Monday, May 31, 2010

When Shadows Aren't Enough

the dark valley

Image by The Rusty Projector via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could have sworn I had already posted this poem here on my blog, but I just searched for it in vain.  And for some reason, I feel that I ought to post it now.

The Lord is bringing significant healing to my life, but I have a long way to go.  And sometimes, especially for the sake of those who are still "in the valley," it is good to revisit the pain.  Not for the sake of morbidity, but for encouragement.  Because if God can bring me out of this valley, as deep as it was, He can bring anyone out of their valley too.

I wrote this poem back in 2006, when I had already been in my "valley" for about seven years.  It took that long to be able to face the pain enough to put it into words.

The poem is about the time when my two-year-old son changed virtually overnight…from a seemingly normal toddler to an autistic stranger.  It is called:

------------------------------

When Shadows Aren't Enough

Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…

My son is lost in that valley.
He died. He lives.
Two years old.
Toddling
Pointing
Tearing into Christmas presents
Voicing his thoughts with newly-learned words.
Adorable, squeezable, lovable, loved.
Phillip.

Gone.

His words give way to screaming.
Endless, throat-tearing screaming.
Little body stiff in my arms.
Twelve, fourteen, eighteen hours each day
His shrieks rake my ears, shred my soul
Screaming, and screaming, and screaming.
For months.

Hands forget how they once played.
Now they flap before a stranger’s eyes
No longer willing to meet my own.

Sleep mocks me.
Hope perishes.
Sanity flees.
Nothing exists but screaming, and screaming, and screaming
And three little faces who look to me
To give them life
While I am dying.

I reel in this valley of death that is not death.
Through? There is no “through.”
I sink to my knees
But find no comfort there.
No God
And no strength to rise again.

The air in this valley
Fills lungs with dust
Parches them with dread
Not the fear that death will come,
But that it will not.

“If You have any compassion at all
Be done with shadows which bring no relief!
Let this be simply the valley of death.
End it all. Please just end it all.”

Our breaths keep coming.
His rip the air with cries of torment.

Mine can only breathe, “I hate You, God. I hate You.”

Slowly the horror abates
But endless months in the shadow of death
Have transformed me into a shadow of life.
I am hollow.
Nothing remains of me.
I am without form, void, in darkness.

The Spirit hovers
He has little to work with.
The fragments He finds are seething with rage
At Him.

He sings, and I weep.
I don’t want to, but I do.
He praises, and I feel it.
Sometimes I can even join in, feebly
Pushing the words out past thick clouds of fury.

I am so glad I still can.
Because if He is life
Then a shadow of life is not enough
Not in a place such as this.

I stagger to my feet
And risk a few unsteady steps.
For I do not hate life
Or the One who is Life
But only the shadow that hides Him from me
Here in this valley.

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Now, the post script.  Ten years after my son and I entered that valley together, God has restored both of us in ways I could never have imagined.  Yes, my son is still autistic and bipolar.  Barring a miracle, he always will be.  Yes, he relies on powerful medications to keep him at a functional level of emotional stability.  But he is a beacon of hope; a hopping, jumping, hand-flapping miracle who sings God's praises sometimes for hours on end.  His growing faith is precious and inspirational.  He is one of God's precious diamonds, and the gleam is already sparkling despite the surrounding coal.

What's more, God led me into that valley as a self-deceived lost person, someone who believed herself saved but had never been born again.  He led me out of it as His daughter.

For many years I would have told you that I hated the valley, and that it was proof that God hated me.  Now I would not trade it for anything.  I'm glad it's in the rearview mirror, and I hope I never have to walk through it, or one like it, again.  But if I do, may I remember God's faithfulness through it all, and may I be comforted by the knowledge that He brings the greatest good out of the worst trials.

And God grant that the same may be true for you.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Faith of a Mustard Seed

Long's Peak and Meeker 

"Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."  (Matt 17:20)

What is the faith of a mustard seed?

Sometimes people add a few words to this verse.  They say, "Faith the size of a mustard seed."  They take this verse to mean that even small faith can do large things.  And there may be truth in that.  But Jesus didn't say anything about the size of the seed in this passage.  He said, "If you have faith as a mustard seed."

So what is that?  Whatever it is, it is supposed to enable me to move mountains.

On a clear day, if I walk just a little way from my home, I can see the towering, perennially snowcapped twins called Long's Peak and Meeker.  Now, I am a person of growing faith, but I have no desire to "put God to the test" by ordering those giants to move (Mat 4:7).  If I did decide to try it, those mountains would doubtless stay put.  And it's a good thing, too.  Could you imagine the chaos if people went around literally rearranging geography all the time?

Prosperity preachers and their "Name it and claim it" devotees would tell me that if I had more faith, those folks in the mountains would have reason to tremble in their shoes.  But I must ask them, "Is that your definition of faith?  Does faith really mean getting all of your selfish whims and desires fulfilled, without any thought to God's plans for the world, for history, for the people who would be affected by your actions?  Does faith mean telling God to move over so you can sit on His throne and be in charge instead of Him?" 

God forbid that I should ever have such power!  Yes, my faith gives me the power to move mountains…but only the mountains that God wants me to move.  Aren't you glad to know that, mountain folk?

People of true faith in the one true God do not wish to move any mountains that the Lord wants left alone.  Oh, they might long for the day when those mountains move, but they are not willing to step an inch outside of God's will in order to satisfy their own desires.  (Or, if they do try to sinfully move those mountains themselves, God graciously refuses to let them succeed.)  People of faith trust God's plan for where things are supposed to be.  They do not want to usurp God's place, or to turn their religion into a maniacal power trip.

But if God tells them to move a mountain, they speak to it with confidence.

And it moves.

God gives us faith to accomplish His will, not our own.  And true faith wouldn't want it any other way.  True faith sees God on the throne, and is content to have Him there.

It is mustard-seed faith.

What is the faith of a mustard seed?  It's a faith that says, "Oh, I'm a mustard seed.  So that means that God wants me to be a mustard plant.  He gives me His rain, His sunshine, His dirt, and His air, and everything I need to grow into what He designed me to be.  And that's exactly what I want to do."  And it does it.

Mustard seeds do not try to be dandelions, roses, oaks, or eagles.  Nor do they transplant themselves from wherever God placed them, longing for some source of provision other than His.  They are content to use what God gives them in order to grow into what God designed them to be.

Some people have been planted in horrible soil.  Hard, rocky, and inconveniently located (say…right next to a blast-furnace, perhaps?)  Everything in them wants to be somewhere else, growing into something else. 

But let me say it again.  Despite the pain and tears, despite the longing for a better day, mustard seed faith is content to use what God gives it in order to grow into what God designed it to be. This is the kind of faith that our Lord commends.

God may have planned to make me a literal mountain-mover, but probably not.  I doubt that the residents of Meeker have anything to worry about.  So if I'm not supposed to be a mountain-mover, what did God design me to be?

At the very least, He designed me to be my husband's wife, and my children's mother…and to do so with a heart full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control.

Suddenly, moving mountains looks less impossible.  In fact, compared to my actual assignment, making Long's Peak tiptoe to the East might be relatively simple.

My heart is evil.  The amount of wickedness I've seen in my own heart has been sufficient to make me despair of it without an outright miracle.  And God tells me that my heart is a whole lot worse than even I realize (Jer 17:9).  I need divine help to become anything worth being.

Am I content to use what God gives me as I grow in this life?  Will I access His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control for my protection and strength?  Or will I seek to transplant myself into the world's soil, drawing up its hatred and rage and deceit and selfishness as my sources of power and safety?

Am I content to be what He designed me to be, or would I rather be something else, something modeled after my flesh's desires and cut from the world's pattern?  Am I content to grow into a mere mustard plant, unnoticed, on harsh ground?

Lest you accuse me of setting my sights too low, let me remind you that mustard seeds have no idea what is going to become of them.  In fact, Jesus did mention the size of mustard seeds in another passage.  He said that though they are very small seeds, yet they grow up and become larger than all the other plants in the garden (Mark 4:31-32).

And God's Word tells us that we, too, do not know what we're going to grow into.  But it gives us a hint…and if we let it sink in, it will blow our minds.

"Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2 NKJV).

We shall be like Him. 

WE shall be like Him.  "We" means little folks like us, wholly undeserving little bits of matter that look like nothing in the world's eyes, but who are precious in the eyes of God because of our faith in Christ.

We SHALL be like Him.  "Shall" means it's going to happen.  It is a promise from the mouth of God, and it will not fail.

We shall BE like Him.  "Be" is a state of existence, and this particular "be" is eternal in its scope.  If we're drawing our life from the Vine (John 15:5-6), then our eternal state will be more glorious than we can imagine.  Heaven isn't just about what we will enjoy.  It's also about who we will become!

We shall be LIKE Him.  Restored to being flawless image-bearers, like Adam and Eve were, except even better…because we won't ever sin!

We shall be like HIM!  Like Jesus.  Like the One we are growing to love more than anyone or anything on earth.  Like the one whose glories will be the joy of Heaven forever.

This is the future that God had in mind when He fashioned the DNA of the little seeds called "you," fellow believers, and "me." It is the future that He planned for when He planted us in the soil we now find ourselves rooted in…and when He planted us in yesterday's soil, and in tomorrow's too.  It is the future He is preparing for us as He buffets us with every wind of adversity, tries us with every drought, and refreshes us with every Spring rain.  It is the future that He provides for, when He develops His likeness ever-so-slowly in us throughout this life (See Gal 5:22-23).

God grant us mustard-seed faith, a faith that is content to use what He provides (scorning other sources), in order to become what He designed us to be (scorning other outcomes).

I don't know about you, but at the end of this day I'd rather be able to look back and see increasing love in my heart, increasing joy, increasing peace (and all the other fruits), than to look back at any feats of geographical gerrymandering. 

To know that the pains and heartaches and joys and efforts of today are preparing me to be like Him for eternity…what could be more glorious?

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Protected and Strengthened…by Meekness

Nectarine (Prunus persica) fruit development o...

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There are nine different types of spiritual fruit listed in Gal 5:22-23.  I've devoted a blog entry to how we are protected and strengthened by love, and one entry to how the same blessings are bestowed through joy.

I don't plan to devote an entire entry to each of the nine types of fruit.  But I do want to give a little "bullet point" summary of how I can see God protecting and strengthening us through each of the nine.  Then I want to devote the rest of this entry to one fruit in particular: meekness.

First, the summary of how God works on our behalf when he develops His fruit in us:

  • Love – protects me from sinning against God and others, and from missing out on the joy of fellowship with both. As He teaches me to love my enemies, He protects me from taking revenge, and from failing under persecution or mistreatment.  These protections strengthen me to do right, to live fully, to risk the radical way of the cross.
  • Joy – protects me from depression, despair, anger, and surliness.  It strengthens me to bless others in the midst of difficult circumstances.
  • Peace – protects me from withdrawal, isolation, fearful self-protection, and the resulting neglect of my family and my duties.  It strengthens me to face the world instead of hiding from it.
  • Patience – protects me from explosive temper, exasperation, quitting, and discouraging others.  It strengthens me to keep on plugging away when I'm tempted to give up.
  • Kindness – protects me from merely theoretical Christianity.  It engages my hands, my feet, my heart, and my smile in the service of the Gospel.
  • Goodness – protects me from the love of sin, and from believing its lies.  It strengthens me to resist temptation.
  • Faithfulness – protects me from breaking promises and hearts, from the shame of failure, from loss of eternal reward.  Strengthens me to do even hard, repetitive, or boring work.
  • Meekness – protects me from turning to the wrong sources of strength, and from the abuse of power.  Gives me strength to do eternal good, rather than just having a temporary illusion of control.
  • Self-Control – protects me from the tyranny of my ever-shifting moods.  Strengthens me to go on even when my moods say otherwise.

So there you have my list.  I hope it helps.  Now let's look at one fruit in particular: meekness.

I chose not to use the translation "gentleness," since that doesn't really capture the essence of what meekness is.  (I read a very helpful blog entry about true meekness here.  I hope you'll check it out.)

Meekness is not weakness.  It is not "being a doormat."  Jesus most certainly was not one of those!  Oswald Chambers says:

For the Christian, meekness requires submitting our will to the Master. Meekness is not submitting to everyone around us; it is taking our direction from God. Meekness means that we do not have to defend our rights, but we allow the Lord to defend us. Meekness means a life that is submissive to the Holy Spirit, giving Him the freedom to make any changes He knows are necessary. Meekness involves a self-control that comes from trusting God. Meekness demonstrates an attitude of long-suffering that allows God to deal with the injustices we face.

Though I've read many such helpful discussions of meekness in my life, none have particularly inspired me. 

Remember a few entries ago when I talked about having a disconnection between what I believe and how I live?  I'm finding that the short-circuit happened because I misunderstood several key things.  I thought the characteristics of godly living (including the development of godly fruit) would make me weak, not strong.  I needed godliness in order to have a certain quality of walk with Christ, but I needed strength to survive my life.  Survival always won, hands down.  And that meant that godliness quickly fell by the wayside whenever I needed to feel strong and in control.

But now God is teaching me two vital new truths.

  • My greatest need for strength is not so that I can stand against circumstances or people that hurt me.  It's so that I can stand against sin and persist in walking with Christ.
  • Godliness gives me the strength I need to pursue my greatest need.

Of all the pains in my life, none hurt as much as regret.  And all of my deepest regrets in life come from my own sin.  Every one, without exception.  None come from circumstances, or from the sins that others have committed against me.  It took me decades to see the truth of that, but it's absolutely a fact.

And I have committed most, if not all of my sins in a mistaken quest for power, for control, for autonomy over my own life.  And so have you.

No, I'm not what most people would call a power-hungry person, and you probably aren't either.  We're not out trying to become the billionaire movers and shakers of this world.  But we do want control over what happens to us, so we can minimize pain and maximize pleasure.  And most of our sins pursue those two goals.

Most of our regrets and most of life's pain come from the sins we've committed in those pursuits.  We've sought strength from the wrong sources and for the wrong reasons.

Meekness protects us from that mistake.

When God develops meekness in me, He protects me from turning to the wrong sources of strength,  and from the abuse of power.

Do you see it?  Meekness is not weakness!  It is a refusal to turn to the wrong sources of power, which we pursue for the wrong reasons.  Meekness recognizes that there is only one power worth pursuing, and that's God's power.  He gives it to us in our pursuit of godly love, and godly joy, and godly peace, and godly patience…and all of the ways in which we seek to have a godly influence in this world.

Everything we gain by worldly, selfish power will burn up on judgment day.  It is wood, hay, and stubble.  But everything we do by the power of God's Spirit, working through the fruit that He develops in us, will shine forth as gold forever.  That's why a truly meek person would rather appear powerless for a time than appear strong by sinning.  When Jesus appeared powerless while Roman soldiers nailed Him to a cross, He was in fact performing a feat of heroic strength.  He stayed and accepted what He could have prevented, and who can measure how much strength that required?  And then, through what looked like weakness, He single-handedly defeated all the power of Hell, for all eternity.

And this hero is the holder of the Name above all names, upon whom all honor will be bestowed for all eternity.  And He says to us:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matt 11:29 KJV)

I don't know about you, but I want to discover the glorious power of this meekness.  And I want the protection it offers from all the heartache I bring on myself when I pursue what the world wrongly calls strength.

Lord Jesus, teach me how to embrace Your yoke and learn meekness from You.  Amen!

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Strengthened and Protected…by Joy

Nectarine (Prunus persica) fruit development o...

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I need this one to sink deeply into my heart today.

It has been a day of painful awareness…of stark realities that, frankly, frighten and sadden me.

No, no dreadful medical diagnoses, or other such troubles.  My concerns are of a sort that have troubled many people (if not most) throughout all of history.  The details don't matter.  You have your own troubles to bring to this reading.

Despair and depression beckon.  I know their voices well.  But I don't intend to answer their call.

No, I'm not "toughening up."  I'm not counseling myself to "Keep a stiff upper lip," "Don't Worry, Be Happy," or "Just have faith that everything will be okay."  I don't have time to waste on false "help."

I need real joy.  Not the kind that we humans can pluck on our own heartstrings, but the kind that vibrates in sympathy with Heaven.  The kind that plays forth from a stroke of the Master's hand.

I need joy for protection, and for strength.

When God develops joy in me, He protects me from depression, despair, anger, and surliness. 

I don't need the kind of joy that denies reality.  I don't need the protection of a hiding place.  I need the kind of joy-armor that puts a smile on my lips as I head into a battle called "tomorrow."  I need a joy that can weep with the genuine sorrows of life, but still rejoice in the divine "Nevertheless."

"The joy of the LORD is your strength." (Neh 8:10b)

I can honestly say that I'm not accustomed to praying for joy.  I couldn't have done so until recently.  Tender emotions were for suckers, remember?  So asking for joy would have made me feel downright idiotic.

Oh, I accepted joy when God sent it, and gladly.  And He has sent it; sometimes in the beauty of His creation, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in the glory of a soul-dance called Sign Language.  But somehow whenever joy has passed, I have tended to see its passing as proof that I was a fool to have entertained it at all.

Sucker.  I don't know when or how that word took such deep root in my soul.  It wasn't used in my childhood home.  But I feel the scorn of it even now, knowing that, when I'm through writing this, I'm going to hit my knees and pray for joy.  I think the request will stick in my throat at first, but only for a moment.  God is working change in this middle-aged heart.  I will ask for joy, knowing that it is His will to give it to me.  How could He not want to grow the Fruit of His own Spirit?

I will ask for joy to protect me from depression, from despair, from anger, and from surliness.  I will ask Him to give me joy to keep me from committing all of the sins that attend those heart attitudes, and from all of the regrets that would follow.  I will ask for joy to strengthen me to persevere and even to thrive right here where God has placed me.  I will ask for it to bless everyone around me, especially those who once felt my strength only as anger.  And I will ask for joy to be buttressed by love, and peace, and by all of the other facets of God's spiritual fruit.

And I will not close my heart against joy when He gives it.  Joy is not for suckers.  It is for those who step into His presence (Ps. 16:11).

That's where I want to live.

 

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Protected and Strengthened…by Love

Nectarine (Prunus persica) fruit development o...

Image via Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing draws me like the feeling of being warmly, strongly loved and cared for.  The thought of loving protection makes me melt.

So when the Spirit of God nudged me to "Re-think the Fruit of the Spirit in terms of how God protects you," I was eager to go.

According to Gal.5:22-23, the first facet of this "Fruit of the Spirit" is love.

Now, it's easy to see how God's love for me would involve protection.  Isn't that what a loving Father does?  But how does God protect me by growing love in me?

Sometimes, before we can understand protection, we have to understand our enemy.  Imagine, for example, that I went to a remote, "Stone Age" tribe and handed a warrior a small, funny-smelling bit of cloth.  Suppose I told him it was for his protection.  He'd probably laugh me to scorn and use it in playful mock fights with other strapping fellows like himself.  But if he came to understand that the funny smell was mosquito repellant, and that the "enemy" was mosquito-borne malaria, he would no longer laugh.

When I went through some of the hard times that I described yesterday, I thought my painful circumstances were my enemies.  And when God didn't change them, I concluded that He hadn't protected me.  But now, ten years down the road (and counting), I perceive a completely different enemy.  My problem isn't my circumstances, but my inability to cope with them, much less triumph in them.  The enemy is within me.

Now, that's not to downplay the severity of some of the challenges I face.  But when I think how much better my circumstances could now be if I had been a different person for the past ten years, I'm reminded of that famous old quote… 

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

I do not find myself daily lamenting autism or bipolar disorder or the other challenges that make our family unique.  Instead, I find myself lamenting how I sin against my family, how I inadvertently fail them, how their futures are already more challenged because of those failings, and how I lack the wisdom to do better.

No, I'm not talking about "beating myself up," so please don't write and tell me to go easier on myself.  I'm just explaining that I see the real enemy more clearly than I used to.  And he is me…not that I'm an evil person, but that I'm an ordinary, flawed, flesh-and-blood, finite, fallible sinner like everybody else.  My family needs more than I can give them. 

When I think about God's protection, it no longer looks like "taking my kids' special needs away."  It looks like strengthening me to do His will where I live, because that will help my family thrive.  It looks like feeding my soul where it would otherwise starve.

And so we come back to love. 

When God develops love in me, He protects me from sinning against Himself and others, and from missing out on the joy of fellowship with both.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you any sin that I have committed that has not been, at the very least, a failure of love.  If God changes me so that I love more deeply, imagine the sins that He will have protected me from committing, and the regrets he will have kept me from feeling!  Imagine how my family would be protected from those sins!

And remember, this protection isn't like a hiding place.  This protection is like armor, meant to be worn on a battlefield where the enemy is not made of flesh and blood.  With God's love filling me I am not protected from others, per se, but I am protected from the sin inside myself that would cause me to fail spiritually, to cause harm and shame.

Because I'm protected, I'm strengthened and emboldened.  Imagine how much I could bless my family with more of His love filling my soul!

Remember yesterday I said I had been at an impasse for much of my parenting career, because I felt I had to choose between loving and being tough enough to handle life?  Remember how "toughness" always came from anger, squelched tenderness, and made life miserable for everyone?

God, my protector and strengthener, is showing me a different source of strength.  His love, growing in me, increasingly protects me from the worst things I could be and the worst things I could do…and this protection gives me courage to face more than I could before.  Love and strength are no longer in opposition.  They are two sides of the same coin.  The impasse is being resolved. 

I'm praying for fruit much more than for relief.  I'm no longer squashing my tender feelings or rejecting them as "weak."  Instead, I get to rejoice in them and be strengthened by them.  This is radical, guys.

Of course He has a lot of work left to do, and He will until He takes me home to Glory.  But already I'm seeing new hope springing up in me, because I see exciting possibilities.  Already my children are starting to respond to a Mom who draws more strength from love than she used to. 

I rejoice, because God is so good!

Your turn, dear reader.  Are there any ways you'd like to be protected or strengthened by a new work of God's love in your heart?  Do you have a testimony of how godly love in your soul has already given you safety or strength?  I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.

 

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