New Perspectives on Old Hates

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Gentle Reader,

January.

How I hate this month.

Two seasons have depressed me ever since I was a child: the long, intense days of high summer and the first weeks after Christmas. In this part of the world, January is always gray, mushy and slow. When I was in school, there was always the stress of the semester’s final exams. As an adult, tax documents start trickling in, reminding me just how much I still owe on my student loans. (Seriously. Do they even count the payments I send in every month)? Usually I can’t wait to flip the calendar page.

Rolling into 2018, I resolved to attempt to see these drab days from a new perspective. I asked God to grant me the eyes to see all the little beauties, the delicate blessings, scattered throughout the hours. Instead of staring at the disgusting, muddy slush that lines the street in front of my house, I gaze at the deep teal afghan draped across the back of the couch, a gift from my husband. Instead of wishing time would move faster and I could start playing in the dirt, I remember that the soil needs rest in order to produce the flowers and food I love. Instead of allowing cold temperatures to lure me into total hibernation, I keep struggling to get up at a stupid hour to exercise. (Some mornings are more successful than others).

Many look at January as a magical time, filled with the wonder and possibility of moments yet lived.

Me? I’m just working at not being a complete curmudgeon.

The other day, my eyes fell upon these words:

Let your eyes look forward; fix your gaze straight ahead.

– Proverbs 4:25 (CSB)

As if I was being introduced to the concept of looking forward for the first time, my mind whirled. I fired up my new (and very exciting!) Logos software (a free download!) and plugged in the verse reference. Jamison, Fausset and Brown comment that this chunk of a larger proverb (vs. 20-27 are to be taken together) directs the reader to:

…pursue a sincere and direct purpose, avoiding temptations.

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (via Logos; volumes available online here)

John Wesley adds:

Direct all thine actions to a right end, and keep thy mind fixed upon that way which leads to it…

Wesley’s Explanatory Notes

Pursue. Direct. Fix. In my mind’s eye I watch these words tumble around, as if tucked inside a clothes dryer next to the sock that’s always missing its mate.

To shift to a new perspective is no simple task. We are creatures of habit, even the most Type B, laid back, go-with-the-flow folks. Our minds get stuck in loops. Because a thing was a way at one time, the thing, and similar things, will always be that way every time. Breaking out of those thought patterns requires real effort.

The key to victory?

I asked God…

This January is really no different from any other January that has come before in my nearly-34 years of living. The snow is dirty, the skies are heavy, the glamour of winter has worn off. But instead of hanging my head, pressed down by the weight of cabin fever (even those of us who prefer the indoors are susceptible), I am learning to lift it. Instead of looking to the left, wondering why she has it so much better, or to the right, longing for what he has, I am learning to look forward. There, right in front of me, drawing and empowering me in every step, is Christ.

The sincere and direct purpose, the right end, is the Savior Himself. Not what we think He should give us. Not the temporary things we think will make us happy. Not name, fame or acclaim. God, Lord of All. Him. Just Him.

This January may, in the essentials, be no different from the others, but my experience of it is. The world is a slush-ball, but I don’t mind it so much. A cloak of depression still flits around my shoulders, but it doesn’t consume me. I’m looking at Jesus. He is beautiful. Radiance and mystery.

I sit quietly, waiting for Him to point out the things I so often miss by looking down or off to the side. And I begin to see, to really see, that, no matter what, no matter how bad the day, He is always there.

That is enough.

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What You Need

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Gentle Reader,

No, you can’t always get what you want,
No, you can’t always get what you want,
No, you can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need. – Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Yes. I just quoted the Rolling Stones.

The chorus of this famous song holds a lot of truth. Try as we might, we don’t always get what we want. If we’re honest, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. We work hard. Try to be kind. Take care of our families. Pay the bills. Shouldn’t we get what we want? We’re playing by the rules, after all. Shouldn’t our figurative cups be overflowing?

When we think of the abundant life, we assume that it will be filled with all the things we want. The wants may not be extravagant. A nice home, good relationships, a steady income, no debt. They might be wild and imaginative, like the desire to travel the world or have a painting hanging in a famous gallery or museum. Or they might be somewhere in the middle, like a cool car or a book contract.

Thing is, God is less about what we want and more about what we need.

Don’t misread that sentence. Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) and He delights in giving us those good gifts (Matthew 7:11). There are many times when God blesses us with something that we want because He’s a good and loving Father. Yet if we look at the big picture, the Lord doesn’t allow us to have or do something that is outside of His will. He is not a vending machine, to use the cliche, concerned only with dispensing our desire of the moment. His will in the life of a believer is to make her more like Christ (Romans 8:29) and if the disposable income readily available for the purchase of new shoes every few weeks isn’t going to make her more like Christ, then, well…

You do the math.

Again, don’t misunderstand. I don’t at all believe that God inflicts suffering and hardship on His people willy-nilly. He doesn’t use our longing for red ballet flats or a new set of chisels as a source of entertainment. He doesn’t see what it is that we want in life and then go out of His way to make sure that the opposite happens. As a wonderful and kind God, He showers us with goodness, but within the context of making us more like Jesus.

2 Corinthians 9:8 opens up the concept for us:

God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. (HCSB)

Graces oozes in fantastic measure from the Lord, pouring out torrentially upon His people. He makes sure that we have absolutely everything that we need – and this is a greater blessing than having everything we want. Think about it. You may not being having filet mignon for dinner tonight, but, if you have access to the Internet and can read this right now, chances are good that you’re not going to be hungry. Is a fancy meal every single time you sit down really better than a satisfied stomach? Is the food you eat what matters, or is the fact that you get to eat?

Because here’s the thing: This verse, which talks about grace permeating your life and all your needs being met, stands in a very specific context in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Take the time to drink in every word of the chapter:

Now concerning the ministry to the saints, it is unnecessary for me to write to you. For I know your eagerness, and I brag about you to the Macedonians: “Achaia has been prepared since last year,” and your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I sent the brothers so our boasting about you in the matter would not prove empty, and so you would be prepared just as I said. For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we, not to mention you, would be embarrassed in that situation. Therefore I considered it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance the generous gift you promised, so that it will be ready as a gift and not as an extortion.

Remember this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. As it is written:

He scattered;
He gave to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever.

Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God. They will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others through the proof provided by this service. And they will have deep affection for you in their prayers on your behalf because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift. – 2 Corinthians 9 (NKJV)

God blesses that we might bless. He provides so that we might provide for others.

The abundant life isn’t about big houses and nice cars. It’s not about extravagant vacations, millions in the bank and a wrinkle-free face. It’s got nothing to do with age or class or gender or race.  It’s about being like Jesus. The One who had no home (Luke 9:58). The One who set aside all of His glory and riches (Philippians 2:5-11). The One who took up the role of a servant (go here for a list of the many references regarding Jesus’ servanthood). The One who ultimately hung on a Cross, enduring great pain and humiliation. (And, praise God!, the One who rose again).

This same Jesus took a couple of fish and five small loaves of bread and made a feast for thousands (John 6:1-12). A feast made of fish and bread. Not exactly food for a king. Yet He both blessed and provided for the crowd by meeting their needs with this simple fare. They experienced abundance because God touched them all with His compassionate, inventive caring.

Let’s take the fish and the bread we need – and share it with others.

In that is abundance.

My journey to faith. (15)

Whatever You Do

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Gentle Reader,

Work.

A job.

I hear your collective sigh.

It’s true. Work is hard. Even if you have the opportunity to do something that you absolutely love, something that you were made for, there are still days that are tough. Coworkers can present real challenges. The monotony can get under your skin. The futility can drive you to pull your hair out. (Like when I catalog a book and then discard that book a year or so later). The financial strain of wondering if the ends will meet this month can keep you awake at night.

Work. It’s not perfect.

It’s also not part of the Curse laid out in Genesis 3. God clearly tasks Adam and Eve with taking care of Eden (Genesis 1:28). He invited them to partner with Him in the care of creation. They had a job to do. This all happened long before the Serpent and the fruit and the blame-game and the flaming sword.

We need to work. The drive to accomplish something, to take part in the creative process (and all work is creative; all work generates a product) is an inescapable part of who we are. God works (John 5:17; Romans 8:28) and we, even in our fallen state, continue to reflect the image of God. He poured aspects of Himself into us, and grows them as we walk in faith with Christ.

Our jobs are not the problem. The world in which we do them is the problem.

Futility and monotony are direct results of sin. When Adam and Eve worked in Eden, they didn’t feel frustrated. They had a sense of fulfillment that is always just out of reach for us today. Oh, we might grasp it now and then, but it never fails to fade. Thankfully, there is an answer. There is a place that we can come back to for an attitude adjustment however many times we need one, which, for me, is multiple times a day.

That place? Colossians 3:23-24 –

Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. (NKJV)

These words stand in the greater context of whole of Chapter 3, in which Paul talks about the character of the new person (the one who has been made new in Christ) and the importance of shunning sin, summing up with a Household Code that illustrates, briefly, how the Christian family is supposed to function in light of their newness and their turning away from sin. The words about work are directed to bondservants, those who served the family. (Note: “Bondservant” is a term that is best understood to mean “slave.” I don’t have time to get into this, but there are many great articles that delve into the New Testament and slavery. I suggest starting here).

Though  first directed to a specific group, this command can and should be extended to all believers, whether working outside the home or in. For example, in my house laundry is never-ending and a severe pain in the rear. I tend to fixate on having it “done” as often as possible. Chris has the uncanny ability to sense an empty laundry basket and put something in it. I just about can’t stand it. But as I wash, fold and put away his socks for the umpteenth time, what am I really doing? Who am I really serving?

When I’m at the library  putting that week’s order into the system or shuttling a cart of moldy donated books out to the dumpster, it’s easy to get bogged down and feel like I’m not getting anything done. It’s tempting to cut corners and rush through an assignment. But what am I really doing as I correct MARC records? Who am I really serving?

As we continue to think about the abundant life and what it really means, these are important questions. If I work only to serve myself or if I work to please other people, then I have a problem. I need to examine that. And sometimes changing jobs or careers is necessary, even commanded by God, in order to escape that malicious cycle of discontentment. But we’re never going to escape the struggle of work in the life, no matter how important the title, how great the pay, how cool the office. The job is never going to give us the identity or completion that we desire. Instead, we must constantly be shifting our attention back to Christ and do whatever is before us with…well, gusto. With heart.

Whether it’s changing the thousandth diaper of the day or heading up a massive corporation, walking dogs or digging a ditch, filing papers or styling the stars, do it with the sense that God is watching. Do your job to please Him. Work from a place of stability, the kind of stability found in knowing who He is and who you are. Navigate your workplace – the home, the office, the studio, the classroom – with integrity and honesty, as a true child of Almighty God.

And when you forget to do that, like I so often do, just start over.

My journey to faith. (15)

The Shot Glass Life

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Gentle Reader,

“Who dares despise the day of small things…?” – Zechariah 4:10a (NIV)

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” – John 10:10b (NKJV)

I’d wager that we’ve all seen a shot glass a time or two, even if we’ve never tipped one back and swallowed some fiery contents. (Full disclosure: I have). There isn’t a drop of alcohol in my house, but I have a couple of shot glasses nonetheless. Some recipes require their use, like the chocolate creme de menthe cake my mom makes all-too-rarely. (Love that thing). And when talking about the abundant life, shot glasses make excellent metaphors.

No, really. They do.

We tend to view our lives as these great, gaping things, and we search for something large enough to fill the holes. The cliche is that we’ve all got a “God-shaped” space in our hearts, and there’s a lot of truth in that. But let’s be honest. When we see ourselves as bottomless wells, we try to throw things in to stop the sense of falling and ease the ache. No matter how devoted we are to the Lord, we’re always on the lookout for something in addition to Him.

Because really and truly, we don’t quite believe that He’s enough.

Oh, some days are better than others. Some days we can sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand! All other ground is sinking sand!” with gusto and with complete sincerity. Other days? Well, we slog through that sinking sand hoping to find whatever it is we think we need to make our lives better.

Ultimately, it’s idolatry and that’s the great struggle of humanity. Money, titles, position, power, clothes, looks, family. You name it, we’ll chase it. We all assume that the abundant life means all of those things. We assume that a life full and overflowing with joy and contentment means that we’ll have everything we want. Even the most devoted of Christians deals with this assumption.

We need a change of perspective.

We need the shot glass life.

But first, what was Jesus talking about when He stated that He came to give life, and abundant life at that?

“Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good—a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.”

Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about. So he tried again. “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good—sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for—will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father. I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd. This is why the Father loves me: because I freely lay down my life. And so I am free to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own free will. I have the right to lay it down; I also have the right to take it up again. I received this authority personally from my Father.” – John 10:1-18 (MSG)

We see that Jesus’ offer of the abundant life is settled explicitly within the context of salvation. People who don’t know Jesus don’t have “more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” Period. This has absolutely nothing to do with wealth or power. An abundant life begins and ends with knowing Jesus.

Here Jesus calls Himself the “Good Shepherd.” He talks about how He cares for the sheep, who represent us. Do you know what sheep need? A safe place to sleep (shelter). A safe place to run and play (a fenced pasture). Good water to drink. Food to eat (grass, hay, grains, minerals, the occasional treat). Protection from predators (provided by the shepherd and faithful herding dogs). Grooming. Healthcare when they get sick. Above and beyond all else, they need a shepherd they can trust. A shepherd who keeps close watch over the flock, who will risk his own life to keep them safe, who shows his affection with petting, playing and the odd snuggle.

Did you notice what sheep don’t need?

I’ll let you provide the answer yourself.

Jesus is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that the abundant life is found in being with Him. That’s it. He is the source of everything that we truly need.

When we think of our lives as boundless and fathomless, we wonder if it’s possible to ever feel complete. We are ever-aware of the emptiness. We doubt that the Lord can fill us up. Surely we need something else, something in addition to Him. Or we see God as some sort of cosmic vending machine, One who will give us everything we want if we punch the right combination of buttons.

Jesus never once says that we entitled to anything. We’re not even entitled to a relationship with Him, though He graciously offers it to us. But it ends there. He doesn’t say, “I will save you AND make you the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” He doesn’t say, “I will save you AND make sure you never get sick a day in your life.” He doesn’t say, “I will save you AND…” anything.

He says, “I will save you.”

And that is over, above and beyond anything and everything.

So I wonder what would happen if we started seeing our lives as shot glasses. It takes very little to fill and cause one to overflow. If we see our days and our needs in this compact way and both begin and end with the awesomeness of salvation, the amazingness of knowing God, anything else is a surplus. It’s the extra icing on the proverbial cake.

That surplus is to be found all around us. A fresh and unexpected bloom on the rose bush. The heat radiating from a dog’s body and he presses himself against your leg. An inside joke with an old friend. The feeling of cleanness after a shower. The smell of bacon. Or a freshly-baked cookie. The squish of sand between your toes. A child’s laughter.

Blessings all.

Sheep don’t care if they’ve got millions in the bank or a new car. They just follow where the shepherd leads. They romp in the fields, drink from streams, bathe in sunlight. Their lives are totally full and fabulous because they trust in the one leading them. What more could they ask for?

What more could we?

My journey to faith. (15)