Archive for The Fruit of the Spirit

My daughter has been monitoring tweets about actor Cory Monteith’s death this weekend. I think it’s been quite some time that a person who was on TV weekly and loved by many teens and young adults has passed away. For them I think this is going to be very hard and significant. They need our prayers. I want to blog about it more to the teens I know later this week.

But in her watching tweets, my daughter found that the Westboro Baptist Church is spewing its vile attitude again, being “Glee-ful” at Cory’s death, and threatening to picket. They don’t represent me at all, and when they are described as Baptists and as a church that really bothers me. I’ve been wanting to say something for a while about them, especially for people who aren’t part of the orthodox Christian community.

This is what I hope you know:

Baptists Are Not All the Same

First, “Baptist” is not a term that always stands for a well organized denomination. There are several good Baptist denominations or confederations between churches that provide checks and balances if needed to the individual churches and pastors. But “Baptist” basically means only that one believes that when a person becomes a Christian he or she should be baptized by immersion in water. It says nothing, really, about how the church lives out its faith.

If you and I wanted to go out right now, buy a building, and start a Roman Catholic parish to run any way we pleased, we couldn’t. We would need to come in line with the denomination and agree to their viewpoint. But if you and I wanted to buy a building and hang a sign that said, “Baptist Church – Come Sunday at 10”, there’s nothing to stop us.

The Westboro Baptist Church is run by one man independently. The condemning things the church says and the picketing and hatred they promote are the teachings of this man. He is in a miniscule minority. Very, very few Baptists would join him on the picket line, and many, many of us would be glad to serve in the lines of “human shields” who protect mourners from what Westboro’s doing. They do not speak for the American Baptists and Conservative Baptists I have known, and I’m sure they don’t impress the Southern Baptists, either. Overwhelmingly they speak only for themselves.

The Matter of Being a “church”

Usually churches are made up of believers from a community. The members share a faith in the essentials of Christianity, but from there, they can be from different cultures, races, and economic classes. The Westboro church is made up almost completely of the relatives of the pastor. That’s an unusual and insular situation, lacking diversity and giving the pastor the powerful dual relationship of religious leader and family patriarch with almost everyone. There’s a proverb in the Bible, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17) In other words, my differences of opinion with yours are like two swords sharpening against each other and becoming greater tools to sharpen both our understandings of God and the Bible. The extreme and unquestioned opinions, and the lack of outside community participation, should give anyone pause. A church was never meant to be a closed group.

As It Should Be

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Although the terms “Baptist” and “church” grate me when used with Westboro, the last thing I hope you know is more important by far:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34 and 35

Below is a beautiful song based on this verse by Christie Knockles:

They Will Know Us By Our Love

This command of Jesus is buttressed by so many parables and incidents in His ministry: the Good Samaritan, the adulterous woman, the injunction not to judge lest you be judged. Accusing people of sins and humiliating them is not the way to go. The Holy Spirit can convict people of their sins far better than we can. We were sent to love as Christ loved us.

The Westboro people may believe that Jesus died for their sins and is their Lord and Savior, and it’s not mine to take that away from them if they say they believe it. But my understanding is far different than theirs. I believe Jesus died not only to take my sins, but so I would have His life and love in me, and because of that, in my life and the lives of other believers this kind of hateful venom would end. Let me say it again:

My Savior hung naked on a cross so that this kind of hatred would stop. It’s that important.


One Day

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A Special Letter for Janice

Around Easter I asked for prayer for my friend Janice who is recovering from a serious car accident. She is paralyzed from the chest down, and she’s been in Boston learning how to function in her new life. She’ll be coming home soon to start the next chapter in this unexpected set of circumstances. This is a letter for her that I hope will touch others, too.

Dear Janice,

Every time I think of you I have such a great feeling of thanks that you are alive and with us. “In all my prayers…I always pray with joy.” (Philippians 1:4) Joy comes first, and then concern about the things you need to start afresh.

I’ve thought about you in this recent hot weather, and hoped very much that you are comfortable and in air conditioning. Here we are relying mainly on fans and I have often tossed and turned looking for sleep in vain. I realize that I have so many options like turning on my side, throwing the sheets off, going downstairs for a cold drink. They seem like luxuries now because I am not confined to bed. And again, I hope that you are completely comfortable and sleeping well.

It got me thinking. There was, in fact, one day when I could not go anywhere. It was only one day but it changed my life, and what I learned lying there has stayed with me even to this day. I arose from that bed a different person. I wanted to tell you about it. I bet you are learning these same things, too, and many more truths that are giving you insight and wisdom.

My One Day

Three years before my son Jonathan was born, there was another baby. At 4 ½ months I was happy, round and expectant. What no one knew was that I myself had been born with a major defect of the uterus. There was only half the room in my uterus as there should have been, and on August 1, halfway through the pregnancy, my water broke. Though I didn’t know why this happened I knew this meant real trouble. We headed to Women and Infants Hospital in Providence where they told me nothing could be done and the baby would not live.

One Day

This is where I was put to bed and had to stay there. I had a hospital johnny on (which I hear you didn’t like much, either). But since this was a birth process nurses kept coming to look at my bottom and I felt distinctly unclothed, modesty tossed to the wind. I could not leave the bed until the “miscarriage”, which was really the labor and delivery of a stillborn, was completed. Because of my hidden deformity what should have been a simple matter took 21 hours in all. I had a lot of time to sit there undignified. The huge sense of failure, while not logical, was overwhelming. This tiny charge of mine had died on my watch, as it were. No amount of intellectual knowledge that this was not my fault could allay that.

Three things still in my power

That one day I felt I had lost everything. What did I have left? I couldn’t bring this baby to a point where it could live. What could I still do? I began to take stock.

I could still pray. While arguably I was having a worse day than anyone I knew, there were still people facing struggles I could pray for. Two of my friends were heading to interior Africa that day in what was then Zaire to be Wycliffe missionaries. Not a task for the fainthearted. In the adjoining room to mine a woman was having premature labor and it seemed to be a struggle to make the contractions stop. I prayed for her labor to stop so she could go on and have a live baby. (I would have to confess that any prayers I prayed for myself took on the tone of a bargain. I knew God did not take bargains, but – well, desperation got the better of my spiritual knowledge. Of course, there was no bargain to be had. I was better off praying for someone else that day.)

I could be kind. I could always show kindness and concern for the other people around me and perhaps bring some dignity to myself, too. It was something I could still give, just as I was by myself in the bed. Even if no one else perceived my thought that “Look, I am giving you a gift of kindness in the midst of this horror,” the gesture changed and dignified me as the giver.

And I could try to make people laugh. I have always had a kind of dry, darker humor. I could still try to point out to people the ironies of this cockeyed world. The way you see things is often the way you choose to see them, and it’s a fallen world, and sometimes the imperfect or inadvertent outcomes are pretty funny.

There were, of course, other things I learned from the experience I had, but those are other stories for another day. These three things really shaped me. I still believe in standing behind others in prayer, perhaps in a way I hadn’t before. With each person I meet I try to be kind, and this attitude has become a real part of me. I still try to see the humor in the situations that come up. People don’t always get my jokes, but at least I laugh.

Maybe you will write at some point and add many more, and more profound, thoughts. This is what I learned and what kept me feeling like I still had something to offer in my one truly bedridden day.

When it was over and I could leave the hospital, we named the baby the Hebrew name that means “God is good.” We named her Jan.

With Jesus’ great, surpassing love,


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He is Risen in Joy

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He is risen! Happy Easter to all, and may the joy of Easter spread through your week. My Easter morning was spent at my home church, Living Hope Christian Church in North Kingstown, RI. The sermon I heard got me thinking. I don’t think my pastor, Peter Atkin, will mind if I use it as a jumping off point.

We looked at the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany just days before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:6-13). Jesus explains that she has anointed Him in preparation of His burial. I started to wonder about that. I am used to anointings that come in times of great joy, but we don’t think of burials as joyful. For instance, I thought of one of my favorite verses from Psalm 45, where a wedding is taking place:

You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.(Psalm 45:7)

The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus saw the joy beyond the crucifixion:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Jesus encouraged His disciples to see the joy beyond the coming days:

Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:22)

Past the days of the horrible death and burial lay a reunion with the risen Christ and a joy no one could take away. More than that, He wanted for them a joy that was complete (John 16:24b) and that was the full measure of His joy as well (John 17:13b).

Then Paul ties together the reason for Christ’s suffering with a wedding, not the one literally described in Psalm 45, but the spiritual one that we all are part of:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy…. (Ephesians 5:25-26a)

So the anointing of Jesus’ burial could still be an anointing of the joy set before Him and the joy that lays ahead for us when we are with Him in perfect joy.

The Open Tomb


Kindness Instead of Quarrels

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A couple of weeks ago, Michelle was asking me when I’d weigh in about the pastor who wanted to burn Qurans. Although we’re not talking about the pastor in particular anymore, I’ve found a place where I think the Bible weighs in on the controversy – and as always, right down to our hearts, too.

I am reading my way through 2 Timothy, a book I’d have to say I don’t know too much about other than the “famous” verses that pop out. It surprised me to find some thoughts about kindness and gentleness that sound all too a propos for these days.

I have a fondness for those fruits of the Spirit that seem to get lumped together and not discussed – goodness, kindness, gentleness. This started years ago when I was asked to speak on all three for 10 minutes in a presentation on the fruits. Someone put them all together, thinking they were basically the same thing. They are not! I tried to show that in my allotted ten minutes. Then it started me on the lookout to find these qualities in the Bible for the last 25 years.

These are instructions for anyone who wants to be “the Lord’s servant.”

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. – 2 Timothy 2:23-26

There are two ways to get into a quarrel: you are drawn into one when another person becomes combative, or you pick a quarrel, saying inflammatory things that you know will lead to quarreling. If we’re told to be careful not to get pulled in to a quarrel, we certainly shouldn’t be starting one.

Now, putting “Quran Burning” in huge letters outside a church is an extreme example. (An aside: many bemoaned the attention the media gave the story. I don’t know exactly how they found the pastor, but think about it: he wanted to be found. He was picking this quarrel and hoping to amplify it.) But at home, on the smaller scale, how many times have you heard someone say the “clever” snide remark that is going to humiliate and raise ire? The one that comes to my mind is the “joke” about Adam and Steve, by which some people feel they’ve handily put down their opposition. But then there are the people who say, “Those people who believe in eternal security, they….” or, “those people who speak in tongues, they….” I’ve worshiped with both of “them” over the years. It’s a disgrace to talk about other believers like that. Because

Instead, {the Lord’s servant} must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. – 2 Timothy 2:24b

To be kind to another, we have to be respectful of him as a human being, even if we cannot respect his viewpoint. To be able to teach, we have to know Scripture, not hearsay or smart remarks. To not resent the other person’s religion and what hurtful things that religion may have done, we have to put away our pride. We are not better than the other person or his ideas. We have found Someone better than both of us. Someone who ended quarrels. Someone who was not only kind, but even gentle and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29). Someone whose very name is above any other name – most certainly our names (Philippians 2:9). The very thought of my name compared to His makes me wither. We are supposed to introduce others to that Someone – Jesus – holy and true, not someone combative and prejudiced.

Those who oppose him he must gently instruct – 2 Timothy 2:25a

If you confront a person on any subject, you need to know what your objective is. Are you bringing up your points to bring harmony, or a greater understanding? If your objective is to show the other person “what’s what”, or to make sure they know you are right and they are wrong, then pride is leading the way, not reconciliation.

Here, the gentle instruction is going to lead to evangelism, the opportunity to share who Jesus really is with the person. Posturing and put downs are never going to do it. I doubt that anyone has ever said, “Now that you’ve shredded all my beliefs and made me look like a fool, I want to accept your Jesus.” You realize that’s ridiculous once I’ve said it; do we always realize it when we’re talking to someone?

That they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. – 2 Timothy 2:26

Paul says the unbeliever is trapped. They have been taken captive, and often have been taught to take more people captive into the same false religion or cult. There’s been an outcry about human trafficking in part because we can see, and hopefully stop, the horrible kidnappers and abusers. Even when people are being belligerent about an ungodly viewpoint, Paul is saying that beneath it all, they are trapped by the real enemy that we do not see. If we could see their captivity, would we argue with them? Wouldn’t we rather work with them gently and try to get them out of there?

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. – Philippians 4:5

Lord, it’s a human failing to want to fight and put down others. Please help us all to be kinder and gentler the next time there is a conflict of opinion and remember it’s an opportunity to show Jesus’ kindness, gentleness and love. Amen.


Patience for his Perfect Work

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August 12, 2010

The night my son was born was one of the greatest moments of my life. When he was put in my arms I could immediately sense that somehow this child was special. I know every parent thinks that, but there was just something about him. He was the first boy to be born in my family in 41 years; that boy, my brother, had died in 1965, so now there was only my 81 year old father and this new little life. My father had had strokes and couldn’t speak well, but there was no disguising how pleased he was. My son showed so much promise, especially in art, where he actually started out as a prodigy. I tried to give him extra exposure to art, and opportunities to explore music and sports as well. We saw a bright future ahead.

This morning one of the worst moments of my life took place as I watched my beloved 19 year old son plead nolo contendere to the felony of dealing marijuana. I listened as he addressed the judge clearly and politely; I listened as she explained the rights that were being taken away. It stung me as she told him that the most basic right of a citizen, the right to vote, would be refused him for five years.

He got the best sentence possible under the circumstances. He was being sent to drug rehab for six months to a year instead of being exposed to the harsh and dangerous environment in our state prison. It was the outcome we had all been praying for. But my son has already started detox and rehab two weeks ago. It’s been tough for him, and he has missed home terribly. He had hoped against hope that he would only be there for three months, at most six. When the sentencing finally came, he began to close up like a turtle resolutely drawing into his shell. My son wouldn’t talk to us and wouldn’t look at us. It brought my ex-husband to tears. I felt like crying, too, but I knew I had also won a years-long battle to get my boy the help he needed, painful though it was. My son was addicted to much more dangerous drugs than the marijuana. I had finally done the only thing I could do to get him help and hopefully make it end.

I finally had my cry at the end of the day while I thought of the beautiful baby I had 19 years ago and the young man who had to stand guilty before the court this morning. How it hurt to see him punished and to know he desperately needs the correction and discipline the rehab house will give him. I wondered if God “weeps”, or the spiritual equivalent, when we disobey and must receive harsh consequences. Do my actions hurt the heart of God the way my son’s actions hurt mine? It makes me think a lot differently about my own disobedience.

I was thinking tonight about a verse I must have learned decades ago because the way I recalled it was in the King James Version, which I haven’t used in a long time. This is the New King James Version of the verse:

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. – James 1:2 -4

Patience has its perfect work to do. Patience (or perseverance in the NIV) was the quality I need to call upon in the months ahead. Even though my son doesn’t trust in Jesus, he is going to have to learn patience, too. He needs patience with the situation he’s in and the rehab where he must stay. He needs patience with himself to face the feelings that led him to use street drugs and prescription drugs to feel better. And many of us are hoping and praying that someday he will have patience because he recognizes that it is the Lord who is bringing healing to his life.

Tomorrow is a new day to pray for my son. Tomorrow is also a new day for me to count my trials “all joy” and be patient while God works patience in me.

Postscript: It is now the end of August and Jon is beginning to enjoy the feeling of being drug free. He is starting to gain perspective and it’s wonderful to see the “real” Jon unmasked by the drugs. It’s a real encouragement to see him start down the right road.


Anointing with the Oil of Joy

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My last blog was about my son Jon’s near death experience with heroin and other drugs. I’d been studying rejoicing, one of the fruits of the Spirit. Rejoice in all things, Paul said. Now that “all things” weren’t so hot, I challenged myself.

The first reason to rejoice: my son lived. He awoke at the hospital and was able to talk to us. Later, while he slept, I watched his breathing the way parents watch a newborn’s little breaths while he sleeps. It seemed no less a miracle to me now as it had then. Looking into his groggy blue eyes, I was so thankful I was even seeing them again.

I rejoiced in what Jon had to say when he awoke. I’m really sorry, he said. I know I need help. I want to get clean. I want to go to rehab. Of course his bravado returned in a couple of days, but in all these years of drug use he had never, ever acknowledged that he was at rock bottom and needed help. Unmasked in the seriousness of the situation, he admitted that he’d lost control of his drug use.

Another blessing in disguise: Jon had pneumonia and had to stay in the hospital for a few days. There he was able to see how many people cared about him as friends visited. He was not so alone in the world as he had imagined.

Something unusual happened when we found Jon in his bedroom at home. He had been saving a two-liter soda bottle filled with water. His friend, Jesse, had brought it over the last time he visited us and had forgotten it there. After Jesse died Jon kept the water bottle on the floor like a relic, and it was by his feet when we found him unconscious. I knew that was “holy water” as far as Jon was concerned, but one of his friends grabbed the bottle and threw the water on his face to try and revive him. When I told Jon what happened to the water, he said, “So he saved me. Jesse saved me.”

At the most I would entertain the idea that the hand of Jesus was guiding Jesse’s when he left that bottle there almost two years ago. But after that Jon didn’t ridicule God again. If I mentioned God, he never again told me that there was no God and my beliefs were on par with the Tooth Fairy. He saw in that forgotten water bottle a spiritual intervention to save his life, and he gave up his insistence that the world consisted only of what we can touch and see. It’s a start. I rejoice.

I wasn’t prepared to be tested and tempted to display my worst attitudes.
After nine hours of standing watch over my son, I left the hospital. Getting away will be a relief from the tension, right? Oh, no. The assault came immediately.

I sat down to eat at a restaurant with family members. All I wanted was a respite and a bowl of soup. They had an agenda. (Do not eat with people with agendas. It spoils the digestion.)

I tried three times to change the subject, but one family member was completely undeterred. She was going to ask every question about Jon’s situation then and there. She caught me when I was tired, scared, and hungry. It was not a good conversation.

As we left the restaurant, she berated me for not “making connections” and not “giving trust”. She said that as I’d called her early in the morning about Jon’s condition, she was entitled to details. I said nothing, but I left the parking lot furious. Couldn’t she see I’d had enough? Why didn’t she care about the condition I was in? What made her think I owed her anything? Couldn’t she let me eat in peace?

I knew I needed to forgive them, but the restless waves that often form our family relationships rose to a tsunami. This has really crossed the line, I fumed. There was no consideration for me. She didn’t want to know about Jon, she wanted information for her own gratification. They think if they’d been Jon’s mother they’d be doing a better job. They’d know the answers. They’d get him in rehab. They think I failed.

I was upset, too, that anger and unforgiveness were getting the better of me. I kept thinking of the lines of an old gospel song: “Joy, joy, joy/ Joy in the Holy Ghost/ Don’t let anybody rob your joy/ there’s joy in the Holy Ghost”. In the hospital I had tried so hard to rejoice in this disaster. Now this situation had robbed my precious joy and replaced it with a rock-hard heart, and I hadn’t stopped it. I’d even reveled in it. Weren’t their bad behaviors rooted in attitudes I had suspected all along? Didn’t they deserve my contempt?

My mind came back to Philippians 2:5 – 7:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But made Himself nothing……

Equality with God is a big deal for Jesus to let slip from His grasp. It’s one of the many humbling things He did for us. I have what I think of as my own big deals. I mean, they’re big deals to me, but God’s not so impressed. What if that passage said:

Anne should not consider being respected as something to be grasped; or
Anne should not consider always being right as something to be grasped; or
Anne should not consider always having her way as something to be grasped.

I have a feeling there could be a hundred more of those uncomfortable little phrases informing me I have to let my grasp go.

In Psalm 45, the bridegroom is praised in this way:

You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
Therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
By anointing you with the oil of joy.
Psalm 45:7

I pray that I would hate the wickedness that would have my heart,
And I would lift my hands to praise God,
And He would anoint them with the oil of joy
So my grasp would slip from the things that would rob me.


Joy in the Trial

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One thing I’m noticing about rejoicing: we are told to rejoice in the most unlikely circumstances. The apostle Paul is full of joy while he’s under house arrest, while out on the streets of Rome, mixed in with true evangelists, men with false motives are also preaching the gospel. The book of James launches right in: “Count it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2) As I’m looking at Paul’s example and James’ lesson, I just knew the moment was coming for me to test this out.

Boy, did it ever.

Last Tuesday morning at 3 a.m. I found myself in my son Jon’s room. Two of his friends and I had found him unconscious in a chair. The air was thick with pot. Jon was covered in vomit, ashen, and not breathing. Not breathing.

“Call 911,” I ordered one of his friends while I picked up Jon’s lolling head and supported his neck. I pulled him upright and found it caused him to gasp for air past the vomit in his airway. I kept doing it. “Keep breathing, Jon,” I told him, but he wasn’t breathing except for those gasps I forced his lungs to take. As I looked at my hand behind his neck I had a flashback to supporting his newborn head in the first moments I had ever held him. Nineteen years later, was I doing this for the last time?

Of course, we didn’t arrive at this wretched scene from out of the blue. At the beginning, Jon was a longed for and cherished baby, the first boy in 41 years on my side of the family. We loved and nurtured him intellectually, spiritually and physically. But even as a baby Jon was stubborn. Every limit had to be tested, every barrier needed a battering ram.

Around the seventh grade the first strands began to unravel. There were sliding grades, problems at school, and the beginnings of drug abuse. Yes, there were serious problems in our home, but Jon was going out and heaping problem upon problem. We tried to get him help, but Jon was like a tornado headed out on his own path, churning up more trouble than we could keep up with.

Where did we go wrong? Did we go wrong? We certainly got plenty of advice. Advice, however, is cheap. Solutions were nonexistent.

There had been two other episodes with drugs and two other polices visits to our home. Each time we hoped it would be the clarion call that would wake up Jon. Then, when he was 17, one of his closest friends died in an accident. Jon became fatalistic and started taking unreasonable risks. Worst of all, he refused to believe in God.

Where was the little boy who loved Bibleman and Captain Bible, who sat on my lap for hours while I read Little Pilgrim’s Progress and The Chronicles of Narnia? We were forced to watch Jon’s faith sink into fatalism just as we helplessly saw the drug abuser’s mindset overtake him.

Tonight was by far the worst. As we waited for the police to come, one of his friends, a Christian boy he’d known all his life, prayed over him frantically. Once the policeman was standing by me, I remember saying, “Thank God”. Isn’t that what we always think? That the police and rescue will come, and they will fix it?

The police found the needle, and the tracks on his arm, and another dose of heroin in his room. Later we would find out that on this night, he’d used a concoction of Xanax, pot, vodka, and three shots of heroin. When he got to the ambulance, his respiration rate was 6. People on their deathbeds have rates of 6.

No one was offering any assurances that they caught him in time. They put him in the ambulance; the doors swung shut. The ambulance didn’t leave for a while. Not good. I looked at those closed doors and wondered if I would ever see Jon again. Jon’s 16 year old sister and I stood on the lawn and bawled, not caring who in the neighborhood would hear us in the middle of the night.

Count it all joy. Somehow.

More to follow about Jon later this week.

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Goodness and the Heart

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Today I noticed that two portions of the Word, the story of the rich young ruler and the parable of the workers, Matthew 19:16 – 30 and Matthew 20: 1 – 16 respectively, are meant to go together.  Perhaps you have had an astute pastor who has pointed that out to you along the way, but I’d never realized it.  Today I’m looking at the account of the young ruler.

The young ruler starts off by asking Jesus what good thing will earn him eternal life, but Jesus asks him,

“Why do you ask me about what is good?  There is only One who is good.” –                                                                                                                                    Matthew 19:17a

In the accounts of this story in Mark and Luke, the ruler calls Jesus “Good Teacher,” and Jesus replies to that also that only God is good.  Jesus is the Son of God, but He knows that “Ruler” isn’t going to take Him that seriously as the story unfolds.  It tells us, too, that the fruit of goodness is definitely not innately in ourselves.  It is only gained by reflecting the goodness of God.

“For the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.” – Psalm 100:5

God’s goodness is rock solid and steadfast.  Ruler is just about to start thinking that Jesus’ words are not so good.

Ruler wants to know how to be saved, and Jesus mentions several of the Ten Commandments which deal with how you treat others, and adds “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which appears later on in Leviticus.   He does not confront Ruler with the commandments dealing more with our relationship to God.  Why?  Maybe because loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is one commandment no one could have possibly kept fully.  Maybe because Jesus knew Ruler was looking for something to do, or to avoid, and he wasn’t thinking of a deep love of God.

As it is, Ruler seems to feel assured that he has always treated others well, and tells Jesus that he has kept them all.  But there is more.  Jesus tells him that one thing is lacking.

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow Me. –                                                                                                                               Matthew 19:21

Jesus speaks to what Ruler is interested in, his unblemished record.  But to do something as difficult as leave his life as a rich man, Ruler will have to surrender his heart to God.

Jesus wants Ruler to change his ideas radically.  His earthly treasure needs to be shared, even to the point that he would be wealthy no more.  The new treasure his heart will be set upon will be in heaven.  What he can see and hold here, and the security and enjoyment it brings, will go for good.  What kind of treasure awaits him in heaven?  He will have to trust that Jesus, as the Son of God, knows about that.

Moreover, I think the challenge Jesus sets before Ruler gives us a further clue about goodness.  God is good, not just nice.  Reflecting God’s goodness is not a show of good manners.  Ruler has controlled his behavior toward others, but it takes a complete change of heart and a trust in the goodness and protection of God to give away his possessions to the point that he gives away his way of life.

In Ruler’s case this involves money and a privileged lifestyle.  But the “riches” that hold us back may be our families, our relationships, our physical beauty or strength, our standing in our community, our advanced education.  Anything that makes us feel superior and comfortable could be our riches.  Jesus could be calling us today to put it at His feet, or if applicable, use our talents for those who have not, instead of building up ourselves.

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. – Matthew 19:22

This sad result is the reason I wondered at the beginning if Ruler understood that he was not talking to a good teacher but to the Lord Himself.  A good teacher could give bad advice, but if he knew the advice was from God, would he have been so quick to back away?

Jesus tells his disciples that parting with riches is no small thing, and they make it difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God – but not impossible.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:26

Did Ruler realize that had he been willing, God would have given him the strength to make it possible?  Do we realize it in what we’re facing today?

“Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also

The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still:

His kingdom is forever.”

– Martin Luther, from “A Mighty Fortress is Our God

Yesterday Michelle was kind enough to post for me on “my” day.  I got up this morning and found that she had posted for me in more ways than one.  Her message about freedom was very nearly the post I intended to write today.  I’m going ahead because I am going to look at it from a slightly different angle, and because when God says something important in Scripture you find He has said it again, even a number of times.  Maybe we need to hear this more than once because it’s so important to us right now.  I know I do.

I started looking at the whole passage of Galatians where you find the verse about the fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5:16 – 26.  I’ve been blogging about some individual fruits of the Spirit without looking at the bigger picture.

First, Paul has laid out the reason why his instructions are so important:  we are fighting a war.

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. – Galatians 5:17

Where can I turn when what I see in the mirror of God's Word seems to condemn me?

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves." Where can I turn when what I see in the mirror of God's Word seems to condemn me?

The war is not overseas, it is right here in front of us.  Worse, in this conflict between the Spirit and the sin nature, we feel drawn to the enemy side.  We find the list of sins nauseating when we read them, but they don’t always seem so bad when the opportunity presents itself.

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. – Galatians 5:19 – 21a

Sounds awful, doesn’t it, at the moment?  Paul even trails off from naming them all.  Our enemy has plenty of temptations and enticements.  Following along with them brings dire consequences:

I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:21b

Why would anybody who lives like this be interested in inheriting the kingdom of God, I wondered.  Then I remembered those many who hear, and like what they hear, and do what they want anyway.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. – James 1:22 – 24

Have we walked away from personal inventory and forgotten what our own soul looks like?  It is an inward act of the sinful nature that is potentially more dangerous than the ones in the list above. In this war, as a soldier on the Kingdom side, I do have my orders:  stay away; flee; cast them off; push them away because they no longer have a part of you.

And we have help:  God knows the battle we fight between our spirits and the sinful nature.  “They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.”

Thank God for the hope in these next verses.  Paul proclaims decisively,

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. – Galatians 5:16

It doesn’t say, “With great and sad longing for your sinful ways, you can just eke out a victory, or a draw.”  “You won’t feel freed up, but you can pull it off.”  It says, “You will not gratify.” You can step forward and win the battle and be free, and get away from the law.  After listing the results of living by the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Paul adds, “Against such there is no law.” – see Galatians 5:22 -24

Now both Michelle and I want always to stress that any command to do something outwardly flows from something inward.  You can’t just take these lists and say, “Okay, don’t do this, do that, and I’ll go to heaven.”  It leaves you still under the law, and you won’t win.  Oh, you may think you win, but there will still be sin balanced against the good works, and the good works may not be as pure in motivation as they seemed, and you need to be cleaned from all sin.   What will wipe clean the sin side of the scales once and for all?

The thing that has cleansed us, given us a second spiritual birth, and given us the power to do good things and feel free in doing them is our belief in Jesus – a belief that is so strong that we have given our lives over to Him.  When we heard His words, when we saw our sinful souls in the mirror, we did not absentmindedly walk away.  Inwardly we have made the decision to serve God.  Look at the power that God gives us in this next verse:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24

We crucify the sinful nature.  We admit our sins and call our sins a part of all the sins Christ paid for when He was on the cross.  Now, because Jesus Christ is triumphant, we can win our battles.

The last verse in the passage is a warning:

Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. – Galatians 5:26

In other words, avoid the trap of now weighing on the scales your success at producing fruit against that of others, or concerning yourself with the size and scope of the work you are called to in comparison to others.  You just don’t know the way God is working in someone else’s life.  Throw away the scales and let God prune His fruit trees as only He knows best.


Peace from the God of Peace

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As I came to the end of Philippians, I noticed Paul spoke about peace twice.  He started his letter wishing them God’s peace, too.  With all the previous talk of joy, wouldn’t you think joy could buoy you through anything?   But no, and even in my own quiet time I found a verse where joy and peace in particular are working together:

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace – Isaiah 55:12a

Paul is giving his final instructions and he tells the Philippians that they don’t have to be anxious about the things that concern them:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. – Philippians 4:6

God is ready to hear.   But look at the promised result.  It’s not, “Your prayer will be answered in the order in which it was received,” although sometimes we might like to hear that!  The promise that comes in response to our requests is something very different:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7

We are promised God’s peace.  It’s not the peace we understand here, the absence of war, a quiet night, a unity between us and others.  The peace of God is a deeper assurance than anything else we know of that God sees all, and all is at the right place at the right time.  This is as best as I can do to explain it.

Not long ago I realized I didn’t have peace inside me, and I realized I’d never asked, either.  When I asked God for peace I can only tell you what I received in my own human terms, which is ridiculous because God’s peace is not like the human version at all.  For me, it felt as if He were showing me that He knew all my problems, all the discouraging details, and He had His hand on it all, so I could completely relax.

The last part of the sentence promises what this peace will do:  guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Peace will guard us from the anxiety that so wants to return.  When Jesus explains the parable of the sower, He tells us that some hear the gospel with joy and then wither in the face of trouble or persecution.  Others believe but don’t see the fruits of the Spirit show up in their lives because of the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth (see Matthew 13:20 – 23).  We can refocus on past worries, or become worried about something new.  But we have a guard to protect us:  the peace of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul goes on to remind us how to keep our minds focused on Jesus and not the former, or potential future, problems.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. – Philippians 4:8

And then Paul gives himself as an example of one who has focused on Jesus.  It sounds nervy.  He’s not giving one example where his faith in Christ prevails.  He says,

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:9

He offers the Philippians to look at his whole record, in person and in the letter.  I think only someone who has really put his whole life in God’s hands and experienced His peace in an ongoing way could dare to do that.  Notice that the promise for focusing on Jesus has changed:  not God’s peace, but the God of peace will be with you.  Focusing on Jesus brings us to see and know:  God is present with us.

I shared this verse with a friend of mine this week.  In Philippians, Paul explained how to give our problems and focus our minds on God.  It’s a principle that Paul would have been familiar with from this wonderful verse in Isaiah:

God will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee:  because He trusts in Thee. – Isaiah 26:3, KJV