IMPEDIMENTS OR AMBASSADORS?

Celebrate your hope; be patient in suffering; give constant energy to prayer; contribute to the needs of God’s people; make sure you are hospitable to strangers. [Romans 12:12-13 (NTE)]

Don’t forget to be hospitable; by that means, some people have entertained angels without realizing it. [Hebrews 13: 2 (NTE)]

blanket flowerThe story was told of a devout Christian woman who, after moving to a new town, visited the local church: the Church of Holier than Thou. When the children’s choir sang the prelude, she was so happy to hear their angelic voices that she applauded at the end of their song. An usher came up and whispered in her ear, “Ma’am, we don’t applaud in this church.” She apologized for the disturbance and the service continued. When the pastor gave his sermon, she was so moved by his words that she shouted out an “Amen!” in response. The usher returned to her side and again sternly instructed her, “You’ll have to restrain yourself here in the Church of Holier than Thou.” Chagrined, the woman promised to behave and the service continued. The choir rose and sang a beautiful medley that included God of our Fathers and How Great Thou Art. Overcome by the words of praise, the woman shouted out “Hallelujah” and “Praise God!” at the song’s conclusion. The usher strode up to her and said, “Lady, you’re causing a disturbance. You’ll have to leave!” The poor woman responded, “I just couldn’t help myself; I was overcome by the joy of the Lord!” In a huff, the usher responded, ‘Well, you sure didn’t get it here!”

A good friend preached several times at our Colorado church and even served briefly as a pastor for a local parish when they were without an ordained minister. This man, filled with joy in the Lord, is a mature and knowledgeable Christian, but that wasn’t always the case. When he became a Christian many years ago, he was totally unfamiliar with the Bible and didn’t even know there were several different translations and publications of this one book. He couldn’t understand why chapter and verse had to be mentioned when just a page number should do. What would have happened to him if he’d attended the Church of Holier than Thou (or others like it)? I think God might have lost a child to disillusionment and doubt.

One friend told of an experience while searching for a church. She’d just settled into the pew when an irate couple told her she had to move because she was in their pew! When we first moved here and were “church shopping,” we attended a madrigal dinner at a local church in hope of meeting members of the congregation. In spite of getting there early and the large number of empty chairs, we had trouble finding a seat because everyone seemed to saving those chairs for the people they already knew. Sadly, I’ve seen the same thing at Tuesday Bible study when a newcomer has difficulty finding a place to sit among all the empty (but saved) chairs! Although the church is supposed to be a place of welcome, it frequently isn’t.

It has been said that there are two reasons people don’t become Christians. First, they haven’t met one. The second reason, of course, is that they have! What kind of Christians are we? Are we impediments or ambassadors? Are we filled with the joy of the Lord or are we holier than thou? Do we welcome others to worship and study with us? Are willing to enlarge our circle to receive someone new? If Jesus stopped by, would He have trouble finding a place to sit?

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. [Shane Claiborne]

Welcome one another, therefore, as the Messiah has welcomed you, to God’s glory. [Romans 15:7 (NTE)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 12:20 (NTE)]

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THE PROVERBS 31 WOMAN

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife? She is more precious than rubies. Her husband can trust her, and she will greatly enrich his life. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. [Proverbs 31:10-12 (NLT)]

osprey pair - rookery bayProverbs 31 is said to have been written by King Lemuel. We only know that Lemuel was “the king of Massa,” possibly an Arab king, his name means “devoted to God,” and his words were written somewhere between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. Attributing his words to counsel from his mother, the first nine verses sound like the sort of thing a queen-mother would tell son about government and the dangers of wine and bad women. Verses 10 through 31, however, are an acrostic poem outlining the qualities of the ideal wife.

Lemuel’s mama would have been a hard mother-in-law to please because the woman described in Proverbs 31 could be called Wonder Wife. She seems to be a cross between Shark Tank’s Barbara Cocoran, Martha Stewart, Little Women’s  Mrs. March (Marmee), and Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver. Rising before dawn and burning her lamp late into the night, the Proverbs 31 woman juggles family, home, business, and charitable activities effortlessly and without benefit of carry-out, Amazon, Instant Pot, car pools, complaint, spa days, naps, or any help from her husband.

Because I don’t spin wool, sew clothing to sell, plant vineyards, or make our bedspreads, I used to feel a twinge of guilt whenever I read Proverbs 31. There are weeds in the garden, fingerprints on the walls, stains on the carpet, and my kids often outgrew clothes before I got around to sewing on a missing button! These words, however, aren’t about specific activities, they are about values. In these twenty-two verses, rather than a to-do list, we find the qualities every woman (and man) should want to emulate. She is virtuous, trustworthy, strong, supportive, enterprising, resourceful, compassionate, industrious, energetic, considerate, generous, honorable, and wise and we don’t have to gather flax, weave our own cloth, dress in fine linen, or get up before dawn and prepare breakfast to be any of those things! In actuality, the Proverbs 31 woman is the epitome of the ideals found throughout the book of Proverbs. She is what true wisdom looks like in real life (or real life more than 2,000 years ago)!

Some women find this chapter objectionable with its somewhat dated sentiments. Let us remember that these verses are from a time when the highest compliment a man could give a woman was that she was a perfect homemaker! Although mothers have been advising their sons about the kind of woman they should marry for centuries, some scholars think these verses actually may be King Lemuel’s tribute to his mother: a woman of “noble character.” In fact, in many traditional Jewish homes, these verses (known as the Eshet Hayil) are sung or recited at the Sabbath meal Friday nights as a way for the husband to honor his wife and show the family’s appreciation for all she’s done for them. Rather than a list of wifely duties, these words are a song of praise!

Her children stand and bless her. Her husband praises her: “There are many virtuous and capable women in the world, but you surpass them all!” Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised. Reward her for all she has done. Let her deeds publicly declare her praise. [Proverbs 31:28-31 (NLT)]

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NEVER OBSOLETE

I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you. [Isaiah 46:4 (NLT)]

If I’d known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself. [Anonymous]

Grandpa J

Several years ago, a friend’s spry 94-year old mother emailed the family about having forgotten her elbow brace on the way to the exercise room in her senior residence. After returning to her apartment and donning the brace, the woman took an inventory of the other pieces of hardware she needed to get through each day. Along with the elbow brace, she wore bi-focal glasses, two hearing aids, a knee brace, two sets of dentures, two orthopedic shoe inserts, and one doe-skin support for three toes. Even without inventorying the number of medications that were part of her daily regimen, she observed that “it’s not a simple management situation” to keep track of it all. Feeling blessed that she didn’t need a cane and walker as did many her age, she closed her message by reminding the younger family members to take care of themselves. She continued her optimistic outlook and daily exercise routine until she went home to the Lord just a few months before her 100th birthday. Her light-hearted email remains a serious reminder that time takes a toll on our bodies.

Within my circle, many have reached the age when God has started to recall some of their parts. A few are nearly  bionic with their titanium plates, pacemakers, implanted cardioverter defibrillators, replacement heart valves, intraocular lenses, artificial hips and knees, or portable oxygen concentrators. As my mother-in-law observed in her 102nd year, “Old age is not for sissies!” Indeed, it presents a fair number of challenges. Nevertheless, as long as we’re still breathing, we should be in good spirits and thankful. Old age is a gift from God and one denied to far too many of our friends and family. It is a privilege not a punishment, an opportunity rather than a misfortune, and a blessing not a curse.

Even though we slow down and start wearing out as the years progress, God (who is older than time itself) remains the same and is constant in His care for us. He doesn’t stop working in our lives because parts of our bodies have ceased to function properly. He doesn’t put us out to pasture because we can no longer carry a load, consign us to the trash heap because we have some broken parts, or scrap us because we’re out of date. In God’s eyes, no matter how old or run-down His children are, no one is considered unusable or obsolete! He is as close to us now as when we took our first breath and He’ll be right beside us when we take our last one. God carried us as children and He will continue to carry us until He recalls our worn out bodies and takes us on our final trip home.

Before we take that last journey, however, there is still work to be done in God’s earthly kingdom. As long as we are breathing (even if we need an oxygen concentrator to do it), there is someone somewhere with whom we can share God’s love and good news. Just don’t forget your elbow brace or cane on the way out the door!

But the godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house. They flourish in the courts of our God. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green. They will declare, “The Lord is just! He is my rock! There is no evil in him!” [Psalm 92:12-15 (NLT)]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. [2 Corinthians 4:16 (NLT)]

Today’s picture is of my father-in-law—a man who never grew obsolete. Even though his physical strength waned, his spiritual strength never did and he continued to bear fruit until he went home at age 96.

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RULES

This is what the Lord has commanded: A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. [Numbers 30:1-2 (NLT)]

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. …For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’” [Matthew 23, 15-16 (NLT)

water lily

As any parent of a teenager knows, it’s impossible to have enough rules to cover all the ways your child can err. Schemers that they are, they’ll always find a way around restrictions. When I attended boarding school, for example, several of us girls had our ears pierced by a fellow student (an aspiring physician). We knew that neither school nor parents would endorse numbing our ears with icicles and piercing them with a sewing needle and dental floss but, without a specific rule against it, we pierced them anyway. Because it was the school’s second year, the administration hadn’t anticipated all the ways we teens could misbehave and our student handbook was only one page. Now, 57 years later, that handbook is 33 pages long and covers such things as body piercings and tattoos, drones, room searches, recording devices, prohibited clothing, subwoofers, a roommate’s rights, and unauthorized access to the school’s computer system. I imagine next year’s handbook will be even longer and reflect yet another way its students have managed to flout authority.

Of course, it’s not just teenagers who assume that, if something isn’t specifically prohibited, it must be allowed. No matter their age, people will try to find a way around every inconvenient or bothersome rule. For example, God made it clear that a vow made before Him was binding. Keeping promises, however, can prove problematic and, through a convoluted re-interpretation of the law, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time created a loophole. If one swore by the gold on the altar, the promise was binding. But, if one swore only by the altar or temple, it was like crossing your fingers and the promise could be broken with impunity: a promise was only a promise if it was expedient.

We girls knew we shouldn’t have pierced our ears that way, the Pharisees knew that God meant for all promises to be kept, and today’s students shouldn’t need a specific rule stating that roommates must be spoken to in a respectful manner. While there were plenty of laws in the Old Testament, Jesus boiled them all down to two simple ones: love God and love our neighbor. In a perfect world these would be the only laws necessary. The world, however, isn’t perfect which is why we still have regulations and school handbooks.

Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it right and just because something isn’t specifically prohibited doesn’t mean it should be done. Jesus lived by one law: the law of love. Regardless of the rules, like Him, we must let the two-fold commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor guide us in everything we do.

Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. [Romans 13:8-10 (NLT)]

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DO NOT DISTURB

clam pass birds naples flBut to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. … Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:27-29,31 (NLT)]

The snowbirds are back; not the retirees who arrive in cars or on planes but the migratory birds, some of whom flew more than 3,000 miles to get here. Their long flight takes a tremendous toll on their bodies. By the time they reach our beaches, they’re exhausted and hungry and many have lost half their body weight. Before I understood the trials they endure in migrating, I never gave it a thought if I happened to disturb them while walking the beach. Granted, it’s a beautiful sight to see hundreds of birds take wing at once but, every time they’re flushed by someone on the beach or a passing boat, precious reserves of energy are used and their nests are left unattended. Now that I understand the birds’ challenges, I am more considerate of their needs. When walking the beach, I keep my distance to avoid unsettling them.

Although they may not be as endangered, hungry, and exhausted as migratory birds, many people have taken a long and arduous journey to get where they are today. While some end up better for the journey, others end up bitter, rude, angry, or demanding. Just as I hadn’t thought about the challenges facing the birds, I rarely pause to consider the circumstances these difficult or toxic people must have encountered to leave them so embittered, short-tempered, or uncivil. While trials, loss, and pain never excuse bad behavior, they often cause it. Not everyone believes in God, has experienced the joy that comes from following Jesus, possesses His peace, or knows they are loved and forgiven.

In these stressful and divisive times, hostility and boorishness seem to be on the rise. Admittedly, upon encountering a toxic person, self-control, patience, kindness, love, and courtesy often fly right out the window. Rather than turn the other cheek, we want to give as good as we got. Retaliation, however, only begets more of the same. Studies have shown that incivility and rudeness are as contagious as yawns, smiles, laughter, and viruses! As followers of Jesus, our job is to make sure we don’t contribute to the problem. We’re expected to treat people with kindness and consideration, not because they’re nice people who deserve it, but simply because it’s what Jesus would do! Hopefully, our even-tempered behavior will make the rest of their journey easier.

We must choose to break the chain of incivility with love, gentleness, a forgiving heart, and by praying for the offender. It helps to remember that difficult people carry a lot of baggage with them and their quarrel, hostility, or complaint may have nothing to do with us. Remembering that we know nothing of their hardships, pain, or fear, let’s cut them a little slack and give them as much space as possible. Like the migratory birds, they’ve had a difficult journey and are struggling to survive the only way they know. “Do not disturb” is wise advice in both instances!

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. [attributed to Plato]

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. [Colossians 3:13-15a (NLT)]

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HAPPINESS STARTS WITH A SMILE

We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy! [Psalm 126:2-3 (NLT)]

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. [Thich Nhat Hanh]

clownIn the Pearls Before Swine comic drawn by Stephen Pastis, Pig may be a little naïve but, sometimes, the sweet fellow has the right idea. In a recent strip, when asked why he was wearing an enormous hat decorated with a smiley face, he explained it was “the hat o’ great happiness” and he wore it as a way of sending happiness to others. I thought of Pig’s silly hat of happiness while viewing an ad made by Coca-Cola as part of their 2015 Belgian “Choose happiness” campaign.

It began with people walking into a subway tram. Among the commuters was a man who stood in the middle of a crowded car. Wearing ear buds and looking at his tablet, he suddenly erupted in laughter. Ignoring the stares of the people around him, he continued to laugh—not polite little giggles but loud and unembarrassed guffaws. Hidden cameras filmed the reactions of his fellow commuters. As his laughter increased, they began to smile and then their smiles turned into laughter. A promotional team from Coke revealed themselves and handed out cans of Coke with a leaflet linking laughter and happiness. The ad closed with the words, “Happiness starts with a smile, what are you waiting for?” followed by the hashtag “choosehappiness.” Filmed over two days on 17 trains and six different metro lines, the commercial brought laughter to over 4,000 commuters! Millions more have caught themselves laughing as they’ve viewed the video since it first aired. (You can find it on YouTube.)

Scientific studies actually have found that actions like yawning, smiles, and laughter are contagious. Because of a primitive reflex in the cortex of our brains, the urge to mirror another person is triggered by something called echophenomena: the automatic imitation of another’s words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia). Moreover, other studies have found that a smile brings hidden blessings by releasing a cocktail of body chemicals that relax the body, lower the heart rate and blood pressure, decrease stress levels, and serve as antidepressants and mood lifters!

The joy we have in Jesus should be obvious and as contagious as any yawn, smile, laugh, or virus. Like Pig, we need to find ways to send happiness to others and we don’t need a silly hat or a fit of laughter on a train to do that. Just as the Lord smiles upon us, we must smile upon all who cross our path (even if that smile is hidden by a mask). We have to make that smile pass into the rest of our body: our face, eyes, voice, hands, and heart. Like Pig, let us find ways to send happiness and joy to those around us; we just might find our spirits lifting as we do!

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. [Leo Buscaglia]

They longed for me to speak as people long for rain. They drank my words like a refreshing spring rain. When they were discouraged, I smiled at them. My look of approval was precious to them. [Job 29:23-24 (NLT)]

A cheerful look brings joy to the heart; good news makes for good health. [Proverbs 15:30 (NLT)]

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