Wednesday, December 26, 2007

CHRISTMAS VIGNETTES: First Christmas on the Mission Field - Part II

There I was finishing up my first year on the mission field in Latvia, and it was Christmastime. If you read Part I, you learned that Christmas hadn’t really caught on yet in newly independent Latvia in 1994, and that they barely had street lights, much less Christmas lights. But that was about to change, at least at my house.

I lived in a big, old house in the Baltic seaside resort town of Jurmala, Latvia, which my roommates and I affectionately called the Gray Box, because that’s exactly what it looked like. My roommates there included Mary, a fellow American missionary; Joy, a Filipina missionary; and Asya, a Russian student who attended our church.

Neither Joy and nor I had ever been away from home and family for Christmas, and neither of us was thrilled about that. Mary was accustomed to being away from home and Asya had never celebrated Christmas before and didn’t know what she was missing. But Joy and I both loved traditions and magic of the Christmas season as it is celebrated in both the U.S. and the Philippines and were longing for home and the familiar Christmas joys. Joy was drowning in self-pity and at first spent a good deal of time sighing, moping and whining. I, on the other hand, had anticipated this scenario and had determined in advance that we would make the proverbial lemonade out of our lemons. This Christmas abroad would be what we made of it. It would be different from what we were used to, but it could be wonderful. And here was an opportunity to introduce our newly Christian friends to all the joys of celebrating the birth of our Savior. There was every reason for joy. We just needed a plan and a little resourcefulness. Joy and I decided to buck up and began planning a traditional Christmas dinner, or as traditional as available materials and our lack of a real kitchen would allow. We would invite all the single missionaries and whomever else we could get to come from among our local friends.

I had brought from home a couple of strings of lights and a transformer along with a few favorite Christmas ornaments. We also found some Christmas decorations for sale at a local children’s clothing store (go figure) and bought those. I found a spindly, Charlie Brown-type tree at a farmer’s market a week before Christmas for about two dollars and we set it up in the “dining room”, which was empty except for our rickety dining table and 6 wooden chairs. But this room did have a big picture window where we placed the tree, with its colored lights, for all to see. We hoped that it would bring unexpected cheer to the dark and dreary winter days of passersby, and maybe stir some distant memory of a celebration of the Christ Child.

We planned our Christmas dinner for Christmas Eve night. A young Lithuanian family and their Bassett Hound who had been driving up from Vilnius and staying with us several weekends a month happened to be coming to town, so we happily added them to our guest list. That night, we ended up with two Americans, three Filipinos, one Russian, four Lithuanians, and one Russian Jew who had recently believed in Jesus as Messiah crowded around our table. Some spoke English, some didn’t. Thank God, one was a translator.

That night, the Lithuanians presented me with a fabulously beautiful and unique hand-knit sweater, which easily must have cost them a month's salary. The gift was to thank me for hosting all of them in our home so many times and for the many very late nights spent with them around the table talking about God, the Bible and life's issues. It was quite overwhelming and really added to the specialness of the evening. We also made a cassette recording of our dinner conversation. I had lost track of that cassette until I unpacked the personal belongings that I only recently had shipped back from Latvia.

Joy and I had done everything possible to bring the Christmas spirit into the house through lights, decorations and Christmas music, but more importantly through prayer and the pure and unadulterated joy of the Lord. We wanted Christmas magic for our guests who had never known the pleasure of celebrating it. They came looking for a new cultural experience. In the end, however, we all had a wonderful spiritual experience as God broke down every conceivable barrier between us, national, cultural or linguistic. Our evening together was everything Joy and I dreamed it would be with rich fellowship, God’s presence among us, laughter, good food, high spirits, warmth, love and joy—everything that Christmas is made of, even snow. We all basked in the afterglow of it for a long time.

Time prevents me from sharing more detail about our first Christmas in Latvia. However, even though those present at our table that night now live on three different continents, every one of us treasures the memory of that night. The Russians and Lithuanians went on to establish their own Christmas traditions. Joy and I learned that no sacrifice we are called to make in the service of the Lord ever goes uncompensated. Of course, we missed our families and homes, but we lacked nothing in the true spirit of Christmas. It really was a very merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Vignettes: First Christmas on the Mission Field - Part I

It was Christmas 1994, and it was that time in life that we all know will eventually come, but most of us avoid as long as possible—the first Christmas away from home and family. I had managed to hold that day at bay for 40 years, but now my time was up. This Christmas found me in Latvia, 8,000 miles, one ocean and one continent away from my family in South Carolina. I was nearing the end of my first year on the mission field there. To help you understand the setting of this story, I need to tell you a little bit about Latvia at that time.

Latvia is a small republic that had been independent from the Soviet Union for less than three years. For the previous 50 years, the atheistic Soviet Grinch had stolen Christmas, forbidding all public celebrations, and replaced it with New Year’s celebrations that included “New Year’s trees” and New Year’s gift giving. Although Christmas celebrations in the newly independent Latvia where no longer forbidden, western style decorating and celebration had yet to catch on. So, while back home the magical lights and colors of Christmas glittered and gleamed and holiday cheer overtook everyone, in Latvia, everything remained dark and cheerless.

And I do mean dark. Latvia was so poor without its former Soviet subsidies and before the market economy kicked in that the city didn’t even turn on street lights at night. To go out at night without a flashlight was to take one’s life into one’s own hands, as sidewalks were plagued by tree roots, missing pavers and uncovered manholes, so tripping or even disappearing beneath the sidewalk was a constant threat. At home, families only turned on one light in just the room they were in. In apartment buildings, stair wells and elevators were usually completely dark, because as soon as someone put in a light bulb in such a public area, someone else would steal it. Add to this below-freezing temperatures and less than eight hours of pale winter sunlight a day. It was very scary, cold and definitely not conducive to a “Merry Christmas.”

Then, for a foreigner like me, there was the problem of procuring a “Christmas tree.” As I said, there were “New Year’s trees”, but these generally did not go on sale until about December 27. This was great if you wanted to celebrate Russian Christmas on January 6. For us foreigners and Latvian Lutherans who like Christmas on December 25, however, that was a problem. You could find one if you looked hard enough, though. Also, there were no full and lovely trees from a Christmas tree farm, genetically engineered for a perfect shape. In a country covered by forests, you wouldn’t think there would be a problem with nice trees, though. Think again. These were spindly sticks that looked like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. The good news, though, was that you could buy them for about two dollars.

All I’ve mentioned so far are only the superficial things, however. Saddest of all was that no one among my local acquaintances, even those who were new Christians and members of our church, had ever celebrated Christmas before. My missionary colleagues and I decided we were going to change that. And that’s where Part II will begin.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Christmas Vignettes: Christmas In Coronary Care

It started out in every way a normal Christmas, back in those days 25 years or so ago when there was such a thing as normal. Mom and Dad, my brother Bill and I lived in three different cities in the state, but we always spent Christmas at Bill’s house because he was, and still is, a retailer and always had to be open until late on Christmas Eve. So we were all there on this Christmas Eve.

We had shared a big breakfast and afterwards I went to take a shower to get ready to go to Bill’s jewelry store to help out on what promised to be a very busy day. I was looking forward to the day, and also to the arrival of my best friend, Phyllis, who was driving up to spend the holiday with us after she got off work that afternoon. When I had finished getting ready, I went back into the kitchen to find no one there except my nephew, Tyler.

“Where is everybody?” I asked. “They’ve all gone to the hospital,” he replied, “Your mother’s had a heart attack.” I was in a state of utter disbelief. She had never had heart trouble before. How could this be happening? Disbelief quickly gave way to fear and then to a harsh sense of the cruel irony that this should be happening at Christmas. I don’t remember anything else about that day, except the great comfort of Phyllis’s arrival in the evening. She happened to be a cardiac nurse and is one of those take-charge individuals that you love to have on hand in a crisis.

Christmas afternoon the doctors gave us permission to see Mom and to bring a few of her gifts up to the hospital, as long as we didn’t stay long. Bill put on a Santa Claus suit, although to this day I have no idea where he got it. Phyllis and I, who always loved to sing harmony together, sang some Christmas carols for Mom, which delighted her no end.

After a couple of rounds of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, a nurse came in, and we fell silent, assuming she was going to ask us to be quiet. Instead, she said that there was a very elderly stroke patient a couple of doors down who was unable to speak or move, but who had heard us and wanted us to sing for him. Would we come? We went straightaway, followed by Santa Bill, doing his most convincing, “HO, HO, HO!” We sang “Silent Night” for that old gentleman, and as we sang, a single tear fell from the corner of his eye. I will never forget that moment.

In the end, we traveled up and down the whole ICU singing to the patients with Bill “ho-ho-ho-ing” along with us. Bill doesn’t remember donning the Santa suit, but I have a faded Polaroid photo that proves it. That Christmas turned out to be one of the very best ever. Mom made a full recovery and was with us every Christmas until her last one in 2005.

What a joy it was to bring a little light into a place of sickness and sadness on Christmas Day. It just goes to show what we all know, but so easily forget in this over-the-top, materialistic age, that simple things done for others are the best and most important.

Monday, November 05, 2007

COURAGE AND FAITH!

Have you ever seen the movie, Room with a View? To appreciate this film requires a sense of humor of a certain type, but it is one of my all-time favorites. It’s rich with those lines that become favorite quotes, including one that has become my motto for life right now. It’s a romantic comedy (of course!) based on the 1908 E. M. Forster novel of the same name. Amazon.com describes it much too seriously as “a study of repression within the British class system of manners and mores.” It is a young Edwardian woman named Lucy Honeychurch, traveling in Italy with her stuffed-shirt aunt and chaperone, Miss Bartlett, whose romantic inclinations are suffering such repression, but not for long.

Anyway, there is one rather silly scene from which I have managed to manufacture a drop of deep meaning for our times, so you must hear about it. In this scene, Miss Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett have traveled out of Florence into the lovely Italian countryside with some other tourists for a picnic. They are traveling in open carriages, and afterwards on the way back to their pensione, a fierce thunderstorm overtakes their party. As rain pours and lightening flashes around them, a frightened Miss Bartlett and Miss Honeychurch huddle together for comfort in their carriage. Sitting opposite them is Mr. Eager, the pompous local Anglican rector, who attempts to encourage Lucy as follows:

“Courage, Miss Honeychurch, courage and faith! Do you suppose that all this immense electrical display is called into existence just to extinguish you or me? Even from a scientific standpoint, the chances against our being struck are enormous. The steel picnic knives, the only articles which might attract the current, are in the other carriage.”

Does life feel this way for you right now? I think for many of us it does, especially for those who are currently launching new businesses, ministries, or who are undergoing massive life change of any type. We feel like we ARE the steel picnic knives, exposed in the midst of a raging storm and constantly assured by our enemy that we are targeted for destruction. And sometimes are comforters don’t do much better than Mr. Eager!

But it is the word of the Lord and not the word of the enemy that counts. His word to us in this hour is, “Courage and faith!” Faith feeds trust in the Lord, while courage is the engine that keeps us moving doggedly forward on the path He’s called us to, regardless of what is flying around us to frighten, discourage and distract. Courage also breeds resolve, that powerful quality on which every war in history has been won or lost. And with our courage, faith and resolve, we need a healthy dose of good humor to keep our struggles in perspective and not take ourselves too seriously. After all, “This, too, shall pass.” And we have the same encouragement God gave to Joshua as he was about to lead Israel in to the Promised Land: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Monday, October 15, 2007

Giving Honor To Whom Honor Is Due

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the everyday heroes in my life. Perhaps God has opened my eyes to see the worth of these individuals to keep me from despairing over the burgeoning number of ignoble people whose actions I see trumpeted on the news constantly. Maybe there are actually more bad guys these days, or maybe it’s just a phenomenon of 24-hour news. Regardless, day after day news broadcasts dish up politicians who dodge and weave around accusations of sexual or financial scandal and celebrity “pop tarts” and the misdeeds of their out-of-control, debauched lives. We see our national leaders, like chameleons, change their policies and promises with public opinion and wage war against each other instead of our common problems. Reports of school shootings and child abductions make us wonder if our kids are safe anywhere. It all gives us a gnawing sense that our nation is sinking into its own “Dark Ages.”

Yet while all this is going on, there are honorable individuals who plod unnoticed through their daily lives, doggedly working to make the world a better place as they go. Those I’m speaking of appear to be average people, but they are not, for they serve a purpose bigger than themselves. They live by rock-solid convictions and not the whim or appetite or fashion of the moment. They are not motivated by money or recognition, but by a desire to do what is right and constructive. With a vision of a more just, righteous and enlightened world, they sow their very lives into pursuits that will probably never make them rich or famous, but will pass that vision on to the next generation and give them the tools to live it out. They live with eternity in view. These are the true heroes, and that’s not just a euphemism to make ordinary people feel better about themselves. It’s actually true.

High on this list of heroes are home school mothers who daily trade material gain and more glamorous careers in the bigger world to build children strong in character, wisdom and knowledge, who will become worthy citizens in a nation that sorely needs men and women of character. Add to the list those husbands who remain faithful to their wives in this sex-crazed culture where every temptation is readily available for the taking, because they love their wives and children more than that. Or it might be those husbands and working wives who sacrifice promotions and the accompanying material benefits if that will mean more time at home to enjoy and engage with their kids. Think of scientific researchers who work year in and year out, hidden from the public eye, to find cures for cancer and other diseases. We should even include that young person who takes their first job at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart who takes pride in his or her work and does the job with excellence and a desire to serve people.

I could go on and on. However, as I’ve been pondering all these thoughts, I came across a teaching by a minister who posed the following question: Do you currently owe a debt of honor to anyone? Do you need to show favor to anyone? My answer is emphatically, “Yes.” My life is full of such unsung heroes, and I want to use this forum to honor some of them in the next few days. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider the heroes that touch your life and to thank them for what they do. You have no idea what this could mean to someone. I remember once when I lived in Latvia, a fellow missionary told me that she and a couple of Latvian friends went to the local police station and thanked the officers there for the job they do. They wept. Let’s give honor where honor is due. In a world that has confused celebrity with greatness, it’s up to us who know the difference to thank those who deserve our thanks.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Story of My Fifty-Third Birthday

September 19, 2007, was my fifty-third birthday. The day had a somewhat scary and lonely beginning and a rich and happy ending, with the metamorphosis and attending lessons provided by God.

The day was preceded by a wonderful, uplifting weekend at a C.S. Lewis Institute conference at Belmont University in Nashville, which is important to mention because it provides the backdrop for what happened on my birthday. A speaker there urged us to read G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, which I eagerly placed on my mental “to purchase” list. Remember this title. Also recommended, naturally, were a number of C.S. Lewis books, which I also purposed to get because my reading is sorely deficient in Lewis’s works. My budget is equally deficient at present, so these book purchases were set aside for later. Remember all this.

Now to September 19. I woke up with chest pain and considerable fatigue, and decided to call my cardiologist. His nurse, on hearing my symptoms, told me to go to the emergency room immediately. Great. I called a few close friends and asked for prayer and canceled my birthday dinner plans for that evening, thinking I’d surely be in the hospital, and headed out. I broke a cardinal rule that you never drive yourself if you are having chest pains, but didn’t know what else to do. A friend had offered to drive me, but she was a home-schooling Mom whose husband was out of town and I knew it would disrupt her entire day, so I foolishly declined her offer to help.

Things continued in an unpromising direction. On the seemingly interminable drive to the hospital, I ended up stopped on a railroad track behind some other cars at a stoplight. I was subsequently pulled over by a nearly abusive police officer, who yelled and flailed and accused me of everything from stupidity to flouting the law until he decided to believe my tearful story that I was driving myself to the emergency room due to chest pain and had committed the crime out of stress, and finally let me go.

As I drove on, I suddenly felt very, very alone in the uncertainty of what awaited me that day. I thought, “No one should have to go to the emergency room alone.” My usual sanguine attitude toward being single evaporated into a mist of loneliness as I struggled to keep my composure. (Never mind that I didn’t HAVE to be alone because someone had offered to drive me, and I had many friends who I know would have dropped everything to help me, but such is the nature of self-pity.)

I finally arrived at the hospital and things began to improve. I easily found a parking space and the ER was nearly empty at 8:45 on a Wednesday morning. A bored admitting clerk absentmindedly muttered, “Can I help you?” and I explained my presence. She robotically droned on with the usual questions. When she got to, “Date of birth?” and realized it was my birthday, she perked up and announced the news to the whole ER. Then, in a rather surreal departure from the usual cold and impersonal atmosphere of the ER, several staff people gathered around and sang a robust rendition of “Happy Birthday” to me. I laughed and cried, knowing I had just received a gift from God with a gift tag reading, “You are not alone.”

Things continued to get better as, after laying on a gurney in a hospital gown, freezing and undergoing tests for 4 hours, I was released with the happy and somewhat embarrassing news that my trouble was due to acid reflux disease. What a load off! On the drive home I called my friend Sarah to reinstate our evening birthday dinner plans.

I got home and checked my mail on the way into the house to find a couple of birthday cards and a package from an old friend whom I had recently reconnected with but hadn’t seen in years. I was surprised, as I had no idea she knew when my birthday was. Actually, she didn’t, and herein lay the miracle of the day, possibly of the year. Inside this friend’s package was a card with a note saying that she had vaguely recalled that my birthday was sometime in September and decided to send the card and enclosed gifts, which she had already selected for me, because “God had put you on my heart.” And what do you suppose were the gifts she sent? None other than G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and C.S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory! And they arrived right on my birthday. She had no idea that I had been to the Lewis conference or was planning to buy those books. This was my second gift from God, sent again with a loud message saying, “You are NOT alone.”

The day concluded with an early dinner with two friends, made more special because one is moving away soon and the other I haven’t seen in many months. We followed dinner with an impromptu visit to another dear friend, spending the rest of the evening in a festive mood, talking and laughing with her and rejoicing that I was not in the hospital having a heart attack. The evening’s events weren’t unusual or spectacular, but were simply filled with the kind of rich, warm fellowship you have once in a while that leaves you with a pleasant afterglow that lingers for several days. The day’s earlier confrontation with my own mortality really served to enhance the sweetness of the evening and my grasp of just how precious our friendships and times together really are.

I went to sleep on September 19 at home in my own bed with a smile on my face and peace in my heart. God gave me a special gift on my fifty-third birthday. He went to great lengths to show me that I am not alone and that I am greatly loved.

And you are not alone. If you feel alone, ask Him to give you a special gift, too, to show you just how much He and others love you and how much He cares for the smallest details of your life. I am praying that He will do that for you.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How Good and Pleasant It Is!

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”

--Psalm 133


I possess something more valuable than all the gold or prestige or power in the world. I am part of a group of friends who daily live the above psalm. All in this group are women, some married and some single. The age spread is close to 30 years. They are ministers, career women and stay-at-home moms, all from equally diverse backgrounds and with equally diverse personalities. What we have in common, other than being women, is that we happen to go to the same church and we all really love Jesus.

Because of the demands of busy lives, our group meets together at my house just twice a month. Sometimes we have times of intense intercession for the larger things going on in the world, or the smaller difficulties of our own lives. Sometimes we do girly things or watch a movie or scrapbook together. Sometimes there is uproarious laughter and sometimes tears, often both. We listen to each other and advise one another, or worship together. We share food and wine and, in stressful times, chocolate. No matter what the activity is, though, every time we meet a miracle takes place and each woman involved will cancel almost any other event in her life before missing this get-together.

Part of the miracle lies is what is conspicuously absent in the coming together of this group of friends. For example, you will never hear cattiness or gossip come out of a single mouth. Although the humor may be outrageous, it is never coarse or crude or at anyone else’s expense. There is no sarcasm, no thinly veiled digs at each other. There is no critical attitude or that infamous feminine tendency to tear one another down.

The rest of the miracle is what is present among us. When we gather in my living room, all is love and warmth and genuine interest in even the mundane details of each other’s lives. What is spoken is that which will uplift, encourage, challenge, instruct or strengthen. Each of us has perfect confidence that the contents of our very souls are safe there. Each meeting is in effect a celebration of the uniqueness of each woman, where there is appreciation for her fine points, help and encouragement for her weaknesses, but love for the whole package. Each woman’s eyes shine with the life of God and each brings His presence with her. For those precious few hours we are together, the room becomes a sanctuary of peace, joy, and emotional and spiritual safety, and every time I marvel at the glory and rarity of what we have. It really is a miracle.

It’s an amazing privilege to be associated with such an extraordinary group of women who live—not just during our meetings, but daily—with so much integrity and spirit. Many people live their entire lives without ever knowing individuals like these. In these crude and cutthroat times in which we live, it’s more precious than gold to have friends like these who provide an oasis from the storm and are so committed to walking together in Psalm 133 unity. When we meet together, it really is like having warm, fragrant oil poured over us.

I don’t know whether the last line of the Psalm (“For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”) refers to Mt. Zion or to “when brothers live together in unity.” I do know that in our lives, when sisters dwell together in unity, the Lord certainly bestows his blessing and brings life. It has become my prayer that Christians everywhere will lay aside petty differences, competition and self-interest and embrace each other in this same spirit of unity. Then perhaps the world will take notice and finally declare, “See how they love one another!”

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mother Teresa is Still a Saint

The news this week was full of breathless reports of Mother Teresa’s years-long doubt about the existence of God revealed in her recently published private letters. Questions abound about whether this revelation disqualifies her for canonization. However, it is doubtful that anyone who has experienced a genuine relationship with God could even ask that question. There is probably not a believer who has ever lived who has not wrestled with severe doubt in some “dark night of the soul.” In fact, such struggles may even be a prerequisite for genuine faith.

Glib faith has not been tested, and untested faith is rarely strong faith. This kind of faith gives mental assent to the teachings of childhood or comforting euphemisms spoken at funerals, but has never engaged in hand-to-hand combat for its very survival with the harshest realities of life, which are being cheered on and empowered against it by the demons of doubt and unbelief. Only in such a life-and-death struggle can faith really be proven. The Bible bears this out when it says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4, NIV) Like muscles, faith is strengthened by resistance, and, as the coaches say, “No pain, no gain.”

But isn’t doubt a sin? It’s important to make a distinction between doubt and unbelief. Everyone has doubts from time to time. Doubts bombard us from without, and it’s what we do with them that makes or breaks our faith. If we reject them, our faith grows stronger. If we embrace these doubts, they become internalized in unbelief—a choice NOT to believe, or put another way, a refusal to believe, and this is sin. It is this unbelief that Jesus and the writers of the Bible spoke against that destroys our faith and threatens our souls.

God is never threatened or offended by our doubts, nor should the Church be. He knows that faith must be challenged to become real. He designed it that way. However, when we are confronted by doubts, may God help us to have the same response as the man in the Gospel of Mark who wanted Jesus to deliver his son from a dumb spirit. When Jesus asked the man if he believed, the man exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

I suspect that this was Mother Teresa’s cry in her dark seasons. I believe that because she persevered in the emotionally, spiritually and physically wracking work God had called her to, laying down her life for others until the very end. What greater proof of faith could she have offered? Knowing of her crisis of faith only increases her spiritual stature in my eyes and encourages my faith. Isn’t that the point of sainthood?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lessons from a Window Box

I’m not much of a gardener, but I do have a few potted flowers and window boxes on the railing of my little front porch. I love seeing the beautiful colors every time I go in or out of my house, and take a lot of joy in fussing over those few plants. My favorites are my moss roses that grow in a small pot on the top step. For the non-gardeners reading this, the moss rose is a very small, succulent plant that produces a profusion of ruffled flowers that look similar to antique roses. Each bloom only lasts one day, but what’s cool about them is that they bloom in different colors, so you never know what you’re going to get—pink, white, yellow, orange, fuscia, peach, or variegated.

While “deadheading” (removing spent blooms from) my little moss roses recently, I accidentally broke off a small part of a couple of the stems along with the spent flowers. I absentmindedly threw them into my window box with the passing thought that they would quickly rot in the heat there and perhaps fertilize the other plants. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I noticed yesterday that they had not only taken root, but the smallest of them was sporting a big yellow flower!

This little guy is no bigger than your thumbnail. It hadn’t been carefully rooted and planted, but simply tossed on top of the dry, hard soil. The sun blazes mercilessly in that spot all day, and only the hardiest plants can survive there. With the current heat wave, I’d guess the temperatures around that window box exceed 115 degrees. Yet this tiny bit of green plant defied the odds and lived to bear the cheeriest yellow flower you’ve ever seen, at least twice its own size.

The lesson here needs no explanation. I just want to be more like that little moss rose! Instead of just plowing through difficult circumstances and finding a way to “bloom”, I so often wait for perfect conditions before even attempting it. This is a sure recipe for accomplishing nothing in life. When are conditions ever perfect? In any worthy venture, the enemy of our souls will always make sure they are not. And why should I be deterred by difficulty anyway, when my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth?” (Psalm 121:2)

Whether the goal is as mundane as getting my grass cut or as lofty as achieving my God-ordained destiny, I, you--all of us--need to follow the Apostle Paul’s example, who said:

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

If we’re to achieve what God calls us to achieve, to be what God calls us to be, we can’t dwell on past failures or we’ll be immobilized. We can’t even dwell on past successes, other than as an example of God’s faithfulness, or we may become cocky. We can’t look at the difficulties, or we’ll become discouraged. We have only to look forward, toward the prize, who is Christ and whose glory makes every looming obstacle seem puny. Then we can move ahead in confidence to overcome, and like my little moss rose, we will amaze the world.

By the way, if you find yourself needing a little encouragement along these lines, download the song “Press On”, written by Dan Burgess and recorded by the group Selah. It could draw the dead out of the grave! In fact, download the whole CD by that title. It's excellent.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reading Between the Lines of Moses' Story

I am still grazing in Exodus 14 and finding rich fare there. This time, I am looking at verses 10 to 15 and what they reveal about Moses’ faith and leadership in the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt during their crisis moment before the Red Sea. We can see a lot of ourselves here and draw much encouragement from what happens in these verses, particularly what happens between the lines.

In the story, Pharaoh has finally let the Israelites go, and God has led them to a place at the edge of the Red Sea where they are essentially trapped. Then Pharaoh changes his mind about releasing them, and he and his entire army set out after them. When the Israelites see them coming, the Bible reports that they were terrified. First they responded with a good thing: they “cried out to the Lord.” Then they did what most of us red-blooded Christians do in a crisis, which is 1) panic, and 2) accuse the leadership. Here’s what they said to Moses:

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:11-12, NIV)

Moses is in a real pickle. Not only is the whole Egyptian army bearing down on them hard and fast, but all his people are furious with him as well. He must think fast and lead well, or they are going down. But it’s hard to lead a panicky, angry crowd of millions.

The most important action in this chapter is what happens between the lines of verses 12 and 13 in Moses’ mind and heart, which is left to our imaginations, after the Israelites’ outcry but before Moses’ response to them. Considering their situation, it probably didn’t take long for Moses to decide. We can be fairly sure, though, that in those brief moments a million anxious thoughts and prayers raced through Moses’ mind as he teetered on that razor’s edge of decision. Although he was God’s anointed leader and trusted the Lord, he was also human and as tempted to panic as the people were. Under intense pressure, feeling the full crush of a desperate situation, he had to choose: would he trust God or would he cave in to fear and resort to human reasoning and fleshly action?

His words indicate his choice:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. They Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14, NIV)
Whether he felt as bold and confident as his prophetic words sound we will never know (although if we can do such things, I’m going to ask him when we get to heaven), nor does it matter. The important thing is that he chose to trust God. As a result, Israel was saved, history was changed and God got the glory.

It is easy for us to read these consecutive verses and think that Moses just showed this courage under fire without hesitation or doubt. However, the very next verse provides evidence that he did struggle with doubt or panic or just knowing what to do next. It says, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.’” (Exodus 14:15) I can just hear him yelling, “GOD! HEEEELLLLLLP!” It seems that the Lord was a bit miffed with him for whining instead of acting. Nevertheless, He instructed and helped Moses, and Moses went on the lead the Israelites to a miraculous deliverance.

Although most of our own life situations are less dramatic, the history of our lives is also written in those moments of decision in the clouded and pressurized environment of difficult circumstances. Although our situation may be foggy and confusing, God always gives us a very clear choice between faith and unbelief, trust and fear.

Several years ago, the Lord informed me that the faith challenges of my own life would only get bigger and the stakes higher. I balked and asked, “Won’t I ever get a break?” His blunt answer was, “No.” He has lived up to His word in that.

It’s the same in all of our lives, just in different ways. But the reward for choosing faith and trust in each growing challenge is ever increasing supernatural blessing and growth that not only affects our own lives, but ripples out to those whose lives we influence. Moses’ decision to trust God wrote the history of Israel and impacted our own history. The consequences of our choosing faith over unbelief may not have such dramatic consequences. Or it may. A lot hangs on our choices.

Thank God, as with Moses, He is patient and will overlook our temporary struggling and wavering. He only counts our ultimate decision and will always bless a choice for faith. May God grant us courage and faith, and may He get all the glory.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Moses and Our Burning Bush

I’ve started a study of the Exodus, which is providing a revealing look at Moses as a leader and at the interplay of the leader Moses and his followers, the Israelites. In Exodus, I really see one of the things I love most about the Bible, which is the warts-and-all picture it gives us of its lead characters. There are no perfect, larger-than-life heroes here, only regular people who are often extraordinary only in their shortcomings, who are used in amazing ways by an extraordinary God. Moses is exactly such an unlikely hero, and his people are equally unpromising followers. In this, there are some lessons and parallels we can draw between them and us as Americans and our current leader, George W. Bush.

To summarize the story so far, God has appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from their slavery. He balks at this idea because of insecurity and unbelief, but agrees when God tells him his brother Aaron will help him as spokesman. They tell the Israelite elders and people that God is about to deliver them, and Exodus 4:31 says that the people believed. The Lord had already told Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh would not comply when they first asked him to let the Israelites go, but nothing in these verses indicates that they shared that information with the people.

So, Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let their people go. Not only does he refuse, but he now adds to their burden by forcing them to gather their own straw for brick making without reducing their quota of bricks. This was not in the plan. Not only has Pharaoh denied the people’s great deliverance, but he has made their situation even worse. With dashed hopes, the Israelites lash out at Moses. Then Moses, ever God’s man of faith and power, lashes out at God:

“O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22-23, NIV)

Who can blame him for griping (although he could have been more respectful)? He didn’t want the job of deliverer anyway. Still, didn’t God tell Moses that Pharaoh would reject their first entreaty? Then why is he surprised? Why didn’t he warn the people that this would happen and avoid losing credibility with them? Where did his faith go? Why did he panic at his first encounter with unintended consequences?

I don’t know. I do know, however, that Moses went on from this inauspicious beginning to deliver the Israelites from Egypt with incredible courage and faith. The point is that God uses extremely flawed human beings to accomplish His purposes, and success depends upon HIS greatness, not ours. This is why Paul could say, speaking of Jesus, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV)

What does this have to do with President George W. Bush in the U.S. in 2007? He is in a place similar to that of Moses at this point. He has undertaken a big action in Afghanistan and Iraq that his people, supporters and critics alike, largely believed in at the beginning. When that action didn’t end in instant success, many Americans, a lot of Republicans along with Democrats, condemned him as the Israelites did Moses, shouting, “May the Lord look upon you and judge you!” (Exodus 5:21) Like Moses, he is an imperfect man and an imperfect leader. But when we are ready to burn our Bush, we’d do well to remember that like Moses, it is God who has made Bush our leader (see Romans 13:1-7).

If you’ve read the rest of the book, you know that Israel did escape Egypt and reach the Promised Land and Moses went on to become one of the greatest leaders in history, despite his shortcomings. Throughout the Bible, we are told that it is God who sets up kings and deposes kings and who controls the destiny of nations. For our own nation, whether or not we personally feel that we can trust President Bush, we can surely trust in God who placed him in the presidency. Like the Israelites in Exodus 5, we have not read the end of our story yet. If we put our faith in God and pray for our president, who knows but that our outcome may be as good as theirs.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Making God Happy

Today I found something interesting in I Corinthians 10, where Paul is writing warnings to the Corinthian church against several sins for which God destroyed the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness after leaving Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. Included among these are the usual suspects of lust, idolatry, sexual immorality and provoking God--and grumbling. It was striking to me that Paul, and God, seem to give the same weight to complaining that they give to the traditionally more "serious" sins, so I decided to look into it.

Of course, the principle force behind complaining is ingratitude, which is rooted in pride, the original sin. But all that is just academic until we see the effect that ingratitude has on God's heart. Even a quick scan of the verses in Nave's Topical Bible under ingratitude give a heart-wrenching picture of God's anguish over Israel's forgetfulness and rejection of Him, in spite of all His miracles and all His blessing on their behalf. Can you hear it in His words in Hosea 11:1-4 below?

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.

Then in Hosea 13:6 the Lord sums it up tersely:

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.
It's easy to wonder how the Israelites could have been so foolish and obtuse to grieve the Lord in that way after all the stunning miracles He performed on their behalf. Yet the miracle of the new heart and changed life that He has given each of us as believers is so much greater! The fact that He changes us into His image from glory to glory is astounding. And what about the way He orders our lives and brings His purposes to pass in and through us with wisdom that absolutely confounds us? Think of the big miracles of provision we've all experienced at times, or the small, intimate ways He lets us know that we are on His mind. Consider the fact the most of us have never had to worry whether there would be food to eat or a roof over our heads tomorrow. Is there anyone reading this who, if in dire trouble or need, does not have someone he or she could call on for help?

We Americans are probably the most blessed people in the world, and yet often the least grateful. Taking time to consider all these things, and other blessings that come to mind, will cure ingratitude and grumbling. I, for one, do not want to grieve God's heart by being ungrateful, complaining, proud, or self-sufficient--sins as ugly as idolatry or immorality. I want to begin and end every day by thanking and praising God for all He's done in my life, remembering always that "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17). In so doing, I want to bring Him joy instead of grief. What else could I do for a God who has done so much for me?




Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Call to a Higher Political Plane

Nobody loves a good political argument more than I do, but one of the things that troubles me most in our society these days is the crassness and incivility of our public discourse. You hear it on the airwaves at every turn, especially on talk radio. It comes from the Right and the Left. It even comes from Christians in the public arena. When in this country did it become necessary to ruthlessly attack an opponent's character, motives and even physical appearance to get one's own opinion across? What happened to the art of entreaty, of wooing others to our point of view instead of bludgeoning them with it? When did those of differing philosophies and opinions become unworthy of personal respect? When did we lose so much self-respect that we have to build ourselves up by belittling others? At the same time, when did we become so proud that we think we, and those who agree with us, are the only ones entitled to express an opinion? When did gentlemanliness and honor fall from favor?

On the political Left, all this expresses itself in the intolerance of political correctness, which in its extremes boils down to little more than censorship. On the Right, it comes out in things like radio talk show hosts labeling opposing callers "idiots", or referring to presidential candidates of the other party as "fags." From all sides, accusations fly. Everywhere emotion overrules logic. Why is it not enough to simply say, "I disagree with you, and here is why. . . ?"

Every time we engage in this kind of destructive behavior, I believe we receive another tear in our national fabric and a little bit of our soul dies. How much better it would be if we would win others to our way of thinking through clarity and solid logic (the old-fashioned way) and passion for our principles. If we stopped seeing and treating those with different viewpoints as enemies instead of fellow citizens with, well, different viewpoints, we might remember that opposing views help focus and sharpen our ideas. In so doing, we could rebuild trust and credibility with each other. Instead of the instant wall of defense that now flys up the second our opponent speaks, we could create a fresh atmosphere in which ears at least can and might listen.

Now more than ever we are engaged in a battle of ideas and we do need to speak Truth in the marketplace. As Lady Margaret Thatcher once said, "This is no time to go wobbly." In today's cultural climate, Christians have to defend even the notion of truth. Truth will always offend and bring fierce opposition; however, let's be sure it's Truth bringing the the offense and not the way we deliver that Truth. Ephesians 4:29-32 describes what our heart attitude should be as we speak:

"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."

Our motive must be to build up, not to destroy. Righteous anger will always be directed against "the spiritual forces of evil" (Ephesians 6:12), not against our political opponents and fellow citizens. Extending respect and courtesy to those we vehemently disagree with is a sign of strength, not weakness. All people of good will who love this country, should choose today to rise above the lowest common denominator in public debate and live and speak as men and women of honor. If we do, we can raise the standard and change the climate of hate, disdain and distrust in American politics and beyond.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Praying for Presidents

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
I Timothy 2:1-2
Most of us really want to faithfully pray for our president and other leaders. With a presidential election looming before us and a pack of what appear to be less-than-promising candidates, now is a great time to start praying for our future leader as well. But sometimes it's hard to know what to say. Good news--there is a great model for us in King David's Psalm 101.

Psalm 101 is David's declaration to God of what kind of man he wants to be as king, and what kind of servants he intends to keep around him. Some commentators say he wrote this while he was waiting to become king. Whether before or after, it's a glimpse into the heart of a humble and devoted man of integrity with a call to rulership--exactly what we want in our own White House. Here are some bullet point summaries of his words that we can pray for our current and future national leaders:
  • Verse 1 - "I will sing of your love and justice. . ." - some versions use the words mercy and judgment. A godly ruler should embrace both and exhibit both, since the function of his office is to both encourage righteousness and punish evil. He should be able to apply justice and mercy appropriately and in proper balance.
  • Verse 2 - "I will be careful to lead a blameless life. . ." - He will pay attention to how he walks and curb his sinful tendencies.
  • Verses 2b-3 - "I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing." - His blameless life in v. 2 will spring from a blameless heart, or some versions say integrity of heart. He will maintain that heart by guarding his "eye gate."
  • Verses 3b-7 - These verses are all about the kind of men he will surround himself with, his "ministers" or servants. In our modern parlance, these would be the king's advisers. He calls for men who:
    • are faithful
    • not of perverse heart
    • don't slander (mudslinging?)
    • are arrogant and proud in heart
    • walk blamelessly
    • do not lie or practice deceit
It's very significant that David spends more of this psalm talking about those he will surround himself with than he talks about himself. That illustrates a point that few people realize--that a president's (or senator's or congressman's) advisers are every bit as important to his success or failure as he is himself, even if he is a strong leader. They are the ones who study the issues in depth, as the president can't possibly have time to know everything about everything. He is often depending on their depth and accuracy of knowledge and understanding of complex issues and events. He must be able to trust them to support and guide him in his agenda and not one of their own. They are the ones who tell him how to handle every problem, issue, crisis or conflict. They spend more "face time" with him than anyone else and have his ear.

So, it naturally follows that if these people are righteous, wise and trustworthy, the president and nation are well served by them. But if they are faithless, perverse in heart, arrogant, slanderous and deceitful, the consequences can be devastating for the president and the nation. This is why we need to pray that President Bush and our future president surround themselves with the right kind of people.

Let's pray together that God will in his mercy give us leaders and advisers like David, who, although he was by no mean a perfect man, loved the Lord with his whole heart and sought to honor Him as a man and as a king.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Fearsome Foursome Rides Again

The Fearsome Frizzin' Freakin' Foursome rode again recently back in the old hometown for a long overdue reunion. This was the goofy name my three high school bests buds and I coined to describe ourselves back then. It was our collective identity. "Frizzin'" referred to our hairstyles. "Freakin'" had something to do with our crazy teenage antics. "Foursome" was obviously because there were four of us, but I'm not exactly sure why we were "Fearsome." What can I say? It was 1971. I can offer no other explanation. But we were the best of friends and stuck together like white sticks to rice.

We were unlikely candidates for the close friendship we shared, all from different backgrounds and with diverse personalities. There was Geni, the high school beauty queen and debutante, from the "right" family, shy and reserved. Geni was tortured that, in spite of the fact that she had everything going for her, not many boys asked her out. This was a great mystery to us all, until we learned from one of the boys that they all worshiped her from afar, but were too intimidated by her beauty even attempt asking her out for fear of rejection. In addition to her beauty, she possessed a strong moral compass, had more sense than the rest of us and was the only one who was not rebellious and didn't have problems getting along with her parents. I don't think she knew it at the time, but she was our rock. We hung out at her house a lot.

There was Rene, shy, insecure, childlike and delightful. She was the only girl in a dysfunctional family that was not exactly considered A-list in a small fish bowl of a town containing a lot of big fish who thrived on snobbery. She was a year younger than the rest of us. We would never even have met her had not one of my male friends started dating her and asked me to befriend her. My boyfriend and I double-dated with them on their first date. Before that night, I rode by her house one afternoon to see where she lived, and there she was in the front yard, rolling around in the grass with her big shaggy dog. Right then I knew she would be well worth getting to know. She was given to depression then, but also had, and still has, an outrageous sense of humor and fun.

Then there was Charlene, the unfavored (at least in her perception) middle daughter of a bitter divorcee, who valued social status and proper appearances above all, values that Charlene rejected. Her mother disapproved of Rene and I, as we weren't "their kind of people" (although she was always cordial to us), which naturally made Charlene attach to us even more. She also chose a boyfriend who was custom-designed to drive her mother nuts--definitely from the wrong side of the tracks, and not even cute. Despite that one lapse in judgment, Charlene was and remains infinitely kind and loving, a devoted friend, the caregiver and nurturer, and the instigator of fun, insanity and togetherness.

That leaves me, a Yankee transplant in a time when southern kids still argued about who won The War (uh, that would be the Civil War) and chanted playground slogans like, "Save your Dixie cups, for the South shall rise again!" This gave me what was then called an inferiority complex so that I never felt that I quite fit in. Although I was admitted to all the coveted teenage institutions in town, I felt very much like Harold Abrams in the classic movie, Chariots of Fire, talking about the alienation of being Jewish in England when he said, "They lead me to water, but they won't let me drink." I was foolish and silly like all teenage girls, but in some ways wise beyond my years, considered something of a philosopher, and a very loyal friend.

Against the odds, the four of us became fiercely loyal friends to one another. We were all wracked by teenage angst. Except for Geni, we also had problems at home and became a surrogate family for one another. What really drew us together, though, was a shared sense of the intrinsic value of things, unusual in teens, that led us to reject what we felt was the "plastic" lifestyle of the "In Crowd" with their slavish attention to appearances, fashion, and the whim of the moment. We decided to be true to ourselves, to be "real" instead of imitating someone else because he or she was deemed "cool." If that made us cool, great. If not, that was fine, too. Perhaps we can be forgiven if we were a bit self-righteous about it, because at least it kept us from caving to peer pressure to indulge in sex and drugs, if not rock 'n roll.

After high school, our paths diverged greatly. Two summers later, Charlene went to the beach for three weeks and came back married to a guy she met there. They settled in Charleston, she became a nurse, raised two sons, and she and her husband have now been married about 30 years and share a quintessentially Low Country South Carolina life near Charleston.

Rene married a great classmate of mine on her eighteenth birthday, one month before his nineteenth birthday. No sane person would have placed a bet on the success of that marriage, but 30 years later, they are more in love than ever. They have lived all over the world with the U.S. Air Force, raised two children, and lost one tragically, their beautiful 18-year-old daughter, in a car accident a few year ago. Rene recently finished her B.A. in fine arts that she'd worked on through all their moves for over 20 years. They have retired from the Air Force and settled in Arkansas.

Geni also married a promising hometown boy, whom she nearly lost during their engagement to a brain aneurism. He was not expected to survive it, and if he did, doctors predicted it would be in a vegetative state. After many weeks in a coma, faith in God's power to heal and a miracle brought him through. Today he is an OB-GYN who spends his vacations doing medical missions in South America. Geni is an elementary school teacher. They have three kids and live in our hometown.

And me, well, I've led quite an eclectic life. I'm still single, and have done just about everything. For example, I spent nearly ten years in Washington, DC serving senators, a congressman and a vice president, and another ten as a missionary in Latvia. Go figure. Now I live in Atlanta, teaching, writing and serving my church.

So half a lifetime after the Fearsome Freakin' Frizzin' Foursome disbanded, here we were together again. Now we are middle-aged women with bad knees and high blood pressure, and one a breast cancer survivor. Teen angst has been replaced by family and life challenges. But each of us still has all the endearing qualities that made us love each other in the beginning. We spent two all-too-short days in the warm and comforting cocoon of each other's love and companionship. We just picked up where we had left off. It was one of those things that you bask in the afterglow of for days. I drove back to Atlanta feeling full and enriched.

And I learned something that I thought I already knew: Lifelong friendships are too precious to allow to atrophy because life and distance get in the way. Sometimes we have to fight for them, but like anything of value in life, they are worth the fight. After all, wasn't that what we were about as teenagers--what is real and true? When you distill life down to its essence, what is left is our relationships, first with God, and then with family and friends. I intend to hold onto mine.

FYI, we have committed to get together again this summer and a couple of times a year after that for the duration.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Call to the Church

I’m a news junkie, but my habit is causing me grief and so I may have to give it up. Almost everything I hear or read seems to reinforce one conclusion: Our nation has reached the nadir of her moral strength and leadership in the world. This is a great tragedy, because we have so much to lose.

Our wholesale rebellion against God began some 40 or so years ago, but we have been coasting on the momentum of a better, stronger time since then. Now, however, that borrowed energy has just about run out. As we grind to a halt, we are beginning to feel the full impact of the folly of that rebellion in this generation. Indeed, soon to come of age is the first generation in our history who barely have a nodding acquaintance with even cultural Christianity and who have no knowledge of or respect for God and His ways. Even in the household of God, there is little difference between the churched and the unchurched. It has left us empty, shallow, coarse, cold-hearted, and selfish.

As a result, there are, of course, consequences to be paid as a nation. I could fill a thousand blogs listing them. Suffice it to say that we are left without a moral compass, we are abandoning our God-given destiny and, worst of all, we have dishonored God.

As I was thinking these doleful thoughts this morning, I picked up my Bible, which fell open to Isaiah 54 and 55, and began to read. I know that Isaiah was writing about Israel and not the United States, yet we are so similar to Israel in our cycles of apostasy, and I desperately pray that we would similarly find God’s forgiveness and restoration as expressed in these chapters. I urge you to read and pray Isaiah 54 for the United States. I believe that the generous mercy described there is still available to us today if we will humble ourselves before God and ask for His gift of repentance. I’m encouraged by Chapter 55:1-3 and 6-7:

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David."

"Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."

Verse 2 sums up what we have done as a people:

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

We have spent all we have on self-indulgence, sensuality, lust for money, rebellion, materialism and other worthless sins. Now, our souls are bankrupt, gaunt and starved, and yet we say, “’I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—” (Revelation 3:17) And we continue to look for nourishment everywhere but in God. God, however, in His amazing mercy, still calls to us to return to Him.

As I read this morning, I felt that these words are a clarion call to the Church in this season, right now. God is calling us to “come.” He is calling the unconverted, but He is especially calling His own people who have become apathetic and backslidden and have been seduced by other things that do not satisfy.

God has been speaking to the whole church that the heavens are open in this season and that grace is readily available for every need. He has extended the golden scepter to us and urges, “Ask what you will and I will grant it.” If you are a believer whose heart has become cold, God says, “Come.” Do it now, while he is calling. If you are a Christian walking closely with the Lord, call on Him in a spirit of intercession for others. He WILL hear and answer. He is ready to forgive and restore and even bring us to our finest hour. This is our time. Do it for the honor of God and the advance of His kingdom, and do it for our nation’s future.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Reflections on Elections: Despair and Hope

The current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls drives me to my knees in prayer, and not just because I can’t decide who to go for. It’s that I can’t seem to find strong leadership and Christian character existing together in one body. There is none that appears to exhibit integrity in its true meaning of wholeness.

To see what I mean, consider a few of the choices. Rudy Giuliani. America’s Mayor is a proven leader, but supports abortion and gay rights and has a history of blatant infidelity and divorce. Mitt Romney. A Mormon, he looks good and talks the right talk, but only recently changed from pro-choice to pro-life. Changed man or opportunist? John McCain. This war hero seems to be on the right side of the moral issues, but otherwise, it’s hard to tell just whose kingdom he’s building. Then, there’s Newt. Leader of the 1994 Republican Revolution and darling of conservatives, he has leadership and the right but he has character issues. During President Clinton’s impeachment trial, while Gingrich was speaking out against Clinton for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky, he himself was having his own extramarital affair, even as his wife was hospitalized with cancer.

So again I ask, “Where is character and leadership in one person?” Where is a potential president who knows where he wants to take the country, how to get there, and can get people to rally to his vision? Should we find that person, will he, or she, possess enough courage of his convictions to refuse to sacrifice them before the altar of political expediency? Will he be a man of prayer and have enough wisdom, humility and fear of God to know that he needs godly counselors? Will his heart hold enough of God’s love and compassion to deal with his political adversaries with fairness and respect? Will he be a standard bearer and not a standard breaker?

I’d have despaired of ever having such a leader if I had not seen the promise in our church’s young people and the way their parents are diligently and purposefully raising them. In a culture that has made a parent’s job nearly impossible, they have made training their children’s character Job One. Then they have recognized their kids’ God-given bent and call, and gently guided them in that direction, all the while teaching them to love, obey and enjoy God with all their hearts. This is a winning strategy, and all heaven is cheering on these parents and others like them, because more is at stake than we could possible know. They and their children have given us all hope for the future.

In the dim valleys of the daily grind of raising a family, it must be easy for parents to lose sight of the loftier peaks of their own calling as parents of tomorrow’s kingdom builders. If you are a parent, let God reveal them to you afresh, and be encouraged, because you, and others like you, are raising standard bearers who just may be the ones to lead this nation, in their different fields, out of the morass of mediocrity into God’s fuller expression of righteousness and justice, truth and mercy. Who knows but that among your kids there is a future president or two.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Finding the Church at Meerkat Manor

I’m all about meerkats. Anyone who has seen five minutes of Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor would have to agree that these strange relatives of the mongoose are really cute and fascinating. But more important than cuteness, they give us a great picture of the Church community as God intended it. OK, my pastor didn’t buy it either when I tried to get him to use them as a sermon illustration once. But consider the following facts about meerkat life:

1. Meerkats are very social animals and live in groups, called mobs or gangs, for protection, as their desert habitat presents many challenges. When one gang encroaches on another gang’s territory, group members band together, fluff their fur out, jump up and down to make themselves appear bigger, and make a lot of noise. This is called mobbing. After the conflict, the winners will hug and congratulate each other with human-like gestures (although this is really re-marking each other with the group’s scent). We would also do well to “mob” our spiritual enemies. When we are united as one, I'm sure we look a lot bigger to the enemy of our souls, and indeed we are. Perhaps the metaphor breaks down at the point of fur fluffing, jumping up and down and making a lot of noise. But maybe this could be warring prayer. . . . At any rate, we could surely benefit by standing shoulder to shoulder to deal with our mutual threats and then rejoicing together after the victory has been won.

2. Each Meerkat in a mob has an important role to perform. For example, there are:

--Babysitters – who stay with the pups while the gang is out foraging for food. Different gang members take this responsibility different days. This job is not dominated by males or females. Ahem. . . .

-- Sentries – who watch over the gang to spot danger. Meerkats have been known to climb up to 30 feet in a tree to do sentry duty. This duty is performed by males and females. There is a sentry on watch both at the burrow system as well as when the gang is foraging for food. In other words, they never let their guard down. They keep “watchmen on the walls" who are contantly protecting the others from predators and will go to whatever lengths necessary to insure that no member of their gang gets picked off.

--Excavators – Sometimes it’s necessary to renovate burrow systems. Often Meerkats will get one behind another and work together to move sand out of the burrow system, similar to the way firemen used to hand buckets of water to one another to put out a fire in the old days. It’s about teamwork, you see.

--Mentors - An elder Meerkat will take on the responsibility of teaching pups the DOs and DON’Ts of being a Meerkat. This includes how to raise young, how to forage for food, and what to look out for. For example, raising young is a learned behavior for Meerkats. Let’s say a pup is separated from her mob at birth and kept as a pet. If that pup gets pregnant, she will not know how to raise her young or teach them how to forage for food. Could there be a more scriptural expression of church community than this?

--Groomers- Meerkats like to groom one another and will remove ticks and fleas from one anther and actually eat them, though these parasites are not a normal part of their diet. Yes, this is disgusting. Spiritually speaking, of course, we all need friends to help us with parasite removal from time to time. And, we all need to help someone else get rid of their parasites, too, even if it’s not our regular thing.

You can see that with meerkats, it’s all about community and being responsible for and to one another. It’s about knowing your function in the group and performing it wholeheartedly. It can pretty much be summed up this way:

MEERKAT MOTTO

Respect the Elders, Teach the Young, Cooperate with the Family,Play when you can, Work when you should, Rest in between.Share your Affection, Voice your Feelings, Leave your Mark.
© Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center, Inc.

Does it really get much better than that?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Everything I Know About Life I Learned From My Dog

Some of the simplest yet most profound lessons in life I have learned from Carrie. Carrie is my Latvian yellow Lab pictured on the left who came home from the mission field with me. By the way, Carrie is very intelligent and understands both English and Russian. She obeys (or ignores) commands in either language.

Anyway, next to swimming, Carrie loves nothing more than to go for a walk. She loves to explore all the sights and scents of the larger world outside our small house and yard. The two little words, "poydyom gulyat'", or "let's go for a walk," are all it takes to get paws dancing and tail wagging.

But in order to get the anticipated walk, Carrie knows that she must submit to the dreaded muzzle. She despises her muzzle, but since she has been known to bite other dogs, we don't go out without it. Still, she knows that wearing that muzzle is the key to something greater that, in her dog's world, is well worth the discomfort and confinement of it. So when I approach her with the muzzle, without prompting, she sits down and lifts her head, perfectly still and snout extended high, so that I can easily put it on her. Then without delay, off we go to explore the world (or at least the neighbors' yards).

How much easier and more joyful would our lives be if we could learn to submit to the discipline of the Lord with the same speed, willingness, and anticipation? If you have walked with God more than three days, you have undoubtedly experienced that uncomfortable confinement of God's discipline. Maybe it's that he seems slow in giving you something you desperately want or need, like a new job, a ministry you've dreamed of, a husband or wife, or children. Maybe you know you are gifted and called to a public ministry or career, and feel you should be progressing in it, and instead you seem to be going nowhere, hidden away in a place of obscurity. In situations like these, instead of quietly submitting to the yoke knowing, like Carrie does, that it will yield good things, most of us want to throw off God's loving and purposeful restraints and either press forward on our own or give up.

For those who have ears to hear, however, Hebrews 12 encourages us that the Lord disciplines those he loves and that it's proof that we are true sons and not illegitimate. It also says that he disciplines us for our certain good and that the results of it are life, sharing in his holiness, and a "harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12: 11) If we really believe this, then we can approach his discipline with faith and not just endurance, but embrace it with patient but joyful anticipation of stellar results that will benefit us and glorify the Lord through our lives. Who doesn't want that?

Even the Bible admits that "no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful." (Hebrews 12:11) Nobody knows that better than Jesus, "who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2) Thank God that Jesus never lost that vision of joy ahead through the toughest trial in all eternity. We have reaped the benefit of his obedience. Let's follow his example in the smaller challenges of our own lives. It will be worth it all. Just ask Carrie.

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