Who is My Neighbor?

During my fall break from school, my daughter Rachel and grandson Isaiah flew in from Kansas City to spend a few wonderful days with us. On one of those days we visited the world-class Indianapolis Children’s Museum along with an estimated 12,000 others. Needless to say, being able to share space and toys was the required skill for the day and when you are two years old and an only child that is asking a lot. There were more than a few occasions when Isaiah had comfortably settled in to play only to find out that others had their eye on the things he had piled in front of him. When he objected with a vehement “No!” to another child, Rachel would intervene with, “Let’s share with our friends.” The look on his face that followed such reminders was one of confusion. I know he was probably thinking, “I’m sorry, momma, but you must be mistaken. Those kids are not my friends. In fact, they are perfect strangers to me!”

It makes me wonder if that’s not my own subconscious attitude sometimes. To my friends and family I try to be loving and giving, but when it comes to the unnamed and unknown hurting and the helpless in the world am I doing as much as I could? It reminds of the introduction to the parable that Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. In the tenth chapter of Luke I read that an expert in the law asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked him what the law said the man rattled off, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  I can just picture that man in my mind parroting back what he had learned in his life long study of the Torah. In my mind, he is saying it with all the conviction of a child reciting the state capitals. The information was in his head, but not in his heart. Still, Jesus told him that he had answered correctly. But of course because the man was trying to justify himself, he couldn’t let it go at that and pressed Jesus a little harder asking him, “And who is my neighbor?” That’s when he got an answer he wasn’t expecting.

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:30-37

I realize that as a Samaritan the kind man was actually the cultural enemy of the beaten man. Sadly, I also know that priest and the Levite represent the churched people in the world and if I am not careful that can easily be me. It can be me who turns a deaf ear to the suffering around me if I am not tuned into the Spirit. If I decide that my neighbors, my friends, are only the ones that I recognize in my day-to-day living then it becomes me who crosses the street so I don’t have to help the bruised and bleeding one in the road.

Oh, Lord have mercy on me and my short-sightedness. Let me see beyond my own little world to be the Good Samaritan to the unknown friends and neighbors that need my help. Break my heart, Lord for the ones who break Your heart. Be my guide to sharing your love.

Polished Stones

We recently updated the twenty-five year old dusty pink, laminate countertop in our kitchen. Although it had served us well, it was outdated and chipped and was practically begging me to put it out of its misery. Okay, maybe the begging was actually coming from me, but I digress. At any rate, I saved my pennies until I could afford a beautiful, new granite countertop and was beyond thrilled at its appearance.

However, as is so often the case when making home improvements, one change precipitated another. Tearing out the old countertop ruined the tile backsplash that was on the wall behind the sink so over the weekend, Phil and I headed out to our neighborhood home improvement store to find a suitable replacement. We took along a small piece of the granite so we could match potential colors. Three of its sides were shiny, but the fourth was left in its original state.  As we drove along Phil looked over at the granite piece and remarked, “You know without polishing, granite doesn’t look that great.”

He was right. When initially mined, granite looks fairly unremarkable. It’s hard for me to fathom the ancient volcanic eruption that spewed forth fiery magma that later cooled and hardened into granite. Although crystalized patterns can be seen from the extreme heating and cooling process, the colors are mostly dull and muted. The edges of the large slabs of stone are jagged and grey. It’s not until it is ground with diamonds that it begins to unveil its luster and shine. Hmmm, I think, that’s sort of like me. For in truth, if left in my natural state I might choose to stay rough around the edges, unhewn and coarse in my selfish desires. I would never get to be my best self without a little polishing from God.

Although having my rough spots ground away is not always what I would ask for at the time, the result is a greater revealing of the Spirit within me. And it’s that is the very thing that I cry out for when I ask the Lord to give me an undivided heart. I echo David in Psalm 86 when he writes, “Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name. I will praise you, O LORD my God, with all of my heart; I will glorify your name forever.”

I ask not for a heart of stone, but a loving, beating, pliable heart that will do the will of the Father. But oh how hard it is sometimes to do what loves requires– to repay evil with good, to throw away the score card, to hold my tongue, to trust when the way seems impossible. Those actions and attitudes are only possible when I offer myself up to the transformational love of Jesus Christ – the love that embodies the power and wisdom of God the Father. So when my own life erupts with trouble and testing I can be confident that on the other side of the Refiner’s fire waits the outstretched hand of my Redeemer.

Thank-you Lord, that You hear my cry and do not leave me in my distress. You look upon me with compassion and mercy even in the midst of my trouble. And though the grinding of this life seems hard, I know that Your love in my life will produce a luster more beautiful than diamonds.

Letting Go of the String

A few years ago when our youngest graduated from high school we hosted his graduation open house outdoors in our yard. As we were cleaning up afterwards one of the helium balloons that had been tied to a table as decoration escaped my grip and floated away. I stood for a moment to watch it rise into the air, its red ribbon tail twisting behind it. Finally it slipped behind the clouds and disappeared. Just like sending a prayer to God, I thought, and suddenly I could visualize all my praises and petitions twirling up to the throne room of God. That particular day prayers for my newly graduated son’s future were tied to that string and many more would follow.

The apostle John gives me an even better image when he describes the church’s ascending prayers as wispy curls of sweet-smelling incense “The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” Revelation 4:8. I love that thought – that my prayers rise up before God and that He hears and actually sees my prayers.

Still there are times in my life when I have struggled to let go of the string that’s holding on to my prayer request. Let’s be honest. I still struggle at times. I ask God to give me the courage to face an uncertain situation, to handle a difficult person, to give up control, but it isn’t long before I am madly grasping for the string to pull it back.

It can be a real challenge to walk by faith and not by sight, but that is what we are called to do. In order for God to take charge of our lives we have to allow Him to work. Our Father in heaven is the perfect gentleman. He never forces His way in, but Jesus says “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” If I want God to take control of my life I have to be willing to release my problems and petitions to Him. I have to relax my grip on the things around me and let them ascend to heaven being confident in the knowledge that God hears and sees my needs and will act upon them. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Thank-you, Lord, that I do not have to hold tight to the strings that seem to bind my life together. Jesus, help me to remember that to release those ties is to find freedom in You.

Interpretations

My two-year old grandson is learning more words every week. It’s such a delight to listen to him try to put his thoughts into words in a way that I can understand. Of course, attempting to hold a regular face to face conversation with a toddler who is in the room with you can be a challenge let alone trying to do that using Skype. Often my daughter Rachel has to play the part of the UN translator and interpret the word exchange for me. Usually it goes a little like this:

Rachel: Tell Gigi what you did today.

Isaiah: Uhmmm. I creek.

Gigi: Oh did you go to the creek?

Isaiah: I kirl.

Gigi: Did you play with a girl?

Rachel: No, he saw a squirrel. Tell Gigi what the squirrel did.

Isaiah: (No verbal response. Starts bouncing up and down.)

Gigi: Did you see the squirrel run up the tree?

Rachel: No it shook its tail at him. Remember, Isaiah?

Isaiah: (No response since he has become bored with the conversation and has run out of the room.)

Isaiah reminds me a bit of Dug, the befuddled little dog in the animated movie, Up, who is constantly distracted by squirrel sightings. Dug would be engrossed in a conversation with the other story characters then would suddenly halt mid-sentence to point and shout, “Squirrel!” Funny how that behavior also occasionally mirrors my conversations with God. There are times when I try to pray, but my mind seems to chase after every “squirrel” that enters my brain. What am I to do?

I guess the first thing is to admit to God that I am distracted at that moment. Too often, I try to jump into serious conversation without readying my heart and mind.  I certainly agree with the apostle Paul when he writes in Romans 12:12 that we should, “pray without ceasing,” keeping an ongoing conversation with God as we move through our day. However, I also have a daily need to lock myself in my prayer closet and devote undistracted times for worship, thanksgiving and petition. When I am having trouble focusing I pray something like, “Lord, I want to talk to You about this, but other thoughts keep creeping in and pulling me away. Father, center me on You alone.” If I remain quiet and focus my mind on God, my heart and spirit follow.

Even in those times when I am unable to verbalize exactly what I want to say I am assured that I am heard. Romans 8:26- 27 says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” What a wonderful promise that is!

Lord, Jesus, thank-you for the promise of your Holy Spirit who lives and dwells in us interceding to the Father on our behalf. I am so grateful that You hear me when I call out to You even in those times when I cannot adequately express myself. I love you, Lord.

Weeds and Seeds

I come from a long line of talented gardeners. Each summer my grandmother would grow the most beautiful flowers – peony bushes, iris, bachelor buttons, zinnias, and daisies bloomed in brilliant color all season long. Growing up I also remember my mother’s flower beds filled to the brim with sweet-smelling roses and giant red-orange poppies. Sadly, my own attempts at gardening routinely sport a disproportionate weed to flower ratio. Seems the master gardening gene skipped a generation.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a charming posie patch; I just don’t enjoy maintaining it. Nevertheless, last weekend I set out with my gardening gloves and trowel to do what had to be done. As I painstakingly pulled handfuls of weeds and threw them into a pile I came to a one stubborn weed that put up quite a fight. When I first yanked at it, the top of it came off in my hand. Determined to get rid of it, I took my trowel and began digging around the root to unearth it. I got a good grip and pulled at it and again it snapped off in my hand. It took several more tries before I was able to pull up the entire root.

I thought about how that tenacious weed can be like the lies that get planted in our hearts. Sometimes, somewhere down the line we hear something negative about ourselves that we begin to believe. Things like – we’re not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, young enough, old enough – you fill in the blank – to do the things that God has called us to do in this life. Those lies start out as little seeds that grow long nasty roots in our hearts that bind us in fear or bitterness or self defeat. They can choke out the good things God has planned for us without us even being fully aware of their presence.

I am so thankful that the Master Gardner can pull out that weed, root and all, when I give him access to my heart. He is able to replace those lies with the good seed of the Word which tells me I am fearfully and wonderfully made in His very image and that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I don’t have to believe the lies that try to take root in my life, but can embrace the truth so that I can bloom and grow in the glory of God’s great love for me.

Thank-you Lord for the truth of your Word. Help me to recognize the seeds of deceit in my own life. Let me willingly allow You access to my heart to prune the roots that threaten to crowd out the good seeds You have sown.