OBSERVING LENT – Ash Wednesday 2018

“We have fasted before you!” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!”
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?” [Isaiah 58:3-5 (NLT)]

ibis - great egret - corkscrewEvery evening, a man went to the local pub and ordered three beers. When asked why three, he explained that he ordered the two extra beers in honor of his two dear brothers who lived far away. One evening, he ordered only two beers. Assuming the worst, the bartender extended sympathy for the loss of a brother but the man explained that both brothers were fit as fiddles. The beers he’d ordered were for them. “It’s me that’s not drinking tonight,” he added, “You see, I’ve given up beer for Lent!”

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a period of forty days (not counting Sundays) that commemorate those forty days of His fasting and temptation in the desert. Traditionally it is a time to repent, reflect, and prepare for the observance of both Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Some people fast or give up certain habits or behaviors during this season. Others add additional Bible study or prayer time. For those who observe it, Lent becomes a season of self-discipline.

While some denominations observe Lent, many others don’t. Since Lent’s observation isn’t founded in Scripture, the choice to observe Lent really is a personal one. What we must never do is make the mistake of thinking that God will love us more for our Lenten sacrifice or that giving up something like gum, candy, alcohol, meat or television has any bearing on our salvation. Jesus took care of our salvation on the cross and God’s love could never be greater than it is right now. No amount of sacrifice can earn God’s free gift of grace.

Although Jesus fasted, he never commanded us to do so. His words on fasting tend to focus on people’s hypocrisy when fasting—they often fasted to impress people with their holiness rather than grow closer to God. Self-sacrifice is not to be done ostentatiously but humbly, quietly, and privately. However we choose to observe Lent, unlike the man at the bar, it should be done sincerely. God sees into our hearts and knows when we’re repentant and genuinely seeking Him or just going through the motions!

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

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LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE 

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. [1 Peter 3: 15b-16a (NLT)]

dubble tulipHaving heard that I write Christian devotions, the man looked across the dinner table and asked, “Have you always been religious?” The unexpected question from a Jewish man I barely knew caught me off guard. While I knew he wasn’t asking for a long salvation story, I needed to answer his simple question. I faltered through a brief explanation that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t consider myself a Christian but that my faith grew deeper as it carried me through some really rough spots in life. Having no idea where I’d go from there, I heaved a sigh of relief when the table’s conversation moved to another topic.

Describing our salvation experience was one of the topics this past week in our small group. There will be times, as there was at that dinner, when we’re given a brief opening to tell it and we’d best be prepared with a good but short answer. Pastor Bill Hybels suggests keeping that first answer to 100 words or less. In actuality, the shorter the answer, the more likely there will be a follow-up question later. As P.T. Barnum said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

When we ask someone, “How are you?” unless we’re a nurse or physician, we’re probably not interested in a detailed accounting of blood sugar, weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. When a non-believer asks about our faith, they’re not looking for a dissertation about the historical accuracy of the Bible, a sermon about salvation, or a blow by blow account of a faith journey that has probably taken years. They certainly don’t want to hear Christian buzz words like justification, conviction, propitiation, and sanctification or about the time God spoke to us in the grocery store.

When someone asks a simple and straightforward question about our faith, they expect a simple and straightforward answer. If someone is really interested in learning more, there will be additional opportunities to share the particulars. In actuality, for many of us, our salvation story is rather ordinary—we weren’t healed supernaturally, there were no burning bushes, the sky didn’t open, and a voice from heaven was not heard. Nevertheless, our lives changed. Unless we’ve thought about how to succinctly communicate that change, we may blow an amazing opportunity to share a little of God’s amazing grace. That time at the dinner party, I wasn’t well prepared; next time, I will be!

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into less than twenty-five words and Stephen managed to summarize the entire Old Testament into about 74 sentences for the High Council.  With a little effort, we should be able to put our faith story into 100 words. What’s your story? Can you tell it in 100 words or less?

When you communicate your personal faith story with sincerity, you will see supernatural sparks fly as God uses it for his glory and your listener’s good. [Bill Hybels]

So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:8a (NLT)]

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CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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DID YOU HAVE A MOSES?

They forgot God, their savior, who had done such great things in Egypt—such wonderful things in the land of Ham, such awesome deeds at the Red Sea. So he declared he would destroy them. But Moses, his chosen one, stepped between the Lord and the people. He begged him to turn from his anger and not destroy them. [Psalm 106:21-23 (NLT)]

corkscrew swamp sanctuaryOur small group is studying personal evangelism and the study guide suggested writing a note of gratitude to the person or persons who helped point our way to Christ. After all, the single greatest gift any of us can give someone is an introduction to Jesus. Since mine was a gradual journey and, other than my mother, no one immediately came to mind, I skipped this simple step. After finishing the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, I’m reconsidering.

While reading through the story of the exodus, I was struck by the Israelites’ ingratitude. When they made and worshipped that golden calf, God threatened to destroy all of them but Moses interceded; although 3,000 died, the nation survived. When God cursed Miriam with leprosy for her rebellion against Moses, it was Moses who interceded for her and begged God for her healing. When the Israelites failed to believe God’s promises and refused to enter Canaan, an angry God threatened to destroy them with a plague. Again, it was Moses who interceded and saved them. Frankly, by that time, I would have been tempted to tell God to kill the whole lot of them!

When a contingent of 250 Israelite leaders confronted Moses and Aaron with false accusations and complaints, an angry God again threatened to destroy them all. It was Moses and Aaron who fell on their faces and pled with God not to judge the whole nation for their sin. After Moses told the people to move away from the rebels, the ringleaders were swallowed by the earth and God’s fire consumed the others. The next day, instead of thanking Moses for saving the rest of them, the people accused Moses of being responsible for the previous day’s deaths. An angry God told Moses and Aaron to move away from them so that He could consume the ungrateful mob. Yet again, Moses and Aaron fell to the ground in prayer and supplication. Seeing a plague starting, Aaron filled a censer with incense and ran into the crowd to stop the plague by atoning for their sin. Apparently slow learners, when the Isarelites grew impatient and again spoke against God and Moses, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them. Once again, Moses prayed for the salvation of his people and saved the day.

For over forty years, Moses led a thankless lot of “stiff-necked” people through the wilderness and continually interceded on their behalf to God. Although we read of Moses leading them in offering thanks to God, we never read of any of them thanking Moses for his service. The Israelites mourned for him when he died but it seems they never thanked him when he lived.

Many of us had a Moses and Aaron, more likely several, who led us on our faith journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land—the Kingdom of God. While I can’t single out one specific person who pointed the way, I remember several people who welcomed me when I felt ill at ease, loved me when I felt unlovable, encouraged me on difficult parts of my journey, offered guidance when I started to lose my way, lifted me when I began to fall, challenged me to be all that God wants me to be and, like Moses, interceded for me in prayer. I thank God for them but, today, I also thank them. Did you have a Moses and Aaron who led you into the Promised Land? Have you thanked them?

None of us got to where we are alone. Whether the assistance we received was obvious or subtle, acknowledging someone’s help is a big part of understanding the importance of saying thank you. [Harvey Mackay]

Through the angel who appeared to him in the burning bush, God sent Moses to be their ruler and savior. And by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years. [Acts 7:35b-36 (NLT)]

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GIVING THANKS

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High. … But giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honors me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. [Psalm 50:14,23 (NLT)]

It’s one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do. [Tim Keller]

Black-crowned night heronYesterday I happened upon a wood stork enjoying a fish breakfast. I was astonished as the stork swallowed the whole wriggling fish in one big gulp. “I’ll have to put that in my gratitude journal,” I thought as I walked on. Later, I spotted two woodpeckers hammering away at a tree and got up close and personal with a pond snail laying eggs. Two more for the journal, I thought. Did I put those little blessings in my journal last night? Shamefully, I forgot to write in it at all; worse, I totally forgot about them in my nightly prayers!

When I look back at the rest of yesterday, all sorts of wonderful little things happened for which I was grateful and yet failed to thank God. Without having one red light, I got to an appointment with time enough to take a short walk on the beach. I’m not self-centered enough to think God turned all those lights green just for me; nevertheless, my day went better because of it and it deserved thanks. I met a delightful young couple at cooking class. Did God put them there just for me? I don’t know, but I was thankful to have them as cooking partners for the afternoon. There was a beautiful cooling breeze and the sunset was magnificent. Did God arrange the weather to my wishes? I doubt it, but I should have told Him how much I appreciated it! I was remiss in acknowledging God’s presence or thanking him for the day’s numerous small blessings.

Today, I set out again and spotted a black-crowned night heron hiding in the bushes. While getting a photo, I thought, “I’ll have to put that in my gratitude journal.” This time, however, that small voice reminded me how lackadaisical I’ve gotten with my journal and asked me why I was waiting to thank the creator of all those beautiful moments. That gave me pause. If I’d been walking with someone else, I would have shared those sightings. Although I wasn’t walking with another person, I was walking with God. Why wasn’t I talking to Him? Why wasn’t I sharing my joy with the one who gave it to me? God was right beside me and He shouldn’t have to wait until I get around to thanking him or writing in my journal, especially since I’m not good about remembering to do so. Thanks should be speedy and sincere.

We thank God through our prayer. We don’t need church, a table blessing or a gratitude journal to do so. We certainly don’t need to wait until our regular prayer time to offer thanks and, most especially, we shouldn’t wait until November for Thanksgiving Day! Our whole day, every day, should consist of a prayer of thanksgiving. God is with us as we take our daily walk; let us remember to thank him for the joy we find along with way.

We need to discover all over again that worship is natural to the Christian, as it was to the godly Israelites who wrote the psalms, and that the habit of celebrating the greatness and graciousness of God yields an endless flow of thankfulness, joy, and zeal. [J.I. Packer]

And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:20 (NLT)]

 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [1 Chronicles 16:34 (NLT)]

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PLANT GENEROUSLY

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

pine - tent rocks - NMIn Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the four soils: the packed soil along the footpath where the birds steal the seeds, the rocky soil that doesn’t allow deep roots, the soil in which the thorns crowd out the seeds, and the fertile soil in which the seed grows, matures and bears fruit. He compares those soils to the ways God’s message is received by various people. Rather than looking at that story from the viewpoint of the soil or hearer of the word, however, let’s look at it from the viewpoint of the farmer—the sower of the seed of God’s word.

Having seen trees growing out of the sides of mountains and wildflowers peeking up through cracks in the sidewalk, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. As for those seeds on the footpath, what if someone’s boot pressed some deep in the ground so that the birds couldn’t eat them? As for those birds—some seeds may yet sprout if deposited by the bird in a more inviting environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps to germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble (Persoonia nutans).

As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying.  As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Even in good soil, some seeds might never grow, but others could lie dormant for a number of years until conditions were optimal for them to sprout. Needing the heat from a fire for their seeds to germinate, the Lodgepole Pine and the Eucalyptus may wait decades before sprouting.

We’d think the synagogue in Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth would have been fertile ground for Him, but it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to see Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, temple to Aphrodite, 1,000 prostitutes, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery would hardly seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a church in it. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.

When we sow seeds or spread God’s word, there’s no way to determine which seeds or testimonies will eventually take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds or words may remain in suspended animation until the right conditions for growth occur. Our job as the farmers in God’s kingdom is simply to continue sowing those good seeds whenever and wherever we can; eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. … Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’” [Matthew 13:24,30 (NLT)]

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