DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

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TO BE STILL

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. … Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world. [Psalm 46:1,10 (NLT)]

When we’re told to “Be still” in Psalm 46, we tend to think in terms of stopping movement—our busyness, frantic activity, or agitated actions. We associate it with a director yelling, “Cut!” the ref blowing his whistle, or a frustrated parent’s “Cut it out!” Being still can entail all of that, but it is much more. The root of the original Hebrew word used for “still” is the verb rapa which means to be faint, forsake, or sink down. When used as the imperative ra’pha’h, as it is in Psalm 46, it means to drop or release our concerns, to become weak, or surrender. While most Bible versions translate this as “Be still,” some translate as desist, stop fighting, cease striving, be quiet, or be at peace. In short, we’re being told to stop anxiously fighting a situation and leave the matter to God—to relax our grip on things, stop worrying and let it be.

Forgetting that we can’t save ourselves, we often base our self-worth on what we can do—our strength, self-sufficiency and independence. It goes against the grain to accept that we must become weaker so that God can become stronger and that we must lose our lives to find them. But, it is when we loosen our grip, release our hold, and admit our helplessness that we finally understand that God is God and we are not!

Do we come to God with clenched fists or open hands? Do we come with hands clutching things like worry, fear, possessions, expectations, wealth, plans and goals or with open hands that have relinquished those things to God? “Be still,” we’re told—loosen the grip and surrender to God. Remember, just as clenched fists can’t release anything, they also can’t receive God’s blessings! Today, instead of bringing my hands together in prayer, I opened them and turned my palms upward in a symbolic gesture both of surrender and acceptance. I was still and knew that He is God.

When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer. [Corrie ten Boom]

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. [Psalm 37:3-5,7a (NLT)]

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FRESH STARTS

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. [Titus 3:5 (NLT)]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

desert paintbrushSent by God to warn the people of Nineveh of God’s judgment, Jonah went in the opposite direction. After he survived three days in the belly of a fish, God gave Jonah another chance to deliver His message to the people of Nineveh. This time, Jonah delivered the news that God intended to destroy the city in forty days. When Nineveh’s king heard Jonah’s warning, he called for fasting, praying, and repenting their evil ways. People and animals were to cover themselves with sackcloth (a coarse fabric of goat’s hair) as a sign of grief, submission, and contrition.  Seeing their repentance, God was merciful and gave them another chance.

Barnabas and his cousin John Mark accompanied Paul to Cyprus but, for some unknown reason, John Mark deserted the other two in Pamphylia. Paul initially refused to give the man another chance but both God and Barnabas did. The cousins went to Cyprus and Paul and Silas went to Syria and Cilicia. Eventually, however, Paul gave the one-time deserter another chance and, twelve years later, John Mark was with the Apostle during his first imprisonment in Rome. When Paul was approaching the end of his life, he requested John Mark’s presence during his second Roman imprisonment. What became of John Mark? Because he was given another chance, the man who once abandoned Barnabas and Paul became the man we know as the gospel writer Mark!

Peter failed Jesus by denying Him; when given another chance he became “the rock” and leader of the disciples. Saul failed Jesus by persecuting His followers; given another chance, he became Paul and carried the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire to Jews and Gentiles alike. While we don’t know what happened to the woman caught in adultery, we know Jesus gave her another chance with the admonition to, “Go and sin no more.” One look at the history of the Israelites tells us that God is not a God of second chances; He’s the God of many chances!

We are not our poor choices and our failures should never haunt, confine, or define us. Our God is one of both forgiveness and transformation. Because He gives us another chance, who we were yesterday does not have to be who we are today. Unfortunately for Nineveh, their repentance didn’t last for long. Instead of leaving their past behind, they returned to their sinful ways. The second chance God gave them was wasted and the city of “murder and lies” was destroyed 148 years after Jonah’s first warning. Our God specializes in renewal and fresh starts. The people of Nineveh wasted theirs; let’s not make the same mistake!

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (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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MARA

He has filled me with bitterness and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink. [Lamentations 3:5 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailTo explain her sisters’ bitterness and sour outlook on life, my mother-in-law would say, “Well, their lives didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped.” Those women had no reason to complain when comparing their lives to Naomi (the mother-in-law in the book of Ruth).

Talk about things not turning out the way you’d hoped! Naomi endured famine, a move to an enemy nation, pagan daughters-in-law, no grandchildren, the death of her husband and then the death of her two sons. Poverty stricken, with no relatives to help her in Moab, Naomi decided to return to Israel. When her two daughters-in-law started back with her, she tried to deter them, telling them to go back to their parents where there may be another marriage in their future. While one woman returned home, Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law.

Widowed and childless, neither woman’s life seemed headed for a “happily ever after.” When the bereaved Naomi arrived back in Bethlehem, she told her old friends to call her Mara, meaning “bitter.” She explained that, “The Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord brought me home empty.” Like my husband’s aunts, Naomi was resentful that life hadn’t turned out as she’d expected. What she didn’t understand was that God was busy at work behind the scenes. Her bitterness even blinded her to fact that she didn’t come home empty—she’d come home with Ruth, a woman described by Naomi’s friends as “better to you than seven sons!”  Embittered, Naomi didn’t see her blessing in a daughter-in-law who loved and honored her and would labor in the fields for her.

You know the rest of the story. Ruth gleaned grain in the fields of Boaz. He took on the role of “kinsman redeemer,” purchased land that had belonged to Naomi’s husband, and married Ruth. The couple had a son, Naomi became a grandmother, and that little boy would be grandfather to the future King David.

We all have been given reason to call ourselves bitter. But, as followers of Jesus, we can become better rather than bitter and not because a kinsman redeemer buys our land, marries us, pays our bills, solves our problems, and takes us away from our troubles. We don’t become bitter because we have a Redeemer God who walks with us through our trouble and enables us to find joy in our new normal. We don’t become bitter because we know our life is better than we ever dared hope. We don’t become bitter because we know life, in the world yet to come, can only be better!

We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)]

MAMA BIRDS – MOTHER’S DAY 2019

My son, obey your father’s commands, and don’t neglect your mother’s instruction. Keep their words always in your heart. Tie them around your neck. When you walk, their counsel will lead you. When you sleep, they will protect you. When you wake up, they will advise you. [Proverbs 6:20-22 (NLT)]

The mother eagle teachers her little ones to fly by making their nest so uncomfortable that they are forced to leave it and commit themselves to the unknown world of air outside. And just so does our God to us. [Hannah Whitall Smith]

wrensWhen writing yesterday’s devotion about what I called “concierge” parents, I couldn’t help but think about how birds parent their young. We once had a birdhouse hanging from the eaves and, every spring, a wren family would move in. Once their eggs hatched, I could hear the wren chicks chirping away, demanding food from the crack of dawn until dusk. Those who’ve had the patience to observe them estimate that wren parents make about 1,000 trips a day to provide room service for their hungry brood; my wrens were no exception. Mom or Dad would disappear inside and stay only long enough to drop off dinner before reappearing and flying off again. Back and forth, the pair flew as they delivered caterpillars, beetles, seeds, crickets, berries, snails and spiders to their youngsters.

As the nestlings grew, the demanding chicks got noisier. Nearly as big as their parents, they would stick their heads out and loudly call for dinner. Every few return trips, however, instead of entering the nest with their meal, Mama would come right up to the opening with a mouth full of goodies and then fly away. This must have been her way of telling the youngsters that room service soon was coming to an end. If they wanted to eat, they were going to have to come out and get it; she knew, if they got hungry enough, they would! Less than three weeks after hatching, the birds would leave the nest. At first, I’d see the little guys franticly flapping their wings as they flew close to the ground around the yard. Soon, however, they were flying high with no apparent effort and then off they went, ready to fend for (and feed) themselves.

I don’t know if Hannah Whitall Smith’s words about the mother eagle making the nest uncomfortable for her young are true, but I do know that the eaglet, like the baby wrens, will never fly until he leaves the comfort of the nest. Like them, we will never become the people God wants us to be until we leave our comfort zones and, sometimes, like the birds, we may need a little nudging.

This Mother’s Day, let us be thankful for the men and women in our lives who didn’t coddle us: the ones who gave us a spoon to feed ourselves even though it meant more food got on than in us; the ones who let us put on our own shoes, even though they ended up on the wrong feet, and allowed us to pick out our clothes, even though they frequently were mismatched; the ones who let us spill the milk when we first poured it, lose when we played Old Maid or Parcheesi, and fall when we learned to roller skate; the ones who made us do our own homework, pick up our messes, clear the dishes, write thank you notes, apologize when we were wrong, and earn the money for the expensive designer jeans we just had to have; the ones who disciplined us when we misbehaved, let us make mistakes and face their consequences, and loved us enough to nudge us out the nest! Let us thank our mothers (and all the other people in our lives) who taught us how to fly!

Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it. [Proverbs 22:6 (NLT)]

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HE’S NO CONCIERGE

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” [Hebrews 12:5 (NLT)]

Canadian geese and goslingsWe’ve heard of helicopter parents—those over-involved and over-protective parents who hover over their children, taking responsibility for their experiences and protecting them from failure. With the college admission scandal in the news, we now see helicopter parents on steroids. Called lawnmower, snowplow, or bulldozer parents, they don’t just hover over their youngsters. Not wanting to see their children struggle, they mow down challenges, plow through hurdles, and demolish any obstacles facing them.

Those parents are now reaping what they’ve sown. Having spent 18 years clearing the road for their children, they’ve failed to prepare them for the bumps in the road of adulthood! Instead of sitting in the backseat of their adult children’s lives, they remain in the driver’s seat. The New York Times and Morning Consult (a technology/media company) recently conducted a poll of a nationally representative group of parents of adult children (aged 18 to 28). It found that 76% of the parents remind their children of deadlines they need to meet, 74% make their appointments for everything from haircuts to doctors, 15% call or text them to make sure they don’t over-sleep, 11% will call their child’s employer if there is an issue at work, and 8% had contacted a teacher on behalf of their child! These aren’t first-graders needing guidance; they’re adults who should be able to accomplish these simple tasks on their own! 12% of those same parents even give their adult children more than $500 a month for rent or expenses. I have a neighbor who pays his grown son’s credit card bill. That might be understandable if he were a struggling student but this young man, out of law school for two years, is gainfully employed and totally debt-free! Apparently, with all that education, he hasn’t yet figured out how to budget! I know of another woman whose son had difficulty adjusting to dormitory life and waking up for class. Rather than letting him learn how to acclimate to new circumstances and reap the consequences of missing class, she moved to his college town so he could live with her and commute to class (after she’d awakened and fed him). Perhaps a better name for parents like these would be “concierge.” They provide the wake-up calls, get the reservations, arrange the transportation, solve the problems, make the phone calls, and figure out the logistics of their children’s lives.

All parents want their children to succeed but, when they repeatedly eliminate every obstacle and challenge, they’ve left their children unequipped for the challenges of adulthood. The prodigal would never have returned home if he’d had a concierge parent! Mom and Dad would have paid his bills, smoothed out any legal difficulties, provided groceries during the famine, and told the farmer their son was too good to slop pigs! Not having to experience the consequences of his profligate lifestyle, the son would never have seen the error of his ways.

When we read the exodus story, it becomes clear that our heavenly Father is no concierge parent. The God who parted the Red Sea certainly could have destroyed the Philistines with a snap of His fingers and taken his people on the direct route to the Promised Land. Instead, He took them the long way around and a three week journey took two years while He prepared the Israelites for the challenges of Canaan. Then, when they rebelled, rather than coddle and coax them, God let them suffer the consequences. For the next thirty-eight years, they learned the painful lesson of missed opportunities.

Believing in on-the-job training, God allows us to experience failure and frustration, not because He wants us to be failures but because He wants us to learn how to solve problems, make decisions, resolve differences, assess risks, and turn to Him. Like any parent, God wants us to be successful but He also wants us to understand the weight of our decisions and learn both humility and the importance of surrendering to his will. As Adam and Eve learned when leaving Eden, free will is not a gift to be taken lightly and there are consequences to our choices. Wanting us to grow in wisdom, discernment and strength, God lets us make mistakes, face opposition, lose battles, and experience His discipline. If He protected us from challenges, set-backs and trials, we’d think we were the ones responsible for our success. It is in our pain, disappointment, loss, and failure that we truly see how much we need Him.

When we come to Jesus, we come as baby Christians. While He lovingly accepts our imperfect immature selves, He doesn’t want us to stay that way! Let us thank God for the numerous opportunities (many of which we didn’t enjoy) that He’s given us to mature in our faith and grow more like Christ.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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