LOST AND FOUND

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. [Luke 15:4-6a (NIV)]

dahlia“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures [mankind] to persevere. …this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” So writes the demon Screwtape to his nephew, an apprentice devil trying to win a young man’s soul, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

A woman recently shared her story of Satan’s campaign of attrition. Since childhood, she dutifully attended church every Sunday and, once she had children, insisted that the family worship together. She’d taught Sunday school, volunteered for service projects, and attended churchwomen’s programs. Nevertheless, after her youngest left for college, she woke up one Sunday morning and, for no particular reason, decided to stay home. She skipped church the following week and the weeks after that. Before long, she returned the Bible on her bedside table to the bookcase and never picked it up again (not that she’d picked it up much before then). When she stopped praying, I’m sure Satan thought he’d won his campaign. None of this was because she was plagued with doubts or had experienced something that shook her faith. She just gradually stopped caring and, starved of fellowship, God’s word and prayer, her faith had withered away.

Fortunately, we have a loving Shepherd and, when one of his lambs goes missing, He will go in search of it, which is what the Holy Spirit did one Sunday several years later. The woman awoke that morning and, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to go to church. Once there, she learned of a church-wide challenge to read the Bible and committed to doing it. Realizing her need for a study group once she dug into her newly purchased large-print Bible, she joined one. Her faith again became active and alive; the good Shepherd had brought her home!

At one time or another, many of us have experienced similar experiences of having our faith grow dim and dusty; if you haven’t, chances are that you will. The enemy doesn’t quit when we accept Christ; he just changes his tactics. We must be alert to his methods and persevere in our faith as he tries to destroy our relationship with Jesus by making us complacent, neglectful, or simply bored. He nibbles away at things like church attendance, Christian fellowship, Bible study, and prayer so that, instead of growing spiritually, we begin to atrophy. When we take our eyes off the Shepherd, like the lost lamb, we wander into the wilderness.

Fortunately, we are never so lost that we can’t be found. Even when we think we’re finished with God, He’s never finished with us. God certainly wasn’t done with that woman. Shortly after her return to the church, she entered seminary at the age of 52! Now ordained, she is the pastor who teaches my Tuesday Bible study!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. …You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  [Hebrews 10:23-25,36 (NIV)]

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OUR GATEKEEPER

Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life. [Proverbs 4:23 NCV]

Corkscrew SwampActing as gatekeepers for the temple in Jerusalem, the Levites opened and closed its doors and guarded it during the night. Among their many duties, they prohibited entry to anyone considered “unclean,” protected the temple from theft or desecration, watched the offering and tithe money, and maintained proper decorum within the temple. They also were the ones who imposed the death penalty on any who dared enter the temple illegally.

Although many churches have implemented security measures, we no longer have Levites at our church doors. Most of us, however, could use a similar gatekeeper to protect our minds (and mouths) from anything that could defile us. Like crashers at a party, negative thoughts can sneak into our heads. Once in, they tend to prop open the door so more negativity can follow. Anger often brings his pals animosity and resentment. Once fear steals in, worry slips in right behind him; doubt, regret and suspicion are sure to follow. Before we know it, bitterness and hatred have joined the party, along with envy, lust, and their old friend guilt. When our minds are filled with undesirable and unwelcome callers, there’s little room left for any positive thinking. Once those bad thoughts have gotten into our heads, they want to continue their damage by spilling out through our mouths.

The mind’s gatekeeper must be diligent, on duty 24/7, and refuse entry to any thoughts and feelings considered “unclean” or inappropriate. He’d maintain order in house and keep our thinking in line. On the lookout for hazards, he’d steer us away from situations that could bring trouble or temptation. Rather than kill temple trespassers who stepped beyond the warning stone, the gatekeeper would squash any negative words before they could escape!

Unfortunately, the books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that the Temple’s gatekeepers fell down on the job. They allowed the dwelling place of God to be defiled by idolatry and fall into disrepair. When King Hezekiah ordered the Temple’s purification, it took more than two weeks simply to clean it!

At the moment of Jesus’s death, the Temple was no longer the place of God’s presence. Because of Christ, God dwells within each one of us. Having provided each of us with a far better Gatekeeper in the Holy Spirit, Levites are no longer needed at our doors. We, however, must cede control to the Spirit so that He can do His job!

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves. [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV)]

Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want. But those who live following the Spirit are thinking about the things the Spirit wants them to do. If people’s thinking is controlled by the sinful self, there is death. But if their thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.  …The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:5-6,14 (NLT)]

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A ROOT OF EVIL

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. [1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV)]

red clover“He’s the ultimate solipsist – the guy who’d burn the world down to light his cigarette. He’s not cruel, particularly – although he’s capable of cruelty – he’s just so focused on his own goals and his own needs that nobody else exists for him.” That’s how Mike Carey, author of the graphic novel series Lucifer, describes his main character. I admit having to look up “solipsism” to learn that it’s the extreme preoccupation with self and the indulgence of one’s feelings and desires. A self-professed atheist, Carey went on to say, “I think total self-absorption is probably the root of most evil that we meet in the world.” While he may not believe in God, I think Carey has a good handle on the root of much of the world’s evil: self! Satan just loves to make us think of ourselves as more valuable and worthy than anyone else.

“Hold it,” you say. “I thought money was the root of all evil!” A careful reading of Paul’s words in this often misquoted verse tell us that’s not so. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil but it is not the only root of all evil. After all, money hadn’t even been invented when Eve ate the forbidden fruit! Focusing solely on herself, however, she thought of her desire as more important than obedience to God and his one rule. Self-absorption, not money, caused the fall. While Eve didn’t destroy the world to light a cigarette, she brought evil into it simply to satisfy her own curiosity.

There seems to be a lot of self-absorption going around nowadays and we’re all guilty! How many times do we act as if our opinions are the only ones that count, our words are more important than the words of the person with whom we’re speaking, or our needs are more pressing than those of the people around us? We want the best table, the closest parking place, the fastest line, the biggest piece of pie, the order at all costs, and the largest commission. If someone goes without, too bad for them; they should have been better, faster, or tried harder. We don’t care what kind of day the teller at the bank had, bother to look at the face of the sales clerk, or acknowledge the special-needs bagger at the grocery. Our dog can poop wherever he wants, we can water our lawns on water-restricted days, and recycling takes too much effort. We can carry full bottles of water when we start our walk, but find them too cumbersome to carry once they’re empty. We don’t pause to open the door for the bag-laden woman and we impatiently push ahead of the elderly man with the walker. “Ten items or less” doesn’t apply to us nor do slow zones by schools. Our thoughts are so important that we can text while driving and use our cell phones at restaurants and theatres. Where we’re headed is far more important than where anyone else is going so we can cut off drivers and honk at anyone who dares to be slow starting when the light changes.

Father, forgive us for being selfish when we should be selfless.

The difference between a good person and a bad person (and each of us, naturally, is a little of both) is really very simple at bottom: The good person loves people and uses things, while the bad person loves things and uses people. [Sidney J. Harris]

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)]

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NIV)]

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DID THEY KNOW?

Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:5 (NLT)]

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are letters (epistles) written by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude. While the gospels tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the epistles are letters of instruction, clarification, encouragement and, sometimes, caution to the new Christian community. I can’t help but wonder if those early letter writers realized the scope of their writing. Did they have any idea how fast and wide Christianity would spread? Did they envision how many people would come to know both their names and words? While they expected their messages to be read aloud to the members of the 1st century church, did they even dare hope that 2,000 years later their letters still would be read aloud regularly in many churches, that some of their words would even be used in Christian liturgy, or that people around the world would gather together to study their messages?

The God-inspired words of those men live today and still apply to us. While the issues we face are different than those in the 1st century, the underlying problems and concerns remain the same: false doctrine, dissension, immorality, and even persecution. We are still called to be godly, avoid foolish disputes, love one another, preach Christ to the world, and walk in a manner worthy of Jesus. We never will outgrow the need to understand doctrine and its application to our lives.

The story is told of a frail old man planting seeds in a garden. A passerby stopped to chat and the old gardener offered him a mango from one of his trees. When asked what he was planting, the aged man replied more mango trees. “But why bother?” asked the man. “It will be fifteen years before they produce a full crop and you’ll not live to see that day.” Pausing from his work, the gardener replied that the mango he gave the stranger was from a tree his grandfather had planted more than fifty years earlier. He was now planting trees for his grandchildren to enjoy long after his death.

Although they saw the church expand, the epistles’ writers never lived long enough to see the magnitude of their work. They did, however, know the promises of God: if they abided in Him, their work would bear fruit and His church would be built. The seeds they planted with their letters continue to bear fruit today.

Let us remember that, like the writers of the epistles (and the old man in the story), we should be committed to planting the seeds of faith, even though we may not see them bear fruit. It’s been said that, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Indeed, it is.

This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace. [Colossians 1:6 (NLT)]

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FINDING SOMETHING NEW

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Jeremiah 31:33 (NLT)]

pikaSpencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? is an uncomplicated parable about two mice and two “little people” (Hem and Haw) who are looking for the “cheese” that will bring them happiness. When the cheese disappears, the mice quickly scurry off in search of more. Hem and Haw, however, have built their life around that cheese. Arrogantly thinking their brains are superior to those of their four-legged friends, they are unwilling to change and search for different cheese. Eventually, hunger drives Haw to leave his comfort zone and go in search of new cheese. When he finds it, he also finds those simple creatures, the mice, who’d been there for quite a while and enjoying the delicious new cheese.

The cheese is a metaphor for what we desire in life, whether a relationship, job, money, or peace of mind, and the book is about dealing with change, keeping things simple, and not confusing ourselves with fearful beliefs. Hem and Haw always thought that change would lead only to something worse. It is not until Haw understands that change also can lead to something better that he starts looking for new cheese. Sadly, left behind in the maze is Hem. Paralyzed with fear, in spite of his hunger, he stays in his comfort zone where the old cheese had been.

Throughout the story, Haw writes messages on the wall. When he writes, “The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it,” I couldn’t help but think of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. The law was their cheese; they held tight to it and then over-complicated it. The simple law of keeping the Sabbath day became burdensome with its thirty-nine categories (and hundreds of subcategories) of prohibited work and exceptions to the rules. While tying knots was prohibited, if the knot could be untied with just one hand, it was allowed! People couldn’t carry their clothes out of a burning house on the Sabbath but they could put on several layers of clothing and wear them out! As happened with Hem, the Pharisees became over-confident and arrogant; for them, their complicated set of rules was the only cheese, even when it ceased making sense!

Jesus, however, introduced a new kind of cheese: a new covenant of salvation through faith, not works. Rather than the law being written with ink on paper it was written with the blood of Jesus upon men’s hearts. Although God’s promise of a new covenant came true in Jesus, the Pharisees refused to change and stayed hungry in their corner of the maze.

A great many of us in the 21st century are little different from those who resisted Jesus in the 1st. We may not cling to a long list of prohibitions and rules as did the Pharisees but, out of fear of change, we cling to a way of life that isn’t working. We’re like the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do for eternal life. When told that he must give up the old cheese (his riches), he walked away rather than accept Jesus’s offer of salvation. Like Hem, could we be going hungry when all we need to do is step out of our comfort zone and seek the Bread of Life? Or, like, Haw, will we seek and find?

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. [Acts 17:27-28a (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

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SLEEP WELL

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe. [Psalm 4:8 (NLT)]

tree swallowLast year, in a gated community not too far from us, a woman woke in the middle of the night to see all of the lights on in her house. Since they’d all been turned off before retiring, she knew someone had been there (and possibly still was). After calling 911, she found that her husband’s wallet, their car keys (and car), and $10,000 worth of jewelry were missing. The thief had rifled through their car parked outside and used their garage door opener to access the house. The family decided to install security cameras to deter burglars from striking again.

Recently, a similar thing happened to a Wisconsin couple. They awoke to find their car and thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics stolen. During the night, a man broke into their locked car and used the garage door opener to enter their house. Then, after carefully removing his shoes, he walked through their three-story condo and collected his booty while the homeowners slept. The couple’s security cameras show that, at one point, the thief was less than three feet from the head of the bed they were occupying. The homeowner said that, from now on, he’ll bring in their garage door openers at night and lock the door between the house and garage.

While I’d love to know what it is that allowed those burglary victims to sleep so soundly that they were unaware of doors opening, lights being turned on, and people walking through their homes, I doubt they sleep so soundly now.

We can live in gated communities, triple lock our doors, mount security cameras, keep our garage door openers inside, have a dog, install an alarm and even set up booby traps for burglars as did little Kevin McCallister in Home Alone but no precaution is failsafe. Moreover, while safety measures may provide some security for our worldly goods, they do nothing to safeguard us from the myriad adversities, calamities and tragedies of life. Locked doors and alarm systems may deter burglars but they are useless against things like cancer, Alzheimer’s, betrayal, stroke, financial disaster, debt, depression, divorce, a loved one’s addiction, and death.

As Christians, we are not immune to burglars nor are we exempt from harm, disaster or loss. God’s love for us doesn’t inoculate us against calamity or misfortune any more than a security camera keeps out burglars. Suffering and hardship happen because we live in a fallen world and God offers us no more explanation than He did to Job. Because of God’s providence, however, we know that, ultimately, He has a good purpose for all the dark valleys through which we journey. Nothing passes through our lives that He has not allowed.

After we’ve exercised due caution to prevent intruders in our homes, let us all sleep peacefully tonight, secure in the knowledge that God is our safety and it is in Him that we find rest. May we lie down and sleep soundly, unafraid of what the night may bring because we trust in His power, love and wisdom. (Oh, and be sure not to leave your garage door opener in a car parked outside!)

You can go to bed without fear; you will lie down and sleep soundly. You need not be afraid of sudden disaster or the destruction that comes upon the wicked, for the Lord is your security. He will keep your foot from being caught in a trap. [Proverbs 3:24-26 (NLT)]

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