Friday, October 30, 2009

What Does It Mean to be the Clay?

Part of the answer to the title question is that clay is to be molded in the potter's hand. It doesn't form itself. Scripture tells us that we are clay and God is the Potter. The same is true of us. There is a process that takes place through out our lifetime as children of our Heavenly Father. We are meant to be molded and shaped by His loving and gracious hands in to the image of Christ. He does just that. But unlike clay, in the clay of our humanity, we often resist and challenge the process of being transformed into that image. We often resist, sometimes in subtle and "acceptable" ways, God's call to be obedient and pliant vessels. I was about to find out in a very personal, but thankfully not a painful way, what it means to be the clay and not the potter.

On May 23, 2009 I posted the words contained in "I Went to the Woods." What I had written was too long so I decided to save the balance as part two. At least that was what I thought at the time. I believe now that God was going to let me face what I had written in a real life situation and begin to understand something of what that would mean in real life. In addition to those words, I had on a number of occasions made statements to my wife, Betty, to the effect that I did not want to "retire" when it came to my journey with God. I really felt that was an honest conviction about how I should live out my life in the "later" years as they are called. I had heard people say, "Well I have done my part. Now it is time for the younger folks." I really didn't want that to be true in my life. Words can just be words; but not with God. Sooner or later, I would be tested and stretched at this point.

We all face challenges when it comes to obedience and God has to expose areas in our lives - the rough places that require His attention as He shapes and molds us in to the image of Christ. I was about to find out that maybe I did enjoy a more comfortable role at this point in my life - that maybe my resolve was not as strong as I thought it was and that maybe until I was tested my convictions were not all that resolved. So in the writing that I had not posted, I was going to have to go beyond words. I had no idea that I had just written the prelude to what God was about to do in my life. I had just raised the issue - What does it mean to be the clay?

Within less than a month after I finished what would have been part two of "I Went to the Woods," Geoff Ashley, the Disciple Resource Pastor at our church, asked me a question that put the spotlight right on my heart. I think I had been walking in the shadows. In the course of an after dinner conversation on the evening of June 17, 2009, I had just made a statement about loving to teach. I was not expecting what followed when Geoff said, "Do you want to be part of a seven man team from The Village Church to travel to Yei, Sudan and teach a group of pastors?" As the football coach and commentator, John Madden would say, it was like "Bam!" In that moment I was being confronted with the fact that I did have a comfort zone. I had just been called out on my resolve. I had just been called out on the things I had written a few weeks earlier. This actually became clearer to me over the next few days. At first it was more of a sinking feeling. I wish I could say that I had been able to make the decision to go with great ease. I wish I could say that my initial reaction was one of thankfulness that I had been given an opportunity of a lifetime at this point in my life; and that I immediately said "Yes" out of a heart of gratitude and faith. That didn't happen immediately; but I did get to that point and that certainly is important. But, first, God had to do some things in my life. He had some work to do before I was ready. In looking back I have been disturbed about my hesitation but the more I have thought about it the more I have realized that even now, 63 years into my life as a Christian, God still is working in my life. That truth, in a greater sense, is refreshing. He hasn't put me on the shelf to gather dust. That is the kind of God He is - a loving and caring Father who wants more for His children than they often want for themselves. That can only be to His praise and glory. So, as regretful as I am in one sense that I didn't respond with immediate obedience, I am grateful that I can respond now with much gratitude for who He is and How He loves His struggling children. I had to write about this struggle and process that I was going to have to go through to reach the point where I was ready to say "Yes" with a heart of thankfulness. It is just one more example that we are moving toward the goal of the high calling and that we aren't there. It is exciting to know that God is not finished with you - that He is still molding and shaping - that you are still blessed to be clay in His hands and as the song goes - to realize that He doesn't throw the clay away. He lovingly and patiently walks you through the process of obedience as He chisels away from your life to bring you to completeness. I can say, as many can, that if you stay the course, it is, in a sense, like Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 29:17. "Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest" and in Isaiah 29:19, "the meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord..." That is worth pushing ahead for - a fruitful field, a forest, and fresh joy. That is worth the experiencing the shaping hand of God.

As you read what would have been part two of "I Went to the Woods," you will see that I made a number of statements concerning my journey with God and what I desired for my life in the days ahead. I had previously dotted the roadside of my journey with statements to the effect that it was past my time to go on a mission trip to another country. I could, I guess, blame age for my hesitancy and struggle with the matter of going to Sudan; but I am not sure it would have been any different had I been 40 years younger. I have debated with myself about writing of this struggle; but then I decided to go ahead. I don't want to forget how gracious God has been in all of this as He patiently brought me through the issues and excuses that I raised. I really want to dwell on the fact that He did not let me miss something that I would have regretted the rest of my life. Just thinking about getting bogged down in the issues of comfort and the uncertainty that I perceived in such a trip makes me uneasy. I don't know how close I came to the line of retreating. I am not sure I want to know. I also want to talk about this struggle because I believe others struggle with similar issues - issues like trying to be obedient on their own terms. Our pastor, Matt Chandler, had just talked about how we can easily try to offer substitute forms of obedience that are more to our liking. I was reminded, too, in all of this struggle generated by Geoff Ashley's question that I was wanting to choose the classroom or setting for God's work in my life. I can't deny that I was trying to find a more comfortable form and path of obedience toward what God wanted for my life. I am thankful God didn't let that happen. I am thankful that Geoff was persistent and cared enough to not let the matter drop.

I know that we do not choose the classroom or setting for learning the lessons that God has for us even though our human nature says "Try." It doesn't matter how long you have been a Christian or how old you are. That truth doesn't change. To say we are God's children means more than a relationship. It means that because we are His children He continues to work with us as a loving Father even if we are His "elder" children. Philippians 2:12-13 remains true for our lifetime as a Christian. "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." This whole Sudan episode has been one of those working out moments.

I realize, now, that God had already chosen the classroom for me "to work in me, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." It would be in a church compound in a remote area of Africa called Yei, Sudan, helping teach the multifaceted, foundational aspects of the gospel (which I, too, desperately needed to understand) to a group of joyful, happy, God loving and worshiping brothers and sisters in Christ - learning from them and worshiping with them and seeing the gospel at work in their lives and seeing people living for God's glory even it meant suffering for them. It would be in the many hours spent studying and preparing for the talks that I would be giving and in the coming together of a team of dedicated young men and one guy nearly 40 years their senior. It would be in sitting on an airplane and in an airport for nearly 35 hours coming and going wondering what your 72 year old body was experiencing in all of that. It turned out even that part wasn't bad. You were in God's hands and as my friend, Dr. Steve Glaser said when I was trying to decide to go, "Just think. What is the worse that could happen to you?" It would be in the supportive praying and encouraging words of a loving wife who saw before I did the need for me to go to on this trip to Africa. It would be in me seeing how she would handle things in my absence and how she, too, grew from this experience. It would be in the days of struggle leading up to the decision to go in faith, not fear and in fighting against retreating and being flat out disobedient. It would be in learning the importance of being credible to yourself and others. It was learning, to use the words from a favorite movie of mine, that you don't "tuck tail and run." I have learned much up to this point; but I know there is more for me to learn. I don't want anything to be lost to memory or have the passage of time blur the details of this unbelievable journey - so I am trying to carefully record as much as I can - even the stuff that isn't all that complimentary.

To fully appreciate all that was about to happen, I have had to go back and read the words from the unpublished, "I Went to the Woods, Part 2." I know those words were used by God to set the stage for what was about to happen. Here is what I wrote and left unpublished on May 23, 2009:

I was privileged over the years to study God's Word and to pass the truth of God's Word on to others. That, however, did not always leave my heart full. Instead of taking my life deeper into the heart of God and bringing fresh communion with the Lord, those efforts, for the most part, were resulting in width - not depth. A little over two years ago when we moved to the North Texas area and became members of The Village Church, I found myself living in the shallows. I had retired after nearly 50 years of work (though I was still working some). I had just given up teaching, in our former church, a group of men and women who meant and still mean a great deal to me and my wife. That experience had been a real blessing to us. We would later realize that God had used that opportunity to prepare us for what He had for us here, as Paul said in Acts 17:26 in the "boundaries of our new dwelling" which He had "allotted to us." We just don't waltz around on our own. But even though we knew that God had brought us here and to The Village Church and even though we were under great teaching of the gospel, something was affecting the strength of grace in my life. With every passing day I was becoming more concerned about how I would finish the course of my journey. And then somethings began to happen in my life which in itself is another story. The path started to become clearer. The light started to shine a little brighter."As I write these words, I know that for me to go on and not live in mediocrity, the gospel had to somehow consume and dominate my life.

[Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington expressed the important of this in their book, The Great Exchange. They wrote "Many believers view the gospel only as a message to be shared with unbelievers but not personally applicable to themselves anymore...We need the gospel as well. We need it to remind ourselves that our day-to-day standing with God is based on Christ's righteousness, not our performance. We need the gospel to motivate us to strive in our daily experience to be what we are in our standing before God. We need it to produce joy in our lives when we encounter the inevitable trials of living in a fallen and sin-cursed world."] [Discovered later as a result of preparing for this trip]

Jesus Christ has to be my passion and priority. I have to let Him define my life. I have to treasure the sight of His glory by faith. I have to have a Holy Spirit led life of obedience. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, has to stir up grace in me. The words of 2 Corinthians 3:18 has to become consistently true in my life. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." My mind must be continually transformed. My vision of the glory of the Lord has to become clearer. And I have to find out how all this can happen. I realize that I have too much to live for and enjoy. I have a blessed marriage of shared dreams and hopes, a wonderful family and friends. I am in good health. I have a great place to worship and learn. On the list could go. I want my life to be one of gratitude. I know for this to happen that the light of faith must grow brighter and I must live in light of the truth expressed by Paul in Philippians 3:9. "...and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—" This truth is going to have to dominate my life. But I am apprehensive. I am not sure what all this will mean or in what direction God will take my life. Maybe I am concerned about whether I can meet the tests.

I know that I have been held captive much of my lifetime as a Christian by efforts to live in a righteousness of my own. I know that must change if I am to go on. I didn't wish that for my life. The words Paul wrote in Philippians 3:7-11 are very familiar to me. I know that in those words there is freedom to live. But what lies on the other side of those words causes me concern. I don't know what this desire will mean for me. Am I ready for this to happen? Am I sufficient for that kind of living? Where will this take me?

I left the baptismal services in August 1946 following the public statement of my faith in Christ and embarked on a journey that so many in my time would take. For years to come, the gospel served as my entry point into salvation. My understanding of the gospel was that it was primarily for the unsaved. [I had yet not read the words from "The Great Exchange" quoted above when I was writing this]. That left me beginning the journey with an understanding that the Christian life was one of trying to live a good life.

I have discovered that this approach to the Christian life will express itself in basically one or two ways. There will either be loathing of self because you can't live up to the standards or there will be pride because you think you have lived up to the standards. In that world, whether you are smug or crushed depends on how high the standards are set. I heard about religious living - about what to do and not to do. I never heard about the on-going importance and relevance of the gospel to my life as a Christian. I have heard about this truth in the last two and half years. But until then I never paid attention to the fact that much of the preaching of the gospel in Scripture was to the saved. That would, hopefully, have told me something. In what have been a life long approach to my new life in Christ, I came down most of the time on the side of being crushed and having a gut wrenching sense that I could never consistently measure up. I constantly battled fears of uncertainty. They still rise up at times in different ways than about my salvation. The thoughts of God's wrath were terrifying at times. As a result of this limited view or understanding, I was constantly asking God to "restore the joy of my salvation."

I have struggled greatly at times with understanding my acceptance by God but during the last few years something started happening in my life. Once I became clear about the correct order of the new birth and faith and began to face the realities of God's sovereignty in my salvation, I was able to think more and more about the awesome nature of Christ's death on the cross and what He did. I believe that the more I can focus on what Christ did on His cross and for whose glory He did it the more my perspective will change - the stronger I will grow - the more assured my steps will be. I am seeing evidence of that and I know I have a long way to go. I have got to learn, with God's help, to stand on the ground of Christ death on the cross in its true meaning. Yet, even now, I know that the truth of all that happened on the cross must still grip my life even more and I have to clearly see what and Who is mine by faith.

I am ready for Christ's life to be a continuous, ever increasing refreshing drink to my thirsty soul. I want to experience in a new and deeper way what it means to live on the basis of seeing Him crucified, exalted and glorified. I just don't know at this point how that is going to happen.

As I write these words today, I realize that God did know and in order to unfold all that in my life, He had to bring me to a very critical point in my journey. But as of May 23, 2009 or even up to the evening of June 17, 2009 and maybe for several weeks after that, I didn't have a clue how God was dealing with my life. I knew I had been shaken. I know that I had not faced up, as I should have, to the fact that He would work in my life on His terms and in His way. In fact I was so focused on me that I could not really see God in any of this at first. That explains a lot when it comes to the struggle that followed after Geoff Ashley asked me, "Do you want to go to Yei, Sudan?" At that point, my mind just froze on that question. In all that followed, God was about to give me a graceful reminder that I am the clay and He is the Potter. For that I am thankful because I would just make a mess of things.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Jerry Bridges & Bob Bevington, The Great Exchange, Crossway Books, 2007, p26.

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