Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Author and Perfecter

Some of us are afraid to go anywhere without make-up. Come on, ladies, admit it. You don’t want anyone to see what you really look like under there. And, I get it. I’m not married to my make-up. I go places without it. In fact, I’m pretty sure the PE coach at the elementary school chuckles at me every morning when he sees me pull up in my minivan to drop off my girls at school while still wearing my bathrobe. But, I digress. The fact is I like to wear make-up. (People don’t smirk at me when I wear make-up.) Even if I get all soapy and fix my hair, I just don’t feel finished without putting on my make-up. It helps me put my best face forward, so to speak. Even though I know God made me the way He wanted to and that He doesn’t make mistakes, I don’t really like the way I look as much without make-up as I do with it. Maybe that’s vain, but it is true.

I have begun to recognize, though, that there is much more than make-up covering my true self. Rewind to a few weeks ago when I was afforded the opportunity to look at myself in the mirror…not without make-up, but without God. You heard me correctly. I saw what I look like when I am au natural…me, unaltered, in the flesh, striving on my own, floundering without God. And, I wasn’t pretty. I didn’t like what I saw under there. No one should have to see that! Let me elaborate…

My mom and I attended the Women of Joy conference in San Antonio. We were so excited to finally get a weekend away together (the first since the birth of my daughters nearly 9 years ago). We were even more pumped about what God is doing in our family. We set out on our adventure asking God to show us more about joy. Both of us have experienced an inordinate amount of pain, and we both wanted God to show us how to live here and now, anticipating the future, with joy. After a night to rest on the Riverwalk and hear the inspiring voice of Sarah Palin, we felt like we could take on the world for Jesus! My faith had never seemed so strong.

Fast forward less than 24 hours. While I was still in San Antonio on “retreat”, something painful occurred (let’s call it a set-back), the details of which are personal and not necessary to make my point. It is sufficient to say that Satan knew just where to punch me. I had thrown my whole heart into moving forward with my life trusting God, and he had let me down. He had allowed me to hurt one too many times. And, I was done with Him. (I told Him that myself, so you don’t have to gasp and worry that I’m being irreverent. He already knows how irreverent I was.) I raged and screamed prayers. At first, they were desperate pleas for help. But, they dissolved into angry, bitter, contemptuous, snide remarks. I told God I didn’t believe in Him (funny, I was still talking to Him, though…or, out loud to no one—CRAZY!). I cried all night long. I did not get one lick of sleep. I felt utterly desolate. I would not listen to a word of encouragement from my mom. In fact, I think I physically pushed her away and yelled at her. I could not worship on Sunday morning. I could not dream of spending one more minute listening to someone tell me their line of bologna about how God will come through for you. I just could not do it. I thought my life as I knew it was over, and I was not sure how I was going to change everything to match my new point of view that God did not exist. We skipped the end of the conference and I drove home to face my new life…and who knows what that meant! I was utterly lost. What a change from the freedom and power of the previous day!

Later that day, as I faced my “set-back”, I was physically wiped out. My kids sat on the bed with me and read books while I let an ice pack tend to my whopping headache. And, as I lay completely vulnerable to the world and its attacks, God began to tend to my wounded soul by His Spirit. I may have been done with Him, but He wasn’t done with me! Miracle of all miracles! You mean, I practically cursed him (ok, really cursed at Him), and He still wanted to pursue ME? Unbelievable. And, true. As the next several days wore on, God built my confidence up again. He showed me by the responses of the people around me that He was still at work and that the success or failure of everything does not depend upon me. It depends upon Him. I had never felt so free.

My point is a simple one: Even your faith, dear one, is given by God. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our 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.” In other words, God created my faith. He started it! I didn’t dream it up in my own head and then construct it. God did! It was His idea in the first place. Not only that, but He is the one that sustains it. He perfects it. And, He is the one who will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:4-6).

God has given us the choice to believe or not to believe. But, God is sovereign, and He will have His way. Not as much depends on you as you might think. I’m not advocating getting lazy or being rebellious. We will respond to God with joyful obedience when with grateful hearts we recognize His great love for us. But, listen friend: When you mess up or you just cannot find the strength to believe God for one more second, He will continue what He began in you (whether you like it or not!). This provides tremendous comfort to me! How refreshing!

Corrie Ten Boom once said that she did not have a big faith in a small God, but rather a small faith in a big God. Amen. My little mustard seed of faith will be enough for even the grandest of tasks because my God is big! It is not about me. It is about what God began, what He wants to accomplish, and what He already promised He will complete. It was true for Jonah. He tried to run from God’s calling on his life, but God had His way, didn’t He? Our rebellion and our unbelief cannot stop God. And, His long-suffering, patient, loving presence will be there to nurse our faith to health when it is ailing.

If you detect even a hint of truth in what I have written, then God has probably already authored your faith. Is it ailing today? Are you having trouble believing? Tell Him. God knows what you look like without your make-up on. Let Him nurse your faith back to health. He doesn’t abandon the works of His hands.

“Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you, Lord” Psalm 9:10

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chosen in Weakness

October is a great month for baseball fans in Texas. How about those Rangers? Star player Josh Hamilton hit two home runs just last night. He has hit more home runs against the Yankees than anyone else in post-season history. That is something to shout about! But, the best part of the story, in my opinion, is that Josh is shouting about Jesus’ power in his life. When the Rangers won their first playoff series in franchise history a couple of weeks ago, the team chose to celebrate non-traditionally. Usually, an MLB win of that magnitude dictates that the locker room be drenched in a champagne downpour. Not so for the Texas Rangers. They chose to honor their MVP Josh Hamilton, a recovered alcoholic and born-again Christian, with a ginger ale toast. It was a fitting and respectful tribute to a beloved team leader and a testimony to the whole world.

I wonder if Josh, shortly after leaving his old way of life, would have ever guessed that he would be honored, not just for his great athletic prowess, but for his bold witness for Jesus and for his decision to repent, submit his life to God, and walk in a new light? My guess is that he did not. I have a little experience watching men who have fallen from grace, and shame and guilt usually follows. They wonder, “How could anyone ever respect me again? How could I ever have anything to offer?” God’s truth, though, is topsy-turvy, isn’t it? Josh Hamilton may have made some poor choices, may have been going in the wrong direction, and may have been a slave to alcohol at one time. But, now he is the hero—in every way.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. God intentionally chose Josh Hamilton. You know why? It brings GOD glory. It points to the restoration only God can effect. God got Josh out of the way (a heavy dose of humility, anyone?) so that God himself would be magnified (very publicly, I might add) in a generation that desperately needs Him. And, people listened. The Rangers’ non-traditional celebration made front-page sports news the very next day. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 says, “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the despised and insignificant things—the things viewed as nothing—so that he might bring to nothing the things that are viewed as something so that no one can boast in his presence.” Weird, isn’t it? God actually chooses the misfits to show the world that it is God who saves—not our own human strength, discipline, or goodness.

Last weekend, my parents had a celebration of their own: a 40th wedding anniversary. We don’t see many of those these days, and I know why. It is hard to keep it together. Marriages face great challenge. Like Bryan and I, my parents’ marriage has survived infidelity. And, instead of putting that chapter of their life in a dark closet somewhere so they don’t have to look at it anymore, they chose to celebrate their anniversary by being the humble object lesson of their pastor’s sermon on forgiveness and restoration (find it on, October 17). As one family friend remarked, “That was more church in one Sunday than I have been a part of in 52 weeks!” And, it really was.

From beginning to end, Mom and Dad’s anniversary celebration was an illustration of 1 Cor. 1: 27-29. North Highlands Bible church is a cozy congregation led by a self-proclaimed stutterer (though I have never heard him miss a beat). According to the pastor’s story, he was told in seminary that he would never be able to “cut it”. But, after hearing sermon after sermon full of heart-engaging, life-changing truth, I am convinced that they were dead wrong! He isn’t focused on getting numbers. This man wants to pastor his flock and to develop healthy disciples. He is going to be faithful with the few God has given him, and he is doing it humbly and excellently. On Sunday, he told my parents’ story in light of God’s truth, and he interviewed them. They spoke boldly and honestly, but neither of them had prepared speeches or fancy rhetoric. They promised yet again to commit their lives to one another and to what God will do with their future. I am confident that Mom and Dad’s story breathed life and hope into people who are fellow strugglers, pilgrims on the way to Heaven. At the end of the service, we all clapped and sang Matt Myer’s song, “Love will hold us together, make us a shelter to weather the storm. And, I’ll be my brother’s keeper so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.” A lunch honoring my parents capped our time together. We ate nachos while we listened to some of their favorite music like, “Band of Gold” and “Little GTO.” It was a room full of ordinary people celebrating an extraordinary God. The whole thing literally rocked!

It is amazing how God is magnified when we are honest. Amazing how people respond to weakness and foolishness and insignificance. Amazing how people respond to God’s love and forgiveness and healing power. It touches a chord deep inside all of us. You mean, God can still use ME? You mean, he knows what I’ve done, where I’ve been, who I’ve been…and he still wants to use ME? You mean God can fix THIS mess? Yes.

Here is some great news: You don’t have to be a major league baseball player to bring hope to those who think God could not possibly fix their mess. All you have to do is tell your story to whomever will listen. You are the owner of your story. There is no victory in hiding from it, no matter how shameful. Your mistakes don’t define you, but your story does. How are you going to tell it? How is it going to end? To some extent, you decide. Life is the mysterious dance between God’s power and our free will. He is sovereign. God begins a good work in us, and he brings it to completion. But, we have a choice about how we will respond in each and every moment. Those of us who have been saved by grace can choose how we want to project our story to the world. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather tell it myself instead of having others tell it incorrectly! Bryan and I are the only ones living inside this marriage, and we are the only ones who know what is true. God speaks into our lives behind the closed doors of our home most of the time. And, privacy is alright, in and of itself. But, it is not always the greater good.

There are some who would say that if, after 20 years, my parents are still talking about their pain, that they are not “moving on”. Some would want them to “put it behind them” and for it to be “over” once and for all, especially those who are concerned that my father is going to get labeled or stuck in a place of shame and guilt. And, some would say it is foolish for me to be so honest about my marriage, warning that it further damages my husband’s reputation. I have even been advised by a Christian family member to take my blog off the internet. That same person advised us to move so that we can “start over”. I understand the heart of those who are concerned. But, my answer is a simple one. Yes, we can say “goodbye” to the chains that held these precious men in bondage. But, we cannot say “adios” to our stories! There is no starting over. How we wish it were possible! But, this is our story, and we’re sticking to it.

Sure, it isn’t the easy way, but nothing good in life comes from taking the easy road. Just before my parents’ anniversary, Bryan and I revisited our dilemma about whether or not to be forthcoming, to use our story boldly and openly in ministry to others. Bryan met a stranger who recognized his name only through my blog. It sent him into a tailspin. “What must that person think of me?” he wondered. He began to listen to all of Satan’s most convincing lies. “You’ll never be able to overcome this. You really are a bad person. Sarah will never truly forgive you. Everywhere you go, you will be exposed for the fraud that you are.” In tears, he begged me to stop my blog. I was grieved—for so many reasons. I quickly acquiesced, though. I don’t want to cause him pain! By the next morning, Bryan had changed his mind. He came to me and asked me not to stop doing what I am doing. I am overjoyed to report that, as a team, we are going to fight the good fight. The narrow road is the one that pays off. It is the one that says, “I will listen to Truth before I will listen to any other voice.” It boils down to whether or not we really believe what God says. Is Jesus’ forgiveness complete? And, is there more than this life?

Yes, it may make my shy Daddy uncomfortable to stand up and speak in front of his church, to let them know who he was before God changed him. And, my blog may cause Bryan to suffer some. But, I’m not afraid of that anymore. I know the truth. My dad and my husband are so much more than their mistakes. Even before Jesus got hold of my dad, he was a hard worker, a faithful provider, a good daddy, and a loving husband. My husband’s story, though different (he accepted Christ at age 7), proves that sin is not a respecter of eternal destination. But, even though he was running from God in some aspects, God’s hand never left him. Bryan still did a lot of good in those years. And, people need to know that. We must tell our stories. God’s Word says, “And who will harm you if you are passionate for doing what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:13-15, 17. God says that we will be blessed—not harmed--if we suffer as we faithfully, prayerfully, and passionately tell our stories for the good of others! Peter goes on to compare our earthly suffering to that of Christ, who, “after being put to death in the fleshly realm” was “made alive in the spiritual realm.”

I glean four major teachings from this passage:
1) God wants us to not only turn from evil, but be passionate about doing good. He wants sold-out followers who seek the things that matter to him.
2) If we suffer while we are doing the right thing, God himself will bless us. In other words, there will be ample compensation, so keep going!
3) He wants us to be prepared to tell others why we have hope in him. That will probably require telling our story, even if it brings us shame or embarrassment.
4) As we put to death our own flesh (all of its fears, its pride, and its desires), we will become alive in the spiritual realm. The more we submit to God’s plan for our lives—whether or not it was OUR original plan, the more our hearts will come alive. Here, and only here, will we find true satisfaction.

How will non-believers ever see that God really has the power to fix our messes if we do not open up our mouths and say so? God has shown us in the life of Paul and in the life of David that those who mess up the most can become the most outspoken and inspirational witnesses of God’s grace…the most effective evangelists and leaders. Ironic? In the world’s eyes. But, God is bringing to nothing the things that are viewed as something so that no one can boast in his presence.

Are you afraid your weakness or your foolishness have hurt your witness? Don’t be deceived. God has chosen you—yes, you—to lift his name high. If you have turned to him and if you are being restored by him, then he is proud of his work in you. He has chosen you to tell your story, even as you hammer out your faith in the workshop of the real world. The time for Christ’s return is drawing nigh. He wants to be exalted. God and God alone. Who will call out to the world in humility, “This is where I’ve been, but this is where I’m going because of Christ!”? Who will boldly say, “Come with me!”?

Josh Hamilton will. My mom and dad will. Bryan and I will, with God’s help. Give me a pen and paper. Give me a podium and a mike. Lemme at ‘em!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Prayer That Rescues

“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to rescue us
as you help us by your prayers.” 2 Cor. 1:10-11

Rescue: v. To save somebody or something from a dangerous or harmful situation; to prevent something from being discarded, rejected, or put out of operation.

Most of us don’t live everyday life thinking we are in need of rescue. We tend to reserve that word for firefighters who knock down the doors of a burning building to save someone on the second floor or for daring helicopter operators who pull stranded motorists from vehicles caught in a raging flood. The word “rescue” conjures up images of life and death situations. But, I submit to you that we are, in fact, in need of rescue more often than we think. Whether we recognize it or not, our joy, our peace, our effectiveness for Christ, and our very lives hang in the balance.

As Christians, we are engaged in a monstrous spiritual battle. As hard as we may try to maintain the illusion that we live in a “basically good” world, everywhere we look there is evidence that we live under the curse. On Thursday, the national news reported that a troubled college student committed suicide when two classmates secretly videoed him having a homosexual encounter and then posted it on the internet. I am grieved to the core of my being as I consider the many layers of pain in this story. It illustrates the worst of the devastation of the fall. Those kids--all of them--needed rescue.

We need not look to the news to be reminded of the spiritual battle all around us. In our own social circles, marriages are caving in, people are battling depression, adults are trying to heal from their dysfunctional childhoods and not mess up their own children in the process. In our homes, we may be fighting against discontent, strife, or disappointment. We may be grieving. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that all of us, at one time or another, need rescue from something. In truth, our own resources fall far short of our need and the needs of those around us.

What will we do when our friends reach out to us in a time of desperation? What will we do when we have exhausted all of our strength and face an enormous challenge? What will we do when we need rescue? I hope we will learn to pray. I am perplexed as to why God has created prayer as a means to move his hand. After all, he is mighty and sovereign, the one who brought everything into existence with his very words. How could my words have the power to rescue someone from danger? I don’t know, but they do. James 5:16 says, “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.” (The Message) What a thought! My prayers are a powerful force to be reckoned with. I like that.

I’d have trouble believing this Scripture, but I’ve seen it in action. When we first lost Audrey, one of my friends prayed specifically for sleep. I don’t know why. She just said she felt called to pray for sleep. And, truthfully, with the exception of that first night, I have slept peacefully every night since. I actually had more of a sleeping problem before my daughter died than after. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Another friend called and told me that she was praying for joy. She has continued to remind me at each of our meetings since (for three years now) that she is still praying for joy. I’m not always joyful, but I have had a lot of joy in the midst of some pretty terrible circumstances, and I think that is a miracle and a direct result of prayer.

And, ironically (but not accidentally), many people told us they were praying for our marriage following Audrey’s death. They all knew that the death of a child often ruined marriages. Pridefully, I thought we didn’t need that. I couldn’t see how our strong marriage and love for each other could possibly be threatened by Audrey’s death. But, what I didn’t know was that there were other issues lurking in the dark at the time. God was not surprised. He knew. And, he was already calling people to pray for our marriage. By the time the infidelity came out a year later, I believe we had been bathed in so much prayer, we could not be destroyed, even though, by the world’s standards, we should have been. We were literally rescued by prayer.

In her book, Get Out of That Pit, Beth Moore says, “We have a God-given invitation—if not responsibility—to join the process of someone’s divine deliverance from peril or pit.” Many of our friends and even strangers have responded in obedience to the call to pray, and we have been the beneficiaries. Because of these faithful people, when the pit beckoned us, we were not pulled in.

God gives us a great illustration of the direct correlation between prayer and rescue in Acts 12: “So Peter was kept in prison, but prayer was being made earnestly to God for him by the church. On the night before Herod was to bring him out for execution, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” Then the chains fell off his wrists.”(Acts 12:5-7)

Studying Peter’s miraculous, narrow escape from execution lends insight into how we are to respond to the needs all around us. Prayer was being made “earnestly” for Peter. This implies intensity and persistence. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray for “our” daily bread. He shows us to pray for our own needs and to intercede for others. The word “daily” implies that we cannot stop at one prayer! We must take our needs to God day after day until he answers! Like manna in the desert was good for one day, our prayers must be offered fresh to sustain us each day. The church (implying the body of believers, not just one person) prayed like this for Peter.

The prayers for Peter were timely. Peter was in grave danger. It was the night before Herod was to execute him. The church’s prayers literally rescued Peter from death! I also believe prayer can rescue people from being one of the living dead—Satan’s plan to render us impotent while we still exist, to stagnate us in our sin or our pain. We must be sensitive to God’s timing as we pray. Sometimes, we must drop to our knees immediately when we learn of a need. We never know why the Spirit is motivating us to pray. Time may be of the essence!

In Peter’s situation, the church prayed, but God did the rescuing! Don’t you just love that? You see, the church didn’t run down and try to break Peter out of jail. They didn’t petition Herod to let him go. They knew when they had reached the end of themselves and only God’s power was enough. When God himself intervened, Peter’s prison cell was flooded with light. Where there was night, hopelessness, and little time left before demise, the Lord brought light, hope, and life. When Peter’s chains fell off, it was a miracle. No human being could have caused that to occur. It was a supernatural act of a sovereign, almighty God, seemingly in direct response to the prayers of his people.

I love that Scripture teaches us that nearly 2000 years later, God still responds mightily to the earnest and timely prayers of his people. But, only He brings the light of life into our own dark places and still performs miracles when they are necessary. When we need rescue, we need none other than the one true God.

Do you need rescue today? Is there someone you know who does? Stand on the promises of Scripture, and participate in the divine miracle of deliverance through prayer. Pray earnestly, pray right away, and pray as often as you can! Then watch what the Almighty can do. I think you’ll be amazed.

And, my friends out there—you know who you are—be on the lookout for God’s rescue. I’m praying for it. I’m trusting Him for it. I’m counting on it!