The community continually committed themselves to learning what the apostles taught them, gathering for fellowship, breaking bread, and praying. Everyone felt a sense of awe because the apostles were doing many signs and wonders among them. There was an intense sense of togetherness among all who believed; they shared all their material possessions in trust. [Acts 2:42-44 (VOICE)]

Locarno-Madonna del SassoWe’ve left our old church and have been house-of-worship hunting. At first, it was like trying various hotels once a week to discover one of good quality with the right character, location and features for us. Having found a good prospect, we returned several times, signed up for a community service opportunity, and joined a Bible study. Now, it’s more like we’re renting a house; we’re meeting the neighbors, becoming familiar with the community and getting an idea of what a long-term stay would be like. Nevertheless, we’re still just temporary residents and have no ties. As we settle into this new church, however, our prayer is that it will feel enough like home that we’ll want to join it, which is a commitment somewhat like buying a house (but without the mortgage and closing costs.)

Why should we bother to join a church? Couldn’t we continue as Christians-at-large and just visit churches? There are over 85 Christian churches in our town alone, so we’d have plenty from which to choose. Why not remain a renter and just drop our tithe into whatever basket is passed that morning?

There’s a big difference, however, between renting something and living in a home we own. In a nightly rental, we really don’t care about the mud we’ve tracked into the room, the burnt out light bulb, the coffee stain on the rug, or the people in the next room. Even when renting a house, as long as everything works, we aren’t concerned about the aging appliances, the armadillo digging under the deck, or the grubs in the grass; we can always move on elsewhere. It’s only when we buy the house that we become committed to it, our neighbors, and the well-being of our community. Because the house’s future is tied to ours, we invest our time, love and money; we look not just to today but also to tomorrow.

Church membership, like owning a house, is a commitment and one that means far more than maintaining a building. It’s a commitment to worship regularly, serve one another, spread God’s word, study, fellowship, pray for each other, uphold doctrine, be held accountable, and ensure its future for the next generation. Commitment is what keeps us caring for the homes we own and it’s what keeps a church functioning.

When we buy a house, we get a building but, when we join a church, we get much more than that. We get a ready-made family—a group of people who share the same foundation and love of Christ. And that, more than anything else, is why we’ll join the church that’s right for us once it’s found.

Why should you join a church? Because by committing yourself in that way you will help to fulfill your purpose as a Christian. It seems pretty obvious from biblical metaphors of building stones and body parts that the Christian life was not meant to be lived alone. You, as a Christian, were designed and created by God, not for a life of individuality and self-will, but to fill a niche in the spiritual building called the church. [Jim Elliff]

They were unified as they worshiped at the temple day after day. In homes, they broke bread and shared meals with glad and generous hearts. The new disciples praised God, and they enjoyed the goodwill of all the people of the city. Day after day the Lord added to their number everyone who was experiencing liberation. [Acts 2:46-47 (VOICE)]

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Tao New MexicoThe Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. [Genesis 13:14-15 (NIV)]

We were visiting an area church when the pastor referred to the above verse from Genesis in which God tells Abram (Abraham) he can have all that he sees. As the sermon continued, the pastor recited a litany of God’s promises and he seemed to be preaching a “name it and claim it” theology only, in this case, it was more like a “see it and have it” one. Granted, it was the first sermon of the year and the pastor clearly wanted to start 2018 on a high note. Nevertheless, claiming God’s promises and thinking they mean He’ll give me everything I visualize isn’t Bible-based.

Our faith and thoughts do not create our reality. If they did, among other things, I would be two inches taller, a whole lot shapelier, and without a wrinkle or any arthritis. Our faith doesn’t promise to give us what we want; our faith allows us to trust in a loving God who will give us what we need.

It is God, not us, who chooses when and how to bless us or, as in the case of Job, afflict us with trials. Job didn’t suffer for lack of faith; the man was filled with faith and yet he endured the loss of everything but his life. As baffled as Job was by his troubles, he knew that blessings and misfortune are not a measure of faith; the faithful can suffer and the wicked can prosper.

Not every promise made by God in the Bible is a wholesale across-the-board promise to us. That promise to Abram was a specific promise about a particular piece of land. God said nothing about seeing and having boyfriends, better jobs, new businesses, babies, healing, bigger paychecks, larger houses, or freedom from debt. Jesus came to save us from our sins and not from bankruptcy, infertility, illness, bad marriages, poor choices, difficult in-laws, unemployment, demanding bosses, or a host of other life challenges. Moreover, He calls us to sacrifice and deny rather than want and get.

Although God wants our love, worship, faith and obedience, He doesn’t need any of those to operate the universe. As Christians, we believe in the power of faith and prayer but we must remember the real power lies in God and His plan. We’re not God’s customers who can order what they see; we’re His children who thankfully accept what He gives us. Much of what we envision never will be ours simply because it’s not in God’s plan. When we become so intent on seeing what we want, we may miss seeing the blessings we’ve been given or different ones waiting in another direction.

I will continue to have faith and claim God’s promises—the promises of His presence, unfailing love, strength, wisdom, comfort, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, the power of Holy Spirit, and the peace of God. What He hasn’t promised me is that if I see it, believe it or name it, it will be mine.

 Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. [Max Lucado]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)]

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swamp (string) lily - corkscrew swampAs you know, long ago God instructed Moses to tell His people, “Do not murder; those who murder will be judged and punished.” But here is the even harder truth: anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged for his anger. Anyone who taunts his friend, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him “Loser” or “Fool” or “Scum,” will have to answer to the high court. And anyone who calls his brother a fool may find himself in the fires of hell. [Matthew 5:21-22 (VOICE)]

While Satan’s presence is easy to see in malevolent acts like terrorism, genocide, slavery, torture and human trafficking, he’s usually far more subtle. That we don’t expect his presence in our emotions and actions works to his advantage and we don’t see him when he comes slithering into our lives. Like a trickle of water seeping through a foundation crack, he oozes in without our noticing and, before we know it, he’s settled into the La-Z-Boy and made himself at home in our hearts.

Evil is anything that contradicts the nature of God and it includes immorality, pettiness, deceit, envy, maliciousness, unforgiveness, hatred, slander, hypocrisy, covetousness, and corruption. Unfortunately, those evils are harder to recognize and far more likely to be in our hearts than genocide, murder or even adultery.

The enemy doesn’t care who he captures and the more the merrier as far as he is concerned. Rebekah and Jacob let him into their hearts when they plotted to deceive Isaac into thinking he was blessing Esau when actually blessing Jacob. Esau’s reaction to their deception allowed the enemy entrance in his heart when he decided to kill his brother. Their story illustrates how evil has a way of begetting more evil.

After recently witnessing some of the enemy’s destructive work, I’ve had righteous indignation at the way innocent people were hurt. Unfortunately, I’ve also had some very unrighteous anger and ill will. There’s a fine line between disappointment and disgust, indignation and fury, and making things right and retaliation. I found myself hoping for disaster to strike the wrongdoers and have caught myself disparaging and despising them. The enemy has used my anger to open the door for malice, unkindness and even gossip. His evil is just begetting more of the same.

Somehow, during Jacob’s twenty year absence, Esau managed to empty his heart of bitterness and anger at his brother; Satan lost that battle. If, however, I allow anger to continue brewing in me, he’ll be able to put another notch on his belt. Anger, spite, contempt, disdain, condemnation—they all diminish me and the Christ within me. That I’m angry on someone else’s behalf or that the other people’s sins have harmed people while mine have harmed no one (but me), is of no matter. My thoughts have been evil and the only option is to capture them, send them packing, and seal the cracks that allowed them entrance. I’ll do that by conforming my thoughts to God’s will and allowing His love and forgiveness to rule my heart.

Never let evil get the best of you; instead, overpower evil with the good. [Romans 12:21 (VOICE)]

We are demolishing arguments and ideas, every high-and-mighty philosophy that pits itself against the knowledge of the one true God. We are taking prisoners of every thought, every emotion, and subduing them into obedience to the Anointed One. [2 Corinthians 10:5 (VOICE)]

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When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. [1 Corinthians 9:20-21 (NLT)]

raccoons - Corkscrew swamp sanctuaryLike the rest of the east coast, Florida had a cold spell last week. With a temperature of 40, the weatherperson warned of a windchill of 36. Cautioning about the hazardous weather, she suggested that small children and animals stay indoors. That same morning, our son’s family in the north woke to -4 with a windchill of -20. For them, it was just another cold winter morning. They calmly bundled up the kids and walked them to school as they do every day. What a difference of perspective 1,400 miles makes!

How we view the world around us often depends on how it affects us. We were enjoying the antics of a pair of raccoons as they dug in the water for snails and crayfish when we heard, “Where’s my rifle now that I need it?” Stunned by such a negative reaction to what was an “Aha!” moment for us, we turned to look at the speaker who explained his vehement reaction to these engaging animals. To this farmer from Iowa, raccoons are masked marauders who wreak havoc with his corn crop and in his hen house. One person’s pleasure easily can be another’s pain in the neck! Where we saw two of God’s delightful creatures, he saw only destructive pests and I had to concede he made a good point.

Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, the Apostle Paul was a devout Jew. As a Pharisee, he carefully abided by every one of the Torah’s 613 commandments. Gentiles, however, didn’t abide by the restrictive Jewish laws. They shaved their beards with a razor, didn’t recite the Shema (a Jewish prayer) twice a day, didn’t wear tefillin on their heads and arms or have tzitzit on the corners of their robes, made no distinction between kosher and non-kosher, and didn’t follow a host of other rules about food, work, and clothing. When Paul met with them, he didn’t go into their homes and tell them how wrong they were. He didn’t insist they keep kosher, add tassels to their robes or put mezuzahs on their door posts. Knowing that Christ had freed the Jews from the Torah’s regulations, the only law about which Paul was concerned was the law of Christ. Understanding the Gentiles’ different point of view, Paul respected it and lived their way with them. On the other hand, Paul also respected the perspective of the Jews. Having always followed the strict ritual observances of the Torah, he knew they’d be disturbed to see him break from any of them. When with the Jews, Paul followed their traditions, probably recited the Shema, and refrained from eating pork, shellfish, or milk and meat together. That didn’t make Paul a hypocrite—he openly admitted the way he changed behavior depending on his company. It simply meant that, rather than being judgmental, he respected others enough to look at things from their viewpoint. With each group, he found common ground in Jesus Christ. When we take the time to see the world from someone else’s perspective, we might just learn something; I know we’d be better evangelists!

Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. … So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Don’t give offense to Jews or Gentiles or the church of God. I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved. [1 Corinthians 9:22b-23, 10:31-33 (NLT)]

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I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house… [Psalm 151:1a (NRSV)]

ground orchidOn the last day of 2017, the liturgist at church read Malachi 4, Revelation 22, Proverbs 31, and Psalm 150 – the last chapters of the Old and New Testaments, Proverbs and Psalms. It seemed fitting on the final day of the year to hear the final words in Scripture. It was only later that I learned there is one more psalm, but don’t look for it in your Bible. Unless you are Greek Orthodox, it probably won’t be there. Although both the traditional Hebrew and Christian Bibles have only 150 psalms, the Greek translation known as the Septuagint includes Psalm 151. We have to go back a bit in history to understand why the discrepancy.

By the 4th century, Latin was replacing Greek as the common language and Pope Damascus commissioned a young priest named Jerome to translate the Gospels into Latin. Once done, Jerome turned to translating the Old Testament. Not wanting to depend on the earlier Greek translations of what originally had been written in Hebrew, the gifted linguist translated from the original language. Finding Psalm 151 only in Greek translations and not in the Hebrew Scriptures, he omitted it from the Psalter.

Much of what we call the Old Testament is based on the work of a scholarly group of rabbis called Masoretes who worked between the 6th and the 10th centuries. They corrected any errors that crept into the text of the Hebrew Bible following the Babylonian captivity and wanted to prevent any future alterations of the text. Like Jerome, they only found Psalm 151 in Greek translations so they, too, did not consider it to be part of the Psalter. They did, however, place it in the Apocrypha with other works of unknown origin or doubtful authorship.

When a copy of this disputed psalm was found in a Hebrew psalter among the Dead Sea Scrolls some sixty years ago, scholars had to rethink their exclusion of the psalm. The Hebrew Psalter in which it was found dates back to between 300 BC and 50 AD.  Originally two psalms in Hebrew, the Greek translators had condensed them into the one found in the Septuagint. Psalm 151 is now found in some expanded versions of the NRSV (and some other translations) with the notation that it is ascribed to David “though it is outside the number.”

A first-person account of both his anointing by Samuel and his defeat of Goliath, the psalm certainly could have been written by David. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest version of 1 Samuel 16 and 17. Perhaps, however, it should be renumbered; rather than being the last of the psalms, this should the first in the Psalter. These seem to be the words of a young David, with a hint of boyish braggadocio, fresh from his victory over Goliath. Little did the confident young man know of the weight of kingship—the joy and sorrow, love and loss, friendships and betrayals, or the great and terrible things that lay in his future. Yet, even then, he knew the most important thing—he had been called by God to be His servant.

I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house; I tended my father’s sheep. My hands made a harp; my fingers fashioned a lyre. And who will tell my Lord? The Lord himself; it is he who hears.  It was he who sent his messenger and took me from my father’s sheep, and anointed me with his anointing oil. My brothers were handsome and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them. I went out to meet the Philistine, and he cursed me by his idols. But I drew his own sword; I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel. [Psalm 151 (NRSV)]

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DARK GREEN FRITILLARY“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. [Genesis 50:20-21 (NLT)]

The above words were spoken by Joseph to his brothers—the men who planned on killing him until greed entered into it and they sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. In retrospect, God’s plan made sense to Joseph but what about the thirteen years he spent between being thrown into a cistern like a piece of trash and becoming second in command to Pharaoh? Was Jacob’s beloved son so confident of God’s plan while standing on the slave auction block in Egypt? What about when he was unjustly accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife? He may have been the warden’s favorite prisoner, but he languished in jail for a crime he refused to commit! What did he think of God’s plan then? When Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his former position, Joseph’s hopes rose only to have them dashed when the man forgot about his cell mate for another two years. Did Joseph ever doubt? Did he ever ask, “Where’s God in all of this?”

I thought of Joseph’s words after praying for a toddler who is fighting a losing battle with metastasized cancer. In terrible pain, her physicians are running out of treatment options. “Where is God in all of this?” I wondered. “What good can possibly come from it?” If I’m asking these questions, I know her family must be asking them as well. As they watch their daughter suffer, do they ever wonder if God has abandoned them? In retrospect, maybe it will make sense someday. Perhaps the knowledge the toddler’s oncologists glean from her treatment will save some other child. Who knows? Right now, however, her parents can’t look back—they can only look forward and the future is bleak.

It’s times like these that call for faith and hope. God didn’t walk away from us when He finished with creation and He hasn’t walked away from us now. He is still here—at large and in charge! No matter how desolate the circumstances appear, God has not forgotten, abandoned or ignored us.

If I truly believe God is good and in control, I must trust in His inexplicable plan. I believe He is gently holding this little girl and wiping her tears. I believe He is standing with His arms around her worried parents as they stand beside her and that He’s guiding the hospital staff as they insert IVs and search for ways to save her precious life. I know His Holy Spirit is giving voice to my silent prayers for her.

In retrospect, Joseph saw God’s purpose in all he endured. Whether or not we will ever understand God’s actions regarding this beautiful child, I don’t know. From Joseph’s story, we know that God can reroute evil to accomplish good. God was there for Joseph and He’s there for this little girl and her family. He is present; we’re just having trouble seeing Him. Open our eyes, O Lord, open our eyes.

We want Christ to hurry and calm the storm. He wants us to find Him in the midst of it first. [Beth Moore]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:21-24 (NLT)]

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