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Acquainted With Grief

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ACQUAINTEDWITHGRIEF

 

Something was terribly wrong

The two women knew something was wrong when their otherwise strong, vibrant brother went to lie down on his bed in the middle of the afternoon.  “This isn’t like him,” they thought but dared not say, though the glances that they shot at one another told them both they were thinking the same thing.  In the morning he had been fixing the gate at the pasture, at lunchtime he was not his normal light-hearted self, but quiet and tired.  Now he was in bed.

 

“I’m sending a message for the physician,” the older one whispered.  “He’ll know what to do.”  With all the speed she could manage she found someone going to the city to take the message that he was urgently needed and to come quickly.

 

When she returned, her brother was burning with fever, writhing in pain, and moaning in a delirium.  The two sisters prayed that the physician would get there soon.

 

He didn’t.

 

By morning the women knew it was just a matter of hours, if not minutes, and their dear, kind brother would be gone.  They had seen this many times before.  Death – or rather dying – was not the unfamiliar thing to them that it may be for you or me.  They had watched their parents die, and the tell-tale breathing, weakness, and draining color were all there.

 

And they were right.  He was gone by mid-morning.

 

The tears flowed freely and the pain of losing him was almost more than they could bear.  The sobs racked their small frames and though they were surrounded by a host of neighbors and family members, all they wanted was for him to come back.  They had never been without him.  Ever since their parents died, the three siblings loved and cared for one another as few have known.

 

Because of the heat and the lack of provisions to keep his body at home for a few more days, the burial arrangements were made quickly.  He was laid to rest with all the honor due a wonderful man, but he was dead – and gone – nonetheless.  The sisters were heartbroken.

 

The Inexorable Grip of Grief

Grief is a terrible thing.  It holds captive the mind and the emotions as few experiences can.  It is all consuming, inexorably gripping, and in its rawest moments, literally painful. Grief hurts in a way that no other emotional experience can.  Breathing hurts.  Sitting, lying down, and thinking all hurt.  And these two sisters, at a time and in a culture where their brother was not only their dearest friend, but also their protector and provider, were not only grieving the loss of their beloved friend, but also facing a future of unimaginable consequences.  

 

Four days later the physician, their very close friend, finally arrived.  They were so happy to see him, but nothing could assuage their deep, abiding, and overwhelming grief.

 

They asked with aching hearts and burning, tear-filled eyes, “Why didn’t you come sooner?”  “If you had come right away he wouldn’t have died – I know you could have helped him.”  “What kept you?”

 

When Jesus saw them weeping, and those who were gathered together with them also weeping, he was moved and greatly troubled at their distress.  When he asked the sisters, “Where have you laid him?” and they showed him, Jesus wept in such as way that others gathered near whispered to themselves, “See how much he loved him!”

 

This story can be one of the ones that we become a little callous to – because we know what happens next.  But the truth is, Jesus knew what was going to happen next, and yet he grieved with them.  

 

Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” and until I heard this story again about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus the other night, I had never connected the two.  I know that Jesus bore many griefs that we will never begin to understand – the sin of the world, the rejection, the agony of the wrath of God and the separation he felt – these are real and undeniable (and not even close to an exhaustive list).  So Jesus knows what it is like to feel grief – more intensely and more profoundly than we ever will.

 

Jesus enters our grief

But this story makes it clear that Jesus knows what it is like to enter into another’s grief as well.  Jesus knew  that he would raise Lazarus from the dead – he told his disciples so before they began the journey to Bethany where he already knew that Lazarus had died.  But the sight of the sisters in deep, agonizing grief moved him with visible compassion.  Jesus wept because he saw the pain that death had caused his dear friends.  He wept for their sorrow and for their broken hearts.  Jesus wept because he became acquainted with their grief.

 

What kind of love is this?  He didn’t need to do that.  He could have just gone straight to, “Lazarus, come forth!” and gotten him out of his grave clothes.  He could have said, “What’s all this fuss about?  He’s not dead, but only sleeping.  Come now – stop your crying and see.”  But he wouldn’t deny the pain that these two sisters were in – even though he knew their sorrow would turn to joy in a few moments.

 

Beloved – this is our same Savior.  He knows that our lives are but a vapor, but he is acquainted with our griefs.  He doesn’t just relate to our grief because he has felt his own – he enters into our griefs with us because he loves us that deeply.  He knows that he will change our sorrows into joy before we know it – and that from the perspective of eternity, this is very, very little.  But as Jesus entered into the pain and sorrow of Mary and Martha’s grief, even knowing what he was about to do, he enters into ours as well.

 

Jesus was indeed a man of many sorrows of  his own.  But he was also a man acquainted with grief – not only his own, but his beloved’s as well.  Jesus doesn’t only enter into our grief because he knows what grief is like and can understand what we are feeling.  He enters in and feels it with us because he knows and loves us.

 

That is a good and kind Savior.  May the joy of this Risen Friend be more deeply yours than it ever has been – each and every day.

 

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Please stop asking the Old Lady at church to participate in your child’s disobedience

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shy-child

“Good morning, Johnny!” said the Old Lady at church.

Silence ensued, accompanied by a lowered brow which was followed up with a dodge behind mom’s leg.

“Say ‘hi,’ Johnny!” said the harried mom who was late, weighed down by an infant in a car seat and a diaper bag that didn’t want to stay on her shoulder.

More silence from Johnny, except for the almost imperceptible nasally sneer that came from his tiny frame as he peeked out from his defensive position to check that all eyes were still on him.  Mom was getting frustrated – she likes Old Lady and wants her to think well of Johnny, and her parenting, so she struggled to wrest the child from his hiding spot and coax little Johnny to say, “hi” to the smiling, waiting Old Lady.

But Johnny was having none of it.

As the seconds began to pile up with crushing pressure, Johnny became even more resolute and Mom was looking for any way possible to just get the scene over and done with.  So, with apologetic eyes (and heart) she spoke to Old Lady for Johnny and said, “We’re feeling a little shy today.”

To which the Old Lady at church was supposed to smile and say, “Oh, it’s OK, dear – don’t worry about it.  They all go through this stage.”

But she didn’t, and here is why.

She doesn’t want to participate in Johnny’s disobedience, and you shouldn’t either.

This mom’s answer on any given morning might have been “we’re still working on our manners,” or “we’re trying not to force him into social situations he’s uncomfortable with,” or “I keep trying to get him to talk with adults, but he just won’t,” or any number of other reasons she has allowed for Johnny not to do as she asked, but none of us is doing Johnny any favors if we allow him to persist.

While all of those things might be true (shyness, manners, social skill development, etc.) they are entirely beside the point.

Little Johnny was told to do something by his mother and he refused.  By making excuses for his behavior, Johnny is actually being trained to disobey her and she wanted desperately for the Old Lady at church to help her do it.  Sound familiar?

It is absolutely OK that Johnny is learning social skills and manners and even how to navigate social situations he is uncomfortable with.  But it is absolutely not OK for him to openly defy his Mom or Dad.

This may seem like a small and silly thing to write about, but it’s played out with such regularity, and is cousin to so many other ways we encourage disobedience rather than obedience that I sometimes want to shout out loud…  STOP THAT!!!!

It’s important that we think  through all of the little things about child-rearing in light of the Gospel.  We miss out on a million opportunities to disciple our kids when we don’t walk them through the steps of showing them their need.

In the example above, all could have been well if a couple of small changes had been made.  If mom knows that Johnny really is shy, she can practice with him before he goes in the door.  “OK, Johnny, what’s Old Lady at church going to do today?”  “Say, ‘Good Morning.'”  “Right!  And what should you say then?”  “Good Morning.”  “YES! That’s right! Let’s practice. Would you like Mommy to help you say ‘Good Morning’ to Old Lady today?”  And then when the scene plays out, Mom can say to Old Lady after she’s said her greeting, “It is a good morning Old Lady and Johnny and I have been practicing together our greetings to people.  Can you help us practice?”  Old Lady will be more than thrilled to help you, and says it again.  Mom helps reluctant Johnny (who maybe looks at Old Lady but then hides his face in mom’s neck.  At this point, Johnny is not disobeying because he hasn’t been told to do something, but he now has two adults helping him to learn an important skill.  Old Lady might say, “Oh, Johnny – I know it’s hard to learn how to do this but you keep practicing with Mommy and we’ll try again next week!”  No disobedience – all support.

What if Johnny is just not up-to-snuff on all those manners?  What better place to practice than in the company of Old Lady at church?  Mom and Dad can talk to Johnny ahead of time about this, too, and even do some play acting at home in preparation so that Johnny becomes comfortable with the exchange of greetings.  A similar request as above can be made of Old Lady when they walk in. Some coaching might be involved in the process, but that’s OK.  Making mistakes while learning is understandable and to be expected, but everyone involved is working towards Johnny’s good in this scenario.  Mom, Dad, and Old Lady can gladly participate in Johnny’s efforts to acquire skills to appropriately greet people he might not know very well, and he’s learning to honor people like Old Lady by speaking directly to her and not hiding behind someone’s leg.

You get the idea – find ways to prepare your little darling for what’s coming and what you expect their response to be.  Teach them why these things are important and that you expect them to obey you. Build into the situation a great likelihood that your child can succeed with what is being asked for in the routine of normal social situations, and don’t be afraid (or too proud) to ask for help from those around you who have journeyed far ahead of you on the road.  (And if you’re stumped about how to do that, ask Old Lady!)

It’s critical, Mom and Dad, that we take the discipleship of our children intensely seriously.  God doesn’t wink at or laugh at our sin – even our “childish” sin that is universally common.  He hates sin, and he has put his own son on a cross to remove it from his children.  Thankfully, we don’t have to make that kind of sacrifice for our sin or our children’s.  But in the end, if a rebellious and disobedient heart really is at the core of your little darling’s reluctance to obey you, then there is really nothing more important for you to address right there and right then – even if it is in front of Old Lady at church.  Take him to a private place, mete out whatever discipline is necessary, and come back and try again.  Old Lady will still be there, smiling and waiting, and cheering you on for being a phenomenal parent because you are taking the sinful heart of your beloved offspring as seriously as God does.

Next post, A Word about Liars…

 

 

You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is…

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So stop trying.

I know – that goes against all the things you think you’ve been taught.

Be good.

Be nice.

Be generous.

Be compassionate.

Be better.

And the implied message at the end of all those directives is, “so you make (or keep) God happy with you.”

The trouble is – it’s all wrong.  It’s a big fat lie that we actually seem to like telling ourselves and one another.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever received was this:  “You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is…”

If you are a believer – a follower of Jesus who knows for certain that you’ve been forgiven – lifted out of a filthy ocean of disgusting sin that you not only dug for yourself but filled bucket by bucket and were hopelessly flailing about in with no hope of getting yourself out of much less cleaned up from – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

If you are a disciple of the Son of God – a sinner who has repented and hates not only the sinful storehouse you built but also the fact that you are prone to building it again – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

If you are aching to know God better and love Him more because he put the desire into your heart of stone-turned-to-flesh – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

Did you catch that?  God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be!

The real question each of us must face when considering our mortality is not, “Am I at peace with God?”  Rather, it is this:  “Is God at peace with me?”

And if you’ve seen your hopeless condition and run to Jesus for rescue, because you know that his life and his death and his resurrection have satisfied all the demands God has made on us that we couldn’t satisfy – and that it has been offered to you freely – then God is at peace with you.  He is happy with you and cannot be made happier.

His delight has been made free to you – though it was enormously costly to Him – and He is happy to offer it to you.

And the glorious irony is that God is happy with us precisely because of the offer.  For when he sees you and me – sinners rescued from the miry pits of our own making, saved from destruction and an endless eternity of heartache and despair – he sees his beloved Jesus.  Period.

The exchange was so utterly complete that when Jesus became sin for us, he filled us up with himself – and that is all God sees.  Perfect, complete, clean, pure.

God is already as happy with you as He can be, because when he sees you, if you belong to him, he sees his Son in you perfectly reflected and shining in beautiful glory.

You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is, because when He sees you, He sees His Son.

But there was more to the advice.

“You cannot make God any happier with you than He already is.  And indeed, you must not try.”

I can hear you now (because, truthfully, I’ve said the same things).

What?!?  What about following the 10 Commandments?  What about all the Old Testament Commandments – or the New Testament ones??  What about all the places in the Bible that tell us to do this or not do that?  What about all the RULES?!?

Being good is good, and it can reflect that you’ve had your heart changed – but it will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

Being kind is good, and it can be an indication of Who you belong to – but it will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

Giving generously, being compassionate, showing mercy – all good, and definitely character traits of someone who loves well, but… you got it.  They will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

In fact, if that is your motive, you are believing a false Gospel.  You are, in effect, saying, “Thanks Jesus for the death on the cross and all, but I’ve got it from here.  Really.  I’m good.”

For some ridiculous reason we would rather bear the terrible burden of trying to satisfy God ourselves than trust in the freedom that Christ has provided.  How does that make sense?  And yet, I talk with more people than not who claim to know and follow Jesus who are running around trying to make God happy! 

STOP!

Think about it.  If you’re still having to work hard to earn God’s favor – what exactly did you get freed from?  If you really believe that Jesus saved you, why aren’t you living like you’re saved from the crushing burden of trying to do all that God requires?

I’m asking you the same questions I had to ask myself once.  I realized I wasn’t living like I really believed what I said I believed.  I was running around working hard to make God happy.  But you know what – I knew in my heart nothing I did could ever be good enough.  There was always something I could have – should have – done better.  There was always work left undone.  I got lazy or sloppy in my pursuit of perfection and that really messes with this whole happy God thing!  Unbelievably, I had even convinced myself that I could keep starting over with a clean slate – but that’s not true!

If Jesus’ work wasn’t enough, what hope did I have of making God happy?  If Jesus’ death and resurrection was just a starting point, what could I possibly conjure up that was better than what He had already done?

And that, my friends, is precisely the point.  I can’t.  You can’t.  No one can.  We really were hopelessly lost in our own foolish, stupid, selfish, lazy, mean-spirited, ugly, swiftly-filling, ocean-sized pit of sin.  But the rescue has already been completed, and it is spectacularly sufficient and good.  Trying to add anything to it to somehow gain God’s approval would be like doing your laundry in that cess-pool you created and offering it back to God with the hopes that He will somehow like it better than the radiant robes of righteousness that Jesus has already provided.  Just stop.

You cannot make God any happier with you than He already is.  And indeed, you must not try.  For when He sees you He sees His beloved Son, and His work is beautifully sufficient and good.  Jesus has freed you – now go and live in the joy of knowing you are free indeed!

Fighting for joy…

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Acrylic on paper by James Winn

Acrylic on paper by James Winn

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass is green, the humidity and temperatures are high, and flip-flops are still the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it when feeding animals out in our barn or shoveling 4-ft snow drifts just to go to work.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions, or gut, or whatever you want to call it, and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My experience wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.

Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.

Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“For I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that day that which has been entrusted to me.”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” for the past few months and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful than silly jingles or whatever dumb choruses might conjure up for us.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.  Wake up!  That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My experience wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  We have to tell ourselves the truth – that we don’t know what the future will look like, but that we can trust the One who loves us and gave Himself over for us.  That we can depend on him for everything we need in the face of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.  And that, in the end, everything, he puts before us is both for our good and His glory – even the trials.

The world may be looking a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfected.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.

Further thoughts on Luke 10:2… therefore

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“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Luke 10:2

 

Therefore

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth saying here:  whenever you see the word “therefore” you need to look and see what it’s there for.

Therefore is a connecting word.  It connects what has preceded it to what is coming next.  There is culmination involved.  The speaker or writer has been building a case, setting the stage, laying it out as it were to get to something else.

Jesus has done just that here.  The stage is set:

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” has been laid out for all it’s glorious, yet problematic reality.  Jesus has a gargantuan task for his followers to work hard in.  A task so big and so far reaching that it is impossible, except that we know that nothing is impossible with God.

And now he’s about to explain how we are to participate with Him in His glorious plan.  There should be anticipation, expectancy, hope! – for we’ve just seen the problem but we know that the Savior we serve is full of miraculous, unexpected answers for the impossible.

We’ve looked closely at each of these words, both in their meaning separately and in how they stand together.  This is Jesus talking to us.  This is our Savior who has drawn us so effectively to himself that he has taken our hearts of stone and turned them into hearts of flesh to follow hard after him.  This is our friend and teacher – our guide and protector – who has told us “fear not, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.  He will never leave you nor forsake you…”

Everything that precedes the “therefore” is to remind us of the kind of Master we serve.  It is setting the foundation for what follows.  It gives us all the reasons for the next part.  It is saying, “because of all of this….”

We need the foundation because we forget who we are talking about.  We need the setting of the stage because we lose sight of the plan.  We need the case to be built again for us – plainly – because we get distracted by so many lesser things.

Remembering that he is good and kind, faithful, true, loving, patient, powerful, and every other thing that we know is TRUE of the mighty God we serve  will give us courage for the impossible task he is calling us to.  It is because of this that we are reminded that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and like Paul we preach to ourselves, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

These truths anchor of our souls.  They keep us from being blown and tossed by the storms in our lives.  They center us on what is important and our focused gaze on who is talking to us will help us ignore the thousands of things around us at every given moment on every given day.

Being reminded that Jesus has a purpose to all of this and that he is calling us to see his plan – to be intimately engaged in his mission –  reminds us that the world is not spinning aimlessly into oblivion.  He is in control of all things and through Him all things hold together.  He was sent to bring a people to himself and he is calling us – inviting us – to the same purpose.  He is calling us to be actively involved in his Kingly work.

In calling us to remember that he has already accomplished everything he needs to achieve his stated goals.  He reminds us that His work will be accomplished – we need not ever fear that our labor for Him will be the toil that grinds us into the ground.  Instead, he promises good fruit for faithful service.  Jesus says there is a plentiful harvest.  He doesn’t say, “Look guys, if we all work together we just might be able to pull this one off.”  No!  It’s a sure thing.  A sealed deal.  We have assurance that the One with the power, might, and authority to do all of this is telling us it has already been secured.

“With my plan and purposes in mind,” he says “therefore…”

“Because I am the God of the Universe,” he says,  “therefore…”

“Because I have conquered sin and death,” he says,  “therefore…”

“Because I have a people to call to myself from every tongue and tribe and nation,” he says, “therefore…”

“Because I am who I am,” he says, “therefore…”

And here, if we’re listening and paying attention to the One we know and love and trust, we hear what Jesus is saying.  He is telling us, “Because I have a beautiful harvest that is ready to be brought into my good and perfect kingdom storehouses of souls that will live forever in My presence and sweet communion with me and all who are mine, and because there will never be enough of you to accomplish that – to bring in all the magnificent, glorious, God-magnifying plentiful bounty I have prepared to reap today and in every age until I return, from here and every group of people on the face of the earth… therefore.

These are unshakable truths.  They are not hopeful wishes or sighs of optimistic, positive thinking.  They are givens.  Absolutes.  Unqualified and unconditional.  Jesus will accomplish what he has said he will accomplish because he already has done everything needed to accomplish it.

They are because he says they are – and we can trust in them because we trust in Him.

Further thoughts on Luke 10:2… the laborers

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“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Luke 10:2

The Laborers

I have spent most of my life being surrounded by laborers.  Farm laborers, factory laborers, ship yard laborers, and landscape laborers just to name a few.  I have visited other countries where this is also true – on any given morning on any given street the hustle and bustle everywhere was of laborers who did everything from laundry to construction, and some simply walked along the roads each day and picked up trash.  I have seen trains in big cities packed to the seeming breaking point of laborers shuffling from home to job and back again.  Every day, no matter what else in life is swirling about, people working for others do just that – they get up, go out, and they work hard – for someone else.

People who are motivated know how to work.  The term “laborers” carries with it the understanding of hard, physical exertion.  Jesus was not talking about tourists, or onlookers.  He wasn’t referring to passers-by, or those whose station in life has made it so that they have others do their work for them.

No, Jesus was talking about the grit and grime of exhausting, sweat-producing, ongoing work.  

So who are these laborers?  Who is Jesus referring to?

In one sense surely Jesus was talking about the disciples who would start his church.  The world was ripe for a huge harvest and after his work was done, the harvest began.  But in another very real sense there is another group of workers who must sit up and listen as we heed Jesus’ words.  For in the same way that he was speaking to his disciples (and also to us) when he said, “go, therefore, into all the world and make disciples…” he was speaking to the same future disciples when he spoke the words of Luke 10:2.

We are those workers!  We are the ones who are to live giving our lives and energy and devotion to the sweet and rewarding task he has called us to.  Isn’t it wonderful to know that you have been hand-picked by the maker of the universe to be in his service?

But let me ask you something that might make you wince a little….

When was the last time you broke a sweat for the Gospel?  When was the last time you fell into bed exhausted from your efforts to woo people to the warmth and peace of the Love of Christ?  When was the last time you labored to see another soul brought to Christ?  When was the last time you were working so hard at this that you thought you couldn’t go on?

(I’m asking myself these questions, too.)

I wrote once about the joy I found in cleaning a particularly filthy bathroom because I realized I was doing it for the Lord.  That has remained a powerful lesson in my life.  It doesn’t matter what God asks me to do, I’m happiest doing that, knowing Who it is that I am really serving, than I am doing anything else!  There is great joy – giddy, delightful, soul-rejuvenating joy – when we know that our work is for the Lord of the Harvest!

Work is hard, but work is good.  Sometimes I have to remind my kids that work was not part of the curse when sin entered the world.  God gave Adam work to do before Eve came along!  Work is our mission.  Work is sweet and rewarding.  We were made for work!

Toil is what came about as part of the curse.  Toil is that relentless, exhausting, fruitless struggle that brings about no product for all our effort and barely keeps us from losing ground.  Toil is part of our existence right now, but work is, too.

Being a laborer in Christ’s harvest is magnificent work.  If you’re finding that you are lacking joy in your mission, let me lovingly suggest that you might be toiling for the wrong harvest, because Jesus promises that his burden is easy and his yoke is light.

What if…?

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Yesterday I was challenged with a “What if…?” question.

“What if” questions require imagination.  They require us to ponder the possibilities, explore the potentials, and mentally fly to places unknown.  What if questions are usually an invitation to hope and dream about positive, wonderful things.  I encourage my kids to ask “what if?” all the time.  I want them to learn to imagine and dream the biggest of hopes and possibilities.  It’s a good exercise.

But I have to admit that when the question was first being posed to me, I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative…or positive…or wonderful.

This particular “what if” scenario wasn’t about imagining the possibilities of great inventions or missions opportunities or travel destinations.  It wasn’t about letting my mind take me away to possible twists and turns on my life journey or even hopes or dreams.

No.  This “what if” question was about pain.

“What if,” my friend asked me, “this current pain that is so hard is actually meant to be life-giving rather than the death you think it is?”  I knew where he was going, but I was not particularly jumping up and down about going down that imaginary road with him.

I was thinking, “But the pain is… well, I don’t mean to sound dense, but… it’s painful.  And I want it to stop – yesterday. I don’t want to open myself up to the possibilities of it – I want to close myself off so it stops hurting so much.”

I knew that probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say out loud.  Even as it was rolling around in my mind, I could hear the stories of Joseph and Job and Paul objecting to my objections.

Still, I wanted to say, “But…”

I didn’t.

I listened.  Wanting desperately to object to the idea that the pain had to continue, and wanting to object vehemently to the notion that it might be for my good.

“Why does pain have to be such a harsh task master?”

Why, oh why can’t we learn the hard things through easier means?”

These were the questions I wanted to raise like a child wailing at the top of her lungs while the Physician was trying to administer a life-saving remedy.

I don’t want pain.  I certainly don’t want pain that has to last and last.

But I know better.

I know that the painful lessons are the most thorough ones.  I know that the tutelage of pain has the most lasting impact.  And I know, more than anything, that the painful times bear the sweetest, truest, deepest, richest spiritual fruit in my life.

Do I want to embrace this pain as the faithful teacher I know it to be?  Not really – do you like hugging porcupines?  But I’ll hug him again and again if I have faith that there will be an even greater reward than I can ask for or imagine on the other side of pulling out the quills.

I’ve been asked to trust that the pain will achieve its purpose because it has come through the hands of my loving Heavenly Father.  And I’m being asked to consider the possibility that hopeful anticipation for the blessed reward on the other side of it all will make me wonder what I was so afraid of.  Big requests, really, but honest ones.

Opening one’s self, voluntarily – willingly ­– to the lessons of pain feels like giving one’s self over to the tyranny of a tormentor… Unless we know our Teacher well.

Trusting in human beings is risky business.  But trusting in the One who loves me enough to lay down His life for me isn’t risky at all.  Keeping my eyes – and heart and thoughts and hopes and dreams – stayed on Jesus will bring me safely to the other side of all of this.  Even if it goes on and on He will sustain me and comfort me and be enough for me.  I know this to be true.

So onward pain.  Do your work. Have your way with me and mold me into a woman who radiates the tested beauty that only the heat of a refiner’s fire can produce.  Keep me captive until I have learned the God-exalting lessons you have prepared for me.  And do not leave until this work is accomplished.

And Lord, for what it’s worth… I do believe all of this.  I know that you work all things together for my good, because I am yours.  I know that you have plans for me for a future and a hope.  I know that my help comes from you and you are my defender and ever-present helper in times of need.  Lord, I do believe all that  – but please, help my unbelief.