Dark Woods

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“Oh, when we are journeying through the murky night and the dark woods of affliction and sorrow, it is something to find here and there a spray broken, or a leafy stem bent down with the tread of His foot and the brush of His hand as He passed; and to remember that the path He trod He has hallowed, and thus to find lingering fragrance and hidden strength in the remembrance of Him as “in all points tempted like as we are,” bearing grief for us, bearing grief with us, bearing grief like us.”

~ Alexander MacLaren

Putting God to a Test

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We adults pulled our chairs into a circle in the back yard near the barbecue. The kids talked loudly and simultaneously at a table nearby. We decided the cousins needed the flat surface more than the adults -preferably some distance away. I watched our tribe balance coleslaw and hamburgers on paper plates that tilted at precarious angles on bare knees.

This clan of brothers, sisters, parents, and in-laws soon engaged each other in an enthusiastic exchange of ideas. Shop talk. Honestly, I would choose them as friends even if we weren’t related. I’m very fond of them.

Our family events are never quiet. If you hesitate to jump in when someone takes a breath there may not be another chance for several minutes. It’s like a double Dutch skip rope conversation with unwritten, but understood rules of rhythmical verbal exchange for entering and exiting a discussion. No one is shy. All of them are accustomed to speaking in public. They do it for a living.

Looking around, I realized we have a lot of teachers in our extended family. Some of our kin studied medicine or the arts, but most found their place in education in one form or another.

I admire all of them, whether they’ve guided at-risk children in preschool, juggled the needs of gifted and learning-challenged kids in the same elementary school classroom, instructed their own kids around the dining table, taught adults in a university lecture hall, tutored overseas pupils online, demonstrated songs to adolescent musicians in the studio, or communicated important concepts from a pulpit. We share a common drive to impart knowledge — and maybe just a bit of common need to be the expert.

The conversation this time centered on performance evaluations for both teachers and students. The bane of all classroom and online teachers – marking assignments and tests– arose as more than theory. Two of the on-line summer school teachers needed to leave the party to grade tests. A physics teacher offered to help the math teacher work his way down the pile sitting in his computer inbox. The volunteer asked if there was a marking key. There was.

My divergent mind started to wander off in another direction.

A marking key has all the answers. Both teachers put on their reading glasses, opened their laptops and got down to the business of comparing the students’ answers to the key. No arguments. Correct. Incorrect. Total grade. Pass. Fail. Next.

The art teacher didn’t have as simple a task. Each submission required consideration of abstract symbolic statements and knowledge of the student’s personality and skill level. Her job was to evaluate how they expressed a concept, but not to tell them what to say. She tried to stay unbiased but still gave a grade based on predetermined criteria she herself established for this assignment.

This is where my rabbit trail veered sharply toward the woods. I remember someone preaching about the dangers of using a marking key with God when we put him to a test. God invites us to try him to see whether or not His promises are true. Some translations of the Bible use the expression “test Me.” This kind of test Me is different from putting God to a test. Putting God to a test is like comparing his responses to a marking key which we have made up ourselves. We decide what the correct response should be before he answers.

Then the accuser transported Jesus to the holy city of Jerusalem and perched him at the highest point of the temple and said to him, “If you’re really God’s Son, jump, and the angels will catch you. For it is written in the Scriptures:
He will command his angels to protect you and they will lift you up so that you won’t even bruise your foot on a rock.”

Once again Jesus said to him, “The Scriptures say: You must never put the Lord your God to a test.”
(Matthew 4: 5-7 TPT)

The accuser determined the acceptable answer which would decide whether Jesus passed the test for proving he was God’s son. Angels caught him, he passed. Angels didn’t catch him, he failed.

Could angels have caught him? Of course, but when the accuser made himself the judge of what God’s behaviour should look like he put himself in the position to judge of the King of the universe with an authority he definitely did not have.

We often hear people say, “If you really love me you will _________.” Children and narcissists love this game.

If you really love me you’ll buy me a pony.

If you really love me you’ll let me go to the party.

If you really love me you’ll let me spend our savings on a boat or a vacation — or anything else I want.

If you really love me you will never challenge me or cause me to feel stressed.

Way back in the years of my youth, Janis Joplin performed a satirical song (at least I hope it was satirical) about what she expected God to do to prove himself.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.
I’m counting on you, Lord. Please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.

If you recall, she also expected a Mercedes Benz and a colour TV.

We laugh, but the truth is we sometimes set up a key for marking assignments we give God. Instead of praying in alignment with his purposes we sometimes hand him a list of requirements that look like the instructions an entitled rock star’s agent might submit to a concert manager. Bottled water from Fiji and a dish of red M & M’s only or he walks. We want personal peace, a perfect partner, and a palace on Paradise Boulevard.

Sometimes He answers with the stuff we want because he’s a good Dad and enjoys giving good gifts to his kids. Sometimes he answers with a character-building test of his own – an inescapable obligation, an impossible co-worker, an incomplete map.

We pray, “If you are really a good God prove it by buying the next round.” And he does – in the form of a flood, or a forest fire, or a false accusation, or a failed career, and includes a free blank sheet of foolscap and a pencil.

We compare his response with our marking key. None of these circumstances qualify as correct answers. In fact, they don’t even make the A, B, or D multiple choice list of close but wrong options.

We are confused. We cry, “God would not do that, therefore he is not God.” We walk away because God failed the test. We continue to consider ourselves the ultimate authority who prepares the correct answer on our own marking key.

Sometimes we project that grading ideal onto someone or something else – scientists, philosophers, politicians, self-help authors, organic foods, husbands, meditation -– anything really. When  answers fail to match our marking key, we move to the next thing until our bitter options dwindle down to A) absence B) anger C) apathy D) all of the above.

God is a good father and cares more about our character than our comfort. He could easily make things easy, but he doesn’t always. He loves us too much.

I’ve lived long enough to be disappointed with God many times. There were years when I only spoke to him in times of desperation because, well, the other options were worse. He loved me anyway. He is devoted to my eternal well-being. One day he invited me to take a chance on him. I did. He showed me aspects of himself I could not have seen if he had responded the way I wanted and expected him to.

Here’s the thing: God is God and I am not. He is smarter and wiser and more compassionate than I am. His perspective is from a place beyond eternity. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts and his ways greater than my ways. He wants relationship, which means he wants to connect and be understood. Tests are about learning what we have learned and what we have yet to learn. We need them. God doesn’t.

“How can these trying circumstances help me understand you, Lord?” I ask.

“Sit down. Pick up that pencil and the sheet of foolscap. Take notes,” he says. “I’ll show you.”

There is more.

Wide-eyed

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When I painted this portrait of our son at about seven years old I never imagined sitting with him beside a pool watching his own son who is now about the same age. Children are wonderful gifts and grandchildren doubly so. They teach us so much about the eagerness to learn and discover.

Jesus called a little one to his side and said to them, “Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in.”

(Matthew 18:2,3 TPT)

May we never lose our wonder.

Please, Won’t You Be My Neighbor

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My heart is breaking. I see the rancour and the division and the excuses for symbolic acts of violence amongst my own friends on social media. Hatred damages the hearts of both the hater and the hated. We have thousands of years of recorded history to prove that.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you stand on. When you start to see your neighbor as an enemy and dishonour them, or slander them, or dismiss them because of their political or philosophical or racial/ethnic alignments, you have already lost influence for good. Conversation over.

Jesus lived in times of uncivil unrest. He understood. He grew up in the middle of unjust circumstances worse than ours. And yet…

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

~ The Bible NIV

A cheesy old pop song has been stuck in my head for some time. “Love Will Keep Us Together.” I am learning to pay attention to thoughts and songs that repeat incessantly. Maybe there is a reason.

This line: “Look in my heart and let love keep us together.”

We can’t do it on our own. The best our own efforts can produce is a cruel kindness that offers little hope. Perhaps the real problem is not determining who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps there is a need for more goodness in the world. Instead of taking up verbal weapons look in Jesus’ heart and let his love fill your heart and overflow through you to your neighbor.

There is more.