Archives For spiritual growth

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?

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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

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Speaking of roots

August 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

My blessing is on those people who trust in Me,
who put their confidence in Me.
They will be like a tree planted near a stream
whose roots spread out toward the water.
It has nothing to fear when the heat comes.
Its leaves are always green.
It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought.
It does not stop bearing fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-9

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“The tree on the mountain takes whatever the weather brings.
If it has any choice at all, it is in putting down roots as deeply as possible.”
Corrie ten Boom

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“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

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This year for the first time in a decade, I had the opportunity to enjoy my native New England’s summer. It was wonderful to see oaks and maples and elms and ash trees in full leaf. Every day I marveled at the magnificent extravaganza of broad, tall, green limbs reaching to the sky.

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During those five weeks, we had only two or three days of rain, yet the trees didn’t shrivel. Their vast network of roots drew in moisture stored deep in the earth. Even when the lawn began to look parched, the woods remained vivid in all their shades of green.

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I experienced another kind of abundance during my time in the states: our whole family was together for the first time in two years. My days were filled with trips to parks and ponds, museums and villages as we reacquainted Sam and Jeff to life in America. I spent hours staying with 20-month-old Nora as she explored the world. I took almost daily runs to the grocery store, and cooked meals for the crowd. I watched Lucy and Clara play soccer with their cousins.

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However, all this feasting on family meant I had little time for reflection and quiet time with God. I hung onto my daily anchor of reading The Divine Hours and sometimes added a prayer from Scotty Smith’s “Everyday Prayers”. It was like taking a few quick sips from a water fountain and then dashing off.

Frankly, grabbing five minutes to straighten my soul before I plunge into the day isn’t enough to sustain me over the long haul. But for a limited period of time, I survived. My soul didn’t wither away; it drew on the roots I had laid down in calmer days when I had time to soak in God’s word without being interrupted.

Some days I was just hanging on like Nora.

Some days I was just hanging on like Nora.

I was gratified how these roots held me and fed me, especially because the regular daily time I spend with God at home usually doesn’t feel spectacular or exciting. It often doesn’t feel particularly nurturing either. But I keep plodding on, reading, praying, and reflecting even when I can’t see any visible signs of growth.

I’ve learned that this patient faithfulness, what Eugene Peterson calls ‘a long obedience’, does make a difference. Even if I’m not aware of any immediate pay-off, the time I spend with God grows roots in my soul that I can draw on during a spiritual drought. It creates a vast network of underground branches that feed and sustain my spiritual life.

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We need these roots not just during our happy vacations, but for the harsher storms we go through. A dear friend of ours spent the last two years battling brain cancer. During the ups and downs of surgeries, physical therapy, setbacks, and treatments, the faith he had nurtured over the years fed him with an amazing peace and an abiding sense of God’s presence.

Whenever Michael spoke to people about his illness, he shared how he felt held in the hands of God’s loving care. He didn’t always have the mental strength to read and reflect but his roots sustained him all the way to the end. A week before he died, his pastor came to visit and asked how he was doing. Michael slowly brought his hands together.

That quiet confidence didn’t spring up over night. Faithfully through the years, Michael sunk his spiritual roots down deep in Jesus–deep enough that this self-described Type-A personality was able to lean back into the arms of his Father during his final challenge.

His life was a witness that by faith and faithfulness, our trust becomes stronger that our loving Father will hold us safe all the days of our life. As we stay by God’s stream and drink deeply every day, we become anchored in His grace.

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That’s why as I settle back into my home routine, I’m not skimping on spending time with God each day. Once again I’ve taken up the long obedience to foster my attachment to the Vine so my roots can be replenished and continue to grow. When storms come or the sun sears down, I want strong roots to keep me from crashing to the ground or turning to a crisp.

How about you? When do you carve out time during your day to sit at the feet of Jesus?

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2:6-7

From Ashley Cleveland’s memoir Little Black Sheep:

“My experience of surrender is not a tidy line in the sand, it is more like: let go, take it back , let go, take it back, let go. The day that I will it and the day that I do it are rarely the same day. ”

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“I had learned in treatment that the gateway to recovery was willingness—willingness to admit my powerlessness, willingness to admit the unmanageability of my life and circumstances, willingness to surrender to God’s care. I needed the will to be willing, and I began to tell the Lord that if He wanted me to turn my wineglass over to Him, He needed to supply me with the will to do it.”

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“I had a pastor for many years who forbade us to sing “I Surrender All,” because he said it was a crock. He said no one surrenders all and that most people, if they are honest, aren’t even qualified to sing “I Surrender Some.” I am solidly in that camp. I know all about selective surrender and cherry-picking my life before handing it over to God’s care: “Here , You can have this. I didn’t want it anyway.” God knows all about it too, but here’s the thing: a little bit of surrender is a lot of surrender.

By the same token, a little bit of hope is a lot of hope. A little bit of faith is a lot of faith. All of these things have the same source: a heavenly Father who is so entirely counterintuitive that He delights in investing His power in tiny things like mustard seeds and broken fools like me. I don’t really foresee a day when I will let go without a fight, but it’s helpful to remember that I am not, as Richard Rohr says, “giving up but giving to.” There is an enormous difference.”

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And a quote Cleveland quotes:

“Every day is a completed whole. The present day should be the boundary of our care and striving. It is long enough for us to find God or lose God, to keep the faith or fall into sin and shame. God created day and night so that we might not wander boundlessly, but already in the morning may see the goal of the evening before us.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How to make it to December

January 15, 2014 — 4 Comments

This week an acquaintance of mine was bemoaning the struggle to keep a 30-day resolution she had made for January. It has seemed like a good idea from the mountain peak of the new year, but things had quickly turned dull and mundane. Having just begun, she found herself already slogging through the valley and she was wondering if she should bail out now.

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I know the feeling. I came back from the holidays wanting to set a new course, desperate to make some changes in my life. But as I blue-skyed possibilities and dreamed up plans, I dreaded coming down from the mountain and actually starting the journey.

not a care in the world:
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coming down to earth:
enroute thailand xmas 2013 (13)

the nitty-gritty on the ground:
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I know it’s not always going to be pretty or pleasant. I’ll get bored. The enthusiasm for change will turn gray. My new habits may get stuck in mud. Old habits will creep back in. The view from the mountaintop will be replaced by tunnel vision.

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So how can I make it to December? How can I keep on the path and not give up? What is the secret to perseverance?

1] Mark your steps
Making progress isn’t hard. It’s simply being faithful day in and day out. Right foot, left foot. But I’m not a robot. I need encouragement along the way. Nothing fancy, just checking off a daily task, or making a week’s tally can give me a sense of accomplishment and keep me going. I’ve done three days of my new ‘read a chapter of the New Testament each day’.

I have a long way to go but I’m getting addicted to the little burst of satisfaction when I check the box. Visual markers–stones in a jar, stars on a calendar–are a great way to spur us on when our interest or desire weakens. Ask anyone in kindergarten.

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2] Make sacred stops
Keeping a habit takes energy, especially when I’m going against my natural tendency or selfish default. I think that’s why often I start to slack off. I stop pushing. Soon, the new habit quietly slinks away. Instead, I need to replace slacking off with coming to a full stop, which is exactly what happens when I keep the Sabbath. It’s a time to pause along the way and get refreshed.
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I take a break from the routine of my life and spend time enjoying God and His creation. It’s a chance for me to remind myself of the big picture too. And when the Sabbath is over, I’m rested and ready to pick up my habit again.

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The year has just begun and there’s a long way to go. But slow and steady like the turtle, I’m getting somewhere.

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What about you? What helps you stay on track and persevere through the year?

Still practicing

November 14, 2013 — 3 Comments

A person once asked me, “Are you a practicing Christian?” The question took me aback for a moment. To me there wasn’t any other kind, But then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s right. I am practicing. I haven’t mastered this yet.’
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I was reminded of that brief encounter when I started to read Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath. She begins her reflections on Jewish spiritual practices by saying:

“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judaism suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.)

…Madeline L’Engle once likened spiritual practice to piano etudes: You do not necessarily enjoy the etudes— you want to skip right ahead to the sonatas and concertos—but if you don’t work through the etudes you will arrive at the sonatas and not know what to do. So, too, with the spiritual life. It’s not all about mountaintops. Mostly it’s about training so that you’ll know the mountaintop for what it is when you get there.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians.”

Given the title of Winner’s book, it’s not surprising that the first discipline she focuses on is the Sabbath. As I read her description of Jewish Sabbath practices, I realized that the Deep Sabbath I wrote about a few months ago is actually the regular Sabbath. Oops. It’s not a once-a-year activity.

Every week, with no exceptions, observant Jews set aside a day and obey the fourth commandment. They light Sabbath candles at sundown and for 24 hours, they cease from all manner of work. The Hebrew verb ‘Shabbat’ means to cease, and that includes lighting fires [no cooking, no turning on lights], and shopping.

When I was working full-time for a publishing company and living a maxed-out life, I decided one year to stop doing laundry and grocery shopping on Sundays. It was a rather radical step, but I was surprised how easy it was to work those activities into the rest of the week.

Now I face other, more subtle challenges. Since Sundays is a prime work day for Jack as a pastor, we’ve tried over the years to take a regular day-off. But as I reflect on it, that’s not the same as a Sabbath. A day-off is something your company gives you for you to do whatever you want or need to do. A Sabbath is a holy day, set apart, and spent in the presence of God. Another oops.

After reading Mudhouse Sabbath, I decided it’s time to try yet again to take a weekly Sabbath. In other words, it’s time to practice. And that means I need to be ready to stumble and fail because establishing a new life habit doesn’t happen over night. Then I discovered a small group guide with a section [pages 10-12], “Developing a Sabbath Practice.” Over the course of a month, it helps you shape your Sabbath practice by having you reflect on what to exclude from your Sabbath. Then it has you practice weaning yourself off those activities, and also think about what to include.

I’m still working through the guide. I’m still thinking about what boundaries I need and want to put on the day. I’m still working on preparing better for the Sabbath, too. Winner writes that Jews spend Sunday, Monday and Tuesday remembering the Sabbath, and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday preparing for it. Having tried and failed a few weeks to take a Sabbath, I can see the wisdom in that.

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This week, our Sabbath day fell perfectly into place. Monday, Jack and I walked to a nearby park, enjoying the cathedral of eucalyptus trees as the sun rose. Later I went with an old friend who was visiting and had a special hammam [Turkish bath]. I stayed off the internet and read a book. We ended the day sharing a meal with our visiting friends: roasted lamb and couscous stuffing and special desserts from a local bakery.

The Sabbath was so enjoyable that I’ve found myself thinking about it every day since then. It has helped me feel loved by God. It’s been a reminder of how He cares for me. I’ve experienced the joy Isaiah told about:

You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on My holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.

Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”

Isaiah 58:13-14

I’m already beginning to think ahead to this coming Monday. I need to carve out some time to plan and prepare for it. It might not be as perfect as last Monday, but that will be alright. I’m still practicing.

What about you? What spiritual habit are you practicing?

I’m up to Exodus in my chronological Bible reading Last month, just in time for the Passover Seder, I read the account of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. It’s a wonderful story. They cry out and God rescues them from 400 years of hard slave labor. But faster than one can say, ‘deliver us from Pharoah’, the Israelites start to grumble against Moses. “What are we going to eat? What are we going to drink? It would have been better to die in Egypt.”

It was stunning for me to read how quickly they became discontent. God freed them, but that wasn’t enough for them. They mumbled and grumbled at Moses, even after he pointed out to them that they were really grumbling against God. When I finished reading the passage, I rolled my eyes at the Israelites’ inability to put things in perspective. I wished I could have given them a shake and told them to have a little backbone and a lot of gratitude.

Then I realized I’m no different from them.

Often what comes out of my mouth in the course of the day is not thanks or gratitude or praise. Instead, you’ll hear grumbling, murmuring, and sometimes downright complaining. In the last four months, a lot of this grumble time was taken up with the weather which I’ve found to be too cold, too wet, too cloudy, too dark, and too rainy to my liking.

too often I see my life like this

too often I see my life like this

When I lived in the states, I took turns grumbling about the quirky co-workers at my job, the songs we sang [or didn’t sing] at church, politicians, and the tulip-eating deer in my garden. Now living in a developing country, I’ve moved on to other topics. At the grocery store, I grumble about my broken shopping cart that refuses to go in a straight line; about the sudden disappearance of [choose one] evaporated milk, decaf coffee, or oatmeal; about how hard it is to open the plastic grocery bags at the checkout.

If I stop grumbling long enough to look around, I can see how fortunate I am. Unlike a majority of people here, I don’t have to complain that my roof leaks when it rains, or that my clothes are damp because I don’t have a drier. I don’t have to complain that I have to eat the same dish of porridge for supper because I can’t afford anything else. I don’t have to complain that I’m cold at night because my blanket is so thin. I don’t have to complain that I have to walk to work because it doesn’t pay me enough to buy a car. I don’t have to complain that my tooth hurts because I don’t have money for the dentist.

In reality, my life is like this

In reality, my life is like this

The easy solution is to focus on being thankful for all God has done for me and given to me. And for the past five years it’s been my daily habit to write down what I’m grateful for. Every day I have at least a half-dozen items and I think this practice has made a difference.

But I still find myself grumbling. Partly that’s because I have a casual attitude about it. It’s hard to see how a little complaining does any real harm. I treat it like a sport or a little dramatic performance.

However, grumbling is serious business. Psalm 95:8-10 says that the Israelites’ grumbling in the wilderness had two very bad consequences. First, it resulted in the hardening of their hearts. They stopped listening and went their own way. Second, their testing of God made Him angry. Given that God is slow to anger and rich in love, this must have been some major grumbling.

So what can I do to eradicate grumbling from my life besides faithfully writing my list of daily thanks?

It seems to me that the most grumble-free people I know have a different way of looking at life than I do:

  • They don’t expect to be in control.
  • They don’t expect other people to be perfect, or for things to always run smoothly.
  • They are satisfied. Period.

So along with thanking God every morning, I need to remind myself:

  • There is a God and it’s not me.
  • Something will probably not go right today.
  • Someone will probably act badly.
  • And I can still be content. For God has given me an endless supply of grace.
May I learn to be content in all things

May I learn to be content in all things

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. Philippians 2:14-16

What about you?
How full do you see your glass?
Do you ever find yourself grumbling about what’s missing in it?
And if you hear me grumbling, will you give me a nudge?

I’ve been reflecting more about the Holy Spirit growing fruit in us as we stay attached to Jesus.

Last month, I read through the book of Job in my Bible reading plan [note the fall is a great time to start a plan if you haven’t already]. Job is a poignant reminder that although most of the time we feel safe and secure, there are no guarantees we will never see dark days.

As Job suffered, he basically had two ways to respond. Continue Reading…

Peace like a river

August 21, 2012 — 4 Comments

Do you know the simple children’s song, “I’ve got peace like a river?”

Continue Reading…

On the strength of God’s promise and trusting in His faithfulness,
the believer yields himself to the leading of the Holy Spirit… Continue Reading…

Finding fruit

August 14, 2012 — 9 Comments

I was mugged a few weeks ago. As I walked to church on a quiet Sunday morning, enjoying the brilliant blue sky, and the air scented with honeysuckle, and a praise song on my music player, suddenly three young men ran up behind me.

Continue Reading…

*Or almost all

Change is coming, and it is coming soon.

It all started a few months ago, when there was an unexpected turn in my life. Unlike God who has His plan worked out from the beginning,** I was unsure how I wanted to respond.

Continue Reading…

I am not wonderful. I am just a poor old frail and weak woman. God has taken hold of me and he gives me the strength I need each day. He uses me just because I know that I have no strength of my own.

Granny Brand
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“God wages war on our despair by loving us into the future and by opening us up to infinite possibilities. The person, from the believer’s point of view, is a pilgrim, a sign of what is to come. Thus it is that we are invited to live not in the future, but from it.” Living from the future means refusing to define ourselves as less than what we will be when we stand before God. Living from the future means living at the edge of glory and rejecting the attempts made by the world, the flesh, or the devil to cut us down.

Richard Krejcir quoting Alan Jones

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I don’t mean to say that I have… already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me…I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

The apostle Paul, around 60 years old, writing to the Phillipians about his growth in faith. [Phillipians 3:12-13]

This Week’s Special
Stop dwelling on past events and brooding over days gone by.
I am about to do something new.
Even through the wilderness, I will make a way and paths in the barren desert.
I shall provide water in the wilderness, and rivers in the barren desert.

Isaiah 43:18-21


Many years ago, I read two books by Dr Paul Brand, co-authored with Philip Yancey, In His Image,and Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. Both books draw upon lessons Brand learned in his pioneering work with leprosy patients.** Full of amazing insights about the human body and the Christian faith, they are well worth reading, or re-reading.

But this post isn’t about Paul Brand. It’s about his mother who had her own fascinating story. Granny Brand started out her life as Evelyn Harris, the daughter of a rich British merchant. In her late twenties [a hundred years ago], she gave up her comfortable life in London and went to work in the mountains of southern India. There she married Jesse Brand and settled into a remote area where people struggled with sickness, poverty and hopelessness. The Brands cared for the people, sharing the good news of the gospel and caring for those who were ill. They had two children, Paul and Connie, who were eventually sent back to England for schooling. Then Jesse died of blackwater fever. Evelyn went back to England on furlough, and spent time with her children. But at the age of 49 she returned to India. For the next 20 years she continued the work, sometimes living in rugged mountain villages and sometimes working on the plains, based in Madras.

Her biography** does not dwell on her faults but it’s clear that she was not always easy to work with. She could be critical , strong-minded, and stubborn. But she was also passionate to help people in any way she could and her life is proof that the God doesn’t seem to mind using imperfect, exasperating saints.

Just before she turned 70, following the policy of the mission, she retired. And then she joined Caleb’s Crew**. Instead of returning to England, she settled once again in the southern mountains to start a new work. For 25 more years, until her death at the age of 95, she continued bringing hope and wholeness to remote villages. She helped eradicate the painful guinea worm parasite, fought marijuana growers, led Bible studies, took in foster children. Granny Brand is a great example that there’s no age limit on having a vision and making a difference in the world. Given that our life expectancy has increased over the last century, that’s a valuable lesson for all of us, no matter what age we are.


But I think the most notable success of her second career was not how God worked through her, but how God was able to work in her. Miraculously, He softened her, healed old bitterness, replaced irritation with love. When Paul Brand visited his mother towards the end of her life, he noticed a spiritual strength she had not shown before. And he found her younger–not in her body, but in her spirit. She had a deeper joy and peace. “This is how to grow old,” her son wrote.” Allow everything else to fall away, until those around you see just love. They will also see your own life renewed and they will recognize the love to be the love of God.”

What an encouraging illustration that we are never too old to be changed. God never gives up working in us. Regardless of what decade we are in, the power of the Holy Spirit can do the impossible in us, smoothing away our rough edges and healing wounds we thought were permanent.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. II Corinthians 4:16

**Links and Notes
** “Before Brand, it was widely believed that those suffering from Hansen’s Disease lost their fingers and feet because of rotting flesh. Instead, Brand discovered, such deformities were due to the loss of ability to feel pain. With treatment and care, he showed, victims of the disease could go indefinitely without such deformities.” [obituary in Christianity Today]

**Granny Brand: Her Story by Dorothy Wilson Clarke
There is also a brief biography of her here

**Introduction to the Caleb’s Crew series

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

The practice of faith

November 30, 2011 — 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking about faith again** and mulling over something that Andrew Murray wrote about it. To illustrate what faith is like, Murray said that “when a man wishes to learn to swim, he goes into the water while he cannot swim, because he knows that once he begins, he will learn to do it in time.” That’s so true. You don’t learn to swim sitting on the shore. I’ve been watching Clara on webcam as she masters the art of walking and I’ve been reminded that a baby does the same thing. If all Clare ever did was watch adults and her big sister, she would never learn. She had to start toddling and falling and picking herself up again, over and over and over again. I don’t know how many times a baby falls while learning to walk but it must be hundreds of times.

Too often I view faith as something that I should be able to do perfectly all the time, rather than something I have to practice. To have more faith doesn’t mean hoping God will dish out a bigger portion to me. Instead I learn to exercise faith by tottering along. Rather than get frustrated that I don’t have perfect faith, I can accept I am almost guaranteed to fall down and I will have to get up and start again. I say, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”**


Faith isn’t a possession as much as it is a muscle that grows with patient practice and repetition. Even Peter couldn’t walk perfectly when he saw Jesus on the water before him, but stumbled. How much harder is it for us who don’t see Jesus with our physical eyes, but only with our eyes of faith. I just have to keep walking with Jesus, holding out my hand like a baby holds out her hand for her mother when she starts to lose her balance.


The hand of faith
Interestingly, that image of reaching out a hand is found at least three times in the gospel of Matthew**. The first time, it was a woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years. She had gone to many doctors and spent all her money trying to be cured without success. She was desperate, not only because of her physical problem but also because it made her ritually unclean. Anyone and anything she touched would also become unclean. I imagine that people must have kept their distance from her. She decided that if she could touch the edge of Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed. She came up behind, where no one would notice her. Maybe she didn’t want to embarrass Jesus. Or maybe she didn’t want to risk having Jesus reject her because of her condition. Whatever the case, she went ahead and took a baby step of faith with life-changing consequences.

The next time, it was a man with a withered hand that was shrunken and paralyzed. The Pharisees were in the middle of a tiff with Jesus about whether it was right to heal on the Sabbath. To prove his point, Jesus told the man to stretch out his hand. The man obeyed and his hand was restored to health. I suspect he didn’t mind being used as an object lesson but I wonder if he hesitated when Jesus asked him to show his hand. Sometimes faith requires exposing our weaknesses, brokenness, and damaged parts.

The third time it was Jesus who offered his hand, to a sinking Peter. Peter had taken a bold step, getting out of the boat and starting to walk on the water towards Jesus. But he began to lose his courage, just like Clara would take a few steps and then realize how far away she was from the safety of the couch or a chair. She wasn’t always confident enough to keep going.

“Beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said. “why did you doubt?”
[Matthew 14:30-31]

That’s the hand I like best, the one that comes to rescue me when I stumble and fall. Since walking by faith is not something that comes naturally to me, chances are I’m going to take a lot of tumbles. Like a loving parent, God doesn’t mind holding my hand or staying close beside to give me confidence, or coming over and comforting me when I’ve fallen yet again. I don’t think He ever tires of pulling me up out of the slimy pit and setting my feet on solid rock ground again. And when I am able to walk more steadily, He enjoys holding my hand as we walk along.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you!
Don’t be frightened, for I am your God!
I strengthen you –
yes, I help you –
yes, I uphold you with my saving right hand!

Isaiah 41:10

Links and notes
** see the “Six-month prayer challenge” for earlier musings about faith
**Mark 9:24
**Matthew 9, Matthew 12, and Matthew 14

Corrie Ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place, knew how hard it can be to forgive. Here are three quotes from her:

Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

***

Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain.
There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.

***

It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

This Week’s Special
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:12-14

Learning how God forgives

November 1, 2011 — 1 Comment

Last week, I couldn’t go to church. The village where I was staying only had a service once a month, and I didn’t have time to bike three miles to the weekly service in a larger town before I started the first leg of my trip home. So on the train to Marseille, I listened to a free sermon I had downloaded by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It was from a series he gave on the Parable of the Lost Son, and this sermon focused on the father’s forgiveness.** In it, Keller answered the big question I always had about forgiveness.

I knew that since I’ve experienced God’s forgiveness myself, I’m expected to forgive others. I knew how many times I’m supposed to forgive [seventy times seven]. But I never understood how contrite a person needed to be before I could grace them with my forgiveness. What were the conditions the person needed to fulfill? What kind of repentance did they have to show? The idea that forgiveness might be an easy get-out-of-jail free card always struck me as unfair [unless I was the one being forgiven, in which case I would happily take the offered forgiveness without ever being bothered whether I really deserved it or not.]

For many years there was a person I’ll call Milly [now dead] who regularly and systemically trespassed against me. She never really accepted who I was, and rarely loved me without conditions. I struggled to forgive her. I knew I was supposed to, but I couldn’t get past the fact that she never admitted wronging me. In a sense, there was nothing for me to forgive. In another sense, that wasn’t true at all. Even if she didn’t think she had sinned against me, I was still chalking up a very large debt for her in the account I kept. I maintained an extensive catalog of all the ways she had hurt me, wronged me, mistreated me, was insensitive to me, manipulated me, acted thoughtlessly, etc.

I told myself I would be willing to forgive her when she asked for my pardon. This is how I thought God’s forgiveness worked in my life: I admitted I was wrong, confessed my sin, and then had the slate wiped clean. But since Milly never said she was sorry, I held my forgiveness in reserve. Sometimes I did forgive her in my heart, but it was always grudgingly, with a “Yes, but”. Yes, but she hurt me. Yes, but she didn’t say she was sorry. Yes, but it’s not fair. This didn’t get me very far. Though I cared for her the best I could, under the surface I was usually clenching my teeth and I was always ready to tell someone about my grievances against her.

Keller pointed out that this is not God’s way. God’s forgiveness is assertive, aggressive even. It takes the initiative. It makes the first move. The father in the parable illustrates this by going out to his returning son before the son has a chance to say he’s sorry. The father sees his son a long way off and he is filled with compassion for him [something I rarely felt towards Milly]. He then runs to him, throws his arms around him and kisses him, all before the son has uttered a single world.

There were no preconditions or conditions for the son to meet. And when the son does speak and acknowledges he has wronged his father, the father basically ignores the confession. He doesn’t demand restitution. He doesn’t ask “Are you really and truly sorry for the way you have hurt me?” Instead, he tells his servants to get nice clothes and a ring for him, and to throw a big party to celebrate.

That was very convicting for me. But I did notice that there was one small but significant precondition: the son was on his way home. The father had not gone out and tracked him down. I soon realized that doesn’t get me off the hook though. Although the parable suggests there’s the precondition of the son’s return, in real life Jesus died for me before I had any desire to come back. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”[Romans 5:8] I was living happily in the pig sty, as it were, when He cancelled my debt. There was no guarantee I was ever going to return and accept what He did for me.

Keller’s second point was that forgiveness is sacrificial. He explained that when someone wrongs you, they’ve robbed you. Maybe they’ve stolen love away from you, or respect or peace or affirmation. Whatever it is, they’ve brought both pain and loss into your life, and someone has to pay for the loss and someone has to absorb the pain.

My question about what a person needs to do before I can forgive them acknowledges this reality. Instinctively we know that someone has to right the wrong. I can’t just say, “It doesn’t matter.” Because it does. I’ve been hurt, and I’ve been stolen from. A wound has been left that needs to be healed. A debt has been created that needs to be paid. I almost always think it is the other person who should do this. But God’s approach was to have my debt cancelled through the death of Jesus without me even asking for it. Forgiveness came to me freely, though it wasn’t free. Jesus paid it . And that was exactly what God wanted me to do with Milly: forgive her debt to me. He wanted me to absorb the pain rather than retaliate and inflict pain on her [or at least make her grovel].

This feels impossible. It feels too hard to go around canceling debts and absorbing pain. Keller acknowledged this with his third point: the only way it’s possible to forgive this way is by having inner power. The source of that power comes from God who has completely forgiven me and fully loves me. Because of what He has done for me and the relationship I have with Him, I can do this. If I have a billion dollars in the bank, it’s not difficult for me to absorb a hundred dollar debt because I know I’m not going to run out of money.

God isn’t asking us to become self-righteous martyrs. He simply wants us to forgive people by drawing on the unlimited spiritual account He’s given to us. And if we follow His example, we do this before the person asks for it. Another great preacher in my life, Jack, says this is like two adjoining hotel rooms. Each room has a door that leads into the other one and both doors need to be unlocked for the two rooms to be connected. In forgiving, I unlock my door. I’m supposed to do this as soon as I can, rather than waiting until the other person knocks.

I’d like to think that if Milly had lived longer, I would have been able to truly forgive her. Not because there would have been no more debt to pay, but because as I experienced God’s love more deeply in my life, I would have become willing and able to absorb the pain. It wouldn’t have been easy. It would have required me to spend a lot of time talking with God and working it through with Him, processing the hurt and not just stuffing it away.

On a much smaller scale, I now have a very aggravating situation in my life where I continually need to offer forgiveness and it is a big struggle for me. Virtually every time in this country when I am waiting patiently, obediently, and legally to make a left turn at a traffic light, someone cuts me off. And it’s usually not just one person, but three people coming from behind on the right and one or two coming from behind on the left, and another zooming down the opposite lane of traffic to get ahead of everyone. I yell. I honk. I seethe. I fume. I curse. It’s an injustice against me. I’m being robbed of my place in line.

I think I finally understand what Jesus meant when He said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you. [Matthew 5:38 -42]

The driver who cuts me off is definitely an evildoer. He has hit me on one cheek. And I’m supposed to turn the other. I’m not supposed to resist. This seems so counter to survival. But I’ve driven here twice since listening to this sermon and when people have cut me off, I’ve released them from their debt. I’m not turning into a doormat. I’m claiming my privileges as the daughter of the Most High King.** I’m trusting Him for justice and vengeance when necessary. I’m relying on Him for the power to forgive.

I don’t think this is going to be the end of my struggle with forgiveness. In fact, as I’ve been writing this, another person has come to mind whom I’ve held a grudge against for a long time. I’ve occasionally worked on forgiving them, but I haven’t been willing to absorb the pain. Now I know this is the place where my praying starts.

“Embrace this God-life. Really embrace it, and nothing will be too much for you. This mountain, for instance: Just say, ‘Go jump in the lake’—no shuffling or shilly-shallying—and it’s as good as done. That’s why I urge you to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large. Include everything as you embrace this God-life, and you’ll get God’s everything.”
Mark 10:22-23, The Message

**Links and notes
You can download the sermon, And Kissed Him, here.

a post about being God’s beloved

At the age of 60, John Stott wrote:

“I was reading Leviticus 27 that day, which is about redemption prices. From it I learned that in Hebrew society “the value of a male between the ages of 20 and 60” was “50 shekels of silver”, whereas at 60 he dropped 35 shekels to a mere 15! Perhaps therefore, I thought to myself, I should regard my 60th birthday as my “Devaluation Day”. A Singaporean friend helped to rescue my sagging morale, however, by telling me that according to the Chinese a 60 year-old is worthy of added respect because he is now embarking on his sixth 12-year cycle.

Leaving aside these cultural perspectives, I sat that afternoon in my favourite nook on the Pembrokeshire cliffs and read the exhortation in Hebrews 12.1 to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”. So I prayed for grace to persevere in Christian faith, life and service, and a few months later was encouraged by the promise of Psalm 92.14 that God’s people “will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green”. May it be so!”

***
At the age of 67, John Stott reflected:

“50 years ago today, on 13 February 1938 a young man knelt at his bedside and opened the door of his heart or personality, and invited Christ to come in. I was that young man. I have now had 50 years in which to test the reality of Jesus Christ. Tonight, on my 50th spiritual birthday, I want to bear witness to him, and to the length, depth, breadth and height of his love…

When I am asked if I have any further ambition, as my life approaches its end, I answer that my overriding desire is to become more like Jesus Christ, through the transforming power of his indwelling Spirit. For that is God’s eternal purpose for us all. And when Christ comes again, in spectacular magnificence, we will at last be fully like him, for we shall see him as he is.

***
At 85, John Stott said:

Pride is without doubt the greatest temptation of Christian leaders. And I’m very well aware of the dangers of being feted and don’t enjoy it and don’t think one should enjoy it.

***
More wisdom from John Stott:

At every state of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.

***

If we truly love our neighbor,we shall without doubt tell him the good news of Jesus. But equally, if we truly love our neighbor, we shall not stop there.

***

We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather, we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?’

First up in Caleb’s Crew is John Stott who died last week.**

He’s not a member of the crew merely because he lived to be 90, but because he kept running the race and bearing fruit long after retirement age. In the memorial video about his life, I was struck that virtually all the pictures of him in action showed him with white hair.** He wrote his last book at 88, in longhand no less.** Here was a man who didn’t focus on the finish line but who kept his eyes on Jesus.

When Stott was 80, a longtime associate described Stott**:

To those who know and meet him, respect and affection go hand in hand. The world-figure is lost in personal friendship, disarming interest, unfeigned humility—and a dash of mischievous humour and charm. By contrast, he thinks of himself, as all Christians should but few of us achieve, as simply a beloved child of a heavenly Father; an unworthy servant of his friend and master, Jesus Christ; a sinner saved by grace to the glory and praise of God.

At 85, Time Magazine selected Stott as one of the world’s most 100 influential people, putting him in the “Heroes and Icons” category.**

As another blogger put it last week , “He lived well, he died well, and now he lives better.”**

I think you’ll find it well worth it to look at the links below.

Notes and Links
Stott’s obituary in the New York Times
Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times about Stott

video story with lots of white-haired pictures of Stott

Stott’s last book,The Radical Disciple

A few talks and sermons by John Stott that you can download
Note that Stott gave these from the ages of 84 to 86

Timothy Dudley-Smith’s reflections on Stott’s 80th birthday

Time Magazine’s profile of John Stott for their 100 most influential people issue [written by Billy Graham]
Time Magazine’s full list of the 100 most influential people

Dennis Haack on Stott