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.