YES!

You see, my dear family, we don’t want to keep you in the dark about the suffering we went through in Asia. The load we had to carry was far too heavy for us; it got to the point where we gave up on life itself. Yes: deep inside ourselves we received the death sentence. This was to stop us relying on ourselves, and to make us rely on the God who raises the dead. He rescued us from such a great and deadly peril, and he’ll do it again; we have placed our hope in him, that he’ll do it again! [2 Corinthians 1:8-11 (NTE)]

blue flag irisI know I’m not invulnerable but I never thought of myself as particularly vulnerable until now. Since I am well over 65, I am officially vulnerable to COVID-19, as is my husband; that knowledge, along with the terrible toll being taken by this pandemic, has put me on edge. Knowing that it is just a matter of time before someone I love is taken down by this virus has unnerved me. That my prayer list is lengthening by the day doesn’t make it any easier. Before this, I rarely had been apprehensive about my health or that of my family, uneasy about our finances, or concerned about the family business. I’ve endured my share of trials, sorrow, illness, and uncertainty but this combination of circumstances is the “perfect storm” that has shaken me to my core.

As I prayed reassuring Bible verses this morning, I realized how much easier it is to talk the talk than actually walk the walk. I wondered if the Apostle Paul ever was shaken by circumstances. Throughout his ministry, he suffered trials and persecution. He was stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, beaten, betrayed, and abandoned and yet it seems as if God’s abundant grace sustained him throughout his life. In 2 Corinthians, Paul tells of a time he felt unbearably crushed by circumstances, so much so that he thought he’d die. As he came to realize his powerlessness, however, he stopped relying on himself and came to trust and depend on God. Delivered by God from whatever the trial was, Paul boldly stated that God would deliver him again.

Jumping ahead another ten years, however, we find Paul in a Roman prison. A few years earlier, he’d been released from his first Roman imprisonment (a house arrest) but now he was sitting in Rome’s Mamertine dungeon. Although he’d escaped a death sentence at his preliminary hearing, he fully expected to be found guilty at his final trial. Knowing his execution was imminent, there was no bold statement that God would deliver him. Nevertheless, in 2 Timothy, we don’t read the words of a man who is afraid or anxious; they are the words of a man who trusts God and lives by faith rather than sight. They are the words of a man who is calmly facing his future, whatever that may be, with confidence that God will bring him safely into His kingdom.

Rather than saying, “No!” to God, we see Paul saying an enthusiastic “Yes!” to all that will happen, whatever that may be. Like Paul, we must learn to rely solely on God and release our fears and anxiety to Him. To really do that, however, we also have to release our future – our hopes and dreams – to Him, as well. Let us trust in God: that He will give us the strength to endure whatever the future holds and that, in the end, He will bring us safely into His kingdom!

How to get through this? My prayer will be the words of former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld: “For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. … The Lord will snatch me clear from every wicked deed and will save me for his heavenly kingdom. Glory to him for the ages of ages, Amen! [2 Timothy 4:6-8,18 (NTE)]

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THE SONG OF HOPE

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. [Psalm 62:5-6 (NLT)]

northern mockingbirdA family of mockingbirds has moved into a nearby bush and they frequently serenade us from their vast repertoire of songs. Hearing their exuberant and joyful warbles is a perfect antidote to the sameness of life during this pandemic. While being charmed by their avian concerts, I thought of Emily Dickenson’s poem “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”

What exactly is hope? In the world’s view, hope is like wishful thinking: an “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I hope it will be something good!” attitude. We hope for a cure, a job, a raise, or a phone call without knowing if we’ll receive them. Worldly hope can fail us—the cure isn’t found, the job falls through, the raise doesn’t materialize, or the phone doesn’t ring. We live in a fallen world where we will be disappointed and our hopes often are dashed.

Biblical hope, however, never disappoints because it is based on God’s promises; it is confident that something will come to pass because God has promised it! We may hope our circumstances will improve while knowing they might not but that uncertainty about our circumstances or how God will answer our prayers doesn’t mean we don’t have hope. Ours is a living hope; while it looks to the future, it is grounded in the present. We put our trust in God because His promises became a reality in Jesus. We don’t have to dream of a better life tomorrow because Jesus had given us a better life today. Our Christian hope is a confident expectation that God will work “for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” [Romans 8:28] It tells us that eventually God will deliver us and that our salvation is secure.

Although raised in a Christian family, Emily Dickenson never made a public profession of faith in Jesus, explaining, “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.” She was, perhaps, more honest than many of us. Nevertheless, several of her poems reveal her Christian roots. I think she understood a Christian’s hope in her metaphor of hope as a bird. Just as a bird perches on a branch, hope rests in our soul. Like a bird, Christian hope sings its pleasing song endlessly and, undeterred by hardship, hope’s song sounds sweetest in a storm. The bird’s song can be heard from the coldest land to the strangest sea and Christian hope can be found from the bleakest of conditions to the most inexplicable of situations. Even in the harshest circumstances, the bird never asked anything of Dickenson and our hope, the hope offered by Christ, asks nothing of us. We can’t earn it or buy it; it is there for the asking if only we believe!

For many right now, this is a time of darkness and fear and it seems like hope has taken flight. It hasn’t! God doesn’t change—He’s still there—the promises He made yesterday hold true today. God promises to be with us—both on the hilltop and in the valleys. Promising provision, His grace is sufficient for us. Promising to empower us, He tells us that, when we are weak, He is strong. As I listen to the mockingbirds’ songs, it seems as if they know God’s eyes are upon them and that He will take care of them. [Matthew 6:26,10:29] They remind me to live with hope perched in my soul.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
[Emily Dickenson]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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PROMISES MADE AND PROMISES KEPT

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

New England asterWith just 31,164 verses in the entire Bible, a Canadian schoolteacher named Everett R. Storms questioned claims that it held around 30,000 promises. During his 27th reading of the Bible in 1956, the inquisitive Mr. Storms compiled a list of all Scripture’s promises. Given that the books of prophecy are filled with promises (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have over 1,000 each) and the psalms are steeped in promises, no wonder it took 18 months to complete this massive task! When finished, Storms had recorded 8,810 promises: 7,487 of which were made by God to man and 290 by man to God. Other promises were made by one man to another, by God the Father to God the Son, by angels to people, by man to an angel, by an evil spirit, and by Satan (all nine of which were lies).

While we’d like to lay claim to all 7,487 promises made by God to man, we must be cautious. Many of those promises were made to a specific person or in a specific situation. Although God’s promise to Noah that floodwaters would never again kill all life and destroy the earth is a promise for all of mankind, His promises to Abraham of fame, land, a son, and countless descendants were specific to him. God has not failed us if, unlike Abraham, we are without fame, property or children.

Moreover, many of God’s promises have conditions that test our obedience, require our trust, or act as a warning and those promises can’t be claimed without meeting the conditions. God promises us the desires of our heart in Psalm 37 with the conditions that we delight ourselves in Him and His character, commit everything we do to Him, and trust in Him. [37:4-5] When the Apostle James writes of the blessings and “crown of life” promised by God, the conditions include perseverance through trials by those who love Him. [1:5] In Romans, we find God’s promise of the free gift of eternal life, but it includes a warning that the “wages of sin” are death! [6:23] Unlike a legal document, God’s promises aren’t concealed or hidden in legalese; if there are conditions, they are spelled out clearly and any consequences are well defined.

What of those 290 promises made by man to God? After God promised His blessings to Israel if they obeyed Him and kept His covenant, they responded: “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” [Exodus 19:8] Sadly, their well-intentioned promise was repeatedly broken. As flawed mortals, we continue to be unable to live up to our promises to God. Fortunately, because He is a God of grace and true to His Word, we can live our lives depending upon His promises to us.

I can’t name the 7,487 promises God made to man. Nevertheless, during Lent, I compiled a far shorter list of verses with God’s promises to serve as an anchor of my faith. I know that He promises to give us wisdom if we ask, to provide a way out of temptation, and to finish the good work He began in us. He promises that our belief in Jesus gives us eternal life, that our salvation is secure, and that nothing can separate us from His love. God promises that He can turn every circumstance around for our long-range good, that He’ll never leave or forsake us, and that He will return! Without a doubt, what God promises will come true!

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. [Hebrews 6:18 (NLT)]

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A PROTECTIVE HEDGE

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” [Job 1:9-11 (NIV)]

armor - castle chillon - lake genevaYou’ve probably heard people pray for a hedge of protection around friends or family members. Is it an impenetrable bubble that keeps tragedy and trouble at bay or a substance that acts like kryptonite against Satan and protects us from his temptations and deceit?

In Biblical days, hedges of loosely packed stones or thorny bushes were built around livestock and crops to protect them from wild animals and thieves. A hedge in Scripture often represented God’s protective care and we find mention of such a hedge in the book of Job. A wealthy and godly man, Job’s righteousness was challenged by Satan. Questioning the motivation for Job’s blameless behavior, Satan complained that God put a hedge of protection around the man and all his possessions. Wanting to prove that Job only worshiped God because of the blessings he’d received, Satan suggested that once God removed the hedge and Job’s blessings disappeared, rather than worshiping God, the man would curse God to His face! When Job loses his ten children and their families, his workers, his livestock and wealth, and then his health, it becomes clear that no hedge protected him from tragedy.

Satan, however, was wrong about Job cursing God! His righteousness and integrity weren’t because of God’s gifts. Job worshiped God out of love and not as payment for the blessings of health, wealth, and family. Although the afflicted man questioned God’s reasons while trying to sort out his dilemma, he never cursed Him. A hedge didn’t make Job invincible to Satan’s ploy; it was his faith!

Today, COVID-19 is putting us all to the test and, like Job, we find life incomprehensible. Job didn’t know the why of his troubles and we’ll never the why of this pandemic but, like Job, we know who is in charge! Satan thought people believe in God only when they’re prospering under a hedge of protection, not when they suffer loss, pain, or defeat. Are we fair weather believers and only willing to follow God if the road is filled with blessings? Or, like Job, will we stay faithful while experiencing the devastation this disease will leave in its wake? Much will be lost before the crisis passes and it probably won’t be returned two-fold as it was for Job—at least not in this world! Let us rest assured: full restoration will occur in the life to come.

Rather than building a hedge of protection out of rocks or thorny shrubs, let us erect one out of our unshakable faith in a loving God and our confidence that His ultimate purpose will come to pass. While social distancing, sheltering in place, and washing our hands may serve to protect us from this virus, only the armor of God will protect us from Satan!

Anyone can rejoice when things are going reasonably well. But when we’re facing adversity or sickness or hardship or death and then we rejoice, we are obeying God. God is on his throne. He loves you and is watching out for you. So rejoice in the Lord. [Greg Laurie]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. … so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Ephesians 6:10-11,13-17 (NIV)]

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THE OTHER DAUGHTER (Mark 5:21-43 – Part 2)

And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” [Mark 5:34 (NLT)]

moon flowerThe daughter of Jairus wasn’t the only daughter in yesterday’s story. Concealed by the crowd surrounding Jairus and Jesus was a woman who had suffered with a bleeding disorder for twelve years. Because of Jewish law, she was ritually unclean and excluded from all social contact. The Talmud describes some eleven treatments for menstrual disorders and she had tried them all. Having spent everything she had to find a cure, her hemorrhaging had only gotten worse. Nevertheless, sure that just touching the rabbi’s clothing would heal her, she furtively pushed her way through the crowd to make contact with Jesus’ robe.

Immediately after touching the hem of His garment, the woman felt the bleeding stop. Although she’d hoped to go unnoticed, Jesus stopped and asked who’d touched His robe. He didn’t have to bring the woman’s touch to everyone’s attention but Jesus wanted to commend her faith. Afraid to admit she’d broken Jewish law, the woman hung back. It was her responsibility not to contaminate others with her uncleanness and she’d made the good rabbi unclean just by touching his clothing!

When the woman fell at His feet and confessed what she’d done, Jesus’ reaction was not one of anger at being tainted by her touch but one of compassion. Calling her “daughter,” He said her suffering was over and told her to go in peace. I picture Him touching her cheek, gently lifting her bowed head, and looking into her tearful eyes as He spoke. By publicly acknowledging her touch, Jesus showed His willingness to be identified with the unclean. Quite likely, His was the first hand to touch her in twelve years and His was the hand of God! Instead of defiling Jesus with her touch, she’s been made clean by His!

This encounter comes in the midst of Jairus’ urgent mission to save his daughter. Can you imagine his anxiety as Jesus talked with this woman? Did he pace or pull at Jesus’s robe? As ruler of the synagogue, Jairus was important enough to be named but the woman was an anonymous nobody. He was in the center of society while she was a social outcast who wasn’t allowed to attend the synagogue. While he and his daughter had twelve years of happiness, she’d had twelve years of misery and, while Jairus had friends and family, the bleeding woman had lost them all. Their only common ground was their faith in Jesus’ power and their desperate need for healing which caused them both to cast caution to the wind and fall at His feet.

As Jesus was calling one woman “daughter,” Jairus received news that his daughter was dead. While a woman who’d been as good as dead regained her life, his child had died. Although we’d expect the prominent Jairus to react in anger at the rabbi’s delay caused by this insignificant woman, there is no record of accusations or harsh words. Instead, Jesus tells him to have faith and the two men continue onto Jairus’ house. Was it the woman’s miraculous healing that enabled this father to react so calmly, to still believe in the power of Jesus? He’d originally come to Jesus to heal his daughter but now he needed Him to resurrect her! Jesus, however, is in the resurrection business and, just as His power returned the bleeding woman to life, His touch brought Jairus’ daughter back to life!

When it seems like God is ignoring our need or that He must be busy elsewhere, let us remember that Jesus was never in a rush and recall His words to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.” [Mark 5:36] It is in Jesus, that we have life!

So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:31 (NLT)]

I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26 (NLT)]

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A NEW NORMAL

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience. What’s more, you must let patience have its complete effect, so that you may be complete and whole, not falling short in anything. [James 1:2-4 (NTE)]

hoary comma anglewing butterflyBy the end of the phone call, tears were rolling down my cheeks; yet another loved one is seriously ill. Given my age and that of my friends, I shouldn’t be surprised; we are nearing our expiration dates so receiving news of someone’s illness or death is becoming my new normal.

As I added this new name to my lengthy prayer list, I considered the new normal for those on it: chemo, radiation, weekly blood work, reconstructive surgery, chronic pain, widowhood, Parkinson’s, financial troubles, Alzheimer’s, the challenges of staying sober, and the demands of 24/7 care giving. Their normal certainly isn’t one they would have chosen deliberately.

Then I thought about the new normal to which all of us are adjusting because of COVID-19: social distancing, elbow bumps and toe taps, streaming church services, travel restrictions, hand sanitizers and bleach wipes, phone calls and emails instead of meeting over coffee, broken supply chains, cancellations, working from home, lay-offs, school closings and on-line classes, along with hoarding, shortages, and price gouging! None of us are immune to COVID-19 and many of the people I know and love will be touched by it. Things will get worse before they get better and there will be more tears before this ends.

COVID-19 has disrupted all of our lives and, while we have little control over the virus, we do have control over navigating our new normal. The eight bottles of tequila in one woman’s cart told me how she’s planning on doing it! Three women in Australia got into a brawl over a cart of toilet paper while, in Italy, a man’s inadvertent brush against another erupted into a fist fight that ended only when the police and an ambulance arrived. Don’t let that be us! While we can’t discount the threat, our new normal must not be one of anger, violence, alcohol, fear, complaint, drugs, denial, depression, paranoia, panic, or anxiety.

Let us remember that we have a God who loves us. Life isn’t perfect, but it hasn’t been perfect since Eden! Nevertheless, life is doable, not on our strength, but through God’s power. Coronavirus (like pain, disappointment and loss) is just another one of those unwelcome gifts that come with life in a fallen world. Like Job, we will never know the “Why” of it but, as Christ followers, we know in whose hands we rest.

Jesus told us trouble was inevitable; no one gets a free pass. Nevertheless, a pastor friend often says, “It’s all good.” In itself, COVID-19 isn’t good any more than are cancer or the death of a child. Nevertheless, it’s “all good” because God, in His infinite wisdom and love, will bring good out of it. We may not see it, we don’t always like it, and rarely do we understand it, but it is all for good. While we may have tears, R.C. Sproul reminds us, “For believers, there are no tragedies!”

Because of Christ, we have victory over sin and Satan; Romans 8:28 assures us that we also have victory over our circumstances. Let us stand on God’s promises and boldly navigate the next several weeks while praising, thanking, praying, walking in faith, and bringing light into the darkness (while frequently washing our hands)! Let the joy of the Lord be our strength in this new normal.

We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. [Romans 8:28 (NTE)]

For this reason we don’t lose heart. Even if our outer humanity is decaying, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day. This slight momentary trouble of ours is working to produce a weight of glory, passing and surpassing everything, lasting for ever; for we don’t look at the things that can be seen, but at the things that can’t be seen. After all, the things you can see are here today and gone tomorrow; but the things you can’t see are everlasting. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NTE)]

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