Sunday, February 25, 2007

Everything I Know About Life I Learned From My Dog

Some of the simplest yet most profound lessons in life I have learned from Carrie. Carrie is my Latvian yellow Lab pictured on the left who came home from the mission field with me. By the way, Carrie is very intelligent and understands both English and Russian. She obeys (or ignores) commands in either language.

Anyway, next to swimming, Carrie loves nothing more than to go for a walk. She loves to explore all the sights and scents of the larger world outside our small house and yard. The two little words, "poydyom gulyat'", or "let's go for a walk," are all it takes to get paws dancing and tail wagging.

But in order to get the anticipated walk, Carrie knows that she must submit to the dreaded muzzle. She despises her muzzle, but since she has been known to bite other dogs, we don't go out without it. Still, she knows that wearing that muzzle is the key to something greater that, in her dog's world, is well worth the discomfort and confinement of it. So when I approach her with the muzzle, without prompting, she sits down and lifts her head, perfectly still and snout extended high, so that I can easily put it on her. Then without delay, off we go to explore the world (or at least the neighbors' yards).

How much easier and more joyful would our lives be if we could learn to submit to the discipline of the Lord with the same speed, willingness, and anticipation? If you have walked with God more than three days, you have undoubtedly experienced that uncomfortable confinement of God's discipline. Maybe it's that he seems slow in giving you something you desperately want or need, like a new job, a ministry you've dreamed of, a husband or wife, or children. Maybe you know you are gifted and called to a public ministry or career, and feel you should be progressing in it, and instead you seem to be going nowhere, hidden away in a place of obscurity. In situations like these, instead of quietly submitting to the yoke knowing, like Carrie does, that it will yield good things, most of us want to throw off God's loving and purposeful restraints and either press forward on our own or give up.

For those who have ears to hear, however, Hebrews 12 encourages us that the Lord disciplines those he loves and that it's proof that we are true sons and not illegitimate. It also says that he disciplines us for our certain good and that the results of it are life, sharing in his holiness, and a "harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12: 11) If we really believe this, then we can approach his discipline with faith and not just endurance, but embrace it with patient but joyful anticipation of stellar results that will benefit us and glorify the Lord through our lives. Who doesn't want that?

Even the Bible admits that "no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful." (Hebrews 12:11) Nobody knows that better than Jesus, "who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2) Thank God that Jesus never lost that vision of joy ahead through the toughest trial in all eternity. We have reaped the benefit of his obedience. Let's follow his example in the smaller challenges of our own lives. It will be worth it all. Just ask Carrie.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Higher Ways, Higher Thoughts

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
--Isaiah 55:8-9
In the past, I have usually looked to this passage of Scripture for consolation when something didn't work out as I'd hoped or something happened, usually bad, that I didn't understand. But today, reading it for the umpteenth time, I see it in a whole new light and whole new faith.

Today, these words fill me with forward-looking anticipation instead of a backwards-looking, sometimes grim sense that, well, God must have known what he was doing. The old view was about acquiescence in what has passed; the new view is about hope and faith for the future. The old view was about God chiding me for my doubts and regrets, as if to say, "I'm God. Don't you think I know what I'm doing here?"

In the new view, I hear God saying, "Yes, you are facing challenges that are bigger than your ability to figure out, but take heart! I've lifted that burden from your shoulders, for I have solutions that your finite mind can't even conceive, yet they are simple for me. And I delight to employ them on your behalf for your benefit and my glory! I WILL make a way where there seems to be no way. Just trust me." In this scripture, I hear today an extension of that same sense I've had since December that God is not only able, not only willing, but eager to show himself strong on our behalf. It fills me with a childlike sense of excitement like when I was a kid, waiting for Christmas morning to see what wonderful things were under the tree for me.

The promise goes further in verses 10-11 to say that what God speaks cannot fail to accomplish his desire and purpose. You and I can completely rest in that reality. I don't have to lay awake at night trying to figure out what to do about the thorny problems of my life. My job is to lay them before him in faith, obey anything he might tell me to do, and then praise him in grateful, joyful anticipation of the answers. Then verses 12 and 13 will be fulfilled:

"You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord's renown,
for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Love's Labors Not Lost on Lena

Lena Dering represents every reason I invested ten years of love and labor as a missionary in Latvia. Her life typifies my dream for those whose lives God privileged me to touch, and whose lives touched mine so deeply there.

Lena (pictured at the right) is from Sakhalin in Russia's Far East. Her only memories of her father are violent ones of physical abuse. Her mother died when she was still a young girl. Somehow she ended up living in Riga, Latvia, with her grandmother. That's where her path crossed ours at Morning Star Church of Latvia. Through some of her Christian school friends who had joined our church, she gave her heart to Jesus and began her often arduous journey with Him. And with us.

When Lena first came to our church, she was far more cynical, distrustful, hardened and street smart than a young teenager should ever be. She was a classic "survivor." But under the tough shell was a tender, if wounded, heart that longed to trust God and to love Him, and be loved by Him. And by us. She had many false starts. Sometimes she would disappear for months and return to her old life. But the love of God kept drawing her back. The very stubbornness and tenacity she had learned in order to survive, God used to keep her doggedly coming after Him.

One message we constantly taught that resonated with Lena was that God had a purpose for her life that was bigger than herself, a role for which she was specifically designed, to help build the Kingdom of God on earth. We taught that salvation was only a starting point and that God had called each of us to partner with Him to destroy the works of the devil and rebuild righteous things on this earth. She learned the truth of Colossians 1:16-20 that all things were created by Him and for Him, that He is to have supremacy in all things, and that the Bible speaks authoritatively to every field of human endeavor, not just the spiritual realm.

So when I started a biblical world view course in Riga, she was the first to sign up. At our class Lena would ask so many penetrating questions that I would be exhausted, often with a headache, by the time we quit (which was always later than planned). But it was great, and she really caught a sense of destiny and a vision for becoming a positive witness and influence in her world. At the same time, as the Lord healed her heart more and more, He deposited in her a growing compassion for people whom society has rejected. It became more and more clear that her destiny was to fight for these people, and to call them out of darkness into the "glorious liberty of the children of God." (Romans 8:21)

Jump forward with me a few years to 2004. That was the year that most of our American team in Latvia came back to the U.S., as it was clear that our work there was done. Lena came as well, and settled in Nashville to serve with Pastor Bob and Sharon Perry in new ministries they were forming there.

Not long after, she began to learn about the heinous and growing problem of human trafficking, the capture, sale and exploitation of children and women for the worldwide sex trade. She learned quickly that this problem didn't just afflict faraway lands like Thailand, but was burgeoning right here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. She began to study everything she could get her hands on about this topic. God began to connect her with others around the U.S. who are working to rescue the victims and end the practice of human trafficking. It has become the consuming passion of her life. Today she continues to network with others working on this problem, speaking out to church and other groups, creating multi-media presentations and even collaborating on an opera that addresses the problem being composed by David Perry. (Stay tuned for more on David's work.)

Gentle reader, forgive me for gushing a bit when I say that I am so proud of Lena. Here is a young woman from a very tough background with nothing but disadvantages, who practically raised herself in the stifling Soviet system, where speaking out and fighting social injustice was punished rather than praised. Many from her nation who have come to these shores come with one goal in mind: to get rich and forget the lack they knew back home. But Lena has come to give. She sees American liberty and wealth as a resource for fighting her chosen fight more than as a means of self-aggrandizement. Of course, she would love to prosper here, but rather than seeking to lose herself in the comfort of American prosperity, she looks outward to the world and seeks to better it from her perch in Nashville. These things she does because she believes that God has called us to build His kingdom here on earth and take His light to the dark corners, wherever they are.

My personal motto for my life in Latvia was, and continues to be here, "rebuilding a nation, one life at a time." Lena Dering is one life that proves the efficacy of that motto and why we need to go to the nations, starting with our own. I am humbled to have had the joy and privilege to be at least a small influence in her life.

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