Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Wife of Noble Character Who Can Find?: Abigail

[Second post in my "A Wife of Noble Character" series.]

Reading about Abigail in 1 Samuel 25 leaves me wishing there were more to find out about this interesting woman.  She is described as “intelligent and beautiful” (v. 3), while married to Nabal, a Calebite, who has gone down in history as “surly and mean” (v. 3). 

It is likely that Nabal, a wealthy man who likes to party like a king and treat others with thoughtless disrespect, has no idea that he is married to “a wife of noble character…worth far more than rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).  If it weren’t for her bringing him good, not harm, all the days of her life (Proverbs 31:12), the account found in 1 Samuel 25 would have ended much differently!

In this chapter, we are told that it is sheep-shearing time—time to party!—in Carmel, where the wealthy Nabal owns a thousand goats and three thousand sheep on his land.  Earlier, David and his men had protected Nabal’s shepherds and their sheep from any foreigners who might have tried to harm them or steal them away.  David thinks it is only fair that his men be repaid by Nabal for their kindness and concern—perhaps with some supplies, certainly an invitation to the party—whatever Nabal can spare for them.  It would be pretty hard to hold a lavish sheep-shearing party, while claiming that he has nothing to offer to men who have done such a great service for him!

David even has his men ask nicely:  “Long life to you!  Good health to you and your household!  And good health to all that is yours!...Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them” (1 Samuel 25: 6, 8).
But Nabal’s response is essentially this:  “Who is this David guy?  He could be ANYBODY.  Why should I waste my bread, water, and meat on HIM and his men?  They could be coming from who knows where!” (a paraphrase of 1 Samuel 25:10-11).

David is outraged, pretty understandably.  Nabal is violating every expectation of hospitality and kindness that would have generally ruled interactions at that time.  His response, though, is hasty.  He tells 400 of his men to grab their swords and head right over to kill every single man in Nabal’s household (1 Samuel 25: 13, 22).  That would have included his family, servants, shepherds, and other workers. 

Well, thank goodness, one of Nabal’s servants tells Nabal’s wife Abigail that a very outraged David and 400 tired, hungry, and angry men are headed their way (1 Samuel 25: 14-16)!

Abigail springs into action—it’s good news for her household that she does not “eat the bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27)!—with an understanding of the situation that suggests this isn’t the first time she has to act quickly to smooth over a rift caused by her husband’s bad behavior.  And the fact that the servants know to come to HER to sort out the catastrophe (1 Samuel 25: 17) suggests that they, too, know who to go to for wise action when Nabal’s breaches of kindness and etiquette get everyone else in trouble. 

In her wisdom, Abigail comes to David with humility, provisions, and positive and encouraging words. 

She faces these 400 angry men riding alone on a donkey into a mountain ravine (1 Samuel 25: 20).  Clearly, she is placing herself at David’s mercy.  She immediately falls at his feet, and offers to take all the blame for Nabal’s behavior upon herself (v. 23-24).

But Abigail doesn’t come with words alone.  She also comes with provisions for David and his men.  They are looking for supplies, and she makes sure they get them:  200 loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs (about a bushel) of roasted grain, 100 raisin cakes, and 200 fig cakes (1 Samuel 25: 18, 27).

The Proverbs 31 wife is depicted as making good decisions, working with eager hands, and providing food for her family and servants (v. 13-15).  While we don’t have information about how Abigail fills her days, we DO know that she makes her own very good decisions for her family, and provides what is needed to keep her family and servants safe from harm.  While the Proverbs 31 wife decides how to use her money productively—on fields or vineyards (v. 16)—Abigail knows the value of using her household money to prepare food for David’s men.  While the Proverbs 31 woman sets about her work vigorously and is strong for the tasks before her (v. 17), Abigail moves quickly to take care of her household’s business and is emotionally strong enough to face an oncoming force of 400 men with humility and strength, simultaneously.  

And finally, Abigail wisely brings words of encouragement to appease David, calm his anger, and redirect his thinking.  The Proverbs 31 woman “can laugh at the days to come” (v. 25) because of her confidence that her future lays in God’s capable hands.  Indeed, Abigail is able to prophecy to David that the Lord will make a lasting dynasty from his family and protect his life, while casting aside his enemies, that God will do every good thing he has promised to David and appoint him leader over Israel (I Samuel 25:28-30).  Abigail knows who holds the future in His hands!  And in sharing this understanding with David at such a pivotal moment, “she speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26).  She is wise to remind him that he will not want the burden of needless bloodshed marring his reputation and his conscience once he is king.

Imagine Abigail’s HUGE sigh of relief when David says, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me.  May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands…Go home in peace” (1 Samuel 25: 32, 35).  Though her own husband, Nabal, is unlikely to have called her blessed, nor praised her (Proverbs 31:28), David—her future husband—does, in fact, call her blessed.

Mission accomplished:  Disaster averted!

Of course, Abigail is still stuck going home to Nabal.  She finds him drunk and partying, and doesn’t even try to fill him in on what has happened until the next morning.  Long story short, God strikes him dead ten days later, and David asks Abigail to be his wife.  She gets back on that donkey quickly (1 Samuel 25: 42), and heads out to marry David, the future king of Israel!
If I had a chance to speak to Abigail, based on this account of one brief period in her life, I would say to her:  “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all” (Proverbs 31:29)!

To read about Rebekah, the first woman in my
"A Wife of Noble Character" series, click here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Wife of Noble Character Who Can Find?: Rebekah

In the last chapter of A Woman’s Wisdom, Lydia Brownback challenges her readers to examine the lives of six different Biblical women to determine whether or not they meet the criteria presented in Proverbs 31 for the “wife of noble character.”  Because our Living Stones group will be engaging in a series of workshops during October and November that do not require Bible reading between our meetings, I would like to challenge our members to spend some time looking at these six women through the lens of the Proverbs 31 woman to draw your own conclusions about the ways each compares and contrasts with the ideal wife portrayed there:  Rebekah, Abigail, Michal, Jezebel, Sapphira, and Priscilla. 

I started this afternoon, looking at the Biblical narrative surrounding Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel, sister of Laban, wife of Isaac, and mother of Jacob and Esau.  Her history can be found in the Book of Genesis, specifically chapters 24 through 27.

I focused on the question:  Is Rebekah a “wife of noble character” (Proverbs 31:10)? 
She starts out so promisingly! 

When Abraham’s servant Eliezer finds Rebekah at the well in the town of Nahor (Genesis 24), she immediately offers the weary traveler a drink of water from her jar.  Not only that, but she offers to draw water from the well for his camels, too—TEN camels, who can drink as much as 25 gallons of water at a time to rehydrate!  She makes this offer without hesitation, and carries out the task without any recorded grumbling, which suggests a noble character indeed!

But once she becomes a wife and mother, the tone of her story changes. 

Rebekah should have seen that God had a great plan to work out in her life.  After all, she conceives after twenty years of barrenness, in response to Isaac’s prayer to God on her behalf (Genesis 25:21).  And when Rebekah inquires of God why there is so much jostling in her womb, He tells her very clearly that two separate nations will come from the children she will bear, that the older will serve the younger, and that the people of one would be stronger than the people of the other (Genesis 25:22-23).  God clearly has plans for her twins! 
And yet even seeing God at work in her life so clearly, Rebekah doesn’t seem to trust Him completely; she seems to think she needs to help things along.

From the beginning she favors the younger twin, Jacob, over the older twin, Esau.  Esau only makes matters worse by taking two non-Hebrew women as wives (Genesis 26:34-35).  He seemed to be snubbing his cultural and spiritual heritage by marrying among the Hittites, and bringing these outsiders into his Hebrew mother’s home. Rebekah even says of her other son, Jacob:  “If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:46).  From my 21st century American perspective, it is hard to condone such a narrow-minded view of intercultural marriage, but Rebekah’s understanding of the special status of the Hebrew people in the sight of God gives her an entirely different point of view.

But rather than trusting God’s plan to bring about Jacob’s ascendance over Esau, foretold by the Lord when they were still in the womb, Rebekah takes matters into her own hands by following a path of deceit.  Here is what happened:

When Isaac was very, very old, he asked Esau to hunt some wild game and prepare him a tasty meal, and then Isaac would give his son the awaited blessing.  When Rebekah heard Isaac’s request, she went to Jacob and told him that while Esau is out hunting, Jacob should bring her two young goats, so SHE could fix the tasty food for Isaac.  To further the deceit, she dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and covers his exposed skin with goatskins so he would feel hairy like Esau.  Her deception is well-conceived and complete!  “Just do what I say,” she tells her son Jacob, when he worries that her plan will fail and result in a curse rather than a blessing (Genesis 27:12-13).
Does this sound like the biography of a wife of noble character?

Proverbs 31 tells us that when it comes to the wife of noble character, “Her husband has full confidence in her” (Proverbs 31:11).  Not only that, but “she brings him good, not harm” (Proverbs 31:12), and “her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23). 

Now, Isaac is too old and blind and sick to take his seat at the city gate, but what kind of reception do you think he would receive once the elders knew that his wife had tricked him into giving the birthright blessing to his second son Jacob in place of the first-born Esau? 

How much confidence could Isaac possibly have in a woman who schemed to give her “favorite son” this honor that amounted to legal privilege in the Middle East at this time? 

How much good could possibly come to Isaac and his family by dividing the brothers against one another, making one of them (Esau) murderous, and the other (Jacob) frightened for his life?

Further, the Proverbs 31 woman “is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25).  Where does a woman get the confidence to laugh at the days to come?  It comes, Proverbs tells us, from a fear of the Lord (31:30).  When we have confidence in God’s plan, we have no need to worry about the future; Rebekah, on the other hand, manipulates her circumstances to turn the future in the direction she desires, to see her favored son honored.  But to make sure the unfavored son Esau is passed over and denied his birthright blessing is to thwart God entirely.  If His intention is to see Esau favored with the birthright blessing of the firstborn, then Rebekah has denied His Will.  If His intention is to see Esau serving under his brother, as the Lord’s prophecy during Rebekah’s pregnancy suggests, then she is thwarting His will by manipulating her circumstances to suit her own will.  Either way, Rebekah does not display the fear of the Lord that is to be praised (Proverbs 31:30).

And what is she teaching her sons about honesty, about respect for their father, about honoring their Hebrew heritage?  The woman described in Proverbs 31 “speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (v. 26).  Rebekah does not embody this ideal with her duplicitous behavior.  “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (Proverbs 31:27).  Rebekah stays busy around her house—busy furthering her own agenda for her favored son!  She knows how to fix her husband’s food just the way he likes it (Genesis 27:15), but she puts that knowledge to a deceptive use.

“Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all’” (Proverbs 31: 28-29).  Upon discovering the deception, Isaac  “trembled violently” (Genesis 27:33) and Esau “burst out with a loud and bitter cry” (Genesis 27:34)—not exactly the look and sound of blessing, by far!  No direct accusation against Rebekah appears in the Scriptures I have found, and Esau’s grudge is specifically against his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41), but the damage of Rebekah’s conniving plan and deception are done, and it will take God’s graceful handling of the situation to undo the harm she causes.

Rebekah serves as a kind of counter-example to the Wife of Noble Character described in Proverbs 31.  If she could have balanced a concern for all members of her household, rather than protecting the interests of one favored son, then the example she presents for women, wives, and mothers throughout history would look quite different.  If she could have trusted in the Lord’s plan, and His means and timing for enacting that plan, then her story would look quite different as well. 

Can you see the elements of a modern novel or movie in this bit of Old Testament history?  I sure can!  Favoritism, sibling rivalry, betrayal, deception.  Where have you seen current-day motivations and actions that mirror what happened in Rebekah’s life story?  In what ways is this narrative still relevant for us today?  I hope you will read the original text of the story in the Book of Genesis, and consider these questions. 

Feel free to leave a comment to let me know that you’ve stopped by!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Coming Back to Center

 "Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give you. 
I do not give to you as the world gives. 
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”
(John 14:27).

It doesn’t do much good to tell someone that becoming a Christian will solve all of their problems and put them on the fast path to health and prosperity.  After all, they will find out the truth soon enough—either by their own life experiences or in the words of the Bible—that Jesus never promised an easy earthly path for His followers.  In fact, He warned us pretty directly:  “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).  No room for illusions there!
Jesus continues, though:  “But take heart!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I look at the swirl of daily circumstances in my life and the lives of my friends:  doctors’ appointments and medications; new schedules at the start of a new school year; concerns about caring for a child, or a parent, or both simultaneously; looking for work or heading into a new job; juggling complicated relationships.  If we all just pray and read our Bible, it will all work out.  Right?
To expect the whirlwind to settle, the problems to resolve themselves, and the pieces to fall into place just because I did my morning devotions or said my nighttime prayers is to imagine that I can achieve peace through something I, by my own efforts, have done.  That’s the same as trying to "make peace happen" for myself.  That’s the same as setting myself up for failure.

And yet prayer and time spent reading God's Word are fundamental to my walk as a Christian, fundamental to bringing me peace, fundamental to bringing me back to the joy of my salvation.  How does that work?
When I focus on the BEING rather than the DOING, the act of prayer and time spent in the scriptures can be life-changing by leading me back to the center of my peace--by BEING in God’s presence, BEING His child, BEING a part of the blessings promised to those who are united in Christ.
Yoga practitioners are urged to strengthen their core.  Those who meditate focus on their “center,” which is themselves and that present moment.  For the Christian--for me--that core, that center, is Christ.
In Jesus Calling, Sarah Young speaks of our inner calm as our peace in God’s Presence, which “need not be shaken by what is going on around you.” Reading her words made me visualize that swirl of daily schedules, chores, routines, and relationships I mentioned earlier, and then visualize myself rooted in the center with God’ peace at my core.  “Though you live in this temporal world,” Young writes, “your innermost being is rooted and grounded in eternity.”  How do I remind myself of that foundation?  Spending time in prayer and reading God’s Word, listening for His voice, watching for His movement in my world all brings me back to eternity.
If I work to find peace in this world, I may end up looking for a lo-o-ong time.  But when I seek my peace in God’s presence—a presence accessed through prayer and time in His Word, fellowship with and service to His people, and worship of His Person—then I am able to find what I am looking for.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls”
(Matthew 11:28-29).

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Developing a Heart for Service

In Shepherding a Child’s Heart, author Tedd Tripp writes that any activity should be a means to the end of knowing God, and not an end in itself.  We shouldn’t have family worship time, for example, in order to check it off our list of “good and proper things to do,” but as a means of bringing our family closer to God.

In the same way, rather than participating in service activities as an end in itself, we can link these experiences to our role as members of God’s family acting as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

When I talk to my daughters about the Great Shoulds—things like loving our enemies and obeying our parents and being nice to our sisters—one daughter often responds with a plaintive cry of, “But it’s too ha-aa-ard!” 

And, really, she is expressing with great honesty a cry that many adults might wish to voice when asked to go against the grain of society; to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8); to serve God by serving others. 

It IS hard. 

But Jesus spoke a very comforting truth when he told his disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  We find the strength and power to work for God’s glory in Christ.  In fact, we are reminded in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). 

In The Ministry of Motherhood, author Sally Clarkson reminds us that we can ask for the Holy Spirit to help us be aware of what people need most and how we can help.  As we practice looking at other people through Jesus’ eyes, and responding to their real needs as He did, our children will learn to do the same.  It pretty much always requires compassion, often requires humility, and more often than not is a little bit inconvenient, but there is no greater obedience than being part of God’s work in the world. 

Our service is an expression of our gratitude to God—for giving us life, for freeing us from sin, for making us alive in Christ.

In Mind Renewal in Mindless Age:  Preparing to Think and Act Biblically, author James Montgomery Boice spends an entire book “unpacking” Romans 12:1-2, word by word, phrase by phrase.  Take a moment to read this passage, which has so much to offer:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
When Boice comes to the phrase “your spiritual act of worship,” he points out that the Greek word for “worship”—latreia—can also mean service, and that the Greek word for “spiritual”—logikos—can also mean rational or reasonable.  So that means that offering ourselves as a living sacrifice—giving ourselves over to God and His purposes, rather than to sin and its consequences—is the logical thing to do “in view of God’s mercy” (Romans 12:1).  God is worthy of our very best efforts!
Jesus washed the dusty feet of his disciples in part to show us that simple daily tasks that require us to sacrifice our pride and perceived positions in society fulfill God’s call to service.  His act IS God’s call to service.  We are to see Christ’s example, and follow Him. 

Serving is investing in eternity, even when we feel like we are helping out in the most mundane of ways.  “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:17).

Driving a few bags of children’s clothing to a women’s shelter?  Investing in eternity! 

Delivering groceries to the homebound?  Investing in eternity! 

Cleaning house for a new mom?  Investing in eternity! 

We are made in God’s image; we are, as Sally Clarkson tells us, “designed to reach out to others”!  We were made to be a blessing in the lives of the people around us; we just have to set aside the distractions, temptations, and self-absorbed tendencies that threaten to sidetrack us from our purpose.

To adapt one of Sally Clarkson’s prayers:  “Lord, give us hearts that are open to serve You by serving others.”  Let this be our prayer today!


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Recovering From a "Mommy Fail" Kind of Morning

Thursday began with one of those “Mommy Fail” mornings.  I clearly could do no right in the eyes of my daughters, and I felt more like the parent of a couple of teenagers than of a five- and a six-year old.  The girls were so outraged with me that they set aside their own rabid rivalries to join forces against me.  At one point, they decided in stage whispers to retract all their plans to give me a happy Mother’s Day on Sunday, and I drowned out their meanness from the next room by singing to myself, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.”

What was my crime?  The girls had seen race cars made from toilet paper rolls at the preschool art show the previous evening, and I was helping them (at their request) recreate what they saw.  We were off to a great start with lots of enthusiasm for the craft.  But the paper wheels didn’t seem quite satisfactory, and the hole I cut out of the top of Bayla’s car looked much better than my first try on Katy’s, and I wouldn’t let them use markers to decorate their cars, because we are experiencing a brief moratorium on marker use because of some past problems with missing lids and ink stains on the carpet.  Well, all heck broke loose at the thought that they could only use pens, crayons, and stickers to decorate their cars, and I was seething at their incredible display of ingratitude.

I went to my Thursday morning Bible study group shortly after the race car fiasco, still seething, my face hot as I drove into Media, all my anger and anxiety and negative emotion drawing all of my blood straight up to my brain.  But as I was seething, I was also praying.  And when I prayed about the situation, a very distinct thought immediately popped into my head.
Let me pause here and mention that this happens often:  As I’m praying about some problem, challenge, or issue, and almost before I finish formulating the words, some sort of solution or approach expresses itself in my mind.  I know that some people may cringe or roll their eyes when a Christian starts a sentence with, “Well, God told me…” but I feel like these solutions come to me directly from God.  If they were my own ideas, expressing themselves with such speed and clarity, then I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been stewing with anxiety over the problem just a nanosecond earlier.  And besides, God has already tried the subtle approach with me in the past, and has seen it doesn’t work too well!

Back to my situation, then:  I was praying about my “mommy fail” of a morning, and my incredible frustration with the girls, and their apparent misery in the hands of my parenting efforts, and like a flash came the thought:  “They aren’t getting any daily spiritual nourishment.”  Now, there’s another argument that it was God’s voice talking to me:  the phrase “spiritual nourishment” isn’t exactly rolling around my brain on a daily basis!

I immediately understood that we have to get to our daily devotions, and that we have to spend time reading Katy’s Adventure Bible, written in language the girls can understand.  We pray every day, often more than once a day, but while they express their faith on a daily basis, I haven’t been doing anything to nourish that faith, to help it grow.  It was all output, with no real input.
While we ate our lunch together after Bible study, I said it right out to the girls:  “I don’t think I’m giving you enough spiritual nourishment.  I think we really need to get back into our devotions to help you learn more about God so your faith can grow.”  They accepted that as though they understood exactly what I was saying.  And, as though reading a script from my own head, Katy said, “But Mommy, we pray every day!  And I pray lots during the night.”  So I explained to her my input/output theory as best I could. 

After lunch, I read to them a page from Every Day a Blessing, along with the first two chapters of Proverbs from the Adventure Bible.  (Reading the first four chapters of Proverbs aloud to our children is recommended by Sally Clarkson in The Ministry of Motherhood.)  We talked about how important wisdom is, and how important it is to spend time with wise people, rather than people who make bad choices.
So did our devotion and Bible reading solve all of my problems, as simple as that?  Frankly, it has!  That very day, Katy rode to afternoon kindergarten talking about how much she loves reading the Bible, while Bayla declared, “It’s a beautiful spring day,” and endured a trip to the grocery store without complaint.  All the blood rushed out of my head and back into proper circulation around my body.

The next morning, we read another page of the devotional, and another chapter of Proverbs, before heading off for an outdoor meet-up with friends.  In the car, the girls started to complain about where we were going and how they were sure they wouldn’t have any fun.  I had a talk with them about ingratitude, and explained that we have a lo—oo—ong summer ahead of us, and that I won’t be able to take it if they complain about everything we do and assume that everything is going to be no fun.  They immediately stopped the whining, and I didn’t hear another word about it until later in our meet-up when they both told me what a great time they were having, and what a fun place we were visiting. 

The story was the same for the rest of the day, and the next (which is today).  They have had positive, encouraging things to say to me and to each other.  They have enjoyed the things we have done together.  There has been considerably less whining and general misery.  I know as much as anyone that those kinds of behaviors ebb and flow, but the timing is uncanny.  I feel as though our Bible reading, our devotion, our conversation about what we have read, and our prayers together in the morning set a much more positive tone for the day.  Just as our breakfast nourishes our body for the day, our devotional time together nourishes our spirits, and draws us closer to one another and to God, ready to face the day together. 
I am pretty sure that this experience has given me the incentive I need to commit to a daily devotional practice with the girls!
Source:  Hope Leukemia Postage Stamps from

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Taking the Lessons of Lent Into the Rest of the Year

For many people, the 40 days of Lent prompt resolutions, good intentions, and plans for habits to pick up and habits to drop.  A sign on a Catholic church near my home referred to the Lenten season as a time for “spiritual spring cleaning,” and indeed the word Lent comes from the Germanic word for springtime.  Just as we achieve a sense of spaciousness and freedom by de-cluttering and cleaning our homes, we can de-clutter and cleanse our interior lives to make more space for Christ and the life we are instructed in God’s Word to live for Him. 

If you’re anything like me, though, your plans for Lent feel a bit like New Year’s resolutions, and, sadly, often meet the same fate. Suddenly the 40 days have passed, and as we celebrate the tremendous joy of the Resurrection, we can’t help but feel some regret that we never followed through with our good intentions.

As holy an observance as Lent may be, it is still a man-made construction.  There is no biblical directive to observe Lent, no commandment from God to give up chocolate for 40 days, and no teaching from Jesus to stay off the Internet to spend more time reading scripture.  But the intended purposes of Lent are undeniably beneficial:  using 40 days to set aside distractions, demonstrate penitence for the sins that sent Jesus to the cross, grow closer to God, and prepare our hearts to receive again the tremendous gift of God’s grace and mercy through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Lenten traditions seem to focus especially on fasting, prayer, charity/mercy, and reading the Scriptures.  There is nothing on that list that needs to be left behind when Lent draws to a close!  Rather than feeling that I’ve “lost my chance” to fulfill my Lenten resolutions, I am going to recognize ways to carry those practices and disciplines into my spiritual life for the rest of the year.  Instead of spending just 40 days focusing on how to live more like Christ, allowing God to transform me into the image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18), I am going to make it a daily blessing for the rest of the year.  Here are some ideas I’ve had, in case you would like to join me:

Some people observe some form of fasting during Lent, following eating restrictions that are traditional to their denomination.  Others “give up” something that they really enjoy in order to develop self-discipline and share in the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life and death. 

I know of several people who re-interpreted this idea of “giving up,” and got rid of a bag of “stuff” each day—40 days, 40 bags of stuff removed from their homes.  The items were donated, gifted, recycled, or trashed, as appropriate.  Doing this on a daily basis for the whole year may not be practical, but it is certainly worthwhile to set de-cluttering goals each season.  The activity helps us in our effort to find our security not in things, but in God.  And it helps to create a physical, and even mental, space to concentrate on the non-material world.  When we stop focusing on shopping and bringing more things into our homes and our lives, we lose less time trying to find places for our stuff and less energy keeping it cleaned and maintained, and we open up all sorts of new opportunities to focus on the things of God and all that He has created us to do and to be.
Another type of “fasting” involves giving up a media-related habit:  hours of watching television, checking out Facebook, surfing the Internet, or texting.  Carrying this idea into the rest of the year might involve setting limits for ourselves.  It will be different for every person: perhaps a “power down time” every evening well before bed, a certain number of television programs in a given week, a time limit on computer use or electronic games.  Once we determine our goals for limiting our media habits, we can decide what limits will help us to reach those goals.  Perhaps one person is aiming for more quality time with her family, while another seeks more opportunity to work on a hobby he enjoys, while yet another individual wants a chance to start up a Scripture reading or prayer practice (more on that soon!).  When we decide how much time we want and need to pursue such goals, we can figure out how to reclaim it from the more mindless or pointless activities we’ve been pursuing.
There is no better way to grow closer to God than to spend time in conversation with Him.  Prayer is a completely portable pastime:  it can be done anywhere at any time!  No one has to wait for the season of Lent to begin a prayer practice.  You can begin a conversation with God this very moment.  Some people like to use some sort of prayer tool or system to help them, such as the Five Finger prayer or ACTS.  You may want to create a prayer journal to keep track of the prayer needs of the people in your life, as well as your own praises, confessions, and requests.  A lot of people like to record answers to prayers, too.  In a future post, I’ll share my prayer journal, which has organized and enriched my own prayer practice.

Keeping a gratitude journal can become a form of prayer.  By taking time each day to notice, write down, and thank God for the blessings we’ve encountered over the course of our day, we begin to notice even more blessings, and live in a more positive frame of mind.  As we spend more time and effort focusing on the good things, we will take much less notice of those things that are not quite right.  A gratitude journal can include the simple pleasures in a day; natural wonders that we experience; ongoing blessings we enjoy, such as health, family, work or home; events that stand out from the day; or acts of kindness we encounter.
There is no reason to focus on the needs of others just 40 days out of the year!  We can all benefit from developing a more generous spirit every day of our lives.  Sometimes during Lent, people will try to write a note of encouragement or thanks every day for 40 days, or connect with people in person, or by phone or letter (rather than by email or text).  It may or may not be feasible to maintain this as a daily practice, but it could certainly become a weekly or monthly routine.  It works much like the gratitude journal; as we write letters of thanks, we discover more and more things that we want to thank people for!

Some people engage in Random Acts of Kindness during Lent, finding small, often anonymous, ways to bless people each day.  Internet sites list all kinds of RAKs, like leaving notes (“You are beautiful” or “God loves you!” for example) on the mirrors of public bathrooms, or leaving change in vending machines, or paying for the meal of the car in line behind you at the fast food window.  Even easier are the acts of kindness that show basic human decency and friendliness:  holding the door open for the person coming behind you, smiling as you pass people in public hallways, meeting the eye of the check-out clerk as she hands you your receipt, saying thank you when the server refills your water glass at a restaurant.  How did we get away from treating one another with such basic decency?  It’s a simple fix to get back to it in our own little corner of the universe. 
Some people begin a scripture reading practice, such as reading one of the Gospels over the 40 days of Lent.  This year, I read the Book of John, and really benefitted from my leisurely but focused journey through that Gospel.  I tried a new practice, too, marking up a Bible I had purchased from a store’s going-out-of-business sale.  I used different colored pens to circle, underline, and box in words or phrases that stood out as significant.  It made me notice John’s tremendous attention to time and place, to all the ways that Jesus was identified during his earthly ministry, to all the “audiences” of Jesus’ words and actions and the different ways they responded to him.  I am planning to continue this Bible-marking strategy as I carry my Bible reading beyond Lent.

Just like with prayer, there is no reason to wait for Lent to develop a devotional practice that involves reading scripture.  For our own good, we need to take time each day to re-center our lives on Christ.  A devotional practice includes reading scripture and praying.  It may also involve creating a Bible reflection journal where we write down something important about what we have read; listening to some form of Christian music; or meditating quietly.
The ideas I have shared here are not a checklist that I intend to hold myself to on a daily basis for the rest of the year.  That approach is likely to leave me worn out, frustrated, and even a little resentful.  Turning these blessings into regimented duties denies the freedom that Christ promises to us through God’s Word.  Rather, I want to invite Christ to direct my life each day, to draw me closer in relationship to Him, and to transform me more fully into the person God has created me to be.  Making space for that relationship, maintaining it through prayer, understanding God’s will through His scriptures, and reaching out to others with the same grace God extends to me will make those things possible. 

When we learn our lessons from Lent, and carry the spirit of the practices into the rest of our year, spiritual renewal becomes a daily blessing.  After all, “God’s mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).

Hallelujah!  Praise God!
Please visit The Practical Disciple for more ideas about HOW to encounter God and grow spiritually.  On his site, John Arnold talks about some of the Lenten ideas I've included here, along with many others, as well as additional strategies for practical discipleship throughout the year.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prayer Pots: A Tool for Family/Group Prayer

The girls came out of church on Sunday, each with her own Prayer Pot:
Inside each pot were five craft sticks, labeled with five different things the girls could be praying for:  family, friends, church, missions, and "you" (their own prayer requests and concerns).
When my six-year-old Katy got home, she raided our craft stash and added some additional sticks to her pot:  Grandma, uncles, cat, mom, aunts, dad, sister, cousins, Grandpa.
As I was getting ready for our Living Stones meeting, Katy suggested that we use her prayer pot to help us with our prayer time.  I invited her to explain to the group how it can be used, and then each of us drew a stick from the pot.  We said a sentence or two to pray for the label on our stick, and then named the next person in line (to prevent long and awkward pauses with everyone wondering when it was their turn to pray). 

One of our members suggested that we use that kind of tool in the future, and I think it might be a valuable aid to overcome proseucheglossophobia (Be sure to click the link to read about proseucheglossophobia, if you are unfamiliar with the term!)
This prayer tool can be as simple as writing prayer topics on craft sticks and putting them in a plastic cup, or as artsy/craftsy as turning each stick into a spring flower in a decorated pot.  It can be used during children's prayer time before bed, during a weekly family devotion time, or with a group of praying friends.  No one has to wonder what she "should pray for," and everyone can be encouraged to keep his prayer simple and direct so no one feels like prayers need to be flowery (flower pot, notwithstanding!). 

Many thanks to Danielle, our church's Children's Co-Director, who presented this wonderful prayer tool to my children on Sunday, to my daughter Katy for sharing it with our group, and for the women of Living Stones for being willing to try it out during our prayer time together!

If you try this prayer tool with your own family or prayer group, please share with us how it works out for you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When We Feel Like the Blind Leading the Blind

Today in our Living Stones meeting, we discussed Sally Clarkson’s charge from The Ministry of Motherhood to help our children understand where they fit into God’s plan with their particular personalities, talents, and skills.  We give our children the gift of inspiration, Sally tells us, when we help them hear and respond to God’s call in their lives.  Just as Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to glorify God and make disciples of all people, we have a role to play in creating disciples of our children so that they too will make God known in the world.


Can we really be effective in helping our children understand their role in God’s plan if we are still trying to work out the details of our own role?  Can we help them to understand truths about God and His Word if we are still learning about these things ourselves?  Can we make disciples of our children when we are still in need of discipling for ourselves?

My answer is a resounding YES!

I am always heartened by the reminder that God chooses imperfect and sinful people to share His glory and play a part in His story of redemption.  He did it when He chose the initial twelve disciples, and He continues this method with us today!  He doesn’t appear to expect us to fill the role having it all figured out.  He seems okay with our bumbling efforts to share His love and do our fallible best to live in His will.
When my daughters were two- and three-years old, I knew it was time to get serious and intentional about raising them to know and follow God.  I began daily devotions and prayers with them, which prompted a series of questions from them that I wasn’t particularly prepared to answer.  I consulted books like Focus on the Family’s 801 Questions Kids Ask About God (with answers from the Bible), hoping that it might help me when I got stumped.  I looked in vain for what I should say to a two-year-old asking me, “Where does God live?” and a three-year-old wondering, “Why can’t we see God?”  In a way, their questions were so much more basic than questions of original sin and Immaculate Conception, but on the other hand, they were more complex! Their inquiries set me to thinking and seeking out resources that could help me disciple my children at the same time I was seeking discipleship for myself.

There is ample Biblical evidence to support my conviction that it’s okay not to have all the answers, as long as we are seeking. 
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul prays that the believers in that church will be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1: 9-10)  Is that not a prayer for continued spiritual growth and understanding for both new and established believers? 

The Book of Proverbs is full of admonitions to increase in wisdom and understanding, saying that if we call out for insight and understanding, “if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2: 2-5).  Surely that is not a “one-and-done” experience, but a life-long pursuit.     

It will be a compelling witness for our children to see us on our own path to an ever-stronger and ever-closer relationship with God.  It will provide effective teaching for our children to see us seeking and acquiring knowledge (Proverbs 18:15), rather than acting as though we know it all already.  We can provide powerful testimony to our children that “the unfolding of [God’s] words gives light” (Psalm 119:130).  Unfolding is clearly an ongoing process!

I fully believe that God will bless our efforts to understand our place in His plan, even as we support our children in their search for the same.
It’s a little intimidating to read Sally’s vision for our meeting with God when we make it to heaven.  Will we really stand before Him and be asked:  “What did you do to make me known to the people I brought into your life?”  What we know for sure comes from God’s Word, which tells us:  “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…So, then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10b, 12).  These verses offer pretty powerful motivation to give some thought to how we are serving God and telling others about Him with the skills, backgrounds, and personalities He has given us…and pretty powerful motivation to help our children do the same.

A note regarding the title of this post:

The phrase “the blind leading the blind” comes from the teachings of Jesus, recorded by both Matthew and Luke.  In Matthew’s account, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to the Pharisees, saying, “You hypocrites!  Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”  Jesus then continues to teach that what goes into our mouths, referring to the food restrictions of the Pharisees, is not as important as what comes out of our mouths.  His disciples point out that the Pharisees are offended by his words, and Jesus says, “Leave them; they are blind guides.  If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (from Matthew 15: 7-14).

Jesus frequently criticizes the Pharisees for their attention to the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit of the law, and for their concern about how their rituals and practices look to people on the outside more than how the state of their hearts look to God on the inside.  Jesus isn’t referencing people who recognize what they do not know, and seek knowledge and understanding with a humble and willing heart, so much as the people who think they know it all already, and have no use for the Lord’s teachings.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Lenten Devotion

This post is an adaptation of a Lenten devotion I wrote for a book distributed by my church for this Lenten season.  Click here to access the entire book of devotions.

Take a moment to read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.
The words that Paul writes here to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1:1-19 could easily have been written to my own twenty-first century congregation, or any of the worshiping groups in our suburban community.  We have been so enriched by God, in our speaking and our knowledge.  Many who look at our lives could say that the testimony of those who have shared the Good News of God has been confirmed in our lives.  God has given us His grace in Christ Jesus; He has provided us with a multitude of spiritual gifts; and He has called us into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ (v. 5-9).
But the similarity doesn’t stop there.  Paul calls on the church in Corinth to be “perfectly united in mind and thought,” without divisions that might lead one person to say, “I follow Paul,” while another says, “I follow Apollos,” and still others say, “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Jesus”(v. 10-12).  Who are we as Christians?  Is our faith grounded in the pastor we prefer, the sections of the Bible that most appeal to us, the style of music we enjoy during our church service? 
We are brothers and sisters in Christ, members of His body, and Christ is not divided.  Christ was born for us, He died for us, and He rose again for us for the forgiveness of our sins.  On that we can stand united!
During this Lenten season, instead of giving up coffee, or chocolate, or Facebook, why not give up divisiveness, dwelling in the past at the expense of the future, dwelling on the temporal at the expense of the eternal?  It may prove harder to do than staying off Facebook, but it may also prove more effective for focusing our hearts on our shared need for repentance and forgiveness. 
Consider praying this prayer as you focus your heart on Christ’s great sacrifice for us:
Heavenly Father, help us to focus our hearts and our minds on You during this Lenten season.  Forgive us and free us from the spirit of division, and help us to worship together as sons and daughters, united in our faith, love, and hope in You.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...