In our convenience-driven, consumer-dominated society, patience is often in short supply. This is especially true when we are tested. The Bible tells us that we are to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). Notice that these trials are not one’s that you seek out. In other words, don’t go looking for trouble and then decide that God is testing you for your spiritual development. Secondly, “meeting” a trial indicates an encounter, not an avoidance. Yet we often buy in to the lie that just because something is difficult, it must not be God’s will, or must not be worth the effort. When God appoints a trial to greet you, according to Scripture, it is with the intention that you will confront it, learn something from it, and the result will be steadfastness. To be steady is to be constant, solid, strong, and certain. Verse four says that when steadfastness has its “full effect,” you will be complete and lacking nothing. It is not speaking of material wealth, but intangibles that are beyond value. In fact, the next few verses speak directly about wisdom – an intangible that applies to every other area of your life. Who possesses it? God does. Is He stingy? Never. He “gives generously to all.” Notice that full steadfastness lacks nothing – that includes wisdom. The number one obstacle to becoming steadfast and managing trials is often a lack of wisdom. The one condition for receiving wisdom? Believe and do not doubt (verses 6-8). Keep your eyes focused on Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Don’t get distracted. Remain steadfast and the ultimate reward is a crown of life. Is it a physical crown? No. The crown is not of gold or silver, but of “life.” What does it look like to be crowned with life? Doesn’t that sound awesome!? Rather than simply envisioning a fragrant garland of flowers, I imagine a legacy of bringing life to others, hope, compassion, and the love of Jesus. I picture Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, and more recently Gary Sinise. What an incredible legacy – to have so many lives touched in potent and eternal ways. That is the kind of crown that far exceeds anything created by precious metals and stones. So how do we sum up this loaded short passage of Scripture? Be joyful – content and at peace, with thankfulness – when you are tested. Ask the Lord for wisdom as you confront the challenge, and remember the lessons learned from it. Over time, you will become more steady, patient, confident and complete. This transformation is not going to happen overnight, but it will happen if you keep your eyes focused on Jesus.
Back in high school, I had the opportunity to go on a student ambassador trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland. While traveling through Wales, one of our excursions was a trek up the highest mountain in the country, Mount Snowdon. At 3,560 feet, it was the first time I had ever made an attempt to climb a mountain, but I made it to the top only slightly winded and the view was amazing! I even went after a mountain goat and caught a small tuft of wool from its backside! Several years later I attended a family reunion at Yosemite National Park, and had the opportunity to climb Mt. Yosemite with some of my cousins. For context, I should explain that I live in Texas. It’s mostly flat here, and much closer to sea level than the base of Mt. Yosemite, let alone it’s peak. My cousins, however, live in Washington state and spend a lot more time climbing than I do. My only previous experience was that of being in Wales, so I enthusiastically agreed to go. It wasn’t long before they had to leave me behind, but I was determined to finish what I’d started, so I continued on. Mount Yosemite is quite a bit steeper of a climb, and at 13,061 feet, I was in way over my head.
By the time I’m three-quarters of the way to the top, my whole body is shaking, and I begin to cry out of sheer exhaustion. I sit for a moment, wishing that there is some way a helicopter can retrieve me, because I really don’t believe myself capable of going any farther. A few other hikers begin to pass me coming down the mountain, and seeing my condition, they offer several words of encouragement. While it is nice of them to say so, “You can do it” just is not believable. What is the most encouraging is one woman who says, “You’re only 5 minutes away. It’s just over that ridge.” My problem is that I am focusing on my lack of physical strength, instead of the summit. True to her word, the peak is just over that ridge and I am able to rest my feet in a clear pool of water and lay on the sun-baked rocks to restore my energy.
At church this morning, we were singing about God’s ability to move mountains, and I started thinking back to these two previous experiences. Right now, reflecting on 2017 and looking forward to 2018, it feels somewhat like the Yosemite climb five minutes from the top, but there’s so much farther to go! So maybe this is more like the Everest base-camp? I looked that one up too, and base-camp sits at 17,600 feet! I wouldn’t even make it to base-camp on my own strength, but this metaphorical climb has a summit worth reaching for… I’m not referring to wealth or fame, but the face of Jesus himself! If I knew God were waiting at the top, I would do whatever necessary to make it because focusing on the knowledge of what is at the summit would be motivation enough. I’ve been far too short-sighted, making things too complicated, trying to just balance the needs of today and feeling like tomorrow’s goals are always beyond reach…
2018 will have its own challenges, maybe you are struggling with a Mount Snowdon, or maybe you share my sentiments that 2017 got you to the base-camp of Everest and you’re staring up at the summit but focusing on your own failures, weaknesses, or limitations. Let me share with you what God reminded me of this morning – one week in to the New Year – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I haven’t reached the summit yet, so I can’t tell you that you only have five minutes to go or that rest is just beyond the next ridge. I can tell you that God has been with me, and often carried me, through an awful lot of very difficult times, and His strength is more than enough to carry you too. He is here – in the middle of our weaknesses – cheering us on to the summit. The climb is worth it. He is worth it. Don’t give up.
Mount Everest (near base-camp)
I began this year contemplating the word “honor.” What does it mean to honor your father and mother? What does it mean to be honored? How does this abstract term manifest itself in our culture as opposed to another? In contemplating all the different ways this concept could be broken down, I had difficulty determining which aspect to start with…and time passed…and I got distracted…
I am drawn back now to this topic, and to writing in general, because of the last few sermons given at our church. A few weeks back, our Senior Pastor made an example out of fish. Apparently, it is far easier to catch a bass than it is to catch a trout. The way he tells it, trout are very discerning and test the bait to make sure it isn’t fake, while the bass will be fooled by anything shiny. This comparative caught my attention, because I realized that I’m the dumb bass! I have a tendency to be distracted by just about everything, and with a large family, it’s extra easy to fall into a cycle where you can’t tell what a distraction is from where you’re supposed to be focused at the moment! I sometimes feel like the dog in the movie “Up,” who was distracted every time he saw a squirrel. The louder, more sparkly, and more time consuming the venture is, the more likely that I am drawn into it! My prayer lately has been, “Lord, help me to focus…on the right stuff! Help me to say ‘no’ when I need to say ‘no.’ Help me to identify and then promptly ignore everything that keeps me from your purpose for me today, tomorrow and beyond. Help me to remember who I am, and to act accordingly.” I encourage you to read with me in the Book of James, Chapter 1…just read the whole book. It’s not long, and it is intense! The verse that I am clinging to at the moment is James 1:25,
“But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.”
I hope that you are able to be still, know that He is God, that He has a perfect plan, and that you and I are part of it! We need to honor God with our focus! What are you focusing on? Let’s, together, remember that we are His ambassadors, armed and sent out with a message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love – like no other love on earth. Dwell, meditate, recite, remember the words the God has left with us – they are more valuable than gold. Do you want true freedom? James 1:25 is the first step, your first clue, to a life you have only imagined and more. Pray for my focus and I will pray for yours – Be more like the Trout! Let’s do this!
So, I pulled up Bible Gateway this morning, and I see the verse of the day listed as Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 which reads, “This is what the Lord says – he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland’” (New International Version). This sounds like an appropriate and motivational message to focus on for the New Year, right?
Part of the problem we have in western society is that we have developed an incredibly short attention span, and don’t read things in context. We want bite-sized nuggets of wisdom that make us feel good for short periods of time. We don’t bother to memorize anything or seek real wisdom because we can simply “Google it” when we forget. Personally, I cringe every time I see those commercials where a dad is reading a bedtime story to his little girl and she asks him question after question about something in the book, but he doesn’t know, so he has to ask Siri. If I were that kid, all that would teach me is that my dad doesn’t know anything and I should ask a robot instead. But I digress…
If you read Isaiah 43 in its entirety, the Lord is indeed telling them to leave the past behind and look forward, but there are some critical details missing if you only extract the above segment. First of all, God is speaking to Israel, America does not exist at this point in history. Secondly, what was in the past that they need to forget? The previous chapter explains that Israel has been blind and deaf and embroiled in war, but “did not understand…they did not take it to heart” (Is. 42:25). Chapter 43 is not so much about trying to comfort Israel after-the-fact, but it is about reminding them of who God is – “I have redeemed you…I have summoned you by name…I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…I am with you…apart from me there is no savior…from the ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?” As a parent, I’ve have a few conversations where I’ve reminded my children that I am in charge of the schedule, resources, and provisions. And it is often a poignant reminder to me of where I’ve fallen short in my relationship with the Lord! For example: Say that Kid D wants to get together with friends and tells them that she’ll be there on Saturday at 11am, but didn’t ask ahead of time, and I had somewhere else she needed to be that she’d forgotten about. While she’s busy considering plans she wants to make, she’s not stopping to consider the bigger plan. How often do I do the same thing to God? I make plans and organize schedules for the four kids that we home-school, get people to and from soccer, tennis, gymnastics, taekwondo and teach a few classes a week all while working on my 2nd master’s degree. Insane much?! Yep! When carrying a lot of little things, they start to pile up to your eyeballs and then you can’t figure out which one to put down first without dropping the whole pile of stuff. Just like my kids not putting the family schedule and my relationship with them first, I can get so wrapped up in my own business that I don’t stop to ask God about His plan! People are self-consumed creatures that have to be reminded of their relationships and responsibilities to authority figures.
By taking this verse out of context, there is a third element missing: What is it that He is making new? God explains that He has not placed harsh requirements or demands upon Israel, that He has protected and provided for them over and over. Verses 14 through 28 illustrate God’s faithfulness, even though Israel has not been faithful in return to follow simple instructions. Even though they have been dishonoring Him, they still burden Him with their sins and offenses. Again, He demonstrates mercy and gives them another chance. What is “new” is the understanding that Israel, and indeed the whole world, will gain at the coming redemption through Jesus. All of Chapter 42 is a description of how to recognize the Deliverer when He comes! Based upon the many foretellings of Jesus, He should have been easy enough to recognize. “Do you not perceive it?” But we are blind and deaf even today! The wilderness and wasteland may be literal in some cases, but here it is also a metaphor for the human heart. God is not telling us to forget the lessons learned in 2016’s modern-day America, and look forward to health, wealth and prosperity in 2017! He is telling us that whatever you owed for your past sins has been paid in full by Jesus, and that our “new” future is focused on Him as the tangible image of God! You can move forward, and not dwell on the past, if you will focus your eyes upon Him. You are not in charge of the schedule. You are not capable of removing your own soul-blemishes. You do not have the authority to pardon yourself. Jesus does all of that. The focus for 2017 is not about you “making a way in the wilderness,” but about learning the path that Jesus has already laid out. And for some of us it also means putting our bundles down so that we can see that path clearly, hear His voice, and follow without turning back.
It was December 2010 and I had determined to cross “half-marathon” off of my bucket-list. With a house-full of kids, carving out time to train was exceptionally difficult, but I kept at it and trained up through about 7-8 miles. I felt pretty good about my progress since my previous record was only a 5K, so race day came and I joined the hundreds of other runners on that frigid morning with great expectations. The starting gun goes off and it takes another ten minutes to cross the starting line. The crowd opened up after a bit, and my pace increased. I passed my 5K record feeling great. Mile five and six were even enjoyable! Rounding out mile number seven, my left hip popped and soreness immediately threatened my course completion. By mile eight I was doing that funny looking limp-run-walk where you pull the arms up tighter to give yourself and others the impression that you are actually moving faster than you are. By mile nine, I was numb, but still walking. My mp3 player had recycled the same set of songs at least three times, so they were now far more annoying than motivating. All the blood in my body had migrated to my lower extremities, which were pulsating and heavy. By mile eleven, I was ready to call an ambulance. After all, my husband had stayed home with the kids and I had no one waiting to cheer me on at the finish line. No one would know if I gave up except for me. Could I handle giving up? How disappointed would I really be in myself? I was debating whether or not I would really follow through with making a “maybe sometime in the future” second attempt, when I noticed that even the sound of my labored breathing was like fingernails against a chalkboard, and there was no water station anywhere in sight. When I thought I couldn’t go another step, I hear a voice on my left, “Hangin’ in there?” “Barely,” I confessed. She admitted that it would be nice to have someone to talk to on the final stretch. Tired and sore we made it through the last two miles. When I looked up and saw the finish line, I nearly cried with joy. She turned to me and said, “Finish strong?” Neither of us was certain whether it was a question or a command, but I replied, “definitely!” We burned up the last ounces of energy we had picking up the pace, and to this day I don’t know what my time was when I crossed the finish line. I wouldn’t have been able to meet my goal that day had it not been for her. She could have done what every other runner did, and just pass me by. She could have passed judgment on my inadequate training or simply kept quiet. By speaking up and coming along side me, her encouragement made all the difference. I haven’t done any half marathons since then, but in considering life as a race, I strive to take her example into every relationship and to help others finish strong. So hang in there. God’s not done with you yet.
Today I heard the most beautiful sound.
It wasn’t a symphony or chiming bells.
It wasn’t a seagull calling out over the ocean.
It wasn’t the man I love professing his affection for me…
Today I heard the most beautiful sound.
It was a little girl standing behind me in church and singing praises to Jesus at the top of her lungs, with misshapen words and a few forgotten notes…
And I cried…
The most classically trained, perfectly tuned, ethereal utterance could not compare with the unashamed purity of emotion poured out by this sweet little girl.
That is Worship.
Worship is not something presented for our entertainment, to be critiqued, or to impress an audience of many.
Worship is singing, dancing, working, teaching, sharing, writing…
For an audience of One
Not to win His admiration,
But because our love overflows and we just…can’t…keep…quiet.
Today I heard the most beautiful sound,
And I felt the heart of Jesus.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” Matthew 19:14.