Dig Deep

How enriched are they who find their strength in the Lord;
    within their hearts are the highways of holiness!
Even when their paths wind through the dark valley of tears,
    they dig deep to find a pleasant pool where others find only pain.
    He gives to them a brook of blessing
    filled from the rain of an outpouring.
They grow stronger and stronger with every step forward,
    and the God of all gods will appear before them in Zion.

Psalm 84:5-7 TPT

Valley experiences are common to all of us who draw breath in this world. Some valleys are deeper than others. I’ve watched people who impress me walk through tough times as if they have a secret resource that allows them to remain at peace in spite of everything. When I ask them how they do it they tell me, “It’s in the dark places and stressful times that God’s grace is most plentiful. It’s not as easy as it was before. You have to dig. But that’s where profound silence invites you to come closer. That’s when you can feel his heart of love for you.”

Look

I will say to the prisoners, ‘Come out in freedom,’

    and to those in darkness, ‘Come into the light.’

They will be my sheep, grazing in green pastures

    and on hills that were previously bare.

(Isaiah 49:9 NLB)

Sometimes we are not aware of how dark things have become until the light breaks through. Just as our eyes adjust to the darkness, our souls can start to accept a dim view of things as normal life. “It is what it is,” some say. When the light first shines we turn our heads because it hurts. We no longer have the capacity to accept the brightness of Jesus’ face. It frightens us. It requires adjustment.

God sent his Son to set the captives free. Dare to lift your eyes. There is abundant life and freedom in the light of his glory and grace.

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!

Refrain:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Through death into life everlasting
He passed, and we follow Him there;
O’er us sin no more hath dominion—
For more than conqu’rors we are!

His Word shall not fail you—He promised;
Believe Him, and all will be well:
Then go to a world that is dying,
His perfect salvation to tell!

-Helen H Lemmel

Work in Progress

I often help my granddaughter with her online school assignments via Skype. Today, her assignment included a discussion of the poem, “Work in Progress*,” by Jon Jorgenson. We had an delightfully enlightening chat, but I think the work may have spoken to me more than to a pre-adolescent girl. She accepts that she is a student and her vocation right now is study (which one cannot do until they accept both a state of ignorance and the capability of changing that state. Some call the trait meekness.)

I often feel frustrated because I think I should be further along in spiritual maturity by now. The poem helped me remember I am also a work in progress. I’m still changing. Sometimes grace comes in the form of an overheard lesson.

*Link in comments.

Kissing a Guilty World

On the mount of crucifixion

Fountains opened deep and wide

Through the floodgates of God’s mercy

Flowed a vast a gracious tide

Grace and love, like mighty rivers

Poured incessant from above

And Heav’n’s peace and perfect justice

Kissed a guilty world in love

From “Here is Love” by William Rees and Robert Lowry

This verse from the hymn that became the theme of the Welsh Revival in 1904 has been going through my head lately. As light shines in dark places there is an increasing awareness of systemic injustice and corruption that has dragged us into a dark place where hopeless compassion offers only a cruel kindness. Death dresses up as relief and the very young, the very old, and the poor and disabled are victims of the lie.

We cry out for justice, and we long for peace, acknowledging everyone’s guilt but our own.

I had a dream in which I was told that change doesn’t come about by making the same apologies over and over again. Change comes about in the heart first, and only God’s love can heal a heart because only God can be both just and loving. He has provided a way that is truth and life. The way, the only way, is Jesus. God’s kind of justice meant sending his son to set the captives free, not condemn them. He offers life, not death.

Jesus explained, “I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I am the Life. No one comes next to the Father except through union with me. To know me is to know my Father too.” (John 14:6 TPT)

Invaluable

The power to endure is greatly undervalued. In a culture where rapid solutions win the rat race we have little appreciation for the seasons in which God’s grace is empowering us to endure all things while keeping hope and faith alive. We want the comfortable stuff and the fun stuff — now! God sometimes has other plans. Endurance, like patience, cannot be developed in a hurry.

We’re heading into another winter season with so many unknowns battering our feeble understanding of peace and progress. Although the gap between striving to up our faith and leaning on his faithfulness is painfully evident, his grace is still abundant.

This morning I woke with song of encouragement playing in my head.

I know Your thoughts
Your plans for me are good
And I know You hold
My future and my hope
Your promises never fail
Your promises never fail

(from Your Promises Never Fail by Jason Ingram and Ben Fielding)

The Hebrew word for peace, Shalom, means, in part, nothing missing and nothing lacking. Even when we can’t see it the Holy Spirit is working in us to transform us into his image.

My fellow believers, when it seems as though you are facing nothing but difficulties see it as an invaluable opportunity to experience the greatest joy that you can! For you know that when your faith is tested it stirs up power within you to endure all things. And then as your endurance grows even stronger it will release perfection into every part of your being until there is nothing missing and nothing lacking. (James 1:1-4 TPT)

The Torch: Be Yours to Hold It High

When I was a young bride far from my family in the days before easy communication, four elderly women who lived together in a heritage house  extended themselves to become family. Rhea and Kathleen, the sisters who inherited the house, showed me how to can fruit, and frame artwork.  They invited us to important events and introduced us to influential people. Dorothy, a retired college principal, recommended excellent books and engaged us in thought-provoking conversations. Mavis, a retired English nanny, became my much-appreciated resource when our first baby was born. I loved these women.

Something made me wonder though. They were outstanding women of character, intelligence, and grace. Old photos showed them as once attractive, fashion-conscious girls and young women. Why were they all single?

Finally, I asked Kathleen, “Did you ever think about getting married?”

“Of course,” she said. “But my young man died in the war.”

“Oh Kathleen! I’m so sorry. I never knew. What was his name?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “He died before I met him.”

She told me this with the mischievousness of someone who had lighted upon an answer that served her well for many years. There was also a sting of truth to it I had not considered before.

Her sister explained, “When we reached the age to consider marriage, we realized many of the young men we had known never came home after the first world war. There was a severe shortage of men. Frankly, neither of us met anyone who shared our interests and passions and we didn’t care to compromise. Between our careers and caring for our parents as they grew older, we filled our time well enough and were content. We learned how to create family in other ways.”

Each Remembrance Day we honour those who fought for freedom from oppression. We sing songs, recite poems, lay wreaths, and invite school children to submit artwork and essays to express thanks to those who served in the military. This year, as I remember the old house and the ladies who showed us how to celebrate each day as a gift, I would like to honour those who bore the heavy burden of war as bereaved parents, widows, fatherless children, and young women whose lovers died before they had a chance to meet. They were the ones who picked up the torch and held it high.

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high. 

– John McCrae

With One Voice

I lost the tag that told me the name of this little rose bush. It blooms just as happily without it. I’m fascinated by flowers of different colours springing from the same root. It brings me joy.

Unity is not uniformity, but neither is unity a random occurrence, without anything in common. I have known groups formed around the concept of unity that were so accepting of almost any idea they no longer have anything in common. That’s not true unity any more than response to a man-made rule that forces everyone to dress the same and act the same is true unity.

Unity in the spirit is about receiving from and responding to the same source, the way these lovely roses receive nutrients from the same root and yet each bloom expresses itself in a different way.

Unity is more than having faith in whatever. Unity is having faith that is connected to the One who is faithful. True unity is about being and rooted and grounded in the Creator’s love.

“Now may God, the source of great endurance and comfort, grace you with unity among yourselves, which flows from your relationship with Jesus, the Anointed One. Then, with a unanimous rush of passion, you will with one voice glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Romans 15:5,6 TPT)

Grace and That Time God Hit Restart

IMG_0946 from herodian toward dead sea

My kids must have seen me coming. They managed to catch the chairlift for one more run down the mountain seconds before I arrived to pick them up from a school activity at the ski hill. At least I got a wave from them as they rose higher. That’s how I ended up sitting in the car with nothing to do for at least another half hour.

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I could have taken refuge in the coffee shop, but I didn’t feel like making small talk with anyone I might bump into. My life was falling apart. It was getting harder to fake it.

My identity was built on becoming a successful singer. I mainlined standing ovations. But those tiny membranes that created the sound were not working reliably. I kept getting laryngitis. A rival (with frustratingly robust health) told me that a singer is only as good as her last performance. My last performance was cancelled due to bronchitis. And the one before that. And the one before that. Calls stopped coming.

I tried to be a good mom, but I didn’t know how to do that either. My kids didn’t respond to techniques I read about in books on child rearing. I began to invent privileges just so I had something more to take away as a consequence for poor behaviour. Well, I was going to take you to the circus, but you just blew that.

I tried hard to be a good Christian, but I was tired of never feeling good enough. When I went to church my ears screened out everything but the shoulds. I don’t remember anybody saying it, but somehow, I picked up the idea that I was only as good as my last performance there as well. When my voice gave out while singing a song about love and I realized I had no idea what love was, I left the platform. A few weeks later I quit going to church at all. So much for happiness all the time and wonderful peace of mind. I possessed neither. Life felt like a bleak landscape.

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Sitting in the car that snowy day, I saw my Bible rolled up in the back seat where I tossed it a few weeks before. Loose pages fell out of alignment and it had a forlorn sat-upon look. I picked it up and dared God to speak to me. This was a showdown. He was real or he was not.

I opened the book at random. At first I read passages about God being good and never leaving. I shrugged them off. Then I flipped again, like another roll of the dice. This time it fell open to the book of Hosea, the story of a prophet whose life became a picture of God’s feeling toward faithless Israel. Hosea had married a prostitute.

Suddenly, I felt something different than I had felt before. It was a strong sense that what I was about to read would mark a moment when my life would begin to change. I can’t explain the feeling except to say that I knew God was there and he was tender and terrifying. I wanted to cling and run at the same time.

This is what I read:
“Therefore, behold, I will hedge up her way with thorns,
And I will build a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths.”

And further down the page:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Bring her into the wilderness
And speak kindly to her.”

I thought God only spoke when he was about to smite something.

“Then I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the valley of Achor as a door of hope.”

I needed hope.

“And she will sing there as in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

Sing again?

“It will come about in that day,” declares the LORD,
“That you will call Me Ishi
And will no longer call Me Baali…
I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the LORD.”

I admitted I didn’t know him, not like this. Later, at home, I looked up Achor. It means trouble. The valley of trouble as a door of hope? That didn’t sound good, but I knew God was somehow in this.

The valley of Achor for me was depression. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate. I lost confidence. Memories of my unexamined history surfaced and shook my world.

It’s hard to see things we don’t want to see. My escape routes were “hedged up.” I wandered in a bewildering wilderness resisting God’s help, trying to fix things myself.

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I had believed lies that led to self-loathing and insecurity. I had turned to forms of comfort that would have destroyed me eventually. I was headed in a direction that could have caused great pain for more people than myself. Even though striving and busyness look good and are admired in our culture, they separated me from God.

Trouble forced me to let go of my image of God as an impossible to please old grump. I gradually let go of my image of myself as a stressed-out performer trying to placate God and everyone else to earn a place in this world.

Grace took the form of trouble. Without it, the door of hope would have remained closed. I had to let go of the old ideas before I could hold on to new revelation and walk through that door into a life of faith.

In the place of isolation, in my wilderness season, cut off from my usual escapes of busyness and performance, I began to hear the Voice of love. Words bringing condemnation, anger and disapproval didn’t come from him. I began to understand that even if I never did another thing to try to win his favour, nothing would change his for love me. I experienced his kindness in this drastic intervention.

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He allured me. He became my Ishi — hero husband, instead of my Baali –- master overlord. I sang to him in response to his singing to me. It was like he hit the restart button and my life began anew.

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I’m writing about this experience now, because I see so many people who find themselves in a fear-filled wilderness of isolation due to restrictions around covid-19. I know what it is like to be unable to turn to the usual distraction of constant occupation or watch things I worked so hard to accomplish fall apart. I recognize the silent questions. This sudden massive interruption of the world shakes our assumptions about how life works.

This atmosphere feels familiar. I recognize the finger of God about to hit the restart button. Some people are in a place to examine the previously unexamined and meet God for who he really is for the first time. Others will hear the faint sound of an invitation to return to what they knew from the start. Others will encounter opportunities to step into greater adventures with the Creator.

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These are troubled times, but these are also times of enormous hope for a deeper relationship with the Lover of our soul. He cares enough to use something the enemy of our souls meant for evil for good. He intervenes to say stop. He has so much more empowering grace for us to receive.

When God gave a promise through the prophet Jeremiah to people taken captive by trouble, he wasn’t offering a feel-good quick fix. He was talking about starting a process and a journey that would thoroughly change them and their values. Trouble would be an agent to give them a future and a hope.

Are you in that place? Stop. Wait. Listen. Be still until you have a better sense of who God is. Let his voice allure you. This could be your opportunity to start again.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)

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Under the Weather

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To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
-Karl Barth

The expression feeling under the weather means feeling unwell. It comes from a nautical expression. If a sailor on a ship felt sea sick due to rough weather he was allowed to go below deck until the storm was over or the ship sailed out of it or he developed sea legs.

The storm most of us find ourselves in right now with the threat of the covid-19 virus and the financial repercussions of efforts to mitigate the spread, have left many feeling sick with anxiety.

When people are overwhelmed with waves of anxiety crashing down on them they react differently than they normally would. They say or do things that escape normal healthy inhibitions. There is grace for that.

Sometimes it’s better to take a break and metaphorically go below deck to find a less stressful place and wait out the chaos. Sometimes I have to quit watching the news or listening to social media squabbles because they upset me. I’m liable to lash out in a way that embarrasses me in the way suddenly vomiting in a crowd is embarrassing.

Some people are called to hands-on-deck practical action – and for those people I am extremely grateful. Some of us are called to a quiet place where we can re-focus and listen to God’s heart for us. It’s only then that we battle, not from a place of fear, but a place of rest and confidence that God is still for us and still good.

God is not tethered to the timeline like we are. He sees the storm, but he also sees the resolution of this atmosphere of fear-inducing disorder.

It’s okay to take a break when you need to go below decks. Rest. Drink in God’s love. It’s the thing that casts out fear. Worship and give thanks, as you wait for the peace that passes understanding that Jesus promised. When you are full and can give out of the overflow, rise up and do the things that are consistent with being the person God sees when he looks at you. If you don’t know who that is, now is a good time to ask.

So now we come freely and boldly to where love is enthroned, to receive mercy’s kiss and discover the grace we urgently need to strengthen us in our time of weakness.

(Hebrews 4:16 TPT)

 

 

 

Ain’t No Grave

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A song has captured my attention. It’s not even my style. It reminds me of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” style of dancin’ and stompin’ or “The Beverley Hillbillies” theme song style of pickin’ and grinnin’. I’m from a different culture. But I keep listening to it because I hear an essential satisfying message that sits well in my soul.

There’s more than one way to be dead. There’s John-Brown’s-body-lies-a-mouldering-in-the-grave captive to physical weakness dead. There’s I-owe-my-soul-to-the-company-store captive to hopelessness dead. There’s nobody-knows-the-trouble-I-seen (or caused) captive to shame dead.

Molly Skaggs sings, “Shame is a prison, as cool as a grave. Shame is a robber and he’s come to take my name.”  She also sings, “Love is a resurrection,” and “Love is my redeemer, lifting me up from the ground.”

Telling a person their messed up choices are going to kill them, or shame is robbing them of their potential and they need to repent and come to Jesus is like telling a mummy in a sealed tomb to unwrap themselves and step out of the sarcophagus. If you could see him, the mummy would be rolling his eyes, if he had them. He would if he could, but he is not able. He’s kind of tied up right now.

Jesus came to set the captives free and to give new life. It’s his kindness that leads us to change. The ability to change is a gift of empowering grace that comes from God’s love which is greater than our greatest weakness, the most hopeless situation we find ourselves in, or the most shameful thing we have done.

Some well-meaning Christians believe they’ve got to convince people that something is a sin so they can repent, clean up their act, and come to Jesus. John the Beloved told us Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be saved. When we focus on sin we assume the sinner is unaware of his or her sin. Even a child knows the difference between right and wrong and understands regret. Only the Holy Spirit can convict us of sin without burying us deeper in condemnation.

We forget many people are coping as best they can within the limits of the size the graves of shame, hopelessness and loss of true identity restrict them to. Demanding repentance is demanding they pull themselves out of that hole. They would if they could but they are not able. Bootstrap transformation has never succeeded in the long run. This is what Paul called being dead in transgressions and sin.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ… (Ephesians 2:4-6a NIV)

Jesus went through hell for you. He said he’d rather die than live without you. So he did. Then he walked right up to the devil, and said, “I’ll take those now,” as he grabbed the keys to death and hell. He conquered death just to show how much he loves you.

Jesus said, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelations 1:18)

He came to set the captives free – by his grace. It’s the gift of God offered to those who accept it. It’s his kindness that leads us to change.

Jesus, if you walked out of the grave I’m a-walkin’ too!

Okay, now I’m stompin’.