IT AFFECTS MORE THAN YOU

The prudent understand where they are going, but fools deceive themselves. [Proverbs 14:8 (NLT)]

great blue heronAlthough God ordered the Israelites not to seize any plunder for themselves after the battle of Jericho, Achan stole a beautiful garment, silver coins and a wedge of gold. Confident after their Jericho victory, the Israelites went out to conquer the city of Ai but were so overpowered that they turned and fled and thirty-six Israelites died in battle that day! When Joshua asked God why they’d been defeated, God told him it was because Israel had defied His command about not looting Jericho. Achan’s guilt was discovered and he and his entire family were stoned to death. Clearly, Achan hadn’t thought about the consequences of his sin, not just for him but for his family and thirty-six other families, as well.

I recently ran across a quote but wanted to check out the author before using it. A quick search of his name told me that he’d been involved in a public scandal of infidelity and deception. As apt as the quote was, there was no way I was going to use it. In my research, I happened upon an article the man wrote shortly after the scandal. He mentioned walking into a bookstore and seeing a new book by a Christian author. The disgraced pastor had gotten an advance copy and a blurb with his recommendation was on the book’s cover. Realizing that his tarnished name would now hurt rather than help book sales, he finally understood how many people were paying the penalty for his dishonorable actions. He’d wounded not just his family, another family, and his entire church but an unsuspecting and innocent author, as well.

As both Achan and the fallen pastor realized, the way we conduct our lives affects not just us but everyone associated with us. The father who smokes, ignoring the health dangers, might say it his life to do with as he wants while overlooking the dangers to his family of second-hand smoke. He’s not thinking about the possibility he may get cancer or emphysema, saddle his family with huge medical bills, and the loss they’d suffer were he to die. The wife who has an illicit affair disregards the damage her infidelity could have on her marriage and children or the ramifications of a divorce. Inevitably, people will be hurt, relationships destroyed and finances strained. The salesman who neglects a customer is indifferent to the impact that a client’s dissatisfaction could have on his employer. A disgruntled customer may spread word of poor service or cancel orders; lay-offs or even business failure could result. Even little failings have a way of touching the lives of others. Bad language is often copied by one’s children, yet they are the ones punished at school. Lies and negativity have an uncanny ability to spread and affect the morale of those around us and then to the people around them.

We need to remember the lessons taught in the Old Testament: good behavior brings blessings but bad behavior can bring disaster not just to us but to others. Sadly, as Achan learned too late, the people we hurt the worst often are the ones we love the most.

Trouble chases sinners, while blessings reward the righteous. [Proverbs 13:21 (NLT)]

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FREEDOM OF RELIGION – Independence Day 2019

American FlagsWe are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

In 2014, I wrote about Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese mother of two who, at that time, was facing execution for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Eight months pregnant when she appeared in court on charges of apostasy and adultery, she was given three days to reject Jesus and accept Islam. Upon her refusal, she was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death under Sudan’s Sharia law. Meriam, however, had never rejected Islam; she’d always been a Christian. Although her father is Muslim (technically making her Muslim), he was absent during her childhood and she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother. Under Sharia law, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is illegal and Meriam, married to a Christian man, was also found guilty of adultery and sentenced to flogging (100 lashes). Muslim law did not allow her execution while was pregnant and the shackled woman waited in prison for her child’s life to begin and hers to end. When writing about her, I wondered if I’d be as strong as Meriam and reminded readers that Christian persecution did not end in ancient Rome.

Curious as to her whereabouts today, I learned that the time the pregnant woman waited for her execution saved her life. It allowed Meriam’s plight to be made public and, because of international pressure, she was eventually released and settled in New Hampshire. Later that year, however, two Christian pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church were charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system. Facing death sentences, they were imprisoned for eight months. In June of 2015, Christian girls walking home from church were charged with indecent dress and forced to strip out of their trousers and skirts. Five of the girls received fines and one girl had to suffer through twenty lashes. Since then, Sudanese Christians have continued to face discrimination and persecution; churches were demolished and Christians intimidated, attacked and arrested. Although Sudan’s brutal president Omar al-Bashir left office in April of this year, there is no assurance that his replacement will be any better. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Sudan where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punishable. Rounding out the top ten countries where human and religious rights are being violated are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India. According to Open Doors, 2018 saw 4,136 Christians killed for their faith; 2,625 Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 1,266 churches or Christian buildings attacked. They estimate that one in nine Christians experience “high levels of persecution worldwide.”

Many of our nation’s first colonists came here to escape religious persecution in their homelands. On this day, when we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” may we truly appreciate the freedom of religion we enjoy. In our nation, no one is a second-hand citizen because of religion, no regime tries to make any of us renounce our faith, nor must we conceal our beliefs to be safe. My Jewish friends can wear a Star of David pendant as openly as I wear my cross. As freely as I observe Easter and Christmas, my Muslim friends can observe Ramadan, my Jewish friends Passover and Hanukah, and my Hindu friends Diwali, while my atheist neighbors can choose to believe in nothing.

On this national holiday, let us thank God for the freedom we have to worship Him openly and without fear. May we never take that freedom lightly. As we count our numerous blessings, remember to pray for those who don’t enjoy the many freedoms we often take for granted.

Our prayers can go where we cannot… There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray. [Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors)]

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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UH-OH!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. [James 1:2-4 (MSG)]

double rainbowThe most obvious way God speaks is through the Bible. Sometime, however, He whispers to us in the “Aha!” moments. Serendipitous, they are God’s love notes that gently remind us of His presence, His love for us, and the magnificence of His creation. While they vary from person to person, I tend to find them in things like butterflies dancing among the flowers or a double rainbow after a spring storm.

God speaks louder with those wonderful “Oh, yes!” moments—the joyful times when all seems right with the world. We recognize His voice when the healthy baby arrives, the surgeon says the word “benign,” or the prodigal returns home. Along with the welcome “Oh, yes!” moments are the unwelcome “Oh, no!” ones—times when the bottom falls out of our world. They come with words like “malignant” or “inoperable,” a phone call in the middle of the night, or in the ICU. In all of these occasions, we quickly seek God with either our incredible feelings of thanks and praise or in our deep sense of desperation and need. The only way we can make sense of either the awe or the awfulness of life is to believe and trust in our all-powerful and loving God who knows exactly what He’s doing.

While I can find God in the “Aha,” awesome and awful, my problem comes with God’s ”Uh-oh!” moments—the unexpected and unasked for minor frustrations of life. It seems easier to turn to God in the extremes than in the routine detours, roadblocks, and nuisances of everyday life. We all have them—waiting on hold for ten minutes only to get disconnected, losing the car keys, anything that involves technical support or the DMV (and possibly the post office), waiting all day for the repairman who never shows or engaging in wrap rage while trying to open a child-proof package! These are the moments when my fruit looks far more like impatience, peevishness, self-pity, childishness, and rudeness than anything produced by the Spirit.

We often talk about the joy and peace we have as Christians but rarely about how we deal (or fail to deal) with irritation and frustration. While the emotion isn’t sinful, often how we act in response to it is. The enemy doesn’t have to tempt us with a cannon when an annoying barrage of pellets from his BB gun will make us forget who we are and in whose arms we are held!

I doubt that I’m the only one who has difficulty maintaining perspective and patience in the face of the little aggravations that are part and parcel of living in our world. Perhaps it’s because we think those minor annoyances are solely our concern when, in actuality, like everything else, they belong to God! Focusing on whatever is upsetting us simply makes it grow in importance but focusing on God shrinks it back to size. Let us remember that our God listens—not just to our praise, thanks and heavy-duty pleas, but also to our prayers for perspective, patience and peace. It’s by focusing on God that we can turn those “Oh-oh” moments into “OK!” ones!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. [Colossians 3:1-2 (MSG)]

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS

Virginia CityDon’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise. [Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NLT)]

When talking with my centenarian mother-in-law, we often spoke of the “good old days.” She sometimes indulged in what I came to call “wishful remembering” and her past became more like a Hallmark movie than reality. I suppose, to some extent, we all do the same. The sledding hill grows steeper, the house bigger, the friends nicer, the grades better, the paycheck larger, and the success greater while any failure, disappointment, blame, pain, or drudgery diminishes. Not every memory we have, however, is a correct one; rather than an accurate record, our memories are actually what we tell ourselves about the past. Given the choice, it’s far nicer to have wishful good memories than ones of bitterness, regret and sorrow and I never corrected my mother-in-law’s. Nevertheless, we must be cautious of becoming too attached to our memories, especially if our less than accurate version of yesterday keeps us from moving into tomorrow.

Less than a month after God’s parting of the Red Sea and their song of victory and triumph at the defeat of Pharaoh, the Israelites had a serious case of wishful remembering and started to grumble. Instead of recalling the slaughter of baby boys and the back-breaking labor of Egyptian slavery, they remembered sitting around in comfort eating all the bread and stew they desired. Months later, they again complained about their hardships while recalling free fish, fruit and vegetables instead of the price they paid in sweat for that food. Rather than oppression, they remembered the “good old days” of Egyptian provision.

Sodom was the place where a gang of men wanted to attack Lot, sexually abuse his guests, and, for reasons beyond our understanding, Lot offered his virgin daughters to a mob of depraved men. When Lot’s family was told that Sodom was to be destroyed, they were urged to flee immediately and specifically warned to neither stop nor look back. Nevertheless, stopping and turning back is exactly what Lot’s wife did. According to the Moody Bible Commentary, the Hebrew word used for her looking back (vathabbet) has a very specific meaning of looking at something with desire or approval. Lot’s family left their home, possessions, friends, and even their sons-in-law behind. Choosing not to recall the evil, Lot’s wife turned, remembered the “good old days,” and longed for what had been and was no more.

When we follow God, we’re not promised an easy journey; in fact, Jesus pretty much promises we’ll encounter hardships. Stepping out in faith often means moving from comfort, convenience, and familiarity into the disruption, trials and vulnerability of the unknown. In light of new challenges and burdens, it’s easy to repaint the past with wishful memories of “the good old days.” As bad as the past may have been for either the Israelites or Lot’s wife, for them it seemed preferable to their unknown tomorrows. Those wishful memories, however, cost the Israelites an extra 38 years and Lot’s wife her life!

While wishful memories can make the past more palatable, they also can prevent us from experiencing the blessings of the future. We must never remember the good old days at the expense of failing to trust God with the new ones.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

But I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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WHOSE ARE YOU?

You go before me and follow me, You place your hand of blessings on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand. [Psalm 139:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaI started Sunday morning with Psalm 139—a beautiful reminder that God was with us at our conception, is with us now, and will be with us at our end. “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous,” read the psalm. Those words reminded me of Joey. Chinese by birth, born without hands, and abandoned by his mother, he was adopted by an American family. In spite of his many visible and hidden challenges, Joey was a cheerful little guy until entering junior high school, encountering bullies, and asking the inevitable questions that come with adolescence. In spite of being part of a loving family, he feels he failed the birth family who discarded him like a piece of trash and, rather than feeling wonderfully made, Joey asks why God made him the way He did.

Scripture reading was followed by the newspaper where I found an interesting advice column. The writer has both birth and adopted daughters but her birth daughter refuses to allow her children to call her sister “aunt” because she’s not really “family.” In response, the psychologist noted that there are some deep seated jealousy issues in the girls’ relationship and pointed out that legally both girls have the same standing. He then added an interesting argument to show the absurdity of the birth daughter’s position. The adopted daughter could actually say she was more of a daughter than her sister because their parents deliberately chose her and had to go through a long involved process to get her. The other sister’s conception took but a few minutes and even may have been an accident! While I don’t think that argument will improve the girls’ relationship, he had an interesting point about adoption; it is a deliberate act of love!

In a strange juxtaposition, Sunday’s sermon was part of a series, “Faith at the Movies,” and The Lion King was the subject. Until Rafiki confronted him, the lion Simba forgot who he was—the son of the king—and that his father lived in him. Like Simba, we are the King’s children; He adopted us when we accepted Jesus. Just as Simba’s father was in him, our Father lives in us.

Our Heavenly Father was there when we were but a gleam in our birth fathers’ eyes. As the psalmist wrote, He made “all the delicate, inner parts” of our bodies as He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. Joey may appear flawed by human standards but he is perfectly made by God’s standards. When Simba saw his reflection in the water, he saw his father and Rafiki assured him, “He lives in you.” Joey and his family are working with counselors but, to truly heal, Joey will have to see the face of his Father, the King, when he sees his reflection. He will have to see his worth in being the adopted child of God and believe that God’s spirit lives in him.

Rafiki asks Simba, ”Who are you?” and Sunday’s sermon asked us the same question. Like Simba, we often forget that it’s not our circumstances that characterize us. Our sex, appearance, family, heritage, profession, assets, shortcomings, accomplishments, failures, and even our sins do not define us. It’s not what we are but whose we are that gives us value and worth. Because God adopted us into His family, first and foremost, we are children of the King.

Child of God, you cost Christ too much for him to forget you. [Charles Spurgeon]

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” [Romans 8:15 (NLT)]

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:26 (NLT)]

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BEARING FRUIT (Part 2)

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

concord grapesBeing the branches on the vine of Jesus means that we are extensions of Him and a good branch is one that produces fruit. In Galatians 5, Paul told us that fruit should look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our fruit doesn’t come by following guidelines or obeying laws; it comes from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it comes from staying connected to the vine.

My son lives in California and has several beautiful trees in his yard. Not an arborist, I didn’t know what kind of trees they were until I saw their fruit. It was only by the orange persimmons, yellow lemons, and dark figs that I recognized the trees. As with my son’s fruit trees, it is by our fruit that we are recognized as Christ followers. Our responsibility as Christians is to bear godly fruit and, if we’re not producing fruit that looks and tastes a whole lot like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we’re not connected to the vine!

As with any orchard, it takes time for trees and vines to grow and fruit to ripen and mature. Moreover, being a Christ follower doesn’t mean we’ll never sin. Admittedly, in spite of the Holy Spirit, often my behavior is anything but Christ-like and, frequently, there’s a shortage of good fruit in my orchard. There will be people and situations that challenge our capacity to act as would Jesus. Things will try our patience, test our faith, cause us to question our ability to love our neighbor, and challenge us to curb our anger. There will be times we’re exasperated, irritated, distressed, offended or worried. We’ll fail to turn the other cheek, lose our tempers, and say things we shouldn’t.

Because our behavior in these instances is a clear indication of where we are in our faith walk and how connected we are to the vine, I call them our “Jesus meters;” a bad score on the Jesus meter tells us we’re not walking His walk! When that meter indicates rotten fruit (or none at all), we repent, ask forgiveness, take comfort in God’s grace, reconnect with the Holy Spirit, learn from our errors, and continue to grow on His vine.

Just as I know my son’s trees by their fruit, Jesus know us by ours. If we’re bearing the Fruit of the Spirit, people will see some of Christ in us. If there were a litmus test for Christlikeness, it would not be pious words, powerful preaching, grandiose gestures, or even extraordinary feats; it would be the presence of the Fruit of the Spirit. If love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control aren’t evident in our lives, we may be talking the talk but we’re clearly not walking the walk.

Being reborn takes only a moment but becoming a Christian, now that takes a lifetime. Every life bears fruit of some kind. The question for each of us is, “What kind of fruit is mine?”

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. [John 15:8 (NLT)]

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