Wednesday, December 9, 2015

No Beast of Burden, Reflections on an Empty Yoke

Burdens. We all have them. Heavy by definition. Awkward, uncomfortable, ill-timed, strength-sapping, discouraging sometimes. I keep thinking I can dodge mine by careful planning but it doesn't work. God isn't following my script. He keeps writing His own and I'm left with them. The burdens.

He says they are light and momentary.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.--Matthew 11:10.
 It doesn't feel like it. Not today. Maybe not ever.

I know what God says. Walk beside Me. Let me help you.
But He doesn't get it.
I am not a beast of burden.
A yoke is made for animals. I am a human being. He made me that way. I walk upright. I think. I dream. I have dominion. He gave it to me. He put me in charge.
Why, then, do I feel so helpless?

It's the burdens that keep me there. The cares. The problems. The misunderstandings. The intentional hurts. My arms and back tire of them. My neck hurts. 
My neck. Where I'm supposed to wear the yoke. That darned yoke.

For a farmer, a yoke does two things. 
First, it provides an efficient way to get work done. It harnesses and employs the work of two strong beasts focused on one task simultaneously, sharing the load equally between them. 
Second, and maybe more important, it makes those beasts docile. Before being confined, they roam or butt or buck. Within the confines of the yoke, they know they are mastered. Once there, they calm down and settle into what the farmer wants them to do.

That's the problem. 
I want that calm but I don't want that confinement.

It's better, I think, to bear the whole load than to be mastered.
There's only one problem.
It's not working.
The burden is crushing me.
And I still don't want to let go.

My problem isn't a new one.
In the 12th century, Baldwin of Forde had something to say about it:
The Lord advised and instructed us to put ourselves under His yoke and His burden and thus, through obedience and patience, to become His docile creatures...

Agreed, but it still feels like defeat, like giving up, like copping out.
And I don't want to become docile.
I was made to lead, not be led. I am a person of intelligence and decision. He gave those to me. I'm supposed to use them.

If you're looking for a neat answer to this, you won't get it today.
I know the promise. Probably, so do you.
Again, from Baldwin:
Patience enables us to rise above tribulation and not be crushed beneath it. All who become gentle under the yoke and burden of Christ find that God is also gentle with them.

Why do I think myself so smart and capable when I'm still dragging and snorting, pushing the empty yoke around with a streaming snout, flanks worn, running and stinking with years of sweat? Why don't I just give it up and push my ragged head through the thing?
I don't know, but I do know one thing. I'm tired of this. It's got to change. 
And so I've determined my advent discipline this year.
To admit that God is God.
To let Him master me, tame me, rule me.
To figure out this yoke thing.
To give in, if that's what it takes.
To give up the burden and admit I can't do it any more.
To become gentle with Him and finally, finally, let Him be gentle with me.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Picking Up Sticks
Sometimes, I just don't know what to do next. 

I mean, the instruction book for life is pretty plain--worship God, repent, pray, hope, help others, look for heaven.

But sometimes, it's not enough.

I worship but God still seems far away. I repent but the list of my sins grows. I hope but it fades in the face of living. I help others but what I do rarely seems to have any lasting effect for either them or me. As for looking for heaven--well, I can barely manage earth.  Sometimes, it's just not working for me.

Then I realize that it doesn't matter.

It doesn't.
My disappointment, after all, is all about my feelings. I get dissatisfied because as much as I pray, as much as I hope, as much as I love God and understand what He's done both for me and the ones I love, there's still a huge gap between God's best and my reality.
A crevasse. A desert. A black hole. And it's not going away.

I can't create the heaven I want on the earth I'm given. And in the end, there's only one thing to do.
Pick up sticks.

That's right. Pick up sticks.
In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance to the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her, "Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink." She left to get it, and he called out after her, "Please bring along a bit of bread." She answered, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now, I was collecting a couple of sticks to go in to prepare something for myself and my son. When we have eaten it, we shall die." 
This woman knows she is dying. The country has lived through years of drought and she has no more food. She has enough left for one more meal for her and her son and along comes Elijah.

Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son." --1Kings 17

What? "Oh, by the way," he says, "You're dying anyway. You might as well give me some of your last meal. It won't make any difference in the end."
Thanks a lot, bud.

I can't imagine she was thrilled with what Elijah, who spoke for God, told her to do, and sometimes, neither am I. Giving him that little she had left was not going to solve anything.
But she does it.
She goes and gathers the sticks, builds the fire, bakes the bread, gives some to Elijah, and then something happens--
She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.--1Kings 17

She has enough. Just like that. Not enough just for that day or that week, but for a year. Enough until the drought ended, until her season of starvation was over.
That's what God does. He provides enough. When we finally come to the place where we have nothing left and know we're going to die without Him, He brings enough.

I wonder what would have happened if she didn't gather the wood, didn't make the fire, didn't bake the bread and share it with Elijah? I don't know for sure, but I suspect we wouldn't be reading about her today. She would likely have died, and her son, too. Starved for the lack of doing the one thing that was left for her to do. Because, when she did that, the only thing she could, God did the rest. God did what she could not.

And that's what I have to do.
What I can.
No matter how things look. No matter how I feel. 
Because that is when God shows up with flour and oil that never run out. 
That is where I find the cup that, in spite of circumstances, overflows.
No matter what else is going on, no matter how hard or sad life gets, no matter how many things there are that I want to change and can't, there is always one thing left that I CAN do. And that is all God asks of me--to do what I can so that He can do what I can't. As long as there is one more thing for me to do, God is waiting for me to do it.

So, excuse me please. I'm needing God and I still have some sticks to pick up.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seeds of the Spirit

Nearly 7AM and it's still dark. Indian summer come and gone. Leaves turned gold and red, then brown, and now coming down in nearly constant showers, swaying as they fall, settling in crinkly heaps where the wind gathers them, dead, in airy eddies. Autumn.

What a time to think of growing things. And yet, and yet... That's what I'm doing.

Instead of the beauty of Fall, I'm thinking of fruit. Bursting, juicy, warm from a high summer sun. Ripe and perfect. Strawberries, peaches, grapes. And flowers--spreading roses and extravagant hydrangeas. Gone now, but remembered well. They are summer, lush and dripping. Already missed.

But they have left something behind. Usually brown, sometimes red or orange, the fruit of summer has left a kernel of itself, a promise. Seeds.
They don't look like much. I know that come next year, they will burst open into flower and then, after the grace of fertilization, will produce an apple, a zinnia, a plum, but now, well, they just sit there looking dead.
For now, they're just seeds.
They need time.

In the growing dark of these days, seeds don't hold a lot of hope. Not yet. Hard and as dim as these predawn hours, they don't change, not for months.
But they are fruit. Fruit in the making.
And that's the point of fruit. It takes time. 

So it is with all kinds of fruit--even fruits of the Spirit.
Fruit is not a gift, something that once unwrapped, is instantly available, full and bursting, ready to eat. Fruit takes preparation, nurturing, time. We have to wait for it, watch it develop day after impatient day,
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.--Galatians 5:23

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Fruit, not gifts.
Pray for them, but don't expect them to come in an instant.
When they come, they come as a seed, a promise, something to be developed slowly over time.
At their start, we get seeds of the Spirit. 
In time, with God's favor and patient grace, we eventually have fruit.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Abraham's Dirty Laundry
Whoever thinks about Abraham anymore? I don't. Not hardly ever.

But I did today.

I had a dream last night...a dream of disarray, of inconclusion, of hoplessness, of incomplete instruction and unclear future.

Well, a dream of dirty laundry, actually. Piles of it everywhere. I couldn't walk without tripping over it, rags and sheets and t-shirts. I kept tripping every time I took a step. I felt tied up. Strangled by it. And I was alone in the house, abandoned with no one to help. No one to tell me what to do. Nowhere firm to step.

Then I woke up and read about Abram.
So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the LORD.--Genesis 13:18

There really is a connection, at least a perceived one. 
Abram had been following God's instruction. He'd been going where God sent him, but nothing good had happened there. God told him to go to Haran and made him a promise there, but nothing changed. God sent him to Canaan, and he got nothing but famine. God sent him to Egypt, and he got in trouble with the Pharaoh. God sent him to Bethel and Lot got the best of the land they found there. 
No fulfillment of the promise God kept making. Just more promises. He didn't even have his final name yet.

And what did he do? He built an altar. A place to worship. A place to remember. Remember what, I want to know? Nothing had happened yet. Nothing good, at least.

It felt like my dream of laundry. Piles all around. Endless work. Enough to trip over. All the promises God makes but no indication of Him keeping them. Roadblocks. Hopelessness. Confusion. 

And Abram built an altar.
Not because of what God had done, but because he needed it. 
He needed a stone that didn't move, that he could kick at or cling to. 
He needed to remind himself who God really is. He needed something concrete, that didn't move like tents, like sheep, like nephews who take the best for themselves. 
The altar was not just a place to worship, it was a place that wouldn't move or change. A place like God Himself. He needed a place to hang on.
Kind of like this:
Abram had plenty of dirty laundry in his own life until God finally brought the fruition of His promises. And so do I. 

I don't like waiting. Not necessarily because I don't trust God, but because I rarely know what to hang onto while I'm waiting. I don't have a place to build the stone altar Abram did. But I have to have one anyway, so I'm going to have to build my own altar in the place Christ taught...

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong.--Ephesians 3:17

I don't build my altar out of rocks. I carry it with me wherever I go. My Rock. My touchstone. My love. My trust. The only altar God wants anymore. And the only one I need. 

If I can do that, eventually, my laundry will look like this: