A Thanksgiving Thought on Friendship

I would guess we all agree that finding a true friend is one of life’s greatest blessings.  A true friend.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, not from the standpoint of determining who my true friends might be, but instead, I have been thinking a lot about what makes a friend a “true friend.” And whether or not I might be grouped into that rare breed.

I studied the friendship between Jonathan and David in the Bible and came to the realization that people become “true friends” when the relationship is founded on two ideas, ideas we often get in reverse today.

Jonathan was the son of Saul (the first king of Israel).  David, a shepherd boy who through a series of events came to reside in the king’s palace, would soon be chosen to unseat Saul and seize the royal throne.  Jonathan would never inherit the throne and graciously took off his royal robe and gave it to David, in effect transferring his own status as heir.  In our world today where power is of utmost importance, Jonathan’s selfless act reflects his submission not only to God’s will, but to a friend whose character and godliness he admired.  Jonathan submitted, but his father did not.  Saul was intimidated, fearful and filled with hate towards David and for the final years of his life sought ways to have him killed.

After one of Saul’s attempts at murder, David went to his friend and asked, “Why does your father want to kill me?” Jonathan, like most sons, could not believe his father would desire the death of an innocent man and did not believe David.  He thought fear had overwhelmed him, but rather than arguing his case against David’s emotions, Jonathan simply asked David, “What do you want me to do?”

A true friend doesn’t always have to understand or agree with the way we feel.  Jonathan didn’t believe David was right about his father and probably thought David was being a little dramatic, but he supported his friend’s feelings anyway.  A true friend doesn’t always have to convince us that we are wrong in the way we feel, even when they are convinced we are.  A true friend sometimes only asks, “What do you want me to do?”

Later on, Jonathan came to know that his father was trying to kill David and that David had resorted to hiding out in caves.  He found his friend and “encouraged him in his faith in God.”  When David came to Jonathan to express his fear, even though he thought David’s emotions had gotten the best of him, Jonathan simply listened.  But when he found out David was in distress, that his life had gotten so troubled that he resorted to cave dwelling, Jonathan went to him to encourage him.  He didn’t encourage him to get out of the cave; he simply encouraged him in his faith.

What I notice about friendships is how often we get this in reverse.  We are too much in our friends’ lives when they don’t invite us there and we are too far removed when they need us the most. We rationalize that our friend is overwhelmed by unbridled emotions and we can see things much more clearly than they, so we offer our advice – advice that they will most likely ignore because they are, in fact, overwhelmed by unbridled emotions.  Sometimes we are right about their issue, but even when we can see so much more clearly than they, the best thing a true friend can do when their friend is pouring out their heart, is to simply ask, “What do you want me to do?” Save your advice, they will ask for it when they are ready to hear it.

But sometimes our friends don’t reach out to us; sometimes they wall up in a cave, overwhelmed by the difficulties of life.  And all too often we leave them there.  We are worried about them, but don’t know what to say.  I notice that’s how people handle grieving friends all too often.

When your friend is in pain, hurting and hiding, all they need is strength for the battle, not advice, not dismissal.  A true friend won’t leave them alone in the cave nor feel the need to talk them out.  Instead, a true friend will merely encourage them in the battle. That doesn’t require great words of wisdom; sometimes it only requires a hand or a prayer.

I think I’ve gotten this wrong way too often; I know I have recognized it when my friends have talked too much or left me alone when I needed them most.  And I’m sure they have recognized those same faults in me.  I hope I don’t forget this too quickly.

I am very grateful for the true friends with whom God has blessed me; I want to end this life knowing I was a true friend as well.   I pray for strength to be quiet when I need to be quiet, to reach out when I am needed, and to encourage whenever I can.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.   Henri Nouwen

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Recalculating

After plugging the address into my GPS system, I headed out to a very unfamiliar part of metropolitan Atlanta.  Driving down the interstate, my GPS told me to exit.  I didn’t think she was right, so I ignored her. (I know it is a computer, but I can’t help but refer to “it” as a “her.”)

I soon realized I probably should have listened.  No problem, I told myself, just take the next exit, turn around and this time, listen to the voice in the dash.  However, when I tried to right my path, somehow the GPS lost its signal and she never figured out that I was back on the interstate.  Instead, in utter confusion, she kept telling me to, “Turn around; at the next street, turn around!”

Obviously, this was not the time to listen to her; I knew if I only got back to the exit I previously missed I would be on the correct path to my destination.  No matter how many times she said, “recalculating,” I knew which way to go.  I needed to get back to where I was before I lost my way.

That made me start thinking about how nice it would have been, at certain times in my life, to have had an audible voice telling me, “as soon as possible, turn yourself around.”

What was I thinking?  I did have a voice.

Way too often, I heard the voice of God tell me to “stop,” “go,” or “this is the way, walk in it.” Unfortunately, I did not place much more confidence in God’s voice than I did the British lady living inside my car’s dashboard. I was sure I knew better, so I didn’t always listen.   I guess I not only needed a voice, but the willingness to listen.

Over time, I’ve grown more willing.  Make enough wrong turns and you start realizing you might not know as much as you think you do.  That realization tends to lead to more listening and less ignoring.

I’m so glad when we venture off the right path, God simply, gently says, “Recalculating” and leads us back to the journey He originally planned – though maybe by way of a different route.   Even when our wrong choices have caused us to venture far from our destination, His signal is never confused.  From His vantage point, our destiny is still fully within view and He knows precisely how to get us there.  Our journey may take us down paths of failure before we realize it’s time to recalculate, but He’s perfectly ok with recalculations and do-overs.

At the next exit, as soon as possible, just turn yourself around.

Joshua 3:4

Make sure you closely follow the Presence, then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.

Fifty Shades of Magic Mike

I love Facebook.  I love looking at pictures of your children and their children.  I love knowing where you vacationed and I particularly love laughing at your self-effacing humor.  I know more about people I haven’t seen in over three decades than I do about my own grandmother.  But that’s ok.   Listening in on your life makes me feel like it hasn’t been 35 (oh my gosh!) years since I graduated from high school.

I also love the discussions on Facebook about current issues.  It’s one thing to hear the rich and famous debate the significance and merit of an issue (or lack thereof) on the evening news; it’s quite another thing to personally enter into a conversation with 572 other mothers, housewives, business owners, PTA officers and choir members and each one of their 572 “friends.”

We all have opinions – about lots of things.  Most of those views are inconsequential; we keep most of our opinions to ourselves and simply laugh or cringe at those 12 or 13 friends who always express their opinions, realizing differences generally bring exquisite shades of color to our often monotonous world.  In reality, there aren’t many times when a difference of opinion is a bad thing.

And then a matter arises that you want to ignore, but you can’t.  So you find an article (written by someone rich or famous) and post the link on your Facebook page.  You feel good; you made your point without actually saying anything.  After eight or nine comments and twenty seven “likes,” you know your point was made.

Then every blue moon an issue arises and you know you have to say more.  I’ve had an issue on my heart a lot lately and, as I often do, I have written them down. My blog site is dedicated to writing about issues concerning captivity, hoping something I write might bring some well-needed freedom in your life.  For most of us, captivity didn’t begin with big sins; it began with a single thought.  When left unattended, that thought turned into another, which turned into another and one day we realized our hearts – not only our minds – were in profound captivity. I wasted a lot of my life there.  I write and pray that you waste not a single day of your life bound to anything or anyone other than the heart and mind of Christ.

I have not read one page of Fifty Shades of Grey or watched one minute of Magic Mike.  I only know what I have read about them and what I’ve heard on TV.  I have friends who have read the books and those who have viewed the movie; they are still my friends and I hope they always will be.  I don’t seek to bring any condemnation at all.  This is not about casting stones.

This is also not simply about sex.  This is not about sex being good or bad or whether or not women should enjoy sex.  Those two things were decided at creation; God made sex, it is good, and women should enjoy it.  For me, it’s about this concept I’ve heard expressed over and again lately: “it’s just a book,”  “it’s just a movie,”  “we are just having some fun.” On the backdrop of eternity, can a single movie or book really make that much difference?

Well, it’s not about one book or one movie.  This is about whether or not we, as Christian women and men, can sit at a movie theatre and watch some sexually explicit images or read a book filled with ideas “right out of a BDSM [bondage, discipline, dominance and submission} manual” and walk away without relinquishing a portion of our mind – and our heart – to something other than the mind and heart of Christ.  The issue, for me, is to determine how much of our minds we are willing to surrender.

You simply have to choose for yourself how much of your mind you are willing to relegate to lustful thoughts and images and then accept that however much of your mind you are willing to hand over, is the same amount of your heart you are willing to entrust to someone other than God.  There is simply no other option. If you have decided to withhold an area of your mind from Christ, you have chosen to retain lordship over an area of your heart as well.  And anything not under the control of God is not neutral; it is under the control of Satan.

This is not about what you can or cannot do. This is about guarding your mind and heart from significant damage.  There is a very real battle taking place to lure your heart from Christ’s control.  Fifty Shades of Grey and Magic Mike opened up this discussion, but this blog is not really about them.  I am writing simply to encourage you.  “The world is too much with us” and the battle for our minds and hearts will get continually worse until we reach eternity.  Until then, we will be constantly bombarded with ideas, thoughts, and opinions and our minds will need to be guarded with all diligence.

My pastor is currently speaking on the topic of “guardrails” – a guardrail is a system designed to keep vehicles from straying into dangerous or off-limit areas.  Guardrails are not put in the ditch; they are set in place well before the perilous area.  Ever wonder what it would be like to have guardrails in your friendships, your finances, your marriage, or your mind?  Culture (Satan) draws us to the edge of disaster in each of these arenas and then betrays us when we step over that line – unless a guardrail was set in place well before you needed it.

You will have to determine the guardrails you need to protect your friendships, your finances, and your marriage and I guess those guardrails will be determined by the amount of value you place on each of those areas of your life.  As for your heart and mind . . .

“The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.   Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”   Pretty awesome guardrails!

Perfect Love

When disaster struck his life, Job said, “That thing which I feared has happened to me.” Seriously? He really spent time fearing all his children might die and all of his belongings would be destroyed? We are also told Job would offer sacrifices on behalf of his children every morning thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts. This was Job’s regular custom.” So every day he woke up and offered a sacrifice just in case one of his children might have sinned overnight. Yeah, it seems to me Job spent an extraordinary amount of time worrying over things that most of us don’t even consider.

Job was a good man who sought to walk an obedient life; even God attested to his “upright and blameless” character. Good stuff, right? But it appears, underneath all that obedience he was burdened by a whole lot of worry and fear arising from a heart which had a profound misunderstanding of God. He actually said to God, “this is what you concealed in your heart, and I know that this was in your mind: If I sinned, you would be watching me and would not let my offense go unpunished.” In other words, no matter what you’ve said and done, you’ve really just been waiting on me to mess up so you could punish me.

God was pleased with Job’s obedience, but He was more concerned about Job’s heart, a heart He knew was captive to fear and doubt in a profound manner. I believe those misunderstandings concerned God more than Job’s obedience pleased God. He wanted Job to obey Him out of love, not out of fear. So He allowed troubles that would reveal Job’s captive heart – secret doubts hidden even from Job himself.

God revealed the ugliness of Job’s heart and he was healed. He later confessed, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job realized he had known about God, but his devastating circumstances led him to know God, to see God for who He really was.

And who He was, He still is: a God who desires a relationship not built upon perfect obedience but rather upon perfect love – His perfect love – not built upon living a perfect life, keeping a perfect home, making perfect decisions, “doing life” perfectly. A relationship with God is built solely upon His faithful love. He has promised to be your Father. That promise does not depend on your goodness in any way. It depends only upon God being God.

Hopefully your relationship with God will lead you to obedience. A loving heart is not a prerequisite to obedience, though a loving heart is the source of the most satisfying and abiding obedience we can know. Don’t go to bed tonight worrying if you did it all perfectly today. You didn’t. But God is still faithful, His love is still perfect, and His desire for a relationship with you is still intact.

Don’t worry, that will never change.

Ain’t no mountain high enough, Ain’t no valley low enough . .

Though He promised never to leave our side, following God sometimes gets difficult.  His burden is light because He helps us carry it, not because He makes all life simple. We face mountains we have to climb and valleys through which we have to drudge. It is during these difficult times we choose whether to continue the  journey  fully surrendered to God’s will or to take a course which requires less surrender of our own will.

Seeking this simple walk which leads us around difficulties instead of directly through them ultimately proves to make our journey even more laborious, taking us into perilous territory unyoked to God.  Following our own will by seeking an  uncomplicated journey, we settle for a shallow experience which never leads to growth or maturity.

God certainly knows there are times it is best we go around obstacles. He understands at those times our present weaknesses could not stand up to the struggle.  The Hebrew nation when released from Egypt began their journey with limited understanding and a shallow faith.  Because of their lack of faith, God did not lead them, “on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’  So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea” (Ex. 13:17, 18).

Like the Israelites, we begin this journey with limited faith in God and He often leads us around difficulties.  Nevertheless, His desire is for us to become willing to be led through the valleys or vast mountains trusting that our willingness to face struggles head on will bring the growth He desires, the growth which will eventually mold us into that person He had in mind when He first thought of us.  He certainly watches for us to become willing to walk the challenging paths when He calls.

If I describe my journey with complete and total honesty, following Him when the route became very difficult has not always been my choice.  Some of you  have found a way to remain yoked with Christ, to keep your eyes so fully focused on the Father, that living for and honoring Him with your life is as effortless as taking your next breath.  Desiring to deepen your relationship with the Father, you are obedient to follow Him down any path He calls. By so doing, you have learned to run your race like the gazelles outside the mission house in Palestine that inspired Hannah Hurnard’s book Hinds’ Feet on High Places – “leaping from rock to rock with extraordinary grace and agility.”

Having repeatedly seen God’s grace in treacherous circumstances, and having often been an extension of God’s grace to others, you came to leap like gazelles at the opportunity to trust God even as He led you into hazardous places and difficult circumstances.  Some of you like me, though not quite there on your journey, have witnessed this kind of faith in a parent or a grandparent or another fellow believer and you desire to run this race as gracefully.

I draw great comfort as I read the struggles God revealed throughout scripture in the lives of those He called to do great and mighty things for Him. Not only Paul, but Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, Solomon and Peter, to name only a few, fought their recurring battles with personal enemies in their lives. Like me, you have the inspiration not only of these biblical heroes but also the stalwart, though seldom noticed, heroes of faith who God has sent into your life.

Yes, the Christian life is definitely a journey. A Christian life is never stationary.   You are always moving, either in tandem with Christ toward complete freedom or, weary and burdened by your own heavy yoke, toward captivity.  Take encouragement from our fellow sojourner, Paul, that our “present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).  Yes, “in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37).

God does indeed allow events to take place in our lives which invite us to a greater awareness of Him and to change (growth) in our lives and hearts. As we walk more in tandem with Him, we will find difficult circumstances are often the purposeful hand of God taking hold of ours to write our story into His story of redemption.  The greatest story ever told –  and we are invited to write it with Him, if we choose to go along.

Rats, Bats and Growing Fat

Several years after moving into a newly developed subdivision, the land behind us was cleared for yet another cluster of homes. When the developers cleared the land, they apparently disturbed a nest of rats and for several days we watched them running from the freshly vacant land.

Soon after, I left for a vacation.  When I returned, I opened my back door and saw a very large rat sitting in the cabinet directly above my stove.  This was a very narrow space where the range vented to the outside of the house and there was obviously not enough insulation around the vent to keep the little varmint from entering.   Because the cabinet was so narrow, the only things we could store there were our boxed cereals.  The rat had apparently enjoyed several days of Lucky Charms and Honey Nut Cheerios and had grown too fat to go home the same way he came.  Instead, he jumped from the cabinet and that little frightened creature ran to my bedroom.

I thought about that today when I was asked to write about a funny incident in my life.  We were also asked to write about a time when we experienced fear.  I immediately thought about returning from my very first mission’s trip.  While there, God spoke to me and through me in a very powerful way.  I would love to tell you that I came home changed and ready to move forward in this new-found boldness in God, set free from the fear that had once silenced my voice.  But I did not.  I was too afraid.

I came back home to the same place and the same people who had known me as a very frightened little creature and I didn’t have the strength to be anything otherwise.  The fear that had bound my life for so many years had a very strong hold on me and would not be loosened too easily.  Certainly a one week mission’s trip would not set me completely free.

I never saw the connection between these two stories until today.  Remembering them in quick succession, I realized they fit together but were also linked to one of my favorite scripture, Isaiah 10:27, “In that day their burden will be lifted from your shoulders, their yoke from your neck; the yoke will be broken because you have grown so fat.”

The burden of fear was not immediately lifted from my shoulders when I returned from that mission’s trip for I had only tasted of freedom; I had not eaten enough of it to grow fat in God.  Over the weeks, months and years to come God began to feed me more and more tastes of freedom.  Eventually, through His power and love, the stronghold of fear was finally broken and lifted from my shoulders.  I’ve simply grown too fat now to return home the way I once left.

There were many people who continued to see me as that frightened little girl with a very small voice, but I am learning to, as Isaiah later spoke to the Israelites, “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back, lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.  For you will spread out to the right and to the left” (54:2,3).

In ancient times, you didn’t just move to a new subdivision when you outgrew your home.  You simply added to the length of your tent curtain and then moved its stakes out further.  You enlarged the size of your tent so you could spread out more.

I didn’t have to move to a new place and find new friends and family to stretch out.  I simply had to lengthen my cords and strengthen my stakes right there in the same place where I had once been afraid and silent.  And there in that place, God has removed the yoke my enemy placed around my neck.  He has enlarged my tent and made me too fat to ever be bound to fear again.

We tried hard to force that rat out of our house that day, to convince him to move out to his freedom.  Instead, he got on one of our beds and, cowering in fear, simply refused to move.  I called a neighbor and asked if he would come get the rat from my house; he did.  With his baseball bat.  He went into the bedroom, hit the rat with the bat and simply removed him to the garbage can.

The moral of the story?  Don’t try to go back to who you were before you began to grow fat in God.  When He removes the yoke of bondage from your neck, He will enlarge you and strengthen you to run free in Him.   And in your freedom, He will open new doors for you to run through.  Not necessarily to a new place, but certainly to a much wider place.

Or maybe you are waiting to be knocked up side your head with a baseball bat!

Grace. Does it have limits?

I’ve been thinking a lot about grace lately.  After a series of events in which people were simply dishonest and deceitful with me, I’m wondering more and more about how I, as a Christian, should react to being wronged.

I keep going back to the story of the unmerciful servant.  You know the one?  A man owes a large debt to the King.  He begs for mercy and his entire debt is forgiven.  That same man then goes out and demands payment of a much smaller debt from a man who owes him.

When the King hears the man refused to forgive a little debt after being forgiven for such a far greater debt, he has him thrown in jail and casts his debt right back upon his shoulders.  He was so unaware or ungrateful for the mercy he received, he refused to show even a portion of the same mercy to another.

Am I, as well, showing a lack of gratitude when I require restitution by someone who has deceived, stolen from or abused me?  Should my forgiveness mean I completely release the person from being held accountable? Or can we truly forgive someone even while still requiring them to make right their wrong?

I have read that passage in Matthew over and over again. I know it is a picture of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples concerning forgiveness.  He had previously told his disciples to forgive someone 70 x 7 times.    I’m understanding that I may have to forgive someone day after day after day, all over again for the same offense.

I have been forgiven so much more than 490 times.  I surely desire to always maintain a grateful heart and never fail to forgive another who seeks my forgiveness. I want to offer grace as much as grace and mercy has been given to me.  Am I  truly offering grace if it comes with stipulations?

If we offer forgiveness and grace, we are releasing the debtor from his shackles.  If we offer limited grace, we may not be casting the debtor back into prison.  Maybe the issue Jesus was addressing in his parable that day was the risk we take of  being cast ourselves back into a captivity when we offer limited mercy.  Back into the bondage of unforgiveness.  This may be more of a question of our own freedom than the debtor.

God’s grace is unlimited.  God’s mercy is abundant and His understanding and ways are so much higher than ours.  I guess I’m still learning to lean on that understanding and not my own.

One day at a time.