Slow to anger

After raising two daughters, some of my grandson’s antics surprise and puzzle me. From the time he could first toddle around, Joshua had to have a stick whenever we went outside. But said treasure wasn’t merely a bit of yard debris. In his hands it quickly became a fishing pole or a sword or a gun. He soon had me enacting parts of his scenarios, be they tracking down bad guys, rounding up cattle or marching into battle. I purchased a copy of James Dobson’s “Bringing up Boys” and conferred with a friend, grandmother to six little boys. Both confirmed Joshua’s behavior was quite normal, part of his God-given design to protect and provide.

As sisters Lyla and Emma joined the family, Joshua incorporated them into his playtime activities. The girls are usually happy to join in. But sometimes one or the other will announce, “I don’t want to play boy stuff”, and return to her craft project or resume twirling around the living room in full princess regalia. Having been rebuffed, Joshua may resort to annoying his would-be playmates – interrupting their girly activity, begging them to reconsider, stealing a favorite stuffed animal which always provokes a chase – anything to get his sisters to engage.

IMG_E0789These and similar interactions between the siblings give me ample opportunities to play referee on Grammie days as we cycle from harmonious play to sob-laced outbursts and back multiple times. As the hours pass, my reserves of patience often diminish. And so it was one recent afternoon when Joshua inadvertently knocked Lyla’s special colored pencils off the kitchen table, scattering all 24 of them on the floor.

My voice taut, I asked Joshua to step away. “We’ve got too many people crowded around to be able to do anything!”

Sensing that the pencils clattering to the ground may just have been the tipping point of yet another rainy day that had kept us cooped up like our neighbors’ chickens, Joshua obeyed immediately.

But, thankfully, before I could utter another word, Lyla started comforting her brother who’d hunkered down in a corner. “It’s ok, Joshua. I know you didn’t mean to. It was an accident. Really, it’s ok.”

And she was right. Even though her brother had engaged in his usual boyish, sister-baiting tactics throughout the day, he hadn’t intentionally caused her precious pencils to fall. 5-year-old Lyla’s kindness both silenced and convicted me. I’ve reflected on her response several times since, such a beautiful example of bearing with one another, being slow to anger and quick to forgive.

It’s so easy to feel slighted, isn’t it? Too often we think the worst or take offense where none was intended. Each of us is a unique bundle of experiences and emotions which in turn influence our actions and reactions. We interpret the behavior of others through those filters, as they interpret ours through theirs, sometimes leading to misunderstandings.

For example, consider my compulsion to begin almost all communications, including those intended to be brief, i.e. text messages, with a personal greeting so as not to appear rude. I’m guessing plenty of the recipients of my communiqués would prefer “just the facts, ma’am” since we’re all bombarded with more than we can possibly read or reply to. Nonetheless, most good-naturedly accept it as part of who I am. And, in the spirit of considering others, I’m trying to be more concise, while not equating their brevity with curtness. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Scripture repeatedly describes God as merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.[1] Psalm 103:13-14 portrays Him as a compassionate Father who remembers His children are dust. As those dearly-loved children, we are to do likewise:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

O, Lord, please grant us discernment so we, like Lyla, might rightly determine when one of our fellow dusty sojourners hasn’t meant to hurt or offend us. May we be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:18), forgiving others as You’ve so graciously forgiven us. (Luke 6:37)

[1] See, for example, Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, 103:8 and 145:8

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)

Logs and Specks

img_6403One recent Grammie day[1] found me, 7-year-old Joshua, and almost-three-year-old Emma having a pleasant chat about some kid-friendly subject. Somehow the topic turned to an episode of disobedience on Emma’s part. I watched as my sweet, spunky sprite withered under the weight of her brother’s words. She rounded her shoulders and gazed intently at the floor while Joshua relished telling every detail about the infraction and the ensuing Mom-administered discipline.

Joshua’s words trailed off and Emma cast a cautious glance my way, no doubt wondering if I would compound her embarrassment by adding to Joshua’s diatribe. I calmly confirmed her behavior was objectionable and not to be repeated, but quickly turned my attention to her accuser. Most Grammie days provide at least one opportunity to quote the Golden Rule. (Matthew 7:12) This was such a time.

“Joshua, how would you like it if Emma told me all about your misbehavior and how Mommy disciplined you? Do unto others!”

I followed up with my best effort at an age-appropriate explanation of Jesus’ teaching regarding putting a higher priority on making sure our own behavior honors Him before we start pointing out others’ flaws. As recorded in Matthew 7, Jesus said:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we’ve been hiding and blame-shifting. (Genesis 3:1-13) Burdened with shame, we attempt to take the spotlight off of our own failings by magnifying the short-comings of others. But the One who knows our every thought and action (Psalm 139:1-12) isn’t impressed by our diversionary tactics or our self-righteous attitudes, as recounted in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

(Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Likewise, Jesus refused to allow the woman caught in adultery to be used as a pawn by the sanctimonious religious leaders who were trying to trip Him up, yet again, by presenting Him with what they hoped would be a no-win situation. Instead, Jesus reminded them of their own sinfulness:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

Forgiveness instead of condemnation. Isn’t that what we all long for? Praise God, we have a Savior who took our sins upon Himself and bore the penalty we deserved. (Isaiah 53:4-6) Furthermore, when we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

We’ll continue to struggle with sin until we’re called Home, as so eloquently described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-19) Indeed, each one of us has plenty of logs to deal with. Nonetheless, there are times when we must address the sins of others. Speaking truth in love, we are to restore them gently, being watchful lest we too be tempted (Ephesians 4:15; Galatians 6:1), always remembering how much God has forgiven us.

Somewhere in the course of all the reading I do, I came across this sentiment: “Be the kind of woman who can help a sister in Christ straighten her crown without telling anyone else it was crooked.”

Do unto others. Restore gently. Forgive much.

O Lord, if You kept a record of our iniquities, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3) Like sweet Emma and the careless words of her brother, we would wither under the weight of your wrath. But with You there is forgiveness. You are our compassionate Father, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) You know our frames and remember we are but dust. (Psalm 103:13-14) Please help us to do likewise, granting others the same grace we’ve received from You.

 

[1] My grandchildren and I refer to my bi-weekly, day-long stays while daughter Mary is at work as “Grammie days”.

Keeping current

IMG_0321I’m playing catch-up. December descended, as it always does, with its attendant whirlwind of activities. I’m one of those who revel in the festivities, from sending and receiving cards to plotting gift strategy with family members to savoring special meals with loved ones. But, as I’m enjoying the merriment the season has to offer, day-to-day chores and responsibilities start to pile up and about now, as the celebrations wind down, I realize just how far behind I am. I don’t regret my decision to enjoy the season, since it comes but once a year, while chores persist year-round. But I know I now need to pick up the reins and get the more mundane aspects of life back in order. As much as I relish celebrating, I also look forward to returning to a normal schedule.

There are times when it’s ok to step back from our daily routines, to focus on special occasions and events, to appreciate holidays and vacations. But the Bible is clear there are some things we need to make every effort to keep current on, many of which involve relationships. Consider, for example:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

I don’t like conflict. I’d much rather compliment than confront. Faced with disappointment, I’m more likely to withdraw, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, or risk being hurt more deeply myself. Yet these two passages direct us to address discord in a timely manner and not allow misunderstandings to fester. I’ve learned first-hand the necessity of doing so. Unresolved differences provide fertile soil for Satan to inflict further misery, including divisions and estrangement.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-9)

Here we receive guidance on how to conduct our relationships. We are to treat each other with kindness and consideration, humbly forgiving as we ourselves have been forgiven. God asks nothing of us that He hasn’t already done Himself in ways that far surpass any giving or humbling or forgiving we’ll ever do.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18b-21)

These last two passages are similar in their decree: we’re to give thanks, rejoice and pray continually – no slacking or falling behind!

The directives in the passages above are impossible for us to carry out in our own strength, but, praise God, we’ve been given the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20-21) May we ever depend on Him to help us keep current in the things that matter most.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Never say never

Unlike many of my posts, this week’s isn’t inspired by a garden epiphany or family events, past or present. No, this one is born of a desire to share some long-held reflections on the lives of two prominent men in Scripture. One’s actions remind me that no matter how long we’ve walked with the Lord, we’re still capable of committing unthinkable sins. The reclamation of the other affirms that God’s elect, even those who appear to be hopelessly lost, are never beyond His reach. The former shout a warning; the latter shines a beacon of hope.

King David
The shepherd-boy who slayed Goliath grew up to become God’s chosen king. Yet, after years of experiencing God’s favor and protection and blessing, he sinned by blatantly breaking several of the Ten Commandments. David didn’t begin by devising a murderous scheme. As is often the case when we go astray, his downfall resulted from a series of bad choices and poor decisions. Each one escalated the situation and led him further and further down the path of disobedience. (James 1:13-15)

IMG_64112 Samuel 11 recounts the whole sordid scenario. David’s first mistake? He didn’t lead his troops into battle against the Ammonites. (v. 1) He chose to stay home instead, which meant he was available to take an afternoon stroll on his rooftop. As he gazed about, he spied a beautiful woman, mid-bath. Instead of respectfully averting his eyes, he inquired as to who she was. Even when informed that she was a married woman, he had her brought to the palace so he could lay with her. (vs. 2-4) When this dalliance led to Bathsheba becoming pregnant, King David concocted a scheme to bring her husband back from the front lines so he could spend time with his wife. But Uriah was an honorable man and refused the conjugal visit while his fellow soldiers and the ark remained camped in an open field. Instead, he slept at the door of the king’s house. The next day, David encouraged him to go to Bathsheba, even making him drunk. Still Uriah refused. (vs. 5-13)

With his plan to avert suspicion about Bathsheba’s pregnancy thwarted, King David became more desperate and his devices more diabolical. He instructed his commander, Joab, to abandon Uriah on the battlefield so that the enemy forces could easily take his life. His wretched orders were carried out and Uriah perished. (vs. 14-25) David took the widowed Bathsheba to be his wife and she bore him a son. (vs. 26) But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD. (v. 27, emphasis mine)

God doesn’t let his children’s wanderings go on forever. Like a loving Father, He disciplines those who belong to Him. (Hebrews 12:5-11) And so He sent Nathan the prophet to confront David with a story that at first incensed him and then brought him to his knees in repentance. (2 Samuel 12:1-9)[1] God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from our sins. (1 John 1:9) Nonetheless, we must often deal with the consequences of our behavior and for David, the consequences were dire indeed. (2 Samuel 12:10-14)

Saul
Saul’s transformation is every bit as astounding as David’s disgrace. Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul was one of the most zealous pursuers and persecutors of the early believers. He was there, giving assent, when Stephen was stoned. (Acts 7:58) And when the great persecution of the church took place, he entered house after house, dragging off men and women and committing them to prison. (Acts 8:3) Still breathing out murderous threats, he obtained letters from the high priest empowering him to search the synagogues of Damascus for others belonging to the Way that he might bring them, bound, to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

But on the way, Saul encountered the living Christ. He was blinded by His radiant presence and convicted by His question, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6)

Saul’s reputation for harassing believers was widely known so it’s understandable why Ananias was reluctant to follow God’s instructions to go to Saul that he might lay hands on him and restore his sight. (Acts 9:10-14) Nevertheless, God assured Ananias he had nothing to fear from the man He’d chosen to carry His name to the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. (Acts 9:15) His sight restored, and filled with the Holy Spirit, Saul began boldly proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, confounding his listeners who knew him before his conversion. (Acts 9:17-22)

The man with a stellar Hebrew pedigree, (Philippians 3:4-6) who hated those of the Way and the Savior they worshiped became Paul, the apostle. He counted his upbringing and all he’d previously depended on to gain favor with God as loss in light of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ as Savior. (Philippians 3:4-11) And, just as Jesus told Ananias he would, Paul suffered much for his Lord. (2 Corinthians 11:24-29)

Two men. Two lives touched by God and empowered by the Spirit. Two stories recorded for our edification. (1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Timothy 3:16) Ultimately, both are about God’s amazing grace. None of us is saved or lost based on our deeds. Our salvation is a gift from our loving Father, leaving no room for boasting. (Ephesians 2:8)

Let us never become complacent or proud, thinking we’re beyond the reach of temptation, but avail ourselves of the means of escape God provides. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) Neither let us grow weary in praying for our unbelieving friends or family members, remembering that none of the Good Shepherd’s sheep will be lost. (John 10:27-30)

[1] See also Psalm 51, David’s powerful prayer of repentance.

The lie

I’m no longer surprised when a sense of melancholy descends on my soul each April. As dependable as the spring flowers, it ushers in a time of purposeful remembrance. I intentionally recollect details of Ray’s final days and those immediately following his much-too-soon-for-me passing. I honor his memory and allow myself to mourn the loss.

But sometimes sorrow associated with lesser losses catches me off-guard. Such was the case recently. After feeling out-of-sorts for a day or two for no pin-pointable reason other than being relegated to inside activities while my hand continued its post-op recovery, I was enlightened by a Facebook memory. In the original post I quoted Sir Walter Scott: “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” And then I knew – it was the anniversary of a lie. Though not the first or last in the series, it was the most blatant and dealt a blow so severe that a valued friendship would eventually unravel completely.

Forgiveness is commanded.[1] Even so, reconciliation isn’t always possible or advisable, much less guaranteed. And so, realizing the source of my sadness, I grieved what might have been had truth-telling held more sway.

As with most parents, I endeavored to instill in my daughters the importance of honesty. (A task I’m now repeating with my grandchildren.) Nonetheless, lying is part of testing the boundaries for many children. This is especially true when imagined consequences associated with a truthful answer are deemed too much to bear. One of my most gratifying mom-moments came when daughter Mary told her younger sister Jessie, “Don’t lie to Mom. You don’t want to lose her trust.” To go from me accepting everything at face value to questioning and verifying was a fate Mary wanted to save her sibling from, having experienced the increased scrutiny firsthand.

IMG_3359Indeed, trust is a precious commodity and the foundation of any successful relationship, be it business or personal. Once broken it requires much time and faithfulness to repair, restore, rebuild, if it ever happens at all.

The very first lie, the one that changed everything, occurred early in the scriptural recounting of human history. God had graciously given Adam and Eve the fruit from all the trees in the garden for food with one exception: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”[2] Then along came Satan, the father of lies.[3] After engaging Eve in a doubt-producing conversation regarding what God commanded, he brazenly contradicted the Almighty: “You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve ate. Adam ate. Their eyes were opened. They were ashamed and they hid.[4]

And still we try to hide from God and each other.

God could have left them to fend for themselves in their pitiful leafy garments, but He knew all along his creatures were dust.[5] In his infinite and eternal love, He’d already planned a way back.[6] A way to repair, restore and rebuild our relationship with Him for all time. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[7]

As long as we’re in the world, we’ll struggle with sin and temptation.[8] Sometimes we’ll embellish the details, tell a half-truth or flat-out lie. But by the power of the Spirit, we’re being conformed more and more to the image of the Son[9] and He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.[10] On that glorious day there will be no more hiding for we will be welcomed into his presence clothed in radiant robes of righteousness.[11]

[1] Matthew 6:14-15; Colossians 3:13

[2] Genesis 2:17

[3] John 8:44

[4] Genesis 3:1-10

[5] Psalm 103:14

[6] Genesis 3:15

[7] John 1:14

[8] Romans 7:14-25

[9] Romans 8:29

[10] Philippians 1:6

[11] Revelation 7:9-17

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

We shall be whiter than snow

Introduction: I am a member of Grace Covenant PCA, a church planted by Midway PCA, the church I belonged to for many years after we moved to Georgia. I enjoy attending women’s events at Midway where my daughter Mary and her family as well as many long-time friends are still members. I was privileged to be asked to bring the devotion for this year’s Christmas event. img_2643

In spite of my best intentions to turn the contents of the devotion into a pre-Christmas blog post, holiday preparations as well as numerous family celebrations kept me from doing so . . . until now. This post is longer than usual so I invite you to pour a cup of your favorite coffee or tea and spend a few quiet minutes contemplating Jesus, our Lord and Savior, the most precious gift ever given.

As always, thank you for reading along. May God bless you and yours in the coming year.

(The following has been modified to more appropriately fit this setting and timing.)

Imagine my surprise and delight at being asked to bring the devotion for the women’s Christmas event at Midway, an event I look forward to attending each year. Upon agreeing to be the guest speaker, I asked Wanda, the woman who contacted me, about the theme for the event. When she replied, “We shall be whiter than snow”, I thought, “Good! I can work with that! There’s a Christmas-y tie in even if we rarely ever get snow on December 25th here in Georgia. Then, near the end of our conversation, Wanda added, “We’ve also been talking about unity in the church.” Uh oh. That topic could be a bit stickier. I could step on some toes with that one. I could even step on my toes. In the week I had to prepare, I prayerfully considered the topics before me, hoping the message would honor God, as well as be an encouragement to all of us gathered that evening.

In thinking about unity, I found it easier to start by pondering what creates disunity.[1] Misunderstandings, taking sides, judging, assuming – these are just some of the things that come to mind when I think of sources of friction and disharmony in congregations and relationships in general. I think it’s safe to say all of us have been a part of or witnessed situations where these dynamics come into play. Someone hurts someone else’s feelings and the two people become cross with each other. Instead of working it out they tell others. Before you know it sides form, with supporters in each camp assuming the worst of the other side. Often judgements are based on very little information, other than that provided by the offended party which is no doubt embellished as it gets told and retold by ones not directly involved.

Scripture gives us clear guidance on how we’re to conduct interpersonal relationships. As presented in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus outlines the process to follow if a brother offends you. Though this passage provides basis for church discipline, it begins with, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (Emphasis mine.) Ephesians 4:26 reminds us to not let the sun go down on our anger. Disagreements should be dealt with quickly so hard feelings won’t fester. As part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonished his listeners (and us) not to judge lest we be judged, to be more concerned about the log in our own eye than the speck in our brother’s.[2] And what about the ninth commandment which tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor? Given Jesus’ “heart of the matter” approach to adultery and murder[3] isn’t it reasonable to consider gossip to be bearing false witness?

Work out your differences directly with those who’ve offended you and do so quickly. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Don’t judge. Don’t gossip.

Yet we can make it even simpler. These rules (and others) for harmonious relationships can be boiled down to the Golden Rule and the second greatest command, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”[4] and “love your neighbor as yourself”[5], respectively. Being with my grandchildren on a regular basis is always a blessing, but sometimes a challenge. As much as I love them, children will be children. “Do unto others” has become an oft-repeated phrase, as in, “Joshua, would you like it if I hit you? No? Well then don’t hit your sister. Do unto others!” And so it is with me. As I’ve repeatedly re-enforced this concept with Joshua, my heavenly Father has reminded me to do as I say. When I’m tempted to judge or assume or gossip, “do unto others” often brings me up short.

So let’s turn back to our theme. The phrase “whiter than snow” appears in Psalm 51, David’s psalm of repentance, his cry for forgiveness after Nathan had confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba.[6] David was God’s chosen king. Scripture refers to him as a man after God’s own heart yet he committed adultery and murder, probably the furthest things from his mind the night he went up to the roof of the palace to get some air. His first mistake was not being where he should have been – with his troops. 1 Samuel 11:1 tells us: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army . . . But David remained in Jerusalem.” David’s behavior is a sobering reminder that any of us can be led astray, step by step, if we make poor choices and give in to temptation.

As long as we’re in the flesh, we’ll sin, but as believers, we’re no longer slaves to sin[7], nor will God ever let go[8] or lose sight of[9] one of his children. In fact, God promises to provide a way out when we’re tempted[10] and, when we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness[11], to wash us whiter than snow. Times of wandering and restoration in my own life have humbled me. They remind me I have no grounds to judge others. Without Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, I would be totally, eternally lost.

Isaiah 53 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. This Messianic passage paints a vivid portrait of the suffering Savior. When I read verse 5, I usually personalize it: “But he was wounded for my transgressions; he was crushed for my iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought me peace, and by his stripes I am healed.” It brings things into clear perspective. Nothing in my hands I bring. Simply to his cross I cling.

In addition to our sinful natures, we all carry burdens and grief known only to God and a trusted few who are closest to us. When the load becomes particularly heavy, our stress may manifest itself in a number of ways – sadness, irritability, withdrawal from normal activities – things that could lead others to draw all sorts of conclusions, assume the worst or possibly even take offense over something that has nothing at all to do with them. Instead of indulging in such presumptions, may we choose to “do unto others”. At the very least, we can give the other person the benefit of the doubt and we can pray for discernment on how to reach out. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul referred to the church as a body with different parts, each having an important role to play in the well-being of the whole. Furthermore, he said there should be no division in the body of believers and called us to rejoice with those who rejoice and suffer with those who suffer.[12]

At this point I’m sure some of my listeners may have been thinking, “This isn’t much of a Christmas message.” Possibly some of you are thinking the same. After all, we usually focus on the Baby in the manger, multitudes of angels singing, the new star in the sky, shepherds looking on in wonder. But if that baby hadn’t grown up to be the man of sorrows, who took our sins upon himself, was crucified, dead and buried and rose again on the third day, we would be most to be pitied, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians. However, as Paul went on to affirm, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.[13]

As we look forward to a new year, let us celebrate the entire life of our Savior who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Where should our unity come from? From recognizing we’re sinners, saved by grace, a free gift from God that leaves no room for boasting or judging or looking down on others.[14] Instead, all power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory and blessing belong to the Lamb.[15]  It’s all about Him.

According to Isaiah 1:18, the matter is settled. For those who’ve been cleansed by the precious blood of the spotless Lamb, “though their sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Good news. News worth celebrating and rejoicing over and telling others.

And as we do so, may we humbly extend to them the forgiveness and compassion shown to us by the One who has washed us whiter than snow.

[1] Yes, “disunity” is a word, as is “disharmony”!

[2] Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-38

[3] Matthew 5:21-30

[4] Matthew 7:12

[5] Matthew 22:37-39

[6] 2 Samuel 12:1-10

[7] Romans 6:1-23

[8] John 10:27-29

[9] Psalm 34:15

[10] 1 Corinthians 10:13

[11] 1 John 1:9

[12] 1 Corinthians 12:24b-26

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:12-28

[14] Ephesians 2:8-9

[15] Revelation 5:12

Father knows best, take 2

First-time obedience – it’s something we strive for and long for in our children, be they toddlers or teenagers. As we try to shape them into responsible, caring human beings we establish rules and enforce boundaries, preferably in a consistent and loving way. But oh do they ever push the limits. There are times when we even wonder if our children may be suffering from temporary hearing loss. We repeat our instructions over and over, frequently increasing our volume with each repetition.

Often our rules are meant to keep our children safe. For instance, we know the dangers of running in front of a car, playing with knives and sticking keys in electrical outlets, thus we warn them. At other times we try to help them learn how to play well with others. Hitting someone because you’re angry they took your “favorite” toy (which you may or may not have looked at for days) is not advisable, at least if you want the person to be favorably disposed to your presence. Likewise, cutting your sister’s hair, “so she can see better”, without asking Mommy first will more than likely result in your scissors being kept out of your reach.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart for MANY reasons, guiding and disciplining day in and day out being near the top of the list. After raising my daughters, I now have the opportunity to come alongside Mary and Justin to help them bring up their three little ones. img_1950Though it’s tempting to take the easy route and fall into the role of indulgent grandmother, I know it wouldn’t do any of us any favors, least of all the children. Hence I adhere to the house rules, sometimes stating, “Mommy (or Daddy) says . . . ”, to reinforce the idea of obedience even when they’re not present.

Several months ago, after I’d repeatedly asked Joshua to stop engaging in some now-forgotten misbehavior, I thought, “I just wish he’d obey the first time!” Almost immediately, a still, small Voice spoke to my heart: “What about you? Do you always obey the first time?” The question pierced me to the core because the honest answer was, “No, Lord. I don’t.”

Occasionally, like Eve, I let myself be led astray by “Did God really say?” thinking.[1] Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe it would be ok to run a quick test, just to be sure. A while back, I left Joshua unsupervised for a few moments while I tended to his sister. He appeared with a sheepish look and a small cut on his finger. Even though we’d told him again and again knives are off limits because they’re sharp, he decided to check it out for himself. I can relate.

At other times my disobedience is more willful. I rationalize that given the circumstances, my behavior is ok, at least “this once”. Yet try as I might, I’ve never found a footnote anywhere in the Bible exempting me from God’s commands. Moreover, rationalization is a slippery slope which can lead us further and further away from who we want to be. King David is a prime example. It all started when he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Yet committing murder was probably the furthest thing from his mind when he went up on the roof of the palace to get some fresh air. Nonetheless one poor decision led to another until he not only arranged to have an innocent man die, but he lied and committed adultery as well.[2] This is a sobering story indeed considering David was God’s chosen king,[3] described as a man after God’s own heart.[4]

Knowing our weaknesses, God promises to provide a way out when we’re tempted.[5] Even so, we don’t always avail ourselves of his provision. And when we don’t, when we decide to go our own way, He disciplines us. Not because He wants to squash our fun or limit our self-expression as our children sometimes accuse us of, but because He loves us.[6] We are fearfully and wonderfully made in his image[7] and He knows what’s best. His rules and boundaries are there to protect us.

Over the years, my mom has said countless times, “A self-learned lesson is the best.” As much as I’d like to shield my children and grandchildren from harm, I realize consequences are sometimes the ideal teacher, at least when we learn from our experiences. It is much the same with me and my heavenly Father. He frequently uses the pain caused by my disobedience to draw me back to himself. I have learned I cannot live a life which satisfies myself if I do not live a life which is satisfying to God.[8] To be sure, most of the pain comes from a sense of disappointing Him which in turn leads to a rueful desire to hide, like Adam and Eve.[9] I rejoice in the fact my Father never lets go or loses sight of me, even when I wander. It’s impossible to hide. Indeed He seeks me out. His discipline confirms I am his daughter[10] and his loving arms are always open to welcome me back. The peace and joy that come with restoration are priceless.[11]

Let us not lose heart as we raise the children entrusted to us. May we be wise as we set boundaries, consistent when discipline is called for, and steadfast as we assure them of our love. In so doing, we will give them a glimpse of the Father who loves them even more than we do.

[1] Genesis 3:1

[2] The full account is found in 2 Samuel 11

[3] 1 Samuel 16:1

[4] 1 Samuel 13:14

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:13

[6] Hebrews 12:6

[7] Psalm 139:14, Genesis 1:26a

[8] The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, p. 166

[9] Genesis 3:8

[10] Hebrews 12:7-8

[11] Hebrews 12:11