There’s Got To Be More!

I get it.Man with Head in Hands PIC.jpg

I read Twitter and ChristianPost and Thom Ranier and multiple articles from all sources about the pandemic of discouragement, disillusionment, depression, disunity and depletion of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual strength amongst American pastors – and I get it. I frequently weep as I pray for unknown (to me) leaders bleeding words of despair as they confess the unrelenting desire to just walk away from their churches, their petulant, demanding, absent people – and sometimes even from the effort to draw another breath and or take another step.

And I understand. Some of it, at least. Probably a lot of it.

I’m a senior saint now. Daughter of a long-gone Baptist minister, who grew up in the church of generations past. From the front pew, I experienced the previous six decades as the church, with the sincerest of motives, shed layers of tradition, liturgy, Bible teaching practices and expectations and embraced the world’s methods in attempts to “bring them in.” Programs abounded, music morphed into catchy praise songs no longer requiring organs or multi-generational choirs. “Seeker-friendly” and “attractional” became single-phrase outlines for entire church structures, goals and methods. Successfully. It looked good. It sounded good. It worked.

Didn’t it? God worked, certainly, because that’s what He does. He calls His people. He builds His Kingdom. He prepares His Bride. He is faithful and true; a Promise-Keeper and the Completer of all He has begun. Isn’t He?

Then I have one question. And it’s the same question that I threw at the Heavens 40-plus years ago when I battled my way through to full belief in and surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. It was both an accusation and a plea for understanding: “There has got to be more!”

I read about the early church. I read the epistles. I read the Gospels. I reveled in Revelation. I read about power and joy and perseverance in the midst of great suffering, and genuine conversions and changed lives and Kingdom expansion and exhortations and encouragements about how to live and what our lives should look like.

One problem. My life didn’t look like that. Other lives didn’t look like that. What were we missing? There has got to be more!

In His providential unique creation of me, and His spiritual gifting, God gave me a love for words – especially His Word. Long before I was able to spiritually discern much of anything in the Bible, I loved it, was drawn to it. I used to sleep with it. It was comforting, just to feel the weight of it in my arms, caress the smooth leather cover with my fingers, as I hugged it to my chest.

I was, and am, a natural student, teacher and writer. Also wired by my Creator to rise early, I’m at my desk every morning by 4. Coffee at my right hand, Bible open, current journal and a variety of colored pens and markers nearby, bookcase crammed with commentaries and hundreds of books at my back, I spend a minimum of two hours in the Word of God and in prayer. Abiding. It is a rare morning that it is less than that, and rarer still that the process is skipped altogether. This is my joy, this is the foundation of my day.

I believe the Word of God is exactly that: His Word. It is everything it claims to be; living, active, powerful, dividing, piercing, and revealing all that the God of glory has chosen to divulge to His highest and most beloved creation: those who bear His image. I have experienced countless times the illumination God’s Holy Spirit gives in a familiar word or passage, suddenly removing an onion layer to reveal another facet of meaning and application. Never contradictory, but deeper, richer, applicable to my circumstance or recent prayer or question or confusion.

Why do I say all that? Simply to factually state that I’m nobody special, but neither am I a (dare I say it?) stereotypical Christian who spends perhaps 10 minutes every other day reading a devotional thought in a well-meaning book that may quote one Bible verse and give a suggested 15-second prayer. I’m not a Biblical scholar, I don’t write books, no one outside of my small friends and family circle has any clue who I am. But I am perhaps a tad more knowledgeable about God’s Word than the average pew-sitter.

And I’m 73. Recitation of my personal life includes a litany of sinful behaviors – some of the so-called big ones – and tragedies and failures, the consequences of which still touch my life and that of others today. In other words, I’ve been around awhile. I’ve lived this Christian life for a few years. And loved it. Always wanting more of Jesus; to know Him, the power of His resurrection, and yes – the fellowship of His sufferings. (Philippians 3:10)

If you’re still reading (thank you) you’re wondering what all that has to do with where I started this essay. I’ve said all that because I’m asking a critical question, hoping for serious answers from serious people who will recognize that I do not want or need shallow, simplistic, Christian sayings that can be found beautifully framed in the home décor’ section of Hobby Lobby.

That heart cry I threw at God decades ago – There has got to be more! – came from studying and believing His Word – and not seeing it lived out. Not in my life. Not in the lives of those around me. That question has once again surfaced – and it frightens and discourages me.

I believed it when Jesus said, “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) and when he promised soul rest because “his yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I believed Paul when he taught that we would be “new creations in Christ” (1 Corinthians 5:17); that we were literally “crucified with Christ” and that He now lives His life through us (Galatians 2:20).

I still believe it. I believe the entire Word of God. I believe it describes, through the human authors, who we are in Christ and how we are to live on this earth, and by what means and power. I believe it teaches that we are indwelt by the very Spirit of the living God; that truly regenerated believers have new hearts that yearn after Him and long to please Him and ache with the desire to know Him and throb with anticipation of being with Him for eternity.

But. Why, then, are pastors by the hundreds apparently so soul-sick, so exhausted and wounded and angry that they are at least emotionally ready to go dig ditches, rather than continue the shepherd-teacher role they once felt called to? Why, then, do recent studies suggest that at least 20% of former faithful members will not return to their churches? Why has this unexpected COVID-19 crisis resulted in toxic levels of disunity, vitriolic speech, fear, isolation, an apparent falling away from God and each other?

But let me stop right there. I could easily answer my own questions. And my answers would probably mirror many of your own. And I could also rather easily give a list of remedies; again, a list that might sound like many others.

Here’s my problem and my question: why do those remedies depend upon me? Where is the power of God?

  • I need to stay in the Word
  • I need to pray more
  • I need to look for opportunities to serve others and stop concentrating on my own life
  • I need to have more faith
  • I need to recognize that this earth is not my home; my citizenship is in Heaven
  • I need to understand that believers were promised suffering
  • I need to understand that God is sovereign
  • I need to understand that God is, in fact, God – and while He has revealed much of Himself through His Word, His thoughts and ways are higher than ours – and always will be
  • I need to love others with an agape’ type love; self-sacrificial love
  • I need to extend grace and forgiveness to others, just as it has been extended to me
  • I need to try harder, believe more, love more – oh, and rest, take care of myself and my family, guard our health, be patient, be understanding…

I am willing to bet that every pastor who is struggling so mightily and hurting so deeply has repeated variations of those thoughts to himself until he is sick of thinking. He has beat himself up over why he can’t seem to pull himself up and out of the black hole he is in.

And he has asked the question: “Where is God? What is He doing? Where have I gone wrong? What have I missed? Is He real? Have I been fooling myself all this time?”  

What’s my point? I’ve asked those same questions. And I believe so have a lot of people. Genuine, born-again, regenerated believers. Those who have simply been cultural Christians have, I believe, gone one of two ways by now: begun or even completed the process of completely falling away from the faith or, ironically enough, become some of the loudest, harshest, most hateful accusatory voices of disunity.

So let me wind this up. It’s way too long to be of much use to anyone, but that’s okay. It’s stuff I needed to get out. I frequently think by writing (hence, the few dozen journals I’ve kept over the years.) And it’s helped me crystallize some of my questions because I really do need to talk to someone about them. Not just share for the sake of sharing – I need someone I trust to help me walk this out.

There are some people God has placed in my life that seem to think I may be able to help guide them in their Christian walk, and I’m honored and humbled by that. And I encourage them all to ask the tough questions. We all have to know what we believe and why we believe it. In our world today, people neither want nor need smoke and mirrors. They want Truth, delivered with honesty and passion. If you believe it, then live it. But right now, I need help myself.

Almost six years ago now, I was (to the surprise of my medical team) recovering from a multitude of post-surgical medical issues, including seven weeks on a ventilator and five months of hospitalizations and rehab centers. Still tethered to a trach, multiple IV lines, and an NG tube, I was gradually learning to walk again and slowly regaining mental acuity. But very slowly. I had been heavily sedated for two months, and the long-term effects of those drugs was substantial.

Between therapy sessions, I tried hard to reconnect with God. I tried to read my Bible. The words blurred into unintelligible lines. I tried to listen to my beloved pastor’s expository sermons. I couldn’t comprehend them. I tried to pray. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I just cried, which was an uncomfortable thing to do with an NG tube and a trach in my throat.

One afternoon, in absolute terror as I felt my grip on reality slipping, I mentally cried out to God. “I can’t hold onto You!”

His answer was immediate, life-changing and life-sustaining.  “You don’t have to hold onto me. I’m holding onto you. Rest.”

And I did. Fear left and never returned. Anxiousness left and never returned. True healing began that day. And continues to this day.

I believe Him. I believe His Word. I trust Him. But I don’t understand. Where is the power of the Holy Spirit Paul refers to in Galatians 3 when he challenges his readers with Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

What have we missed? What do believers in other countries seem to know and have that we don’t?

I’d welcome your comments. Just please don’t tell me something else that I’m supposed to do.

And for God’s sake – literally – don’t go to your pastor and tell him something that he’s supposed to do! Instead, prostrate yourself before the Lord and ask, first, if you might be part of your pastor’s problem. If so, repent immediately. Get up off your face and do something. Write a card of encouragement. Give he and his family a gift card to a nice restaurant. Offer to babysit the kids so they have an evening of rest. Encourage. Support. Be the one who stops or at least refuses to participate in whatever litany of discontent and disunity is swirling amongst the members of your church. Pray. And pray some more.

Okay. I’m done. I do know one thing. God is up to something in the American church. He may be completely dismantling the thing we’ve built it into in order to shape it for His glory and the expansion of His Kingdom. But He is at work.  If He is not, then we are, of all men, most miserable.

What Peter said to Jesus long ago is our only hope today: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

 

Short Nights – Long Prayers

It’s 1:30 on Saturday morning and I can’t sleep – again. Oh, I’ve had a few hours, courtesy of the prescription sleeping pill I take every night – but for the past few nights, this is about the time I give up the fight, roll out of bed, put coffee on, and ask God, “now what?” Four a.m. has been my normal gittin’ up time, and I’ve been grateful for that. Those are precious hours spent in prayer and God’s Word before breaking off to begin daily prep time by 6:30.

But lately, the Lord has steadily been moving those clock hands further back, until the last three mornings have seen me fully awake, coffee in hand and Bible in front of me, at 1:30. That’s just a little weird. It’s not like I can take the day off and go back to bed several hours later. I have full days; four of them spent at my job all day, with frequent evening obligations. Days off from work are also full of “to-do” lists – minor details like laundry, shopping, errands, church, people. You know – life.

So, what is this? This is, I believe, an answer to prayer. My prayer. One that I have repeated countless times, in tears of seeking and surrender: “I want to know you; really know you. And the power of your resurrection, and the fellowship of your sufferings.” It’s Philippians 3:10 and it has been the cry of my heart for many years; a cry that has intensified, oddly enough, as God has begun to answer it. The more I get, the more I want – of Jesus.

But even that is not the full story. My heart hurts. Primarily for one of the most difficult mission fields I believe there is – that of good, church-going, of-course-I-believe-in-God, my-kids-are-in-AWANA-every-week, God-bless-America, throw-an-extra-$20-in-because–we-need-to-support-our-missions-work, solid citizens who show up more Sunday mornings than not and are fully convinced they are okay with God. Pastor and Author Dean Inserra calls them “the unsaved Christian,” participants in western cultural Christianity, inoculated with just enough Biblical lingo to be protected against the real thing. I recognize them – because I was one. And they are everywhere. And time is not on their side. And my heart hurts. And my tears fall. And my prayers arise.

The Biblical illiteracy that suffocates a true knowledge of God within the walls of our churches – never mind our general culture – is stunning in its breadth and depth. At the time in history when God has provided tools to sharpen the sword of His Word to a degree never before seen – because it was not needed to this degree before – we have buried our swords in the rock of laziness, unbelief, and emotionalism (“I’d rather feel it than know it”) and, like Excalibur, are now unable to draw them out. More than unable; unwilling.

So, we have exchanged our swords for plastic, make-believe light sabers and dull butter knives. We have listened to teachers by the dozens who have built careers on books, fog machines, and disco lights, who have fed us diets of “how great you are because God loves you” and theologically-skewed, repetitive and loud praise songs that supposedly worship a God we don’t really know. We quickly label as “legalistic” anyone who dares speak of a God of wrath Who can have nothing to do with sin – and therefore us – without a radical and true repentance, surrender, die-to-self obedience to the Savior of our souls.

Instead of recognizing that we are dead – putrid, stinking dead – in our sins, our feel-good religiosity has taught us that we’re just a little sick, and the medicine a God of love has provided is for us to ask Jesus into our heart – our deceived, desperately wicked hearts – and learn to live and love in tolerance of all things and all people, just like Jesus – our Good Example – did. Except He didn’t.

But after all, who needs the Book? We’ve got the Feelings. Instead of knowing and listening to the King of King and Lord of Lords who said, quite plainly, that unless we deny ourselves, die daily, and follow him, we cannot be his disciple – we have elevated “self” to the status of godhood: self-esteem; self-confidence; self-awareness; self-achievement; self-awareness; self-love.

So, is this what God gets me up early for? To write strident words of condemnation and judgment? No. It’s to break my heart over what breaks His – because I’ve asked for that. It’s to lift many loved individuals, friends and family, to the Holy One and plead for new hearts and opened eyes; to ask the Lord Who loves them to do “whatever it takes” to radically save them and send them out – knowing full well that “whatever it takes” may be sufferings of many kinds.

It’s to pray fervently use me in whatever way He sees fit, in whatever time He has left to me, to love with His love. To somehow reach the dear Vietnamese woman who does my nails, and who has told me in her halting English that she has wished to hang herself because her life is so difficult. Through her, God has not-so-gently reminded me that He has brought the nations to our doorstep since we seem to be so unwilling to send out our children and grandchildren to them. What do I do, Lord, what do I do?

It is to plead with my Lord to grant me words of wisdom and comfort and encouragement and exhortation to those who come to my door, or call my phone, or send me long texts, telling me of their depression and fear and anxiety; their failing marriages, their failing health; their imprisoned children; their own questions of “God, how could You?” – to somehow, some way, in the power of the Holy Spirit, make them understand that Jesus is their Living Hope; that abiding in His Word is the only way to draw life from the Vine; that they must examine themselves to ensure they are in the faith; that not everyone who says to Him, ”Lord, Lord” at the last day will be granted entrance into His Presence for eternity.

It is to go deeper into His Word, knowing it is actual nourishment – real food – and I’m hungry. To be reading a simple historical passage in 2 Chronicles about King Solomon bringing in all utensils and furnishings for the exquisitely finished and beautiful Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies – and to suddenly be reduced to sobbing tears of worship and gratitude that this glorious God has chosen to make me His temple, the dwelling place for His Spirit.

And it is to pray for my sisters and brothers in Somalia, and the Sudan, and China, and Africa, and Nepal – simple people who know nothing of the extraordinarily rich life I lead in America – and of whom I am deeply envious because of their very deep, very real, very personal relationship with Jesus Christ, in the midst of their sufferings and persecutions for His Name’s sake. Oh, that I would know Him in that way. Whatever it takes. On the one hand, a dangerous prayer for this life; on the other, one that leads to the deepest joy and peace and blessing imaginable.

So. As I finish my second full cup of coffee at 3:20 a.m. – thereby guaranteeing I won’t fall back asleep – and prepare to shut this down, and go to the Word – the Living Word – to hear His Voice and to praise and worship Him with true thanksgiving – know that I am praying for you. I truly am. But I am not praying for lives of ease and comfort. I’m praying that you come to know Jesus in a real way – and that you, even today, pick up that heavy cross, and prepare to die – as you walk in His steps. And then to realize that truly – even that burden is light, and that yoke is easy – because the King walks with you.

He is worthy – and He is enough.

Perfect Proven Perfection

Almighty Creator, Sustainer, Righteous, Just, Sovereign Lord of Hosts – I believe this. I really do.

You are Perfection. There is no shadow of turning in You; You do not change. Your words prove true – over and over again. They can sound so – so – “other-worldly,” so high above me. And yet as I learn them, believe them, abide in them, walk according to them – they prove true.

And when I trust you – trust in you – rely upon you – throw myself upon you, who you have revealed yourself to be; what you have said you are; what you have proven to be in my own life – you surround me with favor like a shield. You become the cleft in the rock and I run to you; and I am safe, shielded.

The enemy’s darts come in fast, hot, sharp. Your shield holds. My refuge is secure.

BUT.

Not…”but God.” That’s always a comforting phrase. Instead, and so frequently, it’s “but…I.” I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. I don’t feel the truth of his word. I don’t feel that God is perfect. Somehow he must have missed this situation. He’s absent here. Or worse, he doesn’t care. Or, even more horrifying – he can’t and won’t do anything about it.

My soul, my heart, twists and rips in anguish. I see my world, my people, my dear ones – me – suffer and struggle and hurt and choose stupidly, over and over again. And I watch the consequences fall. And I cry out, “But why, God? Where, God? When, God?”

The pain, the emptiness, the terror, the questions, are all too real.

But…God. In his love and grace, he brings me back, ever quicker, to the bedrock, the foundation of my very existence: “This God – his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; He is a shield to all those who take refuge in Him.”

And as I, once again, choose to believe; choose to obey; choose to surrender; choose to hold onto this perfect, proven, protective God, even in the midst of my tears, I am quieted with joy and peace and filled with praise.

Because he is worthy – and he is enough.







                                                 

                                                                                               

The first leaf

There was this tree …

I saw it in the middle of a flat Iowa pasture, standing solitary sentinel over rusty yellow wildflowers and tall weeds spiked with leaves tapering to dagger points. I was conscious of the tender flesh of my palomino’s legs as I guided her closer. Those sharp points would hurt and the mare was skittish anyway. Painfully unexpected scratches by one those plants might land me on my own tender flesh, watching Flicka take off for greener and safer spaces.

But that tree drew me. The summer sky was a cloudless blue, hazy with heat, and the leafless splintered branches twisted into that sky like spear-tipped rockets crazily off course. From my perch on Flicka’s sun-warmed and saddleless back, I could see where the gnarled base had been split by some outside force. One piece drooped close to the level ground beneath it, fastened to what remained of the main trunk by splintered tendons, the once raw wood grayed by exposure to nature’s moods. The larger piece remained upright, vainly pushing dead branches skyward in a search for life.

Life, however, was gone. There was no green, no fruit. It had once been an apple tree, part of a tiny orchard that had long since been abandoned. Only the surrounding stumps testified to its earlier existence. This tree must have been the lone survivor; perhaps bearing such a rich harvest that the owner chose to leave it untouched as long as it proved useful. The lightning strike that had split the trunk had also dealt a fatal blow to its heart. Roots no longer drew sustenance from the loamy soil. And without that living connection to the source of life, no amount of external sunshine was going to resuscitate the stricken tree.

I was eleven, and I was fascinated by the architecture of the barren tree. At the time I wasn’t entertaining lofty philosophical thoughts or analogies about the meaning of roots and life. I just liked the twisted design the branches painted across the horizon. It was cool. Plus, it was the first time I had been allowed to take the mare out of a much smaller paddock, unchaperoned, so I felt very adventurous as we roamed the field. And, I was aware that Mrs. Rust was standing at the back of the farmhouse’s wraparound porch, keeping nervous watch over her young protégé and her aging steed.

That was a very long time ago. Six decades, to be exact. Flicka, Mrs. Rust, the dead apple tree, and even that farmhouse have long since been returned to and become part of the Iowa soil. But the image of that tree has stayed with me and been buttressed by many other trees I’ve seen in the intervening years.

The Ficus Microcarpa trees on Okinawa that display stunning aerial root systems. The stories-tall, military-straight yellow pines prevalent in East Texas. The stately, colorful and leaf-shedding pin oaks in Ohio farmland. The knobby and mysterious cypress trees that flourish in the swamplands of America’s southern states and give rise to dark tales of creatures and nefarious strangers. And what may be my favorite: the banyan tree.

Native to India and other parts of the eastern world but common in Florida, the banyan boasts an astonishing and intricate root system that burrows deep into the ground and also births aerial roots that hang from its many limbs. These trees have an architectural quality that testify to both the order and artistry of the Creator.

At this point, I could wax poetic (that really is a strange phrase) about the many healthy root systems of these trees; the necessity of staying connected, of burrowing deep, of searching out nutrients in challenging and difficult locations – and actually, I will do that in the future. At least I will attempt to do so. That’s kind of the whole point of what I want to say in this blog.

But why do you suppose the image of that first tree, seen so many years ago, has stayed with me in such detail? I think it’s because it has consciously surfaced, countless times, to portray what has felt like the state of my soul. Stricken. Shattered. Broken. Dry, brown and brittle. Lifeless. Useless. Barren. Hopeless. Twisted. Alone. Old.

To be honest – which I intend to be in this medium – I still feel like that occasionally. And it can be brutally hard to overcome those emotions – especially when they seem to be based on facts.

If you haven’t already done the math, I’m in my 7th decade. I’m slowing down, wearing down, breaking down. I’m not whining, I’m just telling the truth. I’m in my last productive season of life, and there’s an expiration date on it that only God knows.

There is, however, a world of difference between how I may feel and what I actually am. Between emotions and truth.

I am not a barren, lifeless, abandoned, lonely tree. To the contrary, God says in Psalm 92 that I am a living, deeply rooted, still-growing, full of sap, green tree – planted by God’s grace and faithfulness in the house of the Lord. And by his grace, even in old age, I can bear fruit.

And so can you, regardless of age or circumstances or emotions – if you are rooted and built up in Christ Jesus (Colossians 2:7); if you have been attached to the Vine (John 15); and if you have been planted by and are drinking from streams of living water (Psalm 1:1-3; John 4:10).

So, in “Reflections of a Green Tree,” I hope to both encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11,14) and exhort (Hebrews 3:13) as I share thoughts and lessons from my life. And perhaps I can even introduce some of you to the Master Gardener, who once died on a tree in order to give you life.

He is worthy. And he is enough.