Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saying "Yes"

For the past five years, December 30th has been the day when God has asked me if I am willing to renew my "Yes" to Him. It has been a little more sobering to consider my answer today than in previous years...more on that in a moment.

On December 30, 2004, I sensed God asking for a "Yes" to a question I had been afraid to consider before that time. Here's what I sensed Him saying: "If you knew for sure that it was I who was acting and speaking, would you let go everything safe and settled to follow me? Would the Church? There is coming such radical change—I am bringing it–-that the familiar will fade away completely. Will you be a part of this? You can be, I want you to be, but you must let go of the familiar and the safe and follow me wherever I lead. You are not doing that yet, child, but I am calling to you. How will you answer me?”

And five years ago, the best I could answer at the time was, "I want to be willing to follow! Please keep working in me to get me there (Philippians 2:13)." And God has graciously answered that prayer many times over since that date.

Last year I found myself again saying "Yes" to Father's invitation to follow Him "off the map." Here's what I wrote: "Papa, this date seems to be the date each year that I am faced with answering whether I will follow you off the map! And as I reflect on all that you have done in me this year—far more than I could have dreamed, and different in some ways than I expected, yet not nearly enough (not until 2 Corinthians 4:7 becomes a reality will I stop pressing in!)—I am compelled again to say yes and ask you to continue doing whatever it takes in me. And as before I ask this not in fear that you will allow some horrible tragedy into my life because you prefer to change us by kindness. But I also know, Father, that just as this year has had its pains and challenges…so much to learn, so much to experience!"

But in spite of my words about God not allowing tragedy, this past year did bring pain to my wife--horrible, terrible pain and fear along with it--and because of my love for her, it brought pain to both of us. And to be honest, I wrestled more than once with whether my saying "Yes" to God to "do whatever it takes" somehow brought this pain on her. Yes, I know that good thinking about God wouldn't go there, but in the midst of the battle, we do find ourselves asking those questions, I think, or at least I did. Thankfully, though, God is not nervous or worried about those questions, and His Presence in the midst of the Valley of the Shadow of Death was extremely obvious to both Jettie and me.

And clarity comes as we cling to Him with our scary questions sticking out in front of us like festering wounds. He speaks and reminds me that He is good, to the core, completely and totally good. He reminds me that He sees all things, even the plans of the enemy, and takes them into account for how He plans to express His goodness to us. He reminds me that our ancestor Adam invited havoc into our world with his choice of "independence" and that havoc is no respecter of persons. He reminds me that His Word is true because it is a reflection of His character and therefore the many promises that are so brilliantly illuminated in the darkness by His Spirit are absolutely trustworthy: He really does deliver us from all our fears; He really is with us in trouble; He really does deliver from our enemies--in short, He really is good: totally, completely good.

And so as this day winds down, and I hear again His question, what can I say but "Yes"? But in ways hard to explain, my "Yes" this year is different. I feel like there is less "me" in it and more of Him in it. There is less bravado on my part, replaced by more awareness of my ineptness and frailty yet without condemnation because there is also more awareness that He really is--beyond our wildest dreams--very, very good! So my "Yes" this year feels "broken" and almost tentative, yet in some ways it is perhaps the best "Yes" I have ever given the One who asks the question of all of us.

Yes, my Abba, yes.

Tom, one of Abba's children

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Feeling at home...

Tuesday night Jettie and I spent the night in the Texas Panhandle town of Dalhart, as we headed down to Midland, TX, to spend Christmas with our son and his family. We ate dinner that night in a small town steakhouse and as we left for the hotel something happened that brought tears to my eyes and gave birth to this week's entry.

No, it wasn't an earthshaking event, it was simply a polite nod from a man at one of the tables as we left the restaurant--a cultural expression of greeting common to many parts of Texas. And the reason it brought tears to my eyes is that West Texas has always felt like home to me, more so even than the southern California border town where I grew up. And that simple gesture by an unknown rancher triggered a longing to be "home" (Midland feels most like home to us).

But there is another place that I trust will always feel even more like home to me than West Texas. I'm not sure how to describe it other than to describe it as being at home in God's Manifest Presence or perhaps "In Papa's lap." A little over five years ago, if I had read the previous sentence I would have stared at it with no understanding at all, but by Papa's grace, I do know how to experience His Presence, His lap, and I am amazed that I could have missed this for so long (especially since for years I have written and talked about "intimacy with God"!). And yes, I know that the New Testament teaches that I am in Christ and He is in me, but one can know these things in a rational way without knowing them by experience. And even as I write this I find longing for that experience of His Presence, His embrace, rising within me. Surely God Himself is indeed our shelter, our rock, our fortress, our tower, our Father.

Even under the Old Covenant we see that there are those who knew this. The sons of Korah wrote about this in Psalm 84: "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God." (vv. 1-2). And now that Jesus has come, Immanuel, God with us, how wonderfully accessible "home" has become to us. If I would "go home" I simply need to still my heart (easier said than done at times, I know), quiet my mind (ditto!) and turn my attention to the One who lives in me and in whom I live. And then, in ways hard to fathom unless you have experienced it, He comes, and we are home.

May you be ever more at home in Papa's lap!

Longing for home (both of them),

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Friday, December 18, 2009

I meditate on it all day long...

A few years ago I discovered an incredible treasure trove that I had forgotten about: in one of our moves I found all of Jettie's love letters to me from the summer before we were married (in typical fashion she carefully numbered each one of them). It's hard for me to describe the feelings that washed over me when I found them--and even now tears come easily as I write this. And I am sure I don't have to tell you that these letters are of indescribable value to me. Why? Not because of the ink and paper they are made of, not even because of the words themselves. No, these letters, "The Word of Jettie" are treasures to me because of the love relationship that she and I share.

And so it is with God's word. I think it was Andrew Murray who first helped me recognize that Psalm 119 is an incredible prayer not so much about God's word, but about God Himself and the deep, deep love the Psalmist felt from God and for God. In other words, God's law (precepts, statutes, word, etc.) was precious to the writer of Psalm 119 because God was infinitely precious to him.

I write this after having a tender and fierce dialog with God this morning about the dearth of His word in my life. It was not a condemning conversation, but I ended up deeply aware that I along with most western believers lack not only God's overwhelming power in my life but that I have very little of His word "hidden in my heart." No wonder then, that I am still vulnerable at times to fear, to attack from the enemy, to creating an improper image of what God is like in my mind (an idol), etc.!

You see, about 5 years ago I sensed God telling me to put away lots of scripture in my heart, and one of the passages He led me to was Psalm 119 (yikes!). I did indeed start memorizing that psalm (more on that in a moment), but somewhere along the line I gave up. Now, I did memorize other passages (thankfully one of them was Psalm 91 which has been the mainstay in the battle Jettie and I have had for her healing), but Psalm 119 remains to this day only partially in my heart. But that is changing, I trust, with God renewing a few days ago His admonition and invitation to memorize this psalm. And with that admonition came the powerful time of reflection this morning about how little of my thinking is really shaped by God's Word because when I started memorizing the psalm I began in the middle, with verse 97. Verse 97 says, "Oh how I love your law; I meditate on it all day long." Wow. It hits me like a ton of bricks that we cannot meditate on something that isn't committed to memory and that what I therefore end up meditating on is more likely to be the jumbled assortment of truth and lies that assault all of us in the twisted culture of this world.

And so I "repented," not with the shame-based "repentance" of religion, but with the love-based attitude of someone who realizes that he has wounded a friend and missed a great treasure. So I am asking God to create in me a longing for His word that grows out of our love relationship. I am asking Him to help me treasure His word far more even than I treasure those love letters from Jettie. I doubt that this hunger will reach its maximum level overnight, but it's already growing in me, along with a renewed longing simply for Him.

And I am reflecting now on the state of the western church--we carry Bibles in our hands, on our cell phones, on our computers. I wonder if it's really a blessing to do so! If I have it with me, somehow I may come to believe that it's in me! And I wonder if the reason spiritual awakening hasn't happened is due as much to unfamiliarity with God's Word (and therefore with the God who gave us His word) as it is a lack of His inundating power.

Just wondering, praying, thinking...

Tom, one of Abba's children

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Religion is SOOO Sneaky!

I was reading a devotional this past week and was amazed to see yet another blatant way that performance-based religion is at the heart of what many sincere folks call the Christian life! For some reason, even though believers say, "It's a relationship, not a religion," many of them are far more about "pleasing God" and about "should and ought" than about living in the freedom of God's total acceptance of them through Jesus. The following is pulled from my journal. See if you can catch the subtle ways that religion creeps in, even with long-time believers!

Papa! How subtle religion is! The ___ devotional is themed around a wonderful idea, but the following sentence illustrates the subtlety of religion: “As Christians, we are called to be ‘A holy priesthood, …acceptable to God through Christ Jesus’ (1 Peter 2:5), yet we are aware that there may be times when we fail to live up to that calling, and drift into the ways of the world.” But that's not what this passage says! We are not “called to be,” we are called ‘a holy priesthood…” It’s something you say we already are! But religion is constantly telling us what we are not something and telling us to try harder! Ah, Father! No wonder it takes us so long to break free. Not so long ago I would not have even seen this subtle trick of the enemy! Thank you for being so patient with me, so kind as you worked again and again to change my heart and bring me to true “repentance” (change of thinking).

Ah, Father. Even the translations cannot be trusted at times! 1 Corinthians 1:2 is translated by many translations “called to be holy/saints,” yet it literally reads, “called saints/holy ones”! And the same thing happens in Romans 1:7 (same Greek phrase). It’s not entirely wrong, of course, to say that we are “called to be saints,” if we hear that as our current state and our continuing destiny, but most people read it “called to try to become” instead of “called to live in something that I already am.” And the extreme importance of making this distinction is underscored even more when we realize that Paul was addressing the Corinthian church and calling them saints even though they were hardly acting like saints!

I trust that you can catch the difference here. To use the passage from 1 Peter as a reference, we are already a holy priesthood, etc., and as we live out the implications of who we are through the power of the Holy Spirit (surrendered to His loving guidance, interacting with His as we live life), we more and more look like what God declares us to be. On the other hand, if we don't realize that we are already saints, sons, priests, etc., we will try hard to become that because we think that's what God requires in order for us to be acceptable to Him.

I could write volumes on this, of course, but today I will simply refer you back to Bo's Cafe, TrueFaced, and Graham Cooke's excellent chapter on "Performance Christianity" in his excellent little book, Towards a Powerful Inner Life. I close with a quote from Graham.

"Performance-oriented people...rely on self-effort rather than acceptance in Christ as the foundation of their experience. However, they rightly express that 'Faith without works is dead.' But they do not understand that works which are not dependent upon acceptance of and faith in what God is doing in us can never provide what God seeks to release. The fact is, we pray, witness, serve, read Scripture, and attend meetings not to reach out to God but to express our sheer enjoyment that He is reaching out to us. It is how we celebrate His love. He is with us. He is for us, and we wriggle with the pleasure of His joy in us. He sings over us. He laughs at our enemies. He forgives so readily. He understands us completely."

Wow. Keep us wriggling with the pleasure of your joy, Papa!

Tom, one of Abba's children

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is It God's Voice?

Followers of this blog (all five of you :-)) know that I have written fairly often about hearing God's voice because I believe that hearing Him is foundational to everything (how can one have a relationship without frequent and varied communication?). But none of us hears His voice perfectly (run from someone who acts like they do!). So how do we know if it's really God's voice? After all, most of the time God's voice, our own thoughts and those injected by our adversary sound quite similar (thoughts in our minds). To answer this question I turn to one of my favorite mentors (who died two years before I was born), Smith Wigglesworth. Smith Wigglesworth learned over the years to hear God well, and he also encountered many sad stories of those who weren't wise in discerning the source of "the voice." Following are some of his key thoughts about how we can avoid following the wrong voice (with a few comments from me along the way). These are taken from various spots in his works but can be found all in one place in the Smith Wigglesworth Devotional (Whitaker House).

First, don't be afraid to test what you are hearing. Obviously the first test is against Scripture itself, and the more full of God's word you are, the more capable you will be at distinguishing God's voice. "If a voice comes and tells you what to do, if a person comes and says he has a special prophecy given him for you, you have as much right to ask God for that prophecy as they had to give it to you, and you have as much right to judge that prophecy according to the Word of God." Simple, isn't it? But I continue to be amazed at how many people "hear God" tell them things that violate God's character and will as revealed in Scripture! And Smith suggests a second test as well, from 1 John 4:2-3. "When a voice comes, no matter how it seems to you, you must test it. When it is persistently pressing have a position in the power of the Word of God to sat to this evil power, 'Did Jesus come in the flesh?' (1 John 4:3). And the satanic power will say no. But the Spirit of the Living God, the Holy Spirit, always says yes. We have to live in the place of knowing Scriptures and listening to His voice so that we are able to divinely discern whether these voices are of God or not."

Second, use common sense and test things against the general flavor of Scripture. Some more thoughts from Smith Wigglesworth:
"What do I read about the wisdom of God? It is full of peace and gentleness; it is willing to submit; it is without partiality; it is full of goodness and truth. (See James 3:17)...if these voices take away your peace, you will know they are not the will of God. But if the Spirit speaks, He will bring harmony and joy. The Spirit always brings three things: comfort, exhortation and edification."
"If you are wild, that is the Devil. If you go breathlessly to the Bible looking for confirmation of the voice, that is the Devil. The Word of God brings light."
"The voice came with such tremendous force that she could not let it go...God will never do anything like that. He will never send you an unreasonable, unmanageable message."
"It is satanic to feel that God has a special message for you and that you are someone more special than anyone else. Every place that God brings you in a rising tide of perfection is a place of humility, brokenness of heart, and fullness of surrender..."

Third, listen to God in community with others. Nothing you hear that is directional, etc., should be kept entirely to yourself. God has given us a loving and listening community to help us sort out whether or not what we are hearing is truly His voice (or if it is His voice, what the timing and other aspects of it are). Nowhere is this seen more clearly in Scripture than in the Apostle Paul's life--although he had as definite an encounter with the Lord Jesus as anyone, he chose not to embark on his life mission as an apostle until the community of believers around him heard God say, "It is time!" (see Acts 13--this incident happened about 13-17 years after Paul's encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road!).
"What did the Devil say next? 'You keep this a secret. Don't tell anybody...' Now that is surely as satanic as anything you have ever heard in your life, because every true thing, every holy thing, does not need to be kept a secret under any circumstances. Anything that is holy can be shouted from the housetops; God wants you to be able to tell all."
"If you are right and everybody else is wrong, I don't care who you are, if you cannot bear examination, if what you hold cannot bear the light of the truth, you are wrong... It is a very serious thing when nobody else know but you."

I welcome your thoughts and comments. In a nutshell, we can answer the question, "Is it God's voice?" by being so steeped in Scripture that we know not only its content but also the character of the One whom it reveals. And by using common sense and measuring whether what we are hearing brings peace, harmony, joy, etc., and by discerning whether what we are hearing is "forced" or pushy to the point of obsession. And by always, always being willing to humbly submit what we are hearing to others who hear God with us.

Listening carefully,

Tom, one of Abba's children