The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far…

In my few moments of free time, I’ve invested quite a bit of money and effort in researching my family tree (you can read more about that in my last blog post).

I got my saliva analyzed…

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Took five minutes to fill that vial…spit, spit, spit, spit…

…and spent hours reconstructing what is now several hundred years of ancestors, thanks to the good folks at Ancestry.com.

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Just a bare snippet of the family tree I’m uncovering…

I have so enjoyed reading different stories that different distant relatives have put in the files of shared ancestors, watching how the different branches of this tree migrated from various countries to the United States and then across this country, and really just discovering how I came to be.

But my favorite part?

Pictures.  Pictures that show the miracle that we call genetics.

This is my paternal grandmother, Bubby Hannah…

bubby hannah

…and this is her mother, Bubby Pauline (yes, I’m Jewish).

bubby pauline

And here’s me:

Me (2)

Perky nose, high cheekbones, Cupid’s Bow lips, widow’s peak and pointed jawline…it’s all there.  I am their spit and image.  But it’s not just physical; my Aunt Diane, Dad’s younger sister, frequently tells me that I remind her of her mother not just in appearance, but in personality and life.  She was a violinist who worked with at-risk youth at the Jewish youth center in the Bronx.  I’m a pianist and choir teacher who has been a social worker and teacher most of her life, working with at-risk youth in multiple communities.

Not only am I the offspring and image of my forbears, but my very life creates an image of them and recalls their memory for others.  It really is quite fascinating.  This apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree…

apple tree

…and this apple easily identifies the tree from which it fell.

When I was put on the calendar to preach today, I turned to the assigned Scripture lessons and read the following:

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor[a] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”                                                        (Acts 17:22-31, NRSV)

And what caught my eye?  We too are his offspring.

What does that mean, to be God’s offspring?  To understand that, we have to go to ancient Athens, where Paul spoke these amazing words.

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The Aereopagus, also known as “Mars Hill”, site of Paul’s most famous, brilliant sermon.

Ancient Athens was, much like our own society today, a polyglot of religious and cultural diversity.  Ancient Greeks were generally polytheistic, believing in a variety of gods and goddesses.  Their observances were similar to ours:

  • They met for corporate worship on designated days;
  • They expressed gratitude for blessings;
  • They asked for blessings;
  • They gave gifts to their sanctuary.

But there was one great difference.  Christians understand God to be the ultimate source of love.  We rely on His love to drive the relationship we have with Him.

The ancient Greeks, however, understood the deities differently.

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The Greek pantheon – assortment – of gods…some of them…

In Greek mythology, the gods didn’t love humans.  They were fickle, subject to the same emotions and responses and poor judgment that we, as mortals, experience every day.  So, rather than worship being a loving response to a loving Heavenly Father, worship for them was a way to curry favor and avoid offense.  And Paul acknowledges that.  In the King James Version, he calls them “too superstitious”:

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God.

In the Greek mind, that altar was necessary to avoid angering a god they may have missed.  And Paul uses that paradigm, that superstition, to introduce them to the truth.  He even goes so far to use their own poet/philosopher, Aratus, to address their practice of idolatry:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.  

For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.

Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.

Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.

For we are indeed his offspring.

(Phaenomena 1-5)

Amazing…if we substitute “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “the LORD” for “Zeus”? It might sound a lot like something King David might have written…

So, if we come from God – if indeed we are His offspring – then how can anything we make ourselves be God?  Their idols of gold and silver and stone were just that – idols – with no life or power or love.

We know, from our reading of Genesis, that we indeed are formed in the very shape and likeness and image of God, and as such, we are capable, even now, of very God-like things.  We have the capacity for doing great good in the world, for being creative and innovative and loving and merciful.  We look so much like our Father, we are destined to be like Him.  Jesus Christ, who was the spit and image of the Father, even said,

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:12, NRSV)

We are God’s offspring, meant to look and act and love and give and be like Him.

It’s awesome.

But unfortunately, it’s far too rare.

In the culture of religious and philosophical diversity that we call home, how often do onlookers watch us and have created for them an image of that “unknown God” that is absolutely counter to the truth of who God is?  How many people look at those who have been baptized into Christ’s body and see:

  • Cruelty
  • Bigotry
  • Judgment
  • Double standards
  • Hypocrisy
  • Hatred
  • Anger
  • Divisiveness
  • Add your own here…

Because, although we can’t create God, just as we are created in His image, we create an image of Him for others.  What they see in us, they believe God to be – and that belief could be the fulcrum, the essential factor, in their choice to follow, or not to follow, to reject or to accept, the Gospel.

Our great example is the Savior, Jesus Christ.  He was the image of God for us.  And as we emulate His life, we can be the true image of God for others.

So, are we, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, as those who have dared to take on His name, His identity, and His mission, living lives that show the true identity of the “Unknown God”?  Or are we confusing the issue?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

My prayer is that this apple will lead people to the Tree of Life.

 

 

 

Be Not Afraid…

I have a confession to make: five nights ago (April 3) will mark the first time I cracked open my Scriptures since MARCH 7.  My resolution to read through the entire Old and New Testaments has been seriously challenged as of late.  Oh, I could cite so many valid (to me) reasons for this: grad school end-of-term chaos, getting my grades caught up and posted for mid-term progress reports in my day job, utter exhaustion from just having way too much on my plate…but really?  Here’s the actual reason:

2 KINGS.

Yes, I made it through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, surprisingly.  I made it through the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and all the judges, the exciting history of Israel’s first monarchy, the ups and downs of David’s reign, and the aftermath of his egregious sin with Bathsheba.  But by 2 Kings?  My brain just couldn’t take anymore long names!  And one night of being “too tired” to crack open those five chapters was enough to arrest it indefinitely.

 

I don’t know what it was that inspired me to pick up my Bible before bed and pick up reading, but I did.  (Well, yeah, there’s the Holy Spirit.  Touche.) Right where I left off in the middle of horrible Israelite rulers, people who couldn’t remain faithful to their covenant with God, and invading armies that never gave them any peace.  The same stuff that rather made me zone out and abandon my plan before…but I kept reading, all the way to the story of King Hezekiah.  One of the few decent rulers who at least attempted to follow the Lord, he himself struggled with similar issues as I.  Specifically, when he was facing the armies of the Assyrian king, Shalmeneser, he was dumbstruck as one of the enemy’s spokesmen came with this message (roughly translated for you, the modern reader):

“Yo, Hezekiah! Just who do you think you believe in? I’ve conquered the WHOLE WORLD – where is this god you put your trust in?”

And Hezekiah wilted.

I often wilt. I wilt when people – especially people I love – attack and ridicule my belief in and love for God, when they attribute all of what I consider absolute proof of His existence and love for me (and everyone else, for that matter) coincidence, fantasy, brainwashing, mental instability, yada yada yada… it just makes me quake in my shoes and ties my tongue.  Eyes get pretty damp, too.  I’ll bet Hezekiah was feeling pretty damp…

After he wilted, though, he consulted the prophet.  Not just any prophet, the prophet of prophets.  The overly-eloquent, poetry-addicted, succintness-is-not-my-style prophet, the prophet who’s words continue to shake hearers to their souls (although we don’t always understand why…):

ISAIAH.

Actually, you should say his name like this: “I-SAI-ah!”  Use your best James Earl Jones voice for it.  There, you got it.

And here’s what I-SAI-ah! said:

Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.

Don’t be afraid.

What?  This loudmouthed, arrogant, know-it-all Assyrian king is mouthing off all over the place, roaring like a rabid hyena and causing all sorts of bedlam and distress, and all God has to say is “Don’t be afraid?”

It kind of reminds me of that Disney cartoon, The Three Little Pigs, with the wolf hollering: “I’m gonna huff and puff and blow your house in!”

wolf1

And all Hezekiah got was a “Do not be afraid.”

Then I guess that’s the answer: do not be afraid.  So there are those who don’t believe and holler and bluster and call you addled? Do not be afraid.  So you don’t always have a witty answer that will shut their mouths and give you the last word of victory? Do not be afraid.  And if you keep reading, you’ll see that God assures Hezekiah that Shalmeneser will get his.  And history tells us that, although he was successful in sacking Samaria and exiling those in the Northern Kingdom, he did not succeed in taking down Jerusalem. In fact, the prophecy that “I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” was fulfilled in 722 AD when his brother killed him and seized the crown.

So, be not afraid. Haters are gonna hate.  Be not afraid. God has my back, as He has the backs of all who put their trust in Him.

Here’s one of my favorite songs I listen to when that fear and anxiety threatens to overwhelm me; thank you, David Haas:

 

Be not afraid. He will bring you Home. He loves you and you are His. Be not afraid.

Oh, and get back to the Scriptures…who knows what the next chapter has?

 

 

New Every Morning

I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, right about the time that hippie-style “Jesus Folk” music was becoming a staple in *gulp* dare I say it? – stodgy – mainline, evangelical churches.  Hymnals were being replaced by songsheets and the occasional overhead projection; organs, pianos, and, in our case, brass bands were being supplemented (not replaced) by guitars; and defined song selections gave way to pick-your-favorite sing-a-longs (this was, you realize, years before “seeker-sensitive” and super-tech-savvy productions happened; we still hadn’t become production-oriented).

At the time, it was all very hip and wonderful.  Now, though, as a solidly middle-aged person who has run the church gamut multiple times, I tend to gravitate toward the grander hymns of the faith and have to admit, nothing stirs my soul like a well-played organ (especially if that organ is playing Kingsfold or something else by Ralph Vaughn Williams).  Nonetheless, there are some of those “pick-your-favorite” sing-a-long songs that, on occasion, really stir my soul.  Here’s one of them:

Today was just such a day.  Started yesterday, actually.  Maybe it’s the “late-winter-bucket-of-suck” time of year, maybe it’s the grad school schedule I’m pulling on top of full-time-plus work, maybe it’s the 20 pounds I’ve packed on since September, maybe it’s all of those things.  Whatever it is, I’m tired.  So, so very tired. Waiting for this particular season (meteorological, professional, spiritual, personal…again, whatever…) to pass and for spring to bloom in my heart and mind and soul and, for Pete’s sake, in my yard!  Right before I went to sleep, as I was getting in my read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year chapters (5 on a good day, 15 on a catch-up day; that was last night), this is what popped up on my phone:

is40

Timely, right?  Nonetheless, I cried myself to sleep, praying, “Hasten the day, Father…please, hasten the day.”

Now, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll remember that, on occasion, I’ve been known to treat Facebook posts like fortune cookies.  Sometimes, it’s amusing; other times, it’s absolutely uncanny.  This morning has been uncanny.  First, while I was slapping on my pretty-for-the-public face:

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Just like a 19th-century preacher to slap me in the face.  They were good at that, you know. (Smith Wigglesworth smacked a corpse – well, kind of threw it against a wall – it got up and went home.  True story.)  But let’s not leave it to revivalists; here’s what came from, for cryin’ out loud, Toby Mac:

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My season of waiting.  Waiting for spring – new life, new purpose, new vision, new hope – to burst through the cold, unyielding, frozen ground of winter.  But winter is when all that life gathers energy to explode at just the right time.  And while I wait, I must remember that the Lord Himself is renewing my strength…not to run forward, but to wait.  The mounting up, and the running, and the walking all come after the waiting.

When I was in the 4th and 5th grades, I attended a little Christian school where we had chapel every morning.  One of the “pick-your-favorite sing-a-long” songs we sang frequently was a musical setting of Isaiah 40:31.  The emphasis wasn’t on mounting up, or running, or walking.  Look at the lyric structure and notice how it begins and ends:

They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength:

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.

The emphasis is on not the forward or upward or explosive motion, it’s on the waiting.  In waiting on God is our strength renewed.  And in remembering this, I feel my strength and resolve and joy being renewed.  It’s like Proverbs 15:23 says so beautifully: “A man hath joy by the answers of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!”

God’s word to me today  – word spoken in due season – is truly good, and His mercies, so tender and compassionate and tailor-made for me, are new every morning!  Great is His faithfulness!

 

Alone…or not? In the Wilderness

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wilderness lately.  I live in a wilderness, first of all; Eastern Oregon, other than some fairly nicely developed, habitable areas, is little more than a sagebrush-laden wasteland (Virtue Flats, anyone?) It’s through this wilderness that those hardy pioneers traveled while blazing what we now know, and somewhat revere, as the “Oregon Trail”.

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Virtue Flats in Baker County, Oregon. What scenery…

I can imagine the excitement and joy those pioneers felt as they  egan their trek. Oh, the happy, joyful songs of anticipation they sang while leaving the East…but those songs soon turned into silence as feet got tired, food ran low, people got sick, and little rock mounds marked those who weren’t going to make it to their promised land, the West. No, eventually, the excitement of the journey became just a stalwart putting one foot in front of another, day in, day out, hoping against hope that “the West” would present itself soon.  I wonder if I’ll ever feel clean…or rested…or full…or hopeful…again.

But those weren’t the first pioneers.  The first pioneers I know of were the Israelites.  Miraculously delivered from Egypt in a blaze of drama and excitement and heart-stopping, neck-breaking motion (go read Exodus or, second best, watch The Ten Commandments), they saw, first-hand, the mighty power of God working on their behalf.  They would follow Him anywhere!  They would walk with Him through the wilderness to the Promised Land…

sinai-wilderness
The Sinai wilderness.  Image source: https://claudemariottini.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/sinai-wilderness.jpg

…they didn’t even make it 2 weeks before they grew disheartened (now, read Exodus; this part isn’t in the movie). Little did they know they would be sojourning in this loveliness for forty years.  The Promised Land, I’m sure, became little more than a fairy tale for their children to hang onto as they trudged, day after day, one foot in front of the other, wondering if they’d really heard what they thought they’d heard, seen what they thought they had seen, believed what they thought they believed.  I wonder if I’ll ever feel at home again…

It’s been cold this winter in Baker County…bitterly cold; the kind of cold that settles into your bones and doesn’t leave, no matter how many blankets you pile on top of yourself.  It’s the kind of cold that makes you want to stay in bed long past the alarm clock and crawl back into bed at 7:oo pm.  I think I rather wish I could sleep away the winter and wake up when the six feet of snow outside my house has yielded to some happy little tulips.  These snowy, grey, cold days just keep going though…and sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel warm again.

bucket-of-suck
One of my favorite “Fowl Language Comics”.  Visit their page at: https://www.instagram.com/fowllanguagecomics

But it’s not just the cold that has gotten me feeling like that lately; it’s the silence. There have been times in my life when God has bent over backwards to show me His love, to make sure I hear His voice, to make His plan so plain that there’s no mistaking Him!  Those times are exciting and full of sparkling wonder. I wake up in the morning with songs of praise bursting out of my mouth, bounce through the day, and then go to bed with prayers and tears of gratitude overflowing.  It’s beautiful.  I love those times.

But these are not those times.  This time is the silent time.  The grey time.  The time when I simply have to trudge through the daily monotony of living without angels and visions and mind-blowing revelation. It’s at these times that I have to just keep putting one foot in front of another, trusting that God is God and His Word will stand.  He will keep His promises, regardless if I “feel” it from one day to the next.

But He does punctuate the silence…today’s tender mercy was a Scripture that popped out of nowhere onto my computer screen:

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Right when I need it the most, He whispers. No great light show, no booming voice from heaven, no divine GPS or Google map to reassure me that, although the wilderness seems unending, I am going in the right direction.

Just a nudge. Just a whisper. Just enough Presence for me to know that I am not alone.

And the trudge is lightened, just a bit.

What a tender mercy!

Refuge in a rocky place

I’ve challenged myself this year to read the Bible cover-to-cover; the last time I did this was 22 years ago, before marriage, family, a very consuming career plus simultaneous grad school, and before the middle-aged lag in energy.  Then I read all 66 books in 3 months.  Now I’m trying to get in just five chapters a day, but including some more in-depth study and journaling along with it, so I’m actually digesting and processing what I read.

I know, commendable.  I’m a few days behind, don’t admire me too much.

Anyway, sometimes things jump out at me out of nowhere and I spend more time than I plan chewing on them…hence being behind (along with being far too busy – true confession, sometimes I just forget).  Just such a verse waved at me last night, Genesis 31:21 – “So he [Jacob] fled with all that he had; and he rose up, and passed over the river, and set his face toward the mount Gilead.”

The first thing that happened was, as a lifelong singer of the sacred, an African-American spiritual popped into my head, the only one that could in response to this verse:

There is a balm in Gilead

That makes the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul.

You sang along, didn’t you?  Deny it all you want; you did.

Then I had to ask myself, What’s so important about Gilead? Why did he go there? Handy-dandy, trustworthy Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance  defines Gilead (pronounced ghil-awd’, by the way) as “a rocky place”.  Here’s a photo of modern Gilead:

gilead

Looks a lot like the mountains in Eastern Washington and Oregon where I live; not very pretty AT ALL.  Sage, tumbleweed, scrub brush, rocks everywhere.  Yet this is where Jacob went when all hell broke loose for him.  After leaving his uncle Laban’s home (and uncle was a bit miffed because Jacob had prospered so greatly while working for him; the employee surpassed the employer), Laban followed him in hot pursuit, and there, in the middle of this yucky place, God met him and told him to lay off.  It was in the middle of this rocky wasteland that Jacob and Laban made their now famous covenant with each other, “The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (31:49).

In that same place, Jacob was faced with meeting Esau, the brother from whom he’d stolen his birthright and patriarchal blessing.  In this deserted and uncomfortable terrain, Jacob wrestled with “a man”…but then named the place Penuel, which means “God’s face”.  Whoever Jacob wrestled with left him a changed man, a changed name, and a changed attitude.  The next day, Jacob and Esau met after more than two decades and, surprisingly, the past was all water under the bridge.

Yucksville was the site of God’s protection, deliverance, and blessing.

Makes me think about the hard times, the rocky places, the steep cliffs and prickly bushes in my own life.  How often am I too busy commenting (because I don’t complain, per say…nope, not me) on the surroundings and the difficulty of the situation that I don’t see my Father so very carefully maneuvering and manipulating things to serve His – and my – best interest.  I’m so longing to get out of Gilead and into the Promised Land (whatever that is in the moment) that I don’t experience the balm – the comfort, the healing, the blessing – that is part of the rocky place.

Needless to say, I’m still behind in my Bible reading goal; at this rate, I’ll finish next January.  But hanging out in a rocky place isn’t so bad, even if my timeline is thrown off.  Maybe I won’t try to book on out of here quite so fast this time.