Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Morning Prayer

"Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise." 

Don't let me steal or claim any of your glory for myself.  
As the birds sing their pre-dawn song, 
beckoning morning to come, 
thanking and praising you 
for the day that hasn't yet broken the horizon, 
may I have faith and hope in what is to come, 
singing your praises, 
trusting your goodness 
all the while.

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness:
come before his presence with singing.
Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands.

Know ye that the Lord he is God:
it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands.

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise:
be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands.

For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting;
and his truth endureth to all generations.
His love and mercy endure forever.

*Excerpt and Psalm taken from The Rhythm of Prayer: A Forty Day Experience by Mark A. Moore.

*Photo Jennifer Langley | Unsplash

Friday, March 28, 2014

Living the Good Life: She Reads Truth Reflection, Jonah

Continuing with #SheReadsTruth #SheSharesTruth Weekly Reflections


Text: Jonah 3:1-10, Jonah 4:1-11

Got up early to spend time in the word: check.
Made my kids a nice breakfast: check.
Greeted hubby with a kiss: check.
Cleaned up house: check.
Started laundry: check.
Ran errands: check.
Smiled at everyone I made eye contact with: check.
Sent a couple of encouraging emails, text messages: check.
Made freezer meals for a friend in need: check.
Ate dinner as a family: check.
Played with the kids, undistracted: check.
Had craft time with the girls: check.
Read Bible stories at bed time: check.
Put kids to bed: check.
Went to bed early: check.

Checklist complete, feeling pretty good about myself.  I had a good day; I'm such a good person.


What do we mean by that?  You'll hear things like, "He's such a good guy," or, "I don't go to church but I'm a good person."  Good as in not bad?  Great, but do any of us truly believe that about ourselves?  I mean, for years I've had people speak more highly of me than I knew to be true because I've always worked to be a good person.  I've always felt like such a hypocrite because while others were lauding praise about my behavior, my faith, my whatever, inside I knew I was a gossip and liar, an ungrateful, unsatisfied, selfish person.  Inside the good exterior, I was rotten.

And, "I live assuming I am not alone in these weaknesses.  Mostly because I know a lot of people" (Jennie Allen, Anything).

Allen also says, "A person can learn the right behavior for any character quality."  Want me to be good?  I'll paste a smile and help somebody out.  Want me to be kind?  I'll share my favorite toy.  Want me to be compassionate? I'll sit with someone who's crying.  We think we can appear to have it all together, all the while creating lives that don't need God.  And Christ came and turned that kind of good behavior on its head.  Goodness was the biggest fight he picked.  Over and over he chided the spiritual leaders for their supposed goodness (which really was just masked self-righteousness).  Allen says, "What if this very thing we're striving for (goodness) is what's keeping us from God?"  And the prophet Isaiah tells us our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment to the Lord (if He is not the center of them).

We see this kind of behavior on full display in the prophet Jonah in the final two chapters of the book as he finally "obeys" God and preaches repentance to his enemies, the wicked Ninevites.  I can't help but wonder if his obedience was simply goodness.  "Want me to obey?  I'll go.  Doesn't mean you, Lord, are at the center of it.  I just prefer to not be swallowed by another big fish."  And the reason I suppose that God isn't at the center of it is that after witnessing hundreds of thousands of Ninevites repent and God's awesome mercy on display, this good man doesn't rejoice!  He throws a temper tantrum!

He stomps off into the dessert and pouts.  But God.  In his ever lovingkindness, provides a plant for shade, and Jonah can't help but be satisfied in it.  But when God causes the plant to wither the next day, Jonah is again furious.  See, God--after all Jonah has been through--is still not at the center of Jonah's life.  Jonah's standing still, expecting God to orbit him.  So this good man throws another fit.  How dare a loving God kill his plant?  And God?  Well, lets look at the text.

Then the Lord said, "You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow which came up overnight and perished overnight.  Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left as well as many animals?"  (Jonah 4:10-11) 

So God extends mercy to the worst of sinners and good people are upset by it.  But the GOOD NEWS is that even in our self-righteousness, our self-centered lives, are self-goodness, Christ came to provide mercy for good people, too.  The Apostle Paul was one of those spiritual leaders Christ preached against.  No doubt he believed he was a good man, but once Christ is the center of his life, he tells Timothy, "Even though I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy . . ." (1 Timoth 1:13).

We can continue living good lives that have no need for God, convincing ourselves we are O.K. even when we know at our core we are rotten, or we can call on our savior to show us mercy, come face to face with our sin, and live a redeemed life.  May we rejoice in the mercy found in our Savior!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Storm Watching

Photo by Taylor Leopold | Unsplash

There’s a storm coming.  I can feel it in every one of these pre-arthritic bones.  Wind is stirring up dust, whirling leaves around, moving my numb heart to action.  I feel like I’m in that moment before the skies open, the calm before the storm where the sky is eerily yellow and most living things other than we storm-watchers have taken retreat.  For much of my life, especially my immediate past, I've been just that—a storm-watcher.  Is it crazy to say I don’t want to watch anymore, that I long to be in the eye of the storm?  Ridiculous, right?  I've done my share of watching, even storm chasing, but rarely have I longed to be in the eye of the storm.

While storm-watching, I obsessively watch the radar to ensure the storm is going around me, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I see mass destruction stays away.  I don't mind some occasional thunder, wind, and rain, but those storms that up heave lives?  Yeah, those are ok to go on all around me and keep missing my safe haven.  

So why suddenly long for the eye of the storm, for upheaval?  Because I've found that while storm-watching, I've become a passive observer of storm destruction.  While breathing sighs of relief, I've gotten caught up in beautifying my life, caring about frivolous details like flowers and curtains and paint colors.  See, when your haven is safe, you start to care more about protecting it than it protecting you.  And so the storm weathers on around me, lives are being changed in the midst of it, people are clinging to God because He's their only haven.  

On the fringes of the storm, Satan keeps me a passive observer, finding comfort in lovely things.  On the fringes of the storm, I worry about others' opinions, care how I appear to others.  On the fringes of the storm, I believe the lies that if my life is one of comfort and ease that somehow God is showing me favor.  On the fringes of the storm, I believe the lies that material blessings are somehow the result of my obedience.

But in the eye of the storm, where lovely things are decimated, the gales drown out others' voices, comfort and ease are stripped, material blessings vanished, the only remaining hope is God Himself.  And he is the beginning and end, the one who holds and directs the four winds, the author and perfecter of our faith, the one who shows mercy to whom he shows mercy, compassion to whom he shows compassion.  And in the eye we find him.     


Monday, March 24, 2014

Mornings and Mournings

Photo by Taylor Leopold | Unsplash

It's early.  Too early.  In fact, darkness will shroud the earth for two hours more before dawn cracks the eastern sky, but my little birds, they're early ones.  They leave me no choice but to pull my weary body from bed, shuffling to the coffee maker and the quiet corner of my house.  Here I wait for the Lord, and though I stumble through my thoughts and words, I offer up prayers.  Prayers of confession, prayers of praise, prayers of intercession.  I'm trying to learn how to pray, using books, reciting liturgies, freely making needs known.

And this time, this place, it's becoming sacred.  Late nights and TV shows and social media don't hold the same allure anymore in comparison to this pre-dawn sanctuary.  But there are days.

Days like today when it took everything in me to move my tired bones from my warm bed.  Days where I come away feeling like the Lord was silent.  Days of discouragement.  And it trickles into the rest of my day.  Whining children grate on every nerve.  Gray skies lead to despair.  A seemingly critical word from my husband sends me into a tailspin.  And I respond in anger, sarcasm, frustration.

So when I get an email or a text from a friend saying she is so encouraged by my faith, how she sees what God's doing in my heart and wants to know more about it, can we meet so she can learn more, it's almost laughable.  Me?  The worst of sinners and hypocrites.  The one who steals glory, the one who denies her maker, the one who shrinks in fear, the one who does exactly what she doesn't want to do.

Yet, that's my sin nature, isn't it?  As a Christ-follower and believer I become easily discouraged because I am convicted when I sin, am aware of how it hurts the Father's heart, am conscious of my own hypocrisy and how it may turn others away.  And how badly I mess up daily.  Thankfully I'm not alone in this.  If even the Apostle Paul struggled with this, surely I can be encouraged in my walk.  He says in Romans 7:14-25 (MSG),

But I need something more!  For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!  I realize that I don't have what it takes.  I can will it, but I can't do it.  I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions.  Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.  It happens so regularly that it's predictable.  The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up.  I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight.  Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. 

Something has gone wrong deep within me . . . man how true that is.  On days like today when I'm running on "E" and have nothing left to give, all I can utter is, "Grace."  And thankfully, there is grace.  As translated in The Message above, "I obviously need help!"  And grace has set me free from the law of sin!  I don't have to choose sin.  "Don't I realize that whatever I choose to obey becomes my master?  I can choose sin, which leads to death, or can choose to obey God and receive his approval."  Romans 6:16 (NLT, empahsis mine)  I don't have to choose anger, fear, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, defeat.

But now that you've found you don't have to listen to sin tell you what to do and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise!  A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way!  Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death.  But God's gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.  (Romans 6:23, MSG)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Engulfed by the Deep | She Shares Truth Jonah 1-2 Reflection

Week 3: #shereadstruth #shesharestruth #lent reflection

Text: Jonah 1:2

Running away.  
To the known ends of the world  
to escape the presence of God.
A terrifying call.
A horrific thought.
Salvation, mercy for the wicked?
Better to flee than to obey.

A holy and terrible pursuit 
by He who holds the winds in his fist
Boat tossing on waves,
life tossing in the storm.
Confessing, professing His power.
Thrown to the sea,
engulfed by the deep.

Rejected, turned away,
Crying out, repenting from the depths:
where can I go to escape you?
Returning to right worship.
Life brought up from the pit. 
Abandoning my little gods,
forsaking my loyalty to vanity.

Sacrifice and praise to you.
Thanksgiving, eucharisteo are yours.
Salvation, mercy belong to you.

Dry and steady land once again.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Longing for Easter | She Reads Truth: Psalm 38 Reflection

Text: Psalm 38:1-22

Don't you love that our heavenly Father uses great big heaping messes of people to accomplish his great big plans? David is no exception.  If anything, David is THE example of a great big heaping mess of a person.  Adultery. Murder. Pride.  We see these things laid out for us throughout the accounts of his life, and yet we have these sweeping prayers of repentance and pleas for mercy displayed in the Psalms.  Numerous reasons account for why David was donned "a man after God's own heart," but perhaps one of the greatest was that he had such a profound understanding of how the sickness of sin crushes our Father's heart.

I mean, in 2 Samuel 12:1-23, David has taken another man's wife, conceived a child with her, and ultimately plotted the man's murder.  The prophet Nathan tells David that along with these sins he also caused God's enemies to blaspheme His name, so as a result the child would die.  And David's response is where we see the heart of the man.  For seven days while the child battles, so does David by "inquiring of God for the child" and fasting, lying prostrate on the ground, and refusing any assistance for the duration.

And when the child passes away, David stands up, washes and anoints himself and then WORSHIPS the Lord.

How is it that a father stricken with grief is able to worship even during the loss of a child?  Could it be that while David battled and fasted, God drew near and changed a sinner's heart?  Fasting is always about drawing near to the heart of the Father.  

So in Psalm 38, we consider the heart of this man as he describes the wretched sickness of sin afflicting him.  Was this his cry during that seven day fast?  "Anguished in my bones, carrying sins too awful and heavy to bear, benumbed, badly crushed, groaning in agitation in my heart, sorrow continually before me, full of anxiety because of my sin." 

And I, too, am one great big heaping mess.

I have carried a burden too much to bear.  I have felt abandoned by family and friends, left alone to carry it.  I have walked through seasons where sorrow and anxiety were continually before me.  Health has failed me because of my mourning and sickness in spirit.  David and me?  You and me?  We're not that different.  We've all got our own messiness, and in these soul-crushing moments, the weight of His hand is too much to bear and I am forced to my knees, sometimes--like David--face against the floor.

Pressing to the ground and into the Father's heart in prayer and fasting.  Allowing God to draw me near and change me.  Longing for resurrection and redemption.  Longing for Easter.   

In the winter of our souls, the darkness of the night,
we long for Easter, for resurrection.  

And this, THIS is the point of fasting, of Lent.  

To long for resurrection and redemption, to long for Easter,
for the ONE who resurrects and redeems. 

Photo Credit Todd Quackenbush | Unsplash

But beautiful things come from beautiful messes, and when I recognize and confess my sin, God draws me near, into his beautiful plans.  Just as David affirmed, "My hope is in You, O Lord; You will answer O Lord my God," (Psalm 38:15), we can rest assured that Jesus has gone before us and allows us to draw near to a holy God who answers and is the source of our hope.  As the author of Hebrews writes:

"Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near."  Hebrews 10:19-25 (NASB)

Praise the Lord for His perfect sacrifice that resurrects and redeems, that allows us to enter the holy place and draw near!  Praise the Lord for Easter!  

Friday, March 7, 2014

She Reads Truth: Psalm 130 Reflection

Growing up, periods of the Holy Calendar like Advent and Lent would come and go and make little impact on my knowledge or worship of God.  But as an adult, I'm learning more about these seasons and am striving to enter into the holy holidays with a sense of reverence and worship more so than celebration.

So I'm excited that #SheReadsTruth  published a Lent study which also includes a weekly homework assignment to meditate on a passage throughout the week and write a reflection/devotional about it to share on Friday.  Assigned this week is Psalm 130:1-8, and while at first glance it's accessible enough to apply directly to our lives, it's much richer upon further readings with study and understanding of some of the Hebrew and direct context.  

Psalm 130 is a Song of Degrees or Ascents belonging to one of fifteen Psalms (120-134) that were believed to be sung by Jews during their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem which brought the worshipers singing to Zion.  In this particular Psalm we see a quick ascent from the depths of despair to hope in the Lord's redemption.  Below I have rewritten the Psalm with some paraphrases and have attempted to capture some of the nuances the Hebrew (language) carries with it.

O Lord, out of great despair I continually cry out to you.
Lord, cup your ears and fully perceive the earnestness in my prayers of begging for your graciousness and favor.
If you, Lord, counted every sin of mine and held them against me, I would be lost forever.
But thankfully, you give forgiveness and for that you are to be respected, honored, revered.  Worshiped!
I am expecting you to move, my soul depends on you, and I trust you because of the promises of your word.
And I wait for you in the darkness with more longing and expectancy than a guard who keeps watch for the morning.
Israel, I command you to hope and trust in the Lord, for with Him is one who befriends and helps us and can redeem all things and people.
And he will redeem all of Israel from every kind of sin.

Just as the Psalmist, who of us hasn't known despair?  That deep hurt and longing of the soul.  As believers, we are not shielded from the pains and sufferings of this fallen world.  We lose those we love, we're afflicted with disease, dreams get shattered, loved ones betray us.  And we're sent to the depths.  But always, as shown in this Psalm, we must cry out to the Lord from those depths.  

"Deep places beget deep devotion.  
Depths of earnestness are stirred by depths of tribulation.  
The depth of their [believers'] distress moves the depths of their being;
and from the bottom of their hearts an exceeding great and bitter cry rises unto the one living and true God."

--Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David

I remember shortly after receiving Bear's diagnosis of Down syndrome, I thought everything inside me was cracking.  My body was wracked by sobs as I cried out, "Why?  Why does my little boy have to go through life with this, Lord?  How am I supposed to do this?"  But this deep place of suffering allows something beautiful to emerge.  A five-year struggle is begetting this deep earnestness and devotion, and as the Lord pulls me out, I can't help but sing his praises.  Truly, it has been an ascent as I declare along with the Psalmist, "For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption.  And He will redeem [us] from all [our] iniquities."

Though we suffer, though we despair, though we feel lost in the depths, we are never to be passive or remain there.

Sometimes our prayer is simply one word:

Grasp onto a word and cry out.  We have a Father who bends down and cups his ear to our pleas and in great tenderness offers a hand to pull us out of the pit.  Praise the Lord!  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Temper Tantrums: A Parent's Response Changes Everything

Temper tantrums.  Whether or not you're a parent, you've seen toddler temper tantrums at their worst, and we here in the Zoeller household are in the throes of them.  So we've done our share of experimenting with how to respond to them.  Of course, time out works wonders with one child while the other child becomes demonic as soon as she's behind the closed door of her bedroom.  A firm word works well with one while another ignores us or laughs at us.

To say the least, we're doing our best to screw up our children as we hop from one parenting method to another (because the one consistent thing every expert says is, "Consistency is the key to good parenting."  We're obviously not too consistent.).  1-2-3 Magic, Love and Logic, Toddler Wise, Raising a Strong-Willed Child, and countless bloggers have weighed in and influenced our practices in some way.  And while for each expert mentioned here I could list ten more, it wasn't until recently I looked to our Heavenly Father for the ultimate model in parenting.  While I am in no way a perfect person or mom, I'm learning along the way, and for the countless times I've failed, I've gotten a couple right along the way, and those couple are worth sharing and celebrating.

An Attitude of Gratitude

Lila and I had just dropped off some books at the library when Dan called and asked if I wanted to pick up some fast food for dinner on our way home.  Being right by an Arby's, I ordered a few sandwiches off their value menu and headed home.  Lila wanted to be sure I had ordered her some chicken nuggets, which I did not since the closest thing was a $3.99 order of chicken strips.  Sorry kid.  The $1 junior roast beef works just fine.  So our fun one-on-one trip was brought to a screeching halt since her world had obviously stopped spinning.  Huffs and puffs, glares, and kicking the back of the seat were only a few of her offensive tactics to let me know how greatly I had messed up.  And while my knee-jerk reaction in this situation is to raise my voice and to let her know that, "This is ridiculous.  We don't act this way!" something told me to bite my tongue.

A couple minutes later, I turned off the radio, looked in my rear view mirror and began.  "I'm thankful for Lila because she is such a funny girl who can always make me laugh.  What are you thankful for?"

Muttered response under her breath, "Dogs."

Me: I'm thankful for Aunt Jess because today is her birthday!  What are you thankful for?

L:  (muttered) Horses.

Me: I'm thankful for our warm house to keep us out of the cold.  What are you thankful for?

L:  Ummm, I'm thankful for Daddy.

And so on and so forth.  By the time we got home, we had a great ping-pong match of gratitude going.  I pulled into the garage and finished by saying, "I'm thankful for our family that we get to go eat dinner with.  Lets go get 'em!"  And together we bounded into the house happily.

Now, that right there would be a nice enough ending.  However, this was one of those times I was reminded that I am raising and polishing a jewel, and sometimes it takes a little effort to see that through the coal and dust.  Back to the dinner table.  I'm busy distributing everyone's food when my little Bug looks up at me and says, "Mommy, I'm thankful for my sandwich," which of course, was the original purpose behind it all.

And that was when the jewel glistened.  Even now I get teary eyed thinking about this.  How I ALWAYS have a choice in every circumstance to caustically respond to my child or to shepherd her heart.  And while these rugrats warrant a caustic reply every now and then, I think about how tender my Heavenly Father is with me.  Does he discipline?  Absolutely.  But when I complain to him, lay out my heart, make my feelings known, does he ever shame me?  Embarrass me?  Threaten me?  Never.  Always he shepherds.

Since then, I've found myself playing the thankfulness game on a few occasions, and while it sometimes requires me listing 10 things before she gets in on the game, my choice of gratitude always transforms her heart and brings her stinky little attitude around to one of thanksgiving as well.

I Love You, I Love You, I Love You

Due to Bear's developmental and speech delays, Lila is in many ways our eldest child, so she's a bit of the guinea pig for our parenting strategies.  She has been such a momma's girl lately, and while I normally wouldn't complain that my kid wants ME, this comes in the midst of Anna hitting a streak of terrible-twos as well as some illness in the house.  I just haven't figured out how to give when my kids need more of me than I have to give (grace).

Well, today at lunch was not an exception.  Anna and I were up and out of the house in the dark hours of morning to have tubes put in her ears, so not having mommy here to greet her put Lila on an emotional roller coaster once I returned home.  She suddenly needed me to do everything for her, didn't want the lunch I had prepared for her, and responded to everything with a puddle of tears pooling in her eyes and a bottom lip quivering.  So when I started to refill her drink and she began throwing a fit because (obviously I should have known) she wanted to do it herself, I kept my cool and said, "I allow little girls who use their words and speak kindly to refill their drinks."  To which I received foot stomping and panicked baby bird arm flapping along with a strangled cat mewing sound (good visual?).

After ignoring this behavior for a couple of minutes, I picked her up and bear hugged the heck out of that girl.  She tried kicking me, but I forced her head against my shoulder and just started saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you.  You are my best little buddy.  My favorite Lila Lou.  I love you to the moon and back and with my whole heart.  It does not matter what you do, how angry you are at me, if you kick me, if you yell at me.  You can never make me mad enough to not love you.  I love you, I love you.  I love YOU."  And repeated over and over again.  And the tantrum-demon departed and restored my sweet, sweet Lila to me.

Say what?!?  Did I want to yell at her and send her to time out for acting like I had shot her best friend when I was simply refilling her drink?  You bet!  Did she deserve an old-fashioned butt whooping?  Yep!  But man, these times are soooo rewarding when I choose to bow, to abandon my will and LOVE my child as the Father loves me.

Now guys, I would be lying to say if these two scenarios have been game changers in our house.  We are still in the midst of MAJOR wars of the wills...every single waking hour of the day.  I often throw my hands up, run my fingers through my hair, and look at Dan and say, "I just don't know what to do."  But if there's anything I'm learning is that parenting is not about exerting our wills on our children.  A dictatorship is.  But parenting is about guiding, shepherding, re-directing, loving.  We have a choice in how we respond, and that response is directed by prayer and time with the Father who always desires to shepherd our hearts.  If anything, these two scenarios are showing me that His grace and goodness are enough if I simply call on him to shepherd me in my parenting...that he desires to lead me in that, too.  May he always be our model in loving well.