Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Winner!

Last year, I had the privilege of helping judge the regional Poetry Out Loud competition.  In this competition high school students memorize three poems which they recite to the judges and the audience of friends, parents, and teachers.  Their recitation is judged by how well they convey the meaning of the poem through their voices, facial expressions, and gestures.  This year’s competitors were quite talented and well prepared.  With 150 points available, only a few points separated the top three, with two of them tied.  All were excellent and deserved to win, but only one person could win and move on to the state competition; therefore, it was quite difficult to announce only one winner. 

Fortunately for us, God has many winners.  When we put our trust in Him and obediently follow His will in our lives, we are all winners.  No one is better than another; all are forgiven by His grace.

Gracious, loving God, even though we are all sinners, Your grace has made us winners in Your sight.  Thank you for this amazing gift. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Rivers of Peace

           In a world torn by conflicts and war, people seek peace.  Many mourn the lack of peace and grieve over violence.  Others question why war exists; hasn’t God has promised peace? When you listen to the news, it seems peace doesn’t exist.  Even in our homes, peace seems elusive.  Couples bicker and divorce, siblings argue and fight.  The book of Isaiah sheds light on peace: “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river” (48:18a NIV).  One prerequisite to peace is obeying God’s commands.  But what about peace…”like a river”?  To fully appreciate this concept of peace like a river, imagine a great river running through the land.
            The broad river, a constant presence, flows despite obstacles.  Sometimes the river runs smoothly; at other times it runs headlong into a snag, separating and diverting its water to other paths.  The water flows peacefully on, until downstream it smashes full force against the rocks, shattering spray high in the air.  Flowing to the top of a sharp drop-off, the water rushes forward, falling… falling…rushing over the edge, churning and boiling at the bottom.  After a time the waters collect in a still pool, resting, reveling in the quiet. 
           During my mother’s last years, her mind ravaged by dementia, my river of peace constantly ran against snags of her lost memory.  My peace plummeted over the precipice of countless hours of watching her mind rapidly losing rational thought and memory.  Constantly swirling and eddying, the waters rushed me from work to assist Dad with her care.  Emotional whirlpools threatened to spin out of control.  The only thing that kept my sanity during this difficult time was God’s peace.
           You may ask how I could feel peace when my world was turned upside down.  In Galatians 5:22, we learn that peace is a fruit of the Spirit.  Only the spirit of God can give us peace in the midst of the snags, rocks, waterfalls, and whirlpools of life.  So how do we receive this peace?  We can’t buy it in a store; we can only receive it as a gift from God. When our life’s circumstances shatter against the rocks, placing trust in God’s perfect will keeps us at peace despite trying circumstances.  Jesus tells us he leaves us peace, but “I do not give you [peace] as the world gives” (John 14:22 NIV).  The countries of the world may continue to fight, and we still experience difficulties and tragedies.  But when we obey God’s commands and trust Him, no matter how difficult our circumstances, we experience His peace, flowing like a river deep within our souls.
          Isaiah 26:3 “You [God] will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trust in you.”
          Thank you, Father, for providing your perfect peace.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dress for Success (reprise)

Every morning as I prepare for my day, I decide what to wear.  Looking in my closet and dresser, I have choices to make.  Do I wear a skirt today?  Slacks?  Jeans?  What top coordinates with the skirt or pants?  Both must match in color and appropriateness for the weather and occasion.  Next, I must decide on appropriate accessories.  Which shoes?  Belt?  Scarf?  Jewelry?  All these choices must coordinate to create a unified whole.  Once I make my decisions and dress, I’m ready for the day.

Just as I am able to choose daily what clothes I’ll wear, I have choices in what to don from my spiritual closet.   What shall I wear today?  Shall it be a spirit of complaining or a spirit of gratefulness?  If I wear the spirit of complaining, I must also put on bitterness and accessorize with sorrow, for these create a coordinated ensemble.  Before deciding what to choose from my spiritual closet, I think, “Is this what a child chosen by God would wear?  Is this appropriate attire for the daughter of the King?”  If not, I discard those “clothes” and choose to wear something else. Today, perhaps I’ll don that spirit of gratefulness.  To match gratefulness, I choose compassion and humility, for those naturally complement gratefulness.  In order to accessorize, I choose good deeds for my feet.  To top it all off, the sparkling gem of God’s love unifies the ensemble.  Now I’m ready for the day. 

Father, help me choose wisely from my closet of spiritual clothing.

Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothes yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On the Beach (reprise)

One summer Scott and I flew to San Diego to visit our cousin Zelda.  While there, we spent some time at the Pacific Ocean’s shore.  Just standing at a very small edge of this huge body of water was awe-inspiring.  Looking outward from my vantage point on the sand, I could not imagine the immensity of this vast body of water, stretching for thousands of miles in every direction.  I spent some time wandering along the shore, always looking out to the water.  The waves never ceased.  Constantly they rushed the beach, always the same, yet always different.  They followed one another, curling and rolling, white spray flying high.  White gulls skimmed the water’s surface, diving into the tops of the waves to capture fish for breakfast.  Each wave must have contained thousands of gallons of moving, roiling, rushing water.  Their strength amazed me.  Even when I stood ankle deep at the very edge of this ocean, the waves, running to the shore and then back home, pulled at me, nearly knocking me off my feet.  “Come out into the deep,” they seemed to say. The locals said, “Always face the waves.”  I learned to keep my eyes on the waves and never underestimate their power. 

I tried to discern a pattern in the way the waves ran at the beach, but the variety was endless.  They came in intervals—for a time many smaller waves hit the beach, then bigger waves—wave after wave—pounded the shore, rolling, breaking, rushing to the sands, and then retreating.

The sound of the waves was astounding. Right at my feet was always the soft, sibilant sound of waves running at the beach, scrubbing the sand, then running back home, pulled by the ocean as a small child runs back to her mother and father.  But farther out, where the waves curled on themselves and broke, the waters boomed and roared, boomed and roared.  Even from a half mile away their crashing noise echoed.   I closed my eyes and soaked in the sounds of this majestic ocean.  The early morning air was cool, and I basked in the amazing experience, wishing I could stay longer.  I stood, I looked, I listened, trying to absorb it all.

It occurred to me that the incredible beauty, immensity, and power of the ocean are, on a small scale, a reflection of our miraculous God.  When I stood on the beach and gazed at the ocean, it seemed so enormous, yet I viewed only an infinitesimal portion of this massive body of water. So it is with God.  We are privileged at times to catch glimpses of God’s immensity, but we see only a small portion.  We glimpse His power, yet we experience just a tiny glimpse of His majesty.  In Isaiah 45:15, we read, “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.”    Paul reminds us how little we know of our awesome God in I Corinthians 13:12.  “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

God, thank you for the tangible reminders of Your greatness.

Psalms 93:3-4 “The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.  Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea—the LORD on high is mighty.”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tending the Garden: a Parable

There once was a woman who married, had children, worked hard to provide a pleasant home for her family and raise her children in a loving manner.  She worked in her church and did her best to serve her God in the ways she could.  After her children matured, this woman went to work and enjoyed meaningful labor.  In short, she was very typical:  She worked hard, enjoyed leisure time, and honored God.
But deep down inside her was a secret: nestled within the folds of her soul resided two tiny seeds:  seeds of doubt and faith.  Even she didn’t know those two seeds hid in her soul. 

She went to church every Sunday, and she said her prayers.  Her tiny seed of faith opened and grew miniscule hair-like roots.  She joined a bible study, and a small shoot emerged, opening tiny, green leaves.  Her faith grew.  But before long her life became so hectic she was unable to attend bible study, and she fell asleep before saying her prayers.  Life didn’t seem to be the way it should, for a normal woman.

Soon the little seedling of faith withered and drooped.  The seed of doubt opened and sent out strong roots.  The plant grew tall and sprouted many green leaves.  The woman grew restless and discontented.  Praying became difficult.  Doubt grew strong and vigorous, a flourishing weed.

A few weeks later, she tried to pray to God.  “God, where are you?  Why can’t I pray to you?”  Then God allowed her to see the weed of doubt and the tiny seedling of faith struggling in its shadow.

“Oh God!”  She cried out.  “Show me how to eradicate the weed of doubt!  How can I get rid of it?”
“Keep praying and spending time with Me,” a still, small voice seemed to say.  But the weed of doubt flourished and the tiny seedling of faith struggled to stay alive.

The next day she cried out to her God.  “Father, make that weed wither up and die!  Cause the seedling to grow and flourish.”

“Be patient, my child,” came the answer.  “Even though you do not feel my presence, I am here, and I love you.”  The tiny seedling of faith raised its leaves heavenward.

Father God, show me ways to nourish the seed of faith.

Proverbs 22:5 “In the paths of the wicked lie thorns and snares, but he who guards his soul stays far from them."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Who's My Neighbor?

When one of the “experts in the law” of Jesus’ day tested Jesus, he asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response, Jesus asked him what was written in the law. The man answered, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 25 & 27).  When the expert, in order to justify himself, then asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (vs. 29), Jesus told the familiar story about the Good Samaritan.
At this time, Samaritans were reviled by Israelites. Most men would walk miles out of their way to avoid stepping foot on Samaritan soil. They were considered lower than dogs and definitely didn’t rank high on any Israelite’s social list. Yet, to illustrate who is your neighbor, Jesus tells the story of the hated Samaritan who helps a poor man who’s been beaten by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, both highly esteemed men of God, choose to ignore the helpless man, but a hated Samaritan stops to help.

Today, we understand, of course, that our neighbors live next door and across the street. Generally speaking, we get along well with them. Expanding this concept of neighborliness, we try to help the poor by giving our money to worthy causes to provide food and shelter for the less fortunate and to help others in times of natural disasters.

But I wonder if Jesus has even more in mind? He did, after all talk about a reviled Samaritan as the hero of his story about neighbors. Look at some of the people Jesus chose to spend time with. One of his closest disciples was a tax collector. Today we may tell jokes about the IRS, but this sentiment is nothing like the tax collectors in Jesus’ day. These men collected tax money for the Romans! No one wanted to give money to their cruel conquerors! And to make matters worse, many believed the tax collectors raised the fees just to line their own pockets. People in Jesus’ day hated tax collectors.

Who was the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead? Mary Magdalene, a woman who’d been possessed by seven demons. I can’t imagine that this woman had high stature in society. Jesus spent time with other women not highly regarded in his day. He offered his living water to a Samaritan woman of ill repute. When another woman was caught in the very act of adultery, he chose not to follow the law that required an adulteress to be stoned to death. Instead, he said to the men waiting to kill her, “if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). Perhaps loving our neighbors is about more than being nice to those who live near us and giving our money to the less fortunate. Perhaps it has more to do with our attitudes toward others who are different from us. Perhaps I need to examine my ideas of neighborliness.

Father God, reveal to me the Samaritans, the Matthews, and the Mary Magdalene’s in my life. Show me how to love them as I love myself.