Friday, May 8, 2015

Think about this: What is Commendable?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

This verse is the only time in the New Testament that the word "commendable" appears in the original Greek. The direct translation is "good saying," or good report. I had to look it up in my Greek reference book, because I wasn't sure how it was different from the word "honorable" (which I wrote about a few days ago).

So, good report... As a teacher, I get this. I've learned how important it is to acknowledge good behavior or exceptional work. It isn't enough to just pat a student on the hand and say, "Good job!" If I just wrote that on everyone's report cards, with no additional feedback, the compliment would eventually lose its effect, and no one would believe that I even cared. It would become hollow and meaningless. But, if I observe something special in a student's work - their persistence, encouraging improvement, creative effort, impressive initiative - I should make a point of specifically commending that student for that thing. And I should be quicker and more effortless in looking for things to commend, rather than complain or criticize.

I think this part of the verse is really important for us, especially when we are tempted to be pessimistic and cynical about the world we live in. It's easy to watch the news or read a newspaper and believe that there is nothing good in the world anymore. Some days I feel the weight of it all - the Curse, the brokenness, the pain, the evil - and it quickly throws a dark shadow over everything positive. But I need to seek out what is commendable, and highlight it so that my focus is drawn to it.

Think about the good Samaritan stories in your community, the nonprofit organizations that exist to make the world a better place, the couple that adopts a baby with special needs, the anonymous gifts that seem to come to people when they need it most. Even the small things, like the stranger who holds the door open for me, or spontaneously decides to buy your coffee for you. Sometimes commendable things are hidden - in fact, I think some of the most commendable things are hidden, because they are done out of the goodness of people's hearts, with no ulterior motive for praise or attention. But they are worth looking for and taking notice of. All of these things - big and small, center stage and behind the scenes - remind us that there is still good in the world. Love and kindness are still alive and powerful. And this brings hope and restores faith.

The Scripture tells us that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17). So anything good we witness should point us back to God, knowing that without him, there is nothing good in any of us. This is where my thoughts once again translate into praise - God is so good to me! His love is steadfast, his kindness is immeasurable, his grace is amazing, his mercy is great, his compassion is new every morning, his faithfulness endures to all generations. To God be the glory, for great things he has done!

Whatever is commendable... think about these things. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Think about this: What is Lovely?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

It's May in North Carolina, so it is very easy to find lovely things to think about: azaleas, daisies, peonies, and everything robed in a bright, fresh spring green!

We also have a lot of rain - whether it's a slow drip and drizzle, or a stormy downpour with wind and thunder. I don't like rainy days, and I'm tempted to look with a frown and a sigh at the mucky mud that will stick to my wheels, and call it ugly. But even the mud is lovely, because it will become fertile soil for the flowers and trees; and the rain is lovely, because it makes the grass and leaves so lush and green.

And as I think about these things, I realize that this part of the verse isn't about being naive or ignoring pain and suffering, it's not about always focusing on the happy and fuzzy things in life, but knowing that beauty emerges and is made more beautiful through the things that we do not call "lovely." Even our lives may look like a mess, but the Lord is so gracious, and he makes broken things beautiful. "He has made everything beautiful in its time..." (Ecc. 3:11)

Then I thought of the old Twila Paris song, "How Beautiful", and how the crucifixion of Jesus could not be called "lovely," or wonderful, or precious, or good - except to those of us who know we are redeemed through his sacrifice - "without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb. 9:22) and "by his wounds we are healed" (Is. 43:5). Hosanna, and Hallelujah! And so, the most lovely praise and worship pours forth from this revelation. Another song comes to my mind - "Jesus, You're Beautiful," by Cece Winans.

This praise in my heart compels me to action - to tell others about Jesus and the hope and joy and life he brings. And I find that this is something else that the Bible calls lovely: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'" (Is. 52:7)

Our God reigns! What a lovely truth to think about when we are going through the storms of life and are tempted to despair.

Whatever is lovely... think about these things.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Think about this: What is Pure?

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8, ESV

I've been trying to think this week about what is pure, so last night I made a cup of "Pure Camomile" tea to relax and inspire me... On the package, it says it uses "'only 100% pure camomile blossoms," and since Twinings has been a faithful companion of mine for many years, I believed it. I trust that the tea I brew from this bag will be full of one thing - camomile - with no additives or artificial flavoring. And it got me thinking...

Scientifically speaking, there are chemical compounds that are pure, such as salt, water, and sugar. But these compounds can be broken down even further to their purest state. All the chemical elements we know of are pure, because they are in their most basic form - tin, sulfur, oxygen, and gold... 

In the Old Testament, a word that is most frequently paired with the word "pure" is "gold," and this phrase - "pure gold" - is most often used to describe the temple of God, and more particularly, the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God rested. Pure gold became a way for people to understand the character of God himself - completely pure and glorious. And in realizing that purity, people were hesitant and even fearful to stand in his presence. By definition, a pure thing is completely free of anything impure... and we, who are all born into sin and are by nature objects of wrath, are grossly impure. Because of this, we cannot come into contact with the purity, perfection, and righteousness of God. Thus, eternal separation.

But God loves us and longs for reconciliation. That is why he sent Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for our sin. "...though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow..." (Isaiah 1:18) And all we have to do to receive it is admit our need for it: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [impurities]" (1 John 1:9). 

Jesus calls us blessed if we are pure in heart, and promises that we will see God (Matthew 5:8), and it's no wonder, because the only way any of us become pure in heart is by trusting in Him. 

And we are called to keep our hearts pure by living according to the Word of God (Psalm 119:9) and not lifting our souls to any other god (Psalm 24:4) - to be completely and totally given to Him. 

Purification is a process of cleaning and refining, removing what isn't true and what doesn't belong. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, once we have been rescued out of the bondage of sin. He spends the rest of our life on earth purifying us... making us more and more truly who we were created to be... burning and chiseling and threshing and sifting out every grain of us that isn't true to the image of God - our original identity, redeemed in Christ Jesus. 

I think John the Baptist understood the necessity of this process, when he declared: "He must increase, but I must decrease." Sometimes it is painful and difficult to decrease. But as I surrender more and more of my old, wretched, sinful self to God, he is able to refine me and cleanse me, until he becomes the Element that makes up my pure identity. Oh Lord, please get rid of everything in me that is not of you, and replace it with evermore of you.

Whatever is pure... think about these things.