HARD HEARTS (Soil – Part 1)

A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. [Luke 8:5 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIn the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find Jesus telling the parable of the four soils in which the farmer’s seed falls on four types of ground and yields four different results. Although the same good seed is sown over the entire field, only one kind of soil will yield a good crop. Jesus isn’t giving a lesson about agricultural practices; the seed that is sown is God’s word and the soils represent the different responses we have to God’s word. The lessons taught are both for the sowers—those who teach, preach, or witness—and for the soil—the people who hear the Word.

Some of the farmer’s seed falls along a footpath. There the soil is packed down so hard that the seed can’t take root. At first, it seems like the farmer is at fault, but he was doing what farmers did at the time—sowing before plowing. In Jesus’ day, farmers’ plots were small and adjacent to one another’s plots. Wanting to avoid stepping on growing plants, there were pathways between the fields used by the farmers. As the farmer walked along the path, he’d scatter seeds with a broad sweeping motion of his hand. Inevitably, some seed would land on the footpath between the fields. Heavily used and neither plowed nor fertilized, its soil was hard packed and nothing would grow on it.

 It’s not enough for the word to be heard any more than it is for seed to fall on hard ground. In Scripture, faith and belief are products of the heart. Just as seed must germinate to grow, the Word must be accepted, but a hard heart, like hardened soil, cannot receive God’s word. Instead of birds, it is Satan who snatches the Word away.

We know what makes a footpath hard but what hardens hearts? I think of Herod Antipas who married his half-brother’s wife (forbidden by Mosaic Law). When John the Baptist denounced Herod’s illegal marriage, Herod arrested and imprisoned the prophet at his wife’s urging. Scripture, however, tells us that Herod respected John and liked to listen to him but, not wanting to recognize his own sin and repent, Herod didn’t allow John’s word to change him. Unrepentant sin caused both Herod’s and Herodias’ hearts to harden enough that John died a gruesome death.

In Pharaoh’s case, it was pride and arrogance that hardened his heart to the powerful God of the Israelites. It was setbacks and disappointments that hardened the heart of the Israelites when camping at Meribah. Ignoring God’s previous provision, the ungrateful people quarreled with Moses over the lack of water. Hearts can harden in times of prosperity, as well. God sent Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah to warn Israel and Judah about their hard hearts and the coming of God’s judgment but they didn’t change their ways. Distractions like fear and blame can cause hearts to harden enough for Satan to snatch away God’s word. Twice Scripture describes the hearts of the disciples as being “too hard to take it in” when they failed to let Jesus’ miracles of abundant provision grow into faith in His power. [Mark 6:52,8:17]

Hardened hearts dull our ability to perceive and understand God’s message, blind us to the value of the gospel, and keep us both ignorant of God and alienated from Him. As hearers of the Word, we must not let the enemy harden our hearts and, as sowers, we must keep spreading the seed; whether or not it is accepted is up to the soil! The good news, however, is that even the hardest soil can be broken and even the hardest heart can be softened.

Hardness of heart evidences itself by light views of sin; partial acknowledgment and confession of it; pride and conceit; ingratitude; unconcern about the word and ordinances of God; inattention to divine providences; stifling convictions of conscience; shunning reproof; presumption, and general ignorance of divine things. [Matthew George Easton]

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. [Ephesians 4:18 (NLT)]

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FORTITUDE

Let’s not get tired of doing what is good, for at the right time we will reap a harvest—if we do not give up. [Galatians 6:9 (ISV)]

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you are involved in various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But you must let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. [James 1:2-4 (ISV)]

Moraine Lake - CanadaYesterday, I wrote about the sin of sloth, a sort of spiritual weariness; fortitude is considered its contrasting virtue. Taken captive in 605 BC and forced to trudge the 500 miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, Daniel is an example of fortitude. He lost his home, family, name, language, culture, nation, and possibly his manhood but the one thing he never lost was his faith in God. From the moment he arrived in Babylon, Daniel refused to compromise his principles by refusing to defile himself with prohibited food. Sixty-six years later, he was still determined to stay true to God. In spite of knowing he would be thrown to the lions for his actions, he ignored the law prohibiting praying to anyone but King Darius. Instead, Daniel opened his windows and, as he’d “always done,” prayed to the one true God while offering thanks and asking for God’s help. [Daniel 6:10-11]

A pastor friend was in her fifties when God called her to the ministry. After completing her Lutheran seminary studies and internship, she met all the additional ordination requirements except one: she needed “a call” or placement in a Lutheran church. Although she’d received a call and felt confident it was God’s plan, a problem remained. Caught in a sort of “catch-22,” the call was from a Methodist church for an ordained minister but she couldn’t be ordained without accepting a call from a Lutheran church! Urging her to be patient, the bishop assured her that the Methodists and Lutherans soon would come to a “full communion” agreement so her position with the Methodists would qualify as the required call. The wheels of bureaucracy moved slowly and the Bishop’s promise of “soon” dragged into years. While she worked in Christian education for the Methodist church, my friend was not yet ordained and her dream of becoming a pastor had been put on indefinite hold. In God’s time, however, the Lutherans and Methodists became full communion partners which, among other things, meant they could exchange clergy. Four years after her seminary graduation, my pastor friend was ordained by a Lutheran bishop in the Methodist church. It would have been faster to leave the right church (but “wrong” denomination) in search of the “right” denomination (but wrong church), but she didn’t. Instead, she exhibited fortitude by trusting God and staying where He put her.

Fortitude is not a word we use much today. The Roman Catholic Catechism calls it “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life.” Our spiritual backbone, fortitude is a combination of endurance, courage, perseverance, strength, and faith. Simply put, fortitude is the grace God gives us when we so desperately need it.

As did my pastor friend several years ago, we’re probably asking, “How long?” We’re not the first ones to ask that question. It had to have been asked multiple times when a few years of refuge in Egypt turned into 400 years and slavery, an 11 day trek across the desert stretched into 40 years, 15 difficult years passed between David’s anointing and his kingship, Job’s suffering seemed to have no end, and Judah’s Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years. Rather than wondering, “How long?” let us pray as did Daniel: by offering thanksgiving and asking for God’s help. May God clothe us with fortitude and fortify us with His strength.

She clothes herself with fortitude, and fortifies her arms with strength. [Proverbs 31:17 (ISV)]

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A TERRIBLE TEMPTATION

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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FOLLOW ME

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. [Luke 9:23 (NLT)]

steamboat springs ski areaIt’s been five years since I’ve skied but I still remember that the three scariest words I ever heard when on the slopes were, “Follow me, Nonnie!” My grands loved to venture off the groomed runs into the bumps and through the woods. On my own, I never would have chosen to leave the main trail but, because I loved those little guys, I faithfully followed behind as they maneuvered between the trees and over the moguls.

Although my grands boogied joyfully off trail, I was far more hesitant. The children’s perspective was far different than mine. As they snaked through the trees, they saw the openings between them but my tendency was to focus on the pines blocking my path rather than the gaps between them. Seeing the moguls as fun friends rather than evil enemies, my grands stayed relaxed and loose and absorbed the bumps they encountered. On the other hand, seeing the moguls as adversaries, I stiffened in anticipation of trouble. Moreover, the little guys weren’t afraid of falling and, when they did, they just laughed, picked themselves up, and continued downhill. Although I rarely fell, my mind was filled with all the “what ifs” of falling: embarrassment, injury, or worse!

Life is a lot like skiing off trail into the heavy powder, bumps and trees. We can choose to see the difficulties in front of us rather than notice ways to get beyond them. If we keep our eyes focused on God, He’ll show us the way through, between or around the obstacles of life. Instead of stiffening up when we see the bumpy challenges ahead, we can choose to remain flexible and ready to absorb the impact when jolted around by life. When we trust God, He’ll give us the strength and ability to get through the moguls on life’s trail. We can be afraid of falling, humiliation or failure, or accept that missteps, disappointment, and loss are part of life. Resting secure in God’s love when we follow His ways, we won’t be afraid of crashing.

If I hadn’t followed my grands when they called, I would have missed some of the best times I’ve had with them. Enduring moguls, sore knees and occasional face plants in the snow were worth it. Our Heavenly Father has more in store for us than some thrills while skiing off trail. We certainly don’t want to miss all that He has to offer simply because we’re afraid of a few bumps and tumbles! Trust Him; He’s got a great plan. Just be sure to follow Jesus when he calls. Like skiing with the grands, it will be worth it when you do!

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:27 (NLT)]

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NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER – MAY 7, 2020

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” [John 17:1 (NIV)]

taos, NMThis pandemic may have may have postponed the Olympics but it hasn’t delayed the National Day of Prayer. Today’s observances, however, will look quite different from previous ones. There won’t be any prayer breakfasts or luncheons and large groups won’t assemble in parks, churches or on courthouse steps. Instead, churches will stream their services and religious leaders from across the county will participate in a national broadcast to be aired tonight from 8 to 10 PM ET (see their website or Facebook page for details). Because of the many “virtual” events planned, today’s observance actually could be this day’s largest prayer gathering.

The theme this year is “Pray God’s Glory across the Earth.” Since the Westminster Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever,” I understand why we’d want to pray God’s glory across the earth. Man was created to give glory to God and this year’s theme probably was chosen long before coronavirus so drastically impacted the lives of people throughout this nation. In all likelihood, prayer resources, promotional materials, and PSAs were finished and distributed by the time we’d heard of COVID-19. I wondered how we can pray God’s glory when our hearts are so broken but that’s precisely what Jesus did on the eve of His death and betrayal. John 17 tells us that Jesus didn’t pray with anxiety, doubt or fear. His prayer focused on the glory of God: the revelation of his character and presence. Jesus’ words show us that the purpose of prayer isn’t for us to get something from God; it is to give God the glory He deserves!

The National Day of Prayer task force asks us to pray today’s prayer together, yet individually, at noon your local time. Please join me today in saying the following prayer. Let us lift our voices as one people and pray God’s glory across the earth!

Lord, we exist to give You glory. We exist because of Your glory, and in Your glory, as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We give you thanks and praise for every breath and moment You have given to us. We repent of our sin; for the shameful things we have done against You and for our silence when we did not speak up to proclaim Your Name, profess Your Word, or protect and practice Your will. We ask Your forgiveness.

We pray that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will spread across our nation and the entire earth as we seek Your Kingdom and righteousness; as we walk in obedience to You, and in humble unity, love one another.

Jesus, the Bible says that You are “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” You have taught us to pray, commanded us to love, and commissioned us to share Your gospel of grace. Your glory fills our hearts and families, it overflows into our neighborhoods, workplaces, campuses, churches, entertainment, and media.

We give thanks for our military and ask that Your glory would spread to, and through them as they preserve freedom around the world. We pray for our government, that all of our leaders and laws would be filled with Your glory, that they would magnify Your Holy Word and honor Your will and ways. We pray that Your grace and glory would spread to bring hope to the hopeless, and love where there is hurt and hate.

God, use us as we pray your promise, that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In Jesus Name, Amen! [Kathy Branzell, President, National Day of Prayer Task Force]

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. [Habakkuk 2:14 (NIV)]

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. [Psalm 29:2 (NIV)]

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PUSHING THE ROCK

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” [Luke 14:12-14 (NLT)]

utahI recently read about Derek Black, a young man who grew up immersed in white nationalism. The heir apparent to the WN movement, by the age of twenty, he’d already created a racist website for children and was co-hosting a national radio show advocating prejudice and hostility toward blacks, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. During college, Black gradually recognized the ugliness of his beliefs but it wasn’t confrontation, heated debate, or ostracism that led to his transformation; it was the hand of friendship!

One of those who reached out to Black was Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew, whose father had advised him to “reach out and extend the hand, no matter who’s waiting on the other side.” Each Friday night, Matthew welcomed friends at a Shabbat dinner. Only one other guest was Jewish; the rest were an assorted mix of faith, race, and nationality. Realizing the best way to enlighten Black was to introduce him to another way of thinking, the orthodox Jew invited this man—someone who regularly spewed anti-Semitism—to Shabbat dinner! Shunned by nearly everyone else on campus, Black accepted.

This was not an effort to ambush or “convert” Black and politics were not discussed. The group simply shared Shabbat prayers, wine, kosher food, and casual conversation. Derek Black’s thinking didn’t change overnight and, after more than a year of such dinners with no change in his views, one of the group suggested no longer inviting him. Matthew wisely responded, “The basic principle is that it’s our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock.”

White nationalism was embedded in all of Black’s childhood memories, his sense of self, and nearly every relationship he’d ever had. Extricating himself from all that he’d known, but gradually recognized as wrong, was not easy. Eventually, however, the rock was ready to move and Derek Black publicly disavowed white nationalism.

This message isn’t about white nationalism. It’s about extending our hand “no matter who’s waiting on the other side” in the same way that Jesus extended His hand to tax collectors, Gentiles, sinners and those considered “unclean.” Every person we meet has been made by God in His image and can teach us something about life. The only label we should use for anyone is that of “neighbor” because everyone (regardless of race, religion, or politics) is our neighbor and someone we are to love.

If we expect anyone to listen to us, we must be as willing to listen to them as the Shabbat group was with Derek. While we may consider some people’s beliefs to be in error, we must remember that they think them to be true and, most likely, find reassurance in them. We can’t berate or condemn people into belief and, if we expect our beliefs to be respected, we must respect those held by others. In light of the increasingly polarized political climate in our nation, we must learn to extend our hands “no matter who’s waiting on the other side.”

Looking beyond his label of white nationalist, Black’s dinner companions didn’t see him as a problem needing fixing and the non-believers we meet are more than projects needing salvation. The Shabbat group was patient, not pushy and, while they never were false to their own beliefs, they never condemned Derek for his. While the end goal of Christian evangelism is conversion, our job merely is to give the rock a push. Whether or not the rock moves is between that person and God. We may be the messengers but it is Jesus who saves!

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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