(br)oak(en) for righteousnessk

“To grant to those who mourn in Zion-to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”  Isaiah 61:3 (ESV)

What exactly does an “oak of righteousness” look like?  Do you see it as this great, towering, beautifully shaped tree with a massive trunk and limbs that spread out over an almost inconceivably large area?  This is how I envisioned such an “Isaiah 61:3” tree for the longest time.  And why not, you might very well ask?  It seems to be a quite reasonable vision to adopt in my mind’s eye given its origin and purpose doesn’t it?  After all, we are talking about a tree planted and cared for along the way by the Lord Himself.  It’s quite easy to imagine the form of such a glorious tree as being a Mary Poppins sort of tree, “practically perfect in every way.”  Why, we could call it a “poster tree” or a “model tree” so magnificent in its appearance it must surely be.  This vision of an “Isaiah 61:3” tree, then, became my mental image destination expressed in my prayers and longed for in my heart over the past several years.

How I envision an “oak of righteousness” is no small matter because I’ve learned along the way that how my heart responds to various things going on in my life, specifically the difficult circumstances, is tied strongly to my expectations which in turn are linked to hope.  “See the ball, be the ball” is a favorite expression these days and it applies here as well.  Just substitute “tree” for “ball” and you’re there.  If my sincere prayer is to become an “oak of righteousness” then isn’t it fair to say that it greatly matters what I envision when I imagine such a tree in my heart and mind?  Therefore, as a believer it’s entirely reasonable to ask myself if my “mental paintings” of such a tree are Biblically sound or not.

“Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” “Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” Genesis 37:5-7, 9 (NKJV)

What do you suppose Joseph’s expectations were following these two God-breathed dreams?  I can’t say for sure about Joseph, but if I had been visited by such dreams I’m confident in saying that my daydreams…my expectations…my hopes… afterwards would’ve soared high above the clouds and far beyond even to the moon and the stars.  I would’ve been like a hot air balloon soaring upwards without even the tiniest hint of a sand bag being present to even dare slow my imagined rapid ascent.

To borrow a familiar phrase, however:  what goes up must come down, and this is especially true when pride itself has been shown to be present.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Proverbs 16:18 (NKJV)

“So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. 24 Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it.”  Genesis 37: 23-24 (NKJV)

“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”  What’s your reaction to these lyrics by James Taylor from his song, “Fire and Rain?”  From day one years ago when I first heard this phrase these words have captivated me.  The visual imagery of crushed expectations and lost hope conveyed by these few words upon my heart is stunningly precise in its poignant message.  Certainly Joseph could’ve related all too painfully well to these lyrics from the bottom of the pit now having found himself so very far away from the dreamy scenario of the bowing wheat sheaves, moon, and stars that had once delighted him and filled him with so much hope.  I’m guessing Joseph couldn’t wait for such an incredibly bright future to come.

So, how do you safely navigate what appears to be an abruptly cruel and unexpected end to your glorious parade of expectations?  What do you do when you find yourself slogging through a terrifying detour, knee deep in an unmapped, dark and foreboding swamp with no exit sign over a single hollowed out half-dead tree to be found in any direction?  How do you not panic and keep your spiritual  nose above the water?  I can only imagine what thoughts and questions must’ve been racing through Joseph’s mind at the bottom of this dark hole.  “But… but…but…God…what about those dreams you gave me?  Were those dreams real or just something created by my own imagination?  This is NOT at all how I thought things were going to unfold.  Why has this happened to me?  Something is off here! HELP!”

And indeed, something is “off.”  When our expectations do not match up exactly with the Lord’s ways we find our once bright hope growing uncomfortably dim and vulnerable to attack.   It’s our very nature to think we’ve got God figured out, especially so when we see Him on the move in our lives.  We then impetuously leap ahead fully confident we’ve got Him and the whole situation already mapped out.  In doing so we erect an unrealistic outwardly beautiful oak of righteousness in our minds according to a design of our own making that is not fully engaged with His truth, purposes, and plans.  And therein great danger crouches in wait for us. This zone of friction between our truth and God’s truth is nothing new:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him.  For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7 (NKJV)

Years later in the story we find Joseph, a rightly pruned and inwardly beautiful oak of righteousness, standing before his kneeling, formerly unmerciful and conniving brothers sincerely uttering one of the most heart-touching proclamations in all of the Bible, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”  Genesis 50:20 (NKJV)

Talk about a 180 over the course of Joseph’s life.  How did such a remarkable change take place in this man of God’s heart?

 “For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.”  Hebrews 12:6 (NKJV)

“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” John 15:2, 5 (NKJV)

We must therefore be vigilant and mindful that there is a personal cost to be found in the pruning as the Lord transforms us to become an oak of righteousness bearing fruit for His good purposes and glory.  To think otherwise is to tempt the crouching lion patiently awaiting you up around the next dimly lit intersection of your journey.   Unless we actively engage and daily employ the wisdom found in Psalm 119:105 (NKJV), “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” we risk becoming dinner for the lion.  Or did you think his roar was for another?

I love this quote by Charles Spurgeon: “God does not need your strength; He has more than enough on His own.  He asks for your weakness; He has none of that.”  Let us be careful thinking we know what a beautiful oak of righteousness should look like.  My thinking has been turned inside out and upside down about this.  I now realize such a tree is indeed exceedingly beautiful and immensely strong, but not outwardly as I once considered, but rather in its inner most parts.  Outwardly it bears the glorious marks and scars of a life beautifully transformed for Christ’s sake resulting in a less than ideal appearance according to the world.  Yes, my early visions of such a tree were shallowly rooted lacking understanding.   A true Isaiah 61:3 tree’s outward appearance can’t help but reflect the Lord’s careful and purposeful pruning made beautiful in its scars through the inward strength and intimacy created when someone has been around the block of life a time or two with the Lord.   As the saying goes, “That’s gonna leave a mark.”  And indeed what beautiful marks they are in the Lord’s hands are they not?

Lord, bend and prune me as You see fit like You did so long ago with Your servant Joseph, so that I too will one day be an oak of righteousness, a planting of Yours, that You may be glorified according to Your purposes and plans for my life.  When I am tempted to doubt and lose hope when my preconceived vision of how things are supposed to look don’t line up with Your truth and purposes, bring to my mind and heart these verses: “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”  Romans 8:28-29 (NKJV).  “Let me seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in Your sight.Micah 6:8 In Your Son, our Savior’s name, amen!

Lauren Daigle, “Trust in You” from the album “How Can It Be”

 

cloudy, with a 100% chance of miracles

“Listen to this, Job, stop and consider God’s wonders.  Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash?  Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?”  Job 37:14-16 (WEB)

In the 2009 animated film, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” an inventor creates a machine that is capable of causing all sorts of food to fall from the clouds like rain thus relieving the suffering town of its hard times which consisted of having only sardines to eat.  Unfortunately things go haywire with the machine resulting in the town being threatened to be buried alive in an avalanche of food leaving the townsfolk wondering if maybe “just sardines” wasn’t so bad afterall.  The early hope of deliverance from sardines by the new possibility of meatballs instead became an impending disaster of terrible proportions leaving the beleaguered little town fearful of clouds.  Can you blame them?

Are we any different than this make believe town when it comes to the clouds in our lives?  When our lives get uncomfortably crowded with ominous clouds our attitudes and thoughts can take on a decidedly doom and gloom outlook right underneath our very noses.  As the steel gray gloom of towering clouds wears on us we naturally seek relief from our fears and concerns.  Where can hope…real hope…be found under such circumstances?  “Surely the promise of the crystal blue sky of the hoped for miracle that I seek exists somewhere, but obviously not here where I am,” we begin to declare to ourselves as we observe the menacing cloud for weeks and months on end.   “If hope is not here, then where can it be found?  And furthermore, since hope for a miracle doesn’t seem to be here, then why am I here in such a place having to endure this oppressive situation for so long?  Do You not care about me anymore, Lord?”

Let me be uncomfortably transparent here.  Right now at this very moment I am in great need of a parting of the Red Sea sort of miracle.  It’s been that way for going on several years now.  From where I sit the need for this miracle to come to pass grows alarmingly with each passing day and week.  It’s like I’m riding in a speeding car headed straight towards a 1000’ cliff edge drop just up ahead that grows ever closer with each passing moment.  My hope has been ruthlessly attacked along the way as you might’ve guessed by now.  It’s been frequently ambushed and left bruised and bleeding along the side of the road by ruthless bandits.  The story of the beaten traveler in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) comes to mind causing my heart to cry out, “Where is my Good Samaritan?”  Indeed, not long ago I came across Proverbs 13:12 (WEB) which says,  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when longing is fulfilled, it is a tree of life.”  I’ve read this scripture many times before, but now I can truthfully say I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the pain deferred hope can inflict upon one’s heart.  It is an ever growing, insatiable  impact crater gnawing unmercifully away at my heart.   Words like squashing and paralyzing come to mind to name but a few.  So does soul-crushing.   It is a malignancy that erodes my deepest parts.  Make no mistake, hope deferred can be a very dark pit of a place to find yourself.   It is a place none of us want to know very well.

As my journey of hope awaiting this miracle has continued  a new, uninvited, and most unwelcomed traveling companion has taken up residence on my shoulder cozied up next to my ear.  This insistent, growling rasp of a whisper delights in providing me with a completely unsolicited play-by-play narrative of my journey.  The voice knows the first half of Proverbs 13:12 well and uses it against me.  This avalanche of taunts and accusations ignores the second part that speaks of fulfilled longings.  Instead it seeks to reinforce the first part with a piercing Hollywood villain sort of laugh, “This road you are now traveling is going nowhere you really want to go.  It leads to disaster.  There is no rescue coming.  Forget Him because He’s forgotten you.  You have no Good Samaritan in your future. Frankly, the truth is you’re not worth any sort of miracle at all.  None! Look, there’s an exit just up ahead.  Take it and be done with this madness and spare yourself all the additional heartaches that are sure to come.”  As mile after mile slowly goes by the whisper grows even more insistent.  Yet despite its repugnant tone the message the voice is selling to my wounded heart becomes disturbingly more and more alluring with each bypassed exit ramp.  How is it that all exit signs on this faith journey always  beckon and urge you to take the  “Short Cut” and abandon your earlier desired destination?  “He, your God, is no more than cumbersome and unhelpful baggage” the voice hisses.  “Ditch the extra weight.  He is obviously not trustworthy.  He doesn’t care about you.”   And as I wistfully watch one exit ramp after another slowly slide past me as if it’s in slow motion through the passenger side window I wonder, “Why is He so silent?  Why is He not acting?”

In times like this how utterly welcome it would be to be reminded that the Lord is indeed still very much present and in the miracle business.  I am alarmed at how easily I have forgotten meanwhile, behind the seens.  “Yes, I could certainly  use a double, extra-large portion of that sort of encouragement again right about now, please, Lord.”

A quote comes to mind:  “Never interpret God’s love by your circumstances, but always interpret your circumstances by His love.” Perhaps C.H. Mackintosh is onto something here? What if the reassurances I’m seeking have been right in front of me for the entire time of this long and difficult journey?  What if I were to look in the direction of the clouds themselves?  Seriously?  Why would I possibly want to do that?  Afterall, the clouds serve as a constant reminder to me of my circumstances.  To be quite honest, it’s been easier to look away from the clouds.  Why stare at something that brings pain to my heart?  But what if I were to consider the clouds in a different light?  What if there is more to them than meets the eye?  Is it possible my understanding of these clouds that fill up my sky has been too narrow causing me to overlook the miracle of His presence?  To doubt His presence?  Has my lack of understanding of these clouds in my life caused my hope to be deferred thus making my heart more vulnerable to attacks along the way?  Is there a different perspective to take that will allow me to grasp something of eternal significance and value that will refresh my weary heart other than the hopeless one that has attached itself to me like a giant barnacle?

Lord, I need Your perfect insight and not my clouded sinsight!

Scientists tell us the average cumulus cloud weighs in at just over 1 million pounds.  1 million pounds!  The average car tips the scales at 2871 pounds so the next time you see an average sized cloud imagine 350 cars floating above your head!  Such immense weight seemingly suspended effortlessly above our heads surely is a miracle in and of itself is it not?  How is this feat accomplished?  Composed of millions and millions of tiny droplets of water, clouds float majestically in the sky suspended by a sustaining upflow of warm air.  The cloud’s weight is dispersed so efficiently throughout these tiny particles that despite its immense weight the cloud is held aloft.  Essentially, then, the larger more obvious phenomenon known as a cloud is itself composed of millions and millions of smaller particles all working together in perfect harmony to carry the load.  Or put another way, there are a dizzying number of smaller miracles tucked away inside the larger more visible miracle.   Who knew?  Obviously I didn’t.

Sadly, I’ve realized I haven’t fully perceived His ongoing presence in the midst of my circumstances.  My attention has been elsewhere.  I’ve been focused on THE miracle, or lack thereof so far.  In doing so I have been circumstance-centered and not God-centered. I have been tunnel visioned.  I have focused my time and energy on my perceived specific larger need.  This has caused me to overlook the many smaller miracles that have occurred along the way as I have awaited the fulfillment of THE miracle.  I have focused on the forest and have missed the beautiful trees within the forest.  Because I have dismissed the “commonplace” I have not recognized Him along the way and in doing so I have subtly undercut my own faith and trust in Him.   To overlook these smaller testimonies to His beauty and presence is like not seeing that single bright yellow flower waving in the breeze that stands between myself and the distant purple mountain’s majesty isn’t it?  Am I alone in this?  Sadly, no.

“They refused to obey, And they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them.” Nehmiah 19: 17a, (NKJV)  

Back in the day I once participated in running a few marathons and other long distance events.  If I wanted to complete the longer training runs in preparation for the upcoming event I had to stay hydrated so I would place water at certain intervals along my training route.  This was especially true for training in the heat of the summer.  Keeping that in mind do we really believe our heavenly Father would set us out on difficult paths alone and without His spiritual encouragement along the way?  His Word speaks to the contrary:

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33 (NKJV)

 “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”  Deuteronomy 31:6 (NKJV)

So long as our gaze is solely fixed and intent on THE miracle we run the great risk of overlooking the other ways He provides for us along the way.  What a loss it is to miss the “mini” miracles He has so generously sprinkled along the way for us on our journey through life.

“You also gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, And did not withhold Your manna from their mouth, And gave them water for their thirst.  Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness; They lacked nothing; Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.”  Nehmiah 19: 20-21 (NKJV)

The truth is most days I fail to recognize the miracle of His presence and provision in so many ways as I go about my day to day living waiting on THE miracle to finally happen.  If you’re like me, then, is it any wonder our hearts become so distressed?  Pause for a moment with me and consider each and every breath that gives us life, for example. Or how about the lunch with good friends you just enjoyed?  The joy of a hug from a friend or family member?  Or the roof over your head and the food on your table?   Being greeted by an overjoyed pet after a long day at work?  When you think about it this list could go on and on, couldn’t it?  When was the last time you stepped aside and paused from your busy day and thanked Him for His greatness, strength, and the goodness of His provision that lovingly embraces you in a myriad of less than obvious ways each and every day?  To see these we must be intentional lest they escape us.  Let us no longer be blind to such “lesser” miracles because they occur in the arena of what we view as the commonplace.  Let us no longer take them for granted without so much as a “thank you, Lord.”

Through Your inspired Word we ask You to open our eyes and our hearts, our very minds and souls to Your presence, Lord, in all the circumstances of our lives, big and small, that our hearts may be strengthened.  Grant us Your perfect insight in place of our clouded and imperfect sinsight that we may see with eternal perspective. We praise You for all the miracles that You provide us with on our journey through this life.  Each one is no less a miracle than the other in that they all proclaim and testify to Your kind and loving presence in our lives.  Forgive us when we overlook them for in doing so we have overlooked You.  Indeed, where would we find ourselves without You, Lord?   Help us to be ever-mindful of Your generosity and kindness in all things so that we continually give You the rightful praise that is Yours.   May we with continually grateful hearts acknowledge that You are our ever-present One True Provision.  Refresh our hearts once again with Your nourishment.  You, and You alone are our Silver Lining around and in every cloud in our lives.  In Jesus’s name…Amen!

“The Lord is my portion, says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him.”  Lamentations 3:24 (NKJV)

 “But He answered and said, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4 (NKJV)

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” Psalm 32:8 (NKJV)

“Unless Your law had been my delight, I would have then perished in my affliction.”  Psalm 119:92 (NKJV)

 

Lauren Daigle, Look Up Child, from the album Look Up Child

the (s)parking lot

“See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”  Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

 I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’”  Lamentations 3:24 (NIV)

There is a bigger picture beyond what we can see.

A couple of years ago I helped my son-in-law, Andrew, return the rental truck and trailer to the rental agency after their move to a new city.  According to the GPS the rental business was only a short 15 minute drive away from their new apartment thanks to the nearby highway.  “Piece of cake,” we both thought.  As it turned out, however, it took us twice as long to get to the rental place as we originally thought it would.  Why?  Well, that’s because the parking lot turned out to be a time whirlpool.  Leaving the parking lot should’ve taken us only a minute but ended up taking a whole lot more time and effort thanks to a neighbor who had inadvertently parked their truck in just the wrong position relative to our rental rig sometime during the night.  It was no longer a simple matter of merely pulling straight out of the parking lot like we had originally planned to do the night before.  So, in order to get out of the parking lot Andrew had to pull up only a few feet, turn the wheels a bit, then back up, turn the wheels and so on and so on.  Back and forth he’d go more times than we could count before we were finally able to break free of the parking lot log jam.  It was very reminiscent of that funny movie scene in which Austin Powers (played by Mike Meyers) found himself in a golf cart crazily positioned sideways in a very narrow and restrictive hallway.   In both examples a whole lot of maneuvering was required to make just a small amount of forward progress.  In map view as far as the GPS was concerned we hadn’t gone anywhere.

How many times has each of us experienced something like what Andrew and I endured in the parking lot when it comes to realizing goals in our lives?  All too often it seems that where it is that you want to go or what you desire to possess is sometimes tantalizingly “just right over there.” It’s in sight and the way to get there appears to be straightforward and uncomplicated.  Sometimes the prize is so close, in fact, that you can practically taste it.  It feels like it’s literally right there for the taking.  All you have to do is reach out your hand and… “Hold on there a minute.  Not so fast!” says an uninvited voice from out of nowhere.  “But…but…but…now wait a minute,” you exclaim out loud, your words seasoned with a fair amount of indignation just like your next door neighbor’s “private drive” sign.  “What do you mean ‘not so fast?’  It’s. Right. There! ” you pointedly observe.   “It’s really quite simple, my little motor boat,” says the unwavering voice referring to the sputtering sounds coming out of your mouth.  “There are some things you need to understand and learn first before moving ahead so things are going to have to slow down.”  Upon hearing those words your heart automatically sinks.

 Honestly now, who among us enjoys going slow?

Far too often we tell ourselves we’re all ready to take possession of our goal or the object of our affection before we’re actually ready to do so.  We think we’re prepared for what lies ahead.  We believe we are ready and capable of handling highway speeds, but the truth is there are some things we need to learn in the parking lot and apply to our lives before we can safely handle the demands of the highway.  Learning in the early stages of most things is painfully slow going just like Andrew and I experienced in the parking lot example.  It was frustrating for us to get hung up in the parking lot like we did, especially so realizing that the highway was only a few minutes away.  No doubt about it the parking lot is not at all flashy when compared to the obvious forward progress one can make out on the highway.  The highway is always beckoning and teasing us with the lure of our making great, clearly visible forward progress strides, but the truth is if you get ahead of yourself and take on the highway before you’re actually ready the potential for disaster goes way, way up.

There’s a good reason the Lord made us so that we first crawl, then walk, and finally run.  He has only our best intentions at heart in doing so and the same is true in our lives regarding the spiritual maturing He is undertaking with us in preparation for our position in His earthly Kingdom as well as His heavenly Kingdom.   In other words there is much more going on than what we can see.  There is a larger purpose, a bigger picture to the story in which each of us have been given a unique, important role to play.  Hebrews 11, the “faith chapter,” is replete with such stories reminding us of this truth is it not?   Faith such as described here was forged over a lifetime in many of these our long ago brothers and sisters.  Lest we forget, our very own Lord, our Savior, Jesus Christ, didn’t officially begin His ministry (the highway) until the age of 30, and this well after He had been found by his parents amazing the Jewish elders and leaders in the synagogue at the young age of 12 with his questions and answers (the (s)parking lot) as found in Luke 2:41-52.

“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”  Luke 2:52 (NIV)

While it’s easy to become frustrated and impatient during what feels like an eternity in the Lord’s parking lot in which forward progress often feels more like 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, let’s learn to appreciate and be grateful for everything He is teaching us in this critical stage of our journey towards the fulfillment of His purposes and plans for us.  Let us no longer see parking lots as uncomfortable periods of no to little outward progress that if given the choice we would likely choose to bypass, but rather as sparking lots in which we recognize that He is creating a rock solid foundation within us capable of withstanding the loads and challenges inherently found out on the highways.  In short, as the well-known saying goes, “He is equipping the called.”  And that, brothers and sisters, is definitely something we can all rejoice over for out of the spark nurtured by His gentle hand in our early “crawling” stages comes an enduring and brightly burning flame that will not be extinguished by highway speeds.  Let us therefore be content to grow in Him according to His ways and timing and not be overly anxious to set foot on the highway until He gives us the go ahead to do so.

“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.”  Joshua 1:8 (NIV)

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.”  Colossians 2:7 (NKJV)