Monday, September 19, 2016

How Am I Traveling Heavenward?

Imagine you arrive as an immigrant in America, newly widowed, grieving the death of your infant daughter. You are  forty years old, alone in a foreign country and responsible for the care of your nine surviving children.

Sounds like the first show of a dramatic television series. But this is not fiction. In a previous post How are You Traveling Heavenward? I introduced Mary Winslow, a woman who arrived in America with her ten children, dreaming of building a new life with her husband who would join them from Scotland. Instead, shortly after her baby daughter died, Mary learned that her husband had also died.
Mary Forbes Winslow, 1774 - 1854

A horrific, deep, dark depression and despondency overwhelmed Mary for many months. In time, the Lord delivered her and turned her darkness into light. Rather than resenting that dark place, she later said, "I think I have learned more of my dreadfully wicked heart, and the preciousness of Jesus during this trial that I ever learnt before."

Mary saw Jesus transform the darkness with His light, a light the darkness could not overcome. And through her sorrow, she experienced treasures in the darkness that enabled her to offer encouragement to others in dark places.

After the death of our son, I stumbled on Heaven Opened,  The Correspondence of Mary Winslow, compiled by her son, Octavius. Throughout her letters, Mary practiced biblical encouragement, constantly challenging recipients of her letters to fall more in love with Jesus and to implicitly trust Him. Her life experiences make her a credible witness to God's faithfulness and that He keeps His promises. To a newly bereaved widow she asked, "How are you traveling heavenward?" Mary followed up her question with a beautiful litany of why this broken woman could face each day with courage and strength as each step took her closer to Heaven.

I was especially vulnerable to that question because of my bottomless grief. Longing for Heaven was a constant hunger and days after Mark's fatal accident, Chuck described this longing, "Mark's death unbolted me from my love affair with this world." When a bereaved mother heard those words, she said, "I could hear the chains falling."

I didn't fully understand the theological basis for that question until I studied Hebrews 11, where I  read that Abraham and others who walked by faith before me saw themselves as aliens on this earth,  that they knew they were  traveling to a better place:

By faith, Abraham, . . . made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country. . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 
Hebrews 11:8 - 10

All these people were still living by faith when they died. . . They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. . . they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. . . Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 
Hebrews 11:13 - 16

They knew they didn't belong here. They were on their way Home, traveling Heavenward. One way Abraham reflected this worldview was by living in tents (Hebrews 11:9).

The view of these "elder statesmen" of our faith released me to freely see myself as "just passing through" earth. With heaven as my destination came a recognition that my life is fleeting and that my real investment needs to be with heaven in mind.

Since Heaven is my destination, I want others to travel this pathway with me. Such thinking changes the way I view  family relationships, my work, conflicts (needing to be right vs. reflecting the humility of Jesus), possessions (how can I invest material blessings with eternity's values in view).  I wish I could say I've figured it all out and my responses are perfectly like Jesus, but just remembering to ask myself, "How am I traveling heavenward?" helps turn my heart toward Jesus which helps me rethink my responses to life. When expectations are shattered, relationships broken, my body ages, and my energy diminishes, and I can't do everything I use to do - all of these things remind me that I don't belong here. After I complain about every new (and old) ache and pain, I realize my body is reminding me, I don't belong here. I'm on my way Home.

And such thinking encourages me to open my hands and surrender to God's purposes, trusting that He is always at work, doing something behind the scenes, with eternity in view. How can I partner with those purposes rather than stay down when I fall down on this pathway? And my response to this question is often tears, anger, frustration, and crying out, "But this isn't fair! And this is more than I can handle!" No Facebook faking here. This journey toward Heaven is often excruciating.

But, I am learning that the actual journey, especially the potholes and rabbit trails, is transforming me. Each mess up is an opportunity to experience discipline that is soaked in mercy.

And so I ask myself, "How am I traveling heavenward?" in this last season of life?

Hebrews 12:1-2 challenges me further:

Therefore, since you, Sharon, are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for you. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition form sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

How grateful I am that Mary Winslow is one of those cheerleaders, calling to me from Heaven, encouraging me to fix my eyes on Jesus, to keep on keeping on, to never quit walking by faith and when I lay my head down each night, to breathe a sigh of relief - I'm one day closer.

And so, I ask you, friends, How are you traveling Heavenward?

In His grip,

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

When I am Resentful at Thirty-five Years of Age

Writer's block. Five attempts at writing this week's blog with very little progress. And then I remembered finding a church newsletter, dated June 1983 as I cleaned out old files. There I found this article I wrote for the Woman to Woman column when I was thirty-five years old. I resisted the temptation to heavily edit. Twenty-three years later, there is still some truth here, especially for young moms. Several personal observations - I use to have a lot more energy, my plate was overflowing with too many tasks and no wonder I resented my life and the to do list that never seemed to get any shorter. So here's to you, all my young mom friends. You're not alone in those days of overwhelming tasks and you're weary from the inside out.

Woman to Woman
Monday morning. After a weekend of baseball practices for two sons, a softball tournament for my husband, church, laundry, meals and a "spring ahead" time change, I had a counseling quiz to study for, a Bible stud lesson to prepare, two counseling class papers to finish, six loads of laundry
to wash,dry, fold and put away, meals to plan. I was already tired with a full week staring me in the face.  Not only did the house need to be cleaned but the garden needed to be planted and the flower beds prepared.I was just plain tired of being everyone else's servant. And beside all that no one appreciated the things I did anyway.

Ever feel this way? Resentment and self-pity faced me with a choice - follow my feelings or do what was right in spite of my feelings. As a counselor, I knew what the right steps were that I should take in order to excuse myself from this pity party. After slamming things around for a while, I made a list of all the jobs I needed to finish that day in order of priority.  One at a time, I crossed each task off the list and with each completed task, my resentment grew. This wasn't working.
Turn on the music - loud. Nope, didn't help.

 In Genesis 4, when Cain's sacrifice as unacceptable to God, God told him that if he did what was right his sacrifice would be accepted and his countenance would rise. 1 Corinthians 10:31 tells us that whatever we dow e should to to the glory of God. I believed that if I did what was right (fulfilled m responsibilities) and did it to please God (in spite of my feelings) that in time, my countenance (my feelings) would rise. By late afternoon, my list of things to do had dwindled to about half but I still didn't feel any different. Exercise, perhaps if I started moving, that would help. As I left the house to force myself to jog,
A verse I heard on the radio whispered another step in my ear...."to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified (Isaiah 61:3). Was praise the antidote to resentment?  This scripture sounded like one of the passages in our counseling class on repentance. Put off sin and put on righteousness. I wanted to rid myself of the resentment, but it seemed I need to put on praise, like a warm coat to replace it. I didn't like the way I started thanking God for our home, my husband, our children, food to eat, a roof over our heads. Slowly, the heaviness began to lift. The next day I accompanied Chuck to visit friends in the hospital. By the time I arrived home, the spirit of heaviness was gone. The to do list still waited, but my attitude changed.

The feelings I experienced that Monday could easily have led to a week of blueness. Based on conversations with other moms, I know I am not alone in struggling with resentment and depression.

Breaking the Resentment Cycle
The next time you begin to experience the frustrations I have described, try the following steps of actions. Through the power of God and obedience to Him, they work.

1. When feeling low -act. Don't stay in bed feeling sorry for yourself. Get up and get moving. Don't call a friend and ask her to join  our pity party. Do call a friend and ask her to pray with you.
(Genesis 4:1-8)
2. Make a list of all you need to accomplish. Prioritize the list and begin to do what's on the list.
(One trick I used was to include very single task, no matter how small, from making the bed, to sweeping the floor, so that I could cross them off and at the end of the day, have a real picture of everything I had accomplished.) Do those things in order to glory God in spite of the way you feel.
(1 Corinthians 10:31)
3. As you work, put on a "garment of praise." Thank God for hands and feet that are healthy, food to eat,a home, etc. Praise Him, out of obedience not feelings. (Isaiah 61:3)
4. Take a walk or exercise in some other way. Listen to up beat music, especially worship music. Music is powerful. Get your body moving.
5. Reach out in ministry to someone else. Don't reach out with the motivation of getting them to feel sorry for you but in order to build them up. Joy will come through service. Philippians 2:17.

In His grip,

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How are You Traveling Heavenward?

When I accepted the invitation to do a workshop for the Transformed Philadelphia Conference, I didn't remember how hard it is to prepare for such an event.  My topic is Living with Purpose on Purpose in the Afternoon of Life. As soon as I accepted the invitation I began researching scripture and reading all kinds of books. Now I have way more information than I can possibly share in one workshop. So some of what lands on the cutting room floor will find its way into my blog. I've started praying for the other speakers because I'm pretty sure many of them are facing the same dilemma!

As I try to decide what content makes the "cut" I'm thinking of the kind of women who might be attending this workshop. Per Elyse Fitzpatrick in her book, The Afternoon of Life, the afternoon of life is 46 - 60 years of age. I expect there will be young women who are curious about how to grow old with grace (yes, I know that when you are 20 or 30, you think that 40 and up is really old). And the women who are just starting this chapter, those who are almost moving into the evening of life and women like me, who are already in the evening. I call my season of life the Twilight Zone. It just seems surreal at times!

I'm also asking, "What are the expectations of those attending?" Some might be looking for a "recipe," others just want to know how to make the most of each day. Some want help in "finishing strong." But then there are those who have experienced great loss and are desperate for how to find purpose and significance in this broken world. There is the woman whose husband abandoned her, the young widow, the single mom, the grandmother whose grandchildren don't care about her, the career woman who loves her job but is starting to feel restless and wants to do something that has an eternal impact. The woman whose medical diagnosis just shattered her well-planned life, the newly retired woman whose husband is suddenly critically ill, the mother who is struggling because her children have left the nest. Or the single woman who thought marriage was the key to life but is realizing that marriage is harder than she ever imagined. The woman whose young adult children are moving far away, so far she will rarely see them or her grandchildren. The many faces of women are endless but one thing is common - we all experience loss and change, no matter the season of life.

What can I share that includes a universal message of help and hope for living with purpose on purpose in the afternoon of life when circumstances are so varied? And share it in forty-five minutes?

Mary Winslow, a woman whose life and writings continue to guide me in this broken world, asked a recently widowed woman, "How are you traveling heavenward?"

Mary had the right to ask that question, because she experienced great sorrow. Shortly after immigrating to New York with ten children, she lost her infant daughter. Before the baby could be buried, she received word from overseas that her husband had died. Imagine, widowed at forty, responsible for nine children and scarcely settled in America, her entire life was turned upside down. One reason this woman has touched me so deeply, is because for months she struggled with depression and spiritual darkness. She later wrote that God used that despondency to turn on the light of His grace in her life,  writing "I think I have learned more of my dreadfully wicked heart, and the preciousness of Jesus during this trial that I ever learnt before." Through this terrifying and anguished time, where she experienced loss of her child, her husband and the daunting responsibility of caring for her nine children in a foreign country, Mary learned how to maintain an unwavering faith during times of suffering (compilation from introduction to Heaven Opened, by Octavius Winslow).

To the widow she wrote, "How are you traveling heavenward? Is it well with you, and are you enjoying the light of His countenance, without which nothing on earth can give true happiness, either here or hereafter? Is Jesus precious? Are you enabled to say, "My best Beloved is mine, and I am His? You do not forget, I trust, that as a widow you have a double claim upon God, not only as His child, but as His widowed child....And what is more, all things are yours, because you belong to Christ and Christ is God's beloved Son and unspeakable gift. Then be of good courage, live by faith in the Song of God, and walk with your heavenly Father in your journey homeward, shortening every hour." Heaven Opened, The Correspondence of Mary Winslow by Octavius Winslow, pages 123-125

I think that's where I'll start. How are  you traveling heavenward?

In His grip,

PS If you are curious about how to live with purpose on purpose in the afternoon of life, I'll be sharing some of the workshop content on my blog and lots of the content that ended up on the cutting room floor in future blogs.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Bucket of Love

God sent me a treasure of encouragement this morning, a gift designed to turn my heart toward Him and I am still stunned by its simplicity and potential for transforming this day from the mundane into the majestic.

The means by which He delivered this treasure reminded me of the priceless gift of covenant community experienced when God's women gather. I recently enjoyed meeting with our small group that is studying Psalms. I soaked up the words and insights of my sisters as our leader guided us deeper into the truths of Psalm 32. We were daughters of the King enjoying a family gathering as we considered this "letter" from our Father.What difference would this study of confession and repentance make in our lives?

This morning I began working through our next assignment, Psalm 33. I picked apart the first few verses: Sing joyfully to the Lord, Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to Him, Sing to him a new song; play SKILLFULLY; SHOUT for joy.

The rest of the passage declared multiple reasons for me to joyfully proclaim with music, my words and my life, the goodness and unfailing love of God.

And there it was. That treasure of encouragement that helped turn my heart toward Him in a new way:

May your unfailing love REST upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you. (Psalm 33:22) 

I turned back to Psalm 32:10 and read:

 Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord's unfailing love SURROUNDS the man who trusts in him.

God's love RESTS on me; SURROUNDS me.

Have you ever watched the colors of a sunset spread out like a can of spilled paint?

In that moment this morning, that's how God's love looked to me. I imagined a bucket of God's deep, pulsating passion for me resting on my head. And then with a smile, in a surprising move, He tipped it over and covered me, surrounded me with love that is unfailing, steadfast.

How do I take this moment into my day, I thought. I pictured the waiting tasks: a doctor's visit, errands, time with some of our grandkids, laundry, cleaning, preparing a meal for a friend. I started imagining how an intentional recognition of God's surrounding love could impact my response to the needs of the day, my interaction with cashiers and the doctor's staff, and our grandchildren or unexpected phone calls or emails. How could this treasure of encouragement from God Himself make me more like Jesus in my response to others?

My day looks different than it did a few hours ago because I'm more aware that God's love rests on me and surrounds me. I plan to look for evidence of that love wherever I go. I have a feeling I may be challenged with difficult circumstances, perhaps an irritating person, or a disappointment - only God knows (Psalm 33 reminds me of His sovereignty and that He considers everything I do). But this treasure of encouragement is equipping, enabling and exhorting me to look for His love in those challenges. And then to display that love no matter what.

I have a feeling that God may be giving this same treasure to someone reading these words. If so, it's exactly what you need to help turn your heart toward Him. Are you His child? His love rests on you! His love surrounds you! May the adventure of seeing and experiencing that love begin right now!

In His Grip,

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Little is Much.......From Misery to Mercy to Ministry

Ten years after the fatal car accident that took the lives of our son, Mark, and his friend, Kelly, my search for help and hope continued. Grief is never ending, a constant companion that reluctantly hides or takes a back seat for awhile, but is always lurking. No matter how vigilant the grieving person, it's impossible to keep grief locked up in a closet for too long.Often a grieving person starts her journey thinking that the only viable help and hope has to carry the title, "How to Deal with Grief."

We often deal with lots of life issues in this way. A young mom only wants to attend a Bible study that focuses on being a young mom. Or a struggling couple thinks a topical study of marriage is their only avenue for strengthening the weak places. But the reality of Scripture is that it is alive. The alert students recognize that no matter their life issues, there is truth that applies to their unique needs. I learned this valuable lesson in my own quest for comfort and wisdom through the Scriptures. Early in my grief journey, grief resources sustained me. But soon I needed more. Surprisingly, scriptures that did not mention grief became the heart and soul of surviving daily life.

The Desperately Poor Widow

At first glance, the story of the broken-hearted widow who faced the loss of her two sons to slavery does not seem to have any application for a grieving mother whose youngest son is gone forever. But, as Chuck preached through the life of Elisha and couched these stories in the theme of moving from misery to mercy to ministry, I recognized that Elisha's encounters with needy people had one recurring truth that applied to me specifically. Elisha regularly asked, "How can I help you?" He often followed that question with another. He challenged those in need to consider what was in their own hearts and lives that could be poured out for the good of others. No matter how empty and needy they thought they were.

In the past few weeks I've shared some thoughts about this impoverished widow who faced the loss of her two sons.

Catch up on the previous posts here:

Nothing Except....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 1

Nothing Except....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 2

Nothing Except,..From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 3

Her bills had piled up because of a three year drought caused by the curse Elijah had pronounced on the nation. Her husband was a prophet who most likely received little "payment" for his work and then was murdered by Jezebel, as retribution for Elijah's war against her. Josephus believed that the widow was the wife of Obadiah, the prophet who hid and fed one hundred of the prophets Ahab wanted to kill.

 For more on this desperate woman, listen to Chuck's message, Little is Much.
Or download the entire series for free: Misery to Mercy to Ministry

This terrified, destitute and probably starving widow begs Elisha for help.

His first words, "How can I help you?"  must have encouraged her that help was on the way but before she could respond he asked,: "Tell me, what do you have in your house?" And as we know, her response was, "Your servant has nothing there at all....except a little oil."

What potent words! Elisha is moving her from misery to a place of experiencing mercy so that she can offer ministry to her family, her sons. Little did she know that through her obedience, help was on the way.

Getting back to my own need as I listened to this story. What did anything in this Biblical account have to do with me, a mother still deeply grieving ten years after the death of her youngest child?

I could hear the Lord asking me, "How can I help you?" And before I begged him to give me back my son, He continued, "What do you have in your heart? In your home?"

Nothing! This pathway is too hard. I have nothing more to give.

Of course, that was not even close to truth. Chuck's message challenged me to consider carefully what I had to offer that could make an impact on those in my own home and to my extended circle. And not only encourage others but be a means for helping heal my own shattered heart. Slowly, the challenge of Elisha to the widow, also challenged me, "Sharon, what do you have in your heart?"

The choice was clear. Choose life. Offer what you perceive as little to the Lord. In your broken place, identify the little you have, obey His call to service in the little things, and watch Him multiply that little into much.

Little is much when God is in it.

In God's economy, little is much. A little stone took down a great giant (David and Goliath).
A little cloud became a great storm (Elijah and Jezebel).
A little child sitting on the knee of Jesus taught the twelve disciples.
Two loaves and five fishes fed thousands.

A seemingly insignificant broken-hearted widow stepped out in faith and her little bit of oil multiplied into enough to pay her debts and feed her sons. Her big step of faith in obeying what seemed like crazy words from the prophet, also sustained her! Her weakness turned into strength. What is that favorite verse of so many? In my weakness, He is strong. His grace is sufficient!

What a picture of God healing a broken heart, moving a broken woman from misery to experiencing mercy to extending ministry.

How does God heal broken hearts?

 He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Psalm 147:3-4

The holy other God,  the one who creates and numbers the stars, this is our God who  is present in the dark places of the broken heart. And He is the one who multiplies the little we have into sustenance for not only our own spiritual hunger but those around us. But we have to make choices. Especially when we feel empty or terrified that by offering what little we have will completely deplete us.

The oil is multiplied in the pouring. This widow could have held tightly to the oil that she had but Elisha demands that she pour out what little she had into empty jars....a symbol of pouring out what we have into the lives of others. What a picture of redemption....pouring out what little we have into the lives of others.....trusting the Lord to multiply our investment His way.

Rather than hoard what little she had, she poured into one bottle at a time. One bottle at a time. And as she poured into empty jars,God transformed those empty jars into a powerful means to not only pay her debts, which was her only request. But to also sustain her family. Through her obedience God gave more than she asked, but everything she needed.

How many untapped people are there in our lives, our homes, our churches, our work places, empty people who don't even know how empty they are, whose own emptiness can be transformed into life-giving influence - if we pour our little into them?

She had to pour it out in order to be filled. She had to choose to take a risk at losing what little she had.  -Elisha gave her the command, the opportunity to experience a transformed heart but she had to take the first step. She had to "just do it!"

So the widow did what appeared foolish. She gave up what little she had. The message of the Gospel often feels foolish. Sharing scripture because we have nothing else to give, with a person who can barely breathe because of their emotional pain. How in the world can scripture turn a broken heart toward hope? Little is much when God is in it.

The Covenant Family

This woman involved her kids. Her kids were the reason for the miracle in the first place. Think of it, she desperately wanted to "save" them. How desperate are we to reflect redemption for our kids,  not so they will be "good kids" but so they will experience redemption themselves? What little, mundane things must we do, day after day after day, thinking they are insignificant, but it's all we have to offer. Perhaps that is the very "little" that will draw a prodigal child back when the world starts falling down around him.

The oil kept flowing as long as she had empty jars.  God deploys us one step at a time as we use our gifts and keeps His power flowing for the present needs, met by our obedience - in the mundane, insignificant moments of life....
whether it is changing diapers, cleaning toilets, planning meals again and again and again, driving our kids to school, working on a budget, meeting a needy friend for lunch, telling a young frustrated mommy she's doing a good job, preparing a Bible study, serving on a committee, getting involved in your neighborhood's activities, offering a respite for the mom whose child with special needs is having an especially bad month, meeting Him in the morning before the sun shines, praying fervently for loved ones, seeking forgiveness for a pride-filled argument, compromising for the sake of peace and communicating value to the other person, taking out the garbage when our husband refuses, taking a step into a new experience though fearful.

A few months before Mark's death, I was invited to serve on our denomination's national women's ministry team. I didn't want to do it. I was scared because the other women on the team seemed so far ahead of me spiritually. I was new to the denomination so I didn't understand a lot of the conversations that were so easy for them. Unlike the other women, I didn't know most of the denominational leadership or understand the history. But my husband encouraged me to step out and offer what little I had. Unbeknownst to any of us, God was preparing a safe place for me to grieve. With just that one fearful step of obedience, God would not only sustain me, but show me how to pour out what little I had to sustain others in their own broken places.These women encouraged me to grieve transparently, to see even this darkness as a gift to offer to the church as a means to help turn the hearts of others toward Jesus. Though that season was the midnight of life, these women helped me learn how to sing in the darkness.

One nervous, scared, young woman, needlessly intimidated by those further along in life, found extreme comfort and safety in the very place I was afraid to go. God was preparing a way for me, when I didn't know I would need that way. At a time when all I wanted to do was hide and curl up in a ball, completely detached from the world, these women encouraged me to keep asking, "What do I have in my heart that I can offer to others that will help turn their hearts toward Jesus?"

Little is much when God is in it.

Little is much when God is in it.

So, as we leave this widow, we must answer the same question, "What do you have in your house - your heart - that you think is little, but is just waiting for God to multiply into something big? Is it time to choose to experience moving from misery to mercy to ministry? Is it time to pour your little bit into the empty heart of another, risking what little you have? Little is much when God is in it.

In His grip,

Monday, August 1, 2016

Nothing Except.....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 3

The hysterical young woman could not catch her breath. Ugly crying. Slowly, she obeyed my instructions to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. The tears continued to roll as she described her family crisis and each word felt like a hammer to my own soul. How could I help her? I wanted to say, "I got nothin'" but my faith forced me to step back and send that SOS prayer, "Jesus, help!"

Did Elisha feel that way when the desperate preacher's widow cried and begged him to save her sons from the creditors? Maybe just for an instant! But what flowed from his mouth not only challenges me when I feel hopeless but is a counseling technique that has equipped me to guide a broken person from  misery to mercy to ministry.

Just Do It
Just do it. If the desperate widow described in my previous two posts lived today, Elisha might have had to utter this three-word Nike slogan to get her to respond to his mysterious instructions: "You and your son, gather up as many empty bottles and jars from your neighbors as you can find....."

 [For the Back Story of the Widow and Elisha
See Nothing Except...From Misery to Mercy to Ministry and Nothing Except.....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 2]

I imagine how I might have responded if I were her. An incredulous look, slumped shoulders, a deep sigh, concluding this crazy prophet isn't going to help me save my boys.

 I wonder if Elisha gave her "the look." If you had a father like mine, you know that look.

"Just do it. Do what I said."

I believe that's what Elisabeth Elliot had in mind when she stated:

Does it make sense to pray for guidance about the future if we are not obeying in the thing that lies before us today? How many momentous events in Scripture depended on one person's seemingly small act of obedience! Rest assured: Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.

Elisabeth Elliot and Daughter Valarie, living with those who killed Jim
Elisabeth Elliot was married to Jim Elliot.  They served as missionaries to the Waodani tribe in Ecuador.  They had a 10 month old daughter.  Along with other families, they prayed and surrendered and followed God's leading to this isolated place.  They prayed for protection but more than that, they prayed for God's purposes to be fulfilled, that people would come to know Jesus. To their shock, Jim and four other husbands died when they were attacked by the very people they came to touch with the gospel of Jesus.

I imagine Elisabeth prayed words similar to the despairing widow. And perhaps God's direction shocked her - return and love those who murdered your husband. Do you think her unflappable exhortation to obedience is rooted not only in Scripture but her own life's calling?

After the deaths of our son,Mark, and his friend,Kelly,I turned to Elisabeth as a long distance mentor, hungry for someone ahead of me in this grief journey to call back and tell me what to do, how to face each day.Discipline, the Glad Surrender was in our library, calling my name.

But as I read the first few pages, I wanted to throw it across the room. For threaded throughout her words was a clarion call to obey, to do the next thing, no matter how painful or hard. Years later I told Elisabeth how her book and ultimately her unwavering faith and trust in our Lord impacted me in those dark moments. Because one day I read all of it and recognized that doing the next thing, no matter how insignificant that act might appear, is critical to experiencing the help and hope that Jesus offers. Elisabeth's grace-filled response to me reminded me again of how surrender to God's purposes becomes the perfect grid through which to push His call to obedience in the mundane, with complete confidence that His purposes are perfect.

This despairing widow's response to Elisha's instructions reflects the same message of Elisabeth's words:

Rest assured: Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.

Read Nothing Except....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 2 to learn about the profound way this woman's obedience moved her from misery to mercy to ministry. And let this despairing widow be a spiritual mother for us today.

Teaching Moments

#1 Teaching Moment
 Sometimes God asks us to do something with no explanation of why or how our obedience might benefit us.  Elisha did not explain the whole plan to the widow.  He gave her one step at a time.  If she didn't obey the first seemingly crazy step, she would not have experienced the miraculous treasure of God meeting the needs of her family. She had to beg her neighbors for help with no idea of how God would use that step to meet her needs. Is God calling you to obedience that seems fruitless and perhaps a pathway that you believe will lead to humiliation or more hurt? For instance, "Honor your husband."  Years ago I taught a Bible study called The Challenge of Being a Woman. After the class on respecting our husbands a young wife cried to me, "I can't stand my husband.  How am I supposed to respect him.  I don't even like him."

I asked her to tell me about him and why she married him. In other words, "What do you have in your house....let's find something you do like about this man." It was hard for her to get past her emotions, but eventually she recognized that he wasn't as bad as she thought. I gave her this assignment. "Respect is an act of the will, not an emotion. Let's make respecting your husband very practical. Every day this week, write your husband a note in which you appreciate one tiny thing you do like about him. Do this in spite of your feelings.  Do not lie.  Start with thanking him for going to work each day to support your family.  If he loads the dishwasher, thank him for that, or taking out the trash or filling up the car gas tank."  At first she resisted because she felt it was hypocritical since she didn't "feel" grateful. But then agreed she would do what I said.  The next week she grabbed me and exclaimed, "What started out as drudgery has ended up being fun! My husband doesn't know what has happened to me or what to expect, but he likes it and I'm starting to rediscover my love for my husband!"

Of course, this is a simple story and deeper problems require deeper obedience and long term transformation.  But sometimes that transformation can start with a simple, humble act of obedience on the part of one person.  The widow had to put aside her pride and "beg" for help from her neighbors.  Trusting the man of God's direction without knowing how in the world such obedience would lead her to a place of peace and security required action on her part.

#2. Teaching Moment
How often do we ask God to solve a problem for us quickly and with His power and He refuses a quick fix.  Instead, He wants simple obedience to every day directives, such as respect your husband, love your neighbor, forgive others because such obedience will have a much BIGGER impact than if He performed a quick miracle. Little is much when God is in it.

This widow was empty and was probably expecting Elisha to help her by paying her bills. Yet instead of a quick fix, God wants the widow's faith and the faith of her sons to deepen. Elisha tells her to look around for other empty jars.  She learned that what little she had could fill those jars when she obeyed. And that those filled jars would fill up the empty places in her life (pay her bills) and she would have enough left over to meet the ongoing needs of her boys and herself.  When we are broken, we think we have nothing to give to others and in fact, don't even have the energy to look around for other empty jars.
Yet sometimes that is exactly the moment God wants us to look around and see who else is empty and needs us to pour what little we have in to their lives, trusting God to not only meet their needs, but to give back to us more than we could have ever envisioned needing.It seems counter intuitive, but when we obediently pour our sometimes broken lives into the the empty vessels of others, God often works a miracle of healing in us.

#3 Teaching Moment
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Sometimes our lives are not about us but about those watching us.  The widow's sons witnessed and participated in this faith moment.  I wonder how this miracle impacted their lives and equipped them to walk by faith.  Who is watching you or me?  When I wanted to quit writing Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart Chuck told me to write for our grandchildren, because some day they will face broken places in their lives and our story might help turn their hearts toward our God with trust and obedience. Our obedience often becomes an investment in the life of another and our legacy, sometimes like a little acorn, grows into a big sheltering tree, providing safety and life for generations to come.

Back to my hysterical friend who could barely get the despairing words through her sobs and wails.   I could not fix her.  But what did I have "in my house" that God could supernaturally transform in to something meaningful for her? It seemed ludicrous at the time but I "felt" God telling me to ask her to read some scriptures. My gut response was, "She is hyper ventilating, how in the world can she read anything?' Yet, the only sure thing I had was His Word so I opened my Bible to His promises and asked her to read aloud scriptures like this one: "The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble."  The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.  Psalm 37:39-40
Her incredulous look at my request echoed my original response to God's nudge. But, though she could barely see the words through her tears and was unable to finish a sentence because of her sobs she took the Bible and slowly began to read.  With each word, her emotions settled and her voice grew stronger.  Her problems were the same but her perspective supernaturally changed and she was able to meet the needs of her family with hope and courage because of God's Word.

I've seen God do that same supernatural work in broken women again and again, as they read out loud His living Word - He calms our hearts and gives us hope.

What do you have in your house? Attempt great things for God. Expect great things from God.

In His grip,

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Nothing Except....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry - Part 2

We were newly-wed, twenty-one years old and in New York City for the Billy Graham Crusade School on Evangelism. One of the seminars was in an old city church and on the wall was a plaque with these memorable words:

Expect Great Things from God
Attempt Great Things for God - William Carey

Chuck and I  saw this exhortation as our unique marching orders from our God and we enthusiastically accepted the call. Yes!  We would do just what William Carey challenged us to do.  Nothing could stand in the way of our desire to do something "BIG" for our God.  Chuck was a new believer and I was newly dedicated to walk by faith, no matter how difficult the pathway. 

GREAT - yes GREAT - would be our impact.

So when God opened doors for Chuck to pastor a tiny, dying inner city Philadelphia church while he attended seminary, our answer was, "YES!"
 It did not matter that Chuck's salary would be below poverty level. We had Jesus! It didn't matter that this little church was dying. We would turn around this little congregation into a vibrant, living testimony to God's power and grace!  We planned, prayed and dreamed of the day this BIG, beautiful, stone building with enormous, glorious stained glass windows that told the story of Jesus, our GREAT Savior. would one day be packed!
  We would succeed in our passion to turn our world upside down for Jesus.  No matter that only 30 people were left in this once vibrant mission, established in 1903.  We had a call - Attempt GREAT things for God.  Expect GREAT things from God.  And surely, a GREAT BIG vibrant city church was God's will and we would make it happen!
Twenty-one years old.  Pastoring a church as a "one-year-old" Christian with no background as a Protestant.  Ah, yes, we would definitely turn things upside down.  But not exactly as we planned. 

God's definition of GREAT is often quite different from our own.

God's idea of great was to use that little congregation as our School Master. Something great was happening, but it was not in the size of the congregation. The greatness could not be measured with numbers. Something great was happening in our hearts. Three years later Chuck asked to be moved to a suburban church. Instead God redeployed us to another inner-city church - this one deeper in the city and far more dangerous.  In a neighborhood whose claim to fame was that it had the highest rate of day time gang killings.  A once white, prosperous, Polish neighborhood.  Now, numerous ethnic groups and skin colors.  Our children's best friends were Bindu and Sindu Babu, two little Indian girls who lived in an apartment that overlooked our postage stamp, fenced in concrete yard.  Women carrying grocery bags on their heads was a common sight. Such diversity made our move more exciting. YES, this time, we will do something GREAT for God in this tiny dying inner city church.  After we moved in to the huge old parsonage one of the leaders told Chuck, "This is three dying congregations that came together out of desperation. We're gasping for breath. The hearse is backed up to the door....." implying, "Good luck."

Our first Sunday in our new mission.  We should have been high on Jesus.  Yet, after I put the two babies down for their naps, I found my young pastor husband crying quietly as he sat on the front porch.  The promised "amazing music program" consisted of a powerful pipe organ and a choir of 3 elderly women.  One couple without white hair sat in the pews of the 500 seat sanctuary.  The other 27 were elderly, tired and almost hopeless as they listened to this new energetic, twenty-four year old preacher call them to action and silently wondered who this young guy thought was going to do all the work to accomplish his vision. 
"Go for it!" was their response. 

I didn't know how to respond to Chuck's soft words, "Sharon, there is so much work. Look at this community that needs Jesus.  I don't know where to start. The needs are beyond me. We are so alone. I don't want to stay here."

William Carey, 1761-1834
What does attempting GREAT THINGS FOR GOD look like in a dying church, a young pastor's family, a congregation of people longing for something more, desperate to hold on to the past glory, not sure what expecting great things from God looks like? William Carey, the one credited with this great quote was called  the father of modern missions and lived in the late 1700's.  I'm thinking that if he lived today, he would say that attempting great things for God was his mission statement and this one, also credited to him was his business plan: 

 "I can plod.  I can persevere in any definite pursuit.  To this I owe everything."

 Over the next few weeks, Elisha's question to the hopeless widow in 2 Kings 4:1 [See Part 1 for an introduction to this broken widow's story:  Nothing Except....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry, Part 1   took on life as we began to take stock of what little we had to offer in what felt like a hopeless mission. Chuck concluded, "If only I had two strong families who shared the vision of the Gospel...." But there didn't seem to be anyone who had the energy or the passion for Kingdom Building in this neighborhood.
Chuck's cry to the Lord, "The inner city is not where I want to be. What have You done bringing us to this place? I have nothing to give to this needy community. The needs are bottomless."

Implied in that cry was, "I am your servant. I gave you my life. Surely you have something more exciting for me to do than trudge through life in this dying community, all by myself."

Chuck's cries sound eerily like the widow in 2 Kings, when she reminds Elisha that her preacher husband, one of Elisha's guys, is dead,murdered by Elisha's arch enemy, Jezebel, implying Elisha must take responsibility for saving her family.

Elisha's response to the widow is not much different than God's response to us in those lonely days. 

Watch as the prophet Elisha seems to callously respond to a grief-stricken, hopeless widow's pleas for help from him and see if you can detect the similarities. She is about to lose her two sons. The widow's husband was one of the prophets murdered by the wicked Jezebel. Surely Elisha, God's representative should take responsibility for saving her penniless family. A creditor is coming to take her two sons as payment for her bills. She asks Elisha for help. She has nothing - or does she? Elisha asks her a critical question, one that we would do well to ask ourselves when life seems hopeless:

,"What do you have in your house?" Her response, "Nothing, except......"

Nothing, except......
What is the "except" in your house, your hands?

"Nothing....except....well, I have a little bit of oil." She most likely was thinking, "The oil is worthless, Elisha - not even enough to bake a loaf of bread.  And in fact, I don't even have flour for what can you do with that? Can't you just pay my bills so that my sons aren't made slaves?" Maybe Elisha could have paid the bills for her, but he had something better in mind, a life lesson that would not only pay the bills today but meet her needs in the future. Elisha was about to show this widow how to attempt something great for God and to expect something great from God.

And God could have magically filled that city church with like-minded, passionate about the Gospel families. But He had something bigger in mind for us.

The Widow starts to see hope in the mundane.

Elisha's directive in response to her answer had to be even more confusing, but this desperate woman immediately obeys his directions, "Go around and ask (beg) all your neighbors for empty jars.  Don't ask for just a few (expect something big and GREAT to happen!).  Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons (I LOVE that Elisha wants her sons to witness this miracle).  Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side."

She left him and afterward shut the door behind her and her sons (this is a private, family miracle).  They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring.

Imagine the excitement growing with the filling of each jar!
When all the jars were full, she said to her son, "Bring me another one."
But he replied, "There is not a jar left."  Then the oil stopped flowing.  She went and told the man of God, and he said, "Go, sell the oil and pay your debts.  You and your sons can live on what is left." 
2 Kings 4:3 - 7

God's response to Chuck's hopeless cries was similar to Elisha's response to this broken widow. "Chuck, what do you have in your heart?"

Chuck's response: "Nothing except disappointment, despair, weariness....well, nothing except .... a love for Jesus and His people."

God's Response: "Start walking your neighborhood and extending that love to each person you meet. Extend that love to each person in this dying church. Tell them: 'God loves you and so do I!"

Such a directive seemed like spraying a destructive roaring fire with a water gun instead of a fire hose. But each day, I watched as Chuck said those words over and over again. The neighbors took notice of this young, vibrant pastor who spent time on the streets connecting with young people and before long, our home filled up with hope and laughter and transformed lives.

God was using this little dying church as our second School Master, teaching us that obedience in the mundane things is often the key that unlocks the "great things" God has planned for each of us.

 Elisabeth Elliot once stated:

“Does it make sense to pray for guidance about the future if we are not obeying in the thing that lies before us today? How many momentous events in Scripture depended on one person's seemingly small act of obedience! Rest assured: Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.” 

In my next post, this despairing widow will be a spiritual mother for us, as we pull "Teaching Moments" from her life. In the meantime, "Do what God tells you to do now, and depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next."

In His grip,

PS Catch up on the introduction to the story of Elisha and the widow: Nothing Except....From Misery to Mercy to Ministry
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