IN PREPARATION FOR THE JOURNEY

We broke camp at the Ahava Canal on April 19 and started off to Jerusalem. And the gracious hand of our God protected us and saved us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived safely in Jerusalem. [Ezra 8:31-32a (NLT)]

Bryce - Losee CanyonAfter years of exile, the Jews were finally returning home from their captivity in Babylon. Ezra assembled a group of 1,500 men and their families and led the second emigration back to Jerusalem. It would take about four months for the over 5,000 people to make the 900 mile journey across the desert. Since they were transporting about 30 tons of silver, gold, and bronze along with wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt, there was serious danger from marauding bandits.

When Persia’s King Artaxerxes offered Ezra an armed escort, he refused. Having assured the king that God’s hand of protection was all they needed, it would have been embarrassing and hypocritical to then accept military help. The Judeans couldn’t just “talk the talk” about the Hebrew God, they had to “walk the walk” and live as if they truly believed Ezra’s words and God’s promises.

Instead of trusting in soldiers, Ezra chose to trust in God. Although he was confident in God, Ezra did not take His protection for granted. He gave orders for the people to fast and earnestly pray that God would take care of them. Knowing the trip could be disastrous without God’s protection, they committed themselves to trusting in God alone. This choice was a strong test of everyone’s faith. It’s remarkable that two chapters in the book of Ezra are written about their preparation for the trip, but just a few sentences tell about the journey itself and their safe arrival. Perhaps, if we spent more time in prayer and faith preparing for our life’s journeys, they would be as free of difficulty as Ezra’s.

Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door;
Words are so easily spoken,
Prayer without faith is like a boat without an oar.
Have faith when you speak to the Master,
That’s all he asks you for.
Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door.
[Samuel T. Scott & Robert L. Sande]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

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LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY

For we live by faith, not by sight. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NIV)]

Lowdermilk Park rainbowAn early morning rainstorm left a rainbow over the Gulf. “Oh, thank you, Lord,” I said, “That’s just what I needed.” You see, I was suffering from a serious case of the glums and gloomies. Having recently undergone foot surgery, I knew some of my blues had to do with pain, poor sleep, the nuisance of immobility, undone tasks, and “cabin fever.” Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to fully explain my melancholy. Struggling to discern its underlying cause, I’d prayed that God would lead me to the root of the problem. In my darkness, I’d also asked Him to give me a little sign that He heard my pleas. God is big on rainbows—just ask Noah—and it felt like He hung that rainbow out just for me and hope was on the horizon.

Later that day, I came across an article listing the qualities of the prodigal son’s father. It included “willing to live with ambiguity” which struck a chord with me. Perhaps my prayers had been answered with that simple phrase. Preferring certainty to ambiguity, I knew that several unresolved issues, unanswered questions, and unclear courses were troubling me. Perhaps, my sadness was because, wary of living with the unknown, I wanted to walk by sight rather than faith!

Out of curiosity, I took an on-line test as to whether or not I’m a risk taker (someone willing to live with ambiguity). By this point in life, I knew the answer and the test results concurred with my assessment. “While you may take risks on rare occasions, you usually choose the well-traveled path,” it said while adding that I prefer a “stable environment in which changes are made gradually and with ample warning.” Telling me that I rarely seek out situations with uncertain outcomes was just another way of saying I don’t like to live with ambiguity. I’m not comfortable unless I know what’s around the next corner!

If I’d been Elisha, before joining Elijah as a prophet, I would have asked a neighbor to care for my plow and oxen rather than cooking the oxen over a plow-fueled fire. If I’d been Peter, I might not have stepped out of the boat. If I’d been Mary, I would have asked Gabriel a whole host of questions before saying I’d be the Lord’s servant. If I’d been Ruth, rather than go to Judah, I probably would have stayed in Moab. And, if I’d been Moses, I would have asked God for a detailed itinerary and map to the Promised Land. All of these people lived with ambiguity and answered God’s call without being given a step-by-step plan or knowing the outcome. They could live with ambiguity because they wholly trusted in the Lord.

Life is filled with unanswered questions and unknown outcomes. While I tend to think of risk and uncertainty as leading to things like loss, sorrow, weakness, insufficiency, insecurity, sickness, trouble, and failure, they also can lead to gain, joy, strength, plenty, confidence, health, opportunity, and success. Elisha, Peter, Mary, Ruth, and Moses all took risks and were blessed for it! Wanting a divine road map, I’d forgotten that I already have one in my Bible where I’m told to trust in God’s plan and reassured that He’s always with me.

Rather than seek to know what the future holds for us, we can seek God’s will and let Him show us where to go. We may not know what tomorrow brings but we know the One who holds our tomorrows in His hands. We can’t control every situation but, by the grace of God, we can control our attitude in every situation and learn to embrace the ambiguity of life.

It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear. [George Macdonald]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NIV)]

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GETTING THE RIGHT MEANING

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)]

Author John Greco wrote of answering a call for a 24-hour phone prayer ministry to find a man in crisis. Sobbing, the caller confessed that he was a dog breeder and that he hadn’t known that every dollar he gave to the church was a sin that made God angry. A new believer, the man had been following a Scripture reading plan with his King James Bible. That morning, he’d read Deuteronomy 23:18: “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord … for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Thinking God found his tithe from selling dogs disgusting and sinful is what had him so distraught. What the man didn’t understand, but Greco patiently explained, was that, in the Old Testament, “dog” was a euphemism for “male prostitute.” Reassuring his caller, Greco read the same verse from the NIV translation: “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord….” The King James, being a word-for-word translation, had given the literal translation rather than the original meaning. The NIV, being about half way between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations, used “male prostitute” with a footnote that explained it had been “dog” in the original Hebrew.

Curious, I looked up this same verse in a variety of translations. My NLT, which moves a little further down the thought-for-thought-chain, translates the words in question as, ”the earnings of a prostitute, whether a man or a woman” and also provides a footnote with the original word. Like the King James, the RSV is a word-for word translation but it adds a footnote indicating “dog” meant “sodomite.” The VOICE, a paraphrase translation, refers to the earnings from “cult prostitution.” Although each version is different, they all are right in their own way.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and many of its original words don’t translate easily into English. For example, there were at least four different Greek words (phileō, storgē, eros, and agapē) for our one word “love.” Moreover, like “dog” for “male prostitute,” idioms often are difficult to translate. In 1 Samuel 24, the word-for-word KJV says that Saul went into a cave “to cover his feet” which doesn’t make sense to us. Covering his feet, however, was a Hebrew idiom for relieving himself (which the thought-for-thought translations make clear) and does make sense.

Because it is the first Bible I ever read, I will always treasure the King James translation; its version of the 23rd Psalm remains my favorite. Nevertheless, when I read that same psalm in the TLB, NLT, or Message versions, I see other nuances. Until reading the TLB’s “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!” I hadn’t thought of it in terms of cause and effect. Rather than the “valley of the shadow of death,” the NLT broadens it to “the darkest valley,” and the Message refers to “Death Valley.” Thinking of actually traversing Death Valley—an unforgiving land of extremes where one could die from lack of drinking water or drown in a flash flood—and crossing more than 3 million acres of desolate wilderness—gives new depth to some very familiar words!

When we’re struggling to understand a difficult passage of Scripture or when we’ve heard or said the same verse so often that it’s lost its impact, using another translation is often helpful. Whatever Bible translation or translations we have on our bookshelves, however, the important thing is to open and read them!

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (MSG)]

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IMMANUEL – PENTECOST

”And be sure of this,” He promised, ”I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

oleanderMy mother’s father walked out of her life when she was a child and never made contact with her again. When I learned this as a girl, I couldn’t understand how someone could do that. How could he not care about the daughter he’d left behind? Didn’t he want to know the beautiful woman she’d become? I secretly fantasized that he would finally come to his senses, seek her out, and embrace both his daughter and his grands. He never did.

People come in and go out of our lives; some leave abruptly and others just fade away. We see that most clearly in December with Christmas cards. We remove names from our list because we stopped getting a card from someone we haven’t seen for twenty years or last year’s card was returned as undeliverable. Because of a death or divorce, some cards we receive are signed by only one when once there were two. In this world, people move, depart, and die and even our closest relationships are only temporary.

Relationships may be transitory, but there is one constant: Jesus. Isaiah called Him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” But, when Jesus lived as a man, He could be with only a few people at a time. Confined to a man’s body, even though he was God, He couldn’t be with everyone at once. When in Capernaum, He drove an evil spirit out of a man and healed both Simon Peter’s mother and the paralytic who came through the roof but He had to leave Capernaum to raise the widow’s son in Nain and heal the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda.

Because Jesus couldn’t be with people in Jerusalem, Gennesaret, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Cana, Bethany, Ephraim, and Samaria all at once, he journeyed from place to place. It’s estimated that He walked more than 3,000 miles during his three year ministry. Sadly, we don’t know what became of most of the people whose lives He touched. After Jesus left Samaria, did the woman He met at the well ever see Him again? Did she lose touch the way we lose touch with old friends? What of the ten lepers, the two blind men, Jairus, his daughter, or the bleeding woman? Jesus was with them for a time but then He left to preach and heal elsewhere. When confined to a human body, Jesus couldn’t be with both Martha and Mary in Bethany and with the disciples a day’s journey from Jerusalem. When He lived as a man, Jesus was only Immanuel, “God with Us,” to those who were near Him.

When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t leave us alone the way the loved ones of so many of my friends have. When He ascended into heaven, Jesus didn’t move without a forwarding address, lose touch with us as happens with friends, and He certainly didn’t walk out on us the way my grandfather did to his family. Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven but He never really left us. Because of His Holy Spirit, Jesus is truly with every one of us, all of the time, no matter where we are. Moreover, unlike my grandfather who never came back for his children, Jesus will. No longer limited by time or space, He is, indeed, Immanuel: God with Us.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. [John 14:16-18 (NLT)]

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HE ALWAYS ANSWERS

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him. [Matthew 7:7-11 (NLT)]

Holy Name Catholic church - Steamboat Spgs.Thrilled at the result of her biopsy, Mary joyfully announced, “God is good and God always answers prayers!” Indeed, He is and does but we must remember that God does not always answer prayers the way we want Him to. I recently wrote that God is not a miser and our prayers should not be puny half-hearted ones. Nevertheless, regardless of the size of our petitions, we must remember that it is God’s will, not ours, that will be done. In spite of fervent prayers, some biopsies will say “malignant,” some prodigals will never return, some marriages will fail, and some people will not recover.

People often claim that Jesus’s words in Matthew 7 are a promise that God will give us anything we ask. But, seen in context, this verse is about seeking and finding God rather than having all of our wishes fulfilled. If we ask for things like His wisdom, discernment, patience, love, compassion, peace, and understanding, He will give them to us. That promise, however, does not mean God will answer all of our prayers with a “Yes!”

Just as loving parents wouldn’t give their children something bad when they ask for something good, Jesus tells us neither will God. But, what if, in his naiveté, the child unwittingly asks for something that isn’t what’s best? When my son was a teenager, he pled for a shiny new sports car; we answered with a second-hand Ford Tempo. Older and wiser, we knew a sixteen-year old boy didn’t belong behind the wheel of a Corvette. Now that he has a sixteen-year-old boy of his own, our son understands. A loving parent, like God, knows how to say “No!”

God is God and we are not. It is His will that reigns and our prayers are answered according to His plan rather than our wants. Both Elijah and Jonah asked God to take their lives, but He refused. God denied King Zedekiah’s prayer for help in defeating Nebuchadnezzar. When Jesus prayed in the garden, Paul prayed to be rid of the thorn in his flesh and David wanted to build the temple, God said “No” to them. When the disciples wanted Jesus to go back and heal in Capernaum, when a man asked Him to intervene in a family dispute, and when James and John wanted places of honor in heaven, our Lord answered them all with, “No!”

God always answers prayers but frequently not the way we expect or desire. Just because we don’t get what we want, however, doesn’t mean we get nothing. Although God’s answers often are mysterious and even heart-breaking, they always are purposeful. God’s “No!” is His “Yes!” for a far greater end, be it protection, teaching, spiritual growth, or guidance. Let us be thankful that God keeps us from what we thought we wanted and blesses us with what we didn’t know we needed!

When God says no, we are sometimes tempted to wonder if He loves us. In reality, it’s because He loves us, He sometimes says no. [Lysa TerKeurst]

Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine. [Luke 22:42 (NLT)]

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HE’S NOT A MISER

zebras - great migration -serengetiWhat shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Romans 8:31-32 (NLT)]

Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. [James 4:2b (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, I thought of an exchange between her parents while the girl was being operated on for the removal of the near fatal bullet. The words “the patient may die,” had been on the papers consenting to her surgery and Malala’s father was deep in prayer. Making bargains with God, he prayed aloud, “Even if she is injured, just let her survive.” Malala’s mother, a devout Muslim, stopped him in his prayers with these words, “God is not a miser!” She confidently added, “He will give me back my daughter as she was,” and then returned to her non-stop prayers for a full recovery.

Her dissatisfaction with her husband’s prayers and her confidence in God’s ability to do great things reminded me of something said by C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory. Calling us “half-hearted creatures,” he compared us to “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” While Lewis was writing about wanting things of the world when the splendor of God could be ours, I think his words apply to prayer, as well. Our prayers often are half-hearted and, like Malala’s father, we are far too easily pleased. We forget that, rather than a miser, God is our generous loving Father.

Pint-sized prayers suggest that we doubt God’s love for us and yet God is love; He loved us enough to give His only son to die for us! Small prayers imply that we think God is puny. A 97-pound weakling God could not have created man from dust and woman from man, made walls collapse and the sun stand still for Joshua, provided both drought and rain to Elijah, or given sight to the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Nothing is impossible for Him.

Perhaps we ask far too little of God because we’re afraid that He will think we are asking too much. Yet, without asking, we won’t receive. Malala’s mother said that God isn’t a miser and, with 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way alone, creation tells us that’s true. A miserly God wouldn’t have given us nearly 10,000 different species of birds, 950,000 species of insects, and even 16,000 species of mushrooms. He’s a “more than enough” God who loves to give gifts to His children. Why are we so easily pleased asking for a little bite when He’s waiting to give us the whole cake?

Mark’s gospel tells of a man who brought his demon-possessed, deaf and mute son to Jesus. He didn’t ask Jesus just to stop the convulsions or only to give the boy hearing or speech; he asked Jesus to heal him, but added, “if you can.” Assuring him that, “Anything is possible if a person believes,” the father’s reply was, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” [9:23-24]

Knowing that nothing is impossible with God, and remembering that God is not a miser, let our prayers be bold ones. Let us also pray that He helps us overcome our unbelief!

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. [1 John 5:14 (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

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