BEAR-PROOF

When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came. [Luke 4:13 (NLT)]

black bearMany people are unaware that south Florida is home to more than 1,000 black bears. Highly intelligent animals with a sense of smell that is seven times greater than a bloodhound’s, they can easily sniff out and find food. Opportunistic creatures, they take advantage of whatever is easily available (often man’s garbage). It’s estimated that they can smell a food source from as far away as 20 miles and, once they’ve found a good source like a berry patch, a stand of beech trees, or a trash can, they will continue to return to the same location for years. Relocated bears have been known to travel as much as 120 miles to return to an abundant food source.

While people are smarter than bears, we’re impatient and rarely willing to inconvenience ourselves or spend time solving a problem. Because the bear-proof dumpster we had in Colorado was difficult to unlock, it often was left unlatched and, even though they know they should wait until morning, our Florida neighbors find it easier to put out their garbage the night before pick-up. Bears, while not as smart as humans, are tenacious and will spend hours solving a problem if food is involved. No dummies, after determined bears in our Colorado town learned they could open the doors of Subarus, no unlocked Subaru in town was safe.

Satan is as opportunistic and tenacious as any black bear. Rather than sniffing out the aroma of a garbage can, he has an uncanny way of sniffing out our vulnerabilities and spotting our weaknesses. Think of the story of Job. When Satan couldn’t get him to curse God by taking his wealth and livestock, servants, herdsmen, workers, and children, he came back and took his health. Although Job never cursed God, he lost perspective and cursed the day he was born. Determined and unwilling to admit defeat, perhaps Satan was behind the words of condemnation spoken by Job’s wife and friends. When the devil failed to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he departed “until the next opportunity.” The enemy does not give up easily. He may change tactics a bit but, like the Terminator, he’ll be back.

As for the bears that can open car doors: once they’re inside, the door often closes and traps them. Before they manage to make an exit, the car’s interior is wrecked and the bear has done what it usually does in the woods! When the enemy finds us vulnerable and attacks, he can do the same thing to our lives!

One of the ways to prevent Satan’s attacks is to be self-aware. Recovery programs often use the acronym HALT as a reminder. Standing for hungry, angry, lonely and tired, these feelings make us vulnerable to Satan. While we often think of hunger as that grumble in our tummies, it is more. Hunger is dissatisfaction, frustration, a desire for something more or different and often has nothing to do with food. Anger isn’t just being mad at someone; it’s holding on to unforgiveness, hostility, and resentment and often includes casting blame. While lonely seems self-explanatory, we can feel isolated, deserted, and desolate even when surrounded by people. Being tired can be physical exhaustion, but it also can be feeling drained by circumstances (or people) or wanting to abandon both hope and effort.

Being aware of these feelings helps us take extra precautions to protect ourselves. We redouble our efforts to worship with praise and thanksgiving, gather in Christian fellowship, study God’s Word, and pray; we may even need to seek Christian counseling. When we leave ourselves vulnerable with hunger, anger, loneliness, or tiredness, we’re little safer from the enemy’s attack than people who keep their food in their tents when camping, store garbage outside, don’t lock their Subarus, or fail to latch bear-proof dumpsters. Whether from bears or Satan, we’re just asking for trouble.

Satan loves to fish in the troubled waters of a discontented heart. [Thomas Watson]

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NLT)]

But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. [2 Thessalonians 3:3 (NLT)]

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FROM BAD TO WORSE

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

Once a pampered prince, forty years later, Moses was living as a Midianite shepherd. When speaking to him from the burning bush, God laid out His plan for freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the pivotal role Moses would play in it. Protesting, Moses made excuse after excuse but God countered every excuse with a solution. Provided with a shepherd’s staff and Aaron as his mouthpiece, Moses reluctantly accepted God’s charge. Before approaching Pharaoh, however, he first met with Israel’s elders to convince them that he was on a mission from God.

Although the elders were convinced, Pharaoh wasn’t. When Moses asked that the Israelites be given just three days to journey into the wilderness and worship their God, Pharaoh didn’t just refuse. Accusing Moses of interfering with his people’s work, he cruelly increased their work load. Instead of having the straw needed for brick making provided, they had to find their own straw while still meeting their daily brick quota. When they failed to do so, the Israelite foremen were beaten. Faced with an impossible task, they approached Pharaoh. Pitilessly refusing to lighten their load, he accused the Israelites of laziness. Protesting to Moses, the foremen blamed him for the harshness of their Egyptian masters. Disheartened at his lack of success and Egypt’s increasing brutality, the Israelites lost all confidence in Moses and God’s promise of relief. Instead of going from bad to better, things had gone from bad to worse.

Sadly, even Moses lost faith. Forgetting that God told him Pharaoh would not let them go easily, the despondent Moses cried out to God. He questioned God’s purpose and even accused Him of doing nothing to help!

Things looked bad for David more than 420 years later. After Samuel anointed him king, David spent the next fifteen years on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. Like Moses, he was following God’s plan and yet things had gone from bad to worse for him, too. Like Moses, he cried out and asked God why he’d been forsaken.

Things looked dire for Elijah, as well. Like Moses and David, he wasn’t winning any popularity contests by obeying God. In his case, the prophet was giving unpleasant prophecies to some evil people. The enraged Jezebel was out to kill him and he’d just received her message that he’d be dead within 24-hours. The exhausted man sat under a broom bush and, sure that he was as good as dead, told God to kill him then.

Scripture teaches that, when we’re following God’s plan, we will face opposition in the world. It’s been suggested that if we don’t face the enemy’s opposition, we’re probably not doing God’s work. There will be times when our circumstances look bleak, God seems to be looking the other way, and the enemy seems to be winning.

When Jesus’s followers stood at the foot of the cross, watched Him suffer, and heard Him speak the words of Psalm 22 asking God why He’d been abandoned, it probably seemed that all hope was gone and the enemy had won. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom and goodness of God because his plan sometimes seems to have gone awry. Let us always remember that God’s promise to the Israelites is as true today as it was over 3,400 years ago: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]

The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:17-19 (NLT)]

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33 (NLT)]

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BATTLES

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

columbineI prayed for Pearl for over a year. This beautiful toddler had Stage-4 cancer and her bones, brain, and internal organs were riddled with the disease’s treacherous cells. Her prognosis was bleak and there were times she nearly lost her life to the effects of the various remedies rather than the cancer. That Pearl is alive and cancer free today is nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, she and her family went through a very dark valley to get to this place of victory. I’m sure, if given a choice, they would have preferred God to have miraculously healed her prior to the long battle she fought for over a year.

The Old Testament is filled with conflicts. In a few instances, the Israelites were given victory without ever having to go into combat. 2 Chronicles 20 tells of the time God promised Jehoshaphat the battle was God’s. At the very moment the people began to praise Him, the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mt. Seir started fighting among themselves. By the time the army of Judah arrived, every one of their enemies was dead. 2 Kings 19 tells of a night when 185,000 enemy Assyrian soldiers were struck dead by an angel of the Lord. When the survivors awoke to the corpse-filled camp, they retreated to Nineveh where they remained. Because God took His people around the dark valley those times, the battles were won without engaging in combat or suffering loss.

For the most part, however, God’s assurance of victory rarely meant there would be no struggle. Yes, the walls of Jericho fell but, when the Israelites charged into the city with their swords and captured it, it’s hard to believe the people of Jericho didn’t defend themselves vigorously. Although the Israelites defeated them, Scripture never tells us they suffered no battle injuries or fatalities. In Joshua 10:2, God assured Joshua of victory over the Amorites but that conquest didn’t come easily. They fought so long and hard that Joshua had to ask God to prolong the day until they’d defeated their enemies. The spoils of war may have gone to the victors but, surely, they came at a cost and not every Israelite safely returned home that day. Even when we’re victorious, every battle leaves scars of one kind or another.

God could defeat armies without using any of His soldiers but He often sent His people into battle. I have no doubt that God could have miraculously cured Pearl without her and her family having to suffer through a year of painful expensive treatment and the agony of never knowing what the next procedure or test would bring. But, like the armies of Israel and Judah, they had to go through the dark valley and into battle before victoriously coming out on the other side.

The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in our troubles and trials because they lead to patient endurance which leads to maturity of character. I imagine Pearl’s family felt there had been more than enough character building long before her suffering ended. Nevertheless, they remained faithful and hopeful because they knew they were never alone in that dark valley. The battle was neither Pearl’s nor theirs; it was God’s.

We do not live in a perfect world. Although we are assured of victory, we are not assured of a battle-free life nor are we assured of victory while on this side of the grass. We will be faced with trials, temptations, loss, struggle, disease, suffering, and death. That God has won the war does not mean His Christian soldiers won’t ever have to fight! Nevertheless, we are victorious!

For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. [1 John 5:4-5 (NLT)]

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KILLING THE MESSENGER

Then the leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and King Joash ordered that they stone him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s Temple. That was how King Joash repaid Jehoiada for his loyalty—by killing his son. Zechariah’s last words as he died were, “May the Lord see what they are doing and avenge my death!” [2 Chronicles 24:21-22 (NLT)]

“Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” sings Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the musical The Wiz as she tells the Winkies she’ll accept any news as long as it’s good. In the Old Testament, we find that same unwillingness to hear bad news on the part of Judah’s and Israel’s kings. What they didn’t seem to understand was that, while they could kill the messenger, they couldn’t kill the message.

Being a prophet was a risky business and Zechariah wasn’t the only prophet who suffered or died because his message was unwelcome. When Hanani was sent by God to rebuke King Asa for allying Judah with Aram, the enraged king responded by putting the prophet in stocks and imprisoning him. Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment on Judah for its disobedience. Not wanting to believe that such a condemning prophecy could come from God, the people called him a traitor and demanded his death. Reminding them that Micah had given a similar prophecy, the elders stepped in and Jeremiah’s life was spared. Although he escaped death that time, the prophet suffered beatings, imprisonment, and being put in stocks before being killed in Egypt. After Uriah prophesied against the evil in Judah, King Jehoiakim had him hunted down and killed. Wanting to wipe out the worship of the Lord and replace it with Baal worship, Jezebel sought to kill Elijah; although he escaped death, several other of God’s prophets weren’t so fortunate. Not wanting to hear John the Baptist’s bad news, Herodias urged Salome to demand his severed head on a plate.

The common theme of the prophets was repentance – turn from your evil ways and back to the Lord. For the most part, the typical response was like that of Evillene: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” We still have the words of those prophets and much of their censure applies to us today. Moreover, many of their prophecies remain unfulfilled and we’d best not turn a deaf ear to them. Like Evillene, we only want to hear what we want to hear but God doesn’t work that way; He tells us what we need to hear!

When reading the words of the prophets, think of how they apply to the world in which we live: a world plagued with poverty, deficient health care, food insufficiency, human rights violations, climate change, diminishing resources, religious conflicts, genocide, wars, lack of economic opportunity and security, corruption, inequality, poor sanitation and water insecurity to name a few. Those problems are not that different from the ones addressed by the prophets thousands of years ago.

We no longer kill the prophets; we just ignore them. Let us learn from the fall of Israel and Judah; ignoring God is done at our own peril.

The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it. [George Orwell]

Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. … If you will only obey me, you will have plenty to eat. But if you turn away and refuse to listen, you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Isaiah 1:16-17,19-20 (NLT)]

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WATCH YOUR STEP

Chicago skylineSo watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (MSG)]

We were at my son’s home in the city. The smoker and grill were fired up and the family had gathered up on his rooftop deck for a barbecue. Being just six weeks after my foot surgery, I was rather proud of myself for having navigated the four flights up to the deck while carrying a large tray of appetizers. In this case, however, pride came before the fall. Walking onto the deck, I looked out at the magnificent view of the city’s famed skyline and, the next thing I knew, I was flat on my face, surrounded by cucumber sandwiches and broken glass. Feeling too sure of myself and distracted by the surroundings, I hadn’t realized there was one more step to navigate.

A similar event occurred after my other foot surgery four years ago. Thrilled to finally get back on my bike after six weeks of inactivity, I was happily cruising along and “in the zone.” Thinking I was reaching for my bell to warn a walker of my approach, I ended up braking—hard. I flew over the handlebars and my bike and I landed in the muddy gutter. On both occasions, my brain simply went on vacation. Failing to look where I was going or to think about what I was doing, I ended up bloody and bruised. Sprawled on my son’s deck, I pictured God shaking his head and saying, “Will you never learn? Use the brains I gave you; be cautious and watch your step!”

When we stop paying attention to our actions and surroundings, we can plunge into more than gutters or tumble onto more than a floor; we can land in a spiritual sewer or a den of iniquity. In spite of being warned to stay alert for the enemy and his snares, we often just barrel along, oblivious to his hidden hazards. When we’re not watching our step, the enemy’s traps can trip us up and we can fall into a heap of trouble. When we live heedlessly, it’s easy to stumble and end up bashed and battered.

Looking back on Saturday’s misadventure, I’m thankful that I escaped with just few cuts, abrasions, bruises, and sore muscles. On the plus side, no bones were broken, there was plenty to eat without my tray of food, and my swollen knee and stiff neck have kept me from thinking about my aching foot. We rarely get off that easily when we sin.

Oh Lord, teach us to be alert to both the physical and spiritual pitfalls of life. Give us sure footing as we navigate the unpredictable world in which we live. And, (as I asked four years ago), could the inspiration for my next devotion not involve blood and bruises?

Satan is the master distracter. He is always working to keep us off track in our walk with God. [Joyce Meyer]

God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him. When I got my act together, he gave me a fresh start. Now I’m alert to God’s ways; I don’t take God for granted. Every day I review the ways he works; I try not to miss a trick. I feel put back together, and I’m watching my step. God rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to his eye. [Psalm 18:20-24 (MSG)]

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FREEDOM OF RELIGION – Independence Day 2019

American FlagsWe are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

In 2014, I wrote about Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese mother of two who, at that time, was facing execution for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Eight months pregnant when she appeared in court on charges of apostasy and adultery, she was given three days to reject Jesus and accept Islam. Upon her refusal, she was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death under Sudan’s Sharia law. Meriam, however, had never rejected Islam; she’d always been a Christian. Although her father is Muslim (technically making her Muslim), he was absent during her childhood and she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother. Under Sharia law, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is illegal and Meriam, married to a Christian man, was also found guilty of adultery and sentenced to flogging (100 lashes). Muslim law did not allow her execution while was pregnant and the shackled woman waited in prison for her child’s life to begin and hers to end. When writing about her, I wondered if I’d be as strong as Meriam and reminded readers that Christian persecution did not end in ancient Rome.

Curious as to her whereabouts today, I learned that the time the pregnant woman waited for her execution saved her life. It allowed Meriam’s plight to be made public and, because of international pressure, she was eventually released and settled in New Hampshire. Later that year, however, two Christian pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church were charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system. Facing death sentences, they were imprisoned for eight months. In June of 2015, Christian girls walking home from church were charged with indecent dress and forced to strip out of their trousers and skirts. Five of the girls received fines and one girl had to suffer through twenty lashes. Since then, Sudanese Christians have continued to face discrimination and persecution; churches were demolished and Christians intimidated, attacked and arrested. Although Sudan’s brutal president Omar al-Bashir left office in April of this year, there is no assurance that his replacement will be any better. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Sudan where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punishable. Rounding out the top ten countries where human and religious rights are being violated are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India. According to Open Doors, 2018 saw 4,136 Christians killed for their faith; 2,625 Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 1,266 churches or Christian buildings attacked. They estimate that one in nine Christians experience “high levels of persecution worldwide.”

Many of our nation’s first colonists came here to escape religious persecution in their homelands. On this day, when we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” may we truly appreciate the freedom of religion we enjoy. In our nation, no one is a second-hand citizen because of religion, no regime tries to make any of us renounce our faith, nor must we conceal our beliefs to be safe. My Jewish friends can wear a Star of David pendant as openly as I wear my cross. As freely as I observe Easter and Christmas, my Muslim friends can observe Ramadan, my Jewish friends Passover and Hanukah, and my Hindu friends Diwali, while my atheist neighbors can choose to believe in nothing.

On this national holiday, let us thank God for the freedom we have to worship Him openly and without fear. May we never take that freedom lightly. As we count our numerous blessings, remember to pray for those who don’t enjoy the many freedoms we often take for granted.

Our prayers can go where we cannot… There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray. [Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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