Friday, September 23, 2016

Glamour in the pen

Whee—pink leopard fashion shirt!  I couldn’t help but stop and smile when I passed by this goat at our local county fair.  I’m presuming this pet-cover helped keep a just-washed animal cleaner for imminent judging. But the animal’s woebegone attitude triggered my imagination. If animals could talk “human-talk,” I wonder what this one would have said. Maybe something of the animal version of: “I’d rather be in jeans with bleach holes.”J

Smiles aside, our culture’s move toward clothing for pets (such as Halloween costumes for Fifi and Fido, usually on 90% off clearance by January) lands in my “that’s incredible” file.  I’ll admit that our ancient cat (now 17 or 18 years old—he was a rescue cat) in earlier years suffered the indignity of being garbed with Cabbage Patch doll clothes.  Alas, he was so portly that they were a poor fit, and as soon as he could, he escaped from his modeling career to the great outdoors where he could freely wear his one-and-only fur coat.

Do clothes make the person?  The fashion world would have us believe that.  But another type of clothing--the inside-type--does communicate a lot about us to people around us. 

The apostle Paul wrote that God’s chosen people—“holy and dearly loved”—should have these clothing choices: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and the ability to bear with others and forgive each other.  Finally, like a coat over all, “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14).

Peter had a similar clothes shopping list: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5, part of it quoting Proverbs 3:34).

Paul wrote the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14).  Simple and basic.   But how profound!

Did you catch something about the “clothes” mentioned in those passages?  They’re about heart-conditions that undergo the wear-and-tear of relationships.  How the world sees “Christian-dress” has a lot to do with how we treat people.  No Christian-wear is flimsy. It needs to stand up to a lot of people-and-trials-wear-and-tear. But remember: the label says, “Inspected by John 3:16.”

Friday, September 16, 2016

No clouded perspective

Are you, like me, sometimes overwhelmed by natural beauty? One such time for me came recently as I noticed a cloud back-lit by the sun. I thought of this line:
He makes the clouds His chariot.
My concordance later helped me fix its address: Psalm 104:3. In his paraphrase. Eugene Peterson offers this poetic version:
You…made a chariot out of the clouds and took off on wind-wings.
One of the “ministries”—if I might use that word—of creation may be to help us unclutter our minds. The day I noticed this remarkable cloud formation, my mind was swirling with the usual “to-do” stuff plus the cloud of concern for loved ones whose emotional baggage impairs their ability to “do life.”
I looked up, and there it was: God’s reminder of His power, His brilliance, His grandeur, far, far greater than a clump of water vapor in the sky.

Blame it on having been an English major in college! But I believe that all of us, within our hearts, have that quiet longing for something pure and magnificent.  And that, of course, is the spirit of God who created us and all that surrounds us.

One of the old hymns that steps back in awe of creation is “For the Beauty of the Earth.” One day when he was about 29 years old, Folliott Pierpoint looked across the spring beauty of his home area of Bath, England. Situated on the banks of the Avon River, rimmed by an amphitheater of hills and blessed by warm springs (hence the name, Bath), the idea is well-known for its beauty. But that spring day, Pierpoint, a Cambridge-educated teacher, couldn’t control himself. The sight inspired the hymn that begins:
For the beauty of the earth; For the beauty of the skies;
For the love which from our birth/Over and around us lies:
Christ our God, to Thee we raise/This our sacrifice of praise.
Originally eight stanzas, it was used in the Anglican church for communion services. Coming over the Atlantic, it was often used for Thanksgiving, an American holiday.

It’s an ironic truth that the more we have, the less thankful we tend to be. This hymn reminds us to just stop and look around at what God has entrusted to us in His amazing creation.

There’s one more thing: that light behind the clouds took me to one more event.  Christ left in a cloud (Acts 1:10)—and I wonder, did it gleam with the glory He once came from?  He will come again in a cloud, “with great power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).

Clouds got your attention?  Use that moment to praise God for His creative beauty and eternal plan!

Friday, September 9, 2016

Toot-n-Scoot!

He’s Gonna Toot and I’m Gonna Scoot!  I couldn’t help but think of that book title by Christian humorist Barbara Johnson as I wandered an old cemetery in Roslyn, a sleepy town in central Washington state.  Just a few days earlier, we’d enjoyed a brief visit from the minister who married us 35 years earlier. Now 83, he told of visiting another cemetery where he buried his wife just last year. This weekend would have been their 56th wedding anniversary. A son and a grandson are buried there, too.  As his daughter helped him leave flowers, he said he thought how people better watch out when these loved ones experience resurrection and zoom out of their graves!  He was referring to the apostle Paul’s letter to the ancient Thessalonians, who were confused about death and heaven:
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the LORD forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

Two sisters, almost 3 and 2 years old.
Once a booming coal mining town that grew to more than 4,000 in the 1920s, today it has about 900 year-round residents.  Its name made news when three movies were filmed there, including “Northern Exposure.”  To work the early mines, immigrants came from throughout the world. But stories of poverty, disasters (45 perished in an 1892 mine explosion) and epidemics are told through the crumbling headstones over 19 acres of cemetery. Many are for infants and small children. I recalled how some of the most poignant scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry involved common people bringing their children to Him for blessing. He said, “Do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 9:14). Like a shepherd who went to great pains to find his lost sheep, Jesus said God the Father “is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:11).

The Roslyn cemetery’s most distinctive feature is ethnic segregation. Twenty-six sections, like jig-saw puzzle pieces, divide the 19 acres of woods and hills.  Many family plots are surrounded by ornate iron fences, probably to keep foraging cattle and wildlife out.  Ethnic customs were also behind having some plots being raised above the earth, rimmed or covered with concrete, supposedly to protect “consecrated” grounds.  Many cemetery sections were labeled as burial places for those of Eastern European background. One huge section was for African Americans.  Again, I thought of Paul’s reminder about the snare of prejudice, that:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).  
A baby who died in 1903, not even a year old.
Artificial flowers abound on the graves.
Heavily littered with dead needles from the many ponderosa pines there,  the cemetery was a sobering, sad place. But I was taken back to the “Toot” and “Scoot” image that Barbara Johnson gave us in her humorous book about God’s final plan.  I recalled her story: of losing one son in the Vietnam War, another son to a drunk driver, and being estranged from a third son for many years. Her “Spatula Ministries” (alluding to being shocked to a splotch on the ceiling over family problems), borne of her own trials, helped many find God’s purpose and hope in life’s most difficult experiences. Those hard times aren’t forever. The best is yet ahead.  Paul also wrote, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Did you catch that—“called me heavenward”?  What an exciting moment it will be when “toot- and-scoot” happens—not only in Roslyn but everywhere around the world!

Friday, September 2, 2016

All dolled up and nowhere to go

 Cars were parked up and down the block as I arrived at an estate sale that had advertised fabric. I’m always watching for inexpensive flannel to sew baby blankets donated to hospitals for needy families. The two long tables stacked with material didn’t have what I used, but as I moved on through the yard I was astonished by hundreds of dolls and doll paraphernalia. It went on and on....The same was true of ceramic and glass trinkets burdening other tables. Going inside, it got worse. Multiple sets of dishes and other knickknacks were meticulously organized and priced.

I’m thankful that my community has two groups (one benefiting a local non-profit agency) that hire out to conduct estate sales. They relieve survivors of an often oppressive burden in breaking down a household. I handled that task after my parents died.  It was a long and difficult process requiring, in my case, seven yard sales. The most challenging items to sell were my mother’s tea-cup and salt-and-pepper-shaker collections

That recent day, as I inched around heaped tables, I asked one of the helpers if this was one of the bigger sales they had handled.  He nodded and replied, “There’s another sale next week. We haven’t even started in on the basement.”

Convicted of my own “piles,” I came home and loaded a box for the local thrift store!      But I couldn’t get the heaps of dolls out of my mind.  How long had that person collected them?  Did she play with them? Or were they boxed away because she didn’t know what to do with all of them?

Walking past so many dolls, I thought of a girl in Haiti we have sponsored for years through a compassion ministry. Sometimes we sent extra (above sponsor fees for her schooling) for her to buy herself something. Months later we’d get a translated thank-you note indicating she used the extra gift to buy food for her family.  One time she admitted she bought a doll.  ONE doll.

I’ve had recent encounters with real-life hoarders, and it is sad and frustrating. But this estate sale’s piles of dolls astounded me.  I thought of Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, which says, “Those who love money [or what money buys—my add-on] will never have enough.  How absurd to think that wealth brings true happiness. The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it.  So what is the advantage of wealth—except perhaps to watch it run through your fingers!” (NLT). 

This person didn’t live in a wealthy neighborhood. Most of it is smaller “starter homes” that are a half century or so old. But her compulsion to collect dolls and other trinkets was apparently big in her life.

In contrast, the apostle Paul held loosely onto “things.” It was the only way to live as an underfunded traveling evangelist in days when your feet or a boat got you places. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” he counseled his protégé, Timothy.  “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:7-8 NKJV).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Scraps

The tattooed young man giving his testimony at my church didn’t try to hide the messy details. He grew up in a dysfunctional home. Got into substance abuse. Sold drugs. Fathered a child with his girlfriend. He ended up in prison....where he found a Bible and started reading it. Ended up trusting Christ to turn his life around. Able now to say, “Jesus saved me.  I’m headed in the right direction.”  I’d rather hear that, than this, which I've also heard from a young adult: “I grew up going to church. I hate my life.  I hate my mom/dad. God hasn’t been fair to me. I pray and nothing happens. Just leave me alone.”

The first person is holding out the ragged scraps of his life, saying, “Jesus, use these as you wish.”  The second person is clutching rotted rags, unwilling to let God trim and rearrange to craft “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

My ministry “hobby” involves scraps of flannel or soft cotton, which I find at yard sales or thrift stores or am given. I cut them into five-inch squares, which I sew together, seven rows across and seven down.  These create a "patchwork" side to go with a one-yard piece of soft backing fabric. With batting between, the sides are joined with yarn ties at each square and stitching around the edges. Two hours later a new baby blanket emerges, destined with others for a local hospital to be distributed to babies born to needy families. In the last five years, I have sewn and given away more than 600. 
Redeemed-scraps-turned-blankets finished and delivered in July
Six hundred? Gasp. My initial “big goal” was fifty.  But when God calls you to a task, He will carry you through it until He pronounces it “done” or sees that you need to take a break (which is now my situation). So what does this have to do with the ragged scraps of a human life? It's this: God wastes nothing.  Those who come to God, sadly holding the scraps of their lives, can experience Jesus as Redeemer. He is a Master at trimming and fitting those scraps into something new, beautiful, and useful in His kingdom. It may hurt and cut and prick at times, but it's all part of His master pattern.  For unique beauty, and service for Him.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Let's sing the second verse!

Sometimes, snatches of scripture or phrases from a hymn will come to me when I least expect them. It happened again recently when we picnicked with friends at a public park by the Methow River in Central Washington state. There’s nothing like a river, roaring over worn rocks on its way to a mightier water—in our case, the Columbia. I snapped a photo of the sight as I vaguely recalled a classic hymn that mentioned “streams of living water.” I found the verse, “You give them drink from the river of your delights,” in Psalm 36:8a.
 
The hymn I vaguely recalled was “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” whose author also penned “Amazing Grace” in recounting his conversion. His name, of course, John Newton. His devout, praying mother died when he was very young. Growing up, he plunged into the life of an infidel, ending up running a slave ship and being temporarily enslaved himself.  Wonderfully, through God’s amazing grace (and as the answer to his mother’s prayers), he became a Christian and went into the ministry in England. He also wrote hundreds of hymns, some still sung three hundred years later.  Besides the two I just mentioned, there’s “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” I can’t sing that one without choking up.

My church’s worship style has changed to “contemporary,” but for those of us who grew up with the old hymns, there’s also a “hymn sing” two Sunday evenings a month in our church’s chapel.  Hymnals are passed out, and requests taken with the inevitable question, “Which verses?”  Often the answer is “1, 3 and 4.”  Poor verse 2!

Let’s hear it for verse 2 of Newton’s “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” sung to the majestic music composed by Newton’s contemporary Franz Haydn. Even as I type its words, I’m envisioning a river like the one we saw at the Methow Valley, bursting out of the mountains and proclaiming, “I’m part of the workmanship of God!”  I’m also reminded of the lyric’s analogy to “living water,” the Lord Jesus Christ, who nurtures and refreshes us along a journey on this planet.

See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal Love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age!
 
Remember, a man who once lived an utterly wicked life wrote this hymn. If the “old” John Newton could turn to God, we should never give up praying for those who still need to taste of the Living Water.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bed of thorns


Imagine three sets of robber-masked eyes staring at you from a nest next to your back-yard fence. It happened to me one morning, working in the back yard, when I sensed our cat unusually nervous. Following his gaze, I was shocked to see three raccoons just feet away in this half-hidden perch on the roof of a ramshackle shed. I grabbed the garden horse and aimed it at them, yelling “shoo!” as they reluctantly turned and left. Then, remembering reading how such critters despise urine smell, I sprayed the nest with household ammonia.

We live toward the edge of our little town, with a large undeveloped, junky lot on the other side of our fence.  Our trees disguise the “view,” but they also provide an up-and-down staircase for local raccoons searching for berries or the small bowl of dry cat food we once left outside. (Not any more!) After drenching the tree-needle-padded “nest” with ammonia, I stacked it with prickly dead tree branches and thorny branches pruned from our roses. These, I hoped, would put the perch into their “don’t-visit” list.

 I was reminded of my “prickle-the-nest” incident while recently reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. In chapter 16 about God’s “goodness and severity,” Packer said we need to appreciate the discipline God chooses to put in our lives. Too many people, he said, look at God as a celestial Santa Claus who supplies happy times and gifts on demand. But such attitudes trifle with God. God may, Packer said, put “thorns in your bed…to awaken you from the sleep or spiritual death—and to make you rise up to seek his mercy.”  For believers, such “bed-thorns” may be part of God’s discipline “to keep you from falling into the somnolence of complacency and to ensure that you ‘continue in his goodness’ by letting your sense of need bring you back constantly in self-abasement and faith to seek his face” (Knowing God, IVP, 1973, p. 166).

When our life’s “nest” settles into a comfortable spot, and we find thorns in the way, there may be a spiritual reason. Packer pointed to two scriptures for “why.” Hebrews 12:5, reminds us not to make light of the Lord’s discipline. And second, Psalm 119:71 takes us to the higher ground of thanking God for correction:  “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).

Early one morning this spring, I again saw a backyard raccoon--one that looked to be twice the size of our cat. When he saw me, the 'coon scampered up the tree and away. Thankfully, our cat was inside this time. I checked the condition of the “nest” and found it needing a new supply of “prickles.”

I'd like to have prickle-free living, but I also want God to shape my life. Sometimes that brings temporary discomfort until I move on to His much-better plan