When the Worst Thing That Could Happen Does

Our Bible study class wrapped up part one of our Jeremiah study last week, which means we are through chapter twenty-four.  Chapter twenty-four happens after the second siege on Jerusalem, around 597 BC.  At that point the last king of Judah, Zedekiah (really bad king) was put on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar also took over 10,000 people from Judah into captivity in Babylon.

For the Jews, God’s chosen people, leaving their home, the land God gave them, the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was one of the worst things that could happen to them.

But God (one of my favorite phrases in the Bible) had this to say about leaving their land and heading into captivity:

Jeremiah 24:5-7 (NASB) “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the captives of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans. For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them up and not overthrow them, and I will plant them and not pluck them up.  I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.”

Then He has this to say about those who were able to stay in their own land:

Jeremiah 24:8-10 (NASB)  ‘But like the bad figs which cannot be eaten due to rottenness—indeed, thus says the Lord—so I will abandon Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials, and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land and the ones who dwell in the land of Egypt.  I will make them a terror and an evil for all the kingdoms of the earth, as a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse in all places where I will scatter them.  I will send the sword, the famine and the pestilence upon them until they are destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their forefathers.’”

Turns out, according to the rest of the book of Jeremiah (which we will be studying next), it really did get a whole lot worse for those who were able to stay in their own land than for those who were led away.  In other words, as folks were packing up their lives and heading to a foreign land into captivity, likely they were thinking it was the worst day of their lives.  But the truth was God had a plan.  They just couldn’t see it at the moment.

There was another very pivotal point in history that looked like the worst thing that could possibly happen, the crucifixion of Christ.  By all human standards of measure, He appeared to have failed miserably in His mission as the King of Kings, Savior of the World.

Think about those precious folks who had followed Him over the three years of His earthly ministry:  the twelve disciples (down to eleven the day before the cross), His mother, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus.  Many of them traveled, ate, drank, and slept with Him.  They listened to Him teach, they prayed with Him.  He washed their feet.  He spoke everything to them that the Father said.

But they didn’t get it.  When He died on that cross, it looked like all their hopes died with Him.  It looked like the worst possible thing that could happen.  How do you become King if you are dead?  They lacked perspective.

On this side of that same cross though we know God had a plan they couldn’t see.  We know in fact that Christ’s crucifixion was THE ONLY way to Christ’s resurrection and our salvation.  Without the terrible road of the cross we would still be lost on the path to destruction.  Still stuck in our own captivity to sin and death.

The truth is most of the time we lack the perspective to determine if our circumstances are good or bad, just like those headed into the Babylonian captivity and just like those who stood at the foot of the cross one dark Friday afternoon over 2000 years ago.

Father, help me to trust all my circumstances to You no matter how they look.  Even if it’s the worst possible thing that I think could happen, help me remember that You NEVER leave me nor forsake me and that You alone are Sovereign over all.   Help me to keep my eyes on You and trust all the outcomes to You alone.

The Simple Truth

I have been thinking a lot lately about God’s Big Plan for my life.  I even wrote some of my thoughts in Surrendering ‘The Plan’.  The more I think about it the more convinced I am that ‘The Plan’ has less to do with outcomes and accomplishments FOR Him and more to do with being in intimate relationship WITH Him.  Simply knowing Him, believing Him, abiding in Him.

So I woke up this morning with this verse on my heart:

Genesis 5:24 (NASB) “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”

Enoch lived 365 years (which was a short life by pre-Flood standards) and this is how the Bible records his life.  A simple sentence about the life of a man whom God took Home.  The only other Biblical reference to Enoch is in the book of Jude (Jesus’ own earthly brother) verses 14 – 15:

Jude 1:14-15 (NASB) “14 It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, 15 to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.'”

How did Enoch know what to say?  Enoch walked with God, he communicated with Him, he spent time with Him, and from that relationship he spoke for God.

The book of Micah describes ‘The Plan’ this way:

Micah 6:8 (NASB)  “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?”

There are some ‘to do’s’ in this verse that God requires, but they seem pretty simple and straightforward – do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  Three bullet points on ‘The Plan’.  Seems simple, I can really get onboard with those.

When the crowd followed Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand and asked Him what they were to do in order that they may ‘work the works of God’ (see John 6), Jesus replies:

John 6:29b (NASB) “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”

Wow!  That sounds really simple too.  It also sounds a lot like Abraham in Genesis:

Genesis 15:6 (NASB) “Then he (Abram) believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Abraham was made right with God by simply believing Him. Amazing!

Then there is Jesus again, with Mary and Martha:

Luke 10:38-42 (NASB) “38 Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. 40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 42 but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.'”

According to Jesus, only one thing is necessary, spending time with Him, enjoying fellowship with Him, being with Him.

My point is simply this, I have exhausted myself with all of my ‘doings’ for God.  It seems to me, I am the one who has made serving God so difficult and so complicated.

‘The Plan’ God has for me (and dare I say all of us), from a Biblical perspective, appears to be a lot more simple and a lot less exhausting than I have made it out to be.  According to Jesus only one thing (not 500 things) is necessary and out of that the eternal fruit Jesus describes in John 15 will come.  The fruit of simply abiding in Him.

If it’s enough for God, why isn’t it enough for me?

Father, thank You for the simple truth that You desire relationship with me and out of that relationship You will accomplish Your purposes in my life.  Thank You for the freedom to let go of trying to figure it all out.  Thank You for rest.

When We Don’t Want to Hear

And then there are times we just DO. NOT. WANT. TO. HEAR…

Last night I was sitting in my warm car, once again thanking God that my sweet husband picked a vehicle for me with heated seats, watching my youngest daughter’s soccer practice.  It was the first practice of the season and all the kids were really excited.  Unfortunately, March in North Carolina can be very tricky weather-wise.  It had been beautiful and near eighty degrees over the weekend, but on Monday evening it was raining and about thirty-nine degrees.

I was secretly hoping that practice would be cancelled, but it wasn’t.  About thirty minutes into practice though I thought I heard thunder.  So I looked up at the field where about one hundred kids and adults were running around in the rain doing soccer drills, but no one else reacted to the sound.

I assumed I misheard since I have a history of not hearing things correctly (for a good laugh click here…apparently there is no such thing as Beached Whale Deficiency!).  I waited a few minutes and it happened again, but still no response from the field.  I started thinking about being a kid in the swimming pool during the summer and when we heard the first pop of thunder we all pretended NOT to hear so we wouldn’t have to get out of the pool.  I think a lot of kids and adults were having fun and just didn’t want to come off the field.

Then it got a lot louder and I knew that unfortunately I was going to have to be THAT parent who went out on the field and insisted practice stop.  The heated seats were really working against my desire to be a good parent.  Apparently a warm behind slows down your brain function.  Just as I was winning the battle over my warmth and had actually opened the car door, a tremendous flash of lightning lit up the sky like it was noon.  It was followed by a roar of thunder that shook the ground.  At that moment adults started yelling and kids started screaming and running towards the parking lot and I was saved from exiting my cocoon of warmth.

I was thinking about my post on mutilating an unripe avocado and how sometimes we just aren’t ready to hear the truth.  But honestly, there are also times we don’t want to hear it so we choose to ignore it.  That storm sent gentle rumblings warning those folks to get off the field, but there came a moment when it was not going to be ignored anymore and it announced itself loud and clear.  To ignore it any further would have been very dangerous.

There are times when we may not be ripe to understand something God is trying to say, but we can always choose to listen when He is speaking.  We can always ask Him for revelation.  Unlike us, He doesn’t turn a deaf ear when we, His  children, truly desire to talk to Him.  He wants us to know Him, He wants a deeper level of communication and relationship with us based on our dependency on Him.

The longer we choose to ignore the voice of the Lord, the harder it becomes to hear it.

Father, I can’t make myself ripe to receive truth, only You can do that.  But I humbly ask that You give me ears to hear You when You speak. 

Giving Up the Pit

Literally every day on this journey of unraveling grace, God reveals something to me He’s been trying to say for a long time.  The question I hear myself ask Him over and over again is, “Why didn’t I get this before?”  I mean really, I know some things take time, but 44 years (Yes, I should go read my own post about John the Beloved’s transformation…what can I say? I am slow!)?

So the other day I was cutting up an avocado.  A friend introduced me to them a year or so ago and I love them.  I love dicing them up in the skin, scooping them out, adding a little onion and salt and devouring them.  As I chose mine the other day, I made sure that it was the color I associate with ripeness and that when I squeezed it my finger and thumb sank into the skin a little bit without it feeling mushy.  From the outside it appeared good, ripe, ready to eat.

I took my knife and sliced all the way around the outside in a circle to make two halves.  I noticed it felt a little hard, but at that point I was undeterred.  Then I began to pull the two halves apart, but nothing happened.  I pulled harder and harder, still nothing.  The skin actually started coming off around the outside of the fruit (I did in fact verify it is a fruit since I usually don’t know these kinds of things), but the two halves were not separating.  They were clinging together like their lives depended on it.

Finally, I had to work my knife to pry them apart.  What I could see then was that the two halves that seemed so resistant to separation were not really clinging to each other, but the pit.  An avocado will practically give up the pit when it is fully ripe.  The pit will come out fairly easy and fairly clean, with little of the flesh stuck to it.

My not-yet-ripe avocado was a complete mess.  I practically had to use a hammer and chisel to get the pit out of the middle of that thing.  Almost half of the flesh of the avocado stuck to the pit when I finally got it out and by then I was thinking, I am kind of scared to eat this.  Anything that puts up this much of a fight has to be dangerous!

Well that message is true for me as well.  All these years that God has been whispering the love and truth of His grace to my spirit, my flesh has been clinging to my own “pit”.  I wasn’t ripe to receive the message.  He was speaking, loving, pursuing and I was unwilling to open myself up and allow my pit and my flesh to be exposed.  I was clinging to them as if my life depended on it!

In His time, however, when I was ripe, releasing that pit and exposing my true self has just seemed to happen.  There’s been no forcing, no chiseling, no hacking away.  It’s simply been a work of God and the natural response, because of who I am – a redeemed child of God – is to hand over that pit.

Some Things Are Just Hard

The book of Jeremiah has been a difficult study.  In fact, in five years I really can’t remember feeling this way about a study.  It seems like I am trudging through mud with a fifty pound pack on my back.  There is so much about it that is hard:  Jeremiah’s life is hard, the message is heavy, the message doesn’t change much over a very long period of time, and some of the specific things God says are just plain HARD.

What do you do with God telling Jeremiah not to pray for the people because He won’t listen?  What about the idea that people who obey God and speak His truth are sometimes beaten and put in prison?  What about when God says He will utterly destroy His own people?

God even tells His faithful servant that he is not to marry or have children because of what is coming on the land.  At that point it seems to me Jeremiah was totally without earthly comfort – no one to come home to at night, no one to have dinner with, no one to share his heart with, no children to enjoy, no promise of future descendants.  Jeremiah was left with absolutely nothing, but God.

Yesterday in class when we asked what has spoken personally to people the most during our study of Jeremiah everyone shared something different, but I heard echoing in their thoughts, “This is hard.”  But HARD doesn’t mean it hasn’t been good.  In all the difficulty I also heard God gently speaking to and encouraging every one right where they are, including me.

This theme of ‘Some Things Are Just Hard’ actually started the night before in our advanced discipleship class.  We had a very lively, three-hour discussion about suffering in the life of a believer in Jesus Christ.  Some very difficult Scriptures came up during that discussion as well.  For instance, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus (repeated throughout chapters 7 – 14); God sending an evil spirit to torment King Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14); and the story of Job and God’s role in it (particularly the first two chapters), just to name a few.

What I really appreciate about both of these discussions about ‘hard things’ is how God’s grace has changed how I handle them.  As a Bible study teacher I have always carried a burden and deep sense of responsibility to make sure no one leaves a class or a discussion confused or struggling or worse with some incorrect perception of God, or me for that matter.  It is finally dawning on me that I am not responsible for other people’s theology.  I don’t need to manage God’s reputation and as long as I am being obedient to Him, I don’t need to worry about mine.

It is so freeing to allow God’s Spirit to speak to people and not stress over what others think.  I love the freedom of saying, “I don’t know the answer to that.”  Or even if I disagree with them not feeling like I need to explain my position.  The Holy Spirit is our Instructor.

So what do I do with the ‘hard things’ in Scripture?  Take them to God.  I may not understand what I am reading, but I know God’s character and I trust Him to reveal it to me in His time.  Now I am learning to let Him reveal it to you too.

Thank You Father for the freedom of Your Grace!

The Transformation of a Son of Thunder

A few weeks ago I shared about a great listening activity a friend of mine led us in on our girls’ weekend getaway at Riverbend this year.  Just to recap here’s how that activity went down:  we listened to the entire book of First John from beginning to end without our Bibles in front of us, without paper to take notes on, without stopping and re-winding, without talking.  We just listened.  It only took about 15 or 20 minutes.  Then we listened to First John 3, but this time we had paper to jot down anything that seemed to jump out at us.  Then we listened to First John 3 one more time.  Once we had listened we discussed what spoke to our hearts.

First, Second and Third John were all written by John, brother of James, son of Zebedee, disciple of Jesus Christ.  He also authored the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation.  I am probably telling you things that you already know about him, but there’s a point, it’s not just about the facts.  All of these tremendous books of Scripture, God’s Word to us, were written fairly late in John’s life and fairly late in relationship to the other books of the New Testament.  Scholars believe that all five of these books were written between 85 AD and 95 AD.

Let’s do some quick math, if Jesus was crucified around 30 AD that means fifty-five to sixty-five years passed before John wrote a word.  So what was this first-hand witness to the life, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ the Son of God doing all that time?

Mark 3:17 introduces us to John this way when Jesus first called him to be a disciple: “…and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, “Sons of Thunder”);”

It is believed that John was the youngest of the disciples and possibly an adolescent at the time of his call.  Therefore, he may well have been under the age of twenty when Jesus died.  During Jesus’ time on earth Scripture records John, and his brother James, at one point wanting to call down fire from heaven on some folks who wouldn’t receive Jesus (Luke 9:51-56).  It also records how John, and his brother James, requested to be seated on the right and left of Jesus in heaven (bold move, don’t you think?) (Mark 10:35-37).  Sounds like Jesus had good reason to call them Sons of Thunder.

Back to our listening exercise on First John, the one thing that all of us in the group zeroed in on was how frequently the word “love” is used in that book.  In fact, the word “love” is a consistent theme in all three of John’s epistles, as well as his gospel.  While the word “love” is not as frequent in the book of Revelation, it IS the revelation of Jesus Christ, Love Himself.

So how did John go from being a Son of Thunder to a messenger of Love?  How did he move from desiring to penalize people for their lack of understanding and exalting himself with Jesus, to a man who wanted nothing more than for all to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you (all) may have life in His name” (John 20:31)?  And how did he become a man who refers to himself in the third person (not the first person, as in the principle character) as the disciple whom Jesus loved?

While Scripture doesn’t record the details of those fifty-five to sixty-five years of silence (or anonymity?) they really make me wonder.  I think Scripture says a lot by the facts it includes, but I think it also says a lot by what it clearly leaves out.  And it certainly leaves out a large portion of John’s life.  The only two things we know for certain are that he cared for Jesus’ mother Mary and he was active in the early church of Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Beyond those two things we don’t really know what John was doing during that time, but we do know what God was doing.

He was lovingly transforming a Son of Thunder into a humble servant of Jesus Christ, into a man not only able to care for the condition of the flock, but a man entrusted with arguably the most powerful vision and message in all Scripture.  He was given the privilege of communicating The End of the story to those of us in the middle of the journey.

I’ve been asking myself, am I willing to live in obscurity for the purposes of God?  Am I willing to allow Him full access to every area of my life to do the transforming work that only He can do?  Just as importantly, am I willing to wait as long as it takes and let God do the work in me in His time?  (Let’s face it, we live in a culture that wants everything immediately…waiting fifty-five years for anything seems incredible if not impossible!)

Going back to the idea of Surrendering ‘The Plan’ from Monday’s post, am I willing to operate on a need-to-know basis and live moment by moment with Him?  Seeking only to know Him, allowing Him to bring me to the place only He can see?  As John stood at the foot of the cross I doubt he saw himself penning the book of Revelation or caring enough about young believers to write letters of love and warning to them.  Only a life of dependence on God, whether its years or decades, could produce such lasting fruit.

Surrendering ‘The Plan’

This weekend I had the opportunity to watch one of my favorite movies, Mr. Holland’s Opus, for the umpteenth time.  Love that movie (disclaimer: there is some offensive language in the film so you may want to use a language editor if you choose to watch it…and please don’t email me with your objections :))!  The story chronicles the unintended thirty year career of a high school music teacher who never envisioned life in the classroom.  By the end of the movie though he realizes what a rich full life he had and how much he would have missed if he had not fallen into his teaching career.

The movie reminded me of a word God spoke to me about 2013 (and beyond I believe) early in the year.  Once again I was stressing and straining over God’s Big Plan and all that He and I were going to do this year.  This has been my routine with the Lord for many years, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day I have a period of prayer and fasting and the Lord gives me direction for the coming year.

This year for some reason my schedule didn’t permit me to seek Him in that way, but lo and behold He spoke to me anyway (I just love that He meets us where we are because He is so interested in relationship with us!).  I was reading a terrific post by Gary Morland called Don’t over think God’s big plans for you and a light switched on in my brain (as I am sure was Gary’s intention in writing).  If I will simply focus on our (mine and God’s) relationship, the “big plans” He has for me will reveal themselves…whatever they are.  Not only that, but I don’t even have to know what The Plan is for it all to work out.

When I hyper-focus, as I am prone to do, on figuring out God’s Big Plan then I often miss out on what God is doing in that moment.  His name, YHWH, means I AM WHO I AM (see God’s introduction to Moses in Exodus chapter 3).  He is the Present Tense God.  He is interested in every single moment with me not just making sure I end up at the right destination at the end of my life.

One of the interesting things about our relationship (mine and God’s) and your’s too, is that not only is He the Present Tense God, but I (we) can only experience Him in the present, RIGHT NOW.  I may have experienced Him in the past and I plan on experiencing Him in the future, but that experience, the time He and I meet and our hearts touch, is only in the now (at least from our perspective).

If I am too busy looking ahead, searching for The Plan, longing for something different – that’s code for something I think is better than I have right now – then I will miss what the Present Tense God has for me now.  Make no mistake, He has something for each of us in every moment we move through and He wants to meet us in all of them.

Let me say that again…IN ALL OF THEM…not just the ones we like.  God meets us in the happy moments, the great moments, the sad moments, the profound moments, the seemingly meaningless moments, and even in the horrible one.  If we are willing to look for Him, meet Him, seek Him in each of our moments, eventually we will look back over all of them strung together and see how we arrived exactly where He planned all along.

Thank You Father that there are no meaningless moments in You.  Every single second of our lives are opportunities to meet, be present with You, the Living God, to cling to You, to know You.  Help us to waste not one of them.  Help us to trust You for each of them.