Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Words We Use

“Mom, did you say a swear word in Sunday School today?”

The question punched me in the throat from the back seat.  We were traveling home from visiting family a couple of hours away.  It had been a long day starting with early church, then Sunday School, then in the car and off to the home of my in-laws, and back again.  I was exhausted, but the question woke me right up.

“Did you ask me if I swore in Sunday School today?”

“Yeah.  Did you use the B word?”

I racked my brain for the lesson, the context.  I sheepishly admit that it wouldn’t be out of the question for me to say a swear word in church.  Our congregation is full of young and old, friends, acquaintances, and newcomers, and all are the realest real people you’ve ever met.  I’ve said – and heard – all sorts of things under the roof of our church building.  Swearing is not specifically prohibited, but a common law of decorum demands that curse words should probably not be uttered there.  It’s plain common sense and normal respect for the sanctity of God’s house to not use curse words in church.

At once I remembered.  Upon illustrating an example of how we treat each other, I had used the word in a made-up dialogue that teens might hear in the hallways at school, and offered it as an example of something they themselves might say in jest about someone or to each other without thinking.

And, yes.  I was teaching Sunday School that morning.  To said teens.

The very idea that my son heard it, made a note of it, recalled the incident, and then decided to bring it up to me hours later was a red flag.  Probably other kids heard and noted my language.  Probably there were even one or two in the room who haven’t ever heard a parent swear.  Likely most of them hadn’t heard a teacher swear.

Venturing to say that none of them had heard a Sunday School teacher swear during Sunday School.

I confessed. “Yeah, I guess I did.  I shouldn’t have,” and cringed.  Hanging my head, I didn’t even look at my husband, who is has no patience with my use of colorful language.  He’s not a swearer by nature, while I could hold an entire conversation using nothing but curse words.  He keeps me in line; my children have heard alllll the bad words in my voice, not his.

Plus, I didn't need his admonition. The tsk tsk tsks were loud and clear in my head.  But he knew he didn't need to say anything; he knows to keep quiet.  Sometimes too much, but that’s another story.

I can’t help but feel as if the Bible is talking to me and just me sometimes.

Holding my tongue is a skill I've practiced hard.  I’m one to talk then think, and this has caused me more than a little grief and guilt in life.  Wisdom is a regular goal of mine, yet there are rarely any days that I don’t wince at the memory of something stupid I said off-the-cuff. 

Wisdom can be elusive.

But it needn’t be.  The word of God advises us how to hold our words and our tongues, and it is up to us to follow that advice.  God speaks to us in many ways, and we can use his example in Christ of how to speak in love and righteousness.  I need these lessons every day. 

Even from the back seat of our car.

Dear God, forgive me when I use words that don't reflect your work in me.  Thank you for your gentle reminders and for teaching me daily of my need to guard my tongue.  I ask for your help in the moment, to give me pause before I speak.  Thank you, Amen.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hopes and Dreams

The idea of hopes and dreams brings to mind a teenage girl sprawled on the floor of her bedroom, furiously writing in her diary the things she desires that she wouldn’t utter to another soul, save maybe a best friend or close sibling.

“Hopes and Dreams,” the journal entry might read in purple bubble letters.  “To date the cutest boy in school.  For my parents to buy me a car.  To be a famous singer.”

My images might be a little dated.  I grew up in the 80s, after all.  Those were the days of the teen paperback, Sweet Valley High influencing teen angst in the way of broken hearts and simple yearnings.

It doesn’t matter what our hopes and dreams are, innocent disquiet notwithstanding.  Whether or not we breathe them aloud, they are there.  We have them even if we don’t allow ourselves to entertain them for more than a few moments at a time.

Gut desires go much deeper than general wishes like financial security, physical health, and peace on earth.  We want.  We long.  We obsess over details about how we want life to look.  We think “I would be happy if…” “I only need this one thing to feel fulfilled…” “Life would be perfect if I had…”

We fool ourselves into thinking that having the things that comprise our hopes and dreams is what makes life worth living.

* * *

What I did not realize, as a young person filled with angst, is what God wanted for me.  I spent time in Sunday School but never really developed a relationship with God much deeper than asking for his blessing for my family during nightly prayers as sort of a habit-slash-insurance policy against bad things happening.  I figured if I asked God to bless us, nothing bad would happen.  For the most part it worked.

Lucky for me I stopped praying to God long before bad things actually did start happening – I couldn’t blame God for my failures if I had ignored him for years.  A crisis of faith was not something I suffered as a result; I just figured that God was a myth and any hopes and dreams I had for myself were my responsibility to realize.  There was no crisis – I knew I deserved every bit of what happened to me.

As I matured and regained and broadened my faith, I learned that God wants the very best for me, even more than I wish for myself.  Often I don’t know what that is; I trust that God will provide it. I’m still learning to ask him for specific things – I don’t always trust that I want the right things.  My hopes and dreams are still just wishes.  Only he knows what’s best.

There is always room for growth in faith – this is where I am right now.  To trust God to know what is best in my life, but not quite knowing for sure what to specifically ask for.  Boldness does not come naturally; humility is far easier.  When you’re already low to the ground, falling on your face doesn’t hurt as badly.

It’s not a sin to tell God what we want, and the Holy Spirit will guide us to desire for ourselves what God wants for us.  God is kinder to us than we are to ourselves sometimes.  He is always with us, and as long as we reach out to him, he will never forsake us.

“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  Joshua 1:9

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Strength of Failure

Doing and saying things that cause us to fail is always disheartening.  It doesn’t matter how far we’ve come and how many successes we have collected – one step back into failure seems like so much more at times.  Some failures are hard to brush off so that we can move forward again.  They hang onto our shoulders and pull us down.

No one likes to fail.  To attempt something and not succeed is embarrassing, humbling, and cringe-y.  I can list little failures every day – I said the wrong thing to a friend, ate cookies instead of carrots, yelled at my kids, ignored my husband when he came home from work – they go on and on.  I feel each of those failures like a pinprick, and usually during quiet moments when my mind’s laser-focus hones in on exactly what’s wrong with my character.

Perhaps that laser-focus could also be considered a failure.

Failure, whether it arrives as rejection, losing a job, forgetting a friend’s birthday, paying a bill one day late, or any number of other things, often isn’t the main event.  What we do with failure is more important.  Did we try to hide our failure?  Was our reaction to it anger and shame?  Did we blame others for it?  Did we internalize it, stew in it for a while, let it affect our relationships, and allow it to be just one more thing that defines who we are?

Or did we acknowledge the failure, accept that we made a mistake, grow and learn from it, use it to encourage others, and come out of it more solid and confident?

Peter failed spectacularly as a disciple of Jesus, which makes him one of my most favorite Bible characters.  He showed little faith in big ways several times – he disbelieved Jesus’ ability to do miracles (Matthew 14:18), he told Jesus to stop talking about being crucified (Mark 8:32-33), and despite being one of Jesus’ core group of disciples, when things got scary he denied even knowing Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). 

Peter’s impulsivity is endearing to me.  He bravely left his job immediately when Jesus said “Come, be my disciple” (Mark 1:17-18) and he boldly told Jesus he would join him in death (John 13: 36-37) – yet his foibles are many, and well-documented in the gospels.  He was blustery and full of enthusiasm for his role as disciple, but he never changed his stumbling ways.  He tried, failed, and picked himself up again, stronger than before.  Fun fact: Jesus actually renamed him Peter, which means “rock” (John 1:42).  Can’t get much stronger than that.

Peter “broke down and cried” (Mark 14:72) when he realized that his biggest failure – denying Jesus – had been predicted by Jesus himself.  He had to have admitted this to the other disciples or his account would not have made it into the gospels.  He didn’t hide his failures.  He used them to teach others that we need not be perfect to do great things for God.  Peter was a leader in the group of twelve disciples, and went on to be one of the key people to spread the word of Jesus around the world.  He wrote two books which made it into the Bible we read today.

When we fail, we do wrong things.  But we can’t let the story end there.  Failure can connect us to others, strengthen our morals, and allow us to do better.  Our character and abilities are vulnerable during failure, but each time we fail, we are given the opportunity to become stronger and role models for others.  The best part is that we can apply what we learned from failure to our faith, which is what God wants for us.

Failure gives us the chance to become rock solid in Christ.  No success is bigger than that.


“Now I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Faith and Judgment

“Don’t judge me,” we command.  We are offended when someone tells us we’re wrong – who are they to judge?  They make mistakes, too.  Nobody’s perfect.  If I slip up sometimes, at least I’m not a murderer.

“Don’t judge me,” we implore.  We really mean: “I’m going to reveal something very human about myself.  It’s ugly and alarming; keep an open mind.”

We want to be accepted despite our human nature to look bad once in a while.

When we uncover our real side to others, we have faith that they won’t judge, or we might have faith that their judgments won’t touch us.  We might act and run.  We do or say things that may be less loving and caring, and hope that others will forgive us, will have grace.  We preface a less-than-stellar behavior with the words “don’t judge,” and hope that they don’t.  Or we act and call blame on those who do judge us – who made them boss?

Why do we do this?  Why not sweep all that dirt under the rug and pretend we haven’t done anything wrong? Why not just try to keep it out of sight?

Well, we do this, too.

Not one of us is perfect.  We might put on a good show, and shine up our best parts for public viewing.  We might only say godly things on the outside, but our inner dialogue is riddled with evil thoughts.  We might serve others on Sundays, and hoard time, love and attention for ourselves the rest of the week.  Or we might read God’s word for the purpose of judging others in his name, exposing someone else’s sins while keeping our own sins safely squirreled away.

When my kids argue, it’s usually about something the other one did or said.  Their tattling goes back to when they were old enough to interact.  The youngest tearfully flung herself into my arms when her big brother took a toy she was playing with; the older one complained that yesterday his sister got away with the very thing he got into trouble for today.  Neither is better or worse than the other, and my judgments about their behavior are woefully inconsistent.  Contrary to common belief, mothers don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads. 

I tried to correct their behavior by teaching them the difference between tattling and telling: tattling is when you want to get someone into trouble; telling is when you want to keep someone from getting into trouble. 

It’s a hard lesson to learn; most of us failed it as children, never to relearn it.  When we point fingers at someone else’s behavior, we’re just like children who tattle.  I am guilty of this.  Likely you are, too.  Maturity doesn’t come automatically with adulthood.

Jesus said he came into the world not to judge, but to save the world.  So who are we to judge others?  God knows our very breath.  Nothing gets by him; not a speck of dirt swept under the rug is away from his view.  He does have eyes in the back of his head, and he knows the sins that we see.  He even sees the ones we don’t see.

Our energies can be better used on pursuing not judgments, but truth – that which God gave us.  In the end, we will all be judged by whether we have accepted God’s word.  Have we been faithful and believed in his whole truth, that Jesus came and died for our sins?  Have we laid down our lives at the altar of Jesus’ cross?  What does that even mean?  Have we figured that out for ourselves?

How much are we holding back from God, in the hope that he won’t notice our sin?  He wants our very soul to sing his praises; how can we be free to do this when we are so intent on hiding it from him, from others?

I pray that in the end, my judgment will be one of faithfulness and devotion to God’s word, that although I sin and struggle, God can count me as a faithful servant.

Dear Lord, I pray that my faith and devotion to your word pleases you.  Give me the wisdom and desire to know you more.  Thank you, Amen.