Friday, 30 June 2017

Persistently persistent

It is a new day. The light pushes through the curtains a little earlier, the sky is a little paler, the birdsong a little brighter than yesterday. The winter solstice has come and gone, and with each day the dawn arrives earlier, and dusk is pushed back ever so slightly. A solstice happens when the sun's zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. On the June solstice, it reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun. There is a tenacity in nature, a persistence in the earth's steady orbit around the sun. Seasons follow one another with a certain predictability, varied only by the amazing creativity of it's Creator.

I am re-reading a book on the life of Jeremiah*, a book simply packed with insight. Page by page, I am given a glimpse into the life of the man whom people refer to as "the weeping prophet". The first recorded words that God speaks to Jeremiah, sets the scene for a life completely set aside for God's purposes. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." ~ Jer. 1:5. Jeremiah was known before he knew. Before he chose to serve God with his whole being, God had chosen him. God appointed/gave (nathan) him as a prophet to the nations. As He gave his Son Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Jeremiah hesitates. He is so young, so inexperienced and without confidence. It would seem that this youth needed learning, or at least some rigorous training to prepare him for what lay ahead. But once again God's words to him, turns human expectation and logic inside out. "... to all whom I send you you shall go and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you... Behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land." ~ Jer 1:6-8, 18

From "only a youth" Jeremiah is transformed into a pillar of strength and confidence. As God spoke, the appointed prophet received the conviction that God is personal, alive and active, and that what was going on in Israel in that exact time in history, was critical.

Jeremiah was given the task of delivering an unpopular, convicting message to Israel, one that caused him great mental anguish, as well as making him despised in the eyes of his own people. God says that His truth sounds like “foolishness” to those who are lost, but to believers it is the very words of life (1 Cor 1:18). He also says that the time will come when people will not tolerate the truth (2 Tim 4:3-4). Those in Israel did not want to hear what Jeremiah had to say, and his constant warning of judgement annoyed them.

For twenty three years he persisted. Right there, at the center of the book of Jeremiah, there is a word which has been challenging me for the last few weeks. "Persistently" (hashkem). For twenty three years... When I was 17 years old, I woke up one morning and decided that I wanted to be a vet. A few days later, the conviction changed to dreams of being a fashion designer. Then there was a time when I was convinced that I wanted to be a journalist. I was a fickle youth. When Jeremiah turned 40, he had already been God's mouthpiece for 23 years. There are 11 instances in Jeremiah where the word "persistently" is used. For twenty three years he got up before the dawn to pray, to listen. For twenty three years he went out every morning and spoke God's word to the people. While the people slept in, sluggish and indolent, hearing nothing. 

Jeremiah suffered. There was the personal torment of a prophet who saw what God saw. His obedience cost him dearly. He was ostracised, shunned, mocked and rejected. He was imprisoned, flogged, placed in stocks and in thrown into a dark cistern, with a thick layer of mud at the bottom, into which he sank. He wrestled with discouragement and despair and thought of quitting. God challenged him by saying: "If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in a safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?" ~ Jer 12:5. Jeremiah looked up from the pit of despair he had sunk into and once again saw the God who had made him into a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall. He wanted to run with horses. He wanted to live persistently and urgently. He did not give up, for God did not give up. He shows us that the good life, is not necessarily a life lived well. To have the bucket list all ticked off, does not mean that I lived abundantly.

The word hashkem has a sunrise in it. Jeremiah got up before the sun to do his/God's work. But to him it was not drudgery. Each day there was the anticipation of listening to God, who unfailingly, creatively gave him new words, new ideas of how to take God's message of warning to his people. He did not get up to face rejection, he got up to meet with his God. This I found to be the secret of Jeremiah's persistence. Not thinking with dread about the long road ahead, but meeting each day, each moment with obedient and expectant hope. I used to feel so sorry for Jeremiah. We see him in a painting by Rembrandt, in a dejected pose, his head resting heavily in his hand, with a sombre expression on his face. But Jeremiah does not need to be pitied. He was committed to a purpose, even when it broke his heart. His days add up to a life of incredible tenacity, amazing stamina. He ran with the horses.

In contrast to his persistent faithfulness, stands the erratic and impulsive nature of the people whom he lived with. They ran this way and that, always after new ways of satisfying their wild enthusiasm for pleasure. But nothing added up. They were like the character in a story I once read. "He wanted Everest in a day; when it took two, he lost interest..."

Israel had a long history of unfaithfulness. Every attractive promise distracted her from her God. Every new fad was taken up and tried in a burst of short-lived eagerness. For centuries it had been one lover after the other. Meanwhile, God never stopped loving her. And God cannot permit the people he loves and created for glory, to live in such silliness and emptiness. Jeremiah learnt to live persistently toward God, because God was persistent toward him.

At the very centre of Lamentations (most likely written by Jeremiah), which laments the sin and suffering during and after the fall of Jerusalem, there is this beautiful verse: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness." ~ Lamentations 3:22,23.

God's persistence is not a dogged repetition. It has surprise and creativity, and yet all the certainty and regularity of a new day. "Sunrise, when the spontaneous and the certain arrive at the same time" ~ Eugene Peterson. Daybreak is always a surprise to me. There are times of course, when I fail to respond. The repetition of nature is never boring, and so much less so the repetitions in God. This was the source of Jeremiah's living persistence. Rising early, he was attentive and quiet before his Lord. Long before the mocking, yelling and complaining started, there was this time of listening and discovery with God. He had chosen what Jesus called "the one thing needful" and he stuck to it.

"The mark of a certain kind of genius, is the ability and energy to keep returning to the same task relentlessly, imaginatively, curiously, for a lifetime" ~ E. Peterson. Beethoven composed sixteen string quartets because he was never satisfied with what he had done, and kept trying to perfect it. He put fresh, creative energy into each attempt. The same thing over and over, yet it was never the same, for each time there was that new dazzling creativity put into the repetition.

Despite his persistence - the life of Jeremiah ends inconclusively. I wish I could know the end, but there is no end. The last scene of Jeremiah's life shows him, as he had spent so much of his life, preaching God's word to a contemptuous people (Jer 44). I wanted to know that he was finally successful so that, if I live well and courageously, I would also be successful. But this is all we get. The image of a man who persisted with "the one thing needful" regardless of personal failure. In Egypt, the place he does not want to be, with people who treat him badly, he continues. Determinedly faithful and courageous. A towering life terrifically lived for God's glory.

There is only one thing needful. To sit at the feet, and live in the presence of Jesus. Mary chose it, while Martha complained. The "good" part, which would and could not be taken away from her or from you and me. There is only today in which to do it. And then do it again. And again...

Persistently. Not with mindless repetition - but with all the exuberance of an encore!

* Run with the horses - Eugene H. Peterson

Friday, 9 June 2017

Contentment in the In-between

Godliness with contentment is great gain. ~ 1 Timothy 6:6

(I started writing this message almost two weeks ago. Since then life has turned this way and that, and in my clumsy attempts to keep up, I became a bit derailed. Not quite unhinged, just a bit overloaded with stuff that had to be discarded to get back on track literally. So now I return - a bit apprehensive, hoping that this all will still come across as honest and relevant...)

             ... The end of the season in-between. With the last leaves clinging to stripped limbs, shivering shyly in the breeze. Flower-heads change into seed-pods, new life hiding in death. Life goes underground - resting in bulbs, root arteries, tubers, corms, rhizomes. Call it late Autumn or early Winter. Call it what you may. It is an almost imperceptible holding of the breath, wary of the steam which will rush out, announcing "C O L D" with a ghostly hush. Just as that moment in between dusk and dark. When treetops that were shades of gold on a pastel canvas moments before, scratch against the sky like insects, crawling at the last light. When you wish you did not have to face the inevitable dark that will follow. Until the evening star is called upon as the first guard. Then breath is released and suddenly even the condensation in frosty air becomes as familiar and wonderful as a grandfather's pipe. I am often too weary, or wary of the nip in the night air, to truly appreciate the wonder of our starry dome. But the times when I do allow myself to be pulled outside by a small hand - the reward overcomes both.

We adore sunsets and sunrises... Sunny days and starry nights... Mystical mists and the purity of snow... Blooms in bloom, Autumn grandeur or Winter wonder. But how many travel agencies advertise dream destinations with posters or pictures taken during that in-between, ominous grayness? Or showing dead-heads on fields of flowers, with their withered, leafy skirts slumped around their ankles?

When the shadows grow long, I often softly shut the door to our bedroom, to stretch out an aching back or simply to let the load of the day go. This is always a time that allows for slowing down, as I feel the tension in the small of my back melt into the mattress. Just recently, this happens to coincide with that "scary" time of day, inviting melancholy gloom instead of rest. Last night as I lay watching the uninspiring landscape, my thoughts were turned to so many people who are in the middle of really hard times. I thought of how bravely and graciously they all seem to face these struggles. And of how much harder it seems to be to be gracious, grateful and content when life just seems to offer the ordinary. Neither heights of excitement, nor body and soul bent towards surviving and overcoming. Just every day's going out and coming in, and sitting down and standing up. Difficulties and challenges come in many forms. It is often not the challenges themselves that wears away at my own joy, but the angle from which I view them.

We are blessed with two healthy children, with no learning, developmental or other difficulties. God has always provided for us, even though my husband works incredibly hard within that providence. We have had a few "reality checks" regarding our health recently. As we witness each other straining a bit against the marks that time has left. But it brings with it a softening, the lines on a beloved face telling of all the rich encounters with life, in all its extraordinarily, ordinary detail. The luxury of struggling to make ends meet, of not often having the space to reflect or silence to cherish, of the seemingly never-ending lists of chores that pull me along with my one foot hopping ungracefully on the tracks. For it means that there is a husband and father in our family, who faithfully and uncomplainingly earns and provides, while I have the privilege to stay home with our boys. It means that there are children - noisy, boisterous, lively children, who never fail to add splashes of colour, even if it is outside the lines. That there is a home, with sagging, clawed and draped furniture and time-worn rugs, with dogs and cats and cob-webs and "stuff" under the cupboards. Mouths to feed and kiss goodnight, bodies to clothe and cuddle, creatures that purr and greet with loyal, wagging tails, muddy paws and wet tongues.

And; that there is love, which covers it all. Forming a harbour of contentment. Regardless of how "ordinary" it may seem at times...

Everything in life creates opportunities for contentment - or discontentment. Our family and friendships. The career path you are on. The money we make. The vacations we take. Our physical health, or the spiritual health of our church or fellowship. Human tendency is always to want more, better, or different. When the apostle Paul wrote "godliness with contentment is great gain" he wasn't just speaking philosophically (1 Tim. 6:6). He had learnt the secret to contentment in every circumstance of life (Phil 4:11-2). While that secret eludes most people, it need not elude any true believer. Paul gives us clear and practical guidance to being content. At times we bubble over, at times we simmer slow and low over a sickly flame. Contentment is not being happy. For me it just means to rest in what is, easy or hard. But especially in the in-between. It is here where it is the hardest to keep a healthy perspective, have joy, be content.

I borrowed some perspective from Paul and also from people whom have followed Jesus through the briers and fallow times, as well as through times of goodness and overflowing. I have also borrowed wisdom from those who teach the truth as found in the bible, and hope to learn as I share this with you. (The bible quotes are from the New American Standard bible - which were part of a teaching and have been copied and left as is for this message.)

First, learn to give thanks in all things. Thankfulness is first of all a matter of obedience (1 Thess. 5:18; Eph. 5:18), but it is also a characteristic of a Spirit-filled believer (Eph. 5:18-20).

Second, learn to rest in God's providence. If we truly know God, we know that He is unfolding His agenda and purpose in our lives. He has sovereignly determined each part of His plan for us so that we'll benefit and He'll be glorified (. Rom. 8:28). I should not be surprised or ungrateful when we experience challenges or trials, because we know that God sees perfectly the end result (cf. 1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Third, learn to be satisfied with little. In 1 Timothy 6:6 Paul encourages a young "pastor" with these words: "Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." While I covet, I cannot be content.

Fourth, learn to live above life's circumstances. In 2 Cor. 12:9-10 Paul wrote, "Most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Paul didn't take pleasure in the challenges or pain itself, but in the power of Christ manifested through him in times of infirmity, reproach, persecution, and distress. And in the ordinary.

Fifth, learn to rely on God's power and provision. The apostle Paul wrote, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me"; and Jesus said He will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). We can fully rely on Christ's promise. He faithfully infuses every believer with His own strength and sustains them in their time of need until they receive provision from His hand (Eph. 3:16).

Finally, become preoccupied with the well-being of others. Paul summarised this mindset in Philippians 2:3-4, where he wrote: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."

A self-centered person is a discontented person. But the souls of the generous, those who live for the interests and benefit of others, will find blessing upon blessing in their lives, even if it is disguised at times. (see Prov. 11:24-5; 19:17; Luke 6:38; 2 Cor. 9:6).

Looking back at the above, I realise how easy it is to become discontent. To take my eyes of the fact that regardless of how mundane or challenging my situation is, or how tough it is when my body won't allow me to do what I long to do with my whole heart - Jesus is greater than my fear or despondence. Almost playfully, He led me back to a joyful place. So simply, that it took me the whole morning to realise that it was happening. I was beckoned outside by the way the sun and breeze played with our kitten's fur. Her languid expression as she lay there - unburdened and completely content. I walked away from the unmade beds, the smelly cat-box, the unplanned lunchtime meal. And sat down beside her. An orange cupped in my hands, the warmth of the half-logs of our home melting away the tension in my back. I don't know how many hours I spent there, just watching, listening, tasting, feeling. The boys came looking for me. and at first I wished I could just send them to the furthermost corner of the property to preserve the peace of my little bubble. But I didn't. Together we barked at the baboons, laughed at the kitten's first attempt to climb a "big" tree and ate sun-warmed oranges with the juice dripping down our chins. And then, back in the chilly reality of the living room, as I groped for a way to end this message, a very dear friend turned up on my un-swept doorstep, with a totally scrumptious lunch, spicy-sweet peppadews on top! I'm actually not sure if this last paragraph confirms or contradicts the rest of the message. For me, it just says - I love you, whether you are able to follow six steps to contentment or not. I am here, in the little things as much as in the big ones. Be not afraid. I have called you by your name. You are Mine!