Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holy Potholes

"And we know that for those who love God
all things work together for good,
for those who are called according to His purpose."
Romans 8:28

I hate to admit it, but I am a friend of potholes. I first became acquainted with them when I had my learner's permit. It was usually my mom who rode with me and she would often tell me to watch out for the potholes in the road. But, to me, the road looked smooth and I would invariably hit the ones she was warning me about. We were both frustrated but I wasn't seeing what she was seeing. Then one day it became obvious that I was having trouble seeing the black board at school. After being fitted with glasses, my mom let me drive home. That day as we pulled away from the curb, I  verbalized my experience of seeing through lenses. I admitted I didn't realize I should be able to actually read the names of streets on street signs, read license plates,  or see the chrome on the backs of cars. Then when I pulled off of the main street to go to our house, she reminded me to watch out for potholes and I could actually see what she was talking about as I navigated a much smoother ride home.

Over time I've realized there are all sorts of potholes. There are small ones we can barely see that don't cause any damage. There are larger potholes that aren't very deep that may jar us , but leave the car intact. In California we have earthquake damaged roads riddled with many little potholes that are barely discernible. Yet, when we drive on them we can feel the car vibrating as we hit pothole after pothole. I am also very familiar with potholes that are of the deeper variety caused by semi's. These  do quite a bit of damage to tires, throw off the alignment, and can rip oil pans in two. We hit one of these while driving on a country road. Suddenly, we saw the large pothole in our lane, but with oncoming traffic and our speed, we were unable to safely move to the shoulder to avoid it. It did quite a bit of damage that required us to replace the oil pan.

Many times I've heard people using the analogy of a journey to explain life. I think potholes is a good addition to this analogy. We bump into some potholes because we are spiritually blind. Perhaps we grew up in a home or in a culture that had certain practices that aren't healthy or godly even though they are generally accepted by society or our family group. We experience bumps and bruises with these potholes without realizing it because the potholes are so familiar and because we are blind to the fact that the potholes are doing damage to relationships and causing pain. Consider a family where lying is a pattern as it was in Jacob's family. We may want to be trusted and respected, but when we are given to lying that makes it difficult to get what we desire most. We may desire a healthy rich marriage, but if we grew up in a home riddled with gender contempt, we may be prone to do things or display attitudes that prevents the very thing we desire most. I have had other point out behaviors and/or attitudes that were a blind spot for me. I didn't even realize I did or said things until they were pointed out to me.  

Then there are the small spiritual potholes we face daily from simply living in a sinful world. We experience minor and major abuses and sometimes we are abusive as we allow the sinful flesh to drive behavior or speech. We experiences some pretty big bumps and deeper emotional bruises from these types potholes. In a fallen world we may also experience weather interrupting plans, cashiers being rude, a teacher yelling in frustration, mom's snapping because they're stressed, and a friend hastily speaking unkind words. We can often navigate these things unless we are tired or too many of them happen in a short amount of time and we get our eyes off of Jesus and begin to judge others and/or ourselves, resulting in our responding in ways that only dig the potholes deeper.

There are spiritual potholes that resemble the ones caused by earthquakes. The are usually potholes that are the aftermath of some kind of early childhood trauma or life altering event that was swept under the carpet and never dealt with. We look like everyone else and yet, the journey we are on now is full of little pits and holes that continue to shake our lives, make our relationships more difficult, and make it more difficult to fully trust God. We appear normal and look like we are navigating life pretty well but there is just this underlying knowledge that the tiny pits are there and they make us feel unsafe, unstable, and wear us out as we navigate life. It is frustrating because we know we are different, but are often unaware as why.. 

There are also those huge Spiritual potholes we may see up a head. Sometimes, we can navigate around them. This might be as we recognize the devastating affects of sinful behavior and turn away from the behaviors. This might be when we recognize unhealthy, hurtful relationships and establish boundaries that prevent us from experiencing unnecessary pain. This might occur as we make financial decisions and recognize there are spiritual principals we can adopt that will lead us to financial freedom. This might occur as we recognize we do things that have the potential to destroy relationships we really value and we choose to change the way we relate. It may occur as we recognize a pattern in ourselves that is hindering the growth of our relationship with the Lord and choose to practice spiritual disciplines instead.

Then there are those more devastating potholes. Some we see coming and others we do not. These are the potholes that tend to be life altering--a spouse walking after twenty years married, a wife choosing an addiction over her family, a son succumbing to the dark voice of depression as he takes his life, a daughter starving herself too thin, and a parent being lost in the fog of Alzheimer's. It could also be the stock market crashing as retirement funds disappear, jobs are lost, and no one feels financially secure. These could also be oncoming hurricanes, tsunamis, or major earthquakes destroying homes, taking lives, and squashing a sense of safety. These could be a loved ones dying in accidents, a young father disabled by brain bleeds, and a soldier returning home without his limbs. It could be a woman raped, pornography found on spouses' phones, and children being preyed upon. It could be mass shootings in schools, malls, churches, or theaters--destroying hearts that once felt safe and causing minds to be forever riddled with flashbacks of horror.  

This journey called life has lots and lots of potholes. Because of this, we run the risk of remembering that they are not just potholes, they are spiritual potholes because they either draw us to or drive us away from God. We don't realize those pesky little potholes are moments of grace that slightly disrupt life so we can examine what we really believe about God, life, and love. We forget they are opportunities to make adjustments and grow as we practice loving in the face of irritation, trusting in the face of interruption, and releasing our will and our ways to His.

Those spiritual potholes caused by childhood trauma are potholes that feel unjust because life, loving, and trusting is harder for victims. But they are grace because God has promised us that His grace is sufficient--sufficient enough to allow us to wrestle with His sovereignty over trauma, sufficient enough to allow us to wrestle hard with the concept of forgiving the unforgiveable, and sufficient enough to allow us to connect to the heart of God in a way that provides deep healing and power we never knew we had. No matter how deep the wounding from trauma, His love is bigger still. If we lean into Him in our pain, we will experience healing and a deeper intimacy that can only come from fellowship of suffering abuse similar to His own.

The potholes we experience because of living in a fallen world offer us grace by giving us the drive to seek God's wisdom to solve life's problems. It is grace because it affords us the opportunity to examine ourselves and confess our sin, removing all barriers to the sanctification to which God has called us. They give us the opportunity to see His face on every page of His Word as we dig deep for His wisdom. They give us the opportunity to experience and express grace as His image bearers who were ultimately saved by grace through faith and who have been changed to become grace givers.

Even those large potholes that leave us feeling breathless and unstable ground are graces that have been filtered by the love-scarred hands of a traumatized Savior. Our losses create in us a homesickness for our heavenly home where there will be no more death, no more sin, no more sickness, and no more sorrow. Our losses tend to reveal to us the idols we have held onto without knowing it. Spouses, children, jobs, friends, money, bodies, culture, churches, or our health can all be false sources of security and pride. Without meaning to, we often find our selves looking to these to find our worth, value, and significance. When we lose them, we are stripped bare and all we have left in the pain is God--the God who created us and who can sustain us when we are assailed by devastation. Sometimes it takes major life altering potholes to reveal to us our tendency to look for God's benefits instead of God Himself.

As the new year begins, I want to confess my own sense of entitlement to an easy smooth life and embrace the truth that this journey is going to be chock full of potholes. I want to look at the journey through the lens of His truth so that I can avoid all avoidable potholes that cause unnecessary suffering. I want to navigate the journey in such a way that when I am faced with those big potholes I can't avoid, I will do it with grace and an ever growing faith that seeks the One who can wisely be my navigator, who can be my stability, and be my sense of safety when jolted. I want to know the One who was hated and still loved, who was abused and still healed, who was betrayed and remained faithful, who was crucified for sin and rose victoriously to give life.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

And This is Christmas -- Christmas 4

In a Garden long ago, the crafty serpent made his entrance known
By enticing the woman Eve through his lies sown.   
Pride took hold of her heart, birthing in her the desire for more.
The fruit was beautiful to see and promised she bit.
She turned to her man, handing him the God-forbidden fruit and he joined her in her sin.
The Serpent smiled as dark shame permeated their souls.
His wicked chuckle could still be heard as they hid from their God.
But God came near with arms of grace, stitching animal skins to cover their disgrace.

After that day, the darkness grew and perpetrated the whole earth,
And every thought and intention of mankind was governed by sin.
And the violence grew rampant on the earth,
And human blood was being continuously spilt.
But Noah, he found favor with God and built Him and Ark on dry desert land.
The winds blew, a cataclysmic storm brewed, and animals accumulated two by two. 
And God came near, shutting the door, sheltering them from the raging storm.

And then there was a time that men worshiped fertility gods made of stone.  
It was in that culture that Sarai grew old, suffering the shame of her infertility, 
The man who had taken her as his bride remained both faithful and true. 
He chose to love her in spite of  her empty arms,
As he lived with his own unmet desire for a son.
God called them away, promising them longed-for son, but they laughed continued to wait.  
But God came near and she birthed and nursed while holding little "Laughter" close to the heart.

Then there came a day when Israel sinned and Babylon took her captive.
The finest young men were taken and groomed to serve the foreign king. 
In a fit of pride, the king built a statue demanding all to fall and worship at its feet.
Three young captives chose to remain loyal to their God,
And they courageously refused to bow.
They were bound and cast into burning hot flames, facing a certain death. 
But God came near and stood with them in the heat, honoring their public display of faith. 

There came a day when Rome ruled, prophets were silent, and Israel desperately longed for her Messiah. 
An angel came in the middle of the night, awakening a young teen with glorious news,
She was betrothed to a man who held integrity in his heart, 
The angel said God had chosen her to bear His Son and, by faith, Mary worshiped God.
By faith Joseph remained committed as he chose to raise the Babe as his own.
At the right time the baby was born and placed in a manger as shepherds bowed and angels sang.
And God came near in human form, born a Savior, a Shepherd, and a King. 

There came a time when Jesus walked among mankind, inviting all to experience God's love. 
A woman caught in adultery was cast at His feet and experienced both mercy and grace.
A woman was rejected by five men and found that only God's love could satisfy the unquenchable thirst.
A woman had suffered long as blood continuously flowed long from her body, 
Rose up and by faith reached for the hem of the garments He wore and was healed. 
And a man born blind was given sight; lepers were cleansed, and demons cast out.
And God came near with a missions of grace, offering love and a solution for sin. 

There came a time when religious rulers felt threatened by this God wearing flesh.
And a greedy disciple fulfilled prophecy by betraying the Master with a single kiss. 
The Messiah who was taken and illegally tried throughout the long night was found guiltless,
And He remained silent as He was sentenced to die. 
Stripped, beaten, mocked and scorned, He was hammered to a tree.
The world grew dark, His blood was spilled, our shame was covered, and God's wrath was satisfied. 
And God came near, love conquering hate, trampling the Enemy beneath His feet.

And there came this time when God dwells  in the hearts of those He calls His own. 
And people work, people play, people watch, and people pray.
And God's people find themselves longing for their King's return,
As couples grieve the babies lost, husbands watch as cancer claims their spouse's life,   
And Soldiers fight for our freedom, while people here at home are senselessly killing each other.  
Parents pray for runaways, addictions exert control, marriages crumble, and boys girls are preyed upon. 
Yet, God remains near, carefully mending each heart ripped in two, one love-stitch at a time.

There will come a time when the heavens open, revealing our King called Faithful and True.
And we will live with Him in the dwelling place He is now preparing. 
And God will forever be our God, the victorious Christmas story finally complete. 
He will be the wiper of tears, the destroyer of death, the eraser of pain, the remover of grief!
But today He is the purifier of hearts, the satisfier of longings, the giver of Life, and lover of souls. 
And God came near, He is the Alpha and Omega--the Beginning and the End,   
And He is completing redemption stories, one life, one heart, one victory at a time.    


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

God's Peace for an Anxious World--Christmas 2

"Humble yourselves, therefore,
 under the mighty hand of God
 so that at the proper time He may exalt you,
casting all your anxieties on Him
because He cares for you."
1 Peter 4:6-7

We inherited a small white maltipoo from our kids who moved to Japan. She's a well trained dog, who believes she is human. She was pretty anxious from the change when we first got her, but I had a viral infection that caused extreme fatigue and got to spend ample time cuddling her as I recuperated. She attached to me, my husband, and a son who lived with us at the time. If I left for any reason, she sat with one of them. Then one day the movers came and once again she watched stuff get packed and another person disappear from her life when our son moved and she grew even more anxious.

When I put her down to clean house, she follows me from room to room looking worried. There are times I sit down with her and I feel her trembling, which is what she does when she realizes we are getting ready to leave the house without her. Her anxiety seems to have risen to a whole new level and it grieves my heart because she gets so anxious anticipating a possible abandonment that  she  can't enjoy time she spends on my lap. In watching her, I realized I spent many years living with the same kind of anxiety and I couldn't enjoy life or enjoy God.

Anxiety is a common human experience and rises during the holidays. It increases when many lose jobs or are suffering economic set backs or facing rising costs that are not met with pay raises. There is also the anxiety that comes with living under the threat of terrorism as the idea of going to crowded places to shop where an active shooter might show is unsettling. There is more  anxiety because of the fires and the weather following that may can cause mudslides and floods that impact life and property. And rebuilding is never easy. There is also anxiety that comes from wanting to have the perfect Christmas, give the perfect gifts, and respond perfectly to the gifts we receive. There is the anxiety in anticipating family dysfunction and family drama that erupts when people with unresolved baggage come together and pretend everything is alright. We also struggle with anxiety because there is always extra costs during holidays and our tendency to go overboard in gift giving, realizing we  have to be accountable at some point to pay off the debt after Christmas. 

For believers, anxiety tends to create toxic shame because we believe we aren't supposed to be anxious. But the truth is we all experience anxiety. We just tend to deny it or to hide it, choosing to live a lie instead of honestly acknowledging it. Because of this, we  don't  resolve it and it festers and grows. There are several reasons we experience anxiety. First, we live in a fallen world and may have experienced painful or traumatic events that altered brain chemistry. A normal healthy response to early trauma includes anxiety. I think of those who experienced childhood trauma at such a young age they didn't have the mental or emotional capacity to process it. Their body responded with surging chemicals designed to keep them safe, but they were too young to know how to use that energy. So, the anxiety was imprinted in such a way that it recurs when it gets triggered now by things that the mind remembers subconsciously--a smell, a sound, a season of the year, holiday lights, etc. As they experience triggers, anxiety rises often without a person even knowing its source.

There is also anxiety provoking things going on in the here and now. I think of those who've been given a diagnosis of cancer, once, twice, or maybe even thee times. If we put ourselves in their shoes we realize they face mortality daily in ways we don't. They face difficult decisions about therapies that potentially poison their bodies to kill the cancer. They face soaring medical bills and battle insurance companies who refuse to pay because they value profit more than people. Anxiety also comes from not being sure they can tolerate chemo and the shock of their balding heads. It comes from wondering if their faith will be strong enough to endure the illness and its treatment. It comes from wondering if they will suffer well and continue to be a light or be able to experience God and His love while knowing He can heal, but may choose not to. 

There is anxiety when families deal with sick children. I follow the posts of two mom's whose children were born with heart defects. One, a little girl named Charlie who has gone through two open heart surgeries. They found out while Charlie was still in the womb that half of her heart hadn't formed. The road they travel is long and death will always be a very real possibility. They  walk closely with God and the song they sing over her has continually declares yes to God's will and yes to His ways. But there is anxiety to be reckoned with when Charlie faces life threatening bumps of all sizes and fights to survive with half a heart that loves big. The other child is sweet little Caleb who has already been given a new heart. But the new heart didn't stop the anxiety from reoccurring when the drugs preventing rejection left his immune system compromised and vulnerable to blood and eye cancer with which he's battled brave. I know his mama and am sure she experiences anxiety when he gets sick, even in the midst of a great big trust she has placed in her God.

There is anxiety felt in families struggling with addictions. Anxiety rises at holidays as each wonders what they will face. Everyone walks on eggshells, fearful they will say or do something that will cause a relapse and the drinking, the drug use, or the porn use will start up again along with the chaos and wounding behaviors that follow. There is also anxiety because holiday stress could trigger an addict to drink, snort, shoot up, or return to the darkness of his or her infidelity through internet porn--the fix that degrades the whole family, leaving it open to all sorts of dark spiritual influences that can pass to future generations.

There is anxiety in families in which mental illness dwells. Will this be the holiday the depressed caves to suicide? Will mom (dad, or a sibling) be calm and happy, agitated and angry, depressed and unavailable or on a mania high?  Will the fear instilled by the paranoid come to fruition? All the while the children are trying to figure out if there is something they did to cause the illness or if there is something they can do to bring stability to the instability--a responsibility way to big for little shoulders, causing anxiety to be their norm.

There is anxiety in homes where marriages are broken. Each family member experiences it as they find themselves wondering if the next mistake made, the next thoughtless word, the next problem with the kids, the next financial setback or argument over money might be a final trigger that ends the marriage for good, fracturing a family into two. Anxiety also comes to the children  overhearing arguments and assuming responsibility to smooth things over so mom and dad stay together.

There is anxiety caused by core beliefs that we developed at such an early age we don't even realize we had them. Yet, these core beliefs impact thoughts, actions, reactions, and feelings. Some of my anxiety inducing core beliefs were: "I am responsible for everyone else's happiness." "My being loved depends on me being a perfect size, a perfect wife, a perfect mom, and a perfect believer." "My value and worth as a person comes from what I do." During holidays, my anxiety can be tied to wanting to find the perfect present for everyone as I answer for every penny I spend. Ironically, it also can come from wanting to have the perfect response to every gift I received. As a person who was a emotionally-reserved introvert, that's always been difficult for me. I don't remember ever getting a gift I didn't love, but know my lack of spontaneous expression left others wondering if I did. That  perfectionism gets complicated because having the perfect marriage, perfect family, and perfect holidays depends not just on me being perfect (and I am not), but on others being perfect (and they are not). I realize I've no right to project my perfectionism on others. I am simply called to love well, to extend grace, and to lovingly speak truth. When perfectionism is my goal, I try to control things I can't control and that anxiety rises like a snake ready to strike. My frustrations can grow, and my temper can explode into a big ugly mess.

Over the last few years I've learned some things that have calmed my anxious heart. First, I learned that God doesn't demand perfection. He desires me to be humble and to express my anxiousness to safe friends who are not-judgmental. I am graced with friends who listen well and friends who remind me they hear me and see me and their powerful words remind me that my heavenly Father sees me as well. Sometimes my friends share truth about God's goodness, bigness, and graciousness in non-shaming ways, but most often they just listen, knowing I simply need to bring it to the light. Sometimes they remind me to cast cares on God, because He cares for me and offer to help me do that in prayer. Because I've had a few people in my life who shame with admonition rather than gracing with encouragement, I've learned to share with those who understand God's love and grace and those who understand we live in the hard of a fallen world and will experience anxiety, but whose gentle encouragement reminds me to continue believing our God is bigger than it all!

The second lesson I've learned is when I feel panicked and anxious I can talk freely to God about it because He isn't waiting to strike me with lighting because of a feeling I am experiencing. He's always  inviting me to remember who He is and who I am in Him. Remembering God's character, strength, love, and grace has helped me to stay calm through some pretty big events--like an accident our daughter, her husband, and infant son were in. Like an ATV accident our youngest had, leaving him with painful life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured spleen. Like when one of our granddaughters was born three months too soon. Like when I suffered such a severe break in my ankle that the doctors said, "If you walk again..."

The third lesson I learned was that I could dissolve or manage anxiety that was caused or increased because of lies I believed. I learned some of the lies from others who were misguided, some from seeing things accurately while interpreting them incorrectly, some from being tempted by The Enemy who seeks to destroy and to squash faith by whispering lies in our ears. He feeds  anxiety when he convinces us women that we are too much and not enough and convinces men that they fall short of what it takes to be a man. He stirs anxiety when he whispers lies about God and His character, stirring doubts about His love, goodness, and faithfulness. He whispers lies about who we are, causing us to forget we are created to be His "image bearers" designed to worship the Creator.

The Enemy would have us forget we are chosen, accepted, redeemed, beloved children who have been bought with the blood of God's own Son and sealed with His own Spirit. He would have us think our circumstances prove we're bad, forgotten, unseen, or abandoned by the God who calls us His own. How the Enemy loves to shame us by telling us anxiety proves we're bad. He shames because shame causes us to hide or deny our reality instead of casting it on Him through prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving. The Enemy uses shame to stir a form of pride that drives us to look "all together" while quaking to the core. He does this because he knows if we hide in shame, we won't experience the care and comfort of God. He knows if we engage with others, we will get out of our own heads and be able to identify his lies, and cling to the Truth. The Enemy deceives so we will feel responsible for things of which we have no control--things like others' feelings, attitudes, choices, beliefs. and actions. He prompts us with the should of shame, the seduction of power, and reminder of sin already confessed.

So, why do I write of all this in a advent post? I write it because this holiday is a Holy Holiday  commemorating the birth of our Savior--the God-man who took on flesh to die as a payment for sin, the birth of our Shepherd who loves and seeks His sheep, the birth of our King who had made us joint Heirs with Him. The Enemy wants us to take our eyes off Him and put it on anxiety-provoking things like the creation of the perfect Christmas. If we aren't careful, we will buy into the lies he tells and return to anxiety instead of resting in the Gift of His peace and joy. I wonder what would happen if the goal of perfection were replaced with the goals of  connection  and loving well through celebrations of simpler traditions, acceptance of imperfection, sweeter conversations, simple gifts, and remembering Jesus.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Love is in the Most Unlikely Places

"That according to the riches of His glory
He may grant you to be strengthened in you inner being, so
--That you, being rooted and grounded in love,
may have strength to comprehend with all the saints
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."
Ephesians 3:17b-19 
Many years ago, I found myself driving from Texas to Mississippi to attend a funeral that I never dreamed I would be attending. A dear friend had unexpectedly lost her six month old baby. I was young and had not had classes on grief that I have taken in the last few years and I had no idea what to expect or how to respond. The hours in the car that night rolled by slowly as I longed to see my friend face to face. I found myself drawn repeatedly to prayer. I prayed, acknowledging my own sense of powerless to the One whom I knew possessed all power. I prayed, then I prayed, and then I prayed some more. 
Some of the prayers I've forgotten. Others I remember to this day. I prayed that God would comfort my friend and her husband through their first night. That He would be with them as they walked into their home with empty arms. I prayed that He would comfort them through the long nights that would follow when awakened to feeding times no longer needed. I prayed for the drying up of her milk to be quick. I prayed they would give each other room to grieve in their own ways and that God would give them love and grace enough to endure the extreme pain they faced together. I prayed others would be sensitive to their needs and that thoughtless comments and religious platitudes that silence people in their pain would not be spoken to them. But mostly, mostly I prayed that they would know in the deepest recesses of their hearts that they were deeply and radically loved by God.
Our church in Mississippi was more like family than church. So, a slew of people who, like myself, had moved away came back to be with our friends as they buried their son. After the funeral we shared dinner, talk, memories, tears, and even laughter that eased the grief. Then on Sunday my friend's husband asked the pastor if he could share his thoughts in church. Now, my friend's husband was a country boy down to the core. Yet, he expressed himself so eloquently that morning. as he thanked the church for walking with them through this tough time. Then he shared that one of the things he had come to understand in the aftermath of losing his own son, was the emotional cost for God in choosing to send His own Son to die to pay for his sin. Because of this understanding he said he had come to a deeper understanding of the love of God. I whispered thanks for answered prayer as he shared so honestly. My friends ached and they grieved long and hard as they let go of their son and the dreams they had dreamed for his life. And many lives were touched and many lives were changed. We all came to realize that the life and death of a six month old baby had the power to impact people in God sized proportions. His life was short but it was a life that mattered.   
Over the years I have looked through the Scriptures to see what kinds of prayers others before me prayed and for guidance in discerning God's will so that my prayers align with His will. Last week our pastor preached on the above verses, reminding me just how God, Himself lead me to pray prayers so long ago that were so similar to the prayer Paul prayed for the Ephesians. 
The opening line of the prayer, "That according to the riches of His glory," always convicts me of how often I forget just how big our God and His glory are. Paul, on the other hand, seemed to grasp the vastness of our God and His glory and it impacted the prayers he prayed for those in Ephesus. Paul asked that his friends would be strengthened in their spirits so that their faith would grow and that the Lord Jesus' presence would be made manifest in their hearts through their faith. That is so exactly what happened when I prayed for my friends! They were believers and as I prayed for them to be spiritually strengthened they were. As a result, they were able to connect with the heart of God and were enabled to understand His love in new and very tangible ways even in the midst of their deep grief. Because they knew the Lord and because they were connected to a church that taught the Word, they had already been rooted and grounded in loved. Those roots went down into the deepest recesses of their hearts where they needed to know in their painful losses that God loved them and had not abandoned them. They were also grounded, which refers to the strong foundation on which their faith was built.  It was built on Jesus Christ. They had come to Him by faith alone and they were shown grace and in this difficult time they were continuously being shown grace upon grace by being strengthened and enabled to see His love in the mist of hard pain. 
Next, Paul asked for the Ephesians to be strengthened so that they could know the fullness of God. This reminds me even more how big our God is--that we would need to be strengthened spiritually to even ponder the fullness of God. Some believe that the breadth indicates the depth of love that required a blood sacrifice being met in Jesus, the length indicates it is extended through the ages, the depth indicates the profound wisdom of God is beyond what our minds can truly understand, the height indicates our being beyond the reach of any foe to deprive us of it and to know the love of Christ.[Bengel] It may be all of that. But, one thing I know for sure is that I saw in my friends a deeper comprehension of the mystery of the gospel of grace. I saw in them a deeper understanding of Jesus' love for them. We, came face to face with the bigness of God who controls life and death in His love scarred hands. We became more intimately acquainted with the bigness of His goodness, His grace, and His love that sunk all the way the way down to the core of my friends' being where their pain had landed.  
As the holidays approach, I know many people are grieving for loved ones that they've lost. I know that as families gather many grieve the death of perfect families for which they have longed, struggling to come to grips with fully human, fully dysfunctional families that are. The families that are so imperfect at loving, so imperfect at meeting emotional needs, so imperfect at giving mercy and grace.
I know that as a year ends many of us have the tendency to look back and contemplate New Year's resolutions that we want to make but are afraid to make because we've failed so many times already. We have failed to be better. We have failed to do better. We have failed to love better. We have failed to speak words of blessing over the lives of those who mean the most to us. We have failed to extend grace. We have failed to speak the truth in love. We have tasted failure in all of its forms and it fills us with shame that says, "Why try again?" 
I also know that many are facing Christmas this year with families divided by separation, broken by divorce, scarred deeply by addictions,  wounded by selfishness, and torn by sinful words that rip holes in hearts. So, if I could lay hands on you and pray any prayer for you, it would be the one above--that you would be strengthened according to His infinite riches in glory in the deepest recesses of your being. That He would enable you to understand to the core of your being the height, the depth, the width, the breadth of the fullness and the bigness of our God so that you would be able to begin to comprehend the love of God--a love that is so beyond our comprehension because it goes against everything we have known experientially living in a fallen world as fallen people who often demand that love be earned. It is a love that is radically sacrificial flowing from a heart filled with infinite grace. May that be the love rooted in your hearts and may that be the foundation from which you will face this season of life--life with all of its trials, life with all of its difficult relationships, life with its regrets, and life with all of your failures.
May you cling to His love, ever remembering that His love is deep and everlasting as He is holding on to you. He will never ever let you go. His love is not dependent on you, it is totally dependent on Him and His flawless character. May you experience His great love this season not only in the places of happiness, but in in the places you think it most unlikely--the places of hard, the places of loss, the places of regret, and the places of failures great and small. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Shattering the Myths of "Too Much" and "Not Enough"

"I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are Your works; my soul know it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Psalm 139:14-15 

I have the privilege of  serving in a ministry along side of some of the most amazing women I have ever met. We lead support groups for women who were victimized by sexual abuse, who have eating disorders, who struggle with unhealthy relationships, or who struggle with emotions. No matter what the group is studying, every year we find that a big part of our work is helping women identify lies that they believe and how those lies are impacting their lives. I have come to feel passionate about this part of our work because I once struggled with such strong negative thinking that I could not have told someone a positive attribute about myself if I had been asked. Ironically, I could quote all the scriptures about who we are in Christ. But somehow the Scriptures weren't sinking into my heart. After  working on an exercise about my negative thinking with a therapist, I left her office feeling convicted that my thinking was sinful. I wasn't sure what to do about it, because it was so automatic and I wasn't purposely choosing to think like I thought. It was just there. I also had the feeling that the therapist had no idea just how negative the thoughts were and how much of the day the thoughts filled my mind. But I wanted to change.

I knew that the first step for me was to get radically honest with her about the severity of this struggle. When I got home I flipped open a magazine to a little girl sitting on a great big chair. She looked so alone and emotionally dead. I cut the picture out and put it in the center of a poster board. I typed all the negative messages I heard in my head and I cut them out and pasted them all around the little girl. I sat and looked at it and asked God to help me know what to do next. He brought to mind a bunch of messages I specifically heard growing up or that I formulated from my experiences and from what I see in our culture. There were layers and layers of negative messages surrounding that little girl. 

I took it in to my counselor and we looked at it together. It was so freeing, because it was like I took all of the garbage out and laid it on that board. At one point she asked me what I thought happened when someone complimented me or told me that they loved me. It hit me that positive words trying to come in would just bounce off of all of the garbage inside. It hit me in that moment that the core of shame with which I had been struggling was fed by all of those lies and that those lies were like a shroud that kept God's truth from coming in. It was like I had unknowingly at some point in time begun to agree with the Enemy who was slowly and surly destroying me with His lies. I was a believer at the time we had that conversation. I believed in my head what God said about me, but in the core of my being were all of the old lies and messages. We practiced in the therapist's refuting the lies and silencing the enemy's voice with His truth until I truly understood what it meant to take my thoughts captive to His truth.

This week during our leader's prayer time I handed my leaders a piece of paper that had two fill in the blanks. I asked them to fill them in with the thoughts that they had struggled with or still occasionally struggle with. The first statement I gave them was, "I am too___________." The answers I got from them were I am: too busy, too needy, too talkative, too judgmental, too anxious, too isolated, too spiritually weak, too forgetful, too fat, too outspoken, too different, too broken, too far gone, too fearful, too codependent, too stubborn, too critical, too self sabotaging, too Kookie, too loud, too stupid, too inadequate, too hopeless, too wordy, too spacy, too helpless, too emotional, too sensitive,  too inadequate, too dirty, too picky, too lazy, too self centered, too jealous, too na├»ve, too gullible, too chubby, too lazy, too depressed, too lost, too unhappy, too needy, too ugly, too boring, too distant, too damaged, too abused, too dumb, too stressed, too excitable, too moody, too smart, too fragile, too opinionated, too unhealthy, and too much.

The second statement I asked them to fill in is: "I am not_____________ enough." The answers that I got from them are I am: not friendly enough , not intelligent enough, not good enough, not worthy enough, not loved enough, not strong enough, not disciplined enough, not consistent enough, not focused enough, not trusting God enough, not a good enough mom, not a good enough wife, not a good enough friend, not a good enough daughter, not smart enough, not crafty enough, not faithful enough, not loyal enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough, not attractive enough, not courageous enough, not willing to sacrifice enough, not educated enough, not brave enough, not trusting enough, not generous enough, not thin enough, not exciting enough, not happy enough, not perfect enough, not articulate enough, not connected enough, not fast enough, not cute enough, not pretty enough, not engaging enough, not innocent enough, not clever enough, not spiritual enough, not calm enough, not helpful enough, not organized enough, not intuitive enough, not compassionate enough, not patient enough, not forgiving enough, not "Christ-like" enough, not healthy enough, not gracious enough, not thin enough, not put together enough, not sexy enough, not girly enough, and not enough.   

Over the years these women and I have had conversations about these types of thoughts. I remember at one point one of them saying to me, "Isn't it weird that we can believe that we are too much and not enough at the same time?" I think if you had the chance to spend time with these women you would see them as I do. They are some of the brightest, most beautiful, kindest, and most generous women I have ever met. They give of their time and their energy to volunteer in a hard ministry that requires them to listen patiently to painful stories, to confront lies gently with His truth, to encourage the discouraged, to comfort the distraught, to hope for the hopeless, to love even when someone acts harshly out of their woundedness, to model healthy relating even when they, themselves, feel triggered by what they hear or by how they are treated. They have had to learn to depend on God to speak His truth even when they are afraid of conflict, rejection, and anger. They are strong women who have been not only be tempered by their own painful experiences and their own recovery journeys, they have been tempered by their making a decision to step out in faith in the face of the lies the enemy whispers in their ears and trust that the truest thing about them is what God has said in His Word.

Every week when I look into the faces of these ladies, I am reminded that God never has been is not and never will be in the business of making junk. He is in the business of creating men and women in His image. Oh yes, I know that the enemy did everything he could to destroy that image in them by enticing others to destroy them physically, emotionally, and spiritually by their evil actions, lack of actions, evil words, and silences. He did everything he could to entice them to follow him, promising them relief from their pain and shame. He did everything he could to get them to believe his lies even camouflaging them in half truths. '

But, God intervened and saved them out of the chains with which they were bound. I have been blessed to see God's activity in their lives as they have become acquainted with Him, not just as their Savior, but as their Comforter, their Healer, their Strength, their Truth, and their Safety.

In Him, they never ever have to worry about being good enough, because Jesus imputed His righteousness to them. In Him they never have to worry about being strong enough, because His strength is made manifest in their weaknesses. In Him they don't have to worry about being smart enough, because they have been given His wisdom. In Him they don't have to worry about being too different, because He was the one who knitted them in their mothers' wombs. In Him they don't have to worry about being courageous enough because Jesus has already defeated the enemy at the cross and he no longer has a hold on their lives. In Him they don't have to worry about being too needy, because they were saved by the King of Kings and He has promised them great and mighty things and He is in the business of meeting emotional needs. In Him they don't have to worry about being too spacy because the Holy Spirit indwells them and will bring to mind all that they need to know to do His will in His perfect timing. In Him they don't have to ever worry about being loving enough because God will fill them with His love and it is a love that is kind, patient, gracious, forgiving, merciful, and sacrificial. In Him they don't have to worry about being beautiful enough, because He makes all things beautiful.

In Him they don't ever have to worry about being too dirty, because they have been bathed by the blood of the Lamb and they are as white as snow. They don't have to worry about not being smart enough because He has gifted them for the service He has called them to. They don't have to worry about being perfect enough, because He has died for their imperfection and has granted to them the ability to grow in Him. In Him they don't have to worry about not being enough to fulfill His expectations because what He requires of them is to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him. In Him they don't have to worry about being unworthy because Jesus showed them their worth when He died for them. They don't have to worry about being intuitive enough, because the Holy Spirit will lead them to sense what another needs from them. They don't ever have to struggle with being too girly, because they were created in His image to reflect certain part of His Heart to a broken and hurting world.         

The leaders in our groups know these truths that I am sharing here just like I do. We learned and are still learning that God and His truth has the power to break the chains of the lies bombarding us every day. At times it was like we could hear the Sword of Truth clanging against the chains that held us captive. Clang after clang after clang until the lies lost their power. It was like you could hear the chains dropping one by one as we shook free of the lies as His truth moved from our heads to our hearts.

By being radically honest in our groups, we have seen joy replacing sorrow, peace replacing anxiety, happiness replacing depression, grace replacing guilt, forgiveness replacing bitterness, love replacing hatred, light replacing darkness, good replacing evil, and VICTORY replacing defeat!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

God Meets us in the Buts

"But God, being rich in mercy,
because of the great love with which He loved us,"
Ephesians 2:4
Yesterday I heard a sermon on Ephesians 2:1-10 and when we got to the verse above and I saw the words "But God" and what followed I got so excited that it was all I could do to sit there. I realized that "But God" is a theme that has run through my life. I looked up a few verses that have some form of the words in them and it seems that it is often during the darkest times that these words appear as a beacon of hope.

Here are a few of the "But God's" I found:

In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve ate forbidden fruit, entering all men into a state of sin and spiritual deadness. But they were the first to taste the darkness of rebellion and the shame that wells up in our hearts when we choose sin. They made inadequate clothes to cover their shame. So they hid from God when He came near. In verse 9 we find our words, "But the Lord called to man and said to him, "Where are you?"" Adam and Eve feared being found out. They didn't realize God wasn't just coming to confront them, He was coming to open the door of repentance. He was coming to cover their shame through clothes of animal skins, pointing to the blood sacrifice that would ultimately cover their sin, remove their shame, raise them to life, and make a way to the center of His heart. 

In Genesis 7 we find the account of the flood. The world had become so sinful that every thought of man was filled with violence and God judged through a flood, saving only Noah, his family, and the animals He steered to the ark Noah built. It was a sad, terrifying time as the rain fell, the waters killed, and the boat rocked in the violent storm. But we come to Genesis 8:1, "But God remembered Noah and all the beasts, and all the livestock, that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided." And a new a covenant given covered by a bow.

The story of Abraham was riddled with "buts." He and barren Sarah lived in a culture that worshiped fertility gods, making life so miserable for them. But God called them out. But God promised them a child. But when Abe lied twice, placing his wife in the hands of men who would have taken her as their own, God intervened. They even tried to insert their own "buts"  into God's plan -- one of them being Sarah's servant having a child for them, but God stepped into the mess and gives them the child He promised. But God in that act showed Himself to be the true God of life.

Then came the deceiver Jacob who ran away from his dishonest father-in-law with his wives, children, and livestock. Laban wasn't a nice man so God intervened. Genesis 31:24 says, "But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, "Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad."" Jacob was a deceiver, but God redeemed Jacob from his deceiving ways.

Then Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers who then fished him and sold him into slavery. His life, at times was bleak and life took some unfair turns. But God sovereignly worked to preserve life and to change Josephs heart. Listen to the words he spoke to the brothers who betrayed him, "So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and Lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt." But God preserved His people through the dejected brother.
When Israel no longer had favor with the Egyptians they were forced into brutal slavery. But God heard their cries and through a series of challenges given to Pharaoh through Moses, they were miraculously freed and in defeating their idols God showed Himself to be the one true living God.  

Then later in Ezra 9:9 we see, "For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us His steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem."

In a more personal realm the psalmists said in Psalm 73:26, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." This teaches us to look for the buts in our own lives.

In the midst of idol worship and going after detestable things we have God's "but" delivered through Ezekiel in Ezekiel 37:23,  "They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I (God) will save them from the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God."  

The book of Daniel we have a bunch more "buts." Wise men couldn't interpret dreams, but God enabled Daniel to. His friends were thrown into a fiery furnace, but God was there and delivered them smoke free. Daniel was cast into a den of lions, but God shut their mouths and Daniel lived.  

Moving forward to the darkest hours ever known to man, the son of God was slain and the promised Messiah was laid in a borrowed grave, but God  raised Him on the third day, defeating sin and death.

And in our never ending struggle with sin we have Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God, is eternal life in Christ Jesus"  and Romans 9:16, "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.  

I love the "buts." My own life is full of the "buts!"

I am a sinner, but God gave me His righteousness.

I was spiritually dead, but God gave me life.

I lived in the passions of the flesh carrying out its desires, but God intervened and now I am controlled by His spiritual, and compelled by godly passions to do His will.

I was alienated from God, but God reconciled me to Himself through Jesus.

I was a child of wrath, but God adopted me and I am now a child of the King.

I was sentenced to die, but God abolished my spiritual death and brought life and immortality to me through Jesus.

I never fit in, but God chose me and made me acceptable and placed me in His family.   .

I was wounded, but God healed me.     

I was insignificant, but God made me an ambassador of His great kingdom. 

I was inadequate, but God gifted me to serve.

I was fearful, but God  filled me with courage.

I was in bondage to sin, but God showed me the way out.

I was stubborn, but God disciplined me in love and softened my heart.  

I have been unfaithful at times, but God has remained faithful and showered me with His grace.

I could go on and on. I don't deserve the buts, but they were God's loving interventions to draw me to the center of His will. I could say a whole lot more about each one of the "buts" as they are a chapter in my story...a story God is penning with His own hand.

I am so thankful for the "buts." They are there ever doing His continuous redemptive work in me, ever drawing me home to His heart.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Will the Real Prodigals Please Stand Up -- Part II

"It was fitting to celebrate and be glad,
for this your brother was dead, and is alive:
he was lost, and is found."
Luke 15:32

I recently had the privilege of reconnecting with my uncle after many years. He was still living at home with my grandparents when the first of us grandchildren came on the scene. My folks lived out in the country and we came to town for our check ups and vaccinations. My uncle said on one of those trips  that my brother received a shot in his rear and was quite upset about it. He also said that I tended to have a lot of jealousy and I piped up after my brother complained of the pain he was experiencing,  "Well, my bottom hurts worse than your bottom."

We laughed when he told us the story, but when I came home I thought back to my preschool years. I remembered being jealous and comparing my life with that of my siblings. If their shoes wore out, I thought I should get new shoes as well. They both had dark hair and I had blond at the time and was frustrated by that. I even remembered trying to count the number of spankings we each had gotten. I was sure I got more than either one of them did, but when I said that to my mom, she told me that was far from the truth because they could just say my name and I toed the line. I don't fully understand what drove me to make the comparisons and to feel slighted so early in life. But I do know that sibling rivalry has been around since the fall, beginning with Adam and Eve's kids. Reading through the old testament we can see it happened over and over and over.

Because God is a relational God, there is a familial spiritual bond among believers and plenty of jealousy. That familial connection may have been why Jesus chose to tell the religious leaders a parable of two brothers to make His point when the religious leaders resented His relationships with the publicans, the tax collectors, the ill, the demon possessed, and those that were counted as sinners.

In Part I we looked at the first part of the parable that concerned the prodigal who left home, squandered his inheritance on immoral living, and eventually ended up slopping pigs for a living. While slopping pigs, he realized they were eating better than he was, spurring a longing for home. And home he went, humbly asking for the position of a servant, only to be met with a warm welcome and restored to the position of a chosen son.

In this latter part of the parable, the older brother comes in from the fields to hear the sounds of a great celebration taking place. He calls one of the servants over and asks what the celebration is about. The servant tells him that his younger brother had returned safe and sound. I think these words reflect the servant's understanding of the father's heart who had scanned the horizon, hoping for the return of his son. The older son becomes angry and refuses to go in.

The first time I read this story, I thought maybe his anger was out of a protectiveness of his father who was obviously hurt by the child that left home in that manner. But when the father came out and talked to the son, we get a clearer picture of the state of the older son's heart. He is angry because the son who left and squandered the inheritance and lived an immoral life style is being celebrated and he wasn't. He reminds his father of how He stayed and of all the work he has done for him and ends his statement with a complaint that no party had ever been thrown for him. 

Man, I sort of wish he were angry because of his loyalty to his father. For, I am a loyal person and I could relate to that and it would still look sort of righteous. But, I must confess that I do relate to the brother because of his comparisons of his life to his brothers. I relate to his judgments. I wish I could say I didn't, but I can't. There have been times I have worked my heart out, and not been given the accolades I hoped for, only to have someone new come along and do one one project and receive all sorts of praise for what they did. I resented it a little, maybe even a lot.

For a long time I even prided myself on being a nonjudgmental person. But then at some point, a sweet Christian lady said to me, "We all make judgments, Wendy, every single day. Sometimes the judgments help us make good decisions and sometimes they don't and they are sinful." I was uncomfortable with her statement so I paid close attention to the thoughts that run through my head for a few weeks, hoping to prove her wrong.

After a few weeks I came to the conclusion that what she said was true, especially in regard to myself. I made judgments about food when I classified them as good and bad.

I made judgments about clothing. Sometimes those judgments were appropriate and helped me buy modest pretty clothes and sometimes I ended up judging a person's heart by what they were wearing.

I judged myself harshly for having normal feelings and for being human, not perfect. And I found that frequently I called myself very negative judgmental words--words like stupid idiot and dumb.

Walking through stores, I found myself judging women by their clothing, their size, the cleavage they showed, the kinds of tattoos adorning their arms, and their hair styles.

I judged parents by how they handled their children in public. That one bothered me because I was a mom of five kids in eight years and I know first hand the facts. One day they could be perfectly behaved and people would compliment me. Then the very next cat I was paying for the chocolate bar snatched and eaten when I wasn't looking, hiding in clothing racks and scaring people, and constantly begging for something not on the shopping list...and I at times was that parent impatiently berating a screaming toddler, more concerned about what others thought than about the heart of my child.

I also judged a homeless person without even knowing his story. I stepped around him and looked away not even giving him the dignity of a smile or eye contact that every human craves.

I judged someone's words without even letting them finish their statements, something I hate done to me.

It grieved my heart to find myself to be exactly what I prided myself in not being. To put it bluntly, there was a whole lot more Pharisee in me than I ever wanted to admit. But to face the truth and pay attention to my thoughts instead of pushing them aside had its rewards. It helped me to move towards a purer humility and helped me come to grips with my daily need for God's mercy and grace. It helped me realize there was the potential to see the face of God in every one of His image bearers -- even those I once thought the most unlikely.

I looked back on my life and realized I often chose the churches I attended by how at home I felt. By that, I don't mean they were extra friendly. I mean that most of the people looked just like me, had the same educational back ground I had,  believed most of the same doctrines I believed, dressed like me, and acted a whole kit like I act.

Around the time I had the conversation with my friend, a therapist suggested I find a support group for eating disorders and there wasn't one in my community at the time. She referred me to a ministry called Truth Ministry that ministered to those struggling with addictions and codependency. When I first walked in, I noticed judgments were screaming in my head and I was so stressed by it that my disordered behaviors actually increased. I looked for reasons to quit and my therapist said it was my choice, but she thought I should talk to the pastor running the ministry so I could take ownership of my decision. He was awesome and helped me sort out my feelings and identify changeable problems, calming my anxiety enough that I stayed at Truth for quite awhile.

While there, I heard stories that melted my prideful heart allowing God to fill it with more compassion and love. While there, I saw hardened hearts softened and saw people extending grace at the same time they were holding each other accountable in such a beautifully balanced and loving way. I even shared my story one night and when the pastor prayed for me at the end I heard a bunch of sniffles.  I had expected a few ladies to cry, but it was the biggest burliest guys who made me nervous crying! Afterwards they came up to rejoice over what God has done in my life and shared their stories with me and I began to see them through God's eyes. I began to recognize His image in these people who were so broken by their addictions. They were so honest and so transparent. They were so hungry for God and His Word.

It hit me that all the years I had spent in church, I had been working hard to earn God's love and to cover up things like my pride, my sin, and my self-centeredness, and my judgments, all the while hoping I would be celebrated. I loved that group because it was there that I realized that God loved them just like they were. And God had loved me just like I was all along. There was nothing I could do to earn more love and nothing I could do to lose it. The business of trying to earn His love was put to rest...and that felt so good. There I began to believe bit by bit that I was being celebrated daily by God.

While at Truth Ministry, I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen in awhile. She came with another gal who was covered in tattoos and seemed like a tough gal. The friend introduced her as her sister, April, and believe me those pesky judgments were screaming loud and clear. Over time I got to know April and her great big heart, driving home the lesson that we are all equal in our desperate need of grace.

A few years later April became ill and passed away. Her funeral was exactly what I desire all churches to be, and what I imagine heaven already is -- a mixture of people from all walks of life. A place where addicts sit next to the church people who seen to have it all together. A place where the poor are seated among the rich. A place where the tattooed are sprinkled among those conservatively dressed. A place where those with nose rings and all sorts of piercings are scattered among those with traditional jewelry. A place where the wounded are actually tended to, a place where differences are celebrated, and a place where every prodigal is rejoiced over for being restored fully to his or her place at the King's table.

It became obvious that those at the funeral had one thing in common. When a friend began to sing, their  eyes leaked as they grieved the loss of their friend and contemplated all God had done in April's life and in the lives of those she loved and served.

I know the church can be a place that draws people in with grace and helps them grow into the people that God created them to be. The church can look a lot more like that motely crowd at April's funeral because we all have Jesus in common. But, we must recognize and acknowledge the older brother's heart that tends to dwell in us. If we acknowledge the Pharisaical tendencies, God can pull us back into His grace where we can return to joy.

For me, moving past judgment took my recognizing my desire to be loved, acknowledged, and accepted was something that was written on my heart by my Creator and then accepting His truth. The truth that God has lavishly and consistently met those needs through Christ! It is accepting that He truly celebrates me with open arms every time I come to Him. It is in understanding of those things, that I don't tend to wander back into being a spiritual prodigal like the older brother who remained judgmental, resentful, fearful, and jealous.

So if I were sitting in church as I do almost every Sunday and heard the pastor say in his invitation, "Will the Real Prodigals Please Stand Up!" I would be standing both with the younger brother who strayed and with the older brother who stayed. I wonder if you would be standing with me?         

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Will the Real Prodigals Please Stand Up -- Part 1

"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering
around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the
and the teachers of the law muttered,
"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Luke 15:1-2
I have always loved the story of the prodigal son. So often we take these stories out of context and use them to make a point. Most of the time the point is valid and true to Scripture, but when we take them out of context, we sometimes miss the original message the Lord was trying to convey. The first two verses of Luke 15 gives us the context of the story and its intended audience. Jesus addressed this audience in three parables, the last being the prodigal son, which is the parable I will focus on. 
The Parable of the Prodigal starts out, "There was a man who had two sons..." I remember as a child mainly hearing the story of the prodigal son, but because the story begins with the fact that the man had two sons, I want to look at both of the sons. This week we will look at the younger son who is called the prodigal and then next week we will look at the part of  the parable that tells us about the older son. 
The younger son approached his dad with an unusual request. He asked his dad to give him his portion of the inheritance. The oldest son would be given a double portion meaning the younger one would receive one third of his father's property unless there were other sons or daughters. The father complied and within a few days of getting his inheritance, the younger son packs up all that he has and leaves home for a far away country.
While there, the son squandered his money and spent it on immoral, reckless living until all of his money was spent. He didn't make poor decisions or lose it in a business deal, he simply wasted it on things that brought him pleasure. At least that is what he thought at the time. While there in his sin, his money ran out and he began to experience poverty. Then a famine came making it impossible for him to get food. So he looked for work and all he could get was a job feeding pigs. Now to a Jew this is a cursed position as pigs were considered unclean animals by Jewish law. I don't know if you know anything about raising pigs but our son did that in high school. It was a really stinky, dirty business. The young brother's job seemed to really reflect his sad spiritual state...both reeking. As a result he was reduced to having a job no Jew would ever want.
As food became more scarce, he began to experience deep hunger. As he slopped the pigs and watched them eat their fill, his hunger continued to grow. Yet, no one would give him food to eat and more than likely the slop wasn't fit for his consumption. He realized even pigs ate while he starved. I wonder if he was experiencing some heart hunger with that physical hunger -- hunger for the human kindness that had met his needs in the past, hunger for the love of his father that he had taken for granted, hunger for the familiar home and community that didn't stink. Rebellion has the potential to lead us away from what the heart wants most, we just don't realize it at the time. 
In the midst of hunger pains, he reflects on home and experiences a heart change. He realizes his father's servants eat better than him. He heads for home and on the long journey home, he rehearses the confession he will make to his dad -- a confession of sin and a request for acceptance as a servant. 
Little did he know that his father constantly gazed the horizon hoping to see him. When he spotted his son, the father's compassionate heart compelled him to run, which is not something that most men of that culture did. He ran! He embraced him! He kissed him. I can't help but wonder if the son expected a lecture, a cold shoulder, or even rejection. When I think of that scene, I also think of what my son smelled like when he came home from the pig barn with the stench of pigs wafting clear across the room. The last thing I would have done was embrace him. Yet the dad did just that. 
I often ask myself how I might relate to the person in the story...and to be honest it isn't hard to relate to the younger son. The Word tells me that while I was still in my sin, Christ loved me and died for me. That means God loved me with the stench of my sin still on me -- the stench of my pride, the stench of my lust, the stench of my selfishness, the stench of my self-centeredness, the stench of my independent heart that often chooses to do life apart from God, and the stench of trying to fill my God hunger with things of the world. Yeah, I can relate to him. I wish I couldn't, but I can. How about you? Can your relate? 
In response to the son's confession, the father calls his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and shoes. These are not the clothes of a servant, they are the clothing of a chosen son! He asks the servants to prepare a banquet so that he can celebrate the return of his son -- the son who was lost is found, the son who was dead is now alive. 
The father in the story shows us the Heavenly Father's heart. There are a lot of us who for a variety of reasons walked away from God and His fold after having made declarations of faith. Maybe we were wounded by legalism or by people in the church. Maybe we simply rebelled wanting something more. Maybe we slipped so gradually into sin that shame sent us running away from God and His people lest they find out. Maybe, we have reached a point that we believe the stench of what we have done will never be forgiven or washed away. But this story spoken by Christ Himself tells us the truth. God is always scanning the horizon for the return of  his prodigals. It tells us that God's love and compassion would compel Him to run towards us at the first sign of our return. No matter how bad we have blown it, no matter how deeply the stench is ground into our pours, God clothes us as sons and daughters washing away our stench and our shame and He throws a party to celebrate our return. We can let go of the shame because maybe, just maybe, we needed to ere to come to the end of ourselves and to the end of our pride in order to recognize God for who He really is -- our Redeemer, our Restorer, our Reconciler, our Healer, our Satisfaction, and the author of our redemption story. We may have needed a pig-pen experience to come to fully understand His grace and His mercy. There is nothing we experience that isn't filtered through love scarred hands. Do you see Him? He is there scanning the horizon for you and for me. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

He Gives Strength

...The Lord is the everlasting God,
The Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might He increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:28-31
When I blog, it is because something I have learned about God has really excited me, I am wrestling with a truth and trying to let it seep into my heart, or because a common theme seems to be swirling around me in this thing we call life. This morning it is the later. I chose to write on this passage today because I know people who are in need of some hope.  
I have several friends who are struggling with chronic illnesses. Some have been given answers and others are looking for answers so they know what is going on and how to manage symptoms. They are in pain and/or totally exhausted. They are reminded daily that their bodies aren't well. They have a host of unanswered questions that usually go unspoken. They live with frustration, longing for the energy to live life the way they want to live it. I can relate as I spent a year recovering from a severe break and then with a two year bout with CMV and anemia that seems to have forever altered my energy level. When I say these gals are exhausted, they don't just need a nap. They are bone tired...the kind of tired that can make you wonder if you have the energy to even breath.
I've know several young moms, who are sleep deprived and struggling with postpartum depression like I did which can leave a woman totally exhausted and wondering if she can make it through one more day and one more night and one more feeding. 
I have friends who, like me, are overcoming eating disorders, addictions, or recovering from past traumas. They've grown in huge ways and been set free, but occasionally something triggers them and they will have to work hard to renounce lies, shut down old defense mechanisms, and withstand strong temptations and compulsions in order to walk in the freedom that God has called them to. Addictions and eating disorders are often hard persistent battles fought on a daily basis. We long for total freedom but learned our recover is a day by day, moment by moment walk.  
I have friends who have a two year old grandson fighting a very grown up battle with liver cancer. God has been answering many of their prayers and given them opportunities to share Christ. Yet, their family is working hard to walk this precious little guy through this battle. With this type of battle, not only is the little guy exhausted, but so is his parents who are walking this scary valley with him.  

Our church family is grieving with parents who lost a teenage daughter last week. My heart aches for them and know they are going to be going through the grief process for a long time...and those of us who have experienced grief know that it is an exhausting work. At the same time my husbands company is grieving the loss of a lady who was killed in a horrible car accident.

Our grandsons who lost a puppy a couple of years ago in an accidental drowning, are now facing the fact that another little loving dog is struggling with seizures and have to meet with the vet today to see how to treat. Their little tender hearts have begun to shed tears as they are once again faced with the truth that life is fragile.

Then there is the whole issue of sin we struggle know the struggle Paul talks about in Romans...the one where he says he does the things he doesn't want to do and doesn't do the things he wants to do. I know at the end of the day I often shake my head because I did something I thought I was so over doing, or I failed to do something God has called me to again because it is out of my comfort zone. Then there are the things I commit to in the morning and fail to do by evening. The words that wounded or the lack of words that didn't get spoken to encourage.

Life in this fallen world is painful, scary, and exhausting. As a result, we can be prone to despair and hopelessness unless we remember God. In our weakest moments we can remember He is an everlasting God, the Creator who has the power to speak the universe into place. We can remember that He never grows weary or faint.

We can remember His understanding is unsearchable. He understands how frustrating it is when illness robs us of energy and when pain exhausts us and depletes us of energy. He understands when fever hits and fear rises up within a parent's heart. He understands when grief is overwhelming and we can do nothing but shed heart wrenching tears. He understands our anxiousness when we wait for tests results and the questions floating around in our minds that we are either too afraid or too ashamed to ask. And as the Creator, He even understands how our temperaments color how we respond to life's struggles. As the Healer, He understands how our past trauma can still impact our ability to deal with life in the here and now.

When life is hard, the Enemy wants us to believe Jesus doesn't care or has deserted us. But the enemy is a deceiver. As believers, we can choose to refute his lies and embrace the truth of these verses. So, when we are emotionally, physically, or even spiritually exhausted it doesn't mean that we are abandoned. It means we are in a position to experience Him, His power, His strength, and His faithfulness.

His Word says that if we wait on Him He will renew our strength and we will mount up with wings like eagles. We will not grow faint and will not grow weary. Over the years my perspective of what it means to have wings has changed. It used to just mean doing huge things for God. Now I believe that sometimes the rising up is more about Him giving us strength to do what He has called us to do, even what we might consider the mundane tasks of this life. For a new mom, it might mean He gives her the strength to get up six times in one night to sooth a sick teething baby. There is no more important work to do. For in the faithful work of feeding and nurturing a baby a bonding process takes place that gives the baby the ability to love as an adult. For grieving parents, giving them the strength to cry a few more tears and get through one more day shows others that God is in the comforting business and creates in each of us a desire for our true home.  To the eating disordered or addicted, it may be just enough strength to call an accountability partner and walk in victory for the next hour. There is nothing more powerful that saying "NO!" to urges that are as strong as physical appetites gone awry. To a couple who is struggling, it may be just enough strength to reach past their anger and embrace just long enough to rekindle the spark of love that the enemy almost extinguished.  It might be just enough strength to silence a biting tongue and offer grace instead. To the chronically ill, it may be just enough strength and hope to keep the doctor appointment and to ask others to pray. In that strength comes the connection and community that can instill hope and allow us to love one another.

Could it be that our discouragement is in part from wrongly categorizing things to which God calls us into categories of significant and insignificant? God sees us and what we are experiencing from a whole perspective that we do not have. He sees the lives impacted by even the smallest step of faith. He sees the lives impacted by the testimonies of ones who weren't sure that they had it in them to make it one more day, one more hour, or maybe even one more moment. Oh that we would be a people who remind each other that God never promised us storm free lives...He promised to give us wings like eagles....wings that rise above the storm and strengthen us to accomplish what it is He has willed us to do.


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!