Cleanliness or Brokenness?

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If you grew up hearing this old maxim (as I did), it may seem like something very wise–even Biblical. After all, so many of the chapters in Leviticus talk about ritual washing and being clean (or unclean). God’s people should be clean and tidy, organized and pure. But if you continue reading through the Old Testament, God becomes very angry with His people. Sure, they are following the letter of His law. They are bringing sacrifices, making sure that they wash everything properly and measure out the right amounts of incense. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees even tithed their spices! Yet, Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” (Matthew 12:34) and “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27b NIV)

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We spend so much time worrying about appearances. But just because our lives look “clean” and “tidy” doesn’t mean that we are close to God. God isn’t impressed by our outward observance of His laws or by our neat appearance. Jesus did not reach out to the clean and tidy Pharisees; He went out of His way to speak to lepers and tax collectors and others who were considered “dirty” and tainted.

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That doesn’t give us a pass to be slovenly or careless about hygiene! But it does mean that we should care less about what others see, and more about what God sees–on the inside. God wants to see hearts that are humble and willing to serve. He doesn’t want clean hands that are unwilling to reach out in love; He doesn’t want spotless houses or cars filled with complaining, gossip, and anger. God hasn’t asked us to “tidy up” our lives or “get our act together” to impress our neighbors. He asks us to repent of our uncleanness; to be broken in spirit, so that we will submit to His yoke and follow Him. HE will provide the cleaning we need, through the power of His “once-for-all” sacrifice!

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In other words, “Brokenness is next to Godliness; and Godliness leads to Perfect cleanliness.” Our sins cannot be covered up or cleaned up by our efforts; they can only be washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. Only through Him can we become truly clean.

When we come before God in prayer, let us come, not just with clean hands, but with hearts that are open and tender, willing to listen to His words of wisdom, and follow in His footsteps.

Praying in the Dark

The past few days have been a dark place for me. I don’t mean that something horrible has happened, or that my life has been upended. But things seem dim and indistinct. Some things I took for granted turn out to be less than sure. Events have been chaotic and tinged with evil and sadness.

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I was reading a novel the other day, set in the early days of World War II in London. Because of the threat of air raids from Germany, the people were required to “black out” their windows at night, and drive with no headlights. People who had driven or walked around the streets of London with confidence just weeks before were being injured or even killed because they could no longer trust in streetlights, headlights, or lights in windows to guide them safely home. At the same time, during the day, thousands of people, fearing that the Germans would use deadly gas, were carrying around gas masks (just in case!), and leaving them on buses or at pubs or train stations, because they were unused to the extra responsibility. Suddenly, the gas mask they were depending on was lost, and all the extra preparation turned out to be useless, anyway. It reminds me how often I would see people last year, getting ready to enter a store, only to return to their car for their required mask. The recent upsurge in COVID cases means that some public businesses and services are requiring masks again, while others do not. No one knows if they are prepared; no one seems confident that they are “safe”– even with masks, vaccines, furious hand-washing, and social distancing.

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Hard times and difficult situations can cause us to shift our focus and have to learn new routines–even new vocabulary! At certain times, life almost seems “normal.” At others, we seem to be tossed by every new wave that comes along. It can be easy to lose one’s way in the fog and darkness of chaos and changing times.

The Psalmist and King, David, had words of wisdom for times like these: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119: 105 KJV)

Even when things seem dark and it feels like I’ve lost my way, God is right beside me. If I have no other “light” to see by, God’s word will be enough to guide me on. When I pray– even in the dark–God sees me clearly, and knows the way ahead.

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And I needed to be reminded of that this week.

Ceaseless Praise

Have you ever thought that right now, somewhere in the world, someone is singing praises to God? Someone is praying somewhere in the world at every moment of every day. There is not a solitary silent moment in the universe, where God is not receiving the worship He deserves. In fact, Jesus told some angry Pharisees, when they asked Him to rebuke the people of Jerusalem, that if they (the people who were shouting praises) were to be silent, the very rocks would cry out! (See Luke 19: 37-40)

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In fact, “the whole earth is full of His Glory” (Isaiah 6:3). From the smallest insect to the giant creatures in the seas; from the smallest of dust motes to the stars in the galaxies, all of creation sings, shouts, shines, and testifies to the Majesty of God.

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We don’t hear this constant praise. Nor do we smell the aroma of constant prayers that rise up “like incense” to the throne of Heaven. But our prayer should be that Jesus would be as close as our every thought, word, and action throughout the day; that in everything we think, say, and do, we would be participating in the eternal and glorious worship of the One who is worthy. And that our prayers and praise would blend in harmony with all the others in the great “Song of the Redeemed.”

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Prayer and praise should not be a single activity undertaken for a minute or even an hour a day. It should be as natural as breathing or blinking. And while we are in the flesh, and may not physically “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) we can ask God to “take our moments and our days–let them flow in ceaseless praise!”

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Praying with Confidence

What does it mean to pray with confidence?

Does it mean that we pray with the sure knowledge that God will give us whatever we ask for?

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22 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. 23 I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. 24 I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.

Mark 11:22-24 (New Living Translation)
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This is a difficult concept– and one I don’t fully understand. But I do believe the following:

  • “Confidence” means: “A trusting, or reliance; an assurance of mind or firm belief in the integrity, stability or veracity of another, or in the truth and reality of a fact.” (from studylight.org) Our trust is not in the power or our own words or in our worth, but in the power of God’s will to act justly, righteously, and in His sovereignty. I cannot ask God to act against His will and have confidence that He will give me what I ask for. Even if I ask for a miracle– like moving the mountain into the sea–I must trust that God will do it because it is part of His plan; not because God must obey my whims.
  • The more I learn of God’s power and love– by seeking Him, following Him, and experiencing His Grace–the more I will ask in confidence and assurance.
  • The more I seek my own will and ignore God’s wisdom, the more I will ask in arrogance and/or doubt.
  • Confidence will change the tone of our prayers from beseeching to believing–instead of asking for an outcome we don’t really expect, we will ask expecting that God already knows the outcome that is best.
  • Confidence doesn’t need immediate results. That mountain may not be moved in an instant. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be picked up and thrown into the sea–perhaps in our lifetime; perhaps in a year; perhaps in a thousand years. We sometimes trust in God’s power and willingness, but we forget to trust His timing.
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We can pray in confidence. In fact, we must learn to pray with confidence! And we can be confident that it will happen!

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3-6 Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

Philippians 1:3-6 (The Message)
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The Righteous Will Live By Faith

“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked, but the righteous will live by their faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4

Is it rational to believe in God? About three and a half centuries ago, the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, drew up what is now known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In it, he gives a “rational” justification for belief in God (theism). In it, he posits that if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that He does. But if God is real, the consequences of our belief or denial are crucial. If the God of the Bible exists (along with heaven and hell, sin and salvation), the failure to believe will lead us to lose everything; the decision to believe will lead us to gain everything…there is no in between.

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I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager. Not because it’s bad logic, per se, but because it depends on belief, but not faith.

What’s the difference? Belief says that God exists–that He is supreme, that He controls our destiny, and that He must be obeyed. It will produce a life of theistic obedience to God’s Law, including a life of “good” works, moral conduct, and “right” thinking. But it will not produce a Godly character. It will not be a life of righteousness.

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Faith, on the other hand, believes that God not only exists, but that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) and that He so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) to save us from Sin and Death (1 Corinthians 15:56-7). It is not our belief in God’s existence that saves us and gives us life; rather it is Faith by His Grace! (Ephesians 2:8-9) in the nature and character of God– in the atoning work of Jesus as revelation and proof of His character– that saves us from Sin and Death.

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Pascal’s Wager is a way of thinking about God. It can lead someone to believe, which can produce a life of Faith. But it can also produce a kind of life that is ruled by grudging obedience, resentment, and pride in one’s own powers of self-control and understanding. Faith lives in dependence and humility, and joyous gratitude for God’s gifts.

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The prophet Habakkuk, who first wrote the phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” learned this lesson in dramatic fashion. He “believed” in God– in His righteousness and justice. He spoke to God about the wickedness he saw all around him, among his own people. God gave him a difficult answer: Justice was coming in the form of an invasion by the Babylonians– a group known for their wickedness and cruelty and lack of justice! God’s answer was shocking and counter-intuitive. But Habakkuk chose to believe in God’s Eternal Character, as God revealed the “rest of the story.” Israel would suffer; justice would be cruel–but God’s glory and His salvation would triumph. Habakkuk’s response was a song of praise and faith. Regardless of his circumstances, Habakkuk would wait and rejoice, knowing that God’s ways are perfect.

It’s not difficult to say we believe in God. But are we living in Faith? I find it easy to let circumstances–especially injustice and wickedness–overwhelm me and rob me of peace and joy. But I find it comforting to know that my momentary doubts cannot stop God’s promises, His Mercy, or His power to help me live by Faith. That’s due to His righteousness, not mine, but through Christ, I can trust in it, walk in it, and live in it!

We the People

Yesterday and today mark two important milestones in North America. September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, and September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States. On these days, people in our two countries celebrate some of the great things that can be accomplished by “we the people.” The founders of our nations were not perfect, but they fought and worked and came together to make “a more perfect union,” and a brighter future for their citizens.

All around the world, governments are instituted to protect the rights and lives of people– to protect them from danger, to allow them to interact in peace and safety, and to provide for “the general welfare” of all. But governments– even the best–are run by fallible people.

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The Bible tells a long and complex story of the ancient nation of Israel. Tracing its origins to a single patriarch (Abraham), the family grew to be a powerful nation, ruled first by priests and judges, and then by a series of kings. The nation split into two distinct countries, before being scattered and sent into exile. The story of the nation is chronicled (literally) in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. In the books of the prophets, the same message comes from God again and again–Israel and Judah have both fallen into the same idolatry and corruption that doomed the nations they had conquered in former times. Instead of seeking justice for all the people, and providing order and protection, the leaders had become drunkards, liars, thieves, and murderers. They betrayed their allies, made foolish treaties, oppressed the poor and helpless, and celebrated their own cleverness. “We the People” had devolved into “us versus them.” Worship of God had been replaced by worship of a pantheon of foreign gods–worship that involved ritual prostitution and human sacrifice. Family members and fellow citizens were sold into slavery, robbed and beaten, used and abused, and slaughtered–without remorse or fear of retribution. God’s warnings were followed by His justice and punishment, and the demise of both nations, as well as punishment for their neighbors.

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Israel’s story, while very detailed, isn’t unique in history. Instead, it is a case study of what can happen when the people abandon unity and the rule of law for division and corruption. It is what happens when “who we are” becomes more important than “whose” we are; when “we” are more important than anyone else–even God. Israel and Judah continued to be religious right up to the point where they were dragged off to exile. They brought offerings and sacrifices, sang songs, prayed, and memorized scripture. Their leaders assured them that God would protect them and continue to let them prosper as their enemies marched up to the gates of Jerusalem. They had not abandoned the worship of God– they had just added idolatry to it. They worshipped their own prosperity, they worshipped gods and goddesses of the harvest, of war, of wealth, and wisdom. They still thought God was great– but not necessarily Sovereign.

Who or what are we worshipping today? What “new” and additional principles have we added to our own Constitution? To the laws of the land? To our way of being good citizens in our respective countries? To the eternal Word of God? When we hear the phrase, “We the People,” does it bring to mind people who look and live differently than us? Does it bring thoughts of justice and unity? Does it humble us?

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King David, the second, and one of the greatest of Israel’s kings wrote: “Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100:3 NKJV) “We the People,” by ourselves, will scatter and fall into destruction, like sheep without a shepherd.

No Particular Place to Go..

Back in 1964, singer Chuck Berry released a song called “No Particular Place to Go.” It was a catchy tune about a couple driving along on a date and having trouble with a new feature in the car– the safety belt– which ends up ruining their plans for a romantic stroll.

This may seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with prayer or Christian living, but stick with me…

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The writer of Proverbs includes a unique chapter https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+9&version=NIV in which Wisdom and Folly–both women–call out to passersby inviting them to visit. Both say the same thing: “Let all who are simple come to my house.” But Wisdom has built her house, prepared the food and wine, and even sent out servants to help. Folly lounges outside her door, offering “stolen” water and “food eaten in secret–though she has done nothing to prepare for visitors, and so has nothing real to offer.

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Both women call out, both women extend an invitation–the people are not looking for them; they are just passing by. And most of them have “no particular place to go.” And isn’t that the way with us sometimes? We don’t intend to fall into foolish habits, or get caught up in addictions. Nor do we look for wisdom in our fellowship over a meal, or in spending time at someone’s house. We can be very intentional in our actions, but fall victim to our interactions.

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Spending time with people of wisdom– people who will pray with us and for us–is so important. Preparing our hearts for fellowship with others, and for time spent with God is not something we should leave for chance. Just as we take time to “map out” our goals for work or health or finances, we should take care to map out our relationships.

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That doesn’t mean we avoid reaching out to others, and inviting them to enjoy fellowship, or that we must turn down all invitations from others. But we must be careful not to be drawn into folly. Jesus ate with sinners– but He didn’t carouse with them. He spent most of His time with those who wanted to share His love for the Father, and those who wanted to learn wisdom.

Folly never has a “particular place to go.” She wanders aimlessly. She doesn’t see the danger ahead, and she doesn’t look for a better road. Folly drives off recklessly without fastening her safety belt. Folly scrolls through lies and ads and half-truths on the internet. She gets pulled into relationships that are unhealthy and activities that are unproductive. And she wakes up dazed and confused and unfulfilled.

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Wisdom walks in the way of insight– well-marked paths that lead to a clear destination. Wisdom seeks traveling companions who share the same destination. Wisdom pursues the truth, in person and on-line. Wisdom drives defensively and wears a safety belt (and knows how to operate it!) Wisdom seeks shelter that is safe, where she can be well-fed and find rest. She wakes up refreshed and ready to continue the journey.

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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
 For through wisdom your days will be many,
    and years will be added to your life.
 If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you;
    if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.

Proverbs 9:10-12 (NIV)

More Evidence of Things Not Seen…

I have a story of a miracle that happened this past week.

This has been a difficult year for my husband and I. We had COVID back in February, and between hospital bills and David being unable to return to work for several weeks (and then being able to return only part-time), our finances have been rather tight. God has been faithful throughout, so it was a lack of faith that had me in a panic at the end of the week. Several of our monthly bills come due on the 10th each month, and we had only enough money in the bank to make a partial payment on one of them. David got paid on Friday (the 10th!), but that was still only enough to pay two bills. The one bill I was unable to pay was our health insurance premium– not a comfortable choice with our continuing health issues! We would be behind again, as I had paid last month’s bill a couple of days late. I had no idea when we would have enough money to make this month’s payment.

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So Friday, we got a statement from our health insurance/health share network. I was afraid to open it. It wasn’t our regular monthly statement, and it was on pink paper, which generally means a warning about a past due account, or worse, a cancellation notice. I was sick with worry– so much so that I put the statement aside, afraid to open it and read the worst.

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By Saturday night, I was frantic. I couldn’t sleep, wondering and worrying. I “knew” that God was aware of our situation, and that He was in control. I also knew that another big bill would come due on the 15th– with no money in sight. I cried, and pleaded with God to help me trust Him, and to meet our needs.

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At that point, I heard a clear prompting from the Holy Spirit to find the statement and open it. How could I say I trusted God when I was too scared to even look at the situation? I found the statement and took it into the kitchen to open it and look, without waking my husband. My hands shook as I unfolded the pink paper.

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And as I read, I cried– this time tears of joy and repentance as I read the short note and saw the attached check. Our insurance comes through a health share network. The members of the network pay a base fee each month and can send extra money to help other members in need. Their generosity meant that a check– more than enough to pay our own monthly premium and the other looming bill on the 15th– had arrived just when we most needed it. My fears were turned to praise in an instant as I SAW what God had done, instead of seeing what I dreaded.

God didn’t send us thousands of dollars to meet all our desires. But He sent, through the faithfulness of strangers, enough to meet our needs, and, more importantly, enough to remind us of His power to provide and His grace to meet our spiritual needs.

I know God answers prayer. I know it because the Bible says so. I know it because I have seen it in the lives of others. And I know it from personal experience. I know that, even if that pink notice had NOT been an unexpected miracle, that God was still present, waiting for me to trust His wisdom and timing.

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“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen”..(Hebrews 11:1). This weekend, what I imagined I saw through the eyes of doubt was really evidence of God’s great faithfulness. I just needed to open the eyes of faith– and open the evidence that was right before me all along!

The LORD God Almighty Is His Name

He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.

Amos 4:13 NIV (via biblestudytools.com)
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To whom do you pray? I know many people who address their prayers to “Our Father.” Others pray to the Name of Jesus, or to “Abba,” or even through a saint. I’ve heard some even use terms like “Daddy God,” or “The Man Upstairs.” But the One who hears our prayers, the Triune God of the Universe, is altogether Holy, Righteous, Sovereign, and Supreme. We forget that or diminish that to our peril.

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That doesn’t mean that we cannot draw near to our Creator– in fact, He wants us to call on Him and commune with Him. But He is more than just another someone we can talk to. He sees us– and He sees through us! We may be able to “fool” our friends and even our family with a false smile or half-attentive listening, but God is not fooled by our appearance or our shallow actions.

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The people of Israel, during the time of Amos’s writing, had formed a bad habit of “fake” worship. They prided themselves on their rituals– morning sacrifices, tithes, offerings, etc. They were religious– on the surface. But their lives were filled with greed, selfishness, corruption, pride, and apathy. They not only knew there was injustice all around them, they were willing participants!

They had pushed a loving and merciful God to His limits. He had sent plagues, famines, war, and other disasters to humble His people and shake them out of their sinful stupor. Hard times can bring people together; disasters can cause them to turn their eyes to Heaven; to ask for help, and to offer help to their neighbors. But these stubborn people used hard times to take advantage of those who were already in trouble– the rich watched in comfort and disdain as their countrymen starved. They cheated and hoarded while others were dying.

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Sadly, the Israelites of Amos’s time are not so very different from people in our own time and countries. God’s warnings and pleadings don’t sound out of place in 21st century America. Or Europe. Or anywhere else. We have a form of worship– people who brag about their Mega-churches with worship orchestras, bistros, indoor playgrounds for the kids, light shows, and more; people who attend every “Christian” concert that comes to town, or attend retreats and seminars. And there’s nothing overtly “wrong” about such worship. But it has to translate into WORTH-SHIP–recognizing that God is not just another superstar; that His House is not just a place to be entertained or meet other “nice” people. That His Word is not just a bunch of stories about “other” people who messed up, with a list of suggestions on how to live a “better life now.”

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He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.” May we never forget or take for granted WHO God really is. And may we always recognize His Worth and Majesty. May we be quick to listen and obey Him, and quick to repent when we go astray. That’s what He was asking through Amos and the other prophets– that’s what He asks of us today.

How Will You Be Remembered?

Today would have been my paternal grandmother’s 118th birthday. I have many memories of my grandmother, and I wish more of them were pleasant.

I remember dreading time spent at Grandma’s house. She wasn’t a horrible woman, but she was not peaceful or kind or warm. Her house was small and dark, with cobwebs and dust bunnies in the corners and under furniture. There were very few toys, and most of them broken. Grandma always wanted my sister and I to be still and silent, and I always had the feeling that she dreaded our visits as much as we did. I had a cousin who loved it when we came over, because she was just a bit older and an only child. If the weather was nice, Grandma would send us all outside, and my cousin would dare us to climb trees, or jump over a pit or some other physical (usually dirty and dangerous, too) activity. When we came in, Grandma would frown and comment on how dirty and sweaty and noisy and un-ladylike we all were.

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Growing up, I didn’t think of Grandma as someone who had ever been young, and noisy, or happy and excitable, or awkward and easily hurt. She seemed to have been perpetually old and cranky and bitter. In hindsight, I can see how circumstances– being the middle child of seven living on a farm; starting her married life living in with a bossy sister-in-law and verbally abusive father-in-law; losing her husband when he was only 50–had been allowed to shape her character in negative ways.

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There are some pleasant memories, and I cherish them. Grandma was a good cook. She made wonderful chicken dinners, and a strange candy out of mashed potatoes and peanut butter. She always had cold tea on a hot day. I knew that she loved my dad, and that she could be proud of us, in her own way. I was sorry when she died. Sorry that I hadn’t made more of an effort to know her better. Sorry that she had chosen bitterness, and that I had chosen to stay distant from her.

I write all this, difficult as it is, to say that Grandma–both her good and bad qualities–lives on in my memory as someone I would not choose to be. I don’t want to grow old like her. I don’t want my family members to dread spending time with me while I live, and dig deep to remember something good about me when I’m gone, or justify my bitterness and negativity.

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My grandmother claimed to be a woman of faith. And it is not my place to be her judge. But I saw very little evidence of faith in her daily life. I cannot remember ever hearing her pray. She did not attend church. She had a Bible, but I never saw her reading it. Her better qualities, and her walk with Christ were overshadowed by rancor, bitterness, anger, hurt, and pettiness. I do not want that to be my legacy. I want people to know, not just from my words, but in my actions and choices, that God’s love lives in me, brighter and stronger than memories of Grandma.

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Shortly before her death, I ended up spending an afternoon with Grandma– just the two of us. She had moved into a small apartment in town, and somehow, it transpired that I had to be in town on Saturday morning for a school event, and no one could pick me up until that evening. We were forced to keep company. It began awkwardly, but as we talked, Grandma opened up about her childhood, her love of music, and more; she asked about my time at school and my love of history. It is the single most pleasant memory I have of her, and I wish there had been more afternoons like it; more afternoons to bond; more afternoons to cherish, rather than dread.

After her death, I learned a couple of things about my grandmother– things I wish I had known earlier. I found an old copy of her high school yearbook, which contained a story she had written. Grandma’s story was full of wonderful details and imaginative characters. She was a writer– and I never knew! I also found out that Grandma not only loved music, she was a singer– an alto, just like me. At some point in her life, she stopped writing, and she stopped singing. I hope that, even if I never saw it or heard it, that she never stopped praying. And I hope that when I’m gone, those who remember me will never have to wonder if I sang, or wrote, or prayed.

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