And Coming...

"She-Bear in the Beautiful Garden" is an allegory for children of all ages, written and illustrated by Ellen Gillette. Order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20, 2010 Another Year Under a Widening Belt

“Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
“Those who obey His commands live in Him and He in them”
(I John 3:24).

Writes Max Lucado:
“Take note of the precious preposition ‘in.’ Christ isn’t just near you or for you or with you; he longs to be in you. God offers you the same Christmas gift he gave Mary-- the indwelling Christ. Christ grew in her until he came out. Christ will grow in you until the same occurs. Christ will come out in your speech, in your actions, in your decisions. Every place you live will be a Bethlehem and everyday you live will be a Christmas. You, like Mary, will deliver Christ into the world. “

What a frightening thought that for some people, the Christ I deliver to them in my words and actions could be the only Jesus they experience! This weekend I celebrated my 53rd birthday and can say with discouraging confidence that the Christ I have delivered to family, friends, and strangers over the last half-century and change is not the Christ I long to encounter at life’s end.

That Jesus is always, always merciful. I have harbored, on far too many occasions, a well-covered desire for punishment to befall those guilty of real and supposed offenses against me or my loved ones. They have it coming, don’t they?

That Jesus is always, always loving. If I’m brutally honest, there is a pitifully short list of people I have deemed worthy of my love; in contrast, Jesus’ list includes every person on the planet. I have spoken biting words of sarcasm when he would have softly whispered, “I love you even now.” I have let resentments build and boil over when his love would have …has…covered a multitude of sins (see 1 Peter 4:8).

The Jesus I want to be like is holy. Holier-than-thou isn’t the same thing, unfortunately! My sins may look, compared to some and through equally sinful eyes, not too too bad. But if the standard is Christ, his holiness shining through this weak vessel has been effectively diluted and filtered out by my cares for the world, my selfishness, my unholiness. To be holy is to be set apart, kept for God’s purposes. How many purposes have been put into place, and fulfilled, by…me? Apart from God, not set apart for him. The Bible calls all that stuff wood, hay, and stubble, destined to be burned up. Only what God has wrought in our lives will stand the test of fire (see 1 Corinthians 3:12).

The Jesus who will greet me one day loves justice. Although it seemed, growing up, that I never got away with anything, I have. If I’ve been consistently caught with my hand in the cookie jar, I owe it to God’s loving discipline, not my own desire to stick to the straight and narrow. And if people could read my thoughts, as God can, and does? As horrible as my words and actions have been for five decades, my thoughts have been far worse. I do not want justice for myself because it would mean extreme punishment, even death (see Romans 6:23).

And yet…when I was younger, I would look at my elders and sometimes hear them speak of regrets. They wished they had gone further in school, taken another job, moved to another city, married someone else. They wished they had committed their lives to the Lord sooner. They wished they had taken better care of themselves.

At 53, I would love to go back to school and further my own education—but apparently it is God’s will that I be around to help my grandkids with their homework. Instead of gaining head knowledge I may never need or use, I have the opportunity to teach them every day. My lessons aren’t always positive, but it is a positive part of life. And nothing can stop an inquisitive person from learning, whether inside university walls or not.

I missed out on a career while homeschooling and raising four children, but those years represent the happiest (and busiest) time of my life. My jobs, when I finally ventured outside the home, have been rewarding.

When I was a child, we moved from the mountains of North Carolina to Florida’s southeast coast; I grumbled the whole way, determined not to like my parent’s choice. Had the Lord not led us there, I wouldn’t have married my husband. Four wonderful children would not have been born. Ditto for three grandchildren. And who would have guessed I would travel to Jamaica, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand? That I would have preferred staying longer on foreign soil doesn’t rob the richness of our experiences.

My parents took us to church whenever the doors were open, and made sure that we were raised in an environment of unconditional love and faith. Even though I didn’t have a deep enough understanding to commit myself to Christ until I was a teenager, I know that the decision was honestly my own.

When I started writing this, I got choked up with a sense of my shortcoming and faults. Clearly, I’ve got lots of work to do…or rather, the Lord’s completed work (see Colossians 2:9, 10) may need many more years to shine through this thick skull and carnal shell. On the other hand, I’ve finished up smiling at the gracious things he has allowed me to experience. I have known mercy. I have known love. I have known the joy of accomplishing tasks and reaching goals. I haven’t been rich (by my standards) but I also haven’t been poor (again, by my standards).

I’ve fallen down more times than I care to say. But the Lord has always pulled me back up to my feet, brushed me off, and said, one more time, “Follow me.” No matter how many times he says it, it is never with impatience, as if he knew I would fall in the first place. Hmmm.

So, I guess it’s one of those paradoxes of life that while I have many, many regrets as to my own choices of behavior, I have no regrets at all in the way the Lord has led me during the last 53 years. There are things I don’t understand and will probably never understand this side of heaven. I still get angry about some of the things he has allowed to happen, still pout occasionally and feel sorry for myself that Life refuses to treat me as the center of the universe. But I can truly say that in all things and at all times, his grace has been and continues to be sufficient.

He might have suggested exercising a little sooner, though.

Permission to reprint with acknowledgment of source.

Monday, December 6, 2010

December 6, 2010 I Do's and Didn'ts

On December 4, 1976, a man and a woman stood before family and friends. They had entered through different doors—he, with his groomsmen; she, on her daddy’s arm. They had never been so dressed up in their lives, and were unlikely to ever do so again.

The minister addressed the congregation: “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God – and in the face of this company – to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is commended to be honorable among all men; and therefore – is not by any – to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly – but reverently, discreetly, advisedly and solemnly. Into this holy estate these two persons present now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together – let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

No one said a word.

At some point, the minister continued, “Do you, David (for that was the name of the man, almost 26) take Ellen (for that was the name of the woman, or rather teenager…not quite 19) to be your wife – to live together after God’s ordinance – in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” David answered, and he meant it.

But he hasn’t always lived up to his words, not really. He hasn’t always even done his best. He has broken that vow on countless occasions, and rarely even said he was sorry when he did. His wife has, at times, felt the opposite of his intention that day—felt unloved. She has been full of sadness along the way and he would tell you that he has been one of the main causes. His violence to the vows has been, however, relatively mild. Sins of omission. While he has not always cherished, he most definitely has kept her around, when lesser men would have chosen to do otherwise.

“Do you Ellen take David to be your husband – to live together after God’s ordinance – in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon him your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto him as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” she said. I said it, and I meant it. But I haven’t. Not even close. I haven’t done my best to love and comfort. I have dishonored him, dishonored our marriage. Caused him sadness, made things worse. Mine have been more the sins of commission—hurtful sins of thought, word, and deed. I have not always forsaken others, certainly not myself and my own selfishness. And yet, I am still here, kept by the strength of a commitment made long ago, a commitment made strong not by my own will or David’s, but by the grace and according to the will of God himself.

Thirty-four years ago this month, we stated other vows as we exchanged rings. There was special music and candles. We kissed. The minister introduced us as Mr. and Mrs. David Gillette, and we walked down the aisle, this time together. This time, leaving through the same door and out into a new life and world. Two made one. Mr. and Mrs.

Over Thanksgiving I had the pleasure of visiting with a young man at whose own wedding our oldest son had been a groomsman. I remember sitting beside my sister-in-law as we watched the group—so young!—go through the ceremony. At one point I leaned over to her and whispered, “Do you think we should tell them?”

She knew exactly what I meant.

Weddings are wonderful, full of joy and hope and love. We get all dressed up, but truly, metaphorically, we never get that dressed up again. Reality takes over. Bills mount. Children come, and when they come, sometimes they misbehave. Sometimes they get sick. Sometimes they die. Jobs are changed and lost. Houses are rented, bought, sold, repaired, burned to the ground. With every harsh word, there is someone waiting in the wings to make it, it would seem, all better again.

Statistically speaking, about half of all marriages end in divorce, even among Christians. The amazing thing is not that this is true but that it’s only half…a full 100 percent of marriages exist between fallen, imperfect men and fallen, imperfect women. There is not a marriage anywhere, at any time, that does not—or will not—face challenges. That any of us survives is a testimony to God’s awesome keeping power.

Surely it isn’t the words we spoke, or the clothes we wore, or the rings we slipped on slightly trembling fingers. We often forget that in the midst of all the preparations, the flowers and engraved invitations, that God himself was invited to the wedding too. “In his sight.” He has a vested interest in marriage, it being his idea and all. He will, given even the slightest of opportunities, work wonders in the area of beating the odds.

There are a whole bunch of folks who never thought David and I would make it to Anniversary #34, the two of us and our children included. But we did. And, barring tragedy, we will make it to #35 and beyond.

Mind you, it won’t be easy. It won’t ever be easy. Husbands and wives, David and Ellen, and you and your spouses, will break our vows in little ways and big on an annoyingly regular basis. Each break results in a frayed edge to the fabric of marriage, a rip, an unsightly gap, a nasty stain.

Fortunately, God has always been in the mending business. Not every rip in the fabric of a marriage can be restored, certainly, but as long as there is a willingness to look back on those vows, as long as even a whisper of their original meaning remains true, miracles can still happen. Every day.

Permission to reprint with acknowledgment of source.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22, 2010 Emotional Stew

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was just a little girl when the television announcer interrupted regular programming with the news, but I well remember being bundled into the car with my mother to go to school and pick up my big sister. It was a time of national tragedy—not the last I would observe in my own lifetime, or the greatest, but certainly my first experience with seeing the adults around me so affected by the death of a person they had never met.

A friend of mine was a new mother when she heard the news while scrubbing her kitchen floor, and she dissolved into tears. Her life had been full of difficulties, suffering, abuse, neglect, yet she had never shed tears for herself. Now, alone on the linoleum, hearing the radio’s somber report, she began to sob. All the heartache building up for two decades overflowed.

This has been an emotional week for me, but for no apparent reason. I heard of someone’s work woes in another state and teared up. A dog was lost; I cried. A completely unrelated situation dissolved into a flashback regarding something that occurred thirty years ago and it was all I could do to fight back the emotion that suddenly welled up. I hurt for friends who were hurting, boohooed at a teacher’s conference, excused myself from a group of people to go off by myself and cry in the hallway.

Hormones? Stress? The stubborn and permanent undercurrent of grief that is always just under the surface? Vitamin deficiency? What was wrong with me?

Actually, nothing. Emotions are not wrong. Or right. They just are. It’s what we do with them that brings positive or negative consequences. Christians sometimes downplay the importance of emotions, lumping them in with the flesh (bad flesh! bad! bad! die to the flesh!) forgetting that God himself is a God of emotions.

The 19th century writer and preacher Charles Finney wrote that “the Bible ascribes love, hatred, anger, repentance, grief, compassion, indignation, abhorrence, patience, long-suffering, joy and every other affection and emotion of a moral being, to God.” The Psalms and writings of the Old Testament prophets are especially profound in their descriptions of God’s heart rejoicing over his people’s return to him…or grieving over their betrayal and rejection of his love.

The Bible also has a lot to say about our emotions, which makes sense. We are made in God’s image. If he is an emotional being, so am I.

I for one, take great comfort in this. Some ideologies try to promote a worship of God that is innately cerebral. Yawn. The God who created duck-billed platypuses (platypi?), rainbows, blue morpho butterlies, constellations, and sex is not a God of drudging dreariness. We try to limit God to so many words on a page while he calls us to look up as he paints a sunset. He delights over us! He wants us to delight in him! Delighting is an emotional experience!

Other emotions are not as welcome when they show up, but they are no less important, no less valid. I’m thinking that in God’s design, the sadder side of emotion has a cleansing purpose. “A broken and contrite heart” the psalmist wrote, “God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). The woman scrubbing her floor had never addressed the deep pain within her, had never gone to counseling, had never “opened up” about the tragedies of her childhood or those she faced at that time. Kennedy’s death lifted the lid off her emotional box, so to speak.

This week, maybe that’s what happened on a smaller scale in my own life. Perhaps once in awhile our emotions need to overflow as a stopgap—not a substitute for dealing with the deeper issues in our lives, but a temporary device to let off a little steam until such time as we, with God’s grace, are called to devote the necessary time and attention to them.

It’s never just about the Hallmark commercial.

Monday, November 8, 2010

November 8, 2010 As We Think, So We Are

Anyone who knows my husband knows that he is naturally quiet. After 33 years of marriage, I am more likely to be the one who speaks up, but this wasn’t always the case.

Before we got married, before we had so much as dated a single time, David came over to my house with our minister. I didn’t know David, had just seen him at church. Plus he is much, much older. It wouldn’t have been unusual for any teenaged girl to be a bit shy under such circumstances.

And did I mention I’d just had four wisdom teeth taken out, didn’t know company was coming, and looked like something the proverbial cat had dragged in?

I answered the door; my minister took the chair and picked up the newspaper, leaving David and I to either stand or sit together on the couch. We sat. The minister read. If there had been a clock ticking, it would have been the loudest sound in the room.

After a few minutes (or seconds...whatever) the minister lowered the newspaper and said, “If you two ever get married, your kids will be mute.” The hole I prayed would appear so I could fall through it never materialized. They left. To state the obvious, we eventually did get married, and proving the minister was no prophet, the kids could indeed speak.

I was quiet and shy, but I adapted to marriage to a quiet man by become more vocal. I also learned that when a quiet man speaks, it pays to listen. Closely. This weekend, he opened his mouth to speak about something he had seen on television that I found intriguing.

Apparently studies have shown that the brain has distinct areas, and that a person’s thought process sends signals between these areas in a unique sequence. No one person’s thinking follows the same pattern as another’s. My first thought was that there had to a finite number of combinations, but it’s not a matter of one combination. The combination changes with each thought at a rate of 400 billion actions per second.

Our thoughts are translated into chemicals. Scientists talk about the trees of the brain. We “grow” trees with our thoughts. They are real, they take up residence in our bodies, and result in actions and more related thoughts. Good thoughts brings good choices. The “default” of the human brain is positive. We are wired, so to speak, to love.

Bad thoughts, however, highjack the God-given order. Chemicals go out of balance. Anger, abuse, frustration, fear…these negative thoughts are not the way we were created to think, so they mess things up. Before we come to Christ, however, and even beyond, negative thoughts may dominate.
Are we stuck with them? Hardly, the scripture that tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). If the word tells us to do something, it must be possible to obey. We can have our minds transformed from the “new” default of negativity back to the original intent of the Creator. How? The Bible says to think on “whatever is true…honorable…right…pure…lovely…of good repute…(things) of excellence …(things that are) worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8).

Not a matter of positive thinking or visualizing world peace, it is a matter of obedience to God’s word. The fact that obedience also brings added health benefits physically, relationally, emotionally, in all ways…that’s the icing on the cake.

“As a man thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7) David’s interest in what he had heard about the brain led me to look into the subject a little further…which led me back to the word of God. Didn’t I tell you it paid to listen to him?

Permission to use with acknowledgement of source.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oct. 25 Stuff Middle-aged Christian Mothers Don't Like

Christians are notorious for taking themselves too seriously, so I would encourage you to check out Jonathan Acuff's bestseller Stuff Christians Like. Here's what his website ( ) has to say:

Sometimes, we fall in love on mission trips even though we know we’ll break up when we get back.
Sometimes, you have to shot block a friend’s prayer because she’s asking God to bless an obviously bad dating relationship.
Sometimes, you think, “I wish I had a t-shirt that said ‘I direct deposit my tithe’ so people wouldn’t judge me.”
Sometimes, the stuff that comes with faith is funny. This is that stuff.

Jonathan Acuff’s Stuff Christians Like is your field guide to all things Christian. Like a satirical grenade, Acuff brings us the humor and honesty that galvanized 730,000 online readers from 209 countries in a new portable version. Welcome to the funny side of faith.

His website gives info on the book and upcoming speaking engagements, as well as his blogs. Not only is Acuff relevant and funny (and nice looking), he is an avid blogger. I blog once every two weeks. He apparently blogs every two minutes. And in between blogs, he's on Twitter: . Acuff is also relatively young to be so gynomormously successful; after meeting Jon and his mother at the Dave Ramsey Live event held in Raleigh, NC on October 16, I'm pretty sure his mother deserves some of the credit.

Despite this sounding, thus far, like one more puff piece for the current "in" celeb, I felt compelled to write because...I can hardly believe it myself...little ole' me is the subject not only of one of Jonathan Acuff's tweats, but a blog as well. Are you impressed?

When the incident in question occurred, he was so taken aback he mentioned posting something on Twitter, but since I don't tweet, how would I know? Today, though, I thought I'd check itout. Just in case. And whaddaya know...

I'm the only author who had a book returned cause the autograph wasn't good enough. What did I write? via web
The link takes you back to the blog, #877 to be exact: Awkward Prayer Moments. You can read it for yourself, but he relates fairly accurately what happened. (Spoiler alert for two of my kids: if you're reading this, you now know I've bought you a copy of Stuff Christians Like for your upcoming birthdays. Hope you enjoy it!)

Frankly, I'm still reeling from the fact that Acuff calls me a "woman in her 50s." So he got the age range right...couldn't he have said something instead like "an attractive, intelligent-looking woman aging extremely well"? Something a little less bland?

Acuff signed the first book "Your mom is awesome." I was appropriately charmed, figuring he'd write the same thing for the second one, but no, he decided to bump the Clever up a notch: "Your mom told me you're her favorite." He handed it to me, perhaps surprised I didn't gush my thanks. I turned and walked away, getting about ten steps before I realized I just couldn't do it. I couldn't.

I didn't think he would mind (being gynormously successful) but I also didn't expect to become the Poster Child for families in need of prayer. I suppose it could be worse, though. And my family does indeed need prayer (as does his and yours and all God's children's) .

When I told him I couldn't give the book with that inscription, he made a joke about praying for family peace. He seemed to assume that the reason I returned the book was because it might start a ruckus among the siblings, which wasn't even close. I did manage to tell him I hoped he'd come across another buyer wanting the same name written in the inscription; he heartily agreed. (Although, in the blog, he mentions keeping it around to prevent him getting "too big for (his) britches.")

Acuff's blog expresses remorse offended me, which I appreciate. I wasn't so much offended as I was sure that what he had written was inappropriate. Maybe not for some families, but for mine. I wanted to explain to him why, but could feel emotion rising--there's not much more emotional than a woman in their 50s, but he might not realize that yet. There was a crowd, he was busy, the idea was to sell books, etc.

I would have liked to tell him, though, so now I will:

I have four children, not two, all of whom I love very much. Each one, in many and unique ways, has brought joy to my heart. Each has made me, on innumerable occasions, thankful to be his mom, her mom. My oldest son is a police officer, putting himself in harm's way for the good of his community. My oldest daughter is a single mother with challenging health issues who has blessed us with two incredible live-in grandkids. My youngest daughter is a veteran, army wife, currently back in college and a terrific wife and mother to our youngest grandchild. My youngest son died ten years ago after a car accident at the age of sixteen, and I miss him so much. Every day.

Would you want to take it upon yourself to decide which of those kids is my favorite? I think not.

Acuff meant nothing by his comment...judging from the line at his book table, he'd probably written the same thing many times already that day...but words do mean something. Always. I wasn't willing to hurt...even in of my children just because a writer whom I do not know and who does not know me or my children or our particular stories, joys, and heartaches was trying to be cute. My kids are worth more than that.

I, love, love... humor, satire, wit, parody, comedy. I can LOL with the best of 'em. And Acuff is genuinely funny. I heartily endorse him, wish him (and his commenters who think I have no sense of humor) well, very well indeed. I pray God's gynormous-est blessings on all things Acuff. Buy his book, follow him on Twitter, read his blogs.

And if you want an autograph from someone who inspired one...just let me know.

This blog is a ministry of Crossroads Church in Lillington, NC but don't blame them for it! Permission to reprint with acknowledgement of source.

Monday, October 11, 2010

October 11 When the Pastor's Happy, Everybody's Happy

*Note – While I realize that there are many, many female pastors, my own pastor is male, and it becomes awkward to continually write (or read) “he (or she)” for the sake of inclusiveness. I have chosen to use “he”. My apologies to the offended.

When you think of October, you may immediately conjure up visions of pumpkins and trick or treating. I am not a fan of Halloween, with the emphasis on death and fear and greed, but there are aspects of it I have learned to tolerate for the sake of grandkids and church traditions. In a few weeks, I will dress in costume and man the registration table at Crossroads Church’s annual Fall Festival and have just as good a time as anyone…but don’t come to my house for candy on the 31st because there won’t be any (granted, living a mile off the hard road makes this a more socially acceptable choice).

October is also, since 1994 (when Focus on the Family took the idea and ran with it) National Clergy Appreciation Month. If you need help coming up with ideas of how you can show your pastor that you appreciate him I’d be surprised, but there are several websites that give tips such as letters, card showers, covered dish dinners, flowers, etc.

Like other Hallmark-type holidays, it would be easy to substitute a yearly acknowledgement (e.g. Mother’s Day) for consistent, regular appreciate for those who serve. Better yet, do both! When the pastor’s message hits home, let him know. Take him out to dinner once in awhile. Make an appointment when you need to talk, rather than assuming he will be at your beck and call. Tell him “thank you.” AND during October find a way to creatively express that ongoing appreciation, which if you’ve been appreciative throughout the year, will be like the proverbial icing on the cake.

Focus on the Family believes that Paul actually had the idea of Pastor Appreciation:

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double
honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy

“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard
among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in
the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each
other.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

“Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” ( Romans 13:7).

As a congregant, I like what the writer of Hebrews had to say:“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (13:17).

Not every pastor is as knowledgeable, articulate, humorous, caring, and creative as mine (Ken Dalton! at Crossroads Church in Lillington, North Carolina! with his lovely and talented wife Vanessa!) but few pastors go into that line of work because of the benefits. Like doctors, they are always “on call.” Like teachers, there are hours of preparation behind the scene. Like members of your family, they are available to reach out to people at their greatest times of need or rejoicing. Like celebrities and politicians, their lives take on a fishbowl quality, with hundreds of people watching…not only to see the pastor and his family model the Christian life…but to see how they do not. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable way to live, the cushiest job.

I think it’s safe to say that the majority of ministers, pastors, clergy, whatever you want to call them. are where they are because of a fundamental belief that (1) God has called them to the task, and (2) they can make a difference in people’s lives and for the Kingdom of God.

Note my italics in that Hebrews passage – the work of church leadership should be joyful to them, which in turn, is an advantage to the rest of us. Honoring our leaders is like doing ourselves a favor!

Finally, a special word to those in the minority, whose leaders are manipulative, dishonest, or predatory: There is a respect for the position, if not the person, that is appropriate… right up until the time a congregation can successfully vote him out (or have him arrested, as the case may be). As someone who has sat under such authority, I feel your pain …and would remind you that there are always avenues of change: scriptural communication to resolve problems, secular law enforcement, whatever is called for…and if those don’t work, you can always walk out the door. Find another church- odds are, you’ll find a pastor who embodies the word and preaches the Word.

Permission to use with acknowledgement of source.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27, 2010 A Faithful Advocate

Sometimes it really helps who you know.

In the 17th century, God blessed a man by the name of Gian Lorenzo Bernini with incredible artistic abilities. Heir apparent of Michelangelo, Bernini is best known for sculptures such as Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Prosperpine, but he was also sought out by the Church and nobility for his paintings and architecture. One of his most beautiful works, however, was neither commissioned by pope nor created for payment. His bust of Costanza Buonarelli (or Bonarelli), shown here, captures the beauty of a “regular” woman, not a mythical figure or heavenly host. Costanza was, in fact, Bernini’s mistress.

Bernini openly insulted Costanza’s husband (his assistant), thus making the affair public. To make matters worse, Costanza was suspected of also having an affair with Bernini’s brother—Bernini sent someone to her home who savagely cut her face. But it was Costanza who was arrested and imprisoned for adultery.

The Pope himself, Urban VIII at the time, stepped in on Bernini’s behalf, not wanting to lose his sought-after services. His penance, instead, was to settle down and marry. Apparently Bernini changed his ways—his marriage lasted 34 years and produced 11 children.

It is a tragic tale of love gone terribly wrong, with devastating consequences, but it is also the story of a man with helpful connections. Not to in any way excuse Bernini’s actions, but if you’re going to completely mess up your life, you would be wise to know someone powerful enough to speak up for you, smooth ruffled feathers, calm the turbulent waters.

I submit that we are, each one of us, more like Gian Lorenzo Bernini than we might be comfortable with. Perhaps our sins are not so public. Perhaps they are not so hurtful. The truth is, however, that we are all guilty before a pure and holy God. We have all sinned, Romans 3:23 tells us, and fallen short of his glory. James 2:10 goes on to say that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (NIV).

Costanza had no powerful connections to keep her from prison. Bernini’s talent assured him of friends in very high places. What about us?

C. H. Spurgeon (1834-92) wrote of our own “connection” this way:

"If any man sin, we have an advocate." Yes, though we sin, we have Him still.
John does not say, "If any man sin he has forfeited his advocate," but "we have an advocate," sinners though we are. All the sin that a believer ever did, or can be allowed to commit, cannot destroy his interest in the Lord Jesus Christ, as his advocate. The name here given to our Lord is suggestive. "Jesus." Ah!
then He is an advocate such as we need, for Jesus is the name of one whose business and delight it is to save. "They shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins." His sweetest name implies His success. Next, it is "Jesus Christ" Christos, the anointed. This shows His authority to plead. The Christ has a right to plead, for He is the Father's own appointed advocate and elected priest. If He were of our choosing He might fail, but if God hath laid help upon one that is mighty, we may safely lay our trouble where God has laid His help. He is Christ, and therefore authorized; He is Christ, and therefore qualified, for the anointing has fully fitted Him for His work. He can plead so as to move the heart of God and prevail. What words of tenderness, what sentences of persuasion will the anointed use when He stands up to plead for me! One more letter of His name remains, "Jesus Christ the righteous." This is not only His character BUT His plea. It is His character, and if the Righteous One
be my advocate, then my cause is good, or He would not have espoused it. It is
His plea, for He meets the charge of unrighteousness against me by the plea that
He is righteous. He declares Himself my substitute and puts His obedience to my
account. My soul, thou hast a friend well fitted to be thine advocate, He cannot
but succeed; leave thyself entirely in His hands.

Costanza’s actions led to dire consequences, and apparently she was indeed guilty of many things. Even so, a cry of “unfair!” springs to our lips upon hearing her tale. Perhaps Costanza cried out to her heavenly advocate within prison walls, receiving forgiveness and hope. All that is known of her on earth is the bust sculpted by her famous once-upon-a-time lover, but I’d like to think that God in his mercy reached down to comfort her at her point of greatest need and drew her lovingly to himself. Her face is famous only through Bernini, but her heart…like each person’s on earth…is known to God.

We who know we have been forgiven by the shed blood of Christ should be the last to need forgiveness again, but we are in almost perpetual need through our thoughts, actions, and words. Thanks be to God for an Advocate who stands with us before the Judge and says, “This one is mine. Remember? I have already paid for that in full.”
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Monday, September 13, 2010

September 13, 2010 The Gift that Gives Back

When I applied for a teaching position at a small denominational school in Florida, the first question the principal asked concerned my salvation; the second, speaking in tongues. “I’m grateful to have a spiritual language,” I said, “but I don’t think it will be an issue.” Happily, the principal was a man who, while holding to a fairly narrow interpretation of scripture in theory, said he also, in practice, couldn’t argue with experience. Just because he hadn’t spoken in tongues, he wisely realized that it didn’t follow no one else had either. In three years at the school, the subject never came up again…although I must confess that a little pamphlet in the school library teaching that tongues are “of the devil” will only be found if very, very heavy bookcases are ever moved.

Speaking in tongues is one of those Bible topics we don’t often hear outside of certain denominations (or non-denominations), but the hoo-hah is entirely of our own making. The Bible certainly didn’t cause it.

Paul wrote to early Corinthian Christians that God imparts several spiritual gifts to the Church. In two lists, we find words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith to meet needs, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, apostolic ministry, teaching, helping, and administration. Paul’s Ephesians 4:11 focuses on leadership, listing apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers.

Even back then, tongues caused controversy. The majority of 1 Corinthians 14 deals with the issue, not –as some might prefer—to squash the speaking of tongues, but to encourage what Paul saw as the more corporately edifying gift of prophecy. I ask you—in churches that rail against tongues, are they also promoting prophecy as the norm? I think not.

The problem comes, I believe, from verse 40: “Everything should be done decently and in order.” Modern churches tend to emphasize the “decently and in order” whereas Paul leaned more toward “Everything (including tongues and prophecy) should be done.”

Our culture is very different from Paul’s, obviously. An hour or hour and a half service once a week doesn’t lend itself to the kind of spontaneous expressions the early Church evidently enjoyed:

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Even in a small congregation, this would take a pretty long time! My point is that Paul considered speaking in tongues a normal part of worship. We can waltz around it by quoting verses out of context, but there’s not much leeway with 14:39: “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” That, given current time parameters, would more likely use the gift in personal prayer in no way makes it less desirable.

So, we’ve established that speaking in tongues is valid. Does it also follow that this particular gift is necessary?

I think not.

Two accounts of new believers mention tongues as evidence of the Holy Spirit coming upon them (Acts 10 and 19), but they also mention prophecy and praise. How could we require one gift (tongues) but not the others? All of the spiritual gifts are from God: “It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have” (1 Corinthians 12:11, New Living Translation). Better to seek God’s face, rather than his hand, and leave the gift question to him.

Recently a friend of mine announced she was starting a new Bible study for women. Everyone, with one marked exception, thought this a wonderful idea. One woman—whose gifting is apparently that of throwing cold water on the fires of enthusiasm—chose an offensive line of questioning (both pronunciations of the word apply): “Do you speak in tongues?” In her opinion, leaders of Bible studies should be so-equipped. My friend should wait on that study, in other words, until she measured up.

I’m thinking……no. Although it’s possible this person received new revelation, I feel safer going with Paul and the Bible.

Tongues sound foolish, as any language we don’t understand sounds like gibberish. It’s outside the mind. The Bible says it is “uttering mysteries.” It’s also desirable, at least to Paul (and, presumably, to God), who said, “I would like everyone to speak in tongues.” He even boasted that he spoke in tongues more than “you all” (proof he was a southerner at heart.) Tongues edify the speaker, building him or her up—and who doesn’t need to built up? Praise lifts God up. Prophecy teaches those who hear. Tongues give back to the speaker, the Spirit praying things for us we are completely clueless about. Cool.

The Corinthians were trying to out-gift one another, so Paul put things in perspective, telling them to yes, eagerly desire spiritual gifts, but “I will show you a more excellent way…”that no matter what, love was what they should seek (1 Corinthians 13). The Ephesians were trying to learn how to love one another too. So may be we all….which means I suppose I should be lovingly praying for the woman who upset my friend instead of what comes naturally to mind.

Speaking of the super-natural, a friend of mine with white blonde hair and a rather plump physique once got a job around Christmas as a store Santa. A little girl who couldn’t speak English climbed up on his lap, looking sad and lonely. He didn’t know what to do or say but felt led to pray quietly in tongues for the child. To his surprise, she looked up with a big grin and answered him….in her own language.

Is our God awesome, or what?
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Monday, August 30, 2010

August 30, 2010 Killer Communication

In today's language, “killer” can mean really good (killer idea! Yay!) or really bad (well, that kills that great idea). Good communication, however, isn’t just a great idea…it’s necessary in order to maintain relationships. No wonder the Bible has so much to…communicate…about communication. Here is just a small sample:

“Just say a simple, 'Yes, I will,' or 'No, I won't.' Anything beyond this is from the evil one”
(Matthew 5:37).

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

“Instead, by speaking the truth in love, we will grow up completely and become one with the head, that is, one with the Messiah” (Ephesians 4:15).

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery
hell” (Matthew 5:22 ).

“But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8).

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”(Ephesians 4:29).

Poor communication can cause a myriad of difficulties. When poor communication, whether expressed through misunderstandings, arguments, sarcasm, deceitfulness, etc., leads to a complete break-down in communication – one or both parties will no longer communicate at ALL – you’ve got a real mess. How can a relationship possibly be mended under such circumstances?

Recently I attempted to communicate with a fellow believer face to face. Some things are just better talked about in person; it's difficult to convey your heart via email –tone of voice, a certain look in the eyes, body language – all of these are vital to getting a complete “read” of a situation. Instead of an appointment, however, messages were sent back and forth…more communication about the lack of communication which ultimately communicated a decision to end communication!

Although there was disappointment involved, there was also a “freeing up.” I’d done what I could do, what the Lord had led me to do, in terms of waiting, reaching out, praying, trying to keep lines open. It isn’t the only relationship in which this has happened – people have free wills. If they don’t want to talk, they don’t have to. Sometimes, as my son says, you just have to say, “Forget it” (or words to that effect). Back off. Let the Lord work without your “help.” It’s not all about you – he may be trying to do something in the other person’s heart that, for the time being anyway, a relationship with you hinders.

My granddaughter has stopped me short on more than one occasion by asking if I meant something, or if I’m just being sarcastic. Sarcasm has its place – there are instances in the Bible when God himself is sarcastic – but it can also be hurtful, which is decidedly out of place.

Proverbs tells us that “life and death are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). Is what I’m saying bringing life to the hearer? Life to a conversation or relationship? Life to myself? If not, I need to remind myself that I am actually speaking death. How many children wouldn’t bear scars, how many marriages might be saved, how many friendships could be mended, how many political messes solved, if we would all speak life, rather than death. No more gossip or insults, no more put-downs or lies, no more ridicule or deception.

Philippians 4:8 is sort of the “end all” verse to godly thought, and since what comes out of our mouths starts in the brain, it certainly applies to our speech:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence or if
anything worthy of praise, let you mind dwell on these things.”

We don’t have to be great orators or writers to learn to communicate clearly and positively. We do have to want to. We do have to make it a priority. Sometimes we might be tempted to excuse poor communication skills with “well, that’s just who I am” or excuse others because that’s “just their personality.” We can be certain, however, that the biblical mandates for godly communication apply to everyon who looks to the Bible for instruction and guidance.

Someone has said that you can get along with anyone on the face of the earth if you’re humble enough. A little humility is often key to good “killer” communication. Without it, negativity is all too ready to take over….and kill the relationship altogether.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

August 16 The Wow Factor

Years ago my mother told me about a tape she had heard describing the sharp intake of breath you experience when you see something extraordinary, specifically when you come into a room and see someone you love very much—whether spouse or child. The speaker said we all need that feeling in our lives.

And then there’s the sentiment you see on bumper stickers and t-shirts that showed up in the 2005 movie “Hitch” and on a George Strait album in 2009: It’s not the breaths you take that matter, it’s the moments that take your breath away.”

Let’s call it, for the sake of a catchy title (easier to express in print than a sharp intake of breath) the Wow Factor. You hear something along the same lines during American Idol or America’s Got Talent, although usually in the negative. “There just wasn’t any ‘wow factor,’” Simon might comment. Or maybe, “you did so well the last time, I was expecting you to bring ‘the wow factor’ tonight.”

The problem with people being the focus of our Wow Factors is that they, like competing singers or dancers or jugglers or magicians, eventually disappoint, eventually fail. We still love a handful of people, regardless—they are our family, our closest friends. There is an unconditional love that even the most hard-hearted among us may experience, at least in part.

Because the Bible tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8) I believe that our ability to love without selfishness or reward or even being loved in return, is a gift from God, a part of his nature passed on to us at Creation through Adam and Eve, who were made “in the image of God” (Genesis 5:1). That we find it so difficult to love results from the sin nature Adam passed down to us as well (Genesis 5:3).

God gave us the ability to love and commanded us to love him before anyone or anything else, with all our hearts, minds, souls, strength…but he disappoints us too. God’s purposes can not be thwarted (Job 42:1) but we don’t always like what those purposes entail. When we forget that he is God (not us) we begin to lose the Wow Factor we had initially.

Revelation 2:4 warns the church in Ephesus for abandoning their “first love” for God. Just as every human relationship requires vigilance, communication, protection, active participation, etc. our relationships with God do too. Without the pursuit of God, without seeking him and fellowship with him (not just his gifts and answers and miracles)…without taking steps in his direction, in other words…we find ourselves sliding further back from him, like one of those airport automatic sidewalks in reverse.

God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) expresses himself to us in different ways, but he promises to never leave us, which makes him a wonderful companion, worthy of our constant praise. Worthy of those sharp intakes of breath.

Wow. If you’ve lost it, pray about how to get back that “first love.”

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Monday, August 2, 2010

August 2, 2010 Spa-rituality

“Spa” and “spirituality” may seem disconnected concepts. Spas exist for the body, the senses. We visit them (those who do, in varying degrees of frequency; for me, it is a historically rare event) for the sensual pleasures they afford, the improvement of the body’s appearance or feel. From soft New Age music in the background to fountains of water cheerfully dancing over carefully arranged rocks, from the aromatherapy of incense, candles, or perfumed lotions to that glorious feeling of tired and tense muscles suddenly and blissfully “letting go”…what is remotely spiritual about such things?

A few years ago my son gave me a Christmas present- a gift certificate for a spa in a nearby town that was so generous that I made several trips for different services before it was used up. I had a facial, a massage….then decided to try something I’d never heard of, some kind of a mud mixture body wrap that hardened and had to be peeled off.

I felt just like the ornery boy Eustace Clarence Scrubb must have felt in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan peeled away layers and layers of dragon skin (he had turned into a dragon after sleeping on a dragon’s pile of riches, dreaming covetously all night) to get to the penitent boy beneath. The sensation of having the mask stripped away felt wonderful, powerfully cleansing, like getting new skin.

Scripturally, we are to “put on the new self” (Colossians 3:10), “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14), “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11). Before that, however, we must present ourselves as a living sacrifice and let the Holy Spirit take care of the old nature, the sin that clings and weighs us down (see Romans 12, Hebrews 12, and basically anything written by the apostle Paul).

Last week, I really splurged. Wednesday I had a Swedish massage with Samantha, the new masseuse at Bella East in Lillington (no charge for the promotion, ladies). Friday I took advantage of their July special on facials. As I lay back with the fountain burbling nearby, Kim expertly applying hot towels, creams, a mud mask, I thought about how unusual it was (for me) to pay so much attention to my head and face. Daily cleaning, sporadic damage control, and make-up is accomplished as quickly as possible…this was an entire hour devoted.

Which led me, head swathed in a hot towel, to think of Christ being the head of the Church, his Body. Our bodies do the work throughout our days, muscles straining, heart pumping, lungs exhaling and inhaling, feet walking, hands typing, but bodies can only function as they are connected to the head, to our brains which send out the appropriate signals and commands. Without the head, we are powerless and ineffectual.

Perhaps my mind went in that direction because of a funeral I’d attended a few days earlier, that of a woman about my age who had been in a vegetative state for eleven years. Although family visited, read to her, held her hands, there was never a response…a connection between brain and body had been forever lost.

Some people are uncomfortable with discussing the body, as if the fact that we can (and do, on a regular basis) use our bodies to sin makes the body itself a thing of shame and embarrassment. They forget that God pronounced its creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and chose to clothe himself within human flesh to restore our broken relationship to him, in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Bible, far from any agreement to that line of thought, is full of references to the physical nature of all that God created “good”. The Word tells us that our prayers rise to heaven as incense. The Revelation portrait of Jesus says his voice is like the “sound of many waters.” As the old song goes, the Lord “poured in the oil and the wine, the kind that restoreth my soul…he found me bleeding and dying on the Jericho road, and he poured in the oil and the wine.” Sensual pictures, all, appealing to the God-ordained abilities to touch, taste, smell, hear.

When God creates and blesses physicality and sensuality…it is spiritual. And he can use anything and everything around us…even a mud mask…to remind us of his love and truth.
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Monday, July 19, 2010

July 19, 2010 Getting to the Root of Things

Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
which includes a musical presentation as well)

From time to time you may have heard someone speak on the need to have a “life verse,” a particular verse in the Bible that can be relied upon during times of need or stress or indecision. After a meeting where this was emphacized decades ago, I remember obediently praying later, using the “just close your eyes, turn to a page, and point” method of divine direction. Lo and behold, my finger rested on the very verse shown above. Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

I thought, “Wow. I guess if I’m going to have a life verse, that pretty much sums it up.” If I could love God like that, everything else would fall into place….the key word being “if,” of course. The longer I am a Christian, the less I appear to understand about what love is, much less understanding God. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we continually travel “further up and further in.”

But perhaps you think I should have restricted my life-verse search to the New Testament. The old has passed away and all things are new, right? What Jesus says, in red print, no less, is of much more value to Christians than anything Moses might have said. Right?


When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus did quote this verse in Matthew 22:37, but believers of every denominational background would be wiser and richer in their Christian experience by embracing their Jewish roots. We were grafted in because of Jesus (see Romans 11), but we have not replaced the relationship God has with Israel.

Recently, our summer intern at Crossroads Church in Lillington, Charles Fiore, gave the message at Sunday services, using the Shema (or Shma or Sh’ma)…the first words of Deuteronomy 6 shown above, and the centerpiece of Jewish prayer. I had been part of a church that sang the verse regularly, and Charles’ message brought back many good memories.

Having been raised in the Methodist church, our family later joined a Presbyterian church. When a nondenominational home group arose from its congregation, our family was part of it. Throughout the group’s history (it eventually organized into a church), there was a strong emphasis on our ties to Israel and Judaism. I’m so grateful for that heritage.

Before we built our own building, we even met in the local synagogue, forging a relationship with the local Jewish community that went far beyond paying them rent for the use of their facility. We took part in their celebrations and festivals; a few of their members joined us for Sunday worship from time to time. Our church’s dance team included Jewish folk dance and the synagogue asked us to perform for them on several occasions. We also sent two young men to live on kibbutz (communal work facilities) in Israel. Church members who could afford to, made several trips to the Holy Land. We supported the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. One woman, now passed away, began Nursing Mothers for Israel, an outreach that shipped clothing to Israel, based on Isaiah 49:23 (“Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.”).

We do not need to take on the Jewish rules in order to accept our Jewish Messiah Jesus. Thank God! I don’t know about you, but it’s a full-time challenge for me to try and walk in the one commandment mentioned earlier. If I had to keep a kosher kitchen, I’d be in serious trouble! We are not better Christians or more spiritual or mature if we learn to pray in Hebrew or celebrate Jewish feasts. But if we, as new branches, want to know our God and King in all his fullness, we will get to know what…and who… he cherishes:

15 "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me. ( Isaiah 49:15-16)

Shalom. Peace.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

July 5, 2010 Freedom!

He’s gotten into a lot of trouble lately with his big mouth, political views, and divorcing the mother of his five children, but Mel Gibson has made some excellent films over the years. The Passion, The Patriot—epic stories. How many of us would even recognize the names of William Wallace, Longshanks, or Robert the Bruce without Braveheart?

Wallace’s cry of “Freedom!” as he is being tortured and killed at the end (oops… if you’ve never seen it, don’t let that stop you!) never fails to stir me. The freedom of his country was worth everything for Wallace and those who fought alongside him, and everything is exactly what it cost. Wallace lost his wife and eventually, his life, but he motivated the peasant Scots to rise up against powerful England.

We just celebrated the 234th anniversary of our own country’s fight to free itself from England’s rule. In the eyes of Europe and much of the world, the United States is still relatively young, yet, we are a world leader. Our freedom from tyranny continues to inspire others. Our invitation to join us here (“Give us your tired, your poor…”) is still heard by “teeming masses yearning to breathe free.”

Freedom is a sacred gift. Not only freedom from oppression, but freedom from guilt. Not only freedom from slavery to land owners, but freedom from slavery to sin and selfishness. Galatians 5:1 tells us that “It is for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Another translation says to “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free, and be not entangled again by the yoke of bondage.” (When I was much younger, we sang those words…the best way to memorize!)

Paul was writing to Christians who, having found freedom in Christ, were being told they must also be subject to the Law and live as Jews. The fact that not even the Jews could obey the 613 laws found there, to say nothing of the rabbinical interpretations that added yet more legalism, and that Jesus’ death on the cross of Calvary was for the express purpose of fulfilling the Law once and for all…these were details conveniently overlooked in the zeal to be righteous.

Looking back from 2010 we may be tempted to wonder how those early Christians--living at such an exciting period of history, walking and talking with the apostles, learning from those who knew Jesus personally--could be deceived into thinking they had to get circumcised in order to follow Jesus. Surely we wouldn’t fall into such traps. (Certainly not the men, anyway!) If we’re honest, however, we would acknowledge that the kind of folks who get their jollies creating burdens for others didn’t die out with the early Church.

When I was a little girl, there were churches in which all the women and girls wore gloves and hats. All the men wore suits. And they looked down on churches that required daily attendance at Mass or going to confession. Burdens.

I attend a vibrant, loving Baptist church, but I have known Baptists who didn’t believe there would be anyone but Baptists in heaven. There are Presbyterians who find charismatics too emotional to be sincere and charismatics who believe liturgical churches to be too cerebral to be spiritual. Denominational vs. non-denominational. High church vs. low. Traditional vs. non-traditional. Catholics and Protestants waged war in William Wallace’s day and the battle continues in parts of the world.

We’re bad about saying we’re free from the Law only to come up with a whole new set. Can you be a Christian and drink? Jesus did. Can you be a Christian and “smoke or chew or go out with girls who do”? Absolutely. Dedicated, committed Christians even get divorced, have affairs, say the F word, drive over the speed limit, go a whole day without reading the Bible, lie, cheat on their income tax returns, and much, much worse. Some of them even wear white shoes after Labor Day.

We are not just set free from, but also set free to…to what? To follow man’s thinking? No, rather we are now free to follow the very spirit of God, who will always lead us to live and operate in love: “You…were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

We have complete freedom to wear whatever we want to, eat whatever we want to, drink whatever we want to, say whatever we want to…but in love, we should use wisdom and discretion so that others are not hurt by our freedom.

Liberty, it has been said, is the freedom to restrict one’s self for the sake of others. That’s something to celebrate, and live out, every day of the year.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

June 21, 2010 Loving the Law

“Blessed is the man…(whose) delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yield its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”

From Psalm 1:1-3, NIV

I usually have a book lying around for entertainment purposes. There are favorites from C.S. Lewis or Ferrol Sams, for example, which I've read many times and will never stop returning to. Or I’ll get on one author and strip the local library shelves of two or three of his or her offerings at a time, primarily when I’m in the mood for a good crime story or humor.

I’ll read for research or study as well, gleaning from those more learned than myself or anticipating the lively discussion with a group of people reading the same book simultaneously.

As much as I love books –as often as I have fussed at a child for carelessly leaving a book’s binding in stress, or getting sticky fingers on its sacred pages—as often as I have scolded, “Books are our friends!” I myself am terribly hard on books. Paperbacks generally end up gaining width from hot afternoons, resting against my sweatiness as I sit by the pool…or being splashed in the tub as I read in my favorite spot of all. If the library saw me with their precious and generous volumes suffering the perilous conditions to which I frequently subject them, they would install a guard outside the door and prohibit my entry every two weeks.

Obviously (because it is The Guidebook to end all guidebooks, and I am just one more sojourner in a foreign land) I must continually turn to the Bible for instruction and illumination, no matter how often it has been read or how familiar its passages. The fact is, I don't fully follow its precepts on a day to day, minute to minute basis. There is a great deal I don’t understand, much less follow! therefore, I must continue my studies.

What a privilege this is, what a luxury, compared to the experience so many have had throughout history and in other parts of the world today. To own even complete copy of the Bible, to have it within reach at all times, to say nothing of the fact that most Christian homes own multiple copies, whether underlined and highlighted and much thumbed-through, or sitting on shelves in fancy leather bindings gathering dust.

My library book at the moment is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Based on a true story, it winds through history telling the story of one beautiful book, a haggadah used for Jewish Sabbath worship in the home. A modern-day analyst is asked to unlock the mysteries of various stains and bindings and parchment choices, but Brooks also takes readers back in time, letting us see the particular events and people that have made the book’s survival possible for hundreds of years.

Whereas people underwent great trials to protect the haggadah…and whereas throughout history people have suffered to protect their own holy books…we, I fear, are jaded to the importance of the Bible. We can easily purchase any size, color, weight, print, or translation we desire. Audio or illustrated, hardback or paper, large print for a massive pulpit or tiny print in a pocket version, Bibles for athletes and women and children and Messianic Jews and the military.

The old saying "familiarity breeds contempt" may apply. We have access to the Bible that costs us little or nothing, but do we love the Law?

When a person has a deep emotional need he or she is like a dry, thirsty plant surrounded by arid terrain, withering day after day beneath a merciless sun. Another person…perhaps with good motives, perhaps not…walks by with a watering can and empties it on the tree. Does the tree stop and ask if it should drink in the moisture? Does it ask whether or not death might be preferable to the assistance in that particular watering can? No, the tree responds. Any person passing by, any source of water, and the tree will respond. How can it not?

Rather than tell us how to resist strange water, the psalmist tells us how to avoid the very state of drought. Not only do we not have to respond to the wrong people, the wrong distractions, the wrong thoughts, the wrong supplying of needs, we can….through God’s word….maintain a life of continual "wateredness" so that our leaves never wither.

The person who loves the Law, Psalms 1 says, is like a tree planted by streams of water. Regardless of the outward circumstances, the needs that this person or that can not or will not meet, the stress, the trials... the person who LOVES THE LAW OF GOD is like a tree by a stream. The circumstances, the so-called reality of his life are not different, but HE is different. He is like a plant with a ready, constant source of water. His leaves never wither, regardless of the heat of the sun or the failed irrigation systems around him.

Some of us rarely look at the Law (the first five books of the Bible) outside of Sunday school lessons about Noah, Moses, Abraham and David. There are dry stretches. There is THE law that makes us uncomfortable with its apparent pickiness over things we might, as American Gentiles, find irrelevant. And besides, that was the Old Testament. Jesus brought a new covenant.
ACtually, he said he came to fulfill the Law, not "abolish it" (see Matthew 5:17-18). And it is those five books which, according to Psalms 1, hold the key to our spiritual protection and growth. Our love for tthe Law…or our neglect of it…makes the difference between watered and withered. Drenched or dry. Bearers of fruit or barren of fruit.

Makes you want to curl up with Leviticus, doesn’t it?
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Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7, 2010 The Mirror of God’s Word

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing (James 1:22-25, NRSV)."

A two-sided mirror hangs mounted on the wall in our well-lit bathroom at home—one side provides a real-size image while the other is magnified. A light around its edges makes it even more user-friendly; even though the reflection is sometimes not what I might wish for…increasing lines, a stubborn red patch on my forehead that refuses to heal, the occasional (and gasp-producing) coarse chin hair…I use it frequently.

Contrast this with the mornings I run in town and try, still hot and sweaty, to muddle through the art of make-up application in the only adequately lit bathroom where I work. While grateful for any light, and any mirror, the result is far more likely to be…uneven.

Recently I was getting dressed at home and noticed that my face, reflected across the room in that mounted mirror, was upside down. I was at the exact distance at which the convex mirror, through mysterious laws of physics I will not attempt to explain (even Googling wasn’t much help) “flipped” the image. I wasn’t standing on the ceiling in reality, but the deceptive image made it seem so.

You’re probably way ahead of me. If James is telling us, in the passage cited above, that we have to look into the word of God and apply it, obviously the further away from the word (the “mirror”) we find ourselves, the more distorted will be our understanding and perception.

Last week I devoured The Shack by William Young, a book I had avoided since its publication in 2007. I’m not sure why I hadn’t read it—maybe the phenomenon that it became put me off. It seemed everywhere I turned someone would ask me if I’d read it yet, implying that (1) “you should” and (2) “what in the world is taking you so long?”

And…I loved it. One of the things I loved about it was that although it breaks out of the box of traditional thinking about God, it never broke out of biblical thinking. It also didn’t get bogged down trying to defend itself; it simply wove a story of love and relationship and pain and intimacy that made me wonder, more than a few times, if it really was fiction after all.

It’s important when we read, or watch television or movies, or listen to music, that we enjoy and or/critique the messages promoted with the mirror of God’s word in mind. Obviously we need a “working knowledge” of God’s word in order to function in the world as Christ-followers. And the further away we stray from it or the longer the dry spells in which we find ourselves neglecting its truth or the more frequently we find those dry spells occurring, you can be certain –as night follows day—that our ability to discern will lose its sharpness. If we get far enough away, perception can even turn upside down and become actual deception.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

May 24, 2010 Airing out the Dirty Linen

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:6-8 New Revised Standard Version).”

The passage is quoted often, many times in conjunction with a teaching about the necessity of salvation by grace, rather than works. Even our righteous acts, the very best deeds we have to offer God, in comparison with his holiness, are “like a filthy cloth.”

Once when I was a little girl, my family was visiting the couple in the apartment a few doors down from us. While the adults played cards at the table, I entertained myself by drawing. I’d seen several variations of a magazine ad that impressed me—beautiful women in expensive gowns, elegant above a particular phrase that, at about six or seven, held no meaning for me. When I sketched my own rendition, getting the lady’s hair and makeup just so, I printed the phrase at the bottom and handed it to my mother, expecting praise. Instead, she burst out laughing and handed it to her friend, who also laughed. Under the drawing of an elegant woman, I had carefully written “Modess…because.” Modess was, of course, a manufacturer of feminine hygiene products- I was completely clueless.

Scholars point out that the phrase “filthy cloth” is from the Hebrew meaning soiled menstrual cloths—a word picture some might find offensive or shocking. Even today, when "female" products are routinely displayed on television with much less subtlety than in those old Modess ads, there are those who regard such discussion as unfit for “polite” company.

Certainly there are plenty of other words he could have used for filth—from rusty to excremental. There’s even a specific word for “morally corrupt” which is what most people think when they read the passage. What was he thinking?!

Get over it. Isaiah used the phrase he wanted, for good reasons.

The concept of being unclean comes from the Law of Moses. A Jewish woman was ceremonially unclean during her monthly period (or if she had an issue of blood at other times). She was not to be touched, and anyone touching her would also be unclean. Her bed was unclean, wherever she sat was unclean. Many of the laws were, in effect, a health code, similar to rules we see posted today (e.g. “employees must wash hands with hot water”).

The children of Israel lived in the wilderness, away from large quantities of running water. Precautions were taken so that disease did not spread. (Keeping a woman isolated from contact until after days after her period was over was also a strategic method for maintaining a growing population.) Just as not every skin spot was leprous but each was treated as being so, so as to prevent the spread of leprosy, every monthly period was treated as a potential germ threat.

From one perspective, Isaiah was saying that all of the good things we do apart from God, in our own strength, are potential disease-carriers. Self-righteousness can spread quickly, with devastation in its wake, among the people of God. When we get the idea that we are responsible for good results, blessings, answers to prayer, ministry, etc. trouble is sure to make an appearance, because God actively opposes the proud in heart (James 4:6). It isn’t enough to know this and try to keep self-righteousness to a minimum; Isaiah wants us to consider it all “unclean” so as to avoid potential problems.

Recently, though, I was reading an author’s take on this passage, and another thought struck me. The writer, a man, said that he couldn’t think of anything more disgusting than Isaiah’s word picture. As a woman, who has dealt with God’s design for women on an up close and personal basis for many, many years, I disagree. How can something that God designed be disgusting? I personally would have likened our good works to a diaper full of diarrhea (pee-ew) or towels that have wiped up vomit (gag), but I understand that many folks (at least the men folks) would catch Isaiah’s drift from his analogy.

Being disgusted at the author’s disgust, however, started me thinking in another direction. What else does a monthly flow of blood signify? In the culture of Isaiah, women were regarded more lowly when they were barren. Every month, they hoped that the flow would not come—not because they wanted to avoid PMS jokes—but because it meant they were pregnant. For the woman who had prayed for years, each month’s period must have been incredibly disheartening and discouraging, proof of her fruitlessness once more.

Think about good deeds. Obviously people—even those who are far from God and have ulterior motives—are capable of such deeds. When tragedy strikes around the globe, armies of helpers from every walk of life join hands to render aid. There are multimillionaires who have profited from sin and lawlessness who nevertheless “do good” with some of that money. The starving man doesn’t care that the food offered to him is tainted by “man’s righteousness.” A dying child isn’t concerned that the surgeon working to save her life is not a Christian.

“Good” things are done apart from Jesus, but only from an eternal perspective will the complete and final fruit of those deeds be seen. It reminds me of James 1:19’s command to be slow in anger, because the anger of man doesn’t bring about God’s righteousness. He doesn’t say it, but it’s true: the anger of man may not result in godliness, but it does get results. An angry mom can whip a household into a flurry of activity…voila! clean house…but also wounds. Scars. Fear and resentment. In the same way, an angry boss may scream his way into increased production from his employees, but he has also lost their respect.

Man’s anger gets results but not the results God intended. Man’s acts of righteousness get results too; however, the fruit of these good works is nothing like the fruit of God’s righteousness. Compared with God’s holiness and purity, the best we can offer is lifeless and barren, good only to be thrown away. And yet, when we come before him, wrapped in our dirty linen, the rags that prove there is no new life, he washes us with the blood that is life, the shed blood of Jesus. He invites us to participate with him in acts of righteousness that will yield lasting fruit.

Jesus…because. Now there’s a phrase that won’t ever be dated.
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Monday, May 10, 2010

May 10, 2010 The Freedom to Un-Box

Recently I was answering questions on a study guide for a Bible study, and I got mad at one of them. The two-part question went something like this—

A. Which are you more likely to do tonight: (1) watch television, (2) read a book, or (3) spend time with the Lord? (My answer? “TV.”)

B. What does your answer tell you about yourself and your walk with God?
(My answer? “Not a dadblame thing.” Actually, I used a shorter, more colorful word to reflect my attitude, and I was sort of looking forward to discussing it at Bible study. For some reason, it never came up.)

The question’s offensiveness was the implication that one standard for behavior exists, an idea that is not only unbiblical, but which also fairly reeks of man’s thinking and religiosity. The writer stopped short of calling anyone spiritually shallow or inferior if they didn’t attend nightly prayer meetings, but the whole concept of putting people into boxes, to presume to put God into a box, gets my knickers in a twist. So to speak.

But let’s think about it. If God were truly first in your life, wouldn’t you be on your face before him, every opportunity you had? I think not. Jesus, during his time on earth, was one with the Father and full of the Holy Spirit. He also spent a lot of time with other people— tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, teachers of the Law, little children. In John 5:19 Jesus said he only did what he saw the Father doing. Which means those “nonspiritual” things…sitting around the campfire at night with the sons of Zebedee, enjoying a meal with Lazarus… were on the Father’s heart as well.
Obviously Jesus drew apart for times of personal communion, but I doubt he kept a prayer journal or felt guilty if he didn’t start at 6:30am every morning. (Not that there’s anything wrong with journals or early prayer. It’s just that we have this annoying human tendency to regard our personal convictions as the Best Method For Holy Living, maybe even write a book about it, and miss the whole point.)

Paul had a tent-making business. Peter had a family. The jailer who was converted in Acts 16 showed up for work the next morning. If we’re walking in peace with, and obedience to, God, aren’t we spending time with him whether we’re standing behind a pulpit or a sitting behind a steering wheel? Whether we’re on our knees praying to the Lord or on our knees cleaning a floor? If we are called to “Do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7) doesn’t it follow that all our actions falling within the scope of obedience (i.e. not sinful) and done with thankful hearts do, in fact, bring him glory? Taking the kids to school, studying for a test, enjoying an afternoon nap, sitting down to a meal, having sex with your wife….for the believer, these all have the potential for glorifying God.

A French monk in the 17th century by the name of Brother Lawrence discovered that devotion to God didn’t have to ebb and flow according to circumstances. Even when he stumbled (physically, he was crippled; spiritually, he was imperfect), he found that with practice, he could maintain an equally strong focus on and fellowship with God when he washed dishes alone and when he worshipped corporately. He realized he could freely converse with God within his heart regardless of what he was doing physically, seeking to maintain that communion always. A little book of his letters entitled The Practice of the Presence of God, published after his death in 1691, continues to challenge and inspire today.

Could a constant flow of relationship with the Creator of the universe really be that simple? That all-consuming?

Brother Lawrence would, no doubt, have responded differently to that pesky study question than I did. To part B- what do your choices tell you about yourself—he might have said, “Anything about myself is of no consequence…it is only God and his glory that matter.”

Do all to the glory of God. Whatever he leads you to do at the moment. I’ll try not to judge you; you try not to judge me.


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Monday, April 26, 2010

April 26, 2010 What Would Jesus Do...About Television?

I grew up with sitcoms like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Hazel,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best.” (Actually, when I was very young, we lived in a valley that had spotty reception, so my experience with the shows came in later incarnations as reruns.) Whereas at one time there was quite the scandal about Jeannie’s belly button (“I Dream of Jeannie”) and Rob and Laura’s sleeping arrangements (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”), things have taken a much more graphic turn these days. Only the laugh track is the same.

Those who know me know that I’m no prude—if anything, I probably err in the opposite direction in terms of openness about certain issues. As an adult, I can handle adult conversation and adult themes, even adult beverages, within the appropriate contexts. This week, however, I became convinced that if I never see another sitcom again, it won’t bother me a bit.

When my teenagers became faithful followers of “Friends,” I watched with them. The writing was tight, the actors believable, and the jokes were actually funny. It didn’t portray a godly lifestyle, but at least there were positive story lines. Compared with what I heard Monday night last week, “Friends” was mild indeed. (Sort of like watching the Beatles at the beginning, when everyone thought they were so wild-looking then and they seem so clean-cut now).

Flipping through the channels, it amazed me how—with a gazillion channels available—there was really nothing I wanted to watch. “House” was over and I’ve never seen “24”, so what was the alternative? Sadly, I stopped in to visit “Two and a Half Men.” I haven’t seen males giggle over the names for female body parts since 8th grade. I couldn’t stomach more than about five minutes before switching over to “Romantically Challenged.” Apparently Hollywood thinks spanking fetishes are hilarious. Dishonesty and promiscuity…oh, what fun!

Perhaps it was because of those distasteful, albeit brief, forays into popular television that beckoned me to try “Glee” out two nights later. I’d seen a few of its shows at the start but when teenage pregnancy, deception, homosexuality, and outright meanness began overshadowing the excellent musical numbers, I’d closed the curtain. (Those are important issues to address, no question—just not what I look for in a bit of light escapism.) The “Madonna” episode had been promoted so heavily, however, I took the bait.

Other than the ongoing feud between the girls’ PE teacher and the Glee Club director, the episode revolved around three individuals struggling with sexuality, two of whom were underage. The adults involved (the man still married to someone else) never followed through, and the caring man encouraged the woman to get therapy for her “problem.” Apparently not-wanting-to-have-sex now equals mental instability. Viewers were left hoping that surely, surely, the young female lead and the young male lead will eventually get back together, regardless of with whom they had sex or with whom they’re not ready to have sex yet or who thinks they should have sex with whom. Do they ever have time for homework?

We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.

Then they pulled out the WWMD bracelets. “What Would Madonna Do?” …that’s right…even though the “What Would Jesus Do” phenomena eventually reached the hokey stage, at its heart the intent—asking ourselves what Jesus would do in every situation--was wonderful…obviously something Hollywood needs to ridicule.

Laughing at ourselves isn’t all bad; Christians tend to take themselves far too seriously, in my opinion. But how did we get from wholesomeness and moral lessons told with humor and sensitivity (and much better writing), to making fun of sacred ideals?

A friend of mine once shared a story of a pristine white church building. Satan knew that if he poured black paint on it, everyone would be in an uproar. Instead, he took a spray bottle of paint and just spritzed it a little each day. Spritz. Spritz. In time…and it took a long time… the white took on a slightly gray tinge. Then a darker gray…by the time it was black, everyone was used to it.

My mother uses the word “jaded” to describe this…we’ve been introduced to alternatives to what we know is true in small doses, with expert subtlety. If I’d been watching the particular shows I mentioned all along (just the thought of wasting that much time makes me shudder), I may well have missed the message. Seeing them “fresh”…and so close together…the underlying error screamed with in-your-face hostility.

What Would Jesus Do? It’s not as simple as saying he wouldn’t watch television, or even that he wouldn’t watch “Two and a Half Men.” He might watch things you couldn’t pay me to see (horror movies, for example). I don’t presume to know what he would or wouldn’t do. I’m just saying that if I’m watching something that (a) isn’t even funny/helpful/uplifting (b) isn’t really entertaining, and/or (c) goes against all I believe, I can always just turn the darn thing off.

Or at least look for Andy and Opie on “Nick at Nite.”

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