We have all grieved for the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and now in Louisiana. Henceforth whenever we hear the name Harvey, just as with Katrina, Irene, Hugh and others, we will think first of the storms associated with that name.
I got to pondering about names…and what we associate with them. Those of us who are believers and go by the name of Christian have a particular responsibility to be mindful of how we represent the One whose name we bear. And when people hear our personal names…of what do they think?
We have 'known' Sam for a long time; he has been our dentist for many years and we attend the same church. So we are more than 'professional' friends; we speak when we see one another and occasionally interact with one another. We are friends with his wife and some of his family, but our friendship has always been on a fairly superficial level. Recently, however, we were honored to spend some quality time with them for a long weekend that involved delightful meals, programs and concerts in Charleston at the Spoleto/Piccolo festival. Our friendship has moved to more than just saying, "Hello, hope you're doing well," or "See you in six months; don't forget to floss."
Many of us have a similar superficial relationship with God. We may have known God since childhood; we speak, in prayer, now and then; we meet 'professionally' with God at church, usually on a regularly scheduled visit; and if there is an emergency, we immediately get in touch. But how much we miss of what it means to walk with God when we are too busy or preoccupied to spend quality time with God, getting to know the Holy One, and opening ourselves to all that God has for us. A deep, personal relationship with God will lead us to showing and sharing the Love that has touched us and can teach us how we can be faithful servants.
Bill and I usually watch the CBS evening news and during the political conventions last week and this, Scott Pelley has been broadcasting from the floor. Because of the surrounding noise, it has been extremely difficult to differentiate his voice from the cacophony around him.
As I struggled to hear and understand Scott, I thought about how we need to listen to God. Our lives are full of distractions, both audio and visual, not to mention activities, responsibilities and other things. Trying to hear the still, small voice of God is even more difficult than hearing a tv announcer, but ever so much more important if we are to be the people God would have us to be.
We had planned to...but
A friend posted on his facebook page that he and his family had planned to take a very special hike, not just for pleasure, but as part of a spiritual commitment to be more 'fit'. However, the family awoke to a very rainy day. The much-needed rain ended an almost month-long dry spell and the rain was an answer to prayer for many folks.
Interesting how a positive answer to one group's prayer thwarted the plans of another group. All of us tend to make plans based on our personal agendas, and for the busy family with hiking plans, a Saturday was the only time they had. But for folks watching their crops or other plants wither, rain on any day was something to be very grateful about.
My friend's family is composed of deeply committed believers, so I am sure their disappointment in not making their hike was tempered by their realization of how vital the rain was to others. And we all need to be reminded from time to time that our personal agendas are not the highest priority in God's scheme of things. Learning to accept God's timing for rain, whether literal or figurative, is part of our maturing as we walk the paths of becoming all God would have us to be.
"There's an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth..." Ecclesiastes 3:1 (MSG)
I attended a celebration on the plaza of the Tate Student Center at the University of Georgia, but because I had been fighting pollen allergies for the prior week, I decided to stand inside the atrium of the nearby campus bookstore. Thus, while the speeches and recognitions were going on, I could see the constant stream of students passing through the area, either on their way to class or to take a break at the student center. On the adjacent street just above the platform, campus buses came and went, disgorging their passengers and loading up a new batch. Those attending and participating in the celebration seemed oblivious or at least undeterred by what was going on around them.
During that hour, I saw hundreds of students: all sizes, shapes and colors; several service dogs; lots of smart phones, many with ear-buds; every imaginable dress style and hair style. Most of the passersby glanced over at the ceremony, but with little apparent interest. I'm sure each one had a story, some of joy and some of sorrow, and some with ordinary concerns.
As I stood there, I thought of our churches and how intently we sit inside, while outside the world passes by. Many of those in that world may be aware of the church building and even of what it stands for, but have chosen not to be a part of it, either because they do not believe or have other priorities. Perhaps they have not been invited or feel as if they would not be welcomed. Those who are on the inside need to be careful not to ignore those on the outside because the God Who is worshipped in the building cares deeply about those passing by.
I have recently submitted a couple of columns to ethicsdaily.com and at the bottom of those columns there is an identifying line or two about who I am. You will notice that I am a 'former' board member of ethicsdaily and a 'former' moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. Those lines could also say that I am a 'former' handbell choir director, a 'former' member of the Coordinating Council of CBF, a 'former' Associational WMU director, among other things.
As I write this I am in my early 70's and those 'formers' tell a lot about who I have been. As I age, if that is what life holds for me, there will be other 'formers' that will join that list. I want to make clear that most of those 'formers' do not relate to my age, but to the fact that I served the term to which I agreed on the front end. But the language does have more significance to me as I get older. I have noticed that as the years pass by, each one takes its toll. In my 'former' days I could last longer, hit the high notes more easily, and especially recuperate more quickly.
There are a lot of things that I still do that enrich my life and nourish me spiritually, mentally and physically. In addition I am blessed by the love of my husband, children and granddaughters. So I am grateful that as the list of 'formers' grows, I remain in the present tense. Although I will never be younger, I can be engaged in what God has put in my hands to do right now, even though my hands are neither as strong nor as capable as they used to be.
As a teenager I was often present in 'say so' meetings both in the private Christian school I attended and at Bible conferences, based on the verse in Psalm 107, 'Let the redeemed of the Lord, say so…' (v.2, KJV). Sometimes the predominant testimonies were of what God had done in the person's life at some prior time; they were testimonies of 'former' blessings. It was always more meaningful, at least to me, when folks shared what God was doing in that person's life in the present.
I think we are all often guilty of looking and thinking too much about the 'former' things, instead of following Paul's example of 'pressing on' (Phil. 3:14) to what lies ahead. If our concentration is only on the 'formers,' we'll miss the here and now, not to mention what is still to come. Some days will be full of sunshine and others will be cloudy or stormy, but God's Spirit goes with us through each of them, encouraging, sustaining, convicting and guiding. Each day should be a commitment to who we are and what we are called to do.
Living in the South during Jim Crow days, though certainly less restricted than during the time before emancipation, was fraught with danger for people of African heritage. Even though I grew up in those days, my ‘white' world in Southwestern Virginia rarely intersected with those outside the segregated circle in which I lived. The only people I knew as a child who had dark skin were a maid and a man who worked for my father and who came to our home to do yard work as well. I was vaguely aware of ‘white only' signs on water fountains and restrooms, but oblivious to the stigma and hardship those signs represented.
As an adult I have made a conscious effort to learn more about that shameful time and to counter discrimination, especially in a personal way. I have been honored by friendships with colleagues and other African-Americans whose lives have touched mine. Jerrold Packard's book, entitled American Nightmare, and Calvin Ramsey's play, The Green Book, and its accompanying children's book, Ruth and the Green Book, have done much to educate me on the particulars and the cruelty of those appalling days.
Recently I learned an additional fact about how discrimination was practiced. If a person of color purchased something from an establishment with a ‘white' clerk, the established procedure was for the African-American person to lay their money down on the counter. The clerk would then pick up the cash, make change which was then laid on the counter for the purchaser to pick up. This way, the clerk would never have to touch the hand of the African-American. Of course, at this time, it was customary for affluent Southerners to hire women of color to care for their babies and young children, in the process becoming extremely close to those little ones.
I was so startled by this revelation that I mentioned it to an African-American friend the other day. This friend is a well-known, much-honored, long-time resident of the small town in which we live in Northeast Georgia. She is a retired educator and an active volunteer in the school system and a number of other organizations which enrich our community. When I related to her what I had learned, she smiled at me and shook her head.
'Sara,' she said, 'that happened to me yesterday.'
Stunned, I asked her to explain. She said she had made a purchase and reached into her purse and pulled out a $20 bill and offered it to the clerk. When the clerk just looked at her without accepting the money, my friend knew that she was expected to lay the bill down on the counter, her experiences of growing up during the Jim Crow days educating her to her proper response to this prejudice.
My outrage for my friend led me to ask at which store this incident had happened, but she would not tell me. I was humbled by her lack of anger or desire to retaliate, and appreciated that her restraint was motivated both by her deep faith and her memory of days gone by.
The experience also made me aware of how oblivious I still am to the sensitivities of others, the slights and sometimes outright ugliness that characterize prejudice. Whether the prejudice is based on race, on educational or socio-economic issues, differences of opinion on things vital or trivial, our actions tend to reflect our attitudes, to the detriment of our witness or effectiveness in sharing our Savior's love.
(used on www.ethicsdaily.com)
Voice of Authority
Especially when we draw close to our quadrennial presidential election, we are inundated with authoritative voices telling us for whom to vote and why. It is often very difficult to find the kernel of truth hidden among the torrent of rhetoric in the various ads, printed material, speeches, phone calls and even the conversation between friends whose political persuasions differ. And, unfortunately, frequently the kernel of truth is so distorted by the time it is discerned that it is hard to know what to think.
The same thing can often happen in our churches and our religious world. A voice of authority tells us what they presumably believe is the truth about God's Word or a particular way of practicing our faith. Those who do so are generally very sincere and concerned. I have never understood how the same Holy Spirit who lives in me and lives in others can lead us in different directions as we prayerfully, carefully seek to follow the straight and narrow path.
As in politics, we all tend to feel that our point of view is the correct one and if others would just listen to our reasoning, they would see the light of day. We consider our arguments and rationale to be cogent and worth passing along to others who need to be persuaded.
A recent incident with one of our daughters sheds an interesting light on this subject. She is knowledgeable in outdoor education and has a long history of working with children. She was visiting not too long ago and we drove into our driveway on a beautiful late evening. We live in a predominately rural area of northeast Georgia so there are not many lights to distract from the magnificence of the starlit night. As we looked up at the sky that night, it looked as if we could reach up and almost touch the stars.
I remarked that I always have difficulty finding the Big Dipper. Our daughter pointed up and said, 'See those three stars in a row…that's the Big Dipper.'
My response was strong and positive: 'No, that's Orion. It's the only constellation I can always identify!' My daughter agreed, but said that Orion was part of the Big Dipper.
'No, I don't think so,' was my response. Now you have to realize that I have been mothering this daughter for close to 50 years, so I expected her to accept that I was correct. She, however, had a different idea. She pulled out her smart phone which has an ‘app' that you can point to the sky and be told exactly what you are seeing.
With a great deal of chagrin, she looked at me and said, 'You are right.'
Then, with even more chagrin, she said, 'I have told children all over the world that the belt of Orion was a part of the Big Dipper.'
Now the point of relating that incident is that on every occasion that my daughter had given this erroneous information to receptive children, she was in a position of authority, teaching the children what she believed was both truthful and interesting to them. And she has done this literally all over the world, here in the states, in Russia, in Asia, in Turkey. Misinformation with a kernel of truth (she did say it was Orion), spoken by a person whose authority was unquestioned.
Those misinformed children will probably learn at some point that they were given incorrect information and perhaps will learn to weigh what they hear with discernment. Most of them were too young to be expected to challenge what they were taught.
We, in this particular, very partisan political atmosphere, have no excuse for not at least trying to sort the truth from the rhetoric. It should also go without saying that in our spiritual lives we have the responsibility to seek the Truth.
One of my favorite cards was sent to my husband by our youngest daughter several years ago. It takes several adages, splits them and puts the first part of one with the second part of another. As you can imagine, the results are chuckle-inducing. For instance, one of them reads: 'Don't count your chickens until you've walked a mile in their shoes.'
After the laughter subsides, it is time to ponder whether or not we take the teachings of Jesus and twist them to suit ourselves. Do we love all of our neighbors except the ones who are a nuisance? Do we take in the strangers unless they are taking our jobs? Do we visit the sick and shut-in unless it makes us uncomfortable? Do we stand up for our principles unless it will hurt our pocketbooks?
Ah, those walking chickens may come home to hatch…
Our friend, Kristin, was hurrying home to her husband and three young children the other day. Apparently she took a curve too fast, lost control of her car, ran off the road and hit a tree. Her death has shaken us badly. She was a vibrant, lovely caring young wife and mother who had touched the lives of many.
In the midst of this loss I was scheduled to volunteer at our local clothes closet and while I was there, my co-worker and I had a pleasant exchange with a customer who was buying some clothes for her soon-to-be 103-year-old mother. Our customer related a conversation, which I will paraphrase.
'Mother, I'm going away to a church convention for a few days.'
The mother responded, 'That's okay, I'm going away, too.'
'Where are you going, Mother,' the daughter asked.
Her mother's response: 'I'm going to heaven.'
With a chuckle, the daughter said, 'Well, I hope you'll wait a few more days until your birthday.'
Kristen, hurrying to her physical home, ended up in her heavenly home much too soon for those who loved and cared for and about her. If you had asked her where she was headed, I don't expect she would have said she was hurrying home to heaven. Our customer's centenarian mother, on the other hand, indicated in her conversation that she is more than ready to hurry home to see her Lord. The contrast between Kristen's untimely death at 32 and the 103-year-old's longevity is striking: one already in heaven and the other hurrying that way.
We all know intellectually that we are not even guaranteed our next breath, but it often takes something such as Kristen's death to remind us how much we take for granted and how quickly the course of our lives can change. We don't know whether our lives will be cut short or whether our days will be long, but we can trust the God in whose hands we put those days.
SCANNING THE BODY
At the end of the yoga classes I have been taking, our instructor has us stretch out on our pads and tense and relax the muscles in our bodies, starting at the top of our heads. When we have gotten all the way down to our toes, she tells us to scan our bodies from tip to toe and see if there is any tenseness remaining. If so, we are to tighten and then relax those muscles.
As I participate in that scanning, I am reminded of how important it is for us as believers to scan our actions, thoughts and intentions. We will often find clusters of resentment, of actions that we should have taken and didn't, or those we did that we should not have. Guided by God's Spirit, this inventory will enable us to confess, repent and release those sins to God's forgiveness.
As we rise from our yoga mats, refreshed, to proceed with the day ahead, so we can rise from the prayer of repentance and renewal to walk toward the challenges of our lives with God.
Signs of Life
On a boat ride the other night, a friend reminded me that I had taught him how to navigate on the lake by
following the numbered buoys. I had also explained about the shoal markers and what the green buoys on one
side of the lake and the red ones on the other side had to do with navigation. With that knowledge my friend
has been able to navigate the lake safely as he enjoys his fishing hobby.
I was reminded that in order to safely navigate the rivers and streams of our lives, and more specifically, the
paths of our Christian journeys, we need to be taught as well. There are unseen shoals of sin to be avoided,
we can easily stray out of the main channel of seeking to follow our Savior's way of love.
Just as navigable waterways are marked with instructions for those who know what they mean, so, too, we
have been given words of life in scripture. God's Spirit indwells us to guide us and often others are used to
instruct us: teachers, preachers, friends and relatives. We have to be willing to be taught and then to follow the
instructions we have been given.
"Hold on to insturction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life." Prov. 4:13, (NIV)
My husband, a free-lance photographer, loves taking pictures. He almost always has a camera with him, and with little or no provocation, whips it out when something or someone catches his eye. His particular interest is in people pictures, but he also enjoys almost every other kind of photography: animals, birds, flowers, bugs, travel, automobiles, motorcycles and on and on the list goes. He is very good and gets a great deal of joy out of giving, and occasionally selling, his work. He has won awards for his pictures, but I think he mostly enjoys the appreciation of the subjects of his people photos.
Since digital cameras are his forte, my husband spends at least as much, if not more, time at the computer ‘playing' with his photos, adding a little contrast here, making a color correction there, or perhaps removing a blemish from the other. We recently built a new home and every crew that came through the process was photographed and given copies of the photos, delighting every one.
Having said all of that, I recently accompanied my husband and a couple of his photo ‘buddies' to catch a portion of the Tour de Georgia, an annual bicycle race that was passing not far from where we live. Since Bill had taken two of his cameras with him, he hung one around my neck, set it up for me, suggesting that I take some pictures, too. I have a small digital camera that I use occasionally, but this was one of his ‘pro' cameras and I had visions of capturing a great picture.
Well, the leaders of the race flew by, and I took a picture or two. A few minutes later, the pelaton zipped by and I clicked away. To my dismay, none of my pictures were worth looking at twice, and I had missed experiencing the event as I focused on using the camera. That incident got me to thinking about looking at life through the lens of a camera. Having a camera enhances what my husband does, but for me, the camera comes between me and part of what I appreciate about life in the first person. Using the camera made it seem as if I were watching the cycling race on television instead of being there myself.
I expect all of us look at life through a lens of some sort, whether we're speaking literally or figuratively. Even Paul said, in I Corinthians 13, that we don't see clearly with our physical eyes, and he didn't even know about camera lenses! Our sensitivity to the needs of others may be occluded by cultural factors or prejudice, by ignorance or callousness, by too much business or too much pleasure. Perhaps the problem comes from not spending enough time in the Presence of the One Who told us to love and Who sees us most clearly.
Although part of my pique at the cycling race was my missing the opportunity to experience the event first-hand, the other part was my lack of familiarity with the camera and how to use it as expertly as my husband does. So there are two ways of looking at this: one is to be sure that nothing is coming between what God would have me doing and saying in obedience to the promptings of the Spirit, and the other is to make sure that we know how to use the God-given equipment we have, so that when the time comes to focus the camera of God's love onto a specific instance, we are ready to do it.
Bulbs and Blossoms
As published on www.ethicsdaily.com
The tulips are blooming in the
On a recent visit to the area, my husband and I were overwhelmed with the beauty of the blossoms at
We also had the opportunity to visit a bulb farm, where the focus has nothing to do with tulip blossoms…these farmers harvest the bulbs. While there is a part of the tulip industry that markets and ships the blooms world-wide, there is another huge part of the Dutch economy that is centered on the bulbs. As soon as the color emerges on the tulip plants in late March or early April, the bulb farmers chop off the blooms and toss them aside so that all of the energy of the plant will go to the bulbs that lie burgeoning, hidden in the ground. The bulbs, each with at least one baby bulb attached, are dug up in June, dried, washed and stored until ready to be shipped around the globe in October. The new crop of bulbs, derived from the baby bulbs which are broken off from the larger bulb, is planted at the same time and the cycle begins again.
Tulips have been an integral part of the Dutch culture for centuries. In the 17th century there was even a period of Tulip Mania when coveted bulbs were sold for extravagant prices. Interestingly, some of the prized bulbs were considered too valuable to risk planting in the ground, so they were kept in the owners' pockets where they deteriorated anyway. The bubble, akin to a futures' market today, burst after a couple of years and prices settled back down, leaving some folks' dreams of tulip fortunes buried along with the bulbs.
Many areas of the
Even today the
Meditating on our experiences has led to several thoughts: First, it is easy to be dismayed at the idea of all of those beautiful tulip blossoms lying on discard piles at the edges of the bulb farms. But without the destruction of the blooms, the bulbs would not reach their full potential. Most of us are much more taken with the fleeting splendor of the blooms than the hidden, not-so-glamorous bulbs. The bulb farmers who nurture what cannot be seen are rewarded by waiting for the proper time to harvest their crop.
On the other hand, the fragile blossoms touch our lives with beauty and grace. The tulip farmers who harvest blossoms enhance our lives in an entirely different way. The colors and varieties can serve to remind us of the richness of the spectrum of Baptists: in the ways we worship, in the ways we serve, in the colors and hues of our skins.
The tulips are in bloom in the
At Christmastime I was blessed to be invited to participate in a madrigal. As we prepared to enter for the performance, our director reminded us that as long as we were in costume, we were to remain in character. So, for the evening, I was Lady Sara, in 16th century garb. Even when I interacted with someone who knew me as wife, mother, grandmother or friend, I was to remain a medieval lady-in-waiting in the king's court. As I put on the various layers of the costume, I was reminded of how different the life of a woman in those days was. But even as I donned the gown and headpiece that made me look more medieval, I was still, underneath, the same 20th-21st century woman (and I still needed my spectacles to see!).
As believers we are told to garb ourselves in a new wardrobe:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick
to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (Col. 3:12-14 [The Message])
These new garments, as my madrigal costume, fit over the same every-day me. During the madrigal I was more successful, at least at times, of 'staying in character' than I am as a Christian, I am ashamed to admit. Just as practice in being 'Lady Sara' made me more comfortable with the role, I pray that the practice of seeking to be more Christ-like will make me moreso.
KEEPING IN STEP
It's fun to watch a marching band, each in perfect ‘step' with one another. Hours and hours of practice contribute to such precision marching, and it is easy to see when someone loses their place. There's an old joke about a mother watching a band and commenting, when her son or daughter was in error, that everyone was out of step but her child.
As believers it is even more important for us to stay ‘in step' with God. Instead of following our own beat and going off on our own agenda, we need to be sensitive to the leading of God's Spirit, quick to acknowledge our sin when we don't, and eager to be of service.
"Make sure I'm fit inside and out so I never lose sight of your love, but keep in step with you, never missing a beat." Psalm 26:2b-3 (The Message)
Some years ago someone we know decided to take a short cut to losing weight and had liposuction. She was a good candidate, according to her doctor, because only certain parts of her body were heavier than others. It was a painful procedure, but effective--for a while. Unfortunately, as time passed, she gained weight and the procedure was for naught.
Sometimes we seem to want to take a short cut to sanctification, hoping that some drastic measure will make a difference in our spiritual lives. A program, a book, a speaker will promise amazing results. However, there is no quick fix; a deepening relationship with God is only accomplished as we gradually are transformed into all that we are meant to be.
"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." Romans 12:1,2 (The Message)
When I was growing up one of the rights of passage into adulthood among my friends and I was to have a standing appointment at the beauty parlor, as our mothers had. Having a standing appointment meant that you had the time and the financial wherewithal to have a regular appointment each week to have your hair shampooed and set. There are still ladies who take advantage of that way to keep their hair looking its best, but my hair and life style have moved in different directions.
It is interesting that something that I once considered such a milestone in my life has become non-essential, both to my sense of maturity and my feelings about how to look my best. Our priorities about other things change, too, as we walk with God and grow in our sensitivity to the ways God would have us be conduits of the love, mercy and grace with which we have been blessed. As God's Spirit works in our lives, our most important "standing appointment" should be consistent times at the throne of grace.
"Be...faithful in prayer." Romans 12:12 (NIV)
"You have given me the heritage of those who fear Your name." Psalm 61:5b (NIV)
Lots of folks enjoy searching out and verifying their heritage—whether it be through genealogical societies, historical organizations, cultural or nationalistic societies. Although all of us are obviously descended from a long line of ancestors, some of us like establishing exactly from whom our genetic makeup comes. I expect , if we were to investigate closely, we would find that all of us have our share of reputable and disreputable progenitors. Those who attach great importance to their family trees use all kinds of resources to find information, from the internet to old graveyards, from oral histories, troves of letters, dry legal records to faded photographs—adding each bit of information to the ledger that will be passed along to their descendents. It can be a fascinating journey, but is nowhere nearly as important as who and what we do with the time we have here on earth.
Those of us who walk the path of faith have a similar heritage, a line of people who have cared enough about someone else to share the story of God's amazing love for each one of us. Occasionally we hear the history of an otherwise unknown person who touched the life of another who touched someone else who became a world-renowned preacher whose ministry reached around the globe. It has been said that God has no grandchildren, meaning that each generation is responsible for passing along the heritage of faith to the next. The line of love and grace that reaches down through the ages to us from the cross needs to be passed along to all of those with whom we come in contact.
My husband, a retired university professor, used to tell his students, when there was something he particularly wanted them to remember, that it would behoove them to write it down or learn it. After a while his students began to refer to such things as ' behoovers,' knowing they would see such things on their quizzes or exams. Sometimes they would even ask him, when he emphasized something or other, if it were a ' behoover.'
When Jesus was instructing his disciples, He was pretty clear about what He expected of them, and subsequently, of us. In John 15, He said:
I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you'll remain intimately at home in my love. That's what I've done—kept my Father's commands and made myself at home in his love.
I've told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I'm no longer …. Remember the root command: Love one another. ( vs. 9-15, The Message)
Talk about a behoover!
THE GRAND STAIRCASE
During a tour of Hobcaw Barony, Barnard Baruch's retreat near Georgetown, South Carolina, we were taken into the beautiful home he built there. Near the entrance hall was a lovely, wide staircase that went up to a landing, turned, then continued on to the upper floor and the well-appointed bedrooms. As our guide described some of the parties and events that had occurred there, it was easy to pictures ourselves ascending and descending those stairs, dressed to the nines, mingling with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and other personages who came and stayed at that home. Back around the corner and tucked out of sight was another set of stairs—for the servants who did the work that kept that elaborate household running. Narrow and dark, the second set of stairs held little resemblance to the first.
Although we often lose sight of the fact, our Savior called us to a life of servant-hood. As He washed the feet of His disciples, He told them, "Now that I have washed your feet, you also should wash another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." (John 13: 14 ,15 [NIV]) In order for the household of God to run as its Master requires, those of us who are called by the name of Jesus Christ must forsake the stairs of pride and preference and look for the servant quarters.
A friend of ours has a teen-aged son who, due to an instant of poor judgment, was terribly burned. Following months of surgeries, therapy, and pain that medication could not relieve, the young man is making slow, but steady progress. During the days of their son's most intense suffering, his parents' hearts ached beyond measure—the entire family paid a price, but the young man's cost, of course, was the highest.
Now that the worst of the physical trauma is past, the bills are coming due. Although the father is hopeful that insurance will cover many of the expenses, the financial cost will still be substantial. But the father, with a film of tears over his eyes, said to us that the financial strain is nothing compared to the life of his son.
When Jesus hung on the cross so many years ago, his life was the price paid for my sin. There was no operation, no therapy that could bring me to God's standard of holiness; only the sinless Son of Man, who came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt. 20:28 [NIV]), could make the sacrifice that offers salvation to me. But Jesus, knowing the pain He would have to endure, was obedient to the will of God the Father, knowing that His sacrifice was nothing compared to what would be gained. We think with gratitude, particularly during Holy Week, about the suffering of the Son, but the Father's heart had to be broken as well—for love of His Son, and for love of us.
One evening, on a delightful New England cruise, we were seated near the windows and were enjoying the beautiful scenery passing by. The sunset was lovely and the views were wonderful. Soon, however, the sunset faded into darkness, and as we continued to enjoy our meal, the picture windows on the ship changed from something you could see through to something that reflected what was going on in the dining room—people serving and being served their dinners. It would not be until the sun arose in the morning that the role of the windows would be reversed.
Often when we are in dark periods of our lives, everything seems to center on ourselves. The 'Son' seems to disappear and we cannot see beyond our own situation. It is only when we are able to take our eyes off of ourselves and center ourselves on the Light of the World that we can get a better perspective on the beauty around us in spite of our circumstances and allow ourselves to trust our God.
My husband, a retired professor of human development, used to enjoy bedeviling his classes by asking them, "What is normal?" After several minutes of discounted definitions, he would say, "Normal is what I do. If you do the same, then you are normal, too. If not, then you are, by my definition, not normal." And, if you think about it, he is right. Most of us judge the normality of others by what we do and/or think. Those who fit within our parameters, whether it is theological, church liturgy, tradition, or in the everyday things of our lives, such as how we live, celebrate, dress, entertain or relate to others, are 'normal' to us. At others we may look askance.
When Jesus walked the dusty roads of our earth, He challenged everyone's idea of what was normal: religiously, socially, judicially—every area of life. Everyone's expectations of what the Messiah would be and do were challenged. As we look from our perches of hindsight, it is easy for us to superciliously judge those folks. But if we are not allowing the Spirit of God to challenge our parameters of normalcy, then we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to grow in the grace of Christ, to "acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works." (Col 1:9b, The Message)
"I, Paul, have been sent on a special mission by the Messiah, Jesus, planned by God himself." II Corinthians 1:1 (The Message)
We recently had the privilege of meeting the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's missionaries to the United Nations, Dr. and Mrs. David D'Amico. As an officially recognized Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), CBF can have a main representative and an alternate. The D'Amicos submitted Mrs. D'Amico's name as the main representative and her husband as the alternate. When their first official correspondence came, it was addressed to MR Ana D'Amico. Dr. D'Amico took the documentation to the UN and told them there had been a mistake, that Ana D'Amico was not a mister, but Mrs. D'Amico. The UN person told him that there had been no mistake—the MR stood, not for mister, but for Main Representative. The D'Amicos serve their Lord and CBF well.
The week that we met the D'Amicos, we were serving on a mission team assisting the victims of the terrorist attack in New York. We felt that we had been given a wonderful opportunity to be ambassadors of God's grace and peace. But all of us, whether male or female, young or old, clergy or lay, have the responsibility of serving as Main Representatives for the Lord. We may not be officially appointed, as the D'Amicos are, but, like Paul, we have been commissioned by the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords to offer love and forgiveness in the name of God to a world warped by war, devastated by disease, contorted by commercialism, riddled by racism and saddened by sin.
HEAVEN AND EARTH
We have a friend who is getting on up in age and shared with us how his perspective has changed. Most of his life, he has thought about the choice he has made between heaven and hell. In addition he has spent a great deal of his time, resources and energy helping others to see the importance of making a heavenly decision by presenting and enabling others to present the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As he has advanced into his 'golden' years, he relates, his focus has shifted to the choice he has to make between earth and heaven. After the loss of his wife, other family members, and many of his friends, he finds that his thoughts and longings have turned more in the heavenly direction than the earthly one. Although he is not planning to do anything to hasten that day, he, like Paul, would be hard-pressed to choose:
Life versus even more life! I can't lose. As long as I'm alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I'd choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days…I am sure that it's better for me to stick it out here. (Phil. 1:21-24[The Message])
Most of us need to learn from our friend's perspective for none of us can take tomorrow for granted. If we have made the correct decision between heaven and hell, then the choice between heaven and earth will be moot.
Walking along the beach one warm spring morning, I was struck by how many folks had chosen bathing suits inappropriate for their size and/or shape. I almost came to the conclusion that no one over the age of 10 should wear the brief, bulge-exposing swimwear I spotted on almost everyone. Considering the fact that I am way beyond the age and size to wear anything so skimpy, it would be easy to write off my observations as petty and picky. Yet I am still convinced that if most of those people could see themselves through the eyes of others, they would be horrified.
As I continued my walk, I was humbled by the realization of how often we, as believers, do and say things that are inappropriate for our calling as the embodiment of God's love here on earth. As we walk through the sand and ocean waves of our lives, we are more prone to reveal our bulges of sin: self-concern, pride, prejudice and surliness than we are to reveal the fruits of God's Holy Spirit: "affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely." (Galatians 5:22, The Message) Unfortunately, our inappropriate behavior must often stand in the way of others' seeing our God instead of our bearing a positive witness. If we are clothed in the love of God, we would come closer to what God would have us to be.
MISSING THE BOAT
On the day we were to fly home at the end of a mission trip to New York City, we had several hours on our own. At the suggestion of one of the team members, a group of us headed out to take a ride on the Staten Island ferry. Unfortunately, the ferry pulled out just as we arrived at the terminal. We were all disappointed because the next ferry would make us late for our departure. As we walked away, we decided to do some exploring in Battery Park with its views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. From there we had a delightful walk on which we encountered an acquaintance made earlier in the week, a stroll past the damaged and boarded up Downtown Athletic Club (home of the Heisman Trophy presentation), a different approach to Ground Zero than we had gotten earlier from the viewing platform, and a worshipful visit to Trinity Church with its miraculously undamaged stained glass windows. Although I am sure we would have enjoyed the ride on the ferry, none of us would have exchanged our alternate experiences. We ended up being glad we had missed the boat.
Many times in life we make plans that we think will be just right. Then because of one circumstance or another, those plans are thwarted. Sometimes a door is closed in our faces, or, as in our case, a boat leaves before we can board. But if we are trusting the Lord to lead us (Proverbs 3:5,6) there will be a window of opportunity or a walk to service that will enrich us and, if we follow that path in obedience, that will help us to become more of what God would have us to be.
EVERYBODY WHO'S ANYBODY
"For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16 [NIV])
In the process of telling me about an over-the-top social event to which we had not been invited, my friend, oblivious to her unintended slur, said, "Everybody who is anybody was there." She then went on to describe the lovely setting, the delicious food, and so on. After she left, I related the conversation to my husband and we had a good chuckle about the fact that we were apparently not "anybody."
Later that day, as I read the material for a prayer class the next day, I was struck by the contrast of Harry Emerson Fosdick's comments that every person on earth, no matter how noble or ignoble, no matter how rich or poor, regardless of earthly position or prestige, EVERY one is special, unique, included and favored in the sight of God. The One Who is Love reaches out to every one of us. In God's eyes, everybody is even more than an 'anybody,' we are all, as the old children's song goes, "precious in His sight."
"When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive adoption as God's children." Gal. 4:4 ,5 (NIV)
During the Iraqi war, those of us with access to cable television received an almost continuous stream of news reports from TV reporters 'embedded' with the troops. Although it remains to be seen if this style of reporting will be continued in other venues, it enabled anyone who so desired to have a front row seat as the videos streamed in. Because the reporters were moving with the troops instead of waiting for a press briefing, their reports carried an urgency and immediacy that is normally lacking even from 'breaking news' reports.
God's plan for the redemption of those separated from God's love by our sin involved the insertion of an 'embedded' part of the Godhead—the baby Jesus—Who put aside the trappings of glory to be wrapped in a rough cloth and be laid in a manger; Who left the streets of gold to walk the dusty roads of Nazareth; Who left the banquet halls of heaven to eat with sinners; Who could have called legions of angels to fend off the blows of the Roman soldiers; Who could have melted away from the cross, but stayed to be nailed there by my sin. Far more than any embedded reporter, Jesus brought the love of God to earth so that we might experience that love in a way never before imagined. Thanks be to God.
As we arrived in Jamaica for our mission team assignment, our mouths dropped open in awe as we surveyed the resort where we would be staying. Because we were there in the off season, and the sister of the pastor with whom we would be working was the assistant manager of the resort, we were staying in cottages with maids, cooks, laundresses, butlers, gardeners—and a view out across the championship golf course to the Caribbean—the lap of luxury.
Our work sites were another story altogether! The poverty of the people with whom we were working (who lived up in the far reaches of the Jamaican mountains) was appalling: they had plenty to eat (because of the abundance of fruits, vegetables and fish), but otherwise both the churches and the homes were lacking in most of the amenities that we take for granted. The cognitive dissonance between being pampered and being God's ministers to those wonderful people was immense.
When Jesus left the glory of heaven to come to earth, the contrast was even greater: from being worshipped to being crucified, from His role of Creator to washing the feet of His disciples. The same love that brought the Savior from the holiness of heaven to the sinfulness of earth calls us to leave the coziness of our satisfaction, the security of our churches, and the safety of our routines. Jesus took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2) and expects those of us who call ourselves by His name to follow that example as well.
"Hour by hour I place my days in your hand…" Psalm 31:15 (The Message)
There is an old story, probably apocryphal, that relates how the man charged with ringing the town bell on the stroke of noon met the radio announcer one day. The bell ringer thanked the announcer for his timeliness in sounding a tone on the radio at noon each day because that was how he, the bell ringer, knew it was time to toll his bell. The startled radio announcer replied that he always calibrated his watch by the bells so that he would know when to sound the tone. I thought of this story when my husband returned from the jewelry store telling me that the watch repairman has an atomic clock that he uses to set the time on all the watches he repairs. Our American culture is one of the few world-wide that is tied so completely to arbitrary times, but that is another subject for another day.
How often in our lives we set our spiritual clocks relatively, by things such as our culture, our socio-economic status, those around us, or our feelings. It is easy to make ourselves, our ethics and our spiritual lives look good if we compare them to the things around us. Just as setting one clock by the one that has just been set by the first, we will end up with skewed values, twisted morals, and little sense of the leadership of God's Holy Spirit in our lives. But we have a standard more accurate than an atomic clock. We have the standard of Love set by the One Who gave Himself completely for us. If we continually correct the settings of our lives by that Standard, we will come closer to living as God intended.
A UNIVERSAL SONG
While in St. Petersburg, Russia, we had the privilege of having tea with a Russian family that included a 10-year-old daughter. In an effort to include her in the conversation, we asked her what she enjoyed doing. When she responded that she liked to dance and sing, we asked her to sing a song for us. After some cajoling, she, her parents, and our interpreter sang a children's song for us. Then I asked what she would sing to someone who was having a birthday. She gave me a shy smile, then sang, to our astonishment, "Happy Birthday to you" in English. Upon our return home, we related this story to a friend of ours from Thailand. She told us that the same thing is true in her country. There is a Thai song that they use, but they also sing our familiar song, "Happy Birthday to You." Apparently the song is almost universal in its use and recognition.
As I have pondered on that incident, I have thought how wonderful it would be if the words of faith in Jesus Christ, available to all, were as universally recognized and known. But one day, when the Savior is acknowledged as the Lord of Lord and the King of Kings, when every knee will bow to honor Him, a truly universal hymn of adoration will be sung: "Then I heard every creature in Heaven and earth, in underworld and sea, join in, all voices in all places, singing: 'To the One on the Throne! To the Lamb! The blessing, the honor, the glory, the strength, For age after age after age.'" (Rev. 5:13 [The Message])
AROUND THE CORNER
"My God, in His loving kindness, shall meet me at every corner." Psalm 59:10 (alternate translation, from a sermon by Leslie Weatherhead, related by Dr. Maurice Boyd)
How many times have we rounded a corner and met something or someone unexpectedly? It might be in a grocery store, down a hallway, around a street corner, and we react—I startle very easily, both visibly and vocally although I am fortunate that most of the things or people that I encounter are not menacing.
One of the translations of Scripture that I use attributes Psalm 59 to David, written at a time when King Saul had put out a contract on David's life. So David knew there was a possibility of rounding any corner and encountering someone intent on killing him.
Recently I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Maurice Boyd, pastor of the City Church in New York , preach a sermon based on this verse. His interpretation was that no matter what we encounter around the corners of our lives— difficulties of any and every variety, God is there before us. We need not be startled as we round those corners because the grace of God has preceded us and will enable our passage.
"Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that's where the action is. See things from His perspective." Colossians 3:2 ,3(TM), (italics mine)
The two ladies on PBS' Antiques Road Show waited expectantly for the appraiser to confirm the value of their long-cherished Stradivarius violin. They had brought along another as well, which they kept pulling out of the way, forcing the appraiser to look at the choice violin first. Unfortunately, as the expert carefully examined the first violin, it became apparent that the " Strad" was a recent replica and worth comparatively little money. But the ignored, brought-along-as-an-afterthought violin, although not a Stradivarius, was an old, extremely well-made, valuable violin. For several generations, the family had cherished a fake and overlooked a treasure.
How often we, too, value the things in life that have no lasting value. We become absorbed with the bright, shiny toys of this world, and push aside what is of eternal significance. When the Expert Appraiser reaches out to point us to the true treasures, we tend to say that this other thing that we cherish is what should receive the attention, whether it is our family heritage, our social standing, our health, our wealth, our possessions, our professions or something else. What the Lord offers us is the Way of Life, the way of sacrifice, of love, of service—and of joy.
A GRAVE REMINDER
"No man has power over his spirit to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death." Ecclesiastes 8:8a(NIV)
Not long after my mother's death, my father, then in his late eighties, visited her grave. Although he and I together had been to the cemetery to make arrangements for his adjoining gravesite, my father was still very startled to find his headstone, though undated, already in place at the cemetery. He rocked back on his feet as, with a shocking clarity, his own mortality faced him.
All of us are mortal, but most of us live as though we have an unlimited store of tomorrows. An unexpected tragedy that touches our lives or hearts, or an experience similar to the one my father experienced, may force us to confront the idea that we have no promise of another breath, let alone another day. As Christians, we should be able to face both our lives and our deaths with the certainty born of the resurrection of our Lord and of the Lord's daily presence with us, but most of us tend to think that 'that day' is a long way in the future, as well it might be. We would come closer to following the pattern set for us by Christ if we lived each day as if it were our last, seeking to honor the Lord in all we do and say.
A RING OF REMEMBRANCE
"Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth." I John 3:18(NIV)
I have a beautiful gold wedding band that I enjoy wearing from time to time because it belonged to my great-grandmother. She died giving birth to my grandfather, but he, my father, me, my children and now my grandchildren, are evidence of the love that she and my great-grandfather had for one another. When I wear and look down at that plain, wide gold band, I am reminded of their love and the love that has come down through the generations along with the wedding ring.
There is an even longer chain of love that stretches down to us—the love of God, and it is passed from one generation to another because someone loves enough to share that message of love with another. Sometimes that love is shared verbally; many times it is shared in other ways. Although there is not a tangible ring that we wear to show that we treasure that love, the love that we show in our actions and in our words is the evidence that God's love lives within us. As we remember God's love for us, we need to respond by sharing that Love with all with whom we come in contact.
When our girls were growing up, we had lots of 'discussions' at our house about what to wear. Those days were not quite as permissive or casual as today, and so a great many of those 'discussions' centered around whether or not certain items were appropriate to wear for such and such an occasion.
Styles and standards change, but being dressed appropriately for the occasion can still affect how comfortable we are at various places. Being over or under dressed can make us feel out of place or even put us in danger.
Some people have an almost innate sense of style. Others of us have to work harder at trying to choose just the right item of clothing. Some of us simply don't care and wear the first thing that comes to hand. What is appropriate for one person may well be too much or too little to the next one. And what was appropriate for our grandmothers seems out of step with today. It isn't always easy to be dressed just right.
As Christians, we have been given a set of instructions to enable us to always be appropriately 'dressed': "So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it." Colossians 3:12-14(The Message)
BUT I DON'T KNOW WHERE I WANT TO GO
"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths." Prov. 3:6 (KJ)
I was standing in a crowded store with a check-out line that snaked through the browsing area and completely blocked one shopper. Several of us noticed her plight as she looked this way and that. We offered to shift so that she could get past us to another area of the store, but she shook her head and said, "Thanks, but I don't know where I want to go."
We smiled and chuckled at her dilemma, for she realized that if she didn't know where she wanted to go, there was no way she was going to make any progress. Many of us spend much of our time trapped in the corners of life by circumstances or other people, fruitlessly looking around wishing we were somewhere else or doing something different. When we spend time with the Lord, we are given a sense of purpose. When we acknowledge God in all that we do, we will be led out of the maze to a place of service and joy.
"Cataracts blind me to God and good." Psalm 38:10a(TM)
Vision problems, such as cataracts, can interfere with our ability to see clearly where we are going and what is around us physically. We are fortunate that many of these vision problems can be corrected surgically so that vision is restored, or at least, improved.
Spiritually we can have visual problems that impede our seeing the needs around us: selfishness, pride, prejudice, and/or lack of concern. We need to go to the Master Physician and ask to have the spiritual cataracts removed from our eyes (with all that such surgery entails—cutting, reshaping, etc.), to be forgiven and to be sensitized to the ways in which we can be of service to the Lord by meeting the needs of those with whom we come in contact.
CHILI DOG, ALL THE WAY!
"…but if any man [or woman] be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, him [or her] He heareth." John 9:31b(KJ)
We drive fairly often through Atlanta and if we are anywhere in the vicinity of the famous local restaurant called the Varsity, our car seems to take matters into its own hands and pulls into the parking lot. My husband has a standard order in response to the server's familiar query, "What'll ya have?": "two chili dogs, all the way, with extra onions." I can get heartburn just listening to him say the words, but my husband is salivating with anticipation. The idea of having that food as a special treat would never occur to me.
Worship styles are much like that. What to one person is uplifting and worshipful is sacrilege to the next person. What blesses me may bore one of my neighbors and horrify another. The hymn that speaks to me of God's love and majesty may be something strange and foreign to the person standing next to me, and the sermon that puts me to sleep, not literally, I hope, may speak directly to my companion's need.
Our taste in worship styles may differ, but our need for the nourishment of worship is constant and various. May we learn to celebrate our distinctiveness and cherish the love for God that unifies us even in our differences.
Have you ever sat in a drive-through lane, waiting impatiently for your food to be delivered, and thought about how much of our lives revolves around instant gratification? No matter how quickly our food is delivered, we generally think it didn't happen as quickly as it should have; we are irritated by slow traffic, slow mail delivery, slow internet access, slow downloads of web sites, slow growth of savings accounts. In other words, we want everything and we want it RIGHT NOW!
Many of us treat our Lord in the same fashion. If our prayers are not answered instantly and in exactly the way we envision the answer should be, we assume the Lord either hasn't answered or doesn't care, not realizing that "No" and "Wait a while" are valid answers to our petitions. Instead of offering ourselves to God, we demand that our needs and wants be satisfied immediately. "Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name" (Matthew 6:9[KJ]) may sound fine in church, but the rest of the time we say, "Here's my order…" Our relationship with the Lord needs to be a lifetime walk, not a quick spin for fries and a soft drink.
FOR PETE'S SAKE
"The way we know we've been transferred from death to life is that we love our brothers and sisters." I John 3:14(TM)
We were recently with a young man, I'll call him Pete, who had just graduated from high school. His is a dysfunctional family: both parents divorced and remarried, one set of grandparents divorced and not speaking to one another. But for his high school graduation, they had all come together in peace and harmony to rejoice with him. There was no acrimony, no tense stand-off, because they all love 'Pete.'
We, as members of the family of God, ought to love one another because of the love we have for our Lord. Even though we don't always agree on theology or church methodology, we have an over-riding reason to love one another. Just as 'Pete's' family came together for his sake and their love of him, we, too, need to fellowship, worship, witness and serve in love for the Lord's sake.
My mother's Bible—what a treasure my father had given me! Tears came to my eyes, as they did so easily when I thought of my mother as she lay that day in a nursing home, motionless, unable to communicate or to care for herself in any way. Alzheimer's Disease had robbed her of her mind, her personality, her spirit—everything that made her a person, except her body. All that made her vital and alive had been stripped away.
The capable woman who had loved the book before me was long gone. The hands that had prayerfully turned its pages could no longer perform a useful function. Mother would not again organize a conference, lead a study, entertain graciously, or demonstrate her love for others. The disease struck in her late fifties and for almost 20 years she lingered, with no recognition in her eyes and no apparent response to any stimulus.
As I sat that day and thumbed through her Bible, notations caught my eye. One of them was at the end of the 23rd Psalm, where several words were underlined: "Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life," and a note said, "God's bloodhounds." Those words haunted me. Although Mother's physical needs were well-provided for, the goodness and mercy of God appeared very distant. The promise that she had claimed seemed empty and hollow.
That evening, as I prayed, I thought again of the familiar words. Suddenly I realized that the words to the Psalm did not say that goodness and mercy would be WITH us all the time, the words read: SHALL FOLLOW. When I had access to a concordance, I checked the meaning of the words, and the idea of God's bloodhounds was reinforced. The Hebrew words mean to hunt, to chase down. Pictures entered my mind of hounds tracking down a quarry. Sometimes they were nipping right at the heels of the ones being pursued; frequently the dogs were out of sight or some distance away, but always the relentless pursuit continued. Once the dogs had the scent, they would not be deterred in the chase.
My mother, who loved and served the Lord as long as she was able, was still being followed by God's goodness and mercy. Until the Lord took her home, those bloodhounds followed her; they tracked her all the days of her life.
GOD'S WORK OF ART
"We are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning He had meant us to live it." Ephesians 2:10(JB)
Recently we were fortunate enough to spend some time with a friend we had not seen in several years. In those intervening years, she has taken up water colors and paints small, exquisite landscapes that she sells in a gallery near her home. As we admired her work, I thought about a work of art and what makes it special. There are many different art media, many styles within each of those media, and appropriate applications for appreciation of the various media. Those reflections reminded me of the above verse in Ephesians and I was moved again to realize that we are God's works of art.
Most of us think of ourselves in terms of being too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, not talented enough to do this or that, not having enough time or energy or money to accomplish whatever. Instead we need to realize that God has made us just exactly the way we need to be in order to accomplish the task the Lord has for us to do. Each of us is unique because each of us has a different purpose. God didn't make me like you because my task is not the same as yours. Our responsibility is to be grateful for the way we have been made, and then to put the talents and gifts with which we have been equipped into God's hands for service.
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Philippians1:21(NIV)
My husband's dear mother used to talk about being 'journey proud' when she was almost ready to leave on a trip. Her bags were packed, her plans were made, all of the things that she needed to do to leave the house were finished; she was ready! She was so excited about where she was going and what she was going to do that she could hardly contain herself. Her excitement was contagious; even if we were not going on a trip right then, we caught her enthusiasm.
All of us are only here on earth for a finite number of years—we will each embark at some point on a journey to eternity. Those of us who love the Lord should be 'journey proud' about our impending trip to heaven. There should be a contagious enthusiasm about us that communicates to others our anticipation of the joy of spending our 'forever-after' in the presence of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. None of us knows when or how we will leave on that final journey, whether it will be tomorrow or years down the road, but we can all be prepared so that we can face that day without fear.
LOST IN A CROWD
The Tokyo train station was crowded as we tried to make our way from one railroad line to another. The signs, written both in Japanese characters and in Roman letters, were overhead and we attempted to follow them through the convoluted, jam-packed terminal, dragging our luggage behind. Suddenly we realized that we had somehow missed a turn—there were no signs that mentioned the line we needed. Going straight ahead meant exiting and we knew that was not what we wanted to do. We tried stopping people, asking them if they spoke English. Often they nodded, but either could not understand us or pointed us in the wrong direction. After a number of false starts we were able to back-track until we found the turn we had missed and make it to the correct spot in time to catch our train.
Many people cross our paths each day who are as lost as we were that day. They may not speak the language of faith, they may be encumbered with heavy baggage, or they may have been on the right path and then missed a turn. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will make us sensitive to the needs of those to whom we can give direction—to point them to the Lord above who is "…the Way, the Truth and the Life." (John 14:6[KJ])
In the restaurant critic's account of his experience at an expensive "in" place, he mentioned complaining about a particular item of food to the waiter, who, mistaking him for someone who did not know of what he was speaking, dismissed the complaint. I expect the management of the establishment confronted a rather chagrined waiter with the newspaper review and reminded him that each and every diner should be treated with the same courtesy and respect as if he or she were the dining critic. If not, then I don't expect the restaurant will be around to be reviewed again.
We, too, are often guilty of mistaking some of God's children for persons who are beneath our notice, or of dismissing someone's questions as not worth our attention. If we are to be faithful to our calling, we need to be mindful to treat all of God's children as if they were very special (as indeed they are), as if they were of royal lineage…sons and daughters of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When called to account for our behavior before that King, He will say to us, "whatever you did (or did not do) for one of the least of these, you did (or did not do) for me." (Matthew 25:40, [45 ][NIV])
OOHS AND AHS
"All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge." Prov. 8:8 ,9(NIV)
Our youngest daughter has recently become a quilter, so at gift-giving times, many of us have been the recipients of her lovely handiwork. Several times I have been privileged to receive a sneak peek at the quilts before they are wrapped and presented, so I already know how pretty they are and can anticipate the pleasure of the recipients. Twice recently when presents have been unwrapped, the underside, or backing, has been what has come into view, and everybody has oohed and ahed about how neat they are— and they hadn't even seen the special part!
The appreciation for the backside of our daughter's quilts makes me think of how much beauty and joy are a part of our lives here on earth, and how blessed we are to enjoy so much of what God has created for us. Sometimes we forget that our lives here on earth are the backsides of the quilts—we haven't even seen the special part. For now, only the Lord knows what the beauty of the top of the quilt is like, but we can trust that if the backside holds so much of wonder and joy, albeit mixed with heartache and distress, that the loveliness of the pattern and colors on the top will be—heavenly!
PAYING THE PRICE
I have spent most of my adult life either gaining or trying to lose weight. The older I get, the less success I seem to have in losing. Once I lost a large amount of weight and vowed to stay slender for the rest of my life, but unfortunately, all that weight was gained back. For me, what works best is not eating until I am hungry, and stopping when I am full. But knowing what to do and sticking to the resolve are two different things. I know that when I eat that extra helping or too much of that delicious dessert that there will be a price to be paid—in pounds! And, no matter how sorry I am afterwards that I consumed too much food, the fact is that I did and those calories and fat grams are now in my body—not easily counteracted.
Sin is much like that. Most of us know what we are supposed to do or not do. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what is pleasing to God and what is not. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to resist temptation. We also know the wonderful promise that when we sin, we can confess that sin, and God "is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I John 1:9[NIV]) But what we often fail to acknowledge is that sin has consequences that, although forgiven, cannot be undone, much like the calories in that extra slice of pound cake that I ate. How much better to resist the temptation in the first place than to try to undo the damage caused by our disobedience.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
One of my pastimes is to work puzzles and to play games, both on the computer and with paper and pencil. I enjoy pondering a conundrum and then suddenly having the light dawn as a solution comes to mind. One of my daughters, who, though now a professor, has spent a great deal of time working with children, gets some of her most rewarding moments when what she calls the 'great ahha' occurs. Most of us like to have our questions answered, whether they be insignificant or profound.
As I write this, our nation is still in shock over the terrorism attack on September 11, 2001. But there are many other horrors in our lives: a young life cut short by a careless driver, a beloved family member destroyed by Alzheimer's Disease, a covenant broken, and the list goes on and on. Violence and tragedy are part of all of our lives. Many questions hover in our minds, some of them spoken and some of them breathed or shouted in prayer. These questions have no answers. There is no 'great ahha' moment in response to these things. For me there is only trust—trust in the God of heaven Who loves me and gave His life for me.
"Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don't try to figure out everything on your own." Proverbs 3:5(The Message)
"Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life." Philippians 4:6 ,7(TM)
A friend pointed out that if you spell the word 'stressed' backwards, you get the word 'desserts' (though some of us are certainly stressed because we have eaten too many desserts). Perhaps if we could learn to look for something positive in the many stressful situations we encounter, we could find some 'dessert' in the more difficult times of our lives. For instance, if we could learn to pray for the person who cuts us off in traffic, our blood pressure might stay at a healthier level.
When the children are bickering back and forth about something or other, when we have had a disagreement with our spouse, when things are out of control at work or church, then we can ask the Lord to show us a positive response, a glimmer of hope, or a fresh insight into a problem. Or perhaps we can learn, in those complicated times, to lift words of praise to the One who has promised to be with us in everything. Even though the situation may still be difficult, our attitude will begin to change, and that sweet taste will help to ease the stress.
THE RULES OF GRAMMAR
"The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." Psalm 19:7b(KJ)
Many of the papers that came in from my professor husband's students were filled with atrocious spelling and grammar errors. Some of his students knew better and had just not taken the time to double-check their papers. Others had never learned the rules of grammar. I am very fortunate that good grammar has always been very easy for me. I grew up hearing formal English spoken, so when I encountered grammar lessons in school, I was just learning a framework in which to place what already sounded normal to me. As a former English teacher, I know that not everyone is in the same boat and I also know that the rules of grammar change as people use (and abuse) our language. In, addition, many people struggle to express their thoughts in ways that are grammatically acceptable to their teacher or professor.
Those of us who grew up in the 'household of faith' have heard the language of faith all of our lives. We are comfortable with the ways in which we worship, the hymns we've sung for years, and the words with which we express our faith. Others who have come more recently to trust the Lord may struggle with the symbolism with which we are quite familiar, they may stumble over the 'rules' which structure our church lives, they may puzzle over the terms we assume everyone understands. Love and sensitivity are required to bridge the gap of misunderstandings that may arise. Just as the rules of grammar are fluid and flexible, so must we be if we are to truly reach out to those the Lord brings our way.
THE TIME OF OUR LIVES
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." Colossians 3:1 ,2(NIV)
In response to a question about the time, my husband and I realized that every clock in our house, including the car clocks and our watches, was reading a slightly different time. I always set my watch, an older, wind-up model, by the bedside table clock and that's the time I live by, even if it is off by a few minutes from the clock in the kitchen or the car.
We, as believers, are told to set our lives by God's heavenly standard, even if it is not synchronized with the rest of the world's standards. We are told to love our enemies, pray for those who try to thwart what we are doing in God's name, treasure heavenly rewards instead of earthly remuneration, love the unlovely, forgive the unrepentant, and most importantly, follow Christ's example of dying to ourselves. We are to follow God's direction, synchronized with His love.