Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Umbilical

Lately I've been discussing the benefits of training for dogs. We've explored how new service dogs are trained from the time they are puppies - 8 or 9 weeks old - to look after people who need help. 

One of the most common ways to train a puppy to walk on a loose leash and let the owner take the lead (i.e., not make the owner feel like the dog is pulling his or her arm out of its socket - I've been there!) is a technique known as "Umbilical." Basically put, it means that the owner attaches the dog to himself or herself and never goes anywhere in the daily routine without the dog attached. The owner doesn't get out of the dog's way; the dog learns to pay attention to the owner, learns to anticipate, learns to depend, and yes, even to dote on the owner because the owner is the dog's source of all things: food, outings, entertainment, companionship, and more. Indoors, outdoors, it doesn't matter. The point of the exercise is to build relationship, to strengthen attachment, and to give the dog the idea that dog and human are inseparable.

Inextricably linked. 

Photo "Red Grapes On The Vine" courtesy
of Stoonn at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
This is the lesson Jesus talked about in John 15. 

"I am the Vine; you are the branches. 
Apart from Me you can do nothing." (vs 7). 

It's not about the leash; it's not about where the vine stops and the branch begins. It's about relationship. 

Complete and utter connectedness. No "trying" to be connected, oh no. No straining or grunting or groaning to "grow" the relationship from our end. 

We aren't the source. We. Just. Aren't. He is the source, and He just flows into us ... whether we are aware of it or not. Whether we can feel His life in us ... or not. It's all His work. We're just along for the ride. 

That's not to say that the life we lead in the Way is not difficult; it is. But it needn't be difficult in the way it often is. A lot of times we get discouraged because we can't keep all the rules and we waste a lot of energy trying to meet expectations - others', or our own. And we tell ourselves that these are God's expectations. But the Word tells us clearly that we are "justified freely" (Romans 3:24) and that we are the righteousness of God in Him. 

No, the work isn't to obey the rules. The work, dear brothers and sisters, is to enter into rest. It is to cease from our own works. It is to realize how great, how deep, how wide and how high His love is for us. It is difficult for our flesh to stay in that place of total openness, where we realize that there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more. He just loves us. Period.

That is the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Relationship. Passionate, intimate, He-loved-me-first, He-loved-me-most, no-holds-barred, laid it all out on His cross LOVE.

Pure. simple. Transformational. 

How can I NOT desire - with all that is in me - to be around Him every moment of every day? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

All that has taken my heart

"Lord, I will bow to You - to no other god
         but You alone...
 Lord, I will worship You, nothing hands have made,
         but You alone.
     I will lay down my idols, thrones I have made,
     All that has taken my heart, oh..
 Lord, I will bow to you, to no other god
     ... but You alone.

     I will lay down my idols, thrones I have made,
     All that has taken my heart, oh..
 Lord, I will bow to you, to no other god
     ... but You alone."     - - Bob Fitts

Yes. Yes there are Christian idols. There are things that take our hearts without us even being aware of them. 

I'm not talking about cars, or sports, or TV, or (fill in the blank that we turn to when we feel empty or bored). I'm talking about right inside the church.

When I first heard Bob Fitts sing the song I've quoted above, I was struck by how humble the man was. How he longed to worship God and God alone. Then I got to meet him and work with him briefly. His attitude in person was full of grace and gratitude. There was no hint of self-serving or arrogance in him. 

I fear that in some areas in church life, we've succumbed to an "American Idol" mentality. We follow superstars, or styles of worship (Hillsong vs Thousand Foot Krutch for example). We hear a worship band and reduce their ministry - which they give to Jesus - down to something that must be applauded, or tell them, "Good job!" (Job?? Really??) We rob them of their heavenly reward by lavishing earthly reward on them. 

Photo "Center Of Church" courtesy of Keerati at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
And that's not all. Idolatry is not just worshipping other gods. Idolatry is also worshipping a version of God that isn't really what He's about. Just like the children of Israel did once - it cost them three thousand lives that day. 

Let me explain. In Egypt, every altar or shrine erected to whatever god was being worshipped at the time had an altar base - a pedestal, if you will - which was made in the shape of Hathor, the goddess of the earth. She was represented by a cow. 

When Moses went up the mountain to get the law from God, the people got restless. "We can't just stand here," they thought. "We have to DO something!" They originally wanted to worship the God that brought them out of Egypt. They pressured Aaron into allowing it. They donated some of the gold they had plundered from the Egyptians and they made an altar base. Naturally it was in the shape of a bovine - a small cow - a calf. 

But it was JUST THE BASE. There was NOTHING ON TOP of the calf. (The Egyptians never did this. All their altars had something on top.) God's people intended to worship the "unseen God" which - they reasoned - was above the altar. But their worship and celebration soon focused on the human-made base upon which they had thought the presence of God would hover. They followed the practices they'd seen growing up (traditions of men). And they moved from a desire to worship God, to saying "THESE are the godS that brought us out of Egypt." 

Can you see the path of degradation into idolatry? 

This is what happens when people think that they can 'add' something to what has already been done for them. The people felt they had to add something of their own, something tangible, to this worship-fest. Just like the church today stumbles over the simplicity of the Good News and feels she has to add to it: the wood, hay and stubble of rules, regulations and ritual (1 Cor. 3: 11-13). 

Idolatry. It's spiritual adultery. 

Rules and regulations and rituals feel good. They make us feel comfortable, safe, like we are doing something for ourselves, securing our place, pleasing God. They take our heart, they steal it away from a life in which He is the centre because of His goodness, mercy and grace. Bit by little bit the focus becomes the altar (what we do or don't do for Him, our own human effort) and not Him. We get into the mindset that in order to please Him we have to appease Him, that is, to keep Him from getting mad at us by doing stuff He likes.

But don't we see? God is already pleased with us. Because of what Jesus did for us, we are already pure, clean, washed, made whole. We are the righteousness of God in Jesus, because He was made to be sin. For us. (2 Cor 5:21) Once for all time, He settled the sin question: past, present, and future. "He,  having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God ... for by one offering He has perfected for all time those that are being made holy." (Heb 10: 12, 14.)

There is nothing we could do to add to that. It's already perfect. The forgiveness is complete, unconditional, absolute. "He is able to save them to the uttermost those who come to God by Him, seeing that He ever lives to make intercession for them." (Heb 7:25). "These things I have written to you that you might know that you have [present tense] eternal life, and that you may believe on the name [or in the authority] of the Son of God." (1 John 5:13).

This is basic stuff; this is the scandalousness - the lavish nature - of God's Grace. But it goes against our human nature. Like the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, we feel that we can't "just stand there" in the freedom with which Christ has made us free. We have to "do something" ... and in this lies the most dangerous fear-based lifestyle possible - thinking that we have to keep by our own efforts that which God has already freely given. 

So that is what I will lay down. I will lay down the idols of all my own efforts, all my own devices, all my arm-twisting where I try to behave myself so God will answer my prayers, and all my insistence on complicating His free gift, sullying it with my own kindling (wood, hay, and stubble). I will focus instead on His perfect sacrifice for me, and live in gratitude and worship to Him who gave all He had, all He was, for me, and who lives forevermore.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Between His Shoulders

I've been following a new blogger lately. She's been writing about something that to a lot of believers would be a 'ho-hum' topic: Grace. 

When I read what she writes, though, my heart stirs within me because she doesn't just talk about Grace as some theological construct but as a moment-by-moment, vibrant experience that has transformed her life even in the most mundane of experiences. She writes from personal, transformational experience and it's very, VERY hard to argue with that.

Not that I'd want to.

I've written many times about the gullible Galatians who thought they could add to what Jesus had done for them by keeping the law, following the rules, compiling a list of dos and don'ts. And I've said many times that this is the fallacy into which the modern church has fallen. Some have called this the Jezebel spirit - the spirit of religion. It is a very narrow view of a very wide, vast God.

My friend understands that, and for many years she lived in that religious experience. But she also understands and has experienced the truth: that the Christian life is just Jesus. That's it. There's nothing more complicated about it than that. Because of what Jesus did, we are forgiven: past, present, and future. No amount of straining or trying harder will make Him love us more or make us love Him more. It's just Him. Just His Grace. 

Many people I hang around with are actually frightened by that kind of talk. They think that saying that we don't have to DO anything once we are born again is equivalent to a license to sin (you know, "I can do anything I want because God will forgive me so I think I'll just go hog-wild.") I understand that the idea of that kind of Grace wouldn't make sense to someone who still believes more in the depravity of human nature than in God's unconditional love, who is thinking in human terms because human love is so often dependent on what the other person does or doesn't do. But God is bigger than that. His love isn't like our love. His love is limitless, lavish, and totally scandalous in its intensity.

Something my new friend said on her blog recently (in fact, her blog was how we met) struck me and vibrated something inside of me that was just waiting, longing for someone else to "get" this: "I have yet to see a heart that is gripped by God's unbelievable grace that wants to go out and sin. Just doesn't happen like that. No way. No how. In fact, I would have to argue that the opposite occurs!" (Read her whole post here.) 

Photo "Portrait Of A Baby Sheep In The Farm" courtesy of
ponsulak at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
 All afternoon, I've been reminded of an expression I read in the Old Testament somewhere and I knew I had to go look it up. It was a blessing that Moses pronounced on the tribe of Benjamin (which means 'Son of my right hand').  I found it in Deuteronomy 33:12 - "May the beloved of the Lord dwell in security by Him, who shields him all the day, and he dwells between His shoulders."

The picture of God's beloved one dwelling between God's shoulders has stayed with me for a long time ... for the place between His shoulders is His heart. The place of resting close to (or in) His heart takes me to Isaiah 40:11(b) - "In His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom..." 

Jesus often used the metaphor of sheep to refer to His followers and He used the contrast between sheep and goats to talk about believers and unbelievers. Though related, sheep and goats are completely different species [and even if a sheep acts like a goat, it's still a sheep. (Just saying.)] Sheep respond to being led... or carried. Goats must be DRIVEN, forced to go where the goat-herd wants them to go. 

Once, we were spiritual goats. We needed to be externally motivated (i.e., given a good swift smack) to behave ourselves. Then we heard the Good News. The Shepherd had given His life for His sheep and offered to make us into new creations. Yes... sheep. A total species change. Only He had the power to do it, and once done, it was done for good. To the uttermost! There was nothing we could do to earn it; He did it all. And there is nothing we can do to keep it. He does the keeping. We have no strength? No problem. He picks us up and carries us between His shoulders, in His heart.

Because He loves us.
So.
Much. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

What matters most

We sat in a common area for visitors to our building and caught up with our friend's news. We hadn't really had a chance to touch base with him in years, just a few dribs and drabs here and there in bits and snatches of conversations we'd had. We thought to ourselves how pleasant, how calm and peaceful he was.

In the background, a chorale was practicing songs from the First and Second World Wars. I recognized, "Over there... over hill, over dale, over there," but instead of them singing, "..the Yanks are coming," they sang, "...the troops are coming." It's Canada, after all.

Our friend was telling us about his latest news.  "They knew it was cancer around the first of May. At first they thought it was mesothelioma," he continued, "which carries a maximum life expectancy of two years. And then they did some more biopsies and discovered that it was leukemia. Stage two." He paused and smiled. "Thank God. Really. I'm grateful it wasn't the one they thought it was."

We shook our heads in disbelief, and asked him if he had started any treatment yet.

"Not yet." He paused, and looked toward the right as if trying to remember something. "They said that the body builds up an immunity to the drug they use quite quickly, so if they use it too soon, it won't be as effective when the time comes to really fight it."

It. The Cancer. 

He was talking about it as a separate entity.

Asked if he would mind if we put him on our prayer chain, he grinned and said, "By all means. I believe in healing. But whether it happens or not, I'm okay with it.  I'm ready.  Everyone dies sometime."

The chorale was still practicing a French Canadian ballad: "Un Canadien errant, bani de ses foyers, parcourait en pleurant des pays ├ętrangers..." (translation: A wandering Canadian, banished from hearth and home, went about singing in foreign lands). The haunting melody echoed in the large room and pierced my heart; it took on new meaning as our friend continued sharing his heart.

"Heaven. It's like retirement - you hear about it when you're young and it doesn't seem real, like a pipe dream or something. But I guess I'll get there before you will." Then he smiled - that slow, real, beautiful smile that always made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.

And then the smile faded. "I'm just sad for my wife, that's all."

He talked about how the cancer had forced him to make a decision to live life, really LIVE it, enjoy each day instead of one day just blending into the next mindlessly. "My wife and I have been really happy these last two years," he told us. "I've learned how to have a real God-centred marriage, something I wish I'd known the first time around. It's made such a difference. I can't believe it sometimes."

"I've been thinking a lot about the old song, 'His Eye is on the Sparrow.' He really is looking after me, and I don't have any dread of what lies ahead." 

"If I passed away tomorrow, I could still say that I've been over-blessed."

Over-blessed. Really. My throat felt tight; my eyes and nose stung. After all he'd been through already. And now this. And he felt over-blessed.

Photo "Throwing Fishing Net During Sunset"
courtesy of noomhh at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
He talked frankly about the long medical road ahead, and how he didn't know what lay in store for him in the valley of the shadow. "But surprisingly," he said, "there is absolutely no fear. I'm not afraid at all." 

"It's a long way to Tipperary, it's a long way to home..."

He asked how we were doing, and apologized for talking about himself so much. We said it was okay, that we had wanted to know how he was. We shared some of how life had been for us the last few months, and then (as time was short) we exchanged email addresses for the purpose of setting up another time to meet and connect. 

We stood up, each to go our separate ways. He spoke one final time. "If there's one thing that I want to come out of this whole thing, it's that I want God to be glorified. I want for His Kingdom to be advanced, you know?" 

We nodded, tears in our eyes. 

We know. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

All In Good Time

We have two cats; one is old and one is young, and that is only the first of their night-and-day personalities. 

The old cat is quiet and reserved, deliberate and unsure of herself. The young one is loud and outgoing, reckless and cock-sure. 

Every morning we give them each a little bit of soft (canned) cat food. They both like the same kind (thankfully) so I get it ready for them and put it down for them to eat. And every morning it's the same routine, the same time frame.

Angel, 13 years old, soaking up some sun.
Taken today, May 18, 2014
The old cat waits quietly for her food. There is no fuss, there is no bother. She just watches me and when she sees that her food is ready, she follows me, eyes on the dish, until I set it on the floor.  She licks at the food, savouring every morsel. She looks up and into my eyes, the kitty way of saying, "Thank you," before returning to the food in front of her.

The young one, on the other hand, only has to hear me in the kitchen when the wailing starts. He yowls and meowls as if I would never put his food down for him unless he insisted on it. All through the preparation, he reminds me that the food is not on the floor for him. He paces, he sits up and begs, he gets right underfoot, and the noise never stops until the food is on the floor. Then he zooms to the bowl and he gloms right into it without even a glimmer of "Thank you" until he's half-way through the meal. In half the time it takes the older cat, he is done and bugging her to let him have her leftovers. Sometimes he succeeds and she abandons her prize just for a little peace. He noses into the bowl and she glides away, looking for us to let her out onto the deck to let the sun warm her old joints.

I got to thinking about prayer as I watched them yesterday morning. Some people yell and scream and rant and rave and use all kinds of repetition, as if somehow God was deaf or senile and needed to be reminded that we were still here, that the answer hasn't come yet, and boys oh boys You better hop to it!! And some just stay with Him, in His presence, positioning themselves to be blessed by a Hand they know is connected to the Face they love. 

The answer comes to both. Just like every day it takes the same amount of time to get our cats' food ready, and I feed it to both of them. Yet I enjoy feeding the older one more, because of the trust I see in her. The younger one hasn't learned to trust yet; he is still stuck in the mind-set that he has to DO something to make it happen faster. When he realizes that it comes anyway, regardless of how much yowling he does, he might not be so frantic. 

I hope.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

For the first ... and only ... time in forever

"Why do we call it 'Good' Friday if that's when they killed Jesus?"

I think every kid who has been exposed to church life has asked this at one point or another.

When my kids were little (under 5) and asked the question, my answer was simple. "It WAS a bad thing that they hurt Jesus and killed Him. But Jesus let them do it because He loved the whole world and that includes us, and them too. He knew it was the only way to help us get to know His Daddy God." 

I remember recently going to see the movie, "Frozen." (By the way, I highly recommend that movie. There are some important firsts in it!!) There is a song in the movie called "For the first time in forever." And today as I was pondering the significance of 'Good' Friday - and of Resurrection Sunday - it occurred to me that the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross was the original "First time in forever" and that it would be the only time in forever - and that it would be enough. 

I've said a lot of things in the past on this blog about the horrors of that day. no picture could begin to describe the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual anguish He endured. But today, I want to talk about the joys of that Passover Friday. 

Photo "Hand Reach To Sky"
courtesy of samuiblue at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
The obvious joy is that on that day, Jesus opened a way that previously had only been open to one person once a year for a limited time; when Jesus suffered, He was paying the penalty for our sin, the very thing that kept us from having a relationship with His Father. He was suspended at the crux between justice and love, taking on His own heart every sin that had ever been, was being, and ever would be committed - for the first and only time. No wonder His heart literally burst in His chest!! His suffering brought us peace. His bruises ushered in blessing. His heartache would bring us the happiness of communion with God. 

The Bible tells us that Jesus, "for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame..."  That verse always bugged me because, after all, didn't Jesus pray and ask for this cup to be removed?  I couldn't see past the pain of the cross.  The joy, however, that was set before Jesus was the joy of opening the door of access to relationship to whoever wanted to enter it.

Just before He died, He cried out, "It is finished!!"  The Greek term here is "tetelestai." It is a business term, and it refers to a 'done deal,' an iron-clad contract that cannot be broken. The transaction? our redemption. 

I believe that when He cried this word out, it was not a weak, defeatist "Oh finally THAT's over" .... but that it was a shout of victory! And that is the second reason why we call it 'Good' Friday.

It's enough. It's complete. It was the first AND ONLY time, enough for all of forever. Nothing to add to it, nothing could take away from it; the Cross stands alone, empty, uninhabited, unembellished; there is no need for more. We know it was enough (on the First Day) because God raised Him from the dead on the Third Day; death was swallowed up by victory and so, in victory, Jesus cried out, "It is done!" Death just didn't know it yet; its days were numbered and the number was three. 

The love of God could finally be poured out, without measure and with no conditions. The way was jammed open. Before, people didn't have a choice; it was behave or be automatically condemned. And now, every person can choose. Jesus did that. HE DID IT. 

For the first  ...  and only  ...  time in forever.

Friday, April 18, 2014

An open door

"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; 
but often we look so long at the closed door that we
do not see the one which has been opened for us."
                                    ~ ~ Helen Keller

The last few years in my walk with God, I have felt Him leading in a certain direction and I've been looking for opportunities to step into what I believe He wants me to do (at least in part.) I naturally assumed that He would have me do these things in my own local church, but whenever I mentioned it to someone with the power or clout to make something happen in that area, it always fell through.

Numerous times this happened, and I began to get really frustrated because I KNEW I could step into this area and meet a need that I saw. Alas, it was not to be. And then frustration turned to anger when my perception of events and decisions made by those people started to feel ... personal. I even went to the extreme of attributing motives to the people who were involved. 

That's a dangerous occupation. I don't think that this is what is meant by the "gift of discernment." 

Anyway, about six or seven months ago, I again asked the powers that be about this thing i wanted to do, and I got 'no' for an answer. Again. Finally, I just got fed up and said that this was the last time I would ask about it. However, both their decision and my reaction to it didn't sit well with me. I worried over it, gnawed on it like a dog with a bone. And finally, maybe about a month ago, maybe less, I finally made peace with my inner turmoil and let go of what I had thought was God's specific will.

I know people don't name their guitars, but I do.
This is Penelope, named after my 6th grade teacher
whose enthusiasm inspired me.
I (in essence) took the restraints off God's hands. "Okay," I told Him. "I'll give it to You. If You want me to do this, then it'll have to be You that sets it up. I'm done trying to make it happen, thinking that it's Your will. It might still be, but this is ridiculous.  So ... YOU do it." 

And nothing happened. Things stayed the same. Except ... except that I changed. I found myself letting go more and more.

That was right about the time that I was just minding my own business and trying to read some scripture off by myself while the worship team was practicing in the sanctuary one Sunday evening, and in popped the pastor to the office where I was sitting. We struck up a conversation as he was getting more bulletins printed off and folded (I lent a hand). He was organizing a women's conference at the church and he wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing a breakout session at it. 

I told him I'd pray about it .... which I did .... and when no indication came from God to NOT do it, I agreed. It wasn't an area of ministry I'd even considered before. Hence, here was an open door I would not have been able to see if I hadn't given up obsessing on the old one being closed at that time.

And (okay, God's got a sense of humour) today, someone approached me after the Good Friday morning service, and asked me to do the very thing that I had felt God leading me to do for so very long ... in a different church. As a guest. 

Huh. Go figure.