Dry Ground

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“O God, You are my God, earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

“Lord, I just feel so dry, like the cracked ground of a desert,” I wrote in my prayer one day.  It was the best description of my life. My soul felt dry and my body was weary.  My spirit longed for Living Water.  In my parched state, I pleaded with God to send relief.

As He so often does, the Holy Spirit sent me on a “Biblical scavenger-hunt” to see what the Word has to say.  He took me to Exodus 14 where Moses, through the power of the Lord, caused the sea to part and the people crossed over “on dry ground.”  He took me to Joshua 3 where again the Israelites crossed the Jordan (at flood stage, mind you) by way of a divinely dried-up riverbed. They didn’t slug through mud and muck but walked on firm, dry land.  Then He took me to Ezekiel 37, where the prophet spoke the Word of the Lord and dry bones came to life again, with tendons and flesh and the breath of Life.  Finally, He took me to Isaiah 53 and reminded me that Jesus was called “a tender shoot, like a root out of dry ground,” (v. 2).

In all of these, He reminded me that dry seasons can be the gateway to the Promised Land.  They can precede a time of awakening and renewal, and they can actually become a place of growth.  I learned through these examples that surviving dry seasons requires perseverance, listening to the Word of God, and being humble and submissive before Him.  These are lifelines during these times when our hearts and our spirits are like a cracked desert.

Beloved, if you are in Christ, God will use even the dry seasons of your life to fulfill His plan and purpose.  You need not be afraid, but press in and press on.  There is Living Water in His Word and His Spirit.  He will send the refreshing you need.  Then “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.  It will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for Joy” (Isaiah 35:1). God will bring beauty to the desert, the wilderness, and your dry heart.

My Life

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“In Him, we were also chosen . . . according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).

I have often joked that “guilt is my spiritual gift.”  It’s something I’ve always done exceptionally well. Now I know and am deeply grateful that, because of Christ’s redemption, God no longer sees me as guilty.  But I agonize over my past choices and actions and the negative consequences they brought.  The list is long – and I won’t drag them out, but believe me when I say I’ve made some messes along the way.   I’ve always seen them as derailments that knocked me completely off course.  I imagine the path my life should have taken, and how I have altered that path so that God could not do what He intended in my life.  Or have I?

Is God only in control of my life when I make all the right choices? Is His plan so fragile that I can destroy it with an ill-conceived mistake? Can it survive the careless actions of others in my life? Can He work within the craziness that is my life?

As I sit here today I have a small measure of wisdom that I didn’t have in my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.  I am convinced to the marrow of my bones that God never lost control of my life, even when I turned in the wrong direction. He has never wrung His hands in heaven trying to figure out how to overcome my foolishness. I’ve seen Him take some of my biggest blunders and missteps and bring something good and positive and Joyful out of them. My life is not a haphazard crazy quilt of all my wrong choices, but a beautiful, if slightly eccentric design that God is still piecing together.  I love David’s musing: “You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with Joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).  The path my life has taken has not always been easy nor straight and true, but God has never been caught off guard. I’m looking back at my life from farther down the road – now sixty years old – and I’m seeing that God’s good and gracious hand has been in it all along.

How to Battle Negative Thoughts

“The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin

I’ve had several conversations recently with ladies who are struggling with oppressive, negative, angry emotions. They are surprised when I tell them that the key is to learn to take control of their thoughts. We tend to focus on our feelings, but forget that those feelings are fed by our thoughts.  And our thoughts can be controlled. Negative thoughts, depressive thoughts, sinful thoughts, angry thoughts can and must be brought into submission. It’s a matter of paying attention to what’s running around in your head.

Psalm 77 was written by Asaph, one of the Temple priests during the Babylonian captivity. The situation seemed hopeless, and this is reflected in his Psalm. In verses 1-9, Asaph lamented God’s apparent rejection of His people. In verse 2 he says “my soul refused to be comforted.” Ever been there? I know I have. But look at verse 10, Asaph turns his mind and heart on a pivot, like a door on its hinges. “Then I thought, to this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord…I will meditate on all Your words” (vs. 10, 11, 12). Did you catch the keyword? Thought. In that moment of despair, Asaph took control of his thoughts and changed the focus of his heart and mind.  He deliberately remembered and meditated instead on the character and deeds of God. And when he opened that door, hope and peace flooded in.

We see the same change of mind in Lamentations 3, which starts out: “I am the man who has seen affliction,” (v.1) and continues for 20 verses saying “my soul is downcast within me” (v. 20).  And then verse 21 begins with that hinge word: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.” There’s the clue again “I call to mind.”  Jeremiah’s whole focus and attitude is transformed. A change in his focus changed everything.

Paul said, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Then we take the Philippians 4:8 prescription – I’ll let you look that up. It’s how we battle mental negativity. Beloved, the only sure way to find peace in seasons of struggle is to intentionally turn your thoughts to God, to wrap His Words around you like a comforter, and trust in His love, faithfulness, and peace to carry you through.

Hebrews: When God Says “No.”

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“We’re going to pray, and God will give us the funds for this new building,” the preacher bellowed, and the crowd, whipped into a frenzy shouted their agreement. “Yes!” “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” I, however, did not. The woman beside me said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe God can do it?” “Oh, I believe God can do it, I just don’t believe He’s obligated to do it.”  She looked at me like I had two heads and turned her back to me. Please don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely believe that God answers prayers – He’s answered more than a few of mine recently.  But some of my prayers are still hanging, and for some of my prayers, the answer was “No.” God knew better. God always answers according to what He knows is better – what fits His good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Sometimes that means we don’t get what we pray for. Even Jesus got a “No” from His Father.

In our last Hebrews devotional, I left you in the Garden of Gethsemane, listening to Jesus plead with His Father, “Take this cup from me . . .” Let’s leave quietly and head back to Hebrews 5 to see how it came out. The writer said, “He was heard.” Jesus’ word did not fall to the ground nor fall on deaf ears. His Father heard His prayers and pleading. So Jesus got what He wanted, right? After all, the Father listened to His Son “because of His reverent submission” (v.7b). Yet you know the rest of the story. God said “No” to Jesus. And He knew He would – the eternal fate of the entire human race hung in the balance. If God had saved Jesus from the cross, you and I would be lost forever.

What do we do with those “Nos?” The same thing Jesus did. “He learned obedience from what He suffered,” (v. 8a). We accept the “No” as coming from the heart of our loving, gracious, all-knowing Father and submit to Him in obedience without grumbling. Are we disappointed? Sure – and we can take that disappointment right back to Him and say, “I’m surrendering this to You because I trust You, but my heart is hurting.” God honors honesty and “He heals the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3).  Whether the answer is “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait,” you can trust the heart of your Father, Beloved. It’s the same heart that said “No” to His Son so that He could say “Yes” to you.

Does God Ever Get Tired of Me?

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Which is harder to deal with – a big storm in your life or lots of ongoing frustrations? On the Sea of Galilee, fishermen are constantly on guard for storms. A big storm raging on the lake can overwhelm the strongest fishermen and take out a whole fleet of boats. But equally destructive are the constant waves that are driven across the sea’s surface by the wind, slap, slap, slapping the side of the boat. They wear away the boat’s hull and can eventually bring the boat down.

Sometimes life hits us with an unexpected crisis – the sudden death of a loved one, a health crisis, a job loss, a betrayal – we are overwhelmed and shell-shocked. We need the support of our friends and family. We need prayer. We need help. And thankfully the Body of Christ meets those needs. I can’t imagine where I would be without my church family and Christian friends. But for many of us, the damage comes from a continual struggle, that long-term problem that slap, slap, slaps us day after day after day. The wayward child, an ongoing health issue, the juggle of too many responsibilities, financial struggles, or a frustrating work situation. We still need support and prayer and help, but we’re hesitant to keep asking – or maybe just too weary to talk about it anymore. We feel like we’re just a cumbersome weight. Oh, I know this one well.

But “The Lord will not grow tired or weary . . .” (Isaiah 40:28). His patience never wears thin. He never sighs when we approach His throne of grace with our hands full of needs. He doesn’t dodge us because He’s tired of hearing our woes. I have often come to him over an issue I’ve struggled with for many years, saying, “Father, I know You’ve heard this before . . .” and I sense Him saying, “Yes, but I don’t mind if you tell me again.”

The Bible tells us to “cast all your cares on the Lord because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). He will bear the weight of your burdens – and you. What concerns you, Beloved, concerns God because He loves you. He cares about the big storms and He cares about the constant daily battles. If you’re like me, that’s very good news.

Hebrews: Jesus, Man of Sorrows

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I’ve been told I am a “strong” person. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I appear strong because I do a pretty good job of hiding when I am falling apart, although some of you have learned to read between the lines. Like you, I have cried and yelled and begged God to change certain things in my life. Like you, I have struggled with depression and anxiety and despair.  But you and I are in good company.  Even the strongest person in human history came under the weight of emotional affliction.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death . . .” (Hebrews 5:7). If you didn’t know who Jesus was, you would probably think that this guy went into whatever he was facing kicking and screaming all the way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Luke said, “As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus walked toward the cross with determination. But the Scriptures are clear that it was a terrible strain on Him.

Of course, you know that this verse is speaking of His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. Jesus was “very sorrowful and troubled,” even “to the point of death” (Matt. 26:37, 38). He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Luke said His anguish as He prayed produced “sweat like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).  He pleaded, Abba, Father, everything is possible for you Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). I’ve prayed much the same thing, and I am sure you have as well.  The difference is, you and I bear much smaller burdens compared to Jesus, who was feeling the weight of the sin of the entire human race being piled on His shoulders. Isaiah called Him “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). So when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus, our great high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). it is because He also felt the weight of despair. It was one of the most “human” moments in Jesus’ life.

I’m going to leave you right here, Beloved, in the Garden with Jesus, watching Him cry to His Father. But know that He was not lost to despair, nor are you and I. When we return to Hebrews, we will see that this very human moment is also a moment of divine glory.

Bootstrap Faith

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Do you have bootstrap faith? You know, when you are down and out and others say, “You’ve just got to pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” It was the psychology of my younger years – when life is tough you get tougher. (Modern psychology says your problems are someone else’s fault and you are entitled to compensation while you roll around in self-pity. But I digress.) You have to reach deep down inside yourself and grab on to your fortitude and strength and get on up out of that pit. After all, don’t we admire those who make something out of themselves from nothing but sheer grit and determination?  If you will it hard enough, you can do it!

So what happens when you realize you don’t have any bootstraps and you are all out of strength and fortitude and grit and determination? What do you do when you can’t carry the burdens another step? When your will just won’t anymore?

The Lord declared to His people, “I am He, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and rescue you” (Isaiah 46:4). In all my years of reading the Bible from cover to cover, I never once found Him scolding His people for depending on Him too much. But He sure chastised them for pushing Him away and trying to handle life on their own. He doesn’t expect you and me to carry our burdens alone. Those weights become very heavy. Health burdens. Financial burdens. Relational burdens. Burdens of loneliness, depression, fear, failure, responsibility, and we could go on and on. I have mine and you have yours. And God promises to carry us through them all.

The reason you can’t find your bootstraps is because it is God who will lift you up. It is God who will reach down to pull you up out of the pit. It is God’s strength and fortitude that will carry you – and your burdens. It’s time to stop trying to do it all on your own, and let God be your Rescuer and your Strength. He is not only able to carry you, Beloved, it is His delight and Joy.

Shameless

It never really bothered me if my Mom got angry with me, if she spanked me (she did not spare the rod, and I am better for it), grounded me (she once grounded me for the rest of my life), took away privileges, added chores, or even yelled at me. I was sort of immune to her anger. But oh, let her say she was ashamed of me, and my heart would break. Just writing about it, I can still feel the weight of it.

It seems all my life I’ve carried a heavy load of guilt and shame. I know well the words King David cried out to God, “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear” (Psalm 38:4). From being abused and rejected, making countless foolish mistakes, hurting others, jumping into the pit of sin, and feeling responsible for the actions of my child – every failure left me with eyes cast down so as not to see on the face of God the sorrow my sin has caused Him. Rather than “approach the throne of grace with confidence,” I slink back into the cave of despair because I can’t bear to know that God is ashamed of me. Something tells me that you can relate.

Jesus came into this sinful world to set us free from guilt and shame and the evil that caused it. Listen to His words to Nicodemus, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:17). Jesus came, not to point to you and me with all our bags and say “I AM ASHAMED OF YOU!” He came to say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Rest from the weight. Rest from the shame. Rest from the guilt.

Do you come to God this morning with a load of guilt and shame? Are you expecting chastisement and rejection? Look up, Beloved. Jesus has stretched out His nail-scarred hand to take your heavy bags of misery. He bids you rise and face the day, forgiven, freed, and radiant in His love.

Where Was God?

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“Where was God?” the atheist demanded. “Where was God?” the frightened widow cried. “Where was God?” the shocked nation asked. Even Christians looked to heaven and said,  “God, where are You?” It was the most tragic and horrific day in American history and twenty years later it still makes us weep. I imagine the same question was going through the minds of the Jews when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. The event even sounds very similar:  “[The Babylonians] set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.” (2 Chronicles 36:19).

A memorial sits at the very spot in New York City where the buildings fell. People come every year to remember and pay their respects to the thousands who lost their lives that day.  Every year religious Jews come to Jerusalem to pray and fast in remembrance of the destruction of their Temple, first by the Babylonians in 587/586 BCE, and again in 70 CE at the hands of the Roman legions led by Titus.

Where was God when the Twin Towers fell? The same place He was when Jerusalem fell. In His heaven, ruling over human history. How can that be? I wish I could give you a simple answer, but this is the age-old “problem of evil” that men have pondered for thousands of years. It has been used to deny the existence of God and His goodness and sovereignty and quite honestly, I cannot answer it. But I can tell you that evil may have claimed a few battles throughout human history, but it has already lost the war.

Oh, satan thought he was victorious when Jesus drew His last breath and cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But he was trembling when the ground rumbled as the stone rolled away. He was dumbfounded when the angel told the women, “He is not here; He has risen!” (Matthew 28:6). He was horrified as Mary Magdalene ran back to the disciples with the amazing news, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

So today I will remember the lives lost twenty years ago and pray for the still grieving. But I will not fear evil. I will keep my eyes on heaven and celebrate the risen Lord who dealt evil a fatal blow. No, the war is not yet over, but Satan has already lost. God has already won. God always wins.

Hebrews: Open Heart Surgery

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“The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Yes, we’re still here – but I have a reason. Last devotional we saw the Word of God as a mighty sword. Today I want you to see it as a surgical scalpel. A surgeon wants to help people get well. But he first has to cut through skin and tissues to get to the problem.

The Word of God penetrates and divides “soul and spirit, joints and marrow . . .” The soul (psyche) is the immaterial and eternal part of the inner person – it is translated in the scriptures by personal pronouns – me, myself, I, mine. The spirit (pneumo) is the immaterial part of the inner person that can respond to God. While the soul is fixed on self, the spirit is the part of man that hears that still, small voice and follows – or turns away. The Word also divides “joints and marrow.” Joints are connective parts of the skeletal system and marrow sits deep within the bones producing blood cells that keep us alive. Consider that the root word for marrow speaks of “hidden or concealed things.” Hang in here with me, this is all going to make sense.

The Word of God also “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” It goes right to the heart – the seat of our thoughts and emotions. But not just the random thoughts that flit through our minds. God’s Word is judging our deliberate thoughts – the ones we draw up from those deep places where we think they are safely hidden. But, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (v. 13).

You and I cannot hide our hearts from God. His Word penetrates, divides, and judges the state of our hearts. It digs into the deepest parts of us. It exposes our thoughts, especially the ones we try to hide, the ones that are feeding our emotions. Surgeons go after the things in our bodies that make us sick. The Word of God goes after our thoughts that make us sick. Beloved, God wants you to be well and whole. Will you let His Word do the work of healing your heart?