Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Defining stress

I tend to think of stress as a weakness.  Not only that, I think of stress as something that is in the head, something brought on by the sufferer.  It is a punishment, I assume, for being weak-minded and less of a person than other people, less able to stand up with grace in adversity.

Recently we put some plants into one of our gardens.  Here we are nearing the end of July, and on one of the very hottest Saturdays of the year, Shawn and I got up early, before the brunt of the heat, and planted three new hydrangeas that we found on clearance at Lowe's the previous evening.

Usually it seems that plants which have suffered neglect in the garden center at a big-chain-home-improvement-store must be tough.  Those that are still around, sitting on the clearance shelf as summer passes its peak, they have some survival power.  A plant purchased in early May, fresh from the greenhouse, preened and pruned and portioned with plenty of fertilizer to produce a burst of blossoms, this plant can do nothing but go downhill in my garden.  In my garden, it will have to gut out its existence in average soil, and compete for sun, and probably not be watered quite often enough.  But if I get a struggling survivor and release it from its pot, massage its cramped roots out of the root ball, give it a spot of its own with some sun and moisture, then it might actually thrive.

We planted these three hydrangeas around the water meter, because then if they get big, they will provide a screen around something unsightly.  That's my plan, my hope.



We planted them, and then we planted two other little plants I'd found: ajuga, I think they are called, but I am unfamiliar with the species.  As we worked, I decided I wanted to move some coral bells, dividing and spreading them around.  We worked as fast as we could, on the west side of the house while the sun was in the east and we had some shade.

Honestly, Shawn worked, and I stood by, determining where I wanted to position the holes, reaching in to arrange some dirt around some roots, showing Shawn with my hands where I wanted to divide the coral bells, feeling among the stems and leaves for spaces.  He worked hard, scooping roots from the earth, shoveling dirt and sweating, droplets of fluid dripping off his face.  I got surprisingly filthy for how little work I actually did.  After we placed all the plants into the ground, Shawn went around to the garage and retrieved a few bags of mulch, which he carried to the garden, split open and dumped out.  I spread the mulch around the plants after he had done all the work.  He lets me feel good about trying to be a help.

We finished before 10 a.m., which was a mercy because it was already stifling.  Coated with sweat and mud, we retreated to the air conditioning inside, desperate for iced tea and showers.

Later, sitting on the sun porch, we looked out the windows at our handiwork.  The sun, having climbed high in the sky, beat down hard on the new hydrangeas and the newly rearranged coral bells.  Although we had watered them generously, they looked miserable, droopy, inside-out.

The plants were stressed.  I realized, as I evaluated them, that stress is not "in the head."  Stress is a real thing that happens to something, be it a plant or a person.  Stress is when adverse conditions, real conditions, like heat or drought or displacement, cause a specimen to wilt.  Sorrow and loneliness and fear, these are real things that contribute to human stress, and they are not illusions, not pretend, not simply "in the head."  Nobody chooses to feel sorrowful or lonely or afraid.  These things come upon us when circumstances cause us to lose things we love or to be straddled with things that weigh us down, or (worst) both.

The worst thing you can do to a stressed person is to belittle his stress.  Telling him that he ought not be stressed does not lesson his burden; it only adds guilt and shame to the negative emotions already crushing him.  It's much better to offer some compassion, some understanding, to validate the pain and offer comfort and strategies for coping.  Would you withhold water from a stressed plant with the idea that the plant ought to be able to tough it out and buck up?  Of course not!  You would give it water in hopes that it would receive enough of what it needed to pull through the stress and begin to thrive again.  You should not be afraid of "spoiling" a stressed person by offering mercy and compassion.  Rather, you should pour out mercy and compassion in hopes that they will lead to comfort, healing, and eventual flourishing.

Stress does not always last.  With proper care, the effects of stress can be reversed.

I grow zinnias in my front yard.  Earlier this summer, I was thinning them, and as I pulled them out of the one spot, it occurred to me that I needed some colorful fill in another spot.  I'd pulled the extra flowers out crassly, taking little to no care.  Still, there were roots on the ends of them, so I took them over and stuck them into the bare spot.  Literally, I stuck them into the ground and piled some chunks of clay soil around them to try to prop them up.  I dumped some water on them and hoped.

For a number of days, my transplants looked nauseated.  Their tops curled downward and their color went pale.  But they were still alive.  I kept watering them at intervals.

This is what they look like now:





I think it is a miracle.  It took so little: just the idea to stick them into the ground instead of into the garbage, and a few applications of water.  They overcame their stress and bloomed.

With some love and compassion, we can do the same for the stressed people in our lives.

"I'm sorry you are going through this," we can say.  Or, "I would be upset too, if that happened to me."  Or, "I love you.  I'm here for you.  I'll stay with you as long as you need me."

Just as stress is a real and powerful force of destruction, compassion is a real and powerful force for healing and restoration.  Compassion fills longings and frees souls.   Compassion can alleviate stress in a most miraculous way.



Friday, July 15, 2016

Understanding who's responsible



***

A man's own folly ruins his life,
yet his heart rages against the Lord.
Proverbs 19:3


We have a lot of confusion about what we think we are supposed to do, and what we think God is supposed to do.

Sometimes, when we talk about the sovereignty of God, the way God is in charge of and in control of everything, people can get to thinking that we don't have to do anything.

The idea can be compounded when we teach about salvation by faith alone, no works.  "It's all God," we exhort.  "God does it all.  You can't do anything to earn your salvation.  You are unable to do anything good on your own without God."

Now, this is true, but sometimes people misinterpret exactly what it means.

A person sometimes gets the idea that he can just lie back and wait, for surely it is God's job to make him feel happy about obeying, feel happy about doing his work, feel happy about living a disciplined life.  If God doesn't make him excited to do it and entertain him while he does it, then God has let him down.  Right?

No.  Not right.

Sometimes, a person needs to buck up and wash the dishes whether he feels like it or not.

God gives us a little at a time, and He holds us responsible for what we do with what He gives, as we receive it.

We start with nothing, and God begins the process by granting a flicker of faith, a glimmer of understanding, a beam of truth.  At that point, it is our choice: Will we walk toward the light?  Will we ignore it?  Will we help Satan throw a light-blocking curtain over it so it doesn't bother us?  (Satan doesn't need any help with that.)

God grants a little at a time, and we must not demand a full revelation, for that is not faith.  The Bible tells us that if we don't stand by faith, we won't stand at all.  Faith is hoping and believing that God will do what He said He will do, even when we cannot see the whole picture.  We do not know what God will do tomorrow with the results from the job He gave us to complete today.

Trust and obey, says the hymn.  Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus.

He gives you something: a pinch of wisdom, a task, a vision to understand a piece of the situation.  You trust Him and move forward with as much as He has given, obeying Him because you trust Him.

As you obey, your understanding grows.  You experience more of the Lord and His character.  He gives you more of Himself.  You take what He gives, and again you move forward, trusting and obeying.  As you obey more, you learn that He is always faithful, and you trust more.  The more you trust, the easier it becomes to obey, and on and on you go, trusting and obeying and growing in the Lord.

However, if you refuse to respond to the Lord's revelations with obedience, it is unreasonable to expect good things to happen.  God will do many things for you.  Gracious, He even died for you.  He paid the penalty for your sin.  He calls you.  He opens your eyes to see.  He draws you with cords of lovingkindness.  But He doesn't do your obedience for you.  If He did, it wouldn't be obedience.  You have to surrender yourself to His authority.

Failure to obey is probably our biggest hindrance to faith.

If you are God's backslidden child, He will eventually bring you to a place where you feel like doing the right thing, but it is up to you--and your compliance or stubbornness--how much He will have to allow you to suffer in your disobedience before you will admit that He was right all along and you'd rather do things His way.  Don't blame God if you are living in sin, pursuing sin, and suffering the consequences.  God is too good, too honest, too loving to let you blissfully assume you're on the right path when you are heading for hell.

Our responsibility is comprised of the things we can do.  In other words, we are held responsible to do the things that God has placed before us, to the best of our ability, with the resources He has provided, trusting Him to provide anything else we need.  We need to take what the Lord gives us and act. We need to be aware of what He has given us, and be thankful, acknowledging that everything we have comes from God alone. Thankfulness is imperative.

We need to pray, not with our own agenda, not presenting a list of urgent demands, but humbly asking God what He plans for us. Along with our prayers, we need to search the scriptures for answers, willing to surrender to what we learn.  We need to seek the Lord's heart and ask Him to help us be obedient to Him.  We need to spend time with Him.  Never accuse God of being silent if you haven't been prayerfully reading your Bible.  That's like dropping your phone under your bed, going out for the day without it, and later complaining that nobody called you.

We also need to find people who can help us draw near to God.  We need fellowship, encouragement and accountability.

We need to be serious about obedience, acknowledging the Lord's authority and seeking His will.  This is our job.  Our job is not easy, but life is not easy.  There are some cheats in life, but they all lead to destruction.  There is no easy way to attain anything worth seeking.  Our job involves hard work, but it is full of promise and hope, because God is also doing His job.

God does the things we cannot do.  He controls the factors.  We study for the exam, but God gives us the peace and the recall to be able to perform on the exam.  He can even orchestrate which questions come up on the exam, in mercy, blessing us according to our preparation.  We read our Bibles, and He speaks through the Holy Spirit into our hearts while we are reading.  We feed the child, send him to school, put him to bed, take him to the doctor, pray for him every day and teach him about Jesus, but God is the one who draws the child's heart; that, we cannot do.

Here's the benefit: because God is doing His job, we do not do our jobs in vain.  We plant the seeds; God makes them grow.  If God did not promise to make the seeds grow, there would be no point in our planting them.  However, He does promise to make the seeds grow, so we need to be faithful and obedient as we plant the seeds, or study for the test, or drive the bus, or administer the medicine, or stock the shelves, or wash the tupperware, or pitch the sale, or run the race.  We do the work He puts before us, and He walks next to us in the yoke, helping, encouraging, and controlling the outcome.

Here's another benefit:  God will empower us to get the job done.  That's right.  He will even give us His power to do whatever He asks of us.  We just have to respond to His leading and cooperate.  I used to have a thing about trying to turn the wheels of my car in the direction I wanted to go while the car was still in park.  It drove my husband crazy.  "Just start moving," he would say.  "The car will turn much more easily, and with less wear and tear on the tires, if you will just start moving before you start steering."  There is a spiritual lesson here.  God will be there for you when you begin to move in obedience.

We need to do the work of obedience while trusting God to complete His will in us and through us.

Our job.  His job.

It's kind of like that old Irish serenity prayer, which I will paraphrase here:

God grant me the serenity to leave to You 
the things that only You can do,
and the courage, obedience and fortitude 
to do the things You have assigned to me to do,
and the wisdom to discern the difference.
Amen



Thursday, July 14, 2016

Schubert makes for lighter fare

Things have been heavy lately.

Sometimes that's good.  Sometimes it makes you think in new, deeper ways and push hard into Jesus.  It teaches you to pray.  It teaches you the meaning of faith.

A person can get tired though.  Worn.  Even good things can wear you out.  Not-so-good things wear on you all the more.

Perhaps this is why God made dogs.  To help rejuvenate the weary soul.

Schubert has been making me laugh lately.  Maybe it's just me, but even if these stories aren't funny to anybody else, I'd like to remember.

Recently we obtained a new daybed for our sunporch.  It's been a process.  We sold the bunk beds, maybe in April, because all our kids are too tall to fit in them lengthwise when they visit now.  God provided the sweetest family, with two darling little girls, to take away this memory from my home.  Shawn helped the people load up their truck and tie everything down.  Just before they drove away, the four-year-old came running back and gave us both hugs and kisses.  So that was the last we saw of the bunk beds, and mercy, it helped.

We moved the futon from the sunporch into the room where the bunk beds had been, creating a place where a guest can sleep on a queen sized bed when the futon is folded down.  But then we needed seating on the sunporch, so we bought a daybed for our last remaining single mattress, and moved it down.



Schubert thinks this was a capital idea.



The other day I was gone for about six hours.  When I returned home, the daybed (which I had left neat and tidy, pillows plumped) was completely disheveled.  Schubert thinks it is his, and he roots around on it with wild joy and abandon.  Sometimes I try to imagine what it looks like when this tiny dog is home alone, trying to arrange to his satisfaction pillows that are much bigger than he.




Schubert and I had another joyous occasion on Monday.  Two packages arrived on our front step.  One was a dress I had ordered to try for David's upcoming wedding.  The other was from a veterinary medical supply company, some medicine and new toothpaste for Schubert.

"Look Schubert!" I exclaimed, "Our packages have arrived!  This is so exciting!"  He frolicked about, leaping and sniffing as I retrieved the boxes and carried them to the kitchen table.  "Look!" I told him, holding up the small white box that contained his veterinary supplies, "This is for you!  You are going to like this so much!"

Of course, he doesn't care much about his minocycline prescription, except that I do put it into a blob of cream cheese to get him to take it.  But the minocycline was not the draw.  No, the draw was his poultry flavored toothpaste.  Schubert has CUPS, or Chronic Ulcerative Paradental Stomatitis, which is a painful condition of his gums stemming from allergies and requiring daily toothbrushing, among other things. We brush his teeth every night, but it's been ages since we had a toothpaste he enjoyed. He has a tube of vanilla mint toothpaste, but vanilla mint does not float his boat.  We set that tube aside for awhile when Shawn was able to locate a tube of "beef flavored-mint scented" toothpaste, whatever that meant.  It smelled slightly sweet and malty.  Schubert tolerated it.  It was preferable to the vanilla mint.  But that ran out and we were using vanilla mint again, until this package arrived.

"Look, buddy dog!  It's your poultry toothpaste!  Your favorite!"  I sang out as I sliced through packing tape and extracted the small box that held his new tube.  Schubert wiggled and hopped and wagged his tail as hard as he could, snuffling eagerly as I squeezed a dollop of paste onto my finger and let him lick it off.  It was a satisfying thrill.

Then I unwrapped my new dress and tried it on.  I zipped it up and put on a pair of heels to see how I looked.  It fit perfectly and was a magnificent color.  By a gracious miracle, it was better than I had dared hope it would be.

When I went to take the dress off, I had a problem.  The top of the dress was beaded, and the zipper pull was also an elongated bead.  Reaching behind myself, with dull, lupus-swollen fingers, I couldn't tell where the zipper was, and I could not unzip the dress.  Hence, I was stuck in it.

I texted Shawn--fortunately it was well after 5:00--and asked, "When are you coming home?  I need help getting out of this dress before I sweat it up."

Shawn had an HOA meeting and was already on his way, thank goodness, so that crisis was averted.

At bedtime, Schubert remembered that he had delicious new toothpaste.  He came running eagerly when I called him for his toothbrushing.  Usually he is mildly hesitant and has to warm up a bit by licking the toothbrush before I stick it into his mouth to clean his teeth, but that night he eagerly lunged forward, tongue flapping, licking and slurping and chewing to get every last bit of his favorite poultry toothpaste.

Oh, the little joys that keep us going.

Monday, July 11, 2016

What does "I'm sorry" mean?



I write about forgiveness fairly often, not because I am good at it, but because I always need to work on it.  Recently, I came across this podcast on Facebook, and since it was about forgiveness,  I listened to it.  Although this ministry exists primarily to help marriages, I think the principles about forgiveness apply to all of our relationships.

Chris Grace and Tim Muehlhoff of Biola University explain that a good apology includes the following words:

I'm sorry.  I was wrong.  Please forgive me.

Have you ever had someone speak these words to you, and still, in your heart, felt that you would not forgive?

Certain circumstances, egregious or continual offenses, can make forgiveness hard.  For instance, if somebody burned your house down, or if your marriage partner broke faith and committed adultery against you, or if someone killed your child, no matter how repentant they were, you still might struggle to forgive.  They've destroyed something that can never be replaced.  How can you forgive in the face of such loss?  Or what about people who continually let you down, promising and habitually failing to keep their promises?  They say they are sorry, admit they are wrong, ask humbly for forgiveness, but then go back and do exactly the same thing, over and over again.

There are situations that make forgiveness even harder than it is otherwise, and it is plenty hard in any situation.  Notwithstanding, a good, thorough apology truly helps in the forgiveness process.

Grace and Muehlhoff brought out the idea that Christians sometimes play an unfair "trump card" (I put the term in quotes because it isn't a valid trump card) in demanding forgiveness--since it is commanded in the Bible--without giving a complete or compassionate apology.  They blurt out, "I'm sorry," not sounding particularly sorry at all, but figuring that since they have gone through the ignominy of speaking the dreaded words, "I'm sorry," they are absolved.  The case is closed.  The offended party is required to extend forgiveness, forget it ever happened, and never mention it again.

But.

There is no apology if there is no compassion.

I'm sorry.  

"I'm sorry," means that the speaker feels compassion, sorrow.  The word "sorry" comes from the word "sorrow."

To say, "I'm sorry," means that you have considered the other person's point of view.  You have taken time to imagine walking in his shoes, and you have understood something of the hurt or frustration he feels.

"I'm sorry," means, "My heart has sorrow for the pain you feel."

Now, this may or may not communicate responsibility for those feelings.  When someone loses a loved one, we often say, "I'm sorry."  We are sorry for his loss, his grief.  We feel compassion.  We do not feel responsible.  There are many times when we feel sad for someone, and when we do, we say, "I'm sorry," to express our sympathy for his situation, not because we think we evoked his pain.

One should never say, "I'm sorry," in an angry, sarcastic tone of voice and then storm out of the room, for that is a lie.  In such an instance, what the person means is, "I'm frustrated with you for being frustrated with me and I'm not going to talk about this anymore."  It is a total communication breakdown, and--in fact--the opposite of compassion.  If it is an attempt by a Christian to invoke the requirement of forgiveness from another Christian, then it is worse than a lie.  It lying for the purpose of exploiting and manipulating.  It is not fair.

This is why the second phrase in the apology is so very important:

I was wrong.

Here, the offender not only expresses compassion for the feelings of the offended, he also takes responsibility for causing the feelings.  It is even better if the offender names the actual point of offense:  "I was wrong when I [--insert short description of the offensive behavior-- ]."

This may be painful for me, if I am the one who committed the offense.  I may not like the humiliation of reliving my failure by talking about it.  But it is a very good thing to do, because although it may cause me some pain, it will ultimately heal the relationship.  It's like digging out a sliver.  It hurts to dig a sliver out, but the wound heals much more quickly and completely once it's removed.  Also, the earlier you work on cleaning it up, the easier it is. 

When you don't get the sliver out, a scar forms over it, and there it is, a lasting visible reminder of the injury.  Do you want to clunk up your relationships with scar-covered slivers?  Or are you willing to do the good but painful work of removing the slivers and making the relationship as beautiful as it can be?

Grace and Muehlhoff brought out the idea that sometimes a hurt person needs to sift through what happened, as part of his forgiveness process.  Sometimes the issue requires discussion.  In order for trust to be rebuilt, the hurt person needs to be reassured that the other person recognizes how his behavior was hurtful, and that he has a plan for how to avoid causing the same hurt in the future.  The person who caused the hurt may refuse to talk about it, claiming, "You are a bitter, unforgiving, wicked person, certainly not a Christian, because you are not supposed to keep bringing this up."  If he does, the other person, being a Christian, may (and should) still forgive him.  However, the trust will be eroded rather than rebuilt.

There is a difference between bringing something up because the hurt is lingering as a result of a need for better closure in the forgiveness process, and bringing something up to humiliate and manipulate and try to get one-up on the other person.

This requires discernment.

If you can honestly say, "We have discussed this before, and I have owned my wrongdoing.  I am sorry that I hurt you when I [ --insert short description of the offensive behavior-- ].  It was wrong of me, and I have asked you to forgive me for doing this.  When you keep bringing it, up, I feel as though you have not forgiven me.  Have you forgiven me?  Can we stop bringing it up?"-- if you can honestly say this, it is a fair thing to say.  If, however, the subject continues to resurface because you refuse to name and own your offense, then you may need to reconsider whether you have apologized appropriately.   Sometimes you may even need to make some sort of restitution; for instance, if you told a lie, you may need to go back and set the record straight.  Relationships are wrecked when wrongs remain outstanding.

Often, especially in Christian circles, people get stuck forgiving people who are neither compassionate nor repentant.  It is what we are called to do.  But if you are a Christian, and you are forcing someone else to forgive you without offering an honest apology, then you are in sin, and you are causing an injustice.  It is more fair, more just, for you--when you are the offending party--to have some pain in the forgiveness process, than for an offended party to have pain.  The offended party already underwent pain; you caused it, and that's why you need his forgiveness.  Don't cause more pain.  If it's your fault, then suck it up and take your lumps.  The other person has to forgive you; that's on him, whether or not you apologize.  But if you do things to hinder his forgiveness, that's on you, and you should not take it lightly.  The eyes of the Lord are everywhere.

What if you honestly don't believe that you were wrong, though?  What then?

This calls for discernment as well.

There are people who call it "hurt" when they are simply angry that they did not get their way about something.  "I wanted another ice-cream cone, and you would only buy me one ice-cream cone, so you hurt my feelings!"  This is pretty easy.  You say, "I'm sorry that you feel angry because I did not buy you a second ice-cream cone.  I do not like to make you angry.  I would rather make you happy.  However, two ice-cream cones would not be good for you, and it would be a waste of money.  I hope you will try to understand my reasons for not buying the second ice-cream cone."  This would generally be an adult-child situation.  I recognize that adult-adult situations are more complex.  My advice: don't talk to an adult as though you were talking to a child, even if you feel that he should not be upset, and that you did nothing wrong.

Sometimes you are not wrong.

Sometimes you are wrong but you resist acknowledging it, because none of us likes to be wrong.

Here is a list of questions you can ask yourself in a situation where someone wants an apology from you, but you do not believe that you are wrong:

  1.  Have I taken this issue to God and invited Him to examine my heart?  We need to invite God to search our hearts and see if there is any offensive way in them.  Our hearts are deceitful, and we cannot trust ourselves.  We always default to self-justification.  We must begin by laying the issue before the Lord and letting Him show us His perspective on what is happening.  Realize that only God is ever perfectly right.  In any conflict between humans, some people are more right, and some people are more wrong, but there is never a person who is perfectly right.
  2. Am I being compassionate?  Am I obeying Philippians 2, and placing the other person's interests ahead of my own?  Am I choosing humility over vain conceit or selfish ambition?  Am I respecting the other person's viewpoint?  Am I willing to close my eyes and imagine how this looks and feels to the other person?  Is my goal to show compassion, or is my goal to prove that I am right?  Am I, or am I not, concerned that I have caused pain?
  3. Am I focusing on what I perceive that the other person did, and how I feel about it?  This is the natural default, and it is good to be aware that this is where our hearts will naturally turn. I may have done something unintentionally, but it may have been hurtful to the other person.  When the other person says, "Hey! That hurt me!" my default is probably to focus on what the other person did (point out my mistake) and how I feel about it (angry and embarrassed).  Instead, I need to be willing to focus on what I did, and how my actions made the other person feel.  Turn the whole thing around.  Seriously, do I want the "freedom" to go around obliviously hurting and offending people, or do I want to mend my ways and heal my relationships?
  4. Do I honestly feel sorrow over the other person's distress?  Or am I simply annoyed with the other person for being distressed?  If I don't feel sorrow for having caused distress, should I?  If I should feel bad, but I don't, why don't I?  Do I accept responsibility for myself?  Do I care about the effects of my actions on others?  Does it bother me to have division in this relationship?  Based on this person's relationship to me, what stakes do I have in mending-vs-avoiding the issue?
  5. What am I prioritizing in this situation?  Am I more interested in prideful self-justification, or in kindness and reconciliation?  If I am prioritizing justice, how might an application of grace be of value?  If I am prioritizing my comfort, is it more comfortable to prove myself right than to live in grace and harmony?  If I am prioritizing what I honestly believe to be the most ethical course of action, how can I openly and compassionately communicate with the other person to help us both focus on where we agree rather than where we are at odds? 
  6. Am I being defensive?  It is never productive to be defensive.  If you are right, you don't need a defense.  If you are wrong, you don't have a defense.  So don't be defensive.  Compassion will yield much better fruit than defensiveness, every time.
  7. Am I demonstrating the love of Christ?   Above all things, the Bible tells us, put on love, for love covers over a multitude of wrongs.  Grace means we can choose to pay the price for someone else.  Sometimes, if you respond to someone's hurt with a compassionate, prompt and sincere apology, the other person will realize that he also played a part in the problem, and he will reciprocate with an apology to you.  Sometimes he won't.  (Sometimes he shouldn't have to.)  It's your job to do the right thing, in any case.  If you've caused someone to have a problem with you, then you should help him forgive you, by apologizing.  This is responsible and loving.


Please forgive me.  

Here is the last phrase in a complete apology.  Usually, if you did the first part well, the forgiveness will flow freely.  It always does from God.



 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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Friday, July 8, 2016

The Lord's Prayer




I've been praying The Lord's Prayer lately.  When I have no words of my own, I use His.  It can't hurt.  When my heart aches in desperation to pray, the words of this familiar prayer take on deep meaning.  I feel them, and they are new, not blindingly rote.

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name.

I realize that this is my cry for the glory of God to be seen on earth, recognized, acknowledged.  Isaiah 45:22-24 says that this will happen.  Some day, even those who have raged against Him will proclaim that He alone is Lord, and be put to shame.  Philippians 2:10-11 reiterates the same thing; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Although I long for God's justice to put an end to evil, exploitation, dishonesty, violence, sickness, sadness, danger and fear, I am thankful that God grants time for the rebellious to repent.  As I pray these words, I remind myself that I can--and must--trust in God's perfect wisdom and timing.  I repeat again and again, "Your will be done.  Do Your will, O Lord.  Bring Your will to pass."  I remember that He is good, and that His will, accomplished, will showcase His glory and pour out blessings on His people.   God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  He is not willing that any should perish.  "Your will be done, Lord Jesus."

Give us this day our daily bread.

This is the easiest part of the prayer:  Be our Provider.  Give us what we need: food, clothing, shelter, jobs.  Thank you for all You have given.  Thank you that You are the Source of everything.

And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

This is the hardest part of the prayer.  Right there after the easiest part is the hardest part.  It is so hard to forgive.  I wonder, do you think forgiveness is hard for God?  I don't think anything is really hard for God.  Yet, Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden before He gave His life to purchase our forgiveness, and on the cross He cried out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"  Dying for the sins of the world was not easy; it was excruciating.

When the Bible tells us to forgive as the Lord forgave us (Colossians 3:13), to forgive just as in Christ God forgave us (Ephesians 4:32), this is a tall order.  We will sometimes go through excruciating pain to forgive.  Jesus did.  We are called to bear the brunt and absorb the wrong, which we could never do except by the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.

At the same time, to forgive as Christ forgave us is not to sweep the wrong that was done under a rug.  Christ died to forgive very real sins, very concrete wrongs that had been and would be committed.  Had the wrong not been real, no bloodshed would have been necessary.  So when we forgive, it is appropriate and good to name the offense which we are forgiving, and acknowledge the damage that was done.  We then take the situation to Jesus for repair, the glorious truth being that He can rehabilitate where no human could make restitution.

Additionally, the Bible says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from unrighteousness."  So, if we are patterning our forgiveness after the Lord's, we see a condition here in His forgiveness: confession.  There is something about confession and repentance that completes the forgiveness process.  This is not an excuse to withhold forgiveness until someone apologizes.  You have to stand with open arms, forgiveness freely flowing from your heart, just like Jesus.  However, without confession and repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, there will not likely be restoration.  The relationship will not be put right.  Confession and repentance are required in order for forgiveness to be received and completed.  Only the Holy Spirit can move someone's heart to confess and receive forgiveness.

When I come to this part of the Lord's Prayer, I generally have to stop and say, "Jesus, please help me to forgive.  Please help me to put all the unresolved hurts into Your hands, and trust You to make them right.  Please help me to promote peace in my relationships, and please protect me from bitterness.  Please help me not to displease You with an unforgiving spirit."   I'm not going to lie.  Some days, this is difficult because the forgetting part of forgiveness is connected to being able to work through latent issues that were never resolved, and whenever something triggers a memory, the battle to forgive begins anew.  Back to Jesus we crawl.  Praise Him for His patience and forbearance.

I have to get this right, because I need His forgiveness for myself.  Why do my sins seem more blurry than my hurts?  Forgive me for this, too, dear Lord.  Have mercy.

Then I go on:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

Here I nearly break down into tears, for myself, for the whole world and its evil propensities, for all the people trapped in sin, and all the victims of other people's sins.  Deliver us from evil, I pray, deliver us from evil, from deception, from selfishness and pride.  Deliver us from foolishness and from all the idols we worship, from addictions and lusts and materialism and mean-spirited judgmentalism.  Deliver us from competition and favoritism, unforgiveness and bitterness.  Deliver us from the devil's traps and from our own fleshly desires.  Deliver us from evil, Lord Jesus, and show us what is good, teach us to love the good.  Teach us to long for Your beauty and worship You alone.

For Yours is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory Forever.  Amen.

This is our hope.  The Kingdom of God will come in power and glory and reign for all eternity.  He promised, and He always keeps His promises.  Every wrong will be righted, every hurt healed.  The Lord Himself will be our light, our life, our perfect dwelling place.  This is what we have to look forward to.  This is our confidence.  We will see Him as He is, and we will be blown away by His unutterable beauty, glory and goodness.  There will be no darkness to cloud the visage of God.  As we gaze on Him, we will become like Him, perfect and whole ourselves, free from the curse of sin that drives people to hurt and be hurt.  There will be no more pain, only perfect safety and security and joy forever with our Father.

Yes.  That is what I have been praying.  Now that I've written it down, maybe I will read it when I have trouble finding words to pray.  Maybe I'll even read it aloud.



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Character



Sometimes when we get hurt, we act out.

Pain provokes us.

I've heard it said that the best way to get a grasp of someone's character is to view him under duress.

Seriously, though, it seems ungracious to condemn people for failing when they are under attack.  Sometimes when we are attacked, we fall.  This is a natural course of events.  It is admirable to remain standing under attack.  It is admirable to suck it up and be gracious even when someone has hurt you, but I'm not sure it should be expected or demanded.

At least, not the first time.

And therein lies the heart of it, for it is not an initial failure that defines our characters.  We all fail sometimes.  We all hit bumps that knock us flat.  We all have regrets about how we handled ourselves in certain situations.

The question is not so much whether you were a "good enough" person to remain gracious in the face of hurt the first time it slammed you.  The question is: what did you do thereafter?  What did you learn from the situation?  How did you resolve to change and do better in the future?

What have you learned from your failures, and how have you resolved to do better in the future?  Now.  That is a much better test of character than whether someone fell on an early try.

This is probably why people who have suffered are often the kindest and most gracious.  God exercises and trains us through trials.  I'm not sure He expects us to get it right on the first shot.  Sometimes it is good for us to mess up, so we can have compassion on others when they mess up.  This is not an excuse for behaving badly. We need to identify our bad behavior and plead for God's grace to help us change it.  At the same time, it is valuable to remember that we, also, have at times behaved badly, and to remember how hard it felt to be in the situation that took us down, and to have compassion on others who also struggle and stumble along their way.

The true test of a person's character is not so much whether he can hold it together under duress, but rather what he learns from his failures in duress.  The true test is whether he gets up, tells the Lord he is sorry, asks the Lord to help him change, and then tries again and does better.

Apologizing.

Trying again.

Learning.

Doing better.

These are the true marks of character.


Monday, June 27, 2016

On alcohol and polygamy

People.  We need to get it straight, what the Bible says, and what it does not say.

Also, where the Bible is concerned, we need to realize: this is the revealed heart of God.  The Revealed Heart of God.  Thus, one should not read the Bible with an eye to looking for loopholes.  One should read the Bible humbly, recognizing the beauty of the authority it holds.

One must not bring preconceived ideas to the Bible and insist that they exist in the Bible, simply because they existed one's mind first.  This is folly.

Revelation 22:18-19 warns us neither to add to nor to take away from the words of the scroll.  I believe that this specifically applies to the book of Revelation itself, but I do not think I am adding to the scroll if I suggest that it would be a safeguarding principle to apply this standard to our approach to all of scripture.  There are dire consequences for tampering with the Word of God.

You must not throw out parts of God's Word that you don't like.  At the same time, you must not claim that God's Word says things you wish it said, but that it does not say.

For instance (I will offend 99.9% of people by the time I've reached the end of this post; I'm sorry):  Claiming that the days in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days is going beyond what the text tells us.  Could they have been 24-hour days?  Of course!  Of course they could have been.  I am not saying that they weren't.  I am only saying that there is not definitive proof in the text that they were, and therefore I think we should be cautious about making claims about how accurate it is to interpret "day" as a 24-hour period of time, rather than as an epoch or something else; for instance, I don't think anybody assumes that the "day" in the phrase, "Day of the Lord," is necessarily 24 hours.  Again, please hear me: I am not saying that Creation did not happen in 24-hour days, I'm just saying that the text does not make it definitively clear that such was the case, and thus we should be careful about what we insist on.  We should firmly maintain that God is the Creator of all things, and that everything that exists has its origin in Him.  We should not insist on 24-hour time periods.  We can ponder the possibility and discuss the implications, but we should not proclaim that the Bible says something that it does not say.

Political activists who are distraught over the definition of marriage in the United States make me similarly crazy.  They try to bolster their arguments against homosexual marriage with bumper stickers sporting stick figures and the phrase, "one man, one woman."  This is insanity.  I'm sorry, but it is.  You cannot read the Bible and come away with the idea that it clearly defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman.  The Bible is rife with polygamy.  Abraham had two wives: Sarah and Hagar.  ("Wait!" you say, "That didn't turn out well!"  Well, no, it didn't, but God did not condemn Abraham for his union to Hagar.  In fact, God extended blessings and mercy to Hagar and Ishmael.)  Abraham also had a wife named Keturah.  As far as I am aware, Isaac was only married to Rebekah.  However, Jacob had two wives and two concubines: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah.  Again, maybe it didn't turn out ideally, but God never prohibited it, nor did He condemn Jacob for his family situation.

Moses had at least two wives: Zipporah and a Cushite.

King David was married to Saul's daughter, Michel, and also to Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Eglah and Bathsheba.  That makes seven.  The only one he got into trouble over was Bathsheba, because she was another man's wife and David committed adultery with her.  David was called a man after God's own heart.

When Moses presented the Law, among the guidelines God gave was that a king must not take "many" wives, lest his heart be led astray (see Deuteronomy 17:17).  This--the giving of the Law--would have been a perfect opportunity for God to define marriage--the ideal marriage situation--as one queen for one king, if He so desired.  But He did not.  God only warned kings not to get carried away taking too many wives.  Solomon got carried away and took 700 wives and 300 concubines.  After his wives led him astray to idol worship, Solomon did lose the kingdom, but I think we can all agree that his was the type of extreme case that the guideline had been given to prevent.

Even in the New Testament, where qualifications for overseers are listed, it says that they must be "husbands of only one wife," (1 Timothy 3:2), and the same for deacons (1 Timothy 3:12).  This leads one to assume that there must have been men in the church who had more than one wife, hence the clarification.  Why would you even mention the requirement if it was prohibited for someone to have multiple wives in the first place?

The Bible does warn that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination to the Lord (Leviticus 18:22, 2 Kings 23:7, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:9-10).  This is because God is the great Husband and Provider, and He created the marriage relationship to be a picture of His relationship to His people (Ephesians 5:31-32).  God wants husbands to provide for, protect and be faithful to their wives in the same way that the Lord does these things for His people.  He wants wives to respond to their husbands' faithfulness and goodness with love and honor, reflecting the way believers should respond to Christ.  These are sexual roles God has created for a specific purpose, and in God's design, the roles of husband/man and wife/woman are not casually interchangeable.  This is true.  This is what the Bible says.  The metaphor exists throughout both the Old and New Testaments.  However, if you combine this point--which is true--with the idea that polygamy is wrong, you discredit yourself.  The Bible does not say that polygamy is a sin.  The Bible demonstrates that polygamy is an arrangement that does not usually breed peace and harmony, but the Bible does not command people not to participate in polygamy.  To suggest that it does is to lie. When you combine a truth with a falsehood, you should not expect to be taken seriously as a truth-teller.  If you want to help people understand how homosexuality is outside of God's will, you ought not combine your argument with blatantly unbiblical claims about polygamy.

Polygamy is not recommended or encouraged, but it isn't prohibited either.

And then there is alcohol.  If I haven't offended you yet, I suppose I will now.

Like polygamy, alcohol consumption is not prohibited in the 10 Commandments.  Jesus famously  turned water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2).  Some folks try to argue that this was not strong wine, not consumed for a mood change, but John 2:10 would suggest otherwise -- these people were drinking to get drunk, and the master of the banquet was very confused as to why the best wine was brought out after the guests were too inebriated to appreciate it.

There is another affirmative mention of alcohol in Proverbs 9, where Wisdom prepares her banquet and calls people to come to it.  Proverbs 9:2 says that Wisdom has prepared her food and mixed her wine, and in Proverbs 9:5, Wisdom calls out, "Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed."

Ecclesiastes 9:7 says, "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do."  But one must be careful about pulling verses out of context, especially from Ecclesiastes, which also says that bread is made for laughter, wine gladdens the heart, and money is the answer for everything (10:19).  We know for certain that it is not Biblically sound to operate under the premise that money is the answer for everything (Matthew 6:24, 1 Timothy 6:10).  Likewise, wine may not gladden the heart in a completely healthy and wholesome way.  We should be careful, but all the same, the Bible clearly does not prohibit alcohol consumption.

God does not condemn or prohibit alcohol consumption in His Word.  That may bother you, but it's the way it is.  Perhaps it doesn't bother you.  Perhaps it makes you very happy.  If so, now it's your turn to have your thinking challenged.

Although alcohol appears in a relatively positive light a few times in scripture, most of the time when the subject of alcohol comes up, it is related to someone giving his enemies a "cup" to drink, so that they will be drunk and reeling, and easy to defeat in battle.  People use alcohol throughout the Bible to exploit others, and even when someone isn't specifically using it to exploit, it results in shame and humiliation for those who drink it (compare the stories of Noah in Genesis 9:20-27, and Lot in Genesis 19:30-38).  Nabal, who got drunk during sheepshearing season, was described as an utter fool (1 Samuel 25).

Like polygamy, alcohol consumption is not prohibited, but (also like polygamy) it is shown to be commonly detrimental, something to be approached with caution.  Proverbs 20:1 tells us that wine and beer result in fights and foolishness, and that the wise will not allow themselves to be so led astray.  Proverbs 23:29-35 tells us that those who linger over wine bring all sorts of unnecessary strife and sorrow into their lives, in the end losing all judgment and sensibility.  Drunkenness is condemned outright (Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 5:11 & 6:10, Galatians 5:21, 1 Peter 4:3).

In Deuteronomy 17:17, we saw that God warned kings not to take too many wives.  In Proverbs 31:4-5, we also learn that it is not for kings to drink wine or crave beer, lest they lose their judgment and fail to rule justly.  Just as 1 Timothy 3 outlines that elders and deacons should be limited to one wife, it also explains that they must be temperate and not indulge in much wine.

Priests were prohibited from drinking wine while they were serving (Leviticus 10:9).

I believe that the Bible demonstrates that the better, safer path is the path that eschews alcohol.  At the same time, I cannot argue that the Bible condemns alcohol categorically, because it clearly does not.

It comes down to convictions, and convictions are tricky things to navigate.  Convictions are impressions that the Spirit of God lays on individuals for how they, personally, should live, in areas where scripture does not state clear commands.  Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8 give us guidelines for handling our convictions.  We are to listen to the Spirit and obey His promptings.  I am not to force on others the promptings that the Spirit lays on me.  However, believers are also sternly warned not to belittle a conviction someone else has--which they themselves may not share--because to encourage someone to act against a conviction that God has laid on him would be to encourage him to sin.  Above all else, we are to walk in love and humility, looking not to our own interests but to the interests of others, making up our minds not to put a stumbling block or obstacle in our brother's way.

My own conviction--that alcohol is dangerous and best avoided--stems from the following:

(1) Alcohol is highly addictive.  When a person becomes addicted to something, that thing becomes a major "need" in his life.  When we need something other than God for satisfaction, comfort or fulfillment, then it is, by definition, an idol.  God categorically condemns all idolatry.  Perhaps I would not become addicted to alcohol if I used it, but statistics show that approximately 20% of people who drink become alcoholics.  I do not want to open myself up to a 20% chance of shackling myself to idolatry.  God is my source of satisfaction and joy.  ("And do not get drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit," Ephesians 5:18.)

(2)  Because of the high number of people in our culture and society today who struggle with alcohol addiction, I do not ever want my actions or example to lead anybody else into bondage to addictive sins.  ("It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall," Romans 14:21.)

(3)  I have enough trouble keeping a clear head without adding chemicals to the mix.

I am not telling anyone else what his or her conviction must be.  That is between you and the Holy Spirit, and you need to take it seriously, but it's not my business what He tells you.  I understand and agree that the Bible does not say, anywhere, "Thou shalt not partake of a glass of wine."  I will not condemn you or think ill of you for doing so.  At the same time, I ask that if you do not share my conviction, you would still respect me in my conviction, and not ask me to do things with alcohol that would trouble my conscience.

We need to get straight on what the Bible says, and what it does not say.  We need to speak the truth in love, extend grace, love mercy, seek justice and surrender humbly before the the Lord.

Also, I'm counting on my husband never to take a second wife while I'm alive, whether it's prohibited or not.