Impetus

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
(Lamentations 3:24)

When our small church was unable to meet corporately last Sunday due to a scheduling conflict in the elementary school where we meet, some of our friends and family decided to move our worship outdoors. Because of the unusual opportunity and the beautiful weather, we met to hike a portion of the Fiery Gizzard Trail in South Cumberland State Park.

The plan was to take a 9-mile loop that included a stop at a scenic overlook about half-way. However, due to a, um… slight disagreement about the direction to take after our  stop, we wound up hiking down a steep gorge and back up again. Meanwhile, my intuition, which has been honed by playing, “Hey, guys, let’s see if we can get lost in the woods” with my cousins when we were children, dogged each step with a cerainty that we were headed the wrong way.

As we took the rough stone steps, I recall thinking that our navigator may be in some slight danger of mutiny if we had, in fact, taken a wrong turning. Not until we had climbed to the bottom of the  ravine and back up the other side did we all stop and look at one another with the absolute certainty that we were not on the 4.5 mile loop back to our cars, but on the 8-mile stretch that headed to the trail’s southern end in another town.

Frustrated with himself (and possibly nervous about the possibility of violent mutiny), our navigator took off back towards the way we had come, as, with a few scattered murmurs, the rest of us collected ourselves and followed him.

It was absolutely glorious.  

There is not much I love more than hiking, and this particular trail is on my personal top Mom01110 list. Each step of the way back, I brought up the rear with my mom (who turns 66 today – happy birthday, Mama!). She had tweaked her knee somewhere in all the elevation change and had to take it a little slower. This was fine by me since it afforded an opportunity to drink in all the splendor of my Father’s handiwork.

All told, we hiked approximately 14.25 miles and by doing so answered the question of about how long we would need to plan to hike the Fiery Gizzard end-to-end (13 miles). It’s easily doable in a day, even leaving time for my beloved Nikon if we start early.

And as is my habit, the whole trek got me thinking about my walk with the Lord.

Some of our number who are not as giddily in love with the forests and hills as I found the last leg of our trek to be sheer misery. A fair amount of complaints were vocalized, as were several wistful wishes for extra water or a nice, juicy steak.

But for me, even the accidental detour was delightful. Even through the discomfort of thirst and the annoyance of arthritic feet, I enjoyed the quiet beauty of the woods, the surprising red-orange of occasional mushrooms, the steady plashing of the streams. In my experience, I have found that focusing on trouble only makes it that much harder to bear.

The difference, however, was not only focus but motive. 

True, I chose to concentrate on the scenery rather than ponder hunger or the pain of sore feet. But the bigger reason for the disconnect in our various experiences is that I love hiking for hiking’s sake. A short jaunt into the woods, particularly after a long drive, leaves me feeling cheated, so an entire day spent reveling in the Master’s artistry was a rare and wonderful pleasure.

Likewise, my walk with the Lord – and for that matter, all my relationships – are affected by motive. If my motivation for following God’s trail is solely what I can get out of it, be it blessings, comfort, peace, provision, or anything else, then I stand to be disappointed when things take a wrong turning.

However, following my Messiah for His own sake – well, that, my friends is where joy in the journey is found; not merely joy because of circumstances but even joy despite them. There – in Him – is true and lasting peace.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.
(Isaiah 26:3-4)

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Remain

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
(John 15:5)

I am a firm believer that every single trial we have in life is allowed by God in order to test our mettle, usually with the aim of showing us where our fortitude or character is a little bit lacking.

I mean, if we are honest, any one of us can be immeasurably bold, incredibly courageous, and are capable of great gallantry… theoretically.  It’s that sticky place where heroic imaginings meet with a leaky fridge or an explosion of teenage drama over a five-minute departure time that we sometimes find our integrity falling a bit short.

Or pain. In my case, I have to confess that a month or two of near-constant headaches will quickly shred any guise of righteousness I may have concocted in my mind and lay my weaknesses rather painfully bare.

Strange though it may seem, I see this as a good thing.

In a recent reading of John 15,  the Lord’s discourse grabbed my attention in a new way, and I have been thinking about it since.

Really, there is so much packed into this one passage that I could go on forever (don’t worry – I won’t; at least not today…), but the what stood out to me was the emphasis Jesus put on abiding, bearing fruit, and loving before He launched into a sort of warning about the persecution and difficulties that lay ahead for the disciples.

In the illustration of the vine and branches, the Lord makes twelve references to abiding or remaining in the first eleven verses.

Now I know that the Lord did not begin this agricultural analogy to His disciples by announcing, “Verse 1 of Chapter 15 begins, ‘I am the true vine…'”

I also know that He was most likely speaking to them in Aramaic or Hebrew and not in either English (my translation) or Greek (the language the text was translated from).

However, in any language if a speaker repeats the same concept multiple times in a brief span, that speaker kinda wants the listener to hear it. It’s worthy of note the other concept He reiterates is love: loving each other, remaining in His love, etc.

As I have mulled all this over while simultaneously dealing with the afore-mentioned month or two of head pain along with the inevitable adolescent ire, and yes, even the leaky fridge, it has been driven into even my somewhat thick and murky consciousness that the one way we are going to endure hardships, difficulties, and trials is to love each other well.

And the only way we can love each other well is by remaining in Him.

While that may seem self-evident, the lesson my Father has been hammering home here lately is that “remaining in Him” is more than an hour or two of pre-dawn Bible study and prayer. It is an all day,play-by-play reliance on Him to provide me with the ability to do what I cannot do on my own.

As an example, take the watermelon vine in the photo above. That yellow flower and the other little buds each hold the promise of delectable, mature fruit to come. Yet if at any time the flower or the ripening fruit becomes severed from the vine, there will be no scrumptious melon but only decay.

Also, there is absolutely no way to attach the melon to the vine for a few moments or hours. Even if there were, such partial nourishment would never be enough to sustain a truly juicy melon through the scorching Tennessee summer. The fruit would certainly wither.

Even so, a few minutes or an hour alone with God in the morning is not enough to sustain me through yet another day of pain, be it the physical pain of migraine or the emotional frustrations of navigating through the volatile Land of Adolescence as a parent.

No, I need much more than a brief connection. If I am to love my family well and endure the pain of life, I will have to remain connected with Him every single second – for there is not a single second of the day in which I do not need a greater strength and a fiercer love than the shriveled parody I can conjure on my own.

And that is where true joy begins…

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
John 15:11

Uneclipsed

Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

A mere 40 miles to the north or northeast of my house lies the path of totality for the solar eclipse this coming Monday afternoon. Being a bit of a natural phenomenon junkie, it might seem strange that I am not planning on packing up my crew and hitting the road to get inside that swath of real estate in which I could view the first total eclipse to happen in Tennessee in my lifetime.

But I am not.

While I confess that I would dearly, dearly love to see the sun in total eclipse, I also have a healthy respect for Nashville traffic. I know without a doubt that Nashville will have no shortage of traffic on eclipse day.

Just yesterday, I did have some hearty laughs with my friends who are making the trek. We imagined ourselves all stranded on one of the interstates in a gridlock of cars, the pre-eclipse August sun baking its way into our patience, and her spending more time looking to be certain that her youngest two children’s eyes were properly covered by the protective lenses than actually seeing the big event itself.

We laughed ourselves even sillier as we imagined putting their 6 kids and my 3 to work on a couple of preposterous inventions we came up with to protect the eyes of small children who had not been able to acquire the NASA-approved filtered lenses, hawking them on the sides of packed-out streets and parks in hopes of redeeming the hours lost to traveling north – or even find some way to turn the thing around should we be caught in a traffic jam a mile or two south of the path of totality and miss the thing entirely.

To be fair, I had been up since 4 that morning and they had just returned from a long road trip. But it was certainly funny at the time…. though you probably had to be there.

Anyway, all this eclipse talk and planning got me thinking about God. I admit that I did think of Joel 2:31 (The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes), but even beyond that, my mind strayed to the types of things that eclipse God’s glory in my own life.

Pain. That’s one for sure.

By His grace, I have been able to find purpose, hope, and even joy in the middle of chronic migraine and other assorted physical delights. Yet I have to admit that at times, weeks of relentless pain can seem to cast a pall over all of life, even seeming to grow so large as to hide the radiance of the Almighty in my days.

Then, of course, there is family strife – which is just another type of pain. Difficult circumstances. Riots and wars. Woe.

But not only hardship – sometimes the temptations and comforts of life in America can can loom large and I find myself quite suddenly walking in their shadow instead of walking in the Light.

Yet in each instance, whether trial or ease, I find that His glory has never actually changed. It only seems to be so because for that fateful instant, I have taken my eyes off Him. I have either allowed some promised pleasure or some dreadful difficulty snare my attention and come between me and my King.

How I wish that these spiritual eclipses were as infrequent as the solar variety! Even still, I take heart in knowing that they, too, are really nothing more than natural phenomena – simply a part of the process of sanctification as my Lord patiently allows me to see the transient nature of whatever it is that I have allowed to dominate my mind.

Whether it is pain or pleasure, I am thankful that the shadow always passes, revealing once more the steady and unfading Glory of the Lord.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Psalms 19:1

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Swept Away

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
(Romans 12:15)

Thirteen years ago today, my oldest nephew was born. One year ago today, the mother of a good friend and a neighbor of mine passed away.

Thirteen years ago as K made his entrance into the world, I breathed a sigh of relief. My sister and I were both pregnant at the same time and both due in August of 2004 – along with another lady at our church. According to our due dates, my sister should have gone first… but K was in no rush to leave the security of the womb.

When the other mom, who was due in the middle, had her baby first, my sister was not amused and I said a little prayer that my own baby would not be born first. She wasn’t, and so on the day K arrived, I rejoiced not only for the healthy new addition to our family but also because I had been spared the wrath of a pregnant woman long past her due date.

Thirteen years ago, I was also making final preparations for my own little one who eventually attempted to enter the world on August 30 feet-first, putting an end to my aspirations of having a natural, drug-free birth. She continues to forge ahead in her own, quirky way to this very day. C’est la vie…

One year ago, my heart broke for my friend and for her dad. I had been blessed with the opportunity of visiting Mrs. T twice since her cancer relapse, but when the end approached, things spiraled down rather quickly. How I hate to watch cancer suck the life out of a person; how I loved Mrs. T’s joy despite it all. When we talked, she was always cheerful. On her livingroom couches, we chatted and laughed, defying death to rob the joy from life.

A year ago, I was also preparing to deliver Mrs. T’s eulogy – an experience that left this short little introvert feeling simultaneously honored and immensely terrified. However, she had asked me on one of our last chats and there was no chance I would let my fear cause me to decline a dying woman’s wish – particularly one that had always shown my kids and I such kindness and acceptance. I prayed that the Lord would give me words to comfort and encourage, and I trust that He did.

So it is that today, my thoughts are consumed with the crazy dichotomy of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure that makes up human life.  I rejoice at my nephew’s thirteen years, at watching him grow from the plumpness of infancy to the stringy musculature of budding manhood.

Yet I weep for my friend; for the pain of grief and the hateful reality of disease and death. Even for those whose hope extends beyond the grave, Death is still a merciless and irreconcilable thief. My fervent prayer today is that, if she has not already, my friend will come to know the peace of my Lord in the midst of her loss, and that His presence will bring the light of joy to banish the gloom of loss.

And I am thankful. Thankful to be a part of every bit of it – the joy and the pain. Thankful that Mrs. T had made her peace with God and was unafraid to walk into the unknown of death, knowing that she was known on the other side. Grateful to watch all my own children, nieces, nephews, and innumerable young friends grow and change, experience both failure and victory, hurt and be comforted, mourn and laugh and live and love and be.

I rejoice at their smiles and laughter. I weep for their anguish and suffering. I love them all.  And suddenly, I am struck that our Lord prayed His very last prayer on earth for unity – unity with Him, with the Father, and with each other. He knows our great need, the tragedy and frailty of humanity warped by sin, the awful beauty of both mirth and tears.

To endure the overwhelming tide of emotion, the dizzy heights and the horrible depths, we need each other to help bear the weight of it all. And most of all, we need Him, the Rock of Ages, the great Foundation to provide meaning and purpose so that we are not swept away by the wild and unpredictable tides of life.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
(John 17:20-21)

Not That This Isn’t Fun…

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Galatians 6:9-10

Life is tough. There’s just no way around it.

As I tap these words out, I am on the 23rd consecutive day of a headache (save a few hours’ break here and there) that has ranged in intensity from just annoying to someone please choke me out.

Still, even with the headache, I am incredibly grateful for the gift f this time: time to pause and breathe after the whirlwind of nonstop parenting and educating chaos that is homeschool; time to get my bearings and figure out if I have what it takes to make it as an author; time to come up with Plan B if I don’t.

Even still, life is tough. Not having the kids around 24/7 does not diminish their presence in my mind. They each have junk to wade through, and wading through modern teen junk is a sticky business. However, raising them, I am forced to think back to when I was a teenager <shudder> and remind myself that it could be much worse.

Yet thinking back also reminds me of the microcosm that is their worldview right now; a fact which was brought very clearly to the forefront in a conversation with my 16-year-old yesterday.  I mentioned a question he had asked me recently, and he replied, “That wasn’t recently. That was my sophomore year.”

I credit God alone that I held my tongue, but all I could think was, “Dearest son, do you mean waaaaaay back 2 1/2 months ago to your sophomore year?”

Oddly enough, in my mind, May still qualifies as “recently.”

And those are the small, nagging, daily problems: the relentlessness of pain, the thorniness of relationships… There are much bigger problems afoot. Loved ones with dementia, the burden on their caretakers, unsaved friends and family members who are literally destroying themselves from the inside out. Disease. Heartbreak. Cruelty. Suffering.

Then, too, there is the constant ache for friends who are suffering their own dilemmas and trials. Beyond that, my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are being tortured, imprisoned, brutalized, cast out, and killed for proclaiming faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

And the illogic. Don’t even get me started about the utter rejection of absolute truth, logic, or reason. I agree fully with Malcom Muggeridge when he said, “We have educated ourselves into imbecility.”

No doubt. We’ve reasoned ourselves right past rationality and into a highly amorphous state of emotionalism. As another friend pointed out, we’ve gone from hieroglyphics straight through the high works of prose and poetry all the way back to emojis.

We have embraced separation of God and… well, everything and flung our liberty in His face with wild abandon only to find that in reality, we have merely come full circle. We’ve followed our hearts only to find that the triumphant footsteps we have been walking in are our own.

What a weary business modern life has become!

I have to wonder if this future was in the mind of the Lord when He had His last, private discourse with the Twelve … or rather, the Eleven. Judas had already departed and was bartering the Messiah’s life for a small sack of silver.

At any rate, I have been reading John 15-16 repeatedly for the last several days and noted that Jesus emphasized the need for the disciples to remain, to obey, and to love. Remain in Me… if you keep my commands, you will remain in Me… love one another, but above all else remain in Me, for apart from Me, you can do nothing. 

I paraphrase, but read John 15 a few times. He repeats the word “abide” ten times in the first ten verses alone. (“Abide,” by the way, means to remain or continue). Emphasis is put on loving God, loving each other, and keeping His commands – and once He has reiterated his reiteration, He warns them of trouble.

The latter part of chapter 15 and much of 16 speaks much of persecution and sorrow, but also of joy. Living for Truth is tough, much tougher than going along with the societal current. Naturally, it is easy to become weary and discouraged.

But any careful reader of the Word will know that persecution and rejection were always part of the package. The Lord Himself warns them multiple times, even right up to moments before He is taken into custody… and through them, He warns us.

But please note that He first assures them of His love and their need to remain in it.

There is hope, but it is not here on this earth. Our hope is in remaining steadfast through the birthpains of life in the tangled mess of sorrow, joy, anguish, grief, suffering, and peace that is our lot, because someday it will all be worth it.

There is trial, but there is beauty even in the trial.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Thistle001

“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away…

…When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
John 16:1, 21-22

 

Adulteress

…And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:11b

A few days ago, I dreamed of the passage about the woman caught in adultery from John 8 and have spent many days reading and pondering the story. As I’ve read and re-read, I have also delved into commentaries out of curiosity over what others say, and in doing so found that many scholars do not believe John actually wrote the verses found in John 7:53-8:11, but that the words are nonetheless considered to recount an actual event that was perhaps added in later.

However, the scope of this article has nothing to do with whether or not this passage is a valid writing of John but rather a reflection on what it was God was saying to me, personally. And this morning, I finally got it.

In order to best share it with you, I need to point out another passage in Scripture, namely Matthew 18:23-35. To summarize, this is the parable Jesus told about a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One servant owed the king a debt so tremendous that it was impossible for him to pay back.

Upon receiving the news that he, his family, and all he owned were to be sold in order to make payment on the debt, the servant begged for mercy. Moved by compassion, the king not only granted mercy but pardoned the servant’s debt.

The forgiven servant proceeded to encounter a fellow servant who owed him a small debt. When this man asked for lenience, the servant, apparently forgetting the mercy that had been extended to him, actually began to choke his fellow servant, throwing the poor man into prison.

Word of the event reached the king who summoned the man whom he had pardoned, taking him to task for being merciless to his fellow when he, himself, had received abundant mercy. My Lord closes the tale by stating:

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35

Oh, there were other Scriptures the Lord called to mind as I have mulled over the dream and the passage found in John 8. However, as Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

There are many valid and wonderful insights that can be derived from both passages. Both have a great deal of easily applicable information on the treatment of others, on mercy, on grace, on forgiveness… indeed, on a host of Godly learning.

But…

All of this is nothing more than intellectual exercise until each of us understands what my God has been revealing to me.

I am the servant forgiven an unpayable debt. I am the woman caught in adultery.

We all are, for there is not a man or woman alive today who is entirely innocent of spiritual adultery; of pursuing self-indulgence or money or fame or innumerable other gods rather than remaining faithful to the One who Created us after His own image and breathed His life into us.

It is here, trembling in fear before the Righteous Judge as the murderous crowd drop their stones and slowly trickle away one by one until I stand alone before Him – it is here that I truly feel awed by His unlikely act of forgiveness. Here is where I feel the crushing weight of my debt and my inability to repay it.

And here is where I marvel at His words, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on, sin no more.”

Now that I have tasted the overwhelming and entirely undeserved freedom of my pardon, how could I not also forgive those who have committed such little offenses toward me?

And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:34-35

Father God, today I pray that we would each feel the incredible relief of forgiveness, realizing that our own unpayable debt and spiritual adultery are so much larger than the petty offenses we stack up against our brothers and sisters. Help us to grasp the weight of joy in Your forgiveness in such a way that we are eager to leave our lives of sin and walk in freedom, forgiving others as You have forgiven us.

 

 

 

Inglorious

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
(James 1:14-15)

If ever there was a flowering plant designed with the busy (or lazy) gardener in mind, the morning glory may well be it.

As a child, I always admired the perpetual presence of purple flowers adorning a remnant of fencing left between my grandparents’ property and that of their neighbors. When my children were small, I even bought a packets of morning glory and sunflower seeds after reading about a fun-sounding, natural “clubhouse” that could be planted – the sunflowers serving as the frame and morning glories filling in for walls and roof. Somehow, that year, I never actually got around to it, very possibly because my children were small…

So the first year I saw a morning glory growing near my vegetable garden, I did not MG008mind. The purple trumpets of flower and the cheerful, heart-shaped or deeply lobed leaves seemed a very attractive addition.

Little did I know how I would later rue the moment I let the thing grow.

One busy spring and summer, my family ended up traveling much more often than usual and so I had little time to devote to weeding. Upon returning from one of our trips, I walked out to check on the progress of my vegetables and was rather surprised to find that, in our absence, the tall and majestic rows of popcorn were festooned in green frocks of dense, heart-shaped segments embellished here and there with deceptively delicate-looking purple and blue blooms all nodding at me in mock friendliness as they effectively choked out the life of my plants, diminishing my harvest.

MG010

From that summer on, most of what little time I have for gardening has been spent stalking and uprooting morning glory sprouts. To my utter dismay, the plant reseeds itself with prolific, almost furious abundance.

MG006Every time I take the short hike from house to garden, I keep an eye open for the little seed leaves shaped like old-fashioned ladies’ bloomers that pop up by the zillions. Despite my best efforts to scour the area thoroughly, those treacherously innocuous-seeming hearts pop up apparently the moment my back is turned, sending out their coiling tendrils to snare and suffocate the very plants I try to nurture.

As I was ripping out fistfuls of the demonically attractive vines the other day, it occurred to me that most sin is a good deal like the morning glory.

MG007

Sin, too, appears attractive at the beginning. As it grows, it can also appear friendly-looking, even desirable. At times, we sow the seeds of sin with eager anticipation, looking forward to some pleasure or indulgence that seems benign, unlikely to harm anyone but ourselves.

At other times, sin grows from neglect. We see it sprouting up in our hearts, but either we are too apathetic or too busy to care. Perhaps, even, one tiny pair of cotelydons thrusting themselves up through the soil of our hearts seems to pose no threat. After all, it is a very small, even an insignificant thing.

 

 

MG009Yet, left to its own devices, sin also grows quickly to overwhelming proportions. It, too, sends dainty tendrils snaking through the landscape of our hearts and minds, catching hold of those things we have purposefully sown and choking them, diminishing the harvest of good and useful fruit. Fully grown, it mocks us with the very flower of what we once desired; the very thing we once thought beautiful now nodding at us scornfully from every corner and niche. And sin, too, is prolific in its reseeding.

Just as I wage war with the morning glories in my vegetable garden, I find that identifying and uprooting sin in my heart is a never-ending task. Yet I give thanks to my Lord because He has not left me to this battle blind and empty-handed.

Though I may be prone to overlook a shoot here or a shrub there, the Light of the World illuminates the shadowy places in my heart, exposing sin in various stages of growth.

And while my efforts at defeating the virulent growth fall short, the only good and perfect Gardener is able to do what I cannot – ripping out the twisted vines by their roots, killing even my desire for them, and pruning the sickly, undernourished plantings of righteousness that are left behind so that they may once again bear fruit for the glory of the King.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
(Romans 7:24-25a)

Amen!