Tag Archive | God

The War for the Intimate

file0001833018783I was glancing through a book catalog last week, a Christian book catalog, and it got me thinking. Many, many of the books were about a relationship with God. With Jesus. With the Holy Spirit. Reading the descriptions to the books, I found myself drawn in. I wanted to read all of them. I wanted what they promised. And since there are so many out there, I suspect I’m not the only one. There seems to be a longing in our culture for more, and I’m not sure where it comes from or how to quench it.

Every one of those books promised a more intimate relationship with God. Closer walks. Getting to know God more personally and having Him impact my life more fully. Lessons in prayer, again with the goal of getting closer to God. All of them suggest we are too far from God and can have an amazingly close connection with him, and all of them have ideas on how to go about this.

This post isn’t to criticize those books. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are right. I long for more when it comes to God. I think secretly many of us wonder why our prayers don’t look like prayers of old–how often have you prayed a dead man alive? Prayed for the beginning or end of a drought? Seen blind men healed and lame men walk? How often have you felt a closeness to Jesus like the apostles did, where He laughed in your midst, told you parables, sat with you over dinner?  Or even the relationship the Israelites had with God–have you wondered which way to go and followed a pillar of fire? Has your church filled with darkness while God’s Spirit consecrates it?

Why haven’t we? Why this longing for more and the inability to find more? I want those things. I want following Jesus to be easier. I find that I forget. I wake up and forget that I love God, that he’s central to my life, that I am loved with the most selfless, amazing love in the universe. How can I do that?

I ask for fish, and sometimes it feels like I get stones. I trust God for something, and I feel like I have the faith and the knowledge to ask wisely, to ask for something God surely desires in his heart, too, but the dead don’t rise. The broken don’t heal. What is wrong with my prayers?

I look for direction for my ministries, my relationships, my marriage, and instead of having a pillar of fire to lead my way, I stand in a drying plain with no landmarks in any direction. Where is the path? I open the Word to light my way, and yet I stand in darkness. Where is the lamp to guide my footsteps?

I have such great plans. Reading plans. Prayer plans. I attend conferences and workshops and hope to use the energy of those mountaintop experiences to develop habits that last. I want to love God without reservation. I do, with all my heart. And yet, slowly but surely, I slide back into some halfway world where God is peripheral. I skip a day of reading. Then I skip two. I pray for ten minutes. Then five. I look with longing at books about close walks with God and wonder what makes those people so special that they can be close while I feel like I’m drifting away in an ocean of distraction.

I suspect my biggest problem is that I forget I’m in battle. And wow, our enemy is special. He’s ancient. He’s smart. He’s cunning. And I don’t prepare to fight. I look at the books in the catalog and think I can find some magical way to slay the enemy once for all. But I can’t. I battle every single day. Except days when I don’t. And then I slide.

I wonder what would happen if my Christian friends and I remembered, every day, that today we were going to battle. If I peeked around every building and made every turn expecting to be ambushed. If I hid my valuables and protected them expecting someone to snatch them away. If our conversations always included new ways to fight, new weapons, stories of battlefield victories and defeats meant to prepare and warn one another about the fights ahead.

I want to be close to Jesus, but I want it simple and light. Yet my marriage isn’t simple and light. My friendships take work, too. And this relationship with Jesus–it is a thing under fire unlike any other relationship. Every moment of the day, it’s under fire. I don’t prepare for that. My friends don’t prepare for that. We forget to be soldiers. Soldiers need to be ready. Always on guard. Always a struggle. They lose friends. They need rest sometimes, where someone else holds the gun while they grab some sleep in the bottom of the foxhole. They cover each other, and they strategize. Battle is their life, because forgetting that gets them killed.

And in the end, if they are diligent and wise, they take the enemy down.

Jesus can be close. Those books aren’t wrong. Of course I can have a close relationship with Him. It’s what He wants most. But I think I have to embrace the battle required to hold onto it here. That relationship doesn’t grow easily, but it is easily snatched away if I’m not careful. The Holy Spirit is the commander, and I need to listen for his commands and never hesitate when He gives a battle cry. I hesitate. I want Psalm 23, where I can lounge by the stream. But more often than not, I’m in Ephesians in a room filled with battle gear. Only I don’t realize it, and I walk out on a deadly field practically naked and wonder why I can’t seem to win the skirmishes.

Today, whatever happens, I need to read the Word. Pray. Fight the powers of darkness. Jesus meets me there with a hug and a smile. With Him victory is guaranteed, and that victory is sweet indeed. But it never comes easy, and I think I set myself up for failure if I think it ever will in this life.

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One of Those Sundays

one of those sundaysIf you’ve attended church for any length of time, you’ve had one of those Sundays, when it seems getting out the door is the most difficult task of the week. Kids lose shoes, a pacifier hopelessly disappears from the diaper bag, arguments erupt about trivial things–some mornings everything seems to work against it.

I had one of those Sundays this week. I didn’t get to bed until late the night before. Then two hours later someone on our street shot a handgun. Not far from our house, I would say. We don’t live in a dangerous neighborhood, so it didn’t scare me as much as startle me awake. Adrenaline kicked in, and sleep was hopelessly over. I lay there planning the next few chapters of my newest novel while waiting to get tired. But I never quite dropped into deep sleep again.

Also, when I shot awake, I managed to get something in my eye. It hurt. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and it still hurts. Whatever is in there isn’t going anywhere. The act of squinting all morning gave me the worst headache, which combined with a lack-of-sleep headache until I felt sick to my stomach.

However, I showered and made it to church. I was tired.  My eye was hurting and running all over the place. Head was aching. When I get too tired, my heart races, so I was listening to that and hoping I didn’t die before church let out. Right–fatigue is my number one trigger for anxiety attacks. Pain is number two. So between the lack of sleep and the pain in my eye… It was hopeless.

But I was there. I sat through it. I spent most of it hoping it would be over soon. I wanted to go home, rinse my eye out again, maybe try a nap, take an Excedrin, and not do the friendly fellowship thing while I felt like I was dying.

Today I  was also supposed to bring a book for a friend. She offered to beta read a novel coming out in July, and I had that ready to go. Only she didn’t make it–car trouble. I wasn’t the only one fighting a battle concerning church today.

Clearly I survived. My eye will eventually shed whatever’s in it or heal if something scratched it. I will eventually catch up on sleep. Nobody will hold it against me that I wasn’t the friendliest person in church today. It’s all fine, even though it didn’t feel fine in the midst of it.

I forget sometimes that worship invites battle. It seems so easy to get up and go to a building and sit there. But so much more happens. God speaks and draws us close when we worship with our church families. We hear about needs we can fill. We sing praises to the one who made the universe. We hear from scriptures practical ways to live for God and invite others to live for him, too. Spiritual battle is very real, and those Sundays when it’s hard to get there–I don’t think those are coincidence.

The hard Sundays I tend to listen a little harder, look a little deeper. I don’t know if the attacks are random or if the enemy truly tries to keep me out on weeks when I most need to be there. But just to be safe, I want to make sure if there’s a message for me on the hard Sundays, I don’t miss it.

This Sunday, the message was one I can’t hear enough, the reminder that God is pleased with me because of Jesus, not because of anything I do. I can always use that reminder. I talk myself out of believing that on a daily basis. I can’t make God happy with me by doing good. I do good because I’m thankful God is happy with me. My head knows that’s true. But my heart can doubt. I need to hear it over and over until my heart finally believes it for good.

Today, while my eye was running and my head was pounding and anxiety about took me to the ground, God wanted to remind me of that. He’s happy with me. I’m a wreck sometimes, but that’s okay. He loves me. I obey because that truth is so important to me, but that truth stands regardless of how big a mess I am.

I truly hope next Sunday morning is easier than this Sunday was. But if not, I will do my best to show up to worship and listen to what God has to say. It is an honor and a privilege to worship with the people in my church, and I don’t ever want to take it for granted.

Love is not God

Closeup of candle flame.Okay, I admit the title of this post is sort of click bait. I expect a few people to read it angrily, all ready to defend the Bible and let me know that, indeed, Love is God.

Except the Bible never says that. It says, quite plainly in 1 John 4:8, that God is love.

I understand I’m being difficult. And we’re talking semantics. However, in simplest terms, the problem with us saying Love is God has to do with how we define love. If I am dealing with God, then I’m dealing with Love. That’s what God is Love means. However, if I’m dealing with love, I’m not always dealing with God, because love, in our culture, is defined any number of ways, and not every one of those tracks with the real nature of God. And I think this issue with definitions causes us trouble. We decide what constitutes love and then say that’s what God is. Love is not necessarily God. Continue reading

Finding Celebration

finding celebrationThis year I’ve been thinking through spiritual disciplines,  which are simply ways to keep God forefront in my mind and heart in a world that doesn’t make that easy. Things like prayer, hospitality, journaling, retreats, worship, etc.

Last night I was looking through my new favorite book, which has all kinds of disciplines in it. Included in this book is a quiz to help a person decide what disciplines might best fit with what God is doing with her now–and because of that I’ve been focusing on prayer, since God is clearly teaching me more about prayer right now.

But last night I was feeling heavy and unsettled. I’m falling into old patterns. I’m trying to organize my space and time and life so I honor God, hoping to grow, trying to get some things in order as I enter a new stage in my life. Last week I finished teaching kids who aren’t mine. This year most of my kids will fly the coop. Most of the excuses I have for not pursuing God as I should are leaving me. It’s time to get serious about this.

However, I’ve been failing at some things. Not praying like I want to pray. Not studying like I want to study. Anyway, I opened my book and started at the beginning. The book has disciplines grouped, and the first grouping is worship. It’s one I’ve barely looked at. So, I looked at it.  One of the first disciplines I saw was celebration.

Ouch. Celebration. I struggle with this, both spiritually and otherwise. Years ago, I would make a big deal out of holidays, birthdays, festivals. But when my husband lost his job eight years ago and we fell back below the poverty level after years of being above it, I stopped with many of those things. Money was an issue, and we were all frustrated with life, and I didn’t have the energy for all of it. In survival mode, I didn’t leave room for celebration.

Now I belong to a church that pay attention to the church calendar, so there are seasons where we celebrate, like Easter, and seasons where we wait, like Advent and Lent, and again, it seems difficult. I struggle to decide how to implement these in my family. They’ve grown accustomed to not celebrating, so they roll their eyes when I try. We’ve become very somber and cynical, and I think it has everything to do with us not celebrating. Not celebrating God as an act of worship–praise–and not celebrating the rhythms God has put in the world, like seasons and birthdays and anniversaries.

Last week in a post I mentioned I was trying to look at goals in a new way. Instead of simply writing a goal for my life and then failing, I am trying to decide why I’m failing. And so I looked at celebration, which used to be part of my life, and tried to figure out what had changed.

First, my family is older. They simply don’t get excited about things. If need be, I can celebrate alone. And eventually, if I can restore some lost traditions and create some new, they’ll get on board. Especially birthdays–I doubt any of them will actually turn down the chance to be king for a day.

Part of it is indecision. I freeze. Should I get a gift? Make a meal? What should I do to celebrate Advent, given the internet has five million awesome ideas? How can we add new traditions to Easter to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection? How can I celebrate God on a daily basis through praise? Singing? Writing? Art?

Being the kind of person who overthinks everything, all those questions make me crazy. And at this moment, I’m not sure how to overcome this one. But I’m going to try.

Finally, I’m tired. I just had a physical, so I know I’m healthy. I’m a type one diabetic, and that can be draining. It takes constant diligence, so I get mentally tired. But the worst offender is simply my schedule. My husband works second shift, and neither he nor I have done well with a second shift life. If I’m going to be serious about living life to the full, I have to sleep better. There is no way around that. I need to watch my sugar levels so I’m not wakened at four a.m. to fix a low. I need to go to bed earlier. I love to study and read before bed, but I have to start that earlier, because I wake up early regardless of when I go to bed. Maybe I have to nap. I know I need to step up the exercise. But however I do it, I have to get more sleep so I can live with more energy and excitement about my days.

So, I have some work to do. Celebration wasn’t on my radar at all. But if I want to reach the world in any way, I can’t do it all somber and uninspired. The Bible is filled with praise. I intend to work through Psalms, especially, and remind myself that God is about joy. Because of him I have a guaranteed awesome future. And celebrating that is important. Celebrating people I love is important. Celebrating God’s creation–seasons and harvests–is important.

And maybe, if I don’t overthink this and simply call out my inner child, I can have fun with this. And then my family can have more fun with life. I want my children to follow God their entire lives. It’s an adventure with ups and downs and smiles and tears. Lately I haven’t been expressing the full scope of this journey. I feel that if I do, my children, my family, and all those around me will see more of God and want to join me in celebration, too.

 

Fire, Maracas, and Life

fire maracas and lifeOn Holy Saturday, I went to an Easter Vigil for the first time. I’m embarrassed to admit that, because I’ve attended a church with an annual Easter Vigil for a long time, but I’ve never attended. I had no idea what it was. Honestly, the name doesn’t make it sound too wonderful, and I used to belong to a denomination that never used that term, so… Anyway. I finally attended.

On Friday I spent time with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. All day Saturday I felt the stirrings of sadness and grief that Jesus had to die, but also the anticipation that Easter was about to arrive and I knew the end of the story. It had a happy ending, even though that middle part was awful. It was a strange day. But the Easter Vigil spoke to that, the between space from Friday night to Sunday morning.

Since I’ve only attended one Easter Vigil, I can’t tell you if my church does it anything like other churches. We started outside lighting a fire. A deacon lit a candle with that fire and took it inside. We prayed and sang with lit candles. For some reason, singing praise songs with a candle in hand is way cooler than any other method, so that felt special. We heard Old Testament passages that spoke of Jesus’ future sacrifice, prayed, and sang. We remembered our baptisms and rejoiced with someone renewing his baptismal vows.

At one point, I watched two female musicians leading the songs. I don’t remember what we were singing, but one musician was in tears, and the other was beaming with the brightest smile, and I had to laugh. And cry. Those reactions, so different and yet both so honest, both so acceptable, completely summed up my emotions that day as well as the feel of the service.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t react like I should. Should I cry more? Rejoice more? What if I’m not doing this right? When I react strangely, does that mean I’m not taking things seriously? Do I not understand what was done for me? Is there something wrong with me?

But the reality is that what Jesus did was hard and sad. My sin is awful. But He went of his own accord, not hating me for making him go, but loving me and excited and rejoicing in the chance to bring me home. So. Tears are good. Smiles are good. And both at once–that’s certainly a possibility.

An Easter Vigil ends with the return of light, the return of life. In our church, the children–and a good many adults– grabbed instruments from a basket on the way in. During the last songs, the room filled with the sounds of maracas, tambourines, even a triangle struck by a very excited little boy. By the time we left, my ears were ringing. I was reminded of Jesus’ words a week before, when he said that if his people didn’t rejoice when he entered Jerusalem, the rocks themselves would cry out. The night of our vigil, it sounded like the entire world was rejoicing, with voices and drums and maracas and stomping feet and twirling children with instruments in hand.

Maybe the rocks themselves cried out, for Jesus rose from the dead as a true king, and we were there for a wild coronation night. But if they did, we were making way too much noise ourselves to hear them.

That night we walked into our church weeping, lost and alone because we were still in our sins, because the man who would be king had failed and died.

We left with hope and a future, the king ascended to the throne once and for all.

From now on, the Easter Vigil is on the calendar, non-negotiable, every year. And I might have some words with everyone who NEVER TOLD ME what to expect, because I missed a lot of years. But again, God’s timing was perfect, and he met me in the between place and spoke to my spirit with His Spirit at a time he knew I was listening.

I don’t know why that surprises me any more.

Lasts, Firsts, and Eyes to See

Depositphotos_66235719_original.jpgRecently a writer mentioned how great it would be to read one’s favorite book again for the first time. Maybe it was see a favorite movie again for the first time. Regardless, I was thinking about that idea, and I agree. Firsts of anything are special.

I want to hear Bible stories again for the first time. Since this is Holy Week, and today is Good Friday, I wish I could erase everything I know, all the sermons I’ve heard, the million times I’ve read the story, and hear the story of Jesus for the first time, especially Jesus in Passion Week. Continue reading

Passion lost, passion found

Passion week palm sunday

AppleMark

Yesterday began Passion Week or Holy Week. In our church, we celebrate Palm Sunday by walking, as a church, through the parking lot or church property, carrying palm fronds, and singing or speaking Hosannas.

This year, our church is in a new location. We now meet in an urban area in a building whose first purpose is to feed the homeless several times a week. There is only one door in or out, so we couldn’t leave one way and enter another for our Palm Sunday processional. Instead, we walked around the block. We passed the entirety of the building that feeds the homeless. We walked past the  coroner’s office. We walked through a less-than-lovely part of town, carrying palm fronds, saying Hosanna.

It felt strange.

A woman visited our church yesterday, and I wondered what she thought of walking around an urban block with a whole bunch of strangers, looking kind of strange. I ended up walking beside her, and after a minute she started to laugh. She admitted this was kind of fun and suggested someone should be filming us.

As we headed past the coroner’s office on an unkempt street with more gravel than concrete, she said something that I won’t forget. Remember I didn’t know this woman. I didn’t know what she believed or how she’d found us or anything about her except she was willing to be part of this bizarre spectacle, and by the end she was saying Hosannas with the rest of us.

“I feel like we’re putting armor around the church,” she said quietly. She looked at me. “We’re putting up a protective wall. Invisible wall against evil. Nobody can see it, but evil can see it, and it can’t come inside.”

Later I learned this woman’s name, although I lost track of her at the end of the service and didn’t get to talk to her again. I hope she comes back. Already I love her smile and her laughter and her insights. I’d love to know more about her and become part of her family. We’ll see if that happens.

All day I thought about those words, especially in the context of Holy Week, the week we remember Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. He set his face to get there, because he had a date with death. He knew we are all vulnerable to evil. He knew we all need protective armor to keep evil out. It wasn’t as simple as walking with palm fronds. Jesus’ armor over us is blood. Because he covered us in blood, we have the ability to call on the Spirit with our voices and palm fronds, to laugh in the face of a dark world as we make spectacles of ourselves.

I’ve been around for a whole lot of Holy Weeks. Sometimes I don’t see it any more. It becomes rote and ritual, and I worry more about what quick bread to take to Easter service than what the week means. It was Jesus’ entire life goal, to set his face to Jerusalem, disappoint a nation who wanted a king, and die a bloody, horrible death. And yet, too many years I don’t get it, don’t feel it, don’t let that truth shake me to my very core.

During our service yesterday, a man was reading from Isaiah 52/53, speaking of Jesus being pierced and crushed for us, that our iniquity was laid on him, and before he finished reading his voice was breaking and tears were falling. He got it. He hadn’t forgotten or lost his passion for passion week. I listened to him struggle, and I looked at the words, and I looked ahead at a stranger who reminded me that I don’t have to bleed for safety now. I have armor, and the weeping man in front was reading about the source of this safety, the horrible, terrible event that rescued me, that covered me with protection.

I have said before that I’m thankful for tears. I’ve been a stoic for much too long. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I saw the words again, felt the pain again. The passion stirred. The Spirit spoke, perhaps wept at the memories of the beloved son in his moment of loneliness and isolation when God turned his face away. I heard that heavenly weeping, that shudder from the past, when God made everything right in the world by letting something go terribly, terribly wrong.

I hope you spend time this week reflecting on Jesus’ final week on earth, on his purpose, his goals, his pain, his blood, and his victory. The world doesn’t care, and I live in the world, so this week will look like most other weeks. But I plan to set aside time to think and read–and obviously to blog, which is another way I think–and let the stirrings of passion fan into a flame.

I am armored. I did nothing to get that. Evil can’t get through the wall. A very real person did that for me, and this week, I hope to grow closer to him and not take any of his life or death for granted.