CAN WE CHANGE?

leopardCan an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. [Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV)]

What words of despair from Jeremiah! Yet, why would God send him to the people of Judah with the call to repent if there was no hope of change? Surely, He didn’t send His prophet on a fool’s errand!

We all have issues with sin. While it may not be theft or adultery, chances are it’s something like anger, envy, impatience, bigotry, hostility, selfishness, pessimism, or pettiness. “It’s just the way I’m built,” we say in way of excuse. While we may justify ourselves by saying our faults are simply our nature, they aren’t! Having recently gone through genetic testing, I didn’t see any genes for things like lust, short-temper, worry, nitpicking, intolerance, arrogance, discontent, or stinginess. When we confuse our learned behavior with innate behavior, we excuse the inexcusable. While we can’t change our skin color or blood type, we can change our habits.

The gift of habit is God given; indeed, we’re blessed that we can go through life without having to deliberately think through the details of every action. If we had to consciously consider how to brush our teeth, get dressed, tie our shoes, make coffee, or start the car, we’d never get anywhere in the morning. The gift of habit, however, can also be a curse when our habitual responses are not godly—when they entail things like bigotry, anxiety, deceit, pride, anger, self-centeredness, or jealousy. 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon likened the force of habit to a cobweb: at first, it’s easily broken. When it grows into a thread, however, it restrains us a bit and, when the thread changes into a cord, we find ourselves in a net. As the net hardens into iron and the iron into steel, we’re shut up in a cage of our own making with no way of escape.

In discussing Jeremiah’s question, Spurgeon emphatically states that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin but, he adds as emphatically, an Ethiopian’s skin can be changed. He explains that the God who turned “primeval darkness into light” and “changed chaos into order” can do everything and, should He choose to do so, He could easily change skin color and leopard spots. Far more important than changing appearances, however, God can transform human nature! The God who designed our hearts can make them new again. After all, change or re-birth is what Jesus is all about!

Jeremiah called the people to repent; the call to put off our old sinful nature and replace it with the new continues today. Although we can’t do it by ourselves, God doesn’t ask anything of us that we are incapable of doing. When we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  [Galatians 5:22-23] We may have to dig deep to find it but God’s fruit is there! Granted, it’s difficult to put away ingrained habits; change is neither easy nor fast. Nevertheless, though the power of the Holy Spirit, change is possible; we can take off the old and put on the new!

The God who made us also can remake us. [Woodrow Kroll]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)]

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:22 (NIV)]

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PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. [John 16:20-21 (NLT)]

baby boyOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus forewarned the disciples of the grief and fear they’d encounter in the days ahead. In his short parable about labor and delivery, Jesus prepared the remaining eleven disciples for the emotions they would encounter over the next three days: their anguish and despair as He hung upon the cross, died, and was buried. For His followers, those three days would feel like an eternity of hopelessness. But, as happens when a woman beholds her newborn baby after hours of painful labor, their despair would turn to joy when they saw the resurrected Christ!

At the time, no one could have convinced me that I would forget the pain of my long labor and medication-free delivery but, when I held my first-born, I did. All women do (or every baby would be an only child)! Those first six months of sleepless nights spent comforting that colicky boy seemed endless; I didn’t know how I’d endure them but I did. Yesterday, he celebrated his 50th birthday and the 24-hours he spent making his way into this world make up only 1/18,251th of his life and just 1/26,406th of mine! Even the six exhausting months he spent crying in my arms every night are only 1% of his life and less than .7% of mine! While putting my labor and sleepless nights into perspective, I realized my fractions are wrong because I can’t determine the true length of my life; rather than ending here on earth, it will continue forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Jesus’s parable applies to more than those three days the disciples hid in a room following his crucifixion. It applies to the suffering and pain endured by all of His children (which often lasts far longer than 24 hours, 3 days, or even six months). Anguish of any kind seems interminable and unbearable but, when put in perspective, it is but a blip on our eternal lifeline. For now, we live in a world of tears, weariness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and affliction but, on the other side of this earthly life, there is a place without pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy! Although it’s of little comfort to those hurting, our present suffering must be viewed in the light of eternity. As heavy as the weight of our present pain may be, when put on a scale and weighed against the eternal joys of heaven, it is no more than a feather. That doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is small; it simply means that eternity is absolutely enormous! Let us remember—all that’s wrong in this fallen world is temporary and will be forgotten when we joyfully behold His face in eternity!

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

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. [1 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NLT)]

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PRAY NOW

Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. [James 5:13 (NLT)]

I’m continually amazed that, for someone who claims to believe in the power of prayer, I so rarely exhibit my belief! Our distressed friend had come over for advice and encouragement. The three of us brain-stormed various ways to meet her many challenges. When she departed several hours later, my husband and I promised to keep her family in our prayers. As she walked down the driveway, I realized that, while we pray daily for her, her family and their difficulties, we hadn’t bothered to pray with her! During our long discussion, we’d never paused to pray together and ask God for His guidance. Yes, my husband and I are a good source of information and encouragement, but it was God’s direction and His gift of courage that our friend needed far more than ours. We should have started the conversation with a prayer for God’s guidance rather than ending it with a promise to pray!

How often do we tell someone we’ll keep them in our prayers rather than pray with them right away? Worse, how often do we tell someone we’ll pray for them and then we don’t? Sadly, more often than not, our promise to pray becomes an empty promise but, if we pray right then and there, we’re sure to make good on that promise. Perhaps, if all the promised prayers actually were prayed, the world would be a far better place!

Communal prayer isn’t just for church, Bible study groups, or table blessings; it’s for everyday situations. Nevertheless, most of us are hesitant to pray with others; we’re uncertain of how the offer will be received, think we don’t have the right words, or are unsure about what it is for which we should pray. People are free to decline the offer of prayer but, whenever I’ve made the offer, it always has been accepted and appreciated. A heartfelt “Lord, please help!” is all we really need to say; our omniscient God doesn’t need us to tell Him what’s wrong or how to fix it! The time to pray, to invite Jesus into a situation, is now, not later!

Those who do not believe do not pray. This is a good functional definition of faith. Faith prays, unbelief does not. (John A. Hardon)

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

With God’s power working in us, God can do much, much more than anything we can ask or imagine. [Ephesians 3:20 (NCV)]

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BITING OFF MORE THAN WE CAN CHEW

AlligatorPride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:18 (NLT)]

I will not endure conceit and pride. [Psalm 101:5b (NLT)]

With her uncanny sense of what it means to be part of a family, Lynn Johnston’s comic strip For Better or for Worse often hits home. In one, Elly, the weary mother, is pecking away at her typewriter. When her husband John asks why, with all of the people in her department, she seems to get everything dumped on her, El admits that it wasn’t “dumped;” she volunteered! Her thoughts in the final frame read: “Trouble with having a big mouth is…You usually bite off more than you can chew!” Truer words were never said!

Many years ago, I certainly bit off more than I could chew. School, church, community, and charity obligations began to interfere with my mothering. I was in a push to complete a major publicity campaign for a charity event when, like Elly, I sat working at the typewriter. My three small children took one look at me, intently typing, and started to cry in chorus. Shushing them, I sat them in front of the TV, and returned to my work. Those tears, however, preyed on my mind. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I’d clearly taken on way too much. While my family’s basic needs had been met, I’d neither been truly present nor very pleasant. Following that day, I finished the obligations I already had, lessened my participation in several activities, and didn’t take on any new responsibilities until my children were older.

What is it that gives us such big mouths when it comes to taking on more than we can chew? In my case, it was an inflated ego. Sure no one could do as good a job as I would, I tried to do it all! No one else could do the publicity right, so I did it; no one else could write a good newsletter, so I did it; no one else could be as good a Brownie leader, so I did it. I foolishly thought I could do it all! It took three tearful children to remind me that only God can do it all and He’s the only one who can do it perfectly. The rest of us need to realize our limitations.

Having greatly overestimated my abilities and underestimated those of others, I was filled with pride and conceit. While the obligations I had were all good causes and worthy of my efforts, I had to understand that I wasn’t the only person who could complete God’s tasks. Pride had kept me from trusting that God would provide the qualified people necessary to do His work if He wanted it done.

The following year, I handed my publicity notebook over to someone else. Did she do it the way I would have? No. Did she miss some deadlines? Yes. Without my publicity, was the event successful? Yes; in fact, even more so! Did my various causes survive without my over-involvement? They did and it was humbling to realize that the world does quite well without me trying to run it.

Make no mistake, I’m not advocating an attitude of “Let the other guy do it.” I am, however, warning us to beware of the pride and arrogance that refuses to allow him or her to do it. Inflated egos can turn us into little gods who think we are the only ones who can write, play an instrument, lead a choir, take photographs, chair a meeting, bake, entertain, organize, teach, lead, encourage, or create. All of us have God-given talents and spiritual gifts and God rightly expects us to use them to his glory. We need to remember, however, that others also have been blessed. If you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, perhaps it’s time to let someone else use their talents and gifts.

Father, we want to serve you. Give us the wisdom to know both when and how to use our gifts in the best way possible. Guide us when we make obligations so that we never let pride or vanity make us say, “Yes,” when we should be saying, “Thank you, but no!”

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. Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. [Proverbs 3:5-7a (NLT)]

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WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. [Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)]

water lilyThe billboard’s message read, “When push comes to shove, don’t!” It was sponsored by a nonprofit foundation that uses a variety of media sources to encourage positive values, good role models, and a better life. “Hard to argue with a goal like that,” I thought before discovering that some people took exception to their peaceful message. Re-tweeting it, one rock musician told his fans just to “shove harder.”

Recently, the management of our home association sent an email regarding the previous night’s annual meeting. Being out of town, we’d missed it but, apparently, pushes had come dangerously close to shoves. Because it had deteriorated into arguments, shouting and name calling, the management company found it necessary to inform the home owners that such future behavior would not be tolerated. They warned that, if it recurred, the meeting immediately would be adjourned. I was shocked that such an email was found necessary. These weren’t enemy nations or small children on a playground; neighbors and adults, they all knew better.

When we think we’re not being heard, we tend to get louder and, instead of communicating, we end up with a shouting match. Feeling a bit “holier than thou” while reading about the contentious meeting, the Spirit’s convicting voice reminded me I’m not much different. Last month, my husband took a quick trip. When dropping him off at the airport, I’d asked where he wanted to be picked up and we agreed on the lower/arrivals level. Upon his return, he called to say he was waiting at the far end of the terminal by the Jet Blue door. I parked there and waited and waited. I finally gave him a call and we both heatedly asked where the other was. Back and forth it went—him saying he was right there and me insisting he wasn’t, our voices getting just a little louder with each exchange. My husband eventually paused and asked whether I was at arrivals or departures. “Exactly where you told me: on the lower level at arrivals!” I replied. “Oh,” he quietly said, “I’ll be right there!” You guessed it; he’d been waiting upstairs. If, instead of accusing one another of being wrong, one of us had simply asked where the other was, we could have avoided a rather tense homecoming! Granted, we didn’t call one another names but, on a smaller scale, we were no different than our irate neighbors.

In today’s angry world, rather than have a civil discussion, people frequently intimidate, attack, and demonize anyone who thinks differently. What happened to being able to disagree without being disagreeable? For a civilized people, we seem to have lost all civility. Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He also said, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Of course, in some cases, that man (or woman) doesn’t want to learn anything that goes contrary to what he desires.

We are called to be peace makers and we do that by being humble, patient, and using our ears twice as much as we do our mouths. Not pushing back when push comes to shove doesn’t mean we lie down and allow someone to walk all over us. Not pushing back means we continue to stand, but we stand with civility, kindness, patience, and love. Another billboard sponsored by the same group says, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” If we were, there might not be so many pushes, shoves, and angry tweets!

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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TWO IN ONE

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. [Colossians 2:9 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

white ibisThe early church encountered difficulty in trying to reconcile the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In the 5th century, one group, from Alexandria, referred to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God, while the group from Antioch insisted that she was merely Anthropotokos, the one who gave birth to the human nature. Trying to bring about a compromise but pleasing no one, the bishop Nestorius suggested that the term Christotokos, the one who gave birth to Christ. The controversy, however, wasn’t about Mary; it was about the nature of Jesus. Did Mary give birth to a man who also was God or did Mary give birth to a man who later became God? The debate continued until 451 when the Chalcedonian Creed was adopted which confirmed the two natures of Christ (human and divine) in one person.

Creed or not, two natures in one being is a difficult concept to grasp. Infinite, God always has been and always will be, but the man Jesus had a beginning in Bethlehem and an end in Jerusalem. God is omnipresent but, when the boy Jesus was at the Temple, He couldn’t also be with his family on the way back to Nazareth, let alone everywhere at once. God is omnipotent but Jesus wasn’t all-powerful. He grew tired, thirsty and hungry, had to walk from village to village, and was cruelly crucified. God is immutable, meaning He never changes, but Jesus started as an embryo and matured into a grown man. He went from babbling to talking and from crawling to walking. His features changed as He lost his baby teeth and got molars and His voice deepened during adolescence. Self-sufficient, God has no needs but we know that baby Jesus needed to be fed, bathed, rocked and dressed. God never sleeps but we know Jesus did. God is omniscient; He sees and knows all but Jesus didn’t know the date of the End Times and, when the woman with the blood disorder touched his robe, He had to ask who touched him. Surely, as a little boy He asked Mary, “Why?”

Nevertheless, Jesus wasn’t two people; from the moment of His conception, He had two distinct natures perfectly united into one being. Inseparable, neither nature was diluted by the other. Jesus was fully man and, at the same time, fully God. Because our thinking is limited by the rules of this world as we know them, we can’t truly comprehend how He could be neither one nor the other but fully both in one body. How can finite man ever understand an infinite God? Nevertheless, we’re called to believe what we can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Can you conceive of anything more awesome than a God who chose to become man, who combined His divinity with our humanity, who connected with man by becoming one of us and yet remained God, who loved us so much that He took on our nature and died for our salvation? Thank you, Jesus!

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood;… [Chalcedonian Creed]

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