GIVING AND RECEIVING

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)]

For it is in giving that we receive. [St. Francis of Assisi]

It’s less than a month until Christmas and I’m awaiting the family’s Christmas wish lists. Six years ago, when my son was helping his daughter compose her Christmas list, he told Mali she could ask for anything. A bit overwhelmed by such free rein, she questioned, “Anything?” While warning Mali that she may not get everything, he reassured her that she could ask for anything. To his surprise, the sweetheart asked for a sleeping bag for her little brother and explained that if he had one like hers, they both would be snug and cozy while watching their half hour of TV at night. Just four at the time, she had the right idea—giving truly is better than receiving.

Now that Mali is a worldly ten-year-old in fifth grade, I doubt that her Christmas list will reflect the same naïve generosity. Since she now has an American Girl doll, I suspect this year’s list will be more like the one her cousin made when she was the same age. That list was so long that it would have been easier if she’d just sent the American Girl catalog with the few things she didn’t want crossed out. Overwhelmed by the plethora of doll accessories available, she wanted everything. Fortunately, as she’s matured, she’s become more discerning and sensible in her requests.

Two extremes—wanting nothing for oneself or everything. How do we find balance? Although Christmas is about just one gift—the Christ child—the traditions surrounding this holy day tend to be ingrained in those colorful bags and gaily wrapped packages sitting beneath our Christmas trees. How do we keep things in perspective, not just during this season of giving and getting, but all year long? Perhaps we need to think more about filling our homes and the homes of others with love, peace, joy, and happy smiles rather than boxes, wrapping paper, and ribbons.

Father, as we prepare to celebrate the Savior’s birth, help us to share your love and blessings, to hold your Word in our hearts, and to properly set our priorities by keeping Christ as the focus of our Christmas.

The giving of gifts is not something man invented. God started the giving spree when he gave a gift beyond words, the unspeakable gift of His Son. [Robert Flatt]

You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” [Acts 20:35b (NLT)]

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GOD-INCIDENCES

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:9-10 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - milkweed

I suspect that most of us live rather ordinary and somewhat predictable lives that are occasionally interrupted by major life events (some of which are welcome and other which are not). For us, it is life’s little surprises—its happenstance and serendipity—that keep our lives from becoming humdrum.

We probably have no problem crediting God with the big blessings of life—things like the birth of a healthy child, a benign biopsy, a successful surgery, 10 years of sobriety, 50 plus years of marriage, the grand’s graduation, the better paying job, or God’s gifts of salvation and forgiveness. On the other hand, we tend to think of the little unexpected blessings—the butterfly or bluebird, the chance meeting, the out-of-the-blue phone call from an old friend, the sermon that spoke directly to our need, making the tight connection at the airport, or the humorous email that arrived when we were in the dumps—as mere coincidence or luck. After all, it seems that our Almighty God must be far too busy running the universe to deal with the minutiae of our everyday lives. Absolutely nothing, however, is unimportant to a God who sees every sparrow fall, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and has etched our names on the palms of His hands. Just as the universe is not run by random chance, neither are our lives!

God can multitask better than a one-armed paper-hanger or a mom with triplet toddlers! While God was keeping the stars and planets aligned back in 470 BC, He also orchestrated Persian King Xerxes’ insomnia and his attendant’s choice of what part of the king’s chronicles was read to him. For that matter, He is the one who placed the villains plotting the Xerxes’ death within ear shot of Mordecai. Rather than coincidences, all of the events in the book of Esther were part of God’s finely crafted plan!

Although we speak to God in prayer, we often chalk up His answer to luck or coincidence. God can speak audibly but He also speaks through seemingly random things—the day’s Bible verse, a chance meeting, a song on the radio, a casual comment, a wrong number, words in a book we accidentally open, and even a bout of insomnia. When we credit the little blessings of life to coincidence, we’re happy. When we credit them to their orchestrator, however, we become thankful. While we’re surprised by these seemingly random or capricious events, our God never is! Everything in our lives has passed through His hands!

Yesterday, we gave thanks for our food, family, health, homes, and all the major blessings of our lives. Today, let’s give thanks for the little blessings, the godsends, that make our ordinary lives so extraordinary—the things that encourage us when we want to give up, put smiles on our faces, fill our hearts with joy, answer our questions, or remind us how much we’re loved. Along with all the big things, let’s be sure to give God credit for the little ones—the God-incidences—that He scatters throughout our days. His fingerprints are everywhere we look!

You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail. [Proverbs 19:21 (NLT)]

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)]

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PRAISE HIM

Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy house of worship, praise him under the open skies; Praise him for his acts of power, praise him for his magnificent greatness; Praise with a blast on the trumpet, praise by strumming soft strings; Praise him with castanets and dance, praise him with banjo and flute; Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum, praise him with fiddles and mandolin. Let every living, breathing creature praise God! Hallelujah! [Psalm 150 (MSG)]

water lilyI’d gotten sidetracked taking pictures of the water lilies at the Botanic Gardens. I looked around for my husband and saw him sitting quietly on a nearby bench. Although his head was down, I knew he wasn’t snoozing. Sitting down beside him, I said, “He really is amazing, isn’t He?” We both spent a few minutes reflecting on how great our God is and thanking Him for using all 120 of the crayons in his heavenly box when he made the flowers. He’s an extraordinary artist!

Thanks and praise—we tend to lump them both together and, yet, they’re not really the same. Thanks are for gifts given; praise is for the giver of the gifts! For example, we thanked our children for the on-line cooking class that came with a box of all the necessary exotic ingredients shipped to our front door but praised them for finding such a unique, fun, and delicious present! A friend thanked me for writing this blog but it was her praise for my writing that put a smile on my face.

While it’s easy to thank God for his many gifts, I question, “Who am I to praise God for His splendor and works?” Perhaps it’s because I feel so insignificant and inept in comparison to our great and magnificent God. I tend to think we should have competency in an area for our praise to be of value. For example, while I would feel comfortable thanking virtuoso pianist Lang Lang for giving a concert, no matter how amazing I thought his performance, my lack of musical expertise would keep me from praising his interpretation of the piece or the amazing way he recovered from a career-threatening injury. While I take nature photographs, I can’t hold a candle to the work of a photographer like Thomas Mangelsen. While I could thank him for sharing his work, because I know nothing of f-stops, apertures, ISO, or shutter speeds, I question whether praise from someone who is an amateur like me would mean anything to him.

If I feel unqualified to praise mere humans, no wonder I’m hesitant to praise God. Yet, when I think about it, praise is praise, whether it comes from an expert or simply an appreciative fan. We don’t need to be accomplished in a field to know what we find inspiring, beautiful, remarkable, or impressive and something tells me that sincere praise is always music to someone’s ears.

My small brain can’t fathom the 4,500 stars I might see tonight let alone the 300 billion in the Milky Way and the estimated 70 billion trillion stars God scattered in the universe. I have enough trouble understanding the way bees make honey let alone how God managed to think up some 950,000 other kinds of insects. Try as I will, I can’t truly grasp how a cherry blossom becomes a juicy sweet cherry or how the 86 billion nerve cells in my brain make it possible for me to breathe, walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time. I have no idea how God managed to think up giggles, rainbows, bird songs, dolphins, water lilies, butterflies, peonies, strawberries, giraffes, snow, or sunsets. Nevertheless, I realize it’s not necessary to be an expert in astronomy, entomology, biology, zoology, botany, or any other science to appreciate and praise the work of our magnificent God. Our praise is music to His godly ears and surely will put a smile on His divine face.

On this day of Thanksgiving, let’s be sure to add a little praise to our thanks. Well done, God; well done!

Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out. Is there anyone around who can explain God? Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do? Anyone who has done him such a huge favor that God has to ask his advice? Everything comes from him; Everything happens through him; Everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise! Yes. Yes. Yes. [Romans 11:33-36 (MSG)]

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ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME

Photo: Dennis Johnson

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. … Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:13-14,17 (NLT)]

Last week, I missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the longest lunar eclipse to occur in a span of 1,000 years. The last time a lengthy lunar eclipse happened was in 1440 and the next one won’t occur until 2669! Although I woke in the middle of the night and remembered the eclipse, I let the threat of clouds, the inconvenience of going outside in the middle of the night, and the lure of sleep deter me. Instead of seizing the opportunity, I rolled over and went back to sleep. Although it will be much shorter, I can always see another lunar eclipse next year. Then again, there’s no guarantee that the sky will be clear that night or that I’ll be awake (or even alive) between midnight and 3:00 AM on May 22! A missed opportunity is missed forever!

When pondering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, I think of the time Jesus passed through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. A blind man named Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that Jesus was passing by, he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Annoyed by his cries, the crowd following Jesus yelled at him to be quiet. Perhaps, like many of their time, they considered illness and disability God’s punishment for one’s sins and didn’t think the blind man deserved Jesus’ attention. In any case, Bartimaeus was not to be deterred. Taking the opportunity before him, he called out so loudly and persistently that Jesus heard the blind man’s voice, called to him, and restored the man’s sight.

As Jesus walked through Jericho, a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous rabbi. A little man, Zacchaeus was too short to see over people’s heads and couldn’t push his way to the front of the crowd. As the chief tax-collector, he probably was the most hated man in Jericho and no one was about to make way for the man. In fact, Zacchaeus probably was shoved around by the crowd and may have encountered a few deliberate pokes in his ribs. Like Bartimaeus, however, the publican was not about to be deterred. He ran ahead (a very undignified thing for a government official) and climbed up a sycamore tree to get a view of Jesus as He passed. Seeing his determination, Jesus called him down and invited himself to the tax man’s house.

That day, Jesus restored the sight of Bartimaeus and brought salvation to the home of Zacchaeus but what if those two men had allowed the opportunity to know Jesus slip past them? Like most, they thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem for Passover and would be passing back through town again. Thinking they’d catch Jesus next time He came through town, they easily could have allowed the crowd to deter them. Jesus, however, was on His way to the cross and that one day in Jericho was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Regretfully, I’ve missed far more important opportunities than seeing a six-hour lunar eclipse—opportunities to be kind, helpful, compassionate, and generous. I’ve allowed myself to be deterred from opportunities to witness, defend, advocate, assist, and support. Like Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus, we don’t know if today is the last day a particular opportunity will arise nor do we know what tomorrow will bring. Today, let us take advantage of all the God-given opportunities it offers.

If today were your last, would you do what you’re doing? Or would you love more, give more, forgive more? Then do so! Forgive and give as if it were your last opportunity. Love like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow comes, love again. [Max Lucado]

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

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YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW

Lord, I trust in you. You are my God. My life is in your hands. [Psalm 31:14-15a (ERV)]

Going by the popular name of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” the Brunfelsia is one of my favorite Florida flowers. Three colors of pansy-like fragrant flowers can be seen on the one plant at the same time: the deep purple of the new flower, the pale lavender that appears shortly thereafter, and the pure white just before the flower falls off. Although we get to see what this flower looked like yesterday, looks like today and will look like tomorrow, we don’t get to see the past, present and future of our lives all at once. God, however can.

This lovely flower was brought to mind last week when I had my yearly exam at the dermatologist’s. In honor of Thanksgiving, one wall of the waiting room displayed brown, orange, red, and yellow construction paper leaves scattered under a banner that asked, “For what are you thankful?” While reminiscent of an elementary school classroom bulletin board, the answers written on those leaves by both patients and staff weren’t like those of the average grade-schooler who knows little of things like death, biopsies, addiction, loneliness, strokes, cancer, conflict, bankruptcy, job loss, homelessness, violence, or struggle. While a fourth-grader might have written her dog’s name on a leaf, only a mature adult would have said, “I’m thankful for the troubled times because, without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today!”

Indeed, I can’t say I was thankful for my troubles when they occurred but, like that person, I am thankful for what God did with them in my life. The hurdles, pain, injury, loss, and trouble that seemed so random and senseless at the time make sense in retrospect. I can see how God brought those difficult yesterdays together to bring me to a better and more beautiful today and how today’s challenges will lead me into an even more amazing tomorrow. Having no crystal ball to see how it all will come together at some point in the future, however, we simply must trust God with our tomorrows and settle on only seeing the past, present, and future at one time in the lovely flowers of the Brunfelsia.

Another name for the Brunfelsia is “Kiss Me Quick Before I Fade,” but I tend to think of it as the Carpe Diem flower. The phrase comes from the Roman poet Horace and was part of his injunction to “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” meaning “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” Horace, who died in 8 BC, was a pagan but, had he been born at a later date and become a follower of Jesus, the poet could have trusted in his tomorrows because he would have known they were in God’s hands.

As for me, while thanking God for the blessings of yesterday (even though I didn’t appreciate many of them at the time), I will pluck this day with enthusiasm and joy while trusting God with the next one. He planted us right here and at this time for a reason and He will faithfully cultivate, prune, water, and nurture us. Trusting that God knows what He’s doing, what He wants for us, where He’s taking us, and how He will get us there, let us release to Him all of our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.

God promises a safe landing but not a calm passage. [Bulgarian Proverb]

The Lord guides our steps, and we never know where he will lead us. [Proverbs 20:24 (ERV)]

So I saw that the best thing people can do is to enjoy what they do, because that is all they have. Besides, no one can help another person see what will happen in the future. [Ecclesiastes 3:22 (ERV)]

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DESSERTS OR DESERTS?

But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” [Luke 23:40-41 (NLT)]

wild turkeyWe’re hosting family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner and I’m still planning the menu. One guest won’t eat anything green, another doesn’t eat seafood, one dislikes turkey, and two are vegetarians. While I’m still working on appetizers, salad, main course and sides, dessert is a given. Between the sweets our guests are bringing and my pecan pumpkin pie topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream, even the pickiest eater will be happy! I probably could please everyone with just desserts!

Thinking of eating just desserts reminded me of a show I saw several years ago about non-traditional Thanksgiving menus. Prepared by the owner of a confectionery, the entire meal consisted of sweets masquerading as traditional savory holiday dishes. The turkey was formed of dark and light chocolate and the mashed potatoes and gravy were a white cake heaped in a bowl, topped with buttercream frosting, and drizzled with butterscotch syrup. The dinner rolls were doughnuts, the yams were sweet pumpkin soufflé, and the peas were made of marzipan. After their initial dismay, everyone enjoyed eating just desserts. In fact, upon cleaning his dinner plate, one little boy asked for dessert!

The life God give us isn’t like that holiday dinner of just desserts; there always will be things like sadness, trouble, loss, and pain. We didn’t enjoy them the first time around and certainly don’t want second or third helpings. Nevertheless, like that little boy, rather than relishing whatever sweetness we’re given, we often think we deserve more. While we might prefer a life of just desserts, what we don’t want is one of just deserts!

You see, in spite of their similar pronunciation, the phrases “just desserts” and “just deserts” are not the same thing.  “Just deserts” uses a now obsolete definition of “desert” as “something that is deserved” and precedes the mid-16th century concept of an after dinner sweet called “dessert” by several hundred years.

In fact, we’re blessed that God doesn’t give us our just deserts. As sinners, we don’t even deserve the blessings we’ve already been given. We certainly don’t deserve God’s love—a love so great that He sacrificed His only son for us. Without sin, Jesus didn’t get His just deserts when he suffered on the cross; He took our just deserts! Dying so that we might live, our Lord got what He didn’t deserve so that we could receive what we didn’t! We deserve condemnation and punishment but God’s mercy gives us love and forgiveness. Let’s be careful when we demand what we truly deserve from God; we don’t want Him to give us our just deserts!

The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales. [John Stott]

He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:10-12 (NLT)]

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