Friday, April 29, 2016

Golden truths

A series inspired by a visit to Kauai
The hotel where we stayed in Kauai had “Koi feeding” as one of its in-house activities. Dozens of the colorful tropical fish filled a pool adjacent to the restaurant.  When the waiter assigned to “feeding duties” came with his telltale can of koi food, the pool turned nearly solid orange with thrashing fish. Their feeding frenzy reminded me of my childhood, when I biked to a nearby salmon hatchery with friends. In those days before security fences and safety precautions, we kids could walk alongside the long concrete pools of juvenile salmon. They churned the water to froth as they spotted us, thinking we were the “keepers” who tossed them food.

Yes, koi are pretty, their scales an attractive mosaic of white, orange, yellow, and black. Most of these fish were a foot in length. I asked the keeper their value.  He smiled and said, “Expensive.”  An on-line search showed koi costing up to $225 each. One source said they can live a century.  Unless, of course, something looking for a fish dinner shows up.

Sometimes my mind goes in strange directions, and as I watched the hungry, showy koi, I remembered a song from the 1957 Broadway show, “West Side Story.”  In one scene, Maria is in high spirits because a boy has paid attention to her.  She dances and sings, “I feel pretty and witty and bright!” Our culture easily connects beauty (like koi?) with desirability. But the Bible warns against linking the two.  A case in point comes from the book of First Samuel.  Big, muscular, handsome-hunk Saul was serving as Israel’s first king. Before being anointed king, he was described as “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:3). But a few years into his reign, his character flaws emerged. Then came his biggest mistake: saving some booty from the raid on the Amalekites, even though he was told to destroy everything.

Off Samuel went on a secret mission to anoint a king-in-waiting. God led him to Jesse of Bethlehem, father of many big, handsome sons. But the one God chose was a little guy out in the pasture with the sheep. God saw in David the character He wanted:
The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

God’s like that. He chooses unlikely candidates and grooms them for His great assignments. They may wrestle with their human frailties in health or personality. But God isn’t limited by those. Paul wanted to be freed of a debilitating “thorn in the flesh”—whatever it was. But God designed for him to live with it, in the power of Christ, encouraging him with the words that still apply to us:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:5)

Ministry isn’t about being colorful, big and aggressive (like those pricey koi in the hotel ponds). It’s about the golden promise that as we yield our dullness and weakness to Christ, He can transform us to love and serve Him well.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The company of clay pots

A continuing series inspired by sights in Kauai.
The gigantic nursery we visited in eastern Kauai also had a lot devoted to planters and pots. Oh, my! I had a hard time imagining the size of the potter’s wheels necessary to throw the largest ones. Thankfully, in Kauai’s warm climate, they won’t suffer the indignities of being cracked by frozen soil inside.  That’s what happened one winter to one of my nicer clay pots.

Paul’s words, which I first memorized in the King James version, rang in my heart:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (1 Corinthians 4:7)
The NIV puts it bluntly: “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” We’re just lumps of baked earth, mud, if you will.  For all the ways we try to dress up these old bodies, with preening and haircuts and clothes, it comes down to this: without the breath of God in our beings, we’re as dead as dirt.

Paul was dealing with a church that must have enjoyed showmanship. He previously had to censure their tolerance of blatant sin, raucous and showy services, and divisions over which pastor they followed. (Ouch! I’ve seen that in Christendom today!).  He drew the line:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

 God doesn’t need fragile, priceless Ming vases to carry out His work. He uses ordinary people who don’t call attention to themselves. The ones who see themselves as clay pots, fired in the oven of affliction, sturdy and ready to go to work. Proclaiming Jesus, as Savior.

 There’s one problem with this picture.  All the pots are waiting, unused. Paul would say: fill ‘em with dirt, get them growing something. Keep them earth-serving, heaven-focused:

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Garden-tender

A series inspired by sights of Kauai.
With its nickname as “The Garden Island,” we expected to see lots of eye-candy as we traveled throughout Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. But when we came over the top of one hill and saw a sign, “Nursery,” we turned in, wondering what a commercial nursery in the tropics could offer.  Oh, my, the shelters went on and on and on, protecting new and maturing plants. The web site of this facility boasted 60,000 square feet of greenhouses and more than seventy acres of landscape plants and materials. The facility covers 150 acres and employs about a hundred people.  What a far cry from one of our town’s seasonal “garden centers” at a local appliance and furniture store. It exists for a few months in the spring, a third of the parking lot covered with bark and rows of plants and trees.
 
As we walked through a small portion of the facility, I thought of how appropriate it is, that the word “nursery” is applied to the “beginnings” of both plant and human life. The repeated use of the term “little children” by the aging, venerable apostle John echoed in my heart. The last of the apostles to die, somewhere in his nineties after a long imprisonment on a remote island, his weak old heart beat with compassion for the spiritual children he would leave behind.  His first epistle ends simply but with an impassioned plea, “Dear children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). Of all the ways he could have said, “the end,” he “punched out,” as it were, with what he saw as the greatest threat to the church: idols.
 
The whole epistle seems to throb with John’s fatherly concern for believers. Frequently he used the term “children” (Gk: teknon) or “little children (teknion, diminutive form).  As an old man, weak in body and soon to die, it seems all he can think of were those fresh-faced believers who haven’t been spiritually seasoned like him.  He wanted them to grow into a robust faith, despite the apostasy of the times:

As I read the epistle, I have to stop whenever I see “children.” It suggests both our position in Christ and our spiritual vulnerability. Linger as you read these:
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.” (1 John 2:1)
“I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.” (2:12)
“I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father. (2:13)
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.” (2:18)
“And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him as his coming” (2:28)
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (3:1)
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.” (3:7)
“This is how we know who the children of God are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; neither is anyone who does not love his brother.” (3:10)
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (3:18)
“You, dear children, are from God, and have overcome them [false prophets], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (4:4)
“This is how we now that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out His commands” (5:2)

Here’s the big message I get from this: in God’s nursery of young, growing, vulnerable  believers, the early church was blessed by a passionate, caring “attendant.”  For the Gospel to be properly “propagated,” John would not shirk his duties until God called him Home. He left us an example.

Friday, April 8, 2016

"Bean" there, done that


A series inspired by a visit to Kauai.
Where, but in Kauai, could you find a tourist activity that’s a cure for jet lag? The southeast shore boasts acre after acre of caffeine—aka coffee--on lands repurposed from their former use growing sugar cane. (Okay, we went from sugar highs to caffeine highs.) The tourist center lobby offers a tasting room with carafes of various coffee blends you can sample with the thimble-size disposable cups. There’s also an employee-led tour through some of the grounds (pun unintended). The company is doing well, but always watching for a certain invasive beetle that could kill the crops and industry. We also learned that decaffeinating coffee meant “outsourcing” beans to a Canadian company which puts them through a rather complicated process.
 
I’m afraid I have become my mother, who could not face the day without a cup of coffee. I don’t spring into vibrant life at 5 a.m. (when my husband does). I have long felt guilty about this habit, aware of purists who drink none. I do have my favorite herbal teas, but I am good friends with a morning cup-o-java. This is a late-adulthood habit, as I had a hard time shaking my parents’ admonition in childhood, “Coffee will stunt your growth.”  Topping out at five-foot-two, I wondered what my problem was.

Then there were warnings that coffee wasn’t good for blood pressure. I admit to avoiding my cup of jump-start once a year when I go in for my annual checkup, lest the blood pressure cuff go into overdrive.  There have been a lot of pros and cons in medical literature about the “healthiness” of coffee, but here are some findings in its favor:

*Lowers risk of depression in women. (I wonder if their test groups were marathon runners who needed no coffee and normal women who moan “cooofffeeeee” as soon as the alarm goes off.)
*Improves some cognitive function (one test said it helped people proofread better).
*Seems to fight off Alzheimer’s disease in mice. (As if we needed mice who can’t remember where the trap is.)
*Might decrease risk of Type 2 diabetes (especially if you skip the sugary flavorings), Parkinson’s disease, basal cell carcinoma, prostate cancer, and liver disease.  (Hmm, my dad always told Mom that she was pickling her body with so much coffee.)

All right, the dire side of thing.  Coffee can be addictive—but so can other things we put in our bodies (drugs, alcohol, food). We can become slaves to an activity (work, shopping, electronic media) or unhealthy relationships (with a controlling or abusive person). We can have emotional addictions (worrying, complaining).

The information video about coffee showed workers constantly checking the beans and roasting process for quality control.  Maybe that’s a key to making sure our behavior (and wants/desires/cravings) line up with the will of God.  Paul offered a one-size-fits-all rule for spiritual quality control: “So whether you eat or drink [remember, he never knew about coffee], or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Friday, April 1, 2016

Hey, mate, pleased to meet ya....

A continuing series inspired by a visit to Kauai.
I’m no wizard about lizards, but I do believe this is a “gecko,” which is so common in Hawaii that it decorates tourist items. Eight of the world’s 900 species of gecko have settled in the islands. They help earn their keep by eating cockroaches, which also abound in this tropical land.  Unlike the chatty green cartoon gecko with an Aussie accent, featured in ads promoting a certain insurance company, geckos tend to be quiet and elusive. One showed up daily on a fence by a stairwell at our hotel in Kauai. But if we got too close, he slipped away in an instant.

So what life lesson can come from a gecko?  The Bible is rather silent about the critter, though it does mention “lizards,” of sorts.  Enter a 500-year-old linguistic dispute over two verses, between King James’s crew and modern linguists. Leviticus 11:29-31 listed a number of amphibians as “unclean” for eating. The King James version names the “chameleon and the lizard.” The NIV named these as the “gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon.” The linguistic drama deepens over in Proverbs 30:28.  What the KJV translates “spider” comes out as “lizard” in the NIV, based on newer linguistic information.  Rather than get twisted over translation questions, there’s a bigger truth in this Proverbs passage:
Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer;
Conies [hyrax or rock badger] are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags.
Locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks;
A lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. (Proverbs 30:28 NIV)

This whole chapter, titled “Sayings of Agur,” departs from the usual couplet form of most of Proverbs. Instead, it uses lists from nature to convey spiritual truths. As for this one, the author seems to be observing this:
*Ants prepare.
*Badgers are wise builders.
*Locusts show the strength of order and cooperation.
*Lizards are fearless.

 All those qualities are also those of a healthy church. By ourselves, we may not feel like we make much of an impact. But together, we do. And as for the lizard showing up in kings’ palaces, we don’t just slither through a crack in the wall of our King’s palace. We’re welcomed there by the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.  The One who created every living creature on the planet, including the humble gecko.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Struttin' their stuff

A series inspired by sights in Kauai.
Native to South Africa, but also found in Hawaii, this Bird of Paradise plant prompted a childhood memory.  In the late 1950s, when my dad’s job transfer took us from sunny Los Angeles to a small town in rainy Western Washington, my mother couldn’t bear to leave behind her favorite hot-weather house plants.  Those included some cacti and her Bird of Paradise, for which Dad built an indoor plant shelf in the sunniest window.  When the “bird” finally bloomed again after the move, she celebrated. Named for its avian look-alike, the plant's stem ended with beak-like head, from which emerged three brilliant orange sepals and three purplish-blue petals resembling a bird “on the wing.”

The avian “bird of paradise” has its own story.  The flashiest one, the “Greater bird of paradise” found in New Guinea and nearby islands, is about the size of a crow.  The male bird has a golden head, emerald green forehead and throat, and maroon wings and tail. Its “wow” factor is the dense mass of plumes, up  to two feet long, which spring from under the wings. The female is a dull-colored bird. But at mating season, the males gather in a tree to impress the ladies by strutting, dancing and spreading their plumes.  

 So here you have two show-offs of nature.  A spiritual analogy?  Perhaps there’s one in Jeremiah’s prophecy contrasting human pride and God’s glory. Paul dealt with the issue when his authority as an apostle of Christ was questioned. He urged the church to evaluate leaders by spiritual, not worldly, standards. Before launching into his autobiography, which verified how much he’d suffered to spread the Gospel, he quoted from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah:

Let him who boasts boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. (2 Corinthians 10:17-18 NIV)

The quote came from Jeremiah’s admonition to seek to better know God and His attributes over the best of human “learning”:
“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
Or the strong man boast of his strength
Or the rich man boast of his riches,
But let him who boasts boast about this:
That he understands and knows me,
That I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.
(Jeremiah 9:23-24 NIV)

God isn’t impressed with a flashy faith that, like mating Birds of Paradise, struts about with showmanship religion. Instead, in seeking Him above all else, the quiet beauty of a faith-filled life can emerge. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tongue-tried

Part of a continuing series inspired by sights of Kauai.
I’m no botanist—just someone who appreciates beauty—so my reaction to this flower was, “Oh, look at the tongue on this one.” Actually, its Greek name means “tail flower,” and one thing you need to know about this bloom is that it’s poisonous. It contains calcium oxalate crystals, and even its sap can irritate the skin and eyes. In other words, look, don’t touch.  Don’t even think about tasting.

 But, oh—the beauty of the anthurium, native to the rain forests of Central and South America. They do well in Kauai’s humid climate, too, first brought to the islands more than a century ago. Here’s the story of how it happened.  In 1876, Edouard Andre, the head gardener of Paris, spotted an anthurium on an expedition to the rain forests of Colombia. Brought back to Europe, the specimens went from Belgium to the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in England. Then in 1889, Samuel Mills, Hawaii’s Minister of Finance, brought the first anthurium to England, planting it in the gardens of his estate.  A fussy tropical plant, it needs kept between 55-90 degrees F—preferably above 70 degrees.

What I called the “tongue” is actually the flower, which contains the plant’s reproductive system. That fact, I realized, was appropriate in light of truths that come from James’ blunt letter to Christians having problems with their tongues. That unruly slab of flesh in our mouths is prone to reproducing all sorts of negative “discharge,” like complaining, gossiping, murmuring, backbiting, and more. We tend to ignore our “tongue history,” but Jesus came down hard on it, particularly the words that deny the faith:
I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.(Matthew 12:36)

His disciple and half-brother, James, took it further:
The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts…The tongue…is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…no man can tame the tongue, it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison [like the anthurium!]…Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. (James 3:5, 8, 10, bracketed comment added)

What’s the cure? A constant vigilance and restraint, remembering God hears every casual and negative word. Through Paul, we’re reminded to think (and also speak) of things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).  Or, as has been popularized in posters, to consider the acrostic “THINK” before speaking. The letters stand for True, Helpful, Inspirational, Necessary, and Kind.

 Next time, when tried, tested or perturbed, stop and THINK. It will make a big difference.