Loving Listening

Your lovingkindness wraps me up,
welcoming me with arms open wide
to hold me, grace pouring over me;
no, I don’t deserve this.

You listen to me, lovingly
letting me pour out to you
my worries and concerns.
I’m comforted, secure.

We meet there in the middle, 
a precious place of peace and joy,
one purpose in your calling me:
to live together with you.

I yearn for lovingkindness,
and eagerly run toward it,
hoping it will course through me
transforming who I am.
             (Ps. 23:6; Jn 15.7; 17:21,26; 2Tim 2:22)

Just think of all the blabbing prayers being offered to God right this minute all around the world. And he hears all of them, listening to the ones that come from those devoted to him (Prov. 15:29). That is one proof of his omnipresence and amazing love that blows me away. He listens.

We cannot listen to everyone at once, but if we are to become like him, a capacity to listen well should indeed be one of our goals

“Put on your new nature, created to be like God — truly righteous and holy.“(Eph. 4:24 NLT)

Being righteous is being who we ought to be, doing right. Being holy means being set apart, living out the ethics and morals that come with living together with our Lord, citizens of his kingdom.

Hmm – “living together with our Lord” – this is a reference to close companionship. When we live with someone as loving and kind as he is, we naturally becoming increasingly close to them. The loving attachment actually changes us. Think about this:

[Christ] died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:1 NIV)

“Living together with him” — this describes each of us attached to him, and to each other, in life on earth as well as after leaving this world. This truth has been underlined for me for years, but this year more than ever. I am participating in a group memorizing the Sermon on the Mount, and it has led me to read the deep writings of Martin Lloyd Jones and Dallas Willard on those passages. What the Word says, and what these authors keep repeating, is that knowing and loving the Lord our God is indeed the first commandment, the essential one for our growth in becoming those blessed people that Jesus listed in the Beatitudes. It is not an instantaneous fix, either, but a progressive kind of maturation as we get to know the Lord better and better. It’s like the way that I know my husband Glenn much better now than I did when I married him! Building an ever deeper conversation and daily walk with the Lord means I get to know him better, which leads to ongoing progress in maturing spiritually. And that changes what I view as important in my relationships with others.

That verse in 1 Thessalonians says that as a result of living with Christ, we should be encouraging each other, building each other up. Learning to truly listen to someone is a key way to to do this, but many of us are not very skilled in doing that well. We tend to interrupt or try to offer a quick fix. Sometimes we assume that we know things about a person that we actually have not yet given them space to explain. If we listen well, first, and wait for understanding to grow, then we can offer words that are appropriate and even offer that “unmerited favor” that is grace:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, (Jas. 1:19 NIV)

You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29 NET)

When I was going through a period of loneliness during our years in Côte d’Ivoire, I met a woman from another mission who had recently arrived in Abidjan, a major city that we sometimes visited. I was at a church there one Sunday, and my 3-year-old got too squirmy to be able to sit quietly. I took him outside, and there I met Janet, walking her 3-year-old around. We began to share our life stories. A very special connection began! And even though we only saw each other once in a while, months apart, I knew I now had a safe place for the kind of encouragement I needed as I shared my journey and listened to hers. We learned from each other.

What made the difference? Someone was listening to me without judging me, but empathizing and praying with me.. I had a mature friend with the same devotion to Christ as me, who also humbly shared what she was learning.

Developing these qualities of being an encourager who listens well takes time for most of us. It is part of our process of maturing as we keep on growing in attachment love for our Lord, letting him direct us in our conversations.

And then, of course, it can also be that the Lord is telling us that there is someone who is truly in need of a safe friend right now. An incident here in my Detroit neighborhood showed me that I need to pay attention to him when he prompts me to go offer a loving moment to someone.

I was making a cup of tea in my kitchen but could not stop thinking about the widow who lived across the street. She was also a believer and our times of connection in the past had been sweet. But I had been traveling and hadn’t seen her for a while.

I set my cup down and walked over to her house. After knocking repeatedly and trying to get the doorbell to ring, I wondered if this was really a good time. I could hear television noise; maybe that was drowning out my knock. Just as I was ready to leave, the tv was turned off and I heard sobbing. Now what should I do? I knocked again, and this time I heard footsteps and the door was opened. When my neighbor saw me she pulled me in, hugged me and kept sobbing in my arms. When we sat down she shared that this was the date of her husband’s birthday, the first time it had shown up since he passed away. I let her pour out her grief.

That was all the Lord wanted from me that moment: to listen lovingly. I was so glad I had obeyed the prompt!

If we prioritize growing in our intimacy with God, and recognizing his voice and his prompts, it will become a way to better fulfill the second commandment: to love that person next to us in our community. Listening may be just what they need.

Let’s be quick to listen, just like our Lord, our loving Father!

When a Handhold Makes All the Difference

You hold my hand, you love me:
King of this whole world, you lead me,
making my right hand your chosen tool
so that each act becomes
a holy service
in your master plan.

You hold my hand, you love me:
Lover of my soul, you treasure me
and nurture every gifting given
and make each weakness
a new way 
to intervene with strength.

You hold my hand, you love me:
Father-love that cares for me
that clears the rubbish from the path
and grasps me tight
when gale-force winds 
would sweep me off my feet.

You hold my hand, you love me:
Spirit-love that fills me up
and squeezes out the selfishness
so that instead your love and joy
reach out with grace
to spread your peace.

One of my favorite childhood memories is actually more like a GIF, a movement that happened over and over, time after time: my Dad’s hand reaching down to mine. He would grasp my hand, my fingers would then wind around a couple of his his fingers in return (the most I could hold on to), and off we would go. He had very long legs, so I had to scramble to keep up. But I was secure. Sometimes he was holding me so that I would not get lost in a crowd, in an airport or a store. Other times he just wanted to communicate that father-love that was so precious as we walked down a path.

That picture of safety in a father’s grip is easy to relate to, if you’ve had a good father. One that was always harder for me to grasp was the Scripture’s motif of God holding his loved one’s right hand. Why specify that right hand? Usually it is God’s right hand that is the focus. It is the hand by which he acted, the image of power and rescue:

Your right hand, LORD, was majestic in power. Your right hand, LORD, shattered the enemy. (Exod. 15:6 NIV)

Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes. (Ps. 17:7 NIV)

5 You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great. (Ps. 18:35 NIV)

. . . even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Ps. 139:10 NIV)

In many parts of the world, this imagery of the right hand being the “good hand” (the left hand reserved for dirty work) is still alive and active. It was definitely viewed that way in Nyarafolo country in Côte d’Ivoire. So when a father reaches out to hold you by his right hand, you are truly safe.

Your own right hand is made for good activity, too, in the Scriptures. When God holds your right hand, he is going to help you accomplish what is before you:

For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. (Isa. 41:13 NIV) . . .See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. (Isa. 41:15 NIV)

In these verses God is making his people valiant, successful in fighting against evil. His presence at our active side does take away our fear so that we can be strong:

I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. (Ps. 16:8 NIV)

Yet I am always with you [Lord]; you hold me by my right hand. (Ps. 73:23 NIV)

Maybe you are left-handed. Don’t feel left out!  The Scriptures are using imagery that was meaningful to the cultures in which they were spoken. Whichever hand is the one you mostly use for action, think of God holding that hand, strengthening it, and guiding it so that it can do what he wants it to do.

Maybe, like me, you can remember your mother holding your hand with her hand as you grasped an electric beater for the first time, making sure you could manage it well. Or maybe it was Dad’s firm hand on yours to tighten your grip when you were finding yourself too weak to turn a testy jar lid. Those hands showed you how to do something, and added their strength to yours.

When our Lord holds our right hand, we are empowered – not to just follow our own whims, but to accomplish what he has in mind.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isa. 41:10 NIV)

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.  (2 Thess. 2:16 NIV)

Another memory with GIF replay in my mind is when one of my parents said, “Linn, would you please hold your little brother’s hand as we cross the street!”

Just has I needed to reach out lovingly to protect my sibling, Jesus wants us to reach out in love to our brothers and sisters in His family. The command he gave that tells us succinctly what he wants us to live out is this:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (Jn. 15:12 NIV)

How did he love us? He gave himself for us!

So picture yourself walking your life path firmly attached to God, our Lord and Father and Savior. He is holding you by your hand of action, teaching you how to do what you should, giving you strength to do it, pouring his love into you so that it flows out to others. His commands may seem way beyond our paygrade and not at all what we would naturally think of doing, but with him holding our hand by his powerful hand, it is much harder to run off and do our own thing. Our fingers wrapped around his, we can stay on the path he is walking, do what he wants.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Mic. 6:8 NIV)

Just Cling!

Cling to the Vine!
Just cling, cells interlocked,
bark intact, and let the sap flow:
slowly but surely through winter chill,
tingling gently, keeping you alive;
vibrantly pouring when summer sun
saturates the world with heat; 
a constant feeding in the sleep 
of night. Rest, but cling.

“Cling!” Jesus said. “Don’t let go! If you do, it’s over!” He could not have been clearer about how essential it is to cling to him.

“Remain in me. as I also remain in you!” (John 15:4)

 If we do that, we are like the fruitful branch on the vine that stays vibrant and will soon have grapes hanging from it. The life-giving sap flows from the trunk, the center of everything and source of nutrition, into the branches. If the branch falls off, whipped by the wind or struck by an animal, it withers and dies. Jesus underlined the importance of staying deeply attached to him – clinging to him – or letting go and just shriveling up.

Attachment theory has become one of the core tenets of psychology. Look it up and you can find pages of intriguing information. One of the foundational elements is what happens during the first two years of a child’s life. If that baby comes to know their mother or other primary caregiver as a safe place, with secure bonding to them from the time of birth, they are able to develop healthy emotional and psychological health. They learn to trust the caregiver who responds to their needs and provides loving touch, like cuddling or carrying the baby close to them. I was very close to my dear mother, but I was also deeply attached to my grandmother. She lived with us and took care of me while Mom taught nursing and Dad finished his medical training. When I was two years old our family left the U.S. for Africa, only returning every four years. But each time we were back, I loved being reunited with Grandma Slater. The attachment that I’d formed as a baby held firm, showing up in a very special relationship.

During the two years right after Glenn and I graduated from university, already married, we were living in Pontiac just a few miles from Grandma. She could not drive, so once a week I spent a day with her to take her shopping and then to use her washing machine. Those hours together further cemented our bonding. When I would arrive she was usually sitting at her table with a cup of hot water, reading her Bible and writing notes in a notebook. Those were challenging years of finishing training, paying off debts and dealing with the loss of our first baby in the womb. Her love for the Lord, and for me, was solid support that I needed.

Back to the imagery of the vine and the branches: Jesus made it very clear that the vital energy of the sap that would keep a branch strong and fruitful was, translated to human terms, love.

4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. , , , As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love..  (Jn. 15:4, 9-10 NIV)

The Father’s love was Jesus’ constant sustenance, and he tells us – his beloved disciples — to participate in that current of love too. To have it we need to “remain” in him: stay securely attached to him, so that his essential love flows into us. Then we can be “fruitful,” living out that sustaining love by loving others. That, he says, is his command, the fruit that he demonstrates that we belong to him!

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Jn. 15:12-13 NIV)

What kind of love does he have for us? He says it is completely self-giving. The most comprehensive word for it is the Hebrew hesed. Compare the English translations and you will see how translators need two words or a compound to come close to its meaning: unfailing love, loyal love, faithful love, steadfast love, lovingkindness.

If we are drinking in that love daily, staying firmly attached to our Lord like a clinging branch, we will become healthy friends of his (cf. John 15:14), actively loving each other and those in our community. Dehydration, what happens when the attachment is broken, is deadly, he says.

It is essential that we maintain that close connection! Those of us who have access to his Word in our own language need to keep delving into it to know him better and better and understand his commands. Prayer then grows into two-way conversation. One good thing I learned at boarding school, from age 10 to 15, was to set aside time each morning to read the Word. A bell would ring before breakfast, and all had to become quiet for 20 minutes. Not everyone really grabbed their Bible. But as I grew in my faith, that time became a precious pre-breakfast feast that I needed, and the habit stuck. The year that I was in eighth grade my dorm parents, Don and Glenna Bigelow, allowed us older kids in the dorm to rise with the sun on Saturdays, before the get-up bell would ring. We could go outdoors and spend time with the Lord there. I loved that freedom of walking in the wet grass with the birds, and learning to listen to the Lord as I poured out my concerns to him. It was truly formational.

This bonding to the Lord starts with a one-time action of choosing to follow him but must become a lifelong love-based attachment. May his love be our safe place and strengthening nourishment, overflowing to those around us!

Making Every Effort

Your Word grips me:
If I really know you, Jesus –
my Lord, Rescuer, Messiah—
then I may actually
participate in who you are,
“the divine nature”!

To be like you
and a member of
your healthy Body,
doing my part,
is what I really want.
So I will try hard,
make every effort!

But without your Spirit
(my guide and comfort)
my efforts come to nothing.
I struggle, hoping that
the gifts you gave me
are enough, But without
direction, I stumble.

I am yours: your daughter,
your servant, your Linnea.
A little finger? An ankle?
An eye, in your Body?
You made me with
a purpose; may I 
live it out, for you!

I need to know you
more and more,
better and better
every day of my life
in order to become
increasingly like you,
following your prompts.

Have you ever worked really really hard at something, doing your best to succeed, only to fail?  I sure have. Let me choose which of the stories inundating me from my past I should share with you, not to wear you out with my distresses.

The one that truly sobered me took place my freshman year at Michigan State University. I had always been a straight-A student. So yes, I hit college running hard with great expectations, with a major in pre-med at that time. (How that changed is another story!) One of the required courses was calculus. Math had always been more challenging to me than any other subject (except P.E.), but I expected to do my “usual”: work hard and succeed. I did put every effort into it that I could. But I got a D grade, just above complete failing!  How could I expect to succeed in my major with that grade dragging me down?

It’s true that I was in a class of 600 students. We were assigned to small study groups, but the instructor for my group was really at a loss as to how to help us. He was a graduate student from a foreign country who obviously had no experience teaching something like calculus. He tried, but we couldn’t understand his accent very well, and his answers to questions did not help me. I couldn’t believe I had done so poorly!

I was dating a really cool guy named Glenn Boese at the time. He was in his sophomore year at a community college and had already taken calculus. He was one of those types who was fine with getting a B; he was not a perfectionist but instead liked to save some time for sports and other fun stuff. When I retook the calculus course to save my grade point, he coached me a few times when he visited on a weekend. Suddenly some very basic key concepts made sense, and I was off and running, feeling out of breath but really working hard – and getting a final grade of A- (3.5).

I learned in a very powerful way that without essential basic knowledge, the rest of the uphill journey was impossible.

This is true of spiritual growth, as well. When I was in Côte d’Ivoire, involved in Nyarafolo Bible translation, my co-translator Moise and I were assigned many of the shorter New Testament epistles to translate as we raced to our finish line. As we worked through the first chapter of 2 Peter, both of us were wowed at the powerful words in the first part of chapter 1, which wraps up its teaching like this:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters,make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Pet. 1:10 NIV)

Try your hardest, it says!  Make every effort you can, because if you do the things listed above, you will never stumble but reach the goal of forever with Christ, with applause!

I was so moved that I began memorizing that section. Even that seemed to take “every effort,” but it also made me meditate on the connections in Peter’s argument. In addition to saying “make every effort” twice, in verses 5 and 10, there is another key to achieving this goal. It is knowing God, and specifically our Lord Jesus. This foundation is underlined in the introduction:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Pet. 1:2 NIV)

Wham-bang! It is very clear that we cannot develop mature spiritual character without knowing our Lord! And this is obviously not just knowing about him, but knowing him as a person. How can this happen? When we want to get to know a fellow human being, we spend time with them in conversation and life activities. Getting to know God requires this as well. We need to be truly connected to him! That was made clearer than ever to me when Moise and I struggled with how to translate “godly” into Nyarafolo. The idea of “piety,” used in most of the French versions we referenced, meant nothing. Then we noticed the rendition in the Francais Courant (kind of “common French”) version that says: “attached to God.” That worked in Nyarafolo, using a strong term that indicates a strong, clinging attachment.

So, his divine power has given us everything we need to live out our attachment to God, by knowing him (my back-translation of part of verse 3).

Recently a friend introduced me to Renovated, by Jim Wilder. He takes the teaching of Dallas Willard about growing in spiritual maturity and explains it using both Scripture and his training in neuroscience. I highly recommend it! One thing that blew me away was his explanation of how attachment love is essential to achieving deep human relationships, and essential in our spiritual maturation as well:

“Attachment love is central to an older path to Christian character. Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) spoke of attachment in a proverb widely attributed to her: ‘We become what we love and who we love shapes who we become.”[1]

This differentiates knowing about God and truly knowing God, which changes us. Attached to him, bonded to him, loving him, his power (v.2) fuels every effort that we make to become like him!

This is how children bond to their parents, and – when it is a healthy attachment – grow up to follow in their footsteps. I know my parents’ lives deeply influenced me that way.

So, with this basic knowledge of him in place, making every effort to add all the qualities he wants to see in us (verses 5-7) will not be mere striving without getting to our goal like that first attempt at succeeding in calculus was for me. His Spirit lives in us. Through conversation with him and through delving into his Word, we can get to know him more and more. Deep attachment to him is that basic piece that will result in increasing maturity and productivity as we press forward to our high calling and reward as we enter life forever with him. May we each live out his purpose for us by growing in our relationship with him, deeply attached!

[1] Jim Wilder, “Neuroscience and Developing Character,” in Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms by Jim Wilder  (Shepherd’s House,   NavPress, 2020), 74.

Sustenance in the Cold Dry Wind

The delicate clusters of golden rain,
	their petals showering dry ground,
	wine for the wasps and giant bees,
	sustenance for ants, and for my soul –
the sun rising through haze with joy,
	highlighting intricate branch formations
	soaking the blossoms and mango babes,
	life source for nature, and for this day –
doves silhouetted against the sky,
	perched on bare trees or the slope of thatch,
	calling out love notes with tenderness,
	whipping through morning air, in pairs –
you, Abba, renew me this way,
	the touch of your fingertips on your world,
	the proof of your kind and creative grace,
	your Spirit caressing us in the wind.

My dad was a bird watcher. When we first arrived in Côte d’Ivoire (evacuated from Congo), I remember walking the dusty dry red paths with him, getting used to in this new environment so radically different from the forested Congo mountains, looking up at birds in the trees. Dad told me, “God blessed Congo with amazing plants; here, he has blessed the land with birds.” We were indeed amazed at the variety of colors and bird songs high in the sky and next to us in the parched earth. It was a part of our healing journey, and Dad kept on treasuring all winged things throughout his life. Once the rains came that first year in a new country, he discovered great plant life was there too as the land came to life!

I could never match his knowledge of all the bird species (or that of other missionary friends), but I reveled in the melodies that filled our courtyard in Ferkessédougou each morning and evening after I returned with Glenn as a missionary myself. A chorale of birds accompanied me on those Saturday mornings of solitude under the golden rain trees. This time of year it is “winter” over there, too – no snow, just cold wind off the nighttime desert to the north, and drought. Dust coats the green that is left; most trees have lost their leaves. But then in March the golden rain bursts into bloom, heralding the coming “spring” of mangoes and rains.               

It was all a great picture of God’s goodness to the land and to life on it. He carried it through its annual rest, the dry season wait, and then showered it with blessing. Sound familiar? Here in Michigan we have different weather, and different birds and fruit, but as the seasons change and winter turns to spring, our wait is rewarded.

It is in the middle of the barren times that we practice waiting. In our lives, it may be that we are begging God to bring hope, but there is ongoing suffering in our bodies, our family or close community, or our nation. These words of Jesus recorded by Matthew seem hard to understand:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knock, the door will be opened. (Mat 7:7,8)

And then verses 9-11 throw the challenge back to us: is it normal for any of us parents to give our child a stone when they just asked for bread? Or would we snicker and give them a poisonous reptile instead of the fish they wanted for supper? Only the wicked parent acts like that. We all fail in many ways, but those of us following our Lord do know how to be kind, how to give good gifts to our kids, and that is even true of most parents in the world. Now, to the point: do we not trust our good God to act as our loving Father and kindly answer our prayers with a good gift? What is going on when we wait, and don’t see an answer?

The truth is, this world is broken and bad things happen to good people. Who gets blamed? All too often our fingers point to God. Instead of trusting him to work things out according to his timing and beneficent purpose, we gripe. But God points out that if we know how to be kind to our kids, we should know that our Father God – who is holy, perfect – also is kind and gives good gifts to his kids. We need to think about the reality of what can be involved in good parenting. We might delay giving a phone to our son until he is older and mature enough to handle the responsibility. In the same way, he has a reason for making us wait.

It seems odd that the next verse (12) says:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

What is the connection here? Instead of reaffirming that God only does what is good, even if his ways are not always easy for us to understand, this is a command to the listeners. The Greek word οὖν that is translated “so.” in NIV and ESV could also be translated “therefore.” It definitely links this verse to what comes before. Often commentators see it as indicating that this statement  known as “the Golden Rule,” summarizes all that Jesus has been teaching to this point. So this is what it means to be a disciple. And it does indeed apply that way. We all would appreciate being treated with kindness and justice, so if we act that way toward others, we would also be doing what was right, following Jesus’ teaching.

But how does it apply to the immediately preceding verses about trusting our heavenly Father to respond to our requests?  We should respond to the requests of others the way we would want them to respond to us, the way our Father responds to us. In other words, do what is right, with kindness and wisdom like that of our Father.

This responsibility may not always be what we had in mind:

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5:42 NIV)

We are not to cling to our possessions but hold them lightly. When someone is truly in need, we are ti meet that need, and trust our heavenly Father to take care of us too. He says that when we ask, he hears, and he answers. He treats us the way we want to be treated, with love. His loving care for us has already been underlined in chapter 6:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matt. 6:26 NIV)

Ah! If your Father even takes care of the birds, can’t you trust him to take care of you, too?

So I go back to that moment when I was watching the doves silhouetted against the morning sky, perched on the skeletal branches of the trees, all nature waiting for the coming rains. But the birds were singing!

I turn to my Father:
you, Abba, renew me this way,
	the touch of your fingertips on your world,
	the proof of your kind and creative grace,
	your Spirit caressing us in the wind.

The waiting can be done with joy, with humble trust in the gracious attention of Abba. He knows what is going on, way more than I do. His Spirit is not only near but within those of us who have given ourselves to him, and he is our comforter. We just need to listen, be alert, and notice the pictures of Abba’s care all around us. When the answer takes a while to come, or is not what we expected, we can still be completely sure that he is good and is acting according to his purposes. Even perfect – completely set apart with nothing bad in his character. We can trust him completely. And we are to be like him, act like him:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48 NIV)

That is another way to describe “holy.” Jesus is quoting the Law:

‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:2 NIV)

May his Spirit work in us to increase our personal attachment to our Father and make us increasingly like him! He will sustain us with his creative grace as we wait, and watch, and listen to him.

Prayer: To Be Like Jesus!

To be like you!
That has been my purpose
though I said the words
with little understanding
of what they really mean.

“Not my will, but
YOURS be done!” you prayed,
putting all the outcomes
in your Father’s hands.
You knew the cross was coming.

You came to obey,
to do what you were sent for,
to be a sacrifice to rescue
humans, broken people
who are in desperate need.

Humility. Grace.
Willingness to serve the King
no matter what he asks,
even loving everyone!
May your will be done!

I grew up in a like a seedling in a greenhouse, surrounded by missionaries who loved the Lord and loved to sing together. Once a week in Katwa, Congo, and then again in Ferke, Cote d’Ivoire, they would gather for “singspiration.” I loved to sing with them, so I learned many hymns with much deeper meanings than I realized as a young thing, just enjoying the music and learning to sing alto. The words stuck, though. Some favorites that are coming to mind these days:

All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give . . . 
I surrender all! (Judson W. Van DeVenter, 1896)
	And one that we had sung at our wedding:
Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee . . .
Take my will and make it thine, it shall be no longer mine!
                 (Frances R. Havergal, 1874)

I did see my community living it out through some really hard times. I had to apply these words to difficult passages in my life as well, accepting what came my way – like separation from parents while at boarding school for four years. But that consecration of absolutely all that is within me, saying constantly “Take my will and make it thine . . . no longer mine!” – that was a long learning curve.

Now I understand that what I really long for is to be like Jesus, the more I understand what he was like during his life here. Coming to earth in the form of a human required an astounding depth of love for us, squeezing deity into a body of flesh and bones. The one who knew everything, who created everything, accepted growing up as a child. That took humility. The perfect person who never did anything wrong even went to his cousin, John, to be baptized. John’s baptism was for repentance, so at first John resisted Jesus’ request. He knew there was nothing Jesus could repent for doing. But Jesus said the ritual should be done “to fulfill all righteousness,’ (Mat. 3:15), and God signed his approval audibly and visually. Jesus associated with people that everyone looked down on. He was misunderstood, betrayed by his chosen disciple, and these sufferings were not easy for him either. He struggled with what was coming that night in the garden, overwhelmed with sorrow, even asking the Father if the plot could be changed. But he accepted it all anyway with those words of complete surrender: “Not my will, but yours be done!” and went forward to the cross, doing it to save us and out of complete obedience to his Father.

He loved the Father with all his being, and his neighbors, revealing it through so many acts of kindness and then his self-sacrifice. He even loved his enemies, showing it dramatically when he chose Saul, the persecutor of his disciples, to be his messenger.

Can I be like him?  Can you? Yes, if we are so devoted to him that we are completely open to his will and his instructions. Yes, if we get to know him better and better day by day, listening to what he says and putting it into practice. His Spirit lives in us, guiding us, transforming us. When Jesus told his disciples, “Follow me!” he meant it. As we see him at work, we can join him! May words like these become our true goal:

Oh! to be like Thee, blessed Redeemer,
This is my constant longing and prayer;
Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures,
Jesus, Thy perfect likeness to wear.
Oh! to be like Thee, oh! to be like Thee,
Blessed Redeemer, pure as Thou art;
Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness;
Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.
			(Thomas O. Chisholm, 1897)

Life on the Dark Side

He threw off glory
(brilliant, whole),
took on a body
(vulnerable, decaying);
lived on a dirt floor
instead of the universe;
walked the planet,
but only in one minute spot
when he had known
Inside and Beyond.

He felt the separateness
of being human
(one individual
in the uncaring crowd),
lived in the pressure pot
of grasping people,
came up against the hard
oppositional wall
put up by power brokers.
He knew the fatigue
of teaching the limited
to understand,
making blind eyes see,
extending real fingers
to touch infection.

He suffered here:
hungry (for forty days),
naked (stripped,
to shame him),
tortured (beaten,
thorns pressed down,
iron spikes forced
through flesh of hands and feet),
rejected (their spit slimed
his eyes and cheeks,
their laughter mocked him,
lies shredded his reputation),
(the Truth, taken for a sham,
the Light, seen as conniving,
feared as dangerous
when he was Love),

He spent his very self
to show us God.
The dark side of living
in a shadowed world
that builds defenses
against sun
and snuffs out flickering candles --
he chose that, too.
So when we scream
it comes as no surprise.
His empathy is not imagined,
not contrived.
He knows our pain.

When Jesus came to earth in human form, he had a purpose. God himself would live here just like we do, in a suffering world, and then take on all our brokenness by dying for us as the ultimate sacrifice. But he is not gone! He rose again, and is still Immanuel, “God with us.” Now he lives inside each of us who have devoted ourselves to him. So what does that mean?

Being saved does not end in that moment of decision; we are to “work out our salvation” –put it into practice – with deep reverence for the one who has made us his own and has a real purpose for us (cf. Phil 2:12,13 NIV). He is remaking us as we live out what it means to be his and to become more and more like him. When we contemplate what his life demonstrated about his character, that goal can be daunting. All we have to do is try to live up to his expectations to realize that on our own, we are weak. We don’t have it in us to naturally love those who are not like us, or who even oppose us. Forgiving those who do us wrong is a huge leap; our natural impulse is to hold that against them and avoid them. His standards are way above our pay grade!

What comforts me in all of this is my Master’s understanding. He knows what it is to live in this broken world with all of its personal pain and relational challenges. He was here. He experienced way more opposition than any of us, being executed for being too good, too truthful about who he was (and is) and about our human dilemmas. He must have been tempted to use his power to get even. Instead, he did just what he had taught, “turning the other cheek” to those abusing him (Matt. 5:39). He did not yield to what he would have liked to have happen, as a human, but said to God the Father, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV).

His humility and his long path of hardship has given him deep empathy that reaches out to comfort us in our tough situations. “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18 NIV). He waits with loving arms for us to run to him for help when we realize that we are weak while he is strong. He will not push us away with disgust when we do that. He knows what it is to need the strength of the Almighty and is delighted when we turn to him instead of just flailing about and failing. He has experienced life on the dark side himself.

When we have gone through a certain kind of trauma, we too can empathize more easily with others in a similar situation. I lost my first pregnancy in the seventh month, when for unknown reasons the baby died while still in my womb. Even decades later, when a woman’s pregnancy ends this way, or her newborn dies, I feel her grief and can reach out to her with a different kind of understanding because I’ve been there too. As a child and then as an adult I lived in some situations of deep civil unrest, even war. The news of similar circumstances around the world (especially in Africa) strike me hard as a result.

Jesus knows that our lives are tough going, whether we are personally suffering or there is chaos all around. We can run to him and be welcomed when we need him (which is truly way more often that we usually realize). This union with him means more and more to me as I contemplate all the words and metaphors that underline it in the Scriptures. They tell us to remain in (or abide in) the Vine, Jesus, and let him remain in us or we cannot be fruitful at all (John 15:4,5). This attachment will encourage and comfort us, and instill God’s kind of tenderness in us that will enable us to also be in healthy relationships with others who belong to him, whether we are naturally compatible or not:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind (Phil. 2:1 NIV)

We do so need to put our confidence in Jesus, who gave up his position of complete power to live like we do, in much more humble circumstances than most of us who might be reading this blog! May we each trust his compassion and let him work in us to be increasingly like him! He is love, full of empathy and understanding. When we are “one” with him, united with him, he can change us when we cannot change ourselves!

Just a Girl

That year when shock
was all that we could feel
as Christmas Day turned into
grief and questions,
I should have known
that God can use death, too,
to send a message.
Stunned, I doubted.

Dad prayed his lament:
“Lord, why Jim? you know
his work has only begun!
Please send someone 
to carry on, to reach
the unreached Nyarafolo!”
I felt God squeeze my heart.
But I doubted.

“I’m just a girl! You can’t
be choosing me for that!”
I must be silly to even think
that happened, I thought,
and hid it all away.
If only I’d remembered Mary’s
sweet response of faith:
“May it be so!”

The year that I turned 13 had been a phase of much deeper spiritual growth for me. I had realized that my childhood practice of waffling between following the Shepherd and going my own way had put me in a tenuous position, and at Easter I had vowed to be a devoted Jesus follower forever.

But on Christmas morning, all the missionaries were shocked when Jim Gould died in a car accident no one could explain. He was coming home from Pisankaha, the village where the first five Nyarafolo believers lived, having dropped them off there after the festivities at church in town. His car suddenly rolled over three times – no other car involved – and he died. His family (in the featured photo) were those hit hardest. But Jim (“Uncle Jim” to us kids at the time) was loved and respected by all. He had been working on learning Nyarafolo for just three years, and had been discipling those Pisankaha believers. The missionaries working in Ferke gathered in my family’s house with Lois and her kids, Lori and Greg, to pray.

I was the big girl and was put in charge of the younger kids, keeping them out of the way to protect the prayer space. Once they were absorbed in play I crept back behind the adults to listen. I had practically idolized Uncle Jim, who was fun and kind and was loved by the missionary team. When my dad followed the others with his prayer of lament, begging God to send someone to continue working among the Nyarafolo, my heart did feel an unforgettable nudge. That can’t mean anything, I thought. I’m just a girl.

Twelve years later when my husband Glenn and I were appointed as missionaries, we told the mission we would go anywhere that they felt we were most needed. I had a degree in journalism; Glenn was a medical technologist. They said that of their five hospitals around the world, the only one that had requested a med tech was the one in Ferke, where I had grown up. And then I knew that the nudge I had felt that Christmas had not been imagined. There was still no missionary learning Nyarafolo. Those continuing to teach the believers in Pisankaha all had to depend on translators. I told Glenn this history, and about the prompting I had felt; he immediately knew that it was a message from God, too.

God does choose whoever he wants, to serve in whatever way he has decided – even just a girl! I’ve tried to pass that truth on to other young people as well as adults of any age. It may be to do mission, or it may be to choose a different career path or to volunteer in some way. Who knows? Only the One in charge of the universe knows. And we can trust him to equip his servant to do whatever he asks them to do.

Mary found that out. While meditating on her story during this Christmas season I have been touched again and again by her humble response to the astonishing message that the angel brought. What was ahead would take a miracle! But she acknowledged her position as the Lord’s servant and said she would accept whatever the Master desired: “May it be so!”

Her faith in her Master’s purpose and his ability to accomplish it is stunning. She was, after all, “just a girl,” probably in her mid-teens. The story did not unfold in the way she expected, with all the twists and turns and difficulties involved. But she had said her “Amen,” a kind of signing over of her plans into the Master’s hands. And he brought her through it all.

When we were translating the Scriptures into Nyarafolo, my team and I realized that their borrowed word “Amiina” (Amen) had become a rote response to whenever someone said “Hallelujah,” or it acted like a period at the end of a prayer. Maybe it has become like that for many of us. It comes from a Hebrew verb meaning “truly, certainly,” and in the Greek New Testament was usually translated as “so be it.” It is a strong affirmation of what has been said. I kept hearing Nyarafolo believers saying “Ki- taa ki puu bɛ” before their “Amiina,” and realized that it was their traditional way of affirming what they had prayed, putting it into the Lord’s hands, because the phrase means “May it be so!” It was their true “Amen.”

This should be our response to whatever the Lord inspires us to be and do. If he asks it, it is possible. Our part is to humbly affirm his goodness and his right to reveal the way forward: “Yes! I will truly do as you say; I will let you have your way in me!” Looking back at the life mission the Lord had in mind when he nudged the heart of a girl named Linnea, I am deeply grateful that he found a way to make his message plain as time went on. His grace (“unmerited favor”) is evident in many parts of my story. How do you see this in what he has done in and through you? Recognizing such things, let’s exclaim along with Mary, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my heart rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:46-48 NIV). He asked much more of Mary than he does of us, but he does have a plan for each one of his beloved servants. He is a good, good Father, a loving Master, and he uses even those who are insignificant in the world’s eyes to accomplish his purposes.

Advent: A Long Obedience

When waiting is by candlelight,
indoors and warm, the flame untouched
by screaming wind and freezing rain outside,
it is delightful!
My heart is called to yearn, lovingly,
ribboned and gilded with signs of the season,
for my Lord to come.

Her waiting was by moonlight,
unless the search for shelter was
accomplished in winter storm,
fueling her panic
as the pains increased, clenched her body, 
brought his coming inexorably closer, 
scared her! This birthing was
that she knew, but the world
would trivialize its portent, 
choosing coldly to stay
safely uninvolved. It troubled her.
Would God himself allow the birth 
to come outdoors in darkness,
in the cold?
One family stepped beyond their door
to see the aching, feel the need.
They stepped inside the story, opened up
their stable –
the one room left, not much at that,
but shelter and a resting place.
The baby came, earth-shattering
in the quiet.
“God has lifted up the lowly ones,
those viewed as insignificant!”
Mary would have remembered
her song,
and Elizabeth’s blessing on her,
the one who was trusting God
to do what he had promised her,

We never know how God will take
what seems to be just accident
and make it a fulfillment of
his Grand Plan.
Now, waiting is not only for
the feast of lights, friends gathering,
the songs and laughter. Yes, it is
much more:
the wait is for my readiness 
to stay engaged, prepare the way
for Christ to enter this dark world.

In December 1977 I was in my ninth month of pregnancy, waiting for the day when my firstborn child, a girl, would be in my arms. My belly had swollen so large that when I was in the mall, Christmas shopping, people often turned to take another look at me. One stranger walked up and put her hand on the round apex of my “waist,” exclaiming in wonder that this baby would be coming soon!

I truly hoped so. She was due December 16th, but that day came and went. I was distressed. Would she come on Christmas Day? That would be terrible! I would miss the family celebration, and she would have to deal with a holiday birthday for the rest of her life. But I could only wait and see.

That year the 25th would arrive on Sunday. On Wednesday night, the 21st, Glenn and I went to church to celebrate the Advent of Jesus with our community at Highland Park Baptist Church. Pastor George Slavin centered his message around what this week might have been like for Mary as she approached her due date. The Emperor’s decree that all Jews register for the census (probably to increase taxes) meant that Joseph and Mary had to do it in the place where their ancestral property divisions were located, the clan of David’s region in southern Judea. They were living in Nazareth, about 85 miles north of the Bethlehem area. Could it be that God would allow this forced voyage to take place just as his Son was due to be born? It had to be against all the couple’s expectations. Neither of the angel’s announcements to Mary or to Joseph would have led them to think that the plans for a safe, normal childbirth in their home was not going to happen. In Nazareth, Mary would have been able to count on the help of local community midwives or women in her family. Now, she would spend days traveling south. They probably joined a caravan of people heading that way. She might have been on a donkey for three days or more.

I was listening to the pastor’s detailed explanations, empathizing with Mary in a way I never had before. What would it feel like to ride a donkey for days with this heavy, active load in my body? How would the pulsating rhythm of trotting hooves jerk it back and forth? And what would it be like to wonder if the baby might then be born while in the company of all those fellow travelers rather than in the comfort of my home? Here in Michigan I was facing a totally different scenario. I would be going to Beaumont Hospital, where my dad had done his surgical residency, where my mother was currently working as a nurse to refresh her training, and where I had worked for three summers during college. I did not have to ride a donkey or walk to get there. My fears of a December 25th delivery faded into a quiet acceptance of a special treat I might be experiencing: an opportunity to empathize with Mary by giving birth on the very day that we remember her doing so, even if in very different circumstances.

And that was what happened. We had to navigate a blizzard on Christmas Eve, but I had family all around waiting with me until it was time to go by car to the hospital. Giving birth to this big baby was a challenge way beyond what I had expected, but I had expert help, and when she came on Christmas Day, she was healthy and lovely.

Oh Mary! You had no vehicle to carry you smoothly along, and there was not even room in the inn, or the guest house that relatives must have had in Bethlehem. But there was a space that was opened up for you; you were not out on the street. Your struggle to let that baby enter the world took place without sterile equipment or a comfortable bed. And one would have expected a totally different birthplace for a coming King!

It had to be a long journey of obedience for that couple. The angel had told Mary that she would become pregnant by God’s own action, not by a husband, and she was to name the baby “Jesus” which means “Yahweh saves” (Luke 1:31). She agreed to do what God wished; she was the Lord’s servant. Her fiancé wanted to annul the marriage agreement when he found out she was pregnant, but an angel told him to accept the fact that the Holy Spirit had made her conceive; that he was to marry her and call the baby “Jesus”(Mat 1:21). Joseph obeyed. They both had been told he would be the Savior, King forever. Now this? Nothing was happening as one would have thought. But here he was, in their arms. They named him Jesus, then waited to see how this would play out.

The Lord gave corroboration through the angels’ message to the shepherds and their excited arrival to welcome the Messiah. Later, the baby’s royalty was confirmed by the visit of the Magi. foreigners bringing gifts to the newborn king who was worthy of worship—no ordinary prince!

But there had to be moments, hours, days of wondering how God could be writing the plot this way. It was not an easy road, but rather one full of unexpected twists and dangers. They even became refugees, saving the child from murder!

Joseph and Mary are definitely more than an object lesson for us, but we sure can learn from their devoted obedience. Even though the unexpected was becoming the new “normal,” they did what the Lord told them. Having angels bring direct messages had to be a solid indication that the Lord was still in charge, but then each time the path was unexpected and accompanied by suffering.

Am I ready to trust the Lord’s sovereignty and wisdom, even when I don’t understand why he is not making the way ahead an easy one? Am I his loyal servant, ready to do what he tells me to do? I don’t get a visit from an angel, but his Word is in my hands, his Spirit in my heart. He prompts me to follow his ways, to act in accordance with his teachings.

I am reminded of the imagery in Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. As we follow through with our Lord’s instructions, we are also preparing the way for the King. And we long for him to be the one and only Ruler of the world, healing all its brokenness and doing away with evil forever. It is a worthwhile wait, and an active one rather than a passive one. Like it was for those selected to care for the incarnate Messiah, doing what was given them to do. And our good, loving Lord does not view this lightly. He left us with encouragement: “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Rev. 22:12 NIV).

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Prayer Like Waves

I’ve been crying out to you,
my Lord, my Father, my King,
over and over and over,
my prayers like waves rolling in
to crash and humbly recede 
into the mass of other currents,
a myriad of prayers.

This one overwhelming longing
keeps roiling in, longing, hoping.
I bring it before you, daily,
begging for an answer--
not just any answer, Lord,
I’m longing for you to come through
and do what you can do!

Remember: I am the Shepherd,
and I love all my sheep!
So just hang on! Trust my goodness,
my infinite wisdom, my ingenuity!
Know that I will answer you
when the right time has come,
and you will be amazed!

I’ve been meditating on the angel Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah, written in Luke 1:13 (NIV): “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”

Let’s stop there for a moment. What prayer had been heard? Right then Zechariah was representing all the Hebrew worshipers of Yahweh. The burning of incense in the temple and had to be done twice daily, and symbolized the prayers of the entire nation. The incense altar stood before the curtain to the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant was placed, so the smoke entered there beyond the curtain like prayers rising to Yahweh, the Lord.

This offering in the temple preceded the morning sacrifice and followed the evening sacrifice. It is said that the officer who ministered regularly in the temple signaled the time to begin the offering and then withdrew; the priest cast incense on this altar, prostrated himself and then withdrew himself—normally immediately (cf. 1:21).[1]

This responsibility was extremely significant. There were so many priests eligible to have the privilege of burning the incense at that time in history that the Levites were divided into 24 divisions, each division serving and allotment of two weeks at the temple. Of that group, just one priest was chosen by lot to burn the incense at one of those daily times. A priest could only be chosen once in his lifetime, to give others the same opportunity. Many never would have the chance to be chosen at all. [2]

So when Zechariah entered the Holy Place to do this precious service, he had waited his whole life for this moment. He was representing all of his people, and was probably prostrate in prayer when suddenly the angel appeared right there by the altar of incense. Of course he was startled; he should have been the only person there. And this was obviously a messenger from the Lord. He needed the calming words: “Don’t be afraid!” But what did the angel mean by saying that his prayer had been heard?

Maybe Zechariah had been praying for the son that he and his wife had longed for. She had never had a child at all, and they were old. Everyone thought it impossible in that phase of life, although the Lord had done such miracles for the aged in the Old Testament. Perhaps his prayer was also for the suffering nation, which was being ruled by a heathen empire and longed for liberty and justice. God had promised them a Messiah, a Chosen One who would deliver them and usher in a whole new era in which he would rule. Was it even possible for either of those requests to be granted?

What the angel told Zechariah was an answer to both those prayers! He and his wife were going to have a baby. After all the shame of those years of no children, Elizabeth was going to be pregnant and have a son. Not only that: he was going to be the one sent to get the people ready for the Lord’s coming!

Zechariah had prayed as a true follower of his Lord. He and his wife were righteous, devoutly obeying all the Lord’s commands (1:6). Part of his priestly duty was prayer, interceding for the people as well as worshiping God. But now he was stunned. He needed proof. It was not enough for him that this message from God was being delivered to him by Gabriel, this outstanding and astonishing messenger from heaven. He did not really believe that his prayer could be answered! As a result, Gabriel told him he would not be able to talk until his son was born.

This consequence of nine months of silence definitely gave him time to reflect on his lack of faith, especially as it became clear that Elizabeth was pregnant after all, and when John was born, that he was already filled with the Holy Spirit. As he grew, everyone was astonished at his gifting (Luke 1:66). Zechariah’s song, his prophecy (Luke 1:67-69), shows that he had realized that God’s promises over the centuries were actually happening, right before his eyes. He truly believed it all, now!

I’ve been in that same place of crying out to the Lord to answer a certain prayer for years and years, growing less than confident that it would be answered. Maybe you have been there, too. When the waiting is so long, it is easy for faith to become feeble. In fact, the prayer might become just a rote repetition of words with no expectation of result, whether we realize it or not.

Israel had had to wait during 400 years of slavery in Egypt before being delivered. Hundreds of years had continued to pass, with all sorts of ups and downs as the people gave up on God and turned to other sources of what they thought would be help. He kept calling them back, even though they were so recalcitrant. Now, finally, Zechariah knew that the critical moment of change was coming, and that his son was going to play a part in it. That was worth the wait!

Contemplating on Zechariah’s situation has underlined the real danger we face of not trusting our completely good, loving and sovereign Father to accomplish his purposes. His way of acting is often way beyond our imagination, and it usually takes time. Waiting is tough, and we may not see all the answers to our prayers in our lifetimes. God is not a puppet to be manipulated. The prophets had prayed for his deliverance for centuries, urging the people to be faithful to God and trust his plan. Only a few of them actually saw the Messiah enter the world – and what joy that brought, even though they understood little of how he would actually bring about deliverance!

Let’s burn that incense of prayer in our hearts, we who are now in the priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:5,9) worshiping the Almighty One, and interceding and pleading with him with actual trust in his wisdom!

[1] Keener, C. S. (2014). The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Second Edition, p. 179). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.

[2] Marshall, I. H. (1994). Luke. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 982). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

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