Calling

In the past couple of days, the issue of “calling” has come up in several conversations.  As Christians, we use the word to speak authoratatively about the job we are doing or the places we are going.  When things don’t go well, we question if it was really calling after all.  The underlying assumption, whether our internal monologue phrases it this way or not, is “God has a wonderful plan for your life and wants you to be successful and influential.”  We may add, “for His Kindgom” to ensure the spiritual perspective and that we aren’t really meaning a health and wealth Gospel, but that is really what it is anyway, isn’t it?

I think Biblically this notion, at least in my heart and mind, stemmed from an out-of-the-Gospel context reading of Jeremiah 29:11.  “I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord; plans to prosper you and not to harm, plans to give you a hope and a future.”  As a good American, guess which word I zoomed in on?  Ding ding ding!  “Prosper”!  And clearly, by prosper God means to bless me externally and by not harming, well, isn’t it obvious what that must mean?  No pain, suffering, injury or offense, right?  So if ever these things do happen, well, clearly it is not the Lord’s will.  (But then, I must ask, whose will is it that can overpower and thwart the will of the Lord?)

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.  After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.  Is. 53:10-11

In just about every instance that I can find in Scripture, “calling” has more to do with God’s identifying His people with Himself than serving those same people’s individualistic fancies.  He has called us by name, we are His, He tells us.  Jesus’ calling was to suffer so that His people could have life and thrive.  His people have been called into this very service of suffering to experience this very same, powerful prospering of the Lord’s will – His life-giving, world-enlargening, genuine joy and peace producing will.

Paul Miller wrote about our tendency to stare at the windshield rather than just seeing through it.  I think I do this with suffering in all its forms.  I forget that rather than being the focus or end in some way, the person and work of Jesus has made suffering the window through which to see His goodness more clearly, His power more fully, His love more intimately, His control more confidently and His heart more accurately.  This is my hope and my future rather than some tiny, dull, clausterphobic kingdom of me.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Harm may in fact come to my bank account, to my reputation, to my physical body and so on.  But these surface wounds will not be able to thwart the kingdom of Jesus which is alive and growing and overpowering the kingdom of me in my own heart.  So then “to be called” no longer has at its end the thriving of my personal kingdom (family, business, finances, ministry, etc.) but is “to be called” into the heart of the only One whose Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and whose rule and reign (and glory and beauty and love and goodness) has no end.
        
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Revelation 1:6

Fear Not

A while back, I wrote about “when bad things happen” after a friend had been held at gunpoint in her own home. Bad things do happen, and they happen to God’s children and those who do not believe in Him alike. Yet, the most repeated command in Scripture is not to fear and it is always coupled with “because I am with you.”

Last night I had a gruesome and blood chilling message left on my phone describing promised violence to me and to my children. I have no reason to suspect it was actually personal, but nonetheless, hearing that creepy voice in my ear through my personal phone effectively paralyzed me with fear. My theology on the matter did not match what was happening in my heart. I suddenly felt vulnerable and helpless and terrified. I asked God to please apply the person and work of Jesus to my heart…and He did.

The first thing that came to mind was Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who must have felt shortness of breath as they walked to that fire pit into which they were to be thrown, in the same way that Jesus Himself was sweating blood on the way to the cross. But their words were not, “If you love us God, you will not let this happen!” nor were they “If you exist and are powerful, put this fire out!” Instead, what they said was, “Our God will save us, and even if He does not, we will not bow (to any other god).”

Fear itself is the most powerful other god to which my heart is inclined to bow. I was on the floor bowing to it without a second thought last night. My first instinct wasn’t to trust God’s goodness, love and bigger story of redemption, but instead to quote The Fantastic Mr. Fox and ask, “What the cuss?” (Hee hee, it at least provided a wonderful comic relief.) My heart felt abandoned by God in that moment, disregarded and left to fight for itself. Yet the only one of God’s children ever to experience genuine separation from Him was His own son, Jesus, who endured it so that we will never have to know that coldness.

When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me? Psalm 56: 3-4

Well, quite honestly, mortal man can do a lot. Wicked men put Jesus on the tree and wicked brothers sold Joseph into slavery where he endured years of tormenting work, loneliness, imprisonment and misunderstanding. There are countless stories in the Bible of rape, murder and violent assault that are more than I’d ever be able to watch in a movie, and yet they are part of God’s story of redemption. They demonstrate that wickedness isn’t a light matter and godlessness isn’t an equally viable life choice. It is because it is real and powerful and the natural inclination of my heart to submit to the rule and reign of terror and wickedness that Jesus was promised in Genesis 3 and had to come to complete what Adam had failed to do. And it was to end this rule and reign once and for all that He died, rose and was seated in authority over the whole world. It is His bigger plan for all of history and His proven heart for His people that invites me to trust in Him even in the face of lions, whale bellies and stonings.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Luke 12:4-6

Do I trust that God is not writing a story with gratuitous violence, senseless suffering or unforeseen catastrophe? Is His sovereignty limited to my self-protective abilities or is He in control even when I am not? Oh that my heart would be committed not to a faith that rests on a trouble and trauma free life, but to a faith placed in the One who has redeemed me, who has called me by name and reminds me that I am not my own, but sings sweetly to my heart, “You are mine!”

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. John 12:23-25

Success

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Romans 12:1-3

But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. Psalm 33:11

A bigger house, a cooler car, a wider rotation of outfits, a larger collection of degrees and diplomas, expanding franchises and participation in more organizations…the bigger the better, the more the merrier, the larger the more lucrative.  I have been so conditioned to believe, even if I don’t consciously agree, that size matters.  It is the pattern of our world, right?  For a long time, it meant having a consistently large number of people in my circle of friends, and being able to identify our defined relationships, which kept that circle secure.  But then Terrell and I started feeling the mile wide, inch deep dilemma.  You just can’t have meaningful relationships with people you only see on a 3-6 month rotation at best.  And, I just can’t have deep, committed relationships with hundreds of people.

But this pattern of the world makes sense because numbers are tangible and measurable.  If I have 100 people reading my blog every day, for example, that means it must be more worthwhile than if I just have one person reading it each day, right?  If I fill my house with ten more kids, that would better validate my motherhood than just the two I already have, right?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Matthew 6:21

My treasure has been in the numbers so that my goal and the measure of my success is in the numbers.  My heart then begins to work for the numbers rather than the person and work of Jesus.  This means I begin to trust the testimony of the numbers more than the testimony of Jesus.  I begin to trust the evidence of the numbers more than have faith in the things hoped for (His Kingdom coming) while evidence is left unseen.  I become anxious over low numbers and comforted by high numbers, assuming that the numbers and not the depth of heart change is the measure of success.  I want to hurry His Kingdom’s coming, and I feel like I can accomplish this if it isn’t about hearts but about numbers.

We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 2 Corinth. 5:12

I take such pride in what is seen rather than what is happening in my heart, or my children’s hearts, or the hearts of those God has put into my care as a minister of the Gospel.  I am so focused on the outer appearance, on the “wow factor”, that I practically forget about the heart which is God’s focus.  I guess it is because of all that conditioning I referenced – I want to be able to define my life’s impact, my ministry’s value, my measurable and attainable goals.  And yet, I am slowly coming to find, the Holy Spirit’s work is far more ambiguous than that…and far more powerful.  Elizabeth Turnage said it this way:  “Of course there is the indescribable reality that the Holy Spirit will move in ways we cannot describe on paper!”

So what am I beginng to realize defines success?  I would say heart change.  And what can I do to bring about heart change?  Well, that would be the work of the Holy Spirit, but He graciously involves me as I get to move deeper into the hearts of a few people at a time.  Mostly, I get to get down and dirty with the hearts of my family who I see and live life with all the time.  After that, my neighbors and friends who live life with me daily.  Beyond that, I can’t really hope to get messy in the hearts of others or have others get messy in my heart at an occasional gathering or in a highly structured format because it happens more organically than that.

Ultimate success, then, is the Kingdom of Jesus coming into the hearts of His people and transforming them into His image.  This doesn’t happen in an hour, in three months time or in ten years time.  But it will happen because He has said so.  My faith needs to grow in letting Him do the work, at His pace, in His way.  He is not worried about numbers but committed to hearts.  Oh that I may begin to be too!

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”  Mark 4:30-32

Jesus Wept

The fatigue that has begun to characterize me is quite clearly a result of all my conflicting emotions these days.  I am relieved to have our home under contract and at the same time I am so very sad to leave it and my beloved neighbors, who include my son’s best friend since birth.  I am excited to move one step closer to Grove Park and at the same time overwhelmed by all that has to be done in terms of packing, building plans and loans, permits, packing, appraisals, did I mention packing?  I am delighted that the U.S. Embassy in Uganda has begun to process visas again, but forlorn by the length of our process and the total unknown in terms of timing and referral process, etc.  This journey is both exhilarating and excruciating, bringing at one moment the compulsion to dance and another the trigger to sob and sob.

What is with all this drama?  I know it will all work out in the end, that it is all good and that God is handling each detail whether I can explain it or not.  If I know all this and believe all this, why the emotional roller coaster and feeling of depletion because of it?

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  John 11: 32-37

Jesus wept.  We love that verse because it is the shortest verse in the Bible.  But there is so much more going on here.  Mary was mad that Jesus had let Lazarus die.  The onlookers were suspicious of Jesus’ validity based on the fact He didn’t prevent Lazarus’ death.  Jesus himself knew Lazarus was about to be resurrected, He knew how the movie was going to end…so why did He cry?

Could it be, that like everything else in the Bible, preventing hard experiences is not God’s priority while changing hearts is?  Could it be that just because the end of the story ties up neatly, the tangled parts beforehand actually hurt and are toilsome?  When I have the flu, I have the expectation that I will be better and back to normal in the near future, yet in the moment of my fever’s rage, I moan with pain and discomfort.  The fact that things are going to be fine doesn’t sanitize or in any way eliminate the fact that they are not fine now.

Jesus doesn’t just know our humanity and smile patronizingly down upon us because of our limitations.  He created the complexity of our humanity and then entered right into it.  The Gnostics called emotions lesser, yet Jesus, who lived on earth without sin, as both fully God and fully man, wept.  Our grieving, our moaning, our tangled up emotions are not evidence of a lack of faith but rather the very avenue God takes us down to transform our hearts into ones that look a lot more like Jesus.

So why do I hate that so much?  Maybe because emotions show me and anyone else who may be watching that I am not omniscient (my emotions may seem to be short sighted) nor omnipotent (my emotions indicate a loss of control and power).  I don’t consciously want to be omniscient and omnipotent (my own God replacement), but I do want to be “above” being affected by life.  How grateful am I, however, that Jesus did not stay “above being affected by life”?  He jumped right into the muddy, mucky, slippery, stinky human experience to restore dignity and glory to His creation, to humanity and to the fullness of who He made me to be – intellect, emotions and will.

I want to skip past the crying, the grieving, the anxiousness, the fearfulness.  I want to repaint the circumstances so I can smile peacefully because “everything’s fine”!  But thankfully, God is committed to taking me deeper than that, to show me how and why He is making everything new by first letting me feel deeply the brokenness and need for restoration.  He could weep because His emotions weren’t simply utilitarian but were just as much a part of being the truth, the way and the life.  The truth is that the death of John the Baptist, the death of Lazarus and the market created in the Temple were indications of how broken the image of God in man and the creation itself are, and why redemption is not a luxury but a necessity.  Because Jesus has a heart, loves deeply, and cares unreasonably, He could do no other than to weep over Adam and his progeny…and then begin the process of resurrection.
 
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  John 11:4

Can’t Fake Sanctification, Don’t Have To

Back in my elementary school piano playing days, I wasn’t a great student.  I wanted to play like Beethoven without actually practicing.  In a recital, when I would inevitably mess up, I would announce “oops!” (to let everyone know I fully recognized the error and was no more satisfied with it than their own ears) and then start at the very beginning so as to do it perfectly the next time…which rarely happened.  I knew how it was supposed to sound, and that seemed enough to get me there.

I write a lot about the work of the Spirit in us, that it is God’s deal from first to last, that He will complete the good work He has begun and what Good News this all is.  But there is a rub as well.  The rub is that we can’t speed up the process, that our knowledge doesn’t equate with genuine, complete heart change and that no matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves more like Jesus simply by sheer will.  Simply seeing my “mess ups” and unbelief isn’t enough.  Self-determination and perfectionism won’t transform my heart which actually infiltrates every word, attitude and action.

Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.  Psalm 27:14

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.  My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.  He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.  Psalm 130:5-8

It is God who is working in me to will and to act according to His good purposes.  This means that even in my unbelief, He is more interested in the transformation of that to authentic belief and not my outer appearance or feeling of faithfulness.  He is more comfortable with the idea of process than I am.  He is comfortable with time and the exposure of sin and weakness because that is where His righteousness and power does it’s deep, lasting work.  Only because I want to be my own redeemer and finish the job yesterday am I frustrated by God’s timing and efforts being slower than my hurry. 

But the person and work of Jesus, the certainty that He will complete effectively and thoroughly the full redemption of every aspect of my being, gives rest even now as my circumstances are bringing an ulcer on, because it means I can’t fake my sanctification and He isn’t asking me to do so.  Where I am not trusting, He will bring trust.  Where I am not seeing, He will bring sight.  Where I am not believing, He will bring faith.  The ulcer like the piano mess up just reminds me I’m not there yet, and the person and work of Jesus assures me that one day I will be.

Here is a portion of a prayer, written by Oscar Romero, from my friend Jen Lalley’s blog that I liked:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.”

Because God is faithful to His promise to restore us to an even better image than Adam was originally, I don’t need to be discouraged by my own inabilities, inadequacies, disappointing realities or circumstantial conundrums.  He is about longer lasting transformation and perfection than just what is seen or felt in the moment, and He will accomplish it.

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.  Deut. 31:8