Friday, April 20, 2018

ONE SIZE DOESN'T FIT ALL


Whenever my husband and I enjoy Chinese food, we always look forward to the “fortune cookie” at the end.  The little aphorism tucked inside usually brings a chuckle and a skeptical “oh, sure” response.  I always thought that fortune cookies went way back, maybe to Marco Polo or beyond. How wrong I was.  Two stories claim to be its real history.  One is dated 1914 and concerns a Japanese immigrant who designed the famed Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.  A boss who didn’t like people of his ethnicity fired him; a sympathetic boss hired him back. The grateful employee created the cookie with a thank-you note inside and later made them in quantities to pass out at the garden. The second credit, dated 1918, goes to a Chinese immigrant in Los Angeles who was concerned about the poor he saw wandering in the streets.  He created the message-cookie, putting in tiny papers with inspirational scriptures supplied by a Presbyterian minister.  After World War II, the cookies become commonplace in Chinese restaurants, and contained aphorisms or sage advice.  The demand continues: one fortune cookie company makes sixty million a month.

Of course, few would consider these little sayings to be messages from God. Yet I’ve observed people who trifle with Bible verses as though random passages were their “fortune cookie” from God.  There’s a joke (albeit sad) about a fellow who wasn’t much for reading his Bible.  One desperate day, he decided to open it, close his eyes, and put his finger on whatever passage showed up.  His finger landed on Matthew 5:5: “Then Judas went away and hanged himself.”  That didn’t seem like a good choice, so he did another random stab.  This time it was John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

BETTER ADVICE
Don’t do that!  The Bible is not a fortune-telling instrument.  But it is a truth-revealing book taken in its entirety. So...what do we do with books like Proverbs, which seem made-for-fortune cookies with its two-line nuggets?  In my Bible, Proverbs is full of highlighting and notes.  For example, one that’s especially meaningful to me is Proverbs 16:10:

When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.

Sadly,  I’ve learned that’s not always true. Some people are so steeped in bitterness and misinformation that their hearts are closed. But I balance that with the counsel of Romans 12:18-19:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.   Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.

The verse goes on to quote a proverb about returning kindness to an enemy. In the culture in which it was written, that included kindnesses like supplying food and water.  And no, you don’t throw burning materials at them, as some misinterpret verse 20: “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” This harkens to long-ago lifestyles before the invention of matches.  Fires kept people warm and cooked their food.  To have a fire go dead was a hardship.  Sending a pot of live coals to rekindle a fire (usually carried in a pot on one’s head) was a generous and caring gesture.

Next time you open a fortune cookie, remember to take the counsel with a grain of salt (or pepper). And remember another Biblical nugget that praises God for His wisdom and provision for our lives:

he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. (Psalm 107:9).

Lots more, and lots better, than bent little cookies.

Friday, April 13, 2018

TREASURES IN A SMALL BOX


Born premature, as an adult he stood barely five feet tall and had an unseemly big head, hooked nose and sallow complexion from often being sick. He might have been called “ugly” by today’s beauty-obsessed culture.  But oh how he could rhyme! Songs and poetry flowed from his pen into publication. His brilliance extended to essays on theology, psychology, logic and astronomy.

A young lady read his works and felt stirrings of love, sight unseen. This was long before Facebook, internet matchmaking, or even photos. She traveled to his home. He was so excited—somebody might love him, even marry him. But when she saw him in person, things changed.  She said that although she loved the jewel, she could not admire the “casket,” meaning the case, containing it.

He would never marry during his 74 years on earth. Yet his nation esteemed him so highly that a bust of his image was posthumously placed in Westminster Abbey. We still sing some of the 600 hymns he wrote during his life: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,”  “Join All the Glorious Names,” “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past,” “Jesus Shall Reign Wherever the Sun,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and “Come We That Love the Lord.”

ROUGH START
He started life with a father in jail for holding religious views at odds with the established church. His mother nursed him on the jail steps just so his father could hear his son’s cries. The father was later released and soon realized his growing baby was gifted, taking to books almost from infancy. He learned Latin at age 4, Greek at 8 or 9, French at 11 and Hebrew at 13.  He loved rhyming words, a trait that sometimes irked his father. One time the exasperated father threatened to spank the child if he continued. The boy replied, “O Father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”

He grew up, went away to college, and returned home disturbed over his church’s boring “singing,” which consisted of dull poetic paraphrases of psalms.  His father challenged him to write something better. He did, and it was so well received that he wrote a new hymn every week for the next two years. 

Then he was hired as a tutor for a wealthy Christian family in London. He joined their church, was asked to teach, and in 1698 was hired as associate pastor.  At age 24 he preached his first sermon. Church members considered him a brilliant Bible student, and within a few years asked him to become senior pastor.

PUSHING THROUGH ILLNESS
He struggled with his health, so a wealthy couple in church invited him to visit their estate for a while to recover. His “health visit” would turn into 36 years.  He enjoyed their children, and from that time published a children’s hymn that sold 80,000 copies in a year. He adapted most of the 150 psalms into new hymns with Christian truths.

At about age 65, he suffered a stroke. Still able to speak but unable to write, he continued working with a transcriber for several years. Declining health led to his death at age 74. He wrote his own epitaph of two verses: 2 Corinthians 5:8 (“Absent from the body, present with the Lord”) and Colossians 3:4 (“When Christ, who is my life, shall appear, then shall I also appear with Him in glory”).

But his music lived on. Almost 150 years after it was written, one of his hymns, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” was sung at a revival service in the United States. When the choir sang the final line, “Here, Lord, I give myself away,” the truths about Jesus Christ touched the heart of a 30-year-old woman. She later said that “My soul was flooded with celestial light.”  At that, she decided to give herself away to Jesus. Her name: Fanny Crosby. This blind woman went on to become America’s greatest Gospel song writer of the past century.

The name of the composer whose music inspired her?  Isaac Watts.

SOMETHING TO PONDER
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:27 observed that God can choose the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. As an illustration of that, we just need to open a hymnbook.  Or, look in a mirror and see ourselves as God sees us: beloved, full of potential.


Friday, April 6, 2018

GRANDMA'S PADDLE


Years ago, for a speaker’s prop about God’s discipline, I turned a ping pong paddle into a humorous “Grandma’s Paddle.”  It’s pretty, lacy, and amply padded—unlike the “red wooden stick” (about 15” long) that I remember from childhood, stored in the drawer of the dining area’s built-in hutch.  My dad would have to just move his hand in the direction of that drawer, and the tears of repentance would flow.  Recently, as strong pre-school wills have returned to our home in the form of grandsons, we have guidelines for “discipline” when they stay with us.  Their parents’ preferred method is three “steps” of warning, with consequences at step 3.
But a few weeks ago, as I unearthed this paddle from my box of “speaker props,” I had thoughts of how God disciplines us—and sometimes it really hurts! God’s discipline is not for His temporary peace of mind (as so often it is for us as human parents) but for our ultimate good: "My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke; because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in." (Proverbs 3:11-12)
I reconsidered that principle recently while re-reading Jerry Bridges’ The Practice of Godliness (NavPress, 1983). That book and his The Pursuit of Holiness are two I try to re-read regularly to be reminded of God’s standards for behavior.  This time, because of encounters with angry people, I was particularly struck by his treatment of patience versus anger. The person prone to losing his or her temper, he wrote, must especially work at “patience under provocation.”  Instead of excusing that behavior as “just the way I am,” Bridges wrote, “he must acknowledge his quick temper as a sinful habit before God.” He suggested meditating extensively on verses like these:

Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
First Corinthians 13:5: [Love] “is not rude, it is not self-seeing, it is not easily angered...” James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”

Bridges added: “He must also pray earnestly that God the Holy Spirit will change him inwardly.  He should apologize to the person who is the object of his outburst each time he loses his temper.  (This helps him develop humility and a sense of his own sinfulness before God.)”  (pp. 208-209)

Recognizing our weaknesses, Bridge added that persons prone to anger shouldn’t give up on conquering that habit. “He needs to realize that his problem is as much a sinful habit as it is a result of temperament. Habits are not easily broken, and there will be failure.”  The difference is that when he falls, God is there to help him—if he reaches out.

 As for Grandma’s paddle, I hope just the sight of it (like the red stick of my childhood days) will be enough to encourage “course correction” with our young ones. As we love on them (as grandparents do), I’m reminded of how much more God loves me, and desires my character to grow in Christ-likeness. His discipline is part of the process.

Friday, March 30, 2018

THOSE THORNY QUESTIONS


Buds are emerging on our rose stems, but oh, the thorns!
Why is life at times so thorny? I’ve asked myself that many times in the past few years—and not just during my spring rose-pruning duties. Thorny problems and relationships are part of our sin-filled world. We usually complain about them. But I was recently reminded of the better perspective expressed by Dr. George Matheson (1842-1906), a renowned Scottish preacher who endured life blind:

My God, I have never thanked Thee for my thorn.  I have thanked thee a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorn.  I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensated for my cross, but I have never thought of my cross as itself a present glory.  Teach me the value of my thorn.

Of course, any reference to a “spiritual thorn” leads inevitably to Paul’s use of that term. At some time (perhaps when nearly stoned to death?) he had a vision of Heaven, too wonderful to express in earthly terms.

But to keep me from getting puffed up, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from getting proud.  Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My gracious favor is all you need.  My power works best in your weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me. Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 NLT)

What was the thorn?  Nobody knows.  Some ideas: malaria, epilepsy, an eye disease (inferred from Galatians 4:13-15). Whatever, it was chronic and debilitating, interfering with his ministry. Its presence kept Paul humble and dependent on God to just get through the day.  Somehow, seeing Paul’s strength in weakness inspired those around him who had their own version of a disabling “thorn.”

And these lessons still apply. We’re tempted to rely on our own cleverness or abilities to get by in life. But when we’re faced with our true selves, we have a choice: curl up and complain, or trust God for His will in His time.

I sense that lesson in Dr. Matheson. When he aspired to become a pastor—just as his sight was going—naysayers probably suggested it wouldn’t work out. But God provided a way through his devoted sister, who herself learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew to help him in his theological studies. Throughout his life she helped with his pastoral and calling duties.

Most hymnals still include “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” whose lyrics came to him with such fluency and speed one night that he attributed it to “a dayspring from on high”—the Lord’s inspiration.  The key words of its four verses are “love,” “light,” “joy,” “cross.” All remind me of the Lord Jesus, the One who showed us God’s love.  Who called Himself the “Light of the World.”  And who, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV).

All because of a Love that will not let us go.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!


Friday, March 23, 2018

GETTING PAST WINTER

Is winter ending? Is spring here? We kept asking ourselves those questions in February as the weather kept teasing us with mild days and snowstorms. Late in February, a friend brought a handful of pussy willows from her yard. It wasn’t lost on me that this harbinger of spring came by the hand of someone who has endured a recent siege of “winters” in her family that included her mother’s death, father’s decline, widowed daughter’s cancer,  husband’s heart issues, and other challenges.

I thought of this passage in the Song of Solomon, which on the first level addresses the awakening of pure love between a man and a maiden:

See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.  Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. (Song of Solomon 2:11-12 NIV)

On other levels it speaks of our relationship with our Creator and Redeemer. God’s love can awaken non-believers from the winter of indifference and lead them to the fresh life of faith and joy. It doesn’t stop there, for the cycles of joy and sorrow are part of the human condition of both Christians and non-Christians. But we don’t need to stay in spiritual winters. There’s always the re-awakening of a spiritual spring through the power and hope of the risen Lord Jesus.


SHEDDING SOME LIGHT
One of the devotionals on my bookshelf is First Light by the late William Stoddard (Multnomah, 1990). He was a longtime Presbyterian pastor and, in retirement, the Protestant chaplain for two cruise lines. I appreciate this book because it’s not a quickie one-minute in-and-out devotional.  Each day’s reading includes several passages, and a four sections: What is God saying?  How does this apply to us? Pray with me. Moving on in the life of prayer.In his Day 81 devotional (which, if started on Jan. 1, would end up toward the end of March) the main scripture is Song of Solomon 2, and concludes: 
Let us be confident that Christ will bring the freshness and fragrance of spring into our lives. It may be winter all around us.  The earth may be frozen and hard.  Yet prayer can bring springtime to our souls, because it is centered on the living Christ and based on the power of His resurrection. (p. 163)
I don’t know about you, but I needed that reminder. Hurting people are all around me. But that's not the end of the story:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

Does that say “Easter” to you?  It does to me!

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Bible's "Chew" Program


My menu-planning depends a lot on some stickers that declare “half-off” or some other discounted price. You should see me at my local grocery store rummaging through the clearance meat! Typically I grab pork chops, beef or chicken fajita strips, or stew portions over the huge, longer-cooking, “chewier” roasts.  Sometimes I wonder what “meat” Paul had in mind (lamb? goat?) when he wrote his milk-and-meat analogy regarding spiritual immaturity.
And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat…” (1 Corinthians 3:2 KJV)
A newer translation clarifies Paul’s point:
I had to feed you with milk and not with solid food, because you couldn’t handle anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your own sinful desires. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other….You are acting like people who don’t belong to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 3:2-3 NLT) 
My older grandsons (3 and 4 ½) are big into meat (as in pepperoni pizza) but their baby brother at this point can only handle “mama milk.”  Just as humans go beyond milk, so should Christians. But Paul was seeing too church members who should have progressed way beyond the basic truths that Christ died for their sins. They had the label of believer, but not the lifestyle.

DISSECTING THE MEAT
Recently someone’s strange interpretation of Matthew 18:15-17 sent me back to my study aids to get at the “meat” and truth of Jesus’ words about church discipline. There’s more about dealing with erring believers than that passage. Jesus’ advice in Matthew was progressive chances to repent and change. First, a more mature believer would go privately to someone with a serious sin. If the offender resisted, two or three “backup” people (witnesses) would return. If still no change, then it was brought to the attention of the whole church. The implication was that this person was known in the church and their sin affected many people. Most offenders would resist getting this far, either because they truly realize the need for repentance or in their arrogance and spiritual stubbornness they don't care.

I’ve witnessed situations where this procedure was followed, both involving sexual sin among leaders. Because of its damage to the church’s reputation and integrity, their sin had to be dealt with severely but with as much love as possible. One time, because I knew the person and grieved their fall, I was present for that step of church involvement. I remember weeping as the person tearfully confessed his sin and then knelt as church leaders gathered around to pray and encourage him through the restoration process.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST
The rowdy Corinthian church was a classic application of this rule. It was tolerating the blatant sin of someone who married his father’s wife—perhaps a stepmother. Kick him out, Paul demanded (1 Corinthians 5:5).  He also shamed the church for getting soft on those who called themselves believers but practiced obvious sin besides immorality. These included people “known to be guilty of greed, or...an idolater—that is, whose soul is devoted to any object that usurps the place of God—or [is] a person with a foul tongue (railing, abusing, reviling, slandering),  or is a drunkard, or a swindler or a robber” (1 Cor. 5:11 Amplified).  

The “meat” of the Word is not just that “Jesus loves me, this I know.” It’s also that we are allowing His Spirit to convict of those life choices that "usurp the place of God" or habits of the world, like a foul mouth. Only then can the Spirit transform us into living out godly “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”  (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV).

MORE TO CHEW ON
But what of those who “become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:26 NKJV)—those reflections of the Corinthian problem?  Paul’s counsel follows: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently (NIV). Echoes of step number one in Jesus’ Matthew 18 instruction! 

Both these approaches—public, progressive rebuke of stubborn, blatant sin, and humble reprimanding of carnal Christians by caring brethren--have their places. Both deserve “chewing” on as we choose how to live out Jesus’ love among the spiritually arrogant and the spiritually struggling. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Hidden values

“You never know until you go.”  That’s the slogan my husband uses a lot in his hobby of going to yard sales.  He typically finds bikes and mowers to clean up, fix and re-sell.  But I doubt if he will ever match the surprises reported in one internet article.
*A decorative egg found in a flea market was made of gold so a bit pricey at $14,000. But it proved to be a Faberge Egg, an Easter gift from a Russian czar to his wife in 1887, thought lost. The winning auction bid: $33 million.
*An old Flemish painting in an old frame, $3 at a thrift store in South Carolina. Proven to have been produced around 1650, it was auctioned at $190,000.
*Two of the 24 original copies of the Declaration of Independence surfaced.  One, found in pristine condition hidden behind a painting bought for $4 at a Pennsylvania  thrift shop, fetched $2.4 million. Another came off somebody’s garage wall during a “clutter” purge, was bought for $2.48 at a Tennessee thrift store, and fetched $477,650 at an auction.
*A sweater bought for a dollar at a Tennessee thrift store had a clue inside: a nametag that said “Vince Lombardi,” the legendary football coach. It auctioned for $43,020.
*A piece of jewelry purchased at a Philadelphia flea market brought its owner lots of compliments. Then she learned it had been made by famed American sculptor Alexander Calder, and was once displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  It sold to Christie’s for $267,750.
*An abstract painting donated to a church yard sale in North Carolina got no takers, so ended up at a local Goodwill. A local artist stopped in the store for a blanket and noticed it, thinking she could repurpose the canvas for her own zany-cat paintings. A friend suggested she research the artist’s name, “Illya Bolowsky,” found to be a giant of abstract art.  Titled “Vertical Diamond,” it brought $34,375 at auction.

THE NEED IS THERE
When I go along to yard sales, I’m not out for auction-worthy items. I look for simple things: fabric scraps, batting, yarn.  These I transform into baby blankets that I give hospital obstetrics departments to distribute to the “very needy,” as they see fit. I started this project some six years ago after learning how many “very poor” show up to give birth.  One nurse remarked recently as I left several blankets, “We’re having more and more homeless come in.”  At another hospital, a nurse pulled a blue blanket from the middle of the stack I’d just brought in and said, “This will go home with a baby boy tomorrow.”  Well, not home, she added.  Foster care.  Another nurse told of giving a blanket to a woman who came in alone to deliver her fifth baby, crying through the whole process.  There was a language barrier, too. The nurse just gave her one of my blankets as encouragement in this unexplained but traumatic situation.

Though I’ve found “blanket makings” at yard sales and thrift stores, I’ve also been blessed by people who just gave me fabric and batting. One woman and her mother brought me a huge box of serger cone thread in various colors. Some have just given me gift cards to a fabric store. One gift card (from two people) was for $100.  It took my breath away. Every time I swiped that card to buy remnants or on-sale items, I silently said, “Thank you, Lord.  Bless them.”

About a month ago I posed my two older grandsons with the latest “stash” of just-sewn blankets. As infants they got their own specially Nana-sewn blankets. But these will go to a local hospital to bless babies I will never meet. But God knows them.  So far, the blanket project stands at 838. I never know who eventually gets them. But the babies they will warm: priceless.My role model for doing this, a lady in Proverbs 31:She selects wool and flax [or juvenile print flannels!] and works with eager hands...She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. (vv. 13, 20)