I was driving on Ruston Way last night. It was after dark, and I was surprised multiple groups of people out, and I thought, Yup, it’s Spring now. There are jokes about what constitutes appropriate weather for going out in the Pacific Northwest; our threshold for what counts as “too chilly” seems to be higher than in other regions, and especially after long, gray winters, we tend to look outside and think, “close enough.” The people I saw walking the waterfront were mostly bundled up in blankets and puffy coats because, despite the lovely sunny day, the evening was very chilly.
I couldn’t help thinking how these people were determined to enjoy the season. Despite the weather report or the temperature, the fact remains that it is Spring, and people are starting to live like it’s Spring. And I couldn’t help thinking that this is a spiritual truth as well: When the season we’re in changes, sometimes the weather of our lives looks pretty much the same at first; or maybe a terrific storm comes when before it was simply cold, and it seems like Winter is only restarting and nothing is improving, or it’s actually getting worse. But the fact remains that the days of death and cold are over, and the days ahead are getting warmer and brighter; new life is blossoming, things are changing, because despite the weather, the season remains.
Of course, tomorrow is the day believers across the globe celebrate the Resurrection of the Son of God, and the consequent resurrection of every story that was marred by death. This season, the season of Abundant Life, zoé perissós*, goes on without end. All the darkness tries to hide the truth, to convince us that the storm and the cold and the gloom are here to stay; but the darkness cannot change the fact that life is here and now. We are able with Christ to live the way we were meant to, to walk out the story God has written for us, despite the weather. The days of death are over; Spring is here.
As I was driving home tonight, I thought about that young Jewish girl who became the mother of God Incarnate so long ago. She is revered, a heroine: The little woman who said yes to God, to the impossible.
Mary was not unaware of the trouble that saying yes would bring. She knew people would not understand. They might disbelieve and even shun her. She knew raising a boy called the son of God would be difficult, to say the least. She knew her life would never be the way she’d expected or imagined it would be. But still she said yes. Why? Because she believed the One who spoke, and trusted in His words.
We all have a chance to be like Mary.
We all come to that moment when the Word of God comes, and we have the choice to say, like her, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” Not because it’s easy, not because we’re not nervous nor even terrified, not because we’re perfect and flawless. We can say yes because “No word of God shall be impossible.” He who speaks is faithful, both to His word and to us. He already favored us and chose us; we have only to believe Him.
(Reposted from my own facebook page)
So I had to share this picture, not because of the main message (though it’s still true), but because the image itself struck me. Look at the ground she walks on: Dry as a desert. There are walls of water on either side, but they don’t come down on her. Sometimes, we go through “desert times,” seemingly inhospitable and dry, and we feel abandoned. Perhaps sometimes, what we don’t see is the torrent on either side, the raging waves we walk through that don’t crash down and take us under. Sometimes the paths God leads us on seem hard, even impossible. But these are the ways to be thankful for, because on these ways God is leading us right through the midst of chaos that would otherwise overwhelm us, even destroy us. He is a good Shepherd, who walks with His sheep wherever He leads them, so we can take heart in this as well: Desert or dry ocean bed, we are never alone.
So last spring, I received a little fuchsia starter as a gift from a coworker. I have to say that I’ve always loved fuchsias, especially the kind I got: white flowers like frilly petticoats under smooth, bright pink sepals. The thing about fuchsias, though, is that they’re picky. In fact, the only kind of flower I can think of that is more of a diva than a fuchsia is an African violet (side note—how did those things ever survive in Africa?). Fuchsias don’t like to be too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold; seriously, they are the Goldilocks of flowers. Mine didn’t ever get big and bushy, but I managed to get it blooming like crazy—huge, lovely flowers every day for weeks—and it wasn’t dying… at least until summer really hit. After multiple episodes of inadequate watering, over-watering, heat waves and vacations leading to general neglect, it was looking pretty sad. I was just waiting for the poor thing to die at this point, though continuing to water it every so often; I had written it off as a failed gardening attempt. But it just kept hangin’ on, so I figured it was only mostly dead, and I’d call it all dead when it was all brown. So I kept watering it, and it kept trying to hold up its leaves, it kept trying to put out new flowers every few days, it didn’t dry up and die. Then I went out this afternoon to check on it, and there were little green leaves, fresh and new, growing out of the dry brown twigs. I already couldn’t understand why it was still hanging on, but to have new growth after such a terrible season?
I’m betting we all, at some time, have felt that we were in a place where we couldn’t prosper or grow, where it seemed impossible that we should survive, let alone thrive, yet God never gave up on us. He continued to pour into us, to coax us to trust Him again, to keep holding on. Even when we feel mostly dead, He still sees life in us and believes in us, no matter what circumstances caused us to wither.
God spoke to me the other day about hope, and my little potted plant just drove His point home to me. I had asked Him if it was even ok to hope about certain things, and what He told me was that I could always hope. But I must hold onto Him and not the hope itself, for He is the true hope, and the fulfillment of every dream He has for me is in Him. When my hope is in Him first, then I can see the light when there’s darkness; then I can withstand the heat and the cold, the dry times and the floods, and bloom when it doesn’t seem possible. Then I can overcome every false identity—weakness, frailty, shame, lack, misery, fear, death—and become who He has always said I am. And the dead leaves will dry up and fall off, and new growth will appear. If I can have a little faith in a potted fuchsia, how much more does my heavenly Father have faith in me? When our hope is in Him, we won’t be disappointed, but we’ll thrive.
At night, and especially in the rain, everything can look very different. Streets you’ve driven many times look unfamiliar, the lines on the road become hard to distinguish among the many reflections from streetlights and businesses, and even though you know where you’re going, suddenly it seems like getting there has become more challenging.
This will be honest.
A friend of mine recently asked me why I seem to have changed so much in the past few months, and I realized tonight (while driving home, in this midsummer weather bummer) that part of it is because my life has become very unfamiliar to me. A lot of changes have happened in my life in a relatively short span of time, and I have been grasping for something that feels like the way things were; something familiar, from what I think of as a good time in my life. Even though it’s the same road I’ve been on, a turn somewhere brought me into the night; the lines on this road are harder to see amidst the distractions and deceptions coming from the side. I feel alone on this road, and I’m nervous about driving it. Suddenly the path I was sure of has become foreign and even frightening. Suddenly, I feel like I don’t know where I am.
I realized the things I’m grasping for are times and seasons and places that I have passed through, but can’t get back to, or things that aren’t here yet that I keep hoping will be. What I’m missing, what I’m really looking for, is something unchanging. I hunger for that place that can be reached from anywhere I am—I want the peace, the quiet stillness, the presence of my Father.
I’ve also realized the quiet is something I’ve come to dread. All my fears find a voice there, and all the worries begin to shout in the silence, and the many things I feel I must do to keep occupied suddenly seem so very important. I ride the wave of the clamor right past the secret place into more chaos, and the things I do just to keep busy really just keep me cluttered and confused. Then, when the desire to meet God in my prayer closet becomes so strong I might actually act on it, I feel guilty or ashamed for having put Him off, and so continue to put Him off (which totally fixes the problem..?). Yet in the times when I find that place, and the voice of the Lord breaks through with a blast of peace, I remember the comfort of His presence and the joy of His word. He is the solid ground I’m looking for while this ground seems unstable. He is the light that shines without distortion, though the night is dark and the rain is heavy. When I live by His presence, I find the road I’m on to be one I’m able to travel, regardless of how hard it is. I am reminded that I’m not driving alone, either in my own vehicle or as the only vehicle on this road.
I am also reminded in these times, when I allow the Holy Spirit to refresh and strengthen me, that there is no time or place in life when I can’t seek Him. Another friend of mine was recently talking about “getting to that place” where she can find God again, and when I opened my mouth to reply, the Spirit came out and said, more or less: “You don’t have to get anywhere. Find Him where you are, because He’s seeking you where you are.” How often we think we must be a certain way, or change certain things, or find a new circumstance, before we feel like we can come into His presence again. God is always where we are, right there with us. Certainly He wants to lead us into new places—but it’s impossible to be led by someone who isn’t there, so how can God be elsewhere? This brings a whole new dimension to that familiar phrase, “Be where you are.” You can’t live in either your past or your future, for better or worse. You’re not what you were, nor what you will be, but you are, here and now—and so is God. Find Him where you are, without fear or shame, without regrets, without reserve; and let Him find you, every part of you. Whether you feel completely lost or completely on track, seek Him; He already knows the road you’re on.
So I’ve written before about all the stressful things that are going on in my life; it is crazy hard and frustrating right now. I had had it with one thing after another cropping up without reprieve, and was wallowing in this despair one day recently when suddenly, as I was preparing eloquent complaints in my mind, I heard very clearly: “What do you want people to know about your life?” That stopped me dead in my thoughts; before I share my answer to that question though, I’d like to share this:
If anyone ever suffered for the sake of the gospel, surely Paul did. He was ridiculed, slandered, imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, threatened numerous times with death, and generally lived a fairly miserable life after his journey on the road to Damascus. Yet he writes to the Philippians (most likely from Rome during his imprisonment): “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13). Paul’s secret was trusting God and relying on His strength, in every circumstance, no matter what it looked like. Some people say faith is blind, but that’s not true at all. Faith does see, yet it does not rely on sight but on revelation from heaven. Paul went to Jerusalem on purpose, even though he knew terrible happenings awaited him; one prophet even bound himself up with Paul’s own belt as a prophetic gesture to the imprisonment Paul would face (Acts 21:10-11). Paul had a heads-up that after Jerusalem, things would not be so fun for him; and yet, in response to the pleading of his friends, he says: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). Paul had his eyes on the Lord, and was determined to allow God’s glory to be brought through him no matter what happened.
It’s not easy to hope for what you can’t see; to keep your eyes fixed on the Lord and not on the trials. How hard it must have been for Paul, not knowing if this imprisonment would be to his death. We all hope for things to change for the better, and we know God can do miracles, but what if He allows us to be tested, as He did Job? What if He wants us to bring glory to Him in terrible dark places? To show the enemy that our praise and worship of God isn’t because of what we get from Him, but because of who He is?
Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) faced this dilemma. When ratted out by malicious Chaldeans for not worshipping Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, and threatened by the king with death in the superheated furnace, they responded (honorably) to him thus: “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18, emphasis added). The three of them were resolved that no situation or outcome would sway them from worshipping the Most High God, even if it meant death for them. What if there is no rescue, no healing, no deliverance? Do we love and trust the Lord so much that we pray, like Jesus did, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39)? Do we really want glory brought to His name more than anything else? This kind of faith, this kind of living, is not easy. It cannot be done without the power of His Holy Spirit, His strength in us; it can’t be done without daily being immersed in His presence, falling more in love with Him, dying more to ourselves.
And so, as the question of what I want people to know when they look at my life echoed in my mind, I realized that I don’t want people to know how poor and miserable and pitiful I am, sucking the life out of every conversation and relationship. My spirit rose up in me then with a desire for people to know instead how God is always faithful, always good; how He is trustworthy, and gracious, and powerful, and worth all of the suffering there may be ahead of me: for the people who would see Him clearly for the first time because of His light shining from me, illuminating His face for them, and for the glory that might be brought to Him through it all.
Hebrews talks about how all those great faithful people of the Bible never actually saw the fulfillment of the promises made to them while they lived on the earth, but they were not dismayed because they knew they were part of something huge, bigger even than their whole lives; something that had eternal significance. This is what they had faith in; this was their hope.
This is why I am striving to be joyful in my life, no matter what it looks like. By no means have I even begun to live this way. But my heart and my eyes are set on Him, as I slowly let my own desires die, because really, my life was never supposed to be about me anyway.
I grew up in a neighborhood on a closed military base, so I had the luxury of running wild outside (at least until the streetlights came on). My parents strategically chose the house we lived in from a number of others available because it was within walking distance of a lake (with lifeguards on duty) and, as my sister and I soon found out, miles of woods and trails. In the summers, if we weren’t swimming at the lake, we would spend literally all day out in the woods with our friends, either making forts or exploring old trails and creating new ones. For a bunch of kids, I’d say we were pretty good at making trails; all we really had to do was find an appropriate stick and beat the blackberry vines into submission, and maybe break or move a fallen branch here and there. The only downside is that every summer when we’d go back into the woods again, we would have to remake most of our trails, because they’d be overgrown.
This morning, Pastor Lorelei talked about the five aspects of shame that Pastor James has talked about in recent sermons*. Apart from the major message, this one part caught my attention, and I’ve been chewing on it all day since: The idea that we as humans tend to fixate both on our own failings and the failings of others as they pertain to us. We have all said or done not-so-great things in our lives, and we have all had not-so-great things said or done to us, sometimes by people who are very important to us. We tend to hold very tightly to these things; we set up little shrines to them in our souls, even unintentionally, and we hold them up as things that cannot be overcome. “But I had this happen to me” or “But I’ve done this” becomes our excuse, sometimes very subtly, to not believe God or do what He’s asking us to. These are objections to which God generally replies, “So what?” Not because He is uncaring; He cares very much for you and loves you beyond your comprehension. But He is the God of the universe; He can do anything! He is in the business of miracles and transforming lives; there is nothing that He cannot overcome. However, there is that small matter of free-will choice. God is a “gentleman” and therefore will not force His will upon any person. He invites us to walk on a certain path with Him, but we must forsake all other paths to do so. Pastor Lorelei put it somewhat like this: “How can you move into the promised land if you’re still living in Egypt? The commute is too far!”
The picture I had when this subject came up was of remaking overgrown trails in the woods as a kid. We would follow the same paths to visit the same places all the time, so that the trails became well-worn and familiar enough that we didn’t even have to look for them anymore. If we stopped using one though, after awhile the vines would grow over the trail, fallen leaves and branches would cover it, weeds and bushes would hide it, and it would eventually disappear. If we wanted it to stay, we’d have to keep using it and tending to it, or we wouldn’t be able to get to that tree or that lookout place anymore. There were some trails we lost completely and forgot where they had been in the first place.
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
It is ok to forget how to get back to Egypt. God isn’t going to ask you to go back into bondage when that’s what He has saved you from; in fact, He warns Israel multiple times to never turn back. He wants us to move forward with Him. God designed us to follow Him on the path he chose for us, forsaking all others. We don’t get to walk the path He has for someone else that we think looks good, or the ones we have made for ourselves either. We all have paths we’ve tended, so we don’t forget how to get back to this offense, or that hurt, or those memories, all reasons why “I’m a broken person.” God can heal anything, if we let Him. He will open up new paths we have never seen to places we can’t yet fathom, and we’ll end up doing amazing things: all more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
Trust the Lord and His leading; let all the other trails become overgrown, until you forget where they were and what they led to. And don’t listen to Satan, when he tries to get you to remake old paths. When he comes along and reminds you of those things “they” did or “they” told you, or all the times you’ve messed up, just reply, “So what?” and keep walking with the Lord.
The link below is to a video made for the Crossing the River service to be held at Zion’s River on May 3, 2013. It’s not just a cool ceremony to parallel the biblical crossing of the Jordan by Israel under the leadership of Joshua; it’s a prophetic action for us as we are moving into the territory God has promised us, and forsaking our Egypt.
This week I had to pick a topic for my final paper in my Argument & Persuasion class. As it turns out, the one I picked specifically because it is not a huge controversial issue turned out to incite quite the debate in my group when it was my turn to share what I had. I don’t like confrontation, so I immediately qualified my (weak) view by stating that I was thinking of picking a better topic anyway. My teacher was there at the time, and replied thus:
“Not writing something because people might not understand you goes against… well, writing!”
I realized that the saying goes beyond writing; it’s never about whether or not people get what you’re saying or doing. It’s about following through with what God has told you, and leaving the rest up to Him.
But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Acts 4:19-20 (ESV)
There are chunks of scripture in the book of Ezekiel, in both chapters 3 and 33, where God tells him that if he is given a message for others, but when he tells them they don’t listen, then it’s their problem; but if he doesn’t tell them at all and they fall, then it becomes his problem, since it was his responsibility to warn them. We also are given words to speak and assignments to complete, and while God is sovereign and will ultimately have His way, what might we be missing out on in our fear and disobedience? Where might heaven not be opened and territory not taken for the kingdom? Or who might have to go on in the same way, waiting for someone else to speak up in faith while they suffer?
I have recently been at the receiving end of a faithfully delivered word which caused much turmoil in my soul. My friends who spoke to me made sure I understood that they couldn’t not share what they heard because of their love for me as a friend, and because of the immense love of God for me. It is, afterall, out of love only that God gives any message; His desire is for us and not against us. Another faithful friend was helping me process these things, and reminded me of this: It’s only when everything is shaken that the things which can not be shaken are revealed, and we are able to stand firm.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Matthew 10:34 (ESV)
Pastor James spoke this weekend of those who are assigned to stand firm even to the point of death. Those people can only stand because they have allowed the Lord to make their foundation strong and their lives bold, and to remove all hindrances and blockades in their lives. Some of us are meant to shake things up; some of us are sent to bring war to places the enemy has been content in. Some of us will stand until we are cut down in the body, but we all will rise in the Spirit, even as Christ rose, to life true and eternal. If our lot is the Kingdom of Heaven, which never fades, then what on earth is there to be afraid of?
The path is narrow, but Jesus never said it was straight. I’ve heard people talk about “staying on the straight and narrow” but this is what I read:
“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Matthew 7:14, ESV
The path that you follow God on isn’t promised to be a straight one; in fact, it is full of twists and turns, hills mounting up before you and winding descents into valleys below. It is narrow, purposed, very precise, no room for meandering and wondering about as there would be on a wider road. You are meant to go somewhere specific, and I don’t mean heaven. Ultimately when following Christ you are promised to get there. But there’s a place you’re assigned to be, while you’re living and breathing on the earth; you bring heaven with you and within you everywhere you go. The path isn’t hard for the sake of salvation, because Jesus took care of that on the cross. It’s because following Him requires everything, at all times, and we don’t want to give it. Where you go on the path as a follower of Jesus Christ is where the kingdom of God is coming. What you leave behind you is a straight path.
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’”
Luke 3:4, ESV
When you are following Christ, consumed by the fire of His Spirit, on the path He has laid before you, what you leave in your wake is a path made straight and leading directly to the Lord, which everyone who comes after you will follow straight into His arms. His presence and glory is the goal, and bringing His children to Him is the honor, of forging ahead on this winding, narrow path.