Sunday, November 29, 2015

Is Your God Good Enough?

I was encouraged that this post was published last week at Velvet Ashes (an online community of women serving overseas):

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.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

Our God is BIG, right? Just as He took Abraham outside and instructed him to look up at the stars, we too can gaze on the vastness of the heavens and get a glimpse of God’s greatness. If God wasn’t great, we wouldn’t have left our homes, like Abraham, to follow Him across the globe. But sometimes our life experiences can shape our view of His goodness. When God acts in a way that doesn’t appear to us to be good, can we continue to put our trust in His unchanging character?

Do we believe that God is good enough?

Does He really care about the difficult circumstances we are facing? Will He give us the strength and grace we need to weather these boat-tipping storms? Take to heart our complaints, our longings, our desperation and pain? Love us and our loved ones (both near and far) with a deeper unconditional, unfailing love than we could ever imagine?

In Your God is Too Small, J.B. Phillips discusses two images of God that are void of goodness: one as a Disappointment and one as a Negative Force:

“To some people the mental image of God is a kind of blur of disappointment. ‘Here,’ they say resentfully and usually with more than a trace of self-pity, ‘is One whom I trusted, but He let me down.’ The rest of their lives is consequently shadowed by this letdown…

Such a god is, of course, in the highest degree inadequate. It is impossible for people who have persuaded themselves that God has failed, to worship or serve Him in any but a perfunctory spirit. What has usually happened to such people is that they have set up in their minds what they think God ought or ought not to do, and when He apparently fails to toe their particular line they feel a sense of grievance.”

Can you relate to this image of God? I sure can. Deep disappointment makes me think of the disciples who shuffled along, faces downcast, on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped,” they told the mysterious man who appeared beside them, “that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) It was all over, they believed. Finished. Their hopes for the Messiah had been nailed to the cross and had died with him there.

When you think about a time that God let you down and didn’t come through in the way you hoped, did a part of you die too? Has that deep disappointment caused your worship and service to become a joyless obligation?

You can read the rest at Velvet Ashes:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

When I Was the Foreigner Who Was Welcomed

Our family called central western China “home” for the last 4 1 /2 years, and we experienced incredible warmth and hospitality there. We were befriended by compassionate, openhearted Muslims who took a risk to welcome us--pale-skinned foreigners of a different culture and religion. Muslim friends who chose to set aside their unflattering stereotypes of Americans to find out who we really were, inside. I'd like to introduce you to Hua, with the hope that a better understanding of our Christian-Muslim friendship might help to tear down the unflattering stereotype of Muslims in our world today. With the desire that our society would not be so divided by Us and Them. Could we work on getting rid of the logs in order to see more clearly?

“May we try to understand them as we in turn would like to be understood...May we see with their eyes, think with their minds, feel with their hearts. Then let us ask ourselves whether we should judge them...” (William Barclay) 

I feel compelled to write this post because I believe that it is a real tragedy when terrorists wave the banner of Islam and perform incomprehensible acts of violence. All of the Muslims I know are just as horrified by recent world events as all of the non-Muslims I know. And probably even more so, because these events have negatively affected the way many non-Muslims view Islam. It has been heartbreaking to see that in the aftermath of these recent tragedies, people have erected fearful walls of self-protection and have focused efforts to keep the refugee victims of ISIS out. I read last week that one of our presidential candidates publicly stated that we should only allow Christian Syrian refugees into our country. It is so difficult for me to understand that kind of rationale.

I met Hua a few months after our move from Tianjin to Lanzhou in 2011. Our family was out on a walk one Sunday and I overheard her urging her 4 year old son Musa (Moses) to walk closer to us so he could practice his English. As I slowed my pace and fell into step beside them, I was encouraged to discover that her Mandarin was more clear than that of anyone I had met so far in our new city. I asked for her phone number before we parted, and we began meeting regularly to go shopping together. She invited me to come to the Arabic school where she worked as a janitor, and then later to the preschool where she worked as a cook. She took me to the basement of the big shopping center in our area to the dried fruit and nut stand where her mother worked and then to the sock stand where her cousin worked, so that I could chat with her relatives while we sipped tea together.

She was excited to get to meet my sister when she visited us in China two summers ago, and asked if she could invite her younger sister over as well. Through translated conversation our two sisters shared about differences and similarities in their jobs as elementary school teachers.

Hua helped me to understand and appreciate the way she practiced Muslim customs. Like how and when she would pray for the souls of deceased loved ones and honor them on the anniversary of their deaths. Like what she prayed in her heart when she gave money to beggars on the street. She was also interested in hearing about how I practiced my American Christian customs. And she told me that I had changed her stereotype of the immoral and immodest American woman that came from watching American movies. She noticed when I started wearing long sleeves (in the summer) and told me approvingly that I had grown more aware of the importance of modesty in their culture.

As we would weave our way along the crowded sidewalks, she would often link her arm in mine. Sometimes she would squeeze my upper arm and tell me that I hadn't been exercising enough. Other times she would tell me that she thought I was too thin. That was her way of showing her love and concern for me. She introduced me to her favorite halal street food (and I was glad that I liked most of it). When we needed to risk our lives and cross the busy street, she would boldly position herself on the side closest to the crazy traffic, otherwise she said we would never get across because I was too afraid to make that first step.

Our conversations included marriage and parenting issues, our dreams for the future, and the difference that faith makes in our lives. Hua told me the story of her arranged marriage when she was 18, and said that because she had complete trust in her father who picked out her husband for her, she wasn't afraid to marry a man she didn't know. Because Hua's husband is the youngest son in his family, according to tradition, his widowed mother is part of their marriage package and has lived with them from day one. Hua's rocky relationship with her mother-in-law has been one of her biggest challenges, and I never visited Hua's home because her mother-in-law didn't allow her to have guests over.

But Hua enjoyed coming to our apartment and often brought her son Musa and daughter Mayan (Miriam) to play games with our kids. She always brought lots of fresh fruit when she came. Unfortunately, we didn't get to spend much time with her husband because he worked the night shift and slept during the day. We were thankful that Hua showed up to help us with our last-minute packing and cleaning on the very hectic day that we moved out in June. She carried our final bags of trash to our garbage chute, and she was our last friend in Lanzhou to wave goodbye to us as we wheeled our luggage toward the bus stop, headed for the train station.

During the four years that I was blessed to know Hua, I was touched by her compassion and her authenticity. And that she always called me her older sister.

I hope to follow her example and welcome foreigners—of a different culture and religion--in the same way that she welcomed me.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sufficient Sustaining Grace

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The following passage is from the chapter Fear Dethronedin Max Lucado's book Grace:

“Saving grace saves us from our sins. Sustaining grace meets us at our point of need and equips us with courage, wisdom, and strength. It surprises us...with ample resources of faith. Sustaining grace promises not the absence of struggle but the presence of God.

And according to Paul, God has sufficient sustaining grace to meet every single challenge of our lives. Sufficient. We fear its antonym: insufficient. We've written checks only to see the words insufficient funds. Will we offer prayers only to discover insufficient strength? Never.

Plunge a sponge into Lake Erie. Did you absorb every drop? Take a deep breath. Did you suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere? Pluck a pine needle from a tree in Yosemite. Did you deplete the forest of foliage? Watch an ocean wave crash against the beach. Will there never be another one?

Of course there will. No sooner will one wave crash into the sand than another appears. Then another, then another. This is a picture of God's sufficient grace. Grace is simply another word for God's tumbling, rumbling reservoir of strength and protection. It comes at us not occasionally or miserly but constantly and aggressively, wave upon wave. We've barely regained our balance from one breaker, and then, bam, here comes another.

“Grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We dare to hang our hat and stake our hope on the gladdest news of all: if God permits the challenge, he will provide the grace to meet it.

We never exhaust his supply. “Stop asking so much! My grace reservoir is running dry.” Heaven knows no such words. God has enough grace to solve every dilemma you face, wipe every tear you cry, and answer every question you ask.

Would we expect anything less from God? Send his Son to die for us and not send his power to sustain us? Paul found such logic impossible: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Take all your anxiety to Calvary, Paul urged. Stand firm in the shadow of God's crucified Son. Now pose your questions. Is Jesus on my side? Look at the wound in his. Will he stay with me? Having given the supreme and costliest gift, “how can he fail to lavish upon us all he has to give?” (Romans 8:32)

Let God's grace dethrone your fears. Anxiety still comes, for certain. The globe still heats up; wars still flare up; the economy acts up. Disease, calamity, and trouble populate your world. But they don't control it! Grace does.”

Last night my sister shared with me her favorite song "Just Be Held" by Casting Crowns. I hope God will bless you through this music as well.

His sufficient sustaining grace will hold us, right where we are.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Both Sides of the Tracks

Last night at Jordan's cross country banquet, we listened to the coaches commend each one of the runners and hand out awards, not based on fastest times, but on strength of character. And I marveled at the quality of those high school kids sitting with us there in the school cafeteria, their positive influence on each other, and most likely the positive influence of their committed parents. Ben, the fastest runner ever in the history of the school, the coach told us, could have written down that his personal goal at the beginning of the season was to win the state meet, but instead he wrote that he wanted to be the best leader he could be to help the guys team reach its full potential.

“For grace is not given because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.” (Augustine)

“He meant us to see Him and live with Him and draw our life from His smile.” (A.W. Tozer)

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” (Anne Lamott)

I've been challenged recently to consider whether or not my life is positively influencing those around me. Inspired by My Good Samaritan last Saturday, who wasn't just focused on the mountainous path right in from of her, or how fast her time might be when she crossed the finish line. She actually stopped running her own race to be interested in mine. Do I live that way? Or am I living life in my own bubble?

I was sobered on Tuesday to attend a Human Trafficking seminar offered by our school district as I realized that human trafficking is going on right here, in our middle-class neighborhood. Vulnerable boys and girls, often from difficult family backgrounds, lured through internet connections or pursued after running away, become controlled by a trafficker and trapped in a life of prostitution that is incredibly hard to break free from.

That seminar made me think back to a teenage girl named Melissa I met at an AA meeting when I was in college. She was pregnant and needed help and as I spent time with her, I couldn't help but wonder, Why her, God? Why not me? Why do some people seem to get the bad breaks in life, while others find themselves on the right side of the fence? There may be good or bad choices along the way that contribute to where people end up, but so much seems due to life circumstances.

God did not intend His blessings to stop with the receiver, but to be passed on. He blessed Abraham so that all the people on earth would be blessed through him. (Genesis 12:3)

How can we, who have been undeservedly blessed, use our lives to bless those around us? Not look past or look down on those less fortunate. Not shake our heads and thank God that we're not in their shoes. But to sit down beside those who are struggling in life. Who have problems we may never even be able to imagine. And to say, “I want to be here with you.”

Several weeks ago an eighth grader committed suicide in our neighborhood park, and I have tried to imagine what could have made his life so terrible, so void of hope, that he would choose to kill himself. I will never know. But it happened right here, where we live. So close. And it grieves me. What could have prevented such a tragedy? Who might have been able to reach into this boy's closed-off walls and say, “I want to help you through your pain.” Did anyone in his life know how dark and desperate his world had become? Would I recognize someone in my life who was struggling in the same way?

“Grace. Let it, let him, so seep into the crusty cracks of your life that everything softens. Then let it, let him, bubble to the surface, like a spring in the Sahara, in words of kindness and deeds of generosity. God will change you, my friend. You are a trophy of his kindness, a partaker of his mission.” (Max Lucado, Grace)

“You are a billboard of God's mercy to those within your circle of influence. What message do people receive when they observe your life? In order for God's grace to be the central message of your life, does something need to be adjusted, dismissed, or forgiven? (Max Lucado, Grace study guide)

“God blesses us in proportion to how we open our hands to receive his blessings, and how open our hands remain in passing on his blessings to those who need them.” (Michael W. Smith, A Simple Blessing)

Lord, keep my eyes and my hands open.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pause for Gratitude

“Our life is not a problem to be solved; it is a gift to be opened. The color of the sky, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends, the taste of sea air, the shape of clouds in summer, the reds of maples in fall—there are so many gifts in a single life. If we are preoccupied with what is missing and what is broken and wrong, we lose the miraculous harvest of all these tiny gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our acknowledging them.” (Wayne Muller, How, Then, Shall We Live?)

“When we begin to enjoy all that we already have instead of focusing on what we don't have, we move toward contentment. We become people who are more content when we stop, rest, play, because in those things, we find great freedom. We discover that like a loving parent, God revels in the joy of his children. We are unconditionally loved by God even when we are not working or producing.” (Keri Wyatt Kent, Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity

“The real issue is whether we can learn to see, and then welcome, the divine presence wherever we are.” (Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath

"The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth." (Psalm 50:1-2)

"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)

When you take time to pause, how does God open the eyes of your heart to see and appreciate His blessings in your life? 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Good Samaritan

I ran a half marathon on Saturday. It was rough. And I barely made it to the finish line. Somewhere between 7 and 8 miles, I looked up and saw runners up above, weaving back and forth on the switch back trail that seemed to stretch right into the sky and I whispered, “Oh. my. goodness.” My brisk walk had slowed to simply trying to get one foot in front of the other, and trying to stay in a straight line. I was increasingly aware of my thirst and weakness, but knew that the next aid station wasn't until the 11 mile mark. And I began to doubt that I could make it. 

When I moved off to the side of the trail to let some runners go past me, a woman turned around and asked, “Do you need some water?” I looked up and saw she was carrying her own water bottle. “Are you sure?” I asked. I hated to take someone's precious supply. But she must have noticed that I didn't look very stable. “Yes. Here,” she handed it to me. Then she took a nutrition gel pack out of her pouch and gave that to me. “You need this too. It's going to taste like chocolate icing. Squeeze it all into your mouth at one time. Then take a few more big swigs of water to dilute it.” I did just what she told me. It was really thick and rich and difficult to swallow, but I managed to get it down.

In 4 to 5 minutes, you're going to feel the lights come back on,” she assured me. Then she looked at my number, “806. I'm going to tell them at the next aid station to be looking out for you. When you get there be sure to drink two cups of water and a cup of Gatorade, OK?” And then she asked, “What's your name?” “Jodie,” I told her. She looked me right in the eyes. “Jodie, you're going to kill this.” Then she and her friend continued up the mountainous climb.

She found me at the finish. I was in the first aid tent, where someone must have directed me because I didn't look all that great. The first aid guys kept coming up to my chair about every two minutes, squatting down to look me right in the eyes, “How are you doing? Tell me what's going on.” Do I really look that bad? I wondered. Then my Good Samaritan appeared. “Jodie! You did it.” “Are you the woman who helped me?” I asked, since I couldn't quite remember what she looked like. “You were my lifesaver.” I told her. “I really couldn't have made it without you.

She told me her name was Lisa. Maybe she was an angel. She saw me out there struggling and she knew what to do. She gave me what she had and she asked others to watch out for me. Then she came back to find me and make sure I was okay.

Isn't that exactly how Jesus said we're to care for our neighbor?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lessons from an Uninvited Guest

An uninvited guest has taken up residence this week. No matter what approach I have tried to get him out the door, he has stubbornly refused to leave. And I am left feeling like a “sick” person who can't really handle much, wishing I still had the “healthy” body of the last few months which felt mostly free from limitations. This uninvited guest has dragged me back to those dreaded days of the past, when I constantly had to consider how I could quietly exit out the back door from situations that felt like too much for me, with both a fear of making commitments and a guilt of letting people down, along with an overwhelming desire to simply draw my head and all appendages into my turtle's shell because that's all I had the strength to do. 

This uninvited guest called Migraine has caused me to think a lot about limitations this week.

Several years ago when I was going through an especially rough time with migraines, I wrote about Chronic Pain. And about the bricks of truths I was trying to collect from the rubble of my life, like the workmen I could see saving bricks from the destruction of buildings going on behind our apartment.

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…because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 14a, 16)

Through His power resting on us, we are renewed. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead. This power does not come from us, cannot come from us. It can only come from Him. And can only come when we are needy. Broken. Spent. Struck down.

In Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey writes, “If…I perceive God as working from below, under the surface, calling out to us through each weakness and limitation, I open the possibility of redemption for the very thing I resent most about my life.”

“When we are hurting, it doesn’t matter how much we know about doctrine or theology. What we really need to know is Jesus. To walk with him. Talk to him. Crawl into his lap and let him hold us for a while. Perhaps we’ll never say, “Jesus is all I need” until he is all we have. At that moment, he will prove to be all we need and more.” (Max Lucado)

“We may be earnestly desiring to be obedient and holy. But we may be missing the fact that it is here, where we happen to be at this moment and not in another place or another time, that we may learn to love Him—here where it seems He is not at work, where His will seems obscure or frightening, where He is not doing what we expected Him to do, where He is most absent. Here and nowhere else is the appointed place. If faith does not go to work here, it will not go to work at all.” (Elisabeth Elliot, The Path of Loneliness)

This is The Real Life.
It is here. And it is now. In this moment.
When we want to hope, but are afraid to hope.
When we just want to give up and close our hearts off to any future pain.
When we are so weary and life feels so hard.
When it seems that God is absent. In the Unanswered.
God calls us—here— to Trust Deeply in Him.
Because if faith does not go to work here, it will not go to work at all.

“There is an intimate relationship between joy and hope. While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will go better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone but will fulfill the deepest desires of our heart.

Joy in this perspective is the fruit of hope. When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps, I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within and around me.” (Henri Nouwen, Here and Now)

“Might this thing I long to be different be the actual crucible on which God chooses to shape my soul into something of beauty that perhaps only He sees? Will I let God transform me in this?” (Paula Rinehart)

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

Soft clay. Moldable. Shapeable. Conforming to the intentions of the potter and the unique design in His mind. No resistance to His masterful hands

Have your way with me, O Lord. I am surrendered to you.

(Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the topic of Limits)


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