Looking for my enemy

I was in Atlanta last weekend with my older son to watch him play a couple of soccer games. Not being a sporty person myself, I have had to learn a lot about the world of competitive sports over the past decade or so. But I’m not just referring to the rules of the game (although I definitely came in without knowing anything about “offsides” and “corner kicks” and “slide tackles”). A big part of my education was trying to understand the psyche of the players and fans.

 

For instance, it’s common for parents from Team A to suspect that preferential treatment is being shown by the referees to the players of Team B (“Come on, Ref! How’s that a foul?!”), but to feel entitled to the exact same treatment for their own players (“Finally! You have a yellow card! Use it!”). It’s cuckoo.

 

I usually tell myself that the only reason my son is on this team and not that one is basic geography. Same age, same sport, different cities. That’s it. Those boys on the other team aren’t our enemy. And although I might like to throttle those screaming parents from the other team, they aren’t my enemy either. Neither are the opposing coaches and the referees. But when we get angry, we humans seem to want to find someone to be angry with. We want a villain. That kid who just fouled my son will do, or maybe the referee who didn’t call it the “right” way. Something like hate boils up in us and comes spewing out. It’s not pretty, folks.

 

Jesus had a lot to say about how to regard those you’ve labeled as your enemies. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (NLT)

 

When Jesus stood on a mountainside and taught those words to the large crowd who were following him from town to town, he was giving them one example after another about how to be an alternative to what the World offered. He told them that God blesses the poor and the humble and the persecuted. He told them to be salt and light—to be different.

 

Jesus wasn’t necessarily referring to my conduct during a soccer game or our behavior towards others during this election season, but it’s applicable all the same. It’s a waste of time to villainize those around us. Friend or foe, we are called to love them all anyway.

Farther along

During recent storms (or threats of storms), I found myself looking at the weather app on my phone several times a day. Knowing that my sons were scheduled to have soccer practice that evening, I would check the predictions of bad weather even though I saw only blue skies and innocent-looking, white wisps of clouds above. On the radar, I saw our fair city sitting clear as a bell in the middle of our state. Nothing to fear, right? Then I would zoom out on the map and see ominous, swirling reds and yellows and menacing blobs of green. These storms were crowding around us, just out of view. That visual was a perfect representation of 2020. Destruction seems to be crouching at the door, waiting to pounce.

 

At the grocery store today, I found myself singing a hymn I hadn’t sung or even thought of in years. (This is one advantage of wearing masks in public—I can sing or whisper to myself but no one knows!) I was singing the song “Farther Along” as I picked out my produce and chose the right bag of shredded cheese. I was singing “Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine…” while I waited on my deli turkey to get sliced. I was telling myself, “Farther along, we’ll understand why.” And I needed this hymn today. Because of my faith, I know those spinning blobs of scariness swirling around me are temporary, but that doesn’t always make me feel less scared.

 

The history and authorship of the hymn “Farther Along” is uncertain. Some attribute the lyrics to a preacher named W.A. Fletcher, a man who allegedly wrote it while traveling in the Indian Territories in 1911. Apparently, he was sad that he was away from home for the birth of his first child. Whether the story is true or not, you can imagine Mr. Fletcher, sitting lonely and discouraged on a train, trying to cheer himself up. He was attempting to remind himself that there was a greater purpose for struggles and a reward waiting for him after all his “toils of the road.”

 

I need this kind of reminder, too. I need to know that what I see as unfair or illogical or frightening will make sense eventually. Over the more than 100 years since its first publication, there were some who objected to the chorus of the song. They took offense at the notion that “we’ll understand it all, by and by,” as if we would ultimately know everything that God knows when we get to heaven. But I think there’s a difference between knowing what God knows (just typing those words might make my brain explode) and understanding why. Maybe we don’t have to get all the way to heaven’s pearly gates to understand why the wicked sometimes prosper and the good are liable to be oppressed.

 

The Scriptures hold plenty of clues as to what suffering is for. The Apostle Paul suffered more than I’m sure I ever will, and he comforted others with these words: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8) So if you’re in the midst of suffering, comfort yourself with the promises of future glory. If you’re in that “clear as a bell” zone of the weather map with only sunny skies as far as the eye can see, bolster your faith with Paul’s words like a team filling sandbags before a hurricane. Then cheer up, my brother, and live in the sunshine.

Have mercy!

Last week, I went into a store and left with a really interesting life lesson. The woman who worked there and I were discussing the importance of labeling our kids’ clothes so that they could be identified later in the Lost & Found bin. She mentioned that she had an embroidery machine at home and often used it for that exact purpose.

 

Then she told me a story about a time when she embroidered her teen daughter’s name in a large font on a prominent place on the hood of a jacket. She described the jacket’s various shades of pink and how much her daughter loved it. Another woman asked her about the jacket—where did she get it and how much did it cost—and then, a few days, the jacket went missing. “Eventually,” the woman at the store told me, “I saw her wearing that pink jacket. I could tell where she had picked out the stitches where my daughter’s name had been.”

 

I assumed the next part of the story was going to involve the authorities and an ugly argument, but I was wrong. “What did you do?” I asked her.

 

“As soon as she saw me, I could tell that she knew she was caught. So I went over to talk to her. I told her that I recognized the jacket and knew it was my daughter’s. Then I asked her if she would like me to embroider hername on the jacket. Knowing she thought I was just offering so that I could take the jacket back, I told her that she could come with me and stand right next to me while I sewed it.” This gracious woman embroidered another woman’s name—the name of the woman who had stolen from her—on the jacket she had bought especially for her pink-loving daughter without asking for anything in return.

 

At first listen, it may seem that this woman should’ve taught that thief a lesson. One might think: Now she’ll be stealing everyone’s stuff! Where’s the justice?! But there are moments when we are called to show mercy, and this angel listened to the call. I can only imagine what effect this had on the woman who had stolen the jacket. Was she so weighed down by guilt after this undeserved act of kindness that she could never wear the jacket again, or did she whistle happily as she walked away, congratulating herself on her good luck? No matter what the offender’s feelings were, the woman I met at the store that day was content with her response to the ill treatment she had received all those years ago.

 

This kind of mercy, especially when coupled with unexpected forgiveness, warms my heart and makes me all teary-eyed. These glimpses of what humans can do for each other when we’re not trying to tear each other down is refreshing. I like this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I have always found that mercy brings richer fruits than strict justice.” Maybe that’s the question to ask when we suffer wrongdoing at the hands of others: What fruits will my response bring?

 

In Micah 6:8 we read the best prescription for doing what is good and what’s required of us: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That just about sums it up.

Preparing for the flood

Our basement flooded during the Great Flood of 2010. We had suffered through days of relentless rain showers and watched the newscasts with weather predictions. We saw the devastation in Nashville and wondered if we would see any of the same damage here. Then, on that Sunday night, I walked downstairs around 9:00 pm. As soon as my foot hit the floor, the carpet billowed out in a wave. The water was quickly coming in from all sides.

 

We called friends from church for help. They came and vacuumed up water, tore out carpet and moved furniture until the wee hours of the morning. I feel tired just thinking about it.

 

With the excessive rains recently, I was reminded of that flood from years ago and also of Noah. You know the story: God looked around at the wickedness of His people and decided to start over. He told Noah to build a boat for his family and the animals because a flood was coming. He followed God’s instructions and made the ark. The rains came down and the floods came up (wrong Sunday school song but it works here), and they were saved. Cue rainbow. End scene.

 

It’s important to note that it took Noah somewhere around 75 years to build the ark. That’s about 27,000 mornings of Noah waking up, dragging his 500+ year old body out the bed, and starting another day of carpentry with his sons. And you know how difficult it can be to work with your children. I’m sure there were days when Shem gathered the wrong kind of wood. (I asked for gopher wood! Gopher wood! Is that so difficult?!)Ham was acting like a…well, a ham, trying to walk across the upper beams like a tightrope walker. And don’t get me started on Japheth! The baby of the family was always complaining about a splinter in his finger or his sandal was rubbing against his ankle or the male and female tigers had attacked him. Always something with that Japheth!

 

Even though it took several decades to build the ark, the Lord held off the rain until they were finished. He told Noah when to begin and then He watched Noah & Sons Building Co. as they were faithful to his word. He watched them measure every cubit and round up every animal. They continued to work without a definite sign the world would be destroyed by flood, and God saw them.

 

The author of the Book of Hebrews includes Noah in his “Faith Hall of Fame.” Noah is described as someone who trusted God. “When he heard God’s warning about the future, Noah believed him even though there was then no sign of a flood, and wasting no time, he built the ark and saved his family. Noah’s belief in God was in direct contrast to the sin and disbelief of the rest of the world—which refused to obey—and because of his faith he became one of those whom God has accepted.” (TLB)

 

This is no easy task—trusting without anything concrete to back it up except a warning from the Lord. There are times when God gives us a charge. When we obey, we have our start time and a promise that He’s watching us as we wait for the finish. It may not end the way we’re expecting (Could Noah have ever imagined he’d see something as glorious as a rainbow?) but I’m trusting God knows how it’s supposed to end.

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.

Surprise ending

I rarely watch a movie or read a book more than once. There’s a part of me that says, “I already know how this ends, so I’m not really interested in going through all of it again.” I mostly prefer the excitement of finding out what happens more than moving step-by-step through the plot. Still, there are times when I will get so engrossed in an already familiar story that either I forget what will happen or I hope it will turn out differently this time (pointless, I know).

 

The beauty of hearing a story for the first time, with no spoilers or hints of the final outcome, is that you are evenly informed with the protagonist. You, the spectator, know as much as the main character. There are some stories I’ve known from infancy that I wish I could hear as an adult but for the first time.

 

One of those stories is the account from the Book of Genesis about Joseph. Here’s a quick summary: Jacob, Joseph’s father, gives Joseph—his favorite son of his favorite wife—a special coat. This gift along with Joseph’s penchant for telling his dreams which feature his brothers bowing down to him gets Joseph thrown in a pit by his scheming brothers and eventually sold as a slave to a wealthy Egyptian named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to our boy Joseph and when he thwarts her advances, he gets put in prison. While in prison, Joseph interprets the dream of a baker and a butler. The dreams come true: the baker is killed and the butler is released from prison. After which, the butler tells dream-vexed Pharaoh about Joseph and his ability to explain dreams. Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream and Joseph replies, “I can’t explain it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” Joseph explains that Pharaoh’s dreams mean that the land would have 7 years of good crops followed by 7 years of famine. So Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man. Joseph puts his plan into action, saving up good grain for those bad years. Eventually, Joseph’s brothers back in Canaan become desperate for food. Ten of his brothers (all except the youngest—Benjamin) go to Egypt to collect the grain. Joseph plays some crazy mind games with them because they don’t recognize him, the brother they long ago assumed had died. Joseph calls them spies and thieves. He even puts them in prison, all a ruse to get his youngest brother Benjamin to come to Egypt. (And maybe exact a little sibling revenge?) Finally, after Joseph runs out of tricks, he reveals his identity. He weeps as he holds his brothers who tremble at thought of their persecuted brother now holding their lives in his hands.

 

It’s a wild ride. There are soap operas with fewer twists. But, in the end, this is what Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 45: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you!” (NLT)

 

When young Joseph was sitting at the bottom of that dark and dirty hole, listening to the whispered voices of his big brothers above who argued over how to punish him, he wouldn’t have thought in a million years that the hole was a part of a bigger plan to rescue those same jealous brothers from starvation. And when he sat in chains in the prison of a foreign land for a crime he didn’t commit, Joseph couldn’t have known he would eventually be sitting next to the throne of the most powerful man in the world, advising Pharaoh and ordering servants to obey Joseph’s every command.

 

This is a reminder to me that when things aren’t working out the way I’d hope and I can’t figure out why it’s so difficult, it’s best to rest in God’s faithfulness. Four times in Genesis 39, we read “The Lord was with Joseph.” Joseph knew he wasn’t alone in the hole or in prison. The Lord was right there with him, crafting a surprise ending to Joseph’s tumultuous story.

Just

I’ve come to believe that words are very powerful. With only a slight change in wording, the intended meaning can be completely altered. For example, imagine you’re shopping with a friend and unsure how you look in an outfit you’ve tried on. Standing in front of one those giant dressing room mirrors, would you rather hear: 1.) “You are not fat.” 2.) “You are not thatfat.” Four little letters but the difference is night and day.

 

Depending on the language, vocabulary can be very confusing. As my African-born son can attest, English seems unnecessarily tricky with so many synonyms that mean the same thing and homonyms which sound the same but mean something different and words with multiple meanings. You could argue that its complexity makes our language richer, but if you’re new to English it just makes you want to plug up your ears and go back to bed.

 

One word with many varied meanings that I’ve recently noticed I may overuse is the adjective/adverb just. Beside its connection to fairness and morality, it can also mean now, only, barely, simply, recently. I use it all day long.

 

“Mom, when’s supper?” It’s just5:00. You can’t be hungry yet. Eat this carrot.

 

Later that night, around 7:00 pm: “Mom, I’m hungry.” What? We justate!

 

You made it justin time. Give me justa minute. We’re justgoing to one store. Justsit there and think about what you did!

 

I’ve also noticed how often we use the word justwhen it comes to faith. If you’ve got a very sick relative and people ask you how they can help during such a difficult time we often say, “Just pray.” There’s a note of last resort here, as if seeing that all the spots for bringing supper to the family are filled, you might as well give them the job of merely praying.

 

But in this context, it could also mean you are giving this goodhearted friend a very simple, specific yet important task. “Just pray,” you say. “Set aside whatever doesn’t need doing right away and beg God to intercede. Please make this your focus today.”

 

Looking at the lyrics to the gospel song “Closer Walk with Thee,” we see justused to describe a scene which would be anything but ordinary: “Just a closer walk with Thee/Grant it, Jesus, is my plea/Daily walking close to Thee/Let it be, dear Lord, let it be” We don’t merely walk with God like it’s no big deal. We strive for a complete connection, justas in onlyis the goal.

 

If you search the Scriptures for instances of the word just, you’ll have plenty of reading. You’ll find “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” in the Old Testament and “People brought all their sick to Jesus and begged him to let the sick justtouch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” in the New Testament.

 

With a possibly ambiguous word like just, we have to pause and determine which meaning is intended. Then we see Noah’s preciseness in his obedience and Jesus’ mighty power to heal. Such a tiny word but packed with so much capability.

Light-up shoes

When my daughter was around 4-years old, I got her a pair of light-up shoes. They were brown leather Mary-Janes with Velcro straps and pink stitching. Hidden lights embedded in the rubbed soles would flash each time her foot made contact with the floor. She loved them but, over time, I noticed that she never wore them.

One day, I asked her, “Why aren’t you wearing your new shoes?” as I pointed to the shoes on the floor of her closet.

“I don’t want to run down the battery,” she answered.

I told her, “Oh, honey, I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

But my words didn’t seem to make a difference. She still wouldn’t put them on. I was too busy running after her twin sister and baby brother to remind her to wear them so the inevitable happened—she outgrew the shoes.

I’m fairly certain that Jesus never had to teach about the perils of buying light-up shoes for slightly OCD 4-year olds, but he did preach this:

“And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you.” (NLT)

Though I’m trying to do better, I confess that I am a frequent worrier. You could probably even call me a Worrier Warrior. When Jesus goes on to say: “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’” I am convicted of my weakness in this area but I’m also a bit defensive.

I want to ask Jesus, “If I don’t worry about it, then who will?” When my husband and I divide up the duties for our family, it falls to me to be sure we have food to eat and clean clothes to wear. It’s my job to take care of this, right?

To back up my defense, I scan my memory for an instance when Jesus seemed worried or stressed-out. Others around Him might have lost their cool, but He seemed to stay focused on His mission and on the present moment.

When He was in the garden just hours before His arrest and eventual crucifixion, Jesus had plenty of reasons to be stressed out. Instead, He took His concerns to His Father. He asked if it was possible to prevent the imminent suffering and death but was willing to follow His Father’s Master Plan, regardless. Then came the betrayer and the crowds and the soldiers. Jesus calmly followed.

So here’s my new plan: Take it to the Garden. Lay it out. Pray it out. Ask, seek, knock. Then calmly follow God’s Will.

I won’t always follow my own advice—in fact I know I’ll frequently forget the plan—but I’ll attempt to have faith that all of the pieces will fall into place. I’ll try to heed Jesus’ advice: “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Because it’s possible that all of that worrying will make me miss out on something fantastic, like the coolest light-up shoes ever.