Friday, February 27, 2015

The Well of Our Incompleteness Runs Deep: Oswald Chambers

Oswald Chambers’ (1874-1906) writings in his devotional book, “My Utmost For His Highest” have guided Christians on the path of Jesus Christ since 1935. I hesitate to use the word “devotional,” as these are so much meatier than that. These daily, oh-so-brief mini essays pack a wallop of wisdom and insight that go much deeper than worship but result in praise to God all the same.

The nugget that lands on today’s date is as follows:

“Where then do You get that living water?” (John 4:11)

     “‘The well is deep’—and even a great deal deeper than the Samaritan woman knew! (4:11). Think of the depths of human nature and human life; think of the depth of the ‘wells’ in you. Have you been limiting, or impoverishing, the ministry of Jesus to the point that He is unable to work in your life? Suppose that you have a deep ‘well’ of hurt and trouble inside your heart, and Jesus comes and says to you, ‘Let not your heart be troubled...’ (John 14:1). Would your response be to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘But, Lord, the well is too deep, and even You can’t draw up quietness and comfort out of it.’ Actually, that is correct. Jesus doesn’t bring anything up from the wells of human nature—He brings them down from above. We limit the Holy One of Israel by remembering only what we have allowed Him to do for us in the past, and also by saying, ‘Of course, I cannot expect God to do this particular thing.’ The thing that approaches the very limits of His power is the very thing we as disciples of Jesus ought to believe He will do. We impoverish and weaken His ministry in us the moment we forget He is almighty. The impoverishment is in us, not in Him. We will come to Jesus for Him to be our comforter or our sympathizer, but we refrain from approaching Him as our Almighty God.
     The reason some of us are such poor examples of Christianity is that we have failed to recognize that Christ is almighty. We have Christian attributes and experiences, but there is no abandonment or surrender to Jesus Christ. When we get into difficult circumstances, we impoverish His ministry by saying, ‘Of course, He can’t do anything about this.’ We struggle to reach the bottom of our own well, trying to get water for ourselves. Beware of sitting back, and saying, ‘It can’t be done.’ You will know it can be done if you will look to Jesus. The well of your incompleteness runs deep, but make the effort to look away from yourself and to look toward Him.” Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, emphasis and underlining mine

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;” Proverbs 3:5-7a

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Willingness to Be Vulnerable

A married woman once asked me what I would call the dysfunctional behavior of her husband. I responded, “I would call it sin.” She paused, sat back, and didn’t say a word. Of all the things she, her girlfriends, the world and psychology had called her husband’s behavior, nobody had ever called it sin. But sin is what it was. She learned its definition that day. And it opened the door to her being able to not only understand it, but acknowledge it in her own life as well.

For many of us, a saving faith in Jesus Christ comes down to one thing: will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable before Him? Will we allow and admit, in vulnerability to Christ, that there is such a thing as sin, and that we are not exempt?

In order to see our sin, the solid doors of stoicism must be splintered and the terror of being found out must go.

Stoicism puts up a false front by re-directing our efforts to being good at something else: exercise, triathlons, charitable giving, education, high job position and volunteer work.

Stoicism also “preserves” marriages by one or both spouses putting in longer and longer hours at work, full immersion in the children’s lives and activities, and a weak hope that the marriage will just keep on keepin’ on of its own will. It’s a stiff-upper lip way of living. If we just keep telling our self everything is fine, then it must be true. Vulnerability cannot enter in at any cost. We’ve recovered from enough pain in life by building a fortress around our inner life: we’re not going to ever risk it crashing down.

When I talk of vulnerability, I don’t mean sentimentality. Many people who have built impenetrable protections around themselves can be surprisingly sentimental.

Sentimentality is safe, you see. Novels and movies like The Bridges of Madison County, for example, which ought to make us sick to our stomachs, find an all-too willing audience in people who want to keep everything on a superficial level. The saccharine, sorry love affair in that novel appeals to the person who has so over-corrected in life they don’t even know what legitimate love is or feels like. Life has never measured up to the fantasy they imagined, so they go through the motions day in and day out, and when a gooey love story appears, they eat it up like cotton candy. But sentimental love isn’t legitimate love, in fact it’s very self-serving (to see its opposite, go to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 where we find that love is not “self-seeking,” “proud” and “easily angered” but is “patient,” “rejoices with the truth” and “always perseveres”).

Biblical love is not found in pre-marital sex and sexual affairs (and will never condone either no matter how “right it feels,”—which is sentimentality at its worst). Biblical love does not ignore ones spouse, and does not fantasize about another (either real or fictional). Our marriages will never get better by bringing in an imposter. But many men, through pornography, bring in imposters, as do many women who endlessly read and watch romance books and films (in which romance almost always involves some sort of sentimental illicitness).

Secret worlds and adult fantasy is a distraction that diverts us off the path of Godly love onto the unfulfilling and often addicting road of worldly lust and/or sentimentality.

So the vulnerability I’m talking about is not sentimental. It is also not the navel gazing sharing that stagnates in many recovery and other small groups.

Vulnerability, on the contrary, means being open to God’s honest assessment of our condition, as painful as that might be. It means being open to the wounds of sin, overcome by a contrite spirit. And through the pain of realizing our deplorable condition, in vulnerability that we lack any solution of our own, we repent and ask God to forgive us and change our ways.

Vulnerability, then, is the humble admission that         I need God.

Vulnerability is what allows us to let God love us. Vulnerability is what then allows us to love ourselves. Vulnerability is then what allows us to love others out of a Godly love, in a Godly way, and not in a warped, twisted, lustful, worldly, sentimental way.

The vulnerability that opens the door to God is the vulnerability I opened this post with. It’s the vulnerability to first ask the question, “What is the problem? What is my problem?” “What would you call it?” And second, it’s to accept the answer: Sin.

“but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” James 1:14

“Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” James 4:8

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” James 4:10

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” 1 Peter 2:11

“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:23-25

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Heart Change is Service to God

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it; ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40

Love of God, others and ourselves is connected. We love God first and thus learn how to love ourselves so that we can love others. And since the love of God, our selves and others involves service, we must understand how service, to be truly of God, comes out of, and does not precede, the love of God.

So how do we get there? How do we get to the loving of God, our selves and others? I believe we get there by agreeing with God that this is a matter of heart change; our heart change. God alone knows the heart of each one of us (1 Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, Matthew 9:4, John 2:24-25, 1 Corinthians 2:11, verse). Jesus can change hearts (Matthew 18:2-4, John 3:1-21).

God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s changing of hearts can be a lengthy and time-consuming process. I know from personal experience that heart alignment can be successful in some areas sooner than in others. It will be different for each of us; which is why we aren’t to compare ourselves with anyone but instead come back and compare ourselves to where God is taking us and how well we are faring. Are we being rebellious or lazy or clinging to our “rights” and “independence?” That will slow down our alignment.

But if pursued with all belief that God will and can do it, this journey of giving our hearts to God for cleansing and re-birth is the most worthwhile journey one can embark upon. Everything else flows out of it. 

When our hearts change, we change. And not only that, we are freed from the control of petty grievances, grudges and need-for-human-approval. It eliminates the emptiness and incredulity that, “No matter what I do or who I live with, life seems lacking. I keep sensing there has to be something more. But the more I strive, the less gratified I am.” 

Heart change replaces fullness of self with fullness of the knowledge of God.

See, once we become saved and place ourselves willingly under the Lordship of Christ, we must let Him do what He must with our hearts. And that might mean a cessation of all the “doing” currently taking place. Oh, God has indeed planned things in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), but he must also be given authority to prepare our hearts for the things He has planned for us. And the first thing to “do,” the first order of “service,” is to work on our hearts.

Motivation, compassion, love, forgiveness, integrity, honesty, our perception of others, thought-life, speech and every action is tied to the heart (Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:11, 18-19; Mark 7, Luke 6:45).

Service is to be to God alone for a reason: God keeps all the worldliness and our sinful egos out. He alone keeps our service pure.

Without a heart transformation, service runs the risk of becoming for us. It starts out innocent enough, but then gradually over time we feel we aren’t getting noticed, or others aren’t working as hard as we are, or we aren’t getting the results, and we become frustrated and jaded and maybe even grouchy with other people.

Service, when not of God in every way, runs the huge and likely risk of being tainted. That is why Scripture commands, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men...It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24, in part). It’s no coincidence that “heart” is the root word of heartily.

This is the only way to keep our service pure. If we think we can serve on our own terms without our sinful nature rearing its ugly head, we will miss out on being a part of God’s miraculous ability to bring about His service through hearts made right by Him. We will miss out on what it means to serve the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2).

True and joyful service blooms out of the first service: cooperating with God in His aligning our hearts with His. When this has happened, we will not decide how, to whom and where we will serve, but God will. And He will equip our hearts accordingly.

We will not serve out of a need for affirmation from people, but will serve and be pleased with the “Well done” from God alone.

We will not serve out of pride, in order to receive accolades and “thank-you” from people, but out of a grateful, humble heart that God would prepare something for us to do that He actually does through us (Philippians 2:13).

We will not serve because the pastor, women’s Bible study leader or anyone else said we “should,” or goaded us into service through flattery of our God-given gifts. We will serve because God brought it about, perhaps through the suggestion of another legit Christian (God works through others just like He works through us), but always with the right motivation. If we are serving out of duress, obligation or pride in our talents, and not foremost out of a strong conviction and peace that this is where God wants us, then we are serving man first, out of pride first.

If we truly want to serve God in God’s way, we will serve Him by asking Him to align our hearts with His. We can make Psalm 51:10 our sincere prayer and desire: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” 

And then we can expect God to do just that as we continue to desire for God to do just that. It may take time, and will involve intentional Bible reading, application and prayer, but we will see our hearts gloriously, freeingly changed.

copyright Barb Harwood

"The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." 1 Timothy 1:5

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Properly Imbalanced Balanced Life

“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.” 1 Chronicles 28:9a

The last few days I’ve posted some thoughts on the over-indulgence of health and fitness. Anyone who knows me well knows I am not anti-fitness. I spent my childhood riding my bike everywhere, including the two miles to school and back when the weather cooperated. I did that through college. When my kids were born, I attached a Burley. I’ve participated in charity bike rides and running events. Exercise, especially outdoors, is good for the body and mind.

I also am not against healthy eating. I thank my mom for raising my five siblings and I on powdered skim milk, sugarless cereal and made-from-scratch meals. My dad had high blood pressure so we never used salt and I continue that habit today. Junk food wasn’t a staple and I never felt deprived. I simply learned healthy eating habits as a way of normal life. It would never have crossed our minds to make too much fuss over or feel superior for how we ate.

Much has changed in the world since then, foremost the family farm. Today there is a healthy increasing awareness of how food is grown and beef and chickens fed and cared for. The push for humane treatment of animals and non-GMO crops is a good one.

At the same time, hamburger and chicken restaurants, not to mention a multitude of other venues for food, have imploded. As a child, I remember visiting friends in a big city and driving over to see the newest addition to their town: McDonalds. I had never seen one before, and we were told they were all the rage. The floodgates were opened, not only to fast food, but also dining out as a common thing.

Now, with sincere thanks to young adults, we find ourselves pushing back. Restaurants are beginning to feature only food sourced locally, along with organic beef and chicken. I’m heartened to see the tide changing and the public voting with their wallets. I think food is starting to be re-appreciated for it’s divine purpose: breaking bread together in community and providing sustenance to our bodies. Perhaps one day the majority of people will stop going to fast food restaurants altogether.

While the return to local and organic food is a positive, on the negative side there is a revival of what I call the “If I get it right, I’ll live forever” crowd (or at least, I’ll live a long life in excellent health with no stress!). They are the ones grasping at straws to do the impossible: find essential oils that will strengthen the hair, imbue the skin, cure insomnia, and bring one to a perpetual Nirvana. 

On the heels of this is the supplement, probiotic and powders crowd who buy into every convincing sales pitch on joint, bone and brain care. These beguiled-for-a-better-life shell out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, spending millions upon millions of precious minutes of their earthly life in the misguided thinking that they are the engineers of their inner metabolism and gene pool.

The greatest sadness is that many of these folks, while trying everything else, have never heeded the call of Jesus in their life. Others are gambling that what some of these purveyors of eternal youth and health are saying is true: God doesn’t want you to be sick. If you are sick, you aren’t doing it our way.God, however, cannot be manipulated.

See, the problem is that when we put the world and those in it first, and are not building our walk with God, we will fall for every wind of teaching (Ephesians 4:14 ). This doesn’t just apply to sound doctrine in our Christian life. It applies to everything.

Scripture says be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Do we have that mindset when we are reading about a new supplement that will supposedly remove our arthritis or change our life? Supplements, gurus and so-called “experts” are not to be our first hope, or used in place of God.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness...” (Matthew 6:33a). That isn’t what we usually hear, even from some supposedly Christian peddlers of health and wellness. Instead it’s, “Try us, and God will bless you. Listen to us, and God will bless you.”

The truth is, only through God do we learn what real blessing is (and blessing isn’t always the answer we desire, but it is blessing none-the-less. This is foolishness to those who don’t know Jesus, 1 Corinthians 2:14).

The Bible is the source of how to live a balanced life (2 Timothy 3:16). But it requires an imbalance, if you will. And that imbalance is that our lives be top heavy with Christ. And by that I mean every aspect of life: thoughts, motivations, words, written letters, deeds, plans, vocation, conversations, relationships, marriage, parenting, and what we eat and how we spend our time all come under His headship (Ephesians 4:15). He is the main thing over everything. Everything.

These verses in Deuteronomy 6:5-9 are my favorite because they teach best, I believe, how to found a Christian family:

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

These verses are some of the most beautiful in all of Scripture depicting the Christian life. The Bible’s teachings are to always be with us—the fount of everything! Whether we are talking with ourselves—mulling an issue, or involving another in conversation, or simply through our actions, Scripture is to be lived out. This isn’t about quoting the Bible but living it due to having the ability to quote it if asked.

Deuteronomy, to paraphrase, is saying, Yes! Talk about life from a Biblical perspective: on the road, as you work and before you go to bed at night.” The implication is knowing Scripture so that we can live the words of Scripture out. If we want to live truly organic lives, live Scripture! Know what it says, hear what it says and do what it says!

If we claim to be Christian, we claim the Christian book, which is the Bible. We cannot live the Christian life without it. If we think we don’t need the Bible, we will indeed fall for every new thing (and Ecclesiastes 1:9 assures us there really is nothing new under the sun). Without Jesus and Scripture, we make ourselves vulnerable to the wolves at the door (John 10).

So to sum it up: eat right, but don’t make what you eat your identity. Find something physical you enjoy, but don’t make it your identity (points from yesterday’s post). Commit, instead, to finding identity in Jesus Christ. That is really, in the end, how we attain moderation and freedom from incessant striving for self-actualization.

When Christ is our identity, there will be less and less of me, and more and more of Christ. And if you look at the fruit of Christ in us, which is spelled out in Scripture, His fruit is not self-centered ambition. It is not self-obsession, self-promotion, or self-actualization, but humility and love of God. Jesus’ fruit does not always result in a healthy body or a life free of trial. But a life of Jesus over time always results in love: of God first, and then ourselves and others.

At some point in life we simply become sick and tired of trying to discover how not to be sick and tired.

Jesus bids us to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). His rest can mean many things, such as freedom from: striving, trying to impress others, obsessing over what we look like, and dread of growing old. But His rest also includes freedom from the fear of death. And isn’t the fear of death one of the big motivators behind health and wellness striving?

What if we were to start with Jesus and His good news? It won’t look or sound like the false good the world tries to peddle. But His good news is free. And free-ing! And certainly worth a try.

copyright Barb Harwood

“...until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4:13-16