Quiet Places

Gentle Reader,

…He often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.

– Luke 5:16 (CSB)

I have a complicated relationship with food. Some of it, I’m not supposed to eat, but I eat it anyway, just not all the time. Some of it makes me sick, a list that grows longer each year. Some of it is deeply disappointing, like carrots, which I love but didn’t improve my eyesight even though I ate them religiously as a child. (Grin to my parents). Some of it is just disgusting; cilantro, which takes like soap, and meatloaf top of this category. (I will not eat meatloaf, ever, even if it is your great-grandmother’s amazing recipe).

At this point my diet is fairly limited. Lots of vegetables, lots of fruit, some grains. Dessert more often than I care to admit, but I do try to exercise some self-control over my raging sweet tooth. While this all really does help me in the fight against liver disease, and has led to amazing cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, there is a boredom factor. A woman can only eat so many salads before she wants to throw something.

Thinking about this in light of today being Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season.

Believers are not supposed to draw attention to ourselves when we choose to fast (see Matthew 6:16-18), but this day naturally brings about the discussion of what to give up for Lent. (Note: Observing Lent is not required, and is a matter of personal conviction). Some people choose to give up sugar. Some coffee (God bless them). Others let go of social media or television. There are a lot of options and no one choice is better than the other. Fasting isn’t about the thing being given up, but rather about using energy and time to refocus on the Lord.

Fasting from food isn’t the best option for me. It’s not totally out of the ballpark; I could skip a meal and probably be fine. In fact, I have days when the train wreck that is my internal organs decides to get messier and I simply can’t eat. In the past, I’ve given up sugar – real talk, not completely successfully – and learned a lot about how I turn to food for comfort when I should be turning to Jesus. But overall, if I don’t want to end up passing out or in the hospital, I have to stick to a pretty regimented system. God knows that.

God also knows that I’ve been real lax in my time with Him lately.

It’s odd, because I genuinely love to study the Bible. Once I’m in there, rustling the pages between the battered faux leather cover, I’ll stay there for hours. One verse leads to another leads to another and then I’m looking up obscure Greek words. It’s fantastic. I love the way the story of redemption spans centuries, continents and peoples. I am deeply, eternally grateful that God took the time to speak to us through the different authors.

But…I’m also human. And it doesn’t take a lot to throw me off track.

I’m a week behind in my “read through the Bible in a year chronologically because you’re a big nerd” plan. A month behind in my study of Isaiah. At first I was exhausted after helping at winter retreat. Then I got the flu. Then some other stuff happened. Instead of carving out time with the King of Kings, from Whom comes my strength, I just…kind of floated along.

Then I wonder why I’ve felt crabby the last few days.

This year, Lent is less about what I’m giving up and more about to what I am returning. Jesus, our model in all things, needed time away. He needed to disconnect from the noise and the crowds. He needed to hear the heart of His Father. So, too, myself.

I don’t need to binge watch that show.

I don’t need to mindlessly scroll through social media.

I don’t need to ignore my alarm in the morning and then panic because I slept late.

I need God. Need time spent at His feet, listening to His voice. Need to allow Him to decide how I spend the hours. Need to allow myself to move away from the noise and bustle. Need to remember that He is in charge, no me. Need to remember that He has the wisdom, not me.

Maybe you don’t observe Lent. That’s fine. But if I were a betting woman, I’d say there’s a good chance that you, like me, need to set down your smartphone and pick up your Bible. And if that’s not you, if you’re engaged in good habits and keeping Jesus at the center, then please find someone who needs your gentle encouragement.

Because as we move toward Easter, we remember that Jesus walked alone so that we don’t have to.

We walk, together, with Him.

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How Can I Know That He Really Loves Me?

Look to the Cross

Gentle Reader,

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Lots of candy, glitter and general, commercialized cheesiness. That’s what I’m supposed to think about it, anyway. I’ve always liked the holiday. My parents used to leave my brother and I treats on the kitchen table, waiting for us to discover at breakfast, from the time we were little all the way through high school. As an adult, Chris and I have celebrated in a variety of ways, all of which usually end up with us at some thrift store or another, searching for buried treasures.

Tomorrow is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not specifically mentioned in the Bible; however, from Biblical times, sprinkling oneself with ashes has been a mark of sorrow for sin. Several times the Bible mentions people repenting in dust and ashes; for example: Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Job (Job 42:6), the inhabitants of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-6), and Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4). Repentance in dust and ashes often was accompanied with fasting during Bible times. …

Jesus is calling His followers to avoid making a show when fasting, but rather to help those in need. He is calling Christians to think externally in avenues of service, instead of only thinking internally toward themselves. The point of that matter is this: Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not merely external appearances or show. As you think about your life…where is your heart? Are you others-focused or self-focused? Do you desire to have true repentance and fasting as mentioned in Psalms 51 (especially verses 10-13, 17), or are your actions merely based on outward tradition?

What is Ash Wednesday? (emphasis mine)

I didn’t grow up observing Lent and the season isn’t heavily emphasized in my denomination, though sermons in the weeks leading up to Easter usually focus on reflection and repentance. In past years I have experimented with different forms of fasting; sometimes I’ve given up social media, other times I’ve abstained from food completely on Good Friday. There are not hard and fast rules regarding the season; I believe that fasting, whatever it looks like, is deeply personal and must be guided by the Holy Spirit. One thing I have learned, though: When I give something up in order to focus on God, I have to actually, you know, focus on God.

Basically, fill in the gap left by setting aside the smartphone with Scripture reading. Or prayer. Or silence. Or worship music. Anything that trains me to put my eyes on Him.

This year I am thinking about the point bolded in the quote above: Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not merely external appearances or show.

All the fasting, contemplation and ritual in the world mean nothing if not done with sincerity. If the focus is just on the thing, rather than the Lord, it’s a waste.

Lent is about love. The great love of God that necessitated Incarnation, suffering and the Cross. Whatever we do (or don’t do) in the coming weeks should be out of a desire to thank Him for that love. To see ourselves as the weak creatures we are, the people totally incapable of saving ourselves. To gaze up into the sky, knowing that the Throne is just beyond our sight. To bow in humility, accepting that we can never do anything to earn His favor. It simply is, the greatest of gifts.

Long have I struggled with the concept of God’s love. I can explain it. I can define the terms for you. I can talk about the differences between agape, philos and eros. Intellectually speaking, I “get” it.

Feeling that love, sensing it in my soul, is another story.

We cannot allow our emotions to rule our lives. We have to operate out of what we know to be true. I know this. I preach this. Feelings aren’t bad, though. They are God-given. Jesus cares about what’s going in our hearts. A relationship with Him is about more than mental assent.

Honestly, that freaks me out.

I don’t like vulnerability. This may come as a surprise to you, given the things that I share on this blog, but I hit “publish” on the intimate posts only because I know that there are others out there who battle the same things I do and I can’t be the Barnabas that I want to be if I’m not doing the thing along with everyone else. If I had it my way, if I operated entirely out of my natural inclinations, only the sarcastic, intense, intellectual side of my personality would bleed through onto the screen.

So for me to know that Jesus has the desire to get in there and sort out all the feels in my heart so I can really, freely live out the things I know to be true…yikes.

He’s God, though. You can only fight Him for so long.

This Lenten season, I invite you to ask God one scary question (I’m asking, too): How can I know that You really love me? Then sit back and read. Open your Bible and watch Him in the Garden, agonizing, terrified of the pain and separation to come. Sit in front of the Cross, taking in the full horror of the Savior’s naked body, drowning in blood. Stand next to the women who could not bear to leave Him behind. Weep with Peter. Bow your head in the silence of locked rooms, hope snuffed out like the last bit of candle. Allow the weight of mourning and disappointment to press upon your shoulders.

Contemplate the great sacrifice this Perfect Man, the only Perfect Man, made – because of you. Because of me. Because He doesn’t want to let us go.

Lord God, You know how we struggle to feel loved. You know how easily we believe that You are just like we are, fickle and reckless in Your affection. You know how terrified we are that one day we will wake up and find that You don’t love us at all. Help us, Jesus, to come to the Cross in a fresh way this season. Help us to see with new eyes. Pierce our souls with the grace, the mercy, the true and lasting love that is ours by right of submission to You. Enable us to both feel and to know Your love that we may live confidently in this world, secure in the assurance that we are Yours. Thank you, dear Lord, for the Incarnation and the Cross. Thank You for the Resurrection. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Photo Credit: Diana Simumpande
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Unlcean

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Gentle Reader,

For 12 years she had suffered from continual bleeding. She spent all she had on doctors, but got no relief.

She was unclean.

Luke 8:42b-48 records the story of this woman who was healed, through her faith, by touching the edge of His cloak. I have always loved this story. The woman’s gumption is admirable and Jesus’ healing of anyone is a cause for joy. Until today, however, I did not consider how her uncleanness affected Him:

This woman’s sickness was reckoned as if she had a menstrual period all month long; it made her ceremonially unclean under the Law (Lev. 15:19-33) – a social problem on top of the physical one. . .If she touched anyone or anyone’s clothes, she rendered that person ceremonially unclean for the rest of the day. She therefore should not have even been in that heavy crowd. Many teachers avoided touching women altogether, lest they become accidentally contaminated. Thus this woman could not touch or be touched, was probably now divorced or had never married and was marginal to the rest of Jewish society. – Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 211-212.

When Jesus calls this woman forward, then, He is publicly identifying Himself with her uncleanness. Instead of rebuking her, He commends her for her faith. As she has fallen at His feet, He may well have helped her to stand, though this is not mentioned. He tells her to go in peace.

This brings to life a whole new dimension of grace. When I sin, which is frequently, or fail to speak the truth when I should, my Savior willingly takes that uncleanness on to Himself when I reach out for healing.

The world says, “She is ___________.”

God says, “She is MINE.”

My journey to faith. (15)

 This post also appeared on the Far East Broadcasting Company Gospel Blog on March 20, 2014.

Remember

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Gentle Reader,

I finished reading the book of Leviticus today.

Believe it or not, Leviticus does not merit rank on my list of Frustrating Things to Read. (Anything by Charles Dickens and our local newspaper make up most of that list). Rather, I come away impressed. What seems, on the surface, to be a long list of impossibly detailed rules and regulations is truly a call to remember. The Lord reveals His desire to live in good, close relationship to His people by requiring them to remember their sins, to remember how He set them free from slavery and to remember how He provides for them.

This desire is best summed up in 17:7 –

They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations. (NKJV)

There was a before, when the people didn’t know the Lord or how He wanted them to live. There was an after, when their sacrifices, prayers and rituals reminded them of the pain of the past, the working of freedom in the present and the hope of the future. There were consequences for forgetting (clearly marked out in Ch. 26, all of which was carried out during the Exile written about in Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezra, Haggai and several Psalms).

The Sabbath, a day of complete rest. The celebration of Passover and the days of unleavened bread. The Feast of Firstfruits, Harvest, Trumpets and Tabernacles. The Day of Atonement. The Sabbath of the Seventh Year. The Year of Jubliee. All of these celebrations served as reminders that the people of Israel were set apart. They had been chosen by God and were to rely fully upon Him. They were to remember and celebrate His goodness and provision.

The calendar was focused on the holy.

Lent begins this week, on Ash Wednesday. Scripture does not mandate the observance of this season, with its customary personal sacrifices and fasting, but I see no harm in a time marked for the purpose of holy remembrance. Let us not rush into Holy Week next month with our nerves frayed by cares and our eyes focused on the clock. Let us make a conscious choice to set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2). Whatever you choose to give up during these next weeks, I encourage you to set aside specific time each day to examine the sate of your life before and after Christ. Remember where you where, thank Him for where you are and look forward to His glorious coming.

Oh, give thanks to the Lord!
Call upon His name;
Make known His deeds among the peoples!
Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him;
Talk of all His wondrous works!
Glory in His holy name;
Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the Lord!
Seek the Lord and His strength;
Seek His face evermore!
Remember His marvelous works which He has done,
His wonders, and the judgments of His mouth.- 1 Chronicles 16:8-12 (NKJV)

My journey to faith. (15)