Loaves and Dishes

Silence is an underrated blessing. We live in a world of near constant noise. To take time out, to step away from the livestream of everything everyone else is doing, to calm my heart and sit before the throne of God without prattling on about what I want from Him is an amazing experience.

A few months ago, I participated in a prayer and worship service. The highlight of the night, for me, was the 10 minutes of silent corporate prayer. We all sat together, hushed in reverence of the Creator, and allowed Him to speak to us.

That evening, I saw a scene that has stayed with me. We were all gathered, everyone in the room, coming home for a feast–as scattered relatives return to the family homestead for Thanksgiving. Yet, we were all outside the place where the meal was being served, arguing with one another about the dishes. Not who would wash them, but what china pattern was best and whose settings should be used.

Suddenly, a plate struck the wall, shattering to bits and startling us all into reticence. We moved into the banquet room then and were shocked to see the tables, low to the ground, Middle Eastern style. There were no plates at all, but communal serving platters from which were to help ourselves, bite by bite.

That scene returned to me as I lay in bed this morning. When I first saw the images, what stood out to me the most was the plate, breaking to bits against the wall. I understood the symbolism as a verdict against the Church’s arguing with one another over trivial matters of policy, rather than joining together to share the bounty of God’s blessings that had been prepared for us. Today, I realized I’d missed something. In a traditional meal where everyone shares a common serving dish, individuals eat a flatbread of sorts (like tortilla or pita or naan), using it to scoop up bites of the main course. I realized that not only are we arguing over the plates that aren’t even a part of the feast, but such disputes have completely taken our focus off the Bread.

“For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:33-35, NIV)

The Kingdom of Heaven is not about me. It’s not about what I have done or not done. That is not to say that my actions have no importance, just that I cannot change the essential nature of Christ’s Kingdom. He invites me in to join the feast, but the feast is not my doing. There is no place at the table for arrogance that my china is being used. This is the wedding feast of the Lamb and we are here as His Bride, to celebrate with Him. The only way to enjoy this great banquet is to eat the Bread (Matthew 26:26).

Lord Jesus,

Thank You for giving Yourself to be the Bread of Life. Thank You that through Your life and death and resurrection, I can come to the feast, that You honor me as Your bride, and I am invited eat my fill. Help me to remember Your preeminence over any understanding or practice of my faith, to know that You are the One in whom I have faith and any other aspect comes distantly second. Let me choose to embrace each individual member of the family within the unity of You, rather than trying to assert the superiority of one tradition over another. May we be one as You and the Father are one (John 17:16-26). Amen.

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A Single Step

I’ve been thinking about my future quite a bit recently, questioning whether I am who I wanted to be when I grew up. In many ways my life does not look the way I ever imagined it would. Years ago, DH and I sat down together for a series of discussions about where we wanted to raise our family. We agreed on the Pacific Northwest. Instead, we’ve lived in the Midwest for our entire marriage.

Moving from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains, I struggled to find my place. Even now, I want to live in a different home, a better neighborhood, someplace with a fenced-in yard and more than one family within walking distance that we truly call friends.

The thing is, God is with His people no matter where we are. He sometimes sends us to places we would never otherwise choose. Yet, through our journeys, He refines us, both for our own benefit and to bless those who surround us.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7, NASB)

While my family isn’t in exile, we are living life here because this is where God has put us right now. I may wish to be somewhere else–especially when I wake up to several inches of snow on the ground or am calling in yet another noise disturbance for the people next door–but this is where I am. I need to be fully present here, working and praying for the people in our community. And as they are blessed, that will be a blessing to us as well.

I don’t know what the next step of our journey holds. God may keep me right where I am. Or He may send me to the Pacific Northwest (or Hawaii … Hawaii always sounds wonderful at the end of winter). Or maybe I’ll move somewhere else that never made it onto my list of places I’d like to go. The question is: Do I trust Him enough to take the next step down His path, wherever it leads?

Lord,

I do trust You. I know You are a good God and I am not. You love me and know what is best for me. Even though what I want is a good thing, I know You may have another, better plan for me. I can trust You to lead me. I choose to follow You, even though I don’t know yet where we are headed. You are with me and that is enough.

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.

Be Grateful

I use that phrase a lot, especially trying to inspire my kids to appreciate what they have. They don’t often get it. They have no concept of what life would be like without all the luxuries and conveniences they enjoy. Frankly, I mostly don’t either. Sure, I’ve gone camping or on short-term trips to the developing world, but I always knew in a few days or weeks I’d be back in my centrally-heated home compete with indoor plumbing and a cushy mattress. 

This morning I read a great excerpt from Mark Sisson’s book The Primal Connection. He reminds us that making gratitude a habit is not just a good idea, but may actually improve health and increase longevity.

[W]hile familial genetics plays a large role in longevity, researchers have amassed significant data suggesting that up to 75 percent of longevity is related to psychological and behavioral factors. Emmons notes that chronically angry, depressed, or pessimistic people have long been observed to have an increased disease risk and shorter life spans. However, those who kept a simple “gratitude journal” for three weeks or longer reported better sleep, increased energy, heightened creativity, enthusiasm, determination, and optimism … and an increased desire for exercise. Now that’s something to be grateful for!

Click here to check out the rest of his post, including a few more simple, practical ideas to practice gratitude on a regular basis.

Everything

One of my all-time favorite movie is The Princess Bride. The character of Vizzini is short, bald, and thinks he knows everything. He responds to numerous unexpected events with his trademark, “Inconceivable!” At one point in the film, when things have once again not gone his way, Vizzini spits out a particularly incredulous, “Inconceivable!” His hired swordsman responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Words are like that sometimes. Take the world of advertising, for instance. The definition of the word gift is “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation” (source). Yet, we almost never hear about a plain, simple gift. Advertisements are meant to encourage us to spend our money, so when it sounds too good, we’re always looking for a catch. Even though, by definition, gifts are not something we need to pay for, nearly every ad offers the redundant phrase “free gift,” as though there were some other sort of gift that required a fee.

Sometimes, I have similar issues when I read the Bible–it sounds too good, so I’m looking for the catch.

God’s power has given us everything we need to lead a godly life. All of that has come to us because we know the One who chose us. (II Peter 1:3a, NIrV)

There is a credit card commercial I’ve seen lately that has a celebrity spokesperson asking the viewer, “What does ‘everything’ mean to you?” He goes on to explain everything, as determined by the card he’s pitching, is not just in some cases, but means every place, every time, always, without limit, as it should be.

Why do I think God’s everything offers less than the bank? And if He really has already given me absolutely everything I need, why do I waste so much time worrying about what I don’t have?

God,

You have promised again and again in Your Word that You will supply all my needs (Philippians 4:19), I lack nothing (Psalm 23:1), I only need to ask (Luke 11:10), I can do all things (Philippians 4:13), and You bless me wherever I go (Deuteronomy 28:6). Still, I keep looking for the fine print. It sounds too good to be true.

I have trouble believing You because I like to think You are like me. Help me to see how different You are. Help me to know that although I am limited, You are limitless; while I am poor, You are rich; where I am stingy, You are generous. And even when I’m focused on what I think I’m missing out on, thank You for graciously giving me everything I need.

Take Out

For weeks leading up to Christmas, I’ve been faced with the question of what I want. It’s not that so many people were looking to buy me presents, in fact, very few people even asked. But it’s the time of year when the focus of nearly every TV show, every ad, every blog post is on giving or getting just the right gifts. So I started to ask myself: What do I want?

I don’t think that’s been a very healthy question for me. Rather than looking at all the things I have, all the blessings I’ve already received, I began to consider what my life may be lacking. What don’t I have? What would make my life newer, better, faster? And somehow, searching for these holes, I managed to find them. They seem to glare like crazy–a beacon of how my life just isn’t what it could be, if only I had something else.

You gain a lot when you live a godly life. But you must be happy with what you have. We didn’t bring anything into the world. We can’t take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we will be happy with that. (I Timothy 6:6-8, NIrV)

God,

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes that I wouldn’t actually be happier if I had more books or shoes or toys. Wouldn’t my life be easier or more comfortable if I had all these things I want? But, comfortable isn’t really Your purpose is it? You’re making me holy, and apparently that takes a lot of time stretching me out of my comfort zone, and that’s never easy.

Help me to recognize that the more things I have around me, the more tempted I am to focus on those rather than on You. Let the stuff in my life just be stuff. Stuff is incidental. It comes and goes and isn’t really very important in the scheme of things. But, God, You are always with me. I want You to be in the center of me–Lord of my life, and ruler over all my stuff. Thank You that You’re not willing to give me what I want when it interferes with what I need.