As Different as Chalk and Cheese

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I grew up in a family where teasing was a form of affection. Wrestling, practical jokes, funny stories that revealed weaknesses in each other? All normal (to us). To those not accustomed to this way of relating, such play appeared intimidating and offensive. Most of the time we knew where the line was, but in the background, we often heard someone warning, “You had better stop now before someone gets hurt!”

And then someone got hurt. A line was crossed. For one of the participants the action wasn’t fun anymore. Teasing became bullying (to them). Fights ensued.

Like many parents, we discovered our children’s individuality early. One liked to cuddle; the one who had to move-it move-it move-it resented the restraint of adult arms. One cried easily, one bounced back like an inflatable clown punching bag, one treasured solitude, and one was happiest when surrounded by 27 of her closest friends.

Not only did their teasing/offense lines not line up, they all responded differently to discipline. A raised eyebrow could send one child into paroxysms of guilt, while the arrival of the correction Cavalry, with swords drawn, would prompt another kid to say, “What? I didn’t do nothin’.”

Another parent, describing her boys, said, “They’re as different as chalk and cheese.”

I understand her. Add the dynamic of parents who married their opposites and it’s a wonder we ever agreed on a restaurant.

This week my social media is flooded with differing opinions -strong opinions- from people who claim to be part of the same family of God. I admit, I also have opinions and preferences. Try as I might there are some folks I just can’t seem to get along with. Why don’t other people see things the way I do? Is there something wrong with me or something wrong with them?

I went to bed talking to the Lord about this. By morning he brought to mind the crazy mix of personality types and viewpoints of the disciples Jesus chose to walk closely with him. The Lord reminded me he went on the road with both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector in his crew.

I followed this rabbit trail and learned some fascinating details about what it meant to be a Zealot or a tax collector. In short, it meant they were ideological enemies.

Zealot is our English word. Simon belonged to a political group called the Kanna’im which comes from the second commandment term for God, El Kanna – jealous God. They fashioned themselves after the zeal of the priests Phinehas and Levi who resorted to the sword in efforts to maintain the purity of the law. In their opinion, the other major parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, were not doing enough to uphold Jewish standards in the midst of a barrage of corrupt foreign propaganda.

The infiltration of foreign ideas, and especially idolatry, into Jewish culture incensed them. They despised the Romans for imposing their ways on the populace. When the great census was taken under Quirinus (the reason Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born) their anger boiled over. The census was about taxes. Taxation represented everything despicable about the occupation; now the people felt forced to support idolatry financially. The Kanna’im considered King Herod the Great to be a sycophantic pawn of the Romans and a fake Jewish convert.

The Kanna’im traveled to troubled areas and stirred up riots while they destroyed property and anything they considered to be a graven image. Some began to carry concealed daggers in case the opportunity to take out an infidel arose. Zeal consumed them and many died, either in the skirmishes or by execution later. Their plan was to replace Herod (and his descendants) with a real king, and for this they needed a Messiah – or at least a Messiah-like figure. Jesus fit the bill. (When he refused to play the game, saying his kingdom was not of this world, they found others, the “false Messiahs” Jesus warned his followers would arise after he left.)

Depending on which side is issuing a label they could be called either terrorists or resistance fighters. Herod called them “robbers.” Simon (sometimes called Levi) was part of the Kanna’im. Jesus chose a violence-advocating activist to be one of his closest companions.

Matthew, on the other hand was a publican. A publicanus collected duties, excise, and taxes for the Roman occupiers (The use of the word “publican” as the proprietor of a drinking establishment came later in England). He was a Jew who was detested by the Zealots for being a collaborator. Most of the Jewish population simply hated him for taking their money or goods in kind.

Zacchaeus, who demonstrated remarkable transformation after meeting Jesus, was part of the publicani, chief tax collectors, who were like district managers for the government revenue ministry. As such he was truly hated. Not only did he take money and give it to the Romans, he had the authority to set fees for collection and confiscation “services.” The fees, of course went into his own account. Matthew and his colleagues were lesser officials, but their methods involved blocking roads, bridges and gates until people needing to pass paid up – adding of course, their own “fees.”

Capernaum, a town near the point where the Jordan flows into Lake Galilee, was a border town on the edge of Decapolis territory which had become a district of Roman settlements. Perhaps this is why the Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his beloved servant told him he need not bother coming back with him. Crossing the border was a hassle because it meant running the gauntlet of publicans.

Jesus understood the burden of reputation Matthew brought with him. He knew he was subjecting himself to guilt by association and that he would be called “the friend of publicans and sinners.” Nevertheless, he approached Matthew the Tax Collector at his installation at the gate and gave him the opportunity to become a follower. We know Jesus was not naive about the relationship challenges involved. He illustrated his story about humble prayer by using the example of a Pharisee with excellent public status and a Publican with a poor social rating.

When I think about Jesus’ deliberate inclusion of these two men holding extremely different ideas about politics and methods of surviving tense times, my reaction is, “Are you kidding, Lord? How could there be any unity in this “band of brothers?”

I remembered the band also included Nathanael the prejudiced (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), Judas the embezzler, Thomas the cynic (“Unless I touch the wounds…”), Peter the filter-less impulsive (“I’ll never forsake…”), and James and John the holier-than-thou social climbers (“Do you want us to call down fire on them?”). They all argued about who would be greatest in the kingdom.

Add to the outer group of followers some stage mothers, embarrassed siblings, spies, and what’s-in-it-for-me merchant opportunists and he had a congregation no sane pastor would envy no matter how much pressure he is under to improve his stats. Perhaps one of the greatest miracles Jesus performed was to keep them from killing each other.

How did you do it, Lord? Just this week I witnessed people who have unfriended each other over arguments about which businesses or movies or evangelists to boycott. When it comes down to questions about the best way to run the country the opinions are even more sharply divided, even among Christians who have been in formal fellowship for years.

The gospels mention squabbles between disciples. They also tell us that Jesus spent time with his heavenly Father praying about who to choose to be one of the twelve disciples. Here’s the thing: The Father didn’t judge them by their current resume and curriculum vitae. He saw who they would become.

When the instruments of an orchestra tune to the same pitch they are in harmony, even when their sections play very different instruments and follow music in the score that doesn’t resemble anyone else’s part. The one thing early followers of Jesus had in common was the response to his question if they wanted to leave: “Where else can we go? You have the words of life.”

Not everyone is going to feel they have the same exact instructions to follow. For example, a person with a Holy Spirit granted motivational gift of prophecy tends to see a big picture with few gray areas. They move boldly and purposefully toward a goal. A person motivated by a mercy gift will tend to see the people falling through the cracks and respond with gentle compassion. Many gifts. Many perspectives.

After Christ died and rose and ascended to heaven the Holy Spirit came in power upon the disciples. That’s when they began to remember what Jesus told them and put it all together. It’s interesting that Matthew’s written account is the one that emphasizes that Jesus was the Messiah and therefore qualified to rule as King of Kings forever, something the Zealots were hoping to fulfill by political means. It’s also interesting that the Kanna’im who didn’t follow Jesus stayed part of a movement that provoked the violent fall of Jerusalem, while Simon went on to declare the saving love and grace of Christ for a world beyond the confines of Mosaic law.

How do we live in harmony with people as different as chalk and cheese? We tune to Jesus. We keep our eyes on the author and finisher of our faith who saw the joy that lies ahead. He who was willing to lay down his life and conquer death for us, He has the words of life. We can do no better than extend the same grace to others that he has extended to us.

I may not agree with all your opinions or methods, and I might yell ouch and need time to calm myself if you cross the friendly line and hurt me, but if you and I are both centered on Christ and know that he loves us, we are family. It’s his kindness that makes us want to change. I’m willing to listen to what God shows you and adjust and hope you are too. It’s called love.

(Note: This is not intended to be an in-depth academic study. Scholars differ on details. If you are interested I challenge you to explore the topic further.)

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Overwhelmed

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Have you ever noticed that crises don’t have the decency to line up and come single file, waiting patiently until the previous demand has been met?

It’s snowing – again. During the unusually big dump, three weeks ago, I met this guy digging out not only the access to his carport, but a neighbour’s place as well. Then he went on to help clear the way for a midwife who lives down the lane before she returned from night shift at the hospital.

“The important thing,” he told me between shovelfuls of snow, “is to not let it pile up on you.”

“But it’s still snowing!” I said, as my blue toque turned white with accumulated fluffy stuff.

“I know. But if I waited until it stopped the task would seem overwhelming. So I work, take a break, and work some more.”

He tossed another shovelful on a snow bank taller than he was.

“Just keep at it,” he grunted.

I admit he demonstrated a better work ethic than I often do. Sometimes I look at the task ahead of me and feel so overwhelmed I quit, hoping a miraculous event will clear the path like a sudden thawing chinook wind (which we don’t get on this side of the Rockies.) At the moment I feel buried under inertia.

But the man with the shovel reminds me to persevere.

So first I respond to obligations and crises, then clear my desk, file my notes, answer my emails, take a break, clear my emails, edit my photos, take break, and write my stories – one sentence a time. I toss words on the page like tossing shovels full of snow on the spot I hope will transform into a garden someday.

It feels overwhelming but maybe, someday, there will be a book where once nothing existed but blank whiteness.

Just keep at it.

Hands-off Parenting

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“If knowing answers to life’s questions is absolutely necessary to you, then forget the journey. You will never make it, for this is a journey of unknowables – of unanswered questions, enigmas, incomprehensibles, and, most of all, things unfair.”

– Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon

I often hear God speak to me through reading fictional stories in books and watching films in a way that methodical Bible study can’t. It’s helpful to have developed the fine art of bone-spitting because sometimes the precious morsel that nourishes me is buried in distraction.

As I lay in bed, too sore after surgery to sleep anymore last night, I watched a British movie, Housewife, 49. The film tells the story of a woman whose role as an attentive mother was no longer required. The problem was that her sons had grown up and she was learning the art of hands-off parenting just as World War II was breaking out over their heads where they lived near the shipyards in England. She suffered from severe anxiety.

Her story is one of gradually rejecting the defining edges of the box others put her in. She discovered, under duress, she was capable of more than she knew. The crisis came when her beloved son, who up until that point served in a relatively safe post close to home, wanted to volunteer for a much riskier assignment.

It’s one thing to learn to trust God to guide your own life through unforeseen twists and turns in the road. It’s another to take your hands off your children and let them take risks when you have first-hand experience of seeing the negative consequences of  decisions made by friends and family over the years. You have read a lot more news stories and bailed out a lot more people from wrecks along the way. It’s so hard not to try to convince your adult children to play it safe.

In the film our heroine (for she was truly that) discovered that much of the frustration in her life had been because of her husband’s need to keep her shut up in the house like Peter the Pumpkin-eater tried to keep his in a pumpkin shell. He finally confessed it was his fear for her safety that motivated his actions. But it was those actions that increased her anxiety and feelings of meaninglessness.

She realized she could not impose her fear on her son, even if the consequence was his death on the battlefield. She let him go.

I’ve had to make those letting go decisions with my own kids. More than anything in the world I wanted to be a mother. I enjoyed being a mother. At one point you could say I was a professional mother, filling in and taking foster children into our home until their mothers could care for them again. But there was always a time to let go – and it was always before the road ahead was smooth and predictable.

My daughter moved to a Caribbean Island to take a teaching position. I still have a photo of her the day she left smiling in anticipation of “awesome year in the sun.”

It was not awesome. She was in two seriously life-threatening-sized hurricanes in the first month. Her job was not as advertised, everything she owned was stolen from a storage facility at home, including tax information and personal diaries. She nearly died of sudden hemorrhage and experienced emergency major surgery in a tiny six-bed hospital that did not provide linens or food or fly swatters. That’s where she was told she had a condition that meant she would be unable to have children. The man she loved told her he was marrying someone else. She became homeless because of greedy developers, and one day, while out jogging, was chased by a pack of wild dogs with evil intent.

I had a lot of questions about why God didn’t give my precious girl an awesome year in the sun. I was reluctant to do any letting go for some time after that.

A few years later she went through a really tough time. Nurses brought her into a room in the ICU to say goodbye to her husband who lay dying from flesh-eating disease. I was with her at the time and was amazed at her faith and ability to praise God in the worst  circumstances.

He didn’t die. He was miraculously healed and now they and their three miraculously conceived children are on another adventure. People asked how she had such faith and she pointed back to her time on the island, particularly the moment when she faced the wild dogs knowing she was defenseless and there was no one around.

She heard a voice that said, “Stop!” She obeyed, stopped running, turned and faced the dogs. Instead of lunging at her throat they dropped their heads, whined, and disappeared into the undergrowth. She met the God who is her keeper on a hot dusty road that day.

Parenting adult children means taking our hands off so God can put his hands on. God has no grandchildren. They need to know for themselves that he is their God, and not merely the God of their parents. They need to know he will take them farther along the road than we have gone.

It’s been a struggle. Hands-off doesn’t mean heart-off. If my kids or grandkids need me I am willing to drop everything and go. I pray constantly, but I am still learning that prayer for family means standing in the gap without standing in the way.

God is God and I am not. He is much more capable of loving them than I am.

When they became parents, our kids all invited us back into their lives. They’ve included us in business and creative partnerships and encourage us to be active influencers in their children’s lives. They are all competent experts in their own fields and we frequently consult them. I love them very much and am proud of all of them – and their spouses. If we were not related it would still be an honour to know them. God is good.

Our daughter and her husband wrote about his miraculous recovery. It includes chapters by one of the attending physicians who verifies the medical aspects of the story and their bishop who gives insight into the spiritual implications of the events. Details, photos and videos here: While He Lay Dying

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Reaping in Joy

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I heard an old man tell the story of when he was a young man. He remembers coming back to his village in Eastern Europe after an army of invaders destroyed property and took sacks of wheat for themselves. They had a few precious hidden sacks left, but not enough to feed themselves and plant a crop for the next year without great hardship.

“We cried over every seed we sowed,” he said. “What if the crop failed? What if the soldiers came back? Would the sacrifice be worth it?”

When this same ethnic group came to Canada they were in the habit of sacrificing their own comfort to invest in the future of their children. They had learned to sow in faith. Sometimes they sowed financially and gave money to care for others when it hurt to do so. Sometimes they stood up for honesty and doing the right thing when it was not to their immediate advantage. Sometimes they chose to plant kindness when they were misunderstood and thrown into the category of enemy by new neighbours who assumed if they spoke the same language as Hitler they must be Nazis. (Meanwhile, in the Old Country Hitler’s troops were killing their former friends and neighbours.)

I don’t know that I could have continued to be kind under such circumstances. Certainly not everyone in that community did, but some pressed on. When elderly friends told me about being harassed as children during the second world war they recalled the advice, “Turn and walk away. They do not yet know who you are. Don’t let them push you into becoming who they think you are.”

This week I have been thinking about the scripture, “They who sow in tears will reap in joy.” I have a new understanding of the verse. The tears are not about weeping over the pain a situation causes. The tears are about the personal struggle to take that tiny bit of love and kindness I have and be willing to bury it in the dirt where it will not be seen or appreciated and may not grow the way I plan. The tears are about denying my “rights,” choosing to not take the easy short-sighted way but rather to have faith that in the long-term God will raise up something greater. A harvest of love. A storehouse filled by righteousness and kindness.

Can I admit that I find it much easier to defend myself with a sharp defensive retort than a  determination to go about quietly doing what I believe God has shown me is right? When I’m judged, and condemned, and tarred with the same brush as “them” on the “them and us” scale I long to be understood by people who have no intention of listening. That’s when I want to harden my heart, give them a name (usually ending with “ist”), and write them out of my life.

Today I hear the wisdom of those who have suffered much worse than a few insults, and who developed character that demonstrated the ability to forgive and to show love. If I know who I am in Christ I will not need the approval of loud people with microphones or Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Don’t let anyone push you into becoming what they accuse you of being. Sow with a view to righteousness. Reap with kindness.

I said, ‘Plant the good seeds of righteousness,
and you will harvest a crop of love.
Plow up the hard ground of your hearts,
for now is the time to seek the LORD,
that he may come
and shower righteousness upon you.’

(Hosea 10:12 NLT)

And We Beheld His Glory

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I prayed that God would show me his glory. I prayed and prayed for both an intellectual and experiential understanding of glory. “Show me!” I cried.

He did. He showed me a child, a child born to parents who were told they could not conceive a child. Shortly after that I read an explanation of God’s glory. It is however he chooses to express himself (I believe it was Paul Manwaring who wrote this.)

I wonder sometimes if God is setting us up when we continuously look for the grand and he responds with the simple. He has done it over and over again. Through his prophets he said, “Expect something really, really big. Your Anointed One is coming!”

What could fit our image of a mighty delivering King less than a helpless newborn baby? The book of John explains to us in the first chapter who he was.

So the word of God became a human being and lived among us. We saw his splendour (the splendour as of a father’s only son), full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 Phillips)

This baby was The Word, the Voice that spoke all into being.

But not everyone recognized this marvelous gift to the world, even when he grew up and told them.

That was the true light which shines upon every man as he comes into the world. He came into the world—the world he had created—and the world failed to recognise him. He came into his own creation, and his own people would not accept him. (John 1:9,10)

Mary caught a glimpse of the Kingdom and the way God works when she exalted him with her prophetic song of praise which said, in part:

He has shown the strength of his arm, he has swept away the high and mighty. He has set kings down from their thrones and lifted up the humble. He has satisfied the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands. (Luke 1:51-53)

God’s ways have often been to do the unexpected, to choose to work through the humble, the broken, the underdog, the less-than-mighty. Jesus himself danced with joy when he saw how his Father chose to express his glory through the seventy ordinary folk Jesus ordained to go ahead of him, healing the sick and casting out demons.

At that moment Jesus himself was inspired with joy, and exclaimed, “O Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, I thank you for hiding these things from the clever and the intelligent and for showing them to mere children! Yes, I thank you, Father, that this was your will.” Luke 10:21-22

I read a prophecy the other day which said, essentially, “Expect great things in the coming year. Prepare to be surprised!” My tendency (after overcoming some skepticism) is to say whoo-hoo and prepare to look for the grand, the spectacular, the really big show. The surprise could be a a mass choir of shining angels, but I need to remember it could just as easily be a scruffy child with a lunch of buns and fish – or a baby born to a couple who were told they could not have a baby.

I don’t know what the Lord’s provisions for us in the coming year will look like. This I do know, they will be full of grace and truth, because that’s who he is.

And, if we pay attention and stay humble, we will see his glory. Expect the unexpected.

But Jesus, knowing what they were arguing about, took a little child and made him stand by his side. And then he said to them, “Anyone who accepts a little child in my name is really accepting me, and the man who accepts me is really accepting the one who sent me. It is the humblest among you all who is really the greatest.” Luke 9:46-48

May we become like little children. May we never lose our wonder.

“Come and Talk With Me”

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“You’re not doing it right.”

Okay, those are not the exact words. Most controlling people are slightly less direct, but that is the essence of the message they feel compelled to convey.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to do Christianity and you, my dear, are doing it the wrong way. I will tell you how to do it right.”

This was the theme of the class of religious leaders who opposed Jesus Christ. In those days they were called Pharisees. Today they have many names, but mostly they like to call themselves “right.” They have the scriptures, they have the rules, but somehow they have lost sight of the point of grace and end up putting barricades in place that block people from having a closer relationship with God.  Instead of building highways and bridges they build giant speed bumps.

Years ago I broke my leg. (That’s a strange expression right there because it was not my intention, I assure you.) More accurately, in the process of rescuing two little boys whose mittens tangled in barbed wire held them captive to a fence, I fell on the ice. I heard the bones in my leg snap. That’s not a sound I wish to hear again.

The news of my mishap was not something the director of the opera, in which I had a lead role, and which was due to open in less than two weeks, wanted to hear either. I had no understudy. She had to figure out how to re-block the entire production for a Countess who couldn’t walk. Amazingly with one or two creatively re-written lines, she changed the Countess into an invalid (another strange expression) thus giving the philandering Count  more motive, means and opportunity to follow up on his temptations (not an unrealistic scenario.) It worked.

I chose roles with care. I wouldn’t be in a play or opera that promoted evil. This opera had an adult theme but there was a clear difference between right and wrong, and right won. It was based on a morality story that criticized the accepted practice of not holding the noble class to account for sexual abuse of servants and other vulnerable commoners. It was about the misuse of power.

I was resting, leg propped on cushions while I memorized recitatives, when an “expert” in the ways to appease God paid a visit. This person told me God was punishing me for singing secular music. He broke my leg to teach me a lesson. He made me a temporary cripple so I would learn to praise him properly with church music, and not that show-off worldly stuff.

Now God moves in mysterious ways, but I have since learned that breaking people’s legs to get them to give him what he wants is more of a Mafia don’s technique than the ways of the one who sent his only son, Jesus, who was willing to lay down his life for me in a demonstration of love.

These harsh words could have been water off a duck’s back. They weren’t. I was stricken with guilt and shame and questioned my square peggish-ness yet again. Until that point I had known a lifetime of being told “There is a right way and a wrong way to appease God, who is currently deeply disappointed with you. And you, my dear, are doing it wrong – again.”

It took a while to realize that the scenario in my living room that day was another version of the misuse of power story. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time on earth, and the privileged nobles of Mozart’s time, some of the “experts in the ways of God” in my own time have tried to manipulate others to meet their own need to be in control. (Not all, of course. Not even most. Don’t hear what I am not saying.)

I had never learned to listen to God for myself. After years of being manipulated by guilt and shame because not only did I feel I had done something wrong, but that fundamentally I was something wrong, I abdicated the authority Christ had given me as a daughter in his royal household. I allowed people who handled their own anxiety with a desire to feel in control speak for him and tell me how to respond. It became a fictitious conversation I didn’t even need to attend. Gradually I stopped showing up.

They didn’t invite me into a closer relationship with Christ, who made a way for me to experience God’s love and affection. Instead the accumulated experiences of years of being told I wasn’t doing it right led to feeling I needed, like Adam and Eve, to cover my shame and hide myself in the trees. When God called me to come and talk with him, I hid.

I didn’t find God. I knew where he was. I was avoiding him.

Then he found me.

I was told God could not look upon sin and it was my sin that separated us. I was taught to be ever mindful of being a sinner prone to wandering and that I was a continuing source of grief to him.

But in my less-than-perfect state he pursued me, he allured me, he loved me unconditionally. In his kindness he drew me into the desert, away from the control of religiosity. When I gave up trying to be good enough he taught me that his grace is enough. He is the saviour and sanctifier. When I allow him to come close enough he writes his thoughts on my heart.

He is still demonstrating how he sees me as a unique delight and that living in his presence is not only for the experts who seem to do religion right. It’s about having an ongoing vibrant relationship with a Person. It’s his goodness and kindness that allows me to respond to him with love and not fear. He is teaching me to see myself and others with his eyes.

The one thing I ask of the LORD—
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
delighting in the LORD’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple.

For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
he will hide me in his sanctuary.
He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
Then I will hold my head high
above my enemies who surround me.

At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
singing and praising the LORD with music.
Hear me as I pray, O LORD.
Be merciful and answer me!

My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “LORD, I am coming.”

(Psalm 27:4-8 NLT)

Is he calling you to come talk with him? What is holding you back? The reward Jesus died to give to the Father is you. You are his delight.

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