After the Storm…

Here in Southern California, we’ve had a very rainy winter. At first the rain was a welcomed relief from the usual hot, dry weather. But as the weeks languished, with little or no sunshine, the rain soon became unwanted. There were days when it felt like the sun was never going to shine again. But it did. And now we are enjoying one of the most beautiful springs I’ve experienced in almost 18 years living here.

The kids and I recently had the opportunity to witness Spring in full bloom, in fields covered with California’s iconic golden poppies. It was an amazing sight to see. But what was more incredible was the realization that this “super bloom” was only made possible by the rain—that annoying, sometimes dangerous, often depressing rain.

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How often is this true for us? When we are in the midst of a fierce storm, it may feel as though the sun has been permanently darkened in our lives. There were days in the beginning of my journey when I couldn’t envision a day without heartache and tears. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling “normal” again. But slowly, as the clouds have begun to part and the sun has started to peek through, I’m seeing what’s blooming in my life. And it’s beautiful. It’s different from what I expected, but breathtaking just the same.

If we trust our good Father, the storm will end, the sun will come out and we will realize the beauty that has grown as a result of the rain. We don’t always know what the end of the journey will look like. It may look hopeless at times. But Romans 8:28 reminds us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

We can trust God because He’s the same One who rebuked the wind and said, “Peace! Be still” (Mark 4:39). And He’s the same One who uses all of the things in our lives–the good, the bad, the ugly–to create something beautiful (Ecclesiates 3:11).

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

The enemy of our souls thrives in secrecy and lies. It’s how he keeps us bound. Shame and condemnation keep us from seeking true freedom in Christ. He can convince us that we are unworthy. The truth is, we are unworthy, except through the blood of Jesus. But secrecy also keeps us isolated from other people.

I learned this lesson recently, as I took a step of transparency with a dear friend. God had been dealing with me about being open with her about an area in my past. You see, when I was 15 years old, I decided to rummage through my older brother’s belongings. He had been known to hoard candy. However, what I found was not candy. It was a pornographic magazine. (This was before the proliferation of the Internet.) What I saw in that magazine ripped through my innocence and began a pattern of secret sin that I lived with for years–sin I brought into my marriage.

At the time, I didn’t know why God would have me “dredge” this up. After all, I rationalized, I’ve been delivered from that pattern of sin. I sat with it for a few days, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t a prompting of the Holy Spirit. But the topic of truth and being a person of truth kept popping up. At that point, it would have been an act of intentional rebellion not to do as the Holy Spirit was directing me.

So I swallowed my pride, called my friend, and confessed this blotch in my past. Then, to my surprise, she responded with a meek, “Me too…” Even though God had set us free from the sin, we still lived under shame and condemnation. But in that moment of honest transparency with one another, we both experienced a deeper level of freedom.

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32 ESV

It was then that I could see so plainly the enemy’s scheme. John 8:32 says, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (ESV). Satan doesn’t want us to walk in truth, because he knows that there is freedom, real freedom, in that. If he can keep us bound by guilt, even if we’ve put a particular sin behind us, we won’t be able to experience full liberty. He knows that there is nothing he can do to separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). But he can sure keep us from accepting and receiving that love, if we let him. It’s like I can hear him saying, “Gotcha!”

To destroy the chains of shame, we must break the silence and live in transparency with one another. We have to remember, one of the weapons of our warfare against Satan is truth (Ephesians 6:14). Revelation 12:11 says, “And they defeated him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die” (NLT, emphasis added).

Today, I choose to be a person who walks in truth. I will no longer be bound by shame or condemnation. “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).

Seeing God More Clearly

Recently, I was looking through pictures from the past three years. And I could see in these pictures when pain and suffering came to visit us. I saw pictures from our family’s trip to Chicago. On the surface, they looked like pictures from a fun family vacation. But then I remembered we had gone to Chicago for the funeral of a beloved aunt. Then I saw a picture of me with my mom and dad taken less than ten days later. Another beautiful family shot, except we were standing graveside for the burial another well-loved aunt. Then there was the picture of Journey smiling, sitting in an ER bed with swollen lips, the result of an unexplained allergic reaction–just another incident in a string of illnesses and strange symptoms he experienced that year. And so I chronicled the beginning of our season of suffering. Things got progressively worse. There were more deaths in the family, more illnesses and the most painful blow of all–a marriage coming apart.

It was strange looking back at these pictures and reflecting on where I am today compared to then. Somehow God seems nearer now than He did then, despite the fact that the suffering, at least on paper, hasn’t lessened. I have more peace, joy and hope in my life than I had before all of this began.

How is it possible that I can see God more clearly in the suffering than I did in the pleasantness of life? The enemy of our souls designs suffering to pull us away from God. He uses it to try to convince us that God is not good and that He doesn’t have good intentions toward us. His goal has been and continues to be to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). But therein lies the beauty and the contradiction of suffering. If we allow it, we will experience a nearness of God we couldn’t know otherwise. Our Father is so present during our trials. Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (ESV).

I have learned that God is not some far-off, distant God. He’s the Father who is orchestrating things to accomplish His good purpose for my life (Genesis 50:20). He’s the Son weeping with me at the tomb (John 11:33-35). And He’s the Spirit making intercession for me with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

Possessing the Promise

“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it'” (Numbers 33:50-53 ESV).

God had promised the land of Canaan to the people of Israel. It was their inheritance from their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was theirs…no doubt about it. But God didn’t simply just hand it over. He instructed them through Moses, to “drive out all the inhabitants of the land…” He could have destroyed the inhabitants  ahead of them. But instead, He gave the people of Israel the opportunity to partner with Him for the possession of the promise.

What if the people of Israel didn’t actually take possession of it? What if they had stayed on the other side of the Jordan, looking out at the land that was theirs, but never doing anything about it? That’s kind of like receiving a check for a million dollars but not cashing it. Sure, that money is mine and it’s pretty cool to be able to say I have a million dollars. But unless I actually deposit it into my account, it’s of no use or value to me.

The same is true for the promises God has for me. His word is chock full of promises for you and me. But unless we take possession, we will not experience all that He has for us. So we must take possession. That sounds pretty daunting and it would be if God expected us to do it on our own. But the awesome thing about this is we don’t have to do it on our own. He has said, “You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22 ESV). He’s also said, “Have I not commanded you? 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 1:9 ESV).

How Do We Take Possession?

What does it mean to take possession? Is it enough to believe and even agree with God about His promises? I think that’s a great first step. But I don’t believe it’s sufficient to simply believe. There have to be action steps we each take to partner with God. I’m reminded of James 2:17 which says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

What do those action steps look like? I think it’s different for each person. For me, it’s to continue in my obedience to whatever He tells me. It’s to “…not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9). It’s also to continue to contend in prayer with thanksgiving.

For you, it may be taking a leap and doing something that’s been on your heart to do. It may mean discontinuing doing things that God has told you to stop doing. But no matter what the step is that God is calling us to, we won’t possess the promise until we move.

So what steps of faith is God calling you to take in order to possess His promises?

The Long Way Around

Sometimes I feel like God is taking me the long way around to fulfill His promises for my life. And it can be frustrating. I know He’s working. But sometimes it feels like there has to be a more direct route.

But as I was reading in Exodus recently, I noticed that God did the same with the children of Israel after their release from Egypt. “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ But God led the people around by the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle” (Exodus 13:17-18).

So why did God take them the long way? I think one reason is the children of Israel were just starting to learn they could trust God again. They had been in captivity for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). In that time, I’m sure they had grown suspicious of God’s intentions toward them. They even showed their faithlessness when they saw the Egyptians chasing after them: “And they said to Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, “Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!”‘” (Exodus 14:11-12 NLT).

“… So the people feared the Lord and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” – Exodus 14:31

But because God hadn’t taken them by the shortest, most expedient route, they didn’t really have the option of trudging back to Egypt. This gave God the opportunity to remind them of His power so that they would learn to trust Him more fully. “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:30-31).

I believe another reason God led the Israelites by the long way around was to display His glory to the surrounding nations through His miraculous intervention. “The peoples hear and tremble; anguish grips those who live in Philistia. The leaders of Edom are terrified; the nobles of Moab tremble. All who live in Canaan melt away; terror and dread fall upon them. The power of your arm makes them lifeless as stone until your people pass by, O Lord, until the people you purchased pass by” (Exodus‬ ‭15:14-16‬ ‭NLT‬‬).

Our world tells us that the best way is the quickest, shortest route from Point A to Point B. But God’s not so worried about expediency. He’s more interested in my development in the process. And He’s more concerned with using my life to display His glory to those around me. So sometimes that means taking the long way around. But in the end, I am convinced it will be worth it.

Please note: I left out a lot of the details from the biblical account, assuming a basic familiarity with the overall story. But if you haven’t read it before, it’s definitely worth reading. It can be found in Exodus 13-15.

Hope and a Good Future

“‘I say this because I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have good plans for you. I don’t plan to hurt you. I plan to give you hope and a good future‘” (Jeremiah 29:11 ICB, emphasis mine).

My son handed me a 3″ x 5″ card with the above words written in my own handwriting. I didn’t even remember writing it. But there it was. At the time, I had been asking God for a guiding theme for our family in 2019. Our church was planning “New Beginnings” as a theme for the new year. And I so wanted that to be for us too. It sounded so nice–it sounded exactly like what I needed. But I knew in my heart God had something different in mind for us. So when Journey casually handed me this card, with this verse in an obscure translation, I didn’t just brush it off…well, I almost did.

For me, Jeremiah 29:11 was an overused verse. I categorized it under  my “cliche verses” file, along with Philippians 4:13. You know, the verses that are printed on coffee mugs and T-shirts. And because it is so often used, I tended to discount its truth, as if somehow its popularity made it less true. But God’s word is true no matter how many farmhouse-style signs are printed with it. So after I got over my snobbery, I allowed God to begin to speak to me the truth of this verse.

In its context, it’s part of a letter the prophet Jeremiah sent to the Babylonian exiles. In this letter, he’s basically giving them some less than thrilling news and some instructions:

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’ This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Do not let your prophets and fortunetellers who are with you in the land of Babylon trick you. Do not listen to their dreams, because they are telling lies in my name. I have not sent them,’ says the Lord. This is what the Lord says: ‘You will be in Babylon for seventy years'” (Jeremiah 29:4-10a NLT).

The exiles believed that their time in Babylon was going to be short. They thought they would be returning home soon. But this letter from Jeremiah breaks the news that they would be there for 70 years, so they might as well unpack and get to living. I can imagine how disappointed they felt. I’ve been there. It’s that moment when you realize there’s no quick fix to the mess you’re in, no “special prayer” to make it all go away. And God surely knows too and that’s where we get to this beautiful promise of a future and a hope:

“‘But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope'” (Jeremiah 29:10b-11 NLT).

During the past year and a half, I’ve felt like an exile. I’m in a place I never intended to be–living in a “land” that feels foreign and scary. But I’ve had to make my home here and allow myself to grow. It can be dark and frightening here. But God has promised “hope and a good future.” How exciting and reassuring is that?!

So I embrace Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise and a guiding theme for my family this year. As we move into and through 2019, this promise will lead us. When fear and doubt creep in, as they will, we can point back to the promise of “hope and a good future.” And we can remind ourselves that God is a promise keeper and that His word does not return to him void (Isaiah 55:11).

The Victorious Life

Happy New Year! I hope your year is off to a prosperous beginning.

As a point of personal reflection, I’ve been reading through my personal journal from the last year. It’s been both encouraging and challenging to review the things God taught me in 2018.

The following is an entry I made last Good Friday (March 30, 2018). I decided to publish it here because I believe it best encapsulates what God taught me in 2018:

What does a victorious life in Christ look like? Is victory in Christ a life without trials and challenges? Is it a life where everything always works out as planned or hoped for?

That’s what I wish it looked like…all of my troubles and challenges all tied up neatly in a pretty bow. No pain, no discouragement. But that’s not victory in Christ. That’s a fairy tale. John 16:33 says, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

I’ve been looking at “victory in Christ” all wrong. I’ve somehow bought into the lie that because my situation hasn’t resolved itself the way I’d like, I’m not experiencing victory.

The victorious life is not a life absent of trouble. It’s one that enables me to walk forward in the challenges. It’s one that gives me crazy, ridiculous joy and peace in midst of the most heart-wrenching circumstances.

This is the victorious life: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2-3). The victorious life is one where God is with me in all of my troubles, carrying me and not allowing them to overtake me.

I think about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace. They still had to go through it. God could have prevented them from even being put in the furnace. But He had a greater victory in mind. He allowed them to walk through it, but He kept them and walked with them. As a result, King Nebuchadnezzar worshiped the one, true God (Daniel 3).

God could rescue me from my troubles. He could have kept me from going through any of this. But He has a greater victory planned. He is walking with me through this. And others will worship the one, true God when they see His hand keeping me in the midst of the flame.

Victory in Christ is not the absence of trouble, it’s the presence of God in the midst of it.

Will I Still Trust?

“…Let it be to me according to your word.”
– Luke 1:38 ESV

As Christmas has approached, I’ve been reading, or rereading, the Christmas story. For the first time, I’ve been really intrigued with Mary and her response to God, “…Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV).

It seemed so easy for her to respond to God with a “yes.” She had only one question, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34.). That would have been the least of my questions: “What am I supposed to tell my parents? What about Joseph? What’s he going to think? And all the people in town? They’ll judge me for sure! What do I tell them?”

I always want more information. I want to know how and why and when. I’m sure Mary had the same questions in her heart. But she responded with faith instead of more questions. She had a choice to believe what the angel was telling her or demand more information.

Can you imagine if she hadn’t been so willing? What if she had told the angel, “Let me think about it, weigh the pros and cons and get back to you.” Seems reasonable, right? But that’s not what God was asking of her. He wasn’t asking her to put this plan through some decision matrix and get back to Him. He was asking her to trust Him.

“You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
-Luke 1:45 NLT

Because she trusted God and took Him at His word, she was able to take part in the greatest story of all time. It was said of her, by her cousin Elizabeth, “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” (Luke 1:45 NLT).

I’m not always going to get my questions answered. So the bigger question is, “Will I still trust God, even when I don’t have all of the answers?”

Roots and Rocks

Have you ever planted a garden? I have not! But I remember watching my grandmother turn a corner of our yard into a small vegetable garden.

One of the first things she had to do was get rid of what was already growing there–in this case grass (much to the chagrin of my father). I watched her mark out a space and begin to transform this once lush patch of grass into what looked like a barren wasteland. She turned up the soil. Dug up roots and rocks and left nothing but a bare spot in the corner of our yard.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. Soon we had a beautiful vegetable garden with the best-tasting green beans and tomatoes growing. It was amazing to see the transformation. But it all started with what looked like destruction, at the time.

Sometimes, I feel like that little vegetable garden is my life. God decided to take my life, which looked fine but wasn’t really functioning beyond aesthetics, and turn it into something fruitful. But sometimes the process feels devastating. Like that patch of dirt my grandmother was turning into a garden, there are roots and rocks that need to be dug up in my life in order for fruitfulness to take place. There are roots of bitterness, jealousy, and selfishness. Each one needs to be dug up and rooted out. There are rocks of hardheartedness and disobedience that need to be tossed away.

I like to think that I’ve accomplished a lot of growth in recent months. But then I’m confronted with an attitude or a thought, or even an action, I thought I had dug up a long time ago. Every time I discover one of those lovely remnants of what once grew in my “garden,” I’m reminded just how far I still have to go.

From time-to-time, I’ll pray Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (NLT). But if I’m being honest, I mean, really honest, I usually only pray it when I’m pretty sure God won’t have anything to point out. I pray it when I’m feeling pretty superior about this Christian-walk thing. But inevitably, God responds to my phony prayer with very real answers. He points out the hidden sin, the wrongly-adopted attitude or the unsubmitted area of my heart. He points out more roots and rocks.

You see, in order for a garden to continue to grow, there has to be maintenance. My grandmother spent a lot of time in that garden, even after the vegetables began to grow. She continued to pull up weeds and remove errant rocks. If she hadn’t, before long, the garden would have reverted back to a useless patch of dirt. That’s actually what happened. When she moved back to New York, no one took the time to keep up her garden. Eventually, it just became a dead patch of dirt where grass wouldn’t even grow.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” -Philippians 1:6 NLT

I don’t want that for my life. I don’t want the growth and fruitfulness God has brought to be lost because I’m unwilling to deal with the things He points out. And He doesn’t want that for me either. That’s why He continues to dig around in my life. Because whether I meant it when I prayed it or not, He intends to “lead me along the path of everlasting life,” for His name’s sake. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Superhuman Faith

Recently in my Bible reading, I’ve been taking a deeper look at the life of the Apostle Paul (also known as Saul). He didn’t do anything halfway. Even before his conversion, he was passionate about eliminating the new believers. In Acts 8:3 it says, “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Acts 9:1 says, “But Saul still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest…” He went all in!

So it’s no surprise that once Paul had an encounter with Jesus, he used this same passion to disciple the followers of Christ. But he didn’t have it easy. As a matter of fact, when the Lord appeared to Ananias in a vision about Paul, He told Ananias, “…Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). From the outset of Paul’s ministry, he was on a path of suffering.

Even on his first ministry excursion he had to escape for his life by being lowered down the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). I’m not sure about you, but at that point I probably would have questioned if I had heard from God. But not Paul. He continued on despite constant persecution and threat of death. Not only did he continue on, but his zeal for Christ never wavered. Wow! I wish I could say that.

When he and Silas were thrown in prison, their response was to pray and sing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). I think eventually I get to the point where I’m praying and giving praise to God in the face of adversity, but it’s not usually my first response. When I’m faced with opposition or discouragement, I tend to question God’s goodness to me.

Paul almost seems superhuman to me, with an extra measure of the “Jesus gene.” But I’m reminded of James 5:17a which says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…” I believe the same is true of Paul. He wasn’t some extraordinary person. Yes, he was chosen by God, but so are we (see 1 Peter 2:9). I believe what sets Paul apart from me is that he found his joy in God, not his circumstances; and he took God at His word and trusted and obeyed Him.

I am far too fickle with my trust in God. I have really good moments where I’m “all in,” like Paul. But then I waver at the slightest opposition. My prayer is that as I continue to study Paul’s life, I will learn how to trust and obey God as he did. And be able to confidently say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

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