Friday, May 27, 2016

Think tank: honest

Second in a series on Philippians 4:8.
One of spring’s earliest bloomers, the lupine stalk bubbles with blossoms as its tip reaches to the sky. A member of the pea family (a genetic cousin is the sweet pea), its wild cousins are stunning as among the first flowers to sprinkle local hillsides. Simple and honest, they bring to mind the second Philippians 4:8 command to “think on” things that are honest (KJV).

One day at the grocery store checkout I got in line behind a woman with just a jug of milk.  Lifting it to the counter, she told the clerk, “This milk was on the bottom of my cart when I checked out and I forgot to show it to you. I saw it when I was loading my groceries into the trunk and knew I had to come back and pay for it.”

Honesty.  What a testimony!

Other, newer translations have chosen other words for the KJV’s “honesty,” semnos in the original Greek. It’s “honorable” (NLT), "noble" (NKJV), “worthy of reverence” (Amplified). One classic commentator suggested “nobly serious.” That brings up an image of wise, perhaps older, respected people. When we think on things that are “honest” we may think of people committed to uprightness. Like the lupine, they point up to God.

They are sources of godly wisdom.  Models of spiritual behavior. Lovers of God. Servers of God.  Some call them “mentors.”  I’ve had several in my life. Some became tight friendships, almost like a parent. Others threaded their golden wisdom in and out of my life as God wove the unique tapestry that is me.

In reading 1 Timothy 5 lately, I thought of such people in every church. In this passage, Paul was giving young Pastor Timothy a “performance review,” like so many of us have had in our jobs.  Paul’s counsel hints that Timothy, as pastor of a large church, may have been tempted to be too proud of his “training credentials” under famed apostle Paul. Listen to Paul’s advice:

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. (5:1)

Paul didn’t say, “Let ‘em have it, Timothy. Cut ‘em down to size.  Show ‘em who’s boss.”  Instead, he reminded Timothy to respect the wisdom that comes to older men and women with spiritual growth, and to leave no room for criticism from his generational peers.

As my husband and I discussed people we knew who were “semnos” or honest and spiritually mature, we recalled aging pastors and conference speakers who were part of our past. Their lives were open books that reflected God’s holiness. They left us an example—and a challenge. Are we pointing up to a holy God in all that we do?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Think tank: "true"

Blue columbine grow in a little triangle flowerbed of perennials my son planted for me several years ago. Oh, his creative touch with lavender, lupine and other flowers bringing a dead corner to life every spring. Though columbine come in many colors, I’m glad he chose blue, my favorite hue. It’s soothing and also connected with loyalty or constancy, as in “true blue.”  Maybe that’s why I pay extra attention with I come across “true” in the Bible as in the sense of real, ideal, genuine, manifest, uncompromised.. John called Jesus “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Many passages in Revelation use “true” in describing God’s attributes. Then there’s Philippians 4:8, urging us to think about whatever is true.

It’s true that Paul wrote these words while a prisoner in Rome. But instead of complaining, he sought God’s true purposes in his situation and found the joy that throbs through this epistle. He gave struggling believers some “think tank” homework—to think  (meditate) on God’s praiseworthy attributes, starting with “true.” He knew it would change their outlooks and lives.
 
The “think tank” assignments follow Paul’s practical advice about surviving hard times: *Rejoice in the Lord always.  Long ago I had a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Praise the Lord Anyway!” One day a hefty teen guy was helping me carry out a big load of groceries. You guessed it: a glass jar rolled out and almost broke. Noticing my bumper sticker, he rolled his eyes and said, “Praise the Lord, anyway.”  I don’t think that’s quite what Paul had in mind! Instead, it is a mindset for life that says even when I can’t understand what’s happening, I rejoice in God who sees far ahead and helps me.

*Let your gentleness be evident to all.  I hope I’m not the lady who blusters about so much that people wish she wasn’t around. A “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4) has been on my “remember-to-practice” list for a long time. I’m glad Paul added, “The Lord is near.” He sees every speck of behavior, good or bad.

*Do not be anxious about anything. Oh, this one stings. Can’t I just be “concerned”? But carnal concern slops over into sinful anxiety quite easily.

*In everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Those with high anxiety are apt to be those who obey the “pray over problems” a lot.  They stay anxious because God doesn’t answer their prayers promptly enough or in the way they want. They forget the “thanksgiving” part, which would say, “God, this is big in my life. I don’t see a solution, but thank You that You already have a better answer in mind. Thank you that some day I’ll look back and see Your wisdom.  I praise you that it’s not all about me and my worry-prayers but about You being a wise, gracious and loving God.”

Living and praying God’s way, Paul said, results in true peace. It’s not that push-back-in- the-recliner for a sigh-filled “end of day,” but a spiritual peace that “transcends all understanding.” It will also “guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).  Now, that’s “beyond understanding.” 

Next: “honest”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Guilt and innocence

Saved by the nose and antlers! Thanks to my husband’s fun December “décor” for our car (antlers on the windows, red nose on the front grill), we avoided a $124 fine for allegedly running a red light. When the ticket first came in the mail, we were aghast.  Neither of us could recall doing that, and the murky camera image printed on the citation wasn’t any help. Then I noticed I could go to a web site to view the official film by the traffic camera mounted above that intersection. That video showed the middle-lane car clearly running the red light. Our car (with its antlers) was legally stopped in the far right lane. Somehow, our license number was wrongly put on the citation—something I noted at the bottom of the form requesting a court appearance to dispute the ticket. I was ready to hold up the car antlers while the judge watched the video validating our innocence. I didn’t have to. A few weeks later, another note came from the court. This time it said, “File reviewed by judge.  Violation found not committed due to wrong license plate cited.  Case closed.”

A few weeks later, another “infraction” notice I questioned came in the mail.  For this I appealed to the Judge of all who warned about letting “bitter roots” take hold in our hearts (Hebrews 12:15). About fifteen years earlier, this person (then a teenager) took an innocent comment the wrong way and finally told me it still bugged them. I was unaware of this person’s negative reaction, and felt sad for how a grudge had rooted in this person’s heart. But I choose the Biblical response and wrote asking forgiveness. Soon after, I received from this person a four-page, single-spaced letter that I felt attacked my character. Seeing my tears as I began reading it, my husband said, “Let me read it.”  I replied, “If you do, you’ll think I’m a horrible person and wonder why you married me.” Reluctantly, I handed it over. He went through it, noting false and distorted statements. He pointed out words that served as clues to the writer’s own emotional state: angry, stressed, anxious, upset. “How should I respond?” I asked. “Don’t,” he said. “This could go on and on. Burn it.”

Before doing as he suggested, I read it several more times, trying to discern what message God had for me in the midst of its negatives.  I wanted the open heart of Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart...See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
 
For weeks afterwards, my Bible reading led me to many verses about forgiving and bearing with others’ weaknesses.  As if to reinforce that Biblical instruction, I happened to come across this quote from Phil Yancey’s excellent book Reaching for the Invisible God  (Zondervan, 200, p. 179):
Forgive, daily, those who caused the wounds that keep you from wholeness. Increasingly, I find that our wounds are the very things God uses in his service.  By harboring blame for those who caused them, I stall the act of redemption that can give the wounds worth and value, and ultimately healing.
I’m glad I never had to go to court with our comic Christmas car décor.  But every day “court is in session” as I seek to live as a citizen of heaven. I know this: that the Judge of all who sees into our hearts weighs all the evidence, and that He is absolutely fair and merciful.

Readers: has dealing with a "bitter root" been a part of your spiritual experience?
 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Return visitors

Last week I ended seven months of blogging about God-messages I sensed during September’s five-day vacation on one of the Hawaiian islands.  Of course, people have asked, “Are you planning a return trip?”  Not sure on that!  In the meantime, here are some true “return visitors.”  Welcome to my weedy back yard! There’s a hidden, five-feet-wide space between our house and the neighbor’s fence that annually produces a crop of dandelions.  Tall rhododendrons hide it from street view, but I know it’s there.  Every spring, when I fight scratchy rhododendron branches to rake their carpet of dead leaves, I also bring a bucket to hold the crop of dandelions I pull.

That they return every year reminds me how spiritual “weeding” is an ongoing process.  Without self-examination and confession, my life would sprout a thick patch of weeds, particularly those which Hebrews 12:15 describes:
See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that passage lately, probably because I was recently the target of someone’s "bitter root" toward me. Still hurting from that person's negative comments, I came to church this past Sunday never imagining the sermon would be so well tailored to my needs. The speaker spoke on his own experiences with “bitter roots,” depression and hatred, using scriptures that have become old friends from my own earlier painful lessons in this area.  I especially thought of two spiritual character lists the apostle Paul wrote to different churches:

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Rid yourself of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips....Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. (Colossians 3:8, 12)
There’s no cavalier, self-centered “you made me mad, therefore I don’t like you” in these verses. They reveal the gritty, difficult, humbling work of living as Christ would have us live.  For me, the closer I get to Christ, the more I realize I need His grace, day by day, in pulling the character weeds that need to go.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Golden truths

A series inspired by a visit to Kauai
The hotel where we stayed in Kauai had “Koi feeding” as one of its in-house activities. Dozens of the colorful tropical fish filled a pool adjacent to the restaurant.  When the waiter assigned to “feeding duties” came with his telltale can of koi food, the pool turned nearly solid orange with thrashing fish. Their feeding frenzy reminded me of my childhood, when I biked to a nearby salmon hatchery with friends. In those days before security fences and safety precautions, we kids could walk alongside the long concrete pools of juvenile salmon. They churned the water to froth as they spotted us, thinking we were the “keepers” who tossed them food.

Yes, koi are pretty, their scales an attractive mosaic of white, orange, yellow, and black. Most of these fish were a foot in length. I asked the keeper their value.  He smiled and said, “Expensive.”  An on-line search showed koi costing up to $225 each. One source said they can live a century.  Unless, of course, something looking for a fish dinner shows up.

Sometimes my mind goes in strange directions, and as I watched the hungry, showy koi, I remembered a song from the 1957 Broadway show, “West Side Story.”  In one scene, Maria is in high spirits because a boy has paid attention to her.  She dances and sings, “I feel pretty and witty and bright!” Our culture easily connects beauty (like koi?) with desirability. But the Bible warns against linking the two.  A case in point comes from the book of First Samuel.  Big, muscular, handsome-hunk Saul was serving as Israel’s first king. Before being anointed king, he was described as “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:3). But a few years into his reign, his character flaws emerged. Then came his biggest mistake: saving some booty from the raid on the Amalekites, even though he was told to destroy everything.

Off Samuel went on a secret mission to anoint a king-in-waiting. God led him to Jesse of Bethlehem, father of many big, handsome sons. But the one God chose was a little guy out in the pasture with the sheep. God saw in David the character He wanted:
The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

God’s like that. He chooses unlikely candidates and grooms them for His great assignments. They may wrestle with their human frailties in health or personality. But God isn’t limited by those. Paul wanted to be freed of a debilitating “thorn in the flesh”—whatever it was. But God designed for him to live with it, in the power of Christ, encouraging him with the words that still apply to us:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:5)

Ministry isn’t about being colorful, big and aggressive (like those pricey koi in the hotel ponds). It’s about the golden promise that as we yield our dullness and weakness to Christ, He can transform us to love and serve Him well.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The company of clay pots

A continuing series inspired by sights in Kauai.
The gigantic nursery we visited in eastern Kauai also had a lot devoted to planters and pots. Oh, my! I had a hard time imagining the size of the potter’s wheels necessary to throw the largest ones. Thankfully, in Kauai’s warm climate, they won’t suffer the indignities of being cracked by frozen soil inside.  That’s what happened one winter to one of my nicer clay pots.

Paul’s words, which I first memorized in the King James version, rang in my heart:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (1 Corinthians 4:7)
The NIV puts it bluntly: “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” We’re just lumps of baked earth, mud, if you will.  For all the ways we try to dress up these old bodies, with preening and haircuts and clothes, it comes down to this: without the breath of God in our beings, we’re as dead as dirt.

Paul was dealing with a church that must have enjoyed showmanship. He previously had to censure their tolerance of blatant sin, raucous and showy services, and divisions over which pastor they followed. (Ouch! I’ve seen that in Christendom today!).  He drew the line:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

 God doesn’t need fragile, priceless Ming vases to carry out His work. He uses ordinary people who don’t call attention to themselves. The ones who see themselves as clay pots, fired in the oven of affliction, sturdy and ready to go to work. Proclaiming Jesus, as Savior.

 There’s one problem with this picture.  All the pots are waiting, unused. Paul would say: fill ‘em with dirt, get them growing something. Keep them earth-serving, heaven-focused:

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Garden-tender

A series inspired by sights of Kauai.
With its nickname as “The Garden Island,” we expected to see lots of eye-candy as we traveled throughout Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. But when we came over the top of one hill and saw a sign, “Nursery,” we turned in, wondering what a commercial nursery in the tropics could offer.  Oh, my, the shelters went on and on and on, protecting new and maturing plants. The web site of this facility boasted 60,000 square feet of greenhouses and more than seventy acres of landscape plants and materials. The facility covers 150 acres and employs about a hundred people.  What a far cry from one of our town’s seasonal “garden centers” at a local appliance and furniture store. It exists for a few months in the spring, a third of the parking lot covered with bark and rows of plants and trees.
 
As we walked through a small portion of the facility, I thought of how appropriate it is, that the word “nursery” is applied to the “beginnings” of both plant and human life. The repeated use of the term “little children” by the aging, venerable apostle John echoed in my heart. The last of the apostles to die, somewhere in his nineties after a long imprisonment on a remote island, his weak old heart beat with compassion for the spiritual children he would leave behind.  His first epistle ends simply but with an impassioned plea, “Dear children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). Of all the ways he could have said, “the end,” he “punched out,” as it were, with what he saw as the greatest threat to the church: idols.
 
The whole epistle seems to throb with John’s fatherly concern for believers. Frequently he used the term “children” (Gk: teknon) or “little children (teknion, diminutive form).  As an old man, weak in body and soon to die, it seems all he can think of were those fresh-faced believers who haven’t been spiritually seasoned like him.  He wanted them to grow into a robust faith, despite the apostasy of the times:

As I read the epistle, I have to stop whenever I see “children.” It suggests both our position in Christ and our spiritual vulnerability. Linger as you read these:
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.” (1 John 2:1)
“I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.” (2:12)
“I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father. (2:13)
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.” (2:18)
“And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him as his coming” (2:28)
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (3:1)
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.” (3:7)
“This is how we know who the children of God are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; neither is anyone who does not love his brother.” (3:10)
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (3:18)
“You, dear children, are from God, and have overcome them [false prophets], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (4:4)
“This is how we now that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out His commands” (5:2)

Here’s the big message I get from this: in God’s nursery of young, growing, vulnerable  believers, the early church was blessed by a passionate, caring “attendant.”  For the Gospel to be properly “propagated,” John would not shirk his duties until God called him Home. He left us an example.