Friday, February 23, 2018

Impossible to eat


I was a bit surprised in the last few weeks when an old folk song (think: early 1960s and Peter, Paul and Mary) started rattling around in my mind. The lyrics (original with Will Holt in the late 50s) compared the bitter fruit of the lemon tree with fickle young love. Now, I wasn’t thinking at all about teen crushes (and their crushing aftermaths). Instead, the Bible’s perspective on bitterness had occupied my study and thinking.

Someone’s remark about realizing they had a problem with bitterness prompted me to review what the Bible says about it. The book of James, full of blunt counsel about religious pretention, didn’t spare a thing.  After characterizing “wisdom” as evidenced by a “good life, by deeds done in the humility,” he denounces its opposite:
…if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” (James 3:15 NIV)

The writer of Hebrews offered a similar warning:
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will ever see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.” (Hebrews 12:14-16 NKJV)

Like the weeds in my flower beds, bitterness will take over and choke out what’s good if it’s not dealt with. In the relational realm, bitterness can divide families, strangle what could be healthy relationships, and poison both mind and body.  

Bitterness slips in when we respond to suffering in wrong ways.  Everybody suffers. But we make the choice to be bitter—or better.

Ruth of the Old Testament showed the “better” choice. Death took her husband, her brother-in-law and father-in-law. Rather than slink back in the shadows of her pagan homeland (Moab), she chose the compassionate and courageous route. Despite knowing it would be a difficult and dangerous journey, she decided to accompany her sad and bitter mother-in-law back to her homeland (Bethlehem), even though living there might be just as bleak.  Naomi, in fact, had started to call herself “Mara,” meaning “bitter.”

Of course, the rest of the story was that God rewarded faith. In turning away from her “bitter roots” of paganism and blaming, she received a fresh start and was grafted (via her marriage to a compassionate “kinsman-redeemer,” Boaz) into the lineage of the coming Messiah.

Bitter or better? Remember the lemon. Its main characteristic is sour. And bitterness turns us into sour people.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Rock on!


This super-size rocker has been a longtime
fixture outside a furniture store in Moscow, Idaho
I’m a big fan of rocking chairs—well, maybe not this big. But the soothing action of rockers takes me back to my childhood and sitting in the lap of my dad for story time in his spring-action platform rocker. When I started my first job three hours’ drive from home, and needed to assemble furniture basics, I could hardly wait to buy my own rocker.  My bed was third-hand. My ancient hand-me-down couch had wires poking through the frame. My passed-on dining set was, well, plastic and cheap. But in that first year I added a colonial style wooden rocker to my household.  When things got tough at work or in relationships, it was my “place to go” to read scripture and talk with my Heavenly Father.

More than a decade later, when I married and had babies, that rocker was moved to the nursery. Motherhood gave me a special appreciation for Psalm 131:

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, both now and forevermore.

When my two older grandsons visit and take their naps at our home, the three-year-old still likes Nana to rock him. I ask what he wants me to sing, and it’s always “Mary had a little lamb.”  I follow up with “Jesus loves me” and some other Sunday school songs until he’s mellow enough to place in the portable playpen where he takes naps here. (His brother rates the crib in the guest room.)  As I cover him and whisper, “Nana loves you,” I’m taken back to those stretching times of trust when, quiet before God in my earthly rocker, I sought the spiritual strength to keep my hope in Him. When things in my life were going haywire, I wanted to be still and quiet before Him.

My mother died in 1978 when I was barely thirty, so memories of her are becoming more precious. One memory, captured by camera in an era when photos were rare and expensive, shows her as a newborn in 1919, propped up in an old rocker. I knew she was born in a log cabin in eastern Montana, the firstborn of a Norwegian immigrant and his wife, whose childhood polio left her with one leg shorter than the other. The family lived in poverty, tilling the land he'd homesteaded. I don’t know the story of that old rocker. Because my grandfather (who died when I was a few months old) had trained in carpentry in Norway, it’s possible he even crafted it.

I realize rockers have no inherent spiritual quality. But when I sit in my current favorite rocker, my heart waiting for the whispers of my Heavenly Father, I know He is there for me. I am stilled and quieted before Him, listening, and learning.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Varmints!


Mickey and Minnie they are not!  My husband’s benevolent spirit in feeding birds brought some unwanted visitors to the hanging feeder in our back yard.  Their bigger cousins (ugh) visited, too.  In past years, we’ve had raccoons hang around.  And we live in town!

My revulsion over the “real thing” causes me to stand amazed at how a disgusting animal could become a symbol of family fun, as in Disney’s playlands, touted (tongue-in-cheek) as the “Greatest People Trap Ever Built By a Mouse.”

I actually have a very remote connection to the man who began it all, who died the year after I graduated from high school. A few blocks away from our family home in Western Washington lived a retired teacher who had once taught at the school my mother attended in childhood, in rural eastern Montana.  Her teaching career later took her to another state where she had a grade school student whom she remembered as being quite a “dreamy little guy.”  His name: Walt Disney.  I don’t recall how she ended up in our hometown, but she certainly had a brief claim to fame.

Enough fun memories....As for the real, dirty, annoying furry critters that came uninvited to our bird feeder, I thought how their presence at the ledge for feathered friends doesn’t make them a bird any more than “going to church” makes one a Christian.  Jude, known for his blunt language, made that a major point of his letter, the next-to-last book of the Bible.

After scorning Sodom and Gomorrah for giving into sexual immorality and perversion (is our culture doing the same?) and naming other rebellion recorded in the Bible, Jude zeroes in on the faith-pretenders:

These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm...These men are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others to their own advantage. (Jude 12, 16)

My point? Be wise. Pray for your church.  Pray for those whom you discern to be “playing church” and who need the authentic heart transformation possible only through Jesus Christ. 

Mice nibble and steal.  Birds sing. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

The sold-out-for Jesus hymn


When you grow up singing familiar hymns, you're apt to grow cold to the passion behind their words. I thought of that recently when I read through the words of "Take My Life," by Frances Ridley Havergal. It's actually a dangerous hymn because it cuts "self" and "selfishness" out of the picture in its stated desire to be totally consecrated to the Lord.  With each new year, we often pause to reassess the coldness or fervor of our faith. I hope reading about Miss Havergal's commitment will challenge you (as it did me). And then, after reading this blog, I hope you'll find a hymnal (or search for the words on line) and let them settle into your soul.

Frances Ridley Havergal has been called a bright but short-lived candle in English hymnody. Born in 1836 at Astley in Worcestershire, England, her father was a clergyman, writer, composer, and hymn writer. Her middle name, which shows her family’s strong religious allegiance, honors Nicholas Ridley, a prominent English bishop in the 1500s who was burned at the stake for opposing the accession of the queen English history calls “Bloody Mary."  Frances’ brother was a priest in the Church of England and an organist, and she was baptized by another hymnist of that time.

Her father’s nickname for her was “Little Quicksilver” because she had a quick and hungry mind.  She learned to read by four and began writing verse by age seven.  Her mother died when she was only eleven.  Her mother’s last words included this charge to Frances: “Pray God to prepare you for all He is preparing for you.”  Frances learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and memorized the Psalms, the book of Isaiah, and most of the New Testament. At ages 16 to 17 she studied in Switzerland.  Because of health problems, she led a quiet life and was known for writing verse and prose. She also had a beautiful voice, and frequently sang with the Philharmonic. But she came to a point of believing she should no longer use her gift for secular purposes, and only in singing about the Lord.

As an example of her gift for rhyme, for New Year’s Day when she was 23, she wrote this poem based on Deu. 33:25:

As thy days thy strength shall be,

This should be enough for thee.

He who knows thy frame will spare

Burdens more than thou canst bear.

At age 38, her faith deepened with a complete surrender to Christ, which came after reading a little book “All for Jesus.” A couple months later she visited friends for five days.  Of that time, she later wrote:

"There were ten persons in the house; some were unconverted and long prayed for, some converted but not rejoicing Christians. [God] gave me the prayer, 'Lord, give me all in this house.' And He just did. Before I left the house, everyone had got a blessing. The last night of my visit I was too happy to sleep and passed most of the night in renewal of my consecration, and those little couplets formed themselves and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with "ever only, ALL FOR THEE!"

Today those couplets are known as part of the the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be.” She wrote the lyrics for 88 hymns, the still-sung ones including "Like A River Glorious," "I Gave My Life for Thee," “From Glory to Glory,” “I Gave My Life for Thee,” “The Half Has Never Been Told,” and "Who Is on the Lord's Side?"

A special note about the last verse to “Take My Life.”  It says:

Take My silver and my gold; Not a mite would I withhold.

Frances had a lot of nice jewelry, but decided she should donate it to the church’s Missionary Society to sell for God’s work.  She wrote a friend, “I retain only a brooch for daily wear, which is a memorial to my dear parents; also a locket with the portrait I have of my niece in heaven...I had no idea I had such a jeweler’s shop; nearly fifty articles are being packed off.  I don’t think I need to tell you I never packed a box with such pleasure.”

Frances suffered poor health much of her life. At 42, after a cold, rainy day when she met with some boys to talk with them about the Lord, she became very ill and feverish.  As she died, she whispered, “Come Lord Jesus, come and fetch me.”  She tried to sing and her last sweet, high note was “He--.”  The cause of death was listed as “peritonitis,” an inflammation of the abdomen. She was buried near her father in her birth town. Her tombstone includes what she claimed as her life verse: “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin. 1 John 1:7.”

Friday, January 26, 2018

Grasping at hope


I love looking at the tiny, trusting hands of my new grandson, James, now four months old.  These tiny, intricate hands curl around an adult finger with such faith and trust. Right now, his favorite game is “push-ups,” going from sitting in my lap to standing in it.  I know better than to trust just his grip to pull him up, so I hold his hand as he holds mine.

This tender imagery came to mind as I prepared last week’s blog review of Carol Kent’s new devotional book, He Holds My Hand.  In autographing it, she referenced Psalm 63:8, “I stay close to you; your right hand upholds me.”

The psalm’s inscription says David wrote it while in the desert of Judah, probably referring to the years he fled the murderous intentions of King Saul. He’s hungry, hunted, and hopeful.  He thinks of God day and night:

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. (v. 6)

In recent months I’ve experienced those “night-watch” God times.  I value a good night of sleep, but frequently I wake up around 2 or 3 a.m. with a compulsion to pray for someone who has verbally bullied me. My greatest desire is to see this person become whole in Christ. In praying, I sometimes feel like a little child (or even a baby) putting my weak but trusting hand in God’s.  At such times, other “hand” scriptures bring me comfort, like this one in Isaiah 41:13:

For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, "Do not fear; I will help you.”

Or this, in Psalm 37:23:

The LORD delights in the ways of the man whose steps he has made firm; through he stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.

At times in those middle-of-the-night prayers, my posture is uplifted hands, my way of releasing to God my frustration and deep concern for this person. That’s the way it should be. When I reach up, God is reaching down to me.  And that brings comfort and hope.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Holding tight


When you hurt too deep for words, it’s possible that the very God-Words you need cannot get past the wall of pain.  I’ve been there, but not in the devastating way that internationally-known author and speaker Carol Kent has been.  I met Carol in the summer of 2000 as the national winner of an essay contest on women mentoring women—the topic of her then-current book.  She and her husband were extraordinarily gracious in hosting me and my teen daughter for the TLC award weekend that included “the works” at a day spa (woo-hoo) and award recognition in front of a huge crowd of the Heritage Keepers women’s conference.  But something seemed amiss as I watched her greet old friends with tearful hugs. Later I learned that just months earlier, unspeakable pain sliced into their lives. Their only child, a respected military officer, was arrested for the murder of his young stepdaughters’ father, whom the son suspected of sexually abusing them. The full story is told in the book's introduction.

As I have prayed for the Kents through the years, I remembered Psalm 34:18--that God promises to be close to the broken-hearted. There was so little I could do, but I knew God saw all their needs. When I learned that Carol had a new book out—this time a devotional titled He Holds My Hand—I knew I needed to order it.  She autographed my copy with this telling inscription: “He holds your hand and He won’t let go. Psalm 63:8.”

Subtitled “Experiencing God’s Presence and Protection,” the 365-entry devotion reflects Carol’s quest to read the Bible as God’s very personal love letter to her.  I’ve recently used Sarah Young devotional books, also “God speaking to you” in style, and know how much more personal it made scripture. But Carol’s book has a passion I’ve found in no other, of God reaching into torn and tender hearts and saying, “I know. Someday it will make sense.”  As such I thought of the world’s most famous sufferer, Job, who in the midst of off-target accusations that his suffering “must” be the result of sin, shoved all those ideas in the corner with a golden declaration of faith:

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (Job  23:10)

The personal notes in my Bible next to that verse include these:

1. I will walk by faith. (v.11)

2. I will obey God (v. 12)

3. I will “eat” His Word (v. 13)

All of those things Carol has done in this devotional . Each day includes a thought-provoking quotation from a Christian leader. Then she explores what God has “messaged” through a certain text.  I read randomly through the book when I first received it, and each touched me in a tender place.

 The shelves at bookstores are full of devotional books, some fluffy, some thin in true life experience. This is one you will not want to miss.  Buy two copies, one for yourself and one for someone going through times so unsteady that he or she needs a Hand to grasp.

 Hardback, published by Tyndale/Momentum, $15.99

Friday, January 12, 2018

Time just "flu" by


Winter virus still life :)
We were steam-rollin’ right into another Christmas season when IT happened.  I had the gift bags ready, most of the holiday correspondence caught up, and a turkey ready to thaw for a dinner with our son and family.  Oh, don’t forget the ingredients for the “green bean casserole” with its fried onion toppings. I’d helped my daughter-in-law take the two older boys (3 and 4) to get their hair cut at a local walk-in shop. They would look sharp for Christmas pictures. Baby brother, still newborn bald, would look great, too, as long as we chucked his cheek for a smile just before the shutter snapped.

Then IT happened.  The Friday before Christmas, I told my husband, “I’m getting a sore throat. It hurts to swallow.”  He confessed to similar symptoms. Within hours we were unhappily hosting the respiratory flu that was swash-buckling its way through the valley.  The news had reported that there was a bad flu  whose genetic footprint didn’t get into the vaccine we had so dutifully gotten earlier in the fall.  And so Christmas passed, and then New Year’s, in the fogginess of fevers and congestion that had to take their course.  We handed off the gift bags to our son through a barely-open door, and sang a new version of “It came upon a midnight clear” when we kept the midnight lights burning with fever and coughs.

I shouldn’t complain.  We had food in the house (though little appetite).  A warm house (despite snow and ice outside).  Medicines to treat symptoms (the virus had to run its two-week course). If I had to be sick, I’d rather it be now, and not 400 years ago.What? Four hundred years ago?  Where did that remark come from? Well, some of my favorite leisure reading (or sick-time reading)is compilations of hymn stories, and I'd learned about the 1644 hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.”  I’d never given it much thought other than to connect it with the American “Thanksgiving.”  It works for that time of year, but its German origin was actually thousands of miles away from the early settlement of America.

At that time, Germany was in the crucible of the terrible Thirty Years War. One of the walled cities to which refugees fled was Eilenberg, whose only pastor was Martin Rinkart. Enemies would still break through to kill and destroy, but the greatest enemy within was hunger and plague.  In 1637 alone, Rinkart conducted funerals for 5,000 residents, including his wife.  Much sorrow and spiritual wrestling forged his hymn with its stalwart words of hope, like these lines:

Oh may this bounteous God /May all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts/And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace/And guide us when perplexed.
And free us from all ills/In this world and the next.
It should be no surprise that this hymn became the second most widely sung hymn in Germany, next to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.”

Our Christmas flu? A droplet of misery and inconvenience in the perspective of eternity.