Monday, August 30, 2010

Habakkuk: By the way, O Sovereign Lord, your plan doesn't make sense.

When I was a little girl, before I could write very well, I told stories by drawing pictures.  I starred in most of my stories, and I wore a princess gown, like Cinderella.  (You don't have to draw legs when you draw princess gowns.)  And so began a tradition of writing and imagining the story of my life.  And the stories of the people closest to me.

Real life doesn't normally follow the storyline I have imagined.  And so when I talk to God, I talk about the problems, but I try not to hope for too much, not to ask for too much, to take whatever God sends my way.  Essentially I'm afraid he'll say "no" and I'll be disappointed.

Or he'll say, "This is what I'm doing" and I'll be shocked or fearful.  Like when I told him I my job frustrated me and I didn't like it very much.  And then I confessed I didn't really want to have to work.  (I still may find a job, and if I do, I'll probably like it.)

And here's the story of Habbakuk.  He's crying out to God, begging for revival.  And God says, "Okay.  This is what I'm going to do.  I'm going to send your enemies, and they're going to take you into exile, and then your people will begin to seek me again.  And then I'll punish your enemies and send your people home again."

And Habbakuk, is like, "Say what?  That's not a very good plan.  And it's totally not fair.  Those people are worse than we are."

You remember that basically the people of Israel and Judah have completely turned away from following the Lord.  They're worshiping idols, having sex as part of idol worship, and sacrificing their newborn children.  And they've totally forgotten God's promise to bless them if they put him first.

And so if the Babylonians are worse then the people of God, that's pretty bad.
And Habbakuk asks, "Really God?  Really?  Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

The thing is, God absolutely knows what he's doing.  And the more Habbakuk engages God in questions, asking and challenging him, listening to his responses, the more he trusts God's plan.

Until finally he says,

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
      and there are no grapes on the vines;
   even though the olive crop fails,
      and the fields lie empty and barren;
   even though the flocks die in the fields,
      and the cattle barns are empty,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
      I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
 The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
      He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
      able to tread upon the heights.

In other words, no matter that happens, no matter how bad things look, I trust you.  I will rejoice in you.  I will worship you.  Because you are God.  You are my strength.  You are my joy.

We all have questions.  God, when are you going to answer my prayers? When you are going to fix the situation I'm in?  Are you sure you know what you're doing?

God doesn't reject us for our questions.  In fact, like Habakkuk, the more we ask, the more we listen, the more we trust him and the more we worship him.  The more we rely on his sovereign plans.  He really does know what he's doing.  Even if, from our vantage point, he doesn't make sense.

The Prayer

On April 20, Teresa told me the School of Ministry would end in August.  We discussed reasons for the closing, and I didn't even think to ask about my job.  Until that evening.  I knew Teresa was preparing for the Women's Retreat that weekend so I didn't want to disturb her.

All weekend long at the retreat I prayed about my job.  Teresa asked us to write something down on a rock, something that God was asking us to surrender, to give to Him.  When I went forward for prayer, Ruthie asked me what God had asked me to write on my rock, but I couldn't even say the word.

I didn't want to surrender my job.
What would we do?
How would we pay bills?
How would we live?

I really wanted God to suggest another word to write down.  Something that was easier to lay in his hands.
So I said I didn't know.
And then I said I couldn't say it out loud.
And then I said it, "My job."

Ruthie has such a tender heart.  And she prayed for me.
And I tried not to think about any of this.

Until the Reflective Retreat by Kristi DeVito on May 1. In one of our quiet times, I read Psalm 37:  Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

This prompted me to ask:  What do I want?
Here is what I wrote:

  • I want to be Duane's helper, his partner in ministry.
  • I want to love, encourage, disciple women, mostly young women, but all women
  • I want to spend time with God, listening to Him, studying His Word, learning new things
  • I want to teach writing
  • I want to write.  I want to challenge people to see Jesus, whether in writing or orally. 
  • Essentially, I don't want a job.
And then I wrote:  If this is what I want, then why not ask for it?  
And then I wrote the answer to my question:  Impossible.  
And then I wrote the response to that objection: And yet, God is able to do the impossible.  

On May 4, Teresa confirmed my fears.  After the school ended, my job would end.  After that I wrote a resume.  I began applying for teaching jobs and tutoring jobs all over San Diego.  To date, I haven't had a single interview.  

I have never really forgotten my prayer on May 1.  
Frankly, it scared me.  I needed to find a job.  I needed to fill in the loss of income.  I needed to fix the problem.  It was my problem, really.  If I were a better financial planner, perhaps we might have been able to live on Duane's income.  And so I added guilt to my fear.  And I struggled all summer long.

Over and over, God promised Duane and me that he would take care of us.  
And we kept trying to "fix" the problem and find me a job.  

My job ended on August 16.  Still nothing.  
I returned to school for orientation on August 24.  
As I drove out of the garage, I remembered the prayer.  And I thanked God for answering the prayer.  I don't have a job, and I'm free to study, to teach, to write.  I thanked him for working out the details.  Even though I didn't know any of the details.  

Either God is faithful, or he isn't.  
He has always been faithful in the past.  He hasn't changed.

Two things have happened in the last week.  I'm still a little cautious, but I think we'll be okay.  I wish I'd spent the summer celebrating God's faithfulness instead of questioning his intentions.  I wish I depended on him everyday instead of trying to rely on my own problem-solving abilities.  

I am still learning to trust God.


After months and months of writing in this blog, and finding an outlet for my fears and questions, I just stopped writing.  After months and months of finding amazing things in unfamiliar Scriptures, I found myself suffocating in obscure prophets and craving the Psalms. I longed to see Jesus in the Gospels.  I needed the encouragement and challenges of the Epistles.

I'm a rule follower, mostly, and so I wanted to follow the rules in the From Garden to City reading plan.  Plus, I said I would blog through the Bible, and I like to do what I say I'm going to do.

Sadly, I found myself avoiding the Bible most of the day.  And then, because I like to be disciplined, I would try to do the reading and then just give up.  The last one I read was Malachi.  Not bad.  I thought of some things to say, but writing seemed like too much effort.  And then I just kept getting further and further behind.

And I gave up.  I just felt awkward.
And I felt far away from God.
And lonely.

Not because I didn't feel connected to people.  But because I didn't feel connected to God.  And nothing matters more to me than that.

I've been here before, where I felt disconnected from God's presence, from his joy, his strength, his life flowing into mine.  Frankly, this feeling scares me.  I know too many people who have ultimately walked away from God.  And I don't want to do that.  I still remember the difference between "believing" in him and experiencing His Spirit living inside of me.

And so I asked God for help.  I told Him I missed Him.  I told Him I loved Him and longed for Him.  I told Him I felt lost and lonely.

And I woke up singing Psalm 51.  Keith Green's version.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.  And renew a right spirit within me.  
Cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord.  And take not thy Holy Spirit from me.  
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation.
And renew a right spirit within me.  
And so I opened my Bible and spent some time there.
The next day I started reading John again.
And Psalm 73.  And Psalm 63.  And Psalm 121.

I find life in God's Word.
And I didn't want to write about any of this because I needed to take some time with Jesus.  By myself.  I don't want to just write about what I KNOW.  I want to write out of what God is showing me, what God is teaching me.

God has been at work in my life for the last two weeks, as he has all summer long, and I feel a little awkward reentering the blogosphere.  

Our spiritual lives do not tend to follow a very linear path.  At least mine doesn't.
Sometimes I fight to stay in touch with the one who made me.  I wish it weren't like that.  I wish staying connected to God were easy for me.  And yet I think I'm not alone.

At the end of Psalm 119, the psalmist confesses, "I have strayed like a lost sheep.  Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands."

I'm so grateful we have such a good shepherd who seeks us when we are lost.  Who rescues us from danger. Who disciplines us and guides us.  Who loves us.

Yesterday, the From Garden to City reading was Habbakuk.  Seemed appropriate since Pastor Mike is speaking on Habbakuk for a few weeks.  I happily read it.  And Psalm 5.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ezekiel 37: Dem Dry Bones

From Garden to City reading:  Ezekiel 37

Honestly, I'm sort of done with Ezekiel.  I don't understand it, most of it.  It seems pretty dry and lifeless, and I really need some encouragement.  

Just for fun, I looked up some songs on YouTube that go with this passage from Ezekiel 37.  You remember the old Negro spiritual . . .   You can watch the Delta Rhythm Boys sing the song or maybe you'd rather watch Herman Munster.  

Okay, enough fun.  Back to Ezekiel.  

It's books like this that get in the way with going through the Bible in a year.  I totally get the value of prophecy books.  I get the value of understanding God's grace to Israel.  I get it.  

But I'm really tired of hearing about their cycles of rebellion.  
Will they ever come around?  Really?  

We know God returns them to Israel.  We know that because Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  There's a temple then and sacrifices.  There's a high priest.  And the Pharisees make sure that the people follow the law.  

They're not worshiping idols in the temple anymore.  That's good.  But now the law because of the focus of their existence.  And not just God's law, but a few extra rules that the priests and the Pharisees threw in.  Just to make sure people didn't rebel against God.  

But I digress.  
My point is, will these people ever come around?

And that's where Ezekiel 37 comes in.  For all intents and purposes, the people of Israel have no spiritual life in them.  Oh, there are men and women who love God with all their hearts, but for the most part, as a whole, they are doing their best to follow their religion rather than seeking the source of their faith.  

And God gives Ezekiel a vision, a vision we have yet to see come to place.  He shows him a valley of dry bones.  They're all dried up.  No flesh.  No life, obviously.  And God asks Ezekiel, "Son of man, can these bones live?"  

Ezekiel says, "Yeah, God.  I don't really know, but I guess you do."

And God says, "Okay, watch."

He says, 
Prophesy to these bones and say to them, "Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! his is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD."
And so Ezekiel prophesies, and he hears a rattling sound as the bones come together, and muscles and tendons and flesh begins to cover the bones.  But there's still no life in the bones.  And God tells Ezekiel to prophecy breath into them.  And he does.

And these bodies come to life.

And this is what God will do with Israel.  He will put his Spirit into them and they will live.  They will know that God is Lord, and they will worship him again.

And although this passage is specifically for Israel, it represents what God can do in each of our lives, in our families, and in our churches.

Father, breathe your Spirit and new life into my heart, into all our hearts, into our churches.

Ezekiel 34: Sheep and Shepherds the Good Shepherd

From Garden to City reading:  Ezekiel 34

I don't know much about sheep.  Or shepherds.
So when I read the twenty-third psalm, I'm using my imagination to create images.  And when I hear Jesus say, "I am the good shepherd," I'm relying on his explanation of what a good shepherd does.  He lays his life down for his sheep.  He knows his sheep.  His sheep know him.

Basically, shepherds take care of their sheep.  They feed them.  They nourish them.  Protect them.  Guide them.  They'll even die for them if required.

And so this passage stands out.  It's even sort of shocking.

We read about sheep and shepherds in both the Old and New Testaments, and sometimes we're reading about actual sheep and shepherds, and sometimes, sheep and shepherds represent sometimes else entirely.

This is one of those "something else entirely" passages.

The sheep?  Israel.

And the shepherds?  The leaders responsible for caring for the people, for leading the people of Israel.  This includes spiritual and governmental leaders.

Not all shepherds are good.  The shepherds in Ezekiel 34 don't really care for the sheep.  They just want what they can get from the sheep.  Wool.  Food.  Money.

They don't go looking for them when they get lost.  They don't rescue them from lions or overflowing rivers.  They don't risk their lives for the sheep.  They're much more concerned with themselves.

And that's why Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." (John 10:11)

And he expands the meaning of sheep, saying, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen" (verse 16). That's us, if we know our shepherd, if we recognize his voice and follow him.  

So if we are following Christ, we are his sheep.  And he is our shepherd.
We have other shepherds too.  Spiritual leaders.  They are responsible for caring for us, encouraging us, challenging us, rescuing us.

And although we are sheep, perhaps we are shepherds too.  We are all charged with discipling others (see Matthew 28:18-20).  And so, essentially, if we are God's sheep, we are also God's shepherds.

And here, the mixing of these metaphors gets confusing.  The sheep in Ezekiel 34 aren't all that nice to each other, pushing and shoving, some getting more than enough to eat and drink, trampling the food and muddying the water for the others.

And that's where love comes in.
We are sheep.
And we are shepherds.
And we must care for each other.

And I don't know much about sheep or shepherds, but I do know we must love one another.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ezekiel 19-33: I give up



For Israel.
For Tyre.
For Egypt.

I'm reading the same thing over and over, just in different ways.  And I don't know if it's because I feel pressure to get caught up or if it's because I don't really understand everything, but very little stands out to me.  

Until this section in chapter 33.

The people have tired of their sin.  The discipline has worn them out.  And they say, "Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them.  How then can we live?" (33:10)

And God responds:
. . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!
God's disciplines to draw us back to him.  When he leaves us to our sin, the chasm between us grows wide.  When we call on him to save us, when we turn on him to sin, the chasm closes.

This is how we can live.

We can choose to resent God's discipline or we can surrender to him.  It's our choice.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ezekiel 15-18: Allegories

From Garden to City reading: Ezekiel 15-18


  [al-uh-gawr-ee, -gohr-ee]  Show IPA
–noun, plural -ries.
a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning throughconcrete or material forms; figurative treatment of onesubject under the guise of another.
a symbolical narrative: the allegory of  Piers Plowman.

I first caught a glimpse of what it's like to really love Jesus at the end of the The Voyage of the Dawntreader, part of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia

Aslan, the lion, tells Lucy that she can't return to Narnia, and she weeps, saying it's not Narnia she will miss, but seeing Aslan.  He tells her she will learn to know him by his other name in her world.  And it hit me, as much as Lucy loved Aslan, as much as I had learned to love Aslan over the course of these three books, that Aslan is Jesus.  It was obvious really, but at this moment the picture became real.  And I realized I didn't love Jesus as much as Lucy loved Aslan.

Allegories, stories about one thing that are really about another thing, show us truths.  Not in a logical way, but in story form.  They bypass our minds and go into our hearts.

And here is what God, through Ezekiel, does for the people of Israel.  He tells them stories.

I won't lie, the stories about the vine and the eagles don't mean much to me, but the one in chapter 16 creates the story of God's love for his people.  By comparing her to a child, a child he rescues, raises, and loves, he paints the story of Israel.  Her beauty.  He riches.  Her ultimate pride.  Once rejected and then praised by the people surrounding her, she sought her own glory and the love of her enemies instead of the love of God.

And so she will "bear the consequences of her lewdness and her detestable practices."  He will "deal with her as she deserves."

And it breaks my heart, but it makes sense.
They have broken the covenant God made with her.
But he will make a new covenant with her after he has made atonement for her.  (16:63)
And for all of us.

And then we will all know that God is the Lord.

Oh, thank you, Jesus, for your atonement.
Thank you, Lord, for your love and forgiveness.

Ezekiel 12-14: Dramatic Foreshadowing for a Preliterate Audience

From Garden to City reading: Ezekiel 12-14

Sometimes it's just so very obvious I majored in English and study writing.  (Pastor Mike likes to say we just can't help telling our story.)

I previously wrote a post entitled "Signs, Symbols, and Images" in which I discussed my general lack of understanding about God's use of Ezekiel as an object lesson.

This time is different.  This time Ezekiel is right out in the open, packing up his things and heading out of the city every single day, with everybody watching/

This time God says, "I have made you a sign to the house of Israel--so tell them.  I am a sign to you, and this is what's going to happen to you." (Ezekiel 12:5-10)

And they ask, and he tells them.  Over and over.
And the visual nature of this daily act will stay in their minds so that when the people go into exile, they will remember the crazy prophet know that God is the Lord.  They will know that in his love he warned them.  And they will know that the punishment is just.

They will know, declares the Lord, I have done nothing without cause. (Ezekiel 14:23)  And God will save some.  Not because they deserve it, but so that they will know he is the Lord.  (14:17)

We hear a lot about God's love, his compassion, and his forgiveness, but we don't like to talk about his utter holiness and the need to surrender everything we have to him.  Not that we will ever do this perfectly, but that doesn't mean we can set up idols in our hearts, worshiping other gods and putting other things ahead of him.  At some point he will say "no."

8:51 in the morning, and I'm almost awake

I woke up last night at 3:30 a.m.  Technically, I suppose that's morning.  And in fact I wake up at around 3:30 every morning.  Except for the nights I wake up at 2:00.  I lie awake and think through the different situations, mostly financial and related to finding a job that will fill in the gaps.  And then I think about school and teaching and all the things I have to do there.  And I try to think through how I'm going to write the thesis.

Sometimes I walk downstairs and watch television.  But last night I just lay there, thinking about all the things I normally think about and how I wished I could sleep.  And I did fall asleep sometime after 4:45 and then I slept until 7:30.  And now I'm having a hard time waking up.

I'm also having a hard time doing anything productive.  I have my books around me.  My Bible and my journal.  My school stuff is on the floor near my feet.  And I'm not sure what to start with.

The only Scripture I can wrap my head around this morning is from Psalm 73.
Whom have I in heaven but you, and earth has nothing I desire besides you. 
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  
Deep breath.  
I want to live this attitude, resting in the fact that my Lord is with me, holding my hand, working out the details, worshiping Him when I don't know what's going to happen next.  Because nothing matters more than Him.

And yet, I keep forgetting.
I haven't yet learned the art of waiting on the Lord while moving forward.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ezekiel 10-11: A New Heart

From Garden to City reading:  Ezekiel 10-11

I don't understand God's judgement.
And I don't understand his compassion.
I don't understand his second chances.

Their sin is great, but God's mercy is greater.
And so the glory of the Lord leaves the temple, but his spirit becomes a sanctuary for the exiles in faraway lands.  And he promises to bring them back.

And when they return, he will give them "an undivided heart."
Ah, I want an undivided heart, one that is wholly devoted to God.  No mixed motives.  No doubts.  No rebellion.  Unfailing commitment to the God that loves me.

This is the promise.
And he promises that he will take away their hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh.

We haven't seen this prophecy fulfilled in Israel yet.
We haven't seen this prophecy fulfilled in our lives yet.  At least not completely.

I used to feel incredibly ashamed of my divided heart, of my failure to be fully committed to serving God and seeking him.  I'm grateful for Romans 8:1, which reminds me there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.  I'm grateful for Psalm 25:3, which tells me that if I put my hope in God, I will never be ashamed.

And I'm grateful for the promise of an undivided heart.

New Adventures

So yesterday was my last day at Newbreak, and the adventure of trusting God begins. He has always been faithful, and so I'm not sure why I doubt him now, but I do.

I was greeted last night by an email saying my contract at SDSU was being held up because I am signed up for the "wrong" classes.  Never mind that the classes I am supposed to sign up for aren't being offered.  I didn't know that signing up for extra classes would mess things up.

It's an easy fix.  But I'm waiting for the Graduate Advisor to contact me so I can get it fixed.  And in the meantime, I'm a little anxious.

Clearly, remembering God's blessings and being thankful is going to be key here.  Otherwise the anxiety will eat me up.

I am grateful for:

  • Unused vacation pay.  (Being too busy to take off last summer really paid off.  In cash.)
  • One week's severance pay.  (The check that included all these blessings was smaller than I anticipated.  Apparently when you actually make money the government takes a bigger share.)
  • A fabulous husband and three amazing kids.  I got to spend time with all of them yesterday.
  • That Caitlin was able to get the classes she needs.  (Still waiting on French, but if she doesn't get it, she'll get it later.)
  • School.
  • Absolutely incredible friends.  
  • A new phone.  
  • Our house.  And the beautiful grassy area outside our front door.
  • My Honda Civic.  It runs!!!!
  • Jesus.  Today I feel his peace.  
  • Computers and internet.  
Most of us experience anxiety in uncertain situations.  In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul reminds us to rejoice in the Lord always.  I haven't done that everyday this summer.  I wish I had.  He says, "Don't worry about anything!  But in everything, present your requests to God--with thanksgiving."  

And so, I'm praying that the situation at SDSU gets resolved quickly.  I'm praying for a few small jobs.  I'm praying for wisdom with writing.  I'm praying for the coming school year.  And I'm asking God to meet all our needs.  I'm also asking for joy.  

And the promise here?  Peace.  Peace that transcends understanding.  Peace that goes beyond my ability to understand everything that's going on.  

Pretty standard stuff.  I've read this passage, recited this passage so many times in the last thirty or so years.  And yet, this is a continual challenge.

Ezekiel 6-9: Judgment

From Garden to City reading: Ezekiel 6-9

Jason asked me about hell yesterday and why a loving God would send people there.  Really, it was more of a discussion than a question.  And the discussion centered around grace, and God's standards, and his claim that God is not loving.

I did my best to explain God's holiness, our sin, the separation between us and God, and his desire to have fellowship with us.  The conversation provided no brilliant epiphanies for Jason.

But honestly, these are tough questions.  Why does God hold such tough standards when he knows that so many of us will fall short?

I'm okay with the answer, that we were created to live in fellowship with God, whose standards of holiness were established in eternity.  But I can't tell you by whom because God has no beginning and no end.  And I'm okay with discussions of God's grace that delivers some but not all.  Although I know God "is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).  But the key is repentance.

And I'm okay with not having a logical explanation for everything.  But right now Jason's more into debate than argument.

And now I will try and tie this discussion into our discussion of Ezekiel and God's judgment on Israel.  When God intervenes in our lives, he does so to connect with us.  Our response to love and mercy is thanksgiving, surrender, worship.  And when we reject him, he disciplines us to lead us back to him.

His goal is reconciliation.

And so God unleashes judgement on Israel.  He says, "I will spare some . . . and they will know that I am the Lord; I did not threaten in vain to bring this calamity on them." (6:9-10)

And they do know.
Ezekiel tells that all who survive "moan like doves," mourn, and hang their heads in shame.

What they don't do is repent. In fact, they decide that God has abandoned them so they can do whatever they want (8:12-13).  In the temple.

And the Lord God unleashes another round of judgement and even more die.

Why does a loving God destroy His people, the people He has chosen, the people He has delivered, the people He loves?

To demonstrate His holiness.
To show that He is the Lord.
To bring them to repentance.
My explanations break down when I imagine the faces of men and women and children in terror, when I imagine their moans, their screams, they cries.

I think I will never fully understand this.  I'm not sure understanding is possible, and I don't need to understand. God is God.

And incidentally God tells Ezekiel that he will judge them not by his standards of holiness, by their own standards (7:26).  Yes.  They can't even follow their own standards. And honestly, we can't either.

I'm so very grateful for God's grace, for His forgiveness, for Jesus' sacrifice.  I'm grateful for God's deliverance.  My response is worship.  My response is obedience.  My response is love.  My response is loving people who haven't yet experienced reconciliation, praying for them, representing Jesus to them in the way I live.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ezekiel 4-5: Symbols and Signs and Images

From Garden to City reading:  Ezekiel 4-5

A few years ago I attended a worship retreat, and one of the themes was captivity.  As in, Satan holds us captive, but God releases us to worship, to serve, to create art.  At the time, God was speaking to me about exactly this thing, and it was a powerful retreat.

And on Saturday night, someone went around and put fake handcuffs on each of us, and we were supposed to pray, asking God to release us, and then we could take off the handcuffs and lay them on a cross and write down an area where God was giving us freedom.  Or something like that.

I say, "Something like that" because the idea of fake handcuffs that I could take off at any time just made me laugh.  And I didn't really take the exercise seriously.

Another time we were all given fake crowns and told to lay them at the foot of the cross.  A sign of submission, I think.  Taking off a fake crown without any real value isn't the same as taking off real crowns, and I didn't take that exercise seriously either.

I love verbal metaphors, but when we have actual symbols that substitute for something else, I pull back a little bit.  I just want to explain things.  I love words.

And so this next section of Ezekiel is a little strange to me because God doesn't just use verbal metaphors.  He instructs Ezekiel to do things.  And the things he does become visual representations of the things God wants to communicate.  We see symbols, signs, and images.

For example, he tells Ezekiel to go inside his house and lie on his left side for 390 days, bearing the sin of Israel.  And when he's done with that, he's supposed to lie on his right side for 40 days to bear the sin of Judah.

I guess he can get up periodically because he's supposed to set aside some grains for bread.  But he's supposed to bake the bread using human excrement as fuel.  That represents the defiled food the people will eat while they are exile.

Ezekiel tells God he's very uncomfortable with that because he has never defiled himself or eaten anything unclear.  So God says, "Okay, Ezekiel.  You can use cow manure instead of human poop."

And so on.  Ezekiel is supposed to shave his hair and his beard and divide up the hair.

And I wonder why God has Ezekiel do such strange things because it really is strange.  I don't have an explanation, exactly, but I do wonder what effect it had on the people.  We have the written word we can refer to over and over, but very few people could read in those days and so symbols had enormous power to speak and to tell the story over and over.  And the things Ezekiel were quite strange and odd, but I'm guessing they actually said things to the people in Israel.

We have powerful symbols in our world too.
Waving an American flag on the Fourth of July says powerful things.  Without using any words.
Burning an American flag says powerful things.  Without using any words.

Sometimes words get in the way of meaning.
And so we have communion.  The bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus.  His body was broken for us, and so we break the bread and eat it.  He becomes a part of us. His blood was spilled for us, and it becomes our life.  Words cannot express what this means.  In fact, when early Christians took communion, they were accused of being cannibals.

And I have been moved to tears when I take communion.

And we have baptism.  We go under the water, representing death, and we are brought up out of the water, and that represents new life, resurrection, now and in the future.

And both these things sound symbolic and strange.  But participating in these actions speaks to our hearts.  And the symbols and images are often louder than words.

Symbols and signs and images have power.

Ezekiel 1-3: Go! Speak!

From Garden to City reading:  Ezekiel 1-3

I can't even imagine what Ezekiel was thinking when he saw the windstorm and the fie and the four living creatures with different heads coming toward him, directed by the Spirit.  I think I would run in fear, terrified for my life.  But Ezekiel keeps watching.  He observes the visual details, the movement, and the sounds.

And then a voice comes from above the creatures, and he sees a throne of sapphire and a figure like a man, but in glowing metal.  Ezekiel describes the scene saying that the radiance around him was "Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day."  (1:28)

And when he saw this, it was like the glory of the Lord, and he fell on his face.  As an aside, Isaiah and John both fall on their faces too.

But the Lord instructs Ezekiel to get up and then sends him on a mission to Israel.
And I love that the Lord hasn't abandoned Israel, but sends someone to speak truth to them.

You remember Ninevah?  God sends Jonah, and they really do repent and listen.

This time God isn't hopeful.  In fact, he says, speak to them, but they won't respond because they're "hardened and obstinate."

And then he says to Ezekiel, "But don't be afraid of them . . ."

And that's all very lovely and historical, but the next instructions from God to Ezekiel challenge me.  He says, "When I tell you that a man will die if he doesn't repent, but you don't warn him, I will hold you accountable for his blood."  (2:18)

Yeah.  We're not responsible for the response, but when God gives us words, we must go and we must speak.  Without fear.

Jesus' last words to his disciples were to "go."  (Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:18-20)
Those instructions are for us too.
And we must speak the words God gives us to speak.

Ezekiel and Nonlinear Time

Last year, on a very, very hot day, Duane, Caitlin, and I ended up at World Market in La Jolla Village Square.  We didn't really want to go home so we went to the movies, and we saw 500 Days of Summer.  (I am not recommending this movie, for several reasons.)  It told the story of a man who fell in love with a woman who ultimately did not love him and then married someone else.  But it didn't tell the story in chronological order.  It started with day 30 and then went to day 420 and then to day 1 and was basically all over the place.  Well, to be honest I don't remember what day it started with, but you get the idea.  

At the end of the story, it all made sense, and we understood the chronological story.  But the director didn't tell it that way.  

These prophecy books are similar.  They don't always follow a nice neat timeline.  And I'm pretty sure in the end it will all make sense, but we haven't reached the end yet, and so we find prophecy confusing.  

I'm sure it all makes sense to God.  He sees time from a different perspective than we do. 
In fact, he created time.  

Yes, time is a creation.  

At any rate, I say all this because the book of Ezekiel is a little confusing.  Some of it addresses events happening while the Jews are in exile.  Some of it addresses events in the near future.  And some of it addresses events that haven't happened yet.  

With that said, it's all very hard to make sense of unless we study Ezekiel at the time time we study Isaiah and Revelation and Jeremiah and Daniel.  And I'm not going to do that.  

I believe God blesses us as we read Scripture even when it doesn't all make sense.  
I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through God's Word.
And so, with that, I give you Ezekiel.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nehemiah 9-13: Mourning the Sins of our Fathers

From Garden to City reading:  Nehemiah 9-13

Honestly, I never understood the idea that we're responsible for things done before we were even born until I read this passage.

The people recount God's goodness to their ancestors, the way he continually forgave them and then gave them this land.

One by one they list the blessings:

  • You didn't abandon them in the desert.
  • You guided them. 
  • You fed them and gave them water.  
  • You gave them kingdoms and nations.  
  • You made their sons as numerous as the stars.  
  • You gave them houses and vineyards and fruit trees.

And then they recount the rebellion and the exile.
And the way God delivered them once again when they cried out in repentance.

These people, these people received the inheritance of their forefathers.  They didn't do anything to deserve it, but they received the blessings promised to their ancestors.  

Why shouldn't they also take responsibility for the sin?  

Their ancestors, most of them, are long gone and cannot repent.  
But God has a long view of history, he sees it less in segments, the way we do, and more of a continuous line. And these people, who didn't actually rebel, mourn and repent for the sins of their forefathers. 

And God forgives them.  

And I think of the blessings we receive as Americans. 
They fought for independence.
They struggled in the wilderness.  

And then I think of the sins of our forefathers.  
Slavery.  Racism.  Murder.  

It seems very un-American to think we are responsible for whatever went before us.  We're more individualistic.  And yet, I wonder.  

Is there anything we need to mourn?
Is there anything we need to repent of?  

Nehemiah 8: Celebrate!

From Garden to City reading:  Nehemiah 8

I'm back.
It's been a long week as I sort through mixed feelings.
Yesterday I prepared for the NBSOM graduation, to celebrate what God has done in the lives of these students who stuck it out an entire year, who immersed themselves in God's Word, committed to serving Him, and spent time with a mentor, who encouraged and challenged them.

And I just wanted to celebrate.
But I knew this was the end of a regular job and a sense of financial security.  (It's not huge, but I was getting a paycheck every other week.  And that's something.)  And so I was on the verge of tears most of the day.  Yes, I think it's sort of like feeling sorry for myself.  And it's a lot like not trusting God, not being excited to see what he's going to do.  Neither of those things are okay.  Sometimes I don't like being human.

This rambling actually does connect to the Nehemiah 8.
The Israelites finished the wall, and they gather together to hear Ezra read God's Word.  There's power in the Word, and they fell to the ground and wept loudly as they heard the words.

Ezra interrupted them, saying, "Stop!  This isn't a time to mourn your sin and what's been lost because of it.  This is the time to celebrate what God's doing NOW!  Now get up and celebrate.  Go eat and drink the best of what you've got.  And share with those who don't have as much as you do.  Laugh.  Sing.  Be joyful.
There is definitely a time to mourn.  But it should never take away from our celebration.

All day I asked God to help me celebrate last night.  (I know this isn't a direct parallel, but it's the best I can do.)  I really did.  God blessed these students tremendously, filled them with His Spirit and taught them how to read his Word.  And I got to be a part of it.  Why not rejoice?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I can't do ANYTHING. So I will have to trust God.

Last night, at 7:30 p.m. PST, Caitlin tried to sign up for her classes at Grossmont College.  I'm in Oklahoma right now so she's pretty much on her own.   At 8:00 PST, she called.   In tears.  It won't let her sign up for classes.
This is pretty urgent.  Most classes are full and so she's choosing leftovers, basically.  Budget cuts have hit community colleges really hard.  

I am a problem solver by nature and so I got her password and attempted registration here in Muskogee.  It's a slow process.  Grossmont must be operating on an ancient server.  I finally got everything entered, and I hit submit.  Turns out Caitlin needs an HS authorization form on file.  

What is an HS authorization form?  Now it's 10:30 p.m. in Oklahoma.  I was exhausted before, but now I'm frustrated and angry and stressed.  

Some research on the internet, and I find out.  An HS authorization form is a high school authorization form.  But Caitlin is not in high school so she doesn't actually need one.  And the offices are closed until Monday.  And students are signing up for classes.  By the time she gets to sign up, there will be even fewer classes.  I write a few notes to people in the Admissions office hoping one of them is working this weekend and can take care of the problem, but I am not hopeful.

So I call Caitlin and explain the situation.  It does not go well.  She's scared to go to the offices on Monday morning because she'll probably cry when she explains the situation.  And I can't go with her because I'm in Oklahoma.  And so I get really short with her.  

And now it's past 11:00 p.m.  in Oklahoma, and we need to get up and get moving in the morning.  Today's my research day and I really want to be awake and alert.  And I can't sleep.  

And so I lie in bed trying to find a solution.    

Suddenly I realize.  We can't solve the problem.  We can't do anything until Monday.  
And so worry and anxiety is totally useless.  

All we can do is trust God. 
This was my mantra until about 12:30 p.m. when I finally fell asleep.  
I can't do anything.  So I will have to trust God. 

If you're reading this, you can pray that Caitlin gets in the right classes.  And you can pray for her on Monday that she has courage and doesn't cry when she goes to the Admissions office.  And you can pray that we will trust God.  

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nehemiah 7: Shifting Missions

From Garden to City reading: Nehemiah 7

Change is one of life's greatest challenges.
Once we get going on things, we don't like to shift gears.
But life moves forward at a rapid pace, and we must move with it, or become irrelevant and obsolete.

Once the people rebuild the gate and install the doors, there's no need for gate and door builders.
The mission shifts.

Nehemiah sets up new ministry teams and new safety measures.
Temple servants.
And so on.

So we plant churches.  They grow.  New people.  New ministries.  New mission.  Yes, the essential mission stays the same--drawing people close to God, close to each other, reaching outside the walls of the church--but the way we do it shifts.

What works for a small church doesn't always work for a larger church.  And what works for the larger church may not be effective for a smaller church.  Our goal is not do the same thing the same way, but to find the best way to fulfill the mission God has sent us to do.

Whether that's building a wall or building a church.
We are always changing.  Always growing.  Always becoming.
We are always willing to shift the mission according to God's plan.

So we raise children.  And they grow up.  The mission shifts.  Our role shifts.

Nehemiah 6: Roaming Enemies

From Garden to City reading: Nehemiah 6

I've been looking at "enemy" passages in the Bible lately.

Jesus tells us that our enemy is like a thief; he wants to steal, kill, and destroy us.  Peter instructs us to always be self-controlled and alert because our enemy is roaming around, looking for opportunities to "devour us."  And Paul tells us that we don't fight against flesh and blood, but the against spiritual forces in the heavenly realm.

Spiritual warfare.
We tend to exist in extremes.  On the one extreme, there's a devil behind every rock and every struggle is a spiritual attack.  On the other extreme, none of it is spiritual warfare.

My own tendency is to underplay what's going on in the spiritual realm, and I think that may be the wrong attitude.  However, spiritual warfare seems designed to keep us from pursuing God and pursuing his mission.  And if I think of it that way, it's a little easier.

What's keeping me from pursuing God with my whole heart?
Inability to accept his love?
Pursuit of my own desires?

What's keeping me from doing the things that God has asked me to do?
Is it fear?  What kind of fear?  Fear of the unknown? Fear of failure?
Is it anger? Resentment? Unforgiveness?

Our enemy uses targeted strategies.  That is, he finds our vulnerable areas, and he hits us there.  Do you think you are a failure?  He's going to use fear of failure, or memories of past failures, or images of future failures.  Do you think you're not good enough or not smart enough?  He'll send people in your life to remind you of when you weren't quite good enough or smart enough.  Or he'll get you to question yourself and your abilities.

You'd think we'd figure out his strategies after a while, but unfortunately, we tend to fall prey to the same strategies over and over again.

Fear of the unknown is one the enemy throws at me repeatedly.  I avoid doing things I have never done before.  Or things where the outcome is uncertain.  I'm not sure why.  I haven't figured that out yet.

That's where being self-controlled and alert (1 Peter 5:6-8) comes in.  When I realize that I'm avoiding a task that needs to be done because I don't know how to do it, I can turn that over to God.  Trust him with the outcome and move forward.

Sometimes I think I'm just not good enough or smart enough.  Apparently I maintain the delusion that anything less than perfection is failure.  And that if I'm just good enough or smart enough, then the results will be guaranteed.  When I remember to depend on God's strength and trust him with the results, I depend less on my own abilities and intelligence.  Apparently he's omnipotent and omniscient.

Such great words.  They just mean that God is all-powerful and all-knowing.  My Sunday School teacher taught them to us in second grade, which seems a little odd, but we were Presbyterians, and they're really into words like that.

But back to Nehemiah.  And I really do have a point about spiritual warfare and strategies and being alert and watchful.

God sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to build the wall.  But his enemies (God's enemies) want to stop him from fulfilling this mission.  So they try all kinds of things.  Fortunately, Nehemiah sees through every one of them.

First they try diplomacy.  "Hey, we're living side by side.  Let's get together."  Nehemiah responds, saying, "I'm busy.  Maybe after the wall's built."  He doesn't have time for polite gestures.  He's on a mission.  Anything that takes him from that mission is disobedience.  (I need to think about this one.)

Then they act like they want to be helpful. "We heard a rumor that you all are planning a revolt and that's why you're rebuilding the wall.  Plus you want to be king.  Let's get together so we can dispel these rumors."  Nehemiah tells them they're just making that stuff up and they should go away.  Sometimes rumors distract us from our mission.

Then they enlist one of Nehemiah's friends, who warns him that his enemies want to kill him.  He promises to protect him.  But Nehemiah refuses to succumb to fear.  Incidentally, sometimes our enemy uses people we trust to get to us.  Sometimes they know they're being used.  But more often they don't.

Awake.  Alert.  Self-controlled.  Wearing the armor of God.  Truth.  Faith.  God's righteousness.  God's word.  Prayer.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nehemiah 3-5: The Team

From Garden to City reading:  Nehemiah 3-5

Yesterday, in Body Life, I wrote about the importance of working as a team.  Nehemiah names the teams in chapter three.

It seems like everybody (with the exception of a few nobles from Tekoa) got involved.  Not just the gate and wall builders.  Goldsmiths, perfume-makers, priests, temple servants, and farmers.  Even women joined in the effort.  (I just love that Nehemiah lets us know that.)

Sometimes we exclude ourselves from a project because it's out of our "gifting."
Sometimes it's good to go ahead and join the team. Work together.  For a single purpose.

I was going to stop right there.
Nice, neat ending for a short post.  I was sort of thinking of Philippians 2:1-11.

And then I started reading again.

Teamwork is rarely nice and neat. It sounds so ideal, but in the end, people have to work with people.  And people aren't nice and neat.

First, the opposition came from outside the Jewish community.  The people totally panicked because outside tribes threatened to attack. Prayer and preparation averted the battle.

Lots of prayer.  Lots of weapons.  Lots of work.
The people joined together, kept working, carried weapons, and promised to protect each other.

Sometimes it's easier to dispel opposition that comes from outside the community.  Think about 9/11.  For about a month, Democrats and Republicans, people from across the country, banded together.  We were Americans.  Yeah.  That lasted about a month.

Next, the opposition came from within the Jewish community.  Rulers and nobles taxed the poor, but the poor were so busy rebuilding the wall that they didn't have time to work their land and earn money for taxes.  When they couldn't pay, the rich and the powerful took the land and sold the poor people's children into slavery.

Eventually the poor said, "No more.  Why should we work on walls to protect land that's not even ours anymore?"

Good question.
There's no political commentary here.  I have nothing to say on the subject of taxes. This post is about teamwork. How do we treat each other? And if you're in leadership, do you value the people you serve?  Or are they serving you?

And do we take on the role of a servant, setting aside our own personal interests for the interests of others? (Yes, I am back to Philippians.)

Do we consider others better than ourselves?
Are we willing to be like Jesus?

Yeah, teamwork.
It's totally necessary if we want to join God in his plans.
And yeah, it's not that easy. But it's worth it.

Who's on your team?
What's your purpose?
What's kind of opposition are you experiencing?
How do you counter it?