COWARDS NEED NOT APPLY

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” [Jeremiah 1:7-8 (NLT)]

plumbago

One look at the Bible’s heroes makes it clear that obstacles and challenges are an unavoidable part of doing God’s work. While they knew doing God’s work wouldn’t be trouble-free, did they realize it would be so very hard? Consider Moses—he knew it would be challenging when he signed on to lead the Israelites, but he didn’t know that an eleven-day journey to Canaan would turn into a forty-year commitment. God never promised it would be easy but He also never warned Moses about the decades of complaints, rebellion, and continual disobedience of the “stiff-necked people” he’d be leading. Moses certainly wasn’t told that he’d never enter the Promised Land once he got there. If he had known what lay ahead, would Moses have accepted God’s assignment or would he still be arguing with God on Mt. Sinai?

Would David have told Samuel to go find another fellow to anoint if the young shepherd knew he’d spend most of the next fifteen years fleeing for his life before actually becoming king? If he’d been told about the trials, battles, responsibilities, betrayals, and challenges of being king or known of the tears that he’d shed during his life, would he have decided to stick to shepherding?

What about Mary? When she told the angel she was the “servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead—the finger pointing and whispers regarding her pregnancy, the difficult journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, and fleeing to Egypt to save her son’s life. Had she anticipated that or the anguish of watching her son’s torment as He died a criminal’s death, would she so willingly have accepted God’s plan? Would Elizabeth have welcomed her pregnancy if she knew her beloved son’s head would be served on a platter to Herodias? Although Paul and the Apostles realized their ministries would be demanding, would they have been as enthusiastic in their evangelism if they’d seen all the struggle, imprisonments, persecution and martyrdom that lay ahead for them? Would Isaiah have said “Send me!” to God if he knew, as tradition has it, that King Manasseh would order him sawn in half? If Jeremiah had known how he’d be despised, abused, beaten, put in stocks, cast into a muddy cistern, and continually preach to a people who refused to hear his words before being stoned to death in Egypt, would he have accepted God’s call?

When describing the lives of the Bible’s heroes and heroines, the book of Hebrews lists the sufferings: being destitute, homeless, afflicted, mistreated, mocked, flogged, tortured, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and being killed with a sword. Some of those heroes (like Moses, Jeremiah, and Gideon) hesitated about their ability to serve God but, once God assured them that they were up to the task, they signed on without knowing exactly what the future held for them. Putting their unknown futures into the hands of a known God, they trusted Him, followed His plan, and boldly did His work.

Like the Bible’s heroes, let us fearlessly go forth wherever God sends us and do whatever He calls us to do. As we faithfully place our unknown future in the hands of God, we can remain secure in the knowledge that He always is with us on our journey. If we trust God, we don’t have to know or understand!

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29-31 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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PETER WENT FREE

O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you! [Jeremiah 32:17 (NLT)]
angel

Herod Agrippa I was a good politician who knew how to manipulate people to gain their loyalty and support. When his approval rating went up after the execution of James, the king arrested Peter, the acknowledged leader of the apostles. Perhaps he thought by literally cutting off the head of this new sect, he could put an end to the troubling Nazarene movement. After imprisoning Peter, Agrippa planned to try and execute him once the Passover ended. The trial’s delay was because Jewish law did not allow for executions during the eight-day celebration.

Since this was Peter’s third arrest, Agrippa made sure he was not going to be released with a slap on the wrist or allowed to escape, as he’d previously done. Peter was guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.  Although a prisoner usually was attached by chain to one guard, Peter was chained to two soldiers while the other two guarded the door to his cell.

At this point, it appeared that evil had won. John and the others were mourning James’ death and Peter was in custody facing execution! Rather than lose heart, however, the church spent the eight days and nights of Passover fervently praying for Peter’s release. I suspect that while Peter was chained in his cell, when he wasn’t evangelizing his captors, he prayed as well. Herod may have had prisons and chains but the church had the power of prayer. On the night before his trial, Peter was miraculously freed by an angel. Herod Agrippa thought Peter was secure in prison but he didn’t take into account the power of God—the cross and sealed tomb couldn’t stop Jesus and a cell wouldn’t stop Peter!

What’s interesting in this narrative is that Peter thought it was just a dream when the chains fell from his wrists, the angel led him from the cell, and the gates opened by themselves. It wasn’t until the angel left him on the streets of Jerusalem that the apostle realized the Lord actually freed him! In the same way, in spite of their week of fervent prayers, when Peter appeared at the home where the church had gathered to pray, they were so astonished that their prayers were answered that they didn’t believe the servant who said Peter was at the door nor did they believe their eyes when they actually saw him! They were like the Iowa church during a several months’ long drought. When they called for a prayer meeting, everyone came and prayed for rain but nobody believed enough to arrive there with an umbrella!

As Puritan minister Thomas Watson pointed out, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Even though the odds against Peter were astronomical, we should never bet against God nor should we be surprised when He answers our prayers or exceeds our expectations!

Forgive us, Lord, when we’re surprised by answers to our prayer; Increase our faith and teach us how to trust Your loving care. [Sper]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

Glen Canyon - Lake Powell
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)]

“What keeps you awake at night?” he asked. The questioner, however, wasn’t interested in my husband’s snoring or my reaction to caffeine or spicy foods. He wondered what things weigh heavy enough on my heart that I’m kept from peaceful sleep.

While a venti latte in the late afternoon can keep me awake and I may take a midnight trip to the bathroom, other than my recent bout with bronchitis or when I’m in physical pain, not much robs me of a night’s sleep. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when things like worry, resentment, disappointment, fear, regret, and even despair overwhelmed me enough to deprive me of sleep. Nowadays, I’ve found that resting in God’s word has a way of pushing aside my concerns better than any lullaby or sleep aid.

Unfortunately, it took me way too many years to understand that things like anxiety, apprehension, and angst simply push God out of His rightful place. Even though I knew better, I felt responsible for the happiness and success of everyone I loved. I thought I had to be perfect (or as near to perfect as possible) to be loved by God or man and I worried because perfection was unachievable. Some nights, I also brought a bag of remorse, guilt, and grief to bed along with my concerns and cares. Instead of counting sheep, I would catalogue regrets, troubles, offenses, and misgivings.

It took a few crises to knock me to my knees where I belonged—praying instead of worrying and surrendering to God instead of trying to be Him. Once I resigned as ruler of the universe, I finally found the peace Jesus promised that had seemed so elusive. Understanding that God does a much better job of running lives than I ever could, I turned it all over to Him. After all, He’s up all night anyway so there’s no reason both of us should stay awake!

Better than melatonin, chamomile tea, or lavender aromatherapy is the reassurance found in God’s word that God is firmly in control and He is bigger than all of our burdens combined. Our job is to hand those burdens over to the Lord and leave the rest up to Him! As for regrets, the Apostle Paul told the Philippians that he focused on forgetting the past and looking forward to what lay ahead. [3:13] We should do the same. If God can forgive us, we can graciously accept His forgiveness and forgive ourselves. If He can say “over, done with, and gone” about our offenses, then we can do the same for others.

Now, instead of sheep, problems, fears, or regrets, I count my blessings! Even if the day went every which way but right, there’s always something for which to be thankful—even if it’s that tomorrow is another day! If I ever happen to find myself wakeful, I figure it’s the Lord telling me the day’s work isn’t done and there’s something about which I need to pray.

What keeps you awake at night? Is there a Bible verse that might help you sleep better? Resting in God’s word probably is more effective than many of those sleep medications on the market and there are no undesirable side effects! Like those prescription meds, however, there is a warning—you can get dependent upon God’s word. Indeed, the peace that passes understanding is addictive!

God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. [Augustine]

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe. [Psalm 4:8 (NLT)]

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VASHTI

These events happened in the days of King Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia. [Esther 1:1 (NLT)]

deptford pinkWhile translations like the NIV and NLT call him Xerxes, he’s called Ahasuerus in translations like the ESV and RSV. When the king’s Persian name of Khshayârshâ was translated into Hebrew, it became Ahasuerus but, when it was translated into Greek, Khshayârshâ became Xerxes. Regardless of the translation, Xerxes and Ahasuerus are one and the same and we encounter him in the book of Esther.

Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) depicts Xerxes as a cruel, arrogant, incompetent, and fickle monarch known for his harsh temper, excessive drinking, extravagant banquets, and philandering (he pursued both his brother’s wife and niece). When we meet the king in the first chapter of Esther, his behavior matches history’s assessment of him. As one of the wealthiest (and probably one of the most pompous and arrogant) men in the world, he’d been hosting six months of celebrations for his nobles, officials, and military leaders as a way of displaying his great wealth and, perhaps, to assure them of his victory before setting out to conquer Greece. As the festivities wound down, the king held a lavish grand-finale seven-day banquet for all the men in the palace. In a different part of the palace, his wife, Queen Vashti, held her own banquet for the women.

After a week of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) realized he’d flaunted all of his treasures save one—his beautiful queen—and he commanded that she come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was instructed to wear the royal crown. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear the crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinic tradition interpreted this to mean only her crown. Regardless of whether the king meant naked or dressed, Persian modesty would have prohibited Vashti from presenting herself that way before a group of men. While it might be asked of a concubine or dancing girl, Vashti was a Persian princess and the queen. It wasn’t fitting for her to parade around like a piece of meat and be ogled by a group of drunken rowdy men. To wear her crown while doing so was even more demeaning. Knowing full well the consequences of denying her arrogant husband, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

This may have been the first time anyone dared deny Xerxes anything. As he always did when making any decision, the king immediately asked his advisors what to do. Fearing that all the wives of Persia might think they could defy their husbands if word got out that the queen successfully did so, they recommended immediately dethroning Vashti and banishing her from the king’s presence forever. Xerxes sent out an unprecedented and irrevocable decree ensuring that “husbands everywhere, whatever their rank, will receive proper respect from their wives” that proclaimed every man ruled his own home and could say whatever he pleased. Whether Vashti lived the rest of her life isolated in a corner of the harem or, as rabbinic tradition holds, was beheaded, her fate was meant to be an object lesson for all women to be submissive and obedient to their spouses.

Esther was Vashti’s opposite. A Jewish commoner, she was passive. Once in the harem, she continued to follow her uncle Mordecai’s directions “just as she did when she lived in his home.”  When it was her turn to go to the king, she “accepted the advice of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem and asked for nothing except what he suggested.” Perhaps Xerxes selected Esther as much for her submissiveness as her beauty.

When Esther balked at approaching Xerxes about the plight of the Jews, Mordecai asked if she might not have been made queen specifically for that task. Like Esther, perhaps Vashti was made queen for the moment she exhibited courage by standing up against her bully of a husband. In Vashti’s example, Esther saw a strong woman whose self-respect and character meant more to her than her crown or life. If Vashti risked everything by standing up for herself, could Esther do anything less than stand up for an entire race? The passive orphan girl garnered the strength and courage to confront Xerxes—even though it could result in her death. Vashti failed but Esther didn’t. Nevertheless, I wonder, would Esther have tried had it not been for Vashti’s brave example?

What about us? Could God have placed us in a precarious position for such a time as now? Perhaps, it’s time for us to make our voices heard—to speak up for sake of others, to take a stand for righteousness, or to refuse to take part in something that is wrong.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. [Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)]

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. [James 4:17 (NIV)]

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CHUCK AND THOMAS

Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [John 11:16 (NIV)]

You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” [John 14:4-5 (NIV)]

red-shouldered hawkIn 1976, Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families and acting as an advocate for criminal justice reform. Nevertheless, whenever I come across his name, I don’t think of the 36 years he spent in his ministry. Instead, I remember the ruthless man once considered Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Along with being one of the Watergate Seven, Colson was known as a “dirty tricks artist” who tracked down incriminating photographs and leaked damaging and untrue rumors to discredit and blacken the reputations of political enemies. In 1974, as a new Christian, Colson pled guilty to obstruction of justice on a Watergate-related charge and served seven months in prison. It was after his release that he mobilized the Christian Church to minister to prisoners.

Why do we remember the negative rather than the positive about people? Think of the disciple Thomas. Most of us think of him as the doubter rather than a disciple zealous for Jesus. When the other disciples urged Jesus not to return to Judea because of the danger he faced, it was Thomas who urged the disciples to join Jesus and face death with Him!

The next we read of Thomas is at the last supper when the inquisitive man is probably more honest than the rest of the disciples. Not understanding that Jesus had just described His destination—heaven and eternal life—Thomas acknowledged his ignorance and asked the same question the others probably were silently asking. Thomas wasn’t doubting, the eager man just wanted to understand exactly where he was going and how he was to do it.

Although Thomas heard Jesus say that He was “the way, the truth, and the life,” like the other disciples, the man didn’t know what to believe after the crucifixion. One moment of skepticism and that’s what we remember of him but Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted. Luke tells us that the disciples didn’t believe their eyes when Jesus first stood before them and thought they were seeing a ghost. [24:37] Even after seeing His pierced hands and feet, Luke says they “stood there in disbelief” and it was watching Jesus eat a piece of fish that finally convinced them. [24:41-42]

Let’s remember, Thomas wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared and it wasn’t Jesus he doubted. He questioned the veracity of the disciples in the same way Mark tells us the disciples doubted Mary Magdalene that Sunday morning [16:11]. He wanted to be sure it actually was Jesus they saw. When Thomas finally sees Jesus, he makes the clearest confession of faith we find in any of the gospels by exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” If anything, Thomas’ willingness to express his doubt led to a greater faith!

Neither Chuck Colson nor the Apostle Thomas should be remembered for their worst moments yet they probably are. Oddly, we don’t immediately think of Peter as the man who denied Jesus three times. Instead, we first think of him as the rock upon which Jesus built His church. May we grant the same amount of grace to the Chuck Colsons and the “doubting” Thomases we meet in life!

No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure—that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation—being sent to prison—was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory. [Chuck Colson]

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:28-29 (NIV)]

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