Friday, March 30, 2012

Who's Chiseling Jesus?

            His art, on that occasion was not the only portrayal of Christ at the last supper. However, Leonardo’s Last Supper wins acclaim as the first depiction to show the disciples displaying real emotions. The scene records his interpretation of the disciples’ reactions to Jesus’ announcement that one of the twelve would betray him. Their collective countenances reflect questions, appall, and denial. 

            Over the years, the painting gradually deteriorated as paint flaked and dirt and grime settled upon it. Further damage occurred when a construction worker stood in the room behind the painted wall. Not quite aware of his exact location in the convent, he proceeded to open up a wall for a doorway. He chiseled out the opening about mid-center of the wall, pushed plaster aside, and when he walked through his roughhewn doorway, he discovered he had ripped out the bottom portion of the painting that showed Jesus’ feet beneath the table.

            In Leonardo’s Last Supper, the disciples focus on the central figure of Jesus, very fitting. The apostle Paul wrote about that meal: “The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23).

            Some Christians eat this “remembrance” supper each Sunday, while others do so at regular intervals or gatherings such as funerals and weddings. Each time Jesus meets believers at the table, the mutual time together offers opportunities for believers to look to the past, to the future and inward.

            Looking back one might choose to remember the everyday Jesus, who brushed tears away with his fingertips, nurtured whole villages, or chucked children under their chins and held them in his lap. In addition, one might remember his ultimate sacrifice, his display of forgiveness to those who harmed him, and his call for his followers to forgive as he did.

            Looking forward one might choose to pray for more workers as Jesus instructed, or pray for revival of goodness and honoring of God among humankind. Pray the movement forward that Jesus’ loving kindness could invade homes, churches, communities, governments, workplaces, and schools, so peace remains prevalent. Pray a better world forward where purity and peace prevails. Pray that Jesus becomes the standard for imitation not Hollywood.  

            Finally, during the meal with Jesus, look inward for traces of betrayal of the best friend you could ever have. Search to find out if Jesus’ example is the standard for your personal behavior. Explore your thought life. Does pride reign there, or humility, considering others before self? 

            Like the construction worker, we can chisel away at the image of Christ in us, until we no longer resemble our Savior. Consider this: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Revelations 3:20). Written to believers, not unbelievers, what’s the key to answering his knock on our doors? From relationship and feeding on the Holy Bible, know his voice, his prompts, his way, and always leave the door unlatched for easy entrance.

            Happy Palm Sunday.

            Hunger for Humility (12): “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ever Ashamed?

In the movie “Sweet Home Alabama,” the female lead Melanie Smooter (Reese Witherspoon) from Alabama, has a successful career in New York as a fashion designer, however, she changed her name to Melanie Carmichael. As the movie progresses, it’s obvious she’s ashamed of her birth state, since her move to the mental state of hoity-toity. Plenty of fictional stories and true stories stem from the theme of embarrassment because of one’s heritage, family, or education level.

            This week, we’re considering the fifth rule for humble living, written by Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667). In his words, “Never be ashamed of thy birth, or thy parents, or thy trade, or thy present employment, for the meanness or poverty of any of them.” Taylor gave one example of a monarch who kept a reminder of his humble beginnings: Primislaus, the first king of Bohemia, kept his country-shoes always by him, to remember his humble beginnings.

            The setting in Matthew 18 and Luke 9, finds the disciples of Jesus, adult men, arguing about who will be the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. In addition, in Mark 10, the disciples James and John asked for positions of power, to sit on the right hand and left hand of Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to be advisors to God as we so often do.

            Jesus provided the perfect application lesson for his disciples when he called a child into their midst. His kingdom was out of this world, not like the hierarchies of that day or ours. His would be an upside-down kingdom, where those who had child-like spirits would reign -- no ruling over subjects, everyone equal in service to each other. Background or status simply wouldn’t matter.

            Jesus was a master teacher when using visual aids. Among a group of hearty, enthusiastic, hardworking men, Jesus called attention to a child to aid their understanding. This became a multi-layered teaching moment, but today, we’ll consider one aspect: the mindset of a young child, who is content to be alive. A child doesn’t care where they were born or if his parents are uneducated, poor, or unattractive. The little one hasn’t rubbed elbows with the world long enough to become tainted by false values.

            A child remains content to fulfill childhood destiny, to live, learn, and thrive where they are. They do not seek acclaim. They aren’t hiding their heritage or parentage. They have no occupation other than to abide and do what children do. Unencumbered by supposed symbols of success (money, power, rank), they rely upon their caretakers and for a few short years they naturally live out humility. Still lowly in status, God stays near. The kingdom is near to them for the lowliest is the closest to God.

            Fix in your mind the picture of a ladder, with humility representing the bottom rung and pride and self-exaltation representing the highest rung. Imagine a young boy who starts out at the lowest rung, humble by nature of his age and innocence. However as the world influences that child, he begins to see that birthright, education, and rank can move him up the ladder, and he begins to want to look good in the eyes of his fellowman. At some point in that young man’s life, he may see that Jesus calls him to climb down the ladder, back down to the lowest rung.

            While our imaginary boy may attain rank and a higher education and acquire wealth, he finds true strength in not calling attention to them. His battle to stay on the lowest rung, being the least in the kingdom of God, serving instead of being served will be a lifelong calling, a lifelong struggle. Climbing down, after achieving much in life, will be difficult but well worth the many efforts. Why? Because peace, sleep, and wisdom come as gifts to those who embrace God’s kingdom morals.

               In a parable about a wedding guest, Jesus advised the guest to sit in the lowliest seat because if the guest chose the best seat in the house a person of higher rank might come in and the host would ask the guest to move to a lowlier place. However, if the guest chose a lowly seat to begin with, he wouldn’t have to move unless the host decided to honor the guest with a better seat.

            As you go about during Lenten, remember: never be ashamed of your family and do nothing to shame your family. Keep your feet anchored on that lower rung.

            Hunger for Humility (12): For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:11)

            Cathy Messecar welcomes comments at            

Friday, March 16, 2012

Happy to go Unnoticed

Have you ever carried a Kazoo with you during the Christmas holidays? When you passed the red kettle collections, did you pull that metal horn out of your pocket and play a few blasts to draw notice as you dropped in your donation? Of course, you haven’t. In my musings this week, I began to wonder more and more about Jesus’ teaching about not drawing attention when one gives to the needy – that no one should “announce it with trumpets” (Matthew 6:2).

            In Matthew chapter six, verses 2-18, Jesus points out three “acts of righteousness,” giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. He then defines how a humble person gives, prays, and fasts and how a hypocrite shows off his giving, praying, and fasting “to be seen by men.” The word hypocrite comes from the Greek word “hypokrisis" and means “acting on the stage, pretense." The actors wore masks and pretended to be something they were not in real life.

            In the writings of Jewish history, it doesn’t appear that any such habit of horn blowing before giving to the poor existed. The collection box in the temple had a complicated opening above twists and turns below, discouraging a thief reaching in and becoming charitable to self. Because of the twists and turns, the opening was called a “trumpet,” leaving some Bible scholars to believe Jesus referred to the way a person might toss in their coins, making a loud rattle, noticeable to others.

            Other scholars said the word “trumpet” Jesus used could mean “jingle.” Making the coins in hand or bag or pocket, clank against each other, allowing others to know one was about to let loose of loose change. However, there was another ancient practice that Bible intellectuals think might be the cause of Jesus’ remarks.

            Different sects of persons have taken vows of poverty for hundreds of years, and the various groups have adopted different ways of embracing their poverty. Some of the sects perform certain dances or whirls, and they have become known as whirling dervishes. Others took their vow of poverty to learn humility, and they carried a horn or trumpet so that when someone gave money to them (which they in turn gave to the poor), they could blow the trumpet giving attention to the giver, not the receiver.

            Whatever Jesus’ intention or thinking as he taught humble giving, his warning remains clear: do not give so that others may see. I remember an event where a group performed, and afterwards a woman got up in front of the group, and waved a one hundred dollar bill and said she was giving that to the performers that day. She said they were wonderful and challenged others to match her gift.

            Young, not especially spiritual, plus I didn’t have one hundred to give—even with all those strikes against me, I was highly embarrassed by her antics. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that she only wanted attention for giving her big bill. I still find myself turning a shade of pink when thinking about the unease of the crowd after her announcement.

            Okay, I know this reading audience is not the type to carry Kazoos or wave one hundred dollar bills around to announce giving.  No doubt, we can all improve our secret giving. Here are some hints as to how it looks in everyday life:

            In your home, replace the toilet tissue on the holder, even if it’s not your usual duty (who does this in your household?). Do another person’s chores, even if it’s not your task to take out the trash, cook the supper, or rake the yard. After sitting for a family photo and looking at proofs, choose the one where everyone else looks the best; don’t think about how you look.

            Elaboration and pomp mix about as well with secret giving as water and oil. Giving is not a display for self, it is not a flourish to gain attention, and it is does not cause a big ballyhoo over personal charity.

            Remember as we seek to live humbly that the modest person is happy to go unnoticed.

            Hunger for Humility (11): “Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge” (Psalm 119:54).

            Cathy Messecar welcomes comments at

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Secret Giving

How many good deeds do you perform in secret and then allow them no voice, notice, or public arena? In conversations with friends, we easily mention our schedules, what we’ve done or plan to do, even if we don’t intentionally spotlight kindnesses we’ve done for others. Today, we consider Jeremy Taylor’s (1613-1667) fourth rule for living humbly. You’ve probably guessed by now that it encourages doing kind deeds in secret.

            Rule number four, again in the language of Taylor’s day, “Love to be concealed and little esteemed; be content to want praise, never being troubled when thou art slighted or undervalued.” I first became aware of Jeremy Taylor’s writings in Randy Harris’ book, “Soul Work: Confessions of a Part-Time Monk.” In it, Harris says about Taylor’s fourth rule for living humbly: “This doing things in secrecy is one of the best ways to check our motives.”

            In a weekly Bible class, my co-teacher and I staged application stories for four- and five-year-olds, encouraging them to take the Bible lesson out of the church building and put them to practice in their lives. One night, we studied about giving in secret. The skit we wrote and acted out centered around two teenage boys mowing and cleaning a widow’s yard before her return home from a hospital stay. As our students watched, Ms. Doris and I transformed into teenagers: we donned our baseball caps, pushed an imaginary lawn mower, made mower sounds, and raked an imaginary yard.

            In our imaginary secret-giving scene, the two “clean-up boys” hurried to finish their job because they didn’t want any praise or thank you from people. This was to be a hush-hush act of kindness. They only wanted God to know.

            Admittedly, secret acts of giving may be a bit more difficult to accomplish. A few people might know if you are a blood donor, but the recipient doesn’t ever meet the donor who gave the “gift of life.” The family home remains a prime place to give secretly: clean dust from under the bed, rake debris from gutters, keep rolls of toilet tissue on dispensers, or match socks for a family who boasts 14 feet. Giving without trumpeting the deed to all becomes secret giving.

            Giving through a third person is another avenue for accomplishing an unseen kindness. Special Bank accounts offer a way to give in secret to people who have suffered tragedies and incurred unexpected medical or funeral expenses.

            This past holiday season many secret Santas paid off toy lay-aways, giving families flexibility in tight budgets. Making sure that more than popcorn graces the table of the hungry expresses God’s love. When one accomplishes secret giving, the giver avoids the temptation to give a self-pat on the back or listen for applause.

            A young boy named Ben came to me the following Wednesday night after our secret giving class, and in five-year-old innocence reported, “Teacher, one day in school there was paper on the floor. I didn’t even drop it there, and I picked it up and put it in the trash. Nobody saw me, and I didn’t tell my school teacher.”  Oh, how I hugged Ben! He listened. He learned. He obeyed.

            Secret giving is very much worth the extra effort because it helps cleanse a spirit of selfishness and reminds one to honor God. After all, God humbly gives numerous gifts to you each day without a smidgen of fanfare.

            Hunger for Humility (10): “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven . . . your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).


Friday, March 02, 2012

I'm sorry

Two acquaintances apologized to me for words they had misspoken. Do you know how I felt about those two women after their apologies? I labeled them courageous and obedient. Their “word” infractions were what I would categorize as minor, and yet, they saw the need to make corrections. Their consciences indicted them and they immediately made sure to ask me to strike their words from my memory. One woman was 88 and apologized by phone, and the other woman was also a senior citizen and apologized in person.  

            During the writing of this series of newspaper articles on humility, a collection of 52 by the end of 2012, I am seeing and hearing many acts of humility. I recognize them more readily now. The Lord has also pried open my eyes to my own prideful ways: when I speak, what I assume about people, and my response in hostile or sensitive situations. With his holy help, I’m learning that my pride often keeps me from immediately asking one I’ve offended for forgiveness. I long to obey the minute God nudges me and reminds me of my sin.

            I’ve learned that an apology is most effective when I also confess my specific sin: “I’m sorry I snapped at you. My response to you was wrong.” Pride keeps one from saying, “I shouldn’t have behaved like that. Forgive me, please?”—words that bring us back into relationship with God and man. I can imagine the more mature Adam and Eve, kneeling, faces upturned to God, shedding tears and saying, “We’re sorry.” Perhaps Sarah later told God, “I’m sorry for ignoring your promise and trying to fix our infertility through an Egyptian maiden.” If one is in tune with the humility of God, whenever realization of sin takes place, confession, repentance, and seeking forgiveness also happens.

            Working on spiritual disciplines remains difficult, no easier than crawling out of a warm bed on a cold morning to exercise the body. A lazy Christian easily drifts in life, hops on an inner tube of passivity, and floats along without purposefully training his or her heart to stay in tune with God’s Spirit. Our ancient brother Paul struggled with the same temptations we do, but he took a proactive approach to outwit sin. The Amplified Version and The Message say in 1 Corinthians 9:27:

But [like a boxer] I buffet my body [handle it roughly, discipline it by hardships] and subdue it, for fear that after proclaiming to others the Gospel and things pertaining to it, I myself should become unfit [not stand the test, be unapproved and rejected as a counterfeit].

I don't know about you, but I'm running hard for the finish line. I'm giving it everything I've got. No sloppy living for me! I'm staying alert and in top condition. I'm not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.


            In my home congregation, our 2012 congregational theme is Philippians 4:8-9. There, Paul further instructs his fellow disciples in a personal disciplining method by thinking excellent and praiseworthy thoughts: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable.

            When God nudges you, reminding of a wrongdoing, learn to say, “I’m sorry. Forgive me, please.” It is a humble and truthful thing to say. It is a noble thing to say. It is right to say. It is a pure way of expressing regret and asking for forgiveness.

            It is lovely.

            It is admirable.

            Hunger for Humility (9): “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).


Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Cradle of God's Arms

 “God is coming for a visit. Get ready” -- essentially, that’s what Moses told the Israelites when they finally left Egyptian slavery. With over 400 years of oppression in their backpacks, God instructed Moses to prepare the Israelites for a visit from him.  

            Holy God set the standard for the meeting: the people were to wash their clothes and married couples were to abstain from sexual relations. They were not to touch the mountain or go near it. Three days after their preparations, God came to earth at the site of Mount Sinai. The Israelite’s witnessed a “violently” trembling mountain with dense clouds hovering, lightning strikes, and roaring thunder. Smoke billowed “up from it like smoke from a furnace” (Exodus 19:18). If that weren’t enough, a trumpet sound “grew louder and louder.” I imagine humility grew in great measure as the Israelites met God under those circumstances. 

            Moses later wrote, “Everyone in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). The writer of Hebrews recorded, “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear’” (Hebrews 12:21). For us, the picture becomes clearer. When God displays even a portion of his power, all people instinctively recognize their smallness.  

            The Israelites already had primer lessons about God’s power: they had witnessed the land-destructive, economic disastrous plagues of Egypt. They had walked on a dry seabed with walls of water heaped up on each side. God had already provided three months of provisions for their company of over a million people. Future teachings also awaited them when God would care for them over forty years: their shoes or clothing would not wear, they would eat daily bread, and they would drink water in a wasteland -- all from God Almighty’s tap.

            Soon after the fiery power of God displayed on the mountain, God commissioned and equipped workers to build a mobile meeting place, a symbol of his steady presence among them. Because they would travel for many years before inheriting a permanent land, a movable tent would become a meeting place for God and man. Gifted artisans would construct the tent and furnishings of worship.

            One furnishing, the Ark of the Covenant measured 4 x 3 x 3 footage, still and small compared to a quaking mountain. The box’s lid, the atonement covering, had two cherubim with wings stretching over its length. God told Moses, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites” (Exodus 25:22). A smoldering mountain or a 4 x 3 x 3 meeting place for one-to-one contact present a marvelous contrast. At the mercy seat, God accommodated the smallness of man. He harnessed his glory.   

            For hundreds of future years, God would meet Israel’s leaders in a less terrifying and public way at the mercy seat. Through the less intimidating meeting place, all-powerful God simply gave another brush stroke to his portrait. My small mind cannot comprehend all of God, but he ably assists those who long to know him. Much later at the right time in history, God sent his servant, Jesus.  Immanuel, meaning God with us, Jesus furthered our understanding of mercy. He became the altar, the atoning sacrifice, and the mercy seat, and most of all, he showed us that God is very approachable.

            The prophet Isaiah whetted Israel’s appetite for Jesus with this description: “Like a shepherd he will tend his flock, in his arm he will gather the lambs and carry them in his bosom” (40:11).

            This week, imagine yourself awaking with the rest of the Israelites to that smoldering mountain and the deafening trumpet blasts. After meditating upon God’s power and your probable response to that situation, think about the cradle of God’s arms around you, tending your every need. Both displays represent God’s holiness and his ability to take care of his dear children. Our casting every worry into his capable hands remains a key to becoming humble.

            Hunger for Humility (8): “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).