ATTENDING TO THE PRESENT

dawnYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT

Jesus once said that Satan was a thief. Satan does not steal money, for he knows that money has no eternal value. He steals only what has eternal value – primarily the souls of men. [Zac Poonen]

C.S. Lewis’ religious satire The Screwtape Letters consists of 31 letters written by the senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of acquiring the soul of a young man. Screwtape’s suggestions of ways to cause the fellow’s damnation could be described as a self-help book in reverse. As the diabolical demon advises Wormwood in methods of temptation, the reader learns Satan’s assorted strategies and ruses and what not to let happen. While walking the other morning, I thought of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood regarding the young man’s focus of attention.

To beat the heat of Southwest Florida, I start my walk while it still is dark. When crossing one of our bridges, the previous night’s full moon was on my left and the coming day’s sunrise on the right. Caught between the day that was and the day yet to come, I thought of Screwtape’s words that God prefers man to be concerned with either the present or eternity rather than yesterday or tomorrow. When in the moment, he is “obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, [or] giving thanks for the present pleasure.”  When considering eternity, he is meditating on God. Wanting neither of those things, Screwtape advises Wormwood to get the young man to live in the frozen past or the unknown future.

Of the two methods, Screwtape prefers getting him to live in the future: either in perpetual anticipation of the rainbow’s end or in constant fear of the horrors tomorrow may bring. Clarifying his point about the future, Screwtape explains that God expects man to make plans but planning for tomorrow’s work actually is today’s duty. God, however, doesn’t want man to place his expectations in the future. Naïve optimism and unrealistic expectations inevitably end in disappointment while anxiety and distress rob the present of joy. Unlike God, the demons want man to be “hagridden by the future” and so obsessed by images of either a surefire windfall or a pending catastrophe that he will be willing to do anything to attain his pipe dream or prevent the disaster. If there ever were a time we’re tempted to live in a pre-pandemic yesterday, ignore reality and view tomorrow with rose-colored glasses, or be so fearful of the future we can’t face it, that time is now. When we focus on yesterday or tomorrow, we’re playing right into our enemy’s hands.

Standing on the bridge, I knew God wanted me to attend to the present—to leave yesterday behind and accept with faith what tomorrow brings. As I walked forward, however, I remembered that He also wants me to attend to eternity—to look beyond time to Him: the Eternal One who holds yesterday, today, tomorrow, and eternity in His loving hands.

God has set Eternity in our heart, and man’s infinite capacity cannot be filled or satisfied with the things of time and sense. [F.B. Meyer]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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HIS CRAFTSMANSHIP

dawnThe heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

As I looked at the morning sky, I had to agree with the psalmist: the heavens do proclaim the glory of God. My photo can’t do justice to the magnificence of today’s sunrise. Although I had a good night’s sleep, like many of us during this time of isolation, loss, and unrest, my soul was weary. Nature, however, has a way of restoring weary souls and the vibrant colors of the breaking day lifted my spirits. They reassured me of God’s eternal power and divinity.

It’s not just the skies that display God’s amazing craftsmanship. From the smallest insect to the largest mountain and the heavens above, God continually reveals himself through his amazing creation. His power and might are visible in oceans, mountains, blizzards, rainstorms, lightening, and even mighty hurricanes like Laura. Yet, one look at a spider’s web, butterfly’s wings, dandelion puff, or violet tells us He has a gentle touch as well.

Although life sometimes feels random, illogical, and unpredictable (as it does right now), nature assures us that God is not arbitrary, capricious, unthinking or careless. A Creator who made flowers that lure bees with nectar and pollen so they’d be pollinated and the bees could then make honey definitely had a plan. The God who gave every one of us a unique set of fingerprints and every zebra a distinctive design of stripes without repeating himself is limitless and certainly attentive to detail. A master at creativity, He gave us eggs that turn into chicks, legless tadpoles that become hopping frogs, acorns that grow into giant oaks, and enabled water and wind to wear away rocks. He knows what He’s doing!

Creation is more than a witness to God’s eternal power and divinity; it tells us about Him. Without a doubt, the designer who covered a rat with armor and made an armadillo, assembled the wildebeest from what appear to be spare parts, fashioned the long snout of the anteater, and provided kangaroos with built-in pockets has a sense of humor and believes in laughter. The One who gave us the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the smell of a pine forest, the feel of a gentle breeze, and the fragrance of sweet honeysuckle and gardenias wants us to enjoy His creation. When He decorated our world, God boldly used every color on his heavenly paint palette and His abundance is evident in the fall colors, rainbows, orchids, painted buntings, and glacial lakes He’s given us to enjoy.

Not every sunrise is as flamboyant as was this morning’s nor is every sunset as gaudy as was last night’s. Nevertheless, one look at the sky is more than enough to assure us of God’s existence. Rest assured that the One who painted spots on the ladybug, gave the peacock his showy tail, and put the sweet taste into strawberries has not forgotten His children. Let us open our eyes to His creation and sing the words penned by Maltbie Babcock more than 100 years ago: “This is my Father’s world; Oh let me not forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet!” As fallen and broken as the world seems, it still belongs to God! He’s at large and in charge!

Forbid that I should walk through Thy beautiful world with unseeing eyes: Forbid that the lure of the market-place should ever entirely steal my heart away from the love of the open acres and the green trees: Forbid that under the low roof of workshop or office or study I should ever forget Thy great overarching sky: Forbid that when all Thy creatures are greeting the morning with songs and shouts of joy, I alone should wear a dull and sullen face.

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. [Romans 1:20a (NLT)]

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HIS CLOAK (Part 2 – Mark 10:46-52)

So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. [10:50-52 (NSRV)]

eastern bluebird

There is so much packed into the seven verse story of Bartimaeus that it justifies a closer look. Let’s back up just a few verses in Mark 10 to when, after reminding Jesus that they’d given up everything to follow Him, James and John asked for a favor. When Jesus inquired what they wanted, the disciplines said they desired privileged places in His coming Kingdom. In stark contrast, Bartimaeus didn’t ask a favor; instead he pled for mercy and asked only for his sight. The blind man got his request but the selfish disciples didn’t. If we have unfulfilled prayers, perhaps we should consider what we’re asking—are they favors for our advantage or pleas for God’s mercy?

If we back up a few more verses in Mark’s gospel, we come to when Jesus was just starting his journey toward Jerusalem and a young rich man approached Him. While he was sure he’d kept all the commandments, the man sensed something was missing so he asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him, the man’s face fell in disappointment. Treasuring his possessions more than eternal life, he departed.

In another contrast, we have Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who followed Jesus immediately and without question. It’s easy to think the sightless beggar left nothing behind when he followed Jesus but we’d be wrong. Mark adds an interesting detail—when Jesus called to Bartimaeus, the man threw aside his cloak before jumping up and going to Him. That cloak, a wide vest reaching to the ankles, was far more than an outer garment worn during the day. A man’s cloak was so valuable that it could be used as collateral for a loan. Mosaic Law, however, prohibited a lender from keeping it overnight because a cloak often was the only shelter, bed, pillow, or blanket a man had at night. Bartimaeus’ cloak was more than a coat; it was his home. While begging, he would have been sitting on his cloak with its lower part spread out in front of him to collect any coins dropped his way.

Throwing aside his cloak was an act of faith. That piece of clothing (and whatever money may have been on it) was all Bartimaeus had and as valuable to the beggar as all the rich man’s possessions were to him. The moment Bartimaeus threw it aside, the cloak and money were as good as gone—either stolen or kicked aside along the road. Whether blind or sighted, any man would be in dire straits without a cloak, but Bartimaeus did what the rich man couldn’t and left all he had to follow Jesus!

Bartimaeus left his cloak, John and James left their father, Simon Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets, Matthew left a lucrative job as a publican, and Paul left a promising career as a Pharisee but the rich young man wanted to take his old life with him. Thinking that we can keep our old lives while following Jesus is a little like expecting to stay dry when we jump into the pool! It just can’t be done!

When God becomes your only source, you don’t need plan B or C. He is more than enough! [Buky Ojelabi] 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 16:24-25 (NSRV)]

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SON OF DAVID (Part 1 – Mark 10:46-52)

When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” [Mark 10:47 (NLT)]

columbine

Jesus and his followers were among the crowd of pilgrims passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and the city was teeming with people. Picture the scene as pilgrims, donkeys, carts, and even sheep slated for sacrifice moved along the road. With people talking, animals bleating and braying, children running back and forth, and beggars calling out for alms, it was difficult for those following Jesus to hear Him speak.

Sitting by the road, in the midst of this confusion, was the blind beggar Bartimaeus. When he heard that Jesus was in the crowd, Bartimaeus stopped begging for alms and pled for mercy, crying out, “Son of David! Jesus! Take pity on me!” When people tried to quiet him, the beggar just shouted louder. Over the din of the crowd, this man’s desperate cry was enough to make Jesus stop. Of course, Jesus made it a practice to stop for the lost, outcast, and hurting. Just as He halted for the bleeding woman desperate for his healing touch and the tax man desperate enough to climb a tree, Jesus stopped for Bartimaeus and called the beggar to Him.

Throwing his cloak aside, the blind man stumbled his way through the crowd to find Jesus. When Jesus inquired what he wanted, Bartimaeus immediately asked for his sight. It was restored instantly and Mark’s gospel tells us the once blind beggar followed Jesus down the road toward Jerusalem.

One thousand years earlier, God had promised David that one of his descendants would be the Messiah: the one who would reign forever as the head of God’s kingdom. By Jesus’ day, the term “Son of David” was a title for the Messiah. Other Messianic prophecies promised that the Messiah would heal the sick, bring hearing to the deaf, make the lame walk, and give sight to the blind. Bartimaeus may have been blind but he recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he called Him “Son of David” and without hesitation asked for his sight. Acknowledging the man’s blind faith, Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you.” Indeed, had he not called out in faith, he would have remained a blind beggar until his dying day.

The blind man who received sight contrasts with the sighted religious leaders Jesus would soon meet in Jerusalem and call “blind guides” and “blind fools.” It’s ironic that a blind beggar, sitting in the dirt by the road, understood the prophecies and recognized the Messiah when the sighted couldn’t even see who was right in front of them!

The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him [Jesus]. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” [Luke 4:17-21 (NLT)]

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THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

mottled duck“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” the bumper sticker asked. That’s the sort of query that used to be posed to beauty pageant contestants. Their answers typically had to do with curing cancer, attaining world peace, or solving the problems of illiteracy, poverty and hunger. Of course, we’d all like to be able to wave a magic wand and solve the world’s difficulties. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

The question, however, continued to intrigue me. Is there something I would do if there was absolutely no possibility of failure? Would I even want to? Would there be joy in achievement if there were no struggles, no hurdles to jump and no problems to solve? There’s no sense of victory in playing a game when the opponent doesn’t present a challenge. The value of a diploma would be cheapened if we never had to study for final exams. The sense of satisfaction at a job well done would be diminished if we never had the possibility of failure. Failure is part of God’s training plan. The risk of failure brings us closer to God and reminds us that we can do nothing without faith in Him.

When Paul wrote the Philippians that he could do all things through Christ, did he mean he would be successful in every endeavor? Rather than a statement of self-reliance or guaranteed success, Paul was declaring his reliance on Christ. He wasn’t denying the possibility of adverse circumstances or failure; he was affirming his faith.

If we knew we couldn’t fail in an endeavor, we’d have no need for faith. Furthermore, the possibility of success or failure should never keep us from obediently following God’s direction. While the risk of failure should never stop us, lack of faith will.  As long as His Spirit is in us and we are walking in His footsteps, whether we succeed or fail, we will not fail the test of faith!

What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? Exactly what I’m doing now—sometimes successfully and other times not, but always in obedience to Him.

Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter. [Francis Chan]

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

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THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens.  Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:9-10 (NLT)]

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe the horse was lost, For want of a horse the rider was lost, For want of a rider the battle was lost, For want of a battle the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. [Poor Richard’s Almanack (1758)]

painted lady - marigoldOf course, in another time or place, a missing nail might have better consequences. Without the nail, horseshoe and rider, the horse wouldn’t have been on the road, reared at the sight of a snake, and thrown off his rider (who died from his injuries)! Life is unpredictable.

Theorizing that weather prediction models are inaccurate because knowing the precise starting conditions is impossible and a tiny change can throw off the results, meteorology professor Edward Lorenz posed this question in 1972: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings won’t cause a cyclone but Lorenz’s point was that nature’s interdependent cause-and-effect relationships are too complex to resolve. Small variations in conditions can have massive, minor, or imperceptible consequences and it is impossible to predict which will be the case.

As if the magnitude of this pandemic isn’t proof enough, Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” reminds us that life is amazingly unpredictable. We often pray that God will fix, heal, repair, reverse, or resolve situations or people and are disappointed when it seems that God has turned a deaf ear to us. The answers to our prayers, however, are not up to us—they are up to Him and the people and situations we want God to change are frequently the people and circumstances that God is using to change us!

As weather forecasters have learned with the “butterfly effect,” we mortals can’t possibly see all of the consequences of the changes we request in our prayers. God is the only one capable of knowing the repercussions of any alteration. While we have a limited concept of what the future will bring, His view is all-encompassing; He sees not just our lives, but all of the lives before us, with us, and those yet to come. God knows exactly what will happen if He grants our prayers, not just to us but also to everyone else. Our faith is not that God will give us what we want but that God will give us what is best!

In retrospect, I can only offer thanks that God, in His infinite wisdom and love, didn’t give me everything for which I asked. When Garth Brooks thanked God for unanswered prayers, he was wrong. God always answers prayers; it’s just that sometimes He answers with a “No!”

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care.
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. [Garth Brooks]

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? [Romans 11:33-34 (NLT]

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