Monday Morning Second Thoughts

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon.  I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!

Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!

But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?

As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.

Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.

We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)

There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.

The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!

If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.

A Redeemed Life!

During last night’s Easter Vigil I listend to the reading from Genesis 3 and I cringed…

…God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. … And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”…

I hear God ask that question of the woman and my spirit shrinks in shame. I, too, am a woman who was once as easily deceived as Eve, rejecting God in favor of choosing my own way. If you are a woman reading this, perhaps you feel that same stinging conviction whenever you hear God saying, “What is this that you have done?”

But then, later on in the worship service, I read aloud the words of Matthew…

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Do you see it? Jesus–the one who redeemed the first man’s sin (as well as the sins of all who followed, men and women alike)–redeemed Eve’s careless decision in what feels to me to be a very personal way. Eve was the first to take a bite of that apple, the first to reject God. Similarly, the women were the first to see the resurrected Jesus, the first to declare the Good News that he is alive!

(At this point I feel the need to clarify that, while my comments are obviously gender-based, they are not to be interpreted as any sort of statement on feminism!)

As I read from Matthew’s gospel last night, my spirit soared with renewed freedom! I felt a kinship with Eve that no longer made me cringe, and a deep gratitude that God hates nothing that he has made…including Eve and me. I can look forward to the day when I will literally hear God say, “You are my daughter with whom I am well pleased!”

All this because Jesus was born and lived a perfectly blameless life, free of any careless choices…a life which he willingly laid down so that he could be raised up again to a new life…an eternal life, in which I am invited to share as though I, too, am blameless…his life which redeems mine.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Is there more to the story?

How many times I’ve read Luke’s version of the feeding of the five-thousand (Luke 9:10-17). It is a great story, isn’t it? Imagine feeding five-thousand men–more when we consider the women and children who were likely present, too–with only five loaves and two fish! It’s a BIG miracle, for sure!

And that’s what catches our attention, isn’t it? The magnitude of that miracle. We are prone to look for the big stuff, the flashy show of power, the grandiosity of the moment. This story doesn’t disappoint, either–an incredible feat to feed thousands of people with what would barely feed a family.

But there is more, much more, waiting to be discovered in this story…

Consider this: How did Jesus make himself heard? He spoke to them about the kingdom of God. In other words, he preached…to over 5000 people, more than likely outdoors. How could all those people hear him without a sound system? Did he walk among them as he spoke? Or did he stand still and those closest to him turned to the ones behind them, repeating Jesus’ words to create a sort of echo?

And then there’s the healing… Did Jesus individually heal those in need, one by one? That alone would have taken more than a day! Or did he simply speak a word and all were healed at once? Certainly that would be more efficient, but isn’t the personal attention from Jesus a significant aspect of healing? Did the disciples, having just returned from their own ministry adventure, jump in and help with the healing to expedite the process?

How in the world did the Twelve feed all those people? If we simply consider the 5000 that Luke mentions, sitting in groups of fifty would have meant that there were 100 groups. That’s approximately eight and one-third groups per disciple, or 416 individuals for each disciple to serve. I occasionally help serve a meal to the homeless at a local non-profit. It takes about thirty minutes for eight of us to serve 100 people seated around tables. I can’t imagine serving 416 by myself!

In all, this would have taken hours and hours…teaching, healing, feeding, collecting leftovers. So, did time simply stand still for a while?

Can you see the potential for all sorts of miracles in these seven verses? When we slow down and engage our imagination, we can glimpse all sorts of wonders in these familiar stories, little treasures that we have previously overlooked. And doing so trains us to look for life’s little treasures available to us each day, the ones we might otherwise overlook in our quest for the big stuff.

 

What kind of miracle do you need today?

     Are you hungry for spiritual food?

          Do you long to hear Jesus over the noise in and around you?

               Are you in need of healing? Or is Jesus inviting you to be an agent of his healing?

                    Are you feeling overwhelmed by the needs or tasks before you today?

                         Do you need time to stand still for a bit, that you might have a personal encounter with Jesus today?

Ask…seek…knock…your Savior longs to answer. Just remember that the answer may not come in the big stuff, but in the small treasures awaiting you today.

Seventy Times Seven

20160919_151416One year ago today my mom transitioned from this life to eternal life. Over the years I had watched as a few of my friends lost their mothers, some of whom warned me that I would miss my mom when she was gone from this earth. Especially in the last decade or so of her life, my response was, “Hardly!” To say that our relationship was strained was, at times, an understatement. But…

I miss my mom. Time has a way…

 At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.   -Matthew 18:21-22 [MSG]

I have typically thought of this verse as an admonition to forgive someone each time they hurt me. But there is another way of applying it that makes as much (and sometimes more) sense. Every time I remember a hurtful situation, I am faced with the choice to forgive again… and again… and again. Each time that memory reasserts itself, I have the opportunity to forgive. Easier now to understand that seventy times seven, isn’t it?

The truly interesting thing is how, if I am persistent in forgiving, the offense begins to fade away after awhile. I’ve spent a year letting go of offenses, both real and perceived. I’ve forgiven, and forgiven, and forgiven–sometimes the same offense, countless times. And over the course of the year, I’ve found that other memories have begun to rise up and take the place of the painful ones. Memories of laughter, of fun times Mom and I shared, of little phrases that were our own private sort of shorthand–like “milk and cookies,” which meant that something wasn’t working out quite right. (We never could get a glass of milk and a stack of cookies to finish at the same time! There was always more milk than cookies, so we’d have to go back and get more cookies…but then there would be more cookies than milk, so… well, you get the idea. Mom and I could go through a whole package of Oreos playing that game!)

My spiritual director suggested a few months ago that I plan on doing something to mark this first anniversary of my mom’s passing. Her grave is in another state and I knew I would probably not have the opportunity to go visit. I tried come up with something she would have enjoyed doing, thinking that I would go do it in her memory…but nothing came to mind. Last week my daughter and I went to a quilt show. We had a wonderful time together and I know it’s a memory we will both treasure. On the way home it occurred to me that, many years ago–before our relationship became so strained–Mom and I enjoyed doing things like that together and, for a moment, I sensed Mom’s smile.

Seventy times seven is nothing in light of that peace.

I love you, Mom. 20170513_204953.jpg

 

Grief: A paradoxical gateway to gratitude

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Along with the expectation for turkey and pumpkin pie is an even greater expectation of a heart bursting with gratitude. Some years that feels like a lot of pressure. This year is one of them for me.

I spent yesterday retreating from the busyness of the world, choosing to spend the the day in silence and solitude at my favorite retreat center. The day began with frustration and disappointment, but I shrugged it off as I made the 30-minute drive, happy to enter the quiet beauty of the center. I settled into a favorite chair with my Bible and my journal, prepared to encounter the Lord in whatever way He chose to present Himself. I was surprised to see what first flowed from my pen onto the page of my journal…

Thanksgiving is two days away…and I am here to grieve. Perhaps so that I can be truly thankful in two days.

Seriously, I had no idea that was what the day would hold.

I miss my Mom. I understand now how she came to be the person I often didn’t like, and my heart feels tender now towards that woman. The life she lived was not easy, and she didn’t have Jesus to lean on. (I am so grateful for you, Jesus!) I wish I could tell her that I understand now. I could be kinder and gentler and less angry now. But it’s too late. Nevermind that I had to experience the loss in order to arrive at this plac of understanding. Perhaps I need to be grateful for that, too–but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

I miss youth. I’ve never wanted to be a person resentful of the aging process. It’s inevitable, so what’s the use in fighting it? But I don’t like it, nor do I want it really. My body doesn’t move as fast or as easily as it used to. I can’t see as well or think as fast. I want to welcome that as a green light to slowing down the pace of life a bit. But, truth be told, I am afraid of feeling useless.

I grieve unmet expectations. I have never been one to dwell long on regrets and I don’t want to start now. But I realize that I have precious few years left, and I don’t want to get to the end of them and be sad that I let opportunities pass by. There is so much of this world that I want to see and experience, and not nearly enough time left.

I’ve always loved the change of seasons, but today I grieve the end of warm sunny days. Winter is upon us. Lord, please don’t let it settle in my heart, too.

And the Lord graciously answered. I wept (honestly, I wailed!) until I had no more tears…and I didn’t apologize for it, not to God or to myself.

Then I went for a long walkdsc_0054-2 where I encountered beautiful fall color in the midst of the dull brown of approaching dsc_0122-1winter, admired the beauty of a bright red cardinal, and sat with a turtle slowly making his way through the fallen leaves. I took a nap. I sat in the afternoon sun, wrapped in a blanket, on a gently rocking porch swing and finished a really good book.

And at the end of the day I wrote…

I feel better, I think; ready to face home again. Maybe ready to be grateful as Thanksgiving arrives. It’s been a good day. Thank you, Lord, for listening while I poured out my grief, for collecting my tears in your bottle, for gently wiping my face dry. Thank you for legs strong enough to carry me down the trail and back up again, and for a camera that helps capture that which my eyes don’t see as well as they used to. Yes, it’s been a good day and I am grateful.

There’s something about grieving that opens our eyes and our hearts to gratitude. If you are struggling to be grateful on this day before Thanksgiving, perhaps you need to grieve a little…or a lot. Do it. And I will be praying that you, too, find it to be an unexpected gateway to gratitude.

 

 

Forgiving God

Forgiving God may well be the first step in trusting him.

Does God need my forgiveness? Absolutely not! That would imply that God has done something wrong. He is God–incapable of doing anything wrong.

Do I need to forgive God? Probably. We all experience disappointment in life, and sometimes we blame God for it. Of course the blame is not his, but he is generous and so full of grace that he allows the blame to rest on him. For a while, anyway.

At some point, however, I am blessed if I realize that it’s not God’s fault that I am disappointed. It is mine. I most likely decided that I knew better than God, and so I did what I wanted to do–what I thought was best–rather than what God says is best. That means those consequences I was so mad about were absolutely my fault, not God’s, and it’s really me that needs forgiveness.

If I can see that God was right and I was wrong…

If I realize that he is so full of grace to allow me to blame him for my stubborn decision to have it my way in spite of his warnings…

If I repent of ever thinking that God needed my forgiveness…

If I ask God to forgive me…

If I accept God’s forgiveness…

I just might learn to trust him more fully.

Interestingly, this process repeats itself throughout the life of any Christ-follower. It’s how our faith grows.

daniel-9

Is God good?

I became a Christian in 1986. For several years, my focus was on Jesus. I read the New Testament because it was clearly about Jesus. I prayed to Jesus. Jesus was my Lord and my Savior, my Brother and my Friend. I was all about Jesus.

Nevermind that Jesus continually talked about the Father. Nevermind that Jesus prayed to the Father. Nevermind that Jesus said He only did what the Father told Him to do. Nevermind the Father. Jesus was all I needed. It only took about 20 years for me to start paying attention to the fact that Jesus was always pointing to the Father, and to decide that perhaps I should take notice and follow Jesus’ example.

During a season of upheaval in my life, I sought the help of a Christian counselor. I know it’s a tired metaphor, but I felt like a rudderless boat in a storm-tossed ocean, and Jesus was nowhere in sight. The source of my angst defied illumination until one day the counselor asked, “Do you believe that God is good?” He quickly followed that up with an admonishment not to give him the Sunday school answer! (How well he knew me by this point.) I remember clearly just sitting there in stunned silence as the tears welled up from a place deep, deep inside me. When my sobbing subsided, it was like the sun breaking through clouds after a summer storm. At long last, the turbulent sea of my soul was calm.

I really wasn’t aware that I was ignoring the Father. I didn’t struggle with the mystery of the Trinity. And I didn’t have “daddy issues” resulting from a poor relationship with my biological father. He wasn’t perfect and we had our issues from time to time, but I always knew he loved me.

So why did I distance myself from God? Perhaps because God didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I suffered a deep loss at a tender age, and I blamed God. For years I had nothing to do with God or Jesus, or any form of religion. Even when I accepted Christ as Savior, I simply put Father God on a shelf. I had Jesus, and that was enough.

I’m sure there are others who have great fellowship with Jesus while keeping God at arm’s length, unsure if he really is as good as Jesus says he is. If he is such a good God, why does he allow pain? Why does he not stop all the suffering?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to those questions. I do know that my problem was a direct result of my expectations. When I understood that he is GOD–omnipotent and almighty and beyond my manipulation…while, at the same time, loving and gentle and merciful–it was at that moment that everything changed.

I know now–beyond a shadow of doubt–that God is good. He is the definition of good! That certainty came about because someone asked me what I believed, and wouldn’t allow me to put on my church leader mask to evade giving an honest answer. It stands out as one of the best days of my life.

Since then, my experience of Father God has been totally different. Mornings are spent in quiet communion with the one who loves me, reminiscent of walks in the Garden when we were God’s beloved companions. I sense his love in the core of my being, and his wisdom and provision are what I most long for. I pray always now to the Father. Jesus–my precious Savior–is continually with me, too, the bridge to my Father’s open arms.good father

So, on the off chance that you have been ignoring Father God in favor of Jesus, let me ask you…

Do you believe that God is good?

And, please, don’t feel obliged to give the Sunday school answer.

 

P.S.–Two of my favorite songs that remind me of God’s goodness: Good, Good Father by Chris Tomlin and King of My Heart by John Mark McMillan and Sarah McMillan