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)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monumental Month, Marker, and Model

 "There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die..." 
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a

You may have noticed (all 40 of you [insert chuckle]--and God bless you, by the way), that I have not posted in weeks--over a month, actually.  A lot has happened in the last month...we celebrated Easter, my band had five gigs, I went to visit my grandparents, we attended a few graduation parties, I've led worship at my church three times, I took a three-day business trip to Omaha, NE with my husband (A.K.A., "T-bone"), we celebrated T-bone's grandpa Andy's 102nd birthday, my daughter and her husband came for a visit, and T-bone took me to an art walk and three concerts (much more relaxing than being "on" the stage)!  Inside that chaotic schedule, I've managed, with God's help, to maintain a near-daily quiet time with Him, have lunch with two girlfriends, manage our finances, help T-bone with a ton of yard-work, get to the gym and/or run three times a week, and go on two, 16-18 mile bike rides with my hubby.  The housework and the laundry have suffered some though (thank God I'm married to a man who is totally happy and content if he's fed and loved, and whose expectations of me never surpass those two requirements).  I've also noticed that the data storage in my brain has reached its limit.  Therefore, my bi-weekly blog-posting goal had to go.  In response to the verse above:  if there really IS, "a time for everything," I'd like to know where the heck to find it!

One other big happening or "marker" this past month was that I turned 44-years old.  Though that is not typically denoted as a monumental birthday, it was for me.  For as long as I can remember, the number, "44," has always reminded me of the first time I asked my, "Gram," as I nick-named her, how old she was.  I was just four years old, sitting on a bar stool at her kitchen counter watching her make cookies (Oatmeal Scotchies, as I recall).  I even remember what she was wearing--a peach-colored, stiff polyester, nicely tailored, Jackie Kennedy-styled dress (yes, I'm a detail person), with black horn-rimmed glasses (it was 1974, after all)!  She told me she was 44-years old, and I remember staring quietly at her at length and thinking, "Wow.  My Gram is OLD!"  So a few weeks ago, when I became "OLD" too, I thought of this incident, chuckled, and then became deeply depressed!  On a brighter note, I've always thought it was cool that my, "Gram" and I are 40-years apart--it's always made it easy to remember how old she is.  Back in February, I celebrated her 84th birthday with her, and knew upon realizing her age that my special, "OLD" birthday was coming.  Well, it came.  As they say, age is an undefeated victor (don't ask me who, "they" are--I Googled the quote and cannot find that answer).  As my mom says, birthdays are, "better than the alternative."

My Gram is one of the most beloved people in my life.  She is a brown-eyed, brown-haired beauty just like my mother and my daughter.  She is always smiling--even when the chips are totally down.  She never complains.  She always wants to give you something--you will rarely leave her home without something in-hand.  She is a fiercely gifted cook.  She loves nature and God's beauty.  She taught me the names of hundreds of trees, plants, and flowers, and instilled in me a deep appreciation and love for them all.  She adores travel and long, Sunday car rides.  Before her massive stroke in 1996 that left her wheelchair-bound and without the use of her entire right side, she was one of those freakishly gifted pianists who could hear a song, and then sit down at the piano and play it exactly as she heard it.  We used to beg her emphatically to play for us! She could have made a killing off that gift had she not had eight children to raise (and she did that selflessly and with flare).  I look forward to the day when I arrive in heaven with her (or she with me, should I happen to beat her to the punch), and I get to hear her play again and sing along.  She loves her family above everything and everyone else, other than the Lord.  One day about 20 years ago, I recall helping her weed her garden and asking her, "Gram, why don't you have any girlfriends?"  Her reply humbled and astounded me, "Well, I haven't ever found anyone very faithful or loyal, I guess.  People are awfully fickle. family members are my friendsBlood is thicker than water, you know?!" and she gave me a wink, a chuckle, and a smile.  She could have gone into the torrid details of betrayal and gossiping, critical women who soured her on friendship.  Instead, she just left it with a light-hearted, honest, joyful remark about family.  Besides my mother, this woman whom I call, "Gram," has been the most influential woman in my life.  She is a role-model to be revered.  I adore her to a level that terrifies me because I am ever-aware of the fact that her days with me are numbered (forgive me for being the, "Debbie-downer" here--I guess my, "old lady" birthday has me thinking about life, death, and other such existentially vaporous matters).  Happy birthday to me.

To further exacerbate my recent state-of-mind, the Head Pastor of my church, Jim Congdon, along with the Pastor of Community, Hunter Ruch, began a new sermon series on Easter Sunday called, "So You're Dead...Now What?"  This series, though greatly about death, is also largely about heaven.  The matters discussed in these sermons have sparked a great many questions and thoughts in my small, easily-overwhelmed, little mind.  As always, Pastors Jim and Hunter have done an incredible job of both educating and encouraging our church body on these subjects.  But it's also put me on a strange, private spiritual journey on death and heaven that I'd like to share with you in my next blog post or two--we'll see if I can manage one (and I guess it will no longer be, "private")!  Surprisingly, it's all got me thinking...maybe birthdays aren't better than the alternative.  Til next time...whenever that may be...God bless, family and friends!
My Gram~senior high school picture; circa 1948.

Four generation photo of Gram, Mom, me, & my only child, Allie, at Allie's wedding; circa Nov. 19, 2011.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Brokenness Fixes Brokenness

 "My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    You, God, will not despise."
Psalm 51:17 (NIV)

Recently, I have had a few conversations with friends about difficult and broken relationships.  With a chuckle and a smile, I shared my new twist on an old quote with one of them.  I said, "We need that 'charity that covers a multitude of sins' with ALL people SOME of the time, and SOME people ALL of the time (1 Peter 4:8)!  One friend and I talked at length about forgiveness and restoration, and what is involved for that to truly transpire.  We shared personal instances where reconciliation had occurred, and times when, "the severing of ties," was necessary.  Prior to this discussion, God had fittingly brought a new thought to my mind on the exact topic:  the idea that, it takes utter brokenness to fix utter brokenness.  Relationship problems can be vastly different.  But regardless of the particular struggle, it takes genuine brokenness within the hearts of the people involved before God (and they) can begin to properly repair and restore it.  If it is only cracked but left in disrepair, it will eventually break.  If it is partially broken, and one person is holding on to the missing pieces, God cannot repair it.  He has to have every piece--or, in essence, He has to have the undefiled, unfettered willingness by those involved for true repair and restoration to occur.  

Within that willingness and utter brokenness, there are two essentials that God has to ultimately have from both parties (not just one person):  

#1.  God has to have honest acknowledgement by both sides that the situation IS broken and needs/warrants repair.  This would be the, "truth" and, "repentance" part (vs. the following:  someone ignoring that a problem or, "crack," has occurred; someone saying the problem belongs solely to the other person; someone whitewashing that he/she had anything to do with the creation of the problem).  This is where the people involved, "get real," and face the facts of the situation without dodging truth and responsibility (or each other).  This is where people genuinely share offenses by going to the other person and speaking the truth in love, as we are told to do in God's Word when a relationship issue occurs (Ephesians 4:15; Matthew 18:15). 

#2.  God has to have humble hearts that are willing to work to change or fix the problem.  This is the part where both parties treat each other with dignity and mutual respect.  This is where both parties actually care about the needs of the other person more than their own (or at least, as much as their own).  When I think about the, "burnt bridges" I've suffered in my life (relationships that ended due to the inability for reconciliation to occur), in every case, I was honestly willing to do #1 above and admit MY PART (to admit the problem happened, and verbalize, show, and feel honest remorse for the things I had said or done that helped to cause the problem or had caused them pain--i.e., all the broken pieces I created).  But I was also willing to work to FIX my part in the issue in order to reconcile and begin to restore the relationship and the trust.  However, the other parties involved would not do one or both of those things.  They could quickly and easily agree that I had done some things wrong, but they would not agree that offense, pain, and responsibility in the crack or broken pieces had also been reciprocal.  In essence, they either would not acknowledge the brokenness in the first place, or they flat refused to share any blame for it.  They preferred to view it as my issue--not theirs or anything they might have done.  Perhaps they wanted to hold on to my pieces and could not truly forgive me (or essentially, they did not really want to reconcile).  Or, maybe they wanted to hold on to their pieces, justifying their part or lying in the matter in order to rid themselves of guilt and the responsibility of fixing anything.  They were not only non-repentant, but they were also not going to do anything to fix the issue to restore the trust.  Sometimes people really hold on to those pieces, and then all you are left with is a somewhat repaired situation that is going to end-up broken again.  But the repair work cannot be a one-sided attempt--it's a broken vessel with one person not giving up their pieces.  People many times do not want to admit they have wronged another, even if it was not done, "on purpose." So they sure don't want the responsibility of fixing anything (especially if they believe or justify that they have not done anything wrong in the first place)!   For some folks, it takes too much brokenness to work selflessly to change or fix wrongs they have committed against others.  It is just too much work...and it is hard work.  It demands too much humility to realize you owe somebody something (and, "I'm sorry," is just for starters).  Forgiveness is also hard work.  It requires you to see yourself as the person you really are--a sinner who is also in need of forgiveness.  Though problems in relationships can vary greatly, it boils down to one thing:  Are you willing to be broken?!  I have sadly decided that many people are not.  Utter brokenness is a wondrous irony--it actually only comes forth from courageous, strong people with humble, soft hearts.  If you find people in life who are willing to be broken, hold onto them for dear life.  Shelter their hearts and guard the relationship--it is a treasure unknown to many.

With the idea of, "utter brokenness fixing utter brokenness," God also gave me much peace with a picture of broken pieces laying on a table and one person clinging to theirs--I guess I am a visual learner.  I can read a thousand times that forgiveness is demanded by God but reconciliation is not (and all the reasons for that).  But I still find myself thinking, "What should I have done differently?" and, "Was this all my fault?" and, "Should I have pursued harder to reconcile with this person?"  It took that visual picture for me to let go of the painful, entrapping thoughts of the broken relationships I have suffered--and God was so good to give it to me.  I know that He wanted to truly free me once and for all.  Burnt bridges are hard on me, and I am grateful that I have had only a few in my life.  Yes, I must forgive everyone who has wronged me because Christ has forgiven me and thus, commands that I do the same (Matthew 6:14).  I believe I have done this.  But I do not have to place myself back in relationships where the other parties failed to do either of the two things required for God to truly restore the relationship.  All we can do is give our broken pieces to God and pray the other parties relinquish control of any they are holding.  God knows the situations and He is best suited to handle them.  Sometimes God has actually repaired something, but it doesn't look like we think it should.  There are times when separation and finality are the best repairs.

This week we celebrate Easter--the Christian holiday marking the historical event in time when Jesus Christ was broken to the ultimate level in order to restore our utterly broken relationship with God.  As I write this, I realize that any brokenness I have ever suffered pales in comparison to the brokenness Jesus endured for each of us on the cross.  Jesus was certainly the best picture of the wondrous irony of, "utter brokenness."  He was strong, but meek.  He was a King, but He was a humble servant.  He could perform great miracles, but chose to suffer in agony and die on a cross in our place.  He had the largest, softest heart of all.  

I also realize that just as we humans struggle to admit and work to fix our sins against each other, we likewise don't always want to admit our sins against God, either.  We prefer to, "hold our own pieces," and try to fix our lives and earn our way to heaven ourselves.  I believe we run from God for the same reasons we run from others--we run from our guilt, our shame, and from the responsibility and effort of fixing our mistakes.  We run away with our pride.  We're afraid it's all going to be, "too much work," or that God will require too much of us. We think we have figured out a better way to live, so we run.  But we don't need to run.  All it takes to fix utter brokenness is utter brokenness--it's like one cancels the other out.  Christ's utter brokenness on the cross cancels out our utter brokenness in sin on this earth.  Jesus suffered and paid all the cost of the sins and mistakes of the entire world when He hung on the cross.  He was the perfect sacrifice required for the payment of sin.  He was a lamb without flaw.  Just as we need to admit our wrongs to each other and make an honest attempt to do better, this is all God requires and asks of us.  He wants our utter brokenness in return for Christ's.  He wants us to believe in the free gift of salvation we can have through Christ. He wants us to admit our sin and deep need for His salvation.  He wants our sincere effort at building a relationship of trust in Him.  He does not expect perfection--Jesus already took care of that part, and we cannot no matter how hard we try.   He wants you to give Him the broken pieces of your life and let Him begin the restoration.  I pray that God can get a hold of every piece of your life and mine--and I pray that He doesn't just use Super-Glue.  I pray He remolds and re-fires us beyond breaking.

In closing, please pray this with me:

Dear Lord,

Thank You for being utterly broken so my brokenness can be perfectly and finally repaired.  Help me to relinquish control of the pieces of my life and my relationships, and truly let YOU care for it all.  In this life, while I work diligently to maintain respect, patience, trust, loyalty, faith, hope, and most importantly, love for others, I pray that You will seal cracks before they become breaks.  I pray that You can get a fast and firm hold on any and all broken pieces in my relationships in order to keep them beautifully intact. In Your time and way, I ask You to repair any that You believe are worth repairing.  I thank You, Lord, for loving me so much that You came to earth only to die and pay the price of my sins and those of the entire world. You were and are most concerned with my relationship with YOU.  Thank You for sparing my soul and giving me the chance to know You and live eternally with You in heaven.  I don't always understand the mystery and all the details of Your coming to earth to live as a human--as, Jesus.  But I know it has everything to do with Your sinless character.  You could not allow sin to go unpunished or allow it to fully destroy us.  We all deserve death because of the sin we inherited from, The Garden.  You gave us all free will--a choice and chance to love you back and obey.  You did not create us to be Your pawns.  You wanted our genuine love, and we failed to give it.  We still fail.  I know I would have done the same things Adam and Eve did.  We all want to be our own god, and we all want to go our own way.  I know this is true for me, being the control-freak that I tend to be.  But You didn't want man to just die eternally in return for our sin.  So You provided a Solution to the problem.  Jesus was the Remedy.  Jesus was the Fixer and Repairer for all the brokenness.  Thank You, Father, for loving us so much and having such mercy on us that when we failed, You sent Jesus, and gave us another choice and chance to believe, accept Your forgiveness, accept Your salvation by faith, and follow You.  You came and walked our world, faced the same struggles, temptations, and death we face, and conquered it all victoriously without flaw through Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Thank You for being the perfect example and sacrifice for us.  Though we failed You, You came and died in our place.  This kind of love baffles me.  I love that You are a God of second chances. I love that You are a God of many chances.  Help us to all greatly value that about Your character, and not test it.  You deserve better than that.  Thank You for Easter, Father, and what it means to us as believers--that we, too, can have victory over sin and death through Christ and the power of His resurrection.  We can rise again as new people in You.  We don't deserve this, and we don't deserve You.  
We love You, Lord.

Happy Easter, friends! 

Related Scripture:

Isaiah 53:5, "But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed."

1 Peter 1:3, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

While We Wait

 (Re-post from Aug. 24, 2012)

If you read yesterday's blog post, then you know I was asked by my Worship Arts Director/Pastor, Bryan, to "share" last night with my fellow worship band mates at rehearsal. Bryan asked me to share what God has been teaching me recently, and it was hard to decide what to share since there are always so many separate things God seems to be trying to teach me, as He does all of us.  But the thing I feel God has been trying to drive home to me the most lately is patience, and this idea of, "waiting on the Lord."

Recently, God showed me in His Word that at the root of every personal struggle, battle, need, and prayer request, we have the issue of waiting on God.  Rarely do our supplications and prayers get a quick, "yes" or "no" from God (except for maybe our basic daily prayer items).  Most often, we just have to "wait."  Our patience is being constantly tested by God--sometimes for many years, perhaps even decades.  Personally, I have several prayer items for which I've spent over 20 years praying and petitioning God, and I still am.  But through this, we have to have patience to trust Him, and we need faith and hope to relinquish control so as not to worry about whatever things we're waiting on God to handle.  We also have to have faith, hope, and trust so as not to give up on Him while we wait.

We call people, "control freaks," all the time--it has become yet another derogatory catchphrase in our society (and we have so many in our quest for pointing out "other people's flaws").  But the truth is we ALL have control issues. We all struggle with trying to control our lives in different ways--this is why we all get impatient with things and people, and why we get stressed over things.  We try to take on our daily struggles and carry our burdens ourselves and "handle them."  We even get annoyed with petty things like other drivers and long lines, and the root of that annoyance is patience and control.  God has shown me that this issue of waiting on Him and trusting in Him began in the garden. Eve wanted to be in control of things, and was enticed by the enemy that God wasn't giving her full intellectual access to everything He knew. So essentially, she was the first ever control freak, and didn't trust God or have patience to wait on Him for any provision--intellectual or otherwise. She rushed ahead, and doubted God and what He'd told her (He warned her if she ate the fruit she would die).  In her quest for "control," she basically tried to, "be God."  She was impatient and wouldn't wait on God and just let Him be God.  This has been our root sin ever since--everything we do stems from this.  We basically want to be God.  We want what we want, and we want it right now.

So why does God feel the need to teach us to WAIT so often by testing our patience?  Perhaps because it is our biggest curse from that original sin. We proved to Him in the garden with our "sin nature" that we need to be taught some serious lessons on patience.  But we can all think of the basic reasons why God teaches us patience so regularly in life.
Some basic reasons I came up with initially are:

*so we don't become spoiled or entitled, always getting what we want when we want it (as children do when they get their way all the time)
* so we can strengthen our faith and trust in Him
* so we can learn gratefulness (you are more appreciative of answered prayers and needs that God meets for you when you've waited for them)
*AND, so that God gets the glory when the supplication or need is met (when we have to wait for something, we are much quicker to give God credit than when it comes easily to us--we know we had nothing to do with it because it didn't come easily to us).

But as I read different passages in the Word about "waiting" on the Lord, I found several other interesting reasons why God tests our patience so much in life.  Some of these weren't new to me, but I had forgotten them.  Some were "ah ha" moments. The passages are as follows:

*Psalms 27:14 says, "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord."  (So gaining COURAGE is also a byproduct of having our patience tested.  This was a new idea for me.  I've never really thought of courage as being a complimentary virtue to patience.  But it does take courage to "wait," keep your cool, and relinquish control of your life for sure)!

*Psalms 25:3 says, "Let none that wait on You be ashamed."  (So we are taught to be UNASHAMED to wait on the Lord, having confidence in what He will do.  This verse could also reflect that we are to be unashamed to give testimony to others about what God is doing for us or how we know He will meet our needs.  We are told in Romans 1:16 by Paul to be, "unashamed of the Gospel."  Essentially, we are to be unashamed of Christ and giving Him control of our life.  This was a new thought for me--that in having my patience tested by God I am learning to be unashamed of Him, knowing He will take care of my needs).

*Psalms 25:21 says, "Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait for you." (So we learn OBEDIENCE and gain better CHARACTER from waiting).

*Lamentations 3:25-26 says, "The Lord is good unto them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. (So, in testing our patience, God is also trying to get us to SEEK HIM, HOPE IN HIM, and prove Himself as our SAVIOR, yet again.  I think it is pretty cool that God wants to be our Savior every day--not just once upon coming to Him through Christ!  So He uses these times of "waiting" just so He can save us yet again.  He reminds us that we don't just need His saving grace once, we need it daily.  I love the idea that God makes us wait just so He can swoop in and rescue us)!

*Psalms 33:20 says, "Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield."  (So here we see that God wants to be our HELPER and PROTECTOR in times of need). 

*Is. 40:31 says, "But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."  (So here we see that God teaches us PERSEVERANCE and ENDURANCE through waiting, as well as, to HOPE in Him.  As a runner, I've always loved this verse since it speaks to "running and not growing weary"). 

*Is. 30:18 says, "Therefore the Lord will wait, that He may be gracious to you; blessed are all those who wait for Him."  (So here GOD WAITS to respond to us just so He can be GRACIOUS to us in return for OUR waiting on Him--He is testing us to see if we are worthy of his graciousness.  He is also waiting along with us--this was a new idea for me, as well.  Reminded me of how any great coach gets involved in the coaching process--no one likes a track or cross country coach who stands along the sidelines yelling while you're running your rear off during practice.  If your coach ran WITH you, they were a great coach.  God WAITS WITH US.  What a great God!)!

*Is. 26:8-9 says, "...O, Lord, have we waited for you.  The desire of our soul is for your name."  (So in this instance, God teaches us to DESIRE Him.  We all say we "need" God or we "seek" God, but we rarely say we DESIRE or "want" God.  This was a new thought for me--to WANT God.  We want a lot of things.  But do we WANT God?  We need to want Him--He is really the only thing that is fully trustworthy in life and the only person Who we can know for sure will always be there for us.  He is worthy of our DESIRE).

*LAST, Romans 12:12 says, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer."  (So here, we see God teaching us to be better PRAYER warriors when we have afflictions we are waiting patiently on Him to resolve.  Nothing makes you get on your knees faster than afflictions.  God knows this and He many times allows and uses struggles to come into our lives just so we will look UP and PRAY to Him).

So upon reading these and many more passages about waiting on the Lord (there are tons of them in the Word), God showed me lots of other reasons, besides my initial thoughts, as to why He tests and refines our patience so often in pretty much every area of life.  It's really no wonder "waiting" is such a trying and painful thing for us--there are so many things going on all at once that God is refining in us while He teaches us to wait.  It is also no wonder I wasn't sure what to share with my band last night that God is teaching me right now--God IS teaching me lots of things all at once, through this "waiting."  This is just how He operates with us.  The key is to recognize our great need for refinement in all these areas so that instead of shaking our fist at God when we get weary of waiting on Him, we can do as it says in Psalms 34:1 and, "bless the Lord at all times," and, "praise Him continually," no matter our circumstances, because we know He is working for our personal good.  We can trust Him that He has our best interests at heart.  He is the perfect example of patience--He is certainly patient with us. If He weren't, He would have smote the earth long ago.

In closing last eve, I shared with my fellow band mates last night how this idea of, "waiting on God," relates to what we do on Sunday mornings in music ministry.  We in the body of Christ are all waiting on things in this journey together.  We pray and worship together. We hope together.  I told them that every Sunday, our church is flooded with people who are all "waiting" on God for many things, just as we each are.  They are waiting on unanswered prayers for better jobs, health issues, financial issues, personal addictions, family struggles, broken relationships, battles with their kids--you name it.  Some people are patiently waiting, some are joyfully waiting, some are in great distress, some are angry, and some are totally hopeless.  You can see it on their faces when you are leading worship.  This is why I close my eyes so often when I'm leading--I just have to focus on God and not look out at the crowd all the time.  I feel like my fellow worshipers need some personal space to privately worship and not be looked at by the worship leader.  I need my own personal space to worship, too.  But many times, I really don't want to look out at their faces and see their pain.  It is hard to see people looking downcast in spirit or even totally broken. I praise God that I belong to a church where people feel safe and free to come to God wherever they are at spiritually or even emotionally, and they do not feel they have to put on false heirs about it.  But I find myself praying for those individuals in my church body who appear to be struggling while they "wait" on God.  I can so empathize--we've all been there.  I shared with my band mates that I think it is really important when we are scheduled to lead, that we are sensitive to this, and that we as a group pray each week for the people who will be there to worship with us.  We need to pray for God to move in their lives and in our lives, as well.  We need to just be there for each other.  We must also pray that we can be vessels of light and encouragement through our music for our fellow church body that is, "waiting on God," too.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fueled by Love

  "Do everything in love."
1 Corinthians 16:14

This blog post was, "fueled" by a few things--the recent debut of talk show host, Jimmy Fallon, on the, "The Tonight Show," an e-devotional I recently read by Rick Warren, and a recent conversation with my mother.  On his debut show, Jimmy Fallon shared humble, sincere sentiments about his new venture, as well as, why he thinks he has been successful thus far and how he hopes it will continue.  He said he believes the one thing that has been the reason for any success he has had, is the fact that he just loves people.  He said he has tried to make it his main purpose to love people and let that love, and his desire to make their lives better (which is, love, again), be the motivation in all his work.  When I think about how Jimmy treats each and every one of his guests, I can readily see this kind of love.  When I think about the kinds of questions he asks them and his reactions to their answers, I clearly see this kind of love.  He just cares about people.  He sees the best in everyone.  He is not partial.  He is not competitive.  He is a joyful, loving soul--and that bubbles forth from his very being nightly.  I was already a huge fan of the guy, and those comments certainly made me a bigger one. 

About a week later, I read an online devotional by Pastor Rick Warren entitled, "Bring Your Love and Work Together," and was reminded strongly of many things Jimmy shared in his opening speech.  The idea of, letting love be our motivation or, "fuel," rang true yet again.  Pastor Warren shared that if we make love our chief aim, our work will not only be done well and be enjoyable to us, but it will also be an effective and pleasing sacrifice and ministry to God and for God in the lives of others.  We all want our work and efforts to matter and make a difference--it is an innate, God-given trait and desire.  I cannot think of a better way for it to matter than for love to be the source of it all.  In his devotional, Pastor Warren fittingly quoted Mother Teresa:

"It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving."  ~Mother Teresa


When I think about the people I love the most, I realize that the work or service I do for them does not come with expectations or conditions.  I serve them because I love them, period.  It is easy to do this for those we deeply love.  But how do we give this kind of love in our work and service to those who do not deserve it or who perhaps make it difficult for us to keep love as our goal?  1 Corinthians 13:7 says, "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."  Furthermore, 1 John 4:8 says, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God IS love," and 1 John 4:19 states, "We love because He first loved us."  So I deduce that since God IS love and He loved us FIRST, we are called to love others if we say we know and love Him.  His love for us is our motivation and fuel for loving others.  If we say we believe in Him and His Word, then we should be willing to truly give the kind of love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  Some people in your life will test you on all four of those levels.  They do things that make it difficult to bear and endure them.  They say things that make it hard to believe in them or have hope where they are concerned.  But we are still called to love them.  Make no mistake--there are some people God removes from our lives (or desires for us to remove from our lives) and love them, "from a far."  But for those who enter and remain, love is the best answer.

When I think about my reasons for serving difficult people, at times I find myself more motivated by guilt and fear than love.  I guilt myself that God will be angry with me for withholding my love to them.  I am fearful He will be disappointed in me if I only love those who are easy to love.  I guilt myself that I won't be a good Christian example if I cannot learn to serve those who do not love or serve me back, or who perhaps do not treat me well.  But God does not want us to serve others in His name out of guilt, fear, or people-pleasing.  He wants us to love the difficult people because that is what He did.  We are all difficult, and He loves us anyway.  He wants to bless us for loving in the tough situations, not just the easy ones.  Not only do we miss out on blessings when conditional love, guilt, or fear are our motives, but we run out of fuel much quicker, too.  It's the same with serving God.  If we do so with conditions, guilt, or fear, we will be frazzled quickly.  We will be focused on the negatives.  We will not have passion in our work, and it will show.  But if we do our work and ministries as if, "unto the Lord," and in order to please Him out of our deep love for Him, only good pours out.  That is the kind of work that not only enriches your life, but the lives of others.  That is the kind of work that may wear you out physically, but it empowers and energizes you spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. When we operate with that kind of love, we can be dead-dog-tired...but deep down, we feel like a million bucks.

Shortly following the debut of Jimmy Fallon and reading Pastor Rick Warren's devotional, I had a conversation with my mother regarding my love of music and singing.  She said, "Boy, honey. You must really enjoy doing this to go through all the vocal exhaustion, physical exhaustion, rehearsals, constant learning of new music, schedule-keeping, and time away from home that it requires.  I worry about you sometimes, Steph.  You are always tired--I know you are working so hard, and that you have such late nights and long hours for little personal gain.'re also always so happy!  Your dad and I laugh because you beam the entire time you are singing!  You really love this, don't you?!"  We had a big chuckle at the hilarious impracticality and seeming imbalance of what I give to my music and what I get in return.  Mom was right--I am usually pretty beat and my work does entail a great deal of personal strain for little pay.  But I love serving God in the worship leading I do at my church, and in my band-work outside of church.  I take Him with me wherever I go and I serve Him wherever I go.  I just love music.  I love the people with whom I work and serve, and the people for whom I work and serve.  I love everything about it. is a wellspring of fuel for a weary soul.

Related Scripture:

Colossians 3:23, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters."

Ephesians 6:7, "Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people."
1 Corinthians 13:3, "If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Friday, February 28, 2014

Growing the Fruit of Patience

In writing this final post in my three-part blog series on, The Three Fruits of the Spirit with Which I Struggle, it has become apparent to me that the three fruits with which I struggle most are quite related--they all have to do with me trusting in God and His timing.  They all have to do with me relinquishing ultimate control to Him.  Comically and casually-speaking, they all have to do with me, "chilling out!"  All three of my problem fruits, peace, self-control, and patience, seem to also have a great deal to do with my personality.  I am a driven, "perfectionistic," worry-wart, goal-oriented, somewhat restless, and high-stress person by nature.  I want things done, I want them done right, and I want them done now--and I don't want anyone or anything causing any problems in the interim (and even if nothing or no one is, I'm worrying about that changing)!

In looking honestly at the nine, Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, I bet you would find that the three lowest grown fruits on your personal tree would also have some similarities.  When we are low in one fruit, it can readily affect other fruits that are similar in nature.  I am guessing those who struggle with joy, probably also struggle with kindness and gentleness.  If you are a serious-type soul, you probably prefer to keep to yourself and you secretly wish others would do the same.  You probably struggle to find humor in day-to-day life, and therefore, laughter isn't something heard from your lips often.  Perhaps you are even borderline crabby much of the time and a bit cynical in life.  You prefer to think in private and keep those thoughts to yourself--and you wish others would just do the same.  In line at the grocery store, you are one of those people at whom I purposefully try to smile, and you look at me like you'd rather eat me for lunch than return the nicety.  You prefer to handle your own problems--and wish others would do likewise.  Your jaded soul does not understand people who compliment you or others, and assume it is flattery driven by weakness or impure motives.  You find yourself putting your foot in your mouth often, and privately glean sick pleasure in preying on the weaknesses of others.  People who wear their hearts on their sleeves deserve it, in your view.  They are, "easy targets."  You tend to say things in a, "tell it like it is" manner, and may not have many friends due to that.  Oh, well...that's less trouble for you, in your mind.

If you are someone who needs more love, goodness, and faithfulness, you perhaps struggle to treat your spouse or family in ways that show them they are second only to God.  Perhaps you have lost touch with relatives and friends because you just do not know how to maintain good relationships or show others they are loved and valued.  It all takes so much energy, you would rather just let those relationships go by the wayside than exert any effort in showing others they matter to you.  Maybe you don't really understand God's love or His personal love for you.  Therefore, you aren't very faithful in your walk with Him or anyone else.  You might even view God as a strict, distant disciplinarian Who expects too much of you.  Since you cannot find the faithfulness to live-up to His grand expectations, you have given-up trying.  Maybe you aren't even very faithful, loving, or good to yourself.  Perhaps love and faithfulness are things you have not been shown by many people in life--so you do not have them readily available for others.  Maybe you view relationships as avenues for superficial joy and fun, but the moment it gets tough or real, you are gone--or you run others off.  Your love is superficial, selfish, and lofty.  You by all means expect people to be good to you, but you do not spend much time trying to be good back to them.  Forgiveness is easily afforded to you, but you do not desire to return the favor.  You make goals for yourself and rarely see any of them come to pass.  You are flighty, easily bored, and self-concerned.

I do not say those things to be harsh.  The simple fact is, none of us exhibit all nine, Fruits of the Spirit 100% of the time.  If we did, we would be perfect like Christ (and we know that is a far-fetched notion)!  I say those things only to get you thinking about your own need for God's fruits in your life.  All nine fruits are related--they are all traits God desires for us to grow abundantly in our lives through the power of His Spirit.  They are for our betterment and blessing, and more importantly, for that of those He has placed in our lives.  But I believe they can be grouped in threes by further similarity.  For example, there are many kinds of apples--whether they are Galas, Fujis, or Honey Crisp, they are still apples and are all related.  But some apples are even more similar--some are better for baking and some are better for raw eating.  Likewise, the Fruits of the Spirit are all related, but some more closely than others.  I believe the lack of any of them in our lives is easily linked to a deeper sin-issue or tendency.  But they are all fruit and we are supposed to exhibit them, or at least, work to exhibit them if we know Christ.  They are the product of a life lived knowing God.  They are a sign to the world that we are different somehow.

The Pastor of my church, Jim Congdon, began the New Year with a sermon series entitled, "Simplify."  In our quest to create New Year's resolutions, Pastor Jim asked us all to, "keep it simple," and pick ONE WORD to carry with us through the year.  He encouraged us that by having just one word upon which to strive, we would be better able to improve and less likely to give-up.  When we try to tackle too many goals, we tend to quit, and hence, fail.  The word I chose for this year is fittingly, patience.  It happens to be the last fruit on which I am writing for this blog series.  My husband and a few close friends know this is my word for the year, and it has already been a great help (as well as, great comedic relief) to have that word present itself as the need arises.  Just the other day while taking my friend out for lunch, I began to lose my cool with another driver who pulled out in front of me, and she lovingly, softly said to me with a wink and smile, "Paaaaatienccccce."  We had a big chuckle!  The word presented itself a few more times that day (hey, it's not my fault the people of Lawrence don't know how to drive...pray for me, people)!

I have written about patience at length in a former blog post entitled, "While We Wait."  In that post I share of the fact that we are all waiting on things in our lives.  None of us ever really "arrive" at having every personal need met and every desire fulfilled.  I don't need to bemoan or repeat myself with the same thoughts here, and you can easily put that blog title into the "search" tab (to the right on this blog page) if you want to read more on, "waiting."  Essentially, we all have small issues of needed patience in our lives and we have big ones.  In some of the big areas, God is teaching us patience and then some!  Perhaps we have waited many years, even decades, for some prayers to be answered or fulfilled.  But I believe the main reason God wants us to exhibit patience is so we will learn to let go of trying to control our lives and just trust Him.  If we got everything we wanted or needed every moment we asked, we would be intolerable, spoiled brats (I already am one, and I certainly don't get everything I need or want)!  God wants us to see that He can sustain us regardless of the things we are lacking in this life.  He wants to prove to us that He is all we really need (because He is).

When I think about my moments of impatience, some of the things that are going through my head (or that have gone through my head and are now fueling the impatience) are the following:

"Well, crap.  I am going to be late--as always!"
"I swear--I never have enough time to do ANYTHING."
"Why is this happening to me?"
"Why did God give that to him/her and not to me?  He/she doesn't even want it or value it.  They squander it.  They take all credit for it."
"This person is doing/saying this on purpose to hurt me."
"I am so tired of being manipulated and used."
"Do I have a sign around my neck that says, 'Make fun of me?!'"
"Do I have a sign around my neck that says, 'Kick me--I don't kick back?!'"
"I don't deserve this."
"This could turn out disastrous."
"All my hard work is for nothing."
"This is never going to change."
"This person is never going to change."
"There is no way God will ever turn this around."
"This situation is hopeless."
"I'm not going to get this done now."
"I'm never going to get this done."
"This is going to set me back."
"If I don't get this done today, tomorrow will be worse."
"If God doesn't change this, life won't be right...and it's just going to get worse."
"I should have been able to tackle all this--I am such a loser."
"Why does it seem others can juggle way more than I?!"
"I'm just so tired, Lord.  I'm just beat."
"I can't do this anymore, God.  I'm done."
"God, I sowed 'good' in that person's life.  Why I am reaping 'bad?'  It isn't fair. I thought You were just?  Your Word says, 'We reap what we sow.'  Come on, God!"
"There was no point in that, God.  What were you thinking?!"
"What is the point of any of this?!  It is a waste of my time!"
"God, why am I everyone's whipping post?! I get so tired of being everybody's door mat."

Now, please understand that these are not thoughts I have daily, weekly, or even monthly.  In my desire to be vulnerable and transparent, the last thing I need is someone reading this and thinking, "Oh, my.  She REALLY has issues!"  My answer to that would be, "Yes, I do.  And the fact that you are thinking that, tells me you do, too, friend," (i.e., critical spirit and opinionated negativity)!  I only share this list with you to help you recognize mental triggers that will start you down the path to impatience.  Many times they are subtle thoughts I don't even realize I am having.  Some times I believe they aren't even my thoughts, but the whispers of the enemy spurring me toward impatience and negative discouragement.  I do think we have to be cautious giving too much credit to the enemy.  We get ourselves into plenty of trouble, too!  As I look over the list though, I realize yet again what a fearful, over-driven, type-A, people-pleasing, do-list-crosser-off-er I am.  I see clearly what a worry-wart I am.  It is obvious to me that I need to spend more time, "chillaxing," so to speak!  I can see a few items on the list that display doubt and a lack of trust in God (as well as, the prideful boldness to think I can bargain and argue with Him).  It is also very sad to me to see how the actions and words of others too often provoke negative, hurtful, angry thoughts in me that then manifest as impatience.  Impatience is simply me trying to be God of my own life--God of my time, my do-list, my relationships, my plans, my ministries, my work, my everything.  Yes, friends--I'm a control freak in recovery.  If you have ever struggled with impatience, you are, too.

When we get impatient, we display the ugly side of ourselves.  It comes out as anger and perhaps even some choice vocabulary words.  But the essence of that is an impure heart--and we ALL have one of those from time to time.  When we exhibit impatience, we are essentially saying that we don't have the desire or the time to deal with things or people who are beneath us (ugh) and our much more important lives and plans (ugh, again).  We are self-absorbed and greedy with our time and our desires.  When we have to wait on something--even something little--and we are impatient, we are basically demanding something of God in utter greed for ourselves.  We possess the fast food mentality of, "Give it to me now and give it to me my way!"   It is pure ugliness.  It is rotten fruit.

Honestly, a severe lacking of any of the nine, Fruits of the Spirit, brings ugliness.  People who refuse to return a smile suffer from it.  People who refuse to offer up a kind word of encouragement but constantly expect it, suffer from ugliness.  People who are nice to your face but "talk smack" on you behind your back suffer from it.  People who are always looking for the negative in others and critically picking apart everything and everyone in life suffer greatly from it.  People who cannot be faithful to their spouse, their family, or their friends suffer from rottenness.  As I thought about the rotten ugliness that comes from a lack of fruit, and the opposing beauty of a healthy tree or vine filled with luscious, ripe fruit, I was reminded of what Jesus said in John 15:5, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing."  Without living a life in Christ the ugliness will rear its head--and the fruit will either not grow or it will rot.  Perhaps you're thinking, "Well, I've succeeded at a lot of things in my life and not lived 'for Christ.'  So I'm doing just fine, thank you."  My response to that would be the following:  Evaluate your heart and your life seriously and honestly.  Ask God how you are doing, and listen patiently for His reply.  I believe any successes we have that aren't done for the glory of God or done with a heart that has given all credit to Christ may be fruit, but they are rotten fruit.  What good did it do anyone that you succeeded if you have given the wrong person credit?!  It is all folly and all in vain.  It will be dust one day and no one will care.  Nothing good we do here will make any difference in the lives of others without a legacy of Christ being left behind with it.  That is a fruit that never rots and it multiplies a harvest of sound-living for generations to come.

In closing, I leave you with this prayer: 

Dear Lord,

Thank You for loving me in spite of my constant battle to grow more fruit in my life.  Thank You for Your mercy, patience, and forgiveness in my life.  I feel like I am a loser-Christian many times, Lord.  I fail you daily, and I have been an embarrassment to the throne of God many times in my life.  But I feel Your love, care, and provision in my life, and it keeps me going.  I know that apart from You, I will either be fruitless, or I will drop rotten fruit from the branches of my life.  I'm sick of doing both, Lord.  Help me this year to remember my word, PATIENCE, and immediately relinquish control of my life to You whenever I am tempted to fret and stew with negative, worrisome thoughts.  You will take care of all the things pressing upon me and my life in Your time and in Your way.  I trust You, Lord.  You are the best time-keeper of my life, and I know You want only the best for me.  Nothing and no one can harm me without it going through Your hand first--and even then, it will only bring good and betterment to my life.  So I relinquish all fear, and ask You to shelter me and my life from things and people that bring harm and pain, and that are not helpful to me.  I trust that You know what is best and will bring what is best.  I ask You to close and lock doors that are not Your will, and remove those things and people in my life that/who are not good for me and are stifling my growth of fruit.  I ask You to bring only those things and people that/who will spur me on to growing more fruit abundantly for Your Name and Your purposes. I praise You, God, for giving me just what I needed in a husband.  Thank You, God, for Matt~that he helps me to relax quite regularly, and that he has such a calming presence and is a precious, laid-back soul.  Thank You for giving me someone with whom to share this life who is all that I am not.  Help me to never take him for granted.  Help me to never take YOU for granted.  Help me to do everything in Your name, in Your strength, and for Your glory so that I am not tempted to become impatient. Help me to stay closely connected to Your vine so that my branches produce a harvest that will make You proud.  I love you, Lord.  I need you every second of every minute of every day.

I ask all these things in Jesus' Name,

Be fruitful, friends.  Much love in the harvest to you!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Growing the Fruit of Self-Control

 "A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls."
Proverbs 25:28 (ESV) 

In my prior blog post, I stated that out of the nine, Fruits of the Spirit, found in Galatians 5:22-23, there are three with which I struggle to possess.  I discussed how, peace, is one fruit I don't always have ready for the picking.  Today I will share the second fruit upon which I prayerfully hope to have an increased harvest--that of, self-control.

As I came across the key verse above in my study of this fruit, two things stood out to me.  One, I found it interesting that a lack of self-control in your life is as if you have been violated (or, "broken into").  I tend to think of self-control by its name--an issue of being able or unable to control yourself.  But this verse hints that it is not only a, "self" issue, but also one of being controlled by an external force.  Something trespasses your boundaries and invades your space.  Two, not only has a breach occurred, but you are left vulnerable (you are, "left without walls").  In researching Scriptures on self-control, I found many more verses that spoke to the idea of choosing to control oneself than I did verses like this which include the power of the external issue.  It makes sense to me that there is more involved in the matter of self-control than just me.  It typically involves being under attack. 

Even Jesus, Who was perfect and never succumbed to His temptations, was not just dealing with a, "self" issue when tempted.  Scripture makes it clear that He was being prodded by the enemy.  Since Jesus was perfect and had full access to God the Father (He was God the Father in the flesh--John 10:30; Colossians 2:9), He was never provoked to sin by Satan (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15).  We, however, are human and sinful.  Therefore, we are not only easier to prod, but we also get provoked to sin quite readily.

Friends, I desire to share with you the areas in which I struggle with self-control--not because I view you as priests to whom I must confess.  I don't need a priest--I've already got a perfect One (Hebrews 4:14-16).  I am desirous of sharing because it will perhaps bring to mind your own particular areas where improvement is needed.  When we do not have "get real" moments with ourselves, our progress is stifled.  To reach any goal, specific targets must be identified.  I am also sharing in order that my words may bring life, peace, hope, encouragement, and help to someone else.  So here goes...

The areas with which I particularly struggle with self-control are as follows:

*Over-eating.  Let me be clear--I do not struggle on a ridiculous level with this.  I have never been someone who eats an entire box of cookies (or even desires that) or half a bag of chips in one sitting.  I don't struggle with improper snacking.  Chocolate even gets stale in my candy dish (and I crave chocolate).  But I have a healthy appetite at meal-time.  My stomach prefers three squares a day and I want them to be reasonably hearty.  I don't want "seconds," I would just like to eat around 1,800-2,000 calories per day versus 1,400-1,600, as is recommended for a woman my height, age, and activity-level.  Therefore, I have a battle with maintaining the preferred weight at which I feel the best.  Since turning 40, I am perpetually trying to manage 5-10 pounds.  Middle-aged women cannot eat three squares a day--certainly not average or hearty ones.  Health experts say we should instead eat five tiny meals throughout a given day, or 2 to 3 light snacks and one smallish, healthy meal.  Basically, none of the food I love qualifies (Mexican, Asian, Italian, BBQ, etc.), because a typical meal in any of those food genres is well over the suggested calorie max for one meal (unless you take two bites and call that a feast).  Well, I think this stinks.  But it has become apparent to me after a discussion with my sister in-law, that it is an issue of self-control with which I know God desires to help me.  It doesn't help that in my twenties (and even thirties) I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted and not gain much, if any, weight at all.  It came off much easier, too.  You get spoiled with that blessing and it becomes a curse later.

* My thought-life (worries/fears/harboring hurts).  When your personality is such that you are prone to certain sins or destructive behaviors, look out.  They can become fierce bad habits and we all know that our minds are the control-centers for everything else--our emotions, our mental/physical health, our behavior, and our beliefs.  The Bible says we all have sins to which we are susceptible, and my mind is my biggest obstacle.  God has been dealing with me on these things my entire life, but I praise Him for the strides I have made with regard to worry and fear in the past year.  I am also done with regrets and holding grudges--I honestly have none.  I figure God is best suited to deal with everyone who has ever wronged me intentionally or who chooses not to forgive me for my wrongdoings.  I can also happily deduce that those who have chosen to walk out of my life made the right choice for them, me, or both.  When we truly know God, He is our ultimate Protector.  He is fair, just, and knows more about all our hurtful situations than even we do.  So He is best-equipped to manage who stays and who goes.  He promises to fight our battles and we only need to sit still (Exodus 14:14). 

* OCD tendencies/perfectionism.  Okay, people.  It's, "get real" time, and I would plead for your discrete grace, maturity, understanding, and ethical mindset here.  I have never been diagnosed with any mental illness.  But if I am utterly honest, I know I have had times where my perfectionism has been borderline OCD, at best.  When you cannot put your groceries away until they have been wiped-off (because those items have been touched by Lord knows who and will eventually end up on your kitchen counter), and the labels are facing front for quick location, you probably have an issue with perfectionism.  (Now you perfectionists can make fun of me for that, but you probably have your own odd annoyances, too.  I once was mocked for being a germaphobe by someone who takes her own sheets to every hotel and puts a huge scarf down on her movie theater seat)!  But God has been working with me the past several years with the realization that perfectionism is a colossal waste of time.  I am still battling this.  My church's Head Pastor, Jim Congdon, once shared a sermon on perfectionism.  I recall him stating that if we, "perfectionists," could learn to just be happy with doing every task to our own 80% approval-rating, we would still be doing them to a much higher level than the majority, and saving ourselves an enormous amount of time, energy, and stress.  I have often used that grading scale when I am doing tasks that I would rather do, "perfectly" than a mere 80% (Lord, help me)!  Our time and lives are short, so it is time to get real about the idiosyncrasies that bug us--are they really worth the effort?!  All OCD really is, is an issue of over-control (that could be an alternate for the acronym)!  OCD is self-control on acid.  It is a lack of trust in God on meth.  You are motivated by pure fear and therefore, trying to control your life so that you don't have any ridicule, illness, pain, trials, problems, more work later, and so you can feel better about the stuff you cannot control.  It is a desire to over-compensate (ah ha, another alternate for the acronym) for things that are really bugging you.  The sad reality is that you are not in control of any of it anyway.  If your family or friends are going to mock you for not making your bed with hospital corners or not keeping your car tires glowing from Armor All, they need to get a life--and you need to get new friends and tell your family to step-off!  If you get sick, who cares?!  There's always a great film on Netflix you haven't had time to watch!  Friends, if any of this is ringing true for you, please know that I have prayed in advance for any and all who battle this on any level.  I give you a sisterly hug and much love via this post!  I don't know about you, but I don't care to be remembered as the lady who could serve you dinner off her immaculate floors.  Dear Lord, I pray I have more influence and more to give in this life than that.

* Diligence with health/fitness.  I am probably being too hard on myself with this one because I know for a fact that I workout more than most. I am also one of those crazy people who actually loves to workout!  But on the days when I would rather be lazy, those are the times when I especially need to get off my hiney and drag myself joyfully to the gym.  Why be so fanatical?  Because those are also the days when the above issues tend to begin to surface.  When you are sluggish in one area, it can be a slippery slope (as the key verse states--your city is without walls).  I want to be a disciplined athlete--and diligent people do things even when they don't "feel" like it.  Any doctor will tell you that every human needs to be physical and sweaty at least three times a week.  I am faithful to this many weeks...then there are other weeks...

* Faithfulness with reading God's Word.  I have made significant improvements in the past few years with having a daily quiet time where I at least read a devotional and have my own prayer-time.  Intercession is one of my spiritual gifts--I am a person who readily prayers throughout the day (and I don't even want to know the kind of person I would be if I didn't--I need it)!  But as for serious Bible study, I need to work harder at making my time with God less of a, "do list" item.  He cannot speak to me when I rush through my relationship with Him.

* Controlling my temper (in my car) & watching my tongue (set a watch over my lips, Lord, Psalm 141:3).  I have previously shared of these sin issues ad nauseum.  They are not major issues, but 1/4 Latina does rear its ugly head from time to time.

It is funny yet sensible that a few of these areas of mine are so closely related to my other weaker fruits--peace and patience.  I mentioned in my prior blog post on peace that to get victory over bad habits, you have to replace them with good ones.  It is truly about choices--what are we going to choose to do with regard to our self-control:  Are we going to suppress bad tendencies, or go with them?  Are we going to let our borders be violated and open to further breachings, or set-up boundaries and guards?  Are we going to create disciplined choices that bring life to our beings, or follow the same old unsuccessful patterns we are trying to beat? Are we going to do this in our own limited strength, or utilize the endless power of the Holy Spirit given to each of us who know Him...?

Some of the stuff with which we need to exercise self-control is going to require us to control our own behavior.  Some of it will require relinquishing control over it to God.  What did Jesus do when tempted?  He prayed asking God to deliver Him from it (invoking God's help and protection). He quoted Scripture to the enemy (setting His mind on the right things, reinstating the boundaries, and using the strongest weapon He had against His nemesis).  He fled the temptation (shoring up His borders and changing the setting so as to secure the best outcome).  We have to do the same things.  Just as with the fruit of peace, we have to choose to exercise self-control, as the word itself suggests.  We have to guard the borders of our personal city.  But we are never alone in that battle--God is always with us and there to help us.  We first make the choice, and then use His wisdom and strength to bring it to fruition and harvest.  Help us all, Lord--especially me.  Thank You for loving us regardless of our imperfections, quirks, and failings.  Thank You that Your grace is enough.  Amen.

Related Scriptures:

*  2 Corinthians 12:9, "But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

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

*  1 Corinthians 9:25, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable."