17 July 2016

Of Being the Love

The other night, in the wake of a sleepless night brought upon by thunderous storms crashing outside our windows, shaking the walls, lightning flashing in endless succession, a similar storm, the kind that seem to come when I'm too exhausted to continue absorbing life, raged within me.

I found myself in endless tears and sick of it all - convinced I was rejected and worthless, but mostly feeling useless in a world where a truck barrels through crowds in a country you feel connected to through those you know, who have walked and lived in its streets, and twelve hours later a military is striking a coup in a country you feel connected to through those you know, who have walked and lived in its streets. And these are real places and real people dying in real ways. And this world is falling apart and all I could think is, "What's the point?!"

Why are we all still here? Why does any of this matter anymore when it feels like it's all just a matter of time, and by time, I mean months, or weeks, or just days, before it all just hits the fan. And we're in the middle of this mess that we can't seem to find our way out of. In a time when we can't even make statements as audacious as "All Lives Matter" because we're silencing a voice that deserves to be heard, even though it is beyond absolutely true that we sit here with hearts breaking and grieving for all lives. Because Black Lives Matter. Because French Lives Matter. Because Cop Lives Matter. Because Turkish Lives Matter. Because Christian Lives Matter. Because Syrian Lives Matter. Because Homosexual Lives Matter. Because Muslim Lives Matter. Because Black is not the only color hurting right now and their house is not the only one burning. The whole world is burning - and it will go straight down as long as the divisions continue.

And as I sob myself to sleep in the face of this hopeless darkness we call our world, all I can think are the words to a song that have been running through my head for a week:

"People killing, people dying,
children hurt and you hear them crying,
Can you practice what you preach? 
And would you turn the other cheek?
Father, Father, Father help us, 
need some guidance from above.
'Cause people got me, got me questionin'
'Where is the love?'"

And I wake, better rested and able to think, though still with this song in my head, on my heart and I feel God asking, in response, "Where are you?" Because God, Himself, is love and we, the church, are His hands and feet. And this love is only going so far as we carry it. And while I've been breaking into pieces in a seemingly hopeless situation, what has been brewing in my heart hasn't been love - it's been judgment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt. 

And when I feel attacked, all my mind can process is a mental defense, even if it's never launched. When I feel rejected, I curl up and cry. When I feel worthless, I want to be done. But where is the love? Truly, can I practice what I preach? Can I be love when it feels like all is lost? Can I truly turn the other cheek to a world that seems ill-content to simply slap one and the other, but is ready to destroy for the sake of semantics? How far has my love gone?

Because the kind of love God personifies is an unconditional love. The kind that says, even when it's all falling apart. Even when the world despises. Even when we're trampled upon, mocked, beaten, wrongfully accused, sentenced to die, we love. We say, "Father, forgive them." We humble ourselves to the point of death. 

Is this the kind of love the church is known for? Is this the kind of love that could make a difference?
Maybe not to the point of eradicating terrorism or racism or bigotry or hate, but it could make a difference to one. Or maybe two. Maybe the only answer is softening our own hearts and choosing to respond with love, in every situation - both the big ones, terror attacks or racial discrimination, and the little ones, such as the tiny terrorists in our homes or the friend who cancels plans. 

When love, in the mundane and in the monumental, becomes a habit for us, the church, perhaps a new kind of fire can spread.

29 June 2016

Of My Perfect Day

For many years, I have lamented my summer birthday. My summer birthday that is less than a week before the Fourth of July - meaning I had no fun surprises at school, no balloons at my locker, no one singing to me in the halls, no elementary school parties (except for the lame one that covers "all the summer birthdays"), and to top it off, by the time my birthday came, everyone was out of town, so no party, in general. Lame.

Then, I got married and you'd think that would be a built-in celebration - after all, my family isn't going on vacation without me, so they have to be with me on my birthday. True. But I happened to marry a man whose special day is only three days after mine. So, out of a perfect storm of failed birthday pasts, fear of no one actually planning anything for birthday celebrations at all, and needing to budget for two birthdays in one week, I took over all planning on my own. I would plan a special day for the two of us to celebrate together just to be sure I got to celebrate at all.

And then, out of the gratefulness of my heart, I lamented those birthdays, as well. Because I just wanted a day that someone else planned, that I didn't have to do anything but be the birthday girl. Because it's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

And bless my husband's heart. He has tried. And the few times I have loosened the reigns of planning a little, told him, "That's it - this year I'm not planning anything!" I have always taken it back, mostly. So he has tried. And he has succeeded a few times and I have truly enjoyed the efforts everyone has put in to every one of my birthdays. Really, I do. But in the end, I didn't know how to really appreciate it all.

But this year was different.

This year, I had just been traveling off and on for three weeks solid. So I was done planning. And I was out of money. So, I was simply letting go of birthdays and letting the chips fall where they may. It looks like we got each other tires for our birthdays, anyway - woohoo.

And then I got a card (complete with fake grapes) from a precious friend promising an adventure. And because I don't know how to not whine, I still whined about giving up my birthday weekend - a rare free Saturday this summer - to someone else. I'm a peach to live with, I tell you.

But she did not disappoint. We enjoyed a mini road trip to neighboring towns, exploring antique shops, sharing histories and buying fried pies. She took me to a local "wildlife" park - something that wouldn't be considered worth the price of admission considering the overabundance of donkeys and llamas - disproportionate to the amount of actual wild animals present in the park. But then you have to consider your company. And the laughter that comes from mocking the poor, fat, over-fed-by-park-visitors-like-us creatures that come to the car windows, knowing you've bought cups full of junk-food-feed just for them and knowing you're a sucker for those big teeth and furry heads.

The memories that come from chucking a cup full of feed at an approaching camel because you're freaked out if he gets his head in that window while you were trying to take a picture, you'll never be able to get it back out - those memories are priceless. 

Worth every. darn. penny. 

Afterward, we stopped by what we thought would be an average antique store, though it boasted the word "museum" - and learned that hidden inside was a trove of antique cars in mint condition and Harley Davidsons in styles we never even knew existed, and a shop-owner so happy to just have visitors and eager to talk. Unexpected beauty in unexpected places.

It was definitely the #happybirthday2016 #adventure I was promised. 

And that would have made for a satisfying birthday by itself.

And then the actual day on the calendar rolled around. On the heels of a VERY difficult Monday - the kind of day that left me in tears at midnight, hating the fact that this was already my birthday and I didn't even want it.

I woke up with fresh eyes, but a groggy brain, dressed for a doctor's appointment, armed with garden-fresh tomatoes to take to the sister-in-law afterward and left home. Yet, I knew the day had potential. So, while dropping off the tomatoes, I posed a possibility. Would she go with me to a little town an hour away to buy myself a dress I'd seen on my birthday #adventure and hadn't been able to stop thinking about? She peered around, considered the possibility and went with it. What a blessing that decision was. Precious car time with this girl I don't spend enough time with, discussing what's really going on in our lives. Two new outfits (one for me, one for an itty-bitty-pretty back home), two baskets of peaches and a bag of onions later, we made it back home.

And that would have made for a satisfying birthday by itself.

I spent the afternoon watching TV with the kids while coloring in the new book my sweet husband purchased for me (not because he had to - because I told him, we got tires, remember? - but because he truly wanted to buy something just for me) and then, finally, FINALLY scrolling through my Facebook feed.

Now, I'm typically not a fan of Facebook birthday wishes - repetetive greetings - many by people who I treasure, but some by people I'm thinking "Who are you, again?" - it has become almost an annoyance. But this birthday, inspired by a friend more creative than I, I had requested something more - memes for my birthday, laughter to brighten the droll obligatory birthday greetings. And those friends of mine did not disappoint. I chuckled, smiled and rolled my eyes through over a hundred special greetings and memes selected just for me - each one reflecting a bit of that friend and making me remember why I'm glad they're in my life. I later heard from many that my Facebook birthday feed was the highlight of their day and it was hilarious fodder for conversation over coffee and cake with friends later that evening. Truly - it was amazing.

And that would have made for a satisfying birthday by itself.

But it wasn't over yet.

After memes, naps, the library, dinner made by my wonderful husband, cake, candles, an imagined visit from the Birthday Bird of Katroo (the kids insisted Daddy read me the same Dr. Seuss story we read them every year on their birthdays) and kisses good-bye, it was off to Bible Study where I was challenged by the incredible Priscilla Shirer and enjoyed spiritual discussions with sweet ladies, after which, I was told I was going out for coffee (not invited, mind you, told!). 

But on my way, I was captured by the most brilliant sunset. With clouds overhead, the sun was limited to bursting through a thin break just at the horizon. It was streaks of orange and yellow and purple that one couldn't just look away from. It hurt me to turn my back on it to go anywhere else. So I didn't. I chased it down, tried to capture it on camera (impossible) and just reveled in the beauty. Like a birthday gift from the Creator Himself.

Finally, tearing myself away, I headed to my last stop for the night - that demanded coffee date. As I emerged from the car, notes of "Happy Birthday to you!" wafted over the Starbucks parking lot, from the patio with waiting friends at a table decorated just for me. We enjoyed cake, much laughter and delightful conversation. I even got to use my free birthday drink from Starbucks - a venti (because, why not?!) Double Fudge Bar Frappuccino, with waffle cone sprinkles, java chips suggested by the barista and a drizzle of caramel sauce (because why not just add everything you can imagine when it's all free anyway?). This close to Heaven, I tell you. We sat in the dark, listening to the ambiance of the weed-trimming next door, and were just girls - moms with breaks from the kids - for just an evening.

And that made it a satisfying birthday, all together.

I truly could not have asked for a better day.

And the best part was, I didn't have to plan any of it in advance. It just happened. It fell together through spontaneity and the careful planning of others. I was free to sit back and let the chips fall where they may - and they did - into beautiful places.

So, thank you, officially, to all of you who participated, either in person, or on-line, or over the phone. I treasure each one of you and feel more loved than you can imagine.

And PS - Those summer birthdays, I've realized, are a treasure in and of themselves. Because of my summer birthday, I've spent some of my past special days at Disneyland with my family, being sung to in Spanish down in Peru, at a carnival with friends, gifted with bottles of root beer by sweet campers in Maine, enjoying my favorite restaurant that's not local, while on a road trip with my husband and kids and being sung to under the dark cloudy, but warm sky over Starbucks, staying up too late because we can. Summer birthdays, I've decided, are kind of awesome.

28 April 2016

Of His Job

In the grand tradition of parents enslaving their children - because when I was younger, there was a time I was certain the only reason my parents had kids was so we could be their servants, because that's what it felt like when I was in the middle of my fourth episode of Saved by the Bell for the afternoon and I had to turn it off to go set the table (so what if my mom hadn't sat down since she got home from work and was now slaving over the hot stove - I had to watch Zack take Kelly to the picnic-table prom in their jeans, for the fourth time, since, of course, I'd already seen every episode in triplicate) - we have also given our servants children chores.

We've eased into it, so now that they've been used to emptying the kids' plastic dishes from the dishwasher, we've given our eldest the task of fillling it at the end of the day (and when she complains, I almost never pull out, "When I was your age, we didn't even have a dishwasher!" - almost never). The thing is, though, even though we've given her the task, I still haven't grown accustomed to not doing that portion of my job - it's still second nature to contiue clearing the counter of dishes throughout the day, so that by the end of her first day on the job, as she approached, down-trodden at the thought of this menial manual labor, she discovered a counter void of dishes and a dishwasher half-full of dirty ones. 

"Mom, did you put the dishes in the dishwasher?"

Thinking nothing of it, because I hadn't necessarily gone out of my way, but merely had done what was habit at this point, I responded, "Yeah, I guess I did."

A smile slid out and she said with genuine gratitude, "Thank you!"

It occurred to me that I had done nothing more than I've been doing regularly for the past seven and a half years of her existence, yet this was the first time she had even thought to thank me for putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

And it felt good.

Because it wasn't until the task became her own that she stopped to appreciate that someone else would do that instead. It never occurred to her that it had always been me doing the dishes instead of her, because it had never been "her" job before.

It was a sweet moment. 

And I realized as I contemplated this encounter that it's exactly what God did for His creation. When the first two humans were in the garden, it was His job to watch over them and take care of them, to protect their righteousness. They didn't even have to worry about deciding what was good or evil - their sole task was to simply be and to simply be with God as he strolled with them through the garden daily.

Unfortunately, they were deceived and they made wrong choices and from there it was and is a continual story of man trying to watch out for himself, trying to make himself "good," not even recognizing much of the time that God has always been there rescuing and upholding them with His righteous right hand.

So, they built a tower to try to get to Heaven on their own, because they really thought they could do it. And He thwarted their efforts, recognizing they would never be happy so long as they were trying to do this on their own. Because they didn't realize He was already there. He already wanted to be with them. He'd wanted that all along.

And eventually, as though He were saying, "Fine - you want this to be your job? This job of being righouteous enough to be mine? I'll show you what you need to do," He gave them laws to follow. Tablets filled with laws. This is right, this is wrong. Do your hair this way. You cover your head, but you don't cover your head. Do this. Don't do that. Eat this. Don't eat that. Laws. Everything that would be required to be righteous enough to belong to Him.

Because they never trusted He could do it for them. And all along, He had a plan to show them. It was always Him.

After centuries, the plan came to fruition. God Himself came down as a man and completed the task we'd been trying to do on our own all along - He made us righteous. 

"For as by one man's [Adam's] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's [Jesus'] obedience the many will be made righteous" (Acts 5:19)

"Out of the anguish of his soul . . . shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11)

And it wasn't until the job had been ours - this job of making ourselves righteous through our own actions - and we felt the weight of a task we were inadequate to fulfill, that we were finally able to see that someone else was holding us up all along. At this moment of redemption, we recognize that the task of being made righteous was completed by the Son of God who hung on a cross, and we turn with a smile on our face and say, "Thank you." Thank you for being there all along. Thank you for completing the task we were unable to complete - the one that we were never designed to complete in the first place. 

Gratitude is the only response to the undeserved righteousness poured over us at the cross.

Thank you.

It's His job. It always has been.

13 April 2016

Of Being Fed

We're still in Mark. Last week we covered Jesus feeding five thousand men and their families with five loaves of bread and two fish. Today I read about His feeding four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish. A pair of well-known stories, but what amazes me are the reactions afterward - particularly of his disciples, who still don't quite seem to understand Who this man is that they're following.

As if almost any interesting teacher can turn five loaves of bread and two fish into enough to feed five thousand men with 12 baskets of food leftover.

You know, they see that every day, which is why it's such a shock to see a man walking on water. Because there's something that can't be explained (I mean, I know it's shocking - but what make it the final straw, really?).

Seriously, guys?

So, after he feeds the four thousand, the Pharisees approach him demanding "a sign" - an undeniable indication that He has actually come from Heaven - because all these other party tricks - healing lepers, casting out demons, feeding multitudes, raising the dead - anyone could do that. Well, Jesus isn't about proving Himself to the eyes - He's interested in a heart-deep understanding. And if hearing what He has to say has no effect on their understanding of Him, seeing what He can do won't do much for them either. So He denies their request.

Later, in the boat with His disciples, He warns them of "the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." To which they respond in their eloquent wisdom by arguing with each other over the last loaf of bread - because Heaven knows there's not enough to feed those 13 men on that one boat. 

In fact, Heaven does know exactly how much bread they have. And Heaven knows they just watched this man they're following feed a total of nine thousand men with a grand total of twelve loaves of bread and they still don't get it. They still don't get, as my ESV study notes put it, that this man in the boat with them is "none other than the eternal creator and giver of life." 

They still think He's talking about food.

And they still don't get that if it's the food they're worried about, He'll always be able to provide for it. He is always willing and able to provide for the physical needs.

But His priority, as He proves time and again - not the least of which in feeding these throngs of people through a miracle rather than sending them away so they can all be sustained with nutrients and rest, seeing that the sustenance they need can only be found in His presence, in His words - His priority is to meet the spiritual needs of the people.

And what Jesus is warning them against in speaking of the leaven of Pharisees and Herod, is about taking to heart the worldly wisdom of even "religious" leaders and kings. The puffed up teachings about the outward life that do little to sustain true life. 

Do we hear that warning?

Do we truly understand that God is so much more concerned with what goes into our hearts than what goes into our bodies?

Do our prayers reflect His priorities? Or how much of what we fall on our knees about pertains to our physical needs, comfort, safety? And, conversely, how much of what we take to His feet regards the spiritual needs of our friends, our family, our nation, our planet, ourselves? Does our ratio reflect His?

And in this culture of organic, un-processed, clean, trans-fat-free, non-GMO, no-artificial-sweetener obsession, how concerned are we, by comparison, by what is entering our hearts?

Because we gladly fill ourselves up with the puff of this world - what the news articles tell us, what the entertainment industry feeds us, what the blogs list for us - knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. Leaven, leaven, leaven. And while we're watching every morsel that enters our mouths we're missing the boatloads of trash that are entering our hearts.

And Jesus is saying, "Do you not yet understand?!"

Let our hardened hearts be softened to the true message He came to give. No amount of physical provision and outward change can ever satisfy what our hearts truly crave - the nearness of the eternal creator and giver of life.

Beware the leaven.

07 April 2016

Of the Day the Mommy Quit

Yesterday I quit.

I was just done.

And when you consider that my full-time job is Mommy, that's kind of a big deal.

But as I tried scrubbing off stubborn dried-on egg remainder from the morning before so I could make breakfast (because, you know, washing the egg pan when I'm actually done with it would be too much) with an inadequate washcloth (because my normal discloth was sitting in the washing machine, where it had been, also, since the day before) with a whining second-grader who didn't want to do spelling, crying as she does every day, hoping she'll get a different result (other than "Suck it up, buttercup" - we're all about compassion in this house) and trying to talk an apathetic first-grader through his math problem, with nothing more than shrugs and "I don't know"s in response to every leading question I can think of without out-right giving him the answer, I realized I was just done.

Here I was, having spent hours already that morning changing diapers, doing Bible Study, emptying the dishwasher, filling the dishwasher, cleaning counters and answering questions - working so hard at just being Mom. And there they were, with very simple tasks in front of them, too upset that they couldn't just do whatever they wanted, that it was somehow easier for them to do nothing or cry than to just get it done and move on with their lives. So many of us had work to do and I was the only one doing it.

So I quit.

I threw the washcloth in the still-crusty frying pan, declared, "I quit. Make your own breakfast. Teach yourselves. I'm done."

And I walked away.

There was stunned silence for a moment before the crying started. Mommy had quit on them and they were hungry and how were they going to get food? And when was Mommy coming back?

I sat down in the den, pulled my laptop into my crossed legs and decided I could do whatever I wanted, now that I had no job. I sifted through email and overall ignored the commotion happening only a few yards away and three steps up.

Somewhere the toddler had gotten ahold of something (a not-dangerous something - I'm not completely heartless) that made the four-year-old upset and he wanted me to do something about it.

"I'm not Mommy right now. I quit. I'm sorry."

The second-grader took matters into her own hands and removed the object from the tiny fingers. The toddler, incensed at this injustice, was crying.

I was listening to music.

The oldest, the one who didn't want to do her work but was shocked that Mommy wasn't doing her own, continued to impress on the others the severity of what just happened.

"Mommy's not going to make us breakfast!" Because this, this lack of eggs on their plates when they were perfectly capable of pouring a box of cereal, was going to be the death of them, and didn't they understand this was important?!

I sat and pondered where to go from here as I let the frustration simmer down from a boil.

Obviously I recognized that my resignation would not be accepted in the long-run. At some point I would have to pull myself back to my job. But when would that point come? At what point would they actually pour their own cereal and make up for my lacking? And should I maybe just feed the toddler, at the very least?

Ten minutes passed.

The commotion upstairs quieted as they resigned themselves to the fact that Mommy really wasn't going to do anything else.

And then two sad faces appeared at the top of the steps.

"We're sorry we didn't do our work."

"Oh? Do you see how maybe it's good for people to do the things they don't want to do?"

The girl seemed oblivious to the point I was making, but the boy seemed to understand the desired response: "Yes."

"Because you want me to make breakfast, even though I don't want to. Doesn't that mean that sometimes we have to do the things we don't want to do?"

"Yes," from the boy.

Then the girl spoke quietly and sorrowfully, "I'm just sorry because I love you and I don't want you to be sad."

Well, I'll take it.

I motioned for them to come down. They slowly walked toward me, not sure of what else might be necessary to make this right. I wrapped the girl in a hug, kissed her forehead and declared, "I love you." The boy came a little quicker and received the same response - a hug, a kiss, "I love you." The toddler came in, too, lips puckered, ready for her snot-covered kiss (the snot was from her nose, not mine). The four-year-old decided this was a good moment for some affection, as well (he's a hugger).

Refreshed, I set the computer aside and pulled myself back up the stairs to the waiting frying pan that still needed scrubbing.

I was surprised to notice the wet washcloth that had been resting in the crusted mess as I simmered had used the time to soften the hardened places - and it all wiped away with very little effort. Breakfast was on its way.

Sometimes we all just need a little time to rest in order to soften the hardened places and get back to where we were meant to be.

04 April 2016

Of the Purpose of This Redeemed Life

The women's Bible Study group I am so privileged to be a part of is currently working its way through the gospel of Mark - reading the story of Jesus through the hurried words of a man who got His telling of Jesus straight from the mouth of our brash and beloved disciple, Peter.

This morning, I was in chapter five, where we see Jesus addressing a demon-possessed man living among the tombs of Gerasene - naked, screaming, with the strength to break all chains and shackles. He can't be restrained, but he can't be free.

Jesus comes to him, speaking not to the man himself, merely the host for the legion of demons within, but to those who possess him, casting them out to nearby pigs, so they may have their destructive desire fulfilled on at least some portion of God's creation - just not the portion so precious and prized as a human soul. Because a human soul is worth so much greater than two thousand pigs.

And as people come running to see what the commotion is about, they see this unrestrained man really, finally, free, sitting, clothed and in his right mind. Clothed, because after Jesus restored his spirit, He restored his dignity. And "in his right mind" because, as the ESV footnote states, he was "properly functioning again as an image-bearer of God."

And isn't that what we are all called to? To be cleansed, dignity restored, properly functioning as image-bearers of God? Because though we may not all have the physical demons within, we all have inner demons with which we wrestle - particularly before coming to Christ - that destroy our ability to properly bear His image, as we seek the temporary fix - greed, vanity, lust. And as we are restored to our original function - to serve as image-bearers, we are to take on the characteristics that define Him - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. We are to be in our right mind.

And once we're there, we can suddenly recognize there is only one place we want to be, just as the redeemed former-demoniac of Gerasene recognized, and that's with our Redeemer, our Rescuer. We long to be with Him.

As I was emerging from the fog of depression only about a year or so ago, this was the one thing I wanted. Because if this world was so ugly, why couldn't I just depart and be with Him? Wrapped in His beauty, singing His praises for all of eternity?

Yet, that's not where He wants us. Not yet.

For those of us who remain, He has one command, "Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mark 5:19).

It is interesting to note, this is the first time in Mark's account that we see Jesus actively encouraging someone to tell others about Him. Previously He had been very adamant about not spreading the news. He had silenced demons against speaking His name and had told a healed leper, "See that you say nothing to anyone."

Yet this man receives the command to go forth and spread the word. Why?

Of course I can't tell you with 100% certainty what Jesus was thinking, but I wonder if it was because this man redeemed of his demons had a true heart for Jesus - recognizing that with his new healed state, he could live a free life and all he wanted to do with that new life was follow after Jesus.

And this is the kind of testimony Jesus wants told.

He wants hearts that are completely for Him to draw others to Him, not for a spectacle of displayed power, but for the true healing and mercy found only in Him.

This redeemed life isn't about me - it's about making His name known.

15 February 2016

Of Fitting the Pieces Together

One theme God has been revealing to me lately in my time in His Word is that if something doesn't seem to make sense in context, it probably means I'm missing something. Of course, that would seem obvious, but I've so often chalked it up to something cultural or something in the original language I just don't get, but it doesn't hinder how I understand what I do know.

Yet, multiple times in the past few weeks I have come across a portion of Scripture I thought I knew and suddenly found a new note or cross-reference that sheds a whole new light and I can see, mentally, a puzzle piece clicking into place as I think to myself, "That makes SO much more sense now!" As though I had previously been tossing aside those pieces, thinking they just didn't go anywhere, and now, as they fall into place, there is one complete picture and I realize there is nothing unnecessary in Scripture.

He did it again this morning.

I have been working through, with my Bible Study ladies, Angie Smith's first Bible Study: Seamless. In this study, we are, once again, covering the entire story of the Bible from cover to cover. As opposed to our time in the 66 Love Letters, this study is a quick survey of the entire Bible, so we're mainly hitting the highlights, but in chronological order, which is a bonus.

Last week, we covered the ten plagues God sent to the Egyptians while Pharaoh hemmed and hawed over releasing the Israelites. Something that has bothered me for a long time on this subject is the phrase "and God hardened Pharaoh's heart" - which we see happening repeatedly after each of the plagues.

Why would God do this?!

If Pharaoh is ready to release God's people and that's the whole goal of this operation, why would God harden his heart so everyone involved has to endure so much more hardship?

One answer with which I had satisfied this query was that perhaps God was working to show Himself to the Egyptian people. I had heard that because of this period in Egyptian history, the word of God's power had spread through much of the ancient world, so that many feared Him and His people,
 the Israelites. After all, we read this to be true when Joshua's spies encounter Rahab who declares their Lord the God as "God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath" (Joshua 2:11). Because of what happened in Egypt, the residents of Jericho were living in fear, their hearts melted - which paves the way for the successful conquest of Jericho and the beginning of the Israelites' claim to their Promised Land.

Certainly that was a factor.

But, as I was reading through this Bible Study, Angie pointed out something I hadn't recalled hearing before (or maybe I had, but it had certainly been buried under mounds of other things I'd heard and forgotten): Each of the ten plagues specifically addressed the Egyptian gods and the aspects of life they supposedly had control over. It was the God of Israel's way of showing His power over these false Egyptian deities. Note the following chart (or click the link here to see it as a PDF).

Well, again, that's certainly fascinating. So, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so He could specifically display His power in all arenas supposedly controlled by other gods. That seems to make a little more sense. But, still, why?

Was it because the Egyptians would come to fear and respect the God of Israel, as well? Was this a foreshadowing of His welcoming all peoples into His people? I felt as though I remembered reading somewhere that this theory may have been accurate.

But, overall, it was a piece that just didn't fit. And because my brain couldn't figure out what to do with it, I chose to overlook it and move on.

And then we got to today's study. We're in Joshua now, where we addressed the above story of the spies visiting Rahab and consequently God destroying the city of Jericho and from there, all of the Promised Land. All of the Land is now given to the Israelites as He declares to them, "I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant" (Joshua 24:13). All of these He gives to His people, not because they have earned it (if you question that, read all of Exodus and Numbers, trust me, Israel does not deserve any of it), but because these are His people and He has made a promise to Abraham that He intends to keep. 

The descendants of Israel making their home in Egypt, later oppressed by the Egyptian ruler into slavery, had been serving the Egyptian gods?! Now, maybe this isn't news to you. You're thinking, "Yeah, Angela, we all knew that." But I certainly had not heard that little tidbit before. 

I had always lived in my ignorance, fully imagining that God's people weren't annoying and unfaithful to Him until after they escaped Egypt and were sad that they had to leave their happy little homes of slavery. I imagined them slaving away in Egypt, worshipping their God, faithful to Him and wondering when He was going to keep His promise to rescue them, counting down the 400 years He told Abraham they would be waiting. And it's entirely possible and probable that many were. But there were at least some who had chosen the gods of the locals to be their gods, as well. Probably in addition to the God of their father Abraham. 

And here is where the puzzle piece clicked neatly into place. God didn't send ten plagues just so His name would be feared among the nations, or just so the Egyptians could see His power. He needed to harden Pharaoh's heart time and time again, provoking ten specific plagues, so the Israelites would see His power over the Egyptian gods. So the Israelites could see He had control over every aspect of life that they had begun to depend on the false gods of Egypt to protect.

He needed to show them Who He was, not just so Pharaoh would let them go worship their God, but so that they would want to do so. He had to make life hard where they were so they would get uncomfortable enough to leave for the something better that He had planned for them.

Well, oh. My. Word. Doesn't that just tell a whole different story? Doesn't that one little verse in Joshua just bring a whole new reality to this story we've heard since we were children? 

And don't our hearts beat raw to realize He still uses that tactic today. Because we are an unfaithful people who would rather live in the darkness, where it sometimes feels safe, than escape into the Light where He has such glorious lives awaiting us. We would rather seek comfortable living on this earth, where we are bound as slaves to the things of this world, than look ahead eagerly to the land that has been promised to us - our homes in Heaven. We often opt for comfort over going out to serve a God who has proved Himself faithful. 

And once again I see how these Israelite people of the Old Testament were always meant to be a picture to us of who we are - the ways we wander, the ways we vacillate between obedience and unfaithfulness, the ways we fail and the ways we turn back to Him. 

Thank you, Lord, for caring enough to bring us out of darkness, even when we do not, in the least deserve it.