Cheese

Summer is almost here (for real this time) and I can’t wait. The school year is coming to a close and soon we’ll be traveling and adventuring the days away!

One of my favorite things about traveling is visiting historical sites. The old buildings and artifacts are cool, but mostly I am fascinated with the faces. Old photographs draw me in as I stare into a person’s eyes and wonder what life was like for them. I’d love to go back in time and ask them some questions: Were they satisfied with their life? What did they believe about God and their purpose? And most importantly, why weren’t any of them ever smiling? Was life really that hard?

In 2018, when a camera is held up to our faces, it’s almost instinct to “Say cheese!”. But when people in previous centuries posed for a portrait, curving their lips and showing their pearly whites was not their first reaction.

Since happiness is currently our culture’s highest aspiration, we prefer to be portrayed in photographs as cheerful. But in the past, a smile in a picture came across as goofy or even inappropriate. It was preferred, rather, that one appear dignified and noble.

Author Mark Twain was quoted saying, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” Though today we capture our own image on a daily (or maybe more than daily) basis, having your photograph taken was once a rare – possibly once in a lifetime – experience. If this was the only portrait ever taken of you, it was important to represent yourself and your legacy well!

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The people in old photographs aren’t the only people I have questions for, I also have some questions for David about Psalm 139. This beautiful song begins with 18 verses of admiration for God’s intricate work in creating human life (“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” v. 14). These words are foundational to what we believe about God’s intimate knowledge of human beings (“You are familiar with all my ways” v. 4) and to our understanding of the constant presence of His Spirit (“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” v. 7). The closing verses of the Psalm (v. 23-24) bring it home as David asks God to continue to deepen their relationship by searching and leading him.

But as I’ve used this Psalm in messages or studies over the years, I’ve had to say “Read Psalm 139:1-18 and 23-24” because verses 19-22 don’t seem to fit. After elaborating on the value of human life, David suddenly switches his tone and says this:

If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
   Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
   your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
   and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
   I count them my enemies.

What’s up with that? David, my friend, you could have done me a huge favor if you had just skipped this part!

As Christians we love to do what I do with Psalm 139 and skip the parts that make us uncomfortable. We know our sin is all forgiven, so it’s easy to lump it all together as one and believe it’s all taken care of as one. When we sense conviction from a pastor’s message, a fellow believer’s correction, or even a critic’s ounce-of-truth assessment, we prefer to skip over it, and put on our “Praise God! It’s all forgiven anyway!” smile for God and others.

But no one’s believing that cheese.

Believe it or not, David’s rant in Psalm 139:19-22 is a natural progression from the preceding verses. If the value of life is so great that God would “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (v. 13) and have “all the days ordained for me… written in your book before one of them came to be” (v. 16), then the “bloodthirsty” (those who would try to take that God-created life) are enemies of God. And if David was to be after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), then the “thoughts” of God were to become “precious” to him (v. 17), making the “bloodthirsty” his enemies, too.

Verses 23-24 are then the next step in that progression:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.

Not only were the “bloodthirsty,” who wanted to take a physical life, enemies of God, but the sin in David’s heart was just as dangerous. If David’s thoughts were going to be in line with God’s, he needed to accept that the sin in his own heart had the potential to be as “bloodthirsty” and life-threatening as those who were hunting him down. Aware of the deceitfulness of his own sin, David asked God for the wisdom to help him see it.

When I look at my children, I acknowledge that I would go to any length to protect their lives from harm – an enemy of theirs is an enemy of mine! But as a child of God, wonderfully woven together by His careful hand, would I go to the same lengths to protect myself from the sin that threatens me? Part of valuing myself as a creation is hating anything that tries to damage this creation.  

Lumping my sin together as ‘all taken care of’ without asking God to search my heart and dissect that lump to reveal “any offensive way in me,” is like looking into God’s camera and giving Him a “silly, foolish smile”. Ignored sin can’t become hated sin and sin I’m not fully aware of can only become my enemy when I drop the cheese and allow Him to show it to me.

Speaking of my children, since the day they were born, I’ve been obsessed with taking photos of them. Getting all three of them to look at the camera and smile at the same time is a little easier now that they’re older, but it used to be nearly impossible. There were times when it took 20 or more attempts to get it right… and then I would end up using the first shot I took anyway! You know why? Because the longer they tried to hold their fake smiles, the cheesier they got.

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We can’t fool an all-knowing God with our fake smiles, but the longer we hold them up, the more we fool ourselves. Putting on a happy face has become instinct in our social-media-driven culture, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that our sin is “all good”. But every day we have the opportunity to drop the cheese and ask God to be brutally honest by showing us an accurate portrait of our hearts:

God, I want my heart to align with Yours and in order for that to happen, I need to see my sin for what it really is. Search me today, point out any offensive way in me, and lead me in Your way everlasting. Amen.

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Cards

If you asked what I would like for Mother’s Day, I would say, “To be outside on an adventure with my family!” But since this Mother’s Day was 50 degrees and raining, I had to settle for second best: Games with my family. A little healthy competition is good for the soul – and our cabin fever!

On the table this Sunday were rounds of Flinch and Ticket to Ride. I love these games because even though there’s some luck involved, the overall results come down to strategy and decision-making, which are skills I want my kids to develop.

Part of the strategy in these games involves deciding whether or not to block another player from making a move. If I’m playing against an adult, I don’t hesitate (although they’re usually the ones blocking me). But with my kids I think twice.

If there’s a “7” out in the middle and I have an “8” in my hand, I have the option to play it or not play it. Knowing the child to my left has an “8” on her stack and has been waiting for several rounds for that “7” to appear so she can play that “8,” I have the choice to hold back so that she can make her move. But I also have the choice to play my own game, thereby blocking her (and dealing with the inevitable tears).

Or say my selected train route goes through Duluth and Winnipeg, which is where the child to my right also happens to be headed. There’s only one direct rail between these two destinations, and I’ve already collected the four black cards needed to secure it. If I play them, I’ll block her (and prepare for immediate emotional meltdown). Or I can let her have it and sacrifice the points.

I want my kids to succeed. I want their strategies to work out. I want their decision-making efforts to be rewarded. And I hold in my hand the ability to make it happen. But forcing the cards to fall in their favor on this turn may be presumptuous. I may think I’m helping them now, but there’s a chance I’ll only set off a string of circumstances that, in the end, will cause them to lose the game!

So, yes, I play my card. And yes, I take the route. Because there ain’t no way this competitive Mama is gonna let them beat me, especially on Mother’s Day!

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Being a mom is harder than I expected. When my toddlers tripped and fell, a hug and simple affirmation that they were going to be okay was all they needed to bounce back and start running again. When other preschoolers were mean to them, I could remove them from the situation and redirect their attention. When we prayed, we thanked God for animals, sunshine, and friends and asked Him to help us have a good day.

But middle school is a whole new game. Social and emotional wounds cut much deeper, the bullies can’t be avoided when they’re in your classroom all day, and that “relationship with God” status moves from “simple” to “complicated”. No one could have prepared me for the helpless feeling of holding your sobbing child after a hard day at school, or, even worse, realizing that your child may be struggling but isn’t willing to talk to you about it. Or when you sense something developing in their personality that makes discipline anything but cut and dry.

As a parent and an adult, there are cards I hold in my hand and there are days when everything inside of me wants to play those cards. I want to see my kids succeed. I want to see things work out for them. If there was a magic button in front of me that could guarantee them a win at every turn, I’d be tempted to push it. But chances are, I wouldn’t be doing them any favors.

In Numbers 13 the people of Israel, after being freed from 400 years of captivity and slavery in Egypt, were about to enter the land the Lord had promised them. Spies were sent in to scope out the situation, and though two of them came back with a report of “We can certainly do it!”, the rest said “We can’t!” and the people rebelled (Numbers 13:30-31). The result of this rebellion was a new promise – 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

Word of this sentence brought about a sudden change of heart:

When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!”

But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.”

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah. (Numbers 14:39-45)

Though their God held every card in His strong hand and could have given them every advantage in battle, He wasn’t about to force the situation. A win at this point was no guarantee of victory in the end and His plan for them was a process. The Promised Land was not the goal, the trust in Him was, and they were going to need 40 years of wandering to develop it.

My God has the ability to give my kids every advantage. He has the ability to make things go their way and force wins at every turn. He has a magic button.

But He doesn’t push it and I can trust His example. When I presume that what my kids need is for me to force my cards for their win on this turn, I go ahead of God. When I act on my own reactions to their pain rather than listen for His lead, I may be setting off a string of events that leads to greater loss in the end. Yes, I can protect, yes, I can help, and yes, I can advocate, but I’m not their Savior – Jesus is.

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It would be great if I could end this by saying both girls won their respective games, even though I didn’t help them, but they didn’t – I won them both! (Happy Mother’s Day to me!) I’m sure a day is coming when they’ll be able to take me down, but for now I’ll enjoy my moment of glory 😉

In his poem, Trust in the Slow Work of God, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says, “Don’t try to force [it], as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow”. No matter how much we don’t want to see our kids hurting, the pain, frustration, and stress they experience are part of the process. And the trust they’ll develop in Him, rather than in us, will be worth every tear!

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Reaction

No matter how much I love coffee, my body (and mental state) would not respond well to me drinking it all day, so I’ve settled on an alternative “warm” drink for the winter months: herbal tea. I don’t want all the sugar found in juice or other drinks, and herbal tea has just enough flavor to keep my taste buds happy, while helping me stay hydrated.

My favorite tea mug as of late is my mason jar mug. There’s something about being able to see the vivid colors through the glass that makes my tea seem more refreshing and appealing. But I also love being able to watch the reaction that happens when the tea bag hits the water. Swirls of deep fuchsia, red, orange, or yellow come spilling through the tiny holes in the bag as the soluble parts of its ingredients dissolve. The molecules disperse and mix, and in just a few minutes, boring clear water changes into a flavor-infused cup of joy!

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Hot water is a powerful thing. It creates all sorts of reactions. Not only can it brew tea, it can also dissolve old food off of a dish, cook an egg inside of its shell, kill bacteria to make water safe to drink, and burn our skin when we touch it.

How interesting is it that James opens his letter with these verses: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-4)

I don’t know about you, but my reaction to trials is anything but joy! Frustrating situations, stressful decisions, and pain-filled experiences definitely produce some things in me, but I’m not sure perseverance is one of them. The worst is when several things pile up to a boil. When my tea bag hits that hot water, some vivid colors spill out!

Yesterday, feeling motivated in my half-marathon training and wanting to break in my new shoes, I set out to run all three trail ‘peaks’ in Valley Forge Park. After summiting Mt. Misery (aptly named) and both sides of Mt. Joy (maybe not so aptly named), I worked my way down the last hill and was in the home stretch – all I had to do was cross the street.

This crossing happened to be at a busy intersection with a light, so I hit the “Push to Cross” button and waited patiently. No, not really. I stood there pounding the button repeatedly, hoping it would sense my full-body pain and exhaustion and let me cross sooner! The light finally turned red and I got ready for my turn. I watched for the orange hand to change to a little walking man, but no dice. The other light turned green.

After waiting through the next full light (and hitting the button at least 50 more times), that light finally turned red and I was ready to go. But no! The other side turned green again and no little walking man appeared! I turned my head, and as I pounded the button one final time, a four-letter word that hasn’t crossed my lips since a brief rebellious stage in high school came spilling out of my mouth.

Even though I’m sure no one heard me, I covered my mouth in horror! Where did that even come from?!?

Jesus loved the hot water. As a leader, He deliberately put His disciples in trying situations, not to discourage them, but to highlight their deficiencies. He put them in charge of hungry crowds and gave them no money to buy food, slept while they attempted to weather a violent storm, and sent them out with nothing but the clothes on their backs, not to show them that they could do it, but to prove to them that they couldn’t.

As Christians, it’s easy to fall into a comfortable level of “okay”. Because of Jesus, we’re not who we once were. The Holy Spirit has done His job in creating real change in our hearts and minds. We’ve grown in self-control and left behind the patterns of the old self.

And when trials come in small doses, one drop at a time, our reactions are manageable. But when we’re dropped into a mug full of boiling water, all the stuff comes spilling out!

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When we read in James 1 that trials produce “perseverance,” we most often think of those trials teaching us skills or building up strength, but sometimes perseverance is simply the result of coming to terms with our weakness. When my inflated view of myself gets popped, I realize I haven’t arrived yet and I’m motivated to keep pressing on. I may think I’ve mastered something, but the hot water reminds me I’m just as dependent on grace now as I was the day I received Jesus into my life.

The beautiful swirls of weakness that spill out in my reactions to hot water are deliberate. They’re not meant to discourage me, but to give me a joyful taste of my need so I’ll press on to know Jesus and become “mature and complete” in Him. (v. 4)

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Working

Walking into a real running shoe store for the first time was scary. For the five or so years I’ve been running on a regular basis, I’ve stuck with Amazon purchases of the cheapest shoes my favorite brand makes because they worked fine. But with two half-marathon length trail races in my near future, it was time to upgrade.

After referring to my current shoes as “dinosaurs” (I may have been slightly offended), the salesman offered me several options for new shoes. As I tried them on and jogged around the store, it came to my attention that I may have been missing out on something all these years.

I was almost convinced, but still not sure I was ready to pay triple the price for one pair of shoes!

The salesman worked his magic, though, and explained that my base-model shoes are designed for “moderate exercise” but lacked the advancements in technology for “performance running”. Yes, my old shoes worked for me, but they weren’t working for me the way a performance shoe could.

And he was right. After taking a deep breath and completing the sale, I couldn’t wait to go for a run and put this “new technology” to the test. As I ran, I noticed that I couldn’t help but run at race-pace. Something about these shoes was propelling me forward and adding a bounce to my step. It wasn’t even possible for me to default into the drudging-along, dragging-my-feet patterns I normally fall into!

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In his letter to the church at Philippi, the apostle Paul gives us a glimpse into his past and the transformation that happened in his heart and mind. A former Pharisee and zealous law follower, Paul spent his time finding ways to grow his own righteous reputation. During that time, Paul depended on his own flesh to work for him, but after meeting Christ, he moved all his stock over into something that worked much better:

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9)

I’ve been reading these verses for years, but I never realized that in them Paul was using business terminology. A loss, in this case, is “a mercantile term” for a “bad deal” or “unsuccessful business transaction”. It’s opposite, a “gain,” is another “mercantile term” for “exchanging one good for another,” or in other words, “trading up”. Paul had worked hard to gain a “righteousness of [his] own,” but had now “traded up” for something better.*

Though he had banked on the fact that his own righteous actions were working, they were, in fact, “garbage” or “what is good-for-nothing except to be discarded”. He thought he was gaining knowledge of God and it may have appeared to others that he knew God well, but his self-focused efforts were “good-for-nothing” and were not leading him into the intimate and personal relationship with God he desired.*

Depending on my own righteousness might feel like it’s working for me, but it’s not working for me. When I accepted Christ into my life, I “traded up” from my own “good-for-nothing” attempts at pleasing God to being pleasing to God without any attempts at all – I traded self-righteousness for the righteousness of Jesus in me. And this “new technology” – Christ in me – actually works! With my sin forgiven, I become a living temple of the Holy Spirit and His life becomes a part of my everyday. When I don’t have to waste my effort in good-for-nothing attempts to prove myself or impress God, I can pour that energy into understanding His character and ways. His righteousness in me has the ability to propel me toward truly “knowing” Him.*

In our many years of youth ministry, one of our greatest challenges has been helping students learn that following Christ is not about their own goodness, positive actions, or changed behavior. Some are raised in religious traditions that emphasize outward acts and they can’t seem to see faith in any other way. Some are raised in families with a high moral conscience or were just born naturally “positive,” rule-abiding people. Some have been rescued by Jesus from their wayward ways, but the focus seems to stick on them and the changes they’ve made in their lives.

It’s hard to give up your old shoes, especially when the old shoes seem to be working. And unfortunately, when a student sees following Jesus as a way to become a better person, live a more positive life, or improve their reputation, it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll walk away in college – because eventually self-righteousness stops working for them.

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It’s not just them, though, I do it too! It amazes me how quickly I “trade down” and become self-focused in my obedience, drudging along and dragging my feet, forgetting that I don’t have to wear those shoes anymore! Obedience doesn’t have to be a burden – I don’t have to follow a list of steps to prove my worth or beat myself up when I fail. I’ve got new technology and I use it every time I worship Jesus and thank Him for His righteousness working in me!

*Loss http://biblehub.com/greek/2209.htm
*Gain http://biblehub.com/greek/2770.htm
*Garbage http://biblehub.com/greek/4657.htm
*Knowledge http://biblehub.com/greek/1108.htm
*IVP New Testament Commentary, Philippians 3: https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/ivp-nt/Knowing-Christ-Now

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