The rich soil of ambiguity

 

I went to a Science High School where at a young age, I gained an appreciation for the scientific method of investigation. The concept of a controlled environment was very appealing to me. In the design of a research experiment, scientists ensure that factors that potentially affect outcomes are carefully defined and controlled, so that the results of the study could be accurately attributed to the experimental intervention alone, and not to some other variable.  This approach is the basis for many wonderful scientific discoveries throughout history.

But step outside the laboratory and real life proves to be very different from a science experiment. It doesn’t take long to realize that the conditions and circumstances around us are far from predictable, and this ignites fear and anxiety within us. Sometimes we cope by trying to control people and situations, thinking that it would make life more manageable. At times we choose to withdraw from relationships or responsibilities in order to protect ourselves from the heartaches and disappointments they bring. Uncertainty is messy and we don’t like that.

Thankfully, what we call unknown is only unknown to us but not to our great God. There is absolutely no uncertainty as far as He is concerned. “I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish my purpose'” Isaiah 46:9-10. It is hard to wrap our finite minds around it but the truth is, God has full knowledge and control of the entire history of man and beyond. He does, and we do not. Only the saving grace of Christ can bring about an honest humility in our hearts to acknowledge this. Because unfortunately, our natural bent, way back from the garden of Eden, desires to glorify self. We try to do everything we can to prove that we are strong enough, good enough, wise enough. In reality, only God is enough and our faith in Him – His knowing all circumstances that we don’t understand – propels us to live and love in the ambiguity of this unpredictable and often discouraging world.

In his book A Loving Life, Paul E. Miller writes: “Our world may be ambiguous but our

Lavender fields, Madison Ohio

lavender

calling isn’t. Instead of fighting the uncertainty, we can love in it. Faith grows in the rich soil of ambiguity. Because everything is uncertain, we find ourselves praying our way through the day or through relationships. Walking with the Good Shepherd on this journey of love becomes like breathing. Do not put your energy into ordering what you cannot order; simply love in the disorder.”

And by His grace, we shall. Because He who loves us most, knows it all.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my Father’s house are many rooms…

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Squires Castle  in North Chagrin Reservation, Ohio

I am not an interior designer, but I do enjoy decorating each room in our house and making it pretty for family and guests. I grew up in a culture known for hospitality. All the work that goes into preparing our home for visitors excites more than exhausts me. Before Jesus went to the cross, during his precious last moments with his disciples, he said:  “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in  God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  John 14:1-2.

Jesus was speaking of our permanent home in His Kingdom, which he himself prepares for us. Let us not miss this – the King of Kings himself is preparing a room for us. He is taking care of all the details, just like we would, when expecting a friend’s arrival. Let’s tuck this in our memory and retrieve it the next time we feel doubtful of his love.  We did not and could never earn our heavenly mansion. This promise was made secure by Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection. Hence the certainty of our eternal dwelling ought to strongly impact the way we live today.  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul instructed,”Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:2-3). 

Sadly, our natural nearsightedness tends to focus on making this present life so pleasing , that we lose sight of the glory that awaits us one day. We forget that this world is merely a station to pass through but not our ultimate destination. I love traveling and I do  appreciate the conveniences of a well-appointed airport. But it would be foolish to miss and cancel my scheduled flight to Paris for instance, just because I enjoyed my lunch while connecting at O’Hare. To lose sight of heaven is even more tragic.

Although we speak of heaven as a place devoid of sin, pain and suffering, surely the most glorious thing about it is God’s presence. We will meet Christ, our Bridegroom face to face and live with him forever. ” I will take you to myself so that where I am, you may be also.”  John 14:3 To the heart that loves Jesus, nothing could be sweeter. So much so that any earthly trouble becomes a light momentary affliction. 2 Cor 4:17-18 “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”  I pray the truth of God’s Word would daily wipe our foggy lenses to give us a vision that yearns for heaven and empowers us today.

“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”  C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

In the slough of despond

Why are you cast down O my soul and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Psalm 43:5

Discouragement is real among God’s people. To deny it is folly, and to hide it is useless. Not too long ago, I prayed that God would teach me to look at emotional pain through his eyes and not mine. I have shed lots of tears since then as I began to see the depth and complexity of the struggles that are all too common among women, regardless of where we may be in our journey with Christ. Despondency plagues new converts and mature believers alike.

I am aware that it will be impossible (and pridefully ambitious) to embark on a thorough discussion of discouragement in this blog. That is not my intention and it is definitely beyond my expertise. I just wanted to share what I consider one of the best illustrations of this difficult state, through John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (my all-time favorite allegory). Meet the Slough of Despond – “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”  Christian, the main character of the story, fell into the Slough of Despond until Help came along and pulled him out. In their conversation, Help asked “Why did you not look for the Steps?” Christian replied, “Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way, and fell in.”  

It is true that the slough of despond is a place we all go through on our way to the “Celestial City” but we are not meant to remain there. While it may seem inevitable to fall into it, I believe God’s loving desire is to pull us out of it. Please understand that I’m not saying all suffering and struggle is bad. (Didn’t I pray to become malleable clay in the Potter’s hands? Just last week?). I am referring specifically to a prolonged state of hopelessness and emotional defeat that is prevalent even among the most committed servants of God.  The slough of despond may stop us for a time, but thanks be to God, it is not our final destination.

“True, there are, by the direction of the Lawgiver, certain good and substantial Steps, placed even through the very midst of this Slough.” John Bunyan tells us we are not without help. The Steps – the Word of God, the promises of God, the means that He provides – they’re right there in the very midst of our despondency, and Help (the Holy Spirit) reminds us of where they are. John 16:13 says, When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…And what does knowledge of the truth do to us?  John 8:32“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 

peak of gibraltar
Photo taken in the southern Mediterranean showing one of the peaks of the Rock of Gibraltar 

 

There was once a powerful king who also found himself in the slough of despond. David said “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.”  Psalm 40:1-2

My prayer is that the slough of despond becomes a place that ultimately proves the futility of  self-reliance; that it will be a quicksand for the ego (in its deceptive form known as self-pity) and where all self-imposed burdens of guilt, resentment, bitterness simply sink into oblivion.  I pray that in the slough, we would lift our eyes to the hills and know that our help is in God alone; our keeper will never slumber (Psalm 121:1-2).

In this life, we will be discouraged. Praise God it doesn’t mean we have to be defeated. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry ‘Abba Father’.” Romans 8:15  Yes, “My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hands of a merciful Potter…

When I consider God’s character (if my mind can even rightly think of it), I am most of all amazed by his sovereignty.  Psalm 135:6 says Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. In Isaiah 43:13, we read the following: Also henceforth, I am he, there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can turn it back? These verses are just a couple among numerous instances in Scriptures where God spoke of his sovereignty or someone else acknowledged it. Job clearly did when he said I know that you can do all things and no purpose of yours can be thwarted (Job 42:2).  

The fact that I find this truth about God amazing doesn’t necessarily mean I live each day in joyful submission to his rule and authority. Such rebelliousness rears its ugly head in a variety of ways, most of which have to do with my desire to control people and events around me. I’m not referring to responsible stewardship of what God has entrusted. Stewardship acknowledges that God is the rightful owner of everything we have. Control is something else though. Control is a heart issue that is very close to idolatry because at the core of it is a belief that we can assume that position which only belongs to God.

The potter and clay metaphor illustrates God’s rule and authority over what He has made.  This imagery is mentioned more than once in Scriptures. Isaiah 45:9 says Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘what are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’. Similarly, we read in Romans 9 But who are you O man to answer back to God?Will what is molded say to its molder ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump, one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (verses 20-21). 

clay pots
Photo taken in Cartagena Spain. Jars of clay in the Roman ruins.

Time and again, I still misplace my trust in human ability. Like a piece of clay, I foolishly challenge my potter. I thank the Lord for being that merciful Potter who does not give up on the clay. He constantly shows his forgiveness, grace and love, sometimes by breaking us in order to mold us again, according to his will, not ours. His sovereignty is not disconnected from his abundant love, his great mercy, his infinite power, and everything else that he is. His sovereignty assures me that the God who saved me will also sanctify me. His sovereignty humbles me in that no human effort on my part can change what he has already willed in his perfect wisdom. Lastly, his sovereignty grants me the freedom to love and pursue him passionately and to take risks for his kingdom, believing that everything rests upon hands that are way bigger than mine.  The sovereignty of God is my absolute security.

“No revolving world, no shining of star, no storm, no creature moves, no actions of men, no errands of angels, no deeds of devil—nothing in all the vast universe can come to pass otherwise than God has eternally purposed. Here is a foundation of faith. Here is a resting place for the intellect. Here is an anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast. It is not blind fate, unbridled evil, man or devil, but the Lord Almighty who is ruling the world, ruling it according to His own good pleasure and for His own eternal glory.” Arthur W. Pink (The Sovereignty of God)

 

He supplies our every need…

Philippians 4:19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory through Christ Jesus. 

This verse quickly became one of my top 10 favorite verses. Who wouldn’t want a reminder of the certainty of his provision for his children? My journey with Jesus began with my father’s illness and eventual demise. As a 12 year old with no dad, I absolutely welcomed God’s protection and provision. And he did prove himself faithful, as he showered me with generosity beyond what I deserved and imagined. I’m not saying I got everything I prayed for. In fact many times, I didn’t. And it wasn’t necessarily because God had something “bigger and better” for me. I don’t think Paul meant for this passage to be used as a magic wand to make our wishes come true. Just a few verses before this, Paul laid out a wonderful teaching on a big heart issue – contentment (verses 11-12), in that he has learned to face both abundance and need. The specific circumstances didn’t matter anymore to Paul. Why? Because of Christ. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (v. 13). He then proceeds by expressing gratitude to the Philippian church (v. 14-16) and describing the beauty of their sacrificial giving; that this is a fragrant offering pleasing to God (v 18), then reassures them that God cannot be outdone in generosity, as he supplies their every need (v. 19). While on this side of eternity, it may seem like God is only supplying some of our needs but not ALL our needs. It may be hard to believe this promise when there are huge, urgent, serious needs that God seems to ignore. I do not have a great answer for why some of our prayers go unanswered. But we do have a great Father who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all; how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32). 

After my high school graduation, I began to understand our financial situation, and that studying to become a doctor was beyond our means. Yet through miraculous ways, God faithfully led me through medical school. His provision came and was enough from one tuition cycle to the next. Scholarships, financial aid, and the generosity of fellow believers worked together to see me through each semester.

concord grape vineyard
Vineyards in Harpersfield Ohio

Throughout this time, I learned not only that God provides for his people. More importantly, I realized in my heart that Christ himself is both my greatest need and my greatest gift from the Father. In him, I am content. Through him, I have all things.

All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me. 

 

 

Why I love the woman at the well

well in courtyard Mdina
Photo taken in the ancient city of M’dina Malta

Scripture Reading: John 4:7-30

On a hot mid-day in Samaria, Jesus sat by the well of Jacob and brought salvation to a woman and her village. The woman at the well could be any one of us. We try to carry on with our daily tasks, even when burdened with guilt, pain and shame. Presumably avoiding the town’s peak hours for drawing water, she had no idea who was waiting for her by the well that day. Just like our personal  encounter with Christ, this one did not happen by chance. Jesus initiated the conversation with “Give me a drink,” (John 4:7), and that was enough to bridge the social and cultural divide that existed between them. Her reply “how is it that you a Jew ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (v.9) revealed her skepticism. But as Jesus went on with the promise of living waters that would quench her thirst once and for all, she became interested and confessed her need. “Sir, give me this water...” (v.15). Then the unexpected came when Jesus said “Go, call your husband” (v.16). As the story unfolds we get a clearer picture of her past and current state of sin. She has had five husbands and is living with a man she is not married to (v.18).  While the bible does not specifically say how she reacted when Jesus brought up her adulterous relationship, we  know that it didn’t make her turn away and leave. Instead, we glean from her response “Sir, I see you are a prophet” (v.19) a growing perception  on her part that this stranger by the well is no ordinary person.  There’s something about him that makes her want to stay. She wants more conversation. She asks another question (v.20).  What follows is a loving and prophetic declaration – the hour is coming (v.23-24)  – when both Jews and Gentiles will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  Embedded in Jesus’ discourse is a call to actively put her faith in him “Woman, believe me...” (v.21). Finally, he concludes with the glorious revelation that he is the Messiah (v.26) the one she had been waiting for (v.25). Now see what she does next. She leaves her water jar, runs to her village and tells everybody about Christ (v.28). All of a sudden, even something as essential as water is not so important, facing other people is no longer awkward, and she seems to be thrilled that a man she has never met before pointed out her sin. “Come see a man who told me everything I did. Could he be the Christ (v.29)?”   Such is the outcome when one comes to know the Lord Jesus -priorities change, relationships are healed, the bondage of sin is broken.  Joy in Jesus cannot be contained.  It’s an overflowing stream that blesses those around us.  Here’s the proof.”Many Samaritans from that town believed in him, because of the woman’s testimony” (v.39). Isn’t that beautiful? And this is why I will always love the woman at the well.

And all who thirst will thirst no more,
And all who search will find what their souls long for,
The world will try, but it can never fill,
So leave it all behind, and come to the well (from The Well by Casting Crowns)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His goodness like a fetter…

Villa Olmo view of the lake
Looking out from Casa Olmo, in Lake Como, Italy

At age 22, hymn writer Robert Robinson penned the words of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.  Written in old English, I didn’t at first understand every word (like what’s an Ebenezer?). At some point, I had to look up the meaning of fetter, because the song goes “let thy goodness like a fetter.” The noun fetter turns out to be synonymous with shackles, chains, or restraints. Now handcuffs usually don’t mean good news.  They paint a picture of  confinement, imprisonment or lack of freedom.

Ironically, the truth is I have found no greater freedom than that which I have received when God chose to bind my heart to Him through His Son Jesus. 1 John 4:19 says “He first loved us”. Psalm 139 speaks of how God has worked in us from the very beginning. Yes, he pursued us first and He continues to pursue our hearts that are prone to wander. No matter how many years we have been following Christ or where we have gone to serve Him, while we live in this broken world we remain prone to leave the God we love.  When gifts outweigh the Giver or pain becomes prolonged, we search for a different savior.  When God stays silent through our questions, or when He removes something or someone precious from our lives, our gaze drifts away in quiet resentment. I’m so glad He knows what we are made of, and that He rescues us from our selfish and stubborn ways. Thus it is a blessing and a true expression of His goodness when His grace takes the form of much needed shackles to bind our wandering hearts to Him.

Many Christians love Romans 8:38-39 where Paul declares that nothing and no one can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus! And there’s a reason we love it! It reassures us of the permanence and security of our union with Him. There’s absolutely nothing that can break that bond. (Now we can feel good about the shackles).  Let us thank Him for lovingly binding us to Himself. Let us pray with the psalmist, “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” Psalm 17:8

“Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness, like a fetter bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart Lord take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”  (from Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson)