Rules that Set Us Free

I would guess that most of my readers are familiar with the 10 Commandments. Maybe you can even list some of them off by heart. (You can find all ten in Exodus 20.)

But do you know why God gives us these commandments?

Some people think God gives these commandments as a test: If we obey them, he may give us a reward. Other people imagine God as someone who wants to take away our fun, 10 Commandments graphic found at society6.comand laying down rules is one step in that process.

I don’t see God that way. I believe God gives us the 10 Commandments for the same reason the park officials installed fences in front of the cliffs along the Tunnel Mountain Trail I hiked earlier this fall in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Those fences kept me safe. They told me how far I could go to enjoy the views and take pictures without falling and injuring (or even killing) myself. Similarly, the 10 Commandments teach me what’s safe and what’s not. It lists behaviors and actions that prevent me from harming myself and others.

But the fences in Banff National Park not only prevented me from going somewhere dangerous; they also told me where I could enjoy myself and have fun. Everywhere on this side of the fence was fantastic for At the top of Tunnel Mountain with my colleague Dan Hoogland from Fredericton, New Brunswickgetting exercise as I hiked and for basking in stunning scenery. Similarly, the 10 Commandments explain to me how to enjoy life. I have the most meaning and contentment in life when God is central and I treat others with dignity and respect. I experience joy and fulfillment and even fun as I love God and love others (to summarize the 10 Commandments).

I believe that God created the world and that he created me. As the original designer, he knows how things and people work properly. The 10 Commandments convey that wisdom to me. They are not a means God uses to enslave me; God gives them to me so I can experience the wonderful freedom he created me to have.

Like God’s people in ancient times who were freed from slavery under a cruel dictator, God frees me from slavery to sin. Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day guarantee my sins are forgiven, giving me new life today and for eternity. In profound gratitude for this, I embrace God’s will for me (including the 10 Commandments) so I can please him and discover how he indeed wants what’s best for me.

These thoughts put into writing a children’s message I gave several weeks ago at Trinity CRC and this is the column I submitted for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
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Humility prayer

Last month I enjoyed attending a conference for pastors in Calgary (with a daytrip to Banff!) organized by the Pastor Church Resources office of the Christian Reformed Church. Our worship time included the prayer below, adapted from the Litany of Humility, a prayer attributed to Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, who likely drew from earlier sources. The words are memorable and powerful; I’ve found myself returning to them numerous times since the conference.

From the desire of being praised,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being esteemed,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of comfort and ease,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being criticized,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being passed over,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being lonely,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being hurt,
deliver us, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than ourselves,
Jesus, grant us the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and we ourselves set aside,
Jesus, grant us the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and we ourselves go unnoticed,
Jesus, grant us the grace to desire it.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
make our lives like Yours.
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
strengthen us with Your Spirit.
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Hands graphic found with Google
help us put our
self-importance aside
to learn the kind
of cooperation
with others
that make possible
the presence of Your
Abba’s household.

Louis

I recently stumbled across the story of 9-year-old Louis. He was watching his father work with leather in his harness-making shop in 19th-century France. “Someday, Father,” said Louis, “I want to be a harness maker, just like you.”

“Why not start now?” retorted his father. He took a piece of leather and showed his son how to work with a hole puncher.

Excited, the boy began to work, but soon the hole puncher flew out of his hand and pierced his eye! He lost sight in that eye immediately. Later the other eye failed, and Louis was totally blind.

His life came to a standstill until one day when Louis was sitting in the family garden, holding a pinecone. As he ran his sensitive fingers over the layers of the cone, he could picture it clearly in his mind. Suddenly he thought, “Why not create an alphabet of raised dots to enable sightless people to read?” So Louis Braille opened a new world for the Bust of Louis Braille by Étienne Leroux found at Wikipediablind, something that would never have happened if not for the tragedy he experienced.

There have been times I could look back and see something good come out of a bad situation. I’ve heard about a death in a family bringing two estranged relatives together again. And natural disasters can bring out the best in communities as people pull together to help one another. A lot of times, though, it seems to me that sad and hurtful circumstances happen for no good reason.

Regardless, I can choose one of two ways to respond to hard times. I can choose to become angry and bitter; however, that will only make the difficulty more painful. Or I can choose – by God’s grace and with his help – to endure. A pastor colleague I know once compared going through hard times to the work of a jeweler. Like an excellent jeweler, the Lord brings his most treasured possessions – you and me – to journey through the crucibles of fire so that you and I become stronger and more beautiful on the other side. In the Bible, the apostle Peter puts it like this: “Troubles test your faith and prove that it is pure. And such faith is worth more than gold. Gold can be proved to be pure by fire, but gold will ruin. When your faith is proven to be pure, the result will be praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ comes.”

I don’t like hard times. I don’t go looking for them. But, as Louis Braille discovered, God can use them to bring about something good. In fact, one of the greatest miracles is that God – the one who knows how to bring back to life that which was dead – regularly uses hard times so we can grow, live, and hope in him.

I shared the story of Louis Braille in a chapel with the students at Rock Valley Christian School last week. I wrote these reflections for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Unexpected blessings

May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, hard hearts, half-truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless you so that you may live from deep within your heart where God’s Spirit dwells.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people. May God bless you so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war. May God bless you so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world, in your neighborhood, so that you will courageously try what you don’t think you can do, but, in Jesus Christ you’ll have all the strength necessary.

May God bless you to fearlessly speak out about injustice, unjust laws, corrupt politicians, unjust and cruel treatment of prisoners, and senseless wars, genocides, starvation, and poverty that is so pervasive.

May God bless you that you remember we are all called to continue God’s redemptive work of love and healing in God’s place, in and through God’s name, in God’s Spirit, continually creating and breathing new life and grace into everything and everyone we touch.

Graphic provided by agenerousgrace.com


Several times now in worship services at
Trinity CRC I’ve used and adapted this Franciscan blessing that asks God to bless us with discomfort, anger, tears, foolishness, and courage. Originally published in Troubadour: A Missionary Magazine, it now appears on many websites.

God’s poems

This past week at Trinity CRC, Pastor Henry spoke from Ephesians 2 about how Jesus is the center of the Biblical story and desires to be the center of our life stories, too. The apostle Paul has a great line in this text – “We are God’s handiwork.” Retired CRC pastor Dale Vander Veen reminded me of how Paul’s words get even more powerful when you hear them as the first listeners to Paul’s letter heard them. Dale wrote this meditation last year and graciously welcomed me to share it here.

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Authors and speakers often explain that “We are his handiwork” can be translated, actually transliterated (letter by letter), as “We are his poem,” noting that the Greek word is poiema. Checking numerous translations, I never saw “poem” used. I found God’s workmanship, Poiema graphic found with Googlemasterpiece, creation, accomplishment, work of art, product of his hand. Frequently the noun is rendered as a verb, i.e., “God made us what we are.”

I still like “We are his poem” because I admire the time and effort that poets expend in their creative process. William Cowper (1731-1800), best known for “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “Oh, for a Closer Walk with God,” wrote,

There is a pleasure in poetic pains
which only poets know.

My favorite poems are found in the Scriptures and the hymnal. Even those who have little affection for poems find solace and joy in the psalms. And hymns with the music removed become delightful poems. Some hymns have sprung spontaneously from the mind and pen of their composers. Many more have been written with great labor. The “poetic pain” behind Cowper’s hymns and many of the psalms was not the pain of finding the right word, but the pain of excruciating experiences.

Exactly what is a poem? Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) wrote,

Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet’s job.

That is a pretty good description of God’s poetic work. He took me, a commonplace, and began the long task of cleaning, polishing, and lighting me. When eternity reveals his finished product, I will have all the youth, freshness, originality, and spontaneity of Adam and Eve at the dawn of creation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) wrote,

In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.

God loves me with all his capacity to love anything at all, and so he is making me one of his poems. Amazing!

~

“A good poem is a contribution to reality.
The world is never the same
once a good poem has been added to it.
A good poem helps to change the shape
and significance of the universe.”
Dylan Thomas, “On Poetry”

~

…With the prayer that today, as one of God’s good poems, you will make a contribution to his world through the works he has prepared in advance for you to do.

One less plastic bag in the ocean

I just read about recent expeditions into the Mariana Trench in the northern Pacific Ocean, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. It’s about 7 miles down at its deepest. Reaching the bottom, the scientists’ cameras and traps both captured remarkable creatures God made that thrive in such a cold, dark, inhospitable environment, including tough amphipods (shrimplike crustaceans), intricate sea anemones, and transparent sea cucumbers.

A retired naval officer from Texas with a love for the oceans landed his submersible at the bottom of one part of the trench to meet shy marine life and see vast, untouched underwater landscapes.

Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t so untouched.

Within minutes of his submersible reaching the bottom of the trench, it found trash. The naval officer told reporters his cameras detected Graphic from Maclean's magazineplastic with writing on it. “It could have been a plastic bag,” he said.

That news, more than the fact that this naval officer had accomplished the deepest dive in human history or that his expedition had broken a slew of other records, made the headlines. How had garbage reached the deepest part of the ocean even before humans?

It actually doesn’t take as much as one might suspect. Like dirt in anyone’s home, junk collects at the lowest points. It’s simply a matter of gravity, and the trenches are as deep as it gets.

Humans are “made in God’s image to live in loving communion with our Maker. We are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it, and love our neighbors” (from “Our World Belongs to God”). Finding a plastic bag at the bottom of the ocean is an indicator we can do a better job of caring for God’s good creation as the Bible tells us to.

To care for creation, for the soil, water, and air God gives us, you and I can start small:

    • Use the city’s recycling bins to their full capacity and bring them to the curb every other week. Maybe we should even ask the city to switch the collection schedule so recycling gets picked up weekly and garbage every other week.
    • Use cleaning supplies with less harmful chemicals.
    • Turn off your car when you stop to run into a store or an office.
    • Plant a tree in your yard.
    • Use a refillable water bottle.
    • And, naturally, in light of the plastic at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, bring your own reusable cloth bags to the grocery store and everywhere else you shop.

These reflections appear in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with noting that I care for creation in a small way
by often biking to the office thereby using my car less.

Calls to prayer

Retired CRC Pastor Dale Vander Veen graciously welcomed
me to share with you these reflections he wrote.

Adherents of Islam are required to pray five times daily—at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and nightfall. Muezzins (criers) announce the prayer times from the minaret or tower of the mosque.

Our community is a rather quiet one compared to the almost incessant noises of large cities. Arriving home last night we did hear an automobile alarm. Almost daily we hear the arrival of the mail with the telltale hum of the USPS truck. We enjoy the susurration of the automatic sprinkler system. Yesterday we heard a radio and teenage conversation as a quartet of high schoolers sealed our deck. Occasionally we hear the plop of the newspaper on the front porch. The squeaky brakes of the trash truck and the unmuffled roar of the lawnmowers remind us what day of the week it is.

Why not consider those noises as calls to prayer—God’s very earthly and earthy muezzins? When I hear the sirens of an emergency vehicle, why not pray for the first-responders and those they are rushing to assist? When I hear the squeak of the trash and recycling trucks, why not pray for the driver and his family? I have heard those drivers step on the brakes over a thousand times in the last sixteen years and never thought of praying for them. How many other calls to prayer have I missed in my preoccupation with myself?

The disciples saw the crowds as hungry people to send away. Jesus saw them as hungry people to feed. Are the city noises signs of people to ignore or calls from God to pray?

Graphic found with Google

“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples,
‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore,
to send out workers into his harvest field.’”
~ Matthew 9:36-38 ~