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The Challenge of Paradoxes

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In our desire to walk out our Christian life as a disciple of the Lord, one of the things we can easily stumble on is how we deal with the biblical paradoxes that we read. One of these came up in the book I reviewed by Barry C. Black (Nothing to Fear: Principles & Prayers to Help You Thrive in a Threatening World). It is one we are all familiar with in Matthew 10:16:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Matthew 10:16 ESV

It is one of the admonitions Jesus gives as He sends out his disciples as they are to prepare for persecution and the trouble ahead as they seek to follow Him and share his gospel message.

Barry Black defines the two parts of the paradox as follows:

“The innocence of the dove refers to gentleness and purity; the wisdom of the serpent has to do with being aware of the presence of evil.”

Barry Black in Nothing to Fear:Principles & Prayers to Help You Thrive in a Threatening World

I think that sounds clear enough, don’t you? It is in the details of how we operationalize it that I need to look more closely at the passage.

The Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible gives me some insight:

“Alone, the wisdom of the serpent is mere cunning, and the harmlessness of the dove little better than weakness: but in combination, the wisdom of the serpent would save them from unnecessary exposure to danger; the harmlessness of the dove, from sinful expedients to escape it.

The descriptions used point to the life Jesus was living out before them as they walked with Him in his earthly ministry. He was ever wise not rushing into danger or brashly confronting the evil of the day whether it was in the government of Rome or the Pharisees of the day.

That was one of the things that seemed to cause some who heard Him to question whether or not He was truly sent to set things in godly order and establish his Kingdom on earth. There was plenty of injustice and religious hypocrisy going on, but He didn’t charge in to correct it all. Justice will not be fully balanced with righteousness until He returns again to establish his Kingdom.

I think it can be easy for me (and perhaps you) to be tempted to jump in with a strong response to something we see as clearly ungodly without waiting to determine if we know the whole story or if we are called by the Lord to reconcile what we see with what we perceive to be His truth.

Sometimes we are blind to our own perspectives and self-interest that draws us into an issue or situation as a result of the shrewdness of the serpent (Satan). If we read the gospels carefully, it is clear Jesus was not unwilling to deal forthrightly with many issues of the day, but He did not address them all. He chose his battles for when it would most glorify his Father and reach the hearts of those listening.

Sometimes with the social media we all have available, it can be easy for us to respond to nearly everything we read or see on one or the other side of the issue. If we are honest, I think we can see that is a ploy to shift our focus and tempt us to carnality on our walk and divide us one with another.

We also need to be careful when we point out others who fall prey to it and miss how often we succumb to the very same temptation. Paul warns us of that in Romans 10:2 ESV: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”

It can be so easy when I (or we) are stirred up about someone or some thing to feel we are called on to respond and when we do, we neglect wisdom in both our character and our actions. Black’s advise in his book is simple and straightforward: “Strive to be unmixed with evil.” What a powerful truth and challenge for each one of us.

I know I often need to take a deep breath to allow not only oxygen to cleanse my physical being but also allow the breath of the Holy Spirit to adjust my humanity to line up with His character and how He would have me respond. In that moment, I am often reminded that He has already empowered me to deal with the paradox of the serpent and the dove if I allow Him to guide me. That is the key to the temptations that can easily come.

Sometimes He may well be calling me to be silent. Wisdom knows when to speak and when not to speak. Most of us have heard the wise adage of Abraham Lincoln:

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

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Cornerstones of Relationship

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January can be a time when we reassess many areas of our lives whether it is finances, health, or relationships. Something about turning the calendar to a new year feels a bit like turning to a clean page devoid of smudges, scrawls, lists completed, and lists undone.

It is often a reflective time.

It feels like we get to start over.

I have been involved with that as well. It is one of the things I have come to enjoy about January. Somehow the month seems quieter and lends itself to that if you live in the Midwest and days turn frosty, the wind howls, and a fireplace beckons.

Relationships are my greatest passion.

Yes, they can be messy, disappointing, challenging, and hurtful many times, but they also teach me so much about others, the Lord, and myself. They do so in a myriad of ways that nothing else can.

There are two cornerstones that influence the course of the development of all of our relationships.

The first relational cornerstone is knowledge.

I can’t very well have a relationship unless I know the person. A relationship implies a connection. The tricky part for most of us is how we go about the process of getting to know a person.

Early in our lives we use some fairly superficial observations as our source of knowledge. It’s not bad, but it is incomplete. Hearing what someone says and listening to how they express themselves and what they talk about often starts the process.

We add to that knowledge what we see them doing or being involved with and this helps us begin to discern a bit more about their interests, passions, and values.

On the basis of these two initial pieces of knowledge, we often choose whether or not to pursue a relationship. If we go forward, we discover there is much more to learn than we initially realized.

When I met my husband more than fifty-five years ago, I started to learn about these basic things. They let me know that I wanted to get to know him better, but it would take many years and a great deal of time to plumb the depths of his heart, the complexities of his thoughts, the strength of his spirit, and the nuances of his personality. Even now, I discover some new thing here or there that adds to the texture of the fabric of the relationship we have built.

I also have learned much about his character by observing how his words and behaviors tend to match. That spells integrity. All of this together has deepened my love, our love.

Do I, do we, invest that energy in our relationship with the Lord? Do we invest it with others?

The second relational cornerstone is habit.

Habit? That sounds boring and unexciting for sure. Habit suggests practice, diligent practice many times. That suggests work, discipline, a never ending process.

The truth is that if I believe I know all there is to know about someone, I will stop learning about him or her, stop pursuing him or her. The relationship will grow stale and may even fade away through neglect.

That belief will also reveal my self-centered arrogance. Ouch!

Only the Lord knows any one of us completely. There are no gaps in His knowledge and understanding because He is God!

We human types always operate with incomplete knowledge about the Lord, others, and ourselves.

Great relationships require lifelong learning.

To do that, I also need to develop the habits that cause my knowledge to increase. I need to continue to observe, listen very carefully, and spend intentional time with a person.

None of us are static. We are ever evolving and changing, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in bad. That’s why we will miss the rich discoveries of a relationship if we do not grow in the practice of investing the energy to keep learning.

That is no less true about my relationship with the Lord. Yes, it means developing my relational habits with Him.

My knowledge of Him will always be limited because I am finite, but it will be very restricted if I don’t continue to learn to know Him better.

I can do that certainly by time in His Word, reading and studying it, but there is more needed. That can stay stuck in the cerebral if I get hung up on that alone. Solitude with Him where I am conversing with Him, listening to His whispers, learning more of His heart for me adds richness and texture to anything I read or study. I also observe how I see Him working in the world around me, in the lives of those I know well, and in the lives of some I have never met.

For me this means recommitting to practice daily the habit of learning about the relationships I value most. After all, they are God’s gifts to me. How am I stewarding them?

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The Gift of Time

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Today we not only turn the page to a new day and new month, but also a new year. If you are reading this, you have been given the gift of life and time once more.

What will you do with this gift?

Each of us will choose how we spend it and sometimes forget that how much we are given is unknown to us.

It can be easy for us to complain about time. Some say they have too much time on their hands while others say they never have enough time to do all they want to do. I get that! I have experienced both at one time or another, but more of the latter.

I have reached the conclusion that even though there are “must do” things in every day whether it is work, household chores, or other assignments I have agreed to, I am still the one who is to steward the time. I make many choices about what my days and weeks look like. Many of the “have to do” things reflect my priorities, my values, my preferences, and my passions.

They also reflect consequences of other choices I have made. What kind? What I chose to do with education and how that impacts the choice of my work and even location. Yes, things can happen outside of my choices. There are forces outside of my control that act on me. I can become ill through no fault of my own, but I can also become ill because I did not steward my physical health by good choices about sleep, food, and exercise.

Each day we receive a blank page. What am I writing on it? What will you write on yours?

What we write each day weaves many threads together that becomes ‘our’ story. That is likely most evident in a new year when we set goals for the year ahead, resolutions for what we want to do differently in order to be different.

What will you write?

The key to that answer is whether we recognize we are each a part of a much larger story, God’s story. It can be easy to forget that. We can get caught up with the notion that the story is about us rather than remember He has created each of us to be a part of a much larger story than we could ever create and it is His story.

Even so, He gives us a lot of leverage in how our part of it will play out no matter what our role may be.

A long time ago I heard a graduation speaker share this:

“If you love life, do not waste time because time is what life is made of and what you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.”

The memory of that statement has remained etched in my mind. When I was younger, I thought I needed to fill up my days to not waste time. Now I recognize there are many ways to fill up a day and the speaker didn’t mean to cram each day’s schedule to the brim. I believe he meant that each day should count whether I was working, appreciating the beauty around me and being in touch with the One who created it, or handling the duties that might come to me as a wife and mother.

I don’t take time for granted.

So, today as we turn the page on another day, month, and year, what will you choose?

Will you gain new insights in the role the Lord has invited you to play in His story?

Will you value your role whether it seems large or small?

Just remember. Each day you are given the opportunity to add a few lines to His story. He loved you that much and invited you to create with Him and to therefore bring honor and glory to Him about all others.

What will you write?

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What Do I Choose As A Foundation?

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A few years ago I concluded a post with the following observation:

“I think one thing is certain. The choices I make today will prepare me for the choices ahead. The truth that I bury in my heart will form the foundation of what I believe. That foundation will help me face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

Pam Ecrement

It begs the question of what I will choose to bury in my heart to form the foundation of what I believe that then guides my choices. I am (in this case) looking at what I intentionally choose to bury in my heart.

All of us have things that get buried in our heart over time. The list can be endless, but let me try naming a few of them.

I easily bury in my heart things that are said about me, over me, and to me from before I can even speak. Since my brain is not fully developed, they (along with my experiences) get randomly tucked away without a determination of whether they are truth, lies, or half-truths. Nonetheless they begin to lay down a foundation of what I believe about myself. Those closest to me often do not pause to think of how powerful and long lasting their words can be.

Those beginning perceptions form beliefs that also begin to form how I view everything and everyone around me. I take them as truth even though they may not be. They become “my” truth, my narrative, and I start to make choices (or not make choices) based on them without much consideration as to whether or not they are actually true. As a result, they subtly, but powerfully influence my preferences, biases, thoughts, dreams, hopes, and more.

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When I get introduced to formal education in any form, I start to have a grid or base from which to test out “my” truth to determine if objective facts (truth?) match up to “my” subjective truth. Information from teachers (formal and informal) and a variety of books, magazines, news reports, peers, and social media get thrown into the smorgasbord I take in. What I do not realize at the outset is these added things shaping my foundational beliefs may not be true either even though I often might have strong, passionate feelings about them.

If I am going to consider what I intentionally bury in my heart as a foundation for my choices, I need to be much more deliberate. It will require me to research and look more carefully at the sources and the people behind the sources and what “their” truth has been to determine if it is “the” truth.

With all the current means of research that technology has blessed me with, it actually can make it harder. Too much comes at me from all sources, all persuasions, all over the world and often it is extraordinarily difficult to discover whether I have been taking in misinformation disseminated deliberately or through ignorance. That definitely does not help me in determining whether I will make the easy choice or the right choice in most cases.

That is especially true because the information often comes at me without a moral framework more common a hundred years ago.

Determining truth can be difficult. Pilate made that clear as he examined Jesus as written in John 18:38 when he said, “What is truth?” He was clearly having a hard time deciding between what was easy and what was right.

Perhaps the most relevant thing I need to bury in my heart is found in Psalm 119:11:

“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”

Psalm 119:11 ESV

The key to burying His Word in my heart is influenced by many things.

Those early pieces of “my” truth will be one of the influences. The knowledge, skill, and truthfulness of the teachers, preachers, and books I take in will have a great impact as well. I think that makes it essential that I discipline myself to researching out who God is by looking at His own words spoken through the men and women He chose that appear in the Bible.

Only then can I do what a former pastor routinely admonished his congregation to do at the end of his Sunday sermons: “Don’t take my word for it. Go home and read the Word yourself and check on what I say to be certain it is true.”

As a believer I can be too quick to casually approach God’s Word and pick what I like or prefer to hear and see, a bit like sorting through fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle. I can attest that God can speak through that many times, but it reveals a truth I might overlook that Bible study leader and writer, Bron Short, put succinctly: “People think they themselves are located at the center of interest in the text; they need to find God there instead.”

The incredible news is that God really does want us to know who He really is and what He is really about so we bury “His” truth in our hearts as a foundation for our choices.

That comes only when I don’t simply randomly pick out something to read that may be quite good, but doesn’t given me a complete picture of Him. If that is all I do, then when life throws me a curve ball (Don’t I wish that were not so common!!), I will be more likely to make the easy choice versus the right choice.

Kathleen Buswell Nielson points out pivotal truths about the Word in her exceptional little book entitled Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word:

  • The Bible is God speaking.
  • The Bible is powerful.
  • The Bible is understandable.
  • The Bible is a literary work.
  • The Bible is one story.

We are all blessed with many wonderful Bible studies to choose from. Some are on a book of the Bible, some are topical, and some are a combination of a number of things. They are a great source of encouragement and teaching, but I would encourage you to look a bit more at the incredible feast the Word offers when we come to know it as one story and see the context of the passages we sometimes seize upon without knowing fully their meaning.

“…how amazing…to be privileged to hear from the Lord our Maker. How far away from sterile intellectual analysis is the process of deeply studying God’s Word. As we lean together over a biblical text to study it, we are in effect leaning in closer to the breath of God.”

Kathleen Buswell Nielson
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Thieves Hiding in Plain Sight

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When I have what can seem like an ordinary day, it can be easy to allow my mind to drift. I have discovered that when it does that I can either look back over my shoulder at something from the past or I scan the horizon for something in the future. I am guessing most of you know what I mean. It can happen without thinking.

When I look over my shoulder, it can tempt me to look at ‘what was’. Depending on my disposition that means I will either review some very special days that warm my heart or very difficult days that hurt my heart in some way. The source of the temptation on such a day will likely determine which scrapbook of memories I review in my mind and that choice will affect what sets the tone for the rest of that day. I might be spurred to drop a note, make a phone call, or set up a coffee date, but I might fall prey to disappointment, bitterness, and anger.

When I scan the horizon for something in the future, I may scroll through my calendar to look at things that are plotted there. That might include when I am next going to see my children or grandchildren, meet a friend for coffee, or return to a favorite vacation spot. If I look at the empty spaces on the calendar, I might be tempted to yield to thoughts of whether or not anyone cares about me or even realizes I exist. Before long I can be swirling down a long dark tunnel if I yield.

I am confident that this tendency to look back over our shoulder or to scan the horizon and look ahead is common to us all to one degree or another. I see it in Facebook posts, on Twitter feeds, in magazine articles, in conversations with friends, and on the news. We either love the ‘good old days’ or we try to forget, degrade, or minimize them and the impact they had on us. On the other side we might also spend much of our time focused on looking forward to the next thing, the next season, the next promotion, the next raise, the next…

I think there is no doubt that either choice (looking backward or looking ahead) has some value. When I look backward I can both appreciate where I have been and what I have done and also learn from those things to make my life now even better. When I look ahead I can know the joy of anticipating something I am planning toward, but I can also be tempted to see aging, future losses, and more.

As with most things in our lives, I think it is impossible to eliminate these behaviors even though we can (with God’s help) allow them to be used more positively than negatively. The issue is more about how much time I give to either of the choices in my view.

If I spend a great deal of time relishing or lamenting the past or yearning for or fearing the future, I miss today.

I love how the Amplified Bible reads in Hebrews 3:13:

But continually encourage one another every day, as long as it is called “today” (and there is an opportunity), so that none of you will be hardened (into settled rebellion) by the deceitfulness of sin (its clevereness, delusive glamour, and sophistication).”

I see often in scripture in both Old and New Testament passages the word “today” is used as a linchpin. My choice of the word linchpin is very deliberate because of its definition: “a pin passed through the end of an axle to keep a wheel in position”. Is it a word God uses often to try to help keep us in position, to remember that what we have is today and to steward it well? I think it very well may be.

As I was reading in Cindy Liggett’s novel, The Sisters of Sugarcreek, I read these words:

“Regrets over yesterday and fear of tomorrow are twin thieves that rob us of today.”

Let us be wise not to miss these thieves hiding in plain sight.

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