Monday, August 28, 2017

must decrease

The bride belongs to the bridegroom.  The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice.  That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must increase and I must decrease. ~John 3:29-30


There is just no way around it.  As much as I might like to increase, life with God is about me decreasing.  Just ask John the Baptist, he had it all in perspective.  Although I'm sure it was hard, even for him, to keep it that way.  The rule of the Kingdom is simple: I must decrease.  It is not an option, it is a must.  Otherwise I will just be in his way. 

My desire for attention must decrease, that I might cast all the attention on him.  My desire to be great must decrease, that I might make him great.  My desire for affirmation and acclaim must decrease, that he might be affirmed and lifted up above all.  My desire to have impact must decrease, that he might actually have eternal impact.  He is the one who is essential here, not me.  

You see, the bride does not belong to me (any more than she belonged to John), she belongs to Jesus. He is her groom.  He is her lover.  Her desire must be for Him, not for me.  I am just the one waiting and watching and listening for him to come, so that I might help join their hands in an eternal embrace of love.  And then I must step aside.

Forgive me, O God, when I get this backwards.  Help me to work to make you great, not myself.  Teach me what it means that I must decrease, for it is so against my nature.  Amen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

reorientation

I waited patiently on the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth; a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.  Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust. . ." (Psalm 40:1-4)


It is a pattern woven into the story of faith: order, disorder, reorder; birth, death, rebirth; orientation, disorientation, reorientation.  It happens over and over and over again.  It makes me wonder, when seasons of chaos or disorder come, how in the world we can possibly be surprised.  But we are.  The life of faith is seasonal, but there is a reliable pattern to it all.  After all, he has made everything beautiful in its own time. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)  And that truth, and this pattern, should help us to be able to navigate the seasons of chaos whenever they come.

At the core of all chaos lies the question, "Can God really be trusted?"  What do I really believe about him?  Is he always at work (the way Jesus claims in John 5:17) and is his heart for me good?  If so, then even in the midst of the anxiety and uncertainty of disorder and chaos, I can rely on the fact that he us ultimately going to bring about something new and beautiful, both within and around me, that could come about in no other way.  So even when I find myself at the bottom of the slimy pit (which is often), wallowing in the mud and mire, I can rest assured that ultimately he will come.  He will come, he will lift me up, he will set my feet on a rock, and he will put a new and beautiful song in my mouth.  Therefore, I can actually wait patiently on him.  That is the hope that life with God offers.  That is the hope of this pattern of life and faith: disorder is always followed by reorder, death by rebirth, disorientation by reorientation.  Something new and beautiful is being born that I cannot yet see.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

a new dance

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
   even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”

    even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

    (Psalm 139:7-12)


There is nowhere that God is not.  Therefore, when we do not have a sense of his presence, we cannot just assume that he is absent.  Actually, quite the opposite is true.  For even when we cannot perceive him, he is still there--in the heavens, in the depths, on the far side of the sea, and even in the deepest darkness.  We just need to truly believe that.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: "What is decisive is not the mystic experience of our being close to him; decisive is not our 'feeling' but our 'certainty' of his being close to us--although even his presence is veiled and beyond the scope of our emotion.  Decisive is not our emotion but our 'conviction.'"  God is always present, but sometimes we simply cannot perceive him.  Our perception, however, is not reality.

Most of the time when we go through periods where we cannot sense God's presence, it is because God is inviting us to experience him in a brand new way.  The season of disorientation (in this case, the absence of God's perceived presence) has as it's goal a reorientation, a new way of being and seeing.  Unfortunately, in times such as these we usually try to cling to some old and familiar way of relating to God rather than opening ourselves up to the new and the unknown.  The problem is that this old way of relating--this old orientation--is dead and gone, and a new one must be arrived at. 

It is like God is inviting us to learn to dance with him in a new and different way, but we keep reverting back to our old and familiar ways rather than being open and willing to learn a new dance.  This often leads to frustration, and even feelings of abandonment.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  God has not abandoned us.  In fact, he is actually trying to lead us into new levels of intimacy with him that we have only dreamt about.  But in order to do this, we must learn to let go of the old.  We must be willing to trust in him and to follow his lead the best way we know how.

Monday, August 21, 2017

inherit

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus, "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
     "What is written in the Law?" He replied, "How do you read it?"
     He Answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."
     "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied.  "Do this and you will live." (Luke 10:25-28)


Is it just me, or does it sound a bit ridiculous to ask what you need to do in order to inherit something--be it eternal life or anything else?  The whole idea of inheriting, as I understand it, involves who you are rather than what you do.  You inherit something because it is given to you, based on who you are.  A child inherits what is left to him by his parents, simply because he is their child.  So the question itself seems a bit misguided.  Eternal life is something we are given, not something we earn or achieve.  And it is given because we are children of God.  The only doing involved comes from the fact that those who are really God's children will resemble their Father.  Thus, they act like what they already are--his very own.  God's children, because God is love, will love.  They will love him, and therefore love others.  It is simply who they are.  Now obviously loving God and others involves a lot of doing, but the doing is something that flows out of their being.  We cannot truly love people with the love of God if it is not part of who we are.  That's where the expert in the law was missing the boat.  He was too in love with himself, his position, and his own observations, to be genuinely in love with God, and it showed.  Once we are captured by the love of God--seized by the power of his great affection--everything else will flow out of that.  It is really not all that complicated.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

voices

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:2-3)


I am full of voices.  So full in fact that it is often hard to discern one voice from another.  The voices of my anxieties, insecurities, and fears are loud and demand constant attention.  And to be honest, when I listen to them they completely drain and deplete my soul.
    
God’s voice, on the other hand, is quiet and soft and non-intrusive.  It, by design, can only be heard when my soul is still and silent and at rest.  Which can make hearing it a bit of a challenge.  But when I am finally at a place, and in a space, where I can come to stillness and hear his voice, it has the direct opposite effect on my soul.  God’s voice produces life within me, and peace.  It nourishes and nurtures, it guides and directs, it creates joy and delight.
    
My challenge, then, is to listen, listen to him and not allow the more obvious voices to overwhelm and control me.  My job is to give ear, come to him, and hear.  It is a process that will not just happen on its own.  It will not just fall on my head.  It means that I must be intentional.  I must make time and space to quiet all of the voices that negate life, and to listen the still, soft voice of God that nourishes and creates it.  The only question is: “How will I do that today?”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

the slimy pit

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3)



This life is absolutely full of slimy pits.  And it seems like I fall into the same ones over and over again.  I will be going along, living my life, minding my own business, and then suddenly something happens—a critical remark, a biting comment, a feeling of inadequacy, a disappointment, a failure, an opinion that is not valued or listened to, fear, anxiety, Insecurity, you name it—and there I am, at the bottom of the pit, stuck in the mud and mire once again.  It happens so fast at times that it can make your head spin. 

That’s when the wallowing begins.  The inner dialogue turns toward attack, defense, or self-contempt, and deeper and deeper into the mud and mire I go.  When am I ever going to learn where these pits are and how to avoid them?  And when am I ever going to learn that once I have fallen into one of them, I cannot get myself out if it?  I must turn to God, the God who turns to me.  I must allow the words of this ancient prayer to become my own.  Only God can lift me out.  Only God can set me on a rock.  Only God can give me a firm place to stand.  Only God can put a new song in my mouth.  Only he can replace those old, dysfunctional ways of being and seeing with new and beautiful ones.  Only he can give me hope that one day the slimy pit will not be my constant reality.  May that day be today!  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

Monday, August 7, 2017

mess

"Confirm me, Lord, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and give me grace to be strong inwardly in soul and to cast out from it all unprofitable business of the world and of the flesh, that it may not be led by unstable desires of earthly things. . . .
     Therefore, O Lord, give me true heavenly wisdom, that I may learn to seek you and to find you, and above all things to love you, and to understand and know all other things as they are, after the direction of your wisdom, and not otherwise." ~Thomas à Kempis


Oh to have the grace to be strong inwardly in my soul, and to be led not by the unstable desires of my flesh; what a joy that would be.  Instead, it is my constant battle.  In fact, the older I get, the more I realize what a mess I really am.  In my younger days I had a much higher opinion of myself.  Funny how time has a tendency to reveal the truth about things.  With age comes wisdom (not that I have much of that, wisdom I mean).  Wisdom to see things as they are, not through the world's eyes but through God's.  In my thirties, I had a hard time truly believing the words of the ancient prayer: "Apart from you I have no good thing." (Psalm 16:2).  I was full of myself. I thought I had a lot to offer this poor old world.  But sitting in my place of prayer this morning, at 57, I have no trouble believing the words of Psalm 16:2 at all.  Apart from God I am a total and complete mess.  But I think that realization is a really good thing.  It is that realization that causes me to recognize my great need for God.  It is that realization that leads me to seek him. And seeking him is what this life is all about.  Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

grumbling

And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” (Exodus 16:8)


Hello, my name is Jim and I am a grumbler.  It is sad to admit, but it is true.  I grumble a lot.  I murmur under my breath (and even out loud at times) and complain in my heart pretty regularly about what is going on with the people and the circumstances around me.  It is not a pretty sight and is definitely not something I am proud of.  Yet, when I read this passage in Exodus 16 my disgust with the incessant nature of my complaint and criticism was taken to a whole different level.  For this scripture reveals the fact that when I grumble, ultimately my grumbling is not against those around me, but against God.

What exactly is grumbling anyway, and where does it come from?  The definition of the word grumble is to murmur or mutter in discontent; to complain sullenly.  The Hebrew word is luwn, which means to be obstinate.  It conveys the idea of an attitude of complaint that one dwells and persists (or even abides) in.  Grumbling, therefore, is not just an isolated incident, it is a spirit and an attitude that cause a certain way of being.  It is one part pride and one part discontent, with a heavy dose of selfishness sprinkled in.  Grumbling occurs at the odd intersection of arrogance and insecurity.  It criticizes and tears down in an effort to convince ourselves that if we were in charge things would be much different, much better.  At its core, grumbling involves a heart of distrust.  Grumbling is a subtle, and not so subtle, way of saying to God, "I don't trust you, I trust me"  Therefore, it is toxic to the soul.  Grumbling dries up the life of the Spirit within us, producing dark sadness, gloom, grumpiness, and discontent in our souls; the total opposite of the way God created us to live.  And unfortunately it is a difficult addiction to break.

That is why we must turn to God regularly in prayer (see Psalm 32), acknowledge the state of our hearts, admit the ways we have fallen short of his ideal, and ask him to forgive us and restore a right spirit within us.  Only God can detox our souls from the spirit of grumbling that has taken up residence deep within us.  Only God can uproot this spirit of complaint and criticism and discontent, and fill us with the Spirit of joy and gladness and gratitude instead.  Then we, like King David, can pray, "Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!" (Psalm 32:11)  For the Lord our God has been so very good to us.   

Lord, forgive me for my grumbling spirit.  I acknowledge it to you, confess it, and ask for your forgiveness and your cleansing.  I grumble a lot and I am sorry for that.  Please forgive me.  Replace my grumbling with your Spirit of joy and gladness and gratitude.  Amen.