Friday, November 28, 2014

The Value of our Thoughts ................. Parables 202

(January 31, 1990)

I once offered a meditative friend “a penny for your thoughts?” He laughed, “They aren’t worth it...” Knowing him, that probably wasn’t true, however he did get me thinking about the value of thoughts.

Our minds are capable of incredible activity. Far more complex than even the most sophisticated computers, we process a myriad of stimuli and information every second. The sights, smells, sounds, colors and temperatures around us are noticed in varying degrees of consciousness, responded to, again in varying degrees and all that information is tucked away somewhere inside our heads. Even as that happens, we might be involved in an assortment of other activities that requires some thought: anything from doing a crossword puzzle to performing brain surgery (hopefully not at the same time).

Considering the incredible potential of the brain, what a surprise to hear we only use about one-tenth of our mental capacity. (And there are some days that might be reduced even further, at least for some of us.) However, in spite of the many times our minds can’t seem to focus on any particular thing and in spite of the times we put our mind to things that are an admitted waste of thought, our thought-life has value. It determines the kind of people we are and how we behave.

TRUE NATURE: Proverbs 23:7 warns about being deceived by those who seem to be virtuous on the surface but are not: “For as (this phoney person) thinks in his heart, so is he... his heart is not with you.” In other words, the real nature of a person can sometimes be hidden, only known to God by their thought life.

BEHAVIOR: The truth is, seldom do thoughts stay hidden. Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies...” (Matthew 15:19). In another place He said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Simply put, every word spoken, even every action, begins with a thought.

Wise king Solomon wrote: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  He was well aware that whatever pollution is in there will eventually pour out. If we allow our thoughts complete freedom, never disciplining our mind to center on good, right, peace, and other virtuous topics, we need not be surprised if our BEHAVIOR takes a turn towards those negatives and we wind up saying and doing things that we ourselves don’t even want.

Actually, God desires His people preoccupy themselves with thoughts of Him. That doesn’t mean we never think about anything else, but that when we have nothing to put our brain to, we turn it to Him. He says that whenever we do, He will keep us “in perfect peace” (see Isaiah 26:3), a very desirable state of mind indeed!

The problem is this: It isn’t easy fixing our mind on anything, God included. Mine sometimes pops all over the place. All that agitation is not the peace that God promised. It takes some mental discipline to think on one thing at a time.

It also takes some knowledge about the subject. How difficult to think about God if He is an unknown entity. He knew that, so He provided a way to know Him personally through a faith-relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ (“No one comes to the Father but by me”). In fact, Jesus, who is the “exact representation of His person” came to reveal the glory of God to us. He said that when we see and know Him, we see and know God.

After that relationship begins, we deepen in knowledge of God through a continual discovery of Him through the Bible, written also “that we might know God...” and in knowing Him, our thoughts are more able to dwell on Him... soon becoming far more precious than many pennies!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stand Firm ................. Parables 201

(January 24, 1990)

Little Danny fell fast asleep on the neighbor’s couch; time to take him home and tuck him in bed. At first his mom tried not to wake him but as she struggled to stuff his little arms and legs in his snowsuit, she realized that without some cooperation, the child would have to face the cold without his coat. He was as limp as an old shoelace.

The next day dad wanted to take the same little fellow for a walk. However, wide-awake Danny kept falling in a pile at the back door every time dad tried to lift him into his snow boots. Danny thought it was funny... until dad lost patience and whacked his behind. After their walk, the same toddler decided he didn’t want to go inside. Again, his little body turned to jelly and he fell in a heap on the sidewalk. Father finally picked him up and carried him into the house.

The Bible (in Acts 4) tells of a beggar who had lain limp for many years. He wasn’t asleep or immobile for the fun of it. His limbs were paralyzed and useless. But one day he got up, stood, walked, even leaped, and was heard praising God.

People gathered to find out what happened. Peter, one of Jesus disciples, was there and told them: “I want it made known... that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, it is by Him that this man stands here before you whole.”

This dramatic physical change illustrates the dramatic spiritual change when Christ comes into a life. He sets sinners free from the destructive power of sin. Christians are no longer immobilized by it; at least we shouldn’t be.

After the man was healed, do you suppose he decided to fall down again, and return to begging? That wouldn’t make sense. Christians ought to have the same smarts. God tells us: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty in which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). In other words, we have the capacity to stand -- so stand... why go limp?

It is hard to believe such a command is necessary. But some of God’s children do go limp. The Bible describes them as being “asleep”— not physically like little Danny, but spiritually, immature and oblivious to vital spiritual realities.

For one thing, being wide awake enables us to cooperate with God in putting on our spiritual “coat.” While Danny’s coat protected him from the physical elements, ours wards off spiritual dangers. This protection is described in Ephesians 6 as “the whole armor of God.” It consists of a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, gospel-of-peace shoes, the helmet of salvation, a shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit. And WE are to stay awake and put it on, not expect Him to stuff us in in spite of ourselves. Obviously, our cooperation is vital.

Failure to stand fast in unity is another way to fall in a pile. Philippians 1:27 says, “... stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”  As soon as believers begin fighting one another, knees become weak, faith turns feeble, and would-be warriors becomes wet noodles.

So, what is the remedy? Prayer is important. Knowing the will of God is also important. Even sleepy children can become quite cooperative when they get a picture of the purpose, methods, and ultimate outcome planned by their parents. If we are going to know what our heavenly Parent is up to, we need to be in His Word.

Being prodded by others who are awake helps too. Therefore, “Do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together that we might encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). Simply put, going to church and getting involved with other Christians is motivation to keep standing.

God has provided the “starch.” We have every reason to stand firm in faith, unity, and resistance to sin. Don’t go limp.

Monday, November 24, 2014

That horrible blame-game ............... Parables 200

January 17, 1990

The funerals are over and the story is off the front page. Classes will soon resume if they haven’t already; but the University of Montreal is not the same. Grief hangs there, a cloud over students and faculty who were on campus December 6th. The shooting spree that took 14 lives is a dark cloud indeed.

Yet there is another cloud lingering. It is that bitter argument regarding who is to blame. There are some, both men and women, who still insist this incident is proof the other gender is at fault for almost everything.

Some news stories said the killer expressed wrath against some women, implying they were responsible for his misfortunes. Yet those 14 women didn’t personally do anything to him. They likely would still be alive had he not appeared on campus that day.

Another story shifted the focus to the killer’s father, who apparently hated women and neglected his son. Was he (or the women he hated) to blame? They didn’t pull the trigger.

The men who left the classroom at the gunman’s request expressed feelings of guilt as they later considered how they could have intervened and maybe changed the outcome. Yet none of them killed these girls.

Some have suggested that the entire feminist movement is at fault for putting pressure on men, that women ought to take serious consideration of this kind of violence as a consequence of their demands. But those of that persuasion didn’t pull the trigger either.

And as each story aims responsibility to different targets, the flames are fanned in the battle between the sexes. Even a few attempts to avoid making this not a man/woman issue have not succeeded. But what is the real issue? What does God say about it?

Jesus once accused a certain group, “You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning...”

Sounds like Jesus was in a prison speaking to a group of murderers; but He wasn’t. His audience was the most religious people of His time, people who self-righteously thought they were the children of God! However, Jesus called them sons of Satan, killers, just as the devil himself is a killer.

If His statement to them is shocking, I for one am even more shocked by my own capacity to hate. Maybe you are too. Most of us, at one time or another, secretly or openly, have wished someone we didn’t like would breathe their last. Oh, not everyone carries out these desires. Most of us have had a “decent upbringing” or are afraid of being caught. Nonetheless, that hate can be there -- forming the root for murder.

Jesus isn’t shocked by our hate. He knows what’s in us. And He knows it isn’t there because I’m a woman or someone else is a man. It’s there because everyone has turned from what God intended. Instead of creatures reflecting His image, we “have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That is the real reason we hate and commit murder.

Blaming the other gender (or the devil) for the problems between us doesn’t solve the problem either. Adam and Eve tried it; their finger pointing didn’t wash with God. He holds each responsible for ourselves. Because we are, the man who killed those students will have to answer to his Creator for what he has done. He won’t be able to blame his father, his circumstances, or women, for his actions. He did them. They didn’t.

However, never forget that his father will also stand before God and answer for what he did (or didn’t do that he should have). He may not have pulled the trigger but he is responsible for his own set of sins. So is everyone else, regardless of gender.

Pointing fingers never reverses blame... unless of course our appeal is to point, in faith, to Christ. He took our guilt to the cross and died in our place, making it possible to stand before Him... blameless!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Living by faith = Living by what I know is true ....... Parables 199

January 20, 1990

Imagine eating a well-balanced meal but less than an hour later (after watching several food commercials on television), a strange gnawing sensation comes to the mid-section. Can it be? It feels like -- hunger! What is your choice? Head for the leftovers? Or the cookie jar? Or rely on what you know about nutrition?

We KNOW it is highly unlikely we NEED more food so soon after a good meal, but anyone who has ever been on a diet realizes appetite is seldom related to actual need. It takes will power to resist the urge for munchies when we KNOW we don’t need any. Pardon the pun, but eating according to what we know about nutrition (instead of eating according to how we feel) is a gut-level illustration of living by faith.

The Bible defines faith as a conviction concerning something we cannot see but we KNOW is true (Hebrews 1:11). Biblical faith KNOWS God exists; KNOWS He rewards those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6); and KNOWS that salvation from sin is through Jesus Christ, not our own efforts (Ephesians 2:8-9). This faith believes the Bible because God SAID it, not because feelings always confirm it. God wants us to LIVE by faith also, that is, act according to what He says -- even if our feelings contradict it.

Feelings can rise up from all sorts of conditions. For instance, life has a way of handing out rotten lemons and even though God says He will “work all things together for good for those who love Him, there are occasions when it seems not even God could add enough sugar to make decent lemonade. What will be believed and lived by then? God’s promises or life’s raw deals?

My human responses to sour situations can be extremely negative. If I live by my feelings during the tough times, anger and bitterness will result in retaliation with worry and fear leading to all sorts of counter-productive responses. However, walking by faith is more like looking for a tall glass in anticipation of a cool, refreshing drink even when there is no sugar in sight.

Basic to faith is an understanding of and a reliance on the character of God. He says He loves us and has plans for our good (Jeremiah 29:11). That isn’t how most of us see it when tragedy strikes -- how can a loving God allow tragedy? During bad times, we may not FEEL loved -- yet following those feelings makes a liar of God. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love...” Which is true? His Word? Or our feelings?

Choosing to walk in faith means believing He is not lying. We may not understand the tragedy but we can be convinced of His love. Faith also means confessing: “I may not feel loved but God says I am, therefore I will believe Him and act accordingly.”

The actions of a loved person are different from one who fears rejection. If I live by feelings when life is sour, I will wind up sitting in a corner feeling sorry for myself, waiting until I FEEL loved before doing anything positive. However, even common sense realizes I don’t turn another person’s love on and off by my changes in mood.

Faith encourages me to stop looking to my own feelings for direction, especially when they contradict the Bible. If I’m honest, I have to admit that when I let my moods govern my life, I’m actually considering myself more reliable than the Lord. That is idolatry.

A life of faith in God is definitely a decision. But just as television commercials can create artificial hunger, so can life’s lemons (and our resulting emotions) generate artificial beliefs about God and life. More and more I realize how important it is to base life on something far more reliable than opinions, feelings, or personal desires. Only the Word of God gives objective, unchanging guidance. Without it, things like a growling stomach and appealing advertising would get me every time!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interruptions? ................ Parables 198

January 3, 1990

I want to accomplish something in the nineties, don’t you? I’m already making a list (some of which appeared last week). But I know what will happen. I’ll be interrupted. I even was interrupted making the list. And without a doubt, whatever comes first will not be half-finished before I’m interrupted again. Mothers with small children know what I mean. So do fathers and singles and grandparents and everyone else.

“Don’t bother me,” yells big brother as little sister yanks on his sleeve. “Just a minute, dear,” says my husband when I call him. “Go away, I’m not interested,” the busy homemaker tells the door-to-door salesman. Interruptions happen to everyone. But not everyone handles them the same way. Reactions range from perilous near-coronary agitation to the patience of a saint. Consider this story:

Jairus, a prominent leader in the Jewish community, had a serious problem. His daughter was dying He went to find a certain physician with a promising reputation. This gifted healer agreed to go with Jairus and immediately they hurried on their way. As the pushed through the crowded streets, the physician suddenly stopped. “Who touched me?” The crowd wondered if he was joking. But again, he asked the question.

At this point, the father of the dying girl must have been thinking, how can he let anyone or anything interrupt him? How can he just stand here and be concerned about this crowd? None of them are dying.

A woman suddenly fell before the healer. She confessed she had reached out to Him. She believed if she could only touch the hem of his garment, she would be healed of her ailment. And she was. The healer told her to go her way, her faith had made her whole.

The physician of course was Jesus. After healing the woman, He continued on with Jairus and raised his little girl from her deathbed.

Did you notice? Jesus was unconcerned by the interruption. He took care of it and continued with the issue at hand without getting upset or distracted. How did He do it?

I believe Jesus was able to decide what to do about the woman because of the purpose He’d determined for His life. He came to this world to save the lost, to minister and to give His life for many. When Jairus interrupted whatever he was doing in the first place, Jesus saw that this need fit into His priorities. When the woman interrupted Him on the street, He also recognized her need fit into His purpose. Both were important. Not even the crowd would jostle His heart from what he set out to do.

Having such purpose in life is the secret of handling interruptions with grace and dispatch. Having Biblical goals such as Jesus had, determine what each of us do when someone or something crosses our path. For example, one goal could be sharing the emotional burdens of others. Then, when a weeping person calls, it becomes relatively simple to miss a favorite TV show in order to talk to that person. In contrast, if my goal was making money (it isn’t), then a person who asked for a handout would be considered an unwelcome interruption and be brushed aside.

For me, purpose in life is key to this list I’m making. What does God really want me to accomplish? If I’m hurrying to make myself a dress and my daughter needs to talk to me, I have to decide whether wearing something new to the next social event is more important than having a cup of tea with her. Why am I here? Is it to be well dressed? Or to be available to others?

Not all choices are that easy but continual concentration on the reasons God put me here has value. Deciding where my priorities lie may seem like an exercise in splitting hairs but thinking it through very often makes the difference between ending the day with satisfaction or going to bed with a splitting headache.

Now pardon me, my phone is ringing...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pressing on .................... Parables 197

December 27, 1989

When Simon, my editor, told me this issue would be a year-end wrap-up, the first thought that entered my mind was a rather long list of unfinished projects that I’d certainly like to wrap up. However, that wasn’t what he had in mind. “Review highlights,” he said.

Later that day, while wrapping up Christmas gifts, the idea of year-end wrap-up again came to mind. Again, I thought of the unfinished but also some of the accomplishments of 1989. As those encouraged me, I began to think about what I would like to wrap up in 1990. But then there’s that unfinished list; what should be done with it?

Everyone knows what it’s like to end a year or a decade with a handful of “I wish I had’s”. People we wanted to visit... but they left following an Allied moving van; books we wanted to read... but the library retired their last copy; children we wanted to play hopscotch with... but suddenly they were too busy buying grad rings and planning classes at U of A. Some items on my “to-do” list will never be wrapped up.

Paul the Apostle may have felt the same way. He was doing a wrap-up of sorts concerning his goal of becoming more like Jesus Christ. (From personal experience, I know how unfinished that goal always feels.) He said, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on... forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal...”

His words translate into good advice at wrap-up time: 1] He knew where he was, 2] realized some things were accomplished and 3] some things were not. 4] Then he put the “I wish I had’s” behind him and pressed on. So I decided to wrap up 1989 following his advice. Here’s my wrap-up list:

PHYSICAL WRAP-UP: Evaluation: Not too bad but I’ll probably eat too much over Christmas.
Accomplishments: 4 miles on the bike or 45 minutes on shank’s mare 5 times a week.
Leftovers: Five stubborn pounds that I don’t want left in front or behind me.
Pressing On: A long look in a full-length mirror right after Christmas (agreed, it’s a distasteful suggestion) then do something about it.

MENTAL WRAP-UP: Evaluation: Memory loss and lethargy hopefully related to over-booking my brain, not age; great relief that there is a spelling checker in my word processor because by the time I get down Webster’s, I can’t remember the word I was going to look up.
Accomplishments: High marks in a college credit course.
Leftovers: One half-written short story, a dozen magazine articles that should be sent out, a host of crossword puzzles I got tired of or didn’t have a clue regarding the answers.
Pressing on: Learn how to use WORD PERFECT 5.0 in 1990, with passing expertise.

SOCIAL WRAP-UP: Evaluation: Too many friends still apologize for “bothering” me when they call.
Accomplishments: Deeper friendships with more people.
Leftovers: Owe letters to some, calls to a few and visits to one or two.
Pressing On: Continue convincing friends they are more important than most anything I might be doing at the time they think they are “interrupting” me.

SPIRITUAL WRAP-UP: Evaluation: I’m still God’s child, despite my failures and foibles.
Accomplishments: By God’s grace, overcame two bad habits and began several good ones.
Leftovers: The page isn’t large enough.
Pressing One: Day by day responding to whatever the Lord shows me I must do, making corresponding plans and trusting Him to pull it off.

The future stretches before us like blank pages of a notebook. Whether we add in the unfinished or start with some fresh new goals, the old decade ends and God gives us a brand new one. Here’s to wrapping up by leaving the past with Him and beginning the next year, or month, or even the next week, day or hour, with a decision to press on to greater Christ-likeness.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Greatest Gift .................. Parables 196

December 20, 1989

“What did you get for Christmas?”

I’m certain at least one person will ask me that question again this year, but I’m not sure how I’ll answer it, at least after hearing about a certain family tradition. It seems members of this one family each put the gifts they are giving into a separate box to place under the tree. When the day comes, they take turns taking the gifts from their box and personally giving them to the person whose name is on the tag. If the person is not present, the giver leaves the gift in the box, undelivered until it can be done personally. If the recipient is gathered around the tree with the others, the giver tells that person how much they mean to them and how happy they are to be able to give them this gift. The receiver responds by taking it, saying thank you, opening and showing it to everyone. After all enjoy that gift, they go on to give another person opportunity to give.

When all the gifts are opened, the family joins hands and prays, giving thanks to God that they are able to show their love for one another by both giving and receiving. And God is of course thanked for the wonderful gift of His Son, the One that Christmas is all about.

As I think about this tradition, my eyes fill with tears of joy at the beauty and simplicity that it represents. The pattern was set nearly 2000 years ago with God as the Giver. He too placed His gift in a unique location, not under a tree but in a person. That Gift was Himself, born in a manger, taking up residence in a human body. Wrapped in that parcel, He was one of us yet also God with us, Jesus Christ, perfect, without sin, all that man was intended to be, all that God is... gift-wrapped for a lost and needy world.

This Gift also has a name tag. On that tag is the name of every man, woman and child ever born; the gift is for all. But the Giver does not force it upon anyone. It is placed only in the hearts of those willing to receive it.

The Spirit of God makes the offer. To all of the people named on the tag, He individually whispers truth: truth about their sin and unbelief, truth about the righteousness of God and the judgment to come, truth about the cross and the resurrection. If that truth is believed, it puts the person in the place to receive, not physically gathered around a tree but spiritually around the focal point of history, the Cross. The Israelites of the Old Testament looked ahead to it; we look back, both seeing the one Gift God offered freely as atonement for our sin. When we open our hearts to Him, the Lord Jesus Christ is placed there... forever.

Of course with His Gift comes His Words of love. It’s His deepest pleasure to give: “For God so loved the world that He gave...” Imagine His joy when we receive! He says all the host of heaven shout and sing when one sinner repents.

All who already have the Gift rejoice with the new recipient, sharing the wonder of this precious treasure, joining together with praise and adoration for the Giver and for His Gift.

After thinking about this tradition and what it implies, I do know how to answer that question. What did I get for Christmas? Not this year, but nearly 20 years ago, God gave me His Son. The joy of that gift grows deeper each Christmas, making giving and receiving much richer -- because both are reflections of the Only Gift that matters.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Caste system in chickens -- and in humans ................... Parables 195

December 13, 1989

Contact lenses for chickens? Can you believe it? A fellow from Wellesley, Massachusetts has actually perfected and hopes to market red-colored lenses for chickens at 15-20 cents a pair. According to this inventor, the poultry industry stands to profit millions. But what can red contact lenses do for a chicken?

My brothers used to think the worst fate a farm boy could fall into was become a chicken rancher. Nothing was dumber than a laying hen and that profitless pecking order. The poor hen on the low end was always without feathers on her backside and seldom laid any eggs. The hen on the top wasn’t much better. Her production suffered because she spent so much effort making sure all others knew she was number one. Number two, while sidestepping number one, made sure number three knew who was top chicken over her. Challengers to any position in hen-house hierarchy were put in their place in a squawking flurry of flying feathers.

Here is where contact lenses come in. The father of the lens inventor heard that chickens with cataracts didn’t fight as much (I kid you not), so he tried making mini-monocles for his hens. Unfortunately, the lenses didn’t work: the hens went blind, couldn’t find their nests, were stressed out and egg production dropped. Dad wasn’t too happy. Son went off to college and could have forgotten the whole thing... but he didn’t.

Modern lens-making techniques developed. Son, by now a successful businessman, sold his business to make lenses for chickens. The rose-colored glasses, actually quite red, are worn by the chic laying hen every day of her life. Fights decrease, production increases and the hen doesn’t need quite so much chicken feed. Hence, the poultry industry, for a paltry few cents a bird, ought to profit handsomely.

Have you noticed that people have a system of hierarchy too? It starts in the playground where it’s marked by name-calling and black eyes. While it may “mature” and wear disguises, the power struggle goes on in adult clubs, businesses and other organizations, taking its toll in morale and production. Christians need to be wary of this ordering too. Even the twelve disciples were caught in it. They constantly argued who would be the leader. Each one found fault with the others and each considered himself better than the rest. Jesus constantly reminded them they were not to be like the pagans who put people in power because they happened to be at the top of the order. He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

But the twelve seemed deaf to His words. It was not until after His blood was shed for their sinful pride and after His Spirit took up residence in their hearts that Jesus’ words took hold... and, in a sense, He gave His disciples red-colored lenses.

The Bible says “without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness” so when Jesus died, His sacrifice made forgiveness possible. His blood covered our sin (somewhat like the lamb’s blood covered sin in the Old Testament sacrifices). As God looks at those who trust Christ, He no longer sees our sin but the covering provided by Christ at the cross.

The Holy Spirit enables believers to experience God’s forgiveness, then turn around and look at others with the same mercy as He looks at us. The blood that covers our sin also covers the next person’s sin. We see both ourselves and others as equal in Christ, not “I’m better than you.” And with that view, we are free from trying to fit into a hierarchy of any sort and free to lovingly serve needs and be productive.

Christians who lord it over one another have neglected to look as Jesus does, through the color of His forgiveness. While rose-colored glasses may work for laying hens, we need to remember continually the cross, the blood of Christ and its implications when our pride begins putting people in any kind of filing system.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Christmas and Time-Management ............................ Parables 194

December 6, 1989

The last half of November translates into the first half of the Christmas rush. Busy, busy, busy. Concerts, shopping, parties and the other extras of Christmas accelerate our normal over-booked lifestyle, making this time of the year stuffed fuller than the anticipated turkey.

Some people have a calendar crammed with reminders. I’d spin out without my personal time management book. But whatever we use to keep track, active people struggle to juggle the invitations, obligations, responsibilities and appointments without burning out or turning grey before our time.

A friend of mine has a “Priority Jar.” It is filled to the brim with white rice and a few chestnuts. The basic disciplines of Christian living are represented by the chestnuts. All the other demands of life are represented by the rice. She says if she puts the few chestnuts in first, all the rice will fit in next. But if she puts the rice in first, there will always be some of the chestnuts that can’t be squeezed into the jar. For those who are skeptical, she is happy to give a demonstration.

That shakes loose a thought or two: Is it genuinely spiritual to say YES to all those demands (rice), running from dawn to dark, falling into bed totally exhausted every day? (Can you imagine Jesus wearing Nike’s as He races from one city to another?) Does God want us up to our eyeballs in agenda — even if everything on the list is good, noble and needed? Just because the Bible has plenty to say about laziness, does it advocate burnout as the alternative to rust-out?

The story of Martha and Mary comes to mind. They were sisters of Lazarus, a man Jesus raised from the dead. One day the Lord came to visit them. “... Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’ Jesus answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

At first, it seems that Jesus was a bit harsh with Martha. After all, she was only trying to be a good hostess. Perhaps she had left Him (notice the word “also” indicating she had been seated) because supper was burning. On the other hand, she may have headed to the kitchen because this was JESUS visiting and she wanted to make a good impression. She certainly wanted to please Him. And note, Mary had been in the kitchen and left.

Whatever Martha's reasons, it appears Jesus didn’t send her to serve. Martha actually chose her busy situation herself. Then she became over-burdened because she magnified the importance of what she was doing out of proportion to her alternate choice. Think about it: being with Jesus Christ took second place to making lunch! Martha's priorities were wrong.

Mary picked the right thing to do for the occasion -- after all, Jesus didn’t drop by every day. What better opportunity to learn directly from the Wisdom of the Ages? She could prepare a couple of sandwiches later, but seldom could she sit and talk personally with the Son of God. She had her priorities straight.

Today, life presents so many choices. Saying NO to all demands may be one way to end the rat race but somehow I don’t think Jesus wants us to toss out all the rice. Instead, the story of Martha and Mary suggests putting the chestnuts in first. Jesus invites His people to set the calendar aside for a while and choose a quiet time with Him. He knows what else has to be done but without His calm guidance, we may choose fruitless frenzy -- sometimes whole heaping platters full. However, He promises that when we choose the good part, it will be ours forever. And like my friend and her jar, Jesus willingly gives demonstrations for the skeptical.

Friday, November 7, 2014

God knows what to do with the jerks ..................... Parables 193

November 29, 1989

Question: Can a person become a Christian and continue to act like a jerk? Answer: That depends...

The recent church-related sex scandals and financial scams make well known the most prominent offenders but, without naming names, I’m sure everyone who is a Christian knows at least one other person we secretly wish would stop telling people they belong to the Christian church.

Jerks sometimes get the same negative attention in other organizations. The armed forces, lodges, service clubs and other groups might even toss out their “embarrassing” members. But the church? What are we supposed to do with them? Do we forgive and look the other way when “jerks” carry a Bible, name the Name and still play the ungodly fool? Or should we ask God to strike them with lightning? Or do we toss them out on their ears?

The disciples wondered the same thing. In fact, they came to Jesus ready to put out someone who merely was doing things in His Name but was not “one of us.” And this fellow wasn’t even acting like a jerk.

The Lord did explain part of it. He told a parable comparing the kingdom of God to a field. The good seed was sown and the good wheat sprouted, but sometime in the night an enemy came in and sowed tares or weeds. When the crop came up, the two were mixed; it was impossible to separate them, much like tame oats and wild oats. In other words, some of the jerks were imposters.

The Bible also talks about new and untaught people who need to be “rooted and grounded” in their faith. They need patient mentoring and encouragement. Since these “babes” merely have some growing up to do, their “wild oat” behavior eventually will change.

I don’t understand why God allows the continued mixture of imposters and genuine changed people all under the same banner. My own spiritual reputation may or may not be scarred by what some so-called Christians do, but surely the church in general suffers from the behavior of the “jerks”. Those who are not in the church have good reason to look at us and wonder.

But some things I do understand. One is that Jesus said there would be imposters, false Christs and false teachers. They would be like ravenous wolves, but disguising themselves as “angels of light.” The Bible tells us to watch out for them and put them out of the church.

Second, the Bible tells those who are genuine Christians to remain faithful to His Word and be utterly obedient so that their lives will not become filled with sin, making them look more like tares than wheat. And if it happens (and it does), the Bible says those who are “spiritual” should rebuke them, with the goal of repentance and restoration.

Third: God does change the inner nature of those He saves. It simply takes awhile for the outward behavior to match the inward change. The Bible tells us to be patient, to teach new Christians and encourage them as they learn how to act like what they are.

Take a good look at those three things. Isn’t discernment needed to determine which category a “jerk” falls into? I dare say many times the church, never mind those outside of it, are guilty of making the wrong assessment. We wind up trying to teach the false teacher (whose only goal is to undermine our doctrine), tossing out the struggling new Christian who needs our help to overcome those old habits and being patient with the sinning believer instead of giving him a good kick in the pants.

Yes, it is possible for a Christian to act like a jerk. Sad to say, I’m sometimes guilty. But the Lord does make a great promise -- He says He will finish what He starts in the life of His genuine children (Philippians 1:6). Someday all that are truly His will stand before Him, perfect and holy, made that way because He has the power to transform anyone, even the “jerks”, who submit to Him.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Home Invasion ........................... Parables 192

November 22, 1989

I have no idea how it got in. In fact, when the evidence was noticed, my first reaction was to deny the possibility. Years ago, when we lived on a farm, yes, but not here, not now. Before long, however, there was no doubt; somehow, a mouse was in our house.

While some might jump up on a chair and scream at even the thought, I immediately found an old-fashioned spring-loaded mousetrap, put some cheddar in it, and set it behind a cupboard just off the kitchen. No mouse was going to foul up my home. In my opinion, Mickey is the only cute mouse. The rest are disease carriers and destructive little pests. The mouse had to go -- as quickly as possible.

The next morning said mouse was a dead mouse and given burial without ceremony. Since we couldn’t find a possible entrance, we concluded that it came in while the lower level door was left open last week.

At the same time the mouse invaded, I was struggling with another pest. I had no idea how it got in either. In fact, at first sign of it, I denied the possibility. It couldn’t be my problem. It had to be this other person. After all, I’ve been a Christian too long to let a little thing like that bother me. Years ago, maybe, but not here, not now.

But before long the conviction from the Lord was too strong. There was no doubt; somehow a bad attitude about someone had settled down in my heart and taken up residence. Sinfully fed by mental reviewing their annoying habits, this pesky attitude was growing fatter by the week, ready to take over and rule my life.

Now sin ought to cause the same reaction as the mouse. Who wants a fouled up heart? It ought to be put out at the first sign... but not last week. Not that my sin was cute. It seldom is, at least for long. Like a mouse, it breeds more of its kind and eventually destroys everything.

Right off, it was ruining my fellowship with God. My prayers started bouncing off the ceiling. Even familiar truth from His Word became dry, without blessing.

I knew what the next symptom would be — ruined fellowship with other Christians. Oh, we would still be able to chitchat about superficial things, but hang on to that bad attitude and real spiritual intimacy would cease.

I could feel a loss of energy too. It takes effort thinking up ways to get even with someone, cutting words to say, what I should do and not do, and on and on. Just another consequence of turning away from God.

This attitude grew uglier by the minute. However, I wasn’t seeing it too clearly and took mercy on the thing. It wasn’t until we trapped the little mouse, that I realized this other pest had been freely scurrying about in my heart.

The Bible tells how to get rid of spiritual pests. First: “If we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). In other words, admit sin is there, rely on the Savior to remove it, and don’t let it come back.

Secondly, “Mortify (put to death) the deeds of the sinful nature.” Simply put, the outward words and behavior that resulted from that inner bad attitude must be slain — not thought of as “everyone else does it” or “that other person deserves it.” God’s solution is confess, forsake and put it to death. Show no mercy toward both inner and outer sin.

Ouch! I felt like I set a trap and caught myself in it. But thank God, He is faithful to save us from our sin. And thank God, there is more to His salvation than death to old ways. Within me is the life of Jesus Christ. When I willingly mortify the old, He supplies the new. That means love, peace, joy, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, meekness, kindness and self-control are available in Him, for me. I get a second chance to rightly handle this other person, and my reactions.

Better than I can say for the mouse. Cute or not, he won’t be back.

Monday, November 3, 2014

He answers before we ask ....................... Parables 191

November 15, 1989

If you use a telephone very often, eventually you will have the same strange experience that happened to me last week. I dialed a long-distance number in Toronto but before the phone rang on the other end, I heard what sounded like someone dialing out on an extension in my house. No one else was home. After the dialing tones, there was an obvious presence of someone else on the line. I gulped and managed, “Hello?”

A man’s voice asked for Mr. So-and-so. I explained I was calling out and that he came on the line before my call was completed. He told me his number. It was the one I dialed -- He had picked up the phone in order to make a call at the same instant my call went through and we were instantly connected, without any rings.

After a chuckle, he put me through to the person I wanted and this fairly common incident was over. Common locally anyway. I’d never had a long-distance call coincide like that before, at least not a long-distance telephone call...

There is another kind of long-distance call I make many times a day. Or at least I should. Sometimes my lines are so busy I don’t take time to place it. And there are occasions when I do make the call but it seems as if I’m not getting through. However, just as with using the telephone, most of the connections are made and the two-way conversation is immensely enjoyed. It’s often difficult to hang up and go back to work. I’ve even noticed many of these special “long-distance calls” are like my call to Toronto, where the One on the other end picks up the signal before I even give it.

Of course, I’m talking about prayer — and the omniscience of God. Omniscience simply means that He knows all about everything from beginning to end before it even happens — each call is anticipated before it’s made.

But not only that, He knows what we are calling about: “...for your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things” (Matthew 6:32). And He knows what we are thinking about: “...You understand my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2). And He even knows what words we will say after we have said hello: “...there is not a word in my tongue, O Lord, but You know all of it” (Psalm 139:4).

Besides all that, He knows everything else about us. He even knows the number of hairs on our heads. Because He is the One who knows all, it is no problem for Him to keep this promise: “... it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”

There was a Christian pastor who responded to an offer of a different job but it meant moving from the small town where he lived to a larger city. His house needed to be sold. At the time he moved, many others had been moving from that town and the possibility of a quick sale seemed remote. He began to pray. Months before, unknown to him, other plans were being made. A company was planning an expansion. Their plans included the buying of several houses in that smaller town to facilitate new employees. The pastor’s house was one of those they purchased — God’s answer to his prayer had been prepared long before he knew he even had to make the request.

God’s omniscient knowledge of our needs is a comfort to His people even though His answers are sometimes startling; just like picking up the phone and finding the person you wanted to talk to already on the other end. Yet the more often we make those long-distant calls, the more likely we are to realize how faithful He waits to hear from us and how eager He is to answer before we even ask.