I love to tell the story – epilogue

I have a confession: I struggled to bring last week’s post to a satisfying end. I added words, moved sentences, and deleted phrases for several hours without making any meaningful progress. This, even though I’d worked diligently on the post across several previous days and had a clear mental outline of what I wanted to say. As bedtime loomed before me, I finally conceded and published the result of my efforts. Nonetheless, doubts lodged in my subconscious and accompanied my restless sleep. They continued to invade my thoughts the next day and the next, making me wonder if I should have published the piece at all.

I now realize I needed the experiences of the intervening week to be able to write the rest of the story and a more comprehensive conclusion.

A Look Back

Some 30 years ago, the Lord ordained a series of events in my life that forced me to deal with long-buried hurts I alluded to in “I love to tell the story”. After years of trying to keep the box of painful memories securely closed, I could no longer keep the lid on. The kind Physician came to heal the sick (Mark 2:16-18). Unwilling for us to remain stuck in a quagmire sin, guilt and wrong-thinking, He opens the wounds, gently cleans out the infection, and applies the balm of truth. My time had come.

In most cases, transformation is a long, often arduous, process. In fact, when I entered counseling, my therapist made it clear that it takes, on average, 5 years for new ways of thinking and responding to replace the old. That seemed like an eternity for determined, goal-oriented me. But she was right and eventually, bit by bit, a new normal settled in. (The grieving process is similar, but that’s a story for another time.)

As my sessions wrapped up months later, my counselor added a warning: “Although you’ve been very intentional about working on your issues and have made significant progress, you’ll always be vulnerable to the old beliefs, especially when stress and exhaustion deplete your emotional and physical reserves.”

The events of the past week left me in just such a state.

The Enemy

A line from a song by one of the early contemporary Christian groups plays in my head from time to time: “Satan is a liar and he wants us to believe we are paupers when he knows we are children of the King.” (Maybe one of you reading this can remind me who sang it!)

I hold fast to the admonition of the pastor who also counseled me during those early months of healing: “Rebuke the lies, no matter how many times you have to tell yourself, ‘That’s a lie!’”

And rebuke I did, over and over again, until I could recognize and embrace the truth more often than not. There are still times when what I’ve come to call my “old stuff” pops up and I recite, “That’s a lie!”

Even so, Satan doesn’t give up easily. He knows he can’t ultimately defeat us, but he delights in keeping us off-balance and making us ineffective (1 Peter 5:8). Since writing my last post, I’ve been distracted by many things, as the evil one stacked the kindling, stick by stick, preparing a target for his flaming arrows. His aim, perfected over millennia, hit the mark and soon I was surrounded by flames of self-doubt, choking on the smoke of his incendiary lies.

Nonetheless, the intensity of the attack opened my eyes to the source of the week’s trials, piled one on top of another, until I had no strength to fight. But He who is in me is infinitely stronger than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). I called on Him whose ear is ever-attentive to the cries of His children (Psalm 34:15). When the flames subsided and the smoke dissipated, I could see clearly that I was safe in the grasp of the One who’ll never let me go, just as I had been all along (John 10:28-29).

The Ultimate Victory

Our past informs our present. God is the Author of our stories. He redeems our brokenness and works even the hardest, most hurtful things together for our good and His glory albeit in ways we may not comprehend until we get to heaven.

I don’t know where you are on your journey, my friend. But whether you’re just learning to rebuke the lies or have been fighting to hold onto truth for years, victory is certain. Jesus will return to deal the final death blow to the ancient serpent and to make all things new (Revelation 12:7-10; Revelation 20:9-10; Revelation 21:1-7). We’ll know as we are known and, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Most Glorious One (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18). No more lies. No more tears. No more battles.

IMG_1469Until then, may we avail ourselves daily of the comfort and protection God has provided, confident that we have nothing to fear because the Lord goes before us (Ephesians 6:10-18; Deuteronomy 1:30). His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). And His grace is sufficient to meet every need (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:10-18).

Becoming fluent

The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.

Our 2-year stay abroad resulted from my dad accepting a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.

Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.

IMG_6898Just as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given. (Romans 12:3-21)

In addition, we have a responsibility to tell the younger generations of the mighty deeds of the Lord and to instruct them in His ways. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 145:10-13) Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s directions to Titus are clear regarding the role older women are to play in tutoring the younger women, teaching them the finer points of Biblical womanhood through both word and action. (Titus 2:3-5)

I don’t remember how long it took, but one day, to my amazement, I realized I could speak and respond in Spanish without a conscious translation step. The second language had become second-nature.

And so it is with our spiritual transformation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, we’re no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we’ve become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6) Through the Spirit’s power at work within us, we’re able to discern what is right and true, something we could never do when we were dead in our trespasses. Furthermore, as our sanctification progresses, Christ’s light shines ever-brighter in us and we produce spiritual fruit. (Matthew 5:14-15; Galatians 5:22-23) More and more, our renewed nature becomes second-nature as we seek to please God and abide in Him. (John 15:5)

Nonetheless, aspects of our old selves will persist until God calls us Home, as Paul so eloquently describes in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-20) And so we press on to become fluent in God’s ways, by studying His Word, praying and joining with fellow believers to worship Him and stir one another to love and good works.

Even now, over four decades later and without daily use, I’m apt to spontaneously sprinkle Spanish sentences into conversations with my grandchildren. They’ve become used to these linguistic detours and know an immediate translation-repetition-translation mini-lesson is sure to follow. Yes, I can speak Spanish, though far from flawlessly – I still can’t roll my Rs and I mix up verb tenses – but I enjoy the language and sharing it with my grandchildren.

How much more I savor sharing our Savior with them. I’m far from perfect when it comes to fluency in my Christian walk as well. But I pray I’ll always be faithful to spontaneously sprinkle His ways and words into our conversations as I point them to the only perfect One who loves them even more than I do and encourage them to take their places in His family. May His nature become increasingly second-nature for us all.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

It’s all about Him

I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear saint who was suddenly called Home last week. The bold type on the front of the program proclaimed it would be a memorial and worship service in honor of her Lord and Savior.IMG_6739

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The focus wasn’t on the departed, though her faith, kindness and devotion to family and friends were certainly mentioned during the service. No, her family desired to give glory first and foremost to God, no doubt honoring the wishes of their loved one as well. They asked the pastor to preach the Gospel. And so he did, reminding each of us not only of our helpless estate apart from Christ, but also of our assurance of eternal life in God’s presence because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. (Romans 5) It was a message of hope in the midst of sorrow because it emphasized the sovereignty of our loving LORD.

I’ve been studying the book of Ruth in preparation to teach an upcoming Bible study. On the surface, Ruth certainly appears to be the main character. After all, the book’s named after her, right? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and kinsman redeemer, Boaz, fill important supporting roles and the townspeople are there to provide occasional commentary.

But look again. God is the main character.

After losing her husband and both sons, Naomi acknowledges God was the one behind her bereavement, though she doesn’t appear to blame God or lose faith in Him. (Ruth 1:20-21) As the narrative progresses, we see how God goes before them to redeem Naomi’s brokenness and bring Ruth into His family. In fact, He orchestrated every detail of their redemption. And, wonder of wonders, Naomi, the woman who returned to her homeland empty, became King David’s great-great-grandmother. Talk about working all things together for good! (Romans 8:28)

Though each one of us navigates a unique set of circumstances throughout our lives, our stories are ultimately about God as well. It’s so easy for us to think in terms of “I”, “me”, “mine”, yet it’s really all about Him. Everything we have and are is His.

God:

  • Chose us before the foundation of the earth. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
  • Spoke the world into being. (Genesis 1)
  • Wrote every one of our days in His book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • Provided His only Son for our salvation. (John 3:16)
  • Called us out of darkness. (John 8:12; John 12:46)
  • Is working to transform us more and more into Jesus’ likeness through the power of His Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
  • Is preparing a place for us. (John 14:1-3)
  • Will return to take us Home. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Yes, it’s all of Him, from beginning to end.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so thankful it is. Even though I’m dust (Psalm103:13-14), and my best efforts are filthy rags (Isaiah 54:6), and I have no way of saving myself (Ephesians 2:8-9), I can be certain everything will be ok eventually and eternally. Because God is sovereign. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) He keeps His promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 10:23) And nothing can ever separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So even when death comes unexpectedly or circumstances take an unforeseen and unpleasant turn, we can be assured nothing catches God by surprise and no detail escapes His careful plan. We can trust Him to weave all our stories together in a beautiful, epic masterpiece whose end we can be certain of because He’s promised to return and take us to the Home He’s preparing even now.

Hope. Hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. Hope because it’s all about Him.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

New box, old post

The door of my aging mailbox refused to stay closed. After several episodes of retrieving its damp contents, I knew it was time to replace it. Upon inspection, the wooden post appeared to be sturdy, despite its slight tilt, which dates back to its initial installation and has been a source of irritation ever since. Being a frugal sort who adheres to the philosophy “waste not, want not”, I decided to replace the box and make do with the leaning post.

I made my way to Home Depot, determined to leave with only a standard-size mailbox and no new plants. I resisted the temptation to stroll through the garden department, went directly to the aisle where the mailboxes are located, paid for the one I selected and returned home.[1] Upon removing the old box, I realized the wooden board it had been attached to was warped and the holes that accommodated the screws were compromised. Not to be thwarted, I decided to use longer screws in an attempt to secure the new box to its perch.

After I attached it, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The sight of the shiny new box contorted into place atop its aged roost was disappointing to say the least. The effect was similar to viewing photos of me and my granddaughters. Just as their unlined faces make mine look more wrinkled by comparison, the post appeared so much older once topped with the gleaming mailbox. And, while I’m ratting on myself, I may as well admit that it took exceptional effort to open and close the door because of the box’s forced mis-alignment. Nonetheless, I decided to live with it.

From the moment I took the initial step back and beheld the disparity between old and new, as well as multiple times since, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parable warning against mixing old and new. His examples of using a new patch on an old garment and putting new wine into old wineskins appear in three of the four Gospels, underscoring the importance of His admonition.[2] As recorded in Matthew, after replying to some disciples of John the Baptist regarding fasting, Jesus went on to say, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

The parable was most likely directed at the ever-judgmental Pharisees hovering nearby. Over the centuries since Moses received the Ten Commandments, the religious legalists had tacked on more and more requirements and drifted further and further away from the Spirit of the Law. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the spiritually-blind leaders who misled those who looked to them for guidance. (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) as so beautifully foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. Nonetheless, some of the early believers thought they had to add their formerly-mandated works of righteousness to Jesus’ all-sufficient sacrifice. The Apostle Paul made it clear that was unnecessary, for them and for us. (Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:8-9) Likewise, we are told to put off our old selves, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and to put on our new selves. (Ephesians 4:20-24) In addition, we are called to walk as children of light, having nothing to do with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8)

IMG_6600The incongruence between the old post and new mailbox continued to grate on me, so I gave in and contacted the HOA-approved mailbox supplier. He came to rectify the situation yesterday. Even though I returned home after dark last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when the new post-new mailbox ensemble appeared in the light of the street lamp. Ahh, the incompatibility was gone.

Oh that we would be similarly perturbed by inconsistencies between the faith we profess and our actions. May we never think we can simply patch our old natures with a dab or two of Christ’s righteousness or live in twilight on the edge of darkness when we’re called to a life of light. And may we long for Christ’s return when the old will pass away completely, all will be made new and our struggles against darkness will cease forever. (Revelation 21:1-5; Revelation 21:21-27)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

[1] Long-time readers will recognize the self-control this required of plant-loving me!

[2] See Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39.

A proper diagnosis

Even though I’ve faithfully stretched and exercised throughout my adult years, I have stiff muscles. Various stressors, both physical and emotional, have no doubt contributed to my tightly-wound state. The tension increases and decreases, often without a clearly-discernible cause and effect, but it never disappears completely.

Earlier this year, a prolonged period of tender-to-the-touch joints and knotty muscles left me feeling dejected. Thankful a series of medical tests ruled out several serious possibilities, but being no closer to a solution, I procured a referral for physical therapy.

When I went for the initial evaluation, I told the therapist she was my last hope. She maintained a professional demeanor, but I’m almost certain she thought, “Just great! How did this woman end up on my schedule?” Nonetheless, she proceeded with the assessment, asking questions and directing me to bend first one way, then another.

In summarizing her findings, she stated, “Your overall strength is good and your range of motion is somewhat greater than normal. Your joints are loose.”

Attempting to interject some humor, I replied, “Then I guess it’s a good thing my muscles are tight so they can hold me together.”

The therapist didn’t laugh. Instead, she provided the missing piece that allowed me to solve the years-long mystery: “Oh, your muscles really are working over-time to provide the stability your joints and ligaments would normally provide.”

And what did I do with this critical bit of information? I turned to Google, of course! A search of “loose joints, tight muscles” yielded a name for my condition: joint hypermobility syndrome. As I read article after article, years of confounding experiences began to make sense. In trying to help myself, I’d unknowingly inflicted more harm, specifically by over-stretching and requesting too much pressure during my periodic massage therapy sessions. Sadly, my body interpreted these efforts as an assault on the alternative stabilization method it had established. The outcome: more tightness, more trigger points, more tenderness around my joints.

IMG_6264

Physical and spiritual training require the proper equipment.

The relief of finally understanding what I’d been battling for so long mingled with deep disappointment at the realization I can’t fix it. It’s the way I’m put together. At best, I can learn how to manage it. Now enlightened, I’m focusing on strength and balance, paying more attention to posture, and being vigilant when it comes to adding pressure (physical and emotional) to an already-stressed system. I’m hopeful consistent implementation of these changes over time will be beneficial. Even so, I’m finding it difficult to be patient while my body adjusts to this new approach.

The spiritual parallels are hard to ignore. Before God calls us to himself, we lack a proper diagnosis. We sense something’s awry, something’s missing. Our attempts to feel better frequently result in the opposite or are short-lived. Because we’re created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), made to glorify Him (Psalm 86:8-10) and enjoy fellowship with Him, nothing else can satisfy our souls’ deepest longings.*

At the appointed time, He replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26) We begin to understand our condition and the sin that separates us from our Father. There’s nothing we can do to repair our brokenness. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Fortunately, He doesn’t leave us in our helpless state. He sent his only begotten Son to heal our souls and restore the family bonds broken at the fall. (Genesis 3; John 3:16) Jesus, the Great Physician, took our infirmities on himself and bore our iniquities. His wounds brought about our healing. (Isaiah 53:4-5) His righteousness, graciously granted to we who were once lost, ensures our eternal inheritance. (1Peter 1:3-5)

Even though Jesus’ perfect obedience has been credited to our accounts, fully paying the debt we owe our Holy God, we will struggle with the effects of sin, ours and others’, as long as we’re in the this world. Like my impatience with my physical progress, there are times when, with the Apostle Paul, I bewail my inability to consistently obey my Father. (Romans 7:18-20) Nevertheless, with the help of the Spirit, we’re being conformed more and more to the likeness of our elder Brother. (Romans 8:29) Bit by bit, we shed the old and put on the new. (Romans 12:2)The transformation will continue until Jesus’ promised return, when all will be made new and perfect – no more sickness, no more sin, no more tears. (Revelation 21:4)

Until then, may we abide in the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power at work within us. (Ephesians 3:20)

 

* Several well-known quotes alluding to our “God-shaped void”:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1692

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” St. Augustine, Confessions, c. AD 400.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.

 

Thrashing about

I suppose I should preface this post by saying I don’t consider myself to be particularly punny – that’s the province of my daughter, Jessie, who inherited her dad’s sense of humor – but this title, well, I couldn’t resist . . .

Since the weather’s been more seasonably cold, I’ve added suet to the feast I set out for my bird friends. IMG_0377 (2)Brown thrashers are among those who want to partake of the high-calorie goodness. To say they have trouble steadying themselves on the suet basket would be a significant understatement. Inevitably, when one lands on the suet, it starts to wobble. This in turn causes the bird to flap frantically which results in the basket spinning around, bringing about another flurry of desperate flapping. It’s a rather comical sight, but also somewhat sad because the thrasher’s behavior keeps him from the nourishment he’s seeking .

Compare this to the behavior of the stately woodpecker who frequents the suet. Every bit as big as the thrasher, he has no trouble positioning himself on the basket and consuming the nutritious treat. Even if the suet shifts slightly, even if he has to hang from the bottom of the basket when the suet’s almost gone, there’s no anxious flapping of wings or shifting about. The woodpecker remains calm, focused on the sustenance before him.

Just as I recognize I’m not exceptionally adept with puns, I’ll also readily admit I don’t know very much about birds. No doubt a knowledgeable ornithologist could explain the behavior I’ve described. But, as often happens when I’m working in my beloved sphere of horticulture, I see a spiritual analogy. The birds’ behavior reminds me of Peter’s attempt to walk on water, recounted in Matthew 14:25-31:

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (NIV Bible, emphasis mine)

As long as Peter kept his gaze firmly fixed on Jesus he was able to walk on the water. But when he shifted his focus to the storm, he was quickly overwhelmed by his situation.

Too often, when I’m confronted with changing circumstances or buffeted by winds of uncertainty, I become flustered. Like the thrasher, I begin to flail about, thwarting any possibility of finding the stability I seek. And before I know it, I’ve lost sight of the One who is my sure foundation. The One who never changes. The One who still speaks to his followers, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

As I reflect on the disparate behavior of the woodpecker and the thrasher, may I be reminded to rest in the promises of the One who calms the storms.