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Monday, March 7, 2011

Hold Fast in Love

Treasured Friend,


I’ve been AWOL for a couple of weeks – perhaps you noticed (I hope you noticed!). But it was for a good cause. If you’ve read my caregiving book or even these devotional posts for very long, you know I preach, “Caregiver care for yourself.” I preach it, but I seldom apply its wisdom to my life. This time, I did—sent along by my wonderful parents, who insisted on it. They saw how stressed I had been, even if I was trying to ignore it.

My colleague and friend Lin Johnson offered to share her timeshare condo on Kauai. I wasn’t going to accept. Dad hadn’t been doing well, but then during one of his hospitalizations, he grabbed my arm, pulled me down to bed-level, and said, “You’re going to Hawaii. You deserve it. We’re sending you!” Month by month, Dad improved, and by the time the trip came around, he was doing well and it was safe for me to go.

It was a refreshing time in oh so many ways. For one, since it was such an extreme change of scenery, I came back, shall we say, far more patient, far less on-edge. That alone made it worthwhile.

Lin and I have traveled together before – and while we spend a good deal of time sightseeing together, back at the condo we take to neutral corners and read quietly. In my corner (looking out over our beach in the town of Lihue--I've included a link if you want to see a few pictures!), I had my netbook computer loaded with the WORDsearch program. A good chunk of my time, then, I spent in prayer and fellowship with the Lord. It’s hard not to feel Him near in the midst of all that created beauty—the Creator’s handiwork at perhaps His most creative and vibrant.

I felt His prompting to study Psalm 91. I don’t do deep studies of the Psalms often. Perhaps it’s because their poems so often are a believer’s conversation toward God, rather than God’s conversation toward us. I gravitate toward those places in Scripture where God speaks. “I know the plans I have for you,” He tells Jeremiah. “I will never leave you,” the writer of Hebrews quotes. I long to hear His voice—and I hear it best when He’s quoted. That’s just the way I am.

But this time, I dug into Psalm 91, as I said. I was humming along, reading as if I knew what was coming next. Then I stopped short on verse 14, which is placed in quotes (God is speaking. Listen up, Jul.)Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name” (ESV). And somehow, I didn’t feel the need to focus on the deliverance or protection part—but I felt a pained prick on that first phrase. How does one hold fast to God in love? I spent my devotional time over the next eleven days examining that phrase.

My first hopscotch led me to Revelation 2:4, where Jesus is speaking to the church in Ephesus. He’s telling them that they’ve done everything right. They’ve proved the spirits of false teachers, hated what He hates. They’re in good stead. Except for one thing. And it’s the biggie. They’ve failed at the loving God thing. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Or, as the older translations put it, left your first love.

What does that look like? What does it mean? My commentaries weren’t too particular in explaining it, as if we all know what leaving our first love looks like. But obviously the Ephesian believers weren’t aware of it, so it couldn’t be that obvious.

I checked my Greek and Hebrew resources and found that in the Psalm, the verb used meant being attached to and delighting in. It’s a binding love. It’s the way God attached Himself to His people; and it’s the way He attaches us back to Him.

In the Greek I consulted Strong’s and a few other dictionaries and found that the term Jesus used in Revelation talked about not just our growing a little cool in our feelings toward Him. Rather it means we’ve sent Him away, omitted Him and replaced Him with something else. What could that be? Did we replace Him with duty? Resentment? Apathy? Disappointment? Selfishness? Wrong motives? Could be any number of those things.

And it became painfully personal for me at this point. Because I realized the Spirit of Christ was nailing what was wrong with me. It wasn’t just exhaustion from the caregiving and my own personal health issues. It was that I’d removed Him from first place of love in my heart and replaced Him with the duties of caregiving. Worse yet, I’d replaced loving Him with resentment of all the things I was giving up to serve Him. My motives were wrong. Selfishness was taking root. And I was in danger of being removed from His good graces. It obviously happened to the once-thriving church in Ephesus. There’s now on that formerly-thriving site in modern-day Turkey a series of ruins visited by tourists. Christianity is almost non-existent in that region. It’s downright frightening.

So if the lack of first love is that ugly picture, who will paint for us the beautiful picture of placing Christ in that first-love place in our lives—and show us the path to get there? My next stop was probably your obvious first choice, too—1 Corinthians 13. Love always trusts, always believes, always endures. It relinquishes rights and controls to the beloved. It bears burdens without grudges, keeps itself from grumbling. It is full of hope.

Beautiful, just like the Lihue sunrise. But how do I get there? I’m patiently enduring, trying to keep from growing weary. Trying, but, by and large failing.

The first step Jesus offers in Revelation 2:5, and it echoes a phrase in Jeremiah 2:2. It’s all about remembering. Remember how it was when we were placing love for Christ above all else. God remembers, as He told Jeremiah: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (ESV). So, the prescription has to do with remembering my former devotion, with remembering how safe it was to follow Him without fear into the unknown.

Next, Christ commands: repent. That’s all about agreeing with Him about the fact that my motives are wrong. They are sinful, selfish, unbefitting a lover of God.

Finally, He prescribes: do. Do what I did before. Do my service toward Him out of the overflow of love.

It occurred to me that this was a concern of the Apostle Paul for the Ephesian believers in his letter to them decades before Revelation was written. Paul wrote out part of his prayer for them: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17-19). Perhaps the remembering and returning to my first love isn’t all about my feelings toward God, but in coming to know and recall His unfathomable love toward me.

The Apostle John reaffirms that thought when he writes, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Here first is foremost in time, place, order and importance. We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. So, then, our love is a response back to Him. The first and primary action is His. And in coming to know Him in a deeper way, we will have a deeper appreciation of the depth and breadth of His first love for us.

Perhaps, then, returning to our first love is returning to the open arms of the One Who loved us first.

As I reached the end of my trip and the end of my study on this topic, I came to the conclusion that returning to my first love has little to do with any feeling I could conjure toward Him or anyone else. Rather, it’s all about coming to bask, once again, as I did at first, in the amazing, abiding, perfect, fearless, self-abandoning love my Triune God has for me. Only then can I hold fast to Christ in love—and can I meet the expectation He states clearly in Mark 12:30: “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (NKJV).

My prayer for you is that you, too, will gain a new understanding of just how much God loves you—and that you will find yourself running into the waiting arms of your first love, no matter what challenges or unknown circumstances you face together with Him today.

Blessings and prayers,
Julie

© 2011, Julie-Allyson Ieron. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, email: orders@joymediaservices.com