January 28, 2016

A New Refrain for Your Days

Since it is the beginning of the year, my Bible reading program includes a chapter from one of the gospels each morning.  Recently I finished Matthew and started in on Mark.  As usual, I was struck by the story of Jesus calling Levi, who held the despised position of tax collector.  He says to him, as to the other eleven He called, "Follow me."  Levi, (later to be called Matthew), got up and followed him.  Then Jesus goes and has dinner at Levi-the-sinner's house, dining with him and other undesirables and drawing the disdain of the Pharisees for such unclean behavior.  Doesn't He know with whom He is dining?!

Well, in fact, He does.  His reply to the Pharisees about why He eats with tax collectors and 'sinners'? It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Surely hundreds, if not thousands, of sermons have been preached on this passage, highlighting various things we can learn about God and ourselves.  Here is what stuck out to me: in every instance that Jesus calls someone to Himself, He is recorded as saying, "Follow me."  He doesn't give any prerequisites and His authority doesn't demand that he give any explanation.  He looks people in the eye, says Follow me, and they do!

I want to respond in the same way, with this new refrain for my days, LEAD THE WAY, LORD!

What does that look like?  Some examples:

When my children are ignoring or blatantly disobeying, making my blood boil, and I hear Jesus say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

When I start to feel overwhelmed by how behind I am on all things "life" and I hear Jesus say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

When I am caught in sin (anger, pride, self-love, etc.) and I hear Jesus say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

When unexpected financial, relational, emotional, or spiritual challenges arise and I hear Jesus say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

When someone comes to me for counsel, I feel ill-equipped, and I hear Jesus say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

When I feel paralyzed by insecurity, rational or not, and I hear Jesus say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

When the Lord calls me to something I'm sure is out of my league, and I hear Him say, Follow me,
to respond, Lead the way, Lord!

The way of the Lord is simply to follow Him!  He does not expect us to be Him.  Yes, He desires for us to grow in likeness to Him, but that is done in the daily following of our Savior.  It is in the following (listening for His voice and guidance through our days) that we are transformed into people described by the love in 1 Corinthians 13: patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not self-seeking, not keeping records of wrong, rejoicers in the truth, people who protect, trust, hope, and persevere.  We grow in loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind by following Christ.  We grow in loving our neighbor as our self by following Christ.  We need never run ahead, we need only to let Him take the lead.  Since He is love, He will never fail us.

So, whaddaya say?  Will you join me in the refrain?

Let's pray: Lead the way, Lord!

January 16, 2016

2016 Word of the Year: Surrender

Making resolutions is fun to me; it's a personality hazard!  But like many, I love a new year full of possibility for positive change.  When I was young we had a tradition of making resolutions together as a family.  My dad kept a folder of our yearly goals and we'd reread them each year.  My siblings and I would make "resolution booths" out of couch cushions and pillows and set our sights high: quit wetting the bed, stop biting nails, learn to read, etc.  As we aged, our resolutions continued to be age-appropriate: read more or specific books, organize something, get better grades, etc.  I love these memories!

Last year, the Lord guided me in a new direction, planting the idea of a 'theme word' for the year, one I could focus on and watch Him use to transform me.  For much of last year, I wrote about being OPEN regularly, to keep myself accountable to that God-given word.  As 2015 was drawing to a close, another word kept coming up enough that it occurred to me that I should maybe pay attention: SURRENDER.

Truth be told, I find this word terrifying.  When I think of surrendering I think of having to let go and give up on things I hold dear, whether or not they are good for me or honor God.  I visualize myself clinging tightly to idols that might as well be golden calves, for as they are just as deaf, mute, and useless as idols made of stone and metal.  I picture SURRENDER looking like un-clinging to those idols and clinging instead to our Savior.

Well, I wrote the previous three paragraphs a couple of weeks ago.  Looks like I didn't make a very strong blogging resolution for the year!  The last week has been quite interesting, though.  Here I am fearing having to SURRENDER because I love myself and my golden calves so much, and God has been driving home to me that He is merciful, loving, and kind.  I cannot get through a day without being overwhelmed by His never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love, to borrow a phrase from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

God is killing me with kindness!

And I'm finding His kindness is unlike any other.  From stories of His chosen people and their deceitful, dishonest, and impure ways I have been reading in my study times, to the quiet whispers of the Spirit to my soul that say, Heather, you really are forgiven.  God truly loves you as His childI have been floored daily by this incredible God who owes me nothing but gives me everything, even Himself.

Of course, as a Christian I know that God is love and all that jazz, but it has been humbling and heart-freeing to be the object of His direct and consistent instruction from His word and Spirit that HE LOVES ME.

The Truth makes me want to live differently,
with my family, my friends, at the grocery store -
a joyful surrender in response to His love.

I'm convicted, but hopeful, because if God loves and forgives me, surely He can transform me.  I won't be forever bound by my chains of addition to praise, fear of failure, the prideful need to be the best, the constant need to compare, quick anger and frustration.  My Father loves me.  It is well with my soul.  Every day I can repent and believe the good news!

I have several stories to share about how Scripture reading has been piercing my heart and uplifting it.  I will do my best to share them over the next few weeks, because friends, God's word is the best fuel for our faith.  Watching the Lord "in action" with His people throughout history, reading about Him walking the streets of Earth, and meditating on the praise of the Psalms and wisdom of the Proverbs changes the way we think and sparks our spirit to life.  New life!

Dear reader, are you exposing yourself to and availing yourself of the Word of God more than on Sunday mornings?  You don't need an over-the-top plan or resolution, simply a commitment to crack the book or the app open and take in something.  If you need ideas, I'd be happy to help you come up with something.  I am confident, because of God's never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love, that regular meditation on the Word will make 2016 a different year for all us!

Finally, if you have a theme word for the year, I'd love to hear about it!

January 5, 2016

A Stronger Marriage Starts with You

Did any of you make a resolution to strengthen your marriage in 2016?  If so, I have a couple of tips I learned years ago that have helped me to make our marriage more healthy.  The truth is you can do nothing to change your spouse.  The only one you have control of in any relationship is yourself.  Perhaps 2016 can be the year of no more finger pointing in your marriage!  Well, we are human, so how about a lot less finger pointing and significantly more uplifting.

Two practices have helped me immensely and fertilized the soil of our marriage to help good fruit grow.  Grateful to those who let me in on these bits of wisdom - though I don't remember who they are - I pass them on to you.  I write from the perspective of the wife, but husbands may benefit from applying these as well.  Of course, I can't be sure, because I've never been a husband!

#1 Do not speak ill of your husband to others.  You know those Scripture verses about only speaking that which will build up others?  Those apply to relationships with all people, including your husband.  Take this to heart.  It is a gift to your husband to know he never has to worry about you mocking or speaking ill of him in public or even in a private conversation with a close friend. 
Give yourself a check-up: Are you quick to jump into bemoaning with other wives at the way your husband is such a failure?  Or do you readily and regularly find ways to praise him, at home and when you are out?

#2 Be the kind of person you would like to come home to.  You probably have a laundry list of things you'd like your husband to do and ways that he is not meeting your expectations.  But when you greet your husband at the end of a work day or first thing in the morning, throw in a little of Jesus instruction, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This word applies not only outside our home, but in them, too, with our closest neighbors, family.
Give yourself a check-up: Are you the kind of person you would want to come home to?  Do you regularly nag, belittle, and criticize?  Or do you habitually embrace, encourage, and build up?

We cannot control or change our spouse behavior, but the Lord calls us to live righteously regardless of how others treat us (or our perception of how poorly we're being treated).  Looking to our Savior reminds us that He calls us to nothing more that what He gave, did, and does for us.  He will also help and strengthen us to choose our spouse above our self.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!  Philippians 2:5-8
Now, you won't need to die on a cross, but sometimes not getting our way can sure feel like dying!  And let me add one more thing: God sees.  He sees you striving toward righteousness and the Bible says He will greet you at the gates of heaven with, Well done good and faithful servant!  If you keep reading there in Philippians 2, you'll learn about God's reward to Christ for taking sin upon His shoulders and obeying to the end.  God sees and He is near.  Don't you forget it!

Give these two simple marriage-strengthening practices a go.  May 2016 be a year of less finger pointing and more "love one another".  I am confident it will make a difference in your marriage, in your heart, and in your relationship with the Lord in this new year!

January 3, 2016

Before You Make That List of Resolutions ...

Happy new year, friends!  As we welcome 2016 I want to share Psalm 1 with you.

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

I open the year here on Life in the Valley this way, because the start to a new year can make us a little nuts.  Giddily we set goals and make plans for the coming year, resolving that this will be the year of grand transformation and productivity!  Of course, that year has never happened according to our plans.  And though we have grown and changed and developed new habits over the years as a result of a little planning, resolutions never result in the complete transformation we desire.

One of my biggest troubles is getting obsessed with making precisely the right choice in every situation. The problem with this is that there are many options in most situations that could be equally as fine.  Some examples: Spend time with people or spend time alone?  Hang out with the family or get a chore done?  Commit to plans at the weekend or leave it open?  Spend money on this thing or save for another?  And so on and so forth.  I can make myself crazy worrying about making the "right" choice, rather than relaxing, making a decision, and letting the time (or money or whatever) be spent as it is spent and letting life unfold however it does.  Even in the middle of certain activities, I can find myself fretting that I'm not able to simultaneously do the other thing that seems pressing.  Can you relate?

I am certain this is NOT how God wants me, or you, to live!  He has not called his children to live in a state of constant internal frenzy, panic, and fear!  Jesus talked, after all, about righteousness in conjunction with peace and soul-rest.

Which brings me back to Psalm 1, Blessed is the one.  The "one" described is the person who forsakes the way of the world for the way of God, delighting in and meditating on His law.  His heart is oriented toward the Lord, and consequently, he is deeply rooted, fruitful, healthy, and prosperous.  In contrast, the "wicked", those not oriented toward their Creator, are not connected, rooted, fed, and growing.  As easily as wind blows away chaff, they will be blown away and unable to stand before the Lord with the righteous.

Now, at this point you might be thinking, "That's not very nice."  But we are dealing here with the Word of the Lord and He has laid out these two options for us: His way or our own.  He is also quite clear, from Genesis to Revelation, about the results of each path.  To know life, we must choose His way.  "Wickedness", i.e. our own way, leads only to death and separation from Him.  Check out the final verse; it's a good summary of this:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

In those words I find great comfort and instruction for my frenzied heart and mind, that fear failure by not getting everything "right."  I pray you will find balm for your soul in these words, too.  Here's it is.  Those who walk in God's way are being watched over by their Lord.  God's people are called to know and obey His law, of course, but they are also cared for, sustained,  and preserved by the law-giver!  We may be fickle and inconsistent, but the Lord is not.  Blessed be His holy name!

Starting 2016 here fills me with hope.  The Lord is not calling us to get life "right".  He is calling us to live life with our faces, hearts, and minds turned toward Him.  As His children, we can begin this new year confident that He is watching over our way!  We can also take heart, knowing that in choosing Him He will make us as trees planted by streams of water, deeply rooted, fruitful, healthy, and prosperous, to His glory and praise.

Make those resolutions, they help us grow.  (I've got my "word of the year" all ready to go!)  But first, bow the knee, so you're in the right position before the Lord and can give HIM the honor and praise for the growth that comes over the next twelve months.

Happy new year!

December 24, 2015

Combating the Christmas Crazy, by Faith

When our three-year-old, Katherine, can get an adult's attention, she has all kinds of plans for them.  I observe this almost every time someone walks into our home.  She leads them up to her room to show them whatever is important to her at the moment or she guides them back to our familyroom to engage in some very involved pretend play.  As I watched her with my friend on Tuesday, I noticed that she was micromanaging everything Kristen did.  "You sit here."  "Hold this thing this way."  "No, like this."  I have kind friends who always play along for a while or till Katherine is distracted.  It is endearing.

As I observed Katherine on Tuesday, I was struck by how much I am like her in life.  I have plans and programs for my life and expectations of how others will fit into that.  "You sit here."  "You behave this way, so I can be comfortable."  "No, don't act like that; I can't deal with it."  I often spend more time trying to control my surroundings and circumstances, rather than embracing and enjoying them.

Tomorrow is Christmas.  For most of us that means spending time with family and friends.  For some, maybe many, of us, that also means dreading what might happen, engaging in tense conversations, having to interact with "that" relative, or enduring questions we have no interest in answering!  A holiday time that they say is supposed to be full of joy, peace, and harmony is anything but.  What are we to do?

I am fond of telling my children that it does not matter how their sibling is treating them, they are responsible for their own behavior.  We absolutely cannot control another person.  We can try, of course, but that rarely gets us our desired results.  Hanging out with our families at Christmas is no exception!  This truth has me thinking about what Scripture has to say about how believers should act this Christmas, and every day.  What does God want me to do?  What does His Word say about how to interact with people, whether they be kind or difficult?

A few verses came to mind:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.  Psalm 119:9-16 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 
Love never fails.  I Corinthians 13:4-8 

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  Galatians 5:6b

If you find yourself feeling nervous about family time tomorrow, remember the Lord is near and He has shown you how to love Him and love others.  Do not let your worry and imagination get the best of you ahead of time, creating scenarios.  Each time a fear arises, tell it, God goes with me and He will help me with what actually happens.  I do not need to make up a future I cannot predict.  Meditating on the Word can also help you to stay steady, like the Psalmist says above.  Have some verses ready to call to mind when you feel tension mounting inside you.  And as you walk through your day, call to mind how love expresses itself: kindness, patience, not envying, not boasting, looking to the interests of others, and so on and so forth.  You can never go wrong with love!  The tough part is that loving usually means dying to self and promoting another, even if they are annoying, rude, or even hateful.  Christ is in you; He will help you choose love!

What a better way to do Christmas, than to love others the way that Christ has loved us!
Remember how He loved us?  While we were still sinners.

My hope, of course, is that you're looking forward to your Christmas celebrations!  But a lot of Christmas movies indicate that these family gatherings often involve a lot of ... squirming, to say the least.  Don't worry, meditate on the Word of God, and choose God-style love.  May God bless you as you walk in His way on this most incredible of holidays, when we celebrate how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Merry Christmas!

PS For my family that is reading this.  I am really looking forward to hanging out with all of you.  Don't worry!  I simply wanted to explore how we Christian folks can use God's Word to guide us in trying circumstances at Christmas.  Love you all!

December 22, 2015

2016 Word of the Year: Be on the Alert!

Resolutions have always appealed to me, because I am a planner and like goal setting.  While I rarely achieve perfection with resolutions, I have found the quote, "shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you land among the stars," to be true.  If I commit to reading a book a month or something, I may not do it every month, but I'll likely read more books that year than I did the previous.  You get the idea.

Last year, however, I felt the draw away from specifics to the more general idea or theme for 2015.  You may recall that I invited you to join me in choosing a theme word for the year.  Did any of you do that?  If so, I'd love to hear how God used that word to guide and transform you!  The word the Lord had impressed upon my heart was OPEN.  The concept, or practice, of being OPEN to the Lord kept coming up so much, I could not ignore it.  To hold myself accountable, I wrote regularly (at least till September) about how I saw God nudging me to be open.

With only a cursory review of the year, I can see how that one word, hanging above the garbage can in my kitchen, was used by the Lord to grow and stretch me in ways I never expected.  He provided opportunities for me to be OPEN, with my life, our home, my time, and my stuff, over and over again.  I'm sure those chances would have come with our without  a 2015 theme word, but it is fun to look back and testify to God's work from providing the word, OPEN, to providing opportunities to grow in Him by being OPEN.

This year was far from perfect.  Many were the times I was not generously open to God or with those around me!  But I would not count having a theme word as a waste, because I saw God work in and around me.  Without opening the year with that theme word, I would not have the same testimony to God's goodness, patience, mercy, and love.  This year He showed me there was space for playgroup, leading a Mom Heart group, and gave me two speaking engagements (which came right on top of each other and really stretched my trust in His provision, and wisdom)!  He filled me with joy as I saw dreams I had for our home coming true: space being used for both gathering people together and making and deepening relationships.  I guess God has primarily used being OPEN in 2015 to solidify the ministry calling He has on my life right now.  I am humbled, because my failures and shortcomings could not hold Him back.

And, can I tell you a secret?  Lean in.  Though sometimes it has been hard, mostly it has been a lot of fun!

That brings to mind these verses from Psalm 37:3-5,

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.

Trust in HIM, and HE will act.  He knows the desires of your heart better than you do.  He is also utterly trustworthy, (Christmas and Easter testify to that).  So again for 2016, I invite you to seek the Lord, keeping your eyes peeled and your ears open, for whether he has a theme word or verse for your walk with Him.  I've had the word surrender coming up a lot lately.  That one scares me.  A lot!  I hold on so tightly to so many things that are not Christ, but more about that later....

I wish you a very Merry Christmas, one that is full of gifts from above as you worship the King of kings and Lord of lords!  And keep your heart open for a word from the Lord.  I am confident that He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion!  Let Him amaze you.

December 16, 2015

A Fierce Flourishing: Part II, Life in the Spirit

Back on October 29, I said that "tomorrow" I would share the second half of the talk I shared with our local MOPS group.  Today is that tomorrow!  You can read Part I here, in which I lay out the Gospel.  I reread it and felt renewed excitement about how much God has done for us through Christ - a perfect topic for reflection in the Christmas season.  I encourage you to start there, then come back to read this post.

Welcome back!  Isn't it amazing how much we receive freely from the Lord when we take Him at his Word and place our trust in Christ.  Today I want to expand on point number three: "We are filled with the Holy Spirit.  God empowers us to live for Him!"

The passage du jour for the talk was Galatians 2:13-25
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. 
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

In the opening verses of this section, Paul reminds us of Christian freedom; we are free from sin and have unrestricted access to God.  Then he points out the new purpose we are given when we become a Christian: serve one another humbly in love.  This echos Jesus' words in John 13:34, A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Side note: "Loving one another" includes the people we live with!  I am convinced that we can grow more spiritually under our own roofs than anywhere else.  At home our character is truly tested.  In fact, I never knew what a horrible person I could be until I got married, then had kids!  For fun, reread verse 15.  Don't some days at home feel like "biting and devouring"days!  Please tell me you know what I mean ... now, back to the post.
Life in Christ gives us new purpose, to love one another.  And it also introduces a battle.  The theme Fierce Flourishing captures this so well.  When we believe in Jesus a serious war begins within us, the old self (flesh) vs. the Spirit, our new identity in Christ.  The list in verses 19-21 manifests itself even under our own roofs and in our actions and reactions as moms, or whatever our occupation!  (This is why Jesus died on the cross, by the way.)

But the situation is not one of hopeless struggle till we get to heaven.  No, the new Spirit in us means we can become Fiercely Flourishing Christians, and moms.  The Spirit is the difference maker, the game changer, the hope giver!  If you are a Christian the Spirit of God LIVES IN YOU.  (Let that sink in a minute.)  So Paul gives three instructions for living by the Spirit and not being defeated in the new battle that is introduced into your life when you come to faith:
  1. WALK by the Spirit
  2. BE LED by the Spirit
  3. KEEP IN STEP WITH the Spirit
What do all these mean?  Generally speaking, they all imply activity, intentional movement away from the flesh toward God and others.  We must be learning the Spirit's way so we can walk in it: read the Bible, pray, hear the Word preached, attend Bible study.  We must be listening for the Spirit's direction to be led by Him.  And we must be quick to get back into step with the Spirit when we're out of step.  In short, a fierce flourishing does not come without engagement!  The Spirit will give us direction, strength, and wisdom to become fiercely flourishing people; engaging with Him is how we grow!

Do you long to to be the kind of person described in Galatians 5:22-23: loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled?  That is only possible as God works in us through His Spirit; we engage in the transformation process by walking, being led by, and keeping in step with Him.  The goal is not perfection, only in Christ are we made perfect.  No, friends, the goal is faithful engagement, one day at a time, with the Spirit of God who lives in us and can transform us, enabling us to flourish fiercely!

Here's a quick summary of the two parts of this talk, before I send you on your way:
  • Jesus is the only way we can have a right relationship with God and live eternally with Him - our biggest problem is solved!
  • A right relationship with God is the way our hearts and lives can be transformed into something new and good.
  • God puts His Spirit in us to help us in the battle that will wage in us against the flesh till we get to heaven.
  • We can only experience a fierce flourishing in the Christian life by engagement with the Spirit, starting right where we are, the goal being faithfulness, not perfection.

May this Christmas season be a new beginning for you!  May the Lord fill you with awe at His free gift of love to you in His Son, gratitude for the Spirit He has put in you to transform you, and hope that the fierce flourishing you're longing for can be found by engaging with Him.