Holy Languages

An Amish viewing is a most intimidating event for an outsider, an “English” person, to attend. Family members of the deceased sit in a row, and of course you would expect to speak to them and give your condolences. But facing the family, only a few feet away, sit many more rows of people either closely or not-so-closely related, perhaps neighbors, friends, or other guests who have come to pay their respects.

As a visitor, you greet the family and move down the narrow space between knees, turning and also shaking the hand of each person in the front facing row, greeting every one (silently or otherwise), whether you know them or not.

For anyone new to this, it can look as daunting as running the gauntlet. Or, to use a less violent metaphor, you are stepping onto stage, expected to execute complicated choreography even though you’ve never danced a step in your life. You feel every eye following you. Especially if you are not Amish, because you just don’t fit in the picture. (As, ironically, both of my metaphors are woefully incongruous with any Amish scene.)

We were so obviously out of place in the somber gathering—I had not been home to change, and still wore capris and a red shirt; earrings dangled from holes in my ears, below my short, cut hair.

We held back a moment, both of us feeling timidly reluctant and oh, so conspicuous. The sad twist was that we had come for them, but our own discomfort and fear of doing it all wrong had turned the moment into being all about us.

A kind and gracious Amish gentleman—he was indeed a gentle man—standing at the beginning of the line understood our hesitation and said to us a few words in Pennsylvania Dutch. Then, with a quick smile he gave a simple English translation.

“We are all the same.”

Spoken in both Dutch and English, those words connected us through yet another language, the language that understood discomfort and timidity in unfamiliar surroundings and spoke up to give assurance. We heard the message, saying so much more than five short words: “We are all here together, faced with the passing of a person who has been part of our lives. In that, we are all alike, no matter how we are dressed.”

Those few words were spoken in a native tongue that connected all of us. They turned everything right side up again and transformed our time at the viewing.

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The lesson that evening was a simple scene, a brief encounter. But ever since Pentecost Sunday, I’ve been thinking about the languages we speak. The purpose of language is to connect us. And in the hands of the Spirit of God, the tongues in which we speak become holy languages.

On Pentecost Sunday we read Acts 2, the story of the tongues of fire that blazed evidence of the Spirit of God coming into each believer.

The immediate result? The disciples began speaking in different languages. God’s purpose was that all the many Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration would hear the story of Christ in their own native tongue and could thus understand the good news of the coming of the Kingdom.

The writer of Acts 2 notes that the crowds were amazed as the believers went out and started talking to people, but he doesn’t describe to us how the believers themselves reacted to this gift from the Spirit.

It’s intriguing to imagine those few moments, when they realized what had happened to their minds and tongues. Did they try out these new languages on each other? Could they understand each other? Did they immediately perceive God’s purpose behind this strange miracle and jump up and say, “Let’s get out there and tell them all!” and then rush out and start looking for people to talk to who understood the language they now spoke?

We know only two things: they went out and spoke, and they caused quite a commotion.

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God equips His people for the mission we’ve been given. Language is one of those gifts. Like the believers at Pentecost who, at a crucial time, had opportunity to change history, we have all learned different languages. In a pew on Sunday morning with five other people, I may be sitting next to tongues that can speak at least five different languages, more likely ten or fifteen.

You will be able to communicate with people I cannot—because you know a language I cannot speak, and I may be able to speak in a tongue that is heard by a completely different circle of people.

I do not know the language of football, for example, but I do know the language of grandparents.
I cannot speak the language that surrounds cancer, but I do know the speech of divorced, single, and alone.
I know nothing about music (except whether or not it touches me), but I can chat for hours about travel in Maine.

Leisure interests, job experience, health issues, life situations, relationships—almost everything we have lived—has its own language. The purpose of language is to connect us, and so it is not only the spoken words that we communicate, but also the feelings and the experience behind what is spoken.

If you’ve gone through bankruptcy or loss of a spouse, you know the depth of nuance and feeling behind the words of that language. If you’re a caretaker or a stepparent, you understand the breadth and width of experience spoken by other caretakers or stepparents.

The tongue in which we are adept may not even be words. It may be cooking a meal, knowing when to hug or touch a shoulder, the giving of the perfect gift, painting a scene, or simply showing up as a friend. It may be the ability to put someone at ease in unfamiliar surroundings and bring down barriers between human beings.

If the purpose of language is to connect us, then in the Spirit’s hands every language we speak becomes a holy thing, a bridge built between us and other believers or to those who still need to hear about the goodness of God. Whether we have learned to speak in the tongues of celebrations, sorrows, or sufferings, we have been given a language that the Spirit can use for God’s purposes.

The bridge built with holy language can be a wide and life-changing thing for the man who is finally drawn into a circle of believers because he finds there NASCAR fans just like himself, or for the woman imprisoned by guilt of an abortion, who finally steps into freedom when she meets another who has learned of forgiveness and healing for that very act.

Or it may be a simple, fleeting moment with few words spoken — words that bring down barriers and shower grace.

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Have you thought about the holy language God has given you?

The special language you know might even come out of a past wandering, far away from God. No matter. The Spirit uses our past, our suffering, our stumblings, our joys, our passions—He can use it all. He can turn it into a holy thing, to be used to bring Christ’s Kingdom.

Peter writes to all believers,

But you are not like [those who reject Christ and do not obey God’s word], for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).

That echoes Acts 2:11. The believers in Jerusalem used their new language to talk “about the wonderful things God had done.”

Madeleine L’Engle writes, “And for each one of us there is a special gift, the way in which we may best serve and please the Lord, whose love is so overflowing.*”

I believe for each one of God’s children there is a special language, made holy by the Spirit to build bridges that take us places where we can show others the goodness of God.

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* Walking on Water, WaterBrook Press

When we wonder if it’s worth the effort

Have you ever said it?

“I may as well give it up. I’ve spent years working, praying, waiting, hoping … and nothing has changed.”

Or,

“This really won’t make much of a difference. Why even bother?”

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As a college student, I had a summer job that was funded by a grant. The tasks I was given filled a need, but I didn’t have enough work to fill the hours; almost every day I had to search for something more to do until the clock released me to leave for home. Later in life, I held a job that was often overwhelming simply because there was too much to do in each day. I worked long hours, often nibbling at lunch as I worked at my desk.

I much prefer the second kind of job, even though it’s more stressful. At the second job, I knew that everything I did counted for something.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless (1 Corinthians 15:58 NLT).

It seems a simple statement, but doesn’t this promise inject you with just a few more ounces of energy? Doesn’t it make a difference to know that everything—everything—we do for the Lord is important? We are not just putting in our time, going through the motions of discipleship. Everything we do for Him matters in His Kingdom!

This puts all those “small” acts of obedience in a new light. How can we shrug off as insignificant anything the Spirit asks us to do?

Or how can we abandon hope and give up in discouragement if we’ve been given this promise?

One of Satan’s most effective strategies to derail our discipleship is to convince us that what we are doing has no or very little importance. Or perhaps he whispers other lies to you: “You’re not qualified to do this; someone else could do this better; what you do has had no effect; all your effort has meant nothing. Might as well give it up.”

No! Stand strong and immovable against the lies! If the Spirit is producing fruit in your life, if He moves you to do anything, no matter how small it might seem (remember the cup of cold water?), do not give up, because nothing you do for the Lord is useless.

The hope held in this verse grows even fuller when we look at its context. The verse is often quoted, but we find it in an unexpected context.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul has just written long paragraphs about the promise of the resurrection of our bodies and the certainty that we will live forever. He ends it by saying, “So don’t give up. Stand strong. Whatever we do for the Lord is very important.”

The effects of what we do here on earth will not be limited to this hour, this day, or the dimensions of earthly life. What we do for the Lord has effects that reach into eternity.

So let us not allow discouragement or setbacks or unseen results immobilize us. Paul writes in another letter that we can be certain we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. (Galatians 6:9).

This is our hope—even when tired and discouraged or feeling insignificant and ineffective: Nothing we do for our Lord is ever useless.

May this promise pick us up again and again, to keep us standing strong and immovable.

Loving the old life and losing the new?

Some of the disciples Jesus called “left everything” and followed Him immediately. I’ve often wondered what all they left behind. Families? Good jobs? Positions in the community?

But here’s a new thing to ponder: Think about everything they would have missed if they had declined Jesus’ invitation and said, “No, I just cannot.”

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me (John 12:24-26).”

Here Jesus is explaining the necessity of His death. Like a seed buried, His death would result in an abundant harvest of new life for all of us.

Did you notice that His servants must be where He is? They must follow Him even to the cross! We also must die, and that dying will bury a seed that will produce new life in an abundance we cannot even imagine.

 

Holding on to the old, we miss the new!

There is only one way to find the life that Christ died to give us—the free, vibrant, strong, productive life He promises to His followers. The way to that life is dying. We must give up our old lives to gain the new. Like the disciples who followed Him during His time on earth, we leave our old lives to follow Christ into the new.

There are many ways we do this. We make dozens of choices every day. Will we follow the path of our old selfish ways, or will we walk as a disciple of Jesus? His Spirit speaks to each of us, teaching us; He might be urging you to give up an old attitude or habit; He might be telling me it’s time to move away from a job or a relationship. Will we walk according to the Spirit or are we going to stick to our own ways? Are we willing to let the old life go so that we’re able to grab hold of the new?

Jesus warns that if we are unwilling to let the old die, we will completely miss the new life He has for us.

A sobering thought.

Imagine a fisherman declining Jesus’ invitation and staying home, content with his life as it was. Then he begins to realize, a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, what an opportunity he had turned down when he did not accept the invitation to be in the inner circle of the Son of God!

As long as we hold on to the old, as long as we love the old too much, we are that much in danger of losing the life that God has for us. The giving up of the old must be so total and so complete that Jesus used the word “dying.” It is not only our old lives but also our old selves that must die; they must be declared dead and buried deep.

But like a seed that is buried deep and soon ceases to be exactly the same thing that was put into the ground, this “dying and burying” results in a new life so different, so free, so much larger and more alive and more able to produce a desired product that no one even mourns the seed!

Yes. I am convinced of that. If we can let go of the old to take hold of the new, God’s promise is that we will find a new life so different and so big that we will never regret the dying and burying.

But if we love the old too much, we will lose all certainty of the new.

And there’s the rub. We have a difficult time giving up the old. If we desire to follow Christ, the old that must die might be cherished dreams or pet grudges. It might be false securities we’ve built around ourselves, or character traits that have been our automatic pilot for years. It could be a career we’ve spent years building. We even find it difficult to give up things that are destructive (like overeating or abusive relationships or unforgiveness) because, let’s face it, our old life is our comfort zone. And we do love our comfort zones!

I don’t think Jesus was throwing out words frivolously when he warned about loving the old life. He knows what a grip the old and familiar has on our hearts and minds. Think of Lot’s wife, who was warned to run away from her old life, run as fast as she could and not look back. We know the end of her story.

I have to ask myself: in what ways and at what decision points am I holding on to my old ways and missing out on the new life God has for me?

 

He is faithful!

The thing that trips us up is that the life we cling to in this world, whether good or bad, is known and thus seems much more secure (to our eyes and thinking) than giving it up for what God might give us. Aha! there’s the problem with our human thinking: that word might.

God is faithful! Might is not a word found in His promises. He will do what He says He will do. This promise of finding new life if you’re willing to die to the old is just as certain as all the rest of His promises.

Jesus has already said in a rather alarming way that if we hold on to the old we’re going to completely miss the new He can give us. That in itself is a strong warning to me. Yet He adds one more assurance, something for us to take into our hearts when we are fearful of getting up and leaving the old to follow Christ into the new life: “And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.”

I wondered, for a while, what that “honor” would look like. But such a question is just my human thinking wanting to quantify everything in earthly terms. Instead, when I hear Jesus say this now, I hear Him say, “The Father will do this. Give up the old; bury it and let it die. Dying is the way to find a new life, bigger and more free and more productive than anything you’ve ever dreamed of. Do it! The Father will give that new life to anyone who follows Me.”

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Writing and Speaking the Word

Just a few of my own words today, and these from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together:

But God put this Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others. When people are deeply affected by the Word, they tell it to other people. God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened.  (my emphasis added)

When I read this quote, I saved it in my “writing” files, to read occasionally and remind myself why I write.

Then I realized it applies to all of us who follow Christ together: writer, farmer, salesman, preacher, homemaker, nurse, truck driver, architect, businessman or woman, but above all, Christian. It matters not what we do to make a living; what matters in the journey we travel with others following Christ is that we speak God’s Word to each other.

Psalm 119 says that the Word is a light for our path, it makes us wise, it guides our steps, it revives us when we are low as the dust, it brings encouragement, renews our life, and leads to joy and freedom. Paul says in Ephesians that the Word is the sword of the Spirit, a weapon the Spirit uses to defeat our enemies.

Speak that Word to the Christians who journey beside you. Hand them the sword, offer the bread that revives and encourages, shine the light that shows the way and brings freedom and joy.

“Let it fill your lives”

What’s on your schedule this week? Do you have appointments, tasks, and objectives written on your calendar or stored in that little black box you carry? My spiral-bound planner lies open on my countertop, so that, with a glance, I see all my commitments and plans for the month. Last spring, the daily boxes were crammed so full of reminders that I was forced to also make notes in the margins of the page. (If you follow this blog, you probably noticed a gap of weeks without posts … )

No matter what form of calendar you keep, look at it now. You’ll see days and weeks and months filled with … what?

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. (Colossians 3:16)

Isn’t that a lovely picture? This verse evoked an immediate image; I saw my life as a cup or bowl, with great and satisfying richness being poured into it until it overflowed.

But after I savored the lovely picture, I had to ask some questions.

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What fills my life now?

What fills the little white squares on my calendar? What consumes my minutes and hours, days and weeks? What is it that fills the cup of my life?

Just off the top of my head, I listed some of the things that might dominate our days, fill our lives:

Worry
Discontent
Trying to live up to certain standards, maybe your spouse’s, your peers’, God’s, your own
Thankfulness
Praise and expectation
Television (oops. Does that date me?  Would it be Facebook now?)
A search for possessions, security, health, position, the “right person”
Being the best parent, wife, grandmother, friend, employee
Working to pay bills and support a family
Working to building a secure future

This is just a beginning, and I’m not evaluating the rightness or wrongness of any of these things. I’m just trying to take an honest look at our days and ask… What are the things that rule our lives, our thoughts, our hopes and dreams?  

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So what, then, is the richness of the message about Christ?

How would you answer that question? What richness does the message of Christ pour into your life? Again, this list is just meant to prime your (and my) thought process:

No matter what is going on around me, Christ says He overcomes the world.
Christ’s Spirit works in me, empowers me, changes me, gives me a new life.
Christ gave me a clean slate before God.
The message about Christ is that He came because of God’s great love for this world.
God’s love is unfailing; He cares about the details of my life.
Christ makes available to me the power that raised Him from the dead.
The Lord is my Shepherd. I will have everything I need.
By His divine power, God has given us everything we need to live a godly life.
My life is in Christ, belonging to a kingdom beyond this world, going on eternally…

How might my week change if it is focused on these messages rather than on the first list above?

I am not advocating running off to our own little sanctuary and spending our days pondering Scripture rather than fulfilling the roles we’ve chosen in life. As long as we’re on this earth, we’ll need to tend to the business of living.

But I am asking … on what are we building our lives? To what do we give our thoughts, our energy, and our emotions? Are the hours of my day controlled by some of those things in the first list, or is everything in my life—responsibilities, happy times, sad times, troubles and triumphs—met and lived in the light of the messages that Christ brought to the world? Do Christ and His message saturate and sustain our every breath?

Even the most noble of human aspirations and efforts fall short; there are always disappointments, failings, and, eventually, everything in that first list will be gone. Even our thankfulness and praise is limited in our humanity. The second list is eternal. Is our focus—the light that leads us along the path and directs our choices and dictates what and how we think—is it the first list or the second?

We all know the story Jesus told about the wise man and the foolish man, one building upon a rock, the other on sand. Anyone who does not live according to His words, Jesus said, was like someone building a house on sand; and when storms come, the house will quickly be washed away.

Storms can quickly wash away all those things that fill up our calendar, even the best of the list. But building our houses firmly on the message of Christ is like building on bedrock; the house will never collapse, no matter what beats against it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

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And how do I fill my life with the richness of His message?

I want the richness poured into my life. I want to live on solid rock. I want security that will not disappear or be taken away. HOW does that happen?

Did you notice that Paul says, Let the message about Christ …”?  We have to open the door, open ourselves to Christ’s message, invite the Spirit to start filling…

There are more Scriptures that point the way, but I find it interesting that Paul immediately gives us two concrete things we can do: Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom He gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. (v.16)

I’d like to focus on his first statement.

Isn’t it interesting that the very first thing Paul advises is to teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom God gives? I repeat my plea from a previous post: Whatever gift God has given you for encouraging brothers and sisters – use it! The Spirit works through all of us in different ways, at different times, and in relationship to different people.

We all have some part in filling each other’s lives with the richness of Christ and His message!

The gift, the counsel, and the wisdom God has given you will help complete that lovely picture of Christ’s richness pouring into my life as I seek to build my house on the Rock.