Thursday, January 28, 2021

How To Fix Every Broken Thing

Once upon a time a young husband and wife moved half-way around the world to build a home and a life in a brand-new place. This place was new and different from everything they had known and for the most part, they had very little human help. They didn't have to report to work every day; there were no time clocks or activity reports. They could go where they wanted to go and do what they wanted to do, except for one thing: they had a calling on their lives. They were not supposed to "be their own."

They tried to set schedules, but since they were still learning how to do things AND how things were done, they never seemed to work. In time a baby came along, and since they didn't want anything to cramp their new-found freedom, they just carried the baby along to whatever they were doing. The house was messy, meals were erratic, frustration mounted, tears flowed. Time and again they tried to figure out how to have a family life and home life and ministry life, but most days they just dropped in to bed irritable, dirty, and exhausted. 


  They struggled on like this for three full years, just barely holding it together. Furlough in America would certainly fix it! So they went and another baby came, and it got harder. Feelings hurt deeper and anger flashed more often and one or the other of the young couple withdrew, because they didn't know what else to do. In time they went back to the field. But not before the Holy Spirit had begun a deep heart work in one of them. 

Though it was not easy, the one being prodded listened, repented, and begged for help. It came. Oh, it didn't come in rushing torrents, mostly just the tiniest of droplets, but still, it was enough to moisten the dry soil of a life. Though unseen by any human eye, that tiny obedience, that bowing to the One Authority, was like a stone dropped in a pond. It rippled outward. Those waves began jostling the other one, and sins that had been long buried were brought to light. Repentance. Cries for mercy. The answer came this time also, and that obedience softened the soil more.

Joys, trials, good days, bad days, tears, fears, hopes, answers to prayer, sickness, health came and went. A baby was given and a baby was taken. Seeds that had been faithfully planted many years before and new seeds dropped in here and there began to find purchase in the soil of their lives. A few roots began to find their way down, down to truth where they could draw strength and nourishment. More babies came; more heartaches came. But with both, this couple was learning what it meant to find their hope in Another. And with both, they began to learn the importance of strong foundations. 

The wise man built his house upon the rock; the foolish man built his house upon the sand. A song from childhood, a truth from Jesus. They sought that Rock. Many days it didn't FEEL like they were growing, that they were making any progress. Having a happy, loving marriage was hard. Parenting was harder. They tried. Most days they felt like they failed. They had learned, somewhere along the way though, that each day they had to just get up and do it again. Their roots clung to that truth when all else failed. Slowly they began putting habits in place, nothing fancy. Washing the dishes before going to bed, no matter how tired they were. Practicing the guitar for just 15 minutes, no matter how little progress was seen. Schooling the children, no matter if everybody enjoyed it or not. Cooking the food, because it had to be cooked. Giving the gospel, even when the language barrier seemed insurmountable. Letting people into their lives, whether they wanted them there or not. Feeding and washing babies, because it had to be done. Many days it felt pointless and useless, but they had been promised that He would perfect that which concerned them. By God's grace they believed it to be so, and the foundations became stronger. The roots went down deeper.

Now a season of trials came, thick and fast. The storm raged, the winds howled, the waves crashed, the rains beat, but the Life they had planted together stood firm. They certainly looked weather-worn, and the smiles were often a bit forced, but they survived. They could join in the great company of witnesses and say that their Foundation was enough. 

After the hard days came a stretch of beautiful ones, because no life is complete without both. It seemed almost like a dream at first, but they soon realized that no longer was their plant hanging on for dear life. It was growing, thriving, and bearing fruit. They had learned that the strength was in the Vine, and as long as they were attached to Him, they needed nothing else. All the days of digging, planting, weeding, and pruning were accomplishing what they were supposed to accomplish: fruit. The foundations were deep and strong; the water source was clear and sure. This was not a matter of bragging, but simply a matter of truth. It was a promise of God.

I wrote the above, dear friends, because foundations and deep roots and habits and the abundant life are some things that have been on my mind a lot lately. Last week we got a phone call that the roof of our church building had ripped off in a storm. Why? because the original framing on one side of our rented building had been eaten through by termites. When the winds blew, it collapsed and the roof had nothing to hold onto. This last year of lock-downs and government regulations and changes in daily life have revealed who has deep roots and who does not. We have seen some choose to follow a path that will lead to destruction and others choose to follow the path of life. As we prepare to fledge our oldest baby bird from the family nest, we are seeking to help her learn to send her roots down deep, not to mama and daddy's Rock, but her own. And so it goes. Daily, each one of us gets the choice to be obedient and faithful with what God has called us to do or not. We CAN choose. What we can't choose, though, is the consequences.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

For the Days When You Want to Build Walls

We live in a day and an age of walling people out and walling ourselves in. We make sure we set clear boundaries and indelible demarcation lines, and we are quite sure that all those things will make us happy and fix our problems.

Why do we have these problems? Maybe we ask ourselves that question out loud, and maybe we ask it in our heads, but either way, we just know our problems are the other person, and if we can just keep them farther away from us the troubles will go away. So we keep on picking up the stones or the bricks or the barbed wire or even the pretty little pickets and build the fences higher and stronger to keep all those who would come to ruin our lives out. 

There is no time for appreciating that each person we meet was made just like us -- by a loving Creator. Instead of learning to be friendly with those who live to the right and left of us, the clerks at the grocery store and the gas station, the person who messed up your order at the drive-thru, and the family that sits on the other side of the auditorium, we retreat into our houses. We keep the blinds closed, the curtains pulled, the lights off, and try to find "friends" in the virtual spheres. How often do we rather make new enemies, though?

We scour the internet looking for more articles to support our opinions. We clap each other on the back, and high-five when somebody makes a "smart" comment and makes somebody else look stupid. We watch debates and listen to radio shows and podcasts to fill our minds with all the reasons why we are right and everybody who doesn't think just like us is wrong. We fill our hearts with the fear-mongering and the conspiracy theories, and then wonder why we are anxious and hopeless.

Why do we do such things? Because it is easier. It is hard, hard work to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. If it was easy, God wouldn't have had to command us to do so. It is much easier to pick up stones and stack them back on top of the fence than to pull down the walls that stand between us and our fellow men. It is difficult work to actually close our mouths and open our ears and listen to what someone else has to say rather than to assume we already know what they are going to say. "What if that person believes something wrong?" you might ask. What if they do? Then you will actually know what they believe rather than just assuming. Sometimes you might be surprised. It might even give you a bit of insight into where you can begin speaking to them about the Truth that matters the most.

It used to be that people had to learn to live with their neighbors. They were the only people they had. They might not think just like them, but in time, with patience and hope, and a good bit of humor thrown in, they learned to share life together. When somebody needed a cup of sugar it was available. When someone needed a doctor, they helped. When a baby died, they wept. When a barn needed raising, they brought their hammers. 
No, many of us don't live in that kind of world anymore, but couldn't we try? Couldn't we, along with the poet, ask, 'Why DO fences make good neighbors?'

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Parable of a Tomato Plant

One day it was just there -- an almost full-grown tomato plant near our rubbish cans. While self-seeding plants aren't uncommon in such a fertile place as Ghana, this one was odd because it had managed to grow on our concrete compound. Because grass often brings snakes and has to be cut with a machete, house owners usually put concrete paving stones over the bare dirt around their houses. So it is where we live.

At some point a tomato seed probably fell out of the rubbish and managed to drop right between two pavers, into some loose dirt, and send down a tap root. Rain fell, sun shone, and in time, a tiny tomato plant pushed its way toward the light.

It had to be a hardy seed, because nothing about its environment was conducive to growth, but it grew anyway.

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite books, Green Leaf in Drought {originally titled Green Leaf in Drought-Time} by Isobel Kuhn. It is the story of the Mathews family, the last CIM missionaries to escape when the Communists took over China. For over two years they were far from all human help, with the barest essentials for life, severe restrictions on their money {and therefore their food, clothing, and fuel}, under near house-arrest, and a church family made weak and fearful from the threats of the new government. Though it was a hard and fearful time, they learned to go to the only source of life they had available to them -- their loving Heavenly Father. They learned to send their tap roots down, down deep, where the living water never stopped flowing. They flourished amid great difficulty, and everyone who knew them saw it and wondered. They were a testimony of the strength of something or Someone greater than themselves.

The day I saw the tiny yellow flowers pop out on that tomato plant I was shocked, but then to see it slowly swell with hints of coming fruit and finally to see small green tomatoes growing -- what joy! That tomato plant became my nature parable as I walked my circuit around our house as my daily exercise. It was beaten by both rain and sun. It had no wiggle-room to stretch to a better way of growing, but still it did what it was made to do, because its roots were where they were supposed to be.

I watched in anticipation as the green turned to yellow, orange, and then red, waiting the day I could enjoy the fruit of that stubborn little plant.

For many {most?} of us, our lives have been turned upside-down {to say the least!} this year. Nothing has been like what we are used to or what we planned for it to be. In the midst of upheaval do we just throw our hands up in despair and hope for a new year or a fresh start so we can begin again? Or do we send that root deeper until we find Who we truly need? 

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

On Being Twilight Seekers in a World that Fears the Dark

Twilight can be hopeful or discouraging, but it completely depends on what time of day one thinks it is. Seeing the twilight as the sunset before a long dark night rather than the dawn before the coming bright day makes all the difference. It is not our observations of light mingled with darkness that alone must inform our minds. What our eyes behold can be deceptive without the proper perspective. Without an external truth to guide us, our senses and feelings can mislead us. It is so easy to jump to conclusions when all we do is look at specific circumstances or symptoms. Something as simple as looking at a clock in the midst of our confusion has the power to change our minds completely.

As time stretches forward, the world has an uneasy feeling that we are in the twilight before a darkening age. Mankind knows deep down that something is off in our ever-expanding fabricated utopia. The promises of our perfect modern life seem hollow and what we find in the midst of the hustle and bustle seems more like polished brass than pure gold, but this is the perspective of those that have nothing to look forward to. For the people of the light the twilight holds no fear. Twilight to us should be the signal of hopeful things to come. Soon the sun will rise and the eternal day will begin.

The interesting aspect of this line of thinking though, is that we are meant to be twilight seekers who live in a world that fears the dark. We are fish swimming up stream while everything else is flowing down. How do we cultivate a home of hope in a world that seeks to propagate an atmosphere of fear and despair? What they see as the coming of night, we see as the coming of a brighter and better day.

In our modern world developing ambiance seems as simple as lighting a scented candle. If the house smells like wet pets or stinky socks, just light a match. Instantly, orchards full of apple blossoms or snowy pine groves fill our rooms. Though this might work for the unwanted smells we want to mask, what do we do when the breezes of the world we live in bring unpleasant and unwanted despair or even terror? Yankee candle factory does not make a scent called “Hope.” We must build a home atmosphere of hope that is more potent than any scents carried on the wind.

Atmosphere is the sum total of a person’s or a family’s life. It is the scent of daily living all rolled together and inhaled by those that are with them. Real home atmosphere can never be mass produced, bottled, or bagged. If we want the influence of something added into the ambiance of our life, then we will have to add it. No apple pie in a jar here, just the effort of making a real apple pie.

Before Joshua and the children of Israel entered the promise land, Moses gave them his final words. Near the beginning we find Deuteronomy 6:6-9. Here we are given God’s plan for making a home atmosphere. “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.”

The Jews were guilty of missing the point of these verses. This is not a list of formal rules that can be accomplished by placing mezuzahs on our doorposts or wearing phylacteries on our foreheads and wrists. This is a living idea, not a list of decorations. Christ put it this way, “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” What is important to us, what moves us, what we think about, what we talk about, what we spend our money on, develops consciously or unconsciously our home atmosphere.

Let’s go back to the scented candle for a moment. If your children were asked to make a candle that represents your home, a candle that is the sum total of what is important to you and your spouse, what do you think it would smell like? Before you answer, maybe you should plan to take some time soon and actually ask your children. We might just be surprised by their answers.

Many years ago, a new missionary co-worker was visiting. We were talking about Easter since it was fast approaching. In a moment I’ll never forget, Andrew turned and asked my eldest daughter what Easter was all about. “Easter is about bunnies, colored eggs, and chocolate!” was the reply. Now there is nothing wrong with a little candy and fun, but at that moment Patty and I realized that maybe the atmosphere we wanted was not the real atmosphere we had produced. We did not stop eating Easter eggs and chocolate, but we did become much more intentional about adding the Resurrection story into that season of our life. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does life. If we do not work on something intentionally, circumstances will fill up life with its own emphases. 

There are lots of ways that we make an emphasis in our lives, but one of the quickest and most powerful is through the words we hear and the words we speak. Words give ideas, and ideas received are like seeds. They will produce troublesome things like skunk cabbage, or they can produce refreshing things like lavender. In our home we are seeking to fill our lives with words of beauty, truth, faith, hope, and love. There will always be times that our ears catch the sounds of harsh words, fearful words, and hateful words, but that does not mean we have to make altars for them in our homes. For us this looks like less news and more scripture, less scrolling and more stories, poetry and songs, limited media and more play. In this philosophy we do not see life so much as sacred and secular {for everything that speaks of truth can draw us closer to the One True God}, but more of what is helpful and hurtful. Robert Louis Stevenson put it like this, “Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life.” In all we place before our eyes and put into our ears, we try to ask ourselves a question: does this follow God’s instructions found in Philippians 4:8? “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

In our efforts to obey these words, we are seeking to build a home with an atmosphere of hope.