Category Archives: self-examination

Firstfruits of my mother’s tomato patch

I am my mother’s son in many ways. One is a love for tomatoes, especially vine-ripened ones from the garden. I remember my mother watching the first tomato turn red each season and her joy as she bore it into the house to savor it at our next meal.

Ethel in gardenThinking of mother and the firstfruits of her tomato patch, helps me understand the biblical texts instructing Israel to offer the first part of each harvest as an act of worship to God (eg. Exodus 23:19; Deut. 26:2,10; 2 Chron. 31:4-5; Nehemiah 10:35).

Why did God insist on an offering from the first portion of the harvest? The offering went to feed those who had no harvest: the poor and the priests and Levites. Wouldn’t a dollar from the back of the wallet help them just as much as a dollar from the front?

Then I think of my mother and begin to understand. There would be a huge emotional difference between my mother giving a friend some of her first batch of tomatoes and giving some tomatoes late in the season. The amount could be the same in both cases, but a lot more of my mother’s heart would be in those first tomatoes! Offering to God our firstfruits makes it much more real on an emotional, even visceral, level just how precious God is to us. We may say that God has first place in our life; but giving our firstfruits makes us feel that God is important.

A story illustrates a further reason to prioritize our giving to God. A Sunday School teacher brought a pan of brownies into her class. She gave each student a slip of paper labeled “light bill,” “groceries,” “entertainment,” and so on. Then she picked up the pan and began calling out those things. One by one the students redeemed their slips of paper for a fresh brownie. But the brownies ran out while one student still held his slip of paper. “God,” the teacher called, and the student came forward, hoping she had one more brownie hidden somewhere. But all she could do was scrape the crumbs from the pan into his napkin. She explained, “The brownies represent our money. If we don’t give God’s share first, God might not get anything except the crumbs.”

Firstfruits giving not only impacts our heart but also our priorities. If we give our money to everything else first, it shows that God is less important than all those other things.

Obeying God helps me be an optimist

Many versions of the following story have been told:

     There were two boys who were brothers. One was a confirmed pessimist and the other a blooming optimist through and through. The parents of the boys were trying every way they could to temper the natures of the boys, but with little success.
     One year when Christmas time came around, the parents were very careful to purchase for the pessimistic one something that he had expressed a wish for—a gold watch. But in the stocking of the optimistic youngster, who sorely wanted a pony, they only put some horsehair.
     Christmas morning came. The pessimist, who was the first downstairs, took the watch out of his stocking and said, “Looks like a gold watch—it’s probably brass—it probably won’t keep time very well.” Shortly afterwards the boy-optimist came bounding down; he took one look into his stocking, grabbed his coat, and headed for the back door. His parents called out, “Where are you going?” He shouted back, “With all this horsehair, there’s got to be a pony around somewhere!”

The beginning of a new year is a natural time to take a look at our attitudes toward life. Particularly attitudes that our faith can help us adjust.

For me, nothing shapes my level of optimism or inner buoyancy as much as my level of trust and obedience in God:

  • When something tells me that life is going to get more difficult or be less rewarding, my faith relationship with God affects how I receive that message. If my goal is to love and please God and to hear “well done, good and faithful servant” at the end of my life, then even in the face of any life disappointment, I still have occasion for hope and optimism. Why? Because obeying God is something I can always do! Further, walking with God is an adventure! And thanks to God’s grace, I’m not fraught with the anxiety that I must obey perfectly.
  • When someone whose opinion matters to me makes a comment or an action that implies that they don’t value me, again my relationship with God affects my reaction. I’m listening for God’s “well done,” not for what that person may or may not think.

On avoiding Christianese or empty God-talk

I heard Eugene Peterson tell a story about five-year old girl named Charity who’s rather precocious and bold in saying what she thinks. One of her grandmothers is a friend of Peterson and his wife. She told about a visit to Charity’s home that took place shortly after her other grandmother had been there for an extended stay. The first morning of the friend’s visit, at 5:00 a.m., Charity crawled into bed with her, snuggled up, and said, “Grandma, let’s not have any God-talk, okay? Let’s just get on with life.”

The other grandmother is a devout woman who takes her “grandmothering” seriously, seeing religious instruction as part of her responsibility. And Charity had grown rather tired of it all!

Peterson sees Charity’s remark as a prophetic word from which we can all learn. A 20-year old saying those words might be just pushing God out of the way. But at Charity’s age there is an unselfconscious perception of the truth of things. And she caught the gap that can be present between our words and real life. Our talk about God can come across as mere “God-talk” because what we are saying is separated from the way we live.

I don’t want my spiritual life to be disconnected from actual daily life. So one of my personal projects over the years has been to avoid, whenever possible, religious-sounding jargon. When I must use some Christianese, I try to define it using words from everyday life. For instance, “be a disciple of Jesus” can be “live your life as Jesus would if he were you.” “Jesus as Lord” can be “Jesus as Leader.” The “Kingdom of God” can be “where what God wants done is done” (Dallas Willard).

Doing this helps those who are learning the faith, be they five years old or fifty. Our words are more accessible — missionaries aren’t the only ones who should translate their faith into the language of the people. And others can more quickly connect those words with what they see in our life.

And it helps us. If we can’t express a theological or biblical term in our own words, using everyday language, that alerts us that we don’t fully understand it yet. It may only be a truth or a concept that we heard someone else talk about, that we have borrowed without experiencing it for ourselves.

May our words about God align with our life and not just be empty “God-talk.”

Help so Jesus is Lord

“Jesus Christ is Lord.” No statement I’ve made has had more radical implications for my life.

To confess Jesus as Lord is to renounce my natural instincts. It goes against a constant message from society that I am “number one” and that my life should be organized around advancing my interests. Jesus is first — not my desire for money or relationships or pleasure. Or fame or power or education or career.

This confession is not mere personal choice or commitment. It’s a universal fact! Jesus rose above every power that can be named. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord (Phil 2:10-11). I want my life to conform to that reality. The sooner, the better!

Thankfully Jesus is also Savior, and will grant grace for times of disregard and lack of obedience. But I don’t want to fall short; I want to truly be a Christ-follower. I want my life transformed after the teachings and example of Christ.

Thankfully Jesus also places us in the church: we don’t have to live this life on our own. We have brothers and sisters as companions for the journey, ones who can listen to us, encourage us, challenge us, hold us accountable, pray with us.

If you want that help, here are some questions you can invite a brother or sister to ask you:
• What people, experiences, or objects are you tempted to place at the center of your life, instead of Christ? (What are you most afraid of losing? What do you run to for comfort? What do you make the biggest sacrifices for?)
• What did you do in the past days to place yourself in Christ’s presence?
• What has been your experience this week with worry? Lust?
• Have you been honoring, understanding, and generous in your important relationships this week?
• What are you facing in the week to come? What do you need from God? From brothers/sisters?

May Jesus be foremost in our lives. Jesus Christ the Lord.

Acts of unrecognized value

Earlier this year a 19-year-old man named Dakoda Garren was hired to do some part-time work for a woman living north of Portland. Later, in May, the woman reported that one of her family treasures was missing — a rare coin collection worth at least $100,000. It included a variety of rare and valuable coins, including Liberty Head quarters, Morgan dollars, and other coins dating back to the early 1800s.

Garren denied any involvement, telling police that they “didn’t have any evidence against him.” But then Garren and his girlfriend began using the coins at local establishments, spending them at face value, totally unaware of the coins’ worth. One day they paid for movie tickets using quarters from the collection, each quarter worth between $5 and $68. Later that day they bought some pizza with more of the coins, including a Liberty quarter that may be worth up to $18,500. This caught the attention of the authorities and soon Garren was charged with first-degree theft of the coin collection.

Rather than laugh at the young man, you and I should use the story as an occasion for self-examination. How aware are we of the value of what we hold in our own hands? I think of many neglected resources and opportunities which often prove invaluable:
• helping hand to someone who is exhausted
• phone call or card or visit to a lonely friend
• a check-up or preventative care appointment with the doctor
• a vote
• passage of Scripture – a word of instruction and/or direction from God (only the wisest and most loving Being in the universe!)
• friendly wave to a neighbor as you pass in the car
• calling on the Lord in prayer
• simple, inexpensive Christmas gift that shows thoughtfulness and awareness of the other
• an hour focused on the important rather than on the urgent.

Searching our dark corners

A classic variety show routine (retold by Jill Carattini) begins with a pitch-black theater except for a large circle of light coming from a street lamp. In the spotlight, a man is on hands and knees, carefully probing the lighted circle.

After a few moments a policeman walks on stage and asks the obvious question: “Did you lose something?” “Yes,” the man replies, “I lost my keys.” Kindly, the police officer joins the man’s search. Two figures now circle the lighted area.

After some time, the officer stops. “Are you absolutely certain this is where you lost your keys? We’ve covered every inch.” “Why no,” the man replies matter-of-factly, pointing to a darkened corner. “I lost them over there.”

Visibly shaken, the policeman exclaims, “Well, then why in the name of all heaven are we looking for them over here?” The man responds with equal annoyance: “Isn’t that obvious? The light is better over here!”

This drama is a parable with profound insight: we tend to limit our search for life’s missing keys to the readily accessible places where search is undemanding. When I’m unhappy it’s easy for me to look at what others do or don’t do, at how they could change to make my life easier or more complete. Politicians and figures in the spotlight are easy targets because everybody can join me in criticizing them.

Searching the dark and difficult corners–especially the barely-lit places of our own soul–is far less desirable. Yet search there we must. Seldom is the key to a better life found in what someone else will start doing or stop doing. Lasting wholeness comes from within; if it’s based on what’s going on around us it does not last.

Am I growing in maturity, becoming inner-directed–one who hears and walks with the Spirit of God rather than being dependent on circumstances and the opinions of others (past and present)? Am I growing in deep relationships–giving and receiving, drawing strength and showing love, forgiving and encouraging?

Death focuses life

The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel is most often remembered as the man behind the Nobel Prize, the highly regarded international award for efforts in peace, chemistry, physics, literature, and economics.

At one point, however, Nobel was once largely known as an inventor and maker of explosives. In 1866 he invented dynamite, and he went on to operate labs in 20 countries and have more than 90 factories manufacturing explosives and ammunition.

Then in 1888 a bizarre incident occurred which gave Alfred Nobel an unlikely opportunity to reflect on his life. When Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while staying in Cannes, France, the French newspapers mistakenly confused the two brothers, reporting the death of the inventor of explosives. One paper’s headline read: “Le marchand de la mort est mort” — The merchant of death is dead.

That event seems to have led Nobel to change the trajectory of his life and ultimately led to his establishment of the Nobel Prize, giving him a remarkably changed reputation.

As you and I reflect on our personal lives, what are people apt to say about us upon our death? What would we like persons at our funeral to say about us and our life? Further, after we draw our last breath we will stand before God and give an account of our life. What will God say as we stand there with everything “uncovered and laid bare” (Hebrews 4:13)?

Looking at death brings life into focus.