Thursday, November 21, 2013

In Joys AND Sorrows

 Romans 12:15, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."

As I write this blog today, I can't help but think about the silly journey I have been on for the past six months battling Plantar Fasciitis from a runner's injury early last May.  Suffice it to say, it has not been a fun one.  I recently had the privilege of enjoying some time with a dear friend who asked me at length about my feet and how my physical therapy is going.  I could tell she was very concerned about my situation and truly cared that I am struggling greatly with pain-management and healing.  It meant the world to me that she was more concerned about my issue than any of her own--and quite honestly, my issue is not that pressing in the scope of life.  But I thought a great deal about this verse in Romans 12 that day, and I thanked God for this friend who has always been the kind of fellow sojourner in Christ to be genuinely happy for me in my successes and joys, and sincerely sorrowful and concerned when I am hurting.

We have all come across people in life like this--faithful friends who place more interest on us than themselves.  They are the ones who after spending time with them, we almost feel guilty that we would receive such an undeserved blessing in another human being--someone who behaves as if we are more important than they are.  We also feel remorse because we did most of the talking, as is typical in the relationship (these folks rarely want to speak at length about themselves).  Likewise, we have probably all met people of the contrary, who seem to bask in our sorrows and mourn selfishly in our joys.  These "friends," who disappear or hide when things are good, suffer from the all-too-typical-green-eyed-monster-syndrome, and they would rather play counselor than cheerleader where we are concerned.  These are the friends who cannot muster up a genuinely kind word about good things in our life, but place great demand and expectation on us to bask at length in the glory of theirs.  Last and on the opposite end of that negative spectrum, there are people whom we could term, "fair-weather friends." They are the ones who only want to be around us when things are good.  But once they aren't, they are no where to be found.  They have no time or patience for anything less than fun and smiles.  But we are called by God directly in His Word to be loyal, faithful friends in every circumstance, regardless of the current situations of others or ourselves.  Not just when it feels good to us or is convenient for us.  Not just when God is blessing us equally.  Not just when things are in our favor. 

Though I have truly despised the past six months due to the pain, time, and expense of my injury, I know that the Good Lord has used this for my personal betterment.  I know that my empathy for those who deal with constant pain has heightened immensely.  My empathy for those who battle weight loss issues due to be unable to exercise has increased significantly (I am still wearing 6 of the 10 pounds I gained last winter, and here we are approaching the good ol' holidays again)!  My awareness of how blessed I am to even be able to walk has risen greatly.  My appreciation for doctors and therapists and the genuine care and support they give, has gone through the roof.  I have come to realize that patience, peace, and self-control are the three Fruits of the Spirit upon which I need to work much harder.  Before my injury, I was feeling pretty self-assured that I was working on all the fruits pretty consistently and effectively (funny how a hardship brings out the reality in us)!  This injury has brought me to deeper prayer and forced me to rely more fully on God in order to do my work and my ministry.  This is a humility all of us need, but to which none of us ever look forward.  When you spend the first two hours every day holding onto counters and furniture just to endure pain as you work, you learn humility really quickly.  When you lie awake at all hours of the night because your feet are throbbing, you learn to pray harder.  As it turns out, feet are pretty important.  I won't be taking them for granted again.  

So what does my stupid, petty feet-injury have to do with Romans 12?  Well, for starters, I am hopeful that I have learned to have more mercy for my fellow believers who are struggling with things--namely health issues.  It is easy to be quick to judge others who gripe and complain about their aches and pains until you have them yourself.  I am grateful for those who have genuinely cared about me--in my joys and sorrows.  I am humbled by friends who are suffering and warring right now with much bigger battles than I, and doing so while exhibiting all nine Fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), unlike me.  I am blessed that God has provided my needs during this time (physical therapy and orthotics aren't cheap) and allowed me to continue in my work and ministry in spite of my pain.  I know my Lord is teaching me peace, patience, and self-control in this journey and He has my best interests at heart--even though there have been days where I am just really weary.  He does not desire for me to view this as His wrath upon me (a clear epiphany given to me by Him one day after I threw myself before Him in anger and despair about my feet).  Though this is a small but greatly annoying battle, I believe God is also preparing and teaching me things about aging.  None of us are immune to that, and in the, "pride of life," I know deep down I was not really wanting to face the inevitability of it.  We girls are told in all forms of media that we are supposed to be timeless, and that our lives and looks should show that in every sense of the word.  During this second half of my life, I am going to have to learn to deal with health issues gracefully in God's strength--not my own.  I am going to have to let go of vanity and the arrogance of youth and life--aging will remove both whether I choose to let them go or not.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, "This ain't heaven, folks," and, "There are three things you can count on in life:  death, taxes, and change."  So though the wrinkle in the middle of my forehead is now deeper from furrowing my brow from pain all summer and fall, I am reminded of how it really doesn't matter.  One day all pain, all struggles, and all wrinkles (can I get an, "Amen," up in here?), will be gone forever.  

I pray that I can be the kind of friend who supports, encourages, and blesses in joys and sorrows--even when I am hurting or it is not reciprocated.  I pray I can be the kind of believer who never criticizes or judges someone else's lot in life until I have walked a mile in their moccasins.  Though I have to admit my fear and trepidation about it, I desire for God to continue to prune me to the point where I just love people.  But I ask Him now:  "Father, please prune me thoroughly, but gently.  Help me to be able to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn--regardless of their situation, regardless of mine, and regardless of how they treat me in return. Amen."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Broken and Blessed

Luke 9:16-17a
"Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke them. Then He gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people.  They all ate and were satisfied"...

Nearly every day, I begin my morning quiet-time with a bowl of cereal and reading Rick Warren's, "Daily Hope," e-devotional before plunging into my Bible to read on my own.  On October 14, 2013, I was reading Pastor Warren's post, "God Breaks, Then He Multiplies."  That devotional has bugged me ever since.

In it, Pastor Warren discusses how God has to break us before He can bless us and then multiply our gifts and service.  I have thought a great deal about this, "breaking" part.  Why does God have to break us before blessing and using us?  What is the purpose of that?  Then came the classic, pity-party, Stephanie-question:  Why is God so hard on us at times?

When we ponder Christ breaking that bread in order to bless and multiply it, we first see that the bread had to become smaller in order to grow bigger.  At first glance, this may seem harsh--to tear the bread and rip it apart.  But it couldn't be shared if it wasn't first broken.  In the same way, God breaks us so we can be shared and multiplied.  It is important to notice that even though the bread was torn, it was still bread and still served its purpose--and an even greater one at that.  So when we are broken, we can likewise trust that God isn't going to break us beyond ourselves or to the point of uselessness.  He actually wants the exact opposite.  He is making us smaller or humbling us so that we can be shared and multiplied.  He wants us to also recognize our great need for Him and for this greater purpose in our lives. 

It is also important to notice that before Christ actually broke that bread, He prayed over it first to thank God the Father for it and, "bless" it.  If Jesus did this for a loaf of bread, how much more does He intercede on our behalf to the Father before God breaks us?  I am guessing loads more.  I imagine Christ saying of me, "Father, thank You for this child.  Thank You for what You are going to do in her life once You break her for the sharing and multiplying.  I ask You to bless her and this process, Father."  We can rest in knowing that we are much more valuable to God than mere bread. 

God's Word says that He loves humble servants and resists the proud.  Part of this breaking process also involves us viewing ourselves as we should--as sinners who are helpless without His blessing and aid.  When we are broken, we are also typically much more willing to submit to God--that is, we should be.  There are times when we proudly rebel and fight the breaking-stage.  No one likes to have their life torn apart on any level.  But eventually, we must come to terms with our need for God's help, strength, wisdom, grace, and mercy in that which we are striving or struggling. Oftentimes, when we are strong and feeling overly confident, we seek to do things our own way instead of giving them over to God first.  When we are broken, we are also much more focused on giving God the glory for any successes because we can easily recall that it was not our effort that brought them.  We are better able to see God's hand in our lives when we are humble versus proud.

Over and over in Scripture we see examples of God using broken, humbled people--sinful people with big issues.  God loves to take broken things and turn them into beautiful ones.  Why?  Because this is His character.  It's the entire essence of Who He is.  He is a fixer.  We had a major problem in The Garden with the initial sin, and what did God do about it?  He brought another fixer.  He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to give us a solution to our problem.  God loves to fix things for two main reasons:  to show His glory and to show His great love for us.  It may not feel like He is loving on you when He allows you to be broken.  But we know that we cannot fully appreciate the good things God does in our lives if everything constantly goes our way.  This isn't heaven and we have much to learn before reaching it.  We all have character flaws which we don't even want to face or admit.  But they need removal.  This removal does not happen when we get everything we want.

Sometimes in our walk with God, we hear things many times and they are not new to us.  But for some reason, we read them later and they strike us differently.  In reading Rick Warren's devotional, I realized with fresh eyes that to serve others or be used by God on any level, we have to be willing to be broken.  When you begin to put yourself out there for God and attempt to serve Him in ways that He is urging you, you have to prepare yourself for some pain.  First, the enemy will be ticked-off, and he will begin to work on you and use people you never dreamed he would use to hurt you in order to stifle you in your service, ruin your attitude towards it, and discourage you from even doing it.  Secondly, people you love may not support or understand what you do for God.  But as we know, we are here to please God not people.  Thirdly, not everyone will value your work.  Again, if your identity and purpose are not in the Lord, you will falter in your mission and perspective.  The ONE THING you must always tell yourself:  other's opinions of you are not your business.  It's their business.  It's their issue.  Your only responsibility is to God and what HE thinks of you.  It is also important to mention that when you are in God's will or trying hard to find it, oftentimes you will reek of joy.  Others, who are NOT in God's will in their own journeys (or who aren't even trying to be), may be turned-off by this.  They are not at peace, but do not allow their discomfort and discontentment to begin to seep into your heart, poison your purpose, or plague your mission.  Taylor Swift's song, "Ours," speaks to this:

"And don't you worry your pretty little mind
People throw rocks at things that shine
But they can't take what's ours, they can't take what's ours, they can't take what's ours
The stakes are high, the water's rough, but this love is ours."

When we have been burned or hurt in the past, it feels easier to withhold our love and service to others.  We may even say, "What is the point? It did me no good last time, God."  Well, God is the point.  When others don't reciprocate or fully appreciate your love and service, you can focus on two things:  First, there is always someone else who needs your love and service, and who will value it.  If you are spinning your wheels in your ministry or service to others, perhaps you need to find a less-muddy road.  Secondly, God sees, values, and reciprocates your love and efforts--far above anything you ever give or do for Him.  So regardless, we are here to give in God's name for His purposes.  We are not here for ourselves, for reciprocation of our efforts, or to hoard our love and gifts.  They cannot be blessed, used, and multiplied unless we are willing to be broken.

For nearly seven years, I avoided putting myself out there in ways that I knew God could use me.  One of these ways was in blogging and getting on Facebook.  Now there are many reasons I despise Facebook and I stand by them all (i.e. people spending more time on it than in God's Word; people spending more time looking at it than having real conversations with those in their presence or current life; people using it to be passive-aggressive; people "meeting-up" with those whom they have no business reconnecting; etc.).  But one honest reason for my lengthy refusal to succumb to the societal pressure of becoming a, "card-carrying member of the social media world," was that I did not want anyone to know anything about my life.  I was afraid of being judged, ridiculed, and simply wanted to avoid experiencing any kind of painful snarkiness posed by others.  I had heard enough horror stories from others about the negative things that can happen in this realm, and made-up my mind that I would NEVER set myself up for unneeded abuse (the world is harsh enough in real-time). But one thing God has been painfully pruning off of me is the need to be loved, accepted, and affirmed by others.  As I've blogged about repeatedly, fear and people-pleasing have ruled my life for too long now.  God has shown me that both have to go--for good.  Even though I still truly dislike Facebook on many levels, I know that I cannot be effective for God if I refuse to use the current-day capacities at my disposal for Him and toward areas He is nudging me. 

Two of my biggest spiritual gifts are encouragement and intercession.  I was not effectively doing either by hiding from people or avoiding getting to know others better.  I am also done being afraid to put myself out there and share my faith with others.  If I can do that more effectively by exposing my creative joys, my stories, and my life, then so be it.  We cannot be effective for God hiding in our house and keeping 95% of the world at arms-length.  We cannot be a light for Christ, an encouragement to others, or get to know others well for the purpose of intercession if we avoid people and keep our life hidden.  We have to be willing to be broken in order to be used by God.  Have I experienced some brokenness by putting myself out there?  You bet.  Do I really care in the scope of God blessing and multiplying me?  No way.  It's all part of the process--the process of God's work in me and God's work through me.  We can trust His intentions in both.

There is risk involved in putting yourself out there to serve God and love others.  God will challenge you when you agree to submit to Him.  He will show you areas in your own heart that need challenging--and it is painful, at times.  Serving others is an even bigger risk because people are not perfect.  They are selfish and they are sinful--even Christians.  If you get involved with people, you will be hurt--you can count on it.  If you choose to do God's will, brace yourself--the enemy will be attacking you, as well.  If you choose to love others above yourself--make sure you are operating off God's wellspring of love, not your own.  Yours isn't renewable, and it will get sucked dry by others in a hurry.  But God's love breaks you, and then it makes you.  His love is enduring--it blesses, and it multiplies.  Praise be to God.