Thursday, July 24, 2008

Poco a Poco

One of my favorite Spanish phrases is "poco a poco", meaning "little by little".

In our family, we are seeing this phrase played out in real life. Benjamin is taking swimming lessons, and Jonathan has been walking for about a month.

With both of these new adventures, we are witnessing gradual progress, celebrated every step of the way. Our sons receive praise and encouragement for doing what they can do when they can do it. They are thrilled with the joy of accomplishment every time they stretch their ability a little bit further. And each success breeds the confidence and daring required to push further still, and accomplish a little more.

There's no rush, no pressure, no stress. No comparisons to others, no disappointment with how long these things take. No foot-tapping, clock-watching, or throat-clearing. No sighs or eye rolls. No frowns over the imperfect, partial steps taken in the process of getting to the goal. No despair over the occasional step backward.

We know that one day we will have two boys who walk, run, climb, jump, and swim like anyone else who has the ability to do these things.

Overnight mastery is the last thing we would ever expect. At the same time, the last thing we would ever accept would be no progress at all. We never expected these changes to happen suddenly, quickly, or at our convenience. But, we did, and do, expect them to happen. A child who is not growing or developing is taken to a doctor to figure out what's wrong.

A parent who is impatient with a child's development is seen as unreasonable, if not abusive. A parent who is unconcerned about, or unaware of, delays in development is seen as neglectful.

Either extreme presents danger to a child, and exposes a misguided attitude on the part of a parent.

While it's easy to see these dangers in the upbringing of our children, it's not always easy to remember them in a spiritual context. Christians commonly refer to a newly baptized believer as a "babe in Christ". But, do we take into account the full meaning of that expression?

If you've ever had a newborn, an infant, or a toddler in your home, do you remember what it was like? Do you remember all the things you didn't expect them to do for themselves, all the ways in which you made a special effort to care for and accommodate them, and yet, all the high hopes and dreams you had for what they would do and become in the future? Do you remember refusing to go to the extremes of being too demanding or simply neglectful?

What is the experience of the new Christian in the church?

May it be like the experience of children growing up in a godly home. May a new Christian find the time and space needed to grow and develop, with encouragement every step of the way. Not rushed into maturity, but not left to prolonged immaturity. Not forced into service, but not forgotten, either.

May every new Christian find a spiritual family with the faith to celebrate his progress, "poco a poco".

Are we prepared to provide a safe home for a newcomer?

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Promise Kept

Jane: "Mary Poppins, you won't ever leave us, will you?"
Michael: "Will you stay if we promise to be good?"
Mary Poppins: "That's a pie-crust promise; easily made, easily broken."

Most of us know the story of the prophet Samuel's birth.

In a sense, every human being owes his existence to his mother, but Samuel in particular owed his life to his mother Hannah's deep faith and heartbroken prayer.

We read the story in the first few chapters of I Samuel.

Hannah lives, as so many women of her era, in a polygamous relationship, with a husband who loves her dearly, but also has another wife. The other wife has borne children, but Hannah has not. In fact, the Scripture says, "the Lord had closed her womb". (1:5)

No explanation is given for this, but it is clear that Hannah's inability to conceive is a source of great pain for her. This fact is not lost on the other wife, who takes advantage of this sore spot to "provoke her severely, to make her miserable, because the Lord had closed her womb." (1:6)

"She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish." (1:10)

Out of this torment comes a request, and a promise.

"O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant, and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life." (1:11)

Hannah's prayer is granted, and she names her son "Heard by God".

As moving as this part of the story is, it alone does not provide the most compelling point for us today. That is yet to come.

God's intervention in this story is, like most of His deeds, beyond our grasp. How does God take a woman who cannot have children, and bring about whatever change is necessary to allow conception to occur? How or why had He prevented conception from occurring before? We'll never know; we accept that He can and does intervene in such ways, according to His will.

Not to suggest that God's work is not the most remarkable element of this story, but His intervention in this case is similar to innumerable miracles He has performed over the centuries, completely in keeping with who He is and what we have always known Him to do.

The most unusual element of this story is Hannah's promise. More specifically, the fact that she keeps it.

After all the years of torment and depression, after all the wishing and hoping, the son she wondered if she could ever have is finally in her arms. Any mother who has locked eyes with her newborn knows the instant and eternal bond. Everything else is reordered. Previous priorities fade. Nothing is ever the same.

Yet, in spite of all this, as God remembered her, so Hannah remembers her promise. She weans her son, and then takes him, at a very young age, to Eli the priest to begin his life of service to God. And, the course is set for a critical period of Israel's history.

Imagine it. Taking your small child to begin a life apart from your household, willingly giving him up to see him again only once a year thereafter. A tear-jerker of a passage is found in chapter 2, verses 18 - 19: "Samuel ministered before the Lord, even as a child, wearing a linen ephod. And his mother used to make him a little robe, and bring it to him year by year when she came up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice."

Can you see Hannah stitching her son a new robe, remembering what he looked like the last time she saw him, wondering what he would look like now? Wondering how much he might have grown? Hoping he'll like his new robe? Can you imagine the annual reunion, with Hannah helping Samuel try it on? Can you imagine how often Samuel thought of his mother throughout the year, every time he wore that robe?

Considering all this, it's truly amazing that Hannah kept this promise. Honestly, if she had failed to keep her promise, would we judge her for it today? Could we blame her? Could any of us keep a promise like this? Would any of us have made such a promise in the first place?

Hannah would have had at her disposal any and every rationalization she would have needed to break her promise to God, and make it all right in her mind. Imagine how the tempter might have worked on Hannah's mind in the few years she had Samuel at home. We're not given any indication that Hannah even struggled with this decision, but if she did, she would have had plenty of help.

While we might not have been inclined to judge Hannah harshly had she failed to keep this promise to God, Scripture indicates God Himself would indeed have taken it seriously. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5) And while Hannah's story is not entirely equivalent to the story of Jephthah (Judges 11), it serves to illustrate the same point: take seriously what you tell God you're going to do.

Buried beneath all this, lies an often-overlooked fact in Hannah's story.

"And Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, 'The Lord give you descendants from this woman for the loan that was given to the Lord.' Then they would go to their own home. And the Lord visited Hannah, so that she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile the child Samuel grew before the Lord." (I Samuel 2:20-21)

Who knew Hannah was going to have more children after she gave Samuel to the Lord?

There is no indication that anyone knew. Hannah's original prayer was for "a male child", not for the ability to have as many children as she and her husband might have wanted to have. It was on her heart to have a son, and once that prayer was granted, it is clear her heart was content. (2:1-10) In fact, we have to assume that Hannah thought she was handing over to the Lord her one and only child, and that she would live the rest of her years on the joy of her short time with her baby Samuel. There was no inkling of future children to numb the pain of giving Samuel up, or to make it any easier to keep that promise. The reward of having five more children must have overwhelmed her heart.

Promises, promises. We live in a world today in which promises don't seem to mean very much. It seems people vow first, and think later. The vow may even be sincere at the time, but changing circumstances provide the back door people use to abandon a promise they no longer wish to keep. Even marriage vows turn out to be pie-crust promises with disturbing regularity.

More than anything else, a Christian is supposed to be different from this world. How seriously do we take our promises to ourselves, let alone others, let alone God?

"This is the year I'm going to exercise again."

"Till death alone separates us."

"You are my God."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Going Too Fast...

We found a treasure today.

For some time, my wife Kristi and I have been aware, off and on, that we weren't sure where we had put the DVD Kristi made for our older son Benjamin's first birthday party, which has been over two years (and a move) ago now. The DVD is a compilation of photos from Benjamin's first year, set to music, with messages wishing him a happy birthday. As far as treasures go, this DVD is, well, beyond priceless.

When our younger son Jonathan's first birthday rolled around earlier this year, Kristi made a similar DVD for him, and we realized we didn't know where Benjamin's DVD was. In the months since, this missing DVD has been an occasional itch we can't scratch. We felt sure it was somewhere, that we wouldn't have thrown it away, that it would turn up sometime, but we were starting to wonder...

Out of nowhere today, Kristi found the missing DVD, at least one copy of it, at the bottom of a random box from our move a year ago. Needless to say, we dropped everything and watched it.

Let's just say dry eyes were not a problem.

We just couldn't believe what we were seeing, how long ago those moments seemed, yet how fast they all went by. My eyes moved back and forth from the baby on the screen to the three-year old sitting with me, and I just had to shake my head.

David Halberstam wrote a book called Playing for Keeps, centered mainly on the life and career of Michael Jordan, but also exploring the general world of professional basketball during Jordan's career. In one passage in particular, Mr. Halberstam explains that many players desire the security of a long-term contract with guaranteed money, because they realize how very temporary their playing days are. The phrase used to describe the length of the average player's career is a haunting one: "terrifyingly short".

Terrifyingly short.

A professional athlete's career, or the time from my son's first birthday to now, are not the only things that are terrifyingly short.

"What is your life? It is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away." -- James 4:14

Why be surprised at how fast it seems to be going?

Why keep assuming we have next year?

Why keep assuming we have tomorrow?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Places You Never Dreamed You'd Go

Maybe you've heard bits and pieces of the story on the news.

Right now, a high-profile couple is going through the trauma of a divorce, made only more painful by the public nature of it. Embarrassing details are being broadcast for all the world to know and discuss, and the parties involved are trying to maintain some degree of composure, as their children are about to have their lives changed forever. Sadly, tragedies just like this happen all the time.

But, there is something different about this story. While it involves the common culprit of adultery, mixed with the newer but equally common threat of internet porn, there is one fact that makes it surprising all this happened. That is the simple fact that the man in this case is, we will soon say "was", married to a super-model, whose name and image have been well-known around the world for many years. Not only this, but it is apparently his infidelity that has led to the pending divorce.

To the outside observer, based only on the most superficial knowledge of this family, wouldn't this be the last thing anyone would expect?

When this man married a super-model, how many men might have envied him, just on the basis of the outside appearance of what he seemed to have? Who would have guessed he would end up seeking the company of other women, both in person and in pictures? Who would have thought he would risk what he had for that? Of course, part of the problem is that we tend to think of sexual intimacy as primarily a physical thing, when it's far more complex than that, but, still, didn't this story surprise you a little, the first time you heard it?

In another recent story, a sports writer details how surprisingly common it is for professional athletes, who earn millions during their playing careers, to end up broke or hopelessly in debt when their playing days are over and the paychecks stop coming. It was actually a heartbreaking story, despite the lack of sympathy so many of us feel for these young men who make more money than we'll ever see, and don't always appear grateful for it.

How many people envy these young, newly wealthy superstars? How many assume these young people are set for life? How many would really have guessed that in many cases, it doesn't happen that way?

More importantly, in both of these stories, what are the chances the actual people involved would have ever guessed the ultimate outcome? It's safe to assume a man marrying a super-model would consider his need for female companionship to be met, and adultery on his part a most far-fetched scenario, if not an utter impossibility. It's not only safe to assume, but fairly easy to prove, that a young athlete signing his first multi-million dollar contract, fancies himself set for life, and the idea of returning to his prior financial status, let alone an even worse situation, to be beyond impossible.

Yet, both of these disasters, and many others like them, do happen, regardless of how unlikely we think they are.

Both of these stories serve to illustrate a spiritual truth: Given the opportunity, Satan can take a person to places he never dreamed he'd go. Places that just don't make sense to the casual observer, given the person and his situation in life. Places that seem to be the total opposite of everything the person is.

The Apostle Peter knew this to be true, from his own experience.

He assured Jesus he would never fall away, even if every other disciple did. He went so far as to tell Jesus he would even die for Him. Yet, later that same night, he fulfilled Jesus' prophecy by denying he even knew who Jesus was.

It's not unlikely he remembered that mistake years later, when he wrote these words in I Peter 5:8: "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."

Spin a spiritual globe, and point your finger to a random place, a remote, isolated, dangerous island of sin. Say to yourself, "That's somewhere I'll never go!"

At that very moment, Satan stands not far away, smiling at the challenge. He whispers to himself, "You wanna bet?"

"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." -- James 4:7

Thursday, July 3, 2008

232 Years

Tomorrow we celebrate America's independence.

As we enjoy fellowship and fireworks, let us pray for our country, especially for her current and future leadership, that God's blessing may always be sought, and our future may be bright.

"Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord..."

Psalm 33:12