All That Ever I Did…

I’ve always been intrigued by the story in John’s Gospel about the “woman at the well.” (John 4https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%204&version=KJV). Jesus and his disciples are travelling through Samaria, and they decided to rest near Jacob’s well at the town of Sychar. The disciples travel into town for food, leaving Jesus alone at the well. A lone woman comes along, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.

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This would seem to be an ordinary encounter, but there are many clues that tell us a different story. The woman comments that Jews don’t ordinarily speak to or interact with Samaritans. But even more extraordinary, most Jewish men would not strike up a conversation with a lone Samaritan woman, unless he meant to insult her or proposition her. The very fact that she is coming to the well alone and near noon (the sixth hour) puts her at a distinct disadvantage– most of the women would come early in the day to draw water, where their numbers offered protection and support, and the heat of the day would not add to the burden of carrying the water back home.

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At first, this woman seems both suspicious and dismissive of Jesus. Why is he asking for a drink of water? Does he want more than just water? Does he mean her harm? He seems thirsty, not threatening– but is he safe? Then Jesus throws a curve ball– he claims to HAVE water that brings total satisfaction and life. Water far better than any of the water he has just asked for! The woman’s tone changes from suspicious to sarcastic. And then, Jesus drops the bombshell– “Go, call thy husband, and come hither.”

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Aha! Here it comes… The woman admits that she has no husband. She has no protector, no status. NOW this Jewish man, this stranger, will take advantage. Or he will make improper advances. Or he will despise her even more. But instead, Jesus reveals her darker secret– she has had five husbands, and she is with another man who is not her husband. Maybe he is someone else’s husband. Maybe he refuses to marry her. Maybe he treats her badly– this man who lets her come to the well at midday with no protection and no helper. Maybe the five husbands all died; maybe she has been divorced or abandoned time after time. Jesus knows all this– yet he doesn’t call her names or look at her with disgust. He even commends her for telling the truth!

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I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would want to meet a stranger who know that much about me. I don’t want to be reminded of my failures, my bad choices, or my past sorrows or shame. Yet this was the heart of the woman’s testimony as she went back into town. “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?”

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For years, the profound nature of this encounter was lost on me. What is so exciting about someone who knows your dirty laundry and tells it back to you? There are magicians and illusionists, fortune-tellers, and charlatans galore who attempt to do such “readings.” How is it that this woman’s life could be transformed by such an unlikely and disturbing encounter? Why would she be so eager to share this encounter with all the men (or people) of her town– people who probably despised her?

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Because an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with pure and holy compassion. Jesus KNEW the very worst about this woman. He could have shunned her or avoided her. He could have railed at her about her lifestyle or her past. He could have treated her shamefully. Others almost certainly had. But Jesus didn’t just see all the things she had done, or all the things that had happened in her life. He saw HER. He spoke TO her, not at her or through her, not down to her, but face-to-face, and eye-to-eye. Knowing all about her status, he came to HER for help–knowing that she had something of value to offer–not to “put her in her place,” or use her, or demand that she serve him. Jesus welcomes us into the safety of His compassion, so that no matter what we’ve done or what’s been done to us, He looks us in the eyes and wants to be part of our story– part of “all that ever” we WILL do! And THAT is life-changing!

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How many people will I encounter today who are outcast, beaten down, shunned, and mistreated? What kind of encounter will it be? Will I see “all that ever they did” and dismiss them as unworthy of my attention? Or will I see THEM–uniquely created by God for a purpose; loved beyond all that I can imagine? Can my friends and family, neighbors and strangers feel safe and loved knowing that I know everything about them? Is it “Safe” to meet me at the well? I pray that God’s love will spill out and overflow to others as I go through the day. May He do the same through you.

Simple Prayers

I know some people who refuse to pray aloud in groups. Some of them are just modest or shy, or they get tongue-tied and feel awkward. But some of them refuse because they feel their prayers are “inadequate.” They wish their prayers were eloquent or flowery, righteous-sounding or inspiring, but they don’t believe their prayers are “enough.”

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But God listens with perfect ears. He hears beyond our words. Simple, humble prayers– spoken or silent–are His favorite kind!

We often waste our time trying to impress God (or others) with our words. But God isn’t waiting to be impressed– He’s waiting to spend real time with His child!

When children are first learning to speak, we delight in their coo-ing and lisping. As they grow, we sometimes tune out their babbling, their stories, their griping, and their whining. But as the years go by, we miss hearing their voices, and we long to have them call and talk to us– even for a few minutes.

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God never tunes out our babbling, but when we don’t pray, He misses the sound of our voices and the sharing of our thoughts, just like any parent would.

Never discount the power and the value of simple prayers. God doesn’t!

Prayers That God Will Not Hear

We like to point out scripture that assures us that God will hear (and answer) our prayers. We like to remember God’s promises of blessing and peace and grace. And we tend to ignore or forget that there are some prayers that God has said He will not hear or answer.

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God will not answer prayers that are selfish, or hypocritical. He will not answer prayers offered in pride, self-righteousness, or unbelief (see Luke 18:9-14, and Hebrews 11:6). He will not listen to prayers offered by those who oppress the poor, those who worship idols, or those who practice violence. And He will not listen to the prayers of those who reject Him, and remain in sin. https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA160/does-god-answer-the-prayers-of-unbelievers (Please note: I don’t totally agree with the general conclusion here, but there are several great references for the individual points..)

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Please note that God does not say that He will not answer prayer based on WHO a person is–God does not refuse to answer prayers based on a person’s age, nationality, gender, physical health, mental health, height, weight, social status, or any other label, including their past religious affiliation! This means that a sincere prayer of a person who is seeking God may be heard ahead of (or instead of) a prideful prayer of someone who claims to be a Christ-follower.

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God is sovereign and omniscient– He knows what is in each heart, and He answers, not according to who we are, but according to who HE is. And just as He can separate our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and “remember (our) sins no more”(Hebrews 8:12), He can choose not to hear prayers that are offered with wrong motives or offered in defiance of His sovereignty and holiness.

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None of this takes away from the fact that God DOES hear and answer prayer…God LOVES to hear from anyone and everyone who seeks His face. Nothing external can separate you from His love. Come with your anger, questions, sorrows, pains, gratitude, hope; bring your failures, your fears, and your triumphs. But God, like a wise father, doesn’t suffer fools and fakers. Even if you can fool your neighbors, friends, family, or yourself, you cannot fool God. He doesn’t want a false narrative– He wants you as you really are. And He will listen with an everlasting love and compassion to all such prayers!

Why Do You Love Me?

One of my very favorite bedtime stories when I was growing up was about a little bear cub. ( “Why do you love me?” by Mabel Watts) He and his mother were on a walk, and the little bear kept watching other little bears. Some were getting in trouble–running away to play in the brier patch, or climbing trees to get honey–and meeting up with bees! Little bear knew that sometimes he was like that. Other bear cubs were kind and helpful. He knew that sometimes he was like those bears. At one point, the cub was confused and asked his mother, “WHY do you love ME?” After all, he realized that he was helpless and accident-prone. Without his mother, he would be lost, hungry, and in danger. Yet his mother was always there when he needed her– even when he said he didn’t! His mother’s answer provided solid assurance– “Because you’re MY little bear!” The story book is almost impossible to find now. It is long out of print, and has been crowded out by newer books with similar titles. But for 50 years, I have cherished this story of unconditional love, because it echoes the Biblical story of God’s love for each of us.

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We find many reasons to question God’s love. We find ourselves in trouble, and we are afraid to ask for help or forgiveness. After all, we have done nothing to earn it. We don’t deserve it. Even our good behavior cannot save us from our own limitations. And our bad decisions can hurt others in ways we cannot “fix.” We may have walked away from God or sneered at His care of us. We may be lost and hopeless without God’s intervention on our behalf. Why would He help? Why should He look kindly toward us?

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But God’s answer is the same as that Mother Bear–You are MINE! I Love you with an everlasting love!

Even when we wander and try to do things we shouldn’t or can’t, God is near, and ready to help. He wants us to walk with Him and follow Him; He wants us to turn to Him in our need. Why? Because we belong together; we belong to HIM. And when we see others behaving badly–even when their actions hurt us–God still loves them, too. He created each one of us to walk with Him, trust Him, learn from Him, and experience His loving care.

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In fact, as children of God, we should be showing the same kind of unconditional love to others. That does not mean that we condone wicked or dangerous behaviors. But we should love in such a way that people may even question it– “Why do you love me?” Instead of sharing our anger, or our own self-righteousness, what if we shared compassion and held to the truth without arrogance or disdain? What a great opportunity to share the reassurance and hope we know in Our Father’s great love!

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The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

A Legacy of Faith

Psalm 112 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Righteous Will Never Be Moved

112  Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
    who greatly delights in his commandments!
His offspring will be mighty in the land;
    the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in his house,
    and his righteousness endures forever.
Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
    he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
    who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
    he will be remembered forever.
He is not afraid of bad news;
    his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.
His heart is steady; he will not be afraid,
    until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.
He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever;
    his horn is exalted in honor.
10 The wicked man sees it and is angry;
    he gnashes his teeth and melts away;
    the desire of the wicked will perish!

My grandmother would have celebrated her 108th birthday today. I’m confident that she IS celebrating today– but she no longer has to count birthdays, or worry that this one might be her “last.” She passed into eternity more than 25 years ago. But she and my grandfather left a legacy of faith, hope, integrity, and prayer that lives on. It is a quiet legacy– my grandparents were not “important” people–they worked hard, lived a simple lifestyle, and never made a showy practice of their faith. But they lived it in such a way as to leave others with a glimpse of what steadfast faith looks like.

Grandma was born just a few short weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. She lived through two World Wars (one of which kept her separated from her husband, working in a factory, and raising two young girls). She lived through times of war, times of riots and uncertainty, and times of disease and pain. She knew what it was to struggle and lose. She was born before women could vote. She and my grandfather lived through the “Great Depression,” picking up whatever odd jobs they could, and sometimes not having enough for rent or food. But she also knew incredible joy and satisfaction. She knew what it was to be loved and to give love. She knew the joy of seeing a job to completion, and of using her talents and skills to help others. Most of all, she and grandad shared an incredible faith– one that had been tested many times– in God’s goodness, His provision, and His faithful protection. They lived in circumstances that would cause many to fear. But I never remember Gram being frightened–she wasn’t oblivious to bad news and difficult circumstances–but she faced them with confidence and resolve, the kind that gave hope and courage to everyone around.

My grandparents moved a lot. I mean, A LOT! They probably moved 50 times (at least) during their 62 years of marriage. Sometimes, they moved because Grandad had “itchy feet.” He liked change; he liked to have new projects to tackle; he liked to feel “free.” He loved moving into a “fixer-upper,” or renting a place with a run-down yard. But sometimes, they moved because they had to. They moved a lot– but they were never “moved” from each other, from their family, or their faith. They didn’t lose hope; they didn’t shift opinions based on their circumstances; they didn’t break promises or end friendships.

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Psalm 112 gives a wonderful description of a “righteous” person. Not a self-righteous person, and not a perfect person (as none of us are perfect). But it is a great picture of the kind of legacy my grandparents left behind. They were generous– not just with money, but with gifts, work, time, hospitality, and words of encouragement and hope. They were rock-solid in their integrity– they went above and beyond not to cheat or lie or complain or shirk duties. In all their struggles (and in their good times) they never lost sight of God’s Goodness and Sovereignty.

My prayer today is that I would pass along such a legacy; such a witness. God is faithful, He is good, loving, and kind. He is never far from those who call on His Name, and He is able to deliver us from all our struggles. I am so grateful that, in addition to all the other blessings I take for granted, God gave me amazing grandparents. I hope He brings such people into your life today, and equips you to be such a legacy-builder, as well!

WWJD–Coronavirus edition

What Would Jesus Do? This question, shortened to the acronym WWJD, appeared as a fad on bracelets, t-shirts, billboards, etc., a few years ago. The idea was to ask oneself how Jesus Christ would act or react in various situations.

While I don’t disagree with the premise, I have never been a fan of this trend– mostly because it calls for people to speculate or imagine what Jesus would or might have done in their place. There is nothing wrong with wanting to act like Jesus– that’s what we’re supposed to do–to be disciples of Christ, and be His ambassadors. But our minds and hearts are not perfect; in fact they can be deceitful and arrogant, self-righteous and self-justifying. It is more common for us to justify how Jesus would act like us, than for us to adjust our thoughts and actions to those we know Jesus took during His time on earth. Would Jesus be angry about injustice– of course! Would He want us to have empathy for others– undoubtedly! But what would He actually DO? There are some pretty clear examples in the Bible– both examples of what Jesus DID, and what He DID NOT do:

  • Jesus drank wine; He visited and ate with known sinners; healed on the Sabbath (in direct violation of the church leaders of His day); interacted with the Romans (soldiers and leaders, etc.)who were oppressing the Jews– without protesting their rule or joining rebel groups; healed and performed miracles for some, but not for others; forgave sins for some, but not for others; paid His taxes without complaint; challenged religious leaders and spoke harshly against their practices; refused to get drawn into condemning and stoning a guilty adultress….
  • Jesus prayed. He want to temple regularly; read and studied God’s word; He rested, meditated, and spent time alone; He listened to strangers and treated those He met with compassion and respect; He honored His mother, but did not put her above His work; He loved his friends, even those who did not understand Him and the one who betrayed Him; He did not flatter those in power or disdain those in lowly positions; He cared deeply, wept unashamedly, and laughed heartily…
  • Jesus did not own a home. He didn’t have a “regular” job; He had no savings account or retirement fund; He had no donkey or horse for transportation; He wasn’t a member of a particular congregation or church council, like the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t have a university education; He didn’t run for public office; He never got “employee of the month;” He never married or had kids; We have no evidence that He ever gave to a particular charity, or joined any activist group. Jesus never hosted a barbecue, or led an evangelistic gathering, like His cousin, John the Baptist…
  • Jesus never addressed many of the issues we deal with today– civil rights, gay rights, abortion, health care, income inequality, democracy/socialism, smoking, drug use, pornography, violence in the media, global climate change, speed limits on highways, income tax structure, campaign finance reform, gender dysphoria, unisex bathrooms, vegans vs. meat eaters…

But the point of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to preach the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” and to fulfill His promise to go to the cross, die for our sins, and to rise again on the third day. He spent time teaching and discipling twelve very different individuals, who saw and did things very differently from each other, and differently from Jesus himself. Peter was fiery, John was a quiet observer, James was stern and concerned about actions, Matthew was concerned with history and prophecy. And all of them were loved by and commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel.

In these days of COVID-19, faced with fear and panic, many Christians (myself included) are struggling with the “right” response–we all want to show the love of God, and honor Him above all. In doing so, however, I find myself spending a lot of time justifying my own actions, and condemning the words and actions of others. And I find myself getting hurt and angry when someone I know and love reacts differently, uses different words or tones, or gets caught up in arguments about what “we must do.”

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We MUST seek God’s wisdom in these times. And we MUST listen to and obey His word. But beyond that, I believe that God wants us to be very different “parts of the body” (see 1 Corinthians 12) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+12&version=ESV And I believe that God wants us to work together, honoring the various gifts and personalities that we have been given. Some of us are going to be fiery in our defense of health care workers, and advocating for the best and fastest medical care and treatments available. Some of us are going to be spreading small words and acts of encouragement wherever we see the opportunity. Some of us are going to be standing up against threats of corruption and injustice lurking among the actions of those in power. Some of us are going to speak boldly about our Hope in Christ, evangelizing and calling people to repentance. Some are going to be “standing in the gap” in prayer and counseling. Some are going to be providing money, food, PPE (personal protective equipment), and other services. And we must honor the other members of the body– in whatever role they take on– and seek unity, rather than division.

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Instead of blasting each other on Facebook or angry e-mails, we need to bring our initial reactions– anger, disappointment, hurt, confusion– to God. HE is the one who will judge our actions and motives in the end. Unless we see Christians who are flagrantly violating God’s laws– looting, cheating, spreading malicious lies and causing division, cursing God and/or misrepresenting Him in heretical fashion–we should ask, not just what Jesus would/might do in my situation, but what DID Jesus do in my place.

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Because He died for me when I was still a sinner. He sacrificed His life. Not because I had done anything “right,” or “good enough.” He didn’t keep a list of all the things I got “wrong.” He did not bring condemnation– He brought forgiveness, mercy, and hope! And His mercies are new every morning. If I “get it wrong,” if I do something, or don’t do something–because I am still human and I don’t know everything about COVID-19 or the global economy or what tomorrow will bring–God will still love me. God will forgive me.

My prayer is that I will do the same for others– that I will extend Grace, and true encouragement (rather than flattery or mutual congratulation), and Love, because I know without a shadow of doubt or speculation, that this is What Jesus Would Do.

Paying for the Privilege

I read a most astonishing article the other day. Wealthy white American women are paying up to $2,500 for a meal and a gut-wrenching session about how racist and bigoted they are. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/race-to-dinner-party-racism-women?fbclid=IwAR12AvWdTyht5RV0vfBfZ5XUEnA4441GU8efLSX8xtdfePI2R9KEesCipI8 Over a fancy dinner, they discuss how their privilege has caused them to ignore and deny the needs and rights of others, based largely on prejudices and fear.

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I won’t waste space to analyze all that I think is wrong with this scenario– but I will say the following:

  • $2,500 is a lot of money for most Americans, let alone many others around the world.
  • Talk is (according to the old phrase) cheap.
  • If having difficult talks over a plate of overpriced pasta and wine could solve major problems, I’m shocked that no one else has tried it.

I’m dismayed by this article. I hope that some good comes from these efforts, but I don’t expect such tactics to end racism, bigotry, or ignorance. These women are paying for a privilege on top of all their other privileges– the right to feel righteous and “woke” to lingering problems that have never personally touched them. It would not occur to them to invite 10 women who don’t look like them, don’t live like them, don’t speak like them, and don’t dress like them to come to dinner. They would not share their hospitality, their fine china, or their fancy dessert with a working-class woman with olive skin and an accent, or a single mother fighting to make ends meet and losing the battle– of any skin color. They might give another $2,500 to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen– they would not befriend anyone who needed those services, however.

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Most importantly, they are likely to believe that by “owning” their prejudices, they are absolved of their responsibility to “love their neighbor as themselves.” They can be comfortable in the belief that their feelings “do them credit” and make them better than others who “are in denial” about their “subconscious biases” and “micro-aggressions” toward the people with whom they interact. They may take high-minded actions to force the government to “deal with” people less fortunate than they, but they will take no steps to get involved personally with the families who suffer from injustice and poverty just outside the gates of their exclusive communities.

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But what about me? I may sneer at the hypocrisy and foolishness of others, but what am I doing? Am I any different from the ladies who leave me shaking my head? What do I say and do to combat ignorance, hatred, racism, classism, and injustice?

Lord, my prayer today is that I would pour out compassion– even on these ladies–and on those who need it most. Your heart is that all of us would live in peace and lovingkindness. Help me to see my neighbors as you see them–ALL my neighbors. All the time.

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The real privilege is not of wealth or comfort. The real privilege is to learn to love and be loved as Jesus loves– freely, sacrificially, whole-heartedly and without limit.

Hannah and Her Son

1 Samuel 1:11 New International Version (NIV)
11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Today, we get to the essence of Hannah’s prayer. And it is not a prayer that most of us would pray. Hannah asks for a son to take away her misery and show her God’s favor. But in the same breath, she promises to give her son back to the Lord forever. How many of us would ask for something so rare and precious just to turn around and give it away?

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As I write this, my country, my friends, and even my family are deeply divided over the issue of abortion. Much is being made about a woman’s “right” to decide whether and when she will have a child. “My body, My choice,” is a common cry among the pro-choice crowd, while the other side points fingers and yells, “baby killer” at those women who choose to end their pregnancy. But yelling and chanting don’t change hearts or facts. A woman cannot actually “choose” to become pregnant at will. In Hannah’s case, she was in anguish over her inability to “choose” to become pregnant. In the case of a modern woman, she may be in anguish over not being able to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or avoid unwanted complications resulting from her pregnancy. She may, like Hannah, be in anguish over her inability to conceive or to carry to full term. But in any case, the idea that pregnancy and birth are simply a matter of “choice” is based on a false reality. There is an illusion of “reproductive autonomy” because of modern medicine. We have birth control that makes claims of being “safe and effective”; we have methods to increase fertility, regulate menstruation, reduce the chances of conception, and even stop the fertilization process within a day or two. But no woman can simply “choose” to become pregnant (or stop being pregnant) at will. Women cannot choose the gender of their children; they cannot guarantee the date of birth; they cannot produce a future world leader or athletic prodigy just by force of will. They cannot guarantee their child perfect health, long life, wealth, or happiness. And reproduction among human beings is never “autonomous”!

Hannah’s story seems the antithesis of abortion– here we have a woman begging for a child; she is in anguish over her inability to conceive. And God hears her cry and blesses her with a son.

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But today, I want to look at Hannah in a slightly different light. I think Hannah would have a great deal of compassion for those women who suffer anguish because of their womb– women whose wombs are achingly empty; women whose wombs seem to betray them as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in a miscarriage; women who long for their womb to be home to a little girl, even as they have a house full of much-loved little boys (or vice versa); women whose wombs hold anger and bitterness because they have been the unwilling vessel of abuse, incest, and rape.

Infertility and “unwanted” pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. They are distant cousins–manifestations of a fallen world where none of us control even the circumstances of our own bodies. And it is in this context that Hannah makes an extraordinary vow.

Hannah gives birth to a son– the fulfillment of all her longings. Or is he? Hannah gets to carry him in her womb; she gets to wean him. But then she vows that she will give him up– relinquish all rights to be there when he scrapes his knee or loses his first tooth, when his voice begins to deepen and his hugs require her to stand on tiptoe. What kind of mother is Hannah? She will never have all those stories of the little “mom” moments; no memories of tucking him in after a long day, or watching him climb a tree, or run after his dad. She will never hold his hand on dark stormy nights, or ruffle his hair after it gets a new cut (in fact, she vows he will never GET a haircut).

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There are moms–unsung, living in the shadows– who have made the incredible sacrifice of “giving up” their children. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. Some have given them up for adoption at birth. Some have lost parental rights due to divorce, incarceration, or other life circumstances. Some have had their children stolen or taken from them in tragic circumstances. Hannah was given other children after she gave up Samuel, but she never “got over” the loss of her son. No one ever does.

Which brings me back to the debate about abortion. We do not have “reproductive autonomy.” Our wombs are not just another part of our bodies. They are designed to nurture and prepare for new life. To the extent that they fulfill that design, they bring joy and pain, hope and hurt. In denying that reality and embracing the false promise of “my body, my choice”, we don’t erase the lives lost to abortion– we just bury them. And for the women who are making that choice, we must offer compassion. The pain and anguish they suffer before and after an abortion are every bit as real as that suffered by Hannah in her quest to have a son, only to give him up.

Jesus Wept

It is the shortest verse in the entire Bible– St. John 11:35:  “Jesus wept.”  Only two words.  They are easily memorized; they are also easily overlooked or misrepresented.  Jesus wept over the death of his good friend Lazarus.

Read the story of Lazarus here.

Jesus wept–Emmanuel felt deep emotion and showed it.  God shed tears over the pain and sadness of a death; Messiah cried for the loss of his good friend.  Jesus was no stranger to sadness and loss– God understands the sharp sting of death.  God is compassionate, not heartless or cruel.  If we are in emotional turmoil, it is not because God doesn’t know our pain or doesn’t care.  He hurts WITH us in our times of deepest need.

girl in pink jacket on wooden bridge in the forest
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Jesus wept–People often ask the rhetorical question, “What would Jesus do?” when faced with a situation.  Here is an example of what Jesus did– he wept.  Sometimes, the “thing to do” is to acknowledge the reality of our situation–death hurts.  It brings out feelings of anger and even fear.  Death is scary.  It’s ugly, and it fills us with a sense of injustice, and a desire to wake up and find that death is just a very bad dream.  Aching loss, wracking sobs, feeling punched in the gut by circumstances– these are valid feelings and reactions.  To pretend otherwise or to deny ourselves or others the right to express those feelings does great harm, just as wallowing in sadness and remaining isolated in our grief can drag us into hopeless depression.

Jesus wept– period.  He didn’t punch a wall or point fingers at Mary and Martha for “letting” their brother die.  He didn’t try to justify his extra-long stay that kept him from arriving before his friend died.  Neither did he justify returning to a region where he was not “safe” from the authorities in order to comfort the sisters (and ultimately raise Lazarus back to life).  People often criticize Christians for “not doing enough” to erase hunger, cure diseases, or end poverty in the world.  Some even point out that Jesus, being God incarnate, had the power to do all of this during his earthly ministry.  But he didn’t.  As he was dying, he said, “It is finished.”  He wasn’t referring to some social revolution or economic program, or political movement that would abolish the oppression of the Roman Empire, or the corruption of the Pharisees, or end the slave trade.  That doesn’t mean that God approves of evil, corruption, and injustice.

But it means that Jesus’s mission was accomplished through what he did in life and through his sacrificial death.  He loved freely, healed those who were willing, and taught about the true character of his Heavenly Father.  He ate, and laughed, and slept; he burped and sweat, and cried.  He prayed and worshiped and worked and gave.  Jesus didn’t weep because he had no power to keep Lazarus from dying.  He proved that just minutes later.

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Jesus wept because he was showing us the very heart of God.  God’s heart is not to flex his sovereign muscles and demand our instant and abject obedience– though he has the perfect authority and right to do so.  His heart is to walk intimately with us, even when that walk goes through the very valley of the shadow of death!  God’s love isn’t flinty and cold.  It isn’t pushy and arrogant and selfish.  It is extravagant and gracious beyond all imagination.  It is raw agony and pure joy.

man hugging a woman wearing black tank top
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What in your life causes you to weep?  What burdens and aches and frustrations and questions drive you to tears?  Jesus may not take away what hurts us, but he will never turn us away because we are scarred or scared or broken.  He will share our burdens, wipe our eyes, and hold us as we pour out our tears.

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