Monday, September 26, 2016

The Secret to Finding a Deep, Lasting Peace Again

I heard a sermon where the preacher shared that the secret to having a life of contentment is being content with my life as it is. Admittedly, he didn’t come up with the profound thought…he borrowed it from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:  I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:11-12)

Paul wrote this when he was in prison. Being curious, I decided to do some research on the first century Roman prisons because my only understanding of prison is Hollywood’s version.  I learned that Paul was in prison for two years waiting trial—there hadn’t even been a trial let alone a conviction. Day after day for two years wondering if this was the day he would get his day in court.
These prisons were often subterranean, dug out solid rock with an opening the size of a manhole as the only entrance and exit.  Such was the Mamertine prison Rome where tradition tells us Paul was held. The prison itself was essentially two large rooms on different levels with iron shackles fixed to the walls. The Roman historian Sallust, writing a century before Paul, said of this dungeon, "[It] is sunk about twelve feet underground. Walls secure it on every side, and over it is a vaulted roof connected with stone arches; but its appearance is disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness and stench." I imagine that conditions didn't improve over the century between Sallust's writing and Paul's stay. A few prisoners had friends who provided them with clothing, blankets, food and water. The others did without. It was in this place that Paul wrote to Philippians about the secret of contentment. 

If Paul could find contentment there, I should be able to find contentment in my warm, clean, spacious apartment even if I could use a little more storage and an updated living room set. While we’re at it, I’d love to replace the kitchen cabinets and maybe a little color on the walls too. Today on my way to work I saw a homeless man dressed in the same dirty gray sweatshirt and ripped tan trousers that he’s been wearing every day for years, walking alongside the road with his little cart that holds all his worldly belongings and the aluminum cans that he picks up to recycles for money. I bet he would be more than content with an apartment like mine and my 4-year old car, even if it doesn’t have blue tooth capability. Sometimes my blessings are so continuous that I take them for granted and the joy and gratitude I should be receiving them in diminishes until they almost disappear. Shame on me for that.

Now I know I’m not supposed to compare myself to others—it makes for some real unhappiness when I’m the poorer person and sometimes can lead to arrogance when I’m the richer. But I have to tell you that seeing that man today reminded me that God has blessed me greatly and not so I could be happy, but so I can share it with those who are waiting for God’s blessing to come to them through me and my stewardship of what God has given me. 

I also learned in my research that visiting a first century Roman prison could be dangerous. Visitors ran the risk of being associated with the alleged crimes of the accused. When early Christians visited those who were in prison, they were let down into the prison by rope and left only at the convenience of the guards. They weren’t just performing an inconvenient or unpleasant act of kindness—they were risking their own lives and freedom as well. This is the kind of love and concern we are to have for each other. Am I that giving—that selfless, that I put others’ needs above my own convenience let alone my own safety? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is no. No, I’m not that selfless and giving and I’m leaning on God’s grace right now to see past this when he looks at me.

Want to know the secret to finding a deep, lasting peace? I’ll let Paul share it in his own words: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Out of Control Is Where I Want to Be

Recently I spent a couple of weeks exhausted for no discernable reason. Even when I was awake I felt like I was sleepwalking through my day. No matter how much sleep I got, it was never enough. Just getting ready for work was taxing enough to want a nap before I left my home. I wasn’t sick. I hadn’t overworked my exercise routines or starved myself into a near comatose state. I just had no energy. In the evenings just getting up off the couch to go to bed seemed like too much work.

Last week the Holy Spirit showed me the cause of my exhaustion—it was a control issue. I was dealing with several situations in my life that I inadvertently was spending all my energy trying to control. I was stepping into God’s shoes and taking over his job as if I didn’t trust him to handle the situation properly. I wanted a particular outcome and was stressing myself into exhaustion trying to be God by willing those desires into existence. No wonder I was so tired.

I’ve acknowledged that control has been an issue in my life. I am a recovering perfectionist with occasional God-like delusions. I’ve worked really hard to put that part of my broken personality behind me, but I see now that it is going to sneak up on me if I’m not careful and knock my feet out from under me. Fortunately, I have solid ground to land upon. When something like this happens, it’s always necessary to go back to the basics.

I need to remind myself and thank God that he is in control. No matter the outcome, he has me in his hand and will never let go of me. I need to remember that the only person I can control is me. I choose how I act and react to the circumstances I find myself facing in life. I can face them alone, afraid, unprepared, and uncertain or I can face them with God at my side, in confidence with his Spirit leading the way.

None of this changes the situations I find myself in. But at least now I’m not fighting against myself to produce my idea of the perfect outcome. Instead, I can relax in God’s embrace and walk beside him today knowing that nothing outside of his will or his power will unfold in my day. I can go forth in hope and joy that my God is in control and I don’t have to worry about the details. I just have to look to him in certain hope for the strength, wisdom and ability to overcome. Then in gratitude and joy, share the miracles of his presence in my life with you.

Monday, September 12, 2016

When I Can't Open the Door

A father and his toddler are exiting a building through a triple set of heavy doors. They come to the first door and the little boy pushes with all his might but nothing happens. The door doesn’t budge. He backs up a few steps and runs toward the door hoping that the momentum will help push the door open. Again it doesn’t open. Then he sits on the floor and tries to kick it open with his feet unsuccessfully. Admitting his inability, he turns to his father and asks him to open the door. His father easily pushes the door open and they walk hand-in-hand through the open doorway. 

They reach the second door and the little boy tries again to no avail. Again he turns to his father and asks him to open the door. His father says that they will do it together. So they both push on the door and it opens. Again they walk through hand-in-hand. 

They come to the third door and the little boy doesn't even try to open it. He turns to his father and asks his help. His father encourages him saying, “Why don’t you give it a try yourself? After all, you might be surprised at how strong you’ve become.” The boy begins to push with all his strength and the door open a little. His father continues to encourage him and the boy keeps pushing until the door opens wide. If the boy had looked up in his struggle, he would have seen his father’s hand higher up on the door pushing it open. Celebrating the boy’s victory, they walk hand-in-hand through the open doorway.

This story relates so well to my faith journey. The first door is a great picture of my attempt at personal salvation and how I failed miserably to secure it for myself by my own power. No amount of penance, or good deeds, or any ritual performed to the best of my ability was going to bring salvation to me. Only the power of the cross is able to redeem me from my sinfulness.

The other doors represent those times in my life when I’m facing a struggle. Many times I will try to overcome life’s challenges myself and only turn to God when I’ve failed. How much time do I waste not turning to him first? And how long will it take for me to learn to ask his help when the challenge first presents itself? God doesn’t abandon me though. He waits patiently for me to ask and then helps me through without condemnation. Sometimes I actually have the presence of mind to turn to God immediately. I don’t try to accomplish on my own what I know only he can do. That’s usually when he surprises me and encourages me to pour all my effort into facing the challenge that lies ahead. The sweet victory of confronting those challenges and making it through always surprises me. But then I look up and I see that his hand was there all the time guiding me and providing the strength I don’t possess. 

In the end, that’s what faith is all about. I am limited and powerless to overcome my own sinfulness and the challenges in life. God’s love, power, and wisdom know no limits and lack nothing. He is responsible for all victories in my life from the first to the last and he chooses to share the celebration of those victories with me as if I had some part in them. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

God's Not Done with Me Yet

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)

Recently I was reminded that God isn’t done with me yet. I love it when God chooses to remind me of this fact because too often I judge myself harshly as if I am a finished product with all my flaws and failings. I get down on myself because I somehow didn’t measure up to Christ’s example. I find myself guilty of being less than perfect and condemn myself to self-loathing for my faults.

But that isn’t what God sees when he looks at me. He sees a masterpiece in process. Too often I get impatient with God in his handiwork. God is Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel of my life but I want him to be Bob Ross painting happy little clouds in my world and filling the canvas of my life with a beautiful landscape in 30 minutes. God doesn’t work like that so it’s good to remember that he isn’t done with me yet. This is true whether I am languishing in a valley of my faith or in those moments when my heart is bursting from a mountain top experience.

God’s not done with me yet and he will never get to a point where he is so frustrated with how I’m turning out that he scrapes me completely. As someone who has striven to become proficient in a multitude of artistic endeavors, I can tell you that I’ve had lots of practice in recognizing when it’s better just to throw out the old flawed mess and start over with new materials. Still I can rest easy because I can be confident along with Paul that he who began a good work in me will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)

This artistic endeavor of God’s to create in me a new spirit and to mold and train that spirit into his own perfection and righteousness is a time-consuming slow process. One which he lovingly and patiently adheres to so as not to push me past the point of scraping. One thing I’ve learned from my artistic hobbies is that the more skilled I become at a particular art, the better I am able to redeem the work and save it from destruction. This is why I can breathe a sigh of relief—because God’s skills are perfect and the only sacrifice he makes is of himself in bringing new life and beauty to his creation. God’s not done with me yet.

This doesn’t give me a pass to sit idly by and do nothing. It doesn’t give me an excuse to do as I please. God created me to be involved in the process. I need to work at being the best me I can for him. I need to forgive myself and move on when I fail miserably. I need to strive to be the woman of God he created me to be. I need to let go of who I was and what I did yesterday so that I can be and do what he has prepared for me today with my eye on the glory of the finished masterpiece he has in mind for me tomorrow. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's My Choice

Last week God gave me two lessons – one in humility and a refresher course in empathy which is continuing even this morning. In last week’s blog I mentioned that God had blessed me with a friend who loves me enough to remind me that it’s not the quantity but the quality of what I do that matters and to help cement that in my mind and my heart, God gave me a good object lesson in what had to be the worst golf game I’ve had since I started swinging a club. The numbers were horrendous but I didn’t give up or throw away my clubs. Instead I thanked God for the object lesson and walked away having to ignore the numbers and truly appreciating the few quality swings and putts I managed that game. The numbers may have been bad but with help from my coach, I learned some things last week that will certainly help me in the quality of my game next week.

These last few weeks, I’ve physically felt weak and limited by pain. This has always been a bad time of year for me. With the high humidity (and soon the pollen count will be rising) I can barely breathe or move between my asthma and arthritis. Everything hurts and taking a full breath is a chore leaving me exhausted and in pain with no respite. I know that in a few weeks when the constant high humidity breaks and the pollen counts level off again, I will feel better but for many people that is not an option. I think of people like my mom who is always dealing with some level of pain between the six different painful medical conditions she lives with every day. Or my dad who has never been sick a day in his life and who has been dealing with a medical condition that has him laid up for the last month and wondering when he will once again feel good. It increases my concern and compassion for those whose lives will never return to the way they were before the crippling effects of a chronic disease took hold of them.

Here’s the part I want to keep uppermost in my mind right now. I get to choose what I learn from last week’s game and from my current health challenge. I could walk away angry and frustrated that even though I was playing for quality, the numbers didn’t show it. Or I could walk away happy to have spent a beautiful afternoon with a friend and enjoying a few good swings and incorporating some adjustments into my putting that will eventually pay off with practice. I could look at last week’s game like a bust or as skill-enhancing exercise. And just in case you think I’m just talking about golf here, this applies to anything I do in life—not just golf. I can choose to look at how a thing affects me or learn how I can use what happened to praise Jesus and share his wisdom and grace with those around me. I’m not feeling my best right now and I can choose to feel miserable and spread that misery around or I can keep my eye on the one who suffered the most for me and let him change that pain and weakness into love and compassion for others. And with the energy of that love and compassion fueling me into action, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I can bring help, hope, and maybe even a little relief to others.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Little Extraordinary Blessings

Did you ever look back on your week and say you couldn’t see God in it? It’s something I used to say quite often. People all around me were being blessed with parting-the-red-sea type miraculous answers to prayer or transfiguration-type mountaintop experiences and when asked about my “God sightings” for the week, all I could boast about was the love of family and friends or a good day at the office. Then God helped me see how ridiculous I sounded – “all” I could boast about were the normal everyday blessings – blessings that I was taking for granted which so many other people in the world would consider miraculous. The more I started appreciating the regular occurrences of these everyday miracles, the more God moments I began to see.

So today I want to share with you some of those God sightings I was blessed to recognize from this past week. First of all, at work I am so very blessed to have a solid friendship with my coworkers. Chad, Linda and I work so well together because we really do care about it other and want to help each other succeed. Not only do we share our careers, but we share our lives and I am blessed to know both of them. I am so very blessed to have pictures and knickknacks in my office (today’s blog photos) that honor God and help center my attention on him. In many places, even in this country where my religious freedom is guaranteed, I would not be able to display such obvious Christian d├ęcor.

I saw God in my personal life too. My father was in the hospital last week with a severe infection. He is now home and doing much better. God healed and is healing my father through the work and care of doctors, nurses, and modern medicine. Last week, while I was vacuuming my home, I expressed my gratitude to God for giving me a mother who frustrated me to no end when I was a kid with questions like:  Did you move the couch and vacuum under the chair? Did you take the cushions off the couch and sweep up all the crumbs? And statements like:  You didn’t move the lamp—dust the table again and this time, move the lamp. If I look in your closet, am I going to find everything that was under your bed? Why was I grateful for that? Because I had a mother who taught me how to clean my home properly and a clean home is healthy and helps make me happy and content.

And speaking of blessings of humility—God blessed me with a friend who cared enough and loved me enough to remind me that it’s not the quantity but the quality of what I do that matters. Sometimes, we can get caught up in the numbers and forget that how we do something, whether it is a golf swing, a work project, or anything we do in life. I am so grateful for the smack down I got last week reminding me of that.

At church yesterday, God blessed me again. In a congregation full of strangers, I turned around to see two familiar faces smiling at me and two other people who introduced themselves to me on the way out of the building after worship.

These may seem like every day ordinary things to anyone else but for me, they are what made the last seven days extraordinary. These moments reminded me that God is thinking about me and wanted to give me these little moments to show it. I couldn’t be any more blessed than that!
I hope you go into this week looking for the little blessings because if you look, you can’t help but see them. Don’t ask God where he is in a given moment in desperation but in expectation and you will see those little extraordinary miracles he is blessing you with all the time. That’s my plan for the week.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Do I Have to Go to Church?

About a year and a half ago, I made the decision to leave the church that God brought me to when I first became a Christian. It is a good church with good people but I felt that my ministry passion just didn’t coincide with theirs anymore and knew it was time to find a new church home. God had led me right to the doorstep and through the front doors of that place more than a decade earlier. While I was positive that God was calling me away from there, he didn’t really give me any clue as to where to go from there and that was a problem. At the same time one of my coworkers announced his plan to retire in six months’ time. Our staff had all been together for 10-12 years which is highly unusual in this day and age, even among churches. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with these dear friends while we were all still together as a staff so I started attending worship services at the church I work for. In my mind it was always a temporary respite from looking for my new church home and circumstances kept me there a year longer than I had planned but here I am again looking for that place where God wants me to invest my Sunday mornings and my ministry passion.

I’m a non-conformist woman of faith who has a difficult time with large gatherings and little use for religion. These days, it seems like churches concentrate their efforts in attracting families. Ministries are developed for children, youth and families because families give the impression of growth and a solid foundation for the future.  As a single person with no immediate family within my religious tradition, I feel like I am unimportant and unwanted before I even walk in the door. I walk alone into a roomful of people who are all sitting with their families. I sit alone. I worship alone. I walk out alone. I’d rather just stay at home and worship on my own because being alone in a crowd is the deepest kind of loneliness there is. But that isn’t what God wants. Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” God made us to be in relationship with him and with others and that includes as a community of believers who gather together in worship.

So all last week, I was trying to psych myself up to attend a worship gathering on Sunday morning but couldn’t manage even a little enthusiasm or desire. So Saturday night I turned it over to God. After all, he’s the one who convinced me to go the first time. I asked him to give me the enthusiasm and desire I couldn’t create on my own. I'd like to share with you a small part of the internal dialog I had with myself as I prayed about it.

“God wants me to go to worship because I need to go.”

“I need to go because spending time with him in this way with others is a great privilege and honor and besides, God deserves my worship and attention!”

“Maybe God wants to bless me by speaking to me through someone else’s voice today and I need to go there to hear it.”

“What if I go there and I worship God with all my heart alone in a crowd and there is no blessing?”

That's when God brought to mind Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s answer to King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:17-18: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."  And it hit me—God is glorious and he is worthy of praise. Going to a worship service isn’t about me, it’s about him. My God will bless me because that’s who he is, not because I worship him. But even if he doesn’t, I will still worship him and I will do it in a community because that’s his desire. With this new mindset in place, I set the alarm and went to bed determined to attend a community worship service in the morning.

Sunday morning came and the alarm went off. I never once thought about staying home but got myself ready and went to worship. And for the record, God did bless me and touched my heart in a most profound way. He brought an unexpected friend to the seat next to me. Someone to sing and pray with. Someone to hear the word of God with and share with in our worship of the Lord together. What a great blessing that was!

None of this is going to make next week and the weeks ahead any easier, but I've got a good foundation to build on and I know that where ever I roam, God will be there to receive my adoration. And someday, I will find myself at home in a new church community and be able to thank him for bringing me through the challenging time I'm going through now to get there.