Recalculating Route

Is it just me or do you also feel your self-esteem go down a notch whenever that snooty chick in our navigation system says in the most condescending voice ever:

“Recalculating route, (you idiot!).” 

I hear the words in parentheses implied in her tone every time!  But no matter how velvet-smooth her voice, there is still no speech, language, or dialect where an almost ninety-degree turn should be described as a ‘slight right’ (heifer!)…word in parentheses implied in my tone.  Two can play that game.

Navigation system hostility aside however, I must admit that there are times when I deeply empathize with anyone faced with the frustration of giving someone specific directions to somewhere you know well, and they refuse to listen or follow your directions.   One of these days there is going to be an official disease, researched and  reported in the New England Journal of Medicine called, ‘will-not-ask-for-or-follow-directions-itis’

Some sufferers from this disease are the people who will ask you for directions, not do anything you tell them to do, end up where they have no business being, and then insist that you to give them new directions to get them out of the predicament they chose to be in, to the place where they are supposed to be.  God bless them…because I want to hurt them…until the truth hits me…wait, I’ve done that.

“Trust God from the bottom of your heart, don’t try to figure out everything on your own.  Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; He’s the One who will keep you on track.”  Proverbs 3:5-6 The Message Bible.

How many times have I read those words, but allowed pride, fear or lack of discipline to keep me from doing what it says?  And, as much as I like the Carrie Underwood song it sounds to me as if Jesus does not want to take the wheel.  No, I think we’re the ones in the driver’s seat, and He wants to navigate; giving us the directions that will get us to our destination safely.  We can follow the directions or ignore them; we drive, we choose.

His directions sometimes appear out-dated, irrelevant, or ‘just not going to work in my situation’. He could not possibly have foreseen the science, technology and culture of the 21st century, could He?  And, how can His directions compete with the opinions of those movers and shakers who shape modern culture and thought?   Or is it possible that my particular challenges and problems are soooooooo unique that the One who made me unique cannot possibly figure out the way I ought to go?  

Truth is, He does know it all and we are the ones always playing catch-up; John wrote “every eye will see Him’ (Revelation 1:7), long before the invention of television or satellites.  He is all-powerful and His purposes cannot be thwarted; against centuries of public opinion Ezekiel wrote that Israel would become a nation again two thousand, five hundred and twenty years before it happened on May 14, 1948 (Ezekiel 37:11-14). And, He knows you better than anyone else, including you, so would you ask somebody who builds push-carts how or where to drive your Mercedes Benz? Hmmmmm?

My biggest problem following directions is how easily I get distracted.  There was that one time driving a very familiar route to southern California that I missed the exit to the 210 East because I was ‘rocking out’ to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”; my daughter still brings that up every time we drive down. Also, I find the combination of sale prices and my collection of coupons to be extremely distracting; and it took me waaaaay longer than necessary to get gas the other day because there was a TV screen in the gas pump!  

It is not easy to find direction for life in the busyness and clamor of ordinary days, or to carve out time away from the ‘noise’ of household duties, electronic devices, well-intentioned people, and undisciplined thoughts to read, to pray, and to listen on purpose.   But the greatest reward for this deliberate choice to listen is that no matter how far off course we may be, there is never an irritated, condescending or snooty voice making us feel condemned for missing the right turn, or taking a wrong one. 

“…I will lead them in paths they have not known.  I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight.  These things I will do for them and not forsake them.”  Isaiah 42:16

In the interest of full disclosure, I must also admit there have been the times when I was following God’s directions as best as I knew how but was convinced He was trying to get me killed!  I was broke, broken-down, broken-hearted, and facing broke-my-back mountains of failure, and hopelessness.  Then ‘out of the blue’ help would come to provide for every need; and later when I looked back with the clarity of hindsight, I would see the lessons learned and be able to face the next challenges fortified by increased faith, hope and confidence in His love because,

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.  He leads me in right paths…”  Psalm 23:2-3

So here’s the thing, you get one shot at this life and you can trust God to navigate you successfully through it.  You have to be willing to follow His directions, and not allow yourself to be distracted by people who are of no help to you on this journey or by things that have no eternal value.  And when the way gets hard, and you find yourself exhausted and about to lose heart, then my friend be confident that you are growing exponentially, and expect that eventually He will direct you to sanctuary.  It is your life and you get to drive so strap in, adjust your ‘mirrors’ so you can see the way clearly, listen to your Navigator, put it in drive…and just live the thing.

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Persnickety post-it note friends…

Sharon is a clinical psychologist whom I have known for over thirty-seven years, and a “post-it note” friend; a group so small in number that all their names would fit on a post-it note.  They are the people I know I can trust; who love me unconditionally, and wholeheartedly, and will always tell me the truth, liberally seasoned with grace, even when it is hard or costs them dearly to do it.

My friend took on the role of counselor during one of the darkest period of my life, when the only things that kept me going were my three children, and a stubborn belief that God is not a liar.  We lived over three thousand miles apart in those pre-Skype days, but phone calls and emails helped to erase the distance as I desperately clung to her encouragement and advice like a life raft, among the floating debris that remained of my life, until…

One day I was complaining about the latest injustice that I felt made me a ‘victim’ yet again, when after a long pause Sharon said to me,

“Annie, the truth is, we have the life we choose.”

Whaaaaaaa….t?!  Is that the kind of nonsense her psychology training had taught her to say at a time like this?  I was thinking somebody should burn that text book!  But Sharon has long since proved herself to be a true and loyal friend, who lovingly tells me the truth I need to hear, to get me to confront whatever is wrong inside of me; to treat the disease, not just the symptoms.  That is the kind of person everyone needs to be a post-it note friend, and why I think that song “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” should really be,  “Jesus, Post-it Note Friend of Sinners Like Me”!

Once, He was visiting the home of His friend Lazarus, who lived with his sisters Martha and Mary.  As the older sister, Martha took on the role of hostess and during the visit and was busy with all the work of entertaining.  Been there, done that!  Plan the meal in advance and do all the food shopping. Deep-clean the house and put fresh towels put in the guest bathroom. Cooking and baking, setting a perfect table, making sure everybody was served, that the food was kept warm and on and on.  All this work was going on in the house while Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening intently as if the dinner was going to serve itself.

When Martha could not take it any longer she complained to Jesus, basically telling Him  that He really should make Mary come help her.  Jesus’ response was kind, but directed to the heart of the matter,

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  Luke 10:41-42

That is what He said, but what I hear Him saying is,

“Martha, sweetie, you know I love you, but Mary not helping you is the least of your problems.  You are letting so many things worry and distract you, when you really need to do only one thing.  Stop all your busyness, and just listen to me so you can get the answers you need. The work can wait, and if or when you do get back to it, your heart will be at peace.  Mary knows this instinctively and has chosen wisely, and I am not going to tell her to do anything different.”

Ouch!  Martha was not doing anything wrong by being a good hostess, and her request for help from Mary was legitimate, but her real problem was the crippling fear and anxiety she had allowed to take over her life, which Jesus wanted to replace with peace.

How easy it is to see circumstances and/or other people as both cause and effect of all that is wrong with me, especially if there is even the smallest crumb of legitimacy in the claim, which of course there always is because neither our lives nor the people in it will ever be perfect.  With such imperfection so readily available we can go through our entire lives without ever looking inward for the source or our discontent, and continually explain away or excuse our unhealthy behavior even while professing a desire to be better.  The only cure is a generous dose of undiluted truth, carefully administered with grace and love.

On another day Jesus stopped by the bed of a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years and asked him a question,

“Do you want to be made well?”  John 5:6

Doesn’t that just beg for a sarcastic answer?  “Duh!”  or “Why would you think that?”  or “No, I’m just here for the fresh air.”  It is only as you read the rest of the story, that you understand why the question Jesus asked him was very necessary.

The man was a complainer, always blaming somebody, and always had an excuse for everything. Truth be told being sick was working well enough for him, and if he got better he would actually have to take responsibility for his life and behavior, losing his ‘victim’ identity.  By the time Jesus gets around to telling him,

“See, you have been made well!  Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”  John 5:14,

…we begin to realize that his wrongdoing, not his physical sickness, was at the root of his problems.

So, here’s the thing, trials may come over which you have absolutely no control, but you absolutely control how you respond, and the choices you make.  You do have the life you choose. Resist the temptation to excuse yourself or lay blame at the feet of other people or your circumstances.  You have at least one post-it note Friend in Jesus who truly loves you, and His words are the truth you need to hear, not the fluff you want to hear.  Do what is right, not only what is easy, and….just live the thing.

Jesus with skin on…

We are His hands

“If it’s okay with you, I am going to anoint you with oil, and then we will pray for you; but I won’t let the oil get in your hair, because I know; never touch a black woman’s hair or get it wet with anything!”  Chuck Wilsey, Senior Pastor, Wellspring Christian Center.

That, my friends, is what ‘phileo’, true brotherly love looks like when you are heartbroken, discouraged and struggling to find direction; when everything that can go wrong seems to decide that this would be a good time to synchronize watches; when you need somebody to just care about you and assure you that “every lickle ting, is gonna be awright”, not because Bob Marley said so, but because God is always with you and willing to help you; and especially when you need Jesus to show up with skin on.

More than two thousand years ago Jesus left His followers with a promise to encourage them when life left them discouraged and filled with despair :

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” John 14:1-3

Then He left.

Now you and I have seen what Ty Pennington and the team from Extreme Makeover House Edition can build in seven days, and the Bible says God created heaven and earth in seven days, so can you imagine what kind of place Jesus could be building that has taken two thousand plus years already?

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the thing which God has prepared for those who love Him”  I Corinthians 2:9

And before anyone is tempted to snicker and label this another ‘pie in the sky when you die’ cultic myth, let us remind ourselves again that ninety eight percent of Biblical prophecy has already happened, exactly as prophesied, so I wouldn’t snicker too much or bet good money  against the remaining two percent also proving to be true.

Meanwhile, we who believe Jesus are left here to live out the number of our days on planet earth without  seeing Him in the flesh, but because He promised that He would never leave us or forsake us, He sent the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, ‘another of the same kind’ (John 14;16).  It is just as if Jesus Himself came back again at Pentecost, but this time in the form of a Spirit, who would come to live inside every believer; a concept much like Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside of an enigma. God is walking on our planet again, but this time, the only skin He is using to touch the lives of other people, is ours.  That is what people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ should be like, Jesus with skin on.

Of course that is so much easier said than done.  Jesus was so different, even from the religious people, so counter-culture, so radical, so authentic in His expression of love and compassion, and so perfect!  How is it even possible that Perfection could live in the mess that is our humanness, much less continuously purify, transform, shape and polish it, till He can see Himself in the reflection in the mirror that is our life?

“Remember, our message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master.  All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you.  It started when God said, ‘Light up the darkness!’, and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.  If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness.  We carry this precious message around in unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.  That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us.  As it is, there’s not much chance of that.  You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at.”  2 Corinthians 4:5-7 The Message

The same writer also summarizes the mystery of it this way,

“…Christ in you, the hope of glory (an accurate representation or reflection of the nature, essence, and character of God). “ Colossisans 1:27b

Mere mortals, living ordinary yet extra-ordinary lives, and carrying around in them the power and the presence of God, with the ability to reach out to people who need to know that God is, that He loves perfectly and unconditionally, that he has not abandoned humanity, but has paid the ultimate price to free us from prisons of hopelessness and despair, to rescue from all that enslaves, and that He is preparing a place for us to be with Him forever.

“The Spirit of God, the Master is on me because God has anointed me.  He sent me to preach good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners.  God sent me to announce the year of his grace, a celebration of God’s destruction of our enemies, and to comfort all who mourn…” Isaiah 61:1-2 The Message

And so it is that you come across people who you know are followers of Jesus Christ and you don’t see hypocrisy, you see authenticity, you don’t see demanding or self-centered behavior, you see genuine care and compassion for others, you don’t see perfection…yet, but you see them always striving to do the right thing, even when it costs them dearly.  They do things like anoint you with oil to pray for you, but are careful not to get the oil in your hair, because they paid attention enough to know better; in that moment when you need  to know God loves and cares for you, they become Jesus with skin on…just living the thing.

“Now mom, don’t be mad…”

SPC Collins, Combat Medic (L)

It is 2:30 on a Friday afternoon and I am racing…I mean, driving a little quickly, from Modesto to Sacramento in busy afternoon traffic. I had to get to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) where, at 4:30 that afternoon, my son, my only son, was being sworn into service with the United States Army National Guard. At a time when our nation was fighting wars on three fronts, my boy was choosing to enlist  voluntarily! This, after he had already been accepted to a perfectly good college in North Carolina with scholarships! How did we get here?!

Well, he was a quiet child…no, seriously, he really was quiet, and shy, with an amazingly long attention span, even as a toddler.  The boy would play with his Lincoln Logs, and watch movies with his dog Sparky, and you would not hear a peep out of him for hours.  How, you ask, did he go from being that quiet, shy child, to being a soldier?!  Well, I was asking God the saaaaame thing!

 He was in eighth grade when he decided he would join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp, (JROTC), in his freshman year of high school. He excelled at JROTC for all four years of high school, moving up through the ranks and earning all kinds of accolades.  This was truly his “natural bent” and he had found his niche at a crucial time in his teenage years. 

I remember sitting at one ceremony where he was receiving some very distinguished lifetime award, and I did not even know what the award was or what it meant.  I think I was just in denial, and waiting for him to get over this whole army thing.   He didn’t.

 His senior year of high school he came to talk to me about his plans for the future and began the conversation with,

 “Now mom, don’t be mad…”

 What kind of a way is that to start a conversation about anybody’s future?!  I felt seven more gray hairs pop out of my head in an instant.  He goes on to tell me he planned to delay going to college, to train to become a combat medic, an angel of the battlefield, with the Army National Guard; and… he… is… excited!  I had never seen him this animated about anything that required excessive exertion of mind, or body, unless JROTC was involved.  So, here he was, enthusiasm bubbling though his sentences, and excitement practically coming out his pores.  I, on the other hand, felt like I was about to experience a full-blown, off-the-charts, panic attack.

 One thing emerges with startling clarity as I look back; that I instantly remembered a story in the Bible about God calling to Abraham one day, and giving him the following instruction,

 “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” Genesis 22:2

 Scripture does not record Abraham responding with anything but obedience, but he and I are not all that close. Can I be honest with you for a minute and tell you I was looking at my son, but in my heart I was asking God

 “What have You done?!”

 Nevertheless, some strange person, who sounded exactly like me, responded to my son with affirmation and encouragement.  The ‘traitor’ in me told him that all those times when I said my greatest desire for him was to become all that God had meant for him to be, no matter what that was, that I really meant it.  I would never be disappointed with my son as long as he loved God with all his heart and followed His purpose, no matter how scary that purpose was for his mother.  And so with no warning, and without any pomp or circumstance, my little kitchen in Ripon, California was transformed into Abraham’s “land of Moriah”.

 I have come to believe that we all walk the hill to Abraham’s Mount Moriah experience at one time or the other;  especially if we are truly serious about having an authentic, active and vibrant relationship with the Living God. One day you will be in the middle of  some gray-hair-producing situation, and with startling clarity you will realize that your belief in the One True God is being tested right then, at that moment. First, you will not be alone; God will be right there, with the peace and strength you will need survive and thrive.

 “…I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth…He abides with you and will be in you.” John 14:16,17

Also, in that moment you get to choose what to believe and how to act.   I believe God loves my son even more that I could ever love him, and so I choose to face my fears with faith and trust that “God’s got him”.

 Three years later my son remains active in military service and cannot wait to be sent to the battlefield.  Each time he is put on standby to deploy, I make the journey back to my own Mount Moriah again.  I am considering becoming a tour guide; have a little souvenir stand; sell t-shirts and postcards. 

So here’s the thing, I have imagined every horrific possibility that comes with having my only son choose to become a soldier and go off to war, but still, this extraordinary peace remains.  Life on planet earth was not the beginning of all things and it is not the end of all things.  No matter what happens to my boy as he serves in the United States Army National Guard, God Himself will be with him, and with me.  

 “…for I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”  2 Timothy 1:12

 Meantime, I pray, I trust, I still keep trying to learn that crazy phonetic alphabet army moms are supposed to know, and I…just live the thing.

Of hypocrites, fools…and weeds

Wheat or weeds?

Sometimes church people make me crazy!  …pause…

Ok, God did not strike me dead. I suspect it may be because sometimes church people make Him crazy too.  By ‘church people’  I mean those people who go to church regularly, get involved in activities, and may even hold positions of leadership and oversight, but they are not truly committed to or interested in following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.  Instead they have their own, pseudo-Christian belief systems and personal agendas designed to feed their egos, puff up their pride and build their own ‘kingdoms’, while giving every appearance of being the real thing.  They are tares.

Tares, or “bearded darnels”, are weeds common in the Near East, which have poisonous seeds that cause dizziness and sometimes death if swallowed.  The real danger with darnels is that they look so much like wheat that it is almost impossible to tell the difference until it begins to ‘head’ close to harvest.  To protect the actual wheat, farmers will leave these weeds to grow with the crop till harvest time, when they are easily separated by winnowing and passing through a sieve.

Jesus told a parable, (which, my Sunday school teacher told me, is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”), about a man who sowed good wheat seed in his field, but later his enemy snuck in and sowed tares, among the wheat.  When it was discovered the farmer was asked if he wanted these weeds removed from among the wheat.

“But he said, ‘No.  Lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”  Matthew 13:29-30

 Judas was a weed.  He lived and walked with Jesus for three years; listened to Him, watched him do miraculous things, and did miraculous things himself when Jesus sent them out in pairs across the Judean countryside.  (Mark 6:7-13).  The man looked and behaved like wheat, while secretly nursing his own greed and selfish ambitions, and calculating how he could manipulate others, even Jesus, to fulfill his own desire for power and influence.

The Pharisees were the religious leaders of Jesus’ time; wielders of power and influence in the synagogue (church), but most of them were self-righteous, judgmental weeds.  They had long since abandoned true devotion to God, and instead were focused on holding on to power and influential positions, while sustaining their highly lucrative ‘business’ of manipulating and controlling others by exploiting their desire to serve God.  Then along comes Jesus, exposing their scams and calling them out as hypocrites and fools in front of God and everybody.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.  For you do not go in yourselves; and when others are going in, you stop them…

…(you) have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice, and mercy and faith…

…you strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!… 

…you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…

…you are white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness… 

…you snakes, you brood of vipers!  How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”  Matthew 23:13-33

 Remember, Jesus was not talking to the “bad” people.  He was talking to the ‘church’ people! And, as my friend Lisa would say, He was hot mad!  Six times He calls them hypocrites and throws in ‘blind guides’, ‘blind fools’, for good measure.  He was not being subtle, diplomatic or politically correct, and with good reason.  These people were so far gone that one Sabbath they watched as Jesus healed a man with “withered” hand in the synagogue and were angry because in their perverted belief system,  Jesus was ‘working’, and of course you were not supposed to work on the Sabbath. They left the synagogue and immediately began conspiring to kill him.  (Mark 3:6).  Hmmmmm. So lemme see.  Heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath and you are scandalous, evil and a threat.  Plot to kill an innocent man on the Sabbath, and that makes you righteous?  See? That, right there is why church people make me crazy!

Fast-forward a couple thousand years and the spirit of Judas and the Pharisees is still alive and well, getting up on Sunday morning and going to church; acting like wheat until it is time to produce life-sustaining behavior, then all you get is poisonous actions that make you dizzy and confused about God, and could kill your spiritual life.  It is still not easy to separate wheat from weed, and the risk of damaging the real thing while trying to uproot the fraud is very real.  But all will be well, because the Lord of the harvest knows wheat from weed, and when the time comes for the final reaping, the wheat will end up safe in the barn, and the weed is going to the burn pile.

So, here’s the thing, Jesus had good reason for saying, “Come follow me”. He is the perfect One, and everything He says is absolute truth, and absolutely trustworthy.  So while we wait for harvest time, do not be deterred from following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ because of hypocrites, fools or weeds, because;

“…the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His…”, 2 Timothy 2:19

And, for heaven’s sake, constantly monitor your own motives.  Do not let the love of money, insecurity, arrogance or stubborn pride, turn you into a hypocrite, a fool or a weed.  As my youngest daughter often says,

“Check yourself before you wreck yourself!”

…and just live the thing.