Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Living on rice and beans..." ~Acts 1: 6-8

    My baby boy has a stomach virus today.  He is almost sixteen and is a head taller than me.  But he is still, and always will be, my baby.  We were up most of the night together, me feeling helpless while he lay in the bathroom floor in misery.  Now and then he would call out to me, wanting a drink of water or a cool wet towel.  Now he is resting, so of course I am writing. 
     I’m at my desk now, but I’ve kept the house quiet, listening in case he calls out to me.  Waiting and ready for whatever he needs.  Several times, he has roused up from sleep and called to me.  Each time, I drop what I am doing and say “Here I am.  What do you need?”
     It wasn’t long before God began to talk to me and use the situation as a parable for me.  I have a lot of those “Parenting Parables.”  God knows my dense and stubborn self all too well.  He knows how to talk to me.  And often, he uses situations with my children, knowing they are so close to my heart and soul.  Knowing my love for the them may be the closest I ever get here on earth to understanding His love for me.
     I am leaving on my first foreign Mission Trip in two weeks.  Traveling to a third world country to help fill the most basic need we human beings have: food.  Both for physical hunger and spiritual hunger.  Rice and beans to nourish the body.  Scripture to nourish the soul.  It will be a life changing experience for me.  Out of my middle class American comfort zone.  Everything there will be different.  Different language, different culture, different temperature, different way to dress and act.  Different style of worship.  Only one thing will be familiar.  The most important thing of all.   My God will be the same.  Whether I am at my kitchen table in hills of Arkansas or in the poorest part of Nicaragua.  He will pave my way.  Guide and protect me.  He will be my tour guide, my body guard, my inspiration and my interpreter.  
    I am getting more excited each day.  There is a part of my soul that has been preparing for this trip, and possibly others to come, for many years without even knowing it.  There is a part of my heart that feels this is really the beginning of something very important.  I am praying hard, packing carefully and counting the days till I board the plane.
     I almost said no to this opportunity.  It was last minute.  Someone had to drop out due to health.  I got the call to go.  My first reaction was to let Satan answer my phone and say “wrong number.”  Not me.  I had no vacation time at work.  No money.  No training.  Not enough time to prepare.  I don’t know people who do these things.  My church sends money.  I read books about people who go.  I study scripture about the disciples who went.  I enjoy the slideshows about modern missionaries.  I tape their names on my fridge.  I give extra during the Mission drives at Christmas and Easter.  I do my part.  No thank you.  I’ll stay here at home where it is warm and safe and familiar.  I’m a sinner.  Not a Missionary.  God will understand.  Only He didn’t.  
     My second reaction to the call was to grab my Bible and search.  I looked for any place where God would confirm my “no.”  I looked for where He says it’s okay to stay home and pray.  I looked for where He says He understands that I don’t like rice and beans.  I looked for the verses where He says he wants me to be comfortable, to stay in my own house, in my community, in my familiar home church and watch the Missionary slideshows on Sunday nights.
     I looked and looked and looked.  I couldn’t find those verses.  I was sure they were there, because I’ve been living by them for years.  But I couldn’t find one single verse where God says “stay.”  Instead I found “go, go, go.”  He even chose those as his very last earthly words.  Go! Go! Go! To the remotest parts of the earth.  To wherever we are called, to whatever chance we are offered.  To the places that are hot and cold.  Dirty and hungry.  Hungry for physical food.  And more importantly, for spiritual food.  The kind that lasts forever.  I have it.  They need it.  So I am going to go and give.  I am going to share.  I am going to say yes to the chance.   
   I am scared.  Not of something physically happening to harm me.  Not of death or disease.  I am scared I will fail to do enough, to say the right things, to make the most of this opportunity.  I am scared I will mess up and let God down.  But I will go and I will trust. Because He told me to.
    And because, just like when my son calls out to me…I should be willing, waiting and ready to answer God the same way.  “Here I am.  What do you need?”

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"My Brother the Sheep Trainer...not!" ~John 10: 7-16, 21:15-17

     For many years, my brother has been my small claim to fame.  Often when I am trying to describe who I am, where I am from and what I do, the only connection I can make with a stranger is to mention my brothers name.  In our part of the world, lots of people know him.  Of all things, he is a Professional Rodeo Clown.  He travels all over the United States, stays in all kinds of places, meets thousands of interesting people, and has lots of adventures.   I stay home, punch a time clock and raise kids.  And yet, neither of us is one bit envious of the other.   (Well, maybe just a little and then...)
     We were raised on a farm in the country.  Had horses, cows, chickens, dogs, cats and anything else that happened to wander onto our land.  Once we even had pet squirrels who lived in the living room.  Lots of “animal adventures” in our childhood.
     These days, as an entertainer, he is constantly working on new “acts” involving training live animals to perform.  He has had a goat or two that I didn’t see eye to eye with, or I guess you could say horns to eye.  He trains them to do all kinds of tricks, and I have to admit to being impressed at times at what he can teach them to do.  But I’ve never seen him teach a sheep.  And I probably never will.  After some insightful study, I can tell you why.
     My Sunday School lesson recently was on one of my favorite passages of scripture.  My Bible translators titled it “The Love Motivation.”  John 21:15-17.  They didn’t ask me, but I would have titled them “Peter’s Second Chance.”  Love these verses.  Love Peter’s story.  But I find it interesting that Jesus refers to us as “lambs” and “sheep” several different times.  It got me thinking and reading about sheep.  What I found wasn’t very encouraging.  
     Sheep are not very smart.  They are stubborn and slow.  They tend to follow blindly and without thought when led.  They think about food a lot.
     Sheep can’t easily be trained.  Even after learning the same dangerous lessons over and over, they will continue to wander away from the flock and put themselves in harms way.
     And sheep have no way to defend themselves.  No fangs, no claws.  They can’t even run fast enough to get away when pursued by an enemy.  And they have many of those.
     They must be fed regularly, sheared often and protected constantly.  Most importantly of all, sheep can’t even clean themselves.  It has to be done for them.
     Are you getting the idea here?  Following along?  At any point I could stop typing the word “sheep” and start inserting the word “me or I.”
     I like to think I am fairly smart.  But God might argue that I have often made poor decisions.  I might say that I’m not stubborn.  I think He would laugh out loud at that one.  Anyone who has ever seen me run would say I would have a hard time outrunning a lion or wolf.  So I think my chances of outrunning any enemies are pretty much non-existent.  Not sure how well I could defend myself in a good fight, although some might swear they have seen my fangs and claws.
     I often reflect on all the times I’ve followed blindly and without thought.  Away from my church family, away from God’s word, away from my flock.  Away from sure protection and provision. Forging my own path through the woods.  On my own.  In harms way.
     I have some vivid memories of times God allowed me to be sheared by other hands than His.  Times when I have shed some layers, lost some parts of me that I thought I couldn’t live without.  Ended up healthier.
     Are you starting to get the picture?
     And now, the most important comparison.  Just like a sheep, I’m not able to clean myself.  
     My soul gets muddy, my heart grows thick wool.  My feet get heavy and planted in place.  
     The Saving Grace for sheep is that they are never left alone to deal with the helplessness.  They don’t have to outrun the enemy, fight the battles, learn the tricks or find the way.  They don’t have to shear themselves or give themselves a bath.  Because sheep have someone standing by to take care of all the big stuff.  Someone to keep the danger away and the food close.  Someone to fight the wolves.  Someone who won’t leave them.  He’s called a Shepherd.
     I’m so thankful I have a Shepherd too.  To fight my enemies, clean off my dirt and feed me daily.  I’m so thankful that He shears me when I need it and leads me to the lush green pastures. I've so thankful He has never left me.  He has a perfect track record of caring for me.
     My trust is strong in Him.  And always, no matter what, He is the Shepherd of my Soul.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"In the Fire..." ~Matthew 6:25-34

        Thinking today about how God provides.
     I learned this lesson as a young wife and mother.  Times were hard.  Money was scarce.  We stopped at a lot of garage sales in those days.  We clipped coupons.  Patched tires.  Lived paycheck to paycheck.  Things weren’t always easy.  In fact, they rarely were.   I spent a lot of time on my knees, making sure God knew what bills were due and what our account balance was.  Just in case He didn’t.
     Perhaps the greatest lesson I ever learned is that in fact, He did.  He knew exactly.  We made it.  Day by day.  Week by week.  Month by month.  We rarely had plenty but we always had enough.  God knew our young family’s needs and He filled them.  It made all the difference.   I knew  Jehovah Jireh, my Provider.  
      Later, as a single mom, it was a lesson I was determined to teach my three children.  In good times and bad, our God knows our needs.  He meets them day by day.  So many times I couldn’t understand how we would make it till the next payday.  But we did.  Struggle made me stronger.  I worked harder.  Day by day.  Week by week. Month by month.  I began to think I could make it on my own.  I began to feel relief.  And a little pride in my ability to provide all by myself.
     And then the unthinkable happened.  As we scratched and struggled through a long hot summer, tragedy struck.  I got a call at work saying our house was on fire.  By the time I got there it was engulfed.  Hours later, we owned just the clothes on our backs.  The contents weren’t insured.  I couldn’t afford the extra insurance.  I had three kids and less than $100 to my name.  No where to go.  No food.  No clothes. I was at the bottom of the barrel.  The end of the line.  The lowest of the low.  Nowhere to turn.  No one to turn to.  Except Johovah Jireh.
      My children looked to me with fearful and questioning eyes…and I looked to God.
I remember sitting in the yard of my home, covered in black soot, feeling sick and empty.  I will never forget the smell of our belongings burning.  I thought about the pride that I had felt in the past few years in my ability to provide for my kids.  The pride when they went to bed with full bellies and clean clothes.  I thought about how hard I had struggled to pay the bills, to keep gas in the car, to mow my yard.  I thought about the two jobs I was working.  How so many nights I had cried myself to sleep, tired and scared, but knowing I was making it on my own.  And how everything we owned, everything I had poured my blood, sweat and tears into for almost twenty years, was gone in a few hours time.  I felt like God had knocked the wind out of me.
      As I sat in that yard watching my last hope burn to the ground, I felt Him whispering in my ear that I had not done any of it.  I had not held things together.  I had not had things under control.    He had and, in fact, He still did.  The fire was a reminder of a lesson I will never again forget.  It is all His.  He is My Provider.  Day by day.  Month by month.  Year by year.
     In the following days and weeks, my children saw Him provide every morsel of food we ate, every piece of clean clothing we wore.  God used his people to carry us through the wilderness.  Out of the ashes came some of the biggest blessings of our lives.  Some of the most important lessons of our lives.  My children met Jehovah Jireh in the flames.  Our Provider.
     It was a long road back.  Many years have passed since those days.  But I have never forgotten that my possessions on earth are temporary.  There are things I cried over losing.  My children’s baby pictures, my Grandma’s quilts and wedding ring, so many memories.  Things you take for granted until they are gone.  
      But the things I gained in the fire are greater.  A belief in the goodness of people,  a compassion for those in need, a broken heart for those who have no where left to turn.  And mostly, a closer trust in my Provider.  The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the Name of the Lord.
     I don’t worry so much anymore about my bills, or what clothes I wear, or the car I drive.  I don’t worry about what I will eat or what house I will live in.  I learned where my treasure is when I was sitting in that yard watching the flames.  I know my God will Provide.  I know Jehovah Jireh.  
And that changes everything.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"The Reason for it All" ~Acts 9:1-31

     Why are we here?  Have you thought about that lately?  God, in all His glory, wanted us to exist.  He created deep and vast oceans, cloudy blue skies, sandy deserts, multicolored birds, shining stars and endless galaxies, swaying palm trees and soaring mountains.  Then He took a deep breath and breathed life into Adam.  Ever wonder why?  What if it was all because He simply wanted a friend?
     For many years I believed in God, respected Him, and tried my best to obey Him.  I thought it was enough.  I knew about Him.  I went to church every Sunday.  I knew the parables by heart.  I tried to be a good Christian.  I was saved.  But I didn’t know Him.
     I heard a preacher a few weeks ago say that “Satan knew God well and he never doubted Him.”  I had to think about that one for a while.  Remember where Satan started out…worshipping God.  Along with all his demons.  Satan understood God’s power and glory.  He knew scripture forward and backward.  He knew the parables too.  He understood God’s power and pull.  He knew His characteristics and miracles.  Satan knew all about God. Just like I did.
     Then I think of Saul.  The Christian Serial Killer.  Scary guy.  Smart, cultured and highly educated.  The thing about Saul is that he was a stubborn man. He had a strong will and the blood of God’s people on his soul.  All those years, he thought he was doing right, while God knew he was so very wrong.  Saul knew more about God than almost anyone of his time.  About the laws.  About the church.  About God.  Just like Satan.  Just like me.
     Some people come quietly and peacefully to Jesus, conversion without resistance.  They walk an aisle on Sunday morning and settle into a lifetime of worship.  Some people, like Saul and me, don’t convert without heartache.  People like Saul and me get Damascus-type conversions.
     Saul had to be knocked down and blinded before God got his attention.  He was blind for three days, as helpless as a child.  How hard and humbling that must have been for a man as powerful as he.  How embarrassing to be led through the streets terrified and trembling.  How humiliating to depend fully on the very people he had spent years persecuting and murdering.  Saul wasn’t one to walk quietly down the aisle on Sunday morning.  Wasn’t in his personality.
     But God knew Saul’s personality well.  He created it, after all.  But He also knew his potential.  He knew the impact Saul could have for His kingdom.  So He knocked him down, physically…then He built him up, spiritually.  And Saul became Paul, and Paul became best friends with God.
     I have a story similar to Paul’s.  I inherited some of that stubbornness from my murderous ancestor.  Needed some of his humility.  Needed to walk that Damascus Road.  To depend on others and God.
     And though it took me many years to say it, I am so thankful that He struck me down and built me up.  Thankful for the suffering that built the trust.  Thankful that I didn’t waste a lifetime just knowing His stories.  Knowing about Him.  So thankful I can now call Him my Best Friend.
     I heard the results of a poll recently where 70% of Americans claim to be Christians.  I don’t second guess it.  Only God could do that.  But I doubt that 70% are friends with Him.  If they were, this earth would look a lot different than it does.  If 70% of us really knew Him, really understood Him, really were friends with Him, we wouldn’t have to worry about elections, world hunger or prison overcrowding.  Orphans and widows would be loved.  Families would stay together.  Friendship with God changes a person’s soul.  And when your soul is changed, your actions follow.
     I think about Paul often.  About all the good he did in Part 2 of his life.  I think about how hard he worked for God.  And I think about the friendship they shared.  In the end, what could be better to say about someone than that were friends with and truly served God?
     My deepest prayer for my children is not physical health or immeasurable wealth.  It’s not happy marriages or dependable employment.  It’s not a growing church or a thriving ministry.
     My deepest prayer is that each of them will find friendship with God.  A relationship of trust and love, study and devotion, consistency and worship.  It changed Saul into Paul.  It changed the fishermen into Disciples, it changed the Woman at the Well into a tool for Revival.  It changed Abraham and Noah, and Enoch and Joseph.  It changed Esther and Miriam and Mary Magdalene.
     And last of all, best of all, it's changing me.

Friday, September 6, 2013

"The Perfect Coach" ~1 Corinthians 9:24-27

     My kids all played sports.  My oldest was a high school quarterback, my middle child a 5’3” hustling basketball player and most recently I spend my days on golf courses with my youngest, who made it to State play-offs as a high school sophomore last year.  Each of them played at least two sports, sometimes more, and I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed most of the hundreds, maybe thousands of games I have attended.  I am a proud parent, often to their great embarrassment.  I stand with a camera in one hand and a cell phone in the other, ready to upload pictures.  I’ve never been good at understanding all the rules, following the plays or sometimes even keeping up with the scores.  I often don’t care who wins or loses.  I’ll never be called competitive.  But I am a parent.  So I am there, and happy to be.  
      My kids have been MVP’s and state champions.  They have been recognized in our small town and sometimes in bigger arenas.  They have made many friends and had exciting opportunities because of sports.  They have learned lots of lessons.
       And they will tell you I am always proud of teamwork, effort and most of all, “emotion control,” whether in them or in their coaches.  A good coach is a rare and precious thing.  It’s sometimes been hard for me to watch my kids disciplined on the field, court or course.  Many times I’ve had to bit my tongue when they were being “coached” to be better.  
     From an early age one of the things I told them often was if the coach is disciplining you, instructing you, correcting you, then he is watching your actions and cares about your performance.  It’s when he doesn’t know your name that things get miserable and hopeless.  
The very best coaches my children improved and thrived under all had two very important things in common.  They knew the players and they knew the rule book.
      Often what I’ve seen is the tougher the practices and the more pressure that is applied by a good coach to an unsure player in pre-game situations, the more sure of himself that player is when game time comes.  It’s a fine line, a balancing act.  It’s a special relationship.
      And when the clock is ticking, when points count, time after time, the players the coach will put on the field, floor or course are the ones who can withstand the pressure.
     You (along with all my friends and family) may be surprised to know that I too am an Athlete.
I may not look the part.  I may not be in great physical shape.  I may not wear a State ring.   
     But I’m on the field.  I’m in the game.  I have a Coach who works with me one on one every day.  I’ve had some tough “practices” of my own.  I’ve been yelled at, disciplined and beaten down by the pressure.  I’ve wanted to quit.  Run and hide my tears in an empty locker room.  I’ve been bruised, sore and exhausted.  I’ve sometimes lost championship games in the heat of battle.    
     But my Coach knows my name.  My Coach knows just how much pressure I can stand.  He’s my biggest fan, my harshest critic, the one who disciplines, corrects and teaches me when I need it most.  He’s my Coach.  He’s my Lord.  And it’s a special relationship.
     He created me.  He knows my strongest muscles and my weakest ones.  He knows my heartbeat and my pulse.  He knows my endurance and my strength.  He knows when I’ve had enough or when I can take a little more.  He knows when I need to stand in the spotlight, or when I need some time off to process my losses.  He knows me.  He’s my Coach.
      He knows the Rule Book too.  In my case, he actually wrote it.  Word for word.  Chapter and verse.  I have to trust Him on the legalities, the obscure points, the rarely quoted sections.  
      He can handle my critics in the bleachers.  He can handle my teammates failures.  He can handle my opponents, who don’t always play fair.  He can handle the referees when they call the fouls in my life that no one else sees.    He can handle my injured muscles and my injured pride.  He’s my Coach.
      So cheer for me when you can.  Boo me when you have to.  I can take it because I am an Athlete.  I was built for this game.  I was designed by my Coach.  He knows the Rule Book.  He knows the Player.  He is the only one who can keep a record of my wins and losses.  His job is to Coach.  My job is to show up for practice every day in this game called Life. 
And listen to my Coach.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"An Apple a Day...or maybe just a tiny bite..." Genesis 3: 1-24

     Can you imagine life without any sin?  Don’t you wonder about Eve, living in the Garden of Eden?  What must it have been like…walking with God in the mornings, naked, open, without sin or shame? 
      I don’t think I have ever even experienced a morning without sin or shame.  Don’t think I have ever started a day without feeling a little guilt and failure.  I would love to have been in Eve’s shoes for just an hour, to see how it felt to be pure and unashamed in front of God.  But she ruined that possibility with just one big bite!  No doubt she was related to me.  No self-control when it came to something that looked delicious!
     Eve took the apple, ate it, shared it with her man…and has shouldered a heap of blame since.  We don’t understand how she could be so stupid!  God WALKED with her, for heavens sake!  Offered her the whole world, a perfect world, a sinless world.  How could she make such stupid choices? Why couldn’t she just feel satisfied with what He provided?
      Eve had it all, but didn’t understand that.  She always wanted a little more.  Thought there was something out there in the world that she was missing.
     Eve was just like me.
     How many times have I reached out and taken a bite of an apple that God had clearly instructed me to leave alone?  How many times have I wanted just a little more than what I already had? Relationships, possessions…people, places, things that God told me to stay away from, but I just wanted one little bite.  Wanted to see what I was missing…and wound up with a belly full of sickening sin.  It’s so much harder to bite the fruit of self-control than the fruit of that sweet, juicy sin-apple.  It tastes so good for just a second...
      And then I follow the exact “sin steps” Eve did.  First I hide from God.  Slack off on my Bible study.  Stay busy and distracted.  Say quick, routine prayers.  Don’t want to be alone with God.  Don’t want to be still or quiet enough to face what I‘ve done.
     Next, the excuses start.  It wasn’t my fault.  I’m under so much stress.  Too much on my plate.  No one can be expected to live like this.  I deserve a little relief, a little reward.  I need a little “feel good” time.  My life has been so hard lately!  Can’t do this!
     Then comes the blame.  Everyone else is doing stuff like this…actually I’m a little less sinful than my neighbor.  Lord, have you looked at her lately?  And the world around me does it.  I can’t be expected to hold up in the middle of such pressure and temptation!  Everyone else gets by with stuff like this all the time!  It’s so hard to be good all the time...
     Finally, anger and resentment...I argue with God.  State all the reasons I shouldn’t be punished.  Try to bargain my consequences away.  I wind up whining about my situation to Him.  Praying tearfully for Him to “fix” the mess I’ve found myself in…and then the cycle starts over. Again.  
     The sweetest part of the “apple story” is not the juicy bite Eve took.  The sweetest part is when God covered her after with his own hands.  I guess you could say he sewed the first fur coat.  He showed her the road back to him.  But life would never look the same for Eve.  Or for any of us who live in this sinful world today.
     It took me a long time to truly understand the difference between forgiveness and consequences.  He will forgive me when I eat that apple, every time I ask.  But the results of my sneaking that bite will still be there  in my belly to live with.  Eve may have introduced sin into my world.  But I’ve done an awesome job of keeping it here!
     I’m ashamed when I look back at all the times I’ve asked Him to forgive me.  But then I think of my sin in comparison to  His infinite grace and mercy.  It’s bottomless.  And so instead of shame, I feel amazement.  I feel humbled.  I feel loved.  He knows me so well.  
     Yes, I bite that apple, over and over.  Even when I know the consequences.  And yes, He forgives me, over and over.  Even when He sees my weakness.  Because ultimately, His forgiveness is so much bigger than my sin.  And these days my gratefulness is so much bigger than my shame.  It grows every morning that I walk with Him. That’s my Father.  My Faithful Forgiver.  And He and I both know, my only hope.