Sunday, February 27, 2011

Color Me Grateful

     I was surprised to see it, hanging there in the spaces of my heart, but there it was: gratitude! This past week I have been the sickest I can ever recall, being completely bedridden from fever and flu for several days, so I have had lots of time to ponder things in my "sabbath of sickness." What surprised me, though, was what I saw as I lay there: I found a garden of gratitude growing in my heart in the midst of the illness and sorrow of grief. I wouldn't have noticed it, except that I caught myself smiling a lot even while "hacking and coughing" my way out of the wilderness of illness. "That ain't normal!" I said to myself, so I turned aside to see what was feeding the smile and I found gratitude. Amazing! This is just as surprising to me as it would be to anyone else!
     There are hundreds of flowers in this garden now, I suppose, but some of the ones I noticed first are listed here for the sake of illustration. The largest and most prominent flowers, of course, are related to my unending gratitude towards Papa for how He has prepared, sustained, held onto, pursued, patiently listened while I went through the past several months. I can see His fingerprints so clearly everywhere I look as I gaze into the past and glance around at the present. His "stubborn love" has chased me down so many times that I cannot begin to count them. His grace has flooded me with peace more times than I can ever enumerate. His people have reached out to me at just the right time innumerable times. No wonder, then that the fragrance of His faithfulness and love permeates every corner of this garden of gratitude.
     But there are other flowers in this garden as well. I am truly grateful for the new understanding of and sensitivity towards singles that God has given to me through my newly single condition. My respect and esteem for single folks knows no end now, and I would not have gotten here without walking in their shoes, and I am grateful. The same thing, of course, is true for those who have suffered loss. I trust that I have always been somewhat compassionate in that regard, but there's something about experiencing deep loss oneself that opens the heart in new ways, and I am grateful for this new level of tenderness and pray that Papa will make me ever more tender even as He heals me over the months ahead. I am also increasingly grateful for 41 remarkable years of marriage to a truly amazing woman, for years of being so well cared for, so loved, so listened to and supported--I could go on but you get the picture. And I could list many more flowers in this garden--the list seems endless, but I will stop here.     
     So how did this garden grow? I don't know for sure. I do know that gratitude is a growing attitude of the heart, not so much something you do but something that flows from who you are becoming. But I did notice a few things in my journey that may help others. Please note, though, that these are not "oughts" and "shoulds," but just observations that may become an invitation to others.

     A pattern of thankfulness. Long ago I heard Ron Mehl say that he started each day with noting at least one thing that he was truly thankful for. Something about that stuck with me, and from that day many year ago to this one I have always started my journaling with thanksgiving. Over the years I have added scriptures that help to foster this, but it's the pattern of beginning (and often ending) the day with a deliberate choice to thank God for specific things that has ingrained something in my heart. Perhaps that it why "give thanks" is an action we are commended to so often. Gratitude is indeed an attitude of the heart, but it appears to be supported by the deliberate choice to give thanks, looking for something good even in the darkest hour. Anyway, it's something I noticed when I looked at my life and may have something to do with the garden of gratitude that now grows in me.
     Learning where I was looking for fulfillment. Over the years Papa has patiently and persistently shown me that much of my "looking" was not to Him. This is too long a subject to address here, but the point is that as I asked Him to show me where I was looking for purpose, security, fulfillment, etc., He was willing to answer. His invitation to trust in Him alone came then because He knows that anything other than Him will not lead to what I am looking for. Only He can satisfy, only relationship with Him can fulfill and sustain us, as we all know. But this sounds trite and artificial unless we take time to allow Him to show us where our trust and affection really go when we let them have their way. Father is more than willing to show us and then also gently lead us to Himself if we ask Him. It wasn't surprising, then, for me to discover during this long and often painful journey that Father had been preparing me all along for "such a time as this" so that I found my heart running to Him almost instinctively, almost all of the time. Yes, there were times when I was angry, afraid, confused, defeated, etc., but it was hard to stay that way while aware of His Presence! And this feeds the flowers of gratitude in many ways, of course.
     The Community around me. Those around us can either encourage or drain gratitude. If most of the folks around you simply commiserate with you, you will find it hard to be grateful. On the other hand, if most of the folks around us comfort us with well meaning but empty words, that doesn’t help either (just makes us aggravated, eh?). But if we are surrounded by folks who know when to be still and just let us vent, when to “hold us” and when to gently but firmly lead us to a different perspective (God’s perspective) then gratitude becomes more and more natural. I am completely surrounded by such a community (and I am grateful)! My prayer is that Papa gives you a community like this as well. (I did notice that it helps to initiate these qualities oneself!).
     Childlikeness. Living in wonder, aware of and thankful for the small things in the moment, clinging wildly to Papa when we can do nothing other than cling and collapse, helps too, I think. I could write more, but this article is already too long!
     Surrender. I have written much about this, and those of you who read this blog know by now that surrender is surrender to God's goodness, not resignation to circumstances. The point here, though, is that gratitude grows best in surrendered soil. As long as I grasp for control and demand understanding I am blinded to the very things for which I can be grateful. My vision clears as I live in increasing abandonment to the One who is Good. Nuff said...

Gratefully,

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Amazing Power of Encouragement

Arthur Gordon in his book, A Touch of Wonder, tells an intriguing true story that wonderfully illustrates the power of encouragement. Since the book is still packed away, I will have to trust my memory and count on your forbearance if I miss a detail or two!

The story: In the early 20th century, a group of gifted male journalism students at at a major midwestern university banded together to improve their journalism skills. Their philosophy was to hone one another to perfection by ruthlessly critiquing one another's work. To that end, they called themselves "The Stranglers." At this same time, a number of equally capable women journalism students also formed a club to improve their literary skills, but they chose encouragement as the basis of their approach, seeking to draw out one another's strengths and critiquing only what was absolutely necessary. The called themselves, for whatever reason, "The Wranglers." Now it came to pass that several years later one their classmates did some research on the successfulness of his fellow students. His findings about the journalism students was stunning. Whereas none of the men in "The Stranglers" ever achieved any real success in the journalism field, several of the women had achieved national notoriety and some even international acknowledgement. Coincidence? Somehow I doubt it!

I love this story and haven't found many that illustrate any better the importance and power of encouragement. Perhaps the sheer power of encouragement is why the Holy Spirit is called "The Encourager," (a plausible translation for "Comforter" or "Advocate") in John's Gospel. Perhaps, too, that's why Spirit-breathed prophecy is described as for the purpose of "strengthening, encouragement and comfort."

But some of what passes for encouragement in our culture today is, in my opinion, not really encouragement. Rather it is more along the lines of “feel good” niceties that the person him/herself often doesn’t believe. “It will all turn out okay,” they say, or perhaps even quote some scripture without real conviction in an attempt to make the other person "feel better." But encouragement, although it may touch the emotions, isn't primarily about feeling better, it's about "living better," living more courageously.

Encouragement then is about supporting another person by giving her/him courage. And courage isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision to do what is wise, good and right, often in the face of feeling afraid. Fear is a feeling, courage is a choice.

So to encourage someone is to give strength to their “chooser” (the heart). Many times it may indeed cause the person to feel better, but that’s not its real purpose. The goal isn’t for the other person just to feel better (feelings are fickle) but to strengthen the core beliefs, values, will, etc. of the other person so that s/he will live courageously and with confidence in God's nature and Word.

Encouragement therefore must be built on truth and given with conviction to be truly effective. This means that when we say something to encourage another person we speak it from a place of deep conviction and assurance. We may indeed point out strengths in the person or point to hopeful things in their situation but we will find our words far more effective if what we say is really true. And because even Scripture can be given without conviction (or even used mindlessly so that crushes rather than strengthens), we will do well to be sure we really believe the passage we are sharing and that we really can see how it will work out in the other person's life (at least to some extent).

But having said all of this, I don't want anyone to be discouraged from being an encourager! It's really not that hard for God to take our hearts and help us to focus on strengths, on truth, rather than feel good words, especially if we keep in mind the real purpose of encouragement (to put courage into the other person). And since God is the God of all encouragement (a better translation of 2 Corinthians 1:3b), and His Spirit is "The Encourager" and lives in us, I think the yielded and tender-hearted person will find amazing opportunities to "speak truth in love" and see the power of encouragement released on the people around them.

Longing to learn to give courage!

Tom, one of Abba's little children


Friday, February 11, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Man


     No, this title is not a typo. Many of you have heard references to a “Proverbs 31 woman” more than once (often in Mother’s Day sermons for those of us who are or used to be church-goers), but I am writing today about the Proverbs 31 man. Yesterday, in a coaching conversation with two P31 women, something was triggered in me that led to my sensing a need to address the importance of us men becoming P31 men. During the conversation, Judi (thanks, Judi!) mentioned how God had shown her the importance of the husband’s role in the formation of a P31 woman (see Proverbs 31:28-29). That immediately set off all kinds of thoughts in me! One of my deepest convictions is the importance of others in helping us reach our God-intended potential. This means that P31 women reach their fullest potential when the men around them are P31 men.
     None of us can become all that God intends, or realize our identity and destiny, in a relational vacuum. A P31 woman becomes so in community, a P31 man becomes so in community. For those called to marriage, God wants this to happen through the marriage relationship, augmented by a supportive community around the couple and their family. For those called to be single (or single for a season because of circumstances) there is still a need, in my opinion, for a caring community of both men and women to help women and men "flourish into" their destiny. So I write today to the men about the qualities of a P31 man. Please note, though, that this isn’t a “to-do” list but an invitation for you as a man to begin a dialogue with God about how He wants to lead you into growth as a P31 man. Note also, ladies, that the same qualities will work for you in your relationships as well.
     Here are some of my discoveries as I looked more carefully at Proverbs 31. (You will probably want your Bible open to Proverbs 31 as you read this).
     First was the rather surprising discovery that this entire chapter is really the sayings of the mother of a man we know only as King Lemuel! That King Lemuel dared to quote a woman, even his mother, is truly remarkable given the general disdain for women in OT times, and it leads to my first observation about a P31 man: A P31 man has great respect for women. He may have learned this respect from his mother--that is probably God's intention--but God has other ways for men to learn to respect women (I wish I could take time to elaborate on this one!).
So to my men friends I say, “If you struggle to respect your wife or perhaps women in general, then get healed, my friend!” Over the years I have observed that healthy, truly strong men are never threatened by strong and capable women, even women who are overly aggressive because of their being repressed and disrespected by men. I have also discovered that insecure and broken men are almost always threatened by strong women, healthy or not-so-healthy. Dear friends, respecting others is so very important to our becoming a community of healthy Jesus follower! You can only help bring healing to a broken woman or man if you are able to affirm their strengths while helping them address their brokenness. Many men try to “fix” broken yet strong women by crushing their strengths, by crushing everything about the woman. This is obviously harmful, not helpful, and comes out of the man’s fear no matter how much he quotes some supposedly biblical principle (you get my point, I think). Can you tell I am passionate about this one? :-)
     So, husbands, if your wife’s quest for her destiny threatens you, please get help! God knows how to blend the destinies of a man and a woman, and you will not reach yours while thwarting hers and she obviously won't reach hers if you are obstructing it because of weakness and fear. So, brothers, whether your wife is called to be a strong and visible "Deborah" (Judges 4-5) or an equally strong but behind-the-scenes Dorcas (or Tabitha, see Acts 9:36-41), know that a P31 man will do all in his power to help her become who she is God-created to be!
     My second observation about a P31 man is that a man can be a P31 man throughout every stage in his life and can be present in every role a man might possibly fulfill: son, husband, father, etc. We see this in verses 28-29 where we read of the children blessing their mother along with her husband. What we see here, then, is a father and husband modeling the character and actions of a P31 man to his children, so that his sons are taught by example to bless, release and encourage the women in their lives. P31 men start out as P31 sons, and that means that parents can begin to groom their sons in this P31 life long before the sons become husbands and fathers. So a P31 man who is a husband and father is intentionally contagious :-), seeking to infect not only his children but those in the community around him with his healthy attitude towards women.
     I found a third observation in verse 23: "Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes a seat among the elders of the land. This speaks of moral character and wisdom, noticeable by the community around the man. A P31 man has prioritized character above achievement, wisdom above success, others above his own aspirations--I could go on, but you get the picture. (As you know, the Bible always places character and relationships above achievement or gifting.)
     Finally, I have hinted at my fourth observation: a P31 man knows the power of encouragement and release in helping others achieve their destiny. (see verses 28-29). From the place of His own wholeness, the P31 man chooses encouragement and release as two of his primary "tools" for facilitating maturity in those around him. I could write a lot about this, but I trust you already the importance of genuine encouragement for helping people grow. (Perhaps I will write next week on the power of encouragement, just in case!). And as for the power of release, I know that this is a rare quality ("control" seems to be worshiped even in the Christian community), but I have never met anyone who achieved maturity by being controlled rather than released. Sigh...I could write more about this, too, but maybe later. This is already a long entry.
     So there you have it: random thoughts on the qualities of a P31 man. I have written this as a sort of Valentine's Day gift to women, I guess. My beloved Jettie is now in heaven, so I think it's okay to give a gift to others. And I write this most of all as an honor to her. She was truly (little thanks to me) a Proverbs 31 woman (a Tabitha, not a Deborah), and it was her strengthening me and patience with me that enabled me to see the little I do see about how to become a P31 man.

Pressing in to Papa with hope of becoming...

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Standing in the Smoking Rubble

     Jeremiah stood in dazed shock as he gazed upon the smoking ruins of his beloved Jerusalem. Even knowing ahead of time what was surely coming to this wicked city could not prepare him for the trauma of actually experiencing it. And on top of this great loss, the few survivors of the disaster continued to mock and reject him and his message.
     Jeremiah's great pain was compounded by his limited understanding of God's character and nature (yes, he was captive to his time and culture). Thus his lament in Lamentations 3:1 ff is one of anger against God because his understanding of God left him believing that God caused everything in life, and his life had been filled with failure, rejection and loss. So we read some really angry words about God in this lament: "He has dragged me off the path and torn me in pieces, leaving me helpless and devastated. He has drawn his bow and made me the target for his arrows. He shot his arrows deep into my heart. My own people laugh at me. All day long they sing their mocking songs. He has filled me with bitterness and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink. He has made me chew on gravel. He has rolled me in the dust." (Lamentations 3:11-16 NLT) Wow! This man was angry, and his anger flowed out in angry accusations against the God who had called him to his admittedly rather miserable life! (Jeremiah's frankly expressed anger reveals to us how human it is to express those secret outbursts of anger at God as we perceive Him, eh?).
     It is Jeremiah's anger, partly rooted in a misunderstanding of God's nature, that makes the "rest of the story" so encouraging. Here in the smoking rubble of Jeremiah's circumstances and lament, we read Jeremiah's brilliant statement of reconciliation to the God Jeremiah did not understand but nonetheless still trusted. Many believers are quite familiar with the words in Lamentations 3:21-26. After Jeremiah describes more of his bitter state ("Everything I had hoped for from the LORD is lost! ...I will never forget this awful time as I grieve over my loss." vv. 18b, 20), he breaks into the following remarkably hope-filled song.

Yet still I dare to hope when I remember this:
The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh every morning.
I say to myself, "The LORD is my inheritance; therefore I will hope in him!"
The LORD is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him.
So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the LORD.

     I read these words this week, led by Holy Spirit to do so, I trust, as I stood again in the smoking rubble of my life, trying to understand not only my own recent loss and failure to lay hold of healing for Jettie but wrestling as well with the struggles of many others whom I love. As I read these words I found many parallels to what I was feeling, yet I also rejoiced in knowing that God has now revealed Himself more completely to us through Jesus so that we know He is not the cause of evil. Knowing that God in His grace is far kinder than the God Jeremiah perceived made it easier for me to once again give up my need to understand (a subtle form of the need to control) and settle into waiting for God's kindness to be revealed. His kindness, of course is always present, but we often cannot see it, until we allow Him to clear our vision by His grace!
     Perhaps some of you, like Jeremiah, have wondered if God was against you. Nothing is further from the truth (Romans 8:31 comes to mind), but our misperceptions about God in the midst of painful circumstances can make it feel like that! My prayer for you and me, though, is that the brilliant breakthrough that the angry and bitter Jeremiah experienced will shine in our hearts even more brightly than it did for this brokenhearted prophet. God is good, all the time. His kindness never ceases, His mercies are refreshed every morning, and even when we rail against Him, He refuses to stop pursuing us with goodness and love. 
     Oh, Papa God! How truly amazing you are! Even as I stand in the rubble, smoke clouding my vision, your radiant goodness gives hope. How can I not hear your invitation to trust you and wait quietly for the goodness that is yet to come?!!

Tom, one of Abba's little boys.