WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. [Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)]

water lilyThe billboard’s message read, “When push comes to shove, don’t!” It was sponsored by a nonprofit foundation that uses a variety of media sources to encourage positive values, good role models, and a better life. “Hard to argue with a goal like that,” I thought before discovering that some people took exception to their peaceful message. Re-tweeting it, one rock musician told his fans just to “shove harder.”

Recently, the management of our home association sent an email regarding the previous night’s annual meeting. Being out of town, we’d missed it but, apparently, pushes had come dangerously close to shoves. Because it had deteriorated into arguments, shouting and name calling, the management company found it necessary to inform the home owners that such future behavior would not be tolerated. They warned that, if it recurred, the meeting immediately would be adjourned. I was shocked that such an email was found necessary. These weren’t enemy nations or small children on a playground; neighbors and adults, they all knew better.

When we think we’re not being heard, we tend to get louder and, instead of communicating, we end up with a shouting match. Feeling a bit “holier than thou” while reading about the contentious meeting, the Spirit’s convicting voice reminded me I’m not much different. Last month, my husband took a quick trip. When dropping him off at the airport, I’d asked where he wanted to be picked up and we agreed on the lower/arrivals level. Upon his return, he called to say he was waiting at the far end of the terminal by the Jet Blue door. I parked there and waited and waited. I finally gave him a call and we both heatedly asked where the other was. Back and forth it went—him saying he was right there and me insisting he wasn’t, our voices getting just a little louder with each exchange. My husband eventually paused and asked whether I was at arrivals or departures. “Exactly where you told me: on the lower level at arrivals!” I replied. “Oh,” he quietly said, “I’ll be right there!” You guessed it; he’d been waiting upstairs. If, instead of accusing one another of being wrong, one of us had simply asked where the other was, we could have avoided a rather tense homecoming! Granted, we didn’t call one another names but, on a smaller scale, we were no different than our irate neighbors.

In today’s angry world, rather than have a civil discussion, people frequently intimidate, attack, and demonize anyone who thinks differently. What happened to being able to disagree without being disagreeable? For a civilized people, we seem to have lost all civility. Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He also said, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Of course, in some cases, that man (or woman) doesn’t want to learn anything that goes contrary to what he desires.

We are called to be peace makers and we do that by being humble, patient, and using our ears twice as much as we do our mouths. Not pushing back when push comes to shove doesn’t mean we lie down and allow someone to walk all over us. Not pushing back means we continue to stand, but we stand with civility, kindness, patience, and love. Another billboard sponsored by the same group says, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” If we were, there might not be so many pushes, shoves, and angry tweets!

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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HATTIE’S ADVICE

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)]

As I sorted through the papers that my mother-in-law had saved through the years, I came to a letter written to her in 1936 by her soon to be mother-in-law, Hattie. Hoping the young couple liked the mixer she’d given them, Hattie sent best wishes for a “long happy wedded life.” Wondering why such a mundane letter had been saved for 83 years, I read on. “May there be lots of love, joy and contentment in your home,” she continued, “forgiving each other as God forgives you.” Praying that my in-laws would have a long and “sweet contented life,” Hattie signed the letter “One who wishes you well in everything, Mother.”

Hattie’s prayers were answered; my in-laws were together for 68 years and, at least from my view-point, they did, indeed, live a “sweet contented” life. Could the secret to their marriage be hidden in Hattie’s advice to be forgiving? Is that why my mother-in-law had saved the letter?

I think of the story of a man who, when told by the doctor that he had an incurable case of rabies and but a few days to live, immediately got out paper and pen and started writing. When asked if he was composing his last will and testament, the man said he was making a list of everyone he wanted to bite! With an attitude like that, if the rabid man were married, I doubt that his was a happy marriage or that he lived a “sweet contented life.”

As I pondered my ability to forgive, I began to wonder how willing I was, not just to offer forgiveness, but also to ask for it. I’m not one to serve “cold shoulder and hot tongue” for dinner, give the “silent treatment,” or bring up past offenses but (and that’s a really big “but”), I also am not one who readily admits her failings. When I’ve committed the relationship sins of sharpness, impatience, pettiness, or indifference, I tend to assume forgiveness rather than apologize. Although my husband and I readily forgive one another, I think our relationship suffers if one or the other of us falls short and doesn’t admit it and apologize.

When we accept Jesus, all of our sins (past, present and future) are forgiven on a judicial or “positional” basis which means we will not suffer eternal damnation. Nevertheless, we should never take God’s forgiveness for granted or treat it as something we deserve. We must confess our sins for what could be called “relational” forgiveness in order to restore our relationship with Him.

Author and theologian Frederick Buechner calls unconfessed sins an abyss between us and God, adding that, once confessed, they become the bridge. I think Buechner’s abyss/bridge metaphor applies to our earthly relationships, as well. The prodigal’s father had already forgiven his son before the boy’s return but it was not until his son admitted the error of his ways that their relationship was restored. A certain amount of forgiveness is assumed in a family—husbands and wives forgive one another as do parents and children simply because love forgives. But, we must never take either the grace of God or the gift of forgiveness lightly.

Lord, give us forgiving and humble hearts. May we always be as willing to apologize and admit our errors as we are to accept both your forgiveness and that of others.

Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness. [Lee Strobel]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

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FREE WON’T

Live like free people, but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God. [1 Peter 2:16 (ERV)]

red-bellied woodpecker“Get Fuzzy,” a comic strip drawn by Darby Conley, chronicles the life of Rob and his somewhat eccentric pets: Bucky Katt, a temperamental feline with “cat-attitude,” and the gentle Satchel Pooch who frequently is the butt of Bucky’s jokes and the target of his bullying. In one comic, Satchel pondered the concept of free will. “Having free will means you also have the freedom to not,” says the dog, who then resolves, “I choose to exercise free won’t and not get mad.”

In studying the human brain, neuroscientists have discovered that there is a brief instant between when the brain tells the body to get ready to act and the action itself. That nanosecond is when our mind can implement its veto power—when it truly can exercise “free won‘t”!

We are usually so busy touting all of the things we’re free to do, that it is refreshing to consider the things we’re free not to do. Unfortunately, we don’t exercise that freedom nearly enough. Eve and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, David pursued Bathsheba, Jacob stole his inheritance, Judas betrayed Jesus, and Lot’s wife took a last look. Sadly, they didn’t exercise their freedom to say “No!” Admittedly, I frequently fail at implementing my “free won’t.”

The ability to not choose a thought or action is as important as the ability to choose them. We don’t have to indulge our every notion or whim. Remembering that we can veto as easily as we can approve, all of our choices should be conscious ones—ones where we deliberately choose between will or won’t.

Unfortunately, by the end of the comic strip, Satchel, who had been sorely vexed by Bucky, exclaims that, “I’m starting to get a little free maybe-the-*@#!-I-will after all!” His frustration sounds a bit like us when we try to exercise self-control solely on our own. Fortunately, unlike Satchel, we have a secret weapon: the Holy Spirit. Through God’s power, when tempted, we can exercise the freedom to not respond and make our free will become free won’t!

So, my brothers and sisters, we must not be ruled by our sinful selves. We must not live the way our sinful selves want. If you use your lives to do what your sinful selves want, you will die spiritually. But if you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will have true life. The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:12-14 (ERV)]

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ICONS AND IDOLS

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” [1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)]

Madonna and child - NetherlandsSorting through cabinets, I came across a video of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I recall, archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones was authorized by the government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s Nazis could obtain its supernatural powers and dominate the world. Indiana was told that the Bible speaks of the Ark’s power to level mountains, lay waste to entire regions, and that any army carrying the Ark is invincible.

The only other Indiana Jones movie I remember is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like its predecessor, it had equally poor Biblical history and theology. Indiana again found himself up against the Nazis when his father disappeared while pursuing the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper). Since drinking water from the chalice would grant immortality, the Nazis wanted to possess it.

Of course, we should never get our religious education from popular movies. As for an army being invincible when carrying the Ark, the opposite actually happened. Thinking God’s power was in the Ark, the Israelites carried it into battle and were defeated by the Philistines; 30,000 of their soldiers died and the Ark was captured. As for drinking from the Holy Grail, the disciples all drank from it and they all died. Belief in Jesus is the only way to gain eternal life.

While it seems silly to think that merely possessing the real Ark would bring world domination or that drinking water from a cup used by Jesus would bring immortality, the Israelites made the same mistake of venerating some of God’s things rather than God. Instead of reminding them who to worship, objects like the bronze serpent became what was worshipped. When approaching Canaan for the second time, the impatient Israelites spoke against God and Moses. In judgment, God sent poisonous serpents into their camp. As people began to die, the people confessed their sin, and begged for mercy. God then commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, telling him that all who looked at it would be healed. The Bible makes no more mention of Moses’ bronze serpent until some 700 years later when King Hezekiah began to rule Judah. When he eradicated idolatry throughout the country, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because people had started to worship it rather than God. Instead of being a symbol of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing, the bronze serpent became an idol.

Power comes from God, not from things. Central to the Israelites’ faith, the Ark was a sign of God’s covenant with them. Even though it symbolized a holy pledge, the Ark was no more worthy of worship than a rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with Noah. Although it contained precious relics, it had no more power than does my jewelry box. The Holy Grail had no more power than my coffee cup and the bronze serpent possessed no more power than the bandage on my knee.

None of those items were graven images nor were they made to be idols and yet people turned them into objects of worship. While we have no ancient artifacts tempting us, let us never make the error of turning respect for a religious symbol into the worship of it. While worthy of reverence, the cross in the sanctuary or on the chain around one’s neck, the Communion chalice, a statue of Mary or picture of Jesus, dried palms from Palm Sunday, or a mezuzah at the doorway have no more power than a rabbit’s foot or a lucky penny. While they may aid in prayer or worship, salvation comes from God—not from any of His things!

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

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JUST STUFF

“Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes.” [Luke 9:3 (NLT)]

While packing for our move, I considered Sarah and Abraham; they always seemed to be moving from one place to another. After starting in Ur of the Chaldees, Scripture mentions seventeen places through which they passed, sometimes more than once, including Haran, Bethel, Egypt, Dan, Salem, Gerar, and Beersheba before finally settling in Hebron. They did it all without cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, U-Hauls, pods, moving companies, pack-and-ship, or car transports. Of course, they didn’t have things like food processors, business files, Christmas decorations, picture albums, waffle irons, books, or electric toothbrushes! In all of Sarah’s 127 years, she probably never had as many sandals as I have shoes in my closet and, in all of Abraham’s 175 years, I’m sure he never had as many robes as there are tee-shirts in my husband’s. Because they were nomads, if it wasn’t necessary and easily transported, they didn’t have it.

Having recently cleaned out my mother-in-law’s home after her death, my husband and I are acutely aware of how little our stuff means to anyone else. Load after load of Mom’s clothing, furniture, and household goods went to charity resale shops and more bags than I could count went directly into the dumpster. Now, it’s our possessions that need disposal. While our children have taken some things, they have more than enough stuff of their own and don’t want more!

Every day, we make the rounds of resale shops. As I carried several boxes of clothing and household items into the Bethesda Communities’ store, I felt remorseful. Granted, my discarded items would benefit a faith-based organization serving people with disabilities but I wondered how much more Bethesda and other charities could have done with all the money I’d spent on that frivolous stuff in the first place! When people were going hungry, homeless, or in need of health care and support services, had I really needed another tablecloth or handbag, fashion boots, decorative pillows, and Christmas mugs?

When I remember Jesus’s words to the disciples to take nothing for their journey, I must admit to taking far more than I ever needed or could possibly use for mine. I’m not advocating an ascetic lifestyle but there is much in our lives that is unimportant and truly unnecessary. Abraham and Sarah weren’t encumbered by excessive stuff simply out of necessity. It is out of obedience to God that we should not become encumbered (or possessed) by our stuff. God, however, did give us the ability to enjoy our possessions and enjoy them we did!

The bright side to the move is finding the right home for our surplus things. It’s not just more blessed to give than receive; it’s more fun! A single mom received the dollhouse and play kitchen for her little girls, Gigi’s Playhouse (serving those with Down Syndrome) got the Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, a new grandma appreciated the crib, Habitat got our tools, the church has my books and music, some of our art work will be auctioned off for a scholarship fund, and a woman going through a divorce has our glassware, vacuum and kitchen appliances. One friend asked for the spinning wheel while another needed luggage for her children going off to college; a green-thumbed neighbor has our decorative pots and an avid sportsman received the fishing gear. We’re happy that someone else now will be enjoying our stuff!

May we always remember that possessions are temporary; we were empty-handed when we came into the world and we’ll be empty-handed when we leave. U-hauls aren’t part of a funeral procession and there are no storage units in the hereafter. We must learn how to appreciate and enjoy things we don’t own without wanting to own them (or something like them) for ourselves.

Lord, keep us from envy, covetousness, discontent and greed. Give us generous and appreciative hearts. May we always remember that it’s just stuff!

After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. [1 Timothy 6:7 (NLT)]

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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

Fireflag - Alligator FlagEven Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve. [2 Corinthians11:14b-15 (NLT)]

With its enormous leaves and delicate purple flowers, one of my favorite native Florida plants is the Thalia geniculata; its common name is Fireflag. The plant can be as tall as ten feet and its huge leaves are visible from a distance. Since it grows in standing water, the leaves can indicate or “flag” an area where one might find safety in case of fire. Fireflag has another name, as well: Alligator-Flag. Anyplace in Florida where there is enough standing water for Thalia geniculata to grow also has enough standing water for alligators! If one is ever caught in a fire in the Everglades, it would be wise to remember both names of this plant before seeking refuge amidst its leaves! We wouldn’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire or, in this case, out of the fire into a gator’s mouth!

This plant reminds us that we need to be cautious when a firestorm of trouble descends. In an effort to escape our problems, it’s easy to jump into even more difficulty. It’s not just alligators that lurk in what appears to be a safe refuge; Satan does too! He knows when we are most vulnerable and he’s right there to offer his version of safety and comfort. As we attempt to flee from our trouble, there will be temptations to seek solace in the wrong people, listen to poor advice, compromise our morals or abandon our faith. That “angel in disguise” offering comfort, assistance or easy answers may well be a fallen angel!

Rather than taking refuge in alligator infested waters or other treacherous places, we must turn first to God. With Him at our side, we are never alone nor is there a need to run away from our problems. He will comfort and guide us so we can face our troubles with confidence, hope, and even thanks.

Trust is not a passive state of mind. It is a vigorous act of the soul by which we choose to lay hold on the promises of God and cling to them despite the adversity that at times seeks to overwhelms us. [Jerry Bridges (Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts)]

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. [Isaiah 43:2 (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. [Psalm 91:14-15 (NLT)]

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