Saturday, December 21, 2013

Catch the Wonder

     "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." (Isaiah 9:2 NIV1984)
     I promised last week to write about how to "de-Grinch" Christians, and that I will do, but God has been re-shaping what I planned to say quite a bit (no surprise there, eh?). In fact, I am quite convinced that the most effective way to avoid being a Christian Grinch is simply to catch the wonder of this season and hold onto it. It's when we become distracted away from the wonder of the Incarnation that we head towards "Grinch-ness," I think. 
     But as a recovering Grinch myself, one who was a "Grinch" for all the right reasons (commercialization of Christmas, overwhelming materialism and greed, replacing Jesus with Santa, etc.), I offer a few more thoughts about how to de-Grinch oneself. Maybe they will help a few others rid themselves of "Grinchness."
     First, "don't be afraid." It seems to me that one of the core messages of the Nativity stories is the message "Don't be afraid." I wrote some thoughts on this two years ago, and I won't repeat myself today (you can read that entry by clicking this link), but it seems to me that we tend to be more likely to be Grinchy when we look at the dark world around us rather than the light that has dawned upon it. Our world is a scary and dark place, our nation a deeply divided and troubled nation, our culture is increasingly godless, so it's easy to become frightened when we look at these things, but a shift of focus to the One who is a called "Wonderful" will banish fear quite readily. The world today is no darker than the world our Lord Jesus first entered, and as John tells us "The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:9). Catch the wonder of this, and let it melt away your fears and it will become increasingly hard to be Grinchy when you hear about Silent Night being rewritten to eliminate Jesus or other such things. :-)
     Second, ask God to show you how to be known for what you are for, more than what you are against. I have written many times before on the irony of those we are called to reach viewing us as "the enemy," so I won't say much about this today. But it seems to me that the huge message of the Incarnation is that God is for people, not against them. Luke 2:10 tells us that the "good news of great joy" is "for all people," and I'm sure that includes those who don't know that! But my sense is that the more we reflect the joy message to others around us the more we will for sure "keep Christ in Christmas." And perhaps we should especially reflect this to those who seem opposed to us--something we can do if we aren't afraid of them and their opposition. Just a thought :).
     Third, try living above the culture, counter to it in the best sense of the word by refusing to get caught up in its greed, covetousness, materialism. Ask the Holy Spirit to immunize you to the "latest and greatest" pitches that attempt to entice us to buy, buy, buy. Consider the possibility that your child or grandchildren might survive life without "the toy that everyone just has to have." And perhaps you might also consider helping your children share beyond your family (many believers do this already, but just in case you haven't thought of it).  A few less gifts under the tree because there are gifts and other blessings with those in need is a good and lasting lesson for children, I think. And when it's done with joy and compassion it leaves a compelling mark on our families that shines without condemning, methinks.
     Finally, consider the deeper wonder of this season: Jesus' birth marks for all time God's intention to bring greater good into our world than would have been possible if evil that has twisted His creation had not come. Yes, as unthinkable as that sounds, we serve the God who "works all things out according to his predetermined plan" (Ephesians 1:11b), and that means that His goodness went deeper and farther when the adversary opposed Him. So as the light shines on in the darkness, consider the wonder of the One whose goodness cannot be hindered, whose love cannot be stopped, whose light cannot be extinguished (or even diminished), whose plans cannot be thwarted. Consider the wonder that all of this is for you personally and potentially for all other people as well and step into God's healing, peace-bringing embrace. My sense is that neither fear nor Grinchness can stay long in the hearts of those who catch this wonder and are captured by its brightness. 

Captured by the wonder, marveling at the greater good,

Tom, one of Abba's little children 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Inside, not the Outside!

     I had planned on how to avoid being a Christian Grinch today, but I will save that for next week. I am writing today while fighting off an infection, and I don't have the brain space required to write down all of my thoughts about how de-Grinch oneself.
     So today I mostly share from some of my journal entries along the general theme of focusing on the internal rather the external. Why do that? Because focusing on the less important, external things seems to be the human condition--one that believers in Jesus too often remain stuck in even after many God encounters. In spite of Jesus' many words about the "heart," motives, thoughts, and the like, it just seems easier to deal with externals at times, eh? (behavior, healing the body without regard to the soul or relationships, getting financial relief without learning deep confidence in Papa's kindness, etc.).
     So here are a couple of journal entries wherein I reflect about this. Maybe they will serve you in some small way. I will add a couple of comments along the way, but they are mostly as they were written at the time--a good view into my relationship with Papa, if nothing else.
     Regarding "Doing the Right Thing," an entry from June 1 this year. (Kate is one of our nine very special grandchildren--a charming 3 1/2 year who regularly captures her grandpa's attention and heart!): "Papa, I smile a little as I remember your reminder early this morning to heed my own counsel, posted on Twitter yesterday: 'Real change happens when we shift our focus from doing the right thing to becoming the ‘right person’ by being with the right Person and the right people.' It hit me that a lot of my struggles of late derive from my extreme desire to do the right thing. That has always been my main point of stumbling and vulnerability to attack from the accuser, Papa, but I thought I had placed it in the proper perspective. Perhaps the train wreck knocked it loose, eh? But it’s more likely that the painful journey just exposed deeper roots. So here I am, Papa, aware of my great and continuing need to have you work even more change in my heart and thinking. It is important, of course, to do the right thing, but making doing the focus instead of having it flow from a transformed heart always seems to lead me to sadness and stuckness. And seeing Kate’s childlikeness this morning: her innocent and truly joyful and carefree smile, pierced me deeply. That’s what childlikeness really means! Ah, Papa. And knowing you as Father, truly knowing you, will lead to that same kind of childlikeness in us, won’t it? Help me to keep that picture in my mind a lot, please."
     Regarding "Healing what really matters in the way that matters," another entry on the same day: "Ah, Papa. Wisdom flows from you this morning. I think of ministering healing to stress-related diseases, and you show me that people often settle for asking only to end of the symptoms instead of asking you to heal their hearts and thinking (paradigms which power perspective which powers emotion, as suggested in The Shack.)
     "Yes, you give me yet another big thought! We keep asking you to change circumstances, change external things, and you want to give us a much greater gift: changing us so that circumstances no longer dictate how we live life! And then I 'just happen' to see the quote posted on FB from The Unhurried Life! “The way of Jesus is too slow, inefficient and painful. Jesus’ resourcefulness is love, ours is money ...we want Jesus to step it up to make things happen at our pace rather than slowing down our pace to match His. His is the pace of caring and concern not an arbitrary pace of productivity or so-called efficiency." (p. 77). Ah, Papa. (but slow is scary, Papa!)"
     One final thought, not from my journal but from God's journal (The Bible). Take a look at Jesus' model prayer and the prayers of the Apostle Paul and see what you find. My sense is that you may find a clear emphasis upon praying to/from the inside. Consider just this one example: "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge –that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:16-19 NIV1984)

Looking for the heart of the matter…

Tom, one of Abba's children

Saturday, November 30, 2013

You Might Be A Pharisee if….

     Yikes, I am (still) a Pharisee (at times)! That was my response when I re-read chapter 5 in Brennan Manning's Abba's Child, "The Pharisee and The Child." Thankfully, though, I appear not to be Pharisee enough to condemn myself. I found myself instead turning to Abba and asking Him to draw me closer and show me why I still find it hard at times to live loved and trusting. I know that the reason any of us resort to empty, performance-based religion is because we are ignorant of Father's love and because of the wounds and lies in us that keep us from knowing Him as He is in all His goodness. But I have written much in that vein before, so I thought it might be fun to draw on Brennan Manning's wisdom and add my own twist to the Pharisee's Guide to Self-Discovery. So here goes. (Quotes are from the Kindle version of Abba's Child.

    You might be a Pharisee (at least when these symptoms occur) if…
  • Your walk with God has caused you to become narrower, uncomfortable with mystery, unfamiliar with wonder. "History attests that religion and religious people tend to be narrow. Instead of expanding our capacity for life, joy, and mystery, religion often contracts it." (Kindle location 729)
  • You find yourself looking to the Bible for just the right principle or promise instead of as a book of wonder about a loving God. "As systematic theology advances, the sense of wonder declines. The paradoxes, contradictions, and ambiguities of life are codified, and God Himself is cribbed, cabined, and confined within the pages of a leather-bound book. Instead of a love story, the Bible is viewed as a detailed manual of directions." (Kindle locations 731-733)
  • Your "Sabbath" is a time to kick back and rest from your frantic life the previous week (including frantic church activity!). "A rest from preoccupation with money, pleasure, and all creature comforts meant getting a proper perspective in relation to the Creator. On the Sabbath, Jews reflected and put the events of the past week in a larger context of saying to God: 'You are the true Ruler, I am but Your steward.'" (Kindle Locations 741-742). "Rest from work was not the primary focus of the Sabbath observance. It was both supplementary to worship and a form of worship itself. But worship remained the essential element of the Sabbath celebration." (Kindle Locations 749-751). 
  • You find yourself preoccupied with doing things right with a nagging sense that you have never done enough. (Underlying, unresolved guilt is a dead giveaway that I am living as a Pharisee and not Abba's Trusting Child! TW)
  • You find yourself either afraid to listen to or unaware that you need to peer with God's Spirit at your self talk and inner world. (Pharisees are often preoccupied with the external world because their ignorance of God's love and mercy make them afraid to look deep within. Note I am not speaking of mindless introspection here, but the deep, Spirit-guided and honest awareness of one's thoughts and feelings.) 
  • Blame, of yourself as well as others, seems to be a frequent companion of yours. You never feel like you will measure up to God's expectations. "Blame is a defensive substitute for an honest examination of life that seeks personal growth in failure and self-knowledge in mistakes."(Kindle Locations 794-795). 
  • Instead of joy and safety, your walk with God seems to breed a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty about your relationship with God.  "A vague uneasiness about ever being in right relationship with God haunts the pharisee's conscience. The compulsion to feel safe with God fuels this neurotic desire for perfection. This compulsive endless moralistic self-evaluation makes it impossible to feel accepted before God. His perception of personal failure leads to a precipitous loss of self-esteem and triggers anxiety, fear, and depression." (Kindle Locations 811-813).
  • Preoccupation with appearances is more important than fascination with God. "The pharisee within usurps my true self whenever I prefer appearances to reality, whenever I am afraid of God, whenever I surrender the control of my soul to rules rather than risk living in union with Jesus, when I choose to look good and not be good…" (Kindle Locations 813-815). 
     Okay, maybe that's enough for now. Perhaps you can see why at least some of these made me stop and say, "Ouch!" I think that the truth is that many followers of Jesus struggle at times with the Pharisee within us. But it would be all-too-Pharisaical to ask "what should I do to fix this?," of course, so perhaps our response if the Pharisee pops up is to bring him/her to God, asking Him to reveal what part of His love for us, demonstrated forever in Jesus, we still don't understand. One last quote from Brennan Manning: "To deny the pharisee within is lethal. It is imperative that we befriend him, dialogue with him, inquire why he must look to sources outside the Kingdom for peace and happiness." (Kindle Locations 832-833). 
     And yes, I am smiling as I write this today. The journey to become Abba's trusting child is not ours to fail nor miss, but rather it is His grace-infused gift that He pursues us relentlessly to lavish on us. It's impossible to remain a Pharisee in the presence of His stubborn commitment to love us to life!

Increasingly captured by His kindness.

Tom, one of Abba's children

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Journey Upward

     I have found myself in another season of despond lately, some of it with obvious trigger points, some of it from that mysterious place called "discouragement-without-obvious-cause."  And so it was that Papa began speaking to me while standing with me there in the slough, nudging me to look back at my previous reflections on depression (see here and here for my last two entries) while pulling me to Himself and speaking gently to my disheartened soul.
      As Papa spoke to me, I realized that I have continued to learn lots of things about the journey upward out of the pit of despond, some of which I need to share with others (that would be you who read this blog). Some of these things I have stated elsewhere, some of them I haven't, but here they are all bunched up together. :-)
  1. The journey upward is a journey, not a trip to the emergency room. There's something about American culture that makes us believe that there's a magic pill out there, a quick fix, an instant deliverance--for everything, but most of the time, healing from depression is a journey with its inevitable obstacles and surprises, good and bad. And I now find myself believing that the journey itself is a gift from Papa God. Yes, He could heal us instantly (and sometimes He does), but there are things we learn in the journey: things about Him, things about others, things about ourselves, that we cannot learn any other way than through the experience of His love over a rough and slippery trail. No, God didn't bring the brokenness in our world, nor does He need it to accomplish His purposes now that it's here. But as the infinitely Creative One, He is working with the brokenness to bring beautiful things to light that can only arise from brokenness. (Yes, I know your head will hurt if you try to figure this out, but it's true nonetheless.) And my remembering that the journey is a journey helps immensely during the trips into the valleys--one wonderful truth about a journey is that there is always progress even when it means slogging through a swamp!
  2. Discouragement (and the depression that follows and/or assists it) is based on a lie or series of lies. Please, before I write more on this remember not to try to help someone who is depressed by "shouting the truth" to them! (Read my previous blogs on depression if you haven't). Although I can't name all of the lies I have believed, some of them have had to be rooted out of my life more than a few times, so I know them well. But the root of all of the lies is found in the enemy's smear of God's character. If the adversary can just pour out enough "bad" long enough he may succeed in getting me/us to doubt God's goodness. Once I/we begin to doubt that, all kinds of lies can spring forth from this fertile soil: "now is what always will be," "now is just the beginning of even worse things," "I am the 'great cosmic exception' to God's promises," etc. 
  3. Because the journey is a journey, dealing with the lies is usually a process, oft-repeated, rather than a one time event. My experience in life has shown me that there are seasons when the enemy seems to pile on, and if he succeeds in distracting me away from God's inherent goodness, I will have to be "re-truthed." Rather than feel that I am defective because of this, though, I simply accept this as part of Papa's amazing love for me. Each time brokenness comes and despair follows, my heart is opened even further to a deeper deposit of His truth! Holding onto this truth, even in my despondent times, helps me slowly climb out of the pit. Instead of saying, "I will never learn the truth, I will never learn to trust you," I can say, "I am learning truth more deeply than ever, I am learning to trust you in unprecedented ways-thank you!"
  4. Journeying upward involves a climb, not a slide down the hill. By definition, going up instead of down involves a decision to put forth more effort. Most of you know, I trust, that I am not talking here about striving or mere human effort, but rather the tough work of choosing over and over again to turn to God, trust Jesus in the dark places, keep on going when you want to give up, etc. (Paul captures this paradox of Divine/human effort in Colossians 1:29--take a peek at it. See also his description of pressing on and straining toward what is ahead in Philippians 3:12-14). Now I know from personal experience that thinking about this while one is depressed is not good news, but the perspective that it brings once we begin to be able to make choices (as the depression lifts) helps us make the harder choices that are essential to our cooperation with God's healing in our lives.
     I find myself wondering if I am making sense today. Those of you who never get discouraged are probably mystified by my transparent sharing about these things. And the challenge of writing clearly while in despond is upon me for sure today. But I offer this up simply as one of Abba's children who is learning to trust Him over the long haul, finding His wonder-causing love to be just as powerful in the dark and deep places as on the mountaintops.

Journeying upward,

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Friday, November 8, 2013

Carrying Them In Our Hearts

     This Sunday, November 10, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and November is traditionally the month wherein we put special focus on the persecuted church. See this link for more information (and a search on "persecuted church" will pull up many more resources).
     Many of you probably know that anywhere between 40 to 60% of the world's Christians are being persecuted (some put that number even higher). Some of you may even know how terrible this persecution really is (martyrdom, severe prison, beatings, mutilations, etc.). But what shall we do beyond marking a special day/month? Here are just a few thoughts.
     First, distinguish between feeling guilty and being convicted by the Holy Spirit. Many believers I know tend to feel guilty when confronted with the suffering of others, especially their sisters and brothers in Christ. Please don't feel guilty! Feeling guilty serves no useful purpose and is not the response Papa wants from His children when He blesses them! Persecution is not God's idea nor His perfect will. He wants to bless people, and persecution and suffering are terrible, sin-caused aberrations of what His good and blessing nature intended . So if you are free from persecution, if you are blessed with material and spiritual blessings, your response needs to be one of gratitude and generosity (in every area of your life), not guilt. On the other hand, if Holy Spirit is bringing some gentle but firm conviction to you about your need to be remembering and helping, let Him lead you and empower you to respond as He wills!
     Second, then, is to be listening for God's specific direction for how you are to care from your persecuted brothers and sisters. Not everyone is called to the same level or type of involvement. For example, those with the gifts of serving, mercy, giving, encouragement, etc. (see Romans 12:7-8) may be called to a more significant level than someone with the gift of administration or leadership. One of the less helpful tendencies in today's church world is for those who have a passion for one particular thing to urge everyone to be involved at their level. This is a clear violation of the way God has arranged the parts of the Body of Christ. To paraphrase Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:17, "If everyone in the church gave every moment of their lives to evangelism where would the nurture that pastors, teachers and encouragers come from? If everyone was totally involved in caring for the persecuted church, where would the care for orphans that those with the gift of mercy come from?" I think you get the picture. In our passion for others to catch God's heart for something we still need to honor God's leadership in their lives and trust Him to lead and empower their role in the Body of Christ.
     On the other hand, there are some things that all of us can do, of course. We can all ask God to help us carry the persecuted ones in our hearts, so that we think of them and God together often and not just in November (that's what I am asking Papa for). And as opportunity presents itself, we can certainly work for justice for those unjustly treated, regardless of whether or not they are Christians. We can all ask God to keep the persecuted ones before our minds and hearts in new ways. (If you want a book that will shake you to the core in this regard, read Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, by Soon Ok Lee. You will never be the same.). And finally, we can all be challenged by our persecuted brothers and sisters to live from the eternal, trust-filled, love-motivated perspective that motivates those who "loved not their lives even unto death" (Revelation 12:11). May God grant me/us the grace to live such love-bathed, trusting lives!

Tenderly carrying them in my heart,

Tom, one of Abba's children

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Preemptive/Proactive Spiritual Growth

     A lot of my posts here come from little epiphanies I have during my Secret Place times with God every morning. I recently ran across one such epiphany that arrested me because of its simple but powerful way of turning a lot of my "Christian thinking" upside down and away from the often negative and reactive approach some are prone to take towards spiritual growth. This is from a journal entry on June 3, 2012. See if it speaks to you in some way. I have edited it just a little but it's mostly straight as I wrote it.
     "Papa, You want to be proactive in terms of how you change our behavior, don't you? Too often I find myself analyzing something I did after the fact, as if that will really help when the issue is always about the heart. Perhaps this is why you don’t spend a lot of time correcting your children (I think it’s your last resort) but rather encouraging us to give you access to our hearts so that you can heal and transform them as needed. And if you do that proactively, it changes the behavior on the front end rather than leaving us to attempt to modify it after the fact or on the fly. 
     This is why you don’t want us to dwell on our failures, or focus so much on our behavior, isn’t it? This is a very big thought, Papa! Romans 8:13, for example, is probably best read as the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body before they happen, not after, yet I can't ever remember reading it in that way before today. This means that the fruit of the Spirit, produced in us more and more as we live in surrendered intimacy to you, results in 'automatic' changes in behavior. The person who has been transformed by your kindness into a truly kind person will behave kindly, the person who has experienced your gentleness over and over will become gentle and be increasingly gentle with others, etc. Ah, Father. So much of what we 'Christians' try to do is reactive, behavior-oriented, and after the fact. We are more likely to be asking for forgiveness (which is needed, of course) whereas you want to work in us in a way that is proactive, in our hearts and 'before the fact' (preemptive)."
     I could write more about this, I suppose, and I know I have touched on some of the things in earlier blogs, but I think I will let this one stand and suggest that you ask Holy Spirit to expand on it for you. How much of your life is "after the fact," reactive and/or focused on fixing things in you? How often do you find your focus shifting to your behavior in a way that pulls you away from Father's embracing grace and love? You get the picture, I think! I will stop meddling now and let the Holy Spirit do His work. :-)

Looking for His proactive work in us,

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Thinking of You and God Together

     Yesterday I ran across some of reflections about prayer in my journal that gave me pause for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my own sense of being such a novice at prayer even at 64 years of age. I hopefully no longer think of prayer in religious terms, but I find myself of late still longing to learn to pray in a much more engaging way than ever before. 
     But before I paste my journal thoughts, I share with you one of the most profound yet simple definitions of intimate prayer I have ever read. It comes from a book by George MacDonald entitled, Thomas Wingfold, Curate, and the words are those of a gnarled old dwarf of a man who clearly walked with God in fierce intimacy. The line comes as the old man's niece relays his words to a wealthy and dying man: "I asked him, sir--'Shall I tell him you are praying for him?' and he said, 'No. I am not exactly praying for him, but I am thinking of God and him together.'" What if prayer, at its essence was indeed that simple? What if it were possible to live so God-captivated that "thinking of you and God together" shaped history? I am quite convinced that there's more in these words from a very wise and godly man than I can currently perceive, but the phrase carries the fragrance of an intimate conversation with Papa that never ceases and makes my heart burn!
     But here are my own musings about prayer, slightly edited. I put them forth as a novice still "wishing more than willing" a fruitful prayer life. I leave it in a different font so that you can distinguish past ramblings from my current ones. :-)
If you want authority, you must also accept responsibility.” That thought comes to me as I think of prayer, as you know. I don’t know for sure that it that was you, so I won’t put it in blue. And I know you will have more to say if it was you. Somehow you will blend the easy yoke and light burden Jesus promised with our call to co-labor with you in a way that means we do share some responsibility yet without it becoming mere human striving. Somehow grace must be draped over our purpose in a way that spurs us on to joyful obedience without crushing us under the weight of duty and joyless obligation. And as I reflect more on this I think I am seeing that the reason prayer feels “heavy” is that we believe so little in your willingness to answer us and pour your life and power through us! Yet I have no problem trusting you to show me how to allow your love to flow through me in terms of being loving and kind, which is for the most part a joyful thing to me, not a duty. Yes, if I can grasp how it is that you have taught me in that area, I may be able to grasp how I can feel a "responsibility" regarding prayer without it becoming drudgery or a place of potential shame. This is a big thought, Papa, and I think I have much more to listen to you about it. But I do see how important it is to believe what you have said many times to me: “Your prayers matter.” And I sense you telling me they matter far more than I have heretofore realized. No wonder you have been giving me Matthew 7:11 over and over again. What if you really are more eager to answer than we are to ask? 
      There you have it. I think I wrote down more questions than answers, but will you listen to God with me and see what He says to you about prayer and share it with the others who read this blog? Also, one thing I have learned for sure is that Andrew Murray is right when he states in so many words that the real challenge and the real key in prayer is to "begin in the patient love of the Father." If I take the time to allow Holy Spirit to lead me to an awareness of Father's infinite love for the person(s) for whom I am praying, my heart connects with the River of Heaven's grace and petition and intercession flow almost without effort. Maybe there's something there, eh, that answers my questions from a few months before? Just thinking, listening, musing. What do you think?
     On another, unrelated note, a friend of mine has written a wonderfully well thought out response to John MacArthur's heart-breaking decision to attack the largest and most vibrant part of Jesus' church. Maurice is a wonderful thinker with a wonderful heart, and although I don't share his love for reformed theology I do commend his wise reflection to you regarding John MacArthur's "strange" attack upon those who name Jesus as Lord along with him. You can read Maurice's thoughts here. (Thanks, Maurice!)

Lost in Father's patient love,

Tom, one of His children