Gloria in Excelsis Deo

I have been struggling the past few weeks with the idea of praise. Like most folks, I like being praised for something I’ve done. In itself, that is not a bad thing. What becomes a problem is when I accept such praise and leave it at that. The fact is, as a Christian, my purpose is to focus and magnify the Light of Christ. I am not the Light. Whatever ability I have to create or shine comes as God creates in me or shines through me.

Does this mean, every time someone notes a good job I’ve done, I need to say it wasn’t me, but God working through me? Well, no, I don’t think so. I think the need is more simply my own humility of heart to recognize any power, any creativity, any capacity to accomplish anything is a gift from God.

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above; it comes down from the Father of lights, the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens, in whom there is no variation, no rising or setting or shadow cast by His turning, for He is perfect and never changes. (James 1:17, AMP)

When I was a kid, I watched a movie about a few university students working to build an extremely powerful laser. Before a crucial project test, a rival student smears grease over one of the lenses. When the laser is fired through the dirty lens, rather than focusing the light on the target, the smudge interferes and distorts the beam.

That same sort of interference and distortion occurs in my life when I start to think I deserve the adulation of others for whatever I may have accomplished. Instead of shining the Light of God into the world, I’m trying to hot-wire my own little headlamp. No one can clearly see God through me when I am smeared with arrogance. Not only do I miss an opportunity to give glory to God myself, but to anyone who may be looking, I offer an inaccurate image of Him.

Father of Light,

What a risk You take every day to show Your Light through us. What an honor to be invited into Your Brilliance. Thank You for blessing us so much that I can actually make the mistake of thinking I’ve done something to deserve it. Help me to recognize Your fingerprints on every good thing I do. Cleanse my heart that I may see clearly and allow others to see You clearly in me. Let all that I am and everything I do bring You glory.

Inside Out

I saw a picture of myself the other day. Not a physical photograph, but a picture in my head. I was standing along the edge of a prison yard, right up next to the fence. I had my eyes focused on a group of people on the other side. They were playing basketball. I wished I could play. They looked like they were having so much fun! But I had no way of getting through or over or under the fence between us. I was stuck, just watching, while they had all the fun. I looked down at my plain clothes and felt jealous of their colorful uniforms. I wanted to be part of a team and get to wear a bright outfit like that! Then one of the officials blew his whistle and the game was over. All the players lined up and headed inside. I remained, staring at the empty court, wondering what I could do to get past that fence.

The view changed then, as I saw myself from the outside. I could see myself, standing there outside the fence looking toward the prison. But I could also see behind me, acres of grassy fields and rolling hills. If I’d but turned around, I could have seen that I was the one who was free, yet there I was, eyes trained on the prison yard, feeling jealous of the prisoners who were allowed to play ball during their single hour of exercise for the day.

“I, the Lord, made you, and I will not forget you. I have swept away your sins like a cloud. I have scattered your offenses like the morning mist. Oh, return to Me, for I have paid the price to set you free.” (Isaiah 44:21b-22, NLT)

How many times have I felt on the outside looking in, hurt that I’m not part of that crowd? Wishing I had what they have, desiring to do the things I see them doing?

Too often, I stand facing the wrong direction, seeing the life I think I want, without realizing what I’d have to give up in order to get it. I miss out on what I already have because I don’t see it in the places I choose to look.

Lord God,

Forgive me for looking away from You to find what I think I want. Help me to understand that You already know what is best for me and I can trust You to give it to me just at the right time. When I look at other people, remind me that I don’t see everything, I can’t understand the whole picture. Only You do. And You are working through all the circumstances, in everything I see and experience everyday. And You know what You are doing.

 

Long-term Care

When I was younger, long about high school, I would read or hear the story of the Exodus and all the signs and wonders of the plagues (Exodus 7:1-12:30) and crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-31), followed so quickly by the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:1-6). And I’d be dumbfounded, “How can these same people who saw such miracles ever have wanted to abandon God for this ridiculous idol?”

More recently, I’ve been reading the promises and curses for the people of Israel 40 years later as they are about to enter the promised land (Deuteronomy 28), and I’m getting that same feeling of dismay. God is very clear in promising the good that will come if the Israelites follow Him and the evil that will come if they don’t. Still, having read the rest of the story, I know they choose don’t.

Of course now, 20-some years after high school, I can see a little deeper into the story. God has worked in some amazing and unexpected ways in my life and the lives of those I love. Yet, when I face difficult and uncertain circumstances, it is disheartening how easily I fall into the deception that God must not really want to bless me and perhaps I’d be better off striking out on my own.

Today I’m giving you a choice. You can have life and success. Or you can have death and harm. I’m commanding you today to love the Lord your God. I’m commanding you to live exactly as He wants you to live. You must obey His commands, rules and laws. Then you will live. There will be many of you. The Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to take as your own. (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NIrV)

Disbelief is exactly what it comes down to, isn’t it? God states His desire very clearly throughout the Bible: He wants to be with us. He wants to love us and to bless us. The issue is my choosing to believe that His blessings are only those things wrapped up in pretty paper and topped with a shiny bow. Or only when He gives me what I want. Or only when He keeps me from being hurt.

Yet, that’s not the way blessings are described in the Bible. James put it this way, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12, NIV). Or how about Jesus’s own words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit …. Blessed are those who mourn …. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst …. Blessed are those who are persecuted …. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me” (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV). The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians to take heart, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV). It’s good to bear in mind those troubles Paul said were achieving glory included shipwrecks, imprisonments, brutal beatings, sleeplessness, hunger, and death threats from Jews and Gentiles alike. Those don’t sound much like what I’d want to follow with a hashtag reading soblessed.

God blesses us for our eternal good. He gives us what will be of the most benefit over the long term, even though it may be hard or painful now. In the same way I require my kids to learn math facts or clean up their rooms, even though they struggle and say they’re bored and tell me I’m mean, because I know such knowledge and practice will serve them well later in life, God chooses to be momentarily “mean” to us and require more from us than we feel is strictly necessary to make our lives better in ways we can’t yet fully understand. And on some long days, that is hard to believe.

Lord,

You promise the best to us. You promise more than we could ever ask or even imagine (Ephesians 3:20). But You also require that we trust in Your goodness and love for us. That is hard sometimes, God! When life looks bleak and nothing seems to be going the way I want it to and I’m tired of the lessons You keep leading me through again and again and again, I just want to throw my hands in the air and admit defeat. And perhaps I should. Maybe if I gave up my own determined misunderstanding of Your ways and Your truth, I would find it easier to recognize the eternal glory for which You are preparing me.

Thank You that, in the meanwhile, in the muddle, You never give up on me. You are good. Your love endures forever. Your faithfulness lasts throughout the generations (Psalm 100:5). Amen.

The Better to See

Once upon a time, I knew exactly how to be a great parent. Then I had children of my own. Right from the start things didn’t go the way I’d planned. We had feeding problems and sleeping issues and I generally felt like a complete failure as a mother for about the first year of DD’s life.

I couldn’t have told you then why things happened as they did. I can’t tell you for sure even now. I’ve had an inkling, though, in the intervening 11 years that makes some of these seemingly senseless things make a little more sense to me.

Back when I was so sure what good mothers did, I didn’t have a whole lot of patience or understanding for other ideas on the subject. Not only that, but any problems or difficulties somebody else might be having, I was certain, could ultimately be traced back to their own bad choices.

I probably wouldn’t have considered myself “judgmental” back then, but that was clearly the case. I was spending too much time finding fault with the rest of the world to recognize the log in my own eye (Matt. 7:3-5).

After the difficulties I encountered as a new mother to my daughter (and subsequent complications I had with each of my sons), I found I have much greater compassion for other moms who are struggling. I still like to offer ideas for strategies that might help, but I am much less likely now to offer my own advice as the obvious solution to all their problems.

“Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief.” (Job 16:3-5, NIV)

Job had some experience with judgmental advisers. After losing his fortune, his children, and his health in short order, his so-called friends paid a visit. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar reminded Job that God is just, then followed up this truth with the false assumption that Job must have done something terribly sinful to cause such a harsh response from God.

Once his friends had their say, Job responded by telling them not only are they full of hot air, but they’re bringing him greater misery rather than the succor they may suppose. He took it a step further to say if their positions were reversed and he were visiting one of them, he would bring encouragement rather than the disappointment and disapproval they’ve offered.

It seems comforting, despite much evidence to the contrary, to believe that I have a lot of control over my life. I’d like to think that the actions I take have a great impact on the sort of life experiences I encounter. It’s a problem of prosperity. If I have a nice house and money in the bank, I want to justify myself as deserving. The flip side of this foolishness, however, is that if someone doesn’t have a nice house or money in the bank or enough food to feed their family, they must deserve that.

Sometimes, I understand, that’s true. People make really poor life choices that have devastating consequences. And it’s easy, when all I see are the effects, to assume I know the cause. Yet, despite making good choices, working hard, and praying fervently, sometimes bad things still happen. We live in a fallen world full of cursed people. All things aren’t good, but God does work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). And I fully believe that one of those good works He does for us in our suffering is to give us empathy.

When I can more fully understand another person’s experience, we can connect more honestly and deeply. It’s hard to be close to people when I’m blaming them for everything going wrong in their lives.  But when I am aware of my own limits, when I can look at my life and see how little I really can control, I am better able to shower God’s grace on other people who need it just as much as I do.

Father,

You call us to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)–not just when things are going they way we’d like them to be–because You use every situation for our good. Thank You for those times I have been able to see how painful situations are beneficial. Please, give me faith for the times I cannot see and must simply believe.

Help me to sing Your praises through the seasons when life is too hard for me to think I can handle it on my own. Help me to trust Your blessings in every circumstance, not just the pleasant ones. May I seek to bring You glory no matter what trauma, festivity, or stress the day holds.

Back and Forth

The end of the year is a traditional time to take a closer look at my life. I find myself considering this past year: my joys, my triumphs, my missteps, my sorrows. And I think about the coming year and what may lie ahead.

When looking ahead, I like to plan. I want to know where I’m headed and have a good set of directions from here to there. With my proverbial map and compass, I don’t simply hope I can make it, but I am confident in my ability to use my tools to navigate the path.

Is it just me or does life not work that way very often? Even when I may have an idea where I’m going, my map gets torn and I misplace my compass. Suddenly, I have no way to know whether I’m even on the right road or moving in the right direction. I start to run this way and that like a squirrel who can’t decide whether there is enough time to cross in front of an oncoming car.

Once again, I’ve discounted my lack of future knowledge. I can plan all I want and waste my time scurrying about when I’ve lost the tools I think I need.  Yet I’m no further ahead than I started out and I’m exhausted to boot. Not only have I lost my confidence, but I no longer have much hope that I’ll actually get wherever it is I need to be.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from Him. (Psalm 62:5. NIV)

So many times, I have put my hope in jobs or friendships or my own thoughts about what will be best for me and things haven’t worked out as I’d planned. I conveniently forget that I don’t really have the whole picture, that God’s ways are higher (and deeper and wider) than mine (Isaiah 55:8-9).

God rarely promises a particular outcome to our life circumstances. He has never asked me to trust that any situation will turn out the way I’ve prayed it will. Instead, He asks me to trust in Him. To believe that He knows what is best for me–even better than I do. To rest in Him and allow His hope to fill me because He is everything I need.

Man, that’s hard!

Lord God,

Thank You for having such great patience with me. You ask me for one simple thing, yet I try everything I can to get out of giving it to You. I want to be the one to make my own plans, to rely on myself. I refuse the comfort that comes from just letting go and allowing You to hold me.

Rather than accepting Your rest, I wear myself out trying harder and harder to do what only You can do: give me a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

Please forgive me for trusting in myself rather than You. For settling in on Your throne in my heart and asking You to make Yourself comfortable on the footrest. Thanks for continuing to offer me rest and peace, even when I’m not really sure I believe You.

Much Ado

Various strong opinions of refugees and terrorists have been lighting up the social media circuits this season. As I scroll through my news feed, I see sympathy for those in crisis and sorrow for the plight of people fleeing the destruction of their communities. I also find the fear that allowing displaced persons to resettle in our own neighborhoods would make us vulnerable to those among them who may violently oppose our religious, political, or social ideals.

Fear. That’s a topic I’m pretty familiar with. I struggle with myriad fears. Some are probable, but many are not. I am not an expert on immigration or refugee issues. I don’t really know how likely these concerns may be. But, honestly, I’m not sure it matters.

Much as I don’t like the idea, I can’t read the Bible and believe that God calls me to feel safe because my country has a strong military presence, a powerful leader, a stable economy, or a well-defended perimeter. Instead, He asks me to trust in His strength, His leadership, His stability, His defense, and to share His love with everybody.

Don’t forget to welcome outsiders. By doing that, some people have welcomed angels without knowing it. Don’t be controlled by love for money. Be happy with what you have. God has said, “I will never leave you. I will never desert you.” So we can say boldly, “The Lord helps me. I will not be afraid. What can mere human beings do to me?” (Hebrews 13:2, 5-6, NIrV)

This passage would be much easier to deal with if it were phrased a little differently. If only the writer of Hebrews had said, “welcome friends” or “welcome people just like you” or even “welcome folks who will bring you lots of gifts and be great friends.” I could definitely get behind that last one. But that’s not what the verse says. It says to “welcome outsiders.” Other translations use the term “strangers” or “foreigners.” The meaning is pretty clear–I need to welcome people who are different from me, people who don’t run in the same circles I do, people who come from somewhere else, people who may make me feel really uncomfortable.

And the potential threat to national security that scares so many of us? Yeah, that’s in there, too. “I will not be afraid. What can mere human beings do to me?” If God is with me, what business do I have fearing anybody (Romans 8:31)?

God,

You have called me to show Your love indiscriminately. I don’t often do that well. I wait to grant blessings on those I feel have earned them. I want to save up favor for people who will likely repay me in kind, or at least let me feel good about giving to someone who can’t give anything back. I dislike the idea that I’m supposed to show love to my enemies in the same way I do to my friends, but that is Your command (Matthew 5:43-48).

I pray for our leaders and those who influence national policies. I ask for Your wisdom as they determine how best to respond to crises around the world and within our own borders.

Please help me to have no fear of bad news, but trust in You. May I find Your Light, even in the darkest places. Let me live rightly, being gracious, showing compassion, and freely passing Your blessings to those in need (Psalm 112).

For Me

DH was up for a promotion at work this week. I spent most of the last several days being excited because it seemed he was the top candidate for the job and while the hours weren’t any better, the increase in pay would have been substantial. We found out yesterday afternoon that the position went to someone else. DH was a little disappointed, but I felt crushed.

I was sad for him, but, I’m ashamed to admit, I was more sad for me. Tossing and turning overnight, I found myself chatting with God about my feelings. I realized that I’d expected Him to bless us financially through this promotion, but He hasn’t. That bothered me, but I wasn’t entirely sure why. Getting out of the shower this morning, it finally came to me. “God,” I said, “I thought this new job would mean I wouldn’t have to trust You every single month to make ends meet.”

Bingo.

And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Philippians 4:19-20, NASB)

My old friend Lacktrust has been visiting again. There’s a Gershwin standard she likes to sing called, “But Not for Me.” It’s a pitiful tune about how great life and love is for everybody else, but not for me. Too often, that’s what I find myself thinking as I consider God’s promises. I start to believe that He has all these great plans for everyone around me, but my life? Well, maybe it’s slipped His mind.

Father God,

I have a terribly short view of Your grace toward me. Forgive me for the arrogance of believing I’ve been singled out to miss the grace and blessings You lavish on other people, but I don’t think You’ll pour on me. Even when I can look at my own life and see Your provision. Even though there have been more months than I can count when the debit column didn’t match up to the credit column in our budget, yet we still had plenty. In spite of every way You have already blessed me, I persist in fearing that Your bounty is not meant for me.

Thank you for this continued opportunity to grow in faith and trust. Please give me eyes to see Your hand at work. Give me the heart to believe Your promises are always true, even for me!