Practice

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My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.

And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:18 -24 The Message)

I’ve had the privilege of teaching some very gifted students over the years. I noticed that the most successful – those who developed and maintained a love of music and who sang or played both skilfully and from the heart – had something in common. They learned from their mistakes. They did not ignore them, neither were they overwhelmed by them.

The hardest ones to teach were the ones who, although equally gifted, couldn’t accept correction, no matter how carefully I phrased it. Some always had an excuse: “The sun was glaring on the page. You played a wrong note and it threw me. My parents woke me up too early and I’m tired….”

Some fully acknowledged their mistakes, but broke down in episodes of self-flagellation and dire prediction: “I’m so stupid. I’ll never get this right. I just can’t do it. I’m not smart enough. I haven’t got talent like the girl you were teaching before me. It will never happen!” (I may have been one of these.)

Some had plenty of talent. They swam in oceans of potential. They dreamed of accolades and standing ovations – but they didn’t dream of stopping to fix mistakes. They ignored them, or practised them over and over so that they were set in concrete after a few weeks, or they just plain never practised at all, as if the potential of being a star was close enough.

Someone told me the quality of being teachable is called meekness. On this last day of the year I have been doing a review of what I learned. It would be easy to ignore evidences of change and focus on failures, making excuses for my mistakes. There are hundreds to pick from. It would also be easy to fall into despair, and spout off my frustrations with my lack of love and self-discipline and tendency to repeat the same wrong note twenty times in a row. But self-criticism that condemns is debilitating. It removes hope and makes me want to quit and wallow in shame.

“God is greater than our worried hearts,” John the Beloved wrote. He knew our Great Teacher sees our potential. His corrections are directed at bringing out the talent he has already placed in us. He chooses the music that will challenge enough to stretch us, but not exasperate us. He urges us to practise, because he knows the joy and freedom we will experience when that which once seemed impossible flows naturally and beautifully.

The teacher smiles and says, “Well done!”

Then we grin, ask for our next new piece of music, and rush home to practise.

Let the Fire and Cloudy Pillar Lead

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Have you ever wished God would show up in a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night to show you which direction to go? We like to say, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I will do it.”

Have you ever heard God’s promises through scripture verses that stand out, practically in neon, and are repeated by every book you pick up or every podcast you listen to or in casual conversation with friends you haven’t seen in ten years or on advertisements on the sides of a bus or even in dreams or visions or an audible voice?

Wow! You say “Yes, Lord! I will follow you to the Promised Land!”

And then he leads you in the opposite direction.

“What?” you say.

The thing about clear direction from heaven is that it takes you in directions your mind can’t follow – otherwise you would not need it. I’ve seen this so often now, I’m finally beginning to see that it’s a pretty normal in the Christian life when the opposite of a promise shows up first.

The cloudy/fiery pillar led the Children of Israel back out into the desert – not their expected destination. But the Lord had some work to do on them before they were ready to leave slavery behind. Not all shackles are on the outside of a person. Some of them are in the mind.

I feel like I’ve had a promise of seeing a restoration/revival/reformation whatever you want to call it, in church as we know it. I keep hearing and seeing pictures of a reconciled, united Body of Christ, a joining of streams, a habitation of God made of living stones, a place where love is more than a theory and entire cultures change as result of its influence. I keep hearing the “one another” passages that talk about identifying followers of Jesus by their love for each other and not for the walls they have built around their “distinctives.” I see the promise. I know it is coming. I have said, “Yes, Lord.” I have followed his voice.

Then he led me in the opposite direction.

So here I am, a lover of the saints, not attending a church, following a cloud in the desert. One temporary camping spot at a time. Amazingly I’m meeting a different kind of church out here, one based more on spirit connection than proximity of pews. I’m not without fellow travellers with discernment willing to offer much-needed encouragement and correction; in fact there are a few people in my life now with whom I have a deeper, more honest, more faith-building relationship than I’ve had in years. I am learning to feed on the bread Jesus provides, but sometimes I miss the savoury familiar and predictable flavours I have known.

I think that’s why I don’t have permission to go back, nor am I seeing the promise fulfilled yet. I still have shackles around my mind. I have expectations that are defined and limited by my experiences in the old country. What God has planned operates on complete dependence on his ways, not mine.

Guide me, oh thou great Yhwh, I’m a pilgrim in this barren land. I am weak but Thou art mighty. Hold me with Thy powerful hand.

For Freedom!

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For freedom Christ has set us free;

stand firm therefore,

and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

There is a scene in Chariots of Fire where the trainer shows his runner where another man lost the race. It was when he looked back to check the progress of someone else.

So often we lose ground in this race when we try to measure our progress by comparing ourselves to others. Spiritual competitiveness can be a giant speed bump we will trip over if we are paying attention to the wrong things. You can’t love someone and desire to beat them at the same time, nor can you run the race with all your heart if you let the slowest person on the track set the pace. Our eyes need to be fixed on Jesus, the one who never fails to love us, and can love others through us, wherever we are on this journey.

For you were called to freedom, brothers.

Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,

but through love serve one another. 

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

(Galatians 5)

Evergreen

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Those who are devoted to God will flourish like budding date-palm trees;
they will grow strong and tall like cedars in Lebanon.

Those planted in the house of the Eternal
will thrive in the courts of our God.

They will bear fruit into old age;
even in winter, they will be green and full of sap
To display that the Eternal is righteous.

He is my rock, and there is no shadow of evil in Him.

(Psalm 92:12-15)

Tiny Tiny Faith

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It was twenty years ago. I told the counselor I didn’t know what I believed anymore, or even if I believed anything anymore.

“I just don’t have enough faith,” I said.

Is there one thing you can still hold on to?”

The traffic in the street below whizzed by and the warm air blew quietly through the heat register in the floor as I squirmed in my chair. Finally I said, “This much. A children’s song. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know.'”

“That’s all you need.”

“But I don’t have faith in church, or prayer, or eschatology, or Calvinism, or Arminianism, or Catholicism or any of that stuff…”

“I’ll have faith for you,” he said. “You just hold on to that one piece in your hand and enjoy it.”

This is a photo of my grandson’s cat McGyver. He loves to climb into the tree and bat the baubles. He loves it so much that nobody who loves him even tries to convince him to come down anymore. He has no understanding of Christmas trees or traditions or the meaning of carols playing in the background. He just sees an opportunity for a moment of joy and seizes it.

Sometimes the only faith we have is that momentary sense that peace and joy and love exist somewhere in the universe. All that is required of us is that we enjoy the glimpse that one tiny seed of faith gives us. It’s about God’s faithfulness, not how much we can try to talk ourselves into something. It’s about learning on a deeper and deeper level that Jesus loves us and taking the opportunity to enjoy him -a little bit at a time, being grateful for the sun on our face in the day or seeing the twinkling stars at night.

Twenty years later his kindness and goodness and gentleness amazes me.

Twenty years later I can say with a degree of faith I never knew could be mine: Jesus loves me. This I know. This is all I really need to know.

Have a blessed Christmas. Jesus absolutely adores you, you know — big faith or tiny, tiny faith.

Merry Strawberry Season! Wait…. what?

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Someone sent me a wish for a happy Hanukkah this week and mentioned that it is officially strawberry season (in the Middle East). We are singing songs like “See amid the winter snow, born for us so long ago,” and “In the Bleak mid-winter,” and “Let it Snow” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” Strawberry season couldn’t be farther away.

I keep running into slogans on social media: “It’s Merry Christmas, not Season’s Greetings or Happy Holiday!” I don’t know if the intent is to come across as being rigid and somewhat less than gracious about this, but it doesn’t exactly exude warm wishes. I’m particularly concerned that it is aimed at poor harried store clerks who are just following store policy. It is a Christian’s job to bless people who don’t know about the love of God, not theirs to give us “the proper greeting.” When I talked about it some people told me that the issue is that they feel an attack by governments and lobby groups to deny their traditions and they’ve had about enough of this political correctness stuff that denies folk the right to express themselves freely.

Ah. That’s the reason for the defensiveness — defending tradition. One simply does not mess with someone’s traditions. Someone told me that saying Merry Christmas was standing up for Jesus. Hmmm. I have found that putting myself in charge of God’s public relations by using my own disgruntled methods seldom puts him in a good light. He’s more likely to say, “Thanks, but I’ve got this,” and then he just pours out his goodness on those who speak ill of him.

There is a difference between “standing up for Jesus” and “standing up for our traditions.” I don’t see any instructions to say “Merry Christmas” anywhere in the Bible. In fact I don’t see any command to celebrate Jesus’ birth on an arbitrary date chosen to give an alternative to winter solstice rituals. (A good case can be made for Jesus’ birth being around the time of Sukkot, or the Jewish Festival of Booths, by the way), but I consider every day a good day to celebrate Jesus, so why not Christmas Day as well? I’m good with that.

To me “standing up for Jesus” is about standing up for what Jesus taught and acknowledging that he is who he said he is. I have a hard time seeing him scold someone for not upholding the traditions of man according to some unwritten rules. In fact, the only people he scolded were the ones who burdened people with the traditions of man to the point where they no longer accurately communicated the nature of God.

Our tradition in northern Europe and northern America is that Jesus was born amid the winter snow. It’s a rather self-absorbed man-made tradition that does not take into consideration that in other places in the world, it’s strawberry season. Whether it’s winter or summer where you live, whether Jesus’ birthday was on December 25 or September 25, his law is love and his gospel is peace. Putting Christ back into Christmas means being Christ-centered in all our choices and extending his love and peace.

May the love and peace of Christ be with you this day and every day. He absolutely adores you, you know.

A Thrill of Hope

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Long lay the world
In sin and error pining
‘Til he appeared
And the soul felt it’s worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

(From Oh Holy Night by Adam Adolphe)

I wonder if a thrill can be a quantity, like a pride of lions or a murder of crows. A thrill of hope. I like that.

My prayer for the past year is to be able to comprehend in some small manner how God sees me. It’s been an adventure, and sorry, much too personal (and embarrassing) to tell here.  So many people are searching for their true identity. I think that’s why things like which-Disney-princess or which movie-character-are-you quizzes are so popular. While none of us like to think we are just like anyone else we read the information that assigns our butts to labeled personality boxes with fascination. The fun part about God telling you who you are is that he doesn’t confuse you with your sin or your temptations. Sometimes it is easiest for us to identify personality types by their weaknesses -or at least imbalances. Imagine being known only by your strengths -especially by the strengths that he knows about before you have ever seen a scrap of evidence of them yet.

While Gideon was still hiding out in a wine-press trying to thrash grain (which must having been frustrating because the exercise needed a breeze to carry away the chaff) the angel messenger called him, “Mighty Warrior.” That’s not how Gideon saw himself at all. He saw him as the least influential in a family of insignificance. That didn’t faze the angel. He wasn’t talking to a coward because the message was for the man Gideon was to become. Once assured, he did become that man.

These words in the second verse of Oh Holy Night caught my attention this week. We are way-laid by the identity sin has hung on us like a scarlet letter. I am an alcoholic. I am a gossip. I am a sloth. I am an incorrigible approval-seeker. I am a rigid perfectionist. I am a coward. What would we say if a winged messenger showed up in our in our basement while we were doing laundry and said, “Hail Mighty Warrior!” or “Hey there, favoured one so full of grace!” Most of us would probably turn to see who he was talking to. But God sees his children with different eyes than we see ourselves.

When we begin to comprehend that God sees our worth, that he actually likes us and takes pleasure in us, and that we do have significance to him, we desire to live up to his image of us. We can start to lay down our own burdens of pits of despair, clouds of darkness, or predictions of failure as we see him approaching carrying a thrill of hope meant for us.

And that’s a good time to fall on your knees and worship him.

Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance! People, on your knees! Pay attention to your deliverance!