From Here to Eternity

I announced  it was time to go and my son and his friend scrambled into clean-up mode and prepared to say their goodbyes.

When I opened the door, my little guy turned to call out one final farewell.  That’s when his friend ran to the door and they both leaned over for a sideways hug.  My son then made what he considers the ultimate, laid-in-cement gesture of friendship.  He yelled, “I’ll invite you to my birthday party!”

It’s August.

My son’s birthday is in October.

In the parking lot, I ask him how he enjoyed his time with his “best bud,” and he quickly corrects me.  He likes to call him, “my favorite friend.”

I’ve been thinking  as I watch all my kids, in their various stages of friendship and maturity, about what it really means to connect and belong, to love, to show grace, to stand strong and maybe even stand alone, and how God can bind us together with others in community.

After all, my son doesn’t just  think about his friend now, or about inviting his friend to a party in October.  He thinks about when they’re in middle school  together and then about high school.  He’s got long-term plans for friendship. This is sweet and cute and so “5-years-old,” but what if this is also for me as an adult, too?

In his book, Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson says this about  the Church,

The Holy Spirit formed it (the church) to be a colony of  heaven in a country of  death.

This image captivates me.  “A colony of  heaven.”  We can’t be heaven, of course.  We live in sin-brokenness and we are so clearly imperfect.  After all, that’s why we’re part of the Church—because we need a Savior!  Because we’re sinners!  We step on each other’s toes and we invade each other’s spaces at times.  We all battle Death;  it surrounds us in this death-bound world.  The church is constantly battered from without and beaten within by the impact of that brokenness.

Still, we have life.  We who follow Jesus already possess eternal life.  This is what ties us together as believers.  We’re not just in this together for the temporary, or even for a decade.  We’re in this together for eternity, and the great news is that our eternity has already begun.

It’s not “once upon a time.”  Our Kingdom life, our heavenly journey, begins the moment we follow Christ.

How can that change my perspective on loving others?

I feel less pressured, for one thing.  I remember that God has an eternal work in mind.  He brings people into my life and then He moves them on in a new season, and I can let Him direct my steps.  When to cling?  When to let go?  He knows, and  I can trust Him.

When God was preparing to  take Elijah up to heaven, his sidekick, right-hand man, and apprentice (Elisha) knew Elijah was about to leave.

In 2 Kings 2, Elijah told Elisha three different times, “You stay here.  God wants me to go to  another place—Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan.”  He tried to get Elisha to stay behind.

But every time Elisha said, “As Adonai lives and as you live, I will  not leave you” (2 Kings 2:6).  Elisha remained steadfastly by Elijah’s side and ultimately received a double-portion of the Lord’s anointing when he sees Elijah taken up to heaven.

Then Elijah was gone.   God removed Elijah and led Elisha into a new season of ministry without his mentor there any longer.

I remember this also: that eternity has begun for us, but none of us are perfect in the here and now.  I need the perspective of grace and of growth for me and for others: that we’re transforming—we haven’t already transformed.

Paul writes:

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness (Ephesians 4:11-13 CSB).

We’re in that place now of building  and equipping one another, and we’re in this together UNTILUntil Christ comes.  Until we’ve achieved 100% unity in faith and knowing Jesus.  Until we’ve fully matured into Christ-likeness.

We’re not there yet.  In the meantime, we equip each other.  We build each other up.  We help each other become more like Jesus.  We serve and we minister as He’s called and equipped us for the benefit of the whole Church because we’re in this together for now and for eternity.

 

Not the same anymore

When my son was a baby, I  gave away his infant swing because he hated it.  He was the fourth baby in our line of babies to swing in that very same swing.  Others had loved it, just not him.  So I  gave the swing away and saved space in our living room.  It was a win-win.

Now here  we are five years later and this same kid spent at least 30 minutes swinging non-stop at the playground today.  He shooed me away when I tried  to push him because, “I know how to pump my legs all  by myself now, mom.

So, I sat on the nearby bench in the shade and watched as he lifted himself higher and higher.

This is the same boy.

Sometimes you don’t really catch all the signs that your kids are growing up .  Then there’s a moment when you’re sitting on a wooden bench alongside a playground and it hits you all at once: How big he really is.  How he’s about to start kindergarten.  How he’s changed so much.

And that’s the thing that I’ve been  weighing this afternoon, the changing.  A former baby-swing-hater now loves to swing.

I’ve had changes all  around me in the past year or two, and I have changes before me in this next year once again.

A “baby” starting kindergarten.  My oldest starting high school.   A brand new season where, for  the first time in 15 years, I don’t have a little one at home with me.

I do not love change.  I do not seek it out and I do not enjoy it. I push against change all the time, clinging tight-fisted to whatever reality I know in fear of whatever is unknown.

But here I am in a season of  change, a long  season of frequent and significant changes at that.

So I wonder as I  watch my son swinging away today whether God wants to  do more than just transition and transform the environment around me.  Could it be that He wants to do the same work of transition and transformation inside me?

What can He change within me that maybe I’ve thought could never change?   A habit?  A weakness?  A stubbornness?  A sinful attitude?  A prejudice or judgment?  A fear?

When the Old Testament prophet, Samuel, poured anointing oil over a man named Saul and announced he would be the first king  of Israel, it wasn’t because Saul was already equipped for the job.  Scripture says:

Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; and all those signs came about on that day (1 Samuel 10:9 NASB). 

God changed Saul’s heart in that very moment.

Not that Saul was perfect, mind you.  Far from it.  We know his failures as a king and spiritual leader of Israel.

Still, in that moment, God changed Saul’s heart because God had a plan for Saul.

What if I offered up my heart for the Spirit’s work, invited the Lord to do the renovation that needs to  be done?

Joy where there is not joy.  Peace where there is fear. Love for others who are hard to love.  Humility in the places pride has dug down deep.  Compassion in hard ground.   Repentance when my heart hasn’t been soft enough to see the sin.

Change my heart, Lord.  Change my mind and thought processes and attitudes so that I reflect your heart and your mind.

My struggle sometimes is that I don’t want change.   Other times my struggle is that I long for something to  give way and change, but  change feels impossible.  Stuck.  Hopeless.

What then?

Warren Wiersbe reminds us that:

God is not limited by the past.  No matter how many disappointments and failures we may have had in the past, when Jesus Christ comes on the scene, everything has to change….Nothing paralyzes our lives like the attitude that things can never change.  We need to remind ourselves that God can change things!  God can forgive sin and put new power into lives that seem to be utter failures.  God can send revival to a church that everybody thinks is dead.   God can move into a difficult situation and turn seeming failure into victory.  God makes the difference!” (The Bumps are What You Climb On).

Christ’s presence means everything has to  change.

So I settle my heart, I yield, I invite Him in and I invite Him to  make Himself at home.  May He change what needs to be changed in my life, in my circumstances, in my relationships, and in my heart and mind.

My Lord and My God

“Where’s my girl?”

My son was about three years old when he gave his sister this nickname.

He’d pad out of his bedroom following naptime, his hair still a mess of bed-head, rubbing his eyes with the blanket still in his fist.  He’d ask right away to find, “My girl.”

“Your girl?” I’d ask.

“Where’s my girl?  Where’s Catherine?”

“Can I go see my girl at the school?”

“Can I sit next to my girl in the van?”

“I want to paint a picture for my girl.”

He even went so far as to proclaim that Catherine was “My best girl ever in the world.”

Catherine, of course, loved all the affection.

He staked his own little personal claim on his sister by calling her “my girl,” and I wonder what that could change in me?

What would it  look like for me to stake some claims of my own by getting possessive about my faith, my position in Christ and my relationship with Him?

I don’t mean claiming some exclusivity with Jesus that others can’t enjoy.   That’s not it.

I mean letting my faith seep down into the nittiest grittiest details of my every interaction and my every response and my every thought and feeling because it’s so deeply personal to me, it’s the very essence and core of who I am.

It reminds me of the disciple Thomas who stood in a room with the other apostles and announced he’d believe that Jesus raised from the dead when he saw it with his own two eyes.

And then he did see Jesus.  Not only that, Jesus invited him to touch the scars in his palms and feel the scar along his side.

Jesus said:

“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28  ESV).

I love Thomas’s answer.

MY LORD AND MY GOD.

In the Matthew Henry Commentary, it says,

He spoke with affection, as one that took hold of Christ with all his might; My Lord and my God.

And Matthew Poole’s Commentary says:

My Lord, to whom I wholly yield and give up my self; and my God, in whom I believe. It is observed, that this is the first time that in the Gospel the name of Godis given to Christ.

This apostle we call “Doubting Thomas” was the very first one in the gospels to give Jesus the name of God.  This was a declaration of deity.  This was worship.

It was also Thomas’s personal statement of affection and personal confession of belief.

I want to be that personal.

I want to be that bold.

I want to “take hold of Christ with all my might.”

He isn’t just Lord and God, a deity over all, a divine overseer who loves all of humanity in one encompassing feeling of committed affection.

He is MY Lord and MY God.

He is this for you, also.

And that should change some things.

This week I’ve been swatting away worries like pesky flies.

I’ve been duking it out with that kind of tension that just eases down on your shoulders and won’t go away, the kind that wakes you up at 3 a.m. and doesn’t let you slip  back to sleep.

But Jesus is MY Lord and MY God.

I know He is able.  He is Mighty.  He can do the impossible.  He can overcome anything I face.

There is nothing that happens to me that surprises Him and nothing that interrupts or destroys His plans for me.

And He loves me.  It’s personal.  He has set His affection on me and He cares about what happens to me.  He doesn’t forget about my need or turn His back on me and let me down.

MY Lord and MY God is trustworthy and capable, compassionate and powerful, full of loyal love for me.

So slip your hand into His hand.  Save Him a seat next to you in the minivan.  Make Him the first person you seek when you wake up from naptime (if  you are blessed enough to have a naptime!).

Pour your affection on Jesus and put all your faith in Him.  Make it personal, deep-down real.  And let that wildly abandoned faith change everything.

Managing Expectations

Last year, we bought a new minivan while my daughters were away at summer camp.

We hauled all their luggage out to the parking lot on pickup day, and they stood there scanning the rows of vehicles wondering where in the world I parked.

Even when I opened the back door of our new van and told them to load up, they still didn’t understand. One of them asked if I had rented a van just to come pick them up.

It  was quite the surprise.

But now that one surprise has destroyed my kids’ abilities to gauge how excited they should be for any of my surprises.

Sometimes,  by “surprise” I just mean it’s National Doughnut Day and we’re going to Krispy Kreme for some hot doughnuts.  That’s a wonderful treat—-unless you’re expecting something more along the lines of a new car…or Disney World…or something like that

This year when I picked my girls up from  camp, my youngest daughter asked me if  I’d bought a new car again while they were away?  Or maybe a dog?

So, the ice cream cookie sandwiches I had actually bought didn’t quite measure up.

We’re not really a family that loves surprises of any kind.  (Actually, I hate surprises. So, why should I expect my kids to love them?)  But I am slowly learning that if we do have a surprise  we should package it with some expectation boundaries.

Something like:  Okay,  we have  a surprise for you.  It’s not a Disney World surprise, more like a local, nice surprise that you haven’t tried before and also it’s not  a puppy or a car.

We’re managing expectations with birthdays a bit, too.  It goes  like this:

Mom:  What would you like to  put on your birthday  wish list?

Child:  Well, there is one thing….

Mom:  Something that isn’t a dog.

Child:   Oh.  Right.  Well, how about a camera and some craft supplies?

Mom:  I’ll write those down.

I’m getting better at expectation management and expectation clarity with my kids.

Today, though, I was thinking about how my kids can slip into expecting so much, but I seem to slip into expecting so little of God.

I  read again today the account of Thomas the disciple, who needed to  see Jesus’s scars in order  to believe He was alive following t he crucifixion.

But there’s another moment  with Thomas in the Gospels that I love.  Before Jesus died,  just as tensions were rising and the disciples sensed the growing enmity of the religious leaders,  Jesus announced he was going to Judea again–right into the thick of the conflict and the trouble.

Lazarus had died,  and Jesus intended to be with the family.  The  disciples didn’t understand why Jesus would put himself  in danger, but we know why:  His purpose was resurrection for the glory of God.

So, Thomas  said to his fellow disciples: “Let’s go too so that we may die with him” (John 11:16 CSB).

I love how Thomas was ready to die for Jesus.

Beth Moore wrote,

“What a strange mix of loyalty and pessimism. Oddly enough, Thomas never doubted Christ would die. He doubted the most important part of all–that He would rise from the  dead and live again!” (Living Beyond Yourself).

Thomas expected Jesus to die.   He had no trouble expecting the worst.

But He didn’t expect Jesus’s resurrection.

Isn’t that me sometimes? 

In a season of loss, I can begin to expect more loss.  I expect to barely scrape through and survive the mess or the famine.

When there is bad news, I begin to expect more bad news.  More sadness.

Like Thomas, I have no trouble expecting the worst, but I so rarely expect and anticipate the resurrection Christ brings and that  is what needs  to change.  Instead of expecting the worst,  can I learn to  anticipate God’s glory?

I’m so deeply grateful that God is a God of abundance. he does so much more than meet my meager, miserly expectations.

I can never expect Jesus to  give me everything I want or ask for.  He loves me too much for that.

But I can expect this:

His goodness in all things.

His lovingkindness.

His sweetness in the midst of the best and worst of times.

His presence with me at all times.

His provision.

His strength.

His resurrection work, making things new, making things beautiful, filling the things that seem so dead with new life.

This resurrection work is what He is doing now, and it will be His ultimate work in creation,  building an eternal kingdom with no sin or death or pain, transforming all that is dead in this world into the perfection of eternal heaven.

Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”  (Revelation 21:5 CSB).

The Queen of Countdowns

 

A little reminder from a few years ago when my “baby” girl was 7.  A countdown to summer is on our minds again!

“Mom, I’m only about 9 years away from getting my driver’s license and when I do, Andrew will be 12.”

This is what my baby girl yelled up at me from the back of the minivan yesterday.

Yes, the baby girl who is celebrating her seventh birthday this morning is already calculating the countdown to her driver’s license.

Way to make your mom’s heart skip a few beats.

This week, while her older sisters were away at summer camp, she also calculated how long it might be before she got a job.

Then she decided she wants to head off to summer camp next year and counted off how many months it would be until she could register.

My Catherine is the queen of the countdown.  She is forever calculating the time between now and the next dream-come-true.

On the first day of summer vacation, we presented my daughters with a wrapped gift.  Inside, we included a picture frame displaying an image:  Mickey Mouse ears with the words:  “Days Until Disney:  ___.”

Everyone was excited, but it’s my baby girl who became the official keeper of the countdown.  She’s faithful and focused.  Every morning, she pads out of her room still yawning and heads straight for the Mickey Mouse picture.  She uses the dry erase marker to alter the numbers.  One more day down.  One less day to the dream-come-true.

This isn’t quite the same as my goal-setting older daughter, the girl who sets tasks and accomplishes them.  My older girl is all about pushing herself to personal achievement.  She makes schedules, checklists, and charts and sticks to them until she’s raced across another finish line.

But this is different. This isn’t self-discipline and it’s not about achieving or doing in any way.

My baby girl loves countdowns because they allow her to throw down anchors of hope in the midst of the everyday.

And she enjoys today completely because she knows that another good day is coming: The day when it’s her birthday.  The day when she has that playdate with her dear friend.  The day when we pack the minivan and head to Florida.  The day when her sisters come home from summer camp.

They’re all good days and they’re all coming.

So, today she can relax, kick back her feet and enjoy it all.  It’s all part of the journey from here to the promised land, and the view is just fine.

This is the natural inclination of her heart; she overflows with joy  and she bubbles up with gratitude for all the gifts of every day.

Maybe it’s not the natural leaning in my own soul, but I take it to heart and I pray I can be more like this seven-year-old girl—this daughter who was so excited to spend a week of “alone time” while her big sisters were away at camp and who is equally excited to see them come home again.  It’s all good with her.

I can learn, this too.

I can learn how to throw down anchors of hope in the middle of the beautiful, and the everyday, and the seemingly hopeless situations.  All of them.

In Acts 27, Paul was headed on a ship to Rome that was caught in a tempest in the Adriatic Sea.  The sailors and crew despaired and fretted.

Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight (Acts 27:29 ESV).

Stormy seas.  Threatening rocks.  The possibility of shipwreck.  The appearance of disaster.

Surely we’ve all been there.  Maybe we are there.  Maybe we’ll be there someday.

And right in the middle of the season that seems forever or the situation that seems like it can’t possibly get better, not ever–right then is when we “drop anchor…and pray for daylight.”

Throw down the anchors, the truths we know that will clamp us to the rocky foundation of faith, and watch for God’s deliverance.

God is faithful. 

He will not abandon us.

He has a plan.

He will be glorified.

He is sovereign and He is able.

Scripture tells us:

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain (Hebrews 6:19 ESV).

The Message paraphrase says it this way:

We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let go. It’s an unbreakable spiritual lifeline, reaching past all appearances right to the very presence of God (Hebrews 6:18-20 MSG).

Grab on to hope with both of your hands and don’t let go.

That anchor that you toss down–that future promise, that assurance of deliverance–reaches right to the presence of God.

Full of questions in a season of change

My eighth-grader and I started having conversations with the high school guidance counselor in January.  Emails.  Phone calls.  Face-to-face meetings.  Then another round of all of the above.

She has filled out forms and answered questions, made requests and submitted papers, sent  emails and then replied to the replies.

We’ve been prayerful, deeply prayerful.  When her plans don’t work out exactly as she wants, we’ve gone back to our knees, prayed again, and tried something new.

While she’s been prepping for her first year of high school, my son is on his own transition to a new season.  Last week  we walked into the elementary school with a folder of paperwork,  I handed over the form and just like that–he’s registered for kindergarten.

We’re praying over that, too, over teacher decisions and classmates and friends he’ll make.

Seasons of transition are seasons that should draw us into prayer and that’s me right now.  Praying my way right on through!

I read in the book of Judges this morning about a familiar Biblical scenario:  the Angel of the Lord visited a barren woman and told her she would give birth to a son.

He then gave her some specific instructions: don’t drink alcohol or eat anything unclean while you’re pregnant.  Never cut his hair because he’ll be a Nazirite from birth and “he will begin to save Israel from the power of the Philistines.”

The woman excitedly told her husband about the message from the Angel and her husband, Manoah, does something I’d probably do:

He asked for more information.

He said, “Let’s pray and maybe the visitor will come back and tell us more about how to take care of this child.”

The Bible says, “God listened.”  He heard their prayers and did indeed return.

I’ve had my own questions these past few months as I’ve prayed for my children, so I “get” Manoah.  I understand wanting to make sure we do this right., wanting all the answers to all the questions.

My daughter breaks down into tears a few times  in this process, and I realize she has this tremendous pressure to do it all exactly right, make every decision perfectly.  If she chooses one wrong class, if she makes one wrong course selection, then maybe it will mess up everything–college choices, career options, the timeline of her life.

I remind her  (and myself at the same time) that God is tenderly gracious.  He guides us and redirects us and when we seek His will, He helps us know what to do.

If she’s seeking Him, she’s not ruining her life.

And I think about what  this means for my own transition season.   At least a dozen people have asked me in the last few months, “What are you going to do when your youngest starts school in September?”

Maybe I’m feeling the same kind of pressure as my daughter.  To make every right decision so I don’t mess up the transition or waste the opportunity.  I have my own questions to  place before the Lord.

I realize today as I read, though, that Manoah didn’t ask the right questions.  When the angel of the Lord came back , Manoah didn’t ask the things he originally said he was going to ask.  He didn’t say, “What do we need  to do to parent our son well or help him follow the Lord or fulfill his calling?”

Instead, he said this:

 “When your words come true, what will be the boy’s responsibilities and work?” (Judges 13:12 CSB).

Oh, Manoah.  I totally get you.

He said he just wanted some details about what they should do as parents, but what he really wanted to know was the end of the whole big story.   Tell me the grand plan.  Tell me everything about what my son is going to do as an adult and what your mission and purpose is for him .

Lord, tell me everything. 

But the Angel of the Lord ignored that question as if it had never been asked and simply repeated what he said before: your wife shouldn’t eat anything unclean or drink any alcohol when she’s pregnant.

He didn’t tell Manoah what’s going to happen 20 years from now. when their son, Samson, became an adult.  Instead, he only told Manoah what needed to happen in the next 9 months.

I need this same redirection for my heart and I need it frequently–that when I need to know what the next step is, He will show me the next step.  For my children and for me.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track (Proverbs 3:5-6 MSG)

 

We Celebrate Courage (Because We’re Not Naturally Courageous)

 

Bravery doesn’t run rampant in this house.

My kids and I freak out about bugs.

We grab for a dry towel when water splashes into our eyes.

We talk through all possibilities and potential scenarios so we won’t freak about what’s new and different.

We inch into doorways when there’s a room full of new people.

We’re not adventurers or discoverers, explorers or conquerors.  We’re not risk-takers or rock-the-boaters.  We’re not the movers or the shakers.

No, we’re planners and organizers.  We’re the faithful and the hard-working and the folks dipping their toes in all gentle and nervous on the side of the pool to test the waters before jumping in.

That’s why we celebrate every victory in our house, every display of courage and every hint of bravery.

The year that my most fear-prone daughter announced she was really going to ride an actual roller coaster instead of the kiddie ride at Busch Gardens, we cheered her on.  I took pictures.  We celebrated and high-fived after her victory.

And when my older girls went on to try out other roller coasters, we looked straight in their eyes and told them we were so proud of the courage in them.

Even when my one daughter tried a roller coaster and hated it and complained that it was creepy and made her afraid, we still celebrated because she tried it.

She doesn’t have to ride again—that’s wisdom.  In Let’s All Be Brave, Annie Downs says, ‘The road to courage is lit by God’s wisdom.”

But to overcome her fears and try at all—that’s courage.

I’ve spent years of motherhood praying for my kids to be brave and celebrating every time they battle down fear.

I tell them:

It’s okay to make mistakes, so just give it a try.

I tell them:

God is with you, so don’t fear.  Just relax and trust Him.

I tell it to them and maybe along the way I’m preaching to myself.

Sure there are plenty of other kids who have faced down bigger and badder roller coasters than we’ll ever dare to try.  We’re no daredevils after all.  But still, that’s not the same as true bravery.

Bravery doesn’t require doing what everyone else is doing or trying to keep up with or match the accomplishments of others.  Courage is so personal; it’s not about you being like anyone else.

And, while not feeling any fear at all can make you look courageous on the outside, it can also make you foolhardy.

That’s not what courage is.

Being brave isn’t the same as being unafraid.  Bravery means doing the right thing no matter what, even if you tremble in your sneakers and even if your stomach flip-flops with fear.  

You trample all over the anxiety and the worry and the fearfulness and you do it anyway.

YOU DON’T LET FEAR CONTROL YOU, IMPRISON YOU, OR HOLD YOU BACK FROM WHAT GOD HAS CALLED YOU TO DO.

Those men and women of courage in Scripture didn’t follow God without facing their own fears.

When Mordecai told Esther that she needed to petition King Xerxes for the rescue of her people, she told him why that was too much to ask:

“All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11 ESV).

Esther, the poster-child for Biblical courage, was scared out of her mind.  She knew she couldn’t obey God on her own so she asked her to people to fast and pray with her for three days before she finally set one foot in front of the other and walked into the throne room to see the King.

She was terrified.  But she still took a stand.

That’s being brave:  Obeying God even when you’re afraid.

God’s calling can cost us.  It can be frightening and unsettling.  He can ask you to face down giants or ask you to face down change or ask you to face down the unknown.

In all circumstances, he tells His people to “Be strong and courageous.”  He knows, after all, that we aren’t naturally strong or naturally brave.

But He also knows we take courage from His presence–and He promises to be with us.

Those Who Plan Peace Have Joy

My five-year-old son just finished his first season of soccer on Wednesday.  By Thursday,  he was asking me, “When does soccer start again?’

I guess that means the season was a success.

He headed out to his first practice in February and even the absolutely bitterly freezing cold didn’t dampen his soccer spirit. He was happy to practice and happy to  play (especially defense so he could chat with his other teammates and listen to them tell jokes).

My son is a pretty social guy.

After two weeks in the season, though, every time I said, “It’s almost time for soccer,” he always had one question to ask:

“Is it a practice or a game?”

He’d had a deep revelation about soccer, something he didn’t realize in advance and really hadn’t anticipated.

Games are hard.

Practices are super fun.  He could run across the field, touch his toes, do some toe taps on the ball, dribble to the goal, and all those practice activities.

The idea of a game even sounded fun at first:  All those kids on the field at the same time plus all the people on the sidelines watching, family cheering  you on, snacks at the end of the game.

What’s not to love?

My son says it best: “When there’s another team trying to take the ball away, soccer is just harder.”

I get that.

It’s the opposition he doesn’t like and who,  after all, wants an enemy?   Who would rather have conflict than peace?

I read about this contrast in Proverbs:

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil, but those who promote peace have joy (Proverbs 12:20 CSB).

I posted this verse up on my fridge almost two years ago and I keep it up because I’m still mulling this over and meditating on what it really means to be a promoter of peace.  Or, as other translations say: A person of peace.  A planner of peace.  A counselor of peace.  A lover of peace.  

When you don’t have anyone needling your soul with conflict or judgment, disagreement or criticism it’s pretty easy to promote peace and to have joy.

But the Psalmist knew that even when we long for peace, we sometimes (maybe even often!) live among those who don’t.

In Psalm 120, the Psalmist mourns:

I have dwelt too long
with those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak,
they are for war (Psalm 120:6-7 CSB). 

And that’s where the Psalm ends.  This jars my heart a bit because most Psalms make a movement from despair to praise, from conflict to hope in the Lord.  But this Psalm lingers in a place of sadness.

The Psalmist wants peace but those around him want war.

The end.

Psalm over.

Most of us know what that feels like.  After a prolonged time of conflict or discouragement or even maybe just annoyance, we feel battle-weary, worn-out, emptied out, and plain out done-in.

Barnes’s Notes on the Bible say:

There are many trials in human life, but there are few which are more galling, or more hard to bear than this….It has been an injury to me; to my piety, to my comfort, to my salvation. it has vexed me, tried me, hindered me in my progress in the divine life.

So what hope is there for us peacemakers who live in a land of war?

We stumble on landmines of unexpected conflict and it tumbles us into pain, distraction, and wound recovery.  It’s hard to  serve Jesus when battle wounds are on our mind and the sadness of opposition is on our heart.

My son thought maybe he could practice and enjoy everything about soccer and just not go to the games.

But I realized as I read Psalm 120 again today that the Psalmist made another choice.

This Psalm is the first in a series of fifteen chapters called The  Psalms of  Ascent, which were sung by pilgrims on the trip up to Jerusalem during the three major feasts.

So, I turn to Psalm 121 and I continue the Psalmist’s thought. He lived too long among those who loved war….but:

I lift my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2 CSB).

We make the pilgrimage closer to Him–because HE is our peace.   We  don’t rush the process.  We look up rather than looking back at the sludge of conflict.  We press on with other pilgrims, traveling together, choosing not to abandon hope in others completely.  And we sing praises along the way because worship redirects our hearts back to the Prince of Peace Himself.

It’s a journey where we peace-loving pilgrims heal up one faithful forward -moving step at a time.

He loved me and Gave Himself for me

“Use your self-control.”

This is one of my favorite takeaways from my son’s preschool teachers this year.  They are so gentle and measured when they say it.

He’s ready to lose it over a near-tragedy—not getting to sit next to his good friend or struggling with the zipper to his backpack because it’s extra full that day.

Their gentle reminder is the same: “Use your self-control.”

I love that it assumes he  has self-control and that he can access it, that somehow this little pause and this little reminder gives him the ability to breathe….reflect….choose.

Meltdown?  Or self-control?

He’s in progress.  He sometimes  chooses meltdown.

Me too.

Fruitfulness is part of the Holy Spirit’s work in us.  It means He is alive, and He is active, and we are yielded to Him.

Paul tells us:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things (Galatians 5:22-23 CSB). 

It’s not a list for me to tackle like some holy agenda.  It is not up to me to manufacture goodness or to self-concoct gentleness or peace.   It takes  a leaning in with the full weight of my fractured soul on the strength and the character of God in me.

May He be at work and may the work-in-progress be me.

May He be the one to cultivate love in me, to stir up joy, to  grow patience, to establish goodness.

May I be the one to learn, to long for the Spirit and to open myself up to the work that He does.  May I be the one to  focus my eyes on Jesus and His own fruitfulness because He is the perfect model of:

Love.
Joy
Peace
Patience
Kindness
Goodness
Faithfulness
Gentleness
Self-Control

And when I see this fruit in Jesus,  I love Him for it.  I long to be like Him, to let Him shine in my heart, to turn over hardened ground and to till up the soil and to plant the seeds.  Fruitfulness, Lord.  Abundant fruitfulness in my life. 

It seems fitting during Holy Week to consider Jesus and the fruit He bore out on the cross.

Some conflict, some uncertainty, some worry, some stress may bring out the uglies in me.  I’m not always loving, not always peaceful, not always gentle when my kids are picking at each other at the kitchen table and we’re rushing because we need  to be out the door in 8 minutes and I’m still  trying  to cook dinner and give a practice spelling test to  a child.

But Jesus endured all of the pain of the garden, the betrayal, the trial, the beating, the mocking, the condemnation, the cross, the sin and the separation.

And the fruitfulness is still there:  He showed love, joy, peace.  Despite the pain, He was gentle and kind, good and faithful.

He also “used His self-control” by choosing the cross for Himself so He could offer forgiveness to us.  It was, after all, His choice to make.

He wrestled in prayer and made the final declaration on His knees:   “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

That set His destination.   He would not give into fear or to  the flesh.  He would  choose the cross.

And He chose not to call down angels to rescue Him when the soldiers marched into the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 27:41-42).

With the very power of His voice there  in the Garden, He spoke the words:  I AM.  Then all of the military might fell to the ground, struck down by two  small words spoken by the Messiah.

What an embarrassing mess for them.  They were all geared up, swords and clubs at the ready, and a completely average-looking Jewish teacher said two little words and they landed on their backsides.

They walked out of the Garden with Jesus  as their captive because Jesus chose to be their captive.  Paul says it this way, Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 CSB).

The author, Selwyn Hughes, reminds me that Paul lists self-control last in the fruit of the Spirit.  It’s not first.  We don’t begin with self-control and then produce all  the other fruit, even though that’s likely what we try to do sometimes.

“I will be more holy. I will be more righteous. I will hate sin more.”

That’s self-righteousness at work.

Instead, Hughes writes that we begin with love—just as Paul lists it in Galatians 5– and “when you begin with love, you end up with self-control.”

Christ’s love covers us and compels us.

Because we are oh-so-loved by a Savior who is oh-so-good and who chose the cross for us,  we delight in Him and in what pleases Him and what pleases Him is the Spirit’s fruit in us.

We choose again today

I regretted ever starting in the first place.

It hadn’t been the plan for the day, wasn’t on my agenda, and didn’t appear on my to-do list.

But as I swept through my house doing my morning cleaning, I reached into my son’s closet to put something away and recoiled in horror.

This closet was at capacity.

More like over-capacity.

So I began the task.  I was “just” going to clear out a few things, “just” get rid of the boxes, “just” pull out the baby toys to donate, “just” put some clothes into storage, “just, just just….”

Until, of course that “just” meant the entire surface of the bedroom was covered with stuff from the now-empty closet.

This task sabotaged my entire morning, muscling everything else I intended to do that day out of the way.

At some point, I almost gave up.  I almost shoved it all back into the closet and shut the door because I did not have time or energy or patience or anything to tackle this project right then.

And so there was the choice….

Push through?  Persevere?  Take one more step and then another?

Or give up?  Step backwards?  Regress?

This is the same for us.

Once we choose to step out, we have to then choose whether to keep going.

Obeying God, following Him in faith, answering His call, choosing righteousness, putting down bad habits and picking up spiritual disciplines:  These are not one-time decisions.

There is the choosing….and then there is the choosing again and again and again.

I decide today to follow Jesus.  And I decide all over again tomorrow.

Giving up, of course, feels easier in the moment, but then my son wouldn’t have a clean closet and I’d feel the waste of starting a project and never finishing it.

Abraham chose to obey God no matter what.  When God called him in the night to journey up a mountain and sacrifice his promised son, Isaac, Abraham went.

I’ve always marveled at Abraham’s immediate act of obedience.

He didn’t waiver or question, pray over it for a while or seek counsel from others.

No, God called and “Abraham rose early in the morning….” and started on the path to obedience.

But here’s what I never noticed before:

On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance  (Genesis 22:3-4 NASB).

Abraham walked three days before he even saw the mountain God had called him to.

That meant he had three nights to wrestle with the task, three days to decide whether to keep moving forward or turn around and head back home.

He had three days to chicken out.

In his book, Drawing Near, John Bevere says:

“Why a three-day journey?  I believe He gave Abraham time to think it over, even to turn back.  It is one thing to initially move when you hear the voice of God, but what about the follow-through?” (p. 79 ).

Follow-through.

That’s what faith-journeys take.

Obedience doesn’t mean anything if it’s only partial obedience, or halfway obedience, or “I’ve changed my mind and I’d rather give up now” obedience.

And this matters for us because some days obedience comes easy.

The call from God feels fresh and exciting.

Our friends encourage us.
The sermon reaffirms us.
Our quiet time feels vibrant and alive.
We see the evidence of tangible success and real impact.

But that’s not everyday.

Some days we wonder if we ever even heard God calls us.

Our friends are absent, unsupportive, or unaware.  Maybe we even face detractors who discourage us and assure us of defeat.

God seems silent.

Nothing appears to make any difference and we are so small, so insignificant.  Failure feels imminent.

We are weary and weak and we can’t even see the blurry outline of the mountain anywhere in the distance.

It’s hard to keep moving forward when we’re overlooked, when we question our offering, when we lose hope for the future, when the mess we’re in threatens to bury us.

Maybe today is the day you feel eager to obey.  Or maybe today you feel overwhelmed and ready to quit.

Today might be the first day of your journey, or the third, or the twenty-third, or the one-hundred-and-third.

Regardless, today is the day to choose as Abraham did:  We choose to follow through.  We choose to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 ESV).

No turning back.

No turning back.

Originally published October 2016