Friday, February 27, 2015

Don't chew on me!

Overzealous beavers have prompted groundskeepers at our local riverfront nature park to make its precious trees less appetizing. To keep the critters from chewing through the trees and felling them, they’ve wrapped fencing wire around trees at ground level. Unless the toothy critters want to acquire badly designed braces, they’re more apt to leave the “wired” trees alone. Protecting vital trees is a good thing, but wrapping barriers of false belief systems around us is not. The problem reminded me of how Robert S. McGee dealt with behaviors of rejection in his book, The Search for Significance (Rapha Publishing, 1985, 1990). The book offers a loving hand of hope to those who are cobbled by the ramifications of feeling rejected by God and others. Common in those negative thought patterns are these contradictory behaviors (p. 281):

*Easily manipulated, shy, silent, passive, prone to superficial relationships (real or virtual as in “Facebook” lurking).
*Hypersensitive to criticism and defensive (“nobody understands me”), sarcastic, hostile to those who disagree with them, tend to exaggerate truth to impress people.

Self-pity and discouragement lead in downward spirals until rejection and failure seem inevitable in anything they try. What a sad state to be in!  But I’ve seen it, and you probably have, too.  McGee’s book attempts to help people find healing by re-aligning their thinking and behavior as a result of embracing Biblical truths, including these (p. 407):

I am deeply loved by God (1 John 4:9-10)
I am completely forgiven, and am fully pleasing to God (Romans 5:1).
I am totally accepted by God (Colossians 1:21-22)
I am a new creation, complete in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“Embrace” is one of those difficult words.  It’s one thing to agree these things are true.  It’s another—and painful—thing to overhaul one’s negative thinking patterns to Biblical truth. Yet this is what Paul had in mind when he urged us to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  (By the way, years ago when memorizing this verse, I remembered the last part—“good, acceptable, perfect”-- as “gap,” a perfect acrostic for how God deals with the “gaps” in my life.)

Until we get these truths “right,” we’re like trees vulnerable to buck-toothed critters. The solution isn’t fence wire, but something far better, crafted by a Heavenly Father who wants only the best for us.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fifty shades of yellow

Unseasonably warm days have brought early spring to my area.  I haven’t shoveled snow in weeks, and crocus blossoms have popped at a sunny spot in my son’s yard. Those happy little blooms always remind me of this portion of Song of Solomon:
See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come. (Song of Solomon 2:11)
Especially for those who live in climates where gray winter days drag on, it’s a happy day when flowers appear again.
Okay, I know that “Song of Solomon” can be read at several levels, one being a sensual poem between a man and his betrothed. But rather than the reported raunchy stuff of a current “gray”-named  film (which I have not seen nor plan to see), this is the pure marital love of God’s original plan for men and women,  all the way back to Adam and Eve. On another level, this verse reminds us that temptations and hardships (“the winter”) aren’t forever. As 1 Corinthians 10:13 points out:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
God knows how much “winter” we can endure spiritually. Renewal and hope—like fifty shades of early spring flowers--can come as we walk in trust and obedience to God.

Our early spring has reminded me of another recent film, about winter, which has spawned more than its share of child-focused merchandise. This cartoon took liberties with a fairy tale about a young queen cursed with turning everything she touched into frozen deadness.  She decides to abandon her kingdom and go as far away as possible to the ultimate frozen land.  With her long white tresses, oversized eyes, and Barbie-doll figure, she seems to have everything “right.” But she reminds me of spoiled little kids who stomp off to their rooms when life doesn’t go their way, slamming the door behind them.  The real heroine of the film was her boy-crazy sister, who broke the “ice curse” with an act of sacrificial love. Yet the “ice queen” and her sister were both flawed beings and not true to real life. Real life is this:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(Romans 5:8)
Our “sin” state left us stuck in a spiritual winter. But Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins made it possible for us to have new spiritual life. 

Let those crocuses push through the mat of dead leaves!  In all their buttery glory, they’re the advance scouts for spring’s most magnificent event: Easter.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Barbed-wire people

Barbed wire for a Valentine's Day blog? Yes, because
we all know people who have barriers against trusting Christ.
I have a page of names in my prayer notebook under the title “Salvation.” Some names were put there 35 years ago! Sometimes I get discouraged, wondering if they will ever recognize the poverty of life apart from a relationship with Christ Jesus. But I fall back on the truth that God is eternal and never gives up, even on these people who have erected spiritual barbed wire fences around themselves, thinking they can keep Him out of their lives.

Sometimes we hear the phrase “the Hound of Heaven” in connection with salvation. The name comes from a 182-line Christian poem by Englishman Francis Thompson (1839-1907). (By the way, the poem influenced J.R.R. Tolkien, known recently through extravagant movies retelling his “Lord of the Rings” stories.) The phrase comes from the image of a hound ceaselessly (“with all deliberate speed”) chasing a hare, like God follows a fleeing soul by His divine grace.  I find that image helpful in praying for the unsaved—that, as it were, the “chase” will eventually cause them to pay attention to the God who loves them more than they can ever imagine, even in their rejection of Him.

 I’m also encouraged to persevere in praying because of stories from lives of people of prayer, like George Mueller. In the 1800s, this man established many orphanages in London.  He was legendary for praying in the daily necessities for feeding and clothing the orphans. Mike wagons or bakery wagons would break down right in front of the orphanages, just in time to feed them breakfast. He lived to be 91, with seventy of those years in vigorous service for God. He once said he could count 50,000 specific answered prayers in his lifetime.

One time, somebody asked, “Have you ever prayed for something you have not received?”  Mueller replied, “Sixty-seven years ago I began praying for fifteen men.  Two of them have not been saved.”  There are various versions of the “end of the story,” but the prevailing account is that one became a Christian at Mueller’s funeral, and the other a few years later.

And so, every time I turn to that “salvation” page or think of these people, I pray. I also remember the images in Revelation 5:8 and 8:3, which tells of “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints,” offered before God. He never throws prayers away, but keeps them in heavenly storage for answers in His way, His time, and to His glory. Even the prayers for those “barbed-wire” people.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Choosing new paths

Midway through the trail system at our local riverfront, we face a decision: straight, through the swamplands, or right, through a portion that's gated and closed for part of the year to protect the vulnerable ecosystems. A few hundred feet later, the trails come back together. But in real life, choosing a different path of behavior and choices can carry us far away, either to our good or bad. The “bad” is sadly lived out in millions of families.  But I was encouraged by the example told by Rick Johnson in his book, The Marriage of Your Dreams (Baker, 2012), which I received as a review copy.  Before donating it to my church library, I copied two pages that impacted me.

Johnson grew up in a troubled home in which his mother and stepfather had drunken arguments. He felt rejected and demeaned by his stepfather, resulting in trying to “overachieve to subconsciously prove to him that I was worthy.” He didn’t want to pass on to his own family the same broken legacy. Yet he struggled over the Bible’s command to honor his mother and stepfather, who were so broken.  Johnson concluded:
Perhaps the best way to honor our parents under those circumstances is to live a life that would honor them.  For example, through education, hard work, and the grace of God I was able to break the generational cycles of abuse, addiction, and divorce that were modeled for me.  I have tried to live a life that would cause anyone looking on to say to my parents, ‘You must be so honored that your son is choosing to live a life that is dedicated to helping others.’ At that point I don’t think it matters whether your parents recognize or appreciate the fact that you’re living an honorable life. I believe that fulfills God’s command to honor your mother and father. (pp. 44-45)

The sad truth is that broken family members may not recognize that our “different” lives are a result of following the better path charted by God’s redemptive Hand. God calls us to a singular purpose in Him. I’m reminded of the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection.  Peter had just heard some disheartening news, that in “feeding” Jesus’ sheep there would be hard times, even places he didn’t want to go, implying a martyr’s death.  Peter turned and saw John, described as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (although He loved all of them).  Somewhat perturbed that John would miss out on the tough stuff, Peter said, “Lord, what about him?”  Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?  You must follow me” (John 21:22).

What this is saying is that we don’t “design” our journey of discipleship. We allow God to determine the hard spots, the growth places, and even the sacrifices ahead because He knows what is best.  And in choosing the path of righteousness, we follow Him, no turning back. Godly choices will honor even ungodly parents, but most of all they will honor God.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Walking down Prayer Lane

Early winter--trail near a river
When life is hard, our natural tendency is to tell God, “I don’t like this problem. Take it away. Make everything all okay, right now!” But I have learned that God’s way is not to take us out of our problems, but to lead us through them as He shapes our character. At my life's lowest point--orphaned as a single 31-year-old--I chose to submit to God's wisdom and trustworthiness. Grieving, worn out physically, I clung tenaciously to promises of His faithfulness as I set about to read the Bible through in a recent translation new to me. Isaiah 30:20-21 was among passages that spoke especially to me:

Although the LORD gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them.  Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”

I saw this work out in my life as God led me to caring, godly people. They were the real-flesh “teachers” who helped me perceive the changes I needed to make and the hope I needed to embrace.  But there was also that hard-to-describe sense of God right beside me, offering either a “don’t do that” or “go ahead” as I walked in faith to an unknown future.

Years later, in reading Edith Schaeffer’s book Common Sense Christian Living (Nelson, 1983), I realized I was discovering what 1 Thessalonians 5:17 calls “praying without ceasing.”  Here’s how Schaeffer described it:

It seems to me that this command [pray without ceasing] means we are to be constantly so conscious of God’s existence and so aware of His presence, that there is a very short gap between a sudden need of speaking to the Lord, and our actually speaking to Him.  I feel it means that we are walking so close to the reality of His being with us that we naturally talk to Him (in our minds, of course) when we are in the dentist’s chair, in the waiting room of a doctor’s or lawyer’s office, out on a tractor, waiting for a plane or bus, talking to someone who has just had a shock.  Whether it is a brief time of prayer or a long, long one, the atmosphere of the normality of talking to God is what I feel is meant by the command to “pray continually.” (pp. 210-211)

An old hymn goes, “He walks with me and He talks with me.” That doesn’t happen when our minds are cluttered with the “junk” of modern life. Even if we can’t get away to a little-used park trail, we need to find that serene space that is our “Prayer Lane,” and where we can hear God say, “This is the way, walk in it.”


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?