Promises with parameters

One recent evening, I extended my Grammie day[1] to help daughter Mary with the three kiddos through dinner and bedtime. My son-in-law, Justin, was away on business for the second straight week and I didn’t want her to succumb to mommy fatigue. The five of us enjoyed filling each other in on the day’s activities while we ate and then headed upstairs to begin the process of preparing for bed.

With PJs on and teeth brushed, 8-year-old Joshua went to his room to read while I clambered into 3-year-old Emma’s bed, book in hand, and settled myself between her and 5-year-old Lyla. Upon finishing the selected story, I carefully extricated myself from the lower bunk in an attempt to not bump my head as I’ve done many times before. Safely positioned next to Emma’s bed, I listened to her and Lyla’s sweet prayers, sang their requested hymn, Silent Night, then stood and reached for the light switch. The orderly progression of the tuck-in routine came to an abrupt end as the two sleepy-heads protested in unison, “I’m not tired, Grammie! I don’t want to go to sleep!!”

IMG_1572Knowing they were plenty tired and would go to sleep quickly if they gave themselves a chance, I replied, “You don’t have to go to sleep, but you do have to lay down and be quiet.” Further protests greeted my statement, which I repeated more sternly as I turned off the light and crossed the hall to tuck Joshua in.

I barely finished singing to Joshua when I heard the sound of boisterous laughter emanating from the girls’ room. I opened their door and said in my stern-Grammie voice, “Girls, you need to settle down!” Lyla, in turn, replied, “You said we don’t have to go to sleep!”

Technically Lyla was right, at least as far as her abbreviated quote went. However, she latched onto the part of my statement that appealed to her and essentially ignored my instructions.

Ah, selective listening. But children aren’t the only ones who engage in the practice, are they? In fact, we’re sometimes prone to pick and choose verses or truncate Scripture passages to make them say what we want them to say, conveniently ignoring the parameters surrounding the promises. For example, consider these beloved and oft-quoted verses:

  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
  • But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
  • Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)
  • If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
  • For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13)

I’m sure you can come up with other examples, but I’ll let these suffice for this post. In each case, I’ve bolded the promise, the part we like to quote, and italicized the parameter, the part we’d sometimes like to overlook. Yet we do so to our detriment. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Who is the promise for – believers, everyone?
  • What is required of me – believe, pray, humble myself, something else?
  • Is this a spiritual or physical promise, for this life or the life to come, or both?

Scripture is one grand story from beginning to end, the story of our covenant-keeping God, who chose a people for Himself and promised to be with them forever (Genesis 17:7; Revelation 21:3) And though He is gracious to give us numerous temporal blessings, He is most concerned about our spiritual welfare and fitting us for heaven (Romans 8:29-30); about having a relationship with us (Galatians 4:4-6), all for His glory (Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

I knew if the girls obeyed the rest of my statement, “lay down and be quiet”, the desired result, sleep, would follow quickly. Likewise, God knows the parameters required for us to be transformed, to bring our desires and will closer and closer to His. By His grace, may we heed the full counsel of Scripture, trusting Him for the eternal outcome.

 

[1] I usually spend two days a week with my grandchildren. We call those “Grammie days”.

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

Becoming fluent

The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.

Our 2-year stay abroad resulted from my dad accepting a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.

Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.

IMG_6898Just as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given. (Romans 12:3-21)

In addition, we have a responsibility to tell the younger generations of the mighty deeds of the Lord and to instruct them in His ways. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 145:10-13) Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s directions to Titus are clear regarding the role older women are to play in tutoring the younger women, teaching them the finer points of Biblical womanhood through both word and action. (Titus 2:3-5)

I don’t remember how long it took, but one day, to my amazement, I realized I could speak and respond in Spanish without a conscious translation step. The second language had become second-nature.

And so it is with our spiritual transformation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, we’re no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we’ve become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6) Through the Spirit’s power at work within us, we’re able to discern what is right and true, something we could never do when we were dead in our trespasses. Furthermore, as our sanctification progresses, Christ’s light shines ever-brighter in us and we produce spiritual fruit. (Matthew 5:14-15; Galatians 5:22-23) More and more, our renewed nature becomes second-nature as we seek to please God and abide in Him. (John 15:5)

Nonetheless, aspects of our old selves will persist until God calls us Home, as Paul so eloquently describes in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-20) And so we press on to become fluent in God’s ways, by studying His Word, praying and joining with fellow believers to worship Him and stir one another to love and good works.

Even now, over four decades later and without daily use, I’m apt to spontaneously sprinkle Spanish sentences into conversations with my grandchildren. They’ve become used to these linguistic detours and know an immediate translation-repetition-translation mini-lesson is sure to follow. Yes, I can speak Spanish, though far from flawlessly – I still can’t roll my Rs and I mix up verb tenses – but I enjoy the language and sharing it with my grandchildren.

How much more I savor sharing our Savior with them. I’m far from perfect when it comes to fluency in my Christian walk as well. But I pray I’ll always be faithful to spontaneously sprinkle His ways and words into our conversations as I point them to the only perfect One who loves them even more than I do and encourage them to take their places in His family. May His nature become increasingly second-nature for us all.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

An audience of One

IMG_0024 (2)Mom says she could always tell when I saw her in the audience at one or another of my elementary school concerts. A smile would spread across my face and I would relax, knowing my biggest fan was there. And so it was with my daughters and now my grandchildren. Indeed, wise directors of lower-school productions allow a few minutes before commencing for their performers to connect with those who’ve come to watch. Exchanging waves and grins makes for a cheerful beginning all around.

Truth be told, Mom is still my biggest cheerleader and encourager, the one I can always count on to be in my corner. From her fervent prayers to her interest in every post on this blog, her support is unwavering. I hope my daughters feel that same constancy of care from me.

We never outgrow our need for unconditional love or the assurance we’re accepted, short-comings and all. It’s a rare person who’s immune to the opinions of others, especially those we’re in contact with most. We prefer to be viewed positively by our neighbors, work colleagues, fellow church-goers, classmates and friends. Yet, given our fallen natures, opportunities to reject others and be rejected abound from our earliest years. Childish name-calling and shunning give way in later years to backbiting and various forms of adult exclusion.

We were made for relationship with God and each other. Our innate desire to connect and be well-received may lead us astray or cause us to hide parts of ourselves. Rejection hurts. Misunderstandings wound. If only I could explain – my tribulations, my perspective, my hopes – maybe then they’d comprehend.

No one can fully understand another. At times even our own hearts deceive us.[1] Yet there is One who knows me even better than I know myself. The One who knit me together in Mom’s womb, who wrote each of my days in his book before any came to be, who never loses sight of me.[2] Not only does He know me intimately, He purposed to save me by sending his Son to die for me – the epitome of unconditional love.[3]

Isaiah 53 describes the suffering Savior as “despised and rejected”.[4] Not only did those closest to him misunderstand his mission, hoping for an earthly kingdom, they abandoned him in his darkest hours, first by falling asleep, then by fleeing.[5] Truly, He understands our sorrows.

I recently came across the phrase “audience of one”, as in “Jesus, the One and only, Savior and Lord.” It resonated deeply with me. Even though I would like others’ approval and affirmation, his “well done” is not only sufficient, but supreme.[6] In fact, pleasing the Lord above all others is so important, the Apostle Paul includes reminders in several of his letters. Whether eating, working or serving, whatever we do is to be done for his glory.[7]

When plagued with self-doubt or troubled with a nameless sense of disquiet, I often pray David’s prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”[8] Though we may be pummeled by differing opinions and challenged by clamoring voices, we have the assurance that his sheep hear his voice.[9] He will show us the way[10] and lead us on level ground.[11]

As we journey forth, precious are those who come alongside to encourage, support and cheer us on, for they give us a glimpse of God’s unconditional love. I am immensely grateful for the life-givers He’s placed along my path. They are among his greatest blessings.

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage (our) hearts and strengthen (us) in every good deed and word.”[12]

[1] Jeremiah 17:9

[2] Psalm 139:1-18

[3] Romans 5:6-8

[4] Isaiah 53:3

[5] Matthew 26:36-56

[6] Galatians 1:10

[7] See, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:13; Colossians 3:17,23; Ephesians 6:7-8

[8] Psalm 139:23-24

[9] John 10:2-5

[10] Isaiah 30:21

[11] Psalm 143:10

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

The impostor

I’ve killed my share of plants over the years . . . and I’ve cared for a few longer than I should have.

My garden is home to a beautiful stand of native columbines, offspring of plants my late husband started over 20 years ago. Like a number of other gardening tasks, ensuring the survival of the columbines was something I had to learn-by-doing after Ray passed away suddenly one warm April evening. As I cut back the spent flowers later that spring, I realized they were laden with seeds. Many spurted out when I cut the dried stems, dotting the ground and decorating my shirt. I decided to sprinkle more around for good measure. And sprinkle I did, shaking pod after pod of dried columbines.

Months passed. Raising two young daughters alone and trying to find my footing in a world turned upside down consumed much of my time and energy. But winter waned, warmer days returned and the garden beckoned me. A reconnaissance stroll yielded a number of finds – tiny plants emerging from their winter slumber. “Hmm”, I wondered. “What could all those leaves springing up in the front bed be?” Then I remembered scattering columbine seeds everywhere. It worked! I’ve continued the sprinkling tradition ever since and each year I’ve been blessed with a bumper crop.

IMG_2890

A young columbine on the left with a weedy wannabe on the right.

When I was first taking stock of the returning plants, I noticed some leaves that looked almost like columbine foliage with a similar growth habit. Not wanting to pull up desirable plants, I decided to let them develop until I was sure. Big mistake! By the time I realized they were weeds, they’d put down roots, matured and reproduced. The imposters return each spring alongside the columbines, hiding out, hoping I won’t spot them. But after almost two decades of observation and careful scrutiny, I’m able to readily detect the difference, even when the plants are still very small. I pluck them out before they have a chance to get established and take over valuable garden real estate.

 

Just like my early dealings with the weeds, it’s easy to let questionable behavior or dubious conduct gain a foothold. We rationalize, “Looks like a good thing. I’m not sure, but it won’t hurt to try it out, at least until I’m certain. I can redirect later if need be.” By the time we recognize the situation for what it is, it’s much more difficult to handle than if we’d been more spiritually discerning from the start. Unlike the weeds which really aren’t out to get me, we have an adversary bent on our destruction. Though he knows his ultimate defeat is certain[1], he prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may destroy.[2] He masquerades as an angel of light[3], tempting with promises that seem oh-so-reasonable, all while minimizing potential consequences.[4]

Fortunately, there is a way to resist him. We must draw near to God[5], making use of the mighty armor He provides for us.[6] As we think on his powerful word, described in Ephesians 6 as the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, our minds are transformed and we are enabled more and more to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.[7]

4-5-2015, Columbine 1As the colony of columbines has become more dominant over the years, there’s less room for the pesky intruders. Those that do appear don’t get to stay around very long since I can now easily identify them. Just as I’ve consistently sprinkled columbine seeds and studied the resulting plants’ appearance, let us liberally sow God’s truth in our lives and meditate on its teachings. In so doing, may we weed out temptations and lies before they have a chance to entice and entangle us.

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15

[2] 1 Peter 5:8

[3] 2 Corinthians 11:14

[4] Genesis 3:1-5

[5] James 4:7-8

[6] Ephesians 6:10-17

[7] Romans 12:2