Friday, May 26, 2017

Danger at the sunny spot

This week’s blog is for all you who once devoured kid-friendly mystery books whose titles included scary words like “trouble,” “secret,” or “danger.” It could have involved blood and murder on our front porch. The innocent victim was approximately 100 people years old (18 years in feline equivalent), taking his afternoon snooze in a sunny spot on our porch. One wall away in our bedroom, we (Augie the cat’s owners) were taking an afternoon snooze when awakened by growls, barks, and snarling wails. I rushed to the front door and saw Augie, fluffed to twice his size, trying to hiss down a boxer-type dog that outweighed him probably five times.

When I opened the door (risking the dog attacking me), both animals fled at high speed.  I didn’t know our cat had that much energy left in him. And, seeing the jowls on that dog, I decided the incident probably extinguished our cat’s  final “9th life” and he surely was dead of a cat heart attack somewhere.  About twenty minutes later, the dog’s owner turned onto our street and shooed him into her car.  Apparently he’d gotten loose, and his meandering through nearby neighborhoods had brought him to our porch and a likely candidate to taunt. 

We called and called, using the magic words “Friskies” and “treats” (two “people” words he understands). I poked my head through the broken fence between our house and the next where he may have made his getaway.  Still, no response to kitty-calls. An hour later, our insulted senior cat returned home and was properly “treated” for his success in fending off canine snoops.We laugh about it, but it's no laughing matter when we're victims of spiritual attack. I've been there with someone else's mean and irrational behavior.  At such times, I'm reminded of Peter’s picture of how Satan tries to attack believers:
Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
Like the “prowling dog” on our street, Satan likes to pounce on the unsuspecting. We’re not alone in facing such attacks.  Peter further taught: Resist him [the devil], standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:9).

Spiritual reality is that we’ll all experience a “danger at the sunny spot,” maybe more often than we’d like. One well-known example is the church at Corinth, struggling with enemy attack in the form of lust, idolatry, sexual immorality, disbelief, and grumbling (1 Corinthians 10:7-10). Amidst these temptations, the apostle Paul urged the believers, stay faithful. God isn’t taken by surprise by these attacks.  I like how the Amplified Version (which tries to more accurately translate from original languages) puts it:

But God is faithful [to his Word and to His compassionate nature], and He [can be trusted] not to let you be tempted and tried and assayed beyond your ability and strength of resistance and power to endure, but with the temptation He will [always]also provide the way out—the means of escape to a landing place—that you may be capable and strong and powerful patiently to bear up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13b Amplified Version 1958, boldface added)

Is “danger” snarling at your door? Remember your divine escape route!

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Transformation of "Much Afraid"

Hurnard's allegory frequently mentions falls, leading me to share this late 1980s
family photo showing falls at Rainy Lake in Washington's North Cascades.
My children  (pictured with their dad) are adults and parents of their own children.
How would you like to be named “Much-Afraid” and feel stuck in your negative life? So starts one of the lesser-known Christian allegories titled, Hinds’ Feet in High Places.  I recently re-read my copy of the 1955 work by Hannah Hurnard, who spent most of her life in missionary work in the Holy Land. Hinds' Feet is counter-cultural to a world that promotes the idea of “upward mobility" in social class, wealth and status. Instead, like another recently revived Christian novel (What Would Jesus Do?—remember WWJD?), it promotes “downward nobility,” moving “down” to the high example of Christ’s servanthood.

Hurnard’s book title comes from the concluding verses of the Old Testament “minor prophet” Habakkuk, who lived in perilous times as his nation fell apart:

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer [hind].  He enables me to go on the heights. (3:19)

Like John Bunyan’s allegory “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Hinds’ Feet is a journey metaphor. The main character is an orphan from the “Family of Fearlings” named “Much Afraid,” who had crooked feet (probably “clubbed” in today’s terms) and a disfigured face with a “crooked mouth.” She was being raised by her aunt, “Mrs. Dismal Forebodings,” along with her two cousins, sisters “Gloomy” and “Spiteful” and their brother “Craven Fear,” a bully. But she yearns to be near the kind “Chief Shepherd” (Jesus) of the nearby mountain. When faced with an arranged marriage to “Craven Fear,” she flees the dark and gloomy hamlet of “Much-Trembling” in search of the Shepherd. During her long and treacherous climb to “spiritual high places,” constantly taunted by evil faces of her old life in the valley, she learns deepening trust in the Shepherd.  Finally, she is healed and her name changed to “Grace and Glory.”

The names given places and characters lend deep symbolism to this classic book. They also reflect Hurnard’s personal story. She once stammered and had many fears, and described her “old self” as “a miserable, morbid, self-centered person who never felt love for anyone, shut up to my own torment.” But Hurnard’s spiritual life was transformed after attending the evangelistic “Keswick convention” meetings of her times. She became a missionary and an author, leaving a legacy of hope and trust that rose above her old pain and fear.
Talk about coincidence: As I finished
writing this blog in April, I looked
at my desk-side calendar and realized
its photo was a breathtaking falls
Much of her inspiration for this allegory came from her trips to the mountains of Switzerland, where she especially reveled in the thundering, dizzying mountain waterfalls. Through such splendid scenes, she said, God taught her that “love’s eternal, ecstatic joy [comes in] ceaseless, blissful giving.” For her, these alpine falls symbolized how Christians share the ever-flowing love of God:

1. Humility: “The pouring of oneself down lower and lower in self-effacement and self-denial.”

2. Giving: “The poured out life gives life and power to others.  The more love gives, the more it fulfills itself,”

3. Service: The water plunging over falls eventually nourishes crops or is turned into electricity. Similarly, true Christian love is “utterly abandoned to the goal of giving oneself to others.” *
Or, as the apostle Peter said, quoting Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Have any of you who visit this column read Hinds Feet on High Places? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
*Hannah Hurnard, Hinds’ Feet On High Places (Wheaton: Tyndale/Living Books, 1975), p.259.

Friday, May 12, 2017

In the pink

The dogwood—pink, of course--glows each spring in what used to be my mother-in-law's backyard. Planted as she reached her mid-eighties, the little sapling managed to get about as tall as Doris, my husband's mother, before we had to move her to a care home for her last year of life. Catching a glimpse of its profusion of pink, I remember her love—no, obsession—with the color pink. Except for one navy dress kept for funerals (“to be respectful,” she reasoned) her closet had every “pink” hue imaginable. Her towels, sheets, blanket, bedspread, couch and recliner were pink. So were her bedroom walls! This Mother's Day, I remember how my pink-loving mother-in-law stepped up to help her son’s bride (me), whose own mother had died years earlier. When my first baby came, she was there to help in practical ways. In birthing classes, they taught us how to breathe through labor, but nothing about some essential infant-care skills, like an at-home "bath" in a plastic dishwashing tub in the kitchen sink.  She took it in stride, calling it "baby's first swim."

Two decades later, I would become her cheerleader as she went through the death of her husband, cancer, a heart attack and finally the onset of Alzheimer’s. It was in those years of “fading” that we learned how to honor a parent figure, serving as both friend and helper. In special remembrance of her, I have kept this photo on the hutch in our eat-in kitchen. Yes, she’s wearing pink (a pale pink shirt and pink pants). But there’s an obvious look of love at her son (my husband) who took such good care of his parents, and especially of his mother when she was widowed.  I found this photo after her death, and it was a sacred moment when I turned it over and read what she had written:

This year, Easter came the day before her birthday, so my thoughts again went to her and our supportive role in her decline in her eighties. Many times she remarked to me, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” We all knew she needed increasing help. "Families”--typically children taking care of ailing, aging parents--are the Lord’s plan on this side of Heaven. I think of how Jesus, in excruciating pain as He died on the cross, arranged for His earthly mother’s care.  His ministry took Him away from home, but at the end, as the oldest, He provided a role model of “taking care of details.”  He saw Mary with his disciple John (“the disciple whom He loved”) and said, “Dear woman, here is your son.”  To John, “Here is your mother.”  From that time, we’re told, John took Mary into his home (John 19:26-27).  

Care of one’s parents didn't always happen, even in Bible times. When the prophet Micah described a nation with upside-down values, he told of families where members despise each other:
"For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies are the members of his own household." (Micah 7:6)
Sad--and sadder, I see it happening today. No parent is perfect. Neither are sons or daughters. But God’s plan is that the family unit be the practice room for love and consideration that comes from a growing walk with Christ.
There’s a phrase, “in the pink,” meaning “in good health and spirits.” But my pink-loving mother-in-law's lifestyle has prompted me to add a new slant, of healthy spiritual living. It's serving others, trusting God, and being grateful in little things. Or, as the next verse in Micah says, "But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me."

One more splash of springtime pink, in Doris's honor:


Friday, May 5, 2017

Hmmm...and phew!

When spring comes and kicks out winter’s sour grayness, the hyacinth celebrates the seasonal change with style.  The flower’s vibrant whites, pinks, purples and pinks are hard to miss. It fragrance is unmistakably sweet. Not surprisingly, the hyacinth is part of a family of “essential oils” from plants used for medicinal purposes. Its fans claim it helps reduce acne, relieve anxiety and depression, and soothe muscle pain.

Not so for another plant recently in the news because it “bloomed.” Native to Western Sumatra but cultivated in botanical gardens around the world, the eight- to ten-foot-tall “corpse plant” blooms only three to four days every three to four years. And that’s after it’s grown to a “mature” eight to ten feet. During “bloom,” it emits a foul odor that has been described as like a rotting corpse.  Supposedly that odor attracts the bugs that help pollinate it for its next “bloom” a few years away. The stink and its exotic shape and color make it quite the tourist attraction—but hold your nose. 

Monstrous, stinky plants don’t hold much of a draw for me.  Give me a hyacinth any day! But the two got me thinking about how the Bible describes the opposites of spiritual behavior—as “the fragrance of life” or the “smell of death.”  The apostle Paul put it this way:

But thanks be to God, who…through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)

Friday, April 28, 2017

Hidden treasures

My wallet was wearing out—the snap prone to loosen and fling my money and vital information to any and all.  It was a hand-me-down to start with—and I don’t mind used items that still have good wear.  But the time had come for me to shop for another at my favorite bargain haunt: a thrift store.  One seemed to fit my needs with just enough “pockets." But as I unzipped the front compartment, I discovered two twenty-dollar bills! What came to mind immediately—and I am not making this up—was an odd little proverb I’d read long ago:

“It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer, then off he goes and boasts about his purchase. (Proverbs 20:14)

It's one thing to be dishonest, but another to bargain. I engaged in a lot of "bargaining" with customers during the "estate sales" I had to hold after both sets of parents died. I was glad to help people find a reasonable bargain for something they needed. And when I tag along when my husband goes to yard sales, I’ve done my own “suggesting” of a price, especially when there’s a sign that says “make offer.” It’s expected in the garage sale culture.

 But I couldn’t knowingly slip out the front door of this store with a two-dollar wallet and $40 hidden inside. When I went to purchase it, I told the clerk, “I am an honest person, and I found this money in a pocket.  The sorter must have overlooked it.”  After getting over the shock of my statement, she thanked me for my honesty, and asked if it would be okay to donate it to the store fund (the store chain helps disabled people). I walked out the door with an empty new wallet and a clear conscience.

 Later that day at home, I looked up that vaguely-remembered verse, and took note of two others about honesty just above it:

“Differing weights and differing measures—the Lord detests them both.” (Proverbs 20:10)

“The righteous man leads a blameless life; blessed are his children after him.”  (Proverbs 20:7)

I know the book of Proverbs contains many admonitions to honesty.  It’s a trait that doesn’t “sell well” in our current “it’s-all-about-me” culture.  But that day, in a store aisle with no other customer nearby to witness it, I had a greater Witness--One whom I was glad to obey. I received the hidden treasure of doing what's right. And I still got a great wallet for less than "new" price.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Head- and heart-warming

Winter hadn’t left the calendar yet, but it was a sunny enough day that a walk sounded like a good idea to me.  I didn’t want to squish a knit hat on my head, so dug in my winterwear box in the closet for some old white earmuffs.  As I pulled them apart to put on my head, SNAP!  The plastic ear-to-ear arc broke.  Even household super-glue has its limits and this was one it couldn’t reattach. So I  pulled a snug knit hat on my head.  I like ear muffs but accepted the loss.  Maybe someday, probably at some thrift store, I’d find another pair at a reasonable price.

A few days later I tagged along with my husband to an estate sale.  As we hopped over snow piles to get to items for sale in the house and garage, I found nothing of interest.  (He did.)  As we were about to leave, I noticed a box of “free” things.  Right on top of miscellaneous things that nobody else had wanted was—you guessed it--a pair of black earmuffs, with a metal band of better quality than my cheap snapped-apart plastic ones.  I lifted the “muffs” out, thanked the money-takers for my “free gift,” and almost skipped down the hill remembering:
And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:19

Now, ear muffs are not a necessity—just something I like to wear when it’s cold. But it was just like God to plan ahead for me. I needed that encouragement for some heavy-duty need-much-prayer situations that had occupied us for a long time. If God could plop some earmuffs in a giveaway box, couldn’t I continue to trust Him for the still-unanswered?

The Lord and I have quite a history with this verse, especially during times of my life where I was between jobs or stretching my savings to get through college and graduate school. I really clung to it   after my parents died and I was on my own at age 31.  Oh, the ways He came through—like freelance-writing checks, babysitting, typing or filing jobs that turned out to be "just enough"to pay my bills.

What can I say to that?  Except, maybe, what Paul wrote as he wrapped up his letter to the Philippian church:
To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.  (Philippians 4:20)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Let the trumpet sound!

Spring’s daffodils take me back to my childhood in a rainy Western  Washington valley renowned for acres and acres of golden blooms. Daffodils are glorious, but short-lived.  As Robert Frost wrote in his famed 1923 poem: spring’s first "green" is gold, and nature's "hardest hue to hold." I find it meaningful that daffodils bloom close to Easter. Their trumpet-like centers prompt me to recall the magnificent chorus from Handel’s Messiah that quotes 1 Corinthians 15:51-52:
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
In ancient times, trumpets heralded great news. They were associated with royalty and victory.  What greater occasion to herald than the reunion of Christ with Christ-followers!

Like a hand in a glove, these verses pair with another by Paul about death and eternal life:
We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [dead].  For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
Or, as the late author Barbara Johnson put it humorously in one of her book titles: “He’s Gonna Toot and I’m Gonna Scoot!”

As for “scoot,” this year I was reminded of my mortality as I got hit by a string of serious illnesses, including pneumonia. Recently, in my doctor’s office for help with a month-long battle with bronchitis, I asked what might be compromising my health. Aware of the mind-body connection in illness, I told him of stresses from someone's many negative E-mails and phone calls. One day, the same person showed up at our door and ranted "I hate you" repeatedly, then turned and left. Such stresses, my doctor said, no doubt took their toll.

Yes, I pray for this person. The day of the front porch “hate” rant, my adrenalin flowing from this surprise attack, I sensed Jesus saying, “This is not of Me. Remember, while I was dying on the cross, people ranted negatives at Me.”

He died... but He rose again! The miracle of His resurrection guarantees the eternal life, free of sin and sorrow, that we rightly celebrate at Easter. Let the trumpet sound!  Each day, we’re closer to Heaven’s final call. Hallelujah!