Tuesday, January 13, 2015

And the Word of the Year is...

"Now FAITH is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

The Head Pastor of my church, Dr. Jim Congdon, recently challenged us to choose a new, word-of-the-year, for ourselves as he did last year upon the New Year's arrival.  He encouraged us to do this because having one word to carry with us daily throughout the year is easier than having so many New Year's resolutions or personal goals to mentally manage.  Goals or resolutions are good--they are an important part in taking steps toward improvement.  If we don't have a plan or any benchmarks toward it, we won't accomplish much.  But if we can also choose a word that summarily covers our biggest needs or desires for personal change, we can better focus and improve our lives in a more simplistic and realistic way.  We can also adjust our goals or resolutions around that word giving them deeper purpose and meaning.   I also think it is a pretty cool way of remembering years past--whenever we think back to the good and bad that we faced in any particular year, we can now place a word alongside it and recall what God taught us and what He did through those trials and triumphs.

My word last year was, patience.  I had no problem deciding upon that word quite quickly and even blogged about it (to read search, "Growing the Fruit of Patience").  At that point in my life, I knew I needed help in that department the most!  But what good is having a, word-of-the-year, if we disregard it after having worked on it for an entire year?  So, patience, will continue to be a special word for me...and one I still need daily.

This New Year my, "word o' the year," did not come so readily.  There are several words of which I could use more in my life at this time:  trust, believe, fearless, freedom and hope were all strong contenders.  After analyzing them and praying about it, the answer came clearly:  (insert drum-roll) FAITH.  I think, faith, is a nice merger of all of those words combined, and God has revealed to me that I need some growth in this area--big time!

Recently I have experienced some pretty major changes in my life.  My husband, Matt, received a big job promotion in October as C.E.O. of, The Kansas Livestock Association.   About that same time, I also left the band in which I had been singing for nearly the past two years.  There have been other changes this past year at my church and in my personal life that have also required some adjusting and forward-thinking.  When change occurs, you have a choice:  You either meet the change head-on forging ahead with positive hope and trust, or you ponder and fret over all the possible problems that could now come your way (or like me, you entertain the paradox of both)!  I have found myself thinking and praying about things like, "How hard will it be for us to adjust to the new demands on Matt with his new position (???)...he was already super-busy.  Will our marriage be okay?  Will the added stress and responsibility age Matt faster?  Will it take years off his life?  What is all this going to look like?  Will I be able to travel with Matt as much as he desires and still keep my band afloat?  Will I be alone even more now that he will be even busier?  Will we be able to stay as close with our daughter and family now?  How will we juggle everything?  Will I even be able to find appropriate, worthwhile gigs for my new band?  What if I don't?  What will I do then?  Am I even a good enough singer and musician to be trying to do this?  Am I too old?  I mean, seriously...what if I fail?  I've waited two decades to do this music-thing, Lord.  This is all I want to do with my life and as You know, it's a hard road."  These thoughts have crept-up on me the past few months and found their way into my prayer life, as they should.

If you have read my blog much at all, you know I am not a big change girl.  Change can be so good and such a blessing.  But initially it often brings personal upheaval and/or some loss.  We may lose a few things that were actually better or that we liked...or loved.  The comfortable and familiar are gone.  Change requires new thought and action.  It demands a positive outlook and an appreciation of the new perks of the change.  It calls for our belief that the new change will be a good one.  It challenges us in new ways and forces us to learn new things.  We have to take unfamiliar risks and plunge into uncertain realms.  It requires us to let go of old ideas and past ways of doing things...and let go of people sometimes, too.  It puts us in uncomfortable positions.  We are forced to put our trust in God in lieu of people or circumstance.

In a person of my personality type (you know--the control-freak type), and when I am operating on my own in my flesh and not with God's help in the Spirit, all of that upheaval typically causes some or all of these ripple effects:  sleeplessness, over-analytical thought, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, doubt, distraction, sadness, over-eating, under-eating, over-exercising, under-exercising, worry, obsessive-behaviors and exhaustion.  I saw a quote the other day by a Christian author, blogger, speaker and fellow Twitter follower of mine, Kelly Balarie:  "Control is pride hidden under a cloak of fear."  Ouch.  And where does fear comes from?  A lack of faith. 

When we lack faith, we often try to over-control our lives.  It's our prideful way of, "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and moving on."  We try to fix it ourselves and put our faith in ourselves to do so.  We often read and hear things such as, "Take control of your own life--if YOU don't, who will?!"  We know from God's Word that if we know Him and live by His Spirit, we should be able to exhibit self-control in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23).  But we also read and hear negative commentary about controlling personality types and people who are so driven by control that they leave others in their wake (including God).  Clearly God doesn't want us to just sit back and do nothing with our lives under the misconstrued, aloof idea that since He has ultimate control, what's the point of even trying?!  But He also doesn't want us striving and straining in over-control.  I grew-up hearing the phrase, "God helps those who help themselves," and even thought for a while in my young years that it was Biblical.  Well, it isn't.  Helping yourself can be good and bad.  There is a fine balance needed in "control," and faith properly placed is the key.  God desires for us to utilize control in our lives humbly and healthily.  God gave us a brain, mouth, hands, and feet so we can use them.  He wants us to use them!  But He wants us to use them meekly, giving ultimate control to Him.  We must view our lives as vessels or extensions of His strength, His will, and His glory.  He wants our confidence to be in Him, not in our own might and efforts and certainly not in man's.

On that topic, God also does not want us to allow others to control us in ways that are wasteful, abusive, misguided, or harmful to us.  We must be leery of other control-freaks who not only struggle with over-controlling their own lives, but who also want to control ours with their plan for us.  These are the people who attempt to manipulate you, over-power you, or prove themselves in prideful ways to you and others.  These are the people who lie to you, are uncompromising, have to win at all cost, break promises but expect you to keep yours, and use your weaknesses against you to guilt you into doing or believing what they want.  These are the people who have different rules for you than they do for themselves.  These are the people who expect you to trust them, but haven't behaved in ways that warrant that trust.  In situations where you are feeling controlled and it is causing your faith to waiver, the best action to take is to bring the control back to the best and ultimate source of it--The Lord.  We must place our control (and the other person's) under His authority alone by tapping into the motivational sources of His Word, prayer, wisdom, diligence, rest, strength, trust, obedience, hope, love, and FAITH.  We can effectively use control and self-control in our lives in faithful and fruitful ways when we understand Who is really in control and give Him that control.  We must seek to please and trust Him only.  When we do that, control is no longer a self-centered, prideful, mismanaged, disillusioned, stressful way of handling our lives out of fear, pride, and lack of faith.  It is also no longer a manipulative, defeating tool used effectively by others in our lives.  Instead control flows out of us as an act of worship, discipline, perseverance, and FAITH in working to joyfully live a life that trusts in God alone and seeks to please Him alone.

The following verses state clearly that we are called to do things on our own in faith and take a certain amount of control of our lives understanding from Whom our wisdom, help, and plans are truly and ultimately derived.  If we do so with much faith and humility, seeking His will and strength above our own (and above pleasing men), He promises to make our paths secure, even when it gets hard and scary:

Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight."

Psalm 37:23, "The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when He delights in His way."

2 Corinthians 10:3-5, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."

2 Timothy 1:7, "For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."

Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through Him Who strengthens me."

Proverbs 16:9, "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps."

Colossians 3:23, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Proverbs 29:25, "The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe."

Jeremiah 29:11, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

Isaiah 43: 1-3a, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."

Luke 12:27-28, "Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you—you of little faith!"

Isaiah 43: 18-19, "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."

Ephesians 6:16, "Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked."

Hebrews 11:6, "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him."

1 Corinthians 16:13, "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong." 

2 Corinthians 5:9, "So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him." 

Matthew 17:20, "He replied, 'Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.'"

Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me." 

Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." 

James 1:1-8, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, Who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.  That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.  Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do." 

And my all-time favorite verse: 

Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose." 

As I read over all those well-known, favorite Bible passages, I realize that the recent and somewhat unexpected changes in my life can do two things:  1.  They can cause me to fear, doubt, and waiver in my trust of God and try to over-control my life in prideful, faithless over-compensation; or, 2.  They can compel me to rely on my Lord more in faith, knowing He will work it all for my good because He loves me and wants the very best for me.  Essentially, I can choose fear or I can choose faith.  If I believe what I say I believe about God, His character, His love for me, and His plan for my life, then I should trust Him in full faith.  If I believe all of those above verses to be true, I should be able to prayerfully and faithfully rest in them.  Will everything about the new changes in my life be perfect?  No.  Will I have hard times this year along with the good times?  Yes.  Do I need to fear this?  No.  Our nature is to fear and fret.  But if God lives in us and we know Him as our Father, we no longer have to submit to our old nature.  Our new nature calls us to have faith.

Before, during, and even after the recent changes in my life occurred, I prayed extensively myself and with Matt about all of them.  I even did another one of my 40-day prayer fasts regarding one particular situation.  I prayed that if Matt's promotion would be harmful to him or to our marriage in any way, or if it was not God's ultimate desire for us, that he would not get the job.  I prayed that if Matt was not the perfect person for the job, that God would move him out of the way and put the best person in the position.  I even told my mother to pray this and told her that the members of Matt's Association deserve the best--and that it may not be Matt.  After my Matt got the job, my mother told me that she knew when I asked her to pray this that Matt would get the job and that God had already been preparing my heart for the role, too.  For me to honestly desire what is best for Matt's Association members over what I may have thought was best for us told her that I had developed a very deep love for the people for whom Matt works.  She is right about that.  But I also had faith that God knew what was best and anything less than His best just wouldn't be worth it. 

I also prayed endlessly that God would guide me and show me the right path to take in my band situation.  I prayed for wisdom, clarity, unfettered truth to be revealed, protection, and God's hand and perfect will over it all.  I asked for a clear mind and stable choices.  I prayed for Him to change my heart if I was headed in the wrong direction on any level, and petitioned Him to blatantly and obviously reveal the right decision.  I asked God to remove any selfishness, fear or vanity in me in the decision I would make, and guide me to the best plan--His plan for me.  I prayed that He would show me what would be best for my marriage and for me with regard to my time, my finances, my energy and my future in music.  I told Him to guide me to a choice that would actually be best for everyone involved in the band and their true desires going forward.  I told Him I want His blessing in my life and that I know that blessing only comes when we are walking the path He desires for us--perhaps He didn't even want me trying to do this anymore.  I asked Him yet again to remove the desire to do this music-thing if it is not His will or best plan for me.  Knowing that I have prayed all of those things also helps me to rest in the faith that God will take care of me in the changes that have come and that will come.

Faith, like trust, requires belief and submitting to it.  Faith is a noun and trust is the verb that flows out of that noun.  You can't really have one without the other--they are strongly related.  If I have faith in someone it follows that I should trust them.  If I trust someone, it means I have faith in them.  Some would argue that trust goes deeper than faith--that faith is mere belief while trust is the outpouring action based on that belief.  Though faith is a noun, there is a fair amount of action wrapped-up in it, too--if faith is believing in something, the action is in the believing.  But I think the best definition for, "faith," is found in Hebrews (God's definitions are always much better than man's):

 "Now FAITH is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)

To me, this means living out our beliefs and hopes in our actions...letting our lives (the evidence) speak louder about our faith than our words do.  It means trusting in things we cannot always see and believing in the things for which we hope.  Essentially, believing our beliefs and doubting our doubts.

Why do we tend to believe our doubts and doubt our beliefs?  Personally, I know I struggle with this because bad things do happen to good people.  We live on a fallen planet and because of sin, God is not totally in control of everything that goes on down here (and He is certainly not in full control of every person--we are not His pawns).  People are flawed and sinful, so they make flawed and sinful decisions.  Life is not always fair and things do not always work-out easily or well.  Though God is in control of the ultimate or final plan of our lives and of eternity, He is not the ruler of this world presently (2 Corinthians 4:4).  God has given the enemy a certain amount of power within boundaries and in a time-frame set by God alone.  In John 16:33, we are basically guaranteed that we will have troubles here (as I've said before:  death, taxes, change, and now--troubles)!  Therefore, I find myself fearing that things won't always work-out well (or how I want or think they should).  I don't like pain and suffering.  I don't like sorrow.  Hardships are just that--they are hard and hard isn't fun.  It is difficult to see past the current pain, trial, or uncomfortable change in which we find ourselves and believe that, "...all things [will] work together for good" for us (Romans 8:28).  Though that is ultimately true, it isn't always presently true.  That verse doesn't say that all things are good--it says they work together for good.  It also doesn't say that all things work together for good within six days, six months, six years, or six decades.  We don't always see the good that comes from changes or hardships right away.  In some cases, we may not see the good until we meet Him face-to-face.  Sometimes we feel like we are believing on blind faith that it will work for our good.  But if we truly know the Lord and trust Him with our lives, there really is no blind faith.  Even a mustard seed faith is faith (Matthew 17:20).  We may believe and say that we want God to perfect us and prune all the bad stuff off of us and our lives, but we don't actually love that process.  It is a harsh one.  When we are walking through the trials and tests in life, it is easy to focus on the first half of John 16:33, "...In this world you will have trouble," and forget the second half,  "But take heart! I have overcome the world."  It takes faith.

We all want to be faithful people...hardworking, honest, disciplined and self-motivated.  We desire to see success and fruit come out of the labor of our lives.  We want to see our plans turn out well, reach our goals, and believe that the changes in our lives will bring good.  We want to believe that we will be victorious, not defeated or harmed by those changes.  We want to trust that 2015 will be a good year--a year in which we humbly learn what God wants us to learn, enjoy the blessings that God has given, and bring glory to God in all we do.  All of this takes faith.  Without it, fear and over-control begin to take root.  When we live a life fueled on faith, love reigns.  Hope endures.  Peace permeates us.  Joy pours out of us.  We self-motivate through our faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  When we do, "control" becomes a blessing of discipline and endurance adorned with gentleness and patience--not a curse cloaked in a flurry of fear.  Our actions become an outlet for our faith which reveals itself in our hard-work, creativity, abilities and talents in ways that bless God, others and even us.  The faithless, fearful fuel that causes us to strive in prideful over-control runs empty and drains us.  But with faith firmly founded in Christ, good things can endlessly and freely flow.  

A friend of mine encouraged me regarding facing so many unknowns with the new changes in my life with the phrase, "Good takes care of good."  In other words, when we do our best to live righteously, humbly, mercifully and lovingly, things have a way of working out. Good things come and God takes care of us when we seek Him and His ways.  His Word promises us that we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7).  I want to sow faith.  In response to all my fears and doubts about how all the new changes in my life are going to look, I close with this:  God's got this, and I have faith.

(Shot by me, on 2.10.13, @ St. Pete Beach, FL.  Loved this little guy.  He stood and looked-out on that water for the longest time and then took a step of faith toward it.  The water was so big to him.  It was uncertain.  But eventually he waded, and he had the time of his life!  Faith...what is God asking YOU to step-out in faith toward this year?  Trust Him!  Have faith and have the time of your life!).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Earning the Gift

"Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!"

2 Corinthians 9:15

After yet another three-month hiatus, I am compelled to write this blog after speaking with several women lately regarding the, "Christmas crunch."  I can totally relate to their overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, panic, and rush regarding all the holiday shopping, unwrapped gifts and unfinished baking that still remain on the do-list amidst all the Christmas programs, parties, and ministries that demand our attention and drain our time and energy.  Most years I begin the Christmas season a solid two-weeks behind due to traveling to be with family the week of Thanksgiving and then spending the entire next at my husband's annual work convention.  This leaves me about two weeks to do it all.  Believe me, I get it.

Add to that, for the past 27-years of our marriage, our family has had between five and six Christmas gatherings within about seven days.  We still typically travel to five different houses during the week of Christmas.  It isn't that I don't enjoy each of those gatherings or seeing the people that we see.  But it is a lot within one week, (and for nearly 30 years), especially when you are carting gifts and food to most of those houses and trying to do so around a fair amount of luggage.  

I used to get completely stressed-out every year about Christmas.  Jesus being, "the reason for the season," seemed like an afterthought with all I had to accomplish in such a short time.  In recent years I have finally learned there is much of which I have to, "let go" in order to stay focused on the Person for which this holiday exists (and in order to actually enjoy CHRISTmas)!  Most of you know that I am a recovering perfectionist.  Well, Christmas is no exception.  I spent most of my twenties and thirties sleeping less during the month of December than any human should, trying to find the perfect gifts, wrap them perfectly, bake the perfect food (that can transport well, not need baked or reheated in someone else's oven, and be tasty upon arrival), decorate the perfect tree and house, maintain a perfectly clean home, attend ALL the Christmas parties to which I was invited (and take food to most of those), serve in a number of capacities and ministries at church, and on and on it went. By the time it was all over, I had typically done some or all of the following:  yelled unreasonably at Matt (typically for something stupid), yelled unreasonably at Allie (again for something stupid), cried (and I'm sorry, but there should be no crying at Christmas), failed to read my Bible and pray daily, felt undervalued or unappreciated for all the work I had killed myself doing, and ended the season ill from the lack of sleep and strain under which I had placed myself (or allowed others to place me).  Finally, I have seen the light and have said, "Stop the madness!"  If you have even once lashed-out at your family from Christmas stress, I would urge you, too:  "Get off the crazy Christmas train!"

Since I have had two weeks to prepare for Christmas again this year, I have attended far less Christmas parties.  I have served in only one capacity at church--leading worship a couple of Sundays.  I have bought a lot more gift cards this year versus spending days trudging through malls and stores looking for things that people will return later anyway (besides, people love to shop the after-Christmas sales, and they can usually get a lot more bang for their buck then anyway)!  I plan to use a lot of gift bags this year (no, my gifts aren't wrapped yet, and I'm not hyperventilating about it).  My house is dusty and I do not care.  We have not even put up the tree yet, and since we will be spending Christmas with our only child and her husband at my parents' house (in order to save time and simplify two Christmases into one), we probably won't bother.  But I have spent time serving others who genuinely need it and where I have felt called to do so these past two weeks.  I have enjoyed my life and spent time listening to friends and family members who have needed an ear.  I have plunged myself into private worship numerous times listening to all my favorite Christmas worship songs.  I have prayed hard for friends who are battling things much more heavy and crucial than holiday decorating and do-lists, like children with cancer and marriages that are falling apart.  I have spent time working to make a special day for my guy, T-bone, for his December birthday (since he feels it gets, "forgotten" in the Christmas craziness).   I have spent much time quietly listening to my T-bone talk about his work and the things he faces in his new position, and praying hard for him.  Nothing major in the eyes of most...but yet, important.

If the Stephanie from Christmas past met the Stephanie from Christmas present, she might think an alien has taken-up residency in my body!  The old me is tempted to say, "Gosh...have I gotten lazy?  Am I depressed?" But the new me says, "No!  Stop it, girl!  The reality is:  Finally!  I am happy at Christmas! I am living the abundant life He desires for me instead of the perfectionist nightmare I lived for years!"  As you fellow perfectionists know, you beat yourself up for miserably over-extending yourself and then likewise, do the same when you under-extend.  I'm 44-years old and I'm done with the whole, beating-myself-up-thing.  My heart has moved from feeling urged to do the expected to doing only those ministries and tending to those people to which God has truly called me.  My heart has moved from falling prey to the appearance of, "having and doing it all" at Christmas to a quiet, contented, still heart that seeks to worship the King alone and serve Him with gladness in areas that to many would seem small.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas decorations and trees at my church and everywhere else I've gone...and they didn't require stress or loss of sleep!  I guess one could say I have had a humbling Christmas.  But isn't that the real point of Christmas?  To quiet and humble our hearts before Him Who came into this world and humbled Himself for us?  I am grateful I serve a God Who doesn't require or demand glitz, flare, or perfection in my worship and celebration of Him and His birth.

Why do we put ourselves through so much striving during this sacred time of year?  In our defense, I do believe a lot of it is our honest desire to create a special celebration for our very special Savior.  I think we very much want to show God that we HONOR His Son.  But on the flip side, I think it is very easy for us to move from that onto the slippery slope of appearances and show.  We want to prove we are a great wife.  We want to prove we are a diversely creative and caring mom, daughter, sister, grand-daughter, aunt, cousin, neighbor, or friend...like everyone else we know and see on Facebook, right?!  We want to prove we are an avid believer and devout Christian by our good deeds and holiday spirit.  But what good do any of the good deeds and appearances really do if our hearts are stinky after killing ourselves doing it all?  Some of the problem lies in the fact that we very much want to, earn the gift, or "prove" we appreciate the free gift of salvation we have through Jesus.  It is important and good to show God we love Him by serving Him cheerfully and by giving generously to the needy and others this time of year.  We know from the book of James, Chapter 2 that our faith is dead without actions or works to back it up.  But we also know that our good deeds must flow out of our faith--not out of a desire to earn our salvation, brag on ourselves, prove a point, win, or in a pious attempt to, "be the Holy Spirit" to others who we think need conviction toward our same callings.  We should only do good works out of a heart full of love for God, for His glory, as a testimony of our faith, and in grateful response to His precious gift to us--Jesus.  We can do many things in His name but we can never earn that gift (Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast).  So doing good works in reciprocation of God's great love and free gift of salvation to us requires caution.  Our motives and hearts must be pure.  In Matthew 6: 1-4 we read, "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."  God is not a God of appearances (1 Samuel 16:7)--He doesn't care that my house is dusty and that I have not decorated like Martha Stewart this year.  He just wants my heart and wants to see me give it away to others in the ways He urges.  If out of our competitive and comparative natures we seek to appear to have it all but our hearts are too burdened and busy to offer up genuine love, friendship, and kindness to those in our own sphere of influence we actually have nothing.  All our work is in vain.

I am glad I serve a God Who says we cannot earn His free gift of salvation through Jesus.  Not only because I would be in serious trouble if I had to earn or prove my way into Heaven, but also because what kind of Christmas would it really be if everyone of us had to work for the gifts we are about to receive from our loved ones next week?!  God is far more gracious, compassionate, merciful, and giving than our loved ones, and even they aren't expecting us to work in return for our gifts from them!  God's attributes provoke me to worship Him.  They beckon me to serve Him humbly, give Him the glory for all good, and praise Him for His gift of Jesus.  In response to God's great gift, He doesn't expect grandeur and show, and I praise Him for that, too.  I'm fresh out of that--it is an endless vacuum of emptiness to me, sucking our lives dry of all the really good stuff.  He just desires for our hearts to be pure before Him and others.  He wants us to willingly offer up our honest worship to Him and lavishly give gifts to our families and friends that are timeless--like genuine love, a selfless attitude, and a caring heart.  I wish you all a truly blessed Christmas and a happy New Year!

Simple Living at Christmas and Always!:
Micah 6:8, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Heaven Blog Part Two: Mansions, But No Marriage!

  [Jesus said,] "In My Father’s house are many mansions;  if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also."
 John 14:2-3

Well, friends, it's only taken me six weeks to post Part Two of my, "Heaven Blog."  That is due to my struggle in editing to a reasonable length more than my being too busy to write (yes, sadly I really did edit this)!  But thanks for bearing with me and coming back.  

I mentioned in Part One that my, "big issue" with Heaven needed its own post (it probably needed two)!  From my title you can probably guess what it is:  Yes, I am not pleased that there is no marriage in Heaven.  Perhaps some of you feel the same way (and the rest of you will think I am crazy after reading this)!  But we know there is no marriage in Heaven based on Jesus' teachings in Matthew 22 (as well as, from other Scriptures: Luke 20:34-36, Mark 12:22-25, & Romans 7:1-25).  In Matthew 22 (I'll choose it as my primary reference in honor of my husband, Matthew), Jesus is speaking to the Sadducees, one of the ruling councils of both a religious and political nature in Israel, at the time.  They were basically wealthy aristocrats who ran things and thought they knew it all:

Matthew 22:23-30,  
23 "The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, 24 saying: 'Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. 25 Now there were with us seven brothers. The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother. 26 Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh. 27 Last of all the woman died also. 28 Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her.'
29 Jesus answered and said to them, 'You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in Heaven.'"
I have known for years that there is no marriage in Heaven--it isn't like I just read this passage.  But for some reason this fact has really been tripping-me-up all summer.  I say this often, but it is so strange how we can know something and not really "know" it.

I recall one friend, whose life's purpose and greatest mission has been to have several children, home-school them, and raise them to be followers of Christ.  Years ago in a Bible study on Heaven, this friend shared that she was devastated that we will not have babies in Heaven.  She chuckled about it as she shared, but I know she was serious.  She LOVES her kiddos and being a mom has been her life's work (and she has done it with great passion and flair)!  Now, I love kids--I even taught young children for 16-years.  But I remember laughing out-loud at her comment and thinking, "Wow.  I guess I am not very maternal because I am DONE with having kids, even now with only having ONE.  I CERTAINLY don't want to have babies for all of eternity!"   Some of you will read this post and similarly, laugh at me for my thoughts about marriage.  Touche`!

We know from Scripture that in Heaven we will no longer need marriage because we, the church, will be united in marriage as ONE BRIDE to Christ and as ONE BODY in Christ.  We will finally be in one, unified, happy marriage to Him, our perfect Husband.  In the Bible, Jesus is often referred to as, the Bridegroom, and the church as, the Bride of Christ (Revelation 21:1-2, John 3:29, Matthew 25:1-13).  In Ephesians 5:25-30, we read this again, as well as, our clear, yet temporal purpose for marriage here on Earth:

25 "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, 27 so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of His body."

Paul wrote this letter to the church at Ephesus sometime around 60 A.D, and this passage is still used in wedding ceremonies all over the world today.  Why have these words remained in discussions of marriage for this long?  Well, for obvious reasons, because they are God's words, which we know will last forever (1 Peter 1:25, Isaiah 40:8).  But they are also relevant nearly 2,000 years later because they not only tell us our purpose for marriage now, but also speak of Christ's selfless love for us as part of His very own body.  We are essentially practicing "oneness" and "selfless love" in our earthly marriages and in our churches.  God wants us to understand these unions, value them, and be ready to live it all out eternally when we are united together with Christ.   

We also know from Scripture that in Heaven, the church (those who believed and trusted Christ as their Savior) is united with Christ in a wedding ceremony unlike any other:  Revelation 19:7, "Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory!  For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready."   This all sounds grand and wonderful--who wouldn't agree that the church living as, one, together in perfect unity and joy will be a marvelous thing?!  But as I pondered the reality of that and what it will truly look like, I was faced with the fact that my earthly marriage will be no more.  No more.  No more Matt and Steph.  No more T-bone and Brownie.  Would my Matt be just another face in a very big, heavenly crowd?  Would he not even be that big of a deal to me anymore? Suddenly the glory of Heaven seemed a little less glorious to me.  

In his recent sermon series on Heaven, the Pastor of my church, Dr. Jim Congdon, assured our congregation that we will recognize each other in Heaven (though we will look differently with altered, glorified bodies) and that we will be reunited there with our loved ones.  But he also said our relationships will change in Heaven.  We will all love one another, but our focus will be on God.  We will be caught-up in our worship of Him and in praising Him, delighting-in Him, and working for Him and His glory.  As great as all that sounded, I began to REALLY struggle with the fearful idea of no longer living with Matt in marriage or having the same, special relationship with my daughter, Allie, that I have now.  I began to think strange and negative thoughts like, "Why do we spend our entire lives learning to sacrificially love our spouses and our families, and developing these deep, meaningful, precious relationships with them only to go to Heaven for eternity to have a generalized, equalized love for everyone?  If marriage is a picture and symbol of the covenant between Christ and the church, why would God end that completely in Heaven for all eternity?  Wasn't that a pretty special covenant, I mean, come on, God?!  So then what IS the point of marriage and family here on earth if it is all going to be irrelevant in Heaven in the scope of God's glory, everybody loving everybody else, and eternity?  I shudder to think marriage is just for procreation, sexual pleasure, and nothing else.  Are you kidding me, God?"   I began to pour my heart out through tears to God praying all these things and saying, "God, why would all the relational work we have done here no longer really matter in Heaven if everything is going to be perfect anyway and we're all going to love each other anyway?  What is the purpose of all this?  I cannot even imagine not having a close or special relationship with Matt and Allie.  It sickens me to my core to think that they won't be any more special to me in Heaven than anyone else!"  Every time I prayed about it, I would end-up bawling bitterly and feeling heartbroken.  The more I thought about it, the worse it got.  It felt like I have about 40-years left to love on Matt, my only child, Allie, and my close family and friends (God willing and if I'm incredibly blessed).  After that, my relationships as I've known them will sort of vaporize for all eternity due to my being captivated by, the glory of the Lord.  It got so bad that at one point, I began to angrily feel like I'd been thrown into already grieving the loss of my husband, as if the feelings, memories, and relationship I have with him here on earth were now even more precious because one day they would no longer matter (and in Heaven, perhaps I wouldn't even recall most of them).  I feared that once in Heaven, my memory and perception would be so altered with the glory of God that I wouldn't even care or realize that I was ever married to Matt.   

For days after the initial, plaguing thoughts of this, I could barely speak of it.  I was unexpectedly thrown into this odd, deep sadness, and every time I attempted to share my feelings and thoughts with Matt, I'd burst into tears and be unable to get myself out of the funk in which I found myself.   One day while chatting in the car about it all, I cried so much I had no makeup left on my face--and we were on our way to a nice dinner out (I was forced to go, "au naturel" that night)!  Poor Matt would lovingly try to reassure me that though I would be captivated by The Lord, I would still remember him, too.   The silver-lining in all this grief was I realize how deeply I love my husband.  The guy is in my cellular makeup, as I once heard someone say. 

I found myself thinking even more odd and crazy things.  I found myself staring at the scar on Matt's hand and thinking to myself, "In Heaven, it will be gone.  But I LIKE the scar--it is a distinguishing characteristic on his body that I love."  Matt got the scar of which I am speaking from a farm injury as a young teenager, and when we dated I remember asking him about it for the first time.  I remember touching it and Matt flinching.  I said, "Oh, sorry.  Does it hurt?"  Matt replied, "It's just tender and has this weird sensation now--the nerve endings are damaged there, I guess."  So then throughout our dating, the scar became the object of a fun, flirtatious joke--every time I held that hand, I acted like I was going to caress it and he'd flinch.  This little joke has carried over into our marriage and I still tease him about it on occasion.  I love that stupid scar... (and for some reason, T-bone still buys into the fear that I'm actually going to touch it)!  It's just a silly imperfection, but it's a part of Matt to me.  This got me thinking about these, "perfected" bodies we are going to have in Heaven.  Now I'm all about no one having sickness, pain, or disabilities in eternity.  Those are just no fun at all.  But if Jesus still had His scars after His resurrection (John 20:27), I'm not so sure we aren't going to have a few of ours, as well.  Besides, what is perfect in our minds is probably not always deemed perfect in God's.  Some blemishes aren't really blemishes...and some scars are perfect.

The ridiculous thoughts continued.  I found myself staring at all Matt & Allie's physical features so as to appreciate and take them all in before they are gone for all of eternity...before they turn into these, "other, altered" beings.  I found myself lying next to Matt in bed in uncomfortable positions for lengthy periods so as not to disturb his sleep.  I wanted him to sleep as well as possible so he will live as long as possible (later realizing that in my lack of sleeping, I am shortening my own life and time with him)!  Suffice it to say, I've been on a weird and unexpected spiritual journey the past few months.
Don't get me wrong--it isn't that I don't want to have loads of deep and loving relationships in Heaven, or that I don't want to share Matt and Allie with anyone else in Heaven.  I don't even really believe I am struggling with Heaven being God-centered (as long as some of my thoughts and focus can be on my family and other loved ones).  Quite frankly, I'm one of those people who LIKES the idea of Heaven being a constant church and praise service (because singing and leading worship are pretty much my favorite things to do)!  I guess I just can't and don't WANT to fathom my marital and family memories drifting away.  I cannot stand the thought of the special love I have with Matt, Allie, my parents, and other loved ones fading into the distant past in the scope of, "eternity," and the, "glory of God."  

Each time I battled these thoughts, I fretted that perhaps the issue is that I love Matt and Allie more than God.  I mean, if I don't want my entire thoughts and focus in Heaven to be constantly on, The Lord, perhaps there's an issue here with my love for Him.  So then that thought would make me totally overwhelmed, tearful, and fearful that God would get me for it.  I would pray, "Lord, it's just that I don't want to go to Heaven and become a programmed robot who is so focused on You I no longer really remember my loved ones in a special way. I hate the thought that I'll see Matt in Heaven and say, 'Hey, I think we used to be married?!  Well, maybe I'll run into you again sometime in next 40-50 years!  See ya!  I gotta go weed the gardens now for, The King!'"  As I prayed these goofy prayers, I began to clearly see that I DO have an issue with Heaven being totally God-focused.  I want to be ME, as I am now (yet perfected), and I want to give attention to those I love and have our love remain.  I even recall thinking one day, "Why do You have to be so self-centered, God?! Why would you NOT want us to think of others in Heaven?  You've spent an inordinate amount of time telling us to love others and trying to teach us to do so here on Earth!  So then why does Heaven have to be all about YOU?!"  Amazing...He didn't even strike me with lightening.   Suddenly a thought I've never had before plagued me:  If I am going to arrive in Heaven and be so overcome by the power, majesty, and glory of the Lord that I no longer think of or care about Matt and Allie anymore than anyone else, I don't know if I want to go.  And then another thought:  Death really IS death.  Everything dies but our love for God.  It's all going to be gone.  Everything.  Still another horrible thought:  If this is true, how will I ever cope and survive the loss of my husband or God-forbid, my daughter?  What we have had will never be again.

Jesus said in His Father's kingdom there are many mansions (John 14:2).  I have wondered about that because if we're going to be busy being caught-up in the glory of God and nothing else will matter, why do we need mansions?  This thought was one of many that began to snap me out of the crazy fears I was having about Heaven.  Obviously, we are not going to just be caught-up in the glory of the Lord all the time, and if we are, then I guess we will finally be able to properly multitask!  Our work will always be pleasurable because it will finally be 100% God-centered and God-anointed.  We know that we will work in Heaven, and that the work we do here is going to be related to what we will do there (as if we are in training for it now).  So clearly we will have other thoughts.  All I know is, I don't want to share a mansion in Heaven with anyone else but Matt, and I don't want my marriage to be non-existent and unremembered for eternity.   I don't want Matt to become this person who is now in equal measure with everyone else in my eyes.  As blissful as all that perfect unity stuff sounds, it kills me to think that my husband could no longer hold a higher place in my heart and life in Heaven as he does here.  Perhaps that sounds, "needy."  I don't like to think of myself like that and pride myself that I fly solo quite a lot and do just fine.  I guess I just really love my husband.  If that makes me, "needy," then so be it.

I know that in Heaven, we will be so, "whole" in the presence of the Lord that we will not feel loneliness, separation, or "need" for anything.  He will be all we need.  We will just be "needy" for God!  But there is an earthly, doubting-Thomas side of me that doesn't fully grasp this--to no longer feel "need" for Matt feels like brain-washing to me, because I DO need him (or I did).  I guess I like the thought of God being #1 in Heaven, and Matt being #2.  I don't like the thought of God being #1, and everyone else in the heavenly realm being #2 in my life--because sorry, most of the people in Heaven aren't going to have meant a thing to me down here!  I just want my heavenly relationships to include all the people I love but without all the problems.  I guess the reality is, I want Heaven my way.  Ugh.

Part of my problem is my perfectionist side thinks it knows best--and it desires for things to just be "right."  One day in Heaven it all will be...and all my fears and doubts about these things will be gone.  I realize how simple-minded I really am--all I really can fathom is what is in front of me.  My mother has often lovingly told me that I am such a, "doubting-Thomas."  Faith has always been a hard thing for me--maybe it's personality issues and flaws, maybe it's growing-up poor and without a father my entire young life, or perhaps I'm just shallow and sinful.  Maybe it's all of that.

After ultimately learning from this sermon series that there will be no mind-altering or memory-erasing in Heaven, and that God is not going to completely rid the new Heaven and new Earth of the beauty we have enjoyed here, I was disgusted and ashamed of myself.  First, that I would concoct doubt that the God of the Universe would be incapable of out-doing Himself, creatively-speaking.   Second, that I would think that He would come here to suffer and die out of love for us all, give us a CHOICE to believe in Him and love Him, but upon our death, would suddenly make us blind, brain-swiped pawns in some perfected little game for His glory and ego for all of eternity.  If God did this, we would not recognize people or even care to recall them, and we know clearly from Scripture we are reunited with loved ones.  Pastor Jim shared further that before the fall of man in, The Garden, Earth was perfect.  So why would God hit delete altogether?!  Likewise, God would not erase all our memories or the mindful reality of the love we have shared with those with whom we have lived our very lives.  We can trust that all the earthly creations and relationships to which God has put His hand will not be gone forever, but will only be perfected and heightened in Heaven.  Only the good stuff will remain.  Pastor Jim summed this up by saying there will be some, carry over in Heaven from this earth to eternity, with a big, make-over, and with God & Christ over all.  Now that sounds good to me.  (In turn, I guess I need to get over my doubts and fears, and trust that the heavenly over-haul will be better than I can even imagine)!

I guess I didn't really get it until now.  I've heard hundreds of times that marriage is a picture or symbol of Christ and the church.  I have understood that the earthly covenant of marriage is much like Old Testament law.  The law was good, necessary, and provided guidance and protection to God's people.  It kept them in righteous fellowship with Him until Christ came to over-ride it with the grace of His perfect gift of salvation.  Once Jesus came, the "law" was no longer needed in order for God's people to stay in fellowship with Him.  They no longer needed to make sacrifices for their sins because the perfect sacrifice, Jesus, had finally come, and left His Spirit with them for guidance and protection.  Likewise, when we are finally united with Christ, earthly marriage will no longer be needed.  We will be in a perfect covenant with Jesus.  We will no longer need to procreate because we will have arrived at the unknown number of those God desires to have in His eternal church.  We will also no longer derive our spiritual and physical pleasure from sex because we will have a union unlike any we have ever known and will get our "highs" in ways far super-ceding our current outlets.  Essentially, all joy and pleasure that we have experienced here on Earth will pale in comparison to that which we will enjoy in Heaven.  Pastor Jim humorously compared our skepticism about no marriage, no sex, and other changes in Heaven to us acting like children wanting to play with mud pies versus desiring to go to Disney World.  All the earthly things we cling to now will be like mud pies compared to what God has in store for us.  In actuality, we all need to prepare to have our minds blown.

So what has God shown me in this weird little journey?  Something I knew but obviously, didn't know.  He has shown me Ephesians 5:25-30 fully--not as head-knowledge, but as heart-knowledge.  I get it now.  I know fully what the point of marriage and family are here on earth.  They are here to provide joy, protection, and guidance in our lives.  They were given to us by God to prepare us for our marriage to Christ in Heaven and to give us a small taste of the awesome unity we will have with our very big family there.  We're just practicing with our small, current sampler plates.  Christ IS my ultimate husband--He is my eternal Husband.  Though my T-bone is a darn good object upon which to practice, he isn't my eternal husband.  Shamefully, I see fully that I've not really thought of Jesus or loved Him as my Husband.  He's pretty much just been the best man at my wedding.

Though I know I need to have Christ (God) in first place in my life, I know I often don't.  It will be a goal for which I will strive daily.  How can I not put a God Who loves me so much He died for me in first place?  How can I not put Him in first place when He isn't a God who desires to mind-sweep me and remove all others from my memory, thoughts, and heart?  God wants to be the cake in my life now and for all eternity, and He wants all the rest that I love to be the icing.  Though I'm not sure how that will all look in Heaven, I know I can trust Him.  Speaking of weddings, cakes, and icing, I pray I get a REALLY BIG PIECE at the wedding celebration in Heaven.  Wedding cake has always been my dessert of choice.  And my word for the year comes into play yet again:  Patience, Steph...patience.

Related Scripture:

2 Cor. 5:6-8, "Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  For we live by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord."

Phil. 1:21-23, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.  Yet what shall I choose?  I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far."

Revelation 21:4, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."


Monday, August 11, 2014

Heaven Blog Part One: Heavenly Hypocrisy?!

  "But as it is written:
'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.'"
1 Corinthians 2:9
At the age of nine, I came to know Christ as my personal Savior.  I can still remember that day.  My mother and I were standing in church singing the old hymn, "Just As I Am Without One Plea," for probably the 100th time.  But it was different somehow on this day and I began welling-up with tears as the lyrics penetrated my heart.  I finally "got" the salvation message and my great need for Christ.  The next thing I knew, I was running down the aisle to the Pastor, tears flowing freely, and began telling him that I wanted Jesus in my heart and life.  Then I grabbed the mic to tell the whole church that I was a sinner who needed Christ and how happy I was that I finally had a Father!  So I have been worshiping the Lord now for over 35-years.  I would like to believe that in 35-years of singing songs declaring my love for God above all else, that I truly mean what I sing--that I, "get" what I am singing.   If you asked me to order the priorities in my life, I would even perhaps hypocritically dare to proclaim God as, "Number One."  The real truth is, on many days my husband and I waiver between number one and two, and God comes in at a whopping number three.  We sing lyrics weekly in church voicing our excitement and readiness to be with our Lord.  But to be honest, there are some things on this earth of which I don't want to let go and to which I cling too tightly.

As I said in my previous blog post, the pastor of my church, Jim Congdon, along with the Associate Pastor of my church, Hunter Ruch, recently preached an in-depth sermon series entitled, "So You're Dead...Now What?!"  This sermon series addressed death and Heaven, and sparked some questions and fears in me regarding both.  I am ashamed to admit that it also revealed the sad truth of my misplaced priorities, as aforementioned.  It seems that even though God has given me the free, undeserved gift of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ, and I have the assurance and blessing of knowing that I will spend eternity with Him in a perfect Heaven free from pain, sickness, sorrow and anymore death, I still actually expect some things of God for meI didn't think I had any major issues with death or Heaven--and I certainly would never have admitted any preconceived, selfish ideas or expectations about Heaven.  In fact, I have professed that I would be one of those people who would be thrilled if Heaven consisted of a constant praise and worship service (because singing and leading worship are my favorite things to do)!  I have also outwardly affirmed that I have no, "unfinished business" in my life, and feel that if the Good Lord decided to take me home today, I could lay on my deathbed knowing I have no lingering regrets.  I have lived honestly and I have attempted to right the wrongs I have committed against others.  Most importantly, since I believe the Word of God to be 100% historically accurate, true, proven to be credible many times over, and God-inspired to 40-eye witness accounts and authors, (see Proverbs 30:5, 2 Timothy 3:16, and 2 Peter 1:21), and I feel totally assured of my salvation by grace through faith in Christ (see Ephesians 2:8, Romans 10:9, Romans 6:23), I have no concerns of hell (thank You, Lord).  In essence, I have enjoyed the grand thought that should death come, I can stare it in the face and say, "Bring it!"

Over the years, I've done a few Bible studies on death and Heaven (check out Randy Alcorn's book, Heaven~it's a goodie).  I remember when I did my first Bible study on death and Heaven nearly 20-years ago now.  I didn't know my Bible that well, and at first, I found it puzzling and surprising that the current Heaven or, "Paradise," is only temporary, as is the current Hell or, "Hades," as it is named.  People typically just talk about Heaven and Hell in general terms, so that is how I always imagined it.  But apparently, the current Heaven or, "Paradise," as it is called by Christ, is a, "holding tank," (as an old friend once laughingly termed it), for the saints who trusted in Christ as their Savior until the New Earth and New Heaven (which will be combined) are ready for them.  Likewise and on the opposite end, the current Hell or, "Hades," is the, "holding tank," for those who did NOT trust Christ as their Savior until the eternal Lake of Fire comes into play for them after the final judgment. (Side-note of clarification:  This is not to say that those in Hades or Hell didn't or don't believe in Christ--even the devil believes in Christ, and he sure isn't getting into Heaven!  The key word and main difference here is that they did not TRUST in Christ as their Savior and Lord when they were living on earth and had the inexcusable chance to do so (Romans 1:20).  This means they did not ask Him to forgive their sins or accept His free gift of salvation to them by believing in His death on the cross as payment for their sins.  They did not trust by faith in His resurrection as the victory over all sin and death, attempt to repent from their sins, or admit their need for Him.  [See the following Scriptures for more guidance on the points of sin, salvation, death, Heaven, and Hell:  John 3:16-18; Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23; Romans 2:5-8; Ephesians 2:8-9; Revelation 21:8; Revelation 21:1-27; Hebrews 9:27; Matthew 25:31-34 & 41; Revelation 20:10-15; Daniel 12:2; 2 Peter 3:7 & 10; John 14:2-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Acts 4:12; Acts 16:30-31; Matthew 25:43 & 46; Revelation 20:6, 11-15; John 13:36; 1 John 3:2; Luke 23:43; Hebrews 10:26-28; 2 Timothy 4:8; Matthew 10:32-33; John 5:28-29; Revelation 19:20; John 6:50-71; Luke 13:3 & 24; Revelation 22:3; Romans 10:9; Revelation 22:12].  

Though I've had questions on the topics of death, Heaven, and Hell, I realize I surprisingly have deeper issues now.  I guess with age comes...wisdom??  Or maybe with age comes the harsh reality that death actually IS looming, and maybe it isn't the underdog I have naively reveled that it is!  It is humbling how you can go along in life as a believer thinking you are perfectly "good" on a topic or thinking you have mastered some particular sin, and God reveals that, no, you are not good.  I think when we are young, we understand death but we do not feel it.  We do not fully comprehend that it is actually going to affect us and those with whom we are walking side-by-side.  Life far outweighs the concept of death when we are young, probably due to the fact that unless fate (God) decides otherwise, we have far more time and life to live than any need to prep for death!  We may even lose elderly people we love along the way.  But in reality, when we are young death feels like a distant myth.  It's other people's problem, not ours.

It no longer feels distant to me.  Losing a lifelong friend to cancer over three years ago made it much more real--too real.  I remember hearing from her widowed husband after her death for the first time.  He shared with me that their eldest son, who was our first God-son, told him that since his mom was now in Heaven, he no longer feared death. I loved that, and I felt that in a sense, as well.  I would guess that the more loved ones you have in Heaven, the less fearful and more ready you are to be there with them.  So I wouldn't say that death frightens me, but for some reason this sermon series has brought it into a new light for me (and that light can initially feel grim and dim)!  It is a perspective I perhaps needed.  Over the past couple of months, the Lord has shown me that I actually do have issues with death and Heaven--some small ones and one big one.  He has revealed some selfishness and priority-confusion in me that also needs correction.  But for this blog post, I will focus only on the small issues (the big one needs its own post)!

Early in the sermon series, Pastor Jim offered the congregation to email him any questions we had regarding death and Heaven, and he would do his best to answer or address them in his sermon the following week, bless his heart.  I laughingly leaned over to my husband and said, "He's gonna regret that" (I was speaking of myself)!  Pastor Jim did answer most of my questions and alleviated many of my fears in his sermon that next Sunday.  But since no one really knows exactly what death and Heaven will be like (and one can speculate about the commonly unrelated facts shared from those who have had near-death experiences), and since God's Word doesn't give us loads of specifics, I have had to entrust the rest of my concerns to the Lord...and rightly so.

So here are my "small" questions or issues with death and Heaven:

1.  Will there REALLY be no more sea in Heaven?  In Revelation 21:1, John describes Heaven to us:  "Then I saw 'a new heaven and a new earth,' for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea."  I know, I know.  You're thinking, "So this is actually an 'issue' for her?"  Yes, it is.  Being an ocean-lover, water-sports person, and huge water-seeker in general, the one thing that really tripped me up during my first study on Heaven (and every study or sermon on it since) was the idea that the sea would be no more.  I really hated (and still hate) that thought!  I don't like to think that there will be no oceanic water or sea life as we know it in the new Earth/Heaven.  Beaches have always been my vaca of choice.  Watching the tide, walking seaside, marveling at sea life, and immersing myself in that mysterious water feels like paradise and perfect peace to me.  I love to feel the sand and sun on my face and skin.  I adore the way the waves sway and tug at you as you swim through them.  To me, swimming in the ocean is a like a carnival ride without man-made reproduction.  It is as if the very hand of God is bringing delight to both your body and soul.  Being on a boat and seeing dolphins, fish, and seabirds soaring is nothing short of heavenly to me.   The first time I snorkeled, I felt as if I was in an unknown world where only God and I existed.  I have never felt silence or rest like that anywhere else.  I wanted to be a mermaid as a child, and often "played mermaid" at the pool as a little girl.  If there ever was a human fish, I was it.  I was one of those kids who had swimmer's ear every summer because I LIVED at the pool.  Water and waves amuse and astound me, and the power, majesty, and vastness of God's oceans draw me closer to Him than any other part of nature.  I believe the sea is an unparalleled, artistic wonder as much as the mountains, the jungles, the deserts, and every other beautiful biome God created.  Though Revelation speaks of a, "sea of glass glowing with fire," (Rev. 15:2), that doesn't sound like the ocean, sea life, and waves I have come to adore.  It is ridiculous, but it troubles me that I may not see tide again in eternity--it's easily my favorite part of God's creation.  

Further study revealed that there are a couple of theories on this topic. You can find well-known Christian theologians and writers such as, John MacArthur, who say that no, there will not be any oceans because in, The Bible, there are many verses suggesting that the sea represents God's hostility and curse on mankind for sin and evil, separation, disorder, violence, and unrest (Isaiah 57:20; Ezekiel 28:8; Revelation 13:1).  To the contrary, you can find well-respected Christian writers (Charles Spurgeon, for example), who believe that though there may be no more tumultuous, dividing, dangerous oceans as we know them today, that God would not completely eliminate sea water altogether when much of His beauty and artisan design is found within it.  Spurgeon wrote,

“'And the sea was no more.'” Scarcely could we rejoice at the thought of losing the glorious old ocean. The new heavens and the New Earth are none the fairer to our imagination, if, indeed, there is literally to be no great and wide sea, with its gleaming waves and shelly shores.

Is not the text to be read as a metaphor, tinged with the prejudice with which the Eastern mind universally regarded the sea in the olden times? A real physical world without a sea is mournful to imagine; it would be an iron ring without the sapphire which made it precious.
There must be a spiritual meaning here. In the new dispensation there will be no division—the sea separates nations and ­separates peoples from each other. To John in Patmos the deep waters were like prison walls, shutting him out from his brethren and his work; there shall be no such barriers in the world to come. Leagues of rolling waves lie between us and many a kinsman whom tonight we prayerfully remember, but in the bright world to which we go, there shall be unbroken fellowship for all the redeemed family. In this sense there shall be no more sea."  ~Charles Spurgeon

I would have to agree (and certainly hope) that Spurgeon is right. In Revelation 22:1-2 we read, "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." Clearly, there will be water in heaven (see also Ezekiel 47).  Though the oceans may have been affected by the curse from mankind's sin, as all of creation was tainted and somewhat cursed by sin, the sea originally was, "good," at the beginning of creation before man's sin ruined it (Genesis 1:10, "God called the dry ground 'land,' and the gathered waters he called 'seas.' And God saw that it was good").   Therefore, I believe there will be plenty of water in heaven and certainly all the creatures of the sea of which God Himself created and called, "very good" (Genesis 1:31).  I can only pray and hope that there will be waves and tide with beautiful shores upon which to walk with my Lord in Heaven.

2.  Will there REALLY be no sun or moon in Heaven?  But back up the truck!  I love both!  The Bible tells us that we won't need the sun because we will all get our light (and our suntans) from the glory of the Lord!  (Rev. 21:23, "The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp").  But one can argue (and theologians do) that this verse says that the Holy City won't need the sun, not the entire new Heaven and new Earth.  There are also other verses to defend that night and day both exist in heaven (Isaiah 66:23, Rev. 4:8, 7:15, & 12:10).  I'm guessing there will be day and night in heaven, just not exactly in the way we know it now.  I'm also looking forward to having a sun-kissed look without worry of skin cancer (please, Lord)?!  Vanity...all is vanity.

3.  Do we sleep in Paradise/Heaven?  The Bible tells us clearly that we will work in Heaven but that it won't wear us out like it does now...and it will be work that we love and from which we derive great pleasure (no more toilet-cleaning, right, Lord?)!  Our bodies will be perfect, as God's Word tells us, so they shouldn't need sleep.  But I find it odd to think we will no longer sleep if God Himself rested on the seventh day from all His work creating the universe--and He was GOD!  Perhaps we, too, will just, "rest."  This one is still unanswered for me...and I really like my sleep!  I'm one of those people who sometimes even giggles with giddiness as I crawl into my cozy bed with my soft pillow and Downy fresh sheets because I know I get to snooze-away.  Peaceful sleep is a blessing from God, in my opinion.

Clearly, when we die our bodies "sleep" (or fertilize daisies), but our spirits live-on elsewhere.  Paul talks of this separation of body and spirit when making the point that he'd rather be dead and be with Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, "Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord."  Jesus also speaks about how our spirit will live-on in John 11:25-26, "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.'"  We read in Luke 23:43 more proof that our soul goes somewhere immediately upon death when Jesus speaks to the repentant criminal hanging on a cross next to Him: "And Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'" But I am not speaking about "soul sleep" here--the aforementioned verse and other verses in the Bible tell us clearly that our soul doesn't sleep when we die.  People always say, "May he/she rest in peace (RIP)," but according to God's Word, our body may rest, but our soul has business to take care of (excuse the dangling preposition)!  Our soul goes to one place or the other (Heaven or Hell) immediately until we get our perfected bodies upon Christ's return (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), or until we face the final judgment and eternal death (Matthew 25:41).  But I question whether we will actually sleep in Paradise or Heaven, regardless of whether we are with or without a body.  If our bodies won't need to refuel because they will be perfect, perhaps we will not need to sleep.  Sigh...better go take a nice, long nap while I can!

4. Can our loved ones in Heaven see us?  Do they see our hardships, struggles and failings?  So then is there crying in Paradise (in the current, temporary Paradise)?  This puzzles me because if our loved ones are in, "Paradise," and are no longer suffering or in pain, how can there be tears? Revelation 21:4 says that the Lord will wipe away every tear.  But this is speaking of the new Heaven, not the current Paradise.  I would think if our loved ones can see us it sure wouldn't be paradise for them, at times.  Perhaps they cry tears of joy knowing the trials we face will all be wiped away soon.  As we read in Rev. 6:9-10, "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held:  And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"  Here we read that those saints in Heaven who lost their lives as martyrs are angrily venting to the Lord that they are sick and tired of seeing the enemy and his followers able to unleash pain and trouble on the world (so they aren't in some fairy land up there without any clue that life is still hard down here).  They are ready to see evil smote and good reigning.  Pastor Jim used this verse and others to explain to us that the saints whose souls currently reside in Paradise are aware of what is going on down here.  Whether they actually see us all the time and know everything going on with us, we do not know.  But just the thought makes you want to live a better life, doesn't it?!  And if that's true, why do we not fear God more?  We KNOW He sees and knows everything.

Some questions we have about death, Heaven, and Hell just won't be answered until the day we meet Him face-to-face.  But the simple fact is, if I truly love the Lord and have the audacity to sing about my love for Him and mean it, none of my unanswered questions should really matter.  Heaven is for me (John 14:3), and God is for me (Romans 8:31).  But Heaven is not ABOUT me.  As if it wasn't enough that Christ suffered and died to keep me out of the Hell I deserved, I now expect some additional items from Him in eternity, as well?!  It is rather grotesque really.  Besides, when you look around at this earth, with all its beauty and all its flaws, you cannot help but think that God will far outdo Himself with the new Earth and new Heaven.  How could I ever doubt Him?!  I suspect nothing that I love here will come close to comparing to the splendor of Heaven and being with Him Who saved me from sin, the enemy, death, and from me.  

Come back for Part Two where I will share of my big issue with death and Heaven.  If you know me well, you can probably guess what it is--but come back anyway!  God bless family and friends, and thanks for reading.

Related Scripture:

Colossians 3:1-2, "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth."

Isaiah 65:17, "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind."
 (Me in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; 7.2.14)