How the light got in

I used to think I could write a book about my scandalous childhood but not while my mother was living. I hated to see her cry and I knew my criticism would hurt her. One of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, has written a memoir, Where the Light Fell, about his difficult childhood. He did so knowing it would hurt his 96-year old mother but also knowing he had a powerful story to tell about how he came to understand suffering and grace. Although he has written numerous books on these topics, he believes “this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

I found it hard to put the book down. It made me think about how a difficult childhood shaped me. Like the author, I grew up poor in a household headed by a single mother. Like the Yanceys, we moved frequently because we were poor. Like Philip, I had issues with how my mother raised us. I also grew up going to church regularly.

Philip was brought up in fundamentalist churches in Atlanta, Georgia. As he put it, church defined his life. He and his mother and older brother Marshall went to church a few times a week – twice on Sunday and midweek for a prayer service. His mother made money teaching Bible classes. As a child and as a Bible college student, he experienced the things that make a church toxic – 1) fear, 2) exclusion, and 3) rigidity. The God of Philip’s childhood was not a loving, forgiving God. The God he knew was “eager to condemn and punish.”

Philip’s father, a minister, died when he was only a year old so he has no memory of him. After his death, Philip’s mother vowed to dedicate her sons to God so they could fulfill her own dream of being a missionary in Africa. As Philip described it, their mother essentially took on the role of God in deciding what her boys should do with their lives. The weight of that vow and their inability to meet her expectations hung over them. Philip went through the motions of a religious life, answering the altar call, getting baptized, witnessing to others, sharing his testimony, etc. But he and Marshall were plagued with doubts about whether any of their religious experiences were real. Philip did his best to fake it.

Philip’s mother claimed to be living the Victorious Christian Life. To Philip, she had a split personality. There was the gentle mother who took care of him when he was sick and the angry mother who showed up without warning. To the church and to her Bible students, she was the devout Christian woman. At home, she was often angry, moody, and vengeful. Neither son ever had their mother’s approval but she was especially tough on Marshall. Marshall defied his mother’s will by transferring to Wheaton College (it was too liberal). She was furious and said something to him that was incredibly cruel, that she would pray for something bad to happen to him.

What beings as love may, in fact, corrode into something akin to its opposite.

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell

My mom grew up attending a Nazarene church in a small town in Indiana. Her father was very strict, especially with his only daughter. Perhaps that is why Mom stopped going to church? Dad took us kids to the Nazarene church every week. The congregation was small, less than twenty or thirty people. Our large family was welcomed with open arms. Pastor Don Reeves and his wife Pat were poor and lived in the church basement until they could afford to buy an old fixer-upper house. The church was an old wood-framed building that needed a lot of work and Don worked on fixing it up.

If I remember right, Pastor Don was a recovered alcoholic. He was quiet and humble. He knew the meaning of grace. Sunday school classes were in the church basement and it was there that my Sunday school teacher told me about Jesus. I never had any doubt that God loved me for who I am.

Philip Yancey didn’t know what it was like to have a father. I was twelve when my parents divorced so I knew what I was missing when Dad was gone. Besides missing Dad’s presence, I missed his stabilizing influence on Mom.

Mom was kind and generous and had a wicked sense of humor. She accepted other people for who they are and could find something to like about anyone. She was generous with compliments. We loved to hear her sing and tell us stories about her childhood. Mom found something to appreciate in each of us. We always knew we were loved unconditionally.

But being single changed Mom. She stopped being a devoted mother. Her love life came first. The summer I turned sixteen, Mom uprooted us and moved us to another small town to be closer to her new boyfriend. When Mom found out he was married, she moved us again to Topeka, claiming it was because the furnace wouldn’t keep our old house warm enough. At the end of the school year, we moved back. Mom got a job at the local plant and began a relationship with a coworker who was separated from his wife. At the end of the workday, she went home with him and left my five younger siblings with me.

Like Philip, I saw my mother as two-faced. She sometimes talked about her faith but never went to church. Whenever someone heard that she was the mother of eight, they would express their admiration. Where they saw a saint, I saw an adulteress. In my mind, Mom may as well have worn the red letter A. With every affair, with every revelation about her sexual history, I mentally threw a stone at her. I was the judgmental, self-righteous one.

Philip grew up feeling ashamed because he grew up in a strict environment and did a couple of things he knew were bad. He could be ornery and devious. I was ashamed of being on welfare after the divorce because I knew people disapproved. I worried too much about what people thought of our family. When Mom had my youngest brother out of wedlock, I was so afraid people would find out that I lied about how long my parents were divorced. (I have not gotten over this shame.)

Where the Light Fell made me appreciate the humble, Jesus-centered church I attended. It made me appreciate the flawed mother who loved me unconditionally.

I saw Philip Yancey several years ago when he came to speak at my church in a suburb of Denver. When he ended his talk, he asked us make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. His book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped me see the world through grace-filled eyes. I let go of my resentment. I forgave my mother. I realized that she did the best she could. Like me, she was broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.

Hebrews 12:15 (CEB)

Humbling learning from others

I recently saw Russell Moore on TV. I recognized his name but knew nothing about him so I searched on Facebook and learned that he is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. On a post promoting his book on courage, a woman commented that you don’t need another book; read and study God’s word and you will learn everything you need to know about courage, wisdom, love, etc. She went on to criticize Dr. Moore and others for writing books instead of obeying God by visiting widows and orphans and making disciples.

I still don’t know much about Russell Moore. I know that the Facebook critic opposes him because he is a Calvinist. She opposes him because he is a friend (not a relative) of Beth Moore, the popular evangelist, and she believes that Beth is a false teacher.

I agree with Russell Moore’s critic that we can learn many things directly from the bible. The bible is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But as someone else told Moore’s critic, books by religious authors can lead people to God who would not read the bible. They can encourage and teach those of us who do.

Sometimes reading comments on social media is like a trip down the rabbit hole. I wanted to learn more about a specific theologian and instead got a close look at a damaging aspect of human nature: arrogance.

Arrogance prevents a person from learning from others. I am not a theologian. I don’t always understand what I read in the bible. I learn and am inspired reading religious books and blog posts. Other people know much more than I do about the historical context of the bible. How can you learn if you think you know everything already?

Arrogance prevents a person from seeing oneself honestly. The woman who used her knowledge of the bible to rebuke and warn others about what she sees as false teaching lacked the humility to accept criticism herself. Our biases can cause us to selectively read scripture. How is it that in her daily bible reading, the woman who decided that Russell Moore is disobeying God by writing, missed the scripture about spiritual gifts? How does she know what God has called and gifted others to do?

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

Believers are all members of one body. We are called to unity, to humility and patience.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:2-3

Lord, as I am drawn to both read and to write, I pray for wisdom and discernment. I pray for the humility to be teachable so that I can live a life worthy of my calling. Help me to bear with others in love and to seek your truth even if it reveals uncomfortable truths about myself. Amen

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Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Accepting One Another

God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me!

Earlier this year, I read Max Lucado’s book, How Happiness Happens, with a group of women at my new church. I bought the study guide that goes with the video study though we didn’t watch it. I found some thought provoking questions in the study guide: Whom would you consider your “opposite you”? How do you typically interact with this person?

Bear with one another in love

If you’ve ever struggled to deal with someone who is your opposite, you know how difficult it is to accept the differences. I consider my boss my opposite me. I’m an introvert; he’s an extrovert. I prefer to communicate by email; he prefers to talk on the phone. I’m responsive to emails; he ignores them. I get things done timely, even early; he procrastinates and does things at the last minute. I could go on and on about how his opposite of me ways get on my nerves.

I am outwardly patient with the opposite me but it has been a struggle. I accept that I can’t change him; I’ve tried. I have no choice but to bear with him. I resent him for not being a person I can depend on. And yet, I can also tell you that he is a friendly, lighthearted, and positive person. He shows his appreciation and is contrite when he lets me down.

It is easy for me to focus on character flaws and personality differences and to ignore strengths and positive attributes. Lucado devoted a chapter of How Happiness Happens to pet peeves. When we focus too much on pet peeves, we’re the ones who suffer. Our reaction to these annoyances robs us of our joy. It is not enough to bear with each other. We must do so in complete humility and love.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Ephesians 4:2

Speak the truth in love

How do you deal with the person with which you fundamentally disagree?

It is often best to keep your mouth shut when you disagree. Choose your battles. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Having said that, there have been times I’ve wished that I had spoken up when someone in my church small group said something fundamentally inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus did not hesitate to call out religious people who “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Jesus did not hesitate to say something to those who “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). He was full of both grace and truth (John 1:14). When we speak the truth in love, we help others to grow.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

Ephesians 4:15

Accept one another, as Christ accepted you

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:5-7

What does it mean to accept one another as Christ accepted you? Christ accepts us just as we are, sinful and imperfect. Just as he saw the potential in sinners and in his own imperfect disciples, he sees the potential in every one of us. His love is not conditional.

What’s the difference between accepting someone and tolerating someone?

To me, the word tolerate has negative connotations. It means enduring or putting up with someone or something unpleasant or disliked. No one wants to endure someone or something unpleasant. It takes effort. Tolerating another person often comes with a grudging or resentful attitude.

In contrast, the word accept is positive. Acceptance is consenting to receive or to take something to oneself. To accept is to welcome. To accept another person is to treat them as if they matter.

Think about what it feels like to not be accepted. It feels like rejection. It feels like being excluded. It feels like you don’t matter to the person who won’t accept you unconditionally.

We often refuse to accept another person as they are, without judgment, because we think they should change – to be more like us. But none of us is perfect. God doesn’t ask us to fix other people. We are called to accept them as they are and to entrust them to the Redeemer, to the One who can change them.

What does it mean to have the same attitude of mind that Jesus had? Christ Jesus, even though he is one with God, humbled himself and served others.

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8

Lord, thank you for accepting me and loving me just as I am, flawed and in need of redemption. I confess that I have not always accepted others as You accepted me. Humble me and help me to have the same attitude of mind toward others that You have. Help me to stop worrying about a speck of dust in another’s eye while ignoring a log in my own. Give me the wisdom to see the ways I let You down. Help me to see and appreciate the potential in others and to bear with them in love. Help me to be more like You. Amen.

A Prayer for Serenity

Several years ago, I bought pictures of seashells for a bathroom we remodeled in a seafoam color that reminds me of the ocean. One of the pictures has the word Serenity on it and the other has the word Peaceful. There is nothing more serene to my land-locked mind than a rare, blissful walk on the beach. Yet in my perfectionist mind, the noun Serenity and adjective Peaceful don’t go together. I wish the artist had used the words Serenity and Peace or Serene and Peaceful. Oh, how I pray for serenity, that blessed state of being at peace and untroubled when things aren’t the way I want them to be.

I know the first four lines of The Serenity Prayer by heart. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The first part of the prayer encourages people like me to change the things we can control and to accept the things we can’t. But there is much more to The Serenity Prayer than the lines I’ve memorized.

Living one day at a time; 

enjoying one moment at a time; 

accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.

God grant me the serenity to live one day at a time. Is this not a perfect prayer for times such as these? Our lives have been disrupted by a pandemic. Many of us are living under stay-at-home orders, perhaps working remotely, keeping a safe six feet distance from other people, and wearing masks in public. Millions of people have been infected already and the death toll rises daily. Millions of people have lost their jobs and face financial hardship.

I have to admit that I am a natural born worrier. Instead of living for today, I anticipate and worry about the challenges I will face tomorrow. And I pin my hopes on something in the future (my retirement). But there is no point in living my life for tomorrow. As Jesus said, each day has enough trouble of its own.

Even in difficult times, there are moments of joy – moments that should be treasured. These moments of joy are the spice of life. During the pandemic, I have been enjoying my quiet time in the morning with a cup of coffee before I head to the gym or my home office. I’ve even taken up watching and listening to the birds in my backyard.

The one thing I disagree with in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prayer of Serenity is the idea that we should accept hardships as a pathway to peace. I believe that hardships and struggles and failure are a pathway to character. Salvation is the pathway to peace. I have been justified by faith. I have peace with God through my Lord Jesus Christ. I am not afraid of anything that can kill my body because it cannot kill my soul. If I lose my life, I can say, it is well, it is well with my soul.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.

Romans 5:1-4

The last part of The Serenity Prayer is: taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will. This part of The Serenity prayer points to a path to spiritual growth. Jesus took the sinful world as it is. He loved sinners just as they are. But he did not accept the sinful world as it is; he came to change the world and to testify to the truth.

There is love in accepting the world as it is. There is serenity in knowing that in the end, God will make all things right.

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A Prayer of Serenity

God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time,

enjoying one moment at a time;

accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;

taking, as Jesus did,

this sinful world as it is,

not as I would have it;

trusting that You will make all things right

if I surrender to Your will;

so that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

Reinhold Niebuhr

My refuge and strength

Last week, my pastor asked whether any of us had ever played the game jenga. He showed us photos of a couple of buildings that resemble a stack of jenga blocks; it is amazing that they haven’t toppled over. Like an unstable stack of blocks, sometimes it doesn’t take much to unbalance us. The stresses of life can wear you down and make you feel exhausted, depleted, overwhelmed. When life gets overwhelming, what do you do? Where do you go for help?

Pastor Brad said that faith and anxiety occupy the same space in our heads. He spoke about the coping mechanisms people use to deal with stress and anxiety. Many of us cope with stress in unhealthy ways – losing our temper, withdrawing from other people, or by eating or drinking or shopping to excess.

When you have faith, you can turn to God for help. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1

The scripture for the sermon was Psalm 46, one of the most familiar psalms. It begins, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” When I get really stressed, I wake up in the night and worry about things. I call on God in the darkness. I call on God when I am afraid. I call on God when I am overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. I call on God when I need courage. He comforts me. He builds me up. He gives me hope. He gives me peace. God is my refuge and strength.

I especially like Psalm 46:10. When you start to feel anxious, be still. Stop trying so hard to solve your own problems. Know that God is God. He’s got this. Put your trust in Him.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

Psalm 46:10

Pastor Brad ended the sermon with Psalm 131:2.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131:2

Like a weaned child, David was content. He was able to calm and quiet himself because he put his hope in the Lord.

When the stresses of life are overwhelming, what should you do? Wean yourself from the coping mechanisms of the world. They don’t work. Don’t be anxious about anything. Instead, call out to God. Let Him be your refuge and your strength.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

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Photo by Bart Jaillet on Unsplash