THE RECORDS COMMITTEE

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” [Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)]

blue flag irisDozens of birders have been gathering at the local bird sanctuary to catch a glimpse of a Hammond’s flycatcher. Since these birds look similar to other flycatchers, prefer the mountains to lowlands, and are rarely found within 1,000 miles of Florida, the bird in question could be an imposter. It’s just another little grey bird to me but, to birders, its identification is important. Although they’ll report their sightings to the Florida Ornithological Society, just looking like a Hammond’s isn’t enough. When the Society’s Records Committee meets in August, they will evaluate the submitted sketches, photographs, videos, recordings and detailed accounts of the bird’s behavior along with reports of the surroundings, sky conditions, temperature, and times when the bird was spotted to determine whether it truly is a Hammond’s.

While the FOS Records Committee will be looking for evidence to authenticate whether the bird in question is a true Hammond’s, there is no official committee to authenticate Christians. If a Records Committee were to determine whether or not we’re true followers of Christ, calling ourselves Christian, sitting in a pew on Sundays, and occasionally reading the Bible wouldn’t be enough evidence. After all, I could put on a lab coat, sit in the hospital, regularly consult WebMD, and call myself “Doctor” but I wouldn’t be a physician! The Records Committee for Christ would look for the traits of a Christian described throughout the Gospel and Epistles. They’d start with love and then look for evidence of things like obedience, service, forgiveness, selflessness, humility, faithfulness, truth, compassion, joy, peace, restraint, gentleness, patience, kindness, devotion, and virtue. These, like nesting in high conifers and catching insects on the fly, are the behaviors that would be used to identify a true Christian from an imposter. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them,” [Matthew 7:20] and it would be by our fruit that a Records Committee would know us.

The Hammond’s flycatcher is named in honor of William Alexander Hammond, an enthusiastic birder who was the Surgeon General of the US Army (1862-1864). Of course, that grey bird doesn’t care if it’s called a Hammond’s or even a flycatcher; it knows who and what he is. I’m not so sure we’re that honest with ourselves! Do we truly know who and what we are? Would anybody else? Our name is in honor of Jesus; “Christian” means “follower of Christ” or “miniature replication of Christ.” Do our thoughts, actions and speech look anything like His? It will be Jesus rather than a Records Committee who makes that final determination. Will He recognize us?

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,  so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. [Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)]

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TRADING PLACES

My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. [Romans 9:2-3 (NLT)]

little blue heron (juvenile) - great blue heronBereft that the people of Israel had rejected Jesus, Paul’s words are some of the saddest ones found in the epistles. I can see the tears in his eyes and hear the anguish in his voice as he dictated them to Tertius, his scribe. Young’s Literal Translation translates Paul’s words as having “great grief and unceasing pain in my heart.” Although he knows that nothing could cut him off from Christ, Paul says he’d be willing to sacrifice himself for his people if it were possible. That’s not just his life he’s offering; the word he used was anathema, meaning he was willing give up his salvation. If it would save the people of Israel, he would be delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction: to spend an eternity in Hell!

While Paul probably was the greatest of Christian evangelists, we mustn’t forget that first and foremost, he was a Jew. A Pharisee who’d studied under the best teachers, he was from the tribe of Benjamin. Describing himself as “a real Hebrew if there ever was one,” all of his family and friends were Jews. He was one of God’s chosen people to whom the Messiah had been promised. Although Jesus came to the Jews first, Paul wondered how so many of God’s chosen could reject Him. Paul’s message throughout Romans was salvation by grace through faith. It must have broken his heart that the majority of his Jewish brothers and sisters would miss out on that salvation because they didn’t have faith.

Paul’s willingness to sacrifice salvation for his people shows what a burden their unbelief was on him. A similar burden is borne by many Christians when their loved ones aren’t Christ followers. Like many others, I have adult family members who don’t believe and their unbelief breaks my heart as much as the Jews’ unbelief broke Paul’s. Many of my friends have shared their grief that, in the life to come, they will not be reunited with their unbelieving family members. Like Paul, we would sacrifice our salvation if it would ensure theirs. That, however, is not how salvation works. Although Jesus suffered, died and took our punishment upon Himself, we cannot take theirs. Only Jesus can save them!

It’s been asked, “How do you convince a person they’re in danger of being burned when they’re floating on a raft in the ocean?” I really don’t know! As parents and grandparents, we don’t want to lose our children or grands in this life or the next. Knowing that we are not in control, we must accept and respect their choices. In the end, only God can convince them of the truth of the Gospel! Nevertheless, we continue to love (and listen) to them, model Christ in our behavior, bear the Fruit of the Spirit, and pray continually and expectantly for them. Let us trust that God has a plan for our children. The good news is that, no matter what our loved ones have said or done in the past, they are only one step away from Jesus! Until then, let us pray!

And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:8b-10 NLT)]

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WHY PRAY?

You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. [Psalm 139:4,16 (NLT)]

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

blue flag irisAs I offered prayers for a good biopsy report, it occurred to me that my prayer was too late. Already excised, the tissue had been sent to a pathologist; for all I knew, the report was written and waiting to be read by my physician. Was God going to rewrite the report? Any troublesome cells in my body had been there awhile. Most likely, the biopsy result was decided months ago so I probably should have been praying about it long before anyone knew a biopsy was needed. Since the pathologist’s report was determined long before my prayers, “Why bother to pray at all?” was the whisper of doubt in my mind.

I imagine I’m not alone in questioning the purpose and efficacy of prayer. When I question if my prayer right now can affect a report written two days ago, let alone a situation that probably has been months or years in the making, I am thinking in human terms: past, present, and future. While we can remember the past, we can only remember that which we know about, not what was hidden from us. We can see the present, but only that which is immediately in front of us and we are blind to the future. God, however, is infinite. Unlimited, He exists outside time or space. Omnipotent, He knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening now, and everything that will take place in the future. Before I was born, He knew the choices I would make, what those choices would mean, whether or not I would pray, and what I’d say in those prayers. He even knew I’d be having a biopsy, its results, and whether or not I’d pray about it. Having given me free will, He didn’t determine my choices; nevertheless, He knew the choices I’d make. Not only did He hear my prayers before I spoke them, He heard my prayers before I’d even thought about praying them.

While I know prayer changes people, I don’t know if prayer changes history. Rather than changing history, perhaps our history is already determined because God knows whether or not we will pray. Rather than changing history, perhaps prayer determines it. Did God change His mind about destroying the people of Nineveh because of their prayers? Or, even before sending Jonah to them, did He know that, having been warned, they would pray and repent so Nineveh would be spared?

Our vision is limited but God’s is not. Without twenty-twenty hindsight or a crystal ball allowing us to see the future, we’re not likely to understand the way He answers our prayers. Clearly, Jesus believed in prayer. He often prayed, taught the disciples to pray and we know of his anguished prayer in Gethsemane. God the Father knew every prayer Jesus offered, not because He determined them, but because He lives in a continuum of time and sees yesterday, today, and tomorrow as one. I think God already knows the prayers we’re going to offer tomorrow (even though we don’t) and that He has already set in motion whatever needs to be done to answer those prayers according to His will! I don’t understand how prayer works but I’m not going to allow uncertainty or doubts keep me from praying.

Let us pray!

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. [C.S. Lewis]

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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DEFYING NATURE

ngorongoro crater

At the blast of your breath, the waters piled up! The surging waters stood straight like a wall; in the heart of the sea the deep waters became hard. … The finest of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters gushed over them; they sank to the bottom like a stone. [Exodus 15:8,4-5 (NLT)]

Skeptics love questioning the miracle of the Red Sea. Either they provide a natural explanation or deny it ever happened. Unfortunately, sometimes we even find believers doing the same thing. A miracle is usually defined as something that violates the laws of nature, but God wrote those laws! “Miracles are not contrary to nature,” said Augustine, “but only contrary to what we know about nature.” As Christians, we base our faith on a miracle—the resurrection of Jesus—so a belief in God’s powerful ability to defy nature’s laws is essential to our faith.

How can the waters part for the Israelites and then come surging down on the pursuing Egyptians? For decades, scientists have tried to find a natural explanation using various computer models. In spite of Moses giving a good description of where their crossing occurred, land and water are not static and the topography of the area has shifted over 3,500 years. Not knowing exactly where it happened, many suggest that, instead of it being the Red Sea, the crossing actually took place further north in a shallow lake called the Reed Sea. They explain that a wind temporarily drained this shallow marshy area just enough to allow the Israelites to safely cross. The Hebrew word used to describe the seabed was yahbashah which means dry land, not the muck or mud of a damp marsh. Moreover, while the Egyptians with their heavy chariots might have gotten bogged down in the mire, that can’t explain how an entire army was drowned in a few feet of water.

Other skeptics have argued that a volcano or earthquake north of Egypt produced a tidal wave or tsunami that parted the Red Sea. A tidal wave happens suddenly which hardly supports Moses’ description of the gradual retreat of the waters during the night or the fortuitous return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptians.

Scientists also have estimated that a steady 63 mph wind from the east could have swept the water back to the western shore to create a land bridge. Winds of just 45 mph make driving hazardous and can knock down a person weighing 100 pounds. A wind of 63 mph would make the crossing nearly impossible. Moreover, Moses described two walls of water, one on each side. I’m not a scientist but two opposing walls of water would seem to imply winds blowing in opposite directions and I can’t see how anyone could get anywhere in that kind of crosswind! When considering the width of the path required for about two million Israelites (along with sheep, goats, and cattle) to cross a seabed in just part of one night, it needed to be at least one mile wide. It’s hard to believe that any natural wind could do that.

Even if some of these explanations are partially or totally correct, there is no explanation for what would seem to be the most amazing coincidence in all of history: that the Israelites arrived at some body of water at the exact moment a tsunami or gale force winds occurred that caused the waters to recede, that the land remained dry just long enough for them to cross, and that the waters gushed back at precisely the moment the Egyptians were in the seabed! That so-called coincidence would require the miraculous power of Almighty God!

Scientists admit they can’t explain everything but even a valid scientific or medical explanation doesn’t negate a belief in the hand of God. While her doctors might say that Pearl’s recovery from metastasized cancer is a result of oncology advances, they originally thought she’d not live a year. While John’s doctors could say his ability to walk after having his pelvis crushed is the result of their skills as orthopedic surgeons, they initially thought he wouldn’t live, let alone walk! I know how thoroughly Pearl’s body was attacked by cancer and I’ve seen John’s x-rays; I have no doubt that without our prayers and God’s intervention, modern medicine would have failed them both. In spite of a medical explanation for their recoveries, they are nothing short of miraculous.

Skeptics and atheists have trouble believing in miracles because a belief in miracles necessitates believing in the hand of someone or something that can cause them: God. I’ve seen His wonderful work firsthand; our God is a God of miracles and that’s explanation enough for me!

I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor and your wonderful miracles. [Psalm 145:5 (NLT)]

He does great things too marvelous to understand. He performs countless miracles. [Job 9:10 (NLT)]

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