HIDDEN BLESSINGS

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)]

great blue heronAs Christians, we know everything that touches us has first passed through our sovereign (and loving) God’s hands. While it is our faith in Him that enables us to accept difficult (even tragic) events, acceptance is easier said than done. Along with faith, Pollyanna, the fictional heroine in Eleanor Porter’s book by the same name, found that the correct mind set helped.

When Pollyanna was disappointed to find crutches instead of the doll she wanted in the package sent by the Ladies Aid Society, her missionary father taught her the “glad game.” Telling her to look at the good side of things, he pointed out they could be glad because she didn’t need the crutches! Pollyanna continued to play the glad game until she was sorely tested by paralysis. Admitting the game wasn’t as much fun to play when it got so challenging, she eventually found some good in her plight—she still had her legs! Indeed, the “glad game” is much harder when the issues are greater; nevertheless, it is a game worth playing.

At the age of 96, my lively and alert father-in-law died, but not of natural causes; he died within an hour of being in a car accident. As my mother-in-law rehabbed in a nursing home from the same accident, I was shocked when she said, “I’m so glad he went that way!” Fortunately, she explained, “He would have hated being in a place like this.” While I would have preferred God taking Grandpa while he napped in his easy chair, she had a point. Like a cat with nine lives, he had several amazing recoveries from earlier strokes and other health problems and still had a good quality of life. In reality, however, he was just a fall or another stroke away from becoming an infirm resident in a nursing home. This energetic and active man of faith was ready for his heavenly home and would have hated waiting for his departure as an invalid. Rather than being angry at the driver who caused the accident, I joined my mother-in-law in the glad game and chose to look at that accident as one of God’s blessings in disguise.

Sometimes, it takes time and the gift of hindsight before we recognize hidden blessings. I was fifteen and the only child still at home when my mother died within a few months of her cancer diagnosis. My emotionally detached and workaholic father was left with a teenager he barely knew while I was left with a man who was more a presence than a parent to me. He knew next to nothing about parenting and I resented his coldness and dogmatic ways. In an odd way, as much as we both mourned my mother, we were blessed by her absence because her death threw us together in a way that demanded change. Out of necessity, he gradually became a loving father and a far better man while the angry troubled teen I was became a loving responsible daughter and a far more compassionate woman. My father died less than five years later but several more years passed before I became aware of my older siblings’ continued resentment, anger, and bitterness toward him. It was only then that I realized how my mother’s death was a blessing in disguise because it gave my father and me an opportunity to build a relationship and to change for the better.

God often conceals blessings in our challenges, disappointments, and heartbreak; it is our task to seek them out. Playing our own version of the “glad game” by looking for God’s loving hand in our lives is the way we can have joy, not in spite of our troubles and sorrow, but because of them.

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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WOMEN IN THE CHURCH

And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life. [Philippians 4:3 (NLT)]

pale purple coneflower
From the beginning of His ministry, women were among the earliest followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna accompanied and financially supported Him and Martha and Mary offered their hospitality in Bethany. Women were witnesses to His death, burial, and the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene was the first to view the resurrected Christ! Because women get little mention in the New Testament, however, we tend to overlook the role they played in the early church.

Yesterday, when I wrote about the feud between Euodia and Syntyche, I didn’t mention Paul’s commendation of these same two women for diligently working beside Paul, Clement, and others in spreading the gospel. That Paul was troubled enough by their disagreement to ask a ministry colleague to intervene implies these women had influence in the Philippian church. What role did they and other women play in the early church?

Although Philippi was a Roman colony, Euodia and Syntyche are Greek names. It’s a possibility that, like Lydia (a Greek merchant of purple cloth), they were merchants originally from Greece. The two may have been some of the women who met with Lydia at the riverbank for prayer. [Acts 16] Although Lydia merits just a few sentences in Scripture, the Philippian church began with her baptism and the baptisms of the rest of her household! That Lydia was the only Philippian named by Luke indicates she played an important role in the early church. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke stayed at her home while in Philippi.

Along with Lydia, a number of other women served as leaders of the house churches that sprang up in the cities throughout the Roman Empire: among them were Priscilla, Chloe, Apphia, Nympha, Mary (the mother of John Mark), and possibly the woman John addressed as “the chosen lady” in his second epistle. While it is speculation, Euodia and Syntyche, like Lydia, may have led house churches. We know that Priscilla and her husband Aquila travelled with Paul to Ephesus and founded the church there. Both men and women could serve as deacons and Phoebe was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. In Acts, we learn that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses.

Paul even entrusted his epistles to be delivered by women and it was Phoebe who carried his letter to the Romans. In Romans 16, Paul specifically greeted Mary “who has worked so hard for your benefit” and a woman name Junia who, along with Andronicus, had been imprisoned for the faith. Among the 29 people he mentioned in this chapter, nine were women. Many of those mentioned, like Priscilla, traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. Whenever Paul referred to someone as a fellow co-worker, he used the same word, synergos, for both women and men!

There is extra-Biblical support of the important role women played in the early church, as well. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria wrote that women accompanied the apostles on their missionary journeys as colleagues. Acting as equals, not subordinates, Clement said they served as “fellow ministers in dealing with housewives…that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.” When writing about the “crime” of Christianity, Pliny the Younger mentioned torturing two slave women he called ministrae (or deacons) in the Christian community.

Understanding the important role played by women in the early church, it’s easier to understand Paul’s deep concern about the rift between Euodia and Syntyche. Moreover, it tells me that both the early church and Paul (who has unfairly been accused of misogyny by some) truly lived by the words found in Galatians that, in Christ’s family, previous distinctions like nationality, race, status, and sex no longer exist. In Christ’s body, we truly are one!

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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EUODIA AND SYNTYCHE

I have a special appeal which goes jointly to Euodia and Syntyche: please, please, come to a common mind in the Lord. [Philippians 4:2 (NTE)]

sandhill cranes
These words from Philippians are the only mention of Euodia and Syntyche in the New Testament. Personally, if someone is going to read about me 2,000 years from now, I would prefer something about how easy it was to get along with me rather than about any arguments I had. Because Paul urges the women to settle their disagreement, it seems that their dispute was personal rather than doctrinal. Had the issue been one of doctrine, Paul would have stepped in and corrected the error as he did in many of his letters to the early churches.

Bible scholars have a sense of humor and it’s been suggested that better names for these women would be “Odious” and “Soon Touchy.” Perhaps Euodia really was disagreeable and unpleasant and Syntyche was thin-skinned and quick-tempered. Then again, maybe they were just like the rest of us at our less than best—stubborn, indignant, tactless, resentful, short-tempered, uncompromising, or easily offended. We don’t know what their problem was nor do we know who was “right” and who was “wrong.” In this case, by holding a grudge, they both were in error!

Because people in conflict usually expect others to take sides, conflict affects more than those directly involved. The women’s behavior was threatening the existence of the church at Philippi and their dispute was hindering God’s work. To save the church, Paul didn’t tell them they had to become best friends or even agree with each other, just to be of the same mind as the Lord. For the sake of the church, he wanted them to find a way to live in harmony.

The letter to the Philippians was written to “all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the church leaders and deacons.” [1:1] In the early church, Paul’s apostolic letters were meant to be read aloud to the entire congregation. Less than 15% of men were literate and that number was less for women. The congregation sat in a circle or semi-circle around the reader so that everyone saw the speaker. This arrangement meant they also saw one another and their reaction to the words spoken. Can you imagine Euodia and Syntyche (and those who may have taken sides in their conflict) as they heard the apostle’s words? There probably was a fair amount of squirming in the seats that day!

Like churches, families can suffer because of quarrels. My friend Wendy’s two sisters have a long-standing feud and refuse to speak with one another. Whenever she returned to her hometown, each sister expected Wendy to spend time with her but got irate and offended if she spent time with the other sibling. Even though Wendy refused to be caught up in their animosity, she was in a no-win situation. Eventually, it became easier to step away from the drama altogether and not return home at all. The sisters’ vendetta impacted more than just Wendy; ten cousins were affected as were the women’s parents when they were alive.

Heavenly Father, knowing that we can’t agree with everybody all of the time, show us how to get along with them. Give us loving, forgiving, and understanding hearts. Toughen our hides so that we don’t take offense so easily. Show us how to have harmony in all of our relationships. Help us to acknowledge other people’s points of view and guide us to respectfully agree to disagree with one another when necessary.

Until the day that you become perfect, don’t expect others to be. [From “Hugs – Daily Inspirations for Grandmas” (Howard Books)]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Human anger, you see, doesn’t produce God’s justice! So put away everything that is sordid, all that overflowing malice, and humbly receive the word which has been planted within you and which has the power to rescue your lives. [James 1:19-21 (NTE)]

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DIVINE PROVIDENCE

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

The story is told of a Russian rabbi standing on a hillside with his student. As they looked down at the valley below, the men watched in horror as a band of Cossacks charged into their village. They heard the townspeople’s terrified screams as they were slaughtered and saw the smoke rise as their village was set afire by the marauders. With tears in his eyes, the rabbi looked up to heaven and cried, “If only I were God!” His troubled student asked what the rabbi would do differently if he were God. “Nothing,” replied the old man, “but then I would understand why!”

We always will have the age-old question of “Why,” and we always (at least in this world) will have deafening silence from God as our answer. Like the rabbi, I can’t understand why God allows things like the Holocaust, Chernobyl, Black Plague, the Crusades, the World Trade Center attack, Uvalde and Sandy Hook, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, 3 million children dying from hunger every year, human trafficking, and the many other evils that plague our fallen world.  Although I often write about hidden blessings and God’s higher purpose in our tragedies and troubles, my words bring little comfort when we see our friends and loved ones in distress, the misshapen bodies of malnourished children, or the faces of those who’ve lost loved ones to flood, fire, or violence. I look at my prayer list and can find neither rhyme nor reason for the sorrow and pain that is written on those pages and on so many people’s lives. While, with time, I’ve managed to find purpose and blessings in most of my challenges, I’m hard put to see any purpose or blessings in theirs.

I know better than to ask God why and, even if He gave me an explanation, I don’t think I’d find His answer satisfactory or comforting. I’d probably argue that someone’s repentance didn’t require such severe correction—that the same result could be achieved a less painful way and the same lesson learned with less heartbreak. I’d contend that someone’s faith didn’t need such severe testing, their character didn’t require such perfecting, nor did they need to be prodded so sharply to move in the right direction. Moreover, even if I understood the why of God’s plan, I wouldn’t understand the way He works it. We will never find a satisfactory explanation for the adversity, distress, and sorrow of our fallen world.

The presence of evil and suffering can challenge our faith. How can a loving God allow it? Good people suffer and our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. Yet, as Christians, we believe in Divine Providence—that our loving, all-seeing and all-knowing God is never out of control, even though Satan is trying his best to do his worst. We can’t see God’s purpose and we surely don’t understand it, but we must believe it and trust in Him.

When Jesus’ followers stood at the foot of the cross and watched Him suffer, I suspect they couldn’t see God’s purpose in His anguish and thought all hope was gone. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God because his plan seems so often seems so terribly wrong.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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VAMPIRES

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. [2 Timothy 3:1-5 (ESV)]

halloweenAs a Christian, I don’t believe in creatures like hobgoblins, witches, ghouls, zombies, or ghosts. I do, however, believe in vampires, just not the fictional undead who live in coffins, shape-shift into bats, have fangs but no reflection, and suck blood from the necks of the unsuspecting. The ones I’ve met are people whose behavior can suck the life right out of us faster than a swarm of mosquitoes!

Saturday Night Live calls one species of vampire “Debbie Downer”. She (or he) sucks the joy out of a room faster than a Miele or Dyson can vacuum up cookie crumbs. Consummate pessimists, they carry a dark cloud of doom with them and continually rain on your parade with tales of tragedy and catastrophe. Then there are the Narcissists—the uncaring, selfish, and self-centered “me first” kind of people. Takers, they neither share nor give (unless it directly benefits them). Closely related are the Talkers—the “listen to me” people. Convinced they know everything, they drone on and on, never let anyone get a word in edgewise, and their ears are mere ornaments on the side of the heads. Then, we have the Martyrs—the suffering victims with their “poor me” complaints. Determined to remain miserable, “yes, but…” is their response to any helpful suggestion. The Bullies are the “my way or the highway” kind of vampires who dictate and demean, intimidate and insult, command and criticize, and browbeat and badger their way through life. Finally, there are the Drama Queens and Kings for whom everything (both big and little) creates a crisis of massive proportions. Worse, they are determined to entangle us in their melodrama, quarrels, and vendettas. Real vampires like these are some of the weapons Satan frequently uses against us.

But, before pridefully pointing fingers at people we know who might fit these descriptions, we should take a hard look at ourselves to make sure we’re not one of them! I suspect that, at one time or another, each of us have been a little like them all!

Legend has it that vampires can’t enter your home unless you invite them in. I don’t know about Dracula, but that holds true for these vampires. While God call us to love, pray for, forgive and, as much as possible, “live peaceably with all” [Romans 12:8], He never tells us we must welcome these vampires into our lives, willingly open our collars, bare our necks, and submit to their torture! Granted, some of them may be unavoidable and could be in our families. Nevertheless, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul assures us that a means of escape comes with every temptation! These vampires only can suck the joy, peace, patience, gentleness, and love out of us if we allow them to do so.

As I recall, exposure to the sun or a crucifix was the way to finish off a vampire in the old movies. The power of the Son and cross continue to defeat the life-sucking vampires we face today. While some of them are unavoidable, we can limit our exposure to them and, with the power of Jesus, we can keep them from sucking the life out of us. We can stand up for ourselves, control our reactions to challenging people and situations, set healthy boundaries, and choose God’s truth and way. As children of God, we are valuable, loved, and forgiven. Nothing and no one should be allowed to rob us of His joy and peace. With the power of the Son and the cross of Christ, we can defeat vampires, ghosts, and anything else that goes bump in the night!

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)]

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UNQUALIFIED

That’s the kind of confidence we have towards God, through the Messiah. It isn’t as though we are qualified in ourselves to reckon that we have anything to offer on our own account. Our qualification comes from God. [2 Corinthians 3:4-5 NTE)]


The panic set in the moment I looked the calendar on our church’s website. Seeing the upcoming dates with my name beside them set my heart racing. Several weeks ago, I accepted our pastor’s request to act in his stead while he was out of town. I was to lead both Thursday night’s Bible study and the following Sunday’s worship. At the time, preparing a study and a sermon seemed far in the future, but seeing it in black and white made me question my decision. Did I actually think I was up to the task?

Is that what it felt like to Moses when, after accepting God’s assignment to free Israel from Egyptian slavery, he realized he would have to lead two million people across the Sinai Peninsula and into Canaan? When what should have been an eleven-day trip turned into a forty-year trek, did he question his ability to fulfill his role? After Gideon whittled down his 32,000 soldiers, did he question his obedience to God before leading his remaining 300 men into battle against 135,000 Midianites? After bolding saying he’d fight Goliath, did David have a moment of self-doubt when facing the giant with nothing more than a sling and five stones? What made him think he could save Israel from an army of Philistines? Think of the prophet Jeremiah who was just a youth when God called him. Not only did his family plot to kill him but, through the years, he was beaten, tossed into jail, attacked by a mob, put in stocks, accused of treason, thrown into a muddy cistern, and threatened by the king. Did any of them have a moment (or two) when they asked themselves things like, “What on earth was I thinking?” or “How did I get in this mess?” or “What made me think I could do this?”

When God called them, Jeremiah was just a youth (probably no more than twenty) and not a good speaker. Gideon was the least important in a family that was the weakest one in Manasseh. As the youngest boy in Jesse’s family, David’s father didn’t even consider the shepherd boy worthy of being invited to the sacrifice or being presented to Samuel. Moses was an old man with a speech impediment who was hiding in a foreign land when God called to him from a burning bush. None of these men were especially qualified to take on the tasks that God gave them. Nonetheless, they were the ones God called. The reason God chose them can be found in Scripture’s description of David—they all were men after God’s heart. [1 Samuel 13:14] They trusted in God!

Rather than focusing on our limitations and weaknesses by thinking we’re not smart, talented, educated, skilled, young or old enough, we should remember the old saying that, “God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the ones He calls.” We can have an outstanding resume of credentials but, without a heart for God, we have nothing! Rather than looking at our assets and abilities when calling us, God looks at our availability and willingness to serve. After saying, “Yes,” to His call, our responsibility is to do our best with what we have while trusting Him to handle the rest. Our all-powerful God is fully able to empower even the least qualified among us. It is what we do in our weakness that testifies to God’s power and strength.

Real true faith is man’s weakness leaning on God’s strength. [D.L. Moody]

And this is what he said to me: “My grace is enough for you; my power comes to perfection in weakness.” So I will be all the more pleased to boast of my weaknesses, so that the Messiah’s power may rest upon me. So I’m delighted when I’m weak, insulted, in difficulties, persecuted and facing disasters, for the Messiah’s sake. When I’m weak, you see, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NTE)]

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