UNFAIR

And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone. [Numbers 32:13 (ESV)]

Begonia - Binos soft pink

Although my high school grand lives in a state where COVID-19 has necessitated remote schooling, I was pleased to learn that her school found a safe way for their students to take the SAT this week. On-line school would be cancelled that day, the school building would open, volunteer teachers would serve as proctors and monitors, desks would be safely spaced, and only ten students would be in any room. It seemed like a perfect solution. The reckless actions of my grand’s fellow students, however, changed all that when over 100 classmates attended an unsupervised house party over the weekend. Unfortunately, that massive gathering of teens created both a police situation and a public health nightmare. Since many of those attending were signed up for this week’s SAT, the test was cancelled. The school principal wasn’t going to put volunteer teachers and other students at risk because of the foolhardy and selfish actions of a few. Because several of those attending the party also were athletes, all sport team practices were cancelled for the next two weeks, as well.

Complaining that it’s unfair, many parents are angry at the police, school, health department, and governor when they should be mad at the thoughtless teens and careless parents who allowed such behavior. This took place in a state where COVID cases have more than doubled this week and the state is facing a public health crisis. Sadly, the students who followed the rules, abided by the protocols, and accepted the restrictions are suffering. Yes, it seems terribly unfair but it’s what had to be done.

When my daughter talked with her teen about this situation, I wonder if she mentioned Joshua and Caleb. They didn’t deserve any punishment when they returned from scouting Canaan. The two men pled with the Israelites to trust God and go forward into the Promised Land but the people rebelled and refused. As a result, the Israelites were sentenced to years of wandering the desert until the last of the rebellious adults died. Even though Caleb and Joshua weren’t sentenced to die from the plague as were the scouts whose words caused the people’s rebellion, having to wait so long when they were so close (and did nothing wrong) must have seemed incredibly unfair. Did the two men wonder why they and their families should be punished for the sins of everyone else? There’s no record of Joshua and Caleb arguing with God: “Hey, don’t punish us; we didn’t do anything wrong!” They didn’t question God saying, “Hey, what if we die in the meantime? Where’s our reward then?” They simply accepted God’s decision. Even though they were punished for the sins of others, they eventually got to the Promised Land.

Of course, Caleb and Joshua weren’t the only ones in the Bible to be unfairly punished. Think of Jesus! Completely sinless, He endured the punishment for our sins without complaint! He didn’t just miss the SAT and volleyball practice or spend forty years in the wilderness. He suffered on the cross, died and was buried for our sins. He didn’t endure that punishment so He could enter the Promised Land; Jesus did it so we could!

There was nothing fair about Jesus taking our punishment and us getting the reward! He was, however, God’s love and grace in flesh and blood. Jesus didn’t die to appease an angry God but to reveal a God who loves us enough to suffer for us. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for taking our punishment and giving us the gift of salvation and everlasting life in return.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (ESV)]

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. [Romans 5:6-8 (ESV)]

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RAINBOWS OF JOY (Part 3)

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)]

rainbow at sunrise

While Joshua thought his 48-hour day was long, for most of us, these last seven months have seemed like a year. Unlike Joshua, we’ll need more than another 24 hours before declaring victory on the enemy. Back in March, I naively thought life would be back to normal about now. By the time May rolled around, I realized that what first seemed like a marathon run had turned into an Ironman triathlon. I now see it more as a grueling trek along the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails. It’s been a long haul with steep hills and dark valleys; without the end in sight, we’re growing weary and morale is low.

Be that as it may, it’s not all bad and there’s been some “trail magic” along the way. Trail magic is a term long-distance hikers have for those unexpected experiences along the trail that inspire awe or lift their spirits. It can be nature’s gifts like a rainbow after a day of rain, a field of wildflowers, or seeing a doe with her fawn on the trail. It also can be a kindness like an encouraging note or a cache of soda or candy bars left beside the trail. Rather than trail magic, a friend who’s been working from home since last March calls these moments “little rainbows of joy.” For her, one such rainbow has been having the opportunity to finally teach her 12-year old how to ride a bike and being able to take a daily ride with him.

A pastor friend found a rainbow of joy in in her new normal because it’s meant having more time with her children than she’s had in years. Another pastor friend finally found the time to adopt a dog. A corporate attorney, whose busy schedule had her on the train by 6:50 AM, expressed her joy at being home and able to make breakfast for her family (they love her French toast). An accountant friend finally had time to share his love of woodworking with his children and show them how to use tools. My son has been teaching his daughter how to use the sewing machine (and admits that reading blueprints is easier than sewing patterns). His wife has discovered a love of baking; she and the children have made some fantastic cakes. People are again finding time to fish, hike, bake bread, play games with one another, and garden.

There are rainbows of joy in the technology that allows on-line church, concerts, Bible studies, doctor’s appointments, book clubs, and even virtual happy hours with colleagues. Grandparents are playing Yahtzee or reading bedtime stories to their grands courtesy of Zoom or FaceTime. We’ve been reconnecting with old friends via email, phone calls, or video chatting. There was even a bit of trail magic in the Celebration of Life I attended last week. Even without COVID, the distance would have meant I couldn’t be there but, because of Vimeo, I could. A family member who couldn’t attend had her own trail magic when two eagles landed on a tree outside the window while On Eagle’s Wings was sung during her mother’s memorial. There are sprinkles of joy scattered throughout even our hardest days.

We are told to be thankful in all circumstances but it’s hard to be thankful unless we find some joy hidden in those circumstances. Regardless of what you call these blessed moments, the key is to find them in the midst of the darkness and challenges surrounding us. They’re found by lowering our expectations from the impressive to the inconsequential but beautiful experiences found in our everyday lives. They’re found by celebrating our little successes—whether it’s making spring rolls or pizza dough from scratch, finishing a 500-piece puzzle or building a bird house, defeating your spouse in a game of Rummikub or seeing a rainbow on the morning’s walk. Let us open our eyes and find the joy that is hidden in this long journey through COVID-19.

The unthankful heart… discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings! [Henry Ward Beecher]

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

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FOR THE CLERGY

Dear brothers, honor the officers of your church who work hard among you and warn you against all that is wrong. Think highly of them and give them your wholehearted love because they are straining to help you. And remember, no quarreling among yourselves. [1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 (TLB)]

October brings Columbus Day sales, pumpkins, corn mazes, Halloween candy, jack-o-lanterns, and the first Christmas items in the stores. On the second Sunday of the month, it also brings us Clergy Appreciation Day. Although we should let our pastors know how much we appreciate them all year long, we probably don’t. We’re more likely to complain about a sermon, the choice of songs, the temperature of the sanctuary, or the sound system than we are to compliment, encourage or thank our ministers. If we haven’t expressed gratitude to our clergy men and women, this coming Sunday is the time to do so.

This year has been especially difficult for our pastors. Their biggest challenge was maintaining unity while addressing their congregation’s concerns and complaints regarding opening. Since March, they’ve continually fielded questions as to when or how their church would open while knowing that half the congregation wouldn’t like the answer. Deciding to close the church was a whole lot easier than figuring out how and when to reopen! They’ve had to cope with the technology required for on-line services and think outside the box as they offered drive-by blessings, drive-in church, Zoom Bible study, or Skype counseling. Preaching to a camera from their living room or an empty church presented its own set of challenges as did offering virtual communion. The isolation of sheltering in place was heartbreaking for the people who regularly visited households, nursing homes, hospitals, and hospice rooms. They could no longer lay hands on the sick or embrace those who grieved. As they’ve ministered to people with financial, health, and family concerns, they’ve struggled with those same issues themselves.

Our pastors have a huge responsibility and we have huge (and often unrealistic) expectations of them. They work far more than a few hours on Sunday morning. Along with writing sermons and prayers, planning services, teaching Bible studies, counseling the troubled, visiting the sick, supervising a staff, marrying, burying, baptizing, and blessing, they manage to unite a disparate group of people into a church family and lead them on their faith journey. We may not always like what they say or do but their job is not to please us; it is to lead us. Consider Moses and the Israelites—if they’d had their way, the Israelites would have ended up back in Egypt as slaves. In spite of their grumbling and complaints, however, Moses led them where God wanted them to go—to the Promised Land. Without a doubt, shepherding a church today is no easier than leading a bunch of disgruntled Israelites through the desert.

Appreciating our pastors shouldn’t be limited to just to one day; we should show our appreciation all year long. While a thank you note is nice, perhaps a better way of communicating our gratitude is by providing support with our time, talents, and treasures; avoiding church politics; and offering encouragement rather than complaints. The best thing we can do for our pastors, however, is to pray for them every day.

Father, we thank you for our clergy—the people you have called to shepherd your church. Let your Holy Spirit fill them so that they shine your light, share your love, and shape your people.

If a church wants a better pastor, it only needs to pray for the one it has. [Anonymous]

Pastors need your grace, not your gripes. [Woodrow Kroll]

Obey your spiritual leaders and be willing to do what they say. For their work is to watch over your souls, and God will judge them on how well they do this. Give them reason to report joyfully about you to the Lord and not with sorrow, for then you will suffer for it too. [Hebrews 3:17 (TLB)]

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NO PITY PARTIES (Elijah – Part 3)

But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” [1 Kings 19:9b-10 (NLT)]

paper kite butterflyWhen God asked Elijah what he was doing, the prophet’s answer should have been, “I’m having a pity party!” Having experienced the high point of life on Mt. Carmel, the prophet now found himself at an all-time low. Feeling abandoned, Elijah was bitter that, after serving God so zealously, he’d been rejected by Ahab and was running for his life.

Elijah was underestimating the power of God and over-estimating the power of his enemy; as long as God had work for him to accomplish, the prophet was invulnerable to Jezebel’s attacks. Moreover, when Elijah complained that he was the only faithful person remaining, he wasn’t. In his self-pity, he’d forgotten about meeting Obadiah, the man who’d hidden and protected 100 of God’s faithful and God told him that 7,000 others in Israel had not bowed to Baal.

Deep valleys of testing often follow our mountaintop experiences as they did with Elijah.  When life throws a curve ball like a pandemic or when it hits us directly with a bean ball like stage-4 cancer or paralysis, our first response often is a pity party like Elijah’s. He seemed to think the world revolved around him and that he was the only one encountering difficulty; we tend to do the same thing. Elijah wasn’t alone and neither are we.

Like Elijah, we don’t think we deserve our troubles, but we’re no more deserving or undeserving than the next guy. Difficulty, disappointment, adversity and disaster are inevitable in our fallen world. Despair, pessimism, gloom, and complaint, however, are not; they are a choice.

Elijah’s faith in and service to God did not protect him from hardship nor will ours. Living for Jesus will have both peaks and valleys. Let us remember: everything that touches us, whether we’re having a mountain top experience or trudging through a dark valley, has passed through God’s hands first and has a purpose. It’s only when we stop wallowing in self-pity, however, that we’ll find His purpose.

God told Elijah to get up and get to work. He was to anoint Hazael to be the next king of Aram, Jehu to be the next king of Israel, and Elisha to be his successor. Elijah had a purpose and so do we. When God asks us what we’re doing, as He did with Elijah, our response should not be one of complaint and self-pity. It should one of acceptance and joy that we are serving God and doing His work!

I must learn that the purpose of my life belongs to God, not me. God is using me from His great personal perspective, and all He asks of me is that I trust Him…. Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world. [Oswald Chambers]

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)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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DON’T GIVE UP (Elijah – Part 1)

The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. [James 5:16-18a (NLT)]

red-bellied woodpecker

King Ahab was Israel’s most wicked king and God sent Elijah to confront him and pronounce God’s judgment upon the nation for its idolatry. Israel had been worshiping Baal, the Canaanite god who made rain and brought fertility. The prophet announced there would be no rain or dew in the kingdom until he said otherwise. A drought of this magnitude spelled famine for the land and would clearly demonstrate both the impotence of Baal and the power of Yahweh, the one true God.

After his pronouncement, the prophet hid from Ahab and, as he predicted, there was neither rain nor dew. When Elijah reappeared three years later, he challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to what could be called the ultimate smackdown between Baal and Yahweh. A crowd assembled as Baal’s prophets called on their god to rain down fire and consume their sacrifice. The pagan prophets tried all day to summon their worthless god to no avail. Then, severely handicapping himself by drenching his wood with water, Elijah prayed for fire on his sacrifice and the fire of the Lord flashed down immediately.

Announcing to Ahab that he heard a mighty rainstorm coming, the prophet climbed up Mount Carmel to pray. With no Doppler radar or AccuWeather, while Elijah prayed, his servant went to the mountain’s peak to look for storm clouds over the sea. Seeing none, he returned to Elijah with the disappointing news. Elijah, however, was positive that clouds would appear and repeatedly sent the man back to look again. Back and forth the servant went until the seventh time when he finally brought news of a small cloud on the horizon. Elijah confidently sent the man to warn Ahab that he should hurry home before the torrential rains made his return impossible. Soon the sky was heavy with storm clouds; a terrific rainstorm occurred and Israel’s drought ended.

The servant returned to Elijah six times with the discouraging news of clear skies. What if the prophet had given up in despair after the sixth fair weather report? What kept him on his knees and so sure that God would bring a storm? Perhaps it was God’s track record. God said there’d be a drought and there was. God promised Elijah he’d be fed by ravens and then by a widow with a never ending supply of food during the famine and he was. When the widow’s son died, God answered the prophet’s prayer to bring the boy back to life and, when he prayed for fire, the fire of the Lord consumed everything on the altar. Having always proved true to His word by answering the prophet’s prayers, Elijah knew God would provide the rain for which he prayed.

We probably don’t have the amazing history of God’s miraculous provision as did Elijah, but we all have memories of times when His amazing provision gave us what we so desperately needed, whether a job, money, words, healing, strength, help, patience, or guidance. When it seems as if God doesn’t hear us, when we’re tempted to give up praying, we need to remember the many times in the past that God answered our prayers. In times of drought, even when we can’t see a cloud in the sky, we must never give up. God will not fail; His promised blessings will rain down in His good time.

And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. [Psalm 77:10-12 (NLT)]

The Lord always keeps his promises; he is gracious in all he does. [Psalm 145:13b (NLT)]

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WHO’S THE BOSS?

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronThe motto “The customer is always right” was coined in the early 1900s by retail pioneers Marshall Field, Harry Selfridge, and John Wanamaker. A variation commonly heard in business is, “The boss is always right!” But, because they’re human, we know that neither customers nor bosses are always right. Nevertheless, even when the boss clearly is in error, he remains the boss. We may lose a customer if we fail to please him but we can lose a job when we fail to please the boss! Since one’s livelihood depends on a paycheck, an employee faces a dilemma when the boss clearly is wrong.

Rather than pleasing customers, bosses, or anyone else, the Apostle Paul pointed out that his purpose was to please God. This morning, as I read his words to the Galatians, I thought of a friend who had to choose between the unprincipled man who signed her paycheck and the King who ruled her life. When her employer gloated that she couldn’t afford to quit over a question of principles, she had the boldness of heart to reply that she didn’t work for him; she worked for God! It wasn’t easy to leave a sizeable paycheck behind but she did. She was Christ’s servant and, as her boss, He was the One she served. With her heartfelt commitment to God, the only approval she sought was His!

Hopefully, we won’t find ourselves in my friend’s position where choosing between pleasing God and our employer means leaving a job. Nevertheless, we must always remember who our true boss is! When we seek people’s approval, we accept their standards rather than God’s. Along with tempting us to turn a blind eye to injustice, compromise our ethics, or be complicit in wrong-doing, trying to please people can lead to over-commitment, flattery rather than honest assessment, exaggerating our stories, embellishing our lives on social media, spending more than we should, or becoming obsessive about our appearance. The only approval we should seek is that of God!

Seeking man’s approval rather than God’s never ends well. When Aaron sought the Israelites’ approval, a golden calf (and plague) were the result. Seeking the approval of the nations surrounding them, the people of Israel wanted a king; they rejected God and got Saul. Hoping to please the people, Pilate handed over the innocent Jesus and released the guilty Barabbas. In an effort to please the Jews, Herod persecuted Christians and killed James. Fearing people’s disapproval and excommunication from the synagogue, John tells us many Jews who believed in Jesus refused to follow Him because “they loved human praise more than the praise of God.” [12:43] Our desire to please God always must outweigh our desire to please people.

Whether we’re seeking the approval of a customer, boss, or anyone else, our value and worth do not come from people, paychecks, or accomplishments; they come from the Lord. We must never please others (or ourselves) at the cost of pleasing Him! Rather than seeking man’s approval, Jesus told us to seek the kingdom of God above all else. He promised that, if we live righteously, He will give us everything we need. [Matthew 6:33] We are, indeed, God’s servant and He is our boss!

If you please God, it does not matter whom you displease. And if you displease Him, it does not matter whom you please. [Steven J. Lawson]

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. [1 Thessalonians 2:4 (NLT)]

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:23-24 (NLT)]

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