Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ministry is Extravagant (or so it would seem)

It's been occurring to me lately: Ministry is extravagant, from anything humanity can actually physically assess. There's nothing we can point to that can prove that ministry is worthwhile. This is on my mind because our church leadership has made a ministry decision that for our little church is somewhat extravagant--from our perspective. Of course, none of us really can measure the eternal good that our actions might take, what enormous fruit that obedience to God might bear. That usually doesn't become apparent in this life, but hopefully in the one to come. Even with this in mind, I've gone back and forth in my opinion about our church leadership's decision; but even indecisive as I am, I tend to think the better decision is the more expensive one.
We all decide what to do with our time, money, belongings, relationships, opportunities of various sorts--sometimes we choose to invest in the present day. Sometimes we save for our own futures. Sometimes we waste our resources in ways that don't bring any return of any beneficial sort. Sometimes we make a sacrifice in faith that God is working in our hearts to accomplish His will. His will has to do with eternal things, with the salvation of souls and with His glory being shown on the earth.
But we can't prove that there is any good in doing what we feel is God's will for us. God doesn't write it on a banner for all to see, what choice He wants us to make for His will; He writes it on our hearts instead. If we choose to justify the investments we make to someone who doesn't share our faith, we have to make temporal decisions that we can point to, or they will be dissatisfied. We can never quantify and justify the outcome of a spiritual sacrifice.
Even having a church, and a pastor, would by secular standards be considered extravagant. We can't even prove that God exists. The benefit may show in our lives, but it can't be quantified, and it can't be proven that knowing God is a true state of things rather than our imagination. We know it, we trust and have hope and faith, but we don't have the words that will convince all humanity that it's valid.
It reminds me of Mary, who poured the bottle of pure nard on Jesus shortly before His crucifixion. The difference was that at that time, she had Jesus physically present, vocally approving her work to those around her who doubted. As a result of her sacrifice, Jesus was pleased and the room was filled with the beautiful perfume of her extravagance, probably for days. And Mary's action has been remembered through these thousands of years from that time.
May choices in my life be so extravagant! May I make decisions that I can't validate to all humanity. May unbelievers wonder at what would motivate the things I do! May it cause them to consider God's worth. May Jesus' approval ring in my heart. I suspect that in eternity I will find that my most sacrificial choices are the only good investments I ever made.

My Cross Necklace is a Reminder of Hope

I have a cross necklace that I put on this morning. I don't wear it all that often, and it needed polishing since it had tarnished somewhat. There are those who say that it is wrong to wear a cross necklace, but I disagree. They say it is like wearing an electric chair pendant around one's neck; I can't really say. I know that both are instruments of death, to exercise justice toward the most vile criminals. One is antiquated and one is modern-day. They have their similarities, to be sure. But there is one vast difference.
The electric chair has only been in existence in recent times. It has been used to kill many people who were declared guilty of heinous sins, murderous deeds. It may even have been used unjustly; maybe some who have been executed with it were innocent of the crimes for which they were accused. In that case, it would bear resemblance to the cross of which my necklace is a reminder. But it still wouldn't be an exact similarity.
I don't know of any outstanding stories regarding the electric chair, though I imagine there may be some. I know that no one that was sinless died in an electric chair, and that no Son of God died in an electric chair. I don't know very many stories about people crucified that have come down through the ages, either. But I know of one famous story, and that one has changed my life, and for that I wear my cross necklace as a reminder. If Jesus had died for my sins, sinless Himself, giving His life willingly and freely for me before I had even known to love Him, and the instrument He died upon were the electric chair, if the purpose in His dying was to release me from the penalty of my sins, and for that He underwent electrocution, and as a result I was reconciled with God, then the electric chair and not the cross would be my symbol of hope, of faith, of love--of God's ultimate sacrifice for an unworthy humanity.
There is a cult that insists that Jesus did not die on a cross, that He died on a stake. For some reason they think that the instrument makes a difference. I suspect that the cross is just too sure a reminder of the truth of the story and they want to make changes in order to cast doubt on the true version of God's word. Their insistence, and their change, makes no difference to me; if I were convinced that it were a stake, and if Jesus had died on it as the sinless Son of God, Immanuel (which means, God with us), for sinful me, then I might have a stake dangling from my necklace. I am convinced it was a cross, and that is what will remain on my necklace. Not an electric chair, not a stake; and if I were to pick another symbol of His love, what would I pick? I can't think of any other that better relates the crux of my hope.
So if you see my cross necklace, don't think that I have a sick fascination with death, with punishment, with torture; I don't. I see in the necklace a beauty that is not at the surface of His death, not focused on the pain and humiliation itself, but a beauty that is in His heart for humanity. I see beauty in His sacrifice, in the eternal hope that He secured for us. And the cross is the instrument not only of His death, but our hope. Satan couldn't keep a sinless Christ in the grave; Jesus rose from the dead and demonstrated His power over sin and death. He is risen, He is victorious! As a result, I have hope and peace that comes from knowing that God loves even me, enough to send His own Son to the cross, to bring me to relationship with Him, and eventually to heaven. Hallelujah! Blessed be the name of the Lord! Amen!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pondering my Testimony of God's Goodness and Mercy

Yesterday Pastor Ken and I were discussing just briefly the book he had just lent me, Under the Unpredictable Plant, by Eugene Peterson, and how Peterson emphasizes the Psalms and their usefulness in prayer. Because of the book, I have been reading more in the Psalms than usual, and I hope to make this a continual habit. So this morning, with the Bible open to Psalms, I was reading, and stopped to think about this coming Sunday. We are going to be interviewed for membership in the church, and so that involves giving our testimonies.
I have had opportunity to give mine a couple of times lately, only to Christians, which isn't quite as fruitful, it would seem, as to unbelievers. Still, I always think it's encouraging to hear how God worked in the heart of someone to bring them to submit to Jesus' lovingkindness. Both times, lately, telling it moved me to tears. I am in awe of how God used just enough awareness of what He was doing to let me know to come to Him. I always think of it as similar to a spider's filament of webbing--you could totally miss God's calling, but some shimmer in the right light catches your vision and you realize it's there, shining and mysterious. That's how God's work in my life seems in retrospect. I didn't even know the gospel. I was unaware of the knowledge of any Bible verses, though there were some kicking around in my head. I knew only that I had to give my life for His, but I had no knowledge of what that meant. I was taking it literally. I was trying to figure out what I had and whether it was something I could give away when I didn't know what I was getting in return. I am not sure at all how I knew the tiny amount I thought I knew.
I didn't know Jesus is God. I didn't know that I had to confess that I was a sinner, though when I discovered that later, there was no hesitation in doing so. I didn't know that He stood ready to forgive me my sins. I didn't know what I'd get in return when I gave up my life. I didn't know the Old Testament from the New Testament. I had never owned a Bible. I had been part of a church for four years, but they didn't really teach the Scriptures or the gospel. Growing up, I'd been in a church about three times. When I met Gary I confessed that, thinking he'd be shocked since his dad was a pastor. I was relieved when he didn't care, saying that he didn't go to church either. When I came to Christ at 29, I can only say that it was like jumping off a cliff into the big dark unknown. I didn't know where I would fall, and what into. I can well imagine how the Israelites felt at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit!
So this morning, I was in tears again, thinking of God's great mercy, of how He could shine through the dark ignorance of such an unbeliever as I was, and draw me through into His beautiful light. And I read Psalm 103, and it starts, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities; Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit; Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle..." Amen, amen. Hallelujah, Amen!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

He Who Supplies Seed for the Sower

Last night I was pondering one of the most encouraging passages, to my thinking, in the Bible. I realized that God has set up something of a pattern in the verses where He tells us why we should do His work. But since I didn't know the reference to the one that started it all, and was too tired to get up off the couch and go to the computer or the concordance, I went through much of the New Testament trying to find it--which was good for me! In the process I found a number of other verses that I was looking for and a few more I'd forgotten--the result being that this post is chock full of Bible verses. And I don't apologize for that--it's the best part.
The favorite that got it all started was this:

Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all, while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! --2 Corinthians 9:10-15

It makes me realize that we have the privilege of clearly being a channel of God's provision, that what we can provide for others and do for His Kingdom is really vast, in spite of the fact that our lives on earth are finite--sort of like how the electricity going through a wire can continue as long as the switch is on. Our service doesn't depend on the size of our bank account, or how much food is in our fridge, or how much gas is in our car; the source is God, not ourselves. Which brings me to the perfect biblical example of this picture:

Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Him, "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?" Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." John 6:8

I could go on typing, but I think you know the story, and how it illustrates the verse above. If one boy's little loaves of bread and little bit of fish can feed the five thousand (plus their wives and kids), God is just waiting for the opportunity to show Himself off through us. Not only that, He tells us many times that He wants us to be out and about, doing His will, His work.

Whoever serves is to do so a one who serves in the strength that God supplies... 1 Peter 4:11

We are capable of providing to others beyond our own capability:

Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. 2 Corinthians 8:1-5

Our abundance, even if we have earned it, is a gift from God, not for our own good but for the good of those around us.

Our abundance a supply for their need 2 Corinthians 8:14

But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also. I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.
I give my opinion in this matter, for this is to your advantage, who were the first to begin a year ago not only to do this, but also to desire to do it. But now finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also the completion of it by your ability. For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality--at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality; as it is written, "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack."
2 Corinthians 8:7-15

The pattern I was realizing as I thought about this first verse was that in many cases, God asks us to give because of what we have already received at His hand.

What do you have that you did not receive? 1 Corinthians 4:7b

...bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. ... Colossians 3:13

We love because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19

Sometimes He isn't stressing what we have already received, but even better, what we have been promised that we will someday receive--maybe even in the here and now as well:

"Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, 'How have we robbed You?' In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes," says the LORD of hosts. "All the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land," says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:8-12

But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.
And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:18-19

Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. Colossians 3:23-24

"Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions." Mark 11:25

Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:6-7

Sometimes it states both reasons--because of what we have received and because of what will be given--which really apply in all cases anyway:

"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure--pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return." Luke 6:35-38

When we don't do what God intends, it brings others to have to fill the gap:

Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me. Philippians 2:29-30

And the utmost reason to be active in His service,

"The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' Matthew 25:40

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Crux of the Matter

I've always meant to post this pondering that I came upon. We all know the usual, everyday, modern use of the word crux, or crucial. "It's crucial that I get my paycheck today." "The crux of the matter is that I can support my family." A crucial matter is anything central, vital, important. So I looked up these words at just to confirm and articulate what seemed clear already, but what I think society as a whole forgets or disregards:

Audio Help /krʌks/ –noun, plural crux·es, cru·ces; Audio Help /ˈkrusiz/
1. a vital, basic, decisive, or pivotal point: The crux of the trial was his whereabouts at the time of the murder.
2. a cross.
3. something that torments by its puzzling nature; a perplexing difficulty. [Origin: 1635–45; <>crucial] —Synonyms 1. essence, heart, core, gist. Unabridged (v 1.1)Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

cru·cial Audio Help /ˈkruʃəl/ Spelled Pronunciation[kroo-shuhl] –adjective 1. involving an extremely important decision or result; decisive; critical: a crucial experiment. 2. severe; trying. 3. of the form of a cross; cross-shaped. [Origin: 1700–10; <>cross + -al1]
—Related forms cru·ci·al·i·ty
Audio Help /ˌkruʃiˈælɪti, kruˈʃæl-/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[kroo-shee-al-i-tee, kroo-shal-] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation, noun cru·cial·ly, adverb —Synonyms 1. momentous, vital, essential, significant. Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

In the big picture of life there is a crux, a crucial decision, a pivoting point around which all the rest of life hinges. And what would that be? Why is the word crux from cross, or crucifixion? Why, for that matter, is the very number of the year in which we live based on the one most famous crucifixion of all? You could say that the beginning of our conscious tracking of time focused on the very crux of our existence, the source of all hope for humanity, the fountain of all wisdom, the way to a relationship with God Himself.
The crux of all history was when Jesus offered up His life on the cross so that we who trust in Him might have salvation: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved" (John 16:31). Jesus said, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5). I remember being told before I was a believer, using this passage, that apart from God, I could do nothing. I recognized that this verse was true in my own life. I knew that everything that I tried was resulting in futility: I couldn't fix my relationships, finances, various life problems, and the more I tried to do so the more they got messed up. Even practically and temporally speaking, my life exhibited the truth of this verse. It means much more than that, though! It really refers to how we cannot even start a relationship with God when we don't trust in Jesus Christ. All of our eternal life, all of our doings, everything only has the intended purpose when it is done through the strength of Jesus Christ. That's why He says to abide in Him.
At the same time that I was told that apart from God I could do nothing, I was also told that
"Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy" (John 10:10). I also believed this, because so much in my life was being destroyed. What a couple of strange verses to use to bring someone to Christ! It isn't my whole story, by any means, but those two verses made me realize why trusting in my own power was not working. Those verses along with many other clarifications that I was receiving at that time helped me to make the crucial decision to trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus also said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me." (John 14:6)
. He is the one and only path to a relationship with God the Father. My life has been changed completely even here on earth; that is nothing in comparison to the change in my eternal hope! Jesus' cross is the crux of human history; trusting in it is crucial for hope and peace, for relationship with God. Trusting in Jesus' salvation, in His ability and desire to provide you with forgiveness of all your sin, is the most crucial thing a person can do.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Joy of Simple Faith

In pondering the changes we have experienced over the last year, I realize how the heavens have opened up for me and this may have been the most joyful year of my existence, other than in the times surrounding giving birth. We are in a joy-filled place. It's not a matter of family circumstances in and of themselves: Gary's job situation still has its uncertain aspects to it, which only reminds me of all the times in the past that God has been faithful. We have the same house which still has an overwhelming amount of work remaining to be done before we can put it on the market--which we want to do, to find a house that won't own us so much. This one takes more care than we care to care about. So it isn't job or house. We have the same kids, who still love (and at times love to provoke) each other, one of whom is still in college, one of whom is still homeschooling. So those things haven't changed. I am still an at-home mom, still beset (alas) by the same physical and character flaws more or less that I've had for some time; still not too gifted at that hasn't changed. The weather is still prone to be rainy throughout what is still supposed to be summer (though at the moment the sun is shining on my inexplicably crispy lawn).
Our faith is in the same God. Our Bible is the same Bible. Our church is...well, that is a change! That is a change, and we are helped. I can't put my finger on exactly what-all makes me rejoice in it...maybe because there are too many aspects and I don't have enough fingers to cover them. I love the congregation (though I did before as well). I love the dilapidated building (though when I first saw it, it gave me pause). I love the freedom. What freedom is that? I'm not sure, it seems that it's a feeling the source of which I can't exactly pinpoint. I think it may be the feeling that there's not a church standard, a church culture, apart from the Scriptures that I have to adopt and live up to. Instead, I am gradually learning to shed the cultural norms that I have adopted as part of my faith that really have nothing to do with it. And when we do something in the church, our pastor is quick to make sure that our motivation is right; he doesn't want us motivated out of duty, obligation, fear, guilt...for that I am thankful. It is a beautiful feeling; I feel unhindered, like I could fly, for the joy that I have these days.
It affected my Bible reading this morning. I was reading in the Psalms, and connecting with them. They have a magnified dimension, such a personal, heartfelt interaction.
I waited patiently for the LORD;
And He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay,
And He set my feet upon a rock, making my footsteps firm.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God;
Many will see and fear
And will trust in the LORD.
How blessed is the man who has made the LORD his trust,
And has not turned to the proud, nor to those who lapse into falsehood.
Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders which You have done,
And Your thoughts toward us;
There is none to compare with You.
If I would declare and speak of them,
They would be too numerous to count.
Psalm 40:1-5

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Teaching of Kindness is on her Tongue...

Proverbs 31:10-31 is a passage that is often recited as the quintessential description of a godly woman. And who can argue? If I could live up to half of it, I would be happy. The thing that I find interesting is that this is not a woman who is quietly living at home, without making a ripple in her society. She is not holed up in the house, attending to vacuuming the carpets and making the beds and then just spending the rest of the day reading, daydreaming or worrying, avoiding the "worldliness" that might attack her the minute she goes out the front, she is out there making contact with people, doing business, being productive, interactive, energetic, joyful. She seems like a very modern person--which indicates that this description is beautifully timeless, when you consider that it was written thousands of years ago.
Until she expresses herself, you might think that the Proverbs woman is just any modern-day working woman, making money to support the family and being very much "liberated" and not bound up in old-fashioned thinking. But wait...there's more! There is an ancient source of thought that is her source of motivation, and that is her faith in God. She is not doing this work out of anxiety or obligation; she smiles at the future. What is there in the future to smile about? Is it merely that she trusts in her own preparations? Not in the least. When she opens her mouth, "she opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue." This is evidence of her faith, of her hope in God, if nothing else is. The words that pour forth from her are wise, and they are kind. Kindness doesn't come from a vacuum, it comes from the work of the Holy Spirit actively working in one's heart. As our pastor's wife Kit pointed out, there is a difference between being kind and being nice; kindness is the true fruit of the Spirit, and niceness can be the world's substitute, its counterfeit, for kindness, because niceness doesn't come from goodness in the heart so much as for a desire for friendly interaction. (I maintain that there's nothing wrong with being nice, as long as it doesn't exclude being kind and gentle. Not that I have obtained on...)
My pondering of Proverbs 31 didn't come just out of nowhere. I have been pondering how kind I am, and found myself miserably wanting. "The teaching of kindness is on her tongue" came to mind while I was mourning my recent lack of kindness. There are times, especially in relating to my family, when my words or actions could not be described as kind. I sometimes attempt to justify this in my own mind with the ways that I was provoked into unkindness, a justification that doesn't work since Jesus says to "turn the other cheek"--and yet, that is probably my worst area of failure regarding being kind. But God, being rich in mercy, recently taught me that it doesn't take any flaw on the other person's part for me to be unkind. It only takes a teaspoon of pride for me to fall into this nastiness. It doesn't take a person provoking me. It doesn't take a person embarrassing me. It doesn't take anything but my deceptive and prideful heart. 1 Corinthians 13:3 says, "If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing." Now, I can't imagine a person surrendering their body to be burned except in a most amazing expression of love. How would that happen? So a person can come close to appearing loving (if only in their own mind), but still miss the mark. Earlier in the chapter, in 13:1, it says that "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." A noisy gong or a clanging cymbal are two sources of irritating, interrupting impact. Hardly the goal of love.
So here, pondering the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5:22, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." There is no law against them. Having a law against the fruit of the Spirit would be like my telling a family member that they must not help with the housework, when they are physically healthy and able. There is no law against doing what is good and helpful. What is wrong with my spiritual fruit tree if it is missing some of the fruit? If the fruit is there, but tiny and undeveloped, why is that? What can I do to change it? How can I become more kind, more gentle? I need to guard my tongue. I need to pray for God's help. I need to practice kindness and gentleness, being diligent to present myself approved to God. I need to rely on God, and go forth and work it out myself as well. I need to watch against my own pride that not only acts against others' lack but in its own little nasty self-seeking world. I need to not make excuses when I fail. I'm thankful that God gently points out my flaws rather than taking me out of this world in my least appealing moments.
James 3:1-19 (New American Standard Bible)
New American Standard Bible (NASB) Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Faith is Foundational to Family!

Today Pastor Ken preached about Ephesians 6, regarding the armor of God. In the context, he showed, it reflects Paul's concern for protection of the Church. He at one point said that the Church was Paul's primary concern, in contrast with how some people think it would be family, or individuals. We are to bear the armor of God as part of the protection of the Church, though it doesn't mean the other would not be true and commendable as well. I would say protection of the Church results in protection of the family.
I can testify to that! Our family would not exist were it not for the faith; I wonder at so many families that function, however dysfunctionally, without Christ, and how much better and safer their lives would be with faith at the center, with a solid church as their primary support.
I remember working at Boeing and hearing the verse, "The prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). I remember walking quite a ways from my work area, to a man I hardly knew--but I knew he was a Christian. I asked him to pray for our family, and I recited the verse to him. I then went back to my seat. That was shortly before I was a believer. Shortly after that, I came to faith.
Shortly after that, thanks to the recommendation of the woman in charge of our women's retreat with our church (which was the first church we attended, but I only came to Christ shortly before we changed churches, and my husband was not a believer there), I prayed that God would take the burden I was dealing with, trouble with my mother-in-law, and help me, because I could not understand what was going on.
The next day, in discussion with my in-laws, who (unbeknownst to me) my husband had invited over, we reached an impasse at all efforts to come to some agreement to work things out. I remember thinking that the only solutions in my hand were divorce or suicide. (I was only a brand-new Christian at this point.) Within minutes of that, I found out that my mother-in-law had been diagnosed two years previously with Alzheimers. I was the first in the family that my secretive father-in-law told, because it had affected our family in the worst way. Knowing that enabled me to understand so much, and excuse my mother-in-law for the hostility that I could attribute to her disease--I could forgive her, even though it still took a long time to fully do so. So faith saved our marriage and family at that point. Praise God!
A few years later I was pregnant and had gone in for an ultrasound, and left on a trip. While we were in Portland, I called the doctor who had been frantically trying to get a hold of me. She told me there over the phone that she thought I had an "ectopic" pregnancy and that I should terminate it, or could bleed to death--this, even though I thought I'd found a pro-life doctor. I wasn't about to. Any time I thought of doing so, I was disturbed. Whenever I thought there was no way I could do that, I had complete peace. I read through Psalm 139 many times in those days. Two weeks later another ultrasound revealed that it wasn't ectopic after all. It was a very tough pregnancy over all, and we weren't sure he would make it to birth, but our church was praying for our baby. Our ten-year-old son Tim is a testimony that faith is primary to family. Faith in Christ certainly was crucial in bringing him into our family unscathed.
As we drove home we discussed these things. Tim didn't realize that our marriage had been saved because of our faith; then he was reminded of his beginnings, and he thanked me for sparing his life--though it wasn't me, it was only by God's grace that his life was spared. Who knows how many of our family's stories of God's provision and protection he has not heard, or was too young to remember? I'm going to have to go over them with him again, and make sure he knows how our family can personally testify in so many ways to God's infinite goodness!
The Church is our family, in the most eternal sense and in many temporal ways as well. The Church is crucial to family and individual health. If the Church had not been protected over the last 2,000 years, but had succumbed to Satan's schemes, I would have made some horrible decisions. Our family would not be a unit any more; I might not be here; Tim would certainly not be here. Bearing the armor of God is for protection of the Church. Protection of the Church is family protection; it is self-protection. It is God's will, above all that, and in part, we might assume, because of all that.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Gradual Transformation and a Self-Examination

If you've read much of my other writings about our little church, you may have gathered that it is in a pretty dilapidated state. I haven't fully blogged regarding what its problem is. About 50 years ago, I gather, it burned. The church had no insurance and rebuilt with what they had. Because it wasn't a wealthy church, they built it poorly with cinderblock, unreinforced with any rebar. Over the years the walls have become troubled with moisture leakage, and therefore within the walls, within the cinderblocks, we have mold and mildew. (This doesn't show visibly very much on the walls, but there are places where the odor of it gets kind of strong sometimes, and affects some members of the congregation more strongly than others.)
The congregation has been planning to build, but with some frustration over gaining road access to the beautiful property that one couple kindly gave the church. With plans to build, and a small congregation, there hasn't been much interest, energy or money to maintain the building we have, especially since the structure itself will probably be of no value when we sell; only the property. Still, with no particular building timeline in view, I've been praying for vision and clarification, and working on painting the inside, with help from three others, and we're getting a work party together to fix up some of the outside grout so that the outside also can be pressure-washed and painted.
It seems to me that God's hand has been very strongly favorable toward getting these things done. I've had unusual time, energy, and free paint, even in the right neutral, clean and cheery colors--the neighboring city has a program that recycles paint to avoid having it in the dump. Also, we lived in a 1907 fixer-upper house for 17 years where I learned how to research and repair things; I know and understand some of what old buildings are about and what it is to paint. It has occurred to me, to my delight, that God is using that 17 year experience for His Kingdom now. So I've been there a lot painting. Still, I end up getting a little extreme. I work and get a little overexuberant, a little strident maybe, lately, in my desire to see it as fixed up as we can do--not bossing anyone around, just poking around more than anyone is used to, and trying to find any place where a mold problem can be easily fixed (since reducing its odor was one of my main motivations).
I think our pastor looks a little askance at all this activity and change, though I was hoping it would encourage him. (And I think it has, except when he sees me a little overly absorbed in it.) He preached on Mary and Martha last Sunday. It just occurred to me now, was that a hint? (Surely not...) Still, I don't think anyone in the world has heard me breathe one complaint, one "Why don't you make Mary get up and help me?" No, I haven't. I love every brushstroke, every roller stroke; if "Mary" wants to help, it's great, but I'm having fun on my own. It's so gratifying to see so much change in so little time!
Still, when Pastor came down to help me by getting a dehumidifier out to dry up some moisture I'd left by cleaning a wall, I walked through with him and discussed various issues along the way. I realized I was making him somewhat nervous. He never makes me nervous (probably never makes anyone nervous, at least unless they should have reason to be) and I was sorry to think I'd troubled him. He pointed out later that I should make sure I'm getting my work orders at the feet of Jesus. Another link between Mary, Martha, and me. Mainly, I think, Martha and me. (Sigh.)
So if I've been praying pretty continually regarding all the work, but then getting a little strident as I go, I think something is getting mixed up. Am I dropping His orders and filling my own? Are my motivations wrong? I felt Pastor's nervousness meant I'd been lacking for the right attitude and trampling toes some, though I had been thoroughly enjoying the work; actually getting kind of excited because some plans were becoming actualized and things were going so well. I just have to be careful how I affect others along the way, and that I go in His strength and not my own.
I hope to get a picture of the church as it is (didn't take any before-pictures of the inside) to post, and then post one after it's painted so we can compare before and after shots regarding the outside paint job. It's a great little building, in my mind, though probably just because I associate it with how great it is to be there on Sunday mornings. It's the best! I'd rather we'd keep that little building than have a towering cathedral, if the people inside had to be different too.
I asked Pastor today at church whether I had indeed made him nervous, trampled his toes, so to speak...and he said no, that his main concern was that I was actually getting my orders from Christ. So all is good, and I just imagineth too much. Praise God!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Life-long School of Prayer

When I was growing up, I knew three prayers. They all were poetic in nature. First was my going-to-bed prayer, which you no doubt have heard if not been taught as a child to say, and my mother added her own sanity-saver ending to it:

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
Angels guard me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning night.
Make me a good girl, Amen.

It isn't as though my Mom really thought adding "make me a good girl" would help; she doesn't seem to put much stock in matters of faith, including prayer. I'm sure though that she thought having me request my being made good wouldn't hurt. Maybe if nothing else it would make me realize I wasn't a good girl yet. I wasn't really aware that I was so bad, though. Maybe bad in that my best of efforts really never worked out the way I intended them (a la Ramona the Pest); add to that, occasionally stealing cookies. Probably in quantity. Sure, that prayer never did any harm. Maybe it helped me come to know my need for Christ.
The next were graces. There was Daddy's grace; I loved it, because it seemed elegant. I learned later that it is a Catholic grace, though he wasn't Catholic. I don't know where he learned it:

Bless us, O Lord,
And these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Christ wasn't fully acknowledged as my Dad's Lord that I know of, but he never ate without saying grace first. I confess that I harbor a hope that God will smile on this grace-saying faithfulness of my father's, and have accepted him into heaven, though it doesn't match up with any Scripture I know, particularly. Maybe it indicates an acknowledgement of the presence of a God that he could conceivably have prayed to in the last hours of his life. I have to doubt it, but it's possible.
And the third one? You doubtless know this one too. I call a "grace" such as this a "hungry man's prayer." It goes,

God is great,
God is good,
And we thank Him for our food. Amen.

My dad let us off easy with that one. Not a lot to go on in knowing God there, though some basics are covered. It looks smaller in type than I remember it feeling when I'd say it, but it's rather pitiful, don't you think? It reminds me of all I had to go on in what God was like otherwise. We had a children's book called, Tell Me About God. I don't remember any of us ever opening the book. It had a picture of an old man's face on the front, sort of like fairy tale pictures of the West Wind. I wonder if the writer knew anything true to write in it. I don't picture God looking like the old man, thankfully--not that I can picture Him at all, anyway.
I remember visiting other people, or having them over to mealtimes, and they would pray. I don't remember specifically who, or knowing what friends held to Christian faith. I do remember thinking that since it wasn't a poem, it wouldn't be a real prayer. They seemed rambly to me, and I could never concentrate on what they were saying. I was just waiting for this non-poem to be over so that I could eat this fancy meal (usually Jell-o first).
My own prayers take so many different forms, but nothing particularly structured or poetic. My child self would have hated my prayers these days. Except when I get lazy or tired and uncreative, and then I seem to fall into the same feeble little mantras that I would expect God to take with a grain of salt, so to speak. They never rhyme, but when I'm tired they're short and I have to admit they're pretty much the same as I prayed the last time I was tired.
So now I'm reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, by Eugene Peterson. It connects pastoring with the Book of Jonah, a three-chapter book that is probably one of the best-recognized stories of all the Bible. In the midst of the Book of Jonah is Jonah's prayer that he prays while in the belly of the great fish (which I hold, against the protests of many Christians, to be a whale, because I doubt that God expected the Israelites to differentiate between marine mammals and fish--all being shaped the same, for the most part--and because I don't know of any fish that great in size, though God could certainly have overgrown a guppy, if necessary, for the sake of His will--but I digress). Peterson points out that the phrases that constitute Jonah's prayer come from the Psalms, and that the Psalms were then, and for most of history since then, the prayer-teaching book of the Bible, used by Christians until about 200 years ago for learning how to pray, learning how to talk to the Lord of earth and heaven. Our pastor's son had told us some about learning to pray from the Psalms, but I hadn't known of it being basically an institution of the faith for such continual, expected use--that it was a regular practice that most Christians would read the whole book repeatedly each month, and their own prayers would be impacted by those of David and Asaph and Solomon. Peterson points out that it was used by the Catholics as the "office"; the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican; and "the rest of us, the Psalms divided into thirty segments and prayed through monthly, whether we feel like it or not." I figured out that it would mean reading about five psalms per day in addition to our other reading--and working all of Psalm 119 into that program.
God loves to hear poetry, of that I'm convinced; there's a passage I've always found a little mysterious and never been able to fully apply in my life; I'm pretty sure most would concur:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. --Ephesians 5:18-21

I've always been intrigued to see what a society would sound like who spoke to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. All that I can think of tends to be comical, so I'm sure my understanding is thwarted on this passage. It shows how far we are from living how God would have us live, if we can't even think to communicate with one another as He would have us do.
The Psalms being poetic in nature, I guess when I was a child, my understanding of prayer was in a way more accurate than it has been these days. Maybe I was sort of right in being impatient with the "rambling" prayers I heard; God says to beware the use of "many words" (Mt 6:7). I'm sure He hears a lot of babbling going on, too little in the way of heartfelt prayer, too little that reflects a knowledge of the Scriptures. To babble less and pray more, pray better, pray more in line with the heart of God--that seems like it would be the result of knowing the Psalms and applying them in prayer. I wonder if there's a verse in Psalms about helping me be faithful in applying that intention.

Friday, August 01, 2008

I Have Another Book to Read!

If you read my blog regularly, you know that our Pastor Ken has introduced me to the books of Eugene Peterson, who is best known for the Message; I don't know him for that as well as his other books, but I think I favor the others. I had what you might call "pastor issues" from a string of churches we'd attended, and I have found that Peterson's books were very therapeutic for them; now, though, I like to read his books more just because I like his writings and can learn from them. Pastor likes his writing because Peterson too is the pastor of a small church, or at least was while he was writing, and understands the challenges and the true nature of pastoral work, which I think are very misunderstood in many churches. The first book Pastor handed me, he just wanted me to read the introduction--which was mind-blowing. I went ahead and read the book. I have read about 3 or 4 of his books since then. Lately I've felt at mental loose ends, I guess...not that there is really a definition for how I was feeling, but I think another of these books won't do any harm and might do some good! They aren't really just about pastoring. They're about faith, and in a way many of us have some "pastoring" to do in our lives, even if just with our children--and perhaps with our own thoughts, assumptions and attitudes?
So now, I'm starting Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. I have high hopes for this book, not only because of the others I have read, but because this one is based on Jonah. I like the book of Jonah, because it's amazing and amusing and Jonah is so human. If you can't relate to Jonah, I don't suppose you can relate to me either. I have a tendency to wander toward Tarshish too much of the time. I have to admit, I've never been in the belly of a whale, but I have been in some pretty dark and stinky places, with no visible way out. And I can see in retrospect that God had me right where He wanted me then, too, and just as that unappealing whale's stomach was what saved Jonah's life, so were the dark and stinky places what saved mine--I came to Christ as a result of them. I'm sure Jonah's experience changed his whole outlook in life as well; he might well have even borne some physical reminders of being partly digested by a marine animal. I'll read the book and continue my report later. Just thought you might like to know the latest!

The Love of Christian Music

Today I was driving home from dropping Katie off at work. Tim was in the back of the van; the radio was playing, and on the radio was the song "How Many Kings," by Downhere. What a beautiful song, it brings me to really think how wonderful He is even just comparing Him at a mere human level--and yet, God is so far from any mere human comparison that the song, though it brought me even then to feel worshipful as I hadn't for days--falls so short of really developing who He is and how great He is, because it only contrasts God with men. What else can you effectively contrast God with, after all? I'm not criticising it, I love the song.

At the time that it came on the radio, I was thinking about Christian songs and how they fall into some main categories--because I have been thinking to select a bunch of really great hymns for a hymn-sing (if that's how you do it? I've never been to one). Some Christian songs are worshipful because they describe how God has done so much for us--which is valid; some are worshipful because they describe who God is--which I surmise is a little less self-centered; some describe our responses to God--which I suppose is least of these three categories.
The hymns are great in that they really do a masterful job at focusing on God and less on the believer; besides, they are put together with talent, thought, insight--the words to hymns are often packed with the deep, spectacular reality of God, with thoughts that don't seem jumbled together quickly, but which seem to have the marks of long meditation. It seems that there's a higher quality in the most recent Christian composition of songs than has happened in all the 18 years I've been a believer. I love it! I love the old, I love the new, and I'm not so crazy about most stuff from the 80s and 90s.
Maybe we shouldn't only have a hymn-sing, but a just plain worship-sing too, old songs and new! Hmmm. Pondering it is half the fun! Anticipating it is another half! And then participating in it--Fun and a half!