TO THE MOON AND BACK

Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen. [1 Corinthians 13:7-8a (PHILLIPS)]

rabbit“I love you,” said my grandson to his mother; “I love you more,” was her quick reply. They went back and forth, each claiming to love the other most, until one said, “I love you to the moon and back!” Of course, they’re echoing the sentiments found in Sam McBratney’s delightful book Guess How Much I Love You. In it, every time Little Nutbrown Hare tells his father how much he loves him, Big Nutbrown Hare responds with an even larger amount of love. As he’s being tucked into his bed of leaves, the sleepy youngster thinks he’s finally out-distanced his dad when he says he loves him all the way to the moon. His father kisses him goodnight and, with a smile, whispers, “I love you right up to the moon—and back!” Since the moon’s distance varies with its orbit, the distance to the moon and back varies from around 443,362 to 505,244 miles. Even that measurement, however, isn’t correct; we can no more quantify a father’s love for his son than we can our Heavenly Father’s love for His children.

While we have only one word for love in English, the Greeks had four: eros, storge, philia and agape. Because of its similarity to the word erotic, we think of eros in terms of sex and lust but it also includes romantic love and passion, like the love we find in Solomon’s sensual Song of Songs. Storge describes the natural affection (and obligation) between family members, such as Ruth’s love for Naomi. The Greek word philia is associated with deep friendship, like that between Paul and Silas or the Apostles. In Romans 12:10, Paul uses another word for love: philostorgos. A compound word made from storge and philia, it’s best defined as loving a friend as deeply as if he were a family member, such as the love Jonathon and David had for one another. Finally, we have agape: God’s immeasurable, consummate, unconditional, sacrificial love for His children.

Our infinite God has an unlimited amount of love for his children. Just as we can’t measure God’s love for us, I don’t think any word, even agape, can truly describe the kind of love He has for us. Not one of us is like another and, with our individual personalities, God loves each one of us in a way specifically designed for us. Love knows no bounds and, just as God has an infinite amount of love, He has an infinite number of ways to express that love. We can’t quantify, evaluate, assess, or delineate that love because something infinite can’t be weighed, measured, or catalogued.

The Population Reference Bureau estimates that over 108 billion people have lived on earth since the beginning of man and it would seem that God has found at least 108 billion ways to love them. While that’s not infinity, it’s way more than to the moon and back and God is not yet finished. His infinite love is eternal!

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us. [Saint Augustine]

God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. [1 John 4:16b (PHILLIPS)]

And I pray that you, firmly fixed in love yourselves, may be able to grasp (with all Christians) how wide and deep and long and high is the love of Christ—and to know for yourselves that love so far beyond our comprehension. May you be filled though all your being with God himself! [Ephesians 3:18-19 (PHILLIPS)]

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MINISTERS ALL

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…. [Ephesians 4:11-12 (RSV)]

alstromeriaWe tend to think of our pastors as the ones who do the ministering and we, the congregation, as the ones to whom he or she ministers. Indeed, our pastors do care for, comfort, aid and support us but their main job is to equip us: to train, outfit and prepare us to go out and be Christ’s ministers to the world! Rather than them being the players in the game with us being the fans who show up on game day, our pastors are more like the coaches and athletic trainers who prepare their team to go out on the field and play with skill and enthusiasm! Too often, however, we act like onlookers rather than members of the team.

Paul’s 1st century words continue to apply to the 21st century church. Those saints who are to become ministers are normal everyday Christ followers like you and me. Ministry is what being a Christian is all about and it has little to do with a pulpit, church, seminary, or ordination! When we became Christians, we were ordained as Christ’s ministers. Rather than preach with words from a pulpit, we preach with our lives: our words, demeanor, lifestyle, finances, and even our appearance.

The work we do every day is a gift from God and a way to reach out and touch people with the voice and hands of Jesus. We minister from behind the counter when we’re patient with the difficult customer, when we hold a nervous patient’s hand before surgery, or take the time to chat with the lonely widow whose room we’re cleaning. We minister when we volunteer at the charity resale shop, open the door for the woman with the stroller, or bring flowers to a new neighbor. We minister when we set good examples, listen, help, invite, welcome, encourage, offer assistance or smile. We minister when we use social media to God’s advantage. We minister when we quietly say grace regardless of where we are. We minister when we send an encouraging Bible verse to a friend. We minister when Bibles are present in our workspace and homes (and we know what’s in them).

There should be no division between clergy and laity—we all are ministers of the Gospel! I remember the words of a visiting pastor who, following the closing hymn, exclaimed, “Our worship has ended, let our service begin!” It’s time to get out of the bleachers and into the game!

We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ. [Eric Liddell]

He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life. [2 Corinthians 3:6 (NLT)]

In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. [2 Corinthians 6:4a (NLT)]

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FREE WON’T

Live like free people, but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God. [1 Peter 2:16 (ERV)]

red-bellied woodpecker“Get Fuzzy,” a comic strip drawn by Darby Conley, chronicles the life of Rob and his somewhat eccentric pets: Bucky Katt, a temperamental feline with “cat-attitude,” and the gentle Satchel Pooch who frequently is the butt of Bucky’s jokes and the target of his bullying. In one comic, Satchel pondered the concept of free will. “Having free will means you also have the freedom to not,” says the dog, who then resolves, “I choose to exercise free won’t and not get mad.”

In studying the human brain, neuroscientists have discovered that there is a brief instant between when the brain tells the body to get ready to act and the action itself. That nanosecond is when our mind can implement its veto power—when it truly can exercise “free won‘t”!

We are usually so busy touting all of the things we’re free to do, that it is refreshing to consider the things we’re free not to do. Unfortunately, we don’t exercise that freedom nearly enough. Eve and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, David pursued Bathsheba, Jacob stole his inheritance, Judas betrayed Jesus, and Lot’s wife took a last look. Sadly, they didn’t exercise their freedom to say “No!” Admittedly, I frequently fail at implementing my “free won’t.”

The ability to not choose a thought or action is as important as the ability to choose them. We don’t have to indulge our every notion or whim. Remembering that we can veto as easily as we can approve, all of our choices should be conscious ones—ones where we deliberately choose between will or won’t.

Unfortunately, by the end of the comic strip, Satchel, who had been sorely vexed by Bucky, exclaims that, “I’m starting to get a little free maybe-the-*@#!-I-will after all!” His frustration sounds a bit like us when we try to exercise self-control solely on our own. Fortunately, unlike Satchel, we have a secret weapon: the Holy Spirit. Through God’s power, when tempted, we can exercise the freedom to not respond and make our free will become free won’t!

So, my brothers and sisters, we must not be ruled by our sinful selves. We must not live the way our sinful selves want. If you use your lives to do what your sinful selves want, you will die spiritually. But if you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will have true life. The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:12-14 (ERV)]

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INADEQUATE AND UNQUALIFIED

I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 2:3-4 (NLT)]

buttercupWhen I sit in front of my computer to start writing, I often wonder what makes me think I am qualified to spread the good news of the Gospel. I take comfort in the Apostle Paul’s similar feelings of inadequacy. Of all the people we meet in Scripture, Paul’s credentials (other than those of Jesus) seem to be the most impressive. Fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, from the tribe of Benjamin, and a second-generation Pharisee who had studied and trained under the respected Gamaliel, Paul was well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and passionate for Jesus. Yet, we know that even he sometimes felt inadequate to the task. Although extremely knowledgeable, by his own admission, his preaching ability left much to be desired.

Then again, an 80-year old man who stammered was called to lead his people out of slavery, a shepherd boy was called to be a king, and a housewife was called to be a prophetess and judge. Samuel was just a boy when he first prophesized, Jeremiah little more than a teen when God called him, and the disciples were just ordinary people like you and me. None of them had impressive resumes. Yet God, knowing exactly who they were, their ages, skills, capabilities, and shortcomings, called them! And He calls us!

In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote that, rather than calling the qualified, God choses to qualify those he calls: “God chose the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.” [1:27] Paul reassured the Corinthians in a later letter that, “God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.” [2 Corinthians 9:8] While the Apostle was referring to material gifts for the believers in Jerusalem, his words hold true for the other gifts with which God has blessed us. Sometimes, we don’t even know we have those gifts until God calls us to use them!

Whether God calls us to lead two million across the desert or lead a small group, to compose letters to the new church or write a blog, to speak to kings or a troubled teen, to build a temple or the set for the Christmas pageant, none of us can do it alone; we must depend on God and believe his promises. We continually underrate ourselves because we’re thinking small; we think we have to go it alone, under our own power, but we don’t. When God called the young Jeremiah to be His prophet, He didn’t promise that it would be easy or that he’d never get discouraged or frustrated. What God promised was His protection, provision, and supervision. Those promises apply to us, as well. God is the source of our ability and it is His power that will enable us to do His work. We are merely God’s tools; He is the builder and we must let Him use us to build His Kingdom.

Loving God, His word, and His children hardly qualifies me to write and yet, with over 1,800 devotions written, as unqualified as I am, through God’s power, it’s been done. He has, indeed, generously provided. We must trust the God who calls us to reach beyond where we think we can grasp, to climb higher than we’ve ever been, or to dig deeper than we thought possible. He will enable us to do whatever He asks us to do. While we may not do it perfectly, all God asks is that we answer Him, obey His call to the best of our ability, and trust in His provision. The outcome is His responsibility!

We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ. It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. [2 Corinthians 3:4-6a (NLT)]

For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

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DO YOU BELIEVE IN YOUR PRODUCT?

So go and make followers of all people in the world. Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”   [Matthew 28:19 (NCV)]

Jesus license plateDorian has departed and we Floridians are taking down hurricane shutters and removing plywood from our windows. Some people avoided that task by having high-impact windows and doors that combine specially glazed impact-resistant glass with heavy duty frames that keep the glass from breaking away from its frame; while the glass may crack from a direct hit, it will not break. In theory, when a home or business has such glass installed, no additional shutters, screens, or plywood are necessary to protect it from the ravages of a hurricane.

A friend recently sent me a meme with the words, “Do you believe in your own product?” It showed a business near West Palm Beach; the sign above the door said it sold “Impact Windows & Doors!” Since all of its windows were covered with plywood, the picture wasn’t a good testimony to the business owner’s confidence in his own product. Any potential customer seeing the plywood covering the glass might question the truth of his claims about its ability to weather a storm.

I suspect I know why there was plywood over those windows. I know of people whose supposedly impact-resistant window frames were bowed by Hurricane Irma’s forceful winds. While their windows remained intact (as promised), the rain blew in through gaps in the twisted frames. It could be that, while he touts the benefits of his product, the business owner knows that it’s not 100% trustworthy. When facing the likes of Dorian, complete faith in his windows failed.

Having been instructed to make disciples, we share the gospel message in the hope that people will want to have Jesus in their lives. In effect, our Christian witness is a little like selling a product. The meme and the question it posed made me wonder if our lives truly support our faith in the effectiveness of our product. Do we act as if we believe in Him and His promises? We say we trust God completely and yet, just in case He doesn’t come through, we tend to worry, fret, and fuss which isn’t much different than putting up plywood over the glass we claim to be impact resistant. Either we believe, trust, and place our lives in God’s hands or we don’t! If we truly trust Him, we must depend on Him in more than just the sunshine, summer showers and gentle winds we encounter. We must have faith in the thunderstorms, blizzards, tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes of life, as well!

It’s been said that people can tell the size of our God by the length of our worry list: the shorter the list, the greater our God. When life’s storms are brewing, do we worry or pray? Do we put our faith in God or ourselves? Unlike the not-so-confident business owner, we can be confident in our God; He is 100% effective and trustworthy. But, when we worry,  we’re a poor witness for our product. It’s not enough to speak of our impact-resistant God; we must live as if we truly believe that He can still any storm.

The great act of faith is when man decides that he is not God. [Oliver Wendell Holmes]

Jesus stood up and commanded the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind stopped, and it became completely calm. Jesus said to his followers, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” The followers were very afraid and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” [Mark 4:39-41 (NCV)]

Do not worry about anything, but pray and ask God for everything you need, always giving thanks. And God’s peace, which is so great we cannot understand it, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7(NCV)]

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SHEEP, SNAKES, AND DOVES

rat snakeLook, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. [Matthew 10:16 (NLT)]

Matthew tells of Jesus calling the disciples together, giving them the authority to cast our evil spirits and heal all kinds of illness, and then sending them out to announce that the Kingdom of God was near. Preparing them for persecution, Jesus said they would be as sheep to the wolves. Helpless against predators like wolves, sheep also were used in religious sacrifice.  Jesus made sure the disciples understood they would encounter opposition, danger, trials and floggings by likening them to these vulnerable sacrificial animals.

Nevertheless, not wanting them so naïve that they became perpetual victims or so timid they couldn’t accomplish their mission, Jesus then told the disciples to be as shrewd as snakes. We rarely think of these reptiles as canny or perceptive but, when we consider the snake Eve met in Genesis, the simile makes more sense. That cunning serpent certainly had a way with words as he convinced Eve to sin. Imagine what he could have accomplished if, instead of deception, he’d used his skill with words for good rather than evil! Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples to deceive but it would appear that He was telling them to use their wits.

There are other parallels between snakes and the disciples’ instructions. Snakes, being cold-blooded, adjust their body temperature by moving out in and out of the sun and shade to find a safe and comfortable resting place. While Jesus wasn’t suggesting hiding under a rock, He did tell the disciples to find a hospitable place to stay and, if a place wasn’t welcoming, to go elsewhere (as a snake does when the temperatures gets inhospitable). Unless attacked, most snakes are not aggressive; they prefer slithering away to a confrontation. Just as snakes know how to evade trouble, the disciples were told to do the same. Nevertheless, like a snake, they were to stand their ground and defend themselves when threatened. Rather than using venom, however, they were to defend themselves with the words of the Spirit.

Immediately after telling the disciples to be like snakes, Jesus told them to be as harmless as doves. Like sheep, doves were vulnerable and sacrificial animals but, even in 1st century Palestine, they were a symbol of peace and love. The story of the dove returning to Noah’s ark caused the Jews to associate the dove with peace. Because of Greek and Roman mythology, it also symbolized love and devotion and, because the Spirit of God descended like a dove at Jesus’s baptism,  it also signified the Holy Spirit to His early followers. As Jesus’s representatives, the disciples were to find a balance between prudence and self-preservation on the one hand and compassion, peace and love on the other.

In the free world today, we don’t face floggings; the wolves are far more subtle. I think of a friend who would never demean the ethnicity, culture or sexual preferences of her co-workers yet she frequently finds herself the object of their ridicule for her Christian beliefs. She has to be both a snake and a dove in her response to them as do the few conservative Jewish and Christian students in my grands’ California high school. Their free-thinking anything-goes classmates have disparaged their belief in God, purity, right and wrong, sin, and the Bible’s truth. While we don’t risk imprisonment, as Christians, we may still find ourselves targets with our beliefs mocked, challenged, or threatened in subtle ways. Jesus did not send us out as sheep to the slaughter but as ministers of His word. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can avoid confrontation while fearlessly and skillfully standing our ground with love and peace.

You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. [Matthew 10:18-20 (NLT)]

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