Monday, November 25, 2013

Freedom in a Prison

“We do not usually learn that Christ is all we need until we reach that point where he is all we have!”

--Vance Havner

The great gray door swings shut and there is finality in its closing. The door is shut and the building is grim and the guards hold sentry, ever watchful of their captors.

A prison is a dismal place, the barbed wire fences speaking as if to say, “Don’t come inside, for you will never get out.” And those inside have more often than not broken the rules of society . . . There are others who never enter a prison because they haven’t broken society’s rules. But they have at some point in their lives, broken God’s. Every man is in chains until the blood of Christ frees him. Some chains are visible; some are unseen.

And some sit in prisons and they are weary and they are discouraged and they are hardened by the rough language, by the jagged behavior around them. They sit in prisons and wonder if they will ever be free, if their life will ever be redeemed or whether they are “stuck” for good. And it is just that they are there and justice has been served and they have “gotten” what they technically deserve.

The Gospel offers the hope and the freedom that we don’t deserve-- the Gospel that is able to emancipate men, to make them right with God, to set them loose from their prison so that they may praise His name.

Jesus brings freedom through prisons, through closed doors, through hopeless, waiting days of nothing but four gray walls and a sink and a latrine. Jesus visits prisons where no one else would set foot inside, lest others might think that they belong there, too. Jesus walks in prisons.

My brother-in-law Alex was blessed to be able to attend a Bible study this week that was led by a missionary that our church supports. It was in a prison. He had to undergo a background check and pass under the watchful eye of the prison guards there. He had to enter into that closed place so that he could feed upon the Bread of Life with free men in chains.

When he came home he said that the experience made him think of Vance Havner’s quote, “We do not usually learn that Christ is all we need until we reach that point where he is all we have!”

Often, men and women in prison are desperate. They have come to a place of desperation in their lives, committed some crime that further proves their desperation, and now sit silently behind the great gray walls that hold them and their desperation in. Some turn to the Lord in prison—why? Perhaps because they have come to the end of themselves. Perhaps because they finally realize their need for a Savior. Perhaps because they are lonely and weary and discouraged thinking of the joyless hours, days, years looming before them.

Jesus is joy and they cling to Him. Jesus is joy behind prison walls because He is freedom in chains. And the men and women who come to know Him in prison are often some of the most grateful because they realize that they have been forgiven much. And so they love much. The Son has set them free and they are free indeed.

So, for some, prison is worth it. Prison is worth it if the soul is united with its Maker and the spirit is set free to praise the God of heaven. When He is all we have . . . when family and friends have forsaken us. When the years stretch before us like dark-robed guards and threaten to suffocate our souls. When we realize that we have committed crimes too great, too heinous for words and that without forgiveness we will sink beneath the mire. When we don’t think that we can go another day without seeing the blue sky or without feeling the lovely crisp grass beneath our unchained feet.

He is salvation from prison. And there are other “prisons” that chain us and hold us down in the dark and threaten to overwhelm our souls. The “prison” of a spouse dying-- the loneliness, the pain, the utter grief of spirit, the “prison” of a painful divorce in which we have been the victim of bitter rejection, the “prison” of a long, drawn out disease that wracks our body and steals the joy of the light of day from our hearts.

And I can remember days, joyless days in the prison of a situation that I could not control, and thinking, if the sun was out and the birds were singing and the beauty of spring was in the air, “I wish it were dark and cold and gray,” because that is how I felt. I could not relate to light and to warmth and to grace and my soul was in agony. Until the Lord stooped down and I realized that He is all that I need. That “when all around my soul gives way, He the is ALL my hope and stay.” Until I realized that “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform” and that “behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” He was all I needed. But His grace had to touch me and make me realize that, not only in my mind, but in my heart.

A prison can be the gateway to freedom when it makes a man or a woman recognize their need of Christ. And a spiritual prison can be the beginning of an open door, if we will allow the Holy Spirit to stoop to us in our need and help us, lifting our feet, like pilgrim out of the mire and setting them on solid ground.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk / / CC BY-NC

Friday, November 22, 2013

Beauty For Ashes

"To console those who mourn in Zion,

To give them beauty for ashes,

The oil of joy for mourning,

The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;

That they may be called trees of righteousness,

The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”

Isaiah 61:3

When all the sky has turned to dust of gray
And sun-warmed days are gone at last
Then, to my Lord I kneel and pray
When every hope of dawn seems past

When smoky leaves turn into barren ash
The wind of summer turned away
The hills are silent, clothed in dying grass
Their emerald splendor could not stay

When all the sweetness of the harvest’s gone
And hungry souls ache to be filled
Glad singing ended and the fields, forlorn
The land in sorrow—hushed and still

Then God will come with all His hosts of light
My God who changes night to day
And makes the ache of darkness bright
When all the shadows flee away

Photo credit: James Jordan / / CC BY-ND

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Fear of the Church Potluck

"I need Thee, oh, I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
Oh, bless me now, my Savior,I come to Thee."
--Annie S. Hawks

The holidays are here again, or at least, just around the corner. Everyone’s spirits seem to lift in anticipation of the festivities. And so do mine . . . I love the cheerful Christmas carols being played, the decorations, the lights, the warmth, the glow. There’s “a song in the air,” a song that resonates in believer’s hearts as they focus on the Nativity, the Gift of the Christ-Child, the physical advent of salvation. And as Christian folks near and far gather together, we’re reminded of how we will all share in the great Marriage Feast of the Lamb one day, one glorious, freeing day.

I love the holiday season . . . and yet, there is one event that always strikes fear in my heart. And that is, another church potluck. No; I’m not afraid of calories (although to someone who is, the church potluck is not the place for the weak in will ;-)). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the fellowship, the games, the abundant fare, the succulent desserts. The church potluck strikes a note of terror in my soul because . . . I am not a “people person.” I am shy. I like to retreat into myself and nervously ponder whether or not I answered so and so in the “right” way, whether I said something that didn’t make sense, whether there was food in my teeth while I was talking to an elder’s wife.

In years past, I’ve tried to think of dozens of excuses not to go, to try to conjure up a reason for my absence.

I usually end up going. I usually end up enjoying myself and having a good time of fellowship with the brethren. I usually end up over-eating, but that’s a different matter . . .   :-)

I am better at expressing my thoughts through writing rather than through speaking. I like to think about what I am going to say. I like to make sure that I’m not saying anything (truly) heretical. I like to ask the opinions of other Godly family members and friends before I voice a strong opinion about something, in general.

But sometimes the Lord doesn’t give us exactly what we want. Sometimes He places us in situations where we feel uncomfortable so that we can learn, step by painful freeing step, to depend upon Him. So that we will experience His presence and Him speaking through us at the spur of the moment when we haven’t had time to think through what our answer is going to be.

And it’s funny, sometimes I don’t “feel” uncomfortable at all. Sometimes I can go to church or to a social gathering and be perfectly at ease. And I am like Peter walking on the waves, heading toward his Savior. But at other times, (most times) I am a blundering nervous wreck who hides behind my husband’s loquaciousness, nodding my head and smiling, trying to eat as slowly as possible so that I won’t have to rise from my squeaky folding chair and actually carry on a conversation with someone (the point of “the potluck!”) Suddenly (and usually when I am worrying about what people think or depending on myself) I begin to sink beneath the waves and cry out in desperation for Jesus to lift me up before I drown and make an absolute fool of myself.

All at the church potluck. And there are people there who are social butterflies just flitting around from person to person, saying all of the right things and giving all of the right smiles and there is never food between their teeth and they just don’t understand people like little old me who are terrified of the church potluck.

Isn’t life funny like that? And I think of the times that people stepped outside of their circle of friends and talked to me at the church potluck and I was eternally grateful, and they never realized it. I think of an associate minister’s wife at the time, who “stepped down” to spend time in conversation with me when I was in highschool and she wasn’t pushing to find out what plans I had for college or whether I had a summer job lined up or how well I did on my SAT’s. She was just living out the love of Christ toward someone who she probably realized felt awkward and uncomfortable. And there have been other people like that. People who are not concerned about whether or not they are sitting with the “right” people, the “important” people at the church potluck. People who sit with the people who they perceive to be “lowly,” and who don’t do it for the show of it, but because they genuinely have love for the brethren. People who are filled with the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ and who don’t patronize but truly care.

We need to realize that the Lord makes people different, that He has placed them in all different circumstances in life, that they have come from all different backgrounds and most of us have hang-ups and insecurities and fears. And I am not giving anyone an “excuse” for fearful, introverted to the point of being unfriendly behavior, but I am saying that we should show mercy, not judgement and a turning up the nose and wagging the tongue towards them.

There is a great difference between someone who grew up in the church, sang in the choir, came from a Godly family and attended every church service, and someone who came from a background of abuse, beatings, soap operas, pornography, chaos, and constant sarcastic belittlement from a parent or from parents. We need to show compassion. We need to sit with people from the latter group at the church potluck who have come to Christ, who have been redeemed, but who still feel uncomfortable and who use the word “ain’t” once in a while.

And though I grew up under the influence of a godly Christian mother who protected us and brought us up in the fear of the Lord, my disposition is one of shyness. And on top of that “handicap,” many times in my own life, depending on the circumstances, I have felt extremely uncomfortable for different reasons because of the sinful behavior of my father and the effect that it had upon our family. I didn’t want to talk about it; I wanted to hide it and to protect those who I loved who were affected by it. I didn’t want to be confronted at the church potluck about “how things were going” by someone who completely didn’t understand the situation, the agony, the deep distress and the extent of emotional pain that it caused.

I understand now that there are “well-meaning” Christians who intend no harm in asking somewhat silly questions; they just don’t understand because they haven’t experienced it. But I think as believers that it is sometimes better to hold your peace and just let someone know that you are sincerely praying for them if you don’t understand. But I digress . . .

Ahh . . . the church potluck. For me, it is an opportunity to learn to rely more upon the Holy Spirit in any given situation. To stop thinking about how panic attacks run in my family and to just take a couple of strong aspirin afterwards when the inevitable headache comes.

For others, it is an opportunity to learn grace, to exhibit grace towards those who are uncomfortable. Not in a showy way that makes the “shy” ones feel like you are pitying them. The Holy Spirit will teach you how. The Holy Spirit will show you who to talk to and how it is more important to show the love of Christ in this way than to gush over the quality of the apple pie or to take the highest social place. The Lord will reward you. And He will be well-pleased in your obedience and the love that is poured out through you by His Spirit.

And isn’t that what the church potluck is all about? The love of Christ, the fellowship of the brethren, and the glory to Him alone.

Photo credit: daniel_dimarco / / CC BY-NC-ND

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Made for the Valley

“We have all experienced times of exaltation on the mountain, when we have seen things from God’s perspective and have wanted to stay there. But God will never allow us to stay there. The true test of our spiritual life is in exhibiting the power to descend from the mountain. If we only have the power to go up, something is wrong. It is a wonderful thing to be on the mountain with God, but a person only gets there so that he may later go down and lift up the demon-possessed people in the valley (see Mark 9:14-18). We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life— those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength. Yet our spiritual selfishness always wants repeated moments on the mountain. We feel that we could talk and live like perfect angels, if we could only stay on the mountaintop. Those times of exaltation are exceptional and they have their meaning in our life with God, but we must beware to prevent our spiritual selfishness from wanting to make them the only time.”

--Oswald Chambers

I see beautiful profile pictures on Facebook and beautiful families on Christmas cards and beautiful people smiling at me with beautiful white teeth. And there are beautiful captions underneath and friends who see them and think that they need to go and take a beautiful picture that can be their profile picture, too. I want to have a beautiful picture that will make everyone think of how happy I must be and how well my life is going and how good my job is and how well-behaved my kids are and how much my husband adores me . . . But life is usually not about beautiful pictures. And sure, there are times when you load your dozens of pictures onto your computer and an especially good one pops out and you think, “Wow; this is it.” But that’s usually not life. Life is usually the closed eyes when the camera snaps, the imperfect teeth, the hair out of place, the less-then-flattering pose.  

And maybe there are some people out there who can always take a beautiful picture, but I doubt that there are very many and I doubt that they are as happy, successful, satisfied and as smug as their beautiful picture makes them out to be.

Life isn’t about beautiful pictures. Life is about trenches and digging deep into the raw reality of pain and throbbing emotions and lost babies and sleepless nights and frustrations and the car breaking down and the day-to-day grinding of the wheels of routine . . . boring routine . . . necessary routine, so that the Savior of our souls can mold and shape us into who He would have us become in Him.

I don’t like routine. And yet I love it. And yet I get overwhelmed sometimes with the same bowl of oatmeal every morning and the same clothes and the same books and the same dishes and the same laundry and the same making dinner and the same old rooms and the same old bed and the same chores and the same walks and on and on and on . . .

Yet I love routine, because without it, something is lost, something of chaos sets in, something of disorder and something of laziness in my heart and resigning to how I “feel.” I love routine because I learn through it that if I don’t spend time with the Lord in the morning, the day for me is lost . . . if I don’t basically keep to a schedule with my little daughter, she starts acting “crazy” and it’s harder to sit down quietly with her and read books the next time.

One of my favorite quotes is from William Carey, the Baptist Missionary to India, so-called “father of modern missions.” He says, (in response to people praising him for his work) ““If he gives me credit for being a plodder he will describe me justly. Anything beyond that will be too much. I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”

“I can plod . . .” and this is what the Christian’s life is mainly about. This is what Pilgrim did as he made his way toward the Celestial City with only the clothes on his back and with faith in his heart, the faith that God alone gives.

I can plod . . . when I don’t feel like it. I can clean, by the strength and grace of God when I am tired; I can read another book with my daughter, I can pray with someone on the phone when I feel shy and uncomfortable but I know in my heart that this is the beginning of the answer to their problem.

I can plod . . . when I’ve only gotten three hours of sleep, when my child is cranky and irritable, when I know in my heart that I need to get off of the phone, the computer, whatever takes my attention at the moment away from what it should be on, and engage my child for the glory of God.

It isn’t easy . . . I don’t like it . . . It’s uncomfortable . . . and yet plodding works righteousness by the Holy Spirit of God.

Of course there are special times and special seasons of refreshing when we break away from routine and enjoy something different. When we go on vacation, when we have ice-cream for dinner, when we head to the seashore on a steamy summer night. And these things refresh us and prepare us again for life in the trenches. As Oswald Chambers says, our Christian life is not a “mountaintop” experience. The mountaintop experiences are given so that we may travel down into the “demon-possessed” valley and remember that the Lord is with us, recalling to mind those days of revelation and beautiful views and the wonder. There are times for vacations and retreats and respites . . . but they are not life. Because life is plodding; the Christian life is plodding, planting seeds, waiting patiently for them to grow and praying for the sunshine and the rain.

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.  Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful." (James 5:7-11).

The perseverance of Job, the compassion and mercy of the Lord . . . an example for us. A call to live with grace in the valleys of life, with peace and joy in the Savior who walked there before us, plodding ever towards glory.

Photo credit: Zach Dischner / / CC BY