this moment’ and I’ve clung to Psalm 84:11 – ‘No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.’ 

I’m ashamed to admit, that for me, it is STILL a fight, to trust God in those scary moments when I SEE no provision.  It’s then, more than at any other time, that I have to speak Words of Truth to me!  So I recite out loud as many of His promises as I can, those assurances that He IS in fact caring for me and supplying what I need. I think it was Martin Luther who taught that we must daily preach the good news, the Gospel, first and foremost to ourselves!

As Jeremiah himself learned and then turned and comforted the exiled –

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”  Jeremiah 3:22-24

 

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