Monday, February 29, 2016

Found Faithful (The Word "Study," Part Eight)

Lost sunglasses.  I am walking through Tieneman Square in Beijing, squinting.  I’ll have to purchase another pair at the vendor’s by the gate.  He hands me my selection—a grey pair with a metal butterfly adorning the tiny corner of each frame.  I like this pair.  But an hour later, as I walk by the river, I must purchase another set.  I select frames exactly like the first ones.  But that story follows me back home and even friends who didn’t accompany me to the Great Wall or on the rickshaw laugh at the story as they hear it retold. 

My knack for losing things extends elsewhere. Not wanting extra clutter around my house, I’ve too often placed an item somewhere to get it out of sight…and forgotten where I placed it.  While I’ve certainly not conquered my tendency to file things and forget them or to flat out lose them, my study of God’s Word is helping me to become more aware of little details in my life.  My own propensity in this area will probably never be completely gone, but the scatterbrain in me is beginning to be conquered, slowly but surely, as I seek to embrace the second command of I Thessalonians 4:11.

“And that ye study…to do your own business.”  The verb do refers to that which is done frequently, rather than a one-time occurrence.  This verb involves “[bringing] about or accomplish[ing] something through activity” (BDAG).  One’s own business is his own “personal labor,” as in I Corinthians 4:12, which states—“And labour, working with our own hands.”

I’ve been far too capricious for most of my life.  After reading the Anne of Green Gables series as a young teen, I began to view impetuousness as a positive characteristic.  So when I did something flighty—lose sunglasses, misplace an important item, or make a careless error—I thought such actions evidenced an underlying creativity rather than a character weakness to be conquered. 

Majoring in music wasn’t my idea after high school; in fact, I was looking forward to freedom from practice time.  And yet, after praying about the options, God directed me to a double major in education and music.  In making my decision, I considered the many hours of practice required from a music major and realized it would only be through repeated routine consistently applied on an hourly and daily basis that I would achieve my goals as a musician.  When I performed my senior recital, I rejoiced to see the progress I had made.  One day at a time.  Because of a developed routine. 

My years as a college musician saw me embracing disciplined and productive practice in a desperately needed routine.  And yet, I somehow failed to translate that routine into my daily life, even swallowing the notion that creative sorts should avoid predictability, that routine would make them boring individuals.  But over time, I began to realize that whimsicalness looked more like what God calls a “hasty spirit” and stood in stark contrast to the faithfulness required of stewards.  Each task of my life is a stewardship from God to be faithfully executed for His glory.

Over time, God has begun to show me that daily routine is absolutely essential for faithful living.  When we fail to root out sin or character weakness in our lives, we find those areas grow only worse.  More than being forgetful, the hasty spirit had begun to affect my reactions in other ways.  Because I had not faithfully followed routine in small areas of my life, I found myself reflecting too much haphazardness and not enough faithfulness in other aspects of my existence.  Proverbs 14:29 explains, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” 

The last thing I wanted to do was to exalt folly.  But I was literally doing so by living a life that lacked consistent routine in the way I conducted my smallest daily responsibilities.  Then, as I waited in the Nairobi airport for a return trip home from Kenya this past summer I read, I Timothy 6:6—“But godliness with contentment is great gain.”  While on the surface this verse may not offer any solution to the impetuous, I saw in the word contentment the opposite of caprice.

I saw a gratefulness for the moment, a willingness to embrace the entire bulk of the existence God had handed to me (from objects to people to circumstances) and to live in such a way, in my every moment, that reflected His faithfulness, His orderliness, His predictability. Does not He bring about an orderly day?  Does not He reign from sunrise to sunset? 

Many Kenyan cities have their share of scantily made shacks, fleeing refugees from poorer places, and an abundance of need. “If God called my husband and me to go to the mission field,” I thought, “how difficult would it be for me to pack up and leave?  Does everything in my demeanor express contentment for whatever God has chosen?  Have the things of life entangled me at any point?”  I saw they had—for a lack of routine in the stewardship of small daily tasks and responsibilities (like a specific location for keys, which I lost three times in three years) had poked holes in other dimensions of my character, causing me to fail to be completely faithful in my specific “business”—the tasks God had appointed solely for me. 

I began to think through my routine and the attitude with which I approached all of my daily responsibilities, from housework to schoolwork to ministry work.  I considered how God wanted all things done “decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40).  And I felt conviction wash over me as I thought of areas I knew needed to be organized and managed with far more predictability.  I immediately considered items to be purged from my closet spaces and new little habits to be added to my life in order for me to live out the I Timothy 6:6 attitude—embracing the present as God’s gift (contentment) and reflecting His orderliness in a consistency with even the smallest tasks.

In many respects, faithfulness is the biblical antidote to a hasty spirit.  It’s morning quiet time and daily work that keeps on with fortitude, in spite of any difficulty or any inner voice that resists it.  It’s waking up with the alarm clock immediately, putting one’s feet on the floor in preparation for another day of service, regardless of fleeting feelings of tiredness. 

It’s experiencing what I once feared was the boredom of predictability. 

Because when I faithfully execute my responsibilities, the circumstances in my surroundings are stopped from delivering a deathblow to my spirit.  I don’t need to rely on the fickleness of the moment—the hasty spirit’s caprice—to supply needed energy.  God can bring that energy as I obey Him.  

While I still have far to go, I am discovering what I had begun to suspect before—far from making one boring, routine frees a person to become the individual God wants him to be and to properly embrace the business of life.  So many little things that I once allowed to slip are now recipients of predictable habit. My keys have their assigned location.  Daily I place them there after coming home and retrieve them again when I must leave.  Clothes are ironed and placed on the closet door to be worn the next day.   Lunches are packed and set out the night before. Instead of the dread I anticipated, I have found liberation.  Time I didn’t know existed before—moments to spend with God and minutes to serve others—rise to the foreground when I study to do the little, habitual things of life the best way.

The command to “study to do [our] own business” invites us to note where we have failed and to think through the most effective way to faithfully perform life’s tasks.  Like repetitive correct practice, the music of life becomes easier as we apply ourselves regularly and consistently to doing our tasks God’s way. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Importance of Priorities (The Word “Study,” Part 7)

Whapp!  The flick of Jerusha’s tail in my six-year-old face reminded me to watch her back leg, for the cow may at any moment irritably insert her muddied hoof into the pail of sweet liquid I was squeezing from her.  Splish-splash, splish-splash, the staccato droplets echoed as the bucket filled, slowly, until my forearms, tired from the work-out, had extracted nearly two gallons of milk from the Holstein.   And so my daily milking routine continued, on and off, from the time I was six years old, until I turned thirteen.  Farm chores built character, and milking was no exception.
After I graduated from Kindergarten my dad had told me, “If you learn to milk the cow, you’ll get your own lunch box for school!” 
I would be in first grade that next year, and I knew just the kind of lunch pail I wanted—a Strawberry Shortcake one.
Daily I strove to complete this task and, by mid-August, was milking with good regularity and precision.  My parents and I went back-to-school shopping at Target that year, and I found the lunch pail aisle.  The one I selected was a two-handled box with a Strawberry Shortcake scene, complete with various characters and a picket fence.  In my six-year-old perception, it was beautiful.
The top one is the kind of lunch pail I selected.
It’s easy to work for a goal that’s tangible and an objective that’s measureable.  And with the eyes of faith, we can perceive that every task from God will also result in reward from our gracious Master. First Thessalonians 4:11 commands us to labor diligently—not only to be quiet (as we have discussed at length in this article series)—but also “to do [our] own business and to work with [our] own hands.”
More dishes in the sink; more laundry in the washing machine; more dusting on the coffee table; more, more, more of the same sorts of projects and tasks.  Too often, when our tasks become habits, we can endure—rather than enjoy—our work.  Consider the months of January and February.  Christmas break behind them, some Christian school teachers dread these months of endless days, with little time off.  They find their tasks becoming tedious, not thankworthy. 
But we must pursue doing our own business—those regular tasks before us on a daily basis—in such a way that brings, not drudgery, but disciplined delight.  As we ten children completed jobs around the house, my mother used to frequently quote, “Desire accomplished is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).
    One book I have found especially helpful in the pursuit of a life that prioritizes the I Thessalonians 4:11 attitude is The Disciplined Life by Richard S. Taylor.  Taylor illustrates the importance of believers living in a measurable, orderly way.  Dealing with priorities, he states:
“Selection, selection, selection!  This is the law of life!  We cannot join everything; therefore we must select.  We cannot participate in every good cause; therefore, we must select! . . . . Our stature as men and women, certainly our stature as Christians, will be determined exactly and entirely by our skill in selecting . . . if we give top priority to those pursuits which should have low          priority, if we “major on the minors,” if we show “first rate dedication to second rate causes,” if we allow friends and impulse and the convenience of the moment to dictate our priorities, while we weakly drift with the tide of daily circumstances, we will be shabby, mediocre, and ineffective persons” (pgs. 36-37).
Near the end of 2 Thessalonians, Paul rebukes those who have failed to heed previous commands to diligently pursue completing their daily tasks, bringing to light some serious consequences of avoiding this command:
“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.  For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.  Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:10-12). 
              Thayer’s definition of the word busybody is especially visual.  It states: “to bustle about uselessly, to busy one's self about trifling, needless, useless matters; used apparently of a person officiously inquisitive about others’ affairs.” 
            Is part of a busy body mentality being busy about everything other than that which we most need to pursue?  Might Martha-like service fit here--that service offered to God when it is time to “sit still and wait for the salvation of God”?  What of a failure to busy ourselves with what we must accomplish at home—making that meal, keeping the home orderly, assisting our husbands in their own God-given responsibilities, being the help meets we need to be?
Daily tasks are part of life.  They should not be inordinately placed, but they should be done consistently and well.  The things in our home will not last for eternity, but the attitude with which we approach our work will shape our eternal souls.  Paul exhorts, “But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing” (2 Thess. 3:13).  Have your daily tasks become wearisome?  Let us be encouraged to pursue our daily obligations faithfully.  They are tasks “repeatedly and habitually” performed; they are, in fact, “our own business.”

How do we guard against the attitude of wearisomeness, especially when more of the same tasks regularly greet us?  I believe one way is by following our responsibilities with fervency. The spirit of the law intends that we pursue our every job with joyfulness, as Colossians 3:23 so aptly illustrates: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.”  God is to be the focus of our every endeavor; His glory is to be our motivation.  Therefore, whatever the task at hand, a God-seeking outlook should follow, with a spirit of whole-hearted devotion to the task.  One of the Apostle Paul’s commands in Romans 12 (service in the church) teaches just that.  In completing our ministry, we are to be “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.”  If God is the end of all of our actions, if we truly live as if Romans 11:36 is our life philosophy (“For of Him and in Him and through Him are all things”), then will we not share an exuberance of spirit, which never tires of searching for God’s multitude of mercies in any given day? 
Today we build the habits that tomorrow will be part of our character.  Let us live our lives in a way that we carefully prioritize His way!

But what happens when our priorities become confused, when we’ve taken on too many tasks, when we’ve overcommitted ourselves and have failed to pursue the quiet heart?  How do we extract ourselves from the seemingly endless pressure of over-commitment or the strain of self-induced burdens?   Next week we will look at a truth connected with I Timothy 6:6 (“But godliness with contentment is great gain”) as we note some practical applications of what it means to pursue the right priorities in life, in order that we might best obey the command to “Study…to do [our] own business and work with [our] own hands.”

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Tending to our Hearts (The Word "Study," Part 6)

Laboring.  The sun beat down upon my aching, weary back.  I straightened my nine-year-old frame, a thousand black spots swarming my head like a blurry series of exclamation points.  How long was this corn patch anyway?  Seven rows of frail, six-inch green stalks stretched, seemingly endlessly, before me.  After weeding the beans yesterday and the squash and peas the day before, our garden was nearly weed-free!  My head was hot, and I felt the sweat trickling down my neck.  Harvest seemed a very long time away.  But, come August, I knew my favorite meal of corn-on-the-cob would tantalize my longing taste buds and that all this labor would be worthwhile as I savored such a scrumptious summer sensation.
Ten years later, the lights were off in my bedroom, my Bible open on the nightstand next to me.  I had placed it there before going to sleep, the few verses I had managed to comprehend having floated through my weary brain, trying to make a sensible synapse.  After each verse I’d stopped to “meditate” (eyes closed), thoughts soon drifting.  The physical labor of the day compartmentalized into its own central location, while the study of God’s Word remained an incidental sphere.  My understanding of physical labor had not flowed into a realization of spiritual struggle in the battle in which I was engaged.
So often, the abundant harvest produced by God’s Spirit in my life is proportionate to the fervency with which I seek God.  In His Word.  In the quiet.  Here, we can “know that [He is] God” (Psalm 46:10).  The word, hesuchazo, translated “quiet” in 1 Thessalonians means “to remain quiet, to be at rest.”  It connotes the idea of a quiet life, staying home and minding one’s own business and the action of being silent, saying nothing (Strong’s). 
That command to “study to be quiet” involves our daily time with God, for each believer is to tend diligently to his own heart: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).   Psalm 4:4 gives this direction, “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still [quiet]. Selah.”  The Hebrew word damam used here for “still” is translated other places throughout Psalms in these ways:
Psalm 37:7, “Rest in the LORD.”
Psalm 62:5, “My soul, wait thou only upon God.”
Psalm 131:2, “Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.”
Quieted.  Rest.  Wait.  Still.  These uses of this Old Testament word reminds us that the rested spirit is initiated by a God-ward focus.  Practically, set time aside for God each morning (following our Lord’s example); then continue in that spirit all day. 
Sara takes her Bible to the car each morning, for in her small apartment home, she finds that  the only quiet place.  There, her communication is sweet and uninterrupted.  Jill habitually spends an hour in Word-saturated prayer before she reads God’s Word for the day.  Lana finds a spot at the kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning before her many children awaken, so that she can seek God’s face. 

Do you see your time in Scripture as a love relationship with Jesus?  He has a feast prepared where He will sustain you to embrace His perspective on life and strengthen you to live as only He can.  Seek Him, the living God, as you open your Bible, for those precious pages are God’s Word for you today.  This book is very personal.  Real.  And transformative.  It changes hearts, revolutionizes cultures, revives believers, and produces faith.  Consider God’s command to Joshua:  "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success" (Josh. 1:8).  What special promises are connected to living by God's Book!  While none of us is leading a nation, as was Joshua, all of us have someone who is looking our way for direction.   
For years, I have cherished the words of Proverbs 8, where Lady Wisdom typifies Christ.  One day, after reading this stirring summons to spend time with the Savior, I penned the following poem:
I supped at Wisdom’s table
And tasted of her meats;
She offered satisfaction
Gave joy full and complete;
She stilled my murmuring heart cries
And slew Temptation’s voice;
Her bounties filled my longings,
That I too might rejoice.

Each moment in her presence
Is wonderful delight,
For to her precious children
She offers Christian might.
The feast she sets before us,
Newly prepared each day,
Will strengthen each decision
We make along the way.

O won’t you sit beside me
At Wisdom’s table set,
Each morning in the Bible
Where precious stores are kept?
Christ longs to whisper to you
That word you’ll need today
Oh feast at Wisdom’s table
Be satisfied for aye!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bringing home the Yellow Ribbon: When Failure Brings Epiphany (The word “study,” part 5)

Anyone involved in the Wisconsin Association of Christian Schools’ (WACS) academic and fine arts competitions during the 1990s remembers the yellow ribbon.  This was the consolation prize most dreaded by all participants—the one essentially proclaiming, “You came, but your rating wasn’t good enough to earn a blue (Superior), red (Excellent), or white (Good) rating.  This yellow ribbon stated merely: “Participant.”  From my perspective as a student, it meant that the recipient had failed and would be remembered for years afterwards (at least by himself) with this blot.  The yellow ribbon provided for many moments of jocularity at school as kids mentioned the upcoming competition, hoping and praying that they would not receive the dreaded consolation prize.

I brought home only one yellow ribbon, and I usually choose not to think about it.  While I earned many blue ribbons along the way, a few first place ratings, and no white ribbons, but my worst competition fears were realized during my freshman year of high school.  I had assumed that I would perform well on the academic history test, since history had always been one of my favorite subjects.  But this test, which was written for an essentially AP, upper-class audience, stumped me by its many trivia-style questions.  Needles to say, I missed the blue ribbon by a long shot.  

Nobody wanted a yellow ribbon.  By the time I became a teacher and began entering my own students into the WACS meets, the yellow ribbon was a thing of the past—a choice, I felt, that had been very well made.  No student wants to consider himself a failure.

Right about now, students around the nation are in high gear preparing themselves for academic and fine arts competitions.  From speech meets to music performances to piano auditions—young people’s nerves race in high gear as they focus on competition.  Hours of instruction, preparation, and rehearsal combine for that ultimate performance of what is often twelve golden minutes at most.  Those performances crystalize into a memory bank, with all the focus of the precious performance wrapped into a package ever to live on, often shaped by the final words delivered about that particular presentation.  From the judge.

The judge clarifies weaknesses, encourages strengths, and provides direction for future instruction.  In the spiritual realm, believers daily face such a Judge.  In the future, He will judge every word, deed, and motive before a grand audience.  With the rulebook of God’s Word at our fingertips and the Instructor of the Holy Spirit within us, our judgment day should bring no surprises.  Too often, though, we fail to consider the need of being regularly judged and the reality of future judgment.  Actually, we can daily ask God to judge us, helping to clarify what exactly in our lives need changing, so that judgment day brings no yellow ribbons.  In fact, Jude makes it clear:  God is able to keep us from falling and to “present us faultless,” having won the prize. 

David prayed for this Judge to examine him: “Judge me, for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the LORD; therefore I shall not slide.  Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.  For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth"   (Psalm 26:1-3).

Approaching the great judgment hall, David prays a request I’ve paraphrased this way: 

Judge me.  You’ve seen how I’ve behaved at all times.  Because my trust has been in You, I’m confident I’ll make it through this adjudication.  You’ve been the ultimate Source of my trust, so my foot won’t slide.  You can take my heart and my motives and put them through Your magnifying glass.  What will come forth is purity, because my focus has been right.  Every day I’ve walked, looking at Your mercy, living by every word of Your truth.

What an astounding testimony!  David was ready for judgment day, because he had kept his focus.  And so often, focus is what differentiates the second place from the first place in those golden moments of adjudicated performance.  Who gave the most attention to focusing in his practice time, completely obeying his instructor’s direction—that one often walks away with the top prize in his category.

Because we are to vie (the word translated study in I Thessalonians 4:11) for a quiet spirit, would we not do well to examine our own focus?  Daily occurrences prompt reactions and reveal who we are in the performances of life, sometimes to our own surprise.  Those minutes or seconds of failure or success provide reason to pray as did the psalmist.

After a significant number of poor performances in the Christian life last year, I began to realize that my own journey into the realm of a quiet heart was bringing home a surprisingly large number of yellow ribbons.  All I could see on the trophy wall of my spirit were gleaming golden ribbons saying, “Participant.” To me, that looked far too close to failure.  So this past summer, I spent hours reading, praying, asking God to restore the quiet spirit I had once enjoyed in my relationships with others and with Him.  I desperately needed my Judge to deliver specific criticism to my heart to lead me in His way of a meek and quiet spirit, which had become, in many ways, lost to my reality.

Always good to keep His promises, God began to show me the reason I was experiencing frequent defeat:  I had lost my focus.  Daily, I had failed to acknowledge Him and His truth as my reality zone.  I had begun to think too much about my audience instead of focusing on my Judge.

Specifically, I had forgotten that nothing could separate me from God’s love.  I was acting as if little, puny things of no significance—say, a bad attitude from someone under my authority—could zap out God’s love, which never dies, or could somehow make Jesus, Who is real, and God, Who is good, vanish into thin air.  Romans 8:38-39 is clear:  Nothing can separate me from God’s love.  This truth must be my heart’s focus if I am to live successfully!

God’s love is like air—everywhere, constant.  As long as I have breath, His love permeates my world.  And when I die, His love permeates my world.  I begged God’s forgiveness for thinking that failure—my own or others’—could in any way separate me from His love.  His love, my reality zone, is bigger than life itself, absolving all else.  In all actuality, God is bigger than all, better than all, more enduring than all, greater than all.  And, with Him as my focus, my love, an infinitesimal miniature of His, can reflect this constant.  No matter what happens, God’s love can meet all in my circle of influence, because Jesus controls my reality. 

Only as God’s merciful love is before me and as I walk in the reality of Scripture’s truth can I confidently pray, as did David,

“Judge me, for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the LORD; therefore I shall not slide.  Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.  For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth.” 

Only then can the blue ribbons of “Superior” greatly outnumber the yellow ones of mere “Participant.”  For with Christ, I am not merely a participant in life, I am a victor.