Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Well look at that. 30 years.

Shawn and I have now been married 30 years.

Shannon, Laura and Matthew came out over the weekend to commemorate the milestone.

Schubert was beside himself with joy.

We did bonfires, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, making s'mores.

This is a sadly lacking photo, but I wanted to document Jon's presence with us.

One golden afternoon, Lu took us over to the park and photographed us.  Now we will be able to remember what we looked like, after 30 years of marriage.
(Disclaimer: Lu took the photos, but I edited these, and she may or may not approve of the edits, so don't judge her on them.  The edits are just my way of inserting my personal memories of the emotional feel of the day.)

Wow.  Can you believe 30 years?

( I didn't edit this one)

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Communication issues

Communicating is a very tricky business.

We understand that cell phones have bad reception sometimes, and computers go down.  These make for breakdowns in communication.  We do not always understand that two people can be standing face-to-face, speaking to each other, and still have a breakdown in communication.

Here's the deal:  communications are multilayered.  I'm sure I'm actually oversimplifying here, but I think there are three important layers to understand in communications.

First, there is what you are trying to communicate, the thoughts and feelings in your own mind.

Second, there is what you actually do communicate, the specific words you speak.

Third, there is what the person hears and understands you to say, the other person's interpretation.

If you are able to find good words that appropriately express what is in your head and heart, and the person with whom you are trying to communicate hears your words and interprets them to mean what you meant them to mean, then communication is going pretty well (although you could still disagree).  However, this is not always (or perhaps even often) the way it works out.

Remember that in any event, what you take away and what the other person (or people) take away from any given interaction could be quite different.  This is not because one person is right and one is wrong, or because one person is crazy and one is sane.  It's just that every individual is most in tune with his or her own perspective, and (therefore) every individual is convinced that he or she is the one who is right.

Don't be stuck in your own head, insisting on your own perspective.  It doesn't matter, and it doesn't help.  The important thing is to arrive at a place where you and the other person have a mutually understood experience.

*Ask clarifying questions!  "This is what I hear you saying. . .(restate what you think you heard).   Is this accurate?"  Please, do not assume that your "hearing" is accurate; don't ask this question sarcastically or in order to trap someone.  Ask honestly.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Also, remember that it doesn't only depend on your personal hearing/interpretation.  The other person may have been clumsy in articulating what was in his/her heart to say.  Don't insist on clinging to the exact words the other person said, taking offense, and refusing to dig deeper to discover what he/she really meant.  Especially when people are upset, their words often do not come out right.  Graciously assume the best, and ask clarifying questions.

*Make a conscious effort to try to imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling.  Stop and think through his/her perspective of the situation.  Really.  Take the time to do this.  This is an example of how not to be selfish.  If this is going to take you some time, say, "I need to think through this by myself for a few minutes. I need to try to think through things from your perspective.  Can we take a break by ourselves for fifteen minutes, and then come back together to continue this discussion?"  This can diffuse a lot of trouble.  First, a break is good.  However, just storming off on your own for a break is not good.  So talking about the break, and setting a time to reconvene, is very respectful and helpful. Additionally, you can make the other person feel much more hopeful and much less defensive if you actually communicate that you are intentionally taking time to think through the issue from his/her point of view, instead of just assuming that he/she is wrong, and tearing him/her down.  Be sure you really do consider the opposing point of view, and don't just say you're going to, while actually focusing on crafting your own argument.  You should also pray during your break, that God will show you truth, and help you communicate with love.

*Remember that "winning" isn't winning.  Humiliating the other person in order to come out on top in an argument will not do good things for any relationship.  If you have "won" arguments in the past, you know this is true.  True winning is when you both finish with a better understanding of the other person's perspective, and you both feel respected, understood and cared about.  It is hard to say that you're sorry if you think it means that the other person will rub your nose in it afterwards.  However, even if you will get a nose-rub, it's still better to apologize.  If you do something wrong or unkind and get away with it, that's a "cheat," and it won't bear good fruit in your relationship.  Ask yourself: Am I being respectful?  Am I being kind?  Am I being honest?  Ask yourself these questions no matter which side of the argument you are on.  If you are the one who receives an apology, accept it with humility and grace, and assure the other person of your love and acceptance.  A true win is when both parties make progress in expressing and receiving love and respect from each other.  A true win comes from patience, honesty, unselfishness, humility, kindness and forgiveness. . . which amazingly culminate in joy.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My shade garden

Late yesterday afternoon, as I walked past my front door, I saw a baby bird through the sidelight.  It hopped up onto one of the chairs on my front porch, and then fluttered hither and yon, awkwardly, behind the yew and under the porch ceiling.  It had a funny, long, straight tailfeather, like a skinny popsicle stick, jutting out behind itself at an angle.

I didn't run for my camera.  I just stood still and watched the funny, fat little bird.  My impression is that he had white spots on his back, like a fawn, but this may be the poetic license of a hazy memory.  As he darted back and forth between the potted begonias, the hanging ferns, and the porch furniture, I realized that there were two of them.  Indeed, at one point the two tiny birds perched across from one another, right at the edge of my front step.  Then one, perhaps the first one, took off for a low branch in the nearby maple tree, whizzing his little wings heroically as he made his way back to shelter and safety.  The other soon followed, bumbling his directions, but set on gaining shady protection along with his brother.  My heart cheered for him silently as he disappeared among the leaves.

It's been so very dry for the past three weeks.  After our early May travel escapades, Shawn and I spent some time at home.  He bought a little rototiller, and we installed a collection of plants in the lower terrace behind our garage.

We worked on the upper terrace last year, and salvaged some of what had already been there.  The lower terrace was a total overhaul, absolutely nothing to save.  I guess at some point, we'll have to go back and remulch the upper tier to match.  But for now, it is so much better, so exponentially better than it has been ever since we moved here, that I cannot feel too worried about the two-toned mulch.  We've added stepping stones, because it is nearly impossible to tend a garden you can't access.  I loved my upper path--we laid it out according to where my feet fell as I walked through.  My lower path is even cuter, if not quite as ergonomically designed for my paces.

I did a project, and photographed the gardens from the same vantage point, every hour on the half hour through the day, to gauge how much sun exposure there is.  (I will not bore you with those pictures!)  Nothing gets more than 3 hours of sun back here, but the hydrangeas that we planted last year get three hours from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. which wilts them every day over lunch.  I am at my wits end concerning what to do about this.  Nothing but a hydrangea could withstand so much shade, but even three hours of sun is offensive to them.  They will simply have to toughen up.  Apparently, I am not helping them toughen up, as routinely, when I see them withering on the ground, I run back to turn a sprinkler on them until the hot sun passes.  Training spoiled plants; yes, that's me.

Earlier in the season, we saw some beauty in the upper terrace:

This is lungwort.  A neighbor gave it to me, dug some out of her garden.  It is interesting because its flowers come out in both purple and pink. Two-toned leaf, two-toned flower.

The same neighbor gave me this lavender columbine.  It delighted me; I had no idea it would be so pretty.

This is an earlier columbine.  We planted it last fall and waited until this spring to see what the flowers look like, thankful that it bloomed early.  The other columbine we planted last fall was smashed in our roofing job, just before the blossoms opened.

This is another plant we put into the top terrace last summer.  The pink flowers were a precious surprise this April.  It's called ajuga.

Those flowers are all past now, but my astilbe has burst forth--

I just adore pink flowers.  Last year, I was a stickler for planting nothing but pink (well, and blue hydrangeas).  This year I got undisciplined with the colors, I'm afraid.

I bought this for the lower terrace, before the lower terrace was prepared.  This is quite a magnification; it's actually a tiny flower at the top of a stalk.  This is a second bloom I was able to garner by an early deadheading of the original bloom.

I bought this plant after doing a great deal of research on plants that thrive in shade.  It is called Jacob's Ladder, because it has a ladder-like leaf structure (the technical term is pinnate, I believe).  For some reason, I had this perennial mixed up in my head with one called Jupiter's Beard.  I kept reading about Jupiter's Beard, and everything suggested that it liked full sun.  Since I was looking for shade plants, I was confused as to why this was on my list.   At one point, I did a Google image search to try to figure out exactly which plant I was looking for, but in the search bar, I typed, "Jacob's Beard."  Imagine Shawn's chagrin when he stopped by to see what I was doing, and discovered me peering in horror at a computer screen filled with hairy men's faces.  Anyway.  It's Jacob's Ladder.  It's nice.  It's also in the upper terrace, because I stuck it in the ground to wait until the lower terrace was prepared, and there it has remained.

We've had such dry weather, I've been having to water.  I should deep water, but I've been using the sprinkler.

Here you can see the spray of water, which is so gorgeous to watch in real life, sparkling and flying every which way before falling in nourishing, life-giving drops to the ground.

Because it has been so dry, all the little creatures gather in my garden when the sprinkler runs.  Robins glory in the cool mist.  A family of cardinals lives in our lilac bush, happily enjoying both the water and the birdfeeders that project from the deck.  A striped chipmunk tears about amongst my plants, digging holes and chattering angrily at me when I come out to weed or water.  He is astonishingly cheeky.  The other day as I approached, he ducked into a loose space between the steps, then turned around from inside his stronghold, clucking at me in a fury.

One day I looked out my kitchen window and saw something dangling in a spider's web that had appeared, strung from a euonymous to my astilbe.  My first reaction was disgust at a spider's web on my astilbe, but then I saw that the caught insect was a shining black and silver dragonfly.  He was hanging from his tail, spinning madly as he fought to free himself.

Immediately I left whatever I was working on in my kitchen sink, running back to the terrace where I pulled the dragonfly free and knocked down the spider's web.  The dragonfly was bound up in webbing; it had bent the end of his tail, and one of his wings also bent askew when he tried to move it.  I did the best I could to loosen his bonds, but in the end, I just placed him amongst the leaves of the lilac bush.

I hope cardinals do not eat dragonflies.  We have plenty of nice birdseed out for them, songbird mix.

It is astonishing to me how water brings life, making the plants grow, attracting the little animals and birds.  Water is amazing, inexplicable, a substance that behaves unexpectedly according to the rules of science, yet exists as a totally necessary compound for life.  We drink it.  We wash in it.  We are made of it.

This is Lady's Mantle, covered with water droplets.  It's one of the new plants I'm trying in my lower garden.  It doesn't have pink flowers.  Its flowers are a soft, almost unnoticeable yellow-green, with tiny, furry blossoms.  They are subtle, tasteful, understated.  This is why the plant is called "Lady's Mantle."  The flowers are said to adorn the most gentle and modest of ladies, the kind of ladies who do not like to draw attention to themselves.  Old European folklore has it that the Virgin Mary herself wore Lady's Mantle.

This is another picture of Lady's Mantle, at a different time of day, with different light, and not right after I turned off the sprinkler.  The leaves have a way of cupping morning dew in gleaming globes, holding it there, as if to invite a woodland creature or a tiny fairy to come have a delicious drink.

This is the view down the path that runs through my lower terrace.  We got that tiny Rose of Sharon for $11.98, presumably because it was so little.  It's blooming up a storm.  The nursery people seem to have really outdone themselves with fertilizing.

Here's my most recent shot of it.

Further down the path, we have two new hydrangeas.  These are not to be confused with my three droopy hydrangeas from last year.  These only get about an hour of sun per day.  They are happy.

You can also see some pink geranium blossoms in this photo.  These are perennial geranium, not the annuals that you see all over.  Between the pink geranium and the Rose of Sharon, I did still manage to insert some pink this year.  I was surprised when the hydrangeas turned blue, because originally, they looked like this:

But.  I will never complain about a blue hydrangea!

Off on the far side, I've planted some foxglove and some lilies of the valley.  That's the poison section of my garden!

I deadheaded this foxglove, and got a small rebloom.  I don't know what it will do next year.  Since it's a biennial that supposedly self-sows, I'm hoping it will reseed itself, and meanwhile I can plant more blooming foxglove from the nursery next year.  I wish I had bought three instead of one this year, but we shall see what we shall see.

I killed two tiny rhododendrons which I planted up near the water spigot.  They were just too tiny, I think, and had been overfertilized to produce a striking bloom for the store shelf.  I made the mistake of adding some plant food for acid loving plants after I put them in, and they just couldn't handle it all.  This afternoon, I cut them back to the ground, as I think their only hope is if they could somehow come back from the root.

Anyway, that's my garden, my shade garden in the back.

It never fails to amaze me when I put things into the ground and they actually grow.

Miracles abound.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Weeds and such

It's stinking hot.

My flowers need water, but I threw my back out Sunday afternoon, carrying a pile of brush to the curb for Chipperman, who was supposed to come Monday.  He didn't show up Monday, but he came today, for about 45 minutes, until his chipper motor overheated and he left.

I'm not really complaining about the heat.  I like it hot.  It's one of those perfect days, where the air conditioner is set to 78, and it feels like a refrigerator when you step in from outside.  I live for these days.  They are my favorite.  I just wish we could have some gentle rain in the evenings.  That would be perfect, beautiful, grace upon grace.  Sunny, 90 degree days, with cool, rainy nights, my absolute ideal of a climate.  I suppose heaven will be something like that, except maybe not exactly, because I don't know a lot of people besides myself who have a preference for 90 degrees.

There, you see just a speck of a cloud.  That was my sky a few days ago.  
We have a couple more clouds now, 
but nothing that looks like it has any inclination to rain on us.

Also, I wouldn't be averse to some healing for this back.  Watering the garden is pretty fun, if your back doesn't hurt.  You can bomb around with a hose, and get yourself wet like a little kid out in the heat and sunshine.  But having back spasms sort of sucks the joy out of the process.  I'm not meaning to complain.  I'm just saying.

Before I did my back in, I worked on thinning my cleome.  The first year I had cleome, I planted a packet of seeds.  The packet said, "Easy to grow!" so I sprinkled it over the ground, worked the seeds into the soil and waited.  Nothing came up.  In the end, I went to the premium nursery in town, and bought a couple of cleome bedding plants.  They grew, blossomed, and went to seed, and they've been self-sowing ever since.  It's okay, because I like them a lot, except when the thorny stems nick my fingers and draw blood.

Anyway, I was thinning the cleome, and as I pulled out the smaller competitors to free up the bigger plants for more vigorous growth, I noticed something.  There was crabgrass under the thick layer of little cleome volunteers.  Lurking, the nasty weed, figuring that under the lush baby cleome foliage, it would not be noticed.

Weeds do that.  I'm not sure how they do it, but they seem instinctively to know how to grow hidden, under things that are not weeds, camouflaged.  Some weeds grow next to seedlings that have similar leaf structures to theirs.  Some weeds are really good at pretending to be authentic plants, until they get big enough to do real damage, popping their blossoms and spreading invasive seeds everywhere.

The weeds in our lives are like that, too.  Sin camouflages itself next to virtues.

Criticism hides under discernment.  Indulgence hides under grace.  Fear hides under prudence.  Bitterness hides under perseverance.  Laziness hides under peace.  Disengagement hides under trust.  Pride hides under confidence.  Perfectionism hides under excellence.  Manipulation hides under love.  Self-loathing hides under humility.  Self-righteousness hides under righteousness.  They grow up together, a bad quality with a good one, and it is very hard for us to figure out how to root out the right one, and preserve the other one.

Life is hard.  This is why we need the gospel.  Only through the atoning death of Christ can we have access to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit helps us understand the truth of God, and thus make our way.  Lord, please rain your grace down on us and help us every day.

For the word of God is living and active, 
sharper than any two-edged sword, 
piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, 
of joints and of marrow, 
and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
~Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God.

Recently, I was asked a couple of questions.

(1) What is the point of praying if God doesn't ever change His mind?
(2) Why would scripture encourage the prayers of the righteous on behalf of others if it doesn't affect them?

To answer these questions, we first need to try to wrap our minds around the person of God Himself.  In modern Christendom, our sad tendency is to focus on mankind, on ourselves, on "relevance" and pragmatism and expediency:  "What do I get out of a relationship with God?"  Although there are many glorious benefits to knowing and loving God, if your motivation is driven by selfish pragmatism, you are likely to miss out on them.

We need to spend time, like Mary the sister of Martha, sitting at the Lord's feet and gazing at His face, growing in wonder and love as we bask in His presence.  This doesn't fall neatly into our modern ideology of "application," where a person studies a passage of the Bible, then assembles a list of five principles to apply to life by going forth and doing specific "action items" in response to the fabled and revered "call to action."  The Lord does call us to action, but the first action He desires from us is that we know and love Him intimately (John 6:29).  Cultivating this relationship is never a waste of time.  I like to draw near to God by reading scripture and also by contemplating His attributes.

Where prayer is concerned, for me the most pertinent attributes of God are His goodness, His faithfulness and His sovereignty.  God is absolutely good and His plans are perfect and loving, always designed to magnify His glory and bless us in the process.  Because He is perfectly good, we can have complete confidence as we trust Him.  We can trust His every decision and judgment.  He will never make a mistake.  He will never get anything wrong.  He is completely faithful to all of His promises, steadfast, always keeping His word.  (We do need to make sure that we know what His promises are; we cannot expect Him to fulfill promises He never made.)

God is also sovereign, which means He has the power and ability to answer our prayers.  However, His sovereignty is a sticking point for many people.  The sovereignty of God is His ultimate authority and control over all things.  The book of Daniel calls it His eternal dominion.  God makes the plans.  God calls the shots.  God carries out His purposes.  Passages that explain the sovereignty of God include Psalm 115:3, Isaiah 46:9-11 and Daniel 4:34-35 (this is not an exhaustive list).

The sovereignty of God encompasses His omniscience and His eternal nature.  God knows everything, and He exists outside of time, which is something we cannot grasp, but ultimately, if we can understand anything, we must realize that God knows all things simultaneously, whether (from our perspective) they happened long ago, are happening now, or have not happened yet.  This means that He is never surprised, never takes a guess, and never has to wait to gather the facts before He makes a decision.  When we sometimes call Him the Author of life, we indicate an understanding that He has designed and is orchestrating all the events of history: past, present and future.  Someday in heaven, it will take us all of eternity to study and appreciate all the ways He has intricately interwoven all the events of the lives of all the people who have ever lived to create a masterpiece that displays His unfathomable creative genius.

Many people do not like the idea of the sovereignty of God, because it leads us to some difficult questions: Why should we pray, if God already has a plan that He is going to carry out?  How is it fair that God has chosen to grant salvation to some people, and not to others (Romans 9:14-18), and if He's already decided whom to save, why should we bother sharing the gospel with anyone?  If God is sovereign, why is there persecution and suffering, and why do little children undergo sexual abuse?

These are difficult questions, and it can be troubling to ponder them.  The "short answer" -- which will not be particularly comforting in its short form -- is that we are called to humility and faith, trusting, even when we do not understand (Psalm 131), that our good God, who demonstrated His love for us by dying for us while we were yet sinners, will work out all things for our good to the praise of His glory.

We struggle to be humble in the face of the sovereignty of God because we default to assumptions about God based on how we understand ourselves.  We apply human standards to Him, and we think that He is much more similar to us than He is. We even find ourselves falling into the hubris of critiquing and evaluating His actions based on our human perspectives of what is good or fair.  However, when we consider scriptures such as Psalm 50:21, Isaiah 29:15-16, Isaiah 55:8-9 and Jeremiah 23:23-24, we see that we are acting inappropriately when we do this, forgetting our position before our Maker.  This is a particular pitfall in our current times, because the teaching in the churches so often focuses on what God has done for us, as "precious individuals."  We really start to believe that it is all about us, and forget that it is all about God.  We barely look at God, except in terms of how we figure He can benefit us.  Of course, He does benefit us, but this is a corollary blessing, and when we make the corollary blessing our goal, we actually fall into a trap of idolatry, in worshipping the gift rather than the Giver.

It is important to understand that God is very different from us, even if we are incapable of actually understanding all the implications of that fact.  Here is a very important point that my son David and I discuss sometimes:  The sovereignty of God and the omniscience of God look completely different from His perspective than they do from ours.  Even though God has already designed and planned every event throughout all of history, we still have to get up every day and decide which socks to wear and what to spread on our toast.  God already knows it all, but we still have to go through the process of living and doing and making decisions.  Yes, we are still responsible to make decisions, regardless of the fact that God knows (and even designed) what those decisions would be, in advance.  (Incidentally, I find this amazingly comforting when I must make a difficult decision--to remind myself that God already knows what I am going to decide and how it will all work out.  I find it really helpful, and I have been grateful for this truth a number of times in my life.)

I have seen people who learned of the sovereignty of God and interpreted it to mean that they had no active responsibility to do anything--that God would do it all.  They assumed that God's sovereignty meant that they could just sit back and indulge the flesh, because God was responsible to make them want to do otherwise, if He so chose.  This is a tragedy, and it tempts me to beat myself up for times I have taught passionately about the sovereignty of God.  Yet, the Bible shows me that the sovereignty of God is a true thing, and thus I must trust Him--even when people misinterpret the meaning of this truth--to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  He even knows and has planned for all of these seeming tragedies, and He specializes in creating beauty from ashes, restoring, healing and redeeming.

In terms of salvation, the sovereignty of God gives us exactly zero excuses for neglecting to go out and declare the good news of the gospel of Christ.  We are commanded to share the gospel!  His sovereignty means that He has already designed the circumstances where we will share, and He has already been at work plowing up the hearts He has chosen to be affected by our testimonies (Ephesians 2:10, Acts 8:26-40).  Remember, we are walking blind to the future, while God sees and knows and is in control of all things.  This is actually the essence of faith: we cannot see what is going to happen, but God already has it all worked out.

The same is true for the connection between the sovereignty of God and prayer.  He has a plan all laid out.  Therefore, as we journey through our lives, not knowing the future, we pray because we do not know what is going to happen, but He does.  Faithfully believing, we come to Him in supplication for help.

What is the point of praying if God doesn't change His mind?  The point is that prayer is God's way of leading us into a faith walk with Him, teaching us to trust Him.  He draws us into prayer so we can experience Him.  When we pray for something, God focuses our spiritual eyes so that we can see His activity in the world around us.  He shows us His work.

On the day of 9/11, I was homeschooling my daughter Laura.  She had a doctor's appointment for a physical that morning.   In the strangeness of all that was happening, we numbly got ready for the appointment and went.  As we drove down highway 481, I think we may have been the only car on the road.  I remember the odd silence, and the eeriness of the empty sky above, all air traffic having been halted.  I turned on the car radio.  The two towers had been hit, and the Pentagon, but authorities were still trying to track the last rogue flight.   The Spirit of God moved mightily in my heart, and I found myself fervently praying for the people on that last flight, Flight 93.  I prayed for God to be with them, to help them, and to put His people on that plane to work His salvation.  The prayer just welled up out of me, and I felt the Spirit.  In spite of the panic and fear, I felt an inexplicable comfort and surety that God was hearing my prayers; He was there.  Later, when I learned the story of Todd Beamer, right down to the detail of the open Bible, unburned, on the ground at the crash site in Pennsylvania, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that God had heard and answered my prayer.  It moved me to tears.  I believe that many God-followers were praying hard that day, and I certainly do not attribute the outcome specifically to my prayer.  Yet, it gives me a tremendous sense of having had the privilege of being a part of the working out of God's plan, because He moved me to pray on that drive down 481 to a pediatrician's office.

Conversely, if we neglect to pray, we usually fail to see the hand of God working.  We just don't notice.  He's constantly at work, whether we pray or not, and actually, this is a great comfort to me.  God can and will complete His will, with or without my prayers.  I am called to be faithful to pray, but what a great comfort to know that if I forget to pray for a particular item one day, or if I pray in the wrong way, or if I am at the end of myself, God is still sovereign and perfectly capable of working out His will.  He will not fail.  He is totally trustworthy.  In fact, when I have come to the point where I just can't find the words to pray on a particular day, Jesus himself is at the right hand of God interceding for me, and the Holy Spirit is groaning for me.  It isn't about my prayers.  It's about God!  He's the one who is always watching over us, never slumbering or sleeping.  He's the one with the power and authority to bring His perfect will to pass.

Why would scripture encourage the prayers of the righteous on behalf of others if it doesn't affect them?  First, we are not only encouraged to pray, we are absolutely commanded to pray (you can start with 1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Second, we haven't said that prayer "doesn't affect" anything.  Do you think that my prayer in the car on 9/11/2001 had no effect, if God had already decided--predestined, if you will--to do a work through the courageous acts of men aboard Flight 93?  Do you think it was simply superfluous?  I don't.

This question (the one I underlined above) is based on James 5:16-18, which says, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  Elijah was a righteous man just like us.  He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.  Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops."

Interestingly, the story of Elijah, referenced here, exactly supports what I am trying to communicate.  If you read that story out of 1 Kings 17-18, you will realize that there is, in fact, very little reference to Elijah actually praying about any drought.  Elijah was a prophet, and these chapters are mostly about Elijah bringing the word of the Lord to King Ahab, who didn't want to hear it.  In fact, Elijah himself suffered significantly from the famine that God brought on the land.  In fact, King Ahab hated Elijah, blamed God's actions on Elijah, tried to kill Elijah, and called Elijah, "You troubler of Israel!"  All Elijah did was faithfully proclaim the word of the Lord, whereby the Lord was fulfilling His promises of long ago, recorded in Deuteronomy 28:15-24 (God always keeps his promises).  None of this was Elijah's idea.  It was all God's idea, God's plan to fulfill His purposes.

Elijah prayed in 1 Kings 17:21-23 and in 1 Kings 18:36-38, but these instances are not directly related to the famine and ensuing rain that the James passage references.  Were it not for the book of James, we may not have ever realized that there was any connection between the famine and Elijah's prayers.  We recognize Elijah's posture in 1 Kings 18:42 as prayer because James explains to us that it is. You see, God's will preceded and directed Elijah's prayers concerning the discipline of Israel through the beginning and ending of the drought.  The main point, the big take-away, is that Elijah prayed for God's will to be done, and the nation of Israel saw God's will come to pass.  God told Elijah to do this, and Elijah obeyed.  God got His will done, and showed that He was the one doing it.  Whether or not Elijah's prayers caused God's will to be done is something we may never understand this side of Heaven, especially since God instigated Elijah's prayer in the first place.  How do we, with our mortal minds, deconstruct what happened here?  But we know for certain that God used Elijah to pray, and thus focused the nation's attention on His own hand as He directed these circumstances.  The fact that James references this particular answer to prayer, rather than the two nearby examples where Elijah simply asked for and received something he needed, is significant: Prayer helps us see God work out His will.  It is not a means for influencing God to work out our will.

I've recently been fascinated by all the seemingly outrageous promises in the Bible, where Jesus tells us that God will give us what we ask for.  Check out Matthew 7:7-11, Luke 11:11-13, John 14:13, John 14:14, John 15:7, John 15:16, John 16:23, John 16:24, and 1 John 5:14-15.  Interestingly, many of these references are intertwined with the promise of the coming Holy Spirit and say things like, "If you ask in my name," or, "If you ask according to my will."  I've written more about these things here and (especiallyhere.  The simple truth of it is this: God wants us to abide in Him, tabernacling His very essence, His Holy Spirit. . . and when we do, when we walk with the Spirit and are led by Him, we will ask for what God wants to give us--indeed, what He already plans, in His great benevolence, to give us--and we will receive it!  (This is my prayer: that the Holy Spirit Himself will lead me to pray for what He wants me to pray for--then what victory!)

James 4:3 warns us that we will not receive what we ask for if we ask with wrong motives, only to "spend what you get on your pleasures."  This points back to an earlier point I made, that we must seek the Giver and not the gift if we are to see our prayers answered.  Contrast this with Ephesians 6:18, which exhorts us to pray at all times in the Spirit, making supplication for all the saints.  We are to live, think, and pray in accordance with the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

Prayer is a practical discipline that we can practice to help us draw near to God and be aware of what He is at work doing all around us.  Even if God has already foreordained the answers to our prayers (just as He knew I would choose to wear a pink shirt today), from my perspective and in my experience, He is responding to me, actively participating in my life, sometimes teaching me faith and patience by making me wait for an answer, and sometimes surprising me with quick and delightful answers to my prayers.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Attitudes, messiness, and communities of faith

Happy June!

I've written a couple of posts lately that I had to hold back.  Attitude problems.

Yes, I struggle with attitude problems.  I struggle so much, I'm suspicious of people who appear not to have any problems.  I don't trust them.  I figure they're faking me out, and I tend to resent that.

My attitudes bristle over three types of people:
(1)  People who act artificially sunny and give the impression that they are looking at me and thinking, "I have my life all together.  Why don't you?"
(2)  Bossy people.
(3)  People who seem to be competing with me.  I have no desire to compete with you.  I have no desire either to beat you or to be beaten by you.  If you insist on competing with me, I will go elsewhere.  Sometimes even if you don't think you are competing with me, but I think you are competing with me, I will go elsewhere.  I distance myself from competition.

I've been a loner most my whole life.  This likely stems from my dislike of being bossed or competed with, and my unusually cynical distrust of people who hide their problems.

Once I found a blog that was called something about a messy Christian.  I thought, "I have found my people!  That's what I am!  I'm a messy Christian."

To me, a messy Christian is one who goes around with egg on her face and her foot in her mouth, who can't wear white clothes to anything, ever, without coming home filthy.  She slips on the ice in the parking lot on Easter Sunday and goes down like a ton of bricks, tearing holes in her nylons and staining her dress with blood from a scraped knee.  A messy Christian disappoints herself and offends others.  She makes fettuccine alfredo to take to the man who just came home from the hospital after a heart attack.  She serves the Communion crackers and juice to the nursery toddlers by mistake (because they were saltines and Juicy Juice).  She claps offbeat, sings during rests and parks in the pastor's reserved parking spot by mistake.  She faints during the Christmas cantata and awakens surrounded by an angelic sea of tall people in choir robes looking down at her.  She offends the liberals by trying to obey what the Bible says about women's roles, and she offends the conservatives by inviting a homosexual to attend a church event with her.  Her phone might even ring during a funeral (because she forgot to silence it).

Here's a messy Christian example:  Once I was in a Bible study with some people, and we were talking about money and materialism.  I said, "Yeah, you know?  I was reading this book recently, and the character in the book said that his prayer was for God to make him neither too rich, nor too poor.  He was afraid that if he got too rich, he would forget God, but if he got too poor, he would be tempted to steal.  So he prayed for something in the middle.  I think that sounds good."  The leader of the study looked at me, dumbfounded, for a minute.  Then he began to laugh uproariously.  "That's Proverbs.  That's in Proverbs 30!" he exclaimed.  Well, who would've thought?  There it was, Proverbs 30:8-9.

But then I started reading that particular messy Christian blog, and it was all about getting messy with parsing up the Bible, cherry-picking the parts she liked and pitching the rest, defying classical doctrine and repudiating tradition on the basis of its being tradition, and not based on whether it was actually Biblical.  That's a different level of messy.  I hope I'm not messy like that; or, if I start to become so, I hope that someone--or God Himself--will correct me and get me back on track.

There's this thing with the term hypocrite.  You can't call a Christian a hypocrite because she makes messes and fails to live up to the standard.  We all fail to live up to the standard, all the time.  Jesus is the standard.  None of us can do what He did.  This is not hypocritical.  Jesus is God, and we are not God.

At the same time, we have to continue to try to live by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Since the Spirit is real, and He comes to reside inside the body of every believer, actually calling our bodies His temple, this is something we can do.  We can't do it perfectly, because we are still weighed down by the the fallenness of the material world.  But we can learn and grow in excellence and holiness.  Indeed, we must, and we will, if we are truly indwelt by the Holy Spirit, which we are, if we have authentically asked to be.  That's not to say that we won't have moments of spectacular failure; look at David and Bathsheba and Uriah.  But there is always forgiveness; look at 1 John 1:9.

I think you are only a hypocrite if you hide your sins, struggles, sorrow and insecurities.  It's the hiding that makes you a hypocrite, the untruthfulness and the projection of an image suggesting that you think you are better than others.  Real Christians do not think they are better than others.  They know they are worse than others (1 Timothy 1 :16 --well, yes, Paul had been a murderer of Christians, but we all do terrible things).  We have known the bitterness of sin, and it has driven us to the relief of the Savior's arms.  We struggle with all manner of earthly troubles, temptations and trials, but we have found our antidote in Christ who forgives, cleanses and heals.

Let us seek to join together in communities of faith where we can be open, honest and safe together, where we can confess our sins to each other as the Bible says (James 5:16), and receive prayer and encouragement rather than betrayal, rejection, condemnation and isolation.  Accountability is what helps us succeed, but there is no accountability where everyone wears a mask of perfection.  How can we build churches where trust will flourish, breeding vulnerability, and leading to encouragement and accountability?

Sometimes it might be true that certain churches attract people who are adept at behaving nicely, and thus you wind up with a lot of really well-behaved people walking around with their well-behaved masks on.  This makes spiritually struggling people feel uncomfortable and frightened.  Jesus Himself said that He came for the sick, not the healthy.  There are only two kinds of people in the world: (1) those who are currently very spiritually sick, and (2) those who used to be very spiritually sick, but Jesus healed them and gave them a second chance.  There is nobody who should be prideful.  Either you need Jesus but you haven't found Him yet, or you need Jesus but you have found Him, benefitted from His grace, and stand ready to help others find Him, too.

Let's be encouraging, not bossy.  Let's replace rules with stories about our failures and our triumphs as we live out our faith, while remembering that our stories are particular to us.  The Holy Spirit works uniquely in every situation, perfectly customizing His power for each individual.  He will never lead us into sin, but as we walk in faith together, we must remember that there is a difference between the steadfast, spiritual principles of righteousness and the specific, varied steps a person may follow to find God's will.   Ultimately, though, the goal must be healing, not symptom management.  We have to be willing, together, to seek freedom from sin.

Let's cooperate to encourage one another to love and good works, celebrating each person's success, building up, equipping, and trusting God to build a powerful synergy when we lose ourselves in the joy of helping each other grow.