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me and me and meRomans 8:7-8 says this, “So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.” [CEB] And never once did I think of selfishness as being offensive; I just thought being self-centered wasn’t “nice.” I suppose another reason I missed this truth is the translations I’ve used over the years where the phrase “living in the flesh” was used. I allowed that to mean a carnal life and I figured I had that one pretty much under control.

But no. I have fooled myself into a comfort zone.

Selfishness, self-centeredness, self-indulgence, and narcissism, they are all threats to the free-flowing of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, I am also living in the age and culture of the “self” and the “selfie.” [Our pastor is starting a series at Restore Church called Me, Myself & Selfie, this weekend -- that's no accident either.]  And worse, when I’m in that selfish place, I am actually preventing myself from entering into the secret places of God. I am putting up my own roadblock. I am shooting myself in the foot, as the saying goes.

None of us likes to take the blame for things that happen. It’s simply no fun to make mistakes and then own up to them. But I’m thinking this is a big one.

There are a few simple test questions for this: Do I think about the other person first before I act or speak? Do I register my thoughts within, with the Spirit before I indulge them further? Do I choose consciously or am I living out of a habit of selfishness?

I’m going to take this quiz today.

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Photo by Yasar Vurdem, Turkey.

Photo by Yasar Vurdem, Turkey.

How many people think “I am going to die anyway” as justification for their choices? Is it any wonder, that such a form of hopelessness would drive them to despair and even despicable acts? How and when is that seed planted?

 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright today.” Esau said, “Since I’m going to die anyway, what good is my birthright to me?” [Genesis 25:31-32, CEB]

Was Esau just playing the drama queen because he was so hungry but too lazy to make his own meal? Or, was his life such that he had little to embrace as valuable? He was a man of the hunt; perhaps his life was on the line each time he went out into the wilderness. Perhaps he had experienced near death experiences? In any case, he was a man of the moment. The future held no interest for him.

This way of thinking is such a trap. I see my own son making choices that smack of this attitude, not in the least depressing at face value, just cavalier about the day, not looking at how the day’s choices might impact the next day or week or year. Has our culture spawned more and more of this attitude? Is it generational? I really don’t know.

Some time ago, my brother went through a very difficult patch in his life, his career and marriage in shambles, he was depressed. As the good sister, I had to ask, are you in danger of hurting yourself? His answer encouraged and comforted me: “Never. No matter what might happen today, tomorrow is another day and anything can happen to change my circumstances.”

This is an answer of faith, whether in the resiliency of oneself or in God. It is an answer of hope. May I have such courage always.

The second message in this passage is the danger of the other person. In this passage, that would be Jacob who seemed quite willing to take advantage of Esau’s situation, his blustering attitude, his shortsightedness. We must beware of such people in our own lives. The enemy, who might come to us as “friend” or family member, comes to snatch away from the hopeless. It is a sorrow. Hopelessness opens the heart to greater damage.

Holy Spirit, guard my heart.

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Photo by Irm Brown

Photo by Irm Brown

So simple really, how else would the weak find traction? God is the great equalizer.

Then Asa cried out to the Lord his God, “Lord, only you can help the weak against the powerful.Help us, Lord our God, because we rely on you. . . [2 Chronicles 14:11a]

Unfortunately, the strong forget their own need for God. They rely on themselves. And eventually, the mighty fall. Sometimes, in their pride, the strong give assistance to the weak, but it is always measured, to keep the weak in their place. Or worse, the gifts are not particularly useful or what is actually needed.

When I was in Africa on a mission trip, we visited one of the poorest villages that was created on a portion of land owned by a wealthy landowner for the families of the men who worked his land. They were reminiscent of slave quarters, but African style with dirt floors and huts and water a football field away that had to be carried daily by the women and children. They were fortunate to have a place to live but nothing more. From the landowner’s perspective, he had been generous, but it was a measured generosity. That was bad enough but while there, among the partially clothed children was a little girl who wore a torn and tattered party dress, clearly, a gift from a well-meaning westerner who had sent used clothing to the poor. The girl probably loved that dress, but what was the donor thinking? Again, a misplaced generosity.

If the strong want to help the weak, they must enter the life of the weak. So did our Jesus serve humanity. So did Mother Teresa in India  and Jackie Pullinger in China.

 

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Art by Laurie Justus Pace

Art by Laurie Justus Pace

And this is the point, whether one believes or does not believe: God knows our hearts. God knows my heart. There is no sin I can craft in my head that is unknown, there is no good deed seed not watered. God is sovereign over the heart — the soul of humankind.

Forgive and act; deal with everyone according to all they do, since you know their hearts (for you alone know every human heart) . . . [I Kings 8:39b, NIV]

For this reason, when life circumstances challenge my way, there is only One who can truly help me or actually altar the course of my steps, transform the crushing press of deadlines and drama and duty, rally the troops of heaven on my behalf and, ultimately, on behalf of my loved ones.

Forgive me Spirit Father, Adonai. Forgive my stealthy forays into the world. Forgive my selfish ambition. Forgive my judgments of others. Forgive my callous eye. Relieve my fears. Strengthen my trust and resolve in You. Sustain my mindfulness that I might pray without ceasing.

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trustThe truth about trust is tricky. I mean, I have struggled with trust all my life. Sure, betrayal is a stumbling block to trust. But personal strength and intelligence can get in the way too. My mother taught me all the ways to combat trust: self-sufficiency, stick-to-it-tiveness, if you want it done right do it yourself, and so on. Trust requires a perpetual surrender.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence.” [Proverbs 3:5, CEB]

On Sunday, Pastor Jess Bousa, taught the message this way: to recognize the sovereignty of God, we must acknowledge God’s control of situations when things are “bad” and not just when things are going swell. After all, it’s easy to trust God when life is moving along sweetly and securely. It’s the tough times that call on the truth of our trust and faith in this One God.

One of his examples was II Kings 6:15 – 17, when Elisha’s servant feared the encampment of the vast army of the Arameans out to destroy the prophet. But Elisha could see what his servant could not, God’s army that encircled them all: the “second circle” that is God’s domain. This is the circle where trust is engaged. This is the circle where God operates, the bigger arena where our human strengths are worthless, where our intelligence can no longer figure things out, where our manipulations no longer have impact. Trust happens there.

Elisha prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to see that second circle.

I pray the same. For me.

And yet, I must remember this, unless I go through the chaos and clatter of life’s challenges, I will never get to see God’s power in my life. It’s a paradox of faith. I surrender this day. I must. I will to do it.

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Art by Lilis Boyer

Art by Lilis Boyer

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) found its place in the Jewish canon by its sheer beauty and poetry. It is not really a complete piece at all, no matter how artfully publishers identify the man speaking or the woman speaking, it’s still just a series of fragments. We will never know the whole of it. And so it is about a fragment that I will respond.

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
        divine flame!
[Song of Songs 8:6, CEB]

And another, repeated twice in the book:
Make a solemn pledge,
        daughters of Jerusalem,
        never to rouse, never to arouse love
        until it desires. [Song of Solomon 2:7; 8:4, CEB]

Love is powerful force that has gotten washed out by dime store romances and flimsy chick flicks. It’s been downgraded by pornography and trivialized by teen angst. Even Valentine’s Day has played a part in corrupting its message. Purveyors of cheap love are laughing all the way to the bank.

When love is roused at the wrong time or at the wrong place, the power of it and the joy are sucked out of it. It is sex without love, masking the truth of it, manufacturing a feeling but it is not transformative love. But when the moment is right, when there is a mutual selflessness, when it is about the giving away of it moreso than the absorption of it, then the power of God can be unleashed. This I believe.

I know, there are different words for love in Greek, but in the Hebrew, both verses use the same feminine noun, ‘ahabah אַהֲבָה which can be translated as love: human love for a human object (man to man, man to himself, man to woman, sexual desire, and incidentally, God to man too).

And so I ask myself and all of us, is my love toward others with the same intent as God’s love?

God shows love to people over and over again whether its through grace or miracles or the sacrifice of the One Son, Jesus. God’s love is pours out without measure. Jesus taught, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” [Luke 6:38, NIV]

But no, not me. I confess, I am hungry to be loved more than to love. Lonely. Overwhelmed. Shaken by circumstances. Distanced by disappointment still. Hardened by losses, speaking into the wind.

I am no stronger than the one beside me. My years in Christ clear my vision and for this reason, I understand why the saints and desert fathers of old cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Art by Cyra R. Cancel

Art by Cyra R. Cancel

Or why St. Francis wrote:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Let me know and give love as strong as death.

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Everyone Forever, painting by Minako Abe

Everyone Forever, painting by Minako Abe

I am reading through the Bible in a year. I’ve done it before. Sometimes, it feels a bit of a drudgery, particularly I Chronicles. But in this chronological plan, I get to mix up some of those dry passages with the Psalms, thoughts that always move me, either to my knees or to gratitude. Today, these words resounded deeply:

But the Lord’s faithful love is from forever ago to forever from nowfor those who honor him. . . . [Psalm 103, 17a, CEB]

Forever — endless — infinite — eternal. These are God words. In fact, it is only God who can calmly say, “always,” and mean it. And because I am devoted to this forever God, I can surrender my irregularities and my sometimes and my good intentions. I can trip and fall and rise again. I can start over again–and again–if I have to. I can claim a grace that only an infinite God can give freely. I can fail and I can succeed.. I can weep or laugh. I have been loved since the beginning and I will be loved until the end. I am a child of God and beloved.

Both Psalm 103 and 104 begin this way: “Let my whole being [soul] bless the Lord! . . . ” [CEB] That is my prayer today.

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