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Dying to Live

It was Day 6 of my twelfth mission trip to Honduras. Our team was blessed to help serve soup, bread, and coffee to the patients and their families at the hospital for the poor in Santa Rosa de Copan. Neither my eyes nor heart were ready for the experience though.

In the States, death and dying are hidden behind tubes and machines and curtains and isolation. In Third World countries death and dying is exposed and raw. For many, an extremely hard life only paves the way to a tougher time of dying. On the day of our visit, I walked past bed after hospital bed stealing a glance or two into pain filled eyes. Each bed was hugging the walls of the ward so tightly that for some of the patients it might be as close to touch as they would feel in their last hours or last days. Others, destined to become well, would leave to once more face the hardship of living. I am not sure who is more fortunate in this place: the dying or the living.

There is no doubt that life for all of us is tough. It is faith-sobering, even for the strongest soul. I have come face to face with my own mortality, but I must confess living scares me more. While there are sacred moments and tender times, living can mean too many dark nights of the soul and relentlessly long days of pain. Death would seem to be a reprieve to our living. We are not as afraid of death as much as we are of dying though. Dying never looks pretty. We may fight to take each breath. With some awareness, we might see those who love us most watch our struggling with heartbreaking angst. We wish we could bypass the dying part and go straight to death.

But then there is a spiritual application. Scripture teaches us that God uses both our living AND our dying to draw Himself to us and keep us in a love relationship with Him: “For I am sure that NEITHER DEATH NOR LIFE, nor angels or rulers, NOR THINGS PRESENT NOR THINGS TO COME, nor powers, nor heights nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 37-39)  The more living I experience, the more dying I do. The more dying I do, the more self is put to death. And the more self that is put to death, the more Jesus will be living in me. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Dying to live. We are only alive because because He is…

Powerlessness. Noah Webster defined the word to mean “without strength, utterly helpless, and impotent.” Powerlessness in our circumstances, in our struggles, and in our mortality is a concept most of us have difficulty admitting or accepting because to do so means we might have to give up our control. The question we must ask ourselves is do we really have any control in the first place?

I am someone who has become very well acquainted with my own powerlessness. Staring death in the face will do that to you. Letting go of a child who is deliberately choosing to walk away and toward a very dark place will do that to you. Our hearts break and fail us. Difficult circumstances erode our mustard seed faith. Desperate days are followed by darker nights. We are out of control. At one time or another, we will all live there too.

And it will be a lonely place until we realize we are not really alone, or powerless.

Lack of faith. Inability to cope. Insomnia. Depression. These are a few ways I naturally respond when I find myself powerless to change my world. I am so paralyzed by who I am NOT that I forget to Whom I belong: God, my Abba. He is the only One who is full of power. “God will never have more power than He has now; if He could have, He would cease to be God.”  (Good point, Oswald Chambers!) God replaces our powerlessness with His incomparably great power, in which NOTHING compares! That “power is like the working of His mighty strength which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead…” (Ephesians 1:19-20) Wow!  Resurrection power: the ability to raise one from death, whether the end of a struggle or the end of a life.The One who hung the stars in the sky and keeps the earth in its orbit around our Sun is the same One who let His Son leave Heaven long enough to be our rescue, our redemption, and our resurrection. It is to Him I belong. And He is more than able.

And we do not walk alone.

Because of Jesus, we have one another too. We all need some flesh wrapped around our Jesus.  Together, we can face the reality of our own powerlessness in our humanness. We accept that we can not cure or heal, fix or rescue. We can remind each other that His grace is enough because His power is made perfect in our weakness. Indeed, Christ’s power rests on us! (Read 2Corinthians 12:8-10) I am grateful for the fellow sojourners God uses to regularly remind me of that truth too.

“He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30)

John the Baptist spoke these words to his disciples after they witnessed Jesus baptizing His followers in the countryside outside of Judea. John’s disciples had become concerned about the competition. They did not understand, but John did: “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in His hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life…” (John 3:35-36)  John knew the time had come and his part in The Story would be coming to an end. Soon after these words were spoken, he was imprisoned and put to death. With his death, John became a lesser part of God’s Story of Redemption. Let there be no doubt, his part was an important one though.

As Christ-followers, we were made for so much more than ordinary living. God redeems us for a reason far greater than what we can possibly know or understand this side of Heaven. Our part in The Story is His to write. We merely get to join Him in the unfolding of a few chapters of His story. If this is true, I must ask myself a question: What is my part suppose to look like as far as it depends on my follow-ship? My personal study has taken me to a two-part answer.

First, I must KNOW my God. The desire to know Him leads me to be a student of His Word and a disciple of The Word. I long to dig deeper in my personal Bible study but I know I allow too many distractions to deter me. My good intentions are fruitless. To know Him means I must follow the Teacher so closely that the dust from His sandals dirties my own feet. Like John, I must stay behind Him so there is doubt who is the lesser one. I want to go where He goes. Which brings me to the second part of my answer. I must make Him KNOWN. I am learning that to be missional is so much more than traveling to a Third-World country to serve the least among us. Compassion is essential to serving, but to tell another about The One Who is Compassion is far more compassionate. This is a hard place for me. God is faithful to show me those times when the intent of my heart is in question or I find myself terribly afraid to challenge the darkness. But I thank my God often that He is able to use a weak and broken vessel like myself and still make Himself more so He can be made Known.

To know Him and make Him known, He must become greater and we must become less. And less is not so difficult to be when you know our Great God.

 

 

 

Do we really know what we are asking when we beg God to make us Broken? Empty? Pure? Compassionate? Selfless? It may mean what we are really asking Him to do is to make us Dependent. Lonely. Uncompromising. Struggling. Nothing. In our humanness we tend to think of these things as bad. The truth is they are not necessarily bad but they are most certainly hard. Very hard.

But they become less difficult as He becomes enough.

Let me get personal for a moment and share an example. When I pray and ask God to make me more compassionate I am rarely ready for the way He answers. Confession: it is easier for me to be intentional and compassionate while serving in a Third World country than it is under my own roof or in my own community.  I could give you ten thousand reasons why but not one matters to the LORD. More times than not, He allows me to experience a similar struggle until I find the compassion needed to become merciful.  There is no sugar coating the truth. The process is never pretty, and trying to pass the test over and over again is exhausting.

But it becomes less difficult as He becomes enough.

And until He becomes enough, I know I will remain a beggar desperate for Enough.

As long as we have breath, we all have a journey to walk. Along the way there will be road-blocks, valleys, and potholes. We might identify them by different names though. Addiction. Compulsion. Abuse. Loss. Pain. Sin. Wayward children. Betrayal. Divorce. Bad Theology. In spite of the truth, we put on our best pair of walking shoes and muddle through life pretending the land we lay claim to is all milk and honey. What a disservice we do to ourselves. What an injustice we do to others.

What would our journey look like if we knew we were not alone? How would our perspective change if we borrowed another sojourner’s shoes long enough to throw away judgment and replace it with compassion? And honestly, how much more would it encourage our heart to have companionship on the way? To have someone who understood how messy life can be and at the same time might remind us of the goodness of God?

Borrowed shoes. Tattered. Worn. Holey. (To use the word holy instead of holey might be more accurate though.) Sometimes soleless but never soulless. Shoes worn by one who is closer to the mountain of God than we might think.

It does take courage to walk in borrowed shoes though. It might mean we were wrong about the owner of the footwear. It may suggest we were more guilty than they after all. The speck-finders. The stone-throwers.

One thing I do know, if I keep looking in the mirror and not at the feet of another, I will see the plank jutting out of my own eye. And when humility overtakes me that same plank will drop to the ground. It is then I am finally able to see my feet and I realize I am wearing my very own– not borrowed- tattered shoes.


 

Anchored

This side of Heaven life can be messy and living can seem like one dark night of the soul following another and then another. (Yes, it is a subject I write about quite a bit, I know. I guess I am not good at passing the test the first time.) Storm after storm. Wave after wave. We go under and we bob back up long enough to breathe, albeit very briefly. Before we know, our lungs fill with water and we begin to feel as though we are drowning. We wonder, I wonder, at what point am I overtaken?  When will I grow too tired to care if I live or die? Defining our place of refuge gives us very different answers to these questions.

If my refuge is found in the world, I surely will be destroyed because the prince of this world is a thief and a liar and the author of death. I will go under. The water will be my tomb. If my refuge is sought in what is flesh and blood, people will disappoint, dishearten, and abuse. It will never be enough.  As dismal a picture as this paints, it is not our destiny as children of God.

“So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary.” Hebrews 6:18-19 (NLT)

This blog entry could easily end here. There is no need for more words. God states it honestly. It is the perfect picture of refuge. In Him, we are anchored.

Our refuge is about a relationship with our Creator. He is the One who knows every hair on my head or thought in my mind. (And He still loves me!) We flee to Him for refuge. He is always safe. He is always strong. He is always enough. Our hope is not about what the world gives us or what people promise us. Our Hope is found in a place our eyes have yet to see. And it is found in the One who walks us hand-in-hand, through the curtain, and to that Place.

Our Hope is anchored in Eternity.

 

The wounding in our story (or His story of us!) can be incredibly quick and deep, and the healing so slow and shallow. At times we have only enough strength to watch as storm after storm comes through, tearing away any scarring of protection we might have had to shreds. We bleed again and again until we lose all our strength and we can not take another breath.  Along comes a big wave in our storm and it consumes us. We are discouraged. We are depressed. We are worn. We can not see beyond our struggle to survive. We stop fighting. We let go. 

A great paradox emerges: We give up our life so we can live.

Brennan Manning states it perfectly:“May the Christian– indeed must the Christian– face the possibility that there are occasions in which there is no Christian way to survive? Do we believe in the invincible power of redemptive suffering? Happily, the cross is not the final word that God has spoken to His people. Our Christian lives look beyond Calvary to resurrection, and it is the human nature of the risen Christ, shot through and through with the radiance of divinity, that shows like a radiant mirror all that we are summoned to. The destiny of Christ our brother is our destiny. If we have suffered with Him, we shall be glorified with Him. The pattern is always the same. We reach life only through death, we come to light only through darkness, and the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die.”

And God agrees. From the lips of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  (John 12: 24)

We, too, must die to be resurrected. It is the only way. It is the Jesus-way.

Let me begin this blog by saying this entry will not be what is typical for me. It is not a devotional writing. There is little soul searching or spiritual insight. At best, maybe some comic relief. You can be the judge.

As most of the Atlanta metropolitan area was under-siege by snow and navigating (or not!) the icy mess of the interstates, my family and I were gratefully nestled warm and safe within the confines of our home. My husband and I had planned well. Literally moments before the snow began to fall on Tuesday, a few purchases were made at a local used bookstore. Of course, a snow day was the perfect time to read a book or two and enjoy a slower pace! What were we thinking?! Note to self: “Confine” takes on an entirely different meaning with a three year boy who experiences snow for the first time, and a seventeen month old baby girl trying to push molars through her gums and deal with a horrible (and I mean HORRIBLE) intestinal virus. God. Help. Us. (I am sure it is the most “spiritual” thing I uttered during the past three days.)

Please know I love being a Nana to my grandchildren. Our roof and the walls of our home surround and protect not just my husband and I, but our daughter and her two precious children as well. Yes, it is my reality. But another reality is I am in my mid-50’s. Most days I am exhausted. I thought my days of interrupted sleep (non- menopausal, of course!) and potty training a stubborn three year old were history I- would- never- be-asked- to-repeat. Ever. (Insert: Hysterical laugh.) Never mind I am an introvert too. The walls of our house began to close in on me at about the 48th hour of snowpalooza! It was the same moment my grandson, with his nose pressed against the glass of our french doors off our deck and facing the backyard, announced for the hundredth time: “Nana, snow is going away!” And for the hundredth time I said, “Yes Andrew, the sun is causing the snow to melt away.” I thought to myself it must be time for BaPa (Jeff) and his mama (Kris) to take Andrew to the PlayPlace at McDonald’s. Today, Nana would make the sacrifice and stay home with a napping Sophie. No one told Sophie to cooperate though. Three diaper changes, two clean outfits, and one tantrum later, Nana waved the white flag–or was it a white diaper?! No, probably not a white diaper but I guess it doesn’t matter. Sophie won. Napping eluded both of us. And my introversion was pressing in on me.

Those who know me best would probably say I do take introversion to a new level. Please do not misunderstand. I love being around people. For a short while. I love sharing time and space with my little ones too. Sometimes for a shorter while. I know when it is time to recharge though. Whether it is growth on my part or not, I am discovering it often takes something “little” to remind me my “reality” is really a blessing in disguise. It might be a glance and a gleam in the eyes of my grandson as he witnesses something new in his world, or my granddaughter stealing my heart with her toothy grin and with one word: Nana! Today was one of those days when I was reminded it is the “little things” that recharge our hearts and enable us to press on one more Winter’s day. And I begin to remember with a little more clarity, God is good in every season.

Quieting the Soul

Unless the LORD had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (Psalm 94: 17-19)

Waving the white flag of surrender. Throwing up arms in defeat. No. Never. There is no nobility in giving up. Ever. So I fight until my foot slips and I can no longer be my own rescuer. My fierce tenacity had become nothing more than a reckless stubbornness. God’s grip became my salvation. King David knew what it meant to be gripped by God: “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of deep waters…He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.” (from Psalm 18) And while my physical life was never literally at risk, it did cost me my living. The Enemy often uses anxiety to attack. You would think I would know that by now. To compound the problem, I often find myself trying so hard to stop trying so hard to not be anxious that I forget it is one of Satan’s most common tactics too. There is breathing, and then there is breathing deeply. I have failed to do the latter well.

Quieting my soul is the one thing I have resolved to do better with each new year since deciding to follow Jesus. It has been over thirty-five years. I am a stubborn learner. One thing I do know, quieting the soul is about relationship with our Abba more than anything else. It does not need a pastoral place or an over-stuffed chair in a-room-of-our-own. It is about finding refuge and solace nestled next to the heart of God. St. Augustine described God as “the bread of the inner mouth of (his) soul.” I love the depth of intimacy his words communicate. He is The Place. And it is where I want to be quieting my soul.

Life on this earth is a battleground. There is intense warring between light and darkness. As much as the heavenly realm is alive and active, the spiritual forces of evil are clearly present too. At times this dark world comes too close to home. Someone we deeply love is caught in a spiral downward into an abyss whose blackness is blinding. It is a place where the presence of the Enemy feels closer than God. The day of evil has come. But as long as there is breath, hope will not elude.

Warriors remain on the battleground. They do not carry swords we would recognize. They do not charge the enemy with brute force. Instead, as the battle intensifies, they fall to their knees. Their surrender is not to the enemy, but to the One Who is Mighty to Save. And He will.

Scattered on the battleground are warriors of prayer. Some lie prostrate, their lips tasting the dirt as they beseech the One Who is Their Maker. Others kneel, hands at their sides while their eyes watch the heavens, submitting to the One They Know Will Bring Rescue. Their numbers may seem small, but they know their God is big. They pray until their last breath, or until the abyss spews forth one more lost child who grasped his Abba’s hand.