Thursday, January 29, 2015

the hand of God has turned the tide...

For the past few weeks I've been reading through the Psalms...something I haven't done in full before.  The book of Psalms is located pretty much in the smack-dab-middle of the Bible, and they are known to bring comfort to the weary soul.  I bet we could agree that in the smack-dab-middle of this life, and in the midst of the worries and struggles it brings, we could all use a little comfort.

I didn't cover much ground today in my morning reading.  I hovered over chapter 118 for some time, looking at various translations and reading commentaries to deepen my understanding.

Throughout the 117 chapters prior, David cries out to God in his distress and danger as enemies surround him and threaten to take his life.  A few jewels were uncovered in chapter 118 today.  Let's take a look:

"In my anguish I cried out to the LORD, and He answered me by setting me free.  The LORD is with me (on my side); I will not be afraid...The LORD is with me; He is my helper.  I will look in triumph on my enemies.  It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man...All the nations surround me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off.  They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off.  They swarmed around me like bees, but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off."
Psalm 118:5-12

I love how David reminds us that God is our helper and is on our side.  He encourages us to trust in the LORD and to call out to Him in times of trouble and distress.  For, despite the odds that rise up against us, it is IN HIS NAME that we find our victory.  

David goes on to proclaim:

"Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents (and private dwellings) of the righteous:  The LORD's right hand has done mighty things!  The LORD's right hand is lifted high; 
the LORD's right hand has done mighty things."
Psalm 118:15-16

I love how The Message translates this last verse:

"The hand of God has turned the tide."

The Bible is chocked full of stories in which God has turned the tide on people's lives and has done mighty things to lead His people to deliverance.  He continues to do the same today.  In the midst of our struggles, sometimes it is hard to believe in (and tell of) God's goodness and to give Him thanks.  We'd rather wait till we are "out of the woods" before doing so.  David's example is one we are wise to follow.

Matthew Henry's commentary explains, "People must all own God's goodness, and all join in the thankful song.  David celebrates God's mercy, and calls upon others to acknowledge it, from their own experience of it.  David had, in this time, waded through a great deal of difficulty, which gave him great experience of God's goodness to him.  There are many who, when they are lifted up, care not for hearing or speaking of their former depressions, but David takes all occasions to remember his low estate and calls upon others to confess God's mercy, and to encourage themselves to trust in Him."

Furthermore, "Satan is the great enemy that thrusts solely at us by his temptations (to lose faith and hope), to cast us down from our excellency, that we may fall from our God and from our comfort in Him.  Men thrust at David for his destruction; God chastened him for his instruction.  They thrust at him with the malice of enemies; God chastened him with the love and tenderness of a Father.  This trouble, which God authored, was designed for David's profit.  What men intend for the greatest mischief, God intends for the greatest good, and it is easy to say whose counsel shall stand."

I wonder what you are struggling with today?  Whatever it may be, I encourage you to call out to your Helper, tell Him what is troubling you, and to claim a mighty, "but in the name of the LORD," victory over it.  Trust in God's mercy and believe that He will use your trials for your own instruction and good...that these troubles will be used to profit you and to magnify God's goodness.  (And don't be afraid to share your story and tell of the goodness you have received.)

Perhaps enemies do not encamp around you threatening to take your life, but the troubles of this world may seem like they are rushing in on a wave that wants to take you under.  In these moments, join in the thankful song.  Whatever waves are coming up against you,  remember that we have a God, a Comforter, who can turn the tide with one easy and effortless stroke of His mighty hand.

God is good all the time.
All the time, God is good.

Do not fall from Him or your comfort in Him.  Let every trouble serve to magnify His goodness in our lives, so that we may profit from it, tell of His hand that has turned the tide, and call others to join in the thankful song.

Owning God's goodness today,

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

In the Race, He Perfects Our Faith

Do you ever feel like you are coasting along smoothly in life and then something pops up unexpectedly and gets you all tangled in knots?  Yeah.  I've been there.  More times than I've wished.

In fact, this has happened in our lives most recently.  It's in moments like these that I have to be intentional with what I choose to fix my attention on.  Fixing on the issue or the past just causes downward spiral futile thinking.  Speaking from experience, I beg you not to do this.

Many months ago I heard a message on "long-term thinking."  (I think it may have been a message by Rick Warren.)  Research studies reveal that successful people tend to be "long-term thinkers."  In other words, they go through life with their eyes focused on the future.  They don't allow hiccups and setbacks to cause them to stumble because their eyes are ahead on their prize, on their goal.  In a spiritual sense, believers need to be "long-term thinkers" too...with our eyes looking heavenward toward Christ.  It's in the looking backward and residing in "today's pit" that we lose our focus and perspective.  We are best to anchor our thoughts forward.

I was reading in Hebrews this morning.  I probably took too much time in this book, in this quiet place, for the laundry and the house were all sneering at me and taunting me in their neglect.  But the words and truths from chapter 12 captivated my attention.  As I sat this afternoon filling up on my overdue lunch of salt-sprinkled hard-boiled egg, dill pickle, honeycrisp apple, salted almonds, turkey pepperoni and string cheese (self-admitted salt addict), I began to digest more than the food that was on my small plate.  Those Hebrews 12 words began to do a filling of their own too.

The chapter begins with these instructions:

"...throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." -Hebrews 12:1-2

I've heard and read these words so very many times before, but something in these passages today offered a connection and perspective I found hopeful.  Stick with me here.

Moving on in the chapter, we learn about God's discipline.  Ouch.  I know, not the most pleasant of topics.  But please don't stop reading here.  There's much more to discipline than punishment,  and I  challenge you today to view this discipline through a different lens.   Not to ignore it, but to look at it from an angle that inspires hope.

Let's read together:

"Endure hardship as discipline.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is not disciplined by his father?...Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good that we may share in His holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  " -Hebrews 12:7-11

There's a lot crammed into those verses; let's try to unpack them a bit.

When life throws us curve balls, it's easy to become hindered and entangled.  Sin will always do this.  But sometimes unexpected hardship does this as well.  The author of Hebrews instructs us to throw off and let go of these things that hinder...to not be consumed by them.  If our eyes are fixed on the struggle, on the why, on the lack of understanding, we will waste our time and our breath trying to figure things out.  We may never know or understand why bad things happen to good people or why good things happen to bad people.  It's really not our job or a worthy use of our time to try to do so.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding."
-Proverbs 3:5

I just finished reading through the book of Job, and even Job questioned why wicked people often prosper and why the upright sometimes suffer.  It didn't lessen the pain of his own affliction.  But trusting in God's sovereignty, omniscience, and omnipotence did.  We'd be well to do the same.

We are instructed to endure hardship as discipline.  When we think of God's discipline we often think of punishment.  We liken it to a child who has misbehaved or done something wrong and needs to be corrected.  If we view it from that lens, we may find ourselves living in a cycle of defeat.  Feeling unworthy, inadequate, and that we can't get anything right. But discipline isn't always punishment.  Hardship is discipline as well.  And it's for our own good.

Consider an athlete at the height of his or her game.  One may say successful athletes are "disciplined" athletes.  They are taught, trained, work hard, push through, and follow instruction.  Or take someone who has experienced significant weight loss or transformation.  We can assume that discipline in diet and exercise brought them to that place of success.  I am sure the discipline that brought success to either of these examples wasn't an easy-smooth-sailing ride.  It was most likely painful at times and required great perseverance.  But the discipline was for their own good because they were trained by it and eventually produced a harvest.

Backtracking to the first couple verses in Hebrews chapter 12, we are encouraged to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, to fix our eyes on Jesus who is the author and perfecter of our faith.  The race God has marked out for me may look different from yours, but we are both encouraged to run it with perseverance.  Our races may be unpleasant at times, and the discipline may even hurt.  But verse 10 reminds us that there's goodness behind it all.  For, it's in the race that He perfects our faith.

If we find ourselves in a place of hardship or discipline, remember our faith is being perfected in the process.  It is for our own good.  Though unpleasant now, "later on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."(verse 11)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "trained" can be defined as "taught," or  "to develop or form the habits, thoughts or behavior of another"  We must ask ourselves, what is God teaching me through this hardship?  In many ways, our discipline is used by God to develop and form us closer to His image so that His thoughts become our thoughts and our actions begin to mirror His.

To "train" may also be described as "to focus, point or aim something" (typically a gun or a camera).  It's in the training, hardship, and discipline that our lives can be used to aim, focus, and point others to Christ.  Oh, how I desperately desire for God to use my struggles for His glory.  A harvest is coming for those who allow God to train them in the hardship.

The portion of passage I studied ended with verses 12-13:

"Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed."

Though seasons of hardship and discipline may often leave us feeling feeble and weak, they end up strengthening us and making our paths level.  God's discipline is for our healing.

We are all broken in one way or another.  We all have struggles and hardships that lurk around the path of the race marked out for us.  Take heart that much good is being worked out in the process.  A harvest is being produced behind the sweat and tears.  We are not being sent to our rooms and put in the time-out chair.  We are God's children who are being trained, strengthened and perfected as we throw off all that hinders, run with perseverance, and fix our eyes on Him.

Running along with you,

Thursday, January 1, 2015

finding "Yahweh" on an abandoned corner lot

Earlier last month my husband came home from work and joined me in the kitchen as I fixed dinner.  We exchanged small talk about our day, but no major incidents colored our conversation.  As we sat down together as a family he mentioned that he was starving and hadn't eaten a thing all day.  I found this peculiar because I had packed him a lunch that very morning.

It turns out that while he was out and about driving and working that day, he came across a homeless man and gave away his lunch.  I love his heart.  This isn't the first time he has come home with a story like this.  He won't readily talk about it, but he's been known to give away his lunch, buy lunch for someone in need, pick up a person walking alongside the road and give them a ride, or stop to help someone change a flat tire.

He inspires me.  His life is a good example of someone who reaches out to "the least of these."  

"Truly, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me."
Matthew 25:40

So, it was no surprise that night when he brought up the idea of our family making lunches and heading downtown Detroit to pass them out to the homeless.  We have done this several times before in the past.  He is always the mind and the heart behind these family service projects.  We've been surprised by how much we have been blessed when trying to bless others. This time around was no different.

And the timing of it all was spot on.  November wasn't a great month for us.  So much talk about gratitude and thankfulness was floating around the internet and casual conversation.  Yet, our month was shaded in cloudy gray and the grumbling and bickering sprinkled over our days (and our hearts) making that posture of praise and thanksgiving more difficult to maintain.

It was perfect timing for a little attitude and heart tweaking.  After a quick trip to the grocery store, our assembly lines began.
 The kids rolled up their sleeves and pitched in, perfecting their sandwich-making skills.
Even our youngest was in on the mix, decorating bags
and filling them with water and goodies.
In no time we were packed up and headed downtown.

These trips always offer a perspective shift in heart and mind.
 To personally lay eyes on the destruction and devastation in these communities is sobering and disheartening and sparks fires of gratitude within a heart.  
 The kids had many questions and the trip offered many teachable moments for all of us.

 Often times, we find we run out of lunches before we run out of the need for them.
And we always wished we had more to give.
But on this day, everything seemed so desolate and we found ourselves driving around and searching with much more intentionality.
We drove and prayed that God would lead us to the right people.

We were able to have a few good conversations and moments with some of the homeless people we saw on the streets.
Some were openly receptive and grateful.

Some were hesitant and ashamed.
This man Darcy is talking to accepted a lunch "this time," but denied his need for it.
We stopped to offer him one when we saw him redressing and readjusting the three layers of dirty pants he wore just to keep warm.  

Our hope is never to judge or offend.
Often, discernment and the courage to love, despite unfavorable reaction, 
come into play.
Many homeless people are ashamed of their condition and don't want to be viewed as different or in need.  Our hearts are mindful of this.

I pray they come to fully understand how valued and loved they are by God and that we are just trying to extend that love to them in a simple, practical and humble way.
The last man we encountered was a self-admitted addict who lived in this abandoned building pictured above.  He stood outside our car for a while and shared part of his story with us.  The kids sat in the backseat and gave full attention to his words as he described how difficult it is to be homeless...How cold it is to sleep here in the winter.  I wished we had an extra blanket in our car to give to him.  And I wished he knew that our God is capable of healing and restoring all brokenness within.
As we began to make our way out of the inner city, we came across this house that sat on a vacant, abandoned corner lot.

The word "Yahweh" was colorfully painted all up and down its siding. 

"Yahweh."

And I thought to myself, "Yes, God is here."  Though brokenness and devastation lurk in the center of many of these hearts and homes, His presence is the siding that covers over all.  He still restores, rebuilds, and redeems.  Often though, He begins from the inside out.  I know this firsthand.

Though it looks like all has been abandoned, He is the One who will never abandon.  He will fill any vacant, empty heart that makes room for Him. 

As we end this season of celebrating "Emmanuel; God with us," let us be reminded that it doesn't take a holiday or certain time of year to embrace this.

God is with us.
God is in us.
God is for us.

Anywhere you are, anywhere you go...and even in the most unlikely of places, He still can be found.