Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Thinking About: The Beatitudes

Jesus made it clear throughout his ministry that the qualities that lead to success in the world often make it hard for people to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. 

In the Beatitudes (found in Matthew 5:3-10), Jesus basically turns the Pharisees’ ideas of worldly success on their head in order to teach about the qualities of a Kingdom citizen. While our world seems driven by a “survival of the fittest” mentality, and happiness is derived from pride in the successes that set us apart from others, Philip Yancey tells us that “God views this world through a different set of lenses.”  

The Beatitudes describe those lenses for us:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Poor in spirit?  Mournful?  Meek?  We wonder how these are states of blessing, states that could be called “happy” or “blissful” or “lucky.”

Often, in order to understand what something is, it helps to look first at what it is not.  To identify examples of a concept, it can help to look first at counter-examples.  In the 1950s, Anglican priest and Bible translator J.B. Phillips presented his worldly version of Jesus’ teachings, called the “Beatitudes of Man,” which imagine the qualities the people of the world today might consider necessary for success, and thus, in their minds, happiness.  My Thursday morning Women’s Bible study group recently had the opportunity to look into this “opposite world” to help us understand what Jesus is teaching in his hilltop sermon recorded in the Gospel account of Matthew.

“Beatitudes of Man”
Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world. 
Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them. 
Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end. 
Happy are the blase: for they never worry over their sins. 
Happy are the slave drivers: for they get results. 
Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around. 
Happy are the troublemakers: for they make people take notice of them.
The First Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Phillips writes, Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world.

The word “blessed” means happy, but not a passing, momentary happiness.  It is the kind of spiritual joy we feel when we know that we have God’s favor, and it doesn’t depend on our circumstances.

While the world values the strong, the independent, the “movers and the shakers,” those who are in control and play to win, God values the poor in spirit.  These are the people who recognize their need for God, who recognize that all we are and all we have is a gift from our Heavenly Father.  Being “poor” according to Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes is not a financial state; He is not glorifying worldly poverty.  Rather he calls “blessed” the person who is conscious of her sin, and who is grateful beyond words for God’s mercy in forgiving those sins and welcoming her into His family.
The Second Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Phillips writes, Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.

While the world values the tough, those who are un-phased by the vicissitudes of life, those who can get over things and “get on with it,” those who are matter-of-fact and practical, God values those who mourn.  In my Thursday morning Women’s Bible study group, we talk about the need to mourn, the need to share our grief and our concerns with others, and the value of being vulnerable around our Christian friends.  Some commentators don’t think this Beatitude deals with that kind of mourning at all, but rather our mourning over our sin.  It is the idea that we are so grieved by our sin that we are led to God and to His forgiveness and salvation.  Feeling so deeply sorry about our sin leads us to hate sin, to turn away from it (which is the meaning of the word repent), and to turn to God.

The Third Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Phillips writes, Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.

While the world values the self-promoters and the people complaining loudly and long enough to finally get their own way, God values the meek.  These are the people who do not push to the front of the line, who are willing to consider others’ needs alongside or even in place of their own, who allow themselves to be controlled by God in thought, word, and action.  No one who loves and reveres the scriptures would ever translate this Beatitude as “blessed are the doormats.”  This is not a call to be weak and let others walk all over you.  Rather, the meek person has God’s strength behind them as they face the world and its challenges. This is the person who lives by the motto: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
The Fourth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Phillips writes, Happy are the blase: for they never worry over their sins.

While the world values those who don’t concern themselves too much with their own bad behavior, and don’t let their guilt over their sins stand in the way of their climb to worldly success, God values those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The world values the one who amasses the most material possessions; you are what you own, and you better keep up with the newest, the latest, the “best.”  The world values the one who advances at any cost, whether the means are moral and ethical, or not.  What if we put aside the drive for material abundance, and sought after spiritual abundance instead?  What if we put “being right with God” ahead of dreams for power, fame, and fortune? Wouldn’t that be the most counter-cultural act of all?  Do we look at the way the world lives as our model, or do we look at how Jesus lived as our model?

The Fifth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Phillips writes, Happy are the slave drivers: for they get results.

While the world values people who get results, even at the expense of compassion or meeting others’ needs, God values the merciful.  The Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to the one who functions with an “every-man-for himself” mentality.  As God has been merciful to us, we are to be merciful to others, and to reach out to those in need in order to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

The Sixth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Phillips writes, Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.

While the world values people who are knowledgeable and “know their way around,” in Phillips words, God values those who are pure in heart.  The one who seeks knowledge should seek wisdom, and those who act only with their rational minds should see what it’s like to be directed by their compassionate hearts and Spirit-driven faith. 

Being pure sounds like a pretty tall order to us.  As Robert Wells writes in his discussion of the Beatitudes, “The truth is we can't do any of these things on our own. We can't reform ourselves. We can't self clean ourselves. Many people have tried to clean themselves. Some have tried to do this through asceticism or leading a life of complete self denial, or by other methods such as by going away from the world and living in solitude, or permanent silence, or by beating their bodies with whips and clubs, even by inflicting upon themselves all forms of degrading and unpleasant acts, even going so far as castrating themselves. They have tried to cleanse themselves through celibacy, fasting, and prayers. But such asceticism is not biblical and it will not result in purity of heart.” (http://robertwells.tripod.com/Beatitudes.html)

It is God who will “conform us to the image and likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:29) as we surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ and are made a new creation in Him.  “And this all happens,” Wells explains “the very moment when you are saved, because when you are born again you indeed become a brand new person. A brand new person who is walking arm and arm with Jesus Christ on a road to spiritual purity, spiritual growth, spiritual maturity, and spiritual strength.”

The Seventh Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Phillips writes, Happy are the troublemakers: for they make people take notice of them.

While the world values the people who are able to draw attention to themselves, often because they are out there making trouble and calling attention to themselves (just check out the Yahoo “News” page for any number of names that fit the bill!), God values the peacemakers. 
Not all troublemakers are bad.  After all, as we mentioned in our Women’s Bible study, Jesus himself was seen as a troublemaker.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi were seen as troublemakers.  Troublemakers shake things up and challenge the status quo, and sometimes things need to be shaken! 

But when they are agitating simply to bring attention to themselves with no greater good in mind (we were thinking of little kids misbehaving in class, gossipers in our social circles, politicians and the media riling up our population to get votes or viewers), to get fame and maybe some of the fortune that comes along with it, they are moving into dangerous territory. 
The Eighth Beatitude
Jesus says, Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

J.B Phillips does not appear to address the eighth beatitude.  Can we imagine what he might say for his eighth beatitude of man?  Perhaps, “Blessed are those who don’t stand out for being different from the world”?  The children of God sometimes face persecution for holding different priorities from the rest of the world, for living according to a different purpose, and for speaking out about God in a largely secular society.
Each Beatitude could be discussed in a book chapter, a blog post, or a conversation of its own; they are a rich source of understanding about God’s Kingdom and its citizens.  Right now, I am trying to look more closely at Jesus’ life and teachings than I have ever looked before, in order to be more open to the Holy Spirit’s transforming influence.  By taking some time to think about these provocative statements from the Sermon on the Mount, may we all be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Do not conform 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.
Romans 12:2

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Love God, Love His Creation: Zoo Visit

If anyone who lives or visits near me wanted to head to the zoo, they would undoubtedly think first of the Philadelphia Zoo.  Over a million visitors go there each year, in fact!  It is, after all, our country’s first zoo, covers over 42 acres, and houses over 1,300 animals. 

Sometimes the day calls for something a little less ambitious (and maybe a little less expensive!).  I’ve discovered that my girls can get just as excited about a more “bite-size” approach to enjoying the animals, and we can spend a couple of hours at a smaller place, like the Brandywine Zoo, instead of wearing ourselves out with an all-day affair.

The Brandywine Zoo, in Wilmington, Delaware, covers less than 13 acres, and their web site says they have 150 animals, though this includes the animals in their Traveling Zoo Education Program.  When we are there, it kind of feels like we could count the number of animals on our two hands! 
My husband and I used to call this place the "dead tiger zoo" because the poor guy in this cage was usually sacked out and lifeless-looking.  Not so today!  The tiger was on the move for our viewing pleasure.
Sadly, the rhea looked as though he had seen better days!
But, oh, the animals they have:  two bald eagles, a tiger, a bobcat, some llamas, two red pandas, some tamarins, two otters, various birds, a capybara.  There isn’t an overwhelming number of animals, so my children get an opportunity to really focus on these few. 
The otters looked sweet napping together, but weren't in the mood for a swim.
What is it that I find so fascinating about this gigantic rodent, the capybara?
And spending time with majestic, colorful, adorable, grumpy, cold-blooded, or even napping animals really contributes to our awe regarding the God who created them in such variation.
In a February 2015 article in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen of The Behemoth magazine says that the vast array of animals God has created “helps you marvel.  And the ability to marvel is a prerequisite for the ability to worship.”  While there are many who debate the ethics of containing animals within the confines of a zoo, it is undeniably true that through the efforts of the zoo, we are given access to aspects of God’s creation that we would have no opportunity to see otherwise.

Zoo mission statements are usually some variation of the stated purpose of the Brandywine Zoo’s educational programs:  to enhance and enrich understanding and respect for the relationships among living things and inspire wildlife conservation.  In this regard, the zoo helps me as a parent as I try to teach my girls to care for other living things and to live gently in this world of ours.  I care about the welfare of God’s creation, and I want to share that concern in a healthy way with my children.  I have found that the zoos we have visited have helped me move toward that goal, and my girls are already loving animals, and wanting to protect and care for our environment.
My girls can count on their father to take them farther out on the rocks along the Brandywine River than I am willing to go. 
And I would say that the afternoon’s visit to the “bite-sized” Brandywine Zoo was a hit with the kids.  When Bayla said grace before dinner that night, she prayed, “Thank you that we got to have such a special day, and do such fun things.”
My girls and I, on the banks of the Brandywine River, just across the street from the zoo.
Thank You, indeed!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Love God, Love His Creation: Nature Scavenger Hunt

I vowed that I would not saddle myself with the unhealthy pressure of perfectly-crafted summer experiences drawn straight from the boards of Pinterest.  I refused early on, for example, to serve food to my children that had been carefully crafted to look like animals of any sort!

In order to fill the hours that stretched before us, however, and seeing such alluring ideas on my “Fun for the Kids” Pinterest board, I decided at the beginning of the summer to write down one project per week that we would try to do.  Just one per week.  I didn’t think that was requiring too much of myself, and I didn’t feel as though it fell into dangerous “dog-and-pony show” territory.

I planned to do a nature scavenger hunt with the girls during the last week of June…sometime in between summer thunderstorms, and the high winds that were downing trees and power lines across our local communities.  On Wednesday morning when I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with the day, and the two days prior had been filled with less than exemplary bickering and plenty of cries of “I’m bored!” and “I’m hungry!” that were driving me to distraction, I determined that it was the perfect day for our hunt.
Lest you think it took hours of painstaking effort to prepare for, I will set you straight on the matter:  While the girls watched a morning cartoon, I hopped on the computer, typed “nature scavenger hunt” into Yahoo, and came up with lots of lists created by lots of other people of lots of things a person might look for out in nature.  I typed up a quick list of my own in Microsoft Word, imported some clip art I found when clicking on “images” related to my earlier search, and had my handout printed within about ten minutes.  Easy-peasy.
We grabbed hats, tennis shoes, lists, pencils, and magnifying glasses (sparking a pre-scavenger hunt squabble that almost derailed our plan for the morning), sprayed ourselves with my DIY insect repellent, and headed out to see what we could find.

The girls took their lists quite seriously.  I made a clear point from the start that we were working together, not competitively, and that if one person saw an item, they should clearly point it out to the rest of us so we could see it and check it off our lists as well. 
Over and over again, the girls identified unusually-shaped leaves, smooth rocks, ants, and, of course, blades of grass.  We found a very large mushroom in one of the yards on our street, and both girls wanted their photo taken with it.  Later, they were fascinated to find mushrooms growing out from the bark of one of the trees in the park up the road.  
We noticed lots of low-hanging branches, debated the size necessary to qualify as “a very large stick,” and paid more attention to holes in tree trunks than we ever had before.  We stared up at the clouds to make sure they were indeed moving by, and not just standing still. The girls were dismayed to see as much trash as they did along the way.

We were headed toward a creek up the road, but my older daughter heard rushing water in one of the drains along the way.  My younger daughter wanted to check off “animal eating” once she saw a squirrel, but we didn’t technically see any eating going on until we saw some birds busy near the park.  
We enjoyed the experience of seeing the trees, which clearly qualified as something bigger than us.  They also supplied us with something brown, something rough, and moss, though we had much of this checked off before we hit the park.  
My favorite part was picking out birdsong, and having the girls quiet their own chatter to listen.  They continued to pick out birds singing the rest of the walk.

Due to the season, I wasn’t sure how well we would do with acorns, pinecones, or trees with blossoms, but we had these checked off by the time we got home.  We had to look in our own backyard to find ferns (which are just about the only things I manage to grow successfully in my garden!).  
Since we didn’t do any digging, we had to leave “a worm” blank until we head outside to play in the mud next time, and we didn’t find a feather on this walk (though we saw one at the zoo just a couple of days later).

I think the experience was a total hit!  And I don’t know if it was just a coincidence or not, but the girls played together nicely for the rest of the day, completely reversing the trend of the two previous, excruciating days.

A scavenger hunt is such a great way to get kids (and grown-ups!) to notice their surroundings and really see the beauty of the natural world God has created.  Seeing nature interrupted by human garbage is a pretty significant lesson in itself.  Getting outside, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, spending time by the rushing water, and working together on a fun task all contributed to making this a perfect, low-prep summertime activity.

Side note:  As we walked, I jotted down a bunch of other things I saw along the way (garage, puddle, basketball hoop, skylights, lamppost, window shutters, parked car, flag, fire hydrant, chimney), and figured I would create a “Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt” for later in the summer.  It will take less than five minutes to type up, and we’ll have another fun experience in the bag!

How do YOU remind yourself and your children to stop and notice the beauty of creation once in awhile?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Getting Back to Nature With Our Children

“For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” (Romans 1:20)
When I was growing up, I spent most of my time indoors--reading books; watching game shows; and playing school, pharmacy, and book store with my sister.  My father would often call me a "houseplant," and even though we had a swimming pool, a tree house, and a swing in our backyard, I definitely spent more of my childhood inside the house than out.

And yet…I have many, many memories of my times outside. I remember whining piteously over blisters from autumn-leaf raking.  I remember the feeling of independence of riding my bicycle alone around the neighborhood, and the absolute thrill of careening down one particularly steep hill.  I remember squatting in front of a flat rock under the azalea bushes in the front yard, grinding leaves with stones and making other “cooking” preparations.  I remember treasuring the one tiny drop of honeysuckle juice from the blossoms that grew along our fence, and picking wild berries that grew near our house. 

You would think I had quite the outdoor lifestyle as a child, wouldn’t you? 

And yet, while memories of outside make up a pretty significant percentage of my memories, the actual percentage of my life spent outside was quite small.

To me, this suggests that time outside as a child is special, valuable, memorable, and formative.

And it makes me desire to give my own children plenty of outdoor experiences of their own, so they can carry these positive memories throughout their lives.

Besides good memories, I think that time outside builds their creativity and imaginations; develops their spiritual understanding of their Creator and His Creations; and encourages respect for the resources of the earth and an understanding of the need to care for our environment. 

John Calvin once wrote, “The creation is quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite, and at the same time the most abundant, furnishings.  Everything in it tells us of God.”  By spending time in nature, we learn about God and we learn to care about His Creation.  And in learning to care about God’s Creation, we learn to care about other people and about our future together.

That’s all pretty heavy-duty sounding stuff!  Not bad side benefits to something that’s just plain fun.  From my children’s earliest days, it was clear to me that time outside always felt like time well-spent.

In future posts, I will share some ways that I get my girls out into nature in the midst of temptations to stay inside reading, playing computer games, and watching television.  First up, the Nature Scavenger Hunt that kept our eyes and ears open on our walk to the neighborhood creek this morning.  Stay tuned!
Along the way, please share your favorite ways of getting outside and enjoying nature with your children.  For some people it comes so naturally; for others of us, we can use as many good ideas as we can get!

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