In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. [Deuteronomy 32:10-11 (NIV)]

eagleA friend once asked her mother which of her children was the favorite. I can’t imagine making such a query, wanting to hear the answer, or how I’d respond to the same question. Since I can’t even pick my favorite color, I certainly couldn’t pick my favorite child. Is it the one with the over-the-top personality who not only could sell ice cubes to Eskimos but convince them to double their order because of a possible shortage? Is my favorite the adventurous one with the wonderfully quirky sense of humor and a mind that puts Wikipedia to shame? Is my favorite the thoughtful child—the one whose faith, strength, and patience rival that of Job? If they were beverages, one child would be a doppio espresso; another spiced chai with ginger, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon and cloves; while the third would be calming chamomile tea with a touch of honey. Like those beverages, each of my children is interesting, pleasant, and delightfully unique. One challenged me, one grieved me, and one worried me. Do I love them less because of that? Absolutely not! While I love them equally, because they have been blessed with different personalities and abilities, I don’t always treat them the same. Nevertheless, I love all three of them, just each in their own special way!

When my father called me the “apple of his eye,” I felt precious, treasured, and loved. I realize now that he never used that phrase within earshot of my siblings and suspect he used the same term of endearment in private with them. While there probably were times he liked one of us more than the others, I think we each were the apple of his eye in our own special way.

The Apostle John seemed to think he was the apple of Jesus’ eye. In his gospel, John refers to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” In the only other gospel written by one of the disciples, Matthew always refers to himself by name. I suspect the difference in how these men referred to themselves has far more to do with their writing style than with whether or not they felt loved. Granted, Jesus had his inner circle—John, Peter and James—but I don’t think that means He loved one disciple more than the next.

Indeed, John was the apple of Jesus’ eye—but so were Matthew, doubtful Thomas, Simon the Zealot, impulsive Peter, prayerful Mary, busy Martha, the woman at the well, and even the repentant thief on the cross. Because each was unique, they weren’t always treated the same but, without a doubt, each was loved and all were the “apple of his eye.” When we accepted Christ, God adopted us into His family and each of us, in our own special way, became His favored and much-loved child and the apple of His eye. Like John, every one of us is the disciple Jesus loves!

For God does not show favoritism. [Romans 2:11 (NIV)]

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NIV)]

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An open rebuke is better than hidden love! Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. … As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. [Proverbs 27:5-6,17 (NLT)]

bougainvillaWhen I was asked if I’d ever been hurt by a fellow believer, I had to reply that in my seventy plus years, I’ve been hurt (both intentionally and unintentionally) by all sorts of people, including the most devout of Christians. When asked if any Bible verse helped guide my response to the hurt, Ephesians 4:32 came to mind: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” I was then asked what I’d learned from my experiences. The first take-away, learned the hard way, was to immediately ask God to put His arm around my shoulder and His hand over my mouth before I said something stupid or nasty. The second was that, as tactless, unkind, petty, and rude that both Christians and non-Christians can be, they also can be right!

It’s been said that the truth hurts and, indeed, it often does. Every now and then, we’re on the receiving end of judgment, criticism, rejection, condemnation, or disdain. While words of correction should always come out of love, sometimes they’re delivered out of anger, jealousy, or spite. Nevertheless, we need to distance ourselves from the circumstances, personalities, and hurt feelings to ask ourselves a simple question. Is there any truth to what was said? No wiser or smarter than the next guy, we’re not always the ones who should be giving critiques, suggestions, or instruction. Sometimes (perhaps more often than not), we’re the ones who should be on the receiving end.

Occasionally, we get so committed to a plan that we fail to see there may be a better way or are so vested in being right that we ignore the possibility of being wrong. As a result, we become so tenacious in our defense that we fail to see the validity of any criticism or so determined to claim victory that we fail to see resolution or compromise. As unpleasant as it may be, we need to stop and prayerfully examine the message. The delivery doesn’t have to be pleasant or welcome for the criticism or comment to be valid.

God doesn’t want us living in error; He wants to turn our weakness into strength, our faults into attributes, our falseness into truth, our confusion into clarity, and our messes into messages. God’s correction is always good but it rarely appears printed on a sweet candy heart. Just because it doesn’t come wrapped in a polite loving package, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be heeded. Although I would prefer correction from the comforting voice of someone who truly cares for me, some of the best advice I ever received came seasoned with a little spite and rancor. God used a talking donkey to give His message to Balaam and He will use both sensitive and thoughtless believers and unbelievers to send His correction to us. Just because the truth sometimes hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. [Proverbs 3:11-12 (NLT)]

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For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NTE)]

Although the Apostle Paul seems to have mixed figures of speech by referring to the military with “fought” and “fight,” athletics with “race,” and religion with “faith,” all three references relate to athletics. The word used for fought was agónizomai (the root word for the English word “agonize”) which meant “to contend for a prize” or “struggle.” The word translated as “fight” was agōna, meaning “a gathering, contest, struggle.” Rather than a conflict or dispute, it referred to a gathering to see contests like the ancient games held at Olympia or the games themselves. Paul’s audience would have understood that he meant something grueling and, in their 1st century world, athletic competitions were so fierce and brutal that even the winners usually carried scars.

Continuing the theme of athletics, the word usually translated as race or course, was dromos and literally meant a race course or track and the word translated as faith, pistis, referred to a guarantee or warranty that the contender fulfilled his obligations honorably. When Paul spoke of the crown awaiting him, rather than diádēma, meaning a royal crown made of gold and precious stones, he used stephanos which was the circular wreath or garland awarded to victors in ancient athletic games. We could paraphrase Paul’s words as “I have competed well in the struggles of life. I followed the course God set before me, wasn’t disqualified, faithfully finished what I began, and won the victor’s wreath.”

When reading Paul’s words, I remembered the story of John Stephen Akhwari, a marathon runner representing Tanzania in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Having come from a nation with an average altitude of 2,769 feet, the over 7,300-foot altitude of the city caused the runner to cramp up early in the race. Nevertheless, Akhwari kept going. When jockeying for position at the 19K mark, however, he collided with another runner, fell down, injured his shoulder, and cut and dislocated his knee. Seeing his injuries, spectators assumed he would quit (as 18 of the original 75 runners eventually did). The Tanzanian runner, however, chose to fight the good fight and complete the course. After getting his leg bandaged, in spite of the altitude, heat, pain, and knowledge that he couldn’t even place in the race, Akhwari continued.

More than an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line and the medals had been awarded, when the sun had set and the stands were nearly empty, John Stephen Akhwari hobbled into the stadium to complete the 42K race he’d begun nearly three-and-a-half hours earlier. With the few spectators remaining in the stadium cheering him on, Akhwari stepped up his pace and finished the race by running the last hundred meters. When asked why he finished the course, he simply replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Akhwari didn’t receive a medal or a wreath at the 1968 Olympics, but he was the real hero of that race because he did more than start—he finished what he’d begun in spite of overwhelming obstacles. He kept the pistis. Do we have that same kind of determination to fight the good fight—against Satan, disappointment, discouragement, discomfort, and pain? Are we as determined as were the Apostle and Akhwari to finish the course that God has set before us? Will we keep the faith by finishing our course without fouling out or quitting? Of course, in an athletic contest, there’s only one winner—only one gold medal or wreath to place on the victor’s head. The crown of righteousness, however, is available for all who fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith!

Just as coaches use Akhwari’s story to inspire their runners, Paul is encouraging young Timothy to let the Apostle’s story inspire him. May both of their stories inspire us!

Life is a fight, and only the faithful will finish strong. [Brian Tome]

Don’t you know that when people run on the race-track everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don’t run in an aimless fashion! I don’t box like someone punching the air! No: I give my body rough treatment, and make it my slave, in case, after announcing the message to others, I myself should end up being disqualified. [1 Corinthians 9:25 (NTE)]

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And you must think constantly about these commandments I am giving you today. You must teach them to your children and talk about them when you are at home or out for a walk; at bedtime and the first thing in the morning. Tie them on your finger, wear them on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house! [Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (TLB)]

elkIn 2018, a woman posted a video on Facebook that was shared over 400,000 times in the next six days. It was of a little boy who had a unique way of reciting his ABCs—each letter was followed by a Bible verse that began with it. Rather than “A is for apple,” the youngster started with “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find,” [Matthew 7:7] and finished with “Zion hears and rejoices.” [Psalm 97:8] In spite of the boy’s dark brown hair and East Texas drawl, the woman mistakenly identified him as blond-haired Prince George, third in line to the British throne. Originally posted in October of 2016, the video actually was of  four-year-old Tanner Hemness from Tyler, Texas.

After the youth minister at Tanner’s church challenged the congregation to learn Bible verses for every letter of the alphabet as a family, Tanner’s dad wasn’t sure his then three-and-a-half-year-old could do it; nevertheless, the family gave it a try. Every week they worked on another letter and verse. Seven months later, Tanner was able to recite his ABCs in Bible verses. We had enough trouble convincing our children that they couldn’t use “Jesus wept” as their personal Bible verse at their confirmations and this little guy learned twenty-six far longer verses! Instead of “Jesus wept,” for J, the youngster learned Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Although there were many positive responses to seeing this little boy happily reciting God’s word, there also was criticism. Among other things, Tanner’s father was accused of brainwashing, psychological indoctrination, and child abuse. Yet, if he’d spent seven months successfully teaching his son how to hit a baseball or make a basket, those same people probably would have applauded his dedication to the boy. Tanner’s father did exactly what Scripture told him to do: teach God’s word to his child. After all, the Israelites were told to talk about God’s word from morning to night, tie it on their hands, wear it on their foreheads, and post it on their doorways, so writing a different Bible verse on a chalkboard each week doesn’t sound that extreme! It speaks of a father’s dedication to and love for both his family and the Lord! Sadly, if we don’t teach our children to follow Jesus, the world will teach them not to!

The Bible is the basis for our faith; all of our doctrine and practices are guided by God’s word. Unfortunately, many of us are at a loss when it comes to knowing what the Bible actually says. That four-year old boy is further ahead than many adults I know. Of course, Tanner’s dad knows that many of those verses don’t have the same meaning to a child that they do to an adult. Realizing his work is not done, he and his wife will continue sharing God’s word and the meaning of those verses with their son. “The hard part,” said Tanner’s father in an interview, comes with “being the kind of dad who helps him live these words.” He’s made a great start!

Sunday is Father’s Day but, sadly, not all of us had fathers as dedicated to their families and God as does Tanner Hemness. Unfortunately, it is far easier to father a child than to be a father to a child. Some of us never may have known our fathers, can barely remember them, or would prefer not remembering them, at all. Nevertheless, we probably all had men in our lives who inspired, taught, nurtured, guided, and corrected us. If we can’t honor our fathers this day, let us honor them.

Thank you, God, not just for our fathers but for all of the men in our lives who took the time to share your message and teach us your word. Thank you for the men who have shown us what it means to live in God’s light. Fill them with your Holy Spirit so they may continue in your good works.

Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best. [Bob Talbert]

And now a word to you parents. Don’t keep on scolding and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather, bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice. [Ephesians 6:4 (TLB)]

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When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, “Come in and eat with me”? No, he says, “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.” And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NLT)]

swamp lilyWhen one of his congregation suddenly stopped coming to church, a pastor friend asked him about his absence. The man angrily explained that he’d stopped attending because the pastor hadn’t suitably (and publicly) recognized his large donation to the church’s building fund. My friend assured the miffed man that, had the money been given to the pastor for his personal use, he would have thanked him profusely. But, he added, the money hadn’t been given to him; it was given to God! While the church truly appreciated it (and had acknowledged it in his contribution statement), the issue of both the donation and any recognition or thanks really was between the donor and God. A similar experience was shared by a friend who is in charge of the care ministry for her church. One of her volunteers quit because she felt the church had failed to sufficiently appreciate and publicize her service.

To avoid such complaints, perhaps, along with official greeters, we need official “thankers” in our churches. Of course, if the church had members whose official job was to thank everyone for their service, who would they get to thank the thankers? I can see the makings of a Dr. Seuss book in which the last little Thankaroo, whose job is to thank you and you, after asking who’d thank him, gets in a snit and declares he’s through! Who will thank the last Thankaroo?

It’s only human to want to feel appreciated and acknowledged but, if we’re looking for recognition and honor from people, we’re bound to become disappointed and disillusioned. Let’s remember that we don’t serve mankind; we serve God. Our service does not put Him in our debt because we are saved by grace not works.

Jesus addressed this very issue in His parable about the master and the servant. At first His words seem somewhat harsh, but He wasn’t demeaning the work of a servant; He was emphasizing the correct servant attitude. Servants of Jesus are believers who willingly live under His authority. A good servant knows it’s an honor to serve, willingly does one task after another, and doesn’t expect thanks, praise, or recognition for doing his duty. His obedience to his master is not commendable; it is expected!

We serve God out of love, not out of expectation of public recognition or reward. We certainly should not feel self-righteous about anything we’ve done in His name because all we’ve done is what is expected of us!

As God’s servants, we serve inconspicuously, willingly, and joyfully. Humbly admitting we’ve done no more than is our duty, we don’t serve to get thanks but rather to give thanks to God for the blessings of this world. Not expecting to be singled out for praise by our fellow man, we are thankful to serve. Hearing the Lord say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” will be far better than any other recognition given to us in the here and now!

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. [Matthew 6:1-4 (NLT)

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And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” [Exodus 32:9 ESV)]

And he [Moses] said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” [Exodus 34:8-9 (ESV)]

great egretFor the most part, being a “stiff-necked people” is a pejorative label, but could there be occasions when that’s exactly what we should be? Are there times we should be intractable, stubborn, and uncompromising—even instances we should disregard the law?

After noting “the natural innate obstinacy of the race,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) believed that very quality is what, “made Israel the most suitable for the revelation of the Divinity of His Torah.” In spite of their willfulness and disobedience to God, would anyone but a stiff-necked people have managed to retain their belief in Jehovah and His word during seventy years of captivity in idolatrous Babylon? Would anyone but a stiff-necked people have insisted on returning to the ruins of Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple so they could worship the one true God? Would anyone but a stiff-necked person have refused to bow down to Haman (an Amalekite and ancient enemy of Israel), as did Mordecai? Wouldn’t you have to be stiff-necked to be hungry and yet refuse to eat “unclean” Babylonian food as did Daniel and his friends; to face death by staunchly refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; or to blatantly break the law by praying to God rather than King Darius as did Daniel? As troublesome as their stiff-necked nature was at times, it allowed our Jewish brothers and sisters to persevere more than 3,400 years through captivity, diaspora, pogroms and the Holocaust.

As for being stiff-necked and obstinate (even contumacious), let’s look at the early church. Peter and the apostles were so stiff-necked that even after being arrested and ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop speaking of Jesus, they boldly continued  to do so. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, was so stiff-necked that he openly debated with the Jews, stood his ground before the Sanhedrin, and continued to speak of Jesus until his dying breath. The Apostle Paul was stiff-necked enough to persevere for Christ through beatings, stonings, floggings, shipwrecks, trials, and imprisonment. In fact, John is the only one of the apostles believed to have died a natural death (the rest having been martyred) and church tradition holds that he’d once been boiled in oil! They all were stiff-necked when it came to following Jesus!

Ancient Rome would have been tolerant of Christians had they just been willing to make a sacrifice to the emperor as if he were divine. With their “stiff-necks,” however, the early church refused to compromise their faith and were persecuted because of their treason to the Empire. As for being contumacious (stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority)—for most of the time between 100 and 313 AD (and the Edict of Milan), it was illegal to be a Christian and yet about a tenth of the Roman Empire were Christians! Christianity survived because of its “stiff-necked,” inflexible, and uncompromising faith in Jesus!

There is a fine line between being steadfast and obstinate but let us remember that we are called to be inflexible and uncompromising when it comes to our faith and loyalty to the Lord!

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (ESV)]

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:12 (ESV)]

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