And I'd just like to say thank you.
(And please don't keep on doing that in 2012. I'd sort of like a break.)
There are some things I learned last year, and I'll share them with you, because I hope that in your uncertain places, on your battlefields, in the days of having your fingers pried away from the things you have always clung to for comfort, you may be blessed and encouraged by the beauty of our faithful God. And the knowledge that you are in good company in those hard places.
In the battlefield seasons, one way we can learn to "abide" is by choosing to "engage elsewhere," so the Lord is doing what He promises to do in His Word: fighting on our behalf.
When things are hard, and they will be, focusing on the "hard" will exhaust and deplete us of all the good resources the Lord wants us to be filled with. Because the real battles are spritual, we can waste a lot of our energy trying in our own strength to handle things, but God wants us to be useful for HIM. I believe that we are built to best handle hard places when we are at the same time working on building good things for the glory of God.
I love the passage in Nehemiah, when he talks about how the families are stationed to build the wall, and they are both building and battling, as also we can be!
"Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side while he worked." Nehemiah 4:17 & 18
We are promised in the Word of God that "In this world, we will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
The trick is not to be distracted by the trouble. For me, that has taken some practice.
The very best way of doing this is to dive head-first into serving the Lord and serving others. An ultimate act of faith in the Lord is being able to hand Him the difficult things, the battle-places, the unknowns, the things that hurt or induce anxiety, and let him focus on those things for us, while we purpose in our hearts to focus on serving.
We pray about the hard stuff. We fast. We talk with friends who can encourage us. We use wisdom and seek cousel. We do what needs to be done. And then we step back and move in the direction of service, while the Lord does the stuff only He can do behind the scenes.
It's knowing when to actively engage and when to intentionally abide.
Jehoshaphat learned about engaging and abiding and the power of worship. When faced with a "vast army," God told him, "Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's." (2 Chronicles 20:15) And Jehoshaphat walked out what he needed to walk out, but he stepped onto that battle field to face the other army, and he did so with intentional praises to the Lord "for the splendor of His holyness" and "as they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated."
We as humans really are powerless. Everything is Him. Everything is for His glory. We have to get out of the way, stop trying to take over the wheel, stop trying to write the story, stop trying to fight the battle and start remembering that it's all under His control.
Our greatest strength is in recognizing our weakness in light of His great might.
Then we can let go.
I mean, really let go.
What we are to cling to is not our desire to control but our desire to serve. We must serve in ways that stretch us.
We must understand that the Lord will sometimes ask us to say "YES!" to something that IS too big, too hard, too expensive, too radical before we even have the slightest idea of HOW He is going to work it out.
Because we know Him. And He will work it out.
This August, we did that very thing. We didn't have the extra money for a trip to Ukraine that the Lord put on our hearts. And we said yes, told a kid we love who's half the world away that we're coming, and we were committed. Before we had one dollar raised toward it. And just in time, each time we came to a need (purchasing plane tickets - we had $5 left over!) the Lord had provided exactly enough. And then He provided - through all of our friends' gracious giving - extra! The great thing is, because all that we had was given to us, we couldn't receive any glory! It was only for the Lord. Which is how it always ought to be, but sometimes, when we don't have to trust and wait and rely on His provision, we deceive ourselves into thinking we have done some great thing. And all the good is always only God.
There is glory for Him when there is need in us.
I hate asking for help. And I hate not knowing how things are going to work out.
So the Lord hit me in both of these places this year, because I had to ask for help with the fund raising. And I had no idea how it would come together.
But I said yes ahead of time. And that unleashed what has become a whole new reckless type of faith in me. And it's amazing!
God's Word isn't filled with promises just so we can recite them and sound spiritual. He gives us promises to cling to. With our fingernails. With desperate hanging-on. When things don't make sense, as well as when they do.
There are often moments of not understanding and of feeling totally helpless that precede the overwhelming flood of grace that God pours out in answering our deepest plea for His help and His work in our lives. And that is very cool. He never leaves us stranded. But He will sometimes let us wait for a while, so that we have let go of all the stuff of "us" that could interfere with His receiving the glory. And it makes us stronger. Braver. Tougher. More useful.
God desires and deserves our trust.
The Lord will tell us the "what" and often not include the "why" or the "how." Only in the trusting are we able to be ok with that. And sometimes it takes practice. A lot of practice.
This past year, the Lord has taken us on a huge adventure, closer to His heart, deeper into His love of the orphan, the widow, the fatherless and the stranger. We've chased hard after His will and to obey.
We've worked to let go of what we are comfortable with, even when we don't understand, because we know God is good and will take care of us. We've been led into a different church, and that was hard, because we love the church we attended before - the teaching, the friends, the worship. But God asked us to pack up our family and go across town, and we weren't exactly sure why (I pester about why a lot, so I think God likes to stretch me). And piece by piece, He is confirming we're in His will.
Some things are hard and beautiful at the same time.
In our new church, we are seeing that God has laid a groundwork in advance of what is turning out to be a perfect network of relationships in place to receive a family of refugees we love dearly. We met these amazing kids in person on our Ukraine trip last summer. They are Afghani refugees, and they called Sunshine their home for several years, while they and their mom awaited entry to the U.S., which they were granted this past September. Initially they were placed in Atlanta, but the desire of their hearts is to be in Maine. So very soon, they will be moving here!
Our own family is being blessed in our new church as well: our kids are engaged, we are making new friends, we are under strong and gifted and personable leadership, but also the Lord had a plan that we had no idea about, and only in glimpses is He revealing the perfection of how He has set this thing up. We are thankful for a pastor who, without having known us long, has shown a heart to welcome and serve our refugee friends alongside others and ourselves, continually making available his network of resources for their benefit. Yesterday I met a church member who has offered a wonderful first home to our friends, and I can see in her spirit a mothering heart that will bless them tremendously. I received an email from a Russian woman at church, who I have yet to meet in person, who is eager to welcome our Russian-speaking friends and be a friend to them herself.
God is good. All the time. When we understand fully and when we don't. We always know He's good. So we can go into the places He leads with confidence that He will be glorified and we will be blessed!
When we returned last summer from Sunshine, I cried. I cried the whole way across Europe, across the ocean and into Boston. I fell asleep briefly on a bus ride from Boston to Bangor, but when I woke up, I cried more. I cried at the grocery store the first time I went after returning home, because I saw sunflowers for sale. And Sasha's village is filled with sunflowers (which are prettier than the ones here). I cried at random times for months. My heart was so leveled by our trip to Ukraine. I truly wanted to pack up my family and all we could fit in suitcases and move to Sunshine and look after the kids. (This was not possible or what God was asking right now, however.) My heart was in a million pieces, having seen a bit of what the Lord is doing there and how tremendous the needs are and how precious the people.
But spending myself last year on behalf of others... that was good. It was necessary. It has to be a permanent lifestyle. Because it is the only way of true joy. It's the only way to set aside the things that are heavy and to pick up the joy of the Lord.
On my oldest daughter's 13th birthday, just a week away, we will be receiving a really huge gift from the Lord. It is then the family we came to love dearly at Sunshine will be arriving in Maine, to enter into the new future the Lord has prepared. They will be driven by a missionary friend we've known for two years but will meet in person for the first time. His church in Kentucky is funding their move and a large part of their initial lodging. And a church in Bangor, where we barely even know anyone yet, is awaiting their arrival with open hearts and arms. Friends from all over my part of the state - from a number of churches and businesses and families - have reached out to this family for over a year, so although it's their first time stepping foot in Maine, the Lord has prepared a place for these refugees to find refuge in Him and in presence of His people.
It's this type of chasing, this type of investment of time and energy, that causes the Lord's great beauty to eclipse the battles that go on in life. The hard stuff is small in light of the greatness of my God. We have to fix our focus.
Our hearts are a bit like our eyes. We can really only look at one thing at a time.
We can look inward, or we can look upward.
I'd like to encourage you to join me in 2012 in a bit of a challenge. I'd like this to be a year of looking up. It's not always easy. I'll probably fall short a lot of days. But if you'd like to point your heart's focus upward with me, we will certainly see the Lord resolve the peripheral stuff, the battles that only He can fight anyway, the troubles this world tosses toward us, the things that we really can't control. What we can control is how we aim our gaze... We will be seeing most whatever it is we are looking at, right? Let's look together at the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ and chase hard after the things He has in mind for us to do in His service, for His glory.
(And check out this awesome promise God makes us, if we're willing to live other-focused and Christ-focused! Who'd want to miss this!?)
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will andwer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strenghten your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail." (Isaiah 58:6-11)