A NEW HEART

pigsAnd I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

Last Friday, doctors in Maryland made history when they transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a human in a last-ditch effort to save the life of David Bennett, Sr. A medical first, Bennett was too ill to qualify for a routine heart transplant or an artificial ventricular assist device. The 57-year-old’s prognosis is uncertain and it will be months before doctors know whether the transplant can be deemed a “success.” As with any organ transplant, the main risk is that of organ rejection and Bennett will need potent immunosuppressing drugs for the remainder of his life.

I remember how astonished the world was back in 1967 when Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human-to-human heart transplant. The news that a surgeon had cut open someone’s chest, lifted out a diseased heart, and successfully replaced it with a healthy one from a dead donor was astounding. Although that first heart transplant recipient lived only eighteen days, today’s recipients have an 85% chance of living one year and a 69% chance of surviving five. The survival rate continues to decrease through the years with only 50% of heart transplant recipients living ten years and just 15% making 20 years. In spite of the risks, last year over 50,000 transplant candidates worldwide vied for the 5,000 hearts that were available. Sadly, there just aren’t enough hearts to go around.

54 years ago, the medical journals were wrong when they credited Dr. Bernard with the first heart transplant; God has been replacing hearts for ages! He takes our damaged hearts of stone, hearts unwilling to respond to Him, and replaces them with a new heart and spirit. After accepting His new heart, we have no need for immunosuppressive drugs because the new heart won’t be rejected. Unlike transplant candidates, we don’t have to meet specific criteria or put our names on a waiting list. Everyone qualifies and all we have to do is repent! The best news is that there’s no heart shortage and we don’t have to wait for someone to die; Jesus did that for us 2,000 years ago!

Even with a pig’s heart, Mr. Bennett won’t to want to live in a sty, cool off with a mud bath, snuffle in the soil, or start eating a mix of corn, soybeans, sorghum, and wheat. While his new heart will give him a new lease on life (at least for a short time), it will not change him. He will be the same man with the same favorite activities, world view, media preferences, attitudes, likes and dislikes, morals and principles he had before surgery. On the other hand, the new heart God gives us will make a huge change in us. We will have a new mind, new preferences, new spiritual gifts, new beliefs and morals, a new love for who and what we may have hated, and a new aversion to things we once might have loved. Rather than getting immunosuppressant drugs, we will receive an infusion of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control! Getting a new heart in God’s hospital also yields a far better survival rate—no death, only eternal life!

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live! [Ezekiel 18:30b-32 (NLT)]

I will give them hearts that recognize me as the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly. [Jeremiah 24:7 (NLT)]

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TAKE ME TO THE WATER

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [ Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

Baptism - affusion In immersion baptism, a person is completely submerged in the water and, every time I witness a full immersion baptism done in the Gulf of Mexico, I think of what it must have been like when John baptized Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on our Lord. Since the Greek word used to describe this event was baptizo, meaning to dip, sink, or submerge, we can safely assume His was a full immersion baptism.

The water of baptism illustrates dying and being buried with Christ and the coming out of the water illustrates Christ’s resurrection. Baptizo is the word Jesus used when telling the disciples to baptize new believers and, in the early church, full immersion was the norm. There is, however, evidence that affusion, the pouring of water over a person, was used for invalids. Although aspersion, or the sprinkling of water for baptism, is the norm in many mainstream churches today, it did not come into practice until around the 13th century. While today’s Christian church agrees on the importance of baptism, it is divided as to the method and conduct of this sacrament.

In determining the amount of water necessary to make a baptism “official,” it would be easy to become as nitpicky as were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day as they quibbled over specifics of the law. For an immersion advocate, would the baptism be invalid if a person’s hand or some of their hair didn’t get wet and how long must they be under water? For the pourers and sprinklers, how much water is too much and how little water is not enough? If there were no water available, would spittle or tears do? I don’t know the answer but I suspect God is more concerned with matters of the heart than ritual. Since I think our commitment to Jesus is far more important than the method of baptism or the amount of water used, I’m staying clear of that controversy!

Along with the dispute among Christian churches over the method of baptism, there is disagreement on whether baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. On Pentecost, Peter told the crowd they’d receive the Holy Spirit once they repented, turned to God and were baptized, which seems to support the side claiming baptism is required for salvation. On the other hand, while preaching to the household of Cornelius, Peter asked if anyone objected to the family’s baptism since they’d already received the Holy Spirit. This passage seems to support the side that, rather than a condition for salvation, baptism is evidence of salvation. While Scripture makes it clear that belief is a requirement for salvation, it never clearly says that baptism is, so I’ll leave the meaning of the original Greek text to theologians and scholars.

In the meantime, I’ll look to Scripture’s words that clearly tell us we are saved by grace through faith and not through works, effort or the law. A believer can be saved without being baptized because baptism isn’t how we receive forgiveness of our sins—we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, a believer will be baptized because Jesus commanded it!

Granted, I have a distinctly Protestant view of baptism and you are free to disagree. What we can agree on is that, regardless of the method used, it’s never too late to be baptized! Of all the baptisms I’ve witnessed, my favorite is when one of our church family made her declaration of faith at the age of 95.  Too frail for full immersion in the Gulf, while flanked by the pastor and her son, she was baptized (by affusion) in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Praise be to God!

Indeed, baptism is a vow, a sacred vow of the believer to follow Christ. Just as a wedding celebrates the fusion of two hearts, baptism celebrates the union of sinner with Savior. [Max Lucado]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28 (18-20 (NLT)]

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THE PRAYER OF INDIFFERENCE

And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. [James 4:3 (NLT)]

santa rose de lima - NMWhen we pray about a decision, we often set the desired outcome we want rather than ask God to reveal His will to us. Instead of trusting our decision to Him and bending our will to His, we want God to bend His will to our desires. If His response to our pleas isn’t the one we want, we refuse to recognize it or complain that He never answered our prayers! Until we’re willing to step back and say, “Thy will be done,” we can’t truly discern God’s will.

When writing about discerning God’s will, Ruth Haley Barton suggests starting the decision-making process with a prayer of trust that acknowledges our need to trust in God. The second prayer, the one Barton calls “the prayer for indifference”, is far harder. In this prayer we ask God to free us from our personal stake in the issue or our attachment to a particular outcome so that we become indifferent to anything but God’s will. This prayer echoes the one of Jesus when He asked God to take away His cup of suffering: “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:31] It is only then, when we are willing to abandon our agenda and detach ourselves from the outcome, that we are ready for the third prayer in which we ask God for wisdom in discerning the answer.

Twenty-five years ago, long before I knew of this three-step process in discerning God’s will, the Spirit guided me through it. Our daughter was finishing up her post-graduate year of internship at a Chicago hospital when she received two good job offers at the same time. One was from the hospital where she was interning—meaning she could remain in her apartment and live no more than 90-minutes from any of the family. The other offer was from a hospital 1,400 miles west that wanted her to start work within two weeks. The thought of relocating in so short a time to a place she’d never been and a city where she knew no one was daunting. When my daughter called to ask for advice, I wanted to say, “Stay here near family and friends!” The Spirit put His hand across my mouth and reminded me that this was not my decision to make and filled me with wisdom I didn’t know I had. Rather than telling her what I wanted, I advised her to trust that God would handle the logistics if she decided to move and suggested comparing the jobs as if they both were in the same location. Promising our prayers that evening, I told her to trust in the Lord and ask Him for wisdom in making her choice.

Our prayers that night were difficult ones because my husband and I were not indifferent to our daughter’s decision. Although we’d raised her to fly from the nest, we didn’t want her flying across the country to New Mexico! We wanted her to be on her own but with the caveat that she be on her own while staying close to home! Nevertheless, putting our personal feelings aside, we detached ourselves from the outcome and fervently prayed not for what we wanted but for what God wanted and that our daughter would have wisdom enough to discern His plan and make the right decision—whatever that was!

The following morning, our daughter told us that, in spite of the challenges of moving, the right job for her was the one in New Mexico. I don’t think it was dumb luck that, with just a few calls, we found her an apartment there or that the first moving company we called happened to have a truck (with the right amount of space available) passing through Chicago the day before our daughter’s graduation, or that it was scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque the day she took possession of her new apartment! When we trust God and follow His plan, He has an uncanny way of making things come together.

We often complain that God hasn’t answered our prayers. Perhaps we should consider that He may have given us the answer but, because we’re vested in a particular outcome, we haven’t seen it. I wish I could say that I abandon my will and become indifferent to God’s answer whenever I pray, but I can’t. Nevertheless, remembering how well it works when I do, I continue to try!

Jeremiah replied. “I will pray to the Lord your God, as you have asked, and I will tell you everything he says. I will hide nothing from you.” Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord your God be a faithful witness against us if we refuse to obey whatever he tells us to do! Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God to whom we are sending you with our plea. For if we obey him, everything will turn out well for us.” [Jeremiah 42:4-5 (NLT)]

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. [Psalm 143:10 (NLT)]

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NOT WHAT?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” [Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)]

Have you forgotten what we are to say to ourselves every morning? “Today I shall meet cruel men, cowards and liars, the envious and the drunken. They will be like that because they do not know what is good from what is bad. This is an evil which has fallen upon them not me. They are to be pitied, not….” [From “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis]

“They are to be pitied, not….” Not what? Author C.S. Lewis did not complete the sentence and I don’t think the omission was by accident. When I read the above passage, I thought of the words I (as a Christian) should use to replace the ellipsis; they are not to be reviled, hated, judged, condemned, berated, scorned, abused, or despised. Regretfully, my initial reaction upon running across the scum of the earth—the rapists, molesters, traffickers, exploiters, extorters, attackers, murderers, deceivers, hate-spewers, and tyrants that seem to populate our world—is more likely to be the exact opposite. Rather than a feeling of pity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, or love, it’s one of outrage, loathing, and disgust.

Whether we’ve met them first-hand, they’ve have touched the lives of those we love, or they’re merely names and faces we know from the news, what is our reaction when we encounter those who are cruel, cowardly, devious, depraved, corrupt, or hate-filled? What is our response when we encounter those who don’t seem to know good from bad or right from wrong? What of those who treat us or others poorly, who betray people’s trust, whose mouths spew venom and deceit? Do we ever think to pray for them or their families or do we limit our prayers to the victims of their evil?

When Jesus was giving what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount, He referred to the Old Testament law (found in Leviticus 19:18) that we are to love our neighbor. While it is easy to infer from this law that we can do the opposite with our enemy, there is no Old Testament law authorizing hatred of our enemies. While Jesus’ listeners may have “heard” that, it never was the written law! He clarified the matter by clearly saying that we are to love our enemy. Since God loves His people indiscriminately, so must we!

Father, we know that people who seem devoid of anything good will cross our paths daily. Keep us from allowing their hate and evil to spill onto our behavior. Never forgetting that they are your children too, may we always recall your command that we are to love friend and foe alike. Help us find a way to forgive the unforgiveable and love the unlovable. Give us a soul of compassion and a heart filled with prayer for all of your children.

A man should not allow himself to hate even his enemies; because if you indulge this passion on some occasions, it will rise of itself in others; if you hate your enemies, you will contract such a vicious habit of mind as by degrees will break out upon those who are your friends, or those who are indifferent to you. [Plutarch]

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5: 46-48 (ESV)]

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (ESV)]

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MAY WE NEVER FORGET

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. … Praise the Lord, everything he has created, everything in all his kingdom. Let all that I am praise the Lord. [Psalm 103:1-2,22 (NLT)]

little blue heronThe Bible is filled with evidence of God’s goodness and the great (and miraculous) things He’s done for His people. Daniel emerges unscathed from a lion’s den, David defeats Goliath and the shepherd boy becomes a king, wisdom and riches are given to Solomon, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t even scorched from a fire. Water is parted more than once, the walls of Jericho collapse, jail doors miraculously open, and storms cease at a word. Armies are led to victory, manna falls from heaven, fish and bread multiply, the barren give birth, the sick and lame are healed, and the dead rise. The Bible is full of marvelous accounts of miracles, majesty, and triumphs.

While probably less noteworthy, God’s hand has been as present in our lives as it was for David, Moses, the Apostles and everyone else in the Bible’s Hall of Faith. Although it wasn’t the Red Sea or the Jordan River, He’s kept us from drowning in the deep waters of life and, while it wasn’t a fortified city like Jericho, walls that blocked our way have tumbled down more than once. It may not have been 135,000 Midianites against only 300 of us as it was for Gideon, but He’s given us victory over foes just as formidable when the odds were just as bad. Instead of a fiery furnace, He’s gotten us out of hot water many times and, while it probably wasn’t lions or an invading army, He’s saved us from plenty of perilous situations. We may not have the enormous wealth or wisdom of Solomon, but God has given us more than enough of both.

Let us never forget that God didn’t stop working in people’s lives when the last words in Revelation were penned. Our stories may not be as exciting and astonishing as those in the Bible, nevertheless, they are every bit as wonderful and worthy of thanks and praise. We’ve emerged unharmed when we should have been hurt, been nourished when hungry, been loved and comforted in our anguish, and been helped when we lost all hope. Jesus freed us from the chains of sin and the prison of despair and gave us a new life and the Holy Spirit! Indeed, God is good!

The Psalmist tells us never to forget all the good things God has done and yet, considering these past two years, it’s easy to do just that. As we face what promises to be an equally trying 2022 and the various challenges of a continuing pandemic, flight cancellations and delays, a still broken supply chain, and extremes in weather (along with countless other troubles), let us remember the many blessings of the past and appreciate the little blessings of each day.

Praise the Lord, oh my soul; let all that I am praise the Lord!

Count your blessings instead of your crosses.
Count your gains instead of your losses.
Count your joys instead of your woes.
Count your friends instead of your foes.
Count your smiles instead of your tears.
Count your courage instead of your fears.
Count your full years instead of your lean.
Count your kind deeds instead of your mean.
Count your health instead of your wealth.
Count on God instead of yourself. [Author unknown]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. Remember the wonders he has performed, his miracles, and the rulings he has given. [Psalm 105:1-5 (NLT)]

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THE WISE MEN – EPIPHANY

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

MagiAlthough we try to keep Christ in Christmas, many of our ideas about Christmas aren’t Bible based. In spite of the delightful carols, the gospels make no mention of a little drummer boy, cattle lowing, Jeanette or Isabella, a partridge in a pear tree, and, rather than mid-winter, it’s more likely that Jesus was born in early fall.

Perhaps the most glaring example of misinformation found in the season’s songs has to do with the wise men. We can blame John Henry Hopkins, the Pennsylvania clergyman who wrote the song “We Three Kings” for much of our confusion. He wrote the carol in 1857 for his nieces and nephews and used it in a Christmas pageant that year. Published in a collection of hymns and carols in 1863, it’s been sung around the world ever since and most people are now convinced that these three kings visited the baby Jesus shortly after his birth.

The magi or wise men, however, weren’t kings. If they had been, it’s likely that the Gospel writers would have included such an important detail. Renaissance artworks depicting king-like figures in flowing robes and elaborate crowns at Jesus’s birth probably contributed to Hopkins’ misrepresentation. While they may have been envoys from a king, these wise men probably were priests, court advisors, or even astrologers from a land or lands to the east such as present day Iran or Iraq.

Ancient astrologers interpreted major astronomical events as signaling the birth of a king. Whether a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars or a supernova, these wise men recognized the phenomenon as a special sign. Familiar enough with the ancient prophecies to quote from Micah to Herod, they knew a star would herald the Jewish king’s birth. It was typical for kings to send emissaries from their court with gifts to another king and a king (or kings) may have sent these men with their extravagant gifts to pay tribute to this newborn king. Moreover, while the gospel mentions three gifts, it never says how many men brought them and there may have been as few as two or more than twelve of them.

Even though the gospel account of the wise men’s visit follows closely after the birth of Jesus, logic tells us a couple of years had to pass before their arrival. Having traveled over 800 miles and stopping to see Herod in Jerusalem, the magi couldn’t have arrived immediately following Jesus’ birth. Jesus probably was a toddler when they finally arrived and found Him in a house with Mary. While these visitors sought to worship the new king, Herod wanted to kill him and his decision to kill all boys two years and younger ties in with this timeline.

The Magi may not belong in our nativity scenes, but they are an important part of the Christmas story. Today (January 6), many Christians observe Epiphany or Three Kings Day—a day that celebrates Jesus’ outward and visible expression of love for us and the wise men’s recognition of the one who was born “king of the Jews.” Although Jesus’ birth announcement was made to lowly Jewish shepherds, His first worshipers were these wise Gentiles. Although a messiah had been promised to the Jews, it was foreigners who sought Him, recognized His value, presented Him with precious gifts and worshipped Him. They may have been Gentiles, but they recognized the promised king of the Jews. Moreover, instead of returning to Herod as ordered, they were obedient to God’s direction and returned home another way.

While they weren’t actually there at the time, the presence of the wise men in our nativity sets is a reminder that Jesus, the promised Messiah, came to save all of mankind. They remind us to seek Jesus and recognize Him as our savior, to present Him with our gifts and worship him, and to obey God even when He sends us in a different direction.

We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star of royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light. [John Henry Hopkins]

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. [Matthew 2:16 (NLT)]

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