IT’S OKAY

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

lilac breasted rollerToday’s email contained a meme of that lovable loser Charlie Brown with the caption: “The smile on my face doesn’t mean my life is perfect. It means I appreciate what I have and what I have been blessed with. I choose to be happy.” The meme reminded me of words spoken by Jane Marczweski when she appeared on America’s Got Talent last week: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” Known as Nightbirde, the 30-year-old vocalist sang an original song called “It’s Okay” and received the “golden buzzer” from judge Simon Cowell. She said she wrote the song as a reminder that, “You can be happy and also be going through something really hard at the same time—you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

The young woman knows what she’s talking about. After being treated for breast cancer in 2017, numerous tumors in her lungs, liver, nymph nodes, ribs, and spine were discovered in December of 2019. The overwhelming diagnosis of terminal cancer came with the prognosis of six months to live and only a 2% chance of survival. But, as she optimistically says, “2% is not zero. 2% is something and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” Although declared “cancer-free” after her second battle with cancer, she recently was diagnosed with this terrible disease a third time. At the time of her audition, she had “some cancer” in her lungs, spine and liver. Although Jane received more treatment after the audition, it is too early to know the results. But, as she so aptly puts it, “2% is not zero!”

As Christians, we shouldn’t need a cartoon character meme or even an amazing young woman’s example to remind us that circumstances need not determine our state of mind. Regardless of what we happen to be going through, as Christians, we know we are blessed every day in every way. Faith is trusting God’s plan, as inexplicable (and unpleasant) it may be. Faith is being able to smile in the midst of pain because we know that, in spite of our anguish, God loves us. Faith is being able to rejoice in the Lord regardless of what He throws at us because we know that we are not alone. As Christians, we know that faith is not about everything turning out okay; faith is about being okay regardless of how things turn out! Faith is being able to echo the words of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1:21]

But here’s one thing I do know: when it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. … And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you, because God is drawing near to me. [Jane Marczweski (Nightbirde)]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. … You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. [1 Peter 1:6,8 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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HE HAS HIS PURPOSE

“Why doesn’t the Almighty bring the wicked to judgment? Why must the godly wait for him in vain? … Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? … You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” [Job 24:1,38:1-2,40:2b (NLT)]

Like Job, Richard Wurmbrand suffered unspeakably horrific circumstances and certainly had reason to ponder God’s purpose in his troubles. An evangelical minister in Romania, he endured more than eight years of Communist imprisonment and torture before being released. He immediately returned to his underground church ministry, was re-arrested, and sentenced to another 25 years in prison. After six more years of imprisonment, Wurmbrand was freed under an amnesty program and again returned to his ministry. When the Communist regime accepted a $10,000 ransom for him, Wurmbrand left his homeland and became a voice for persecuted Christians. When testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1966, he stripped to the waist to show the 18 deep scars that covered his torso—undeniable evidence of the brutal torture he and others endured at the hands of their Communist captors.

In his 100 Prison Meditations, Wurmbrand, who knew suffering first-hand, tells a story about Moses, who was meditating near a well. When a traveler stopped to drink from the well, the man failed to notice his purse fall onto the ground. After his departure, a second man came along. Spotting the purse, he picked it up, and went on his way. Later, a third wayfarer arrived who, after drinking from the well, took a nap in the shade.

When the first man discovered his purse was missing, he returned to get it at the well. Upon seeing the sleeping man, he woke him and demanded his money. When the third man pled his innocence, the first man became furious and killed him.

Speaking to God, Moses explained that it was times like that, when evil and injustice seemed to reign, that caused men not to believe in the Almighty. “Why,” he asked, “should the first man, who merely lost his purse, become a murderer?  Why should the second man get a purse full of gold without having worked for it? And why should the third completely innocent man be slain?”

God responded that once, and only once, He would give an explanation for all that happened. God explained that the first man was the son of a thief and the purse he lost was filled with gold stolen from the father of the second man. By taking the purse, the second man only took what was rightfully his. The third man, while innocent of stealing the purse, was a murderer who’d gotten away with his crime and had finally received the punishment he deserved. God finished His explanation by saying, “In the future, believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.”

For those of us who’ve never endured the misfortunes of Job or Wurmbrand, it’s easy to say that all things work for good until, of course, the things that happen are terrible! Nevertheless, Wurmbrand’s story came from a man who suffered in a horrific way because of his faith and knew first-hand how unfair and painful life can be. He also knew that all things are not good—there is nothing good about torture, oppression, slave labor camps or persecution. Nevertheless, Wurmbrand also knew that God, in His own time and own way, can take bad things and mix them together in such a way that they bring about something better—a better that is not dependent upon man’s understanding.

Rather than ask why, as did Job, let us believe in a God who loves us, who is at large and in charge, who has His reasons for all that happens, and who will achieve His purpose. “And what is that purpose?” we ask. Pastor Adrian Rogers answers, “To make us like Jesus. To be conformed to the image of His Son. There is no higher good than to be like the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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)]

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SHE DIDN’T KNOW – GOOD FRIDAY

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end! [Luke 1:31-33 (NLT)]

Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” [Luke 2:34-35 (NLT)]

Golindrinas - 14 Station of the CrossSeveral years ago, my mother-in-law was despondent when my brother-in-law’s deteriorating health necessitated hospice care. Parkinson’s disease had taken a terrible toll on him and a mother’s heart breaks when she sees her child’s life disintegrating before him. Yet, that’s what happened to Mary.

My sister was distraught when her son was diagnosed with inoperable cancer; his promising future was cut short and she grieved as she saw him in pain. In the prime of his life, he wasn’t much older than was Jesus when He walked to Calvary. Any mother’s heart breaks when she sees her child suffer. Yet, that’s what happened to Mary.

At a funeral many years ago, I remember the mourning mother speak to me of her child’s death. “It’s not right!” she protested, “I’m the one who is supposed to go first. A mother isn’t supposed to bury her child.” No, a mother isn’t supposed to watch her child suffer and die nor should she witness him laid in his grave. Yet, that’s what happened to Mary.

Like any mother, Mary had high hopes for her special child. The angel’s words more than thirty years before led her to think He’d reign over Israel. That horrible Friday, as her beloved son hung on the cross, did she remember Simeon’s prophetic words and feel that sword pierce her soul?

Did Mary know that Isaiah’s prophecies were about her boy Jesus—that it was her son who would be beaten and whipped, unjustly condemned, “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” and have his life “cut short in midstream?” [Isaiah 53:5-8] Could she possibly have understood how this miraculously conceived son—the infant she nursed at her breast whose birth was heralded by angels, the babe given costly gifts and worshipped by magi from the East, the child Simeon said would be the glory of Israel, the boy smart enough to converse with rabbis, the young man who turned water into wine—would end up dying a criminal’s death?

Standing at the foot of the cross, her hopes for her boy were dashed as He was spat upon and mocked. As He struggled to take His last few breaths, Mary heard his anguished cries and she watched her baby boy die a tortuous death. Her mama’s heart broke as He was placed in a borrowed tomb. Mary didn’t know what Sunday would bring.

When the grief-stricken women went to the tomb that Sunday morning, they didn’t bring clean clothes for a resurrected man; they brought spices for the anointing of a dead body. They weren’t expecting an empty tomb. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, they didn’t know.

He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. [Isaiah 53:9 (NLT)]

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TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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THE ANCHOR

So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. [Hebrews 6:18-19 (NLT)]

duluth MN harbor - anchorThe sign in front of a nearby church read, “Our hope is anchored in the Lord,” which got me thinking about anchors. I’d never given them much thought until we took a Windjammer cruise off the coast of Maine many years ago. Accompanied by four friends and a crew of two, we sailed for a week. At dusk, we’d lower the sails and anchor in a harbor for the night. After breakfast, we’d pull up anchor for another relaxing day of sailing by lighthouses, granite cliffs, fishing villages, and even a few seals. One day, however, gale force winds replaced the gentle breeze and the calm sea turned violent. The sky darkened as rain and hail poured down on us. We immediately pulled into the nearest inlet, lowered the sails, and dropped two anchors to keep from being blown into the rocks! If we’d had two more anchors (as did the sailors in Acts 27), I suspect we would have dropped them, as well. After donning my life jacket and slicker, all I could do was pray and hope those anchors held. You really don’t appreciate the worth of an anchor until you’ve needed one in a storm!

Since the anchor symbolized hope in the ancient secular world, the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews would have understood the author’s use of the anchor as a metaphor for hope. It is a vivid picture of what keeps us steady and safe in the storms of life—times of trial, danger, hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. An anchor, however, is only as secure as that to which it is fastened. The anchor of hope is not buried in sand or hooked onto a rock that might pull loose. The believer’s hope in Christ is secure, because it is fixed in the very presence of the Almighty.

When the epistle writer says that hope “leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary,” he’s referring to the Holy of Holies—the inner room of the Temple holding the Ark of the Covenant. Only the high priest could go into this holy place (anyone else would be killed). The priest entered just one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only to offer a blood sacrifice. The Holy of Holies was the special dwelling place of God and the curtain emphasized His inaccessibility because of man’s sins. When Jesus died, the curtain tore in half, symbolizing that the way to God was now open to all.

Just as a boat’s anchor holds it safely in position, a Christian’s hope keeps him safe and secure. Like an anchor, God will keep us steady in the storms of life—when the wind of fear blows, suffering rains down, opposition crashes into us, trials threaten us, and uncertainty rocks us to and fro. A boat’s anchor goes down and digs into the bottom of the sea but a Christian’s hope goes up to the heavenly sanctuary and attaches itself to God!

What an anchor is to a vessel in its tossings, so the hope is to us in our times of trial, difficulty and stress. The anchor is outside the ship, is connected with it, and keeps it secure. [W.E. Vine]

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. [Hebrews 10:23 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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