Got Gifts? Thank the Giver.

Ever stop to think that everything you have is a gift?

I have. Each of my children was born into the world naked, screaming, filling their little lungs with free air. They are a gift to me, not something I crafted with my own hands and certainly not something my doctors created.

They never expected me to have children. Yet, I have them, each one born in a hospital birthing room with those amazed doctors attending.

After the Apgar scores, they were washed, diapered, heads topped with little knit caps and their little bodies tightly bundled in those pink-and-blue striped blankets that made them look like little sausages.

From the beginning, everything my children have had has been a gift:

Blankets, onesies and toys and all that would come later: a multitude of meals, museum visits, picnics, voice and ballet lessons, T-ball, soccer, basketball and countless uniforms, haircuts and hairdos, truckloads of clothes, birthday parties with armloads of gifts, braces, vacations, plane tickets, medical care, hospital stays (only a few, for which we are thankful) and camp and college fees. Our continual presence, protection, provision.

All of it a gift.

No strings. No price. Just: Because we love you, we are freely giving you what you need and some of what you want. Enjoy the gift.

This is actually my story and yours, too.

Think of it. We are naturally selfish, greedy, all-about-me creatures. We like to take credit for our successes, blabbering about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and being self-made men and women.

Nonsense. We’d all be nothing if Someone hadn’t been generous with us.

The apostle Paul wrote:

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive. And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Cor 4:7)

 

  • Smart? Have a mind for high level math… facility with languages… musically gifted? You had nothing to do with that. Some gifts are hard-wired. You might have been born with a deficit of some kind, a learning disorder.

 

  • Beautiful? Be thankful instead of vain. You could just as easily bare an unsightly deformity. Though society elevates the “beautiful,” being unattractive doesn’t diminish one’s worth. Believe it or not, God actually takes responsibility for the less than perfect people among us. (Exodus 4:11)

 

  • Born to wealth? So what? You didn’t earn it. None of us choose our parents. You could have as easily been born into Third World poverty.

The older I get, the more I am aware that we make too much of ourselves. We so easily forget from whence we came, or what might have been, and to whom we owe a great debt.

Our pastor recently ended an eloquent sermon about the life of Noah with a point that has stayed with me: No matter where we go, no matter what we achieve, no matter who we become, we ought never to forget God.

God alone is the author of Life. It is He who made and formed us. (Deu 32:6) And it is God who makes possible every good thing we enjoy: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17)

Enjoy the good gifts of life, but don’t get twisted about their source. I didn’t do it and neither did you. God did.

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Honor Where It’s Due

   My son asked me the other day why someone we know routinely mispronounces the word “sword,” opening with the sound of the Nike symbol “swish.” The guy has an earned PhD and still doesn’t know that the “w” in sword is silent?

My guess is he learned to say “sword” as a child by repeating the way someone close to him said it, maybe a parent or grandparent. As a full-grown, well-educated man that pronunciation has stuck with him as part of his family fabric. His wife, who also holds a doctorate, is probably the only one close enough to him to correct him. She probably won’t, out of love and respect for him.

Then I told my son a story from my own childhood.

When I was growing up my Mom would come home from the beauty shop or grocery store and mention that she saw someone we knew, only she didn’t use the word “saw.” Typically, she’d say “I seed” so-and-so. As long as I can remember this was Mom’s way of expressing the past tense of “see.”

Mom was an intelligent and resourceful lady with beautiful handwriting and a love of newspapers, magazines and Paul Harvey. She’d left the South before graduating high school to go north for better opportunities and returned years later to work long hours in a textile mill.

In spite of all that (or maybe because of it), Mom valued and encouraged education. To her credit, all the girls who grew up in her home graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees. We never scrubbed toilets, did laundry or kept house for anyone but ourselves.

I’ll tell you something else we never did. We never corrected her when she said she “seed” someone.

I learned the English language well enough to earn a living as a writer, but I knew better than to tell my Mom how to speak. Some things are sacrosanct. My relationship with my Mom was one of them. What I am today, I owe in large part to the foundation she laid. Out of respect, I understood that it was not my place to correct her.

My place was to honor her. Not because she was perfect. Not because she was always right. She was neither of these things, but she was my mother. The position alone afforded her a respect that was inviolate.

 

The Bible says (and yes, I still believe the Bible is right):

 

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3

 

To honor someone is to recognize their value. We may have many friends, many mentors. Parents stand alone. We ought to appreciate them, to hold them in high regard.

Do I even need to say that biblical honor is all but dead?

Children routinely return from college to shove their “enlightenment” in their parents’ faces, rejecting and ridiculing everything their parents’ hold dear and everything they were taught to respect. The children feel smug in being liberated from their parents’ so-called ignorance and antiquated ways.

These “smart” young people are ignorant of a truth I learned early in my marriage: To honor your parents is to bless yourself.

I learned this after my husband took me to task for my being rude and disdainful toward my father. I justified my behavior by rehearsing how he was biologically my father, but never had assumed a father’s role in my daily life. So what did I owe him? My husband bluntly reminded me that wasn’t the point.

As a Christian, out of love and respect for God, he said, I had an obligation to honor my father for the position he held in my life. He was my father, period. Simple, but very hard to accept. I understood that my mother should be respected. She’d raised me. My father never had been a real father to me but was my “father” nevertheless. God’s clear command was to honor him for that alone. I could not escape that.

A lifetime’s bad habit is not easily broken. But I repented; and I worked at it .

Before my father died of lung cancer, less than a decade ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of day with him at his home in the Bronx. We poured over pictures from his youth, his service photos, and neighborhood snapshots. I listened to his stories. It was awkward, but worth the effort. When he died, I had far fewer regrets than I might have.

Honor belongs to parents, but the blessing goes to children: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

As we approach Mother’s Day on May 11 and Father’s Day in June, consider that parents have a short shelf life. Both mine are gone. Honor yours while you can, even if they haven’t been what you might have hoped. Without them, there would be no “you.”

In an age of easy abortion, that your parents gave you life is blessing enough. If they loved and cherished you, were real parents despite their frailties, you are blessed indeed!

Kiss Ishmael Goodbye!

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

You know Ishmael. You probably have one yourself.

Ishmael is my attempt to get what I want on my schedule because I’m not willing to wait for God to act. Practically speaking, Ishmael is a manifestation of my own self-will, impatience and unbelief. Ishmael is me saying, “Okay, God. Since you won’t, I will.”

Historically, of course, Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s solution to a problem created by God. The Book of Genesis introduces this childless couple, past the age of childbearing, with no heir in a culture where male offspring meant something. God, of His own volition, promised Abraham a son. Independent of anything Abraham would do, God said here is what I will do.

But God did not say when. And waiting is always the hardest part.

As years passed, in the minds of Abraham and Sarah, time was running out. They began to write their own script.

Scene 1: Sarah gives Abe her handmaid Hagar; who gets pregnant and gets an attitude. Sarah gets offended, takes her hurt out on Hagar, who runs away. Fast forward, Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham has a son!  And so begins the resulting family drama.

Scene 2: Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham, age 100, has two sons. Ishmael: the son of Abraham and Sarah’s presumption. Isaac: the son of God promised. Abraham is on cloud nine, but not for long. Their improvised solution now presents an unavoidable problem. Ishmael and Isaac cannot coexist, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

Abraham’s story is my story, our story.

In our early years, life stretches before us, a blank canvas. As years pass, we don’t always like the scene we’ve painted; our hopes and dreams aren’t realized. We wrote The Great American novel, twice, and no one will publish it. We married Prince Charming and are now living with Homer Simpson. We got an MBA and still got passed over for promotion.  The prodigal we’ve prayed for is at home in the Far Country with no plans to move.

Ishmaels are conceived at this intersection of disappointment and disillusionment:

  • a cross country move for a “dream job” that uproots the family and almost destroys a marriage
  •  an ill-timed and under-financed business venture;
  • divorce and/or marriage to a trophy spouse or newly discovered “soul mate”
  • etc., etc., etc.

Ever birthed any Ishmaels? I have. Unwilling to wait, I’ve struck out on my own. When God finally did what He said He would do – as He always does – I couldn’t enjoy His blessing the way I might have if I’d waited. Ishmael complicates things. Ishmael, as Abraham’s history reveals, is a complication for my children and their children for generations to come. That’s why he has to go.

It’s not easy to send him packing. Ishmael is my baby, a part of me. Abraham invested 14 years in Ishmael, pouring himself into that relationship, before Isaac came along. But that didn’t change God’s perspective. Ishmael was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.  And God will not abandon His plan to sanctify the result of my carnality. He won’t kill Ishmael either. I have to deal with the monster I created.

God gives us the choice. Ishmael or Isaac? Your plan or mine; what’s it going to be?

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

When the tears dry and the dust settles, I expect to find what Joshua found after the battles beyond the Jordan. God will have kept His  promise, in His time.

“Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.” Joshua 21:45

The Great Car Debate

My teen-aged son is desperate to have his own car now that he’s a worker bee. Realistically, we parents expect him to put up his own money. He doesn’t see why we can’t “just buy” him a car.

It’s pretty simple to us. Nothing in life is free. Nobody “just bought” us cars. I got my first car courtesy of an enlisted brother-in-law whose friend was deploying to Germany and couldn’t take it with him. I got a big-engine, leather interior Cutlass Supreme with power everything for a couple hundred dollars. The rear windshield leaked. My husband got his first car, an oil-burning Vega, for a few hundred as well.

Being almost free meant, these cars weren’t expected to be in mint condition. We were happy just to be riding. Our son considers our first cars clunkers. His friends, after all, drive the coveted Mustang, BMW or Lexus or lowly but new Hondas. And so we’ve been inundated with an email stream of acceptable luxury models: Volvo 850s, SAABs, Acura. On the advice of our trusted mechanic we’ve steered clear of these high mileage potential nightmares.

Our latest suggestion – an affordable, American-made, one-owner only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady (not exactly but close!) – has been rejected as not “stylish.”

The “Great Car Debate” continues, reminding me of something I heard a preacher say: “It is possible to be madly in love with someone you should never marry.”

Men fall in love with cars as well as women. And it’s a good thing to avoid “marrying” a lemon no matter how lovely. Automotive lemons can be detailed to look pristine even after floating through a New Orleans flood or surviving a frame-bending wreck. CarMax showrooms like to display these beautiful wrecks – the kind they pledge not to sell – and to reveal their cleverly disguised flaws.

While there are lemon laws for cars, when it comes to women, there is no legal protection for unwise choices. Whether it’s women or cars, we hope to teach our son that it’s wise to consider the end from the beginning. So what if he can swing a car payment or buy the car outright? What matters is whether he can maintain it over time: pay the insurance, make the repairs.

The Bible says, “Count the cost.” (Luke 14:28)

Just as a car’s value is under the hood, a person’s true value is revealed in character. Like a rust bucket polished into showroom brilliance, people show well when we want to make an impression. Time tells the real story. Keep a car through a few oil changes and its quirks begin to show: the leaks, the squeaks, the controls that are a little wacko. In time, people reveal their true colors, too.

The message to our son: Avoid “buyers’ remorse.” It’s what happens when we’re sold on the sparkle, the new smell and the performance. We drive home and the reality of 48, 60 or even 72 months of payments sets in. We can’t believe we bought it! Can we take it back?

This doesn’t just happen to young boys. I heard a middle-aged caller to a financial radio program confess to being mesmerized by a new car she purchased in a whirl of emotion. She later realized that she works two full weeks of every month to make the payment and barely is able to cover other bills. She was looking for a way out.

The way out, of course, is to do what she obligated herself to do: pay the price. Here’s hoping we can convince our son to first, count the cost.

Keep the faith ’til the finish!

Only God knows the end from the beginning. He is, after all, the Alpha and Omega.

We only see what happens in between. Because what we see is not always what it seems, the Bible counsels believers to walk by faith and not by sight.

Imagine Samson’s family traveling to Gaza to retrieve his broken body from the rubble where he’d brought down the house on the Philistine lords. If his mother made the journey, she probably passed the time rehearsing Samson’s life (Judges, chapters 13-16).

No doubt her mind went back to the day she’d learned she’d be a mother.

She and husband Manoah had been childless. She was barren, unable to bear children. Then an angel appeared and announced she’d have a son, a Nazarite: one consecrated or dedicated to, separated for God’s service. He would begin to deliver Israel out of the clutches of the Philistines.

I know the excitement of a moment like that. After six years of marriage, that included fertility treatment, doctors offered little hope that I’d have children. A group of Christian women began to pray for me.

One day, I got the news I’d be having a baby!

In my first trimester, I visited the remaining Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem with my husband. I wrote my hopes, dreams and prayers for that child on a piece of paper, folded it tightly and stuffed it into a small crevice between ancient stones.

In time, I’d have not only a daughter but two sons as well.

Manoah and wife had a son they named Samson. He was blessed by the Lord. The Spirit of God moved him.

When Samson came of age and began to desire a wife, his parents hoped he’d choose a God-fearing Hebrew girl who would help him fulfill God’s purpose for his life. Doesn’t every believing parent want: a helper suitable for their son; a husband who will love their daughter as Christ loves the church?

Samson, however, demanded a “daughter of the Philistines.” His parents protested, but he was adamant. “Get her for me for she pleases me,” he said.

The marriage ended before it really began. Loyal to her unbelieving kinsmen, the woman betrayed Samson by revealing the answer to a riddle he’d proposed (with a wager). Samson had his revenge, but the woman was given to his best man.

Samson didn’t pursue another marriage. He visited a Philistine prostitute and came to “love” a Philistine woman named Delilah. His association with Delilah is what brought his family to Gaza to claim his body.

Delilah was paid to entice Samson and to learn the source of his strength so that he might be captured. She finally wore down Samson’s resolve with her persistent questioning. When he had told her “all his heart,” the Philistine’s fell on him. He didn’t know that the Spirit of God had left him, that he had no supernatural strength to prevail.

The Philistines put out Samson’s eyes and set him to grinding grain in the prison, like an animal. He was brought out to entertain a Philistine “Who’s Who” gathered to praise their god for bringing Samson into their hands.

By this time, Samson’s hair – a symbol of his Nazarite vow – had grown and with it his faith. He prayed, the first prayer Scripture recorded from his lips. God answered that prayer as Samson grabbed the building’s supporting pillars and brought the house down, literally.

The writer of Proverbs asked, “Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned. Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be burned.” Proverbs 6:28-29.

Samson was burned. It may have looked to his family like his whole life had been reduced to ashes. He’d died in the enemy’s camp, blind and broken after judging Israel 20 years.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

God is merciful and forgiving… else we’d all be lost.

We are reintroduced to Samson in Hebrews 11:32, where Samson is expressly named as a person of faith.  God never changed his mind about Samson. He was indeed “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.”

And somewhere between Delilah’s bed and that last appearance before his enemies, Samson got it together with God. His last act demonstrated what the psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.”

As Samson’s family came to Gaza to claim his body and plan a burial, things didn’t look good. All his mother would have had was God’s promise at the beginning of Samson’s life and the knowledge that God is faithful.

If you find yourself somewhere between the promise and its fulfillment — and things just don’t look good — keep the faith. Remember, Jesus is both the author and the finisher of our faith.

God The Father, not The Bodyguard

 Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a man-made catastrophe such as the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., or the shooting of Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin, invariably someone asks: “How could a loving God allow this to happen when He could have protected those people?”

Fair question, but I think it’s the wrong one. Most of us live our everyday lives independently of God. Aside from mouthing an occasional “God Bless America,” we want God to mind His business while we mind our own.

My question: Why do we expect a God we ignore to come running to our defense when all hell breaks loose?

The God of the Bible does not obligate Himself to act as a universal bodyguard. God loves the world (John 3:16) and is rich in mercy to all His creation. He rains on the just and the unjust, extending common grace to us all.

Yet, God specifically reserves His protection and deliverance for a subset of humanity:

  •  “The righteous cry and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Psalm 34:7
  • “The Lord watches over all who love Him….” Psalm 145:20(a).
  • “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” Psalm 37:8

God knows if we love Him based on whether we do what He wants.

Jesus told the story of two brothers whose father asked each of them to go work in his vineyard. The first initially refused to go, but he finally did. The other said he would go, but did not. Jesus asked: who actually did the will of the father? The one who did what the father asked.

Think of God’s care as a kind of umbrella. When we rebel, we step into the rain. God’s love is unchanged; we just don’t experience its benefits. “Your sins…. have cut you off from God.” (Isaiah 59:2) If this sound unfair, I hear you. But it’s simple family dynamics.

I take responsibility for nurturing and protecting my children. They are a part of me; we have a blood tie. It’s not that I have no concern for my neighbors’ children. If they have a need or are in danger, I can help. But I am not obligated to do so. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Even my own children can refuse my help; and I cannot make them accept it.

Similarly, the Bible says, “I will be a Father to you, And you shall by My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:18)

A Father is responsible for His own children; obedient children submit both to their Father’s loving care and His correction. Yet, we expect God to intervene at crisis points in the lives of people who may want nothing to do with Him.  This is a wrong-headed expectation for two reasons.

First, our safety isn’t God’s only concern. He wants to make us holy, which sometimes means allowing us to suffer. Life happens to us all. God has not promised all rainbows and roses. He simply has said He will never abandon us.

Secondly, while God’s explicit protection is a family privilege,  the Good News is we can be adopted into His family. Whether we start out near to God or very far away, through Christ “we have access by one Spirit to the Father.”(Eph 2:18)

My challenge, perhaps yours too?, is to let God be my Father when there is no crisis – when I like it and when I don’t. No one can invoke God’s favor as some kind of force-field against the vicissitudes of life, but we can choose to trust Him day by day. He obligates Himself to us only when we commit ourselves to Him.

Think Outside the Bag

My son went to school without a lunch one day this week. It wasn’t that we didn’t provide food or didn’t care whether he ate.

He left his brown-bag, home-made lunch in his chair at the kitchen table. We made the lunch. It was his responsibility to take it with him to school.

I saw that lunch when I returned home after driving my 8th grader to school. I put it back in the refrigerator and, after a brief confab with his dad, determined to leave it there.

Thus began a hard lesson: sometimes we have to go hungry in order to learn. Pain is a powerful teacher. We seldom forget what we learn the hard way.

My son needed a nutritious lunch that day in particular. He had a full school day ahead immediately followed by a tough soccer game with him playing striker. Because he’d also left his wallet he had no money to buy lunch. 

I had breakfast, said a prayer and drove to the office.

You might think I’m a horrible parent. You’d be right. (There are times when I wonder why God ever entrusted me with children!) But this was actually one of my better days. That left-behind lunch became one of the things I pray for – a teachable moment!

You see, our son isn’t a “morning person” and routinely forgets things. We’ve tried to teach him a get-ready-the-night-before process, but he prefers to do things his way. (Don’t we all, even when our way doesn’t work?)

I could have driven the lunch to his middle school. I’d delivered something a day earlier. Soccer team photos were scheduled; my son forgot his uniform. He phoned. I drove it over.

Our rule is one Parent Delivery a year. After that, you’re on your own. It doesn’t matter whether it’s forgotten homework, sports equipment, allergy meds or ortho devices. Our theory is children learn more by working through the problems they create than they do by being rescued continually by well-meaning parents.

The lessons have been hard – for him and for us: zeros for missing homework and a lower GPA, for example. The feedback has been brutal: “This is all your fault.” “You don’t love me!”

Actually, allowing children to experience the consequences of their actions can be the most loving thing we do as parents, especially when those consequences are small compared to the larger lesson. God deals with His children in a similar way.

The Bible says that Jesus “has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” 2 Peter 1:3 He’s made it available, but he doesn’t cram it down our throats. If we don’t use what He’s given, it’s our decision. 

When we lack what we need and become weary, frustrated or broken, God does not say: “I told you so.” He simply says,  “Come to me… . 

God loves us enough to let us learn from our mistakes. As parents, we have to be willing to do the same. It isn’t easy. It hurts to watch anyone suffer when you know the pain might have been avoided.

God would prefer we all learn with less suffering, but we aren’t always willing. So He allows us to experience heartache, disappointment, even failure. Pain has purpose. It can make us teachable.

I am not sure what my son ate for lunch that day. We never talked about it. But he was pretty hungry at dinner that night. And he didn’t forget his lunch the next morning!