Friday, November 17, 2017

If trees could preach

After a long, dry and smoky summer, we’re delighting in the colorful turn of seasons to autumn. Within days of our first truly cold night, trees and bushes around here were spiking fall’s neon colors. That includes my neighbor’s tree.  As I enjoy seeing it turn to a glowing orange, I realize it soon will drop its dying leaves to the ground for raking and disposal.  The term “death to self”  came to mind because of some recent personal devotional reading of an old classic: Humility by Andrew Murray  (1828-1917), a South African writer, teacher and pastor, also known for his book, With Christ in the School of Prayer.

Reflecting on my last couple years of relational and spiritual challenges, I affirmed with Murray how “humility” isn’t high on a typical believer’s “want” list.  We gladly receive God’s gifts of life, sustenance, purpose, comfort, maybe even fame.  But if He calls us to let go of them, that’s another matter. It’s hard to see His purposes in loss, in the shedding of what is familiar.  Yet Murray says:

Accept with gratitude everything that God allows from within or without, from friend or enemy, in nature or in grace, to remind you of your need of humbling, and to help you to it. Believe humility to indeed be the mother-virtue, your very first duty before God, and the one perpetual safeguard of the soul.  (Whitaker House, 1982, p. 90)

Some people confuse “dying to self” with “death of self.” They’re not the same.  “God treasures your divinely created self,” writes Christian author Jan Johnson, “He doesn’t want to obliterate the part of you that makes you uniquely you. God works within you and reshapes you into the person your renewed-in-Christ self is meant to be: not selfish with what you own, not concerned about how circumstances affect only you, and not crabby when others seem to get what you want. “ *

 Murray concluded his book with this poem:

Oh, to be emptier, lowlier,

Mean, unnoticed, and unknown,

And to God a vessel holier,

Filled with Christ, and Christ alone!

 Or, as the apostle Paul said it to his pastor- protégé  Timothy: “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11 ESV).

*“Dying to Self and Discovering So Much More,” By Jan Johnson, Decision Magazine (August 25, 2011), accessible at:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Some ripe, some not

My winterizing chores include “the last rites” at of the small tomato patch on a sunny side of our garage. It’s my husband’s attempt at farming, and he pampers the soil to grow the best tomatoes he knows how. But when the nights chill in October, and the leaves start withering, I know I add “tomatoes” to my yardwork chores.  It’s too bad, as some of our biggest tomatoes are struggling to redden, and there are dozens of tiny ones that will never make it. After I pick the “possibilities,” I feel badly about pulling up the rest.

I guess it’s my personality to offer second and third chances, hoping people will lift their hearts fully to the Sun of Righteousness, the Lord Jesus.  When that doesn’t happen, I grieve, and have to reconcile myself to an imperfect world.  Even as I pulled those tomatoes, I thought of the many still-unanswered prayers. I just don’t understand,  I mused, then halfway remembered a little-known hymn with those opening words. I’d learned of it another time of uncertainty and trial.

Searching through the indexes of several hymnals, I found it in a small hymn collection gifted to me forty years ago by classmates at then-Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland.  It was their way of thanking me for playing piano in morning worship sessions that year. Within a year and a half, both my parents would die, and that paperback hymnal become part of God’s “comfort kit” as I worked through my grief. That hymn begins:
I am not skilled to understand/What God has willed, /What God has planned, /I only know at His right hand /Is One who is my Savior.

I never gave much thought to the author of the lyrics except to surmise that this person must have also had a great sadness that they had to leave in God’s hands.  A few clicks on the computer mouse brought me to her story. The author, Dora Greenwell (1821-1882), in the language of the late 1800s, was especially concerned with “idiots” and “imbeciles.”  Today we’d call them people with severe physical, emotional and mental disabilities. She visited asylums for these people, lifted spirits of society’s “lowest,” and raised money to help them. One biographer spoke of her personality as “rippling sunshine.” 

 She was born into a wealthy family but her father’s financial troubles and death sent the family into poverty. She moved in with a brother who was a vicar and devoted herself to the less fortunate. One friend said of her, “Her life was hid in Christ in God, but it was also wonderfully transparent to all who knew her...She had a wonderful knack of making one happy in her presence.”

Frail in health, she supported herself as a writer. She wrote essays mostly about women’s education and suffrage and the slave trade, and published biographies about French priest Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire and American Quaker John Woolman. Her book The Patience of Hope was published when she was 39.  (I was 48 when my book on patience was published!) Her poetry had a style similar to that of Christina Rossetti.  In 1873 she wrote eight “Songs of Salvation,” which included “I Am Not Skilled To Understand.” Prolific Gospel musician William J. Kirkpatrick set it to music.

The last verse goes: Yes, living, dying let me bring/My strength, my solace from this spring;/That He who lives to be my King/Once died to be my Savior.

It was just the message I needed that day: to leave with Jesus the problems that only He can solve.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Spoon squabble

"How come Zion has two spoons?”  my four-year-old grandson Josiah complained one recent lunch
about his  2 1/2-year-old brother’s “place setting.” When they eat at Nana’s house, they have “assigned” child sets. Josiah’s is a sectioned toddler plate that looks like a barn and has “fat-handle,” child-friendly knife/fork/spoon. Zion is using a family “heirloom” set from his dad’s babyhood,  a “Peter Rabbit” plate with Peter Rabbit child-size spoon and fork. Plus—and this is where the problem came in—I got him a toddler bent-handle spoon.  Still ambidextrous, he finds eating applesauce a challenge with either hand.  The bent spoon helps.  Thus, “spoon number 2.” 
The so-called “inequity” in place settings had never been brought up—until that day.
Deciding to solve the problem himself, Josiah took Zion’s Peter Rabbit spoon and put it by his plate. I reprimanded him and put it back by Zion’s plate. Josiah grabbed it again.  We had war on our hands.
Just then—I am telling the truth—I recalled another “sibling rivalry” that merited a discussion in the New Testament. 

The setting was the Sea of Galilee, after Jesus’ resurrection. Any appearance after His death and resurrection was awesome anyway, and this morning Jesus showed up on shore and performed a miracle for the up-until-then empty-netted fisherman, Peter and John among them. By the time they dragged the bulging net to shore, Jesus had built a fire to cook some for breakfast.  (I like this detail. Jesus knew practical skills like starting a fire without matches!)

After breakfast, Jesus had a penetrating conversation with Peter about how much Peter loved Him. After all, before Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied Him three times. Then Jesus predicted Peter’s death scenario: “When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). He wasn’t suggesting Peter would fade away in a nursing home, but that he’d have a difficult, helpless death that would glorify God.  Tradition says that Peter died of crucifixion, upside-down, the opposite of Christ’s death.

After that stunning revelation, Peter pointed at John. “Lord, what about him?”  In other words, if I have to die in misery, shouldn’t John, too? Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?  You must follow me”(21:22).

Historians say John died in extreme old age on a prison island.  But the lesson of this passage isn’t who-dies-how, but that living according to Jesus’ plan has no place for entitlement.  We can’t demand that Jesus give us a certain life that’s full of the things we want.  Health, education, employment, nice housing, a nice car, marriage, family, or even public recognition are not “givens” of the Christian life. Demanding them from God is the sin of coveting. We’re simply to trust and obey. Do our best with what God has given us. 

The rest of the spoon story? We’re back to “normal.” And Zion still makes a mess of eating applesauce, even with the bent spoon.  Someday….

Friday, October 27, 2017

One Mighty "Mighty Fortress"!

Among our valley's significant rock formations is "Castlerock,"
which  from some angles looks like a fortress with lookouts.
For the "mighty" in health, it's a popular hiking spot.
This Sunday will mark the quincentenary of a pivotal hammering. On the last day of October, in 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of his 95 disagreements with church teachings on the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Among them: the selling of “indulgences” to supposedly pardon peoples’ sins when all it did was pad the church coffers. His own personal struggle over receiving God’s forgiveness led Luther to see in a new light the scripture from Habakkuk and quoted in Romans, “The just shall live by faith.”  His life threatened, Luther went into protective custody at a sympathizer’s castle for a year where he began translating the Bible from Greek into German.

He also composed a hymn book. This was radical for days when “church music” consisted of Latin chants by priests. The most enduring of his hymns is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength.” Today known as the national hymn of Germany, it’s been translated into almost every known language. Its translation to English rhyme, by the way, was particularly troublesome because the original German was so vivid. There were at least 80 translations to English; the one most popular in America was done in 1852 by a Harvard professor.

The hymn reflects Luther’s awareness of spiritual battle. Often when he faced difficulty and danger, it’s said he’d often resort to singing this song. Not surprisingly, Luther was a musician, too. As a youth, he sang in a boy’s choir. He played flute and lute (a type of guitar), often helping lead congregational singing. He wrote in the foreword of one book:

Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.  It controls our thoughts, minds, heart, and spirits….A person who…does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God…does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

Another Luther quote on music: “If any man despises music, as all fanatics do, for him I have no liking; for music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men.  Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful.  Then one forgets all wrath, impurity, and other devices.”

Also, “The Devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as before the Word of God.”

In a preface to a hymn  collection, he wrote that God is “praised and honored, and we are made better and stronger in faith, when His holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.”

One historian said that, by giving the German people both the Bible in their own language and a German hymnbook, Luther enabled the people to listen to God through His Word and respond back to Him in their songs.  As Luther’s passion ignited the fires, congregational singing spread through the churches. Scholars believe some 25,000 hymns were written in just Germany in the first hundred years of the Reformation.

As an aside, Luther had passion for more than scriptural truth and song. No longer a Catholic monk, he became concerned about the plight of some local young nuns, virtually imprisoned in terrible conditions in a nearby convent. Twelve nuns were smuggled out of there in heavy barrels used to ship herring. He found suitable mates for all but one, Katherine Con Bora. He’d resisted the idea of marrying himself, thinking he’d probably die a heretic’s death. But eventually he married her himself.  She was 26 and he, 41. They had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Time for time-out

Having little ones (aka grandchildren) in the house has returned us to sometimes needing to “correct” misbehavior. With their parents’ okay we’re using “time out” as we did for their then-little dad (and his sister). Usually “time out” was enforced in the offender’s room (“on your bed, no books or toys!”) or isolation in a bare corner, the timer ticking typically for ten minutes. 

Sometimes I wish there was a way to enforce “time out” for misbehaving adult tongues. When I’ve been a victim of vile or angry words, verses from scripture throb with special meaning for me.  

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (Proverbs 15:28)

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (James 1:19-20)

One day I answered the phone to a barrage of angry words. Remembering counsel regarding this person’s issues, I didn’t attempt to set the person straight. Instead, I thanked them for calling and hung up. Shaking and upset, I realized I needed a “God-time-out” for spiritual encouragement. Within seconds, this thought crossed my mind, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”  I did—and later, thinking about that phrase, recalled how it came from a beloved hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Few realize that this tender hymn that almost didn’t reach publication.  Its author was Joseph Scriven, who immigrated from Ireland to Canada in the mid-1850s. His fiancé accidentally drowned the night before his wedding.  After that, he pursued an extremely frugal lifestyle of giving and serving. When his mother fell ill in far-off Dublin, he scribbled off a poem to encourage her. A friend chanced to see a copy on scratch paper at Scriven’s home. He was impressed, but Scriven just said with typical modesty, “The Lord and I did it between us.” It was later published in a small collection of poems, and set to music by a leading musician of the day. Well-known gospel musician Ira Sankey discovered the hymn in 1875 and included it in his own hymnbook. Scriven died himself of accidental drowning, like his fiancée, in 1886. The hymn’s text is inscribed on his gravestone in Port Hope, Ontario. I like the irony of his resting place!  I’m glad it’s “Hope,” not “Cape Disappointment,” as we have in my state where the Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean.

It’s just like the Lord to take something so simple and use it to bring hope and power to a believer’s life! All its verses speak comfort, but for me, the third was especially poignant:
Are we weak and heavy laden, Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?  Take it to the Lord in prayer;
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee—Thou wilt find a solace there.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Feeling sluggish

It’s a day I’d rather be attacking my chores, but instead I’m slogging through things with a drippy nose and a haze over my mind.  Between allergies (thanks, ragweed and weeks of smoke) and not enough sleep (waking up at 4 a.m.), I identify with the energy of a slug.  I admit that slugs get to where they want to go, though it takes a long time. And their presence isn’t exactly welcomed by most gardeners.

“Sluggishness” is no modern malady. Proverbs makes several references to the issues that keep a person from reaching his or her God-potential.

Proverbs 6:6-8 contrasts the “sluggard” with busy, think-ahead ants who prepare for the future that will come all too soon. “When will you rise from your sleep?” the writer asks the “sluggard.” Well, my “druthers” would have been rising at 6 a.m., but I’m aware of people who have real issues with wanting to get up. They have no compelling goals for each day or the future. One of my study Bibles comments in the margin: “As he waits and does nothing, opportunities slip away, and without notice his poverty and need overwhelm him.” 

 Some other observations of a “sluggard”:

He’s annoying to be around (Proverbs 10:26).

He wants everything given to him (13:4).

He imagines impassible obstacles (15:19).

He lets opportunity pass him by (20:4).

He craves things but won’t work for them (21:25).

He allows unfounded fear to makes situations seem worse than they really are (26:13).

He lacks inertia and a get-going attitude (26:14).

He waits for others to do things for him (26:15 and 19:24).

He thinks he knows it all—but doesn’t (26:16).

Well, enough whippings by a strand of cold spaghetti. I really do have goals for today. Every day, it seems, my “to do” list exceeds my hours. Today, now that the allergy meds have slowed down the nose faucet, I’m up and about and ready to go, though not at 100%.  Yes, an hour’s nap this afternoon will be very welcome.  But I will have prepared ahead for dinner, with the meat thawing and a menu in mind. (No, not fried slugs.  I’ll leave that delicacy to weird people.)

Friday, October 6, 2017

Well affixed

Mona Lisa, move over.  “Bob the Tomato” enjoys prominent display at the Zornes art gallery, aka refrigerator door.  “Bob,” from a Christian cartoon series featuring vegetables and fruits, was delivered with great flourish to our house about a year ago by its artist, grandson Josiah. Never mind that “Bob” (Josiah calls it Bob the “ToTAto”) has a mere hint of red crayon instead of the intense red of the edible real thing. Bob is a winning piece of art in its creator’s eyes. Recently, after 4-year-old Josiah removed “Bob” to show a visitor, I noticed “Bob” was re-affixed with extra security. You can never have too many decorative magnets to hold up a pre-schooler’s art—or at least Josiah must think so. 

While I chucked over Josiah’s extra-magnetic-security “affixing” of “Bob the Tomato,” something from the Bible clicked in my heart about the word “affix” and its relative “fix,” in the sense of “securing” something. I found it in Hebrews 12:2 (NIV): Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
This verse reminds me how I need to keep Jesus—and especially His suffering and victory—front and center on my spiritual perspective. Especially this past year, in the midst of bewildering spiritual challenges, I’ve realized how hard and how necessary it is to “not grow weary and lose heart.” Through adversity, He disciplines and “grows” me.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (v. 11)

“Fixing my eyes” requires that I guard against the busyness of life (like those random magnets) which could cover up:

*The “skull”—the grotesque, skeleton-like hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was nailed to the cross for my sins as part of the “sins of the world.” I don’t need to confine that remembrance to the season of Lent.

*The “scowls” and “scorn” of sinners who had no idea how much He loved them. As part of my spiritual training, He’s allowed me to experience “scowls” and “scorn” from  troubled people I’ve tried to reach out to—though certainly what I experience is a speck compared to the burden He carried.

*The “sweetness” of knowing, through faith, the Author and Perfecter of my faith who helped me to understand and have a relationship with God.

By the way, speaking of  “sweet,” our little “Bob the Tomato” artist (in contrast to many preschoolers) enjoys eating real tomatoes, especially the walnut-size “Sweet One Hundreds” from our tomato patch.