The Taste That Creates Hunger

I wasn’t born craving chocolate, actually. I didn’t know it would become a necessity of life until I tasted it for the first time. And I didn’t come out of the box loving the taste of a ripe, creamy avocado, or a sweet pecan; but it was instant love, and new places in my appetite stirred and wanted more. And I certainly had no idea when I was 5 years old that someday it would be absolutely vital that my taste buds be treated regularly to garlic and rosemary and thyme. And I actually thought I didn’t like apples that much, until I tasted one that had fallen right off a tree into my hand at the perfect moment of its crispy, tart sweetness. I flat out expected NOT to like the spicy burn of red peppers, until one day, against my will, they came, and won me over. Big time.
For the first almost 30 years of my life, I had no appetite for God, either…until one day I asked him to give me a real taste, a taste that would usurp the mass-produced version I had sniffed occasionally at the market and kept putting back. One real taste of Him, and I could never live another day without Him.
For now I’m going to slip right past the fact that all of us who know Christ should provide a good taste of him to others. Today I just write to say, when you think of others who need to know Him, pray that God will send His Spirit to give them an authentic taste of Himself. It’s a good prayer, efficient, and in my imagination, one the Lord would not hesitate to answer.

Hoping in the Goodness of God

I still remember vividly the shock I felt the first time I read these words:

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No-one is good– except God alone.” Mark 10:17-18, NIV.

How could Jesus say this, when Scriptures’ unanimous testimony elsewhere is that he never sinned against man or God in his earthbound, human life? I was stunned, and determined to understand what made him utter these words. Here is what I have learned:

The first layer of truth is that he carried the most humble attitude about himself, even knowing he was the Son of God, called to be the Savior of the world.

But the next layer of truth is that goodness — through and through, steadfast, unchanging goodness — is found in no human being. And this presents a great problem for us earth-dwellers, who were made by our creator to crave and rejoice in goodness.

The failure to find goodness in our face-to-face relationships with others provokes two different responses, one being that when people fail us, crushing our faith in them, we easily default to losing hope in God as well. When John the Apostle wrote, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us,” he was acknowledging the connection that invariably exists between our faith in God and our faith in people, to love us well.

Because the Holy Spirit called Ron and I to bring knowledge of Covenant to the Body, he has revealed to us the profound need of the human heart — if it is to thrive — to put faith in others and have that faith renewed by faithfulness. The otherwise is that our faith is broken, and a wound is inflicted.

Because we live among a people — like us — who are flawed and not unfailingly good, wounds come with some regularity; little ones, big one, devastating ones. For many this too easily translates into a deep, if unspoken, belief (or fear) that God himself is not really good, because he doesn’t make people be good to me.

If I’ve learned anything about God, it’s that he doesn’t make anyone do anything. He draws, he teaches, he encourages us like any parent training up a child; but people will do what they want in the freedom God has given them.

The second reaction to being wounded by the ungoodness of others is just the opposite, and is only learned through walking with God for a season in full trust. It looks like this, and I can only express it very personally: when people fail me, my hope in God’s goodness is what comforts me. When I stop gazing at the hurt and turn to Him, I find rest in His unfailing love; the places left empty by others are filled up in me.

It was meant to be so for all who lean on Jesus. Indeed, this is the basis for his promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Yes, God satisfies my appetite to be loved well when others do not. Unfailingly good, God is.  (As we say in Yoda-speak).

You’ve got it upside down and backwards!

My mother loved this phrase. Increasingly I think of it when I observe how people generally handle the whole God-thing.

People often feel as if everything about life with God is up to them, and that being a believer is hard work. If they don’t do everything just right, God won’t bless; if they don’t believe enough, he won’t be real; if they work hard to follow the rules of being a Christian (church attendance, giving, praying, Bible study) then God might answer a prayer, might smile on them, might even love them.

This reminds me of a variety act I saw as a girl on the Ed Sullivan Show, the guy who would spin plates on top of several different poles, with much frantic effort. Each time one would begin to lose its spin and threaten to fall, he’d run back to it and give it a huge twist, get it going, then run to another one, etc, etc. It all worked only if HE kept it going.

I see people trying to handle God and being a Christian like this. They have to work up the faith to believe in God and then keep propping up that faith and reconvincing themselves that he is real. It’s all up to them, to keep working up thankfulness. The God I know doesn’t need propping up, doesn’t need any help. All he asks is that we come to him like the helpless children we are, and let him show his good stuff.

God never asks us to work hard, he asks us to bring our weary souls to come rest with him. He doesn’t want us to conjure him up in our minds and convince ourselves he is real, he wants to REVEAL himself to us. Altogether he offers to hold us up, not the other way around!

Worship IS hard work when there’s no genuine adoration in your heart. Thanksgiving seems fake when you aren’t aware of something to be thankful for. You can’t adore what you do not know. Prayer IS a chore when you’re talking to empty space. God never meant it to be like this, for you to talk yourself into it, and make it all up. He meant for sincere worship and thanksgiving to arise as a spontaneous joy from a heart that encountered the joy-giver.

Yes, it begins with believing someone is really there — but when you come, come to rest, come in your weakness, come in your neediness. Cease striving and come rest in all of your humanness before this mighty lover of your soul, and simply say,  “I want to know you, and I don’t know how. Please reveal yourself to me. Give me eyes to see you and ears to hear you.” And when he does, everything else will become a natural RESPONSE to this wonderful, invisible, everpresent Creator God.

Please, please, don’t do Christianity upside down and backwards!

God’s Culture of Honor

Anyone who reads the whole Bible notices attributes of God and his culture that, by their repetition, stand out in the mind and get stuck in the heart. One of the most noticeable attributes is HONOR. God loves honor. He models honor, he teaches his children to honor, and he asks for honor. He promises to honor those who honor him (1 Samuel 2:30).

The one remaining culture of honor in the U.S. today is the military. Watching our son serve in the U.S. Army over 20+ years, we learned alot about how honoring behavior is demanded of those who serve and built into their culture, with the hope that the command will lead to character. In some, honor becomes the fabric of the soul, willingly embraced, and given freely; in others, honor is only extended only as an outward show. What some may not understand is that honor is not only right, it is rewarding. It gives us something back, it continues to build strength in us as we give it.

In David’s great song of repentance and returning to God, he wrote these words:

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” Psalms 51:10-12, NIV.

I mention this here because the phrase “willing” in the original Hebrew marries the idea of honor to freedom. It speaks of a spirit that is not merely willing to serve, but honored to do so. David is asking God to restore in him a honoring spirit that freely serves God. David had come to his moral failure through ceasing to honor God, or the laws of the kingdom, or the men who soldiered under him.

And why does he say, “to sustain me?” Before his season of failure, David had walked in honor for years, experiencing firsthand the rewards of having a heart that honored God and others. In some mysterious way, honor sustained David — in life, in strength, in relationships, in joy. Frankly, this is something better experienced than explained.

Honor freely given is the very fabric of God’s heart, and the person who would understand his God could make no better beginning than embracing this truth.

How has honor impacted your life and character?

Giving to God Is a Celebration of His Goodness

Most of us see tithing as a sacrifice given over to God, never to be seen again. While the first part is true (and needs to be fully true in our hearts), we need to understand more about God’s purposes in the offerings we bring. These purposes are revealed in God’s instructions through Moses in Deuteronomy 14:

“Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always.”

“But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.”

God meant for the tithe to not just be set aside and delivered over, but rather brought and SHARED between God and the giver. As we say often in our teaching, it’s not about the rules, its about the RELATIONSHIP.

Notice that if one was SO blessed by God that he couldn’t reasonably carry it all the way to Jerusalem, he was to sell his tithe of produce or animals, then go to Jerusalem, spend it on whatever his heart desired. Do you see the freedom and celebration in this?  God doesn’t want to just take a portion away from you as a discipline and a reminder of his blessing, he wants to share the joy of your prosperity together!

God’s generosity overlooks no one. In the next verse he says, “And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.” (v. 27) As you brought the portion to share and enjoy with God, he asked that you remember the Levites — those whom He had assigned to serve Him full time, who had no land, crops or herds of their own with which to sustain themselves.

We see another reason why God wants to abundantly bless you — so that together you and He could share in the joy of taking care of the needy: “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

His way was that every third year, the worshipper was to take the tithed produce for his celebratory meal with the Lord to a special storehouse for the Levites, the poor, and the alien, so they would have plenty. As I see it, God said to his worshipper, “Let’s you and I fast part of our feast together every third year, and give it to the needy.”

Our daughter observes a season of Lenten fasting with her Anglican community, in which weekdays are given for keeping certain fasts, but Sundays are granted as feast days – a window of grace, a joyful reprieve from the restrictions of the week. It both heightens the pleasures of the things not had during the week, and gives encouragement for keeping fasts in the week to come. There is nothing like self-denial  to renew the joy of the good things given by God. Another part of the Anglican tradition during the Lenten season is giving to the needy.

It seems to me they have gotten it right as to the heart of God in this matter: it’s not just about self-denial (and the selfish self-righteousness that can arise from obeying “the rules”), it is about relating rightly, to God and to the community, in our blessedness.

In the end we have the promise that God will “bless you in all the work of your hands.” What a God. What character, what values. What a relationship.

The seven-year cycle was: two years in a row, we bring the tithe of our produce and the firstborn of our livestock to God, to enjoy it with Him in a feast. The third year we give the produce away. In years four and five, we feast with God again. The sixth year, we give much of it away. The 7th year is a Sabbath year in which debts are forgiven, and all  those who have become enslaved are set free to have a new start. I think of what our world could be today with such an economy in place.

In a few days we will celebrate the most extravagant gift of all: the gift of Jesus, for a life shared with God, of freedom from death and bondage to sin. Some of you have fasted in some way, to symbolically walk alongside your Savior to that place of giving all. When the fast is over, may you go to the Lord and your community and celebrate with all your heart, and bring the poor in spirit with you.

Capillary Beauty of Trees

For the first winter ever, I am captivated by the capillary beauty of the trees revealed against the bare blue winter sky. My eyes are drawn irresistably to them as we drive the roads and as I walk the 20+ acres of Son Rise. What strikes me about this new love is that until this year, I always felt a bit of sadness over the nakedness of the trees, the lack of loveliness, the “forlorn” look of winter. But without effort, without warning, what was once ugly is now lovely to me, and stirs new wonder at God and his creation. I look at the trees and smile, involuntarily.
So the teacher in me is looking for the lesson. I do think of things, like how the tiniest branches are the tender new growth, hidden the rest of the year under the tree’s leafy glory — and yet indeed, a great part of that leafy glory.
I think of how very fragile these little spidery veins of wooden life appear, how they are exposed to icy air and storm; yet survive to grow another year. They are stronger than they look. Of course, they have the joy of living closest to the light and warmth of the sun.
I have no big lesson for you, save this: when a new awareness comes, when I have new eyes to see my world, I know the Holy Spirit is at work within me. The Lord has quietly awakened my soul to something he made, something he loves and delights in. When I look in wonder upon the capillary beauty of the trees, thrilling me for no good reason, I am gazing at it with my creator and theirs. Unbidden, he has changed my perspective and enabled me to share his joy; he just couldn’t let me go another winter feeling sad about something he has no sadness for.  It is sharing life with God, a sign of his living in me, gentle, powerful, mysteriously quiet so much of the time. In this simple act he has spoken to me many things without saying a single word.
Ponder with me and write to me of your thoughts.

A Fast from Self-ishness

Do you remember those parental scoldings that turned into lectures — where all you could do was get comfortable and endure while Mom or Dad went on and on in an attempt to get something through your “thick skull”? These usually came because our repeated behavior revealed we just really didn’t get it, whatever “it” was. Our Father God occasionally launches into one of those; as exhibit number one (can you tell I once was a legal secretary?) I offer Isaiah 58.

Isaiah 58 is a lecture intended to help us “get it” about God’s true values and purposes for fasting, explaining how easy it is to miss his heart altogether in our religious-ness. A common theme of God’s lectures is how his people turn the festivals, disciplines and acts of worship he prescribed into self-serving rituals instead of pathways to greater love and life with Him and others.

I write in my Bible. After reading a section, I lay the Bible down, sit back and ponder, “What did God just reveal to me about himself?” When the answer comes, I make a note somewhere, either in my Bible study journal or in the margin of the Scriptures, so that a truth about God connects forever in my mind with that section of scripture. Frankly, I’m terrible at memorizing scripture, so this helps me internalize God’s truths in a way that stays with me.

The truth that lives in my heart, and the subtitle I have written for Isaiah 58 is that God meant fasting to be, above all, a fast from selfishness, a turning away from complete pre-occupation with my comfort and even my spiritual performance, so I may know my God, understand His will, and carry out His work of loving people to life. When I fast from business as usual in order to know him, I do something far better than deny myself: I forget myself. In forgetting myself, I can see and hear him more clearly.

A.W. Tozer shared in his most excellent book “The Pursuit of God,” his theory of why Christians, for whom the great veil separating men from God has been torn down, still seem unable to see and know their God. He believes that a veil remains which blinds us to the truth about God, a veil that he describes as “the close-woven veil of the self-life,” woven of the fine threads of what he calls the “hyphenated sins of the human spirit,” such as self-reliance, self-righteousness, self-pity and self-love. These are the things which blind us to God’s true purpose in asking us to deny ourselves and other acts of worship. They often pervert those acts of worship into lifeless religious ritual. Personally, I think God hates religion.

Our Father’s rant in Isaiah 58 greatly validates Tozer’s theory, making it clear that he is not at all pleased with the self-serving “Look at how I deny myself” type of fasting that demands a reward from God while simultaneously failing to effectively love and serve others. My personal conclusion to Tozer’s theory and God’s words is that God’s preferred way to destroy the veil of self is not for you to to make a show of denying yourself, putting yourself on your own cross, but to be so busy loving God and others that self dies while you’re not looking. And he promises in Isaiah 58 that if you will fast in such a way, he will provide you with all the healing and blessing you could ever desire. Get it now?

Sightings of the King

I have a confession to make; I am co-dependent. I start going wonky if I don’t experience the nearness of my Lord. Tho I know He is with me always, I much prefer the times when I sense his closeness and hear his voice, or even catch a glimpse of him with the eyes of my heart. If these ways of knowing God go away for while, I begin to self-examine — what did I do, or not do, that caused the Lord to withdraw from me?

In faith I know the Lord and I are joined in our spirits forever, so when I use the word “withdraw” I do it in the context of intimate relationship. Even though my husband and I are together most of every day, on occasion he seems withdrawn from me, either because he is focused deeply on something else, or perhaps I have offended or neglected him. Withdrawal is a subtle signal in relationship to step closer to the beloved and discover what may be amiss in how we are loving.

I had not been consistently attentive to the Lord in recent weeks; maybe that was the problem. I also felt a nagging concern that perhaps I have become too familiar in my easy intimacy, neglecting to show God the reverence he is due. So, in a renewed effort to worship him appropriately, I had returned to a more formal prayer posture: kneeling in reverence, using my imagination to “see” my Lord on his throne, and worship him as the King and Sovereign Lord. However, my more formal prayers, confessions and blessings did not change the space between us. I said to myself, “God will not be manipulated, and in his sovereignty reserves the right to manifest his presence whenever and however he pleases;” but when this little self-lecture did nothing to soothe my raw neediness, I cried out, “Lord, please open my eyes to see you again!”

The next day, in worship at church, I suddenly saw him, unexpectedly, clearly; and when I saw him, I instantly understood the source of my blindness. For he was sitting on a low stool, in a humble house, surrounded by the hungry, the needy, the weak, the ignorant — he teaching, sharing his heart. He paused to look up at me across the room, and smiled an invitation to come near. I wept for joy, and my heart said, “of course.” I had been looking too high. 

It is an old familiar, religious rut I fall into at times, especially after a spell of relative unfaithfulness, this trying to reconnect through the high worship of a low subject to a high sovereign. Appropriate as that may be, my Lord, the King of Graciousness has invited me to know him in my low estate, to draw near and be familiar, to know him.

Without question God is worthy of the highest reverence. As a worshipper who wants to be found true, I want to keep in full view the majesty AND the tender Fatherhood of God, the Lordship AND the Brotherhood of Jesus. I saw that I had only increased the perceived distance between us by looking for Christ on his throne rather than where he wanted to be found by me, the teacher close by. I remembered then also that I had felt him drawing me to read my Bible more and more, to meet with him there, but the spirit of religion had kept whispering in my ear, “That’s not enough.”

God has given himself to me — forever, still, continually. I have a fresh reminder that in seeking the Lord I must discover where he is, not go looking where I religiously assume he will be. Also, I must be faithful for the sake of loving Him well, not in order to manipulate him. He is a living person, not a deity I presume upon through religious ritual, obliged to bless me because I did the right stuff. He has invited me to something infinitely more precious and free and satisfying, yet available only when the heart is fully surrendered to letting God be God and receiving him as he chooses to come. This is how Supreme Lordship and Gracious Love get perfectly all sorted out for us.

Freedom

God is into freedom, especially where his children are concerned. I have often experienced Him more easily through spontaneous encounters — on a walk, in the shower, musing over my morning cup of sweet black tea — than in times of disciplined prayer. In the beginning, it felt so — illegal. Could I really trust the sense of hearing his voice or feeling his affectionate closeness when I had done nothing special? The idea dawned slowly upon me…how preposterous to think that God never speaks unless spoken to first, or hides himself from his children unless they approach him in a ritual!

“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free…” as it says in Galatians 5:1. I’ve learned that the Lord particularly enjoys sharing my pleasure in bubble baths, long walks to enjoy his creation, doing creative food things in the kitchen, listening to music that makes my heart joy or my spirit mellow. While not taking away one tittle of how important discipline is in prayer, I rejoice in the freedom of knowing God easily in the mundane moments of life. As one of my beloved teachers has so wisely said, we need to stop making a distinction between the sacred and the secular, because God never does.

Discipline is good, but freedom is better, if that freedom is a celebration of a living relationship between two people who live for one another.