Thursday, June 30, 2011

Yet, I Will Be Joyful

The house across the street from us is empty. The bank foreclosed on it some time ago and the grass has gone to seed. It stands in mute testimony to the anguish many people are facing in the current economy. It seems like everywhere you look, stores are going out of business, vehicles offer themselves for sale beside the road, and people worry about what tomorrow holds.

Couple that with the spiritual climate of our nation. We no longer recognize absolute truth. Christians are not only expected to tolerate, but support the sinful choices of others. Our hearts are broken by friends and family members who reject Christ to pursue addictive behaviors and alternative lifestyles that will leave them empty and scarred. So what is there to be joyful about?

Between 630 and 609 B.C., Habakkuk desperately tried to reach his people steeped in sin. The Babylonian invasion was imminent. Things looked pretty bleak, and yet Habakkuk chose to focus on the one reason he had to be joyful, no matter what the circumstances – He took joy in God. I guess that’s why I’ve been drawn to these verses lately. That’s why I’m memorizing them, clinging to them with every fiber of my being, drawing nourishment for my soul with these words:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
Habakkuk 3:17-19

Habakkuk not only inspires and rekindles my faith, but his testimony proves the fallibility of three things we’re tempted to trust in other than God: what we can see, what we’ve worked for, and our backup plan.

What We Can See
The first line of this passage says, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines…” In other words, I don’t see any evidence that God’s going to take care of me. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. Kelly’s been in construction for thirty years and he’s never seen such a dead market. We trust that God’s going to get us through and enable us to pay our bills, but we have to focus on the God we can’t see instead of the physical evidence in front of us.

You may be straining your eyes to see evidence that God is at work in your finances, work relationships, marriage, children, or church right now. You may feel like God has left you to your own devices. That’s when it takes faith to choose joy instead of despair. It requires moving our gaze from the physical to the unseen spiritual realm where our Savior reigns.

What We’ve Worked For
The second thing Habakkuk mentions is crop failure - “though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food.” How much effort goes into tending and pruning olive trees and plowing and planting fields? Just our little yard takes hours of backbreaking work. I get so discouraged when the slugs repeatedly devour my hydrangeas, birds steal our berries, and the rain drowns our tomatoes. Even more disheartening is when we have worked for spiritual fruit and time after time the enemy and distractions of this world come and steal it away.

If you have planted much, but harvested little, you know what I mean. Perhaps you have poured your love out on a child, only to reap the fruit of rebellion. Or you have purposefully trimmed the dead wood in your own life in order to build muscle. Yet instead of feeling stronger, you feel weak and wilted. Every farmer knows that for all his hard work, he still cannot control the outcome of his crops. So he does his best and waits to see what comes. If the sovereign Lord is our strength, there will eventually be a harvest.

Our Backup Plan
Agricultural farmers often keep a few animals as well. That way, if it’s a bad year in the field, you can sell off some of the stock or live off what they produce. But what if like in Habakkuk’s situation, “there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls”? My husband and I wonder the same thing as we repeatedly dip into savings to make ends meet. What if we use it all up, we wonder, what then?

Have you ever had a back up plan go belly up? A job, relationship, a home, savings plan, or skills you thought would get you through if things got rough. But you used it all up and had nothing else to draw on. That’s why Habakkuk rejoiced in God’s endless supply. When our strength is gone, He gives us energy to scale the mountains of life like a graceful deer.

I’m making every effort to anchor my joy in Jesus, no matter how bad things are in the world around me. He is all I need and He never changes. Even when I can’t see evidence that God is answering my prayers. Even when there seems to be no fruit for my labor. Even when there’s nothing in the barn to fall back on. I will be joyful in God my Savior!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guard Rails and Trees

 I’ve committed to working out every day to get in shape and lose a few pesky pounds, so my muscles have been aching lately. And now that summer’s here I’ve been weeding, mowing, and trimming. So cuts, bruises, and an aching back on are my list of maladies as well. But, even though it hurts, it’s all good, because I and the yard will look better in the end (no pun intended).

The same thing is true in the spiritual realm. Sometimes what feels wonderful in the beginning actually brings harm in the long run, and things that initially hurt can be beneficial. Authors of Boundaries Cloud and Townsend admit that none of us want to hear the painful truth about ourselves even when others can see we’re headed for disaster. But if they pretend the problem doesn’t exist to make us happy it will hurt more later. Expressing this kind of genuine love to others can get sticky.

Kelly and I have had to practice this several times in recent months, and it’s been heart wrenchingly painful for everyone involved. We love God and know that His ways are perfect, even though not always easy. We’ve had to say no to people we love when saying yes would have enabled them to get comfortable on their path to destruction. They haven’t been very happy with us and hold us at arm’s length because they’re determined to choose what’s harmful to themselves and others. We ache to comfort them, but pray instead.

God blesses us with both guard rails and trees – boundaries and people – to protect us from harm. A couple weeks ago, we visited my college roommate and her family on our vacation. Pastor Brent at Silver Creek Family Church was doing a series on “Guard Rails” – how God’s instructions keep us from veering off the road and crashing. After his talk on sex the first week, he introduced God’s boundaries in finances. A congregant had sent two photos to illustrate how important guard rails can be.

It seems this guy fell asleep at the wheel and ran into one. He woke up after it had penetrated his front headlight, gone through the motor, and the front windshield on the passenger side. He was jolted awake by 27 feet of guard rail hurtling through his suburban and out the back window! This wreck certainly did hurt his vehicle, but he was miraculously unharmed. He later realized that if the guard rail hadn’t stopped him, he would have woken up at the bottom of the cliff just up the road from where he stopped.

I can’t count how many times God has protected me from stupid mistakes and wrong choices by placing guard rails in my path. His Word and circumstances have stopped me in my tracks and given me a chance to make a better choice, and stay awake!

Pastor Brent called God’s instructions guard rails; authors Townsend and Cloud describe the people who stop us from certain harm as trees. Dr. John Townsend tells a story about a memorable family trip in their book Safe People. After they all hiked up a hill together, his sister, Lynn, started running down the other side. The family was horrified when they realized Lynn was hurtling out of control, toward a wicked barbed wire fence at the bottom. Thinking that if she went sideways it would slow her momentum John’s dad yelled, “Turn, Lynn!” She immediately turned, and ran smack into a tree. By the time they raced to her side she was already turning black and blue.

However, every time they tell that family story they end by saying, “I never thought we’d be so thankful that Lynn ran into a tree!” By speaking loving truth to each other, we can stop or at least pause our headlong rush to greater harm. It may hurt on impact, and it may take a while for the bruises to heal. Later, however, every time the story is told, we’ll be so grateful for truth telling trees.

This Christian life is all about building muscle, pruning, and getting rid of the weeds that spring up. I want to be willing to let God do that in me, to make me strong and beautiful. I also want to be willing to be a genuine lover of those around me – pointing out guard rails that are there for our protection, and even to be a tree when needed. To withhold the truth to keep the peace is harmful. They may think they’re having a fun ride as they plummet down the mountain, but they need to know about the barbed wire at the bottom.

~ Beth Vice