HEEDING THE SIGNS

sandhill cranesSo you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. [Matthew 24: 42 (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about the migratory birds’ staging area near our northern home, I remembered the year they weren’t in a rush to depart. Autumn that year had been unseasonably mild with temperatures hovering in the 60s and we’d returned north in November to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. The day we headed out to the park, however, the weather had taken a sharp turn toward winter. The day’s high of 37° occurred before sunrise and the season’s first snowfall was expected that night. While walking through the park that cold fall day, we were surprised to see hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese still in the marsh. Apparently, the mild fall weather and still plentiful food caused them to recklessly delay their departure south. The marsh soon would freeze and food would be scarce, not just in the park, but all along their migration route. Seemingly oblivious to the danger, the birds were like the people of Noah’s day or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—having a rollicking good time right up until disaster rained down on them. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late! I hoped it wouldn’t be that way with the birds.

Looking at the upheaval of the last two years, many are reaching for their Bibles and wondering if we’re seeing signs of the apocalypse. We read of death by “the sword and famine and disease and wild animals,” in Revelation 6:8. Luke 21:9-10 records Jesus speaking of wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “terrifying things.” As much as that sounds like today, it probably sounds a great deal like much of mankind’s troubled history. Our century is not the only one troubled by pandemics, conflict, catastrophe, natural disasters, violence, scarcity, and loss. Jesus, however, said that no one (not even He) knows the day or hour of His return. Nevertheless, just as the sudden drop in temperature and wintery wind warned those birds of winter’s approach, these could be warning signs of things to come and the Bible tells us to be vigilant.

As with the flood and Sodom’s destruction, swift and sudden judgment will accompany Jesus’ return. Jesus compared His second coming to the surprise arrival of a thief in the night and both believers and unbelievers won’t know when that thief will appear. While unbelievers have good reason to fear that day, Christians don’t. To carry the thief metaphor further, we aren’t afraid of the thief because we’re well insured. Our acceptance of Jesus gives us assurance of salvation; our sins are mercifully forgiven and we have everlasting life. We’ve read the book and know how the story ends!

When we returned to the park two days later, the marsh was frozen but the birds were gone. They’d seen the signs and made the right decision; unbelievers should do the same.

Live as if Christ is coming in the next 10 minutes. Plan as if He is not coming for 1,000 years. [Roger Barrier]

Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. [2 Peter 3:11-14 (NLT)]

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STATS

Does this sound as if I am trying to win human approval? No indeed! What I want is God’s approval! Am I trying to be popular with people? If I were still trying to do so, I would not be a servant of Christ. [Galatians 1:10 (GNT)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesA pastor friend who’s led dozens of mission trips used to evaluate his mission’s success by the number of new believers gained during the trip. If the latest mission’s altar call stats did not exceed the previous mission’s numbers, he felt it was a failure. Like him, we tend to be number people who measure our success or failure quantitatively. Business success is gauged by the balance sheet, bottom line, and price-earnings ratio; financial success by income, the value of our investment portfolio, and the size of our house or the price of our car. Regardless of the sport, with their assorted BAs, RBIs, Yds, Gs, PPRs, FT%s, and GOAT points, stats seem to evaluate every athlete’s success. Social success is assessed by the number of holiday cards we send or receive, how many “friends” we have on social media, and how many “likes” we got on our latest post. Intellectual success is measured by IQ, SAT, ACT and GPA numbers. A pastor assesses his success by Sunday’s attendance (or the offering), the teacher by the standardized test results of her students, and the author by his book’s ranking on the best seller list. I’m no different; I often check my website’s stats to see the number of followers, visitors, and views.

When we quantitatively assess our lives, it’s way too easy to find people with better numbers than ours. Moreover, when the numbers aren’t stellar, we often think we’re failures. God, however, isn’t an accountant or statistician. He measures success by standards completely different than those of the world. His standards are qualitative—the quality of our obedience, faith, and love.

That pastor friend eventually came to understand that God looks at a mission’s success far differently than man. Regardless of the number of new believers gained, when the pastor obediently follows God’s direction to lead a mission—to spread God’s word and share His love—he has been a good and faithful servant. When we hear God’s call and whole-heartedly respond to the best of our ability, regardless of the statistics, we have not failed. Success is when we go where He sends us and do what He tells us to do.

Let’s stop playing the numbers game and judging ourselves quantitatively by the world’s standards. Rather than comparing our scores to those of other people, there is only one person to whom we should compare ourselves and that is Christ. He sets the standard for our behavior and, while that standard is observable, it is not measurable. We’re successful if the fruit of His Spirit is visible in our lives—if we demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. In God’s book, we’re successful when we become the sort of people Jesus wants us to be.

We should do what we do in order to gain God’s approval instead of prestige and approval from other human beings. … Are we motivated by the approval of people or the applause of God? [Phil Harper]

You should each judge your own conduct. If it is good, then you can be proud of what you yourself have done, without having to compare it with what someone else has done. For each of you have to carry your own load. [Galatians 6:4-5 (GNT)]

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STAYING HUMBLE

And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. [1 Peter 5:5-6 (NLT)]

salt marsh mallowBelieving that God’s spirit would not enter into something flawless, various Native American people intentionally strung a wrong-colored bead (the spirit bead) into an otherwise perfect pattern of beadwork so to create an opening through which God’s spirit could flow. In a similar way, believing that a perfectly woven rug or carpet would be an offense to Allah, followers of Islam would make an intentional small mistake in their weaving. Concerned that a perfect quilt would encourage pride, imperfect squares called humility squares or blocks, are said to have been deliberately placed in quilts by Puritan women as their acknowledgment that only God is perfect.

Whether these intentional errors were done for God as acts of humility, as a way to use miscellaneous beads or scrap fabric, or simply to explain away a mistake, I don’t know. Nevertheless, feeling the need to make a deliberate mistake to keep from perfection seems the height of pride to me. Having done needlepoint, quilting, and other handwork, I can guarantee that mistakes will always creep into anything we make (at least anything I make).

The Greek word most often used in the Bible for sin was harmartia. An archery term, it meant missing the mark—a failure to hit the bull’s eye. Having done a little archery as a girl, I didn’t need to deliberately miss the bull’s eye to remain humble since I frequently missed the target altogether! No matter how hard we try, when it comes to being sinless, we don’t have to concern ourselves with making deliberate errors to avoid pride. None of can be sinless; that was done only once—by Jesus—so there is no need for any of us to insert a “humility square” into our lives. We’ve made enough errors already and more are yet to come.

Humility, however, is a strange thing—the minute you think you have it, you’ve lost it! As C.S. Lewis aptly said in Mere Christianity, “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” True humility isn’t found in in bead work, weaving, or quilting mistakes; it is found in a deep sense of one’s own sinfulness, limitations, and unworthiness in the sight of God. It is found by looking up at Him—His righteousness and holiness—rather than down at our accomplishments or the errors made by others!

Being human, we won’t hit the mark every time. Nevertheless, even though we fail to live up to God’s perfect standard, like the Apostle Paul, we continue to aim for the bull’s eye. There’s no need to be discouraged; we are all works in progress and are forgiven for our errors. We just need to focus on Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to guide our aim.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:12-14 (NLT)]

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SAFETY FEATURES

Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. [1 Thessalonians 5:19 (NLT)]

painted lady butterflySince my 18-year-old grand is a new driver, I was surprised when her parents purchased a new car for her. Remembering the many dings, scrapes, and dents our teens left on their cars, I asked why they’d replaced the 15-year-old car on which she learned to drive with a new one; “safety features” was their simple and logical explanation. This new car offers things like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warnings, lane-keeping assist, backup cameras, active park assist, rear cross traffic alert, and a whole variety of air bags (front, side, seatbelt, knee, foot, and curtain along with rollover sensors to deploy them.) Knowing that accidents happen to even the best drivers, damage to a new car is far more acceptable than any damage done to their daughter!

Although God doesn’t outfit us with safety features to warn and protect us, like any good parent, He wants to safeguard His children. To keep us safe and within His will, He gives us the Holy Spirit as standard equipment once we accept Jesus! Moreover, even though His technology hasn’t changed through the centuries, it remains state of the art.

As much as those various safety features will keep my grand safer, they can’t entirely protect her. Free to ignore their many warnings, she remains vulnerable to her own choices. Whether or not she abides by the speed limit, stops at stop signs, yields the right of way at roundabouts, or signals lane changes is entirely up to her. Like traffic laws, God’s laws set the standard for our behavior and help us know right from wrong. But, just as my grand may be tempted to use her cell phone while driving, our belief in Jesus doesn’t mean we’ll never be tempted to sin. Fallible beings that we are, we’re not capable of perfect obedience. Just as we tend to nudge that speedometer a few miles over the limit, we tend to push the limits when it comes to the rest of our behavior. Moreover, just as my grand may choose to ignore her car’s various warnings, we can choose to turn a deaf ear to the Spirit’s voice. That’s the problem with that pesky thing called free will—we know better but we often do it anyway!

Fortunately, unlike some car safety devices, we can’t disable or turn off the Holy Spirit. As our advocate, comforter, guide, and counselor, He always is present—teaching, guiding, encouraging, warning, and convicting us. Rather than sounding an annoying beep or flashing a warning light, He guides us through our conscience, with that still small voice, and in other subtle ways. His guidance is better than the most sophisticated GPS because He’ll never lead us into sin. May we always remember that true safety isn’t found in car technology or even the absence of danger; it is found in the presence of God!

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. [Ephesians 4:30a (NLT)]

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GOD IDEAS

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Every Friday, I’m emailed a “weekly wisdom” consisting of two pithy sayings like, “Don’t just trust God for things; trust Him in things,” or “You can’t enjoy today if you’re worrying about the past or the future.” Last week’s wisdom really hit home with, “Not every good idea is a God idea!” More than once, I’ve looked back with regret while saying, “It seemed like such a good idea at the time!”

When she did it, eating that forbidden fruit probably seemed like a good idea to Eve just as moving to the beautiful grazing land near Sodom seemed a good idea to Lot. David’s ideas about taking a census to know the strength of his troops and transporting the Ark on a cart might have seemed good ones at the time but he lived to regret them. Fresh from his victory over Edom, King Amaziah may have thought it good strategy to challenge King Jehoash of Israel and, anxious for a child, Sarah probably thought it a good plan to give Hagar to Abraham. Saul’s idea to make sacrifices without waiting for Samuel, Rebekah’s scheme to deceive Isaac, and Hezekiah showing off his riches to envoys from Babylon may have seemed like good ideas at the time but, like those others, they weren’t! They may have looked like good ideas but none were God’s idea and all ended badly.

What those words of wisdom should have added, however, is that not every God idea seems like a good one. In fact, many make no sense to our mortal reasoning. Even though it was God’s idea to lead the people back toward Egypt and camp facing Pharaoh’s army with their backs to the Red Sea, it probably didn’t seem like a good idea to Moses and the Israelites. Joshua probably had reservations about exhausting his troops by marching them around Jericho for seven days and Gideon must have wondered at the wisdom of reducing his army of 32,000 to 300. Being told by God to deliberately marry a promiscuous woman who would betray him probably made no more sense to Hosea than buying land occupied by the Babylonians did to Jeremiah or building an enormous boat with no water nearby did to Noah. Nevertheless, as unreasonable as God’s ideas might have seemed to them, they faithfully obeyed. Regardless of appearances, they knew that God’s ideas are good ones!

We tend to think that the ideas we like are good ones (and God’s) and the ideas we don’t like couldn’t possibly come from Him which makes it difficult to discern the difference between God’s ideas and ours. The more we know of Him and His word, however, the easier it will be to determine if our good ideas and God’s ideas are the same. Even when God’s idea doesn’t seem like a good one, rest assured that, when God tells us to do (or not to do) something, we can know that His idea is far better than any we might have!

God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of God. [Oswald Chambers]

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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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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