Thursday, February 27, 2014

A New Name

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 
Genesis 17:1-5
     There is a somewhat funny story behind what God showed me behind this passage. This year, I am teaching art for young students at a homeschool tutorial. I had a project in mind--to make mosaic pictures out of bits of melted crayon--but due to illness, I was unable to prep as much as I had planned. I had a bag of crayon bits, but I knew it would never cover the masterpieces I had in mind for my sweet kiddos. I had hoped to stay up late the night before ironing more crayon bits, but fatigue drove me to bed and so I showed up the next morning with my inadequate bag of crayon pieces, no idea what I would do with them, and a prayer on my lips. Just before class, I sensed a whisper: "Names. Talk about names and have them decorate their initials."  I cut my paper down to a smaller size and began a word search on the Bible on my phone (sometimes I love technology!). It was Genesis 17: 1 that stood out to me. 

     "Are You sure, God? That seems a bit much for the little ones... the bit about walking before You and being blameless," was my thought but I jotted the verse on the board as the little people arrived and we dove in with me having no idea what would come of it. 

     As it turned out, God had some pretty amazing things to say to me... and to them, I suppose, but I honestly think I am usually the one who learns the most out of these classes! We talked about names: How each of their names was chosen by their parents specially for them and most have a story. How God has many names in the Bible, and how each one reveals something about His nature. How He changed the names of some of His people from time to time to reflect His plan for that person. Then we got to business talking about the passage above. I told them in brief the story of Abram and God--how God had promised Abram a son and made a covenant with him that his offspring would be more numerous than the stars. Due to the age of the children, I did leave out the bits about Sarai and Hagar, instead focusing on this passage where Abram was 99, childless, and still believing in the promise of God. 

     The first name we talked about was El Shaddai--God Almighty. I asked the children why God would reveal His name as "Almighty" to an elderly, childless man at this moment? We decided that it was likely because God was getting ready to do something that was not possible for anyone but an Almighty God! He was going to give this old man and his aged wife a child when they were physically too old for childbearing. He was telling Abram that He could do what He said He could do!

     The next name we discussed was Abram, which means, "High Father." It was at this time that God changed Abram's name to Abraham, meaning "Father of Many Nations." Quite a title for an old man without children, but remember that it was El Shaddai Who named him thus! Sure enough, about a year later Abraham and Sarai (now called Sarah) did have a son, and that son had two sons, and one of those sons had 12 sons... and within a few generations later, the nation of Israel was established! 

     Something I did not mention to the children but that God did bring to my attention is that Abraham--the Father of Many Nations--is not only the father of the Jewish nation, but also my father as well. How is that? He is my father in faith, as Paul wrote to the Galatians: "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:29)  God's renaming of this man of faith was also a reflection of His plan of rescue that He had already set in motion to redeem the sin-twisted world He had made. What a wonderful name Abraham was given!

     God also told Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed. This promise received its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ who came to die for the sins of all people everywhere. In Him we can now live apart from sin and look forward to eternal life. In keeping with my discussion on names, however, there is one other passage that was in the forefront of my mind that day and in the days since but that I did not bring out to share with the children. It is found in Revelation, and it is a promise that gives me great hope and comfort during times when I am feeling the weight of my sin or my inadequacy. In Revelation 2:17, Jesus says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.'"

     Some day I, too, will receive a new name from my Lord. However, my new name will be personal, not public as Abraham's was. When I ponder this, I think it must be because Abraham received His new name at the beginning of the redemption story. He was to be the great father of faith, the first one that God singled out and set apart for Himself.  When my new name is given, it will be at the end of the redemption story, or at least the the end of my story. The entire work will be done, from beginning to end, my race run, my part in the Great Story complete. 

     My new name, then,  will not reflect a promise and a hope for the future, but will instead represent what has been done and will already be accomplished within my heart. I do not know what my name will be, but I can speculate that it will reflect the goodness of God in my life, the specific trials He strengthened me through, and especially that it may reflect the final and utter eradication of my sin nature--a new name on an unblemished stone to mark the occasion of my final transformation from glory to glory. In this flesh, my name is Heather--a name tarnished by the sin I have committed. Then, I will have a name that perfectly reflects my Father and His completed work in me; the final restoration of my relationship with Him. . . and every last trace of my sin nature--including my present name--will be eradicated completely.  What a magnificent promise!

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  
Philippians 1:6

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Valentine

Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." 
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will." 
Matthew 26:38-39

     These words may just be the most perfect living definition of love that I have ever heard. This is love lived out in sweat and blood; love summed up in the sweet agony of utter selflessness; a real and an active love that is not content with flippancy or empty words. This is the ultimate Valentine.

     Every year when Valentine's Day is on the horizon, I find myself mulling over the word, "love." My tendency is to think first of the choice and not the feelings, for while the feeling of love is nice, it is the choice to love that weathers the storms and that brings abiding joy. It is rather tragic that we live in a culture where the feeling of love, the "being in love" part is exalted. That part is a trinket, a fancy, a season that will wax and wane and has no real substance or staying power. The feeling of love can be easily affected by how we slept last night or by what we ate. Why, then, do we prize this feeling so highly? We are like small children: so captivated by the shiny wrapping paper that we miss the value of the true gift inside.

     I am glad that Christ did not value emotion over choice in this instance. If He did, He likely would have given up here, at this moment on His knees and struggling against His own emotion. His emotion said, "Father, please don't make me go through this. Don't make me do it," but His will said, "I submit to Your higher purpose." Jesus acted, not on his feelings, but on the commitment and the long-lasting choice to love.

     This choice, too, is something that deserves a closer look. Ultimately, when I look at this passage, the temptation is to think, "Ah, He loved me so that He was willing to go through all this torture and shame for my sake." However, as I have walked more and more with Him, I am not so sure about that initial assumption.

     I believe that what we see here is not His incredible love for us, but His incredible love for the Father.

     Let me take a moment to dig into this. First, we must remember that in some inexplicable way, Jesus was fully God and fully man. This is a paradox, an impossibility in our eyes, but it does not reflect something unrealistic. It merely reflects our own finite inability to wrap our created, organic minds around infinite, spiritual truths. It is our perception of what is and is not real that is distorted here, and distorted because we are dimensional beings trying to fathom something that goes beyond the realm of our limited, physical experience. We must leave the hows and whys and simply understand that it is because it is and move on.

     Secondly, we must understand that what drove Jesus to His knees on this fateful night was not an overwhelming feeling of affection and tenderness for those men who would soon be mocking Him and inflicting incredible pain, nor was it affection for those who would later come and mock His death by proclaiming His name while living disobediently to His commands. No, it was a desire to find some other way, a hope that maybe God would provide another method by which His will would be done.

     Why, then, did He choose to go through with it? The answer is in the last line of His brief but potent prayer, "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will." His love for the Father was so great that He was willing to subjugate His own will--the strong desire to avoid suffering and death--to the will of the Father. It was not feelings of tenderness, but the blunt force of commitment driven by the choice to value the Father's will above His own that brought my Jesus to the cross. He loved us then and loves us now, yes. That is true. And it is and was a love of choice, not of fickle feelings. But when the moment of truth came, it was the true love; the love that prizes the beloved above all that is within the self, that compelled Him to surrender to the cross: It was nothing less than His devotion to the Father that brought Him through the that miserable time of temptation. It was the putting first of God's will above His own that instigated the one, perfect act of love the world has ever seen. He showed His love to us by first loving the Father above all else, even above Himself. We are the beneficiaries, the unworthy recipients of that astonishing love.

     And here is where I hang my hat: on the love of the Father. I postulate to you today that if you love the Father's will above your own, you will find that true, abiding, and lasting love for others welling up from somewhere inside you. If you love Him first and foremost, love for others will be the natural outpouring of that love. It may be true that your marriage stinks, your husband or wife has treated you horribly, you are miserable and unhappy. However, do not miss that Jesus was miserable and unhappy in the Garden that night, but that did not change the driving force of His commitment. His love remained through the temptation, and His love brought Him through it.

     You may not be able to muster feelings of love for your spouse, your parents, your children, your co-workers right now. That is fine. I am not asking you to. Fix your mind and will steadily on the Father right now. Find your first love in Him. Love Him and His ways above all else and be willing to sacrifice everything to do His will. Do not let your marriage go because of feelings: commit to it because of love for God. Do not give up on your children because of your emotion; commit to them because of your love for God.

     A word to those whose marriages are crumbling on this Valentine's day: Don't give up. That is the world's way, the way of the Father of Lies. You will not find happiness and contentment elsewhere if you cannot find it here, because happiness and contentment come, not from your spouse, but from your love for God. Above all else, love God, for He is love and the only source of genuine love. Love Him and His kingdom first, and all the rest will be added to you. Do not stay married out of stubbornness or because you hope you will fall in love with your spouse again. Stay married because you love God; because you know that He hates divorce and you love Him too much to do something He hates. Do it because you truly love Him more than you love yourself.

     You do not have to feel this--choose it. Do it despite your feelings. Christians, if we would lay down our lives for Him as He did for us, if we would lay down our lives for our spouses and families out of love for our great and glorious God, we would find that the choice to love is far finer and more rare a thing than the feelings of being "in love." We will find something purer, deeper, more wonderful than we have yet imagined. We will find true love, lasting love. We will find joy.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:9-13

     Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

New Season

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
     Not long ago, I mentioned that this is somewhat of a pivotal year for me. My oldest child turned 13 in January. My youngest will turn 10 in August. My husband and I will both turn 40 this year. What I see facing me this year is a very new season. I no longer have little kids. I am no longer a young woman. By the end of this year, my job--the raising, teaching, and training of my children--will have moved past the half-way mark in its implementation. That is a little scary to me. I have made so many mistakes, but I am reminded that God can redeem anything and everything that I surrender to Him. And so I do... I surrender. My children are not mine: I am a steward. It is mine only to obey, and when I fail, to repent and get back up and try again, always first humbling myself before the Throne of Grace and finding the mercy and help that I need to continue.

     So I spent some time looking back. I saw so many seasons where I kept my kids unnecessarily busy when it would have been better to sit down together and play a game or go on a walk or just lay in the grass and look for cloud animals. I see myself,  an angry, sharp-tongued mother when all my children needed was help and encouragement. I see myself worrying overmuch about some things and not enough about others. I see the roots of some of the heart issues I am now dealing with in my oldest child standing out clearly in the stark glare of hindsight. I see fear that pushed me into decisions that I regret, and insecurity keeping me stuck in situations I should have removed myself or my family from. I see impatience with my husband, impatience with my children, impatience with others. Further back, I see sickening sins, a life of confusion and chaos, a life given over to self, even brooding on self to the point of depression. As I look back, I see a whole host of mistakes trailed out on the path behind me, some still bitter, some sweet reminders of the Lord's redemptive power and incredible, undeserved grace.

     I now look forward and think about what we will do, Lord willing, in the future. What items on our agenda have we done simply because we have always done them that way? Are they useful, beneficial, spurring growth? More importantly, are they bringing us closer to God or distracting us from Him? Are they stimulating Godly thoughts, characteristics, and desires in our hearts, or are they encouraging focus on the cares of the world or on the approval of men? I have to ask these questions personally as well as for my home school. We have done many good things, but this year I find myself asking God, "Yes, Sir, but what is best? What is Your will? What must I do and what must I leave behind?"

     The answers are not always easy to hear. However, it has been my experience with God that the more wholeheartedly I obey, the more peace I have. It is only when I have wandered astray from His will  or struggled against it, or when I have failed to take every thought captive in obedience that I find myself in inner discord. Knowing that, as I look back on the wreckage of poor decisions, what decisions will I make tomorrow? Will I run ahead, risking running helter-skelter down the wrong path? Will I dawdle and lag behind, missing the intensity of seeing my Father in action?

     In this new season, too, I hope to put an end to fluctuations, or as Paul calls it, being "tossed to and fro by the waves." No longer do I want to go through some form of spiritual ebb and flow; Iwant only to grow closer to the Lord, not fall back from Him.

    It strikes me as I write this that our Christian walk is the only real area we will talk of growth on one hand and "backsliding" on the other. If a child or a plant stops growing, we do not say they have "backslidden" and will soon make it up. We are concerned about disease or failure to thrive, we run tests, we try to find the problem and correct it, or if it is a plant, we give it a little time and then we uproot it and cast it away. However, in our spiritual walk, we will talk of growth when it is convenient to do so and then talk about waxing and waning at times when we are not experiencing growth. I am afraid I have been guilty of this too many times, this spiritual failure to thrive when all I was really doing was indulging sin.

     For myself, I am no longer content to talk of  my pride and selfishness as merely times I am not as close to God. I want to address them as they are: sinful states of distraction from which I must repent and come back to His side, no longer excusing them because I am only human. Of course I am only human. That is why Jesus died--so that I could be saved from this  hopeless state. It is why I must now always, relentlessly, repeatedly come before the Throne of Grace, abide in Him, and take every thought captive to obey Him. I believe it is possible to live a life that reflects growth and surrender. Why? Because His Word says it is possible set the mind on the Spirit, to walk according to the Spirit, to live with Christ once I have died with Him. I want to move forward, to press on, to grow, and in doing so I want my children to learn to do so as well.

     For me, I pray that this new season will be one of growth and greater humility. I want my life to exhibit continual and obvious increase of the fruit of His Spirit. I want my responses to be Godly and thoughtful, my reactionary tendencies to be reigned in, my entire being given over to Him. I desire to be more loving, more thoughtful, more humble, more of a servant and less self-serving. I long not to be in a hurry, to take the time to develop and encourage my children's hearts and hunger for God. I want to invest in people, to help the poor and needy, to spend time with my family.  I hope to be a better wife, a better mother, a better disciple--in short, I hope to become more Christlike. As I enter this new season of my life, I see a time for putting aside all things that hinder the race and for diligently training for eternity, no matter what the cost.

     As a matter of fact, it has long been this time. I have just been slow to see it.

"No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 
Luke 13:5-10