Sunday, July 23, 2017

Preparing for the Promise

Do we plan and prepare for the things God promises? Maybe we feel as if we don’t have to, but what if there was an element of preparation necessary on our part? What if that preparation and planning demonstrated gratitude and appreciation – even reverence for God as the Giver of that promise? What if God were waiting for us to take steps of preparation and planning before He blessed us with the fruit of the promise?

Good stewardship involves some degree of planning and preparation. Appreciation and gratitude demand it; in fact, I would suggest that without a response involving planning and preparation, there can be no real appreciation and gratitude for the promise. Such a response conveys to God the value we place on Him and His promise. It says, “This is important and I’m going to get ready for it. I want to bring my best self and best efforts into this promise.”

Before Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, he commanded the people to prepare provisions before they crossed the Jordan River. (Josh. 1:11) He later told them to consecrate themselves “for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” (Josh. 3:5) They were to ready themselves to receive God’s promise.

Shall we do any less with God’s promises to us?

In Him, Jo

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What If...

I have been filling my body and my time lately with things other than God and the things of Him, things like food and social media, but mostly food, especially ice cream. Were it not for the grace of God and a modicum of self-control, my gravestone might very well read, “Death by Ben and Jerry’s.” All kidding aside, my lack of discipline and self-control has weighed heavy on my mind and heart lately, and God has continued to bring equally weighty questions for me to consider. One recent question came through a friend: What are you avoiding when you turn to food and social media?

Ouch.

Tonight, as I drove home from Bible study, that question once again reared its ugly head. What are you avoiding? In response, I wondered, What vacancy *am* I trying to fill with these things? Immediately, loneliness and boredom rose to the surface of my thinking. Indeed, I thought, food and social media have become companions of a sort in recent months. This introspection – this ruthless self-examination which must occur if we are to change and grow – is what another friend of mine calls “peeling the onion.” Allowing God to strip away all that is not of Him nor glorifying to Him is very much like that, the analogy becoming all the more relevant as each exposed layer releases an unpleasant stench – the stench of self. Self-pity, self-promotion, self-indulgence, self-aggrandizing, self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-you-name-it.

I return to the vacancies – loneliness and boredom – and begin to consider all the Bible verses and worship songs that speak of God being not only our sufficiency but our everything, and I realize that lately they have been ringing hollow for me. God says His grace is sufficient, but if I’m being honest, it doesn’t feel that way. I read it in His Word and I know in my mind that it’s true, but it doesn’t feel like the truth when I come home to an empty apartment and crawl into an empty bed. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s, or an hour scrolling through social media sites, is a woefully poor substitute, I realize that, but it fills the immediate gap and distracts me from having to wrestle with God about why I doubt He is enough for me in those moments. It anesthetizes me long enough to avoid the guilt that would inevitably come in the wake of that confession. It delays the tough but necessary identity work which would result if I stilled myself and listened for His voice, and engaged in brutally transparent conversation with Him.

In filling myself, I leave no opportunity for God to fill those vacancies. The fear of not being satisfied hangs in the air, an unspoken accusation, but in my spirit I can feel the faint stirrings of hope and wonder. What if He *is* enough? The longing for that to be true – more accurately, for it to feel true – brings tears to my eyes. I want Jesus to be my everything, and to drive everything I say and do, but I fear the exposure of that desire buried deep in my heart. I hide behind the food and Facebook, afraid of feeling too deeply and being too transparent, and being disappointed with God’s response.

What if...? my heart wonders. 

Yes, comes the gentle reply, but what if...?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Time to Rebel

“You pray for revival all the time, but I say it is time for a rebellion. A rebellion against the flesh. A rebellion against the world. A rebellion against the evil one. It is time that you rebel against the forces that try to draw you away from God and the things of God. It is time to get angry, stand up, and take back that which they have been trying to steal away. It is time to reclaim ground. It is time to take back the blessings and the giftings and all that God has promised you. It is time to stand up and walk out of the pity party that you have thrown for yourself. It is time to say, “No more!” It is time to say, “That's enough!”

That was the word God gave me this morning. As soon as I woke up, and before I’d even gotten out of bed, those words were coming fast and furious into my consciousness. I grabbed my phone to type them out so I’d remember them, but they were flowing so fast I had to use the microphone feature to capture it all. I got out of bed and walked out to my living room to “pace and pray.” I’ve often heard that we are to do battle on our knees in prayer, but sometimes you need to fight on your feet. Today has been one of those days for me.

It has come on the heels of months of frustration as I’ve struggled with extreme distraction and diversion from God’s calling on my life. This year started with a sense of expectancy. God impressed on me the sense that 2017 would be a year of blessing and fruition, where the years of sowing would finally result in a harvest. It would be, as one friend commented, my Year of Jubilee. The year certainly started that way, but after only a couple of months, the wheels started to fall off the wagon. I experienced a personal disappointment which led me to spend the next couple of months feeding my flesh. Book #2, which I’d begun to draft in December, came to a screeching halt. Prayer and time in God’s Word took a back seat to things like Facebook, Pinterest, and Netflix.

I knew that I was wasting the most precious gift God gives us – time – but I felt powerless to overcome all of the distractions and diversions which led me to squander it day after day. Powerless was how I felt, but the truth was that I simply didn’t want to make the effort to resist the lure of social media and time online watching movies. It was easier and more entertaining to mindlessly scroll through my Facebook news feed than to face the distraction head-on and fight it. As I gave in to one distraction after another, I could feel guilt and remorse growing within me, mixed with a splash of panic. Time was quickly marching on, and as the weeks and months passed, I felt my Year of Jubilee and all that God had promised slipping through my fingers.

Moments of anger would rise up occasionally as I thought about what I was losing, but then would dissipate as I chose to engage with diversions “just one more time.” The fight, and my efforts to engage in it, would begin tomorrow, I promised myself – but those tomorrows never came. Until today.

It actually began last night at church. The sermon was one of those that convinces you God wrote it specifically for you and all that you’re going through. The exact moment was when my pastor, speaking as God would to His kids, said, “Hey kid, over here,look at Me… give me your attention… I’ve got something awesome for us to do...” He was specifically talking about God trying to get our attention in the midst of our distraction from His calling and purpose in our life. As I was driving home from church, I had a picture in my mind of pacing through my apartment, arms waving around, as I prayed. I thought that might be how I was to spend my time once I arrived home. Instead, because it was late, I fixed myself some dinner, watched a few episodes of The West Wing on Netflix, spent some time cruising through my Facebook news feed, stayed up later than I should have, and finally crawled into bed at about 12:30 a.m. Not exactly an awesome response to what I heard at church or envisioned on my drive home.

Nevertheless, our God is gracious, merciful, and absolutely able to make good on His promises. He woke me up and gave me a word before anything else could grab my attention. Once I had His word, I could feel other thoughts begin to intrude, and other activities vie for my attention. Out of muscle memory, I nearly gave in to the distraction, but chose to get out of bed and start my day with pacing and praying instead. That small step of obedience opened a floodgate this morning. God brought other words to capture and pray through. They came as quickly as the first, each building on the one before. They are the foundation for future blog posts, but for now, let me circle back to revival versus rebellion.

Revival sometimes has a passive connotation; rebellion, though, is more active. What I mean is that when we pray for revival, it’s like asking God to do something with no involvement from us. Lord, we pray, bring revival to our nation (our families, our workplaces, our community, etc). We’re saying, God, you go do this thing. Go stir up your people to revival. We pray for it and leave it in His hands, waiting for Him to do whatever He will. Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to pray for this; we need to be asking God to stir up hearts and turn the world’s attention to Him, but when we pray for it as if it had nothing to do with us personally, that can be problematic – especially when we’re praying for God to revive our own heart. I write this as someone who has prayed like that, mistakenly believing that I needed to apply no effort in the process. “God,” I would pray, “revive my heart. Restore a passion and fire for You, Your Word, and the things of You.” I expected that I would just wake up one morning, all of my former enthusiasm and hunger for God miraculously restored, with no effort required on my part.

You might be thinking that’s what happened today, that God brought supernatural revival to my distracted heart. Well, yes and no. It’s true that God woke me up with a word from Him, but then I had to make a choice – stay in bed or get up. After I was up, I had to make another choice – pace and pray, or follow my flesh into distraction and diversion. After I was done praying through His initial word, it was time to make another choice – continue listening for His voice or feed my flesh. God woke me up with revival, but I had get up and participate in a little rebellion. That took effort. Rebellion is personal and it’s active. When we agree with God for rebellion, that requires engagement and involvement. We don’t get to pray for rebellion and then sit back down on the sidelines.

For two months, I’d been asking God to revive my heart and get me back on track with all that I believed He had promised for this year, but I wasn’t willing to do anything differently. I wanted Him to do all the work while I continued hanging out with Facebook, Pinterest, and Netflix. Today, though, He called me out. You’ve been asking for revival, but I’m calling you to rebellion. It reminded me of the scene from the 1976 movie, Network, when Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, tells his viewers they need to get up out of their chair, go to their window, open it, stick their head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

We can want things to be different with all of our heart (desiring revival), but until we’re willing to get up and put some effort into that change (rebellion), it won’t matter how badly we want it. And sometimes, the catalyst for getting us up and moving is a little bit of righteous anger. We need to get angry about the world, the flesh, and the evil one stealing what God has told us is ours. Through prayer, we need to snatch back what they’ve taken and declare, “That’s MY Year of Jubilee! Get your grubby little hands off of it! I’m taking it back!”

So, what is it for you today? Where have you been distracted? Where is God trying to get your attention? Where is He calling you to rebellion in your life? In what area do you need God to ignite some righteous anger? What is it that you need to snatch back out of the hands of the world, the flesh, or the evil one?


In Him, Jo

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Prodigal Living

I don’t know about you, but I’m really grateful that our God loves the prodigal in all of us. In my book, Do-Over, I wrote the following:

We don’t have prodigal moments or seasons; we live prodigal lives. Every day, we wander and squander… We wander and squander all throughout our days, but God is constantly there to receive us back into His embrace. He never stops being our Dad no matter how many times we wander away. He never refuses us when we return to Him. The robe, the ring, and the sandals are never withheld from us.

This truth is reflected in Lamentations, as well. Just look at what the prophet Jeremiah writes in verses 19-23:

Remember my affliction and my wandering… surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease. For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness!

Every day, we get a do-over if we ask God for it. He has fresh mercy, kindness, grace, and compassion for us, regardless of how the previous day (or hour or moment…) has gone. In the presence of God, there is a constant cleansing and refreshing waiting to be claimed. Acts 3:19 reminds us to “repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

God honors our honesty, and He is gentle with our vulnerabilities when we draw near and offer them up. This is very good news, indeed, when days like today – filled with nothing more than a coffee and pastry binge, and a boat load of attitude for a couple of hapless T-Mobile sales guys – are what I end up laying at my Savior’s feet. 

God has been patient with me in recent weeks as I’ve fed my flesh more than I’ve fed my soul and spirit. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t felt like I’ve had much of anything to give the ministries in which I’m serving, and why I’ve questioned my participation in them. Ironically, all that has led to more writing which, I’ve discovered, fills me up and leads me closer to God. Funny how God always works those things out. That, my friends, is grace from a God who loves His prodigal kids.

If you’ve been beating yourself up because your walk with God lately has looked a little like the cartoon at the top of this blog post, I have a word for you: Stop! I assure you that God isn’t frowning on you and wagging His finger at you. On the contrary, beloved, He is beckoning you close so He can wrap His arms around you. My prayer tonight is that you would let Him.


In Him, Jo

Monday, April 10, 2017

Vivian

I have never in my entire life given a plant a name, but then again, Vivian is no ordinary plant.

You see, I’ve never been able to keep an African Violet alive for more than about a week, tops. I’ve been given lots of them over the years as gifts, only to watch them die a quick death over the next 7-10 days no matter how I treated them. It didn’t matter if I talked to them or ignored them, watered them or let them dry up, set them in natural light or artificial light, or even set them up in special pots supposedly designed to help them thrive. I simply didn’t have the right touch to keep them alive.

My mom, however, was a different story altogether; she couldn’t kill an African Violet. Whether at home or at the office, my mother was always surrounded by these little plants, and when I say “little,” I don’t mean their size. Her African Violets were enormous – like, mutant-size healthy. They were broad-leafed and full of flowers. They would get so large that my mom would have to break them apart and start new pots with the smaller pieces, except it wasn’t long before they grew to be enormous, as well. Asked how she did it, she would just kind of shrug and make an offhand comment about how she “just watered them.” Clearly, there was more to it than that, since I had “just watered them,” as well, and I had been nowhere near as successful.

So, it was no small irony when, after my mom died, my roommate at the time gave me an African Violet along with her condolence card. Now, she had no way of knowing the history of these plants where me and my mom were concerned. Clearly, God was at work; nevertheless, I approached the plant that day and thought, “Oh, you poor, poor thing. I’m so sorry you got me as an owner. It’s been nice meeting you, but I’m afraid we will be parting company in about a week. Let me just apologize now for what’s about to happen.” I left the plant on a bookcase downstairs where my roommate could keep an eye on it for whatever time it had left. I have no idea what kind of care she gave it, but to my surprise it was still alive when I moved out about eight months later. It wasn’t looking great, but it clearly wasn’t dead, so along it went with me to the new place.

My next living quarters didn’t have the same kind of natural light as before, so I was convinced my little plant would surely give up the ghost now that it was solely in my care. Even if lighting and watering had been sufficient – which they were not – I think the poor little plant might have simply died of shame after I decided to drain its pot in a quart-size Ziploc… and then left it in there as permanent housing. Surprising me yet again, the little plant survived. Pieces of it would shrivel up and need trimming off, but it stubbornly clung to life.

Four months later, I moved yet again, this time into my own apartment with decent natural light. My hardy little companion found a spot on a ledge in the kitchen which afforded it plenty of said natural light along with fluorescent lighting. A few months in, I settled into my household routines, including cleaning the apartment every other weekend. Now and then, I’d remember the plant and throw it under the kitchen faucet for a quick drink, mindless of whether or not the leaves got splashed or the soil got soaked. Pretty soon, though, things began to change.

One weekend, while cleaning the apartment, it hit me that this African Violet had remained alive for over a year through no effort on my part. I had done nothing to take care of this plant, yet here it was, clinging to life when it should have been dead ages ago. There was only one explanation, and God hit me right between the eyes with it: He is the giver and sustainer of life, regardless of circumstances. In this little plant, God was revealing Himself in a huge way to me, and it had taken over a year for me to really see it. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just a plant sitting on a shelf; it was a piece of God Himself right there in my kitchen.

I took the plant, then, and carefully trimmed away all the dead and dying pieces. I took my time doing it, applying a methodical, almost surgical precision to my effort. Once I was done with that, I turned on the faucet and began to water the plant, but unlike all the other times, this time I gently held the leaves out of the way of the flow of water, and I kept rotating the pot so that the entire cluster of dirt (which was rock-hard and dry as a bone) finally began to actually absorb the water. I could feel the difference in my hands as the soil became heavy with moisture and expanded to fill the pot. I left the plant to drain in the sink, later placing it on a paper plate before returning it to its place of honor on the shelf above the sink.

In the following weeks and months, I continued watering the plant every time I cleaned the apartment. When returning it to the shelf, I began to rotate it so that it got sun on every side and didn’t grow lopsided. Interestingly, there was no longer a need to trim away dead or dried up stalks. My little plant grew green and healthy. New growth emerged from the center of the plant every few weeks, and it began to spread wide across its little grocery store pot. I began to wonder how much longer it could stay in its original container, and started to look for a new pot and soil.

During this time, I was telling a friend this story and wondering aloud if I should finally name the plant after all we had been through together. My friend suggested “Grace,” but my friends always described my mom as vivacious after they met her. “Vivian” popped into my head just then, and it seemed so perfect. Vivian the Violet.

Tonight, I finally transplanted Vivian to her new home, pictured above in this post. I’d been dragging my feet about it, primarily because I was worried about transplant shock. To lose Vivian at this point would be heartbreaking. Not only have I never named a plant, but I’ve also never really cared about one when it died, but as I said in my opening statement, Vivian is no ordinary plant.

She represents all that is good and wonderful about God to me. Through Vivian, He has reminded me that no matter what others may think about us or our circumstances, God has the final say. He is sovereign in all things. He gives and takes away. Only He gets to decide who lives and when our time is up. Others may wonder why we don’t give up. We may wonder why we don’t give up. God, however, is absolutely certain regarding His plans for us. We can trust in that. There is rest for our souls in that truth. As long as we are around – even if “we” are a scrawny-looking, half-dead, little African Violet – God has a purpose in keeping us alive.

Maybe some of you reading this tonight are feeling as dried up and neglected as Vivian used to be. Let me encourage you – refreshment is coming. God hasn’t abandoned you or forgotten about you. His hand is still upon you, and His grip is firm and sure upon your life. My friend, if there is breath in your lungs and a beat in your heart, your God isn’t done with you yet.


In Him, Jo