Archives For examination

“For Your mercies’ sake, O Lord my God,
tell me what You are to me.
Say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
So speak that I may hear, O Lord;
my heart is listening;
open it that it may hear You…

After hearing this word,
may I come in haste to take hold of You…
The house of my soul is too small to receive You;
let it be enlarged by You.
It is all in ruins;
may You repair it.”
Saint Augustine

No more fake news!

August 30, 2017 — Leave a comment

We hear a lot these days about fake news–stories put out as being true when really they are just fabrications, wishful thinking, and sometimes outright lies. No one thinks fake news is a good idea. No one defends it. Everyone thinks in principle it’s a bad idea, including me. 

But I realize when it comes to talking with God, I naturally fall into a fake news mentality. I don’t want to admit to Him–let alone myself–the painful truth. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t bring me close to God. I stay hidden behind my mask, keeping the real me buried. This is not unlike the Pharisees whom Jesus called white-washed tombs: pretty on the outside but a very different story inside. And this cuts me off from His grace. Instead, when I am honest and transparent with Him, it opens up the way for His love, acceptance, and redemption to flow into my damaged heart. 

Renovation needed


“To relate to God in the honesty of yourself, your heart must be exposed to God. If you were angry, be the angry person before the face of God. Are you prideful? Be the person filled with pride before God. Are you selfish? Be the selfish person before God. It does not help to pretend you are otherwise. You’re not fooling God.” Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel in “Beloved Dust” 

The same upside and downside


“I only know Divine unconditional, radical and reckless love for me when I dare to approach God just as I am. The more I have the courage to meet God in this place of weakness, the more I will know myself to be truly and deeply loved by God.” David Benner in “The Gift of Being Yourself”

The hidden depths


“The willingness to see ourselves as we are and to name it in God’s presence is at the very heart of the spiritual journey. But it takes time to feel safe enough with ourselves and with God to risk exposing the tender, unfinished places of the soul. We are so accustomed to being shamed and condemned in the unfinished parts of ourselves that it is hard to believe there is a place where all of who we are the good, the bad, and the ugly will be handled with love and gentleness.” Ruth Haley Barton in “Invitation to Silence”

Litany of Humility
“O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,

Deliver me, Jesus.

– Cardinal Merry del Val

♦◊♦

“…Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily.

He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”

C.S.Lewis

♦◊♦

Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron. John 13:3-6

“In the whole plant world there is not a tree to be found so specially suited to the image of man in his relation to God, as the vine. There is none of which the fruit and its juice are so full of spirit, so quickening and stimulating.

But there is also none of which the natural tendency is so entirely evil–none where the growth is so ready to run into wood that it becomes utterly worthless except for the fire.

Of all plants, not one needs the pruning knife so unsparingly and so unceasingly. None is so dependent on cultivation and training. But with this none yields a richer reward to the gardener.”
Andrew Murray in Abide in Christ

♦◊♦

————-
Parables of wise pruning [with thanks to various gardening websites]

Prune most of the growth
“Standing in front of a mass of tangled grape vine and wondering what to do with it can be a scary experience for the novice or even for the more experienced pruner. Don’t be afraid to cut. When you finish, about 90% of last year’s growth will be cut.”
Lesson: It’s best to trust the Master Pruner and give Him free rein.

Watch out for too many shoots
“In many areas with deep soils and high nitrogen content, grape vines are very vigorous and produce too many shoots. Even when vines are not too vigorous, some shoot thinning is usually needed to take out unproductive shoots with no fruit clusters, or those that are too closely spaced. This is called canopy management. The aim is to balance the productivity of the vine and the amount of leaf and shoot growth.”
Lesson: Since we generate more possibilities than we can do, it’s best when we let the Gardener decide which ones to keep.

Don’t crowd the growth
“Each grape shoot needs 14 to 16 well exposed leaves to properly ripen a grape cluster. If too many shoots are crowded together, the leaves do not get enough light for effective photosynthesis. It is important that all the leaves get good sun exposure, because shaded leaves only function at about 6% of their capacity, and may not be contributing at all to ripening the grape cluster.”
Lesson: Less can be more. God doesn’t stuff.

And watch out for suckers

This sucker has to go.

This sucker has to go.


“Suckers are like a new baby plant that has suddenly come into being connected to the relatively massive root system of its older parent: in short, it is young, vigorous, and has a lot of food. For this reason suckers are able to grow very, very fast, easily many feet in a single season. They are your toddler outgrowing pairs of shoes. Your teenager stealing the credit card and going on a spree. Suckers are ravenous nuisances” robbing energy from the main plant.
Lesson: The most vigorous shoots are not necessarily the ones God will keep.

♦◊♦

If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
John 15:5-6

Getting rid of good stuff

August 20, 2014 — 2 Comments

Recently I came back home after a trip away and discovered my eyes could see much better than before. No, I didn’t get new glasses. It was simply the clarity that comes from time off.

As I unpacked, I saw what I am usually blind to: closets stuffed to the gills in the bedroom, in the hall, in the kitchen; an appalling amount of flotsam and jetsam that I’ve allowed to take up residence on the front hall table, the bedside table, the family room side table [are you seeing a theme? Perhaps if I just got rid of my closets and tables, the barnacled clutter would disappear…]

Untouched photo of the bedside table (I had to resist the urge to make it look neater!)

Untouched photo of the bedside table (I had to resist the urge to make it look neater!)

It’s not just my closets and tables though. The floppy days of summer seem to generate an overabundance of ideas and possibilities:
places to go, people to see, movies to watch,
books to read, recipes to try, websites to explore,
blogs to follow, social media to track.
I can wander through hours and hours of free time like a happy lost puppy, utterly clueless as to where I am going.

It was clear I needed a serious bout of pruning. So riding on the post-vacation wave of good intentions, I set to work on a hall closet that resembled a vertical junk yard. I took everything out and spread it all over the guest room.

Each day I’ve been spending a half hour figuring out what I should keep, what I should throw away, and what I should give away. I’m happy to report it’s going remarkably well because the limited time means I never reach the point of brain fatigue when everything ends up in the ‘decide later’ pile.

Making progress! [fortunately I failed to take a 'before' picture of the closet in its full chaos.]

Making progress! [fortunately I failed to take a ‘before’ picture of the closet in its full chaos.]

Pruning my life
Pruning back my schedule has been much trickier. It’s hard for me to let go of possibilities which don’t require any space and don’t cost any money. All they require is a bit of time. But unfortunately I have a limited supply.

Whatever I say yes to is also a no to a hundred other ideas. But what to let go of? None of the possibilities are bad. Unlike the old rusted paperclips I easily tossed in the trash, it’s hard to discard perfectly good options.

But on a grape vine, fruit comes from saying no even to healthy shoots because the branch can only feed so many clusters. It’s the same with the branch of my life; it can hold only so many projects. I have to decide what to say yes to and what to put in the ‘not in this lifetime’ box.

Healthy, pretty but sapping life and heading to becoming an overgrown mess

Healthy, pretty but sapping life and on its way to becoming an overgrown mess

So I took a mental hacksaw and tried to trim back my schedule. It did not go well. I became paralyzed when I considered all the appealing activities. To get rid of any of them felt like cutting off a limb[!]. I gave up and the next day I took another stab at it . After a few more days of failure, I realized there was only one solution. I had to give my pruning shears to the Gardener.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit,
while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes
so that it will be even more fruitful.
John 15: 1-2

 

Note the cuts on the vine which enabled the luscious cluster of grapes to grow:

Note the cuts on the vine at the top of the picture which enabled this luscious cluster of grapes to grow
 

It may sound like this is over-spiritualizing the problem. Do I really need to involve God in the mundane choices in my life? Does the Master of the Universe care if I spend another fifteen minutes on Facebook? And do I really need His help weeding my creaking, overcrowded bookshelves?

2014 8 15 pruning closets rol 2014-08-15 006
 
The Lord of the trivial and mundane
As I think about it, the answer is yes. By His redeeming love I am attached to His vine, and He has become Lord of all my life, not just my soul. He rules the trivial as well the profound.

This means He is the Master of my internet use.
He is the Director of my free time and my social life.
He is the Lord of my to-do list and my I-want list.
He is the Landscape Architect who sees the whole design of my life and how it fits into His grand scheme.

The gardener doesn't just think about one branch on one vine. He keeps the whole orchard in mind.

The gardener doesn’t just think about one branch on one vine. He keeps the whole orchard in mind.

 
If He truly is the Gardener in charge of my life, I need to let Him prune every twig on my branch. Especially since I don’t have a good pruning track record when it comes to how I spend my time. Invariably I choose what is most comfortable and most convenient for me. I never make painful cuts.

unfruitful and overgrown from lack of pruning

unfruitful and overgrown from lack of pruning


 
Letting the Master Gardener go to work
That’s why if I want to deal with my overstuffed hours, the best place to start is sitting at His feet, exposing all the stems that grow off of my main branch: my work, my relationships, my service, my health. This often requires untangling the overgrown shoots that have gotten twisted into knots.

Then, I need to listen for His guidance about what needs to be trimmed, what needs to be cut off, and what can be saved for the ‘maybe later’ pile.

However, identifying what to say no to isn’t the end. The final step is to open my heart to the Spirit’s scalpel and actually cut the unneeded suckers and shoots. That’s the hardest part for me. I start to balk at God’s plans. I second guess His choices.

But the Gardener doesn’t work against my will. He doesn’t force me to expose my branches and give them to Him. He doesn’t demand that I submit to His pruning. He waits patiently. But if I’m wise I will let Him remove whatever He wants: the good growth, healthy options, and pleasant possibilities that take life-energy away from the work of the vine.

 

A grape vine that has been faithfully pruned each year.

A grape vine that has been faithfully pruned each year.

 

It’s a painful process but the results are good. I find I can breathe more easily. I have space to grow. My hours aren’t crowded out. I have time to focus on His best for me. And this in turn produces abundant fruit, fruit not destined for my own consumption but fruit that He will use to help feed a hungry world that is starving for true nourishment.

What about you? Do you have branches in your life that have become overgrown? Are there shoots that need to be cut back to produce rich, abundant fruit? When will you spend some time with the Gardener so He can go to work?

…work out your salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13

2011 8 22 ben selle wedding 586

Watch out!

May 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

A few years ago after several houses were broken into and robbed, our neighborhood decided it needed to increase security. A guard house was built at the entrance of our cul de sac. But more importantly, guards were hired to watch out for thieves, one guard for the night and one for the day.

The guard house and the house for the watch dog.

The guard house and the house for the watch dog.

That came to mind as I’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark because I’ve been impressed by how many times Jesus tells the disciplines to watch out:

Watch out that no one deceives you. [Mark 13:5]
Be on your guard. You will be handed over…[Mark 13:9]
You must be on your guard! Be alert!… Watch! [Mark 13:33]

And then in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus urges Peter, Watch and pray so you will not fall into temptation. [Mark 14:38]

A high watch tower

A high watch tower

Unfortunately, Peter promptly fell asleep again. Even though Jesus predicted Peter would deny Him three times, Peter didn’t see any danger at the moment. He was confident he wouldn’t, so confident that he insisted emphatically.

The problem with temptation is that it tends to sneak up on us, especially if we’re feeling strong and confident. When things have been going well for a long time, it’s easy to get complacent like Peter. The houses in our neighborhood that were broken into were all locked at the time. People thought they were invulnerable. But the thieves managed to pry bars away from windows and break down doors.

I think the same happens in our spiritual lives. If we’ve been walking with Jesus for a long time, it’s easy to think we have everything under control. We begin to assume we’re immune from temptation. But like a thief, Satan doesn’t give up. He waits until we aren’t watching. We think we’ve mastered pride, fear, anger, and we let down our guard.

Recently I experienced this in my life. I thought a temptation I was prone to was gone for good. Instead I discovered it had gone underground, leaving seeds in the soil of my heart which were waiting for the right conditions to sprout again.

It shouldn’t have caught me by surprise. As long as we live, evil–in whatever form we’re most susceptible to–will tempt us. It’s not if I’ll be tempted, but when. That’s one of the few guarantees we have.

So the time to watch out is not when we can see danger coming. The time to pay attention is before. By listening to God’s word, examining our hearts, and then putting His word into practice, we keep watch on our lives.

I know I need to spend some time reflecting on my signature sins and see where I’ve gotten lax and where I need to post some guards.

IMG_3618 - Copy

What about you?
Where do you need to be on your guard?
What temptation do you need to watch out for?

2014 4 5 En Route desert 288

Although Walk with Me follows the journey of a married couple, just about everything the Bible has to say about love and relationships applies to every person, whether single or married.

Here are questions to consider from the personal reflection track of the Study Guide for Walk with Me

In the Burr Patch of Unkind Words: The power of what we say [Ephesians 4:31-32]
What are the most affirming things someone has said to you recently?
How did it make you feel?

What burrs or barbs have you thrown recently?
What kind words can you say to help remove them?

Up to Pigeon Hole Pass: Studying but not living God’s Word {Matthew 23:25-28]
When in your life have you been more concerned about your external righteousness than your internal holiness?

What effect did it have on your relationship with God?
Your relationships with others?

Lost in the Quagmires: Looking for firmer ground [II Timothy 3:2-5, Galatians 3:16-19]
The Swamp of Selfishness was filled with quagmires: envy, pride, greed, self-indulgence, ingratitude, slander, jealousy, fits of rage. Which is the deepest quagmire in your life right now?

What can you do to get out of it?

At the Camp with Faithfulness: Taking stock
Read Ephesians 4:22–24, which talks about giving up the old self and putting on a new self. After Peter and Celeste gave up their postcards, the journey did not get easier for them. How would you counsel each of them to deal with the loss of their postcard dreams?

Across the Bridge of Forgiveness: Deciding to erase the debt [Matthew 18:32-34]
Peter and Celeste both found difficulty in crossing the bridge of forgiveness. What would you say to someone who is hesitating at the bridge?

Into the darkness: Surrendering all [Matthew 16:25-26]
What negative “snake” voices are hissing in your ear right now trying to get you to turn away from God’s path?

What are they saying to you?

At the Quiet Pool: Being refreshed
Peter and Celeste found much-needed rest at the Quiet Pool. When could you spend time with God this week to be refreshed? Pick one of the following passages and then reflect on how God has been good to you over the last two months:

• Psalm 23

• Psalm 139

• Ephesians 3:3–14

• Romans 8

Would you like to reflect on more questions from the Study Guide for Walk with Me? You can download it for free here.

Speaking of questions

February 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

“Questioning God honors Him. It turns our hearts away from ungodly despair toward a passionate desire to comprehend Him.”
Dan Allender

♦◊♦

“We act and live in confidence that someday we will see face to face, that we will live into the answers. For God’s grace embraces our questions as well as our answers and our blindness as well as our vision.”
Jean Blomquist

♦◊♦

“You can find answers to the hard intellectual questions, but God gives us something better than answers. He gives us a rich sense of His presence. He gives us Himself. Answers satisfy the intellect, the presence of the great El-shaddai satisfies the soul.”
Selwen Hughes

♦◊♦

God asks:
Why, when I called, was there no one to answer?
Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?
Or have I no power to deliver?

Isaiah 50:2

Ask me a question

January 30, 2014 — 4 Comments

Over the past few months I’ve been working on a study guide for Walk with Me: Pilgrim’s Progress for Married Couples. The guide has just been released and you can download it here for free [don’t you love that word?].

Each of the nine sections focuses on a chapter from the book, with three sets of questions to choose from. There’s a set for general small group discussion, another set for small groups who want to take a deeper look at the material, and a third set for individuals or couples. [Take a peek at the introduction here.]

As I worked on the questions, I was reminded of all the questions Jesus is asked in the gospels.

Questions, questions

  • “How do you know me?” Nathaniel asked.
  • “Where do you get that living water?” the woman at the well asked.
  • “Who are you?” the Pharisees asked.
  • “How can we know the way?” Thomas asked.
  • “What is truth?” Pilate wanted to know.

Sometimes, a question is used to accuse: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” the Jews asked Jesus.

Or a question can be a way to find an easy out, like Peter’s question to Jesus: “How many times must I forgive my brother?”

They can carry a complaint like Martha’s, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”

I think the best questions are those designed not to find an answer, but to start a dialogue. It’s an asking that doesn’t try to push the other person away. With God, good questions help us come closer to Him, whether they are questions of doubt or mystery or confusion or despair.

2013 7 28 thailand xmas horizon (25)

God’s questions for me
And when I ask an honest question, I open myself up to being asked one in return. When the lawyer asked Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered by asking, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” He didn’t give the dead-end answer. He invited the lawyer into a give and take.

When the chief priests asked Jesus to tell them by what authority He was teaching and healing, He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John’s baptism–was it from heaven, or from men?”

Back and forth, back and forth, the dialogue goes. A question is asked. A question answered, sometimes with a question that enlightens us far more than the easy answer we were looking for.

However God chooses to answer our questions–even when He keeps silent–He want us to stay with Him. Our honest questions never drive Him away because He is always waiting for us to take another step closer, even if that means drawing near to Him in our confusion.

Probably every journey of faith starts with a question, a mystery. And sometimes they end with a question too. “Why have You forsaken me?” God was silent and withdrawn from His son, and still Jesus had a question for Him.


What about you?
What question do you want to discuss with God? When will you start the dialogue?
And what question do you think He will ask you in return?

[Edited from the archives]

“To truly become a Christian we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. Continue Reading…

The missing prayer

June 4, 2013 — 2 Comments

Here’s what talking with God often looks like for me, teenager-style:
“Hi Dad, you know, I think you’re great. And hey, thanks for everything you did for me yesterday, it was awesome. Oh, and by the way, can I borrow the car—and some cash?”

That’s right in line with Anne Lamott’s new book, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I haven’t read it yet but the publisher’s description says these three simple prayers are “essential to coming through tough times, difficult days and the hardships of daily life.” To which I say, “Amen.”

But then I realized that Lamott had forgotten one essential prayer: “Sorry.” And this missing prayer may be the most important of all, because it admits a fundamental reality about my relationship with God and this world: I have done something wrong and I need redemption.

I don’t know why Lamott didn’t include this prayer in her book, but I do know that I have a hard time with confession. It’s never been my strong suit. I love giving thanks. I don’t mind asking for help–sometimes. And I truly enjoyed giving praise to God. But facing the all-holy God and telling Him how I’ve broken His laws? Well, that’s something I have generally tried to avoid.

I smudge out God’s boundary lines, echoing the serpent question: “Did God really say…?”

I throw up my hands, feeling helpless. “I am a sinner, that’s just who I am.”

I whine, “It’s such a downer to think about sin. My life is hard enough as it is.”

annies pix june 1 028

When I talk with my Heavenly Father, I rarely say, “Oh, there’s one more thing. I knocked over the Ming Dynasty vase yesterday.”
I often forget to tell Him that I kicked my little brother (metaphorically speaking).
And I’m always hoping He won’t bring up the house rule I broke–again. Ten simple rules, and I manage to break them more that I would like, especially given that I am His beloved daughter.

This has created real problems in my life. It has made me lopsided spiritually-speaking.

  • Good stuff from God: great!
  • Asking something from God: great!
  • Telling him how wonderful He is: great!
  • Mentioning that I messed up and need forgiveness: …silence.

Perhaps one reason I struggle to say “I’m sorry” is because I’m afraid of what might come next. Once I admit I’ve done wrong, I can lapse into accusing myself that I’m not worthy of being loved. [A stance Satan likes to keep me in.]

Other times, I shy away from confession because when Jesus talked to the woman caught in adultery, and said, “Neither do I accuse you” that wasn’t the end of it. He followed this with the imperative: “Go and sin no more.” He didn’t say, “That’s okay, you can do whatever you want.” Or “That’s okay, we’ll lower the bar because it’s painful and hard and difficult.”

How can I receive God’s grace into my life if I won’t face how I have failed Him? When I stay silent, there’s no way forward.

Don’t misunderstand me.
“You are awesome” is a wonderful reminder of who God is. But praising with my lips doesn’t guarantee that my heart is clean.

“Help” and “Thank you” are great prayers too. But I can easily twist them so that I am focusing only on my unhealthy desires.

But “Sorry” is the first step in being forgiven and freed by God. I’m not talking about how I am broken, or what I need. I’m just admitting that I failed and haven’t done what I am supposed to do. And I’m committing myself to follow His ways. I am saying that I want to please Him, that I’m in His family, and I accept the family rules.

Maybe confession comes easily to some people. But for me it’s a discipline I need to practice, a discipline that comes with some great benefits. Because when I pay attention to how I have fallen short of the glory of God, I’m humbled.

When I say. “Sorry,” I find myself in a better place:

*I can see more clearly how wonderful God is, how He redeems and saves.
*I am more thankful for what He has done for me.
*And I’m ready to ask for His help as I follow His ways.

Four essential prayers.Wow, Sorry, Help, and Thank You.

What about you? Which prayer do you find the easiest? Which one is the most difficult for you?

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before Him in their worship.

John 4:22-23 The Message

♦◊♦

I’m “thankful today for the freedom You give us to bring our raw feelings to You. You’re the only one with whom we don’t have to pose or pretend about anything.
Because if we don’t bring our painful emotions to You, we will take them somewhere. Somebody will feel the brunt of our anguish and anger. Stuffing and dumping these feelings always brings destructive consequences. So grant us good gospel freedom as we come before You today.    
Heavenly Father, only You have the big enough heart, deep enough wisdom and broad enough shoulders to walk with us through the chaotic and conflicted seasons of life. We praise You for the constancy of Your welcome. … Meet us with the promise and provision of new covenant grace.

Scotty Smith

♦◊♦

So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of His sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is His body.
So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.

Hebrews 10:19-22 The Message

Honest to God

February 26, 2013 — 7 Comments

As I’ve mentioned before, the last months have been challenging for me on several fronts. In the midst of this, I’ve discovered I don’t want to face the pain and discouragement I’m feeling. I want to close my eyes, click my ruby red shoes three times, and be magically transported to safety as all my difficulties disappear.

The problem with this approach is that it can turn me into a whitewashed tomb. Jesus talked about the Pharisees who looked righteous on the outside but inside were hypocrites. When I’m struggling, I’m not worried about appearing righteous but I do want to be seen as strong and competent–even to myself.

So I ignore the unpleasant feelings in me, hoping they will get the message and slink away. But pain is a signal that something is wrong. It’s like a flashing red light along the road that warns us there is danger ahead.

2012 11 27 sf la boston 178

When I pretend everything is fine, I soon become like a whitewashed tomb. I hide the sorry state of my heart with a coat of happy whitewash to mask the cracks and the mold. I spend time with God but I’m only skating on the surface. I’ll read scripture and pray but since my heart is closed off, it becomes just a mental exercise.

The Lord says:
“These people come near to Me with their mouth
and honor Me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from Me.
Isaiah 29:13

Keeping my distance
So instead of coming closer to God [which is exactly what I need during hard times], I keep Him at a distance. The same dynamic works in our human relationships too. The easiest way to put someone at arm’s length is to avoid telling them what is really going on in my life. And that’s how I become like a whitewashed tomb: pretty on the outside, dead on the inside.

Of course when I keep quiet about what I’m feeling, I’m not keeping anything from God. He knows the state of my heart better than I do. He is intimately aware of the turmoil I try to ignore.

O Lord, You have examined my heart and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.
Psalm 139:1-4

Honest to me
This means that telling God what I feel isn’t for His benefit. It’s to help me. Because even though God knows what’s going on in my life until I admit it I keep Him shut out. But as I share where I am and what I am feeling, my heart opens up to God. Then He can respond with His love and power. He can begin to bring healing.

God’s Word is filled with examples of this. Over and over in the psalms, a person will cry out to God honestly and without any filters. The person pours out anger, fear, disappointment, rage. But eventually, he is reminded of who God is and what He can do, how He remains faithful to us all the time.

Often the psalm will conclude with a burst of praise, but it’s not a superficial or intellectual act of worship. The psalmist is speaking from the depths of his heart. In the process of being honest with God, he has drawn near to Him. For sharing our innermost struggles with another person is the quickest way we become close to them.**

The seeking One
“Where are you?” God asked Adam and Eve as they hid from Him in the garden.

“Where are you?” He asks each of us. “Trust Me. Bring your fears to Me. Talk to Me about your disappointments and your pain. Don’t keep it locked away where it will fester. Honor Me with your confidence and confide in Me. Draw near to Me and I will draw near to you** I want you to experience My perfect love which will push your fears aside.” **

It’s true. For all my dread of facing painful feelings, I can’t remember one time when I’ve felt worse after honestly pouring out my heart to God.

I think it may be like The Velveteen Rabbit, the story of how a stuffed rabbit becomes real through the love of a boy.

blog 017

It seems the reverse can happen between us and God. He is real and vibrant but my relationship with Him can turn into a lifeless velveteen faith that I keep out of the way on a shelf. Pretty to look at but not part of my nitty-gritty life.

That’s why it’s so vital that I admit what is going on with me. Being honest is the lifeblood of a real, honest-to-God relationship.

What about you? What secrets are you hiding from yourself? Where do you need to be honest with God?

real rabbit
**Notes
Giving an honest answer is a sign of true friendship.
Proverbs 24:26

Come near to God and He will come near to you.

James 4:8

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
I John 4:16,18

Here we are, already heading into the third week of the new year. Just a dozen or so days ago we turned a new page and felt that wonderful surge of hope.

We looked at the blank calendar and saw a chance for a fresh start. Anything seemed possible–new habits, permanent change, winning an Olympic gold medal.

fresh hope

fresh hope

Some of us may have made a New Year’s resolutions, perhaps one of the top five from last year:

1. Lose weight
2. Get organized
3. Spend less, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy

In recent years, being older and wiser, I’ve gotten away from making promises to myself. With my dismal track record on achieving past resolutions, it has seemed futile to set myself up for an inevitable fall. So I no longer make a no vow to lose x number of pounds or spend x amount of time on a project.

However, I’ve discovered I don’t need to set goals in order to fall short. Last week at the end of one day, I realized I had fritted hours away . And I had nibbled well past any semblance of healthy eating.

Yet even though I had no resolutions to break, I was still discouraged. It was hard not to listen to the chiding voice: “What, failed again??? Still no self control after all these years? Why do you even care?”

If I had listened to this voice for much longer, I would have gorged myself on a big box of chocolates and spent the rest of the week clicking on one web link after another. The way of cheap grace can be so appealing.

That’s not the way of Jesus though. When I listened to Him, I heard Him saying, “Today I’m calling you to change the direction of your mind and your heart. Turn away from activity that only pleases your ego and come to Me.” In other words, He asked me to repent.

I felt really discouraged then. Discouraged that I needed to repent for the millionth time . It felt so tedious to repeat my ancient litany, “I’m sorry. I’ve screwed up again.”

But this discouragement didn’t come from God. Yes, He judges, but He doesn’t want to pull me down. In fact, He wants to encourage me, only not by giving me false hope that perfection is within my grasp if only I try a little harder. Instead, He wants to encourage me with an uncomfortable truth: I am going to fall again and will always be in need of His grace.

Martin Luther likened this to shaving:

“Original sin is in us, like the beard.
We are shaved today and look clean, and have a smooth chin;
tomorrow our beard has grown again,
nor does it cease growing while we remain on earth.
In like manner original sin cannot be eradicated from us;
it springs up in us as long as we live.
Nevertheless we are bound to resist it to our utmost strength,
and to cut it down unceasingly.”

2013 1 8 rabat 039

The mark of a Christian is not perfection. A Christian is one who knows they are God’s beloved and reaches for the hand of grace after they have fallen down again. That’s the sign that I follow Jesus: I come back to Him after I have turned away.

When I think I can repent once and be done with it, I set myself up for discouragement. It’s like someone expecting that one day’s shaving will give them hairless face or legs forever. That’s more than God expects of me. He knows I am but dust. Jesus didn’t come because I was almost perfect, but because I was hopeless.

That’s why the biggest danger I face this coming year is not the possibility of missing the mark. The biggest danger is that I will stop being willing to take the grace He offers.

I am walking with Jesus. Being with Him is what counts. My efforts to change don’t affect His love towards me, and neither do my failures. I simply need to be prepared to reorient myself to Him daily.

following the sun

following the sun

It turns out there is one resolution I want to make this year: To give up being discouraged about my need for daily grace.
Because regardless of how often I fall, He will always be there to get me back on my feet so I can continue the journey with Him.

What about you?
Where do you need to change your direction again?
Where do you need to replace discouragement with God’s grace?

The grip of greed

January 8, 2013 — 5 Comments

A friend recently shared with me what happened at a community Christmas party they gave for refugees from a Middle Eastern country. When it came time to hand out the gifts to the children, chaos ensued.

Living here in a similar culture, I could easily envision the scene: the shoving and shouting and pushing forward, the disregard for the others in the crowd, the elbowing others away from the pile of gifts.

1 7 11 j 60th party 017

The geography of greed
Now lest you think that this behavior is limited to people from the Middle East [not that the thought would ever cross my mind], I just watched the movie classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” which has an identical scene. Residents of Bedford Falls make a run on the Savings and Loan with the same shoving and gnashing of teeth.

Or think of trying to get on a subway at rush hour, or buy the season’s hottest fad at Walmart–or even get a pastry during coffee hour at our multicultural church. Public shovefests seem to be a fact of life everywhere in the world.**

An absence of greed
Jesus lived in a Middle Eastern culture too. I can imagine that as a boy He might have experienced this kind of chaos one day when there was a run on figs at the market And after His public ministry got into full swing, people were always shoving to get closer to Him, sometimes almost crushing Him [ Luke 8:42].

But there is one place in the gospels where there’s no mention of a jostling stampede and that’s the feeding of the 5000. Picture a huge crowd of hungry people from a culture where waiting one’s turn is not a value. Doesn’t it seem a real marvel that there’s no mention of people getting trampled?

Another marvel: everyone was provided for. Given our grabby human nature, I find it astounding that everyone “had their fill.” In other words, they were stuffed.

IMG_3729

A third marvel: there were leftovers! Think about those baskets of extra pieces. Didn’t anyone take loaves and put them under their cloak so they could sell them on the journey home?

Maybe another miracle happened that day, a miracle even greater than feeding a crowd. Maybe Jesus changed people’s hearts so when the bread basket was passed around for the third time, they were able to resist the temptation to take some for the road.

Greed in me
I don’t know if that second miracle really happened that day. But I know I need Jesus to change my heart like that because over the last months, I’ve realized how greed runs rampant in me. Like an auto-immune virus, it infects my life at every level.

I take it as a sign of my material wealth that most of what I am greedy for is non-material. Yes, I’m greedy for money, but I’d give all my money to satisfy my greed for:

more time,
more talent,
more success,
more affirmation.

You may not ever see the voracious appetite I have for these things. I’ve been trained to stand politely in public. I know how to appear civil and humble, and not visibly ambitious. But inside I have the greed of Gollum, desperate for my precious.

Why worry?
Most of the time I’m not too concerned about how greed infects my life. I can go months or years not paying attention to it. That’s dangerous though because greed can do a lot of damage:

*Greed is time-consuming.
It eats up all of the hours in my day as I strive to get more. I can’t let up the pace, not for a moment. There’s no time for balance and rest.

*Greed is greedy.
It never has enough, never. I once met a person with two Mercedes, a ranch, a swimming pool, and tennis courts. But they didn’t feel rich because their neighbors had more. At the time, I remember privately rolling my eyes. But I’m no different. As a writer, I have much to be thankful for. I’ve published short stories and a book. But I find myself restless and discontent. Greed is always asking, “But what have you given me lately?” while it demands all of my energy, effort, and resources.

*Greed warps my heart.
With its driving desire that “I must get this or else–,” greed makes me thoughtless of others. It’s like I’m wearing blinders. Whether I manage to gain what I’m greedy for or keep grasping for it, I simply don’t see the people around me–unless they get in my way. But then I’m not seeing them as people, only as obstacles to be pushed aside or run over.

*Worst of all, greed leaves no room for God.
Jesus warned that we can’t serve God and money at the same time [Matthew 6:24]. And he told a pointed parable about a rich fool whose overriding fault was not being rich towards God [Luke 12]. When I fill my life with self, there’s no space for God. Instead of becoming wealthy, I end up poor where it matters most.

That’s why I need to release my death grip on greed. Somehow I have to pry my hand open, and trust God to put good things in it.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I can do this. How can I replace my drive to acquire more with the peaceful enjoyment of God’s abundance? What practical steps can I take?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
How have you been able to loosen the grip of greed in your life?
Or if greed isn’t one of your signature sins**, what wisdom do you have to share?

And how do you find ways to be rich towards God?

Links and Notes

**I do wonder if Germany and Switzerland and Japan have displays of public greed. Does any one have firsthand experience of this happening in one of those countries?]

**”Our signature sins become so familiar to us that we often trust them over the truth.
They become so precious to us that we even forget they are sins.” Michael Mangis

Watching for weeds

August 7, 2012 — 3 Comments

I weeded one of our ficus plants today. Over the years, it has been plagued by several stubborn weeds. Recently, a rather innocent-looking feathery plant decided to move in to the pot. I decided it had to go. Continue Reading…

I’ve developed the unwanted habit of returning from every vacation with several new pounds. It’s like the freshman fifteen you gain at university. Only I’m no longer a student, and each pound seems to be heavier than it used to be.

Why playing with four small children results in weight gain rather than weight loss is proof that life is full of injustice

Continue Reading…

Speaking of eyes to see

February 25, 2012 — Leave a comment

Our stance as Christians in the midst of the world is that of poor persons,
possessing nothing, not even ourselves,
and yet being gifted at every instant in and through everything.
When we become too affluently involved with ourselves and deny our inherent poverty,
then we lose the gifts and either begin to make demands for what we think we deserve (often leading to angry frustration)
or we blandly take for granted all that comes our way.
Only the truly poor person can appreciate the slightest gift and feel genuine gratitude.
The more deeply we live in faith the more we become aware of how poor we are and how gifted;
life itself becomes humble, joyful thanksgiving.

George Aschenbrenner

***

When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him.
But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason, he cannot see the stars. For his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant, driving without lights, can see gloriously in the dark but starry night.

So are those deceived ones who live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable—but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.

Søren Kierkegaard, The Gospel of Suffering

***

This Week’s Special
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Psalm 82:3-4

Last year, I wrote about how moved I was watching the Visual Bible**. And I often mention seeing some of God’s small treasures in the world around me, His amuse-bouches.** But there’s another experience of seeing I’ve had recently: seeing the person in front of me. That doesn’t sound very earthshaking. I see people in front of me all the time as I go about my daily business. However I generally don’t pay much attention to them because I don’t want to be distracted from my task. Seeing often gets in the way of comfort, ease and efficiency.

For ten years, I used to work in one of the wealthiest and brainiest towns in America. Every day I’d leave my house and drive five miles past woods and gentlemen farms. When I reached the town, I’d drive slowly, happy for the 25 mph speed limit. Then I would gaze lovingly and longingly at beautiful, five-million-dollar mansions, the old classic kind made out of brick and stone and slate.

But in the state capital, ten miles in the other direction from my house, there was appalling, unsightly poverty. When I first moved to the area, it was an entire year before I had a reason to go to that city and when I did, I didn’t look longingly at the abandoned row houses or the homeless pushing their shopping carts, or idle men sitting on the stoops. The place was a war zone of urban renewal and I never liked to linger there. I’d do my business and leave as soon as I could.

Now I live in a developing country where there is no ten-mile cushion between rich and poor. If I have a meal at a beachside restaurant, I’ll see a hunchbacked man selling flowers, two street kids doing gymnastic tricks to hustle up some change, and a woman begging with a baby strapped to her back. Waiting at a traffic light in my car, I’ll see disfigured beggars without limbs, and I’ll quickly look away.

There is another kind of poverty I’m exposed to here which is more pervasive than begging, and yet easier to over look. Every day when I leave the house, I see people who are living a hand-to-mouth existence. Many of them sleep in makeshift houses without electricity or running water [which means no heat when it is cold or fans when it is hot]. Or perhaps they live in one room, or share a small apartment with eight or nine family members.

This poverty is so widespread that I feel overwhelmed by it. I close the eyes of my heart because it feels too difficult to see the pain, the suffering, the not-yet redeemed. My attitude is like the disciples who looked at the hungry crowd and asked Jesus to send them away.** It feels like a helpless, hopeless situation.

Recently I walked to the nearest store that sells fruit and vegetables. For the first five years I lived here, I drove by this store every day on my way to run in the park, and I never once stopped and bought something. It looked too scrappy, too gritty. When I finally did go, I discovered my judgment was pretty accurate. Outside of a dark, cramped shop, the vegetable stand offers a basic selection of fruits and vegetables which are often not the freshest or nicest-looking. However, because it’s within walking distance, the store has become my stop-gap when I need just a few things and I’m too lazy to get in the car and battle the ever-growing traffic to go to the larger supermarket a mile a way.

This particular day as I walked to the little store, I was multitasking as usual, listening to a lecture on my mp3 player. A former Buddhist who later taught at L’abri** was giving a very thought-provoking talk about the trinity, the incarnation, and about how we have a primal, instinctive need to be in relationship. He talked about how children are always saying, “Look at me, look at me.” We want to be seen and known.

Then I reached the store and turned off the lecture. I started my usual routine, telling the employee who mans the stand what I wanted. He picked the vegetables out of their crates, weighed them on a scale and bagged them. Since it is tight quarters without much to look at, and since I had just been reminded about looking at people, I focused my attention on the employee.

He was wearing an old blue tracksuit jacket and flimsy pants that were grubby and worn, with frayed hems. He had cheap plastic sandals on his feet. As I stared at him, I thought of how Jesus came down to earth to incarnate God’s love to us and my heart was filled with compassion. But the gap between myself and the employee is great: age, gender, culture, language, education, money, religion, status. The only way to reach this man with God’s love would be to somehow come alongside of him, as Jesus did. But I didn’t see how I could bridge the gap. All I could do was pray for him, which I did while he worked.

Then I got the idea to give him a tip. Now I had never given him a tip before. I am by nature a miser and a Pharisee who can always find a good reason why I don’t have to give a token of my appreciation, especially in a culture where people expect to be tipped for the smallest job. Reasons like: it’s too inconvenient to dig it out of my coin purse, the person is getting paid anyway, if everyone tipped him he’d be getting rich, he’ll start to expect something every time…

But as I thought of God’s love for this man, I was moved to give him more than would be expected. Inside the store, as I waited for the owner to total up my purchase, I took out a small bill, the equivalent of $2.50. Tipping is not done publicly here, so I folded up the bill and put it in the palm of my hand. I walked out with my vegetables and the employee followed, to return to his place by the crates of vegetables. I shook his hand and thanked him, putting the bill into his hand without anyone seeing what I had given. I walked home, feeling good that I had really seen someone and responded to them from my heart, not judging them, not closing my eyes or turning away.**

A week later I went back to the store to buy more vegetables. I had forgotten about my tip until the employee saw me. He beamed at me and then gave me a little salute in a genuine and spontaneous show of gratitude for what I had given to him. When he went to help me, he made an extra effort to choose the freshest vegetables. He helped me put them in my backpack after I paid. In short, he treated me like a queen.

I was so humbled that tears came to my eyes, to know that so little could affect him so much. I began to wonder about his life. How much did he get paid a day? [probably $5 if the store owner is generous]. I was sobered to think how I go through my daily life without grasping what it means to be poor here. I simply close my eyes to it, not wanting to admit how big a difference there is between my standard of living and 99% of the people around me.**

Every day as I walk by the poor, my own poverty of spirit is exposed. I have been given so much, materially and spiritually. Yet my default position is to take God’s provision in my life for granted, and then to be blind as to how I might help those around me. And when I do think about being generous, I often hold back, not trusting Him to continue to provide for me. Because I don’t have an answer for what it means to be rich in a poor world, I put the question away, and close my heart to the unfairness of life.

There is no triumphant end to this story. I have no wise lesson to offer. Since this experience with the vegetable seller, I have lapsed back into blindness and hard-heartedness. I am still very poor in mercy even though I am so rich. I still hold on to what I have, thinking it is mine and not God’s gift to me. I still fail to be a channel of His mercy in the lives of those around me, even though I could so something as simple as handing out a dollar every day to a random poor person. I am left needing mercy for not showing mercy.

All I can say is that I want to develop both a gift of gratitude and a gift of generosity. I want to see people around me through the eyes of God and with the heart of God, and then to give as it has been given to me. I want to feed Jesus. I want to be a sheep and not a goat.** And I think the place to start is before I leave the house. I need to watch God first thing in the morning, by reading His word. Then He’ll become my vision and His compassion will become my heartbeat. I don’t have to look hard to find this either. Here is what I came to this morning:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them close to His heart;
He gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40:1,2,11

Amen.
**Notes and Links
**See what you hear: The Visual Bible

**One of God’s Amuse-Bouches

**See Matthew 14:13:21

**Ellis Potter: The Real Problem with Buddhism

**The fact that I felt so good about such a small act of kindness is a subject for another post…

**The official minimum wage here is $10 a day if you work in a factory. Farmworkers are supposed to get $6 a day.
A monthly household income of $700 a month puts you in the upper-middle class here. If your household income is $1000 a month, you are upper class [aka rich].

**“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

People do not drift toward holiness…
We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance;
we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom;
we drift toward superstition and call it faith.
We slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism;
we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

D.A. Carson

***

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery of trying to earn God’s approval by being good. It if you work on being self-righteous, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! First, you’ll be obligated to obey the whole law. And then you’ll be alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…For in Christ Jesus our external acts carry no weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love.

paraphrase of Galatians 5:1-6

***

Peter denied Jesus with oaths and curses. But then he came completely to the end of himself and all of his self-sufficiency. There was no part of himself he would ever rely on again. In his state of destitution, he was finally ready to receive all that the risen Lord had for him. “. . .

…All our promises and resolutions end in denial because we have no power to accomplish them. When we come to the end of ourselves, not just mentally but completely, we are able to “receive the Holy Spirit.” The idea is that of invasion. There is now only One who directs the course of your life, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Oswald Chambers

***

Do not despair, thinking that you cannot change yourself after so many years. Simply enter into the presence of Jesus as you are and ask him to give you a fearless heart where he can be with you. You cannot make yourself different. Jesus came to give you a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, and a new body. Let him transform you by his love.

Henri Nouwen

***
This Week’s Special
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet He did not sin. Hebrews 4:15