I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. [John 13:34 (NTE)]

As the thunder echoed across the lake, my mother-in-law and I looked out the window and watched the lightning flash, the wind rage at the trees, and the rain pour down. Summer thunderstorms at the lake were an impressive sight and, while viewing it from the safety of the cottage, my mother-in-law confided that she used to be terrified of thunderstorms. She told of the panic she experienced as a child whenever the thunder boomed, lightening flashed, and rain pelted the roof and windows of her house. Even as an adult, she’d flinch at every crack of thunder and cower in a corner during storms. Once she became a mother, however, her behavior changed when she saw that her fear was infectious. Not wanting her boys to catch her unfounded terror, she decided to put on a brave face for the youngsters and soon discovered that, by acting unafraid, she’d actually become unafraid. Instead of feeling her way into a behavior, she’d behaved her way into a feeling!

Jesus told us we are to love one another but, let’s face it, there are an awful lot of people out there who are unlovable—people we don’t even like so we really don’t want to love them. We certainly don’t feel like forgiving them, bearing their burdens or praying for them. Given a choice, we’ll even go out of the way to avoid them. Jesus, however, didn’t make an exception for the disagreeable difficult ones and certainly not for the ones who don’t look, talk, think, or act like us! With the story of the Good Samaritan, He made it clear that everyone—even our sworn enemy—is our neighbor and someone we must love!

Although that storm and our conversation took place many years ago, whenever I question how I can possibly love certain people, I remember it—how by acting brave, my mother-in-law worked her way into feeling brave. If she’d waited until she felt brave before acting fearless, she would have been afraid of storms until her dying day. She couldn’t force her feelings, but she could force her actions!

Is it hypocritical to act with love when we don’t feel love for the person? Acting with kindness and consideration, however, is not comparable to toadying up to someone or fawning over and flattering someone falsely. When we act with love, we’re not trying to curry someone’s favor; we’re obeying the Lord. When we act with love toward our neighbor, we are doing it for God. We can’t always muster up affection for someone but Christian love isn’t a feeling of affection; it is merely a wish for the other person’s good.

As followers of Christ, even when we don’t feel love, we can act with love because we love God! The Apostle John tells us that “anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister,” and they’re all our brothers and sisters! Love for God and love for our brothers and sisters are inseparable—we truly can’t love the One without loving all the others!

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. [C.S. Lewis]

We love, because he first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates their brother or sister, that person is a liar. Someone who doesn’t love a brother or sister whom they have seen, how can they love God, whom they haven’t seen? This is the command we have from him: anyone who loves God should love their brother or sister too. [1 John 4:19-21 (NTE)]

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If any of you wants to be great, he must be your servant. If any of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. That’s how it is with the son of man: he didn’t come to have servants obey him, but to be a servant – and to give his life as “a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:26b-28 (NTE)]

tri-colored heronWhile the accounts of the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8 are similar, they are different events and different people were involved. Luke tells of an unnamed woman and John tells of Mary of Bethany. Although both women wiped Jesus’ feet with their hair, the unnamed woman, a notorious sinner, was an uninvited and unwelcome guest in the Pharisee’s home. Mary was a well-respected and devout friend of Jesus and welcome in her sister’s house. Pharisees were present at one and Christ’s disciples at the other. Where the Pharisees saw a sinful woman’s bad character, Jesus only saw a repentant sinner. Where the disciples saw an extravagant waste of money, Jesus saw a woman who offered a gift of love. He defended one woman’s actions by pointing out that she’d done what His host had failed to do. He defended the other woman’s extravagance by reminding his disciples that she was preparing Him for burial.

They were different times and different places but both women humbled themselves at Jesus’ feet. Both women took on a job that belonged to servants and, while most people chased after Jesus because they wanted something from him, neither woman asked anything of Him. Instead, they offered all they had. One woman’s old life died as she washed His feet and the other woman’s brother, who died, now lived. Their generous acts declared the women’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah. We may come to Jesus as a repentant sinner or we may come to him with praise and thanksgiving but, like both of these women, we must always come with a humble heart that is ready to serve.

The most radical act of humility and service, however, occurred shortly after the disciples argued over who among them was the greatest. That night, in the room where they’d gathered for their Passover meal, Jesus (the greatest of them all) knelt at the feet of His disciples. Knowing full well that soon one of them would betray Him, another would deny him, and all would desert him, Jesus humbly washed their feet. That was God incarnate kneeling in front of them and washing their feet but we don’t read of any of the disciples offering to wash His!

Today is Maundy Thursday and several Christian denominations will have communion services in remembrance of that last supper. As a visual reminder that loving Christ means service and there is dignity in serving others, some churches also will observe a religious rite called Washing of the Feet. As members of the Body of Christ, we are to follow His example by serving one another in humility and love. Like the unnamed woman, Mary of Bethany, and Jesus, we must have the heart of a servant.

One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

“Do you know what I’ve done to you?” he asked. “You call me ‘teacher,’ and ‘master,’ and you’re right. That’s what I am. Well, then: if I, as your master and teacher, washed your feet just now, you should wash each other’s feet. I’ve given you a pattern, so that you can do things in the same way that I did to you.” [John 13:12-15 (NTE)]

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As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. [Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)]

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, [Hebrews 10:24 (NIV)]

plumariaIn ancient times, when an iron tool became dull, another iron implement was used to give it a finer polish and sharper edge. It’s not just tools that can become dulled—so can minds and spirits. Good Christian friends who act as whetstones can make us accountable, keener, stronger, and more enthusiastic and valuable. Rather than allowing us to grow dull and settled in our comfort zones, they sharpen us with challenges that make us better disciples for Christ.

The Greek word translated as spur in Hebrews 10:24 was paroksysmós. Often translated as motivate or stimulate, the NIV’s use of spur seems most accurate. Paroksysmós was a noun meaning a provocation which literally jabbed into someone so sharply they had to respond (as a spur does to a horse). As with a stubborn mule, sometimes we need to apply the spurs to get someone moving and, sometimes, we’re the stubborn ones who need that extra encouragement or motivation!

Whenever I read Proverbs 17:17 or Hebrews 10:24, I think of a special friend who both sharpened and spurred me! One of a small group receiving daily email devotions from me in 2014, she doggedly insisted that I have a devotional website. I didn’t claim to be the least qualified and from the weakest clan as did Gideon, but I came close by pointing out my lack of computer skills and religious training. Like Moses, I protested and offered several reasons why I wasn’t the woman for the job but she had an answer for every one of my objections! Then, instead of giving me Aaron as God did for Moses, she gave me her technical skill, designed the site, loaded several older devotions, and patiently walked me through the steps required to prepare photos, post devotions, and maintain the site. She sharpened and spurred me as a good Christian friend should!

Today marks my 2,073rd post on “Devotions of the Heart.” Staring with about 20 followers from my email group, I now have 576 followers. The site has been viewed over 48,500 times by over 28,700 people from 162 countries. That’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to celebrity influencers whose followers and views number in the millions but these devotions aren’t about numbers, fame, product endorsements, or me. They’re simply about sharing the Word of God and the only thing I endorse is Jesus! All the glory belongs to God but the thanks go to my iron-sharpening friend who wasn’t afraid to apply the spurs! Without her, you wouldn’t be reading this!

Friendship isn’t about what we get from it; it’s about how we serve God through it. My friend did what we all should do for our Christian brothers and sisters—she sharpened and spurred me by challenging, motivating, inspiring, helping, and encouraging me to become a better disciple for Christ. When iron is used to sharpen iron, both pieces improve and, by sharpening me, my friend sharpened herself, as well! Discipleship is not about maintaining the status quo—it’s about moving forward. Let us sharpen and spur on one another in Christian love.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)]

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)]

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BURDENS AND LOADS (Galatians 6:2-5 – Part 2)

Each of you, you see, will have to carry your own load. [Galatians 6:5 (NTE)]

he ain't heavyAfter saying we must carry each other’s burdens, the Apostle Paul seems to reverse himself three sentences later when he tells us we each must carry our own loads. It’s confusing; if we’re all supposed to carry our own loads, then nobody should need help carrying their burdens!

A few sentences previous to these verses, however, Paul encourages the Galatian church to follow the Spirit’s lead in their lives and now he’s explaining how walking in the Spirit actually looks—carrying one another’s burdens and carrying our own load. The Greek word Paul used for load was phortion, meaning load or cargo, and it was the word used for a marching soldier’s pack. Paul used the word figuratively to speak of the general responsibilities of life which we all have to bear. Like a soldier’s pack, this load is neither excessively heavy nor difficult to carry. In contrast to the oppressive burden of the Law demanded by the Pharisees, this load is the same phortion Jesus assigned to His followers. Things like discipleship, loving others, and forgiving one another are our load or phortion—obligations for which we alone are responsible.

When Paul wrote of carrying one another’s burdens a few sentences earlier, however, he used the Greek word baros, meaning something extremely heavy. Unlike a soldier’s pack, a baros is a crushing load too heavy for one person to bear alone. Baros was the word Paul used when describing the crushing weight that “was far too heavy for us; it got to the point where we gave up on life itself,” in 2 Corinthians 1:8. It is burdens like his that we are called to carry for one another.

When I was a girl, Christmas seals were sent to us as a method of fundraising by Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. The story behind the picture on those stamps illustrates baros and phortion. A young boy named Howard was abandoned at Boys Town shortly after it opened in 1917. Having had polio, he wore heavy leg braces and couldn’t negotiate the staircases so the bigger boys carried him up and down the stairs. When Father Flanagan asked one of the boys if carrying Howard was hard, the answer was, “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother!” Years later, those words, accompanied by a photo of the two boys, became the organization’s logo. The burden of going up and down stairs was too great for Howard to bear alone. Because it was a baros, the other boys carried him. On the other hand, Howard was fully capable of doing his school work and helping the younger boys. Had he not done so, he would have failed to carry his own phortion.

While each of us is responsible for fulfilling our Christian duties by carrying our own phortions, one of those duties is to carry another person’s baros! It won’t seem heavy because we’ll be carrying our brother!

Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me! My heart is gentle, not arrogant. You’ll find the rest you deeply need. My yoke is easy to wear, my load (phortion) is easy to bear. [Matthew 11:29-30 (NTE)]

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BURDENS (Galatians 6:2-5 – Part 1)

Carry each other’s burden; that’s the way to fulfill the Messiah’s law. [Galatians 6:2 (NTE)]

dog sleddingSince we tend to think of burdens as demanding and often unwelcome duties or responsibilities, we’re certainly not anxious to take on a burden, especially one that actually belongs to someone else! Yet, that is exactly what we’re told we must do if we are going to fulfill Christ’s mandate. And what is that command? To love one another in the way God loves us.

Nevertheless, the concept of carrying someone’s burden makes me think of beasts of burden like mules, donkeys, or oxen. I find it hard to associate the joy of Christianity with an image of myself as a pack animal lugging a heavy load for miles on rough terrain or an ox being poked with an ox goad while plowing a rocky field. Then again, recalling the Alaskan huskies kenneled just west of our favorite Colorado mountain town, I realize I might be thinking of the wrong beasts of burden.

For thousands of years, dogs like them have pulled people and goods long distances. Experienced mushers say that sled dogs are born loving to pull and it certainly seemed that way whenever we went dog sledding. When we arrived at their kennel, the dogs were quietly resting by their shelters or enjoying attention from their future passengers. Once the sleds and harnesses were taken from the storage shed, it was another story. The noise was nearly deafening as the dogs pulled at their chains and barked excitedly as if calling, “Take me!” While the teams were being harnessed and hooked up, the sleds had to be chained to posts to keep the eager dogs from pulling them out on the trail prematurely.

Mushers say teaching one of these dogs to pull is unnecessary—just put on a harness, hook him up, and the dog will do the rest! We barely needed to say “mush” to get them moving and it’s almost impossible to hold them back once they get started. For sled dogs, carrying a burden is joy rather than a chore; carrying one another’s burdens should be that way for a Christian, as well.

A non-believer tends to react to other people’s burdens the way a poodle would to the sight of a heavily loaded sled. Unlike a husky, it probably would whine about the cold and snow and resist being harnessed. If you managed to harness up a poodle, it probably would lie down and refuse to move and, if you ever got a team of them harnessed and moving, they’d certainly find no joy in running across the frozen tundra pulling a sled. Poodles probably can’t understand why huskies enjoy mushing but the love of sledding isn’t in their breeding. Non-believers can’t understand a Christian’s willingness to carry another person’s burden either but that’s because they’re not reborn in Christ. Rather than a genetic predisposition, it’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to love others enough to willingly and joyfully carry their burdens.

When thinking of those dogs so eager to pull us through the mountains, I realize that even substantial burdens can be borne without great difficulty, especially when it’s a team effort. Indeed, the burdens of our brothers and sisters are meant to be shared and, when shared, they cease to be a heavy load for anyone. For the Christian, carrying one another’s burdens isn’t a chore; it’s a privilege and a joy. One musher described his team this way, “They just live their life the way they love to live it…a life that they can be proud of.” Shouldn’t the same be said of us?

Whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others. We must all carry our share of the misery which lies upon the world. [Albert Schweitzer]

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other. [John 13:34-35 (NTE)]

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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)]

Those who deny their neighbors prayers of intercession deny them a service Christians are called to perform. … Intercessory prayer is a gift of God’s grace for every Christian community and for every Christian. Because God has made us such an immeasurably great offer here, we should accept it joyfully. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

zebra longwing butterflyIntercessory prayer simply is praying on behalf of others and we find it throughout Scripture. After Israel’s shameful behavior with the golden calf, for example, Moses interceded for a sinful people before an angry God who was ready to wipe them out. The man pled for mercy rather than condemnation. Later, he interceded for his sister Miriam when God struck her with leprosy after her opposition to Moses’ leadership. When the Israelites again rebelled, refused to enter Canaan, and talked of choosing another leader to take them back to Egypt, Moses again interceded for the Israelites.

Abraham prayed for Ishmael, Sodom and Abimelech; Samuel prayed for Saul and the people of Israel; Daniel prayed for Jerusalem; Job prayed for his family and friends; Stephen prayed for his executioners; Paul prayed for the churches at Corinth and Ephesus; and Jesus prayed not only for his disciples but also for the people who crucified Him. There was, however, nothing weak or wishy-washy about any of these prayers; they were specific, heartfelt and urgent pleas.

While reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about intercessory prayer in a recent Lenten devotion, I felt them convict me. I have a list of people for whom I regularly offer prayers. Unfortunately, unless there is an urgent need, my prayers are often more perfunctory than earnest and more superficial than thorough. I confess to thinking of praying for others as more of an obligation than a gift from God. Bonhoeffer’s words point out that we are part of a community and, therefore, are touched by everything that touches our brothers and sisters. When they hurt, we hurt; when they mourn, we mourn; when they hunger, we hunger; and when they are joyful, so are we. His words reminded me that we should approach intercessory prayer not as a duty but rather as a privilege, not half-heartedly but enthusiastically.

It is an honor to thank God for the people for whom we pray and to bring them into His presence with our prayers. There’s no need to worry about having the right words, the Holy Spirit will see to that, but we must offer our prayers with the faith, joy, fervor and love of a true member of the Christian family!

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better. We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father [Colossians 1:11 (NLT)]

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