LET’S PRAY

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

snowy egretsThe eight of us were brainstorming a difficult and heartbreaking situation facing a family we know. We had plenty of ideas about getting them the assistance and guidance they needed but we could only direct them to the resources. They were the ones who needed to take action. Unfortunately, people often want the easy way out of their problems and desire money rather than counsel. Money, however, is usually only a stop gap measure and it frequently enables a bad situation to continue or get worse. The problem we were discussing required change, compromise, work and sacrifice far more than money. These people had to take action and, truth be told, I’m not so sure they wanted to step forward and act.

Those of us sitting around the table that day are people of action. Asking “What can I do? How can I help?” we wanted to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and make things right. This was one of those times, however, when there was nothing more we could do and no way we could make things right. There always will be hurts that we can’t heal, needs that we can’t satisfy, situations we can’t fix, and wrongs that we can’t make right. Sadly, this was one of them.

I learned something important that day, something even more important than understanding when it is time to step back from someone else’s problem. Our discussion had reached a dead end and we started repeating ourselves. At that point, we had a choice. We could beat a dead horse and keep talking which probably would have turned our constructive discussion into gossip and censure. On the other hand, we could stop and pray. Fortunately, understanding we were helpless onlookers and seeing we were dangerously close to becoming judge and jury, someone suggested prayer! Knowing we can’t fix everything but that we can love and pray for everyone, we prayed and handed the situation to God.

The thing I learned that day? While I’ve always believed in the power of prayer, I hadn’t realized the power of just saying, “Let’s pray!” Pausing for prayer changed the entire tenor of the discussion. The next time I’m in one of those conversations that starts to go downhill into the territory of gossip, disapproval, or scorn, I know to say, “Let’s pray!” Prayer can change more than situations and other people; it can change the people doing the praying!

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [James 1:26 (NLT)]

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. [Colossians 3:12-15 (NLT)]

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MY TREASURE

But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:40-42 (ESV)]

As we sang carols at the beach Christmas Eve, Sarah’s grand sat on her lap while finishing off a holiday cookie. By the time the little one was done with the cookie and cuddling her gram, Sarah’s shirt was a wrinkled mess of frosting, crumbs and cookie drool. I couldn’t help but think of the gospel story of parents bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. Even in the first century, I imagine little children meant grubby hands, sticky fingers, and runny noses. From what we know of Jesus, though, I picture him welcoming those children onto His lap along with all of the mess that came with them. Perhaps some even left drool on his robe.

A few days later, I tiptoed into the kitchen for my early morning latte only to be greeted by dirty dishes in the sink, an open box of crackers on the counter, crumbs on the floor, and phones, sunglasses, and crayons strewn across the breakfast bar. “Why can’t they put anything away?” I silently grumbled. As an empty nester, I’m used to having things my version of perfect and it’s an adjustment when children and grands visit bringing their noise, toys, and disorder with them.

Jesus rebuked Martha for being overly concerned with the preparation and formalities that come with guests. He reminded her that those things were trivial when compared to having a relationship with Him. That having a relationship is more important than being the perfect host and having everything flawless is true when it comes to other guests, as well. Before voicing more complaint, I remembered how happy I was to have family visiting for the holidays and asked myself which I treasured more: a quiet neat house or a noisy, messy, energetic and happy family.

Again, I thought about Jesus and the small children He blessed. The One who was born in a manger, welcomed shepherds and sheep into His nursery, touched lepers, wrote in the dirt, put a mud poultice on a blind man’s eyes, washed the feet of the disciples and held sticky-fingered children on his lap wouldn’t be concerned about a disorderly house – a disordered life, yes – but a disorderly house, no!

Thinking of the many Bible verses that remind us how fleeting life is, I asked myself how I want to be remembered. I’ve never heard a eulogy that extols someone’s spick-and-span kitchen, perfectly set table, immaculate cars, spotless windows, or neatly folded towels. As I straightened up the kitchen, I understood that fingerprints on every mirror, Legos on the floor, and endless laundry are just the price we pay for family and I’m more than willing to pay it! In fact, I treasure the opportunity to do it!

Thank you, God, for children of all ages and the beautiful mess that comes with them!

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Luke 12:34 (ESV)]

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (ESV)]

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THE BLAME GAME

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. [Matthew 7:1-2 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew sanctuaryThere’s a classic Peanuts comic (drawn by Charles Schulz) that shows meek Linus questioning Lucy, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” His bossy big sister answers: “I just think I have a knack for seeing other peoples’ faults.” Dropping his blanket, Linus asks, “What about your own faults?” to which Lucy replies, “I have a knack for overlooking them.” Among other things, Lucy has what psychologists call “fundamental attribution error.”

Fundamental attribution error is the tendency to judge other people differently than how we judge ourselves. We attribute other peoples’ flawed behavior to shortcomings in their character (dispositional attribution) and ours to the challenges of our situation (situational attribution). For example, when someone else spills his coffee, it’s because he was careless but, when we do, it’s because the barista didn’t put the lid on tight. When a car speeds past us in traffic, the driver is a jerk but, when we exceed the speed limit, it’s because we’re late for an important appointment. Our neighbor’s angry outburst is evidence of a character flaw but our temper tantrum is because of the extreme pressure at work. Unfortunately, we often attribute other people’s actions to their disposition (they’re irresponsible, inconsiderate, or foolish) rather than consider that their behavior, just like ours, could also be linked to their circumstances. Although we know our story, we don’t know the stories of others. Perhaps the person who spilled the coffee has Parkinson’s, the speeder was on his way to the hospital, or the neighbor’s spouse just filed for divorce.

Without reading further than Jesus’s first words in Matthew 7, people often misinterpret the passage. “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged,” Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge. He doesn’t want us to suspend our critical thinking or be so open-minded that our brains fall out! Wanting us to use discernment in our dealings with people, He tells us that the same standard we use in judging others will be applied to us. The literal translation for this verse is: “for in what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and in what measure ye measure, it shall be measured to you.” If I measure you in fractions of an inch, I can’t measure myself in yards! If I judge your actions by your nature, I must judge mine the same way. If I explain or justify my actions by my circumstances, I must consider that circumstances may also explain or justify yours.

Even if you didn’t hurry home after school to watch Dark Shadows, you probably know that vampires can’t see their reflections in the mirror. While we may not sleep in coffins during the day, there’s a little bit of vampire in us when it comes to seeing ourselves in a mirror. Like Lucy, we often judge other people harshly but rationalize our own behavior to make it excusable. Jesus, however, tells us to take a good hard look at ourselves and deal with our own faults before we start judging other people.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Deal with the faults of others as gently as your own.” While that’s good advice, Jesus tells us to deal with our own faults before we begin to deal with anyone else’s.

It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own. You can‘t clear your own fields while you’re counting the rocks on your neighbor’s farm. [Cicero]

And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. [Matthew 7:3-5 (NLT)]

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THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. [Luke 2:6-7 (NLT)]

red roseIn honor of that first Christmas, the one without decorations, piles of gaily wrapped presents or a feast, let’s try to keep it simple today and tomorrow. It’s not too late to change our plans and readjust our expectations. I’m sure Joseph and Mary didn’t plan on birthing in a stable, but their Christmas was a blessed one even though life didn’t go as they’d intended. Accept in advance that some things are certain to go wrong: guests won’t arrive on time, a gift will disappoint, food will burn, a drink will spill, toys will break, tears will be shed, directions will get thrown away, someone’s feelings will be hurt, and we’ll miss those who are absent. That’s as much a part of this holiday as church, carols, family, prayers, candy canes, laughter, a Christmas tree, and pine-scented candles.

We’re all anxious about Christmas. No one, however, was more anxious than Mary on that first Christmas. She had plenty of reasons to be apprehensive and nervous. She’d conceived miraculously, endured an eighty-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and was in labor in a strange place with no women nearby to reassure or help her. There were no prenatal classes, birthing coaches, monitors, epidurals, fancy birthing rooms, comfy pillows, soft music in the background, warmed blankets, or medical care. Without a doubt, with the sheep and cows as her midwives, she was a frightened young girl. Yet, somehow, through God’s grace, she managed quite well. She had the simplest and most meaningful Christmas celebration ever! Things may not have gone right but they went perfectly—just as God planned!

Thank you, Lord, for the salvation brought to us by a baby in a manger. Tonight, as we celebrate Christ’s birth, please replace our apprehension with anticipation, our anxiety with hope, our chaos with peace, and our stress with serenity. Let there be joy, not sorrow; generosity, not selfishness; and love, not rancor.

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God, From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load. [“Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” (Friedrich Layritz)]

All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. [2 Luke 2:18 (NLT)]

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THE OLIVE BRANCH

Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. [Leviticus 19:18 (NCV)]

Humility has such power. Apologies can disarm arguments. Contrition can defuse rage. Olive branches do more good than battle axes ever will. [Max Lucado]

mourning doveIn a “Baby Blues” comic strip, Zoe, the big sister approaches her brother and tells him, “About that fight we had a while ago…I would like to extend an olive branch.” With a panicked look on his face, the little brother screams, “MOM!!! Zoe’s threatening me with a stick!” Having had an older brother who delighted in tormenting me, I completely sympathized with the little boy. There were times when my brother just had to come near me and I would frantically call out, “Mom, Steve’s hitting me again!” I wanted to avoid another painful punch but, who knows, maybe one of those times he, like Zoe, was just offering an olive branch.

Long before the ancient Greeks and Romans used the olive branch as a symbol for victory and peace, the story of Noah recorded that a dove brought an olive branch back to the ark which meant the end of the flood and the earth’s rebirth. Symbolizing peace and reconciliation, the olive branch requires two things: someone to extend it and someone else to accept it. An apology and its acceptance are two sides of the same coin, as are the asking of forgiveness and the granting of it. Both are necessary for peace in our lives.

I have been like Zoe, the one extending the olive branch; I admitted my offense, apologized, and asked forgiveness but was rebuffed. Unfortunately, there are people who will never accept an apology, no matter how humbly or amiably it is offered. All we can do is keep the olive branch extended, pray that God will open their hearts, and continue to love.

Like Zoe’s little brother, however, it’s not always easy to accept that olive branch. Wanting to protect ourselves from further hurt or disappointment, we may prefer suspicion, aloofness, hostility, or anger. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to trust people who are untrustworthy or believe those who are dishonest. An act of love, mercy and grace, forgiveness is releasing the offense and offender to God; it is giving up our right to hurt those who’ve hurt us. Being the wronged party never gives us permission to continue the wrong with unforgiveness.

Along with an olive branch, the handshake is a gesture of peace. In ancient Greece, hands were grasped to demonstrate that neither person held a weapon. In Rome, the grasp became more of an arm grab as a way of seeing whether any weapons were hidden in someone’s sleeves. The shaking part is said to come from medieval England when knights would shake hands in an attempt to shake loose any concealed weapons.

Hopefully, we don’t need to worry about lethal weapons hiding in sleeves when we shake hands this holiday season. Nevertheless, we need to put aside the invisible weapons we carry: things like anger, gossip, blame, intolerance, pettiness, jealousy, resentment, and disrespect. Let’s extend any olive branches that need to be extended and accept any that are offered. If there can’t be peace throughout the world this holiday season (and from the news that looks unlikely), let there at least be peace and reconciliation in our homes and families.

To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven. [Charles Spurgeon]

When you are praying, if you are angry with someone, forgive him so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins. But if you don’t forgive other people, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins. [Mark 11:25-26 (NCV)]

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GOOD PRIDE OR BAD?

The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished. [Proverbs 16:5 (NIV)]

peacockIf asked to list the seven deadly sins, we might not recall sloth or gluttony, but we’d probably remember pride. With few exceptions, when we find mention of pride in Scripture, it has a negative connotation. It refers to arrogance, conceit, disrespect, haughtiness, and effrontery and prideful people are called stubborn, insolent, willful, and selfish. Since Scripture makes it clear that pride is a sin, where does that leave us when we enjoy the satisfied feeling of a job well done or the pleasure of receiving praise? What emotion is appropriate when we have attained a goal or succeeded at a difficult task? What feeling can we share with someone who has achieved something extraordinary? If not pride, what?

It is a sense of pride (of wanting to do my very best) that makes me work so hard at my writing and I confess to feeling proud when I receive a compliment on my work. Moreover, I’m proud of the accomplishments of my children and grands and I’m not sure any of that is wrong. Since we find the Apostle Paul expressing pride and even boasting, it would seem that there can be a good kind of pride.

Good pride has a sense of worth and is earned through effort and hard work; sinful pride over-estimates its worth and is competitive by nature. Rather than doing its best, it just wants to do better than others. Good pride makes a realistic assessment of itself and sees its faults. Sinful pride, however, has an inflated ego blind to its faults; instead of self-esteem, it is more like a low regard for everyone else. Good pride, like the pride Paul had in the Corinthians and Thessalonians, encourages others because it isn’t threatened by their success. Generous, it takes satisfaction in others’ accomplishments. On the other hand, sinful pride discourages and demeans; selfish, it takes satisfaction only in itself. While good pride is humble, quiet and self-assured, the other arrogantly blusters and brags.

The biggest difference between the two prides, of course, is their relationship to God. Good pride sees the need for God and has confidence in His power but sinful pride sees no need for God (or anyone or anything else) and has confidence only in self. Good pride exalts and worships God. It takes no credit for God’s gifts and, if it boasts, boasts only of what God’s grace has accomplished. Sinful pride, however, exalts and worships itself, takes all the credit and sings only its praises.

Rather that two different prides, I wonder if there could be just one kind of pride that exists on a continuum: acceptable or good pride on one end and sinful pride on the other. After all, there must be a continuum for other sins. At some point, eating (which is not sinful) can move into over-eating and then onto gluttony (which is a sin). For that matter, at what point does admiration turn into envy, desire into lust, or chatting turn into gossip? Somewhere on those continuums, what’s acceptable becomes what’s not.

Let us be cautious then, of self-reliance and over-confidence, lest our acceptable (and humble) sense of pride imperceptibly slides down the line toward arrogance, conceit, and sinful pride. We must never forget that anything we’ve managed to accomplish in this world has been possible only because God has encouraged, empowered, equipped and sustained us.

Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry. [Romans 11:13b (NIV)]

Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else. [Galatians 6:4 (NIV)]

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