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Entries in Endurance (3)

Friday
May182012

Welcoming Royalty.

Do you remember the incessant media frenzy over the fairytale wedding of Prince Charles to the relatively unknown Diana Spencer? The event brought into sharp contrast the gulf between “commoners” and “royalty”. Constant pictures of everyday people clamoring for the slightest glimpse of royal pomp flash into my mind. It was a magnificent affair for the ages that kept populations from Britain, to Australia, to the U.S. entranced. It’s estimated that 750 million people tuned in to view the ceremony! That kind of riveted attention, the honor given to the couple, the amazement at the trappings, the appreciation of the imperial graces on display, all melded together into a sort of public joy. It’s the sort of joy James encourages when trials come into our lives. His language is truly remarkable. Listen to what he is communicating.

James is encouraging us to treat as the prince of graces, every trial of every kind that surrounds us. Usher in every trial as if it were a king, esteem its presence as you would a great royal (not a royal pain): whether it be from God (Luke 22:28, Acts 20:19, 1 Peter 1:6), from internal battle with sin (Luke 8:13, 1 Cor. 10:13, 1 Tim. 6:9, Luke 4:13), or from external pressure to sin or despair (1 Peter 4:12 Matt. 26:41).  These variegated trials are to be cherished as means to holiness and grace. Conflict is a minister of grace. James is all-inclusive of the types of trials – the word “various” meaning many-colored, multi-striped, or dappled with different hues.

This is an incredible picture to describe what our attitude toward conflict should be! James is asking us to welcome trials/temptations as we would welcome a regal king or queen. Imagine the fuss and toil to prepare for such a visit!  This idea of conflict as royalty comes from the word James uses. The word esteem (consider or count) is a word rooted in the idea of giving honor to imperial figures. James uses this word to describe the joy, anxious anticipation, delight, and diligence we should exercise when engaging with trials that enter into our lives. Not that we are signing gold leaf invitations for more of them – but that when they come we see them as gifts of God sent to perfect us. Even more powerful is the nuance Thayer’s Greek Lexicon adds to the use of the word. He says esteem “denotes a belief not resting on one’s inner feeling or sentiment, but on the due consideration of external grounds, the weighing and comparing of facts.” In other words when we consider the usefulness of conflict to create character it is not a subjective (touchy, feely) whim, it is a truth proposition based on the integrity of God. God says to “consider” conflict a joy! Weigh the evidence – God is working in your crucible of grace!

That’s driving in the rearview mirror to me. Joy is the last emotion I conjure up when facing trials. It’s a contentious correction of my normal response. I’m provoked by this approach and also humiliated that I so seldom get there. But it’s such a radical challenge that it summons me. I want an about-face in my attitude toward suffering. I want to bow to it in honor, expectation, and triumph. I want to be in the holy place of welcome for those friends who would make me more like Jesus. I want joy in the midst of trial so I want James to continue drawing me toward this extreme contradiction to my standard response.

Is God’s instruction a shock to you? Does it surprise you that the Lord directs us into an entirely supernatural attitude toward suffering? Does it irritate you that He does not allow us one moment to gripe about our circumstances or wallow in our “woe is me” self pity? Isn’t it a little perturbing that we can’t invite the attention of others to our trials for a little sympathy? Can’t we indulge ourselves in a rousing chorus of the old Hee Haw number, “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on me, Deep Dark Depression, Excessive Misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me!”

The short answer - No! Why? Because to do so denies the very reason God allows trials to come. These royal guests come with Gifts! They come bearing “an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones” like the queen of Sheba brought to Solomon. (1 Kings 10:10) God sees the gifts brought by His noble ambassadors as worth more treasure than all the empty dainties brought by our self-appointed kings and queens. The store of wealth they bring is of eternal value – unfading, stainless, lasting, fulfilling, and precious. Once their incomparable value captures us, penetrates us, we will find ourselves welcoming these imperial visitors in ways we never imagined. James is going to give us unrestricted access into the regal planning room to reveal to us just what God has in mind for us. He is the giver of “every good and perfect gift” – Want to see what He’s got working for you?

Thursday
May102012

Conflict Sucks! But it just might be my best friend.

Conflict Sucks! But it just might be my best friend. That’s a bit crass, I know, but it comes closest to hitting the mark of how I typically react to conflict. My very conservative background tells me not to use this common colloquialism. My sensitivities to my social circle are clanging in loud alarm. But the word “sucks” works! I hate conflict! The knots I get in my stomach and that tightness on the right side of my back – the one that always gives me a headache if it doesn’t get relieved – testify to my displeasure at any sign of conflict. I could be polite and say, “Conflict is an irritant” but that just doesn’t say it. I suppose if I had the vocabulary of a Harvard professor I could come up with a word that says the same thing, in the same shocking tone, but with less offense. My education was great but I missed that class.

Saying that conflict sucks is shouting the human perspective out loud. It’s the earth’s-eye view. Seeing conflict as a good thing is almost never in my range of thought. I see trials, temptations, testings, and the like as gross inconveniences to my comfortable daily doings. I can say very glibly (especially with no conflict on the horizon) that we all grow when tested. I can repeat the worn illustrations of the tree that is strong because it endured the fiercest winds. I can trip merrily along on these quaint idioms until real, raw, conflict stalks into my world. Then I hate it. I want it out faster than it came in. I want relief and I want my comfort back. I don’t want the pressure and I don’t believe that it can really do me any good. There it is – that’s where I live. How about you?

So where did I get this idea about conflict maybe being my best friend? From James, the guy that many would characterize as being the sternest apostle of them all. We are going to learn that the various trials that come into our lives, regardless of their origin in evil or good, are to be esteemed like royal monarchs. They are to be honored and given heed as if they were kings and queens in full ceremonial regalia. They are to be treated as some of our dearest friends – not because of the pain and displeasure they bring – but because of the refining and fruit bearing they produce in us. James will show us that great gain often hides in the folds of displeasure and great loss is sewn tightly into the broad fabric of self-interested pleasure.

And what about the things that make me happy or bring pleasure? Where do you get off telling me they may be my worst enemies? We love pleasure don’t we! We are all closet hedonists. We want what we want. We know that pleasure as a gift of God is not evil so we excuse many of our wanton pursuits. I’m not speaking of God given pleasures and neither is James. James will be pointing out to us those pleasures that have slithered into the camp of the righteous masquerading as virtues. Those masked manifestations of our dark but lively old man. The ones we excuse and nurture and brandish at the time most appropriate to our advantage. The ones that are truly our darkest enemies posing as our dearest friends. He is about to expose them to the white-hot light of holiness. He will show us our love for them and make us recoil from ourselves in the realization. James never shoots but that he unloads the whole clip. Gird up, my brother, to face the man in the mirror.

Friday
Apr062012

A Leper's Slavegirl: Faith in a Firestorm

The servant girl of an Aramean leper has a lot to teach us about abiding faithfully while waiting for the unseen. She is an almost silent character. There are only about 20 words from her in all of Scripture – two sentences. In those two sentences we can discern a depth of faith and character that rivals the faith of the Centurion of whom Jesus said, “I have not found faith like this in all of Israel.”

The servant girl was an Israelite and as we said, the leper was an Aramean. Aram was a border country of Israel in the days of Elisha the prophet and Jehoram, king of Israel, son of Ahab. In those days marauding bands of Aramean soldiers would assault Israeli villages with intense raids. They would attack swiftly, grabbing what they could, killing any who resisted, and plundering anything of value. It was dry-land piracy meant to weaken the enemy’s borders and enrich the king of Aram.

Caught up in one of these raids was a small family unable to resist the onslaught of ruthless warriors. I’m sure they would have traded anything they had in place of what was to be taken.

The common events of the day were precious although unrealized – a normal family going about daily chores with uneventful, maybe even mundane, toil and happiness. Children probably laughed and played, maybe got a little cantankerous, but lined up with smiles when poppa came in from the fields. Then the evening meal, poppa relating stories about Yaweh’s might and faithfulness, a little firelight flickering on his brow and cheeks as he told of Adam, and Noah, and Abraham, and then to bed. The house was warm, tummies full, and no fear intruded upon the children’s minds as momma and poppa sang their hearts softly to sleep.  Soon all the lights were out and the day’s weariness was fading into dreams.

The night was silent, a gentle breeze rattled the leaves just outside the window of the small home, no rumor of what was about to happen reached any member of the little family. Then, Crack! The door burst open like an explosion. All eyes jolted wide open! The little families’ house was just outside the cluster of homes huddled into the small arms of the village.  They were the first to feel the assault. Shock, fear, confusion, and raw aggression were the tools of the raiders. The family was engulfed in the maelstrom. Merciless men clutching at anything with greedy determination. The little family powerless to defend. The young mother instinctively lurched for the children and clenched them tightly. The oldest of the children, a young girl, following her mother’s lead, grabbed up the baby and put her quickly into momma’s arms.  Hostile men with strong arms callously ripped the girl from her mother just as momma took the little one. Rough voices shouted, “take the oldest, leave the babies, they’ll do for the future. Take anything of value.”

Through the melee she heard poppa’s strained voice, “NO, NO – take me, take me. Not my precious…” He was knocked to the ground silent before his plea was finished. Mother screamed, groaned, cried, and heaved in a mixture and wrath, grief, and terror. Everything was over in a flash. Into the night the little girl was swept, fires were burning, children screaming, men fighting, mother’s wailing and cursing the Arameans. The band fled as quickly as they had come, leaving behind devastation, emptiness, and ruin. Families had been torn apart, fathers killed or wounded, mother’s left to contemplate the horror of what might be happening to their stolen children. Children were left bewildered, wondering what became of their brothers and sisters, daddies and mommies, and all the happy days recently past. 

Night passed, the little girl recovered quickly. She had wise parents. They had prepared her for the horror of the night before. They always knew the danger of the border and spoke of it often so to keep everyone alert. It had been long though since any trouble had arisen but now it was upon her. She was alone in the hand of ruffians and scared, just a young girl who had been viciously torn from her home. The home where until recently she had played on the floor with her siblings, helped her mommy in the kitchen, and been loved tenderly by father and family. She gathered herself and determined not to be afraid. She would trust Yahweh and all would be well. She was now a slave – on the block to be sold – but retained that strength that comes with confidence.

The Captain always liked strength - He had risen to become the favorite of the king because of his. Power in battle, leadership, stealth in raids, ability to command a victory, had all given him a uniquely prominent position with the Aramean king. He was Captain of the mighty Aramean army – chief among fighting men. Weakness was his enemy, power his companion. He recognized might when he saw it. He saw strength in the young girl. She had a sort of inner potency he admired. He wanted only the most noble to serve in his house so quickly chose this one to wait on his wife. “She will do nicely for my dearest,” he mused.

The girl held her head high as she was escorted to the Captain’s estate. It was enormous – bought with and filled with the spoils of war. He was wealthy. There were people everywhere, mostly slaves, but family members and fellow soldiers also tended to the Captain. She was introduced to the Captain’s wife as her new slave – to wait on her every whim. She knew her place – she had heard the tales. Do everything precisely and with respect or suffer the consequences. The Captain’s wife was gracious to her husband and thanked him. She was in turn kind to the girl with the sort of kindness one shows to human property. Not cruel but nothing close to intimate – a distant benevolence due to a good nature.

The girl worked heartily for her mistress. Always waiting upon her with diligence and a smile. Never cross. Never impertinent. She did her crying at night. Her heart burst for her momma and poppa. Would she ever see them again? Would she ever hear them sing to her as she fell asleep, ever with a free heart play with her sisters and brothers, ever walk the paths of her little village, ever feel loved again? She prayed and gushed her heart to Yahweh, silently her tears streamed into her pillow, silently she gathered strength for the next day.

Time passed and the girl grew in favor with her mistress and her God. She always carried a cheery disposition, always a help to her mistress. She was sensitive, knowing when to approach and when to keep distance. She trusted Yahweh. She prayed constantly. She longed for her family but found friends in the Captain’s estate. She came to be relied upon. She heard the daily discourse of the joys and sorrows of her captors and she felt them. She never grew hard. She waited.

Time brought change. Something new sneaked in. A whispered tension pervaded the Captain’s estate. Everyone felt it. To the house of strength came a great weakness. A spirit of measured grief crept into every heart at the news. Gallant, but knowingly fearful, was every soul upon hearing the murmurs. The Captain’s wife was most affected. She was strong and unwilling to show her inner turmoil, but the slave girl could sense her distant despair.  News like this could not be held silent long, muttered in the shadows when the Captain was away. Soon the Captain’s demeanor, normally steady as a rolling stream, became a bubbling cascade of confused emotions. Crashing and splashing against rocks here and there, sometimes pooling into a deep still, sometimes pulsing over a great precipice like a vengeful waterfall. Everyone was on eggshells, full of pity, fearful to say the wrong thing.

The Captain was face to face, skin to skin, with the enemy of his life. He was in a pitched battle with the greatest foe known to any of his kind. He wrestles an invisible adversary, a ruthless rival, one without pleasure in victory, no pain in loss, no emotion, will, or passion, nothing to limit its effectiveness in battle, no mercy, no ability to feel its own pain – the perfect killer – Naaman is a leper. His weakness hammered at him. Never had he felt helpless, never without device or skill to deliver himself from any danger. His mind boils at his misfortune. His great heart despairs and convulses at the thought of an unseen enemy conquering him. His patience and serenity is shattered. The cords of his sanity are snapping – he’s short with everyone, agitated, fierce at times, brooding at others, sharp of tongue but weak of words. He feels as if the gods have made him a sport for their amusement. He is wretched, inconsolable.

He is still wealthy though. Able to pay for any doctor, any soothsayer, any medicine man, or folk cure. He can give hoards of money to the gods, great charities to win their favor. He tries it all. His wife faithfully searches out every known remedy, a wild grasp or not. The entire household is consumed with finding a cure and restoring peace to their beleaguered companion and master.

On a day of particular stress Namaan’s wife audibly groans about her inability to find help for her husband. Wide eyed, effervescent, and confident, the slave girl desires aloud, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.” The unwavering certainty of the girls’ wish burst into the mistress’ meditations of futility. “What did you say, child?” The girl’s unflinching answer was the same. Hope flooded into the empty cavern of her mistress’ heart. The news burst through the house like a song – there’s a man who can heal our master! A tentative expectation started to rise in the household. Namaan went to the king.

The rest of the story is familiar. Namaan goes to Elisha. Elisha makes an uncomfortable demand, Namaan refuses in his pride. His servant pleads with him to try. Namaan submits to God through the instruction of Elisha and prodding of his servant, is healed, and humbles himself to return and give thanks to Elisha and Yahweh, promising to worship only Yahweh the remainder of his days even though he has to tend to the king who will continue to worship other gods. And they all lived happily ever after…

But let’s go back to Namaan’s estate. Do we suppose that anything changed for the girl? Was she released to go back home because of her good deed? Was she reunited with her family to live out her days peacefully in the little village? Did Namaan promise to never invade that little village again, ensuring the family and friends of the girl a peaceful existence? Probably not!

The most likely scenario is that the girl remained a slave. She may have enjoyed the added benefit of better treatment for suggesting her master’s means of healing but all in all probably never escaped slavery, never saw her family again, never visited her village, never knew what became of all those she loved. Sad, isn’t it! But somehow familiar don’t you think? Do you ever feel it? The separation I mean, the loneliness, the partial fulfillments of an uneventful slavery, the distance from home, the longing for something buried deep in your heart, the ache of an unknown anticipation. Do you feel it?

The unrealized longings of Namaan’s little slave girl foreshadow our own. We live in a foreign land. We are slaves to an unfamiliar master, longing for our real King. We are aliens in a hostile country. We long for, and wait for something we have only a vague sense of. What will our home look like once we arrive – when will we get there? Will we see our loved ones again? We feel in many ways like that slave girl must have. The similarity may or may not stop there though. The point is not, do we feel the same as her, or can we commiserate with her. We do. The point is, how will we live each day while we wait for things to be set right.

The remarkable thing about the Israelite slave girl is that she believed. In spite of her circumstances, her youth, her position, her broken heart, her separation from those who shared her faith, she held fast. When faced with the biggest crises her new household had ever faced she did not flinch. Her undaunted faith blazed through as naturally as a child’s wish. My God can do it!

How’s our faith? While we await our unseen future – full of promise and joy – are we abiding in faith others can see? Are we tenaciously watching every day? Are we anticipating good from our Heavenly Father? Are we trusting Him with a child’s abandon? Do we shed our tears at night, longing for home, and get busy in the day, preparing for Him?

Do we realize that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory..?” Are we the sort of people who ask, “what sort of people ought we to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”? Are we waiting expectantly and serving freely like the little slave girl?