Friday, November 25, 2016

Asking for Blessing

"Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent... . Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. As I called, and they would not hear, so they called and I would not hear', says the Lord of hosts..." (Zechariah 7:9-13).

You know you are in trouble when you read an Old Testament reprimand from God and every last word stings - because every last word applies to you.

I can almost hear God add one more thing to this long list of grievances: "... and then they had the gall to ask me to bless their nation!"

When you ask God to bless you, make sure you are bless-worthy, so to speak. Make sure God likes what He sees when He looks at your heart. As a church and as a nation, we must ask that same question. Are we worthy of God's blessing? Does God look at us and say, "Bless you??? You must be kidding!!!" or does He say, "Well done, my good and faithful servants!"

I am going to stop with the "God bless America" for a while and make sure that we - and I - are right with God. At the moment it's not looking so good. "True judgements, kindness and mercy, no evil against another"... oh boy. On the other hand, "diamond-hard hearts, refusal to hear, ignoring the Word of God"... now that sounds more like us, doesn't it?

"As I called, and they would not hear, so they called and I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts."

God will not hear our call for blessing if we will not hear His call to live the gospel. It is time to quiet the noise and peel back the layers we have piled on top of the message of Christ. Whatever happened to "love God above all else and love your neighbor like yourself"? That is not a political platform, it is a statement of faith and a way of life. It is a source of reason the world around us so very desperately needs. We can't expect God to dig through the rubble of watered-down Christian truth to look for a nation worth blessing. Just like we can't expect to find God's peace and joy in the rubble of watered-down Christian truth we have allowed to corrupt our faith.

We have thrown faith, patriotism and political goals into one big pot and stirred it so hard that we ended up with an indistinguishable blob - and not a fragrant one, if you ask me.

So I am taking a step back. I want God's blessing more than anything else. I want it for myself, my family, my church, my country and the entire world. But one step at a time! It starts with my heart - and yours - and from there we set out to reach the remaining seven billion hearts with the untainted, loving, forgiving, caring and non-condemning message of Christ.

Now more than ever the world needs us Christians to do our job - and nothing else. We need to be the voices of love in a world that is screaming hatred and vile. We need to be the hands of mercy in a world that cares for 'self' above all else. And we need to step back from politics in a world were everybody is scrambling for a seat at the table.

May God bless our efforts to be His love, and may He encourage us when we fail. Let's start there and see where it takes us. Actually, Zachariah tells us exactly where it will take us: "Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts... saying "let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you." (Zachariah 7:22-23).

That is the goal. Christ's uncompromising call for love is how we reach it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Life and Death

"Death is part of life," they say. How very true. And how very unimaginative and void of meaning.

If you want to add meaning to this thought, you have to reverse it: "Life is part of death." Do I have your attention now?

If death of natural causes is my destiny, then how I have lived will affect how I die. Not in terms of  the physical course of events but in terms of the emotional process it will be. A lifetime's worth of experiences, good and bad, will influence my final days. Because in the end, everything else will cease to matter. People will no longer be recognized, voices will no longer be heard. Food will no longer be of importance, personal appearance will matter no more.

My life's story here on earth with all its dreams, hopes, plans, successes, disappointments and hurts will be part of the equation, whether I view death as the end or as the beginning of eternity. It is a transition either way.

God knows this, of course, and that is yet another reason why He is teaching me the importance of forgiveness now. A lifetime of forgiveness brings the peace that will reign as death draws near. Think about that for a moment. If a lifetime worth of experiences - good and bad - will influence my final days, then forgiveness will ensure that the good outweigh the bad. That is peace.

We all lug baggage around. Apologies neglected to be made. Wounds not allowed to heal. Forgiveness not asked for or not granted. But there will come a time when it is too late, when all that will be left are regret and sorrow. And it will show. I have seen people die with a smile on their face, peacefully and gratefully. And I have seen people fight to their last breath, clinging to life for that last chance to fix what has been broken years ago. Waiting for the estranged child to show up and be held. Waiting for the abusive spouse to finally break down in grief and remorse. Waiting to forgive or be forgiven.

Don't wait too long. Live your life today in a way that lets you hope to die in peace tomorrow. No loose ends, nothing left unsaid. "... as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." Paul said that. (Colossians 3:13) If I let that simple command govern my life, it will impact every single day, up to the very last one.

This is easily my heaviest blogpost yet. It is the result of a hard, hard week at hospice. And I will be the first to admit that I am way out of my depth here. But even if my underlying theory is wrong, the conclusion is still right: "... as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." There is peace in forgiveness.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Cloud of Unkowing

In the late 14 century an anonymous monk in England wrote a book called Cloud of Unkowing.  Its premise, the way I understand it, is that true faith brings with it - and rests on - pure, emotional love for God.

"But no man can think of God Himself. Because He can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love, but not by thought.", he writes.

When push comes to shove, when a leisurely Bible study becomes impossible because life is just too hard and when a cup of coffee with friends is no longer enough, my love for God is all I have. It is that love that will protect my faith in hard times, and it is that love that will allow God to reach my heart and be there... not as some spiritual, cosmic, out-there entity but as the living, real and tangible Christ. My friend, my protector, my guide, my love.

"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) takes on a whole new meaning. It is not about me taking the time to pray, and it is not about me being still enough for God to answer me. Prayer is not a to-do list from me to God, nor is it the means for God to hand me His to-do list in return. Being still and knowing that He is God means to stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop asking, stop searching, stop quoting Scripture, stop singing... stop using words altogether. Speechless love. "He can be taken and held my love, but not by thought." Stop thinking, start feeling.

All of this sounds very mystical, I know. It reminds you of the 60s, doesn't it? I was born in '65, too young to catch the groove, and I cannot speak from personal experience. But I do understand what made the 60s so unique: people stopped thinking and acted on emotion instead. Granted, they used drugs to do that - and I am not condoning nor suggesting the use of drugs - but when I  manage to turn  off my brain and just feel, that is when God's magic happens. God's peace, God's love, God's strength, God's courage, God's joy and so much more are available to me if I only shut up and just feel. Try it sometime. It is hard! And if a 14th century monk thought that life got in the way too much, imagine what he would think today. Around-the-clock news coverage, most of it negative, social media, countless ways to stay connected and be reached... when are we ever still?

Faith, per definition, has a component of the supernatural. It cannot be proven, it cannot be explained, it cannot be comprehended. Otherwise it would be fact, not faith. The only way that lets me bridge the gap, the only way I can take that leap of faith is emotional love. Cut that out of the equation and faith will die. When John says, "God is love" (John 4:8) He doesn't only mean that God loves us or that we should love one another. He also means that we can only find God through love. Love for Him, not for His character, not for His power, not for His actions. The minute you start thinking of these things you start thinking in terms of words. Words again... how they get in the way of emotional love.

"But no man can think of God Himself. Because He can certainly be loved but not thought." I told you this was hard.

Back to basics, back to love - personally, as a church, as a country, as the world... don't get me started. If only we could be still and know that He is God. Can you imagine? Can you feel it?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Yo-Yo Faith

I am sure you have heard of yo-yo diets. You may have been on one or two yourself. Let me just state the obvious and get it over with: they do not work! They take you to a temporary high, but ultimately they leave you feeling deflated and discouraged.

Yo-yo faith does the exact same thing.

So God has seen you through a tough time. You have felt His love and provision, and you can't stop singing His praises. And then reality kicks in again, you are busy and preoccupied with a thousand things, and before you know it, the singing stops and the high evaporates. 

You may say, "That is just because of the crazy time we live in. So many demands, so fast-moving, so hectic, and it gets worse the older I get."

Not so. Robert Robinson wrote a hymn about this in 1757, at the tender age of 22.

Come, Thou fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace,
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise,
While the hope of endless glory
Fills my heart with joy and love...

Verse after verse he praises God's grace. And then he throws in this:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here's my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Yo-yo faith is not an issue of our modern times. It is an issue of our fickle hearts.

The way God takes and seals my heart is by filling it with love for others. No religious fervor, no amount of academic Bible study, not a minute of volunteer hours will tie my heart to Him. They will just keep me busy and feeling good about myself... for a while. Yo-yo faith indeed. Why do you think Christ keeps telling us to love our neighbor, love our brother, love our enemy - and whoever else we can think of, love them too? He doesn't want our hearts on temporary highs followed by periods of deflation and a sense of failure - He can't build His kingdom on so shaky a ground!

Easy as pie, once I figured it out. 

For example, I co-lead a weekly women's Bible study. I prep the lesson, I set up the room, I keep the study running and on target. But I know for sure that the only way for my faith to be visible to the group is through my love, not my Bible knowledge, not my personality, not my table runners, not my prayer emails. Are the women in the group in my heart, truly and consistently? If so, I am close to Christ. If not, my heart wanders off and the farther it goes, the quicker I lose all joy and purpose. 

The difference between "doing it" and "doing it right" is the love that drives me. I go from "prone to wander" to "here's my heart, o, take and seal it" because of that love and compassion. Christ tells us to love one another not just for the benefit of the one on the receiving end. He tells us to love one another because the very act of caring puts our hearts firmly in His hand; the most solid, unchanging, reliable and save hand there is.

As I said, easy as pie. This doesn't mean that I always get it right. But it certainly means that I know how to change course when I don't. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

God's Perpetual Motion Machine

Empty-nesting does wonders for your prayer life. I can't remember the last time I have prayed so much, if ever.

What a crazy summer it has been. There hardly seemed time to breathe. But now there are three empty bedrooms upstairs where noise and chaos used to reign, and I had big plans for doing a whole lot of nothing for a while. Take a few days off and start fresh in a week or two. A week or two? Who was I kidding? My sons' beds were still warm when I started to clean up, wash sheets, vacuum carpet space that hadn't seen the light of day in years and finally - finally! - find the matching pairs in their sock drawers that have eluded me thus far. Missing socks is a mystery I cannot wait to solve.

Withdrawing into inactivity comes as naturally to me as flying does to a fish. Can't do it. And while the Bible is full of verses on hope, trust, faith, and the promise of a perfect ending, I always look for something more tangible, something I can do here and now. It is how I am wired.

For example, I had tendonitis in my arm a little while ago. Months and months of debilitating pain. The doctor said it would heal eventually, all I had to do was wait and be patient. My consternation must have shown clearly because he quickly added that physical therapy and stretching exercises would speed up the process. Now that's more like it! Give me something to do that helps the healing process and I can deal with most anything.

I approach faith the same way. "Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit." (Psalm 51:12)

Salvation, joy and a willing spirt and inseparable for me. Salvation is the basis on which my joy and my willing spirt propel each other forward, so to speak. One leads to the other, in either direction. Joy that comes from faith will overflow into active love for others. Getting out of my potential misery by focusing on the needs of others restores my joy. Back and forth it goes, the perfect perpetual motion machine - which, by the way, does not exist in the world of physics as we understand it today. But it does exist in the world of faith!

Withdrawal is not an option. Asking God to blow on my empty-nester-booboos while I wait for them to heal is only half the picture. Healing cannot be for my benefit only or else the Psalm would end with "Restore to me the joy of your salvation". But it is a willing spirit that upholds me, and a willing spirit is a spirit that obeys... and loves doing it.

So this is Day 1 of my new life, 6 AM, and I am ready. My sons' bedrooms are all set for them to come home at Thanksgiving and I have places to go and things to do. Offer God a willing spirit and He won't waste any time.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Pray - Do - Talk - Trust

I can't remember the last time I have worked so hard on so difficult a question only to come up with so simple an answer. I am not sure whether to be thrilled or deflated.

The question: How do I live my faith completely? What are the components and what is their order? Or, more to the point, when and how do I transition from being Christ's love to being Christ's witness? I focus so much on the washing of feet that I neglect the sharing of Christ. Where should that come in and how does it all fit together?

The answer: Four words. Short, precise, idiot-proof... just the way I like it:


Let me illustrate with the example of my time at hospice.

PRAY: Never, ever do I visit patients without having prayed for them, every single time. I pray that they will see a glimpse of Christ in me so that they recognize Him when they meet Him - and I pray that they will run to Him then, no matter where they stand today.

DO: I simply show up and I stick around. I listen, I laugh, I cry, I read, I hug, I kiss, I feed, I wash. Sometimes I just sit and watch. Whatever it takes and none of it glamorous.

TALK: And then, of course, I talk. I have no problem weaving my faith into my relationships at hospice. They all know I am a Christian. They all know I am there because I am a Christian. Telling about my faith is the easy part, asking about theirs is a bit more tricky. But I have to find the courage to talk to my patients about their faith, not just mine. I have to find the courage to ask what they are scared of and do they want to hear what Christ has to say about that? Some already know, some want to know and some want nothing to do with it... in which case I pray all the harder. Either way, I should assume that they want to hear about Christ and back off if they don't instead of the other, cowardly way around.

Now don't get me wrong, I do not have a savior complex. I do not believe that God's entire plan of salvation rests on my shoulders. Nor do I believe that souls are lost because I fail to ask the right questions at the right time. Which is where the final step comes in:

TRUST:  As our pastor says, God is working on the other side of my obedience. I do my part, He does His - and His is the lion share! He has conquered death, nothing in me believes that He will let any of us die alone. Nothing in me believes that He is not right there, offering a very last shot at eternity with Him. I may not see the how and when, but I trust that He is working on the other side of my obedience. I could not go on otherwise.

In many ways hospice work comes naturally to me. I do not shrink from the pain and loneliness that comes with dying. I do not shrink from the fear and grief that comes with loss. I can wash a broken body and see Christ, not because I am a saint but because I know that He is right there with me. I count on Him to take my flawed and incomplete acts of love and to do something far greater with them.

PRAY - DO - TALK - TRUST... how hard can it be? Yet I tend to focus on the steps I am comfortable with and neglect the ones that scare me. Worse, I polish my halo with the ones that come easy and conveniently forget to mention the ones I fall short on. But if I am to trust Jesus on the other side of my obedience, my obedience has to be complete. Three out of four is not good enough! And really, how hard can it be?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

You First!

“I’ll jump if you jump!” Have you ever stood at the edge of a pool, wheeling and dealing with a friend? “You first!” “No, you go first!” “Okay then, let’s jump together, on three! One... two... three...” Inevitably one would cheat. One would jump and the other would be standing on dry ground laughing as my blue lips shivered from the cold water. Did I say my blue lips? I can’t seem to hide the scars of my childhood. I was such a rule follower, so straightforward and trusting, I always was the one in the water. Always.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 5:20).  “You first” God says. And the best part: He won’t cheat.

God loved us first, that is a given. His love surrounds us like the air that we breathe. It is the crystal clear pool we can jump into -  or not, that is our call. It is because of this love that He can now look at us and say, “I’ll jump if you jump, but you go first!”

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” God wants your heart, but He is not going to pry it out of your ice-cold hands. Open your heart and amazing things will happen. Shut your heart and nothing much will happen initially. The sky will not erupt with thunder, the earth will not swallow you whole. You will go on with your life as usual. You may even feel intellectually superior, confident in your own power and smarts to control your destiny.

God will let you stand at the edge of that pool, if that is what you want. He will not force Himself on you. He will not coax, threaten or bribe you into His presence. “You first.” All He wants is for you to draw near, just one step closer to the edge. He doesn’t expect a triple summersault perfectly executed or a powerful canon ball splashing water every which way. No dramatic conversion needed. Just an open and humble heart that searches for Him. The nearer you draw, the nearer He will draw to you. Surrender completely and He will take over in ways you could never imagine standing there by the pool. Have you ever tired to describe the bliss of clean, fresh water hitting your sweaty and exhausted body? No words can ever do it justice, you have to jump in to know.

“I don’t need God” you may say. Well then, God doesn’t need you either. His plan does not depend on you. He'll get done what needs to get done, if not by you then by somebody else.

Of course if you say, “I don’t want God” the picture changes. God wants you! Always, under any circumstance, no matter when, how or why. But let’s not forget that He is God – and you are not. “You first!”