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A-Movin’ and A-Quakin’ — the Blessing of Shaken Foundations

ImageOf late, does it seem as if everything familiar in your life has begun to shake?  Are your plans continually having to be changed and your routines upended?  Nobody — not even those of us who seem to thrive on adrenaline —  enjoys living in a state of interruptions — full of sidelined plans, broken appointments, aborted goals, and chaotic schedules.  For most of us, life seems to lurch forward at light speed; we are regularly almost late to nearly everything, and more and more details are swallowed up in the “forgotten items” pile of our brains.

As a child, I remember long, lazy summers when I yearned for the much-anticipated first day of school.   I recall the joy and anticipation of the Advent season.   I counted days until visits from favorite relatives or our much-loved vacations to family in the Rocky Mountains.   Everything seemed to take forever to “get here,” and my enjoyment level of everything we had anticipated was unbelievably high.

Now, however, it seems school starts before I can even begin settling down for the summer.  Christmas comes before I am prepared for it.  There is never enough time to plan, much less execute, a lazy weekend with friends or family.   Life literally screams for attention, in spite of my vain efforts to refuse much of what it demands of me.   Schedules swallow me alive, and it seems there is very little room to breathe.

However, I am finding God is present in the whirlwind and the storms.   My plans do not, after all, shape the framework of my peace.   Only Jesus can do that.   All my survival systems and coping mechanisms pale in comparison to His Presence.   In fact, it appears He is currently shaking everything in my operating systems that can be shaken.   He longs for me to rely on Him and Him alone, to seek His Presence and peace in the throes of all the pressures of life.

A well-organized day-planner will NOT give me peace, as people and circumstances have the power to alter the most carefully laid plans.   A better calendar and more well-developed ability to say “no” will not give me rest.   Only Jesus can do that.   In His mercy, He shakes my plans and my systems and my coping mechanisms.  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 3:11).  God wants our foundation to be on Jesus, the Rock, rather than on anyone or anything else (Matthew 7:25-27).  Only HE will sustain us when the storms of life hit and our plans (our little houses of cards) collapse.

In His mercy, He shakes every foundation that does not reflect His handiwork.   Although He temporarily allows us to go our own way, He promises that everything not built on Him will ultimately fail.  In Haggai 2:6-7, God promises:  “Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land;and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  Truly, it is God’s MERCY and boundless LOVE for us that provoke Him to shake up anything of our own making.   He yearns for us to yearn for Him — and to abandon all other things on which we so easily have come to rely.

Father, help me remove the rubble of my own plans and systems.   Teach me — gently, if possible!  — how to remain solidly planted on the foundation of Your Presence in my life and to rely on Your Word, Your plans, and Your perspective.   Teach me Your way, O Lord.  I choose to walk in Your truth.   Unite my heart to fear Your Name (see Psalm 86:11).  Help me to rejoice in the rubble of my own ways and embrace You — the joy and power of Your Presence in me!

I Am a Rock? Really?

Seward_Alaska_12As the exponential growth of technology continues to facilitate instant personal communication with a myriad of contacts, it seems ironic that our ability to maintain meaningful real-life (as opposed to virtual) relationships is taking a nose-dive.   I know numerous people who suffer from depression, isolation, and loneliness, regardless of their intellect, variety of interests and hobbies, or charisma.  Indeed, the old song “I Am a Rock,” by Simon and Garfunkel, could serve as the anthem of our culture in this friendless, fatherless, motherless generation [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ealhxti03pk].  When I was young and this song was popular, that song served to shore me up in some kind of strong castle when I felt rejected by my peers; I remember these words encouraged me in my self-perceived virtuous resolve to manage everything on my own and avoid trusting other people.  Here are part of the words to this nearly-legendary song of my early teens:  “I’ve built walls,  a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate.  I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island. Don’t talk of love, but I’ve heard the words before; it’s sleeping in my memory. I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died. If I never loved I never would have cried. I am a rock, I am an island. I have my books and my poetry to protect me; I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries” (part of lyrics copyright by Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel).  I actually WAS the subject of ridicule, or at least, so I imagined, from my classmates; apparently reading foreign-language dictionaries and doing science experiments with plant hormones was NOT a typical pastime for a seventh-grader.  I also managed to strike out at kickball more than once; my failure in athletics only increased the shame of my bookworm status.  (Wearing ridiculously thick glasses didn’t help my image, either!)

However, the message of the Gospel runs in complete opposition to the proclamations of this song.   God didn’t design us to muddle through life as loners or hermits.   In the Bible, the only Person strong enough to navigate life (and all eternity) successfully in His own power and strength was Jesus Christ; He is the only Man referred to in Scripture as a Rock.  In I Corinthians 10:3-5, Paul describes Jesus as the Rock and explains that He was the Source of the water that God had brought out of the rock for the Israelites when they were thirsty in the wilderness (Exodus 17:5).   Although it seems odd that water would ever spring from a rock, this water is living water that will always satisfy (see John 4:10).  This water from the Living Stone is available to all of us. In John 7:37-38, we read that “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’”  Peter encourages us to come to Jesus, the Living Stone (I Peter 2:4), who has been rejected by men but is precious to God.  Jesus, the Living Stone that is the source of this supernatural Living Water (aka life itself).  In fact, many places in the Bible exhort us to rely on the Lord as our strength and depend on His power and resources rather than on our own.  Nowhere are we encouraged to wall ourselves in and sing an anthem to the isolating, fortifying power of our own rejection, no matter how enticing the lyrics or melody may seem.

Isn’t it interesting that the only One who CAN manage every aspect of life, for all eternity, on His own — with His own power, strength, and might — is the One Who chose of His own free will to create us for relationship, first with Himself and then with one another?  His tears of compassion for us are equivalent to water from the rock.   Father, forgive me for the times I have attempted to isolate myself and hide in my own self-appointed bunker of solitary confinement.   Call forth water from the Rock and cleanse me of my tendency to withdraw when wounded or disappointed, and empower me to continue to pursue relationship with You and with others.   Thank You for the Rock, Jesus — my strong Tower and Fortress, my infinite supply of life-giving Living Water!

Flying the Coop

Recently, a bit of revelation struck me that amounts to a valuable key — a key that opens some personal cages.  The link to this key is found in Matthew 10, verse 16:  “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Although being wise somehow seems, at least to my far-too-human brain, to be somewhat the opposite of innocence, wisdom and innocence are actually an extremely powerful combination.   I was considering the implication of this Scripture in the context of relationships and personal wholeness, and I understood that Jesus was admonishing us to be smart enough NOT to take the bait and fall into the trap set by the “wolves” in our lives.  While people are not my enemy, the enemy of my soul can use people to push my emotional buttons and drop me into a pit of despair.  The key is to be wise enough to discern the bait and refuse it.  Sometimes words can serve as a verbal snare to put me in an emotional prison of rejection, inadequacy, or despair.  However, if I refuse to take the bait, I avoid the trap — and I fly free.  The word “innocent” means “free from sin or guilt.”   Free!  That means that, if I avoid swallowing the lies of the enemy and refuse to respond to his bait, I am innocent as a dove and free to fly the coop (the trap he wants to use to imprison me).  Somehow, this simple verse took on new meaning for me in terms of walking free from incorrect lines of thinking and unhealthy patterns in relationships.   “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” now translates to “don’t take the bait — fly the coop!” 

Father, help me by Your Spirit to discern where the enemy has set bait to entrap me; I long for Your wisdom to direct me.   Then I will be innocent as a dove and fly free of his clutches.   Help me to fly away from every coop!

Afraid of the Stench? Jesus Isn’t!

Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”  Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.”  Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”  John 11:38-44

Most of us are familiar with this account of the miracle-working, life-giving power of Jesus when He raised Lazarus from the dead.  There are a few interesting nuggets of truth buried in the details of this story.   Jesus had deliberately waited two days after receiving the message of his friend’s illness before setting out on the journey to Bethany (see verse 5). When He finally arrived, Lazarus had already died.  Prior to heading to the tomb, both Mary and Martha, sisters of the dead man, remarked that their brother would not have died, had Jesus been there (see John 11:21, 32).  They understood that Jesus had the power to heal Lazarus and were disappointed that He had not come to them sooner.  However,  expectation was still high, as Martha expressed her confidence that whatever Jesus asked of God, God would do (verse 22).  Others who followed the bereaved sisters to the tomb also reasoned, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?” (verse 37).

However, in the midst of the expectation and heightened hopes of Lazarus’ family and friends, faith faltered when Jesus asked that they roll the stone away from the mouth of the tomb.  Martha, who had been confident God would give Jesus whatever He asked, now warns:  “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days” (verse 39).  Her confidence that Jesus could do something began to waver when faced with the reality of death’s effects on her brother’s lifeless body.

Often, I implore God to intervene in a situation.  I even imagine various ways He most likely could or would choose to redeem that situation.   However, it seems He always comes up with something I never could have invented myself — a plan so unusual, that, when confronted with it, I begin to protest.   When God (finally!) begins to direct a solution to the problem, I am capable of thinking of all sorts of reasons not to do it God’s way.   If I am honest with myself, I am afraid of the stench of my own humanity.  Sin brings death, and death brings a stench — the stench of rotting flesh.   This is no surprise to God, as He sent Jesus to die for me when I was a sinner unaware of my need for redemption.   He knew I would die in my sin and that the stench would be great — and He chose to face sin and death on my behalf and face the stench fearlessly.   In fact, the Bible says that Jesus literally BECAME sin for me (2 Corinthians 5:21); since the Father cannot tolerate sin, Jesus was separated from the Father on our behalf as He hung on the cross.   Our sin was crucified with Him there.   He paid for every sin for all time.  Jesus was NOT afraid of the stench.   He KNEW God would give Him power to vanquish sin and death, and the stench along with it.

As we receive His life, we should remember that we are NOT odious to our Savior — SIN is repulsive to Him, but we are not.  He has set His love on us.    Similarly, we should not shrink back in the face of the sins of others God is rescuing.    They may reek in their lost condition, but God loves them anyway, just as He loves us.   Let us trust Him enough to use us to truly love others with His love and power and thereby rescue many who are longing to be resuscitated.  Don’t be afraid of the smell of death!

Hound Dogs and the Power of Forgiveness

Although the Elvis era came and went before I was old enough to have an opinion on the matter, one of his iconic songs has made a distinct impression on me of late.  That is the song about the hound dog — particularly the line, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time.”  Although my family has always had indoor pets, I have discovered that Texans often keep outdoor pets; some folks keep their family pets chained to a post or tree in the back yard. It is not unusual for these dogs to howl when overwhelmed by loneliness or to bark when they grow weary of running in circles around the tree to which they are tethered.

Lately, God has been showing me that Christians have ample opportunity to be just like those dogs chained to a post.  I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t been gravely wounded at some time  in his or her life.   That is something we all have in common!   The difference from one person to another is what we DO with that hurt.  If we nurse it, give it life, and make it our identity, we allow that hurt and pain to control us and direct everything we do.  Essentially, we chain ourselves to the problems and wounds of the past.

Pain and sorrow are a normal part of life, and there is a natural season for grief; it is perfectly acceptable to mourn and to allow ourselves time to recover from trauma.   However, I have noticed that forgiving people who have hurt me is a key to freedom and healing.  God has given me a choice:   I can hold an offense against the people who hurt me, or I can forgive.   If I only forgave people who said they were sorry, I would be missing the point.  Jesus died for me when I was an unrepentant sinner, before He ever made me, and before I ever knew that sin was sin (Romans 5:8).  I didn’t deserve forgiveness.  Similarly, in order to live an emotionally and spiritually healthy life, I need to release forgiveness to others, independently of whether I think they recognize how they have hurt me or whether I think they deserve it or not — in fact, forgiving others is the only way I can be free!  If I don’t continue to forgive and bless other people, I end up living life just like that hound dog chained to a tree:  limited in my movement and focused on going around in circles.

Worse yet, perhaps I don’t even recognize that I have failed to forgive — perhaps I’m not really chained to my afflictions anymore, and perhaps I’ve even forgiven to a degree.  However, I find myself bumping up against some kind of invisible fence (like the one our neighbors put in the front yard for their dogs) that causes discomfort to the degree that I venture no further in my relationships with other people.   The solution?  I hear the Father prompting me, ever so gently, to draw from Him MORE forgiveness to give away freely to those who have wounded me.

Thank You, Jesus, that I don’t have to live life as “nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time!”  Thank You that my pain and hurt does not define me or control me or dictate who I am!  Thank You for your forgiveness, which I don’t deserve, but which You freely shower on me!  Thank You that I can choose to forgive other people and be free to live as You have called me to live.  I can agree with David when he declared: ” Blessed be the Lord, Who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation!”  (Psalm 68:19)

Prisoner of WHAT?

God used the prophet Zechariah to speak an interesting admonition to His people:  “As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.  Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope.   Even today I declare that I will restore double to you.”  (Zech. 9:11-12)  At first glance, it seems odd that God would describe freedom from the waterless pit as a life lived as a prisoner of hope.    Our usual concept of freedom is the OPPOSITE of captivity.   However, this admonition to action is actually an encouraging promise!  The word prisoner actually means one who is taken/overtaken/held [captive], according to the etymology of the word.   In fact, pris is the past participle (meaning taken) of the French verb prendre, to take.   If we apply that meaning of the word to these verses, we are compelled to ask ourselves:  What have I allowed to take me captive, to overtake me, to overcome me?   God wants us free from captivity to the waterless pit, which is a place of darkness, a place where we are limited in movement, a place where there is no life or provision for life.   He wants us to live instead as prisoners of hope, to be overtaken or seized or held captive by hope!   We can access hope by returning to the stronghold: taking refuge in Jesus Christ and all He is, abiding in His Presence and a deliberate, conscious awareness of His life in us.   In fact, Peter addresses this same issue:  “…by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:19b)  What is overcoming or overtaking me?  What is ruling my thought life?  What is holding me captive?   As I take refuge in God — my fortress and strong tower (Psalm 61:3), His presence will cause me to be overtaken (taken prisoner) by HOPE instead of living as a prisoner of the waterless pit!

Seeing the New Thing

As the new year starts (yet again!), I am more aware than ever that God’s  mercies are truly new and fresh each day.  “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”  (Lamentations 3:22-23) As the years pass, I continue to wrestle with myself: my own failings, doubts, and (sometimes senseless) rationalizations.  Often, it seems that I will NEVER  get out of the ruts I have plowed for myself.   Although God has helped me climb out — more accurately expressed, He has often dug and hoisted me out! — of the more self-destructive and perilous ruts in which I used to wallow, it seems there are other ruts that the wheels of my thoughts tend to favor:  the tendency to allow circumstances to dictate my priorities, the need to constantly evaluate my own worth, the lack of motivation to assert myself enough to make longterm changes that would be beneficial to me.

However, God’s Word says there is hope!  I don’t need to rely on my own energy; I need only lean hard on His mercy and His vision for my life.   Thankfully, He never gives up on me, in spite of the fact that I have often given up on myself!   Every day, He showers a generous dose of fresh mercy, fresh grace, fresh forgiveness, and fresh life — HIS life — on me, if I will only recognize and receive it.

Isaiah so aptly admonishes us:  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”  (43:18-19)  God Himself declares that He is doing a new thing.   He asks us to be willing to open our eyes and see what He sees.  He wants us to perceive what He is already doing.    He says He is making a way right there in the midst of the wilderness places of our lives, and He is providing water to drink, even in the dry places.   I guess my job is not so much to get myself out of the ruts as to focus on Jesus and ask Him to heal my vision.   Do I want to perceive the new thing He is doing?   Do I really want to?   Or do I secretly prefer my own tedious but familiar rut?

Father, deliver me from my own lack of vision — heal my blindness, and help me to perceive the new things you are already working in my life.   Give me YOUR vision, YOUR motivation, and YOUR incentive!   Empower me, Father, to walk in YOUR ways and to drink Your living water rather than wallow in my rut and drink from my stagnant cistern.   You are able and willing to make me willing and able!   So be it for 2011!   Praise God for fresh mercies for a new year!