Like the beginning of a new year, the shift into summer can spur romantic notions and resolutions. There is something to the season change that causes reverie. Could it be that God has designed us this way?
During the sixth century, Gregory the Great of Italy writes that our conscious contemplation is critical to our Christian lifestyle. The contemplative life, according to Gregory, is to “hold fast with the whole mind” to our relationship with God, eagerly and even passionately to feel His presence. The contemplative is eternal because it continues after death and is “perfected” in heaven. To develop the contemplative then, we must begin by focusing on God, and not actions, as Mary did with Christ. Once we are centered on God, then we are able “to bear the weight of corruptible flesh with grief.” This implies a change in our mindset once we’ve begun the process. In a way, we grieve for heaven since we are not there because our fleshly nature weighs upon our spirits. Gregory terms it a “mental struggle” because “He [God] withers every carnal desire in us.” This step is a striving, a good and eager striving, to understand God. Yet Gregory does stipulate that the contemplative element follows the active portion. It must happen in that order.
Contemplation follows action.
Gregory defines the active life as literal—doing good works. He lists what believers should do such as “to give bread to the hungry, to teach the ignorant with the word of wisdom, to set aright the lost, to recall a proud neighbor” and others. It is more than productivity and more than influencing others—it is caring for those God has placed around us. This life is “laborious” and “fatiguing” yet the work must come before we can rest in His presence. He cites Jacob’s wife Leah as an example of labor and the active life because Jacob always returned to her, and she bore him sons. If we have labored well then, the active life continues by reproducing “many sons in the good work.”
This developing process, attaining the contemplative and active life, is also circular according to Gregory, for “the spirit frequently reverts from the contemplative to the active, so that the active life may be lived the more perfectly because the contemplative has kindled the mind.” One is dependent upon the other, and at the same time, holds great influence.
The active life and the contemplative life are intertwined . . .
Stewarding our relationship with God will show itself in our physical actions as our “inward love increases” and the “strength of the flesh undoubtedly declines.” If we are fully committed to living this intertwined life, then “when the quiet of the contemplative life prevails in the mind there is silence in Heaven because the noise of actions dies away from thought so that the spirit inclines to the secret inner ear,” a benefit that our souls should not forget (Psalm 103:2).
from Homilies on the Book of Ezekiel
CLOAKS. ROBES. CLOTHING MADE OUT OF ANIMAL HAIR.
We could call it Old Testament fashion, but it all appears in the Book of Kings. In 2 Kings 1, Ahab’s son Ahaziah received the awful truth that he wouldn't recover from his fall. After sending for messengers to inquire of Baal about whether he would live, God sent Elijah to intercept and ambush them with the truth that Ahaziah would die.
But Ahaziah's messengers didn't know Elijah. They had only learned a name. Elijah’s name meant My God is Yah-weh. We know Moses learned firsthand that Yahweh meant I am who I am. Once Ahaziah heard of Elijah, he had to know who the man was. How was he identified by the messengers? By his clothes! He wore a garment of hair with a leather belt, yes, just like John the Baptist in Matthew, except John wore camel hair. One Jewish translation reads that Elijah didn’t wear hairy clothes, but that he was a hairy man!
As the account in Kings continues in 2 Kings 2:6-8, it was time for Elijah to go to heaven. He said to Elisha, Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.
AN ACT OF FAITH
Elijah had already anointed Elisha to take his place as prophet because God told him to in 1 Kings 19. Everyone knew Elijah would be taken up to heaven that day. After he asked Elisha what he wanted from him, Elisha responds, I want a double portion of your spirit. Or I want double of the gift that is in you as a prophet of God. Almost immediately the fiery horses and chariot appear to whisk Elijah away. It’s as if God and Elijah were waiting for Elisha to complete that act of faith. Elijah had completed his purpose on this earth. He had given away what he had been given by God, and God multiplied it to Elisha.
Elisha cried “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen! And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 2 Kings 2:12
Why tear his clothes? When someone dies in Jewish culture, family members and friends tear their clothes immediately when it happens or when they hear the news. In Genesis, Jacob, for instance, tore his clothes when he thought his son Joseph had died. David tore his when King Saul died. Even Levitical priests weren't allowed in the temple if they were observing keriah. It doesn’t mean tearing clothes to bits and ruining them, but it is an outward expression signifying grief. Some say it is symbolic of the soul shedding its garments.
Elisha tore his entirely. He was no longer the apprentice but the prophet of Israel. He was not going from the old to the new but walking into a new season in his life.
Continue reading next week to see how this connects to Christ and the temple.
THIS TIME OF YEAR seems to both sadden me and lighten my heart. In the school year, I grow sad because I realize that my time of influence with my students is even shorter. Only months remain, not an entire school year. Yet, I'm grateful for a two week reprieve. Not seeing each other for a time does help us appreciate each other more. I get to be a full-time mom in person for more than a few hours at a time. I'm not thinking of work to-do lists, which parent to call, which student to encourage, which grade to update, which novel to reread, which meeting to attend, which article to prepare. In the natural, my focus shifts. I have a feeling many of us have these halfway points whether in the course of the natural calendar, the work world, or in the spiritual sense.
So what is it that makes a halfway point so poignant?
First, it's a blend of a sense of accomplishment and an understanding that more remains to be done. For me, I become thankful. Yes, I can see that more work lies ahead, but I can also see that some things have come to completion, and it's not because of me. My accomplishments are not my own because I am God's creation, and He is working through me. "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works" (Psalm 73:28). In Hebrew, this word work means something that God has made or done. This is the same word used in the Genesis account, things that are created like ourselves. In the same way, as His created, we "bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!" (Psalm 103:22). We praise Him for for what He has created, that's us, and we praise Him for the works He creates through us. Psalm 90:17 reiterates this: "Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" Another way to read this within the context of the Hebrew meaning is "Let the beauty of God be upon us, and let the active work of our God be firm in us, so that our active work would be firm as well." It's really a simple idea. As I walk with God, the act of creation through my hands is like His act of creation. I am creating and working because I am in His image. And I am thankful that He chooses me to create and work.
Secondly, this halfway point is poignant because I have time to reflect. If I truly reflect—turn back and look again—I will hopefully see both my successes and failures and even moments that are neither. James 3: 13 asks "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom." In the Greek, work here means work that completes an inner desire or purpose. I hope I'm honest with myself, especially in the meekness category. I admit that my reflection often turns negative, yet that doesn't imply something horrible or discouraging. These are moments to renew purpose especially if the fall semester didn't go as I had hoped or planned. I intentionally think of which students I have truly helped, where relationship is strong, and yet I now have the time to consider how to better help those I didn't connect as well with. I'm often disappointed with myself for things I've said or situations I didn't handle with wisdom, but I know I'm learning alongside my students, and God is with me. As I reflect, I once again grow thankful.
And that may just be my point. I'm only halfway. Things aren't finished. I'm unfinished, but I'm thankful. "I give thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart . . . On the day I called, you answered me, my strength of soul you increased . . . for the Lord will fufill his purpose for me. Do not forsake the work of your hands" (Psalm 138:1,3,8).
originally posted December 2016
Romans 1:9-12 (CJB)
For God, whom I serve in my spirit by spreading the Good News about his Son, is my witness that I regularly remember you in my prayers; and I always pray that somehow, now or in the future, I might, by God’s will, succeed in coming to visit you. For I long to see you, so that I might share with you some spiritual gift that can make you stronger — or, to put it another way, so that by my being with you, we might, through the faith we share, encourage one another.
In verse 11, Paul simply says sharing our spiritual gifts make us stronger. In verse 12, Paul says his presence, that is being together and being of the same faith, encourages us.
We share our faith. We share our gifts with each other. We are strengthened. We are encouraged.
When I shared this message in our school chapel, I asked the littles on the first few rows how we encourage one another. One girl said she could offer a compliment, like how she liked my hair. A second grader said we could play together. I then asked how we can encourage someone who is sick or sad. One student said we could wait and then ask them to play when they feel better! It seems that play time is important, or I would add time together is.
In Romans 2, Paul speaks of a circumcised heart. It’s a heart that is actively listening to God, soft and responsive, not hard like Pharoah’s. It’s set apart for God, dedicated wholly to Him. It longs for what He longs for, and it is why I think we are able to encourage one another and respond to one another as He would.
Growing up, I would describe my older sister and myself as bookworms. In the summer, I brought home twenty books a week! Or at least, I think it was twenty. Once I was able to read chapter books, we could share and compare books. We both brought home stacks from our school libraries. Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Narnia, Hardy Boys. I even binged my way through every Louis L’Amour in my junior high school library.
One afternoon I brought home a new Hardy Boys and left it on my bedroom desk for after chores and dinner. But when I returned to grab it, it was gone! I was positive I had left it on the school bus until . . . my sister emerged from her room with it. I reacted immediately in anger, with a flare of injustice I’m sure, and we promptly began a tug of war. In Hebrew react means to answer by hitting back or striking with words. I know I chose sin in that moment, and I am sure I sinned more than once with my mouth and my actions before our mom intervened. My heart was not responsive to God but quite hard.
In Hebrew, the word respond is hinneni or hinnen meaning “here I am.” It shows a yielded heart.
Consider young Samuel as a boy serving Eli the priest in the temple. In I Samuel 3:3-4, The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” Samuel did not act in fear or react in emotion.
In Exodus 3, Moses saw the burning bush. I’m sure he was stunned in the moment and possibly fearful. When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
And after all the consequences Isaiah declared to Israel, he may have been weary and could easily have been embittered, yet he responded in Isaiah 6:8, And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Yes, response is a choice, and yes, we won't always choose well. But I do want to choose what God would choose for me because I trust Him. I trust His love for me. I choose to respond instead of react to people and things because I want to keep a soft heart, one that listens to Him every part of every day.
OBEDIENCE IS A SERIOUS THING. The Book of Judges clearly speaks of an absolute obedience that brings peace and blessing. In Judges 2:1-4 and 6:8-10, God sent both an angel and an unnamed prophet to remind the Israelites that they had not obeyed His voice. What a distinction! Obedience is not just about obeying the laws or rules—it’s about hearing God’s voice.
True, the laws that God gave His people are His voice at this time, along with His messengers, but would the people listen and walk in His way as their fathers had? (2:22). Previously in Deuteronomy, Moses explained that God’s law was no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land (32:47). Think of that. Your very life. But His people were forgetful and many times did not choose to listen, to follow, to obey.
Whenever a judge arose who was aware of God’s covenant and who led the people in hearing and obeying God, the people enjoyed peace in the land for a few years or even forty. Consider Gideon. Although he was timid in personality and quite unsure of himself at first, Gideon was able to obey God. Yes, he was the least of the least, and yes, he questioned God's angel, but once he truly knew God was speaking to him, he obeyed. What mercy. God allowed Gideon to question. God gave him time. God even allowed Gideon to test Him twice, and most amazingly, God equipped Gideon to bring deliverance to His people, for the Spirit of the Lord clothed and covered him (6:32). It's almost as if once he knew he was chosen, once he knew without doubt that God was with him, then Gideon was able to choose obedience with ease.
But Gideon wasn't the only one. Once God's angel appeared, Manoah and his barren wife obeyed God, followed the Nazirite vows, and were blessed with the birth of Samson and his siblings (16:31). Here, Samson was raised with a purpose--to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (13:5).
Yet Samson was far from obedient. He lied, murdered, retaliated, wreaked vengeance, manipulated, and contaminated, yet God was with him. Mercy again. He was destined from before conception to save Israel (13:5), and God used him as a tangible show of strength and power to weaken the Philistines and strengthen the Israelites. But Samson may not have fulfilled the breadth of God’s plan because of his poor choices (eating from a carcass and making himself and his parents ceremonially unclean, entanglements with three Philistine women, et al). These choices and others impacted his effectiveness—twenty years of peace versus forty or more (16:31).
Most of all, I wonder if this mutt mix of obedience, forgetfulness, and sin symbolized his own people. Like them, He did not know that the Lord had left him (16:20) until too late. What could he have done, how could God have used him if Samson had wholly obeyed by hearing God's voice for himself?
originally published November 2016
MOST OF MY STUDENTS would like to do other things than read a few chapters of required reading of an evening. For any literature teacher, what’s worse is that they can easily find free poem, chapter, novel, and play summaries with great ease online. After all, summaries are so much shorter, aren’t they?
So one of my first tasks of the year is to appeal to their integrity with a lesson from the Psalms. Let’s start with this. If I read a summary of a chapter in the Bible, what do I lose? Consider Psalm 23. This version comes to us from Shmoop:
The Lord (God) acts as a shepherd to the speaker. He makes sure the speaker isn't lacking any necessities. The Lord takes the speaker to peaceful and relaxing places, like green fields and calm waters. He also tends to spiritual well-being, making sure that the speaker stays on the right path. . . . This happy state of affairs will continue for the rest of the speaker's life, and beyond. He doesn't ever plan to leave the protection of his host and shepherd.
It’s a summary alright, but where’s the richness? Where is the personal sense of me being the sheep? Adonai is my shepherd. He’s not a neutral speaker unless David somehow knew of political correctness. What happened to vivid verbs like leads, guides, refreshes, comforts? With David, I feel the certainty of his prayer. Adonai prepares a feast before me publicly in the presence of my enemies. How is that a happy state of affairs? Does the summary even capture the essence, the flavor, the mood of David’s perspective? I am anointed by God, and his love and goodness practically chase me. I know like David that I can abide with God, dwell with Him. Not leaving his protection sounds so shallow.
This type of example is simple and clear. It's more than a matter of wording. It's as if the summary reduces not just the number of words but the intention and truth behind them. The experience of reading the word of God simply cannot be redacted or it's no longer reading the word.
In the same way, the experience of reading literature is just that—an experience. Shortcuts cheat us. The wealth of reading remains with us just like living moments do. Reading allows us to walk through, to live beside, to express, to imagine within the lives of others.
SOMEHOW IN KIRA'S DEFORMED STATE, a few of the village leaders saw past her condition and instead saw the covenant gift within her young life. She was fed and given shelter and challenged to complete the mending of the ceremonial robe. The story quickly builds to a climax.
Christ too saw covenant, destiny, in every person. In fact, in some it was so strong when he met them that he renamed them: Simon, fisher of men, you are called Peter. James and John, sons of Zebedee, you shall be called Boanerges, sons of thunder. Zacchaeus wasn’t a despised tax collector to Jesus but a dinner host!
Christ didn’t see any of the sick and diseased and demon-possessed that were brought to him as worthless. He saw them whole before he even performed a miracle. He saw the inside where they were crippled too.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.'
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.'
Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.' --Luke 19:1-10
Zacchaeus caught a glimpse of who he was in Christ’s eyes, and it changed him. No one had to tell him the right thing to do. He no longer saw himself from the outside in, but from the inside out, the way God intended. Zacchaeus came to understand who he was in an entirely different way as does Kira by the end of Gathering Blue.
ACCORDING TO G. K. CHESTERTON, tales and stories are an elementary wonder because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. Their effect upon us is both simple and innate. More than that, Chesterton believed that stories are needed because they can awaken us, even startle us, when our lives have languished in familiarity:
Stories remind of us of reality. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. The tales make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. It is the same for fairytales. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and evil flies out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
The reality that stories bring also conveys truth. One such story is in Lois Lowry’s Giver series, Gathering Blue. In this futuristic tale, on an earth that has forgotten much of its history and seems to have reverted to the Dark Ages, young Kira has just lost her mother, the only parent that she’s known.
No one would desire Kira. No one ever had, except her mother. Often Katrina had told Kira the story of her birth—the birth of a fatherless girl with a twisted leg—and how her mother had fought to keep her alive. . . . 'They came to take you, Kir. They brought me food and were going to take you away to the Field.'
Kira is clearly a cripple. That’s how she is seen on the outside by everyone except her mother who is now gone. But being crippled is only the outside condition. Her status quickly reminds me of more than one account where people in Christ’s time only saw condition too. They yelled at the blind beggars to get off the road, they fled at the sight of lepers, and laughed at Jesus when he said Jairus’ daughter was only asleep. They would have made fun of the Samaritan woman too. Those who lived in Nazareth said Jesus was just the carpenter’s son. They saw condition, just the surface.
So now, Kira has to make her way in life, and she is afraid that her village will cast her out. As the story continues, we find out that Kira has a gift, one that’s just beginning to grow. She calls it the knowledge and first describes it as a keepsake.
With her thumb, Kira felt a small square of decorated woven cloth. She had forgotten the strip of cloth in the recent, confusing days . . . When she was much younger, the knowledge had come quite unexpectedly to her, and she recalled the look of amazement on her mother’s face as she watched Kira choose and pattern the threads one afternoon with sudden sureness. ‘I didn’t teach you that!’ her mother said laughing with delight and astonishment. ‘I wouldn’t know how!’ Kira hadn’t known how either, not really. It had come about almost magically, as if the threads had spoken to her, or sung. After that first time, the knowledge had grown. . . . the threads began to sing to her.
It is this gift that saves her from exile or death as a cripple, and the village elders now provide her food and her own dwelling so that she can sew and embroider for them.
*Part II will continue the story next week.
In Genesis 39, the Egyptian captain Potiphar had it made. Prestige, position, property, a beautiful wife, and most importantly, a slave who did it all. Who wouldn’t appreciate a servant who could run your life better than you could?
Genesis 39:2-7 (ESV) The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.
His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.
So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.
From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.
So he left all that he had in Joseph's charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.
Some translations read successful in verses 2 and 3; others speak of wealth, but the Genesis account is clear. God is with Joseph, and so prosperity has broken out. Potiphar had to have trusted Joseph implicitly to relinquish his own control to a slave and so quickly too. That every part of Potiphar’s holdings flourished is undeniable. Potiphar, his wife, and all of his slaves had to have known that Joseph’s presence, and so God’s presence, brought this amazing bounty to them.
Even before his wife’s false accusations left Joseph in prison, Potiphar had missed something. Perhaps he felt entitled since he had purchased Joseph for half a pound of silver. Maybe he thought he had good luck because of his prayers to his gods. Perhaps he was simply in denial. But what if he had not just rested on success? What if he had been aware of why he landed in such fortune?
I wouldn’t want to live in such ignorance, this Potipharland. I want to see God’s goodness, see him at work, to know His nature, and to fill with gratitude. Here Potiphar made a simple choice, a one-time purchase, that affected his whole household and his entire country. If he had only known.
IN THE PAST MONTH, I'VE TWEAKED A LOT. I’ve tweaked curriculum, articles, even the brightness of my book cover and its font size. I've tweaked my website, but I’ve also tweaked my closet apparently. Maybe I even tweaked my foot when I stepped on a backyard mole hill.
When it was first recorded in Old English in the 1600s, tweaking used to mean pinching, as in tweaking or tugging someone’s nose. Then it meant plucking, like picking lint off of a shirt. I don’t think I’ve managed to pinch or pluck anything I’ve written, but I may have plucked a few things from my closet that I don’t wear. Now that I consider it, I do pluck things from what I write so that I can add other words because in modern lingo, tweaking means to make a fine adjustment.
Tweaking really is refining, and refining is all about process, not perfection. It requires time and reflection and a good deal of plain old thought. I don’t want to be the fool described in Ecclesiastes 10:14 who just multiplies his words. That just implies empty quantity. A good word encourages the heart and strengthens it (Proverbs 12:25). Those words are agreeable and bring pleasure and make you stand taller.
Perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the tweaking process is that God can reveal His wisdom to us if we wait and rest without trying to fill a page just to fill it. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom herself says, I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. And that is my hope and prayer for the words that I write. Let tweaking be a refining.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to him who understands,
and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.