Led by a Thread

Most of the images of leading in the Scriptures involve stubborn, stiff-necked animals having to be forcefully moved because of their stubbornness and ignorance.

Goads. Bit and bridle. Chastisement. It seems human hearts are hard to lead. I know mine most certainly is; yet God offers us a better way.

He longs to put away the bridles and the sharp objects that push us along into His ways; He longs that we would be so accustomed to His voice, His character and the paths He frequents that we might be led by a thread.

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Stubborn Means for Stubborn Hearts

In the Old Testament, Hosea powerfully compares the constant rebellion of the senseless and stubborn nation of Israel to an untrained, unwilling heifer.  Jeremiah similarly depicts God’s people as an untrained calf, needing to be moved by the strong chastisement and discipline of a Babylonian invasion and exile.

David similarly warns us in Psalm 32, saying, “Be not like a horse or mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle or it will not stay near you.”

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul uses such imagery while sharing his conversion story with Agrippa in Acts 26. Paul recounts how he heard the Lord say in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

It seems God reverts to using stubborn means for our stubborn hearts. Like a parent who has gently instructed and guided a child to obey only to be met with strong resistance and refusal, God lovingly used force in the form of pain, invasion, natural and unnatural consequences to teach His unwilling people.

As soon as His people repented, He relented.  He longed for their softened hearts, finally stilled enough to listen to Him, being wearied of the consequences of their rebellion.  Even as the Lord was prophesying the invasion of Babylon and the coming exile of God’s people through Jeremiah, we see a window into the heart behind the stubborn means.

Thus says the Lord: 
“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness 
When Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. 
I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will rebuild you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel. 
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.” Jeremiah 31:2-4.

A Subtle Leading for Submissive Hearts

While it is strangely comforting to know that God will love us with by administering uncomfortable discipline, the goal is that we would increasingly become those led by a thread.

God longs that we wouldn’t have to be yanked and cajoled to follow Him. He would much rather we be receptive children with hearts so attuned to our Savior and the leading of the Spirit that a simple look, a gentle word of reminder or a subtle nudge would be enough.

To be led by a thread, we must know our Savior well, linger long on and in His words, spend time with Him early and often. It took years for me to know my husband well enough to be able to tell from a glance or body language or a squeeze or a slight chance of tone what He is communicating.  But the longer we have lived together and studied one another, the more accustomed we have become to one another. In much the same way, through the spiritual disciplines and cumulative hours spent together, we can begin to learn the Lord.

A puppy must be trained to sit and stay, and training can be monotonous and uncomfortable; yet, a well-trained puppy becomes a faithful dog able to walk loyally by the side of His master without leash or enticement. The presence and pleasure of His master is enough for him.

If you are like me, you are more accustomed to being led by the yank of the bit and the poke of goad than by a gentle tug on a thread. However, there is great hope that as remain under His training, our spirits will become less stubborn and more submitted.

May we gaze upon the One who did not have to be goaded to the Cross, but set His face like flint and resolved to move toward His death at Golgotha. As we do, He will make us more receptive to the Spirit who gently leads us through the Word to Christ.

Oh, Father, train our stubborn hearts; make us increasingly accustomed to walking by Your side, in step with Your Spirit. May we become those who are led by a thread, as was your perfect Son, our Savior.  Amen.

 

 

Led by a Thread

Most of the images of leading in the Scriptures involve stubborn, stiff-necked animals having to be forcefully moved because of their stubbornness and ignorance.

Goads. Bit and bridle. Chastisement. It seems human hearts are hard to lead. I know mine most certainly is; yet God offers us a better way.

He longs to put away the bridles and the sharp objects that push us along into His ways; He longs that we would be so accustomed to His voice, His character and the paths He frequents that we might be led by a thread.

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Stubborn Means for Stubborn Hearts

In the Old Testament, Hosea powerfully compares the constant rebellion of the senseless and stubborn nation of Israel to an untrained, unwilling heifer.  Jeremiah similarly depicts God’s people as an untrained calf, needing to be moved by the strong chastisement and discipline of a Babylonian invasion and exile.

David similarly warns us in Psalm 32, saying, “Be not like a horse or mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle or it will not stay near you.”

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul uses such imagery while sharing his conversion story with Agrippa in Acts 26. Paul recounts how he heard the Lord say in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

It seems God reverts to using stubborn means for our stubborn hearts. Like a parent who has gently instructed and guided a child to obey only to be met with strong resistance and refusal, God lovingly used force in the form of pain, invasion, natural and unnatural consequences to teach His unwilling people.

As soon as His people repented, He relented.  He longed for their softened hearts, finally stilled enough to listen to Him, being wearied of the consequences of their rebellion.  Even as the Lord was prophesying the invasion of Babylon and the coming exile of God’s people through Jeremiah, we see a window into the heart behind the stubborn means.

Thus says the Lord: 
“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness 
When Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. 
I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will rebuild you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel. 
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.” Jeremiah 31:2-4.

A Subtle Leading for Submissive Hearts

While it is strangely comforting to know that God will love us with by administering uncomfortable discipline, the goal is that we would increasingly become those led by a thread.

God longs that we wouldn’t have to be yanked and cajoled to follow Him. He would much rather we be receptive children with hearts so attuned to our Savior and the leading of the Spirit that a simple look, a gentle word of reminder or a subtle nudge would be enough.

To be led by a thread, we must know our Savior well, linger long on and in His words, spend time with Him early and often. It took years for me to know my husband well enough to be able to tell from a glance or body language or a squeeze or a slight chance of tone what He is communicating.  But the longer we have lived together and studied one another, the more accustomed we have become to one another. In much the same way, through the spiritual disciplines and cumulative hours spent together, we can begin to learn the Lord.

A puppy must be trained to sit and stay, and training can be monotonous and uncomfortable; yet, a well-trained puppy becomes a faithful dog able to walk loyally by the side of His master without leash or enticement. The presence and pleasure of His master is enough for him.

If you are like me, you are more accustomed to being led by the yank of the bit and the poke of goad than by a gentle tug on a thread. However, there is great hope that as remain under His training, our spirits will become less stubborn and more submitted.

May we gaze upon the One who did not have to be goaded to the Cross, but set His face like flint and resolved to move toward His death at Golgotha. As we do, He will make us more receptive to the Spirit who gently leads us through the Word to Christ.

Oh, Father, train our stubborn hearts; make us increasingly accustomed to walking by Your side, in step with Your Spirit. May we become those who are led by a thread, as was your perfect Son, our Savior.  Amen.

 

 

In Barreness or Bounty: Micah 7

Places have power, especially deeply personal places. There are certain spaces and places that evoke deep emotions for each of us.

To others, a childhood home, a favorite tree or a frequented restaurant may appear to be nothing more any other house, shrub or eatery.  However, as we all know, the commonest of people, places and things take on uncommon meaning when they are ours.

In much the same way, certain Scriptures evoke deep and layered memories and meanings to those who have camped long and often in their locale. My soul has favorite nests and sitting spots, places where I could sit for hours recounting my fears and His faithfulnesses, my tears and His taming presence.

Strangely enough, Micah 7 is one of my soul’s favorite campsites. Even just hearing the reference, my heart beats more quickly, my lungs breathe out a little more deeply.  Different pruning seasons in my life, seasons of depression and deep anxiety parade before my memory, escorted by the Lord who brought me bravely out of each season.

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It seems a strange campsite to frequent, with its images of woe and weariness, famine and fallow fields. Micah imagines himself a picked over field, all stripped and sapped of its fruitfulness. As one who has lived in the South and seen the quick transformation of a cotton field from a white, fluffy field of life to a barren field of sick sticks, the picture deeply resonates with me.

Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned; there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe figs that my soul desires. Micah 7:1.

For all its melancholy, Micah 7 is a field of a hope. I love Micah’s stubbornness and his desire to sit right there, in the middle of a barren and picked over place, waiting for God to come back, brining the life that always accompanies His presence.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy, when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgement for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon His vindication. Micah 7:7-9. 

I love Micah’s seasoned confidence, his cries of defiance to anyone who would say he and his field were abandoned. It is as if Micah says, “Think what you will; let my field and I appear to you as they may. My God is committed to me and my field, despite all of our failings and foibles, we are His. He will do what He always does. He will make this field fruitful. I need only sit here and cry out to Him.”

For those of you who find themselves sitting alone in barren fields, may Micah give you hope in the Lord. Jesus, the one who visited the barren earth all broken and ravaged by our sin, was planted on an instrument in death. From that Cross as epicenter, life has been rippling out ever since.

I wrote this poem as a poetic version of Micah 7, one of my soul’s most storied spaces in the Scriptures.

Micah’s Prayer

When the first ripe figs
Lay crushed and rotten,
My sad, starving soul
You’ve not forgotten.

When once fruitful fields
Sit eerily fallow
New depths of soul
You’ll grow and hallow.

When once fertile ground
Hardens like steel,
Your comforting presence
I’ll increasingly feel.

Feverish and fig-less,
I’ll sit down right here.
You’ve sworn in due time
Again You’ll draw near.

Let passerbys laugh
And enemies deride,
For my God shall arise
And return to my side.

Baskets of bounty
With Him He’ll bring.
Then this tired soul
In worship shall sing.

Lord of the Harvest,
In drought I’ll wait,
Knowing You’ll come
Not a moment too late.

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

An Anchor & A Buoy

An anchor and a buoy could not be more opposite in their purpose. One is meant to weigh down and hold something fast while the other is meant to lighten and to lift. One increases gravity, one increases levity. The gospel, in its infinite scope and mystery, is both.

No wonder when speaking about the wonders of the gospel an awed Paul broke into spontaneous praise. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:33). 

Life is a churning sea, marked with the high and low ties of prosperity and adversity.  Seasons of unexpected or long awaited success, health, productivity, ease and joy can literally cause us to float seemingly weightless, walking on the clouds. On the other hand, seasons of suffering, depression, failure and sickness weight us down so that we begin to drown under the waves of heaviness.

God, in His infinite creativity and wisdom, provides a solution for both in the same gospel. The word gospel has become threadbare and can mean different things to different people, so allow me to be clear.  When I say the gospel, I mean the beautiful offer beautifully defined by Calvin as “Christ clothes with His gospel.” The gospel that is both anchor for our levity and buoy for our gravity is a person, the person of Christ wearing the Good News He came to provide for us by His life, death and resurrection.

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Christ standing outside of time throws us the gospel rope He suffered to make available to His children. The rope is available at all times to all people who trust in Him, as an anchor in times of prosperity and a buoy in times of adversity. Our job is to grab the rope and hold fast, clinging as if our life depended upon it. We follow the Gospel rope to contentment in Christ, a contentment that is not based on circumstances or affected by failure or success, sickness or health, ease or agony.

Paul, one deeply accustomed to the undulating waves of gravity and levity, describes for us union with Christ and empowerment by the Spirit as His twin secrets of contentment in his letter to the Church in Philippi He so loved.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).

Paul borrowed two words from the Greco-Roman culture in the above passage. The first is the word translated content and meaning self-sufficient. To be above circumstances by sitting loosely in them and finding sufficiency in oneself was a celebrated virtue in the surrounding culture; however, Paul borrows the term and in Christ drenches it in new meaning. He is not touting self-sufficiecny but rather the all-sufficient Christ who dwells within the believers.

The second is the Greek word mueo translated learned the secret. Paul borrowed this word from the initiatory rites of pagan rituals, whereby people were invited into some mystery that others did not know or to which there was no common access. Again, Paul dunks this pagan Word in Christ, giving it a whole new meaning. Christians have been initiated into a mystery, but one that is an open secret available to any and all who are in Christ without qualification, save faith in Him.

The contentment offered us in Christ, this lifeline that is simultaneously anchor and buoy, has been purchased at an infinite price. Christ, in His perfect life, undeserved death and amazing resurrection initiated us into the life of God. Are we grabbing the rope? Are we doing the hard but worthwhile work of following the line to the lap of Christ? Are we helping or holding those who cannot find or don’t have the strength to hold the line right now?

Oh, Christ, captain of our contentment, help us to find the rope you throw for us, be it an anchor line or a buoy line. May we, by your power working mightily within us, climb the line toward contentment in you alone. May the watching world wonder at the secret into which you have initiated us by your blood. Amen.

A Mid-summer Day’s Confession

Mid-summer checkpoint: We have done the beach and the bay and the lazy mornings. We have stayed up late and eaten more popsicles. On the outside, all is well, but my soul has not been well.

Through self-pity and comparison, which have been on a low, silent simmer for a few weeks now, I have allowed sin to insidiously seep into our summer.

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Rather than be filled with joy for my friends, I have envied them their exotic vacations and neighborhood pools. I have bought the lies of picture perfection yet again without realizing it, imagining that there are no sibling spats and errant attitudes in your homes. As such, I have felt ashamed at my own irritability with my dear but far-from-perfect children. Rather than confess it quickly, I have heaped on “What’s wrong with me and them?” shame.

I have allowed the combination of lower structure and higher time with my crew to distort my vision of my children. Rather than seeing their strengths and wise choices, I have had a magnifying glass on their weaknesses. This distorted vision starts with the way I wrongly imagine God views me.

Somehow this summer, I have slowly forgotten that Our Heavenly Father doesn’t wear sin-magnifying shades, but looks upon us through the lenses of love He has for His perfect Son.

In the midst of trying to find a perfect formula for lowering screen time and raising reading, decreasing grumpiness and heightening fun, I have minimized His grace and maximized my contribution. As such, by mid-summer, I have come to the end of my own small storerooms of patience, peace and joy. Thankfully, He has silos upon silos of these commodities to offer me when I come to Him in repentance and rest.

In the likely event that there exists another introverted momma who craves structure and alone time and has wearied herself trying to create a memorable summer for her chilren on a tight budget without air conditioning, I would love to lead us through Psalm 32.

Psalm 32 is a well-worn trail through the narrow places confession to the broad spaces of comfort and consolation at the Cross. David deeply loved God but was not immune to seasonal sin patterns; throughout his life, he got tripped up in the same way, as seen in the repeated introduction to his slippery slopes, “In the spring when the kings went off to war, David…” (2 Samuel 11:1; 1 Chronicles 20:1).

David’s feet knew ruts of unrighteousness but they also learned ruts of righteousness through repentance, Psalm 32 being one of those paths that lead us to Christ.

Blessed is the one whose trangression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. …I acknowledged my sin to you and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgression to the Lord and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”….Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found.
Psalm 32:1 & 5-6.

It is not a lack of sin that separates the godly from the ungodly; rather, it is the acknowledgement, uncovering and confession of sin that delineate the two. Both groups struggle with a chronic sin-sickness, but only the godly drag that struggle into the shadow of the Cross.

I am not surprised by my sin, but I am continually shocked at how long it takes me to honestly call it sin and bring myself exposed to God through Christ. When I come to Him in such naked vulnerability, He quickly covers me in His abundant blankets of forgiveness and grace.

When, and only when, I am warmed by His grace, I am able to offer forgiveness and warmth to my children and those in my flock.

After dumping the slow buildup of summer’s sin at the Cross, I am ready to face the rest of the summer in His strength rather than my own. While cirucmstances may not have changed and our scenery will likely not change, my heart is changed and renewed by a fresh reapplication of His grace. We mommas know sunscreen has to be reapplied double-time in the summer; may we know that the same is true of God’s undeserved grace.

A Profound Simplicity

IMG_6086 Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego.

Aiding in children’s church today, the story of these three brave boys was on the docket. The teacher was asking thoughtful questions to get the children engaged, and the children offered their best Sunday School answers.

“Was it an easy choice for them to not bow down to the statue?”

A handful of arms shot up from eager children. “It was easy. We shouldn’t love idols,” and “We are supposed to only love God.”

The teacher handled the responses beautifully, aided by a gospel-centered curriculum that seeks to bring everything back to the Cross. Yet, my eyes pooled with tears then and are doing so again now as I type.

Three young boys who had been carried off to a foreign country and were under great pressure to conform. Away from their parents, away from the structures that had been used to establish them soundly in a certain worldview, stripped even of their given names. Under a powerful ruler seeking to strip them of their identity and supplant their convictions. Faced with countless choices carrying grave consequences.

The little ones I sat with today did not and could not realize that our lesson was about little ones like them. I longed for these children to not simply get the answer right but to understand the profound complexity of the choice those boys made in Babylon.

The choice was simple. They knew what to do. They had been raised to honor and worship the One true God; their parents had likely told them the historical national tragedies that had occured when God’s people went against the grain of the universe. They had bravely stood up for truth by refusing to eat the king’s food; as such, they had experienced personally that the God their parents had pointed them to was indeed present and powerful even to them. Simple, but not easy.

I imagine those three boys huddled up, eyes darting about in fear as they heard the edict. Whispering and confering with one another as they saw the huge statue being erected, in turns waivering and then gathering courage to defy the King and their peers. I imagine they had nightmares as they heard rumors about the furnace.

As an adult listening to the simple answers of the children in Church, my heart became heavy. These children have no idea how difficult discipleship will be; they cannot imagine cancer diagnoses or difficult marriages, nor should they.  They don’t know yet how strongly the world, the flesh and the Devil will seek to check their convictions.

They rightly cheered with the brave phrase, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace,and he will deliver us out of your hand.” Yet, they did not understand the even braver beauty of the second phrase those boys uttered: “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods.” Daniel 3:17 & 18. 

As quickly as my heart became heavy,  my heart filled with hope and worship.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego probably didn’t realize the gravity of their theology when they were learning lessons from their parents and elders. They likely squirmed and giggled their way through sessions, as the children were doing today.

Yet, when the time came, these boys were upheld and infused with a God-enabled strength to obey despite dire consequences. The simple truths they had come to know and believe about the character of God upheld them in an incredibly complex situation.

The Scripture that these boys bravely proclaimed, “Our God is able,” was the very truth I was wrestling to believe in that moment.

Indeed, our God is able. He is able to do what neither I nor any human teacher can do for our children. He alone can convince them of the profoundly simple and simply profound truths of the gospel.

For now, they need to learn the foundational truths that are being stored up in their little tender hearts. They need not know right now the millions of strata that make up the gospel they see as so simple. Lord-willing, the Holy Spirit will spend the rest of their lives stretching their understanding of the simple, yet profoudly complex gospel.

In leading their tiny hearts to worship, my own tired heart was led to worship.

The Squeeze and the Savior

While I have never been diagnosed with textbook claustrophobia, I hate tight places. Elevators, tunnels and all other small spaces make my heart race and my palms sweat. I can rescue a child from the Chick-fil-A playplace blackhole like the best of them, but other than that, I try my hardest to avoid squishy, smushy places in the external world.

Similarly, my soul hates tight, restricting places and situations. With the exception of contortionists, I believe that most humans share my sentiments to varying degrees of intensity. Humans try to avoid being squeezed.

However, the imagery of tight places, of constriction, runs as a theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The word tsar, often translated as distress or adversary, is used prolificly throughout the Old Testament.  Its root word more literally means narrow places or straits and conjures images and feelings of crowding, anguish and constriction.  Perhaps the modern idiom “Stuck between a rock and a hard place” captures its original connotation to the modern mind.

When Balaam was headed where he ought not have gone and God condescended to use his donkey to get his attention, we see the word tsar show up.

Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. Numbers 22:26.

Here the word is used to describe a literal tight place; however, the same concept is often transferred to the soul’s situation, emotionally or spiritually, particularly in the Psalms.

O Lord, how many are my foes. Many are rising against me. Many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. Psalm 3:1-2. 

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer! Psalm 4: 1.

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. Psalm 18: 6.

You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Psalm 32:7

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Scripturally and historically, God’s people have been well-acquainted with tight places emotionally, phsyically and spiritually. In their squeezing places, situations, seasons and relationships, they cry out to God for deliverance.  It would not be too much of a stretch to say that tight and constricting places were the rule, not the exception, of their seeking earnestly after God.

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What was true of them back then remains true of us today. As much as we hate tight places, the Lord often uses them more than any other thing to point us to our Saviour.

When we are in tight situations financially, when the budget feels tighter than skinny jeans, we look to the Lord and wait and watch for His freeing provision. When we are in the tight hallway of depression or anxiety, we learn to appreciate the feelings of spaciousness and emotional freedom that we may have formerly taken for granted. When the pressure is on at work and we feel conorted and twisted by demands on every side, we regonize our innate limitations and neediness.

Interestingly enough, when the Scriptures talk about freedom another spatial term is often employed: rachab which means spaciousness and broadness, breadth.

Circling back to Psalm 18, one of the references used regarding tsar and those tight places,  we find the juxtaposition of tight places and fields of freedom.

They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; He rescued me because He delighted in me. Psalm 18: 18-19.

In Psalm 31, we see both words, tsar and rachab, as the Psalmist looks back upon the Lord’s deliverance from tightness to broadness.

I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul; and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place. Psalm 31:7-8.

Even if our tight places seem to be tightening and our restrictions seem to be on the rise, we can find great hope in this:  our Savior left the spaciousness, the broadness of Heaven and eternity to come to this tight globe. His lungs literally had the breath squeezed out of them on the Cross so that we could breath the spaciousness of life in right standing before God.  His risen steps out of a tight tomb assure us that we, too, will walk out of tight spaces to be on eternally broad places with Him.

In the midst of the squeeze, we have a Saviour.