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Reflection


The rare opportunity to sit in the woods in solitude for hours was a gift I could not pass up. I reached the small lake at mid-day and walked around the silent park in the bright, November sunshine, feeling free and eager to have some time alone with my Creator. This late in the year there were no other visitors to this beautiful picnic area and the quiet was profound and complete. There were no people, no vehicles, no birdsong, no insect hum. Only the wind blew gently, whispering to the trees and stirring the water into slow, lazy ripples.

I sat on the boat dock and looked over the lake to the great island that stood in the middle; an island so large that the lake looks more like a moat that surrounds its high, rocky cliff walls. The beauty of it was undiminished by the lateness of the year—the poplar trees were fading from brilliant reds and yellows to a more subdued russet and gold, the oak leaves darkening to the shiny brown of highly-polished leather. The stately hemlocks, full and verdant, covered the top of the island like a crown of green, and mountain laurel crept and wove itself through the tree boles and spilled over the sides of the rocky cliffs, trailing down to the water. Even those trees whose leaves were now all lost were lovely, their lacey twigs and branches standing against the sky in bold bas-relief. It was a peaceful scene, perfect for prayer.

So many things were troubling my heart, and I poured it all out to the God Who Hears. Everything I’ve ever done in my life marched through my conscious thought, it seemed, and most of it bad: every mistake I ever made, every misjudgement, every hastily-spoken word, every temper lost, every sin I ever committed. I was foundering in regrets that I knew I had no business hanging onto, but could not seem to put behind me. “I know I’ve asked forgiveness for all these things before, Father. Why can’t I move on?”

“Look,” He said. “Look at the water.”

The lake was covered with the fallen leaves of November—dead and discarded debris. I watched the wind skimming them over the surface of the water in slow, unpredictable patterns. Then I looked deeper and could see, beneath the surface, the island reflected perfectly in every detail. In the brightness of the sun, the image was as crisp and three-dimensional as the original, only occasionally wavering as the wind roused up ripples. I could see there every leaf and branch and rock, as solid-looking as reality itself.

Then I noticed that when I looked at the leaf debris on the surface, I could no longer see the reflection of the island in the water. And when I looked at the reflection, I no longer noticed the debris. Interesting.

“I am the island,” God told me. “You are the water.” Oh.

“You have a choice,” He said. “You can look at the debris on the surface of yourself, or you can look at My image inside of you. Both are there. Both are true.” Oh.

Others have a choice to make, as well. They can look at the debris on my surface, or they can look at Christ in me. Both are there. Both are true. I can’t make them choose to see one or the other.

I have this choice to make about other believers, too. I can concentrate on their debris, or I can see Christ’s image in them. Both are there. Both are true. One brings joy in relationships and the other causes division and misery.

The next day, I told a friend about what God had taught me at the lake, and she expressed a desire to see it for herself. As we drove up and parked, I was a bit disappointed, because the sky was now overcast and the reflection was not immediately evident.

“I see only your debris!” my friend teased, and we laughed together. However, as we walked toward the lake, the reflection appeared after all, not as crisp and clear as in the bright sunlight of the day before, but muted and smudgy and rather surreal.

“It’s beautiful,” my friend gasped. And she was right. It was an Impressionist painting of the island etched into the water, as lovely as any Monet masterpiece. As infinite as God Himself, His image is infinitely complex and can be seen differently in different lights. We can choose to look for Him, no matter what our circumstances. Christ in us, the hope of glory— our only hope in a world of debris.

One day, He will sweep the debris away and there will be nothing to see in the water of my soul but His image. Until then, I can wallow in the despair of the debris, or I can revel in the joy of His reflection in me.

. . .the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. Colossians 1:26-28

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Burying Expectations: The Secret of Contentment Part II


Last spring, I dared to pontificate upon the Secret of Contentment.  Unfortunately (or otherwise) whenever one presumes to teach on a subject, all manner of new information is bound to be discovered about it afterward.  In my case, I found I had not yet acquired a very large piece to the contentment puzzle.  So God is now teaching me to bury my expectations.

 

It’s hard to live without any expectations.  We make plans and expect them to come to pass just as we outlined them.  We hope and dream for the future and expect that if we work hard enough our plans will come to pass.  Much discontentment is rooted in frustrated expectations.  I think nothing steals joy and causes anger, disappointment, and depression more than this.

 

Take a simple thing like transportation.  I get in the car and fully expect to arrive at my destination safely and in a reasonable amount of time.  Why do I expect that?  I’ve lived and driven in a major city for 35 years! I ought to have learned better by now.  I know that drivers are careless, reckless, insane!  I know full well that traffic jams are a thing, that accidents happen, that cars break down, that tires go flat.  And yet instead of acknowledging that every time I arrive anywhere unharmed and on time it’s purely by the grace of God, I get frustrated when things go wrong.

 

It’s impossible to get anything done without any plans, but if we expect our plans to go exactly the way we think they should, we are setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment.

 

Proverbs 16:9  says “The mind of man plans his way,  But the LORD directs his steps.” Proverbs 19:21  “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD, it will stand.” Expectations are another way of trying to feel in control of our lives and circumstances.  If we can come to grips with the simple fact that we are actually in control of nothing, aside from our own behavior, we will be better able to be content in whatever life throws at us and whatever God gives to us.

 

I’ve been studying the book of Exodus lately, and it’s made me think a lot about false expectations.  I’m sure Moses did not expect freedom to take almost a year and ten horrible plagues.  And it was obvious that his people’s circumstances were growing a great deal worse before they finally got better.  Then, when the people were finally free and poised to enter the Promised Land, I’m sure 80-year-old Moses saw retirement and rest in his near future.  He surely did not expect the people to refuse to enter the land.  He must have been horrified to realize that it was his lot to lead these whiney, all-too-human people around the wilderness for 40 more long years.

 

Or maybe he wasn’t surprised after all.  After 80 years’ experience, perhaps he’d learned better than to believe in happily ever after in this life.  He was, as we are, living on a  battlefield in a fallen world.  The world is broken, and there are diseases and accidents and natural disasters that we can never plan for or avoid.  People are broken and have free will and sin natures and they will do whatever they please—we can never plan well enough to account for all the astonishing, bewildering, horrifying things people will do.

 

Jesus warned us:  “In this world you WILL have trouble”.  He never said He’d put us in a bubble to protect us from it.  He just promised He’d be there with us as we deal with it, and that HIS plans will prevail over all the worldly chaos, in His own time.

 

As my friends and I grow older, we have often commented to each other that our lives have not turned out as we had expected.  “I’ve done everything I was taught to.  I’ve done what I was supposed to.  I followed all the rules,” one friend said to me once as she suffered through a tragedy in her life that had happened due entirely to another’s actions.  “How is this my life now?”

 

That’s a hard question.  We may do the best we can with our lives, following Scripture and serving others; unfortunately, this does not prevent trying circumstances from coming our way.  But as Christians, we should not be living righteously in order to have good, trouble-free lives for ourselves.  We should be living for Christ and for Him alone.  Then we can trust Him, not to shield us from real life on a broken planet, but to guide us through it with our best interests in mind.  It’s also helpful (and perhaps comforting) to realize that our lives are not all about us.  God will use our trials to bless others and bring them into a greater knowledge of Him.   If we bury our expectations and focus our attention only on Him, we may find the freedom that comes from dying to self and, with that, true contentment

 

As I prayed about these hard questions, God, knowing full well how I think and what I need, gave me this poem.  I will now depress you all with it—but struggle on through to the end, because hope is there.

 

I Did Not Expect

Kneeling at the grave of “what ought to have been.”

Tombstone’s inscription reads, “Dreams, Hopes, and Plans,”

Costing a lifetime of doing my best,

Doing all that I know, doing all that I can,

 

Now buried beneath the deep muck of reality.

Body rotting, decaying more years than I knew.

Trading the corpse of the beauty I longed for;

Trading it in for the ugly but true.

 

Future now waits for me there in the dust:

A path through a graveyard I did not expect.

Can’t see the borders of this Potter’s Field,

Can’t see where it’s going—no sign to direct.

 

Can only see footprints that glimmer through twilight.

Can only hear whispers of “Come, Love, this way.”

Can only believe that the dead things, once buried,

Will germinate into new beauty one day.

 

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making plans and dreaming dreams.  The wrong is in placing our hopes in our own dreams and plans and expectations. Our hope is to be in the Lord and in Him alone.  Everything else must be held loosely.

 

Romans 8: 23-25  “But we ourselves who have the Spirit also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our hope, because who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

 

Psalm 71:5  “For you, O Lord, are my hope; my trust, O Lord, from my youth.

 

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God’s Immigration Policy


One day last spring, I read aloud to my Middle School class the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon.  In this story, the gods Zeus and Hermes come to earth disguised as beggars and seek refuge from every home in a small, impoverished village.  They are turned away by everyone except Baucis and Philemon, the poorest of the poor.  This elderly couple owns nothing but one goose, which they nevertheless slaughter and cook in order to feed their guests.  Naturally, they are greatly rewarded and the rest of the village is destroyed for their selfishness.

I went on to explain that this story is told in many forms throughout the world.  Every culture has always held the virtue of hospitality very high, and in every people group stories have been told of gods or kings who dress as beggars and go out among their people to test their true natures.  I added that the one true God states over and over again in Scripture that we are to take in strangers and care for all those in need.

I read Leviticus 19:33-34 to them: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

I read Deuteronomy 10:17-19:  For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.  Love the stranger, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

And this directive did not change from Old Testament to New.  I also read them Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats.  Here is the fate of the goats: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I asked the class if they could think of any reasons the wicked villagers in the story might have had for turning the needy strangers away.  They came up with such words as “selfish”, “greedy”, “mean”, and “unloving.”

“But that was back then,” one boy added.  “It’s too dangerous to help strangers nowadays.”  The other children nodded somberly in agreement.

I sighed.  But I had an edge.  These were, for the most part, the same children I was teaching in a history class.  “We’ve just been reading about what life was like in the Middle Ages.  You really think people are more dangerous now than they were ‘back then?’”  That gave them pause.

“And anyway, in the verses I read to you, where does God say that it’s okay to refuse to help those in need if you think it’s too dangerous?”  I read the verses again.

I explained to them that, just as Zeus and Hermes did in our story that day, God judges His people by how they treat those in need.  I read to them from Jeremiah chapters 7 and 22 and from Ezekiel 22, in which God explains that He is going to allow His people to be conquered by their enemies because they would not care for the widows, orphans, and strangers in their midst.  Not only would they not provide for them, they actively oppressed them.  This is apparently very high on the list of things that displease God!

Of course, they asked me if I practice what I preach.  I don’t blame them.  Words are easy—it’s acting on them that is a challenge.  But I am no hypocrite.  Through our work with Right to Life and through my husband’s job as a police officer, we have found ourselves hosting a number of homeless strangers over the years.  Some just needed a place to stay the night until family or friends could reach them.  Some needed a place to stay for weeks or even months as they found jobs and got back on their feet.  I’m not saying that we scoured the streets looking for people to help—there are people who do this and they are truly God’s hands on earth.  But whenever God placed a stranger in need before us, we could not turn them away and call ourselves Christ-followers.

Was this dangerous? Well, I guess it was.  I’m not saying there wasn’t an occasional theft or frightening moment.  But Jesus never shrank away from a stranger in fear, even though He spent His entire career on earth in mortal danger.  The Apostle Paul, himself a reformed terrorist, also did not run from danger when self-preservation meant turning his back on those in need of the truth.

Furthermore, God does not only judge individuals on how they treat strangers who come to them for help.  He also judges nations on this basis, as we have seen in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  America is a nation greatly blessed in land, resources, and freedoms.  Many strangers flock to us here, hoping for a better life.  I know that my own great-grandparents came to America because they knew they could never own property or choose their own livelihoods freely in their native land. I imagine that is the story of many Americans.

What an opportunity God blessed the church in America with!  He instructed us to “go into all the world and make disciples”, but we don’t have to go anywhere!  He is bringing all the world right to our doorsteps!  America has been known in the past for sending missionaries all over the world, and Christians have been enthusiastic in that effort. God has blessed our outreach to other lands greatly.  But those of us who remain at home have every opportunity to “make disciples of all ethnos.*” All the world is coming to us—an evangelical opportunity almost unparalleled in the history of Christendom.

Almost unparalleled, but not altogether new.  When the Israelites left Egypt, a great many Egyptians went along with them.  Imagine—the former oppressors now integrating into the former slaves’ society.  God instructed Israel to care for the strangers and not oppress them.  No vengeance was permitted, and no fear was catered to.  Was it dangerous?  Yes, it was.  But God is more concerned about human souls than about physical safety.  The God of Israel and the bounty He had bestowed upon that land drew people from all over the known world to Him there, and many converted to His worship.

In the same way, Christian immigrants in a nation of immigrants, have been handed a golden opportunity.  The bounty of this land and our freedoms have drawn people from every part of the globe searching for betterment.  Widows, orphans, and strangers come to us seeking refuge from war, drought, poverty, and hopelessness. We could show them the truth of the love and mercy of Christ and bring many of God’s beloved children safely into the fold.  What are we doing with this opportunity?

In spite of the fact that every American other than the Native Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), America has a history of mistreating strangers to our shores.  Wave after wave of hope-filled people have come from various parts of the world since we became a nation, believing the motto inscribed on our Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), only to be greeted with suspicion, resentment, prejudice, even hatred.

Even the church has been party to this, in spite of our prime directive of “making disciples of every ethnos.*”  It’s kind of hard to draw strangers to our God if we are treating them with suspicion, resentment, prejudice, or even hatred.  We should be reaching out to those who are strangers to our shores and showing them the love which Christ has shown to us, if for no other reason than that we also were once strangers in this new land.

As a child, I remember hearing missions reports in church in which missionaries lamented the inability to enter Muslim countries to spread the Gospel there.  How will they hear if we can’t send anyone to them?  Rejoice, American church!  God has heard our prayers for the Muslims and is working to bring them here to our very doorsteps!  What an unprecedented opportunity for us!  God is so good:  He loves everyone so much that He will move heaven and earth and do everything that can be done to bring even one soul into the kingdom!

This kingdom work is already being done in France.  The churches in France are being crowded with Muslim refugees pleading to be taught God’s Word.  The churches in Europe have been dying for lack of interest for decades, but are now being revitalized by this new challenge.  “We are having to relearn our own Scriptures in order to teach it to these new converts,” one French priest wrote.  Is this dangerous?  Yes, of course, it is.  Did God promise to preserve us from danger?  On the contrary, He promised that we would suffer as His Son had suffered.  We can embrace the challenge and the danger together, or we can turn our backs and allow the people for which Christ died to remain outside of the kingdom due to our lack of love and skewed sense of priority.

I care little about politics.  I am not advocating one legal policy or another.  What I am saying is that our attitudes need to be right and our priorities need to be in the Kingdom of God, not in temporal establishments or personal safety. The nations of the world are a drop in the bucket, says God.  It’s individuals He is concerned with, not politics.  Can we participate with Him in the work of the Kingdom by welcoming the widows, orphans, and strangers He loves?  Can we be His hands, His feet, His heart on earth to woo others into eternal life?  I pray that we can.

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*The word ethnos is generally translated “nations” in this verse, but would be more properly understood as “people groups” or “ethnicities” rather than political divisions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Secret of Contentment


Most of you know me well enough by now: you know I’ve been happily married for 36 years, have four wonderful, grown children and three perfect grandchildren, and a job I love. You might think I’ve found contentment in these blessings. But I’m here to tell you:  contentment is never found in getting a particular job or marrying a particular spouse or achieving a particular lifestyle or in accumulating particular things—not even in accumulating books! (I know!) True contentment is found in choosing to be satisfied in whatever circumstances our loving God has placed us.
When I think of contentment, I generally picture curling up in a comfortable chair by a crackling fireplace, enjoying a good book while sipping a lovely cup of tea. In other words, I picture doing exactly what I want to do, free from care and responsibility. Happiness and comfort and satiation are often used as synonyms for contentment. But I’ve learned over my many years of living that this is not the Biblical concept of contentment.
You must all surely be familiar with Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol”. In it, Ebenezer Scrooge had everything he ever thought would give him a happy and comfortable, satisfying life—a successful business, a huge house, pots of money. Having these things is not evil, and one would think they would cause a contented life. So why was Scrooge such a miserable and despicable old man?
He wasn’t always miserable and despicable. When he was young, he was a good man who was personable enough to have wooed and won a lovely young woman called Belle. But Belle later broke off their engagement with these words: “Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were poor and CONTENT to be so, until in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry.” Scrooge went wrong, not with his goal of wanting to provide a good home and decent living for his impending bride, but in his discontent with his present circumstances. He became so discontented, he was willing to run roughshod over loved ones and complete strangers alike to get what he wanted. “Another idol has displaced me,” Belle said. “A golden one.”
Having goals is a good thing. Being happy, comfortable, and sated with good things is fine. But if we allow our goals, our happiness, our comfort to become our idols, running roughshod over God and everyone else to acquire them, we will inevitably lose our way. The surest path to discontentment – and to disaster! — is to make goals and plans for ourselves without asking for God’s guidance and then hoping God will bless what we have decided to do. This is the opposite of the way Christians are meant to live their lives. Listen to Paul’s words on the subject:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
And when Paul says he knows how to be “brought low”, he is not exaggerating! Here’s another quote of Paul’s from II Corinthians 11: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
These are not goals one generally sets for oneself! But we live in a fallen world and in a hostile environment. If we do not accept that hardship and sorrow are an inevitable part of life, we will never find contentment. I have learned this in my own life. I can’t compete with Paul’s list, thank goodness! But I have had to learn to be content with a very comfortable income and the comfortable life it brought; and with the loss of all those things, ending with my husband and me being homeless for a while. I have been healthy enough to hike the Appalachian Trail; and I have suffered illness so debilitating I was all but housebound for months on end. I have known the beauty of deep friendship and have been blindsided by betrayal. I have, with great joy, watched people I love accept Christ into their lives and try to live for Him; and I have, with indescribable grief, watched them turn their backs and walk away from Him. Through all of these extremes, God has taught me that contentment is not to be found in happiness, comfort, or in ordering my life in the way I would like.
Contentment is not happiness or living in comfort. In all of those circumstances which I just named, you might think I was happy during the good times and miserable during the bad times. But that would not be true. When we had plenty of money and material goods, I still found plenty of things to be unhappy about—all it takes is for someone to speak sharply to me or the landlord to raise the rent or the car to break down and my day is ruined. And in the months when we were homeless, I found a lot of joy in waking up in a lovely park watching the sun rise over a beautiful lake. Happiness is fleeting and is an impossible goal. We grow up on fairy stories in which the heroes and heroines pass through adversity and hardship and then live happily ever after, presumably untroubled until they died. But that is not real life. No one lives happily ever after in this world. There will always be something else to deal with; something else to suffer through; some other grief to overcome. Trying to build my life on a pursuit of happiness would be comparable to trying to build a house on a flock of butterflies; it’s not only impossible, it’s irrational to try it.
Neither is contentment found in ordering life just as one would like it. I have all too often heard myself say things like, “When things settle down, or when this ‘whatever’ is over, my life will get back to normal;” normal being a state of contentment. How many days, months, years do we waste, waiting for this or that circumstance to be over before we will allow ourselves to enjoy our lives? We refuse to live in an uncomfortable moment, always looking for the next thing to bring us happiness or comfort. But things never do settle down, do they? Life is never normal. I might get all my ducks in a row for a moment, but they quickly wander off in all directions. There’s always something! Choosing to live the life God has given me one day at a time, one moment at a time, in the knowledge that He is in control, is the secret to contentment. I learned this the hard way years ago when we had a ministry of taking in homeless people. I lived my life in a state of suspension: “when we get him or her settled in a job and a home, my life will get back to normal.” I was living in denial of the fact that my husband bringing a steady stream of stray people home from work WAS our normal life at that time. Instead of being content with the life of service God had given us, I was waiting to live the life I thought I wanted to live. I missed out on so much joy by being wilfully discontented.
Did you know that the opposite of contentment is covetousness? Have you ever wondered why “thou shalt not covet” is one of the Ten Commandments, right up there with “thou shalt not kill?” What’s wrong with wanting? We all want a better life for ourselves, don’t we? But being content is accepting the circumstances in which God has placed us and trusting that He knows what is best for us. Coveting—wanting—anything that God has not chosen to give us is tantamount to shaking our fists in His face and telling Him He’s made a terrible mistake: that what He’s given us is not good enough. Contentment is knowing that, although everything may not be good in and of itself, that “God works all things together for good to those who love God and who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) As Jesus assured His disciples in John 16:33, “In this world, you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Life is full of sorrow and adversity. This world is broken, sick, and perverse. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:27-29)
God has shown me how to be content in many areas of my life, but the area in which He has spoken most audibly and emphatically is my health. When I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, I was, of course, sad that I could no longer eat doughnuts and fried shrimp, but that honestly has not really been a cause of unhappiness. What devastated me was not being able to take communion with my brothers and sisters in Christ. It was years before we found a gluten-free substitute that allowed me to participate in communion again. Even then, taking my own little bit of cracker out of a protective container is not really the same as sharing a piece from the same loaf as the rest of the body. This was a great cause of grief to me, and Sunday after Sunday for weeks after my diagnosis I would weep and pray to be healed so that I could share in communion again. Finally, one Sunday, God spoke to me—I could hear His voice aloud in my ear: “Stop it. This is a gift, and you are to accept it as one.” He said this quite firmly, scolding me for my discontentment. I am still learning what it means that an incurable genetic disorder is a gift from God, but I have honestly tried to live my life in that knowledge since.
The process of continually choosing to be content in all circumstances is life-long and extensive. Most recently, I’ve been learning that being content is not the same thing as living in denial. I was diagnosed over a year ago with a degenerative eye disease, but even though I have had numerous appointments with retinal specialists, I found I was really not taking it seriously. The idea that I am truly, gradually, losing my eyesight was not real to me until I was asked to speak on contentment during a weekend retreat. As I prayed about what I should say on this subject, my eyes fell on my Amsler grid vision test. I look at this every day in order to help my doctor gauge how quickly my sight is changing, and yet I never acknowledged to myself that I am going to eventually become legally blind. It’s easy to be content while refusing to believe in the hard things that one is experiencing. But that is not true contentment. I had to spend some time alone with God and think through what this disease actually meant. I had to think of all the things I would be losing: seeing my grandchildren’s faces as they grow up; reading good books; writing stories and curriculum; enjoying trees and the beauty of nature; experiencing the glory of God in this world with my sight. I had to ask God some hard questions: “If I can’t see, can I still nurture my grandchildren; can I still teach my students? If I can’t see, can I still experience the wonders of creation? If I can’t see, will I still know the glory of God in the world? If I can’t see, can I still enjoy my life?” The answer to all these questions, He told me, is “yes”. But I am still struggling with the fear I can no longer allow myself to push away: fear of losing my ability to teach, to create, to minister in the ways He has given me to serve; fear of losing my freedom and becoming dependent on others. Learning to be content with losing my eyesight will be my greatest challenge yet.
Do not mistake contentment with complacency, however. As much as we enjoyed being homeless for a summer, my husband and I were glad to accept an offer to stay with friends until we could get back on our feet. I’ve learned to live with Celiac disease, but if someone came up with a cure, I’d be happy to try it. Contentment is not stoically enduring with gritted teeth, either, although patient endurance is a great part of it, drawing on the strength of the Holy Spirit rather than on our own strength. Contentment is a choice we make: choosing to trust a loving God to take care of us no matter what happens; choosing to trust Him to use everything He allows into our lives– easy or difficult, joyous or sorrowful—to make us into the people He means for us to become.
And in the end, when this old, broken world is remade into what it was meant to be, we will be remade as well. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) And it will all have been worth it!

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Only One Job


Please note:  This essay has taken me three months to write, and much prayer and study has gone into it.  Thanks to my dear friend, EE, (you know who you are!) for helping me to think through this and to edit it.

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We’ve all seen the memes on the internet called “You Only Had One Job”.  A sign is misspelled; a product is mislabeled or misshelved; laughter ensues.  How could anyone bungle a job so badly?  One hopes the mistake was a one-off and that the hapless employee learned from it and never made the same error again.

What a tragedy when an entire group of people, who have only One Job, consistently make the same mistakes over a period of two thousand years. Body of Christ, we only have One Job!  How can we have bungled it so badly?

Perhaps we as the Body of Christ have not understood our One Job properly.  What is this singular task we have been given by our Head?  Jesus instructed us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)  And again, He adjured us: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)  So we are to make disciples (followers of Christ) by being witnesses to all the world, and then to teach those believers everything Jesus commanded us to do.  And that’s all. (Please note that this essay addresses only our relationships with unbelievers.  Our relationships within the Body are also based on love, but also mutual accountability, and are a discussion for another essay.)

We are to be witnesses, testifying about what we have seen and experienced.  But all too often, I am afraid, we as a church have not been satisfied with staying in the witness stand and have placed ourselves in the jury box or even, God help us, have clothed ourselves in the Judges’ robes.  Self-righteousness and a desire to control others have been the consistent errors which the church has committed over the centuries.  Instead of wooing the world into the kingdom, we stand in condemnation of it and, with our arrogant attitudes, drive away the people God loves and desires.  Instead of focusing on increasing the kingdom of heaven, we spend our efforts in trying to make earthly kingdoms look more like heaven.

Nowhere in the Great Commission, or in any of Christ’s teachings, is the church instructed to take control of governments or nations and legislate Christian behaviour.  Nowhere are we told to show hatred or vent anger or disgust toward any individual or any group of people in any way; not through ugly picket signs, sarcastic Facebook memes, self-righteous diatribes, or systematic ostracization.

Beloved Body of Christ, our emphasis is too worldly and too selfish.  We are not meant to make this world into a paradise where everyone acts like a believer and behaves themselves as we would like.  That is NOT our Job.  Forcing people to act as if they believed in Christ is worse than useless.  Pushing people away from the door to the kingdom with our self-righteous attitude is the opposite of our Job. (Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”)

Trying to make this world a more comfortable place for us to live in is diametrically opposed to God’s plan. Believe me, no one has ever entered the kingdom of heaven because someone ranted against their lifestyle in a public forum.  No one has ever repented of their behaviour because a stranger told them to.  No one has turned to the truth of the Gospel because a friend or family member turned his back on him because of a decision made or a lifestyle chosen.

Remember, we are to be witnesses ONLY.  Juries convict, judges pass sentence.  Witnesses are only allowed to tell what they know of their personal experience.  We are not allowed to condemn, and we are not allowed to try to bring others to conviction.  Conviction of sin is the Holy Spirit’s job, because He is the only one who is able to do it.  When we in our overweening pride try to take over the Spirit’s job, we drive people away from Him in droves!

And we are not policemen.  It is not our Job to enforce God’s laws, and certainly not to hold others to those high standards.  That authority is given to governments, not to the church. (I Peter 2: 13-17)  We cannot ourselves live righteously even with the help of God Himself; how can we even imagine that nonbelievers can live holy lives without His help at all?  It’s time to climb down off our high horses and follow our Lord’s example of riding humbly through this life on the back of a donkey’s colt.

So how exactly are we to do our One Job?  Well, we need to stop using worldly tactics, for one thing.  The world bullies, pushes, legislates, ostracizes, name-calls.  But we are meant to be like Christ.  And He told us quite clearly how we were to “make disciples” and “be witnesses”.  “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 ESV)  We all know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbours are everyone—both those with whom we agree and those with whom we strongly and vehemently disagree.  Notice that God says loving our neighbour is like loving Him.  We must treat others as we would treat Jesus Himself.

Loving our neighbour as ourselves must include all the world, not just those who agree with us.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45 ESV)  If we are to love our enemies, aren’t we also to love those who are not our enemies but simply do not believe as we do?  If we are to behave as children of our Father by loving others, we must do as He does:  He gives good gifts to the righteous and the unrighteous (rain is a gift, by the way, necessary for life), and so must we.  Providing for the needs and protection of widows and orphans, for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the victims of violence, regardless of their personal beliefs and chosen lifestyle—that is our Job, Body of Christ.  In this way we open the door to the Kingdom.  Any other behaviour blocks the door and drives others away.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48 ESV)  We are to be perfect as God is perfect.  And what is the definition here of perfection?  Loving our neighbours as ourselves, regardless of who they are.

How do we do this?  Again, Christ has shown us the way.  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. “Matthew 7:12 ESV) This is called the Golden Rule for good reason:  it is the essence of loving our neighbour.  Do you want others to revile you, to cry insults at you because of your chosen way of life?  Do you want to be publically condemned and ostracized?  Then don’t behave this way.  We are to act like Christ, and He did not publically condemn any unbelievers in His ministry on earth.  The one and only group of people He criticized in public for their unrighteous behaviour were the religious leaders of His day — the believers who ought to have been God’s hands and heart on earth but were not doing their One Job.

Yes, Jesus condemned the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees, but how did He treat ordinary sinners?  Let’s look at his treatment of Zacchaeus.  We’ve turned him into a comic character in our Sunday School stories about him, but this wee little man was a criminal on a scale that would have some demanding his execution if he were in America today:  a traitor, collaborating with the enemy, having turned his back on his own people and risen in the ranks of their oppressors so that he was directing other traitors as well; an extortionist who grew rich on the suffering of his neighbours.  But when Jesus encountered this heinous miscreant, what did He do?  He said, “Let’s have dinner.”

No wonder those who saw this exchange grumbled!  But Jesus’ kindness won Zacchaeus into the kingdom as no amount of accusation would have done.  It’s significant to note that there is no record of Jesus ever telling Zacchaeus that his way of life was wrong or wicked (although it was!).  Jesus Himself allowed the Holy Spirit to do the work of conviction, while limiting his words and deeds to love.  Working in collaboration with the Spirit of God is always best!

Another example is the sinful woman of Luke 7: 36-50.  The Pharisees were scandalized that Jesus allowed this woman to touch Him.  Jesus not only did not condemn her, He told the very religious man in whose house He was a guest, “You should be more like her.”  And then and only then did He offer her salvation.  Jesus taught us how to witness by His example on earth.  He healed the sick, fed the hungry, even raised the dead, without asking the people He was helping whether they believed in Him.  He only offered salvation AFTER He blessed them.

We cannot hope to bring the Gospel message to an unbelieving world through our words alone.  We can only love people into the Kingdom of God through our deeds and our attitudes.   We only have the right to speak into others’ lives when we’ve earned it through our loving actions.

Another false teaching in the church today is that we must make it clear to the world that we disagree with their lifestyles.  No, dear Body of Christ, that is not in our Job description.  Again, it is not for us to convict of sin—that is the Holy Spirit’s Job, and He does it quite well enough without our help.  Here is our Job as Jesus described it: And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.” (Matthew 10:7-8 ESV)  In other words, help people, without strings attached.  If they want to know our God, they will ask.  They will not want to know our God if make ourselves obnoxious or show ourselves to be unloving.  They will not be able to ask about our God if we are unapproachable.

The idea that we must make a stand against sin is certainly true—but Jesus’ example and the examples of the apostles show us that we are to stand against sin in our own lives and help our fellow believers live righteous lives—not unbelievers.  Paul’s lists of behaviours that will block people from the Kingdom of Heaven are written to believers to warn them not to live that way anymore. They are not written to be used as bludgeons with which to beat unbelievers.  Our lives within the Body of Christ have different rules with a different goal, and would take an entirely different essay to discuss.

This loud objecting to various behaviours of unbelievers makes Pharisees of us all.  And to them, Jesus said, “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 7:3-5 ESV)  That log is self-righteousness, the only sin that Jesus saw fit to rail passionately against in His ministry on earth.

By carrying on publically about others’ unrighteousness, we pretend that our sins are not as repugnant and objectionable to God as everyone else’s.  We may say that sin is sin, but we act and speak as if some sins are worse than others.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:22 that God sees anger and insulting others as exactly the same as murder.  He states that a love of money is a hatred of Him (Matthew 6:24 ESV).  And here is Paul’s list of behaviours he declares are only exhibited by those who do not acknowledge God: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:28-32 ESV)

If we have done any of these things, we have huge logs in our eyes which need dealing with! We certainly have no right to go about objecting to others’ specks, or even others’ logs.  For myself, it’s all I can manage to try to live my life free of these behaviours—I certainly don’t have the time or energy to point out the wrongs of anyone else.

But most of these sins are not objected to in public forums by Christians. When is the last time you heard a believer rail against haughtiness, heartlessness or ruthlessness?  How about gossiping?  Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37 ESV)  Why does this not rule us every time we open our mouths to speak or sit down to comment on Facebook?  Why does this not terrify us?  How can we stand in condemnation of others when we have so much to answer for ourselves?

So our Job is love others with God’s own love, to bless them by providing for their needs as God does, and to treat them as we wish to be treated.  The world is not ours to change or to rule.  Other people are not ours that we should dictate their behaviour.  We only have One Job, Body of Christ:  we must love our neighbours as ourselves, and thus show them the true character of our God, Who “is good to all and has compassion on all He has made.” (Psalm 145:9 ESV)

 

 

 

 

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Reason


One of the joys of teaching literature as a Christian is in finding the Biblical, spiritual truths expressed in the works of secular writers.  The stories of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov are a case in point.  Asimov, the son of Jewish immigrants, was a professor of biochemistry with a doctorate in the same; a prolific author of both scientific texts and science fiction, as well as many other works of many different genres; a humanist, a rationalist, and an atheist.  But he pursued truth all of his life, and so he was bound to come across it.  Because, as all fans of science fiction know, “The Truth is Out There!”

The short story I was recently reading to my Freshman Literature class was called “Reason” from Asimov’s “I, Robot” collection.  In this story, the premise was that Earth and its colonies on Mars depended upon energy beamed from collection stations near the sun to survive. While two humans manned each station, most of the work was done by robots.  It was a lonely post, though, and so a new, improved robot was developed to take over for the humans so that the station could be fully automated.  The story opens with this new robot, called QT, questioning its makers’ claim to have built him.

“For you to have made me seems improbable,” QT says.  “Call it intuition.  That’s all it is so far.  But I intend to reason it out.  A chain of valid reasoning can end only with the determination of truth.”

No amount of evidence from the humans can move the robot from its certainty that what it sees and experiences are all that exist.  QT has never seen Earth—therefore, Earth is a fantasy.  It has never seen other humans—therefore, the two humans it knows are the only ones in the universe.  It considers the humans to be inferior, rendering it impossible that they were capable of creating anything as complex as a robot.  Eventually, QT chooses the most powerful thing on the Station—its entire world– and deduces that it must be the Creator.  Its chosen Higher Power, ironically, is the Energy Converter the robots had been created to service.  QT begins teaching the other, lesser robots its newly-found religion, and they all begin to worship “The Master”, as they call the Converter.  The humans are put aside into a locked room where they can’t interfere in the new world order.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the robots believe.  Their worship of the Energy Converter means that they actually do their jobs extremely well, fortunately for the billions of humans dependent upon it for their lives.  And so they are left to their false beliefs and the humans leave them and go home—although QT is convinced that The Master has deemed them as no long useful, and has absorbed them into the wastes of space.

Why am I telling this amusing story?  Obviously, Asimov’s point is that religious fanatics are intractably devoted to their beliefs regardless of any evidence to the contrary.  But here’s the bit that grabbed my attention and made me want to share it with my class. One of the humans makes this observation:

“[QT] believes only in reason, and there’s one trouble with that . . . . You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason—if you pick the proper postulates.  We have ours, and QT has his.”

In my mind, this one quotation turns the entire story on its head.  All belief systems depend on a foundational assumption.  The Christian postulate is that Christ and the Scripture are the bedrocks of truth.  A humanist, a rationalist, a secular scientist, on the other hand, assumes that the human brain’s ability to interpret our own scientific observations is a firm foundation for truth.  He also assumes that our observations of the world are complete enough to draw valid conclusions, ignoring the rather obvious fact that we are finite and cannot even know whether we know everything we need to know to discover the truth (if you can follow me).

Now look at QT.  He uses the positronic brain which the humans have installed in his human-made skull to decide that his intellectual abilities outstrip those of his makers.  He believes that the eyes and other senses they built into him are so superior to theirs that he is more capable of determining truth than they are.

I do realize that secularists are not (perhaps) consciously looking their Maker in the eye and denouncing him as inferior to their intellectual abilities.  But that is basically what they are doing, isn’t it?  We humans use the brains God gave us to try to prove Him non-existent, or at least, irrelevant.

That sounds like true Science Fiction to me.

 

 

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“Small Things”


My husband and I were taking a much needed weekend away.  It had been hard few weeks.  It had been a hard few years, actually.  And it had been a long time since we’d had a chance to spend any time alone together.  It was time to regroup, refit our souls for the battle we who follow Christ must wage against the spirit of evil in the world.

The drive through the countryside was beautiful.  Picturesque farmland and then statuesque mountains, all dressed in their late-October finery.  The autumn hues were at their peak— deep crimson and russet and gold.  But the sun was hidden behind heavy cloud-cover and the colors were muted and softened in the dim light.  A hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico was affecting the weather even as far away as the Cumberland Plateau where we were traveling.  It effectively mirrored my own mood—my joy in the journey eclipsed by the gloom of events that had nothing to do with the weekend we had planned.

Losing ourselves in the woods, we set up our little camp, far away from any civilization.  Off-road camping is the only truly effective way to escape the world in modern America—we found a logging road in a state natural area and followed it until we couldn’t hear traffic noise any longer.  We had hauled in our own food and water and facilities—completely self-sufficient, entirely alone.  It was wonderful.

And yet, I could not leave the world behind.  It was in my head, and the things that grieved us and had driven us out into the wilderness would not be left behind—events beyond our control, tragedies and troubles that burdened us.  Prayers that had not yet been answered.  My wonderful husband grilled steaks and fried up potatoes and onions for our dinner while I gathered wood and made a campfire, feeling aggrieved that these enjoyable, simple pleasures could not make me forget our difficulties for even one evening.

“God, give me back my joy!” I cried aloud.

I had given up asking for solutions to the problems that plagued us.  I just wanted relief from the relentlessness of the sin of this world.  For so long I had cried out with the prophet Habakkuk: ‘How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.’ (Habakkuk 1:1-3)  Now I just desperately wanted to forget the unrighteousness of the world and enjoy my weekend.

The next day I awoke to a golden sunrise in an azure sky, clear with just the perfect number of wispy, white clouds to make the blue even more stunning.  My amazing husband was frying up bacon and eggs and had already stirred the campfire back into life for me before I even rose from my bed.  I sat by the crackling, heart-warming fire and smelled my delicious breakfast cooking and watched the sun set the tops of the trees ablaze, changing the leaves in to sparkling, jewel-toned reds and oranges and yellows and greens.  And joy was there.

But, being me, I wasn’t satisfied with joy—not yet.  I prayed, “Father, why do you give me these small things, these simple pleasures, instead of the big things I desire so much?”

And He said to me, “I don’t give you the small things instead of the big things; I give you these things that you think of as ‘small’ to help you get through the big things.”

Of course, I had really known this already.  But God is patient with me and doesn’t seem to mind reminding me of things He’s already told me a million times.  We live in a fallen, sinful world.  There will always be injustice and wickedness, death, illness, financial difficulties, suffering of family and friends to endure, until the end of time.  God doesn’t take the hard things in life away, but He is faithful to give us ways to get through them.

But what struck me in what He told me that day was how ungrateful I was in calling these blessings He had given to me “small things”.  Because they certainly are NOT small!  Was it a small thing for Him to redirect the giant, hurricane-driven weather pattern just to give me a bit of sunshine?  Was it a small thing for Him to have made these trees around me grow for dozens, even hundreds, of years, knowing that one morning I would need to see them here?  And fire—the miracle of chemical reactions that combine somehow to form a pleasing pattern for the eye, a soothing sound for the ear, and a comforting warmth for the hands and feet—a small thing?

And then there was my sweet husband, still faithful and committed after almost 35 years of marriage, still cooking my breakfast and loving me for who I am.  In this day and age of disposable relationships, do I dare call that a “small thing”?

And then there is joy itself–no small thing!  I realized I had not lost joy, but had pushed it away deliberately, because to feel joy felt like turning my back on reality.  It seemed that to be joyful was somehow betraying the severity of the things that caused me and my friends sorrow and pain.

Now I understand that joy, far from being a denial of the cruelty and wickedness of this world, is actually a shield against it.  Joy is more akin to faith than to happiness, and the shield of faith turns aside many of the enemy’s fiery swords.  One still feels the brunt of the heavy blows that strike, but the sharp points and cutting edges are turned aside.

And so I can truly say, again with the prophet Habakkuk, Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no produce; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:  Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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