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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Heaven Blog Part Two: Mansions, But No Marriage!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Scripture:

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

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

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