RESPONSIBILITY

For each will have to bear his own load.  Galatians 6:5

As they were discussing unanswered prayer, one of the group members added that he and many of his friends had spent years praying for another one of their friends.  They had watched helplessly as their friend vacillated in his spiritual life, up and down, hot and cold.  In the end, he broke fellowship with them all and left to pursue his own aspirations.

Watching our friend quietly speak of his disappointment, the weight he carried was obvious.  He went on to say that he often wondered what more they could have done and why God hadn’t intervened when so many were trusting him for an answer.

This wasn’t a time for a pat memory verse.  “All things work together for good” wouldn’t suffice for such a deep wound.  Several things began to emerge from the group.  Someone said, “You aren’t responsible for the decisions someone else makes.”  Another group member said, “God doesn’t force his will on us, and he allows us to do as we please.”  Then someone submitted, “We can’t expect ourselves to have known in earlier years what we know now.”  Finally, “God is the God of the past as well as the present and can walk with you through that time to bring healing and understanding.”

It appeared that perhaps God was also in the dock.  Where had he been when he was most needed?  Additional thoughts began to pour forth.  Moses went to Pharaoh several times asking that he let God’s people go.  Initially, Pharaoh agreed but later changed his mind and hardened his heart.  The Scripture then states that, after repeated rejections, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27, 10).  Pharaoh had an opportunity to listen to God and suffer little damage to his throne and country, but his recurring disregard finally resulted in his inability to choose rightly.  He lost everything.

How can we presume to know what God is working in any man’s heart?  And because we see no outward evidence of God’s presence, may we arrogantly charge him with negligence?  Are we aware of the people God is sending?  The angels unawares?  The dreams and visions?  The written and spoken messages that are being transmitted through varied sources?  How can we charge God with failure when “his ways are higher than ours” (Isaiah 55:8), and “he speaks in different ways” (Job 33:14).

Our friend dropped his burden of many years, repented, and once again allowed God to be God.

Father in heaven, thank you for your mercy.  How awesome that you do not defend yourself against false charges but stand ready to receive the one whose eyes have been opened.  Thank you.

CATCHING UP

For we live by faith, not by sight.  II Corinthians 5:7

We were headed for Hawaii to meet my brother who was flying in from Viet Nam for R&R.  My parents had been told by the Army that Jack was due for a break from the unrelenting fighting in the jungles where he and his men had spent the last six months.  On this weak assurance, my dad bought airline tickets for us all in expectation of reunion.

I’ll never forget the oppressive mixture of fear and anticipation as we awaited Jack’s arrival at the international airport in Honolulu.  There had been no guarantee Jack would even be on the plane, but we had come in hope.*  The first bus unloaded its cargo of expectant soldiers as their eyes scanned the crowds, looking for familiar faces, but our soldier was not in the crowd.  Then the second bus came, and still no Jack.  As two more buses emptied their precious load, Mom was on the verge of despair.  At the end of the line a final bus slowed at the curb, and the jostling men made their way through the folding doors.  Still that beloved face wasn’t to be seen until from the very back of the bus my brother emerged to his family who had come in anticipation, just hoping he might come.

I’ve often thought of that experience through the years as I’ve trusted God through difficult times, just praying he’d be present.  To intervene in situations where no one else could make a difference.  I’ve trusted his Word that he would be faithful to make a way where there seemed to be no way.  And sometimes, like my mom, I’ve despaired that maybe, just maybe, I had acted in presumption.  Maybe the promises were not to be claimed for this situation.

It’s taken years to learn that we DO live by faith, not by sight.  God presses us to move out of that familiar comfort zone into a more dangerous place of trusting him in circumstances that only he can resolve.  And in moving, living by faith, we often must move ahead of feelings that threaten to wash over us in waves of panic telling us we were expecting too much of God.  We were trying to live too far beyond ourselves and our predictable existences.  Sometimes when we indulge fear, we fall back where it feels more comfortable and breathing is easier.

But then the time comes that we finally push beyond fear, and we get ahead of emotion, saying, “My God can…”  We trust him to do what he said he will do.  And we wait.  And wait.  And trust.  And the waiting and the trusting are excruciating, but now we can do nothing else.   And then, in his time, he appears. 

And our feelings have to catch up.

Father, I’ve lived too long being pulled and jerked around by my feelings.  I’m ready to live by faith.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.

*We learned after the fact that Jack wasn’t supposed to be on the plane after all because he had been wounded in Cambodia, and the military typically didn’t allow soldiers to go on R&R with wounds.  When he returned to Viet Nam, he was checked into the hospital and recovered.

FORTY DAYS

 

And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.  (I Kings 19:8) 

I can hardly wait.  In just a little over a week, Lent will be here, the Christian penitential preparation for Easter, the day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.  And why am I looking forward to Lent?  It’s that season when we can choose to devote ourselves to intense focus on Jesus’ sacrifice for us and how we can respond. 

During the forty days of Lent, some people will give up certain foods or will spend more time in prayer.  Some will fast of all or some meals daily, and some will eliminate entertainments.  In these forty days as we intentionally wait on God, we seek to know him better, and we wait until we sense our spirit has connected with our heavenly Father. 

And that’s the point of listening.  What will God say to us?  What new direction will he send us?  How will he shift our priorities?  We sit in quietness, being still and knowing he is God.  When he speaks, there is no question in our minds as to what we should do.  The question is Will we obey the still small voice? 

Elijah had defied wicked Queen Jezebel and her pagan prophets.  He had stood alone on Mt. Carmel proclaiming the reign of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel and defeated all the prophets of Baal.  And yet, when Jezebel sought to kill him, he ran and hid himself beside a little bush, ready to die.   

God sent an angel who gave him food and water and told him to rest.  And then a second time, Elijah was encouraged to eat and rest.  The refreshing that came from above was sufficient to carry Elijah, depleted as he was, for forty days and forty nights. 

Lent for us becomes that time of waiting quietly before God and allowing him to nourish us, to give us rest, to refresh and bless us.  Waiting, resting, refreshing.  Followed by strength. 

Father, cause us to return to the quietness and renewal that we find in your presence.  Feed us so that we know our empowerment is from you alone.  Rest and refresh us.  In Jesus’ holy name.  AMEN. 

STABILITY

…he will be the stability of your times…  Isaiah 33:6  ( ESV)

When we were children, Papa decided it was time to find a larger house for his growing family.  We settled in a beautiful new home, and Papa’s diligent gardening made our lawn the envy of the neighborhood.  It wasn’t long, however, when hairline cracks began to appear in the walls of our dream house, and Papa announced that we’d be moving again.

This time Papa didn’t trust a ready-built house for his family.  Not at all.  He and Momo found a one-acre lot in a suburban neighborhood, and Papa and a friend built our forever home from the ground up.  When it came time to put in the landscaping, it was clear why Papa had chosen this particular neighborhood:  under the few inches of topsoil, there was solid rock.  The house is still standing, and when last I was inside, there still wasn’t a crack.

2020 was a year none of us will forget.  Perhaps, with me, you celebrated New Year’s Day with anticipation of a better year—a new vaccine for the dreaded Covid and the opportunity for our country to return to work and to life as we know it.  Perhaps we might even look forward to planning a family trip or a reunion with loved ones we haven’t seen since shut down.

Just barely into January we saw that relief would not be coming soon.  From any quarter around us.  UNLESS we look to the Rock.  Isaiah (51:1-3) from of old exhorts us to:

 ” Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD:  Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn…  For the LORD will comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; He will make her wilderness like Eden and her desert like the garden of the LORD.  Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and melodious song.”

The foundation of our lives, the Rock on which we are built is the only stability that will see us through these stormy times.   And he is sufficient.  He IS the stability of our times; he will not be shaken; he will not be broken; he will not disappear.  Anchored to him, we can weather the tempests, and when they are over, we will still be standing.

              My hope is built on nothing less
              Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
              I dare not trust the sweetest frame
              But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

              On Christ the solid rock I stand
              All other ground is sinking sand
              All other ground is sinking sand.  (Robert Critchley)

Father, save us from ourselves and the false notion of self-reliance.  We stand in you.  In Jesus, our Lord.  AMEN.

HOPE

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10

Two men, so recently filled with joyous expectation for a brilliant future, commiserated over their shredded dreams.  A stranger joined them as they walked and enquired about their sorrow.  How could he have been so ignorant of the grief they shared?  As the stranger reflected on their shared history and what had been predicted from ancient times, hope was rekindled, and spirits seemed to rise above raw emotion.  When the stranger gave thanks over the bread broken for lunch, they knew he was Jesus.

This past year, 2020, has been a great international leveler.  Not one country has escaped the Corona virus; all have suffered.  In our country, we were experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity and growth; joblessness was at a record low; opportunities seemed to be limitless.  We were barely into the new year when the virus struck a blow that upended the whole world.  And it changed our lives.

Those men who walked along Emmaus Road bowed down with grief probably shared thoughts of what had been their dreams for the future:  emancipation from Roman rule; a house and farm for everyone; a renewal of David’s Kingdom.  Their world crashed when their Messiah was crucified.  Were they walking away from their sorrow?  Was their journey an attempt at discernment?  God saw and sent Jesus.

Why THOSE two men?  There were so many others suffering.  But they were chosen to hear the words of hope, to have their eyes opened.  Somehow, the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” saw two lonely men walking out their despair and came to speak Truth to them.  God had won victory over death and was announcing the Kingdom that would bring about a revolution greater than anything they had ever thought or imagined.  And, as they listened, their hearts burned within them.

We’re walking into a new year.  Perhaps the old one symbolized the death of many things, but now the Kingdom has come.  This is a year of possibility and we can live into the reign of our Lord as we rekindle our faith in his faithfulness.  As we open our eyes.  As we welcome his rule in 2021.

 Father, we welcome you as Lord and trust you to renew us and fill us again with your Spirit and presence.  Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done.  AMEN.

CONFIRMATION

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.  Deuteronomy 33:27

Imagine having an angel appear with a message that will dramatically alter your life and possibly even end it.  That was young Mary’s experience when Gabriel appeared announcing her choice as the mother of Messiah.  Mary’s trusting response: “… Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).  Mary didn’t question; she said, “Yes.”

Do you think that Mary had second thoughts after the aura of the angel had faded away?  Did she, perhaps, wonder if her mind had been playing tricks?  Had she been daydreaming or had her imagination been playing games?  The Bible doesn’t speak to that.

And then there’s noble Joseph who learns that his fiancé is pregnant with someone else’s child.  He could have publicly denounced her, even led to her stoning if the old rules were still to be observed.  But Joseph, God’s earthly father for his Son, was also attuned to God’s voice who assured him that the baby was God’s only Son (Matt. 1:20-21) and that he could continue his plan to marry her.

This is all part of the story that we know and recite, but have you considered the magnitude of Mary and Joseph’s faith in participating in God’s plan?  Of all the questions and struggles they might have endured?  Of all the struggles we sometimes experience as we step out in faith to do the unthinkable?

There’s more.  God didn’t engage Mary and Joseph in a wild-haired scheme and then expect them to work it out on their own.  Not in the least!  Instead, God was with them each step of their marvelous journey. 

Look at the confirmations (plural).  Mary went to visit Cousin Elisabeth (the priest’s wife) who, upon seeing her, spoke a blessing and declared that she was carrying “her Lord” in her womb (Luke 1:42-43).  And then near Bethlehem the shepherds saw the angels and went to see the baby (and his parents) whom the angels had announced (Luke 2:8-20).  Just a few days after Jesus’ birth he was taken to the Temple for circumcision where he met Simeon and Anna who both confirmed Jesus as Messiah (Luke 2:21-38).  Finally, the wise men, strangers from a far country, arrived at Mary and Joseph’s dwelling to find Jesus, fell down, worshipped him, and presented their gifts (Matt. 2:11).

God had chosen Mary and Joseph for a unique life as earthly parents to his Son.  They were challenged to trust their heavenly Father in bringing Jesus into the world, but God didn’t leave them without his Presence and his guidance in doing his will.  We don’t know what was happening in the hearts and minds of this young couple, but we do know that God continued—in his own miraculous way—to encourage them and to confirm his word spoken by the angels.  What Mary and Joseph acted out in their lives, God validated by one and then another of his servants.

And so it is in our lives.  Whatever the faith walk to which God calls us, we never need to fear—even if it seems totally preposterous.  God is able to lead us to his fulfillment; to provide the resources to achieve the goal; and the encouragement to keep us moving in the most trying of times.  He knows exactly what we need to carry on.

When there was nothing visible to see, Mary and Joseph trusted and obeyed.  And God confirmed their faith.

Father, give me the courage of Mary and Joseph to follow in the hardest times, knowing that you are with me until I reach your destination.  AMEN.

BUDGETS

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  Romans 8:32

I don’t know if Covid has affected you or your work’s economy, but it certainly has had an impact on our world missions ministry.  Let me rephrase that.  It certainly has had an impact on our department’s budget.  Our biannual missions meeting this past week reassured me that God’s work and his people had not been slowed down a bit even though their funds had been affected.    Somehow God has just provided creative solutions to continue the good work that he has begun through us.

We’ve cut our budget three times and have eagerly offered the new numbers up to our heavenly Father to see how he will provide.  (I’ve discovered that following Jesus is one of the most adventurous ways one can live.)  Several days ago I received a letter from one of our missionaries in which he listed some urgent needs with specific costs and prayers for donations.  I sent the letter on to members of our World Missions Prayer Group, and that very night someone called me saying she would send a check for the exact amount listed in the letter.

I sometimes have to remind myself that Jesus said, “If you…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”  (Matt. 7:11)  As if we would do more for our children than God would do for us, his very own.

When I approached our bishop a couple of months ago asking if I could cut my work days and salary (due to travel restrictions), I had already been reassured that God would oversee my financial affairs while I disciplined my spending.  As I walk out this new faith challenge, I have not been disappointed at God’s loving care and look forward to his continued provision.

You may be experiencing your own test regarding finances or health or whatever.  Let’s go forward together anticipating God to appear at any moment.  He cares.

Father, thank you for your lovely surprises.  Strengthen our trust in our care.  AMEN.

MERCY

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.  Psalm 23:6

A precious saint tells the story of a shopping excursion downtown with her father.  After the purchases had been made, he took her to the soda fountain for a treat.  They both enjoyed a delicious chocolate milkshake and then went home.

A while later, the father overheard his small daughter boasting to her brothers about something she’d picked up at the store counter—a wonderful, long-handled spoon that had come with the shake.  When the boys ran off to play, Father gently approached his daughter and asked her about the spoon.  Was the spoon hers or had she taken it from someone else?  After a few more questions, the little girl admitted that she had taken something that didn’t belong to her.  To her horror, her father pronounced that she would have to return the spoon to the rightful owner.

The following day, the little girl and her father climbed into the family sedan and headed for the department store and its soda fountain.  Not a word was spoken.  All the little girl could think of was having to face the manager and admitting her theft.  Would the police come and arrest her?  Would she have to leave her family and go to jail?  By the time the two reached the store, tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Father and daughter returned to the scene of the crime, and then the father picked up the little girl and seated her at the counter.  He signaled for the attendant to come—and ordered two more chocolate milkshakes.  As the drinks arrived, the father spoke softly into the little girl’s ear, “Now you can put the spoon down on the counter,” and then he gave her a loving smile and a little pat.  No recriminations or denunciations, just loving mercy that allowed her to tangibly undo her childish misdemeanor.

Do you wonder that this dear earthly father became the picture of a heavenly Father for the little girl who grew up to be a faithful servant of her Lord?  How often do we think that repentance must be bitter and that restoration must be costly? 

Actually, mercy and goodness flow freely to us at our repentance because the cost has already been paid.

Father, words are inadequate to express our gratitude for your kind mercy given us freely through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  AMEN.

STILLNESS

…  In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. But you would not… Isaiah 30:15

Through the years studies have been done on the effect noise has on stress and fatigue.  As expected, people exposed to higher levels of noise experience more stress and greater fatigue whether in an office or airplane or any other venue with noticeable decibels of noise.  And, if you’re one of those people who has full concerts or speeches or sports events going on in your head 24/7, imagine the stress level and fatigue exposure.

The year 2020 has introduced all of us to record-breaking noise:  frightful and contradictory medical reports; apocalyptic political predictions; chilling street pronouncements; alarming community behaviors; and so much more.  Who wouldn’t be disturbed?  Watch any late news broadcast if you want to be up all night.  Engage in any discussion about matters with someone of a different opinion, and be assured you’ll be rattled for hours.  Noise.

The children of Israel were also subject to noise from every side—particularly when they moved from obedience to Jehovah to relying on other alliances with pagan neighbors.  Isaiah was sent to his kinsmen to remind them that strength would come from rejecting panic and being quiet before their God while bolstering their faith in confident reliance on him.  He was the one with whom they had a covenant relationship, the one who had never broken a promise, the one who always responded to their cries for help.  He’s the one who said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 46:10).  The same God who said, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13).  Our total dependence is on him.

Isaiah, reminding the Israelites that the secret of their success was quietness and confidence, goes on to say, “But you would not…”  We have the same choices in the middle of this crazy environment.  Will we still our churning thoughts and give all our anxiety to the only one who can bring quietness?  Will we cast our cares on him, fully trusting his faithfulness to strengthen us for whatever circumstances await us?

Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled (Joshua 21:45).  Different time, same God.  Same promises.  What will we do?

Father, the noise is hurting my heart.  I choose your quietness; I rest and am confident in YOU.  AMEN.

INJUSTICE

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!  Psalm 43:1  (ESV)

I doubt that there is a person alive who has not been victimized by injustice.  This may be among life’s most painful experiences.  Slander, false accusations, untimely deaths, undeserved attacks, untrue labels, wrongful judgments, misunderstandings, and miscommunications.  Injustice is especially bitter when it comes from someone we love.

My husband, a state judge, rarely allowed himself to become emotionally involved in his cases, but Stephen’s case was different.  Peter presided over numerous hearings, studied evidence and did personal research of the facts and precedents.  He saw flaws in the presentations and errors in proceedings of other courts, but he was overruled by the appeals court.  One of the most difficult assignments Peter fulfilled was setting the date for Stephen’s execution.  And one of his most wrenching experiences—at Stephen’s request (“Will you come as my friend?”)—was being present at Stephen’s death.

Few of our dealings with injustice are that momentous, but we all know the bitterness that arises from being treated unfairly.  In fact, that pain can be resurrected years after the fact if injustice isn’t resolved.  Jesus showed us how to take the sting from injustice when he suffered on the cross.  He had been betrayed by a friend, and all his most intimate companions had left him.  False accusations were followed by brutal torture, excruciating pain, and death.

On the cross, Jesus, that Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, in final triumph over all the evil of time and eternity, prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Omniscient, all-knowing God, through his Son was asked to pardon those who brought unmerited suffering and death to his only Son.  The basis of the argument:  “They know not what they do.”

Can you resolve that puzzle?  They knew they were killing this itinerant preacher.  They knew they were responding to political pressure.  They knew he had done nothing worthy of death.  So what didn’t they know?  They didn’t know who Jesus was.  They didn’t know he was the Son of God, the Lord of Life, the Word, the Savior and Messiah.  Jesus himself had said that only his Father revealed the identity of his Son (Matt. 16:17).  Yes, those who called for Jesus’ death knew about him, but they didn’t know him.  “Father, forgive them…”

Oswald Chambers says that there is always one thing we don’t know about other people, and that may be the very thing that gives insight to their behavior.  It may not excuse it, but it informs the phrase Jesus used, “They know not what they do.”

Is it time to release the bitterness of unjust words, wounds, judgments, suppositions?  Jesus, our example, has showed us how to do it.  Now we can ask him to work forgiveness and healing in us as only he can.

Father, give us grace to forgive just as you’ve forgiven us.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.