Monday, December 22, 2014

"So, Where's This Abundant Life You Promised?"

Yesterday, we lit the "Joy" candle of the Advent wreath at my mother-in-law's church (which confused me a bit, because we lit that candle LAST week at church in San Antonio -- but whatever). There was a little reading about how Christ came to bring us joy, and then there was a prayer thanking God for His gift of joy, and then I think we sang a song about joy.

And I found myself wondering about all the thousands and thousands of people celebrating Advent in churches around the world, lighting the Joy candle this week (or last week) and thinking, "Joy? What's that?"

Because I've been there. No joy. No peace. No hope. None of this stuff we're promoting as the benefits of Christ's coming. I talked the talk. I went through the motions. But none of it was real to me, and I knew it.

Not that I doubted who Christ was and why He came and what He did for me. But if I was honest with myself, none of it really made a measurable difference in my life.

And I'm wondering if some of you, dear readers, are there, too.

Singing the songs, reciting the prayers, saying the expected lines, but not feeling any of it.

Not that our feelings define reality, because they don't. Just because I FEEL afraid doesn't mean there's anything in my life to fear. Just because I FEEL hopeless doesn't mean there is no hope. Just because I FEEL alone and unloved doesn't mean that I am either. We cannot be ruled by the tyranny of our emotions when our emotions are influenced by so many things.

Nevertheless, if you are a believer, if you have surrendered your life to the lordship of Christ, there should be a difference. You should be able to look at the you from fifteen years ago and the you today and see that you are more at peace. More joyful. More hopeful. More like Christ and less like the world. And if you are not, I think you should seriously consider the possibility that something is very wrong in your spiritual life -- something that is critical enough for you to stop everything else and deal with right now.

I remember a point in my spiritual walk many years ago when I did a "face-to-face" with God and said, Alright, what's up with this? You make some very clear promises in your word. Not promises for an easy life or a "happy" life . . . I'm not even asking for those. But you promised an abundant life. You said that was why you came. Where is my abundant life? Where is my love, joy, peace, all that? You and I both know I can't produce it myself -- it has to come from your Spirit, a gift from you. So where is it? Am I doing something wrong? Am I reading that scripture wrong? Did you lie to me? What's the deal?

Don't tell me that's irreverent, or disrespectful -- that was REAL. And I'm convinced that God isn't interested in our routine, ritualized platitudes we recite every week if they aren't real. He'd rather we came to Him in a wrestling stance, as long as we're coming to Him actually wanting Him and not just out of habit or duty.

We all have our ups and downs in our faithwalk. Not every day is a mountaintop experience. But I want to encourage you, dear reader, if you are in this place -- where you're just going through the motions and you know you have been for a very long time, maybe even for your entire walk with Christ -- that you decide that 2015 will be the year that you either poop or get off the pot. That you will dig deep and wide into scripture, every day. That you will pray with purpose and desperation, many times a day. That you will ask questions of everyone you know who might have answers. That you will go to the places where God is expected to be and expect to find Him there. That you will intentionally and purposefully do everything you know to do to meet God . . . to meet God . . . to actually MEET GOD . . .  and finally find out if this Christianity stuff is for real or not.

So that next year, you can light the Joy candle with genuine joy, like I did this year. (Twice.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Remembering Mom

As I sit here typing on my laptop in our "music room" (also known as my school work room), I can look to my left and see an old manger scene sitting on top of the harpsichord in the corner.

I say "manger scene" and not the more common "nativity" because "manger scene" is what my mother called it, and this one was hers. When I was young, it used to sit under our Christmas tree. I've kept that tradition up by putting a nativity scene under our Christmas tree every year -- but not this one. Our tree nativity is a cheaper one that won't make me cry if the dog happens to get a hold of a shepherd and chew him up. This manger scene is sitting up high and out of danger.

It's an old set. The paint is chipping off of most of the pieces in spots and has been for a long time. My mother commented one year when I was home for the holidays that she was thinking about just spray-painting all the characters gold or something. I'm so glad I talked her out of that idea. I don't care that the paint is chipped. It needs to look like this.

Just outside the door to this room, I can lean out and see our huge metal clock on the wall which our eldest has decorated with little felt elves climbing all over it. My mom made those elves.

There's also a small tree halfway up the stairs that is decorated with eight or nine sets of different felt ornaments -- ornaments my mother made. A different set every year for most of my growing up years at home.

And on the window by the kitchen table, there are several crocheted snowflakes hanging. I'm pretty sure my mom made those, too.

I get a bit huffy about Christmas most years. At least once a season, I'm overwhelmed by the thing that our culture has turned Christmas into . . . which has NOTHING to do with Jesus coming to earth. I get annoyed that other people's expectations get in the way of my celebrating the Savior's birth in a way that's meaningful to me. (And yes, I know that's my problem and not theirs.)

My point is, I'm very aware of the fact that Christmas (contrary to popular belief) really is NOT about family and kids. We made it a holiday about family and kids . . . and there's nothing wrong with a holiday about family and kids . . . as long as family and kids don't start taking the place of the actual center of the holiday.

And for far too many of us -- even us churchy super-Christian folks who take offense at people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and at people writing "Xmas" because "you're crossing out Christ!"-- far too many of us have done just that. We do self-righteous lip-service to Christ and put family in the throne of our hearts every December.

Nevertheless . . . I enjoy getting these Christmas decorations out every year and remembering my mother. And baking caramel corn and remembering my mother. I had a great mother. It's good to remember her. Because she remembered Christ.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Meditations On an Obscure Verse

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

You don't recognize that Christmas carol? That doesn't surprise me. This is the third verse of "Joy to the World." Unless you've sung the song from a hymnal every Christmas for three or more decades, you may not be familiar with this verse.

We sang this song last Sunday in church, and when we got to this verse, for some reason, I didn't gloss over it as I have in other years. I actually tried to figure out what the heck this is talking about.

No more let sins and sorrows grow . . .

First of all, I had to figure out who the songwriter was talking to here. Is he asking God to do this? Or telling us, the listener to do it? Seeing how two lines later, he speaks of God in the third person ("he"), I'm assuming he's not speaking to God in the second person here; I'm assuming he's speaking to us. YOU stop letting sin and sorrows grow.

Where do sins and sorrows grow? He could be talking about them growing in the world around us -- about dealing with the effects of the fall in our world. But as I wrote earlier, I think we are much too focused on sin in others; we need to focus more on the sin in ourselves. That's where sins and sorrows grow: in our own hearts.

And the songwriter is telling us that we can stop those sins and sorrows from growing. It is within our power. (At least it is now that Christ has come to liberate us from our bondage to those sins and sorrows.)

Nor thorns infest the ground? That seems to be a reference to the curse after the fall (the curse also mentioned in the last line of this verse). "Cursed is the ground because of you . . . it will produce thorns and thistles because of you . . ."  Because you've chosen to reject the authority of God, because you chose to become your own god, God's blessing no longer falls on the work of your hands. Your labors will increase and often be fruitless.

And again -- if I'm correct that the songwriter is speaking to us here -- he is saying that we can stop this now. Thorns don't have to infest our ground. Our strivings in life don't have to be meaningless and fruitless anymore.

Why? How?

He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

Wherever the curse is found, wherever its effects are seen -- which is over the whole earth -- the blessings of God can now flow. That blessing that we removed from us after the fall is now back. And why is it back?

Because he -- JESUS -- came to make that happen.

He came to fix what we screwed up at the fall. From the minute he was conceived as a little zygote in Mary's womb, his entire purpose for being in human form was the fixing of that screw-up.

I think the reason this verse jumped out at me this year was because I am quite conscious of the fact that I am allowing certain sins and sorrows to grow in my heart. I know they're wrong. I've weeded them out in the past. But right now, for whatever inexcusable reason, I'm permitting them to be there. And the image of them as a plant is important. Because it reminds me that the weeds of sin and sorrow in my life that I don't pull up are not innocuous. They "take root". They multiply and spread. Like the weeds in my garden and yard, if you don't pull them when they are tiny, those roots grow deep and wide, and their removal now requires major disruption of the lovely ground around them.

But they can be pulled. They are not sovereign in the garden of my heart. All because Jesus came. And His blessings now flow.

And heaven and nature sing!!!!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thinking Literarily

As an English teacher and as a homeschooler, I have many times over the years had to address the question of why we require kids to study literature. Students who hated to read asked it. Moms teaching kids who hated to read asked it. Moms who themselves hated to read asked it. And it is a legitimate question.

Legitimate enough that you would think that at some point, I would have sat down to craft a thorough and articulate response to give every time I was asked. But I never did. I just said whatever came to mind at the time, which sometimes satisfied the inquirer and sometimes didn't. I think I realize now why I was never able to give a complete answer to the question before: because I never really put God in the picture before. Now that I'm teaching at a Christian school, God is always in the picture, and the reasons are more obvious.

When I was discussing the plot chart with my kiddos early in the semester, I pointed out to them that this isn't something people made up. It's not like some brilliant ancient man sat down and decided this was the best way to craft a good story. No, the "plot chart" was God's idea. The history of mankind -- the story of the Bible -- goes according to the traditional plot chart. Exposition in the Garden of Eden . . . conflict begins with the fall . . . rising action throughout the course of history as God works to re-establish relationship with mankind . . . climax at the cross . . . falling action in the two thousand years since . . . resolution at the end.

All of our experience comes to us as story. When man creates stories, he is only copying a pattern that God already established. We see the world through the lens of narrative because we are made in God's image.

The same is true of every literary element and device. Take symbolism. No human being came up with this brilliant idea of having one object represent something else. Really, the concept of speaking figuratively at all is an amazing one. It's remarkable that the human mind is able to conceive of things this way -- to see things in layers, to look at the physical and "see" the abstract. We all do it so easily that we cease to be amazed at the process.

And yet, again, this was God's idea. The Bible just explodes with symbolism, analogy, and figurative language. Jesus spoke over and over again in parables. And he used metaphor constantly to describe himself ("I am the Door . . . I am the Good Shepherd . . . I am the Bread of Life . . .").

None of this is man's invention. We can do this because we are image-bearers. Teaching our students to think "literarily" is bringing out the spark of God in them.

Yes, there is value in the actual stories we read -- truth that my students need to understand and grapple with, or sometimes "truth" to recognize as false and argue against. But teaching literature is not just about the books. Although I'd love for my kiddos to catch the bug and enjoy reading great books for the rest of their lives, it doesn't matter if they do or not. They will watch TV. They will go to movies. They will hear people talk about their lives. They will live their own lives. They will constantly be interacting with narrative . . . with themes and irony . . . with conflicts and resolutions . . . with characters, presented directly or indirectly . . . with metaphor and meter and rhythm and rhyme . . .

"Literature" is not imposed upon us from with-out; it is the eyeglasses through which humanity sees its world. I teach literature so my students can see their world clearly and accurately . . . and recognize the beauty of the Creator in it all.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Thoughts While Taking Communion Yesterday

This is the body of Christ, broken for you.

Broken for me. Because I'm a sinner, and that's what it took to get me back into a right relationship with God.

And Lord KNOWS, I'm a sinner. These people who go around thinking, "I'm not so sinful -- my good outweighs my bad, so I'm safe on judgment day" . . . seriously? Have they read the Ten Commandments? Do they understand the standards here? Complete submission to God is a formidable challenge, and nothing less than complete submission counts.

I sin all the time. I sin sins that I know are sins even while I'm sinning them. I wake up saying I'm not going to do this, and I still do it. I hate what I do, and I do it anyway. Over and over. There are certain sins that I've stopped doing over the years, but I'm well aware that it wasn't me and my self-control that ended that behavior. It was an act of God. Praise Him.

The body of Christ, broken for me, because I can't take care of this myself. Thank you, Jesus.

And now, at Christmas, I'm happy to be reminded that your whole reason for coming to earth was for this body-breaking moment. Yes, it is good to hear your preaching . . . but most people didn't really listen and don't really listen. Yes, it was beneficial to see your example of righteous living . . . but most people weren't and aren't paying attention. All that was good, but if those were your sole purposes for coming to us, your mission was not very successful. But that wasn't your mission. Your mission was not to instruct my mind, or to inspire my spirit, but to save my soul.

PRAISE YOU. And thank you!

This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.

Shed to establish a new covenant. We've been learning about that in BSF. A covenant -- a commitment with a promise -- but stronger than those words imply.

An unconditional covenant . . . there's nothing I have to do (or can do) to earn the benefits of this covenant, except receive it. Thank you, Lord.

A one-sided covenant . . . God did all the promising. We just enjoy the things promised. Praise you, Jesus!

But I can't receive it unless I believe. Just like I can't "receive" my husband's love unless I believe that he really loves me. As long as I doubt his love, I have my guard up. I don't get to experience the benefits of his love for me without making myself vulnerable. I have to believe, and believe strongly enough to risk getting burned if I'm wrong. "There is no fear in love," James tells us.

And there is no unbelief in the covenant. Only faith. "The righteous shall live by faith." I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.

The blood of Christ, shed for me. To make a covenant with me before I even knew Him.

Thank you, Jesus.

Do this in remembrance of me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Not-Yet-Answered Prayer

I've been convicted in the last year or two about intercessory prayer. For those of you not fluent in Churchese, that's a fancy word for praying for other people -- as opposed to praying for your own needs, praying to confess sin, praying to simply worship, etc.

There are eight or ten people that God has specifically laid on my heart that I've been praying for mightily for the last couple years. All different needs . . . all needs that require the hand of God. And I'm finding that this intercessory prayer thing is not easy. I remember a particular prayer warrior friend many years ago; whenever I asked her to pray for me about something (which happened often at that difficult time of my life), she would just smile radiantly and say, "Just another reason to spend time with my Father!" Her joy in this process was obvious.

This is not me, sorry to say. When I feel burdened to pray for someone, it is truly a burden and I don't enjoy the feeling. Worse, I'm impatient in the process. As I said, I've been seriously praying for the people on my list for a couple years, and I'm already discouraged at the "results." Only one request crossed off the list as answered: a friend found a job recently, but even that was after many months of unemployment. For most of my requests, I've seen little or no action of any kind. A couple situations have even seemed to get worse.

I've found myself asking God lately for just a little, quick answer. Just one little thing. Just a small sign to let me know that he's listening and working so I have the encouragement to persevere.

Remember the golden calf story from Exodus that I pontificated about all week last week? Interesting thing about that. This incident happened right after God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Right after the ten miraculous plagues, including the angel of death. Right after the parting of the Red Sea. Right after God started showering the people with manna to feed them every morning (in fact, they were still eating manna during this time). Right after God met with Moses to establish a covenant with the people, a covenant they enthusiastically agreed to. Right after Moses and seventy elders literally met with God, experienced his physical presence, at the top of the mountain.

After all these miracles and wonders, all it took was forty days of Moses being away from the camp and the people not knowing when he was coming back . . . a mere month and a half, and they forgot it all. "Come, make us gods who will go before us," they said to Aaron. And Aaron -- who was one of those seventy elders who had just stood in God's physical presence -- obliged them.

How pathetic. Not the Israelites. Humanity, I mean.

This story was a good reminder to me right now. Miracles and wonders do not lead to belief. Scores of people saw Jesus' miracles and still shouted for his crucifixion. As much as I think just one little quick answer would increase my faith, it probably wouldn't. I would soon forget it; I would quickly be back to, "What have you done for me lately?"

God knows better than I do when a little quick answer will truly help me. I can wait. These prayers are not about me anyway.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Does God Change His Mind?

That Exodus passage in BSF last week, with the killing of the three thousand Hebrew rebels – there was something else in that passage that troubled me.
Before Moses actually descends the mountain and sees the golden calf and the revelry going on, God tells him what's happening. And God makes him an offer: I'll annihilate this stiff-necked people and start over with you. I'll make YOU a great nation. Whaddya say?
Now, Moses turns Him down and instead pleads for the people (later, he even offers himself to be destroyed in their place). And our lesson presented this as a test of Moses' spiritual leadership. Again, I'll have to study on that. Again, I assume that interpretation comes from principles found elsewhere in scripture because that take on the event is not explicit there in Exodus.
Two troubling things here: I was disturbed by the idea that God was saying he was willing to break his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the promise that Israel would be great and would live in the Promised Land and be His people. God doesn't break promises. Right?
Maybe that's part of why we were being taught that this was simply a test of Moses. Maybe the assumption is that any reader of the book should KNOW that God would not – cannot – do such a thing and so you aren't to read it that way. Hmmm.
Then the scripture says that after Moses spoke on the people's behalf, “the Lord relented.” He gave in. He changed his mind.
THAT's the part that I struggle with most.
If God had in mind one action and then shifted to a different action, one of those actions wasn't “his perfect will”, yes? But there is ample evidence in the Bible that the prayers of His people have an effect on God – that he may do something different based on those prayers. I'm never exactly sure how that can be.
Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of understanding of this idea. I once read (or heard – don't remember which) an analogy about a ship crossing the Atlantic. The captain of that ship is in full control of where the ship is going. The end destination is determined. But the passengers have a lot of leeway about where they go and what they do while on that ship headed toward their destination.
That hints at the truth, but doesn't quite sum it up. I don't think we can ever completely sum it up in our human understanding. This is one of those great mysteries that we may never quite understand about God.
But if, again, we go back to the fact that God's primary purpose is re-establishing relationship with us, I can, again, get a glimpse of some understanding. Somehow, some way, God in His infinite power and wisdom has worked it out that my prayers – my reaching out to Him to acknowledge Him as who He is and ask for Him to act on His justice and mercy and wisdom in my world – MY PRAYERS can make things happen. He worked it out so the action He wants me to take to build that relationship also works to accomplish His will in the world.