Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Misconception Correction

            Today’s Secret Place devotion directed me to 1 Kings 19, a chapter I always like to read. I first encountered this narrative about Elijah in May of 1966, in fact, on the Sunday following May 9. How do I know this?
Not all Mondays are bad.
            The counselor who helped me pray to receive Christ gave me a booklet which included pages to take sermon notes. The first sermon I heard after my conversion was titled “A Prophet of God under the Juniper Tree,” preached by Rev. Bruce Allen, the young, red-haired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pascack Valley in Washington Township, New Jersey.
             Being the nostalgic pack rat I am, I imagine that little booklet with the notes is still in a box in my attic.
Super 8 has red Gideons Bibles.
Reading 1 Kings 19 (in the hotel’s Gideons-placed KJV Bible), I’m captivated by God’s compassion and tenderness toward Elijah, when God could have said, “Suck it up, Buttercup!”
            In chapter 18 Elijah experiences a huge spiritual victory, validating both Elijah as a prophet and God himself as God alone. However, chapter 19 starts with a death threat from the infamous Jezebel, and Elijah, terror-stricken, heads for the hills.
            At a safe distance from Jezebel, Elijah experiences restorative sleep and is awakened twice to eat meals prepared by an angel. What was in that second meal? It powered him to travel forty days and forty nights to God’s mountain. Talk about your superfood!
            In a cave, Elijah gets to tell God his complaint, which turns out to be a misconception. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. (verse 10)
            God gives a three-fold demo of brute strength and finally speaks in “a still small voice” (KJV) or “a gentle whisper.” (NIV) Elijah responds only to the whisper and comes to the mouth of the cave. God renews Elijah’s mission and tells him where to find an assistant. Then God corrects the prophet’s misconception. “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” (verse 18)
            Instead of a harsh tongue-lashing for his wrong thinking and lack of faith, God gives Elijah a gentle misconception correction. “You’re not alone, buddy. You may feel alone, but I have thousands more faithful non-idol-worshiping followers. But why don’t you take Elisha with you for moral support?”
Who is wielding the fly swatter?
            Why do so many of us feel God is waiting to squash us like bugs? Have we experienced too much squashed-bug corrections from parents, teachers, spouses, and other authority figures? And here’s a scary question:  Because of my own squashed-bug experiences, am I prone to squash others like bugs when I’m in the position to correct? Have I made my sons and my students feel like squashed bugs?
            I know the Gospels well enough to know Jesus often used a fly swatter on the Pharisees, but it seems he was much gentler with his friends and followers. Even Peter, after denying three times that he knew the Lord, received only a look. (Luke 22:61)
            In his Gospel, Matthew uses this quote from Isaiah to refer to Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…” (Matthew 12:20, Isaiah 42:3) I want to wrap myself in the tender poetry of these images.
            And I want to remember this blog post after school starts.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is quoted from the New International Version.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Favoring My Weakness


            Navigating my first descent down the stairs each morning, I grip the handrail and proceed slowly. First I place my titanium-laden right foot on a step and then my more organic left foot on the same step. That way there’s little required from my reconstructed right ankle, but more required from my left knee, which will ask to be replaced before my left.
            What happened to the young woman who could fly down the stairs, a baby on one hip, a laundry basket on the other, or sometimes a baby in a laundry basket? Answer:  She stepped off a curb a few years ago and broke both ankles.
My ankles on November 6, 2013.
             My second time downstairs and for the rest of the day, I descend like any other human older than a toddler. During therapy, my physical therapist critiqued my walking and instructed me to use my right foot the same as my left, moving heel to toe. In spite of many weeks of therapy, I favor my right ankle and move cautiously around steps and curbs.
            I didn’t realize how much I indulge this weakness until I landed a spot as the oldest nun in my school’s production of the Sound of Music. I naively thought memorizing Latin lyrics was a big challenge until we began practicing on stage. It turned out a bigger challenge was navigating the narrow, rail-less, stage steps in the dark. I wanted to take them slowly one at a time, but that’s not how it works in theater. The other nuns were flying while I was barely walking.
The oldest nun and her younger sisters
             My much younger sisters saved me by gripping my hand tightly and helping me up and down the steps, but I wonder how much better I might have done if I hadn’t for so long indulged the weakness of my right ankle. Maybe I should have followed the instructions in Hebrews 12:
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. (verses 12 – 13)
            I think the author of Hebrews had more in mind than physical ailments, and I have other weaknesses that I can choose to favor or fight. For instance, because for the past forty plus years my husband has driven 99% of the time we’ve been together in a car, I lack confidence in certain driving situations, like major highways, crowded cities, snow, rain, dark—pretty much any time I’m not the only driver on a back road in the sunshine. It angered me the other summer when my husband told me not to visit him where he was working near D.C. because I wouldn’t be able to drive there myself. My fury fueled my desire to conquer that weakness, and I did. I was scared, but exhilarated when I arrived.
             I know a man who excused his violent temper by saying, “Everyone knows I’m a big angry b%st&rd.” Yes, we know. We hear you shrieking at people and slamming things around. He chooses to indulge his weakness rather than fight it or get professional help.
            Not every physical, psychological, or emotional weakness can be erased. I have to remember Paul, apostle and New Testament writer, who struggled with what he called “a thorn in the flesh.”
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7 – 10
            Even though Paul couldn’t get rid of that weakness, he didn’t use it as an excuse to sit home and do nothing. He continued to travel and preach, learning to draw on Christ’s power. In the same epistle he wrote about disciplining himself like an athlete. I remember my physical therapist had much more strenuous routines than mine for a few young athletes who also had broken ankles.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.  9:24 – 27
Who told you you couldn't do Math?
            My friends and I were discussing weaknesses, real and perceived. How many people are bad at Math because someone told them they are bad at Math? My friend, a retired Math teacher, said she asked her college freshmen on the first day of class to raise their hands if they were bad at Math. Nine out of ten did. 
             Or how about the little girl whose mom told her, “You’re such a klutz.” I heard her several times in public, so imagine how many more times the girl heard it at home. As a parent, I’ve been guilty, too. When my sons were young, I pegged them as the Dictator, the Informant, the Terrorist, and the Peacemaker. It was my joke, but maybe they didn’t find it funny. I continuously praised one of them as an artist, and it turns out three of them are artists.
            Sometimes we can’t identify our strengths and weaknesses because parents, spouses, and others have defined us. Maybe we need to ask God to define us instead.
            I don’t have this figured out. I have many more weaknesses that I have no intention of discussing in a blog post. (If you buy me coffee, I might talk about them.) I don’t think every person has to be strong in every area. Maybe that’s why we have each other. I don’t think every person has to be strong all the time. Maybe that’s why there are seasons of rigor and Sabbaths to refuel.
            Which weaknesses have you overcome? Which ones are you still fighting? Which ones leave you feeling helpless or hopeless? I welcome your insights as I continue to ponder weaknesses and what to do about mine.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is quoted from the New International Version.