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The Bad Thing About More

A cartoon of a man's closet door bursting open with stuffHaving too much is rarely a recipe for peace, though it’s tempting to think so. When you have lots of stuff, you need to spend lots of time paying for it and lots of time taking care of it. Our many possessions can tie us down, making it difficult to respond to opportunities God gives. Oddly, having too much often makes us want to have even more.

In his classic book on the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel points out that when modern people want to emphasize something in print, we often underline or italicize words. The Bible and other forms of ancient literature used a different tactic—repeating words within the text, as if to say, “Listen and listen up!” Deuteronomy 16:20, for instance, says, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (nrsv). Isaiah 40:1 declares, “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God.”

Heschel points out that only one of the Ten Commandments is proclaimed twice, and that’s the last one, which goes like this: “Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else your neighbor owns” (Exodus 20:17)(1). By emphasizing the command, God puts a double fence around our tendency to want more, especially if the more that we want belongs to someone else.

You may not feel wealthy compared to those around you, but most of us who are living in the affluent West are rich compared to the rest of the world. No matter how much we have, all of us can fall into the temptation of coveting what we don’t have. If you find yourself stressed out by everything you own, ask God for help and wisdom to begin paring things down. Then listen and listen up so you can experience more of God’s peace in your life!   More

(1). Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 90.

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Sensing God’s Peace

White buildings against the dark blue of the Aegean Sea.Several years ago a business leader by the name of Michael Hyatt embarked on a three-week pilgrimage to Mount Athos, visiting several Orthodox monasteries. Toward the end of the trip, Hyatt and his companions visited a small monastic community located on the edge of the Aegean Sea. During their visit, one of the monks offered the travelers tea and pastries served up with stimulating spiritual conversation.

When it was time to go, Hyatt stood on the veranda overlooking the brilliant blue sea and remarked to one of the monks, “I hate to leave, Father. It is so peaceful here.”

Nodding, the monk remained silent for a few minutes and then replied, “You know, Michael, anywhere can be this peaceful, if”—he paused for emphasis—“you have God in your heart. But if you don’t, then even a place as beautiful as this can be hell.”(1)

Most of us can relate to Hyatt’s experience. Standing at the edge of a lake, staring up at starry skies, or walking through snowy woods, we sense a peace we wish would go on forever. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the created world has this effect on us, coming as it does from the good hand of God.

Let’s enjoy the beauty of nature, savoring the peace we find there without being seduced into thinking that a villa on the beach or a cabin on a mountaintop is what we really need to be happy. Only God, living within us, can give us what our hearts desire. More

(1) Michael Hyatt, “Where to Find Peace in Turbulent Times,” Michael Hyatt Intentional
Leadership (blog), February 28, 2011, http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=52d5c7778a3adfda535c3b349&id=c17029a0c2&e=53afb51cde.

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Natural Limits

Ever travel to Amish country? If so, yA horse-drawn buggy on the roadou know what it feels like to be transported to the nineteenth century. In parts of Michigan, not far from where I live, you can see Amish farms dotting the countryside. Most Amish deliberately limit their farms to eighty tillable acres or less since that’s the amount of land a family can work. Instead of seeing natural limitations as something to be overcome, the Amish embrace them. In her book Amish Peace, Suzanne Woods Fisher tells the story of an Amish man “who joked that if he were meant to plow at night, God would have put a headlight on a horse.” The Amish, she says, “respect natural limitations: sunlight and seasons, hunger and fatigue.”

This desire to acknowledge, preserve, and live within certain limitations is one aspect of Amish life that most sets them apart. After all, they live smack in the middle of a culture that prides itself on pushing the limits at every opportunity, overcoming barriers to productivity and play by offering a constant array of new and better gadgets and technologies. Computers, video games, cell phones, and other technological wonders take up more and more of our time. We don’t think twice about the constant flow of electricity that enables us to get less and less sleep so that we can do more and more. We’re like children who don’t want to go to bed, lest we miss something.

But we do miss something. We miss the peace that comes from accepting limits on our time and energy. And then we wonder why we feel so stressed. By hailing this Amish tendency to live within limits, I am not urging us to stop using technology, but we ought to learn from how others have chosen to live. By doing so, our lives will not be diminished but enhanced. More

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Star Pupil

Hands raised and clasped in a pleading way.Remember the story of the Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter? Instead of casting out the demon, Jesus seemed to ignore the request. (Keep in mind that in Jesus’ culture, men did not talk to women they did not know, and Jews did not talk to Gentiles.) Annoyed, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. He appeared to comply, stating that his mission was to the Jews only. But she would not give up. Then he went further, insulting her by comparing Gentiles to dogs, a common view among his contemporaries. Instead of taking offense, she simply said, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).

We are relieved that Jesus finally heals the woman’s daughter, but many of us view the story with unease. It seems to put Jesus in an unflattering light.

But remember that Jesus was a rabbi. And rabbis used various methods to instruct their disciples. Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, suggests an interesting interpretation. What if Jesus was giving his disciples an object lesson in faith? What if he was testing this woman and in the end commending her as one of his star pupils so his own disciples could learn something, not only from a woman but also from a Gentile? (1)

Here is how Bailey paints the scene, just after Jesus makes the comment about dogs: “Will she reply with a corresponding insult against the haughty Jews who despise and verbally attack Gentiles, even those in pain? Or is her love for her daughter, her faith that Jesus has the power of God to heal, her confidence that he has compassion for Gentiles and her commitment to him as Master/Lord so strong that she will absorb the insult and press on, yet again, with her request?” (2)

We see in this woman’s story an encouragement not only to persist in prayer but to continue to believe in God’s love and compassion in the midst of circumstances that may cast him in an unflattering light. Today, may her story impel us to continue to pray for those we love.   More

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(1). Though this explanation may at first seem improbable, read Kenneth Bailey’s convincing exegesis in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 217–26.

(2). Ibid., 224.

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Lashon Ha-ra

Two gossiping girls My children and I have developed a way to pass the time during a long drive. We take a simple phrase like “Look at that” and then say it with as many different inflections as we can think of in order to bring out various meanings. It’s amazing how quickly an innocuous statement can morph into one that communicates humor, threat, shock, disgust, delight, or anger, depending on your tone of voice and the way you say it.

In Jewish ethical teaching, it is considered wrong not only to slander someone but to say something that will lower someone else’s esteem in the eyes of others. The Hebrew term for this is lashon ha-ra. So, for instance, you wouldn’t say something like this: “I feel sorry for Joe. Being out of work for six months seems to have made his depression a lot worse.” Or “Too bad about Sarah’s breakup. I thought she finally found a guy who could love her despite her weight.” There are, of course, notable exceptions. You can express a negative truth when the person you are speaking to needs the information. So if your friend is thinking of consulting a financial adviser you know to be incompetent, you are free to tell him what you know. Otherwise you are obligated to keep silent.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains that even nonverbal communications can violate this law. “Making a face when someone’s name is mentioned, rolling one’s eyes, winking, or saying sarcastically, ‘So-and-so is very smart’ are all violations of the law,” he says (1).  The same is true when it comes to the use of innuendo—implying something negative without actually saying it.

What if we were to adopt this rule of lashon ha-ra for ourselves? Wouldn’t it help us learn greater control of our tongues and our attitudes? Today make a promise to yourself to refrain from negativity toward others—in both your verbal and nonverbal communications. It may prove frustrating at first, but in the end, doing so will increase your peace and contribute to the peace of others.   More

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 23.

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How Much is Peace Worth?

A sky-diver preparing to jump out of the planeWhat would you do for a quarter of a million dollars? Jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course)? Parade around in a Mickey Mouse suit in hundred-degree weather? Eat a gazillion hotdogs smothered in red-hot chili sauce? Go swimming in Lake Michigan in February?

For that much money most of us would be willing to do any number of unpleasant things, as long as they didn’t involve moral compromise or danger to life and limb. But what are you willing to do today in order to live a life of greater peace?

I ask the question because the priceless peace we seek comes only from following the ways of God, which may not always feel easy. Sometimes they will feel downright unpleasant, at least at first. Here are a few examples. The woman filled with bitterness will need to pray for those who have hurt her. The man in an illicit relationship will need to break it off. The woman who has based her life on money will need to realize that everything she has belongs to God. The man who is too busy to pray will need to make time in his life for God.

So often the way toward peace is counter-intuitive, cutting as it does against our instinctive bent toward self-reliance, self-preservation, and self-aggrandizement. But since when does anything good ever come without effort?

If you desire the precious peace of God, decide today to listen for his voice and then do what he asks. Trust him for the results, and you will not be disappointed.  More

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Where Your Treasure Is…

A treasure chest full of coins and goodiesLately corporations seem intent on squeezing more work out of every person on the job. While technology has led to rapid gains, some of the gains have simply come from loading people with more and more responsibility, making them run like mice on a wheel. If you are an employee, there may not be much you can do about it. But some of us bring this kind of pressure on ourselves by the choices we make.

As the pastor of a large church, Jim Cymbala says that he sometimes sees people in his congregation who are working two or three jobs to get ahead. “They are going to expand their business,” he says, “make money for a rainy day, or buy a rental property here or a little side business there, and their assets will grow even faster. Yes, it means missing church on Sunday and missing time with their kids, but they use the old saying ‘Mama didn’t raise no fool, you know.’ In a little while, they tell me, their schedule will lighten up so they can give more attention to the Word and prayer, their service for the Lord, their marriage, their child-raising responsibility . . . soon, but not yet. At the moment, they have to virtually kill themselves for the almighty dollar.” (1)

Cymbala isn’t faulting those of us who have no choice but to work more than one job. He is only pointing out the importance of priorities. Scripture says, “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6:21). A reasonable paraphrase might go like this: “Wherever your treasure is, there your time and money will also be.”

To seek and find more of God’s peace means we need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves to discover what we really treasure. If we find that our treasure gauge—our measure of what is most valuable in life—is malfunctioning, we have only to turn to God and ask him to help us reorder our priorities.   More

(1) Jim Cymbala, Fresh Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 91.

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Beloved Enemies

I used to think I had no enemies. No one whoTwo fingers made into woman and man puppets with sad faces hated me. No one lying in wait to trip me up. No one with my worst interests at heart. But then I decided to redefine the word enemy. What if, instead of interpreting the word to mean someone who was trying to kill, attack, or take me down, someone who aimed bombs or grenades at me, I also applied it to people who are hard to work with or live with? People who sometimes offend me or who at times drive me crazy by the things they do or don’t do? Not wanting to label them as the Enemy, I started thinking of them as the Beloved Enemy, because often such people are close to my heart.

I imagine that many of those who sin against us most frequently fall into this category. They are husbands, friends, children, coworkers, and members of our churches. These are people we can’t get away from even if we want to. And most of the time we don’t want to because we care for them. Still, because we live in close contact with them, the offenses can pile up, affecting our relationship. This is particularly true when negative behaviors remain frustratingly the same. The husband who keeps those sarcastic remarks coming. The child who continues to act disrespectfully. The coworker who always jumps in to take the credit.

Precisely because such people are beloved, we owe it to them to tell them the truth about how their behavior affects us. And precisely because they are our “enemies,” we have to do our best to treat them as Jesus instructs: doing good to them, even if they aren’t doing good to us.   More

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Jesus in Distressing Disguise

A child pouting in conflict with parentsLet’s face it, children can bring out the best and the worst in us. Before I became a mother, I lived with certain illusions. I thought, for instance, that I was a better person than I am. Cool under pressure, generous, sympathetic, forgiving, someone whose mouth is normally under control. But then came kids, and along with them, unrelenting challenges and too little time and too much to do and buttons being pushed and my not always responding like the good woman I want to be.

At least there is one thing I’ve gotten better at since I’ve become a mother—asking for forgiveness. Having children has made me aware of how much territory God still needs to claim in my heart. I know how much I need his grace. And that is a good thing.

Mother Teresa had a lovely way of talking about difficult people. She called them “Jesus in distressing disguise.” I have found that it helps to use her phrase not just to describe others but at times to describe myself, as well. Whenever I disappoint myself by not acting the way I know I should, it can be easy to become self-condemning. To avoid this trap, I remind myself that Jesus still lives in me despite my many faults.

The next time you stumble, whether with family or friends, ask for forgiveness. And as you do, refuse to wallow in guilt about all your failings. Instead, be merciful to yourself, believing that God will help you. Don’t forget Paul’s counsel to the believers in Rome. Remember that God has given you the same mighty Spirit whose power raised Jesus from the dead. Surely that’s more than enough power to keep you on the path toward peace. More

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Making Peace With the Past

Woman's face with tear-filled eyesIt took guts for the woman to push past the men and through the door of Simon’s house (Luke 7:36-50). She may have recognized a few as clients. But no one was willing to acknowledge her in this more public setting. Inside, only one man turned to look, a smile in his eyes. It was the rabbi from Galilee.

Tears began rolling down her face in a great, purifying stream. Kneeling behind him, she caressed the rabbi’s feet, washing them with her tears. Then, as though she were performing the most sacred of acts, she slowly unwound strands of her coal-black hair, drying his feet and kissing them as she did so. With eyes still welling, she opened the bottle of precious perfume and began pouring it over his feet.

You have probably heard this story many times. But have you ever imagined yourself as that immoral woman? Perhaps it is hard to take on the role of someone who was publicly reviled for her sinful life. But is it so hard to remember the life you led before you surrendered it to Christ? For some, that life was marked by great darkness, by failures and sins and patterns of behavior that alienated us from God.

If that is the case in your life, as it was in mine, don’t let the memory of the past haunt you, overtaking your sense of God’s forgiveness. Søren Kierkegaard got the story exactly right when he said of this woman that “as she wept, she finally forgot what she had wept over at the beginning; the tears of repentance became the tears of adoration”(1).  Today, may our own tears of repentance be transformed into tears of adoration.   More

(1)  Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), quoted in Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 169.

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