Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Land of the Little People

Before we were a large family, we were a small one. Small, that is, not only in number but in stature. My dear older brother, now an imposing—or at least startling—6'4", was so short as to have to stand on the couch to look out the window, my next-youngest sister was a roly-poly babe, and I was an adorable, golden-curled child, small for my age, but precocious beyond my years.

Well. My memory may be slightly biased, I suppose...

Even at such a young age, our personalities were very different. This is illustrated by each of our strongest memories. Step back in time with me, and for a moment view the world through the lens of childhood memory:

It is the late 1990s. The scene is a small parsonage, with a deck, and a yard with a swing-set, surrounded by a chain-link fence. A faint wail rises in the background. (This wail is immaterial to the story, as it proceeds from the lungs of one who is too young to talk, walk, or in any way interact with our heroes. It is only included for dramatic effect.) Three little people are busy going about their own business, unconscious of their future fame...

Memory #1: (Andrew) As we are swinging on the swings, we hear the faint tinkling of "The Entertainer" wafting toward us on the breeze. Running across the yard, we press our faces against the chain-link fence to catch a glimpse of the "Music Truck" as it goes past. We wave cheerfully to the driver, whom we consider a most uncommon philanthropist, to spend his summer days providing music for the neighborhood free of charge. One fateful day, we notice children standing by the street, waiting for the "Music Truck". Money changes hands, and ice-cream is distributed. Incredulous, we realize that we have been deceived; our parents have deliberately played upon our ignorance, calling this truck a Music Truck to conceal from us its true purpose.

Memory #2: (Sarah) Out on the porch, sitting on the edge of the picnic table with our feet on the bench, drenched with cool northwestern sunshine. Dad is holding a sour green apple in one hand, carving pieces off with his pocket knife, and offering them to each of us in turn, braced between the blade of his knife and his thumb. The best slice is the first perfect circle, but we eat every piece until only the core remains, when we watch Dad throw it far away, to land in a tangled wilderness of overgrown weeds in the empty lot next door.

Memory #3: (Margaret) Standing in front of Dad, with a plan of categorical denial. The dog's water dish has been discovered, strangely cloudy and discolored. Unfortunately, I break down under questioning, and the truth comes out: we added chalk to the water. The punishment for our crime is more severe because we compounded it by lying. In this instance, however, justice has miscarried, since I was unconscious of wrong-doing—I fell victim to a homophone, thinking that adding chalk would create "chalk"olate milk, and then was persuaded by an older sibling to deny it.

All of these are to a certain extent common memories, since they all happened to all three of us, but I find it fascinating to consider which ones stood out to which sibling. Andrew's is no surprise, he has always been an idealist, and thus disillusionment strikes him harder than others. For Margaret, I didn't even have to ask her what her strongest memory is—being myself the "older sibling" involved, she recalls it to my memory at every convenient opportunity. My recollection of the event is slightly different: without the coloring of righteous indignation, I viewed it more in the light of a science experiment. I was unaware that my accomplice was laboring under a delusion, due to an inferior grasp of the English language. Can I be blamed for her misapprehension? I would argue not, but I can appreciate that there may be two points of view on the issue. In contrast, my own strongest memory is a picture of the unadulterated and simple delights of childhood. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about our inner psyches.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Without Hypocrisy: Psalm 119:80

Psalm 119:80: Let my heart be blameless regarding Your statutes, That I may not be ashamed.

As I write this, I am not even sure if I will want to post it, because it is difficult to discuss hypocrisy without falling into it yourself. It's like trying to write about pride: “This is how I’ve learned not to be proud (and I’m so proud of myself for having learned!)”. You see the difficulty? All humans are hypocrites at one time or another, and I am no exception! To suggest that I am always able to prevent hypocrisy in my own life would itself be the height of hypocrisy. It is, however, an important issue to discuss, for it is sad and dangerous to have an insincere relationship with God. 

The result of hypocrisy is shame: when we catch ourselves out in some small hypocrisy, we are ashamed within ourselves, and before God, and if we continue down that road, making a habit of falseness, we will certainly be found out by others as well. This painful shame, however, is not the worst of hypocrisy—for it may drive us back into the right path. Far worse is the heart that no longer recognizes its own hypocrisy, but is content with a surface-level piety, deceiving itself as well as others.

The psalmist here is in the middle of writing about his love for God’s word, yet he is aware that his heart is still at risk from hypocrisy, since he asks the Lord to prevent it. Paul tells us in Galatians that the Apostle Peter, and even Barnabas, fell into hypocrisy when they stopped eating with the Gentiles, lest the Jews from Jerusalem should look down on them. We see, then, that just being aware of the dangers of hypocrisy is not enough to prevent it. We need the weapons to fight this constant battle in our hearts.

“Christian, if you mourn for hypocrisy, yet find this sin so potent that you cannot get the mastery of it, go to Christ. Beg of Him that He would exercise His kingly office in you soul, that he would subdue this sin, and put it under the yoke. Desire Him to lance your heart and cut out the rotten flesh, and that he would apply the medicine of his blood to heal you of your hypocrisy.” —Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture

The only way to be free of hypocrisy is to pray for a sound heart. We cannot conquer this sin on our own, and it is fruitless to try to do so, by second-guessing and focusing on the negative side all the time—Were my motives pure? Was I serving to be seen by others, rather than for love of Christ? Measuring ourselves by ourselves is not wise: our hearts are deceitful, and only God can know them fully, therefore only God can make them blameless. Our focus should be on God, and on His power to change us: “Lord, give me a sound heart. Lord, let me not be ashamed before You; help me do all things for Your glory. Give me Your strength to serve, for without You I can do nothing.”

Hypocrisy cannot survive in a selfless atmosphere, and whenever we find ourselves slipping into insincerity, we must turn from ourselves to God. With our eyes on Him we will never suffer shame. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Large Family Idiosyncrasies #8: Kitchen Math

Did you know that if you multiply 2 teaspoons by 6 it equals a quarter of a cup?
Have you ever tried to count 20+ cups of flour without losing track?
Can your largest pot hold more than 4 gallons of water?
Would your freezer fit half a cow, plus 40 lbs of chicken thighs, and several gallons of ice-cream?

For a big family, this is normal "survival" mode in the kitchen. We have to make a lot of food, every day, just to keep the kids fat and friendly, and at the same time we can't neglect the household, or teaching school. It's a like a weird cross between running a restaurant and a family: without the equipment to make industrial-sized batches of food, yet stretching the capacity of our home-style tools every day.

All of our recipes have been doubled at least once over the years, often multiple times, and our cookbooks are full of marginal notations, such as "can be tripled" "make in two separate batches"
"x6" (that one's for pancake batter) "makes enough for our family + 2 guests if doubled if tripled" . As a result of all these adaptations, we often cannot remember the original portion number, and multiplying by two or three as we put together a meal is done subconsciously. This causes trouble when a recipe is started as written (8 cups of flour, say, or 3 lbs of ground beef), but then part way through adding the ingredients things start being doubled—we might end up with twice as much salt, or baking soda, or cayenne pepper as we intended! The result may be more-or-less edible, depending on the nature of the menu, and what ingredients were involved.

However, when we're making up that much food at a time, we can't afford to throw it away, so we usually manage to choke it down somehow. Now, with adult kids in the house, the "everyone eats the same thing, eat everything on your plate" rule is less stringent, but we have always had one exception: there are certain foods that Dad doesn't like, and if he won't eat something, it is optional for the kids too! This includes coconut, squash, cream-of-anything soup (and also anything labeled "casserole"), but most especially Green Beans. He has a special face he makes for Green Beans, when the cook isn't looking, much to his children's delight.

Because of this violent distaste for green beans at the top of the totem-pole, Mom doesn't buy them. This does not mean that they never enter the house, though. In our congregation, there is a slight remnant of the "pay-your-pastor-with-garden-produce" mentality, so throughout the summer and fall people drop off all sorts of food at our house: five-gallon pails filled with grapes, bags and bags of rhubarb (what can you really do with rhubarb, anyway?), walnuts (still in their shells, us kids have to crack the shells and pick out the meat), green beans (inevitably), frozen turkeys, fish, venison, and once a can of slug chowder. "Never say 'No' to free food" is another rule at our house, and we generally manage to put what people give us to good use: steaming, blanching, freezing, canning, pickling, and drying it as the case may require.

All this mass food production left me strangely ill-prepared to cook for two people, although I did adjust quickly. Now, instead of multiplying every recipe, I simply divide! To make pizza, for instance, I cut our family's crust recipe to one-sixth, and then use one half of the resulting dough, freezing the other half.

Kitchen math—it's real; use it as an example next time a fifth grader asks how mathematics applies to the real world.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Importance of Memorization

Psalm 119:11 Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.

I've been memorizing Scripture since before I could enunciate the English language properly. (The "tree planted by the river" in Psalm 1 was interpreted as "twee pwanted by da wivah", according to my Grandma, who does a very good impersonation of my young self.) Psalm 1, Psalm 23, John 3:16...I don't even remember the time when I had to learn them, they're just there, as far back as my memory goes.

The first passages I remember learning were the Romans Road and Romans 6. We were involved in a family Bible study, working through the book of Romans, and the leader of the study encouraged all the kids to memorize those verses. I can still see myself, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking up as I finished reciting the last verse of Romans 6, very proud of myself.

Back then, I mostly memorized Scripture because it was part of my family's routine. Mom and Dad told us to memorize certain passages, and we generally obeyed. I did read the Bible because I believed it was what God wanted Christians to do, but I had no idea what a powerful tool memorization was for spiritual growth.

Even when I signed up for the Bible Bee, and started memorizing hundreds of verses each summer, I was not unlocking the full potential of memorization. It was teaching me discipline, I was learning new things about the Bible, and I enjoyed it, but it was when I started studying 2nd Timothy, and memorized the whole book as I was studying it, that my view of scripture changed.

You see, memorization enhances understanding of scripture. The Bible is not like the times table, or "The Jabberwocky" poem—it is not to be memorized without understanding. Now, it may start out without understanding; there are some passages in Hebrews that I had half-learned before I had the foggiest idea what the author was getting at. But, as I kept going over the passage, I could almost see it opening up in my head—the words came together into meaningful ideas, connecting to the rest of the Bible, confirming doctrine, reinforcing practices that I already had learned, and showing me new angles of God's love and power.

A funny thing happens when you memorize a passage of Scripture—say, Psalm 119. First of all, it starts showing up everywhere. I'm sure I heard sermons that involved Psalm 119 before this last year, but I don't recall a single one. However, since I started meditating on it every day, I've heard at least four or five sermons either based on the Psalm, or referencing it, and I've discovered that other people love it as well! Also, as I'm reading or listening to other portions of the Bible, I come across phrases that remind me of verses in Psalm 119, and both reinforce and add to my understanding of the chapter. Scripture informs scripture, and the more deeply I study a passage, the more I see how it is connected with the whole of God's Word.

Psalm 119:11 is by no means the only passage that encourages scripture memorization. There are places God commands it, both in the Old Testament and the New. "These words which I command you today shall be in your heart; You shall teach them diligently to your children" (Deuteronomy 6:5-6) "This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night" (Joshua 1:8) "Lay up His words in your heart" (Job 22:22) "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Colossians 3:16) "receive with meekness the implanted word" (James 1:21).

Having passages of Scripture memorized is very useful in our Christian life:
1. It allows us to be ready to give an answer. Don't try to defend Christianity, or explain it, without using the Bible! The Bible is a powerful sword, and we should never go into battle without it.
2. It helps us keep from sinning (as this verse mentions). To hold our thoughts captive, we need to know and have ready verses with which to fill our minds. When we are about to lash out at someone in anger, or fudge the truth a little, if our minds are full of God's word, it will be easier to stay calm, or harder to lie.
3. It enriches our prayers. Sometimes we do not know what to say when talking to God, and praying Scripture is a great help, both in praying for our own spiritual growth and in making intercession for others. There are also many wonderful prayers in Scripture, which we can use.
4. It is a comfort in affliction. When we are hurt by people, or anxious under circumstances, there are many passages in the Bible which soothe and quiet our hearts.
5. It seasons our speech. When our minds are full of the Bible, we will not find our tongue slipping into cursing, coarseness, sarcasm, or slander.

Mere head-knowledge of the Bible is not enough, however, and it would be wrong and dangerous to focus on an external knowledge of the Bible, rather than an internalized, personal faith in Christ. Memorizing the entire Bible would not make one a Christian, and even understanding the meaning is not enough, without faith. The Bible must be in our hearts, not just our minds, and it must show in our lives, not only our words.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Delightful Counselors

Psalm 119:24 Your testimonies also are my delight And my counselors.

What I love about Psalm 119 (well, one of the many things I love about it) is how much punch is packed into each verse. There are just nine words in this phrase, yet these words are so rich with meaning, and so connected to the rest of Scriptural doctrine, that I cannot even fit the whole phrase into one devotional. There are other verses in the psalm that speak of God's words being our delight, (16, 35, 47, 70, 77, 92, 143, and 174) so I will discuss that concept at another time. For now, I want to consider God's testimonies as our counselors.

We often need guidance. Since we are not omniscient or omnipresent, many situations will arise where we cannot decipher the right or the best course to take on our own, and we must consult with others who know more or (speaking as a young person) have lived longer than we have. On the human level, the Bible was written by many such people—those who have lived life, and seen the way the world works, and can pass on what they have learned to future generations.

Why, though, turn to the Bible, specifically? There are many books that offer counsel on a variety of subjects—The Art of War, The Prince, The Koran and hundreds of othersbut we need to consider our goal:
God, being our chiefest good, must be our last end; therefore in every action there must be a habitual purpose, and in all actions of weight and moment there must be an actual purpose, to please God. —Thomas Manton 
If our goal is to please the one true God, then, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli will not be much help. The Bible is the only source of counsel that we can turn to for assistance, since it is the only book where the "human" wisdom it contains is the result of divine revelation.

I am so thankful that the Bible gives clear counsel on how to live our lives. In any perplexity in which we may find ourselves, we can turn to the word of God, and it will shed light on our confusion. It may take time, and continued seeking—but that in itself is part of Biblical counsel: "seek and you will find" "if any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God". For specific requests, the Bible may not have a specific answer ("Go to this college" or "Yes, you need a new car"), but it does tell us how to pray about specific requests, and by taking Scripture in context we will be able to resolve questions about the overall tenor of the Christian life, and we will know if we are living in God's will.

Our feelings may disagree with the Bible. The logic of the world will often disagree with the Bible. Christianity is not an easy or comfortable "religion"; it is a relationship with Christ, and the ultimate goal is the glory of God. We cannot glorify God without following the counsel of the Bible, because God does not contradict Himself.

I'm not talking about trying to change other people's convictions on issues like alcohol, standards of dress, or how they educate their children. I know the danger of legalism, because my own personality (as well as growing up in a conservative home) is more easily drawn in that direction than towards license, but this is not about me telling other people how to live their Christian life. This is about me myself living a life well pleasing to God.

As far as where exactly to seek counsel in the Bible—it can be found everywhere, because every word is God-breathed and profitable to us, but don't start by reading Leviticus over and over! There are certain "go-to" sections that many Christians love and turn to frequently, with good reason. Proverbs is especially rich in wisdom and advice, and Psalms is excellent for when we need to just meditate on God and trust Him as we're making a decision. The gospels are full of Jesus' teaching, the clearest picture of how to be Christlike, and Paul's epistles (and the general epistles too) have much practical advice, usually towards the end after all the doctrine is set out.

Where do you start, when you need counsel? To whom do you go? We should always go first to the Word of God. He is all-knowing, and always available.

Optimi consiliarii mortui

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Adorned: Living out the Beauty of the Gospel Together

I posted this book review on my other blog, but I wanted to cross post it here as well, since it fits very well with preparing for the ultimate career.

This book was recommended (and loaned to me) by my younger sister. It is based on the passage in Titus 2 talking about older women teaching younger women...Read more of this review

Friday, June 16, 2017

Enduring Forever

Psalm 119:160 The entirety of Your word is truth,  And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.

Both halves of this verse are very important, but today I want to focus on the second idea: that God's word endures forever. If the Bible were true, but did not endure, our faith would be impossible, for that would mean that either Truth is changeable, or that the Truth could be lost and forgotten. 

Have you ever wondered, what if the Bible had gotten lost? After all, the Bible is history, and we lose pieces of history all the time. Even today, with the internet storing a flood of useless information, events occur that are never recorded outside of human memory, and are lost when that memory fades. Written records themselves are far from permanent. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh, as we know it today, is only fragments of the original strung together, with later material added and some of the gaps filled in by educated guess. 

Or consider the lost colony of Roanoke. A settlement of people disappears into the American wilderness and is never heard from again—and despite hundreds of years of research, we are still unsure what happened to them. Historians look at all the evidence and draw conclusions, we read the surviving letters and notes of people who were there at the time, but we will never know all the facts. 

Yet in the Bible God has divinely preserved all the facts we need to understand the mystery of salvation, and the Bible itself has been preserved throughout history. One of my favorite stories in the Bible is that of Hilkiah the high priest, in 2 Kings 22. During the reign of Josiah, carpenters and masons were repairing the Temple, and a scroll was discovered. When Hilkiah examined it, it was the Book of the Law. A scribe read it out to the King, and when Josiah heard the judgments that would fall because they had not been obedient to the Law, he tore his clothes. God's people had lost His Word, but God did not allow it to remain hidden.

We do not need to wonder if we have the full revelation of God, or if more will be discovered that will change our interpretation of the Bible. Over and over, God promises and reminds us that it will endure.

Psalm 119:89-90 Forever, O LORD,  Your word is settled in heaven. Your faithfulness endures to all generations; 
Psalm 119:152 Concerning Your testimonies,   I have known of old that You have founded them forever.
Isaiah 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
Isaiah 55:11 So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;  It shall not return to Me void,  But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.

We can be confident that we have the words of God, His revelation of His will, and that God will always preserve His word, no matter how hard the world may try to destroy or discredit it.