LOOKS ARE DECEIVING 

peacock - peahenBut the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

Samuel was sent to the home of Jesse to find Israel’s new king. As soon as he saw Jesse’s imposing eldest son, Eliab, Samuel thought he surely had his man. God, however, corrected him and told the prophet that appearances can be deceiving. Man sees how a person looks but God actually sees who that person is!

I thought of God’s admonition to Samuel when visiting my son in southern California where a flock of feral peacocks roam his neighborhood. With their vibrant colors and extravagant plumage, they are a beautiful addition to an already picturesque location. I thought how fortunate the residents were to have these beautiful birds in their neighborhood until I heard one scream from a roof top. The dreadful noise was a cross between the braying of a mule and the screeching of a tortured cat. Legend has it that the vain peacock has incredibly ugly feet and shrieks horribly whenever he sees them. I don’t know about its feet but, once I heard the peacock’s call, I quickly thanked God that we don’t have peacocks in our Florida neighborhood.

Yes, looks can be deceiving. People can be beautiful, like the peacock, but what’s inside them can be as ugly as the peacock’s voice. On the other hand, people can be plain and easily ignored, like the grey mockingbird, but what’s inside them is as beautiful as a mockingbird’s song.

Lord, direct us so that we are more like you; help us look at people’s hearts and not their outward appearance. Guide us so that we are more concerned with having good hearts than in having good looks.

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you will never walk alone.
[Sam Levenson]

Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. [1 Peter 3:3-4 (NLT)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

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)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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PLAYING WITH HEART

For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land—the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah. They will fight you, but they will fail. For I am with you, and I will take care of you. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Jeremiah 1:18-19 (NLT)]

white tailed deerI thought of locker room speeches today when reading the book of Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah to be His prophet and gives him the task of bringing a message of both judgment and blessings to the nations. Telling him to get ready for action and not to be afraid, God gives the prophet the Biblical equivalent of a locker room speech and tells him that he will be invincible, as unconquerable as a fortress, and promises to care for him. God’s words had to be encouraging and reassuring to the young prophet.

We all have our favorite motivational movie speeches. Perhaps it’s the one from Hoosiers when Gene Hackman’s character tells his team to play to their potential and not get caught up in thinking about winning or losing. Another great speech is when the groundskeeper in Rudy tells the young man that giving up, while easier than perseverance, leads to regret. It is pushing through that leads to triumph. My favorite scene is probably when the coach in We Are Marshall tells his team that the opponents don’t know their heart. “We cannot lose,” he says, adding that, while they may be behind on the scoreboard when the game ends, they cannot be defeated. Perhaps I like these speeches because none of the coaches said that winning the game was what determined the players’ victory. Victory would be achieved by playing the game with heart. When God encouraged Jeremiah, like these coaches, He never promised a win.

Jeremiah was Judah’s primary prophet during the dark days preceding their conquest by Babylonia. Known as the “Weeping Prophet,” many would say Jeremiah was a failure. He labored over forty years and, at best, his audience was apathetic and ignored him; at worst, they were antagonistic and hostile. His neighbors wanted to kill him, his family plotted against him, and he was banned from the Temple. He was arrested, whipped, put in stocks, and ridiculed at a city gate. After another flogging, he was imprisoned and then lowered into a cistern where he sunk into mud. Even after his prophecy proved true and Jerusalem fell, he was disregarded and ridiculed. Taken against his will to Egypt, tradition holds that Jeremiah’s fellow countrymen stoned him to death there.

A sportscaster would say that Jeremiah lost the game in an agonizing and humiliating defeat. The reforms of Judah that started with Josiah stopped there and it was downhill from then on. By the time Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, Jerusalem had fallen, the temple was destroyed, and his people slaughtered, tortured or taken captive. Nevertheless, Jeremiah did his utmost and never lost heart. Quitting certainly would have been easier but he persevered. His triumph was not in changing the minds of Judah but rather in following the will of God. Let us never forget that God’s idea of victory has nothing to do with winning or the numbers on the scoreboard but everything to do with how we play the game. Like Jeremiah, may we always play it with heart, faith, and obedience.

For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. [1 John 5:4-5 (NLT)]

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SUZANNE FROM SINGAPORE

aster - nodding onion - deptford pinkWalk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. [Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)]

Revealing her roots with her English accent, Suzanne told me she lives in Singapore, is the CEO of a foreign corporation, and was taking a holiday at her beach home in southwest Florida. We had a few minutes before class started and, trying to find common ground, I asked if she had any children or grands coming to visit. Replying that her children were still single, Suzanne said she doesn’t much care for children and hoped to never have any grands. After telling me that a young family had recently visited her London apartment, she disclosed her annoyance at the small child who’d touched her priceless antiques and run across her valuable Persian rugs. When Suzanne added that she had no idea how anyone could host guests for more than a few hours without having full time staff, I realized how far her world is from mine and most of the other women present in the room. I’d have to dig deeper to find common ground!

Although dressed beautifully, Suzanne didn’t flaunt her wealth by wearing a Chanel suit, Manolo Blahnik heels, and Harry Winston diamonds to a lunch time Bible study. Her words, however, were equally as ostentatious. Clearly, she is a powerful wealthy woman who lives a privileged life but she seemed oblivious that most of the world doesn’t live her way. I think she would have been surprised to know that I’d just hosted guests for a week without having a maid or cook, that the elderly woman at the next table still works so she can pay for her health insurance, that the woman beside her has been single-handedly caring for her handicapped husband for the last eight years, or that the woman beside me is raising two grandchildren by herself.

While I’m pointing a finger at Suzanne, I’m also pointing three at me. My conversation with her made me realize how often I am unaware and insensitive to other people’s circumstances. Just as I assumed Suzanne would love small children, I often assume other people have the same politics, history, finances, family situation, interests and preferences that I do. Like hers, my words have been patronizing, oblivious, and tactless more times that I care to admit.

I thought about that conversation when reading Paul’s words about seasoning our conversation with salt. Salt makes food palatable and our words should be palatable to all who hear them. Suzanne’s insensitive words were heard by only a few Christian women at Bible study but what if they’d been heard by unbelievers who may not have been so forgiving? What if those unbelievers had judged Christians by her pretentious manner?

A popular piece of advice for speakers is to “know your audience” and businesses spend thousands of dollars in market research to do just that. This sage advice applies to us, as well. Let us remember that we are walking advertisements for Jesus; as His spokespersons, we must be respectful, tactful, kind, humble, and compassionate in our words. When we are finished conversing with people, they should feel that they heard something of value and, more important, that they are valuable both to us and to God.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel. [Carl W. Buehner]

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. … always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:8,15 (NLT)]

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]

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THE ALARM

Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. [Romans 2:14-15 (NLT)]

robinLooking back, I realize we’d heard a chirp once or twice earlier that day but had ignored it. Busy running errands, we’d given the odd sound no thought. At 12:22 AM, however, the source became obvious and could no longer be ignored. The bedroom smoke alarm was chirping loudly every minute or so. I looked at my husband with envy—without his hearing aids, he was oblivious to the annoying noise above our heads. Since there was no way I was going to return to slumber, I woke him and we replaced the battery. Two nights later, when the same thing happened with the brand new battery, we simply took it out and went back to bed. I’m embarrassed to admit we had no battery in that alarm for the next several months. Since 60% of home fire deaths occur in properties without a working smoke alarm, we were foolish to ignore the problem.

Rather than replacing the battery, we actually needed to replace our 15-year old smoke alarms. The U.S. Fire Administration (part of FEMA), suggests replacing smoke alarms every ten years. After a decade, alarm sensors are compromised by dust, insects, contaminants and circuitry corrosion and their failure rate is 30%.

The smoke alarm got me thinking about another alarm we have—conscience. Made in the image of God, we all have an innate understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. Like a smoke alarm, however, its sensors can fail to work properly. Rather than dust or spider webs, things like pride, selfishness, prejudice, materialism, envy, and jealousy can corrode its circuits. Fallible, it can be convinced to condone, excuse, or justify the indefensible, inexcusable, and sinful. By themselves, consciences can be as unreliable as thirty year old smoke alarms (nearly all of which fail).

Fortunately, as Christians, we have something in addition to a conscience—the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is His voice that points us to God’s ways. His presence renews and reshapes our conscience into a much bigger and better alarm—one based on God’s word rather than convenience or objectives. While we can manipulate our conscience into seeing things our way, we can’t sway the Holy Spirit; God’s standards don’t change with the situation or our desires. Moreover, the Spirit’s voice doesn’t stop at determining right from wrong; it convicts us of the need for repentance and change. It’s like the new smoke alarms we now have that interconnect, inform us of the type and location of the danger, and tell us to evacuate. Fortunately, instead of a seven year warranty, the Holy Spirit can last a lifetime!

Our new improved Holy Spirit-powered conscience won’t do us much good if we don’t recognize and heed it. Unless we read God’s word, it’s easy to mistake which voice we’re hearing (ours or the Spirit’s). While gentle and loving, the Spirit’s voice can be brutally honest and, like a smoke alarm, it demands action. When the Psalmist asked God to point out anything He found offensive, he had to expect a truthful answer and one that he might not like. Although we can’t remove the Spirit’s batteries, we can ignore His words of conviction. Like those people without functioning smoke alarms, however, we do so at our own risk.

Let us therefore not deceive ourselves. In walking according to the spirit we shall hear the direction of conscience. Do not try to escape any inward reproach; rather, be attentive to its voice. [Watchman Nee]

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. [1 Corinthians 4: 4 (NLT)]

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DEVOTIONAL MOODS

Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart. [Colossians 4:2 (NLT)]

Ghost Ranch NMIn his classic satire The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis gives the reader a series of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, advising the novice demon on ways to secure the damnation of his “patient,” an ordinary young man. Warning that the demons are defeated whenever man directs his gaze toward God, Screwtape encourages his nephew to keep the patient (a new Christian) from praying. If prayer can’t be prevented, he advises getting the fellow into a “devotional mood… since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s [God’s] service.” Screwtape reassures Wormwood that “lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.” It won’t be difficult to redirect the patient’s attention, he tells his nephew, since humans aren’t really as desirous of “the real nakedness of the soul in prayer” as they suppose.

We know that Jesus prayed frequently and fervently. Luke, who was a physician, tells us Jesus prayed so hard in Gethsemane that He sweat blood. This rare condition, called hematohidrosis, was reported by both Aristotle and Theophrastus more than 300 years before Christ. Under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress, the tiny blood vessels surrounding the sweat glands can constrict and then dilate to the point of rupture; blood then flows into the sweat glands and a person can literally sweat blood. That night in Gethsemane, as Jesus agonized in the garden, there was nothing superficial or lazy about His prayer.

After reading Screwtape’s counsel to his nephew, I thought about my morning devotional time. By 5:30 AM, I am in a comfy chair, sipping a latte, and surrounded by iPad, Bibles, books, notebook and pen. During the next 90 minutes or so, I read assorted devotions and Bible commentaries, get through a few chapters in the Bible and whatever book I’m studying in small group, journal, and pray. Unfortunately, with prayer being last, it often is least and, while sincere, it can be rather generic and hurried. Screwtape’s devilish words helped me see how easy it is to mistake my “devotional mood” for prayer. Thinking about God, even spending time in His word, is no substitute for talking with the Big Guy Himself! I don’t think God expects us to pray so passionately that we sweat blood; nevertheless, I do think He expects us to bare our souls in His presence.

Establishing and reinforcing our connection with God, prayer is far more than study and reflection or telling God what it is we want. It is a concentrated, purposeful and deliberate time of worship, praise, thanksgiving, self-examination, confession, repentance, acceptance, intercession, and petition. Rather than being in a “devotional mood,” prayer is attending to God and His voice with undivided attention and submitting to His will with an undivided heart.

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

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