BUT HOW?

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” … Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”  [Luke 1:34,38 (NLT)]

queen butterfly Angels taking on bodily form and appearing to people certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence so it’s understandable that Mary was troubled and perplexed by Gabriel’s presence when he showed up in Nazareth. After telling her not to be afraid, the angel gave her the startling news that she would conceive and give birth. Mary may have been a virgin but she knew that babies weren’t brought by the stork or found in a cabbage patch. “But how?” was her first response.

“But how?” Isn’t that our typical response when God calls us to His work? Abraham couldn’t see how his people would possess Canaan, Sarah couldn’t see how God could give her a child when her child-bearing days were over, Moses wanted to know how he could convince both the Israelites and Pharaoh, Gideon asked how he could rescue Israel, Samuel asked how he could anoint a new king without being killed by Saul, and Zechariah asked how his wife could possibly become pregnant. Given their situations, “But how?” certainly seems understandable.

The angel’s answer that the Holy Spirit would come upon her still didn’t tell Mary exactly how her pregnancy would come about. Had that been me, I would have wanted a better explanation and then followed with a series of “whys” and “what abouts.” While being told that her barren cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant may have reassured Mary that what seems impossible can actually happen, Elizabeth was married and Mary was not! “But how?” probably was just one of many questions circling in Mary’s head.

Unlike Moses, Mary didn’t try to squirm out of the task with excuses; unlike Sarah, she didn’t laugh in unbelief; unlike Gideon, she didn’t ask for a series of signs; unlike Samuel, she didn’t point out the problems she was sure to face with her pregnancy; and, unlike Zechariah, she believed the angel. After asking him, “But, how?” Mary accepted the simple explanation that nothing is impossible with God and humbly submitted.

Do we forget that God doesn’t have the limitations we have? He can make manna appear, feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, part the sea, walk on water, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Nevertheless, we often ask, “But how?” when called by God to serve and then allow the logistics of His task keep us from doing His work. Could we be missing God’s blessings because we’re too busy asking, “But how?” instead of responding in faith? Let us never forget that God will work out the how; we just need to submit as readily as did Mary.

You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said. [Luke 1:45 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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OTHER DEMONS

No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:37-39 (NLT)]
Halloween ghost

Yesterday, I wrote of the emotional vampires that can plague us but there are other demons even harder to spot than those two-legged ones. Invisible, they go by the names of guilt, anger, doubt, resentment, shame, regret, fear, and worry. They haunt us with “if only,” “what if,” “should have,” and “could have” and leave us discontented, sullen, resentful, fearful or worried. They are the hobgoblins that whisper lies and half-truths in our ears: we’re unlovable, contemptible, unforgiven, helpless, inadequate, or worthless. Like vampires, these monsters also can suck the life out of us. Friends of the enemy, they keep us from living boldly, stepping out in faith, and leading the fulfilling and joyful life Jesus promised.

It’s time to declare war on these monsters; they have no place in our lives. In the old movies, evil was repelled by the crucifix—a mere religious symbol. In real life, however, it is the power of Jesus that defeats the enemy! Through His power, we can banish those demons that steal our joy and suck the life from us. We can face our secrets, shed our shame, forgive others (and ourselves), know we are loved, release our anxiety and fear, trust God and choose His truth. The voice we hear can be that of the Holy Spirit rather than the unsettling voice of the enemy. With the power of the cross, we will be able to step out of the haunted house of our lives not in fear, but in faith—not in darkness, but in light.

Heavenly Father, help us look into the dark corners of our lives and, through your power, banish the demons that keep us from the abundant life you promised.

The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls. [Edgar Allen Poe]

The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:10 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

passion glower - pasqueflower“Over 1 million served,” was the sign Ray Kroc posted at his first McDonald’s franchise in 1955. That number became 100 million in 1958 and was 1 billion in 1963. When the number of burgers served surpassed the 99 billion mark in 1994, operators were told to change their signs to “Billions and Billions Served!” Executives at McDonald’s claim they no longer keep track of how many are served but I don’t believe it! Someone there knows exactly how many of those hamburgers have been sold, along with the number of Egg McMuffins and chocolate shakes.

People gauge their success with numbers and I’m no different. Before quitting my work for the day, I often check the stats for my web site. How many people visited and how many views did they take? Did I get any new subscribers? Worse, did I lose any? I doubt that I’m alone in checking stats; we all seek approval and use some sort of yardstick to measure our success. The restaurant measures sales, the YouTuber his subscribers, the author his place on the best seller list, the student his class rank, and the blogger her followers. We live our lives measuring and comparing: how many likes on the posting, hits on the website, orders taken, compliments on the outfit, friends on Facebook, or Christmas cards received.

Granted, publishing a blog is a little like speaking into a radio station microphone and not knowing if anyone is listening. Nevertheless, I had to ask myself, “Whose approval do I seek?” Like most people, I tend to seek tangible approval from people when the only approval that matters is that from God. It’s not who or how many people follow me; the only thing of importance is that I follow Him!

Our pastor shared the story of a successful evangelist who literally lost his voice. No longer able to preach, he asked God, “Don’t you care about my ministry?” The answer clearly given to him was, “No! I care about you!” I think of his story whenever I struggle with my writing ministry—when the words don’t come or I feel like I’m speaking to an empty auditorium. God cares about us—not about our triumphs and certainly not about how many people hear our voices or read our words. That pastor’s voice returned when he understood that God loved him rather than his accomplishments. Consider the Old Testament prophets: with Haggai (at whose urging the temple finally was rebuilt) being the exception, most of the prophets’ messages fell on deaf ears. Misunderstood, persecuted, ridiculed and ignored, by human standards they were failures. God, however, uses an entirely different kind of measuring stick. The prophets’ lives tell us that the success of our endeavors is not what matters; what matters is our obedience to God’s word and the doing of His will. It’s not about our glory; it’s about our bringing glory to God!

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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LOST IN THE MAZE

All of us like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. [Isaiah 53:6a (NLT)

blue morning gloryWhen visiting my daughter’s family in New Mexico, a trip to the pumpkin farm and navigating through the dreaded corn maze is a fall tradition. I say “dreaded” because I’m so directionally challenged that I’d have trouble finding my way out of a box. Fortunately, my daughter did not inherit my poor sense of direction so, like a good shepherd, she carries the map and leads her flock through the maze. As long as the family is in eyesight, I pay no attention to where we are. Last time out, I saw some beautiful blue morning glories and stopped to take photos. Seeing prettier ones down a path, I went over to them, spotted a butterfly, and started following it through the corn. Before I knew it, my family was nowhere in sight and I was hopelessly lost. In a labyrinth of corn stalks, every path seemed to be a dead end and, having left my phone in the car, I couldn’t even call my daughter! Eventually, hearing someone call my name, I looked up and saw my family standing on a high viewing platform in the middle of the field. From their vantage point, they managed to direct me through the maze until I rejoined them.

In Jesus’s parable of the Good Shepherd, I’d often wondered how that one sheep got lost if the shepherd was properly shepherding; now I know. The shepherd was doing his job by leading and the flock was doing theirs by following, but that one lamb wasn’t paying attention to either of them. Perhaps it found some tasty red clover and, spotting a field of pink vetch, wandered over for a nibble. Maybe, like me, it followed a butterfly and, before the lamb knew what happened, it was all alone. It didn’t mean to stray; it just stopped following the flock and paying attention to the shepherd and, once on its own, the lamb was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the good shepherd went looking for it just as my family looked for me.

It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, not just in mazes and pastures, but in the complicated, bewildering and often perilous world in which we live. Jesus, our Shepherd, wants us to be safe by remaining part of His flock. Unfortunately, instead of morning glories or butterflies, we can get distracted by anything from busyness to boredom, from success to defeat. We don’t mean to stray but things like ambition, popularity, self-importance, doubt, worry, discontent, anger, guilt, or disappointment can sidetrack us. We start to wander and, before we know it, we’re lost and vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. Fortunately, we don’t need a phone to call our Good Shepherd; a simple prayer is all it takes.

Staying connected with other people of faith—people who follow the shepherd and will guide us when we’re lost, encourage us when we’re overwhelmed, and correct us when we make a wrong turn—is vital for our survival. As I discovered in the corn maze, it’s best to stay close to the shepherd and flock: they’re the ones with the map who know where they’re going! On the other hand, as members of the flock, it’s important to notice when a lamb has gone missing.

After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  [John 10:4,16b,27 (NLT)]

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NO WORDS OF COMFORT

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. [John 14:1-3 (NLT)]

snowy egretTomorrow would have been Sally’s wedding anniversary but there will be no celebration because tomorrow is the six month anniversary of her husband’s death. Instead of flowers, dinner, and romance, there will be tears. This morning, Sally called her step-mother, Sue, to share her dread of tomorrow. When telling me this, the older woman admitted to being at a loss for words of consolation. This woman of faith, a pastor, had difficulty finding comforting words for a very simple reason: her step-daughter is Jewish. When Sue married Sally’s Jewish father, she respected her new family’s faith just as they respected hers. They know her beliefs and what she does for a living. Sue gladly answers their questions but she chooses her words carefully when speaking of God and, while tempted, never evangelizes. Although her words this morning were as reassuring as they could be without speaking of Jesus, Sue knew they were nowhere near as comforting as they could have been.

In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is mentioned as the place of the dead and the idea of a resurrection appears in Daniel and Isaiah. The Talmud contains references to heaven (Gan Eden), hell (Gehinnom), and the World to Come. Unfortunately, the who, when, what, how and where details are missing and Judaism is ambiguous (and often contradictory) about what happens when one dies. Sue said she listened carefully during her son-in-law’s funeral and interment for words of comfort but heard none at all. After reading the funeral prayer El Maleh Rachamin and the Mourner’s Kaddish, I had to agree.

Had Sally been a believer, Sue might have told her daughter-in-law that she was not alone in distress and reminded her of the time Jesus walked on water and stilled the storm. We have a God who knows when we’re in trouble, is willing walk on water to reach us, and will bring us peace in the middle of the tempest! Sue would have told Sally how much God loves her—so much so that He gave His one and only son so that all who believe would not perish but have eternal life. She would have comforted her with the story of Lazarus and Jesus’s words to Martha that He was the resurrection and life and that anyone who believed in Him would live even after dying. Then again, maybe the widow would have found Revelation’s promise that He will wipe every tear and there will be no more tears, mourning or death comforting. Sadly, those words are of little cheer to a non-believer.

No words can take away the sorrow of a young woman suddenly losing her beloved husband, the father of her three small children, but there is much in our faith that can ease that pain. No Christian is left to face sorrow alone; we have a Savior, a Comforter, and the reassuring and powerful words of Scripture. Thank you, Jesus.

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

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HARD HEARTS

But when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage! I am here!” Then he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in. [Mark 6:49-52 (NLT)]

water liliesAfter feeding a multitude with little more than a handful of food, Jesus sent the disciples across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida. He stayed behind to send the people home and then, exhausted, went into the mountains to pray. During the fourth watch (somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), Jesus looked out at the water and saw that the disciples were struggling against the wind and waves to keep the boat on course. Seeing their trouble, he walked on the water toward them. Instead of being pleased to see Him, the disciples were alarmed and frightened!

By this point in the ministry of Jesus, He had restored a deformed hand; exorcised numerous demons; healed a paralyzed man, a bleeding woman, lepers and even Peter’s mother-in-law among others; raised a girl from the dead; calmed a storm with a few words; and fed a multitude with just a few loaves and fish. What part of these miracles didn’t they get? They shouldn’t have been surprised by Jesus’s appearance; they should have expected it! If someone can still storms and create food, He certainly can walk on water; those are things only God can do!

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re any different than the disciples. Do we have trouble believing what is so obvious? Knowing the end of the story, of course, it’s easier for us; the disciples came in at the beginning and didn’t know how it would end. Nevertheless, that Jesus was more than a wise, kind and gifted healer but actually God in a man’s body is an overwhelming concept for many and remains a barrier to their belief.

Jesus certainly didn’t fit the disciples’ expectations and, sometimes, He doesn’t fit ours. They pictured the Messiah as a conquering warrior and judge but Jesus was the opposite; He spoke of mercy, love, and forgiveness rather than vengeance. While we don’t expect Jesus to slay our enemies, we often think of Him as a sort of cosmic vending machine where we put in a prayer (or make an offering) and out comes whatever it is we want. Like those who expected a military leader, we find ourselves disappointed.

I wonder if the disciples simply were afraid to believe. Just imagine their discussion in the boat that evening as they tried to understand how Jesus managed to feed thousands. They must have wondered what it would mean for them if Jesus really was the Messiah. Would His mission end up as did the failed Messianic movement led by Judas of Galilee: the leader dead and his followers scattered? They weren’t soldiers; they were common working men and Simon was the only Zealot among them. Would they end up headless as did John the Baptist? Did they wonder what Jesus would expect of them? Do we hesitate to accept Jesus because we’re afraid of what He will ask of us? Mark tells us that the hearts of the disciples “were too hard to take it in.” Even knowing all that Jesus had done, they didn’t yet believe.

Almighty God, through the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your holy truth.

Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” [Mark 4:40 (NLT)]

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16 (NLT)]

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