FLOWERS AND BIRDS

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? [Matthew 6:26-30 (NLT)]

cardinal - narrow-leaved sunflower - Corkscrew SwampI’ve never seen a field of lilies in blossom but they couldn’t be any more beautiful than the field of narrow-leaved sunflowers that surrounded me at the bird sanctuary recently. Standing in wonder as their yellow faces smiled down on me, I was reminded of Jesus’s words about the lilies of the field. When I came upon a cardinal pecking away at a large ripe berry, I remembered His words regarding the birds. While watching the bird enjoy his breakfast, the story of Elijah and the ravens that fed him came to mind and I thought about God’s promise to provide.

Having more than enough clothes in my closet and a pantry full of food, I’m not worried about food or clothing. I do, however, tend to worry about God’s provision of words for these devotions. Trust in Him doesn’t come automatically—it is a learned response. Nevertheless, even though God has provided me with fodder for over 1,600 devotions, I’m a slow learner and I still have trouble trusting Him to continue with His provision.

Throughout Scripture, God promises over and over again to provide and, over and over again, people don’t trust Him. Consider the Israelites; after being told there would be manna enough every day, they tried to save it. Even though stored manna turned rotten and maggoty, I would venture a guess that some people continued trying to save it. If I’d been there, I probably would have tried different types of containers, hoping that I’d eventually find the right way to preserve manna (just in case God missed a day)! Later, when God promised to provide the power and strength to take Canaan, the Israelites didn’t believe that God’s provision would be enough and refused to enter. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have trusted God’s promise any more than did the rest of them.

You’re probably not worried about words and maybe not even food or clothing. Even so, we’re all worried about whether God will provide enough of something we need, be it money, health, time, comfort, friends, faith, strength, wisdom, peace or patience. Remember, God promises to provide for the birds and flowers and they’re not even made in His image! Jesus didn’t die on the cross for them and the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell within them, yet God provides for them! God loves us—we’re created in His image, redeemed by His son, and given eternal life by Him. As His beloved children, we ought to trust Him enough to provide our necessities! When God brings us someplace, as He did with the Israelites and Elijah, He’ll provide us with a way to meet our needs, be it manna on the ground, ravens bringing us food, or wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

God looks at the anxious and says, I tore my Son to shreds for you, and you’re afraid I will not give you what you need? [Timothy Keller]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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THE STRANGLER FIG

The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. [Mark 4:18-19 (MSG)]

strangler fig - corkscrew swampAs a rule, trees start as seeds in the soil, form a cylindrical trunk and observe proper forest protocol by not killing one another. The strangler fig, however, is the exception to that rule. Strangler figs tend to grow in dense forests where the competition for light is intense. When forest critters eat their fruit, fig seeds are left in their droppings. Although unable to survive in the darkness of the forest floor, these seeds thrive when deposited higher in the crevice of a tree. Starting out as what’s called an epiphyte or air plant, the seed gets its nutrients from sun, rain and organic material on the host. As the seedling matures, it sends out long roots that grow downward toward the soil. Once rooted, the fig grows rapidly, sending more roots down and new branches upwards. In time, its lush foliage and complex root system compete with the host for light, rain and ground water. Walking through the southwest Florida forest, you can’t help but notice the figs’ bizarre lattice work of roots and branches wrapped around the trunks of their hosts and it’s often hard to know where one tree ends and the other starts. Eventually, the fig assassinates its host by cutting off its nourishment; like a boa constrictor, it strangles its prey to death.

Just as a tiny fig seed can eventually destroy a giant cypress; if allowed to take root, worry can do the same to us. Like fig seeds, worries are opportunistic—when they find a niche, they move right in and start growing. They seem harmless enough at first but, once they take root, they dig into us and branch out into even more worries. Rather than wrapping around our trunk, worry wraps around our spirit and, like the fig, steals the light from our lives. The fig embeds itself into its host and worry entrenches itself in our hearts. A silent assassin like the fig, worry attacks our roots with doubt and tries to rob us of the living water of Jesus. At least the figs produce fruit to feed the residents of the forest; worry, however, keeps us from bearing any fruit and starves our spirit. The fig’s many nooks and crannies offer homes to critters like frogs, bats, and lizards but worries only offer hospitality to things like anxiety, fear, doubt, and tension. The strangler fig sentences it host to certain death and, like it, worry is a killer. It kills our joy, vitality, strength, spirit, and faith but it can also strangle the life right out of us with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related diseases.

The oaks, cypress and palms have no choice in the matter when a fig takes root. Fortunately, we have a divine Gardener who can rid us of worry but only if we trust Him to do His work. Without allowing worry to take root, we must prayerfully hand God our concerns as soon as they drop into our lives. It’s only by trusting God with tomorrow that we can bear fruit today.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:21 (MSG)]

But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. [Mark 7:21-22 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneI recently saw a play in which the only character, Lisa, presents a monologue about her life and family. The audience learns that her father, Walter, a German-born Jew, escaped to the U.S. as part of the kindertransport effort but that the rest of his family perished at Auschwitz. During her monologue, Lisa tells of taking her then 75-year old father to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. While touring the concentration camp, Walter tells his daughter about attending school with members of the Hitler Youth. Being a Jew, he couldn’t wear one of their uniforms but another boy in his school, a Gentile, refused to wear one. Her father then tells her that, in spite of the horror of Auschwitz and the loss of his family, he is glad he was born a Jew—because he didn’t have the option of becoming a Nazi! Unlike the Gentile boy who refused to join (and suffered because of it), Walter realized that, had he not been Jewish, he might have joined the Nazis. He knew that part of him could have been as merciless and evil as the men who rounded up and exterminated his family.

After the war, Walter returned to Germany as an interrogator of German personnel. In her soliloquy, Lisa tells how he admitted to callously browbeating one prisoner into confessing that he’d rounded up Jews from the Ghetto. Rather than turn the prisoner over to the allies for trial, Walter handed him over to the Russians, men he knew would summarily execute the German in the woods. Perhaps Walter was right; in other circumstances, he might have joined the Hitler Youth.

Hearing this story made me wonder what darkness lurks in my heart. In other circumstances, could I spew hate, inflict pain, ignore my conscience, turn my back on my brothers and sisters, or close my eyes to evil? Could I ever be like Haman (who plotted to exterminate the Jews) or Abimelech (who killed his 70 brothers)? Could I have worn a Hitler Youth uniform? Sadly, in another time, in another place, perhaps my heart could have deceived me to do just that.

Just because I’m capable of evil, however, doesn’t mean I have to be evil. Rather than betray Jesus as did Judas, I could be as faithful as John. Rather than the closed minds and murdering hearts of those who stoned Stephen, I could be as holy and forgiving as the martyred man. While I could be as scheming and immoral as Herodias, I also could be as obedient and fearless as her victim John the Baptist. Yes, I could have joined the Hitler Youth, but I also could have refused to be part of such evil and willingly suffered the consequences.

There is something terribly wrong with our hearts that, if allowed to grow, can become horrendous and unthinkably evil, but there also is something beautifully right with them. We are made in the image of God; deep inside us there is something of Him and He has written his law in our hearts. He gave us the gift of free will and, with every choice, we either become more or less like the person God made us to be. Because our hearts can be deceitful, corrupt, and self-serving they can lead us astray but they don’t have to! When led by the Holy Spirit, our hearts can be so filled with good that there is no room left for evil.

For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. … Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. [Psalm 51:5,10-11 (NLT)]

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. [Galatians 5:22-24 (NLT)]

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BEWARE THE YEAST

purple prairie clover“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” [Matthew 16:6 (NLT)]

In Biblical days, rather than using a packet of Fleishman’s yeast for leavening, people kneaded a small amount of old fermented dough called a starter or seor into fresh dough. When a yeast starter gets contaminated by bacteria, however, it gets a moldy odor of decay and, if mixed into new dough, its foulness will spread; the resulting bread will be unpleasant and inedible.

We’re all familiar with Jesus’ warning to the disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees. They weren’t bakers so what was their yeast? I’d always thought of it as the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and false teachings. And, while both of those can spread and spoil like bad leavening, I think there’s more to his caution.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, disregarding all of Jesus’ previous miracles, had demanded an impressive miraculous display from Him. Jesus wasn’t an entertainer and His miracles were never for show. Knowing nothing would convince the religious leaders, He refused and left. Shortly after that, Jesus and the disciples departed to the other side of the lake. It was when the disciples realized they’d failed to bring provisions that Jesus first warned them about the yeast of the Pharisees. Thinking He was talking about bread, they then started arguing with one another about not having anything to eat. Imagine their conversation as they pointed accusing fingers at one another for having no food—each man trying to shift the blame for the oversight to someone else. Totally misunderstanding Jesus’ warning, they were bickering about bread and worrying about their next meal when Jesus had just fed thousands with only a few loaves and fish. Our Lord was probably rolling His eyes at their blind foolishness. Like the Pharisees, what part of His many miracles didn’t they understand? Twice they’d ended up with several baskets of leftovers after feeding a multitude; certainly lack of bread shouldn’t pose a problem for just twelve men. Reminding them of His previous miracles of provision, Jesus told them He wasn’t speaking of bread. When He again told them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, they finally understood He was speaking of their unbelief.

Although Jesus warned them of this very thing before they’d started to argue, like the Pharisees, they ignored what they knew of Him and His miracles. Instead of allowing their belief to grow into trust, they allowed doubt to taint their faith and their relationship with one another in the same way that bad yeast contaminates bread. A little bit of uncertainty and skepticism swelled into fear, anger, and criticism. They were squabbling about bread for supper when they had the bread of life right beside them.

We all must beware the yeast of the Pharisees: not just false teaching and hypocrisy but also lack of trust!

Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation. [D. Elton Trueblood]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. [John 6:35-36 (NLT)]

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LETTING GO

gulf fritillary - Monarch butterfliesBut blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers — Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

This morning, in a symbolic gesture of turning my worries over to God, I added a name to the “God box” that sits on my desk. Yesterday, I received a photo of my grand proudly holding a bowl of pasta with the text, “I have yet to set off the fire alarm with my cooking.” As I looked at her beautiful smile, I prayed, “Dear God, please let setting off that smoke alarm be the worst thing that happens to her this year!” She just started her freshman year of college, in a large city, in a foreign country, 5,500 miles from home. I know that drinking and drugs are pervasive on all college campuses and, having been a freshman once upon a time, I know how many foolish mistakes can be made when free from parental supervision. Yet, even if every decision my grand makes is a wise one, I know the statistics: with a more than a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted in her college years, she’s most vulnerable to attack her freshman year. Since the day my son left his daughter at her apartment, my concerns have weighed heavily on my heart. Nevertheless, I know that all the worry in the world can’t protect her from harm. Accepting that all I can do is give my concerns to God, I put her name in my box.

“Let go and let God!” is a favorite phrase in recovery but that doesn’t mean we let the troubles of this world run over us like a steamroller. When there’s a fire, we don’t stand idly by and say, “Let go and let God!” With God’s direction, we reach for a hose and do what is within our control. Letting go and letting God is refusing to worry about fires that haven’t started (and might never start) and recognizing when a fire isn’t ours to extinguish. It is, however, more than putting a name on a slip of paper and placing it in a wooden box. It’s surrendering the outcome we desire and letting God manifest His will for the outcome He wants. It’s releasing our concerns and fears to Him and trusting His plan for the lives of those we love.

I can’t protect my grand from poor decisions or the violence and sorrow that comes from living in a fallen world. But, by putting her name in that box, I’ve acknowledged that my job description as grandmother does not include running the world; I’ve relinquished that role to the One whose job it is! I will continue offering prayers on her behalf but those prayers will no longer be ones of fear, anxiety, or apprehension. They will be ones of faith and trust because I know that God loves her even more than I do.

You find no difficulty in trusting the Lord with the management of the universe and all the outward creation, and can your case be any more complex or difficult than these, that you need to be anxious or troubled about His management of it? [Hannah Whitall Smith]

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

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THEY SENT HIM AWAY (Mark 5:1-18 – Part 2)

If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 NLT]

pansyThere’s probably no end of sermons and commentary on the swine that went plunging into the lake after Jesus saved the demoniac. “Why pigs?” some ask while others focus on the death of the animals rather than the salvation of a man. Non-believers criticize Jesus for his “wanton destruction” of other people’s property without realizing their criticism implies their belief in the miracle. Theologians respond that since Jesus is God, those pigs actually belonged to Him. I don’t know what the demons wanted when they asked to be sent into the pigs, why they plunged down the hillside to their death, or what happened to the demons after that. What I do know is that the value of 2,000 pigs does not exceed the value of one human soul.

Rather than the pigs, I’d rather consider the townspeople and their reaction to the demoniac’s miraculous healing. A crowd soon gathered around Jesus and the now obviously sane man. Rather than joy over his miraculous restoration, the people only saw their loss and they told Jesus to go away. Since much of their wealth had just perished in the lake, their initial reaction is understandable. Moreover, with the Gerasenes being a Gentile region, the people had no messianic expectations. Understandably, encountering a man so powerful that he could banish demons and send pigs over a cliff frightened them. Yet, there is no record of anyone asking Jesus who He was, why He’d come, what He wanted, or from where His power came. They just pled with Him to leave them alone!

Unfortunately, the people closed their minds and chose wealth and fear over the miraculous healing brought by Jesus. What Jesus could have given them far outweighed the loss of a herd of pigs. Surely, the demoniac wasn’t the only one in the region needing healing and yet no one else approached this amazing healer who’d arrived on their shores. Sadly, the people were so afraid of how Jesus would impact their lives that they rejected Him. I wonder if we, like the people of the Gerasenes, allow fear and materialism to keep us from welcoming Jesus into our lives. As theologian D.A. Carson says of the Gerasenes’ people, “They preferred pigs to persons, swine to Savior.” We must never do the same!

When Jesus steps into our lives, He radically changes us. He will restore us as He did for the demoniac but it will come at a cost, as it did for the townspeople. Jesus doesn’t want just a portion of us and what’s ours—He wants all of us and everything we possess. That means giving up a whole lot more than a herd of pigs. Rather than being afraid of Him and His power, as were the townspeople, we must trust Him and welcome Him with open arms. After all, is anything worth more than a soul?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (NLT)]

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