First and above all

This year’s 8th grade graduates at Rock Valley Christian School graciously invited me to speak at their graduation. They asked me to offer a few reflections on their grad text, Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

It occurred to me that you actually hear this invitation, this call to love all over the Bible: Joshua, David, the prophets, the apostlesGreatest Commandment graphic found with Googlethey all call God’s people to ditch false gods and love the Lord their God with all they are. Jesus himself says it’s tied at first place as the most important command of all – right up there with loving the people around you. From the secrets deep within you to the very tips of your fingers, from the core of your identity to your every action, the Bible calls people to love God first and above all.

Loving God, as I told the graduates, is all about honoring him, deeply respecting him, and obeying his good will for us as described in the Bible. We can choose to love God similarly to how we can choose how we treat our parents or siblings, or how a certain pair of jeans or a video game becomes our favorite because we choose to wear it or play it over and over. Our choices are connected with what we love.

So I encouraged the graduates to make the choice to love God before and above anything or anyone else.

I was quick to add, though, that their ability to choose to love God is possible only because he first chooses to love them. If it weren’t for his creative power in making us, his redeeming power in saving us, and his ongoing power in equipping us, we’d never choose to love God. If God waited for us to sign up to honor, respect, and obey him, he’d be waiting for eternity.

Can we respond perfectly to God’s call to love him first and foremost? No. And God knows we can’t. Only one Person in history could keep all God’s commands perfectly. Many years after Moses preached Deuteronomy 6 to the people, God sent him – the Father sent Jesus “to stand in our place and be perfect for us,” to quote The Jesus Storybook Bible. Keeping commandments and rules won’t save us. Only God in Christ saves us because he love us.

I concluded with reminding the graduates that the Holy Spirit is working in each one of them, empowering them to reflect God’s great love back at him and the people he puts in their lives. Through their grad text, that’s what God was inviting them to do that very day, this summer, as they begin high school, and for the rest of their lives. I believe it’s good news and good advice for everyone regardless of when they will finish school or how long it’s been since they’ve graduated.

This is the column I wrote for today’s Rock Valley Bee
based on my grad address at RVCS.

Dressed for the holidays

Tuxedo graphic found with GoogleIt’s that time of year when you dress up for Christmas programs, concerts, and parties.
In one of his daily e-devotions, retired pastor
Dale Vander Veen reminds me of some apparel that’s always in season and should always
be worn regardless of the occasion.

“Therapy”

Occupational therapy. Recreational therapy. Massage therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Anger management therapy. Holistic therapy. Hydrotherapy. Psychotherapy. Group therapy. Physical therapy. Aromatherapy. Magnetic therapy.

A large clothing store suggested… apparel therapy. When you’re down, buy a gown. When you’re blue, get something new. How about hair therapy? When I’m blue, get a new do. (Note: Not recommended for men like me who lack the necessary raw material.)

God recommends apparel therapy. When I loathe, I should clothe. When I mess up, I should dress up. What shall I wear today? In one of his richest epistolary gems, Paul parades this collection on the fashion walkway. I can clothe myself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, thankfulness, wisdom, and singing (humming suggested as a sensitive substitute). Nothing flashy, nothing faddish. Always seasonable, always reasonable. Someone next to you wears the same outfit? Thank God and move a little closer!

And did you notice? All pieces of “The Classic Collection” mix and match to perfection. I can wear the entire wardrobe every day – and never appear out-of-date. Above all, I must not forget the final touch. “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

…With the prayer that today you will find your heart therapy
in the wardrobe of Jesus.

Ruth the risk taker

Ruth graphic from timewarpwife.com

Each time I read about her, I’m singularly impressed by the Ruth of the Bible. I admire her as a loving risk taker.

Out of love for her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth risks leaving her family, her country, and her culture to move to Bethlehem. Widows did not have it easy in ancient Israel, and things would have been even more difficult for an immigrant widow like Ruth. Yet she declares to Naomi:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

These brave words echo down through history, sometimes even making their way into wedding vows today.

Once in Bethlehem, Ruth does not passively wait around to see what will happen next. She takes the initiative, suggesting to Naomi that she go out and find work and food for the two of them. Destitute people in Israel (often foreigners and widows) were permitted to pick up leftovers from the edges of the fields during harvest time. Perhaps recognizing those leftovers would not be enough for both her and Naomi, Ruth takes another risk and asks the foreman if she can gather grain from among the sheaves behind the workers who were harvesting. Instead of being told to remember her proper place, Ruth is allowed to work among the harvesters. Landowner Boaz recognizes the spirit and not just the letter of the law meant to help the poor and he ensures Ruth is both welcomed and protected among his workers.

Naomi soon perceives that Boaz may make a fine husband for Ruth and she concocts a plan that looks like a marriage proposal. Naomi carefully instructs Ruth with what to do and say, but when the time comes, Ruth veers away from the script Naomi provides her. Ruth asks not only for Boaz to consider her, but to embrace his role as the entire family’s guardian-redeemer, making it possible for Naomi to reclaim her family’s estate. Out of love for Naomi, Ruth risks challenging a powerful landowner to fulfill his duty for Naomi’s family regardless of how costly it will be for Boaz.

Ruth is rewarded for her love-filled risks: She finds a stable food source for herself and Naomi, she restores Naomi’s honor in Israel, and she herself finds a place among God’s people that will be remembered for all history.

The apostle Paul calls God’s people to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Some might argue that headstrong, risk-taking Ruth is not very submissive. I disagree. She perhaps is not always very compliant, but I nevertheless see her as one who, instead of looking out for her own interests, looks out for the interests of others – a good role model for myself and my selfish tendencies. She submitted to the God of Naomi and discovered how to submit to others while still taking the initiative. She sets a great example for both male and female Spirit-filled followers of Jesus today.

Read the entire story of Ruth – at only 4 chapters,
it’s a quick and exciting read. To dig deeper into this story,
I recommend Carolyn Custis James’s book,
The Gospel of Ruth:
Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
.

Talking together about creation

Grand Canyon photo found at Reader's Digest (rd.com)

Jesse and Maria are visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. Both are Christians and marvel at God’s masterful work in the immense canyon.

Jesse sees within the beauty around him evidence that the earth is very old. He finds convincing the arguments that the various layers of the Grand Canyon together with the fossils contained therein suggest a slow, orderly deposit of rock and bones over millions of years. He cannot dismiss the radiometric dating analysis scientists have done which suggests the Grand Canyon could be up to 70 million years old. Instead of the result of a cataclysmic global flood several thousand years ago, Jesse sees within the grandeur of the canyon evidence that over a long period of time God carefully and beautifully “laid the earth’s foundations.”

Maria on the other hand takes in the same panoramic beauty and is increasingly convinced that God made the “basement” layers of rock on his third day of creating the universe when he said, “Let dry ground appear.” Maria finds compelling the evidence that the remaining layers were then deposited by the waters of a global flood in the days of Noah and the ark approximately 4,500 years ago. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is redemptive for Maria: Even though it was God’s judgment on sin (the flood) that created the chasm, over time it has become beautiful, reminding Maria of how God can heal the worst of circumstances.

Depending on your perspective, it’s tempting to write off either Jesse or Maria and their interpretations of science and scripture. We might label one as an out-of-touch conservative or the other as a truth-denying liberal. The fact is that both Jesse and Maria are representative of faithful Christians – including many scientists – who subscribe to the authority of the Bible while also taking seriously how God speaks through his creation. Some Bible-believing Christians defend the view that Genesis teaches God created everything in six 24-hour periods and then rested on the seventh day. Other Bible-believing Christians see within the opening chapters of Genesis elegant poetry refuting the false ancient religions that taught the universe was created haphazardly by many gods; therefore the “days” of creation do not need to be understood as 24-hour periods any more than one has to believe God is made of granite or quartzite because the psalmist declares God to be a rock (see Psalm 18).

It’s sad but true that Christians are often harsh and uncharitable when they disagree over matters of creation. However, it’s also true that both Jesse and Maria and all the Christians they represent are together Christ’s ambassadors on earth and will be together for eternity in the new heaven and earth. So it makes sense that, even if it means agreeing to disagree, we begin figuring out how to get along here and now! And it makes sense for both adults and students at school to examine and evaluate the various biblical and scientific perspectives on creation, not fearful of them, but eagerly expecting to grow in appreciating and understanding God and his creative work.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee
where I noted that I find Deborah and Loren Haarsma’s book
Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution,
and Intelligent Design
helpful in thinking about this subject.

Practicing knowing God

In Jeremiah 22:16, Jeremiah describes King Josiah as a good king, and then he moves on to say “because he looks after those who care for the poor” (that’s my paraphrase). And then Jeremiah says, “Is that not what it means to know me?” In other words, knowing God is not simply knowing things about God. Knowing God is a social practice—it’s a way of being in the world. It’s something we do with our bodies and our minds in the power of the Spirit. Now I’m not saying that you work your way into heaven! My point is simply that God is love, and Christ’s incarnation is the embodiment of love. Love needs to be embodied.

– John Swinton,
founder of the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability
at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland,
in a conversation
with Church Health Reader,
quoted in the CRC’s Disability Concerns Oct 2017 e-newsletter

Bookends

My current Bible reading plan includes reading a psalm each day. The other day I was up to Psalm 41, the end of which marks the division between Book I and Book II of the Psalter.

It occurs to me that Book I (Psalms 1-41) opens and ends on a similar note, one of blessing. Psalm 1 begins with a blessing for the one who delights in the Lord and His will:

Blessed is the one who
does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.

In short, the book of Psalms opens with a call to love the Lord our God and His ways.

It turns out that Psalm 41, the last psalm of Book I, also opens with the word “Blessed.” This time the blessing is for those who defend the powerless:

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak;
the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.

Here at the end of Book I we have a call to love the weak or, as the Bookends found at Wayfair.comESV translates it, the poor. Deliverance comes to those who love their neighbor as themselves.

I see Psalms 1 & 41 as bookends. Taken together, they foreshadow Jesus’ summary of the law which Psalm 1 upholds:

“The most important [command],”
answered Jesus,
“is this:
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul
and with all your mind
and with all your strength.’
The second is this:
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no commandment greater than these.”

Together Psalms 1 & 41 reveal the secret to a blessed life, a life marked with joy and meaning: It’s an other-focused life. Instead of focusing on myself and pursuing my own happiness, I’m called to focus on God and focus on others. Loving and serving God together with loving and serving others – that’s where I (together with God’s people for millennia) have found the blessed life.

Unity

When I come across a list of names in the Bible, it’s easy for me to just skip over it and get to the more exciting story that follows. Sometimes, however, there’s a message even in a seemingly boring list of names. Take Acts 13, for example. The people listed there are from different ethnicities – some Jewish, some Roman, and possibly even an African. Each person has a different history – one likely grew up in a palace like in the fairy tales, another murderously pursued people with beliefs different than his own. On top of that, the people listed there serve the early church in different roles – some are pastors and some are prophets.

Yet despite these differences, these people are united in Christ. They serve the one church together, blessing one another with their different backgrounds and perspectives, interests and gifts.

Multicultural graphic found via Google

I love how the church of Jesus is made up of so many different people, people who maybe would otherwise have nothing to do with each other, but in Christ they (we!) are united in a bond of love. The Good News of Jesus is that He reconciles us to God, but He also reconciles us to one another; one ought to lead to the other is how I see it.

I pray that the Holy Spirit reveals God’s grace to me so that I in turn may share it with others, no matter how similar or how different they may be from myself.

Love above order

If I have a gift of organization that can move mountains of stuff,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
– 1 Corinthians 13:2 (paraphrased)

Pile of papers graphic found via Google

Most people would call me organized. 1 Corinthians 14:40 (KJV) could be my life verse: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Thanks for keeping things organized for us.” But some have also said, “You’re driving me crazy with your organization.” I hate to admit it, but I’ve even heard the phrase obsessive-compulsive, which, of course, is actually a disorder.

As the saying goes, “Every virtue has its vice.” I’ve discovered that most virtues (if organization can be called virtuous) also have their exceptions. I’m looking at a pile of stuff that’s been on my filing cabinet for weeks. I notice that the pile has birthed a child recently. In fact, the child pile is threatening to outgrow the parent.

Dare I put the child on top of the parent and get back to one teetering pile? Is there a shelf in the closet on which I can hide both the parent and the child and thus protect my reputation for organization?

Does it really matter? Ah, there is the important question. Does my reputation for organization matter? No. Does it matter if I have a pile of stuff setting around? Probably not. Does it matter if I have two piles of stuff setting around? Maybe not. But surely there must be some number of piles that violates decency and order!

If order doesn’t matter, what does matter? Paul says, “The only thing that matters is faith working through love.” Does my penchant for organization help me express my love for others or does it hinder showing that love? It all depends. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it hinders.

Father, giver of the gift of organization, give me also the gift of sensitivity, that I might use all your gifts for the good of others.

::– –::– –::

Believe it or not, I did not write this reflection! I post it here with the kind permission of its original author, Dale Vander Veen. Anyone who’s been around me for more than 5 minutes will recognize a lot of me in Dale’s description of his tendency to be very organized!

Always

A couple weekends ago, Monica and I attended The Art of Marriage retreat hosted by Trinity CRC at beautiful Inspiration Hills. The setting is aptly named as Monica and I were inspired in our married life together!

The Art of Marriage

The retreat coincided with a series of messages that the other Trinity pastors and I delivered this past month about relationships. Each installment was based on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; the message I gave this past Sunday was the final in the series and focused on verse 7: Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

I referred to The Art of Marriage near the end of the message, but I began with how always and never are dangerous things to say when you’re arguing with your spouse or a friend…
“You never put the toilet seat down.”
“You always spend more money than you say you will.”
“You never want to talk about nurturing faith in our home.”
“You always call your mother when we argue.”
…Such exaggerations will only make the conversation go downhill from there!

The word always can only be said most safely by love, by those in love. And by “in love,” I mean by those who are “in Christ” who personifies the love of 1 Corinthians 13.

Please continue reading my message here

Wondrous love

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”
Jesus

Jesus, tell me, show me, how the Father loved you when he let you die an agonizing, cruel, brutal death and didn’t do a thing to stop it. How does that express his love? And you love me with that kind of love?

::   ::   ::

John McCain tells the story of how one of his guards in the Vietnamese prison camp came to his cell every evening, risking his own life to loosen McCain’s bonds and make him a bit more comfortable for the night. Because of the language barrier, they couldn’t communicate. But one night the guard drew the sign of the cross on the dirt floor. How many other acts of selfless love have been evoked over the centuries by this sign of the cross?

::   ::   ::

I think the Father didn’t make you die on a cross, Jesus, or order you to die that way. I think he permitted you to show your love for us by your willingly enduring the worst we could do to you and then continuing to love us. Jesus, teach me to love that way. Transform me into what you would have me be. Grant me the courage, the power, and the fortitude to become worthy of being called a Christian.

Cross on a necklace

I read this several years ago
in Forward Day by Day. I think it connects
perfectly with the start of Lent.

Love and beauty

Yesterday at Telkwa CRC, I spoke about how love is not only an emotion, but also a decision, a choice that God calls us to make every day even if it’s costly.  Frederick Buechner defines love as “an act of the will.”

I like this story of one man’s costly love for his fiancée and its beautiful consequences.


Johnny Lingo lived on an isolated Pacific Island. The custom on his small island was this: When a young man found a girl he wanted to marry, he paid his future father‑in‑law a certain number of cows for the daughter’s hand. Two or three cows could buy you an average, perfectly adequate wife. Four or five cows could get you a highly satisfactory one.

Now, Johnny loved a girl named Sarita. Sarita had always been very plain. She was thin, her shoulders were hunched over, and she walked with her head down. Yet Johnny paid Sarita’s father eight cows.

The islanders said to one another, “Eight cows? This is ridiculous. He got cheated.” It was the talk of the community.

A visitor who had heard of the eight‑cow betrothal came to Johnny’s house to do some business with him. As they were talking, Sarita entered the room to set a vase of flowers on the table. And it seemed to the visitor that the flowers weren’t nearly as beautiful and vibrant as the wife of Johnny Lingo. She was not at all like the Sarita he had heard about. She was one of the loveliest women he had ever seen. There was something in the lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, and the sparkle of her eyes.

Johnny noticed his guest’s wide-eyed response to his wife. When Sarita left the room, Johnny said to his guest, “Have you ever thought about what it must mean to a woman to know that her husband had settled on the lowest price for which she could be bought? Did you ever wonder what it must feel like to her, when the women talk and boast of what their husbands paid for them? One says, ‘four cows,’ another ‘five cows,’ or maybe even ‘six cows.’ How does she feel, the woman whose betrothal cost one or two?

“I decided this must not happen to my Sarita,” continued Johnny. “I wanted to marry Sarita. I loved her and no other woman. I wanted Sarita to be happy, but I wanted more than that. I wanted her and everyone else to know that she is worth more than any other woman to me.”

What a wise man. Because of his love, Sarita became the most beautiful woman on the island.

Credit and more:
Adapted from Ron Mehl’s telling of this story in his book
The Ten(der) Commandments: Reflections on the Father’s Love, p. 182-183.  You can read the Frederick Buechner quote its context here.

Breaking the cycle

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He understands that that’s the only way to break the cycle of violence.  Miroslav Volf captures this precisely in his book The End of Memory:

To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one.  The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory when evil is returned.  After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life. (page 9)

May you and I stop infusing new life into the wrongs committed against us, learning instead to love those who hurt us with the love God give us even though we hurt Him with our sins.  That’s the way to peace.