A Reading, A Response, A Renewing

Pink Lady Photo by S. Woodbridge, 2017

‘Cry loudly’, He says to me, ‘and do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet and tell my children of their sin.’ (Isaiah 58:1)

‘Lord’, I answer, ‘they’re not going to like that and, they’re not going to like me.’

‘Your point?’ He responds. Exactly. I knew He’d say that.

‘They seek Me day after day and get excited about knowing My will as children who have done good and remembered My ways. They ask Me for guidance and they enjoy My presence.’ He was silent, then continued…

‘But’, He began and I knew this truth was going to sting, ‘then they say, ‘God, look, we’ve fasted for you and you didn’t even notice. We gave up the chocolate cookies, the cokes, the chips, the BBQ chicken for a whole day and it seems like You didn’t even notice.’

Again the pause. I wonder if He does that for effect because plainly, it’s very effective.

‘On the day you fast’, He said, ‘you get what you want – and yet, you treat others as if you’re better than they are. You fast to bring peace and yet you hold anger in your heart. You don’t fast so that I’ll hear you. Do you think this is what I want, for you to humble yourself for one day? Do you think a fast is only about bowing your head and going through rituals? Do you think this fast, as you call it, is what I desire?’

Silence captured every tongue and stillness pervaded. I was on my knees, head bowed not out of habit or in participation of a ritual, but in sorrow, in repentance.

His words were gentle as He knelt in front of me, lifted my chin and spoke.

‘Beloved, the fast I desire – a fast that will cleanse – is one where chains of injustice are broken. Prejudice. Bias. Discrimination. Bigotry. Favoritism. These things I detest.’

I knelt there, speechless at the words he spoke. And tenderness. Tears filled my eyes and rolled down the length of my cheeks and onto the floor. How could He even look at me? It was then I realized that these words were not spoken and preserved for someone other than me. But the words He tenderly spoke, without condemnation or anger, were words of truth and I could not ignore or deny them.

Prejudice. A word I try to ignore, deny, and justify that I have every right to feel to my core. But, doesn’t it go against what God is asking me to give up? His fast requires giving up unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes. And, He showed, this can be favoritism. Discrimination and prejudice don’t necessarily come in the form of unfavorable opinions or feelings, but can be demonstrated by giving my favor to one and not necessarily the other.

I praised God that there is no separation of differences toward His children. We are created equal even if we appear different to each other.

I was ready to move on. To get on with something else.

He wasn’t.

‘Now let me show you what I mean about exploitation in the workplace,’ He spoke. I was ready. Or so I thought.

We turned on my computer. I opened up an email from a mission organization. It dealt with bringing Christians globally into an awareness of a concerted pandemic: sex tourism, otherwise known as global sex trade slavery. And, it is children who are caught in this fast growing disease. In Cambodia alone, where the world’s poorest people live, children are sold for $50-$800 to satisfy the sinful lusts of others. My heart sank. This was only a fraction of what was going on all around the world.

It is phenomenal. It is overwhelming.

‘Oh God!’ I cry out. I never ask why but I can’t help wondering… WHY? These children are trying to survive. These children are INNOCENT.

And in the tears I remember the why… Because we are all sinners. Every single, last one of us. Oh God, I pray. Come soon… I just don’t know what else to say and so, I just pray…

And then, as I go to shut off my computer, I realize there is evidence to fast, once again. People in China carry on with life as normal as they pass by a newborn baby girl, dumped in the gutter of a busy street early one workday – because she is a girl. And it goes on, each and every day, as our computer screens are filled with the same exploitation of life occurring here in our homes as women cry out through false promises made and plaster on painted smiles hoping no one will notice that their happily ever afters have turned into nightmares. Come we do, as a nation addicted and running toward the lies of pornography. There is no favoritism in this disease – it afflicts young and old, male and female alike and because we don’t talk about, we don’t get well.

If we fast for the cause of God’s desires, we cannot stand, with head bowed, spreading sackcloth and ashes… No, we fall to our knees, we fall on our face and literally cry out for the lost souls in need of redemption from slavery of every sort. From exploitation of every kind.

I pray Natalie Grant’s song for the children:
‘Lord, may they know your love and to know that you have promised to hold them. May they know what it means to be held when the sacred is torn from their life and they survive. May they know they survive because it is You that is holding them. Hold them tight Lord. Love them, keep Your promise to them and hold them tight.’

‘Free the oppressed.’

I am still on my knees. I am drained and empty. My head raises and still He is there.

I am nothing.

Before this glorious One, I am absolutely nothing. And still He stays.

I have nothing. And yet again, he commands.

‘Free the oppressed,’ He repeats.

‘Oh Father,’ I cry, tears streaming down my face, eyes clouded so thick from a river of tears I cannot even see.

‘I am no one. I am nothing.’

‘Free the oppressed.’

‘How?’ I cry.

How can I, being me, free the oppressed and what does that mean to a righteous, merciful God?

The oppressed: those who are discouraged, beaten down, overwhelmed. How can I do that? I am nothing.

‘Not you,’ he says, ‘but Me through you.’

Have you ever felt so inadequate, wondering how you will accomplish the task before you, only to have someone say, ‘Here. Take this tool. It is all you need.’?

That was what that moment was all about. He is the tool, His spirit in us. I cannot free the oppressed but His spirit can work miracles through me if I am usable.

‘God’, I offer with gratitude, ‘Use me.’

Free the oppressed. Those weighted down with grief, those burdened in body and in spirit.

But how?

With love, gentleness, mercy. How did Jesus do this? He touched the untouchable, took time for them, loved them.

The bleeding woman. Oppressed with a lifelong illness, she touched His robe and he stopped, turned around and gave her love and she was healed.

The man with leprosy. Jesus stopped, touched the untouchable and loved him. The man was healed.

The woman was at the well and He stopped, extended forgiveness towards the scandalous, healed and loved.

Free the oppressed. It takes stopping your feet, noticing and not to continue walking by. It takes compassion and having a heart to see them freed. Because we have been freed. It takes forgiveness. Perhaps that is why He also desires for us to cancel the debts of others. He knows that forgiveness – the ultimate cancellation of a debt – frees the soul, renews the spirit. Both to offer and to receive.

‘Lord, I want to free those who are oppressed and I realize that there may be some who I have oppressed by not canceling debts, holding grudges, harboring bitterness. Oh Lord, forgive me, not as I forgive but teach me to forgive, as you forgive.’

My heart is raw. My eyes are swollen. And still there is more…

‘Beloved, my fast is to share with the poor – bring them home and feed them.’

Oh, there are a thousand reasons not to do that. There is only one reason to do it. He desires my all. That is all. And so, as I pray for an open heart, an opportunity for obedience, I confess fear. And in my fear, the God who promised, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you and with me all things are possible,’ reassures me of His truths.

‘Give to the poor – food, clothing, shelter.’

And then, ‘Be available to your family. Be accessible, ready to serve, committed to them and not everything else.’

He had started out striking at the core of my heart and here he was, back at the same place. Be available to my family. How I wish I had been convicted by that truth years ago. How important that truth, that command. Not a suggestion but a command.

Be there – accessible in such a way they can get to me in need, in want. Ready to serve them. God said that, not me. Committed to them, their causes, their desires and not everything else that screams for my attention.

Be available. I once heard said that the quality of time spent with your child comes from the quantity of time we invest in them. In retrospect, I gave much quantity, but I could have given so much more.

We get caught up listening to the world: ‘You need time for you’ or, ‘You deserve that’. We deserve nothing. I have never, ever read in God’s word that we deserve anything, except maybe for death because we are sinners from the start. We deserve nothing but have been given everything. And so, when God says, ‘Be available,’ I stop and think what availability looks like.

I consider that when I’m interrupted from doing something that I deem of utmost importance, I should not think of it as an interruption but an opportunity. An opportunity to be like Him… loving, devoted, listening, concerned.

I consider that when I’m complaining, I am not representing a godly character but one that shouts ‘ME, ME, ME’.

I consider that when I’m angry, many times it is a result of hurt and forgiveness that needs to be dealt with and bridges that need to be repaired.

I consider that when I feel lonely and distant from members of my family, perhaps it is I who have built the walls, or have at least helped make them higher. Either way, it needs to be me that at least helps tear them down.

Available. Yes Lord, I want to be available.

‘Now listen,’ he begins, sitting now before me and taking my hands in His with an air of excitement. ‘Your light will break out of you like the beginning of a new day as the sun comes over the mountain tops!’

Have you ever thought about that? If our light is going to break out of us, it’s already there, just waiting to burst forth! I got so excited, I squeezed His hands and smiled.

‘And, your recovery will speedily bring forth.’

My recovery? Healing. From what? Sin.

Recovery, healing from sin will come. The sin of neglect, ignorance, deliberateness. Inflicted upon me, upon others by me.

And my righteousness will go before me. A righteousness not of my own, but His in me. The glory of the Lord will be my rear guard. I am protected by the very presence of God.

Then I will call and He will answer me. You see, God cannot reside where there is sin and there is sin in fasting for selfishness and wrong motives. There is sin in prejudice and injustice and overlooking the sin issues of this world. There is sin in keeping to myself what will free the souls of others. There is sin in choosing to harbor bitterness and refusing to offer forgiveness.

But, when I willfully choose to do as He has asked of me – to fast on His terms (as a friend put it), to purge myself from injustice of every sort, at the least to pray for those who have been exploited, to free the oppressed with the Good News of Jesus Christ, offering forgiveness where debts once piled high – then I will call, I will cry out and He will say, ‘Here I am’, just as He is now before me.

‘Your light will rise in the darkness and your gloom will become like the sun as it shines brightly, in all it’s glory. I will continually guide you and satisfy your thirst in your dry places and give you strength in your weariness. You will be like a watered garden, green, always growing and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail, always flowing, ready to give, always fresh and replenished continually. Your children will rebuild what has been ruined and broken and you will be remembered as the one who repaired what had been broken, the restorer.’

I was silent. Holding tight onto His hands, I thought, ‘Me?’

No, not me. Him in me.

‘I’ll be for you, Lord. You lead.’

And with that, He smiled.

Weeding the Garden

"Bronze Susan"   Photo by Sherri Woodbridge
“Bronze Susan”
Photo by Sherri Woodbridge

Many of you know that my passion is gardening. There is a saying, “You are nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” I suppose that if you were a carpenter, you might say that you are nearer to God’s heart in the sawmills. However, since that is not the case with me, my heart tends to be nearer to God’s heart when I am outside.

I have often wondered if what draws me is the display of endless and bountiful colors that He adorns the earth with or if it is the fresh air and the release of tension that comes when tending the soil. Whatever it is, it does my heart good.

Recently, I spent a long day out in my yard digging weeds from my lawn. For most people, I have heard that this is tedious work. For others, they prefer to sprinkle it with commercial weed killer and hope that it gets the most of it. For me, I am not content unless I get my gloves on and have my weeding tool in hand and dig the pesky things out, knowing that I have gotten as much as the root as possible. For some they call this obsessive compulsive. For others, being a perfectionist. For me, I’m just doing it the way I was taught. Regardless, it’s great therapy.

During my therapy session with God the other day, He began to show me more deeply, the impact that sin can have on our lives.

I was taught in a biology class that I once took, that a weed is something that grows where you don’t want it. So, on that day of therapy, I took to removing the weeds in my lawn—things that were growing where they didn’t belong, in places where I didn’t want them. I think sin is like weeds. It grows where it doesn’t belong, in children who belong to God and have been bought with the blood of Christ. If we know that it has no place in our lives, then whey do we allow it?

I spent a lot of time that day pulling out clover. I let it go too far. When it first began to grow, I remember thinking, I like the little flowers. I knew it wasn’t grass, I knew it didn’t belong, but for the time, I enjoyed it. Now, I was paying the price. What once seemed so appealing was now literally choking the life out of what I wanted to grow and so much so, that what was supposed to be growing in those places where clover had taken over, had now completely disappeared.

After much pulling and cutting into my fingers, the roots came out slowly, often leaving gaping holes in the lawn. Places that will now need careful tending to heal and grow back to the place where the obsessive compulsive gardener likes them. And, isn’t sin like that?

It can be so appealing and doesn’t appear that harmful and so we allow it to tease us to the point that we let just a little bit in our lives and before we know it, God is having to tend to us with the weeding tool of his gentle hand and work on the roots we have allowed to embed themselves deep into our heart.

Like… swearing. Like eating. Like the books we read or the music we listen to or the shows we watch. It all seems harmless but before we know it, we’re saying a few of the same words, eating a little too much, reading what would break the heart of God, humming tunes that don’t lift anyone or anything up and we’re watching things that Jesus has to leave the room for. And for those of us who are parents, what message are we sending to our kids or grandkids? Even dandelions are pretty for a moment, but we all know how, when left unattended, that pretty little flower goes to seed and then you have a big problem!

As I was pulling out all these weeds, I also realized how much pain there was involved. My hands grew stiff, my back hurt, and it was hot. It made me realize that God takes no joy in seeing His children suffer. And, sin causes suffering.

As my hands became cut and scratched from the weeding, it made me think of Christ, who shed His blood to remove our sin so that we could be restored back to the place our heavenly Father desires us to be.

We all have clover growing around us and we all allow a dandelion or two now and then into our lives. The trick is to get them out before they take hold, the root goes deep and the sin spreads. Is there something in your life, no matter how insignificant it may have seemed, that is keeping you from blooming the way God intended for your life? Is there something choking the life of Christ out of you?

Not too long ago I asked God to show me if there was anything that was not pleasing to Him. Years ago, I decided that if I wanted anything specific for my life, it was to know I lived a life that pleased God alone. When asking Him, there was not anything obvious that came to mind, but in the days to come, God clearly showed me two areas that did not please Him. To others, they may have seemed insignificant. After all, I wasn’t robbing banks or committing adultery, but to me, they were areas needing tending because they grieved His spirit. And to Him, they were, plain and simple – sin. I allowed Him to dig deep into my heart and take out what didn’t belong there. Even the smallest areas can be painful to remove. It is painful to know that you have broken the heart of God.

If you are struggling today, I am praying that you will allow the love of God to restore you to the place He desires you to be. If you think you have everything together, I encourage you to seek His heart. There may be some little area He can see that you are unable to see and it’s keeping you from complete fellowship with Him. It may be time to do some weeding.