By / May 13

Have you ever had one of those times in your life when you could almost hear God saying, “Pay attention. I’m about to teach you something important!” Of course, God gives us those lessons almost daily, but sometimes his lessons come with alarm bells or pain or a terrible sense of loss. We may even say, “Am I going to survive this one, Lord?”

I hadn’t really thought through the issue of loneliness, for instance, growing up in a ministry home with five sisters and lots of other young people beginning in the ministry whom my folks took in from time to time. In fact, I would sometimes hide in the attic just to be alone to write in my journal. In the 65 years of my marriage with four wonderful children and about 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, my husband and I discovered conversation was no longer required for communication. I loved those first moments of waking up and reaching over to pat my sweet husband’s face on the pillow next to mine. And now that my husband is enjoying Heaven’s glories (one year this month), I still find myself remembering the softness of his face. And I find myself alone.

Then COVID-19 came suddenly into our lives, and loneliness wasn’t the only issue. Tornadoes came across the South destroying homes, businesses, and our beloved church and school—those precious buildings where we had so felt the presence of God.

The blessings in the midst of isolation

But then God came with some questions of his own. One morning while I still wallowed in my losses, it was as if God, in his kindness, said, “Jessie, your entire life I have surrounded you with my blessings—people to love, my beautiful world to see, wonderful adventures, opportunities to make a difference in other peoples’ lives, answered prayers, a life full of my grace. I’ve given you so many lovely things, but If I were the only person in the universe to make you happy, would I be enough to satisfy the longings of your heart?”

He reminded me that he wasn’t taking away “people” and “things” to make me unhappy; he was showing me all those second-hand distractions that were keeping me from discovering how absolutely and wonderfully his love and presence meets every longing of the human heart.

I also continue to enjoy the added privileges of being able to pray anytime, anywhere because of living alone. I sometimes find I am talking out loud with the Lord—not a good idea if I happen to be walking through the neighborhood as I pray. However, when I was a little girl, my bed was close to my parents’ bed, and I remember how comforting it was to sometimes hear my Dad praying in the night.

No matter how I may feel about my usefulness or ability to serve, and even when the loneliness sets in, I continue to learn that God truly is sufficient to meet my needs.

More important, I have learned the benefit of planned prayer time. Through the years, I have kept some sort of a written journal–a collection of the people and projects and deep, deep needs which I brought to the Lord either on a temporary or permanent basis. These included my own children, the students I taught, the other young people my husband and I mentored through the years, my own longings, and the requests that others asked to share with me. I would not dare reveal all that I wrote in those prayer journals; they are not the prayers of a great Christian, but the faltering, sometimes doubting, usually tearful requests of a fearful child of God.

But here is the point: When I bring all of my broken things and dump them in the Lord’s lap for help, he doesn’t reply, “Jessie, what a mess you are!”  Instead, he reaches out to me beyond the mess and pulls me to himself, wipes away my tears, and then goes to work fixing the problem.

Here is God’s promise in Luke 12:28-32: 

If God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won’t he more surely care for you? You have so little faith! And don’t worry about food—what to eat and drink. Don’t worry whether God will provide it for you.  These things dominate the thoughts of most people but your Father already knows your needs. He will give you all you need from day to day if you make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. (NLT)

There are other lessons in loneliness as well. Just because my circumstances have changed, doesn’t mean I can’t do things to serve others. I have elderly neighbors all around me, many of whom may have fewer resources than I. I love sharing special food treats when I find bargains, and I try to bake cookies just for fun. And I’d like to do more.

No matter how I may feel about my usefulness or ability to serve, and even when the loneliness sets in, I continue to learn that God truly is sufficient to meet my needs. And not only does he provide what I need, he meets me with his love and presence every moment of even the hardest days. Whatever our current and future circumstances, he promises to do the same for all his children.

By / Oct 26

Exclusion is a part of life. It is unavoidable. Not only that, it is good.

Isn’t it good that the whole school doesn’t get to have a say in your child’s education? That only those who are trained doctors can make decisions about your health care?

Exclusion is a good thing. It is a protection.

But to many, exclusion is a great evil. The LGBT movement sees exclusion as evil. How can we exclude individuals from the benefits of marriage simply because they are of the same gender? Many hate Christianity because it is exclusive: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through Me’” (John 14:6). How could it be possible that God could exclude some from heaven simply because they don’t believe in Jesus? If God is good, how could he ever be exclusive, so goes the reasoning.

It can be easy for us as Christians to absorb this attitude and apply it to our own contexts of church and ministry. Being left out is usually seen as a great evil, one in which we should avoid at all costs. Isn’t the Church the place where we all feel included all the time?

I don’t think it’s that black and white. Jesus himself makes this a troublesome issue for us by being decisively exclusive on several occasions:

  • Jesus chose 12 disciples from the larger group. There were many he didn’t choose to invite into that circle. “He called his disciples to him and chose 12 of them, whom he also named as apostles.” (Matt. 4:18-22, Luke 6:13-16)
  • On many occasions, he invited the same three from the 12 to join him for special occasions. Here we see not just an inner circle, but an inner circle within the circle. (Matt. 17:1-9, Mark 14:32-35, Luke 8:49-51)
  • He told others that he didn’t come for them. To the Canaanite woman he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:22-28)
  • He upset seemingly good inner circles, like blood family. He denied the request of his own family, using it as an opportunity to say his real family are those who do the will of God. (Mark 3:31-35)

Knowing Jesus is without sin and is the embodiment of love, going as far as the cross for unworthy sinners, forces us to create a new category: exclusion motivated by love. Though we can’t know all of God’s purposes in exclusion, one benefit it carries is what it exposes.

Exclusion exposes pride

Being left out will always be a litmus test for pride. As soon as you realize you didn’t get the invite, you aren’t in the inner circle, or you are on the outside, one of two responses happen.

The first is the most common: hurt, disappointment and/or anger. Under those surface feelings are deep roots of entitlement (a.k.a. pride). A feeling that you deserve to be included, that you have merited inclusion, or that you are owed the opportunity to be included, assuming that it’s the fair thing to do.  But our God isn’t fair, mercifully so. We live under grace, and that changes the game.

To boil it down, being included is about being honored. Like the kids picked first for the kickball team, being chosen for any group is position of honor. No one wants to be last on the team, or worst of all, not picked at all. We want the places of honor.

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples in Matthew 23:1, 6-8, 11-12, saying,

Do not do according to the scribes and Pharisees. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

We love to be made much of, just like the Pharisees. And being left out takes a stab at that. It reminds us that someone else has been chosen.

The moment you are excluded is a great opportunity for growth. When our longing to be recognized and honored is exposed we have the opportunity to repent and walk in humility. “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). We are given the chance to take up the attitude of a servant, as was Jesus’s prescription for his disciples in place of honor-chasing.

An opportunity for faith

But there is a second response to exclusion that is rarely seen. And like most rare things, it is beautiful.

In Matthew 15:22-28, a woman comes to Jesus with a demon-possessed daughter and begs for her healing. Three times Jesus says, “No, I did not come to help you.”

  1. But he did not answer her a word.
  2. He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
  3. And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus calls her a dog and says he will not help her because he was not sent for her but for the Jews. Jesus excludes her from his benefits because she isn’t from the right group.

And to this she said: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” To Jesus’s exclusive statements she said, “Yes, Lord.” She agreed with His decision and submitted to it, calling him Lord. If you aren’t shocked by her response, you should be.

This is a woman with little to no pride. She doesn’t feel it is owed to her to be included. Yet she called upon the mercy of Jesus, hoping he might share just the crumbs left over from those privileged Jews with little old her, the unimportant, sinful, unnamed Canaanite woman she was.

And there it is: great faith.

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

Let exclusion expose your pride and activate great faith. Let it remind you that you are entitled to nothing more than hell and have been graced with every blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. (Rom. 3:23, 6:23, Eph. 1:3)

You are already included

If you are in Christ, then you have already been included in the most important and most undeserved of all inner circles in existence: the family of God! You handpicked by God and purchased with the precious blood of Jesus so that you could be called son or daughter. What a rich honor that is. You have full access to the throne room of God, and he is the highest ranking person in the universe.

Is that not enough? Will you be as those invited to the wedding banquet by the King himself and say no thanks (Matt. 22:1-14)? Is a place of honor among your peers so important that when excluded from a mere human establishment, you feel devalued? The King of Heaven has offered you a seat at his table.

Let us learn from the Canaanite woman. When we are excluded, may we remember we did not deserve to be included. When we are not honored as we thought was appropriate, may we remember that we have not earned honor but wrath. Let us not despise (or treat lightly) the family of God by giving greater value to human inner circles. Is it not enough to be his child?

Oh that it might be enough today for those of us who call him Father. That we would be content to be his and content to serve him and our spiritual family in whatever small and menial way he allows us the privilege of doing. For the greatest in his Kingdom will be servant and slave to all.