ADMITTING WEAKNESS, ACCEPTING GRACE

Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud. [Psalm 138:6 (NLT)]

No one enjoys feeling weak, whether it is emotionally, spiritually or physically. There is something within the human spirit that wants to resist the thought of weakness. Many times this is nothing more than our human pride at work. Just as weakness carries a great potential for strength, pride carries an equally great potential for defeat. [Charles Stanley]

corkscrew swamp sanctuaryHere I am again, with a broken ankle and wearing a knee-high air-boot for the next eight to ten weeks! We have guests visiting next Friday and, since they’re avid gardeners, we’d initially planned on taking them to the Botanic Gardens. Yesterday, I suggested a change in plans since a stroll through the gardens is beyond my walking ability. When my husband suggested pushing me in one of the garden’s wheelchairs, I began protesting until I recalled a similar situation over six years ago when my foolish pride almost prevented me from accepting the help I needed.

That time, another fractured ankle kept us from taking our regular walk through the swamp/bird sanctuary and we were going a bit stir-crazy. When my husband suggested pushing me along the boardwalk in one of their wheelchairs, I recoiled. Unwilling to acknowledge my weakness and need, I protested that only old people and invalids needed wheelchairs (even though I qualified on both counts). My vanity and foolish pride were keeping me from accepting my husband’s offer. After hearing an inner voice whisper, “Silly woman, think again!” I realized how foolish and self-centered I’d been. Eating my pride, I allowed my husband to do for me that which I couldn’t do for myself.

After joking with a little boy in a stroller that my stroller was bigger than his, we stopped to chat with Jack and Mary, an elderly couple we frequently saw there. Every morning (and some afternoons), Jack pushed his frail and ailing wife along the boardwalk. Unlike me, Mary accepted her diagnosis and dependence without complaint. In fact, she radiated peace and joy and her beautiful smile reminded me that I needed an attitude adjustment. I realized how incredibly fortunate we both were to have husbands who loved us enough to push us around the swamp. Both Mary and I were experiencing our husbands’ grace—which simply is love in action! And to think I almost missed that wonderful day (and many more like it) simply because of pride!

Just as I’d resisted my husband’s offer because I pridefully didn’t want to admit my need, we often find ourselves missing out on God’s grace – what Matthew Henry calls “the free, undeserved goodness and favor of God” – for the same reason. With His endless supply of mercy, love, healing, goodness, joy, peace, and forgiveness, there is no limit to God’s grace; it is sufficient for our every need. The only catch is that we must come to Him with a humble and contrite heart willing to admit our need and powerlessness. Pride, however, can keep us from acknowledging our vulnerability or deficiency. Just as I couldn’t make that swamp walk until I admitted I couldn’t do it on my own, none of us can successfully walk through life without accepting and depending on God’s beautiful grace and amazing power. It is only when we admit our weakness that we become strong!

A man does not get grace till he comes down to the ground, till he sees he needs grace. When a man stoops to the dust and acknowledges that he needs mercy, then it is that the Lord will give him grace. [D.L. Moody]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

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THE WOODPECKER

You heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! [Matthew 5:43-44 (NTE)]

red-bellied woodpeckerNo respecter of early mornings, an annoying woodpecker was busy drumming on the gutters of a nearby house. A few streets later, I spotted a woodpecker determinedly drilling into the stucco of another house. As it excavated a roost hole in the decorative trim, the determined little bird was doing as much damage with his beak as a heavy sledge hammer. A plaster patch nearby told me this wasn’t the first time the wall has been under attack! Throughout our community I see reflective streamers, children’s pinwheels, life-sized plastic owls, and strips of aluminum foil hanging from the eaves of houses. Nothing, however, seems to deter these birds from their drumming and drilling.

I thought of relentless woodpeckers after talking with a friend who recently experienced a stressful (but unavoidable) time with extended family. I could hear the exasperation in her voice as she spoke of the visit. As followers of Jesus, we’re supposed to reflect God’s love to everyone but she wondered if there’s an expiration date for that command when we get nothing but rudeness, deceit, or put-downs in return? How do we continue to love others when they are unlovable? We should be channels of God’s grace but what if we’re channeling that grace into what seems to be a bottomless pit of nasty? We’re supposed to be giving but when do we get a chance to receive? If other people can be selfish, under-handed, and bad-mannered, why can’t we?

Perhaps we need to remember that other people, no matter how unpleasant, demanding, or quarrelsome, are not the real foe—it is Satan. Like the woodpecker, he doggedly pokes, prods, and pesters us and our frustration, impatience, and annoyance with troublesome people is Satan chipping away at us a little bit at a time. Given enough time, instead of a stucco wall, he hopes to break through the wall of self-control. Instead of turning the other cheek, he wants us to lash back with some of the same!

In Jesus’ call to love our enemies, the word used was agapate which is the very kind of love God has for His sinful, disappointing, deceitful, troublesome, stiff-necked, difficult, selfish, and argumentative children! His love for us is active, unconditional, consistent, and permanent—a love that builds up rather than tears down. When Satan pecks at us with unpleasant people and difficult situations, let us remember that grace—unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it—is exactly what we got from God and what He expects us to pass on to others! Admittedly, there are times we’re sorely tempted to retaliate rather than love but, just as God never takes a break from loving us, we don’t get to take a break from loving our enemies!

Fortunately, instead of plastic owls, we have God’s armor and the shield of faith to fortify us against Satan’s attacks. While loving our enemies is impossible on our own, God’s power enables us to resist Satan’s attacks and continue to pass on God’s grace to everyone (not just the nice deserving ones).

Agape is disinterested love. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. [Martin Luther King, Jr.]

These are the clothes you must put on, then, since God has chosen you, made you holy, and lavished his love upon you. You must be tender-hearted, kind, humble, meek, and ready to put up with anything. You must bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against someone else, you must forgive each other. Just as the master forgave you, you must do the same. On top of all this you must put on love, which ties everything together and makes it complete. [Colossians 3:12-14 (NTE)]

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THE ANSWERS WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR

Put me on trial, Lord, and cross-examine me. Test my motives and my heart. [Psalm 26:2 (NLT)]

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

When we go to our meeting with God, we should go like a patient to his doctor, first to be thoroughly examined and afterwards to be treated for our ailment. [Ole Hallesby]

hostaAs much as David wanted to hold to God’s standards, he knew he was flawed and so he asked the Lord to point out whatever He found offensive. We know we should do the same but I’m not sure we actually do so. While we can lie to ourselves and even to God, we know He won’t lie to us. If we ask Him to tell us where we’ve gone wrong, His answer, while loving and gentle, will be brutally honest! Could it be that we don’t ask because we really don’t want Him to tell?

In our evening prayers, are we willing to ask God if we’ve done what should have been done that day? Are we eager to hear His truthful answer if asking whether we’ve acted with integrity in all our affairs, been sincere in our communications, or damaged Jesus’ name in our conduct? Do we really want to hear Him point out our hypocrisy or expose the true motives behind our words and actions? Are we ready to hear Him mention our laziness, overindulgence, and contentiousness or to show us how we excused ourselves for our failings but not others for theirs? At day’s end, do we ask if we’ve honored Him with our words and served Him by acting as His hands and feet? While those are the kind of questions we should be asking, I suspect we don’t ask them as frequently as we should simply because we’re not anxious to hear His answer.

Because they can’t peer into our hearts, other people’s assessments of us usually are inaccurate and, because we’re experts at rationalizing, justifying, and even deceiving ourselves, our self-assessment is equally unreliable. Like the Psalmist, we must earnestly ask God to put us on trial and be happy to hear His answer (whatever it may be)! Moreover, once we hear His answer, let us be ready to make a change!

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. [Soren Kierkegaard]

As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. [1 Corinthians 4:3-5 (NLT)]

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EXPECT TROUBLE

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

sunset

While talking about discerning God’s plan for us, a friend said she knows she’s chosen the right path when she moves forward in a plan and doesn’t encounter obstacles or challenges. After thinking about it, I beg to disagree.

Three gospels tell of the time Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee to escape the crowds. In a fishing boat without sails, the men rowed while Jesus slept. The lake is known for violent squalls that arise suddenly and one such storm did. As the wind blew and the sea surged, the waves broke over the gunwales and the boat began to fill with water. Sure they’d sink and drown, the disciples awoke Jesus. After admonishing the men for their lack of faith, He quickly rebuked the squall and calm was restored. That the wind and waves obeyed Jesus demonstrated His sovereign reign over nature. Scripture made it clear that only God has dominion over the natural world and the men wondered at Jesus’ ability to calm the storm.

While the storm presented an opportunity for Jesus to reveal the source of His power and authority, could there be more to it? Have you ever wondered why the exhausted Jesus wanted to cross over the lake to the Gentile region of Gardara or why the boat was pulled ashore near burial tombs? I suspect that Jesus knew of the two demon-possessed men living in those tombs and that He deliberately went there to exorcise their evil spirits. Rather than a teaching lesson for the disciples, could the storm have been Satan’s way of keeping them from their destination? Satan certainly had a vested interest in keeping Jesus from reaching the other side of the lake and, not wanting to lose those two captive souls, he attempted to prevent Jesus’ arrival with wind and waves. That storm occurred precisely because Jesus was doing God’s work!

When looking through Scripture, we find that encountering rough seas, storms, and obstacles seem to be a part of following God’s will. During the time he followed God’s plan, the Apostle Paul experienced ill-health, defections, beatings, imprisonment, at least three shipwrecks, and eventually martyrdom. Think of the troublemakers, false prophets, fabricated accusations, and persecution faced by the early church (all of which were courtesy of Satan). The enemy has been trying to thwart God’s plan since Eden; he’s not about to stop now!

When we are following God’s plan, we should expect opposition because the enemy does not want us to accomplish what God has purposed for us. Opposition doesn’t mean we should abandon ship; we just need to get on our life jackets and keep rowing! Like the early church, we do that by defending the truth, sharing the Good News, giving our concerns to God, living by faith, and remaining steadfast in our mission. “If you are going to walk with Jesus Christ, you are going to be opposed,” said preacher George Whitefield. That was true when he said it in the 1700s and it remains true today.

The way to thwart the devil is to strengthen the very thing he is trying most to destroy—your faith. [John Piper]

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY

Woe betide you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed graves, which look very fine on the outside, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and uncleanness of every kind. That’s like you: on the outside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NTE)]

yellow hawkweedAlong with proclaiming the Word of God, the young Church was committed to ensuring that there were no needy among them. As a result, many of the early believers voluntarily sold their property and shared their wealth with the rest of the church community. Barnabas, for example, sold a field he owned and generously brought the money to the apostles for those in need.

Immediately following the mention of Barnabas in Acts, Luke tells us about Ananias and Sapphira. Like Barnabas, they sold some land and brought the proceeds to the apostles but, unlike him, the couple retained some of the funds. But, wanting to impress everyone with their generosity without actually making a sacrifice, they claimed to have contributed the full amount. Peter, however, knew better and confronted each one about their deceit and they were struck dead in divine judgment.

This is a troubling story when we mistakenly think of it in terms of how much of our money we should give to the church. It’s important to remember that Ananias and Sapphira’s sin wasn’t in keeping some of the money; it was theirs to do with as they wished. The sharing among believers wasn’t compulsory and didn’t originate in the law. It originated in love and was completely voluntary. Rather than the sin of greed, the couple’s sin was that of hypocrisy; they wanted to impress the church into thinking they were something they clearly were not. They lied to the church but, worse, they lied to the Holy Spirit! Luke tells us that “great fear” struck the entire church when the learned what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. It should strike fear in us as well! The message, however, isn’t about money; it’s that God will not tolerate deception in spiritual and personal matters.

None of us manage to fully live up to our ideals and values; we’re flawed human beings who miss the mark in a variety of ways. That we fail to be the person we should be does not make us hypocrites; it’s failing to be the person we claim to be that is hypocrisy! Putting reputation before character, the hypocrite creates a public impression at odds with his or her true self.

The book of Acts relates how the early church was threatened by the world in which they lived: persecution, arrests, imprisonment, and even death. But it also relates how the church faced threats within its own community when the sins of a few (like Ananias and Sapphira) threatened the testimony of the church. Both threats continue today. I can’t help but wonder—if God dealt as severely with deceivers and hypocrites today as He did with Ananias and Sapphira, how many people would be left to fill our pews on Sunday morning?

The hypocrite, certainly, is a secret atheist; for if he did believe there was a God, he durst not be so bold as to deceive Him to His face. [Thomas Adams]

They declare that they know God, but they deny him by what they do. They are detestable and disobedient, and useless for any good work. [Titus 1:16 (NTE)]

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THE PEACE POLE – WORLD PEACE DAY

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NLT)]

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. … Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. [Romans 12:18,21 (NLT)]

peace poleCOVID kept us from the Botanic Gardens for well over a year. When we finally returned to one of our favorite places, we came upon a peace pole planted among the palms, bamboo and bromeliads. Although a similar pole is in the city park downtown, I don’t remember seeing one here when last we visited. These poles are just two of the more than 250,000 that have been erected in over 180 nations.  Symbolizing the oneness of humanity, the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” are written in eight different languages. The languages chosen for this pole were English, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Hawaiian, Hindi, Japanese, and Spanish—the languages of people who, like us, live at the 26th parallel north. Peace poles stand as a visual reminder to pray for peace on earth and to think, speak and act in the spirit of harmony and peace.

Forty years ago, the United Nations designated today as the annual International Day of Peace (commonly called World Peace Day). In 2011, the General Assembly unanimously voted to designate it as a day of cease-fire and non-violence. They ask every person and nation to halt hostilities and fighting for this one twenty-four-hour period. Unfortunately, I doubt the world can make one hour, let alone twenty-four, without aggression, hostility and bloodshed. Hopefully, you and I can go longer than twenty-four hours without conflict or violent behavior!

The causes of world conflict are many and, according to the UN, include poverty, social inequality, hunger, dwindling natural resources, water scarcity, environmental decline, disease, corruption, racism, and xenophobia (an intense fear of foreigners). This year’s theme, “Recovering Better for an Equitable and Sustainable World,” continues the UN’s focus on finding ways to overcome those causes. Indeed, as our world struggles to recover from what seems to be a never-ending pandemic, we can see how the underprivileged and marginalized have been hit the hardest. In the last eighteen months, we have seen both the best and the worst of our fellow travelers on this planet. This day is a reminder that instead of fighting with one another, we should join in fighting mankind’s common enemies!

As Christians, we have the peace of God—the peace that passes understanding—but we must be more than possessors of peace. Jesus calls us to be makers of peace but erecting a peace pole is not enough! We can start by bringing peace to our little corner of the world, beginning at home and then moving on to work, school, church and community. Our peacemaking efforts, however, can’t stop at the borders of our neighborhood or even our nation. We must take Christ’s message of peace out into the world by thinking, speaking, and acting in the cause of peace. While we each have an obligation to improve the various conditions that promote conflict, changing people’s circumstances is just a beginning. For true peace, the peace that is found in a relationship with God, we must change people’s hearts.

World peace, while a lofty goal, is not something I expect to see in my lifetime. Nevertheless, we each must do our part.

We hear much of love to God; Christ spoke much of love to man. We make a great deal of peace with heaven; Christ spoke much of peace on earth. [Henry Drummond]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. [1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NLT)]

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

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