NOT A DRY EYE

You learn more at a funeral than at a feast – After all, that’s where we’ll end up. We might discover something from it. [Ecclesiastes 7:2 (MSG)]

black swallowtail - butterflyAt my age, I’ve attended a fair share of funerals and they’ve run the gamut from full-blown productions complete with video presentations and choirs to a few mourners on a windy ski slope with a bag of ashes. Some ministers knew the deceased well and others couldn’t even pronounce the name correctly. There have been inspiring prayers and eulogies and some with no prayer at all. They’ve taken place in jam-packed churches and nearly empty mortuary chapels. Solomon was correct; there is a lot we can learn at funerals.

I’ve learned how much we miss when we don’t take the time to truly know someone. I discovered more about one woman from her obituary and eulogy than I did from 30 years of socializing with her. Her funeral showed me how little we really know about people we call “friends” and how superficial our friendships can be.

I’ve learned how empty some lives have been. When asked to do the eulogy for a distant family member, I was given a list of the five things of which he was most proud, the high point being a 4-H trophy awarded some seventy years earlier. He made no mention of family, friends, faith, or love. As I looked out over the mourners, there were no friends and only a few family members who attended out of a sense of obligation.

As we released butterflies following the joyous and love-filled celebration of life of another family member, I learned about courage and how much faith, love, family and friends can guide someone in life and through the dark valley of death.

I’ve learned how much a parent’s love and guidance can influence his children after hearing a son speak eloquently at his father’s funeral. I was reminded of how fragile life can be and, upon returning home, called every family member just to tell them I loved them.

I’ve learned that communities can come together with offerings of food, comfort and support and that families can be torn apart by resentment, jealousy, and greed. A funeral not only reminds us all of the inevitability of death, it can teach us how to live. If nothing else, we return home appreciating each day just a little more.

Good and brave men buried Stephen, giving him a solemn funeral—not many dry eyes that day! [Acts 8:2 (MSG)]

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DORMANCY

God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Don’t throw me out with the trash, or fail to breathe holiness in me. Bring me back from gray exile, put a fresh wind in my sails! [Psalm 51:10-12 (MSG)]

Corkscrew swamp - cypress - dormantEarlier this year, upon seeing the browning and nearly naked cypress trees at the bird sanctuary, the visitor asked if Hurricane Irma had killed them. I explained that the bald and pond cypress weren’t dead, just dormant. Being deciduous, they shed their leaves annually and were just enjoying a much needed rest during the shorter days and dryer conditions of winter. I reassured her that, in a month or so, their bright green needles would return and new growth would sprout from their branches. Today, the forest is verdant throughout the swamp.

While it is possible to force trees to evade dormancy by keeping them inside and controlling the light, temperature and water conditions, it would greatly shorten the plant’s lifespan; they’re not meant to leaf and branch continually. Dormancy is vital for the survival of deciduous trees and the way they withstand unfavorable growing conditions. When better conditions return, the trees wake up and start to bud and blossom again.

While dormancy is good for trees, dormancy is not usually considered a good thing when applied to Christians. A study in Great Britain found that 55 percent of those who identify themselves as Christian never read the Bible, 29 percent never pray, and a third of them don’t even attend church; it called these people “dormant Christians.” When God’s word isn’t growing in our hearts or we fail to bear the Fruit of the Spirit, some people say we’re in “spiritual dormancy.” Superficial, uncommitted, wilting or dying faith like this seems more a case of failure to thrive than dormancy. Just because growth isn’t obvious when a tree is dormant doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Dormancy is when the tree gathers strength, prepares for leafing and branching, and is the best time for pruning in preparation for new growth!

I’ve seen too many people lose their zeal for Christ because they haven’t taken a rest from their busyness for Him to spend time abiding in Him. It’s often when they’ve forgotten to spend time in His rest that their spiritual lives go dead. Sometimes, like trees, we need to retreat into dormancy to rest, do some pruning, and prepare ourselves to take our next steps in God’s ministry. Even Jesus took time away from His ministry for prayer and guidance.

During these next few months, my husband and I will be travelling a great deal. While I remain committed to prayer, worship, study, and journaling, there will be times when writing and posting will be difficult, if not impossible. Last year, I solved this problem with some “summer re-runs.” Knowing how refreshed and enthusiastic I felt upon my return to writing, I think dormancy is a far better term. So, like the cypress trees that go dormant in adverse conditions, I will take a break when circumstances are not conducive to writing. Unlike the trees, however, I won’t change color or shed my needles in preparation for dormancy. Instead, I’ve selected a few old devotions to repost and, with over 1,500 devotions from the last four years, I have plenty from which to choose. Throughout the next few months, they will be scattered in among new ones. So, if you see a devotion you’ve read before, don’t worry; I’m not dead, I’ve just gone dormant!

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. [Psalm 23:1-3 (MSG)]

I’ll refresh tired bodies; I’ll restore tired souls. [Jeremiah 31:25 (MSG)]

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GOOD SOIL GONE BAD

And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest. [Luke 8:15 (NLT)]

thistleWhen Hurricane Irma uprooted trees here last September, the underground irrigation pipes throughout our 1,800 home community were wrenched out of the soil and the lines ruptured. Trees and stumps had to be removed before the process of finding and fixing the leaks could begin and we went more than seven months without irrigation. What with winter and spring’s hotter than average temperatures, receiving about half of our average rainfall since November, and no working irrigation system in our community, the once lush green grass became dry and brown, the flowers wilted, and the parched soil got hard. The only things that seemed to thrive were the weeds! Fortunately, the repairs were completed last week, the summer rain eventually will arrive, and our grass, shrubbery and trees will recover.

Seeing how our once good soil became so hard and dry made me think about Jesus’ parable of the four soils in which the soils represent the sort of people who receive the seed of God’s word. One was the hard dry soil of a footpath where the birds quickly snatched away the seed. Because the second soil was rocky, the plants’ roots were shallow and they withered and died in the hot sun. The third seed was sown among the weeds that crowded out the new growth. It was only in the fertile fourth soil that the seeds produced a good crop. Although this parable tells us that not everyone will be receptive to God’s message, perhaps, there’s more to it.

When looking at our parched ground, I realize that unless it is cultivated, watered, and fertilized, good soil will not remain that way. Like the fourth soil, we can receive God’s word with enthusiasm but, unless it is well tended, our faith will suffer. Worry, busyness, or discontent can crowd out our enthusiasm and commitment the way thorny weeds do in an untended garden. If we don’t keep feeding our soil with God’s word, like the plants sown on the rocky soil, our roots can wither and die because of things like regret, troubles, doubt or unforgiveness. When we let failure, complaint, anger, or temptation give the enemy a foothold, he can snatch away our faith faster than a sparrow can a sunflower seed on a footpath. We may have been good soil when we accepted Jesus but, at various times in our lives, we can become any one of those other soils. I’m not a gardener, but even I know that it takes work to keep a garden productive. We must continue to fertilize with prayer, cultivate with a community of faith, and water with God’s word if we want to bear fruit in God’s garden.

Although Jesus was explaining to His disciples why people responded as they did to Him, His parable is more than a lesson about evangelism or gardening. It’s a reminder that good soil can go bad. We must continue to tend the soil in our spiritual garden lest Satan steals the word, we stop believing when troubles arise, or the cares of the day leave no room for His word to grow.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing. But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it. [Hebrews 6:7-8 (NLT)]

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THE COURT OF THE GENTILES

And all the surrounding nations will ask, “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why was he so angry?” And the answer will be, “This happened because the people of the land abandoned the covenant that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. Instead, they turned away to serve and worship gods they had not known before, gods that were not from the Lord. That is why the Lord’s anger has burned against this land, bringing down on it every curse recorded in this book. In great anger and fury the Lord uprooted his people from their land and banished them to another land, where they still live today!” [Deuteronomy 29:24-28 (NLT)]

salt marsh mallowThe money changing and selling of animals that so angered Jesus took place in the Court of the Gentiles, but what was a Court of the Gentiles doing in the Jewish Temple? The explanation starts around 590 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar deported the Jews from Judah to Babylon (as happened to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). Although many Jews like Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah returned, a large Jewish population remained in Mesopotamia. The economic hardship and incessant warfare experienced by those who returned to Judah caused many to emigrate later. Jews eventually settled in Rome, Egypt, Macedonia, Greece, and the great cities of Asia Minor. Historians believe that, by the middle of the first century AD, there were more Jews living outside of Judah than in it.

Bringing their faith with them wherever they settled, the Jews built synagogues that became community centers where Scripture was taught and discussed. These synagogues drew not just Jews but also Gentiles who may have come for the interesting philosophical discussions about God or to hear the Psalms chanted. In any case, Jewish beliefs began to spread to the Gentiles. A few converted but more (preferring to avoid circumcision and Jewish restrictions) just adopted the Hebrew God as their own. They would attend synagogue, observe some of the Jewish laws, and come to Jerusalem for religious festivals. Since Gentiles could not enter the Temple proper, when Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple in 20 BC, a large courtyard was erected to accommodate the non-Jews who wanted to observe Jewish traditions. It was here that Gentiles (and ritually unclean Jews) could come and worship.

Although the scattering (or diaspora) of the Jews came from droughts, famines and Judah’s conquest by Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Egypt, the Syrians, and Rome (among others), the Old Testament prophets’ words tell us this was punishment for their idolatry and unbelief. Nevertheless, that displacement is what helped spread Christianity. The Jews were no longer an isolated nation but a broad community of expats. Along with Hebrew, they spoke Greek (the language spoken by nearly everyone), the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek so that all could read it, and their synagogues had introduced the concept of one God to Gentiles throughout the area. The line dividing Jew and Gentile had started to blur.

Jews (and believing Gentiles) from all nations were present in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration when Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Many of those were in Jerusalem fifty days later for Pentecost when 3,000 were baptized in one day. Although Christianity began in Jerusalem as a subcategory of Judaism, once persecution started, these early followers of Jesus fled to Jewish communities in Syria, Asia Minor, Turkey, Greece, and Italy and it was to both Jew and Gentile that their message quickly spread. The Christian church may have begun in 33 AD, but the groundwork for its expansion had been laid long before then. God truly does work in mysterious ways.

Meanwhile, the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria. They preached the word of God, but only to Jews. However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus. The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord. [Acts 11:19-21 (NLT)]

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SACRED TRUST

He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” [Mark 11:17 (NLT)]

great egret - corkscrew swampSeasoned travelers know the worst place to exchange their money is at the airport. With no easy option to get local currency, the unsuspecting tourist gets the worst exchange rates at the highest fees. Seasoned travelers also don’t buy suntan lotion or Dramamine onboard the cruise ship or a face mask and goggles at the ski shop on top of the mountain. Knowing their customers are desperate for their products, those shops tend to gouge them with inflated prices.

That’s what was happening in the Temple when Jesus cleared it of money changers and merchants. Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who’d traveled long distances to worship, offer sacrifices, and pay their annual temple tax. With the Tyrian half-shekel the only coin acceptable for the tax, people had to exchange their foreign currency. Because traveling with animals was problematic for the pilgrims, they had to buy their sacrificial offerings in Jerusalem. The priests solved the problem, not out of the goodness of their hearts but as a way to fatten their wallets.

They rented out spaces in the Court of the Gentiles to money changers who charged excessive fees for their services and to merchants who sold sheep, lambs, goats, doves, pigeons, grain, and anything else necessary for a sacrifice at exorbitant prices. Since sacrificial animals were to be unblemished, the priests had to approve them. They charged an additional fee for the inspection and, if an animal wasn’t purchased at the Temple, chances are that it wouldn’t be approved. What should have been a service to the pilgrims had become a scheme to swindle them. The priests who looked for flaws in offerings were blind to the flaws in their own behavior.

With the commotion of the animals and vendors competing for business, the courtyard was no longer a place of worship. The inevitable animal odor and excrement was considered defilement of a sacred place; people weren’t even supposed to pray, recite blessings or study the Torah if urine or feces were visible within a range of six feet. That the sanctity of the Temple was profaned by this filth and exploitation or that the worship of Gentiles was disturbed in the mayhem of this stockyard and marketplace didn’t seem to bother the priests. It bothered Jesus enough so that He chased the offenders out of the Temple.

Today’s equivalent of that first century corruption can be found in those churches that don’t operate with financial oversight or fiscal responsibility. Whether out of ignorance, irresponsibility, or dishonesty, they use smoke and mirrors with vague budgets and no accountability or audits. The church has been given a sacred trust both to raise and spend money with integrity. Let us never forget that people’s tithes and offerings come at a cost to them. By the time the money exchanger took his cut, the half shekel Temple tax represented four days wages and the widow who put her two small coins in the Temple treasury gave all that she had. The church must recognize the sacrifice that comes with every dollar and take their duty to be good stewards seriously. As congregations, we must demand fiscal responsibility and transparency; we have an obligation to keep God’s house from becoming a den of thieves.

So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. [Acts 20:28 NLT

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Matthew 6:24 (NLT)]

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REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE

Just then a woman who had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding came up behind him. She touched the fringe of his robe, for she thought, “If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.” [Matthew 9:20-21 (NLT)]

Clam Pass BeachImagine the anguish of the woman with the blood disorder. Because Levitical law declared that anyone who touched her would be considered unclean, she’d been cut off from friends and family for twelve years. Sexual union would defile her husband so she couldn’t marry and, if she’d been married, her husband would have divorced her. Because her defilement would spread to anything she touched (be it food, cups or cushions), she was isolated in her own home. While the anemia, pain, stress, and public humiliation she endured because of her disorder must have been awful, perhaps the agony of being a pariah and unable to physically connect with people was even worse. It was her responsibility to make sure she didn’t defile others by touching them so she shouldn’t have been anywhere near a crowd. She certainly shouldn’t have touched a man (or his clothing) and could have been severely punished for her previously action. No wonder she tried to sneak unnoticed through the crowd to touch Jesus’ robe.

In the 1980s, AT&T urged us to “Reach Out and Touch Someone.” Granted, they meant with their phone service but now, when it is so easy to communicate with cell phones, email, texts, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Facetime, it is important to reach out and actually touch! Sunday mornings, there’s usually a lot of friendly touching with handshakes and hugs when we greet one another at our church in the park. Recently, after greeting Jimmy with a friendly handshake, my husband sat with him at a picnic table. (I previously wrote about Jimmy in “It Takes All Kinds.”) A man with what can be described as a colorful past, he’s been worshipping with us and joining in Bible study for the last several weeks. That morning, Merna walked over to greet the men at the table. Putting one hand on Jimmy’s back, she bent over to talk with him and casually patted his arm with her other hand. As she walked off to greet others, Jimmy broke out in a huge smile and confided to my husband that he couldn’t remember when last a lady had touched him.

As I pondered Jimmy’s words, I thought about the importance of touch; it is an essential human need. When we touch or are touched, our bodies release chemicals like oxytocin (the devotion, trust and bonding hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone) while inhibiting other chemicals like cortisol (a stress hormone). Without a doubt, Jesus had a powerful touch and people brought their children to Him just so He could touch them. When Jesus touched Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately recovered from her fever and, after touching Jairus’ daughter, the dead girl got up and walked. With a touch, Jesus gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, and made leprosy disappear. As for the woman with the blood disorder: even after the blood stopped, without waiting another seven days and undergoing a ritual bath, she was still considered unclean. I don’t think that bothered Jesus! Although the gospels don’t record it, there is no doubt in my mind that, as the trembling woman knelt at His feet, Jesus touched her when He told her to go in peace.

How many people go days, weeks, or longer without a gentle touch? Consider the many people who live alone or those, like Jimmy and the bleeding woman who feel tainted because of their past? When we touch one another, we communicate care and concern and experience oneness. Like Jesus’ touch, Merna’s touch told Jimmy that he wasn’t unclean—that he mattered both to God and to his family in Christ. The touch of Jesus has the power to heal and so does ours! Let’s reach out and touch someone today!

Each time we reach out and touch someone, we communicate the tangible truth of the gospel—that God in Christ reaches out to each of us, drawing us into intimate relationship with Him and those around us. [Rob Moll]

Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again, and his eyes were opened. His sight was completely restored, and he could see everything clearly. Mark 8:25 (NLT)

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