Friday, January 23, 2015

Junk call reflections


Photo taken late fall at our local riverfront park.
The sight reminded me that God has purposes 
worth reflecting on, even in life's "winter" times.
 
The phone rang and I almost tripped and broke my big toe/neck/something-else-vital in my hurry to answer it. In an urgent, buy-it-now voice, the robotic caller asked if I knew how many people fall and can’t get up? Thus, the recording said, I urgently needed to be connected with a standing-by operator to order the magic button that will summon an ambulance, Boy Scouts, National Guard, and Secret Service to my limp body.
 
I chose their “do not call me again” option, although I’m sure they will try again. Since my age has bumped me into solicitors’ list for “health gadgets”—despite signing up for the national “do not call” lists—I’m sure I’ll hear from the panic-button people again. But whenever those calls do come, I find myself reflecting a moment on who I am and where I am going.  This late-fall (pun intended) reflection photo of branches in an inlet of our local waterfront park speaks of my reflective mood right now. Perhaps that’s because I recently attended the memorial service for a faithful 84-year-old Christian who lived a block away.

Funerals prompt reminders of our own mortality. So do death-flirting incidents like bad accidents. One night in 1997, as our family headed home from a vacation, a drinking driver imagined that he was making a turn on the Indy 500 track. Unfortunately, our car was in his way as he veered across the center line. SMASH! Our car turned into junk and we spent a night in an emergency room hours away from home. Ditto this past Thanksgiving, when a teen driver learned the hard way that speed and corners are incompatible, and his fish-tailing car smashed into us, even though, seeing him coming, we’d pulled off the road.

 As my husband and I watched our destroyed vehicle cranked onto a tow truck (we escaped without visible injury), we expressed similar thoughts about how God knows the day and hour that our task on earth is done. For believers, the next destination is Heaven. E.M. Bounds said it so well in his book, Heaven: A Place, A City, a Home (Revell, 1921, p. 125):
Heaven ought to draw and engage us.  Heaven ought to so fill our hearts and hands, our manner and conversation, our character and our features, that all would see that we are foreigners, strangers to this world, natives of a nobler clime, fairer than this. Out of tune, out of harmony, out of course, we must be of this world. The very atmosphere of this world should be chilling to us and noxious, its suns eclipsed and its companionship dull and insipid.  Heaven is our native land and home to us, and death to us is not the dying hour, but the birth hour.

God will never call us with a nuisance sales pitch. Yet His call to our hearts is firm and true. Daily, He whispers that Heaven-focused question, “What will you do today on earth in response to My Son’s costly death for your salvation? How will you show this world that Jesus matters to you?”

At such times we need more than “reflection.” We may fall, but God is ready to help us up. And then, we need to get to work and stir the waters in the time left!

Friday, January 16, 2015

No "kid play"

A neighbor who raises goats has a child’s fort that her animals play on. When I saw it the first time, my mind jumped to an old American idiom,  “Got your goat?” which roughly translates, “Does this irritate you?”
 
Here’s one version of the background.  In the early days of horse-racing (some say the 1700s), some race horses were easily agitated.  Trainers learned that putting a goat in their stalls had a calming effect and, presumably, helped the horses run with focus and speed at the next race.  If someone “got your goat” (stole it), you’d end up with a nervous horse who couldn’t run well when the pressure was on.

The other morning, I found myself praying again about people who “get my goat.”  One way to describe them is through this old quip, “I love mankind.  It’s people I can’t stand.”  Some are hard to love because they’ve turned their backs on Christ. Our world views just don’t mesh, and our conversations are like throwing ping pong balls over the Grand Canyon. Others have considered themselves Christians for years, but are chronically anxious, apathetic, or angry.  This time, I’m bouncing ping pong balls off a wall.

Both have the same result: distracting me from my “race”—“the one for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:14). I find myself praying, “Lord, these people are so hard to live with.”  And then I sense His eyes peering right into my soul,  saying, “Tell me about people who are hard to live with.”  I know who He means: twelve, culled from hundreds.  They doubted, murmured, wanted fame, complained, and just “didn’t get it”--time after time.  Jesus changed that flippant quip about loving people in general to this: “I love mankind. I died for it.”

And that’s why my prayers about “hard-to-love-people” usually end up with confession of my own need of grace.  I still need schooling in behaviors like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Living out these godly behaviors is no kid play.  Like high-strung race horses,  I'm easily distracted and stubborn.  But I have the difference maker, the Holy Spirit, who helps me keep going when the pressure’s on.  Or, as Paul said:
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Gal. 5:25-26).

Got your calming Companion?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Faith's steps

When I re-read Philippians 2:12-13, an unlikely setting comes to mind: the girl’s locker room of my town’s original junior high school. There, about forty years ago as a fresh-from-college newspaper reporter, I joined a young radio reporter in interviewing entertainer Pat Boone—yes, he of the white shoes fame. The celebrity had been invited as speaker for an all-city Easter worship service. But just before he went on stage in the football field adjacent to the junior high, these novice reporters had  a few minutes with him. I think the radio’s reporter asked the question: “What is your favorite Bible verse?” Quickly, Boone quoted these two verses of Philippians 2:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Here I was, with fear and trembling as a green-behind-the-ears reporter, facing a celebrity musician. Boone’s reply reminded me that no matter our station in life, we stand in humility beneath the Cross..  Our purpose is not to pile up accolades but to live in obedience to Christ.  We’re not to work for our salvation (it’s already been secured through Christ’s death on the cross) but to work out, in steps of obedience that change our behavior to Christlikeness.

These stairs, photographed at a community park, remind me of how the Christian walk is a progression of steps upward as God works in our lives, giving us “the desire to obey Him and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).  Similarly, Peter added in his second letter, “His [God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”   (1 Peter 1:3).

Think of “going higher” with God as via Peter’s words on spiritual growth:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8).

This doesn’t say that you conquer the step of “goodness” and then the step of “knowledge,” and so on.  Rather, in each step of our walk with Christ, all these attributes of godliness should increase.  If they don’t, here’s Peter’s warning:
But anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure (v.9).

Peter’s last phase (“be all the more eager”) seems to echo Paul’s (“work out...with fear and trembling”). Salvation isn’t about plopping down on the first step of “knowing God” through a “spiritual decision,” and leaving it at that. Instead, it’s taking spiritual growth one step at a time, with “fear and trembling,” for we serve a holy God. But we do this with eagerness because of all that He has done for us!

Monday, January 5, 2015

In His hands

There’s unspeakable awe when you cradle the grapefruit-size head of a newborn.  Knitted together, as Psalm 139 says, in the darkness of a mother’s womb, each baby is a bold statement  of God’s amazing creative power.  Those were some of my thoughts as I held my second grandchild, a boy, a few days ago.  As I handed the little one, mere hours old, over to my husband in the hospital room, I was struck by the poignant image of hands, big and small. These scriptures came to mind:
Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. (Psalm 119:73)
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands... (Psalm 31:14-15)
Even as adults, we are cradled, as it were, in the powerful, loving hands of God. May we never forget that! Life will come with its hard times, but we have the Lord’s help.

A few verses later in Psalm 31 come verses that parallel a modern Christian expression: “God is good, all the time.  And all the time, God is good.”
How great is your goodness which you have stored up for those who fear you. (Psalm 31: 19)
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord. (Psalm 31: 24)

This little one has the name “Zion,” taken from another name for Jerusalem and implying “strength.” He will need strength and help for surgeries to correct his crooked little smile from a cleft lip and palate. Yet he is blessed to be born into a home where Christ is honored.  This grandma’s prayer is that some day he will say, similar to the psalmist,  “I trust in you, O Lord. You are my God.  My times are in your hands.”

Friday, January 2, 2015

Psalm 136: It Bears Repeating!

Our perception of God's attributes is sometimes
foggy, but praise sharpens what we understand of Him.
Can you repeat these words without looking?
Give thanks…His love endures forever.
Congratulations! You have just quoted half of Psalm 136—or at least the second half of its 26 verses! Responsive readings were frequently part of services in the church where I grew up. When the reading was Psalm 136, this little pig-tailed girl felt quite proud of knowing half a psalm! But as I grew up and reconsidered this psalm, I realized it packs a lot more than that repeated refrain. In fact, I’d consider it a great “New Year’s Psalm” for its emphasis on simply thanking God in everything.

For devout Jews, reciting this psalm antiphonally was part of observances of both the Jewish Passover and Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah). Priests shouted the beginning of each verse, and the people responded with the refrain. Most important, the psalm praises God for His unique, inexplicable and generous love toward us.  The 1611 King James version renders the repeated refrain, “for His mercy endures forever.” However, “mercy” doesn’t convey as well the original Hebrew chesed, which named God’s kindness, loyalty and never-ending fidelity toward His people. The psalm attempts to praise this chesed through a sweeping description of history.

CALL TO WORSHIP (vv. 1-3)
The psalm before this, 135, also praised God as being greater than the “gods” of other nations around them. It talked of silver and gold images that had mouths, eyes, ears, and nostrils, but couldn’t speak, see, hear, or breathe (135:13-17). They contrast with the God of gods, and Lord of lords, “who alone does great wonders” (136:4). He’s not some little trinket image of false religions. He is real and powerful.

CREATOR (vv. 4-9)
All of creation showcases His power: the heavens, earth, waters, great lights, and cycles of day and night. We can praise God for designing the earth’s axis to give us seasons, for a sun at the right distance to support and not incinerate life, and a reflective moon to lift the oppression of night.  And don’t get me started on the marvel of stars, which bewilder our attempts to number.

REDEEMER (vv. 10-15)
No other nation can claim a history of redemption like the Jews. After years of enduring bitter enslavement in a foreign land, they saw the flower of Egypt’s manhood smashed. They escaped through a miraculous yawn in the waters of the Red Sea.

GUIDE (v. 16)
The verse is so simple: “him who led his people through the desert.” The logistics would be humanly impossible. The refugees numbered 600,000 men plus wives and children (Exodus 12:37). Some estimate that to total at least two million. How could so many survive in an barren desert—except for God’s miracle of food and water?

CHAMPION (vv. 17-22)
Some people are paralyzed by fears. They don’t try because they think they’ll fail.  Or, they don’t look for other ways to achieve goals with God’s help. The Jews could still be wandering in the desert, afraid of the next step, if God hadn’t gone before them in warring against its pagan kings.  The only way to the Promised Land was through these kings’ lands.

I always wondered why only two kings were mentioned in this psalm when many other rulers had to be defeated. The answer may be that “Sihon” and “Og” were the most significant rulers of the area. Together they ruled over an area of roughly 17,000 square miles east of the Jordan. Sihon ruled the northeast shoulder of the Dead Sea, about 30 by 60 miles. Og ruled over 60 cities, many big enough to be walled (Joshua 13:30). His kingdom stretched north to Mount Hermon. He was also a huge, physically threatening man, descended from “giant” stock. Moses later wrote that Og’s bedstead measured 9 cubics long by 5 wide—in our measuring system 13’6” by 6’ wide. It was displayed for a time at Rabboth as a memorial (Deu. 3:11), something of a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” in Bible times.
 
The story of conquering both kings is told in Numbers 21, but its retelling in Deuteronomy 2-3 reveals God’s heart.  He told Moses, “See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you.  Now begin to conquer and possess his land” (Deut. 2:31). God didn’t push Moses and his warriors forward without assuring them that He was their champion. He is still our champion and advocate in life’s challenges.

HELPER, RESCUER, PROVIDER (vv. 23-25)
What wonderful attributes of God are packed into these closing verses. Being snared in a “low estate” (v. 23) is everyone’s story, for without Christ we are lost and needy. But we are rescued from the snares of sin through Christ’s offer of salvation. And God provides what we need. Enough has been said of how the holiday shopping frenzy tries to persuade us we need this gadget or that, or nicer clothes or…or….  In contrast, Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”

GOD OF ALL AND MORE (vv. 1-3, 26)
Our English translations are prone to make us skip over the praiseworthy names of “God” that have definite and revered meanings in the original Hebrew. Four are worth noting:
v. 1: “LORD,” for “YHWH” (what we call “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”), which is the name of God so holy that no pious Jew would write or articulate it. 
v. 2: “God of gods” or “Elohim over false gods.” “Elohim” denoted the strong and true God, as opposed to heathen gods.
v. 3: “Lord of lords” or “Adonai over false gods.” “Adonai” meant “lord” or “master” and conveyed submission to God’s authority.
v. 26: “God of heaven” or “Elohim over all.” This is the God of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” His name “Elohim” occurs more than 2,500 times in the Old Testament. He is all the powers of eternity and infinity. The praise of Psalm 136 must go back to God’s first revelation of Himself.  The One who crafted and populated earth is the only true One, and the only One capable of hearing, “His love endures forever.”  And that bears repeating, over and over and …..

Friday, December 26, 2014

Dust-catchers and "keepers"

One display shelf of many at one thrift store
Knick-knacks, trinkets, “tchotches,” baubles, dolls and collections of every sort—inevitably they find themselves abandoned on a “for sale” table. I admit that I have some “trinkets” around, like a few pieces of my late mother’s cobalt blue Depression glass and a palm-size “Winnie the Pooh” from the estate of a friend who loved me unconditionally. I could probably fill a table with such things that have personal connections. But I don’t like to dust “stuff.”  It’s hard for me to love “stuff” that doesn’t love me back.

Especially when I tag along on my husband’s visits to yard sales and thrift stores, and I walk right past the tables with unwanted trinkets, I think of Jesus’ lessons about wealth and “stuff.”  In His Sermon on the Mount, He reminded listeners that earthly treasures are vulnerable to moth, rust, and theft (Matthew 6:19-21).  I might add, fire, remembering the hundreds of families an hour’s drive north of my hometown who lost everything in this summer’s massive fires.  That included our 74-year-old bachelor friend. All he had—including family heirloom quilts, photos, his father’s passed-down tools—incinerated in minutes.

Jesus also had hard words for people who wanted more and more. When a man came to him seeking an advocate in an inheritance situation, He answered with a parable about a greedy man who kept putting up storehouses for all his grain and goods. This makes one think about the proliferation of storage units in our times for people who have too much “stuff.” It’s also the thinking behind this framed cross-stitch my husband found at a thrift store: “She who dies with the most fabric wins.” He bought it thinking of the many boxes and bags of fabric scraps generously passed my way by those who heard that I was sewing baby blankets for hospitals to give needy families. Because we live in a small house, and my “sewing storage” was confined to a box under a bed, I sewed and donated the blankets as quickly as I could. So no, the cross-stitch wasn’t “me.” I have it in a “to donate” box. J

Back to Mr. Greedy, Jesus answered by warning the crowd, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” The writer of Hebrews emphasized the same: “Keep yourselves free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5). “Too much” crosses the line to hoarding.
 
So, are there legitimate “keepers” in God’s viewpoint?  Not surprisingly, the Bible gives several suggestions.
*God’s Word. “Keep my words and store up my commands within you” (Proverbs 7:1, also Proverbs 2:1).
*Purity. “Keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22).  This is also expressed as a “keep from”: “Keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). “Keep…from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
*Spiritual fervor. “Keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).
These don’t take up shelf space, only heart space.  And a heart full of the things of God is the best “full” of all.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Benchmarks

Visitors to a garden park in my daughter’s hometown can pause on benches like this, many telling in whose memory they are donated. When I saw them, the term “benchmark” came to mind. But when I checked its meaning in the dictionary, I wondered if I might be wrong.  One definition started out:
“A mark on a permanent object indicating elevation and serving as a reference in topographical surveys and tidal observations.”
In other words, it’s a geographic indicator, like lowest or highest point in the continental U.S.
Then another dictionary offered this secondary meaning:
“Anything that is taken as, or serves as, a point of reference.”

What a great description of Christmas, the birth of Jesus! He is our point of reference. His coming in the unlikely package of a baby is the point of which history turned from despair to hope.  From the “lowly” miracle babe in a manger, He grew up to be the crucified, risen, and ascended Savior, who someday will come again.

The apostle Paul thought much about such benchmarks in his own life. In 1 Corinthians 15 he wrote much about the “high point” of faith, of Christ’s resurrection and the hope of eternity with Him.  At the same time, Paul didn’t hide the “low” point of his religious practices.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.(1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

John Newton, slave-trader-turned-minister, must have thought much about this verse. Similar words were engraved on the gravestone of the “Amazing Grace” author, who died in 1807:
John Newton, Clerk
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A Servant of Slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
JESUS CHRIST
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long labored to destroy

Nobody will deny that the Christmas season has become a frenzy of shopping, entertaining, and programs. When we take that all away, it comes back to this benchmark: that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.  That point of reference strips the holiday season to this one, non-negotiable response:
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift. (2 Corinthians 9:15)