Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

I scrolled down FB yesterday morning, and I came across my friend Derek's status update.  He wrote,

I want God to do something amazing in my life in 2011! This New Year I want to take advantage of every opportunity God gives me to show how great He is; then I know I'll see Him do something amazing in my life. My highest and greatest purpose as a life-long follower of Jesus Christ is to spread the greatness of God regardless of the circumstances of life...
It got me thinking, and I asked myself, "What do I want to see God do in 2011?"
And that forced me to ask another question, "What does God want me to do differently or change in 2011?"

I believe in a powerful sovereign God who does all that he wills, but I also believe in personal choice.  I don't believe we are automatons, and I do believe God empowers us to do the things we might not necessarily do and to choose things that please him instead of things that please ourselves.

I stopped making New Year's resolutions when I was a teenager.  Really.  There didn't seem to be much point.  No matter what I put on the list, I had lousy follow-through.  No follow-through actually.  And so I just quit.  In those days, and for a long time afterward, I avoided things that made me feel like a failure.  And I didn't understand the value of grace or the importance of commitment to a journey of change.

This year, however, I think I want to try again.  There are some things I need to change in my life, and I think now is a good time begin incorporating some new patterns into my life.

Once I started journaling, I had a hard time stopping.  In fact, I thought of new things all day long.  I'm thinking a super long list probably isn't a great idea and may be a path to failure, so I want to pray about these things and which ones to begin adopting.

  • Exercise - I exercised regularly for over a year before I started working full-time, and I felt great.  As I age, there are other benefits, also important.
  • Eating healthy - Also before I started working full-time, I adopted the South Beach Diet guidelines.  I lost weight and felt great.  Duane and Caitlin obviously didn't need to lose weight, but they also felt great.  Let's face it.  I'm not getting any younger.
  • Lose 15 pounds.  I'm not sure I have a lot of control over this one, but if I do the two things above, I probably will lose weight.  
  • Continue blogging.  I'd like to commit to 300 posts this year.  That may be ambitious.  I have 242 for 2010.  And I need a new theme.  I am a very themed person.
  • Submit articles to a publishing company.  I have to figure out how to do this.  And it might not happen until after the thesis is done.  But it needs to happen.  It's time.
  • Finish the thesis!  I want to commit to a schedule for getting this done.  I always operate better when I have deadlines.  
  • Commit to putting myself out there to find work.  When I'm done with the thesis, or maybe before.  
  • Fast regularly.  A plan, a schedule, something I can actually do would be good.  
  • Have people over to dinner regularly.  Even though I'm busy with school.
  • Spend quiet time with God.  I generally do my devotions in my room, and sometimes the TV is on.  Sometimes I stop to look at FB.  I want really quiet time so I can listen to God's voice and not just my own.  No computer.  No noise.  No distractions.  To do this one, I need to find a space and a time to commit to.
I can change lots of things in my life.  Assuming I have willpower and commitment and find people to hold me accountable.  However, I don't have control over everything.  I can change the way I eat and the way I move, but I can't guarantee good health for me, for Duane, or for friends and family.  I can learn how to submit articles to magazines and then send them off, but I can't make publishers decide to print my words (and pay me).  I can finish my thesis and graduate, and I can write a brilliant resume, but I can't move the hearts of college administrators to hire me to teach their students.  I can commit to spending time with God, but this isn't a bargaining chip for hearing God's voice or seeing church growth.  

And so what do I want to see God do this year?  
  • Fill me increasingly with his Spirit.  
  • Continue working in the life of Duane.  I am grateful he is a man of God.  I'm grateful that he listens to God.  
  • Work in the lives of my children.  And the lives of friends and family.  I long for God to lead and guide, to heal wounded hearts and bruised relationships, to free people from their past.  
  • Grow Newbreak.  All of Newbreak, but specifically, Santee.  I love this little church and the people in it more than I can explain.  And I think numbers are great, but I'm most interested in spiritual growth, commitment to loving God and worshiping him with hearts and actions.  Numerical growth normally follows spiritual growth, but numerical growth without spiritual growth doesn't last long.  And it doesn't change lives.  
I'll be thinking and praying about this more today.  I plan to make a list later today.  Or tomorrow.  Today I'm still on vacation.  

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas is over, and now I'm just tired. (In Napa.)

I thought I was pacing myself.  I thought I was enjoying the holidays.  I thought I was resting and relaxed.  Based on how tired I am now, four days after Christmas, I don't think so.

I stopped blogging over a week ago and went into Christmas mode.  Family arrived.  Grocery shopping, Christmas Eve rehearsals, and Christmas took over my life.

And then we left.  Good thing we came up a day early because when the rain came yesterday, it poured.

This hotel is more beautiful than I imagined, and I want to enjoy it, enjoy downtown Napa, and enjoy my husband, but I keep wanting to take a nap.

I am blessed.

  • Blessed to be married to a man who loves me and serves me and allows me to be me.
  • Blessed to have three children who actually like me.
  • Blessed to belong to a church family that I love intensely.
  • Blessed to have people in my life who challenge me and encourage me.

Blessed to have days like today (and yesterday) when I can relax and rest and enjoy beauty.  Blessed to have time to breathe.

Going back. | Stuff Christians Like – Jon Acuff

Going back. | Stuff Christians Like – Jon Acuff

Jon Acuff shares a beautiful story that reflects what it means to be a child of God. How did so many of us miss this?

Going back.

Someday, I need to go to Africa.

My uncle Bill helped start a school in Kenya that I want to visit. More than 480 students attend the school where they get housing, three meals a day, clothing and an education. A large percentage of the children that attend are victims of the AIDS crisis that is ravaging Africa. One couple who are friends with my uncle adopted a young girl there who was born HIV positive. Typically, if there is going to be an adoption of this type, it happens when the child is still a baby. But this little girl had been passed over and spent the first 5 years of her life waiting to be adopted.

When the couple came to speak at my dad’s church, the father said something interesting about the little girl. He said “We kept hoping that she would be disobedient and break the rules.” As a young father, I have to confess this hope has never crossed my mind with my own children. Just this morning when I was leaving the house, my five-year-old was yelling at my seven-year-old for tricking her. My oldest daughter likes to wake up first and will usually Mission Impossible her way downstairs quietly before my youngest daughter wakes up. This morning, because they’re sharing a room with our family in town, L.E. had to take a different route and told McRae, “You should snuggle all your dolls.” Then while McRae enjoyed a sister inspired moment with her dolls, L.E. bolted for the stairs, leaving McRae in her dust.

In general, rule breaking is not something I wish for in our house. It seems like a strange thing for any father to hope for, but the father who adopted the orphan had a reason.

“When we first adopted her, she tried her hardest to be perfect. This little six year old girl was terrified that if she broke the rules she would be kicked out of our family and sent back to the orphanage. For her, breaking the rules would be a sign that she was comfortable and was no longer living in fear.”

I’ve talked about this idea before, but it felt right today because we are on the precipice of a new season of perfect. It’s December 29. In less than 72 hours, we’ll have a chance to make a fresh start in a fresh year. The calendar will declare a do over, a new day in a new month and a new decade to live better and be better and try harder.

I know I can’t be perfect. Past failures have made that crystal clear, but I still try sometimes. I still try to hold my breath and white knuckle my way back into the father’s arms. Creating lists, manically measuring my quiet times, doing the yo-yo diet version of faith. I don’t want to fail. I want to be perfect.

I want to free myself from the mess, clean my act up and string together a good solid month, of good solid living before I return to the God. But I’m not sure that is how God sees my life. In Psalm 103: 3-4, God is described as he “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with compassion.”

The word I love in that passage is “from.” On the surface it’s a transition word, but the reality is that “from” represents the difference between man and God. In the world, when you fall into a pit, you’re expected to get back out. You dug it yourself, you climb out of it yourself. Get yourself together. Straighten up. Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution. In every job you’ve ever had and most of the relationships you’ve been in, this verse would read, “who redeems your lifeafter the pit.”

But in God’s world, He comes to the pit. He redeems us from the pit. Not once we’ve managed to get out of it, but from the middle of it. From the deepest part of the pit. He gets down with us in the pit and rescues us from it. Not after it.

I’m sure that little girl in Kenya has failed at this point, that’s kind of one of the things we all do. But I’m sure that when she shared that failure with her father, he didn’t return her to the orphanage. Why?

Because rescue is a one way trip.

There will be no going back.

Whether she fails a 100 times or a million times, that decision was already made.

For you, for me, for all the imperfect people.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: Loving God with mind, heart, and strength.

Duane and I got up early on Saturday morning so that I could pick up a couple things from Henry's.  I decided very last minute to make some bruschetta at a dinner party I was hosting that night and needed tomatoes.   Henry's goes all out at Christmas.  Decorations everywhere.  Christmas music through the store.  The clerk will even say "Merry Christmas," an increasingly rare greeting.  And so as I walked through the store, I reflected on this Christmas season.  I'm enjoying Christmas this year, and I'm working very hard to breathe and not let it get overly crazy, but I admit that the season is not magical.  My heart does not leap at the sight of twinkling lights or trees or the scent of Christmas tree.  And I wondered if this is as good as it gets.  If so, I'm okay with that, but I wondered what it would be like to just sit back and experience things without trying to figure them out.  I tend to internalize, analyze, understand, isolate.

I didn't have a lot of time to think about this thought.  Saturday was going to be a very busy day, a brunch in the morning, cooking all afternoon, and then dinner at night.  It's always a little complicated to cook in someone else's kitchen.

I didn't really know what the first event would be like.  A woman I've never met holds a Bible study about romance and the bride of Christ at a recovery center for women.  She was holding a wedding ceremony and reception for these women.  My friend Denise got invited and asked if she could bring a few friends.  And so Portia and I headed up to Ramona to join Denise at this wedding ceremony for the bride of Christ.

I don't attend these kinds of things very often.  First, I feel awkward at recovery centers.  And second, I don't like attending events where I don't know people.  Finally, bride of Christ events seem a little melodramatic sometimes.  Remember, I'm the one who laughed at the handcuffs at a worship event.  I love verbal metaphors, but tangible symbols always make me feel a little awkward.

Honestly, I'm not sure exactly why I said yes.

We arrived at a home in the hills around Ramona.  Okay, this was the most impressive house on the street.  The event was not being held in the recovery center, but in the home of the woman who leads the study.  Okay, now I feel a little more comfortable, but I still don't know anyone.  Patty, the study leader, greeted me at the door and gave me a big hug, totally unexpected.  Later, Patty opened the program by stating she had been praying for all of us, that the God who loves us would move in each of our hearts, speak to us, transform us.  I was dubious.  The canopy draped with silk and sequined fabrics seemed a little odd, and then Denise sat down on the front row.  I don't sit on front rows.  Too much exposure.  People can see you.

Long story short, this was nothing we thought it would be.

Interpretative worship dancers in long flowy clothes and bright colors interpreted songs, and I appreciated the aesthetics, the movement, the symmetry of the dancers, the way they used their bodies to communicate the lyrics in a meaningful way.  But I remained unmoved.

I thought, if I just close my eyes, I can begin to internalize the images and maybe they will speak to me.

And I realized that was a pretty ridiculous thought.  If I close my eyes, I can't see the dancers.  I don't allow their movement or their choreography to speak to me.

And so I tried, I really tried to just experience the dance.  Appreciate it without trying to analyze it.  Look at the faces of the dancers and see their heart.  And I know that sounds a little analytical, but I can't help it.

The thing is, I love this part of me.  God created this part of me.  And yet, this analysis is a safe zone for me.  A place where I can isolate myself from people, from experiences, from connection.

One of the dancers told her story of falling in love with Jesus, the things that held her back, something she hid from other people, and how the power of God strengthened her and allowed her to surrender to God's love, and then she began to dance.  Another dancer told her story, and at the end of her story, she invited us to stand, if we felt comfortable and to dance with her, following her movements.

I hesitated.  This is not something I do.  I don't dance--except in my imagination.  And so, exactly because this is something I don't do, and exactly because I had been having these "experience" conversations with myself and with God, I stood and began to move.  Of course we stood in place.  There were too many women in the room to go leaping and twirling around the floor.

The next dancer told her stories, and again we were invited to join her in dancing.  This time, however, we were invited to use our own motions.

The front row seats gave me what I considered a great advantage.  I didn't see anyone around me, and I didn't have to worry about hitting someone with my waving arms.  I set aside the desire to hold back, and I worshiped God with my arms, and with my heart.

I danced.

At the end, Patty invited to receive a white rose and to lay it at the foot of the cross, surrendering the thing we were hiding from other people.  And I thought to myself, I'm not really hiding anything.  I just don't live out of a whole self.

God created us with three parts, our mind, our spirit, and our body.  
I'm comfortable with the first two, but the physical part of me?
The part that experiences life?  The part that enjoys things just because they are and doesn't try to figure them out? The part that holds back and waits and listens?  The part that takes risks and doesn't worry about being right or wrong?

So, if I am hiding something, it's hidden from me as well.  And I hesitate to even share this story because, well, it just doesn't quite make sense to me.

How do I live out of the part of me that I don't know?  And so, I'm trying to figure that out.  Which, I suspect, may be counterproductive.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: Isaiah 30 - That's okay, God. We've got it covered.

Last year I went out with a few of my friends from school, and one of them mentioned that she had recently been to a church.  She really enjoyed it because the teaching described how God can be whoever we need him to be. That made sense to her, she thought.

Hmm.  What to say?

Debating the essence of God, with the objective of winning an argument, isn't the most effective means of evangelism.  So I needed to open up the conversation carefully.

I can't remember the conversation word for word, but I opined that if God is really God, if he is not just another being like us, then he gets to define himself.  We may misunderstand him, but he does indeed get to say who he actually is.

That made sense to her, and the conversation wandered into new directions as we discussed Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael and reflected on how this great group of friends would soon be splitting off as most of them graduated in the spring.

The thing is, God does get to be God.  My friend doesn't confess to be a Christ follower so these are legitimate questions for her to ask as she explores ideas of faith.

It gets more problematic when those of us who do follow Christ decide to define him according to our own needs and desires instead of by what he says in Scripture.

If you're following this blog, you may have read The Messenger.  God called Isaiah to deliver a message to the people of Israel.  I mentioned that perhaps the people wouldn't be that receptive to the message, and that is certainly the case.

They've got problems.  Neighboring countries are attacking.  They've asked Egypt to help.  And Isaiah's going around telling them that's not going to work.  They need to return to God.  They need to seek him.  And obey him.

Obedience is such a bore.

Essentially, they tell Isaiah (30:10-11):
Enough with your prophecies and your visions already, Old Man.  We don't really want to hear them.  If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all.  
Go away.  Leave us alone.  Stop telling us what God says.  We can find better god-voices that that one.  And anyway, we've got it covered.  
Like my friend, like many of us, we don't want to hear what God wants us to hear.  We don't want him to solve our problems if it means we need to change the way we live.  And so we shape the god-voices that make us feel good.  We can find our own solutions and so we don't want to be bothered by what God has to say.

And God says, Sorry. That's not the way it works.
In repentance and rest are your salvation.  
In quietness  and trust are your strength.  
Turn away from your broken ways.  Turn away from the idea that you can solve your own problems.  On your own.  Without me.  Turn to me and rest in my love.  Trust me.  Be still and know that I am God.  And I will take care of you.  (Isaiah 30:13)

And they people respond, "No thanks, God.  Really.  We've got it covered.  Our horses are really fast, and it's not a problem."

But it is a problem.   And the horses aren't quite fast enough, and the people are "left like a flagstaff on a mountaintop."  Basically, they are sitting ducks.  And w'ere not a lot different.

Why is it that we would rather do things our own way?  Find our own solutions?  Why is that we don't want to sit quietly and ask God what he wants us to do?  What he wants to change?

And the faster our horses go, the faster the problems chasing us go.  Until finally we have no more solutions left.  We have nowhere to turn but to God.

And still, "the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.  For the Lord is a God of justice.  Blessed are all who wait for him."  (30:18)

And at some point, we realize that no, we don't have it covered, and yes, we do need God.  Not the one that we define according to our own desires, but the God who defines himself.  And Isaiah says, ". . . how gracious he will be when you cry for help.  As soon as he hears, he will answer you" (30:19)

I guess the waiting, the sitting, the listening, the trusting are harder than running as fast as we possibly can.  At least they are for me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: Isaiah 28 - Do and do, do and do.

I realized a few years ago that I am a rule follower.  Oh sure, there are some rules that I think are absolutely ridiculous, but I follow most of those just because.  And I make up extra rules all the time.  

Rules create boundaries, boundaries create structure, and for people like me, who lack natural structure or self-discipline, that structure creates order in the midst of the chaos of life.  

My lifestyle creates chaos, so a little order in the midst of disorder can be a very good thing.  Rules keep me moving.  They keep me on track.  They make sure I do the things God has asked me to do.  

Last February I committed to blog through the Bible.  Although I hoped someone would read what I wrote, I didn't really know if anyone would.  I needed to discipline myself to write.  I may be too scared/busy to try getting published right now, but at least I can get published on the World Wide Web.  

And so I began writing.  So far, I have 237 posts written in 2010.  When this one is done, I will have 238.  

The discipline has done everything I hoped it would do.  It keeps me on track.  It challenges me to write.  It gives me things that I can actually submit to publishers when I have time/am not too scared.  

It also makes me a little legalistic.  
Like I feel guilty when I don't do what I have committed to do.  Like I've failed.  Or cheated.  

Right now I've read all the way up to Isaiah 42, but I've only blogged up to Isaiah 28, if you count the post I'm writing now.  I feel like I need to get "caught up," and then I remind myself that it's really okay. 

It's not just the blog either.  I always feel like I have to do a little bit more than is required.  In my classes.  At work.  With ministry.  And I'm not good about asking for help.  I think if I just try hard enough, I can do everything.  

 I don't have to be so obsessive.  And yet, I am a little obsessive.  A little legalistic.  
These qualities don't exactly strengthen my spirit.  
They remind me to "buck up" and "keep moving." 

As I read through Isaiah last Sunday morning, I highlighted Isaiah 28:10-13 and 23-24.  
For it is: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there.  
At first, I just liked the sheer poetry and rhythm of this verse.  And then, when I thought about it, these words spoke directly to my heart.
Erin, you know in your heart that I am your strength, that I am your joy, that I am the one who works through you.  And yet, you don't ask for help, you forget to ask for wisdom, you forget to rely on me to go before you and show you all you need to know.  You create rules to live by, and while those rules seem rational, I came to free you from rules.  
I came to lead you to a "resting place" (v. 12), so that you can take a break, so that I can fill your spirit with joy, so that I can strengthen you for everything that's coming next.  
Today is a resting day.  I want to get caught up, but writing in the blog is so much more than getting caught up.  At least today it is.  It is a chance to reflect on God's Word and the message of hope in Isaiah, fulfilled through the promise of Jesus arrival.

Isaiah issues a warning to the people of Israel.  You can choose my rest, you can rely on me, or you can choose the rules.  You can continue to do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule, a little here, a little there--and you will eventually fall backward and hurt yourself.  You will become enslaved by your rules, until you turn to me and then I will free you (v. 13).

And then Isaiah tells this wonderful story about a farmer:

When a farmer plow for planting, does he keep on plowing forever?  Does he keep on breaking up the soil over and over again?  Of course not.  At some point, he plants the seeds, as God instructs him, and then he waits.  For God to grow the plants.

And when the grain grows, the farmer harvests his crop and grinds it to make flour, so he can make bread.  so he can eat.  Even then, he doesn't keep grinding forever.

Trust in the Lord.  He wants to nourish our souls.  He wants to give rest.  He wants to free us from the captivity of following laws.

How much better to turn to him, to find strength in him.

Nontraditional Advent: Isaiah 26 - In that day, we will sing this song . . .

Christmastime celebrates joy to the world, peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
As if that actually exists in the world today.

Seriously, my house is pretty peaceful today.  The tree has presents under it.  My kids are amazing.  We like each other.  We're healthy.  I've finished the semester and paid the bills.  Duane has a job, and I love school and teaching.  Our cars run.  We have great friends.

But tomorrow?
I don't know.

  • A friend just got a bad report on her mammogram, and today, as I speak, she is waiting to hear the details.  
  • Another friend's son is in Afghanistan.  He was wounded a couple months ago, and although he's fine, it was a reminder that he's in danger every single day, and the news could have been far worse.  
  • Another friend's marriage is on the verge of divorce.  They hope it doesn't turn out like that, but their history isn't too great.  

That's just a snapshot of the world I know.  The world is a dangerous place.  Every day people go to bed hungry.  Every day crimes take place.  Murders.  Rapes.  Robberies.  Not everyone feels safe in their homes like I do.  Every day children are molested or beaten.

The birth of Jesus didn't signal peace on earth.  It didn't signal the end of economic or political oppression.  Just because my world is good today doesn't mean that it's not pretty rotten for others.

However, it's a powerful reminder that God loves us.  That he longs for a relationship with us.  That we can trust his goodness toward us.

When I was a little girl, I learned a verse from Isaiah 26:  Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace him whose mind is stayed on these, because he trusteth in thee.  Yeah.  You've got to love the King James.

Sometime later I learned the verse in the NIV, and because I actually read the passage, I read that verse in context:
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you.   
Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord is the Rock eternal.    
He humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust.  Feet trample it down--the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor.   
The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.   
Yes, Lord, walking in the ways of yours, we wait for you.  Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.  My soul years for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.
Sometimes, even in times of trouble, when I don't know what's going to happen next, I do keep my mind on Jesus, I do trust him, and he does give me peace.  And sometimes, I panic and get anxious.  I wish I could just trust him all the time.  I wish I could remember to ask for help.

I wish that God's glory and his name were always at the foremost of my thoughts.  My days go much better when I yearn for the Lord's presence at night and when I long for his voice in the morning.

But I'm going to confess.  I don't live like this all the time.  I wished I did, but I don't.
I wish that peace on earth and goodwill among men reigned in our time, but it doesn't.

We live in the tension of now and not yet.
We have the birth of Jesus, his death and resurrection.  We see glimpses the promise of God's kingdom on earth, but we only see as "through a glass darkly."

Today, as I returned to this passage to write on it, I read Isaiah 26:1.  This passage references a song that will be sung "in that day," meaning that the day is not yet.

In the meantime, we walk in faith, waiting, trusting that day will be more than we can ask or even imagine, remembering that Jesus came because God loves us.

  • By the way, my friend with the bad report on the mammogram sent me a FB message while I wrote this.  Everything's good, and I'm praising God for the wonderful news.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: Psalm 84: I would rather write in my blog than write a research paper.

I wonder what it's like to celebrate Christmas and focus on Christmas and family and friends and parties.  Instead, my Christmases, over my adult life, have consisted of end-of-semester finals (1978-1987, 2008-present), production of Christmas musicals (1979-1988), singing or acting in Christmas programs (random years, 1989-1991, random years), planning Christmas services (2003-2007), working for a church where working the services was mandatory (2006-2009).  In addition, we must include Duane's job, which influences our schedule - UPS (1985-2005) and Newbreak (2006-present).

And so, it's no wonder that for years the Christmas season became such a difficult time for me spiritually.

This year we're trying to balance our lives a little more.  I bought most of our gifts online.  I have a couple of parties and get-togethers planned for the weekend.  We even went to December Nights.

I think I'll be a lot more balanced after I finish this paper that I don't want to work on.
I'm surrounded by research, books, printed journal articles, handwritten and typed notes.  I need a plan, and I don't have one.  And the paper's due tonight.

I keep thinking of balance.  Of worship.  Of keeping my eyes on Jesus.  And I just want to cry.  Why is it that writing this paper is so hard?  The research is a joy.  The writing?  Not so much.  I keep feeling like I haven't done enough research, like there is more I need to understand.  My thesis is too broad, but I'm afraid if I narrow my focus I won't have anything significant to say.

Ah.  I just need to finish.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.  My soul years, even faints, for the courts of the Lord.  My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

How lovely it would be to sit with Jesus, to reflect on His Word, to explore meanings and ideas found there.  I feel so much more comfortable with Jesus than I do with academia.  How lovely it will be when I stop striving for perfection, when I can just enjoy the presence of God.

Yes, I do want to sit with my Bible for an hour, but I'm afraid I don't have time.  Shoot.  This is going to be a 15- to 20-page paper, and I have four lines.

The truth is, I would rather do anything than write this paper.  I've picked up the couch in my office.  I found the ear buds I normally use when I sing on the worship team.  I solved a Sudoku puzzle.  I drank three cups of coffee.  I deleted 500 messages from my inbox.  (There are 1500 left so I've got more to eliminate later.)

You can do a lot of stuff in the three hours I've been up.
And finally, I'm just going to sit with Psalm 84 and talk to Jesus and tell him that I'm really struggling.  Maybe he can help me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Psalm 147: Continued Thoughts on the Inadequacy of My Own Strength

Okay, it's just a little weird that as I typed the title of this blog post I felt compelled to capitalize all the right letters, just like I learned in elementary school.  For those of you who don't remember, you capitalize everything in a title except prepositions and articles.  And incidentally, that rule doesn't hold if you are using APA formatting, which only capitalizes the first word and proper nouns.  Yeah.  These rules are confusing.

I tend to memorize these little rules, and I think I'm right, but sometimes the rules change, and although I'm certain of my own correctness, I'm totally wrong.  At least in certain contexts.

I was closing up my Bible after writing the last blog post, but I started reading Psalm 147, and it fit very nicely with what I just wrote and so I decided to add just a few more words to this line of thought.

God desires our worship, and when we focus on our own strengths, our own abilities, when we trust in ourselves instead of in God, we place ourselves and our own abilities above God.

Essentially this is idolatry.  We tend to make little gods of ourselves, and we worship our own strength instead of God's power.

But God's not impressed with our strength.  Psalm 147 tells us God's "pleasure is not in the strength of the horse."  He doesn't delight "in the legs of a man."

Our strength and our intellect and our abilities don't astound him.  After all, he made us.

No, "the Lord delights in the those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love."

And so we learn to worship him.  To give glory and honor to the One who made us, who "covers the sky with clouds, who supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills" (v. 8).  Seriously, it's not like we can make it rain, or even make the grass grow.

How good it is to sing praises to our God.  It's not about the music, or even if we can sing.  It's about praising him.  Thanking him for all he has done.  For all he will do.

Great is the Lord and mighty in power.  His understanding, unlike mine, has no limit.
Lord, help us to see your glory.   
Help us to see your greatness and to understand our dependence on you.  

Nontraditional Advent: Isaiah 17-21 - Trusting in Chariots (or whatever else you have on hand)

I am a puzzle solver.  I rarely get out jigsaw puzzles, which tend to take up space and make a mess.  I prefer Sudoku.  Or Mahjong.  Crossword puzzles are good too, although I don't do them very often and so I'm a little rusty.

Essentially, you have all these little pieces of something that don't make sense, and you examine them and put them together using the clues you've got.  And the more you figure out, the more sense it makes until finally you have a coherent whole.

Ah.  That's a great moment.

I approach writing like that.  I've got multiple ideas, but in order to write something that someone might want to read, I need to piece those ideas together to make sense, to form images and ideas in the imagination of the reader.  Teaching is like that.

Life is like that.  And yes, I tend to approach life like a giant logic problem. I want to analyze each situation and determine the best course to take in order to produce the best results.

Actually, this is a pretty useful skill, and I'm grateful God made me like this.  The problem is that I think and analyze first and talk to God second.  (Sometimes it's not even second.)  God wants me to be completely dependent on him because if I'm trusting in our own abilities, I'm not trusting in his power and might.  Except maybe as a backup.

And although for me it's my analysis and critical thinking skills, but for some people it's something else.  Duane used to trust in his strength and his ability to work harder than anyone else.  Yes, when skinny Duane was a UPS man, he used to carry two 80-pound boxes up to doors.  It took too long to get out the dolly.  And then he blew out both shoulders and had trouble lifting a coffee cup.

God wants us to trust him.  Completely.
He wants us to depend on him and not chariots.

King David sings, "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God!"

After all, chariots break down and horses get tired, but God is faithful and never grows weary.

Isaiah declares, "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord" (Isaiah 31:1).

Why is it that we try to figure things out first, try to push through and do things ourselves first, and then, when we falter, we ask God for help?

Or maybe we succeed, and we start thinking we're really something special.  We learn to rely on our skills, whatever those are, instead of on the Lord.   And God will let be for a while, but ultimately, ultimately, he will assume his rightful place in our lives.

And in that day, that day when the world falls down around us and all our best efforts fail, "men will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 17:7).  They won't look to the things they've made, the idols they've created.  They will ask God for help.

And of course this passage speaks to a future date, when all men will turn to God and call on his name after a time of destruction, but I believe it offers a pattern for us today, one that we see elsewhere in Scripture.

Psalm 146 issues a similar warning, "Don't put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.  When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing" (v. 4).

You'll be blessed when your help comes from the Lord God, when you hope in him and trust him instead of your own resources.

The Lord made everything and remains faithful.  He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.  He sets prisoners free and gives sight to the blind.  He lifts up those who are bowed down and loves the righteous.  He watches over those who feel alienated, who don't belong for one reason or another, and he sustains the fatherless and widows.  (Psalm 146:5-9, paraphrased)

Turn to God.  Trust him.  Depend on him.  
Don't trust in chariots or horses or whatever else you've got on hand.  
Only God can save you.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Tension - Now and Not Yet

This morning I woke up excited to start working on my paper.  Last night, I hit the research jackpot and found sources that should help me, and today I'm hoping to get an introduction and to lay out the foundation for my thesis.  It's nice to wake with focus, but not every day is like today.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I just don't want to do anything. Sometimes I want to quit school.  Quit writing.  Quit trying to accomplish anything.

Sometimes I'm just tired.

Sometimes I wonder why faith requires so much effort.  Why God doesn't just reveal himself to us so obviously that we can't help but cling to him.  Sometimes everything's so hazy that I have a hard time remembering what it is I believe anyway.

Sometimes seeking God requires everything I've got, and I'm not even sure that's enough.  Do my prayers go past the ceiling?  Outside the walls?  Does God hear me?  Will he answer?

And I do believe.  I do believe God is real.  I do believe Jesus is the light of the world, illuminating our hearts, giving us wisdom and understanding, comforting us as we journey through questions and challenges, frustration, and doubt.

Faith is clinging to what we don't actually see yet.  And so I have faith.  Faith in God's love and his compassion and his faithfulness to us.

I look forward to the day when everything's totally clear, when I really can see God face to face.  For now, I trust.  I learn to walk in faith.  

For now, I'm grateful for momentary clarity of purpose that carries me through moments when I can't remember what's true and what isn't. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: Isaiah 13-16 - Punishment and Sorrow. And Compassion.

We ask God for deliverance.  Deliverance from evil.  Deliverance from suffering.  Deliverance from oppression.

And we wait.

When will God make things right?

The Lord Almighty has sworn: Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will be stand.  (Isaiah 14:24).

And what will God do? What are the plans "determined for the whole world" (14:26)?  God will destroy all oppose him.  And we ask, "Really, God?"  Isn't there a better way?  Must people die?  In our culture, this destruction seems unjust, undeserved.

Ultimately, I don't understand God's plans.  I understand He is holy.  I understand He punishes sin.  I understand that discipline doesn't always bring about repentance.  But I struggle with destruction.

Isaiah shows us that the destruction brings God no joy.  Indeed, God says, "My heart laments for Moab like a harp" (Isaiah 16:11; see also 15:5).  He urges the Israelites to also show compassion, saying, "Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer" (16:4).

God's goal is not destruction, but restoration.  His plan is for the aliens, the foreigners, the Gentiles to join with the Israelites, to "unite with the house of Jacob" (14:1).

His goal is to establish a throne of love, "in faithfulness a man will sit on it--one from the house of David, one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness" (16:5).  He promises that "the poorest of the poor will find pasture, and the needy will like down in safety" (15:30).

Right now, we see "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13), but then we shall see "face to face."  We will know fully, even as we are fully known.  We won't struggle anymore.  We will rest in God's love.  We will hear his voice.

We're still waiting.  For the day when everything will be made right.  And I wonder how much longer?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: A Secular Christmas. And Jesus is still present.

On Monday morning, Duane and I headed over to San Diego State to pick up my telephone, which I had left in the TA office on Friday afternoon.  As we drove off campus, I asked Duane if he wanted to stop and sit in a coffee shop so we could do our devotions together.  I figured this was probably the only chance I would have to see him on Monday.  He was going up to Oceanside to see his mom, and I would be sitting at home all day, working on a paper that's due in a few days.

We got our coffee and sat down in a corner.  It's Christmas, and of course Christmas music was blaring.  This is the kind of Christmas music that, although quite cheerful, doesn't really put me in the mood for prayer.  And I so I was reading Isaiah, journaling, and pretty much trying to put the music in the background.

I heard Frank Sinatra singing, "I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells."  And then Eartha Kitt sang, "Santa Baby."  And I marveled at how very un-Christmasy that song is.

I began to pray for different friends, and as I prayed, I wrote each name in my journal.  Hard situations.  Broken relationships.  Abandonment.  Illness.  Disappointment.

And then, I heard these words in a song, offering hope in each situation.  Good tidings of comfort and joy.  And I understand the meaning for Christmas.  When Jesus enters the world, he doesn't enter into a world that knows who he is.  He enters into the Jingle Bells, Santa Baby world.  And he offers hope to that world.

We live in a difficult, awkward world, full of broken dreams.  Sometimes things go well.  And sometimes they don't.  But God is good.  No matter what's going on around us, God is good.

And when the angel came to the shepherds, he said, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Don't be afraid.  Don't worry.  Don't get caught up in your circumstances.  Jesus is here.  He is the Messiah.  He is hope for your future.  He is Immanuel, God with us.  

And then, suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Jesus still makes his presence known in the midst of "Santa Baby" and "Jingle Bells."

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.  The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.  Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name.  Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.  (Isaiah 12).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: Isaiah 9-12 - Light!


I think I take it for granted.  After all, we live in a world with electricity that works pretty much all the time, unlike in other parts of the world.

Right now it's dark outside, but I'm inside, and I can see perfectly fine.  Without it, I couldn't read.  I would have trouble cooking.  I would trip over the Amazon boxes in my office if I tried to leave the room.  Seriously.  We need the light.

And so, we use metaphors involving the word "light."
We "see the light" when we have an epiphany.
When we see the "light at the end of the tunnel," we are approaching the end of a difficult situation.
To "shed some light" one something means to explain something in a way that leads to greater understanding.
And when we're "in the dark," we just don't know what's going on.

Isaiah writes, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light."  And I've heard this passage enough times that I know Jesus is considered to be the fulfillment of this prophecy.  (See Matthew 4:12-16.)

I've been thinking about this passage for a few days now.  The thing is, I think we take the Light for granted.  We have just enough light in our lives that we think we see clearly.  We think we can see where we're going.  We think we know what's happening around us.

It's sort of like when you're reading in the daylight, but the sun starts going down, and you can still see, but you don't realize how the light is disappearing.

John tells us Jesus "was the light of men" (John 1:4-5) that "shines in the darkness, but the darkness" doesn't understand.  He tells us that Jesus is the "true light that gives light to every man [and woman]" (v. 9).

Jesus describes himself using bold terms in John 3, stating, "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God" (John 3:19-21).

We don't need to fear the light.  Jesus didn't come to condemn us, but to save us.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes on him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

He declares, "I am the light of the world" and promises, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

This is the promise of God through Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus.

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."  (Isaiah 9:6)

When I take a moment and think about these descriptions, when I take a moment and think about the Light of the world, dispelling the darkness in my life, then I can't help but celebrate Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nontraditional Advent: All I Want for Christmas . . .

I don't make Christmas Wish lists because it's a great way to be disappointed.  I have a hard time asking for what I want.  Oh, there are a lot of things I want, but I don't really expect people to give them to me.  I hope they will, but I don't actually ask for them.  

And so Pastor Mike's question yesterday is kind of difficult for me.  In the sermon yesterday, "What are you longing for this Christmas?" 

It reminded me of when I was a little girl, and my sister and I spent hours sitting on the harvest gold couch in the living room, poring over the Sears Christmas catalog, playing a game we called "Pick."  In this game, we went through the catalog, looking at three-story Barbie doll houses, and rock tumblers and child-size electric guitars, and as we turned the pages, we took turns picking one thing from each page.  If I picked something, my sister couldn't pick it too.  

This was a fairly competitive game of "mine and not yours."  Except we knew that we were only picking the "idea" of the thing and not the thing itself.  We would never ask for all these things.  Our parents didn't talk much about money, but somehow we knew that it wouldn't actually do much good to ask for any of these things.

Honestly, I don't remember asking for much.  We had everything we needed--clothes, food, housing.  Our parents sacrificed to give us other things too--musical instruments and lessons.  At one point, my mom and dad had five of the six children in piano lessons.  Philip wasn't old enough.  And four of us were taking Irish step dancing lessons.

So we definitely weren't deprived.  Still, we learned not to expect much in the way of "stuff," and we learned not to ask for "things."

One time I asked very specifically for a Skipper doll with bendable legs.  In retrospect, my dad may not have understood how important it was that Skipper could bend her legs.  After all, it's not like she's actually going to get up and walk away.  I could tell from the wrapped box that I was going to get this prized gift, and so I looked forward to Christmas Eve.  This was going to be the best Christmas ever.

Except that when I tore off the paper, I had the old-style Skipper.  I'm sort of embarrassed now by the way I acted.  I think I got quiet and pouted.  I think I got grumpy.  Of course, I was only ten.

We left the next day to visit my grandparents in Kansas, and I know my dad visited multiple Sears stores in the Kansas/Missouri region looking for the "right" Skipper.  I didn't ever thank him, and I don't actually remember if we found the perfect Skipper.  The magical Christmas moment when you open the present under the tree, and it's exactly what you want?  That was gone.  Never to be retrieved.

And so I learned not to ask for much.  And to expect even less.  Which isn't that terrible.  After all, I had everything I needed.  However, I extended this pattern to my relationship with God, which is not such a great thing.  James tells us, "You do not have because you do not ask God" (James 4:2).  And Matthew records the words of Jesus, who tells his disciples, "Ask and you shall receive . . ." (Matthew 7:7).  Paul admonishes us not to worry, but to "present our requests to God" with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:4-7).

I don't think the message here is to ask for Porsches, giant bank accounts, or Barbie mansions.  And so I worry sometimes that I might ask for things inappropriately.  Honestly, I had trouble answering my kids when they asked me what I wanted for Christmas.

And that brings us back to Pastor Mike's question, "What are you longing for this Christmas?"

Here's my Christmas list, the things that are most important to me:

  • I long for my children to experience the joy of God's love.  
  • I long for my children to experience God's presence.  
  • I long for my husband to be increasingly filled with God's Spirit and to walk in all that God shows him.
And for me?  My requests are taken from Psalm 119:169-176.
  • Understanding, according to the Word of God, so that I see circumstances and people through God's perspective instead of my own.
  • God's help in all my endeavors.
  • A heart of worship.  All the time.  I want to see God's greatness.  All the time.
Sometimes, when my heart feels heavy, I pray this prayer, "I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law gives me delight.  Let me live that I may praise you, and may your Word sustain me."

Here's what this means to me:
I long for your presence in this situation.  I long for a heart of worship in spite of the circumstances.  I long to hear your voice right now, in my hurt, in my disappointment, in my anxiety, in my struggles, and I long to rejoice in you.  

That's what I want for Christmas.  And these are gifts only God can give me.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

2 Peter: Excited about Christmas!

I remember being a kid, waiting for Christmas.  It seemed like it would never get here.  And so everything we did, putting up the tree, hanging the ornaments, counting the presents under the tree, singing Christmas carols, decorating cookies, watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, all of these added to the anticipation.  We knew that after all these things happened, then Christmas would be here.

On Christmas Eve, I watched the lights in the sky.  If I saw a red one, I asked my dad if that was Rudolph.  On Christmas morning, we woke up early.  Too early.  And we waited until we couldn't wait any more and then we went and woke up our parents.  Such wonder.  Such awe.   Such joy in waiting and then seeing the promised event actually come to pass.

My sister, brothers, and I celebrated the candy cane in the stocking.  And the little chocolates and the toothbrush, new crayons and color book.  One year I got a bike.  That was a great year, except that I didn't learn to ride it for over a year.  And, of course, sometimes Christmas day wasn't quite what I hoped.  One year I got more clothes than toys.  Another year the Skipper doll I asked for didn't have bendable legs.  I was crushed.

And so I set out to make magical Christmases for my kids.  I wanted to recreate the awe and wonder of my own experience for them.

Those days are over.  My kids are all grown up.  Today they're all coming over to decorate the tree, but it's not like it was when they were little.  In those days, I let them put stickers on the days so that they could count down until Christmas.  I explained, "Only six more sleeps, and then you'll wake up and it will be Christmas."  I hid all the presents in the closet or Kirsten would figure out what each gift was, and then we put them out on Christmas Eve before the kids woke up.

The magic is gone.  We don't count down the days until Christmas.  I think that I'll get some of the magic back when I have grandchildren, but who knows?

Right now I just want to recapture the magic and the anticipation of waiting for Jesus.  For experiencing his presence.  For looking forward to the second Christmas, when he returns to reign in all his glory.

That's hard to do.  First of all, we don't know when it's going to happen. I mean, we have no idea.  We can't put stickers on the calendar.  We don't know how many sleeps it will be before Jesus comes back.  Peter describes it this way, stating, "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" (2 Peter 3:8).  It seems like it will never happen, but God is now slow, Peter says, as some people define slowness, he is "patient . . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

Even more difficult, we have people around us, questioning our faith in the promised return of Jesus.  Peter calls them scoffers.  They ask, "Where is this 'coming' he promised?  Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of time". (2 Peter 3:3-4)  In essence, "Nothing has changed.  Nothing will change.  You might as well believe in Santa Claus."

And finally, over time, we tend to forget.  That's why Peter reminds us, "You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. . . we are looking forward to a new earth, the home of the righteous" (2 Peter 3:11-13).  This is more than sparkling, flashing lights.  This is more than a bicycle under the tree and a new toothbrush.  This is Jesus.  The One who loves us, who suffered for us, who died for us, who sits at the right hand of God, interceding for us.

I want to recapture the magic.  I want to revel in the anticipation of this second return.  I want to stand in awe of the promise of God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a wise rabbi, wrote

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed." 
This is the goal of Christmas:  Love incarnate.  Relationship with God.  Redemption of sins.  Restoration of God's plan.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Isaiah 5-8: The Messenger

I'm starting to think I'll finish writing about Isaiah sometime in February.  I read, I think about it, and I just can't come up with anything hopeful and Christmas-y to say.  It's a hard book, about rebellion and punishment, about hope and deliverance.  We have insight into the fulfillment of some of these passages (Jesus), but the book itself is a little heavy on the massive destruction about to hit Israel.

And so here it is.  I've read Isaiah 6 lots of times.  This is the passage where Isaiah, mourning the death of the king, goes into the temple and has a radical encounter with the living God.  He literally, not figuratively, sees the Lord, seated on a throne. Above the Lord are six-winged angels, covering their faces with two of the wings, covering their feet with two more wings, and then flying with the other two wings.  And they sing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole world is filled with his glory."  (Isaiah 6:3).  The earth shakes.  The temple fills with smoke.  And Isaiah falls to the ground, convicted of his sin in the face of the glory of God.

The first time I read this I wondered how I would respond to Isaiah's experience.  I grew up with rational Christianity.  The kind you can explain with four spiritual laws.  The kind you can prove with science.  This is a very safe Christianity, with a predictable, rational God.

The thing I've learned is this--God is not rational.  He is not safe (Thank you, C.S. Lewis.), but we can trust him.  His ways are beyond tracing out, and we owe everything to him.

But back to Isaiah.  An angel flies down, touches a live coal to Isaiah's lips, and comforts him, saying, "You're guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

The Lord asks, "Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?" And Isaiah, moved by the holiness of God, as we all would be, quickly volunteers, saying, "Here am I.  Send me."

So far, so good.  We've all heard songs like this and probably sung them.  I watched a video of Delirious  in concert, singing these words, and the concert goers are all jumping up and down, singing with them.  Matt Papa is a little more subdued, sitting in front of the crowd, playing his guitar.

Great songs.  Great message.

Isaiah's mission is a little tougher.  Think about the message Isaiah's asked to deliver:
Be ever hearing and never understanding. 
Be ever seeing, but never perceiving. 
Think about the prophecies of destruction.  The prophecies of hope that will only come after these people are long dead and gone.

That's not a message I want to deliver.  Those people are likely to kill me.

Of course, God's not asking me to deliver that message.  But my point is this: Am I so overwhelmed by the holiness of God that I'm willing to do whatever he asks me to do?  Even if it means changing the entire course of my life?  Even if it means walking into dangerous places?

I want to say, "Yes!  Here am I, Lord!  Send me!" but not unless I know it's true.  Not unless I can say "yes" without any qualifications.  And I'm not sure I can do that right now.  I hope that when that day comes, I will embrace whatever God asks me to do, but I just don't know.

And that brings me right back to where I started.  (I certainly hope I'm moving forward, even if it doesn't seem like it.)  How committed am I to the things of God?  How much do I love him?  Am I willing to follow him no matter where he leads?  Am I willing to keep seeking him so that he can prepare me for whatever he has planned for me?

John the Baptist lost his head.  Jesus was crucified.
Christians throughout history have been imprisoned for their obedience and have lost their lives.

One more thought before I move on.
How do I respond to the messenger?

I mean, how do I respond to messengers who deliver God's messages?
How do I respond when someone says something that convicts me of sin or challenges my actions?

The people of Israel closed their eyes and their hearts.  What will I do?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Isaiah 1-4: Silence. Alone and Abandoned

Last night in our Life Group, we talked about the times when we don't hear God's voice, when we don't feel his presence, when it just doesn't seem like he's around anymore.  Nobody said it, but I'll put it out there.  Sometimes we might feel like maybe he just doesn't exist.  And those past experiences hearing God's voice or feeling his presence?  Maybe we made them all up.

And then we talked about what to do during those times-how we can stay faithful when we don't feel like God is listening.  Sometimes we need to walk by faith, based on what God's taught us in the past, knowing that he's not really absent.  He's just asking us to trust him right now.  In the words of Denise, we just "keep on keeping on."  

Certainly we all experience these times.  In my experience, they are a part of a normal Christian life.  So we can continue to seek him, continue to worship him, continue to thank him, continue to obey him.  I grow uniquely during these times, and my rediscovery of the wonder and awe of serving God helps me to relate to people who don't yet have a relationship with God.  

There are a couple of other things we can do:
  • Replace faith with legalism and ritual.  Go to church a lot.  Serve a lot.  Do all the right things.  Even make additional rules.  That we obey.  
  • Walk away.  God's not around anyway so we might as well do whatever we want.
Sometimes these experiences come about because we've already walked away from God.  God is loving and patient.  He is compassionate and forgiving.  But at some point, if we reject him and his plans for our lives, we just won't sense his presence anymore.  We won't hear his voice.  It will be like he isn't even there.  

But he is.  Watching.  Waiting.  Planning his next move of redemption.  He wants to draw us to himself. 

And that's where we are in Isaiah.  The people have walked away from God.  They have rebelled.  Big time.  And yet they pretend everything's okay, and they continue to offer sacrifices, to observe feast days designed to remind them of God's holiness and what He's done in the past.  

They have replaced faith and worship with ritualism.  And God says, "I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . . I can't bear your evil assemblies . . . They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  When you spread our your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you . . ." (Isaiah 1:11-15).  

I'm tired of watching you go through the motions of worship and service, but not really worshiping me or serving me.  I see what you do when no one else is looking.

Do you want my presence?  Do you want to hear my voice?  Stop doing wrong and learn to do right.  

Seek justice.
Encourage the oppressed. 
Defend the cause of the fatherless.
Plead the case of the widow.  (Isaiah 1:16-17)

These aren't the things we normally think of when we think "doing right."

I don't read The Message very often, but I like what Eugene Peterson writes here:
Quit your worship charades. I can't stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can't stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You've worn me out!
I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I'll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I'll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you've been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up. Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don't have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.  Learn to do good.
Work for justice. Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.

Yeah.  And that's where the Israelites are at this point.  And God says to his prophet Isaiah, "I've had enough."  

Come now, let us reason together.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.  They they are as red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.  But if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.  

It's not too late, says the Lord to Isaiah.  Turn to me.  Obey me, and I will bless you.  But if you resist and rebel, I will remove my blessing and protection from you.  You will be eaten up by the nations around you.  

And we know the story.  The people of Judah "resist and rebel."  They are taken into captivity.  The prophets speak, and the people say, "Yeah, yeah.  We've heard that before.  But where is God?"  And so they do whatever they want until God just stops talking, and there is complete silence for 400 years.  

I try to picture what that's like for the people of Israel, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were promised so much, who experienced the greatness of God and ultimately rejected him.  I try to picture what life was like when Jesus was born.  Here are these people, they've returned to Israel, but now they're ruled by Romans.  And the Pharisees.  

They're waiting for the Promised One of Israel to return to deliver them oppression.  They're waiting for Jesus, but they don't even recognize him when he shows up.  He is present, but they don't see him.  He doesn't say the things they want him to say, or do the things they want him to do, and so it's like he's not even there.  

And I think we are a little bit like them.  If we've experienced God's presence, if we've seen him move in our lives, but then we get busy, doing "God's stuff" and "our stuff," or we decide it doesn't matter and we live our own lives, on our own terms.  But God compassionate and patient, slow to anger, abounding in love.  

And so here we are this Christmas.  Reading Isaiah.  Thinking about Jesus' birth.  And his life.  And his death.     Wanting to hear God's voice, wanting to experience his presence during the Christmas season.  

Will we take the time to listen?