Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Almost There" -- Part II of The Joy Set Before Me

For some days now this song has followed me and will not let me go.

“Mary full of innocence,
Carrying the Holy Prince,
You’re almost there.

You’re almost where the angels see
Redemption’s plan unfolding.
All Hope is in the Son you bear,
You’re almost there.”
Michael W. Smith / Amy Grant

“Almost There”.  These words have gripped my heart!  

Mary was about to deliver.  She was “almost there.”  Just 7 years ago today I delivered my son.  I remember the feeling of “almost there,” the thankfulness that this season brings, of seeing fruit about to come forth, of new life, new hope, new joy.  
But the season leading up to “almost there” can be hard.  Mary, “highly favored of the Lord,” faced accusations of harlotry, infidelity, disobedience and even the real threat of death.  All because she said YES to God.  Part of her time leading up to “almost there” was spent hidden away at her cousin Elizabeth’s house, separated from her family, where I’m sure she worried about the future.  She would have had doubts and fears, like any of us do during our seasons of endurance.  What would her family say?  What would Joseph say?  How would she provide as a single mom?  Would she even live?

Yes, these seasons of “almost there” produce endurance.  Patience.  Longsuffering.  

We don’t practice endurance much in our Western cultures anymore.  We struggle with heating up anything in the microwave for more than 2 minutes.  We can’t abide waiting for a letter by conventional mail or tolerate download speeds that exceed 3 seconds.  Patience is truly a lost art.  It is a virtue that has been silenced, forgotten and replaced with business.  “I’m busy.  I don’t have time to wait,” echoes through our generation.  And so, I’m afraid, we all look and sound like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Wonderland, always late for something far more important than the now we are in:  Always rushing, never present.

Endurance, patience, and longsuffering have everything to do with the present.  It is the slowing down and finding my rhythm as a runner in a marathon, breathing deeply and purposefully, allowing my body to be flooded with life-giving oxygen, and focusing on my footing for this step and this step and this step.  Endurance comes with two helpers: slow and methodical.  Longsuffering means we sit with the pain for the “not there yet” and allow it’s reality to wash over us without drowning.  It’s the walking through fire and trusting the Lord that we will not be burned, or the wading through floods and relying on His promise that we won’t drown.  Patience says, “I will wait upon God, His timing, His plan, His purpose, not my own,” all the time knowing that my “almost there” is coming.  

Mary was “almost there.”  She was about the give birth.  Nine months of waiting can seem an eternity, especially in the last month.  Especially on a donkey.  Especially with no epidural!  

At the same time, Eve was about to see her own “almost there.” The promised Seed was about to crush the head and authority of the serpent.  Four THOUSAND years of waiting, and now, almost there.  That gives Mary’s nine months into a whole different perspective.  Eve had been pregnant with a promise that she awaited with each new generation.  Was it Kain?  Was it Enoch? Was it Noah, “Man of Peace”?  Noah was even named with the expectation that he would be the one to restore peace with God.  And yet... endurance, patience, longsuffering... the “not there yet.”

Abraham had waited 99 years for a son.  And yet, THE promised son was only on his way, through many generations.  Mary now carried Eve’s promise and Abraham’s promise.  Almost there.  

David, too, had a promise.  His line would inherit the throne of Israel forever.  But Israel had no king when Mary met with Gabriel.  His son would have the government resting on His shoulders forever. His son would restore the kingdom.  Mary carried David’s promise of 2000 years in her womb. Almost there.

Israel had been occupied for 500 years.  It was a dark season politically with much unrest, insecurity, and hopelessness.  To top it off, God was silent... for 400 years there had been no prophet.  For 400 years Israel meditated on Isaiah’s prophecies, and many others, that the Messiah would come, that God would speak yet again to His chosen ones.  Mary bore the fruit that would cause heaven’s armies to burst forth in praise and worship.  Mary’s “almost there” was Israel’s as well.  And they had no idea that it would be the ultimate silence breaker: God himself was going to walk among them!  The ultimate restoration: God walking with man like He had done in the Garden.

How very true these words are: Almost there.   The Cross and the Resurrection, in light of 4000 years of history, were “almost there.”  Redemption, the undoing, the setting-right, the ultimate payment: it was so near!

The night is darkest just before dawn and we are tempted to give up just when we are almost there. It’s tempting to slow down, to rest and even, to give up.  It is also tempting to settle for the new in exchange for our dream.  Israel wanted a king.  God was already grooming David.  But Israel demanded one now.  They were done waiting.  They wanted to be like other peoples and have a king.  They were trying to keep up with the Jones... um, the Philistines.  And they paid dearly for their impatience.

It is in the seasons of “almost there” that many runners fall short of the prize.  We grow weary.  We slow down.  We lose momentum.  We fall asleep.  So I am, again, reminded of Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross...”.  It’s precisely when I am in my “almost there” times that I need to remember the joy set before me.  Why am I on this path?  What is not only the goal but the joy that follows the goal?  Taking this concept and putting it into a Monday means I organize my home, which is overwhelming to me, for the joy set before me:  peace, family, time to enjoy hobbies without the constant hollering of my to-do list.  Getting up a little earlier to greet my kids as they wake up even though I’m bone weary brings the joy of peace and serenity in the mornings, a sense of accomplishing my day rather than running after it.  Saying NO to the unhealthy and yes to the healthy means I gain longer life, more secure finances, energy.

I don’t know what your story is, but maybe the joy set before you is a mate and patience means saying no to short-term solutions so you can be ready for the long-term partner.  Maybe the joy set before you is financial solvency and the pain in the “almost there” season is not being able to find a job that fits you and your family or any job.  Maybe your joy is to finish school, build a home, write a book, run a marathon, have a baby... and you feel like you are stuck in limbo.  Ask the Lord what your season of “almost there” looks like.  Is there a task you are avoiding (like sorting and cleaning, organizing and decluttering) or is it, like Mary, simply a “worship while I’m waiting” moment?  What if the waiting has been forever already?  Mary’s waiting seemed endless, with Braxton Hicks setting in, riding on a donkey, the uncertainty of where she would give birth.  But her waiting is nothing in comparison to Eve’s waiting.  The last mile in a race can seem the longest.  But what if the finish line is around the next corner?  What if it’s just one more day?  Can I worship and trust God just a little bit longer?  Is this my training ground for endurance to grow in me?  Is this the training ground for my kids to learn longsuffering because they saw me worship while I was waiting?  It strikes me that Jesus, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, was trained up as a young boy into manhood by parents who for the joy set before them endured the social ostracization of what looked to be an illegitimate son.  His parents knew that humanity was “almost there”, almost at the point of the return of the King who would crush the power of Satan.  Their endurance discipled the very Son of God who was also completely human, to push through and finish well.

Today I will let Jesus be the “glory and the lifter of my head.”  Today I will slow down, breathe and find my rhythm and avoid the White Rabbit’s excuses to be present.  Today I will remember the joy set before me in my tasks that I so love to avoid.  Just for today.  Joy.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

For the Joy set before me -- a project

So yesterday, late afternoon, I had an epiphany.  It wasn’t really a vision, though God speaks to me in pictures and this one involved a glimpse of something.  And it wasn’t so much a teaching from the Holy Spirit, like complete sentences or “audible” direction, though it included language.  It was more like a split moment where God causes my thoughts and images and words to all come together and I catch something.
Yesterday I caught JOY.  
No, I didn’t exhibit holy laughter or anything like that. It was more like a theme for October.  “Carrie, choose JOY.” And, “For the JOY set before Him...” both came crashing in.  
Joy is not happiness.  We have, in the West especially, made the “Pursuit of Happiness” a goal of life.  We fill our moments with entertainment and leisure, but happiness is a byproduct of the deeper thing called JOY.  There is a reason why happiness is not a fruit of the Spirit, but JOY is. We can be happy one moment but sad the next.  However, JOY is something deeper, something I can choose even in the midst of grief.  JOY overcomes and sustains us, even in the midst of a “cross” season.  It is the JOY of the Lord that is our strength, that causes us to overcome the spirit of Heaviness so pervasive in our time.
“The JOY set before me”...
Hebrews 12:2 reminds us to “look[ ] unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” NKJV
The original context here is persecution.  The Jewish Christians that the Letter of Hebrews was written to, were suffering persecution and living the beginning of the great diaspora that caused the Gospel to be spread to all nations.  Many were re-counting the cost and not sure if faith in Jesus was worth this much.  So the JOY set before Jesus, namely the redemption of His bride and the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of union with her, is why Jesus endured the cross.  

I am not facing life-and-death persecution (yet) for my faith.  In fact, my faith is really not in question.  But what the Holy Spirit is shaking me up about is my pursuit of happiness.  That fleeting thing of the moment.  And my lack of endurance with the hard things.  If I can reword it, it was like He was saying, “Choose the hard things, for the sake of the JOY that will follow.”  
Yesterday that meant I cooked a simple meal and went outside and cleaned my patio and strung new lights and set a table with cloth and candles to celebrate Booths, something that had been important to me all year and which I found myself challenged to prepare for this last weekend.  I chose JOYful worship while I was sweating in the dust and humidity.  And JOY blossomed somewhere deep inside.  

So for this month at least, and it may grow into a year, who knows, I want to choose the JOY set before me.  What is the Lord setting before you today?