The lost one

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Tornadoes touched down Sunday in a small town a little over an hour north of where I live in Oklahoma. Initially, news reports speculated two people had died in the storm. This morning, however, reports indicate one confirmed death. I didn’t know the person. I’m not even sure his/her name has been released to the public. But somebody out there is experiencing loss today. Not just the loss of a loved one but the loss of tornadic devastation.

I saw another news report about sixteen people who died in the same storm in Little Rock, AR.

I thought about how that number—16—seems so much bigger than one. I thought about how easily the one in Oklahoma can be lost among the sixteen in Arkansas.

That made me think of another time where numbers were significant.

Jesus and His disciples docked their boat and trekked up the hill to a small village in the Decapolis. It was a Gentile village, so Jesus was showing His disciples how He wanted to expand His ministry to the “unclean”. As the small group approached the outskirts of town, a wild beast of a man accosted them on the hillside. Naked and wild-eyed, the man bore little resemblance to a human anymore. He resided among the dead in the tombs. The townspeople had failed to contain him, so they left him to his misery. Broken chains hung from his wrists like iron reminders of his imprisonment. Blood dripped from the self-inflicted gashes in his skin. Filth spewed from his pores and his mouth. “What do you want from me?” he asked Jesus.

In the same breath, he begged Jesus not to torture him. A tortured soul asking not to be tortured? Can you even fathom that level of darkness?

Jesus recognized the evil within him and commanded the impure spirit to leave the man.

In a nearby field, some men were tending to several herds of pigs totaling two-thousand. They tended to pigs, but not to the man. I wonder if they had stopped seeing him.

Jesus saw him. Not the demon-crazed, tomb-bound man. He saw the man within. The human being crying out day and night, begging for mercy.

The demon called himself Legion. I always wondered if that name had some sort of evil meaning, but I read somewhere that was the largest unit of the Roman army, containing three-to-six-thousand soldiers.

Did the man have a legion of demons in him? A whole army of evil battling against his very soul? Perhaps, because “Legion” asked, nay begged, Jesus to grant permission (demons don’t TELL Jesus anything! They must bow to His power!) to enter the pigs.

Jesus agreed and the man was freed.

Immediately the herd of pigs rushed to the cliff and plummeted to the water below.

The people of the town were furious. How dare Jesus allow two-thousand innocent pigs to die all for one man! They vomited their disdain at Him and deigned to tell Him to never return to their village.

They got caught up in the numbers. Two-thousand pigs versus one man. (Mark 5:1-20)

But Jesus saw him, He had compassion on him, and He saved him. And to Jesus, one IS important: “There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away” (Luke 15:7).

This story of the demon-possessed man can be quite haunting, but I find it comforting to know that even though I am just one person, I am an important one to Him.

May we pray for the families of the sixteen in Arkansas, the one in Oklahoma, and the other one, the lost one, the one that matters, always, to Him.

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Stormy weather

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Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley (five minutes north of the border of Mexico) meant we had two seasons: Summer and My-Sunglasses-Melted-In-The-Car-So-Can-We-Please-Get-Back-to-Summer Summer. When temperatures dipped into the mid-60s for all of five minutes, people donned parkas and Uggs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the non-scorching summer months. God blessed us with the rustling of palm fronds from Gulf of Mexico breezes. The occasional hurricane saturated the soil but foretold that God would kiss the air with the decadent aroma of orange blossoms and grace the trees with lemons, grapefruits, and navel oranges. After I left home to attend college and attempt adulthood, I lived in the Hill Country, Austin, and eventually settled northeast of Dallas. The further north I journeyed, the more seasons I enjoyed. I even experienced snow a couple of times! We had a saying in Texas: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute…”

In the Valley, that saying didn’t apply because temperatures vacillated between tolerable, hot, and ghost-pepper hot. But in the Dallas area, the saying made sense.

Than I moved to Oklahoma. And I am pretty sure the “Texas” saying finds its origins here, in the Sooner state.

Exhibit A:

Cerulean sky

Cerulean sky

A couple of weekends ago, God smiled on us with this picture-perfect sky. The clouds danced, regally, elegantly amidst the cerulean canvas. I grabbed my camera, snapped a few shots then went back inside.

I placed my camera back in its case, sat in my chair, picked up my book and the door opened with my hubby beckoning me outdoors to take in the magnificent sky.

“Saw it,” I said. “Even have the pictures to prove it.” (I’m an indoorsy person, so I have to take pictures to prove I’ve actually ventured outside…)

“Not that sky. The new one,” my hubby said.

New sky? Seriously?

“And bring your camera,” he said, closing the front door behind him.

Book down, camera in hand, I headed outside. Again.

Exhibit B (or what I saw…):

Something's a brewing

Something’s a brewing

Maybe three minutes had elapsed between the first and second pictures.

Three short minutes turned dancing clouds into rumbling, boiling, churning clouds. My brilliant blue sky lie buried beneath an angry black and grey bruise.

Seeing such a rapid transformation made me realize just how quickly our personal sky can change.

A car accident, a prayed-for pregnancy, cancer test results, a marriage proposal. From one minute (or second) to the next, our world is different.

The disciples experienced this in a very literal as well as metaphorical way when they were on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. One minute, everything was blue skies and peace. The next minute, the storm rolled in and knocked around their boat and their faith.

They panicked and woke the sleeping Messiah. Rather than address their obvious lack of faith in Him, He commanded the storm, “Silence! Be still!” (Mark 4:39a). One commentary I read said that “Be still” in the Greek meant to not only calm down, but to remain calm.

That is interesting to me. Remain calm. Though He was speaking directly to the storm, He was also speaking to His disciples…and to us. No matter the weather, we need to remain calm.

Once the wind and waves obeyed His charge, He turned to His disciples and asked why they were so afraid. “Do you still have no faith?” He asked. After all they had witnessed, all Christ had said and done, they still wavered, doubted.

It’s easy to get caught up in the stormy moments of life and let the diagnosis, the test result, the breakup, the accident dictate our actions and reactions. But we need to remember that underneath the black and grey sky waits a sky of peace and light. If only we could remain calm.

If only we could never lose faith, and remember that, though Christ may be sleeping, He will still the storm.

Getting to the root of the Word

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When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office. Not because I skipped class or sassed my teachers or caused problems, but because I was a bit of a non-conformist. One thing you should know about me is that I love hats and there’s nothing better than a hat on a bad hair day. Trust me when I say that, in the 80s, I had LOTS of bad hair days. I had that whole lion-mane-mall-bangs look. Plus I lived in Texas, and as the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas, especially the hair. So yeah, I donned many a hat. And wearing hats was against “the rules”…unless you were a guy. Can anyone say “double standard”? I pretty much loathe double standards. Always have.

So I “voiced” my annoyance at the seemingly bogus rule by wearing hats to school. Each time I did, my first period teacher would send me to the principal’s office where we’d have chats about everything from rules to politics to the future of education. That poor man listened patiently while I unloaded my frustrations about the world and sports. Yes, sports. It was Texas. Sports were/are king, queen, AND the royal court. I was a theater geek. We were the foppish jesters, rogues and vagabonds, begging for funding. I digress…

I look back on that time and think of how much easier things could have been for me had I just conformed to the rules. The hat rule wasn’t the only one I broke. There were a couple of others that involved discrimination. More double standards. Nicknames preceded and followed me down halls and into classrooms. More than I can remember, or more than I want to remember. They weren’t all bad, mind you, but they weren’t my name.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was sitting in my booth with my friends, Cori and Lady Di, I read a verse that God had put on my heart: “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” (Romans 12:2).

Cori, who was struggling with some things, honed in on the “testing” portion of the scripture. Lady Di focused on understanding the perfect will of God. I, on the other hand, zeroed in on two words: conform and transform.

The root of both words, obviously, is “form”.

In the beginning, Genesis tells us, the earth was “formless”. Nothing was here. God brought form and He formed us: “Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7). Such a beautiful picture of God, the artist, creating man with nothing but dust and a breath.

I explored the two words and looked first at the prefix “con” in relation to “form”. Con means several things:

  • deception trickery
  • in opposition to, against
  • slang for a convict

Paul tells us not to be conformed to this world. I believe understanding the “con” helps us see why:

  • The world deceives us, and tricks us.
  • The world is in opposition to what God has formed.
  • The world wants to live outside the law. The world wants to lock us in its prison so the devil can throw away the key.

Next, I dug into the prefix “trans”. It means:

  • across or through
  • complete change

So I can conform or BE transformed. I own the conforming. God owns the transforming.

  • I can live in the lie of the world’s deception, or I can allow God to transform me with His truth.
  • I can be in opposition to God, or I can let the Holy Spirit run across me and through me.
  • I can be a prisoner, a convict, or I can be set free.

The word “trans” doesn’t just mean changed. It means complete change. Why?

On the cross, Jesus “was in the form of God” and He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus completed it. He uttered “It is finished!” upon His death. It was, as Oswald Chambers tells us, “the final word in the redemption of humankind.”

Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians, “you also are complete through your union with Christ” (2:10). He completed it and in Him I am complete. Total transformation.

Looking back on my days as a non-conformist, I realize I was preparing myself for a Christian walk that doesn’t conform to the ways of this world but allows God to transform me. Praise Him.

His hands

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I was in the kitchen the other evening, watching my husband rinse lettuce. I smiled at the sight of his capable hands. And I thought of everything his hands represent to me.

So many stories live in these hands

So many stories live in these hands

When I see his hands, I see:

  • The damage the hot iron burned into his skin when he was five;
  • The agility of fingers that have years of experience chopping, dicing, carving, and creating culinary masterpieces;
  • The sun spots from hours spent outside, working in the yard, doing construction, fishing in lakes, rivers and oceans;
  • The gold band on his ring finger that he’s worn faithfully and dutifully for seventeen years;
  • The palms that cup my face and press against the small of my back;
  • The fingers that interlock with mine so perfectly, so comfortably, that touch me with a tenderness born of love and commitment.

I smell:

  • Remnants of garlic and onion from last night’s stir-fry;
  • A hint of sawdust from his latest carpentry project;
  • The richness of soil embedded under his nails from the new cutting he planted;
  • The burn of solder from the stained glass he’s designing for my birthday;
  • The sweetness of cedar and spice of amber from his cologne;
  • The subtle lingering of my perfume from holding my hand.

My husband’s hands are strong, over-worked, and an extension of his gracious heart. Each evening, as we close our eyes, he squeezes my hand “good night” and it assures me of more than he could possibly say with words.

I have also been thinking about my Father’s hands.

Between my hubby and God, I am in very good hands.

I RSVP “YES!” to this wedding

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Big weddings just aren’t my thing. I don’t understand all the headaches and scrutiny and stress and how things like the subtle nuance between “powdered snow” and “creamy white” can make all the difference when choosing table linens. I mean, honestly, in the grand scheme of things, does it truly matter if the reception centerpieces have three floating candles versus five? Or whether the bridesmaids all maintain their size-six (oh wait, what am I saying? Size two!) figures so the pictures maintain symmetry? Shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Bridezillas” confound me.

I was a simple bride with a VERY simple wedding. We had fifteen people in attendance and that included the pastor. I wanted the wedding to be about our marriage, our vows, our pledge to each other. Not about the dress, or the linens, or the number of petals on the aisle. I wanted my wedding, from the planning to the execution, to be a stress-free, happy time. I did not want to look back on those moments before the wedding and kick myself for screaming at a florist or for making the caterer cry. I wanted to see that moment when my future hubby tried on his wedding suit for the first time and thinking, “Wow. This man actually wants to spend his life with me.” I wanted to remember sampling cake with mom at B and D Bakery even though every  birthday cake I’d ever eaten for 24 years had come from there. I wanted to feel the strength of my father’s able arm as he walked me down the aisle and willingly handed me over to my husband.

Last week, as I was reading some of my favorite blogs, I came across this post that Denine over at “Discerning the Heart of God” wrote about the wedding at Cana. As always, Denine had some beautiful insight into the miracle that I had never seen. So I buried myself in the beginning of John 2, wondering where God would take me.

It’s my understanding that weddings in the first century were not small affairs. The whole town showed up to celebrate.

John doesn’t share with us the marriage ceremony or the weepy mothers or the vegan vs. carnivore menus. John goes straight to the problem. Which is never a good sign at a wedding. Mary informs Jesus that they are all out of wine. I don’t know if that was considered bad manners or something that could shame the family. But apparently it was big enough, Mary wanted her Son to pull some strings. We don’t know if a bunch of uninvited guests crashed the party, so that’s why they were out of wine. We don’t know if the people got drunk, and that’s why they were out of wine. Or whether the family was poor and couldn’t afford a lot of wine. Or if tipsy uncle Sal bumped into the wine barrel, knocking it all over the groomsmen and the dirt floor.

Jesus’ answer to His mother has always surprised me, “My time has not yet come.” I always wondered what He meant by that. Perhaps He was telling her, His time for miracles had not come. But if that were the case, He wouldn’t have performed the miracle. Perhaps He was telling her He didn’t want people to know He was the Messiah yet. But John the Baptist had already baptized Him and had revealed to people that Jesus was the Son of God. Also, as Jesus was calling His disciples to follow Him, Nathanael, of the “nothing good comes from Nazareth” mindset, proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of  God. So I can’t imagine that’s what Jesus meant by His time hadn’t come.

I dug deeper into the Word and talked it out with Lady Di. Then God filled us with fresh manna.

The wedding at Cana symbolizes the Kingdom of Heaven and the master of the house is God (Matthew 22:2). The bridegroom is Jesus (John 3:29). The new wine represents the blood of Jesus (Matthew 26:27-29). The servants represent Christ’s followers (2 Corinthians 4:5). The stone jars represent our bodies (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Mary instructs the servants (us) to do whatever Jesus tells us. OK. Easy enough, right? What does He tell us? He tells us to fill the jars (our bodies—mind, soul, spirit) with water. Hmm…water, huh? That got me thinking. Water is the Word of God. Jesus is telling us to fill ourselves with His Word.

Jesus is also is the living water: “But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:14) Could it be that He, the Word, the Living Water, is alluding to the Holy Spirit and its transformative, life-changing, mind-bending power?

Once the servants fill the jars with water, He instructs them to dip some out and give it to the Master. They do. The Master tastes it. But a crazy, miraculous, beautiful, breathtaking thing happened to that Water. It had become wine.

Did I mention those stone jars were used for ceremonial cleansing? (Baptism, perhaps?) I imagine since paved roads, indoor plumbing, and Nikes weren’t around, the people were probably coated in dust. They needed a good cleansing. But the Living Water of Jesus doesn’t just wash away the grime from our hands and feet. It cleanses us on the inside. It purifies our sin. His Word pours into our vessels, purifies our hearts, and because of the power of His sacrifice, fills us with the Holy Spirit.

Another thought: wine is made from grapes. Well, we know that fruit only comes to those whose lives are rooted in the fertile soil of His Word. Therefore, we can’t produce wine unless we are first filled with water.

The Master tastes the wine and sees that it is good. Better, in fact, than the first wine the hosts served. They had saved the Best for last.

First miracle. Best is last.

This made me think of, “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus is first and last. He is the Alpha and Omega.

Here’s where God smacked me over the head. Mary asked Jesus to save the wedding. He told her His time had not yet come. Sure, He saved that wedding. But His time to save THE wedding had not come. The wedding where He, our bridegroom, stands at the altar and watches as we walk on the able arm of our Father, and He welcome us, His bride, into His loving arms.

John tells us in Revelation that the wedding feast of the Lamb is when the time HAS come. John also tells us that we, as the bride, must prepare ourselves for our wedding. I want to make sure I have extra oil for my lamp, so I don’t miss it when He comes knocking on my door (Matthew 25: 1-13). Oil is about relationship, not religion. Oil is about being a servant who follows what Jesus says and about filling my stone jar with water and allowing His Holy Spirit to transform it into wine.

His wine is free to me (Isaiah 55: 1-2) but it cost Him everything.

I pray that I don’t get caught up in the “wine of passionate immorality” (Revelation 18:3) of this Babylonian culture that leads to a time when the “happy voices of brides and grooms will never be heard” again (18:23).

I wait, with patient longing, for my second wedding day. The day when I get to meet my Groom face-to face, and He greets me with “kisses as exciting as the best wine” (Song of Solomon 7:9). My Husband, who promises me eternity, who sacrificed His life for me on the cross, who loves me with a love that I yearn to grasp just “how wide, how long, how high, and how deep” it goes (Ephesians 3:18).

The games people play

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This may shock you, since I’m a woman and it’s supposed to be inherent in my DNA, but I am not much of a shopper. I’m a get-in-there-and-get-what-I-need kind of girl. I don’t like to browse or “just see” what’s hanging on the racks. I’m not too hip on trends or fashion. Malls and crowds aren’t really my thing. Unless it’s an antique mall. Then I could spend hours scanning the Strawberry Shortcake lunch boxes and Raggedy Ann dolls, reminiscing about my childhood. Discarded trinkets and history’s hand-me-downs line shelves and fill the corners of my mind with memories and stories of possibilities. I’m also prone to spending hours perusing the aisles in bookstores and places that sell vinyl. But that’s an addiction, er, necessity, so let’s not talk about that. Ahem…

The other day I was knee-deep in Matthew 11, where John the Baptist questions whether Jesus was the Messiah. In typical fashion, Jesus uses the moment (after John’s disciples left with their answer) to teach the crowd. He holds up a mirror to the listeners and compares them to the fickle, game-playing children of the marketplace.

Side note: Lots of stuff happened in the marketplace. Everything from people selling their wares to social gatherings to day laborers waiting for work. And, of course, kids playing games. 

Kids who whine and stick their fingers in their ears when things don’t go their way. Children who expect people to dance when they play wedding songs, and to mourn when they play funeral songs. These narrow-minded, demanding “children” are the kinds of people who scoffed at John the Baptist’s asceticism and Jesus’ relationships with tax collectors and other sinful people, including, gasp, women! People who wear the frown of dissatisfaction and self-righteousness like a badge of courage. Pharisees in a Prada halo.

After reading that portion of scripture, I prayed, Lord, help me not be like a marketplace child, expecting people to conform to my way of thinking.

I kept thinking also of that word “games” Jesus used when he referred to the marketplace children. Kids games can be quite fun. I can remember spending hours playing Chutes and Ladders and Hungry-Hungry Hippos. Even when I lost, I walked away from the table feeling triumphant because I had been a part of something bigger than myself. In those moments around the tiger oak table, my family built memories that I cherish. I was safe and free to be me. On the playground, though, it was a different game. It was a game without any rules and no winner. It was the game of poke fun, not have fun. It was the game of, “Nanny nanny boo boo” and “Heather, Heather two-by-four, can’t fit through the bathroom door” and “Hey, poor kid, why do you always stink?” Those taunts escalated into comparing mamas and cars and houses and math test scores. OK, maybe not math test scores.

We didn’t realize it, but we were preparing ourselves for the very adult, and ever popular game of Self-Righteous Poker. The merry-go-round, slide, and seesaws are gone, but the setting still very much resembles a playground. Because the mentality of the players undergirds the atmosphere. You’ve seen it, haven’t you?

“Look at Sheila and her Message Bible. Doesn’t she know that real Christians use the KJV?”

“Look at that man, claiming to be the Messiah. Yet He eats with tax collectors and allows women of ill repute to clean His feet!”

“Heather, Heather two-by-four. You’ve attended three Beth Moore’s but I’ve done more.”

“See how frail and thin I am? That’s because I’m a Pharisee and I fast several times a week. Unlike you heathens. Excuse me while I go stand on the corner to pray so you can see what true righteousness looks like!”

Those are antes, ways to let people know the game is on.

Then come the cards. Each person holds a unique combination of cards. No two players can possibly have the same exact hand. That’s the beauty of our Creation. God gave us unique traits and facets. And we are all a piece of Him since we are made in His image. I imagine, to Him, we are kaleidoscopically, prismatically brilliant. Until we stoop to playing the game and using our differences to “win” a truly unwinnable game. I wonder if He shakes His head at our insolence, at our precarious steps along the edge of a very thin card.

Paul’s words comfort me any time I feel the urge to play the game: “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original” (Galatians 5:25-26).

Despite Paul’s warning not to compare ourselves, despite the gloriousness of our originality, despite Jesus showing us just how silly the game is, we play it.

I stare at my cards, confident in my “trump” of Meniere’s Disease. Then, my opponent places her “abusive husband” card on the table. Wow…if that’s not even her trump card, then there’s no way I can win with my piddly disease. Sure, I’m losing my hearing and feel dizzy all the time, but that’s nothing compared to an abusive husband…

Do you see how dangerous this game is? Do you see how this is the same game the people played who put Jesus on the cross? It’s a game that says, “You’ll never be good enough/sick enough/humble enough/holy enough, etc. to deserve my compassion.” Why are we using our problems and experiences as the “Ace” we think we need to win?  I’m seeing this game everywhere. Not just in the marketplace, either. We play it in the anonymity of the Internet, in the safety of our homes, in the sanctity of our churches. We play it with strangers, co-workers, friends and family. We even play this game with God. “If You loved me, you’d give me what I need. I could really use a Jack of Clubs, but all you gave me was a Two of Diamonds.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the game. Jesus offers us (me) a solution. When He concluded His comparison, He said, “Wisdom is shown to be right by its results” (Matthew 11:19). Of course. I’ve been more consumed with being right than in getting the right results.

Help me, Oh Lord, not to play marketplace games, but to love as You have loved. I yearn to live my life in such a way that my actions (not just my words) validate my belief in Him and my decision to follow Him.