Wednesday, November 19, 2014

{striking but healing}

The last two years have been a joyless famine in my soul.

Spiritually speaking, I have struggled with more downs than ups, more doubts than faith, more bitterness than thankfulness.

Waiting seems to be one trial that God is going to use for all of my life to sanctify me.

As I've sown seeds of despair, I've reaped a harvest of sadness, unhappiness, bitterness, and anger.  Watching the successes and blessings of others has fed my skepticism regarding the Lord's love for me.  In a skewed, flawed manner of thinking, I have somehow come to equate the "no's" in my life with the measure of God's love for me.  To put it bluntly, I've come to believe that God not only doesn't like me all that much, but He pretty much just tolerates my existence and enjoys telling me "no."

In a backwards way, this is the prosperity gospel, which is something I have repeatedly renounced when facing it head on.  
I'm believing a lie.

How did I get to this place?

Lack of success or physical blessing is NOT a measure of the Lord's love and care for me.  (Repeat to yourself over and over and over.)

Over the last couple of weeks I've noticed this destructive pattern in myself of believing the absolute worst about everyone, myself and God included.  I've put up walls to protect against more hurt.  I've grown cold.  I've allowed bitterness to not only rear its ugly head but to full-on set up residence in my heart. It looks like sadness to many people, but it is actually bitterness thinly veiled as such.

I've been studying the book of Isaiah for a few weeks, and I'm knee deep in passages regarding judgment on Israel and her surrounding nations.  There's a lot of hard stuff there.  But, in chapter 19, there is a verse that has completely grabbed my attention and held it.  In the middle of a passage regarding the impending judgment on Egypt (who would actually turn and follow the Lord), we see a characteristic of God that has sort of blown my mind.
 "The Lord will strike Egypt, striking but healing; so they will return to the Lord, and He will respond to them and heal them."

Striking but healing.
This is such a strange phrase.  I've thought and prayed and written and digested this verse over the last couple of days and it has boggled my mind.  But, more importantly, it has reminded me of what I used to believe about the Lord.
He wounds in order to heal.
His judgment is meant to draw us to repentance.  It is a kindness!  He could leave us in sin.  But He doesn't.
His striking is meant to turn our hearts back to Him.
The striking is bound up in healing.  You can't really separate the two.  As a result, Egypt would turn to the Lord, and He would heal them.  That right there is purpose in discipline. 

Now, sometimes I think there is a striking that the Lord allows that isn't in respond to sin or disobedience, but rather because He is drawing us to a deeper place of trust.  That is purpose in suffering. 

I think the struggles I have had over the last couple of years have been a combination of both of these types of striking.  I think the Lord has allowed some hard things in order to draw me to a deeper level of trust. In the midst of that He has been faithful to remind me that the thing I am actually longing for is Him.  It has been Him all along.

I also believe He has allowed a desert-like barrenness of soul as a result of my hardness of heart.  And I think He has graciously persevered me through it, even when I have wanted to give up completely. The common denominator here is always Him.
Around the corner of every disappointment, He waits for me to turn to Him.
At the bottom of every crushed hope, He upholds me and pulls my heart toward hope that does not disappoint. 

I am learning that joy is a choice, a daily fight.
So often I want to connect my joy to my circumstances, to what I have, to the prayers that are answered in the manner I deem right.
Therefore, my lack of joy stems from the disappointment in unmet desires, in watching others achieve and receive what I so desperately want, in prayers that are met with silence or "wait" or "no". 

But the thing is....the Lord is the only source of joy.
And I have got to attach myself to Him, or I will never attain it. 

So every morning at 6:20, when I brew the coffee and sit under a blanket while the sun rises, I delve deep into the Word, lay open my heart to whatever it is God is saying, and pray for joy to be found in Him and Him only.  He strikes with my best interests at heart because if there were no troubles, no striking, no wounding, no discipline, no heart-wrenching moments of despair--I would never need to turn to Him at all.  And I would miss the One that my heart ultimately longs the most for.
It's been Him all along. 


Monday, September 23, 2013

{kingdom moments}

{I've already written ad nauseum in my own journal, but I can't seem to wrap words around what is consuming my mind this morning.}

For the past 5 years, our church has been going to local parks and having church services for the neighborhoods surrounding the parks.  For 3-4 Sundays in a row, we grill hotdogs and bake cookies and give every bit of it away to the folks who show up.  They hear a simple gospel presentation and participate in some songs, and a few of them even put up with some awkward conversations from our church members who want to offer hope in Christ to them. 

In the last 2 years, we've committed to one park rather than rotating between the other local parks because we feel especially drawn to this area.  It's full of government housing and bursting with exuberant children, and I'll be honest--there are fewer doors slammed in our faces in this neighborhood than in the ones we actually live in.  An hour before our service begins or the grill is fired up, several groups of two or three will spread throughout the neighborhood and hand out fliers inviting people for a free meal.  Last fall we had a weekend Bible School for all the neighborhood kids and I have to confess, it was one of the best ministry endeavors I've ever participated in.  Laid back and informal, it was so rewarding. We are doing it again in a couple of weeks. 

I've not done the door-knocking part of this event since the very first time we tried it.  Shortly after our first attempt at park ministry, I was blessed with a sweet baby boy--an event which "conveniently" excluded me from knocking on doors.  I'm embarrassed to tell you how much of a relief it was to skip that part.

This time, though, I felt I had nothing to lose. My son is old enough to walk with me, so my husband I took over a couple of the streets with our five year old, who actually really loves knocking on strange doors and handing fliers to complete strangers.  {cue the conviction}

It wasn't a very successful jaunt through the neighborhood...it was such a nice day weather-wise that most people seemed to have gone out for the day.  I was overwhelmed by the poorly installed window units in this section of housing, a little angry that whomever is in charge of maintenance in this area apparently doesn't care about the moldy cardboard pieces duct taped around the outside of the windows.
I ended up in front of a house where I knew a couple of the kids playing in the front yard.  A group of about 5 children immediately flocked to me, hugging, grabbing my hands, asking me questions, wanting to go with me to the park.  In a haphazard fashion, we made sure everyone had permission from their folks to walk up to the park with me.  One little girl, about 5 years old, asked me if going to eat at the park would cost anything.  Her little worried face made my heart cramp up a little.  "No, sweetie.  It's all free."   All of it.  Her smile was enormous. 
My son bravely mingled in along with the rest of them, his only-child personality a little overwhelmed by their chattiness and exuberance.  I could tell he felt a little funny about sharing me with this passel of kids, but he handled it well. 

So, here I am.... a short, white woman walking through this neighborhood completely surrounded by a sea of sweet brown faces.  Whenever one hand let go of mine, another little hand eagerly reached for it.  My husband was way ahead of me on the sidewalk, and he looked back to tell me we had picked up a few more kids.  I turned around to see about 15 kids of all ages trailing behind me.  I felt a little like the Pied Piper, all these kids following me up the hill to the park, but in that moment a wave of heaviness settled over me.  Tears stung my eyes, and I felt that the Lord lifted the veil for me just a little so I could see.

So close, I can almost taste it.
So close, I just barely missed it.
A glimpse past the veil, before all goes dark again. 

Jesus loved children and wanted them to come to Him.  "The Kingdom belongs to such as these," He said. And to these, the ones who eagerly joined me yesterday to go get a free hot dog and to hear the words of Christ preached.  I felt a little like a child myself...with empty hands and nothing to offer, only eagerness to accept what was given me.

I wish I had taken each little face in my hands and said to them, "Jesus loves you so very much.  Follow Him."
Next week, I most certainly will do that.  


Sometimes when I am struggling with doubts and am absorbed with what's going on in my life, what feels unjust to me, with what I have found to be so bothersome or discouraging--sometimes the Lord uses those precise moments to hand me something so completely unexpected that I almost don't know what to do with it.  He peels back the selfishness and the self-absorption, helping me to see, to really see what is happening with His Kingdom today.  It rarely happens when I'm feeling comfortable or well-adjusted or "in good favor" with the Lord.  It happens when discontentment has taken up firm residence in my heart, when I feel rebellious towards the Lord, when I choose to ignore His voice and to listen only to the litany of complaints I can so quickly compile.  I think He gives me these "kingdom moments" then, at those particular times for two reasons: one, to pull me out of the funk I've settled myself into because He is not okay with leaving me how I am [praise Him for that]; and two, to give it to me when I know I don't deserve it.  I know I can't earn grace, but sometimes I think I'm doing so well spiritually that I pat myself on my the back a little and count the Lord as lucky to have such a compliant Christian on His team.  {I shudder to write that, but it's truth.}  So, He seems to wait until I am fully aware of my pride and selfishness and absolutely sick of myself to show me the things He wants me to see. 
It's then that the full weight of grace settles over my heart and drives me to my knees in humility {i.e., humiliation} and thankfulness.  I could never earn these gifts, any more than I could earn the gift of salvation.

So close, I can almost hear You.
So close, I just barely obey.
A moment passes by, You'll find me chasing after lies.

I wish I could hold on to clarity like this all the time. Being human and on this side of the veil, I'll let it go and be searching for it again soon.

But for now, I can't let go of the conversations I had yesterday, of the deep sweet grace that reverberated in the voices of all kinds of people sitting under a park pavilion, singing "Amazing Grace," of the unrestrained joy of the children who grasped my hands and wrapped their arms around my waist for hugs.  I felt like I got a glimpse of the coming Kingdom.  The one that's here and at the same time, not here.

Your Kingdom's come, Your Kingdom's here, Your Kingdom's coming soon.
All this pain and darkness in my heart will finally be through.
And I can't wait to see Your face, to shed this earthly frame,
To throw off all that hinders and holds back.
Jesus, You're so close,
Please be so close.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

{the things i can't escape}

I can't quite put into words what's been floating around my head lately.  But I'm gonna try.

When I started studying Matthew earlier this year, I knew I would be challenged by what Jesus said--both to His followers and to those who opposed Him.  I knew I would feel convicted by His frank honest assessments of the human heart.  I knew I would be tempted to skim over some of the things He said that are hard to understand.

But, I didn't know I would identify so much with the Pharisees.


Yeah.  I am a modern-day Pharisee.
I feel like I need one of those "Hello! My Name is ___________." badges.
Or like I need to stand up at a Pharisees Anonymous meeting and introduce myself as a white-washed tomb. 

I have long been about rule-following and standard-keeping more than I have been about disciple-making and grace-giving.  It goes against the grain of my law-keeping hubris to be bigger on grace than I am on correction, because I feel like I can measure law-breaking.  I can sum up a person by how well they obey or don't obey.
But I can't measure grace. It just pours out--overflowing, healing, goodness.  And it shames me in my finger-pointing, gnat-straining, camel-swallowing judgments.

But Jesus.  Jesus.
He just calls a spade a spade while simultaneously overflowing with compassion for all the lost sheep who are floundering in their distress and dispirited dejection.

When I study Matthew in the early mornings, watching the sun rise and filter through the trees in my backyard, I feel like I'm observing Jesus--like I'm right there, in Capernaum, watching Him tell a man lying on a mat with bits of roof scattered about on his lifeless legs that his sins are forgiven, and then--when that was too shocking and blasphemous for my associates--that he could pick up his mat and walk.  I envision that man jumping up with as much spring in his step as my energetic 4 yr old, grabbing up his mat, while weeping uncontrollably that this Man had healed him AND declared him forgiven for all the years of bitterness and jealousy as he watched his friends roam freely on their for-granted legs.  Because if that Man could heal him, then He was right when He said this former-paralytic's sins were forgiven.  I can see the Pharisees with their ornamental robes and Scriptures attached to their foreheads....mouths gaping open...backing away quickly, quietly. 

I see Jesus strolling up to the despised tax collector's booth where Matthew is hard at work swindling the people to line his pockets as well as the hated Roman government's coffers.  This was a guy you avoided unless it was tax time and even then, you dreaded his inflated taxation.  You bit the insides of your cheeks to keep from screaming when you paid him because you knew he was cheating you while also working for the enemy.

But Jesus.  He just walks right up to Matthew and says, "Follow Me."  Simply. Succinctly.
And Matthew.  What in the WORLD.  He just gets up and follows Him.  No looking back, apparently. I would give a whole lot to just see the look in Jesus' eyes when He squarely faces a future-disciple and says, "Follow Me."   Compelling. 

(Note: As a Pharisee, at this point I would have been outraged that Jesus went outside the religious circle to look for followers.  I mean, He was a rabbi of sorts--a teacher.  What is this smattering of tax collectors and fishermen?  Why not those training to be among the religious elite?  That makes for a much more appropriate group.  Right?  No.  Not Jesus.  Weak things to shame the wise, and all that.  Why is He is just not fitting into the box I want Him to fit into?)

And here is the point where I am totally thrown.  I read Matthew 9 this last week, and I can't stop thinking about it.  Round and round it goes in my head, I can't stop recycling this story.  You'll see why in a minute.

After Jesus asks tells Matthew to follow Him, Matthew throws a feast for Jesus (see Luke's parallel in chapter 5).  And who does he invite?  All his friends.  His comrades.  His peeps.  (Sorry.  When am I ever going to use the word 'peeps' in a blog post unless I am discussing marshmallow Easter candy?) Matthew's friends are obviously not from his Wednesday night synagogue prayer time.  They're fellow thieves tax collectors.  And "sinners", which I translate to mean  "known sinners."  People whose reputations preceded them.
And Jesus comes to eat with them.  Not stiffly, uncomfortably, and nervous about what people will think about Him eating with these folks.  No. Not Him.  He is reclining at the table with them.  Now, I know this is traditionally how they ate--reclining (which sounds like a tradition we MUST resurrect).  But, I don't get from the passage that He's nervous about being seen there. According to Matthew's account, Jesus is eating at Matthew's house and the other tax collectors and sinners come to eat with Him.

And this is what has just decimated my self-righteous approach to ministry.

Jesus went to them.  The sinners, the people of ill-repute, the tax collectors, the despised, the folks hated by the good, God-fearing man.  Jesus went to them.  He willingly ate with them and spent time with them, no matter how questionable it looked to the religious group.  He knew who He was and what He was about. This Man, this God-Man---with the absolutely pristine record, the only flawless human to walk this earth--He willingly subjected His reputation to being sullied by the religious elite so that He could reach the ones who knew they needed Him.
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus' disciples, asking, "Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?", Jesus just straight up said that He came for the ones who were sick and knew it.  If you thought you were well, then I guess you just didn't need Him.  He came for the ones who were sinners and knew it.  He came for the ones who would be desperate for Him.
And in true Jesus-fashion, He hits them with a zinger that just...pierces my heart.
"Go and learn what this means: 'I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."  (9:13)


A couple of things.
One, Jesus models something here that I believe we have missed. Right before He goes back to heaven after the resurrection, Jesus tells His disciples to "Go and make disciples of every nation."  Go.  Not expect them to come to you.  Go and make disciples.  He modeled this by going directly to the sin-sick, broken down people who were totally and completely marginalized.  He sought them out!  And as a result, they listened and many believed that He was who He said He was.
This, this is what I believe the Church of the past couple of generations has missed in this country.  We have expected people to clean themselves up and come to church to hear about Christ.
Why are we not going to them, embracing them in their sin-sickness and giving Christ to them?  They don't need to clean themselves up to come to Christ.  Christ does the cleaning-up when He has given you a new heart. 
Second.  What are we so afraid of?  Many of us who have grown up in the Church, who have been careful to carry as unsullied a reputation as possible--we are so careful about offending another Christian that we refuse to even associate with people who are desperately dying in their sin without Jesus.  Just like good little Pharisees.

I.Don't.Want.To.Be.A.Pharisee.Anymore.

I want to take my cue from Jesus who looked out at the people who were distressed and dispirited and felt compassion for them in their lostness and wandering.  I want compassion to compel me to hold out the One who saves to the ones who need Him.
I was once so distressed, so desperately dead in my sin.  And Jesus looked at me in my distress and saved me.  How could the Son of God associate with the likes of me?  I know how ugly my heart is. But He did.  And not only did He save me, He made me a part of His family. 
I want this truth to drive me to speak the Gospel and show compassion in the places where it might make me look bad.  Why am I so concerned about what other people think?  That's just stupid.  And an excuse.

On Sunday, my husband preached the sermon I have been both longing for and dreading.  He is working through Luke, and of course--OF COURSE--the text for Sunday was the parallel passage of what I had studied in Matthew all week. {sermon link coming soon}

I cried more tears than I thought were possible as the Spirit weighed heavily on me.  Even now, a couple of days later, I just can't shake this feeling of conviction and near-suffocation. 

The upcoming changes within our church in how we will approach evangelism and disciple-making both terrify and thrill me. Applying this in my daily life, too....scary.  {Again, why am I so afraid?}

But I am ready.  So ready to tear off these self-righteous hindrances and to take Jesus at His Word. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

{on the edge}

I am moving very, very slowly through the four Gospels this year (hey, it's January, so you know I haven't gotten very far), and writing down everything Jesus said.
I want to have an up-close chronicle of what He said to do and to be in order to be His follower, to identify oneself with Him.
Last year I studied John very closely and noted everything Jesus said in regard to what one had to do to have eternal life.  Short answer: repent of your sin and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
I wanted to shift my focus this year and see what Jesus said to do while we live as aliens and sojourners on this earth before we get to our real home.  I am certain that I will be shocked by how loosely I follow His commands (if I follow them at all), especially in regard to how I treat others and bear witness of Him in my life.   I know, I know, I know that Christ-following can't be limited to what I don't do (although there is a lot of behavior to avoid and stay away from, of course.  Hating my sin is always a good idea. All my sin is ugly sin and needs to be put to death every single day.  Jesus said.). 
But Christ-following is also encompassed by going, doing, speaking, being, and making (disciples).

In Matthew, we only have to get to chapter 5 before we see Jesus opening His mouth and pouring out wisdom that we could never come up with on our own.  I am convinced that following His words closely--and taking Him at His word--will change how I live.
I'm tired of regular faith that walks away from the Word mostly unchanged. (Is that really faith at all?)
I want to read the Word and see my sin reflected so I can flee from my selfishness and pride (for aren't those the roots of all my sin?).
I want to read the Word and with open hands and beg the Spirit to change me.  (Only He can.)
I want faith that has arms and legs, hands and feet. (In other words, faith that is active.)
This Gospel was not meant to be gathered into my heart and treasured all alone.
By definition--GOOD NEWS--it is meant to be shared. 

I am writing all this down if for no other reason than to put to words what I am learning and how the Lord is using His Word to push me out of my comfortable self-contained faith, and instead to go and make disciples.  It is a little terrifying. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

{books that are currently ruining me}

I feel like I am on the edge of an intensely hard season of growth. 
Have you ever a time where you just knew the Lord was about to drag you through something that would, on one hand result in the amazing growth and closeness, but one the other hand, could only happen with an excruciating stripping of your selfishness, pride, and laziness? 

This has only happened to me a few times...where I knew a painful stripping down was coming down the pike.  But, because I know the Lord disciplines, rebukes, and teaches those He loves...well, I'm actually excited about having the hard edges of my soul flogged off.  Sort of. 

This is all, in part, due to some terribly eye-opening reading I've been doing.

Thanks a lot, smarty-pants authors, for ruining me. 
(I'm sure I'll genuinely thank you later.  Much later.)






More on all of this later.   I have a lot simmering deep in my heart. 
 It might take a while to get out.