Final Instructions

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Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Bold Living—Together

Coming to the end of Hebrews, one might expect the writer of such a epic letter of hope and instruction to wrap up with a flourish. To say something so profound, so inspirational, that generations to come will walk boldly forward in their faith with the words ringing in their ears.

But the writer does not. Strangely, s/he ends rather anti-climactically, with an encouragement and an admonishment to live together well.

“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.” (Hebrews 12.14-17, NLT)

So, that’s the punch line? The final word? After all this?

Don’t Try This Alone

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It is. See, the writer knows something Western Christians forget. The final truth is—we can’t do any of the amazing things in chapters 1-11 alone.

Bold Living prioritizes healthy relationships and cares for them with integrity.

The writer knows what looms ahead for these poeple.

  • Things are going to be hard.
  • Stress will threaten to fracture them.
  • Persecution will tempt them to betray one another.
  • Complacency will suck them back into their old life.
  • Some will want to pull up anchor and go.
  • Some will lose their hope and vision.

So this ending. This is how you hang together. Because to paraphrase Ben Franklin, you’ll hang separately otherwise.

This is maintenance for how to keep the fractures, cracks, and small roots from breaking it all apart. It’s not a sexy ending. But it’s a necessary one.

It’s still true, isn’t it? In marriages, friendships, and churches? If we let the small roots get in, they will crack it wide open.

Tiny Cracks

Lots of stresses from outside still pressures us. Time, competing values, money, other relationships, envy—it all gets in the cracks.

That’s how earthquakes destroy—they don’t break open bedrock. They follow where the weaknesses already are. Where the cracks already exist. Then they widen them and wreak havoc.

Ephesians 4.23 warns us—“Don’t let the devil get a foothold.” I know from experience with rock climbing that a foothold need not be a large thing. It can be a tiny crack. Anything the accuser can leverage and widen to climb into our lives.

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Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

What are those little cracks?

Bitterness

“Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

The first sign of trouble in a relationship is always bitterness. Disagreement happens. Disagreements are healthy.  Churches that never disagree are unhealthy places where everyone has to fall in line and no one feels safe.

Marriage that never disagree mean someone isn’t being heard.

If any relationship has no disagreement, there’s a balance of power difference and it’s not a real relationship. We are free, and that means to not be alike.

In every dystopian novel or sci fi movie I’ve ever known, it’s the ones that are all the same we have to be scared of.

But bitterness isn’t healthy disagreement. It’s unhealthy resentment. It’s poison in the cracks. When we see that root, we know trouble is on the way.

  • He should know.
  • I always do all the work in this friendship/church/marriage.
  • How could they not invite me to do that?
  • I’m not appreciated, valued, heard.
  • All our problems are her/his fault.

We tell ourselves these stories until we believe them ourselves.

And then the relationship falls apart, and we blame the other party.

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Bitterness  takes hostages, too.

Gossip

Bitterness becomes gossip as the words in our head become words on our lips. We start to believe our thoughts, and then we tell others. It does as the writer relays—it “corrupts many” as the infection of bitterness spread throughout the body.

  • Please pray for my spouse. You wouldn’t believe what she/he did.
  • I’m not real sure of their parenting skills. How could we help?
  • Do you think the pastor really is doing the best things for us?

The only cure for infection is to get it out. Someone has to go first in honest discussion of what’s happening. Someone has to be willing to lance the wound. Talk about your hurt. Be honest with your needs.

Someone has to pick up the trowel and start patching the cracks.

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If Christ has forgiven us, recreated us, made us witnesses, why not let it be us?

“So stop telling lies (to yourself as well as others). Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” (Ephesians 4.25)

Then, choose to speak words of life.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4.8)

Perhaps an even bigger tree root, however, is the final one.

Apathy

“Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau.”

We are our brothers and sisters keepers.

Work together. Watch one another. It’s our part in the body to live like a body, helping one another toward holiness. Watching out that no one is left out.

Work at peace and holiness. They don’t just happen. We’re not supposed to be only friendly and fun. We’re supposed to help one another be holy. It’s our deep calling to help one anther cross the finish line. We are given the job of making sure we all are living in God’s grace. It’s a holy calling, this depending on one another.

It requires time and intention to be in one another’s lives—not intrusively like a Pharisee, but completely, like a brother or sister. We in the Western culture are not so good at this. We value our privacy. We idolize our time. We live in our bubbles. Yet I believe that one of the biggest dangers to living in Christ is simply being apathetic toward checking in on one another’s faith.

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My older brother ran cross country in high school. I idolized him, and when he ran, I tried to run along, as far as the track coincided with the observers. I ran, though I couldn’t come close to keeping up, until the finish line. I loved my brother. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to be there when he crossed that line (often first).

I want to be there when my brothers and sisters cross the line. I want to cheer them on. I want to run beside them, pacing them, letting them know I’m there for the whole race, if need be.

That’s the kind of church the writer of Hebrews imagined. That’s what s/he wrote to hold on to. Those were the final instructions, and they were better and more important than we think.

Where’s the Party?

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

I am not a party person. I am so far on the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs scale I nearly fall off it. I love being a pastor, and I love my people, but socializing with a roomful of acquaintances on a surface level feels like I imagine purgatory would feel, if I believed in it.

Nevertheless, I enjoy a well crafted party with people I love. We’ve had our share this year, with the youngest’s wedding right in the middle of 2019. A shower. A wedding. A reception back home. All of it. And all of it we crafted carefully, with their tastes and our budget in mind.

We planned themes, grew and arranged flowers, drilled holes in centerpieces and hand-letters signs that told people exactly where to put their cards and how to play the date night game. While we did much of the work ourselves, we had a dress, a caterer, and a photographer that knocked it out of the park.

We missed nothing. It was a wonderful day.

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Time to Party

As we’ve been walking through Hebrews, off and on, these last few months, we come to a passage that also knocks it out of the park. So far, Hebrews has been shopping, setting the table, making menus, crafting decorations, and sending invites. The writer has missed nothing.

Now—in chapter ten—it’s time to party.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10.19-25, NLT)

Verse 22 is the party—“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.”

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

Bold Faith

We are not simply to come to the party either but to come boldly. “Go right in” is the phrase people use when they know the person invited belongs. It’s what we say to friends—come on in, and use the side door (the one for friends). You know you can walk in anytime. We don’t offer that privilege to strangers. Only those who  have our complete love and trust get the “come on in.”

Other translations use the words “confidently,” “with full assurance,” or “boldly.” Literally, it’s “free and fearless.” It means the same—go toward God as you would anyone who invited you in like you belonged there. Because you do.

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For many, boldness is not our default. When it comes to any relationships, fear predominates. Fear that we will not be accepted. Fear that we can never be good enough. Fear that we don’t deserve forgiveness. Fear that our love will not be reciprocated.

Fear drives so much, and has since Eden.

God puts that fear to rest here. If we’re told to come boldly to the one who made us, who knows us best, whom we’ve actually offended the most, but who loves us everlastingly and unconditionally, then where is the place for any fear at all? If that relationship is restored, what is there to fear in any other?

What would it be like to live free and fearless?

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

  • Relationships fail us.
  • Spouses leave, or don’t fulfilled their vows to honor us, protect us.
  • Friends betray us to move up social ladder.
  • Relatives abuse you in ways no one talks about.
  • Coworkers throw you under the bus to cover their butts.
  • Your child screams swear words at you, and you believe growing up means breaking apart.

Trust is fragile.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

If the only metric we have to measure relationships is human ones, and we are human so it is, then we project all that on God.

  • God becomes the girl who wouldn’t let us sit with her.
  • The kid who bullied you.
  • The spouse who betrayed you.
  • The relative who abused you.
  • The father you could never please.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

Two years ago, I went to a friend’s home in London for a writing retreat (I know, rough), and two of the other women voiced their life’s dream to got to Paris. They begged me to go, too, since I’d been a few times and could be a guide. So we made a day trip, and our first stop (OK, after Laduree and Berthillon) was Notre Dame. Notre Dame was my first love of buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see my old friend.

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We saw a long line near one door. Very long. One of the other women nosed around and found another door on the other side. No one was lined up there. So, maybe the other line was for the tower? Because my friend is bold, and because she has an auto-immune disease that makes standing for a long time difficult, she decided to use the door with no line. Boldly, we walked right in.

We gaped round the altar, stood in awe at the familiar rose windows, and walked the checkered floor I love so well. Yes, we cut the line, we realized later. But the door was open. And we decided to walk through it without hesitation.

That was the last time I saw my favorite place in one piece. I’m so glad we chose to go through the door.

This is the exuberant, joyful, excited boldness God wants for us when he talks about us coming near to him. Without fear, with excitement, believing this is the best dream of our lives. Because the door was opened, and all we have to do is walk in.

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We do not have to measure God by the instability of human relationships. God invites us—and he invites us as He would a friend.

Maybe when trust is hard is the time we most need this party. Not a fake it, put up a front, false happiness party—a party that says what matters will stand.

A party that defies death, decay, rising smoke and tells it all—you do not win.

Because it is finished.

Death—you have no victory.

Despair—you have no home here.

Fire and smoke—you cannot take away what matters.

Restoration is beginning. Reclamation is here. New beginnings are ready—don’t despair—come to the party.

Come boldly.

Shaking Things Up

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When I went off to college, they (whoever they is) told us to expect an earthquake anytime. The New Madrid fault hadn’t gone in well over a hundred years. It was due. “They” had all of us midwesterners ready to build quake proof shelters all over campus, except being from Illinois, we had no idea what that even was. Tornadoes we know. Earthquakes, not so much.

Needless to say, we never experienced an earthquake. Missourians haven’t since that time, either. St. Louis remains safe from teetering into the abyss in the foreseeable future, though it remains an active fault.

On a family trip to San Francisco, we stood in an earthquake simulator, however, to see what it would be like. Dizzying, confusing, and yes, terrifying had it been real.

In doing some research on the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I discovered an interesting detail. The quake measured an (assumed) 7.9 on the Richter scale and the maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Shock waves traveled at a rate of 8300 miles per hour.  Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.The event displaced over 75% of the population and killed between 700-3000 people. It permanently removed San Francisco as the leading city of the west, replacing it with Los Angeles.

We assume the most destructive element of that quake was the fire or the falling buildings. Nope.

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Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

Most earthquake damage results from strong shaking. Damage caused by landslides, ground failure, or fire account for a small portion of the total. We remember the 1906 earthquake mainly for the fire damage, yet in most places, it was the shaking on already shaky ground that caused the trouble.

You know what area sustained the worst damage? The Bay Area where ground had been reclaimed from the water. Already soft and easily malleable because of its water and sand content, the ground beneath the bay dissolved during the shaking. Bedrock areas held fast. Unstable ground rocked the buildings above it with ferocity.

In other words, bedrock holds. Shifting ground, soft foundations, things humans created and didn’t use for their intended purpose—all these fall away in an intense shaking. What survived the earthquake? Steel buildings on solid ground.

And that is the message of Hebrews 12.

“You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.

When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”

God tells the Hebrews—I’m going to shake things up. In fact, I’m going to shake all of creation until it’s shaken back into order. I’ll shake until all the unintended, soft shifting mess is taken away and only the solid, perfect rock remains.

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Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

I remember the giant braided rugs my mom used to have in our living room. Occasionally, we had to take the behemoths outside and give them a good shaking. It took two of us. Dirt had gotten in all the crevices of the braid, and it had to be shaken and beat until the seams released all the mess that shouldn’t have been there. It was a job.

Sometimes things need to be shaken into order. They’ve lost their function. Impurities have gotten in the cracks. They need a good clothesline moment with a broom and a strong arm.

In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs he suggests that:

“The Lord takes by its corners this old world

And shakes us forward and shakes us free

To run wild with the hope.”

I love that image. One day, the entire world will be set right. Shaken free of its evil and freed with wild hope. I can’t wait for that day.

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But here’s the thing—sometimes He will do the same to you and me, here and now. What needs to be shaken free in our lives so we can run wild with hope?

God’s shaking in our lives signals his desire for us to be what we were meant to be, unencumbered by dust and dirt.

We don’t often perceive a good shaking up in as joyful freedom and hope. We see it through a lens of fear, assuming the worst of anything that upsets our comfortable status quo.

But the Hebrews writer sets us straight on that. S/he explains that we have come to Mount Zion—not Mount Sinai. We’ve come to a joyful gathering. We’ve come as God’s own heirs. We “have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.”

We have come to hope. To no more fear. To the one who is love and casts out fear. To joy, to the community of his people, to Jesus’ himself speaking for you.

“At the centre of the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, in fact, is the contrast between a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness which is welcoming, cleansing and healing.” NT Wright

If we think of God’s shaking as scary, we’re thinking in the wrong covenant, living in the wrong testament. We need to reframe the shaking up as a restoration of what was lost. It’s more like panning for gold than tearing us apart.

Holiness on the new mountain no longer a terrifying thing. It’s a new way, a better way, a healing, restoring activity. We should welcome it, be excited about it, work toward it not as if we were afraid but as if we rejoice to belong in that city.

The lesson we learn from San Francisco is that shaking doesn’t harm things that are built on bedrock. It destroys only thing that are built where they shouldn’t have been. Only foundations that are unsound. It’s Jesus’ parable about the house on the rock all over again.

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The warning of Hebrews 12 and the warning of 1906 are the same—be mindful of your foundation. What are you building on? What is the bedrock of your faith? What will happen to that faith when the shaking starts?

Many people who have lost their faith in recent years have stated that it happened because a celebrity pastor, worship leader, or other person whom they trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. Their faith rested on a person, and that person wasn’t Jesus. When holiness shook it out, it crumbled.

Others build their foundation on God blessing them—giving them the abundant life He promised. When circumstances reverse and they don’t feel blessed, they no longer feel God, either.

Some build on doctrine, certain that if their answers are right, their faith is solid. Ditto “right behavior.” They go over their mental checklist daily, ensuring that they haven’t missed or compromised anything. Like Javert, their life becomes undone when someone suggests that grace and mercy matter more to a human soul.

Shaking terrifies those who live on foundations they have built themselves with unsteady hands and insufficient knowledge. It doesn’t faze those who know a master craftsman built their foundation, and it will hold.

Our foundation?

“You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.”

That’s it. That’s enough. That will hold.

When God shakes up our world, he wants us to know that only unshakable things will remain. Our response, so difficult and against the human grain, is “so let us be thankful.”

The Kids’ Table

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Sounding out the Words

At four, my daughter begged me to teach her to read. Anticipating her enjoying all the books I had as a little girl, knowing her imagination already conjured scenarios far beyond the ordinary scope of preschool, I was delighted to do as she asked. Soon, I found a book that promised to make her a reader in 100 easy lessons.

She took the alphabet she already knew and began sounding out words, from lesson one. True to the book’s promise, Becca was reading by the time she completed it. She entered school the following year reading at a sixth grade level, which in hindsight might have been a mistake, considering how much it annoyed her teachers when she sat and read during their lessons.

Becca never had to go back and recite her abc’s before beginning the lessons. She already knew those. After the original lessons, she didn’t require review of each letter sound before she took off reading and learning the next ones. Once she had the foundational tools, she knew what to do with them.

At some point, she even began to be the teacher to her two little sisters.

The writer of Hebrews seems to want such a book.

“There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. 

You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. 

You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.” (Hebrews 5.11-6.3)

How difficult would it be to read anything if you had to go back over your abc’s every time? How impossible would it be to move forward and read more difficult works if you had to sound out every letter every time?

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Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

That’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews is trying to get her/his hearers to comprehend. How can you hope to grow in your faith if you have to be reminded all the time about the basics? If you spend your days relying on the pastor to feed you, how will you ever learn to feed yourself?

If you’re twenty years old and still reading One Fish Two Fish, how will you ever comprehend the glories of Les Miserables or Jane Austen?

The Kids’ Table

I remember what it was like to sit at the kids’ table every holiday when our extended family came to visit. I felt small, unnecessary to the gathering, set aside while the adults talked about important things. I longed to graduate (and as the youngest of seven, and almost the youngest of all the cousins, that didn’t happen for a long, long time).

Like my daughter, I longed for the world to be open to me that only older people seemed to know, understand, and enjoy. I wanted the JRR Tolkien of Thanksgiving conversation, and I had to settle for Twilight.

Who wants to eat rice cereal and formula when there is prime rib on the table?

According to this Scripture, I guess we do sometimes.

“You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. . . . So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again.”

That last line implies that the people reading this letter have, in fact, been instructed. They are not ignorant of the  basics of belonging to Christ, They simply have no interest in taking the initiative to go further. They are not babies, but they still love their pacifiers.

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They did get it. They just don’t want to take the energy to apply it.

They lack motivation to go deeper with God.

This problem has lasted through the millennia. One of the biggest issues of the American church, at least, is its emphasis on showmanship and “bigger is better.” As a result, the average churchgoer feels no need to feed himself—that’s what the pastor is for. The better the entertainment, the more inspirational the sermon, the more complacent we can become to making the effort to chew that steak rather than suck on a bottle of milk.

Sadly, according to Barna research, over half of churchgoers also say they do not experience God in their worship hour. Coincidence?

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Skye Jethani in his book Divine Commodity explains the dangers of this mentality:

“We create experiences that entertain, give us emotional highs, make us feel good, and then wonder why we can’t sustain faith in hard times over the long haul. This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies — Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade.” 

(And beware, pastors, if we learned anything from Little Shop of Horrors, it’s that “feed me Seymour” can bite us back. Once we start down the road of giving people (or man-eating plants) what they want, they usually want more.)

“Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

Run

The writer hits on a key concept here to discipleship. Training. The person who has trained becomes mature in whatever he or she trains at. If you want to run a marathon, you don’t sit and watch videos of people running while eating cherry-frosted poptarts. You run.

You run every day, a little farther, a little faster each time. You run until you become a mature runner—knowing how to read the road, the weather, and your body to intuit what to do next.

If you want to be like Jesus, you don’t watch a preacher or a worship leader once a week and hope the high will last you through the week when those tough right and wrong choices come up at work, school, or home.

You learn yourself. You feed yourself the word of God. You keep in step with the Spirit. Every day. And every day, you go a little farther, until you know how to read the times, the Scripture, and your own soul well enough to intuit what to do next. You learn “the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

What is this wright and wrong we’re supposed to be becoming mature enough (whole, purposeful) to learn how to discern and create?

“The purposes of God in the gospel are focused on God’s longing to put the world to rights, and to put people to rights as part of that work. What the writer here longs for is that people should become proficient in understanding and using the entire message of God’s healing, restoring, saving justice. He wants them to know their way around the whole message of scripture and of the gospel, to be able to handle this message in relation to their own lives, their communities and the wider world, and to see how all the different parts of God’s revelation fit together, apply to different situations and have the power to transform lives and situations.” N.T. Wright

Like the readers of Hebrews, we also can be guilty of wanting only a watered down gospel, a small bit of God—a bite-sized salvation that we can consume quickly and neatly. We don’t necessarily want a gospel that demands we learn to discern justice, healing, shalom truth.

Is it possible much of our current discord in the Christian world stems from an unwillingness to push toward maturity? Could our desire to maintain our first understanding of God, no matter how immature, create the disharmony we see around us, as Christians tear into one another over complicated issues they are nevertheless certain they understand accurately?

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Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

We love our personal savior and personal relationship with Jesus. It’s warm and comfy. We don’t really want the gospel to encompass a whole lot more of the kingdom than we ever dreamed. We don’t want to have to rethink when presented with an idea or a person that seems to contradict what we have determined.

We like milk. Of course, warm milk has one property I use often at night. It puts you to sleep.

My daughter went on to read all the books she could find. Those little sisters she helped teach did the same. They competed on teams that read books and challenged one another to read more, learn more, become more because of what they read.

Like those teammates, “let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. . . God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.”

Architects, Builders, and DIY Mistakes

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We’re famous for our gingerbread creations. Not because they’re technically perfect (or even close). Because they’re epic. When we do gingerbread, we go big or go home. My personal favorites have been Minis Tirith and Wrigley Field. All of our family and friends know that if they have a gingerbread building question, we’re their people.

A while ago, I gave my congregation the task of building their own gingerbread creations. I offered them the materials—graham crackers, powdered sugar, eggs, candy. One thing I didn’t offer them—directions.

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Their houses teetered sideways. Their roofs sagged. The candy slid, and the walls just plain fell over. Ours stood tall. Ours stood because there were some things we knew they didn’t.

  • We knew the proportions of sugar to egg white to tartar.
  • We knew that if you don’t beat that icing for a full five minutes, it will not hold.
  • We knew that if you do, it will hold FOREVER.
  • We knew that using a cardboard box as a foundation is technically cheating, but it works.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters who belong to God and are partners with those called to heaven, think carefully about this Jesus whom we declare to be God’s messenger and High Priest. For he was faithful to God, who appointed him, just as Moses served faithfully when he was entrusted with God’s entire house.

But Jesus deserves far more glory than Moses, just as a person who builds a house deserves more praise than the house itself. For every house has a builder, but the one who built everything is God.

Moses was certainly faithful in God’s house as a servant. His work was an illustration of the truths God would reveal later. But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Hebrews 3)

The writer of Hebrews urges—Think carefully! Literally, pay close attention! To what? To Jesus. Notice him. Keep your eyes on him. Watch how he builds a house.

It makes sense. If you wanted to learn how to play cello and you had YoYo Ma in front of you, you’d watch, not drift off into scrolling Instagram.

If you wanted to rehab your kitchen and Chip and Joanna Gaines offered to come on over, you’d follow closely, not flip through a magazine while they worked.

So here in Hebrews, we’re begged—.Watch Jesus. Pay attention! Why? Because he’s the builder of our house. And he’s made us a partner in the process. He’s the master craftsman, and we’re the apprentices.

He knows a few things about building a spiritual house that we do not.

The writer goes on to use the Israelites as an example of the wrong way to build a house.

In the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they were supposed to obey, believe, and build their own “house” based on the blueprints of being God’s people.

They built different kind of house, based not on God’s instructions but on—

  • their fears (we can’t conquer them!),
  • their ideas of power (relying on might and numbers rather than God),
  • their belief in compromise (we can use some of their god, some of ours),

Their house was a train wreck. It had bad pipes, termites, a backed up sewer, and flocked wallpaper ALL over.

To build a lasting faith house, we need to become an attentive apprentice to the master builder. There is no other way. He has the blueprints to our life that work, and we don’t even know how to pour a decent foundation. Hebrews’ author urges us:

Pay attention. Do as Jesus does. Speak as he speaks. Treat others as he treats others. Watch, listen, do. That’s what apprentices do. That’s how they become master craftspersons. They watch.

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Watching and learning is a long haul process. We don’t learn to play the cello with five minutes of practice every couple days. I won’t hone writing skills by putting down a few sentences every other day. A builder won’t succeed by nailing together a couple boards five times a week.

It’s long haul, focused, attention-paying work.

A gingerbread house built with two-minute frosting will fall. It takes mixing, blending, spinning that KitchAid longer than you imagine is necessary when you look in the bowl. But less than that ends up sliding down on the foundation.

Less than daily focused attention to Jesus, soaking in all he has to teach us, intentionally doing what we see, leads to the same thing in our lives. We can try shortcuts, giving him our attention every so often, seeking his example when we’re in trouble but not otherwise. If we do, our facade might even look good for a while.

But the icing will not hold.

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Eugene Peterson wrote: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure.”

A sure foundation in Christ cannot be obtained on a tourist visa. We need to stay. Dig in. Focus. Seek daily the things we need to see, hear, do. Only then will we find what the writer of Hebrews offers. Then—“we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.”

Green Lake Water

IMG_8376Continuing in the memoir/stories that create our lives vein . . .

Green lake water flushed into my nose, hit my gag reflex, and my neck automatically convulsed. My mouth opened—rookie mistake. I swallowed water, algae, and the poop of a thousand fishes, gagged, coughed, sputtered, and coughed again. I raised my head out of the water, eyes unseeing with lake water stunning them shut, legs flailing away trying to keep me afloat.

I wiped the water from my eyes, eyes that still, according to the eye doctor who handed me blue cats eye glasses when I was eight, “needed glasses to see the blackboard and play in the outfield.” Never mind I needed a lot more than glasses to ever play in the outfield.

I could vaguely see the two pier posts that marked the swim test lane, and I knew I’d barely made it halfway across.

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Refusing to put my face back in the water, I swam the rest of the lane using the unauthorized freestyle rather than the mandated crawl, still hacking up lake water as I climbed ignominiously up the ladder at the final pier.

The Girl Scout drill sergeant judging us all gave a loud sigh—louder than it needed to be I thought, though it was hard to know with water clogging my ears and my pride. She pulled her lower lip sideways in contemplation or scorn, pondered her decision a moment, then threw a literal and verbal “red cap” at me.

A red  cap meant humiliation. It meant I could swim, but barely. It was like a no-confidence vote from your camp counselors. A red cap on my dishwater blonde curls signaled to anyone who cared that I had to stay in the boundaries, and preteen girls all cared.

It meant I couldn’t swim out to the raft with all the laughing white and blue capped girls. Of course the caps were patriotic. This was Girl Scouts of America camp. That raft felt a mile away, socially and physically.

A red cap was Girl Scout camp social devastation.

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My best friend stood on the pier a few feet away as I emerged from the water. I heard the disdain in her voice when she tossed her wet hair over her shoulder and said, “They almost made you a non-swimmer. You were that bad.” She, of course, had the coveted white cap on her head. She could take off on the lake with one of the sailboats. I couldn’t. My red cap confined me to the canoes—a thing I loved that had now turned into a tool of embarrassment.

I could swim well enough with my face out of the water. I could have done a half dozen laps on my back. But no—the Girl Scouts of America decreed that the only acceptable way to circumnavigate a lake, or at least a pier, was to crawl with your face in the water. So I failed. Or nearly.

I once went postal on a doctor who threw a heavy towel on my face without warning. I one punched my husband when he leaned in to kiss me goodbye one morning, while sleep still fogged my senses. (He never did it again.) Could I not swim with my face in the water because I’m claustrophobic, or do I carry a terror of anything in my face now because of being forced to crawl across a green lake? I’ll never know, I suppose.

These days I love to snorkel, but the panic of covering my face with a confining rubber mask and submerging it in the water reemerges every time, no matter how many times I’ve done it, and I have to wrestle down the fear.

Maybe I’m replaying girl scout camp in my subconscious memory. I can fight that panic now. Then, I could only cough, sputter, and cry, wondering why a simple backstroke wasn’t proof enough that I could stay above water long enough to survive a swim to the coveted raft.

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My best friend laughed with all those other girls out on that beautiful socially upward island. She went sailing on her own. Occasionally, she got in a canoe with me, and we struck out for parts unknown, at least, unknown to two girls about to enter junior high, possibly the most unknown territory in human experience.

We fished with cafeteria bread we mushed up into dough balls and scrunched onto hooks we tied onto string. To this day, that was the only time I ever caught a fish. We jumped in the water far from the all-seeing eyes of the leaders who would tell me I bore only a red cap and so was not allowed. My friend reminded me I was not allowed, and she was—a reminder I found unnecessarily consistent.

Sherri could glide through the water like a barracuda, and I didn’t know why until one day later that summer. Her neighbors had an in-ground pool, the kind I thought only rich people put in their backyards. She swam there all summer, and she invited me over that July to play a game they played often, apparently.

The game didn’t have a name, but the rules were simple. Let the girls swim half a lap, then the boys jumped in, and if the boys caught the girls, they got to pull down their swim suit. I couldn’t swim fast. That much had been established. Something inside  my stomach flipped over and squirmed at the knowledge that she knew I’d be caught first and still invited me. I didn’t go.

We were ten.

It wasn’t the only time the neighborhood boys free-ranged bad behavior with girls. My friend’s older brother lounged on her woolen green couch with me several times that year, coaxing me to try his joint. She told me later he did it so that I’d get high and he could have sex with me. I didn’t try it.

I was eleven.

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

At eleven, I climbed aboard the school bus on the first day of seventh grade, confident and ready, scanning the back of the bus for my best friend so we could sit together as we had for the entire previous year. She might have lived a rougher life than I, but we were friends forever, through thick and thin. And we always sat in the back, because that’s where the cool kids aways have sat, since school busses have rolled on four wheels.

I reached her seat, met her eyes, and saw her lazily pull her right leg up on the green faux leather seat. “Can’t sit here. It’s taken.” I laughed. First day joke. I shrugged and began to lower my skinny butt and fresh notebooks into the seat, but she didn’t move. “You can’t sit here anymore. We’re not friends this year.” She side-eyed the other cool kids, and they smirked.

I stared. Seventh-grade me had no courage, nor even the facsimile of it in bravado. That was both the reasons for her rejection and the method that ensured it. She knew I wouldn’t fight. She knew I’d slink away, and I did.

I’ve never done the “walk of shame” they talk about in the TV shows. But it’s got nothing on the eternal walk all the way to the front of the bus when you’ve been humiliated and the whole bus knows it.

When the cool kids reject you, there is no middle ground. You don’t go sit in the middle of the bus. For one thing, the middle is full, with all the average kids who never aspired to cool and just want to survive. For another, they know. They may not have aspirations, but they’re not fool enough to go down with you. There is no welcome until you reach the front where the real rejects sit. They’ll take you. They have to. They know they’re a kind of dumping receptacle for the refuse of the socially upward mobile, and they accept it, and you, with a fatalism that a death row inmate would envy.

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Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

I’m swimming laps at the local health club these past couple months. My arms move slowly under the water, my legs waving just enough. No one times me; no one judges my form. Neither do I. I zen on my back, watching the  sun reflect through the tall windows, dozens of suns filling each pane. The water ripples in rainbows, and I relax into it, releasing the fear that my face is going to dunk under. I breathe deeply and push off at each end, not remembering wet wooden piers at the end of a green lake water lane. An elderly Asian couple glides next to me, slowly, graceful as a couple of jellyfish in the sea, moving their tentacle arms in a perfect rhythm only they know.

I still don’t put my face in the water. No one cares.

Coins, Cookies, and Other Exact Images

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Photo by Virgil Cayasa on unsplash.com

Baby oil is the secret ingredient to homemade modeling dough. Unlike the store-bought variety, it smells soft and fresh, and when I had three small girls, it lasted longer too. I’d cook up a batch every few months, and our daughters spent hours “making cookies,” stamping their plastic cookie cutters into the dough and giggling with satisfaction when the exact replica of their cutter—be it a unicorn or a dragon—looked back at them.

But most exact replicas aren’t easy to create.

When I don’t understand something about God the Father, I think about this verse, Hebrews 1:3: “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command” (NLT).

How does that help when I question God? Jump over to The Glorious Table and read the rest of the devotional.