Saturday, September 29, 2012

little by little

Last weekend I attended a conference with a high school friend.  We made a couple new friends while we were there and were blessed by so much laughter that it was deeply good for the soul.  I forget exactly how it came up -- maybe we were arguing about who had to go ask something, I'm not quite sure -- but one of our new acquaintances suggested I go do it, followed by saying something nice like, "because you're so good at meeting people."  To which I laughed out loud.  Then my high school friend said something to the effect of, "I'm glad you laughed because I was going to try to hold my tongue, but you weren't like that at all in high school."  We then regaled the girls with lovely stories of me in high school to demonstrate exactly why that statement was so funny.

When I think about my life and the redemptive power of the Holy Spirit, I just have to laugh.  Recently I started a journey through the books of the law with the idea of looking at the law through the lens of Christ coming to fulfill the law. I thought I would breeze through Exodus on the way to more high brow (aka boring) passages of the law where I would make all sorts of intellectual parallels because I'm awesome like that.  Please read the sarcasm in that sentence because I really was feeling pretty impressed with myself.  But as I got into Exodus where God was talking about the promised land, he pressed on my heart that if we are a new creation in Christ, then we are called out of the wilderness of sin and death and into the promised land of that new creation.  That "new heart" he talks about in Ezekiel so much (see chapters 11 & 36) is just like the promised land where God was leading Israel.  God promises to drive out the nations from the promised land by sending his angel before the people of Israel.  The way God talks it sounds like the Israelites just have to saunter in with a toy sword, kind of like Quinn does every morning in his underwear, and the nations will fall over dead.  But here's what struck me in Exodus 23:
I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. (Exodus 23:29-30 ESV)
 This verse is repeated almost verbatim in Deuteronomy 7, and when I read it, I thought, "Of course! This is my life!"  When I became a Christian I spent so many years being mad at God because he didn't make it easy to be holy.  For a long time, I've clung to the verse in Hebrews 10:
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14 ESV)
 This intricately, patient, focused, almost surgical attack on my sinful nature has been going on so long that sometimes I have trouble noticing it.  Honestly, though, if God had changed my heart all at once, I'd have fallen over dead or still be drooling in a looney bin right now.  Because I did not grow up with Jesus, even my issues have issues, and giving me a new heart is more like a lifelong heart surgery that a cheap magic trick that is no more than a slight of hand.  More than just giving me a new heart I need to learn holiness so that I can increase and possess this new creation that God calls me to be.

Lately I have felt the weight of emptiness on my heart.  I found myself grieving all sorts of random things, some valid like the loss of the family Emmett and I wanted to have, and some ridiculous like the   size and shape of my head.  In creeps the worm of Satan, whispering to me, "God doesn't really love you.  He doesn't really want you to be happy or he'd have given you a prettier head."  Just like the Israelites are about to mess things up when Moses goes up to the mountain, I feel the temptation to doubt God's goodness and love pressing down on me, tempting me to turn away.  But that phrase - little by little - keeps haunting me, foreshadowing the new creation God is working in me.  And if He can do this much work in me since I became a believer over 15 years ago, then I'm going to be freaking awesome when Jesus returns. Just sayin.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

vector addition and dance parties

I have a class this year I particularly love.  It's the kind of class where you put on a random music playlist for lab day only to look up and see them all dancing in perfect time to "Call Me Maybe."  Even the quiet ones have a little head bop going.  It is a rare mix of students that can mix laughter and work without losing one or the other, and we have a lot of fun doing the strangest things. Yesterday I was teaching vector addition using the component method (aren't you jealous?) because I'm about to begin projectile motion and forces (again, I can sense your jealousy).  It is easily the most difficult and least exciting class because it's all math and we can't quite shoot anything yet.  We basically work three problems in ninety minutes, but at the end of class I look around, and every single one of the students is thinking and wrestling and working together and sort of getting it and learning.  And every single one of us needs a nap because we did more thinking in ninety minutes than most people do all week.  Even if they never really get vector addition (and some may not), I feel like I've given them practice in how to engage in a difficult problem in an energizing way.  That lesson is much more useful to learn than vector addition.  Sweet.  Now I can retire, or at least take a nap while my next class builds robots.

I've been meditating on the topic of desire for some time now as God has been teaching me about the inner recesses of my heart.  It's pretty ugly in there.  Working through Exodus has been eye opening.  For the past few days I've been looking at Exodus 15-17, where God provides water and manna for the Israelites in the wilderness.  There's a strange tension here that never really gets resolved throughout the whole Bible.  The tension between asking and receiving.

Look at the Israelites.  They're stranded in the desert with no water and lots of people and livestock.  It's hot, it's smelly, everyone's thirsty.  It isn't really that surprising that they grumbled and moaned instead of skipping up to Moses and using their best manners with the qualifier, "if it's your will, Lord."  They really were going to die if they didn't get water.  And God came through, despite their lack of manners, yet he continued to point out that his provision was a test to see if they would diligently listen to the voice of the Lord.  And they don't.  They try to hoard the manna.  They go out on the Sabbath to "get ahead" instead of resting.  Anything they're told not to do, they try it like a bunch of mindless sheep, just in case God was wrong.

um... conviction, maybe?

And, if that weren't enough conviction,  then Jesus had to go and call himself the bread of heaven in John 6.  He feeds 5,000 people and they follow him because they want more.  I'm assuming most of them could have gone back home and had something to eat.  It wasn't really a dire situation, but why not follow this dude who just creates food out of nothing because that is way easier than working for it?    Jesus calls them out on it, pointing out they're just following him to get something, and they need to go work for food that doesn't spoil.  Not only does he not give them more food, he tells them to get to work for God, not for earthly food.  And you know what, the people are okay with that.  They're willing to work, but they want to know exactly what to do to get what they want.  They're willing to be plenty polite and respectful, as long as Jesus will give them what they want.  When Jesus tells them the work of God is to believe in Jesus, they're okay with that too...  As long as Jesus is willing to work another miracle (I mean, just one more so I can be REALLY be sure...).  Lo and behold, the miracle they ask for is more bread, "after all," they say, "Moses gave us manna, what can you give us that's better?"  Needless to say the conversation degenerates from there because the people following Jesus here are only interested in whether he can give them what they want.  The crowds end up leaving because they can't get what they want, so they go elsewhere to find it.


And I'm struck at how God gives us what we need, no matter how much grumbling we do, but he will not give us everything we want no matter how polite we ask or how much we conform to a set of outward rules.  But even his provision is a way of testing us to see if we are faithful.  Do I hoard what he's given me today? Do I try to get ahead when I should be resting?  Do I grumble because the manna he gives me today is the same as it was yesterday?  Do I turn away or grow weary or complain because he hasn't given me what I wanted today?  The answer to all of these is yes, of course.

Later in Numbers 11 it talks about how the people of Israel grumbled about how boring the manna was, and they were longing for the cucumbers and melons of Egypt.  I may have laughed a little out loud at that verse, but I'd pay serious money for Quinn to fondly long for a cucumber.  I've noticed in my heart that I have been complaining the same way lately.  I am grateful for the Lord's provision.  I am aware of the Lord's provision, but does it really have to look like this? Couldn't it be more exciting, romantic, adventurous?

When I first began to know the Holy Spirit, he was doing a lot of work on my outward attitudes and words.  And though he still has a long way to go, I can now blend in pretty well in Christian circles.   The state of my heart is a different story, as it has been largely neglected through self-delusion and blindness.  It's like God is rubbing his hands together and saying, "It's time to get down to business."  Because what I say and how I say it doesn't concern God nearly as much as whether the desires of my heart are aligned with his desires for me.

Because my awesome class is teaching me that when I teach something mind numbingly difficult like vector addition with components, it helps to be a good teacher with good lesson plans, but what really matters is that my class is ready and willing to go there with a good attitude.  Am I willing to jump into my life and engage with the difficult parts because that is what God wants me to be doing right now?  Or will I grumble and complain to get what I want?  Or maybe retreat into my exterior conformity and argue that I deserve something better?  I think today I've decided to join my awesome class for a brief dance party in the midst of a mind-numbingly difficult life, rejoicing in every last circumstance God has given me, especially the tough ones.

Monday, September 17, 2012

parallel universe

Pretty sure I woke up this morning in a parallel universe.  I mean, everything was technically the same and I couldn't really point out any meaningful differences in my life, except for a number of odd interactions.  Finally when Quinn looked at me over dinner in complete seriousness and totally unprompted says, "I really should be making my own lunches."  I thought, "Sure, why not? And let's just apply for college while we're at it.  Where did I wake up this morning?"

I was reading in Exodus about Israel's journey from Egypt, and I never quite realized before that an alternate route through the land of the Philistines existed (check out the end of Exodus 13).  By leading the Israelites to the Red Sea, God was leading them to an apparent dead end.  It seems that the ten plagues weren't sufficient.  God wanted to make sure the Israelites knew that they had no part in their own deliverance.  Then when the people are stuck and see Pharaoh coming, they cry out to Moses, who in turn cries out to God, and God replies, "Why do you cry out to me?"

Um... hello?  You led us to a dead end and Pharaoh's chasing us.  Thought that was obvious, God.

So God rescues them and then the Egyptian chariots get stuck in the mud.  I mean, what a great picture.  The most technologically advanced culture of the time is chasing the Israelites with their fancy schmancy chariots that no one can beat, and God takes them out with a little mud.  Gotta love his sense of humor, except when it's aimed at me, that is.

And I was reminded of Psalm 46.  You should go read it now.  The mountains are falling into the ocean, the earth is melting, wars are raging, and he commands us simply to behold and be still.  I suppose that's where I feel like I am, standing on the edge of the chaos and simply beholding.

So as I was beholding Quinn trying to make his PB&J with what he considered the appropriate peanut butter to jelly ratio, I felt like today was a beholding day.  I've spent a couple weeks beholding the depth of my sin and powerlessness to change myself, and today I felt I was beholding something a little different, only I'm not quite sure what He's up to.

Friday, September 14, 2012

catfish wrestling

On drives down to the Stallings' farm, Emmett and I would use the down time to catch up and reconnect.  While there we'd spend time with the family, pick blueberries, visit the waterfall, and feed the catfish off the dock.  When we'd dump the bag of food into the lake, the catfish would surface in massive groups, flipping the water until the dock around the lake appeared to boil.  We'd look for the albino catfish and point out particularly big or small ones, leaning against the rail in the casual attitude you would expect from good company.

Monday morning neither Quinn nor I were ready to start the week.   When we got to the bus stop, he wanted to be held so he pawed at me like a badly trained dog until I complied.  Wrapping his arms and legs around me, he tucked his head into my neck and bemoaned the prospect of having to leave for even a single moment.  Later that morning, I mentally put myself into that same posture in God's arms, expressing the same desire to hide there forever.

While the furnace of life has ramped up around me these past couple weeks, I have been circumstantially forced out of fellowship and taken up residence inside my own head, which is a rather nasty place to spend time.  I was finally able to break through this week and spend time with a few lovely ladies, and as the fresh air hit my soul, I suddenly realized how stinky it was inside.  I have been secretly cherishing and feeding the roots of temptation.  Though I've managed to not sin in large ways, my grumpiness, lack of patience, and ungracious spirit testify to the growing bitterness in my heart.  I was sitting with a friend yesterday morning, the type of person you can air all your dirty laundry with and she knows exactly what you're talking about and manages to make you feel better while simultaneously wanting to be better.  Love those friends.

She was talking about how just driving in the car you can get 10 minutes down the road before you realize your mind has run away with some crazy thought process.  And I thought, "That's it! That's exactly what I do!"  In less than ten minutes I can derail my thoughts so completely that even I don't know how it happened.  I found myself praying at one point this week, "Can you give me a lobotomy, God.  This is ridiculous.  Seriously.  How am I supposed to get anywhere with this kind of mess going on in my head?"

Of course God ever so graciously replies, "I mean, that's what I've been trying to tell you for, well, you're whole life."

And though I keep asking God to hurry up the process, with infinitely tender patience, he continues to refuse my requests because, as he says, "I'm trying to make you holy, not kill you... yet."

And I feel like I'm on the dock at the farm with God this time, watching my little catfish thoughts in their tumultuous quest for food.  Except when we point out an ugly one or a large one or a tasty looking one, instead of just remarking on it, God wants me to jump in and wrestle it into submission.  Except, I'm not really that into wrestling catfish.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

the botanist

So the picture that keeps coming to my mind is of a little old archaeologist patiently dusting away sand from the toes of a massive skelton, the rest of which has already been unearthed. The whole skeleton sits there but is patiently ignored while the archeologist simply and thoroughly digs out the last little bits.  Or maybe it's not a skeleton after all, maybe he's patiently brushing dirt away from the roots of a giant plant that are stretching deep into the ground, and he's a botanist instead of an archaeologist.  Either way, the thing is huge and this little man is getting OCD about unearthing every last extremity.
Another image that keeps coming to mind as I read Owen is of Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter saying, "constant vigilance."  I apologize if you're sick of me telling you about John Owen's book Overcoming Sin and Temptation, but I really can't help telling you about something that is so radically changing my heart. I'm beginning to realize how blind I am, though I suspect the word "we" instead of I would be entirely appropriate. 

Because let's face it. We can rationalize anything. Owen points out that we are often conscious of the fruit of sin, but not the root of temptation that births the sin. The particularly adept will cut off all visible fruits of sin while letting the temptations of pride and honor and esteem and learning create a chokehold on the heart.

Particularly convicting is how Owen describes when the heart begins to secretly cherish and feed temptation.  While the person may be able to avoid outwardly sinning, the lust is still killing the soul. Such people keep up the duties of religion to earn honor or esteem despite having lost the substance of religion, namely the joy and power and vitality that come from true worship, prayer, and communion with God. 

Owen warns against the false security of participation, arguing that when our hearts are not satisfied in the duties of worship, that is the first sign that have entered into temptation. And though we may not be sensible about the nature of our temptation, It will lead to sin and death if left unchecked.  Our various lusts for pleasure, power, honor, love, etc plunge our soul into violent, tumultuous upheavals where outward temptations have a peculiar attraction they might not otherwise have.  Sins we would have never thought possible become normal, rational behavior.

I couldn't think of a better example than Saul.  Lately I've been reading through 1 Samuel, and I'm struck over and over by the blindness of Saul.  There is a funny temptation in Bible study (and I suspect in life as well) to look at another person's sin and chuckle about how blind they are from our exalted position of superiority.  Jesus accused the pharisees of doing just this by trying to point out the speck of sand in another person's eye without removing the plank in their own eyes.  But it hit me while reading this time that I am just like Saul.  The theme of the book of Judges (which happens right before Saul becomes king) was that Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in his own eyes.  And what, might you ask, would that be?  Well, it includes rape, murder, stealing, idolatry, etc.
So coming out of that kind of culture, Saul was pretty amazing.  He brought order and stability and law back to Israel. If I weren't privy to Samuel's account, I probably would have thought he was a pretty awesome guy.  Outwardly, he was not only doing the right things, he was doing them more devoutly than anyone else.  But there are these little things, like offering the sacrifice himself because Samuel is late.  I mean, if I were with Saul, that would look like Samuel's fault, not Saul's.  Or not completely destroying all the livestock of that little town, as that crazy nut Samuel told him to do.  Samuel must clearly be a stick-in-the-mud or crazy-cult-extremist to come up with such an obviously bad idea and waste perfectly good resources.  Saul would have definitely done the right things in my eyes if I had been there.  And chances are, we'd all be standing up applauding him right now, possibly exactly like so many people are applauding their favorite political figure right now because he seems more right in our eyes than the other guy.

And yet, what seems right in our eyes is very often self-deception.  That's not a political statement, by the way, I'm back to the contents of your heart and mine.  How I'd prefer to judge other people rather than look at my own heart!  how many times a day do I make a perfectly reasonable judgement without ever considering what the Spirit is pressing on my heart?  I'm afraid I'd be ashamed to keep count.

God, like the little old man in my head, is patiently unearthing the roots of the sin that has wrapped its little tentacles of temptation around my soul.  He's not just aiming at outward conformity, he's going for the whole thing this time.  That new heart he talks about in Ezekiel?  Sounds nice until he actually sets to work at taking out the old one in order to make room for the new one.  And while I'm jumping up and down asking him to get rid of the giant flower of sin that is so huge and obvious, he just shakes his head and keeps digging at the roots.  Because it turns out that it isn't the flower that strangles our souls, it's the roots no one can see.  And those roots can live without the flower.  We can be so good at pruning the flowers and ignoring the roots that we, like the pharisees, are just dead men in whitewashed tombs.  
We can diet and exercise and vote a certain way and go to church and never cuss and never get mad and live in the right school district and buy just enough stuff to look good but not so much to look too good and make sure our kids go to college and sponsor a hungry child in Guatemala while ignoring the ones across town, and do all of these things and still be dead.  But people will thump us on the back and tell us how awesome we are and set us up as an example to follow.  

So I'm a little bit thankful today that I tend to say the wrong thing, that I get a little moody now and then, that I have trouble cleaning my house and doing the lawn work, that I buy myself something pretty every now and then because I'm shallow and it makes me happy.  Because all of these flaws make me realize how much I need God, how much this life is about him changing me and not me changing myself.  So dig away little botanist, because those roots go deep!  Meanwhile, I'm going to pray that when God finally rips out those roots, that the I can scream hallelujahs instead of cuss words.  Cause it's going to hurt.