Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bodily Harm and the Body of Christ

Over the past couple months, I have been thinking a lot about, "church."  Recently, I had a hard conversation with a friend who left the church a few years ago (and I have a few other friends who have done likewise).  Her reasons were:

1.  She grew weary of all the hypocrites.  
2.  She became disillusioned from sitting there waiting for some big, "God-moment," that never occurred.
3.  She was tired of spending one of her only two days-off each week going to a place where she felt criticized and unloved.  

I was baffled. 
As someone who views, "church," pretty much with the completely opposite mindset, how did I change hers, or convince her that perhaps she just needed to do some church-shopping (or dare I say it, some honest, heart-wrenching, soul-searching and God-seeking)?  Her issues with the church are complex and multi-faceted, and I don't smugly pretend to fully grasp them all. 

My first reaction to this conversation was to remind my friend that we are ALL hypocrites, whether we go to church or not.  If she thinks the church is full of them, she sure won't find less of them in the world.  In my view, the difference between church-going hypocrites and non-church-going, worldly ones is, "EFFORT vs. APATHY."  We are ALL imperfect, sinful, flawed human beings trying to find our way in life.  My feeling is that overall, those in church are TRYING.  So I found myself thinking, "Does she really have a right to be so put-off with the church?" 

Then I recalled some church experiences from my own past that made me better appreciate some of what she was feeling.  Though rare, I have been through some things in the church that have caused me to want to run and hide, too.  Sometimes you just get to the point where you want to give-up.  Dealing with situations of jealousy, mockery, and false accusation are just a few of the things I have had to, "suck-it-up" and handle within the body of Christ.  It is easy to recall the enormous pain I felt when secretly over-hearing someone, who I thought liked and respected me (a, "friend" even), speak mockingly about me behind my back.  The even worse part was that those listening didn't defend me.  They went along with it and they, too, were supposedly good church, "friends."

I was also once given, "the bird," on the highway by a fellow believer who didn't know to whom they were flashing the finger (that was actually more funny than offensive to me--and honestly, I was tailgating a bit and in a hurry, so I actually deserved it)! Thank the Lord they didn't have the Jesus fish on the back of the car, if that's their normal mode of driving behavior.

I've had fellow believers ridicule my parenting decisions, my decision to stay home, my decision to work, my particular choice of profession, where my child went to school, how we spend our money, how we spend our time, the modest house in which we live, where we vacation, the clothes I wear, my hair length (yes, I am dead serious about that one), the number of children I have, the particular ministries I feel called and equipped to do (or not do)...you name it.  A few years ago, one "friend" of nearly twenty years, chose to drop our friendship after a disagreement we had about my daughter taking a job in Dallas as a recruiter for KSU upon her graduation.  This friend didn't think it was right of Matt and I to let our daughter live alone in a huge city (I laughed at her usage of the word, "let"--in my view, our daughter was 22-years old and old enough to make her own decisions)!  My friend used Scripture out of context and argued that we were sinning in our stewardship of raising Allie by letting her live alone in harms-way instead of protected under our roof until a Godly suitor asked for her hand in marriage.  She out-right insulted my faith and my parenting numerous times during the disagreement.  I felt maimed.  She then acted gloatingly shocked that I was hurt by her words.  But the friendship ended because she didn't, "win," and wasn't willing to, "agree to disagree."  Since Matt and I didn't rush down to Dallas with a U-Haul and bring Allie home upon this friend's profound and inspired instruction, she decided to grab a U-Haul and, "move on" herself!  Give yourself enough time and rub shoulders with enough people in the church, and somebody is going to have a problem with you--maybe even a big one.  Funny thing is, many times these same people will turn around and do the exact same thing YOU did once the tables are turned.  Interestingly, their microscopic, out-of-context-Scripture-usage flies out the window when they glance piously at their own lives.

But, as I've said before, it is easy to look at the sins that other commit against you and put your own through a nice filter.  If I am honest... 

It's not like I've NEVER spoken about anyone 
behind their back in my entire life.
It's not like I've NEVER hurt anyone.
It's not like I've NEVER flipped somebody, "the bird." 
(True story, people.  It's confession time!)!
It's not like I've NEVER given unwarranted advice.

Though I do not make it a habit to be critical of others, my church, or complain about others behind their backs, it isn't like I have never committed those sins.  When I have spoken about others behind their backs, it is typically when they have done something that has really hurt me (and I'm needing to, "vent," so to speak--this is my pathetic justification, anyway).  But I also know that on rare occasions, I have poked fun at others (and though this may have appeared to be well-received, what if it actually wasn't?  What is the real point in that really? Who is it really helping?)!  Ephesians 5:4 speaks to this, "coarse joking," and encourages us to speak with thanksgiving.  Another goodie is, Ephesians 4:29 which says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."  Like my sweet little Grandma used to say, "If you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing at all."  But to that old cliche' she would fondly add, "And there's ALWAYS something nice to say to EVERYONE."  She is so very right.

I recall a Sunday morning when someone jabbed me on a bad day--(can you say, "PMS?!").  It ticked me off.  Then a couple hours later, I caught myself casually poking fun at someone else.  The epiphany of my ironic hypocrisy came to me like a whiff of utter stink, and it was both humorous and disgusting to me how completely self-centered I really am.  Pass me a vomit bag, por favor.  We (ah hem, I) tend to get our feelings hurt way more easily than we hurt for the feelings of others.  That scale needs to start tipping the other way at some point.  We reap what we sow, and we need to be more aware of that truth.  God is just.  He will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7-8; Colossians 3:25).
That said,

I probably deserve every unkind thing 
anyone has ever said about me.  

We all do the same things that we despise in others if we're really honest with ourselves.  I recently had someone ridicule me for posting a selfie and literally two weeks later, up came a similar selfie on their page.  Really???!!!  None of us is without flaw--it may present itself differently, but the underlying sin issue is there.  Be careful what you complain and gripe about in others...you are more than likely about to commit the same error yourself and then some. 

So...why do YOU gossip, critically complain, or share too much about others??? (This includes hiding gossip under the guise of "prayer requests," too):

 Hidden jealousy?
Cleverly camouflaged competitive comparison?
(How's that for alliteration?!)!
Piety and legalism?
Self-promotion or self-preservation?
Compensation to make YOURSELF feel better?
Secret satisfaction that their issues aren't YOURS???

When we hurt each other with our words (hidden or direct) we are actually creating self-inflicted, bodily harm to ourselves and to the body of Christ.  The church is made up of many parts--we are ONE part in ONE body of believers.  We should honestly view each other in this way.  If you know Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, then you are a part of me and I am a part of you.  We are FAMILY.  We are BLOOD.  Like all families, we aren't perfect.  We have issues.  We have baggage, problems, insecurities, and struggles.  As one friend recently put it, "the church is a family and a dysfunctional one, at times" (nicely put, JB).  But we, as believers in the body of Christ, should not be so dysfunctional that other members (other "parts") of our body are running away from home.  There are two alternate and equal truths (or responsibilities) here:  1.  If you've given up on your church family, you've given up on God; and, 2.  We, the church, should be seriously troubled when others give up on us and God.

What do I believe to be the ultimate reason the body of Christ ends-up with missing body parts?  Because of one part of our individual bodies:  our mouths.  I want to give you a challenge (and more importantly, give MYSELF a challenge):  Before I complain to my husband (or anyone) about someone or something that is bugging me in the church, I will pray fervently, not flippantly, about that problem SEVEN TIMES before going to Matt or better yet, before going to the person directly related to the issue.  I have every confidence that God in His faithfulness will more times than not completely take care of the problem at hand before I ever feel the need to start down the winding, negative path of complaint and criticism. 

It really should trouble us that people are using the excuse of, "hypocrisy," to give-up on us and ultimately, on God.  Yes, the Bible says we ALL fall short of God's glory due to our sin nature (Romans 3:23).  But that, too, is no excuse.  No, people cannot blame the church for being full of hypocrites when all they have to do to be around a hypocrite is go look in the mirror.  But as Christians, we are called to a higher standard of living than the world's standard.  If people are leaving the church we better be asking why.  We better be chasing after them.  We are called to be the, family of God.  Church is supposed to be a safe-zone.  The church body is supposed to be a BETTER example of, "family," than the world's example.  We wouldn't let a member of our immediate family run away from home without chasing after them, so why do we let our church family members run away so easily?  We are supposed to be peculiar and different. We are called to stand-out and be attractive to others for the light we shine.  I like the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9 which states, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."  As a big Royals baseball fan, I like any Scripture that tells me I'm actually truly ROYAL.  But seriously, if we are no better than the world, then why would anyone want to give-up one of their only two days off a week to come spend time with us?  A green, lush golf course or peaceful, picturesque fishing pond WILL be a better alternative on Sunday mornings if we don't step-it-up a notch.  Every Christian church everywhere ought to be so different and so much better than the world that we are busting at the seams with people who can't wait to come be with God's people and be a part of a REAL family.  Yes, the church is full of imperfect people serving a perfect God.  And, yes, people need to come to church FOR God ultimately.  But the church can no longer afford to likewise make excuses for not living-up to the name, FAMILY OF GOD.

So the real question is:  Do we REALLY see ourselves as a ONE BODY and ONE FAMILY in the church?  Or do we view church as a place to get stuff for ourselves--to consume and be served?  To promote our gifts and talents?  To bolster our own egos and social popularity?  Do we truly view every other person in the church as OUR FAMILY MEMBER...as a soul linked deeply to ours that we should nurture and protect?  Or do we let jealousy, competition, comparison, spite, selfishness, malice, gossip, and pride rule?  The majority of us easily view our immediate family members, (those living under our own roof), as part of us.  We have a, "blood is thicker than water mentality," and would, "go to bat" for them for any reason as if our own flesh were at risk.  It should be no different in the church.  In fact,

...in God's family, the blood is that of Christ,
and it runs deeper and purer than any blood 
we have here on earth in our biological family.  

Most of us would lay down in traffic for our immediate earthly family members and defend them to the death. We stand up for them, accept them, love them, appreciate them, take joy in their successes, revel in their accomplishments, and value them as if we are guarding and caring for our own flesh.  It follows then that we should do the same in the family of God, and even more so.  God's Word says we are all brothers and sisters in Christ--children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7, 26-29; Ro. 8:29).  We are all grafted into the vine of Christ (Ro. 11).  If we don't "talk smack" on those living under our own roof, there should be no remote desire to mock, gossip, or defame anyone in the family of God.  The command in Matthew 18 of going to your brother in private during strife should be the rule, not the exception (versus telling everyone BUT that person)!  Love should be the basis for all we do and say (Heb. 13:1).  We should be easily and generously able to dole out forgiveness to each other, just as we do in our homes with the ones we claim to unconditionally love.  We all know the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31).  We're vastly familiar with the verse about, "that charity that covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet. 4:8).  We know all about viewing others as better and viewing each other's gifts as better (Philip. 2:3).  So why do we struggle to keep our jealousy, pride, and selfishness (essentially, our hearts) in check?  I firmly believe that most gossip, criticism, belittlement, and malice in the church are derivative of those three sins.  (Again, notice how all of those sins come from one part of our bodies~our mouths)!

I once heard Beth Moore speak at a women's conference about FAMILY.  She shared a story about how when her daughters would fight and say awful things to each other that she would scold them severely, telling them that in their home there would be NONE of that!  She told them that life is hard enough and there would be plenty of people out in the world that would want to throw daggers at them and attack them.  The last thing they need is to be doing that to each other in their own home!  She told them, "We WILL have each other's backs in this family!  We WILL stick-up for one another and be there for each other!"  She made it a mission for her girls to recognize that God had made them a FAMILY...and FAMILY takes care of FAMILY.  Period.

So is it really any wonder why people leave the church or constantly jump from church to church?  We claim to be, "the family of God," but we treat each other more like strangers and rivals than family, at times.  Someone may be your Facebook friend and muster-up a fake smile at you on Sunday morning, but behind your back, they aren't your friend and you know it.  With all the various forms of social media out there, we now have many more avenues to either be offended or annoyed by each other.  This doesn't help the situation.  Truth is, if you are someone who gets easily offended or annoyed by people, you didn't need Facebook to bring it out.  It was already there long before social media, you just now have many more varietal ops to complain about others.  My advice to those who get riled-up about things on Facebook that have nothing to do with you:  Get off of social media.  Learn to let people be who they are and live their own lives.  You have no idea what battles they are fighting and what their situation is all about anyway.  Live your own life and let others live theirs.  If you can't be around someone without the green-eyed monster (or your tongue) rearing its ugly head, steer clear of that person so as not to set yourself up to sin against them and your Lord.  We aren't called to be best buds with everyone in the church.  But we are called to love and do good to everyone.  Sometimes the best way to do that is to leave some people (or branches in the vine) alone.

I hear this all the time:  Your gift is so much better than mine!  CORRECTION:  Any remote ability I may have with singing or leading worship isn't even important enough to be mentioned in Paul's inspired "gifts" list of 1 Corinthians 12!  Sometimes I wish that singers led worship behind a black curtain.  Worship is actually all about humility and laying it all down before the Father.  It isn't about the cool lighting and perfect pitch (thank God--I wouldn't be up there)!  Somehow the idea behind leading worship got twisted--like it's some glorified position in which to be.  Leading worship is actually the most humbling thing anyone can do in the church.  You are the person who is first in line to get on your face before God in your heart publicly.  Basically every time I stand-up in front of the church, I am putting myself at risk.  In my own frailty and sin I am attempting to lead others to the throne of grace, and that warrants serious humility.  It creates fear in my heart of the Lord.  Worship is a big deal, and yet I am so not.  That creates fear in me.  So I rely heavily on the Lord every time I lead knowing that He can take my gift the minute I get, "too big for my britches," and knowing that I could do something truly horrible on stage without His intervention and hand of mercy (like belch over the mic, totally forget a song, etc.).  Singers are a dime a dozen...and God can find a new and improved one anytime He wants very easily.  It is scary sometimes to realize that you could wreck the entire worship experience if you don't have the Lord's help and blessing.  Many Sundays, I have diarrhea in bathroom at church because I don't feel worthy of standing on any stage (how's that for glamorous?).  It is a strange paradox to love serving in some capacity and at the same time, honestly not have the hutsba on your own to do it.  My daughter's former church turned the lights down completely during worship--the only thing lit was the lyrics.  You could barely even make out the faces of the singers.  I loved that.  It takes a lot of courage to muster up the ability to stand before others and show them your vulnerabilities before the Lord.  Truth be known, I wish I could lay face down on that stage--that's the position in which I deserve to be.

Furthermore, any talent I have isn't really mine.  This is another mistaken myth.  It is God's and yours more than it is mine.  I owe my talents to you and ultimately, to God, and you owe yours to me.  We are supposed to use them to serve each other.  They aren't even about us individually.  In the church we all have different gifts, talents, abilities, and callings to be used to strengthen and advance the Kingdom of God, and to give God glory.  My gifts and talents are no better than yours.  We use them for each other, for the body of Christ, and for God.  We have to stop the comparison/competition game.  Again, I am a part of you and you are a part of me.  It's actually pretty cool stuff how God designed this.  You can't be envious of something that is a part of YOU...that belongs to YOU.

Viewing each other as part of our actual SELVES (an attached body part) is commanded.  We hear it all the time, but I don't think we really "get it."  We are ONE in Christ in the church, just as we are ONE in marriage.  Marriage is a symbol of oneness--it is a symbol of the bond between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:23).  If you are "one" with someone, the last thing you want to do is harm a part of your own flesh.  Obviously, when the Bible speaks to this oneness or compares the marriage union to the union between Christ and the "church," it is referring to ALL those who have believed and trusted in Christ, not just our own place of worship.  But our individual churches are where we live-out this unity stuff...this ONENESS.  I think sometimes we grow disillusioned with our church because we DO have high expectations for the people there, and for God--and things just don't always go the way we think they should.  People fail us and God allows it (and we self-righteously wonder what He's thinking or doing)!  But more than that, we are dealing with our own sin nature which thinks of, "ONE," as, "#1" or, "ME!"  It's a high calling to place the term, "ONE" on a body of sinful, self-concerned people.  We come to church expecting God to fill us and everyone else there to do the same.  But oneness and unity are more about what we give back to God and others than about what we receive.

I say this with much love in my heart:  You can't expect to have some grand, "God-moment," at church if you never spend time talking openly to God, reading His Words sincerely, singing His songs, and trusting and obeying His commands.  I would liken that to me spending every night at a hotel alone and wondering why my marriage is less than thrilling!  Likewise, you can't expect to feel loved, accepted, and understood by others in the church, when you aren't willing to sacrificially do the same for the other hypocrites there.  Giving...not just receiving.

One body...
One family...
One vine...
Joined together in Christ.

What are your expectations of church?  Are they about YOU or are they about God and others?  Our only reasons for coming to church should be:

1.  To worship and serve God.
2.  To love and serve others.

When we waiver outside of those two reasons, we will quickly become disillusioned with the church and our family there.  If you are at a point where Sunday mornings are a battle in your mind because you see the imperfections of your church family with great ease and feel like you just aren't receiving back the blessing you so deserve, I've been there, friend.  And my advice is the same for you as it is for myself:  Get over yourself.  Find someone sitting alone in the church and go talk to them.  Befriend the person that no one ever befriends.  Encourage someone you've never encouraged before now.  Assist someone who is elderly or disabled and give them some serious love.  Get busy about others and forget about yourself--God will look after you for you, and He does a much better job.

We need to accept the fact that there will be times, in our human flesh, when we simply don't like our church.  We WILL have times of dissatisfaction.  We are overly stimulated and therefore, easily bored people.  It is in those times that we must let our love for God, our desire to love others above ourselves, and our desire to obey God's command to worship corporately (Heb. 10:24-25; Matt. 12:30) spur us on to a better perspective of our church.   And we must pray like mad-dogs.  We can't expect things to always be perfect there if we throw up random prayers about our church family.  It's our HOME...and that warrants heavy prayers for protection, blessing, and unity.

We need each other.  I need to learn from you and be affirmed, challenged, and encouraged by you.  I also need to learn to support YOU, hurt with you, and rejoice in your joys and gifts.  And you need all that, as well.  If we say we are believers and that our life's purpose is to bring others to the faith and to bring glory to God, then that is how we should be living--for God and others.  Our best witness, example, and opportunity for doing this is how we take care of each other in the body of Christ.  In that purpose there is no room for pride, selfishness, jealousy, slander, ridicule, rudeness, arrogance, gossip, course-jesting, and belittlement.  There is just no room for bodily harm in the body of Christ.  Help us, Lord.

Thanks for reading, and please know that I sincerely prayed at this end of writing this for our individual church bodies and world-wide church body to be shielded, blessed and unified!  Much love to you all!

Related Scriptures (PLEASE don't brush over these~I'm begging you!  They are better than anything I've said above!):

Romans 15:6-7, "...So that with ONE mind and ONE voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God."

Romans 12:4-6a, "For just as we have many members in ONE BODY and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are ONE BODY in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly."

Romans 12:10, "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."

Romans 12:5, "...So in Christ we, though many, form ONE BODY, and each member BELONGS to all the

Romans 12:15, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."

Ephesians 5:28-30, "So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their OWN BODIES. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his OWN FLESH, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the CHURCH, because we are members of HIS BODY."

Hebrews 10:24, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works..."

Galatians 6:10, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, ESPECIALLY to those who belong to the FAMILY of believers."

1 Thessalonians 5:11, "Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing."

Philippians 2:1-7, "So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of ONE mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus..."

James 4:1-2, "What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask."

1 Corinthians 12:26, "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together."

1 Corinthians 12:27, "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is A PART of it. 

And the most fitting passage for this blog:
1 Corinthians 12:12-31, "The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up only ONE BODY. So it is with the BODY OF CHRISTSome of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into Christ's body by one Spirit, and we have all received the same Spirit.  Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part.   If the foot says, "I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand," that does not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear says, "I am not part of the body because I am only an ear and not an eye," would that make it any less a part of the body?  Suppose the whole body were an eye -- then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything?  But God made our bodies with many parts, and He has put each part just where He wants it.  What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part!   Yes, there are many parts, but only one body.   The eye can never say to the hand, "I don't need you." The head can't say to the feet, "I don't need you."  In fact, some of the parts that seem weakest and least important are really the most necessaryAnd the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect from the eyes of others those parts that should not be seen, while other parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together in such a way that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity.   This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other equally.  If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.  Now all of you together are CHRIST'S BODY, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it.  Here is a list of some of the members that God has placed in the body of Christ: first are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers, then those who do miracles, those who have the gift of healing, those who can help others, those who can get others to work together, those who speak in unknown languages.  Is everyone an apostle? Of course not. Is everyone a prophet? No. Are all teachers? Does everyone have the power to do miracles?  Does everyone have the gift of healing? Of course not. Does God give all of us the ability to speak in unknown languages? Can everyone interpret unknown languages? No!  And in any event, you should desire the most helpful gifts. First, however, let me tell you about something else that is better than any of them.
 (And it isn't being able to sing, people)!  ;)  

Much love to those of you who read this far!  I prayed a special blessing on your life!  God bless! 

Recommended blog:

My dear friend, Kelly Balarie, links my blog to hers.  Please give her a read and check her out on Facebook, as well!



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Loving the Unlovable

"My command is this: Love each other 
as I have loved you."
John 15:12

With the passing of another, "Valentine's Day," I have given some thought to the meaning of, love, and what it is that makes it so difficult to love others as Christ loved us.  It seems like a question with an easy answer--clearly, none of us is Christ, making none of us perfect.  Hence, our love is imperfect.

My sweet hubby, T-bone, bought me these roses for Valentine's Day last weekend.  He said that the one white one stood for me because to him, I am unique and pure amongst women.  He lovingly said that I stand-out in a crowd of many duplications.  It was very sweet sentiment, and meant a lot to me.  But ever since, all I have thought about is how impure I really am.  How my love is, at times, quite conditional...how my attitude can easily waiver depending on who is pushing my buttons and at what moment they are pushing them.  I thought about these roses.  To me, the ONE white one truly represents God's desire for me to actually live-up to that calling.  To actually BE PURE HEARTED, and live a rare, unique, selfless, and unconditionally loving life.  

But WHY is it so hard to love others as Christ loved us?  

WHY is it so hard to love the unlovable?

For starters, let's define, "unlovable."  There are the people who flat-out don't want our love.  (That's about as unlovable as it gets)!  They either don't love us (or even like us), don't want us to love them, or they don't like/love people, in general.  Then there are those who want our love, but often don't want to return it to us--they are the, "all-about-me" people in our lives. These are the people who ask things of you that you would never ask of them (either because you know they would never do it for you, or because you would never impose such a request on them).  Then there are people who on the surface, seem unlovable--like the dirty beggar downtown holding the sign, or the addict who makes poor choices due to their addiction.  Last, we have the category of unlovable that too often trips us up in our quest to love others as Christ commands us.  I call these folks the, "daily drainers."  These are different for everyone, but perhaps it's the passive-aggressive co-worker who drives you bonkers...the back-stabbing gossip who seeks to increase their own influence and decrease yours...the whining complainer who criticizes everyone and everything...the crazy-driving jerk on the road who cut you off and almost caused an accident...that person who cut ahead of you in line at the store...the smelly guy at the gym who constantly gets on the treadmill next to you and coughs his head off the entire time even though there are tons of open treadmills everywhere else (ah hem, no, this one isn't hypothetical)...and the worst and most harmful of all, the "frenemy."  You know what I'm talking about~the friend (or even family member) who, at times, is actually an enemy?!  These are the people who you either thought were in your court, or who are in your court but are scoring points for the enemy's team. They love you one minute but then by their words and deeds, hate you the next.  They are too often ruled by negative, defeating things that fester and eventually destroy them and their relationships, such as:  dishing-out belittlement, back-handed compliments, green-eyed monster jealousy, making comparisons, engaging in competition, zapping you with zingers, acting joyful at your sorrows, acting sorrowful at your joys, rudeness, purposeful exclusion, public embarrassment, using Facebook or other social media as a weapon against you, and so forth.  Their tactics are obvious, sad, pathetic, and extremely powerful.  And shame on us for falling for them.  We often feel like we are the only ones who have to love such people.  But we ALL have to learn to love the unlovable in this life.  

I see occasional posts on social media touting things like,

"If they don't appreciate your love, do them a favor and remove it,"

or, "If people don't take the time to be in your life, don't waste yours on them!"

The world tells us often to take charge of our bad relationships and do what is good for US!  We all have this entitlement attitude of self-protecting, empowerment and we even at times, justify it as, "guarding our hearts," which IS Scriptural (Proverbs 4:23, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it").  I do not believe that Christ calls us to waste our time incessantly loving people who drain us to a ridiculous degree, or who steal our joy and peace to a level that is unhealthy, ultimately getting in the way of our relationship with Him.  Jesus did not hang-out as, "buddies," with the Scribes and Pharisees who despised Him from day-one.  But even Jesus had flawed relationships within His inner circle.  When we think about His twelve disciples, we quickly see that even His closest friends were sinful people who betrayed and denied Him in the end.  Jesus knew about loving unlovable people--He loves all of us, and we're all flawed, sinful, and unlovable at our core.  As He hung on the cross in the worst pain and rejection anyone could ever endure, He displayed the greatest love anyone has ever displayed--He said, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing," (Luke 23:34a).  He could have said, "Father, smite them NOW!"  Isn't this what we too often pray when someone hurts us or doesn't value and reciprocate our love?  When we are hurting, we are all about justice and God's vengeance...and love flies right out the door of our hearts.

But again...WHY is it SO HARD to love the unlovable? 

Humility.  It demands utter humility.  We have to literally take up our cross and die to self.  We have to ignore insults.  We have to be bigger than the belittlement.  We have to deny our own needs and sacrifice our time, energy, and money.  We have to have mercy and take pity on the jealousy, and be complimented instead of offended by it.  We have to smile through our pain.  We have to pray a lot.  We have to trust God a lot.  We have to turn the other cheek.  We have to make conscious efforts to put our attention on our blessings and dispel the myth that our problems are greater.  We have to remember who we are in the Lord and place our entire identity in Him.  We have to believe God loves us and that it is enough.  Basically, we have to walk our talk.  We have to, "get over," ourselves and humble ourselves before the Lord and man to do any of those things--and they are very hard things to do for sinful, prideful people like us.

It is easy-breezy to love kind, thoughtful, lovely people.  It is easy to love those who steadfastly love us back, and who appreciate our love and don't abuse it.  But the ability to genuinely love unlovable people requires taking the road less traveled...and it is a narrow and rugged road.  It feels like a road in the pit of lowliness...but though rugged, it is actually the high road.

Speaking of rugged, I am reminded of the old hymn, "The Old Rugged Cross."  I remember when my first niece, Josephine, was born.  My sister [in-law] gave me the privilege of babysitting little Josie one evening, and told me that to put her to sleep, I should rock her and softly sing this old hymn, which was one of my sister's favorites.  She had begun the ritual of singing it to her and it had become a bedtime, "thing," for Josie.  So I sang it to her.  Sure enough, little Josie was out in a flash!  I always loved that old song myself...I sang it often while growing-up in my Baptist church back home.  But after singing it to my infant niece, it will forever be etched in my mind as, Josie's song.

I heard that old hymn on Christian radio the other day.  I, of course, thought about my beautiful, now 12-year old niece, Josie, but also about that old rugged cross.  I thought about how Jesus bled upon it...how He carried it in utter agony...how He hung there thirsty, suffocating, facing utter rejection...alone...drained...how He died on that rugged cross to pay for our sins, proving exactly how much He loved us.  It was a heavy load and a hard road for Him--it was a rugged one.  He was worn, torn, and ragged after bearing such a cross. 

Are you worn, torn, and ragged from bearing your, "rugged cross of love," for others? 

If so, then you are walking the good path and loving as Christ loved.  If loving others has always been easy for you, you have not yet been challenged or tested by fire in loving people as Christ loves us.  Perhaps you've been tested repeatedly in the past and finally passed the test--chances are, God will give you a re-quiz later to keep you sharp!  Loving others as Christ loved us is a rugged cross on a narrow road, my friends.

One day in the summer of 2012, I had received a phone call from a, "frenemy," who for whatever reason had decided to call me up and badger me...about, well, a lot of things.  She was rude, crass, and extremely hurtful in her words to me.  Before the nearly 1-hour conversation was over, she had sneakily insulted me, my daughter, and laughed at my self-deprecation as if it were true and then some.  It hit me on a day when I was weak, and it HURT.  I mean, it HURT.  I went to the pool that afternoon to swim some laps and read in the sun.  I was sobbing underneath my sun hat sitting alone in the corner facing a rock wall with my chair back to the pool patrons...I needed my space and then some.  I prayed and prayed that God would remove my tender, sensitive spirit and give me a thick skin through which no one could penetrate.  I begged Him to just easily and gently remove her from my life.  I said, "Lord, I am tired and I am weak.  Why do You keep giving me people to deal with who are horrible to me?  I am beat.  I'm over it.  I'm tired of always being the one to overlook the offenses and reciprocate love."  I heard God say, "Be the ONE. Just keep being the ONE."  I angrily stopped praying and looked up at the rock wall before me to see ONE, round rock amidst many square ones.  Then I again heard God say, "Be the ONE." I thought about that stupid round rock.  It made me mad.  It was a good symbol of the circle of love and how it comes back to you...how what goes around comes around.  How God blesses us when we love the unlovable...in ways too numerous to count.  How others can be rigid and crass, but God commands us to be smooth, soft, and loving in our witness and testimony of what He has done for us and who WE ARE because of it.  How HE was, "THE ONE," in all of our lives.  He was, THE ONE, who loved sacrificially, and now it is our job, as people who bear His name, to pass that sacrificial love onto others.  It is who we are supposed to be.  It is who we are called to be.

I hated that rock that day.  In my rebellion and pain I didn't want any reminders about being more loving!  My attitude was, "Sorry, Lord...I gave at the office and then some!"  But I snapped a picture of the rock because when God shows up, it means something, even if you are ticked-off at the time!  Since God is my rock, it is perfect that He spoke to me through one.  Here is the picture of my rock:

God has been dealing with me a lot lately on my issues of, "love."  He has shown me that though I do not have to set myself up for constant abuse, which WOULD harm my heart and which I AM called to guard, I know that I need to watch that I am not only loving those who love me back.  If we cannot, "be the ONE," in the lives of those who are unlovable and sacrificially love in Christ's name and for His glory, our love is vain and selfish.

So where do we go when we sacrificially give and give and give our love until we are empty...utterly empty? 

We stop expecting to get horizontally refueled and go to the everlasting, vertical source of LOVE--our LORD.  We get over our entitlement that others should reciprocate our love and we get on our knees before God and ask Him to refill us.  Only He can and only He is able help us to, be the ONE
Selah and Amen.

Much love to you friends~

Related Scriptures:

Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves."

Matthew 7:12, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."

Matthew 5:44, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Matthew 16:24, "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'"

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."