Cut loose!

So how long ago did you last try to use a pair of those kindergarten scissors? You know, the round-ended safety scissors that only cut paper — or, maybe they’ll cut paper, if you hold your mouth right.  You may remember trying to use them one night your child mysteriously learned that a project for 90% of their course grade was due the next morning, and you enabled their procrastination by helping to bail them out with the poster. In the process, you also discovered, mysteriously, that every decent, adult-sized pair of scissors in the house had slipped away into the black hole of scissor-dom, and all you had to work with was the little ones your fingers barely fit into. Probably spent more time aggravated at the scissors than getting anything cut.

Now imagine a few days later, you urgently need to cut something besides paper. You find your real scissors haven’t reemerged, and though you know they’re inadequate, you pick up the kiddie ones, trying desperately to pinch them just right, turn them  just a little bit more this way, and put a little more force to them.  Nah, they’re really not going to work for that.  But you could keep at it a while longer, if you just especially enjoy the frustration.

So when’s the last time you felt like there was something in your life that needed to be cut loose: a habit or an addiction that was sapping the health and vitality out of you, or a bad choice you just kept coming back to repeatedly though you knew it was damaging relationships, productivity and your overall well-being.   Did trying to get loose from it feel like trying to cut a cable with kindergarten scissors?

Yeah, I’ve been there.  Wrestling with whether a thing was right or wrong, good or bad. Being convinced it was causing me grief one day, and alternately thinking it was not that bad the next.  Not a fun way to live.

This weekend we celebrate the final earthly acts of the Savior of our souls: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Although much more ado is made about his birth by people in general (which was miraculous and awesome and worthy to be celebrated), the accomplishment which he robed himself in flesh for in the first place was done through Calvary, and the events that followed.  You see, the blood he shed became the only solvent that can burn through the chains that hold us bound from him: from truth, from life, from freedom.

While there is certainly nothing light about what was done for us, the good news is that it works — not “worked” as in past tense, but “works” as in now.  Many people have tried one form or another of religion, and what it has to offer.  Many struggle with being consistent, or even with holding on to faith entirely, as there are still things they’ve not been able to let go of in their lives — past sins, regrets, hidden weights. Unknown effects from past choices layer one on another until relationships and real peace are smothered out, and there’s nothing akin to joy anywhere around.  They exist where they could be living.

The answer isn’t hidden, but it isn’t obvious.  It’s in plain view, though it’s often ignored.  But it’s the only thing strong enough to sever that cable. We have to die.

“Well, you couldn’t offer any more cheery advice than that?” Nothing that would work.  I could flower it up, but flowers fade and dry, and we need life-giving answers.  Dying is taking responsibility for the wrong we’ve done (we’re the ones who forged that cable in the first place, aren’t we?), asking God’s forgiveness for it, and making up our minds that we won’t go that way any more with God’s help. It’s known as repenting in the Bible.

So when something’s dead, what’s the best thing to do with it?  Right. A burial is the best next step.  And, by the way, did you ever see a burial with a few sprinkles of dirt?  All the way under ground.  So, the biblical way to experience that, after repentance, is to be buried in the waters of baptism in the name of Jesus.  If you’ve not caught the pattern by now, the plan is to identify with the steps he took to procure our redemption — our freedom from that chain: his death and his burial.  There is no round about way of doing it. Once you’ve repented, you must be baptized. And when you’re baptized, be sure that the name of the one whose pattern you’re following is called over you, rather than the description of who he is (Father in creation, Son in redemption, Holy Ghost in reconciliation). His name is Jesus.

Easter is the day we celebrate his victory over death. Praise the Lord! He came out of the grave, with new life! That is where the story gets most exciting for us.  The completion of our repenting and being washed clean in his name, is that he comes to live in us.   He said to his disciples “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you” and speaking of the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, he said, “he dwelleth with you, but shall be in you.”

This was played out after Jesus’ ascension, when the Holy Ghost fell on 120 in the Upper Room.  Mary, Jesus’ mother was there, along with the eleven remaining apostles, and many others who had followed him, 120 in all.  The joy of having the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus enter into them that day was so great, that many who looked on as they praised God, speaking  in unknown tongues, thought they were drunk. The Holy Ghost still comes that way, and it is still joy unspeakable and full of glory!

So, there’s hope for you, if there are things to get rid of in your life.  The solution isn’t easy, but it is simple.  The Apostle Peter summed it up this way for those who heard him preach that day the Holy Ghost first fell, realized they were wrong (had a cable to cut) and asked “Men and brethren, what shall we do? Peter answered and said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:37-38 KJV). It’s that simple, and it still works today.

So, what are you doing for Easter? Why don’t you find a church that’s preaching what the first witnesses to the Resurrection preached, and get cut loose with those believers?  Your freedom is worth that.

So, what gets you?

You’re strong, successful in your sphere of influence, important to people close to you — perhaps even to some you’ll never meet in person.  That didn’t happen by accident.

To accomplish what you have, you’ve chosen carefully the paths you’ve taken, rejecting what wasn’t compatible.  To maintain what you’ve achieved, you’ve guarded your perimeter:  you’ve set and kept boundaries, the realm of safety that only admits the influences you choose.  You continue to protect yourself and those closest to you — the ones you’re responsible for.

But I submit to you that there’s a flaw in your plan, a weak place in the field of well-thought protections with which you’ve surrounded your family, business, and career.  You may somehow realize that is the case, or you may be oblivious to the fact that anything is wrong.

Nature has a parallel

Removing brush that was previously cut but left in place at the edge of my yard a few days ago, I found most of the bushes light from drying and easy to handle. When one branch unexpectedly tugged back as I tried to pull it out of the surrounding growth, I looked more closely to determine why. My examination showed an attachment that had formed to the bush well before it had been cut. Something the size of a few strands of human hair had wrapped slowly and quietly around that branch while it was in the process of growing to its present size.  A thorny vine, which eventually made my handling of the brush a bit more uncomfortable, had proceeded to make itself at home in an otherwise healthy, strong plant.

I thought how quickly, subtly, and painlessly the direction we have chosen can be affected by something we hardly notice until its effects have forever changed the outcome of our plans, goals, and dreams.

The danger of safety

The great story of Samson (the closest thing I find in the Bible to our modern concept of a super-hero), is that of a man whose incredible strength came from his separation to God. Before Samson was even conceived, an angel of the Lord had directed his parents in how to raise him as dedicated to the service of the Lord – what to do, and what not to do.

Samson was not, in himself, a strong man, but the Spirit of the Lord came upon him when it was needful to do so, and by that strength, he took out thousands of enemy warriors in a day, single-handed, with the jawbone of a donkey for a weapon. He once pulled up entire set of city gates and carried them on his shoulders, and he continued to outsmart his enemies, while taunting them with his strength.

But over time, Samson took for granted this power (there is no recorded time when he prayed, built an altar, or worshiped God as his forefathers had done).  A woman he loved, Delilah, was approached by the enemies Samson was to deliver his people from, and offered wealth to sell him out. There is no record that she even argued with the people who asked her to betray him.  The woman he loved repeatedly prevailed on Samson to tell her the source of his strength, and though each time he offered her only some ruse in reply, she immediately acted on whatever he had said would work to quell his power, even inviting the enemy to apprehend him once she rendered him powerless.

Somehow, in the midst of this obvious effort to do him in, Samson managed to hold tight to his sense of security, and as Delilah pressed him over and over with her “if you really loved me, you’d…” ploys, he finally broke and “told her all his heart”.  He gave away the secret of the one thing that God had given him as the source of his strength, knowing it was something that she could easily take away from him.

Did he remember that everything he’d told her so far, she had tried? What did he do after disclosing to her the real truth of how to disable him?  Run?  That would have been a sensible plan, but no, he didn’t.  Did he at least ask her to promise not to use the information against him?  No record of that.  What did he do?  He put his head in her lap and went to sleep.  In the place where he was in the most grave danger he’d ever faced, he behaved as one who felt perfectly safe.  If you’re not familiar with how the story turns out, I encourage you  to read it for yourself, (Judges 13-16), but suffice it to say that, after that night, he was never able to feel safe again.

The chink in your armor?

Your flaw may very well be simply feeling you are safe in your own strength and ability.  You’ve done all you can to help your family be financially stable, functional in society, and happy with one another.  Those things are all good. Who gets the credit?

The Apostle Paul, one of the greatest figures in history, leader of the early church, and author of  at least half of the New Testament, summed up his abilities this way: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing…” (Romans 7:18).  Was that some notable false humility from a super-spiritual leader? If you read the context of that chapter, he acknowledged the struggles (really failing to get it right sometimes) that he faced with doing the right thing, then asked, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”  He answered his own question with, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Paul couldn’t do it, but he knew who could.

In the “Never let ’em see you sweat!” society in which we live, confessing that we are not the ones to bring and to hold our own personal world together seems like the weakness that would get one eaten alive.  But that is just what we must do to have real security: trust in the one who made us, and who came to live among us and to redeem us.

Hey, last week even the government recognized that it isn’t totally in control of things that matter, as evidenced by NASA’s advice  to Congress on the best course of action, should a large asteroid be found hurtling toward Earth: “Pray”!

Calling out to the One who alone can add the extra layer of security we could never attain, is the only true way to have security. Jesus is the only one who is powerful enough to safely hold you and your personal world. He’s also the one who holds all the world (and that includes all the asteroids) in his hand.

Two things I bet you can’t do at one time

Walk and chew bubblegum!  Oh, you’ve got that one?  Great!  (Just don’t leave your gum on the sidewalk when you’re done.)

Pat your head and rub your tummy! Good with that one, too?  Wow, we’re getting somewhere.

How about saying “Thank you, God” for your job while griping about your boss?  What? A little harder?  Any takers? Anybody?

I think you get the picture.  Thankfulness is an antidote to numerous negative thoughts and emotions: anger, loneliness, depression, jealousy, selfishness, and other ills as well.  It’s cheaper than therapy, and in fact may be used by therapists at times (I think they call it “reframing”).  The kicker is, you’ve got to do it.  It’s not automatic. You have to hit the brakes on the negative thoughts and reign your mind in to start thinking of what’s positive in your life.  Not simple or always easy — and it goes beyond just the “power of positive thinking”– but virtually anyone can do it.

Lifestyle of looking up, leaning in

Our pastor preached a message a  little while back on the “attitude of gratitude”.  Isn’t it amazing how those words already rhyme so we’ll remember them?  It can sound almost trite to repeat, but the phonetics help keep the concept handy in a sort of survival kit for our spirits.  Like the list of wrongs you can right with apple cider vinegar, the things you’re unable to keep in your heart when an attitude of gratitude is cultivated continues to grow the more you think about it.

Consider these:

  •  list three things you’re thankful for about your wife (don’t leave out seemingly mundane things like finding clean socks in your drawer and knowing there will be toothpaste in the cabinet when you need it). Now, hold those thoughts and picture yourself yelling at her for burning the toast.  Feels kind of icky, doesn’t it?
  • as your eyes water at the sight of a fellow church member’s new ride, start thinking of all the times your just-about-to-be-qualified-as-a-classic has been there for you when you needed a way to go, and tell God “thank you” for allowing you to have what you have and tell him “thank you” for blessing your brother. I promise your eyes will clear up and there will be more peace in your heart.  And you may even have the urge to shine up that old car!
  • as a single mom, you find yourself drifting dangerously into the realm  of  “how can I raise these kids alone with that so-called husband out of the picture and supporting us to the negative degrees of 10 (as in not any) — I’ve got to find somebody.”  Start to list things that God has done for you since you’ve had those kids — times he’s sent a neighbor by to offer help, or that rebate check from an over-payment on a doctor bill that came unexpectedly, but just in time, or when a trusted adult at church took up time with your son to show him how young men were supposed to conduct themselves.  Feel like you can hold on a little longer, until God brings who He has in mind, if that’s His plan?  I thought so.  Works every time.

Not just for “churchy” folks

In my years of working in the mental health field I’ve observed the efficiency of teaching someone, even with intellectual disabilities, a positive behavior to replace a negative one, and then reinforcing the positive one more often, so the negative one would eventually go away.  The trick was selecting a behavior that simply couldn’t be done while the negative one was in progress. It is an “incompatible behavior” — for example, you can’t be late and on time at the same time, or use your hands for manipulating a puzzle while using them for some behavior that has unwanted social or even health consequences.

Put simply, being thankful is an incompatible behavior with most negative thoughts.

Where’s that in the Bible?

Yep, it’s in there.  In fact, it’s the attitude God commands for our approaching Him: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise, be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4). This is one of many places where thanksgiving is not only encouraged, but commanded.

Think of how you feel when you hand your kid a gift you worked hard to provide, and have them either trash it or heedlessly turn around and ask for something else.  We’re made in God’s image, so amplify our feelings exponentially and the God “in whose hand thy breath is” (Daniel 5:23) feels much more the same way. And above all, this kind of thankfulness does much more than just make you feel better.  Drawing near to God, who made us and everything there is, is the answer for weathering, and calming, the storm.

What all can’t you do while being thankful?

It’s hard to complain about the rain while being thankful a farmer somewhere was able to grow the wheat that made that wonderful sandwich you’re savoring. It’s even hard to complain about what you had to pay the doctor, and the surgery clinic, and the pharmacy,  while being thankful it was just the tonsils you’re having to contend with (if you need a dose of thankfulness there, research a specialty children’s hospital, and read the stories of children they treat).

As our pastor mentioned once, a certain POW in a Vietnam prison camp found it difficult to complain about the pain he suffered from the inhumanity being practiced against him, when he realized that his feeling pain meant he was still alive and able to fight back within his spirit: he had not given up as he’d seen others do.  Corrie ten Boom’s sister challenged her to thank God for the fleas in their concentration camp barracks, as recorded by Corrie in The Hiding Place.  Though Corrie resisted the idea, she forced herself to say, Thank you for the fleas,” only to realize days later that their clandestine Bible studies had not been disturbed by guards in this barracks as in others.  Why?  You guessed it:  the fleas! The guards wouldn’t even come near them because the fleas were so bad.

The bottom line?

No one thing is going to answer everyone’s problem, and many are the folks who suffer worse things than I can imagine.  But though none is free to choose their circumstances, all are free to choose their response.  In so doing, we may be also securing the insight and response of Almighty God, who resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

What about you? Have you found an “attitude of gratitude” to be a source of strength in your life? Are you otherwise good at doing two things at one time? I’d love to hear your story.  Please leave a comment, if you’d like to share.

What’s your earliest faith memory?

They say a two year-old wouldn’t be able remember much. I remember the barn burning. Not from what I was told, but the vivid picture of where I was sitting on the bed in the bedroom that doubled as a den and looking out the window.  And the flames. I don’t remember much else from being two, but those yellow flames against the black sky have never faded in my mind.

I remember being in a baby bed in the corner of that room near the empty fireplace, and waking up from a nap with the babysitter still asleep. I remember so clearly the image of the baby aspirin on the mantel, just out of reach, and my hands on the mantel tugging, and the bed rolling closer. I remember the last tiny orange treasure slobbered onto the bottom of the bottle, and my frustration at not being able to get it out. I remember throwing up in a bright room, and people talking about getting my ‘stomach pumped’. I think I remember giving up baby aspirin.

I remember, not  many years after,  the powerful feeling that I had to have Jesus and had to have him right then, and not knowing what to do except to cry out and call his name, “Jesus”, and I remember the sweet, tender pain of knowing he was real, if I could just get to him. I remember those people who were still in the sanctuary after service telling me it was going to be alright and they’d send the preacher by the next day to tell me how to me pray to be saved. I remember him telling me a prayer to repeat to know God, and doing what he told me, and trying to believe that was right, but missing the sweet reaching for Jesus I’d felt the night before.

I remember the off-and-on journey of years believing that the one prayer repeated in faith with the preacher (or one of several others when I’d decided I must not have done that first one right), had saved me forever, and no matter what I felt or didn’t feel, nor what I did or didn’t do, nothing could ever change that.

I remember, over twenty years later, the accumulation of a gut-wrenching gnawing in my heart that said my sin was not OK, that there had to be more to being a child of God than what I’d known thus far. I remember the growing desperation to find, at all costs, the way to know him as his word said he could be known. And I remember once again reaching the point of breaking, as with strong, tender crying, I called on the name of Jesus with everything inside me, but this time in an altar where everyone who was hungry prayed that way, and where men preached that repenting of my sins and washing them away in the name of Jesus, and calling on him in fervent prayer was how God could come inside us to give us life through the power of the Holy Ghost.

I remember the sweet, strong power of God when the Holy Ghost came in to shed his love abroad in my heart, and how I spoke with other tongues as the Spirit gave the utterance, and with that he gave me evidence that he’d come in, and no one could refute it. I remember the joy of understanding that it wasn’t a one-time prayer or a one-time repentance, but something that came fresh every time I sought it. In fact, I remember feeling it again this morning.

What’s your earliest faith memory?

Jesus said,”All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
John 6:37 KJV

I’d love to hear your comments.

When you have time

What’s your “one of these days, I’m gonna…” dream? You know, the “when I have the time, …” thing.

I don’t have a “bucket list”, maybe because I associate those with jumping out of airplanes or hang gliding in the Grand Canyon, and I think that could hurt — a lot.

I’ve begun writing, which I suppose would have been my “one of these days, I’m gonna…” list topper.

Time-limited opportunity

Living in the fifty-plus zone (not the speed limit), I realize whatever I’m going to get done “one day” needs to be bumped up on the priority list. In fact, the state of the world at this point in time seems to point in the same direction. The old spiritual song said, “Trouble don’t last always”, but then, neither does opportunity. Usually there is a window of time — often taken for granted — to start or finish a preferred project, to contact an old friend from college, or visit that elderly neighbor down the road.

Famous opportunities from antiquity

Recently, as I re-read a Biblical account of the intertwined destinies of two major people groups, I saw it in a new way: an opportunity for changing the outcome — for at least a few — that was not originally intended to occur.

Most no doubt remember the saga of Israel’s being delivered from Egypt (an event celebrated each year during the Passover), which in fact was the birth of  the children of Abraham as a nation, as opposed to simply families united by a common heritage. God brought them out “with a mighty hand”, wreaking havoc on their former captors in a series of plagues and eventually devastating their entire army in the Red Sea, through which he’d just brought the new nation on dry land.

Following this unprecedented and divinely powered victory, they were intended to march almost straight to Canaan — the land promised by God to their father, Abraham — to drive out its inhabitants and possess it. Tragically, as they made it to the threshold of the “land flowing with milk and honey”, they were cowed by the testimony of the majority  of the twelve spies sent in to look over the land. These ten had suddenly forgotten how powerful their God was, and had no problem raining on the faith of those who had seen it all first-hand. For their unfaithfulness and doubt, they were required to wander 40 years in the wilderness, until the whole generation of unbelievers died out, and a new generation rose up to conquer Canaan, led by one of the only two spies who had insisted God’s people were well-able to take the land with God fighting for them.

I began to wonder what may have happened in Canaan during the 40 years Israel wandered in the wilderness. The generation that was alive when Israel came out of Egypt was slated to have been utterly destroyed, per God’s commandment. But 40 years for Israel’s unbelievers to die meant 40 more years of life for them.

How did that generation of Canaanites spend their respite?

Who got it?

When Joshua sent spies into Jericho before taking the city, they were harbored by one woman, a prostitute (harlot) named Rahab, who told them in brief what all in the region were saying: that the hearts of the people were already melted because of the great acts they had heard that God had done for them. She was brave enough to harbor those two men, though it could have cost her life. In acknowledging the power of their God, and allowing their lives to be spared, she and her household were saved out of all the thousands in Jericho when Israel took the city. No one else was spared.

Rahab was undoubtedly young — the nature of her occupation would indicate so. She had to have been of childbearing age, because she later married one of the Israelites and was included in the line of Judah that brought King David and all the later kings of the nation into the world. She was one of only four women mentioned in the earthly ancestry of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1.

Rabah would have been born during the 40-year reprieve given unto Canaan. She was the only one who made use of the time to turn her heart toward the things of God, and away from the heathen practices of child sacrifice and worship of everything but the true and living God, and put herself in the position of seizing the opportunity to reach out to him by helping his people, and thus gain an entry into his kingdom and salvation, when it came.

Is opportunity knocking?

God would be more than justified if he destroyed the world as it stands today, and the ungodly with it, but he hasn’t done it yet. When will he? I don’t know, but I for sure know that he will, because the original book of prophecy, the Bible, says he is going to.

Things in the world grow more frightful every day: politically, representatives seem to be losing the ability to make helpful, meaningful decisions for the greater good; sin is increasingly bold and incomprehensible, and the innocent are victimized cruelly. Is it time to give up and resign oneself to the inevitable? That’s what most of Canaan did. They all must have heard the same reports of the awesome, unstoppable power headed their way, but only one woman chose to seek the help that would change her life and that of her family forever.

If there was just one, would it be you?

Does it matter if anyone else around you chooses to say, “I will not lose out with those who cling to this current situation because they’re  enjoying the liberty of living every way they want; I won’t cower in fear with those who say that  it’s hopeless to try to change; I will ask for help; I will make a change”? The Bible makes it clear that God wasn’t destroying those cities because of Israel’s righteousness. Israel had messed up over and over and over in their time of following God. He was destroying those Canaanite cities because they had chosen wickedness repeatedly throughout the generations they had lived there. They deserved destruction, as does our wicked world today. But God had paused it, as he has paused ours for a time.

How are you using your respite?