FLOWERS AND BIRDS

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? [Matthew 6:26-30 (NLT)]

cardinal - narrow-leaved sunflower - Corkscrew SwampI’ve never seen a field of lilies in blossom but they couldn’t be any more beautiful than the field of narrow-leaved sunflowers that surrounded me at the bird sanctuary recently. Standing in wonder as their yellow faces smiled down on me, I was reminded of Jesus’s words about the lilies of the field. When I came upon a cardinal pecking away at a large ripe berry, I remembered His words regarding the birds. While watching the bird enjoy his breakfast, the story of Elijah and the ravens that fed him came to mind and I thought about God’s promise to provide.

Having more than enough clothes in my closet and a pantry full of food, I’m not worried about food or clothing. I do, however, tend to worry about God’s provision of words for these devotions. Trust in Him doesn’t come automatically—it is a learned response. Nevertheless, even though God has provided me with fodder for over 1,600 devotions, I’m a slow learner and I still have trouble trusting Him to continue with His provision.

Throughout Scripture, God promises over and over again to provide and, over and over again, people don’t trust Him. Consider the Israelites; after being told there would be manna enough every day, they tried to save it. Even though stored manna turned rotten and maggoty, I would venture a guess that some people continued trying to save it. If I’d been there, I probably would have tried different types of containers, hoping that I’d eventually find the right way to preserve manna (just in case God missed a day)! Later, when God promised to provide the power and strength to take Canaan, the Israelites didn’t believe that God’s provision would be enough and refused to enter. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have trusted God’s promise any more than did the rest of them.

You’re probably not worried about words and maybe not even food or clothing. Even so, we’re all worried about whether God will provide enough of something we need, be it money, health, time, comfort, friends, faith, strength, wisdom, peace or patience. Remember, God promises to provide for the birds and flowers and they’re not even made in His image! Jesus didn’t die on the cross for them and the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell within them, yet God provides for them! God loves us—we’re created in His image, redeemed by His son, and given eternal life by Him. As His beloved children, we ought to trust Him enough to provide our necessities! When God brings us someplace, as He did with the Israelites and Elijah, He’ll provide us with a way to meet our needs, be it manna on the ground, ravens bringing us food, or wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

God looks at the anxious and says, I tore my Son to shreds for you, and you’re afraid I will not give you what you need? [Timothy Keller]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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THE STRANGLER FIG

The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. [Mark 4:18-19 (MSG)]

strangler fig - corkscrew swampAs a rule, trees start as seeds in the soil, form a cylindrical trunk and observe proper forest protocol by not killing one another. The strangler fig, however, is the exception to that rule. Strangler figs tend to grow in dense forests where the competition for light is intense. When forest critters eat their fruit, fig seeds are left in their droppings. Although unable to survive in the darkness of the forest floor, these seeds thrive when deposited higher in the crevice of a tree. Starting out as what’s called an epiphyte or air plant, the seed gets its nutrients from sun, rain and organic material on the host. As the seedling matures, it sends out long roots that grow downward toward the soil. Once rooted, the fig grows rapidly, sending more roots down and new branches upwards. In time, its lush foliage and complex root system compete with the host for light, rain and ground water. Walking through the southwest Florida forest, you can’t help but notice the figs’ bizarre lattice work of roots and branches wrapped around the trunks of their hosts and it’s often hard to know where one tree ends and the other starts. Eventually, the fig assassinates its host by cutting off its nourishment; like a boa constrictor, it strangles its prey to death.

Just as a tiny fig seed can eventually destroy a giant cypress; if allowed to take root, worry can do the same to us. Like fig seeds, worries are opportunistic—when they find a niche, they move right in and start growing. They seem harmless enough at first but, once they take root, they dig into us and branch out into even more worries. Rather than wrapping around our trunk, worry wraps around our spirit and, like the fig, steals the light from our lives. The fig embeds itself into its host and worry entrenches itself in our hearts. A silent assassin like the fig, worry attacks our roots with doubt and tries to rob us of the living water of Jesus. At least the figs produce fruit to feed the residents of the forest; worry, however, keeps us from bearing any fruit and starves our spirit. The fig’s many nooks and crannies offer homes to critters like frogs, bats, and lizards but worries only offer hospitality to things like anxiety, fear, doubt, and tension. The strangler fig sentences it host to certain death and, like it, worry is a killer. It kills our joy, vitality, strength, spirit, and faith but it can also strangle the life right out of us with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related diseases.

The oaks, cypress and palms have no choice in the matter when a fig takes root. Fortunately, we have a divine Gardener who can rid us of worry but only if we trust Him to do His work. Without allowing worry to take root, we must prayerfully hand God our concerns as soon as they drop into our lives. It’s only by trusting God with tomorrow that we can bear fruit today.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:21 (MSG)]

But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. [Mark 7:21-22 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneI recently saw a play in which the only character, Lisa, presents a monologue about her life and family. The audience learns that her father, Walter, a German-born Jew, escaped to the U.S. as part of the kindertransport effort but that the rest of his family perished at Auschwitz. During her monologue, Lisa tells of taking her then 75-year old father to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. While touring the concentration camp, Walter tells his daughter about attending school with members of the Hitler Youth. Being a Jew, he couldn’t wear one of their uniforms but another boy in his school, a Gentile, refused to wear one. Her father then tells her that, in spite of the horror of Auschwitz and the loss of his family, he is glad he was born a Jew—because he didn’t have the option of becoming a Nazi! Unlike the Gentile boy who refused to join (and suffered because of it), Walter realized that, had he not been Jewish, he might have joined the Nazis. He knew that part of him could have been as merciless and evil as the men who rounded up and exterminated his family.

After the war, Walter returned to Germany as an interrogator of German personnel. In her soliloquy, Lisa tells how he admitted to callously browbeating one prisoner into confessing that he’d rounded up Jews from the Ghetto. Rather than turn the prisoner over to the allies for trial, Walter handed him over to the Russians, men he knew would summarily execute the German in the woods. Perhaps Walter was right; in other circumstances, he might have joined the Hitler Youth.

Hearing this story made me wonder what darkness lurks in my heart. In other circumstances, could I spew hate, inflict pain, ignore my conscience, turn my back on my brothers and sisters, or close my eyes to evil? Could I ever be like Haman (who plotted to exterminate the Jews) or Abimelech (who killed his 70 brothers)? Could I have worn a Hitler Youth uniform? Sadly, in another time, in another place, perhaps my heart could have deceived me to do just that.

Just because I’m capable of evil, however, doesn’t mean I have to be evil. Rather than betray Jesus as did Judas, I could be as faithful as John. Rather than the closed minds and murdering hearts of those who stoned Stephen, I could be as holy and forgiving as the martyred man. While I could be as scheming and immoral as Herodias, I also could be as obedient and fearless as her victim John the Baptist. Yes, I could have joined the Hitler Youth, but I also could have refused to be part of such evil and willingly suffered the consequences.

There is something terribly wrong with our hearts that, if allowed to grow, can become horrendous and unthinkably evil, but there also is something beautifully right with them. We are made in the image of God; deep inside us there is something of Him and He has written his law in our hearts. He gave us the gift of free will and, with every choice, we either become more or less like the person God made us to be. Because our hearts can be deceitful, corrupt, and self-serving they can lead us astray but they don’t have to! When led by the Holy Spirit, our hearts can be so filled with good that there is no room left for evil.

For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. … Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. [Psalm 51:5,10-11 (NLT)]

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. [Galatians 5:22-24 (NLT)]

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DAMAGED GOODS

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” [Mark 2:16-18 (NLT)]

white peacockWhile looking through the day’s photos, I came to several of a white peacock butterfly. As I enlarged the photos, I realized this butterfly had seen better days; its once beautiful wings were ragged after a run-in with some predator. Damaged goods, I didn’t think the flawed creature’s photos worth editing and began to delete them (just as I have of similarly damaged butterflies).

Broken things and damaged goods—we tend to discard them without giving them another thought. What if God deleted us because of our imperfections and defects? What if He stopped caring for us when we no longer were flawless and beautiful? It’s not lizards or hungry birds that leave their marks on us but rather things like illness and injury, loss, dysfunctional families, abuse, broken relationships, addiction, financial crises, and sin. The resulting damage is less visible; instead of tattered wings, we are marred by pain, shame, regret, rejection, disappointment, anger, apathy, loneliness and fear. Let’s face it; we all are damaged goods. Our scars may not be as obvious as the butterfly’s; nevertheless, they are there.

Rather than abandoning them, Jesus loved and forgave damaged goods: sinners and outcasts, the woman caught in adultery, the traitorous taxmen Matthew and Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the demon-possessed, the repentant thief on the cross, the sinful woman who anointed His feet, the disciple tiger swallowtailwho denied Him, the one who doubted Him, and even the one who betrayed Him. Jesus didn’t come for the perfect; He came for the broken, damaged, and sinful. Although the butterfly’s wings will never heal, Jesus can heal the brokenness in our hearts and souls.

When I’d taken the photos, I hadn’t detected the creature’s ripped wings; it flitted about so quickly that I barely had time to focus before it flew off to another flower. It may have been damaged, but it certainly wasn’t defeated. I took another look and saw its battle scars as things of beauty. That ragged butterfly was as exquisite as any of its untouched brothers and sisters; perhaps more so, because it hadn’t allowed its tattered wings to deter it from making the most of the sunny day. Instead of hiding under a leaf feeling sorry for itself and complaining about the unfairness of life, it had been dancing in the flowers and sipping sweet nectar! If a butterfly can have purpose and fortitude, this one certainly had it! Rather than being deleted, it belonged in a butterfly hall of fame.

Now, when I come across a damaged butterfly, I’m reminded that God loves all of His beautiful children, imperfect and broken creatures that we are. No matter how flawed, He will never discard us or toss us in the trash heap! Moreover, wounded butterflies remind me never to surrender to life’s challenges. I can be battered by this world but, because God’s grace is more than sufficient, I won’t be broken. If tattered wings can carry a butterfly through the flowers, I know God can carry me through anything.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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NOT REMEMBERING

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. [Matthew 18:21-22 (RSV)]

Several authors tell the story of a friend of Clara Barton who reminded the nursing pioneer and Red Cross founder of a spiteful act someone had done to her years earlier. When Barton acted as if it had never happened, her friend asked, “Don’t you remember it?” She vehemently replied, “No! I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Forgiveness isn’t easy and it requires real (and continued) determination on our part. Sadly, without our deliberate effort to put the offense aside, it’s easy for past hurts to weasel their way right back into our hearts and minds.

When Moravian missionaries first came to the Arctic, they found no word in the Inuit language that properly captured the Christian concept of forgiveness. Using Inuit words, they came up with issumagijoujunnainermik meaning “not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.” That’s what forgiveness is; it’s choosing not to let the thoughts of that harmful person or their harmful deeds consume our thinking. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting; it’s deciding not to remember.

In writing about forgiveness today, I came across another interesting word: ilunga.  Found in the Tshiluba language spoken by the Bantu of the Congo, it is considered by linguists to be the most difficult word to translate. Ilunga describes a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first offense, will tolerate it a second time, but will neither forgive nor tolerate it a third time. It’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of person whose attitude changes with each offense. Jesus, however, didn’t tell us to forgive only once; He said to forgive seventy times seven times (or endlessly)!

When asked if she was ever troubled by past offenses, either hers of those of others, an elderly Christian lady is said to have replied, “Never!” She explained that if Satan troubled her about her sins or other people’s offenses, she simply sent him east. If he returned, she sent him to the west. Recalling the psalmist’s words that God “has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west,” [103:12] she explained that by sending Satan back and forth, from east to west and back again, she never allowed him to stop at her house.

The choice is ours. Will we choose to be like an ilunga or like that Christian lady and Clara Barton, people who practice issumagijoujunnainermik?

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. [Lewis B. Smedes]

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (RSV)]

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COULD IT BE TODAY?

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (NLT)]

black vultureA few years ago, unaware of what the day would bring, a family friend kissed her new husband good-bye as he left for work. While riding the train that morning, the young man collapsed; he died of sudden cardiac arrest less than an hour after that tender kiss. That same year, another friend, whose wife’s body was ravaged by cancer, knew how short the time was he had with her. “While watching TV,” he confided downheartedly, “I looked over at Maureen and realized that next year her chair will be empty and I’ll be alone!” Today is Patriot Day, an annual remembrance of those who died or were injured during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Thinking about that tragic morning seventeen years ago when so many lost their loved ones unexpectedly, I remembered these two widowed friends. Which is worse: watching the one you love deteriorate and knowing that you’re running out of time for kisses or kissing a loved one in the morning and not knowing that will be the last kiss you’ll ever share?

I can’t imagine the anguish of either scenario and am thankful that God doesn’t give us a choice in this matter. But, I do know what would be more heartbreaking than either scenario. Instead of kissing one another when parting, it would be worse if our last words were angry or harsh ones. How tragic if, instead of sharing a few loving words, we spent our last moments together in heated discussion or spiteful silence. What if we squandered our last opportunity to say “I love you,” to apologize or forgive, to pray together, to laugh with one another, or to share a kiss?

Whenever we say good-bye to my mother-in-law, we always give her a kiss and express our love. Since she’s nearing her 102nd birthday, we understand that each time we see her might be the last. This day of remembrance, however, is a powerful reminder that we can’t see what the next day will bring. There is no guarantee of tomorrow or even the next hour. We don’t know when our last moments with someone may be, whether they are 102 or only 12, dying of cancer or in the prime of life. We mustn’t waste the time with which we’re blessed. Let’s fill our lives, and the lives of others, with love, peace, and joy.

Father in Heaven, may we all learn to live each day as if it is our last. Remind us, O Lord, that this could be the final day, not just for us, but for those we love. May your Spirit guide us so that we truly appreciate the time and people you’ve given us. Let us leave no forgiveness denied, no love unexpressed, no apologies unoffered, no conflicts unresolved, and no thanks unspoken.

I expect to pass this way but once; any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. [Stephen Grellet]

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. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

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