Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bloom or Die?

Not a terribly glorious geranium, is it?

We moved a month or so ago and this poor plant hasn't had a lot of attention lately. In fact, I plunked it down on a wall where it gets part shade and part sun, and radically cut back the stems. We're in an arid spot with a lot of wind and heat. I've given it leftover dishwater.

Yesterday I looked out and saw this little flower lifting its head. I chuckled derisively, recalling the lush foliage and beautiful blooms it's had before.

But it started me thinking. Does it matter what this plant used to be? Just because in other circumstances it has dazzled people, does that obligate it to continue? I don't think so.

It's been stressed by the changes, but it's still alive. This little flower is a valiant effort in light of the circumstances. Blooming is the plant's raison d'ĂȘtre. Last year the leaves were abundant, but I don't think it gave one flower.

I'm not here to discuss horticulture--you can give me advice on light, shade, watering, soil, and nutrients, but either the little geranium flowers or not. No, I'm not callous, just practical. Bloom or die, I say. And look, the thing is blooming!

God has put me in some very stressful situations lately. I'm struggling with circumstances, but I'm still alive. Can I bloom? Frankly, part of my problem is that I remember when I was leafy and lush, blooming every day, if I may stretch the metaphor that far. My soil was rich, the sun perfect, the wind gentle and the water abundant. Blooming was so natural. I think back and almost give up. I've already bloomed, I think.

But then this ratty old plant put out this little bit of red blossom that caught my eye. Flowers don't come because a plant intends them. They're a natural result of life. Stress can curtail growth. It comes in many forms--for this plant it's all about the environment. For me, it's emotional and spiritual stress.

I don't know if we can compare Martha's distraction at preparing a big dinner for Jesus and his disciples to the kind of ongoing stress some of us have suffered, but stay with me here. In Luke 10:38-42 it says:
38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
The one thing that Mary did was worship Jesus, sitting at his feet listening to his teaching. "There is only ONE THING worth being concerned about." It's what we're all designed to do.

Do you think that little bedraggled, stressed out geranium is worshipful? By that I mean that the plant just turned to the sun and blossomed because that's what is was designed by God to do.

I was designed to be a worshiper, glorifying God.
Teach me your way, LORD, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;I will glorify your name forever. (Psalm 86:11-12)
It makes no difference if my blossoms can't compare to what they were before, any more than it matters to this little plant. So, if it's bloom or die, I guess I'm still blooming.

May it please the Lord.
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. (Isaiah 35: 1-2)

Monday, October 28, 2013

How to Bear Cruelty; Luke 22:63-64

I'm currently studying in Luke 22, the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. 

It's so easy to read over the familiar words and simply regurgitate the rather obvious conclusions. Yet I would never minimize what Jesus did, knowing that "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5) 

I've prayed that the Lord would take me through these familiar passages and teach me anew, that by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit I would see clear lessons and not simply stop short with what I think I already know. 

So I shouldn't be surprised when it happens. But often I am.
Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking Him and beating Him, and they blindfolded Him and were asking Him, saying, “Prophesy, who is the one who hit You?” Luke 22:63-64
The Holy Spirit reduces shocking cruelty to one simple sentence. This is physical and verbal abuse, the kind that should shock us any time. How easy it would be to read that account with my heart closed, immune to more thought. How challenging it is to think more deeply about an innocent man--let alone Jesus Himself--going through such torture. 

Today the Lord brought to mind the thoughtless cruelty these Romans exhibited as they did their jobs. Whatever else they may or may not have been, in this case they hated routinely, hurt Him without compunction, and completely misjudged the One they were punishing. 

Jesus knew, without a doubt, the men who were hitting Him. He knew every hair on their heads. Yet He did not return hate for hate. (Luke 6:27-28, Romans 12:17-19)

Again, it would be easy to dismiss His response as merely the fact that as God, knowing everything, He could comply. He knows what's coming. The outcome is not a mystery to Him. 

But there has to be more to it. Jesus lived every heartbeat of His life as a means to model to me how to do it. So here's the perfect example of how to go through the hateful, thoughtless cruelty of others.

It certainly looks like Jesus is just taking it, as if He bore down, like a Marine would go through torture from an enemy. In the spare accounts we don't have any description of His thoughts or how He coped... Or do we? 

In Gethsemane, a short time before this torture, He cried out in agony, asking His Father to take Him out of these circumstances. "...remove this cup from Me," He prayed, "yet not My will, but Yours be done." (Luke 22:42)

So often I pray that God will take me out of challenging situations, or alter the circumstances of my life. "Change this, please!" I beg. "Fix what's happening to me and my loved ones. Restore what's broken. Don't let me hurt so much, Lord!"

So often I don't pray, "Your will be done." I guess the reason is because I know it will hurt. That's a painful confession to make, but it's the truth.

I forget that Jesus modeled this acceptance of the Father's will in extreme circumstances, in order to show me that God's will results in good, just as what He went through resulted in my own salvation and future resurrection to unending life.

I have to count that as good--the best--despite the pain He was willing to go through, despite that horrible time of torturous, hateful cruelty, mocking words and physical pain. "Why does if have to hurt so much, Lord?" Because it will result in good, Child, He seems to reply to my heart. 

So today I pray, "I offer You my body as a living sacrifice, Almighty and Infinite Lord, which is my reasonable act of worshipful service." (Romans 12:2) I choose not to return hate for hate, cruelty for cruelty, or misjudgment for misjudgment. 

I can't do it by gritting my teeth and bearing the pain. That has never worked before and there's no reason to think it would work this time. In that is hopelessness and fruitless desperation. I'm not a Marine taking torture from my enemy. I'm a child of God Most High, going through a time of trial, in which I may choose to pray for those who hurt me when I'm spitefully treated, and love in the face of cruelly difficult circumstances. 

I can only do that by recognizing that there's more than pain to be borne from these circumstances. There is ultimate good--the best--for others, contained in the simple recognition that "by His stripes we are healed."  

My painful circumstances are not unique, but they are custom designed for me right now to help me learn to love more. 

I cannot say it's easy, nor will I claim to have won this moment's peace merely through this one little bit in the book of Luke. It has been, and continues to be, a circuitous route in which I must take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), stay vigilant in prayer to perceive the fiery darts of the enemy as they fly toward my heart (Ephesians 6:16), and to walk circumspectly, examining the ground around me for the pitfalls and traps set for me (Ephesians 5:15.) 

Yet for today I choose to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and others as myself (Luke 10:27.) I desire to be transformed by the renewing of my mind, that I might prove (make real, live out) the good and well-pleasing will of God today (Romans 12:2), by His grace alone (Ephesians 2:8.)

For by His stripes, His example of bearing such torture out of love, I am healed. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Decisions, Decisions...

True confession: buying things makes me feel good, and I sometimes make choices based on my feelings. I live up to the old saying, “When the going gets tough the tough go shopping.” Or I used to. I’m working on a different way now.

As a Christian woman I know my decisions should not be solely based on intuition or feelings. You don’t think with your feelings! I know I should seek God’s will on everything and decide what to do based on biblical criteria. But what does that look like?

Mueller's Method 
George Mueller was a Christian man who started several orphanages in England in the mid-1800s. He literally made every decision by praying and trusting God to provide the answer and the means to accomplish everything he did.

He determined God’s will using five steps, which he shared in a book called Answers to Prayer. They go like this:
1.      Get your ‘self’ out of it, so that you have no will of your own; don’t leave the result to feeling or simple impression;
2.      Let any leading from the Spirit line up with the Word, so you know it is biblical;
3.      Consider providential circumstances;
4.      Ask God in prayer to reveal His will;
5.      Do this two or three times, praying, studying the Word, reflecting, so that you can make a conscious decision.
Mueller notes that it doesn’t matter how trivial the decision or how momentous it is, this process always works.

I love bullet points and these steps seem straightforward and understandable, but sometimes a set of guiding principles can look good in print, yet not work in practice. So I decided to try it out. There's this purse I want...

I notice that Mr. Mueller puts removing my own will before considering my feelings. It’s so easy to have a desire for something and feel like it’s the right choice, when it might not be. This can be true of something as small as buying that purse or as big as moving to a new house or taking another job. 

The process is no different, but the purse test is more practical and the truth is, I want this purse. Start small, right?

It’s true that the Holy Spirit leads us quietly via impressions and feelings, but we women function on the feeling level so easily that the leading of the Spirit can often be drowned out as we allow ourselves to be influenced by the world. If I let my feelings lead I’ll just walk right over and buy that purse, justifying it as the right decision based on the sign that says HALF OFF or the ad telling me I deserve it.  Eve had this experience. “But it looks so good. It’s smart, and God wants me to be like Him—sharp and capable, right?” At least the purse display doesn’t have a snake wrapped around it...

When I fall to that kind of thing, the momentary feeling of satisfaction usually evaporates on the drive home, as I face the fact I made a decision based on little more than ‘I want it.’ Did I even give the Holy Spirit a chance to whisper to me? He’d have had to yell over the noise in my head to be heard, and He’s too much of a gentleman to do that. He wants me to stop and ask and listen. So, I have to honestly evaluate this: Do I let the world drown out His voice?

The solution begins when I get myself off the throne and put God there instead. As I stand in front of that rack of purses, I need to ask myself if this decision will result in good feelings only if I get to buy the purse. Can I end up feeling good about not buying it? I want the purse—but I have to stop and think. If I get it and that causes conflict, will I feel good? If the money isn’t in the budget how good will I feel?

If the reason I want it is because I saw another woman with a purse like it and I want to be in style, even though I already have a couple of purses at home that I can use, plus the one on my shoulder, I’m dealing with envy. Trust me, there will always be something else to envy—the fashion world makes sure of that. So that won’t result in good feelings either.

The goal here is to dispassionately, without any deep feelings, explore what will result from deciding not to get it, as well as from deciding to take it home with me. It’s no longer about feelings but results. Once I get clear of the feelings I can begin to hear God’s leading.

“What?” I bet you’re thinking, “All I’m doing is deciding whether to buy a purse and I have to go through all this? I’ll be here all day trying to decide.” Maybe with practice it gets easier.

Getting free of my feeling of want is sometimes hard to do, but it’s not impossible. Prayer is essential, even if it’s only the ‘help me decide, Lord’ variety of prayer.

Finally, I put God in charge, not my feelings of want, and I can truly say I don’t care whether I get this purse or not. I’m ready to go on to step two. “Let any leading from the Spirit line up with the Word, so you know it is biblical.”

More Steps
But now I have to examine any feelings that are left to be sure if this is the leading of the Spirit. How can I tell? I have to compare it to what the Bible says. This is where knowing the Bible accurately and having those verses memorized helps. What could God possibly have to say about buying a purse? Nothing about purses comes to mind, but how about, ‘Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others.’ (Philippians 2:3 NLT) I have to ask myself if I want this purse just to make myself feel good, or in order to impress someone else.

I put the purse back on the shelf and do a lap of the store as I pray. I realize I’m already into steps four and five. I have to take into consideration that the purse is there and it’s on sale today. I ask God if He put it there for me because it’s something I need or want. (God doesn’t deny us our wants and only give us our needs, or else He may have made the sky dingy gray. He loves giving us things to delight us, as any loving father does, so He made the sky blue.) I ask if this price is something He provided for me, or if He has a better plan for that money. I do another feelings check, to keep myself from being influenced too much by them.

When I come back to the purse, if I can honestly say that this is decision is godly and fair, I can pay for the purse and use it with a good conscience, or I can walk away from it and know that this wasn’t God’s best for me and never think about it again. My mind is clear, my decision is solid, and the outcome is satisfying.

Godly Choice
I admit to having made more than one lap around the store. In fact, I went home and had lunch, waiting to make the decision until I knew the right answer. I’m married, so I talked to my husband to see if he thought it was a good idea, too. He’s the leader in our home and I rely on him for godly advice. He often brings a different point of view to it than I do, and he’s not mean or over-controlling, so I can trust him to help me decide. It’s worth a little extra time and consideration to be sure that the decision is sound and godly.

How odd to think that just buying a purse gives me such practice, preparing me to make good, sound, God-directed decisions about big things when they come along. But that’s just like God, isn’t it? He wants to be included in the big and small choices, the simple or complex one, so that in the hard times when we’re pressed to make a good, godly decision we have the experience to know we can trust Him to help us in all things.

…If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, You end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn't care? The proverb has it that "he's a fiercely jealous lover." And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you'll find. It's common knowledge that "God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble." So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he'll be there in no time. (James 4:1-7 MSG)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

One Another House on July 4th

This morning I lay in the twilight of sleep, slowly rousing. The fan was making lazy circles overhead and I could smell a hint of wet grass through the open window. The cool sheets felt good as I dozed. Again, I was transported back to the excitement of my childhood on the Fourth of July.

For a moment I was 10 again, in the little house on Howard Avenue. Mom and Dad were just getting moving. Our dog, Tippy, was barking. A screen door slammed. Probably the Wittenbrocks next door, going out to clean the pool for an afternoon of neighborhood kids. Someone was mowing the lawn, and I pictured the American flags fluttering in front of the houses on the block.

I knew we would swim and barbecue, play with sparklers and light black snakes. I loved watching that coil of black ash curl up out of the fire, growing longer until it finally broke with a dry tinkle on the pavement, leaving a black spot that was still there at Thanksgiving. Sparklers were fun, especially if you wrote your name in the dark, leaving a glowing trail of light on your eyeballs, dazzled by the intense glow at the tip.

There was a unique scent to the Fourth, a combination of gunpowder, hot pavement and newly cut grass. The day was sure to be hot, barefoot weather, but I learned when I was little to wear my "thongs" or "zoris" (which we now call flip-flops!) If I could ever get down that far again, I'd probably still be able to find the scar on the bottom of one foot where I stepped on a still-hot metal wire from a spent sparkler when I was five.

Happily, here at One Another House we're having a bit of an old-fashioned Fourth. We have a kiddie pool set up for the little ones, warming out in he summer sun. We have sparklers ready to enjoy, and I plan to thrill my granddaughter by writing her name with brilliant light. We're going to barbecue steaks, and there's a watermelon waiting to be sliced. The neighborhood is gathering at our next door neighbor's house for fireworks on the street.

The contrast between then and now blurs a bit. Maybe that's one of those aging things, a God-given opportunity to see past and present as all one. Whatever it is, I plan to enjoy this evening just like I was a kid again.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Moving to the One Another House

I'm coming up for air as I get ready to move. I can't imagine why I would suddenly want to write here when I'm so short on time and so pressed to do things, and after ignoring the blog for months on end. Maybe it's a displacement activity, one designed to let off steam sideways so I'm not blown forward or backward by it. Whatever...

We're moving into a wonderful new experience, as well as a different house. My husband and I will be sharing a house with young friends in their 30s who have two toddlers, both girls. We're all Christians, and although our striping is different now, we knew each other back when... So we're longtime friends who have shared some of the troubles that Christ has so richly blessed us with and come through knowing that we share the unity of the Spirit.

Which isn't to say it will all be easy! We expect to find daily challenges to bless us anew. We're calling it 'One Another House' in honor of all the one another statements in the Bible. I've made a list and try to remember to read through it every day, with some success and failure, I admit.

'Do not deceive one another' - Leviticus 19:11
'Show mercy and compassion to one another' - Zechariah 7:9
'Love one another' - John 13:34,35
'Be devoted to one another' - Romans 12:10
'Live in harmony with one another' - Romans 12:16, 1 Peter 3:8
'Accept one another' - Romans 15:7
'Instruct one another' - Romans 15:14
'Agree with one another' - 1 Corinthians 1:10
'Greet one another with a holy kiss' - 2 Corinthians 13:12
'Serve one another in love' - Galatians 5:13
'Bearing with one another in love' - Ephesians 4:2
'Be kind and compassionate to one another' - Ephesians 4:32
'Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs' - Ephesians 5:19
'Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ' - Ephesians 5:21
'Admonish one another' - Colossians 3:16
'Encourage one another' - 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13, Hebrews 10:25
'Spur one another on toward love and good deeds' - Hebrews 10:24
'Do not slander one another' - James 4:11
'Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling' - 1 Peter 4:9
'Love one another deeply' - 1 Peter 1:22
'Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another' - 1 Peter 5:5
'Have fellowship with one another' - 1 John 1:7

The big move is in early June, just across town to an older house that will be adequate in size, though not ample. We all covet the prayers of the saints for this experiment in Christian Community on a certain level, with a mixture of ages from 2 to 62! 

I can't promise to keep up here, as I've slacked off abysmally, but I like the idea of doing it more frequently, so I hope I will! 

Meanwhile, pray for us. We'll be one anothering soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Trapped by Tyrannical Thorns

Last of October, 2.5" x 3.5" gouache
I realized yesterday that I'm trapped, thoroughly entangled amid thorns that are piercing my flesh. I remember when I was a girl, yelling for my daddy's help, trapped in a place I shouldn't have gone.

Let me start with Jesus' story about what has happened to me. You remember the parable of the sower, don't you?

“Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth.But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Mt. 13: 3-8)

Altogether He describes four different kinds of soil. I live in the desert southwest, so I have a yard full of the first three: 

  • The hard path where the dirt is packed like concrete and nothing grows. 
  • The stony, sun scorched earth, where little plants wither away. 
  • The corner where the weeds are tangled up together in an impenetrable mass. 

In some places there's also healthy, dark, rich soil where good, green plants thrive. In theory.

When His disciples asked Him for an explanation of this parable, Jesus further described that third soil this way, "Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful."  (Mt. 13:22)

When I was a girl we had a large, untended pyracantha bush sprawling up a wall in one corner of our yard. Mom wore thick garden gloves to cut long branches that she carefully arranged in a big vase from time to time. I knew it was thorny, and had been told to stay away from it, but it was around the corner in a side yard where I didn't usually play. One day my beloved soft, gray rope got twisted under the big bush and stuck fast. I pulled and pulled, really leaning on it, but it wouldn't budge, so naturally I decided to crawl in under there and untangle it from the twisted trunks and branches. The thorns, as long as your thumbnail, run all along the branches, but all the little rounded green leaves and pretty red-orange berries disguise them. Once I crawled under the bush there was little I could do. Bleeding, I yelled and yelled until my dad finally came to painfully disentangle me from some very nasty spikes stuck in my head, hair, arms, hands and back. The rope came out of the encounter a few feet shorter, leaving a part beneath the bush that progressively frayed into a soft, fuzzy mass, never to completely disappear.

I'm not surprised Jesus used thorns to describe the state of one who hears the word but lets stuff steal her fruitfulness. Those thorns can be so subtle, disguised by things that look pretty and appealing, but once you're caught it's really painful to try to get free. The hurt is sharp and deep, and you bleed. In some ways it's tempting to just stay put and not move, but you'll only get more tangled up. In fact, you often have to wait for help, even when you discover your trouble, because the struggle only catches you faster in the grip of thorny pain. 

I know the word. "Do not love the world or the things in the world." (1 John 2:15) " not be conformed to this world..." (Romans 12:2) But I'm tangled up in cares and riches. Again. Don't get me wrong. I'm not rich by American standards. I don't have enough material possessions for most people to consider my cares to be too significant. But anyone may be caught in these thorny weeds, from the richest CEO in the biggest international corporation to the poorest, most pitiful street beggar. Thorns come disguised in all kinds of ways, ready to capture your heart with selfish wants and cruelly deceptive 'needs.' 

Yesterday, when I tearfully described my predicament to my husband, he prayed for me and handed me this: The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing by A. W. Tozer. Tough read. Tozer doesn't back down from the truth. Amid his wise words there you'll find these:
The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the Kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing. These are the "poor in spirit." They have reached an inward state paralleling the outward circumstances of the common beggar in the streets of Jerusalem; that is what the word "poor" as Christ used it actually means. These blessed poor are no longer slaves to the tyranny of things. They have broken the yoke of the oppressor; and this they have done not by fighting but by surrendering. Though free from all sense of possessing, they yet possess all things. "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
If you find yourself pierced by the realization that things, including beloved people, material possessions, God-given gifts or talents, have you tangled up in them, stuck fast so that if you move you'll bleed, I recommend reading it. And praying.

My earthly daddy untangled me from a bush when I was a foolish child. Now I'm confident my heavenly Father will come to untangle me spiritually, as I surrender and call out to Him.