Friday, August 7, 2015

Sifted {Five Years of Crumbs}

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32 ESV)

“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” (Job 23:10 ESV)

Nancy Leigh DeMoss likes to say, “Anything that makes us desperate for God is a blessing.” If that’s so, and I believe it is, the Lord has blessed the stuffing out of my family these last 5 years.

You know much of my part of the story, the surgeries, the chronic pain that prompted the beginning of this blog, the seemingly endless round of doctors’ appointments and physical therapy. You know we lost my grandmother Nonni 9 months ago. Amore has said good-bye to his grandmother, an aunt, and 2 uncles over the last 5 years as well. You may not know, because they are not my stories to detail, that every member of my family and many in Amore’s have been through their own individual desperate “anythings.” A  serious car accident, many job changes, moves, surgeries, broken bones, medical emergencies, church traumas, a stroke, hard diagnoses, and financial hardship provide a taste, and there’s no clear sign of a lull in the cycle soon. All these challenges truly are a blessing, drawing us closer to each other in mutual need and to the Lord in the stripping away of self-dependence and the false identities we lean on for significance.

The last 5 years have held happy providences, too: hellos to new friends and a good church home near my house, the injuries and surgeries that went better than predicted, the joys of serving with my dad at VBS the last 2 years. Loved ones have been protected. Needs have been met. Tests have been passed.

At the same time, Christian faith does not require that we pretend the hard providences are easy. Things that make us desperate for God are a blessing, but an uncomfortable, often painful, one, a diamond wrapped in sandpaper.

When soul and body grow weary with fighting for health and strength, when it all just seems too much for one clan to bear, when I wonder if my heart is broken beyond mending for the sorrows of those I deeply love or anxiety over the outcome of their trials—

I remember the sifting.

In one of the Bible studies of the 3 ½ years I’ve been with my church group, Beth Moore spends 2 days of homework examining the trial of Job and the sifting of Peter.

Since Job 23:10 mentions being tried “as gold,” my mental imagery includes a bubbling pot over a fire, with black dross atop the brightening yellow gold like the skin on warmed but cooling milk or drops of oil at the surface of au jus gravy. (Mind you, I’ve never actually seen gold being refined, so take the image for no more than it’s worth. Heat-refined gold is the important part.)  1 Peter 1:6-7 employs the same word picture:
…you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The sifting of Peter is a bit more complicated. In the agriculture of the ancient Near East, it would have involved the separation of valuable wheat from worthless chaff or impurities like stones. In the preceding winnowing process, harvesters would toss recently harvested wheat into the wind so that the heavy, valuable grain quickly fell back down and the light, inedible chaff and straw would blow away. Some chaff and small impurities would still remain, so the wheat needed the additional step of sifting. explains:

The wheat or barley will still be more or less mixed with certain amounts of chaff, little stones, and perhaps some tares. Sifting is therefore necessary before the grain can be ground into meal. This is the task of the women. The sifter seats herself on the floor, and shakes the sieve which contains the grain, until the chaff begins to appear on the top, and this is blown away by lung power. The stones are removed as are also the tares.

Second, notice that the sifting was Satan’s agenda, and he couldn’t do it without the Lord’s permission. Yet the Lord gave that permission, just as God had granted Satan permission for the onslaught of trials that afflicted Job.

Why would Jesus do such a thing? Why would He let Satan have his way with Peter to any extent? Jesus said He had prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail, but He could have prevented the faith-straining trial from even happening.

Beth Moore offers this explanation:
Only one reason exists why God would give Satan permission to sift a dearly loved, devoted disciple: because something needs sifting.

Don’t even read further until you have completely absorbed that statement. God’s answer to Satan’s petition to sift Peter as wheat would have been denied had Peter not contained something that needed sifting….  Everything standing between Simon the fisherman and Peter the rock needed to go. 
Satan had a sieve. Christ had a purpose. The two collided. Satan got used. Peter got sifted. For reasons only our wise, trustworthy God knows, the most effective and long-lasting way He could get the Simon out of Peter was a sifting by Satan (When Godly People Do Ungodly Things, 51-52).

As the class discussion unfolded that Wednesday, something played around the edges of my mind. Do you ever have one of those elusive thoughts that flees as soon as you concentrate your attention on it but then returns to tease you as soon as you move on to something else? There was some connection here I wasn’t quite seeing, but it felt important.

Then I caught a glimpse, and it took my breath away: Yukon Gold Rush. No, really, that was the connection. On the rare occasions Amore and I stay in a hotel, we enjoy watching the Discovery Channel, which we don’t have at home. Actually, what we really enjoy is Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel, but that wasn’t on. We had gone “away” to the other side of the Metroplex for a few days to celebrate our anniversary and Nonni’s 90th birthday, but my belly wasn’t cooperating with our lovely dressed-up-dinner-out plan. Instead, we went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibit nearby and then watched Yukon Gold Rush while Amore ate Chick Fil-A and I sipped a smoothie.

But I digress.  One of the episodes of the Gold Rush marathon that week told the story of a mining operation on the last day before the ground would freeze too hard for the equipment. In truth, the ground was already hard enough to break some of the expensive heavy machinery, but the team was far from their expected and needed yield to sustain their families and business until the ground thawed again. The crew chief could not accept that the claim would, literally, not pan out when all the geologic signs looked so promising, so he pushed his men and equipment to the breaking point, but still the gold didn’t come.

Without functioning bulldozers and quickly running out of time, in desperation he decided they’d run the dirt already processed back through the sluice and then hand-process it in small sieves like the colander we use to wash produce at home. It was a laborious, slow process, and in the end they did fall short of the pay-day they had anticipated, but the sifting yielded more than they’d had before and gave them enough to keep going another year.

“What does this have to do with Peter and Job?” you may be asking.

Gold is refined, and wheat is sifted, but gold is sifted, too. Whether the stuff in the sifter is wheat or gold, the sifting happens because there’s something that needs sifting (out), as Beth Moore noted. But it also happens because there’s something worth saving, something worth showing to the world. No one bothers to sift what is uniformly worthless, but to separate the worthless from the precious.

Is it any coincidence, then, that the same Peter of the sifting would later write to beleaguered saints in exile that the end result of their temporary, necessary, varied trials was “that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”?

Spurgeon sums things up:
Satan, like a drudge, may hold the sieve, hoping to destroy the corn; but the overruling hand of the Master is accomplishing the purity of the grain by the very process which the enemy intended to be destructive. Precious, but much sifted corn of the Lord's floor, be comforted by the blessed fact that the Lord directeth both flail and sieve to His own glory, and to thine eternal profit (Morning and Evening, Morning of June 20). 
Dear Crumble reading this, if you are in the sifter and everything that can be shaking is, take heart. If the Refiner’s fire feels unbearable right now, be of good courage. As you entrust yourself to God, you will emerge on the other side of these trials (and there is another side) with some thing or things that didn’t look like Jesus sifted right out of you. Even better, everything that does look like Jesus will shine all the more brightly for its removal. There is a purpose for your pain. As Joni has said, “God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” He wouldn’t bother sifting you except that He loves you.

Jesus prayed for Peter, and He prays for His people still (Romans 8:34). When everything around you gives way, hold fast to Him who holds fast to you. After the testing, may your faith be found genuine, to the glory of Christ, through the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, and may you turn again to strengthen your brothers and sisters who find themselves in the midst of their own sifting.

May all the mercy, grace, and peace you need to persevere be yours in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you for all the ways you've blessed me these last five years, reading friends. May the Lord multiply the blessings back to you.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

On Prayer and the Father's Love

In one of her essay collections, Elisabeth Elliot recounts an anecdote from her childhood. At a seaside vacation, her little brother didn't trust that their father would keep him safe from drowning as they jumped together in the waves. Even though Elisabeth joined her father in the water, let him hold her as they jumped together, and seemed to be having a splendid time, her brother stayed on the shore until the last day, when he relented and discovered all the fun he'd missed by trusting his fears instead of his father. Reflecting on this, Elisabeth writes:

"Learning to pray is learning to trust the wisdom, the power, and the love of our Heavenly Father, always so far beyond our dreams. He knows our need and knows ways to meet it that have never entered our heads. Things we feel sure we need for happiness may often lead to our ruin. Things we think will ruin us..., if we believe what the Father tells us and surrender ourselves into His strong arms, bring us deliverance and joy.... 
"My father knew far better than his small, fearful, stubborn son what would give him joy. So does our Heavenly Father. Whenever I have resisted Him, I have cheated myself.... Whenever I have yielded, I have found joy." 
~Elisabeth Elliot, "Learning the Father's Love," in Keep a Quiet Heart

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Praying Heart

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
(Romans 12:12 ESV)

The Ebony Dog at his new favorite lookout spot. A view of the neighborhood and a cozy bed at the same time? What's not to like?

This month I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to A Praying Life by Paul Miller. Here are a few of quotes I loved enough to transcribe, hence the absence of page numbers. Any errors of punctuation are therefore mine. If you're looking for summer reading or just desire to grow in your prayer life, I highly recommend this book. It's one of my favorite reads/listens of the first half of 2015 and one worthy of revisiting in future, even the near future.

"A needy heart is a praying heart. Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer."

"...the search for a 'happy pill' or happy thoughts will not stop our restless anxiety. It runs too deep. Instead of fighting anxiety, we can use it as a springboard to bending our hearts to God. Instead of trying to suppress anxiety, manage it, or smother it with pleasure, we can turn our anxiety toward God. When we do that, we'll discover that we've slipped into continuous praying."

"When I pray over a problem, that problem begins to sparkle with the energy of God."

"When confronted with suffering that won't go away, or even with a minor problem, we instinctively focus on what is missing, such as the lost coats and the betrayal in the Joseph story [Genesis 37, 39-50], not on the Master's hand. Often when you think that everything has gone wrong, it's just that you're in the middle of a story. If you watch the stories God is weaving in your life, you, like Joseph, will begin to see the patterns. You'll become a poet, sensitive to your Father's voice."

Monday, June 29, 2015

"In Heavenly Love Abiding"

no change my heart shall fear;
and safe is such confiding,
for nothing changes here:
the storm may roar about me;
my heart may low be laid;
but God is round about me,
and can I be dismayed?

Wherever He may guide me,
no want shall turn me back;
my Shepherd is beside me,
and nothing can I lack;
His wisdom is forever,
His sight is never dim;
His will forms each endeavor,
and I will walk with Him.

Green pastures are before me,
which yet I have not seen;
bright skies will soon be o'er me,
where the dark clouds have been:
My life I cannot measure,
the path of life is free;
my Savior has my treasure,
and He will walk with me.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) Quotes

The recently departed Elisabeth Elliot Gren wrote or edited approximately 2 dozen books and gave many, many talks during her ministry. Here are just a few of her sayings that come readily to my mind and have helped me on my journey:
  • "You are loved with an everlasting love." That's what the Bible says, "And underneath are the everlasting arms." (She opened her daily radio message this way.)
  • Holiness is a whole-hearted "yes" to God.
  • What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Creator calls a butterfly (A Path Through Suffering).
  • "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose" (from her first husband, the martyred missionary Jim Elliot).
  • "When the will of God crosses the will of man, somebody has to die" (from her second husband, Addison Leitch, quoted in Passion and Purity).
  • "See in it [in any hard thing, any suffering the Lord allows] material for sacrifice" (Amy Carmichael).
  • You don't have to feel like it; you just have to do it.
  • It is always possible to do the will of God.
  • Do the next thing.
  • Teach me to treat all that comes to me today with peace of soul and the firm conviction that Your sovereignty rules over all (A Path Through Suffering).
The quotations without references provided have become so ingrained in my thinking that I don't know their source. If you do, please let me know in the comments and I'll correct the entry. Some of them I heard her say enough times that a reference would be hard to pin down at all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Remembering Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)

"The deepest things that I have learned in my life have come from the deepest suffering,
and out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires
have come the deepest things that I know about God."
Elisabeth Elliot

To begin with, I should acknowledge that Elisabeth Elliot would likely be disgusted with the effusive obituaries and remembrances being written in response to her Homegoing this week. She might perhaps call them humbug. Then again, I'm writing this as part of my own heart-work in processing her death, and it would thrill me to no end if these memories introduce her to a new reader or send an existing reader back to her writings for wise, straightforward counsel on their Christian journey.

For the uninitiated, Elisabeth Elliot Leitch Gren was a pioneer missionary who worked with tribal peoples in Ecuador in order to translate the Scriptures into their native tongues. Early in her service, she married Jim Elliot, whom she had known since their days together at Wheaton College, and they continued their translation work together. They had a daughter, Valerie, who spent her earliest years in the jungle. She was not yet a year old when her father and his teammates prayerfully seized an opportunity to make contact with a people group as yet unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ. After some initial friendly interaction, those people brutally murdered Jim and his colleagues.

So what does a young, newlywed, newly widowed mother do? If that mother is Elisabeth Elliot, she goes back. She continued her translation work, and when an opportunity presented itself, she returned to take the gospel and the Scriptures to the same people who had murdered her husband. She took her toddler daughter with her to these people. The Word of God took root in this tribe and has flourished, utterly transforming them. (The film The End of the Spear documents this story.)

When the Lord led her eventually to move back to the United States, she continued serving Him through the writing ministry that had grown out of her widowhood and subsequent choices. As often happens, writing led to speaking at conferences and retreats. This is how I made her acquaintance.

My mother introduced me to Elisabeth via a cassette recording of an Urbana conference message she had given. The original audience would have comprised mostly college students considering the possibility of a vocation to missions, and the message aired on Focus on the Family (sometime in the 1980s). She lifted high the cross, not just for salvation but as a pattern for the Christian life. She introduced me to her husband Jim Elliot and the 4 men martyred with him. I copied out from the tape his famous quote, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." To this she added, "There's nothing worth living for unless it's worth dying for." I also transcribed and learned by heart the Amy Carmichael poem "Hast Thou No Scar?" which she read during the message. These were the most challenging words I'd ever heard outside the Bible. Elisabeth's life itself was a challenge to courageous obedience and forgiveness.

During my high school and college years, a family-owned Christian bookstore called The Mustard Seed was a bicycle ride away from our home. I spent many allowances there on books and sheet music, but among the first purchases were Elisabeth's book Passion and Purity (a memoir of her courtship with Jim and a charge for chastity among Christian young people) and Amy Carmichael's poetry collection, Toward Jerusalem, which included the poem read in the Urbana message. I read both of them to tatters, complimenting the authors with a plethora of dog-eared pages.

From there my book collection (by both Elliot and Carmichael) grew until my library contained most of the books I could find in print by both ladies. Before I ever needed it, they trained my thinking to expect suffering and to "see in it material for sacrifice." They, especially Elisabeth's book A Path Through Suffering, sustained me more than any other devotional writers outside the Bible during the first intense sorrows of my Christian life. They enlarged my vocational horizons to consider world missions. Without my realizing it, they taught me that powerful Christian teaching in print could also be smart, literate, and profound. Through Elisabeth's books, messages, and newsletters, she became a spiritual grandmother to me, a true Titus 2 woman.

In my twenties, my mother and I attended a conference Elisabeth gave at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas. If memory serves, this was my first time to hear her in person. In lieu of the standard complimentary introduction by the conference organizer, summarizing the person's accomplishments and impact, Elisabeth walked out onto the platform, set down her Bible and notes, and sat down at the piano. She pounded out one of the old hymns, I think "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" or "Trust and Obey," and clearly expected all of us to sing along with her. By memory. Only then, after we'd worshiped the Lord in song, did she proceed to the podium and begin to speak. Without her explicitly saying so, this communicated to us, her audience, that this day was not about her, not about her missionary exploits or her best-selling books, but about the Most High God. She was only a servant, a messenger.

After she spoke, she sat in the front pew while people queued up for her to sign their books. I was one of them, carrying her biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die. I thanked her for her own books but also for introducing me to "Amma," as Amy was known in India. She looked me in the eye and said, "Good! Well then, you don't need to buy any more of my books. Just read hers!" (This advice I rejected. Why choose when I could have both?)

Over the next decade or so, God allowed me to attend at least 2 more of her conferences, both at Denton Bible Church, usually with some combination of my mother and sisters. Her themes remained consistent, every time I heard her:
the cross as a pattern for the Christian life;
the goodness and wisdom of God in every hard thing we face;
the difficult simplicity of trust and obedience;
the absolute essentials of forgiveness and gratitude;
the possibility to grieve profound losses with grace, humility, and faith;
the Bible's pattern for home and family, including the wife's submission and the beauty and nobility of motherhood and homemaking;
and the call to holiness, to godly living.
Her third husband (now her widower), Lars Gren, faithfully and cheerfully manned the book table in the back of an auditorium full of women at each event. (Perhaps I should add "bravely.")

My final encounter with her occurred in my newlywed, missionary-in-training days. A personal friend and mentee of Elisabeth happened to serve in the missions office at our church, which had just begun to operate as its own missionary training-and-sending agency. This dear woman knew that Elisabeth was in the area for an event, I think related to the homeschool community, and she arranged for our church's prospective missionaries to spend an hour with her at her lodging for a question-and-answer session. Amore and I were living in Denton as we prepared to move to India (so we thought) and built our support team at the time, so we were included in the group.

She was just the same in that private, "off-stage" setting as she was in her public conferences: modest, no-nonsense, firm but kind. Sadly, the only specific content of the discussion that I recall was that I asked her if she ever felt any conflict between her view of a woman's submission to male leadership in the church and home and her teaching and writing of Christian discipleship materials. Perhaps this seems inconsequential to you, but a man we knew had recently said he would never read a book by a woman because that would be sitting under her teaching. Since I was writing the bulk of our newsletters, this was an immediate and personal need.

She said something to the effect of, "Well, I never even considered that to be a conflict. The men out there have a choice whether to read my books or listen to my talks. It's not as though I had any authority over them. If I speak from a pulpit, it's only at the invitation and under the authority of the minister there. Writing is the job God has given me to do, and my job is simply to obey Him." Coming from such a strong complementarian as Elisabeth, that encouraged me to keep writing what God gave me and trusting Him to work out who read and who didn't.

I miss Elisabeth, but then I've missed her voice ever since she stopped public ministry in 2004 due to declining health and the onset of dementia. How thankful I am that she did the writing work God gave her to do! Because of that, her counsel is just a page turn away. Recordings of her messages are on YouTube and in my CD collection. Her newsletters fill a thick file in my study. Her voice still sounds in my mind's ear, though her radio show ceased a decade ago. Her wise counsel lives on in her books and remembered sayings, which the Holy Spirit brings to mind at just the right time (usually when I'm about to grouse about some providence I don't like).

Now that I've added my voice to the humbug about a woman who simply sought to trust and obey God, allow me to conclude with a simple thanks, an acknowledgement that ultimately, it's not about her. It's about Christ, her Savior and mine. She has joined the "great cloud of witnesses" of Hebrews 12:1-2, those men and women of faith whose lives encourage us also to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Thank You, Lord, for Your servant Elisabeth. Thank You for giving her grace to finish her earthly race well, always lifting high the cross of Jesus Christ and the call to trust and obey You. Thank You for the hope of the resurrection that assures Your people that there are no final good-byes, only au revoir, because we will see each other again in Your presence, with whole bodies and minds. Comfort her family and friends with Your truth. Thank you for Titus 2 women and their wise, fortifying counsel. Raise up many more for this generation which needs them so desperately. Make one even of me. If it pleases You, bring forth much more abundant, eternal fruit from the life and witness of Your servant Elizabeth, until the Lord Jesus Christ returns. In His name I ask this. Amen.

For further reading on her life:

her personal ministry page, including opportunity to purchase her books and recorded messages or read her archived newsletters