Friday, May 28, 2010

One heart, one mind, one Body

It’s amazing what God can do with people. Those who you thought were beyond salvation’s reach, or who wasted their lives, can be found, can be changed, can be victories for the Lord.

James grew up in a family whose agnostic parents believe in evidence of things seen, in contrast to faith in the unseen. He and his brother and sister never had the stability of faith or a godly lifestyle. They used every illicit drug, lived the hippie life in 1960s San Francisco, tried Eastern religions and cults, dabbled in spiritualism, and many other things James is reluctant to talk about.

Then one day, two people came uninvited to James’ home and shared their faith with him. He asked them about the Ouija board he was experimenting with, and they explained from the Bible how he was placing his life in the Devil’s care when playing that “game.” He continued to study with them, and joined their denomination. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted to serve in the US military. But as part of his newfound beliefs, he would not take an oath of obedience to man or government, as oaths should only be made to God. So James was tried and convicted of draft-dodging. He served six months in prison, which he says he doesn’t regret, because it led to community service opportunities and then his career as a painter.

While James’ brother and sister continued for a few more years in their paths of self-destruction and humanistic religion, James was a new man. He settled down in marriage and fatherhood. He became an active member of his congregation and learned his Bible well. His skill at painting took on an artistry that led to some restoration work at Hearst Castle and a steady career. He and his wife made a house into a beautiful and comfortable home. He spent his leisure time in water sports and fishing, and he became a first-class surfer.

Having only heard of his wild oats-sowing, I never knew about James’ respectable life until a few weeks ago. I was a bit nervous to meet this stranger who’d had a worldly life that included prison (surely for drugs or drug-related crime, I thought). But James was not brain-damaged by drugs, nor did he have the hardness of an ex-convict. He was a gentle, soft-spoken, thoughtful man who had the comfort of others in mind. He took several of us, mostly strangers, on a day-long excursion on the drizzly California coast. Along those miles, we learned his story in bits and pieces, and we bonded not only as relatives or nature enthusiasts, but as children of God. All four of us were of different faith experiences, but we love and serve the same Father, Who loves each of us as much as He loves His Son Jesus. We all learned to love each other that day.

Jesus prayed that we disciples would be of one mind and heart – His heart! Holding prejudice toward other backgrounds or religions is contrary to that oneness that Jesus desires. Discrimination often means that we have judged ourselves as the elect of God, and others as less worthy (or not worthy) of eternal life.

The books of Jeremiah (31:33-34) and Hebrews (10:16-17) both give God’s promise of a New Covenant.

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." Jeremiah 31:33-34 NIV

We often stop at the first promise about the covenant becoming part of our minds and hearts. But what a blessing we miss if we stop there! The next part of the promise is that “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” because the Lord Himself will reach them and teach them!

It’s easy to be proud of our witnessing and evangelistic efforts and successes. But we only support God’s work. Only God can do God’s work. The Lord will forgive and forget wickedness, and He will lead His children to Him. We are added to the scene as God allows us to share the Shepherd’s joy in bringing in the lost sheep.

One of my pastors connects the following verses: the Great Shepherd has sheep in other shelters that He will bring in Himself (John 10:16); even in heaven, some of the redeemed will ask why Jesus carries scars (Zechariah 13:6), because they’ve not heard the full story of salvation; and what God requires of each of us is “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).  Your God, the Word says. There will, indeed, be countless people who are saved in their relationship with and faith in the God who speaks to them and teaches them in His way and His time, but surprisingly, may not use the same methods with others as He did to win us.

Where does that leave us as fellow travelers in the Gospel Commission? It invites us to be useful, willing, humble servants. Servants who will develop relationships with other children of God, and let the love of God live in us without reservation. The possibilities of what God can and will do with lives that we might have given up on, are endless. We share in the celebration that the Lord has brought in all the lost sheep – not 99 percent, but 100 percent – including you and me. Including those “shady” friends, relatives, or neighbors we should know, but haven’t known before!

Get out there and start some conversations. Listen for their heartbeat, their motivation, their questions. Discover how alike you are, not how distant or different. Celebrate your new bonds and relationships. As you share what God has done in your life and theirs, you’ll find that God has been there before you, and He’s in it right now. That is some good news to tell. That is evangelism.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Foolish Talk

Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth. Proverbs 18:2 MSG

You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, ‘You’re right! I never would’ve thought of that!’” —Dave Barry, humor columnist. 

It’s satisfying to get that look, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like having their humor or sage observations appreciated and admired, especially when your audience is smarter than dogs. I’ve offended people with what I thought was gentle teasing, and others by expressing my political views. There’s a non-scriptural proverb my mother taught: never discuss religion, bodily functions, or politics in polite company. Or any other place, for that matter, if they aren’t immediate family. 

So what is one to talk about? What’s left? If I discuss medieval history, people’s eyes glaze over. Current events lead back to politics, a banned dinner subject. I could talk about my pets or my garden, but that’s only good for a minute. 

Perhaps the answer is not to talk so much as to listen. And not only to our neighbors’ spoken words, but to notice their body language and key words that might reveal their motivations. Saying the right words at the right time—there are lots of Solomon’s proverbs about that. And James chapter 3. And Ephesians chapters 4 and 5. 

Religious talk has minefields, particularly when we confuse changeable standards and unchangeable principles, but I’ve noticed that when we speak of the love and endless grace of God, people’s eyes light up. You and I can never hear it enough times: God loves me, He cares for everything about me, He’s waiting for me to relax in His arms and let Him take care of me, He created me especially to be His treasure, He’s prepared eternal life and joy for me. 

“Really?” they seem to say, “You’re right! I never would’ve thought of that!” That’s not folly—that’s hope and encouragement and building up. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:29 MSG: Say only what helps, each word a gift. 

Your words—and your listening silence—will be love in another person’s ear.

This article appears in the book We Shall Be Changed, edited by Christy K. Robinson, and was reprinted at this site:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

No griping

It was a fantastic February day to hike to the desert stream. Springtime in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is an unusual taste of heaven to some, but heaven it is. Yellow brittlebush daisies, red ocotillo tips, lavender larkspur, golden poppies, white something-that-resembles-Queen-Anne’s-lace, and sage-green everything else (trees, grasses, saguaro and cholla cacti) combine with the Picasso-blue sky to create a feast for the eyes. The granite gravel, called desert pavement, crunches underfoot, the air is herbal-scented with creosote oil, and the temperature is in the high 60s, so it’s not too hot, even with exertion. The desert finches and doves send their praise hymns upward.

But although my eyes and ears are healthy, I had had a disabling injury to my leg about five years before, which left me with some knee instability and ankle/foot paralysis. If I so much as look up from the path a few inches in front of me, I could slide on gravel, trip on a root or rock, and injure myself severely. But by this time, I was resigned to my slight disability, and just grateful that I could usually keep pace with my fellow hikers. Well, walkers, really.

My acquaintances and friends were Christian singles from the Tucson area, who assembled at the trailhead at the top of a high hill on a Saturday morning. Our plan was to hike down the switchback trail to a seasonal stream, have a worship time with music and the spoken word, and then lunch before the hike back uphill.

The group consisted of adults from their 20s (like me) to their 60s, plus a few pre-teen kids. Carla, one of the young adults, was vision-impaired, and I admired her courage in negotiating a trail solely on the arm and voice direction of a friend. It was about a mile to the stream, over a rocky canyon trail. I needed every bit of concentration to stay upright with my disability, so I didn’t say much as we walked. To enjoy the vista, I would stop and take photos, then hurry on the flat places to keep up.

We reached the canyon floor, and sat on the giant boulders to sing and enjoy the pastor’s homily as the sun rose to its zenith, and the water played about us. (Unless you’ve lived for awhile in the desert, you don’t know the joy of finding free-range water!) After we’d prayed together, we prepared our picnic lunch—which was when I forgot to watch my step. I slipped on a tiny bit of sand on the boulder, and sat down hard—on my tailbone. Crunch.

Although there is an expression about getting your “behind” in a sling, there isn’t much one can do for a broken coccyx. The only sling that would have given comfort in the Sonoran Desert would have been the one dangling from a med-evac helicopter. But these were the Olden Days when mobile phones were the size of cats, and only for rich people, and besides, we were down a rocky canyon. (I don’t understand why my friends didn’t fashion a travois litter for me and drag me out.) The only solution was to walk out, and all uphill!

In times of pain, it is a relief to let off steam with bad words. One of my favorites is “Oaxaca,” a city in Mexico. It’s not a profane or vulgar word, but it sounds bad! But here I was, a singles ministry leader, in the company of people who expected better of me. And there was Carla, who, despite her blindness and a few minor stumbles on the path, was having the time of her life. Carla was smiling and singing and gazing wide-eyed at the sky, looking for all the world like Stevie Wonder at his keyboard. I was ashamed to even say Oaxaca.

So every step, every breath, was a pain in the rear. Literally. But I made it to the canyon rim without too many moans, said goodbye to my friends, and lowered myself into my low-slung Firebird (ow-ow-ow) for the two-hour drive home to Phoenix. The car was not built for comfort like a Mercedes or Caddy—I felt every pebble in the aggregate pavement, for the entire 120 miles, in my derriere.

But Carla was “feelin’ no pain.” What a glorious day she had because her friends included her in fellowship. She could smell the flowers and sky, she could feel the desert vastness on the breeze. The ground beneath her feet told her how to tread, and the arm of her friends communicated love. “The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises up those who are bowed down.” Psalm 146:8 NASB.

Even when you’re bowed down, remember that the Lord raises you up. If not at this moment, then eventually. But He is faithful. So no griping!

Article first published (online and print) in Connected, August 30, 2006 

Friday, May 7, 2010

Do you have an E-mother?

An E-mother is not a virtual-reality, generic everywoman face on your computer monitor. It's an emergency mom.

In the 1960s, when the only mobile phones were Star Trek communicators, there was a safety network in place for neighborhood children. When kids walked to school or the bus stop, they knew that they were being watched. If a scuffle broke out, or a child sprawled and scraped both knees, or a suspicious man lurked, all a child had to do was look for the front window with a cardboard “E” placed in the pane. The rectangular sign was red with a white letter that could be seen for quite a distance.

That was the insignia for an E-mother. This was the place to run to in an emergency. A safe-house. An E-mother was a comforting presence; had first-aid skills and a hotline to rescue agencies; and although perhaps a stranger, she could be trusted to keep you safe until your own parents arrived. An E-mother was a volunteer who cared about the well-being of all children, not only her own. She made it a point to stand behind the lace curtains and watch during school “rush hours,” and knew when the school buses discharged their loads. Kids knew to at least act decorously as they passed in front of the E-mother’s yard. If the ice-cream truck parked too close to the crosswalk, or bullying took place, the E-mother would know what to do. She was both the authority and refuge to every child passing through her territory. 

Elohim, the Trinity, created both man and woman in His image. Both genders were created to reflect the compassion, mercy, loving-kindness, and forgiveness that so define the great I AM. So it’s no wonder that God is comfortable referring to His love for us in a maternal way, and He commands us in both New and Old Testaments to honor fathers and mothers. 

The apostle Paul, a fiery and fiercely strong warrior for God, was so transformed by abiding in Jesus Christ that he was secure enough to write this moving love letter: Even though we had some standing as Christ's apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren't aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. Not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did. 1 Thessalonians 2:6 MSG

Doesn’t that describe a true mother? Loving, uplifting, encouraging. 

King David sang the praises of the Lord of Hosts. Although it’s a soldier’s hymn, he also described an E-mother! God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help in times of trouble. And so, we won't be afraid! Psalm 46:1-2 CEV. 

He only is my rock and my salvation: he is my defence; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. Selah. Psalm 62:6-8 KJV. 

Although most of us have had lovely and exemplary mothers, worthy of honor throughout our lives, some do not have the memories, the warm connections, and the heritage of compassion and teaching. 

No matter how many birthdays we have behind us, we all feel like children at times: lost, lonely, in need of rescue or an advocate. 

Perhaps you long for the affirmation and unconditional love of a mother’s heart. If you are that person, remember that Elohim is not only your Father, but your Mother as well.

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! Isaiah 49:15 NIV. 

As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13 NIV. 

Our Lord has been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall. Isaiah 25:4 KJV. 

When you’re out in the world, having been under attack or needing a place of refuge, remember that our Elohim is ready and waiting, watching out for you, and ready to run to your aid with comfort and compassion.
How can we not respond with love and gratitude?


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