Steadfast and unchanging…

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17

Ponte Sant’Angelo was built around 136 AD by emperor Hadrian to span the river Tiber, connecting the center of Rome to Castel Sant’Angelo. Today it still stands as one of the finest bridges in Europe, reliably serving as a footpath for locals, pilgrims, and tourists traveling to and from the eternal city and the Vatican City. It is a gorgeous piece of architecture that has stood the test of time for centuries. No one in his right mind would dare to replace it with a shiny steel suspension bridge with automated moving walkways. Thankfully, like most of Rome, the bridge is preserved by the laws governing UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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Ponte Sant’Angelo – photograph taken from the side of Castel Sant’Angelo

But not everything is protected from change. It happens every time to everyone everywhere. In this fast-paced society, change occurs abruptly. Just when you’re getting used to a technology, a newer device enters the market. Even the most reliable things (or people) around us could change. I’m sure all of us have changed our minds about something at some point. Our tastes and preferences likewise vary over time. I don’t mean change is all bad (oh there are tons of changes I’m personally thankful for), but neither is it all good.

It should give us great comfort to understand that one of the attributes of God that makes Him different from us is his immutability. Jen Wilkin, author of the book None Like Him, calls this “his infinite sameness.” Unlike us created beings, our Creator never changes. He himself declared For I the Lord, do not change…(Malachi 3:6). We may not often think about this, but nothing provides us with greater stability than the knowledge that the God in charge of the universe is steadfast and unchanging. His mercy towards us today is the same as on the day He sent His only begotten Son to save us from our sin. He is as powerful today as on the day He created the heavens and the earth, or when He raised Jesus from the dead. Scriptures also tell us that our Lord Jesus, the second person of the trinity, is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). His perfection is such that nothing and no one can make him less good, less merciful or less just. His immutability is our security. That same relentless love of our Savior that secured our salvation will also pursue our sanctification. Discouragement becomes our baggage when we lose sight of this truth.

That God is unchanging ought to lead us to greater faith in and worship of Him. As Arthur Pink, author of Attributes of God wrote: But, all praise to His glorious name, He is ever the same. His purpose is fixed; His will is stable; His word is sure. Here then is a Rock on which we may fix our feet, while the mighty torrent is sweeping away everything around us. The permanence of God’s character guarantees the fulfillment of His promises: “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee” (Isa 54:10).
Let us anchor our lives on to Him who is steadfast and unchanging. Because He is everything that He says He is, we can sing with all confidence and certainty “Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, as Thou hast been, Thou forever shalt be…Great is Thy faithfulness, Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

(Great is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas O. Chisholm).

What builds character? An unexpected lesson from — olives

They say olive oil is good for you.  That’s nice because I love everything olive.  A good olive oil can transform a piece of toast into a gourmet appetizer. That thou shalt always keepeth a good bottle of EVOO in thy pantry is a wise culinary commandment.  One of the largest (if not the largest) producers of olive oil in the world is also one of my favorite (if not my most favorite) European destinations – Spain! In our most recent visit to southern Spain, my husband and I joined a tour to admire the Alhambra castle. The northbound trip from the coast of Malaga was beautifully saturated with views of rolling mountains and hills studded with olive groves. It was almost a 2-hour drive, hence, I learned about olives.

Olive groves of Granada Spain
Olive groves in southern Spain

As in most agricultural endeavors, water is essential for growing and sustaining olive trees. When there’s more moisture, the size of each fruit increases and the overall yield becomes greater. However, olive growers who intend to produce the best olive oil do not care for huge (watery) olives. These experts welcome periods of Mediterranean drought that are so essential in producing smaller but definitely tastier olives, which, after being pressed, give rise to high quality olive oil. Though I wasn’t aware of this before, I thought the idea resonated well with Scriptural truth.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: Through him (Christ) we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  Romans 2:2-5

Suffering is unwanted. Much of life is aimed at eliminating suffering. Atheists continually demand a “convincing” answer to the question “If there is a God why is there so much suffering in the world?” Sadly, we who believe in Christ seem to be asking the very same question. Yes, we believe that God is there, but we still require an explanation from Him as to why our circumstances are not better, why our illnesses are not healed, why our relationships are not stronger, why our prayers are not answered. I know I do. I personally prefer a rainfall of remedies over a season of suffering. Praise God that he works according to his loving wisdom, and not according to our convenience-oriented preferences.  I am also thankful that he provides metaphors throughout His creation in order to show us the good that suffering produces. Amy Carmichael, missionary to India who was familiar with much suffering wrote this: “When the wind blows hard on a tree, the roots stretch and grow the stronger. Let it be so with us. Let us not be weaklings, yielding to every wind that blows, but strong in spirit to resist.”  That’s endurance. That’s character. And all that is good. It is God’s will for us, and (hello fellow parents!) it is also God’s will for our children.

Pastor and Bible teacher Chip Ingram (Living on the Edge) said one of the most important lessons our children should learn from us is how to suffer well. I realize that parental neglect of children is a serious problem in our society (and in many other places) but there is also a real danger in  “over-watering” our children. In our garden we’ve unintentionally managed to kill some potted dahlias by too much watering. Their roots never had a chance to stay dry and so they grew mold and rotted. For the sake of our  “arrows in the hands of a warrior” (Psalm 127:4)  we must also embrace the suffering that God allows in the lives of our children. Why deprive them of the strength of character that will surely follow?  Jesus who was like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, (Isaiah 53:7)  suffered well on our behalf. By his grace in which we now stand, suffering cannot destroy us. Suffering will strengthen us.

The Lord is my strength and my shield, in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults and with my song, I give thanks to him. Psalm 28:7 

 

 

 

 

 

The melody of meekness…

Music is one of the most common things people resort to for relaxation. I am thankful to live in a place that is blessed with music, arts and culture, including a world-renowned symphony orchestra. Last weekend, I was delighted to hear them perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op 43. Of the 24 variations, my favorite is and will always be variation #18  where the music

cropped-cello.jpgshifts to a flowing gentle melody – a transition that is very noticeable because of its almost song-like quality, very different from the  2 variations that preceded it.  Listening to this tune  (which has been popularized in an old Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour movie) magnificently played by a phenomenal orchestra, was quite therapeutic.

But my blog today is not about music. For months now, God has been impressing upon me the value of meekness  and how much I have yet to grow in the image and character of Christ, specifically with regard to this heart issue.  So why did I start my writing with Rachmaninoff? Because like variation #18, meekness is a soothing balm in a world that is badly hurting with pride.

What does it mean to be meek? The synonyms of the word meek are: gentle, submissive, soft, and yielding. In academia, (and many other fields), these are adjectives that are rarely used during job interviews. Indeed meekness stands in stark contrast to everything the world applauds.  Society tells us that we are allowed, even encouraged, to be strong-willed, no matter what. Arrogance has become a right and meekness has been erroneously equated with weakness.

But meekness is in fact evidence of wisdom. Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. James 3:13  A person who is meek has come to understand his rightful place as a created being,  before a powerful Creator. In his book Humility, Andrew Murray wrote:  “Humility comes when we see how truly God is all.When the creature realizes that this is the true nobility,  and consents to be with his mind, will, affections, the vessel in which the life and glory of God are to work and manifest themselves, he sees that humility is simply acknowledging the truth of man’s position as creature, and yielding to God his place.”

Consider our Lord Jesus Christ – who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8  

Meekness is only possible when we are united to him who sought no glory for himself (John 8:50). We begin to grasp it when we look at how Jesus submitted to the Father in everything. Meekness is a fruit borne out of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, often in the crucible of suffering. We cannot fabricate it, but like a garment that is already woven for us by the finished work of Christ,  we must put it on and wear it constantly. He said Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matt 11:29  God not only values meekness. He rewards it. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. Psalm 37:11 

Meekness brings about much needed rest for our souls. Aligning our hearts with that of Jesus – He who is gentle (meek) and lowly – leads to rest.   Meekness acknowledges that all things come from our loving Father and therefore leaves no room for anxiety. Instead of engaging in a senseless power struggle with our Maker, meekness makes our hearts malleable in the hands of our Potter. Meekness not only upholds but furthermore finds comfort in the order set by God in relationships such as that between husband and wife (Ephesians 5).  Meekness is not passive but actively submits in obedience to the will of Him whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours, allowing us to experience the greater good that He desires for His children, over the mediocrity of our human choices. Meekness is not a position of oppression. On the contrary, it leads to greater joy. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord..Isaiah 29:19 It is only when meekness becomes the constant melody in our hearts, that we can dance freely and joyfully with Christ our Bridegroom.

In the book In His Image, author and bible teacher Jen Wilkin wrote: “Fullness of joy results when we seek to reflect our Maker. It is what we were created to do. It is the very will of God for our lives.”   May our lives become mirrors that reflect the meekness of Christ each day. There is not a melody that is more beautiful than His.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

 

 

 

 

 

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)