Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

Sometimes it’s hard to summarize a big concept, especially when you’re talking to young children. Explaining complex and heavy topics, such as racism or wars, takes a bit of thinking. How much historical background should I provide? Should I go deep or just stay on the surface? Recently, in one short car ride home, my 1stgrade son and I went from his question: “Why did someone shoot Dr. King?” to the negative effects of European colonization of his birth country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I may have gotten a little lost in the weeds.


I’ve been reading through the Minor Prophets—the books of the Old Testament of the Bible which cover more than three decades when God’s people are in one of three periods: about to face the extreme punishment of exile from their homes, in exile, or after they returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem. It’s been a fascinating study, but one where it’s easy to get tangled up in the frustrating details and dense poetry.


This week, I’m reading the Book of Micah. He’s a prophet during the reign of three different kings, so he spent a lot of time mostly being ignored. It was before the people in his region were carried away, human plunder for their enemies, and they didn’t want to listen to Micah’s warnings. Still, Prophet Micah was dedicated enough to walk around naked and shoeless for a time to let the people know just how bad things were.


A lot of the writings of the Minor Prophets can be pretty depressing. There are 14 “Woe to…” exclamations in those 12 short books. (Example – “Woeto you who lie awake at night, plotting wickedness…”) Micah goes city by city, describing their upcoming destruction. He chastises the leaders, scolding them for not doing what’s right. He prophesies about a future day when the people will come back to their Promised Land to live in peace and prosperity. Sinfulness followed by punishment followed by mercy.


Then, in chapter 6, Micah says what his original audience must’ve been thinking: “Yikes! So what can we do to fix our relationship with God?” He tells them that God doesn’t want thousands of rams or rivers of olive oil or their children sacrificed on some altar. Instead Micah summarizes what God wants from them:


“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humblywith your God.” (NIV)


I’ve heard this verse hundreds of times, but I’m appreciating it more now than ever. You can use Micah 6:8 as the standard 3-part test for nearly any situation. I can ask myself: Am I being fair? Am I showing mercy? Am I humbly following the example of Jesus?If the answer is noto any of those questions, then I’d better get a new plan.


If I let this verse penetrate into my thinking, then justice, mercy and humility can become my default yardstick for how to conduct myself. And then it can change my relationships with others.

Yeah. I’ve done a little modeling…

When Ezra, our African-born son, was struggling with his new language last year, we signed him up for speech lessons. At first it was difficult to determine if his issues were basic language acquisition (getting his words) or physically articulating them (saying his words) or both or something else entirely. We needed help!


His speech lessons were a worthwhile way to spend all those mornings last spring. Not only did he get hours of focused attention for his speech issues, but I also got a sounding board for many of my questions. For instance, I solicited their professional opinions as to how often I should correct Ezra’s verbal mistakes.


By the time we started the lessons Ezra had been in America for about a year, so it wasn’t that he was having a hard time speaking English. He was naturally replacing Lingala words (his native language) with English words. The last holdouts were words like lipa (bread), bongo (others), minga (thinking? We were never 100% sure about that one but he said it often).


His most consistent errors were things like leaving out words or ungrammatical subject/verb agreement or incorrectly using pronouns. In other words, he sounded like a caveman. So I asked the director of the speech clinic if I should correct him when he used “me” instead of “I” as the subject (Me sad. Me sleepy. Me lovee bacon.) because he did it constantly and I didn’t have the heart (or the stamina) to tell him he was wrong all day long. She said that I should model the appropriate pronoun and he would catch on eventually.


That day when we got home from speech, as if on cue, Ezra said, “Mom, me hungry.” Remembering what the director told me, I said, “Ezra, I am hungry.” He paused for half a second and said, “Well, eat something.”


Modeling the behavior we would like to see in our kids is often easier said than done. It takes consistency and thoughtful introspection and time. I feel confident that Ezra will eventually use the correct pronoun when he’s referring to himself, though it hasn’t happened yet.


But it isn’t just parents who are role models and it isn’t just kids who need them. Moms of Newborns need the advice of Empty Nesters. Pre-teens need Responsible High School Seniors to look up to. Newly Hired Employees need Seasoned Veterans to guide them through the first months of a new job.


To put it plainly, most everyone can be a role model to someone else. Look around and see if anyone is looking up to you. You might be surprised (or even a little scared) to know that others are watching and taking mental notes. Be the leader they deserve.

No Fair!

This morning my 6-year old Ezra woke up on the grumpy side of the bottom bunk. In his defense, it was a dark, rainy Monday, and none of us were really thrilled about the 6:30 am wake-up call. But as the morning progressed, there was a definite theme to his dialogue.


When I grabbed a pair of socks to give to his older brother Knox (Knox has a broken ankle, otherwise he’d be getting his own socks), Ezra said, “No fair! Knox has undies and socks in the same drawer! Why can’t my socks and undies be together?”


I mostly ignored this question due to its absurdity and hustled Ezra to the kitchen. I saw my husband eating what I assumed was a bowl of cereal, and I said, “I thought I used up all the milk last night,” and my husband answered, “This is yogurt.” Then Ezra said, “No fair! Me want milk!” To which I replied, “But you don’t like milk.” Ezra stomped back to his room in a huff.


After he eventually returned to the kitchen, Ezra overheard me talking to Knox (you know, the favorite child whose undies and socks get to hang out together in the same drawer) asking him if he wanted to bring leftovers in his lunch and warm them up in the cafeteria microwave. “No fair!” Ezra cried, “Why Knox get to use the microwave? Why me no have microwave at my school?!”


And so forth and so on went the morning.


It’s comical to think of his lamenting over such trivial stuff because he’s six and most likely forgot the whole exchange by the time he stepped into his classroom. I wish I could say that 6-year olds were the only ones who flew the “Unfair” banner so carelessly.


As adults, we may not whine over the same topics as children do, but the whining does happen. Claiming “No Fair” often occurs after we unnecessarily compare ourselves to others. “Why does she have that ___________ (insert house, car, weight, clothes, marriage, etc.) and I don’t?! It’s not fair!” Talk about feeling as gloomy as a rainy Monday morning–that line of questioning will ruin anyone’s day.


Other than the negativity these comparisons create, the other travesty is that there really is rampant unfairness in the world. And the people who cry “No Fair” aren’t usually the ones with the most valid reason to say it.


So instead of concentrating on the inconsequential issues that threaten to spoil what could turn out to be the most blessed day you’ll spend on this planet, take advice from the Book of Isaiah and look for ways to help those whose lives truly are unfair.


“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.” (NLT) Isaiah 1:17

Good guy or bad guy?

Watching movies with Ezra, our five-year old son, is not exactly relaxing, that is, unless you like to give a running commentary explaining dialogue, plot twists, character analysis, and generally how the movie will end for 90 minutes nonstop.

His most frequent question is: “Mom, good guy or bad guy?” Pointing to the questionable character on the TV screen—the one who just lost his temper or just laughed in a creepy way or just stole something, Ezra will interrogate me for information so that he can guess what might happen next. He is trying to formulate which characters he should root for and which characters he should hope will fail.

His “good guy or bad guy” questions aren’t just limited to when we’re watching movies. When he saw the characters from the movie Frozen on our paper towels (don’t judge…they were on sale), he pointed to Elsa, the ice queen who selfishly turns her kingdom to ice and consequently endangers her little sister just because she feels like “letting go.”

“Good guy or bad guy?” he asked as I slid a piece of toast on top of Elsa’s picture. He’s seen the movie several times so he knows that Elsa’s actions are bad, but in the end (spoiler alert) she makes things right with her sister. Good or bad? That’s a tricky philosophical dilemma to wrestle with at 6:30 a.m.

Before bed, I read Ezra a book about the story of Zacchaeus, the man who was too short to see Jesus as he was teaching to a crowd of people. As the song says, “He climbed up in a Sycamore tree. The Savior he wanted to see.” I read the story which touched on Zacchaeus’ reputation as a dishonest tax collector. Then Ezra pointed to the picture of Zacchaeus and asked: “Good guy or bad guy?”

I explained, “Zacchaeus was a bad guy then he decided to be a good guy. Sometimes people change, especially after they meet Jesus.”

I thought a lot about our conversation. I thought about Ezra’s need to categorize people into good and bad and I thought about the monumental task of changing your status and reputation from one side to the other.

When word got out that Jesus had eaten at Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus was confronted by the people of the town. They couldn’t believe that he had dined with a “notorious sinner.” Zacchaeus could’ve decided that he had too much bad press to hurtle in order to change his life around but instead he promised to give back all that he owed and then some. This had to be difficult and fraught with a variety of consequences.

I went back to read the story again and I was surprised to see that it took place in Jericho, best known for its wall that came tumbling down after the Israelites marched around it for a week. It may be a coincidence that this interaction between Jesus (Prince of Peace and Light of the World) and Zacchaeus (town creep) happened in a place known for tearing down walls that prevent people from realizing their Promised Land. Or maybe that’s what Jesus is all about. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

I am everything of all I have ever met

While working on an assignment for school, my daughter found an interesting line of poetry. In her poem “Finding Voice,” Joellen Strandburg’s last thought is “I am everything of all I have met.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea and whether it’s true. I think about my first experiences and influences—good and bad—and how they shaped me. If I we had lived in a different town and I had gone to a different school, who would I be? Would I have turned out remarkably different? If I had never traveled to other countries or if I hadn’t gone to college, would I even recognize the me I am right now? If I had pursued sports in school instead of chorus and drama—other than being a really frustrated, uncoordinated person—would I now be more likely to watch ESPN instead of PBS?

But then I think about that age-old argument of Nature vs. Nurture. How much of our personality, strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and limitations are written in our DNA from the moment we are created and how much is created in us over a lifetime of experiences?

My best guess is that it is both. It is Nature and Nurture. Our actions and behaviors are a result of a mixture of inside and outside influences that make us who we are and who we could be.

Of course, we are not just receivers of the influence of others. We can also be the ones who impart it.

I was reminded of this fact in a bold way this week at the funeral of a kind and generous man who held a significant place in our family. There was a theme to the messages of condolence for his wife, sister, mother, and children. They told his family what a difference this man had made in their lives.

They told stories of how he had selflessly served others, how he had shown up at just the right moment to help. They spoke of his concern for all and neglect of none. His example and encouragement spurred them on to be kinder, more caring people.

If I must say that “I am everything of all I have ever met” then let this be my legacy. Let me be not a blank paper to be written on by whomever I encounter, a sponge soaking up their bitterness and disappointment. Instead, let me be discerning in what influences I allow and, beyond that, let me be an influence for good. Let part of the “everything” that I am be a series of writing on the papers that are the lives of others so that someday they can say, “knowing her made me a better person.”

Leather Sandals

When I was little, my mother would buy each of my sisters and me a pair of brown, leather sandals every year. She would caution us to take care of them so that they would last the summer. They had thick, yellow, rubber soles and brass buckles on the side. For some reason, we hated them. I don’t remember reaching this opinion on my own, so I’m guessing I was convinced of their utter ugliness by my older sister.


Not satisfied with only corrupting our opinions of the leather sandals, she also convinced us to methodically destroy them. Behind our house, along the property line where our backyard met our neighbor’s backyard, there was a ditch. When we received very much rain, this ditch would become a shallow creek of grass and muddy water. When it was high enough to cover our feet, my sister would instruct us to put on our sandals and wade out into the water.


Her diabolical plan was to get the sandals wet enough that they would fall apart and it would all look like a harmless accident. (Everyone needs an older sister like this.)


So we would do it and over time, our sandals would fall apart. I can’t remember what shoes we wore after that or how my mom reacted to the news, most likely completely frustrated since she was trying to make ends meet on a preacher’s salary with three young kids. What I do remember is the feeling of standing in the ditch with those wretched sandals on. I felt a mixture of guilt and delight as I wriggled my toes and felt the cushion of the insole fill up with water.


Why does disobedience often feel good at the time? I knew I was disobeying my mother when I blatantly disregarded her instructions and didn’t take care of my sandals but I did it anyway. The knowledge of my disobedience didn’t stop me, and in some it ways it was actually thrilling.


Now that I’m the mom correcting the disobedience of my own children, I have a new seat to watch this disregard of carefully spelled out instructions. I must sometimes witness their disobedience and deliver consequences for their actions. As the parent, I have more information and experience to back up the instructions I give my children—information and experience they don’t always feel justifies my right to correct them, but in the immortal words of my sister, “Tough noogies.”


We can identify with King Solomon when he wrote in the Book of Proverbs: At the end of your life, you will be sad that you ruined your health and lost everything you had. Then you will say, ‘Why didn’t I listen to my parents? Why didn’t I pay attention to my teachers? I didn’t want to be disciplined. I refused to be corrected. So now I have suffered through just about every kind of trouble anyone can have, and everyone knows it.’” Perspective.


Obedience doesn’t always come naturally, even for wise kings, but the consequences aren’t far behind. I discipline my children because I love them and I have to cultivate a trust in my Lord who also disciplines out of love and wants to me to be obedient, even when I can’t see it from His perspective.


Isn’t it great when the answer is obvious? Too often, we struggle with finding the right path when we come to a fork in the road. Should I take the new job or keep the old one? Rent or buy? Regular unleaded or premium? Paper or plastic? The decisions seem endless.


A few months ago, as my husband was driving us home from visiting relatives, I checked email on my phone. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was looking at sales for a clothing store. Soon, I was mindlessly clicking shirts and skirts and watching as they flew into my shopping cart. We were home, pulling into the garage, before I could finish my purchase. Steeling myself for the misery of unpacking, I put my phone back in my purse. My husband brought our bags into our room as I sorted out the mess three kids can make in the backseat of a minivan. In a few minutes, he was back in the garage. “You need to see something in our room,” he said. I followed him to our closet where I saw most of my clothes—still on hangers—lying in heaps on the floor. The shelves and rods had finally succumbed to the weight of my wardrobe. This was a sign: I didn’t need any more clothes. I quickly removed every item from my online shopping cart.


I wish every decision could be so obvious. If only I had a crystal ball I could gaze into and see how everything will turn out. Just imagine how many bad haircuts and ugly wall colors and disgusting recipes I could avoid. It would be such a relief but also—I have to admit—kind of boring.


We’re in good company if we’re looking for signs and omens before taking risks. Gideon (Judges 6) came up with the wet fleece/dry ground and dry fleece/wet ground sign before he went to fight the Midianites. Moses (Exodus 4) got two signs to prove to Pharaoh he meant business—the old rod-to-snake sign and the cured leprous hand sign—not to mention ten plagues. The shepherds got a sign in the form of a baby to announce the coming Savior and Noah got a sign in the form of a rainbow to prove God’s promise of safety. These signs must have been at least a temporary source of relief and an obvious clue for their future.


But, most of the time, our future isn’t obvious and the answers seem unclear. When our family said yes to a call to adopt, we didn’t know what the future would bring. Now, three and a half years later, we still don’t know if we’ll be able to bring our son home from Africa. It’s painful and frustrating and I often question the events preventing us from making him a part of our family. But if I can sit and truly search for the answer, it is obvious. I know in this moment, this very second, we were called to be in this place—this very cruel and frustrating place—because we knew we were asked to say yes.


So I challenge you to look for the obvious and assume it will be there. The timing might not be right, but expect you will eventually be told what you’re called to do and when you get the call, do it. The signs are there. They may come in a million different ways—in the form of a rainbow or a pile of clothes or a tugging on your heart that just won’t go away.