Friday, August 26, 2016

Scraps

The tattooed young man giving his testimony at my church didn’t try to hide the messy details. He grew up in a dysfunctional home. Got into substance abuse. Sold drugs. Fathered a child with his girlfriend. He ended up in prison....where he found a Bible and started reading it. Ended up trusting Christ to turn his life around. Able now to say, “Jesus saved me.  I’m headed in the right direction.”  I’d rather hear that, than this, which I've also heard from a young adult: “I grew up going to church. I hate my life.  I hate my mom/dad. God hasn’t been fair to me. I pray and nothing happens. Just leave me alone.”

The first person is holding out the ragged scraps of his life, saying, “Jesus, use these as you wish.”  The second person is clutching rotted rags, unwilling to let God trim and rearrange to craft “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

My ministry “hobby” involves scraps of flannel or soft cotton, which I find at yard sales or thrift stores or am given. I cut them into five-inch squares, which I sew together, seven rows across and seven down.  These create a "patchwork" side to go with a one-yard piece of soft backing fabric. With batting between, the sides are joined with yarn ties at each square and stitching around the edges. Two hours later a new baby blanket emerges, destined with others for a local hospital to be distributed to babies born to needy families. In the last five years, I have sewn and given away more than 600. 
Redeemed-scraps-turned-blankets finished and delivered in July
Six hundred? Gasp. My initial “big goal” was fifty.  But when God calls you to a task, He will carry you through it until He pronounces it “done” or sees that you need to take a break (which is now my situation). So what does this have to do with the ragged scraps of a human life? It's this: God wastes nothing.  Those who come to God, sadly holding the scraps of their lives, can experience Jesus as Redeemer. He is a Master at trimming and fitting those scraps into something new, beautiful, and useful in His kingdom. It may hurt and cut and prick at times, but it's all part of His master pattern.  For unique beauty, and service for Him.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Let's sing the second verse!

Sometimes, snatches of scripture or phrases from a hymn will come to me when I least expect them. It happened again recently when we picnicked with friends at a public park by the Methow River in Central Washington state. There’s nothing like a river, roaring over worn rocks on its way to a mightier water—in our case, the Columbia. I snapped a photo of the sight as I vaguely recalled a classic hymn that mentioned “streams of living water.” I found the verse, “You give them drink from the river of your delights,” in Psalm 36:8a.
 
The hymn I vaguely recalled was “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” whose author also penned “Amazing Grace” in recounting his conversion. His name, of course, John Newton. His devout, praying mother died when he was very young. Growing up, he plunged into the life of an infidel, ending up running a slave ship and being temporarily enslaved himself.  Wonderfully, through God’s amazing grace (and as the answer to his mother’s prayers), he became a Christian and went into the ministry in England. He also wrote hundreds of hymns, some still sung three hundred years later.  Besides the two I just mentioned, there’s “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” I can’t sing that one without choking up.

My church’s worship style has changed to “contemporary,” but for those of us who grew up with the old hymns, there’s also a “hymn sing” two Sunday evenings a month in our church’s chapel.  Hymnals are passed out, and requests taken with the inevitable question, “Which verses?”  Often the answer is “1, 3 and 4.”  Poor verse 2!

Let’s hear it for verse 2 of Newton’s “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” sung to the majestic music composed by Newton’s contemporary Franz Haydn. Even as I type its words, I’m envisioning a river like the one we saw at the Methow Valley, bursting out of the mountains and proclaiming, “I’m part of the workmanship of God!”  I’m also reminded of the lyric’s analogy to “living water,” the Lord Jesus Christ, who nurtures and refreshes us along a journey on this planet.

See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal Love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age!
 
Remember, a man who once lived an utterly wicked life wrote this hymn. If the “old” John Newton could turn to God, we should never give up praying for those who still need to taste of the Living Water.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bed of thorns


Imagine three sets of robber-masked eyes staring at you from a nest next to your back-yard fence. It happened to me one morning, working in the back yard, when I sensed our cat unusually nervous. Following his gaze, I was shocked to see three raccoons just feet away in this half-hidden perch on the roof of a ramshackle shed. I grabbed the garden horse and aimed it at them, yelling “shoo!” as they reluctantly turned and left. Then, remembering reading how such critters despise urine smell, I sprayed the nest with household ammonia.

We live toward the edge of our little town, with a large undeveloped, junky lot on the other side of our fence.  Our trees disguise the “view,” but they also provide an up-and-down staircase for local raccoons searching for berries or the small bowl of dry cat food we once left outside. (Not any more!) After drenching the tree-needle-padded “nest” with ammonia, I stacked it with prickly dead tree branches and thorny branches pruned from our roses. These, I hoped, would put the perch into their “don’t-visit” list.

 I was reminded of my “prickle-the-nest” incident while recently reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. In chapter 16 about God’s “goodness and severity,” Packer said we need to appreciate the discipline God chooses to put in our lives. Too many people, he said, look at God as a celestial Santa Claus who supplies happy times and gifts on demand. But such attitudes trifle with God. God may, Packer said, put “thorns in your bed…to awaken you from the sleep or spiritual death—and to make you rise up to seek his mercy.”  For believers, such “bed-thorns” may be part of God’s discipline “to keep you from falling into the somnolence of complacency and to ensure that you ‘continue in his goodness’ by letting your sense of need bring you back constantly in self-abasement and faith to seek his face” (Knowing God, IVP, 1973, p. 166).

When our life’s “nest” settles into a comfortable spot, and we find thorns in the way, there may be a spiritual reason. Packer pointed to two scriptures for “why.” Hebrews 12:5, reminds us not to make light of the Lord’s discipline. And second, Psalm 119:71 takes us to the higher ground of thanking God for correction:  “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).

Early one morning this spring, I again saw a backyard raccoon--one that looked to be twice the size of our cat. When he saw me, the 'coon scampered up the tree and away. Thankfully, our cat was inside this time. I checked the condition of the “nest” and found it needing a new supply of “prickles.”

I'd like to have prickle-free living, but I also want God to shape my life. Sometimes that brings temporary discomfort until I move on to His much-better plan

Friday, August 5, 2016

Food Forgetfulness

His favorite place to perch is the rug right in front of his feeding area. It doesn’t matter if he’s been out snooping around the yard for just an hour after the last feeding. When he comes in, he heads for the feeding place and presents his practiced look of please-feed-me-I’m-starving. According to the
cat-age calculator you can find on the internet (for real), our 16-year-old rescue cat, Augie, is comparable in age span to an 80-year-old human. Maybe that explains his apparent memory failures regarding his last meal or snack.  Despite frequent snacks, he has neither cartoon-cat-Garfield girth nor wild-cat-scrawniness. When we take him in for his license-required rabies shot, the vet assistant who weighs him often remarks, “Wow, he’s a big fellow.”  Not that he’d break any records like some You-Tube tubbies....
 
One thing Augie’s “hunger pose” reminds me of is my own hunger for things that really matter.  I’m not talking about personal favorites, like split pea soup, green bell peppers, and chocolate ice cream.  Rather, it’s spiritual hunger, as in this “appetite” metaphor of Jeremiah 15:16: Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts. (KJV)
Jeremiah didn’t actually chew and swallow the scriptures (leave that for another prophecy, found in Ezekiel 3:1-3). A more recent translation of Jeremiah 15:16 goes:
Your words are what sustain me.  They bring me great joy and are my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty. (TEV)
Basically Jeremiah was saying, “I’m hungry for the Word of God.  It satisfies me spiritually like nothing else because I belong to the Author.”  The verse comes in the context of a lament about how far his nation had strayed from God.  In fact, he even wishes for a moment that he hadn’t been born (v. 10). He’s preaching God’s judgment on national sins, and nobody wants to hear that message. His only solace is going back to the pure spiritual food of God’s Word.  For him, this meant the Pentateuch (first five books), psalms and proverbs.  God tells him not to give up the spiritual learning curve or preaching about God’s holiness.  “If you speak words that are worthy,” God told the prophet, “you will be my spokesman” (v. 19). As I witness the spiritual decline of my times, I realize God could use many more as spokespeople speaking out Truth, no matter how unpopular.

 Our adequately-fed cat also has “cat treats,” little nuggets of intense flavor (one package we bought on sale boasts of “catnip” flavor). But we don’t get true spiritual nourishment by gobbling devotional treats—the “in-and-out-in-a-minute” type. They’re better than nothing, but real spiritual nourishment comes with thoughtful, application-oriented reading of scriptures. And even though I make fun of my cat’s senile forgetfulness about his last meal, it’s okay to have a healthy appetite for the Word of God, finding in it the joy and rejoicing of my heart.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Close to thee

“Close to thee.”  That phrase came to mind one recent afternoon when I noticed two trees growing unusually close together.  A small tree--an offspring of the bigger one?--was snugged right next to the bigger tree. Why, I'll never know, but the sight reminded me of the hymn that begins:

Thou my everlasting portion,
More than friend or life to me;
All along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with Thee.
Close to thee, close to Thee,
Close to thee, close to thee;
All along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with Thee.

If hymns are part of your spiritual music fabric, you may recognize the lyrics as coming from the mind of blind Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). She’s generally credited with more than 800 hymn lyrics, many still well-known.

In this case, the music came before the words.  A Long Island, New York, man, a hat-maker by trade, was also a musician who composed Gospel music. When he came up with this tune, he invited Crosby to listen as he played it on the piano. Afterwards, she remarked, “That refrain said ‘Close to Thee, close to Thee, close to thee, close to Thee.” Then, with her remarkable memory and command of rhyme, she composed and dictated the hymn’s three verses, all of which have that refrain.

We’re apt to forget how much of a life story is reflected in a hymn or Gospel song. This song refers to a pilgrim journey, toil and suffering, and finally the “gate of life eternal.”  Fanny Crosby spoke from the heart of a pilgrim who knew hardship, blinded in childhood as a result of a doctor’s error.  One time a minister told her it was too bad God allowed her to be blind.  She quickly responded, “If I had been given a choice at birth, I would have asked to be blind...for when I get to heaven, the first face I will see will be the One who died for me.” 
 
From what I've read, Fanny Crosby lived "snugged up" to God. No wonder the words came to her so easily: "Close to thee."
 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Chill!

My now-adult children taught me a new vocabulary word, “chill,” implying cool it, let it go, leave me alone. My son’s housecat, “Rosebud,” expresses it better than anyone (or any critter) I know. She seems to consider it her royal privilege to take over the recliner and “chill,” despite the presence of two busy little boys, 18 months and three years, in the same room.

Oh, cats.

But I’m leaning that stopping to “chill” isn’t all that bad.  With the memory lapses of aging, I find myself writing a lot of “remember” or “do” lists. Those lists glare at me and point fingers as they say, “You can do this, don’t be slack!”  But even as I check off my tasks, underneath all that busyness rumbles concern for friends and loved ones troubled by family problems, illnesses, and disappointments.

But sometimes I get tired.  Out of steam.  I need to sit down in my favorite recliner, get those feet up, sip some water, and take a life break.  Do I continue to mull over those problems? Well, yes--until the Lord reminds me to “chill.”  Take a time-out, with Him, and in my nearby Bible.

One of my favorite psalms admonishes me:
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for Him. (Psalm 37:7 NIV).
“Be still” is also translated “rest” in the King James and New American standard versions.  It’s an interesting word in the original Hebrew, daman, and used only one other place in the Bible, in Job 30:27.  There, it is paired with a negative so means “not rest.” Job is complaining about his circumstances and his unsympathetic friends, so much so that he can’t “be still.”  Here’s how "not"-daman (not rest) has been translated (along with possible digestive issues they imply):
“My bowels boiled, and rested not.” (KJV)  [The "trots"?]
“The churning inside me never stops.” (NIV) [IBS? Bloating?]
“I am seething within, and cannot relax.” (NASB) [GERD?]

When I watch Rosebud “chill,” she certainly isn’t worrying herself into an upset stomach.  Sometimes she’s purring, happy to have a place for a time-out, at least until a busy little guy interrupts her solitude. Then she's off to another quiet place rather than fret (or growl) over the problem. (Sometimes, that "other place" is her S-curved scratching post.) Interestingly, the phrase “do not fret” occurs three times in the first eight verses of Psalm 37.  I think God is trying to tell us something about how we approach life....maybe that sometimes we need to take a “chill” break--with Him--for perspective.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Paul's Think Tank: final instructions

Last of a series on Philippians 4:8.

An older neighbor who is battling renal failure and other
complications of diabetes gave us this orchid with a
note to "remember me by it." She gave specific
instructions of how to keep it blooming for years. I thought
this plant was the best way to finish illustrating
Paul's counsel to counter anxiety and worry  with thoughts of
God's love and wonderful future for believers!
When I was sick with pneumonia this spring, I was ready for any advice the doctor could give. He knew best: a powerful prescription and a strong cough syrup to better control my “cough-your-insides-out” hack. As I write this, a week after the worst of the illness, I’m grateful for the medical care available to me. As I’ve been thinking and writing about Philippians 4:8, I’ve come to see it as a “prescription” for the germs of anxiety and unbelief that can infect Christians and leave them miserable.

Paul knew the best medicine: to keep your eyes on Jesus. Paul suggested practicing this by rejoicing in all things, seeking to be gentle rather than troubled or harsh, and praying with thanksgiving. Then he added a second “medicine” for fear and anxiety: to get your eyes on the skies, thinking less about troubles and more about the praiseworthy attributes and works of God. And so the “think on” list--certainly not complete, but a good start for realigning our spiritual focus: true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.

In considering what this looks like in real-life, I quickly thought of someone who has every reason to complain. A teenage diving accident broke her neck, leaving Joni Eareckson Tada paralyzed from the neck down. Today she’s known as a best-selling author, respected mouth-artist, and active advocate for the disabled. But fifty years of paralysis has taken its toll, and she suffers with chronic and often excruciating pain. In an interview with Today’s Christian Woman (Nov. 21, 2015), Joni was asked what helps when she’s in pain and unable to do anything about it.  Her answer: she asks her caregivers to pray for her, and she sings or quotes a scripture over and over in her head. She especially likes hymns because the tunes stick in her mind and heart through the day. At the time of the interview, the second stanza to “Be Still My Soul” especially helped her “think on” the right things:

Be still, my soul, Thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul, the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Not until Heaven will we know a perfect world. But that doesn’t diminish God’s power or trustworthiness when life’s problems leave us frustrated, fearful, or anxious. Swedish hymnist Lina Sandell Berg, who helplessly watched her pastor-father drown when he fell off a boat in a storm, knew what it was like to trust God in unimaginably difficult circumstances. In one of her better-known children’s hymns, she expressed the challenge we all face: to trust God in whatever comes:
Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children server;
Unto them His grace He showeth, and their sorrows all He knoweth.

Reject anxiety. Think on these things.  Praise God for all that He is!