Friday, December 18, 2015

When Jesus Lingers

The following are excerpts from the chapter “The Lingering Jesus,” based on John 11, in Stephen W. Smith's The Lazarus Life (I'd highly recommend reading the whole book!):

Imagine the scene: Mary and Martha realizing that their brother is so ill that he might not live. How wonderful that their dear friend Jesus is in the region! The two sisters send word to Jesus that His dear friend is sick. They assume Jesus will come. Hadn't he healed others He'd never even talked to before? But Jesus doesn't show up. He does not heed the pleas of the sisters who beg for Him to come. He stayed where He was...

Where is God? Why doesn't He do something? Questions such as these must have been swirling in the hearts of Jesus' three friends from Bethany. Jesus, their friend, the One they believed in, didn't show up in their moment of greatest need. It must have seemed that He was not only “beyond” their physical surroundings, but also “beyond” caring about His dying friend. Can't God see we need Him? Doesn't He care?

When I enter the story of Lazarus and realize that Jesus did not immediately arise and go to Bethany, I have to admit I'm bothered. I'm bothered because a rapid response seems like the Christlike thing to do when someone is in need. But Jesus didn't drop what He was doing and ride to the rescue. He left the worsening Lazarus, the anxious Martha, and the worried Mary to themselves and to the reality of death. He lingered. Jesus stayed right where He was for two more days (v. 6).

Why did He stay away for so long when He was needed so desperately? Needed so desperately, in fact, that because of His absence, Lazarus died. The hearts of those who waited and waited and waited for Jesus to show up must have been chaotic with questions, anger, and confusion. When Jesus doesn't show up today, we struggle to navigate that same chaos in our own hearts. Does He not care for us?...

Maybe Jesus did want to hightail it back to Bethany, but this was one of those moments when He had to submit His own will to that of the Father's. We have some evidence that Jesus was in the wilderness region where Satan tempted Him for forty days. Possibly this moment held the same kind of weight for Jesus: If You are the Son of God, rush back and save Your friend. Maybe Jesus was ready to go help His dying friend but the Father told Him, “No, My Son, You can't do what You want to do here. A greater plan is at work. It's not time yet.”

Mary and Martha were left in the spiritual quandary of if only. If only Jesus had come. If only they had been more persuasive in their wording of the message intended for Jesus. If only Jesus really understood. If only He knew how sick Lazarus really was...

Where is He when we need him to help us the most? The God who lingers. The Jesus who makes other plans. The Spirit who hovers but never comes down to where we are. Isn't He Emmanuel—God with us?...

The invitation is to trust a God who makes us wait...

Experiencing the Jesus who lingers means having no clue as to what is happening in you or around you. In the full wake of winter's fury, you don't even know if spring will come. The winter is all you know. It's all that is real. The rest may be nothing more than a dream...

We are like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in so many ways. We cling to the belief that new life will come, but in the meantime we struggle to believe anything is happening. In this waiting—in the in-between time—something deep happens to us. Something happens within us. That's the way it has to be, because if transformation is anything at all, it is change from the inside out, not the outside in...

As we wait, we relinquish control, surrender our wills, give up our false hopes, and realize that if anything is going to happen at all, it will have to be God's doing...

Through waiting we become more aware of God and ourselves. As we grow in God-awareness and self-awareness, we sense something happening to us. This is the slow work of transformation that cannot be sped up by Jesus showing up any earlier than what has been orchestrated...

While Mary and Martha were agonizing because of Jesus' absence, Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus's illness was “for God's glory so that God's son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Mary and Martha were tied to an earthly view of death. Jesus knew that the greater good would come. Jesus might have thought, Maybe in My lingering they will come to want God's glory more than they want Lazarus to live. Perhaps My lingering will change the posture of their hearts to say, “Not my will but Your will be done.” This is only conjecture, but it touches on a mystery in the spiritual life that surpasses our own reasoning. When Jesus lingers, we have much to consider.

Glory talk goes beyond our horizontal perspective and allows the transcendent God to break through at the most unusual times. Glory talk is when God does something big and gets the credit, which is a hard thing to understand when we're in a crisis and just need God to show up. But seasons when God seems distant and quiet become the fodder for the fire in which glory begins to burn brightly...

The Jesus who lingers gives us the opportunity to face our fantasies and illusions and embrace something greater...

Embracing the truth offers us freedom and true life. Here lies the invitation for each of us to live the Lazarus life: Embracing what is true is core of the transformed life. The Jesus who lingers helps us work through our disillusionments and discover more of the character of God.

It's ironic that the times when God sees most absent can be the times when we get to know Him better. We read in Romans 5:5 that “hope does not disappoint us.” As our desperate hearts cry out to the lingering Jesus, we wonder what kind of hope that could be. It's in these moments that God is birthing a new hope in us, a hope in who He is and not a hope in who we want Him to be.”

May our hope be in the God who is, in this season of Advent. 
And may our hearts be transformed when Jesus lingers.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

When Jesus Walks Away

This is one of the best passages I've ever read on Mark 1 from Laura Story's When God Doesn't Fix It:

“Our desire is for God to fix broken things.

But God's desire is to fix our relationship with him.

There is a troubling passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark that illustrates this. Jesus had the opportunity to heal people, but instead he seemed to turn his back on them. It happened not long after Jesus started his ministry with his disciples. They were in Capernaum, Peter and Andrew's hometown, where Jesus had healed Peter's mother-in-law along with many others. Mark said, “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases” (Mark 1:33-34).

The news of Jesus' healing had spread outside Capernaum. Early the next morning, ailing travelers streamed into town and headed toward Simon's house, as the disciples rubbed their hands in expectation of what the day ahead would bring.

Then someone noticed that Jesus was missing. They set off in a search party. Where was he? They had to find him! The crowds were growing restless. They wanted to be healed.

The disciples found him and exclaimed, “Everyone is looking for you!” (v. 37). They expected that Jesus would return with them. But his response was not at all what they predicted. Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38).

It's hard to understand why sometimes Jesus heals and sometimes he doesn't. When it feels as though he's turned his back and walked the other way, it's hard not to be disappointed. Maybe even angry.

But when we're focused on the unhealed sickness, hurt, and pain in our lives, God is focused on a bigger picture. Something else is broken, and it has eternal consequences if it doesn't get fixed.

It's our relationship with our Creator.

While doctors can heal physical ailments, emotional wounds can be soothed, and grief lessens with time, our broken relationship with God continues to cause us pain even when our life is going well. God wants to restore our relationship with him more than anything else. Though he loves us, he'll allow us to feel the pain of this world's unhealed hurts if it brings us closer to him...

Have you ever felt bewildered, disappointed, or angry that you didn't get what you thought you deserved? Looking around, you see others have gotten what you wanted, and you don't understand why you can't get it too. Someone else received your cure, your fix, your apology, the life you wanted, or the baby you prayed for. What you had hoped for, what you earned, what you thought would be mended, what you were waiting on, is now gone. That one thing that was almost in your hands, that you rearranged your schedule for, that you stood in line to receive, and that you made an appointment to get, can no longer take place. Though someone else may have been involved, it still feels as though God has turned his back on you.

Imagine the disappointment those sick and hurting travelers from the surrounding villages and towns must have felt when they arrived in Capernaum that morning and heard that their hope for healing had snuck away under the cover of darkness.

What kind of God-man leaves town so he doesn't have to heal those who need it most?

Jesus didn't say good-bye or promise he'd be back soon. He didn't even tell his friends that he was leaving; they had to go out into the countryside and hunt him down. When he said he wasn't coming back, his disciples were as shocked as the crowds. When he left town, the hope of healing departed with him.

If there is anything to learn from the Mark 1 passage, its that God's ways aren't our ways.

A God who leaves physically sick people to preach the good news to spiritually sick people is a God who cares more about our soul than our body. That is who our God is...

Those sick travelers waiting outside of Capernaum...wanted physical healing without spiritual healing. Restoration without redemption. But Jesus wanted them to understand that he was the Savior who had come to restore their relationship to his Father.

Yes, Jesus could have healed all the broken legs, ear infections, strep throat, breast cancers, and indigestion that was coughed up before him. But that would only have been a temporal healing. It wouldn't have healed their relationship with God. Jesus wanted more for them. He wanted to rescue them from their sin, not just from sickness. He wanted to restore their souls and put them back in relationship with his Father. Jesus had a much bigger mission than torn ligaments and athlete's foot. He was God's representative on earth, and he only had a short time to reach as many people as he could and to train his disciples to carry his message of redemption after he left.

Jesus didn't slink out of the city. He avoided the crowds because he knew what they needed more than they did. He went to be with his Father, so that he could be reminded that despite his love for and his desire to heal all those hurting people, he had a bigger mission.”

In a later chapter, Laura Story poses some great questions that we can apply to our difficult situations. Instead of Why? we can ask How?

How might my Father's glory be displayed through this situation?

How does my story fit into God's greater story of redemption?

How might God use my current trial to glorify himself?

How might God use my weakness, infirmity, or disability to display his power?

How might God use my pain for a purpose?

How might God make this mess into a message?

Where will I turn when Jesus walks away?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Gift of Grace at the DMV

Two months ago I Failed My Driving Test. The first time FAIL was permanently recorded big black and bold on the back of my driving permit. My second FAIL was even more humiliating, so I was really not looking forward to my third try yesterday. What if I fail again? I nervously approached the counter and felt the exposure of my past mistakes, as the clerk examined those two FAILs on the back of my permit. “Have you had a license before?” he asked. “Well, we've been living overseas for 20 years and my old Kansas license expired about five years ago.” “OK. Just take a seat and wait for your name to be called.”

During the waiting time before my first test, I tried to convice myself, “I know how to drive. I just need to show them that I can.”

Before my second test, I kept reminding myself, “Go slow through the school zone and all will be well.”

After my second test, the examiner's assessment was, “You started out really well, but about halfway through you fell apart. You had four incomplete stops.” Really?

So this third try, as my mouth became more and more dry and my palms increasingly sweaty, my mantra was, “Slow and stop.” I also knew I was in need of grace. A grace-giving examiner please.

“She looks kind of mean,” I whispered to Charly as I saw one examiner leave the building followed by one of my fellow test takers. “You'll do fine with any examiner. Don't worry,” he reassured me.

Another test taker returned and gave high fives to all of his family members in the waiting area. I felt happy for him, and new hope surged in my heart. There's definitely a more positive feeling in this room than last time. But wait, what if they are required to give a certain number of fails a day? Then other people passing their tests might hurt my chances...

My name was called. I jumped up and gripped the car keys tightly.

“So why did you fail your other tests?” My examiner pointedly asked after she had checked my turn signal and brake lights and was fastening her seat belt. “The first time I went too fast in a school zone, and the second time I didn't come to complete stops,” I confessed. There's my past. Nothing hidden.

“I think you're going to get it this time,” she told me. “I have faith in you.”

Really? I started to breathe more normally.

“The kid I tested before you was on his third try too and he passed.”

My hands relaxed on the steering wheel.

Thank you God.

We chatted about our families and about the state of the world as she gave me instructions on what to do. And even though I made some mistakes, like running through a yellow light and waiting too long before getting into a turn lane, I felt like she was on my side. This is the day, I dared to hope. I think I might pass.

I pulled into the open parking space in front of the DMV and turned off the car. “I'm sorry to tell you,” she started, not even waiting until we got inside to go over my results. Oh no. Not again!

“I won't be able to go driving with you again.” Relieved, I smiled at her sense of humor, and felt like jumping out of my seat to give her a hug.

She went on to tell me some things I had done well and some areas I needed to pay attention to. “You have to get an 80 to pass, and you got a 92.”

Charly's eyes were worried when I got back inside. I'd been gone longer than he'd counted on, and he thought maybe I'd gotten into an accident out there. That would have been a definite fail, he figured. So he too smiled with relief and gave me a high five when I told him the good news.

The real good news is Grace, isn't it? An incredibly generous gift that we receive with open undeserving hands. Not a reward to be earned at the end of the day with a righteous sense of entitlement.

It's a gift of new life under the new covenant. No longer bound to the Law of the old covenant. 

God does not sit beside us in our tests of life with a clipboard in hand, eager to record our every little mistake. And He never ever writes FAIL in permanent black marker over our identity.

He whispers to our hearts when we feel most vulnerable, “I think you're going to get it this time. I have faith in you.”

This is my Gift of Grace. My Son.

Jesus. Who came from the highest place in heaven, down to meet the lowest on this earth, to give us grace, grace, and more grace.

From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” (John 1:16)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Christmas Tradition I Could Do Without

We are in the middle of America in the middle of a consumerized Christmas season. And I've found that I am totally loving our new huge Christmas tree (gift from a friend of my Mom). I have felt mesmerized in our living room the past few evenings, with our tree lit up and all the ornaments sparkling. It makes the season of Christmas feel truly magical, reminding me of our Christmas trees growing up in the mountains of NC (when we had our own Christmas tree farm). And of our artificial tree in Tianjin for 12 years, when our kids would sleep under it every Sunday in December and on Christmas Eve. I have a special heart connection to Christmas trees.

But I've discovered that I don't have a heart connection to the Christmas tradition of gift-giving. I have absolutely no desire to make a list for those who have asked us what we want. And I really don't feel like wandering the aisles and filling our own shopping cart with gifts, just because there's the obligation to give something. I don't think it's because I'm being a Scrooge. But I've been trying to figure out why I feel this way.

Two years ago was our first time in 15 years to celebrate Christmas in the US. I loved being with both sides of our families and experiencing all of their traditions that we had missed while we were overseas. I thought then that my not being able at all to think about or purchase gifts was because we had just adopted David and Daniel and were in those survival-first-two-months with them in our family. But I've realized that I feel the same way about gifts this year. Maybe it's because gifts were really not such a big deal to our Christmases in China. And I don't know what to do with that here...

I felt shocked and disheartened by the news report of a Wal-Mart employee in NY being trampled to death by shopping madness on Black Friday. And that makes me--even more so--want to stay out of the consumer scene.

Maybe that's why this week I've been drawn to Richard Foster's book Freedom of Simplicity, and have been uplifted by his challenge to live a centered life of simplicity. It has felt like a breath of fresh air, and has brought to mind this verse, "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." (Jeremiah 6:16) The following passage is from his chapter called “Inward Simplicity: The Divine Center:”

“We dash about here and there, desperately trying to fulfill the many obligations that press in upon us. We jerk back and forth between business commitments and family responsibilities. While we are busy responding to the needs of child or spouse, we feel guilty about neglecting the demands of work. When we respond to the pressures of work, we fear we are failing our family. In those rare times when we are able to juggle the two successfully, the wider issues of nation and world whisper pestering calls to service. If anyone needs a simplification of life, we do.

What will set us free from this bondage to the ever-spiraling demands that are placed upon us? The answer is found in the grace of Christian simplicity. This virtue, once worked into our lives, will unify the demands of our existence; it will prune and trim gently in the right places, bringing a liberty of soul that will eliminate constant reversions to ourselves...

Within all of us is a whole conglomerate of selves. There is the timid self, the courageous self, the business self, the parental self, the religious self, the literary self, the energetic self. And all of these selves are rugged individualists. No bargaining or compromise for them. Each one screams to protect his or her vested interests. If a decision is made to spend a relaxed evening listening to Chopin, the business self and the civic self rise up in protest at the loss of precious time. The energetic self paces back and forth, impatient and frustrated, and the religious self reminds us of the lost opportunities for study or evangelistic contact. If the decision is to accept an appointment on the human services board, the civic self smiles with satisfaction, but all the excluded selves filibuster. No wonder we feel distracted and torn. No wonder we overcommit our schedules and live lives of frantic faithfulness.

But when we experience life at the Center, all is changed. Our many selves come under the unifying control of the divine Arbitrator. No longer are we forced to live by an inner majority rule which always leaves a disgruntled minority. The divine yes or no settles all minority reports. Everything becomes oriented to this new Center of reference. The quiet evening can be enjoyed to the fullest because our many selves have been stilled by the Holy Within. The business self, the religious self, the energetic self, all are at peace because they know we are living in obedience. There is no need to wave the flag of self-interest, since all things good and needful will be given their proper attention at the appropriate time. We enter a refreshing balance and equilibrium in life...

When we live out of the Divine Center, thoughts and decisions flow from the Fountainhead. All relevant data are considered, to be sure, but decisions stem from a source deeper than facts and figures. Once we have understood the mind of the Father, we can speak our yes or no with confidence. We will have no need to reverse our decision if the winds of opinion change, for we have spoken out of deeper Reality than the latest Gallup poll...

This kind of living communion does not just fall on our heads. We must desire it and seek it out. Like the deer that pants for the flowing stream, so we thirst for the living Spring. We must order our lives in particular ways if we hope to quench that thirst. We must take up a consciously chosen course of action that will draw us more deeply into perpetual communion with the Father.

I have discovered one delightful means to this end: prayer experiments that open us to God's presence every waking moment. The idea is extraordinarily simple. Seek to discover as many ways as possible to keep God constantly in mind...

It is wonderful to walk onto a grade school playground and inwardly lift every child into the arms of Christ. Or to ride in the back of a bus and invite Christ to visit with each person that boards. Carpenters and plumbers and electricians can fill the homes in which they work with the light of Christ, praying for each member of the family (or, if it is a new home, for the family which will live there). Grocery store clerks and retail checkers can pray for each person who passes through the line, imagining him or her drawing closer to God. In my work I write many letters, and each time I sign my name I try to pray for the person to whom the letter is addressed. It is great fun to imagine the recipients opening the letter and being strengthened with a fresh sense of God's presence. There are thousands of these little experiments you can try, and very often you will be startled by the results.

And most wonderful of all is what happens inside us. More and more we develop what Thomas a Kempis called a 'familiar friendship with Jesus'...

Of all the inward changes we experience, the most awesome is that we begin to know Jesus' Voice. We become inwardly acquainted with the language of the true Shepherd. Humbled under the cross, we are able to increasingly discern the true Spirit from the clatter and clamor of human voices, and even the hollow voice of the enemy who comes under the guise of an angel of light. We begin to live in guidance. Inward prompts give unity to our decisions. All the demands for service are somehow filtered through the Light. Our lives are being simplified because we are giving attention to only one Voice, and our yes and no arise from the Center. We no longer rush puffing and panting through our jam-packed day, yet somehow we accomplish more. Thomas Kelly witnessed, 'Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming.'"

I would much rather live a life of Sheperded Simplicity than that of Frantic Faithfulness. Wouldn't you?

(Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the theme of "Tradition")


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