Friday, September 22, 2017

Fleeting vs. forever

My neighbor was right-on about the cactus on her front porch railing. Its spectacular blooms would last a day. I was there with a camera the morning they opened, and I wasn’t disappointed. Who would guess that such beauty could emerge from such unfriendly, thorny plants?

I thought of the Bible’s similar observation about transient things in 1 Peter 1:24-25, quoting Isaiah 40:6-8:

All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

It’s easy to pluck out these verses and go no further. But the context says a lot more. In the preceding verses, Peter says being “born again” in Jesus means we have “imperishable” seed within us. Then, after quoting Isaiah, he continues:

And this is the word that was preached to you.  Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.  Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 1:25b-2:3)

In other words, bloom for Jesus for all you’re worth!  If your life contains any of the negative characteristics he listed, something’s not right between you and Jesus. It’s a pretty grim list, too. Eugene Peterson paraphrased it this way: “So clean house! Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk.”  Ouch! All of those are like cactus thorns!

Need a soul boost? Go back and read the entire first chapter of 1 Peter that ends with the verses quoted above. It seems that Peter is so overwhelmed by the Lord’s gracious redemptive work in his life that he can’t contain himself.  His faith flowers forth, and not just for a day!

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Decay Squad

I could have bought my husband a really nice new recliner—not the type seen here!-- for the check I had to write at the dentist’s office recently. Tagged onto my routine cleaning was re-doing an old (30-year-old?) filling that had cracked and was showing decay around the edges. Sure enough, by the time the dentist blasted it out, there was more decay underneath. What I couldn’t see or feel, he discovered and repaired.

I thought of a verse that addressed some difficult situations I found myself in lately: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1).

It’s tricky, it really is.  One of those situations involved someone’s willful plunge into adultery and a spurning of pastoral counsel. The other involved other types of willful behavior that bring shame to the name of Jesus. Neither wanted to hear or heed godly wisdom.

In frustration, I did what I need to do every time: go to scripture for guidance in praying. This time it came from Psalm 19.  After layering one splendid analogy after another to describe God’s Word, David concluded:

By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can discern his errors?  Forgive my hidden thoughts.

Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.

Then I will be blameless, innocent of the great transgression. (Psalm 19:12-13)

My dentist’s trained eye and his X-ray machine helped to see what I certainly couldn’t. They discerned the “errors” of my dental habits and aging process that threatened a helpful part of my body.  (Yes, teeth are good.)

 Oh, there’s the teeth-cleaning part, too.  When my hygienist scrapes, grinds, picks, and polishes my “ivories,” she’s keeping decay from ruling over me. Oh yes, I get the “reminders” of flossing and such, and my “willful” sin is not doing it daily. (There, I confessed.)

I’m grateful for my dental team (though, without insurance, every visit has an extra “ouch”).  I’m also grateful for my Bible, which, like a toothbrush and floss getting into the dental crannies, encourages and exhorts me toward a God-honoring life.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Pollution solution

For several weeks this summer, multiple fires in our northern neighbor, Canada, funneled choking smoke over the Pacific Northwest. Several times, my town had smoke pollution so bad it was the worst in the nation, at times rivaling infamous smoggy cities around the world.  As an asthmatic, I stayed inside a lot for health’s sake. Then one night I awoke to the faint sound of rain drops. I looked out, opened a window and breathed in that pungent fresh-rain smell, rejoicing that at least for a while our skies would be clear.

My Bible reading those smoggy days included the book of James, so I perked up when I read this:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world, (James 1:27 NIV).

The word for “polluted” in Greek is “aspilos,” which also described the unspotted, unstained lamb offered in Old Testament sacrifices.  Here, it means “free from all defilement in the sight of God.” In our times, when so much media assaults our ears and eyes, we need to be particularly careful of the values we might be taking in.  The latest internet site or game, movie or television show may not, and does not, have to be a “must see” for a Christian who holds values at variance with what the screen portrays.

The book of James unites belief and practice.  His emphasis is “believe and do”:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourself.  Do what it says. (James 1:22)

He particularly pressed down on misuse of the tongue. Besides swearing or foul language, this included any negative communication that didn’t honor God and His purposes.  James said bluntly that the person with an uncontrolled tongue has worthless religion (1:26).
But he turned to the “do,” and that was to share Christ’s love and compassion with those who in the First Century were utterly helpless.  There was no Social Security, Medicaid or welfare type program as a safety net for families in need. In those days, when a husband or father died, unless the extended family could step in to help, children and mothers were left in terrible shape. Thus, James’ reminder for the church (as energized by compassionate Christians) to step up, looking after these orphans and widows “in their distress.”

For years my church and others have quietly done just that, especially reaching out to very needy widows or single moms through food distribution, financial counseling, and other aid. The social concern advocated in James is also one reason I’ve sewn hundreds of baby blankets that I donate to hospitals to give newborns from impoverished families.

After a week or so of marvelously blue skies, some local fires returned haze to our skies. But I’d breathed enough unhealthy air earlier to remind me of this pure, refreshing truth: we have a sinless Savior, whose example leads the way to real life.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

Proverbs on pro-active friendship

A few blocks away from our home is one with, well, unique “landscaping.” An older gentleman, who lives alone and is frequently seen walking about town, has filled his front yard with wooden women he carves and paints. Over the years we’ve watched his collection grow. They’re amusing to passers-by, but every time I see them, I think of this truth: They can’t love him back.

I’m reminded of one of the top pop songs from the year I graduated from high school (1965).  It began: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”—something, it continued, that the world had too little of.  I wasn’t too captivated by the song, relegating it to the likes of Elvis and “Love Me Tender, Love Me Sweet” and similar soupy lyrics.  Sorry Elvis, but while you pleaded “never let me go,” I was able to “let go” of platitudes about “luv.” More important to me was finding true friends--that network of supportive people who are there both when life is celebratory and life is hard.  I suspect that I’m not alone in this, as my fifth most-accessed blog (still getting “visits”) discussed what goes into a growing friendship.  You can access it here:

My current friendships have taken years to grow, but I am blessed by friends of several degrees of affinity:  casual, comfortable, and close. I thought of that the other night at a church function. I “knew” many there from our years of shared connection, and it was easy to greet them with a casual hug and ask how they’re doing. But there are only a select few whom I feel okay about calling and saying, “I’m really hurting over this situation and need godly wisdom. Please pray.” I need the support of godly friends:

“The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26).

What about virtual friends? Yes, social media can connect people with far less effort than mailing a letter or calling. But sometimes the virtual representation can easily hide the true "us." Plus, nothing can replace a real live person who can hug you, cry with you, and admonish you toward godly choices. With a face-to-face encounter, you don't easily "click out" of real communication from the heart.

But let’s come back to the positives! The blessings of seeking to be a nurturing a “friend-friendly” person are many. Proverbs 22:11 says, “One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace will have the king for a friend.” The greatest “king” to have as a Friend, of course, is Jesus. Other religions mandate ritual ablutions or “prayer” practices, sacrifices or pilgrimages. Jesus said simply, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). And His command? “Love each other” (v. 17).

Friday, August 25, 2017

How much is enough?

"Modern apartments" proclaims a classic old building in a nearby town--though I wonder if by today's standards they are "modern." Okay, they do have "modern" satellite dishes! My town has a similar “transformed” hotel, once our town’s grandest, multi-storied and classy. Now the aging building is bare-necessities apartments for low-income seniors or the disabled. For many, that’s “home”—and even “home enough.” 

As I considered this area’s rental housing market, I recalled what I called "home" after leaving the family home where I grew up. I lived in basements, doubtful neighborhoods, and with many different roommates.  Many places had no washer or dryer, so I took weekly trips to the public laundry, where I read books and wrote letters as the machines chugged. It certainly beat having to swish my laundry in the creek and hang things on bushes to dry! (Okay, I never did that.) One blessing of that time was an invitation from a godly senior in my church (I worked with her son at the daily newspaper) to do my weekly two loads at her home Friday nights while we shared combined leftovers for dinner. I insisted on leaving her my "laundry change" to help with expenses. But it was a pittance for the riches she poured into my life as she prayed with me (and for me), shared her own spiritual growing places, and nudged me toward a deeper walk with God.

 A few years later, a major life change landed me more than a thousand miles away in Los Angeles, where I was a "missionary" at a major mission headquarters. With my "support" income of half or less of my former wage as a newspaper reporter, housing became a challenge. I first rented a room in a private home, then house-sat for an older lady, and finally got into a tiny apartment in an old building, where I “worked off” part of my rent with yard work and maintenance.

The apartments had just the bare necessities: no modern amenities like a dishwasher or microwave. One noisy old coin-op washer and dryer served the entire five-unit apartment building. But it was a place where I could practice hospitality and reach out to people in need who lived in the adjacent units.

At that time, Isaiah 54:2 became especially meaningful to me:
Enlarge the place of your tent;
Stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, spare not;
Lengthen your cords,
And strengthen your pegs.
Written to a culture that used tents for housing, this section predicted that when the exiled nation finally returned to its homeland, it would grow and prosper. The “message” I got for my circumstances was to refuse to isolate myself and shrivel up socially because of less-than-"perfect" housing. Instead, I was to accept my “location” as an opportunity to “stretch out” and be a difference-maker among the people who were then part of my life.

Today, when I look back over photos from the nearly two years I lived there, I don’t think much about what the units “lacked,” but of friendships forged. I befriended an immigrant couple (and with my fractured Spanish helped the wife buy a used sewing machine), encouraged an older widowed neighbor with health issues (oh, how her faith blessed me!), and helped another neighbor get emergency mental health treatment. I also took in two women in desperate situations for a few weeks, one of us sleeping on an old couch.

My “tent” wasn’t very big, but it was big enough for God’s purposes. He knew what I needed, and I tried to be a good steward of His gift of housing at that season of my life.

One more thought: "Home" for the last 35 years has been a small "starter" home where every square foot counts. Yet it, or any of the no-frills apartment where I once lived, would still be a palace to the thousands upon thousands facing starvation in Africa's historic famine. Or, for that matter, for most of the world.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Not perfect, but better

When my husband dragged the old dresser off his truck after yard-saling, my first reaction was “ugh”! Painted a sick dark green, missing knobs, gouged, and full of stickers and marker-pen graffiti, it was a sight. But we’d already decided to join our neighbor in holding a yard sale, so I took on the task of making it “marketable.”  After washing it down, I primed and then painted it.  We found enough matching knobs.  Behold, it was soon ready for a second life. Not perfect, but better.
As I worked away, I thought how it might illustrate how Jesus redeems us from “ugh” lives marred and damaged by sin. Paul wrote about the process in 2 Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.
The analogy isn’t perfect, however. The dresser got an exterior makeover with paint, but Jesus works through transformation, from the inside out:

We...are being transformed into his [Jesus’] likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
My parents gave me this
butterfly necklace when
I graduated from a one-year
intensive Bible school course.
The word “transformed” comes from the Greek metamorphoo, which of course is related to the English word for “metamorphosis” in the insect world. After a brief life consumed with “consuming,” a caterpillar is enveloped in an ugly sac called a chrysalis. Within it, the caterpillar transforms to a butterfly, finally emerging into a new life. No wonder that this amazing process eventually became a symbol for the spiritual reality of being “born again.”
Jesus, in fact, had some harsh words about religious leaders of His day who excelled at "pretend-religion." They tried to look good on the outside but had dark, wretched, proud, judgmental hearts. He didn’t win any popularity contests with them, especially when He called them “whitewashed tombs,” pretty on the outside but full of death inside (Matthew 23:27-28).

I won’t say my refurbished dresser was totally “pretty on the outside.” It was still an old, scarred dresser.  But it had a second chance at being useful. And that’s just like God.  No matter how beat up and scarred we get from our bad choices and the inevitable hard places in life, He can still renew and use us. 

The rest of the story on the dresser?  A woman driving by our home a few days before the sale noticed it with its dangling price tag amidst other sale items we were gathering in the driveway. She was putting her 90-something mother in a care home and it was just what she needed as she prepared the room. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

That place of quiet rest

There’s something about a shade-dappled pond that simply speaks “peace,”  maybe as a faint shadow of the original, perfect Eden. As I came across this pond at the arboretum adjacent to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, the hymn title, “Near to the Heart of God” slipped into my heart. The tune stayed with me for a few minutes as I walked back to the car.
There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God;
A place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.
Every hymn has its “birth story,” and when I got home and looked up the background on this one, I realized how unspeakable pain brought forth enduring praise.  The author, Cleland McAfee, was a graduate of Park University in Parkville, Mo., which his father co-founded in 1875 with just seventeen students.  Cleland, his four brothers, and his only sister were all involved with the college. After Cleland’s graduation, he attended seminary, then returned to the college as chaplain and choir director.  For communion Sundays, he would write the words to a musical response that tied in with his  sermon theme.

One week, just before that communion service, Cleland’s brother Howard and his wife lost two small daughters to diphtheria within twenty-four hours. Their deaths shook the college and community. As Cleland meditated on psalms of comfort, he knew he needed to write another song than planned for that Sunday. His choir learned it at the Saturday night rehearsal, and then went to the grieving parents’ darkened, quarantined home. They sang it outside the house, then again that Sunday morning.

Cleland McAfee later became well-known his for scholarly theological writing, but more than a hundred years later it’s this song, written from a broken heart, for which he is best remembered.  Knowing “the rest of the story” of this century-old hymn has helped me appreciate the trusting heart that brought forth memorable lyrics.

The first verse, of course, goes to the “place of quiet rest.”  Verse two is about “the place of comfort sweet.”  Verse three, “the place of full release.”  Then, the affirming chorus:
O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.