Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fear Less

Daniel 3

Who hasn't heard of the fiery furnace?  There's even a state park that bears the name.  But outside of Sunday School, somewhere around the age of ten, seated between the adorable Kenny Sagers and that twit, Patty Astin (who spent the entire class sniggling and whispering to her equally twitty girlfriend Stacey) when was the last time you really looked at the account?  I remember as a kid, thinking, "Cool!  God can do anything," and I'm sure that's part of the message here.  But did I ever stop to think, "Cool!  I can do anything!"?  I mean let's look at the participants as well as the events...

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, according to general consensus, appear to have been around 18 years old.  Just stop and recall what you were like at 18.  Got it?  Let's move on.  They were Jews -- devoted, orthodox (small "o") Jews -- living in a Babylonian world.  Just a recap:  Babylonia -- earthly luxuries; worldly entertainment; a cultural center known for excess; a place in which "anything goes" was not the standard, but "anything encouraged" was.  "Being in the minority" doesn't quite describe the situation of these three young men.  (I like to image myself and my two best friends on Lady Gaga's tour bus.)  Now, bring in the enormous golden idol!  Imagine the sea of people, dwarfed by such an imposing figure; some may have fallen to their faces out of fear.  Cue music, and -- wait!  "Are you deaf?  Did you not hear the music?"  The three youths, who one might believe would have been best served by remaining as anonymous as possible, tower over the rest of the masses.  (Here's where I hear Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny:  "Oh, yeah, you blend.")  So, it's off to the fiery furnace -- but first, Nebuchadnezzar, merciful king that he is, wishes to give these obviously touched, Jewish boys another chance.  What is their response?

v. 16 "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you."

Are you kidding me?  The insolence!  But these young men had no need to fear an earthly king; they were subjects of the King of All Creation.  The simple knowledge of God Almighty's supremacy freed them from any grip Old Nebuchadnezzar could possibly have on them.  As subjects of the King of Kings, they had real power!  And they did not answer to some megalomaniac who put his tunic on the same way they did every morning.

Then, v. 17 "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace..." 

"If?  Who said anything about if?  You broke the law; you are still refusing to obey my law; you know what's coming to you."  But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were open to anything.  Sure, the king said "fiery furnace," but what did the King say?  Earthly edicts and ultimatums aside, they knew God had a plan; though they may not have known exactly what it was, they trusted Him to do what He knows is best.  Wow.  How often do we put conditions on God's redemption of us?  "OK, I'll stop doing    ?   , if you'll fix it this way," or "Give me a sign," or "I trust You, God" as we're tossing and turning all night, sick with worry all day, unable to imagine what God's Plan might be, unable to see it unfolding.  It is our job to ask and then trust God's mighty hand.  Anything beyond that, and we're trying to do His job.

But, back to v. 17 "He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty." 

"He will."  Faith.  Pure.  Simple.  As certain as if they'd said, "King, you will one day die."

v. 18 "But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” 

Again, speaking with bravery that would be difficult to find in most thirty-year olds, "NO MATTER WHAT, we will keep our committment to God."  These you men weren't fearing death.  They weren't thinking of being remembered as fools, defying the king, and suffering the consequences.  They were committed to the consequences of following The King!  The idea of God allowing them to burn was not a deal breaker for them.  God doesn't leave His children in the lurch.

v. 20  "...and cast them into the burning fiery furnace."

What was God's plan?  To fry them?  Well, not quite, but they were sure close.  Does the Bible say they began to scream in fear, cry out in pain, beg for mercy?  No.  There they were, amidst fire and flame, and Jesus standing with them.  He didn't take them by the hand, lead them out, or even quench the flames, but there He stood, with them.  Notice too, that the king actually had to call them forth.  They weren't running out in some pancked frenzy.  Ironically, the very same king who sentenced them to cremation, wide-eyed and in awe yelled, "Get out and get over here!"  I think of my attempts to get the kids out of the bath, long after it has started to go cold, and their lips look like raw liver.

Lastly, v. 27 -- They didn’t even smell of smoke!
I love to grill.  But the smell?  Yech!  I can hardly eat for want of a shower.  I'm not sure what they were using for fuel in Nebuchanezzar's palace in those days, but didn't most of these ancient civilizations use dung?  Um, dung smells.  And it's no bed of roses when it's burning either!  But not a singed hair (I can't make that promise when I'm straightening my hair) or a scorched robe (or ironing).  Not even the smell of smoke! (or, apparently anything else, for that matter)

I am nothing without Jesus, but with Jesus I have courage, power, certainty, and the faith to stand out in a crowd.  His power is within me and I have nothing to fear.   

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Walk on the Styled Side

So, I'm walking into work this morning.  Mind you, the walk from the guard shack -- yes, we have guards, ("screws," I think they call them in prison) and barbed wire.  I used to think they were for keeping derelicts out; now I know the derelicts are on the inside.  Anyway, the walk from my vehicle to our office is no small march -- probably a quarter mile, give or take.  So, I just clear the guard shack, when lo, from the opposite end of the walkway I hear (in a feigned Yiddish voice),


I immediately think, "Lord, no.  Can it be?"  Then, upon considering myself too vain, dismiss it, and continue my early morning stroll.

Now, the usual walk goes like this:

You have your occasional encounter in which the approaching person makes eye contact, cheerfully wishes you a good day, or good night.  The greeting is immaterial, as we have a twenty-four hour building, continuous and overlapping shifts, crazy sleep patterns, and no one truly knows if it's anyone else's day or night.  In fact, my mother used to get a little perturbed when I'd come home from work at 8:30 in the morning, and crack open a beer.  Her 8:30 AM was my 5:30 PM.  She never got it.  But, I digress.

So, other encounters with folks exiting the building range from reunions (particularly around the holidays, when everyone is working extra hours and we're so fatigued we'd all be better off not driving home, and we see people we haven't seen since last Christmas!) to someone pushing someone else right into your walk path, nearly crippling you both, to someone (perhaps from England) walking on the wrong side of the walkway, blabbing profusely on their phone and refusing to move from your path, to someone spitting at your feet just as you pass.

This morning's encounter was like no other.  As I approached these two women, one chirps a very cheery "hello," almost making me think I've been remiss in recognizing a long lost cellmate or something. 

"Good morning," I chirp back.  Her friend immediately starts to giggle.  Now I'm looking over my shoulder at the two of them, as we're stopped dead in our tracks.

The speaker confesses, "You look like Barbra Streisand!  I love it!"

"I've heard that since I was 'this' high," I say disgustedly, holding my palm down about my knees.

"You do!" she says.  "It's great!"  As if I'm going for that look.

No offense to Ms. Streisand, but I've never taken that to be a compliment.  After all, when you're 8 and your friend's father tells you at a party, that you look like someone almost 25 years older than you, someone who sing "old lady music" (as opposed to the Partridge Family, I suppose) you want to crawl in a hole.  Besides, it is one of my most obvious features that creates the illusion of similarity -- my nose.  Yep, me and Babs -- big schnozzles.

However, I've been doing some research on line.  Ya know Barbra Streisand circa 1968 was incredibly talented and absolutely adorable.  And in 1976 she was one hot tamale!  No wonder my parents refused to let me see "A Star is Born."  I still can't bring myself to pull it up on Netflix without feeling like I'm surfing internet porn.  My parents left an impression, let me tell you!  Even at close-to-seventy, Streisand is still going strong.  Maybe being compared to a multi-talented, award-winning, fabulously stylish, rich woman isn't so bad. 

I'm not sure I have the lips for it, though.  Maybe collagen?  Hmmm...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tipping the Scales

I've always known I was fat.  But I've also known it's never been as bad as it could be.  For instance, I am over the legal limit, but technically, I'm not in karaoke territory.  Sometimes I've wondered if that doesn't make it tougher for me to watch my weight.  I mean, it could go either way.  At my funeral, you could be satnding over my casket saying, "Wow, she really did let herself go," or I could fly out of here a "10."  Either way, I watch my weight, believe it or not.  As long as I can still walk in a pair of jeans without setting my thighs on fire, I'm pretty good with that.  I try to eat right; I exercise.  But I've learned the hard way, that one careless encounter with Butter Brickle can wipe out a week's worth of walking.

A similar principle exists in our spiritual lives as well:
"One day of lean can eclipse months of fat." 
One wrong word can ruin month's worth of witness. One misdeed, especially in this "Big Brother" world of ours, can go as viral as a "Talking Dog," and ruin a once glorious testimony.  One day without devotion can open up the flood gates to waves of doubt and misinformation, and let out wisdom and discernment.  One day without prayer in our relationship with our Heavenly Father, can ruin days' worth of fervent prayer.  One choice made without Our Dear Savior in mind can ruin year's worth of preparation for the future and can put us on a track opposite God's plan.

Spurgeon shared his experience in his devotional on Genesis 41:4 --

PHARAOH'S dream has too often been my waking experience. My days of sloth have ruinously destroyed all that I had achieved in times of zealous industry; my seasons of coldness have frozen all the genial glow of my periods of fervency and enthusiasm; and my fits of worldliness have thrown me back from my advances in the divine life. I had need to beware of lean prayers, lean praises, lean duties, and lean experiences, for these will eat up the fat of my comfort and peace. If I neglect prayer for never so short a time, I lose all the spirituality to which I had attained; if I draw no fresh supplies from heaven, the old corn in my granary is soon consumed by the famine which rages in my soul. When the caterpillars of indifference, the cankerworms of worldliness, and the palmerworms of self-indulgence, lay my heart completely desolate, and make my soul to languish, all my former fruitfulness and growth in grace avails me nothing whatever. How anxious should I be to have no lean-fleshed days, no ill-favoured hours! If every day I journeyed towards the goal of my desires I should soon reach it, but backsliding leaves me still far off from the prize of my high calling, and robs me of the advances which I had so laboriously made. The only way in which all my days can be as the "fat kine," is to feed them in the right meadow, to spend them with the Lord, in His service, in His company, in His fear, and in His way..."

"Dear Jesus, increase my desire and discipline for Your glory. Keep me from choosing that which does not honor and glorify Your Holy Name. Keep me from holding onto that which was crucified with You; take it from me that I may never call upon it in place of You again. Thank You."

Time for some sit-ups, or some pasta -- now that could still go either way.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Pain Without Promise

1 Peter 5:10
In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation.

Are you a believer?  I don't mean "Higher Power," though He is.  I don't mean "Mother Nature," though He is.  I don't mean "God," like some generic, one-size fits all being -- He is not!  I mean, The One True God.  The Alpha and Omega.  The Father, Son and Holy Ghost (and no, you can't pick and choose, you can't separate them).  And I'm not talking about vaguely remembering it from Sunday School, or CCD, or VBS, or MYF, or any of those other acronyms, from twenty or so years ago.  I mean have surrendered, have experienced God's grace and power in your life.  Then this promise, My Friend, is for you.

You can never/ will never experience suffering without God's timely restoration.  Be it flood, fire, financial, physical, familial (diggin' that alliteration I had goin' there, aren't you?) -- it does not matter what you have gone through/ are going through/ will go through, God promises that He will restore you, support you, strengthen you, and "place you on a firm foundation."  Promises!

Cling to that!  Embrace it.  Trust it.  Never lose it.  For God promises it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Another Day on the Journey

I mentioned a few days ago The Workbook of Living Prayer by Maxie Dunnam. So far this is proving to be an excellent and enjoyable resource for improving one's prayer life.  Most importantly for me, it forces me to slow things down a little, to think about the gift of prayer, my attitude toward it, and what I'm trying to get out of it.  For indeed, prayer is a two-way street -- God desires to hear from those He loves much as parents desire to hear from their children regardless of any prior information.  And though it has been used as a Christmas list of sorts or a way to rub the crystal ball and get the right answer, prayer is a relationship thing.  Through prayer I grow more deeply in love with my Savior.  Through prayer He reveals Himself to me.  Through prayer our relationship becomes stronger and more intimate.

One of the activities in Dunnam's workbook suggests meditating on Psalm 34:8a

"O taste and see that the Lord is good!"

Indulge me, please, while I share my thoughts:
“O taste and see that the Lord is good.”
I think of a huge banquet table with food laid out beautifully as far as the eye can see.  To see, it leaves a lasting impression.  The image, the color travels to my brain.  The bright orange red of a lobster.  The fertile green garnish of kale around it.  Lemons the yellow of the sun dot the wreath.  Drawn butter in a spotless silver dish – golden, translucent.  From there, the bounty spreads forth – a feast of color for the eyes.  Shiny black olives, slick, red grapes, brilliant orange tangerines, and a vibrant rainbow of vegetables.  A mountain of consummately ripened fresh fruit looms over dazzling mirrored goblets, filled with the richest and finest Burgundy.  An enormous turkey, golden browned to perfection with skin as crispy and crackly as autumn leaves, rests at one end of the expanse; a dark brown rib roast, thickly encrusted in flavorful herbs and spices, awaits its first cut at the other, juices brimming with anticipation and a bright pink core, warm and glowing.
But to taste -- to taste is to imbibe in such a feast.  To taste is to allow it to permeate one’s being, to travel to multiple sensory receptors throughout the body, to nourish, sustain, please and immediately draw one’s lips into a reflexive smile, unfettered and involuntary.  To taste is almost to become one with it, to savor it, to move it around in your mouth, slowly experiencing it.  To taste is to mull it over, to attempt to define flavors and textures if at all possible.  Inhaling in order to, once again send the aroma swirling through the olfactory system, and allow the marriage of fresh air and fragrance to enhance and release the flavor found in the best foods.  Taste is experience, ambiance, the collective enterprise of multiple senses.  
"O taste and see that the Lord is good! 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just How Strong is Dad, Anyway?

Recently, one of our pastors spoke on the parable of the Prodigal Son.  I’ve always been able to relate well to this parable – from the perspective of all three major players.  I’ve been the prodigal – in more ways than one.  I think we all have, at some point.  Let's face it, we are all prodigals when it comes to our Heavenly Father; none are born into the family out of natural birth.  Even those reborn at a very young age were once held prisoner by sin and were originally born into this world. 

I’ve been the jealous, petty brother.  I’ve watched people file into church on Easter morning, welcomed with hugs and smiles while I -- Steady Betty, Miss Faithful Attendant -- stand by waiting for someone to be glad I’m there.  I've been petty and simple-minded.  I've wondered why everyone else gets ahead while I, Debbie Do-Right keep getting the short end of the stick.  I've scoffed when someone has pointed out "what a wonderful Christian" he or she is, thinking, "They don't know what he's really like," or "I'm a better Christian than she is."

As the "father," I have heard my children curse me, ask for what is “due” them, and watch them intentionally reject every principle I’ve tried to weave into the fiber of their lives.  I have stood waiting and watching for my child to return, longing to welcome them with open arms, clothe them, and put rings on their fingers. 

Of all three of these characters, to me, the father comes across as being the most pitiable.  Now, I know the father represents our Heavenly Father but, really?  Such a fuss over a prodigal?  I’ve been a prodigal; I know how we are!  Unreliable, opportunistic; here today, gone tomorrow.  Try as we might, we can’t seem to keep it together, even when we want to!  And the gentle manner with which this father handled his oldest’s petty jealousies and selfish complaints?  Not: "Where does he get off asking for his due?  His due is what I say it is; after all his 'due' is my hard work, my love poured out in order to build something special, something of substance for him!"  And as our pastor pointed out, the oldest could have at any point said, "No father, why on earth would I want my portion now?  I don't even want to think of inheritance; you are alive and I am grateful.  I love you.  I want to stay here on the farm with you and build our heritage together."  Why didn't that father just kick both of his selfish brats to the curb?

Well, here's where the parable gets personal.  As a mother of a prodigal or two, I know the pain of loss, and the joy of reunion.  Love endures the hurt, the not knowing.  Love seeks to extend its hand, seek out those who have rejected it, bravely risking rejection again.  Love waits and hopes; love controls its desires to quit, as well as its desires to take by storm.  Love seeks to grow enough for both parties, shouldering the burden while looking toward the day when it will be joined with the other.  We do not celebrate the life my child lived while out of the fold, while choosing to remain outside of a mother's or father's love.  We do not celebrate the arrogance, the ignorance, the foolishness, the strife that tore us apart.  We celebrate the forgiveness, the growth, the renewal, the grace of God Almighty that has brought us together again. 

And as for the Father of this prodigal, thanks be to Him for His forgiveness, His faithfulness, His boundless love, His mercy that cannot be understood or defined in earthly terms, but has waited patiently, searching the horizon for my return.