When you get to the swings
Early childhood memories, before the age of 6, are generally few and vague. The ones you do have tend to be dreamlike - the clarity of the details just out of your mind’s reach.
I have very few vivid memories of my early years. I don’t recall any major events; significant or traumatic. My memories are more to do with facts I have been told: ‘You were born here. We moved there when you were three. You cried for the first 2 weeks of first grade’ etc. Memories reliant on the recollections of my parents.
But on the whole, my early childhood pictures would have contained a generic stick figure family with smiley faces, a house with smoke coming out of its chimney and a big yellow sun, also with smiley face.
There is one memory, however, that has stuck in my mind and it all has to do with my maternal grandmother.
She was known to everyone as Suki, but her real name was Judith Susannah. She loved the Lord. I loved her. Despite the wide multi-generational gap between us, she was open-minded, genuinely interested in others and full of fun and laughs. I treasure the Godly input and involvement she had in my life, well into my adult years.
When I was 6 years old, I remember visiting her and just behind her house was a park. We could access the park through a gate from her property. Excitedly, my younger sister and I would rush to the swings, slides and merry-go-round. But we always started at the swings. On this occasion, there was only one swing as the other was broken. Within seconds, the two of us were squabbling and arguing as to who would get to swing first.
My grandmother, in her wisdom and love for us, looked at us both, took our hands and silently marched us back to her house. She sat us down at her kitchen table and instructed us gently in Godly counsel, in looking to the interests of others and pleasing God.
I have no recollection of her actual words, but the truth of what she said and her heart behind it so pierced my heart, that I remember tears rolling down my cheeks and me committing to letting my sister swing first.
We walked back to the swings, my resolve of kindness in place. When we reached the swings, my sister rushed to jump on, obviously delighted to be first! My gran noticed my internal struggle and I remember her kneeling down before me and reminding me of what we had spoken about minutes earlier in her kitchen.
I then said to her, ‘But Granny, when you get to the swings, it doesn’t work like that.’
The actions that follow words are not always as easy as the words.
That life lesson reality has stuck with me.
Well into the first week of each new year, and throughout the year, this truth has become a reality. By the middle of the year it is a glaring reality.
Resolutions, so easily and enthusiastically made, often don’t reach their full potential. Words are easy. Intentions are easily stated. Follow through, not so much.
‘This year I am going to read through the entire Bible.’ (Well perhaps reading Genesis, Psalms and Matthew is a good achievement.)
‘I need to work on my prayer life. I will start writing my prayers down.’ (This one often does not get beyond the purchase of a really pretty notebook.)
‘I am going to be way more organised.’ (The calendar hangs on the noticeboard with empty blocks – well, at least you know what the date is today.)
‘I am going to exercise more.’ (Does thinking about doing it and signing a gym contract qualify?)
‘I will only speak kind words that build others up’ (Do others really have to be so irritating and insensitive? No, biting your tongue does not count.)
I realise that I am not alone, I am in good company.
Orpah, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, stood with Ruth and promised, with tears in their eyes, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.' Four verses later, Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye and returned home.
The Israelites, in the desert, had witnessed and experienced God’s care and guidance in miraculous ways, but when Moses was out of sight for too long, they reneged on their commitment to Yahweh and asked Aaron to build a golden calf for them to worship.
Their words praised the God but their actions worshipped a god.
Jesus’ disciples agreed to watch and pray with Him ahead of His impending arrest and crucifixion when He was in Gethsemane, His soul troubled and sorrowful. Yet when He returned to his disciples, they were fast asleep. And He said to them, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour?'
And then Jesus utters those words which we can all identify with, ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
Peter, Christ’s ardent supporter, says emphatically, ‘Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away. ‘Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!’ (All the disciples said the same!)
Peter’s commitment was genuine and passionate. Yet hours later he is denying Christ and all the disciples, except John, are deserting Him.
Words and intent are easy.
Follow through and action are hard and costly.
So, as believers, called to follow Christ and to obey God and His word, what is the secret to following through on our desire to please God and obey Him beyond our words?
What makes the difference?
I think Abraham, Rahab, Ruth and Peter give us some instructive clues.
Abraham was well schooled in experiencing God as Jehovah Jireh, the provider. When God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the son of promise, Isaac, on an altar, he did not question or delay, but got up and went ahead, in bold confidence.
Rahab, a prostitute, followed through on her commitment to Joshua and Caleb, complete strangers and the enemy, even though it could have cost her her life due to treason if she was found out. Her commitment was based on what she had seen and heard and believed about what Israel’s God had done: ‘For the LORD your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.' Fearing God rather than man was worth the risk.
Ruth, a Moabitess, had come to hear of and believe in Naomi’s God. She was prepared to leave all behind and to follow this God because of her commitment to Naomi. When Orpah left to return home, Ruth clung to Naomi. Her follow through was costly, but she had met Naomi’s God and He was worth the cost. In her devotion to God and sacrificial decision, she became part of the lineage of Christ.
Peter, after seeing Jesus walking on the water, impulsively jumped out the boat to go to Jesus because he knew this to be the Son of the Living God. It was when he took his eyes off Jesus and became afraid due to the wind and the waves, that he started sinking. While his eyes were fixed on Jesus, he could follow through.
The secret to our actions following our words is knowing God, our provider, acknowledging Him as God of all the heavens and the earth, submitting to Him in simple trust, fixing our eyes on Jesus, sitting at His feet and loving Him as personal Saviour and friend.
Follow through may be costly and it may be hard, but the God behind our
words is way bigger than our words. He is worthy and He is worth it.
Luke records that as Jesus was heading down to Jerusalem to be crucified, several disciples said ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ When Jesus challenged them to do just that the one said 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.' And Jesus said to him, 'Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.'
Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.' (Luke 9:59-62)
Jonathan Edwards, before gaining his reputation as a great Theologian and Pastor, was a young man who earnestly desired to keep his mind and duty on God. To do so, he drew up a list of 70 resolutions at the age of 19.
‘He needed both a place to stand and a compass for some direction. So he took to writing. He kept a diary and he penned some guidelines, which he came to call his “Resolutions.” These resolutions would supply both that place for him to stand and a compass to guide him as he made his way.’ [Stephen Nichols]
Before Jonathan Edwards even penned his first resolution, aware of his weakness of will, he wrote the following preface: ‘Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake. Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.’
Without the mind-set of Edwards' preface, his resolutions would merely have been a motivational list requiring determination to better oneself.
(Note resolution #10: ‘Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.’)
He was resolved to live a life that counted for eternity, not to just live his best life now.
‘Edwards’ resolutions do what all the self-help and ‘how-to’ books can’t. They accomplish what these others can’t accomplish because, from start to finish, they are entirely different from the books crowding out the self-help and how-to shelves of bookstores.’ [Stephen Nichols]
Jonathan Edwards started and ended his resolutions focused not on self-improvement and self-actualisation, but on the glory of God.
He understood and embraced Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:39: ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’
Following Christ is not about academic assent or lip service. A true theology of God is practical, not merely theoretical.
That is why the words of Jesus’ brother, James, are so significant. James, who had heard the words of Jesus growing up but had ignored him as the Living Word, said: ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.’ (James 1:22-24)
That is why we look to Jesus, who did not turn back when he faced the cross. His commitment, made before the foundation of the world, to humble himself and come to earth to die on the cross was a fate accomplished. He did so because He loved us and came to seek and save those who are lost.
Our follow through comes from our commitment to following Christ.
That was Paul’s only commitment and focus in Philippians 3:13-14: 'But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.'
So when we get to the swings, and the follow through is costly and involves denying ourselves and taking up our cross, consider Christ and hold onto the following;
‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.’ (Hebrews 12:1-4)
In a letter to Deborah Hatheway, a teenage girl who asked Jonathan Edwards for advice on living the Christian life, he concluded his letter with these words: ‘In all your course, walk with God and follow Christ as a little, poor, helpless child, taking hold of Christ’s hand, keeping your eye on the mark of the wounds on his hand and side.’
That is what makes the difference when you get to the swings.