Thursday, December 29, 2011

If Rocks Were the Real Thing

I mentor a teenage girl.  Initially, I thought the only thing we had in common was that we had the same chromosomes.  At this very moment I'm working through my first experience of typing with acrylic nails because last night my Christmas present to her was that we both get manicures.  Outwardly I saw the way they looked on her the last time we got our nails done (which was my FIRST experience getting a manicure) and thought they looked pretty fantastic on her - why not me?  Inwardly, I actually do have a feminine side that enjoys that sort of thing - a little.  Even if my typing skills have dropped 40 WPM.

My teenage friend is also my fashion consultant.  I have a good idea of what looks good on other people - specifically mom's and librarians, but for a woman my age who has more curves than the Indie 500, the wallet of a college student, loves plaid and prefers to have shoes she can walk in the mud with, while still being someone people see as a respectable, fashionable lady... I'm a bit of a project.  Last night I grabbed a hat off the rack at ShopKo - we were killing time before our manicures - and posed like a gangsta would in my dark purple knit beanie, and my fashion guru approved.  Of the hat, not the pose.  This purple wonder is currently on my head right now.  So pleased was I to have gained her approval of my choice in a hat - truly.

But before we did any of that - the shopping or the manicures.  I drove us to a cliff, and within the safety of my car I told her to write down on big sheets of paper, three things she was worried about, considered to be a real burden, as 2012 approached.  I had my three things, all of which had to do with failing in some form, and thought I had a pretty good idea of what she would write.  When we both had our three sheets of paper, I told her to read Psalm 55:22 from my Bible.  Meanwhile dusk quickly approached and the wind outside swayed the trees.  She read, "Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved." (ESV)  Then I had her read Galatians 6:2, which says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."(ESV)

The thing about burdens, is that they're much like a rock on your chest.  And like a rock on your chest, they cause all sorts of worry and strain that does nothing to help your situation.  We think we can and should carry our own burden's, but really we're meant to help each other.  I have a stack of rocks on my chest... it'd be nice if someone helped me carry them once in awhile.  If I'm really honest with myself, the weight of those rocks is slowly crushing me and I need someone's help.  Not something I enjoy confessing, I'll tell ya.  But it was those burdens that my teenage friend and I wrote on our pieces of paper.  With each piece of paper, each burden, we wrapped it in a rock I'd pilfered from the side of the road earlier in the day and we pushed through the wind to the intimidating, muddy ledge of the cliff.  Together, we read each burden, and we did as the psalmist calls us to do - we cast those burden's onto the LORD and HEAVED them over the edge of that cliff for him to take that rock off of our chests and into his hands.

Turns out the Lord was behind us because those pieces of paper came loose of the rocks they were wrapped around and were tossed back behind us by the steady rush of wind.  Who said God had to be at the bottom of the cliff?

It's a fun practical.  It certainly helped me to see things a little clearer about what I was truly worried about and what I wasn't giving to God.  The true test is whether I can take the daily burdens I carry, and like those rocks, pitch them at God for him to carry.  Not hand them over hesitantly, or gingerly, or with reservation like I might want it back, but chuck it over that ledge and launch it into God's hands completely and without reluctance.  It doesn't matter if you think he's in front of you, above you, next to you or if you don't have a clue where he is!  Simply giving it to him, telling him you want him to take it, and then letting go, means he'll take it.  But you have to first let it go.

Did my girl truly cast her burden's on him last night as well?  I don't know.  But if she didn't, maybe one day she can look back at that day and remember not only a fun time getting manicures and approving of her mentor's fashion choice for the first time ever... but also see that evening on a cliff and, when she's ready, do it on her own.

Throwing rocks over a cliff was easy.  I haven't picked up a cigarette in more than two weeks.  By the grace of God I quit cold turkey, and won't go back.  If I can cast that burden on him, I can cast the others as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Thorn in My Side

I started smoking in December 2008.  I didn't do it to be cool, nor did I do it because everyone was doing it and, really, what was the harm?  I knew the consequences, but the effect of what smoking did for me was more important than the physical effects years down the road.  To say I was struggling would be an immense understatement.  It's no excuse, we all turn to various sins to get through life when we should be turning to God, but at that time in my life I wasn't a disciple.  God seemed pretty far at the time and I honestly didn't care what it was doing to him every time I lit up.

I quit smoking in September of this year.  I'd been a disciple for six months and I'd been "trying" to quit up until my pastor came to me and asked me if I'd be willing to mentor his daughter - he had no idea of my sin because I hid it pretty well and it's not something that comes up in everyday conversation.  A select few knew I was trying to quit smoking and I didn't see the importance of telling him.  Never one to be a hypocrite, I quit the habit.  I wasn't about to lead a teenager to live a life of righteousness if I wasn't making every effort to do the same myself.  I had my last cigarette, just quit cold turkey, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Satan will do whatever he can to tear you down.  He's a prowling, roaring lion waiting for the perfect person to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  Like a lion, he waits for the weakest of the herd to fall back and then he attacks.  When I quit smoking, I became the weakling.  It's interesting how putting a sin to death can make you vulnerable.  He took advantage of it, and used another sin in my life, a struggle I've faced for years, and put it into overdrive.  Soon, my mind was muddled and clouded.  What used to be a struggle soon began to overtake my life.  I got rid of everything that might trigger this new sin, from listening to new music to changing what I read, to removing myself from situations and developing new boundaries with people.  I discarded everything that might encourage what I wanted nothing to do with, and replaced it with everything I could think of that would point my eyes to Jesus.

It was like Satan had become a pit bull.  The harder I resisted him, thinking he'd flee (James 4:7), the harder he held on.  I prayed like I'd never prayed before, but the fog thickened so much I couldn't navigate through it.  I was left saying "Amen" and emotionally shutting down because I didn't know how to handle what was happening to me.  I read my Bible.  I became the weird disciple who sat in a coffee shop for five hours doing nothing but reading and studying the Word trying to keep my mind free from the sin and struggle I faced every moment (Psalm 19:7-11).  I'd read in the morning for an hour, go to work or if I wasn't working I'd visit with other disciples, then I'd sit in a coffee shop for HOURS and read and study and pray some more, then I'd go to some event with the Kingdom family and fellowship and return home long after everyone else had gone to bed.  I wept, pleaded with God to take this struggle away believing that he knew I was broken in spirit and that he wouldn't turn away from my cry (Psalm 51:17).  Still, most nights I'd have horrific dreams, or I'd wake up multiple times petrified and alone, but not knowing why (Psalm 22:2).  It was a minute by minute battle, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually and it lasted for months without rest.

This went on until about a week and a half ago.  I willingly stepped back into my sin because, in my mind, smoking wasn't shutting me down, stealing my sight, forcing me to remove myself from the fellowship every time we gathered, and I could control it.  I started smoking again, and the physically raging storm inside calmed, the fog that I couldn't see through that left me praying and reading blindly and an emotional, spiritual zombie it felt like, cleared.  Unlike the struggle I had when I wasn't smoking, with smoking I could decide when I was going to do it, and I did things like change my shirt and only smoke after visiting, or long before I would visit, to keep things like second hand smoke from being a problem.  Then it wasn't affecting people.  That was my thinking, and that was my sin.

Recently I finished a study on 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.  "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'  Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong."

In verse 8 Paul says he pleaded with God three times for him to remove this thorn in his side.  I imagine his prayers were similar to the prayers Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-44).  I imagine they were similarly heartfelt and left him similarly broken as he begged God to have his thorn removed.  Still, God told him "My grace is sufficient for you," (v.9).

Paul makes the decision he's going to boast about his weaknesses because the strength of Christ is in him when he's weak.  When Paul is weak, Jesus will be strong for him so Paul doesn't have to carry the burden of his sin and shame alone.  And boy did he have some hardship, sin and shame (2 Corinthians 11:21b-28).  Paul recognized that in his weakest moments during persecution, insults, hardships, turmoil and calamities that Jesus was glorified all the more because Jesus was the one getting the credit for Paul making it through.

How can I be more like Paul in this manner?  Well, I can start with being weak, and as simple or easy as it sounds, Paul might as well have asked me to climb Everest - tonight.  I've been the rock, remember?  From a child up until I finished my contract with the Marine Corps, I've been the independent woman who can withstand anything... except a bout with weakness and vulnerability and admitting I need help.  No one had come through for this gal in the past when she needed help, so she learned to do it on her own and could do it pretty well.  I could be more like Paul in this way by making myself humble and obedient to God's will and giving my brothers and sisters in the kingdom a chance to love me and help me through my storms and fogs.  It's not a pretty place, and I wouldn't wish anyone to be there.  Still, I can't justify my cowardice by pretending to protect others from the darkness I was in.

We're called to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed (James 5:7), and while I'd like it a lot better if that scripture had a "will be healed" or "shall be healed" or "always gets healed" like it so often likes to use those concrete words in other scriptures, I have to take a step out in faith that the "may be healed" used by Paul will be enough.  My thorn is this struggle that hits me like a hurricane, buries me like a sandstorm and drowns me like the ocean downed the Titanic... but if I confess this struggle and, like Paul, trust Christ to be my strength as I'm hit, buried and drowning... I may be healed, and Christ's strength will be sufficient for me.

So I'll quit smoking again, and I'll take another crack at this.  I have to admit, I'm afraid.  The kind of fear that literally leaves me trembling in my boots, desiring to shut down emotionally until it's all over with, and struggling with beliefs like "I'm not useful as long as I'm struggling with this."  At least as a smoker I was avoiding the storm and could feel useful.  But I'm called higher as a disciple, and sometimes that means going through some really bad storms.  We're not promised God will get us out of it, but we are promised He'll get us through it (Philippians 4:13).  I have to have faith in that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankful for Thanksgiving

For some people, this season is one of the greatest times of year.  For others, it’s one of the most difficult.  I find myself, like many, falling somewhere in between.  I have so much to be thankful for, and yet being thankful for what I do have doesn’t diminish those things that make the holiday so difficult.  So as the big day approaches, whether we’re sitting at a table with family over a bird baked/fried/smoked to perfection, on the road wishing we were home with our families, in the desert thankful simply to be alive, or walking into a diner because we have no family to spend the day with, we all can be thankful for the same thing.
Scripture tells us to give thanks for all things (Ephesians 5:20) in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Not an easy task if your the average human being in the middle of what are some very difficult times.  It’s difficult to be thankful when you’re out of work and have a family that needs to be fed.  It’s difficult to give thanks when a loved one is in the hospital or has recently passed away.  It’s difficult to give thanks when those you love aren’t loving toward you.  Still, even in the midst of these very real, very painful worldly circumstances, we’re called not to worry because worrying doesn’t add a single moment to our life, and to trust in God because he knows what we need and that it’s his pleasure to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:22-32).  If we delight in him, he’ll give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4), which, if we’re delighting in him, will be HIM.  He will give us what we need, and all we really need, is Jesus (Hebrews 13:5-8).
Having said that, it’s practically impossible to simply quit worrying.  We have to replace that worry, that fear, with something we can put our trust in.  Whatever we put our trust in must squash that worry like a bug and do so continually, without fail, if we want to really trust in it.  The only one who can do that is Jesus.  We place our trust in him because regardless of our circumstances, emotions, and trials, he’s been there, overcame them and still lived without sin (Hebrews 4:15-16).  He’s a rock!  Not only that, but even if our circumstances bring us to our knees, even to the point of death, we can trust Jesus because he has overcome death (2 Corinthians 1:9).  Who else can we trust if no one else knows how we’re feeling, what we’re up against?  We can confidently draw near to Christ and find mercy and grace in our times of need, like this holiday season.  HE is our strength when we’re weak, struggling and don’t know how we’re going to get through Thanksgiving (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Personally, I’m not one who is content simply getting through the holidays.  I want to be able to enjoy them, to rejoice in them, to laugh and sing carols and feast and smile and have every second of it be genuine.  I want to find things to be thankful for and genuinely be thankful for them!  I don’t expect perfection, but I would like to be able to look at my struggles, my pain, and accept them for what they are and still have the ability to set them aside and genuinely rejoice in my circumstances (Philippians 4:4).  
Even if my circumstances are trying my faith, I can still be thankful.  My gratitude is in Jesus Christ and the sacrifice he made for me, the same sacrifice he made for you.  In being grateful for that sacrifice, that love God has shown me, he reveals the many other blessings in my life that I couldn’t see before I gave thanks for his sacrifice.  Regardless of where you spend this Thanksgiving holiday and who you spend it with, you can still be thankful for what Christ has done for you.  In this thanksgiving I have for Christ, it opens my eyes to the many other blessings he's put in my life and opens my heart to embracing them.
It all comes back to Christ and in him we find all we need (John 6:35).

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Walkin' the Walk of "Whoa"

No Olympic gold medalist got there on that stand holding up their medal in a year.  No professional athlete got where they are without failing or without practice.  It took hard work, dedication, sweat and tears and a deep passion for what they're doing.

Let's be real here.  Most Christians don't have a shadow of that same dedication when it comes to walking the walk with Jesus.  It's far too easy to be lazy, do one thing and think another or just not care.  That's the daily battle every person has with sin.  Some people don't particularly care whether what they do is right or wrong, and then you have those who try to do the right thing and fail and wonder why on earth they can't change their behavior.

An athlete first has to make the decision that he/she is going to accomplish a particular goal before they're going to make an effort to do it.  They realize they may not be the best, but they're going to do the best they can.  As disciples we're called to have an even higher dedication to following Jesus.  We recognize the fact that we're not perfect and that we're going to fail, but we are called to make every effort (Luke 13:24).  We have a savior who lived perfectly even though he went through the same temptations we face - he understands our struggles, and he makes it possible for us to try again without the guilt of condemnation for having fallen short the first time (Hebrews 4:15-16).  Not only that, but we have the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to succeed even through affliction (Romans 5:3-5).  He got Jesus through forty days of temptation (Luke 4:1-2).  He'll help you.

Our actions stem from our hearts.  The heart's desires form thoughts, thoughts breed words, words plant seeds that eventually grow actions that either do, or do not, produce good fruit (Job 33:3; Psalm 5:9).  It is possible to speak and behave in a manner that appears righteous and not have a righteous heart (Psalm 55:21).  Just as it's possible for an athlete to talk big about what he's capable of, but inside hold bitter resentment toward those who push him to do it.  Those disciples are few and far between because, in my experience, other disciples are Johnny on the spot when it comes to holding others accountable.

If we want people to take our word more seriously, if we want them to see us for who we are and what we believe and not the hypocrite they've got in their mind, what we have to do is not physically abstain from sin, but first capture our thoughts and force them to fall in line with Scripture (2 Corinthians 10:5).  You have a choice about how much free reign thoughts have in your mind.  How often do you entertain thoughts of impurity?  Things like inflicting self-harm, hurting others (verbally, emotionally, physically, etc.), anger and hatred, insecurities, doubts and fears?  It may seem that this is just how you are and how your mind works and that nothing can be done about it.  I'll tell you right now, that's a lie (Romans 8:5-6).  By setting our minds on things of the Spirit in all aspects of life, and not just on Sunday's or when it's convenient, our actions will begin to change (Colossians 3:2).  We see a shift in our mindset and, eventually, our behavior that wouldn't have been possible on will alone.

The Greek word for Mind(set) is "phroneo," which means, "to exercise the mind; by implication to be mentally disposed more or less earnestly in a certain direction; interesting oneself in (with concern or obedience); set one's affection on (do it from your heart)."  In other words, to have a mind set on something in biblical terms, is to be wholly dedicated to it from the heart, having a certain level of concern over the matter, and to be earnestly focused on it.  When you want to change, you have to first make up your mind to change, and in order to change your sinful mindset, you have to have something to strive for (Mark 12:30).  By first dedicating yourself to loving God with all you've got, you'll change your priorities in every other aspect of life, because that one goal is the most important and all things in life point to whether or not you're fulfilling that commandment.

It isn't easy (Mark 14:38).  But by changing our minds, by capturing our thoughts and doing what we can to make them obedient to Christ, we please our Father (Proverbs 15:26).  By turning our thoughts from our old ways and being entirely focused on the new, that is on Christ Jesus, our minds are renewed and we're able to put on an entirely new self that pleases him (Ephesians 4:22-23).

It's daunting, no doubt about it.  It's the kind of change, the kind of walk, that makes people have a single-word vocabulary for describing one's character who walks the walk - "Whoa."  But one thing I've found helps me when things get difficult, is when I remember the promise God's given me through his son, the grace that He gives and how I cannot lose that salvation as long as I am making every effort to love and follow him (1 Peter 1:13-16).  It's not about being perfect, but about making an effort and starting with your thoughts.  Getting directly to the root of where all deeds are formed - our thoughts (Matthew 15:18).

We're in a battle.  Even if you don't read your Bible, with all the sin and corruption in the world that's not exactly news.  The good news is that we can be on the winning team, and we do this by first aligning our thoughts, our hearts, with Jesus, by purifying them.  It'll be a fight, but it'll be well worth the effort (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Be aware of the fact that Satan will try to discourage and sledgehammer your desires to follow God with your thoughts as well as your words and deeds.  That kind of dedication is a threat to him, so we must be on guard, but do not be afraid of asking God for help!  If you're willing to do the work to live a life more like Jesus, why wouldn't he help?  (Philippians 4:6-7).

Finally, practice.  That's the only way we learn to do anything.  No one is an Olympic gold medalist after a few weeks of practicing their skill.  It takes years upon years of training and effort and guidance from other experienced people and failures in order to grow into the professional they are.  Aligning your thoughts with the will of God also takes practice (Philippians 4:9).  But it can be done, and just as the crowd at the Olympics says, "Whoa" when someone nails four spins and a flip on a half pipe, so will having pure thoughts lead to an entirely new level of integrity and credibility as a disciple of Jesus will inspire others.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lie: What you wear determines your beauty.

What we wear says a lot about us.  I was never more aware of this than yesterday morning while my clock warned me I was going to be late as I flipped through my closet having quite the time trying to figure out what to put on.  It was my first day as an usher at my church.  We’re a family, we don’t care what you show up in to church because you’re among family and you’re simply there, which is the point: to show up and hear the Word of God and fellowship.  However, because I was ushering, I was now the face - for lack of a better term - of the church.  I was the greeter, the passer of the contribution basket, the hander over-er of the communion, the one people came to when they weren’t sure where to go.  All of this meant I had to wear something that made me just as approachable to the married man in his forties to the old woman in her sixties to the children and teens.  It was daunting, really.
Frustrated by the whole ordeal, I decided to put the search on hold and padded through a quite house in my PJs to the coffee pot with my Bible.  I plopped into an oversized red chair, turned on the lamp, sipped my coffee - little cream, little sugar, tried to push aside blouse or sweater and began to read through the book of Galatians.  Not five minutes into my read I was struck between the eyes by 3:27.  “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (NIV; emphasis mine)
Here’s the thing, what we wear makes a difference.  Noah, the only one who found favor in God’s eyes to have been able to build an arc and keep humanity going, was found naked after he’d gotten drunk and passed out once they hit land after 40 days on the water (Genesis 9:21-25).  Isaac’s wife Rebekah deceived her husband by having their son Jacob put on his brother’s clothes (Genesis 38:13-15).  Tamar dressed like a prostitute to deceive her father in-law (Genesis 38:15) and John the Baptists clothing made it very clear about the kind of man he was (Matthew 3:4).
What do you think about when you put on your clothes each day?
I make an effort to dress in a way that would make those I’m around comfortable.  Every time I put something on I’m sending a message.  I have my standards, certainly, but for the most part the only message I make an effort to send is, “approachable.”  If I’m not approachable in what I wear, how can I possibly spread the gospel to people who want to hear it?  It may seem a little extreme, but I do it to make sure what I wear doesn’t make others feel out of place while being sure not to compromise what I believe says “Sam.”  I wish to be approachable, but once people have heard the gospel my hope is for them to look at me and see that my attire backs up what I’ve said.
I will admit, there have been times I dressed myself with completely impure intentions, both before I was a disciple and after.  I’m going out for a couple of drinks with the girls so do I pick that form fitting tank top and forego the jacket, or keep the jacket on the whole evening?  I’m going to work to teach middle school kids how to read and afterward I’m meeting a handful of people from my church for a Bible study.  Do I wear the tennis shoes and t-shirt I know will be more appropriate for my job as a teacher, or do I wear the heels and blouse because I’m gathering with men and women afterward and we might go grab food later?  Others may not be able to tell the difference exactly, but I do and so does God.
When I’m going on a date, what do I want my appearance to say to my date?  I want to be attractive and inviting certainly, but at what point do those things become inappropriate?  The question that always comes to mind when picking out my wardrobe is simply, what’s my motive?  Where’s my heart at? 
1 Timothy 2:9-10 makes a point to remind women that we aren’t to dress in the kind of attire that glitters and glints, but rather to be respectable and modest.  That’s not to say we should never dress up.  It’s merely asking, what are your intentions?  First focus on the matters of your heart, be respectable and modest, before you dress up the exterior.
  • Modestly (kosmois): orderly, i.e. decorous: of good behavior, modest - quiet and humble in appearance, style, etc.; not pretentious.  
  • Decency (aidos): A sense of shame or decency/modesty.  Shame - a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others (Jeremiah 8:12)
      • Aidos would always restrain a good man from an unworthy act.
What you wear is never just about you.  What I wear is never just about me.  When we dress modestly it shows respect for others (Philippians 2:3; Romans 15:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:21; Romans 12:10; 2 Corinthians 6:3-6).  We’re to dress with discretion, which means we’re to dress with propriety (Proverbs 2:11; 11:22).  Many have the misconception that propriety is conforming to what is proper, which isn’t the case here.  It has more to do with what you allow yourself to think about - having a constant rein on your desires and passions to be conformed to the mind of Christ.  The word for “propriety” is sophrosyne, which means sound judgment.  It’s a habitual inner self-government - and we all know how bull-headed the government can be.  The root word is sophrono, which is to be sober minded or safe or sound in mind; moderate as to opinion or passion; discreet and temperate.  Are you dressing with a sober mind each morning, aware of how your attire is affecting others?
I read Galatians 3:27 again and stared at the word “clothed.”  Isn’t it interesting that Paul would use such a word to describe how we’re to be conformed to Jesus?  We’re to clothe ourselves with him.  Does this mean we wear Jesus Freak t-shirts every day?  Do we sport the fish keychain?  Perhaps wear a “Jesus Saves!” beanie and tell others to do the same?  Hardly.  Another version of Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (ESV; emphasis mine).  This does not mean we offer him a piggyback.  Some are simply far too inclined to take scripture literally.  
When we clothe ourselves, we’re covering.  When we put something on, we’re covering.  When we clothe ourselves with Christ, or put on Christ, we’re not just covering ourselves, we’re covering our sin with the character of Jesus.  What’s even better, is Christ doesn’t just cover our sin like we cover a stain on the carpet with a rug; he wipes it clean (Colossians 1:22) and makes us pure.  Think of Oxy Clean for our souls.  Christ’s death on the cross wipes out our sin.  When we clothe ourselves with Jesus we’re carrying him around wherever we go, and wherever we go we’re wearing his completely pure character.  I think about my trip to Tully’s this afternoon and about the woman I cut off trying to get into a turn lane and think, well that didn’t exactly carry the character of Christ...  and not every moment of the day will leave us blameless.  The point is that we clothe ourselves with Christ, we put on his character, and try.  We make our best effort.  With the power of the Holy Spirit we’re able to succeed.
So how do we tell if we’re clothing ourselves with Christ or not?  When I check to see if my clothes match or if I have the appearance I want before I leave the house, I look in the mirror.  However, clothing ourselves with Christ as a process that takes place in the heart and cannot be physically seen, so we use the Bible as a mirror for our souls (James 1:22-25).  When we make strides to live according to the Word of God, we’re putting on the character of Christ.  It’s daunting, because we will never measure up and be equal with him and live as he did (Psalm 53:3).  However, we can ask him for help (Psalm 51:10) and he’ll never stop guiding us toward living a pure life clothed with Christ to better spread the gospel to the world with our actions and not just our words (Psalm 48:13-14).
I went back to my room, pumpkin coffee mug in hand and stared at the closet lined with sweaters and jeans and shirts and jackets on hangars.  I sipped, savoring the bitter taste, and thought of how I could clothe myself with Christ and with the kind of modesty and dignity that would depict a woman of God (Proverbs 31:25) as I served as a doorkeeper for his house (Psalm 84:10).  I can tell you my sweater and jeans had little influence on the way I conducted myself yesterday morning as an usher.  
I wasn’t concerned about my appearance for men, didn’t compare myself to how other women looked, wasn’t worried about whether I was too casual or too business or if I should’ve gone with flats instead of heels.  Having clothed myself with Christ, I felt a refreshingly pure love for each person who walked through those doors, and my focus was on expressing that love with each greeting, gesture and embrace so that I had no concern for anything else.  The joy that followed was far more daunting than the earlier struggle over what to wear.  I felt beautiful, and according to the Word, I knew I was and it wasn’t because of my clothes, but because I clothed myself with Christ.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beauty in Surround Sound

The other day I went for a run and, like most people, I enjoy the luxury of having my iPod with me on my 30 minute expedition.  Depending on my mood I might listen to film scores, perhaps a little Guns n'Roses, Christopher Jak or maybe Lecrae.  On this particular rainy autumn morning I decided it was a day for worship music.  The good stuff like Better Is One Day, Open the Eyes of My Heart, Here I am to Worship, and Blessed Be Your Name.  When I pressed the "play" button however, the music was coming through my headphones as though it were being played down a long tunnel and I was hearing it at the wrong end.  I turned up the volume, tried a new song, went back to the first, shook the iPod thinking it'd jiggle into place like a record player, and finally bumped the headphone jack.  The thing had come loose!  I plugged it securely in place and, of course, forgot to turn the volume back down and was therefore blasted with the loudest rendition of Mighty to Save I'd ever heard.

Being the Sam I am, I laughed at myself and my uncanny talent of being an airhead at 6am.  And being the Sam I am, one goof-up quickly led to a deep thought.  This one took me to my previous blog where I discussed 1 Peter 3:3-4.  While there were some expansion on the scripture, it's focus was how an imperishable beauty is defined as "a gentle and quiet spirit," which is exactly as the scripture says.  However, much like my iPod experience, I realized that I could've been giving a much clearer message.  I'd given you sound without lyrics, a tune without a melody, and the Bible has so much more to say about what beauty is.

The best way I can describe what beauty is, in surround sound, is through the example of Eve.

The significance of Eve is often, in my humble opinion, unfortunately overlooked.  In the six days of Creation she is God's final piece to the puzzle.  The cherry on the sundae.  She wasn't an afterthought, or someone God tossed in as though forgotten until that moment.  Eve was critical to God's plan for His creation (Gen. 2:18).  Despite every other creation God had made for Adam to rule over, there wasn't one fit to be a helper to Adam (Gen. 2:20-21) so God made Adam, Eve. 

When God created Eve, he called her an ezer kenegdo.  Hebrew scholar Robert Alter says the phrase, "It is not good for man to be alone, I shall make him [an ezer kenegdo]" is notoriously difficult to translate.  The various attempts in English are "helper" or "companion" or "help meet."  A dog can be a companion.  Helper reminds me of a designated helper in a kindergarten class.  The closest translation of the phrase is, "sustainer beside him."

In every other instance that the word ezer is used, the person being described is God himself when you desperately need him to come through for you (Deuteronomy 33:26, 29; Psalm 20:1-2; 33:20; 115:9-11; 121:1-2).  Most contexts are life and death and God is your only hope - your ezer.  Kenegdo means alongside, or counterpart.  God calls us to a life involving frequent risks and a lot of dangers where you need an ezer.  Jon Eldereidge put it this way in the book "Captivating":

"That longing in the heart of a woman to share life together as a great adventure - that comes straight from the heart of God, who also longs for this.  He does not want to be an option in our lives.  He does not want to be an appendage, a tagalong.  Neither does any woman.  God is essential.  he wants us to need him - desperately.  Eve is essential.  She has an irreplaceable role to play.  And so you'll see that women are endowed with fierce devotion, an ability to suffer great hardships, a vision to make the world a better place."

Each day of creation God created something new, and each day the creation glorified Him all the more.  Eve, as God's finale, is the crown of creation.  That's not to be some egotistical remark telling all the men out there to start treating us like the queens we are, but it's a perspective to consider when evaluating the value of woman created in God's image.

God is referred to as a "he" in the Bible, in discussion, in books, and yet at the same time He is in fact spirit (John 4:24) and everything He created says something about who God is.  In God's infinite wisdom, He created Eve and she bears the image of God in a way only woman can. 

Woman define themselves in terms of relationships and the quality of those relationships.  Only little girls rank their friends in regards to who is the "best best friend" and "best friend" and "bestest best friend" and "friend."  Boys couldn't care less as long as they have friends to practice "killing" at recess.  When I gather with a group of friends at a party, the men usually gather in the kitchen over the chips and dip and talk about the recent trick one guy can pull off on his Flybar, or the football stats of this years NFL teams.  Meanwhile, we women in the living room are curled up on couches talking about struggles with coworkers and coffee dates we enjoyed.  Women's desire for relationships reflect God's desire for intimate relationships (John 17:3).

You'll never meet a man as compassionate as a woman.  God created women to be compassionate, caring individuals to demonstrate HIS care for us (Isaiah 49:14-15; Jeremiah 24:7; Matthew 23:27).  As woman demonstrates her longing, God longs FOR us and to be loved BY us (Jeremiah 29:13).  Just as a woman yearns to be sought after, so does God (Mark 12:29-30; Matthew 22:36-38).  Looking at the example of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42, God yearns to be desired.  He was pleased with Mary because she desired to spend time with him, at his feet, while Martha bustled around trying to serve Him, all the while missing precious time with Jesus.  God wants to share a life of beauty, intimacy and adventure with us (Jeremiah 31:2-3).

God gave Eve essential qualities for relationship - that only women have - that speak also of God; inviting, vulnerable, tender, merciful, fierce and fiercely devoted.  Ever heard of the phrase, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?"  Imagine God's fury when we betray His love for us (Exodus 20:5).

Beauty isn't just a part of God, beauty isn't an addition to all that God is.  Beauty is the essence of God.  It only takes a look out your window to see it.  Nature isn't primarily functional - it's primarily beautiful (Isaiah 6:3).  Just as God is beautiful, women long to be and believe that they, too, are beautiful (Revelation 4:3,6).  All those jewels and beautiful clothes!  Women long to dress up in such things and be beautiful.  One of the most captivating moments in any film is when a woman who spends her days roping horses or fixing cars or putting out fires, cleans up, puts on a dress, jewelry and makeup.  The music crescendo's, the man's eyes pop out of his head, all the women in the theater grin and holler, "you go girl!"  Regardless of a woman's occupation or what others think of her, every woman's heart longs to be called beautiful.

What's most wonderful about this, is God uses Eve as a means to best portray his beauty.  She is not only beautiful in character, but in form.  How many pieces of art in a gallery do you ever see portraying a naked man resting on a couch?  There isn't any taken seriously because man isn't best portrayed in that way.  You see plenty of sculptures of men holding spears, paintings of men on horses riding into battle, displays of hardworking strength and the inner warrior God created men to be.  It's woman at rest, simply being, that her beauty is best portrayed.

Beauty speaks.  It says, "All shall be well."  St. Augustine once said, "I said to all these things, 'Tell me my God who you are not, tell me something about him.' And with a great voice they cried out: 'He made us' (Psalm 99:3).  My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty."  In a dark and cruel world where sin overwhelms us to the point of death, beauty tell us things will be okay.

Beauty invites.  When you hear a lovely song, you keep the station tuned.  When you see a glorious sunset, you take the time to watch it a little longer.  It invites us to stay.  Just as a beautiful woman invites someone to be near.

Beauty nourishes.  Ever wonder why seeing a woman nursing her infant is such a beautiful sight?  There's something about a woman, formed perfectly by God to be able to give life and nourish it simply by being the woman God created her to be.

Beauty comforts.  I understood this best when I spent a week in Montana helping a friend who's mother had recently died.  We were sorting through her mother's things and my friend's stepfather would check on us and see if we needed anything.  For the most part I stayed holed up in an office, trying not to get in the way of his grief and organizing finances and paperwork he didn't understand while cleaning out those things he didn't know what to do about.  At one point he picked up a photo album that had recent pictures of the two of them together and he began flipping through it.  I didn't want to intrude on his memories, I'd never met his wife and didn't meet him until I came to help after the funeral.  When I stood to leave him with his thoughts, he asked me to stay.  "I could use the company of a beautiful woman," he said.  I wasn't certain how to take that from a man in his 70s, but I sat, and we sat in silence.  I was covered in dust, wearing sweatpants, running on three hours of sleep and still hadn't brushed my teeth - I was far from beautiful.  But this man saw my character as beautiful and my being there in his grief was a comfort to him.

Beauty inspires.  Consider the life of Mother Teresa.  Never has there been a woman who lived such a beautiful life, and she's still looked up to as an example, an inspiration for our own lives.  In the great romantic comedy "As Good As It Gets" Jack Nicholson's character tells Helen Hunt, "You make me want to be a better man."

Beauty is transcendent.  It's our most immediate experience of the eternal.  Consider a particularly stunning sunset.  Not ten days ago I witnessed one that had at least five cars pulled over so the driver could take a picture.  It's a reminder of the Eden we've never known and that there's a glory calling to you in particular, which means there has to be a source of that glory.

What makes woman, or Eve in particular, more beautiful than any creation, is that she's incarnate; she's personal.  Her eyes, form, voice, heart, spirit and life are all more beautiful than any creation God has ever placed on this earth.  One of the way a woman bears the image of God most deeply, is her mystery.  We long to be sought after (Jeremiah 29:13).  It's crucial to any woman's soul.  We long to maintain an attitude of, "You cannot simply have me.  You must seek me, pursue me.  I won't let you in unless I know you love me."  All too often we compromise that attitude for someone we think will be good enough because we want so desperately to be sought after, long after we've been known.

The Trinity is a mystery to be enjoyed, known with ever-deepening pleasure and awe.  It's not a problem to be solved.  Just as a woman is one of the most complicated, frustrating, ever-changing mysteries that can never be solved, she longs to be explored, enjoyed, and known with ever-deepening pleasure and awe.  Every woman has a beauty to unveil and just when you think you've unveiled it, there's still more to explore.

Every woman.  Because she bears the image of God.  That means you, my beautiful lady friend, don't have to conjure it out of thin air, get it from the salon, the plastic surgeon, the magazines at the grocery store or the tubes of goop on the shelves in the make-up aisle.  Beauty is an essence given to every woman, given to you in particular, at her creation.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What does "beautiful" mean, really?

As I write this I’m sitting in a Starbucks with my laptop taking up one half of my tiny table and a stack of books taking up the other half.  Rain taps the glass and I’m listening to Christmas music – yes, I’m aware it’s October – and not five feet away is a table of three young teenage girls chatting over hot cocoa and cups of water, giggling about boys or school while they chew on straws and tear up napkins.  I can’t help but smile.

It got me thinking about the lunch I had with one of my closest friends.  We have one of those friendships that came as easily as summer eases into autumn.  Like the changing of seasons, it’s been a joy to get to know the many lovely sides of her.  When I mention specifics about her that I find particularly beautiful, she gives me the same response I tend to give others: a non-committal humph, the doubtful arch of the eyebrows and a grin and giggle to brush both comment and its reaction away.

Why on earth is it so difficult for us women to believe we’re beautiful?  We spend so much money on marketing things like makeup, fashion, exercise machines and diet programs.  Women are practically screaming for someone to tell us we’re beautiful!  From the prostitute on the street corner to the single mom who hasn’t gotten out of her sweats in three days because she’s too busy learning how to be a mom to a newborn, each of us is waiting and reaching out… but for what?  Approval?  From who?  Most women don’t even know so they’ll take anyone who looks appreciatively in their way.

As women frantically try to figure out how they can meet the criteria of being “beautiful” we find ourselves realizing we don’t have a clue who makes the criteria so we go with what we think will work.  The question inevitably arises, how much of a woman’s beauty is determined by her physical appearance and how much is her heart, confidence, attitude and actions?  Depending on who you ask, the answer varies.

The apostle Peter tells us what God says about women and beauty in 1 Peter 3:3-4.  “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 

Many women take this scripture a little too far and simply neglect their outer appearance, which isn’t what the scripture means at all.  The braiding of hair and wearing jewelry was common for women in upper class Roman society during the first century and (gasp!) still is today!  Peter is merely making the point that while taking care of ourselves and dressing up is just fine, our emphasis should be the state of our heart.  (V. 4) “but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

The original Greek word for “gentle” is epiekes, which is difficult to translate perfectly because the English language falls short in explaining it.  It includes the ideas of gentle (free from harshness, sternness, or violence), forbearing (holding oneself back especially with an effort; controlling oneself when provoked), yielding, equity (freedom from bias or favoritism), lenient (mild and tolerant disposition, exerting a soothing or easing influence), unassertive, fair, fitting, appropriate, suitable, proper… (!!!) Kind of makes me go cross eyed to think that’s just one word of the verse God expects us women to live up to.  Paul uses the same epiekes in his letter to the Philippians in Philippians 4:5 (ESV: reasonableness; NIV: gentleness; ASV: forbearance; KJV: moderation).

The original Greek word for “quiet” – used here in 1 Peter 3:4 – is hesuchios, which is similar to the Greek word eremos.  Eremos means “tranquil” or “tranquility rising from without” (used in 1 Timothy 2:2) while hesuchios (as used in 1 Peter 3:4) means “tranquility rising from within, causing no disturbance to others.” A quiet woman isn’t mute.  She’s merely not out to prove anything because she’s secure in who she is in the Lord.  She can be quiet and still be articulate and persuasive in presenting her point of view. 

Here’s the kicker – Peter says God considers a woman with a gentle and quiet spirit beautiful, and it’s a beauty that’s imperishable!!  It never stops being beautiful – not ever! 

That’s what’s precious to God.  The original Greek word for precious used in 1 Peter 3:4 is polutimos, which means “of great value; the very end or limit with reference to price; of the highest cost, very expensive.”  Consider what’s of great value to you.  Your family, friends, jewelry handed down through generations, a letter from a loved one now gone…?  You’d pay a lot of money to keep what you value most.  Now read 1 Peter 3:3-4 again.  Who you are on the inside is of great value to God, and yet God needs nothing (Acts 17:25).  Though He needs nothing, your heart is still precious to him.  A gentle and quiet spirit, as defined earlier, is precious to Him.  It’s certainly more precious to him than your wardrobe or how you apply your makeup.  To understand the word polutimos a little better, it’s used another time in the story in Mark 14:3-5.

Peter wasn’t the only one who made this point.  Paul says something along the same lines in Romans 2:29 and 7:22 that it’s what’s in your heart that matters most, not what you do or wear or how you present yourself on the outside.  Our bodies will gradually waste away.  Compare the appearance of a twenty-two year old to an eighty-two year old.  It happens!  We can exercise and eat right and yet, apart from thousands of dollars it takes to do plastic surgery – yuck – there’s nothing we can do to stall the process.  Paul tells us that even though we waste away on the outside, the work we do on ourselves on the inside will renew every day! (2 Corinthians 4:16).  That’s the beauty that lasts.  That’s the beauty that doesn’t fade.

I’m reminded daily when I meet with women of God, including the friend I spent lunch with today, how beauty is in fact determined by the health of our relationship with God.  The more secure we are in God, the more His love shines through us.  There’s nothing more beautiful than the love of God on display, and simply living life loving God according to His Word is what puts that love on display for others to witness.  Regardless of whether society finds these women beautiful, regardless of their flaws, God made each of them exactly as he planned (Psalm 139:13-16), and these women are absolutely stunning in their own God-given way.  Each has a beauty magnified by the love of God working in their hearts and lives. 

Best of all, it’s a beauty that’s able to be obtained by all women, and the process can be started by reading and following the Word that has relevant guidance for every turn in life and will let you know, quite bluntly, whether or not you’re living according to it (Hebrews 4:12).  The Bible will let you know whether you’re wearing the right attire for work today, how to respond to that co-worker that won’t stop asking you out to dinner, how to keep those images the media splashes over everything out of your mind, and how to recognize the many lies Satan tries to inundate you with every day (Psalm 89:22).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Weeding Impurity Out of Life's Garden

My mother used to keep a vegetable garden.  When I was barely more than a toddler I'd tromp across the yard in my cutoff jeans, bare feet and swimsuit top as the hot summer breeze blew my stringy brown hair across my face, and head toward the stretch of soil overrun with vegetables I could hardly pronounce.  My mother would often be hacking away at the dirt with a hoe, digging out weeds with a pointed hand-shovel and tossing them into a bucket or on the grass over the 3-foot fence that kept the dogs out.

Often I'd sit like a little Cambodian child, in a flat-footed squat, and watch my mother do her thing.  She'd sigh and curse at the number of weeds that popped up every couple of days.  "That one just doesn't want to come out does it?"  "I don't know why there are so many after just one day!"  "...Don't know why I put up with this."  I'd just sit there and watch her yank and rip and chop and gently lift the leaves of her squash, pumpkins, peas, green beans, cabbage and tomatoes and ensure nothing was suffocating them.  She hated to weed, but did it anyway because she knew it was necessary for her garden's survival.

It wasn't until years later I realized the importance of the job.  It seems pretty self explanatory when it comes to a vegetable garden.  Don't weed the garden, the weeds choke what you've planted and you no longer have a garden.  Metaphorically speaking, shouldn't that apply to our lives as well?

Our life is very much like a garden.  We plant seeds (dreams and goals) and if we want them to be more than just ideas we have to tend to them to ensure they become reality.  The "weeds" that can suffocate what we plant are sin, anything impure, and how we deal with those sins are going to determine whether or not we have a very fruitful garden or not.

The goal is to have a perfect garden, a pure one, and God will walk among our garden and help us find the weeds and teach us how to pull them out (2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1).  Webster's definition of pure is "unmixed with any other matter.  Free from dust, dirt or taint."  So if you want a pure garden, you have to keep only what you intend to be in the garden.  It is most certainly possible to plant pure things and have them turn impure (Jeremiah 2:21; Lamentations 4:1).  The fact is, weeds will pop up on a continual basis so we must continually purify our garden (Philippians 1:9-11).  The word "purify" is from the Greek (katharizo) meaning "to cleanse (literal and figurative); make clean, purge, purify."

Okay, so weeds.  They're nasty, thorny, smelly, irritating and just plain suck if we're being totally honest.  You try to grow good, delicious, healthy things and of course WEEDS, for no good reason, try to destroy that simply because they can and that's what they do.  You can't exactly spray Round-Up everywhere because then you'll kill what you've planted.  Weeds grow quickly, take root better than the thing you planted, and if ignored for even a day they wrap around what you were just admiring and try to kill it.  The weeds in life are no different, and can be even more deadly because they're difficult to see if you don't know what to look for.

What does the Bible say constitute as "weeds"?  Galatians 5:19-21 mentions sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like.  It says those who participate in such things can't inherit the kingdom of heaven.  1 Corinthians 6:9-10 adds homosexuality, thievery, greed, revilers, and swindlers to the list.  And the problem is if we continue to participate in and/or condone the growing weeds in our life, there are consequences (Hebrews 10:26-27).  Eventually your garden will simply be consumed. 

We cannot be pure before God (Job 4:17), but with Jesus we're justified (Romans 3:24; 5:1; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:16).  We cannot know purity apart from Jesus (1 John 3:1-3), and yet we are called to be pure (1 Timothy 5:22), which means we're called to know Jesus and be pure as he was pure (Ephesians 5:8-11).  Practically it means to weed your garden.  Your garden should be free of weeds and the only way you're going to know the difference between weeds and what you've planted, how to properly pull those weeds and prevent them from sprouting in the first place, is to understand what you're up against and read the book that gives you the "how-to" on weeding (Psalm 119:9).  The Bible.

Thus starts a series on purity angled from a woman's perspective particularly for unmarried women.  I'll address overcoming past abuse, temptation, understanding the sources of impurity, influences from the media, how big of an impact our thoughts can have on sowing impurity, and recognizing Satan's lies and fighting them with God's truth.  We'll see how 23 women in the Bible handled impurity and how it's absolutely relevant today and can help us in our consistent battle against the weeds of impurity.

If you've ever experienced trying to weed a garden that hasn't been tended to in years, it's not exactly an easy chore.  Your hands bleed, your back gets sore and knotted up, you sweat, get frustrated and eventually rent a CAT to do the job for you or just quit altogether.  Many of us haven't done any weeding at all in our lives, and what we have is our own two hands and the help of Jesus Christ who, thankfully, overcame every temptation and didn't have a single weed in his garden (Hebrews 4:15).

The big question is, is it worth it to do all that weeding?  It seems like an awful lot of work and you're right, it is.  The benefits, however, far outweigh the strain.  Remember when your mother used to say, "If you kept your room picked up in the first place it wouldn't take so long to clean!"  That's how it is once you get all those weeds out of your garden.  Once you have the tools to recognize where those weeds are most likely to sprout again, you get those callouses that come with all that pulling, and you get in the habit of checking your garden, maintaining it is going to be a lot easier than the initial clean-up (1 Peter 3:14), and God will be able to plant some pretty spectacular things in a pure garden.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

An Unfamiliar Virtue


I used to think I understood what that meant.  Then I joined the Marine Corps.

What's odd is I never got my opportunity to deploy and do what Marines do; fire a weapon or go on a convoy or wear a kevlar (helmet) and flak jacket because I actually need to.  If it wasn't in a controlled environment, I didn't do it.  Not for a lack of wanting to.  I joined to do what Marines do, including digging my own sleep hole in the desert.  So I waited for my chance to come while friends and people newer to my unit than me were shipped overseas.

And I waited.

...and waited.

...and waited...

I waited until I thought I'd grow an ulcer or have an aneurysm.  I didn't realize until halfway into my circumstances that patience isn't a noun but a verb, and I didn't understand that I could do something about it until I'd almost given up.  Here's a little-known fact: patience is something you learn, it's never something you simply have, and learning it is often as painful as discovering your pain tolerance.

You learn how to grow in patience by, believe it or not, studying the Bible.  I've never known of another book to depict the ins and outs of waiting and having patience better than the Bible.

Consider Abraham.  The man was nearly 100 years old before he was given the son he and his wife had been praying to have for decades (Genesis 17).  He and his wife Sarah had figured it wasn't in the cards for their life, but God blessed them for their patience (Hebrews 6:15).  He didn't stop there; He made Abraham a father to many nations (Genesis 17:5).

Then there's Noah.  God told him to build a big boat in the middle of the desert where, it's said, there had never before been rain.  Not only that, but Noah was more than 500 years old when God gave him and his newborn sons this particular assignment (Genesis 6:13-14).  It took Noah and his sons roughly 120 years to build this boat (Genesis 6:3).  How many people do you think passed bye that family with taunts, calling them crazy and caused all sorts of vandalism?  Then, after being on the water for 40 days and 40 nights, Noah had to maintain his patience when he sent out several birds hoping to find evidence of land (Genesis 8:10).  Talk about being on your toes.

Moses killed an Egyptian and spent the next 40 years in the desert in hiding, waiting for something to happen (Acts 7:29-30) before God revealed himself to Moses in the form of a burning bush.  Moses had already re-created a life for himself with a wife and kids (Genesis 2:21-22)!  I'm sure the guilt over killing another person was constantly at the back of his mind during those years, wondering when someone might go looking for him.  Then when God finally convinced Moses to go back to Egypt, he spent anywhere from a few days to a year trying to convince Pharaoh that he needed to let thousands of Hebrews free.  I'd be a little skeptical if fire rained from the sky and Pharaoh still didn't budge.  That takes patience.  THEN, in Exodus 10, Moses was called to the Mountain of the Lord to spend 40 days and 40 nights waiting for God to give him the Ten Commandments and confirm the covenant God had made with Noah.

Then, of course, there's Ruth.  When she thought she might have screwed things up with Boaz, her only chance for a husband, love and dignity (after the death of her previous husband), her mother-in-law Naomi tells her to wait and see what Boaz does (Ruth 3:18).  Nothing worse than waiting on a man to decide how he feels about you.

David's life is nothing but a bunch of waiting (2 Samuel 15:28)!

My point with this is that it's always worth it to wait on God (Psalm 25:5; Lamentations 3:25-26).  Is it easy?  Not at all (Job 6:11; Psalm 69:3; Habakkuk 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:10-11; Hebrews 6:11-12).  However, the renewal that comes from waiting is worth it (Job 14:14).

What are you waiting for?  Is it in line with God's will for your life?  I waited for two years to deploy and while I never got that opportunity, my prayer went from asking God to let me do my duty and deploy, to begging him to give me the ability to maintain my integrity and grow, somehow, in the midst of the persecution during my wait - regardless of the end results. 

Keep waiting on and hoping in the Lord (Psalm 27:14; 31:24; 62:5; 130:5; Isaiah 8:17), even if it takes a while for good to come (Job 30:26) because He is our help and shield from persecution (Psalm 33:20). Don't worry about the evil you see prospering in the world, and boy does there seem to be a lot of it - keep waiting on God (Psalm 37:7) and no shame will come to you (Psalm 25:3; Isaiah 49:23).  While you're waiting keep your hope in the Father (Psalm 39:7), He hears you (Micah 7:7) and notices when you're patient (Psalm 40:1).  Not only that, but if you pray and wait on God, He'll answer (Psalm 38:15).

Focusing on maintaining your integrity and uprightness helps with the waiting process (Psalm 25:21).  When I stopped focusing on how frustrating it was to be let down - again and again - and started focusing on how each let down was a chance to build on my faith in God and his promises it was easier to wait.  (By the way, nowhere in the Bible does God promise "Sam I Am will deploy to Afghanistan").  Remembering how God came through in the past kept me from losing patience (Psalm 106:13; 119:95).  Not just the works He did in the Old Testament, but the works He's done for me personally - and when I really sat down to think about it, there were many.

There are benefits to waiting on the Lord.  He saves you (Isaiah 25:9), He blesses you (Isaiah 30:18) and is gracious to you (Isaiah 33:2), He renews your strength (Isaiah 40:31; 42:4), He is good and always comes through (Psalm 52:9) even if it's not in the way you expected.

Ever considered that patience could persuade your boss (Proverbs 25:15)?  If you want your ministry, however small or large, to prosper, patience is one of the essential qualities you and your ministry must have (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).  Not only that, but patience can determine your salvation (Psalm 37:9, 34; Romans 2:6-7; Colossians 1:11-12) because the soul waits for the Lord alone (Psalm 62:1).  We're called to wait on the Lord and hold fast to both love and justice in the midst of our wait (Hosea 12:6).

I never did get to deploy, and there were many times I wanted to scream because God seemed to have forgotten me and my desires entirely.  I distinctly remember a moment in those two years I blatantly decided not to remain steadfast in my faith in God and do things my own way - the harder way - and wound up with my tail between my legs and following God anyway.  I had a vision to get out of the service with an honorable discharge, my integrity intact and grow in my relationship with God and while it seemed to come at the rate of molasses pouring on a winter day, it did come (Habakkuk 2:3).  I was honorably discharged, I'd learned that God ALWAYS has a reason for us being where we are, in the position we're in, at the time we're there - waiting is never just waiting (Acts 17:16) and ended up wanting God and his will more than anything else (Isaiah 26:8).  It's funny how easy it is to surrender when God doesn't give you much of a choice.

What's great about this is God's merely asking you to hold up your end of the relationship.  He is the epitome of patience.  Paul calls himself the greatest example of God's patience (1 Timothy 1:16).  The 40 years God waited for the Israelites to get their heads on strait as they wandered the desert (Numbers 32:13) should also be an indicator, and the fact that God sent his only son to die for our sins as a last resort so he might bring us to Him - since we failed so miserably at obeying when God's patience waited in the days of Noah (1 Peter 3:18-20).  Besides, how often do you fail to live up to the standards God calls you to live?  I know I do it far more than I'd prefer, and yet He remains patient with me while I persevere.

I thought I was doing just fine even though I had a very short fuse, but patience is part of the fruit we produce as a result of having the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24).  We're to walk in the standard we've been called, and patience is part of that standard (Ephesians 4:1-3).  God will give us individual guidance (Numbers 9:8) so don't repay evil for evil when someone does you wrong, but wait for God to deliver you (Proverbs 20:22).  Saul is a perfect example of what happens when we're impatient (1 Samuel 13:13-14).  When God makes a promise, He comes through - so wait on those promises (Acts 1:4), which include a new heaven and new earth (Hebrews 6:15; 2 Peter 3:13).  It'll come.

We'll suffer, there's no doubt about it.  We've established that waiting isn't easy and throughout life there will be times of suffering, but that doesn't excuse us from the call to have patience and wait on the Lord to come through (James 5:7,10).  Faith and the Spirit help in times of groaning too deep for words, so in the midst of that suffering hope for what you don't see with patience (Romans 8:24-26).

Believe it or not, those who wait for God, see Him (Isaiah 64:4).  It's miraculous how much of Himself God's revealed to me through his disciples, his creation, and in ways I never expected to see Him simply by having faith, waiting for Him to do as He says He'll do.  I haven't mastered this thing called patience, but I'm learning.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What's in a Friend?

One of the women I love most in this world, I fight with more than anyone else I've ever met.  No, it's not my mother.  I've known this woman since she was about twelve years old, and have loved her more deeply than a sister.  The only thing that separates us is the two years in age difference.

To see the growth she's accomplished over the years is, to say the least, remarkable.  She's the kind of miracle you'd expect to never have lived beyond adolescence, the kid you wouldn't blame if she checked out.  To know her past is to break your heart, but to know the woman she is today makes you want to praise God because my friend is an absolute walking miracle.  She challenges me to live up to the higher standard that we as disciples are called to live when initially I'd rather stay my comfortable sinful self.  Sarcasm is her humor of choice and often I don't follow along but she has the kind of heart for lost souls that I can only aspire to.  My blunt, stubborn, independent self aggravates her; her blunt, stubborn, jokingly condescending attitude aggravates me.  We butt heads quite often.

Recently we got into an argument that laid a weight on my heart for days, caused some tears and those pretty blue moons we women love so much under our eyes.  We each had our sin, I do believe a part of it was each of us were trying so hard to be the kind of friend we believed was a "good" friend and didn't understand why the other wasn't feeling encouraged.  The argument led me to my Bible with a bit more fervent study than I normally do because I realized I wasn't certain what it had to say about what made a friend a truly good friend. 

I've learned quite a bit in my friendship with this wonderful woman, and the other men and women (in particular) in the church have taught me about the Kingdom family and in it I've come to discover what it is that makes a godly friendship work.  Have I mastered it?  Not a chance.  But I can tell you where to look to work on it!

What Does God Say?
  • If you withhold kindness from a friend then prepare for the wrath of God.  (Job 6:14)
  • There are severe ramifications for repaying a friend with evil.  (Psalm 7:4)
  • When giving a feast, invite those who can't repay you.  Not just your friends.  (Luke 14:12)
  • God was friends, in all it's meaning, with Abraham.  He gave generously to Abraham, as well as to the children's, children's, children's, children (etc.) and he looked out for them as long as they lived.  (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23)
  • God wants a friendship with YOU in particular. (Job 29:4)  So fear him with reverence and receive that friendship.  (Psalm 25:14)
  • Don't be friends with an angry, wrathful man (or woman).  (Proverbs 22:24)
  • There are benefits to remaining close to family but one shouldn't hesitate to turn to a true friend when in need.  (Proverbs 27:7, 9 and 8, 10)
  • Your husband/wife shouldn't only be your lover and companion, but your friend as well. (Song of Solomon 5:16)
  • False prophets and the friends they spread the wrong message to will go to hell. (Jeremiah 20:6)
  • You and your friends, when following God's will for your life, are a symbol to others. (Zechariah 3:8)
  • Don't take up reproach against your friend (among other things in the given scripture) and you'll never be moved.  (Psalm 15:1-5)
  • When God works in your life, tell your friends! (Mark 5:19)
  • Jesus calls us friends as he tells us to fear the Father who sent him.  (Luke 12:4)
  • You cannot be friends with the world, AND God.  You must choose.  (James 4:4)
Friends Aren't Perfect (nor can they be very good at their job of "Friend" sometimes):
  • They can, and often do, partake in and support evil deeds.  (Esther 5:10, 14)
  • They can have the best intentions of helping, but be completely off the mark and not be helpful at all. (Job 2:11)
  • Some friends don't understand what it means to be a friend, and some simply don't care to do the work of being a good friend.  (Job 6:27)
  • They'll make you cry. (Job 16:20)
  • They'll forget you. (Job 19:14)
  • Intimate friends, those you love most deeply, will sometimes even abhor you. (Job 19:19)
  • Sometimes it might seem like your friends are plotting to do you in somehow.  (Job 24:17)
  • They'll fail to speak rightly of God.  (Job 42:7)
  • They can be completely oblivious. (Psalm 38:11)
  • The ones closest to you will desert you. (Psalm 41:9)
  • Friends who are disciples will leave the church and it'll make any kind of friendship with them difficult to continue. (Psalm 55:12-13)
  • Others will cause your friends to shun you and those friends will be oblivious to the truth! (Psalm 88:18)
  • In hard times, the worst of times, sometimes family and friends can't be trusted.  (Jeremiah 12:6)
  • When you spread the Word, some people you thought were friends will turn you in.  (Luke 21:15-17)
  • They give in to peer pressure.  (John 19:12)
  • Despite how they fail us, we must continue to pray for them. (Job 42:10)
What'll Separate Friends:
  • Sins that seem minor, like gossip.  (Proverbs 16:28)
  • Repeating an offense.  (Proverbs 17:9)
  • Having a good friend suddenly be put in the position of a leader over you.  (Jeremiah 13:21)
Characteristics of a True Friend:
  • They love always.  Yes, ALWAYS.  Even when they don't feel very loving.  (Proverbs 17:17)
  • They don't entice you to serve other God's, whether it be tradition, money, job, friends, substances, etc.  Instead, they hold you accountable.  (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)
  • A Friend is a personal advisor, someone who guides you as well as accompanies you on your journey. (1 Kings 4:5)
  • They're willing to give up any claim to glory and, the really good friends, their life for you. An example is the relationship between King David and Jonathan. (1 Samuel 18:1)
  • They're willing to take risks for you.  (2 Samuel 16)
  • When they earn or win a reward of some kind, whether it's a physical prize or the joy of success, they're happy to share. (1 Samuel 18:1)
  • You speak face to face - when possible.  Not just in the good times, but the bad ones too.  Not texting, voicemails, phone calls, e-mails, Facebook, etc. but physically face to face. (Exodus 33:11)
  • Your hearts are joined (1 Chronicles 12:17)
  • Two friends who will never leave you or forsake you: wisdom and insight. (Proverbs 7:4)
  • Rich people have lots of friends (usually because lots of people are after their money) and poor people have fewer friends than that (but those are the genuine ones).  (Proverbs 14:20, 19:4, 6-7)
  • Those who are pure of heart and have gracious speech tend to draw in Kings as friends. (Proverbs 22:11)
  • The words of friends cut to the heart for the good of the person.  A kiss from the enemy are there to appease the heart to hide the hurt that has or is to come. (Proverbs 27:6)
  • Jesus was friends with sinners and some of those important in society.  There's no reason why you can't do the same.  (Matthew 11:19)
  • Though insulted, a true friend will treat you as a friend.  (Matthew 22:12)
    • The guest in the story lacked something essential and insulted the host by showing up that way.  Yet the hostess still greeted the guest as "Friend" - gently reminding him of what was required.
  • Treat those friends who've betrayed you as Jesus treated Judas Iscariot.  (Matthew 26:50)
  • They can be trusted with a vital message. (Luke 7:6)
  • Friends have common courtesy and kindness in times of need.  Jesus does even better. (Luke 11:5-10)
  • Have a humble heart with your friends. (Luke 14:10)
  • Celebrate with one another! (Luke 15:6)
  • They have a generous heart, giving to friends in need.  People see that faith in God and in eternal riches by how a friend stewards their money.  (Luke 16:9)
  • A heart willing to sacrifice even their life. (John 15:13)
  • They let friends in on their plans and dreams and goals, just as Jesus does with us.  (John 15:15)
  • Share good news with each other!  Peter came to share a dream and visit and knowing that alone had Cornelius inviting all of his friends over to meet Peter and hear whatever it was he had to say.  (Acts 10:24)
  • Visit those in prison.  (Acts 24:23)
  • Not judging a person by their appearance.  Focus on their heart, and have faith in God to work there.  (Hebrews 11:31)
What I've gathered from this is that we can refer to the Bible for guidance in how to be a better friend but the reality is friends will let you down because, let's face it, they're sinners too.  Just like we let others down, they let us down.  The only friend we can truly rely on, is Jesus.  One of my favorite stories of how Jesus is such a good friend is in the story of Lazarus in John 11:5-11.

We're relational beings.  We need friendships, companionship, love and Jesus is the epitome of it all.  We need community, those relationships.  Friends will let us down, but what strikes me each time I think about that is Matthew 18:21-22.  And only Jesus makes it possible - he continues to forgive us, so what right do I have to not forgive my friend?  A friendship grows over time if we're willing to work through it.  The Bible has the basic instructions on how to do that, and those I pulled off the page are only a small portion of it.

This afternoon I had a Bible study with my friend and two others, and I loved that we could set aside our conflict and enjoy each other's company and I was able to give her a genuine, loving hug before heading home afterward.  How does that happen?  By the grace of God and two willing hearts who want our friendship more than we want to be right.  We'd rather have God.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Bitter Root

I spent Saturday in Glacier National Park with a handful of friends from church.  Yes, we drove 6.5 hours each way for a single day of hiking and, let me tell you, it was worth it to see God's beautiful country.  Think the mountains of Switzerland in spring, with the pride of knowing it's Montana - the last wild frontier.  I'd been there once before, but it was many years ago and all I could remember is that it was "pretty."

"Pretty," is an understatement.  Glacial peaks jetted into a sky so blue you could almost swim in it.  Glaring against the sun I wanted to sprint across those vibrantly grassy hills glinting from clear, icy streams trickling around granite rock and sing at the top of my lungs like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music... and I have a deathly fear of singing alone in public.

What I found unique about this trip, was the way life resided among death on the same trail.  There were mountain goats, deer, gophers, and, thankfully, all very much alive.  There were pine trees, berry bushes, disidous trees and dozens of species of plants I couldn't even begin to name.  Among all of this vibrancy and life, there was the occasional snag.  A dead tree just as tall as the rest, white as bone, without a leaf to be had and even stripped of most of its bark.  For the sake of science, or so I told myself, I'd climb up to wherever it was and give the tree a good shove, just to see if it would fall over.  More often than not that tree was so deeply rooted in the earth it didn't even sway.

Several questions entered my mind: How could there be so much green, so much life, in this spot, and there be a single dead tree?  How could something so dead be so sturdy?

What's interesting about trees is they can live for hundreds of years, long after they appear dead to us.  The oldest bristlecone pine is described as "a gnarled jagged piece of deadwood ... overlaid on one side by a narrow strip of living bark barely sufficient to connect the few remaining living roots with its few remaining living branches. Yet every year the sap rises" (Feininger, 1968).  As I stared at this "dead" snag in particular, I considered the elements it faced staring at the lake below and the jagged peaks across the water, the wind whipping across its path both shaking it's roots and causing it to burrow deeper into the earth. 

Isn't that what happens to us when we face harsh conditions?  The elements strip us of our pretty exerior, but we're easily overlooked because we're surrounded by those who are healthy.  When a tree dies, it's usually caused by a change in the soil where the roots are.  Increases in saturation, flooding, landslide, etc.  What happens to the roots is what eventually leads to the tree's death.  We're not much different.

Hebrews 12:15 says, "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;"  That kind of bitter root causes the tree, or ones spirit, to die.  Much like the dead snags I saw hidden among the lush vegetation, we too can become lost in the vibrancy of the lives being lived around us.  We're living, but we're locked so deep inside that we have nothing to give.  Forget fruit, we're stripped of our bark.

Looking at the word "bitter," Webster was pretty generous with all words that can fall under it's umbrella: sourness, agony, nasty behavior, extreme dislike; sharpness, tartness, acrimoniousness, anguish, distress, grievousness, harshness, hostility, pain, sarcasm, venom, animosity, antipathy, belligerence, malice, spite, antagonism, emnity, hate, hostility, resentment... some can be interchangable and the Bible makes it very clear what bitterness can do to a person to change it from a life giving, fruit producing, vital piece of the forest, to another dead snag.
  • (Numbers 5:24) And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain.
  • (2 Samuel 2:26) Then Abner called to Joab, "Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?
  • (2 Kings 14:26) For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel.
  • (2 Kings 20:3)  "Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
  • (Proverbs 5:4) ... but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.
  • (Proverbs 14:10) The heart knows its own bitterness,and no stranger shares its joy.
  • (Isaiah 38:17) Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction,for you have cast all my sins behind your back.
  • (Jeremiah 22:10) Weep not for him who is dead, nor grieve for him, but weep bitterly for him who goes away, for he shall return no more to see his native land.
  • (Ephesians 4:31) Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
  • (James 3:14) But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
We're not meant to live that way.

The apostle Luke (doctor and dedicated investigative journalist - basically) once said to repent of bitterness. (Acts 8:21-23)  Why?  Bitterness is a sin.  You're harboring hatred in your heart for and against someone and how you feel on the inside for them directly affects the actions you have toward them.  Do they deserve your bitterness?  Most likely.  Bitterness is only caused when you're wronged by another, so you're likely entitled (according to the world).  How about you?  Do you deserve Jesus' judgment, his bitterness?  Think about all the ways you spit in his face.  The difference is, Jesus decided to not only forgive you, but to die for you too - before you were even born and make the decision whether you'd accept his gift or not.

We all sin, because we are sin (Romans 3:10-14).  There's only one way to become entirely pure, and it's a goal we will never obtain because Jesus is the only one capable of living without sin (Psalm 119:9; Hebrews 4:15).  A bitter person harbors that anger, hatred, malice, etc. inside and it strips them of all beauty, fruit bearing capabilities, and it consumes them entirely.  Consider the dead snag.

What you can do about your bitterness, is give it to the God who can carry it and turn it into something worthwhile.  When it's handed over to God, he takes it off of your shoulders and works a miracle.  (Psalm 103:2-5,8-13).  Perhaps turn you from that deadened snag, rooted so deeply in your ways, convinced there's no other way to live, and bring you back to life.