Tie That Shoe

Throughout life, I think each person can identify times they have been tripped up. Some of these occurrences may be pretty dramatic and life changing, others are smaller in nature. A conversation taking a wrong turn may cause a person to stumble on their journey. It might be a financial decision which derails plans and goals. There are all types of ways to be tripped up in life.

Just as our plans and journey in life can include ways we trip up, our spiritual journey in life can also include times when we have been tripped up. As you read the stories and accounts in Scripture, you hear of individuals experiencing these encounters. David, who was to be the greatest king of Israel, was tripped up when he saw a beautiful woman bathing one day (see 2 Samuel 11). Jonah thought he knew what was right and what God should do about Nineveh (see the Book of Jonah). Looking out for one’s personal welfare while trying to give to others became the life plan for Ananias and Sapphira but was not right for the community of faith (see Acts 5). Even Jesus was tempted to trip up (see Matthew 4:1-11). There are many other examples throughout Scripture.

With all these ways to be tripped up, how do we protect ourselves from them? Whether it is financially, physically, relational, or spiritual, the untied shoes in life can cause us to stumble in small and large ways. Referring back to Jesus’ temptation mentioned above, I think we are given examples of ways to avoid those stumbling dangers. In addition to that, I think it is vital for us to have someone in our lives who can serve as guide and sounding board. Someone who we can discuss our triumphs, temptations, struggles, and falls.

What trips you up in life? How have you attempted to mediate those situations? Do you have someone who can help you avoid those trips?

A Foggy Perspective

For the first three mornings this week, our city has been enveloped in fog. My understanding is that this is pretty common during the winter months in Texas. The warm, humid air from the gulf comes up north and encounters the cooler air from the north which causes the fog to develop. Yesterday, as I was looking at the fog blanket outside our windows, I was drawn to the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As I was pondering this verse, I began thinking about the perspective through which we view life, one another, and our Lord. Much like the fog of recent mornings, our perspective is not clear. We are not capable of knowing all but instead only a part of each item mentioned above. The promise is that there will be a time when I will see each in fullness but for now I have a fog over my sight which prevents me from seeing the whole.

My vision of my life is limited to the current and to the past. I can anticipate the future, just as I anticipate turns and intersections when driving a familiar path on a foggy morning. However, the certainty of my knowledge regarding my future is limited. Like the warnings on the morning news to take it slow and to give one’s self plenty of time to navigate through the fog, I must do the same as I move forward into my future.

The view which I have of others is also limited. I only see what that person allows me to see. I do not know their backstory unless they tell me it. The burdens carried by the person are only visible to me if they choose to share them with me. Caution is again vital when determining how I look at someone else. This reminds me that my judgment of them is impaired so be careful how I judge them.

As I look to the Lord, I also must acknowledge my vision is limited. I cannot comprehend the fullness of the Lord at this time. I see what has been revealed to me, and others, through Scripture, the account of Jesus’ life, and my ongoing relationship with the Lord. Anticipating the actions which the Lord will take, the way in which the Lord views the world and humanity, the abilities and power of the Lord is almost impossible based on what I know. I can only see the broadness of the Lord such as the complete focus on love, the endless times of forgiveness, and unconditional acceptance which is demonstrated and testified to over and over in the lives of myself and countless others.

Yet the promise mentioned in the verse from 1 Corinthians remains for all three of these. There will be a day when I will see my life in its fullness and my future will be fully understandable. My view of others will be complete when I am able to see the whole of the person and their life. The perspective which I have of the Lord will be whole as I stand in the full presence one day. But for now, I walk in the fog of my limits and I must be mindful to proceed with caution and take my time.

Spiritual Library

Every day when I take my daily walk, I walk past a playground area near my home. On one side of this playground is a little lender library which seem to be appearing throughout neighborhoods all across the country. These are a great addition to our neighborhoods. If you are not familiar with this concept, they are small wooden boxes with a door which has a glass inset and shelves. People place books they have already read into these and if a child or adult is looking for a book to read, they can go pick out one and take it home to read. People are encouraged to add a book if they take one and/or return the book after they are finished reading it. Some of these can be very creative in the size and shape which they take.

As I was walking today, I glanced over at the little lender library. A question came into my mind. If I were to create a lender library for someone wanting to grow in faith, what would I include?

When I designed curriculum for young individuals wishing to confirm their faith and be commissioned as members of the congregation, I had a list of items which I felt were important for them to know. I have never been a huge proponent on memorizing Bible verses or other faith documents but I thought there were a few vital pieces which required memorization. My goal was that if the person was ever in a situation where they needed guidance, one of these items might surface in their mind and be a tool which could be beneficial.

So here are the items which I found to be important and which I would include in my spiritual lender library:

  • A copy of the Lord’s Prayer – This prayer provides a template for those new to, or struggling with, prayer. It provides the basic focus of prayer and can be a launching pad to our own prayers.
  • A copy of the Apostles’ Creed – Like the Lord’s Prayer, this creed is a template for articulating a person’s faith. This can also serve as a summation of the beliefs which underlines the faith which has existed for centuries. Someone exploring what Christians believe can look at this creed for a basic understanding and a basis to start creating questions which can be explored with other believers and on their own.
  • A copy of Matthew 6 – So the person can understand where the basis for the Lord’s Prayer originates and place it in context.
  • A copy of Exodus 20 – Here a person can gain insight into what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These words provide a basis for how we are to respond to God and our relationship with God. Contained here also is the understanding we are to have regarding our relationships with other people in our lives.
  • A copy of Luke 15 – This chapter from Luke’s gospel contains the story of the prodigal son. This is a story of selfishness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. I find this story important enough to be one that if a person cannot remember anything else, this story is the one that remains. My reasoning is that we all experience times of wanting to break out on our own and explore possibilities. We make mistakes and choices that are not beneficial for us. We eventually realize that we need to return “home” and hopefully in a more humbled state than when we left. This story reminds us that our Lord stands waiting for that return. When we do return there is not judgment but instead an outpouring of love and reconciliation which is like attending a magnificent banquet in our honor.
  • A copy of Matthew 28 with verses 16 through 20 highlighted – For anyone wishing to know what a believer in Christ is supposed to do with their life, this passage answers the question. Frequently known as the Great Commission, this passage tells every person that in whatever way fits their skills and abilities, they are called to go and share their story along with what they have learned in their faith so far.
  • A copy of 1 Corinthians 11 with verses 23 through 26 highlighted – Here we find one copy of the words used in the institution of holy communion. Holy communion is one of the key sacraments in the Christian Church. Realizing that words used for this portion of a worship service were randomly chosen but have their basis in Scripture helps to strengthen their meaning.
  • A copy of Matthew 22 with verses 24 through 40 highlighted – Jesus’ response to the question of “what is the greatest commandment?” is found in these verses. Christianity is often given the same criticism which is applied to Judaism – it is just about rules. In Jesus’ response, it is made clear that our faith is not about following rules as much as it is about loving God and loving one another.

This would be the start of my spiritual lender library. What would you place in yours?

The Valley

Recently I was considering a very familiar psalm, Psalm 23. Like many others, I memorized this psalm as part of my Christian education when I was young. I will admit that I did not understand, or even think about the words in this psalm when I memorized it. Also like many, I came to know it as the psalm which had a sole purpose of being used when someone died. As I grew older and became better educated regarding this psalm, I have found that it serves more of a purpose than being a funeral psalm. I am considering writing a series of posts which explore the words of Psalm 23. However, my recent focus is on this phrase — “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Usually when we hear this phrase as the psalm is read, we associate it with the act of dying. For many of us this means a physical death. I do not disagree with this interpretation. I do think that there is more which can be considered here than solely physical death. One additional interpretation which I have been pondering is applying this phrase to periods of depression. The word which leads me to this interpretation is “shadow.” Depression can impact a person in similar ways to death.

Depression is a very real aspect of life. There is not one individual who has not experienced depression in some form over their lifetime. These experiences usually come and go at various times. From my own experience, I would say that when I have been in a period of depression, I felt as if my very life was being sucked out of me. I have no energy, no joy, no motivation. I felt like I am living in a shadow. I view these time periods as living in a valley, a valley which is dark and gloomy.

I am fortunate that I am able to climb out of the valley, out of the period of depression. This happens due to my having an excellent support system, especially my husband. Unfortunately, many individuals do not have a strong support system. Others have an outstanding support system but out of fear do not reach out and honestly share their depression with members of that group. Sometimes living in the valley of the shadow of death leads them to view physical death as the best way out of the valley. They feel alone and isolated even when they are surrounded by loving and supportive individuals. This is not because they are weak or selfish, in fact, they are usually the opposite of these traits.

One of my truths which has been a comfort and provides assistance during these times of depression is found in the words of the psalm following the above phrase: “I will fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.” I am reminded that I am never alone. I am not alone when life is going smoothly, and I am not alone when the shadow overwhelms me in the valley. The strength of the Lord (rod and staff) sustains me when I am feeling weak.

Depression is very real. Depression is not a sign of weakness or inability, it is an emotion in life that accompanies difficult situations as a person perceives them. The psalmist knew and understood this, in fact, probably was experiencing this. My message for anyone experiencing depression is to realize a few truths:

  • You are not the only one to experience this.
  • You are not the only one who has ever gone through what you are currently going through.
  • You are never alone because the Lord is in the valley with you.
  • You have people around you who are desiring more than anything to be supportive and present without judgment.
  • The valley is not the whole but a part and there will be times that you can stand atop the nearby mountain which has formed part of the valley.

If you think someone might be struggling with depression, the most important thing that you can do is to be present in a nonjudgmental way. Listen without giving advice. Love without expecting anything. Show them how the Lord is with you in whatever you are experiencing.

Maybe you will look at Psalm 23 a little differently today.

Expressing Gratitude

This month every year in the United States, people are encouraged to pause in order to express thanks for blessings which have occurred in their lives over the year. A specific day has been set aside to do exactly this. The roots of Thanksgiving Day are found in the story of English settlers experiencing their first harvest in the new world.

Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times.The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.

Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a well-recorded 1619 event in Virginia and a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest, which the Pilgrims celebrated with native Americans, who helped them pass the last winter by giving them food in the time of scarcity.

Wikipedia

Thinking about the upcoming celebration of Thanksgiving once again in three weeks prompted me to consider what it means to be thankful and show gratitude. To be a bit more specific, I have been thinking about gratitude in the light of my faith. Especially since the above words found in Wikipedia make mention of prayers and ceremonies among almost all religions.

There exist a variety of ways to express gratitude. Most often we think of using words to express gratitude. This may be as simple as saying, thank you, or may be longer by expressing exactly what prompts us to be thankful and how our life has been impacted. At other times, actions we take may be an expression of our gratitude.

So how do we go about expressing gratitude to God?

As a Christian, I believe that all I have and all that I am are gifts from God. God has chosen to bestow material items, means to purchase material items, talents I use, and knowledge which I have obtained upon me. God gives to me even the breath which I take and the food which sustains me. Nothing in my life exists except through the giving of it to me by God. So how do I express gratitude for my very life and everything within it?

Scripture contains suggestions which might be helpful:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micha 6:8

Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Matthew 25:34-40

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

John 4:11

Many other passages can be found which prompt us to give thanks to God. I lift these passages up to you because they talk not about words, or even worship, but about attitude and action. God warns the people that they can do all forms of worship and abide by the sacrificial laws which existed for ancient Israel but that without the correct actions and attitude, their expressions are hollow. (See Isaiah 1:10-18) This warning leads me to think that the best way to express gratitude to God is through our actions and attitude. I think God finds this most pleasing.

So as you pause this month to consider those aspects of your life which generate gratitude in your heart towards God, I encourage you not to just express your gratitude in words but more importantly in actions and attitude.

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.

Word By Word

A variety of writing types are available for one to read. Each writing and book has its own purpose. Textbooks are intended to communicate knowledge to those seeking to gain insights into a particular field, skill, or set of facts. Volumes from throughout the ages contain poetry which are intended to inspire, comfort, encourage, or unleash creative thought. Other books are fictional in nature which paint stories for a reader to follow. Fictional books are intended to be for entertainment or relaxation. Some books actually contain elements of more than one of these genres. A book which contains more than one of these genres listed above is the Bible.

Within the Bible are historical facts and events. Some portions which give insights. Poetry and imagery is scattered throughout this book. Words of encouragement, comfort and inspiration are shared at various locations. You will discover stories that entertain, teach, and inspire. These wonderful elements written by different individuals over thousands of years are assembled in a book which we now call the Bible. The question is, what do you do with this book?

Some individuals have made an attempt to use the Bible as a history book. Others have chosen to look at this book as a rule book. Still other people see the Bible as just a group of fictional stories written by ancient people who were trying to explain the world which they experienced without any factual or scientific understanding. I would argue that the Bible was intended to tell the story of God, God’s people, and the world God created.

Here are some important realities which must impact our approach to the Bible:

  • Most of the writings included in the Bible began as oral stories passed from one generation to the next.
  • Writings are by multiple authors who lived in a variety of times and locations.
  • The cultures from which the stories and authors originated are in most cases not the same as your own but shape the way the stories, events and thoughts are communicated.
  • The original languages of the writings which we inherit are Greek and Hebrew, not English.
  • A fair number of Hebrew and Greek words do not have English equivalents.
  • Symbolism is frequent throughout the Bible.
  • Interpretation of meaning depends upon the interpreter.
  • Duplication of the writings before the printing press depended on a reader and a gathering of scribes who tried to write down what they heard read.
  • Edits of the texts have occurred from the beginning of sharing these stories.
  • The decision of which writings would be included in the canonized Bible was constituted by a group of humans.
  • While the writings were inspired by God, humans wrote them.

If you combine the different forms of writing along with the realities which I have listed, a great disservice is done to the Bible by anyone who would choose a literal interpretation approach when engaging with this book. Instead, the best approach is to look at a passage and seek the major meaning within that passage. Asking questions like,

“What are the key concepts presented here?”

“How might the people of that time understand this passage?”

“What is the overarching message here?”

are helpful. Doing a little research into the historical setting and the cultural background of the ideas will aid a person who wishes to place the passage in the correct context. Then you are able to find the connections with your own context.

The Bible was intended to give insight, not to be the sole source of understanding our relationship with God and each other. When you interact with all the elements of the Bible, you find it to be an enriching and a wonderful guide to deeper relationships. Do not take each word at face value or you will lose the true beauty of this book.