Jesus is Lord of the valleys.

Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Glass-Turner, Managing Editor of Wesleyan Accent, writer and speaker. She reflects on the power of the Lordship of Jesus in hard times. Read on …

Sanctification is fun when it’s under our control.

Out of the corner of our eye, we have peripheral awareness of how close to being faith consumers we really are. We choose to go to a conference so we can grow spiritually. We choose to show up to Bible study so we can grow spiritually. We choose to read a book so we can cry or become more efficient or grow spiritually.

We choose.

We choose the parameters of our growth. Where we next discern/feel/think that God is leading us. What we will “give up” for Lent. The solution is perceived as whatever antidote to lukewarm faith fits the bill. I’m not sure the problem is lukewarm Christians, though. I think the problem is more the insidious mindset that is entangled in our approach to faith: that we set the table, invite the guests, and choose the menu of our own spiritual growth. That we’re in charge. That we can choose what outcomes we want to see in our spiritual life. That we control how we want to be made Christlike.

If you can choose what to give up for Lent, you’re living in a place of blissful abundance. Don’t take it for granted. Years back during Lent several areas of life imploded at once. In the wake of the economic collapse in 2008, there was a lot of scarcity, especially in certain areas of the country. My household was affected directly, and I remember writing a short reflection including the comment, “What do you give up for Lent when you’re already in a season of scarcity? What does fasting look like when the cupboards are pretty bare?” Lent had changed from practices I chose and controlled to something outside my control, and I didn’t like it.

God had allowed my chosen self-denial to be replaced with real desperation.

It was awful, and there’s no good way to spin or market it.

It hadn’t really occurred to me before what fasting sounded like to people who struggled to afford groceries, or who waited for their food stamps to be refilled. One day during that time — when the news was full of stories of foreclosures, whole subdivisions emptied, when the rust belt was contracting and people moved across the country away from their lifelong hometowns in order to find work — I came across a story of a humiliated woman who drove a luxury car driving to the food bank she used to donate to. In desperate tones she explained a paid-off, reliable vehicle was one of the only decent assets she had left and it didn’t make sense to trade it in for a cheaper but possibly less reliable car. But that meant that she was driving to the food bank in shiny German engineering.

Before the housing market crisis and Wall Street meltdown, if this woman had chosen to live on a strict budget, she would have been living in self-denial; it’s the removal of options that leads to desperation, no matter how well-resourced or well-connected you’re accustomed to being. Sometimes we instinctively recoil from people going through hard times, as if back in our minds is a hidden, primitive instinct to label tragedy or suffering “unclean.”

How did God let me learn about what Lent looks like when circumstances careen out of control? Several times over the years something would happen – why around Lent? – completely out of my control.

I’m trying to be pious and become Christlike, God. Why won’t you let me?!

In 2017, I had a completely unforeseeable health crisis and after misdiagnosis and falling asleep night after night praying I would wake up the next morning, eventually had emergency surgery and a painful recovery.

That’s a bit more “from dust you come, to dust you shall return” than I meant, God.

In 2018, my husband was stricken with a serious set of grave symptoms that left him on bedrest all winter. I joked that I was fasting from certainty. It wasn’t that much of a joke. Finally, he found relief in the spring.

Well someday I’ll get back to a normal Lent.

In 2019, his symptoms returned. The relief that had helped before hasn’t yet this time. Again, a Lent full of doctor appointments, insurance arguments, hours spent on hold, notes documenting symptoms scribbled down.

Will I ever get back to a normal Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?!

To proclaim that Jesus is Lord means this: I won’t always get to decide how or by what means I grow spiritually. What does the fruit of the Spirit look like when a doctor’s office receptionist is callous, flippant, or rude? What does it look like to be Christlike when you’re grieving lost opportunity due to difficult-to-diagnose chronic illness? What does joy look like when you realize your kids will be spending part of their spring break accompanying a parent to another physician appointment?

None of this fits on the brochure for “Christianity: Come Join Us! Really, It’s Not that Bad!”

I can’t guarantee you stability in this life. I can’t guarantee you won’t face tragedy. I can’t guarantee you won’t experience mind-numbing grief.

I can witness to the goodness of God, though.

I can, and will, bear witness to the power of Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

I can worship God from inside the blasting, scorching furnace, while evil asks, “Didn’t I put three people in there? I see a fourth man, and he looks like the Son of God.”

If I let go of the outcomes I hope for, I can grab onto the person of Jesus.

Jesus is Lord, and nothing in heaven or hell, nothing on earth or out past Pluto, no entity or circumstance can erase the goodness of God. Jesus is Lord and victory belongs to him even when I don’t get to choose the battle.

Please God, I’d like to go fight in that battle over there.

“This is what I have for you.”

I’m so much better over there, you gave me gifts for it! I’m sure that’s where you need me.

“I need you here.”

That doesn’t make sense.

“No, it just doesn’t make sense to you.”

It turns out getting up and responding to altar calls is pretty good practice for the much harder business of following Jesus in the dark.

There will be times you get to choose and pursue ways to grow spiritually.

There will be times you are thrown into a whirlwind, into a vortex, and forced to respond.

In all things, Jesus is Lord, and nothing can force us to stop testifying to the goodness and power of Jesus Christ, whether we like our circumstances or not.

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To Be a Christian in Africa (or, “God is not broke”)

Some of my best lessons have been learned from Africans, who experience this daily call to follow Jesus so very differently than I. I met a Nigerian a few years ago while I was in India who leads a vital ministry and teaches in a seminary there. He lives right at the center of Nigeria, in a town called Jos. Christians in Jos consider it their call and responsibility to hold the spiritual line between northern Nigeria, where Muslims have already taken over, and southern Nigeria where they have set their sights. Living in Jos puts followers of Jesus on the front lines of a spiritual battle being waged over the souls of his country.

My friend told us that in his part of the world, “We wake up every day prepared to die.” Our brother could talk with great seriousness about their situation and yet still display such joy when we worshipped together. There in a little chapel, he led us in an African chant that I believe ought to become the anthem of the next Methodism:

I must go with Jesus anywhere anywhere, no matter the roughness of the road. I must go … I must go …

My friend led us around, dancing in a circle, singing that song so joyfully, so hopefully, all of us clapping our hands as if rough roads were a great thing to be on. And in fact, they are, because those are precisely the roads that lead us toward the Kingdom of God.

Another colleague is a professor at a seminary in Liberia. Recently, he told me his story of how he came to be a pastor. He said he’d had the call for years but ran from it. He didn’t want to be a pastor because he had a college degree and was marketable. “Money can weigh heavily on an African’s decision to follow Jesus,” he said. “There is no money in becoming a pastor. You will be poor your whole life and have no way to take care of yourself in your old age.” Then, smiling, he went on, “But God kept after me.”

During the civil war in the 1990s, this friend tells me, he was escaping from one town to another, with all he had to his name in a bag he was carrying. When he was stopped at a security point, mistaken for a rebel by a guard, he was sure he’d be killed. They forced him at gunpoint to remove all his clothes. There he was, with his bag in his hand, standing before these guards in his underwear with a gun to his head.

He assumed this was his last moment alive, then they told him to run. He did. “While I was running,” he said, “I realized the only reason I was still alive was because God had a purpose for me. Right then, while I was running, I committed my life to him and have served him ever since. I have no retirement fund, and no way of taking care of myself in my old age. And you know? That used to scare me but then one day, I realized, ‘God is not broke!'”

Listening to my Liberian brother tell this story, I thought again about my friend in Nigeria, dancing in a circle with strangers in India. “I must go with Jesus anywhere, anywhere, no matter the roughness of the road. I must go! I must go!”

These men stand in the spiritual lineage of those disciples in Luke 9, who were told by Jesus himself to go out into towns and villages armed with nothing but the gospel. “Take nothing with you,” Jesus told them. Why? Because God is not broke. Because Jesus all by himself is worth everything. Because when Jesus commands us to go, he gives us power and authority enough to cover the need.

And Jesus is enough, even when the road is rough.

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What I know about the enemy of your soul

It is easier to blame someone else than to deal with my own issues.

But if I’m going to blame someone, I ought to at least make sure I am blaming the right person. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that the real enemy of my soul is not flesh-and-blood but a power that seeks to keep me at a distance from the God of perfect love. Knowing the real enemy makes me more effective in the battle.

So what do I know about the enemy of your soul?

He is not creative. Creativity is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls. There is no genius about him; he only knows how to mimic God just enough to deceive us. Contrary to being creative, he tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. He entices us with fake power, fake love, fake progress. Spiritually disconnected people will take the bait every time.

He is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always creating, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again … predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, chaos.

He works within systems to generate chaos. The enemy of your soul is fond of the herd instinct. He abuses systems like racism, socialism and atheism, and even some forms of religion, but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. It isn’t so much that he has great forethought and strategy; he isn’t purposefully systematic. In the absence of a system, he will use whatever presents itself as most convenient but he gets big “wins” when people thoughtlessly follow the crowd.

His great lie is that there is no hope. Hopelessness is the enemy’s rearview mirror. He uses it to make us look backward while he whispers the lie that things will never get better. Hopelessness leads to fear and fear separates people from God’s love. When the enemy of your soul can get you to believe there is no hope, he gets a twofer. Hopelessness isolates in both directions. We feel isolated while others allow fear of our pain to create distance.

He breeds fear. This is the enemy’s ultimate goal — to create distance between us and God, between us and others. Fear breeds that distance. Fear kills love, so when Jesus tells us that our goal is to be made perfect in love, he is telling us that his intention is to make us stronger than our enemy. When Paul tells us that God is love and that there is no fear in love but that perfect love casts out fear, he is showing us a path to spiritual victory.

He loves the fear of conflict. One of the things he most wants us to be afraid of is conflict. It isn’t conflict itself the enemy likes. In fact, he’d rather we never raise questions, think deeply, press into issues, get passionate enough to express a dissenting opinion. Why? Because conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

That is so important it is worth repeating: Conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

I’m thinking about Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair. Conflict reveals truth and exposes weakness and challenges us toward our destiny. A conflict well navigated breeds grace and deepens love and honor. Meanwhile, fear of conflict creates emotional distance and inhibits relational progress. Too many people who have blown up and walked away from conflict have missed great opportunities to encounter real growth. To walk through conflict maturely and with the mind of Christ is to walk through the valley of Psalm 23 to the feast on the other side.

Clearly, that is not a stroll the enemy of your soul wants you to take.

He feeds on denial. Denial holds us in a self-defensive posture. It creates an atmosphere of blame. If the enemy of your soul can’t get you to blame God, he’ll entice you to blame someone else for the things that are wrong in your life. Remember that it isn’t healthy conflict the enemy likes, but the lies that lead us to respond to conflict in unhealthy ways. Denial speaks the language of victims, the heart language of the enemy of our souls, who would rather we never learn anything from our circumstances.

He doesn’t care what you’re thinking about, as long as it isn’t Jesus. If you want to win a battle today, meditate on Jesus. Hear the wisdom of your spiritual fathers, who taught you to talk about him when you’re sitting at home or walking among others … even as you stand up to leave a room (Deuteronomy 6:8). if you want to defeat a defeating mental loop or an angry situation, refuse the voice of the enemy and allow yourself to glory in the One who loved you first and loves you most.

Don’t allow the enemy of your soul to have the last word. That privilege must always belong to Jesus.

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A Bakery, a Battlefield and a Birthplace

Bethlehem.

It is so much more than the name of a middle-eastern town. Buried in this treasure of a term is the story of Christmas.

Beth El in the Bible means “house of God.”  The first part is the usual word for house, but it has connotations of family. It can also mean temple.

The second part of Bethlehem is the Hebrew word for bread, but this bread is not just the side item on your plate. It is what Jesus was talking about when he taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” This bread is the difference between life and death.

There is another connotation to that second part of the word Bethlehem. Sometimes, it can mean “to do battle or fight.” That isn’t the usual meaning attached to the name but there is this strong connection to a battle.

When we put all that together, something like a little miracle emerges in what God has woven into the name of the place where Jesus was born. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in a place called “House of Bread.” The one who did battle with death itself and won, who was raised to victory after three days in a grave, was born in a place called “House of Battle.”

God chose a seemingly insignificant place, Bethlehem, and there he created the Bread of Life and the One who would defeat death. And on the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus lifted up the symbols of a bakery and a battleground — bread and blood.

Christmas and Easter really do belong in the same breath.

When we place our trust in Him — this God-man who is spiritual food for us and who promises to do battle in the spiritual realm for us – we are born spiritually into his family and become members of the House of God. Our birthplace then becomes Bethlehem just as surely as his was.

Bethlehem. It is a place of possibility, a place of new birth, a place where we are fed, where we are protected, where we are home.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small …” – Micah 5:2

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