Saturday, September 29, 2012

Beauty from Ashes--Slowly!

     I had planned to write today on depression, "The View from Under the Snake's Belly," but I am not done with my thoughts on that, so maybe next week!
     So today I write a few thoughts on how God brings beauty from ashes. I have written some thoughts about this before, of course, but I want to add a couple of new and important points. I will start by pasting something I wrote in my journal in August 2011, less than one year after my "great sorrow day" and several months before Charlie and I were married. It describes a vision (mental impression) I had while sitting with Papa in the Secret Place.
    Vision: I was standing in the midst of a quite large burned out area of forest. In the distance I could see mountains and knew that around me was lots of unburned, healthy forest, but where I was standing was ravaged by fire and the burnt ashes were on me to some extent. I heard you tell me that this is my life: the burnt area representing this hard season I am passing through. I saw from the vision that it’s not a huge part of my life, but I am still in the midst of it and the ashes are still clinging to me and the landscape still looks bleak at times. Yet as I continued to watch, I saw green plants begin to spring up through the mantle of ashes that were all around me. I knew that you were telling me through this that even the scarred places will become beautiful again, like any forest after a fire, and that things will grow there that could not otherwise. And as I kept watching, I cleared the boundary of the burnt area (it wasn’t that much further as far as I can tell), and in the distance, getting closer, I saw Charlie dancing and dancing! She was so beautiful and joyful, Papa. And I see you, Jesus, standing even as I write this, and I hear your invitation to dance, and it means more than I can express (because Charlie is in it, too!).
      There are two things that I realize as I look at this beautiful picture God gave me during that season. First, I realize that in spite of my preconceptions otherwise, "beauty from ashes" takes time, a considerable amount of it! Just as a burnt over forest recovers slowly and in stages, so it is with God's promise to bring beauty out of our ashes. Second, and perhaps even more important: this process allows the burnt places of our lives to produce types of beauty that wouldn't otherwise be seen. You probably know that when a forest progressively recovers, it doesn't immediately produce the kind of plants and trees that were there when the fire hit. On the contrary, God has so planned for the tragedy of "ashes" in the life of a forest that He prepared special plants and processes that are produced best only through a fire. That has always amazed me, even in the realm of nature, but it becomes even more remarkable when applied to the burnt out areas of our lives. There are things that cannot be otherwise seen, beauty that cannot otherwise be experience, fruit that cannot otherwise be produced apart from a "forest fire." 
     This does not mean, of course, that pain, disease and death were or are part of God's plan for His creation. But it does mean that in His love and knowledge of all things, He has prepared ways to be certain facets of beauty from that which He never intended but came through Adam's rebellion. Amazing!
     But there's an important difference between us and forests! A forest is a passive participant in the process of restoration, whereas we can choose to cooperate or reject God's process for restoration. I have found that running to God, opening myself to His rain and reign, entrusting myself to His people helps His healing process immensely. And I am also helped by the perspective I am describing today. It helps not to expect beauty to pop up instantly from the ashes! It helps, too, to realize that God's definition of beauty may include many new and different things. And it helps to believe and hold fast to the wonderful truth that God is so powerful and kind that He will ultimately turn our ashes into something more beautiful than what we could have seen had the fire never come.
     I am still journeying with a few ashes clinging to me, but living as I do in this new beauty I commend to you today's thoughts. May they encourage you in your own journey from ashes to beauty, from burnt out to built up.

Marveling at His Creative Goodness,

Tom, one of Abba's ash-dusted children

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why "Church" Doesn't Change Lives

     I spoke last week at the "brick and mortar" church I am part of about why people who attend meetings for years can remain so unchanged. Not everyone remains unchanged, of course, but many of them do. Otherwise "church people" would be unquestioningly known as the healthiest, kindest, most generous, etc., people in the world. That simply isn't the case, and all of us church people know it!
     Last week when I spoke I put the answers to that question in terms of lack (failure to practice biblical discipleship, confusing agreement with obedience, et al.), but today I am realizing that it is better to put this in positive terms by answering a more positive question: "What are the common factors that we see in people who really do live a life that is loving, kind, relationally healthy, powerful in God's Spirit, etc.?"
     I found much of my answer to this question in my musings in my journal this morning. I was reflecting on the calling/purpose that I believe God has for Charlie and me. I described it as "helping people blend an intimate, graced-filled walk with Jesus with the raw, world-changing power of the Kingdom of God in the context of healthy community." Let me elaborate a wee bit on some of the parts of this, and yes, most of it I have said before in one context or another, but I wanted to collect it all in one place, and you are the victims (actually, beneficiaries, I hope) of my attempt to do this.
     People who live lives that are being transformed...
  • Really, really grasp grace. I wrote about grace last week (and many times before), but I want to reiterate again that the indispensable requirement for true transformation is a heart-impacting, paradigm-shifting grasp of the scandal of God's grace. Until we "get" how outrageous God's grace really is--that it is His very nature to express it continually, that it means we as believers are always and continually eligible for everything, that we are unconditionally and specifically loved, etc.--we cannot possibly lay hold of the power of grace to change us. If you really don't get grace, please consider doing whatever it takes (including finding a grace-based community like Bo's Cafe) to "get it."
  • Live in increasing intimacy with God. I have written so much about this that I mention it only in passing here, but as you know, it is in my mind the key to everything else. Living loved and listening, drawn ever more deeply into a constant love-infused awareness of Father's Presence is the heart of everything else.
  • Live in open, transparent, safety-giving community. Yes, these kinds of relational jewels exist, but they are not often found in the things that "church," house church or TC, typically offer. Rather they are found among those who may be part of church but who hunger for more than pretend relationships. You get the picture, I trust. 
  • Understand and experience life-on-life discipleship. Sigh...too much to write here, but I have written about making disciples before. Search for the term "disciple" on my blog and you will find most of it. For now, I remind you that transformation requires relationship with other believers who are willing to sacrifice in order to pour life into another. When Jesus told His disciples, "As you go, make disciples..." they thought of what they had experienced. That experience, translated into today's culture, still changes lives as deeply as it did the Eleven.
  • Understand that agreeing with Scriptural truth changes nothing whereas Holy Spirit-led and empowered response to Scriptural truth changes everything.
  • Do whatever it takes to get healed up! Christians who are walking wounded and "packing critters" cannot possibly mature as they long to until at least the major life wounds are healed up and the critters are evicted.
  • Live "being filled with the Spirit." Most western churches, no matter what their form, fail to provide New Testament levels of the power of God. Unless we are saturated, marinated, permeated, inundated by God's Spirit, we cannot possibly really know what it means to live a life that is "led by the Spirit." It is no accident, of course, that Jesus told the Apostles to wait until they were "clothed with power from on high" before starting their mission (Luke 24:49). Living "clothed with power" makes for radical transformation both personally and "environmentally." :-)
  • Live lives in giving mode rather than consumer mode. I wish I could write more about this one, but for now consider the fact that most of our approach to ministry encourages people to act like consumers rather than transmitters of grace. For example, when the early church gathered, "each one" brought something to give away (see 1 Corinthians 14:26 for just one example of this). I wonder how a return to this thinking would change "church as we know it"!
  • Recognize that transformation is a journey, not a repair project. Deep change, even in the context of all of the above, doesn't happen overnight. I wonder if some of the immaturity we see among believers isn't simply due to their giving up at some point. Yet the Bible is noticeably consistent in its stories in terms of the importance of not giving up. Joseph waited 13 years for his purpose to begin to reveal itself, the Apostle Paul waited about 15 years, even the first apostles required 3 years of intensive care with Jesus Himself for them to be changed enough to be trusted with their mission. You get the point, I trust. Fruit (Galatians 5:22-23, John 15, etc.) grows--it cannot be manufactured in a moment.
     Okay, for good or ill, I have put it out there. I am certain that I could write much more about each one of these, but at least I got the beginning pieces all in one place for now. More will come later, I am sure.

Living loved, listening, saturated and surrendered in a wonderful community,

Tom, one of Abba's children

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Grace and Favor

     For a number of reasons, I have been thinking a lot about grace/favor of late, partly due to my pastor friend's series on God's favor, partly due to God's personal word to me about this being a year of favor for my family and me. I am not by any means done with my reflections about the many aspects of grace, but I thought I would capture some of my ramblings for today's blog, so here goes.
     There is a side of grace that covers and redeems. This seems to be what most Christians think of first when they hear the word grace. Our sins, past, present and future, are covered because of Jesus' death and resurrection, the ultimate and infinite expression of God's grace. It's good to start with that understanding of grace, of course, because it is the "grace by which we stand and the constant in our relationship with God. By grace we are always His children, His friends, His treasure and workmanship.
     But there is also the grace of God that empowers--active grace, as it were. This is the grace that releases the flow of God's power and guidance that enables us to live out our destinies as saints and servants as we mature in our life in Him. This is an aspect of grace that seems forgotten at times, but it is just as important as grace that forgives, perhaps more important in some ways because it grants to us the power to live in the freedom and power that God's kids are destined for.      
     There is also a wonderful side of grace that pursues us in order to bless us. Psalm 23:6 describes this kind of grace: “Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life.” Regarding Psalm 23:6, the NET Bible note says: “The word ‘pursue’ is used outside of its normal context in an ironic manner and creates a unique, but pleasant word picture of God's favor (or a kind God) ‘chasing down’ the one whom he loves.” This thought continues to explode for me! I have this picture of God in hot pursuit of me, ready to capture me and shower mercy and goodness on me the moment I stop running from Him and allow Him to capture me. It's as if He collides with me the moment I stop and turn to Him, knocking me gently to the ground with His kindness! 
     There is an aspect of grace that can grow, increase or even be diminished in its effects in our lives. We can choose to stand in the stream of God’s grace, or we can piddle around the edges or even work against it. I am not talking about "works" or performance but rather doing what is needed to receive the free, undeserved and continually extended gift that God offers to us. We can cooperate with God's grace by trusting in His grace to lead us and transform us. The way we receive the benefit of the many facets of Papa's grace is to reach out and take His grace into our lives through trusting, love-infused, Spirit guided and empowered obedience. (That's a lot in one sentence, eh? But I think you get the full picture I am trying to convey with it).
    What's truly amazing about grace is that God's gift of grace is indeed continually offered. What distinguishes and defines God’s favor is that it’s there for us to step back into the moment we repent (turn towards Him) and begin trusting Him again. The moment we step fully into His embrace, His favor begins to work, extricating us from the pits we dug, healing us from the wounds we incurred, etc. This may not all happen at once because in His wisdom He knows not to do everything at once for us, but the full benefit of His favor becomes totally operational the moment we are fully His again! No wonder we call it, “Amazing grace!” And it's also amazing in that even when we are turned away from Him, it's His grace that sustains and pursues us as He waits for us to collapse again into His good and perfect will for us! 
     One final thought I have had recently about grace is how it “increases with releases.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Grace and favor increase in their benefits in our lives as we release grace and favor to others. Whenever we plant grace in others it increases not only in their lives but also in ours! The more we give away, the more we have to give. How amazing is that? But it always starts with God’s grace extended to us. Nowhere is this more clear that in the references translated “forgiving one another” in Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13. The word there is literally “giving grace to one another” and is rooted in God first giving grace to us. Paul knew that grace extended becomes grace expanded only when it's grace released through forgiveness and blessing to others, even our enemies. Lots to think about on that one, eh?
     I could write more, but my "reflection motor" needs a rest for now, I guess. May you be ambushed today and often by His grace as it pursues, rescues and powers you towards your destiny in Him.

Lost in wonder, living by grace,

Tom, one of Abba's grace-saved children

Friday, September 7, 2012

Endlessly, Stubbornly Loved!

     I once heard Wayne Jacobsen say that whenever he begins to feel anxiety rise within him, he asks God, "Father, what part of your love for me don't I understand?" What a simple yet profoundly foundational question for a believer to ask! It appears that nothing is more important for a believer to grasp than his/her "belovedness." Perhaps that's why Paul prayed as he did for the Ephesians (my paraphrase below).
     "And I pray that you (plural), having been permanently rooted and firmly established in love, together with all the saints my be able to take into yourselves how wide and long and high and deep, and know by experience the love of Christ, which is beyond ever fully experiencing, so that you (plural) may be overflowingly filled with all of the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:17b-19, my paraphrase).
     Papa has had me returning of late to an exploration of His love for me. Not that He ever really has me leave it, of course, but whenever He know that I really need a refreshing dose of His love, He invites me to dive more deeply into the endless depths of His love.
     Part of the journey into the depths this time has been a re-reading of Brennan Manning's Abba's Child, and I came across some remarkably thought-provoking and heart-piercing quotes as I read this remarkable book. I share just a couple of them here. 
     "While the impostor draws his identity from past achievements and the adulation of others, the true self claims its identity in its belovedness."
     "Being the beloved is our identity, the core of our existence. It is not merely a lofty thought, an inspiring idea, one name among many. It is the name by which God knows us and the way He relates to us." 
     "When I allow God to liberate myself from unhealthy dependence upon people, I listen more attentively, love more unselfishly, and am more compassionate and playful. I take myself less seriously, become aware that the breath of the Father is on my face and that my countenance is bright with laughter in the midst of an adventure I thoroughly enjoy."
     Wonderful thoughts, eh? I was especially captured this time by the notion of thinking of myself and other believers as "the beloved." Do I really think of myself, me, Tom Wymore, as God's beloved? In theory I do, and to some extent and in some ways at some times, I actually "get it" just a little. But if I am honest, I will be the first to admit that "Papa's beloved" doesn't feel like a good fit all the time. What about you? 
     And so I press on and press in to Father's love, sitting, soaking, waiting.... Brennan Manning rightly observes, "the indispensable condition for developing and maintaining awareness of our belovedness is time alone with God." And so I wait until my inner self becomes still (Psalm 131:1-2 often comes to mind as I "still my heart."). And because God is far more eager to stubbornly love me, understanding comes and I am undone!
     I also choose to spend time with others who "get it" as we seek to become saturated together. Try it, you will like it!
     I leave you today with a thought as to why this approach to knowing the love of God is so important. It's because we must begin with the certainty that God is love, that we are indeed the beloved, not with "If God loves me, He will..." Even a quick reading of the lofty description of God's love in Romans 8:35-39 reveals that God's love doesn't mean that we won't suffer in this life! Obviously God reserves the right, as well He should, to define what His love looks like. And define it He has! "God proves His love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us." "If God be for us, who can be against us?" "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all--how will He not also, along with Him, give us all things?" (Romans 5:8, 8:31b-32) 
     And so I will begin and continue with this knowledge: I am endlessly and stubbornly loved! I am one of the many who is "the beloved" of the God of the Universe! My identity, my future, my purpose, everything, begins and continues in this one eternally experienced truth.

     Tom, one of Papa's beloved

Saturday, September 1, 2012

How Different Our Weapons: The Big One!

    I am convinced that our most formidable weapon as believers is Love. There is nothing that confuses or angers our adversary the devil more than for us to love one another and to love those people he sends to oppose, persecute or otherwise harass us. Nothing in the dark kingdom can relate to or comprehend love for another creature in any way. Jesus knew this, of course, and told His followers that their love for one another would be their distinguishing mark as His followers (John 13:34-35) and also had words about those who opposed them: "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:44-45) "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36)
     These amazing words from Jesus certainly serve notice to us that our weapons are quite different from those generally used by humans! And the Apostle Paul, quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, continues this same thought: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
    But something has gone awry, I think, especially in terms of how those who oppose us view us. Yes, some of that negativity and hatred comes from their brokenness and the evil they have sold themselves into. It's terribly naive to expect unredeemed people to act redeemed. But with Jesus' words about loving our enemies fresh in our minds, perhaps we can admit that the church hasn't done as well at loving our enemies as Jesus envisions. I wrote an earlier blog, quite some time ago (December 21, 2007) in which I reflected on how we became the enemy of sinners instead of the "friend of sinners" that Jesus was. I revised it a bit today and found that it relates to this entry, so if you want to take a peek at it, you can do so by clicking here
    What makes love such a formidable weapon? Time doesn't allow me to write all that could be said about this, but in addition to confusing the devil and his minions, love has the power to overcome the defenses and fears that keep so many people bound up in brokenness and hostility. Many of us, perhaps most of us, have stories we can tell about how love conquered the heart of someone who was hard against God (and usually others as well). Indeed, some of us are the ones who were conquered by love! I think of an old Johnny Cash song as I write:

     Six foot six he stood on the ground
     He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds
     But I saw that giant of a man brought down
     To his knees by love.
     You can't see it with your eyes, hold it in your hands
     But like the wind it covers our land
     Strong enough to rule the heart of any man
     This thing called love
     It can lift you up, never let you down

     Take your world and turn it around
     Ever since time, nothing's ever been found
     That's stronger than love
     (A Thing Called Love, Johnny Cash)

     So love, Christlike love, is "The Big One," the most formidable weapon in our spiritual arsenal. It is that which is most like God and that which best reveals His heart and power to those it touches. But it isn't automatic, of course. Consider a few thoughts about this weapon called love.

     First, we cannot love from a place of fear. I think that the reason many Christians have such a hard time loving those who oppose God is that they live in a place of fear. I especially see that in terms of the decline of our moral values as a culture. And although I understand why some folks might be afraid, I am quite convinced that God wants to remove our fears so that we can love the unlovely. We cannot love someone we are afraid of. This underscores once again how important it is for us to "live loved," totally secure in Father's love for us, as we experience His love directly and through His people. (I trust you see why Jesus told us to love one another: part of the way He loves us is through His people). It also underscores how important it is for us to pay attention to our "peace-o-meter" so that we are aware of our fears/anxiety and take them quickly and persistently to God ("I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears." Psalm 34:4)
     Second, we must allow God to define what love looks like. Our culture defines love in very twisted ways, as you know, but God defines love as doing that which is best for the other regardless of what it costs me. This is so important! It's important first as we are thinking about God's love for us. How many times do we catch ourselves defining how God's love should look for us yet later realize that if He had done what we thought was loving at the time it would have been bad for us? How many of us have children who misunderstand our expressions of love? :-) But this is also important as we consider how to love others as well,  even those who oppose us and our Christian values. Because I am not afraid of this person, because I recognize that every human being deserves my respect, I am free to be kind yet also truthful as I relate to that person. It is not loving to suggest to someone captured in deception and doing harm to him/herself that "it's okay." But I must express this truth in a way that conveys my respect and concern, and only as God's Spirit leads, never out of fear or the anger that comes from fear. Will they receive my love? Perhaps not, but love's power will be at work in them nonetheless because I have delivered truth in a package that speaks of undeniable care and respect. I hope this is clear and that you can make specific application of it. If not, please let me know, and I will try again. We really won't win the battle if we use a lesser weapon!
     Third, it occurs to me that love is usually a stealth weapon that takes longer than I prefer for it to do its work. This means that consistency and persistence are the keys to "using this weapon well." I trust that this is fairly obvious, but it needs to be stated. It takes time for the gentle brush of love to wear down the hardened stone of a stubborn and broken heart.
     I am done for today. And I think I am done with this series! I do better when I am free to be spontaneous, I think! We will see what next week brings. For now, may your roots grow down deep into God's love for you so that you will live free from fear, able to love those closest to you and those most fiercely opposed to you with consistency and grace.

Learning to live loved and loving,

Tom, one of Abba's dearly loved children