January thoughts

 

 

In England, January can be pretty dreary.  These weeks, after the Christmas lights are boxed away, often feel particularly bare and bleak as festive jolliness is replaced with disappointing bank balances and diet programs.

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And yet, I have always liked January.  Maybe I am strange but I just love all the potential and possibilities that come with the start of a new year.  I also really love the quietness that January brings.  We don’t have any family birthdays or anniversaries until February and our usual church and social commitments are often pared down as everybody recovers and regroups after the craziness of Christmas.  So, I am usually able to keep the first few weeks of the year slow and uncommitted and to set it aside for thinking, planning and prayer.  I love it.

Seasons are good and January can offer us a unique perspective.  It can be a time when life, like a deciduous tree, is stripped down to just the skeleton of trunk and branches.  No tinsel or glitter, just the reality of who were are and what our life really consists of.

And, this can be good.  It allows us to see exactly what we’ve got.

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Outside my back door are the glazed pots that were overflowing with flowers as recently as October when family played in my garden and wedding rehearsal dinner drinks were shared with bride and groom-to-be.  Some of those pots are now completely empty, the bedding plants have served their short-term purpose of cheap summer colour for my patio.  Others look dead but they are secretly hiding the roots of perennial life.  And, so although the pot looks empty, I know it will spring into life when the days get warm again.

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And then there are my reliable evergreen shrubs.  They aren’t dazzling, but they keep my winter garden from being completely barren.  This the time of year I appreciate their faithful presence most when there are no flashy blooms for them to compete with.

Life is a lot like my winter garden and at this time of year, with pared-back schedules and quiet calendars, we can really assess and take stock of what we’ve got growing and what will need attention.

When I think of the evergreens in my garden, I think of the faithful presence in my life of a few people I can utterly rely on.  Along with my faith in God, these relationships form a support system that is irreplaceable in my life.  These precious ones don’t just say they will pray, they pray.  They get a word from God for me if I need one.  They encourage, love and speak life to me when I am ready to give up, which is more often then I would like to admit.  When circumstances are crushingly disappointing and grief overwhelms me, their number is the one I call.  I simply could not do life without them.

This January, with its fresh diary pages still empty, is the perfect time to make these relationships a top priority, not an afterthought.  Let’s remind ourselves before all the shiny new experiences and opportunities arrive, that life’s most precious gifts are dependable, loving friends and family and let’s decide to give them the time and appreciation they deserve.  Remember, our closest relationships still need the oxygen of love and appreciation to thrive so let’s give the best of ourselves, not just leftovers, to those who mean the most to us.

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And then there are those hidden perennials, the things in your life that have been beautiful and fruitful but lie dormant now. 

Perhaps there are areas of gifting or ministry where God used you but have now dried up.  Or maybe there are areas of victory that have succumbed again to the enemy.  Have you lost ground?  Have you seen a work of God seemingly die and you are left bewildered and bereft?  Winter is a time for exercising faith.  It is time to believe again that what God has started, He will finish.  It is time to pray again over those fallow places and to expect green shoots.  It is a time to believe in God’s ability and desire to do what He has said He will do.  

Winter is not for the fainthearted gardener.  When the ground is hard and cold and the colour has been sucked out of the garden, only those who understand how God works will keep their spirits up.  Only children of the King keep singing songs of deliverance when circumstances look lifeless.

But, we can use these short, grey days to revisit God’s promises.  We can remember words and verses that we have received and decide to believe again.  We can ask the Holy Spirit to stir up faith and hope and to restore our confident belief in a powerful God.

And then there are the dead, empty pots that were bursting with summer bedding only months ago. 

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These are the seasons of life and ministry that have finished.  It can be very painful to let these go.  Grown-up children and the looming empty nest is the vacant pot I am staring into and it is very hard.  I have overwhelmingly enjoyed raising a family and it has been my identity for 26 years.  An end to a good season can feel like grief.  It is painful and sad.

So, what can January offer these empty spaces in our lives where something good used to grow?

We are offered a chance to, with God’s grace, let them go.  We can choose acceptance and supernatural joy that surpasses all understanding.  We can pray over the newly vacant areas of our lives and dedicate them to the one who specializes in empty vessels.  He promises to fill and multiply and satisfy.  We can trust in His goodness to us and then we can dare to make space for something new.  We can start the new year with a heart of expectancy and eyes open to see what new things God is doing.

So, can I encourage you to embrace January?  Use it as a time to take stock, assess, survey what you have.  Put away the Christmas decorations and let life just be what it is.  What good things do you have in your life?  How can you tend and care for them more intentionally?  What needs weeding or pruning or feeding?   What have you neglected that matters?  What must you accept is over?

Then, shore up and consolidate what is valuable.  Tend to the relationships that mean the most.  Invest more time in knowing God.  Love your family.  Appreciate your friends.  Be there for someone who needs you.  Serve your church.  Care about those who are suffering.

And, believe again for good things from God.  Hold on to promises. Write them down.  Shun cynicism and cultivate child-like faith.  You can’t have both.  Believe God for the big and the impossible.  Pray audacious prayers.  Dream big and hang out with other God-dreamers.

And if it is time, let things go.  If you know God has shut a door, accept it.  If you need to cry, cry.  But, don’t look back.  Look up.  Set your heart on pilgrimage.  Keep going.  Keep serving.  Keep worshipping and keep walking.  Let God fill where you are empty and heal where you hurt.  Don’t let even a drop of bitterness or resentment find a home in your heart.  Not ever.  Keep your heart soft and your conscience clear.

This year, give Jesus permission to do something new, something incredible, something life-giving and beautiful in your life.  Give Him permission to do things differently than you have planned.  Give Him permission to surprise and overwhelm your life with Kingdom bounty.

And, if you dare, give Him permission to do whatever it takes for you to know and love Him more and to walk in every good work He has planned for you.  

 

 

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Redeemed significance

 

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Life is so short. Whether you live to be ninety years old or 19, life is just a breath.

We, humans, handle that information in a number of ways.

Some of us try the ‘carpe diem’ approach.  We seize minutes and hours and days and try to squeeze every drop of adventure out, travelling the world with our ‘bucket list’ in hand.  The mantra is, ‘no procrastination, no regrets.’  And hopefully, no time to think about much else.  We live for experiences and pleasure, grabbing life by the throat before it has a chance to disappoint us.

Others of us believe we can outwit ageing.  With a mixture of denial, health food and exercise we pretend we have control of our mortality.  If I look young and feel young I can close my eyes to the reality and just absorb the unrealistic optimism shared by those next to me in the gym.

Still, others worship at the altar of mindfulness and spirituality.  We believe this is the way to add meaning where there isn’t any.  We hope that crystals and candles will bring something eternal, something transcendent.  If only we can live life in the moment, maybe it won’t slip through our hands so quickly.  If we can tap into something bigger, something greater, perhaps we can infuse our existence with significance.

But the Bible always deals with truth head-on.  Life is short.  We will all die and we don’t get to choose when.  We cannot preserve our lives or prolong them substantially.  If we keep them, we lose them.  If we hold onto to minutes and hours in the hope of getting more out of life, we actually get less.  Even bucket lists disappoint and mindful living falls short.

In fact, there is only one way to live this life carefully and that is to spend it well.

John Piper, in his book, ‘Don’t waste your life,

“But whatever you do, find the God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated passion of your life, and find your way to say it and live for it and die for it. And you will make a difference that lasts. You will not waste your life.”

Life isn’t to be saved, it is to be spent.  We live life well when we spend it on what matters.

That is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.  when he says to redeem the time.  The Greek word for redeem is ‘exagorazo’, which means to pay a price to recover something from the power of another.

You see, there is a price to pay to buy back our lives from futility and that price is faithful obedience.  Nothing else works, no Instagram worthy trips or fancy stuff or youthful skin. The only way to inject meaning into our lives is to see opportunities to do good and to take them.  Every moment spent worshipping Jesus or loving my kids or sharing my faith or praying with a friend has eternal value and it rescues my life from the curse of insignificance.   

Our lives are meant to be given away in love for God and others.  Our time, instead of trying to save it, can be spent generously and without regret.  We can buy back our daily routines from the world’s value system, that so often produces emptiness and despair.  And, we can redeem every day of our lives for the glory and God and the good of everyone who is a part of it.

What a gift, what a privilege this life we have been given is.  It is precious Kingdom currency.

Invest it well.

Start today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silver medal sadness

 

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A recent scientific study has found that Olympic athletes that win silver medals die younger than those who win either gold or bronze.  There is something about being so close to gold and just losing out that takes it toll on minds and bodies.

Dissatisfaction can kill you.

There is a kind of disappointment that seeps into your bones. There is a longing that will eat you up.  Proverbs 13.12 calls it deferred hope and it makes us sick.

Expectations are powerful.  I have seen Olympic competitors who were not expected to win a medal celebrate their surprise silver like it was gold..  And I have seen world champions miss out on gold by the smallest margins, their faces full of shock and sadness.

It is all about the expectation.

Sometimes things don’t work out as we had hoped.  Sometimes people let us down.  Sometimes we make assumptions about what God is doing in our lives and we are wrong. Sometimes we are misunderstood and sometimes we fail.

These dashed hopes will drag us to the bottom if we can’t let them go.  Like ageing sports stars we can live a life of what might have been as the regret sickens our souls.

Of course, desires are normal.  Wants and wishes are part of being human. The problem is when desires turn into expectations.

We can have expectations of others that are unspoken or unfair.  We can have expectations of life that are unrealistic.  We can expect to find value and meaning in ways that can never satisfy.  But these great expectations lead to great disappointment.

Be careful where you plant your deepest longings.

Always expect less of people and more of God.

Jesus says in John 6.35 that those who come to Him will never thirst.  My Bible dictionary defines thirst as to ‘painfully feel the want of the things by which the soul is refreshed’

When we walk with Jesus, we can be free from painful wantings.  He promises that He is always, in every situation, enough.  

Like the determined athlete who uses disappointment as motivation for next time, we must move on from life’s let-downs and press forward for what matters.

So, put the silver medal in the drawer.  Put to bed the things that didn’t work out like you thought they would.  Forgive.  Forget.

We are called to run a race that has eternal value.  We were created to be satisfied with nothing less. We have been given everything we need to finish this race well so let us expect to.  Let us expect to live a life of spiritual success that fills heaven with treasures.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection.  But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.  No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing:  Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lied ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.’  Philippians 3.12-14

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Detours, disappointment and delays

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You’ve heard of twice-baked potatoes and triple-fried French fries, well this is a twice-written blog post.

Each week I set aside a day for writing and I am often working on several blog entries at once.  I work a little on each one and then try to plan the order in which to post them.

As I have meditated on Ephesians 5.15-17 and thought about how to make the most of every opportunity, it occurred to me just how often opportunities come wrapped in disappointments, detours or delays. 

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So, I’ve been working on this idea and developing thoughts and words to express it.

And then I had some bad news.

It quickly reminded me just how hard disappointment is and I knew I had to rewrite this post with the authenticity that real life handed me.

Defeat, failure and bad news can have tremendous power in our lives.  They have the ability to knock us sideways and derail our thoughts and emotions.

Proverbs 13.12 describes this feeling well when it says, ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.’

Every person knows what that kind of heartsickness feels like.  It is that awful pain in your soul that occurs when things that really matter haven’t turned out how you wanted them to.

I feel all those feelings today.  I feel defeated and discouraged and worn out.   And most of all,  I feel like giving up.

But I have been here before, as the pages of my journal remind me.  I have faced challenging circumstances that were hurtful and hard to understand and I have faced disappointments that were devastating. And every single time, without exception, I was able to eventually see God use it all for good in my life.

It is because I am so deeply loved by God that He intervenes and interferes and gets right in the middle of my business.

Because sometimes my good ideas need to be refined and sometimes my bad ideas need to just fizzle out. Sometimes dreams need to drift away because God has better, more perfect plans.  Other times dreams have to die so God can resurrect them in His timing and for His glory.  Sometimes the direction I am walking in needs a small tweak and sometimes it needs a complete U-turn.

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And sometimes I just need to grow roots deep down in God and only difficulties will do that for me.

It is interesting that Proverbs 13.12 says that after the disappointment, when God’s blessings come, the result is a tree of life.

I am wondering today if it is difficulties in my life that produce the roots needed to support times of blessing and growth in the future.   Perhaps it is only in waiting on God and trusting in Him that I am prepared for the increase and abundance that will come.

None of this means it doesn’t hurt.  It just means there is purpose in it.

There are things God is doing that you and I just can’t see yet.  I believe there are solutions and answers that will surprise us and there are new directions we couldn’t have imagined. And, in the midst of loss, when you least expect it, supernatural life can spring up.

And all the while we find ourselves falling deeper in love with God.  His words and His voice become all we want and all we need.  Our roots go deep and our hope is only in Him.

Today is an opportunity for me that is hidden in my disappointment.  I will not waste it.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Native-born

 

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I spent the day yesterday glued to all things Royal as I watched Harry and Meghan tie the knot.  While this eclectic, British/American wedding unfolded, I couldn’t help but think about nationality and culture.

I have now lived in the UK for over 30 years and in many ways, I feel quite British.  I understand their dry sense of humour now and know the affectionate place it comes from.  I have been completely infected by the British love of gardens and pubs and roast lunches.   I have even come to enjoy rainy day walks as long as I get the obligatory cup of tea afterwards.  I have learned to talk less and listen more and to drop everything when the sun is shining and enjoy it.

But whether I like it or not, my nationality always shows itself eventually.

I like tea, but I LIVE for coffee and I drink it out of a Cowgirl mug.  My laugh is way too loud and please do not take me to a restaurant that does not have a burger on the menu or we cannot be friends.

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I am way too optimistic to be passed off a local.  I hate English mustard and fish and chips.  And don’t take away my visa, but am pretty indifferent about nature programs.  Sorry.

Nachos still are, and always will be my love language.

That is because I am a native-born American and where I spent the first 17 years of my life still affects what I like and what I don’t.

In Ephesians 5.8, before Paul encourages us to live carefully, He explains why.

Because we are children of light, or as the Amplified version says, ‘native-born to the light.’

In the next verse, Paul tells us a life of light consists of every form of kindly-goodness, uprightness of heart, and trueness of life.  

As Christians, this is our culture and it should colour who we are.

In this harsh, critical, hateful world we show where we are from when we choose kindness.  This kindness will stop others in their gossiping tracks and it can change the atmosphere in our place of work and our homes.

Those of us native-born to light should be immediately uncomfortable with all hypocrisy and any kind of posturing or posing.  Instead, we can be known for our sincerity and integrity, both of which are in very short supply in 2018.

We shouldn’t be surprised if we have no taste for things that are tasteless or off-colour because we love what He loves and hate what He hates.

Our natural desire should always be for justice, mercy and humility, (Micah 6.8b).  Unforgiveness, vengeance, bitterness and pride should feel very uncomfortable to us.  Followers of Jesus love like He loves or they are not followers.

And, our natural habitat should always be with those in need, not the cool group

After 33 years in this country, I have to fight hard to keep my American identity.  That is because I want to fit in here. I want to understand others and to be understood.  But I have to be careful not to lose who I am.  It is the same with Kingdom culture.

We have to find a way to live here, love our neighbours, listen, understand and be involved.  But we cannot afford to lose who we are because it is our distinctiveness that makes us useful, not our blending in.

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Don’t be afraid to be different, to show where you come from and who you are.  Don’t be afraid to be the kind one, the generous one, the forgiving one.

Live the set-apart, laid-down life you are made for.

Stand up and stand out.  Stand alone if you have too.

Love the world you live in enough to change it.  

‘Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead, fix your attention on God.  You’ll be changed from the inside out.’  Romans 12.2 The Message.

 

Redeemed restlessness

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I love Ecclesiastes 3.11.   In the middle of Solomon’s downbeat sermon is this verse of scripture.

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’

We can’t know or understand all of God’s purposes.  His ways are high above ours.   There are parts of our stories that have left us bemused at best and there are many experiences that will not make sense to us in this life.

But there are some things we do understand because He has put eternity in our hearts.  We know there is more than just this life and that heaven is infinitely more real than the desk I am sitting at or the computer keyboard I type on.

We know, but we forget.

We forget that this life, however wonderful it is, cannot satisfy.  We forget and then we wonder why we feel restless.  We wonder why in the wake of the most perfect occasions or celebrations we can feel flat and empty again and why our happiest experiences are often tinged bittersweet.

C S Lewis says it like this, ‘If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.’

Restlessness is a gift.  It reminds us of who we are.

Ephesians 5.8 tells us we are children of light.  In the Amplified Bible is says we are to lead the lives of those native-born to light.’

This is our identity.  As new creations, we are from light and of light and light is where we belong.  

Philippians 2.15 says that when we live like Jesus calls us to, we shine like stars.

Stars are not of this world.  We see them, we admire their beauty and they feel close but they are from somewhere else, somewhere very far away.

And so it is for us.  We are here, shining as lights, living our lives, following Jesus on earth.  But our light is from somewhere heavenly, somewhere eternal.  We are not of this world and so it will never quite feel like home.

Never forget who you are.  Live this life well but live it as a visitor.  You were created for so much more than this so be restless, be discontent with everything this world offers.  Only Jesus, His life and His purposes, will satisfy.

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Solomon’s Kairos

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In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is having a grey Monday of his own.

As he writes, we can hear his frustration at the brevity of life and the short-lived nature of human achievement.  Poor Solomon.  He had tried it all, owned it all and accomplished it all and it hadn’t really satisfied.  Like a grumpy teenager, he says he hated life and hated all the hard work he had done (Ecclesiastes 2.17,18).  You can just hear him slamming his bedroom door in a huff.

And then in chapter 3, his mood lifts a little.

In verses 1 and also verse 17, Solomon writes that there is a time, season or appointed time for every activity and every purpose on earth.  When you look at the meaning of those words/phrases in a Hebrew Lexicon, they sound very familiar.  They sound like Kairos.  They are God-given, God-appointed moments.

And in verse 11, Solomon connects God’s timing, His heavenly opportunities with purpose.

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. He also has planted eternity in men’s hearts and minds, a divinely implanted sense of purpose working through the ages which nothing under the sun but God alone can satisfy.’  Ecclesiastes 3.11a Amplified Bible.

I love the Bible.  I love how truths weave themselves through the Old and New Testaments, as unchanging as the God who breathed them.

Solomon had discovered that the only way to find satisfaction and contentment in life is to live for God’s purposes.  

And we can do that every day, right smack in the middle of ordinary life, by seeing and responding to Holy Spirit-breathed opportunities.

Ephesians 5 and Ecclesiastes 3 show us the wise, fulfilling way to live.  They give us the antidote for restlessness and dissatisfaction in these dark times.  Just do your job, whatever it is.  Serve your family and church.  Enjoy your friends and good food and sunsets and music but make it all about God.  Turn all enjoyment into worship.  Give Him your everyday, ordinary earthly existence and ask Him to make it count for His purposes on earth.  In the  middle of your waking up and your washing up, expect God to show up.

Look for every heavenly moment that comes along and grab it.  Love people and share Jesus.  Forgive and forget.  Take risks for the Kingdom.  Believe His promises.  Pray without ceasing.  Love God with everything you are.

There is beauty in everything God is doing in your life today.  Ask Him for the eyes to see it.  There is purpose hidden in the ordinary.   Ask Him for the faith to believe that.  And there are eternal opportunities from His hand.  Ask God for the supernatural wisdom to redeem every single one.