Friday, April 24, 2015

What's next, Lord?

Here’s my second grandson, Zion—and what a winsome smile!  He was born with a cleft lip and palate, and next Friday, the day he turns four months old, he will undergo his first surgery to repair his cleft lip. We have known he had this condition since several months before birth, when an ultrasound revealed both “it’s a boy!” and the cleft. It has complicated feeding, but not taken away his endearing baby ways. He now smiles and coos when we hold and feed him.

Cleft lip and/or palate occurs in varying severity in about one in six hundred births. Especially when a mother was diligent about healthy living during her pregnancy, there are “why” questions. But as we have walked alongside our son and daughter-in-law, I’ve learned that “why” isn’t the right question. Instead, it’s “What’s next, Lord?”

Once when feeding Zion, I was reminded of some Bible verses that speak of  physical challenges evident at birth. They’re packaged with the story of God calling Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. After a hot-headed murder forced Moses to flee Egypt, abdicating his privileges as an adopted son in Pharaoh’s family, he roamed the wilderness for years, pushing sheep around.

When the time was right, God caused a nondescript shrub to burst into fire and get Moses’ attention. Then, establishing that place as “holy ground,” God told Moses his next step would be leading a nation, not sheep. Moses reacted, “Who, me? You’re kidding. Send someone else. I’m a clumsy speaker” (Exodus 4:10, personal paraphrase).

God’s response was a reminder that our entire selves--physical, emotional, intellectual, even societal—are part of God’s permissive plan. None of us is perfect. Some have more visible “not-perfect” parts. Others have imperfections buried deep in their thinking. “Perfection” ended when sin entered the world.

When Moses focused on his imperfections and refused God’s high call on his life, God replied, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or dumb?  Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). God knows all about the “not-perfect” parts of our lives, and none limit His power. If He insisted on using only perfect people, His work force would number “zero.” But He takes us where we are, and promises His help to do His work. He told Moses, “Now go: I will help you speak and teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:12).

As for “help you speak and teach you what to say,” I think of the learning curve his brother Josiah (older by 17 months) is experiencing with language skills. Josiah learned the usual “mama,” “dada,” “papa,” and “nana” (grandma/banana), and not too long after that came “duck” and “drip.” Right now, his favorite word is “cocoa.” As I warm up the milk for his cocoa, I smile and wonder, “What’s next, Lord?” in his language acquisition.

The same phrase comes to mind as I pray for little Zion. Right now, he loves to be held and is unaware of the discomfort ahead to fix his sweet, gapped grin. We’re at the beginning of a journey, one best navigated with hearts that ask, “What’s next, Lord?” and then go forward in faith.

Friday, April 17, 2015

View from the Thinking Bench

Think-stops are good in life.  Sometimes, spiritual wisdom needs to settle in our hearts before we can share it with others. Recently, someone who is going through faith struggles asked, “How can I hear God speak?”  The easy reply is, “The Holy Spirit helps us hear Him.”  But that’s not always enough for the people seeking more of God.

A good answer to that comes from writings of respected Christian author and pastor A.W. Tozer (1897-1963).  Tozer knew how to reduce deep issues to terms that people could understand.  In the last chapter of his book, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), he said the secret of knowing God is to:
1. Forsake our sins. 
2. Commit our whole life to Christ in faith.
3. Reckon ourselves dead to sin, alive to God in Christ Jesus, and open to the Holy Spirit and the disciplines He requires. 
4. Repudiate the cheap values of the fallen world and become detached in spirit from it.
5. Practice the art of long and loving meditation on the majesty of God.
6. Obey the imperative of greater service to our fellow men as knowledge of God becomes more wonderful.

I’m glad my friend wants to have a deeper relationship with God. But working through this list with honesty will bring pain. It’s apt to pry open festering problems that need a spiritual antiseptic.

Such cleansing doesn’t happen easily when our worlds are cluttered with media and other false busyness. It often helps to get off alone, to some sort of “thinking bench.” When open-hearted and alone with God, we’re apt to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s teaching.  He’s already waiting to teach us how God sees us through the sacrificial lens of Calvary love.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fresh starts

The “Dynamite House”—the local ramshackle house whose basement cache of unstable TNT forced evacuation of our neighborhood two summers ago—is gone. Bulldozed into a splintery pile and clawed into dump trucks, the old house left us. Now a new one is taking its place. As I watch the progress, I think of how the Bible likened Christian growth to house-building. I also allow the process to remind me to pray for those who need to let go of “old stuff” (like the crumbling TNT of anger) and let Christ rebuild them from the ground up.
            “Unless the Lord builds the house,” says Psalm 127:1, “its builders labor in vain.” This well-known verse opens one of the “ascent” psalms sung by ancient pilgrims going to Jerusalem for worship. The first verse is well-known, but a closer study shows the psalm actually uses four common activities to teach how God needs to be at the center of all things.
            House construction (v. 1): We can move ahead on a project or dream, thinking we know it all, but forget to ask God’s blessing until it’s all done. The alternative is looking to Him every step of the way.  Little is much if God is in it, and, conversely, “much” is nothing without God. I see that in how my vocation moved from rookie newspaper reporter to Christian writer/speaker. Many agonizing, prayer-bathed changes marked the way.
            Security (v. 1b): “Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.” How thankful I am to live in a land of police and fire protection, just one 9-1-1 call away. But while God has permitted these agencies to be a part of our lifestyle, our ultimate security is in Him.
            Work life (v. 2): “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat, for he grants sleep to those he loves.”  This was a favorite verse of college finals week and parenting a sleepless, wailing newborn!  Seriously, the Bible does teach us that it is normal to work, and sometimes that requires long hours. After all, it’s called “work.” We’re to supply our own needs, those of our family, and those around us. But if we work without a thought to God, there’s an ultimate emptiness in what we do. As for the “sleep” phrase, that, too, is a gift from God. When we’re really tired, sleep is sweet.
            Family life (vv. 3-5). More than half the psalm is taken up with the blessing of family:
            Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.
            Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth.
            Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
            They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
This verse needs to be understood in the context of early history, when jobs were labor-intensive (like farming or building). Having many sons meant many hands to support the family. (Though it’s not added, many daughters helped the mother on the home-side). It’s also assumed that those children are believers. Otherwise, they’d bring heartache and shame to the family, not blessing.
            An unbroken chain of godly families is not the norm.  But God is in the business of taking away the rubble and doing a new “build” on top:
            Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has come, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
            Before we know it, that house down the block will be done and a new family moved in. But I’ll still remember the old “Dynamite House,” and be glad that in real life, God does lead the way for fresh starts.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reconciliation Day

Flowers that bloom at Easter include my favorite, daffodils,
whose trumpet shape reminds me of the verse, "The
trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised" (1 Cor. 15:52).
Everybody knows about April Fool’s Day. But special interest groups have made April the month to make people aware of poetry, autism, math, humor, gardens, guitars (my son will like that!), frogs, the military child, and financial literacy. April 13 is Scrabble day, April 16, Richter scale day; and April 30, the birthday of Eeyore (of Winnie the Pooh fame). Those are all just a sampling. You could celebrate one or two “somethings” all month long.

But one “special day” marks emotional pain. April 2, “Reconciliation Day,” cuts to the core of our spiritual values and compassion. A nationally syndicated advice columnist started it about 25 years ago to encourage her readers to write a letter or call someone to mend a strained or broken relationship. Yet her “advice” is thousands of years old. Jesus said: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 KJV, emphasis added). Or, as put in plainer language: “Forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” (NLT).

We want to have our sins forgiven. But to reach out to those who have hurt us—and don’t seem to care—that’s another matter revealing how seriously we take our faith. My pastor recently finished a powerful sermon series on the life of Joseph, with the last two messages focusing on Joseph’s forgiveness of his spiteful, reckless brothers. The sermons took me back to when applying Joseph’s story to my own life helped me forgive those who’d hurt me, and to seek forgiveness from those I’d wounded. Such actions are messy, humbling, but necessary if we’re to wear the label of “Christian.”

Wanting to study Joseph more, I checked out of our church library a study by Charles Swindoll, whose church in Fullerton., Calif., I attended in the mid-1970s. Swindoll said this of Joseph’s amazing forgiveness of the brothers who sold him into slavery, recounted in Genesis 45:
Attitude is so crucial in the life of the Christian.  We can go through the Sunday motions, we can carry out the religious exercises, we can pack a Bible under our arms, and sing the songs from memory, yet we can still hold grudges against the people who have wronged us.  In our own way—and it may even be with a little religious manipulation—we’ll get back at them.  But that is not God’s way. (Joseph: A Man of Integrity and Forgiveness, Word, 1998, p. 147)

There’s no guarantee that “forgiveness” will turn things around and result in a warm and loving relationship. We live in a world of sinners, which includes each of us. But those of us who know a Savior, who reconciled us to Himself through the agony of a Good Friday cross, know we’ve been forgiven much ourselves. We cannot fully comprehend the depth of love and divine patience bound up in this, the amazing statement of Easter’s reconciliation:
But God demonstrates his own life for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NIV)

How will you celebrate Reconciliation Day?


Friday, March 27, 2015

Pruning the Prickles

I’m always glad when my annual task of pruning the roses is over.  Despite wearing leather gloves and long sleeves, I inevitably end up with punctures and scratches. I have to wash them quickly with soap, as I tend to itch and swell if I don’t. One slow bush at a time, I reach in to snip off a dead cane or trim suckers, all the time thinking of the “bowl shape” that’s best for rose health. This slow, tedious task also gives me a chance to think and pray for people in my life.

 The Bible says healthy spirituality mandates pruning. The most direct teaching about that comes with Jesus discourse about the vine and the branches in John 15. (As an aside: long ago in Bible school we had to memorize the main theme in each chapter of John.  I remembered “15” because the “1” looked like a straight vine and the “5” like a crooked vine needing pruning. That’s your freebie of the day!)  Jesus said the Father (the gardener) cuts off every branch that doesn’t produce fruit and prunes the fruit-bearing branches so they can produce any more.

The unfruitful branches are like those who’ve made a superficial commitment to Christ (most likely they show up at church and speak the “church language”) but don’t reproduce spiritually. The analogy to my roses is canes that are spindly with barely a weak bloom.  Off they go. I preserve the stalwart main canes and others branching off them that show promise of bearing flowers.

I also trim any sign of disease, a discernment that brings to mind to mind Galatians 6:1:
Dear brothers and sisters, if another Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. (NLT)

Who of us is perfect?  But sometimes God needs us to step in to help someone who may be blind to a sinful  behavior or attitude. Someone recently told of an uncomfortable encounter when he could no longer overlook another believer’s negative, self-righteous behavior as a “grammar police.”  For years, that other person got prickly whenever someone used a certain innocent idiom in her presence. No matter if it happened in church announcements or at the store. You can guess how strangers felt when she got upset and “corrected” them. “Major on the majors,” he reprimanded her.

The passage says “gently and humbly” help that person back onto the right path. The cuts of the Pruner (and His helpers) may hurt, but the pain will be forgotten when those wonderful blooms come.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Trash talk

Oh, my, I thought as I listened to students in the busy halls of our town’s local high school. The air was blue—or should I say black?—with crude slang and irreverent uses of God’s name.  I felt sad for Christian teens, who had to live with that every day. I have the same sad-and-angry reaction in various public places when I heard language that disrespected or demeaned people or my Lord.  And then the pointing finger turned around.  Had I ever sinned with my mouth? Had I  verbalized thoughts fit only for the trash?

I appreciated how Priscilla Shirer dealt with that problem in her book The Resolution for Women (B&H, 2011). She quoted Luke 6:45 (Amplified):
For out of the abundance (overflow) of the heart his mouth speaks.
Our mouths, she said, are “only a barometer” that divulge whether we’re “immersed in humility or surrendered in obedience to the Lord.” What we say can also reveal if we’re “housing a malnourished spirit that stubbornly refuses to yield to the wisdom of God’s own Word.” A condensed version of her tests for a troubled mouth:

*Quick to offer opinions in any conversations?  Shows: haughtiness, need to impress or be at the center of attention.
*Constantly critical or demeaning? Shows: insecurity or uncertainty about your inherent value; angry, judgmental heart.
*Quarrel with spouse or divisive with others? Shows: lack of deep peace, need for Christ’s grace in strengthening relationships.
*Gossipy? Shows: failure to see troubled people as needing support, prayer, companionship.
*Negative (doubtful, skeptical) outlook? Shows: failure to trust God’s ability to handle wisely the details and timing of your life.

In all of these, the heart is a reservoir—a holding tank of the essence of who we are. The words that spill out reveal who we really are. If you’re a “PEW” person (Perfect in Every Way), you can stop reading right now.  If not, consider the trash can. It’s not just about cursing or variations of God’s name used like punctuation. It’s about controlling the tongue so it’s an “instrument of His peace.”  Or, as Proverbs 12:18 says:
The tongue of the wise brings healing.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Power check

My son is an electrical engineer for our local hydroelectric power company. As a techno-ignoramus myself, I have no idea where he got the genes for that. When the power goes out somewhere, he’s one of the go-to guys for figuring out how to sleuth out bad parts and reroute things so that somebody can cook dinner, a factory keep running, and the traffic lights keep sanity on our streets.

 “Power” is a password for our times: Power Point, Power Suit, Power Presentations. But “spiritual power”? We’re told of it in Jesus’ last words before ascending into heaven:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

And it happened, just as He said. After ten days of intense prayer and waiting, the Holy Spirit empowered them in a dramatic way, sending them out to the streets to preach about Jesus (Acts 2). From then on, the New Testament is dotted with accounts and admonitions using words for “power” (dunamis, related to our English word for dynamite; and exousia, related to the idea of authority). The church age came in with divine strength and authority to preach Christ.

But we don’t always live as people of power. I appreciate the insight offered by Ruth Myers in her little book, The Satisfied Heart (Waterbrook, 1999). Her faith led her to a Christian college, where she met and married a great Christian man. They went to the mission field, had two great kids.  Then came a "power crisis." Her husband died of cancer, leaving her with two small children (almost 5 and 6). She saturated herself in Scriptures as she trusted God for the next step, and the next, and the next. In a chapter titled “His Love Liberates Me,” Ruth talked about even born-again Christians becoming aware of bondage to their backgrounds, resentments toward others, unbiblical goals, bad attitudes, wrong desires, emotions and certain ways of thinking. She noted:

But the more we know God and experience His love, the more free we become.  The longer we go to His Word and let His Holy Spirit teach us, the more liberation we experience.  More and more our personality is freed up to become as loving and beautiful as God designed it to be. (p. 166)

In other words, the power flows as it should, in abundance, and with power comes hope. “Hope” isn’t some out-there thing, but a tried-and-true provision of God. Ruth models that in writings that are soaked with scripture, revealing her lifelong, disciplined study of God’s Word. As Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans: For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (15:4)

Paul really seemed to push “hope,” as later in that chapter he adds:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (15:13)

 So there it is: “hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” We can’t measure it like my son and his co-workers do the “zaps” that flow through our electrical lines. (Yes, I know that’s a primitive explanation, but I’m not a scientist.)  But our spiritual lives go dead without it.