Archive for February, 2012

The Fountain of Life

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your justice like the great deep.
O LORD, you preserve both man and beast.
How priceless is your unfailing love!
Both high and low among men
find refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house; 
   you give them drink from your river of delights. 
For with you is the fountain of life; 
   in your light we see light.

–Psalm 36: 5-9

Yesterday, I was driving home from teaching.  I was alone in the car and listening to the radio, and all of a sudden, I heard the most heavenly strumming on a guitar.  I know nothing about music and notes and such, so I can’t tell you how complicated or intricate the notes were.  They sounded pretty simple to me.  And yet, they were just so beautiful.  They spoke straight to my soul.  You know how when things feel so good, they make you want to close your eyes?  Whether it is a soft breeze while you are totally relaxed, a bite of a surprisingly exquisite morsel of food,  the feel of a back rub, or a really good kiss, there is something in your instincts that tells you to close your eyes so that you can enjoy the feeling more.  That’s what I wanted to do when I heard those guitar chords; I just wanted to close my eyes, sigh deeply, and say, “Thank you, God.”  Unfortunately, I was driving, so closing my eyes would be unwise, but I still felt the deep, abiding peace wash over my soul.  And in that second, I was transported from the surface of my day’s tasks to the depths of enjoyment and fulfillment.

I think that the music was a gift from God.

And I think that sometimes we are scared of those gifts.

I know that I am tempted to live in fear:  fear of enjoying this life too much, of being too worldly, of living as a glutton and and a sinner in a lost and dying land.  I desire to be holy;  after all, that’s what God calls me to be.  I long to live for God completely, and not to be distracted by the things that would take my eyes off Him.  And of course, those desires are right and good.  Of course, those desires are God’s will for us.

Here is what I have found, however.  I have found that when I pursue God with all my heart, when I immerse myself in His word, and put my eyes and my heart on things above, I find that despite all of its darkness, the world is absolutely saturated with God.  It is, after all, His creation.  Thus, we can see Him all throughout it.  Because we are each unique in composition and background, different parts of God’s creation speak to us in different ways, but the common ground is that we can experience His presence in basic things, like nature, music, exercise, food, sex, dancing, playing, and being with people.   At their root, all of these things are God’s invention.  They are gifts He chose to give us.  Yes, they can all be distorted; our fallen nature and the “powers of this dark world” are masters at distorting God’s good and perfect gifts.  But I think it is an absolute shame when we allow our fear of distortion to cripple our sense of enjoyment.  When we do that, we allow sin and darkness to take away the good things that God tries to give us in this life.

Truth be told, I believe that a lot of our fear comes from our view of the Bible.  I think we sometimes try to make the Bible into something that it is not.  We make God’s Word to us into a book of rules instead of door that leads us into a life-giving relationship with our Creator.  We act like we still live in the time of Uzzah, and we use his story as a warning against deviating from the narrow way.  I have two thoughts about that.  The first is, we don’t live in the time of Uzzah.  We are not under the Law (and thank God for that, because I am in Leviticus right now in my daily Bible reading, and I cannot imagine having to slaughter that many animals on a regular basis).  And when we put ourselves under that “law of Uzzah,” we become fearful even of our own capacities for enjoyment.  We don’t trust our thoughts and feelings; after all, Uzzah was just trying to help, and look what happened to him!  And so even though we are told that we have God’s Spirit within us, and even though everything in us tells that there’s nothing wrong with fervently enjoying a succulent bite of salmon or a riff on a guitar or a piece of beautiful art, we still worry that somehow that enjoyment makes us worldly.  And to make matters worse, the law of Uzzah tells us that we can’t view those things as worship or a connection to God, because the only way we can worship God are in the ways that He explicitly prescribes.  I have actually heard more than one sermon making that very point!  It’s like we completely skipped the central message of the New Testament and are back under the Law again, like the book of Acts is the sixth book of the Law!  (And again, apart from the theological absurdity of that position, let me tell you as one wading through Leviticus that, on a literary level, there is no way those two books are parallel.  If I learned anything from the Torah, it’s that when God wants to spell out a bunch of rules, He does it very clearly.)  The irony is that in our fear of being worldly, we separate God from the things He uses to reveal Himself to us.  In doing so, we tell ourselves that we can’t experience God in those things.  And because we cut out God from them, we make them worldly.  The result is that we live compartmentalized lives where we “worship” and “commune with God,” in certain contexts, which leaves the rest of our lives–the stuff like eating and running and being outside and kissing and listening to music and playing games– to be experienced apart from Him.  How sad is that?  I don’t want to live one second apart from God!  I want every moment of my life to be lived in worship to Him!

Secondly, though, I don’t even believe that the “time of Uzzah” is what we think it was.  It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of God’s many laws in the Old Testament, and to be terrified by God’s treatment of those who step out of line.  I am still working through my understanding of all that, but from my understanding of the New Testament, it seems to me that the point of all those rules was to show us that they didn’t work.  And even with all those laws in place, people still communed with God through the normal elements of their lives.  For me, perhaps the best thing to come out of the Old Testament is the example of David.  David messed up all the time (and not just the Bathsheba thing:  when you read his story, there are all sorts of lies and acts of deception mixed in with the good stuff).  And yet, David was called “a man after God’s own heart.”  It’s hard to pin down exactly why he received such a wonderful title, but my running theory is that David was a man after God’s own heart because he saw God in everything.  He saw God in nature, in music, in sorrow, in dancing like a crazy person.

Perhaps that’s why David described God as a fountain of life.  “In your light we see light.”  Even as a sinful man, David was able to see the light in nature and dancing and music and such because he was already immersed in God’s light.  And so perhaps those today who “walk in the light,” as John puts it, are able to see all the sources of light that are already around them.  Perhaps God’s light helps them to test everything, hold onto the good, and avoid every kind of evil.  Maybe the fountain of life that comes from God allows us to connect with Him in everything He gives us.

Thinking about David’s words about the fountain of life reminds me of James’ description of God’s gifts:  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”  Today, I’m so thankful for the good and perfect gifts of sunrises and good music and homemade tomato soup and my son’s drawings.  I’m thankful that I don’t have to wait for heaven to get a drink from the fountain of life.

How do you experience God in this life?

(In case you were curious, the guitar riff in question was the first thirty seconds here.)

The Baby in the Bathwater

Let me begin with a fictional story:

Thousands of years ago, when the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, Pharoah passed a law that ordered all the Israelite baby boys to be killed upon birth.  One woman, Jochebed, resisted the law and hid her baby son, Moses.  When she realized that she could hide him no longer, she put the baby in the basket and sailed him down the river.  Moses floated along in his basket until he got hung up in a patch of reeds.  It just so happened that Pharoah’s daughter had come down to bathe in the river by that very patch of reeds, and thus, it just so happened that the royal woman saw Moses and took pity on him.  She decided to raise him as her own, and in a fortuitous twist, Moses’s sister convinced the princess to let his mom nurse him until he was old enough to come live in the palace.  

This is how I understood the story of Moses as a child.  I don’t know why I pictured it like this, but I did, and the image of poor baby Moses sailing helplessly down the river stayed with me through most of my childhood and even most of my teen years.  One day, however, I actually read the account in the Bible and realized that it didn’t happen that way at all.  Moses’ mother didn’t sail him down the river.  Instead, here is what she did:

“…she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.  His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank” (Exodus 2:3-5).

See?  Clearly, Moses didn’t go for a basket ride down the river.  Instead, his mom put him in a basket and set the basket in a stationary position among the reeds.

That’s weird to me.

The obvious question is, why would someone do that?  I guess it is weird to sail him down the river, too, but at least there is a chance of him arriving somewhere cool…I guess.  But to just set his basket in a place and leave it there–what’s the point?  She can’t stand to drown him, so…she’s going to leave him to the elements?  Does she want him to die of exposure, or what?

I might be wrong (it’s been known to happen before), but I can only think of one explanation.  Moses’ mom knew that Pharoah’s daughter was coming to bathe there.  It’s the only possibility that makes sense to me.  And the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.  Jochebed is desperate.  She can’t bring herself to kill her son, but he is getting too old to hide any more.  Once he is discovered by an Egyptian, he will surely be put to death.

Unless.

Unless she can get him to someone who might have mercy on him, someone powerful enough to spare his life.  Reading the story with fresh eyes, I see Jochebed’s placing of Moses in the princess’ path as a desperate protest.  I theorize that she knew where the princess went to bathe, and she arranged to put her son in the woman’s path.  It’s almost like she was saying, “Here he is:  you kill him.”  It was definitely a gamble.  But maybe she saw it as her only choice:  As risky as it was to reveal the baby’s presence to the ruling class, her only alternative was to kill her son.  Thankfully, in selecting the person to which to appeal, Jochebed chose well:

“[The princess] saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it.  She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’she said.”

Whenever I read the story of Moses, I tend to focus on, well, Moses.  After all, he is both the victim and the hero of this tale; clearly, he is the center of the story.  But reading it in my journey through the Bible this year, I found that I was full of questions about the princess.  What was her life like?  How much power did she have?  How much did she know about the oppression that enabled her to retain her position in the ruling class?  Clearly, she knew something.  She knew that the baby was a Hebrew baby, and she didn’t think of returning him to his mother.  That alone tells me that she understood the danger he was in, which meant she knew about the law.  But when the baby was put in her face like that, she just couldn’t kill him.  Instead, she felt sorry for him.  And thus, she decided to make a stand.

To be honest, her stand seems a little…limited.   As one who has dabbled in small stands of “social justice,” I can already hear the objections, and I am tempted to join in the chorus:

“Just one baby?  Are you not aware of the widespread genocide that is occurring all around you?  Are you not aware of how you are even complicit in these human rights violations by maintaining your wealthy lifestyle?  Your wealth and power comes on the backs of slaves, lady!”

And what about that rationale:  She felt sorry for the baby?  How emotional!  How weak!  We are not supposed to be driven my emotions, right?  Logic, firm logic, should guide our steps.  And how is it logical to spare one baby, while so many others die?  She is either unwilling or unable to change the whole crooked system, so what’s the point of feeling sorry for just one child?

Reading the old story yet again, I saw the princess in a new light.  I could even see the similarities between the two of us.  We both live wealthy lives, and sometimes we get hints that our status in our powerful society comes at least in part through the oppression of others.  The princess’ society was maintained by infanticide.  My comfortable life is made possible by cheaply made products that sometimes even depend on slave labor.

But what do you do?  What can one person do?

I’m not saying that the princes was a crusader for social justice, and I understand that I’m projecting onto the text.  Rigorous biblical scholarship this is not; Fee and Stuart would be appalled at me right now.  At the same time, though, I gained some encouragement from the princess’ actions in this case.  I know nothing else about this woman, but I do know that when there was a baby in her bathwater, she didn’t push it to the side.  In this case, at least, when she crossed paths with suffering, she stopped and did what she could.

And you know what?  God used her, emotions and all.  Her limited actions made a difference, to say the least.

I think this story resonates with me this year, because I have a lot of babies in my bathwater, metaphorically speaking.  Yes, there is the whole social justice thing, as I am still trying to buy fair trade chocolate.  But more immediately, it seems that there are several real babies floating in my metaphorical bath water.  For instance, I just delivered dinner tonight to a new mom and saw her adorable baby.  At the same time, I have another friend, a single mom, about to have a baby, and I’m getting progressively more worried about her mental state.  There is also another baby:  her mom is still pregnant with her, and I know the mom from way back.  I haven’t had any contact lately, but a mutual friend reached out to me when the mom learned her daughter’s stomach was on the outside of her body.  Other details emerged:  the mom is on drugs, she is basically homeless, and her boyfriend is in jail.  Lastly, another pregnant woman reached out to me, a single mom-to-be, and invited me to her baby shower.  I’ve been meaning to make contact with this last person, and I didn’t even realize that she was pregnant.

All these babies keep popping up in my life, and they keep bringing my thoughts back to Pharoah’s daughter.  What do you do when you see a needy baby (or four) in your path?  If I’m honest with myself, I admit that a few of those situations are really overwhelming to me, and I don’t even know where to start getting involved.  If I’m being extra honest, I’ll admit that I’m also really busy these days, and I am feeling selfish about my time.  And if I’m being brutally honest, I don’t really think that I can make much of a difference in some of the situations that have been put in front of me.

Reading the story of Moses, though, I am reminded of a simple, time-worn fact:  if there is a baby in your bathwater, you don’t leave it bobbing among the reeds.  That’s not so much to ask, is it?  We don’t have to change the world; we just have to help the people in our paths.  In this era of global technology, sometimes people across the world get thrown in our paths.  But more often, it is our neighbors and their babies who need our help.  And we have the choice to ignore the need, to continue with our routines…or to step in and help.

I have some babies in my bathwater.  And now I have to decide what to do about them…

Update on my Love Life: Fighting

In 2012, my major “resolution” was to live a life of love.  I know myself well enough to know that I cannot simply will myself to be loving, and so this resolution is really a request for God to transform me.  I also know, though, that there are some things that I can do to try to realign my life with Jesus’ standards.  Here is a little “update” on my attempt at an Eph. 5:2 style “love life.”

You know that phrase, “I’m a lover, not a fighter?

That phrase doesn’t describe me.

Instead, this is what describes me:

Because I am a lover, I am also a fighter.

I am a lover of God, of my family, of my church, of the people in this world.  And I fight for what I love.  In some ways, my view of the world is…combative.  In some ways, I see life as one big struggle.  A brutiful struggle, mind you, but a struggle nonetheless.  And I guess it is because of that perception that “fighting” metaphors really resonate with me, especially ones where the struggle is against seemingly impossible obstacles.  Lost causes, if you will.

Maybe that’s why my college dorm room was decorated with quotes like this one:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”  –Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Or why I literally tear up when I watch scenes like this:

Or why I get chills when I hear these words, from Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender…

Maybe that’s why my favorite movies are about gladiators and astronauts and cowboys instead of romances.  I guess those movies just speak more to my understanding of the world.

And maybe that’s why I have such a hard time with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: 38-48.  I desperately want to follow Jesus and to take His commands seriously, but I just don’t understand commands that seem to tell you not to struggle, not to resist, the darkness around you.

I am coming to see, however, that the Christian life is not about laying one’s weapons down.  Instead, it is about trading in the weapons of the world for better weapons, God’s weapons.  And it is about recognizing our true enemy, and not mistaking our enemy for the civilians among which he hides.  My last post was an attempt to flesh those thoughts out using my understanding of the New Testament.  This post will be an attempt to flesh them out using my recent experience.

Since my recent experience deals with real people, I want to describe it in as general terms as possible.  In fact, the reason it has taken me so long to post it is because I have struggled with just how to portray it.  Here’s what I came up with:

A few weeks ago, a fellow soldier and I were on a mission of reconciliation.  Our goal was to use church resources to help reconcile some teens to God.  For most of our mission, we had what seemed to be success.  Relationships were built; messages of reconciliation were delivered and received; love was poured.  At the very end, however, things went downhill.  As leaders of this mission, we made a decision that we thought was best for the group.  This decision was not well-received, and abruptly, we found ourselves under attack by two people while we were driving home.  The attack was incredibly vitriolic and personal.  Weapons of this world were being hurled at us with bewildering ferocity.  I actually had the image of bombs raining down on us while the attack went on.  My fellow worker and I looked at each other in absolute shock.  Then, we both reached for the only weapon we were mandated to use:  love.

We both tried–oh, how we tried!–to use love the right way.  It is not a weapon that one is used to using in such a harsh attack, and honestly, there was some trial and error in trying to use it effectively.  This particular battle went on for what seemed an interminably long time.  Every kind and peaceful thing we tried to say was immediately dismissed and overpowered.  We really didn’t know what to do.  It almost seemed easier to capitulate, to give in to the rage.  But we both truly believed that it was the wrong thing to do, that it was truly not in the best interest of the people in question.  Since they were in our care, we became more and more convicted that we could not let them think that their strategy of rage and hatred was the way to succeed.  We had to show them a better way.  So we held the line.  Calmly, peaceably, we held the line.

Here is a confession, though:  I was physically shaking throughout the encounter.  Afterwards, my fellow soldier told me that she was, too.  It was as if we had a whole pile of grenades between us that our survival instincts were screaming for us to use.  In this verbal battle, we could win; we could fight fire with fire and demolish our opponents.  We were older, better with words, and frankly, we had the benefit of being right.  But those grenades would have taken out the bridges between us and the people we were trying to reconcile with God.  We would have burned them.  And we weren’t willing to do that, as much as a burned bridge sounded kind of tempting in the moment.  So we didn’t use the grenades, even though every instinct inside me told me to do it.  That’s why I was shaking:  it wasn’t from rage; it was from self-control.  Restraint.  Despite our mutual longing for grenades, we tried our best to use love.  We fumbled, and tried again, and then fumbled again, and then tried again.  In the end, it is even hard to say who won.  I ended it by reasserting my love for my two “opponents,” and sharing with them the good things that I wanted for them.  Both of them softened at the time, and one has since issued a heartfelt apology.  I haven’t seen the other.

I will say this:  I came away from the encounter exhausted, severely shaken…and mentally illuminated.  Finally, in ways that penetrated to the depths of my knowledge, I understood the idea of turning the other cheek.  Turning the other cheek does not mean surrender.  It does not mean that you don’t fight.  On the contrary, I don’t know that I have ever fought as hard as I did that night.  Instead, turning the other cheek is part of fighting with love.  That night, I saw that love didn’t protect my pride and feelings like verbal retaliation would have.  Instead, love left my pride and feelings very vulnerable, and they suffered as a result.  But when I chose to use love, I chose to let my pride and feelings suffer rather than compromise my mission.  And that was turning the other cheek.

I am not going to attempt to universalize that experience right now or to extract principles to apply in every situation.  I just want to let it be what it was:  an experiential lesson in turning the other cheek.  Like I said, I was exhausted when my mission was over…and yet, I also felt very, very…strong.  I felt like I had won the battle, although certainly not the war.  I went home with peace in my heart, and love in my soul.  In a weird way, I am even thankful for the experience.  It definitely served as an important lesson in my year of trying to live a life of love.  God taught me more about love in that one battle than I could have ever learned simply from reading Scripture.  That night, He took the Scriptures I had read and gave me a chance to apply them.  I pray that I did well, that I passed whatever test He might have been giving me.  I pray that I made God proud as a soldier in His army.  And I pray that the love we so clumsily tried to show that night will plant itself in the souls that were present and that it will stay with them as a picture of God’s love for them.

I know it will stay with me…

Citizenship 101: Ethics in War

This blog was inspired by an experience I had the other day.  I plan on sharing the experience itself soon, but for my own understanding, I had to process it on a philosophical level first.  Thus, even though this post is largely theoretical, just know that it serves as a reaction to a practical scenario.  

I believe that life in the Kingdom is marked by the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  And yet, I can’t help but notice a lot of martial imagery, even in the New Testament.  Reading Paul, it would appear that as citizens in God’s kingdom, we are also soldiers.  At least, that’s how Paul refers to his fellow Christians:  in Phil. 2:25, he calls Epaphroditus his “fellow worker and fellow soldier”; he also describes Archippus as his fellow soldier in Philemon 1:2.  Similarly, he instructs Timothy to “endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” and reminds him that “no one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).  Perhaps you could argue that Paul is just using figurative language, but it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom talk could be viewed similarly.  Right now, my conclusion is that as much as one is a metaphor, the other is a metaphor; as much as one is real, the other is real.

But wait–how can we be soldiers when Jesus tells us repeatedly to do such wussy things, like,

 “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:38-45).

Seriously?  What kind of soldier does not resist his enemies??  Why would Paul refer to us as fighters, if we are not supposed to fight?

The reason for this seeming discrepancy is that in Paul’s language, people are not our enemies.  According to him, “ our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).  And thus, he tells us to outfit ourselves in such a way as to wage war with these enemies:

13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”  (Eph. 6:13-18).

Okay, so our enemies are not people, and our weapons are not guns, hatred, anger, or poisoned words; instead, they are truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, God’s Spirit, His word, and prayer.  Those might sound kind of lame and ineffective compared to brute strength or biting rhetoric, but Paul assures the Corinthians that God’s weapons are all we need:

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).

Our weapons are powerful, and they are perfectly suited to our mission.  But what is the mission?  Reading Paul’s words about our enemies, I must admit I get a little confused.  “Spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”?  What the what?  And demolishing strongholds?  Huh?

I get some insight into the big picture from Paul’s words just a chapters earlier in the same letter.  Here, Paul does a great job of clearly laying out what we are supposed to be doing as Christians.  In these verses, I find the ideas that hold everything else together:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (2 Cor. 5:14-21)

See, our mission is not to destroy people; it is to save them.  Our number one goal is to reconcile the people to God.  And strongholds?  Those are the things that separate people from God.  Paul says as much when he describes strongholds as “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 5:5).  In short, the picture I get is that our “enemy” is anything that separates man from God.

Here’s another big point:  it seems that God’s system has evolved in this area.  See, in the Old Testament, the Law commanded that the Israelites stone people for several different offenses.  The purpose of that brutality seemed to be to cut off evil from the group.  According to the Law, it would seem that the enemies of God were people, and that you overcame said enemies by literally bludgeoning them to death with rocks.  And, you know, that gets confusing when you compare it to Paul’s words (not to mention Jesus’).  In fact, I don’t really know what to say about that besides two things:  it didn’t work (evil was always present in the Israelites), and the New Testament gives us more sophisticated weaponry.

To me, it’s the difference between fire bombing a city and using strategic missiles to take out specific, high-value targets.  For all the casualties that the first causes, the second is actually more effective.  You can stone people all day long, but you aren’t going to beat the devil that way.  And also?  Stoning people is horrific.

So Jesus and Paul aren’t backing down.  They aren’t being wusses.  They are being more precise in their definition of enemy and more sophisticated in their tactics of taking him down.  Their ways have far less civilian casualties.

Here’s one way Paul describes our new fighting tactics:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Rom. 12: 17-21).

Here is another way:

“We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God;with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;8through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6: 3-10).

Okay, that’s all I have for now.  Here’s my (current) conclusion:  as citizens in God’s kingdom, we are also called to be soldiers.  Our mission:  to reconcile man with God.  Our enemy:  the devil and his schemes to separate man from God.  Our weapons:  righteousness, goodness the “armor of God” in Ephesians 6.  Our tactics:  loving people.

Right now, this is all theoretical, not to mention constantly evolving in my brain.  Hopefully, I’ll give you a scenario that puts some flesh on these ideological bones soon.  Until then, I’m open to any suggestions/revisions!

The Practice of a Happy Bedtime

Today, I am blogging as part of the “Practices of Parenting Carnival” held by Sarah Bessey at Emerging Mummy.  Even though Kingdom Civics is not a “mom blog,” I do view my parenting as one of my most important roles in God’s Kingdom.  Thus, when Sarah asked us to share one of our practices of parenting that makes the experience enjoyable, I couldn’t resist.  Enjoy!

EmergingMummy.com

“The Practice of a Happy Bedtime”

I have long held the belief that a child’s bedtime should serve the same psychological purpose as the last five minutes of a Full House episode.

Remember that show?  In the world of Full House, the first twenty five minutes were fraught with conflicts, misunderstandings, and zany hijinks…which would always be totally resolved and redeemed in the last five minutes of the show.  It kind of became a joke, the way everything was tied up with a nice little bow at the end.  If only real life worked that way, we thought…

…Well, I think there is a time that real life should work that way, and that time is bedtime.  No matter what craziness, chaos, heartache, or drama happens during the day, I want my children’s last thoughts at night to be that they are loved dearly, that they have people in their corner, and that everything is going to be alright.  Life can be tough on children, and we parents can’t always kiss all that pain away.  However, I have found that pouring in peace and comfort at the end of a day is invaluable for children.  In fact, I know that it is invaluable.  I know because that happy, affirming bedtime was my bedtime as a child.

Most of my childhood bedtime memories are all a blur of Bible stories and pleas for “just one more” chapter of whatever book we were reading, mixed in with hugs, kisses, rubbing noses, and “I love you more’s.”  But there are a couple of bedtime memories that really stand out to me, times when my life was filled with fear and disappointment…only to be redeemed at bedtime.  Both memories happened within the same general age range, somewhere between 10 and 11.  I know because of the house we were living at, and because I no longer slept in my brother’s room on his top bunk.  Instead, I slept in my pink explosion of a room, snugly under my ruffly comforter.

I know I was at least ten for the first memory because I had been baptized….and a dreadful realization had come upon me.  I realized that I did not love God.  Or, at least, I didn’t know if I did.  I did know that I loved my parents and my brother, and that my love for God did not compare with the feelings I had for them.  This thought absolutely wrecked me.  I really wanted to love God, but I didn’t know how to make myself feel the same way about Him that I did about my family.  And clearly, this lack of warm fuzzy love feelings meant that I wasn’t going to go heaven.  After all, how could one go to heaven without loving God??  My lack of “feelings” for God left me completely despondent.  What kind of person was I, who didn’t love God??  And more importantly, how could I ever confess this dark truth to my parents, who thought the world of me?  Man…it’s tough being a kid sometimes.  Thankfully, my mom knew that something was wrong, and it didn’t take much prying on her part before I burst into tears one night at bedtime.  In between sobs, I told her, “I don’t think…I’m going…to heaven.”  Startled, she asked why not.  “Because I don’t love God!”  I wailed.  Of course, by this time she was completely taken aback, but I remember that she gently tried to console me with the thought that, of course I loved God.  I tried to explain everything to her how I loved my family so much, and how I just didn’t think I loved God as much as I loved my family.  And everyone knows you are supposed to love God more than you love anyone or anything else.  You are supposed to love Him with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, after all!

I don’t know if my mom was trying not to laugh at this point, or if she was grieved at how much I was beating myself up.  I do know that she must have been at a loss of how to console a ten year old who thought she was going to hell.  After trying everything she could to convince me that I did love God very much, even if I didn’t realize it…she punted.  “You know,” she said, “I think there’s a verse in the Bible that says, ‘If a woman has love as small as a mustard seed, she will be saved.'”  [Update:  There’s not a verse in the Bible that says that].

I sniffled.  “Really?  It says that?”

“Yep,” my mom affirmed, “it sure does.”

[Update:  No.  No it does not.]

“Well…I do think I have at least that much love…”

“See?”  my mom said triumphantly, “Nothing to worry about!”

I felt like a huge weight come off my shoulders.  But I still had one question.

“It says that about a woman who loves God?  But what about a man?”

My mom just laughed and waved the concern away.  “It probably says something like, ‘He is to be praised.'”

I cracked up.  I love that moment when tears turn into laughter.  There is magic in that moment.  And there was peace, sweet peace in my soul, as well as joy and love.  After some more hugs and kisses, my mom tucked me happily into bed, visions of hellfire put off for another day…

My other great bedtime memory came after either the 4th or the 5th grade spelling bee.  I had won my class spelling bee and got to compete in the school-wide bee.  I really wanted to win.  My best friend at the time always won everything; she was always just a little smarter than me, a little better, a little prettier.  And because of that, I really had this hunger to distinguish myself.  Since I was a good speller, I thought that this was my chance to do it.

I will never forget the word I missed:  mystify.

To this day, I am mystified at how I could misspell the word mystify–and how I could misspell it so confidently!  See, when they called out the word, “mystify,” I immediately thought of “mist.”  As in, when you are mystified, it’s like a mist clouds your understanding.  I saw the picture so clearly, of a person confused, surrounded by a mist.  And so of course, I spelled it with confidence:

“Mystify.  M-I-S-T-I-F-Y.  Mystify.”

I was shocked when it was wrong.  Only when I left the stage to sit with the others who had been eliminated did it occur to me:  it wasn’t like mist, it was like mystery.  Mystery, Kim, not mist…mysteries, like the ones you love to read so much?  People are mystified by mysteries.  You. Idiot.

I had learned all about the importance of being a good sport, but inside, I was crushed.  Looking back, I think that was the first time I was genuinely depressed.  I remember trying to pretend like it was okay, that I was taking it all in stride, but the truth was, I was so, so sad.  I went to bed that night feeling that weight of sorrow.

It was funny that night, because it was dad who came in and sat on the edge of my bed, his weight pulling the covers more tightly around me.  We usually kissed dad before we went to bed; it was usually mom who came to our bedside to bid us goodnight.  But here was my father, big and important in his stiff, dark suit, smelling like business and tobacco and cologne and the world.  He cut an odd and imposing figure sitting on my pink, girly comforter, under which his 11-year old daughter lay in a heap of failure.  I was all ears.

“You know,” he started, “I was in a spelling bee once.  In second grade.”

It was always novel to picture my dad as a little boy.  I had no doubt that my father was one of the most important, powerful men in our city, if not the world, and thinking of him as having once been a little boy almost felt like knowing a secret weakness about him.

“I was excited, because I had never been in a spelling bee, had never won one.  I had never won anything at all, in fact, and I thought that here, finally, was a chance to win something.”

My heart was already starting to break in anticipation.

“We went through a few rounds, and then I got up, and heard my word:  women.  I was so happy because it was such an easy word.  And so, confidently I started…”

I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t quite believe there was ever a time that my dad could not spell, “women.”

“W…”

Oh, no.  I knew what got him.

“…I…

Oh, man.

“M-I-N.”

Both vowels!

And there it was.  My father, at one point, could not spell the word, women.  I couldn’t help it:  I laughed.  But it was truly a laugh in commiseration.  After all, I was in 4th grade and couldn’t spell mystify.  But there was something so heartening in the fact that I was not alone in losing a spelling bee.  And also, if my dad could come back from misspelling women to go on to become one of the most important men in the world…then surely there was hope for me, too.

On that raft of hope, I was able to float peacefully off to dreamland.

And…roll credits.

I love looking back on those moments.  In those special times, my parents were the Dragon Slayers, vanquishing fear and sorrow from my wounded soul.  I see now, though, that these rescues were simply the natural outgrowth of the time they put into every night to make sure that all was well with my brother and me.  They worked hard to keep us in a world full of love, peace, and joy, and that work was accomplished both through the normal routine of stories and kisses and through those rare crises.

And now, I get to build that sanctuary for my children.  I get to use the sacred routines of baths and stories, devos and prayers, kisses and whispers to create a layer of peace between them and the natural stressors of their young lives.  Being a child is tough sometimes.  My son’s dread of dealing with his grumpy art teacher is every bit as real and unsettling as the stresses in my life.  And that is where our happy bedtimes benefit both my children and myself.  It is a chance for all of us to let go of the failures and frustrations of the day, as well as all of the worries of tomorrow, and just remember how much we love each other.  All of the hugs and kisses and giggles and whispers remind us that life is good, even though it is not without its daily hurts and inconveniences.  And I have found, interestingly, that when I speak peace into my son’s troubled soul, the anxious child within me hears and is quieted, also.  We might be worried about different things, none of which are truly resolvable in the moment, but our soothing talks remind us that we are both loved, we are both blessed beyond measure, and we both always have people to come home to, people who absolutely adore us.

In that way, our happy bedtimes help to create a secure and peaceful world for both of us.

Life is Brutiful

Yesterday, as I was walking down the street to my car after teaching class, I had a thought.  The thought came as a migraine threatened, causing something behind my eye to pulse ominously.  The thought came as the pulsing increased, forcing me to scowl at the world in an attempt to block out the light.  It came as I passed a roaring construction site, crossed the street, told homeless George selling papers to have a good weekend, and noticed the brambles of dead vines  in the dormant patch of trees to my left.  The thought was this:

“Life is brutiful.”

I got that word from Glennon Melton over at Momastery.com.  She uses it to describe the intertwined brutal and beautiful nature of life, and she argues that since it is impossible to separate those two sides, the best thing to do is to embrace them both.  I could not agree more.

Take my headache, for example.  Like I alluded to in the last post, my headache came after almost a month of feeling bad, and I realized firsthand how consistent fatigue and illness can really depress one’s mood and turn them inward.  Take right now, I thought to myself.  I don’t care about anybody right now; all I can think about is my pounding head.  It is making me completely selfish.

OR.

Or, I thought, I can choose to let it teach me.  I can let it give me a sense of humor.  I mean, isn’t is just a little funny that I am walking past this incredibly loud construction site with a migraine?  Isn’t there some black humor in there?  I smiled to myself.  Life is brutiful.

Or, I thought, I can use my headache as a reminder that people suffer all the time, that people suffer without us ever knowing, and to be gentle with people who might be suffering.  I can let my pain awaken me to the suffering of others.  That thought prompted me to be extra nice to George as I passed by.  Life is brutiful.

Or, I thought, I can use my pain to help me find beauty in things that don’t normally seem beautiful.  Take this tangle of dead vines and trees.  They look so gray and ugly.  But are they really?  I looked more closely, and saw the intricacy in brambles, the delicacy of each individual vine…and I saw the promise of spring coming soon.  Life is brutiful.

You really can’t separate the brutal and the beautiful.  Even those moments that seem sublime get at least some of their joyous power from the black depths.

For example, yesterday at preschool, I was sitting outside in the van with Anna.  She requested that I roll down the window, because, in her words, “I just love feeling the breeze and the sunlight.”

It was truly a sublime moment watching her happily bask in God’s creation.  I promptly took a picture and posted that beauty to Facebook.  Surely, no darkness could be present here…

And yet.

The reason I obsessively record such moments, the reason I cherish each drop of heaven that comes from raising my two children is largely because of my precious brother’s untimely death almost three years ago.  The seismic shift that that event caused in my soul rocked me to my core.  It caused immense pain…but it also forever changed the way I view life and, particularly, motherhood.  It taught me, in a way far more profound than mere intellectual understanding, to savor every beautiful moment with my kids, to drink them up, to record them and revisit them often.  Now, would I trade that understanding in a second to have my brother back?  Heck yes–you bet I would.  But I don’t have that choice.  My only option is to embrace the brutiful.

This morning, I read over my 2012 prayer journal and was just about moved to tears over my January.  Reading over it, I realized how I really did spend most of it battling fatigue, illness, stress and even mild depression as a result of it all.  I really had no idea until I saw my daily entries, each pleading with God to help me feel better, to give me the energy to get through this day, to equip my inadequate soul to be a good teacher, a good minister’s wife, a good mother.  Besides the health issues, I realized what a big adjustment this year has been.  Less than a year ago, my son went to preschool eight hours a week, and my daughter was home full-time.  Just a few short months later, and my son is in kindergarten eight hours a day, and my daughter is in preschool three days a week.  Add to that a new house, a new state, a new church, and my first true job since my kids have been born…and it becomes obvious that I’m experiencing some growing pains.

But January was not simply hard; it was brutiful.  Because of the challenges, I also experienced some true spiritual highs.  I had healing and therapeutic talks with old friends, including a life-giving visit with my best bud from South Carolina.  I bonded with some wonderful sisters at my new church over some particularly transparent and open class discussions.  I was blessed by some of the most transcendent experiences with God’s nature, particularly His amazing sunrises, which He regularly used to pour peace and hope into my weary soul.  I had some incredible days with my children, since our greater separation compelled me to cherish every sweet second that they were at home.  My bond with my husband grew even deeper, as we once again teamed up through a tough time and established that we are not only spouses, we are BFF for life.

It was truly a brutiful month.

And now my mama is in town.  She regularly spoils us, and sometimes I admit I take it for granted.  But this visit, I am ready to kiss her feet.  My gratitude for her generosity, her love, and her thoughtfulness is overwhelming, in a way that it probably would not have been if my life had been sailing along smoothly.

One day, when I live in the fullness of God’s kingdom for eternity, life will be simply beautiful.  But for now, I thank Him for the brutiful. I thank Him for bringing beauty out of the brutal, for working all things for good, even as they cause us pain.  I thank Him for using our brutiful lives to draw us closer and closer to Him, so that finally, when the brutiful gives way to the beautiful, we will be right at home…

How has your life been brutiful?

Be a Force for Good

I was sick the month of January.

It’s February 1, and I’m still sick.

I tell my class that one day they will get to meet Healthy Kim, and I assure them that Healthy Kim is a delightful person.  Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I’ve been on death’s door the whole time.  Rather, I seem to be on an alternating course of a semi-healthy congestion-and-cough stage, which inevitably transitions into a feeling-like-I’m-going-to-die phase.  After a few days of the latter, I will resolve to Go. To. The. Doctor….but then I’ll start feeling better.  Unfortunately, during my feeling-like-I’m-going-to-die phase, my house begins to look like I have, in fact, died, and that I’ve left it with no one to take care of it.  Greg does his best to pick up the slack, but in between his full time job and taking care of the kids while he is home, there’s not a lot of time for deep cleaning.  The result is that on days like today, following a feeling-like-I’m-going-to-die stage, my house looks like a bomb went off in it.  The downside of the carnage is that I do not have the energy to whip it back into shape.  The upside is that the chaos allows me to meditate on what it means to be a force for good in this world.

See, when I walk out of my bathroom, and see a piece of laundry on my bedroom floor, my instinct is to pick it up.  When I do pick it up, however, only to see fifteen other pieces of laundry strewn across the floor, my instinct is to drop the piece of laundry back onto the floor and simply exit the room.  My reasoning is, “I am way too tired to pick up all that laundry, so why should I waste the energy to pick up one piece?  One less piece of laundry on the floor makes no difference in the big picture; the room still looks trashed.”  And then I walk into the kitchen and have the same experience with the dishes, and I move into the playroom and repeat the reasoning in the midst of all the toys.  Finally, I tend to sit down on the couch, defeated, and check my Facebook.

Thankfully, I’ve found a line of reasoning that works on my overwhelmed and exhausted mind in times when the chaos of life threatens to overtake me.  Instead of making any kind of definite goals (actual levels of productivity being well beyond my capabilities in such compromised states), I simply tell myself to

“Be a force for good.”

In other words, don’t worry about the mess.  Don’t worry about the chaos.  Don’t think about the effort it would take to get this room cleaned.  Simply do something that will help the situation, not hurt it.  And so, as I pass through the kitchen, I will move one coffee cup from the table to the sink.  Just one cup, and I won’t even load it in the dishwasher.  And then I’ll tell myself, “Good job, Kim!  You were a force for good!”

(Yes, I actually do this.)

And then when I go to rest a second on the couch and find that there’s no room on it, I will tell myself, “Rather than push everything into a big pile, hang up that one coat, which will clear you some room.”  And I hang it up, and I congratulate myself again.  It goes on like that for awhile:  I do little, insignificant actions that don’t make the house look any better, but that make me “a force for good.”  See, even though I don’t see the results, I know that I made a little difference in the dynamic of my house.  Instead of causing chaos, I brought just a smidgen of order.

What inevitably happens is that my tiny actions start to change my mindset.  Gradually, I will be a force for good no matter where I walk in the house.  At one point, I may even decide to make a bed!  Or unload the dishwasher!  Or fold a load of laundry!  The hardest part is to get the ball rolling.  Once I start to move, however, I gradually become more and more of a consistent force for good.  But when I first survey the carnage, it is almost impossible for me not to fall into despair.

I have the same reaction when I survey the chaos of the world.  When I start to think of all the broken lives around me (not to mention those around the world)…and I begin to contemplate the amount of effort it would take to get involved in just one…and I begin to comprehend what a drop in the bucket all that effort would ultimately amount to….my temptation is just to say, “Forget it!”  And walk away.  Step over the piece of laundry, and exit the room.

I don’t think I’m alone in that temptation.  I know that, for example, whenever I talk about trying to buy fair trade chocolate, the most typical reaction I encounter is of the overwhelmed soul who sees fair trade chocolate as the 15th piece of laundry on the floor and wonders what the point is in picking up that one.  And just as it seems ridiculous that I cheer myself on when I move one coffee cup to the sink in the midst of a disastrous kitchen, it seems strange to people to choose one product to avoid, when there are so many other “bad” ones out there.  To such people, I just want to say,

Be a force for good.

If fair trade chocolate doesn’t ring your bell, then find out what does.  Or better yet, ask God where He wants you to start.  The bottom line is that once you start being a force for good, however tiny, your actions will eventually transform your mindset.  You begin to identify yourself as that positive force, and your new-found identity will start to run over into other aspects of your life.

In the end, the world may not be transformed…but your life most certainly will.

How are you a force for good?

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