the truth that keeps me out of the cave of despair

My body returned from Scotland last Thursday night. It has taken my mind longer to return. It was ready right away to be with my kids, to celebrate PJ’s 9th birthday (how is it possible that my YOUNGEST is in his last year of single digits?), and ease back into the cycle of cooking/washing/straightening. My grey matter was clearly not up for all the other parts of my normal life—i.e. meetings/appointments/a packed schedule—because I didn’t even realize I’d missed a significant meeting at church on Monday evening till I checked my email later that night and saw a note from the team leader wondering about my absence.
My mind moved—in one short minute—from gradual re-entry to high alert.
And into guilt, too, of course.
How? How could I have so completely forgotten a meeting I’d been very excited about only a month before? How could I have gone an entire weekend without checking my full schedule for this week?
So complete was my plunge into alert mode that I was unable to sleep. At 2 a.m. I finally slipped from bed to read in the bathroom, hoping my mind would shut off. It didn’t work. I returned to bed, but no sleep came. I prayed, working my way through the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, but I kept circling around to guilt and then to the busy-ness of the week ahead.
“Oh, Lord, help me to get past this and rest,” I asked, and my understanding of my guilt and frustration began to shift. I realized what was really eating at me was concern for how I would be perceived by the other members of the team, was embarrassment, was shame at having to admit I’d simply forgotten. This self-preservation and focus was what was keeping me awake.
Still, even though I could name my issue, sleep never came. I finally got up, went upstairs, and found my younger three already awake in the living room. “Can you pray for me?” I asked them. I explained my missing the meeting, my lack of sleep.
“Of course,” they said. Maddie prayed that I would have peace and strength for the day; Jake—who is quite familiar with guilt—prayed I would not be “down in the dumps, would not live in the cave of despair.” (I’m not being imaginative; those were his exact words!)
It was such a good wake-up call (pardon the pun!). As the day went on, I found myself grateful for two seemingly paradoxical reminders: 1. I am NOT as free as I sometimes think I am from guilt, perfectionism, and people pleasing. I am still in the process of being set free and that’s okay; and 2. In Christ, I AM free. He accomplished my freedom, and He is at work in me—and HE is greater than my sin! He will triumph!
I am grateful the second truth is far deeper.
“And I am convinced and sure of this very thing, that He Who began a good work in you will continue until the day of Jesus Christ [right up to the time of His return], developing [that good work] and perfecting and bringing it to full completion in you. Philippians 1:6, Amplified Bible
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The “why” of Bible reading

When I open my online “Read through the Bible in a Year” program, it tells me I am on day 275 of 365.

That’s true, but it’s taken me quite a bit more than 275 days to get to this point. I don’t remember exactly when I started this plan, but right about the time I started falling behind in it, I discovered the “catch me up” button at the bottom of each daily reading list.

At first I felt guilty, as if I were a woman on a diet sneaking cookies.

But I don’t feel guilty now.

Not long ago I downloaded The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer to my Kindle. He wrote this in his preface to the book: “The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.”

I reflected on Tozer’s words in my journal. Why do I study Scripture? I wrote. That is a necessary question to answer. If my desire, as I read, study, and meditate, is not to know God better; to be more awed by His beauty and goodness; to be convinced more fully of His love for me; to be satisfied in Him and by Him—if all this is not my aim, then I may as well read another book.

Christ did not die for me to make me a Bible scholar; He died so I could have relationship with His Father. The only point in being a Bible scholar, then, is to deepen my knowledge of and relationship with God.

Yet other purposes often take over when I read Scripture. Sometimes I am seeking a particular answer to a theological question. Sometimes I simply want to know more just to know more (and I don’t mean that in a good way). My purposes can get even further from what they should be when I am following a reading plan. I like to see the little checkmarks fill in the empty circles on the reading calendar. I like the completion aspect of it. “Well, I got through Leviticus and Numbers. Now let’s tackle Deuteronomy.”

It can become a homework assignment; something to “get through.”

And when I don’t complete it, I experience guilt.

All these purposes cheapen both God and His Word.

Early last fall, my mother-in-law sent me a devotional she’d written for me to edit. The title was “Encountering God.” She wrote this: One way I encounter God that is such a thrill is when I draw near to Him before beginning my Quiet Time. I deliberately turn my focus to His presence. In my mind, I see Him standing before me. I focus my mind on Him, blocking out all else around me. Then I pray: Father God, I draw near to You, and in faith, I receive You drawing near to me. I see Him smiling at me and then coming near to embrace me with His Strong Arms. My soul is filled with delight as I allow myself to feel His embrace and His love for me pouring out through his loving arms. 

He never fails me. When I draw near to Him, He is always ready, and He graciously draws me close to His heart. These encounters strengthen my faith and hope in the One Who calls me His very own special treasure.

If I prepared for Bible reading and study like that, I would see and treasure Scripture as the very words of God. I would be unconcerned with “getting it done” and completely consumed with seeing God revealed in Scripture.

I share this post because a new year began only 21 days ago, and I know that many Christians resolve to read the Bible more in the new year than they did in the old. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading Scripture—it’s still the Sword of the Spirit even when we don’t approach it as such—and I know we gain much from reading the entire Word of God…

but we gain God Himself, and not just knowledge ABOUT Him, when we read His Word with anticipation and awe.

*For a great article about yearly Bible reading plans, read Bible Gateway’s article “When Reading the Bible Becomes a Chore: Six Ways to Keep Your Bible Reading on Track This Year.

*Bible Gateway also has a variety of Bible reading plans. Visit this page.

Applying George Costanza’s “Opposite technique” to my prayer life

I could say that this picture fits this post because I took a shot of the bottom side of the leaf rather than the  top, but that would be cheesy, right?!

I could say that this picture fits this post because I took a shot of the bottom side of the leaf rather than the top, but that would be cheesy, right?!

Dave and I were Seinfeld junkies in the early years of our marriage. One of our favorite episodes was “The Opposite,” in which Jerry tells perennially down-on-his-luck George that every impulse he has is wrong, and George decides to do the opposite of his impulses. A few minutes later he meets a very attractive woman and tells her, straight up, “My name is George. I’m unemployed, and I live with my parents.” (Usually he said he was an architect [not true].) Amazingly, she agreed to go out with him.

It’s a funny, funny episode (as most of them are), but the reason I bring it up is that I’ve been trying to apply this idea to certain areas of my prayer life lately.

I’ve been practicing “the opposite” technique on my natural impulses of guilt/comparison/criticism.

When I’m reading an article in Voice of the Martyrs (a magazine about the persecuted church) about believers who have lost everything but who are still sharing Jesus’ love with their neighbors, my first impulse is to think, Oh, they’re so much more spiritual than I am. I’m just not strong enough in my faith!

When I hear about people who work for the International Justice Mission, serve in shelters for battered women, deliver Meals on Wheels—you name it—my initial response is, I should be doing more.

When I see a woman who looks like she has it all together, my gut instinct is to compare, and my confidence gets beaten down in the process.

And when I see a woman who’s clearly struggling, deep down in me there’s also a bit of comparison going on—comparison that makes me feel better about myself.

When I’m picking up all the debris my children leave strewn across the floor and every available surface, there’s generally some silent fussing going on. (Sometimes it’s NOT silent!)

I used to read the verse about “praying without ceasing” and think, “How?”

But if I turn all my guilt/comparison/criticism into PRAYER and add to that my daily-sometimes-hourly cries for help, well, then that’s pretty un-ceasing!

So, when I hear the next radio piece about Mary Frances Bowley’s work with survivors of sexual abuse and prostitution, I will not waste my time feeling bad about the work I’m doing or guilty for not doing “more.” Instead I will pray for Mary Frances, for the girls at Wellspring Living’s safe house, for the many staff who work with them, and for those trapped in sex trafficking around the world.

When I am tempted to fuss about the messes my children have made, why not pray for them instead? I may still be frustrated, but I will have lifted my kids up to God as eternal souls.

What a better use of my time and energy!

Now I definitely want to avoid making this rote and mechanical, something I “have” to do, but, honesty, “rote and mechanical” often describes my complaining/comparison/guilt.

It’s simply a default pattern, a harmful one.

I need a new pattern to follow.

From ____________ to prayer.

Thank you, George!

And Jerry, of course!

NOTE: I think this kind of “new” practice/pattern is part of what Scripture refers to as the “renewing of our minds.” Here are a few verses that have to do with our souls and minds becoming “new.” Because these are pretty well-known verses, I looked them up in the Amplified version to make their messages fresh.

Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world (this age), [fashioned after and adapted to its external, superficial customs], but be transformed (changed) by the [entire] renewal of your mind [by its new ideals and its new attitude], so that you may prove [for yourselves] what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God, even the thing which is good and acceptable and perfect [in His sight for you].

Ephesians 4:22-24 Strip yourselves of your former nature [put off and discard your old unrenewed self] which characterized your previous manner of life and becomes corrupt through lusts and desires that spring from delusion; 23 And be constantly renewed in the spirit of your mind [having a fresh mental and spiritual attitude], 24 And put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God’s image, [Godlike] in true righteousness and holiness.

 

 

 

Africa Devos, LAST ONE!: Re-entry

This is Vena, wife to Wilfred Rugumba (who directs Mercy Childcare Ministries), and her younger son, Joshua. Amazingly, I just got to see them IN the U.S. last weekend!

This is Vena, wife to Wilfred Rugumba (who directs Mercy Childcare Ministries [MCM]), and her younger son, Joshua. Amazingly, I just got to see them IN the U.S. last weekend as they have been visiting churches/groups informing them about God’s work at MCM. I love this pic–they’re both as cute as can be!

You are about to re-enter the United States. This can be a difficult transition after being in Africa. Though you long to see family and friends and you want, too, some of the comforts we’re accustomed to, it’s not a simple adjustment. You will probably see “stuff” differently. We have three general temptations as we return to the States: 1. We try to forget, particularly the difficult feelings/thoughts we experienced; 2. We look down on others for not feeling as we do about Africa and providing for the poor; or 3. We feel guilty.

Katie writes about re-adjustment difficulties in chapter 7 (see page 121 in particular). You may want to re-read that chapter. Bottom line, though: you HAVE to stay close to Christ during this transition time. You have to take all your confusion and frustration and guilt to Him. He has a good work to do in you through all this. Go to Him.

Commit to praying for each other,

Commit to getting together to pray for your African brothers and sisters.

 

May God use all that we’ve experienced to help us to…

See/know Him more clearly

Love Him more dearly

And follow Him more nearly.*

Day after day.

 

*prayer by Richard, Bishop of Chichester, early 1300s

The guilt of simply being human

I'm so thankful for the view out my kitchen window! Beautiful!

I’m so thankful for the view out my kitchen window! Beautiful!

Yesterday, after reading a Facebook message from someone I had unintentionally hurt, my stomach was in knots.

When I shared both the Facebook message and my guilt with my husband, he looked at me in surprise. “Jen, why do you feel guilty? You simply weren’t able to do what he needed. It wasn’t possible.”

But I still wrestled with the feeling of guilt.

The guilt of being merely human.

The guilt of thinking I should be able to do it ALL (in other words, of thinking I am like God [the oldest sin of all]).

The guilt of forgetting that I am completely incapable.

To deal with this kind of guilt, I needed a broader definition of sin than the one that defines it as intentional actions, thoughts, and words that “break the rules.” That is a very limited—and unbiblical—definition of “sin,” and it didn’t help me deal with my Facebook situation.

The New Living Translation of Romans 3:23 defines sin as “(falling) short of God’s glorious standard.”

I fell short with my friend—not because I wanted to, not even because I had another choice, but simply because I had no capability to meet his expectations. I’ve “fallen short” in some other areas as well lately, and, for reasons only God knows, He has made me sit for awhile in the discomfort of my own inadequacy, my own “falling short.” I have tried to mute the message, tried to distract myself with writing and meal prep and people and the radio, but uneasiness has burrowed into my soul, and my thoughts circle constantly around my feeling of guilt.

So this morning I took a long walk in the thick snow at the dog park. Two women were there when I arrived, but they soon left, and I was alone—with my thoughts.

Still wrestling.

Round I walked, breaking through the snow crust, doing battle in my mind, swinging like a pendulum from excuses to accusations.

On the third lap, I stopped. “God,” I said, “I want to prove myself right in this situation. I want to ‘feel’ right. And I have been doing a whole lot of talking in my own head trying to figure this out. But I can’t–because I’m not capable. I fall short—both of a complete understanding of this situation AND of any ability to fix it. I am only human. Help me to see myself—and then see YOU—as I should.”

“Please, God, I need You!”

Then, finally, rest came. I could admit my own inability, my own “falling short.” And I could glory in the fact that the God who loves me has NO limitations. He is not bound by time. His strength is unlimited. He does not run out of energy or patience or goodness. He never forgets, not ever. He never fails—not at anything He does.

He IS the glorious standard.

And He is fully aware that there is no way I can reach His standard. In fact, I think He gets tired of my thinking I can.

So when I let go of trying to reach His standard on my own, I see HIM and His grace far better.

And I am awed by the Glory!

I continued my walk, joyous now, rejoicing in the beauty, and just before I left I did what I could not have imagined doing twenty minutes earlier.

I fell back into an untouched patch of snow, gazed up at the tops of the trees, and made a snow angel!

Value in/value out–and guilt begone!

I am GOOD at guilt.

I can make myself feel guilty for just about anything: not being a good enough mom/host mom (or wife, not sharing my faith enough, not doing enough for others… My husband and kids actually tease me about this. One night a couple weeks back, Dave asked me, “Now why did you feel you had to be a chaperone for the kindergarten field trip along with volunteering in the school cafeteria today?”

Before I could answer, my 12-year-old did it for me. “Because that’s what ‘good moms’ do, Dad.”

Bam! Right between the eyes. Good moms—and Christians, neighbors, whatever—do “enough,” and “bad” ones run around trying to figure out what the heck “enough” is and drowning in guilt in the meantime.

One of my recurring areas of guilt wallowing is in relation to the “least” of the world. When I am reminded of the number of orphans in the world or refugees in DuPage county (my home county), part of me wants to run away, to not be touched by knowledge that disrupts my comfort. Fortunately, as God softens my heart, I am increasingly led to pray, to actually feel sorrow that draws me closer to the heart of God.

But there’s another part of me that goes straight to the guilt button.

Last week I wrote three posts about the “least” of the world. I didn’t plan it. They all came out of natural events of my week, and it was not my intention to induce guilt—neither in anyone else nor in myself.

But being the guilt expert I am, it was bound to happen.

The I’m not doing enough. I’m not giving enough chorus was ready for the Metropolitan Opera by the end of the week

At the beginning of this week, though, I was reminded that God doesn’t like my guilt wallowing. He doesn’t want a heart that coerces its holder into good deeds. He wants a soft, tender, compassionate heart.

He wants a heart like His.

He didn’t send His Son to die because He felt guilty. He did it because He values us. He loves us not for what WE have done but because that is WHO He is.

He values us not as the world does—for our power, our wealth, or our talents—but because He has stamped His image into each human creation.

You are mine, He breathed into Adam and then sorrowed as, one after another, we turned our back on that truth. He still holds our existence, but He wants our hearts.

Each human being has value because God says so.

God woke me up (literally) from my guilt fest last week. In the middle of the night I startled awake with His Words sounding in my mind: “You are mine. You have value because I love you. When you know THIS, it can flow out of you and you can value others. This will show them that I love them.”

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Philippians 2:3.

My guilt is a twisted form of vain conceit. It is focused on ME, and it assumes that I can somehow fix the problem, that I have enough knowledge to fix it—if I just think hard enough, if I just do enough. Though it can get masked as something wholly good, it is at its core a false humility—conceit in a prettier package.

But the desire to do good that flows out of God, now that happens when I remember that I am valued—loved immensely—and not for anything I am or can do. THIS knowledge allows me to VALUE others, not just “do good” to assuage my self-centered conscience. Then I can pass value on without losing a smidgen of it myself.

This is something I can do this every single day. I don’t have to be working with refugees or working overseas at an orphanage. I can practice this with the clerk at the grocery store, with the hygienist at the dentist office, with the homeless guy holding the sign on the street corner, and the loud, off-center woman who wears sweaters in July and hangs out at the public library. I can even do it with my friends and family.

Philippians 2:4 reminds me how to do this: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I have to stop thinking that my to-do list is more important than people. I must be willing to set it aside. I cannot walk through the grocery store with a preoccupied look on my face, thinking only of what I’m fixing for dinner and putting in lunches. I must be willing to look into each face, see each as a human being valued by God, and engage—a smile, a look, a few words, kindness most of all.

Value in, value out.

And if I practice this in “small” ways, listening for the promptings of God as I move through my everyday life, then God makes “big” ways clear as well. “Eagerly pursue and seek to acquire [this] love [make it your aim, your great quest];” (I Corinthians 14:1a, Amplified).

Value in—I am loved.

Value out—so I can love others.

And guilt begone!