A Hard Winter and the Sixth Man

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4 NIV

 

It was a long, tough winter. Record-breaking, as it turned out.

January was mild enough but the worst was to come.

On February 6, my journal recorded 3-4 inches of snow and -12o. The cold and the snow kept coming. For weeks, we arose to grey skies and swirling snowflakes. On February 19 my thermometer read -26o. It snowed heavily for three days in a row—something I haven’t seen in 40 years. By the 28th, we peered out our kitchen window at this:

Even the onset of March gave us no relief. I took this picture on the morning of the 5th, crying, “I’m so OVER this!”

That morning, we were the third coldest place on the planet!

As we all huddled inside and tried our best to endure, a bronchial-respiratory bug began making the rounds. I wasn’t as sick as I’ve been in recent winters, but I was sick enough to go to the doctor. The cough lingered on, along with general weakness and shortness of breath. Then the constant coughing kicked up pain in my back.

For the first time since I learned to ski, I experienced all the misery of winter with none of the fun. At first, it was far too snowy and cold to try skiing. Then, I was too sick and weak to plow through the feet of accumulated snow.

I stared out the window and sighed.

Then I worried about a granddaughter who was diagnosed with a rare and painful bone condition after weeks of testing…and her family, trying to move to a new house in the midst of it all. And another old friend who I’d shared many a ski trail with died suddenly. Even small doses of the daily news made me want to shut my ears and scream. Restricted by my newly-discovered milk and egg allergies, I couldn’t even turn to the foods which had been my comfort since childhood.

I staggered into Bible study that Tuesday afternoon in mid-March, struggling to find joy anywhere, my faith weighed down by one trial after another.

Until discussion with my colleagues lead me to the Book of James.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” we read. Really? Joy?

Then we came to the heart of the passage: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete…”

Radio teacher Charles Swindoll once said the Greek word translated as “perseverance” means to “hold up under,” picturing a little donkey grunting under a big load. Since we had owned and loaded donkeys for many years, the illustration stuck. So I shared it. And we laughed together.

Ah, yes. The purpose of trials is to teach us how to “hold up under,” to strengthen our endurance muscle. We do that as we strengthen any muscle—through exercise. It isn’t fun and it isn’t painless but it does us good in the long run. James says we will be “…mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Who doesn’t want that?

Somehow my load felt lighter. I remembered why enduring it mattered. I knew my fellow Christians understood and were cheering me on. Their encouragement was enough to keep me going.

In my life-long journey of faith, how many times has the church been there for me like that, doing what it just did? How often have fellow-believers made a huge difference in my faith? More than I can count.

I believe that’s the church’s most important job: to stand with and for each other. To be part of that “great crowd of witnesses.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Now the church isn’t perfect; no group of imperfect people is.

But ask any coach how much better his team plays when the stadium is full of cheering fans. They can make the difference between winning and losing. Basketball coaches often call their fans “the sixth man (player).”

Does the church matter?

What do you think?

 

 

 

Chosen

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you…” (Jesus) John 15:16

“Think of a time when you felt overlooked or rejected,” writes Michele Cushatt in her thought-provoking devotional, “I Am.”

No sooner had I finished reading those words than an image leaped into my mind.

Eighth grade. Honor society assembly. A group of teachers and students sat proudly on the stage, watching people walking around the rest of us, tapping out the ones selected to join.

And I was not.

It was the worst moment of the worst time of my life.

Thanks to my school’s misguided decision to launch dating dances in 7th grade, I had quickly and painfully learned I would never be the popular girl, the one voted Queen of the May. Though athleticism wasn’t valued in females when I was young, I didn’t have any of that, either. Besides, I was being bullied by three “mean girls” who made my life daily misery. And, like most kids of that age, my hormones were going crazy, leaving me a physical and emotional mess. I remember my mother saying, “Is there ever a (calm, normal) middle ground with you?”

But those common junior high traumas were not all I suffered. I carried a dark secret in that “Father Knows Best” era: my family life was in chaos. My father was at the peak of his alcoholic addiction—a problem which made him range and rant around the house all night, while my mother tried in vain to calm him down. I cowered under the covers, frightened and helpless, wondering what was wrong with us, thinking we were the only ones who lived that way. I was deeply ashamed, terrified someone would find out. Then my beloved grandmother, who was my anchor in the storm, died.

But at least, I had the classroom. There, I was the star. I might have been picked last when the recess softball teams were chosen, but everyone wanted me when it was time for spelling. My hand was always in the air, as I cried, “Teacher! Teacher!” shouting out the answer when she didn’t call on me. My report cards boasted all A’s. Always.

Now, even that had been taken from me. I could hardly believe it. Why didn’t I make it? What hadn’t I done? What had I done wrong? I was never told.

Sixty-fourSee the source image years later, I still feel the pain. Looking at the logo right now makes me cringe.

Writer John Eldredge speaks of “arrows to the heart”—wounds that go to the very center of our being, destroying our confidence, our trust, our understanding of who we are. That’s what this awful moment was to me.

Cushatt writes, “Our great rejection becomes a demarcation point, after which something changes within. …We assume we aren’t good enough, smart enough, worthy enough for the choosing.” I would add, we never completely trust our value again. In the back of my head lurks a little voice which says, “If they really knew who I was, they’d reject me.”

That’s why Jesus’ words here are such balm. The Lord of the Universe has chosen us: you and me! And not only that. Paul writes in Ephesians that we were chosen “…before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight.” (1:4)

“Have more beautiful words ever been spoken?” writes Cushatt. “We, with our many physical limitations and emotional flaws. We, with our long string of human rejections that’s left us bristling and afraid. God looks at our bruised, less-than selves and sees someone worthy of love. …(He says:) Her. The second from the right. I want her. With me.”

The One Who knows us better and more deeply than any one else loves us, now and forever. He promises never, ever to fail or forsake us. (See Hebrews 13:5) He has chosen us—yes, you, yes, me–to belong to His eternal Honor Society: the only one which matters.

Selah. Pause and let that amazing truth sink in.

 

 

 

 

But Would I?

And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” Luke 5:5 RSV

Simon Peter was not having a good morning.

You don’t have to be a commercial fisherman, as he was, to understand that. Just imagine your own job at its most frustrating. Perhaps you’ve just spent several hours cleaning house and the kids come in from school, scattering books and jackets all over your neat countertops and tracking up your just-cleaned floor with their muddy boots. Or you just can’t make the accounts balance no matter how many times you take the numbers apart and put them together, while your boss is glaring and drumming his fingers on the desk. Or your fidgety students are giggling and squirming, merrily ignoring the lesson you worked so hard to present.

Then consider the brutal reality that, if you didn’t get your work done, you wouldn’t get paid. Life was a lot more simple–and ugly–in the first century.     No fish, no money. Simon’s family may not have been able to eat that day.

So there he was on the lake shore, weary and worried, washing out his nets after a fruitless night. When he finally returned to his boat, ready to stow it away and get some sleep, he found Someone in it.

I’ll bet his first thought was: “What now? What more could go wrong this morning?”

Now we know Jesus was born a common man to common parents—people you would find every day among the villages of first-century Palestine.

And yet… There had to be something, something special about Him that made one look up and take notice. Simon certainly did. For, tired and cranky as he was, he allowed this itinerant preacher to use his boat and even rowed it out for Him. Moreover, he didn’t lean back against the mast and sneak in a nap while Jesus was teaching.

For by the end of the talk, Simon called Him “Master.” And on the strength of Jesus’ word alone, he called his partners, went back out to sea and let down those heavy, water-logged nets one more time.

We know what happened next: the men hauled in “a great shoal of fish”—so many their nets were breaking.

That “something special” he’d sensed leaped into flaming life before his eyes.

Simon fell to his knees before the One Who created fish and the oceans confessing his sin–probably including the grumbling about Jesus sending him back out in the first place.

And Simon’s life was changed forever.

“When they had brought their boats to land,” Luke says, “they left everything and followed him (Jesus.)” (vs. 11)

Imagine that. Everything—nets, boats, careers, family. (Can you imagine the dialogue in Simon’s kitchen?)

Jesus comes to you right in the middle of your mess and miraculously cleans it all up. The house is back in order; the numbers balance; the kids respond to your lesson. But then–

He asks you to drop it all on the spot—walk out of the house, the office, the classroom–follow Him and become a “fisher of men” (whatever that means!)

Would you? Would I?

I stand amazed at the faith of those first disciples. May I be as willing as they were, even if it means continuing to serve Him right where I am.

 

 

 

A Flea-Bitten Thanksgiving

 

“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 RSV

Ahhh…Thanksgiving. A time for us to pause, look around us and thank God for our blessings. As the line from my favorite Thanksgiving hymn has it: “All is safely gathered in/Ere the winter storms begin.”

It’s a comforting, deeply satisfying feeling.

But what happens if we are surrounded not by full grain bins and root cellars stacked with food but problems, disappointments, trouble? What if we don’t see blessings…but fleas?

You remember the story; it’s one of my favorites.

During World War II, Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, were imprisoned for helping Jews to escape the Nazi persecution. Among the many horrors of prison camp, they found their barracks were infested by fleas—in the bedding, in the walls. Everywhere. These fastidious Dutch women recoiled in disgust. However, since Paul directs us to “give thanks in all circumstances,” they gritted their teeth and gave thanks anyway. Even for the fleas.

I don’t know about you, but my life feels a bit flea-bitten at the moment. My health challenges just go on and on. Nothing life-threatening: neither are fleas. But ask any dog: if you get bitten often and hard enough, you end up feeling pretty miserable and sorry for yourself.

I just want to be “all better,” but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Yet Thanksgiving is coming up. Like Corrie and Betsie, I feel the weight of Paul’s directive to the church in Thessalonica. When he said all circumstances, he meant ALL—good and bad. And he knew the people he wrote to weren’t living in a rose garden. Rejected by their community, suffering economic and personal persecution for their faith, they faced a constant threat of arrest, torture, grisly execution. Tradition has it that Paul himself died a martyr’s death in Rome.

Yet Paul told them to give thanks. Why?

Because he knew God is good, that God loves us and His plan for us is good, no matter how it may seem. We may not be able to thank Him for the circumstances but we can thank Him in them.

As Joyce Meyer said when she battled breast cancer: “God, I know that You love me. I believe that all things work out for good for those who love you and are called according to Your purpose. I put my trust in You and I will not fear.” (Romans 8:28. 35-39; Joshua 1:9; Proverbs 3:5)

So I, too, can give thanks—not for the fleas, but because He is God and He knows what He’s doing. When I quit whining, I can also see how He’s helping me get through my difficult circumstances: good, competent doctors, kind family members who are helping me deal with my allergies, a husband who patiently drives me to the hospital yet one more time.

Oh, and you remember the end of that story. Since the Nazi guards, equally fastidious, gave their flea-filled barracks a wide berth, they didn’t find the precious Bible Corrie and Betsie had smuggled in. With it, these faithful women were able to minister God’s love and comfort to their fellow-prisoners who were dying daily.

God’s plan and purpose is simply greater than we can see. He does not expect us to understand it—just to trust Him.

And give thanks, anyway.

 

 

 

His Job; His Glory

“The fruit of the Spirit is the most effective evangelistic tool we have. …The most powerful sermon in the world can’t match the power of a fruit-filled life. Because unbelievers are not nearly as impressed with what we believe and preach as they are with how we act, especially under pressure.” Charles Stanley, The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life

 

I don’t know about you, but words like that fill me with conviction. I want my life to be “fruit-filled,” but I’m not so sure it is. I can’t tell you how many times I crack under pressure, for example, despite my very best intentions.

The past three years have given me one health challenge after another…not many of them life-threatening, but all associated with the body’s breakdown as it ages. I find myself running to the doctors’ office so often that I don’t have to give them all my information when I check in. They know who I am. I feel like a Professional Patient. Sigh…

The latest problem is the allergy to milk and eggs which we found at the end of the summer. After a lifetime of eating anything I wanted whenever I wanted, I’ve been struggling to adjust. It hasn’t been easy.

Then, a week ago, I had a relapse which I couldn’t attribute to anything obvious.           I wish I could say I turned the problem over to God and went cheerfully on with my life, but I didn’t. As I usually do, I projected the worst scenario I could think of as far into the future as I could, something I call “catastrophizing”… which yielded its usual results of panic and depression.

Yet another trip to the doctor settled me down, but I ended up feeling so defeated. I want to express the kind of joy that young man in the parking lot has, but I can’t. No matter how hard I try.

Ah, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I’m trying to produce wonderful, attractive fruit by sheer willpower and determination, what writer John Eldredge calls “Making It Happen.”

That will never work.

“I am the Vine; you are the branches,” said Jesus. “whoever lives in Me and I in him bears much (abundant) fruit. However, apart from Me (cut off from vital union with Me) you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 Amplified)

How could I have forgotten? The same undeserved and unearned grace that saved me (see Ephesians 2:8) is what flows through me to yield the fruit God wants to produce. After all, it’s called the Fruit of the Spirit—His fruit, not mine.

When we lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, we were surrounded by fields of grape vines. Grape growing was a vital part of our community as it was in the culture of Jesus’ time. Every spring, we watched the branches bud, flower and produce tiny green grapes that grew fat and purple as fall approached. One of my favorite memories is the smell of those ripe grapes on warm September evenings.

But never did I hear the branches grunting and groaning as they tried to produce the grapes. The sap simply flowed through them, carrying the water and nutrients. The vine did the work. The branches’ job was to stay attached.

That was Jesus’ point. It’s mine, too.

I might want to produce the fruit of the Spirit in my life but I can’t. I must “dwell” in Him—remain closely attached to the Lord and let Him fill me with the water and nutrients I need.

His job; His glory.

My job is the same one it’s been from the beginning: trust and believe.

 

 

God’s Home …and Mine

God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. … Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple, built by God, all of us build into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. Ephesians 2:19-22 The Message

 

I walked into church yesterday feeling a little low, depressed, anxious. My smile was in place…but inside, I wasn’t nearly as happy as I looked.

It had been that kind of week.

On Tuesday, my sinus/asthma condition flared, requiring yet another round of doctoring. When we discovered some major food allergies a month ago, we’d hoped changing my diet would be the all-encompassing health solution we’ve been looking for. Obviously not.

Thursday, I heard another friend died. I’ll miss his laughter; the wicked twinkle in his eye. Again, I don’t grieve him; I know he’s well and happy. But every death leaves my life a little lonelier, my world a little darker.

Then, what one writer calls “the never-ending news feed” made me want to scream, shut my ears and run to a desert island somewhere.

Finally, we woke up Sunday morning to skies as dark and heavy as my mood. Snow in the air.

No major problems, really, but just enough to take the edge off my faith, my joy, my optimism. Honestly, I didn’t expect much when we went to church, but that’s when God seems to do His best work.

It happened at the communion rail.

There we stood, all kinds of people with different backgrounds, abilities, needs, ages—from twitchy little kids to us elder folk with our slow steps. Many carried burdens far greater than mine.

The worship team struck up “Amazing Grace” and, without prompting, the whole congregation softly joined in. Suddenly I was reminded what we all had in common: that God had rescued us all and put us together here to be shelter and comfort for each other. This was my church family. I belonged here. They cared about me as I did about them. God was here, among and with us.

My eyes filled. I could feel my heavy heart lift, my hope raise and my faith finding its feet. Somehow, we could make it through all the problems and trials of life, large and small.

Together.

I came away comforted.

Now I well know the church is not a collection of marble saints, but of very human beings subject to the faults and foibles of all people, all families. Over the years, the church has failed repeatedly, has not lived up to its calling to be the body of Christ. I’ve lived through some of that failure myself…and been part of it.

But when it works as Paul describes it here, when all the stones fit together to be a temple, when we laugh and cry and comfort and support each other, the church is a beautiful thing, a place and a people fit to be the home of God. And I’ve seen that, too.

This morning, I thank Him for my church. I wouldn’t want to do faith—or life—without it.