Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Forgiveness, yet again

I keep coming back to forgiveness.  It seems to be a major theme on this blog.

I didn't know it was such a major theme in my life.  Yet, life in a fallen world leads to hurt and pain, and hurt and pain point to our need to forgive over and over again, or as Jesus said, seventy times seven times.

Forgiveness is more between you and God than between you and the person who hurt you.  When you forgive someone, you tell the Lord, "I will leave this to You."  You trust Him to keep His word, "Vengeance is mine."  You pray for mercy for the offender, when you can.  You may need to pray for the ability to pray for mercy.

There is a mistaken notion that forgiveness means we pretend nothing bad ever happened, and we say, "It's okay; it doesn't matter; it's nothing," even though this is not the truth.  And then, in this mistaken notion, life proceeds exactly as before: perfect trust and openness is instantly restored, and the birds sing in dulcet harmony under the shining sun.

In reality, when we forgive, we say, "You hurt me, but I choose to absorb it.  I will not strike back at you.  I will treat you with respect.  I will hope and pray for your best."  This is incredibly difficult to do.  Honestly, I don't know how a person could do it in the absence of a relationship with God.  To forgive, you need the security of knowing that the Lord loves you and will never leave you nor forsake you.  You need to understand that when you absorb the hurt, it is Jesus in you, absorbing it with you, and Jesus is enough.  Jesus will one day bring justice to earth and make all things right.

When we choose to forgive someone who has hurt us, it doesn't mean that we instantly trust that person implicitly.  Forgiveness can be granted in a moment, but the restoration of trust can take a long time.  This is the way things are.  Trust is easy to break, and hard to rebuild, and just because you have forgiven doesn't mean that the restoration of the relationship is perfect and complete all at once.  God forgives us, but then comes the sanctification process, which lasts a lifetime.  Similarly, when you forgive someone, it means that you are opening the door to give that person a chance to work on restoring your trust.  While the person is working on this restoration process, you (having forgiven him) treat him with courtesy, kindness and caution.  Yes, it is wise to be careful.  It is not wrong to guard your heart.  Be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.

In my personal experience, there are two things that make forgiveness much harder, even, than it is in the first place.  One is when the person who hurt you does not admit that he hurt you and will not say that he is sorry.  The other is when the person who hurt you will not forgive you.  These are related, because in both cases, the offending party is saying, "This is your problem, not mine."  Blame-shifters are hard to forgive.  Unfortunately, blame-shifting is a terribly common human tactic.

It is a good thing to be able to recognize when you have been hurt, to name it and define it.  The longer you have lived in a place where this did not happen, the harder it will be to do.  Naming and defining a hurt is important; it is not the same as being bitter or bearing a grudge.  There may be times when someone hurts you, and he doesn't admit that he did.  He may say, "You are just over-reacting," or "You are ridiculously sensitive," or "You are irrational to interpret it that way." The situation will be compounded if other people join in with his voice, telling you the same things.

If you are hurt, you are hurt, rational or irrational.  If someone loves you, he will care.  Love is concerned with how it communicates with others.  Love "bears all things," which sometimes means that a loving person bears responsibility for how someone responds to what he has done.  A loving person would rather clear up a problem than live in a state of insisting that he never did anything wrong.  However, everyone doesn't love you, and you still need to forgive.  So if you are hurt, and whoever ought to be acknowledging the hurt and making amends is looking the other way instead, you still need to forgive.  You need to take it to the Lord.  If you can at least name the hurt, and talk to the Lord about it, He will help you bear it, absorb it and forgive.  If you have been hurt, you will not be able to forgive until you name the hurt and take it to God, so don't be afraid to do this.  God may show you, in the process, that things are not as bad as you thought, or that you had more responsibility in the beginning than you realized, but you will not open the door to this cleansing if you will not first name the hurt.

If a person comes to you and says that he is sorry, and asks for forgiveness, please forgive him.  I know that this can be a thing with (for instance) abusive husbands.  They sometimes come all sorry and repentant to their wives and say, "I'll never get drunk again.  I'll never hit you again.  I'm sorry.  I promise."  Here is a prime example of how forgiveness does not equal restoration of trust.  You can forgive and even set parameters, hedges, conditions:  "I forgive you, but I'm not going to live in a house with you until you have gone through a treatment program and we have seen a counselor on a regular basis for six months," something like that.  This is not an absence of forgiveness; this is forgiveness combined with a plan to work towards restoration.  This is a good thing.  It can occur in less extreme situations, too.

Sometimes a person hurts you and then says, "You are a bad person for being hurt by what I did.  I can't believe that you are acting like this.  I am angry and disappointed in you for acting this way.  I do not approve of your character, and I do not like your personality.  You are not a worthy person, and I do not value you."  This is incredibly difficult, but you still have to forgive.  It stings, I know.  I know.  But you can't walk through life bent down by the grudge that is held against you.  The Lord will help you.  The Lord loves you.  He rejoices over you with singing.  He shelters you under His wings.  He sent His beloved Son to die for you and bring you into fellowship with Himself.  He forgives all your sins and heals you.  He restores your soul.  When someone hurts you and then condemns you, go to Jesus.  Run to Jesus.  Place the whole mess in Jesus' hands.  Cast your cares on Him, for He cares for you.  He will carry you through.  He will handle it in perfect wisdom and power.

In this life, we are all fallen, and we all make mistakes, we all sin.  There is no interpersonal relationship, ever, where one person is completely at fault and the other person is completely innocent.  Only God is perfect in all His interactions with us; in our relationship with Him, each of us is completely at fault and He is completely perfect.  Yet He forgives us.  This is why we must always forgive one another, fellow flawed souls that we are.  We have no excuse.

Ultimately, it is good for us.  It releases us, makes us free, gives us peace, restores our joy.

Friday, May 22, 2015

21 years ago (or, "You forgot my birthday!")

Twenty-one years ago, my son David turned three.  But to tell this story, one must really go back twenty-two years, when he turned two.

David turned two, and I don't remember much about it.  David turned two in the spring after a very difficult winter, and the fact that we survived was the overwhelming point.  But yes, David turned two.

Approximately four months after David turned two, Laura turned one, and there was a cake and a modest celebration.  I do not believe that Laura's birthday was what instigated the trouble.

Two weeks after Laura turned one, Shannon turned four.  Shannon had a party, a princess party with quite a few little girls filling the house.  There were dress up clothes, play jewelry, treats and party bags, games, candles and singing.  After the party was over, the family enjoyed a rather rustic cake that I had tried to make in the shape of a castle, with lollipops topping the four turret-y things on the corners, supposedly like flags.  We have rather a famous picture of David crying his heart out because he wanted the orange lollipop.

The morning after Shannon's party, David came sobbing to the breakfast table, proclaiming, "You forgot my birthday!"

I had a momentary panic.  He was two, not even quite two-and-a-half.  Yet, he was convinced that we had forgotten to celebrate his birthday.

Could I reason with him and help him remember the cake he'd had back in May?  I considered his moist red face and decided to try working the other direction.

"We didn't forget your birthday, Davey," I assured him.  "Your birthday is not until May."  I picked him up and carried him to the calendar on the wall.  "See," I showed him, "It is October right now . . . " I paged through the calendar, showing him October, November and December, explaining that we had to finish all these months, then even buy a new calendar, before we would get to May again and celebrate his birthday.

He settled reluctantly, and all was well until the end of December which was complicated by (1) my birthday and (2) the purchase of a new calendar.  "You forgot my birthday!"  David wept in despair.

"Oh honey," I explained, "this is the new calendar, but we have to go through all these pages before we get to May, when your birthday is.  Your birthday is in May."  I demonstrated how we count days off, starting with church on Sunday each week, and at the end of the grid of boxes for one month, we would turn the page to the next month.

He sort of relaxed.

In February, Shawn had his birthday, which resurrected the trauma.  Like clockwork, the next morning Davey arose in tears, "You forgot my birthday!"  Trying hard to be patient, I explained again.  He looked very suspicious.  He was watching closely now.  At random times throughout March and April, distress arose, and David desperately accused me, "You forgot my birthday!"  Again and again, I took him to the calendar and showed him the picture for May.  "Not until we get to this page, the May page. Your birthday is in May," I told him.

At some point in the middle of April, it occurred to me that we would soon be turning the page to May, and David's birthday would still be 22 days away.  My heart shriveled in my throat.  My hands began to sweat.

When Shawn got home from work, I told him, "We are going to have to celebrate David's birthday on May 1.  He's been waiting for it since last October, and he is beside himself.  When the calendar flips to May, if he doesn't get a party, he will be sure that we have totally disregarded his birthday."  Shawn thought it would be a good learning experience for David to wait.  He was not the one who had been fielding all the anxiety for the last six months.  I pleaded.  I prevailed.

I don't even remember what kind of a party it was.  Maybe it was Elmo; maybe it was cowboys?  I suppose I could figure it out if I pulled out my picture bins and searched.  I do remember that there was a table full of little boys, and a colorful paper table cover.  David wore Oshkosh denim overalls and a red striped shirt, and his blue eyes were literally glazed over with thrill.  It was his birthday, his actual, real, long-anticipated birthday, the very day.  Well, not really.  It was May 1.  But it was the day he had been waiting for so long.  He stood intensely in his chair at the end of the table, rising above his guests, memorizing the colors, the smells, the burning candles on his cake.

"It's your birthday, Davey," we cheered.  "It's your birthday!"

You have never seen a child listen to the singing of the birthday song and blow his candles out with more pageant and solemnity.  His face was white, his eyes were glassy, and his hair shone like gold under the dining room light.  With all the fiber of his nearly three-year-old consciousness, he intently drank in every last moment of the event.

I wonder if he thought it was the only birthday he'd have in his life?  I probably had not explained that we each get a birthday every year we are alive.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On the idea of the Life Force and wasted maple seeds.

On Tuesday I swept bushels of maple seeds off our deck.

In Liverpool we had a maple tree, and it dropped seeds, but somehow it was nothing like the maple seed profusion we have here.

Maybe it's because we have two trees?  I don't know, because it seems like significantly more than twice as many seeds.  They pile in the landscaping as thick as mulch, and I halfheartedly try to scoop them up with my hands when I go out to weed.  They litter the roof and stick up out of the "gutter guards" that are supposed to shield our gutters, like a scabby blond fringe.  If we don't get up there and clean them off, they might produce a vagrant crop of little maple trees sprouting on high.

A couple of weekends ago, Shawn and I sat out on the sun porch while maple seeds flew off the tree in back, filling the sky like a swarm of spinning insects, catching the sun on their glistening backs as they spiraled madly through the air, droves of them, glancing off the windows with sharp pings.

More will germinate than I would wish, but even so, it is overwhelming to think how many will simply decay and come to nothing.  So much plant potential unrealized.  How much potential life is squandered in this world, I wonder?

Springtime and seeds, new life, goslings, fawns, baby bunnies (Shawn saved a rabbit litter the other day while he was mowing), nests filled with eggs, unfurling leaves and flowers and blossoms, weddings and honeymoons and newborn babies, all these things are precious reminders of the grace of God in our fallen world.

God left this life-force at work in the world, even after sin had stolen in and sullied perfection.  Even though all creation hurtles towards ultimate destruction under the death-force of the serpent who deceived and stole, even though everything in all creation is on a path towards death and decay, God left a life-force in the world as a witness of Himself:  Beauty.  New Birth.  Hope.

I once knew a lady who told me that she particularly loved music and flowers.  "Music and flowers," she told me, "are special gifts from God because they aren't good for anything except just to be enjoyed, just to be beautiful."  She wasn't married, so I was embarrassed to tell her what occurred to me--and I kept quiet--that flowers are the seed-producing part of the plant.  Flowers are all about reproduction, or, you know, sex.

Sex, sunrise and springtime are the beautiful things, the hopeful things that God gives us for encouragement, to bring us joy and hope eternal.  It isn't any wonder that the crafty old serpent does everything he can to mess up our encouragement and our hope.  He can't affect the natural rhythms that God built into the cosmos of a day or a year, but he can get to us where our ideas of sex are concerned.

Sex is good.  God gave it to us so that parents would bond to one another in love and loyalty, and so that people would want to populate the earth, enjoying, marveling in the miracle of new life.  The life force, under the design of God, is a very good thing.

I've been studying Romans, and it is interesting to look at how the descent into sin progresses.  First there is a denial of God, a refusal to acknowledge who He is and that He exists.  Second, after denying God, the person begins to worship something else, a created thing rather than the Creator.  This is also known as idolatry, but it doesn't necessarily involve worshiping a statue.  We were created to worship, and so we must worship something; if not God, then perhaps money, fame, power, popularity, entertainment, pleasure, comfort or even straight-up self.  Third, as humans devalue themselves by worshiping worthless things, they become consumed by trying to fulfill their own pleasures, which leads to sexual sins.  Fourth, the descent into sexual sin opens the door to all manner of sins: lying, cheating, arrogance, backstabbing, murder, hatred, mercilessness.  Fifth, they become recruiters, encouraging others to sin with them.  (See Romans 1:18-32 for more details.)

It is interesting that sexual sin is third on the list, a subtle sin on the way to obvious sins.  This does not mean that sexual sin is less significant.  According to Jesus, the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; to break this command is to be indifferent, to refuse to acknowledge God.  To break the most important commandment must be a very significant sin indeed, but it is the very first sin in the chain of events, a "gateway sin" (like a gateway drug) that leads to uglier sins.  So, I'm not saying that sexual sin (at #3 in the chain) is less serious than other sin.  Rather, I'm saying that sexual sin is sufficiently surreptitious that it draws people in such a way that they do not apprehend the danger.  Sexual sin is harder for the average human to recognize as sin than, for instance, murder or even slander.  Sexual sin appears not to hurt anybody.  But really?

Sex is good, a life-force in opposition to the death-forces that are mostly at work in our fallen world.  God gave it to us in grace, with parameters and safeguards, so that we could see that there is hope of new life, new birth, happiness, love, beauty, pleasure, safety and security.  Of course the devil wants to pervert this.  Of course he does.  It is a picture of the beauty, goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, so the devil wants to scribble all over it and make God's reflection in it unrecognizable.

I think perhaps that the sins God finds ugliest and the sins we find ugliest are at opposite ends of the sin spectrum.  We have more repugnance for sins that show up as ugly, leaving bruises, blood and tears in their wake.  I think God despises the sins that are camouflaged, because they are the ones that lead us astray, deceiving us, and He pities us.  God created both the laws of nature and the laws of morality, the physical universe and the moral universe.  He understands how it all works, while our understanding is very limited.  God knows that all sin leads to death, and someday He will bring an end to all sin.

For now, He is patient, wanting all men to come to repentance.  Yet, He is not patient forever.  In His perfect knowledge, God knows which people will never turn their hearts to Him.  As He waits and prepares for the final Day of Reckoning, He allows localized days of reckoning, days when the end comes for a neighborhood hit by a tornado, a city broken by an earthquake, an airplane full of people dropping into the sea.  These people meet their reckoning, and they are either ready to enter the presence of the Lord in joy, or they are forever lost on that day, like so many billowing maple seeds, swept up and tossed away, never to germinate.

Sometimes survivors get very angry when they see these calamities come to pass.  They insist that the Lord has no right to do such things, no right to bring any destruction on the earth.  They do not understand that every day God holds back complete annihilation from this evil world is a day of pure grace.  This world has been marked for destruction ever since Eve bit into the fruit, but God, in mercy and forbearance, has been working to save and purify a people for Himself anyway.  God's children will not live on this broken earth forever; He will deliver us to a New Heaven and a New Earth, redeemed and perfect, where there will be no more weeds, pestilence, disease, danger or sin.  This present earth is not the New Earth.  This present earth will never be utopia.  This present earth will burn, and God does not want us to burn with it.

Sometimes God, in His great mercy, allows partial calamities, times when people lose much, but not their lives.  This is a mercy, even grace, because He is reminding them that their day of reckoning will come, but it has not come yet.  They still have another chance.  Choose life, He exhorts.  Choose Jesus.

Monday, May 18, 2015


That is a very misleading title, because I have no pictures.

I have no pictures, because the sun is setting, and pictures would not turn out if I took them now.  My limbs ache, my skin is tacky with old sunscreen and dried sweat, and my scent is unpleasant.  Perhaps tonight I will bathe before bed, a long, slow soak in Epsom salts.

Last year I planted zinnias and nasturtiums, and they brought me a great deal of happiness.  So, this year I decided to plant seeds again.  I bought alyssum, zinnias, cosmos and cleome (I believe I just listed them in height order from shortest to tallest).

No nasturtiums.  Shawn doesn't care for them.  He doesn't like sunflowers, either, because when he was little, one of his cousins told him that aliens physically entered sunflowers and possessed them while spying on humans and plotting to overtake the world.  Sunflowers have always given Shawn the creeps, but I'm not sure why he dislikes nasturtiums.  Maybe it's because the summer I grew them in NY, I was always sneaking them into salads to be fancy; they are very peppery-hot.  I did not serve nasturtiums even once last summer, though.

So anyway, I planted alyssum, zinnias, cosmos and cleome, whole packets of seeds sprinkled liberally into the small spaces of my garden plot.  They were not Burpee seeds.

The alyssum came up quite well.  A few zinnia seedlings finally made an appearance.  I believe I counted four (4) cosmo seedlings.  As for the cleome--three weeks later, there is not a single sprout of cleome. "Easy to grow!" the cleome packet had claimed.  Next year I will try Burpee cleome seeds and see if they work any better.

Today I went to a garden center; Prairie Gardens, it's called, and it's kind of like Hafner's in North Syracuse, except it carries dishes, jewelry, scarves, furniture, wedding supplies, and candles, in addition to all the garden stock you can imagine.

I bought bedding plants:  cosmos and cleome, since my seeds had made such a poor (or non-existent) showing.  I also bought some white snapdragons because they were there, and because my Grandma Rainbow always used to plant snapdragons (she also planted zinnias).  I like flowers that remind me of her.

I stuck my little bedding plants into my garden, in and amongst the fading foliage from my tulips and daffodils.  The beauty has not been made manifest yet; it is a garden in transition.

Oh my word.  Rabbits.

While planting my bedding plants, I noticed what looked like zinnia seedlings that may have been chewed off.  Of course, it is very difficult to identify a seedling when only the stem is left.  Right.

But.  Rabbits.  I meant to sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes around my new baby plants.  Better go do that now.  In the dark.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sin, the Promise, the Law, and the Word of God

It all starts with God.

In the beginning, God.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Scientifically speaking, we do not know exactly how He did this, or how time might have been measured in the era before planets began to spin on their axes and orbit their stars.  Time could not be measured until there was light, but the first thing God said was, "Let there be light."  Symbolically, light could mean the dawn of understanding, but practically, it might mean the first foundation of a time-space continuum in which humanity could incubate.

God created time.  God created space.  God created matter.  Nothing comes from nothing.  Everything comes from God.

When God created, He pronounced all of His creation good.

God created man and breathed into man a special kind of God-consciousness, a special ability to fellowship with God, and a unique ability (among all creation) to make choices, including the choice to rebel against God, to sin.  In vesting humanity with this potential, God knew perfectly not only the risks, but actually what the result would be.  1 Peter 1:19-20 tells us that Jesus was chosen to be our Redeemer before the creation of the world.  Before He created the world, God knew what He would have to do to save it.

As soon as the rebellion happened, God started talking about Jesus (see Genesis 3:15).  The first promise spoke that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent's head.  Even during those ancient beginnings, God mentioned specifics: the seed of the woman, not the seed of the man.  This foreshadows the virgin birth of Christ.  Sin had entered God's perfect creation, but God was not caught off guard.  There was never a time when He did not extend hope through His promises.

Skipping ahead a couple of epochs, God called Abram to be the Father of His people, meaning the nation of people who would ultimately bring Messiah to earth through flesh and blood birth -- the God-man who would solve the sin problem.  God made very specific promises to Abram about the line through which the promise would be fulfilled: a child from his wife, Sarah--only Sarah--even though both of them were well past their childbearing years.  And God added something to the promise: He told Abram that through his offspring, all nations would be blessed.  Messiah would be born an Israelite; the children of Israel are the blessed ancestors of Messiah, but Messiah is for the blessing and redemption of all nations.

When God finally, specifically, told Abram that Sarah would bear this son of promise within a year, He changed Abram's name as a way of continuing to remind us that Messiah was for all nations.  No longer would Abram be Abram: exalted father.  Now he would be Abraham: father of many, father of the family of Christ by blood, and father of the family of Christ by faith.  This was the promise.

Yes, sin had entered the world and separated people from God, but there was also a promise of coming redemption, a cure, a solution, a remedy.

Picture a world, severed from the love of God because of sin, hurtling away in the opposite direction from life, joy, love, health and righteousness, and yet hanging by a thread, the unbreakable thread of a promise from a perfectly faithful God.

Generations passed, and Israel became a nation of slaves in Egypt.  God raised up the prophet Moses to deliver them from slavery, and as they entered into their divinely procured freedom, God gave them the Law.

Now, I need to step aside from my narrative of God's redemptive plan here, and address some problems in the mindset of our current social landscape.  Many Christians are largely antinomian.  Throughout history, Antinomianism has always been recognized as a heresy.  Antinomianism says that because of the gospel (salvation through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ), Christians are free from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral, and that salvation is attained only through faith, the gracious gift God.  Now, I'd venture to suggest that a large number of Christians today would read that definition and say, "Yes.  Of course.  That is absolutely right.  We are not under law.  We are under grace.  We do not have to obey the law."

There is a popular misconception that the Law is bad, that it was the unkind mandate of a harsh and ungracious God who has now been overturned, along with his law, by the love and tolerance of Christ. This is, as I stated, a misconception.  God has always been loving and gracious, and the Law is good.

Many people do not understand that the Law was given to show us what is pleasing to God, but the Law was powerless to make us pleasing to God.  Jesus came so that we could be fixed internally, made pleasing to God, that the righteous requirements of the Law could actually be met in us, by the power of the Spirit (see Romans 8:3-4).

People hate the Law, but mostly because they do not know it.  They are afraid to study it because they suspect that they might find places where they do not measure up and will either have to suffer guilt or change their behavior patterns.  So they shut their eyes to it, and breathe great sighs of relief when heretical ministers tell them, "Don't worry about the Law.  We don't have to do that anymore!  We are in a new age of grace, and you don't have to be concerned about any rules.  Just read the New Testament.  Forget about the Old Testament."

Of course, they must stop reading the New Testament as well, at that point, because there is no making sense of the New Testament if you don't understand the Old Testament.  There just isn't.  The New Testament establishes the fulfillment of the Law and the Promises, and you can't understand it if you have no background, but it's all about Jesus.

There is a mistaken conception in many Christian and Evangelical circles that the Law was a failed attempt by God to make His people righteous.  These same people also tend to assume that Eve's original sin was a shock and a dilemma for which God had to scramble and patch together a solution.  What they teach goes something like this:  God created a perfect world.  Everything was really nice, and then Eve sinned, and this was a terrible shame and calamity, so now what was God to do?  He tried giving the Law, but that didn't work.  In fact, it was a colossal failure.  Finally, God figured out a solution which would work, and that was Jesus.

That way of looking at it is wrong, and if you read your Bible, not just selected verses out of context, but the whole Bible, you will see how wrong it is.  God has never been surprised or out of control.  He has never attempted a strategy that failed, and Jesus is certainly not "Plan B."

What then is the Law for?  I am going to tell you four things that God accomplished in giving the Law.

(1)  The Law was like a tourniquet to stem the effects of sin on the nation of God.

Remember how I asked you to picture a world, severed from the love of God because of sin, hurtling away in the opposite direction from life, joy, love, health and righteousness?  The world was in a bad state, but the right time had not yet fully come for Jesus to be born.  God was working on things, setting everything up according to His perfect plan in His perfect timing.  He had chosen a nation to birth Messiah, but there were things that had to happen before Messiah came.  In the meantime, there stood humanity in general, and Jesus' ancestors in particular, duking it out in a fallen world stained by sin.

By giving the Law, God gifted those who would read and follow it with guidelines to help them live in health, peace, justice, and even with a certain access to Himself, all things that are rare blessings on a sin-cursed planet.  The things the Law required are beautiful, if you will take the time to read it and see: be honest, give justice to the poor, make restitution for your mistakes, wash after you touch things that are dirty or dead, quarantine your sick people, let your women rest during their menstruation and after giving birth, rotate your crops, be sexually pure.  This Law was a gift from God to help His people live blessed, protected lives in a fallen world.  Of course, few of them availed themselves of this gift, but some did.  The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 119 certainly seemed to understand.

(2)  The Law reveals the righteousness of God.

Nobody can say, "I don't know what is righteous and what is unrighteous. I have no idea how to please God."  The Law clearly shows us what is pleasing to God, and what is displeasing.  Some parts of the Law are pretty easy to understand ("Do not kill"), and harmonize nicely with our natural consciences which exist in most souls, even unredeemed ones, because we are all originally created by God, in His image.  Some parts of the Law make sense to most people.  There are other parts of the Law that are harder for some people to accept, places where God asks us to set aside a certain pleasure for a greater good.  People do not take kindly to the idea of setting aside any pleasure for any reason.

This is where faith comes into play.  We have to trust that the God who created the Universe understands how it works, and if He says, "Don't do that," He knows why it works best that way.

He is righteous, and in the Law He gives us a manual on how to live righteously in His sight.   He explains what is good and pleasing behavior, and what is destructive and deadly.

(3)  The Law, in revealing the righteousness of God, shows us what sin is, and convicts us of our need for forgiveness.

Most people have consciences, unless they have broken or obliterated them by continual sin.  So most of us have at least a limited idea when we do wrong in the first place.  We have an idea when we do wrong, but we still might think that we are okay overall.  We often assume that even though we made some mistakes today, tomorrow will be better, and yesterday was not so bad.

The Law shows us straight out that we cannot get it right.  In Romans 7, Paul uses the commandment about not coveting to illustrate this.  We aren't supposed to steal, we aren't supposed to commit adultery, and we need to honor our parents.  Perhaps we can follow these commandments most of the time.  But then: Don't covet.  Don't let your heart desire what isn't yours.  Not: "Don't take it."  No. You are not even supposed to wish for it.  That 2-carat diamond your friend got from her fiance, the Jaguar your brother-in-law drives, the beautiful spouse, the tropical vacation, the gifted child, the weed-free lawn, the big house, the impressive job, the healthy body.  Don't notice that they have them, and you don't.  Don't blink an eye.  Rejoice in the Lord and have a heart of gratitude.  Do this or stand condemned.

Who can do this?  The Law shows us that we can't possibly, humanly please God.  In so doing, the Law does one more thing:

(4)  The Law points again and again to Christ.

The entire sacrificial system pointed forward to the atoning sacrifice through which Christ would offer His own body for our benefit, to purchase our forgiveness from sin, freedom from guilt, and peace with God resulting in fellowship and love.  Of course, we don't need to do the ceremonial sacrifices anymore, because Jesus completed the sacrificial system once and for all.  We do continue a form of the grain and wine offerings when we take communion in remembrance of Jesus' death; these offerings always accompanied an animal sacrifice under the old covenant, but Jesus accomplished what bulls and rams were never able to accomplish, never even meant to accomplish.  The animal sacrifices clearly pointed forward to the atoning death of Christ.

Every detail of the the design of the tabernacle points to Christ, from the single gate into the courtyard, to the way the curtain clasps show the integration of divinity and humanity, to the lampstand (light of the world) and the table of showbread (bread of life), to the curtain and the ark and the mercy seat.  Christ is God's solution for restoring His fellowship with humanity, the key to the dwelling of God with man.

All of the holy days and celebrations point to different aspects of the work of Christ: the deliverance of the Passover, the extended fellowship of the Feast of Booths, the complete freedom from all debts in the year of Jubilee.

The priesthood points ahead to the work of Christ as mediator between God and man, the only perfect one who could truly own a purity that would enable Him to enter the presence of God on our behalf.

The Law also speaks of the prophet of God who must be heard, and the King who would reign according to God's word, more allusions to the coming Christ who would make all things right.

While the Law shows us that we cannot hope to measure up in our own strength or by any form of self-righteousness, the Law never leaves us without the hope of the coming Promised One.

How should we approach the Law today?

First off, let me clearly state: nobody is ever or will ever be saved by keeping the Law.

The Law had many purposes, but salvation is not one of them.  God gave the Law to provide a way for the faithful to obtain some relief from the effects of sin on their lives (read Deuteronomy 30 for insight into this).  He gave the Law to reveal Himself and His righteousness to us.  He uses the Law to make us conscious of our sin and our need for salvation, and ultimately to point us to our need for Christ. 

The Law was the first revealed Word of God, but Jesus was the ultimate revealed Word of God (see John 1).  What the Law showed us in part on tablets of stone, Jesus showed us completely in a life lived in the flesh.  What the Law promised, Jesus fulfilled.

Jesus, the Word of God, came to us full of grace and truth.  He fulfilled all the Law and the promises.  One of the ancient promises, in Ezekiel 36:25-27, is that God would give His people new hearts and put His Spirit into us and move us to follow His laws and commands.  Jesus accomplished this.  It's all there in John 14-17.  Jesus had to accomplish His mission so that the Holy Spirit of God could come and tabernacle in our very hearts, teaching us obedience, reforming our wishes, redirecting our desires so that we could become truly righteous, from the inside out, and truly pleasing to God.

We should embrace the Law as it reveals the heart of God to us.  We should read it alongside Psalm 119 (and other Psalms, like Psalm 19:7-14).  We should be thankful that we can know what is good and pleasing to the Lord.  We should ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand and love the way of righteousness, the way of God.  We should be thrilled to have a way to learn how we can live beautifully before the God who saved us by His grace, and we should be humbled to realize that it is only through the power of His Holy Spirit that we can appreciate His Law, only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can obey it.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

John 15 tells us that we must abide in Christ, dwell with Him, and He in us, if we are going to bear fruit.  "For apart from me," he warns, "you can do nothing."

We should be familiar with the Law, but we should carefully guard against using it as a minimum checklist.  In general, the Law helps us discern the heart of God, but overall, we should walk by the Spirit and especially seek to obey the parts of the Law that address our heart condition (for example, Deuteronomy 10:12-16).  When our hearts are right, the rest of the commands eventually follow naturally, and this all happens after we are saved, after we have received the grace that gives birth to faith, after the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in us.

It is only after we have accepted forgiveness of our sins by the sacrificial blood of Christ that we can be pleasing to God.  Even if we obey part of the Law prior to salvation, that "righteousness" is only like filthy rags in the eyes of the Lord.  Jesus taught us that we would fulfill the whole Law if we could love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31).  We must take to heart Jesus' teaching in The Sermon on the Mount, that our righteousness must exceed that of the pharisees (Matthew 5:20) -- because true righteousness must stem from a pure heart, a new heart, a heart washed by the blood of Christ and infused with the very Spirit of God.

It isn't true righteousness unless you are doing it because you love God and you earnestly desire the good.  There is no way you can love God and earnestly desire the good unless you are saved by His grace and indwelt by His Spirit.  You have no power outside of His that can enable you to live righteously.  But if you are His child, you do have His Spirit, and when you abide in Him, His Spirit living in you, He gifts you with both the inclination and the power to live a victorious life of virtue and joy.

The point is not "We don't have to obey the Law."  The point is that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are finally able to live righteous lives that are pleasing to God.  And the righteousness is essentially the same as it has always been, before the Law, revealed in the Law, and now in the age of grace.  God doesn't change.  It's not that we must be righteous.  It's not that we don't have to be righteous.  It's that we can be righteous.

This is quite a mystery.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

More on Health Insurance

I am not completely opposed to the idea of socialized medicine.

There are problems, of course.

One of the pros of socialized medicine is this:  healthcare would be run by the government, as a non-profit, which should control costs overall while making healthcare available to everyone.  This sounds fantastic.

One of the cons is that government run programs are never as efficient and competent as we would hope, and graft and corruption are always intertwined into everything.  So although it sounds fantastic, in reality, it would not be.

Of course, what we currently have is so bad (on the financial end), that even a corrupt government program might be better.  But then again, it might not.

The real kicker, that makes a switch to socialized medicine truly unworkable for the United States, is that over 5 million jobs would be lost when the health insurance industry suddenly became obsolete.

There is a part of me that says, "Good."  Because I have had awful experiences with health insurance companies and personnel.  I have very little good to say about them, and I honestly believe that many of them are just out to deny as many claims as possible, dishonestly and immorally.  Even so, to throw 5 million people into sudden unemployment for the sake of socialized medicine could not be good for our country's economy, regardless of whether they deserve it.

This is why I stand by my idea in my earlier post, that the government should provide a certain number of standard, basic, humane health services to all citizens (yes, this will require a tax increase), while health insurance, like car insurance and homeowners' insurance, should be available for purchase to cover calamities, catastrophes, and state-of-the-art treatments.

Nobody should be required by law to purchase health insurance.  In a free country, nobody should be required by law to purchase anything.  We pay taxes, yes, but you can't tell free citizens that they have to buy something.  I am speaking theoretically and according to principle, not according to reality because, of course, they have.

I wish someone could run United States healthcare in a way similar to the business model of Wegman's grocery stores.  Wegman's is the best grocery store in the world. You can get anything there, from gourmet cookware to snow shovels to White Stilton cheese (oh how I miss White Stilton cheese) to bulk peanuts.  Everything is good quality.  Everything is fresh.  The stores are attractive; the people who work there are happy and friendly.

The really amazing thing about Wegman's is that the basic staples are cheap.  They beat anybody's prices on white bread, eggs, milk, bananas and many other every day items.  At our store in the Syracuse area, when Aldi moved in across the street, suddenly Wegman's brand canned soups and vegetables matched Aldi's price (and you didn't need cash or a debit card to buy them).  At the same time, you could get delicious gourmet items, fresh every day.  You could even buy lobster there, and they would cook it for you, and you could have a delicious, fresh lobster dinner at home, for less than you'd pay at a seafood restaurant.  Unlike other grocery stores that mark up many non-grocery items (toothpaste, window cleaner, etc.) by 50% or more over what you'd pay at a discount store, Wegman's consistently priced these items at 5 or 10 cents over what you'd pay at, say, WalMart, which made it well worth skipping the extra trip to WalMart most of the time.

In a nutshell, Wegman's made things affordable for everyone, and if you wanted to eat economically, you could certainly do so by shopping at Wegman's.  At the same time, if you wanted to host a fancy dinner with all the best imported olives, cheeses and exotic fruits and vegetables, you could do that too.  Not cheaply, but beautifully.  All this in one attractive and efficient store.

Somebody needs to study this model and apply it to our healthcare problem.  If you could get a good system set up to offer healthcare the way Wegman's offers food -- cheap basics alongside everything you could possibly dream of (priced appropriately) -- you might not need the government to take control of the issue.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

On kitchen design, and design in general. From the anti-designer.

One year I was watching HGTV around Christmastime, and I thought I was going to throw up.  I could not believe the waste.  Style for your house, they tell you, you must have a stylish house.  People were spending, literally, thousands of dollars to decorate their houses for Christmas, in the name of Christmas, and on January 1 (or maybe even December 26) it would all be torn down and thrown away.

Later, I realized that they apply this rule to all of house decorating.  I call it house decorating rather than home decorating, because a true home should not need to be "updated" every 4-5 years.

Yes, that's what they tell you: if you are doing it right, you should redecorate your house every 4-5 years.  Hogwash.  Malarcky.  Absolutely ridiculous.

* * * * * * * * * *

A year ago, we were finishing a kitchen renovation.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It had not gone well.  I am not going to do this again in 4-5 years.

Also, I did not put in white cabinets, or gray quartz countertops, or (gasp) an island.  I incorporated neither open shelving nor glass fronted cabinets.  "What even is the point?" the HGTV believer asks.

But, a year later, I am very happy with the kitchen (now that my dear husband has fixed nearly everything that the contractors did wrong).  It is a good kitchen, and it works well.  I am thankful for it.  I like the way it looks.  I enjoy cooking and eating in this kitchen.

And that, after all, is what a kitchen is for.

Here is my take on "trends":

(1) White cabinets.

White cabinets are fine if you like them.  They just aren't my favorite.  To me, they look overly formal and high maintenance, or sterile and stark.  We wanted a bright kitchen, so we put in lights.  We have standard fixtures: in the middle of the room, over the table, over the sink.  We have recessed lights in the ceiling around the perimeter of the room.  And we have under-cabinet lighting.  When we turn on all the lights, our kitchen is plenty bright, and the cabinets are not white.

When we were shopping for a home, back before we bought this one (sight-unseen off the internet), each time I walked into a kitchen with white cabinets, my heart died a little bit within me.  I like the warm hominess of wood, even (gasp) oak.  I like it.

When we decided to renovate our kitchen, I read up on kitchen design, and all the designers said things like, "All the really good houses have white kitchens."  For awhile I looked into a white kitchen; I looked at white beadboard cabinets with an antique wash.  They were almost homey, almost inviting.  But my husband didn't like white, and truth be told, I honestly preferred wood myself.

Personally, as much as they try to tell me that white cabinets are classic and timeless, I am pretty sure that within 5-7 years, popular opinion will shift back towards warm wood finishes.  People are going to get sick of white, gray, black, silver and stainless steel.  It seems to me that if we sell our home, it will probably be after white cabinets have lost their allure anyway.  So why put them in if I don't love them, and they won't be a selling point by the time we sell?  Also, it's fairly easy for buyers to paint wood cabinets white, if that's what they like.  It's not easy to go the other direction.

(2)  Kitchen Islands.

Here's the deal.  I don't have an island, and I never have.  We could have fit an island into this kitchen, but it would have meant sacrificing an entire wall of uppers and lowers, and a lovely seven foot stretch of counter that works beautifully for either extra work space or a serving buffet.  I couldn't see how an island would offer me more than that.  Plus, this way the wall doesn't get scuffed up by passing traffic.

Islands are okay if you have a truly huge kitchen.  Mostly, I think they are nice for filling in an extremely spacious kitchen, so that the cook can turn around and find a workspace behind her, and not need to run a long way across a massive room in order to set something down.

In much of today's design, islands make me sad because of what they stand for.  Islands stand for the busy, frenetic, activity-saturated lives we live, where "family dinner" is an oddity, a rarity.  Islands stand for, "Belly up to the island and eat these chicken nuggets from the convection oven as fast as you can so we will not be late to little league."  People used to have a kitchen table in the middle of the kitchen, a place to peel apples, roll out cookie dough, experiment with watercolors, and do homework.  Now we have islands, we rarely peel apples, and homework is done in the SUV on the way to ballet lessons.

Kitchen islands also stand for a society of isolation and insulation.  So often, the kitchen sink sits in the island nowadays.  The popular sink placement now overlooks the family room, because that is where the children play.  It used to overlook the window to the backyard, back when kids played with the neighbor children, outside.  But now we have had to pull our families inside, and we wash up after dinner while watching our kids play video games on a giant flat-screen TV rather than whiffle ball out under the setting sun.  Practical, yes, but sad.

(3)  Open shelving and the trend toward no upper cabinets.

Really?  Do you want to use your kitchen, or take pictures of it?  Seriously?

Okay, open shelving is not a new idea.  In the eighties, they had open shelving in Michael J. Fox's kitchen on Family Ties.  It bothered me then, and I don't like it now.  Can we just think about this for a minute?  How much do you like to dust?  Are you really up for artistically arranging your dishes in plain sight on a daily basis?  A kitchen is a work room.  You need to be able to work in it, to get things done.  You should not design it with elements that will increase the difficulty of doing your chores, or add unnecessary tasks to your already long to-do list.  Unless you have a hired hand who dusts the shelves for you, and primps the dish display, and you generally just eat take-out off paper plates at your island, I do not recommend open shelving in place of upper cabinets.

One of my friends observed recently, "I know some people with really fantastic kitchens, with commercial quality ranges and giant stainless steel hood fans, but they don't seem to use them.  My friends who like to cook, who are really good cooks, they all have pretty normal kitchens."

I once read a blog where the woman had torn out her lovely cherry cabinets (uppers and lowers), and replaced them with white drawers (on the bottom), and no uppers at all, just some sort of gray stone backsplash (or maybe it was white tile).  I wanted to weep.  Why?  Why?  Why?  She was totally convinced that she had achieved a great increase in efficiency.  She did admit that she had to get rid of most of her stuff, now that there was nowhere to store it.  "A wonderful way to unload the excess," she raved, "And with drawers, it's all so much easier to access."

I find drawers to be the most inefficient form of storage around.  I admit that a few drawers are nice, if you can use them to sort and organize.  But overall, drawers waste space, and things get lost in them; you are always having to dig underneath and behind.  Also, clearly this woman did not have lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, or a bad back, because nobody with any of those issues would ever say that low storage is easier to access than upper storage.  I'd be surprised if most healthy people would claim that lower cabinets are easier to access than uppers.

Once I read a surprisingly honest article about minimalism.  The author stated that minimalism is actually the most lavish and excessive of decorating styles, because it presupposes that the homeowner has so much space, he doesn't really need to use it.  Yes, he can devote an entire room to one artistically formed designer lounge chair and a window with a flowing curtain.  He has no need to seat a group of people, feed a family, entertain a small child, or store backpacks and books for students.  Or, presumably, he has rooms devoted to those activities hidden away somewhere else in his house.

I like things that are truly timeless, "design" that is not "in style" and never tried to be.  I like nice materials (natural wood, stone, metal), efficiency and neatness.  I like a house that says, "Sit down, we're glad you're here!  We'd like to spend some time, some face-to-face time, reconnecting and sharing and loving, and not so much observing the house as though it is some sort of a museum."  God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath.  I think homes, likewise, should serve the people, and not the other way around.  Comfortable seating, good books, well placed lamps.  A place for everything, and almost everything in its place.  A vase of flowers, a lovely quilt, yes, but not an art-scape everywhere a person's eyes try to rest.  That's just tiring, or self-conscious like adolescent poetry.

And me, I like an old-fashioned kitchen.  Friendly wooden cabinets encircling the room like a grandmotherly hug, and a weathered kitchen table in the middle, surrounded by chairs, sheltering a dog and a toddler underneath.  Colors and textures that blend with the smells of cookies baking, soup simmering, coffee brewing.  A room that isn't seriously marred when a single item is out of place.  That's not exactly what I got, but I made a stab at it.

It has grown on me.  I am thankful.  A year later.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Taking care of yourself

Today I got home at nearly 4 pm.

I'd left this morning in a bit of a flurry, with an unsettled stomach and no breakfast (due to the unsettled stomach).  Coffee and vitamins had to carry me.

By 1 pm I was running late, and I was hungry.  Out-and-about is a bad place to need gluten-free food, especially when there is no time.  I ended up with a strawberry milkshake which, while not particularly nutritious, was delicious.  Sometimes you just have to be thankful and enjoy, and try not to worry.

When I finally got home at 4, having consumed nothing all day but coffee, vitamins and a strawberry milkshake, I found myself hungry, shaky, sore of foot, and staring at a pile of dog vomit in the bathroom.  What?  Did I say dog vomit in the bathroom?  Yes.  Yes I did.  And not only was it in the bathroom, it was not on the rug in the bathroom; it was on the hard floor.  A miracle.  (If you have pets, you understand.)

I cleaned up the dog vomit, kicked off my shoes, walked the dogs around the yard in my bare feet, put away the groceries, ate some potato chips and an over-ripe banana, and threw away a rotten green pepper I found in the produce drawer.  Mom is in the house!

When I had kids around, a homecoming such as today very likely would have disintegrated into frustration and angry words.  But by myself, I was able to stop, breathe, plan the next step and implement it without interruption.  When you are only responsible for yourself, you can be a lot more careless with yourself and get by with it.

When you have kids to care for, you need to care for yourself responsibly.  This is a concept I did not grasp.  I consistently ran myself to a breaking point, and then broke.  Today I ran myself to a breaking point, but I did not break, because life is easier now and I can get by.  But I could have had an easier, more comfortable day if I had thought out and prepared for it better.

The funny thing is, when I had kids, I recognized the importance of protecting them from hitting blood sugar lows, or getting overtired, or taking on too much.  I packed snacks for them to eat in the van on long afternoons of driving from activity to activity.  I set the schedule with a limited number of activities per day, and a limited number of busy days per week per child.  However, I made it my mission to get everyone to everything, and I rarely packed a snack for myself, although I did suck down a Capri Sun now and then, like an oral IV bag.

I wish I had known how to take better care of myself when I was a busy mom.  I think it would have been so much better for everyone.

Here are some things I wish I'd known:

1)  Vegetables.  Eat good food at regular intervals.  Buy tasty vegetables, then wash them and cut them up soon after you get home.  This will provide you a constant source of quick, healthy snacks to grab.

2)  Protein.  Never substitute a glass of milk and a piece of chocolate cake for lunch.  Always eat a serving of protein at the beginning of every meal or snack, to balance your blood sugar before you consume carbs.  (Oh, how I wish I had known and done this.)  Hard boiled eggs are a good protein source to keep on hand.  Nuts can be a good, quick energy booster, too.

3)  Teach your kids to be responsible for their own stuff.  It is exhausting and nearly impossible to keep track of the music books, instruments, and sports equipment needed for for numerous children on a given afternoon.  Train them to organize, store and gather their own things for their activities.

4)  When you are planning a day, plan down time.  Recognize that you will need rest.  I actually got a fair amount of down time during music lessons, and have read many a novel that way.  However, even reading a novel in a waiting area can be taxing; you can't get quite perfectly comfortable, you have to keep your feet off the furniture, and you are always listening for how your child's lesson is going in the background.  So plan some real time off for yourself, because you're going to need it if you're going to keep your perspective.  Schedule time at home to sit on the sofa and put up your feet with a book, a TV show, or even just a moment to look out the window and collect your thoughts.  Also, go to bed at a reasonable time.

5)  Use positive self-talk.  Prayer and abiding in Christ are extremely important, but they can be quite theoretical, in a way, and actually keeping your calm comes from asking Jesus to teach you how to keep your calm, not just asking Him to help you.  What I mean is, His help can come through strategies.  Just as He nourishes us with food, provides for us through money, and heals us through medicine, He helps us keep our calm when we work with Him to develop strategies for keeping calm.  Positive self talk (or as some Christians say, preaching the gospel to yourself) is a huge help.  This is another thing I wish I had learned so much earlier.  When everything starts to fall apart and the day is going to the dogs, it is not only okay, it is actually good to tell yourself, "It's okay.  Everything is going to be okay.  God loves me.  God is in control.  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?" (that's from Romans 8:32).  It is good to forgive yourself rather than panic and beat yourself up.  If you never treat yourself with grace, you will not treat your children with grace, and they may not learn to treat others or themselves with grace.  Be gracious to yourself.  This is a good thing and it sets a very healthy precedent.