It is Good

What shall I return to the LORD for all his goodness to me? Psalm 116:12

God made the skies, the heavens and the earth and said, “It is good.”  God made the plants, birds, fish and all animals and said, “It is good!”  God made His people and said, “It is very good!”  His image in His people is so very good.  The unique ways in which He chooses to reveal Himself through each person He creates is so very, very good.

His attributes and therefore His image are not limited to His doing and accomplishing.  For this reason, the bed bound elderly, newborn or handicapped still reflect His glory.  Not even just “still reflect” but intentionally reflect His glory in a way that that couldn’t be seen in another context.  However, those reflections of His image aren’t more significant than the way the artist, writer, architect or hostess images Him.  Wherever His image shows up, it so very good.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Gal. 5:22-23

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  1 Cor. 13:4-7

In whatever context I see the fruit of the Spirit, I see the Spirit of God moving, and it is good.  In whomever I see the characteristics of love, I see God’s image, whether the image bearer gives credit to Him or not.  Apart from Him, there is no light.  In Him, there is no darkness at all.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.  1 Chron. 16:34

On this particular day, at this particular time, I am especially grateful for His goodness as I read it in Isaiah 42.
A bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  He is not appalled at weakness as we are, nor is He disdainful of brokenness like I am.  His image is not eradicated by sin’s corruption, but is mercifully preserved.  He uses the weak things and the foolish things of the world to show His power, His tender care, His mercy and His unreasonable love for His creation.  My husband has been sick for the past five days and I have been totally not compassionate.  It bugs me.  I want him to be healthy and strong and helpful.  Yet, when I am sick, I want others to weep with me and stand beside me and serve my emotional and physical needs.  God is not like me with Terrell.  He asks me also to have the faith to be comfortable with and even delight in weakness.  As posted on Scotty’s wall months ago, and maybe mentioned here, He redirects me from thinking only of “faith to be healed” but instead to grab hold of the faith required to remain in sickness.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46:10

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.  Is. 30:15

In stillness I can see God’s activity more clearly.  My salvation is not in my doing but in His, in which I rest even as I repent of my own attempts to do it myself.  May I find His strength in quietness and trust.  He is good all the time and all the time He is good.  This is evident in the bruised reed that He will not break because it is in His afflicted One that I have found life so that I can celebrate the other afflicted ones through and to whom He gives life, even to me.  It is good.

Big Decision Making Clarity

“If you were to die tonight, are you 100% certain you would be in heaven?”…”Before you make a decision, remember the ol’ adage: ‘when in doubt, don’t!”…”Why did God let this happen?”

These are the kinds of things we as “Job’s friends” throw out and call “wisdom”.  I’m not sure if it happened immediately after the forbidden fruit was eaten or if it is the very thing that led to the first bite, but my own heart’s tendency to trust my own perceptions more than God’s Word is inherited from the generations of “family” all the way back to the Garden.  Because Adam and Eve couldn’t confidently answer the serpent’s questions and accusations about God’s character and purposes, they chose to go along with him rather than the One who made them.  Their discomfort with the unknown, with uncertainty, with being asked merely to trust and obey has been passed on and perhaps even grown to be more powerful in my own heart than it was in theirs.

At some point, my notion of “faith” began to exclude the freedom to say, “I don’t know” and instead felt compelled to provide an air tight dissertation to any challenge.  At some point, being bulletproof took priority. At some point, being right in the eyes of others became more significant and necessary than walking by faith into the “I don’t know”.  And this not because the “I don’t know” was a thinly veiled form of independent confidence, but because His grace covers and makes much out of both my right and wrong turns because He is Lord of both!  Doubt, it turns out, is not sin but instead a new place in which to walk by faith and not by sight.  The two are compatible because rather than being a guarantee that a decision will lead to greater health, comfort or reputation, the object of faith is a confidence that the person and work of Jesus is in fact making all things new and that “even this” is part of that grand work of redemption.

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:7-8

I want the schedule, the agenda, the script, the “heads up”, a full disclosure, a list of all possible scenarios and then a unanimous vote of approval that “this” is right, good and trustworthy.  Much to my dismay, “all” that Jesus promised was the Holy Spirit to provide the power (and strength, wisdom, energy, fruit, etc.) “when the time comes.”

In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. Psalm 25:1-2

I love that the Psalmist connects a fear of shame to the decision to trust.  It lets me know that God often pulls us into places easily mocked and condemned by onlookers, with even my own heart as one of those cynical onlookers.  The doubt that is loudest in my heart when God is pulling us to some weighty decision is from the anticipation of others thinking I’m a fool.  That ever present fear of man, fear of the “I told you so” when our decisions take us into hard and losing places.  “You don’t have to be hungry”, Satan enticed Jesus.  “You don’t have to suffer!” cried Peter to Jesus.  “I’m delusional,” Noah must have thought.  “Take this cup from me,” begged Jesus.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will… Eph. 1:11

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. Prov. 16:33

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph. 2:10

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”  Rom. 9:16-17

This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations.  For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?  His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?  Is. 14:26-27

I know that the LORD is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods. The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. Ps. 135:5-6

Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.  Psalm 139:16

Not a sparrow can fall to the ground apart from God’s permission.  Satan cannot move beyond God’s set limitations for him.  Kings are set up and deposed by God’s will.  It is God’s certainty in which I must trust, and not my own.  Will His good, pleasing and perfect will be crystal clear on this side of a decision?  Sometimes, but not often.  Will His will be done even if Pharaoh is arrogantly oblivious, Judas thinks he’s thwarted it, Noah falls down drunk and naked, and the people mock Jesus on the cross as being a powerless fool and a liar?  History and Scripture has told us, with great clarity, “Yes.”

So if my decision making information is not without doubt, is not 100% certain and cannot explain to others the mind of God, what clarity does grace offer?  The person and work of Jesus promises to be with me always, to never leave nor forsake me, that absolutely nothing will ever separate me from His love and that He is working out His very good, pleasing and perfect will which frees me from both the fear and the arrogance of the competing notion that I am captain of my own vessel.  Oh what very GOOD NEWS indeed.  Hallelujah what a savior and hallelujah what a Lord.

Who Am I?

It was great that John the Baptist made a point of identifying himself as “not God”.  I think that is more important than I fully realize.  On a typical day, I doubt many people assume themselves to be God, yet I think I for one share Adam and Eve’s pull to be my own god, determining for myself (and others) what is right in my own eyes.  It is why I am so skilled at critiquing how others make their decisions, use their words and where they devote their energy, money and talents.  I like to think I have enough knowledge and experience to judge properly what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?  James 4:12

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Is. 55:8-9

Ever since the serpent posed the tempting questions in the Garden, there has been enormous pressure to identify ourselves apart from God.  “Sure, sure, I know I’m not God, but here is how you should know I am God-like…”  We then proceed to let people know who we know so that we can be elevated in their eyes by our associations.  We choose clothes, furniture fabric and fixtures to make it clear that we in “in the know” and not excluded from such style omniscience.  And our insiders knowledge grants us authority to both judge and stand in superiority to others who seem to be lacking such awareness.  We stay as up to date on the happenings in the news and in the neighborhood to also prove our omniscience rather than ignorance.  We volunteer to be the one to get something accomplished to demonstrate our omnipotence.  “No, No, I am not God, but compared to you, I am closer.”

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—  Matt. 20:25-27

What?!  NO!  That is my honest response.  The first will be last and the last will be first does not make sense.  The first will be first and I want to be first. “Not so” Jesus reminds me gently.  He “made Himself nothing” to do this.  Make myself nothing?  That makes even less sense.  I can aim for last place but what does it look like to aim for nothingness?

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  Gal. 2:20

It means I stop worrying about convincing others of my God-likeness and and am content to find my identity in Him alone.  What would that kind of “glory self” look like?  It might mean when people come to “see” my house, I feel less naked before them because I am clothed in Jesus and not my house’s appeal.  It might mean that being grouped with the “cool” kids has less significance because I begin to see all the groups as they stand before Jesus in His Kingdom and not as we stand in arbitrary judgment of one another now.  This means I can be naked and unashamed (hopefully not literally!) when asked about who I know, where my kids go to school, what I do or what my husband does because I would be free from needing to prove any god-like identity apart from God.

So what is the point of being nothing if we’ve been given breath, life, talents and passions for being something?   I have been made to image the One who is the Creator, Redeemer, Lover, Sustainer and Life-Giver of His whole creation.  This is the same One who did His work by considering Himself nothing, laying down His right to be worshiped and glorified to get down and dirty at work, to be misunderstood, to be mocked and even physically beaten.  The “nothing” has to do with my own rights and desire to be worshiped and glorified.  The “something” is to pick up and share His cross to bring life and value to the others who He created, serving as His image before them.

And here is where grace comes in:  I am not “nothing” to God, nor am I invisible to Him.  He has rescued my soul from decay, my heart from hardening, my mind from numbness and my life from the pit!  He has breathed life into dry bones, offers constant Living Water to my otherwise dry and weary body, restores my strength and gives light to my eyes.  When I sing about the Lord as the one who “gives and takes away”, it should be clear that He takes away the curse of death and replaces it with abundant life.  I can’t always see that the prescription for “abundant life” that my culture offers is actually like arsenic to my soul, because that fruit from the tree looks so mouth watering.  But He gives me more grace!

May my own heart one day soon be able to answer the question, “Who am I?” with the words of Paul to Timothy: one who takes “hold of the life that is truly life” and freely and joyfully lets all else go.

The Grace to Celebrate

He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found…

In lieu of other plans which we had looked forward to, our family stayed home Saturday night and watched an early movie.  Before bed, we noticed the most beautiful full moon and went for a short walk down the street to enjoy the summer like temperatures and the beautiful night sky.  Along the way, we saw Mr. Cooper’s door open as he sat inside watching basketball.  He is a retired high school English teacher who keeps an immaculate yard and beautiful home.  He is most frequently spotted at his piano just inside the front window of his enclosed porch.  We invited him to join us on our full moon walk, but he is afraid of leaving his house.  Instead, though, he did come out and visit with such delight that we eventually had to break it off to complete our walk.  He told us he’d play a piece on the piano for us as we walked back by.  Sure enough, when he saw us coming back up the street, he “jumped” on the piano and started playing.  He didn’t notice us gathering outside his window to listen and applaud when he finished, but after a startling knock on his window, he looked up with laughter and amusement that we’d lingered.  He came out and told us it wasn’t his best piece but he’d play that one for us next time.  What a sweet and immensely satisfying moment with a  neighbor.
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!
    “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” Luke 15:28-32
Now obviously the power of this passage is the older brother’s blindness to grace and sense of self-righteousness.  He shares the bewilderment of those workers in the vineyard who worked all day only to find the late comers received the same wages.  But there is something far more subtle and probably less meaty that struck me about it yesterday.  I’m like the older brother in all those arrogant ways, but I am also sadly like him in my reluctance to celebrate evidence of God’s grace at work around me.  I get so focused on what is not right yet, on what is broken, on the evidence of a fallen world that I become blind to God’s fingerprints in my daily life.
May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” be appalled at their own shame.
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who long for your saving help always say,  “The LORD is great!”  Psalm 40:15-16
Perfectionism, that constant identification of errors with “Aha!  Aha!”, is a product of pride and self-sufficiency.  I know because I am a perfectionist.  The thinking is that I am always in reach of my ideal, and if I can just identify to others and myself what is lacking, it absolves me of guilt for those remaining imperfections.  For example, when people come to our house, if I can be the first to point out all the things that need to be done or that are not praiseworthy, it distances me from their judgment that my house looks like this or that simply because I don’t know better or have terrible taste.  (Both may be true, mind you.)  A perfectionist can’t simply celebrate the house because to do so might be foolish in the eyes of those who find the place greatly wanting.  So, a constant state of discontentment is both self-protecting and identifies my self as the answer to all that needs to be completed.  Where is the need for Jesus realized in this approach to life and judgment?  Hmmm…
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.  Luke 17:15-16
We watched 127 Hours last week about the hiker who had to cut off his own arm as his only hope for living through entrapment in a cave.  In his five days of slowly dying before eventually escaping, he reflected on his life, his selfishness and his “I don’t need anyone” life philosophy.  He acknowledged that it was this very ego-centric perspective that might cause his death as he hadn’t returned his family’s phone calls, hadn’t told anyone where he was headed and never kept up with anyone enough to even realize he was missing for days.  This event changed him and the reality of dying so desperately in the wilderness radically impacted his appreciation for his parents, family and alienated friends and their love for him that he had in essence rejected.  An armless existence was worth celebrating in contrast to what might have been.
The black/white divide is real and in ways, impassable.  The affluent/poor divide is wide and ever widening, it seems.  The overeducated/undereducated divide creates such different vocabularies and perspectives that communication and friendship of equals becomes impossible to fathom.  And yet, as a reversal of Babel, the person and work of Jesus is reconciling and tearing down the walls of hostility that humanly can’t be shaken.  While we feel the intimidating presence of these walls more in some relationships than others, I think Mr. Cooper on Saturday night and my friendships with other neighbors like Vivian and Thenesia who I hung out with on Thursday night remind me that there is plenty to celebrate if I have eyes to see.
The psalmist names those “who long for his saving help” as the ones who always say, “The Lord is great!”  The brokenness reminds me that I need the Redeemer to do what I cannot.  But the evidences of life, love, beauty and reconciliation remind me to celebrate and be glad because my Redeemer lives and is working out His promises to make all things new even now, this day, all around me.  Rather than moving from one felt need to the next, like the other lepers healed by Jesus, may I be increasingly compelled to take time to celebrate and thank Jesus for the healing He has done and is doing.

Inward Renewal

I have always measured my days and my value to others by accomplishment.  It has been a great day when I can rattle off all the things I completed.  I feel far more worthless on the days when nothing in my environment has much improved or progressed despite my having a healthy and capable mind and body to contribute.  Growing up in an achiever’s culture is certainly a part of how I got this way, after all, one of the first questions asked by strangers is, “What do you do?” What we do tells other people how interesting we are, how necessary we are and how potentially beneficial we might be to know.  Though most of us are savvy enough to object to workaholism, we admire it like a suntan no matter the known hazards.  Like pasty white skin, laziness is far more abhorrent to us than the short-sighted and self-destructive nature of the other end of the spectrum.

So, when life “in the city” in an urban culture which seems surprisingly unfamiliar to me, confronts this, I have to listen.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting down with Bob Lupton, an experienced forerunner in the area of urban renewal for the Kingdom and not just self-improvement.  Without fully knowing it, he lovingly rebuked my achiever’s mentality when it comes to establishing trust and loving relationships with my new neighbors.  Here is an example:  An older neighbor says of fond neighborhood memories, “We used to all spend so much time together, sitting on front porches and gathering our families.”  My natural response is, “Well, let’s do it now!  I’ll host a cook-out!”  Bob advises against this idea that the new folks are the fixers and rescuers and, confirming suspicions, the ones with an agenda for change.  Instead, I should offer, “Wow, that sounds wonderful.  How do you think we could ever experience that here again?”  For that and other such neighborhood needs, rather than jumping in and saying, “I’ll do it!” the better role is to ask, “Who do you know in the neighborhood who would love to do that?/Who could we ask to…”

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9

I think about the Israelites wandering in the desert, an overhead map showing how inefficient their route actually was.  I think about the way Jesus went about healing, teaching and training.  When I stop long enough to notice, it is hard to miss the fact that efficiency rarely seems to be God’s priority.  It doesn’t seem that outward impressions are as important to Him as they clearly are to me.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  2 Cor. 4:16

Inward renewal is the only lasting renewal.  Inward renewal is slow.  Inward renewal takes time and patience and persistence.  Inward renewal is rarely visible, and certainly not to eyes in a hurry.  This is true of the sanctification process and it is true of my neighborhood.  Loving my neighbors for the Kingdom is going to have to mean resisting the urge to do for them and embracing the call to be for them.  In a few instances, the outward expression of these two things may be the same.  In many it will not.  It will mean laying down my need to list my accomplishments and prove the value of my presence here.  It will mean watching and listening far more carefully and closely to discover the strengths and gifts and passions which live in the houses all around me.  It will mean actually caring about the interests of others above my own so that my goal for living moves rapidly away from the high school motivational question:  What do you want your obituary to say about you?  It means working so hard to draw others out that when all has been accomplished, it seems I have done nothing at all.  

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  Gal. 2:20

Inward renewal means I quit measuring my days based on my accomplishments and start recognizing His.