Around the Bend

“A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” – Mark 4:26b-27

When C. S. Lewis lost his wife to cancer and was struggling through emotions and questions in his grief, he wrote, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

We’re all on a journey. For Lewis, it was through grief. For many of us, it’s through another of life’s challenges. And, while we struggle, we get discouraged. That’s when God renews us with whispers:

  • Don’t quit because you feel like you’re failing. You’re making progress.
  • Don’t quit becuse you’re tired. You’re getting stronger.
  • Don’t quit because it’s hard. The rewards for perseverance are great.

That’s when we realize we just need to keep walking. God is at work even when we can’t see it. Strength comes. Spiritual growth occurs, and he‘s doing it, not you or me.

Eventually, we do go around the bend Lewis mentions and, when we do, we see something new and beautiful. Something we didn’t know, or some gift of joy or relationship or insight. At that point, we realize staying on the path is worth the effort and we keep going, wondering what different and inspiring landscape will appear just a little further down the road.

The gifts of success, strength, growth, and joy include the struggle. Let’s not quit! There’re no shortcuts to becoming.

“I long to put the experience of fifty years at once into your young lives, to give you at once the key to that treasure chamber every gem of which has cost me tears and struggles and prayers, but you must work for these inward treasures yourselves.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

How much is it worth to you?

. . . anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. – Hebrews 11:6b

Do you want to get fit? Your success may depend on how much you’re willing to endure changing your eating and exercise habits.

Do you want to earn a degree? Your success will depend on how much you’re willing to prioritize, maybe even giving up sleep and social activities to reach your goal.

Do you want financial security? Your success may depend on how well you say “no” to things you can’t afford so, just maybe, you’ll be able to afford them later.

Now, here’s the bottom-line question. Do you want to know God better? To hear his voice? To know he hears your prayers? To sense his presence with you every minute? Your success will depend a lot on how much you’re willing to prioritize time, deny yourself, and say “no” to lesser things so you can pursue God with everything  you have and are. Anything as important as our relationship with God is going to cost us something. It may even be painful at times. 

Is it worth it? From my own experience, growing close to God is worth everything! Getting up early to read his word? I’ll do that. Talking to him throughout the day? That, too. Praying my heart out for people I love? Yup. Letting go of my need to control? OK.

The reward? Realizing and receiving his enduring love for me. Finding myself happily singing for no reason at all. And living with peace because trusting him has left me with fewer burdens to carry. Worth it? Oh, yes!

“The only thing between who you are now and who you want to be is the pain you are willing to endure.”

Rabbi Aryeh Markman

In the Desert?

“Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realize what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do.” – Oscar Wilde

Nobody signs up for suffering, but it happens to us all: sickness, tragedy, loss, and pain. The hardest of all is the struggle that just keeps hanging on and day after day we feel alone in a hot, dry desert.

If you are there, be encouraged! God uses desert time to make us strong, to help us learn dependence on him, and, often, to prepare us for something he wants us to do. Think about Moses who spent years there tending sheep before God called him to lead his people out of slavery. The Israelites spent four decades in the desert learning to trust God alone to meet their needs. Jesus was in the desert for forty days of fasting and prayer before beginning his public ministry. His wilderness time included direct confrontations with Satan. The desert can be a difficult and dangerous place!

Desert experiences tend to strip away the trappings of life so we can see what is truly essential. It is then that God can reach down, touch our souls, and feed us with food that will satisfy: Manna, refreshment for the spirit, just enough until we are healthy and strong and ready to be led out of the wilds into a more abundant life.

The desert truly is holy ground. If you are suffering today, be as open as you can to God and his Spirit within you. Over time, his healing touch will come.

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever. –
Psalm 30:11-12

How’s it going?

“Help me to live awake.” Macrina Wiederkehr

How many times have you had this pseudo-conversation?

“How’s it going?”

“Great, thanks.”

Really? Are you sure it’s great? We tend to go through life without really thinking about how it’s going, don’t we? We move from one task to the next, one conversation (digital or personal) to the next, just hoping we’ll get everything done so we can get to bed at a reasonable hour and rise to do it all again tomorrow.

Maybe there’s a better way. What if we took a few minutes at the end of each day to think about the conversations, encounters, actions, reactions, joys, and sorrows of the day? Then we could move on to confessing as sin any thing we did, said, or thought, that didn’t please God. Finally, we could pick one specific thing from the day for which to thank him.

If we practice this, even on occasion, we’ll begin to learn something about ourselves and how we are using our hours and days. There may be some patterns of life we need to change. There may be relationships we need to be less invested in and others we should nurture. There may be an awareness of God leading us in a new direction in our work or our service to him.

The point is to pay attention to our lives. We don’t often have time to do that during the rush of the day. But, before we close our eyes in sleep, maybe a few minutes of reflection would enrich us and give God a chance to take us deeper into him. Let’s really know how it’s going!


. . . walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God”. – Colossians 1:10

Ready for change?

 

“. . . wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” – Psalm 51:7b

I remember beginning my prayer time that day with praise. Then I began confessing sins, naming ways in which I felt I was failing God: areas of self-control, worry, lack of compassion, not sharing his message with others. I was about to go on when he stopped me with something like this:

“You have one underlying problem: Not loving me with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Forget the list. Focus instead on knowing and loving me. All else will flow from that. Over time, the list of sins won’t be as important to you, but I will become most important. That’s what I want and what you need – for me to be your everything.”

We all have sins that need to be forgiven. The Bible does tell us to confess our sins. But on that day, God wanted me to take my eyes off my own failings and look at him instead. The ultimate goal, after all, is to become like Jesus. If we keep looking at ourselves, we’ll miss what he wants us to become. Over time, as I continue gazing at him, I begin to realize I am becoming calmer. I feel more concern for others. I am more self-controlled, and more likely to tell someone else about him and what he means to me.

It’s not that we don’t have to change – but God’s way of changing us is more effective than ours. And he does it by loving us, dirt and all, and inviting us into relationship with him. It seems our first step toward change is doing our best to love him with everything we’ve got!

“Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other needs.” – George MacDonald

 

There’s a better way.

“. . . by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” – Hebrews 10:14

How are you doing on your quest for perfection? Have you overcome that bad habit? Are your praying enough? Are your relationships in order? Are you eating only healthy foods? Do you do enough to help those in need?

Stop! There’s a better way.

Over many years, I’ve learned that, in spite of almost-heroic efforts, I’m not able to perfect myself. That will come as no surprise to those of you who know me! Along the way, though, God reminds me He’s the one who brought me into His family in the first place. He’s the one slowly changing my character to reflect His. Transformation is His work, not mine. My job is to relate to Him: talking, listening, learning, cooperating, submitting. That’s what He expects of you, too. When we do that, His message back to us is something like this:

When I called you, I knew who you would become. I also knew the mistakes you would make along the way – sinfulness, rebellion, bad habits, weaknesses. I never expected you to be perfect, so stop believing you can be. And never forget that My love for you does not depend on you. I love you just because you are Mine – even on your worst days.

God looks on His children with merciful eyes. We are weaker than we want to be. We will fail. When we do, He responds to our cry for forgiveness, cleans us up, and sets us back on the path. He will make us holy, but it’s going to take awhile yet!

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved’.” – Henri J. M. Nouwen

Accident Prone?

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” – Mark 1:35

“A rabbi taught that experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.’ His student asked, ‘Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?’ The rabbi replied, “To be as accident-prone as possible.'”*

Do you want to experience more of those God moments day-to-day? You can. God wants to make Himself known. We just have to put ourselves in a place where we are able to recognize Him when He does.

There are so many ways to do that! I will mention a few, but it is important that we conduct “holy experiments” to see what works, knowing God reaches each of us through varying means. You might try these:

Scripture memorization: God often speaks through His Word. If we carry selected verses in our memories, He can call them to mind as He wishes.

Silence/solitude: Our world is filled with distractions. Sometimes we need to carve out time to be alone with God. Just us, our Bible, and Him. When we do, we learn to hear His voice and then can recognize it later, even in the busyness of life.

Praying always: We can find ways to stay in touch with God by talking to Him all day long. Sometimes a habitual prayer such as “Have mercy on me.” Sometimes spontaneous praise or conversation.

What is it that will make you more accident-prone? You may want to try some holy experiments to see!

“Ceaseless internal prayer is a continued yearning of the human spirit towards God.” – The Way of a Pilgrim

 

*Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 2008 (Kindle Edition), location 2037.