Staying lost?

Prodigal Son (New Your Public Library), Public Domain

“I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights. I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

I had a dog years ago who liked to explore the world, and sometimes he got lost. One of two things happened when we realized Luey had taken off again: Either we’d go looking for him, calling his name, checking his favorite haunts, or he would get hungry and find his way home. The end result was the same either way: The lost dog didn’t stay lost.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about lostness. The first was the lost sheep. The shepherd knew the wanderer would never find his way back to the flock on his own, so he secured the 99 sheep and set out to find the one who was lost.

The second was about a woman who lost a valuable coin. She searched until she found it and then called her neighbors in to celebrate. What was lost had been found.

The third is familiar to all of us. It is about a lost son, the one who declared independence from his father, took his inheritance early and set off to a far country where he lived an irresponsible life until his money ran out, a famine hit, and there was no one to turn to but Dad who welcomed him home with a great feast.

The point of these stories? That which is lost can be found.

If you’re feeling lost today, God knows where you are. He will help you find your way back home. You don’t have to stay lost!

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10

Where did he go?

“No soul can be really at rest until it has given up all dependence on everything else and has been forced to depend on the Lord alone. As long as our expectation is from other things, nothing but disappointment awaits us.” – Hannah Whitall Smith

God doesn’t impose himself on us. At times, the people of Israel rejected him and turned to idol worship. God repeatedly called them back, but they wouldn’t listen. So he said, “I will return again to my place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face and, in their distress, earnestly seek me” (Hosea 5:15). We might paraphrase it this way: “I’m going back home until you understand how much you need me.”

Sometimes God seems far away even when we go to church, sing the songs, and take communion. Hosea says something about that, too: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The people of Israel were doing many right things like going to the temple and offering sacrifices. But outward actions didn’t change their hearts or keep them from following other “gods”.

God’s greatest desire is for us to know and love him – above everything and anyone else. Our true devotion is more important to him than ceremonial actions. I’ve found that if I am missing a sense of God’s presence in my life, I soften my heart and ask him to come back. With that invitation, he usually begins to work with me and makes himself known again.

Does he seem far away right now? Tell him you miss him. You love him. You want to sense his presence. He’ll come.

For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” – 2 Chronicles 30:9b

Need help?

 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. . . For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:12a and 13b

Author Dane Ortland describes a hypothetical scenario whereby a doctor moves to an area of the world among impoverished villages. He sets up a medical clinic, inviting people to come. Do you know what pleases him most? When sick people show up! Especially the very ill, desperate for his care. If only the healthy came to visit, his efforts would be wasted. He’s doing what he came to do only when the sick come.

Ortland goes on to compare this to Jesus’ ministry. He didn’t come for those who felt spiritually healthy. He came for those who were spiritually sick and knew it. He was accused of hanging out with sinners. Of course that’s what he did! They were why he came. Sometimes he didn’t wait for them to come to him. He went out to find them.

Jesus is back in heaven, but his purpose remains: To seek out those of us who know we’re sinful and to welcome us with open arms. When we come, he cleans us up, sets us on our feet, and loves us into the kingdom of God.

We’ve got it wrong if we think we have to get our act together to be able to approach Jesus. Or if we think what we have done is so bad he could never forgive us. He came for people like us – people who know how much they need a new life, a spiritual bath. Only real sinners can experience his real forgiveness.

. . . for the penitent, his heart of gentle embrace is never outmatched by our sins and foibles and insecurities and doubts and anxieties and failures.” – Dane Ortland

The book cited is Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortland

Did you get it wrong?

“Bless the LORD, O my soul . . . who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” Psalm 103:2-4

We make decisions early in life that set a trajectory that’s hard to change. You know the kind I mean: Education, career, marriage, home, and kids. Often before we’re 30.

Wanting to get it right, we ask God for direction and then decide. Sometimes we make good decisions and sometimes not. If we realize, often years later, we’ve made some mistakes, is there anything we can do? The Bible gives some insight here:

God had been ruling Israel through judges. The people, though, noticed that other nations had kings, so they wanted a king, too. They persisted and, finally, God relented and gave them a king.

Some time later, Samuel reminded them they had been wrong to ask God for a king. The people seemed to realize Samuel was right, and they acknowledged their bad judgment. But what could they do? They already had the king they’d asked for.

Samuel said: “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart” (1 Samuel 12:20b). He says, essentially, just follow God in your present situation.

Have you ever made a big mistake? Or have you committed a sin you’ve regretted for years? God still says something like this, “Yes, you were wrong, but don’t be afraid. Just follow me, love me, serve me where you are today.”

He is the God of second chances. He still leads, heals wounds, and uses broken people who keep on following him no matter what.

“. . . the things about you that make you cringe most, make him hug hardest.” – Dane Ortland

Photo courtesy of a friend and neighbor. Thanks!

Scars

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” – Romans 5:3-4

If you walk among the aspens, you’ll notice their scarred trunks. Many of the roundish blemishes are from branches that have fallen off, a natural part of the tree’s growth. Others, though, are more rugged. These irregularly shaped scars are usually the result of elk having chewed on the bark. Over time the wounds heal, but the scars remain as a testament of survival.

We all have scars. They are evidence of our past, and they make us unique. Our scars usually result from trauma – physical or emotional. For some it was abuse or neglect in childhood. Others of us carry scars from broken relationships, losses, accidents, illnesses, or threats. Many older people, looking back on their lives, acknowledge the pains they have endured, and still end up saying, “I wouldn’t change anything.” Why? Because they know they wouldn’t be the people they became over time without the events that sometimes wounded them.

We don’t have to be ashamed of our scars. They record our histories, they give evidence of our ability to survive, to heal. And they allow us to connect with those who recognize those scars as theirs, too.

Jesus was raised from the dead after a brutal crucifixion. He could have had any resurrection body he wanted, but he chose to keep his scars. They verified his identity to doubting disciples, and they still give evidence of his triumphant sacrifice for humankind.

Every scar we have represents pain that, by God’s grace, made us stronger, better, more like Christ. He didn’t hide his scars. We shouldn’t either.

Suffering is arguably God’s choicest tool in shaping the character of Christ in us. – Joni Eareckson Tada

Obstacles

“Be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9b

Do you feel like you’ve been stopped in your tracks? You’ve been on a path you thought God was directing, and now there’s a roadblock you hadn’t anticipated. What do you do? Turn around? Give up? Or push on?

In the first chapter of the book of Judges, we read about the Israelites moving into the land God had promised them. With God’s help, they took over village after village, then came to one area where the people had iron chariots and they gave up. Didn’t even try.

If the Red Sea and the walls of Jericho were not obstacles too big for God, would he be intimidated by iron chariots? Of course not! But the people didn’t see that, so they stopped. As the history continues, we find the people with iron chariots were the very ones who led God’s people into worship of idols. Stopping short of the goal God has placed in front of us leaves us in danger.

What obstacle do you face right now? Difficult relationship? Job or career struggles? Sickness? Financial setback? If we are walking with God and, to the best of our ability, following his will, there is no obstacle too big for him. None!

So, let’s not quit before we complete what God has called us to do. We need to rely on him for strength and push through the challenge in front of us – whatever it is.

“We need to remind ourselves that God can change things. Outlook determines outcome. If we see only the problems, we will be defeated; but if we see the possibilities in the problems, we can have victory.” – Warren Wiersbe

Lost?

“He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.” – Psalm 145:19

We all wander away sometime. We don’t intentionally turn our backs on God, we just stop paying attention to him. We get distracted and, eventually we stop following where he leads.

When a sheep does that, he gets lost. And a lost sheep has no way to find his way back home. So he usually finds a bush or a rock to lie against and he waits to be found. In the meantime, the shepherd has returned from the fields to the sheepfold for the night and, in his counting, realizes that one of his sheep is missing. By now, though, it’s dark and that little sheep will be hard to find. But, the shepherd lights a lamp, ventures out, and begins the search, calling as he goes.

At this point in the dark of night, the sheep will never be found unless he participates in his own rescue. His job is to hear the shepherd’s voice and then respond with a bleat – as loud as he can and consistently over time until the shepherd can follow the cry and bring back the wanderer who, by now, is cold, hungry, and afraid.

Are you feeling lost today? Far away from God? Having no way of knowing how to find your way back to him? He’s reaching out for you already, but he waits for you to participate in your own rescue. How do you do that? You call out to him. You pray. You wait for him to hear your cry for help. He will come. He will rescue you and carry you home.

“Human beings do not readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.” – Phillip Yancey

Note: Lost sheep concept taken from the book The Good Shepherd by Kenneth E. Bailey

Making a Difference

“. . . (The Lord) who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
 who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
– Psalm 103:4-5

Life can be frustrating, discouraging. Sometimes we feel like we are trying our best, but not making a difference at all. We find ourselves asking if what we are doing today will matter in the long run.

Don’t give up. God works in ways we cannot see – at least not yet! I read recently about the life of David Brainerd, missionary to American Indians in the 1700’s. He kept a journal, so we have a window on his private thoughts. He was often discouraged. He was alone and lonely. He was sick (diagnosed with consumption). And his ministry was not very successful. But, even when he was depressed, he kept going. He prayed – sometimes for a whole day at a time. He fasted. He read and re-read his Bible.

And, listen in to the cry of his heart: “Lord, let me make a difference for you that is utterly disproportionate to who I am.” God answered that prayer. Though he had few converts and died at the age of 29 after only a four-year ministry, his devotion to God during tough times has inspired countless others to gives their lives to God in service as ministers and missionaries.

So, even when we are discouraged, we don’t quit. God is working something in us and through us that we don’t understand. Let’s pray, as Brainerd did, that God would use us to make a difference that is disproportionate to who we are!

” . . . God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints who cry to him day and night to accomplish amazing things for his glory.” – John Piper

Just come.

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” – Matthew 11:25

When we approach God as little children, we don’t have to worry about what we look like, how we feel, or whether we’re worthy. We just come – hopeful and open and a little scared. And then. . . we are welcomed enthusiastically into his embrace just as Jesus welcomed children when he lived on earth.

What happens when we are accepted flaws and all? We keep going back to people like that because we feel comfortable with them. That’s definitely true in our relationship with God. It takes only one soul-electrifying connection with his great loving heart and we are addicted. We’ll do anything to get that feeling again and again until it sinks in: He really loves us. Just. As. We. Are.

In the family of God, we don’t remain children. We keep returning to his presence, knowing we will never be turned away. And the more we hang out with him, the more we change. We grow up in God’s family much as we see our children grow up in ours.

But to mature spiritually, we have to maintain the attitude of a little child, remembering each day to be humble, teachable, not trying to take control, accepting what comes, trusting our Father, and treating those who come across our paths with joy, curiosity, and welcome. Little children know how to do that. Most of us grown-ups need to learn it.

“Christ wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim.” – C. S. Lewis

Comfort

For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” – Isaiah 49:13b

A friend called. She knew I was struggling. She encouraged me, assured me of her prayers, and let me know she cared. After her call, I felt stronger, lighter, ready to take the next step God would put in front of me.

What did she do? She comforted me. Not with the kind of “comfort” that pats me on the back and says, “Everything’s going to be OK.” I would have recognized the lie.

The word comfort comes from two roots. The first is com which means with. The second is fortis which means strong. Comfort connotes coming alongside to give strength. If we truly comfort someone, we make them stronger. That’s what my friend did. Her comfort strengthened me.

At the last supper, Jesus told his disciples that, though he was leaving, he would send his Spirit to live in them. “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16 KJV). Jesus would no longer be there to help them, but his Spirit would.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have his Spirit living inside you. He is always there, guiding, enlightening, correcting, and, yes, comforting. That’s one of his names – Comforter! And his comfort makes us strong.

I still like it when a friend calls, though. Don’t you?

“You don’t have to be alone in your hurt! Comfort is yours. Joy is an option. And it’s all been made possible by your Savior. He went without comfort so you might have it. He postponed joy so you might share in it. He willingly chose isolation so you might never be alone in your hurt and sorrow.” – Joni Eareckson Tada