May 31, 2013

Advice for life—the everlasting way

Well, that was it.  Today I unceremoniously came to the end of a 23 year career of home educating my offspring.  We ended with the dissection of a fetal pig.  He didn’t get much of a chance at life, but there he, no she, was-- perfectly formed from her little piggy snout to the tip of her tail, with all the appropriate ‘middle’ things encased ever so predictably inside that  tiny pink body.  You won’t mind I think, if I spare you details, and the photo? We are quite through with dissections around here, and forgot to snap a photo of this one. 

Meanwhile with great pomp and ceremony, kids are graduating into life-after-highschool all over the place, including two nieces and a nephew.  I pondered this week what advice I have to offer someone heading off into the wide world to try out their wings (and faith)—It came together in the form of an analogy.  We drill into our kids what it takes to stay physically healthy, you know: eat right, get some exercise, learn to manage stress and get your sleep.  So I got to wondering, are there corresponding means to encourage soul health, and avoid falling prey to floundering faith?

Eating right reminds me of the Word, our manna.  We need it, daily.  To be chewed and swallowed and digested—meditated on, pondered. And we need a balanced diet of it—not just the sweet morsels, not just a chunk here or there, but the whole meal deal, from cover to cover providing all the essential protein and carbs, vitamins and minerals to make us competent for whatever our calling (II Tim.3:16,17)  For variety of cuisine, we have teachers and preachers who cook with the Word and prepare it in appetizing ways for our consumption.  Whether in church, or on the Internet or in a book there’s no want of good food available.  It’s just up to us to shop discerningly and consume consistently.

Then it’s time to exercise—to see that that good Word doesn’t turn into unbecoming flab on our hips or our lips (Mt.15:8).  We’ve got to allow it to energize our Walk through life.  Here’s where the exercise of faith comes in.  Without it no amount of eating will make us strong.  We’ll be dropping like flies in the wilderness √† la the children of Israel, remembered for their hard hearts and unbelief.  “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them,* not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” (Heb.3:7—4:2).  Walking by faith is to be our normal lifestyle, not just huddling ‘round the feed dish like a bunch of ‘meat birds’. 

[If you have ever raised the kind of chickens bred for their meat you will appreciate this analogy.  We tried both ‘meat birds’ and ‘layers’ one year.  While the young egg-layers scampered about in their yard enjoying the sunshine and scratching about for unsuspecting worms and arthopods while they grew strong for a life-time of productivity,  their housemates, the ‘meat birds’, could not be bothered to leave the feed dish.  They sat and gourged with no thought of being made with legs and wings for a purpose.  Their life expectancy was accordingly short—a mere 6-8 weeks. Let that be a lesson to us ( : ]

Analogies aside, from my experience, the need for exercise  is relentless. It’s not enough to get in shape.  You have to keep on working at it—getting out there and pedaling, or stretching, or walking or whatever you do to keep fit—or your body starts to sag and fitness begins to wane.  Just like exercising faith.  No matter where we are on the journey, faith is required, continuously. Let down your guard and doubt slips in, or fear, or anxiety, or whatever default you are most prone to return to.  Exercising faith is a relentless requirement for soul fitness.

Faith has everything to do with the third requirement for good health—learn to manage stress.  Of course, the lifeline for our souls in this regard is prayer—’Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.’ Phil.4:6,7 I know these verses by heart, but does my heart know this kind of peace? Learning to ‘manage stress’ is really a matter of learning to cast it on the only One who can really carry it without falling apart.  Why then do I try to carry it myself? With good reason Peter 5: 7-9 became one of my favorite passages many years ago: “Casting all your cares on Him, for He cares for you…”  We can’t carry manage stress on our own. We weren’t designed to.

And my last piece of advice to the young graduate chomping at the bit to be on to greater things was: No matter how busy life gets, always get your rest. Your soul needs it too. Remember that Jesus wants to know you more than He wants your service. Learn to rest in who He is in you when you feel inadequate. Don't carry burdens you were never intended to bear; His yoke is easy, His burden is light. If you find yours to be too much, you're carrying more than He intended. Sit and talk to Jesus a bit and get His perspective. Here you'll find 'rest for your soul' (Mt.11:28-30)

Soul rest is more than a temporary activity, it’s to be our state of being—resting in the work Jesus has accomplished on our behalf, resting in His promises, knowing that what He requires of us He will accomplish in us as we walk with Him and share His yoke….

No sooner had I put these thoughts together into a letter  to my niece then I realized that this same advice is not just for young people beginning steps toward their careers, it is for old people set on finishing well and middle-aged people navigating the ‘as-is’ of  life.  And this advice is for me, wrapping up one phase of life and peering out into the future with a lump in my throat and a prayer on my lips: Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Ps.139: 23,24

Feeding on the Word, walking it out by faith, casting all that matters to us on the One who cares most for us, and making every effort to rest—these are ageless tips for living well, for this is the everlasting way to live! 

After all, do we ever cease to need daily Bread just because we’ve been eating it for so many years?  And is the exercise of faith not as necessary a daily discipline as when we first believed?  Walking by faith still goes against the grain of our ‘natural’ (flabby) way of responding to life.  And what of stress?  Does it ever go away, at any stage of life?  And is not rest all the more needful the older we get? 

Perhaps I should write myself a letter, then again maybe I just did…

Blessings on you and yours at whatever stage of this great and everlasting life you find yourselves!!

--LS

“Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And let your soul delight itself in abundance.” Is. 55:2

May 23, 2013

Has it really come to this?

Never before have I lost my glasses. They've always been stuck to my face, ever since the third grade when I crept into class that first day with my new cat-eye glasses. But now, there are multiple pairs… and where did I put those reading glasses?!

And there are pills doled out at breakfast—Am I becoming my mother?! Pills to make up for missing sunshine. Pills to rejuvenate aging eyes. Pills to ward off aging…(?!)

And what's this minty scent that wafts me through my days? Ben-Gay?! Yes, they still make the stuff, but surely this sore shoulder muscle isn't here to stay…

Hmm… skin cancer, could this little spot be it? I have just read up on what ''Basal Cell Carcinoma" is. Now for the doctor's appointment. Whoever thought about these things before?

Yes, it's really come to this. I'm getting old. I'm past the half-way point and heading for the home lap assuming it will be shorter, harder and less fun than the first half but really not at all clear what it will be like! Family life is all I've known. I peek back over my shoulder at the happy olden days and wonder how I can pack them away in albums and move on before turning into a pillar of salt from the tears!

To compound my sense of loss, my career as a homeschool teacher of 23 years is ending, abruptly, soon. I feel like a student myself with this deadline looming with such finality. Whether I learned all my lessons or not, whether the assignments got done well or not, the term is up. My work is due 'as is' for grading. How did I do? What have I accomplished? There is no grade point average for me this time around. My five graduates will live with the results, for better or worse. (Now there's a disturbing thought!)

And I’m aching for reassurance that I did good. (I know that’s not good grammar, but it’s what a soul wants to know). I don’t need affirmation in the Comment Box, I need to hear from my Supervisor that He is pleased. Only His Words will suffice to displace this sagging feeling that my best was not good enough.

Never mind ‘best’, who can honestly say they’ve done their best day in-day out for the length of a career? Really? No, we bring at our work what we have to bring, ourselves. And being human and faulted with great cracks and fissures, we bring our weaknesses. These too go into the mix that will make up the final product. All these years and lesson plans and books later I have completed my assignment. The term is ended. But I’m not sure I’ve done a good enough job.  Five fledgling adults educated under my watch are trying their wings in the real world while I sit on the sidelines watching, and waiting, and wondering how we’ve done (and what’s next?!)...

Against this backdrop of doubt and insecurity God speaks Words I need to hear: a call, a gentle correction and a healthier orientation. And I must admit, deep down past all my Eeyore impulses and growing (old) pains, I am excited despite myself for what's to come. I am ready for a new stage. As armloads and boxes of books head out the door the bookshelves stand enticingly empty for a new round of learning. Living spaces too are refigured for new purposes. Life is brightened with endless possibilities. I've even found renewed enthusiasm for gardening. Turning soil and pulling weeds in hopes of new life to come is therapeutic!

But just case you too are in a stage not quite comfortable, not quite confident, not quite all you hoped it would turn out to be, may I offer you the words that have encouraged me this week—a call, a correction, and a new orientation?

First there was this call.  A friend unwittingly pointed me here, to Solomon’s love Song, a picture of lover’s bliss and ultimately of Christ’s love for His bride.  May I paraphrase the Lover’s words?

Listen, hear the birds, see the flowers?  It is springtime.  So, ‘arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away….let me see your face, let me hear your voice…catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.’ 

In each new season of life, Christ calls us to come to Him, to talk to him, to be known by Him, and not to let anything spoil the yield in our vineyard. 

In these winsome words I am reminded of my primary calling, to know and be known by Christ.  This is what really matters.  Many will call Him ‘Lord, Lord’ and point to all their ‘wonderful works’ as evidence of this relationship, but He will profess: “I never knew you; depart from me.” Mt.7:22,23 No amount of work done in His name will make up for a failure to be known by Him.  He’s not so much interested in what I’ve done, as in knowing me.  And so He calls, “come away…let me see your face, let me hear your voice…”Here is my invitation to put aside doubts of sufficient worthiness and relax ‘as is’ in the sheer delight of being His desired companion.

A gentle correction came one quiet morning as I sat by the woodstove warding off the chill, reading and thinking, and fretting too, over my failures in this final year of school—technical details and ‘holes’ in our education.  The story of Martha and Mary was before me and I heard Martha’s accusation as I had not heard it before:  “Lord, do you not care that I have to do everything? Tell Mary to help.”  Jesus wouldn’t consent.  He knew Martha was pre-occupied with lesser things and that Mary had found what was important. 

How easy it is to use prayer as a means of getting God to see we need help that He can surely provide.  Surely He will help us accomplish our goals.  How often have I been frustrated this year that school is not what I want it to be?  And even now, short on weeks and long on unmet goals Jesus’ words come with gentle reproof:  Linda, Linda, “you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”  And what was that one thing that Mary was doing?  She was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to His teaching. 

Martha had been the one to welcome Him into their home, but she’d lost sight of the value of His company, in her conscientious effort to serve Him.   And again a still small voice beckons me to let go my determination of what needs to be done and listen to what’s on Jesus’ heart.  After all, were we to master all the finer points of grammar and writing, of science and math yet not have learned to value time spent with Jesus, what would we have accomplished? 

Lord, forgive my obsessions with lesser things. Thank-you for denying my demands in order to point me to what is most important.  I am grateful.  Make your priorities for my kids mine also.  When your Kingdom and your Righteousness are first in our hearts, the rest will fall into place as you intend. (Mt.6:33)

The final word of encouragement that has given me a fresh orientation came by way of a wise blogger mom at a similar life stage to my own.  In her ‘keeping it real’ way she arrested my attention with these words:  “It is not our calling to ‘raise Godly children’”.  What?!  She went on to clarify by way of contrast:

"It is our calling :

  • to be authentic believers and live out the gospel before our children.
  • to nurture, instruct, guide, love, and pray for our children.
  • to share God's Word, and share the gospel with our children.

God is the only one who can work in a child's heart and change him into a godly person. His Spirit draws them, opens their eyes, and changes and matures them.”

--Gina Smith at http://www.keepinitrealgina.com

 

A subtle shift in meaning, you say?  No, for me it was an essential reminder not to assume a role never intended for me.  It may be my desire for my children to all be more perfect and godly than I, but this is not my job description. It cannot be.  Only God can make any of us godly!  We are called to love, to nurture, to teach and to discipline and perhaps most of all to depend on God to do these things through us and  in spite of us.  We all fail in many ways.  We don’t do the things we ought, the things we wish we had, or even all the things we could.  But God in His great mercy calls us each to Himself, loves us dearly and invites us to know and be known by Him.  And at my age, this is a good place to have come to.

--LS

For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
I Cor.13:9,10

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. I Cor.13:12,13

“My beloved is mine, and I am his…” Sgs.2:13

May 17, 2013

Sharing life over tea

A hot cup of tea with a bit of sugar and some real cream is such a wonderful relaxing, friendly thing to share.  I’m sitting here this evening with the tea things still out and the house suddenly empty and quiet as the mom and her young tribe that came to share some sips and look at all my give-away books has evacuated, a box of homeschool books in tow.  It is Thursday, my quiet evening to ponder and write alone.

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Why the door?  It reminded me of the passage I was pondering this morning, that one where Jesus stands at the door knocking, inviting anyone who hears his voice to open the door.  He’s just waiting for the invite to tea—well, to a meal together really.  Who wouldn’t open the door?  Why was it shut with Jesus on the wrong side in the first place?

Although this verse (Rev.3:20) is often used to describe opening one’s heart to Jesus at salvation, the context is not quite that.  It was this context that brought me here this morning.  Jesus is addressing a church that has lost sight of its need for Him.  “You say, I am rich , I have prospered and I need nothing”.  When in reality they are ‘wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked”! Jesus counsels them to come to him for true treasure—for gold refined by fire, (symbolic perhaps of a faith that perseveres through trial; see I Pet.1:7),  and for His righteousness (white garments) to hide their shame.  And for salve to heal their blinded eyes.

He reminds them His reproof is driven by love and urges this lukewarm church to get zealous, not about doing good works, but about repentance! It is out of this context that the words pop out: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”

Jesus was on the wrong side of the door perhaps because the Laodiceans felt they were no longer in need of Him.  They are ‘doing very well, thank-you’.  But Jesus’ own teaching makes it pretty clear that it’s not the one who never visibly wandered but the one who returns home, this one that is blessed.  It’s not the ‘righteous persons needing no repentance’ but the sinner who repents that causes all Heaven to party!  It’s not the ‘very well, thank-you’ but the sick, that Jesus came to heal.

As you can see, I haven’t quite shaken that ‘elder brother’ lesson from my mind—the goody-goody brother that never left home but somehow still missed enjoying a healthy relationship with his dad, you know the story.  Well, being ‘good’ dies hard.  I’ve been preaching to myself this week I guess and thinking about those words of Jesus—about all heaven rejoicing far more over the one sinner repenting than over the 99 who feel they are above repentance…

The thing to be celebrated it would seem is repentance, not one’s conscientious ‘goodness’. 

I hear it in the story of the rich young ruler too, approaching Jesus confident that he’s on the right track to eternal life, just needing a bit of assurance, or one more official ‘to do’ and he’ll have it.  What assignment does Jesus give?  Sell all you’ve set your heart on and follow me.  Make me your god, not your own self-sufficiency.  It’s as if he were saying, it’s not your righteousness that matters, but mine.  There’s no premium on ‘goodness’ when it comes to gaining eternal life.  We’re not saved because of it, not favored because of it, not loved more because of it.  It’s His goodness that counts, His name that is to be hallowed, His glory that is to shine through any good that comes from our lives.

I guess that’s why Jesus was always inviting people to Himself: follow me, abide in me, take my yoke and walk with me, come to me, open the door and let me eat with you…Where did I get the idea that my calling was to ‘be good’?  How many times have I admonished my kids to do likewise? 

I came across a blog this week by Emily Freeman that set me thinking more about this business of ‘being good’: 

one thing your daughter doesn’t need you to say

It made the case for NOT pressuring our kids to be a good example!  Because this could just be a primer to believing that  “being a Christian means having it all together, saying all the “right” things, staying a few steps above everyone else.”

She pointed out that requiring our son/daughter to be a good example may set her up to become  “a person people look up to, but …[not] someone they can relate to.” It continued:

“She may be successful at managing her behavior, but she will always struggle to manage people’s opinions.”

“She may have a great reputation, but her character will be clouded with bitterness and anger.”

“She may be a good church-goer, but she will not know how to be a good friend.”

“This may keep her out of trouble, but it will suffocate her soul.”

The author seemed to read my objections (and perhaps yours) “But what about holiness?”  What about being a light in a dark place?  She then points us back to the reality of whose goodness we’re representing.

What’s the alternative to ‘being good’ on the outside and keeping a lid on the rest ‘for example’s sake’?  What truth is missed in this scenario?  Precisely this, that: “Her light comes from Jesus, not from her awesome behavior.”

I found this to be good food for thought, not just for my daughters (and sons) but for myself. Because so easily being ‘good’ can be about my reputation, my appearance, my credentials, my standing before people. Being known as ‘nice’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘quiet’ or any of those bland descriptors used of people we hardly know…What’s the value of all that?  Does it point anyone to Jesus as the One who’s so incredibly good that I owe all I am to Him?

And I sit sipping my tea with all these thoughts as a backdrop.  I pore over my frustrations at not knowing what to do to ‘fix’ situations, at not feeling sufficient for those who ‘need’ me to ‘do something’.  I find myself wishing this knocking were more audible and this conversation over tea with Jesus more literal.  But maybe that’s what faith is for?

It’s soon time to get up and get breakfast going whether I’ve got the advice I’d hoped for or not.  I didn’t, at least I didn’t think so at the time.  But one thing I take away from this encounter with the Living Word is that I think I’m always meant to need Him. Never meant to think myself ‘good enough’ or responsible enough  to do life without Him, never intended to bear the weight of that, to close the door and sort things out in solitude-- doing my best to figuring out what to say, what to ‘do’ because surely somebody’s got to do something(!). I’m not meant to rely on my cleverness or find answers by scratching my own head! 

Could it be He hasn’t called me to be ‘good’ (or clever or responsible)  but to be open to Him, to be ever dependent--inviting Him into my messes, to be ever repentant and forgiven, to be ever listening for His voice.

Mercifully, He keeps knocking when I forget these things.  He’s seems intent on sharing His life with me.

--LS

"I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, "Take this, and divide it among yourselves.” …"This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Lk.22:15-20 

“Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live;” Is.55:2,3

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
I Pet.1:8,9

“But you are…a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” I Pet.2:9

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You may want to visit Emily at www.chattingatthesky.com  She has some timely words of grace for the ‘good girl’ in need of relief. Her article, “One thing your daughter doesn’t need you to say” is here.

May 11, 2013

Good News for the ‘Elder Brother’

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Do you see him there, off to the side?

It's the big brother, the one with the piously crossed hands, the unfeeling eyes, the 'upright' posture, looking on unmoved as his father welcomes his filthy 'prodigal' brother home.

The prodigal's unsatisfying profligate lifestyle drove him back to the Father but what about his big brother?

What's to be done for him?

The story of the prodigal's return is much celebrated. Songs have been composed, great artwork created, movies made, and books written, all in celebration of the returned prodigal. But what about the older brother? The story is after all, the story of two sons-- "There was a man who had two sons." What's to become of the second son? He didn't leave home on a wild impulse to spend his inheritance. He kept the home fires burning. He was an obedient son. He didn't ask for much apparently. But oh the sense of entitlement he's nurtured!

It seems to me, most of us are born with the propensity toward being either a prodigal or the big brother (sister) to one. We give a lot of thought and pity to prodigals. Their return is a cause of rejoicing in heaven and on earth! But what about the pious older brother? He's really not very likeable. He isn't even happy to see his brother come home. He does not share His Father's heart of compassion. He is thinking only of himself, and with these thoughts come envy and resentment. He has stayed home, denied himself worldly pleasures, done the work, postponed the reward, guarded his shekels and perhaps even anticipated being the sole heir to his father's remaining possessions. But here is this scoundrel brother. He's squandered all that was rightfully his and now he's back to beg for more. And Father's throwing him a grand party—with whose money?! He doesn't deserve it. Why doesn't anyone ever get excited over me? throw me a party? celebrate me? I'm the one who deserves it. The older brother seethes with self-righteous protest, and refuses to be dissuaded or to join the celebration. Here is the really lost son. What's to be done for him?

He too is in desperate need of the Father's mercy. Only he doesn't see it. He only has eyes for his own goodness. Not unlike the Pharisee who stood 'praying' (applauding himself) in the temple "I thank thee that I am not like other men. I fast…I tithe…" (Lk.18:11)

The younger brother had returned to the Father with a new appreciation of Home because his wealth was spent and 'he began to be in need'. The older brother hasn't yet come to such personal destitution. He's still clinging to his good track record… still assuming he's the favored son with a right to everything because he's been 'good'. But he is far from comprehending the Father's heart or finding fellowship there. He turns a sullen ear to His entreaty to come join the celebration. His pride will not let him.

What does it take to bring an elder brother back to the Father?

It is no easy road for a Pharisee. Pride is an enormous stumbling stone. Compassion and a warm welcome may draw those who recognize their personal bankruptcy but not so, a Pharisee. One who has spent his life cultivating 'righteousness' of a sort feels little need of a Saviour. To admit failure feels like personal suicide. To remain oblivious to it requires increasing blindness and hardness of heart. What does it take to convince a Pharisee of the error of his ways?

For Saul (later named Paul) it took a blinding confrontation that knocked him to his knees and commanded his attention. Humbling. Later despite his being 'as to the law, a Pharisee' and 'as to righteousness under the law, blameless' (Phil. 3:5,6) he would profess to being the 'chief' of sinners (I Tim.1:15), and would claim all his merits as rubbish compared to knowing Jesus and sharing in His righteousness by faith.

For Nicodemus, it took watching Jesus' life and having a pointed late-night conversation with Him: "You must be born again." Later he would share the task and expense of wrapping Jesus' body with linen and costly spices. It appears he too had come to believe and to love Jesus.

Other Pharisees would eventually find their way from arrogant self-righteousness to acknowledging their need of forgiveness. But it was no easy road.

It often called for shock treatment to penetrate their resistant veneer. Consider Jesus' own words addressed to the Pharisees:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Mt.3:7

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness." Mt.23:27

"Woe to you, blind guides." Mt.23:16

“You fools and blind men!"  Mt. 23:17

“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?" Mt.23:33

“Woe to you! For you are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it.”Lk.11:44

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. " Jn.8:44

Then there were Jesus' custom-made parables. This story of a father and his two sons is the third in a trio of parables about lost and found things, about the repentance of sinners and the unparalleled joy their return brings the Father. Jesus told these specifically for the Pharisees and scribes, in response to their grumbling at how He mingled with tax collectors and 'sinners'.

He explained first in terms of sheep, likening the finding of a lost one to the repentance of a sinner. "I tell you," He said, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance". What were they to make of these statements? They considered themselves righteous and worthy of great honor, clearly above needing repentance, not like these 'sinners' with whom Jesus preferred to keep company. They were offended. Jesus seemed to be putting a premium on repentance… not 'righteousness'. What was He implying?

The next tale was of a long-lost coin being found. He drove it home again with this idea of all the angels in heaven rejoicing, not over one 'righteous' Pharisee but over 'one sinner who repents'. (Lk.15:10)

And the grand finale was this story of a man and his two sons. (Luke 15:11ff) This time the Pharisees are symbolically painted into the picture as the 'elder brother' who sullenly stood by as his long-lost brother was welcomed home after squandering his inheritance on wild living. This time they too are winsomely addressed as the Father comes to personally entreat his bitter son to join the celebration also. He listens to the son's grievances: I've served you these many years. I've never disobeyed your commands. And I've never been given even a goat for a barbecue with my friends. But when this 'no-good' son of yours decides to come home you kill the fatted calf for him!

Then the Father offers his offended son a fresh perspective, reminding him of how much more he has had all along, but somehow missed seeing: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (Lk.15:31) How is a party and a fattened calf more enviable than living with the Father all along and sharing all He owns? How is riotous living and its bitter consequences something to be envied? How is this sullen, jealous response fitting on such a day?! It makes sense only to the self-righteous son and the story ends without indicating whether he had a change of heart. And the Pharisees to whom it was told are faced with themselves and their very lost condition.

Will they see themselves in the story and come to their senses? The story leaves me wondering which is the harder redemption? that of a sinner who has come to his senses and knows who he is, or that of a sinner deceived by his own valiant efforts into thinking himself above the need for forgiveness?

One has 'blown it' and is well aware he does not deserve to be called a son. He is aware of his unworthiness and has little expectation of acceptance. But still he trusts the Father and returns humbly. This one the Father welcomes home and forgives.

The other, exalted by avoidance of his particular list of 'sins', thinks himself worthy of sonship, sees no need of forgiveness and so remains himself estranged from the Father while he strives to be 'good' on his own.

He's not much fun to be around. He's got a nasty arrogant attitude. What a kill-joy besides! Who wants him at the party? What kind of guy is this that he can't even get excited when his little brother comes home? Truth is, he's miserable. He cannot live up to his own standards and he knows it. His own failure drives him to compare himself with others, to judge and to condemn. He bolsters his ego based on his own biased evaluations, turning a blind eye to his own heart. He's not happy, and certainly not joyful. Counting on his own goodness to commend him to the Father is not working out. He needs just what that 'no-good' brother of his needed—forgiveness and a change of heart.

I have a great empathy for this older brother… we have more in common than I like to admit. I suspect he was born a 'pleaser'. He learned early that avoiding disapproval was the next best thing to actually being 'good'. Winning accolades for being such a 'good boy', he learned to play the game, and worse yet, to believe that he really was better than that younger brother who got all the spankings! This was the beginning of the slippery slope of pride. He chose to do the 'right' things, but for the wrong reasons. He chalked up his good conduct as 'brownie points' making him superior to most everybody else. He formulated a list of 'do's and 'don'ts and a suspicion of all things pleasurable. These were usually deferred earning him more points for 'righteousness'. And soon he was sure he was entitled to his inheritance; he'd earned it after all.

Hmmm… just my hypothesis, based on someone I know quite well.

And what's to be done for such an elder brother? Why, the same thing that was done for the younger brother. He needs to come humbly to the Father bringing words of repentance. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…" And the rest will be the Father's doing—the robe of righteousness, the ring of promised inheritance, the shoes of the gospel of peace…and the fattened calf and the celebration. And I'm invited to join in because the Father has invited me too. This is the Gospel, and it keeps on being good news for me!

"The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued…that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less. I don't need to notice myself—how I'm doing, how I'm being regarded—so often." –Tim Keller in The Reason for God, p.187.

--LS

"For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, Hear; O Lord, forgive…for your own sake, because your people are called by your name." Daniel 9:18

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Mt.11:28-30

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Phil.3:12

May 4, 2013

Manna for now

The sheets are swishing in the washing machine. Toast and tea, ‘Honey Bunches’ and blueberries fill my belly. Friday’s newspaper is strewn on the living room floor. Remnants of school work--civics papers, a life science text-- are plunked about the room. All awaiting clean-up. Here it is, Saturday and I’ve missed my self-imposed deadline for posting.  I’ve been thinking about manna all week… wrestling with its implications.  Considering what happens when manna is not enough. Likening that to the craze for ‘more’ that so often parades as spirituality…and studying this allegory of desert living vs. entering the Promised Land.  I haven’t resolved all the questions in my mind but I’ll offer you my thoughts for what they’re worth… (and please know, I welcome yours in return!)*

What got me thinking about manna in the first place?  It was this question of what do we hope for and where these hopes can take us that got me thinking about the Israelites in the desert.  Their hearts were set on things they did not have, giving rise to cravings that were not in keeping with God’s agenda for them at that time.  They always seemed to want more than what God had given.

Take for example the manna.  It was a miraculous daily provision perfectly suited to sustain them for their temporary travel through the wilderness.  It was tasty. It came when they needed it, in just the right quantity. It was never stale, always fresh.  But it got boring, ‘same old’. Instead of gathering it each morning in grateful awe they succumbed to craving more. "Oh that we had meat to eat!" they complained.

Is this so very different from the modern distaste for the written Word of God?  In liberal teaching it’s received with skepticism as the ‘product of human culture’ that must be rightly interpreted by those ‘in the know’ and never taken too seriously or held too dearly. Those who do are thought superstitious ignoramouses.  In hyper-charismatic teaching God’s written Word has become pass√©, not meriting serious study.  What’s needed is new revelation, something different, something more powerful, more relevant, more meaningful to me, today. Those who study and  rely on the written Word with zeal are called ‘Pharisees’.

But getting back to the wilderness story...why this propensity to want more?  I suppose the roots lie in our natures.  Firstly, we were made for ‘more than this’.  We were designed to live in Eden, walking and talking with God.  Instead we live in an accursed world, the realm of a wicked prince… But secondly, this craving for more is inherent in us as fallen creatures. Wanting more is part of possessing a carnal nature.  We shan’t shake it till we truly live in Paradise.  But we can deny it its desires.  We can short-circuit its cravings. 

The ‘children of Israel’ demonstrate how NOT to do this.  They entertained thoughts of the ‘good old days’ in Egypt—of the melons and cucumbers…They looked back to bondage instead of forward to the promised land flowing with milk and honey and they decided they were being treated badly.  Their discontent matured into whining and the results were disastrous.

Fire fell, consuming many. Meat was granted, but with it 'leanness of soul'. (Ps.106:15) God saw their attitudes as 'rejecting the Lord who is among you'. They were not merely disdaining the 'same old thing' for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they were rejecting the sufficiency of God's provision. So He granted them their carnal desires. They got meat, till it made them sick! And with it came a great plague. The place became known as Kibroth-hattaavah, "graves of craving". And their story was written down for all posterity to heed.

What if instead of bemoaning their misfortunes they had actually believed better things were coming and then set their minds on them, in patient hope?  What if they had chosen to live as if this wilderness lifestyle was short-term? What if they had set their eyes on the place God was leading them instead of the here and now?  Our desires will be fueled or controlled according to our mindsets.  “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” Rom. 8:6 What we have our hearts set on as needful for happiness will determine whether we find satisfaction or discontent in this lifetime. Fulfillment or futility.

The deep significance of this manna that God provided becomes clearer in the New Testament when Jesus likens HIMSELF to the manna that came down from Heaven. (Jn.6) He invites his followers to eat of him and find life. The manna is a type of Christ's life given for our sustenance. No wonder rejecting it was so significant! Jesus is God's answer to man's need, still. There is no other source of life. There is nothing more.  What are we saying when we demand more than this? When we clamor for heaven on earth? When we pout over temporary trials? When we bank on satisfaction in this lifetime. We have already been given eternal life! This life is in the Son and it is abundant though not in the way the world defines.  We may live in poverty, traipsing about in sheepskins, hated and jeered (imagine!) but we will still be loved, indwelt by God Himself, provided everything needed for godliness.  Is this enough or must we have… physical comfort? happiness? prosperity? plenty? Something MORE?! What do we treasure most? That's where our hearts will be.

It’s popular Christian thinking that we can ‘have it all’,  but Esau underlines the trade-off we make in so thinking.  You remember, he came in hungry from the hunt and smelled that savory pot of stew cooking.  He told himself he’d died if he didn’t have some.  There was no patient waiting for him.  He must have it now.  And he traded his future hope, his very birthright, for a pot of soup, thus meriting the description of ‘immoral and godless’, since he ‘for one morsel of meat sold his birthright’.  So silly he seems from our vantage point.  But do I too suffer from this same short-sightedness?  What do I really want?  It will show in the little choices I make day to day.

I am literally quite short-sighted, and even this part of my vision is failing with age.  This makes it hard to appreciate things far-off (without corrective lenses).  Life can become very small when we see this way.  I think this is what has happened to the Body of Christ as well.  With, post-War prosperity came a satisfaction with this world’s things.  And talk of the soon return of Jesus and of Heaven was supplanted by strategies to be whole and happy in this lifetime.  Varying strains of Christianity took this up to varying degrees and with differing emphases, but overall, we stopped seeing death as an entrance into Life and we stopped singing songs about heaven and eagerly waiting for Jesus to come back…

By contrast Jesus lived consciously to fulfill God’s plan for Him on this earth but never as if it were his only chance at life.  Then he submitted to  an ‘untimely’ death (think of all the people he could have healed had he prolonged his ministry years!).  He endured the deprivations of this lifetime and the tortures of dying ‘for the joy set before Him’. Heb.12:2 There was purpose in it all.  He learned obedience through the things He suffered. He postponed the taste of glory for the cross, humbling himself even to death. In the same way, we are called to live purposefully and faithfully now in the midst of thwarted desires and inevitable misfortunes with a mind set on the hopes of eternity.  Only with such a mindset can we hope to escape the allurements for ‘more’ that creep in on every side, even masquerading as spiritual notions.  Only in this way will we avoid falling for deceptions that always appeal to our unmet desires.

Think about it, this is the lethal draw of illicit romance, of cults, and of every false teaching. Each in its own way tells us what we wanted to hear, leads us to believe things that we want to be true, and in so doing distracts or even derails us from the purposes of God for our life in the here and now, with a view to the hereafter. 

Deception is deceptive. It looks good, sounds true, makes us feel alive—but it has nothing to offer the one who’s satisfied in Jesus. God’s provision of His Son, the Word made flesh, and His written Word, the revelation and record of His Son, will get us through the wilderness of this lifetime.  It is enough.  When the Israelites saw the flakes of manna like snow fallen from heaven they asked, ‘What is it?’  Jesus answers… ‘This is my body, broken for you.’  Take eat. Lk 22:19 ‘Whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.’ (Jn.6:57)  Here’s a hope we can count on.  And oh the places we will go!

--LS

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. I Pet.1:13

“By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.  And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge,  and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness,  and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.

The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins.

So, dear brothers and sisters,  work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
II Pet.1:3-11

"But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” II Peter3:13

[* Your comments are always welcomed, and always read  In love ]