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)
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.
I have often told my children, “Don’t expect people who don’t know the Lord to act as if they do.” People that know the Lord have a hard enough time acting appropriately as His ambassadors. It makes it far easier to be loving toward others when we’re not focused on their actions as being prerequisite to our willingness to extend grace. After all, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While it’s been relatively easy for me to teach this lesson to my children, and to live it out generally myself, God has found someone to test me in this. There is a member of my family that knows all the right things to say regarding faith and was brought up in church, yet has no understanding or interest in what it means to follow Jesus as Lord. I have never encountered an individual that is more self-centered, inconsiderate, and all-around toxic than this particular person. At Bible study, the question was asked, “What distinguishes a “good person’ from a Christian in the eyes of unbelievers? Is there any difference?” The difference is Jesus, but what does that look like? First of all, Christians are not perfect – let’s just address that myth right now. We are hypocrites, broken, disturbed, incomplete people in need of spiritual guidance, and love – the same as everyone else. The difference is that we follow Jesus because He knows how to take care of all those ailments. Not all hurts will disappear this side of heaven just because we begin following Him either – we still live with the consequences of sin, our own and others. But He shows us how to live and grow and love in the middle of the struggles. And today, He’s working on me.
I was self-centered, but He loved me selflessly.
I was concerned with personal gain, but He gave to me without restraint.
I was consumed with my busy schedule, but He pencils me in without appointment.
I made mess after mess, and He cleaned them up for me.
I was ignorant of His presence, but He knew right where I was.
I tried to ignore Him, to run, but He stayed right by my side.
I was harsh and irritable, but He is patient and gentle.
I asked Him why He’s so willing to deal with fools (temporarily forgetting my place), and
He reminded me, “I get the last word.”
“Lord, help me to love this unlovable person the same way that you’ve loved me. Help me to extend grace in the face of indignant arrogance. Teach me to give with no thought of return. Help me to forgive foolishness the same way you’ve forgiven mine. You willingly went to the cross, were beaten and bruised to carry a punishment that I deserved. Then you looked down from that cross as I sat there in judgment, and said, ‘Forgive her, Father. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ You paid a debt that was too mountainous for me to bear or repay. You stood before the Great Judge as my Advocate and offered to pay my bail. Help me to love like that. Help me to serve like that. Help me to extend mercy where it is anything but deserved, because You did that for me. I need Your strength, Lord – Your compassion.”
When the Wind is a Gale – You keep me grounded
When Debris wounds my Spirit – You sustain me
When I can’t Catch my Breath – You fill me up
When I can’t see my way through – You can
When all seems lost – There You find me
When I can’t hold on – You take my hand
When my song is a whimper – You give it life
When my Endurance fails – You are my champion
In the Middle of the Storm – You are there
You hold me close
You are my strength
You are my Advocate and Judge
You are my Father and my King
Lord, Jesus, I will praise You always
Through the tears – I will praise You
Though bruised and battered – I will lift up Your Name
You are more magnificent than the greatest tempest
And Only You can calm the Storm
In the meantime, Stay with Your student and be my Teacher
Among the many nicknames I have for my soon-to-be twelve year old daughter, the most accurate may be “Speedy.” We can’t recall a phase in between crawling and running. She’s always been one of our most physically active kids, playing soccer and running 5K’s for fun. While those are interests that define a little bit about her and how she spends her time, there’s one that I find of much greater value. At the end of each soccer practice, twice a week, the girls run a mile. Audrey usually comes in at the head of the pack, often by a considerable distance, but one day she noticed one of the heavier girls struggling. Instead of speeding on past and lapping her, Audrey slowed to jog alongside her friend and took an extra full lap in order to spend time encouraging the discouraged and embarrassed teammate. The team manager took note of it and seemed impressed, as did some of the other players, but she didn’t do it because anyone was watching, and she didn’t understand why she was getting praise for something that “anyone would do.” While technically she had the best time on that run, it was certainly not her best – but she doesn’t remember what her time was because that wasn’t her focus. She finished first and last that day, because she didn’t want to leave anyone behind.
In a world where we pride ourselves on individualism and reaching the top, people often get shoved to the side or even trampled in the process. The reason it is so refreshing to see a humble competitor is because it resonates with each one of us. We all want that extra encouragement – someone to be there with us when we’re playing the role of the underdog. We all want a pat on the back that says “you did it!” – no matter how long it took to finish the job. It resonates because every great story is a reflection of what Jesus did for us. Jesus – King of Kings and Lord of Lords, fully God and fully man, didn’t come as a conquering hero, but as a helpless, poor infant. Born to a single virgin mother and adopted by Joseph, Jesus taught and demonstrated mercy, compassion, justice, and love. He was first and became last, lowest, bruised and beaten. He was blameless, but took on our shame so that we would not have to bear the burden of our own guilt. He spent every ounce of His limited human strength in order to offer us the limitless and divine gift of grace – a pink slip marked “Paid in full.” Whether we finish first or last, He offers us the free gift of eternal life with Him. Because He is perfectly just, and our great debt had to be paid, He paid your debt and mine. You don’t have to accept it – If you don’t want to follow Him, don’t like who you think He is, or just want to be your own coach – He isn’t going to force you into having a relationship with Him. He will give you everything you think you want – but it will still fall short of true satisfaction. His gift is FREE – Yours for the taking – You can’t earn it. You can’t loose enough weight, exercise enough, run fast enough, climb high enough, make enough money, feed enough poor people or attend enough church services to earn your own way to heaven. The one and only way is to accept His gift, take His hand, and let Him pick you up, heal you, coach and encourage you throughout the race.
Hebrews 12 New English Translation (NET Bible)
The Lord’s Discipline
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?
“My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline
or give up when he corrects you.
6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”
7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed.
*Now, keep reading…He has so much more that He wants to share with you!*
P.S. Full disclosure: the picture above is not my daughter, but another awesome young lady who went the same “distance” for another competitor. You can read her story at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2155133/Meghan-Vogel-Inspiring-photo-shows-Ohio-runner-help-carry-competitor-finish-line.html
I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for good teachers. Having seven kids of our own, each as different as Nashville from Hong Kong, I have often praised teachers for spending hours each day caring for over twenty kids in addition to any of their own at home. I’m certain it is incredibly rewarding and exhausting! In my youth, it seemed every other year I had a fabulous one or two teachers, and the alternating years I was saddled with teachers who were more anxious for the closing bell than any of the students. Teachers can make or break a student’s spirit, igniting a flame or smothering it. Going into this coming school year, my respect and admiration to the sacrificially-dedicated, student-loving educator has jumped to a whole new level as I am preparing to home-school four of my children. The fifteen-year-old boy has home-schooled for the past two years, and this year we’re adding all three of his younger sisters. With each of them at a different grade level, and taking into consideration their different learning styles, strengths, and the speed at which they function best (which is different for each of these four), I’ve spent the last several weeks combing over lesson plans, reading lists, possible field trips, and the calendar is my constant companion…Okay, so my calendar was my constant companion before this whole venture, but now there are planners for each of the kids and my master copy so that I know which one I have rotating where and when. Whew!
Our family did not part easily from public education, nor did we have a poor experience. On the contrary, all of our kids were blessed to attend one of the most amazing public schools in the country! Our decision was made as one is transitioning into middle school and will need more specialized attention with regard to testing (mostly related to formatting) than her teachers will be able to provide, a second wants to pursue acting and the crazy audition schedule that can result, and the third likes a challenge and is wanting to advance her studies beyond her grade level. As for me? The Lord has allowed me an incredible learning opportunity as I work on developing and organizing curriculum for these kiddos, and hopefully for other home-schooled kids and university level students in the future!
Whether we’ve ever put together a lesson plan or not, all of us are teachers. The younger generations (and even our own peers) look to us for inspiration – It’s why Pinterest exists! – So what kind of teacher are you going to be? Will your example raise others spirits and encourage them, or will you zap the energy and enthusiasm of those around you? I would charge each of you to think of a teacher, mentor, friend or family member that has taught you something positive and significant, and take the time to say “thank you.” If you already have recently, great! Think of another educator and say a positive word to them. It’s contagious and will, hopefully, resonate with the youth they are serving as well. So, no matter what your position or profession, endeavor to make it better and have a great school year!