Friday, March 18, 2011

March 2011 - Beauty FOR Ashes

We were incredibly blessed by one of our gals, Tanya, who shared with us.  She gave us some background, including a recent adoption that fell through at the very last minute.  Something in her heart knew it wasn't going to end up how they'd hoped, yet she had been so sure they were following God's lead.  Perhaps even more than the loss of the baby, losing confidence in her ability to discern and follow God's voice rocked her world.  Had she just heard her own longing for a child?  Had God really led them across the country only to send them home with empty arms?  It just didn't make sense.  And where to go from there, when nothing seemed certain?  It felt so out of control, in a panic-inducing kind of way!

As time has gone on, Tanya once again feels confident that they did, indeed, hear God leading them regarding the adoption.  The ending, surprising to them, was not one bit surprising to God.  So what was the purpose of that pain?  Was it somehow for the birthmom?  Or for some greater purpose they'll understand down the road?  Or will they not know until heaven? 

Tanya shared a portion of an online devotional she read one morning.  It talked about a book that the author had read for several weeks, continually vacillating betweeen wanting to quit reading and wanting to know how it all would end.  If she quit part way through, she'd be left with the hopelessness found in the middle of the book.  She had to read the whole thing, every page, to discover the whole story and to figure out the author's point/purpose in writing.  Every page had value in the grand scheme of the book, even if that particular page included hard things.  At the end of the devotional, two questions were posed: If your life was a story, what would the title be?  What chapter are you on? 

Assuming God does not call us to heaven in the immediate future, we are not at the end of our book.  We are somewhere in the middle.  Chapters have come and gone, more are in the future.  Our current chapter may be filled with loss, pain, confusion, anger, doubt, etc., but it is not the end of the story. It plays an important part in the overall story, but it is not the end. 

Isaiah 61:1-3
 1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim freedom for the captives
   and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
   and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
   instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
   instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
   instead of a spirit of despair.

This section of Isaiah 61 is called The Year of the LORD's Favor.  In verse three, it talks about God giving beauty for ashes.  Tanya explained how she had first thought the verse said "beauty FROM ashes," but it's actually "beauty FOR ashes."  FROM ashes seems to indicate that God will use the ashes to create something beautiful - kind of a recycling idea.  FOR ashes, however, indicates that God will exchange beauty for our ashes.  We won't have our ashes after we've been given the beauty.  How many times do we want to hang on to our ashes?  We hesitate handing them over to God, because they seem to be all we have left of our dreams, hopes, and goals.  We don't know what God will give us, how He'll give it, or when, so we want to cling to the ashes.  We'd rather hold brokenness than risk being emptied out by God.  Yet it is in the emptying and the subsequent filling - however long it takes to happen - that we are healed. 

It reminded me of the image of a person holding a single deflated balloon by a string, being offered a bunch of large, brightly colored balloons.  In order to accept the bunch, first the person must let go of the deflated balloon.  Until that hand is empty, it cannot grasp the new gift - the beautiful.  We are not guaranteed what God will give or when He will give it or how long we'll remain emptied out.  But we ARE guaranteed that he will give beauty for ashes and He will be with us every step of the way.

Tanya recently read Disappointment with God, by Philip Yancey.  She is coming to terms with the fact that God is not unfair - life is unfair.  Even though listening to His voice is what seemed to take them through intense pain, what alternative is there, really?  She is seeing some positive changes God is making in her life, which is very encouraging.  She is not afraid to ask the "why" questions of God - sometimes in the asking we are able to grow nearer to God.  As another gal pointed out, there is a difference between asking with a humble and open heart, and asking angrily, expecting a certain answer.

Psalm 139:16 says that all of our days are written by God in our life book.  So we do actually have a book!  He alone knows the exact title and the arrangement of the chapters.  But as the author, He also knows the way the story ends.  He knows how He will bring justice, how He will renew our strength, and just how long each chapter should be.

Lamentations 3:20-24
20 I well remember them,
   and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
   and therefore I have hope:
 22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
   for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
   therefore I will wait for him.”

The Message version says it like this:
19-21I'll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
   the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
   the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there's one other thing I remember,
   and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:
 22-24God's loyal love couldn't have run out,
   his merciful love couldn't have dried up.
They're created new every morning.
   How great your faithfulness!
I'm sticking with God (I say it over and over).
   He's all I've got left.

Tanya shared with us the words to Laura Story's song "Blessings" 

YouTube - Laura Story "Blessings"

Laura Story - "Blessings" Lyrics

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

We pray for wisdom
Your voice to hear
And we cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough
All the while, You hear each desperate plea
But long that we'd have the faith to believe

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
And what if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know the pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home,

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise
Another gal, whose precious son died less than two hours after he was born, has learned so much about God in the year since her son's death.  She encouraged us to just soak in the now.  Take what God gives and love it.  Don't try to fix the pain or run from it.  Embrace it - for it is in the very midst of great suffering that you will learn life-changing truths about God and about yourself.  Fighting your way through the journey of grief may get you at least temporarily to the other side, but you will miss out on the richness of relationship that God is offering along the way.

So - what chapter are you on?  Let us encourage you to keep walking one day at a time.  God knows the end to your story, and it is amazing.  He also knows the trials contained within the book - and He promises to walk with us every step of the way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

February 2011 - Vision

I was reading a blog and came across this quote (I really wish I had written down the blog address...if I find it again I'll update this!) - "We can let our obstacles or our vision determine our future." 

I don't know about you, but I have this stubborn and independent streak in me that bristles at the idea of not having options.  To think that an obstacle, ie something I would rather not have in the first place, will determine my future, well, it makes my face scrunch up just thinking about it.  So I started thinking about my obstacles (easy to do) and my vision (what?) and realized I needed to delve into this a bit more.

Biblical examples always help.  Moses heard God's voice tell him his future, but doubted that future because of his relationship with the king of Egypt and the Israelites, because of his speaking ability, etc.  What God called him to do - the vision God had for his life - did not make sense or seem possible because of obstacles.  I imagine Moses saying "Uh, God?  Did you forget that the king is mad at me, my people despise me, and I fumble over my words?  I think you have me confused with someone else."  How often do we feel that way?  Feel that God is calling us to something that is just not possible given our circumstances?  Feel that He is just asking too much, too soon? 

Losses have a way of sucking every ounce of vision from our lives.  Suddenly the world is turned upside down and what was formerly important, besides what was lost, is now unimportant.  The idea that there's enough right with the world, and with our lives, to have a vision that would carry us forward almost seems insulting.  And yet that's exactly what God gives us.  He knows best, even (and perhaps especially) when we think He is wrong.  Our losses were not a surprise to Him.  He knew how it would all fit into His master plan, His vision for our lives.  That's not saying He is glad babies died, or that He wanted it this way.  Remember His original plan - it did not include death. 

It is important, especially in times when we cannot see clearly, to ask God for His vision for our lives.  Sometimes, though, our grief, as well as the world around us, is so loud that we cannot discern that vision.  In those times we must start with the Bible and search for direction.  It may be a generic vision at first, but it will at least get us heading on the right path so that in time we will be able to discern His specific vision for us.  Find what God is doing and join Him - His vision does not change!  Our part in that vision can change, and it will likely be different than the part those around us will have. 

Write down 5-10 obstacles in your life right now.  Things that are disappointing, crushing, not how you'd like them to be, not how they should be.  For most of us, that list pretty much writes itself! 

Now look at that list and try to convince yourself that God has a vision for your life EVEN WITH those obstacles on the table.  Perhaps because of those obstacles - He has crafted something just for you that will not waste one ounce of the pain that has come from those obstacles.

Now think about your vision, or God's vision for your life.  Write down 5-10 ideas, words, phrases, etc that describe what you think your vision includes.  For me this list included words like joyful, loving, content, fulfilled, serving, life-giving, and making a difference for God.  No, that doesn't tell me what specific action plan to flesh out when I wake up tomorrow - or does it?  Until I have a more specific vision, I can certainly choose to live out, with increasing success, those key words and ideas.  As I am more content and serving, I will be at least walking in the right direction. 

Which will you choose to focus on this week/month/year?  Your obstacles or your vision? The one you focus on is the one that will gain power and momentum.  Will you trust God to have answers for your obstacles as He works out His vision?  Or will you be stalemated, stuck forever in the desert? 

Perhaps you feel like right now you are sitting in the middle of the desert - I do that sometimes.  I just get overwhelmed and sit down, preferring to stay in this yuck rather than keep fighting to find the right path.  The problem is that nothing will be get better by sitting down.  The Israelites ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years!!  The idea of wandering in my own desert that long (or even 40 days) is not happy.  But God was with them the entire time.  He had their exact path mapped out, and He didn't waste that time.  If they had chosen to just sit down, their journey would only have been prolonged.  Only by walking, one step at a time, one day at a time, can you get any closer to getting out of the desert.  Your circumstances, your obstacles, they may feel like the desert, but you can at least make yourself get up and start moving.  Better to wander forty years than sit until you die in a place you never wanted to be.

Here's that quote again: "We can let obstacles or vision determine our direction."  Which will you choose?