Measuring up

img_0026Several weeks ago my daughter, Mary, found her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, Emma, peering intently into a mirror. Curious as to the cause of her staring, Mary asked what she was looking at. Stoically, Emma replied she had no eyebrows. It was one of those moments when Mary most likely had to fight to control any laughter that threatened to erupt. After all, Emma was quite serious. Her light-blond brows are barely discernible and that, she realized, set her apart from the rest of her darker-browed family members.

img_0478Little more than a week had passed since Mary’s recounting of the eyebrow incident, when Emma approached me, tape measure in hand, and asked if I would measure her. I obliged, measuring around her tummy, a place or two on her legs, and both little arms. I knew her request was inspired by wanting to be like Mommy, her very favorite person. You see, Mary uses that same pink tape measure to periodically assess her progress since starting a strengthening and conditioning program last fall.

The occurrence of these two incidents in such proximity to one another impressed upon me, yet again, that much of what our children (and grandchildren) learn from us is caught rather than taught. And, ever-observant, they easily detect discrepancies between what we say and what we do. Consistency between verbal and behavioral lessons is crucial. But, when such consistency is lacking, our deeds supersede our admonitions as the old adage, “actions speak louder than words”, attests.

Most of us truly want to be good examples, to live lives of integrity. Yet, in spite of our best intentions, we frequently struggle to do what we know is right, what we yearn to do. The Apostle Paul described this tension between giving into the flesh and obeying the Spirit in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7:15) and to the Galatians. (Galatians 5:17) In fact, he described himself as the chief of sinners not withstanding all he did and sacrificed for the early church. Instead, he focused on the great grace that had been shown him by the only perfect One. (1 Timothy 1:15)

Oh that we would do likewise. Instead we too often compare ourselves to our fellow sinners, thinking, “I’m not that bad.” (Luke 18:9-14) But the thoughts and behavior of our fellow sinners are not our standard. Jesus’ perfect righteousness and sinless life are. We are to be holy as He is Holy. (Leviticus 11:45; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:14-16) Furthermore, Jesus made it clear that keeping the Law begins in our hearts and encompasses more than our actions:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

The longer we walk with Jesus and the closer we get to Him, the more easily we recognize our flaws and failings. There are times when a thought pops into my mind, uncensored, appalling. I’m shocked and saddened at the darkness that still dwells in me. Yet I know my dismay is evidence my heart of stone was replaced with a heart of flesh that desires to obey God. (Ezekiel 36:26-27) It also reminds me that the One who began a good work in me is faithfully transforming me into the image of his Son and will finish what He started. (Philippians 1:6; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18)

I long to be a good role model for my children and grandchildren, someone worthy of emulation. But, even more, I want to point them to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2); the Servant Leader who set us an example in all things (John 13:14-15); the One who died that we might be clothed in His perfect righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10; 2 Corinthians 5:21) He alone is our flawless standard.

O Lord, please help us to remember that all we have and are is a gift from you, leaving no room for boasting or comparing. (Romans 12:3; 2 Corinthians 10:17-18; Ephesians 2:8-9) And may we grow to resemble our elder Brother more and more, by the power of your Spirit at work within us.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

New box, old post

The door of my aging mailbox refused to stay closed. After several episodes of retrieving its damp contents, I knew it was time to replace it. Upon inspection, the wooden post appeared to be sturdy, despite its slight tilt, which dates back to its initial installation and has been a source of irritation ever since. Being a frugal sort who adheres to the philosophy “waste not, want not”, I decided to replace the box and make do with the leaning post.

I made my way to Home Depot, determined to leave with only a standard-size mailbox and no new plants. I resisted the temptation to stroll through the garden department, went directly to the aisle where the mailboxes are located, paid for the one I selected and returned home.[1] Upon removing the old box, I realized the wooden board it had been attached to was warped and the holes that accommodated the screws were compromised. Not to be thwarted, I decided to use longer screws in an attempt to secure the new box to its perch.

After I attached it, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The sight of the shiny new box contorted into place atop its aged roost was disappointing to say the least. The effect was similar to viewing photos of me and my granddaughters. Just as their unlined faces make mine look more wrinkled by comparison, the post appeared so much older once topped with the gleaming mailbox. And, while I’m ratting on myself, I may as well admit that it took exceptional effort to open and close the door because of the box’s forced mis-alignment. Nonetheless, I decided to live with it.

From the moment I took the initial step back and beheld the disparity between old and new, as well as multiple times since, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parable warning against mixing old and new. His examples of using a new patch on an old garment and putting new wine into old wineskins appear in three of the four Gospels, underscoring the importance of His admonition.[2] As recorded in Matthew, after replying to some disciples of John the Baptist regarding fasting, Jesus went on to say, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

The parable was most likely directed at the ever-judgmental Pharisees hovering nearby. Over the centuries since Moses received the Ten Commandments, the religious legalists had tacked on more and more requirements and drifted further and further away from the Spirit of the Law. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the spiritually-blind leaders who misled those who looked to them for guidance. (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) as so beautifully foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. Nonetheless, some of the early believers thought they had to add their formerly-mandated works of righteousness to Jesus’ all-sufficient sacrifice. The Apostle Paul made it clear that was unnecessary, for them and for us. (Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:8-9) Likewise, we are told to put off our old selves, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and to put on our new selves. (Ephesians 4:20-24) In addition, we are called to walk as children of light, having nothing to do with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8)

IMG_6600The incongruence between the old post and new mailbox continued to grate on me, so I gave in and contacted the HOA-approved mailbox supplier. He came to rectify the situation yesterday. Even though I returned home after dark last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when the new post-new mailbox ensemble appeared in the light of the street lamp. Ahh, the incompatibility was gone.

Oh that we would be similarly perturbed by inconsistencies between the faith we profess and our actions. May we never think we can simply patch our old natures with a dab or two of Christ’s righteousness or live in twilight on the edge of darkness when we’re called to a life of light. And may we long for Christ’s return when the old will pass away completely, all will be made new and our struggles against darkness will cease forever. (Revelation 21:1-5; Revelation 21:21-27)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

[1] Long-time readers will recognize the self-control this required of plant-loving me!

[2] See Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39.

Have you seen Jesus?

I caught a glimpse of Jesus. It happened in our local hospital, where Mom spent several nights while various tests were run in an attempt to discover the cause of her dizziness. Thankfully all results were normal. Upon receiving the good news of her imminent release, I went to check on Mom’s discharge papers. When I returned to her room moments later, the chair she’d been sitting in was empty. Her back was to me as she stood by the other patient’s bed and she had no idea I was observing her kind ministrations. Jesus’ love emanated from my tiny mother as she stood beside her roommate’s bed, gently holding the hand of a woman she’d just met the day before. Verbal communication was limited by a language barrier. Nonetheless, Mom’s spoken, “I love you”, was underscored with such tenderness, there could be no mistaking her message of encouragement and care.

I’ve thought about that brief encounter numerous times since it occurred nearly three weeks ago. So many lessons, so many reminders. The following may be a bit more stream-of-consciousness than usual, but I pray you’ll glean some points worth pondering.

On their inaugural album, Christian contemporary band, Casting Crowns, challenged, “But if we are the body, why aren’t His arms reaching? Why aren’t His hands healing? Why aren’t His words teaching? And if we are the body, why aren’t His feet going? Why is His love not showing them there is a way?”[1] Their lyrics remind me of the parable of the sheep and goats wherein Jesus made it clear that in caring for practical needs of the least among us, we are caring for Him.[2] Likewise, James emphasized that faith without works is dead.[3]

In the Acts 4 recounting of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, “when (the people) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”[4] Peter, the disciple who was so afraid of being associated with Jesus on the night He was betrayed that he denied Him three times, courageous? Yes, that very same man, forgiven and restored by Jesus, empowered by the promised Holy Spirit, was notably, distinctly different. As believers, we too have been forgiven, restored and empowered. May we be conformed more and more to the image of Jesus, that others might readily take note of our association with Him.

In the lesson of the vine and the branches, Jesus promised we’ll bear good fruit as long as we abide in Him. But apart from Him, we wither and are useless.[5] Furthermore, Jesus taught that each tree is recognized by its fruit. Likewise, we bring forth fruit based on what’s stored in our hearts.[6] Thus, the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[7] – must set us apart in an increasingly self-focused world.

IMG_5428Of all the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, love reigns supreme.[8] We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves[9]; to love our brothers and sisters in Christ[10]; even to love our enemies.[11] In fact, love is to be the hallmark of those who belong to Jesus.[12]

I usually read each of my blog posts to Mom. I most likely won’t read this one. It would embarrass her. Her love and concern for others are such an innate part of who she is – a senior saint who bears much fruit for her Savior after many years of abiding in him. Accolades for those qualities would be discomfiting. And rightly so, since Jesus taught us not to perform our righteous deeds to impress others, but to please our Father, who sees all.[13] Furthermore, we’re called to work as if we’re working for the Lord, not men, knowing He is ultimately the One we serve.[14]

Although God is faithfully sanctifying us, perfection will remain elusive until Jesus returns to make all things new. Even the very best of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. How grateful I am for the spotless Lamb who took our iniquities upon Himself and paid the debt we owed so that even now, when the Father gazes at us, He sees the righteousness of his beloved Son.[15]

Dear Father, thank you for loving us so much You sent your only Son to die for us, that we might live with You forever.[16] Please help us to display Jesus’ attributes more and more, loving and serving others in such a way that they may taste and see that You are good.[17]

[1] “If We are the Body” from “Casting Crowns” by Casting Crowns, July 2003.

[2] Matthew 25: 31-46.

[3] James 2:14-17.

[4] Acts 4:13.

[5] John 15:1-6.

[6] Luke 6:43-45.

[7] Galatians 5:22.

[8] 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, 13.

[9] Matthew 22:34-40

[10] Numerous references, including John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 4:11.

[11] Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36.

[12] John 13:35.

[13] Matthew 6:1-18.

[14] Colossians 3:23-24.

[15] Romans 3:21-26.

[16] John 3:16.

[17] Psalm 34:8a.

Retractable claws

img_2729I can still hear the pitiful meowing in the background when I answered a call from my daughter Mary on that fateful summer day. Mary’s first words were, “Please don’t say no, Mom!” Mary was a rising senior in high school at the time and was on the cross country team. After her initial plea, she went on to explain they’d found some kittens upon arriving at school for the morning run. The one I heard mewing had been extricated from a crack in the stairs by Justin, her then-boyfriend-now-husband, and Mary wanted to adopt her. I told her I’d consider it. She called back at the appointed time an hour later and, in a moment of weakness or perhaps temporary insanity, I said yes. What was I thinking???

Mind you we already had an 11 year old male cat, Willie, who considered our house to be his territory and his alone. We kept Millie, as Mary decided to call her, in a bathroom when she first joined our family. Even though he was unable to see her, Willie sensed her presence and hissed every time he passed the door that separated him from his future nemesis. Although they eventually reached some kind of feline truce, I don’t think I’ve ever heard as much hissing as in their first few weeks of cohabitation. At best, they learned to tolerate each other.

It soon became apparent Willie wouldn’t be the only one at odds with Millie. In spite of the fact Justin was the one to free her from the crevice at school, she was a one-person cat and that person was Mary. She would stare adoringly at her, purring all the while. Try as I might to make friends with her, my attempts rarely elicited anything remotely like a purr and there were certainly no adoring looks.

But Mary grew up and went to college, a place where kitties aren’t allowed in dorms so Millie was left at home with me. I suppose some interaction is better than none since Millie would occasionally condescend to rubbing my legs for attention. At first I thought, “Isn’t that nice? She’s finally warming up to me.” She even started to purr, albeit begrudgingly. Then, before I knew what was happening or had time to protect myself, she bit me. This scenario played out a few more times, with me giving her the benefit of the doubt, hoping we would eventually establish a friendly rapport. It didn’t happen and I finally gave up, as she wounded not only my hands and feet with her sharp teeth, but also my feelings with her insincere gestures of camaraderie.

I’ve known some people like Millie. They’ve feigned friendship for their own gain. Fortunately they’ve been few in number, but the pain caused by their disingenuous behavior lingers as does the grief over my inability to make things work.

A computer-aided search of Scripture yields over 120 references for the terms “forgive”, “forgiveness” or “forgiven”.[1] Multiple New Testament texts instruct us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven.[2] Yet forgiveness doesn’t automatically lead to reconciliation, as Susan Hunt so aptly states in her book, “Spiritual Mothering”:

“Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation. Often women truly forgive, but because there is no reconciliation with the one who has hurt them they labor under false guilt that they have not done everything they should. Reconciliation requires both repentance and forgiveness. There is a duel responsibility on the part of the offender and the offended. We cannot control the repentance of the one who has hurt us. We can only forgive. Our forgiveness may or may not bring about reconciliation, but it will free us to have a right relationship with God and with others.” [3]

A passage in Romans 12 strikes a similar chord as the Apostle Paul tells his readers, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” [4]

As far as it depends on you. I can only give an account of myself, my thoughts, my actions. [5] And oftentimes, as hard as it is, the best thing we can do is forgive, let go and trust God for the outcome. We can be assured He will work all things together for good.[6]

I see Millie from time to time when I’m at Mary’s house. At age 12 you’d think she might have mellowed some, but she still has a slight scowl that reminds me of Lucy van Pelt of the Peanuts gang and she can make the family’s 75-pound dog back off with her menacing hisses. I acknowledge her presence when our paths cross, usually even say hello . . . but I stay out of striking distance and I certainly don’t seek her out.

[1] Search done of the NIV translation on Biblegateway.com

[2] See, for example, Matthew 6:12, 14-15; Luke 6:37

[3] Susan Hunt, Spiritual Mothering (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1992), 153.

[4] Romans 12:17-18

[5] Romans 14:12

[6] Romans 8:28