Renaissance and Reformation

To be born again and to reshape.

As Protestant Christendom prepares to honor the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, I have been thinking about what it means to be reformed.

Scholars agree that the philosophies that shaped Luther’s thinking, and the ability to spread the word about his ideas could not have happened before they did.  God carefully orchestrated history to create the ideal moment for the Church to get her act together by bringing into play great inventions, great minds and great discoveries.

We call this era the Renaissance, or re-birth. This is the time of great discovery, a time which changed and re-shaped our world.  The invention of the printing press in the early/mid 15th century allowed for inexpensive reproduction of written word. Suddenly, the Bible was available for anyone to read.  When great men of thought like Luther, Wycliffe, Calvin, and Zwingli – along with some of their lesser known predecessors – actually read the Bible instead of blindly accepting what the corrupt leadership of the Church was telling them, the belief system of the western world was rocked to its very foundation.

Only not really.  The foundation of the Church was built on Christ alone.  The Reformers just wanted to clear away the crumbling mortar and detritus of the centuries and get down to solid rock.

That shakes the world.

Great, all cool history, the church is reformed, but what does that have to do with me?

How do I apply all this to my own life?

The real question that bears asking is: where have I allowed tradition, complacency, selfish ambition and pride to crumble my mortar? How can I experience a renaissance and reformation in my own life and faith?

Isn’t that what Christ calls us to?  He tells Nicodemus in the dark of night that unless he is born again, unless he experiences a renaissance, he will not find God’s kingdom. (John 3:1-6)

On another dark night, Jesus himself prays for us “Sanctify them by the truth: your word is truth.” (John 17:17) To be sanctified is to be made holy, to be reformed in the eyes and by the hands of God.

“Your word is truth.”  Here is the crux of the matter.  How can I possibly know who God is, how He wants me to be re-born and re-shaped unless I know what He says?  Since I haven’t recently actually heard thundering from heaven, there is no way for me to hear His voice, to KNOW His voice, unless I immerse myself in the only form of His truth I have handily available.  And I have the great minds of the past – minds like Gutenberg the inventor, and Wycliffe the English translator – to thank for the fact that I own not one, but many, Bibles.  To hear and know God’s voice, I need to, in the words of Martin Luther, rely on sola scriptura. Luther said, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it”.

God’s word is truth.  To know His word, I need to read it.  Pray it.  Live it.  To experience renaissance and reformation, I must deliberately and thoughtfully put God’s word in my heart and actions.

Reform me.  Reshape me.  Let me be born again.

That is what will rock the world. That is what will bring re-birth and re-shaping.  Not just of me, but of those around me.  Church, wake-up.  It’s time for another Renaissance and Reformation.

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Commencement

Our oldest graduates high school tonight.  Every single cliche that was ever written about time flying has come painfully home to roost.  In those hard early years, when it felt like eternity just to get through a day, well-meaning older people would say “Enjoy it – it goes so fast” and I would nod and think Yeah, right.

Yeah, right.

One day you are bleary-eyed with sleep deprivation because they are newborns and the next because they are teenagers. And then they have the audacity TO GO TO COLLEGE!  How intensely ungrateful of them to grow up and leave.

The question I keep asking myself is how did we get here?

It’s the way of things.  When he was little, I would hold him and think I never want this to change and then it would and it was better.  Every phase seemed more interesting and fun, and I have to cling to that now – I need to hold tight to my past experience and trust it to be true for the future.  The best is yet to come.

Ah.  But isn’t that what God tells us over and over and over?  How am I so slow on the uptake?

There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. Proverbs 23:18

I know the plans I have for you … plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him. I Corinthians 2:9

The grand narrative of scripture is so often about the next best thing.  Promises that what will come is better than what is now.  Sometimes the now is good, sometimes not, but either way better is commencing.

Merriam-Webster defines commencement as “a time when something begins.”

So why does it feel so much like an ending in my heart? I’ve spent the past few weeks reveling in the endings.  So many finals.  His final juggling show.  His final high school choir concert.  His final Boy Scout meeting.

While he’s been taking finals at school, I’ve been taking the finals of his childhood.

I am one of those lucky parents whose child is toward the young end of his particular grade.  As a late May baby, my boy just achieved adulthood legally.  So ALL of it culminates at once.

He commences. Something new is beginning.

In this time of lasts, there are also so many firsts.  The first time he signs his own waiver (that would be so he can ride a mechanical bull at the all-night graduation celebration – say, what? I am not sure he is qualified to make that decision! Oh wait.  Yes he is.) His first solo doctor’s appointment.  “Do you want me to go with you?”  “Yeah. But just sit out here in the waiting room.” Talk about feeling irrelevant.  Although it was kind of nice that HE had to fill out the paperwork!

He and his friends joked about buying cigarettes on their birthdays just because they could, not because they have any interest in smoking. (They didn’t do it.  Whew.)

I need to commence, too.  Not only do I need to take my hands off the wheel, but I should probably exit the vehicle.  On the other hand, I’m helping pay for college, so maybe I’ll just climb into the back seat.  This metaphor isn’t playing out quite how I’d like.  No one likes a back seat driver.

How do I commence this new phase of my life?  Again with the cliches – If you love something set it free…   Whatever.  But it is kind of fun to watch them fly.  Sometimes.

It just feels weird.  Conflicted.  Like I don’t know what to feel.  He’s ready.  I’m sort of ready.

There are things I keep reflecting on – have I said everything I should have? (Probably not.)  Have I said things I shouldn’t have?  (Yes. Uff da, yes – not so proud of those).

For the most part we’ve done it right.  We’ve taught him what is important to us, we’ve modeled the way we’d like to see him live. We’ve also screwed up, but we are big believers in repentance and forgiveness around this house, and so we’ve apologized. A lot.  Mostly we’ve loved him.

SO I keep reminding myself that this is not an end.  This is a beginning of an exciting and fun new phase.  Just like when he first smiled, or crawled, or began kindergarten was more fun and exciting than the previous stage. He is still my son. I will still have a presence in his life.  I will probably not hold my tongue when I should.  I will keep apologizing. I will keep forgiving and being forgiven.

He will take on the world. And with a lot of prayer and God willing, do a great job of it. He is ready to commence.

 

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The Greatest Commandments

 

Mark 12

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

I’ve decided this summer to explore what this means in a practical sense.  If it’s important to Jesus (and He says so Himself), then it should probably be important to me as His follower.

This is a passage that I’ve known since childhood – among the first of the many many memory passages that dear Jack Musikov helped me learn in third grade Sunday School.  Jack would assign us a verse or two, and when we were able to recite it back to him, Jack would cry.  He also usually gave us some little trinket as a reward, but in looking back, it was his tears that made the largest impact.

Anyway,  it’s a passage that is easily rattled off, and while I’ve often thought about it, I’ve never really dissected how it could be applied in a practical way.  Jesus has never struck me as a theoretical kind of guy.  While He spoke in stories, there is always an element of action implied.  He tells the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.”  The paralytic is told to pick up his mat. And in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, He says flat out that “Everyone who hears these words of mine AND PUTS THEM INTO PRACTICE is like a wise man…” (Matthew 7:24)

Um.  Hello?!

So why is this so hard?  The distractions of our day are so many that it is easy to not be deliberate about practicing what Jesus considers to be the most important commandment!  There is so much talk these days about intentionality. (Which spell-check is telling me isn’t even actually a word. I can’t point fingers because I make up words all the time. However, when I looked it up in the on-line dictionary, it does appear.  So there, spell-check!)

Our society harps on about being intentional.  I see nothing wrong with that, but how about a little less talk and a little more action?  What does being intentional look like?  And how do we choose what to be intentional about?  Sometimes I think we are mostly being intentional about being intentional. The fact of the matter is, it is extremely difficult to be intentional about everything.  And exhausting.

So I’m going to choose a few things to be intentional about this summer.  And those things are loving God with all my heart.  And with all my soul. And with all my mind.  And with all my strength.

And the hard one.  To love my neighbor as myself.

I will explore these commands in posts over the summer – how I’m trying to put them into practice, when it works and when I fall flat on my face.   And to make it memorable, I’m posting the commands on my wall where I will see them as a mini-reminder every day.

Welcome to my closet. You’ll notice that, yes, I’ve hung my reminder with painters’ tape.  And yes, it is just printed on cheap printer paper.  And yes, the only nod to being even remotely artsy is that I played with fonts.  Not very well.

Hey, you use what you have!  I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going.

 

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I want to be like Jesus…Thoughts on Grace

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately pondering what it means to be a Christian.  I know WHAT it means, I guess I’ve been more focused on HOW to be a Christian.  What does it look like to be more like Jesus? And why is that so stinking hard?

I love Jesus.  I’ve known and loved Him practically my whole life.  I was given at birth that wonderful legacy of generational faith, all my people know and love Him too.  And while I never had a Road to Damascus type of encounter, I can recall a specific moment where the power of the Spirit was so strong that I could have no more said no to Jesus in my heart than I could have stopped a moving train.

But preceding that moment, and following it, life was not so significantly different.  There was no gutter to glory narrative for me.  I was the one, when around the fire at camp giving testimonies, always felt that mine was, frankly, kind of boring. Especially compared to the stories of others with their broken families or drug/alcohol problems.

Mine has been a comfortable kind of faith.  Like an old sweatshirt on a cold night.

But it has also been not at all like that.  Growing to be like Jesus is not simple or easy for any of us.  Just because I never dabbled in THE BIG SINS like sex or drinking, I certainly have plenty of inner (and sometimes outer) sinning.  And the kind that is far more insidious and hurtful. The truth is:  Sin is Sin.  And God hates all of it.  So I’m no better or worse than anyone on this planet, however I may judge their foibles to make myself feel better.

When I was a little girl I would pray, as I was falling asleep, that the next day I could have one perfect sin-free day, just like Jesus.  I figured that if He could live a sin-free life, then certainly I could make it through a day.  Then I would wake up and smack my brother, or sass my mom, or in general make life less pleasant for those around me.  FAIL!

I’m a pleaser.  I want people to like me, to think I’m hard-working, and friendly, and smart, and funny, and LIKE me.  The worst punishment I could face as a child was when my dad would look over his glasses in disappointment over something I had done or left undone.

So I want to please God.  I want to live a life that makes God proud of me.  I want to do the right things, and obey the right way, and serve the right ministries, and be the good girl.

Except it doesn’t so much work that way.  No matter how hard I try, I will never be good enough ON MY OWN.  Besides, within heartbeats I can vacillate between wanting to be like Jesus with my whole heart, to barking at my kids, or flipping off the driver ahead of me.  Oops.  FAIL!

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around grace and what that means.  I know what it means, theoretically, but how does that play out?  How does it work in my life? And how do I actually extend it to others?  I don’t want to be the wicked servant who was forgiven much, and then can’t pay it forward.  But I feel like I am, so very often.

I’m forgiven.  I know that.  I get that.  In my head.  And sometimes in my heart, but not always.  It seems to me, as an educator, that a student (me) can know the material, but when it comes to actually putting that knowledge into practice, can fall flat on my face. FAIL!

Part of being generationally Christian means that I know the lingo.  I can fellowship with the best of them. (And exactly how did fellowship come to be a verb?  This is one of those buzzwords that makes me kind of crazy. But that’s another topic.) I know all about grace, justification, sanctification, redemption.  But if I can’t let it move from head knowledge to heart knowledge, what is the point?

So here is what I cling to.  I’m a work in progress.  There is no way that I can get it right.  I will never be good enough on my own.  And this is where I need to let Jesus step in.  I need to let Jesus be perfect for me.  I have to hope, to believe that when I stand before the throne, I can point at Him and say “Look at Him, not at me.”  And in the meantime, I get up in the morning and try.  And know that even though I FAIL, He never does.  This must be an on-going and everyday process.  It’s a good thing His mercies are new every morning.

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Beauty and the Beast: A Redemption Story

On Good Friday I took my daughters and a gaggle of their friends to see the new live-action Beauty and the Beast by Disney.  I know there has been controversy, but the truth is:  I don’t really care.  We live in this world, which is full of sinners, me included.  So let’s just not go there right now.

Anyway, because of the gaggle that accompanied us, I was politely requested to Not Sit By US! I could have just dropped them off at the theater and gone and gotten a latte, but I actually wanted to see the movie.  (True confession:  I’d already seen it.  As had my daughters, who actually allowed me to sit WITH them the first time. Ah, teenagers!) So I sat alone. In the lovely leather recliner.  With my blankie.  And my latte.  It was blissful.  I digress.

I don’t know if it was because I was sitting alone, or all the reflection that whirls around Good Friday and its impact, but I was strangely moved by the story.  I grew up with Disney princesses and so have my daughters (don’t judge, please just re-read the first paragraph), but I’ve never thought deeply about the underlying story that fairy tales have to tell us – the universal truths that initially created these stories.  Mostly, I’ve just enjoyed the fluffy entertainment and let it go at face value.

This viewing was different.  As we got to the end of the story, I found I was crying.  (Keep in mind – I’d already seen it once, sans tears) The love Belle had for her Beast, and the sacrifices she made, magically transformed the whole castle.

A wise person (okay, my husband) once said: The best stories are redemption stories. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, Lucy reads a beautiful story in a magician’s book, but because of the magic is not allowed to turn back to re-read it, and then finds she can’t remember the story.  But “ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story that reminds her of the forgotten story.”

So back to Beauty and the Beast.  As the credits and my tears rolled, I realized that the story is yet another hidden allegory for The Greatest Story; the Story that feels like a tragedy on Good Friday, but has a surprise ending on Easter morning.

On the macro level, much of the story of Beauty and the Beast is similar to the great Narrative of God.  We have changed from what we were intended to be in the beginning into shallow selfish angry creatures.  We hide ourselves away behind high walls shutting the world out so that no one can see what we are truly like – we put on the masks of politeness, but slowly our facade decays and crumbles just like the Beast’s castle.  In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people, God’s chosen ones, are given the law to help them remember – to point them back to God.  But much like the Beast shelters and protects his precious rose, the Hebrew children take the Law and turn it from God’s love letter into a set of rules and regulations that they use to judge each other.  In essence, love is shut out and forgotten in the mists of time.

Until one day, a Beauty enters the picture.  The Child of God comes into the world and, like Belle entering the castle, fearlessly sees beyond the beastly exterior into a heart that is worth loving.  Hearts that the Beauty loves so much that He sacrifices himself on the cross to transform the Beasts.

As I sat in the theater, I realized that I am the Beast! This is not something anyone really likes to think about themselves, but it is so very true. The love of the Beauty is what ultimately transforms me.

Now I know this is not a perfect allegory.  One could argue that the Beast saves Belle as much as she saves him.  And I am not trying to say that we have anything whatsoever to do with our own salvation.  Grace is not earned, but rather learned – experienced – given by a great teacher to an unwitting student.  There are no perfect allegories – only the One True Story.  But tales like Beauty and the Beast point toward the Great Story.  Our world needs the Beauty to save it.  Even those that don’t admit it, those who claim there is no God, that life has no meaning, still create stories, unknowingly, that point to Him.

In our fallen world, the world that can’t remember the story, any story that reminds us of the forgotten story is a good story.

 

 

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On Authenticity

Authenticity is a rigorous inside-out consistency that courageously cares for others.

Awakening the quieter virtues, Gregory Spencer

What does it mean to be authentic?  We tend to define it much like the dictionary – real, legitimate, bona fide.  So very little in our lives is fully real anymore – fake news, polyester, preservatives, social media.  We are craving that which is real.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we want to be real.

So why aren’t we?  In a society that is about “what you see is what you get” and “letting it all hang out” (did I just date myself there?  Probably), we talk big about being who we truly are, but we don’t put it into practice very often.  What was your answer the last time you heard the question “how are you?”  Was it an honest “Well, I’m stressed because the dishwasher overflowed, my kid is flunking English, I’ve gained ten pounds, and I’m up to my eyeballs in debt.  How are you?”  Or is the standard “Fine! (smiley emoji)”

Now I’m not saying that airing our dirty laundry as a response to a pretty inauthentic question to begin with is the definition of authenticity.  As a matter of fact, I will argue that it’s not.  The truth is that the person asking that question really doesn’t want an answer but actually just wants an exchange of shallow pleasantries.  But what if more of us answered truthfully?  Would it change the narrative?  It would certainly probably stop the conversation flat.

I think authenticity isn’t the glib answer or the glib question, but rather a determination to live our lives on the outside the same way we are on the inside.  WITHIN REASON! Sometimes my inside isn’t so pretty.  Sometimes my inside is querulous and argumentative and frankly, a little nasty.  To let that out isn’t to be authentic, except in very careful safe situations where I am known and loved IN SPITE of that part of me.  To let that out is just to, in the words of Pastor Kris in a fabulous sermon on this topic, be an authentic jerk.  I’m not sure the world needs anymore authentic jerks.

Maybe to be authentic means allowing our insides to be changed to match our outsides?  This is part of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.  What if the best of both inside and outside matched, and the icky stuff was transformed?  And then what if we were real about that process?

I don’t think there is anything wrong or shameful in sharing our struggles.  Here is a secret.  I’m not perfect.  Neither are you.  As far as I know only one person was ever perfect.  So I want to be more like Him.  As hard as I try, and I should try, I certainly won’t achieve it this side of heaven.

What if being authentic has a different meaning for those of us who are Christians than for the rest of the world?  So often “religious” people are branded as a hypocrites.  BECAUSE WE ARE!  Jesus went after the religious bigwigs of His time going so far as to call them “whited sepulchres.”  I love this term, mostly because we don’t use it so much anymore.  We plant our dead people.  In Jesus’ time and place, they put bodies into carved tombs that were whitewashed on the outside to be all pretty and attractive, but the insides of which did not smell so very good.  Jesus calls out the religious hypocrites of His time, telling them that while they look good externally, they are actually quite stinky.

Hmm, people.  Are we as Christians as different from that as we should or would like to be?  Are we open with our non-Christian neighbors about our very real struggles? Or do we put on a pious face and pretend everything is hunky-dory?

One of the most beautiful things about following Jesus is that we don’t have to be one thing on the outside and another on the inside.  If we had it as all together as we want the world to believe, we wouldn’t need a Savior.

Somebody once asked me if I didn’t believe that people at heart were basically good.  I had to answer that I did not, based on my personal experience of my own soul.  My insides aren’t so pretty.  By all external appearances, I would be considered a ‘good’ person.  But I know the thoughts I have and I am rather frequently not so proud of them.  But this is where grace comes in.  I am being continually renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit’s work.  When I allow that to happen, when the Spirit scrubs the inside of the tomb, then my outsides and insides can begin to match.

I’m not, however, allowed to get hung up on my own goodness/badness.  Authenticity says that I am not allowed to be the center of my universe.  Being authentic means I take what God is doing in my life and I let it spill out to other people.  To the lady I meet in the grocery line.  To the hasty jerk that cuts me off on the road.  To my friend struggling with cancer.  To be authentic means to take a step in courage to love others – really love them – where they are, not where I think they should be.  To allow a transparency in my own life that lets the light of Jesus shine through.  When I’m wrong, I apologize,  When I’m right, I don’t press the point.  When I’m confused, I admit I don’t know.  I take off my mask of perfection (which isn’t real anyway), and be the best me that God makes me.

To become real hurts, but it is worth it.  Ask the Velveteen Rabbit.

On Modesty

My search through Scripture looking for verses that addressed modesty only revealed two circumstances in which the word is found – the first being in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul is talking about how the gifts of the Spirit are like a body, and some parts that we think less of are actually accorded greater honor as we treat them with modesty.  The second is in 1 Timothy where Paul is telling Timothy to instruct the women of his church to use modesty and self-control in how they adorn themselves.

So what are we to do with that?

Modesty gets a bad rap in today’s culture.  We are told to flaunt our wealth, our bodies, our opinions, and to do anything less means we are old-fashioned and prudish.  We live in a land of excess, of too much, and we see it daily on our iPhones, TVs, laptops, tablets.  We need the newest, the best, the biggest.

Those of us who came of age in the 1980’s and 90’s are the most susceptible.  We were told we could have it all.  And should have it all.  And then should let everyone know in our carefully curated social media lives that we DO have it all.

Is it any wonder that today’s coming of age generation is slightly revolted and turning away from all that conspicuous consumption?  But really, are they any different than us in the pride they take in their simplicity and tiny houses – in living off the grid?

Modesty does not assume a hair shirt.  It does not sit in sackcloth and ashes and proclaim how modest it is.  Modesty just means to live a well-tempered life.  To be modest means to find middle-ground, let things be what they are, and to NOT DRAW ATTENTION to it!  If you proclaim to live modestly, then by sheer virtue of the fact you’ve said it you are not doing it!

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it this way (exchange the words modest and humble):

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8 “The Great Sin”)

How is it that C. S. Lewis continually sends it out of the ballpark?  (I have a theory that involves pondering, but that is in another post, see On Discernment.)

I’d like to think this is all new – that no society before us had so much time to blow their own horns. But it’s not.  History is chock full of eras of excess, and pride in lack of excess.  There is nothing new under the sun (said several millenia ago by a pretty wise man).

The big question is: How do we walk the tightrope between true and false modesty?  My parents’ generation was raised to assume a false modesty about everything they did.  This led to a whole lot of them underplaying their gifts and trying to remedy their weaknesses.  My generation was given awards just for showing up.  As Syndrome says in  The Incredibles, “when everyone is super, nobody will be.”  (The Incredibles, 2004)

There is nothing wrong with being “super” if that is the gift you are given.  Just as there is nothing wrong with affording greater modesty to parts we think less of, to paraphrase Paul.

The point is that true modesty neither denies nor exalts.  It just lives.  And in a culture where that becomes increasingly difficult, it is a virtue we should probably all be praying for.

 

A Wise Heart – On Discernment

“The wise in heart are called discerning…”  Proverbs 16:21

“Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning…” Proverbs 14:33

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Discernment and wisdom feature prominently in the book of Proverbs, often going hand in hand.  Discernment is a virtue that our society does not spend much time pursuing.  We are a people of snap-judgments, spur of the moment ideas, spontaneity.  None of these are necessarily bad, but when they become our modus operandi, we lose out.  Our lives move so quickly that we are becoming servants of instant gratification.  We text a friend and want immediate replies.  We order food out of our car window and by the time we pull forward we are being handed a bag.  Successful businesses are run by people who can most quickly survey the situation, make a judgment and make things happen.  This fast-paced frenetic mode of doing life comes at a cost.  We are frequently decision-weary.  And almost always just plain weary.

This is not the way of wisdom.  Wisdom calls us to slow down, to ponder.  Ponder is not a word we use much anymore.  To ponder is to weigh our options carefully, to thoughtfully consider, mull over, meditate on, contemplate, reflect on, deliberate about. To ponder is to discern what is right.

Discernment takes time.  It takes quiet.  Discernment asks hard questions of trusted friends.  Discernment requires prayer, reading, listening. Discernment means doing all of these things and listening for the still small voice – the gut feeling, the peace about a decision.  I don’t do this enough.  To sit still and just think is so foreign in my life that it can almost be anxiety producing.  There’s so much to do.  Laundry, school work, house work, spouse work, kids, bills, dinner, exercise, carpool, ad infinitum.  I get tired just thinking about it, so the easiest thing is to DO not THINK.

Jesus had some friends who lived in a little town called Bethany, two sisters and a brother (who isn’t featured in this mini-drama).  So Jesus went to visit these dear ones, and one sister – let’s call her Me – was so caught up in DOING – that she became agitated and angry and resentful of the other sister – let’s call her Who I’d like to be –   who just sat at Jesus’ feet and listened, discerned, learned wisdom.

Me: Hello?  Jesus?  Could you please send Who I’d like to be in here to help me out?  There’s a lot to do-oo!  (pregnant pause, followed by a shrew-like shout) Like RIGHT NOW!!!!

Jesus (kindly, gently):  Why don’t you come in here and sit awhile. The work will keep. Who you’d like to be has chosen what is better – to sit at my feet and listen.

Hmm.  Who I’d like to be seems to have more wisdom, more scope for choosing the right thing than ME. More discernment.  Simply by sitting, pondering, with Jesus.

Our society gives value to busy-ness.  But that is not what is important in God’s economy. To sit and listen.  To learn.  To hear the voice of the Dear Friend giving us wisdom and insight and knowledge and discernment.  So that we can learn what is true and noble and right and good.

Maybe one of my Lenten practices should be to be still.  And when someone asks me what I’m up to is not to answer “Oh, crazy busy” but to say “I’m working on sitting.  I’m learning how to be still and know God. I’m discerning.”

Back to our original question: Which comes first? Wisdom or discernment? Or must they go together, each constantly feeding the other? And how to get them both? It’s time to re-embrace being still as a virtue.

“Ponder anew what the Almighty can do.”

Joachim Neander (1630) translated by Catherine Winkworth (1863)

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Serpents and Doves: On Innocence

In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending his disciples out on a mission.  He tells them to go to their own people, the lost sheep of Israel, to take nothing with them but the clothes on their backs, and to heal the sick and preach the news that the Kingdom of heaven is near.  Basically He is sending them to do the work He Himself is doing, but on a broader scale than can be reached by one man alone.  In the middle of His instructions, He offers the disciples what seems at first glance to be contradictory advice.  He tells them to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

This is an interesting statement – historically we associate the snake with sin and Satan, and a dove with the Holy Spirit.  So how do we reconcile these two opposing ideas?  Jesus gives credit where credit is due.  Satan has always operated in a calculating manner, Satan is shrewd. He targets the spots where we are most vulnerable, most innocent.  Jesus never makes the mistake that we often do, of underestimating what Satan is capable of.  One of the biggest lies of our time is that we have turned Satan into a goofy looking character dressed in red with pointy little horns.  We create humor about him. “The devil made me do it!”  Pretty shrewd way of operating, if you ask me.  Webster gives us two definitions of the word shrewd:

1.  marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen

2.  given to wily and artful ways or dealing

Satan, as he always does, takes what is good and perverts it.  Jesus warns his disciples, not to be wily and artful – the corrupt distortion of shrewdness, but to be marked by clever discerning awareness.  He’s advising them to be on their guard, to be prepared for whatever may happen.  Jesus is not instructing them to be like Satan, but to use the same tools in a right and correct way to help defeat him.

Jesus tempers this instruction by also warning his disciples to be as innocent as doves.  Doves were so innocent that they were considered (along with a lamb) to be an acceptable sacrifice for purification and for sin atonement following the birth of a child.  If one couldn’t afford a lamb, two doves were acceptable.  This is the sacrifice Mary made following the birth of Jesus.  A dove also signifies the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and a dove descended on him.  Mark tells us that the disciples weren’t called until after this event, but it is possible one of them witnessed it.  Or certainly they may have heard about it.  The dove is part of the beginning of Jesus’ life, and of His ministry. The symbolism would not be lost on His followers.  Jesus is asking them to be clean, to be pure.

In our era, we associate innocence most often with children.  What I like most about the innocence of children is their transparency.  They speak and act without filter (sometimes to the horror and embarrassment of their parents).  But children, at least the innocent ones, aren’t trying to be malicious or mean.  They just state what is on their minds.  You can almost see the cogs turning in their little brains.

The transparency of children is really like a window.  If the window is clean, the light can shine through.  I think Jesus is asking that of His disciples when he asks them to be innocent.  Be pure and clean – get rid of the winter muck and dirt – and let the light shine through.  Let those you go to know what and who you stand for.  Paul puts it this way in Romans 16:19, “I want you to be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.”

The disciples (and we are now counted in that number if we love and follow Jesus) are cautioned, admonished, encouraged and challenged to go into the world and to cling to wisdom and innocence together.  Without shrewdness or wisdom, our innocence is like a target for Satan’s arrows.  Even if he may not make a bulls-eye every time, without wisdom moving the target farther away from him and closer to God, he is likely to hit something.  We are warned not to let innocence be equated with gullibility,  but rather to let innocence be more like the clean window the light can shine through.  This is not something we can do alone as sinful fallen creatures that are so easily caught up in the wily shrewdness of Satan.  The only way it can happen, the only way we can be made wise and innocent again comes through the redeeming sacrifice of something pure, someone truly innocent, Jesus.

 

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An All-Consuming Fire: On Reverance

During the season of Lent, our church is exploring the quieter virtues, based on a book Awakening the Quieter Virtues by Gregory Spencer.  I confess that I have not yet read this book, not because I don’t want to, but because they have been sold out everywhere I’ve looked.  It’s on order.  As my Lenten discipline, I’ve decided to explore each of these virtues myself here on this blog.  The first virtue is Reverence.

For the sermon on Sunday, Pastor Eric chose a scripture from Hebrews 12:28.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.  I continue that with verse 29: for our God is a consuming fire.

I’ve been mulling that over this week – what does it mean for God to be a consuming fire?  It sounds frightening.  I’ve seen a fire consume a place very dear to me, and it was terrifying.  We tell our kids not to play with fire.  Perhaps in this context it is appropriate – God is meant to be held in reverence and awe.  As C.S. Lewis says of Aslan in his Chronicles of Narnia: “He’s not a tame lion!”  He is not to be toyed with.

Our generation has been raised with the idea that God is love and our friend (a doctrine I refer to as bumping butts with Jesus), which He is.  There is no doubt about that. But God is also God.  And I think we like to make God fit into some prescribed box of our own choosing, to make Him safe and comfortable for us.  We forget that God is also majestic and awesome (not in the casual way we bandy this word around in our generation, but rather Awe-full).  When we try to contain God into a neat tidy description we defeat the purpose of believing in God, and kind of makes ourselves God.

A fire is an amazing thing.  It can warm us, cook our food, provide protection, bring us joy.  But it can also consume and destroy.  One treats fire with respect.  We used to have a neighbor who said “You burn, you learn” when referring to the natural consequences of treating fire with care.

This is one way this verse can be taken.  God is all-powerful, and must be treated with awe.  Which I think is true.  But I also believe that we can look at this verse from another direction.

God wants all of us.  He doesn’t just want our Sunday best, or the remnants of our busy lives.  This is a trap I frequently fall into.  Does God receive my first, my last, my worst, my best?  Or do I just throw the crumbs of my existence, the times when I don’t have anything else to do, His direction?  He wants to consume it all.  He wants to take the fire and purify us, to burn the dross and leave the gold, to incinerate the chaff and leave the wheat.  That may hurt.  But the end result is worth the pain. If we emerge from the fire finer and purer, we become shiny.  God may then be reflected in us and away from us to others.

Another thing I’ve noticed – the more time I spend with God the more I want to.  Could this be one more interpretation?

To revere God, to live a life of reverence, does not mean to live in fear.  It means to know that God is wild and unpredictable like a forest fire, but also safe and life-giving like a campfire.  While we may think we can contain or control fire, that is not always true.  We fight fire.  We also fight God.  Or we can respect fire, and benefit from the good things it gives.  And respect God, and benefit from the good things He gives.

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