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.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Prayer power

A railroad track skirts one edge of the nature trail park where we like to walk. Sometimes, a train rumbles past, and my husband starts counting aloud the number of cars behind the engines. The more cars behind, the greater the engine power needed up front.

My first thought was of the energy I need for the busy days when I have lots on my to-do list, including the privilege of caring for a busy, curious toddler grandson. As a friend of mine likes to say, “I’m not complaining, just explaining.” I also thought about the prayer burdens so many of us carry. Historians tell us that the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther practiced long prayer before each day.  He reportedly said, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day.” 

Two hours! I'm no "Luther." But I do find time drags when I get bogged down praying for people with difficult issues. Yet, when I simply sit and praise God for who He is and thank Him for what He has done and is going to do, time passes without my thinking of it. The power of praise and adoration was also a favorite topic of Nazi concentration camp survivor and inspirational writer/speaker Corrie ten Boom. She wrote, “Be sure you remain covered with a canopy of praise.  It is like a tent over and around you. Satan has no entrance as long as you pin down the sides by praying, and thank God for His wonderful promises.”(1)

Admonitions to praise God go way, way back.  In her book Karen! Karen!, author/speaker Karen Mains quoted from a translation of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, giving instructions for those living in the long-ago hermetic desert community: 
As long as I live, it shall be a rule engraved on my tongue to bring praise like fruit for an offering and my lips as a sacrificial gift.
As the scroll continues, it instructs adherents to recite the Ten Commandments morning and evening, and bless God's name continually as the day progresses, not just before meals. From life's daily rhythms, the writer moved to harder things:
When fear and terror come, and there is only anguish and distress, I will still bless and thank Him for His wondrous deeds, and meditate upon His power, and lean upon His mercies all day long. For I know that in His hand is justice for all that live, and all His works are true. So when trouble comes, or salvation,  I praise Him just the same.(2)

To borrow the train analogy, if I have enough “engines” of praise up front, it’s easier to pull the loads (“problems”) behind. Praise also reminds me that it's not all about "me pulling the load," but turning these concerns and "impossibilities" over to God. He's the Engineer and the source of Power,  not me!

(1)Corrie ten Boom, Her Story (New York: Inspiration Press, 1995), p. 446.
(2) Karen Mains, Karen! Karen! (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1979), pp. 148-49.

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.