Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Have You Ever Felt Your Life Unraveling?

We look at life from the back side of the tapestry. And most of the time, what we see is loose threads, tangled knots and the like. But occasionally, God's light shines through the tapestry, and we get a glimpse of the larger design with God weaving together the darks and lights of existence. John Piper

The whole life-is-a-tapestry analogy may not be new to you, but what a beautiful thought it is!  The various hues, textures, and designs that represent the many intricacies of our life are woven together into a stunning, picturesque display called life. 

An up close perspective may not seem quite as impressive, especially while the tapestry is still in the process of development.  One can hardly fathom the purpose of each seemingly out of place thread when seen out of context from the entire work of art.  Rest assured, however, if you step back and behold the finished piece, you will see the threads of God’s love and grace intertwined through each and every life event represented.  That is what holds the tapestry together and gives it its unique beauty.

What is most disheartening, however, is to snag the tapestry on a jagged edge and watch in horror as it unravels, seemingly out of control.  All of the toil and pain involved in its creation is of no consequence as you watch the masterpiece shred into nothing more than a heap of tattered pieces.

Have you ever felt like that torn and tattered tapestry?  You have invested a lifetime weaving together each precious fragment of your life into a marvelous work of art only to have it pulled out right from under you.  The more you try to salvage any kind of remnant, the more the fragments unravel from your grip. 

This analogy absolutely makes sense if you have experienced any kind of loss in your life.  Perhaps you built the perfect life with your spouse only to have him walk out the door one day, grabbing on to one of the threads and unraveling it on his way out the door.  Maybe you had invested years of your life establishing the career of your dreams only to have the economy rip your dreams out from under you like a wilted bath matt.  Your sense of self-worth disintegrates along with the frayed fabric falling apart in your hands.  These are only two examples, but insert your own personal scenario. 

What kind of loss has marred the masterpiece of your life?  The death of a loved one?  Financial devastation?  An accident or injury?  A natural disaster?  The betrayal of a friend?  A humiliating event?  Perhaps your loss was your own doing, a string of foolish mistakes or even blatant sin.  Regardless, the intensity of your loss is not diminished when it is self-perpetuated.  God’s heart is touched by your grief nevertheless.  If your life has unraveled by any cause or to any degree, you do not need to give up hope.    

The good news is that the Master Tapestry Artist is not finished with you yet!  When all you have to offer Him is a tattered mess to work with, you need not fret.  That is His specialty!  He will take the frazzled remnant of your unraveled life, all the shreds of pain, loneliness, failure, disappointment, and heartache, and He will create an even more spectacular masterpiece than before.  He will intertwine threads of His healing, grace, and restoration, while incorporating His shimmering strands of love throughout. 

Go ahead.  Give your disastrous fragments to God.  See what He will do with your life.  In time the dark threads of despair will be transformed into a magnificent tapestry revealing the goodness of God in even the darkest moments of your life.

Jesus came:
…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.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 61:3

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Revelation 21:4-5a

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Peaches or Pits?

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  John 15:5

As a wide-eyed, ambitious, college graduate, I was ready to conquer the world for the sake of Christ.  As Dr. Paul Conn delivered the commencement address for the 1989 graduates of Lee University, I envisioned the grand mission that God had laid out for me.  I believed that I was destined for greatness and I could hardly wait to get started!

In time, however, I quickly realized that the course of my life would not necessarily line up the way I had planned.  Does it ever really?  I had intermittent seasons of professional fulfillment and fruitful involvement in ministry; however, these were interspersed with periods of disillusionment and unfruitfulness.  During those times, I felt so let down!  Would I ever become the woman I dreamed I would be?

I considered myself an industrious performer, but perhaps that was my problem.  I was all about performance, recognition, and chalking up points with God.  I was more concerned with what I did for Him than I was about my relationship with Him.  Then, when I fell short of what I felt was expected of me, I became paralyzed with guilt and feelings of inadequacy.  I worried that God was disappointed in me and that my family and my colleagues would not view me as a success.

Relying on my own strength left me in the pits!  Even though I did a lot of great things, I could never seem to do or be enough.  I was so hard on myself and set impossible to reach standards. I also became frustrated by life’s interruptions that blocked my goals, and I threw in the towel too easily.

I must admit that my season of motherhood far surpassed anything I had ever imagined!  What love and fulfillment I experienced during these precious years with my children!  However, since I had placed my career and ministry on hold for the sake of putting my children first, I wrestled with feelings of inadequacy and a struggling self-worth during those years especially.  I knew I was being faithful to the convictions God had placed on my heart, and I have no regrets of being home with them, but I felt that I needed to be doing something more to feel good about myself.

“Doing something more?”  “Feel good about myself?”  Where did that come from?  Had I bought into the lie that my self-worth was dependent upon my accomplishments?  Did I have to be doing something in order to be of value?  I knew who I was in Christ.  I was certainly productive in the most valuable way possible in nurturing my children, but would others see my choices as valuable?  Was I wasting my years of college?  Would I be held accountable for not reaching the masses for Christ while “hiding out” at home?  Wasn’t I made for more?  These questions alone show how confused I was!

As my children grew up, and I had more freedom to pursue teaching and ministry, I starting pouring myself passionately into my work.  I don’t know if I was trying to make up for lost time or if I was trying to check off some imaginary checklist, but I noticed that I felt better about myself the busier I became.  That is until the stress wore me plumb out!  I was too busy and exhausted for what really mattered, and I had spent myself ragged on things of lesser value.  I was either doing too much or not enough all the time, and my self-image climbed up and down the scale accordingly.

Why was I so mixed up?

Somehow, while I was trying to amass accomplishments to feel good about myself, I had strayed from the truth that my worth is determined by the very One who created me and gave his life for me, not by what I do.  I knew that, so how had I forgotten?  

Yes, I had a relationship with God, and ultimately, I knew that all I was doing was for Him, but I failed to understand His love, grace, and acceptance of me apart from my works.  I did not have to earn my way with God; He was more concerned with my "being" than my "doing."  He just wanted my heart, and then I would be in the position to experience true fruitfulness in connection with Him.  I had it turned around.  We must seek relationship first, and then works will follow, not the other way around.

What made the most impact on my flawed thinking was to read John 15:1-8.  The Holy Spirit brought this Scripture so alive in my heart, and it became my theme for an entire year while my thinking and my life were being transformed.  For one, I learned the difference in being busy merely chalking up works as opposed to being truly fruitful.  Fruitfulness, or productivity, is not about doing, doing, doing all the time.  Fruit is produced in us only when we are connected to the vine. 

As humans made in the image of God, we have a natural desire to do good works and be fruitful because God put that desire in us.  Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  In our limited mortal strength, however, we can only tally a string of dried up, lifeless deeds that will not have lasting value.  On the other hand, as we are connected to the life-giving source of Christ within us, and we allow the Holy Spirit to live through us, we will find the satisfaction of bearing much fruit that will bring glory to God.

One more correction I needed to make was to understand that my goal was no longer to affirm my own self-worth or to feed my ego, but my purpose is to display the glory of God in every aspect of my life.  Once I learned that, I found the peace and fulfillment that I could never seem to achieve in the past.  I thought I had been working for God’s glory, but my perspective had been skewed.  The only fix was to apply the truth from God’s Word.  As a matter of fact, that is the remedy for every single error or problem in our lives!

My advice for a productive and fulfilling life is to read, absorb, and live John 15:1-8.  Make it your life focus to abide in the Vine, or stay connected to Jesus above all things.  Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you and speak to your heart every day.  Trust Him when He prunes unfruitful areas of your life, and even when He prunes fruitful areas so that you may produce more fruit. 

A ripe, fresh, juicy peach is much more satisfying than the hard and tough pit!  In the same way, bearing fruit by remaining intimately connected to Christ is much more fulfilling than relying on our own strength and wallowing in the pits!  Remember, relationship first!

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:8

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Don't Just Take My Word For It

“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11 NIV

It is so important to read and study the entire Bible, not just cherry-picked verses to support what we want to believe.  It is especially important to read within context - not just the verse above and below, but also consider cultural context, historical context, literal context, and accurate interpretation of words.

Here is a perfect example:  I have heard this verse quoted over and over again out of context and used as a foundation to support a gospel of greed.  "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." 3 John 1:2 KJV. 

I just go nuts when I hear a preacher go there!

Do you not realize that this was written in a letter from John to his friend Gaius, a recent convert?  It was merely a greeting to open his letter, yet it if so often quoted as a direct message to us from God to seek wealth above all things.  John was simply wishing his friend blessings, that everything would go well for him just as his spiritual life was now on track. 

Although this letter was addressed to one specific person, it was also intended to encourage and strengthen the church.  After the initial greeting, the basic gist of this book is to encourage the church to provide for their brothers in Christ who are traveling and preaching the gospel.  Nothing in this letter teaches us to idolize money.

Do not get me wrong.  We can find ample Scripture that does support the fact the God loves to bless us, and He does prosper us!  He really does!  There are too many examples in the Bible not to believe that.  However, He blesses us so that we may bless others and glorify Him, not so we can hoard treasures for ourselves.  The important issue is to keep our hearts pure and not to allow His blessings to become an idol to us. 

In other words, love God; seek Him first; enjoy His blessings; prosper abundantly; but keep a balanced, Biblical perspective, and do not become greedy.

These verses will help to balance this teaching:

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” 2 Corinthians 9:8 NIV

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 ESV

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” Psalm 23:1 NIV

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21 NIV

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33 NIV

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” 1 Timothy 6:10 ESV

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5 ESV
 “And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 ESV
“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” 1 John 2:16 ESV

“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 5:10 ESV

Please understand that these verses do not decry money itself as evil, but our approach toward money is where the problem often lies.  It is all in the heart.  Greed is the culprit, not money.  As you read in the first few verses, God does not want us to live in poverty or lack.  He generously gives us everything we need and more.  However, we are cautioned numerous times about our attitude toward wealth.  It is not the stuff, but how we react to the stuff. 

We can also read the stories of Abraham, Job, David, Solomon, and many more to see examples of how God loves to bless those who honor Him, but to have complete understanding of this topic, we must search all of Scripture rather than foolishly embracing the shallow and uninformed teaching of the few who manipulate for their own personal gain and lead the sheep astray.  Be wary!

Let us be diligent in researching Scripture and seek to comprehend each message in its full context.  That is the example of the Bereans in the early church.  Rather than merely accepting everything Paul said, they “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11 NIV.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Don’t just read the verses I provided by themselves either.  Take some time and read the contextual message surrounding these verses.  Look into a commentary for the cultural context and the meaning of any words that may be unclear to you.  Compare these verses in multiple translations for the clearest meaning possible.

Now, after considering this approach to Bible study, what do you really think this verse means?  “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:13 KJV.  Talk about a verse that has been taken out of context and misused more than just about any other! 

I’ll leave you on your own for this one!