Sticks and Stones…

Children can be very inventive when finding ways to hurt other children. Name-calling, shunning, shaming, or just pushing, shoving, and tripping each other on the playground. As parents, teachers, and concerned adults, we should be working to instill compassion and discipline in our children– compassion to see how such actions and words hurt, and discipline to keep them from speaking and acting out of emotion and carelessness. We also spend time wiping away the tears and comforting those children who have been bullied and hurt by their peers. And we teach them sayings like, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words (or names) can never hurt me.” Such sayings mean well, but they are not entirely true. Words and names can hurt. They DO hurt. And they don’t just hurt the person who is the target of such words. They hurt the speaker and everyone who lets the words fall unanswered, or who picks up the words to hurt someone else.

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Christians should stand out as beacons of light and love. Yet many of us are guilty of throwing “sticks and stones” every bit as hurtful and thoughtless as those hurled by playground bullies.

A few years ago, I read with some shock a hate-filled article from a Christian woman who was urging all her Christian friends to boycott “Operation Christmas Child”, a group sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, a charitable organization founded by Franklin Graham, son of the famous Evangelist, Billy Graham. Every year, Operation Christmas Child sends out millions of shoeboxes filled with Christmas gifts, meant for some of the poorest children around the world– orphans, refugees, and those in extreme poverty. But according to this woman, Operation Christmas Child was a hate-filled organization, spreading racism and condescension by sending “white” “western” baubles meant to taunt the recipients–useless articles like dolls and toy cars and color books with crayons. She also called out Mr. Graham as a racist, homophobic, hate-monger who should be — well she did stop short of asking for his assassination, but not by much. (I’m not here to champion Mr. Graham. But she gave no examples of racism and homophobia, nor did she give Mr. Graham any chance to defend his organization.)

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Her proposal was that anyone wishing to help someone in a “third-world” country should instead send their donations to a group that provides livestock– goats and chickens–to struggling farmers and families in developing countries, giving them the means to be self-sufficient, independent, and providing practical help instead of “frivolous toys”.

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I spent hours crafting a response to this woman’s article– one I later deleted without sending. I believe her proposal came from a heart that sincerely wanted to help others. And I think her hatred and disgust for Operation Christmas Child was based on criticisms she felt were warranted. But her article left me in tears for three reasons:

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  • It was hateful and filled with the kind of name-calling and condemnation that Christians should not just avoid, but mend and correct with love and grace. That doesn’t mean that we cannot say anything negative about other Christians or criticize their actions if they seem inconsistent with the Gospel. But there are Biblical guidelines for doing so.
  • Second, the article was divisive. She did not allow that anything about Operation Christmas Child could be done with a loving motive or a positive outcome. Because she found issue with the founder and with the design of the boxes and certain contents, she felt justified in condemning everything and everyone connected with it. And because she had found a solution that made her feel virtuous, she wanted every Christian to follow suit.
  • Finally, I believed her article was driven primarily by the passing emotions of rage and disgust self-righteousness, instead of a desire to do whatever she could to honor God and help those He loves. In fact, the majority of those living in poverty around the world (and thus subject to the goals of the charities she contrasted) live in urban areas–often they are homeless or live in crowded refugee camps or sprawling housing complexes. Sending livestock can certainly help farms or families who have land and food available to tend them. It is a helpful and loving gift to send a goat to a family or small village–it is however, impractical to send a pair of chickens to someone living in a high rise in Nairobi, and her advocacy shows a “western”, “white” naivete that rivals the one she sees in dolls and color books and caricatures printed on the boxes used to send them.

My response was no better–it pointed out her faults (as I saw them), and was designed to make her feel foolish and little and “wrong”. And just because I deleted it then, I obviously have not forgotten the incident. But I bring it up now because I see in it an ongoing problem—one to which I am not immune, even as (or maybe especially as) a Christian. It is very easy, especially with social media, to speak “in the moment”– and often in the emotion of the moment. We react, rebuke, chime in with our “two cents,” and let our tongues (and fingertips) destroy when they should be building up.

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” Proverbs 25:11

Taken from pinterest.com, based on Proverbs 25:11

So, for this new year, am I hurling sticks and stones, as I sneer at those with whom I disagree? Am I like the playground bully, finding delight in calling others names, or laughing at their expense? Am I tearing down other Christians because I hear others being critical? Or am I using my tongue (and my keyboard) to bless others? Do I speak the truth (harsh as it sometimes is) with love and grace, or with pride and condescension? Do I listen more than I speak? Would I want Jesus to read my Facebook posts or hear my conversations? (Because He DOES!) Does He speak through me?

May His words take up residence in our hearts and spill out of our mouths and fingertips today!

Everyone’s a Critic!

Social Media can be a wonderful thing– it connects us, and helps us share good news, prayer requests, events, photos, and more. It can help us make new friends, get re-acquainted with old friends, learn new skills, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, social media can also bring out the absolute worst in us. Social media is immediate– we see or hear something, react to it emotionally, and respond without taking time to think. But social media is not really social. It is social only in the “virtual” sense. And that creates problems. There is nothing like being anonymous behind a computer screen to turn us into the biggest bullies, critics, and self-indulgent know-it-alls. Worse, we find it easy to spread vicious gossip, misinformation, and negativity by pressing a single “share” button…we didn’t even say it!

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But we DID send it out. And others saw it, heard it, felt it– for better or worse. Even the “good” responses– followers, “likes”, smiling emojis, and such–can feel impersonal or even forced. But what about the comments that reveal contempt, anger, sarcasm, or hatred? Critical, biting, self-righteous, self-gratifying, smug comments and posts.

“Oh, but I would never do that…” Really? I have been guilty of passing along posts (or even creating posts) that drip with sarcasm, or gleefully correct people or groups I feel have said something “wrong”. I’ve even passed along Bible verses with smug captions.

“Well, everyone is a critic.”
“I’m only saying what is true.”
“Doesn’t the Bible tell us to warn others and speak out against sin?”

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There are many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit–teaching, preaching, healing, even prophecy– but nowhere in the Bible does it say we are “gifted” to be critics, nags, or to speak out in contempt, anger, and malice. In fact, the Bible contains several warning against such behavior:

Judging Others
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A1-5&version=NIV

Galatians 5:15Verse Concepts
But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Philippians 2:14-16
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
James 4:11-12
Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Criticism,-Amongst-Believers

For more, visit: https://deeptruths.com/bible-topics/criticism.html

This does not mean that we are to stay quiet about evil, or excuse sin. But we are to do so in love, not with contempt for others, or pride in our own understanding.

Moreover, God, who has the right to be critical and pass His perfect, Holy judgment on us, is the very one who offers us Grace and Mercy, encouragement, and hope!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NIV)
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8&version=NIV

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God is NOT our critic– He is our Savior, our advocate, our Father.

Lord, may I honor You by my words and deeds today–including my activity on Social Media! May I demonstrate Your love, encouragement, mercy, and goodness today.
Amen

Hannah and Her Rival

Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name.
Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.

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As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.

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Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.

In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.

Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite.
Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.

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But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.

I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.

  • Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
  • While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
  • Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
  • Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
  • What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
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May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.

Prayer Bullies

When I first felt the urge to blog about prayer and prayer life, I held off a bit.  I think prayer is many things– important, impactful, practical, personal, holy, and humbling.  I finally decided to start writing, not because I am an expert on prayer, or  that I have mastered the practice, but because I feel passionate about growing in my prayer, to pray with more knowledge, focus, and impact.  I’m sharing in the hope that you will be encouraged, challenged, and equipped to do the same.  I want to explore the many aspects of prayer, and learn all that it can be. But one thing prayer should never be is a bludgeon.

I find it embarrassing to be in the company of certain fellow Christians when I hear them try to stop a discussion or argument with the phrase, “I’ll pray for you.”  Occasionally, they say it in love and mean it as a sincere gesture, but most of the time it is as condescending and insincere as a Southern, “well, bless your little pea-pickin’ heart.”  “I’ll pray for you”, in this context, suggests that you (and only you) have a problem.  I don’t need to listen to, reconsider, or even try to understand your argument, because I have already determined that you have no valid point and I have no obligation to hear you out. But more than that, it suggests two horrible things about prayer that are untrue and misleading.  First, it suggests that my only interest in you is to “fix” you.  In other words, I can’t convince you to see things my way, so I will reluctantly spend some of my precious time praying that you see things my way.  I won’t listen to you, try to understand you, or give you any of my respect, but I will do my best to bring your bad behavior and/or faulty beliefs to God’s attention (in contrast to my.own).  Prayer should never be a threat, or a weapon to be used against another person.  Secondly, it suggests that prayer is leverage; that I have God on some kind of leash.  I pray when things aren’t going my way, and God “fixes” them–including people who don’t share my theology or doctrine or worship preference.

One of the dangers of writing and talking about prayer in a public forum is the risk of seeming to or actually to impose personal preferences, practices, and beliefs on others.  I hope to suggest many prayer thoughts and practices that I find true, helpful, challenging, or even dangerous, but I don’t want to insist that there is only one way to think about prayer or to practice it.  Prayer is our way of communicating with our creator.  He didn’t make us all the same; we don’t all like the same things, we don’t all interact the same way; we don’t have the same talents, passions, or responses to the world around us.  The one constant in prayer is God.  What I believe about God will determine how I pray, why I pray, maybe even when or how often I pray.  But it won’t determine God’s character or his actions toward another person.  I cannot make God make you do anything.  I cannot use God as some kind of enforcer or hypnotist or brain-washer– nor should I wish to.

I do pray for people who dislike or despise me, who dishonor or deny God.  I pray for their health, their safety, and their redemption.  I pray for family and close friends and complete strangers.  But I should do so knowing that God cherishes each person–gave his life for each one.  God is not a bully, even though he has been characterized as such by some.  God wants us to pray for everyone–not with pride or bitterness or an agenda, but with his compassion, grace, and love.

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