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bitternessOnce again, I am visiting the book of Ruth. I know this story well, having performed a one woman show for several years as the character of Ruth. But now, as I approach the latter part of my own life, I am more drawn to Naomi’s role.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara,because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” [Ruth 1:20-21a, NIV]

I have many besetting sins, as we all do, but one of the most tenacious sins is disappointment. That’s right, I call it a sin. It is my warning bell, for out of it I have seen full blown bitterness grow. Disappointment fans the flames of bitterness.

NaomiNaomi had a good life. She had the security of a husband and two sons who would care for her in her old age. When famine struck their land, the family traveled to a neighboring country to start over. Even though they had lost much in the famine, they were still a family. She could endure as long as they were together. But of course, that was not how it turned out at all. Instead, her husband died. And although she had her boys and their new wives, within ten years, the sons died as well. How could this be? All of her dreams and hopes were crushed. There were not even grandchildren to hold the family together. There was no family at all. She sent the widowed daughters away.

Despite the loyalty of Ruth, who traveled with her, Naomi lost hope. (In fact, I could imagine Naomi considered Ruth, a Moabitess after all–a foreigner, nothing but another stone around her neck.) Naomi’s deep disappointment in the outcomes of her life drove her into sorrow, grief, even despair and from those, she blundered into a growing bitterness and resentment toward God who she believed took everything away.

I can’t say my life ever hit such a deep abyss. Besides, I live in a country and in an era where women can be resilient, self-sufficient even. I am not at the complete mercy of a patriarchal society as Middle Eastern women were of that day (and some still).

And yet I have battled with my God. As a long-time believer, I imagined my life would turn out differently. I thought my aspirations had the power of God behind them. But, as the road branched and turned and twisted, I found myself continually looking back, wondering what would have been if I had chosen the other way, had I not married at eighteen or divorced five years later, if I had graduated from college in Indiana instead of Illinois, if I had not gone to New York, if I had not returned home to Indianapolis with my tail between my legs, if I had not married again and moved to Atlanta, if I had not been barren, and so on and on and on.

Oh foolish woman I know. To bemoan the loss of what could have been and not revel in what is.

disappointmentToday and tomorrow are still a wonder if I allow them to be. I am ashamed of my bouts of disappointment for they are nothing but unproductive. Disappointment prevents growth in a good way. It interferes with gratitude. And worst of all, disappointment presumes I know the better way, that my ideas of who I was to become or what I was meant to do or how my life should have unfolded were mine alone. But I surrendered that right the day I accepted the Christ spirit. In theory at least.

But surrender to the little life I have rather than the bigger life I aspired to is not always easy. Most of those dreams were self-aggrandizing. In those dreams, I was still the center of the universe.

Naomi could only see her crumbling world, she could could not see the bigger picture. We all have a bigger picture which is why it is so important to trust God in every turn of life, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is the believer’s vow to Christ. This mantra can stave off disappointment.

Through Naomi’s daughter-in-law, a child was conceived by Boaz, and the line was preserved. One of the greatest leaders was born as a result, King David, who set in motion the fulfillment of long-time prophecies of a Messiah for the world. That was Naomi’s big picture.

 

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lead by exampleIs this cultural or simply part of human DNA? We seem to continually repeat our mistakes over and over again. And unfortunately, I see this both on a national and international level as well as in my own micro-world.

When that whole generation had passed away, another generation came after them who didn’t know the Lord or the things that he had done for Israel. . . . [And] then when the leader died, they would once again act in ways that weren’t as good as their ancestors’, going after other gods, to serve them and to worship them. They wouldn’t drop their bad practices or hardheaded ways. [Judges 2:10, 19, CEB]

The learnings from one generation to another are not happening. Parents are not telling or did not tell their children about the work of God in their lives in an authentic way; instead, they pass this job to Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Weeks. In my mind, not only do we fail to tell the Bible stories, we a) water them down to make them PG and b) we don’t personalize them. Every story has a message for humanity. Every story has a message for me and my family. The Bible is not Disney World.

Miracles require effort and devotion, faith and trust. They require accessibility and openness.

I know some people have disagreed with me about telling our children about my past, particularly the darker side, but I have always felt  it was important for them to know that I am a different person today because of my faith, and that essentially, my lifestyle before Christ would have led very quickly to illness and death.

But I also think about our church and how we depend so heavily on our charismatic pastor and we are not raising up leaders to serve with him so that we don’t follow the footsteps of the Israelites who only succeeded while a particular leader was in place. It is everyone’s responsibility to tell the story, to walk the walk, to lead and train and grow. As the pastor tells his story, we must also tell our own.

authenticityOne of the ways to do this is mentoring (or discipleship). I have generally avoided this practice because it sounds so daunting, to take on a tenderfoot on the journey, to help someone else grow, to embrace him/her as family. I’m already struggling with my own adult children after all, how can I take on another, and what if I fail? But here’s the truth: all I have to do is “bring them along” when I go and do. I can’t pretend to be more than I am (nor should I assume I am less). New believers learn by being around old believers. New leaders step up when they watch old leaders in every day life, every day challenges, every day decisions, every day blunders.

Jesus didn’t turn on the leadership persona or the faith role just when the disciples were around. He lived and breathed what he knew. He healed because he could. He told stories because they meant something to him. He expressed mercy and grace because that was part of his genetic code.

We do not have to be infallible to demonstrate love and grace. In fact, authenticity goes farther. Mistakes confessed give hope to those who believe they are not worthy or that they are “too late” to change or that they can’t change. Our frailty revealed is courage demonstrated.

Generations ahead are depending on us now.

 

 

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NaziriteI ever realized that women could become Nazirites until this reading of Numbers. All this time, I had assumed that this vow was made only by men. And clearly, the rules for the Nazirite have the feel of being for men what with the growing of hair and abstinence from drink. Nonetheless, women could do take such a vow as well.

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from . . .’” [Numbers 6:1-3a, NIV]

In a nutshell, the Nazirite abstained abstained from alcohol, fermented drinks of any kind, grapes, or raisins; refrain from cutting one’s hair; and finally, avoid defilement by a dead body (or place that a dead body has been).

When I looked up additional information about the Nazirite vow, I was surprised to find that it evolved over time into three types of vows, depending on their length. In general, such a vow was made for a minimum of 30 days and for the common person, my guess is that this was the norm. However, there was a permanent vow (in which the Nazirite would cut his/her hair once a year for convenience) and there was a “Samson” Nazirite who was permanent, but did not have to abide by the dead body rule.

I believe, over time, these permanent Nazirites became known as monks. But isn’t it interesting that the Christian monks (and nuns) in later centuries were known for shorn hair and not long hair at all. Another reason why the Nazirite tradition ended was the loss of the Temple where the many sacrifices had to be made at the end of the vow. No temple : no end.

It’s a fascinating topic really and even includes some references to Jesus entering into a type of Nazirite vow at the Last Supper. But, of course, that is speculation as are many ideas about this tradition.

In any event, this ritual had to do with setting apart and holiness (see Holy Objects & Holiness post). The person perceived a need to separate himself or herself from the norm, even to the point of stepping away from family obligations (as might be the case in the event of a relative passing away). These vows were quite serious and if one was broken, the person had to “start over” again.

Jesus made some references to vows or promises in Matthew 5:37 in which he told the people to allow their “yes” to be yes and their “no” to be no. I believe he was alluding to people who made promises they did not mean or were unwilling to keep.

wedding ringsBut I would add, if we do make a vow, then we should treat them with more respect. Marriage vows have become the most abused of all. It is not enough to say, “well, I meant it at the time,” for that changes nothing except to imply that one did not know one’s own mind at the time or the implication of the promise. I would recommend people stop using the marriage vow at all if the intent is not binding. Or, perhaps like the Nazirites, the couple, if the vow is broken, starts over again.

Of all the many things that women were excluded from in Old Testament times, this is not one of them. Both men and women can experience holiness and set themselves apart for God. And secondly, their vows are still binding.

 

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freedomInteresting. In today’s world, how often does a person use as their defense, “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me.” And as a result, they believe this lack of knowledge absolves them of the crime. You’d think we’d get over it. After all, the “I didn’t see the stop sign” defense does not work in court, nor does “I didn’t know the speed limit” prevent an officer from giving us a ticket. And yet, we still say it and claim it and believe it.

 If anyone commits a sin by violating the directives I have given you—even if he was unaware of it—once he realizes it, he bears the guilt and must still accept the consequences. [Leviticus 5:17, The Voice]

The law works differently than grace. The law is immutable and enduring. The law has not gone away because of grace, it still exists; it is only our relationship to the breaking of law that has changed through Christ. For this reason, “. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23] Sin still exists. Intentional or unintentional, blatant or secret, repeated or isolated, sin happens. Mistakes happen.

mercy on meInitially, I wasn’t fond of the centuries old Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” because I didn’t see myself as a sinner. I saw myself as foolish perhaps or selfish, but honestly, it wasn’t like I had killed anyone. (Why killing seems to be norm for being a sinner, I don’t know, but most people who say this phrase, use that act as the litmus test.)

During Jesus’s ministry, he called his disciples to the highest plateau of faith by telling us to walk the paradox line: love enemies, go the second mile, enter through the narrow gate, turn the other cheek, and so forth. And then, he tops these off with the ultimate impossibility: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect!” [Matthew 5:48] What? Absurd. That’s inaccessible. No one can do that. No one can be even close to the perfection of God. And I can just imagine Jesus smiling: “Yep. That’s the point.” And apparently, anything less than perfect is sin.

Sin is part of life. But how do we respond to it? Do we yield to sin and its backlash (as they say, “Karma is a bitch”) or do we call on the power of the Cross of Christ to stand between? It is the point.

sacrificePeter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” [I Peter 4:8] But Christ’s love covers ALL sins. We are encouraged to model our behaviors after Christ and practice love so that we can learn to be more generous of heart to one another. But there is only One who covers them all, from small to large.

Own up to the sin. But even better, own up to the sacrifice of blood that protects us all from the kismet of life’s choices.

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urim_thummimIt’s a fascinating idea really, the Urim and Thummim. Apparently, the priests used special stones to cast for a decision or divination. Some scholars translate the words as “revelation” and “truth” but I’m not sure that helps understand how they were actually used. Another interpretation is that the words essentially mean “innocent” or “guilty.” And in this way, groups of people or ideas where honed down by castings, Urim or Thummim, divided and divided until only one remained.

Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord. [Exodus 28:30]

flip-coin_5Ultimately, it sounds a lot like flipping a quarter. The result is random except for one difference, the people who threw the stones as well as the people who asked the questions, wholeheartedly believed that God alone drove the results.

Would that make our lives easier today? Like the picking of daisy petals, “he loves me, he loves me not,” could we abide by the final outcome? Or would we hedge it? Wouldn’t we really just look for confirmation and not decision?

In some cases, the coin toss works very well, when nothing too particular is at risk. I mean, whether Harry or Sally go first in a game or the Ravens kick-off instead of the Colts, these are not a deal-breakers.

But what if it was life or death? What if it was getting married or not? What if it was to move our of state or not move? In today’s culture, could anyone give those decisions completely to God in such a manner?

Bottom line: do I believe in luck or destiny? Does God need the Urim & Thummim to drive my life?

If I gamble or play the lottery, I must still believe in luck. Or do I?

lottery ticketThere’s a joke about a man who prayed every day for months that God would allow him to win the lottery but he never did. Finally, he complained to God, “Why haven’t I won?” and God answered, “You should have bought a ticket.” Does God need the efforts of human?

It’s a complicated question and one I cannot fully unwrap.

So, truthfully, I can’t really say I don’t believe in luck at all, I’m sure God supersedes luck, but perhaps God allows luck too. So, I occasionally buy a lottery ticket, wondering if God would like to bless me this week, you know, when the prize is really, really, really big. But, in my gut, do I believe God would pick me for an undeserved splash of wealth at that magnitude? These purchases are really “just in case.” I’m hinting. I’m directing God: “Hey God, this would be a great way to bless me, if You have a mind do it. What do you say?” (And secretly, I even promise to tithe on it. Oh brother, what a conniver.)

Silliness.

love the lord your godLet me step back still further. God has been pretty clear about the best life for Human and summarized it in two sentences: “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.” [Luke 10:27] And every action we take, every decision we make, could be in answer to these directives.

Too many of my decisions are about me. Not God and not others. Lottery tickets included. Time to re-focus the heart.

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mandrakeIn case you don’t know the story, mandrakes supposedly have fertility enhancing properties (along with possible euphoria and hallucinations). All the same, Reuben, oldest son of Leah (the wife Jacob didn’t want), finds some in a field and he gives them to Mama Leah to use on Jacob (knowing of her longing to be loved by the man who wouldn’t or couldn’t care less). Rachel (the sister that Jacob did love but who was barren) makes a deal with sister Leah: give me the mandrakes and I’ll “let” you have another go at the man. Great story for “sister-wives;” they should be on TV.

So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night.God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son.Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” [Genesis 30:16-20, NIV]

Of course, it didn’t work. Despite Leah having her own babies again, those two more sons (and a daughter – Dinah – barely worth mentioning), only later that did Rachel have a child and apparently, not from the power of the mandrake root.

These women were operating in a world of baby competition. Children were essential to the future of the family, and in particular, to the woman in a household. And, with the promises of God doled out to the line of Jacob, these women were the brokers of their husband’s descendants. In the end, Rachel only produced two of the patriarchs of the twelve tribes, her maidservant Bilhah birthed two sons, Leah birthed six sons, and Leah’s maidservant Zilpah also birthed two sons. And yet, despite the numbers being on Leah’s side, Jacob never did come around, and loved Rachel’s boys (Joseph – famed for the multi-colored dreamcoat and Benjamin) the most, playing favorites throughout their lives.

tribemapIt’s not like Leah’s boys weren’t important in their own right: Judah’s birthright, for instance, was foundational to the Jewish nation or Levi, whose descendants ruled the Temple and interceded with God as priests. They were all on the map.

Each son had his own future and each child born had a destiny.

The mandrakes were a tool that two women tried to use to manipulate their futures, their love lives, and their progeny. It didn’t work; it doesn’t work today either.

As the mother of three adopted children and no biological children, I know the mandrake game. I tried the same thing. I could not fathom that God would actually put two Christian people together and not create offspring from them. I became a sort of Rachel, trying all kinds of tests and suggestions to make babies happen. But God doesn’t act from my mandrakes or my plans. God is sovereign.

in this houseEven when our story changed and we adopted children, I tried to control their outcomes. Oh, I know, it was all in the name of giving them the best, giving them opportunities I never had, building arenas of success, layering on the expectations. I am ashamed to confess these things for my plans created many disappointments. But, my disappointments were self-inflicted. My plans were not God’s plans [Isaiah 55:8].

My children are still God’s masterpieces [Ephesians 2:10, NLT]. And my job should have been to plow the ground and provide nutrients, but allow them to grow into themselves, into the people God intended.

Forgive me for the mandrakes in my life, Lord. And do what you will with our children, now young adults, looking for a way. Perhaps the road could have been easier if I hadn’t littered it with so many calculations.

But, just like Rachel & Leah, the one thing I gave without mitigation was my love. And I am thankful that love covers a multitude of sins [I Peter 4:8].

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YouAreHereInTheGalaxyAccording to scripture, Lot was Abraham’s nephew and although he traveled with his Uncle Abraham from Haran to Egypt and then on to the Negev. At some point, both men grew in wealth and decided to part ways. Abraham gave Lot the choice of land, and Lot choice the plain of Jordan to the East, well-watered, and dotted with large cities (among them Sodom and Gomorrah).

With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.” . . . He [the angel] said to him [Lot], “Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town [Zoar] you speak of. But flee there quickly, . . .  Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave.  [Genesis 19:15, 21-22, 30]

Freed by the angels of God, generally negotiated by Uncle Abraham, Lot and his family are given the opportunity to start over. But Lot was a bit of a selfish man and appears to look for the easier way. He chooses the better land when he and his uncle part ways, he chooses to live in the city, he chooses to flee to a closer place than the mountains, and in the end, he even looks the other way when his daughters are impregnated by his drunken self. Moab and Bel-Ammi, are the children born by this incest and they become the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites whose story is intertwined with Abraham’s line through Israel and Judah, but generally it’s a bitter relationship dotted with bloodshed.

This, because of Lot’s choices or passivity. This, because Lot took the way that seemed right to him alone.

From one story after another, whether fairy tale or movie or book, we are reminded that any one of our choices can set huge events in motion. In chaos theory, it is called the Butterfly Effect. But it’s not that hard to look at our own individual lives, so many left and right turns, families made and lost, love seeded and buried, by a single choice, a single conversation, a single word (yes or no).

I wonder if this hasn’t bred the meteoric rise of interest in genealogy. Why, we even have reality television traveling back into the lives of celebrities, church denominations building ancient libraries of such histories, and websites dedicated to helping people go back in time.

How did I get here? We want to know.

I supposed that’s all find and good. But I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t be putting more energy into the now. For whatever happened before we are living it. We cannot go back, only forward.

It is for us to respond, to act, to embrace. Whether it was our choices or the choices of our parents or grandparents or great-greats, this is where we have landed. This is where I am, with this family, with these gifts, with this personality, with this day.

And God is here with me. And anything can happen next.

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