Thoughts from Women’s Retreat

I struggle with being confident that I know God’s will for me. I don’t think this is a unique problem to have; I believe many of us struggle with the knowing part. I find that I get stuck in a holding pattern with God, not because I don’t trust Him, but because I don’t trust myself to know what He wants from me. To use the acronym that Andrew mentioned in a sermon recently, my ORT (obedience response time) can be embarrassingly long.

A friend and I attended a women’s retreat this weekend in New Hampshire. During the Saturday morning session, the attendees were asked to jot down some areas of life in which we felt inadequate. I wrote “knowing God’s will for me” as an area that I definitely felt a lack. The day continued and I didn’t think too much more of it. My friend and I went into the nearest town to do some shopping and took naps. Being located a remote area, the camp is an environment with forced ‘unplugging’ from all of life’s distractions; there is no internet, cell, and TV service for anyone except those fortunate enough to be able to stand atop a certain rock at a moment when the skies are a particular quality to allow the faintest connection to the outside world via cell phone. I was one of the people who neither knew the rock, nor chose to attempt to find it. Hence, I was left to read my Oswald Chambers, the Bible, Surprised by Suffering by R.C. Sproul, journal, pray or nap in my down time. Things could be worse! I recall taking time that afternoon to reflect on my desire to know God’s will for me, and I simply prayed that He would help me be assured of it.

At the opening of the evening session, one representative of each church present was asked to stand and tell the group from which church they came. It was at that time that I saw her for the first time; a woman standing on the outside edge of the row of chairs on the opposite side of the room from me, looking very small and very alone. She announced that she was from a familiar church, one at which two dear friends serve in leadership. I told my friend that we should go over at break and say hello to her since she was all by herself and since I am friends with her pastor and his wife. As soon as we had an opportunity, we went to her. She and I connected immediately, and not on a surface level, but on a soul-piercing, heart wrenchingly similar life story level that was remarkable. And we knew this within about 2 minutes because it just poured out of both of us in a way that caused us to look at each other with such deep identification and love and unity that our eyes were as big as saucers as tears streamed down our faces. We talked until the room had emptied out of the 80 or so other women there and we were nearly alone.

That night, I was falling asleep thanking God for His love for my new friend, and praying that He would be a palpable presence for her in her confusion and distress. The next morning, while walking to breakfast, my path intersected with another woman who knows and loves my new friend. She said that she had been praying that God would connect our lone friend with someone at the retreat, and she thanked me for being sensitive to God’s leading in that. I was dumbstruck. It resounded in my heart and soul that I had known and obeyed my Savior’s will by seeing a need and responding. It was the “gap” that Pastor Choco and my own husband have been reminding me to “step into” in obedience to God. And I saw the way that my reduced ORT had served my Lord by allowing me to truly be the feet that bring good news to the brokenhearted and the downtrodden. I repeatedly marveled at God’s answer to my own prayer by showing me that I know His will, and that I can walk boldly knowing that when I seek to do His will, it is a path that is ever before me.

Those events acted as a springboard of obedience to His leading. The next day, during a prayer service, I was playing with my bracelet. It is made of Haitian clay formed into beautiful burnt red beads. As I rolled the beads in my fingers, I knew I needed to give it away to my new friend as a reminder of the God who sees her anguish and sits with her in her pain. I quietly went to her and knelt beside her chair, the same one she sat in when I met her the previous day. I placed the bracelet in her palm and asked if she knew of the Jewish practice of memorializing God’s faithfulness with stacking stones atop others. She nodded that she did. I said that these little stones stacked together in a circle would be a reminder that God sees her, and knows every care. I hope those stone to be a constant reminder to her of God’s faithfulness and that they benefit her in daily life, but what they represent to me is something just as profound. I am able to know that God’s will is not unknown to me, and that when I respond to a situation in love and compassion, because Christ is in me and the Holy Spirit teaches me all wisdom and understanding of God’s will, I can know that I know my God’s perfect and pleasing will. What a blessing to have my God and Savior be so marvelously attentive to my own insecurities that He uses me to His glory in order to encourage me. It is humbling and exalting simultaneously, in a way that only God can orchestrate.

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Forgiveness: a matter for serious consideration

I was doing a Bible study on the Lord’s Prayer in Mathew 6 last week. Leading up to the example of how to pray, Jesus is instructing people in the Sermon on the Mount. His lessons reinforce the theme of having a right heart that runs throughout the Bible; being righteous before God means having a heart that submits to Him out of love and seeks His glory. The Lord’s Prayer is no different.

One piece of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus saw fit to elaborate upon was the bit on forgiveness. Matthew 6.12 asks God to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  In verses 14-15, Jesus goes on to instruct us that our failure to forgive others causes us to forfeit the forgiveness of God. That is a pretty huge statement! If I fail to forgive someone, that prevents God from forgiving me?!

In our Bible study, we discussed why this might be, and as usual, it came back to the heart of the matter. Forgiveness is clearly a central and foundational piece of the Gospel message; without forgiveness, we cannot enter into eternal life with God. Without forgiveness, we have no hope for today or tomorrow. Without forgiveness, we remain slaves to our sin and have no freedom to live as Christ.  Forgiveness is an essential part of our transformation as Christian, and if we miss its significance, we miss the boat entirely on our salvation.

Remember the story of the wealthy man who owed an enormous debt of millions of dollars to the king in Matthew 18? When the man begged for more time to pay the debt back, the king simply forgave his debt, wiping the account clean. The forgiven man, upon leaving the king, came upon a man who owed him a few bucks. Though the man owing him begged for more time to pay, the man whose incredible debt was forgiven refused to show forgiveness to the one who owed him money.  When the king heard of the man’s behavior, the king threw him in prison to be tortured until he could pay back the millions he owed (the debt that had been forgiven). What we often forget about this parable is that it starts with a question from Peter to Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” and it ends with a warning, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” 

Make no mistake!  Forgiveness is a central part of our lives as Christians. It is not merely a nicety, to demonstrate how good we are as people now that we have been saved. No, forgiveness is an essential part of our transformation once Christ sets us free.  Our willingness to forgive others, no matter what they owe us, is a must if we hope to have the forgiveness of the Father.

Reverence Exemplified

Further reflection on reverence from Pastor Andrew:

If you were in church Sunday, or listened to the podcast on the church’s website, you heard me preach about reverence. There aren’t a lot of reverent things or places in our world today. Baseball fans may feel a sense of reverence if they visit the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, OH. A veteran may feel reverent standing before the Vietnam Memorial or while visiting Arlington National Cemetery. Reverence is a feeling or attitude of profound respect, and few things in life provoke that feeling.

In John 12:1-10, we see Mary—sister of the ever-busy Martha and recently-dead Lazarus—at Jesus’ feet, wiping his feet with her hair and anointing them with an extremely expensive perfume. The gesture is strange, to say the least, but Mary’s actions flow from a deep reverence for Jesus as her Lord and her Savior. Nothing was too costly, too precious, or too dear to sacrifice for Jesus.

The perfume, pure nard, was worth about a year’s wages. Can you imagine giving someone a gift of $50k or more that isn’t family? These are Jesus’ friends, to be certain, and Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps the family felt indebted. Wouldn’t you? Had it been a simple matter of paying Jesus back for the miracle He had performed, giving the perfume would seem wiser; instead it is poured out on His feet. Jesus is being honored in life as a precursor to His death. Even though Mary could not have known that in a short time Jesus would be nailed to a cross, she understood that Jesus was worthy of honor and praise.

The only person to object in Luke’s account is Judas Iscariot whom hoped to get his hands on whatever might end up in the disciples’ collective purse. Surely the perfume could have been sold to benefit the poor (or sticky-fingered ne’er-do-wells), but nothing is nobler than honoring Christ.. His incarnation was for a limited time, and Mary chose correctly to focus on Him while He was still present in the flesh.

Most people don’t get honored in life; they are honored after they have died. Epitaphs and eulogies tell the tale of a past life, but Jesus was being honored pre-mortem. Her actions are a foreshadow of the week to come where Jesus will go from King to criminal, hanging between two thieves. This He does willingly in order to carry our sins—the sins of the world—and free of us of them. Mary was willing to put all pride and convention aside to worship and bestow reverence on her King, even offering up what was likely their prized possession. What are you willing to give up? We often forget what Jesus has done for us, even though we celebrate Easter every year, beginning with Lent and through Holy Week. All our focus is on the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in whom we place our faith, hope, and love. Should we not revere Him?

I am the lost coin

Greek Drachma circa 450 BC

Greek Drachma circa 450 BC

This week, we are meditating on Luke 15 and the parables associated with the lost being found.  Earlier this week, I reflected on the sheep and I’ve thought long and hard about the prodigal son, but I’d breezed over the lost coin.  Today, my eye fell on verses 8-10 and saw them in a new way. I read about the woman who lost a day’s wages when a silver coin went missing in her house.  I read about the way she lit a candle in her otherwise dark and shadowy house and turned it upside down until the coin was found.  She was so overcome with joy at finding the coin that she called all her friends and neighbors together to rejoice and celebrate together.

As I read those words for perhaps the tenth or twentieth time in my life, they struck me as very personal today. I recognized myself in those words of Jesus; I WAS that lost coin at one point. My existence was in the shadows, despite my perception that told me I was in the light. I was hidden away from the light, desperately trying to remain in that state because I thought it was who I was and where I was meant to be. That was me, until Jesus shone his light on me. The beam of that light was at once shocking and joyous: all of my distorted thinking was exposed and I realized my need; I realized how desperately I wanted to allow the one from whom that light came to sweep me up and carry me away.

I think that the part of the parable that really struck me today as my life was the way the woman called her friends and neighbors together to celebrate finding her coin. It reminded me of my baptism.  When I decided I wanted to be baptized, my church family all came together and celebrated with me, rejoicing as with the woman who found her coin. My spiritual family rejoiced that this coin that had been lost was found! How marvelous! All these many years later, the day I was baptized remains one of my most cherished memories of my walk with Jesus. It was a day of celebration, as it should be.

Lenten Fasting: A Sacrifice of Love

The first time I experienced the Lenten season in church was my senior year in high school. I was attending an Episcopal church with a teacher who was also a friend and surrogate mother to me during a very difficult time at home. As I sat in my first “high church” service, I watched in wonder as the minister and various church officials and young people, all dressed in rather drab robes, carried in wooden crosses and candles while the entire congregation sang a solemn dirge in a minor key. Having no other reference point, I accepted this as normal.

For several weeks, I attended church with my mentor, enjoying the ritual and predictability of each service: at the beginning, we stood and sang melancholy hymns while the entourage carried in the decoration for the altar.  On Easter, however, everything I thought I knew to expect was turned upside down.

When the service was about to begin, there was a hushed excitement that I could almost feel. The room was brighter, and I realized for the first time that we had not had the fullness of the lights on in previous weeks. The real shock was when service began and the music started. The huge pipe organ in the loft which had emanated its sober notes in the previous weeks, now threatened to pierce my eardrums with its bright, glorious high notes and major key. The melody we sang was joyful and bouncey. The most dramatic change, however, was the visual feast of the minister and the procession of the crosses. They were beautifully robed in bright white and stunning purple. The wooden crosses were replaced with gleaming brass crosses. The candlesticks held high were also brass and glinted in the bright light of the sun through the stained glass windows. It was stunning. It was the most memorable church service because it was so markedly different from everything I had seen previously.

The splendor of the music and colors and light were magnified due to their absence during Lent. Looking back on that experience, I found a firm understanding of the reason we fast during Lent. When we give something up for the purpose of drawing attention to our Lord’s death and resurrection, it makes Easter an even more profound celebration. Of course, fasting meat, or one meal per day, or Facebook, the internet or TV, for that matter, do not make Jesus’ sacrifice any more or less significant. But what fasting does is provide us a way to put aside something that we consider important in our lives, for the glory of God. The purpose of fasting is to spend the time or money we would normally invest in that sacrificed thing (a meal, time on the internet, money spent on lattes at Starbucks) and invest it in God instead.

Andrew and I have fasted various things over the years. One year, we introduced a rolling fast to our youth group.  One week we all fasted sweets, the next week, we all fasted non-worship music, another week, we fasted TV, etc. That was fun for the teens, and it also made the fast something that we did together, with accountability and peer support, so it was good for that age group.

Last year, I fasted Facebook, which was a challenge since I use it multiple times each day.  This year, Andrew and I are fasting television.  Starting on Ash Wednesday (Feb 13), the TV in the Marshall house will be off until Easter. During that time, we will spend evenings together as we did the last time we fasted television, a number of years ago. It’s a major commitment for us, because we typically have the television on most of the evening.  The goal is not just to substitute other meaningless time-sucking activities for the TV; rather, the goal is to invest our time in things that bring glory to God. When we invest in our marriage, in family, in friends, in reading the Bible, theological books, listening to music, and in taking care of ourselves emotionally, we are bringing glory to God. It draws us nearer to him and allows us to hear his voice, recognize his leading, and be sensitive to his presence in a new way.

The sacrifice of fasting during Lent is meant to be done in love. It is designed to be a way to draw near to God – set apart for him in our otherwise busy lives in a new and fresh way for this season. Giving up something for Lent is like taking out all brass crosses and bright colors and replacing them with wood and drab clothes for 40 days. That way, when the Easter service comes, the joyful music, and the glorious, shining message of Christ’s resurrection, will be more vibrant and meaningful than otherwise possible.

For an interesting history on the practice of fasting during the 40 days leading up to Easter, visit this website.

 

Advent Week 2: Prepare the Way!

This school year has been a doozy. While I normally keep a pretty clean house, and like to live a clutter-free life as much as possible, the parsonage has gotten quite out of hand over the last 5-6 months. This is perpetuated not only by our extreme busyness, but also by the fact that we have not regularly been having people over. No weekly book club or Bible study in the living room means that I will forsake cleaning in order to study or just relax for a bit.  However, if you are anything like me, whenever guests come over, you always gather the troops and ensure that the house is picked up and presentable.  Floors get mopped, cobwebs are removed, toilets are scrubbed, clean towels are hung.  In our house, this is never truer than when my mother is the guest who is arriving.

Having been trained to clean house by a woman whose cleaning prowess knows no rival, the very thought of my mother’s arrival can cause me to experience homemaker anxiety for months. When she is scheduled to come, the cleaning begins weeks in advance, with all necessary tasks carefully outlined on a list so that each item is checked off as it is completed. Furniture is moved and vacuumed, glass is polished, lightbulbs are dusted, the closets are emptied, cleaned, and restocked, bedsheet corners are sharp and crisp. . . it is an all out military exercise. Lord help me if my mother ever just “popped by” as a surprise. I’m sure I would faint dead away if I was not completely prepared for her arrival.

As we look toward the 2nd Sunday of Advent, I am reminded of the teaching of John the Baptizer when he proclaimed to all of Jerusalem: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Luke 3.4).  John was the human herald of Messiah’s earthly ministry. But hold up just a tick!  The message “prepare the way for the Lord” goes back way, way, way before that!

As we discussed in last week’s meditation, the Old Testament is filled with information about the coming Messiah. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of years before the Christ child was born in Bethlehem, God was telling us to get ready for His arrival. We could spend hours going over the Old Testament prophecies about Christ’s coming, but let’s focus on what God did in those last few months on earth before Jesus was born. Let’s zoom in on the Scripture that tells us about the virgin Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, who was pregnant at the same time as Mary.  Elizabeth’s child, John, was born just before Jesus. Even before Elizabeth became pregnant, an angel announced to her husband that their child would be named John and that he had a very specific assignment.

 Read Luke 1.5-25, and also Luke 1.57-80, and Luke 3.1-20

God was “preparing the way” for the Messiah well in advance of his arrival. Without the anxiety that I experience in anticipation of my mother’s visit, God set out a plan to ensure that the world was as prepared as possible for the arrival of the Son. It is beautiful to me that God provided a prophet within Jesus’ lifetime to preach of His coming ministry long before he began. John was preaching that the Savior was coming, and he was baptizing those people who repented of their sins. In a sense, John was the person who was cleaning the house; preparing for the arrival of Messiah.

John’s life was set apart to prepare the house for Jesus’ arrival. His entire life was spent focused on this single purpose.

We too, are to be preparing a place for Christ in our lives. All too often, our relationship with Jesus seems to be relegated to an hour and a half on Sunday morning, maybe a quick prayer if we find ourselves worried or in need of something, and if we’re really lucky, we’ll incorporate a little worship music, a bit of Scripture, or something else spiritual into our day. But mostly, many of us tend to not give much thought to preparing our day FOR GOD.  What part of our lives we give to God is often whatever happens to cross our minds in the moment, but it is rarely something for which we prepare ourselves.  Said another way, our relationship with God rarely contains sacred and set-apart time when we spend time alone with Him, seeking His will for us that day.

As we meditate on John’s message, “Prepare the way for the Lord!” this week, consider these thoughts and questions, and come up with a plan to incorporate purposeful, sacred time with your Savior into your daily life.

  1.  As we “prepare the way for the Lord” this Christmas season, what does Christ’s incarnation mean to you personally?
  2. Do you relate to your Savior as both God and Brother? As King and the Lamb who bore your sins? As both all powerful and lowly? As both eternal, and the One who died to give you life? Remembering the significance He has in our eternal lives can help us with ongoing gratitude and humility, which in turn helps us to give Him proper place in our daily lives.
  3. Do you let life’s busyness get in the way of having sacred time with the Jesus each day?
  4. Are you willing to make time each day to have sacred time that is reserved exclusively for reading Scripture, prayer, and listening for the Lord’s leading?
    • If so, write out a plan – prepare yourself for the Lord by scheduling time each day that is reserved exclusively for you and Him.
    • Some of us benefit from having a person we are accountable to as we begin developing a new habit. Perhaps you would consider partnering with another person who would also like to have sacred time each day. Together you can help each other be accountable for preparing the way for this new practice.
    • Do you have children in the house? Beginning a sacred time habit with them is precious and biblical. Find a bedtime story to read from the Bible each night, or begin dinner with a Bible reading and prayer, then spend time talking about the Scripture while you eat. Modeling spiritual life is an important part of being an adults or parent in a child’s life.

Advent Week 1

It All Started with Adam and Eve

God is all knowing. That being the case, we must take into account the fact that he knew sin would enter the world through his most loved creature, the human being. How marvelous that before God made man, he was already setting into motion the plan of salvation for the world. But it might cause us to wonder, “If God knew that Adam and Eve would sin, why did he create them with that ability? Why didn’t he create them with a perfect, pure heart that only desired holiness and worship of God?”

Nature of Children

Let’s consider a child. I would guess that many a perplexed parent has wished that they had a toddler who would behave: not throw tantrums, not bite another child, not say, “no!”, and not run away laughing in a mall full of people. I know exasperated parents raising a teenager who at one time or another wished that their teen would just do what she is supposed to do, be where she says she is going to be, and that she would obediently submit to her parents’ expectations. But even the most taxed parents, would not trade the child with his or her own mind for one without the ability to disobey.

A child who is 100% obedient, who never questions your authority, who is endlessly loving and submissive sounds a lot like a programmed toy. If you ever saw the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, where the little robot boy imprinted on the mother and was the perfect child, catering to her heart’s longing for a child, that’s what I imagine such a child would be like.  The important difference is that the robot child is not perfectly obedient because he loves the mother, he is perfectly obedient because he is programmed to be that way. It is not a choice, it is a preprogrammed response.

Love’s Nature

What, then, is the nature of love? Anyone who has been in love understands that love cannot be forced.  Love that is not given freely is not love. Generally, obedience that is not motivated from love is coerced by fear of consequences.

God created us with the ability to turn away from him because he created us to love him; to be in relationship with him. Love was at the core of our bond with the Father from Adam’s first breath. That love-motivated obedience and devotion is evidenced for us in the life of Jesus. It was not out of compulsion that he obediently came to this earth, nor was he compelled out of fear to submit to death on the cross – the actions Jesus took were entirely, purely, wholly done in love.

Our obedience to one whose love for us is so profound that he is willing to die in order to free us from ourselves, and draw us into this embrace and call us sons and daughters, is obedience that can easily be done in love. It is love that draws us to Christ, love that calls out to us while we were enemies of God, it is love that provided a means for reconciliation, and it is love that died so that we could live.

A Plan from the Start

God put the Advent in motion from creation – the plan was always to send the Son to be a reconciler of humanity to himself. Throughout history, as documented time after time in the Old Testament and affirmed by Jesus, God was laying out the framework of his plan so that when Messiah arrived, we would be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and understand the beautiful picture it formed. From imagery of the temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial lamb, and the prophecies about the coming Savior, to God’s faithfulness to the unfaithful throughout the ages, we have been provided the evidence of God’s plan being set out from the beginning.

Read Isaiah 44-45. God is imploring his people to return to him. He is presenting arguments on his behalf about the love he has always intended for them to know if they will only follow him. They have been seeking after other nations and idols and worshiping false gods in hope of salvation. God is reminding them that their only hope is in him.

Read Isaiah 61 God goes on to proclaim to Israel how great their lives can be if they will only trust in the one true God.

Advent Meditation – Love is the Key

Despite his faithfulness and his unfailing love for them, the people would not remain faithful to God. The need for a Savior was only illustrated more clearly by fickle human affections, and recurring patterns of sin.

As we prepare for Advent, think of the picture of God that we have in these passages. He demonstrates that he is a God who desires our affection and wants to shower blessing on us. However, we often get in the way of the blessings by our disobedience. Consider the love given freely to us from the Creator of all things, and think of how you might increase your love for him this season.

  1. How has God demonstrated his faithfulness in your life? Can you think of times and places when he has provided for you in times of emotional, physical, or spiritual need?
  2. As you read the passages in Isaiah, do you see consistencies with the promises of Jesus in the Gospels?
  3. In what ways have you struggled (or do you struggle) with your obedience to God?
  4. Do you get stuck holding onto parts of your life that you either don’t trust him with or don’t want to let go of?
  5. What would it take for you to stop fighting God, or stop trying to rely on yourself, and instead simply love him fully?
  6. Take time and pray each day this week
    •  That God would help you to lay aside all that hinders you from loving him fully and giving yourself completely.
    • Acknowledge the sins, lack of trust, fear, anger, or anything else that you know gets in your way.
    • Ask God to show you other things that are barriers between you and him.

Finally, rest in God. Rest in his loving arms, and experience the peace that he offers in his perfect love.