Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Faith Is

How can I have unfailing faith?  I’ve been asking myself this question for the better part of 2012, and the more I’ve been studying, the more I’m realizing that it takes faith to have faith. 

Faith was best expressed to me through my youngest sibling.  He’s currently six, but when he was younger we used to play this game where he and his older brother used to sit on my feet, hold tight to my legs and I’d walk around the house with them giggling and telling me where to go and how to walk.  While my legs were killing me, the sound of their laughter and joy made it more than worth it.  What was interesting is that these boys had complete faith in my ability to carry them.  They believed that as long as they held on, Big Sister would do the rest.  I offered alternatives to their requests to go up and down the stairs, knowing it wasn’t safe (because of my own limitations) but still brought all of us joy in the experience.
I think God leads us much the same way, with cords of kindness and bands of love (Hosea 11:4).  After thirty minutes of walking, my feet had become numb, but I found strength to keep walking until I could get them to a safe “drop off” location.  God guides by his strength which is unfailing (Psalm 73:26; 1 Corinthians 1:25), leading in his steadfast love the people he’s redeemed (Exodus 15:13).  God’s “drop off” location is heaven.  He leads us to eternity by completing the work he began in us from the start (Philippians 1:6).

Faith is a choice.  You make the choice to grab hold of God.  Before I started walking with my brothers, the youngest had reservations.  He wasn’t sure if he wanted to do what his older brother was doing, but eventually went along with it because big brother was pretty convincing about the fun involved.  Sometimes we can come to God in the same way, following the crowd because it seems like a good idea.  Then comes the true step of faith.  As I walked, he kept trying to keep one foot on the ground as though it would give him balance.  He had the illusion of control, when in reality it was simply making the experience less enjoyable for him.  It was the epitome of my own walk with God.

I finally had to stop and get my brother’s attention.  “You gotta trust me, bug.  Just hold on tight and I’ll do the rest.”  His first response, at four years old, “You’ll drop me.”  My heart melted in love.  I held his face in my hands, kissed him on the forehead and smiled.  “How can I drop you if you’re holding on?”

Simply inviting my youngest brother to trust me was enough to get him on my foot, but it wasn’t enough for him to have faith that I wouldn’t drop him.  It took a few rounds of him trying to have control at the expense of his own enjoyment before he was willing to admit he didn't have the best idea.  I love his honesty.  He didn’t sugar coat it, he didn’t beat around the bush, he told me plain and simple, “You’ll drop me.”  He had no qualms about admitting the lack of trust he had in his big sister’s ability to hold him safe.  It made me wonder how often I withhold from God the real reasons why I don't trust Him.

I didn’t get angry with my little brother because I was glad he was willing to be vulnerable enough to express that fear to me.  I didn’t get upset because what kid wouldn’t be a little afraid?  It gave me an opportunity to love him, reassure him, show affection and invite him to try.  How much more does God yearn to do that for me (Isaiah 41:10)!  He says, “don’t be afraid, I’m right here!  Don’t be dismayed because this is me you’re talking to, your God.  I’ll not only strengthen you, I’ll help you and uphold you.”  Now imagine that reassurance being followed by the love of a mother holding her newborn baby.  God’s love surpasses even that (Isaiah 49:15).
So here the three of us are, standing in the living room, my youngest brother thinking about my words for a few moments.  His big brother showed him how to wrap his little legs around my ankle, and my youngest brother complied, getting such a tight grip on my calf it felt more like I was wearing a snug boot.  I took one ginger step, lifting slowly and swinging him safely twelve inches across the floor before landing with a dull thud.  I could feel him hold his breath.  When he finally realized he wasn’t going to fall as long as he held on, he began to laugh.

My brother trusted me because he chose to believe me when I said he could.  God’s Word is ripe with all of the ways He says we can trust him, and even more ways He’s proven himself trustworthy.  Hundreds of stories in the Old Testament show just how miraculous are His works in the lives of those who surrender themselves to His will and simply choose to believe God is who He says He is and He’ll do what He says He’ll do (2 Samuel 7:28; 2 Kings 18:5-6; Psalm 19:7; Isaiah 12:2; Jeremiah 39:18; Nahum 1:7; John 8:26; Romans 15:13; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).

God sent His Only Begotten Son, His Holy One, to die the worst of deaths for those who don’t deserve it so that the undeserving could live (Romans 5:6, 8; 1 Corinthians 15:3).  Consider the weight of the cross.  If you don’t know the history of crucifixion I strongly encourage you to study out what it entailed and who exactly Jesus is to die such a death.  Is the cross enough for you to believe that God’s love and words are trustworthy?

One of the most helpful factors for my youngest brother was his big brother vouching for me.  Having brothers and sisters in the faith to vouch for our Father when we’re not certain, and to encourage us, can be helpful (1 Thessalonians 5:11).  Even then, we can have the Word and we can have people as prime examples of faith, but faith is a personal decision.  Faith comes by personal choice.  A choice only we can make for ourselves.  My youngest brother had to make the decision as to whether or not he was going to trust me.  He chose to trust and followed it with action; by taking his foot off the ground and holding on for dear life.  That is faith.  The choice made to trust when you don’t know how it’s going to work out.  The choice to not drag your feet but give God control.  Faith is choosing not to let go.  Faith is not relying on how we feel about the situation or how the situation looks to us, but trusting in the words of a perfect God who’s love for us is unfailing and showers us in abundance (Psalm 31:19; 1 Timothy 1:14).
My challenge is only beginning.  I see what it means to have faith, but faith is a daily decision, a minute-by-minute choice.  It’s walking blindly, trusting in a loving Father who sees all to lead the way (2 Corinthians 5:7).  It's hanging on.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Looking in the Mirror

Some days, I get my first smile by looking in the mirror first thing in the morning.  It's great.  My long hair is sticking up in the oddest places, my eyes are usually different sizes - one squinted more than the other - there are always some kind of sleep lines across my cheek and my eye brows need to be combed.  I'm quite the sight.  However, it's not so funny when I look in the mirror and realize I'm a mess and am running late for work, a meeting, an appointment, church, etc.  I hate my appearance and do everything I can to fix it.  Lately, I've been looking in a spiritual "mirror" and feeling a lot like the latter.  The bridegroom has been calling my name (John 3:29) and I'm running late.  I should've been getting ready MONTHS ago, God knows it'll take me years until I'm the bride God created me to be for the bridegroom (Revelation 19:7) and I've been putting it off.

March 13th was my one-year anniversary of being a disciple.  One year ago on that day I was baptized into Christ, into the family of disciples that make up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13).  That was my calling to start getting ready for the wedding in which I'll be the bride of Christ (Isaiah 62:5).  After my baptism I wasn't so naive to think I wouldn't struggle or sin or face trials and tribulations for the next sixty years, but I thought, surely I won't make the same catastrophic mistakes I'd made when I didn't have the Holy Spirit.  I could coast because I was already part of God's family.

The time that separates then and now is full of sin, iniquity and transgression I'd rather not glorify by going into specifics.  Let's just say there was more of it than I thought there would be after my baptism.  The day after my spiritual birthday I found a quiet coffee shop and owned a few hours at a table with hot coffee, a journal, my Bible and my calendar.  I began to write a prayer about a long year full of suffering and my gratitude that God had not let me slip through his fingers and walk away from the faith.  I analyzed each month in my calendar looking for God's hand in my life, seeing my sin in the midst of it, and as I wrote, I discovered the many ways He was trying to get my attention, lovingly trying to convince me to repent of my sins, using all sorts of people, places, events and things out of the ordinary to show me his love and magnificence and power and goodness... and all the ways I continued to rebel and reject him.  He'd called me to be his bride and I accepted, and like an immature teenager, repeatedly hardened my heart against him.  Christ chooses his followers (John 15:16), but once I responded to Jesus with a resounding "Yes!" to follow him...  I knew life would be hard, but I wasn't looking through a clear lens.  I love that God takes those of us who want him, whether we see exactly what we're getting into or not.  In my twisted view of what makes a relationship a relationship, I believed that as long as I served him, did "good" things, read my Bible, prayed and did all the outward things that we're called to do as disciples, I'd be good in God's eyes.  Not that that gave me the freedom to sin, but that by doing all of those things, the Holy Spirit would somehow "reward" me by making it easier to reject sin.  That's not how this works.

This is a relationship.  My experience with relationships is that as long as you do as your told, you're loved and appreciated.  There's no need to really be vulnerable or intimate or share anything about your heart because the other person in the relationship doesn't really care to hear it.  They might find it interesting, but of no real value.  What matters to the other party is that you do as your told, you serve them, and spend time with them doing what they want to do.  It's what I grew up with, and the problem with that is it can look just fine on the outside.  It's not until you dig into the heart that you realize it's shallow and of no real substance, but why dig if everything looks fine?  That's what my relationship with God had turned into.  He was asking me to give my heart, and I didn't know how to do that.  I didn't know why or how he could possibly find my heart of any value when no one in my life had ever found it to be of value.  What I DID mattered, not what was in my heart.  With God it's the exact opposite (1 Samuel 16:17).  So he saw fit to teach me the right way to have a relationship because he loved me too much to leave me the way I was.

It took some serious humbling on my part, and unfortunately he had to do it for me because I wouldn't do it myself.  Still, when I look back on this previous year with God, I am still awed by how much He loves me.  God may be God and can call fire down from the heavens, but he loves me enough not to make my decisions for me.  He'll allow more suffering to come my way until I'll realize His way is really the better way, but He won't force me to do anything.  He had every reason to get fed up and say, "Fine!  Screw you too!"  My sin was not only foolish, but an absolute affront to the Almighty.  Instead of giving me what I deserved, He was constantly trying to get my attention, trying to dig into my heart, trying to show me a better way, placed people in my life for the sole purpose of getting to know my heart so I understood that's what He was after - my heart!  They dug well too, but when you live twenty years independently, used to shutting off your heart in every relationship and making up for it in acts of service, I didn't make it easy.  I couldn't see their genuine desire to know me and love me for me, not for my deeds.  The deceit, idolatry, pride, stiff-necked rebellion in my heart was so big I couldn't see it for what it was.  It wasn't until almost two months ago that God gave me up to my sinful ways and I fell flat on my face (Romans 1:21-24).  From my spot on the ground I could see I was on the wrong path, and I finally wanted Him, more than my idols.  He was there to take my hand and lead me to the right path (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Having analyzed my first year as a disciple, I've come to see my spiritual reflection with the kind of panic and grief over having wasted so much time by being so foolish.  Still, as I write this I feel washed with peace and calm, as though the hand of the bridegroom is running down the back of my head and down my neck whispering the words, "We have time.  I'm not going anywhere."  I'm relieved he would make such an effort to teach me, to show me the right way, and to love me even though I certainly don't deserve it.  Though I am a most wretched sinner and have many more years of growth and refinement ahead of me, I can rejoice in the fact that I am God's, and so long as I do everything I can to love and obey him I will be able to partake in the life he has in store for me (Deuteronomy 30:16).

I rejoice that God saw me at my worst and said, "you're mine."  He's seen me first thing in the morning when I look a mess, and in my worst when I'm running late and turning away from him.  Then, in my worst, he saw what I couldn't see - a heart worth dying for.  That's the reflection I want to see when I look in the mirror.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Long, Encouraging Goodbye

This morning I went to the airport with my closest friend to send her off to South Africa for eight months.  If I'm completely honest, in all my comings and goings in life this one was the hardest goodbye to date.  I've said a lot of goodbye's but the closer a person is to your heart the more difficult it is to let them go.  In today's world it's hard to lose touch with anyone you don't want to lose touch with between Facebook, Skype, e-mail, letters, HeyTell, etc.  However, what will be most difficult and is unchangeable, is her physical absence.  Some people set the tone in a room, even if it's just for you.  When that person is gone, it leaves an uncomfortable space in your heart you're not sure how to fill.  I go to the only one who can fill every hole, Jesus, but he often doesn't spare me the pain.  He just sits with me through it.

My friend was so loving as to leave something in my hands that I can take daily comfort in until she returns.  Understanding how difficult it will be not to have one another's support a phone call or a drive away, she gave me a personalized 2012 Thomas Kinkade wall calendar.  It looks like any other calendar, except she taped a piece of paper to almost every day, starting today, until November 17th (about the time she returns from South Africa).  It's kind of like an advent calendar.  Every day I get to pull a new piece of paper from the calendar and read what she wanted me to read for that day.  Most of those papers are her favorite scriptures and some of them are notes with no more than a sentence or two.  After folding them up, she mixed them up, and randomly chose the pieces of paper to tape to the calendar.  She did it to let God decide which scriptures/notes I'll get on whatever day He knows I'll need it.  Creative, no?  I'll tell you I was doing pretty well the night before taking her to the airport until she gave me that calendar.  Then the cave cracked open in my chest and the tears started leaking through.

We prayed in the car during the two hour drive from her parents house where we'd dropped off her car to the airport, and it helped my heart significantly.  Of course, it didn't prevent me from having my first experience shedding a river of tears in the airport (in a somewhat dignified manner of course), and after hugging long enough to think I might be able to hold onto that hug for eight months, a couple of friends and I watched her walk through security, wave at the gate and pass through to the other side where we lost sight of her.  I pulled myself together the same way you hold together a fistful of sand and I dropped my farewell companions off at home.  Finally, a little after 6am, I went to Starbucks for my first cup of coffee since yesterday and a chance to pull my head and heart together.  It wasn't the end of the world, it was just a new kind of goodbye I hadn't experienced before.  My first goodbye - or "see you later" as I prefer to call it - with a disciple I'd grown to love, a friend, a sister who'd become dearer to me than I ever imagined possible, who'd wedged herself in all the little cracks of the walls I so strategically put up only to wind up within the walls of my heart.  Alone in that coffee shop as dawn crawled across the horizon, I pulled out the calendar she'd given me and read today's note.

"Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory." - Psalm 73:23-24.

One thing I take comfort in more than anything else, is that God is always with me even when it doesn't feel like it.  He will hold me by the hand so long as I let him, and he will guide me if I am willing to follow.  I've made my fair share of mistakes and I'm certain I will make more (Romans 3:23).  Even if no one else gives me the permission to do so, I give myself permission because it's inevitable.  Though my best friend is an ocean and a continent away, that does not mean I am alone (1 Timothy 5:5).  Though the one person who knows me best and loves me anyway is on the other side of the world for the better half of a year, God still holds my hand and there is no stronger hand to hold.  His counsel is the one that counts, the one that is absolutely perfect even when it doesn't make sense and hurts to follow.

I have high hopes for my friend as she does her mission work in South Africa and I have the utmost confidence God is going to work some wondrous miracles through her - whether the fruit is seen or unseen (Jeremiah 29:11).  I am beginning to see hope for myself and my relationship with God these next eight months.  To be so entirely dependent on Him is very difficult for me, but it's also an adventure I step into with my hope in that, by the power of Christ, I can pull it off (Philippians 4:12-13).  I'm certain there will be many days when I'll miss her hugs the same way I miss air when holding my breath under water.  I'm certain there will be days I'll search for her car in the parking lot of our church before remembering she's not there, or will see a Boston sweatshirt on a brunette and do a double take.

The moments we have with those miracles we call friendships are a rare gift.  They're blessings from God that are mean to be respected, enjoyed and treasured.  Deeply treasured.  You never know how long they'll be with you.  I'm grateful for my friend and the gift she's been and continues to be.  So begins a new bend in the road, a new adventure, with a difficult, but encouraging, farewell.