Sunday, November 18, 2012

November 18, 2012

Encountering God

The last month has been busy—too busy. I really don’t like to use that word because I think it’s a cop-out. We have choices; we make them; we have to live with them. I made choices that left me busier than I like to be. And when I become too busy, I hurry. And when I hurry, I cannot love the people around me. It’s not a new problem; it’s one I struggle with regularly. But what has changed is my desire. I not only know I need to change, I really want to change. This pace and kind of life simply isn’t working for me anymore. It’s not life giving; it’s draining, and it hurts me and, more significant, the people I love. But I know I can’t change myself. I’ve tried that too many times before, and I have come to terms with the truth that I don’t have that kind of power. But I still hold on to the hope that I can change. So what do I do?

Well, it turns out I was scheduled to go to a three-day retreat last weekend. It’s been on my calendar for 18 months. The Great Banquet is a ministry I have participated in for more than a dozen years, but I had not been on a weekend for 18 months. I really love these weekends because they are so transformative for those who participate—including me. But I have to be honest: this time I was simply looking forward to the retreat being over. This weekend was the last of a number of big commitments that have kept me driving forward for the last six weeks. I was looking forward to having all of these things behind me so I could figure out what my next step would be to figure out how to change my life.

I thought I was being faithful to my commitment and getting it behind me, but the truth was that God was being faithful to me as he put himself before me. Through many and varied wonderful teachings, personal conversations, and experiences, God met me in just the way I needed. I left the weekend with a deep sense of love, joy, and peace.

And what was even more amazing to me is that in our church, the sermon text was on Jacob’s wrestling with God. This text is wrapped in mystery, but what is clear is that Jacob feels fear and anxiety because he does not know what is ahead when he meets his brother Esau. These feelings drive him to God. He knows that he needs God, and that place of vulnerability and openness to God is a place where God can and does meet us.

But Jacob didn’t just have an encounter with God. He was left wounded in his hip socket. Like Jacob, we all have a limp. I was reminded over the weekend that my compulsive busyness comes from a desire to change things in ways that are really beyond my control and power. Sometimes our compulsive busyness comes out of that broken place. That’s not just true for me but for all of us. But when our brokenness and woundedness comes to light, we have the ability to see God and ourselves and our lives more clearly. That was true for Jacob. That was true for me this weekend.

I left the weekend with a more realistic expectation about my life. My life is still going to be full—but not busy. The warp and woof of daily life is not going to be like a retreat. There are things to do, people to see, and places to go. That is life. But the value of getting away from the ongoing demands of life to wrestle with God is what enables us to encounter God in new and fresh ways. To listen to his voice and to receive new insight that we just haven’t been able to see in the midst of our everyday, ordinary lives. It’s not that God isn’t always with us or communicating to us. It’s awareness that is missing, and when we intentionally get away to seek God, especially in times of need, there is something God always wants to say.

An encounter with the living God is not just for people in the Bible or for those we consider “spiritual.” As the people of God, we are called to wrestle with God. In the weeks ahead I’m examining my schedule to ascertain what it says about me and my life. I know I’m wrestling over and striving after many things, but I want to live my life striving after God. May it be so. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

November 3, 2012

Problems and Providence

Some relationships are just difficult. In Genesis 31, we see how difficult the relationship is with Laban because he is determined to use people to get what he wants. Laban has power and uses it for his own purposes. Jacob, along with his wives, decides it’s time to move on so that he can support his family on his own. 

The present difficult circumstances are a driving force in Jacob’s life. After he stole the blessing and birthright from his brother, Esau threatened to kill him. So Jacob fled to Haran, but the providence of God was at work, and in this place far from home, God gave Jacob heirs, fulfilling the blessing given to his grandfather Abraham.

The stress of living in a difficult relationship that drives Jacob to want separate himself from his conniving father-in-law. But the truth is Jacob needs to get home so the remainder of the blessing can be fulfilled in the Promised Land. Jacob is beginning to awake to the truth that God is blessing, guiding, and directing his steps, and he wants to trust more in God than himself or others. That is always a significant turn in our spiritual journeys.

As I think back on my life, it is always amazing and humbling to realize that some of the most significant turns have come due to difficulty in my present circumstance. Leaving home to go to college was a terrifying experience, but it opened me to a deeper desire to know the God who never changes. Struggles with infertility and the unfulfilled desires to have children led me to recognize that my deepest desire was to know and love God more and more. Struggles in a previous job situation where I felt very out of control and confused by the behaviors of others around me, led me to a place where I could let go of control and expectations and trust the grace of God to care for me and provide a future for me.

Problem solving is human nature, and we generally want to get around or over obstacles. But as followers of Jesus, we can embrace every circumstance as an opportunity to trust God. It doesn’t mean the circumstance is good. What it means is that God is good and loving and more powerful than anything we go through. And that is why we can truly believe and live into the truth from Romans 8:28-39:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We often don’t believe or know experientially that nothing can separate us from God’s love. It is when we go through trials and tribulations that we experience the truth that God is working in and through and for us in ways we have not seen before. And that enables us to grow and change and to trust him more. And that is what life is all about. I confess I am still prone to problem solve, and that is not bad. But what I want more is to recognize how God is with me in every circumstance of life and to trust his providence.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Two Ways to Live, Two Ways to Pray
In his book Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Your Heart with the Heart of God, David Benner writes, 

When it comes right down to it, there are really only two possible prayers that can be prayed. One is entirely natural, one is absolutely supernatural. Whether we choose to pray or not, one of these will be praying itself. The choice is not whether to pray. The choice is which prayer to pray.
The prayer that comes most naturally for all of us is “My name be hallowed, my kingdom come, my will be done.” This is a prayer of independence and willfulness. It is the liturgy of the kingdom of self. The prayer that goes against our nature and that can become our prayer only through the action of divine grace is the Lord’s Prayer. It inverts everything in the liturgy of the kingdom of the self—“Thy name be hallowed, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It is a prayer of surrendered autonomy and willingness. It is the liturgy of the kingdom of God.
As I read about the ongoing conflict of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 30, I am struck by how they both are operating under the kingdom of self. They are both clinging to their own agendas, possessions, and strategies for their own futures. The story almost seems a little over the top, but then I think of all the ways I do the same things. It looks different, but it’s really not. We all feel anxiety about the future. We as human beings want a secure and safe future for ourselves and the ones we love, and the ways we seek to acquire that may include hard work, savings, stocks, education, providing opportunities for our children, healthy eating and exercise. These are not bad—in fact, they are good, wise practices. But we can become so attached to our own way of securing our future that we fail to trust God with this present moment. It is very easy to move from willingly cooperating with God to taking control and willfully managing our lives and our futures in our own human striving.

I’m seeking to pay more attention to whether my reactions reflect a rigid, willful maneuvering to clutch or cling to my life, my agenda, or my possessions. Or whether I have a more open, spacious and flexible willingness to recognize and respond to the way God is working in the world, in others, and in me. I confess that the former is my more natural inclination, but by God’s grace and with some intentionality and practice I will be able to live what I pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grief, Grace, and Gratitude

This week I have been thanking God that I am a 21st- century woman. Until very recently in human history, women really did not have rights. Their safety and security were dependent on the men in their lives, at least from a human point of view. In many parts of the world, that is still true.

So when I read of the circumstances in the lives of Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29 and 30—their polygamous marriage to Jacob and the birth of their sons—it important to understand the background. Women depended on their fathers and then husbands to provide for them in the present, and their sons secured their future. What a lot of stress and pressure and feelings of being out of control!

What fascinates me about Leah and Rachel is the way they name the pain and messiness of their life experiences in the naming of their sons. The very names of the twelve tribes of Israel remind us of the labor, the difficulty, the messiness of life in which this family, this nation, and our faith was birthed.

Reflecting on their experience brought to mind my own experience. Over a decade ago, I was in a great deal of pain as my husband and I had been dealing with infertility for many years. We longed to be parents and to have a family. This experience was one of the most difficult of my life. When my expectations about life were unmet and the deep longing of my heart was unfulfilled, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. Everyone around me seemed to be having children. In fact, one summer, I prayed for nine women who were struggling with infertility, and amazingly they all got pregnant. But I didn’t. I couldn’t understand this.  I wanted to please God.  I wanted to live for him. Why would the giver of life not give me life? Like Rachel and Leah and so many others in Biblical history, we waited and grieved and wrestled in prayer. We pursued some treatments, but at one point I knew it was time to stop or we would be crossing a line of taking things into our own hands rather than leaving them in God’s hands. So we had to accept that we would likely not have biological children.

Through this experience, which I assure you was long and arduous, I moved—not outwardly but inwardly. That is, God moved me from one place in my faith journey to a deeper journey.  I had to accept that my understanding about who God was and what he would do for me needed refinement. I had to accept what it means to live in a broken and sinful world where things go wrong. I had to let go of what I thought my life would look like and accept the place where I was, trust God there, and allow him to lead me into the calling he had for me. There is always a choice when we’re called to move—to keep pushing to get what we want by our own human efforts, and to become bitter that God did not do for us what we thought he would do, or to trust him for who he is and to accept the life he has given us as a gift and a blessing.

I am grateful for some of the ways that Rachel and Leah modeled how important it is to name our human experience and live into it, as hard as it sometimes is. But I also know from experience that we don’t have to stay there. I’m learning that the outward circumstances are merely opportunities to live by faith as I trust the love, goodness, and promises of God. The messiness of life can open up new opportunities for God’s grace to accomplish for us what we cannot accomplish on our own.

Infertility was a painful but purifying experience that has borne fruit in many ways. I am more rooted in my identity as a beloved child of God. I have more deeply experienced his love and goodness and peace and joy. I have a greater sense of how blessed I am in Christ and a deeper sense of what it means to be called to be a blessing in all the moments of my life.

God did bless us with two wonderful boys through adoption.  Rather than choosing names for our children that represented the grief of our experience, we chose names that reflected God’s gift of grace in blessing us with a family in the way he chose for us. Nathaniel means “gift from God” and Ian means “God is gracious.”

While life is still messy and there are always challenges, God’s grace abounds, his gifts are innumerable, and there are always reasons to express gratitude.