Striving

In our Christian lexicon today, the word “striving” has gotten a bad rap.  And understandably so.  The idea of striving for God’s love  is wholly wrought with images of buying indulgences from the church and works-based theology.   But this morning, in my quiet time I was looking at one of my favorite verses:  Matthew 6: 33, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  (For some reason, I remember this verse in the King James Version, go figure.)  I got to thinking about the word, “seek” used here and decided to look it up.  And there, in black and white is the Greek translation for “seek”  – “Zeteo”- which means “to STRIVE.”  The whole definition is: “to deliberately strive and desire something as an act of will.” Hmmm.  How do we reconcile these two truths – God’s love is a gift, but one that we must deliberately strive for?

One of my favorite people of all time is my Great-Grandmother’s sister.   I was named for her, and I called her “Aunt Sally”.  I spent many weeks each summer with her and adored her.  She was 4 foot 9 and absolutely the most kind, spunky, and God-fearing person I know.  She lived to be 107 – so I often tell Bruce that he is stuck with me for the long haul – I have “Sally” longevity running through my veins!  Anyway, when Aunt Sally died several years ago, she left me her beautiful engagement ring and another ring, made into a necklace.  These pieces of jewelry are certainly of immeasurable worth to me.  So much so that I wear both nearly every day.  One day, I realized that my necklace wasn’t in its usual place of honor on my nightstand.  I searched everywhere – emptying trashcans, flipping mattresses, emptying drawers.  No necklace.  Needless to say, I was despondent over the loss.  So much so that I dreamed of finding the necklace and cried when I woke up to realize the dream wasn’t reality.

That, my friends, is the type of seeking that I think Jesus was referring to in Matthew 6;33.  Not so much working for the kingdom of God, but rather searching tirelessly for it.  I remember Ben, at age 3, would play “hide and seek” and I would search for him – find him, chase him, oh the fun.  Until he did it in Target.  I searched for that child hysterically and would not leave until I found him.  Now, you could say I was working for Ben in that moment, but realistically, I was seeking something I loved and refused to stop until he was found.  He was my first priority, my only priority.

Friends, we needn’t work for God’s love – it is right there.  We are broken, though, and some even say that we leak.  And, as leaking vessels, we must will ourselves to prioritize the finding of God’s kingdom by refilling with it every day,  Thankfully, God’s love isn’t like a necklace.  It is ALWAYS near.  We can ALWAYS find it.  And the joy when we find it is indescribable.  Like Jesus said in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure:  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.  When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”  Matthew 13:44.

So, last night, I was watching a movie with my daughter.  In walked my son – holding my necklace.  It had somehow made its way into his room and fallen behind his bed.  Sweet friends, the joy I felt in finding that lost beloved object was almost overwhelming.  In fact, if possible, I think I now value the necklace even more.

So, my prayer for us today is a hard prayer, it is a big prayer, but it is a simple prayer.  I pray that God puts, in each of our hearts, the deep urgency to scour our lives looking for Him.  Because, when we find Him, the joy is that much greater for the searching.

 

 

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Hard

When I was in law school, we had one exam per class.  Sink or swim.  So I approached these exams with the greatest of care: studying the law, discussing the theories, outlining the elements.  So, when the big exam day came, I would put on my nicest outfit (“dress well, test well”), go to the classroom with my trusty bluebooks,  and IMMEDIATELY put ear plugs in my ears.  Why?  Because I didn’t want to hear anything the other students might be saying in their last minutes of desperation that might derail my thinking.  And, while I probably looked like quite the picture with that bright orange rubber poking out of my ears, I found the practice to be helpful during these times of stress.   In a silly way, this practice is a snapshot of the exhortation in Proverbs 4:23:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.  Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk from your lips.  Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.” 

However, the other day, I was having a moment of “intense fellowship” (aka – a fight) with a friend of mine when she looked at me and said, “Right now you are too hard.  You can’t hear what I am saying.”  And she was right.  I had my earplugs in –  nothing was getting through to me from that point forward.  I was hard.

Now, in the Bible, Jesus speaks of the heart of the believer in Mark 4:  “A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.”  How was the bird able to snatch up the seed?  Because the seed had fallen on a path that had been beaten into hardness by passing feet.  The seed could not get through.  It is clear that hardness of heart – particularly concerning the word of God – is not in God’s plan for the believer.

So, I ask this question –  What is the appropriate way for a believer to guard her heart?

Lately in Christian circles there is great value placed on vulnerability.  “Be teachable” is the battle cry we hear.  “Be authentic” we are told, and we will see fruit.   And I agree that we Christians are called to real relationships and open candor about our lives and faith.  But just what are we called to open our hearts TO?

To answer the question,  I think it helpful to look at people like cell membranes with differing permeability.   Some people allow everything to flow in and out – their hearts are swept away by culture, convincing arguments, passions.  In scientific terms, they live in a state of DIFFUSION (the scientific principal by which both water and solute particles are free to move in and out of a membrane).

In my humble opinion, the definition of appropriate Christian vulnerability is best compared to OSMOSIS (the scientific principal by which only water molecules cross the membrane and solute particles remain in the cell).  In this analogy, the Christian remains vulnerable and teachable – but the particulates remain untouched.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, speaks to this directly when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Paul is showing us exactly what we are to guard in our hearts – the kingdom of God expressed through his will.

So I will end with a question and a prayer.  Where are you hard?  Too often, I must confess, I guard the pride in my heart, not the kingdom of God.    So my prayer is for you, sweet friends, and for myself:

I pray that the God who planted that first seed in us will continue to renew our minds so that we will give ourselves freely to a world in need while guarding only that which makes us His.  And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds with the knowledge and love of God in Christ Jesus.   Amen.

 

 

 

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Qualified

One of my best friends is a successful realtor.  However, she is a more gifted missionary.  That woman loves people better than any other human being I know.  She has a heart for human suffering and a plan to alleviate it.  The other day, over coffee, she made a comment that I have pondered and that I pass along to you.  “I love doing mission work, but I’m not qualified to witness to the people I serve.  I’m not qualified to tell them about the gospel .”  And that’s the real rub isn’t it?  How do we become qualified to teach others about our faith?

As an educator, my favorite saying – and my basic educational philosophy – was “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”  And, one of the ways that teachers light that fire is through a technique called “Scaffolding.”  When we scaffold a student, we give that student support so that the student can “discover”  the answer on their own.  Basically, we give them the tools to uncover the knowledge, not just regurgitate our information.  And the best teacher does this in a way that makes the student curious, in a way that lights a fire.  For example, I can require my students to memorize my interpretation of, say, the symbol of the green light in The Great Gatsby– OR-I can ask a question, pose a problem, give a story from my life that makes them see the value of symbolism and how to interpret the deeper meaning in all circumstances.

The first place I ever saw this technique lived out was as I was a young mom, when I helped in our church Sunday school.  My church used Maria Montessori’s method for spiritual formation.  Her theory was that God was already IN the child, and that children, being offered the opportunity to discover God through the joy of work, prayer, and biblical problem solving, would have a more real and lasting knowledge of God.

One of the best and most moving focuses of this curriculum was on the parables.  My favorite work available to the children was the opportunity to inspect, plant, and grow their own mustard tree. You know, from the verse in Mark: “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.  Yet, when it is planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”  Mark 4:30-32.

Friends, I have read the parable of the mustard seed a million times and heard countless sermons on it.  Most of those sermons boiled down to one simple fact:  a small amount of faith is all we need.  And I am sure that Jesus could just as easily have stated that fact – his followers could have memorized it, and that would be that.  But I believe that Jesus was scaffolding – engaging us to discover the truth ourselves.

It wasn’t until I saw those 3 year old children plant the dust-sized seeds and discover for themselves that even THEY could coax it to grow, that I saw the deeper meaning of this parable.   I could see for myself how the Planter of the seed didn’t really matter – it was what was inside that seed that counted.

So, for all of you who, like my friend (and myself) have worries about being qualified to carry the gospel,  I think this parable really says it all.  Who is qualified?  Anyone.  How do we give it?  Plant the seed.

So, I leave you with a promise and a prayer.  The promise is that of the amazing character of the mustard seed:  The Gospel message, the truth of the kingdom of God, contains all it needs to grow and flourish, no matter who plants it.   My prayer is that, as carriers of this seed, we will not simply try to pour our information onto people.  I pray that our lives would be so full of the beauty, so full of kindness, so full of truth, as to inspire wonder in those we encounter – wonder at how to discover the truth and grow it themselves.

 

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Pull

The car I took to college was actually the same car in which I learned to drive.  In that old Nissan Stanza I mastered the the tricky balance of stick-shift versus clutch (that awful grinding noise still haunts me in my sleep).  So, not unsurprisingly, the poor thing had many maladies, including a tricky electrical system.  By the time I was driving it around the foothills of Blacksburg, Virginia,  it had decided to perpetually “ding” as though the doors were open.  However, I discovered that, if I removed a certain fuse, the “ding” would go away – but then the brake lights wouldn’t work.  I was often faced with the choice of silence versus safety (it would terrify my mother to know how often I chose silence).

One day, that poor car finally froze and flat out refused to run at all.  I sold it for parts (I believe I used the proceeds for some merry misadventures during spring break.) The guy who came to pick it up tried many different tactics to remove that Stanza, and in the end, he literally had to push it onto a flatbed to get it off the lot.  That miserable car looked for all the world like a naughty dog being forced into a much needed bath.

I recently heard a teaching by Dallas Willard called “Living in Christ’s Presence” – one thing in particular struck me.  He said poignantly that some things can be pushed but not pulled.  Likewise somethings must be pulled and not pushed.  I think of my old car – incapable even of being pulled by a chain – it could only be pushed.   In biblical times, oxen were the primary means for hauling.  And I have heard it said that oxen cannot be pushed.  They will only move if pulled by a ring in the nose.  But what about human beings?  We can be both pushed and pulled – but which is the Godly way?

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 2 Corinthians 2: 15, “Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God.”  (NLT)  Isn’t this an odd metaphor?  That we are to smell like Christ?  It doesn’t say we are the STRONG ARMS  of Christ.  Or the BATTERING RAMS of Christ.  Or even the WELL THOUGHT-OUT ARGUERS of Christ.  No, we are to be the AROMA of Christ.

Now, I have a pretty acute sense of smell.  And I don’t know if you know this, but it is a pretty widely held scientific principal that the human sense of smell activates that portion of the brain that stores memory.  So, my late grandmother used to make us Russian tea during the cold(ish) Charleston winters- basically consisting of Tang, cloves and cinnamon.  I now cannot smell that particular combination without being overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia.   Sweet.  But I ask you, what does the sense of smell REALLY do that is valuable beyond breaking open memories?  It isn’t as though we can’t live without our sense of smell – in fact, I know several people who have no sense of smell and live very normal lives.

Friends, I would submit to you that this is the very point.  A fragrance doesn’t push, it pulls.  It invites.  It evokes.  It permeates.  Most of all, a fragrance won’t force anyone to do anything.  And that is exactly what Jesus did.   And the point I believe Dallas Willard was making is that the incredible appeal of the gospel – and the life of Jesus – is that he never pushed.  He only pulled and drew people in to himself.

Scripture tells the story over and over again.  The woman at the well, Nicodemus, the woman with the alabaster jar, the disciples – all pulled to Jesus by the sheer magnitude of joy, truth, and the promise that his life, death, and resurrection displayed.  It is a pull that is nearly impossible to resist – beautiful and hopeful .  And the call of this is that we are forever being equipped to model that beautiful hope to a lost and lonely world.  One of the most inviting verses in all of the Bible is Acts 17: 26.  “God (created the world and everything in it) so that (mankind) would seek him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  For in him we LIVE and MOVE and HAVE OUR BEING.”  So, folks, we are permeated by His power – and with that power he becomes our source of life and our home.

However, the Bible shows another side of this story.  A sad example of the way that Jesus pulled and never pushed.   This example is the rich young ruler in Mark 10.  This man had lived an upright life, and asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life.  Jesus replied first that he must follow the law – which the man had done.  And it says Jesus “looked at him and loved him.”  Jesus then told the man to “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  There is it, poof – the fragrance of Christ- riches in heaven, a lifetime of following the most amazing man to ever live.  But the man’s face fell – he walked away.  That young man clearly felt the pull of Jesus but the fragrance didn’t permeate to his heart.

Friends, I will leave you with 2 questions and a prayer.  The first is this – how are we offering the gospel of Christ – as a fragrance or as a battering ram?  Because I know that I can flip from one to the other pretty easily – particularly when it comes to people I love.  Second, and more personally – are there areas of our lives that still need to be permeated by the aroma of Christ?  Because it is my prayer that each of our hearts would be pulled and respond with joy to His call to come home.

 

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Perspective

Many of you may know that I have 2 brothers.  They were born when I was in high school and I was often mistaken for their mother when I would cart them around town as a teenager – a fact that never ceased to annoy me.  But, despite our significant age difference, we are extremely close and I have truly been blessed to have them in my life.  Now, my brothers are only 16 months apart and, as often happens with siblings, they had very different views of life.  For example, my oldest brother would, on the first day of school, run home to report, “Mom- I had the best day – I made a friend.”  My baby brother, reporting on his first day would say, “I hate school, I only made one friend today.”  Same circumstances, different perspective.

Similarly, my students would often surprise me with their reactions to grades.  One kid would issue a whoop of joy at a 60 on an essay, while the kid next to him would debate me to the death over why I gave him a 99.  They had vastly differing standards for themselves based on their personal opinions about themselves.

Recently I had the opportunity to debate theology with a close friend.  Specifically, we debated whether it was necessary for a person to have an understanding of the JUDGMENT of God to fully understand the GRACE of God.   Specifically, I was asking the question – do we need to know how BAD we are to fully accept how GOOD God is?   Does it matter to God whether we are seeing him from the bottom of a pit or from the peak of a mountain – does our perspective matter?

When I think about how to judge myself in a Godly way, my mind goes automatically to Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”  So, I have to ask – what does faith in God have to do with how we judge ourselves?

I heard a sermon once analyzing the scene in Exodus 34 when God shows his glory to Moses, but places him in the cleft of the rock lest Moses see his face – because “no one may see my face and live.”  Now, earlier in Exodus 33, we are told that Moses and the Lord would meet “face to face as one speaks to a friend.”  My minister suggested that the “face viewing ” from which Moses would die actually refers to Moses seeing the full judgment of God.  God knew that Moses would crumble under the devastating weight of His judgment and, therefore,  God shielded him from seeing that judgment.

Now, bear with me here, but I would say that Hebrews goes on for 5 verses about how faithful Moses was (Hebrews 11:24-29).  So, if we apply the Roman’s standard to Moses, and Moses was to view himself with sober judgment according to his faith in God, then it follows that there are clearly aspects of God’s judgment which even the most faithful servant could not bear.  So, in Moses’ day, this would have been the end of the sentence.  We stink – so much so that it would kill us.  End of story.

However, there is one fact that we must remember.  God, in his infinite wisdom, placed his full judgment on Jesus precisely so we don’t have to bear that heavy, deadly burden.  Jesus paid the full price for each and every one of our sins – we are free.

Friends, I would submit to you that, as believers, a correct knowledge of how God views us should color every aspect of our identity.   Tim Keller has a great quote that the truth of the gospel is that we are worse than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more beloved by Jesus than we ever dared hope.  And the truth is that few of us could hope to have the faith of Moses.  BUT each of us who are in Christ have the full assurance that God looks on us with the same eyes as he looks on Jesus.

So, to answer my original questions, what does our perspective and our faith have to do with our view of ourselves, I have a question and a prayer.  The question is this – do you know deep in your “knower” the price that Jesus paid for you?  If the answer is “no” – (or perhaps) “I’m a basically good person, not in need of too much saving, definitely not as bad as my neighbor over there” then it is my prayer that you would be filled with the knowledge of why God gave his son over to death to save your soul.  But if your answer is “yes”, then I pray that you would come to a place where you can enjoy God face to face, as you would a friend, and, with a thankful and forgiven heart, wallow from here on out in his Grace.

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Motive

I find it interesting that many of my friends and family have admitted to me that they are plagued by a very similar dream.  In the dream, they wander into a classroom to discover that they are expected to take an exam on which their entire grade rests (some of them also confess they are naked in this dream, but I digress).  I can empathize, as I have a recurring dream that I walk into the dreaded South Carolina Bar Exam and can’t get my pen to write.  All of my dream is then spent searching for the illusive pen.  Without the pen, no test.  Without the test, no future.

So, it is fair to say that, generally, people seem to deeply fear the idea that one test can decide their future.  And yet, as Christians, we espouse this very idea as a deeply held truth.  We believe that there is, in fact, one test – one question – that will determine our future.  That question is:  How do we achieve salvation?

Any of you who know me will attest that I am the self-proclaimed queen of arguing.  I love it, I thrive on it, I excel at it.  So  it should not come as a surprise to any of you that I loved posing interesting and controversial questions to the worlds foremost arguers:  teenagers.

In my law class, I would often ask the following question.  Which crime is worse – one that is committed with motive or the same crime committed without motive.  After all, if I shoot my neighbor because I don’t like how his dog barks all night, is that neighbor any less dead than if I shot him because I was in a bad mood?  The end result is the same .  Should the punishment be the same?  Is motive really even relevant?

Well folks, I have become more convinced of late that people in our secular society believe that motive is irrelevant when it comes to God.  As long as we are good people, do the right thing, stop gossiping or help the poor, God will save us – no matter our motivation.  If you think about it, this is really not all that different from what the Jews in Christ’s time believed.  As long as they followed the law, looked right, and got cleaned up on the outside, they were good (justified) with God.

But Jesus told it like it is – “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside our full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”  Matthew 23:25.

You see, the law says that it is PERFORMANCE that drives God’s acceptance.  But grace says that it is God’s ACCEPTANCE that drives performance.  In his free gift of grace, God is foremost and fully concerned first with the motives of our hearts.  Not MERIT, but MOTIVE.  And in the Christian gospel, that motive must be faith in Jesus Christ.  Let there be no mistake:   “God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin.  Having faith in him sets us in the clear.”  Romans 3: 25 (The Message).

My students initially loved it when I told them we were having an “open book” test.  What they came to see was that that open book tests REALLY are harder because I can ask questions that get to the heart of their understanding, not just their memorization skills.

So, I have a question for all of us.  And it is an “open book” test.  Because God sees our hearts.  And how we answer this question is the difference between salvation and destruction, between freedom and slavery, between life and death.

“What is your motive?”

Friends, I leave you with the prayer that each of us can answer this question the same way.  When we look back over our lives and our accomplishments – be they few or many,  small or great – I pray that we will each be able to say that we were motivated by simple faith in the simple truth that Jesus paid the price for our sins and that we are his.

 

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Definition

When I was an eager English major in college, my favorite class was Southern Literature.  My professor, a sweet Southern Virginia gentleman named Edward Tucker took me through the confusing world of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and, my personal favorite, Harper Lee.  Serious authors, every one.

But one particular literary work remains lodged forever in my mind for an entirely different reason.  It is one that had me and my best friend rolling on the floor laughing.  The poem, called “Janet Waking,” was penned by John Crowe Ransom.   In it, a young girl’s pet chicken, Chucky, is killed by a bee.  Not just any bee, but a “transmogrifying” bee.  With this poem, my love affair with large, confusing words began.  (Much to the chagrin of many a Wando student).

Now, I will define this Scrabble-winning vocab word for you.  To “transmogrify” is to irrevocably change.  And the point of Ransom’s poem was to show that a silly subject, a pet chicken, can usher in a serious subject, death.  And so it was, Janet’s life was changed by a bee when the insect showed her the sad truth of losing a dear pet.  So it is fitting that I employ Chucky’s demise to discuss the same subject with you.

Christians love to talk about dying to self.  And, with good reason.  Our Lord spells it out plainly when he says, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”  Matthew 10: 36-37.  Over and over again he says it, “deny yourself,” (Luke 9:23).  And this all equates to sacrifice.  But what does that look like practically?

Friends, ours is a covenant relationship with God. Now, bear with me here.  A covenant is a fancy term for a contract.  Now, when I taught Contract law to my students I would teach them a term that many of them were unfamiliar with – CONSIDERATION.  Now, the definition of consideration in this context is not being kind to your neighbor;  consideration is just a fancy term for sacrifice.  You see, for a contract to be legally binding both in biblical times and today at the car dealership, both parties have to commit to sacrifice SOMETHING and this sacrifice binds them together in the eyes of the law.  So, if say I’m going to give you a million dollars but you do not back that up with a sacrifice on your part, my gift is merely that – a gift.  Something that I can choose to take back at my own whim.

So, God makes a contract with us – We give something, and he gives something.  We give him our lives, and he gives us eternal life.  So about now, some of you are hearing warning bells go off – What about Grace?  Isn’t Grace a free gift?  Sally have you gone off on a work-based tangent?

This is what makes our covenant relationship with God so sweet.  God, in his justice, expects sacrifice from us to bind us to him.  BUT, in his mercy, He GAVE us the sacrifice that would fulfill our side of the bargain.  So, when he sacrificed his son, he did it so that Jesus acted as our sacrifice, our consideration.   You see, the law says,  ‘pay your way.’  Grace says, ‘here’s the cash to do it.’

So what does all this have to do with our dying to self?  Friends, I would submit to you that the act of dying to ourselves is less about our acts than it is about a sacred trust.  Do you trust that Jesus paid your way?  Do you trust that God fulfilled both sides of the bargain?  If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then the next, most important question should be:  How does that trust SHOW itself in how we live our lives?

See, the way I see it, the ultimate sacrifice merits the ultimate loyalty.  Receiving the benefit of the best contract naturally leads us to live the finest life we can,  – like a beautiful thank you note to God.

So, in dying to self, we are actually living.   Fully, abundantly, loyally, beautifully – for Him.

So, sweet friends, die away.  And my prayer is that the transmogrifying love of God will lead you to the beautiful truth that Paul recognized when he wrote, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”  Phillippians 1:21.

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