Run to the Light: Philippians 4:8-11

I want to be THIS rooted in relationship to God.   Sometimes when I pray for help, or strength, or direction, I am looking for the answer, rather than the WAY to get to whatever answer God has in store for me. I want results from God, but what God wants from me is an open, trusting and submissive heart, regardless of how things turn out. In Philippians, the Apostle Paul directs me to “think on these things…..” and then lists the things upon which God is literally asking me to meditate. Inherent in what I am NOT to ruminate about are the ways in which my life might be hopelessly broken. God is giving me pretty clear instructions. He is saying, let Me focus on the broken parts, while you focus on “these things,” and then (because he knows I sometimes don’t follow directions) he lists them in Philippians. The following is a marriage of the NIV and Message translations of the Bible, each of which have some of my favorite ways of expressing Philippians 4:8-11:

“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, lovely and admirable – – if anything is authentic, gracious or praiseworthy, think on these things. Meditate on the best not the worst, the beautiful not the ugly, things to praise not to curse. And then whatever you have learned or received or heard from me , whatever you have seen in me, – – put those things into practice. And the God of Peace will be with you.”

In early Christianity, following Jesus was sometimes called “The Way.” Living a life of faith isn’t an idea or a belief, it’s action – – a response to Who God is and what He has done. It is a way of living. The choices I ultimately make, reflect my faith. Faith is not something I GET, it’s something that gets lived out through me. How do I go through trials? Who do I depend upon? Where do I find peace, strength, solace and security? And when I do go my own way, do I know – – TRULY know – – there is no condemnation in Christ and come high-tailing it back to Him, with genuine confession and repentance in tow? Real faith looks like submitting to God’s way, not mine. Which looks a lot like focusing on what is “right, true and pure” in the midst of a trial in which it is so much easier to focus on what is wrong or broken. God’s requests are simple, but not easy, and this one in particular is SO counterintuitive. Everything in me wants to fix my life. But God says “Find what is noble and true and right and beautiful in your life, right in the midst of its brokenness, and focus on those things and I will work out the rest.” O.k. God. (And honestly most times, I only say o.k., after I have tried everything else in my own strength and failed.) So, O.k. God… I give up. I am sorry I didn’t quit earlier. My life is Yours. The people in it? Yours. The troubles, the joys, the outcomes? Yours. The heartaches? Yours. The trust? Yours. Me? The kids? The future? Yours.

I have been examining the dark to get to the light, but it doesn’t work that way – – that is not what God has asked me to do. He asks me to focus on the light and only the light to get there. This passage in Philippians is the Way through.

I have had nightmares in my life in which I was in some sort of great danger and I had to run through a gauntlet, or through darkness, or past some sort of yet-unknown-danger (always scarier than the known-danger) to escape to safety. Those dreams have been palpable and real and sometimes even powerful enough to wake me up. In those dreams, fear coursed through my whole body, making my legs weak and slow, as I ran through the dark or danger to get to the light. And never, not once, in all those dreams, did I careen to a stop in the middle of that danger to say to myself, “Let me examine the darkness. Let me consider how bad it is. Let me think about everything that has gone wrong here or could go wrong here, or will go wrong here before I move out smartly toward the light.” Nope. In those dreams, I always just ran pell mell toward safety. THAT is what God is asking me to do in Philippians and in real life. He is saying, let ME handle what is in the dark, you focus on the light. I do it right in my dreams. I hightail it to the light, to safety.

Thank you God for being so very clear. Thank you God for that list – – for a list of things I need to keep focused on as I run toward safety, and toward you, and toward the light. My prayer is that you help redirect me every time I want to look elsewhere, slow down or stop to examine the dark. My prayer is that I abandon myself to you God, and rest, truly rest, in your love, protection, security and sovereignty.

A good friend told me to lean into God, lean into others, and don’t try and do this on my own. I know she is right but at the same time, show me the chart. Show me what it looks like to “Lean into God” and “put the burden down.” And then it struck me. The whole point is I DON’T know how to do any of that. Not only do I not have the power to make it better…I don’t even have the power to put my own burdens down. I just have to ask God to take them from me. I have to give up any efforts borne of my own strength and trust Him with literally everything. It helps to remind myself of God’s actual, supernatural power.

And when trials feel like they have the power to overwhelm? The moment I try to combat them in my own strength, they do. Yesterday I prayed for help in just turning it all over to Him. And today, the burden felt light. Today I had moments of real joy in the absence of the life I had hoped for – – moments God gave me, my kids gave me, my friends and family gave me. There is beauty and light everywhere. All the time. In the midst of everything, even the darkest trials, God has enough for me.  His grace is sufficient for me, and where I was looking at the darkness, it was as if He said to me, just turn around.  Turn around and face the beauty that IS there.  I was blind but now I see. Maybe tomorrow I will be blind again, but today I asked and I saw. Maybe it is that easy? “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…”

It truly is one small step at a time, this life of faith.  I am quite sure I have said this before, but I will say it again, because I need to remind myself of this all the time…One of my favorite images is the idea of Jesus being a lamp to our feet.  A lamp at my feet doesn’t illuminate the destination, just the next step.  I can do that today…I can take the next step, trusting in the One who can always be trusted and has the Power to keep me rooted in love and grounded in a real and sustaining faith.

A Penny for My Thoughts? No Way.

My grandmother was this tiny little Hungarian woman who was an absolute ball of fire. Her hair was a slightly unnatural red, styled above her head with a lot Alberto VO5 hot oil treatment and up-do-poofing. Her heels were always at least four inches off the ground and her tight, knee-length skirts and fashionable jackets always belied the figure of a woman a generation younger than she actually was. Don’t get me wrong, she was always just-so, always elegant, but even as a kid, I knew she had an edge. On her fully stocked bar, she kept a Waterford highball filled with drink stirrers mostly from Europe but with a few from San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York. Her engraved sterling cigarette case with the push-button slide at the top allowed her to shake out one Pall Mall at a time, flip it vertically and tap, tap, tap it on the table before she set it between her lips, flicked her matching lighter and inhaled. Sometimes she smoked from an extended enamel holder a la Cruella DeVille, tilting her head back with every exhale, revealing a long and graceful neck. She loved to smoke and her response to my repeated attempts for her to stop, was an irritable and dismissive wave her hand, as if in my ignorance, I had just suggested something terribly, terribly gauche.

She loved to go to parties and never was inattentive to the interest she engendered – – regardless of how young the interested. She sparkled, swayed, delighted and mystified me as a child. And for everything she wasn’t – – she was a woman who had a knack for hitting the truth on the head, and imparting perfectly timed wisdom, whether she lived it herself or not.

One of the things I still hear in my head in her heavy accent and her smoky voice is “Deesipleen, Deesipleen, Deesipleen.” It was her mantra. For all her excesses, she lived a remarkably disciplined life. And it served her well. Smart as a whip, and eternally busy, she was ever ready, ever put together and ever attentive to the moment she was in because she had prepared for it in every conceivable way. Her four story row house was kept impeccably clean; the silver always gleamed, her floors were swept clean, her mail was sorted and stacked, plants watered before breakfast, coy pond tended before dinner. Her nails were just-so, hair always coifed, and she had a way of patting down the front of her skirt when she stood up that always made me feel as if someone very important was about to walk in the room. She ate everything, but only so much, and was quite a cook. She labored over broths and enjoyed Hungarian delicacies I never saw at home like Kocsonya, poppy seed beigli, and sausages of every variety. She had a butcher and a grocer and a hair dresser. She read voraciously, and widely, held deep and disparate interests and always made the effort to look at the clock on the foyer wall before announcing with no shortage of authority or anticipation, “Five o’clock, time for a Tonica.” When I was little, I thought she could not tell time. But details never escaped my grandmother and the order of the day was always fun.

Now that I am an adult, my objectives might be a little different, but there is so much to be learned from the “how” of her life. And that refrain of “Discipline, Discipline, Discipline” is one that rings true to me in a deeper way now than when I was younger. Growing up, discipline translated into keeping my room straight, my schedule tuned, my work all squared away. It was about being studied up and prepared for whatever opportunities might arise. That kind of discipline served me well.

But as I am traversing this stage of life, it is another kind of discipline entirely that is of interest to me. And it is the execution of this particular discipline upon which my fulcrum of happy or sad, peace or distress, contentment or discontentment often hinges.

2 Corinthians 10 says, “Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (Does anyone else see a lasso image here?) God’s ways are pretty simple – – not easy to execute but generally really easy to recognize. God is asking me to put my thought life through a filtration system before acting on or believing in what occurs to me. It’s His still, small voice giving me options other than the same old, well-worn path of thought-followed-by-knee-jerk-action. It means I may not have control over the first thought that pops into my head, but God tells me I have control over what I want to do with that thought and how I want to act subsequent to it. It also presupposes that I need to be mentally disciplined….which is something that, surprisingly, I don’t often think about.

If I am perfectly honest, I give myself a lot of credit for thinking soundly, rationally, sanely. I have just never questioned that I don’t think “normally.” But what is that? Normal? For the most part I act normal, but if I really examine it – – who thinks normally? Would I be willing to put my unfiltered thought life on display for the general public to see? Would I be willing to put subtitles under what goes through my head? Oh, absolutely not. Ever. And that is kind of amusing to me. So I already have a huge filtration system. But what is my criteria for filtering my thoughts? I don’t even know. Further proof that “taking every thought captive to Christ,” isn’t one of those things that I often wake up thinking about, never mind practicing.

Up until this point I have generally let out what is socially acceptable and kept in what is not – – both in content and delivery. And acceptable communication has totally different stratospheres. There is “acceptable” within family which is totally different than “socially acceptable” communication. When I am happy, sad or frustrated, Do I speak and listen to others using God’s filtration system? No, I actually don’t think I do. In fact the closer I am to people, the less filtration there seems to be – – and that doesn’t seem right, seeing as how the relationships closest to me are the ones that merit the most care.

The other morning I muttered under my breath, “if you even care,” as my husband ascended the stairs. The notion that I would hiss that after Ruth Brightbill (a close friend) if she were in my house on some random morning is positively comical. So I DO have a filtration system. But it’s perhaps not the one God is talking about or the one He wants me to use. In taking every thought captive to Christ, God calls for something I don’t often want to give ….. “Pause.” I don’t want to give pause between feeling and expression. But if God is asking me to take each thought, each feeling captive to Christ before I deliver it – – that is exactly what He requires. He is asking me to pause.

What if the thoughts I shared with family in the most transparent and emotionally raw moments were taken captive to Christ first, rather than delivered straight from my gut. What if I gave them that pause – – packaged them in a gentler delivery, sealed them in love, and centered them around God? My thoughts NEED a filtration system – – and when they aren’t run through one (other than my own ) I can get myself in trouble whether that means being misunderstood, saying something I wish I could take back or pressing “Send” before perspective and good sense are fully cooked.

It’s like those conveyer toasters at Panera. Toasted Bagels are SO much better than plain and even though both varieties are made of the exact same stuff, that toaster accomplishes something nothing short of total transformation…. Same with my thoughts. God is asking me to put a little brown on my bagel, before I share my thoughts with the world or my family or God-forbid, act on them. God knows my reactions confound and complicate my life when they are executed in anger, or pride not gentleness and humility. So in taking my thoughts captive to Christ, I am literally taking a moment – – pausing and giving them to God.

And in case you have never been in standing in line at Panera, stomach rumbling, can I just say those toasters always feel like they take FOREVER…but it’s worth the wait. I am a person who reacts in the blink of an eye and I can be pretty incendiary. But God is asking me to pause (no matter how long that moment feels in the face of emotion) – – and take every thought captive to Christ, run it through that toaster, and let it come out transformed.

When I react without taking my thoughts captive to Christ first, my intentions are never translated by the people around me in the way I intended them to be received. All that energy, all that angst, all that truth, all that intent, all of that hoped-for communication gets lost in the unfiltered, un-captivated transmission of thoughts. God is telling me I can take those thoughts, and the sentiments behind them, pause for just a moment and put them to action as Jesus would, not as I might – – and then they might actually have a chance of being heard or hold the potential to open, not close doors, facilitate communication, expose truth, be helpful, serve His purposes in my relationships….or a thousand other good things, rather than inflicting damage, effecting no change, or hurting those I love the most.

Really what he is showing me is the easier, softer way – – the path that will lead me to where I want to go. But it never looks that way in the moment. He is asking me to leave the anger, resentment, hurt and fear with him, and speak out of a place of love and humility and truth. That is taking my thoughts captive to Christ. And, for me, it requires a physical pause. A reorientation of my mind and energy before letting loose.

Context and perspective are responsible for so much. The other day I was sitting in a parking spot waiting for the girls to come back to the car from a quick trip to Target. I had begun reading and kept the car idling to keep cool. I was deep in thought when all of a sudden, I saw that my car was moving forward toward the car in front of me. I sat bolt upright, grabbed the steering wheel and punched the brake. But as I did, I saw it wasn’t me who was moving forward at all, but the car next to me, backing out of his space. Perspective. Or lack of perspective. It can make me feel like something is happening when it actually isn’t at all.

Feelings are not always a reflection of reality – – but, in the moment, they are always really believable. God is asking me to make sure I am the one who is actually moving out of my parking spot before I start making decisions based on how I feel. And EVEN when feelings are legitimately based in hurt or justifiable anger – – reacting with the same is never productive. So God is giving me filters through which I can test what is real and what is just a feeling. Some of those filters are His Word, Christ’s love, His faithfulness, His promises, His Spirit, and prayer – – which is the key to that “Pause” before action. I can trust the ways of God – – I cannot always trust how I feel.

More often than not the thoughts that run through my head are of my own design. Taking every thought captive to Christ is a tall order. But it’s an order. As a relational priority it should probably fall as high as the more easily identifiable physical priorities like “look both ways,” or “floss” (o.k., maybe not “floss…”) But taking every thought captive to Christ It is so crucial to long term well-being and relational health that it should come with its own set of orange cones…

That being said, let me be clear that this is expressly NOT an exercise in censoring my thoughts. AT ALL. So in taking every thought captive to Christ, I can considering my thoughts like leaves on a stream, which is how another friend put it not too long ago. I can watch those thoughts drift on by and only reach out and hold onto only those that are taken captive to Christ. My thoughts need to pass a litmus test before I take them seriously and the litmus test has a lot to do with whether they are true and if they honor God. Otherwise I can observe them, acknowledge them and then let them float on by. My thoughts and feelings are always real, but not always a reflection of what is actually going on…. They are often grounded in false assumptions, fears, insecurities, anger, miscommunication – – and when I act based on thoughts like that it is like punching the brake in the parking spot. I am NOT actually moving – – nor do I always need to react based on feelings that are very real, but not actually grounded in the reality of the situation.

Mental discipline. Taking every thought captive to Christ. I love the idea of being mentally strong – – because my head is full of so much mayhem and God is saying, no worries about that, ALL heads are full of that level of cacophony – – that is not where your mental strength comes from – – it comes from Me. Be fearless He says, just hold your thoughts up to My light and hold fast to those that you take captive to Christ. Trust those thoughts. Act on those thoughts. Let those thoughts form your relationships, define your character, and reflect Me in the world…

There is a lot of discarding going on in this scenario in my head. But sometimes I want to indulge anger, self-pity, fear, inaction. But in getting this whole discipline in order, God is saying, “Don’t. Don’t do that. I know you do it well, but has it EVER served you? Has entertaining self-pity, anger, fear, gluttony or laziness EVER made anything better?” God is saying “As long as you are sorting through your thoughts before acting on them, you can start by discarding ALL those old, on-repeat thoughts, muy pronto.” Yes, God speaks Spanish to me sometimes. He also has a twinkle in His eye when He is showing me these things. There is no condemnation in Him toward me, even when He knows I know. What there is in him is a gentle encouragement to do what I know…more quickly, and more often….Progress not perfection.

I love the idea of being able to take a moment to recognize the validity of thoughts before they take me either toward or away from the places God wants me to go, relationally and otherwise. Thoughts that condemn both me and others are not of God. Thoughts that ruminate and stir in my head causing discontent and anger are not of God. It’s not bad that I have them, but once identified, those are the thoughts I need to give to Christ and just discount before they all come spilling out in attitude, action or design.

I have to constantly remember that God isn’t asking me to stop the barrage of thoughts that are in my head. He is not saying what I am thinking is bad – – at all. He is just saying “there is going to be a lot of activity up there in your head, do Me a favor and put those thoughts through the toaster before you act on them…” He is asking me to take the thoughts I do have, and give them to Christ. What He is NOT asking me to do is beat myself up for having the entire array of thoughts. He is just asking for a chance to deal with them for me first, before I fire off a response in real life.

And He doesn’t say take SOME thoughts captive to Christ – – He asks me to take every single one captive…. which, to be honest, is a whole new way of living. But what a promise about how different my days might end, and how the trajectory of the relationships that mean the most to me could grow. Peace lies at the end of obedience. Obedience is trust in action. So that leaves me with a choice. Can I start to practice taking every thought captive to Christ, or will I continue to rely upon my own best efforts, and to act based on how I feel – – pre-filter.

So for me it will be “Discipline, Discipline, Discipline,” in my thought life. And although that will never translate into Foxhunting and drinking Gin and Tonics before noon, it may just be a new revelation of what it means to follow Christ, actually. And it may have me dealing with those I love the most, better and more often, in the ways I have always wanted. So….A penny for my thoughts? No way. Not before they go through God.