Friday, March 4, 2016

When You Pray and Nothing Changes

Suspicion grows weighty and worry plagues my mind for months before the diagnosis finally confirms all my silent fears. My mom has cancer. An overwhelming sense of entitlement follows:  This isn’t what I asked for, God. No, this is the very thing I prayed against. God, you know I believe You can do anything, but God, I prayed and nothing changed.

My faith feels dead, but I know it isn’t. Dreams may be dying, but not my faith. Faith will move me from this raw and honest prayer of heartbreak to an entirely new prayer, eventually. Faith will move me to a prayer that sounds more like this:  I trust You, God, even in this. You are good even if the news isn’t. Whenever I seek You I always find You. Thank you that nothing changes You.

Faith is the vehicle that brings me back to gratitude, because faith isn’t based on my understanding. Faith has nothing to do with me and everything to do with God. Faith assures me that no matter how impossible the circumstances might seem I will find God.

I don’t need strong faith; I need faith in a strong God.

Daniel found God in an impossible situation. A Jewish exile who had been promoted to a very high station in the Medo-Persian Empire, Daniel’s reputation was spotless. The other officials became so jealous that they tried and tried to find ways to slander him, yet they could not. So they did what our enemy loves to do to us: they went after his relationship with God.

Appealing to King Darius’ ego, they concocted a brilliant plan to get the king to sign a new law stating that everyone in the kingdom must pray only to him for thirty days. Those who broke the law would be thrown into the lion’s den. The king agreed and the document was signed, making the law irrevocable, even by the king himself. Daniel’s enemies knew he’d never stop talking to God.

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10

When Daniel received bad news, he gave thanks. Daniel wasn’t thanking God for the bad news; he just knew there were plenty of reasons to give thanks based on God’s character rather than his circumstances. Gratitude prompted peace in his heart. Daniel knew nothing could change how God felt about him. Nothing.  Not being persecuted or slandered or mistreated or rejected or falsely accused. Not even being trapped in a den full of lions.

Nothing changes God’s love for us.

Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.” When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him. Daniel 6:13-14

King Darius was a powerful king. He tried and tried to change Daniel’s situation, but he could not. His rescue mission failed. He was too late. It had become an incredibly impossible situation. The king’s plan involved keeping Daniel from the lion’s den altogether, but God’s plan involved entering the lion’s den Himself. That’s always been God’s plan.

Jesus willingly entered the dark, sin-infested pit of this world to suffer and serve and confront the lion, so that we might live with God in an ongoing relationship forever and ever. Moved by a love that’s unchanging, God paid the price that we never could.

Nothing changes God’s plan to rescue and redeem.

So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. Daniel 6:16-17

Just as the king sealed the den so Daniel’s situation could not be changed, God has sealed us so that we are forever marked as His. To everyone who believes in Jesus, God has promised the gift of His Spirit as a deposit that cannot be revoked. His Spirit within us is proof of His promise. No matter how hard life gets, no matter how far we fall, God has promised He will never remove His Spirit. 

Nothing changes the power of God’s Spirit within us.

If we quit before the story’s over, it might go something like this: Daniel prayed and nothing changed. He had to spend the night with hungry lions. I don’t know what den you’re facing, but Daniel’s story isn’t over yet, and neither is yours. King Darius sprinted to the den the next morning, unsure of what he would find. When he heard Daniel’s voice, he had no choice but to believe in Daniel’s God as well.

Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.  Daniel 6:21-23

I have a tendency to read through this story and forget it really happened. These were real lions- real hungry lions- that had their mouths shut by God. Scripture doesn’t say God filled their stomachs and satisfied their appetites. It only says their mouths were shut. These weren’t sweet cats purring all night long. They were angry and frustrated and confused. And still very, very hungry.

God didn’t remove the threat from Daniel’s life; He rendered the threat powerless over Daniels’ life. The lions remained a part of Daniel’s story, but the lions could never overpower God. 1 Peter 5:8 says that our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Though we still encounter the lion, God has rendered him powerless over those who trust in Jesus.

Daniel’s faith in God did not change, because he understood that nothing changes God. Not addiction, not job loss, not failure, not slander, not divorce, not cancer, not even death can separate us from Him. We can have faith in God through the most impossible situations, because His love never changes, His plan cannot be revoked, and His Spirit will never depart from those who are His.

May we embrace the promise of a God who never changes even as we are dealt heartbreaking disappointments and harsh setbacks. May we give thanks at all times and in all circumstances, especially the unfavorable ones. May we cling to the God who holds in His hand the whole mess of our lives and every broken way we take. May we rest in the companionship of God, knowing that no matter what unfolds in the here and now His love will usher us into eternity blameless and unscathed.

Jesus loves you,

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How One Simple Gesture Can Combat Fear

So do not fear, for I am with you; 
Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. 
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  
Isaiah 41:10

It’s the kind of sunny, crisp day that lures the entire family out to play before dinner.  My long-legged girl swings back and forth, pumping to make the swing go higher and higher.

“I’m swinging so high I can see heaven,” she yells.

Her brother, on the swing beside her, laughs and says, “Yeah! Me too!”

“No, really! I can see Jesus,” she insists, recognizing the faint shred of disbelief in his voice. “And He’s holding my hand!” she adds, raising her hand toward the sky.

“He’s holding your hand?” he asks. I’m thinking the exact same thing.

“Of course, silly,” she responds fearlessly. “Jesus is always holding my hand.”

My momma heart prays that she will remember this when life gets hard, troubling or unfair. I walk through most of my days forgetting that Jesus is holding my hand.  Sometimes, I completely ignore the fact that not only is He with me, but Jesus is for me.

Holding Jesus’ hand is the simplest way to combat fear.

When I was seven, I was caught in a terrifying thunderstorm in the middle of an amusement park.  I remember two things as vividly as if they happened yesterday:  first, the earsplitting sound of thunder and second, the sense of security I felt as I held my grandpa’s hand. All the way through the crowd of panicked people trying to make their way through the drenching rain, Pop squeezed my hand. Each time the black sky split open with lightning, his hand reminded me that he would keep me safe.

The power of this simple gesture isn’t reserved for childhood. I’ll never forget the day my friend held my hand and, through tears, begged God for a miracle. She knew I wanted a baby more than anything, and she also knew I was struggling to believe. Fear had invaded my heart and threatened to take over. Her touch told me that my burden had become hers. She was fighting in my corner, because fear had stolen my will to fight.

There’s security, affection, love and loyalty, but there’s also an intimacy that holding hands invokes. I love that my hand gets lost in my husband’s. After fourteen years of marriage, it communicates commitment. It reminds me that our relationship is based on a love that grows deeper with time. When all three of our babies were born, he was there beside me as I nearly crushed every bone in his hand with mine. Holding his hand made the pain bearable and the fear subside. It changed everything, holding his hand.

The beauty in this simple gesture is a joining together of weak with strong.

In relationship, strong and weak are often interchangeable. In each of these instances, I was weak –either emotionally, spiritually, or physically- but in time it was my turn to be strong for the very same people who had been strong for me.

In the last months of his life, I held Pop’s hand when his mind convinced him we were strangers. Years after my friend stood in the gap for me, I held her hand and begged God to move in her marriage. I held my husband’s hand when he lost someone he loved. 

Holding hands is an extension of the relationship. The gesture itself remains constant, but the role of those joined together can fluctuate. We alternate holding each other up. We take turns being strong, and we take turns being weak.

It is an entirely different experience when we hold hands with the One who remains constant.

In Isaiah 41:10 God uses the name Elohiym, which means “strong God.” He remains strong and constant and always present. He won’t reject us or ever let go. God will never grow tired of being for us. It’s just who He is. He doesn’t expect us to be anything but held.

When I extend my hand, I extend trust. I choose to be vulnerable. Admitting I need Someone stronger means admitting I’m not strong. It means accepting that I am weak. I’m realizing that my issue is not just that I don’t remember Jesus is here. It’s much more than forgetfulness. There’s a rebelliousness in me that refuses to grab hold. 

I want to take His hand after my prayers sound pretty and my faith feels deep and my questions are answered.  I don’t want to come honestly, vulnerably, messy and confused, because that means I have nothing to offer. I don’t want to be weak.

Fear tricks me into believing that I can’t come to Jesus as I am: broken and in need. But it’s often in my weakest moments, when I have no other options, that I move towards Him and take His hand. There in His grip, I remember that He chose me. 

Love leaves no room for fear. We could never earn His love, so we can never lose His love. Jesus makes this amazing promise in John 10:28 that’s bold enough to eliminate any fear: “No one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Jesus’ hand is just an extension of God’s irrevocable gift.

May we be reminded that we are chosen and dearly loved by a God willing and able to handle our hearts. May we move toward Jesus with empty hands and a broken spirit rather than arms full of excuses and pride. May we recognize that our only option is to be held by Jesus’ strong, nail-scarred hand. And may fear melt away in His grip.

Jesus love you,

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

When Life Feels out of Control

As the end of 2015 approached, we all held onto our hopes and dreams and questions, and we sucked in real deep and held our breath. One phone call can change the entire landscape of a family. We waited with heads bowed. In a room full of twinkling lights and Christmas joy, we confessed that joy seemed far away, but we asked for it anyway. We begged God to move. In the middle of that family prayer, I began to recognize an intense desire to build. As I grappled with questions I couldn’t answer, dreams I couldn’t keep, and dread I couldn’t shake, I sensed God’s gentle invitation:

Stop building and start worshiping.

I found myself wanting to build case for God, as if He needed that from me. I wanted to make sense of what God was doing so that I would feel better, but attempting to manipulate and rationalize a mysterious, holy God is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s a tower that needs to fall.

We are all broken, and because of this, we all build. Building only gives the illusion of control. We build when we don't trust or when we don't like that God is telling us to wait. We build as a way to cope. Building busies us. That's why we like it. Satan likes it, too, because as long as we’re building, our eyes aren’t focused on God. 

Worship is the opposite of building; worship is surrender.

There’s a strange comradery I always sense as I read Genesis 11, the account of a people caught trying to build their way to heaven. God told the sons of Noah to scatter and multiply across the earth.  They didn't like God's plan too much, so they put their heads together and decided to try real hard to make a name for themselves. And they found it wasn’t that hard after all. 

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:3-4

They were building a tower God knew would fall, so in mercy, He rescued them. I’m sure it felt nothing like being rescued, though. I’m sure they felt the full weight of frustration and panic, but the confusion God allowed came from a deep well of never-ending love. 

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” Genesis 11:5-7

Bricks symbolize a heavy burden God never intended for us to carry. We weren’t made to reign and rule; we were made to worship. God created us for relationship. He designed our hearts to love Him.

Worshiping God recalibrates our hearts to do what they were designed to do.

Left on our own, we’re confronted with the same reckless desire as the people who thought their tower of bricks and mortar could reach the heavens. There is something in our collective DNA that wants our name praised. If we’re honest, the thought of sitting on the throne thrills us. Bricks offer the fastest, easiest way to build what we believe we’re after: control. Humility that accompanies worship reminds us that God alone is on the throne. Bowing before a loving God who can’t lie and won’t change is much simpler than the burdensome pursuit of control. 

Worshiping God repositions us before the throne.

Worship realigns our posture, compelling us to drop our bricks and pick up something much lighter instead. Fast forward through time and space all the way to the opposite bookend, Revelation, where this beautiful exchange is played out.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9-10

Every language spoken on earth is fused together through this one proclamation of praise. Hands that once held bricks now hold palm branches. Light, airy, and beautifully vibrant palm branches.

In the Old Testament, at the same time each year, temporary tents were constructed with palm branches. The people lived in these ‘booths’ for seven straight days. Rejoicing and feasting were had by all. God wanted His people to remember how He had rescued their ancestors out of Egypt. These temporary shelters reminded the people how God had provided for them in the wilderness. The palm branches reminded them that God’s presence was their shelter.

I find it more than a bit ironic that many of the Jewish slaves were given the arduous task of making bricks by their Egyptian taskmasters. Bricks represent bondage.  Palm branches represent victory. God invites us all to experience the freedom that comes when we exchange bricks for branches, and we don’t have to wait until we get to heaven to make the trade. Jesus, as He hung bruised and bloody on the cross, satisfied the wrath of God towards sin. As He walked out of the grave three days later, Jesus defeated sin and death and darkness permanently.  Victory belongs to Jesus, and when He takes up residence within us, victory becomes our inheritance.

Worshiping God renews our minds so we understand what is ours in Jesus.

It doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from pain, but God offers something that has the power to change the way we walk through every struggle we face. Control isn’t really even what we crave; it’s Hope. Jesus is our Hope.

As 2016 begins, we will all be confronted again with the desire to build. Losses, disappointments, and hardships will cause us to examine whether we’re holding bricks that weigh down our hearts or branches that proclaim God is good and all He does is good. Worship always brings us back to Jesus, the One who has already overcome every struggle we’re yet to face.

May we kneel, right where we are and just as we are, to worship. May we drop heavy, stone-cold bricks and stretch out our arms to wave palm branches instead. May God recalibrate our hearts, realign our posture, and renew our minds as we worship together in one voice the One who holds all things together.

Jesus Loves You,