Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Extra-large was extra-wrong

My local store had put away most of its
swim suits to make room for fall attire,
but imagine this in leopard print.
All I wanted was a peach-colored shirt to go with a scarf my daughter had brought back for me from China. And I had found one, but the wrong size.

The store’s catalog clerk happily punched in the numbers to special-order one for me, and about a week later I found a phone message that it had come in.  Rushing to the store, I claimed the package and went back home.

Opening it, I found, not the medium-size peach shirt, but a women’s XXL bathing suit in jungle print so amazing and bold that I was certain I could hear lions and rhinos in the background.
Of course, I exchanged it (I provided the store clerks with their laugh of the day).  My husband asked why I didn’t keep it, as my very modest swimming suit is thirty years old. There was this issue of “swimming” in a very generously-proportioned swim suit.

Sometimes, I think, we are guilty of generously-proportioned praying that reeks of “Self.”  Like this:
For mySELF Lord, if You don’t mind, I’d like a perfect body [no more shopping in the gnormous sizes section], impeccable health [make me a pain-free zone], a Harvard I.Q., and a stress-free job that allows me to buy my move-in-ready dream house with cash.    

I know this goes against “name-it-claim-it” teaching.  But I wonder if we often reduce God to a prayer-order catalogue. We tend to advertise Christ as the One who takes away our pain and sorrow as we fill out the order form with grand requests for the way we’d like life to happen.

A prime example of that was the Zebedee brothers. Two Gospel accounts (Matt. 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45) recount a conversation in which they (or, in one version, their pushy mother) asked for high honors in Christ’s kingdom.  Jesus asked if they were ready to drink the cup He was to drink—and He didn’t mean orange soda. He meant giving one’s life for another, as He would soon do at Calvary. Serving others. Being willing to be last, not first.

The believer who serves is often one who’s had to learn the hard lessons that we don’t pray for a perfect life. Ease does not build spiritual muscle.  Fame doesn’t guarantee faithfulness. God knows exactly what is our best “fit.” When we place an order by prayer, we ask, “Not my will, but thine.” Often, what He brings our way is lots better than what we imagined.

Maybe with the exception of wrong-size swimsuits.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

When senselessness strikes

Thursday's mass shootings at a college in Oregon have again shocked us. I wrote this piece after the 2012 shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut. Because my husband is a retired (and still subbing) teacher, those shootings at public schools hit us hard.  I think the principles here are worth republishing as we pray and try to make sense of this sick act.

 Not again, I groaned as I caught “breaking news” of another mass killing spree. Again, I grieved for innocent victims struck down in their offices, schools, places of worship, athletic events and other public places.
I also thought of those I know who survive such terrifying incidents. Some friends’ trip to a Portland, Ore., shopping mall ended with them huddling in a dressing room while a shooter went on his rampage. I once met a teen girl who nearly lost her arm in the first school shooting in 1996 in Washington state. She was sitting in math class; three died that day.

As a Christian, I can’t ignore these events. They remind me of the desperate consequences of sin. They also press me closer to God as I seek His perspective and hope. Here are some things I’ve found helpful when senselessness strikes. 
1. Limit media saturation. Excessive watching or reading of emerging news reports heighten focus on the evil event and the secular world view. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its thinking mold (Romans 12:2). Learn enough to know how to pray, and then do pray for the victims and those affected, including the media and emergency workers. Lift up those called on to convey God-honoring comfort and counsel, such as pastors and Christian counselors.

2. Remember history. Godless insanity and violence are nothing new. Old Testament history churns with wars and violence. Early Christians were persecuted and martyred. The greatest picture of evil came on a hill in Jerusalem, where three men were impaled on crosses to die. One was sinless, the Lord Jesus.   

 3. Rest in knowing that God knows. The Bible says the last days will see an “increase of wickedness” (Matthew 24:12). In His omniscience, God knows beforehand about every crime or killing. He sorrows over each, even as He knew ahead of time the unfathomable cost of His Son’s death: “He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one” (Psalm 22:24).

4. Trust His love and wisdom. Christ’s death and resurrection put a stake in the ground: Satan is not the final victor. So when another heartbreaking incident of public violence happens, don’t let intense media coverage fuel a hopeless perspective.  God’s answer for us is the same He gave the Old Testament’s Job, when this good man was stripped of all by violent schemes and natural disasters: “Trust Me. Acknowledge My sovereignty.”
Amid unspeakable loss and pain in our times, He is still there. His hands are those of rescue workers, medical people, counselors and friends. He also uses believers to pray rather than fret over news of violence. Psalm 22:27 shows the other side, when senselessness will finally make sense: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Get it!

When I open up my internet’s “home page,” besides the usual distressing news, I sometimes spot a “teaser photo” of a silly cat feature. These are the ones with cats playing the piano or chasing laser-pen beams up the wall. Ho, hum, my son’s cat has chased lasers for years. In fact, the cat wore out one laser pointer so I took over ours, which our cat had no interest in. Actually, our cat would dismiss himself when he saw the dot running around the rug.

Not so “Rosebud,” my son’s cat—she (now “it”) of exceeding fluff and two-color eyes, adopted from an animal shelter.  Absolutely an indoor cat (except for rogue slipping out the door when groceries are being carried in), her life consists mostly of sleeping, carrying around her grungy Ty © toys, slipping under the furniture covers to illegally scratch the upholstery, and letting her humans know (1) she is hungry or (2) her litter box is foul beyond belief.
She comes alive, however, when the dot from a laser pointer starts dancing over the rug and up the wall. Her vertical leaps, for her girth and weight, would make her a star recruit for a pro basketball team. My two-year-old grandson stands there and hoots (which is funny enough in itself) when a parent engages the cat in the fantasies of laser play.

Chasing after fantasies....that reminds me of some ho-hums from a book of the Bible, written by a king who had all the wealth and entertainment earth could offer.
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
Had he lived today, Solomon might have edited that to “chasing after the cat toy with a laser beam.”

 My point (pun intended) is this: We can be numbed by artificial pleasure or seek after the God who provides genuine and pure pleasure.  Remember, Adam and Eve were created with all the senses that brought enjoyment.  For example, I can’t imagine an apple with the taste and texture of cardboard.  God really packed that fruit with pleasure: color, crunch, taste, smell. Without the capacity for pleasure, we’d be robots.

But if we pursue only “pleasure,” we’re missing the real deal.  Having created us in His image, God also intended for us to pursue things that reflect His character. Paul gave us a good list of “pursue-afters” in both his letters to Timothy, his protégé and a young pastor surrounded by pleasure-seeking.  These included: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness and peace (1 Timothy  6:11, 2 Timothy 2:22).

Such character qualities aren’t flashy (like the cat’s elusive laser toy), but they’ll go a long ways in building a life that’s meaningful.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Cast Away

One of the most important pieces of furniture in our kitchen is “Igor.”  Thanks to four hefty batteries, he obediently yawns open whenever we wave his direction with things to throw away. Yes, we have allowed ourselves the charming luxury of a magic-eye trash can, whom we affectionately named for its “eager-ness” (Igor-ness) to open and shut.  He replaced a trusty old plastic trash can that after several decades had terminal hinge fatigue despite attempts to extend its life with duct tape. 

At times I could wish for a spiritual “Igor,” who’d yawn open and swallow all the banana peels and coffee grounds of my spiritual life.  (Yes, I know I should be “green” and composting, but that’s another subject.) My human-condition (read that: sin nature) means I’ve had to deal with a lot of garbage, some of my own, some slopped into my life by others.  I’m talking about stinky attitudes, messy situations, the foulness of anxiety and worry, the sludge of grudges.

I’m often drawn back to The Lists in Galatians 5.  Galatia was no Mayberry which barely kept Andy Griffith and his comic deputy occupied. The list in verses 19-21 make you think “Vegas,” except what happened in Galatia-Vegas didn’t stay there. It stunk enough to bring out Paul’s censure—everything from immorality to fouled relationships and out-of-control behavior. 

Open, Igor.  Here comes the trash life.

I’m grateful Paul didn’t stop at these negatives.  He goes on to name God-pleasing traits that come from a life under Christ’s control: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Nothing trashy here.

“Since we live by the spirit,” Paul said, “let us keep in step with the Spirit.” It’s not a passive thing where God sprinkles “God-goodness” all over me as I waltz through the tulips. Instead, He’s at work conforming me to His image. Making me Christ-like.  Getting rid of the trash-life.  Nudging me to review the Owner’s Manual (the Bible).

Open wide, Igor.  I  have some sin confessions to cast your way.  Yeah, that stinky attitude...that wormy worry....that occasion of putrid pride....   How grateful I am that He clamps down the lid: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Friday, September 11, 2015

Grin & share it!

Here’s my second grandson, Zion, doing a “test drive” on a baby-safe rocking horse my husband found at a yard sale.  I’d say he liked it. Now nine months old, he’s a jug of joy. Maybe those smiles are extra special because during the first four months of his life, until his first cleft lip surgery, that little mouth had a split up through his nose and he had to endure pre-op treatments of mouth-molding devices and taping.  Often when I hold him, if I smile at him, he brightens up and returns a 100-watt grin.  Of course, like any baby, he has his fussy times. But the pure joy we sense in his smiles certainly overcompensates for the times we get the “baby grumps.”

“Joy” is one of those misunderstood virtues of the Christian life.  It’s not the shallow “happy-all-the-time” personality.  It’s the deep sense of being settled in the love of God, knowing nothing that happens is outside His wisdom and permission.  Joy faces the worst—in trust.  Jesus “for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).  James wrote, “Consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3). With chains dangling off his wrists, Paul wrote the Christians at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:5—the entire letter, in fact, has 15 uses of “joy” or “rejoice”).

Someone once tried to define “joy” with an acrostic of its English letters, of loving “Jesus, Others, Yourself.” I once bristled at that, thinking that loving “yourself” was quite ego-centric and didn’t belong in the mix.  Now I realize that J.O.Y. is a triangle, with all points reaching to each other. When we love Jesus, we love ourselves (meaning have a healthy view of we are in Christ).  When we love ourselves, we reach out and love others. Back again, loving others reveals our love for Christ.  I recall having someone ask me, “Why is so-and-so unfriendly at church? They never smile or talk to me.”  Knowing a bit of the background, I tried to explain that this person was on the journey of loving others and loving God, and needing some life skills in reaching out to strangers.  Hey, haven’t most of us been on that journey? 

That’s where smiling babies like Zion and his toddler brother Josiah have a built-in advantage.  In those times when the joy-factor peaks in their little lives, we can enjoy the moment with them.  Such joy is contagious, let this grandma assure you! You should see ME grin when I hear a little two-year-old shout in glee, “Nana!” Yes, I'm enjoying the "ride" of investing in this next generation.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Should old acquaintance be forgot...

Yes, that's me in the upper-right corner, in 1965.
Growing older has its advantages, like senior coffee at McDonald’s and senior discounts at various stores. (For some reason, our “Senior Center Thrift Store” doesn’t have senior discounts. Hmm.) This year I reached another “senior event” about which I had mixed feelings: my fiftieth high school reunion. In 1965 I was among 460 teenagers graduating from Puyallup High School on the west side of Washington state.

 I gave my high school years my best effort, graduating in the top twelve academically. The class “brain,” no surprise, got a doctorate from Yale. (Two B’s in physical education kept me from a 4.0.  I married a physical education teacher. Go figure.) A decade after high school, the many friends who penned in my annual that they’d remember me forever had shrunk to two who sent Christmas greetings for a few years. In those decades before social media, if you didn’t write, call, or get together, friendships tended to fizzle, especially if you moved away from the core community of graduates.   

When the invitation came, I debated over spending $100 a couple for the event at a local casino (presuming drinks and dancing were part of the plan). The strongest drinks in our house are Pepsi or morning-blend coffee. I’ve only done “happy dancing” when I got a book contract in the mail.  My “gambling” is taking a risk on pull-date yogurt from the local discount grocery.  Plus, the reunion was scheduled for our wedding anniversary, and a three-hour drive away. I decided to stay home.

The organizers were doing a “reunion annual” and invited class members to submit a “bio” telling what they had done since high school. Not surprisingly, the student body president became a doctor and the football star spent his life in construction. Many wrote of buying big boats and RVs for retirement. Some had seen the world in military service. One taught in Japan for 26 years. Another spent more than forty years in public relations and lobbying across the nation in Washington, D.C.

 A classmate I didn’t remember earned a doctorate in gerontology and conducted 2,000 workshops in places like Thailand, China, Northern Marianas, Guam and Canada. Oh yes, she also volunteered in Mongolia, trekked with gorillas in Rwanda, and horse-camped in Turkey. Another classmate, to her doctor’s amazement, survived brain cancer.  But the last page held names of 67 members who’d passed away—15% of the class. Some guys may have lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Even 50 years later, without going to our original annual, I could recall their faces

Our daily treks through the wood-floored halls of an old school had united us. But our life choices had separated us.  So had our spiritual choices. I considered going to the reunion for the opportunity to tell what Christ had done for me. But the celebration venue didn’t really lend itself to that. Instead, in my “reunion annual bio” I mentioned that a certain Bible verse had been my life guide.

I know of people who used alumni connections to the glory of God. One from my husband’s high school class went away to West Point and a distinguished military career. But upon retiring to his hometown, he contacted fellow alumni and invited them to participate in a monthly E-mailed prayer request list.

The “golden class reunion” did take me one place, to Psalm 90, attributed to Moses. Two verses especially seemed appropriate for perspective on milestones:
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (v. 12)
May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands. (v. 17)

No social event can compete with what’s ahead for those who have trusted Christ. The heavenly “graduation” will surpass it all!

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Junk Jungle

I hesitate to use the words “treasure chest” or “bargains galore,” but about an hour’s drive away there’s a junk store we always visit when in that town.  My husband walks around back to the recycling area where he can harvest parts off broken bikes for less-broken ones he’s trying to restore to usefulness.  I step carefully through the guardians of the front door: tired sofas, television shelves and other furniture ingloriously stored outside in all sorts of weather.  Want to reupholster furniture?  Have they got a deal for you.  Inside, the warehouse is crammed. Mattresses are stacked sideways like slices in a loaf of bread, and you weave down aisles between mountains of stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff.

Then there’s the “kitchen room,” with its teetering shelves of kitchenware, baskets, frames, and knickknacks.  Dusty? That’s understatement.  I venture in there in search of older cast iron fry pans for a friend who cleans and re-sells them in an antique mall. But as I round the corner to go out, I have conflicting feelings about the conglomerate of little figurines, cookie jars, china tea cups, and other decorative things dumped here.  Most were likely leftovers from emptying a home after death. At one point, they represented something to the person who owned them.  Now they’re like those recently unburied terra cotta soldiers in China--relics of mystery.
The “junk jungle” brings two big ideas to me.  One is that we keep so much stuff!  We attach great importance to things that cannot love us back.  Yes, I have some “tokens of memories” around.  But trying to dispose of my late mother’s enormous salt and pepper shaker collection cured me of taking up a hobby that involved amassing “like things.” I wonder what sort of things people collected in Bible times. We know that women wore headpieces or jewelry with gold coins as part of their dowry, a real-life insurance policy if something happened to a spouse.  And people probably just liked “nice” things. I think of the rich young man who said he was spiritually “right” by keeping all the commandments since his youth.  But when Jesus asked him to sell all he owned and give to the poor, he couldn’t do that.  “Stuff” and riches held him back (Mark 10).
The second thought that comes as I circle that cluttered “junque” room is the unfathomable love of God.  We may feel like rejected, dusty, chipped trinkets that nobody wants any more. But God doesn’t see us that way. What the prophet Isaiah said of God’s value system (here, regarding Israel, but in the bigger picture also us) helps me envision Him going in that junk room and taking one dusty, neglected piece after another and saying, “I have chosen you. You are precious to me.”  Or, as the scripture passage puts it:
You are precious and honored in my sight....I love you. (Isaiah 43:4)
Many of the items at that thrift store have no marked price, so when you go to pay, the person in charge of the cash register says what he or she feels is an appropriate price.  Sometimes you can bargain, but usually not.  And here’s where the analogy breaks down.  “Stuff” has little value in the junk store. But we're not unwanted castoffs. We're are so valuable to God that He paid the highest price imaginable for us—the death of His son, Jesus.