Tuesday, March 26, 2013

For the Birds

But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
~Isaiah 40:31 (NKJV)

While in San Diego over Spring Break, I found myself mesmerized as I listened to fascinating facts about the animals at the San Diego Zoo.   The bus lurched to a squeaky stop in front of a large flock of flamingos.  Ordinarily, I am not super impressed with these tall pinkish-orange birds.  Not that they aren’t beautiful, but, come on, we were eager to see the polar bear, panda bear, and big cats.  I would have been fine with riding right on by the birds.

Our guide was telling us that the flamingo’s coloring is a result of the beta-Carotene in their diet.  This is the same stuff that made my babies’ noses orange when they fell in love with sweet potatoes and carrots and would eat nothing else!

I listened as our cheerful tour guide described why some of the flamingos look greyish-white instead of bright pink or orange.  She told us very matter-of-factly that those were the mommas.  She said that all flamingos are born with grey feathers and that what they eat gives them their famous coloring.  So, the birds that lacked that bright, vibrant appearance, well, those were the tired-out, worn-out, exhausted mommas who are too busy feeding their babies to take care of themselves. 

“Huh," I thought to myself, "incredibly familiar."  As I sat there taking in everything our guide was saying, it hit me… hard.  I saw myself in those flamingos.   Only a momma who is ragged and worn around the edges as she rolls out of bed (sometimes at the crack of dawn and sometimes in the middle of the night) knows the energy it requires to muster up the patience, the determination, and the will power to face a day with little ones (or big ones) who are in constant need. 

Oh, how I wish I had eight arms like an octopus some days.  Or a shell like a clam or turtle to escape the never ending requests that start with “Mommy, I need.....”  Sometimes, I wish I was as fast as a cheetah so when another a potty request is made after we are all buckled in the car, I can run like the wind and arrive everywhere on time instead of always running late. 

As I stared at these beautiful birds, all of a sudden, I could pick out all the momma flamingos.  Just as the tour guide had explained, they were the ones that were pale in comparison to the birds who were clearly well nourished.  They were easy to spot because they didn’t look as healthy as the other birds, who wore the evidence of a body well-fed.  On days that Jake and Lilly are in pre-school, I often find myself wondering aimlessly around places like Target just enjoying the fact that I don’t have two little ones trying to climb out of the cart.  But without fail, I always run across women who (even if they don’t have their children in tow) have that weary and exhausted look that I’ve come to recognize in my own mirror.

This morning I read Isaiah 40:31, a verse I know well and love deeply.  I couldn’t help but make the bird connection as I asked for strength for the day before me.

But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

I love that it doesn’t say “those who strive really, really hard on their own…”
Or “those who muster up all of their left over strength from the day before…”
Or “those who have it all together…”

Those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength.
Those who trust in the LORD shall renew their strength.

I love the idea of soaring like an eagle, far above the world, strong and steady and swift.  I read in one of my bible’s footnotes that an eagle sheds its feathers in the beginning of spring and takes on a new, youthful appearance.  With new plumage comes renewed strength.  Psalm 103:5 refers to this phenomenon as the writer declares, “your youth is renewed like the eagles.”  Oh, how I need my youth renewed!

This past weekend, I had a night out with two other moms.  One is expecting her second child in only two weeks.  The sweet baby boy taking up so much space in her tummy prevented her from finishing her dinner.  I remember those days when there’s just no more room, not even for a delicious dish, no matter how much you shift in your seat.  Many times during the last weeks of my pregnancy, I reluctantly set my fork down, not even halfway through my meal.  Now, my fork gets set down for a whole slew of different reasons.

As three mommas sat around the dinner table exchanging silly stories of potty training and sibling rivalry, I realized that we had so much in common with those pale grey birds I saw at the zoo.  Our time together was refreshing.  I shared with them how just a couple days before with a sick child at home, I had sent my incredibly helpful husband out to pick up Motrin and Pedialyte only to have him return with Tylenol and Pediasure. We joked about getting older or to be more accurate, feeling older with every new stage that parenting brought on.  Like the eagle, we also share the need to have our feather's made over.

It was in the middle of that dinner that I realized that unlike the flamingos, it wasn’t what we ate that made us prettier, stronger, more youthful; it’s what we allow to fill us that gives us what is needed to be a strong momma.  The strength is not our own- it’s God’s, and the only way to that strength is in realizing that we are weak and do not have what it takes.  I think that is why the word “wait” is so important in this verse. 

Waiting is all about trusting.  When I get impatient and try to go ahead of God and do things on my own, it’s because I’m choosing not to trust Him.  When I try to muster up my own strength, I fall short every time.  When I try to quench my thirst and satisfy my hunger with things other than Him, I grow weary and fatigued.

The end of this beautiful verse in Isaiah speaks of running and walking without being tired, worn-out or exhausted.  It seems a bit out of order that the running would be before the walking, but I think it might mean that once we choose to focus on running the race set before us, the next step is to chose to walk in faith each day, beginning with one step, then another and another, relying on Jesus each day for the strength we need. 

Though it might seem like a renewed appearance will produce strength, spiritual strength comes from above and is found within.  2 Corinthians 4:16 explains the difference between outward and inward strength:  “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day."

The Hebrew word for renew is chalaph, which means to change for the better, show newness, or sprout again.  It reminds me of trimming back branches at springtime so that new growth can burst forth.  Just as the eagle in the spring sheds those old, used-up feathers, we can shed our miserable attempts to be enough to those who need us.  As we shrug off the idea that we can handle everything, an amazing thing happens:  we get a change of clothes, beautiful and new, given to us by the One who has an endless supply of strength.

A momma who recognizes her own weakness and need for Jesus will be renewed with every ounce of strength she needs to face her day, whatever that day may hold.  And I believe that as Jesus fills our hunger, we too will become bright and vibrant and beautiful from the inside out.

Anytime the Proverbs 31 woman is described, it seems as if mommas everywhere suck in a deep breath, waiting to hear how they are dim in comparison to this woman that seems perfect in every way.   But instead of treating her as something to strive after, I believe that God wants us to accept that she exists inside of each of us, whether we feel like it or not. 

She is described as having “arms strong for her tasks.”  I find it interesting that a few verses before it says that “she gets up while it is still night.”  Nowhere in this entire passage does it say anything about being tired, worn out, weary or exhausted and yet she gets up at dawn!  Clearly this woman must get a full eight hours of sleep to accomplish so much each day, right?!  But I can't help but wonder why she gets up while it’s still dark outside.  I wonder if she is anything like me, who every morning has to lay down my own strength (or lack thereof) before Jesus and acknowledge that I just don’t have what it takes.  I wonder if at the crack of day, she calls out to Jesus, too, saying, “You gotta help me today.  You are strong.  I am weak.  Help me, please.” 

Further down, these two precious words are used to describe the woman that lives inside each of us:  “She is clothed with strength and dignity.” As Jesus renews her strength inwardly, she exudes confidence, peace and beauty.  The Proverbs 31 woman is not perfect, but she knows that Jesus’ perfect love is all she needs to be everything to everybody in her crazy-busy, but oh, so blessed life.  In her weakness she relies on His strength, and His strength makes her strong.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Spider Webs

I was having one of those days… the kind we all have from time to time.  One of those draining days where you can’t quite pinpoint what exactly is bothering you, but you know it’s there.  Something doesn’t feel right.  Something’s off.  God feels miles and miles away.  He’s silent.  You are desperate for an answer and more than anything you need Him to remind you of who you are.

I knew, on this particular day, that in order to get to the bottom of this funk I was in, I had to get alone with God.  As difficult as it was to convince my brain (and my list of a gazillion to-do list items), I grabbed my bible and phone, and sat down outside on my back porch. 

Closing my eyes, I was able to hear the sounds of spring.  I hadn’t realized with my eyes open how loudly the birds were singing.  In the stillness and silence of my soul, I uttered the question I desperately needed answered: “Is my life significant?” 

It startled me at first, but then I realized that it was the very thing I needed God to clarify.  Behind that simple question, a floodgate of others gushed out. 

Does the life that I’m living count for something? 

Is the job you’ve asked me to do for me alone? 

If I mess it up, will you just find someone else who can do it better? 

Do I matter?

I opened my eyes and this teeny tiny orange spider was staring back at me.  I was sitting with my knees pulled up to my chest, and right there, perched on the tip-top of my knee was this strange creature.  He was the smallest spider I’d ever seen, bright orange with a shiny round body and short legs.  I watched him for a bit before deciding a better place for him to crawl was on the ground.   

Then, I noticed another spider crawling up the arm of my chair.  This spider was bigger, with a longer body and long front legs.  Its body was the same brown speckled color as the chair.  When the third spider, yet a different kind, came along I figured I better pay attention. 

I grabbed my phone and typed in the word “spider” in the search line of my bible concordance.  I couldn’t think of any references to spiders, so I was surprised when my search located exactly two places in the entire bible that refer to a spider.  It didn’t take me long to identify the root of the emptiness I was feeling.

Such is the destiny of all who forget God;
    so perishes the hope of the godless.

What they trust in is fragile;
    what they rely on is a spider’s web.

They lean on the web, but it gives way;
    they cling to it, but it does not hold.
  Job 8:13-15

While I don’t normally consider myself to be godless, the “all who forget God” certainly seemed familiar to me.  And I knew that feeling of hope lost.  I’ve heard it said that every human heart is an idol-making factory.  We so easily take our eyes off Jesus and try to find our worth in smaller things; things that will never satisfy us; things that don’t last and were never meant to be our source of hope.  While I recognized that God was showing me that I was the reason He felt far away, I only felt love and acceptance as He gently turned my gaze back to Him.

Jesus came to set the captives free because we are a people who create our own prisons.  Every idol we manufacture in life is a direct path to slavery.  I’m not talking about worshiping the little plastic gods; I’m talking good stuff.  Godly things even.  Family can be an idol if it’s where we find our value.  Any relationship that is more important than the one we have with God is an idol.  Years ago, my pursuit of motherhood was an idol that kept me in bondage for years.  I was convinced that I was a nobody until I could be called “Mom.”  I still struggle with my need to please people, responding to others’ approval of me and ignoring what pleases God.  I want recognition.  I crave acceptance.  And Jesus has already given all of those things to me.

Jesus came to tear down every idol we create.  He knows they are as fragile and flimsy as a spider’s web.  The problem is that as soon as we recognize that we’ve made an idol and allow Him to rescue us, it is only a matter of time before our hearts start whittling away at another one.  This is where I get stuck.  I rationalize that if the work I’m doing is for God then it is alright if I lose myself in it.  But it is still another something that I’ve allowed to capture my heart rather than God.

Last month I read probably the best parenting book out there:  Grace Based Parenting.  The message is simple- model our relationships with our children after the way God treats us- with an abundance of grace.  The author talks about three basic needs that children have:  strength, security, and significance.  In fact, all of us were born with these three needs. 

In verse 15, we see how security and strength can never be found in anything other than God.  They lean on the web, but it gives way- our security is found in God when we chose to trust Him.  Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”  My understanding or perception is radically different from God’s reality.  That is why He urges us to lean on Him and find our security in Him. 

The next part address our need for strength:  they cling to it, but it does not hold.  We are all searching for something or someone to hold us, to be our strength.  The Hebrew word used for hold is quwm, which means to endure, sustain, or prevail.  It is the same word used to describe Jesus in Psalm 113:7:  “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes.”  Only Jesus has the strength to reach down to us where we are, covered in dirt and so unworthy, and lift us out of the mess we’ve created and give us the grace we don’t deserve.  He does the lifting.  He does the delivering.  We have nothing to do with it other than creating a need to be rescued.

I turned in my bible to the second place the word “spider” is found.

They spin a spider’s web… Their cobwebs are useless for clothing;
    they cannot cover themselves with what they make.

Isaiah 59:5,6

The King James Version translates verse 6, neither shall they cover themselves with their worksThe word used for “works” is ma aseh which means labor, business, pursuit, undertaking or work of God.  I thought about that question I had taken to God: “Is my life significant?” 

The reason that I was struggling so was that I had allowed what I was doing to become my source of significance.  Isaiah clearly states that our work, even work for God, can never truly cover us.  Because I had recently studied chapter 61 a few pages over, I made a connection.

A cobweb- flimsy, dirty and full of holes- was never what God intended us to wear when He sent Jesus to free us.  He is a better covering, one that will guarantee our significance as children of the one true King.

I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.

For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Isaiah 61:10

I needed to be reminded that my security, strength, and significance cannot be found in anything I am doing, but only in what Jesus has already done.

With tears in my eyes, I let these amazing truths sink down into my soul, and I thanked Jesus for bringing my attention back to Him.  In that moment, the sun shone on the thin threads of a spider web that were hovering over my chair.  I had seen the spiders, but missed the web above my head.  Jesus, the Light of the world, reveals those webs that so easily entangle us, and He will show us the way out of them when we get trapped.

Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. 
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.   ~Hebrews 12:1-2 (emphasis mine)