When Relationships Chafe

We love because he first loved us.
(1 John 4:19)

Ready or not, the holiday season is upon us.

In my country, the official kick-off was Thanksgiving Day – a day of feasting and gratitude ironically followed by the slightly sickening commercial festivity known as “Black Friday” which actually begins Thursday evening until “Cyber Monday” takes over and filches more dollars from the American pocket. But I digress…

This year, my family had a phenomenal Thanksgiving week. We were blessed to spend some time in Florida with my dad and stepmom. One of my sisters and her family came, too, and what with the great company, fantastic weather, and delectable food, I doubt we could have concocted a better way to spend the week.

But I realize not everyone is so fortunate.

For many people, the family time aspect of the holidays spells nothing but frustration. We all have those family members who tend to be more querulous, and some among us spend the holidays biting our tongues – or wishing we had.

Every family bears a bandaged wound or two. Every family carries scars from past hurts. It’s a part of being human in a fallen world. The brutal truth is that our real-life family gatherings are more apt to resemble a Griswold family Christmas than a Hallmark movie.

The enforced familial closeness of the holidays can and often does cause simmering tensions to boil over.  But you know what? Even then, family time is good.  In fact, I would venture to say this season is wonderful because of the relational difficulties.

You see, one sunny Florida afternoon, I walked back to my earthly dad’s house and talked with my heavenly Dad along the way. In particular, I was praying over the absence of one other sister at our feast. One of our family’s bandaged wounds.

As I prayed about the situation and about others who are more difficult to love, the Spirit of God whispered the words of 1 John 4:19 into my heart. We love because He first loved us.

Naturally, I went back and read the rest of the chapter and I see what He means. When we are faced with prickly relatives or with co-workers, members of our church family, or even strangers at the grocery store who are a little more challenging to endure, it is at precisely this point that we have a choice to make:

Will we love only those who are easy to love? Or will we love them because our Lord first loved us?

I feel now is a good time to mention that this “when He first loved us” moment was hardly one we can boast about. Romans 5:10 reminds us that we were enemies of God when He loved us enough to offer the dearest part of Himself as ransom for our crimes. He didn’t love us when we were lovable but when we were in full-tilt rebellion against Him.

Our Lord Jesus, Himself, tells us more than once to love our enemies (see Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:27, 35, et al). And back in 1 John 4, the beloved disciple has a great deal more to say about love, not the least of which is a sobering reminder that love isn’t lived out in Hallmark moments but in the gritty and often painful moments of forgiving the unforgivable and answering sharp words with graciousness.

Not because those who hurt us deserve it, but because neither did we. And yet, He loved us anyway.

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
(1 John 4:10-11)

While we’re busily putting Christ back in Christmas and squeezing in Advent devotionals between shopping sprees and holiday parties, let’s be certain that our daily choices match our lofty sentiments. Let’s try to keep in mind that forgiving can only be done when there is something to forgive. Grace and mercy can only be shown when they aren’t deserved.

In love, let’s hold one another accountable to living and loving in humility and with the grace God extends to us. Not necessarily because our families and associates are worth it, but because HE is. And we trust Him enough to obey.

 

 

No Pain, No Gain

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
(Proverbs 27:6)

As many of you know, I’m in the editing phase of a novel I hope to have published. The setting is dystopian – either our own world in the future or one enough like it to be almost familiar. It’s meant as an extended parable for sacrificial living and the potential to use or abuse our God-given gifts.

I belong to a critique group, which was a pretty brave act for me. Through them, I’ve received a lot of great feedback. But there’s this one guy…

He never hesitates to ask questions about what is confusing, to point out continuity issues or passive voice or a myriad of other mistakes. In fact, my submissions often come back from their time under his scrutiny riddled with comments and dissected sentences.

I could ignore his emails. I could collect a handful of people who love my writing as is and say very little. But in the long run, I would be the worse for my refusal to hear difficult truths.

As it is, I love the criticism. Not because it feels good to have your rough draft sliced and diced. It doesn’t. I love it because he pushes me to work harder, to tighten and refine and grow as an author.

Naturally, a part of me adores glowing feedback, but the reasonable part of me knows it’s the criticism which drives me to exert my mental abilities and strive toward a better product.

Similarly several years ago, my family took judo under the instruction of a dear friend (whom I often still refer to as Sensei though it’s been ages since I stepped foot on a mat or took a fall). Every time he would praise a technique I’d done correctly, I would blow it for the next 15 minutes. I finally told him, “I think I just work better with criticism.”

He believed me, and lo and behold, I did improve.

My point?

I have been reading the Word of the Lord daily for many years. Studying, memorizing, and reflecting on it are all parts of my average day. I also spend no small amount of time reading works by other Christians.

None of this is to my own credit, mind you. This desire for the Word is a gift from God; one I requested early in my walk with Him and one He happily granted.

Anyway, the more I become saturated with the Word, the more I realize that often it’s the things I want least to hear that I need to hear most.

In today’s American Christianity, there is an abundance of shelf space advertised as “Christian.” But mark my words: Just because a thing speaks of the Lord or quotes Scripture does not mean the teaching is based on sound doctrine.

In an act of audacious irony, our ancient enemy quoted Scripture to the Word made flesh (see Mark 4:6). And believe me, his kisses are profuse. He loves to keep us snuggled in such comfort we overlook the bars of our cozy cage. If I wanted, I could easily surround myself with nothing but heartwarming sentiment.

But then I wouldn’t grow.

I’m certainly not knocking encouragement – God knows every one of us needs it, and He offers it in due time. But we need an equal balance of rebuke and reproof. We need the sharp prick of a goad now and then to remind us to stay on the narrow path that leads to life just as we sometimes need a word to lift us out of the pit to soar on wings like eagles’.

Friends, the Christian walk is not one of self-indulgence and earthly pleasure. We are promised joy, but it is joy in the presence of the Lord. Pleasure at His right hand. This means that our joy will often come not in lieu of suffering but in spite of it.

And to achieve this state of “joy anyway,” we need a full complement of both correction and encouragement. Of discipline and strengthening. We need the wounds of a friend who has the long term as a goal. If we are to become more Christlike, we must also be willing to endure Christlike suffering.

To compete so as to win the prize, we have to put in the hard work of training if we are to run our race well. But the Prize will be well worth our effort!07

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 3:13-14)

How about you? Do you tend to gravitate towards what I would call “easy button Christianity?” Or are you equally open to hearing hard truths which require some sacrifice or painful confession in order to grow in Christ-likeness?

 

 

Tuesday Prayer: Gratitude

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
(James 1:17)

Father of Lights, today we give thanks to You for the amazing gifts You have given us. Often as we approach the holiday season, we are so caught up by our own frenzy of purchasing, cooking, celebrating, and giving that we forget about the gifts You have already bestowed on us. It’s no small irony that when we celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving as we will next week, we tend to become so enmeshed in the details of the day that we fail to truly offer You more than a cursory murmur of thanks.

Yet You are the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Lord, forgive us when we forget that.

Today we intentionally set aside some time for mindfulness of the astonishing gifts You have given us. Let Your praise be on our lips today and let us give thanks to You, for all You give us is truly good. Thank You, Lord, that we can celebrate with a feast next week. Thank You for food, shelter, family, and friends to celebrate with. Or if we celebrate alone, thank You that You are our portion and we can still be satisfied in You.

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

Not only that, but we thank You for the often-overlooked things. Thank You for family even when being with them hurts because in working through strained relations and miscommunications, we grow.

In learning how to love others who are hard to handle, we are forced to confront the places where we are prickly as well. Thank You that in conflict, we learn to humble ourselves and to forgive. In extending grace to others who may not deserve it, we see how little we deserved Your grace. For this, too, we are thankful.

And thank You for the little things, Lord! Thank You that You made food to have flavor when You could have made it merely nourishing. Thank You for our senses, and when one or more fails us, thank You that we are thus made more dependent on You. Thank You for good health and poor health alike, for we know Your word teaches us to give thanks in all circumstances and we trust You enough to do it.

Thank You for the seasons. For color, birdsong, laughter, and music. Thank You for making us in Your image and for being patient with us when we do not represent the Divine image well. Thank You, Lord, that You truly do work all things for the good of those who love You – even our mistakes and our pain.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
(Romans 8:28)

Thank You that it is Your glory we are made for and not our own because in You, we find a glory worth dying for, a perfection worth imitating, and a goodness worth every ounce of our being and so much more.  And thank You, Lord, for Your Son and for our salvation through Him. Thank You for the gift of Your Holy Spirit, our comforter and guide. It is in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we offer up our gratitude today, amen.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
(Luke 11:13)

Tuesday Prayer: Seasons

The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,
(Psalms 24:1)

Awesome Creator, the earth is Yours and all it contains. From the vast expanse of the heavens which declare Your glory all the way to the tiniest details like the number of hairs on our heads, You are intimately acquainted with every bit. You have also made the world and its cycles, and You have provided the sun, moon, and stars to document the signs and seasons and days and years. All of it ultimately points to You, Lord, declaring Your glory and teaching us of Your ways.

Our lives, too, are governed by seasons. There are times of frantic activity and times of rest; seasons marked by trial and turmoil and seasons of utter peace and pure joy. As we grow in Christ and deepen our walk with You, the trials and the joys begin to overlap and become one because we begin to see how You use all of it – the good and the bad – to work together for the good of we who love You. Because of this, we can honestly rejoice in our suffering.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
(Romans 5:3)

Not only because of our trust in You to take what our enemy intends for evil and use it for good, but we can also rejoice because we do not serve a distant and impartial God. Instead, we serve a God who became a man and endured suffering as a man. You have suffered, and so we know that every moment of pain or trial is a glimpse into what You have already done for us.

So often, Lord, we turn things upside down, wondering why our amazing God would allow suffering in the world. A better understanding of You have us marvel at the wonder of a God who loves His creation so completely that He was willing to become a part of it, to suffer and die for it, so that by His priceless blood, all of creation might be redeemed.

When our life seasons bring times of darkness or hardship, remind us of Your love. Remind us that even the darkness is not dark to You, Lord, for nothing is hidden from Your light and nothing escapes Your notice. Nothing is wasted. No season is useless in the eternal economy of Your grace. Even our suffering and our blunders, even our scars and wounds are given purpose and meaning when surrendered to You.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
(Psalms 139:11-12)

Because You are good, we can trust You even in the dark and lonely places for if we belong to You, we are never actually alone. You have promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Teach our hearts a greater trust, a more complete devotion, and an endless sense of awe at the wonder of You, the King of Glory. May our lives be lived for Your service and our days be committed to loving obedience to Your purposes, amen.

Tuesday Prayer: Long Term Goals

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.
(Psalms 119:18)

Almighty God, all the wonders of heaven and earth belong to You and were wrought by Your hand. As we look at the world around us – the majestic vistas of the horizon, the vast and ever-changing skies, the delicate beauty of a butterfly – we cannot help but be in awe of Your creative power. You are truly the Most High God. And to think that all the breathtaking splendor of earth is but a shadow of Your glory. What a God we serve!

Today, Lord, we ask that You open our eyes not only to the wonders of Your creation, but also to the wonders of Your Word. As we read our Bibles, we ask for the guidance of Your Holy Spirit. Please do not let our minds stray, but keep us focused on what You want us to see in the Word of Truth. Let Your word pierce us, making us humble before the Throne of Grace as we approach You with awe and reverence. O Lord, even as we think of it, our hearts are filled with gratitude at the incredible privilege of speaking with You!

As we grow in the daily disciplines of our faith; in spending time with You through the reading of Your word, reflection on what You show us, and in prayer; we ask for Your Spirit to be our unfailing Guide. Give us understanding that we may keep Your commands. Turn our eyes from worthless things and make us to delight in Your ways. As we learn to love You more and the world less, guide us in steadfast devotion to You.

In dark places where we harbor sin, even if we are unaware of it, we ask that You make us aware and lead us to the Godly sorrow which produces repentance and leads to a salvation without regret. Start a revival, Lord, and start it in our own hearts first.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
(2 Corinthians 7:10)

As we engage the world around us, remind us not to answer anger and venom with more of the same, but to overcome evil with good. Fill our hearts, minds, and lives to the overflow with the joy of our salvation so that we are truly a light for You, beckoning others to the goodness and stability of Your eternal Kingdom.

For we know, Lord, Your Kingdom will outlast any earthly turmoil or trial we may face. Thank You for making us a part of this Kingdom, and help us to walk in the world as those who reflect the values and culture of the Living God, amen.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
(1 Peter 5:10)

Tuesday Prayer: Free

My friends, it is crunch time for me. My hope is to post twice a week – Tuesday prayers and something different on either Thursday or Friday. However, a deadline is closing in on me. Before September 20, I need to get as much of the book edited as I can, polish the first 3 chapters to a high gloss, and assemble a full proposal.

Because of this, any time I am not tutoring, carting teens around, spending time with my husband, or washing endless dishes will probably be spent on the book. So if I’m slow to respond or n ever get around to reading your blogs, it’s nothing personal. I’ll be back soon enough, Lord willing. 

Now on to my prayer for the Church:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.
(Romans 6:20-21)

Our King, gracious and merciful, You are slow to anger and Your covenant loyalty is perfect beyond the farthest reaches of our imaginings. You are majestic in holiness and mighty in power. There is no darkness so complete that Your light cannot penetrate nor sinner too distant that Your hand cannot reach.

Today we lift up our voices in praise and gratitude. Thank You for rescuing us by the willing death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. You have broken the chains of sin which bound us and lifted us out of the pit of rebellion. We are Yours, Lord; save us and keep saving us again and again from our sinful proclivities.

When we dawdle around the pits of our imprisonment to sin or finger our broken chains, we beg for Your help in changing our hearts. Fill us with Your Spirit and give us the desire to want more of You and less of the world. Remove the fascination for sinful things far from us. Help us to not only say we are more than conquerors through Christ but to live it out.

Oh God, forgive our unbelief and help us to overcome it! Help us to live as free men and women, no longer held fast by the enticements of the world. Instead, remind us of the bitterness of fruit grown in sin and give us a craving for the good fruit of righteousness and of the Holy Spirit. Make us into oaks of righteousness, plantings for the display of Your splendor. Grow in us good fruit – fruit that will last – and align our hearts, minds, wills, and motives with Your perfect plan, amen.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound …
… to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
(Isaiah 61:1,3)

 

Tuesday Prayer: Ambassadorship

… in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…
(1 Peter 3:15)

O Lord Our Righteousness, Your name truly is Holy – the Name above all other names. It is only by Your grace that we share in the righteousness of Your Son and not by anything we have done. This gift – Your righteousness – is a gift we could never earn even if we were given thousands of years to try. It is by Your hand and by the obedience of Your Son alone that we are given a chance to clothe ourselves in His righteousness and be called by His name.

As the world around us seems to spin out of control in a downward spiral of rage, argumentativeness, name-calling, and finger-pointing, remind us who we are in Christ. May we bear His name well in all we do, allowing His righteousness to guide our words, our thoughts, our entertainments, and all decisions whether small or large. Let us be good ambassadors and show us what it means to be always prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us.  May we never forget to do so with gentleness and respect.

Keep our consciences clean, Lord, and forgive us when we have entered wrongly into debates with unbelievers and answered hostility and arrogance with more of the same. Though our intentions may be good, we too often get tripped up by our emotions and simply fuel the raging fire of panic and anger.

Instead, when we speak with those who do not know You, remind us that we were once blind, poor, and fatally sick in our sin before You saved us. The people who rage and fume, the people who seem to be at war against Your Church are not actually our enemy. They are deceived and pawns in the hands of the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

With that in mind, help us to keep our sharpest discipline and judgement on the inside, directed at our own hearts and churches, just as Jesus had the sharpest words for the religious leaders of His time. When it comes to those outside the Church, let us share with them our genuine joy in the Good News of our own rescue.

Lord, teach us to walk so closely with You that every single response which falls from our lips is seasoned by Your Word and guided by Your wisdom. Help us not to become frantic or fearful as the darkness closes in but remind us that Jesus warned us it would happen. And yet, no matter how dark the world becomes – and it has been dark since the first man and woman sinned – our King is still the Light of the world. There is no darkness which can overcome You.

So help us to trust You, Lord. Guide us to peace and confidence in Christ, speaking the Gospel from a place of genuine trust and absolute conviction that Your word will do what You send it to do. You are faithful, Lord, and You will bring to completion Your own perfect plan. We can rest in that, cooperating with You as Your people and not falling into the mistake of blending with the culture around us.  Teach us to be proper ambassadors for You, appealing on behalf of Christ, “Be reconciled with God!”

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 5:20-21)