Soursobs in the Garden

For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastises everyone He receives as a son.
Hebrews 12:7

God in His providence orders some of the difficult earthly experiences of His children. He does this as a loving Father so that we grow in holiness and reap peace in our hearts. That is why the Bible exhorts us to count it all joy when we go through various trials, and to give thanks in everything. Do I need to learn how to do this? Yes, indeed. It doesn’t come naturally to me to maintain a thankful attitude when my car breaks down at a busy intersection or when the coffee I was dying for is lukewarm or when my fibromyalgia flares up on a vacation. It is all too easy to let acidity spring up, like soursobs in a garden – the garden of our lives that should diffuse the fragrance of Christ.  Recently, I had one of those experiences that try us and show us how we are travelling.

I had to hurry through my grocery shopping that day. Usually I like to take my time, checking out the specials, looking for a treat or two, planning meals in my head. However my daughter, who accompanies me, had a doctor’s appointment at 11am. and we had already lingered over coffee too long. I pushed my trolley down the aisles at a brisk pace, grabbing the usual items and not bothering with extras. At least I’ll save some money this week, I thought.

On the way to the checkout, I saw my daughter heading out the door towards the car with her trolley. I fished my mobile phone out of my bag and checked the time. Good! At 10.45, I just had time to put my groceries through then get dropped off at home in time for my daughter to make her appointment. I quickly unloaded my items onto the conveyor belt and leaned on the handles of the trolley, waiting for the lady before me to finish up. She and the checkout operator were having a lively conversation. Oh no, not today! I thought. As the woman pulled her card out of her purse, she continued on with her story with great enthusiasm. Wind it up, wind it up! The checkout operator took the card and stood listening with it in her hand, a smile on her face. She asked the customer a question, and the woman answered at length. Then the checkout operator remembered the card and did the transaction, but the woman, still chatting vivaciously, had apparently no intention of moving anytime soon. Can’t you see me here, waiting, my ham slices and yogurt warming up?

This is a test, I thought. I had found myself in a very similar situation about a year ago and I had not handled it too well. Drumming my fingers, inwardly fuming, I had eventually moved my trolley with determination towards the customer so that she had to get out the way. She’d looked offended and the checkout lady had flushed with embarrassment. Lord, help me to do better this time, I silently prayed. I picked up a magazine and gently flipped through it, waiting for them to finish their conversation. I bet the checkout operator gets bored in here at times, I thought. And maybe the woman has to go back to an empty house. I made an effort to smile calmly as I watched them. Gradually, I felt serenity and patience come over me. What did it really matter if I was a bit late? Doctors are rarely running on time anyway. My daughter wouldn’t mind, she was more laid-back than me. I waited politely until the woman had moved on, then wheeled my trolley through the checkout. The operator smiled at me and asked how my day had been.

“Just fine”, I replied.  And it was.

 

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Keeping on keeping on

The letter to the Hebrews is a difficult book, but it contains some of my favourite passages, such as in Chapter 11. Throughout the history of God’s people, there have been many heroes and heroines of the faith. These people knew how to put their faith to work through listening to God’s promises and actively obeying His instructions, trusting Him to do impossible things. They didn’t shrink back, even though their faith was often tested or it didn’t seem to make sense.

We can follow their example of perseverance today – and as the writer of Hebrews says, there is only one proper response to being saved and that is to keep moving forward. The foundation of our faith was repentance from sin and faith in God. From here, we should be developing maturity, growing in our trust in the Lord, and, through practice, learning to discern good from evil. This is the point that the writer of Hebrews was making to a congregation of Jewish converts. You see, these converts were in danger of falling from grace. Having started well, the persecution that was biting into the churches and the nagging falsehoods of the Judaizers were taking their toll on them. Some of them were tempted to go back to their old, familiar religion, the one that was acceptable to the religious leaders of the day, rejecting Christ as the supreme Person He is, turning their backs on His sacrifice, despising the blood that bought them.

Is there the danger that some of us, having received the gospel with joy and begun the Christian walk eagerly, rather than going on in the faith and growing in Christian maturity, might drift away? The writer of the letter to the Hebrews doesn’t mince his words about this: there is no other way of salvation but through Christ! If, having once been enlightened and experienced the goodness of God and the powers of salvation, a person turns away from belief and goes back to ‘dead works’, what then becomes of that person? The light of Truth has been received and rejected. The Son of God has been despised and the Spirit of grace has been insulted.

The lesson here is clear: for anyone who is no longer in the place that they used to be, now is the time! I have heard it said that there is no one more miserable than a backslidden Christian. If this is you, make haste to get right with God and get back in the race. Do not delay. He is gracious and waiting with open arms for restoration. Do not let yourself become hardened and drift into outright unbelief and apostasy, from which there may be no return.

Into The Furnace!

fiery furnace

In a nutshell, that’s what King Nebuchadnezzar said when he heard that the three Hebrew men living in his kingdom were refusing to bow down and worship the gold statue that he had erected.  And not only were they to be thrown into the furnace, but the king’s servants were ordered to heat it up so that it was seven times hotter than it normally was.

Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with wrath, and his facial expression was altered toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. He answered by giving orders to heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated. He commanded certain valiant warriors who were in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in order to cast them into the furnace of blazing fire. Then these men were tied up in their trousers, their coats, their caps and their other clothes, and were cast into the midst of the furnace of blazing fire.           

Daniel 3:19 ff

There comes a time in many people’s lives when they find themselves in a place that is not unlike being in a furnace. A very trying problem has arisen, seemingly out of nowhere, and as it continues, it threatens to overwhelm you. There are no easy answers. God seems to be nowhere to be found, deaf to your prayers. And just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. The problem gets harder, or more come along at the same time so that you are left juggling several and trying to keep all the balls in the air. You wonder if you can cope. You wonder how much longer you can keep going.  You wonder where God is.

Take heart from this story.  When Nebuchadnezzar went to check on the men in the furnace, he got a surprise.

He said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” Daniel 3:25

in the furnace

While the three young men were in the midst of the white-hot flames, there was One right there with them.  Whether it was an angel of the Lord or Jesus Himself, we don’t know, but the men were not alone. And neither are we alone when in the heart of a fiery trial.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you. 

Isaiah 43:2 ff

God’s promise to His people is to be with us in the midst of the most dire situations. Situations that resemble a flood that threatens to overflow us, or a fire that would seem to destroy us. We will not drown. We will not be consumed by the flames. For God is our God and He is for us.
Why does God sometimes allow the trial to go on for an extended period of time?  It is when we are in the midst of it that our faith is tested the most. It is an opportunity to learn something about any weak spots that are there in our trust, and to grow spiritually.

The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, But the LORD tests hearts. Proverbs 17:3

Unpleasant smell or sweet perfume?

I’ve been thinking about the way Christians are becoming more and more hated by the world, just as Jesus predicted. There was a lady I once knew who was greatly puzzled by this. She said, people don’t have to believe what we believe; why cant they just live and let live? What she failed to see is the place of Pride in the fallen human nature. The very first man and woman chose to go their own way and make their own decision rather than obey God. Deception was involved but so was pride. The Bible reveals man and woman to be sinners in need of salvation.  The very idea is intensely offensive to them.  They have constructed an elaborate system of self-justification and self-righteousness, and the truth exposes them. They are unmasked.

An article by Bill Muehlenberg (http://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/11/26/christians-getting-into-trouble/) shows how riots erupted wherever the apostle Paul went.  People were enraged by his words, to the point that they wanted to kill him.
In the comments section of Bill’s article, one man said that he liked to read his Bible during lunch hour. When his co-workers found out, he was treated like a leper. He was mocked and ridiculed and shunned. Another man said that he had exactly the same experience.  Even a Christian harmlessly reading his Bible during the lunch hour is convicting to many unbelievers. Perhaps that person lives in a busy home with children and enjoys the peace of his lunch hour to do his reading. The subconscious guilt of the unbeliever, however, pricks him.  He feels rebuked.  He gets angry.
Things are going to get tough for Bible-believing Christians. The time is coming when nobody will be able to sit on the fence. But the good news is that the gospel saves. While to one it may be an unpleasant odour, to another it is a sweet perfume.

amber perfume

For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. 

2 Corinthians 2: 15,16

Jar of Oil

Our family once had a car that we called Nelly.  It was nothing to look at – just a plain, brown station-wagon – but it was undoubtedly the most memorable car we ever owned.  Day in and day out, year after year, it gave us steady, faithful service.  It took us wherever we needed to go uncomplainingly, crossing long distances, carrying full loads, valiantly climbing steep hills with nothing but a slight groan.  It never broke down.  It never forced us to fork out money on repairs.  Regular maintenance was all it ever needed. 1983_Toyota_Corolla_(KE70)_CS_sedan_(2015-07-03)_01  Eventually, we got a new model and Nelly became my husband’s work car.  For many years she did the run-around of the suburbs, loyally keeping on going week after week.  Rust started to take its toll, which my husband – great mechanic that he is – patched up with brown duct tape.  The paintwork became faded and patchy. The driver’s seat lost its springs and inclined backwards so that you had to peer over the dashboard.  But still, the engine remained strong, healthy and reliable.  We didn’t want to let Nelly go.  She was part of the family.  This car, we knew, would still be running smoothly even though the whole body fell apart – but it was getting too unsightly for the road.  It was a sad day when we called the wreckers and took one last photo before she was towed from the driveway.  After nineteen years, it was like losing a beloved friend.  Sometimes I wonder if God kept that car going, at a time when we were raising a family and budgeting carefully.  My husband says, “No, that’s a notoriously good make of car,” but I like to think it had help from an unseen Hand.

It reminds me of the widow with the jar of oil that didn’t run out.  You can find her story in 2 Kings 1:4-8.  As you would know, widows were in a very vulnerable and precarious situation in those days, because there was no social security system and few Jar_in_ceramic_for_olive_oilopportunities for a single woman to gain an income. They very much depended on their sons for survival. This widow had a debt that she was unable to repay, and her creditor was coming to take her sons as slaves.  Imagine the anguish this would have caused her!  What he demanded was harsh and wrong.  He would have taken her only sons against her will, leaving her alone.  She begged the prophet Elisha, the man of God, to help her out. 

Elisha asked her what she had, and she told him that all she had was one jar of oil.  This would have been olive oil, a valuable commodity in ancient times because it was used for a number of things like cooking and fuel.  Elisha instructed her to go and borrow as many empty jars as she could from her friends and neighbours, and bring them home.  Then she was to fill them with the oil from her jar.  The widow quickly followed this advice, and found that as she poured, the oil kept on flowing until the last of her jars was full.  This olive oil would be very lucrative on the market, so she would be able to repay her debt and have plenty left over to live on.

 

I love this little story for lots of reasons, but one of them is that is proves that God cares about the financial situation of the most vulnerable members of His family.  He’s a practical God; the nuts and bolts of living matter to Him.  Someone once said, “If it’s important to you, it’s important to God”. And God saw the desperate situation of this poor woman that no-one else would have noticed.  He gave the woman security, eased her anxiety and restored her dignity by giving her a means of income that would last for a long time.  All God asked for was her faith.  Radical faith.  The sort of faith that wouldn’t hesitate when faced with an array of jars of all shapes and sizes that she needed to fill from her own, one jar.

 

All God is asking for today, too, is our faith, in the big things and the small things of life, the spiritual needs and the practical needs, even the financial needs.  He is more than willing to meet us where we are at.  He loves to surprise us with provision beyond what we can supply ourselves.