Atlas and Ant Bites

Journal 2005.

I had a God-orchestrated event today. A lady in upstate New York somehow found my name on the Internet and called me about her suicidal daughter who had just moved to our town. The young lady had set the date to take her life and was putting her affairs in order. I gave the mom our local suicide hotline number, the name of a counseling center in town, and permission to pass along my phone number. Four hours later, the daughter called me. We talked and prayed for almost two hours. At the end or our session, with hope in her voice, she said about her suicide date: “Jesus says it’s about life, not death.” Wahoo!

Now here’s the subtle irony. God orchestrated the entire event. All I did was pray and God showed up. He even gave me the gifts and training to know what to do, but Satan’s little lies whispered in my ear, “See what you did? You just saved a life! Aren’t you good?”

Immediately I recognize the voice of pride. I’m Atlas, brawny enough to hold up the world, while others are puny little ants crawling on its surface. [How sick is that!?] Soon those biting ants swarm over my arms and legs, and when I set the “world” down so I can scratch, I discover I’m not balancing it after all. There’s a power source, an air current beneath, making it twirl and dance. I had actually been blocking the airflow when I stepped under the sphere. Sheepishly, I realize the orb is not the world after all, but a toddler-sized, lightweight beach ball.

Now what to do with the ant bites? I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins . . .”

Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counselor? (Isa. 40:13 NIV)

It’s laughable to think we can counsel each other—apart from God’s wisdom. And even more preposterous to think we could counsel God.

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On War

Journal 2008. How does God feel about war?

I confess I struggle with the concept of holy war. We condemn the Medieval Crusaders, and we condemn its use by certain people groups today. But when God wanted the Israelites to oust seven wicked Canaanite nations, He commanded holy war.

These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience). They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands, which he had given their ancestors through Moses. (Judges 3:1- 2, 4)

According to these verses, he used an enemy to test the Israelite’s obedience to Him, but He also gave them the training and tools to win. Was He capable of wiping out the evil nations by Himself? Of course. He did it in Noah’s day. But for some reason, He wanted His people involved in the process. He wanted relationship, trust, and obedience.

How do I feel about war?

I also confess I have no first-hand experience with warfare. I believe greed, hatred, and revenge are all wrong motives for starting a war. But war in obedience to God’s command, to defend the poor or helpless, to free the captive—I can justify that.

In any war, both sides pray to God for victory and saved lives. How can He answer equitably? What’s a suitable prayer then?

So let all Your enemies perish, O Lord! But let those who love Him, be like the sun when he rises in his might. (Judges 5:31)

A 2022 Update. This morning I read this perspective from torahclass.com, Acts Lesson 30. What do you think?

The land of Canaan was not a gift of conquest from God to the Israelites; it was a gift of inheritance. Why an inheritance? Why not as a spoil of war? Because God already owned the land; He had hundreds of years earlier promised to give it to Abraham; it became Abraham’s land the instant God promised it. All that remained was for Abraham’s descendants to possess it. So the Lord merely evicted the unlawful squatters, and then turned over to the rightful inheritors (Israel) that which He had long ago bequeathed to them. For God is a Father to His children, Israel and that’s what fathers do.

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Fear-based Triggers

Journal 2008. In my prayer ministry, I help people work through their triggers, born out of unresolved hurt and lies believed in their memories. In my Bible reading this morning, I note that human nature has not changed over the centuries.

THE SCENARIO: When the children of Israel approach the Promised Land to oust the local residents, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh declare they want to settle instead on the east side of the Jordan. Leader Joshua relents, as long as their fighting men help their brothers (the other 9 ½ tribes) conquer the land on the west side. And the tribes agree to the terms.

Once the men fulfill their duties, Joshua sends them home in peace. But before they leave, the 2 ½ tribes build an imposing altar on the west side of the Jordan. They’ve done a good job, their character is commendable, and all is well it seems. But then they get slammed.

And when the Israelites [the westerners] heard that they had built the altar . . ., the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them (Joshua 22: 11-12).

What! Driven by FEAR, the western Israelites accuse the eastern tribes of rebellion against God. Where did this fear come from?

TWO TRIGGER MEMORIES:

First, they recall the Baal of Peor incident when they played the harlot with Moab women who caused them to worship Baal and 24,000 died of plague (Num. 25:1-9). “If we turn from the Lord,” they conclude, “we’re all toast. God will get us all” (v. 18). From all appearances, any altar except for the one at the temple was contrary to God’s instructions—IF the altar was for the purpose of sacrificing animals

Second, they remember Achan—when the whole nation got punished for one man’s sin.

Israel rebelled many times, but apparently this one lesson stuck. A healthy fear of God and the consequences of sin is not a bad thing, but their fear made them jump to false conclusions.

THE DEFENSE. Meanwhile, the 2 ½ tribes push back in defense:

The Mighty One, God, the Lord! HE knows, and let Israel know! We’re innocent of rebellion (v. 22).

THEIR TRIGGER: “We did it from FEAR.”

Really?! Same emotion as their accusers, but for a different reason. Fear that “someday your kids will say to our kids: What have you to do with the God of Israel? There’s a boundary [Jordan] between us, and we’re scared your kids might make our kids stop following God. So . . . we built this copy of the real altar—not as a place for offerings, but to be a witness between us and generations after us.”

Ironically, their fear-based decision to protect themselves backfired. Later we read that those 2 ½ tribes drifted away from their roots. That altar was ineffective and did not produce the desired result.

Acting out of triggers can produce unwanted consequences. How much better if both sides had sought the Lord first and worked through their fears before they acted. If the easterners hadn’t built that altar, the westerners wouldn’t have risen to war. Sounds like we could learn a thing or two from the ancients.

Avoiding Rudeness

Journal 2008

But some “worthless fellows” despised King Saul, brought him no gift, and said, “How can this man save us?” (I Sam.10:27)

When Samuel announced Saul would be God’s chosen king, these worthless fellows were rude and loud-mouthed. Their characters were questionable. And Saul’s response? He held his peace. He acted like he was deaf.

By today’s standards, we think it’s commendable to ignore rudeness, but I wonder—as king, would Saul have been better off disciplining these men in some way? Apparently, he didn’t know his power yet. After Saul’s first victory in battle, the people urged him to deal with the worthless fellows, but again he said no, not today. “Today is a day of deliverance.” And that day he was crowned king. Was his response wise or foolish?

Later, while at war with the Philistines, his men were scattered, and he was given explicit orders to wait a week for Samuel to come to make a sacrifice. When Sam confronted him, Saul responded, “. . . I forced myself to offer a burnt offering.” Really!? What kind of foolish statement is that?! Shades of Aaron’s “I threw the gold in the fire and out came a calf!” Contrast those statements with David who later “encouraged and strengthened himself in the Lord.”

Chapter after chapter reveal stories of Saul’s poor choices and character. For 40 years, he did kingly things: He fought against Israel’s enemies and “made it worse for them” and “He did valiantly and smote the Amalekites and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them.” But . . . we don’t remember him for his victories. We can only see his faults—which eclipse the good that he does.

So . . . I wonder . . . was Saul’s avoidance of rudeness or conflict a sign of weakness or wisdom? How best should I handle other people’s rudeness today?

The Missionary Measuring Stick

Journal 2005

“As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18 NIV, when Jesus prayed for His disciples)

When I was growing up, missionaries loved to quote this verse and others like them to 1) guilt-trip Americans to become missionaries or 2) prove their pride in obedience to God’s command.

Here’s where my struggle has been for so long—believing that missionary life and calling is holier, better, and higher than any other calling. That was the message I grew up with. But after hearing story after story of nasty, ungodly missionaries, my bubble has burst. I have to take missionaries off that pedestal.

We were taught “sent into the world” doesn’t have to mean “sent to Africa.” It can mean “sent across the street to your neighbor,” but in the back of my child’s mind, that was not as spiritual or as high a calling as being sent to Africa. If you got sent to Africa, your measuring stick of importance was much longer than your measuring stick that only reached across the street.

The truth is, it’s not about works; it’s about relationship. It’s not about how many times I pray, go to church, tithe, read my bible, witness, do, do, do—but rather it’s about how much I love Jesus, and even more importantly, how much He loves me.

A 2022 Update. I almost didn’t post this entry because I am so very far removed from this mindset now. But perhaps in some circles the attitude is still present. Just substitute a different vocation or status (education, economic status, political clout, race). Any time I view myself as superior, it’s time to check in with humility.

Tender Mercies

Journal 2008. When I read “. . . heart of tender mercy and lovingkindness of our God (Luke 1:78), I have a hard time reconciling in my mind God’s tender mercies with His terrible judgment. Sure, I believe that murderers and rapists and idolaters need God’s judgment, but He died for their sins too.

My dilemma, however, is not with them but with me. Where in my life have I misunderstood and not accepted God’s tender love and mercy? Am I self-condemning where I should be accepting? Do I have a false belief that if I accept His tender mercies, it means I deserve it? That cannot be, for if I deserve it, it becomes my works, and then pride follows.

I am no better than the pagan. I have simply followed the path God put me on. He gave me the parents, the heritage, the grounding, and the training. Why wouldn’t I respond the way I have? If I had been born into a peasant hut in China of Buddhist heritage, would I not have followed the path He set me on and gone into a Christless eternity? How fair is that?

I am blessed, chosen, humbled, undeserving. Why did God choose me? I don’t know. But once chosen, I had a choice—follow Him or disobey. I chose to follow; I don’t know why. I could have had a rebellious, angry, defiant heart. I credit my response to my parents and how they raised me.

I was chosen for some reason. God likes me and the way He made me. He thinks I’m special. I cannot worry about His relationship with the rest of humanity. I can only sit in awe and wonder that He loves me—me of all people!

Jesus gave me gifts—a bag of chocolates. And He wants me to share them—hand them out, give them away, offer them to anyone who comes into my path. I’ve been chosen, yes—to be a blessing.

Hypocrites

Journal 2006. Some people declare they won’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites there. Perhaps true. Perhaps we all have hypocrite blood in us.

Jesus wasn’t too tolerant of hypocrites. He preached against them, insulted them, and angrily confronted them. That was His right as the Son of God. Would it be appropriate for me, however, to speak to someone that way? To someone’s face? In public? One-on-one? I’d feel pretty uncomfortable saying directly to someone: “You hypocrite!” I don’t know a person’s heart. I can only judge outward action and speech.

A hypocrite is someone who looks into a backless mirror—or is it a magnifying glass. . . . They cannot see their own reflection. They can only see others’ faults magnified.

Whose job is it to hold a mirror up to a person’s face? If I do it, the person may get angry at me, retaliate, and try to smash the mirror. If the Holy Spirit holds it up, then they are rejecting Him and not me. What if, however, God chooses to use me as someone’s mirror? Would I be willing? Only if He asked me to. Otherwise, I’d prefer the Holy Spirit to do the work.

And so, dear God, would You kindly hold up a mirror to my friend’s face? May she see her reflection, resulting in recognition and repentance. Yet You know the best time to give her that mirror. Too soon, and she may harden her heart. I have to trust You, Lord. Meanwhile . . . am I expected to love . . . a hypocrite?

Word for the Year 2021: Handicap

I confess I have an abysmal sense of direction, and it’s getting worse with age. I Googled “bad sense of direction” to get some tips for improving my odds and collected maps for cities I frequent. Every day for the first month, I studied our local map, trying to memorize street names and cement a visual mind map to guide me. What a useless endeavor! Apparently, I am incapable of thinking and driving at the same time.

When I read a blog by someone who unashamedly labeled his poor sense of direction a HANDICAP (and many people resonated with his plight), I concluded I cannot change my brain enough to warrant shedding my trusty GPS. So, there you have it—one Word for the Year tossed in the trash, and I needed a replacement.

Following my recovery from Covid in November 2020, I decided to chronicle my journey with another hidden HANDICAP—loss of taste and smell. First, I tried the famous burnt-orange trick that went viral (useless) and sniffed three different essential oils three times daily for the suggested smell training ritual. For two weeks I quadrupled my intake of zinc. Nothing.

I spit out my first cup of coffee, tasteless as water. When I tried sniffing freshly ground coffee beans, a disgusting malodor greeted my nose. At least I’m smelling something, I reasoned, but this annoying odor lingered nonstop for months. Everything smelled the same: smoke, pizza, cat litter. I became the designated dirty-diaper queen for my youngest grandchild.

In the first three months, I burned up three frying pans because I couldn’t rely on smell to alert me. I no longer dared leave the kitchen during the simmering process. I lost what little interest I had in cooking or making menu decisions. For the first time in our 46 years of marriage, I didn’t care if I ate my husband’s bland-diet preference over my spicy palate. It all tasted the same, so what was the point?! I now had to rely on him to inform me if meat had spoiled or the seasoning wasn’t right in a casserole.

One day we decided to treat our grandsons to ice cream. As we approached the drive-through, I asked the 10-year-old what he thought I should order since I wouldn’t be able to taste it. “Cheapest thing on the menu, Grandma!” he said. Smart kid! And later, his 7-year-old brother asked, “Why eat anything at all?” I explained that food fuels the body, but regrettably, I had begun to choose peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches over healthy salads. Growing our Tower Garden felt pointless.

With the loss of eating pleasure, I learned to tune more into how hunger felt instead of eating what I craved but, disappointingly, I lost no weight. Eventually I began to differentiate between salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, but could taste no nuances of flavor. I put hot sauce on everything, trying to elicit a little zing for the tongue.

I tried hard not to complain but failed miserably and so began a regimen of gratitude for my other four senses. When I finally got tired of hearing myself complain, I asked God for a better solution and stumbled on Isaiah 65:5b: These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away. (NLT)

And that’s when He gave me this idea: every time I smelled that repulsive odor, I would think about the stench in God’s nostrils and pray for someone. It helped refocus my attitude.

By August I noticed a subtle shift in relinquishing the malodor and enjoyed a hot curry Indian dish. Coffee became my gauge for progress. I went from gagging to tolerating a quarter cup, to drinking half a cup if I held my nose during the brewing process. I jumped in glee when I got a whiff of burnt toast. Someone claimed if you didn’t get your smell and taste back after nine months, it would be permanent. Oh, Lord, I hope not! I was into my ninth month and counting . . .

In September, someone suggested I try fascial counterpressure (whatever that was!). I found a practitioner 30 minutes away and promptly made an appointment but returned home with no noticeable results and fewer dollars in my wallet.

In October, I read Numbers 11:1-9 where the Israelites complained about eating manna every day. They missed their pungent fish, along with the flavorful cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. I could relate! I used to fault these people for their ingratitude, but now I felt convicted over my similar lament. I so missed the diversity of flavors. I wanted to discover the sweetness of holy manna and be thankful for what I had instead of grief over what I’d lost. How could I learn to leave Egypt behind and embrace the promise of a new land?

I continued to struggle with my attitude, complaining about my loss. I had an appointment with food three times a day, and three times a day I had to face the keen disappointment of loss of pleasure. Five times in Numbers 15 the phrase “an odor pleasing to the Lord” caught my attention. I couldn’t smell, but God could; and I wanted my attitude, thoughts, and deeds to be a pleasing odor in His nostrils.

It was like I was holding onto the end of a rope connected to taste and smell. Letting go of the rope didn’t mean I wouldn’t eat; it meant letting go the pleasure, the drug. When I dropped the rope, I watched in astonishment as it retracted like a tape measure into the food. The flavors were still there, but they were no longer tied to me. They don’t belong to me and therefore have no power over me. Now I can pick up food, examine it, see it, feel its texture, and experience it. It is what it is.

Over a year later now, I have adjusted (mostly) to my hidden handicap, and I rejoice in every whiff of smoke or incremental change in flavor. It’s okay that I can’t smell dirty diapers, but I sure do miss my coffee!

Oh taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him. (PS 34:8 KJV)

My biggest disappointment is not being able to taste injera ba wat (Ethiopian food)

For further reflection:

I checked out the Scriptures (RSV) and found the following words: Nose 12x, Nostrils 14x, Smell 20x, and Odor 43x. I even found a blog on the subject: Just a Thought . . . God’s Nose (constantcontact.com)

How Not to Study the Bible

Journal 2005

I’ve heard numerous sermons, sat through many classes, and read several books on how to study the Bible, and I’ve tried various techniques. I’m currently reading through a famous preacher’s study Bible, and I’m in awe of the massive amount of work and time he put into it. I’m grateful for those who have the gift of teaching, including a passion for research.

One pastor suggested we might want to diagram the sentences in the epistle we were studying. The exercise appealed to me as an English teacher, but I gave up in frustration. Sentence diagrams work well for the English language, but Hebrew and Greek don’t follow English rules of grammar. It’s like a two-dimensional object when you try to make sense of syllables and letters strung together. We would have to immerse ourselves in the original languages in order to truly understand the depth of the teaching.

The Western mind loves books like Romans and Hebrews because they fit neatly into an outline, but most Scripture does not. The African or Eastern reader would never think to box in a story using an outline. He would see it in three dimensions or four. The Bible has depth, layer on layer of meaning. Paul’s letters are not meant to be categorized and outlined, but to be read as emotional thoughts that randomly entered his head.

Obviously, there’s a need for scholarly textual analysis, but all the study in the world won’t replace the need for devotional reading. What good does it do to dissect a book into outlines, verb usage, sentence structure—if you don’t apply the words? Maybe our goal, instead, should be “how to live the Bible.” Now there’s a novel thought.

A 2021 Update. I’m in the middle of listening to a 204-episode podcast called Bema Discipleship by Marty Solomon, who teaches Scripture through the lens of a historical, Jewish perspective; and I’m slogging my way through the notes in the Jewish Study Bible. I’m excitedly learning a ton of new information, but in the end, the only benefit to me is when I live out the text.

What’s your favorite method of study?

Ask and You’ll Receive

Journal 2010. Charlie was a proud and bitter man. When he was a little boy, his big brother told him God always answers prayer. So one night, Charlie knelt by his bed and asked for some candy—but none appeared. That was the day he lost all faith in a god who would withhold good things from him.

As I studied John 16 this week, I thought about Charlie.

Jesus is explaining to his disciples what is about to happen. He’ll be going away for a while, and then they’ll see Him again after the resurrection. When Jesus senses that they want to ask Him [questions] about this, He explains a little more plainly. And then He says, “In that day [after the resurrection and when the Comforter comes] you will no longer ask Me anything.” (He did not say, “ask Me for anything.” He meant ask Me any questions you have.)

“And besides,” He says, “I won’t be here anymore. Instead, you’ll ask [questions] in My name and the Father will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for [about?] anything in My name.” (Before Jesus ascended, the disciples could ask Him any question face to face, but after His ascension, they could speak directly to the Father, through Jesus.)

“Ask and you’ll receive [answers] and your joy will be complete,” He says. “I’m not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father Himself loves you” (vv. 25-28).

The disciples respond: “Now we see that You know all things and that You do not need to have anyone ask You [questions]. (The rabbinic method of teaching was to ask questions, and Jesus’ teacher was the Father.) This makes us believe that You came from God.”

Jesus says, “You believe at last!”

Instead of “ask Jesus for anything” (as I’ve always been taught), this passage (context, context) is all about asking Jesus questions. Jesus said, “Ask what you will. . . .” He didn’t say ask for things or prayer requests.

If I’m reading this passage right, it would change a lot of theology, misunderstandings, and disillusionment when we ask Him to do something, and He doesn’t do it. Perhaps Charlie would have grown up a different man had he understood this concept.