Friday, July 21, 2017

Fences: two sides of one story

The proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors” exists in various languages and cultures, but now is most associated with Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall.” The poem tells of two neighbors who, every spring, together mend the fence dividing their properties. Similarly, Ben Franklin said, “Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.”
Both sayings, I think, suggest that some sort of separation is helpful in tenuous relationships. They also imply how we live in a fallen world with negative, hurting people.  As Proverbs observes and warns: 
“Do not accuse a man for no reason—when he has done you no harm.” (Proverbs 3:30)
“A perverse person stirs up conflict.” (Proverbs 16:28)
“Every fool is quick to quarrel.” (Proverbs 20:3)
“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered.” (Proverbs 22:24)
In today’s mental health language, dealing with such people may require setting “boundaries” that control contact. Although I try to be an approachable person, wise friends helped me realize my need of boundaries when targeted by ongoing hostile words and actions. I found insight about this in Safe People, a book by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend (Zondervan, 1995).  They pointed out how people who have unresolved grief and hurt tend to withdraw and lash out at the very people (their “safe” people) who could help them move toward emotional wellness. Sadly, when these “safe” people react with “fences” or boundaries, the “unsafe” are deeply offended, even though their own behavior purchased the boards, hammer, and nails.  

In seeking Biblical perspective on this complicated issue, I felt drawn to John 10, the “I am the Good Shepherd” chapter:
I am the gate for the sheep....The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full....I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:7, 10, 14)
The phrase “He laid down his life” for the sheep brings to mind, of course, His death on the cross for my sins. The analogy to a sheepfold is so tender. In ancient rugged lands, rocks were cheap and accessible building materials for livestock pens. Some shepherds topped the walls with thorny brambles, an early version of today’s barbed wire. At night, a shepherd would herd his animals in the sheepfold. If it lacked a door or gate, he would become the “gate” himself by sitting or lying across the entrance. Any harm had to encounter him first.

This helped me see that sometimes, when faced with hurtful people, I need to prayerfully set up “fences” with Jesus guarding my heart’s gate. This doesn’t mean I am rejecting that person, but that I am seeking protection from the Savior who cares about both sides of the fence. His love is truly boundless love.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Rust out or wear out?

Where it came from, nobody really knows, but most people have heard the proverb, “It’s better to wear out than rust out.”  The meaning, of course, is that active old age is far better than waning old age. When I recently turned  the big seven-oh (remember when “16” or “21” were exciting?), this derelict boat near Ephrata, Washington, took on fresh meaning for me.  Actually, it’s a concoction of old truck, boat, and fan, assembled near a former junkyard/ironworks  (I’m still not sure) by somebody who had a quirky sense of humor and some major cranes.  Its seaworthy days are long gone.
These milestone birthdays do make you think about where you are going in your remaining years.  Of course, none of us know how long we’ll live.  The year I turned fifty, my family and I were hit by a drunk driver. That could have been the end, but God spared us, and I’m now full-steam into the joys and challenges of grand-parenting.

But I still have time to build, or add to, my “legacy.”  When your older friends’ names start showing up in the obituaries, you start reading those.  In my town, for an extra fee, newspapers allow survivors to print full biographies about their loved one.  (The “free” death notices just state  a name, age, hometown, and date of death.) Some of those get quite interesting.  I remember one that suggested their loved one was now enjoying casino games in Heaven.  Oh, sure.  But I take note of those that summarize character qualities:  “She was generous and hospitable, and taught Sunday school for forty years.”  Or “He was a caring, honest man whose faith in Jesus was most important to him.”

Though it’s not recorded in scripture, I wonder what an obituary might have said about an indomitable senior named Caleb.  Of the original huge throng that escaped Egypt, only he and Joshua survived the forty years of wandering and were allowed into the Promised Land.  Caleb is best known for declaring, as the land was divided:
So here I am today, eighty-five years old!  I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day.  (Joshua 14:10b-11)
Caleb wasn’t looking for beach-front place to build a resort.  The land he had his eye on included huge walled cities (Numbers 13:30-33) known for a tribe of tall, strong people (giants).  This old warrior was going for it—full steam ahead. 

I’m not about to strap on a sword and pick up a shield, but birthdays have become milestones to think of where I have been and where I am going, for the Lord.  I don’t want to rust out and give up.  Trust me, I have more aches and pains than I like. But in whatever is ahead, I want God to use me the best way possible. I want to be one of those men and women described in Psalm 92:14:
They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.”
You don’t say that from the helm of a rusty, abandoned ship!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sweet treats

Spring’s first strawberries to hit stores are hard to resist—big, plump, appealing to winter-starved tasted buds. But usually something is missing: true flavor. Those early Goliaths, probably forced in greenhouses, simply taste flat. So this year, when my husband brought home some clearance strawberry plants, I was eager to plant them for real taste.  My usual planting spot now ant-ridden, I decided to put these in pots in another part of the yard.  When the first ones reddened, ah…there is nothing like a tiny, vine-ripened strawberry.

The deliciousness of true fruit is aptly used in the Bible’s analogy of the “fruit of the spirit.”  Probably best known is Paul’s Galatians 5:22-23 list of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But I wonder if it’s easy to get stuck in familiar lists. Wherever the Bible talks about good character, those all are “fruits” of a life connected to God. Proverbs, for example, is plum (pun intended) full of observations of good (and bad) character. But one list I’ve been drawn to lately is in Peter’s second letter, where he talks about progressive holy character.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness, and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.(2 Peter 1:5-8)

Consider how Eugene Peterson paraphrased the same passage in The Message:

So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, completing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others.

Time—and the nourishment of soil, water, and sun—produce the sweetest strawberries, So, too, our faith. We need time on the divine “Vine”—staying connected to Jesus—to offer a sweet “taste” of Him to the world.

Some people read Psalm 34:8 (“O taste and see that the LORD is good” ) and think of workers in food warehouse stores, white mesh nets over their hair, standing at promotion carts with little taste-cups of featured food. One way non-Christians get “tastes” of God is through the lives of believers who are manifesting godly traits like “reverent wonder” and “generous love.” All the more reason to “ripen” with godly character, such as those character qualities in lists like the apostle Peter’s.

In the meantime, anybody for a bowl of cereal with a just-picked ruby prize?  There might be enough for two in my backyard pots.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Finger-pickin' good

Oh, the joys of fruits coming in season—and on sale at my local grocery store! This vine fruit could well be called “grapes of math”! One branch produces so many little edibles!

I “get” that because of all the agrarian references in the Bible, which, of course, reflected the early agrarian culture. Wheat, barley, grapes, olives and more provided that culture with lessons about living for God. Like this one that Paul wrote to the church at Philippi:

And this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of Christ. (Philippians 1:11)

So, what are those “fruits” or behaviors of a God-directed life?  Paul gave Timothy one list:

But you, man of God pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:11-12)

Paul must have mulled a lot over how to describe a “fruitful Christian.” There’s also that often-quoted section of Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

A friend from years past told how she decided to take one  spiritual “fruit” (from Galatians 5:22-23) and focus on it for a week, trusting God to make her aware of temptations to behave the opposite of it, and to thoughtfully turn her thinking to His ways. She worked as a hospital nurse, and I’m sure in that tension-filled situation she had plenty of opportunity to check the “pulse” of her fruit-bearing.

As for the bowl of fruit pictured above: are you already wanting to reach in and pluck off a few to eat? I think that’s a picture of how Christ wants us to live: that no matter when or where we’re tasted (or tested), His sweetness will prevail.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Beautiful sky-gray

I’ve a lover of the color blue, especially that of the sky on a sunny day. But I don’t mind the “gray” of rain clouds when they’re part of the normal cycle of seasons. This sky-scape on a recent trip brought to mind a passage in Isaiah 55, one you may remember for its clarion call to the spiritually thirsty: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.”  This, of course, looks to Christ, the Living Water. But there’s another well-known section in the middle of that chapter. The passage may seem long, but it’s rich:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

So is my word that goes out from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:8-11)

Years ago I was encouraged to memorize this set of verses as a reminder that learning the mind of God (which includes making the necessary spiritual changes) needs to include getting scripture inside my heart.

There’s a Bill and Gloria Gaither song that goes along with this. It’s called “God gave the Song,” and in the middle of the singing, a narrator comes in with a list of things (like armies) that could not quiet God’s Song in Jesus Christ. God’s Word will never, never be nullified but achieve His purposes. I claim that as I pray for difficult people in my life. And even when I see no changes in them, I know He’s changing me more into the character of Christ.

Back to those threatening gray skies. In the back of our pickup, we had a wooden dresser to deliver to our daughter, and wondered if a cloudburst was ahead and we’d need to stop and put a tarp over it. No way could we stop that “precip delivery” on which farmers depended for their crops! Similarly, we cannot stop the spiritual “storms” that come into our lives. As uncomfortable as they are, as much as they drive us to our knees, they’re part of God’s way of growing us spiritually.

Maybe there’s new slogan here:

See the gray, stop and pray!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Look up!

"Big Sky Country”—I understood that description of Montana when I traveled across it nearly forty years ago. Ever-changing clouds floated above the encircling horizon. The rolling scrublands of southeast Washington state provide a similar impression, and when we recently traveled through them, this cloud formation almost took my breath away. Sometimes scripture you haven’t thought about in a while just pops into your mind, and this is what came to me:

From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. (John 1:16)

The context of this verse is God’s amazing grace in sending The Light, His son Jesus, who showed us and taught us about God the Father. As I saw the clouds stacked one after another, they seemed to symbolize “one blessing after another.”  I not only have sufficient food and housing, the love of friends and family, and skills I can use to God’s glory, I have HIM. When the woes of this world drag me down, especially when I am attacked personally, I have HIM. I have the gift of salvation, His assurance of help now, and the anticipation of a glorious future in Heaven.

Recently, while finishing a sewing project, I put on a praise tape for background music. As though God knew I needed it, I heard the song “Be exalted,” based on Psalm 57:6: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth." I immediately thought of this photo and the “glory” of even clouds—water vapor, part of God’s exquisite creation design!—expressing His glory over the landscape.

Only two of the gospels describe Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, both just saying “he was taken up into heaven” (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51). But when Luke gathered his research of the history of the early church, he added this detail:

 After he [Jesus] had said this [the “great commission” to witness about Jesus] he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9, boldface added).

But that’s not the end of the “cloud” story.  Luke’s Gospel includes Jesus’ teaching about the end of the world with all sorts of havoc. Luke quotes Jesus:

At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:27-28, boldface added).

As you finish reading this, look outside.  Are there clouds to lift your thoughts heavenward?  Even if not this day, look up and take courage! He is coming again!

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Eye" am with you

If you look to the left in this photo, you’ll see two eye-shaped land formations that seem to be looking heavenward.  Actually slices of a hill too steep to plow, they are known locally as “The Eyes of the Palouse.”   Located deep in what’s called the “Palouse country” of eastern Washington—known for rolling scrublands and grain crops—they’re a welcome sight for us as we make the four-hour trip to see our daughter and family. As we travel east, seeing them means we’re just an hour from our destination. 

Our son and daughter both attended Washington State University on the far eastern edge of our state. (A few years later, my daughter and husband, who finished his degree there, decided to return there to settle after teaching two years in China.) During those many long back-and-forth trips during  our son and daughter's college years, the “eyes” reminded me of a Biblical allusion to God’s omniscience:

The eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)

Every trip, they symbolized for me how my student son and daughter, facing the challenges and trials of college life, were at all times watched by my Heavenly Father, the Lord of all. They turned out okay--praise God.  But I recalled how the same verse had helped me trust God through all the changes and travels I experienced as a young adult pursuing mission service, graduate school,  and a job halfway across the nation.

During our most recent trip past the “eyes,” however, other “eye” verses came to mind:

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. (Psalm 123:1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?  My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.  (Psalm 121:1-2)

Lately we've gone through some difficult issues in extended family. The struggle has been long and deeply wounding.  I yearn for hope or answers, but see none.  Then God reminds me: the solution is not my responsibility.  He is on the throne, not me.  He, the ruler of the universe, is in charge.

The great “I-am” is also the great “Eye-am” who sees all: past, present, future. And He is worthy of my trust and love, even when what I see is bleak:

Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. (Psalm 34:3)