Thursday, June 29, 2017

I'm pretty much a horrible human being...

I've spent the last couple days basically being a horrible human being. Or at least, trying really hard to stop the horrible human being tendencies in my heart from popping out in my actions. Unfortunately, behavior modification only works so well - with children and adults - and eventually the heart issues have to be addressed.

During this season, God has been focused on a lesson I'm starting to think of as the "Do" vs "Be" dichotomy. I almost wrote that God is focused on teaching me to "be," but it is even less defined than that because "teaching" would imply a lesson I could conquer and learn and then move on from. Rather, it is a more subtle call to simply pull back from doing and accomplishing and achieving and just rest in relationship. It's a call to find my identity in relationship with Him rather than in how good I am or how much I do for Jesus or how impactful my limited time on earth was for His Kingdom.

And I hate it. If I'm going to be totally honest, I like finding my value in what I do. It's tangible and it's something I can hold on to. It can define me to others. I can say, "I do these things therefore I am." I lead Bible studies, therefore I am spiritually mature. I tell people about Jesus, therefore I am on mission for God. I give to the poor, therefore I am generous. Ugh! I see the pride so clearly in these things, but I am realizing as I'm meeting new people that Jesus is just going to have to shine through ME and not my resume of good deeds for Him - and I'm struggling with that. I've always wanted to be a missionary, but I'm starting to think it is, in part, the ultimate culmination of wanting to find my spiritual identity in what I do. A missionary is a professional christian in so many ways and being a missionary must mean that I really love Jesus - or at least that's what it says to others.

And while I know in my head that it is SO good for God to strip me of these things and show me this ugly pride and the identity I found in "doing," I hate it. Because it shows me who I am without these things and how I don't go to Jesus unless I need Him to help me "do." I don't just choose Him for His sake. I choose Him for how He can help me be and do the things I think I need to do. These last couple days (weeks?) have been me just wrestling against this thing in me that wants to rise up and do - to find value in working for Jesus. Join a ministry. Lead a bible study. Start a church. I want something to work towards. I want something to define me. I don't just want to hang out and love people.

And here I am dumping my sin and pride and ick on all of you, dear friends, and the tears come to  my eyes as I write these words because, in confessing it all out loud, I can see just how broken I am inside. Just how truly desperate I am for Jesus. Just how much I've been deceived to think that my doing is the definition of who I am. If I do the right things, I must be godly. If I act the right way, I must truly be surrendered to Jesus. And friends, I so needed to learn how to act the right way and do the right things at one point in my life. The Bible says the law is a tutor, and it is, it breaks us so fully of our ability to rely on ourselves to have a relationship with God. It leads us to see that it is truly and completely His grace that allows us to draw near to Him. But now His grace is letting me see, as if in neon signs, that I come to the foot of the cross needing grace and mercy not just for my "bad" deeds, but even for my good deeds.

All these years, God has faithfully loved me and allowed me to draw near to Him, even knowing my heart and my motives had some self mixed in. All these years, He saw my inabillity to just "be" and patiently bore with me through it all - never critical, never pulling back, always faithful, always there.

And somehow that breaks my heart even more. That while I was using Him, even unintentionally, He just stayed true and kind and good to me. He blessed me and loved me. He spoke to me and even told me He was proud of me.

And friends, that's grace. "It is God who saved us and chose us to live a holy life. He did this not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan long before the world began - to show his love and kindness to us through Christ Jesus." 2 Tim 1:9

He says that He sees us with Christ's merit  - undeserved favor from Jesus' accomplishments. And that blows me away because I want God's favor for my accomplishments and yet to Him, our good works are "filthy rags." How can this be? How can we have a God who calls us to live a holy life, but then views our goodness as "filthy rags."

I'm finding the answer is that God isn't as interested in our "Do" as our "Be." He's more interested in who we have a relationship with than how we have an impact on the world. I was the reading the Bible to the kids the other day, and read these words:

"And this is the way to have eternal life--
to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth."
John 17:3

That's it. Real life is just knowing God and Jesus. And somehow I make it so complicated - I get caught up in all the details and all the nuances and all the practicalities - but Jesus keeps it simple: know Me.

I want to know Him. But how often do I get distracted in doing for Him that miss out on just being with Him? How often do I choose distraction over just sitting in His presence?  Before Indiana, I wouldn't have seen it because I went to Him frequently because I needed his help. I had my hands in so much doing, I couldn't do it all without Him jumping in too. But now, with no doing, I have to go to Him because I want to be with Him. The difference is subtle - one I haven't  paid close attention to - but it is there.

I wonder how many of us would slowly drift away from closeness with God if we never needed Him to show up. I wonder how many of us would spend time elsewhere if we didn't have places in our life that needed His intervention?  If everything was perfect all the time, would we still choose Him?

Jesus says that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of the needle and maybe this is because we shy away from relationship with God unless we need Him for something. Jesus follows this statement with, "All things are possible with God" - which gives me hope that God can give us hearts that want Him for His sake and not for what He can do for us.

Thankfully, His love for us isn't dependent on our performance, it is simply dependent on who we know. Do we know Him? Jesus says MANY will come to him in the last day saying "Lord, Lord, didn't we do all these things for you?" and Jesus will say, "Depart from me, for I never knew you."  That's scary to me, especially consider this lesson that God is teaching me. He's more interested in just hanging out with me than He is in what I do. He's more interested in spending time getting to  know each other than in how much I read my bible or whether I am a good parent or whether I give all my money to the poor. He's more interested in a love relationship with me than whether I live as a missionary or are martyred for His name.

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." 1 Cor 13:1-3

Without love - His love for us and our love for Him - we are nothing.

I am learning that my love is small, and that while I do love Him and have loved Him all these years - that I have much to learn about love and it what it means to live in love. I have much to learn about setting aside my doing and striving and achieving to humbly be and sit with Him - soaking Him in and not just receiving His help.

I don't entirely know how to go about this, but He's always been such a faithful teacher, I'm confident He'll lead me in the paths of love and relationship. And when I struggle, His grace is there for me - catching me up in the winds of His love because ultimately, He chose me and nothing can snatch me from His hand, not even my own mistakes and failures.  Even if I continue to struggle against finding myself in what I do, He has hold of my hand and is leading me in these paths of identity.

Who am I? I am loved by God. I am His daughter. I am His friend.

And I definitely don't deserve those titles, but they've been given because of grace and love and His persistent desire to have a relationship with me and with all people since the dawn of time.

Maybe you've been defining yourself by what you do or have done or are yet to do - but I would encourage you today - to stop and sit at His feet, put the "Do's" aside and let Him tell you who you ARE - who He has made you to be. It might surprise you, but I doubt it will have much to do with what you will accomplish for Him and will have everything to do with what He has accomplished for you.

"You didn't choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever ask you for, using my name. I command you to love each other."

Let's remember this - we didn't choose Him, He chose us. The fruit that lasts is just a result of us living in Him and Him living in us.

"God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect." John 4:16b

Listen to His words - as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. Not as we learn more. Not as we do more. As we live in Him. As we love Him and receive His love for us.

Father - live in us and let us live in You. Let us draw close to you with pure hearts, and know the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Let us know You and draw close to You - allowing you to make our love more like Yours.

"He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul."

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Friday, June 23, 2017

Tending our Hearts

I walked out into the sunshine and there, staring me in the face, was a patch of twisting and sporadic green popping out from my garden beds. Weeds. Lovely. Irritation surged in me, I had spent days pulling those nasty buggers from the ground. Two weeks of taking my shovel and digging and grasping at roots and leafs with my bare hands. Two weeks of dirt beneath my fingernails, hunched over in the hot sun making room for the plants I really want to see grow and thrive.

And then in the space of a few days and a bit of rain, they all came back.

What's the point? Why bother pulling them up if they'll just come back?  Discouragement flooded in as I realized that I would be pulling these weeds again and again. If I wanted my garden plants to thrive, I needed to pull them up.  A weed will leach the nutrients from the soil that my tomatoes and peppers need to survive. A weed will suck all the goodness out and leave my precious plants struggling to produce fruit.  And while there are some tips and tricks to help prevent weeds and suppress them, weeds will keep at your garden as long as there is soil, sun, and water - things I dare not deprive my lovely garden plants of.

Years ago, with dear friends gathered in a living room studying the Word, we read this passage in Matthew 13 that talks about a farmer who planted seed; some of the seed fell on soil that was full of weeds and thorns and in the end was choked out and didn't grow to produce fruit. As we shared about this parable, and read about how the seed was the Truth planted in our life and how weeds were the concerns of this world and the love of money, we laughed about how we need to keep weeding our lives and keep our soil ready for planting and growing a harvest. We joked as each of us faced "weeds" that needed pulling in our life and laughingly called out "weed" whenever each of us was struggling with a small sin that needed pulling. 

And as I stared at this garden, full of weeds popping up again, I realized that this weeding process doesn't end. Sometimes it becomes less taxing, as we learn ways to help suppress the weeds, but ultimately, we must keep weeding because the weeds will choke out the fruitfulness of our gardens.

This week has been full of God pointing out areas in my heart that need weeding. Areas of parenting I need to grow in, places where sin has cropped up in my thoughts and attitudes, places where I need to set aside time to just spend with Jesus, choosing Him above the distractions of this world and the demands of life, and places where I need to repent of choosing myself and comfort over His Kingdom and His ways.

And sometimes, it just feels so discouraging to keep facing down the same struggles, or even those new little ones that pop up. Sometimes it just feels easier to let those weeds grow alongside the good plants. I've felt so discouraged looking at my garden and looking at my life, realizing there is still so much work to do. Sure, maybe there are no "big" sins or blackberry bushes that are taking over everything, but there sure are a lot of little sins and weeds that need attending to. In some ways, dealing with the big areas of rebellion in our life can be more satisfying - we pull them up and kill the roots thoroughly and then we move on. But the daily weeding can be so mundane and so easily overlooked for a time, that once they start overgrowing the garden of your life, it takes effort and commitment to bend over and slowly, one by one, deal with each little weed. It's not spectacular, but it is so necessary.

As I was praying over my "weeds," I asked God to point out each one, and gently as I named each sin against Him, I felt peace replace the discouragement that comes from those little buggers staying untended.

"Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23-24

I prayed that scripture over my heart, asking Him to reveal to me each anxious thought or offensive way, asking Him to lead me in the way of life.

And He is so faithful, and yet so gentle; He just bends down and right there beside you, He begins to pull the weeds too. Except He works so much more efficiently and He pulls up the root so they don't grow back. He doesn't just scrape the heads off the tops of the weeds (much like my children do when they help me in the garden and much like I do when I am dealing with those heart weeds), but he digs down deep and gets the whole ugly thing. He faithfully stoops beside us and lovingly works in our heart-gardens. He tends to our soul like a gardener over His crop and He loves when we yield to Him and let Him work health and life into our soil and remove all the junk that is crowding out the fruit that He wants to produce in us.

When we deal with our weeds apart from Him, we're just scraping the tops off, but when we give those weeds over to His loving care, He roots them out and makes the soil healthy again.

As I dug my hands deep into the soil again, pulling up the roots of weed after weed, the ground slowly began to clear, and hope and joy sprang up in my heart where discouragement had been. The work may be repetitive and it may be daily, but life springs up in the hearts of those who keep tending to the weeds because we can know that His grace is sufficient for us and that He is faithful to keep planting and tending and caring for our souls and our lives, and so we can bend down with Him and dig out the ugly weeds that dare to grow there, not angry or discouraged that we're dealing again with our sin, but grateful that even though He knows the weeds will come back, He keeps laboring alongside our soil, tending to it and making it ready for the seeds that will grow to produce fruit.

I made a list and prayed over it. I repented and apologized where it was needed. I committed to seek Him in areas I had excluded Him from. I committed to relying on Him to help me do what was best for my kids instead of choosing my own preferences. As these little weeds were pulled, my garden started to look healthier and feel healthier. I can feel the soil of my heart getting healthier - ready to feed that which is good and right and holy. I can feel His Spirit start taking over areas where I had left neglected.

After letting Him do His work in my heart, I sat and marveled at who He is and how faithful He is to me. At this point in my walk with Jesus, I shouldn't be surprised that He is so patient with me, slow to anger and rich in love. And yet, so often, when I bring my weedy garden to Him, I expect Him to feel the same discouragement with me that I feel with myself. And yet, He never does. He reminds me again and again that He knew all along these weeds were there and He isn't overwhelmed by them. He actually enjoys tending to my soul as much as I enjoy tending to my garden. He knows the fruit is coming and He's eager to make it as fruitful as it possibly can be. He's eager to see me thrive and these weeds aren't beyond His gardening abilities.

You guys, isn't He amazing? Let's not hesitate to bring our garden to Him. Let's not hesitate to own up to our weeds. Let's not hesitate to let Him root them out. He just wants us to thrive. He just wants us to produce fruit. He just wants to care for us and tend to our souls. Isn't that the most miraculous thing? He loves us and wants what's best for us. Will we yield to His tender care when it means digging down in the dirt with Him and pulling up each little weed that has been left untended?

Will you take time today and ask Him to show you your weeds? Ask him if there is any offensive way in you. Grab and pen and paper and write what comes to mind. Then commit those areas to the Lord's weeding and let him produce life in those areas and lead you in the way everlasting.

He is so faithful and so good and so kind. Let's let Him tend to our hearts.  

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Friday, June 16, 2017

When your life is crumbling and you don't know where God is...

My phone rang. I knew I was in no shape to be encouraging and as I watched her name flash on my phone, I almost didn't answer. I had nothing to give. But I knew she wouldn't care. I knew she would love me even if I was wreck.

She heard it in my voice when I answered and asked with a voice of true concern, "How are you doing?"

And then I broke down in tears, sharing how everything felt like it was falling apart. That morning I had woken up and looked in my fridge and realized we were about out of food altogether. And then Andy called and said we had about $20 in our account to last us the week and between that moment and then, we had two birthdays to celebrate and no presents bought and very little food in the cupboards.

We had a made a commitment when we moved out here that we would live debt free, no matter the cost. And then Isabel had a cavity that continued to get worse until it could no longer be put off. We scheduled her a dental appointment and prayed that God would provide the funds or heal her tooth before that time. The day of her appointment came around, her tooth was not healed and our finances were the same. I sobbed. We were trying so hard to honor God and take care of our family and follow where He was leading us. It felt like He had abandoned us and just didn't care.

We had gone to the appointment and she had the work done and we put it on our credit card and that's when I started to fall apart. A voice kept accusing me that we had failed. Should we have waited longer for God to heal her tooth even though it was infected and it truly couldn't wait? Why didn't he heal her? Why didn't He provide food for our family? We came to Indiana for Him, at His leading, and everywhere I looked, it felt like He brought us out here to abandon us.

Not coincidentally, I had just finished reading through Exodus and the words the Israelites cried out to Moses rang in my ears, "Why did you bring us out here to die?"

I felt my heart feeling those same doubts, "Why did you bring us out here to just abandon us?"

Does God even care about us? Images flashed through my mind of children starving in Africa, Christians being persecuted around the world, and I wondered whether He would show up for us or whether we were just on our own out here. I so badly wanted to take control right back out of His hands. Something rose up in me, angry, Fine, if You won't provide for us, we'll find our own way to take care of ourselves.

"We, our children, and our livestock will all die!" (Exodus 17:3b)

That's what the Israelites had said to Moses. God let them get there, to a place where they were facing a real possibility of losing everything, even theirs and their children's lives, to follow God into a desert with no idea of where they were going or what He would do. They weren't asking these things because they weren't comfortable, they were angry because it seemed like God had abandoned them and left them for dead. Is that what He wanted to do with us?

I knew the thoughts were ugly, and as I wrestled with them. Even with the knowledge that God did provide for the Israelites and the promises He has given us in His word through Jesus, which was far more assurance than the Israelites had at that time, I felt those feelings of doubt spring up out of me: did God care? Was He going to show up for us?

I cried hard ugly tears as I brought all these dark thoughts into the light of day with my dear friend on the phone that day. She listened and we talked and as the lies were exposed to the light, they lost their power over me. As I shared every doubt and fear, and I confessed out loud the truth I knew in my heart, it felt like chains began to fall off my heart and peace slowly trickled into the place where fear and doubt had held me hostage.

There is an amazing thing that happens when you pull out a lie from the enemy and you expose it to the light. As we know, when a light shines into the darkness, the darkness vanishes and it cannot overcome it. So it is, as we shine light onto the lies we believe, confessing what is true and right and good, those lies lose power over us and can no longer keep our hearts in darkness. As each lie I believed was said out loud, and the truth of who I knew God to be and what He has promised He will do was said over those doubts, they couldn't stand up to the Truth and they couldn't keep me bound.

I walked away from that phone conversation, faith renewed and hope restored. Peace trickled back into its home in my heart and while I had no assurances of what God would do, I had complete assurance in who He was and that He loved me, and that was enough for my heart.

We spent our last $20 on groceries and the next day when Isabel came home from VBS, she shared how they were raising money for missionaries in Russia. She wanted to give money to them. She had saved $5 and I asked her whether she wanted to use that money. She looked at me for a moment, thoughtful and contemplative, and said, "Okay, it's more important that the missionaries share about Jesus with the kids than for me to buy stuff." She grabbed her money and we ran through the house together looking for spare coins under couch cushions and in jars, laughing and talking about how exciting it was to be able to give to the work the missionaries were doing. We collected about $7 dollars and then Melody ran in with her piggy bank, "I want to give all my money to the missionaries too!" We gathered it all together and the next morning at VBS, we gave away all the money we had in the world, every last penny.

It was odd, the strange joy we all felt. From the youngest of us to the oldest. As the girls dropped the change in, happy giggles escaped their lips and the words, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," flew through my mind. Truly, they were more joyful giving their money away than they had ever been spending it.

We walked away that morning feeling oddly free. And that's when God started showing off.

That same day, my phone rang - our house had an offer for $5,000 above asking price! The mail opened - a check for a $1,000 from someone who had heard through the grapevine that things had been tight. Andy called - his boss had just informed him he would be receiving a raise! All in the same day that we had given away our last penny.

I went to bed that night, a smile etched on my face, reeling a bit at how God had just parted our "red sea." We had stood, looking at the impossible situation in front of us, overwhelmed and intimidated, and He had just been waiting to show off.  Somewhere, in between leaving Oregon and Him showing up, He built in us a stronger faith and trust in Him. He came through, but after He had won the victory in our hearts first.

Because, I don't think His provision was the victory at all. I think the victory was the moment when we choose to trust Him even when our eyes couldn't see what He had planned. I think the victory was when our hearts chose to say, "Your will be done on earth, in our lives."

Perhaps, God waits to show up, so that a work can be done in our hearts first. Perhaps, He is waiting so He can show us the parts of our hearts that aren't fully trusting Him. Perhaps, He waits because it is truly what is best for us.

And while we often know those things in our heads, I think sometimes we have to take out what we believe in our hearts and let the light of His truth shine so brightly over the dark places so that even when we are facing the possibility of God not showing up, our hearts are strengthened in faith believing that He is faithful even though we are faithless, because He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:11-13). His nature is faithfulness.

If we believe that who He is is Faithful, that faithful is as much His identity as Love, we can combat the lies of the enemy that says He will abandon us. He will not show up.

"God is not a man that He should lie," (Numbers 23:19). Do we believe that? Or do we treat God and His promises as if He is like us? As if what He has said is a lie? Are we living in a way that says we believe God will not do what He says He will do? Are we remaking God into our own image -  imagining Him as faithless to us and trying to arrest control of our lives back from His hands?

He cannot deny himself - He is faithful. He will show up. Sometimes I think He waits to test the quality of our faith  - like a tempering of steel. He waits to make us stronger. He waits to make us faithful. He waits for our sake, simply because He is faithful, and our faith is more precious to Him than solid gold. It only makes sense that He would temper it and purify it so that we might trust Him more and more.

Perhaps today we ought to take out the places in our hearts that are doubting His faithfulness, and expose them to the light of His truth and let Him shine so brightly that His faithfulness replaces our faithlessness, and we become more like Him rather than trying to bring Him down to look more like us.

His Word is true, yesterday, today, and forever. Let's believe Him to be faithful. Always.

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