Friday, February 5, 2016

State your flower!

A continuing series inspired by sights of Kauai.
If you could choose one flower to represent your life, what would it be? I tend to think the blue and purple hydrangea are “me,” the colors suggesting loyalty and the pompom “flowers” (actually brachts) for the life-experiences that have rounded out who I am.  Earlier in life I would have been “Miss Shrinking Violet,” but God has a way of working on our weakest spots.  I know people who’d be called “Mrs. Sunflower” (for her cheerful personalities) or “Mr. Red-Rose” (for his strong loyalty despite a few thorns on the way to knowing him).

The flower officially representing the state of Hawaii is the yellow hibiscus, whose trumpet-like blooms pop out of landscaping just about everywhere you go. It seems to announce, “This is a beautiful place. Just come and explore!”

The saying, “Bloom where you are planted,” was quite popular during my early adult years. Flower-adorned plaques turned up in gift stores. It seemed like such an innocent, upbeat saying, and I had such a plaque myself.  But I think it doesn’t tell the whole story, which is better expressed in two big messages of Ephesians 2:8-10.  Verses 8-9 tell how to establish a spiritual connection with God:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
We can’t work our way into favor with God.  We can’t have a spiritual connection on our own accord, no more than a flower can bloom apart from a stem and root system.  The vital life-connection is His gift, by faith. We can’t earn it by good works.  However:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (v. 10)

The God who created us with known and latent abilities has a plan for each of our lives. Salvation is not only “done” (bought by Christ’s death), it’s also “do,” in the plan and power of God for extending His work on earth.  “Sit, soak and sour” Christians (attendance without commitment) are disobedient Christians.  We’re not to wither up, but to bloom where God plants us.

Oh, my, to think of where He sends us when we say “yes.” Hibiscus may favor certain climates, but the person sold out to God says, “Whenever you send me, I’ll go.”
 
So, what flower would best represent you now? And which might  you like to be?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Our Chicken Soup cat

Our 14-some-year-old cat, Augie, unwillingly posed for his author breakout photo with the newest Chicken Soup for the Soul volume, My Very Good, My Very Bad Cat.  He qualified for the second category (bad) about three or four years ago when he decided Christmas morning was a wickedly great time to escape his injury containment, despite having a recovery cone on his head after a vet trip for fight injuries. After three weeks of no cat, we decided his final hour had come, probably in some frozen shed. Then he returned home, repentant in his cat way.

My essay, one of 101 chosen for the book, is titled "The Prodigal Cat," and pokes fun at his ill-chosen decision.  But I think there's also a big lesson from it for our human tendency to choose to walk apart from God's best plan for our lives. Like the Prodigal Son lesson taught by Jesus, we tend to think we have it all figured out, and then find "our way" is the wrong way. The book offers the comforting balance that, besides cats who really earn the title "very bad cat," there are some amazingly good cats, too.  This is my sixth time to have an essay in a "Chicken Soup" compilation. The book officially releases Feb. 6.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Pond-er this

A series inspired by a visit to Kauai.
Flowers abound both in Kauai’s volcanic-rich soil and its bodies of water, like this pond lily (also called “water lily”). In its serene setting, this pond lily seemed to illustrate this verse: “He leads me beside quiet waters.”

Yes, I know that Psalm 23 depicts a shepherd leading, feeding, and protecting his sheep.  By powerful analogy, this is how Christ tends to us in our stupid sheep-ways. The “quiet waters” refers to how sheep won’t drink from rushing streams. They want slower, less-threatening flows. But they need to be led away from stagnant waters that would make them sick.

Similarly, the pond lily needs still, shallow waters to protect that fragile link of the underwater stem rooted in the pond mud and connected to the floating flower and leaves. We, too, need roots in “quiet places” to survive in today’s hectic busyness. God seemed to reinforce that concept the other day when I stopped for a school bus dropping off high school students. Nearly all were absorbed in their smart phones as they wandered helter-skelter across the street, oblivious to waiting traffic. And they’re just one slice of our media-dependent lifestyle.

 Such constant connection to the rushing world can impair our connection to God. We need those pull-away times, the “quiet waters” breaks, to reconnect with God. Today began for me with a headache that I suspected surfaced from my concern and frustration over spiritually- and emotionally-needy people in my life. I found my “pond,” my rocker, and in the quiet just sat then read some scripture. As only He could have arranged it, one of the scriptures was Psalm 23.  Yes, “He leads me beside quiet waters.”
 
I also thought of an old hymn, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.” Based on John 20:22 (where Jesus commissioned His disciples after His resurrection), the 1878 hymn by church history scholar Edwin Hatch begins:
Breathe on Me, Breath of God, Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.

When I left my place of “quiet waters” this morning, that was the message: Don’t fret, be refreshed in Jesus, just keep doing what He would do.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

Break and apply

Aloe vera, photographed on the south shore of Kauai. It reached to mid-thigh.
Continuing inspiration from a visit to Kauai.
I wasn’t surprised to find aloe vera plants thriving in the moist climate of Kauai. My puny window plant at home (think “skinny pointy thing”) is pitiful next to the stout succulents I found in the wild. I’ve long heard alternative medicine enthusiasts tout the plant as a cure for various ills. The sap does have some lotion-like benefits when used topically (externally), as in lotions. Stores sell facial and bathroom tissues as “gently infused” with the product. But the modern medical community has warnings for those who ingest aloe-based supplements, saying these may cause abdominal cramps and diarrhea, and actually harm some internal organs.

My window-ready aloe vera
in a comic cat planter.
Talk about skipping some steps in Bible study! For a long time I thought “aloe vera” was somehow related to the “aloes” mentioned in the Bible. These passages led to my confusion:
*The fickle prophet Balaam (the guy with a smart donkey) delivered an “oracle” against the Moabites and bragged on the strength of Israel as like a garden by the river, “like aloes planted by the LORD” (Numbers 24:6).
*Psalm 45:8 acclaims a handsome bridegroom whose “robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.”
*A "woman of the night" (Proverbs 7:7) invites a fool into her chamber, saying, "I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon."
*In another sensual passage (Song of Solomon 4:14), a lover gets quite excited about “bedroom activities,” calling up the fragrances of the day, including “myrrh and aloes.”
*Then we go to the grave, told that Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of mixed myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:29).
As it turns out, those “aloes” weren’t the fleshy tropical plant pictured above. Instead, the term referred to a fragrant wood used as an incense.
Yet there are other plants of Bible times whose properties are worth comparing with aloe vera. One is the balsam tree which once grew in Gilead, and which was the source of the “balm of Gilead” made from its resin, mentioned in Jeremiah 8:22. The area had a large population of “doctors” who administered the “cure.”
 
Centuries later, in this country, weary and discouraged slaves sung of the “balm of Gilead” and how Jesus could “make the wounded whole” and “heal the sin-sick world.”  Indeed, He ministered physical and spiritual healing during His earthly life.  He said he came not for the healthy “but for the sick.  I have not come to call the righteousness, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32, see also Mark 2:17).
 
When broken, an aloe vera stem releases juice. The balsam trees were pierced or sliced for the medicinal resins to drip out.  Jesus was pierced and sliced (flogged) before dying for the sin-sick world. He is the One who rises with “healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2). As the old spiritual continues:
Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Purposefully patterned

“Look at this fern,” I remarked as we followed paths in a botanical garden in southeast Kauai, “it has polka dots!” After seeing so many brilliantly-colored flowers amidst the garden’s intense green foliage, I found this fern unique, even amusing. Later, I learned that it’s popularly called the “Laua’e Fern,” also identified by the scientific name Microsorium scolopendria plydodium, which means a lot more to a botanist than to me. The plant I saw somehow came to Hawaii across the ocean from other Pacific islands or  tropical Asia. Its polka dots are actually spores that are part of its reproductive system.

Curious about how ferns reproduce (maybe I should have majored in biology!), I found the “f” volume of our family encyclopedia. Oh my, I encountered “Fifty Shades of Green” in reading of how a fern makes many little ferns. It all reminded me of the incredible plan of God that “like makes like.”

But what’s true in the natural world isn’t always true in the spiritual world.  God has a way of using people who are “marked” in ways that aren’t naturally pretty. Instead of “polka-dotted,” they’re pocked emotionally or physically. But God sees through that to what they could become, and what they can do for His Kingdom. That’s when “unlike,” by asking Christ to transform a life, can produce “like”—that is, a fruitful life that God originally intended.

I remember the first time I heard a broadcast featuring an evangelist who spoke with difficulty but positive passion, “I have cerebral palsy. What’s your problem?” David Ring, born in 1953 with this congenital condition, was orphaned by age fourteen. Depressed from his loss and the difficulties of his disability, he contemplated suicide many times. Then, he turned his life over to Jesus Christ. He finished college, married and had children, and became a motivational speaker who chides Christians who make excuses of why God can’t use them.

God can create beautiful, polka-dot ferns in the world around us. He can also bring beauty and service out of the ugly things life shoves at us. The difference is in a relationship to Jesus Christ, who said:
I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…This is to my father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:5, 8)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Impressionable

A series inspired by sights of Kauai.
Its resemblance to a textile innovation attributed to French weavers of the 1800s gave this flower the popular name “chenille plant.” “Chenille” comes from the French word for “caterpillar,” whose fur the fabric supposedly resembled.  Even today, chenille bedspreads are popular for their retro look.  I remember, as a child, sleeping somewhere on such a bedspread, maybe at the home of someone we were visiting. When I woke up, the adults chuckled over the imprint that the ridges left of my face. Looking in the mirror, I agreed that I was quite a sight.

GOD’S IMPRINT ON JESUS
Later on, the Biblical concept of “imprints” helped me link faith with practice. First, we need the “imprint” of God in Christ’s life. These two New Testament passages speak of that. One uses the Greek eikon, which means an image that both represents and manifests God. .
He is the image [eikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)
The other [charakter] is used in several situations, one to describe a tool for engraving, and the other for a stamp that impresses an image into something, like a mold for coins. One place it’s used of Christ is Hebrews 1:3:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation [charakter] of his being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.
In other words, everything of Jesus’ character showed us God, like a coin coming out of a mold in the treasury mint.
 
GOD’S IMPRINT ON US
We’re so used to having Bibles around that we probably don’t realize how revolutionary it is to have Jesus’ biography and teachings so handy. As we study those scriptures, the Holy Spirit helps us see how Jesus taught about God the Father. “God is love” was revolutionary for those who tried to appease idols or those in traditional Judaism who equated faith with endless rules.  Christ’s followers took the “imprint” idea a step further.  They said, basically, “Jesus taught us about the Father, and we’re now taking the discipling (imprinting) to you, who don’t have the privilege of walking and learning from Him first-hand.” Peter, who had his share of suffering as a Christ-follower, told churches under his care that Christ led the way with His example of suffering for doing right:
To this [unjust suffering for the faith] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

When Paul saw churches in a tizzy over gray areas (in their case, eating meat offered to idols), he said to watch his life for ways to keep Christ first:
For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:35b-11:1, emphasis added). 

When Paul had to chide the Christians at Thessalonians for being lazy, he pointed out how he worked at his secular job to pay his way while ministering to them.  Again he used the term, “follow my example” (2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9).


GOD’S IMPRINT ON ME
As the chenille plant image returned me to these passages, I found myself doing a lot of self-examination. Does my behavior always reflect Christ?  Do I leave a godly imprint wherever I go? How do I behave around frustrating people? Do my words and lifestyle choices say, “Christ controls all”?

Friday, January 1, 2016

One way--and don't swing it!



A series inspired by sights of Kauai (a trip gifted to us).
How do you get to the other side when there’s a river in the way?  In the early 1900s, those living around Hanapepe on Kauai’s south shore found a river in the way.  Their solution was a narrow pedestrian suspension bridge.  Damaged in 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, it was restored and reinforced, and now is a draw for tourists along with the little town’s few galleries and shops.  It swings and bumps when you walk across it (which can be fun for children, but not for this “maturing” lady).  There’s not much on the other side (except, I’m told, taro fields) but that doesn’t really matter because a modern highway goes over a bridge further south.

The bridge’s definite “one way” traffic reminded me of Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).  We can’t jump our way to Heaven. We can’t swim there.  We can’t wish ourselves there. One way: trust in Jesus, which means accepting His payment through His death for our sins. He also said:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it;  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Luke 7:14)

Hundreds of years before Christ, the writer of Proverbs (probably Solomon) assembled several sayings about choosing God’s way:
I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths.
When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble...
The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.
(Proverbs 4:10-11, 18-19)



Another Proverbs passage certainly reflected my determination to get across the one-person-wide Hanapepe swinging bridge without falling in:
Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. (Proverbs 4:25-26)
Life sometimes leads us to the entrance of a dark bridge. No matter how much we pray, we don’t know what’s really ahead.  We know that we don’t want to go further without the help of God. And we can have it:
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.” (Isaiah 30:20-21). New Year’s Day is a good day to reflect on path of the past and changes for another year’s journey. It’s also a wonderful time to choose a verse that might reflect your desire for spiritual goals in 2016. I keep scripture clipped above my computer as a constant reminder of God’s call on my life.  Is this something you should be doing?  By the way, there’s no zip line adjacent to the Hanapepe Bridge.  Kind of like true spiritual life—no shortcuts.