Friday, December 12, 2014

Donkey Tales

I thought of a memorable holiday pageant the other day when I took my grandson on a stroller ride to see Jo-Jo the donkey, who saunters around an urban farm close to my home. Once the donkey figured out that we had no carrots to feed it, it lost interest in the humans on the other side of the fence, and turned its ample body away,  v   e   r   y 
 s    l   o   w   l   y. 

Not so the donkey (or was it a local pet camel?) that sauntered down the carpeted aisle of our church for an off-the-top Christmas program one year.  The owner assured planners that his steed was very well-trained for public situations.  But somewhere between the prayer rail and the side exit, the animal forgot his public manners.  I wondered later if the janitors flipped coins to decide who had to clean it up. As for the choral number after the animal’s “performance,” who could even remember it?

I think there’s a bit of donkey in many of us. We like to get some recognition (or notoriety).  Like the Christmas story.  Ever think of the donkey that Mary rode on from Nazareth to Bethlehem?  There is no Biblical reference to such an animal, just that the twosome had to travel about eighty miles to be a part of the census called by ruling authorities. With Mary nine months pregnant, it’s doubtful she walked it—thus the presumed donkey.  Healthy people who could walk 20 miles a day could make it in four. But with a donkey, and Joseph believed to be an older (and slower) man...maybe a week?

A writer of children’s stories could have an imagination’s heyday with that scenario. Yep, that donkey was a key figure in the Christmas story.  He got little Mary to Bethlehem in time for a Messianic prophecy to be fulfilled with her baby’s birth.  Brag, brag, brag.

Instead of that approach, I lean toward something written by Jim Elliott, one of the missionaries martyred in 1956 in Ecuador by tribal people they hoped to reach with the Gospel.  “Missionaries are very human folks,” he once said, “just doing what they’re asked.  Simply a bunch of nobodies exalting Somebody.

When God calls us to a ministry, He doesn’t need roosters who crow about what they’re doing for the Lord.  Or donkeys, who hee-haw so loud (like the one my neighborhood) that you can’t miss their presence.  Admittedly, some of God’s workers are more in the public eye.  But there are lots of them behind the scenes, just working away.  Or plodding the rocky, weary miles from one place to another, helping out in a task bigger than they can imagine.

When we get discouraged about the journey, we just need to look back and see how far we’ve come, and then keep going. The Messiah’s arrival may be sooner than we think!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Seeing more than yourself

Reflection ponds are great thinking places. When I paused near this one in a public garden, I thought of Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8 to think about things that are good. His list included whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy.  At times, when life got challenging, I have needed such reminders to reflect on the positives that could come of problems.  It's amazing that Paul came up with such a list as he endured the negatives of Roman imprisonment.
The Bible offers another perspective on “reflection” in a proverb about the mirroring properties of still water:
As water reflects the face, so a man’s heart reflects the man. (Proverbs 27:19)
For a long time I associated this with the idea that our faces are windows into our hearts and personalities. By skin, eyes, and wrinkles, you can usually “tell” if a person lives a hard life or if they have a gentle spirit. Frown wrinkles? Watch out! Smiling eyes? Feel welcome.

But Bible teacher William MacDonald gave me another perspective on this in his commentary.  Most agree that still water is a great mirror.  But as for the second part of this verse, he remarked, “As you study other people, you see much that you find in yourself—the same emotions, temptations, ambitions, thoughts, strengths, and weaknesses.  That is why it happens that if a man preaches to himself, he is surprised by how many other people he hit.”*

When I started writing this blog five years ago--akin to MacDonald’s “preaching to yourself”-- I didn’t know who would resonate with the Biblical reflections rising from my own spiritual growth process. But as I consider God’s goodness and instruction to me, the same things apparently touch people around the world.

That’s a good reminder for any of us to be transparent about our walk with God. We never know when a lesson He teaches us will help someone else struggling in that area. In other words, when we look into that reflection pool, the face staring back may be a stranger who needs our encouragement and counsel.

Or, as Paul wrote, God comforts us in all our troubles “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received form God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
*Believer's Bible Commentary (Nelson, 1995, p. 860)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Hard/Not-hard to shop for

It’s that time of year when this phrase gets slipped into conversations: “What would you like for Christmas?”  Here’s the reply they don’t want: “Nothing. Give to something worthy.”   Amidst all the hoopla of “Black Friday” and super-sales, maybe we need to actually listen to those requests.

I found a kindred spirit recently when re-reading one of my “keeper” books, Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow (NavPress, 1998). In one chapter she deals with financial anxiety and the tendency to want more and more, like the greedy leech of Proverbs 30:15, who never has “enough.” In applying this to the pressures of holiday giving, Dillow described two friends who decided to proactively emphasize the “giving” that was important to them. Two months before Christmas, they wrote their adult children a letter, asking that their Christmas present to parents be a gift for someone less fortunate than they are. Period. They asked that the “gift” also appear as a little note on the Christmas tree, telling what the giver had done, in Jesus’ name.

The couple described their joy over opening the notes at Christmas.  A son began sponsoring an overseas orphan. Another washed floors and cleaned a rescue mission. Still another helped homeless people.

Of course, giving to the needy or worthy causes is no new idea.  Our mailboxes are full of appeals at Christmastime, often from groups we know little of. But there are others with a visible and respected presence that reach out to prisoners’ children, the known needy of the community, and other established overseas outreaches.  When our children were young, we filled those well-publicized shoeboxes with kid hygiene items and toys, wondering who would get them.  I hoped it balanced out that “it’s all about me” mentality that slips into the holidays.

Dillow’s concluding remark adds a punch to these suggestions: “Brainstorm with friends about how you can say ’Enough!’ to overspending for gifts.  Everyone’s home needs a house cleaning to keep the greedy leech away” (p. 93). It’s not about “Presents!” with a capital P and exclamation mark.  It’s about the presence of the holy God among us.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gentle reminders

They’re called “lamb’s ears,” or technically stachys byzantina, and the low-growing, compact velvety plants are a popular edging. I can’t resist leaning over and touching the soft, pointed leaves, for they remind me of a spiritual trait I want to grow more in my life.  It’s gentleness, the demeanor expressed by what we do and say. Appropriately, “lamb’s ears” look like tongues as well as ears.

“Let your gentleness (“moderation,” KJV) be known to all,” Paul wrote the Philippians (4:5, NIV). In the original Greek, the word implied something gentle, patient, and forbearing. More telling, Paul wrote verse 5 after asking two Christian women with a rift to “agree with each other in the Lord.” We’re not given details of their rift, but it probably involved some hurtful words to each other or behind the other’s back. Instead of being like lamb’s ears, they were cacti.

Been there, done that? A chapter of Proverbs has especially admonished me about “gentle words.” It begins, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”  (Proverbs 15:1). In other verses, this chapter counsels:

*Speak truth wisely. “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,” verse 2 says, “but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” We’re not to back off from expressing truth, but guard how we express it. Those taken in by “folly” or strange ideas are usually very defensive of them. The best response may be, “I’m sorry, but I cannot come over to your beliefs. Let’s agree to disagree but not let that end our friendship.” When you’re not an easy “convert” to their position, they may back away, but the gentle reply will hopefully leave open the door to their hearts. And then, “The lips of the wise spread knowledge” (Proverbs 15:7).

*Speak to heal. “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (v. 4). Remember the “lamb’s ears” are shaped like an ear. At times we need to engage ears before engaging tongue. James counseled: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19). One person I pray for is like a closed-up box. Careless words can result in that box being shut tighter. Even though it’s arduous to draw out this person in conversation, that’s what God would have me do. I need this person’s trust before offering words of counsel.

*Speak to diffuse anger. “A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (v. 18). “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:9). I say, double-blessed, because in that role they often get in the crossfire of verbal barbs and anger.

*Speak to build up: “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!” (v. 23). Such words are: “Go for it—I believe in you,” “I knew you could do it,” and “I’m proud of you.”

*Know when you need to listen: “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (v. 31). Several years ago, a godly woman I respected took me aside and gently told me that someone had felt snubbed because I didn’t greet her in the church foyer. I could have passed off it off as a mistaken reaction, but my friend helped me discern this person’s bigger needs of connection. Instead of reacting like a cactus (poke, poke, poke!) to what seemed trivial, I allowed my friend’s remarks to help me see this needy person through God’s eyes.
For several years I’ve thought about getting some “starts” of “lamb’s ears” for my yard. I have a place picked out: near the front door, where they’ll regularly remind me to seek to practice gentleness.        

Friday, November 14, 2014

Waiting for the Glory

They were greenhouse bargains, and past their prime. When my husband brought home three sickly chrysanthemum plants late last fall, I doubted anything would come of them. Re-planting them in a barrel by our door, I was surprised they were still alive by spring. But all summer, all I saw was a growing mound of leaves. A friend counseled, “Give them time.” A few weeks ago, they burst into glorious color.

Give it time. That counsel also applies as I pray for people who aren’t living for Christ. Some are pre-Christians. Others claim to be Christians, but their behavior negates the label. They’re living for pleasures now, not for God. In learning to pray for them, I’ve taken comfort and clues from the six prayers of the apostle Paul recorded in scripture. His prayer in 2 Thessalonians especially seemed to articulate the concerns I have for my struggling friends.

Paul was writing believers who had fallen into despair, thinking the world would end soon. Many were living in idleness, not even working. Paul wanted them stirred out of lethargy with a fresh vision of what God wanted them to do. Christ still hasn’t come, but He could, any day. I want to be ready, and I want those I care about to be ready, too! In studying Paul’s prayer, I realized it could be broken into seven parts for praying through the week.

SUNDAY:  “We constantly pray for you”--Pray for their constant awareness of God’s care, that He loves them more than they can know and that He hears others’ prayers on their behalf.

            MONDAY: “That our God may count you worthy of his calling”--Pray for a fresh vision of God’s high calling on their lives.

            TUESDAY: “And that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours”—Pray that they may sense a compulsion toward godly living, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

            WEDNESDAY: “And every act prompted by your faith.” Intercede that their creed for life be based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            THURSDAY: “So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you”—Pray that they will copy the example of Jesus, so others will be shown the glory of God through their character.

            FRIDAY: “And you in him”--Ask for conviction of places in their lives (like habits or fears) that they have resisted turning over fully to Christ.

            SATURDAY: “According to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ”—Pray for fresh confidence that God is at work in their difficult circumstances and supplying grace for each day.

Consider either tucking this prayer outline into your Bible or copying it into a prayer notebook for a guide in praying for others. And if you’re the one going through difficult times, speak this passage back to God as your own prayer. Even doing so is, as verse 11 says, “an act prompted by your faith,” and God hears.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Keep blooming

Fall had kissed fading chill into public gardens I visited in my daughter’s town. As I wandered the park’s rose section, I thought about an old song with a sad melody, “The Last Rose of Summer.” I’d heard its schmaltzy tune played on a violin long ago, but never knew all the words until I found them on the internet. Oh, my! Talk about a downer song! We can credit Irish poet Thomas Moore for the 200-year-old lyrics:
‘Tis the last rose of summer,/Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions/Are faded and gone.
As the poem continues, the analogy is clear.  One by one we die until none of our friends is left. It concludes, “Oh! Who would inhabit/This bleak world alone.” Sigh. We can’t deny the inevitability of death (unless the Lord returns in our lifetimes!). But my Bible offers some great encouragement for those “last rose of summer” years.

*God will carry us in our old-age frustrations.
“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:4). The verse contrasts idols (who couldn’t lift a thing) and the true God who made us and spiritually carries, sustains and rescues us. Even in life’s autumn and winter, He is there.  

 *Character never stops growing.
The apostle Paul (himself in those “last rose” years) outlined a proactive approach for seniors in his letter to friend and helper Titus, who pastored the church at Crete. Paul didn’t want the church to waste its resource of older believers. Even if slowed by health, the “seniors” had a valuable role of “blooming” spiritually.  Thus the instructions in Titus 2 to teach older men to “be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, love and in endurance.” Older women were to be taught “to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.” They were also to be role models to younger wives and mothers. When I was in my twenties, my best friend was fifty years my senior. Her modeling of sturdy faith and patient mentoring positively marked my life.

*Dreary “organ recitals” don’t glorify God.
Our bodies do a great job of reminding us that we’re mortal. This morning, for example, I got close and personal with a heating pad on an arthritic hip. I'll spare you more J…. I try to resist being someone who seeks sympathy via broadcasting aches and pains (“organ recitals”). It’s popular to grouse that “after 50 it’s patch-patch-patch,” and top another’s complaints. A friend of mine has the right attitude. Though left nearly helpless and in constant pain from polio half a century ago, when asked how he is, he keeps his “organ recital” to “I’m not complaining, just explaining.” Every time I’m around him, I am reminded of Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

*Keep enrolled in God’s School of Faith. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you,” Jesus said.  “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). We’ll inevitably have ups and downs in our spiritual lives as God permits trials and challenges to strengthen our faith. I’m reminded of that every time I read my Bible and re-encounter passages that speak to me now in fresh ways. Unlike the “last rose” of Moore’s poem, which was left to “pine on the stem,” maturity grips the stem all the tighter. Connected to Jesus, we're to bloom for all we’re worth, as long as we can.

Wimpy end-of-season roses? Let’s change the image to that of Isaiah:
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. (Isaiah 61:4)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Making 'Psense' of Psalms--Psalm 150: Hallelujah!

A rose from my garden--just one tiny part of God's
praiseworthy creation.
And so we come to the end of psalms. It began with a blessing on the one who follows God above all else. It ends with that follower praising God above all else. Simple in words, deeper than words, lovely just by itself, it is a fitting conclusion and invitation to respond to God with praise, and praise, and more praise. “Hallelu-Yah,” Hebrew for “Praise the Lord.”

Just the word “Hallelujah” prompts many to think of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah.” He completed the massive work (my edition of the vocal score is 250 pages) in 24 days in 1741. Tradition says that at its 1743 London premier, King George 2 was present and so moved that he stood, meaning all others had to stand, too.  Some scholars say the king wasn’t there at all, but the custom has persisted. Despite the use of the word “Hallelujah,” Handel’s famed chorus (which concludes the second of three parts in The Messiah) isn’t based on Psalm 150 but on three exultant songs of heaven given in Revelation:
“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.” (19:6)
“The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (11:15)
“King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” (19:16).
The focus of Revelation’s “psalms” is the victory of Christ, slain for the sins of the world, risen to be exalted forever. Psalm 150 tells one part of the God-story, looking forward to a Messiah. Revelation is its final chorus, its true Hallelujah.

Yet Psalm 150 has its own magnificent message. It climaxes the psalter’s five final praise psalms, all of which start with “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah.”
Psalm 146 praises God’s greatness in creation and His grace in providing for all, including the oppressed, hungry, prisoners, disabled, alien, fatherless and widowed.
Psalm 147 praises God for allowing exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it. It also speaks of God’s provision for daily life through the divine plan of growing seasons.
Psalm 148 gives voice to all in heaven and earth in praising God, from sun, moon and stars to the weather, topography and creatures that inhabit it. This psalm reminds me of Jesus’ retort in Luke 19:40.  He had just entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the crowd’s triumphant shouts. But some Pharisees, as usual, disapproved of the love and acclaim Jesus’ followers had given Him. He replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Indeed, in a week, the Lord would die and the earth convulse. Then a stone would pull back from a tomb opening. I wonder, did it shout “Victory”? He’d rise again, and all Heaven break out in unfathomable rejoicing.
Psalm 149 describes saints in exuberant praise and how evil will be annihilated.
Then comes Psalm 150, like the loudest of the five very loud concluding songs of praise.

“Praise the LORD” (v. 1), the name here being “Yahweh,” the gracious, attentive, caring covenant-keeping God of indescribable love and absolute holiness.

“Praise God in his sanctuary” (v. 1b)—at that time, the temple. “Praise him in his mighty heavens.” The sky, the vault of heaven, reminds us to look up and praise the One who fills the universe. Worship isn’t to be parceled off to a time at church or Bible study, or even that special “devotional time.” It can happen everywhere, anywhere, anytime. God is too big to put in a box.

“Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness”  (v. 2).  One is God’s works, starting with the moment He said, “Let there be light” and proceeded to design and populate the earth. It’s His decision to judge the sin-polluted earth with a flood and give it a second chance via a boatload of hope. His power also sent Jesus Christ, His Son, to earth, to pay for my sins and yours through an excruciating death.

All these lead to awe and praise for God’s greatness and glory. We can praise Him because He isn’t a remote, disinterested or fickle god. He is holy but stoops to the lowly. His love for His creation is beyond understanding or description.

These talented hands belong to our long-time
church organist, who has served God
through music for six decades.

God’s people used every instrument of their times at their disposal to praise Him.

“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet”—probably the rams’ horns (shofar) of those times.

“Praise him with the harp and lyre”—simple stringed instruments, like David played.

“Praise him with the tambourine and dancing”—as also used for Miriam’s victory dance (Exodus 15:20-21), the women welcoming Saul and David as victors (1 Samuel 18:6-7), and David’s uninhibited joy-dance when the ark was returned to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-16).

“Praise him with the strings and flute”—again, early ancestors of today’s instruments.

“Praise him with the clash of cymbals…with resounding cymbals”—bronze instruments used by temple musicians like Asaph (1 Chronicles 15:19), credited with Psalms 50 and 73-83.

The fish symbol for this tambourine!
Today, opinions about “appropriate” instruments for worship go across the spectrum. Some “non-instrumental” church bodies, sensitive about instruments once used in worldly places like dance halls, practice singing a capella. At the other end are those using all modern instruments at their disposal (including those orchestras-in-a-box called synthesizers). Though his comments were made more than a century ago, it’s worth noting that William Booth, who established Salvation Army bands for street evangelism, declared that we should sanctify and use our voices and any instruments for the Lord. As for texts, Scripture gives us these guidelines:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-20)

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.”
Another psalm reminds us that even things without breath praise Him:
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
Let the fields be jubilant and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy. (Psalm 96:11-13)

Devotional poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) famously wrote that “Heaven is revealed to earth as the homeland of music.” Isaiah 55:12 says some day, “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”  When the Lord spoke to Job about His majesty, He asked, “Where were you….while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4a, 7).

What more could be said for “praise”?  Perhaps just a reminder of the object of our praise, expressed in the final chorus of “The Messiah,” based on Revelation 5:12-13.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.  Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.  Amen.

As I end these ten months of studying my “Top 40” psalms, I’m wondering if any readers have been encouraged by any specific posts. The blog “engine” tells me there are readers all over the world, with the top four countries of origin regularly being United States, Ukraine, Turkey, and France. I’d love to hear from you (use the reply form below). To God be the glory! I hope you’ll continue visiting as I seek to write about encouragement from God’s Word.