Thursday, June 19, 2008

Operating in a Vacuum

Even as a rerun, the TV show ER captures my interest like few others do. The other day the character Peter Benton was assisting in pediatric surgery with another surgeon he was trying to impress. As they worked, Peter inquired about one of his residents who had also worked with this pediatric surgeon. She assured him the resident was doing excellent work. Peter agreed, and remarked on the resident’s ability to interact well with people. Knowing his tendency to only criticize, the pediatric surgeon encouraged Peter to tell the resident what he had just shared with her. “Tell him what he is doing right,” she urged. “It is too easy to get discouraged in a vacuum.”

What wise words. It is easy to get discouraged in a vacuum. We all crave positive feedback. We doubt our work or abilities without constant confirmation. It is a part of human nature. While I was in seminary, we often shared our grades on papers and exams with each other. Our need for confirmation drove us to make public what really should have remained a private matter.

For a writer, the need for confirmation is only rarely met. We toil over an article, send it off, and then the wait begins. More often than not, eventually a terse form letter is the response we get, informing us that our article “does not need their editorial needs at that time.” Most discouraging of all is the process of trying to publish a book. My manuscript has been rejected 14 times, and every one of them made me doubt my ability to write. Desperate for encouragement, I find myself clinging to anything positive a publisher has to say about my work. Yes, it is easy to get discouraged in a vacuum.

Yet when we know the Lord, this perceived vacuum does not really exist. Believers do not operate in a vacuum.

When the Israelites stood poised to enter the Promised Land after forty years in the desert, Moses once again reiterated the promises of God. Moses assured them that the victory would be theirs, because God would be the One fighting their battles for them. “Be strong and courageous,” Moses urged the people. “Do not be afraid or tremble at [the enemy], for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” God had called them to do this overwhelming thing. But He did not send them in with a pat on the back and a “good luck”. He went ahead of them, with them, and behind them. Their success would be because of Him. They were not operating in a vacuum.

Jacob left his home in fear for his life. He had deceived his father into giving him the blessing that was due his older brother, Esau. Esau was furious at what had been taken from him, and he planned to kill Jacob once their old, ailing father had died. Many years had passed since Jacob had made his escape, and now God was directing him to return home. “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you,” God assured him. Jacob would not have to operate in a vacuum.

Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. I can’t imagine the heartache that Joseph struggled with as he served in Potiphar’s household. But Joseph was not operating in a vacuum. Genesis 39:3 tells us “his master saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand.”

Account after account in Scripture reiterates the same truth over and over again: God will faithfully remain with us and will enable us to fulfill our calling. We do not operate in a vacuum. He expects us to go in His strength, with His guidance. He will prepare the way for us.

So what is our part in all this? To be faithful to Him. We must dwell in His presence, and we must trust in His goodness. When He calls, we must boldly step out in faith, because He is faithful. Our confidence cannot rest in our own ability, but in Him. We do not go alone. We do not operate in a vacuum.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Perfect Reference Point

I am a laundry fanatic. I buy the best detergent money can buy, use bleach or a non-bleach booster, and attack every stain I notice. I sniff the clean fragrance with enjoyment as I take freshly washed clothes out of the dryer. When my children were little, they could challenge the most earnest of laundresses. I took that challenge.

My children loved to dig in the dirt. We live in Maryland, so that meant red clay-stained clothing. White socks were especially difficult to get clean. But I was one determined lady. As I laid their newly laundered, paired and folded socks away in their drawers, I gained much satisfaction to seeing how clean they had once again become.

But I was in denial. I discovered this every time I purchased new socks. As I laid new pairs of soft, brilliant white socks next to the old ones, I realized what I thought was clean was actually dingy and stained. I discovered that my perception of clean had become warped over time. It was because I had a faulty reference point in my comparison. I was comparing the old socks to each other. “Clean” had become only relative.

We are often guilty of using a faulty reference point when we evaluate our lives. Yes, I sin on occasion. But I don’t sin as much as her. We carefully pick people who seem to be “worse” than we are while doing a self-examination. But our reference point is off.

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

When Isaiah was given a vision of God in His heavenly temple, he was suddenly very clear about his own inadequacy. “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5) Whatever feelings Isaiah might have had about being a good man, faithful servant, or obedient prophet were wiped out when the reality of God’s holiness was revealed to him. Like old, used socks, he understood his sinfulness in a way he never before had. Suddenly those around him that he might have used as a reference point were revealed for what they were: sinful, faulty people.

Later on, Isaiah expressed his new, vastly improved reference point when he wrote: “All of our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” He understood the futility of trying to claim righteousness by his good deeds. Even the best of what we can accomplish cannot not stand up to the reference point of God’s holiness.

So what can we do? Nothing. It is why the Savior had to come, to rescue us from our hopeless state. Our righteousness can never be what we have earned. Because we could never do enough or do it well enough to earn it. Instead, by God’s grace, we are given righteousness through Jesus Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross.

Only a righteousness that is God-given could stand up to the reference point of the holiness of God. In His sight, we are made holy as He is holy, declared innocent of all sin. No more filthy garment, no more old, gently used socks.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Two-Way Conversation

A close friend of mine was on her way to pick up her daughter after a weekend retreat. The daughter was anxious to get home. The retreat hadn’t gone as she had hoped. She just wanted the experience behind her. Hearing the desperation in her daughter’s voice, my friend had decided to drive north that night rather than wait until morning. This was a difficult decision, because freezing rain had been predicted.

Sure enough, the roads began to ice over. My friend could feel that the car was losing its grip on the road. She made the decision to stop for the night. As she searched for a motel, what she feared most happened. A large SUV coming from the opposite direction lost control and slammed head-on into her car.

Thankfully, the Lord spared her any serious injury. The next morning, after being released from the hospital, as my friend and her husband (who had driven up to rescue her) continued the journey to pick up her daughter, her cell phone rang. “Where are you?” demanded the daughter. “How much longer until you get here?”

My friend rolled her eyes in disbelief. “Don’t you mean to ask HOW are you?” she corrected the thoughtless child.

Being a mother can be a thankless job. I can remember lying in bed, shivering with a fever, when one of my children came into the room. “Mom, what are you making for dinner?” he wanted to know.

We shake our heads at the insensitivity of our children, yet many of us are guilty of the same kind of interaction with our Heavenly Father. Much of our prayer life boils down to a list of requests. There is no expression of love. No interaction with the Father who loves us to sit in His presence. We don’t take the time to sit and listen, to give Him a chance to interact with us. Instead, we move through a roll call, naming our items one by one. Amen. It is truly a one-way conversation.

Recently I have been making it my goal to listen as much as talk when I approach the Throne of Grace. I spend time dwelling on His character and attributes. My desire is to keep HIM at the center of the prayer, and put myself at His feet, rather than trying to occupy the throne myself. When I make a request, I talk through it with Him. I am finding something amazing is happening. I am getting feedback from God. He pushes thoughts into my brain that are totally different than the train of thought I might currently be on. He gently reveals my sin in my attitudes and desires. Most importantly, He is floods me with a sense of how much He loves me and wants to bless me. But it must be on His terms, not mine. So I sit at His feet and wait for Him to guide me.

Does this sound a bit too bizarre for you? Is Julie Coleman going off the deep end?

How would you respond if you made a date for lunch and you experienced a one-way conversation similar to prayer? Your friend slides into the booth opposite you and immediately begins to talk at you, barely stopping for a breath. She gives an obligatory compliment on your outfit, then praises you for some action you have recently done. Then without missing a beat, she begins to ask favors of you. Would you watch her kids for a morning while she runs some errands? Could she have the recipe she asked for last week? Would you be willing to lend her some money? Come over and help her with the housework? As you patiently listen to her rattle on, the thought occurs to you that her relationship with you is all about what you can do for her. You wonder if she would bother with you at all if it was not for the needs you were willing to meet.

You get the point.

Prayer needs to be more than a wish list of requests. It needs to be a two-way conversation. Turn off the radio or CD player in your car. Spend time in the presence of the King of Kings as you drive down the road. But don’t spend all of it talking at Him. Spend time listening as well.