Monday, November 26, 2007

Bitterness of Soul

On the Hannah's Prayer Community Forums I am posting monthly devotionals based on various chapters of Hannah's Hope. Here's the 9th in this series.

The following is copyrighted material and has been adapted from "Bitterness of Soul" chapter nine of Hannah's Hope: Seeking God's Heart in the Midst of Infertility, Miscarriage, & Adoption Loss by Jennifer Saake, NavPress, 2005. Please do not duplicate without permission. You may read a portion of this book here.

In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. - 1 Samuel1:10 (NIV)

Therefore I will not keep silent;
I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
- Job 7:11 (NIV)

Naomi knew the pain of a bitter heart. She lost her husband and both sons in a foreign country. When she returned home her soul was so wounded that when friends called her Naomi, a name that means "pleasant," she replied, "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty" (Ruth 1:20-21). Literally translated, the Hebrew word mara means "bitter." The idea behind this word is marrow, or the core substance of something; thus Naomi's bitterness penetrated through the very depths of her being.

Mara is quite similar to the word used to describe the bitterness Hannah faced as she went before God after years of pain and longing for a child. Hannah's bitterness, marah, also indicates great heaviness, disconnection, and chafing.

Bitterness is described in Hebrews as a root that defiles the soul, causing us to miss the grace of God. Nothing chokes out peace faster. Intense marah was deeply rooted within my heart for a long time. I felt raw, weighed down, constantly rubbed in the wrong direction. I was disconnected from God, my husband, my friends, and even myself.

I felt totally neglected and abandoned. I wondered how I could trust a God who would be so unloving as to give me such a strong desire to reproduce then not enable me to accomplish the task. All the waiting, disappointment, frustration, faith, hope, prayer, begging, pleasing, doctor's visits and medication seemed futile. God seemed so very far away.

Finally I had it out with God in a yelling, stomping, fist-shaking, tearful fit unlike any I had ever dared before. I had never dared admit to Him, nor to myself, just how really angry I was. But He had known the true nature of my heart all along. I couldn't shock or surprise Him with my temper tantrum. He was big enough to handle all my rage. By fully confronting Him, I admitted to both of us exactly how I perceived our relationship. But to my surprise, rather than driving Him further away, He drew me close!

Honesty unlocked the rusty gate to the wall I had built around my heart. It was an amazing breakthrough for me to understand that even if my prayers are only yelled at God in total disillusionment, I must keep taking my pain to God. He cannot help me when I lock Him out, hide or run away. I am free to weep with Hannah, as long as that weeping was done before the Lord.

The truth is, even when He seems silent to my cries, He is listening and does care, grieving deeply with me in my loneliness. Not only does He care, but He relates with personal understanding. Remember Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, why have you forsaken me"?

While I demanded the joy of motherhood, I never stopped to consider how it would break my heart to be rejected by my child in the way I was treating the Lord. By grace, just as I could never stop loving a prodigal, God's persistent love never abandoned me either.

But neither did His love trespass where uninvited. In order for fellowship to be restored, I had to ask Him to knock down walls and weed my heart. Jesus declares, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful" (John 15:1-2). Pruning often seems more painful than letting bitterness remain rooted, but God is the master Gardener who desires to see us bloom. By drinking deeply of Living Water, even when I don't feel like it, the soil of my heart will slowly soften, allowing weeds to less painfully release their hold.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

Here is an old article I wrote 10 years ago for the "Hannah to Hannah" newsletter in the early day of HP when most of our ministry was offline, through support groups and a printed newsletter. I pray it will be a blessing to you today:

The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving
Copyright © 1997, Jennifer Saake

We bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord.
And we offer up to You the sacrifices of thanksgiving…

How often do we take the time to truly think about the words we sing in church each Sunday? What are sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise? "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased" (Hebrews 13:15-16).

We see "sacrifice" used throughout the Old Testament. God said that without the shedding of blood there could be no removal of sin, so animal sacrifice was ordained from the day sin entered the world through Adam, and was to continue until the day that God the Father experienced the grief of watching His own Son Jesus, the "Second Adam," die in our places to clean our guilt and make a way for us to be adopted into His Heavenly family.

"I will praise God's name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving. This will please the LORD more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hoofs" (Ps 69:30-31). Webster's dictionary includes several definitions of "sacrifice," many along the lines of bloodshed on an altar, but here are some alternate definitions that I think are more applicable to the idea of offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. "An act of offering to a deity something precious" or the "surrender of something for the sake of something else."

We are introduced to Hannah in the context of her family's journey to the temple to offer a yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 1:3). Hannah was abiding by the law of the land in making the blood sacrifice demanded of her, but her heart was willing to sacrifice more. "In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow saying, 'O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life…'"(1 Sam. 1:10-11).

That was some sacrifice! No, Hannah didn't offer false thanksgiving by denying her pain or trying to pretend to God that everything was fine, but in the same breath that she asked Him to grant her heart's desire, she turned around and promised that the child would belong to God for his entire life. What an act of reverence for the God who created her and held the power to breathe life into her empty womb! We see that from this point on, even before God allowed her to conceive, Hannah worshipped the Lord (1 Sam. 1:19). The change from a bitter soul to an attitude of praise was the willingness to sacrifice her will to God’s. The words of Jonah reflect what Hannah probably felt, "But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD" (Jonah 2: 9).

Let's take a look at another family in the Bible - the first family that ever existed. Adam and Eve's first two sons were named Cain and Abel. Because sin had already entered the world before these sons were born, they grew up under the sacrificial system and worshipped the Lord from the time they were tiny. Cain and Abel both knew God's rules by heart. God was worthy of their obedience, respect, and honor, if for no other reason that simply because He is God! "For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods" (1 Chronicles 16:25).

The problem came as they grew up and started their own careers. Abel raised sheep while Cain pursued farming - both professions were honorable. These men knew that God required a blood atonement in repentance for sin. While Abel could readily offer the sacrifices God required by giving from his own flock, Cain had to exchange his produce to buy lambs for each sacrifice. (Kind of gives new meaning to the figure of speech, "You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip!")

At some point Cain tired of the system God set up. I don't know if he just didn't like the hassle of selling crops and buying sheep each day, or if his pride got in the way and he decided that since Abel could offer the product he produced in shepherding, that he should be able to offer the work of his own hands as well. Whatever the reason, Cain decided to bring a sacrifice of his produce rather than offer a blood sacrifice to the Lord (Genesis 4:1-5). When his offering displeased the Lord, Cain pouted. God gave him a second chance to make his attitude and actions right, saying, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:6-7).

Unlike Hannah's story of obedience and willingness to sacrificially offer her one true desire to the Lord, Cain's story took a tragic turn when he hardened his heart in rebellion. In the end, Cain murdered Abel out of jealousy, and Eve, the world's first mother, lost two sons in one day - one to death, and one to banishment by the Lord. God's displeasure with Cain had nothing to do with a preference of meat over fruit. It had everything to do with Cain's heart attitude and unwillingness to submit to God's perfect plan. When Hannah did have a son, Samuel put it well: "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Sam 15:22).

I'm afraid I often tend to be much more like Cain than Hannah. I don't like to bend when God calls me to something outside my comfort zone. While we live in an age of grace and are no longer bound by the Old Testament code of blood sacrifice, God still desires my heart to be soft to him and offer praise and thanksgiving even when it hurts - no, especially when it hurts - for this is where the sacrifice begins! "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Ps 51:15-17).

We are instructed, in view of God's mercy, to offer our "bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" and this is seen as an act of worship. How can we do this? "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:1-2). Even when we allow God to renew us, at times it is still hard to understand his perfect will for us in light of fertility challenges. "To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice" (Proverb 21:3). God also told Cain that he must "Do what is right," but how can I know what is right for me in infertility or in Noel's death?

I have often felt, especially in the earlier days of our struggle, that the withholding of children was a sign that, like Cain, God was not looking on us with favor. I have struggled with anger towards God, and my face has definitely been downcast! I cannot go exchange my fruit for flock to make an acceptable burnt offering, so what can I do? I have finally realized that doing what is right in infertility is simply allowing God to make the rules! He is asking me to make a change in the sacrifice I am willing to bring, and it is up to me if I will trade my bitterness for praise as Hannah did, or if I will use my pain to feed a jealous rage like Cain.

I want to offer myself to God as a great parent, to raise the children He gives us, and train them to follow after Him. My desire is a good one. There is nothing wrong with this desire, just as there was nothing wrong with Cain choosing to farm the land. In fact, my desire is God-given! But perhaps one thing I have in common with Cain is pride. After all, God had apparently always showered Cain with blessings in the past, as He has me, so it is easy to expect Him to continue His blessings on my terms, without waiting to see what His will or His master plan will be. "I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river…” (Isaiah 48:17b-18a).

For Cain it would have been as simple as letting go of his pride and continuing to buy his sheep from his brother, as an act of obedience to God. For me it is letting God teach me to surrender my plans to His will. He knows that I still desire to raise a family, and I fully believe that some day, somehow, He will give me my heart's desire. But I am learning to exchange the sacrifice I want to give for the one He asks me to offer, in obedience to His perfect will for my life.

He does not want just my parenting skills, but He wants all of me! "To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). I am learning, slowly, but learning none the less, that to give my whole self - body, mind, heart, spirit, soul, wants, dreams, desires, goals - over to Him, is the only acceptable sacrifice in His sight. "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6).

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7). When we pray in an attitude of true thanksgiving, being honest with God about our pain, yet making the effort to sacrifice our attitudes to Him, we are rewarded with a peace that defies earthly reason. "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:1-4).

"Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed." (Ps 103:2-6)

Reasons for Thanksgiving:
God responds to our pain - "For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help" (Psalm 22: 24).

He puts an end to our pain - "Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning" (Ps 30:4-5).

He helps us - "Praise be to the LORD, for he has heard my cry for mercy. The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.” (Ps 28:6-7)

He carries the load - "Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens" (Ps 68:19).

He is our comforter - "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

He is faithful - "Know that the LORD is God. It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, the sheep of His pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations" (Ps 100:3-5).

It is within His character to bless those without hope - "He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the LORD" (Psalm 113:9).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

National Adoption Day 2007 – NOVEMBER 17

National Adoption Day is a collective national effort to raise awareness of the 114,000 children in foster care waiting to find permanent, loving families. For the last eight years, National Adoption Day has made the dreams of thousands of children come true by working with courts, judges, attorneys, adoption professionals, child welfare agencies and advocates to finalize adoptions and find permanent, loving homes for children in foster care.

National Adoption Day is celebrated every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. For the first time in 2006, National Adoption Day was celebrated in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In total, more than 250 events were held throughout the country to finalize the adoptions of more than 3,300 children in foster care, and to celebrate all families who adopt.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fill My Cup, Lord

On the Hannah's Prayer Community Forums I am posting monthly devotionals based on various chapters of Hannah's Hope. Here's the 8th in this series.

The following is copyrighted material and has been adapted from "Fill My Cup, Lord!" chapter eight of Hannah's Hope: Seeking God's Heart in the Midst of Infertility, Miscarriage, & Adoption Loss by Jennifer Saake, NavPress, 2005. Please do not duplicate without permission. You may read a portion of this book here.

Remember the woman at the well? She went there in the middle of the day when the other women of the town would not be near to avoid their whispers and gosip. Jesus asked her for a drink of water, then offered the quenching of her soul's thirst. The Greek phrase translated "living water" in John 4:10-11 is closely related to the Ephesians concept of being filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).

She sought happiness in the arms of men. Jesus offers peace that could be found in none other than Himself.

I sought joy in the new life of a baby. Jesus offers New Life in Himself.

I wanted to know the feeling of carrying another soul inside my body. He provides the Holy Spirit to indwell me.

I longed to nurse a child. Paul wrote, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1 Peter 2:2-3).

I dreamed of watching my baby grow and mature. But am I every-growing in Christ? "Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:13-14).

I bemoaned the "bread of adversity" I felt unfairly called to taste. The Lord answers with the cross: "And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'" (Luke 22:19).

I pleaded for a child to enrich my days on earth. He commands, "But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:20-21).

"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." - John 10:10 (NIV)

Dear Lord,
As I writhe under the cramping of my soul, it is the bitter cup of affliction and stale bread of adversity that drive me to my knees in anguished prayer. I'm scared to be brutally honest with You about the depth of my anger, fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams, yet help me to be real before You and honest with myself in the process. In the midst of this pain, let me clearly hear Your still, small voice comforting and guiding me. Thank You for the many times and ways that You have provided for me; please bring these to mind as they are so easily forgotten when my heart aches so deeply right now. Thank you that you truly do offer answers to every longing of my heart.