Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spotless and Wrinkle Free

David may have downed his giant with a single stone, but God felled my foe with a potato chip, of all things. A potato chip!

I met him several years ago, shortly after I began working at the grocery store. As happens with regular customers, I saw this man so often that he gradually became another in a string of nameless friends who bring a smile and a moment of cheer as they pass through my check-out line on any given day. What made him different…and difficult…was his conversation.

Early on in our acquaintance it became apparent that with his boys grown and his marriage over, he was giving himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of the happiness to be found in a case of beer, a willing woman, or a fast dash on his motorcycle, preferably with one such woman perched on the seat behind him. A road construction worker by day, he partied hard by night, his perpetual tan and easy smile a testament to his devotion to a life of fun in the sun.

His language reflected his lifestyle, laced as it was with raw humor and sexual innuendo. He could turn the most innocent of casual comments into something entirely other than what was intended, and he did so regularly with great delight at my subsequent confusion and embarrassment. Most of the time I was able to just laugh him off, change the subject and then wave him on his way, and so our friendship of sorts continued. But there came a day when everything I said was taken the wrong way, making it absolutely impossible to converse with him. I’d had it, and told him so, requesting that he just pick another checkout lane to go through in the future, because trying to talk with him just wasn’t worth my time and trouble any longer. Store policy aside, I’d reached the end of the line with this particular shopper in mine.

He was surprised, to say the least, but kept his distance for awhile. Eventually he apologized and asked if we could start over, and for awhile, things were better. He was careful about his subject matter, keeping his conversation to safe topics like the tomatoes growing in his garden, or, as the seasons changed, the possibility of joining a gym to ease his boredom during his winter work layoff. But like a leopard that can’t change its spots, soon he was talking about the great scenery to be found in his workout sessions, and toned muscles other than his own. I shook my head at his consistency and he laughed as he headed out the door.

With road construction in full swing during these summer months, his visits to the grocery store have been fewer, but a day or two ago he came in for a cold drink and I spotted him already smiling in anticipation of his sport at my expense as he headed my way. But by the time he got to my register he was coughing, clearing his throat repeatedly, and could barely talk. Apparently he had grabbed a handful of the potato chips offered in the free sample bin as he came in the door, tossing them into his mouth without giving the action a second thought. I’d passed the display on my way in, as well, but having noted the word jalapeno splashed in bold lettering across the front of the sample bag, this potato chip devotee had given that particular flavor a wide berth.

My shopping friend now wished he’d done the same. “Wow, those chips are hot!” he sputtered, gasping for air and wiping his watering eyes. With conversation nearly impossible because of his continued coughing fits, he did manage to spit out, “Ill bet you’re enjoying this!” Naturally I wouldn’t wish his misery on anybody, and I knew he’d be fine once he took a slug of the drink he’d just purchased. So I felt free to enjoy the fact that our roles were finally reversed; this time it was he who was red-faced and speechless while I was the one with the smile on my face.

“You have to admit, it‘s kind of funny,” I giggled.

“You probably planned it,” he muttered as he stuffed his change in his pocket and headed out the door.

Thinking to myself as I watched him leave that I couldn’t possibly have come up with anything so perfect, I was more struck by the fact that I didn‘t have to - that God did it for me. Having long ago struck the word coincidence from my vocabulary, I was encouraged by this simple reminder that He knows every detail of what goes on in my life and that He willingly fights my battles for me, even those that matter so little in the grand scheme of things. But as always, there was more to the moment than just that. He took me back to an earlier thought, reminding me again that a leopard can’t change his spots…and we can’t do it for him. But that doesn’t seem to keep us from trying.

All of us have “spotted” people in our lives, those whose bad habits and subsequent difficult behavior we’d love to change. And God would remind us that only He who created the leopard in the first place can remove its markings. In fact, that’s what occupies His time as he creates for Himself a Bride “without spot or blemish”. He simply is at work in each of us, making us into what He would have us to be. Our desire that He hurry up and “git ‘er done” affects Him not in the least, and we must be patient with His pace, realizing that  as much as He’s working in that “problem” person, He’s likewise at work in each of us.

We have blemishes, too, problem areas in our personality that we treat much like we did the acne we experienced in our teenage years. We go to a good deal of effort to simply cover them up, and try to doctor them with all manner of surface treatments that don’t get to the root of the problem.

Skin breakouts are affected by many factors, diet and heredity included. The same is true of our behavior. Those times that we act out are largely fueled by what we’ve fed our spirits - our spiritual food choices that day or lack of the same. And they reflect the remnants of a sin nature that we come by honestly, but that God can change in an instant in a true “born-again” experience, giving us a whole new parentage with the characteristics and privileges it contains. Then He goes to work changing our markings with the makings of a life that glorifies Him, one life experience at a time.

David knew that God was his shield as he fought his battles, as well as the strength in his arm and the power behind his throw. Similarly, the Bible states that God has beset us behind and before and laid His hand upon us. How good to know that wherever we go and whoever our foe, He’s got our back and can effectively eliminate even those who are sometimes just a little too hot to handle.

“…that He might present it to Himself as the glorious church, without spot or wrinkle or any such things, but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
(Ephesians 5:27 MKJV)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sophie's Choice

It brings to mind a movie by the same name - the details of which I've long since forgotten. I do remember that Meryl Streep played the part of a woman named Sophie in a German concentration camp during World War II, who had to choose which of her two children would be allowed to live. Both children would die unless she picked one whose life would be spared. She chose her son on the basis of his skin and hair coloring, details that would improve his chances of survival in the days to come. Perhaps the rest of the movie was lost to me after the horror of the one scene in which her daughter was torn from her arms and taken away to the execution chamber, screaming and calling out to her mother to save her. Sophie was tormented by the agony of having to choose between them for the rest of her life.

Another woman named Sophie comes to my mind, a woman who also has had to choose between two lives that are dear to her. One choice would guarantee her life, while the other might lead to her death, physically speaking. But the opposite is true in the spiritual realm. The choice that leads to physical safety and security would likely to her mean spiritual death, while the choice that could cost her her physical life leads to an abundant and prosperous spiritual one.

Sophie is the American name of a 26-year-old woman living in China - a new Christian, having not yet even celebrated the first anniversary of her new birth in Christ. And yet she packs a spiritual resume that puts some of us older Christians to shame. In the ten months since her decision to serve the Lord she has attended a short Bible training class for a month in one city, then studied theology in another city for another two and a half months. Another month was spent witnessing to an unbeliever in a third location, a fourth spent visiting and preaching in a church in yet another spot. And now she's entered the school of ministry through which we've made her acquaintance. She already knows her calling, which is to take the love of Christ back to her hometown, and to see it become a village likewise living for the glory of God. To date she is the only believer in the city limits. She asks for our prayers.

Surely I need this woman to pray for me. My Christian walk seems like a stroll in a park compared to the life she leads, in constant fear of betrayal, discovery, possible imprisonment, torture and death. She's made her choice, and she didn't go the easy route. She didn't choose the life that looked good on the surface but in which she would quickly suffocate in the absence of the Presence of God. Instead she chose radical Christianity - to suffer for Christ's sake - to live in seclusion, to worship in private, but to see God's glory operate in her life in a way that we in our lives of ease can only dream about. She really had no choice, because to live any way other than that to which she's committed herself would torment her the rest of her physical days. And now, having "put her hand to the plow", she's pressing onward with no regrets but instead with every right to expect God to show up in a big way, everywhere she goes.

She really doesn't need her picture on my refrigerator and her name mentioned in my prayers, although that's where both will remain. Sophie's choice has placed her face ever before her Father, and has written her name across His heart.

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it:
and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
(Matt 16:25)



Thursday, July 12, 2012

A New Name at the Baggage Claim

There’s something incredibly wrong with this picture.

Surprisingly, it’s NOT that there’s an air-conditioning vent hanging from the dog’s collar. The problem lies in that he seems to have no clue that it’s there.

The weather’s been HOT and the puppy in the household, much like his predecessor, decided that the best place to take a nap on such a warm day was right on top of the register through which the cool air enters the room. Apparently, while he slept, the new blue name tag on his collar slipped through the grill, hanging down and turning sideways inside the vent. When the dog heard truck tires coming down the gravel driveway, signaling my son’s return home from work, he jumped up as he always does to meet and greet the arriving family member, inadvertently pulling the register up with him, it banging and bashing him repeatedly in the chest as he bounded to the door.

At least, that’s what we think must have happened. Nobody else was home at the time but the beagle and the fuzzy black cat, and they’re not talking. So we have to assume that there would have been a trail of wreckage following hours of his panicked and burdened movements, and no such evidence existed. In fact, when my son walked in he was greeted by the dog as pictured above, simply looking at him expectantly, seemingly oblivious to the picture he presented.

My son pulled out his phone and quickly made a video of his initial moments talking to the dog and the pet’s eager response. It was impossible to watch it later and not laugh out loud at the absurdity of the situation and the dog’s excited attempts to welcome the returning loved one despite the ridiculous hardware he carried.

Thankfully God doesn’t laugh at us when we come to Him in a similar manner. Many of us lie in much the same state as my dog moments before God arrives in our lives, cooling our heels in spiritual slumber. Suddenly we are roused out of our sleep by the entrance of One Who excites and delights us, and we jump up and run in haste in His direction, not realizing that we carry all manner of baggage from our previous lifestyles along with us. There we stand before Him, eager and expectant, with attitudes and the consequences from earlier actions handicapping our efforts to get close to Him. And although they’re often plainly visible to others, most of the time we don’t even realize they’re there.

My son told us that it took a surprisingly long time to remove the vent from the dog’s collar. In his excitement the animal wouldn’t sit still enough for the job to be accomplished, the little parts that needed to be found and extracted impossible to locate in that mass of bouncing fur and banging metal. Yet think of the joy when the mission was finally accomplished and the pup could give and receive love in complete abandon once more!

Such joy is ours when we let the Father do His work in our lives. Sometimes He has to dig deep to reach and remove the source of our problems. While sometimes we’re blessed with a quick fix, other issues require patience we don’t possess for time and His touch to complete their combined efforts. But eventually that which separates us is removed and we are free to delight in the freedom and exhilaration of an unobstructed relationship with Him.

A few days after the situation with our dog, I noticed that his name tag no longer hung from the blue collar around his neck. Apparently his struggles with the vent and it’s eventual removal widened the hook enough that it slipped off the metal ring that once held it. When I mentioned to my husband that we needed a new one, he suggested that we look around the place for the old one first. I looked at the acres of grassy property though which the dog had romped in recent days and knew the situation was hopeless.

But we do exactly that at times when God sets us free from problems or life situations that have bound us in the past. Suddenly we’ve lost an identity that we’re familiar with, however troubled it may have been. Too often we’re tempted to go back and look for it, to settle back into a life to which we’ve learned to adapt, regardless of the sin and struggles it contained. Yet the Bible insists that he whom the Son sets free is free indeed (John 8:36), and if we’ve really been released from our past it’s impossible to truly pick it back up again for the simple reason that we’re no longer the same person we used to be. New creations in Christ, our old ways no longer fit us the way they once did. The baggage we used to carry now sits like suitcases turning endlessly on a luggage carousel at the airport, because what’s written on the tag no longer matches who we are in Him. God doesn’t just give us a new life, He gives us a new name, as well.

The episode with our puppy closes with a final thought: Be careful where you lay your head in your hours of repose; you never know what habits you might fall into and later pick up while your spiritual eyes are closed. When your Master arrives, let there be nothing to hinder the free flow of love you receive and bestow.

“Therefore let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:6 KJV)
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