Friday, May 29, 2009
A grain of sand is tiny and insignificant. If you have a few grains in your shoe, you might form a blister. If you inject sand into an oyster, you’ll harvest a pearl. If you bite into your fire-grilled, condiment-topped hot dog at the beach, you’ll grind sand between your teeth. When swimming in Lake Powell (Arizona-Utah border), you can rub the fine sand off the red sandstone canyon walls ad infinitum and fill the lake – and your swimsuit! – with more colorful sediment.
When walking in soft, dry sand, the going is laborious. When you try to sleep on it, it’s nearly impossible to get comfortable. After all, each grain of sand is a microscopic rock, broken away from its parent stone and carried by wind or water. Our planet is made of rock, and its grains are everywhere, innumerable.
Love is like that. Each kind word or compliment, each supportive act, each accommodation made for another – seems to stand alone. But over time and with enough repetition and replication, those grains of sand accumulate. Together, they’re immeasurable and infinitely vast.
It’s been said that for each criticism, insult, act of disrespect or disregard, it takes a minimum of four praises to counteract the negativity – just to return to the baseline. To make a comeback and truly succeed, the ratio is much higher, in the double digits. Which do you find more motivational for good deeds: an accusation of your faults, major and minor, and a recital of past behavior; or the pointing out of your victory, your handling of a sticky situation, your kindness noted, or even that someone awarded you the Best-Person-of-Their-Day hug?
After a drought, all it takes is a short rain shower to send plants rocketing skyward, bursting into bloom – and it takes only a bit of searing heat to wilt and destroy. Similarly, in a world where sterility, isolation, judgment and criticism may too often be the norm, what is desperately needed is acceptance, a warm touch, caring words, loyalty, and fidelity. We’re starving for support, encouragement, trust, and the acceptance of a loving family.
The ministry where I work has for years conducted an intercessory prayer ministry. Many people write or call, asking for prayer for their health and their family relationships. A consistent prayer request over the weeks and months is for their adult children to stop smoking and drinking, to attend church services regularly, to come back to a walk with God. “Pray that my son will come back to church.”
A pastor-friend preached a sermon about this issue last year, in a church full of retirees. From my pew, I waited for a gasp of dismay when he advised that they should stop praying for the child to return to church, and just love and accept the child in every way, to praise and not criticize, to not express disapproval of smoking or drinking or disregard of tradition and standards – but just to relax the relationship, enjoy the moments together, appreciate, communicate, and above all, love-love-love. To my amazement, no one stiffened or resisted, no one walked out in disgust. They “amen-ed” the sermon and shed tears.
The mostly-elderly and conservative congregation agreed that they should have the attitude of the Prodigal Father, who ran out to meet the wayward son not with a lecture and probation, but with an embrace, a kiss, and most importantly, the gift of full restoration to intimate relationship. (That was a shockingly vulnerable display of love for the undeserving, don’t you think?) It's not about attending a church service — it's about the relationship with each other, and with Abba Father that's important.
The apostle Paul was quite the judgmental prosecutor in his younger days, but listen to his warmth, acceptance, enthusiasm, and advice to attract with honey, not vinegar: “Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ. Do that and you'll kill two birds with one stone: pleasing the God above you and proving your worth to the people around you. So let's agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don't drag them down by finding fault. You're certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God's work among you, are you? … So be sensitive and courteous to the others ... Don't eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love.” Romans 14:18-20 MSG
About 15 months ago, a musician in my church ensemble died suddenly. We had played together at least twice a month for about five years. But I didn’t know him at all. We didn’t associate outside of rehearsal and the church service. It’s hard to mourn someone I didn’t know well, but I did learn that I should affirm and compliment and make an effort to be less insular and more friendly in the living years. And do you know, the “effort” seems less like work all the time! It’s fun to lift the day for a tired woman you’ll never see again by telling her that her hairstyle is lovely, or tell a young father what a cute boy he’s carrying through Home Depot. I remember how charged up I was when a little girl shouted to me across the Target parking lot: “I like your red dress! And your shoes!”
Maybe this is the way to change the world: one smile or happy heartbeat at a time. One lift of the eyebrow, one consoling touch on the elbow, one “Well done!”, one verbal kiss on the cheek, one compliment, one quick phone call or e-mail, one joke at the water cooler, one decision to swallow the critical word and instead forgive, one trial balloon of trust, one prayer to lift up your prodigal child, however “old” he or she may be.
Each tiny grain of love will bond with every other, and take on the form of the Body of Christ, all fitted and joined together under the Savior. “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27 NLT.
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 NLT.
Love, even one molecule at a time, will make a difference. It will change the world.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
We don't deserve praise! The LORD alone deserves all of the praise, because of his love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1 CEV
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6 NIV
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit what has come naturally for years: sit in the piano teacher’s chair at the treble end of the keyboard. The pianist, Dr. Calvin Taylor, was giving me a mini-concert of his own arrangements from a newly-published book I had just purchased.
I’ve played from Dr.
One of his arrangements, My Lord, What a Mornin’, has a chord progression that I’ve always played dramatically to milk the chords and melody for every exquisite vibration. When Dr. Taylor plays it, he races through the gorgeous bit to get to his treble arpeggios and end the song. So as I sat in the piano teacher’s position, I asked him to play that line and just hold the B7(b9) in a fermata until I said it was time to launch the arpeggios. He played it three times, and just wouldn’t do it right. (You know—my way.)
Who really knew best what to do “correctly” in that situation? The arranger, concert pianist, and doctor of musical arts, or the local church keyboardist? But it’s just a matter of taste, after all, not a moral issue or right or wrong. Notes are little black symbols on paper, and they’re acoustical waves in the atmosphere. As musicians, even though we sometimes disagree on the interpretation, we know that it’s not the style of music, or even if we make mistakes in the performance. It’s what comes from our hearts that God accepts and is pleased with. Whether I play a contemporary praise song or a Bach chorale prelude, God accepts my music-making if it’s offered with a loving heart. Don’t we forgive a friend because he’s making a “joyful noise,” even if he’s a half-step off? And isn’t God’s heart infinitely more forgiving than a human’s? Oh, yes!
Do you think all God wants are sacrifices—empty rituals just for show? He wants you to listen to him! 1 Samuel 15:22 MSG
The Message Bible translates Philippians 4:4-5 as: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.”
Here, the Greek word for rejoice is not the word for exultation (agalliao). This rejoice is chairete, meaning joy, delight, gladness, gift, and grace. Our modern words, charity and charisma (gifts and gifted), stem from the root charis. The passage in Philippians is really about being gifted and giving. Give joyfully in the Lord always. Again, give! Paul says that by general prayer and specific petition, and with thanksgiving, we should present our requests to God, Who gives us everything, even transcendent, unimaginable peace. God gives us the ability, in Christ Jesus, to be true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.
In verse 10, Paul echaren (rejoices for their gift of love and fellowship) greatly in the Lord, because his converts love him in such a tangible way. He’s learned to be as satisfied as a calf in deep pasture, whatever the circumstances or situation, because he’s resting in God’s strength to accomplish everything. He thanks the Philippians for their generosity (their donations—not charis) in supporting the gospel ministry.
With a Greek Bible and excellent reference books, it’s fascinating to trace the word charis through Philippians, where Paul uses it so often. It gives us a colorful way of seeing God’s Word anew.
Today, as you will inevitably be singing that pretty round, think about all the ways you can give joy to the Lord, in gratitude and love for all He has graced you with, and given to you. And listen carefully for the ways He antiphonally responds with the second part of the round, “Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say rejoice!”
Friday, May 15, 2009
Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God. Matthew 5:8 YLT
You won’t find this beatitude in your English-language New Testament. But the original Greek word for “pure” (of heart) is katharos, from which we get “cathartic.” It means cleansed by fire, and it can mean “pruned.”
Pruning a tree can not only keep it at a manageable and attractive shape, and direct the tree’s energy to producing flowers, fruit, or new foliage, but it can save the tree’s life. I back-washed the spa, and the water ran out into the grass and into the low-lying tree wells. I thought this a responsible use of water in an arid climate! But two hours later, a freak thunderstorm, with 90 minutes of lightning, gusty winds, and about a tenth-inch of rain, blew through the valley. When I looked out the window, my five year-old bauhinia orchid tree had bent over to the ground. This tree had large orchids blooming on its long, flexible branches, and earlier in the summer, had become top-heavy with growth. With the combination of soggy soil beneath, and windy down drafts, my tree was doomed.
After the storm, with the August sun steaming up the place, I took the long-handled pruner and cut off two-thirds of the tree branches, lightening the load for the trunk. Relieved of weight, the trunk began to stand a bit higher. With great effort, and much swatting of gnats, I drove a metal stake into the ground, and a neighbor pulled the heavy tree toward the stake so I could brace it with ties. My tree, although much altered in volume, is growing straight again. While we were bracing the tree, a pair of hummingbirds came boldly to drink the nectar of the remaining blossoms. Life goes on!Happy the clean in heart — because they shall see God. Matthew 5:8 YLT
That beautiful tree, in its pruned, cathartic state, will remind me that in persecution or adversity, the Lord can still make a blessing from the enemy’s curse. And rather than bending toward the earth in defeat, the Gardener is pruning and strengthening so we can reach toward the heavens and there see God.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
I accepted the gift of salvation at age 27. I was raised in a Christian home and in Christian schools, where salvation by faith was taught, but we were simultaneously told in 16th-century English to “be perfect as God is perfect.” (We didn’t understand that the definition of perfection is completeness and maturity, not “without fault.”) Perfection for humans is unattainable, so salvation must also be unattainable: what was the point in trying, shrugged much of my generation.
I can perfectly observe my prescribed diet and exercise for 50 minutes daily, but not lose a pound in three weeks. After all the hard work and no visible reward, there is severe temptation to binge on high-carb, high-fat, high-sodium Cheetos! (Eating Cheetos isn’t sinful, but play along…)
Righteousness might be explained in this way: God declares us to be in right relationship to Himself. He just speaks it, as at creation, when He spoke everything into existence. He sees only His beloved and perfect (in behavior and attitude, as well as full and complete) Son Jesus, whose greatest desire is to save me. Me! Caught orange-handed with Cheetos dust, with the evidence of sin all over me! God sees my Substitute, who stands protectively between me and the glory and perfection that could vaporize me. And, as at creation, God speaks the word, “Good.” And because Creator God says it is so—it can only be so!
Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners…and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:23, 24 MSG.
The concept of salvation is profound and complex. And it’s so simple that a little child gets it. Let’s just ask God to say the Word: “Jesus.” He wants to! He loves you and is yearning to walk with you. Let Him dust off the crumbs and look past your outward appearance, to see only the perfect creation that He intends you to be.
|Cousins on the grandparents' |
My family always took a summer vacation trip from Arizona to northern Minnesota, where my parents’ families lived. We’d load the avocado-green Rambler station wagon and hit the road. We saw Yosemite, the Snake River, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, the Ozarks, and the Rockies—some of those aren’t even on the way to Minnesota!
|Trust me, fleeing was NOT an option.|
Surely your mother or father gave you The Look, and without words, you knew what was required of you, or you’d face the consequences of disobedience.
|This was a whole *different* Look.|
I look to you, heaven-dwelling God, look up to you for help. Like servants, alert to their master’s commands, like a maiden attending her lady, we’re watching and waiting, holding our breath, awaiting your word of mercy. Psalm 123:1-2 MSG
We are looking at God with all our attention, ready to leap into action at His command to show mercy, compassion, and justice (Micah 6:8) to the rest of our human family. With only The Look from Heaven, we go to do what he has asked and prepared us to do—with willing obedience in our hearts.
There are highly educated, deeply spiritual people of both genders who refer to God as “She” and “Mother,” and although I find it somewhat distracting, it doesn’t make them wrong and me right. God is infinitely more than we can imagine. More intelligent, more broad-minded, more loving, compassionate, forgiving, and accepting. Just more. His ways are higher than my ways. With that in mind, and Genesis 1:27, that God created both male and female in His image, I submit that God is not confined to gender as we perceive it. God is spirit. His appearance is defined by His character (Exodus 34:6, 7; 1 John 3:1; 1 John 4:8).
Not every human mother deserves the honors we are commanded to pay them (Exodus 20:12). Nor is every woman who yearns to be a mother, able to bear children or raise a family. Parent/child relationships are only an ideal, pointing to the real: Creator/creature. (He could have created and populated the world without parents of any species—no eggs, just adult chickens!) God is powerful, protective, far-seeing, and wants the best present and future for us.
Listen to God’s parental words: ‘Can a mother forget the infant at her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even if mothers forget, I’d never forget you—never.’ Isaiah 49:15 MSG
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, …how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Matthew 23:37 NIV
I will extend peace… you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:12-13 NIV
The grace-full tenderness that we have received so generously from God, the maternal Father, we must share by praying for those around us, and by reflecting (in God’s image!) our Parent’s compassion to troubled friends or co-workers. Then, to complete the circle, we return that love to God with heartfelt gratitude and joy.
My mother was born with asthma, which developed into emphysema by age 10. At 22, she was given a year to live, but like King Hezekiah, pleaded with God to let her live to raise her children to Christian maturity. By God’s grace, she lived to age 55. She was an artist, musician, gardener, poet, genealogist, and even represented herself to an Internal Revenue commission and won her case.
But as the years passed, she pled with God to heal her or let her die, to ease her constant struggle for breath and strength. On her last night, I read Bible verses to her as I held her hand and watched the monitors record her declining heartbeat and respiration. Those hours were the most precious and intimate of my life, and I’m certain that the next voice she hears after mine will be Jesus’ voice, saying, “Wake up, little girl!”
God’s promises are for you, though we may not understand the specific or temporal application. Read 2 Corinthians 1:4-5 MSG: He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too.
These verses clinch my faith in God’s ultimate faithfulness and victory over present circumstances: Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In him, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting his Yes within us. By his Spirit he has stamped us with his eternal pledge—a sure beginning of what he is destined to complete. 2 Corinthians 1:20-22 MSG
Read that again! God’s promises are Yes, pledged with Jesus’ blood and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. God has certified by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three witnesses, that His promises are sure and will be completed. Maybe not in my sight or lifetime (and there’s the rub), but I trust that He has accomplished His purpose already, and I await the resolution.
Friday, May 1, 2009
Did you make New Year’s resolutions? You’ve decided to lose weight, learn a language, find a significant other, start voice lessons, stop bad habits, exercise more, or clean the garage. Most people forget or break their resolutions within two weeks of making them.
Recently, a song which had been just background noise, arrested me with the line, “Forget about the future, let’s get on with the past.”
That’s pretty anti-committal and unwilling to face the uncertainty of the unknown. But how many of us have done that? (Over and over?) Don’t raise your hands—we’re all pretty obvious. All right, let’s not forget about the future, or get on with the past, but maybe we could concentrate on the present at least?
That never-say-die apostle wrote, “Forgetting what is behind [the past] and straining toward what is ahead [the future], I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”
Straining toward the future! Every morning at 5:30, my Border collie acts like a Siberian husky, pulling me along, choking in her eagerness to sniff the next tree in the parkway. There’s high tension in that leash, as I drowsily stumble along behind, mumbling, “Slow down, doggie! It’s too early to be enthusiastic.”
The thought that God wants me to strain toward what is ahead is a hard teaching. We all tend to “think differently,” but God intends to make it clear that instead of our being a reluctant Jonah, He wants us to take the path of least resistance to Him. God will lead us toward the goal and its prize. And it seems clear from His Word that He wants us to forget the past and get on with the future. If there’s no tension on your spiritual collar, you’re not really straining. Where is God leading today? Get out there, and pull like a working dog!
My Border collie Evie was abused in her first 18 months, then abandoned at a county kennel. Because of her pure breed, she was fostered for six months by a rescue organization, then advertised on the Internet, and that’s where I found her. Her foster mom, therapist, and trainer for six months was Paula, who described the numerous attempts to lead Evie through the agility course obstacles. Evie did well on weaving, diving through a tunnel, and leaping through a hoop, but balked at the high and narrow walk. She refused the walk at first, then took it each time with increasing confidence and purpose, looking forward to praise and treats with each success.
Paula said, “I gave the command, and she bounded in! I called to her to Walk It, and she trotted up. I sat on the ground and called her into my arms, as my tears spilled onto her coat. Evie ran the rest of the course off-lead, willing and wagging. I don’t know the last time I have been so touched and so proud of a dog.”
We’ve all been in a place where we’re unsure or scared to move, even with encouragement. Fears are not entirely irrational, as they stem from previous experiences and injuries. God leads us through dark tunnels and obstacles, but still we balk. We fear speaking in public, showing strong emotion, being alone, not having enough money, being noticed, not being noticed, wondering if we’re good enough. God keeps leading us into strength and confidence.
Each time Evie came to the obstacle, it got easier. Although the course didn’t change in difficulty, she trusted her trainer to stay with her, and that there would be love and treats afterward. Do you remember the times the Lord brought you through a challenge and you emerged victorious? There was intimacy in God’s arms as He embraced you.
Psalm 34:4-5 NIV says, I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.
May we take a lesson from the furry children of God and find no reason to shrink from God’s adventures and challenges. Let’s move boldly out there, taking the steps God has planned for us.
On her back yard outings, calico cat Abby hunts for lizards and grasshoppers. When she does catch something, she brings it to me for inspection. Bugs get eaten, lizards released.
Late one night, I awoke to a shrill twittering. When I turned on the light, I saw a tiny gray field mouse cowering by the baseboard, with Abby ready to pounce. She’d caught him in the screen porch, and brought him inside to show me. The mouse looked exactly like one of Abby’s toy mousies, only this one had locomotion and a sound card!
Abby and I chased the mouse around and under furniture (with different purposes in mind). Somehow I managed to “herd” the mouse into the bathroom and stop up the space under the door. Abby wasn’t happy.
The next morning, I decided I’d better catch that mouse and put him outside. So I pushed the shower curtain over the closed shower door, and sure enough, there was a tiny thud when the mouse dropped onto the fiberglass floor. I let myself into the shower, and sat on the ledge, contemplating how to catch the mouse without hurting it. The mouse hoped his gray fur would blend with the white shower tile.
I wondered how I appear to God. God has a plan, and wants to rescue me and set me in safety, but all I can see is this moment, and this moment is frightening.
But back to the shower mouse. I sacrificed a tissue box, and slowly moved toward him. “No! No!” he squeaked. I moved in slowly. The box came down over the mouse, I tumbled him down to the bottom, and clapped a glass saucer over the top. I walked to the back yard corner and set the box down in the bouganvilla flowers. The mouse huddled in his new comfort zone, so I tipped him out of the box, into a deep pile of pink flower bracts. When I checked on him ten minutes later, he’d escaped to a world of blossoms. I saw the mouse again recently. Abby had him treed. The mouse still lives, and the cat is still frustrated!
The Lord’s thoughts toward us are of compassion and care for His children. We have nothing to fear from His rescue.
When we were given a Siamese kitten, my eight-year-old brother was given the privilege of naming the cat. Mom suggested that Siamese are given musical-sounding names; perhaps something that rhymed with ding-a-ling. “That’s it!” my brother shouted, “His name will be Ding-a-Ling.” And that was that. (Mom took the cat to the vet for the annual exam and shots. When the vet assistant called out “Ding-a-Ling Robinson,” Mom had to stand up in humiliation.) At home we called the cat Ding, except when introducing him to visitors—or the vet! Then it was “Ah-Ling.” Snobby? Maybe.
Ding was protective of his family. He would calmly face down big dogs, who would back off, looking everywhere but at the cat. You could almost hear them say, “Cat? What cat? I’m just dropping my tail, and moving off slowly, slowly…” The humorous graphic of a pussy cat seeing a lion reflected in the mirror, says it all for Ding-a-Ling, a very brave cat.
You’ll not find pet cats in the Bible of the Hebrews, although the Egyptians had cherished and worshipped domestic cats for thousands of years. In fact, the only felines mentioned in Scripture are leopards and lions, fearsome beasts. (Isaiah 11:6, Daniel 7:6, Revelation 13:2, Jeremiah 13:23, and others.) The evil one is depicted as a lion seeking people to devour. But Jesus is symbolized as the Lion of Judah—regal, strong, and mighty.
Some of my friends dislike, fear, and/or are allergic to cats, which is almost incomprehensible to me. I marvel at the beauty of the cat’s graceful physique, the texture and colors of fur, and not least, their individual “personalities.” My heavenly home will be furnished with cats, cats, and more cats.
In Jesus’ kingdom, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD. Isaiah 11:6, 7, 9 NIV
How our Creator loves us, to fill our world from Eden to the New Earth, with such delightful, mysterious, inspiring creatures as felines.