A Prayer for Contentment

Discontent is a universal human affliction. And it is particularly epidemic in our affluent and Western culture. I know that I have more than most people, and far more than I deserve, and yet I can always find something that isn’t good enough about my life and circumstances. Our natural drive to be better and have more can serve us well if channeled through the lense of God’s will and His perspective for His glory, but when our focus turns to making more of ourselves, and for ourselves, we lose sight of the greatness of His blessings that have already been poured out on us. If you find yourself, like me, often tempted to be discontented with your life, join me in a prayer for contentment:

Lord,

When I am tempted by discontent, remind me that I already have more than I need or merit.

When I am tempted to envy another’s reward or recognition, remind me that my reward comes from You and not from men.

When I am tempted to compare my ministry with someone else’s, remind me that You have called me and prepared me for the ministry You have given me.   

When I am tempted to compare my children to others, remind me that you have specifically chosen each of them for my family.

When I am tempted to compare my parenting with another’s, remind me that you chose me for the calling of raising the children you placed in my family.

When I am tempted to compare my family’s income with another’s, remind me that money can’t buy peace, harmony, or time together.

When I am tempted to fear change, remind me that You make things new and beautiful in Your time.

When I am tempted to boredom, remind me that You have created innumerable wonders here on Earth, and have many more awaiting me in Heaven.

When I am tempted to envy someone’s bigger, newer, better home, remind me that my true home is with you, and that the shelter you have provided for me is more than enough.

When I am tempted to see my clothes as dated and out of fashion, remind me that You clothe me in garments of righteousness.

When I am tempted to compare my physical strength and beauty with others, remind me that I am fearfully and wonderfully made in Your image.

When I am tempted to envy someone’s latest vacation, remind me that in You I have perfect rest no matter where I am.

When I am tempted to begrudge another their good fortune, remind me that You have already blessed me far beyond what I deserve.

Amen.

May your focus be on God and His goodness this week, and may you see His blessings everywhere.

Woven with Thanks

Last night, somewhere between midnight and 4am, I spent a good portion of an hour lying awake for no good reason. This is par for my course as a pregnant mom of a toddler (who still wakes up at least once a night because he needs a graham cracker/there’s a moose in his room/he got lonely). I don’t think I’ve actually slept a whole night through since sometime in 2012. But that’s not the point.

During these midnight musings, I have learned that our parents lied to us as children. If you just close your eyes and lie there quietly, well, it will be quiet and dark. It will not help you fall asleep, and you mind will not suddenly think to itself, Oh, she’s trying to sleep; I’ll quit bothering her with the task list for next week and the panic about whether potty training is damaging her child’s psyche. Since I’m too lazy to be one of those people who say, “Well, I guess I’m not sleeping, I should probably clean out the garage,” and I’m too pregnant to take large doses of sleeping pills, I knew there had to be another way to quiet my mind. So I turned to prayer.

Not prayer that I would fall asleep quickly. I’ve tried that once or twice in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that God’s not really in the Ambien business. No, I start praying through the needs of my friends and loved ones. (That’s where Facebook really comes in handy. You know exactly what kind of prayer your friends need, even when they haven’t asked for it, if you know what I mean.) I usually get through several before I start to drift off.  

I haven’t found anything that calms my spirit in the middle of the night like bringing the people I love before God. Not only does it bring peace, but in my intercessions for others, I find God speaking to me. Take last night, for example.

I was starting to run through my list of people and their needs, when that nagging voice of some Sunday school teacher from childhood piped up, “Always begin your prayers with thanksgiving,” (presumably so God doesn’t think you’re taking Him for granted and ignore you). For a moment, I thought, Well how am I supposed to thank Him for divorce or mental illness, Mrs. Holypants? Hmm? But then He showed me a picture of how we can thank Him in even the most joyless situations.

I suddenly imagined our prayers as a basket or cloth being woven. We go in and out, up and down as our lives and circumstances change. We weave the threads of supplication and intercession all through a framework of joy and thanksgiving. Lord, give strength and wisdom to my single-mom friend. Thank you for the ways you have provided for her and the people you have surrounded her with to support her. The struggles I am praying for on her behalf lead me to recall how faithfully God has upheld her even in the midst of a life-storm. Father, bring peace and healing to the one struggling with depression. Thank you that she is bringing awareness to her condition and that she is encouraging others. I want to see her mind and spirit healed, but in the meantime I rejoice in the courage and boldness she has found and in knowing that her transparency is going to bless others.

Thanksgiving is an absolutely integral part of our prayer life. It’s not a magic password to the throne (Thank you, God, that all of the past seasons of NCIS are on Netflix. Ok, I’m listening. Did you see Season 10, Epsiode 5? I mean, yes, go ahead with your request. Um, yeah, could you heal my friend’s sister’s cousin’s dog? I think he’s got mange or something yucky.) Prayer is about change. The more I pray, and the more I find ways to thank Him, the more I am changed, which I believe is the true purpose of prayer.

Prayer, in my personal opinion, is not meant by God as a means for us to manipulate the divine providence and sovereignty. If it were, no one would die from cancer, parents wouldn’t bury their children, and the innocent wouldn’t suffer. So Mrs. Holypants from 4th grade is right, we do need thanksgiving if we are going to have a meaningful prayer life.

Not because it gives us points towards answered prayers, but because as we thank God, we see where He has already answered our prayers and provided for us in ways we never thought to ask. In light of His faithfulness revealed by our thankfulness, we see how pain and tragedy really are part of God’s merciful plan to draw us into a deeper knowledge of Him. Our sufferings become less about how we feel or how we are affected in the immediate, and more about how God’s grace is weaving through a story that began long before us and will continue long after us.

Thanksgiving fills us with hope. It reframes our perspective. It reminds us of God’s promises and His faithfulness that never fails. It reassures us that His mercies are new each day, just as we need them.

 

How are you thankful?

Selfish Faith

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There it was, right between posts selling old lawn furniture and telling me how I wouldn’t believe what happened next: a mind-bomb that I didn’t see coming. Right next to each other in my Facebook newsfeed were two posts. The first was one of those inspirational quotes showing a healthy, happy, financially secure woman with words to the effect of “my God can do anything” in fancy script. The second was a sobering reminder of the plight of thousands of Syrian refugees. It featured a picture of a mother and child in rags walking through the desert past a vast tent city. I might have given them both little thought, if that hadn’t been so perfectly juxtaposed.

The absurdity of the contrast hit me right between the eyes. When I say, “My God can do anything,” I’m thinking about how He can help me get through a busy week without getting angry at my husband and son (especially since my next spa day is a month away, seriously!), or how He can provide a million dollars to build our church a new building with enough classrooms and bathrooms. At the very top of my faith game, I’m believing that He can sustain us when there’s an unexpected job loss, or that He can heal a loved one. My God can give me anything. 

But what about the mother who lives in a refugee camp, or a migrant worker camp, or in a city of shacks built from trash scrounged from the dump 100 yards away? She’s not trusting that God will help her get her next college degree, or that He will help her husband get a raise so that they can take their family on a Disney cruise. She’s trusting Him to help her find enough food to keep her baby from starving. If God is really feeling like blessing her, there will be enough food for her child to eat and not cry from hunger afterwards, and a real miracle would be if she had something to eat as well. She’s trusting Him to protect her family from those who would take advantage of them by stealing from, raping, or enslaving them. If her God can do anything, maybe one of these days He will make a way for her family to live in a real home, with no more fear of hunger or of what their fellow men might do to them. But for right now, she’ll be satisfied with daily bread. Her God must do everything, because she can do nothing. 

A part of me wants to rail against our selfishness as comfortable American Christians. How dare we even pray for a pay raise when others are praying to survive? How selfish is it to ask God to bless us with tropical vacations and newer cars? Certainly, we should be more thoughtful about why we are asking for what we are asking God for. We can ask Him for things we don’t necesarily need, but we should be very cautious about gauging God’s blessing in our life by nonessentials. 

This is not to say that we, who mostly live in (or at least come from) the “first world” and the middle and upper class, do not have real problems or need real faith. I’ve been blessed to see friends cling to God in incredibly difficult and painful situations, and He has surely carried them through. Nor is it to say that one of the posts I saw this morning was more true than the other. I happen to know that both posters have great love for the Lord and for people, and they both trust Him to use them to express His love for others.

What those posts were was a much needed reminder for me of two things. First, that I am already blessed with so much, and should be so much more thankful for mundane things like leftovers, a car that runs, and 24/7 access to medical care. Second, that my problems need to be put in perspective. Even if my husband were to lose his job and we had to leave our little town that we love for him to find work, there is almost no chance that we would end up living in a tent or starving to death. Even if I worry about my children, there is virtually no chance that they are going to be trafficked or kidnapped for use in global terrorism. Even if my worst fears came true, my God would be able to make something beautiful from my ashes, to be glorified in my sorrow, and to restore my joy.

So it seems to me that much of our faith in God’s abilities is selfish, whether we are a displaced refugee trusting Him for our most basic needs, or a happy homemaker trusting Him for a little bit extra. We believe that God can do anything for us. And that’s okay, because God is personal with us, and so our personal fears, needs, and desires are important to Him. But if we have this great faith that God can really, truly do anything, shouldn’t we be a lot more generous with our prayers? This is where I was convicted this morning. I pray for myself and my family a lot. I pray for my church family and other friends whenever they ask. I occasionally pray for something I see on the news or on social media. If I’m honest, though, I don’t spend all that much time praying for people like the Syrian refugees, the victims of the Nepal earthquake, or the riots that seem to be regularly breaking out across the US. If I really believe that God can make something beautiful out of these situations, shouldn’t I be fervently asking Him to do so? Of course I should. You should too.

Let’s do it, because our God can do anything. 

Anticipation

You probably all recognize these lyrics from the Carly Simon song, “Anticipation”:

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

That has been my mental theme song for the last few days as I count down to the uncertain birth-day. I’ve been physically and mentally ready for about 3 weeks now. In fact, today could be the day. I’m definitely feeling different things, new things, much less comfortable things, and it is his due date. But then again, he could be tenacious (or lazy) and hang out on the inside for another week or two. I can’t really be sure.

 

And that’s driving me crazy. I don’t like that I can’t really make any specific plans, because I never know when I’ll end up in the hospital. I don’t want to start any big projects, because they may get interrupted indefinitely. And my energy seems to decrease a little every day. (If he does stay in another week or two, they may accidentally admit me to the hospital for experimental zombie-reversal treatments instead of labor and delivery.) To add to the crazy, my hormones (oh, wondrous things, those) have decided to rebalance again, and so I find myself on the verge of a mental breakdown at least once a day. Yesterday I broke down in tears over a cell phone.

 

Yes, I admit it. I ordered a new, shiny, hopefully-not-demon-possessed cell phone, and was so excited about getting free overnight shipping. Then I woke up and realized that my beautiful new technological umbilical cord was being overnighted to my mom’s house, not mine. I would have to wait a whole day longer to get my phone. Cue the irrational, inconsolable pregnant lady waterworks. I was kind of embarrassed to be with myself, it was that silly.

 

I quickly realized that I wasn’t really crying about the phone though. I mean yes, there was the chance that my old one would go up in a puff of smoke before I got the new one, leaving me virtually cut off from the whole world (!), but it wasn’t really a big deal. No, what I was crying about was having to wait. The stress of waiting for my little guy to come had found a way through my usually calm outer shell, and I had to admit that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I was just so tired of waiting.

 

I bet you’ve been there too. We all have to accept waiting as a part of life. God often asks us to wait for things. Sometimes it’s to build our patience and perseverance. Sometimes it’s because His perfect timing says, “Not yet.” The longer we live, the more we wait. And yet, it doesn’t necessarily get easier, does it? All we can do is what I did yesterday – cry out to God and ask for His grace, His strength in the waiting. It’s okay to tell Him that you don’t feel like you can do it much longer. It’s okay to tell Him that your patience feels like it’s about to run out. He already knows, and He very much cares. If He’s asking you to wait for something, He is also offering to sustain you in your waiting.

 

I don’t know if my little guy is going to come tomorrow, or if he’s going to wait until next week. But I do know that I can make it, however long the wait is, because I’m not relying on my own strength to get through. You’re waiting on something right now, I just don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s for that soulmate you so long for, or maybe for your own child, whether just a hope, or a wiggling, kicking reality. You might be waiting anxiously for the results of your lab exam, or your final exam. You might be waiting for a cure. You might be waiting for that job to call back, or just for something to change.

 

I know it’s hard. My waiting has a time limit, a known, happy outcome, and it’s still hard to wait, so I know that it is even harder for those of you whose times and outcomes are more uncertain. Please know that for the Father, the outcome is not uncertain, and the time is in His hands. He loves you and cares for you, and He will not make you wait forever, nor wait without a purpose. Trust Him, take heart, and look forward. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” Have faith, my friends, have faith.

Tuesday’s Truth – The Gift of No

Welcome back, friends! Today I’m writing you from the unbearably hot and humid state of Kansas. Every time I see The Wizard of Oz, I wonder why Dorothy doesn’t do a little happy dance when she says, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” It alternates between blast furnace and Roman steam bath. But I digress.

 

What I really want to talk to you about today is an important parenting principle. Before you dismiss me based on the fact that the only parenting I’ve done so far is poking my belly to keep my little guy kicking, let me tell you that I’m not going to actually give you advice on how to parent your children (although if you pick something up from this, that’s great). What’s really going on here is that I was inspired recently by a parallel between parenting and God’s ways with us.

 

Like any first-born, first time mother who is paranoid and certain that she will completely ruin her child, I’ve been furiously reading every parenting book I can get my hands on. (Note: this is not actually a good idea.) There are many rules, schedules, tips, and tricks that you are apparently supposed to follow to ensure a healthy, well-adjusted child. Some will probably prove useful, others to be a useless burden, but there is one that has really stuck out to me even before I’ve had the opportunity to try it out. It just makes sense to me. I call it “The Gift of No”.

 

The basic principle is that it is important for you to tell your child no (although not necessarily to use the word itself) on a regular basis. Your child will develop better emotional and psychological health if they do not get everything they ask for. It’s good for them to be denied once in a while. It’s okay if they don’t get every experience, toy, or opportunity. It’s healthy for them to be allowed to fail because you don’t solve all their problems for them. From my time teaching young children, I can see that this is a true principle.

 

But as I thought about it more, I wondered why it was true. What is it about being judiciously denied certain things that helps a child become emotionally strong and healthy? It seems to me that there are four main things that the Gift of No teaches children. First, it teaches them that they are not the central, most important thing in the world. They learn that their desires do not outweigh the needs and desires of others. This kind of humility makes for a thoughtful, caring person. Second, it teaches patience and self-discipline. When a child does not immediately get everything he or she wants, it develops the ability to deny self. This helps a child learn to either wait for a better time, or to choose not to indulge themselves. Third, it teaches contentment. Through experience, the child learns that he or she can still be happy and fulfilled even without many of the things that he or she may initially desire. Fourth, it teaches the child to prioritize. When you can’t have or do everything you desire, you learn how to choose what is most important to you.

 

Now, you may be thinking, this is interesting parenting advice, but what does it have to do with issues of spirituality and Christian life? Well, as I was thinking through they why’s and wherefore’s of the Gift of No, it suddenly dawned upon me that this isn’t a new principle at all, but something that God instituted from the beginning of Creation, and that it is not just true in raising children, it is true in God’s development of us as well. Those four character qualities that we find important in the emotional health of our children are equally, if not even more  important in our spiritual health. God wants to develop in us others-centeredness, self-discipline, contentment, and right priorities. Those four are cornerstones of a healthy spiritual life. The Bible is full of examples of God giving the Gift of No to His children. Think through them with me:

  • God told Adam and Eve, “No,” when it came to the forbidden fruit in order to develop discipline.
  • God told Moses, “No,” when it came to entering the Promised Land because Moses had not prioritized obedience over expedience.
  • God told David, “No,” when it came to building the temple not only because of David’s prior actions, but also to teach both David and Solomon discipline and others-centeredness.
  • God told John and James (and their mother), “No,” when it came to promising them positions of honor in His kingdom to remind them that they were not more important that His other followers.
  • God told Paul, “No,” when he asked for the ‘thorn in his flesh’ to be removed to teach him contentment.

 

There are many more examples throughout the Bible, and in the lives of Christians throughout history. You’ve probably heard someone say that God answers our prayers three different ways: Yes, No, and Wait. We like the Yeses. We’re okay with the Waits. But we like to try to make all of the No’s into Waits, don’t we? We need to come to terms with the fact that sometimes God is flat-out telling us, “No.” Not because He doesn’t love us. Not because He wants us to be unhappy. Not because He is being arbitrary. He tells us, “No,” precisely because He does love us, and wants us to be emotionally and spiritually healthy. When we accept that a “No” from God is just as loving and gracious as a “Yes,” then we are one step closer to being the healthy and whole person that He made each of us to be.

 

May you grow in grace!

Tuesday’s Truth – Stop, Look, and Listen

Hello again! It’s July already, friends, can you believe it? I know that every year we all complain that it is going by too fast, but seriously, July? It’s just not right! I hope that in this summer season, filled with all its breaks and vacations (and ironically, all its busy-ness and stress), you are taking time to be with God and listen to His voice. Today we’re going to talk about the importance of seeking God’s advice and instruction, so get ready.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading a chronological layout of the Bible. I like this layout  because it helps me see the plan of God and His history with the world more clearly. I can see the progression from one king’s sin or success to that of his sons. I like being able to put it all together. The past few days I have been reading about two very different kings. One was the infamous King Ahab of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the other was Jehoshaphat, the righteous king of Judah. Ahab came from a long line of kings who did everything to block God from the people, and vice versa. Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, had excellent examples in his father and grandfather, and worked diligently to keep his people true to the Lord.

In my reading lately, a certain point about Jehoshaphat kept sticking in my mind. He didn’t just obey the Law of God, get rid of idols, or ban people and practices that promoted idolatry. He also actively sought God’s advice and guidance when he had a big decision to make. Now, this is important to me, because in many ways, I don’t see Jehoshaphat as being that bright of a guy. He teamed up with one of his biggest enemies (King Ahab), and then agreed when King Ahab suggested basically using Jehoshaphat as a decoy in battle. The wisdom of Solomon was certainly not one of his characteristics. And yet, there is a promise in the Bible that we will receive wisdom when we ask God for it. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Even though this promise was made nearly 1,000 years after Jehoshaphat’s reign, the principle has always been true, and God has always made good on the promise. What Jehoshaphat lacked in wisdom, he made up for in faith.

Let’s look at two episodes from Jehoshaphat’s life which show the value he placed on seeking the Lord before making a decision. The first one comes from 2 Chronicles 18. Jehoshaphat had agreed to work with King Ahab to regain a portion of land that was important to both Israel and Judah, but had fallen into the hands of a common enemy. Jehoshaphat agree to go along with Ahab, but first he suggested that they inquire of the Lord if He wanted them to pursue this new war. Ahab agreed, except that he “inquired of the Lord” through 400 prophets who were on his payroll, and were not exactly known for being faithful to God. So of course they gave the kings the go-ahead, saying that God loved the idea and would give them great success. Jehoshaphat, though not the brightest, as we’ve seen, still smelled the fish on this one, and asked if maybe there wasn’t a real prophet of the Lord available for a second opinion. One, named Micaiah, was finally rounded up (with the warning that he should just tell Ahab that his plan was a good plan) and, at Jehoshaphat’s encouragement, actually told the truth – that they could go to battle if they wanted, but that Ahab would be killed, and his army scattered. And that is exactly what happened. Jehoshaphat made one key mistake here. He asked for the Lord’s guidance and advice, but then he still went out to battle with Ahab, and was nearly killed in the process (remember the whole decoy plan? Yes, it worked – at first.) As he was on his way home, Jehoshaphat was confronted by another prophet who strongly rebuked him for his alliance with Ahab. If we are going to seek the Lord’s wisdom and guidance, we need to prepared not only to hear it, but to do it. (James 1:22)

On a second occasion, it appears that Jehoshaphat had learned his lesson, and was completely prepared to seek and follow God’s wisdom and will. In 2 Chronicles 20, we learn that a large army was preparing to attack Judah. When Jehoshaphat heard who was coming, he called all the people together, went down to the temple, and prayed with all his might. He recalled to God the other times that He had defeated the enemies of His people, and he summed up his request with this statement, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (verse 12)

Like Jehoshaphat, there will be times in our lives when we are confronted with a major challenge or decision, and we may not see a clear answer right away. It is in those times that our eyes must come off of our problems, and our minds must stop spinning for solutions, and instead we must put our whole focus on God, seeking His ways. We look at what He has done in the past, what He has told us in His Word, and what He is doing in the present, and then we get a clearer picture of where He is taking us. It sounds simple, but it is not. It takes courage and faith to stop and seek God. It takes patience to wait for His answers. It takes discipline to tune our hearts to His voice.

As Jehoshaphat learned, it is worth having that courage, faith, patience, and discipline. After Jehoshaphat sought the Lord with the people of Judah, he took his army out to meet their enemies. But instead of planning battle tactics and sending out scouts, the first thing Jehoshaphat did was encourage his men to have faith, and then he led them in praising the Lord. Only after that did they set out for the battle. When they arrived, they found only the bodies of their enemies. God had heard their prayer and their praises, and had used the armies of Judah’s enemies to destroy each other. The army of Judah didn’t even have to fight, they just had to gather the spoils of war and take it home. This time, Jehoshaphat had listened to the wisdom of God and followed through, and not only was his land saved, not only were they enriched by the riches left behind by their enemies, but there was also an extended peace, because the nations around Judah feared being destroyed by God.

In our lives, we will face many situations and decisions that are more than we can handle on our own. The wonderful thing is that we don’t have to handle them alone. God’s promise to give us wisdom is still just as valid as it was in the days of Jehoshaphat, and the days of James. God’s promises don’t have an expiration date. Don’t be so afraid of losing an opportunity that you miss the chance to seek the Lord. Don’t be so paralyzed by fear that you can’t get on your knees and echo Jehoshaphat’s prayer, “I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on you.”

Tuesday’s Truth – Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Welcome back again! Today I want to share something with you that I discovered in my daily Bible study. I’ve been going through a chronological reading of the Bible, and recently I’ve been covering the end of Solomon’s life, and the division of his kingdom into Israel and Judah. In my reading, I went through the last few chapters of the book of Proverbs. While most of the sayings in that book are clearly attributed to Solomon, Chapter 30 is supposedly written by a wise man named Agur. It is not clear who Agur was. Some sources believe that it was a symbolic pen name for Solomon. Others say that he was an Arabian ruler. The context, history, and Hebrew structure in the passage make it hard to be definitive. What is clear, though, is that whoever the writer of Proverbs 30 was, he made some very helpful observations about God, life, and the ways of the world. I’d like for you to look at just a few verses out of this chapter with me. Let’s start with a promise:

“Every word of God is flawless;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

I love this idea of complete security. I’ve been reading lately about the kings of Israel and Judah, and it is amazing to me how simple it was that when they obeyed and trusted God, there was peace and prosperity, and they were never defeated, but when they went their own way and trusted in their own strength, or in their armies and allies, they invariably experienced failure and defeat. What a clear challenge to trust Him with everything.

The writer goes on to make a request of God:

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

The wise man here is giving us a lesson in contentment. How often do you pray this same sort of prayer? Do you ask for God to give you only what you need, what He wills you to have, or do you continually ask for more? Give it some serious thought this week.

15b “There are three things that are never satisfied,
four that never say, ‘Enough!’:
16 the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’

The writer continues with the idea of contentment vs. desire. I think we can all identify with the first two examples he give. As we talked about last week, death is something that is constant an inevitable. And all of us have known couples who have struggled with infertility. It is amazing what lengths people will go to try to conceive a child. The drugs, procedures, and financial costs are each extreme, and yet there is no slowing in the business of helping people have babies. The desire for the child overshadows any physical or financial discomfort. And while I cannot directly relate to that example, I certainly can relate to the final two. Here in our beautiful state of Colorado, our gorgeous spring and summer have been marred by a severe drought that has contributed to extensive wildfires. Last summer we dealt with the same issues, but this year seems even worse. Over 500 homes were destroyed just in one fire. In another area of the state, a popular tourist area was almost completely destroyed. In yet another area, over 50,000 acres of beautiful alpine forest have been consumed. Watching the reports come in each day, it is easy to see that fire never says, “Enough!”

Notice that these things which are impossible to satisfy are not spoken of positively by the writer. We live in a culture where a constant drive for more (more money, more power, more recognition, more success, more possessions, more happiness, more everything) is seen as a positive character trait. Commercials for athletic products tell us to keep pushing for more – faster times, more points, more wins. Educational institutions tell us that we can become more, earn more, learn more, if we attend their school. Movies and television tell us to climb the ladder, find a better spouse or partner, reach for the stars. We are told to never stop pushing the envelope, never accept defeat, never stay in one place too long. Satisfaction is the same thing as laziness and apathy. Every opportunity is meant to be taken, every risk is worthwhile.

And yet I wonder if we’re really happier, and more satisfied because of this constant drive for more. Look at the statistics relating to debt, divorce, and suicide just in the US. The average credit card debt in the US is over $15,000, The average mortgage debt is just under $150,000, and the average student debt is over $30,000. The divorce rate is around 40%. Nearly 40,000 people in the US commit suicide each year, and many more admit to thinking about it. We’re in a state of constant striving, and it’s not making us happier, more satisfied people.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon often speaks of human striving as being meaningless. It’s clear that more is not always better. Working hard, doing one’s best, reaching for dreams – all of that can be very worthwhile. Our failing is in letting our achievements, our possessions, our striving, take too high a priority. There are many ways we could talk about what this means, but let’s go back to what the writer said: having too much, seeking too much, can draw us away from God. We become like those kings I mentioned at the beginning who stopped trusting the Lord and experienced defeat and failure. Make the writer’s prayer your own this week. Ask Him to give you a spirit of contentment, no matter what your circumstance, trusting that He has given you all that you need.

 

Have a contented week!

Real Hearts, Real Joy #1

         Welcome back, friends! I am excited to introduce the first in a series on how God is working in the real lives of real people. Over the next several months, I will have the privilege of introducing you to people who have found God to be faithful in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Their situations may echo something in your own life, or they may not, but in either case, I hope that you will hear what they have to share and be encouraged.

Today we will be hearing from Sarah, who has recently had the opportunity to prove God’s faithfulness. In February 2011, Sarah and her husband found out that they were expecting their first child, a little girl, whom they named Elliana, meaning “God has heard”. Certainly it seemed that God had heard their prayers for an addition to their family. Sadly, at 26 weeks into Sarah’s pregnancy, they discovered that Elliana had a very serious heart condition. Elliana was born on October 22, 2011, and underwent surgery to begin repairing her heart within a few days. After 7 weeks, it became apparent that though Elliana’s spirit was very strong, her heart simply could not keep up. After a couple of very difficult days, she passed away on December 13. In the midst of all these struggles, the question on many minds was, Where is God in this? We all wanted to find some reason why God would take such a beautiful little girl away after such a short time with her family. Colt, Sarah’s husband, answered the question very well when he said that the answer was not to be found in Elliana’s healing or death, but in the way that God sustained them through all of the ups and downs of her short life. I can attest to the fact that though she was with us for such a short time, Elliana made a big impact on my life, and the lives of many others. It is Sarah’s hope, as well as mine, that by sharing the things learned through this difficult time, others will be encourage to look for and find God’s faithfulness to them, no matter what the circumstances.

CL: Thank you for being willing to share with us, Sarah. To start off, can you tell us, in just a few words, your understanding of who God is?

Sarah: God to me is someone that wants to be involved in every aspect of my life, whether large or small.  I believe that He is worthy of our praise, affection, love, and devotion.  I believe that who He is should always be at the very center of who I am.

 CL: You have recently experienced some significant trials in your life. Prior to entering this time, how would you have described your trust in God?

Sarah: I trusted God to do what He saw fit in my life, but I never expected it to bring pain.  So, in a way I trusted Him to bring blessing because I was serving Him.  I knew it wasn’t Biblical, but it was easy to think that if I just lived my life the right way, only good would come.

CL: You found out midway through your pregnancy that your daughter, Elliana, would be born with a serious heart condition. What were your first thoughts?

Sarah:  My first thoughts were, “There is no way”, “They must have made some mistake” and “How could this be happening to us?” You hear about other peoples’ stories of difficulty, but you never think it will happen to you.

CL: How did God sustain you during your months of waiting?

Sarah: The first few weeks were by far the hardest.  My world seemed tossed into turmoil with trying to not fear, thinking maybe I had done something wrong, and trying to find some sort of normalcy.  God worked on me a lot during that time, challenging me with His word and beginning to show me what it meant to cling to His truth and believe it for myself.  Up until this point I had believed the Bible, but I had never had a situation like this in which I had to cling to His promises with every ounce of my being. 

CL: Was it difficult to make the choice to open your heart to your daughter even though her future was so uncertain?

Sarah: Truthfully, that was not hard for me.  From the beginning I loved our baby.  By the time we found out about her heart I had already enjoyed almost 2 months of feeling her kick, and each movement allowed me to dream about what she was like.  Her uncertain future brought fear, yes, but it never remotely changed how much I cherished her.

I think when we first realized she would have a difficult start I looked at Colt and there was this kind of knowing that this changed nothing.  We knew that no matter what it took, we would be with her every step of the way.  I wholeheartedly believe that if she were still with us, we would be doing that now.  It never would have stopped. 

We both also loved her from the moment we heard a baby was coming.  None of that ever changed just because her heart didn’t form the way most do.  Through the course of her life, God granted us the ability to see, even for a short season, all the unique attributes that were clearly hers.  I look back and see every moment we cherished with her as an absolute gift. 

 CL: What were some ways that God made your heart glad during Elliana’s time with you?

Sarah: There really were many times God brought joy in our weeks with Elliana, and even before she was born. It had been a couple months that we had known about her heart condition, the three surgeries that would be required, and the extra care that would be needed, and the bigger she got the more I looked forward to meeting her, no matter what the days ahead entailed.  I will never forget the joy and yet nervousness I felt about what lay before us when I went into labor and Colt rushed me to the hospital (an hour away).  Ten hours after we got to the hospital she was born, and I cannot express the indescribable joy and pride that I felt looking at our daughter and hearing her first cry.  When I got to hold her for 2 minutes before they had to whisk her away, it was incredible.  It was in that moment that I knew I had been created to be her mother.  This was what I was made for.  She just stared back at me content and curious. I will never forget that moment, filled with awe, joy, and a peace that no matter what would come, God would be with us and we would get through it.   

Elliana holding Sarah’s hand in the NICU

CL: Did Elliana’s life teach you anything new about God?

Sarah: Her life taught me that no matter what you face, God will be there.  I had an idea of this concept before, but more than ever I cherish my walk with God.  He is my delight and my joy. Even though I hope and pray there is not further pain in the days ahead, such as we have gone through, I know without a doubt that God will get me through. 

            Her life also taught me more clearly that His ways are not necessarily our ways.  Though I would love to tell a success story of how she got better and is alive today, she isn’t.  God sometimes doesn’t do what we want Him to do and it doesn’t mean that He isn’t just as good and just as faithful.  I have learned that God sometimes uses our pain and our weakness to show His power.  Though the pain we have walked through has been unimaginable, He still brings hope.  How is that? you may ask. The God who can perform miracles, yet sometimes chooses not to, still decided to perform a miracle in the healing of my heart.  So even though God didn’t give me what I asked for, and chose to ask us to give up our only child, I am honored that He felt that with Him, we could make it through this.  Even though He said no to what we asked, He did say that His grace is sufficient.  It truly has been. Though I hope and pray no one goes through anything like what we have been through, I do hope others will see that through our pain and weakness He will be strong and give us His grace if only we will let Him.

CL: Elliana passed away after just seven weeks with you. Do you feel that your trust in God has changed since then?

Sarah: Yes, trust to me is not trusting God to do what I want or even what I prefer.  Trust is literally giving up the reins and saying “God, have your way, even if I don’t understand it.”  I don’t think that kind of trust comes from living life when everything goes the way you hope.  It is a different way of living life and a different way of seeing that which He has given you. Even now, choosing to trust God is a choice I have to make daily.  My faith isn’t something I “feel,” at least not very frequently; it has become what I must have each day to make it through.   He has to be my source, or I fall apart.

CL: In what ways does God make your heart glad now, even as you are still grieving for your daughter?

Sarah: Probably the biggest way has been through our joy in expecting our second child.  Just 2 ½ months after Elliana passed away we found out we were pregnant again.  Now, 27 weeks along, we recently found out we are expecting a little boy and that he is healthy and strong!  What joyful news for us! We have found that after all we have walked through, we cannot take a day for granted.  Expecting and giving birth to a healthy child is a huge gift that many parents take for granted, and I can say for us it is one of the biggest blessings we will ever be given.  I still struggle with trusting our child’s life into God’s hands, knowing that only He knows the future of this little one. and of all our lives as well.  But, His grace truly is sufficient for each and every day.  So, no matter what comes, He is faithful and full of goodness.

            Another way that God has made my heart glad is in memories of Elliana. It may sound odd, but God has helped me remember her with joy and hope.  I loved being her mother and it was one of the greatest joys of my life.  I can look back, and even though she died, I would never change any of it.  Yes, I wish she were here, but even knowing what would happen in advance, I would go through it all again because of the joys of loving her.

        Another huge blessing God has given that I am able to rejoice in is my husband.  God has brought us together in ways I never thought He could do through the grief of losing our child.  Because of the pain we have faced together, we can look at life and be thankful for all we have been given.  Even in the midst of the pain, God has given us times of such deep joy, laughter, and a love for life that I can only attribute to Him. 

 CL: Is there any advice you can offer to those of us who want to help a friend or family member through a difficult loss?

Sarah: The biggest blessing for me has been those people who are willing to sit and listen.  They don’t try and solve the problem or the pain of grief; they simply are there with me to hear whatever I have currently been working through.  A mother who lost her 18 year old son shared with me the most helpful, compassionate words she heard in her process of grieving, given by a friend: “I will never tire of hearing stories about him.  Even if they’re the same ones over and over again.  I’ll always be here to listen.”  That to me is one of the greatest things a person can do.  No matter if the day is full of joy or sorrow; they are there to help by simply being there. 

              Our pastor also said something to us that has been so true for my husband and I.   He explained that in the body of Christ our sorrows are halved and our joys are doubled.  I believe that is what the body of Christ is meant to be, caring and loving even in the midst of hurt that is unspeakable. 

CL: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Sarah: Sometimes we strive to live a life of comfort and ease without pain.  However, I am reminded that if pain is not in our life at all, we really aren’t living.  We live in a fallen world, and to experience no pain is really not possible.  It is through our pain that God can pour indescribable joy into us, and a hope unlike any other.  Still, God leaves the choice to us, will we let trials create distance between us and our relationship with Him, or will we cling to Him, allowing Him to transform us and make us more like Him?  Somehow through the pain of losing a child, God has brought an even greater understanding of who He is and through this heartache; I have learned even more clearly how good He is.  How awesome that we serve a God who is not only faithful, but brings hope in the midst of despair, joy for sorrow and complete restoration to our hurting hearts.

If something in Sarah’s story connected with you, we would love to hear about it.  Are you struggling with a loss right now? Let us know so we can be there with you.

As always, may your heart be glad!

Annie, Get Your Bible

“Anything you can do, I can do better; I can do anything better than you… Anything you can be, I can be greater; sooner or later I’m greater than you.” So go the famous lines from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. A catchy tune, and also irrefutable proof that Annie Oakley and Frank Butler were Christians.  How do I know? Because no one can turn something miniscule and mundane into a fierce competition like Christians.

Just spend a few hours at a conference of senior pastors, youth pastors or Sunday school directors. What’s your attendance? How many programs do you have each week? Have you built a new “worship center”? How many missionaries do you support? How many satellite campuses do you have? Have you published a book? Do you have a 3D gaming system to get the kids interested? (I won’t even address the absurdity of that…imagine how many more continents would have been reached for Jesus if St. Paul had just had an Xbox and some plasma screens…we wouldn’t even have to send missionaries to Africa!)  It goes on and on.

The people asking these questions often don’t really care about the answers. They’re not hearing that you were called to a church with a weekly attendance of 60 and now it is up to 100. A 66% increase doesn’t make them bless the Lord for what He’s doing in your congregation.  All they really want to hear is that whatever you have is not as good as what they have. Sure, when they took over their church, there were 1,500 attendees, and now there are only 1,000, but it’s still much bigger than your church. And of course, we all know that God is far more active in a megachurch than in a small congregation. I grew up in a megachurch, and yes, God was indeed working there, but not because we had thousands of people. These days I go to a church that could fit 10 times over into the sanctuary at my childhood church.To put it another way, there are more people that attend the church of my youth than live in my entire town now.  And yet, God is incredibly active in my current church, not because we’re big, or because we’re small, but because He has a plan for us.  That’s how God works. Not by statistics, but by design.

But it’s not just pastors and churches that get involved in the holy war of Christian competition. As individual Christians we take the bait just as easily. Who is asked to sing for worship more often? Whose Bible study has more attendees? Who chairs more committees? Who is better friends with the pastor’s wife? Who is invited to golf with the elders more often? Who has better behaved children? Who has a Sunday school room named after them? Who went to a more remote location as a missionary? Who is suffering more for Jesus? And on and on.

We are constantly caught up in the mania of trying earn more crowns, more “Well done, good and faithful servant” accolades, store up more treasures in heaven. Because we want to be the biggest and best, even in heaven. I know it sounds a little cynical, and it seems that I am saying that all of us are only working for our own selfish gain, not for the Glory of God.I’m not.  I don’t think it’s that bad, or that cut and dried. But I do think that we have a real problem as a global church, and we need to wake up and smell the coffee.  It all boils down to some bad theology that we have let ourselves believe for more than two thousand years.

That bad theology goes like this: If God loves you, He will bless you with a big ministry, happy family, and widespread influence. If you love God, you will do your best to build a big ministry, have a happy family, and gain widespread influence. You know what HE says?  “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15) And what are His commands? Love the Lord with everything you are (Matthew 22:37) and love one another (John 13:34). That’s all. Nothing about building programs, foreign travel, or plasma screens. Nothing about trying to be better than others.

Even Jesus’ closest friends struggled with this concept. Just moments after Jesus explained his coming death and resurrection to them, they got bogged down in an argument over which one of them was the best disciple. (Luke 9:46) They came to learn, however, that God’s view of success, obedience and blessing are wholly unlike ours. We want to do what others are doing, be blessed as they are being blessed. The problem with that is that God doesn’t have the same plans for us. His plan for your life is not anything close to His plan for your neighbor, your brother, your mother or your best friend.  If He had wanted everyone to be the same, He would have stopped with Adam. But no, He has formed billions of unique people in the millennia since Creation, and has designed a completely unique plan for each one of those people. (Jeremiah 29:11) Isn’t that amazing? I have a hard enough time coming up with 7 unique dinners a week; I can’t imagine making a different life plan for each of several billion individuals.

The disciples each were given a different path to follow, even though they had all received the same command to “go and make disciples.”(Matthew 28:19) Some stayed in Jerusalem, some traveled around the Roman Empire, others may have gone as far as India and China. We know that at one point (Acts 15), Paul showed up in Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, specifically Peter and James. Paul could have felt inferior because Peter had spent several years with Jesus, or because James was brother of Jesus. Peter and James could have felt inferior because Paul had started many churches, while they just had the one, or because Paul was an apostle to the wealthy Greeks and Romans, while they were shepherding the impoverished, oppressed Jews. They could have had a veritable pastoral Olympic games. But they didn’t. They combined their strengths, sought the Lord, and worked together to advance the Gospel.

So what about us? What do we do with all of this? Well, we need to do a few different things. First, we need to realize that God has a unique plan for us, and then thank Him for it. When we wish we were someone else, or that we had someone else’s life, we are basically thumbing our nose at God and telling Him that He made a mistake when He created us. When you were born, your parents didn’t have any choice over what you would be like. They couldn’t choose your gender, haircolor, athletic ability, personality or musical talent. They might try to push you in a direction that is different from your natural interests or desires because of their own hopes for you. But God is not like that. He was able to pick every single one of your characteristics, and He put you together just the way He wants you.

Second, we must stop comparing ourselves to others. That is true across the board, more specifically, we need to stop comparing the work that God has given us with the work that He has given someone else. Your work may be caring for AIDS orphans in Africa, or it might be raising your own children in Austin. Neither one is a lesser calling. Both are about bringing children up to know and love the Lord. Your work might be to develop microfinance opportunities for women in India, or it might be to approve loans in Indiana. Either way, you are helping people improve their lives and you have the opportunity to show compassion, integrity and kindness. Your work might be teaching English in China, or you might be teaching English in Chicago. Wherever you are, you are filling minds and inspiring students, and you have the opportunity to obey God by loving them. God is not so narrowly confined that He is only served when we are working in a full-time, official ministry capacity. He is served whenever we love those around us and give Glory to Him.We must stop seeing ourselves as greater or lesser than others.

Finally, we need to seek His will for our lives. That could be a whole post (or a whole book) on its own. The short version is that we need to use our individual gifts, talents and interests to obey His command to love others. If you can’t stand children, you probably aren’t called to start an orphanage in Thailand, no matter how great the need seems. If you can’t carry a tune, God’s plan probably doesn’t involve you leading the choir. But He may be calling you to plan and host a fundraiser for that orphanage, or He may be asking you to be a part of the greeting team, because those are where your skills and interests lie. God made you as you are for His purpose and His plan. Don’t become arrogant by trying to follow your own plan, as if you know better than God. Humbly approach Him and ask Him to show you what it is that He sees as special about you, what it is that He put in you specifically so that you could serve Him. Because you are infinitely special to Him. He has never, not even once, compared you with another, and He has no intention of starting. Be free in that knowledge, free to be and do what He designed and created you for.

And in everything, have a Glad Heart!

MASH

Hello friends! I’d like you to go down memory lane with me a bit. Come with me back to the days of middle school and high school. Depending on your age, it may be a longer trip, so if you’re over 30, I’ll give you a head start. 10, 9, 8…okay, here we all are. If you are of the feminine persuasion, as I am, you’ll probably remember a game called MASH. For all you guys out there who didn’t know girls existed when you were 15, and if you did, you had absolutely no idea what they were talking about when they were together, you’re just going to have to follow along.

If you didn’t play MASH as a teenage girl, I’ll clue you in. No, it is not a game about army hospitals during the Korean war. That wouldn’t be very fun. MASH is an acronym for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. Basically, the game was like a huge fortune teller that would predict who you were going to marry, where you would live, how many children you would have, etc. Sometimes the MASH gods were smiling, and you would get paired with your (for that week) crush, and you would live in a mansion with your 3 adorable children. Other times you would know that the MASH gods were angry and needing some small sacrifice because you would be paired with the most odious male in your acquaintance, and you would be doomed to live in a shack with him and your 47 children.  No one ever took it seriously, but it was a great way to pass some idle time on a bus or at a sleep-over.

Well, today as I was sorting through some mementos of my high school days (read: throwing out junk that mattered a lot 10 years ago, but now I have no idea why I kept it), I found a paper napkin covered in my best friend’s handwriting. Turned out that it was a game of MASH. I suppose the only reason I had stuffed it in my box of mementos back then was because it paired me with the most wonderful, beautiful, kind, talented, romantic guy in the world (read: the guy I had a crush on because he wasn’t already taken by one of my friends) That had to be it, since the rest of the game prophesied that I would be an auto mechanic on welfare with 13 children. I had a good laugh reminiscing about the crazy high school days, and then I wadded it up to throw out like the rest of the trash.

But then it got me to thinking. I can still clearly remember my 17-year-old self thinking that I couldn’t possibly be happy in life if I didn’t end up with that guy. I hoped and prayed that somehow God would work it out so that my whole like could revolve around the process of winning his heart. I knew that one day he would wake up, so to speak, and realize that I was a beautiful, alluring, talented, extremely desirable girl, rather than the awkward, overly loud, intimidating, somewhat bearable she-beast that he had heretofore seen me as. (Note: Me at 17 was a lot more like description 2 than I would like to admit). I’ll let you skip to the end of the book here: we didn’t end up together. He ended up with a string of several girls that were the complete opposite of me, even on my best day. I ended up with a man who saw me as beautiful, alluring, talented and desirable without having a revelation from on high. I am incredibly happy, and do not regret that my “dreams” didn’t come true.

I would imagine that we can each think of at least one situation from our past where we desperately wanted things to go one way, but in the end they went in a totally different direction. And for most of us, we don’t even need to think back to high school. It might be something from last year, last month, or last week. We often don’t have the final say in the situations of our life. And all too often, we accuse God of making the wrong decisions for us. He really shouldn’t have let our husband get laid off, or our wife get cancer, or our car get totaled, or our child get accepted into a college 2,000 miles away. Those things weren’t in the plan that we so carefully drew up for God. Apparently He wasn’t paying close enough attention when we told Him how our life was supposed to go.

Silly little human. 

Would you let your son play in the street just because he said that’s what he wanted? Would you let your daughter eat only jelly beans for a month because she just doesn’t like carrots? No, you know what is best for your child, and you will make that best happen, whether your child would like you to or not. So often we forget that God is our Father in every sense, not just in some master-overlord-originator way. He loves us in a way we can’t understand. He is constantly nurturing and protecting us, even when we don’t notice it.  He knows what is best for us, and sometimes, just like the three-year-old who doesn’t understand why she can’t subsist on jelly beans, we don’t understand why we can’t have it our way. God does not work for Burger King. He doesn’t take orders. Yes, He absolutely hears our prayers, our requests. He knows our desires. And what’s more, He wants to fulfill the desires of our hearts. In fact, He knows what we really want, going far beyond what we say we want. He understood that my desire as a teenage girl was to be loved completely, far more than my desire was for the attention of a certain boy. And He was faithful to fulfill the real desire of my heart. He did it in His way, in His timing, and for His purpose for me.

You may be looking at something in your life right now that is not at all the way you planned or expected. You may be praying for God to change your circumstance, to make it all better, as it were. There is nothing wrong with that. Tell Him you’re hurting. Tell Him you didn’t see this coming, and that you don’t know what to do next. Ask Him to help you find your feet again. Admit that you need His help. I can guarantee that He is not sitting on His throne in Heaven whipping the rugs out from under people just for the fun of seeing them scramble. Remember that we only see the immediate effects of the changes in our life; we cannot see where the changes will lead in a year, ten years, or a hundred years. God’s plan for you is good. His plan is for you to know Him intimately, to trust Him deeply, and to enjoy Him fully. To achieve that plan, there may be bumps (or even mountain ranges) along the way. The path may diverge greatly from the plan you mapped out for yourself. Sometimes you may be completely bewildered and feel lost. Take heart, dear friends, for just as your own children do not always see how closely you watch over them, you may not feel that the Father is protecting you or guiding you, but you can be certain, without a doubt, that He is indeed watching you, ready to pick you up if you stumble, to soothe and heal when you are hurt. He has never abandoned you, even in your darkest moments, and He never will.

May He make your heart glad!