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The Day of Small Things

Almost all of us, unless we are narcissists, occasionally suffer from feelings of insignificance.   I remember how devastated I was at the age of 18 or so, when I first saw a tennis prodigy on television winning her first championship at the age of 16.  There was something disconcerting about seeing someone shoot to the pinnacle of her profession, when I hadn’t even succeeded in picking one yet.  This is funny to me now, but it wasn’t then.  Most of us, at some point in our lives, have wanted to do something that would get our names in the record books. Something that would make us great or legendary.  Instead, we find ourselves, the vast majority of us, in the middle of the daily grind.  We do our apparently small deeds that are just like the countless small deeds that everybody else is doing, and sometimes we wonder if we are even capable of that much.  The loss of a job or a failed relationship makes us wonder if even the ordinary is beyond us. 

For those of us who have struggled to achieve the status quo, we have our kindred spirit in the Old Testament character, Zerubbabel.   We are preparing to start a book study of Zechariah in my small group, and the preface to the book in my ESV study Bible pointed to Zechariah 4:10a as one of the key verses of the book:  “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.”

“Who is Zerubbabel?” you ask.  And secretly you wonder, What is a plumb line?

Zerubbabel was a descendent of King David, a grandson of one of the last kings of that dynasty, and in a position to claim the throne himself, except that there was no throne to claim.  The kingdom had been lost in the exile to Babylon.  Now Judah was a tiny part of the great Persian Empire, and Zerubbabel was only a governor under the authority of an imperial government far away.  Twenty years before, the Jewish people had returned to their homeland to find nothing but poverty and ruined cities.  Nehemiah had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem so that the people could have a measure of security, but it fell to Zerubbabel to build a new temple — one that would be only a shadow of the beautiful edifice built by his ancestor, Solomon.  There was a shortage of money and, of course, there were political obstacles.  The prophet Haggai was delivering sermons to the Jewish people to stir up their enthusiasm to this work of rebuilding God’s house.

But the enthusiasm wasn’t there.  They were a beaten people.  The glory of Jerusalem had been stripped away.  Even if they rebuilt the temple, it wouldn’t compare with the one that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed.  Besides, they were in a daily battle for survival.  They were trying to rebuild a nation out of the ashes of their grandparents’ sin and failure.  It seemed like all the great works of God had been done in the past.  God had parted the Red Sea and demolished the walls of Jericho in the long ago, but now His people were grubbing weeds and stacking bricks.  The still-chosen people of God were suffering from a profound case of nobody-ness.  It seemed like a day of small things.

Then God began to speak to Zechariah through some of the most striking visions found anywhere in Scripture.  God had not forgotten His people; His historic plan for them had not been abandoned.  He would bless them again, and He would send them a King to restore their ruined kingdom.  Did they feel insignificant?  God was sending a King who would  exalt the insignificant: 

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  (Zech 9:9 [ESV])

To Zerubbabel and his contemporaries, it must have seemed that their part in this unfolding plan of God was very small indeed.  Yet God repeatedly assured Zerubbabel of his calling and his significance.  “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain.  And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!” (Zech 4:7 [ESV]).  Zerubbabel was destined to succeed because the favor of God rested upon his work, and no obstacle would prevent him from finishing what he had started.  The finished product might not be impressive to human eyes in the way that Solomon’s temple was impressive, but God would be pleased that Zerubbabel had done the necessary work to glorify God in his own generation.  Zerubbabel was a blessed man.

Even more, God was going to change the perspective of those who saw and judged Zerubbabel’s labors.  Those who despised the era in which they lived as a “day of small things” were going to get an attitude adjustment.  They were going to see the favor of God, the grace of God, in the success of Zerubbabel, and God would have glory in the triumph of His people.  What was required of Zerubbabel?  There was one key ingredient to the promise.  The people would rejoice to see him holding a plumb line.  This was a tool used in the ancient world to make sure that a wall was straight.  If the angle of a wall was off-center, the whole building was in jeopardy.  As the leader of the people, it was Zerubbabel’s job to see the work was being done properly — to come behind the workers and verify that each part of the building was firm and straight.  His diligence in the small things, and God’s blessing on the whole project, were the guarantees of success.

Should we feel insignificant then because God has called us to a task that seems small or unimpressive?  The truth is that not one of us is in a good place to judge the value of our own work.  After all, your high school history book was full of people of who were mighty and famous in their day, and yet not one piece of what they built has survived.  Matthew Henry notes that Zerubbabel is a picture of Christ in that God promised that he would both start the temple and finish it.  In the same way, Christ is the beginner and the finisher of our faith.  He is both the cornerstone and the capstone of all that we seek to accomplish for God.  Let us to look to Him and boast in the finished work of Christ.  All that we do for Him will have significance.  We will each look back on our own day of small things and cry, “Grace, grace.”

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W-O-M-A-N

I had an allergic reaction a few weeks ago, and it had nothing to do with the high pollen count.

I was listening to a DVD of a Christian speaker talking about false messages that our culture sends to  women – a very good and timely topic.   There is much to dislike about the way popular culture pimps out a sexually supercharged image of women everywhere from online porn to the posters hanging up outside Victoria’s Secret.  I think a number of women have also bought into the pressure to achieve according to a certain definition of worldly success.  Then, too, many women feel the weight of condemnation when something goes wrong with their families, say a marriage falls apart or a prodigal goes astray.  Yes, I would agree that we are in need of a biblical understanding of womanhood and our place in the world.

The thing is — and this explains my allergic reaction — I’m not sure that God has laid out such a handy-dandy definition as this speaker seems to be suggesting.  I think she has boxed up definition of Christian femininity that is much too small.  Certainly, we accept the authority of ALL God’s Word.  We do not dismiss verses because they are inconvenient to how we want to view ourselves.  I do think, though, that the traditions of men have so tangled up the question of how we as women are to understand ourselves that it behooves us to re-examine just how God does portray women in His Word.  The plain truth is that the contemporary church has divided itself into two camps, and I am not satisfied with either of them.

Please note, I am not a theologian.  If you are looking for someone who knows Hebrew and Greek to explain this to you, I can’t.  I can tell you that this is an issue that has left me with some old wounds and some bitterness that is desperately in need of forgiveness.  I also know that my issues are small time compared to women who have suffered at the hands of abusive fathers and husbands, an experience which I have never had.  Contemporary women are suffering from a full-blown identity crisis.  We don’t need someone to say, “God loves you.  Now here are all the biblical ways that you’re second-class.”  Nor do we need a false image of womanhood that has nothing to do with the people God made us to be.

Let me ask you this.  What mental image comes to you when I say the word “lady”?  Is there a certain way that a lady looks?  And, if so, why?  Paul’s famous admonition goes as follows:  “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes.  For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do” -1 Tim 2:9-10 (NLT).  The three Scriptural requirements are that our appearance be modest, that it be appropriate, and that it be completely overshadowed by our actions.  I don’t think we should turn this into a legalistic decree against all adornment.  But rather, I want us to consider whether our mental image of a “lady” does not automatically include a certain polished and put-together look that is nowhere mandated by this verse.

In fact, I think this verse is pretty clear that God does not define womanhood by externals.  Sound obvious?  Not to every sermon, book, or article I’ve encountered on the subject.  There is always the tribute to “inner beauty,”  which is usually characterized as a virtuous character and a quiet spirit, but the author (male or female) always seems compelled to add that “of course” women still want to be attractive, and that we should do our best with what God gave us.  Or, as the preachers were wont to say when I was a girl, “A little paint never hurt any old barn.”

Aside from the disrespect of that last aphorism, would you be surprised to know that up until very recent times (think the last century), most Christians assumed that make-up was immoral?  A woman who painted her face was seen as deceptive at best, or, at worst, a fallen woman advertising her wares.   I am most certainly not suggesting we go back to that, but I am wondering why the church so emphatically reversed its opinion.  For the better part of nineteen centuries women were taught that their faces looked exactly as God wanted them to look, and that they needed no artificial improvement.  They were not told in one sermon that they were fearfully and wonderfully made, and then told in the next to do the best with what they had.  Talk about sending mixed signals!  Lord knows, I don’t want to idealize our fore-mothers, who didn’t paint their faces, but who did squeeze themselves into impossible shapes every time they put on a corset.  I do want us to step back and consider that how we portray an ideal womanhood is every bit as time-bound and changeable as the ideals of our ancestors.

I think there are a number of people in the Church at large who have imprinted their own fantasies, or their own mistaken nostalgia, on verses that have to do with women.  As if the words “JUNE” and “CLEAVER” appeared in the 31st chapter of Proverbs.  I’ve read the Bible on the Proverbs 31 woman, and that is one formidable dame.  When the 18th century Bible commentator Adam Clarke was seeking an example among his own contemporaries, he cited Susannah Wesley — not for her housekeeping, but for her intellectual accomplishments.  He mentions her virtue, then adds, “Besides, she was a woman of great learning and information, and of a depth of mind, and reach of thought, seldom to be found among the daughters of Eve, and not often among the sons of Adam.”  She was admirable, not just for excelling among women, but for excelling among men as well.  Moreover, if you read Clarke’s commentary, he is quite clear that even in his own day there was a place for women in industry and trade.  I mention this because what passes for nostalgia in some evangelical circles has very little to do with history.  For most of history, a woman who did not have to work with her husband to make ends meet was a rare thing.  A status symbol in fact.  A woman who didn’t have to work in a workshop or a factory or on the farm was advertising her husband’s affluence; she was staying at home because he could afford it, and most men couldn’t.

And this brings us to the third part of Paul’s description of beauty.  The idea of femininity that is promoted in churches is often largely passive.  It involves a certain look or the belief that only men are called to ministry and women are perpetually cast in the supporting role.  Yet, Paul implies that the godly woman has work of her own.  Certainly, the Proverbs 31 woman does.  In both passages, women are not only offered, but enjoined to the dignity of meaningful work.  The Proverbs 31 man is, in fact, able to take an active role in the community (“sitting in the gate” indicates a position of leadership and influence) because his wife is working with him, and he is not the sole provider for his family.   The woman of I Timothy 2 is defined by and approved for her good works, not by her appearance, however pleasing.  By “good works,” we can understand an active and outgoing virtue.  There are no awards in Scripture for the person of either gender who leaves the important work to everyone else.

So what do we do with all this?  Well, I suppose we can validate a certain amount of concern that girls have about their appearances.  There is a place for teaching what is modest and appropriate; even feminists cringe at the sight of young girls dressed like sex slaves.  But I do have a problem that much of the church materials addressed to young girls are centered around these first two characteristics (modest and appropriate dress), and the third quality, that of being defined by our work rather than our appearance, seems to be relegated to a supporting role.

If the church really wants to combat the demeaning representation of femininity in our culture, it needs to get serious about cultivating the talents and gifts of girls.  I don’t mean cliches about “girl power.”  I mean that the church needs to recognize that God has invested real and powerful gifts in every woman — gifts of great worth and significance — and that the entire body of Christ is weakened every time a girl fails to identify and use those gifts because she was brushed off or set aside.  Better still, impress upon each the fact that God made her for relationship with Himself, that she was made for God’s will and pleasure (Rev. 4:11), not for a man’s, and then watch her regulate her dress and actions accordingly.

 

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God’s Pleasures

My last post discussed the problems with Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure in Ecclesiastes 2.  I had a great moment Monday night as I was preparing to teach this lesson to my Wed. night Bible study.  I had one of those moments that come sometimes to teachers of Scripture when you think the lesson is going to be about one thing, but it takes a left turn and goes somewhere else.  When that happens, it is almost always because the Holy Spirit has taken the wheel and pointed you to the lesson He wants to teach rather than the one that you want to teach.

I thought I was going to teach a lesson on “good” pleasures.  Whereas, Solomon’s pleasures were all about his own power and importance, I was going to find the New Testament verses that tell us how to find God-pleasing pleasures.  After all, I love to quote Ps. 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  And haven’t C.S. Lewis and John Piper both written about a Christian hedonism that sees the glory of God in the joyful lives of His people?  Well, yes.  And I still think they’re on to something.

The problem is that, when I looked up NT references to “pleasure”, the results were disconcerting.  Far from describing the pleasures of the Christian life, every place in the NT that speaks of human pleasure does so in a negative context.  I’m talking about passages like 2 Thess. 2 that tells how those who choose pleasure over truth will be given over to a strong delusion.  Or James 5 which pronounces the judgment of God on those who live in luxury at the expense of the poor.   I mean, these are some verses that are seriously down on pleasure.

On the other hand, all the verses that present pleasure in a positive context talk about God’s pleasure or that God is pleased to do something.  Sometimes, it depends on the translation you are looking at (and I looked at several), but there seems to be something synonymous in the original Greek (which I haven’t studied) between what God wills and what gives Him pleasure.  Naturally, if God is omnipotent, He wills and does as He pleases.
There is some food for thought in that.  What gives God pleasure?  Are we somehow being left out in the cold by a sovereign God who pursues His own pleasures while condemning ours?

That’s where the lesson got really good because here is the list of pleasures I found:

Revelation 4:11 — We were created for God’s pleasure.  Why do I exist?  Because long before the world began (see Eph. 1), God thought of me, and the idea of me gave Him pleasure, so here I am.

Luke 10:21 — God is pleased to reveal Himself to His people.  Those who come to him with the faith of a child receive a revelation of God’s person that is hidden from those who are wise in their own opinions.

Luke 12:32-34 — It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  Not just a kingdom, but the kingdom, as in The Only Kingdom That Matters.  Solomon’s rich and mighty kingdom vanished.  Archeologists sit around their dirt holes and argue over whether or not it was ever actually there.  But God gives His people an eternal kingdom, and it is His pleasure to give.

Ephesians 1:5-11 — For His own good pleasure, God has adopted us and given us an inheritance.

1 Peter 2:19-20 — God takes pleasure in our patient endurance.  Not in our suffering, mind you, but in faith-filled endurance that overcomes that suffering.

Hebrews 11:6 — God is pleased with our faith, and without faith, it is impossible to please Him.  Specifically, He wants a faith that trusts Him to reward our pursuit of Him.

Philippians 2:13 — God receives pleasure from the results of His work in us as we learn to will and act in ways that honor Him.

All this left me wondering:  If God made me for His own pleasure, what is it about me that gives Him pleasure?  I know better than to think that it is my frequent bad attitude or sniping over whatever circumstance I’m in.  I know what God thinks of that!  But what is it I do that is pleasurable to Him?   I don’t just mean my good choices, but when I do the sort of work that He created me as an individual to do.  When does God look over my shoulder in enjoyment at what I’m engaged in?

I’m going to spend some time thinking about this because – whatever it is – I want to do more of it.

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The Baby of the Family

That last post was heavy.  I remember one time in high school when I gave a report in my American History class about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism, and the presentation ran a little long.  One of my classmates came up to me afterwards and said, “If you ever give a dissertation like that again, I will put my head on my desk and snore!”  Since the person who said that was the class valedictorian, I took the criticism seriously.  In that spirit, I have decided to post something a little more lighthearted today.

This is my cat:

Her name is Pookie, and as you can see, she is not fond of flash photography.  Also, as you can see, she considers herself a member of the family and has no trouble perching herself in front of whatever you’re looking at in order to get attention.  Pookie is the one member of the family who did not enjoy our vacation because we didn’t take her.  Someone came and fed her daily, but she was otherwise alone for the entire week.  The result is that she has been exceptionally clingy since we came home.  This behavior includes excessive purring, arching her back to indicate that she would like to be picked up, wallowing all over us when we sit down, and occasionally just sitting in front of us and gazing at us lovingly.  As I’ve pointed out to mother, who’s tired of picking up the cat, isn’t it nice to be appreciated?  The other night, while I was watching television with my laptop in my lap, she hopped up onto the arm of the recliner and put her head on my shoulder.

So in honor of my furry baby, here is my Top Ten List of reasons I love my cat:

10.  She’s quieter than a dog.

9.  She likes to play tag, which she initiates by swatting my ankle with her paw and running off in the other direction.

8.  She enjoys the Food Channel.  For Pookie, this consists of sitting in a window and licking her lips at the birds that flutter by in our yard.

7.  She is an indoor cat.  We do not let her outdoors, partly because of the birds that flutter by in our yard.

6.  She shares my love of green olives.  We don’t know why, but she will take an olive over a kitty treat any day.  When you open a jar, she can smell it from the other end of the house and comes running.  But she doesn’t eat the pimentos.

5.  She’s mushy.  We got her when she was only two months old, and apparently she thinks we’re all mama.

4.  When Mother is doing her Bible reading in the mornings, Pookie will climb onto the Bible and sit on it until Mother hugs her.  Mother finds this annoying; I call it standing on the Word.

3.  She’s cute.

2.  After seven years, she’s still playful.  She’s especially fond of the little plastic strips that you pull off the milk gallon lid.  She twirls them on her paw and bats them around the kitchen.

1.  Number one reason I love my cat is pure selfishness.  It’s hard not to love something that is so obviously partial to me.

There, now you know that I can occasionally be sentimental, after all.  Just don’t expect me to do it often.

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The Legacy of Those Summer Nights

When I was in elementary school, my mother used to send me to Bible camp.  This was not because I liked to go.  This was because I was a loner and a daydreamer, and she thought I needed to get out more.  (Or so she says.  I still wonder about her sometimes.  Like did we really not go on vacation all those summers, or did they just wait until I was gone?)  Anyway, the first two years I was old enough, she sent me to TWO different Bible camps, and while I liked the people at the camps (really, I did!), I didn’t like camp.

For one thing, I experienced serious separation anxiety.  You can call in homesickness, but it wasn’t the house I was missing.

For another, the living conditions were not exactly homelike.  The first year I went to Good News Camp, the director was still Miss Haney.  Miss Haney was the director of Child Evangelism Fellowship for Johnson City and had been for I don’t know how long.  Before that she was a missionary to Ethiopia —  I think back when it was still called Abyssinia (and I’m not kidding).  My first year at camp was her last year before she retired.  I remember liking Miss Haney, but she had rather old fashioned ideas about how things should be done.  And they were strict ideas.  There is nothing like a tour of duty on the mission field in a third-world country to knock the nonsense out of you.

One of Miss Haney’s notions was that we should not leave our cabins after lights out.  This would have been a very reasonable rule, except that the shower house and all the toilets were located in a building separate from the cabins.  This created a certain amount of inconvenience.  Technically, all the cabins had access to indoor plumbing; it was just indoors somewhere else.  So, if you woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom, you had to rummage in the suitcase under your bunk bed, find your flashlight, put on your sneakers and walk the little path through the woods to get to the appropriate facilities.  Admittedly, this was less than ideal.

Miss Haney, however, had a solution.  Every year, at the beginning of camp week, there was a general distribution of chamber pots to each and every cabin.  On Monday afternoon, while everyone was choosing bunks and unrolling their sleeping bags, one luckless child would be dispatched to the camp office, only to return with a large, white chamber pot.  (Decorated, I recall, with flowers painted on the side, as if this made it more attractive.) I remembered this last night while I was tossing in bed and couldn’t sleep, and I had an epiphany of sorts.  Where did she get the chamber pots?  Surely, they weren’t still manufacturing those in 1983.  And where did she store them the other 51 weeks out of the year?  The mystery deepens.

Every night, to everyone’s dismay, the chamber pot would be pulled from the corner where it lurked and placed ceremoniously in the middle of the cabin.  Of course, no one ever forgot to make a last minute trip to the bathroom before lights out, but there was something psychologically disturbing about seeing the pot put in place.  It made you feel like you might have to go all over again, and then what would you do?  Not the pot!  Would the senior counselor wake up if you sneaked out the door after all?  Would it be easier to just the wet the bed?  Was it possible to think about something else? Perhaps the purpose of the chamber pot was to insure that no child HAD to go the bathroom after lights out.  If that was the case, I believe it was a wildly successful strategy.

I believe my character was shaped by this experience.  To this day, I dislike sleeping anywhere other than my own house, unless perhaps, it is a hotel that I have personally selected.  I suppose it is not fair to blame that entirely on Miss Haney’s chamber pot.  I’m still the solitary daydreamer, and I don’t get out enough. Still, moments like those live with you.  In my case, it was convulsive laughter at two in the morning when I was trying to get to sleep last night.  Unfortunately, hysterical laughter is not a cure for insomnia.

So what about you?  Did you like summer camp when you were a child?

 

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One of Those Days

Am I the only one who can’t get that one gray hair?  You know, that one poking up on the top of my head – toward the back.  I tried to pull it out, but I kept pulling out the brown ones instead.  Even more aggravating, I found THREE more gray hairs while I was still trying to get the first one.

After pulling out about four of the perfectly good still-brown ones, I figured I wasn’t helping the ratio and gave up.

In other news today, it came up today that we have been members of University Parkway Baptist Church for nineteen years.  My mother expressed surprise.  Surely, it hasn’t been that long?  Why, yes it has.  We returned to UPBC when I was sixteen, and I am now thirty-five.

And I have the gray hairs to prove it.

 

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Hola, New Jersey

The blog has now been up for two weeks, and I would like to thank those of you who are stopping by.  We’re almost up to 200 hits and, according to my site stats, I have three whole subscribers and my mother isn’t even one of them!

One interesting function of the blog is that I can keep track of subscribers, though they are identified by e-mail address only.  Each time one is added, WordPress shoots me a congratulatory e-mail that tells me where the subscriber “appears” to be from.  So far, all my subscribers are from New Jersey.  I know this may surprise the three of you who are on my list, since you all know me personally, and I have never been to New Jersey.  To my knowledge, I don’t know anyone from New Jersey.  And yet here we all are.  Such is the marvel of modern technology.

I would be tempted to e-mail WordPress and caution them that something may be awry with their GPS, since Johnson City is nowhere near New Jersey, but I find this quirk in the system oddly reassuring.  After all, how many times have we been warned that the Internet is destroying our privacy, and I suppose in some ways it is, but I suppose we may also find ourselves with the virtual anonymity of the proverbial needle in a haystack.  That is to say, that there will so many of us, the system will not be able to notice any of us.  I know that is hardly a substitute for the close-knit community of people living near each other that we still strive to hang onto in our local churches.  I, though, am relieved at the prospect that even if the worst case scenario happens, it may yet be alleviated by human error. Even if they can locate me at home in my pajamas, or a Chinese spy ring hacks my WiFi and uncovers – What? A recipe for banana pudding? – I will still have the consolation of knowing that I am still just so-and-so from New Jersey.

Hola, Garden State! Are you out there?

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