Thursday, September 24, 2009

"I Want to Sit at Jesus' Feet, But Who's Going to Drive the Kids to Soccer?"

Another article of mine just published on E-zine:

One of my favorite authors, Jerry Bridges, describes a common malady among us evangelical Christians as "Quiet Time Guilt". (Don't let the APA find out - they'll market a new psychotropic drug to cure it). In "The Discipline of Grace", Bridges writes: "we've come to believe that God's blessing on our lives is somehow conditional upon our spiritual performance." We've been conditioned to set time aside for regular Bible reading and prayer, and we want to do this - it's how we get to know God better.

The problem comes in when we grow lax, busy, or for some reason just don't do it. Forgetting that our relationship with the Father is irrevocable and depends on His faithfulness, rather than ours, we feel guilt and anxiety over not keeping up our end of the bargain.

I like the idea of giving God the "first fruits" of my day. It seemed to work well enough in college when I was a new Christian - my first class wasn't until 8:30 am. You get up, you shower; you hang with God and go to class before gymnastics practice. That's what a person does. It was all so linear; so logical.

Then I got married, had a family, and life got more complicated.

A couple of years ago, I set a new personal record in the spiritual apathy department. I accepted a large, technical Macedonian translation from a British agency. The unrealistically tight deadline made it necessary for me to sub-contract most of it out, and consequently I spent as much time proofreading and revising as I would have spent translating it myself. The agency kept sending revisions to my revisions, questioning both legitimate changes and errors I had missed. For eleven days, I averaged four hours of sleep per night as I tried to comply with their every whim.

My two-year-old's potty training regressed; the preschooler sat in front of the television all day; the older kids struggled through their homework unaided; and I burned several meals. My husband tried to help and insisted I take a firmer stance with the client, but we ended up snapping at each other. I became a nervous wreck, finally succumbing to tears only when the agency gouged me on the pay. Since I was still carrying a full interpreting load, driving home from an assignment one night I suddenly realized I was supposed to lead Bible study the next day. "Oh shoot," I thought. My Bible had been collecting dust, unopened, for two straight weeks. I had neither prayed nor reviewed the week's lesson. "Good thing it's Romans 9 - election and effectual calling stuff. I can do it cold."

That was the day I realized I had a time management problem, and it was quickly becoming a spiritual problem. The peace and undercurrent of joy that marked my daily life was quickly vanishing, and I didn't know what to do about it.

When you are a new parent, there's something inherently conducive to having regular devotional time. You have a ready-made excuse not to go to work for a few months, and babies (although they have the unnerving habit of waking you up constantly during the night) take regular naps. It's quiet. You have (some) time. Add to that you're still basking in the joy and wonder of God's newest creation, and drawing near to Him in adoration seems to flow naturally. Like many moms, I found myself drawn back to regular devotional life after I became a parent. Suddenly, spiritual matters seem to take on a new sense of urgency. Our single most important job, as parents, is to raise up our children to know and love God. To do justice to this task, I knew I needed to be in prayer daily - not just in church on Sunday.

Then the kids multiplied, got older, and my job description changed. It wasn't just about Pampers and formula bottles anymore.

Hours at work increased. Laundry became an everyday task, where once it was weekly. Talking to God was replaced by writing about Him. Of course, being the queen of rationalization, I can justify anything. "The more I work, the more we can tithe to your Kingdom, Lord. Laundry and cooking are necessary parts of serving my family...isn't that what being a Proverbs 31 wife is all about? Besides, writing is my ministry. I'm using the gifts You gave me to edify people." (God loves it when you use spiritual language, you know). "I want to sit at Jesus' feet like Mary of Bethany did, but she didn't have kids running around."

Fortunately, God wasn't buying my excuses. I had to concede that washing machines, microwaves and Swifter WetJets™ didn't exist in 1st century Judea, and somehow Martha and her sister got all the housework done while managing to feed over a dozen men who didn't call or text ahead. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is, He gives us all the same 24 hours in a day, and we make time for what we truly desire. Susanna Wesley had 19 children, yet she communed with God daily. She would famously resort to kneeling under the dining room table, with a towel as a headcovering, in order to pray in peace. This was the children's signal that Mama was not to be disturbed. Thanks to her godly example and loving discipline, the Wesley children went on to change the world. Tenacity always pays off.

Years ago, I used to spend the tranquility of the early morning to rest in God's presence. Since the kids didn't have to get up for school until 7:00 am, if I downed a coffee at 5:30 am I still had over an hour to receive my marching orders for the day. I was actually able to read a passage without being interrupted. It was quiet - PBS was not yet breaking my concentration with the insipid chortle of a purple dinosaur - and I could give Jesus my undivided attention. Being consciously aware of His love and presence made a definite difference in how I went through the day. (Believe me, I am not a naturally nice person. Any joy you may sense in me is all from Him).

As time went on, this time got crowded out. Reading Christian blogs replaced reading of the Word. Answering urgent e-mail crowded out prayer. Late nights writing, translating and editing - after the kids are in bed - led to sleeping until I actually "have" to get up. Nowadays, if I'm up at 5:30 am, it's only because a patient is scheduled for surgery at 7:30 and I need to be on the Mass Pike by 6:00. Somehow, I convinced myself, cranking Matt Redman CDs in the car constitutes having a "quiet time".

Then I have the nerve to be surprised when I feel anxious, discontent, and disconnected from God. I miss Him.

It's a balance every Christian mother I know attempts to strike - God's given us our husbands and children as a precious gift, and expects us to invest our time, energy and love first and foremost into our families. Since He's told us to "pray unceasingly" (Luke 18:1; Acts 1:14), shooting up prayer while peeling potatoes or folding the laundry is perfectly normal and part of life. I've walked through biblical solutions to dilemmas while ironing my husband's shirts. However, the consistent, disciplined pattern of devotion illustrated throughout the Bible means withdrawing from crazy schedules and diligently seeking God. Lasting spiritual growth only comes as we do that, although it seems harder during certain seasons in our life. I have gotten out of balance in the other direction, too - I remember several times, when my youngest was an infant, getting annoyed that she would awaken and cry when I had gotten up in hopes of being able to read a Psalm or two. Realizing that Jesus didn't mind being interrupted by a child, I saw my need to be more flexible.

Recently, our pastor preached a convicting sermon on what it means to "abide in Christ" (John 15:9-10). God's blessing and sense of nearness in our lives is proportional to our obedience; hence, if we are walking in obedience to His Word and spending time in prayer, we are "abiding" in His love. The single biggest part of that "abiding", (or "remaining in [His] love", as the NIV puts it), is our devotional life. Obedience that is motivated solely by duty, rather than love, will quickly lead to drudgery. How can we cultivate love for God if we don't get to know Him, and how will we get to know Him outside of the Bible and conversing with Him? Scripture is His way of talking to us - the only source of divine revelation.

In the midst of our demanding jobs, hectic soccer schedules, never-ending housework, and even ministry opportunities, (which may be a tempting substitute for "closet prayer"), it is still possible to spend quality time with God. It may be necessary to give up other things, or even put some projects on hold for a while, but ultimately it is worth it. Just as you can't pour out of an empty cup, it's unrealistic to expect to be able to pour into other people's lives unless you are being fed and encouraged at the feet of the Master.

Article Source:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Heart Transplant

I've been reflecting on the imagery (and broader application) of Ezekiel 11:19 lately.

"I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 11:19)

The prophet is promising the exiles in Babylon that they will be restored by God.

A few chapters later, Ezekiel pleads: "Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 18:31)

Towards the end of the prophetic book, he reiterates God's message: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26)

In a similar vein, the prophet Jeremiah had predicted "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jeremiah 31:33), a passage quoted twice by the writer of Hebrews and applied to God's people under the New Covenant.

The imagery of these "new heart" passages is striking. For one thing, they provide the clearest demonstration that regeneration is completely a work of God anywhere in Scripture. Can a human being create a heart? Best we can hope for is a synthetic valve. Even then, the materials came from elsewhere. How about "I will put...I will write..." (emphasis mine). God is clearly doing the creative work here, as well as the "transplant" of the regenerate heart. This is what the New Birth is all about - His creative power redeeming what was dead. Just as we can't conceive ourselves, it's ludicrous to assume we can acquire a new heart on our own.

But pursue the analogy with me for a moment. It's not easy to be a transplant recipient. The patient has to take his or her medication, live a clean lifestyle, (smoking and drinking are out), be well-rested, and have a tissue match. At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, God expects us to take our "medicine" and be well fed - by His Word. If we aren't reading it, how do we know the implications of the new birth? He expects us to live a clean lifestyle and keep ourselves undefiled by worldliness.

After a transplant, the recipient needs to stay in isolation for a while while the body adjusts to the new organ. There is always the risk of organ rejection, which fortunately is never a spiritual concern for the new Christian! He Who has saved us is faithful to keep us from falling (Jude 1:24), but naturally as a new believer one is more vulnerable (both to temptation and error) than a seasoned believer. Being in fellowship, study, and most importantly prayer is critical to building up one's "spiritual immunity" and growing in holiness.

Sometimes, though, I find my "new heart" still thinks it's an "old heart" and wants to revert back to it's toxic ways. In so doing, it's as if I forget the Maker has done a complete and irreversible transplant. The old nature wars against and wants to instill the same deadly disease in my new heart, but God has declared me a new creation, one "born from above". It is hard to reconcile this spiritual truth with the day-to-day ugly reality of sin, but it is true.

I guess that is the whole point of conviction: to keep our consciences/hearts tender to what God would mold us into. Matthew Henry writes:
It is promised, that God will give them one heart; a heart firmly fixed for God, and not wavering. All who are made holy have a new spirit, a new temper and dispositions; they act from new principles, walk by new rules, and aim at new ends. A new name, or a new face, will not serve without a new spirit. If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. The carnal heart, like a stone, cannot be made to feel. Men live among the dead and dying, and are neither concerned nor humbled. He will make their hearts tender and fit to receive impressions: this is God's work, it is his gift by promise; and a wonderful and happy change is wrought by it, from death to life. Their practices shall be agreeable to those principles. These two must and will go together. When the sinner feels his need of these blessings, let him present the promises as prayers in the name of Christ, they will be performed.

Have you had a "heart transplant"? You never stop needing daily consults with the Great Physician. He has indeed created in us a pure heart (Psalm 51:10), but we tend to play in the mud a lot. The born-again spirit is never going to stay clean on it's own merits, but will always seek purification through Christ, the only Mediator.