Sunday, September 24, 2017

Words coming together

Many years ago, I started to pray for joy.

I did this out of selfishness and self-defense, primarily because I was afraid to pray for patience.  I'd heard stories about praying for patience.  "If you pray for patience," everybody said, "watch out!  You will get all kinds of trials, to test your patience."

Of course I wanted to avoid trials.  So I decided never to pray for patience, but to pray for joy instead.  I didn't think there could be a downside to praying for joy.

Well.  I had a lot to learn.  I could probably write a whole series of books about everything I've learned related to this.  And that is not saying that I learned everything there is to know--I'm sure that I've only learned a small fraction of what there is to know.

So, instead of trying to tell you "everything," I'm going to distill it to a few words:







Pride is the problem.  Pride is putting yourself first, focusing on your feelings, and working hard to control your circumstances.  Pride is not so much thinking that you are better than other people, although that's what we automatically associate with pride.  Rather, pride is assuming that your perspective is correct and your feelings are very important.  Most of us do this without thinking about it; it's so automatic, it's invisible to us.  That's Satan's favorite.  He loves to keep us blinded to our sins.  Pride is a sin--a very fundamental, basic sin--that hinders our relationship with God.

Dignity is what we should have instead of pride.  Dignity means that we have an appropriate, accurate view of who we are and what is called for in our behavior.  When we have dignity, we act with respect for others and respect for ourselves--true respect, dignity, acting with grace even in difficult circumstances--because this is who we are.  And who are we?  We are children of God, created by God, redeemed by Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  Dignity knows Whose we are, and carries His banner like an ambassador.

Humility is the opposite of pride, but it is inherent in dignity.  Humility is understanding that God is sovereign, and we are not.  Humility is realizing that none of us are the center of the universe, God is.  Humility is realizing that God does not need us, but we need Him, desperately.  Humility is understanding the way we have been born mutated by sin, and in need of repair by the Master Creator of the Universe.  Humility understands that God created people to glorify Him--to love Him and to reflect His glory into the created Universe.  Humility also understands that we--created men and women--have pridefully rebelled against God, and thus failed to fulfill His purpose for us.  Thus, humility understands that we deserve nothing from God except destruction.  When something is too broken to fulfill its purpose, the normal conclusion is to throw it away.

Grace is what God gives us in place of our deserved destruction.  We cannot understand grace if we do not understand what we truly deserve.  If we assume that we deserve heaven (or even just "all the good things"), then "grace"--under that assumption--simply would mean that God is nice and comes through to provide what we thought we ought to have received anyway.  But if we understand that God had every right and every reason to crumple us up and discard us, that He could have started over with a new, unblemished creation, but instead He chose to die for us, in our place, while we were sinners, so He could purchase us back from Satan and embark on a massive restoration project, then we begin to grasp what grace means.  Grace is undeserved, by definition.

We can't understand grace if we don't have any humility.

But when, through humility, we grasp the concept of grace, we arrive at gratitude. Thanksgiving.  Gratitude.

Gratitude arises when we receive something outrageously generous, something we could never have hoped to attain or afford, outside of an intervening miracle.  We are thankful when we brush the edge of destruction and the hand of God delivers us into life, instead of death.

When we are truly thankful, to the depth of our being, in the reverberating center of our hearts, then we experience joy.  Joy comes from gratitude and thanksgiving.

Joy is the fruit that grows in a grateful heart.

A grateful heart comes from an accurate understanding of what we deserve, and what we are not entitled to.  In other words, gratitude originates in humility.

Humble people experience joy, and (sadly) prideful people cannot.  That's another one of Satan's lies: "Have pride in yourself.  You are important.  You are where the buck stops.  You can call the shots, and anybody who tries to stop you from calling the shots is a bad person.  Seize your rights!  This is how you pursue happiness!"  But it simply doesn't work that way.  Satan is a liar, and pride will never bring you more than a flashing glimmer of happiness.

Pride is the pitfall.

Dignity is the escape route.

Humility is the cousin of dignity and the key to appreciating grace, which ultimately results in gratitude.

And gratitude leads to joy.

Words coming together.

In conclusion, here is a short analysis of the result of praying for joy: You will get the pride beat out of you.  But it's a really good thing.  It's worth it.

Also, you'll find all of this in the book of Philippians, in the Bible, if you are inclined to look.  I realized this today at church, as our pastor is preaching through Philippians.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Pride and Dignity

Our culture celebrates pride.  We are supposed to be proud of ourselves, our bodies, our traditions, our ethnicity and our choices.

I think when our culture glorifies pride, the assumption is that pride means feeling good about yourself and accepting yourself.  Pride is believing in yourself.  Pride is telling yourself, "I am a good person.  I am worthy.  I am deserving."

Although there may be a surface appeal to this philosophy, the Christian in me must protest.  There is a part of me that has a knee-jerk reaction that says, "This is wrong!  This is utterly contrary to the gospel!"  And it is.


Sometimes we Christians get the gospel a little bit mixed up, too.  Because in the self-deprecating idea that we are miserable, undeserving, stinking, low-down sinners, we lose the idea of the dignity inherent in the fact that humanity was created by God, in His image.

Created by God.

In His image.

The Bible says that everything God created was good.  God created us, and pronounced us good.

Original goodness preceded original sin.  How often do we ponder that?

We were created by God, for friendship with God.  We were created out of God's love, to receive God's love.

There is dignity in that.  We truly are special.  It's not marketing puffery.  God created us.   He did good work when He made us, and He was pleased with His creation.  He pronounced us good.  There is an intrinsic goodness in us that sin can never completely erase.

Ah.  Sin.

Sin originated in pride, flowing out of those who believed in themselves rather than in God.

God created all things good.  As He went through the process of creating, He continually examined what He was making and saw that it was good.  Everything was good.

Into all this goodness, God placed a man and a woman.  Then, He saw that His creation was not only good, it was very good!

In God's good creation there was a beautiful garden, and in the garden there were many different, beautiful, fruit-bearing trees.  In the middle of the garden, God placed a tree called, "The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil."  This is the first we hear of evil.

C.S. Lewis says that there is no evil that was not first something good.  Evil does not exist independently.  It is merely a perversion of what is good.  This is why, even today after so many years of living with the consequences of sin, we are shocked and appalled when we see news stories about heinous crimes that people have committed.  God created people for good, and it bothers us when people do horrible things.  "What is wrong with people?" we ask.

Sin.  That's what is wrong with people.  Sin came into the garden when Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The irony is that they already had the knowledge of good (Colin S. Smith pointed this out, and it is true).  God told them not to eat the fruit, because He wanted them to be protected from the knowledge of evil.  The only thing God had denied them was the knowledge of evil.  Who would even want to know evil?  Satan, the deceiver, came along and gussied up evil like a flashy prostitute, to tempt them. "Your eyes will be opened if you eat this fruit," he beguiled. "You will be like God, knowing good from evil.  You won't die!"

"You will be like God," he said.  And their pride rose up in their hearts.  God had something they did not have.  God was keeping something from them.  They wanted it.  They wanted everything.  They wanted to be like God, great and powerful and wise.  How could a loving God refuse to share something with them?

"You will be like God, knowing good from evil," said Satan.

So they ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and since they already knew good, they learned about evil.  They experienced evil.  Evil grabbed hold of God's creation with a power Adam and Eve had never imagined.   Winds turned harsh.  Gentle rains turned into violent storms.  Lions started eating lambs, and bacteria began to spread diseases.

"You won't die!" promised Satan.

They did not die immediately, that day.  But they eventually died, just as God had said they would, and Satan is a liar.  Before their own deaths, they saw other deaths.  Because they were naked, God made clothing for them from animal skins, from animals that died, animals whose deaths they witnessed, animals whose deaths benefitted them.  They also saw one of their sons kill another of their sons.

They ate the forbidden fruit, and they experienced evil.  They experienced sorrow and fear and death.

Thus, the curse of sin entered creation and contaminated all of creation.  Sin and death rule our world, and every person born arrives marked with the mutation of sin.

Yet, even in the earliest beginning, God made promises: "I will cause hostility between the snake and the woman, between her offspring and the snake's.  The snake will bruise the heel of the Seed of the woman, but the Seed of the woman will crush the snake's head."

The snake would be trampled, and the curse would be undone.


Because God loves His creation, loves humanity, loves people.

God values people, and from the beginning, He planned to rescue us, to go to unfathomable lengths to redeem and restore us.  He created us good, and He has perfect plans to restore us to goodness.

Pride says, "I believe in myself.  I can live perfectly well without God.  I can figure out my own standard for good and bad."  This is a lie.  It's quite obvious.  If all of us try to figure out our own standards for good and bad, there will be millions of different standards, and nobody will agree, and everybody will fight.  Life cannot be good if we don't have a universal standard for goodness.  It is hard enough to cooperate if we have a universal standard for goodness, but it is fundamentally impossible if we don't have one.  Meanwhile, Satan slithers around in the background, gleefully whispering to each proud heart, "You are the one who is right about this.  Believe in yourself.  Nobody can tell you what's good or bad.  Nobody has the right to judge you."

Unlike pride, dignity says, "There is a true goodness that I can aspire to.  There is a good God who loves me and wants to reveal this goodness to me.  There is a quest for true goodness that I can embark upon, and God will meet me and teach me, because He loves me.  I believe in God and His good plans for creation."

Pride says, "I am a good person."

Dignity says, "The Lord loves me, and He is in the process of purifying me for His good purposes."

Pride says, "I am worthy: worthy of respect, worthy of reward."

Dignity says, "The Lord Himself has redeemed me, at the price of His own precious blood.  Although I was of little worth, He saw my potential and bought me out of slavery to sin.  I am a fixer-upper, and He is the best renovation artist ever.  In the opinion of the God of the Universe, I was worth dying for, even in my sinful state, because He knows the plans He has for me, to make me valuable in His Kingdom.  His work in my life produces beauty in me and proves my worth to Him."

Pride says, "I am deserving. I deserve all the good things.  I should have comfort, health, happiness and approval."

Dignity says, "Although I was captive to foolishness, godlessness and sin, the Lord graciously saved me and gave me hope and a future.  When I deserved to be cast aside, He drew me into His arms.  He opened my eyes to reality, brought me to my senses.  He showed me the destructive end of sin, the dire consequences I had racked up for myself.  Then He graciously pulled me up out of the slimy pit of mud and mire, and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, so I could thank Him and praise Him and experience fullness of joy.  When I deserved hell, Jesus offered me heaven."

One of the greatest ironies of life is this:  Pride, while pretending to offer you dignity, actually robs you of your dignity.

Dignity comes from understanding that we were created in the image of God, for the glory of God.  Sin has thrown some kinks into the equation, universally staining us from birth, but under God's powerful hand we can be made new and pure.  This purity comes first through the forgiveness that is possible because Jesus took the penalty that we deserved.  Yes, if you want to talk about what we deserve, we deserve permanent separation from God--in other words, hell.  But Jesus experienced hell in our place, to save us from eternal damnation.  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He cried from the cross.  He died for us, taking our punishment on His own body.  By spilling His blood for us, He has enabled us to be declared righteous before God.  Then, when He rose again, He enabled His very Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, to be poured out into our hearts.  The Holy Spirit works to purify us day by day, helping us to understand what is right and good, and empowering us to do what is right and good.  Dignity says, "I belong to the King of the Universe, and He loves me."

Pride denies God and refuses to worship Him, refuses to glorify Him, refuses to thank Him.

Dignity sees creation and gives thanks to the Creator, wondering at the mystery of His power, beauty and love.

Pride becomes darkened in its thinking, foolish and futile, fixated on defending its own wrong perspective.

Dignity sees by the illuminating light of the Holy Spirit and grows in knowledge and truth.

Pride casts aside the Creator and instead worships created things.  Eventually, pride worships mere images of created things, becoming more and more degraded as it worships increasingly worthless and harmful things.

Dignity aligns itself with the Creator and Redeemer and praises Him in gratitude, drawing worth from the Glorious One it worships.

Pride behaves in destructive, disgraceful ways that lead to shame.  Pride tries to battle shame by pretending that there is no shame, by claiming that shameful things are good, by lying.

Dignity is clothed in the righteousness of Christ, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, and transformed into the likeness of Christ.  Dignity bears the good fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Dignity walks in the power of Truth.

God offers us dignity, in place of our miserable, deadly pride.

But you, O Lord,
are a Shield about me,
my Glory,
and the Lifter of my head.
Psalm 3:3 (ESV)

Thursday, September 14, 2017


That's a bad picture, the one I put up at the top of this post.

Humility is not about posting bad pictures.  Yet, pride can be about only posting beautiful pictures, only showing what you want to show, presenting an image that only reflects the best light.  "The me I want you to see," that's pride (also, it's social media).

The Lord seems to be teaching me a lot about humility lately.  Although, by virtue of what humility is, one can never become exactly adept at it, or comfortable in it, or proficient.

What would it even look like to be proficient in humility?

One thing I've learned that humility is not: Humility is not pre-emptive self-deprecation.  A lot of us can fall into doing this, this pre-emptive self-deprecation thing.  We apologize in advance for our shortcomings, the ones we are aware of, in hopes that people will then go soft on us, understand that we already feel bad about ourselves, desist in looking deeper for further flaws, since they've already been presented with some really outstanding flaws to distract them.  Yes, I do this.  It's a self-protecting technique.  It rises out of insecurity, and it is not humility.

Humility is the opposite of pride.  Sometimes when it is hard to understand a concept, it helps to look at the thing opposite it, to determine what it is not.

Pride is believing that you are important.  This may not mean that you think you are important to the world, like a king or a queen or an army commander.  It means that inside your head, you operate under the assumption that your feelings are very important.  You may not consciously realize it, but you think that people ought to treat you as you wish to be treated, fairly and kindly and respectfully.

Unlike a proud person, a humble person does not assume that he is entitled to be treated well wherever he goes.  Instead, a humble person thinks about how he is treating other people.  He is much more attuned to whether he himself is being fair, or kind, or respectful than to how others are treating him.

It's tricky, too.  Because it becomes pride again if, while thinking about the other person's perspective, you start to focus specifically on how the other person perceives you.  It's not about your image in the other person's eyes.  It's about the other person's feelings.  You have to lose track of yourself, and be attending to other people, if you are to escape pride.

This sounds pretty good.  The idea of thinking about the needs of others, and being able to get one's eyes off one's own needs, actually sounds pretty freeing.  In fact, I'm sure it is very freeing.

But it's also stinking hard.

They have always said, "Don't pray for patience.  You'll get all kinds of experiences that test your patience."

Well.  Let me tell you.  If you pray for humility, you may find yourself having experiences that humiliate you.  Humiliate, shame and embarrass, not necessarily in that order.

Still, if God has chosen to grow you in humility, you won't escape the process by not asking for it  (that would be the proverbial you, which is to say, me).  The same holds true for patience, and any other virtue.  God will do what He needs to do.

It will probably hurt a lot.  But it will be good, profitable, worth every agony.

If Jesus emptied Himself of all His divine glory and became a human with a body of skin, bones and blood, we need to be willing to empty ourselves of our ideas of what is due us.

If Jesus humbled Himself to death on a cross, we need to be willing to make personal sacrifices and pour ourselves out for the good of others.  (Oh how difficult this is.)

If Jesus was raised and glorified following His obedience, we can have hope that our faithful God will also raise and glorify us, after we have served in obedience, and there is great joy to come in the future, certain joy that gives us strength to carry on.

In humility.

This post is based on Philippians 2:1-11 and Hebrews 12:1-3.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

My new favorite Bible story

Back in the day, when I taught Bible study, I remember how my ladies used to laugh at me, because I was always saying, "This is my favorite Bible story!" or "This is my favorite scripture!"

Some of my favorites include:

  • Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-50)
  • Gideon (Judges 6-7)
  • David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17)
  • Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18)
  • How Jehosheba saved the line of David by saving baby Joash (2 Kings 11, 2 Chronicles 22:10-23:21)
  • Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3)
  • Esther (book of Esther)
  • Jesus raises a widow's son (Luke 7:11-17)
  • Jesus heals a sick woman and raises Jairus' daughter (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56)
  • The risen Jesus appears to Mary in the garden (John 20:10-18)
  • Jesus cooks breakfast for his disciples, after rising from the dead (John 21:1-14)
  • Jesus explains the Old Testament, incognito (Luke 24:13-35)
  • Peter escapes from prison (Acts 12:1-19)
  • Paul and Silas triumphantly get out of prison (Acts 16:16-40)
  • Psalms 27, 33, 37, 46, 57, 63, 73, 84, 86, 90, 91, 92, 103, 104, 111, 115, 121, 131, 139, 145
  • Isaiah 40, 53, 55
  • Jeremiah 31
  • Ezekiel 36
  • Hosea 14
  • Romans 5, 8, 12
  • Ephesians 1:1-2:10
  • Philippians 4 (or really all of Philippians)
  • Revelation 21-22

Well, that's not exhaustive, but I'll just stop.  (Although I'd invite you to read through those!)

You get the idea.  I have a lot of favorite parts of the Bible.

One of the greatest things about the Bible is that you always find new things in it, no matter how many times you reread it.

In my last post, I wrote about new things I'd seen in the parable of the Sower, how the Lord continually plants and replants His seeds of truth and righteousness in the hearts of men.  When the seeds don't germinate, He reworks the soil of the heart, plowing, tilling, preparing, making ready.  He patiently persists, knowing that every part of His process is valuable and important.

Still carrying these thoughts in my mind, I forged ahead in the book of Mark, and came across my new "favorite" story:

     They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.  He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village.  When he had spit on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, "Do you see anything?" He looked up and said, "I see people; they look like trees walking around." Once more, Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes.  Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.  Jesus sent him home saying, "Don't go into the village."   (Mark 8:22-26 NIV)

It is always beautiful and exciting when we read about Jesus doing a miracle of healing.  Jesus is our Healer, the Great Physician.  He knows how to fix the bodies He created.  I love to meditate on His healing power.

But I promised to tell you about the new things I saw today.  Here we go:

 . . . some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. . . (Mark 8:22 NIV)

Some people brought a blind man and begged.  This reminds me of a post I wrote some time ago, about some friends who carried a paralyzed man on a mat to Jesus for healing.  In both cases, we know nothing about the infirm person, except that he had a serious infirmity.  Was he willing and cooperative as his friends brought him to the healer?  Was he too lost in his malady to either cooperate or resist?  We don't know.  What we do know: People who loved him brought him to Jesus.  People who loved him begged Jesus to help.

Our intercessory prayers matter.  They make a difference.  This man did not ask for healing.  His friends asked for healing for him.  We can do the same for our friends.  We can ask for their physical healing, but we can also ask for their spiritual healing.  Our compassionate Lord heals people in every way.  He has special concern for those who are spiritually blind and cannot see or accept the saving truth that He offers.  We can bring these precious, blind souls into the presence of the Lord and beg for mercy and healing.

Additionally, these people begged Jesus to touch their blind friend.  Why did they want Jesus to touch him?  Jesus could heal with a word, or even a mere thought.  Jesus could even command a healing from a distance.  However, the people asked Jesus to touch the man.

Let's consider Jesus' response to this request.  Did He touch the man?  Well, first it says that Jesus "took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village."  There is the first touch: gentle leading, by the hand, to a new place.  Then, when they arrived at Jesus' chosen location, Jesus spit on the man's eyes.  How extraordinary.  Jesus actually bestowed some of His own bodily fluids on the man's eyes.  He did not need to do this; it was a strange grace.  I imagine that to the man, it felt something like eyedrops.  I imagine that the saliva of God is a holy, healing, soothing substance.  Jesus spit on the man's eyes, and the Bible also says that Jesus touched him.  In effect, we have three touches here: the leading by the hand, the soothing drops of saliva, and the deliberate laying on of hands.  Jesus responded by doing what the people asked of Him, and more.

Then a pause occurred.  Jesus asked the man if he could see anything.  The man gave an odd reply, indicating that he could see somewhat, but that his eyes were not completely right: "I see people, but they look like trees."

This reminds me of the post I recently wrote about a sunrise that sort of didn't happen.  Of course, it did happen; the sun always rises.  But that day, we didn't see the sun come up.  We waited and watched, but we didn't see it happen.  Nevertheless, daylight came, and we enjoyed a new day.  In my new favorite  Bible story, Jesus graciously administered abundant healing touches on the blind man, but the result was not immediately complete.

Here was a chance for faith to rally.  Sometimes God delays a result to keep us focused and dependant on Him.  Sometimes God chooses to display His persevering power, rather than His perfectly instant power.  Perhaps He wants us to see how He perseveres, so we will be encouraged to persevere as well.

Once more, Jesus put His hands on the man's eyes.  Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.  (Mark 8:25 NIV)

I find this incredibly encouraging, because Jesus kept on working with the man until his sight was restored.  Jesus didn't say, "Oh well, good enough.  You were blind, and now you can see some stuff.  What do you want, anyway?"  Instead, Jesus put His hands on the man's eyes yet one more time, patiently, persistently, lovingly, expectantly.  Jesus finished the job.

Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on until completion until the day of Christ Jesus.    (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

Jesus responds to intercessory prayers, our requests for the ones we love.  Jesus is not stingy in His responses: He goes above and beyond what we ask for, although it may come in a strange and unexpected form, like spit.  Above all, Jesus carries on until completion and gets the job done.

Jesus gets the job done.

Thank you, Jesus, 
that I can trust you because you are faithful and good.
Your will be done.
I look forward to seeing what wonderful things you will do.  
I thank you for the wonderful things you will do.
Thank you that you are totally faithful, good, wise and powerful.
You can and will get the job done perfectly.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Soil, rototillers, and hearts

Shawn and I have been trying to figure out how to tame the yard at this house, ever since we moved in four years ago.

The day we got to Illinois and, for the first time, laid eyes on the home that was destined to be ours, we arrived at our new address ahead of the realtor.  Thus, we were locked out.  So, we walked around the yard, and I held back tears.  The weeds in the landscaping towered over our heads.  The former owners had left two pots of red geraniums, and some white petunias planted by the front walk.  But beyond that, everything was overgrown and weedy, entirely unkempt.  We were looking at literally thousands of unforeseen dollars in landscape projects, were we to hire it done.

We've discovered that hiring a mowing service is more reasonable than hiring landscapers.  So this summer, we've been paying Luis to mow, and we use our evenings and weekends to landscape.

We also bought a rototiller.

We finally tamed the lower tier of this garden.  When we arrived in 2013, it boasted a solid, formidable crop of weeds, although the following spring a few peonies surfaced here and there.  This mystified me, as peonies need full sun, and this garden is in full shade.  We moved the peonies to slightly sunnier spots at the end of that season.

We have used the bed as a catching spot for all the leaves that continue to fall after the last leaf pick-up date each autumn.  Our soil is fairly heavy clay, so I figured any humus we could glean from decaying leaves would make it loamier.

Shawn turned the soil with a shovel a number of times.

At one point, we sprinkled a package of wildflower shade mix over the bed.  It came up in bursts of flowers and weeds, hopelessly entangled together.  At that point, there was no path through the bed, so pulling weeds was well nigh impossible.  Midsummer brought a lusty crop of volunteer maple trees, offspring from a profusion of maple seeds that had fallen in May.  At least it was green?

We piled more fall leaves, and turned the bed again the next spring.

This spring, we bought the aforementioned rototiller.  After turning the bed again, with a shovel, Shawn rototilled it two or three times.

And then, finally, we placed stones for a path.  This is the key.  You must be able to access your garden if you are going to be able to care for it.  After we got the stone path in, we planted a thoughtfully selected group of plants that should survive with minimal sun.  We dug, sprinkled bone marrow into the holes, placed the plants, patted them in with backfill, watered and mulched.
Voila!  A garden.

It's doing pretty well.

At the very back of our yard, bordering on an intermittent stream that runs through a culvert and down into our lake, this garden may not look impressive.  You have to understand what it was like before.  Layers of weeds, roots and rocks had stubbornly embedded themselves in layers of petrified landscape fabric.  I worried that Shawn might give himself a heart attack, pulling, yanking, tearing, slicing, digging and removing all the unsavory growth and debris.

Again, the rototiller saved the day.

Shawn rototilled numerous times, breaking up chunks of soil, sifting up roots and stems, chopping, lifting, filtering out detritus.  Our next door neighbor sauntered past and remarked, "Now that's work."

Eventually, we achieved hospitable soil, so we planted ajuga in the front row, daylilies in the middle, and black-eyed Susans along the back: tough, hardy, shade-tolerant plants.  We didn't mulch, so I go out and hoe every now and again.  Hoeing isn't so bad, if you don't wait too long between times.

I write about this because I came across the parable of The Sower in my Bible reading again the other day.  This time I was in Mark.

In case you are not familiar, the parable of the sower tells about a farmer who went out to plant his seed.  Some fell on the hard road, and birds came and ate it up.  Some fell among rocks, where there wasn't much soil--it grew quickly, but almost immediately withered under the scorching sun, lacking deep roots.  Some fell among weeds and thorns, and was choked out by the competition.  And some of the farmer's seed fell on good soil, where it grew to produce an abundant crop.

I've always read that parable and worried about what kinds of soil people might be, people with whom I try to share the truth about Jesus.  "Hard soil" that rejects out of hand?  "Rocky soil" that responds but quickly burns out, lacking deep commitment?  "Weedy soil" that produces some growth, but the growth is choked by competition, and fails to thrive or produce a crop?  What if I, myself, am rocky soil?  Will my faith fizzle under duress and be lost?

However, in working on our gardens this summer, I realized something:  Soil can be improved.  Farmers go out in their fields in the spring and pick rocks.  Laborers work hard, pulling weeds or chopping them with hoes.  Plows traverse the rows of a field, furrowing, disking the soil, breaking it up, preparing it to receive the seed.

In the case of our lower terraced garden, we planted it a number of times, reworking it between plantings, before we achieved a desirable result.  We kept at it, persevered.  Now we have pretty plants growing there, but we still have to go out regularly and weed.  We even installed a path so we can do this maintaining work!

Here's the transferable truth:  God doesn't only sow the seeds of His Truth one time.  The sowing goes on and on.  If the seed doesn't germinate, God may go back and do more work on the soil of a man's heart, preparing the ground for the next planting season.

This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and Jerusalem: "Plow up the hard ground of your hearts!  Do not waste your good seed among thorns."      ~Jeremiah 4:3 (NLT)

I'm not entirely sure, but I think the idea of breaking up unplowed ground and pulling weeds, applied metaphorically to the human heart, could indicate a painful process.  I'm not talking about the exertion experienced by the one who plows.  I'm talking about the pain experienced by the heart that is plowed.  Perhaps this is one reason why we should rejoice in suffering.  It is the preparatory work before the planting of truth, truth that will grow into abundant spiritual fruit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control--beautiful characteristics that adorn the life of a believer.

I said, "Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love.  Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you."     ~Hosea 10:12 (NLT)

Our merciful God desires to save.  Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).  The world was already condemned, but Jesus came, the great Rescuer, to bring life and hope.  The seeds of the Word are as infinite as Christ Himself; there is no end to God's supply of truth and life.  Jesus will not make one half-hearted effort to toss out the offer of salvation, and then abandon all those who were too damaged to receive it.  Jesus is zealous for the salvation of humanity.

Truth doesn't change, but hearts change.  Soil can be turned, crumbled, refined, enriched.  Praise God, even the rockiest of hearts can be plowed up and replanted!

Pray that the Lord will work miraculously in the hearts of those who need to receive His seed of truth.  Pray that God will supernaturally enable these souls to undergo productive heart-plowing, surrendering to the holy work of His perfect hands.  Pray that we who believe will be brave when our own hearts are plowed, and full of compassion and wisdom when others experience deep work in their hearts.

"And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you.  I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart."  ~Ezekiel 36:26 (NLT)

We've lived here for four years, but we never made much progress on the landscaping, until we bought a rototiller.

(End note:  I never explored the significance of the metaphors of paths and hoes, but these are also very important.  I invite you to think it through on your own.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Parenting with no guarantees

Recently I watched an online video called, "Gospel Parenting," by one of the Tripp brothers. (Confession: I don't know the difference between the Tripp brothers.)  It was really good.  Really good.  I agree with him 100%. (Confession: I only watched half, because it was incredibly painful.)

Why would a person watch parenting videos, after it's over, after it's too late?

Oh, the guilt.

Oh, the regrets.

I tried, I really did.  I loved my children wholeheartedly, and still do.  More than anything, I wanted them to grow up loving and serving Jesus.  I also wanted to get some sleep sometimes, and to have a reasonably clean, organized home.  I also wanted peace within family relationships: obedience, and siblings who did not fight with each other.  Wanting these things--rest, order, peace--sometimes resulted in selfish parenting, parenting from a heart that was personally unhappy with the way things were, rather than because I was trying to teach my children about the grace of God through Christ.

Mr. Tripp speaks about this other kind of parenting: parenting the heart, intentionally, with an emphasis on grace and redemption.  I actually tried to do this.  I read some Tripp books before it was "too late."  I tried to learn and implement grace in the way I related to my children, but I wasn't very good at it.

I messed up.  A lot.

And yet, I still hold out hope.

Because it isn't about me.  Even if I had been a perfect parent, which is an unfeasible goal, there would be no guarantee.  Because we do not save our children.  Jesus saves our children.  We can try to parent a heart ("Shepherd your child's heart," Mr. Tripp teaches) -- but it is only God who can change hearts.  Only the Father can draw a soul into His eternal kingdom.  Praise God, it depends on Him and not on me.

This is not to excuse mistakes and failures, but it is to hold out hope.  We have an almighty, sovereign God who loves the world (John 3:16) and desires that everyone would understand the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  If God is for us, who can stand against us (Romans 8:31). . . or against the children we love?

There is a thing.  I'm sure I used to fall into it myself.  It's this thing where we look around at the people with the prodigal sons and daughters, and we analyze what they did wrong, so we can be sure we don't do that.

We bring all these charges:
They let their kids eat too much sugar.
They let their kids watch too much TV.
They don't monitor what their kids are doing on the computer.
They don't let their kids get dirty.
They hover over their kids.
They don't pay enough attention to their kids.
They put their kids into too many extracurricular activities.
They work all the time, and don't do anything with their kids.
They don't have family devotions.
They make family devotions long and boring.
They spank.
They don't spank.
They punish for irrational things.
They are angry all the time.
They don't explain consequences clearly.
They think their kids are always right.
They don't follow through with what they say they will do.
They skip church.
They buy their kids everything they want.
They get their kids out of trouble when they should let them learn a lesson.
They let their kids take their phones to bed.
--And on and on and on--

It's a litany of explanations for parental failure.  We analyze and evaluate, and then we determine that we will not fall into any of those errors, so we will be assured that our children will grow up to be smart, beautiful, God-fearing, productive citizens with good jobs, who will always have the best of relationships with us, because we have parented so effectively.

But there is no guarantee.  No guarantee.

I've been on both sides: the side of self-righteous judgment of other parents, and the side of spectacular failure of my own.  (I am sure, under the sovereign rule of God, that this is no accident.)

It's the sin of Job's friends.  Job's friends looked at Job's suffering, and they were horrified to see his pain.  This is how their minds processed it:  "Job is suffering terribly.  I am not suffering the way Job is suffering.  I do not want to suffer the way Job is suffering.  Clearly, Job is being punished for a grievous sin.  I will not commit a grievous sin, because I do not want to experience such horrible suffering.  I will exhort Job to confess his sin and repent of it, so that God can end his suffering."

Do you see?  Do you see the parallel?

We want to know how we can control outcomes, so we look at other people's misfortunes, and we determine that we will not make the mistakes they made that got them there.  Like Job's friends, we want to consider the parents of rebellious children and assure ourselves that we have not made the mistakes that landed them in their predicament.

Job said again and again that he was blameless, that he had not sinned.  We know absolutely that he was not a sinless man, because all men are sinful.  There is no-one who is righteous apart from the grace of God.  Job was not implying that he was a perfect person.  What he meant was, "I've not done anything in particular that God is trying to teach me not to do.  I've not sinned more--and, in fact, I've possibly sinned less--than you, my friends."

This made his friends crazy.  Why?  Because they wanted to be able to know that they were exempt from the risk of going through what Job was going through.

As parents, we want to know that we have done all the things to make us exempt from going through what the parents of prodigals go through.

But there are no guarantees.  It isn't about our performance as parents.  There is no legalistic formula that parents can follow to get perfect kids.

Now, there is value in learning from other people's mistakes.  Certainly.  Similarly, we cannot take the truth that, "There are no guarantees," and use it as justification for not trying to do our best.  We have to try to teach and influence to the best of our ability, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes we will do well, and sometimes we will falter, and regardless of our performance, outcomes will vary.  But we have to strive--with God's help--to discern a good path and walk it, because our actions are what we, personally, are accountable to God for.  We are accountable for our actions, not the outcomes of our actions.

If we love our children and faithfully do our best to shepherd them, repenting of our errors and asking for forgiveness, God will be glorified in our efforts, regardless of how our children turn out.

If we parent selfishly and badly, and are unrepentant about our shortfallings, then that is on us.  Even if our children turn out well, growing up to love and serve the Lord, their success does not vindicate us.

I don't know anything.  What I thought I knew, I suspect was not right--at least, not entirely.  I know I was sometimes harsh when I should have been gentle, and I sometimes caved in when I should have stood fast.  At times, I cried when I should have laughed, and I despaired when I should have trusted in the Lord.  I also loved my children deeply, worked hard, poured out as much as I could, and seriously prioritized their needs.  I made intentional efforts to teach them about Jesus and to get them involved in places where they would be encouraged in the faith by others.  I prayed without ceasing.  I tried hard, and sometimes I still fell flat on my face.

All the advice I have at this point is based on what I wish I had done better:

  • Be gentle and kind.  Encourage.
  • Learn and model humility.  
  • Remember how much Jesus has forgiven me, and extend that same grace.  
  • Always hope, because God is faithful and good.  
  • Be thankful, and let thankfulness overflow in observable joy.  
  • Thank God for the future.
  • Trust God, because everything is in His hands.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What's the matter?

People are hurting.

This world is a savage place, ripping souls and sending them forth to hemorrhage all over other broken hearts.

Children are cruel.  Youths are ruthless.

Adults may be better at hiding their daggers, while still using them.

Sometimes I just want to scream, "What is wrong with people?"  Why do families prey on their own offspring?  Why do children turn on their own parents?

We see it, you know, when a father pimps out his daughter, or a mother steals her child's psych medicine for her own recreation.  The gross selfishness is repulsive, nauseating.  The perverted personal indulgences make us cringe and gag.  We see it so clearly in the microcosm of a small family system.  We are horrified when a 20-year-old college student, whose father died in a tragic accident years earlier, goes home from school one day and kills his mother with a knife.

But on the larger scale, we all belong to the family of humanity, yet we prey on one another in ways we never even consider, those of us who think we are good, who still live selfishly: grabbing, hoarding, amassing, gloating, flaunting, rationalizing.

It isn't safe to live unselfishly.  It is reckless to give away our treasure to those who will not treasure it, who will use it for a short time, and then cast it on the rubbish heap.  Us and them, and we're all so flawed, so wounded, so selfish and afraid.

Yet, there is beauty.  God does not leave us without a remnant of His beauty.

Venus, the morning star, shining radiantly before
crescendoing birdsong,
dewy grass,
newly opened flowers,
blue sky,
cumulus clouds (glorious creamy dollops),
clean air,
shadows and dappled light,
forests of grand, quiet trees,
river stones,
the warmth of a young dog,
tiny eggs in a nest,
golden honey,
ripe fruit,
refreshing waterfalls,
snowy mountains,
vast oceans,
solar eclipses.

No wonder it's healing to escape into nature.  Immerse yourself in God's creation. He will heal you there, away from humanity and its byproducts, be they factories, fast food wrappers blowing down the street, or fractured bones from a domestic dispute.

Watch a butterfly on a coneflower and let the Lord restore your soul.

There is no answer in fretting, in anger, in taking offense, in being offended.

The most egregious aggressors harbor the most deeply damaged souls.

The only answer is to hold out grace, to give at great cost, to make ridiculous sacrifices.

The only answer is to do what Jesus did for us, and lay down our lives for others.

But it's terrifying, full of risk.  It will hurt.  They might not appreciate our gifts.

No.  They might not appreciate us.  In fact, they probably won't.

But they might, and if they do, it will make the world a different, better place.  A place of grace, which is the only way.

They might not appreciate us, but Jesus appreciates every cup of cold water offered in His name.  He is the one we serve.

We serve the gracious one.  He sees, and He loves us.

If God is for us, who can stand against us?

Dear Lord, please pour your Holy Spirit into us so we can spread your grace throughout the world.  Fill us.  Overflow from us.  Teach us how to heal by the power of your love.

Your kingdom come, your will be done.