Words, Words, Words

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Matthew 12:36-37

Just last week I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the forensics of words. Scientists were able to accurately ascertain who wrote each of the disputed Federalist Papers by studying the words the writers used. Our words are like our fingerprints. We can be identified by our words.

Words. It strikes me this morning that my life is a trail of words. Just this blog alone has 3,625 posts. If I average 300 words per post (I’m not sure what the real number is), that’s nearly 1.1 million words. Yikes.

I think back to all of my words. There are the words I’m proud of like these blog posts, messages delivered, plays, stories, “my life for yours,” and countless repetitions of “you are lovable, valuable, and capable.”

And, there are words that condemn me. Broken vows, empty promises, critical words, profanities, obscenities, words of darkness. I can call them to mind just as quickly. They are mine. I’ll be honest with you: Jesus promise of judgement for every word sobers me up quickly. My own words condemn me.

Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

This morning I am simply reminded that my words are a spiritual barometer. Perhaps I need to be more economical with my words. Fewer words, chosen more wisely. Beginning now.

 

 

 

(Have a good day!)

Faith, Faery, and The Artist’s Way

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Matthew 11:25 (NIV)

Many years ago I picked up a book called The Artist’s Way and embarked on its path. The Artist’s Way is a course designed to help anyone tap into spiritual, creative flow. It was a life-changing journey for me, and God is still leading me back to its principles over and over again.

There are two foundational activities required of pilgrims on The Artist’s Way. The first is called morning pages, and it’s the simple act of waking each morning, immediately sitting down and writing three pages, long hand, stream-of-consciousness. Morning pages help empty the mind and spirit of all the crud that we didn’t even realize were gumming up the works. The second required activity is called the artist’s date. It is quite simply letting your adult self recapture the act of playing; Giving yourself permission to indulge, explore, imagine, touch, smell, taste, and see whatever it is your spirit finds fascinating. As the morning pages make way for fresh flow, the artist’s date begins to “fill the well.” It is a simple two-step process. And, it works.

This morning I was reminded of The Artist’s Way as I read the chapter. Jesus reminded His listeners that the things of God are hidden from the “wise and learned,” their minds gummed up with important things; Their spirits shriveled and sucked dry by the urgent cares and anxieties of the world. The things of God are revealed to children and to the child-like spirits whose minds are open and tapped into God’s flow, their willing hearts open to the wonders of faith.

I’m also reminded that the learned and wise C.S. Lewis first experienced what Jesus was talking about one day after a walk and conversation with his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. What was the subject of the conversation that led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity? Tolkien’s belief that Faery stories are “real.”

“Harsh Realities”

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Matthew 10:34

Follow me for any length of time and you’ll discover that I enjoy the game of baseball. One of the many reasons I enjoy baseball is the way the game metaphorically reflects life in so many ways.

In the narration of his great documentary about the game, Ken Burns speaks about the game beginning each season with the hope of spring, and ending each year with the “harsh realities of autumn.” How often life is like that. The optimistic young soldier ships out with his head filled of dreams of glory and returns with his spirit tempered by the realities of battle. A couple begins their marriage in the fog of romance, but soon find themselves living day-by-day facing the sacrificial requirements of love. Just months ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth with greeting cards chalk full of words about hope for humanity, joy to the world, and peace on earth. In a few weeks we will remember Jesus’ kangaroo court trial, torture, and gruesome execution. Death must come before resurrection can even be a possibility. That’s a harsh reality.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is preparing his followers for what life is going to be like on their mission of taking His message to the world. It’s not a pep talk. It’s a sobering reality check. Jesus didn’t fill His messengers with visions of fame, fortune, and prosperity. He called them to austerity, humility, and sincerity. He did not send them out with hopeful promises that the Message they would carry would create inspirational social movements of unity, peace and brotherhood. He told them to be wary and shrewd, expecting opposition, persecution, and conflict. The sweet manger baby we all celebrated as the “Prince of Peace” has grown to deliver a more difficult message: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Along my journey I’ve come to accept that we as humans like to dwell on the things that are easy, optimistic, inspirational, and accessible. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the glass half-full and being grateful for it. We need hope and optimism to carry us in dark times. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that there is wisdom in being sober minded. We are quick to remember Jesus feeding a hungry crowd of people by miraculously multiplying a few loaves and fish. Few of us recall that just a day later Jesus drove that very crowd away when He asked them to “eat my flesh, and drink my blood.” The crowds wanted the former without the latter. We still do.

Baseball season starts in a week and a half. Right now fans like Wendy and me are experiencing the annual feelings of giddy excitement. Come the evening of April 2nd it will be hot dogs and cold beer at the Vander Well Pub. Every team’s record starts at 0-0, and everyone is hopeful. This year Wendy and I even get to feel the joy of our team starting the season as World Series Champions, and that’s a lot of fun. It does not wipe away, however, the knowledge that we’ve never felt it before.

Harsh realities of autumn 108. World Series Champions 1.

Play ball!

Opposition is Inevitable

But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that [Jesus] drives out demons.”
Matthew 9:34 (NIV)

One of the things I have noticed over recent years is the divergent poles of political thought on both sides of the political spectrum. One side thinks that everything they believe is “all good” and whatever the opposition believes is “all bad.” Those in the middle who desire to seek compromise are pulled apart by the extremes on both sides. No matter what good any one tries to do or say, they are immediately attacked, slandered, criticized and their thoughts summarily dismissed.

I found it interesting that amidst Jesus’ unprecedented display of divine power and love He experiences criticism and negativity on all sides.

  • Jesus extends forgiveness to a paralytic, then heals the man … and the religious leaders dismiss Him a blasphemer.
  • Jesus shows love in reaching out to Matthew, the tax collector, and his friends … and He is condemned by the religious leaders for being with sinners, and criticized by the disciples of John the Baptist for partying and not fasting.
  • Jesus arrives to raise the synagogue leader’s daughter from the dead … and He is laughed at by the mourners gathered there.
  • Jesus quietly heals two blind men, restoring their sight. He asks only that they keep quiet about it … and they do the opposite of what Jesus asked.
  • Jesus casts out a demon who had made a man mute … and the good religious people said that Jesus must be the Prince of Demons.

Along life’s road I have come to understand that you can do nothing worthwhile in this world without being criticized and condemned by somebody. Opposition is inevitable in this world, even to the things of God’s Spirit. Today I witness Jesus, who is healing, forgiving, loving, raising the dead and releasing people from spiritual bondage. At every turn He is being criticized, dismissed, ignored, laughed at, and condemned.

Why should I think that it would be any different for me?

This morning I’m reminded that no matter where Jesus leads and no matter what I am called to do, I will encounter some measure of doubt, criticism, hatred and opposition. My job is to press on, keep my eyes focused on Jesus, and to love even those who criticize me for it.

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” – Albert Einstein

Willingness

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said.
Matthew 8:3a (NIV)

When my daughter Madison was about four years old I called out to her from my home office in the basement of our home. She came scampering in my office from the next room where she had been playing. I needed something (I can’t remember what it was) retrieved from upstairs. “Will you go upstairs and get it?” I asked.

“Sure Dad!” she said with a big smile and child-like excitement. “I’ll be happy to!” And with that she ran off, immediately did as I asked, and cheerfully returned with the item.

I sat there for a moment thoroughly dumbstruck by her willing attitude. I can vividly remember sitting there and enjoying that little moment. She didn’t do what I asked grudgingly. She didn’t do what I asked dutifully. She didn’t do what I asked because I paid her allowance. She didn’t do what I asked out of obligation or familial obedience. She did what I asked out of a cheerful, willing attitude. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

One of the rarely demonstrated service skills I teach my clients is the simple act of expressing your willingness to do what a customer asks.

“Can you…?”
“I’ll be more than happy to do that for you.”

“Will you…?”
“You bet I will. I’m on it.”

“Is it possible…?”
“It sure is. And I’ll be glad to take care of it.”

In this morning’s chapter, Jesus begins by using this simple service skill when asked by leper if He’d be “willing” to heal him.

“I am willing,” Jesus said, and I imagine the warm smile on his face as he reaches out to touch the contagious, infected, deformed leper.

The rest of the chapter reveals so much about Jesus willingness:

  • Willingness to heal the son of a member of the despised Roman occupational force. (I’m guessing that Jesus’ disciple, Simon the Zealot, would have preferred Jesus kill both the Roman Centurion and his son).
  • Willingness to cast out evil spirits and heal anyone and everyone who came to him.
  • Willingness to heal the mother of his friend, Peter.
  • Willingness to use His power and authority to calm both the sea, and his followers fears.
  • Willingness to show mercy, even to His spiritual enemies, and grant the demons’ request.’

This morning I’m enjoying the memory of Madison’s cheerful attitude. I’m thinking about Jesus willing attitude, and I’m recalling what He said in yesterday’s chapter as He concluded His “Sermon on the Mount”:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

I must confess that I, too often, approach God and Life with the attitude of scarcity. I expect that God wants to punish more than bless, and even if He does bless me He will be miserly doling out those blessings. “After all,” I think to myself, “I’m such a wretch that I should be grateful for anything I receive.” I sometimes attach to God my own warped image of the begrudging parent. Ugh. I see God out of the lens of my own personal shortcomings.

“If you’re willing,” I hear Jesus whispering to my heart this morning in the quiet of my home office, “you can choose to see me differently. To see me as I am: Willing.”

Yes, Lord. I’d be happy to do so. By the way, thank you for your willingness to be patient, and to help open my eyes.

Judgment, Fruit Inspection, and Mixing Metaphors

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Matthew 7:15-20 (NIV)

For over 25 years I have been in the business of the behavioral analysis of human interactions (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for training and quality assurance purposes“). One time the Quality Assurance (QA) manager of a client told me that she gave an agent a score of “0” on her call. There were about 30 behavioral criteria analyzed in a given call so that the score reflected a generally accurate picture of what the customer did and didn’t experience in the interaction. To get a “0” an agent would almost have to pick up the phone and immediately stroke out, but even then the agent would be credited for not rushing the caller off the phone. Getting a zero is practically impossible if the agent had blood pressure and a pulse.

As I asked a few questions I soon discovered that the manager didn’t particularly like the agent who took the call she scored “0.” I suspect there were other employment or personality issues between the two. When the agent did something the manager didn’t like on the call, the manager took the opportunity to exercise her power and dismiss the agent and her performance as utterly worthless.

In today’s chapter Jesus continues His famous Sermon on the Mount with a direct command not to be judgmental of others. He goes on to illustrate what he means by describing those who will find a “speck” of something wrong about someone else which they use to justify their judgment, grudge or dismissive attitude towards that person. The judgmental person is, of course, ignoring the glaring 2x4s of their own personal flaws as they do this.

Later in the chapter Jesus is speaks specifically about “false prophets.” In Jesus day there were all sorts of religious teachers, cult leaders, and false prophets making all sorts of religious claims. One of the things we fail to realize is that teachers and preachers claiming to be the Messiah were quite common in Jesus’ day. Just like televangelists and cult leaders in our current era, it was a lucrative gig to convince the crowds you’re the Messiah.

Jesus then gives a word picture to help his listeners be discerning and objective in their Quality Assurance assessment of these “false prophets.” Look at the fruit of their teaching and ministry. Is it the things of God? Goodness? Humility? Generosity? Repentance? Reconciliation? Changed lives? Or is it the things of this world? Wealth? Arrogance? Pride? Power? Control? Hatred? Look at the outcomes and results of these prophets and teachers. That’s the way to know if they are servants of God or servants of themselves.

Along my life’s journey I’ve run into many of my fellow followers of Jesus who will proudly and loudly proclaim: “I’m not supposed to judge other people, but I am called to be a fruit inspector!” These individuals then quickly find a “speck” on the “fruit” of another person’s life and feel perfectly justified in claiming the power and authority to dismiss or condemn the whole tree for quality issues. They use Jesus’ call to be “fruit inspectors” of false prophets to justify their judgement of anyone and everyone’s “specks.”

This morning I’m thinking about the ways we mix up Jesus’ metaphors and twist His teaching to justify the very things he commands us not to do. Even as I write this I’ve got my own 2x4s staring me square in the face. I’m praying for mercy this morning, and confessing my own critical and judgmental attitude towards others. God’s Message tells us that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. In order to consistently produce a good crop there is regular regimen of cultivating, watering, tending, and pruning. I’ve been following Jesus a long time, but I constantly have some pruning to do.

Lord, have mercy on me.

 

“I’ve Got This”

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:30-34 (MSG)

This past week was our first trip down to the lake this year. I have said before that our family’s place on the lake always has been what many call a thin place. It’s a place where things of the Spirit are perceived with greater clarity.

So it was that I began to realize during our time at the lake just how anxious I have become about certain things in life. A bout of insomnia and some time of reflection unearthed a host of things I have been increasingly worried about. I’ve been harboring anxiety; My mind dwelling on things I ultimately can’t control. Being at heart a pessimist, my natural personality tends to take these little anxieties, hide them in the dark corners of my mind, and quietly grow them like bacteria.

On our drive home, I brought these things out into the open in conversation with Wendy. Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that fears and anxieties tend to lose their power when brought out and exposed to the light of conversation. It was helpful to talk it out, and to have Wendy challenge each anxiety with her lock-tight logic.

Yesterday after our local gathering of Jesus followers, I had a few friends praying over me. After a while in fairly routine prayer mode one of my friends, who is a prophet, said out of the blue, “You’re carrying too much. Stop worrying about…”  they then proceeded to name, specifically, the things I’ve been anxious about. There was more that was said, but suffice it to say that I got the message.

This morning I’m reminded that we as humans sometimes need repeated reminders. In today’s chapter Jesus continues His classic “Sermon on the Mount.” One of the simplest reasons I continue to daily journey through God’s Message is that often I’m given exactly the spiritual reminder I need. So it is today. It’s like Jesus personally following up on Wendy’s reasoned logic and the words spoken through my friend yesterday.

“Tom, when has worrying done anything for you? Chill out. Keep going. Stay focused on me. I’ll take care of you.

“I’ve got this.”

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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