THE MILLSTONE

These people are as useless as dried-up springs or as mist blown away by the wind. They are doomed to blackest darkness. They brag about themselves with empty, foolish boasting. With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception. [2 Peter 2:17-18 (NLT)]

zion parkAround 67 AD, Peter wrote to the church at large to warn them about the danger of false teachers. In a stark contrast to the Messiah’s living water, they were likened to wells without water and Peter warned that they were dangerous, especially to those new to Jesus.  The Apostle’s words reminded me of Jesus’ caution to the disciples about causing one of His “little ones” to fall into sin. “What sorrow awaits the one who does the tempting,” He warned while mentioning a fate involving a millstone. It’s bad enough when we sin but even worse if we drag others down with us. We can do that by preaching a false message, inviting them to share in our sinful behavior or, in a far more subtle way, by causing them to distrust the gospel message or turn from their faith.

The Greek word translated as “cause to sin” is skandalizō, meaning “to put a stumbling-block or impediment in the way upon which another may trip and fall.” In the New Testament, it meant “to entice to sin.” If skandalizō  sounds familiar, it should. It’s the source of a word we see far too frequently nowadays: scandal. Yet another well-known name has been added to a long list of church leaders brought down by scandal and I think of the stumbling block of scandal. The worst thing about any scandal in the church is what it does to those left in its wake: the “little ones,” the spiritually immature, the “baby Christians” in our midst. They are the people who may be tempted to reject the gospel message because of the sinful behavior of those who supposedly represent Jesus and His followers!

While it’s easy to point a finger at fallen evangelists, let’s remember that three fingers point back at us. Our failings may not be as well-publicized or as blatant as theirs but they easily can be stumbling-blocks to someone’s faith. Our transgressions do not invalidate the message of Jesus but they certainly undermine our witness. When we fall, we wound more than ourselves. If we don’t shake people’s faith in Christ, we do shake their faith in His followers.

Granted, the non-believer will not be able to excuse his lack of faith or sins because of our failings. Nevertheless, if we’ve harmed or lost a soul because of our behavior, we’ll be held accountable. That millstone of which Jesus spoke? A stone used to grind grain, it was so large and heavy that it had to be turned by a donkey. Drowning with a millstone around one’s neck actually was a form of execution used by the Romans for particularly heinous crimes and Jews found this method especially repulsive and inhumane. Jesus’ reference to the horrific fate of those who cause others to fall into sin was not lost on them. Let it not be lost on us!

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. [Matthew 18:6-7 (NLT)]

So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall. [Romans 14:13 (NLT)]

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ENCOURAGING WORDS

Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you. [2 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)]

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day. [Brewster M. Higley]

pronghorn antelope - buffaloWouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where we’d never (at least rarely ever) hear a discouraging word? It shouldn’t be necessary to ride the range in Wyoming for that to happen.

When my eldest child entered adolescence, it frequently seemed like he’d decided his task in life was to annoy his mother as much as humanly possible. Regrettably, during those challenging years, there were lots of discouraging words. One evening, I realized that our communication consisted of me directing him (“Make your bed!”), correcting him (“Do it this way!”), disciplining him (“You’ve lost that privilege!”), criticizing him (“You can’t go out dressed that way!”), or denying him (“I said ‘No’ and that’s final!”). Admittedly, directions, corrections, and criticism are a necessary part of life as are discipline and denial. Nevertheless, realizing there was a room for improvement on my part as well as his, I made a concerted effort to keep my negative comments to a bare minimum.

Seldom speaking (or hearing) a discouraging word was not enough. Where, I wondered, were the words of love? Where were the words of encouragement so necessary for him to thrive and feel good about himself? One doesn’t need to take psychology 101 or even a dog obedience class to know about the importance of positive reinforcement (which is simply a fancy term for encouragement). I had to add positive and heartening comments to our interaction if he was going to flourish and bloom. With God’s guidance and a heavy dose of the Spirit’s patience, we managed to get through those trying years. In spite of my many parental failings, he blossomed into a delightful responsible young man. A wonderful father, he now has to deal with adolescents of his own (which is God’s payback)!

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” If we all followed that advice, the world would be a much quieter place and we’d never have to watch another campaign commercial! More, however, is needed. The Apostle Paul urged the early Christians to encourage one another and he truly practiced what he preached. Whenever he instructed and directed (even when he disciplined or corrected), Paul always seemed to add encouragement to his words.

Encouragement (or exhortation) is a gift of the Holy Spirit but that doesn’t mean those of us without this gift should fail to encourage! Those gifted with encouragement are the church’s cheerleaders, but the rest of us are the fans in the stands who join in supporting the team! In the Fruit of the Spirit, we find love and kindness (along with patience) which means all Christians are capable of encouraging the people we meet in our daily lives. It’s not enough to seldom speak a discouraging word; we need to speak encouraging ones!

Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know. [H. Jackson Brown]

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)]

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NLT)]

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IT’S A MYSTERY

[A Maskil of Asaph.] O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? [Psalm 74:1 (ESV)]

[A Miktam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.] Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me. [Psalm 56:1 (ESV)]

[To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. Of Asaph.] Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! [Psalm 81:1 (ESV)]

ibisDepending on the Bible translation used, there are five strange words we might encounter when reading the Psalms: maskil, miktam, shigionoth, gittith and selah. Maskil is seen in the titles of thirteen psalms and once in a psalm’s text (47:7). Believed to be derived from the Hebrew word sakal, meaning to be prudent, understand or ponder, maskil may indicate a psalm of wisdom with instructions for godliness. It’s sometimes translated as a “contemplative poem,” “instruction,” or “skillful psalm.” It also could refer to the skillful construction of the psalm (like a sonnet with its 14 lines and fixed rhyme scheme). The Amplified Bible covers both bases by calling a maskil  “a skillful song, or a didactic or reflective poem.” Since the maskil psalms don’t share a common theme or a unique form, maskil could just be a musical term relating to its performance and its exact meaning remains a mystery in the Psalter.

The six miktam psalms are another mystery. Miktam may be from the Hebrew word katham, meaning to carve, engrave, or inscribe indelibly. Some scholars believe these psalms were valued so much that they were engraved upon tablets. Other scholars believe miktam is from the Hebrew word kethem, meaning “fine or stamped gold” and indicate the psalm was “as precious as stamped gold.” Along that line, the Amplified Bible calls the miktam psalms “a record of memorable thoughts.” While the designation may indicate the importance of the psalm, like maskil, miktam could just be a musical term. We don’t know.

Found only in the title of Psalm 7 and in Habakkuk 3:1, shigionoth usually is translated as prayer. Because its root word could be shagah, meaning reeling or going astray, it’s thought to indicate a wild passionate song with rapid changes of rhythm. In Psalm 7, the Amplified Bible translates shigionoth as an “ode of David…in a wild, irregular, enthusiastic strain.”

Three psalms have the strange heading of gittith. Associating it with the city of Gath where a harp was made, scholars assume the heading meant it was accompanied by a Gittite harp or sung to a Gittite tune. Gittith also could refer to a wine press, indicating the psalms were sung during wine production. As with maskil, miktam, and shigionoth, its exact meaning remains a mystery.

Because those enigmatic terms typically are found only in a psalm’s title, their ambiguity doesn’t affect our appreciation of the psalm; selah, however, is different. Found within the text of 39 psalms and Habakkuk 3, selah bears notice. It may be from the Hebrew word salal, meaning lift up or exalt, which could be an indication for the choir to lift their voices higher and louder in praise. Many scholars, however, believe selah comes from the Hebrew salah, meaning “to pause” and signifies a pause in the music or recitation. Perhaps, selah means both: to praise and to pause.

Thinking of selah as less important than a quarter rest on a music score, I used to skip by it. Like a musical rest, however, selah, shouldn’t be ignored. While we don’t know its exact meaning, the Psalmists thought selah important enough to place it 71 times in Psalms and it should cause us to stop and reflect on the psalm’s previous words. Whenever selah occurs in the Amplified Bible, these words follow: “pause, and calmly think of that!” Regardless of the Bible translation we use, that’s wise advice!

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah [Psalm 32:5 (ESV)]

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NOT SEEING THE CAMELS FOR THE GNATS

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! [Matthew 23:23-24 (NLT)]

camelJesus criticized the Pharisees for their meticulous tithing of herbs and spices while missing the more important aspects of the law. While both gnats and camels were forbidden food, in a wonderfully graphic hyperbole, He compared the way they poured their wine through a strainer to avoid accidentally swallowing a gnat (the smallest of prohibited “unclean” animals) while actually swallowing a camel (the largest)! Feeling self-righteous over their adherence to minor details, the Pharisees entirely missed the foundational principles of the Law: loving God and loving others.

Although the law demanded the tithing of produce, the Pharisees in Jesus day debated whether that applied to all the herbs and spices. One group determined it didn’t apply to black cumin but, in later years, the tithing of cumin was again required when the tithing of mint wasn’t. While this seems much ado about nothing, I’m not sure we’re that much different from the Pharisees. We’re probably not splitting hairs about herbs or accidentally ingesting a gnat, but it’s easy to become fixated on the details (tithing, attire, drinking, church attendance, rituals, sex, smoking) while missing the bigger issues like materialism, impatience, anger, pride, selfishness, callousness, lust, duplicity, and prejudice as well as justice, mercy, and faith. If we haven’t neglected church attendance, committed adultery, murdered anyone, robbed a bank, pummeled someone with our fists, or watched porn, we feel complacent and self-righteous. Like the Pharisees, we might not be doing the wrong things, but are we putting into practice the right ones?

It is in Christ’s character that we find the Christian virtues: things like humility, wisdom, self-control, courage, perseverance, patience, peace, joy, self-denial, gentleness, compassion, moderation, kindness, mercy, goodness, integrity, faithfulness, and love. Noting that “things will go swimmingly” for the first week, C.S. Lewis suggested making a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues for at least six weeks. By then, he noted, we’ll have taken “the first step toward true humility” and discovered some rather unpleasant truths about ourselves. “No one knows how bad he is,” said Lewis, “until he has tried very hard to be good.”

It didn’t cost the Pharisees much to strain out a gnat or tithe their herbs and it doesn’t cost us much to obey the letter of the law. Justice, mercy, and faith, however, came at a cost to the Pharisees as the Christian virtues do to us. What good was it for the Pharisee to tithe his dill to the priests but refuse a crumb to the destitute leper begging at the temple steps? What good is it for us to donate ten percent of our money when we won’t give ten minutes of our time to someone in need? Putting into practice Christian virtues is a great deal more difficult than putting ourselves into a pew in a Christian church.

Because they were more concerned about appearing pious than actually being men of virtue and integrity, Jesus continued his denunciation of the Pharisees by comparing them to a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy inside! Like the Pharisees, it’s much easier to avoid scandalous sins – to appear righteous to our neighbors – than to actually be godly people – to be clean both on the outside and inside! Just a week of consciously practicing Christian virtues can be humbling; that’s all it took for me to realize how dirty my cup actually is!

Now is the hour we should humbly prostrate ourselves before God, willing to be convicted afresh of our sins by the Holy Spirit. [Watchman Nee]

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!  You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. [Matthew 23:25-26 (NLT)]

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HIS CRAFTSMANSHIP

dawnThe heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

As I looked at the morning sky, I had to agree with the psalmist: the heavens do proclaim the glory of God. My photo can’t do justice to the magnificence of today’s sunrise. Although I had a good night’s sleep, like many of us during this time of isolation, loss, and unrest, my soul was weary. Nature, however, has a way of restoring weary souls and the vibrant colors of the breaking day lifted my spirits. They reassured me of God’s eternal power and divinity.

It’s not just the skies that display God’s amazing craftsmanship. From the smallest insect to the largest mountain and the heavens above, God continually reveals himself through his amazing creation. His power and might are visible in oceans, mountains, blizzards, rainstorms, lightening, and even mighty hurricanes like Laura. Yet, one look at a spider’s web, butterfly’s wings, dandelion puff, or violet tells us He has a gentle touch as well.

Although life sometimes feels random, illogical, and unpredictable (as it does right now), nature assures us that God is not arbitrary, capricious, unthinking or careless. A Creator who made flowers that lure bees with nectar and pollen so they’d be pollinated and the bees could then make honey definitely had a plan. The God who gave every one of us a unique set of fingerprints and every zebra a distinctive design of stripes without repeating himself is limitless and certainly attentive to detail. A master at creativity, He gave us eggs that turn into chicks, legless tadpoles that become hopping frogs, acorns that grow into giant oaks, and enabled water and wind to wear away rocks. He knows what He’s doing!

Creation is more than a witness to God’s eternal power and divinity; it tells us about Him. Without a doubt, the designer who covered a rat with armor and made an armadillo, assembled the wildebeest from what appear to be spare parts, fashioned the long snout of the anteater, and provided kangaroos with built-in pockets has a sense of humor and believes in laughter. The One who gave us the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the smell of a pine forest, the feel of a gentle breeze, and the fragrance of sweet honeysuckle and gardenias wants us to enjoy His creation. When He decorated our world, God boldly used every color on his heavenly paint palette and His abundance is evident in the fall colors, rainbows, orchids, painted buntings, and glacial lakes He’s given us to enjoy.

Not every sunrise is as flamboyant as was this morning’s nor is every sunset as gaudy as was last night’s. Nevertheless, one look at the sky is more than enough to assure us of God’s existence. Rest assured that the One who painted spots on the ladybug, gave the peacock his showy tail, and put the sweet taste into strawberries has not forgotten His children. Let us open our eyes to His creation and sing the words penned by Maltbie Babcock more than 100 years ago: “This is my Father’s world; Oh let me not forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet!” As fallen and broken as the world seems, it still belongs to God! He’s at large and in charge!

Forbid that I should walk through Thy beautiful world with unseeing eyes: Forbid that the lure of the market-place should ever entirely steal my heart away from the love of the open acres and the green trees: Forbid that under the low roof of workshop or office or study I should ever forget Thy great overarching sky: Forbid that when all Thy creatures are greeting the morning with songs and shouts of joy, I alone should wear a dull and sullen face.

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. [Romans 1:20a (NLT)]

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UNDETERRED (Part 3 – Mark 10:46-52)

Lots of people told him crossly to be quiet. But he shouted out all the louder, “Son of David – take pity on me!” [Mark 10:48 (NTE)]

hibiscusWhen Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, the crowd surrounding him kept telling him to be quiet. Not about to be deterred, the blind beggar just shouted louder. Another man in Jericho was as determined as Bartimaeus: the short and much disliked publican named Zacchaeus. When the little man couldn’t shove his way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of Jesus, he climbed up a tree (an extremely unseemly behavior for a man of his position).

There are many other stories of such dogged determination to see Jesus. In spite of the disciples reprimanding them for bothering Jesus with their children, some parents persevered in getting their little ones blessed by Him. We have the sinful woman who followed Jesus into a Pharisee’s house so that she could wash His feet with her tears and anoint them with her perfume. That she hadn’t been invited to dinner didn’t stop her from worshiping the Lord. In spite of trying to keep His whereabouts in Tyre a secret, a Syrophoenician woman doggedly tracked down Jesus. When she fell at His feet and pled for her daughter’s healing, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Refusing to leave, she even dared to debate with Jesus about her request (inappropriate behavior for a woman of any nationality)! The woman with the bleeding disorder was so intent on touching the rabbi’s cloak that she broke Jewish law and risked public humiliation and severe punishment to get to Him. Two blind men were so determined to see that they followed Jesus right into the house where He was staying. Consider the four friends who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus only to find the doorway blocked. Unwilling to accept defeat, they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man down to the Lord.

Bartimaeus and the rest of these people were not about to be deterred from coming into the presence of the Lord. Are we anywhere that resolute in worship, study, praise, and prayer? Would we fight our way through a crowd, climb a tree, refuse to leave, risk humiliation or punishment, go where we weren’t welcome, or cut a hole in someone’s roof? They did and their determination was rewarded. Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ plea, visited Zacchaeus, blessed the children, forgave the sinful woman, and healed the Gentile woman’s daughter, the bleeding woman, the blind men, and the paralyzed man.

While questioning our determination to be with Jesus, we also might ask ourselves if we might be like the ones who hinder or discourage people from coming to Christ. Are we like those who shushed the blind beggar, elbowed Zacchaeus, scolded the parents, wanted to send away the Syrophoenician woman, reminded the sinful woman she wasn’t welcome, shut the door, or blocked the entryway? Do we openly welcome the very people Jesus came to save: the socially unacceptable, weak, troubled, different, disenfranchised, vulnerable, and unclean? Let us be like those who, upon hearing Jesus’ call, said to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up. Come on,” and led the blind man to the Lord!

Then they too will answer, “Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t do anything for you?” Then he will answer them, “I’m telling you the truth: when you didn’t do it for one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you didn’t do it for me.” [Matthew 25:44-45 (NTE)]

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