TRUE LOVE

Love never gives up. Love never cares more for others than for self. Loves doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first.” Doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel. Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

8-19-1967When I married my husband, I was only twenty years old. Although I would never have admitted it then, I had no real concept of what true love actually entailed or the seriousness of the vows I was taking. Standing in front of a minister and 200 guests, I promised to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health” and to forsake all others. I vowed, from that day forward, to “have and to hold…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and to love and cherish him until we parted at death. I said those words without the vaguest understanding of just how bad “for worse” could get or how little money “for poorer” might be. I didn’t consider that sickness would mean much more than a case of the flu or how long it could be until death would separate us. Having known each other for less than a year when we wed, neither of us had any idea how difficult it actually is to cherish someone whose words or actions hurt us or with whom we disagree. I doubt we’re the only ones who entered into marriage so naively.

Today is our anniversary and, in the fifty-two years since our wedding day, we’ve experienced good and not so good times, periods of plenty and sparseness, illness and well-being, tragedy and joy, fullness and emptiness, anger and forgiveness, excitement and tedium, labor and leisure, turmoil and peace, discontent and satisfaction. We know from experience that it’s not always easy to love, comfort, honor, forsake, and cherish.

We used to joke that we only stayed together because of the children (neither of us wanted custody of them) and the grands (neither of us would risk losing them)! But, that isn’t it. Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were read at our wedding and those words have guided us ever since that day. Early in our marriage, we realized that love is more than a feeling; it isn’t something one falls into or out of. Love is a conscious choice and one we choose to make every day. None of us are loveable all of the time; we can, however, choose to be loving all of the time!

Father in heaven, let your love fill our hearts and lives. Thank you for giving us people to love, comfort, honor, and cherish. Thank you also for placing people in our lives who somehow manage to love, comfort, honor and cherish us, as well. Shower your blessings upon them.

O God … look mercifully upon these thy servants, that they may love, honour, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and of peace. [From the Solemnization of Matrimony in “The Book of Common Prayer” (1952)]

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13b (MSG)]

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WHERE IS HE?

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?” [Psalm 42:1-3 (NLT)]

white-tailed deer - FloridaNot so long ago, it was hard to face my computer with any enthusiasm. Every beginning led to a dead end or took me down a rabbit hole of confusion. The paragraphs over which I’d struggled had come to nothing and my hours at the keyboard seemed an exercise in futility. It’s as if I had little scraps of useless fabric but couldn’t find a way to quilt them together. I wondered where God was when I so desperately needed His guidance.

The best place to go when feeling hollow or hopeless is God’s word and Psalms is where I usually begin. David certainly had plenty of times of downheartedness and he wasn’t afraid to express his exhaustion, frustration, or despair and yet there always seems to be a ray of hope in his words. I turned to Psalm 42 and, having hit a “dry spell,” I knew what the psalmist meant when comparing himself to a deer panting for water and thirsting for God. Like him, I felt like I was dying of thirst.

It was the psalm’s mention of enemies with their taunts of, “Where is this God of yours?” that really hit home. I don’t share David’s flesh and blood enemies but all of us share a common unseen enemy: the doubt and anxiety that comes from spiritual depression.

The palmist asks why God has forgotten him and I think we all know that feeling. While I can get it when I’m staring at an empty page, that sense of desolation may visit others as they wait for the return of a prodigal, sit in a hospital room, endure chronic pain, look at the empty chair once occupied by a spouse, or have too much month left at the end of their money. We’ve all had times when it feels like God has turned a deaf ear to our prayers or has closed His eyes to our situation.

“Where is this God of yours?” is the enemy’s voice. Wanting us to lose faith or wallow in despair, he causes us to question God’s presence in our lives. God hasn’t forgotten about us; even the psalmist, as depressed as he was, acknowledges that God pours out His unfailing love each day. Nevertheless, sometimes, it feels as if God is looking the other way. Feeling defeated, discouraged, lonely, weary, or insecure, it’s easy to forget that our feelings can’t always be trusted. God, however, always is steadfast and trustworty!

In a gentle reproach, the psalmist asks why he is so downcast and reminds himself of the hope he has in God. That we don’t sense God’s presence, feel His love, see His hand, or hear His voice doesn’t mean that our loving God isn’t there. When asked, “Where is this God of yours?” let us never forget that He dwells, not just in heaven above, but also in our broken spirits. There always will be dark valleys to traverse but we are never alone; we have hope in God and, for that, we praise him.

A loss of the present sense of God’s love is not a loss of that love itself; the jewel is there, though it gleams not on our breast; hope…expects the promised boon though present providence stands before her with empty hands. [Charles Spurgeon]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 42:11 (NLT)]

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ANY BRIDGES TO BURN? (Elisha – 1)

Chicago RiverThen Peter said, “We’ve left everything to follow you.” Jesus said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Anyone who gave up his home, wife, brothers, parents, or children because of the kingdom of God will certainly receive many times as much in this life and will receive eternal life in the world to come.” [Luke 18:28-29 (GW)]

“Don’t burn your bridges!” we’re often told, but Elisha certainly did. When it became time for the prophet Elijah to find a successor, the Lord directed him to Elisha. Finding Elisha plowing his field, Elijah placed his cloak over the farmer’s shoulders, an indication that Elisha was to become the prophet’s apprentice and eventual replacement. Recognizing the enormity of this calling, the young man didn’t say, “Wait until I’m done plowing and can get my affairs in order. I’ll catch up to you when it’s convenient.” He didn’t question Elijah about the pay, fringe benefits or risks of being a prophet. The farmer stopped working and told the prophet that he needed to say good-bye to his family before leaving.

Elisha then prepared a celebratory departure feast by slaughtering his oxen and cooking them over a fire fueled by his plow. Is this a good career plan? Most of us would have asked a neighbor to feed the oxen and, rather than burning the plow, would have stored it in case the prophet gig didn’t work out. Elisha, however, was fully committed to answering God’s call.

This makes me ponder what plans God has for me and, more important, what things might be keeping me from saying “Yes” to Him. Most of us don’t have oxen and plows to burn, but we probably have other things we’re not willing to relinquish in order to follow Jesus. How attached are we to our life styles, possessions and status? Do we have habits, unhealthy relationships, dependencies or negative thoughts like fear, guilt, bitterness, or intolerance we’re unwilling to surrender? What might be holding us back from answering God’s call?

God did remarkable things with Elisha once he followed Elijah. In fact, Elisha performed twice as many miracles as the elder prophet. Like the U.S. Army, God wants us to be all that we can be and invites us to do great things with our lives. We are hindered, however, until, like Elisha, we set fire to our oxen and plows. What bridges do we need to burn?

I demolish my bridges behind me – then there is no choice but forward. [Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and winner of Nobel Peace Prize)]

After that, Jesus left. He saw a tax collector named Levi [Matthew] sitting in a tax office. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. [Luke 5:27-28 (GW)]

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IN ALL THINGS

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

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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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

Fireflag - Alligator FlagEven Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve. [2 Corinthians11:14b-15 (NLT)]

With its enormous leaves and delicate purple flowers, one of my favorite native Florida plants is the Thalia geniculata; its common name is Fireflag. The plant can be as tall as ten feet and its huge leaves are visible from a distance. Since it grows in standing water, the leaves can indicate or “flag” an area where one might find safety in case of fire. Fireflag has another name, as well: Alligator-Flag. Anyplace in Florida where there is enough standing water for Thalia geniculata to grow also has enough standing water for alligators! If one is ever caught in a fire in the Everglades, it would be wise to remember both names of this plant before seeking refuge amidst its leaves! We wouldn’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire or, in this case, out of the fire into a gator’s mouth!

This plant reminds us that we need to be cautious when a firestorm of trouble descends. In an effort to escape our problems, it’s easy to jump into even more difficulty. It’s not just alligators that lurk in what appears to be a safe refuge; Satan does too! He knows when we are most vulnerable and he’s right there to offer his version of safety and comfort. As we attempt to flee from our trouble, there will be temptations to seek solace in the wrong people, listen to poor advice, compromise our morals or abandon our faith. That “angel in disguise” offering comfort, assistance or easy answers may well be a fallen angel!

Rather than taking refuge in alligator infested waters or other treacherous places, we must turn first to God. With Him at our side, we are never alone nor is there a need to run away from our problems. He will comfort and guide us so we can face our troubles with confidence, hope, and even thanks.

Trust is not a passive state of mind. It is a vigorous act of the soul by which we choose to lay hold on the promises of God and cling to them despite the adversity that at times seeks to overwhelms us. [Jerry Bridges (Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts)]

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. [Isaiah 43:2 (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. [Psalm 91:14-15 (NLT)]

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NITROGLYCERIN

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

crown vetchMy father had heart disease and often suffered from a burning chest pain called angina. When that occurred, he would stop what he was doing and place a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue. Medical nitroglycerin acts as a vasodilator by dilating or expanding the blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump blood through those vessels.

When I was a girl and my dad took one of his nitro tablets, I didn’t know how they worked. Having seen enough Saturday matinees to know that liquid nitroglycerin is so unstable that the slightest jolt can cause it to explode, I couldn’t understand how my father could safely carry it around in his pocket, let alone put it in his mouth. After all, Sylvester the Cat exploded when Tweety Bird put it in his medicine and I’m sure Wile E. Coyote tried to use it on the Roadrunner! Whether in its liquid form or stabilized with clay in dynamite, nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive there is. How could something capable of blasting a hole in the side of a mountain keep my father’s heart from exploding in a heart attack?

I suppose trials are a little like nitroglycerin—they can destroy or help us. The end result depends on what we make of them and how we use them. We live in an imperfect fallen world and, like it or not, every one of us will face ordeals and troubles. Some we bring on ourselves as consequences of our own sin. But, as happened with Job, many of life’s trials seem as random as a tornado and descend upon us without rhyme or reason. Without God, those trials can demolish our lives as easily as nitroglycerin can demolish a building. With God, however, like medicinal nitroglycerin, trials can help our heart for Him.

God’s purpose isn’t to give us easy comfortable lives; He wants us to grow into the image of his son, Jesus Christ (which is what sanctification is all about). Everything in our lives, both good and bad, is designed to help us reach that goal. Unfortunately, when all is going smoothly, we tend to forget about God, just as easily as my father forgot about his diseased heart when relaxing in his recliner. But, just as the pain from stress or strenuous exercise made him turn to his nitro, trials force us to turn to God.

I lose the parallel between trials and nitroglycerin here because, while those tiny nitro pills alleviated the pain in my father’s chest, they didn’t cure his heart disease. They were merely a temporary fix and he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 56. Trials, however, do more than ease the symptoms of what’s wrong with us; they can actually shape and fix us. Disappointment, despair, and disaster, unlike heart disease, don’t have to kill us. Faith is a muscle and, just like the heart, it grows stronger when it is exercised. Somewhat like a cardiac surgeon, God fixes our hearts with trials.

Whether our trials are as destructive as liquid nitroglycerin or as therapeutic as nitroglycerin pills depends upon our reaction to them. We can become bitter or we can consider them a blessing. We can rebel or choose to trust God and accept His grace to deal with our difficulty and pain. Fortunately, rather than a cardiologist, we have the Holy Spirit who will give us all of the comfort, strength and wisdom we need to endure our trials. Because of Him, we can emerge from our trials with mended hearts and a stronger, purer and more mature faith.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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