WHO’S IMPORTANT?

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. … Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. [Genesis 1:27,2:7 (NLT)]

SK8 Church Steamboat COOur family business makes products used in skateboards and many boarders are familiar with our name. After skiing one day, as my husband got on the bus, he was greeted by a boarder who spotted our company logo on his cap. “Yo, dude!” he called. Pointing to the cap, he asked, “You know those people?” When my husband replied he was “those people,” the fellow responded as if he’d met a celebrity and excitedly introduced my spouse to his pals. Soon they all were in an animated discussion of trucks, decks, wheels, and grip tape. The woman next to me, curious about the commotion in the back of the bus and not wanting to miss a celebrity sighting asked, “Is that someone famous? Is he important?” I replied, “He’s no one,” adding, “It’s just a skateboard thing.”

Later, I realized I’d given the wrong answer and not just because my husband is incredibly important to me. The better answer would have been, “He’s not famous but he is important.” Then, I should have added that she and I were just as important, as was everyone else on that bus, because we’re all important to God! I could have told her that real importance and value have nothing to do with fame, wealth, possessions or power. It has nothing to do with how we look, what we’ve done, where we work, what others think of us, or even what we think of ourselves.

Whether or not we were planned by our parents, we’re not accidents; God knew us all before we were born! Made in His image, we are God’s handiwork and precious in His sight. It was his breath that filled our lungs with life and His spirit that lives within us. Our names are etched on the palm of His hand, He’s promised to strengthen and help us, and He knows everything about us, including the number of hairs on our heads. If God carried an iPhone, our pictures would be on it and our numbers would be listed in His “favorites.” We are so loved by God that He sacrificed His only Son for us! As Christians, Jesus counts us among His friends and we’ve been adopted by God. As His children, we are recipients of a priceless inheritance. As followers of Christ, the God of the Universe has taken up residence in our hearts. Now that’s what I call important!

God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us. [Fulton J. Sheen]

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. 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. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me! [Psalm 139:13-18 (NLT)]

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LOVE LIKE A CHILD

And do everything with love. [1 Corinthians 16:14 (NLT)]

GrandpaI actually thought the prayer’s words that Sunday asked God to show us what children can teach us about love. Looking through old photos of my children and grands later that day, I thought about the ways children love. Unconcerned with decorum (or potential lawsuits), they’re demonstrative: touching freely and unabashedly. They cuddle and climb on laps, hold hands, and spontaneously give hugs and kisses. They burrow under the covers with us and aren’t bothered by morning breath or bed head. It doesn’t matter if they’re soaking wet from the sprinkler or their faces are covered with jelly or chocolate nor do they care if we’re sweaty and dirty from working in the garden or dressed in our finest for a night on the town. Children know that touch, whether a high-five or hug, is an important part of love.

Children don’t need words to express their love—rather than talking about it, they show it. In his nineties, Grandpa was frail, nearly deaf, and partially blind by the time the first great-grand arrived. Nevertheless, they didn’t need to talk; the little one knew how to speak with love and the two of them communicated silently, playing games only they understood. Another grand sought out a shy child in her pre-school who wouldn’t speak at all. The girls became fast friends because they didn’t need words to communicate. Perhaps children don’t need discussion because they know that loving actions speak far louder than do words.

Children love with gifts and service and the adults they love become the recipients of a wide assortment of shells, dandelions, painted rocks, pot holders, feathers, rubber band bracelets, drawings, beaded jewelry and pinch pots. As for service: my grands have been known to fight over who gets to help me water the plants, set the table, wipe my counters, dust the furniture or help fold the laundry. Children know that giving of self is a fundamental part of love.

Children love unconditionally and with forgiving hearts. Both of our foster daughters continued to love (and defend) the parents that failed them time and time again. They’d wait all afternoon for the promised visit that never happened only to faithfully wait again the following week. They loved even when the love was undeserved and forgave what seemed unforgivable (and I pray they still do). Children love without judgment.

Children love with generosity and without embarrassment. Last year, when the cousins were at our house, the eldest boy introduced the little ones to the dress-up box. After helping them into princess and pirate get-ups, they wanted him to dress up, too. There was just one costume that fit him and the little guys begged him to wear it. Without complaint, the fourteen-year old donned a Cinderella dress for his young cousins and allowed them to accessorize it with a lady’s hat, purse, and beads. He did this with a smile because children love generously, unselfconsciously, and with joyful laughter.

It wasn’t until I was done with this devotion that I re-read the words to that Sunday’s prayer and discovered it asked God to show us what children can teach us about Him. I thought of the story about a little girl who was busily drawing a portrait. When the teacher asked who it was, she replied, “God.” Reminding her that no one knows what God looks like, the girl said, “They will when I’m done!” God is love and children certainly know how to love; perhaps the face the little girl drew was that of a child. Indeed, children can teach us a great deal about both love and God.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. … God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [1 John 4:11-12.14b (NLT)]

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HEAR AND UNDERSTAND

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. … The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. … The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted! [Matthew 13:9,19,23 (NLT)]

While there’s nothing wrong with my hearing, I can’t always understand what’s being said. For example, when my husband tells stories, he prefers pronouns to nouns. Yesterday, I didn’t know whether the “he” to whom he was referring was the newsman, Uber driver, passenger, angry motorist, shooter, or police officer. Without knowing which man did what, the story was confusing so I kept asking for clarification. As it turned out, the Uber driver, who was also a policeman, shot the gun!

With their heavy accents and unfamiliar cultural references, I sometimes have difficulty understanding my son’s Indian in-laws and must ask them to repeat or explain before I finally get their meaning. My brother-in-law has Parkinson’s and speaks slowly, softly, and often stops in the middle of a sentence. But, if I give him my undivided attention and am patient during his long pauses, I can follow what he’s saying. I even have trouble with friends from the deep South who manage to make a one syllable word have two, a two syllable word have one, and use a charming set of unfamiliar idioms! Nevertheless, these are people I love so I try to understand them.

I’m the first one to admit it’s not always easy to understand Scripture. Then again, it’s not always easy to understand my family and friends but I take the time to do it. Understanding Scripture is no different than trying to understand people’s voices and, as happens with people, sometimes it take a little (or a whole lot) of effort to comprehend what is being said. Admittedly, with family and friends, there are times (as with the newsman/Uber driver/passenger/angry motorist/shooter/police officer story) when all that effort really isn’t worth it. However, I’ve never felt that way about anything written in Scripture; there, the message is always worthwhile!

Admittedly, some days I finish my Bible study more confused than when I began and there are times I want to give up. Yet, if I’ll make an effort to understand the people I love, it only makes sense that I’ll do the same thing with the God I love. God was pleased when Solomon asked for wisdom so I’m sure He’ll give us the discernment, self-discipline, patience, and ability to understand His word if we ask. He’s already provided us with countless study Bibles, assorted translations, plenty of commentary, pastors, teachers, and study groups to help us on our way.

Jesus told us to hear and understand. The best place to hear Him is in Scripture but, unless we open our Bibles and read them, we won’t hear Him. If we don’t hear Him, how can we ever understand?

“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” [Mark 4:23-25 (NLT)]

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GRIEVING HIM

In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years. But they rebelled against him and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he became their enemy and fought against them. [Isaiah 63:9-10 (NLT)]

SQUIRRELMany years ago, my two boys were playing at their grandparents’ house. While Grandpa worked in the garden, the brothers climbed high up the apple tree and started to throw apples at him. A patient man, their grandfather told them to stop and, when more apples came whizzing at him, he offered a sterner warning. After briefly stopping their barrage, the rascals were unable to resist the temptation and chucked more apples at their grandpa. To their surprise, this gentle and loving man turned around, picked up some apples, and returned fire. Having played ball as a boy, Gramps had a strong throwing arm and excellent aim. He didn’t pull any punches as he pitched those apples back at his grandsons. The boys, unable to maneuver easily in the tree, quickly learned the meaning of “as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.” When they called, “Stop, Grandpa, it hurts!” he replied, “Yes, I know it does, but you needed to learn that!” It wasn’t until those hard apples hit their bodies that the boys understood how much their disobedience hurt their grandfather (both physically and emotionally).

This is one of my boys’ favorite stories about their Grandpa. They aren’t mad that he hurled those apples back at them; they’re proud of him for loving them enough to discipline them. They learned a variety of lessons that day and not just that being hit by an apple hurts or never to be caught up a tree. They learned to listen to and obey their grandfather, that disobedience brings reckoning, and that obedience brings rewards (like apple pies). They also learned that their naughtiness grieved their grandfather as much as their punishment hurt them.

We know that Jesus experienced both physical and emotional pain when He walked the earth but what does God the Father experience? As a spirit, without a nervous system, I doubt that He feels physical pain, but what about emotional pain? Does God have feelings? There are two opposing theological schools of thought about this question (the doctrine of impassibility vs. the passibility of God) and a whole lot of middle ground in-between. Not being a theologian, I’m not addressing doctrine. Nevertheless, throughout the Bible, we find examples of God expressing emotions like love, joy, compassion, hate, jealousy, anger and even grief. Like any parent, God’s heart is touched by His children; it seems that He can feel our pain and that we can cause Him pain.

Although Scripture tells us that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love, like the boys’ grandfather, God eventually will get angry. Moreover, Scripture shows us that disobedience aggrieves our heavenly Father as much as an apple on the noggin and my boys’ defiance hurt their grandpa. When we disobey God, disgrace His name, doubt His love, forsake our faith, reject His guidance, choose hate over love or callousness over compassion, we bring sorrow, grief and pain to God. Scripture tells us that God can grieve and the parables of the missing coin, prodigal son, and lost sheep also tell us that God can rejoice. Rather than bringing grief to God, let us always do what pleases Him, for it is in the joy of the Lord that we find strength.

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. … Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. [Ephesians 4:30a, 31-23; 5:10 (NLT)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

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)]

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SUZANNE FROM SINGAPORE

aster - nodding onion - deptford pinkWalk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. [Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)]

Revealing her roots with her English accent, Suzanne told me she lives in Singapore, is the CEO of a foreign corporation, and was taking a holiday at her beach home in southwest Florida. We had a few minutes before class started and, trying to find common ground, I asked if she had any children or grands coming to visit. Replying that her children were still single, Suzanne said she doesn’t much care for children and hoped to never have any grands. After telling me that a young family had recently visited her London apartment, she disclosed her annoyance at the small child who’d touched her priceless antiques and run across her valuable Persian rugs. When Suzanne added that she had no idea how anyone could host guests for more than a few hours without having full time staff, I realized how far her world is from mine and most of the other women present in the room. I’d have to dig deeper to find common ground!

Although dressed beautifully, Suzanne didn’t flaunt her wealth by wearing a Chanel suit, Manolo Blahnik heels, and Harry Winston diamonds to a lunch time Bible study. Her words, however, were equally as ostentatious. Clearly, she is a powerful wealthy woman who lives a privileged life but she seemed oblivious that most of the world doesn’t live her way. I think she would have been surprised to know that I’d just hosted guests for a week without having a maid or cook, that the elderly woman at the next table still works so she can pay for her health insurance, that the woman beside her has been single-handedly caring for her handicapped husband for the last eight years, or that the woman beside me is raising two grandchildren by herself.

While I’m pointing a finger at Suzanne, I’m also pointing three at me. My conversation with her made me realize how often I am unaware and insensitive to other people’s circumstances. Just as I assumed Suzanne would love small children, I often assume other people have the same politics, history, finances, family situation, interests and preferences that I do. Like hers, my words have been patronizing, oblivious, and tactless more times that I care to admit.

I thought about that conversation when reading Paul’s words about seasoning our conversation with salt. Salt makes food palatable and our words should be palatable to all who hear them. Suzanne’s insensitive words were heard by only a few Christian women at Bible study but what if they’d been heard by unbelievers who may not have been so forgiving? What if those unbelievers had judged Christians by her pretentious manner?

A popular piece of advice for speakers is to “know your audience” and businesses spend thousands of dollars in market research to do just that. This sage advice applies to us, as well. Let us remember that we are walking advertisements for Jesus; as His spokespersons, we must be respectful, tactful, kind, humble, and compassionate in our words. When we are finished conversing with people, they should feel that they heard something of value and, more important, that they are valuable both to us and to God.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel. [Carl W. Buehner]

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. … always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:8,15 (NLT)]

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]

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