THE GOOD OLD DAYS

Virginia CityDon’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise. [Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NLT)]

When talking with my centenarian mother-in-law, we often spoke of the “good old days.” She sometimes indulged in what I came to call “wishful remembering” and her past became more like a Hallmark movie than reality. I suppose, to some extent, we all do the same. The sledding hill grows steeper, the house bigger, the friends nicer, the grades better, the paycheck larger, and the success greater while any failure, disappointment, blame, pain, or drudgery diminishes. Not every memory we have, however, is a correct one; rather than an accurate record, our memories are actually what we tell ourselves about the past. Given the choice, it’s far nicer to have wishful good memories than ones of bitterness, regret and sorrow and I never corrected my mother-in-law’s. Nevertheless, we must be cautious of becoming too attached to our memories, especially if our less than accurate version of yesterday keeps us from moving into tomorrow.

Less than a month after God’s parting of the Red Sea and their song of victory and triumph at the defeat of Pharaoh, the Israelites had a serious case of wishful remembering and started to grumble. Instead of recalling the slaughter of baby boys and the back-breaking labor of Egyptian slavery, they remembered sitting around in comfort eating all the bread and stew they desired. Months later, they again complained about their hardships while recalling free fish, fruit and vegetables instead of the price they paid in sweat for that food. Rather than oppression, they remembered the “good old days” of Egyptian provision.

Sodom was the place where a gang of men wanted to attack Lot, sexually abuse his guests, and, for reasons beyond our understanding, Lot offered his virgin daughters to a mob of depraved men. When Lot’s family was told that Sodom was to be destroyed, they were urged to flee immediately and specifically warned to neither stop nor look back. Nevertheless, stopping and turning back is exactly what Lot’s wife did. According to the Moody Bible Commentary, the Hebrew word used for her looking back (vathabbet) has a very specific meaning of looking at something with desire or approval. Lot’s family left their home, possessions, friends, and even their sons-in-law behind. Choosing not to recall the evil, Lot’s wife turned, remembered the “good old days,” and longed for what had been and was no more.

When we follow God, we’re not promised an easy journey; in fact, Jesus pretty much promises we’ll encounter hardships. Stepping out in faith often means moving from comfort, convenience, and familiarity into the disruption, trials and vulnerability of the unknown. In light of new challenges and burdens, it’s easy to repaint the past with wishful memories of “the good old days.” As bad as the past may have been for either the Israelites or Lot’s wife, for them it seemed preferable to their unknown tomorrows. Those wishful memories, however, cost the Israelites an extra 38 years and Lot’s wife her life!

While wishful memories can make the past more palatable, they also can prevent us from experiencing the blessings of the future. We must never remember the good old days at the expense of failing to trust God with the new ones.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

But I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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IMMANUEL – PENTECOST

”And be sure of this,” He promised, ”I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

oleanderMy mother’s father walked out of her life when she was a child and never made contact with her again. When I learned this as a girl, I couldn’t understand how someone could do that. How could he not care about the daughter he’d left behind? Didn’t he want to know the beautiful woman she’d become? I secretly fantasized that he would finally come to his senses, seek her out, and embrace both his daughter and his grands. He never did.

People come in and go out of our lives; some leave abruptly and others just fade away. We see that most clearly in December with Christmas cards. We remove names from our list because we stopped getting a card from someone we haven’t seen for twenty years or last year’s card was returned as undeliverable. Because of a death or divorce, some cards we receive are signed by only one when once there were two. In this world, people move, depart, and die and even our closest relationships are only temporary.

Relationships may be transitory, but there is one constant: Jesus. Isaiah called Him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” But, when Jesus lived as a man, He could be with only a few people at a time. Confined to a man’s body, even though he was God, He couldn’t be with everyone at once. When in Capernaum, He drove an evil spirit out of a man and healed both Simon Peter’s mother and the paralytic who came through the roof but He had to leave Capernaum to raise the widow’s son in Nain and heal the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda.

Because Jesus couldn’t be with people in Jerusalem, Gennesaret, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Cana, Bethany, Ephraim, and Samaria all at once, he journeyed from place to place. It’s estimated that He walked more than 3,000 miles during his three year ministry. Sadly, we don’t know what became of most of the people whose lives He touched. After Jesus left Samaria, did the woman He met at the well ever see Him again? Did she lose touch the way we lose touch with old friends? What of the ten lepers, the two blind men, Jairus, his daughter, or the bleeding woman? Jesus was with them for a time but then He left to preach and heal elsewhere. When confined to a human body, Jesus couldn’t be with both Martha and Mary in Bethany and with the disciples a day’s journey from Jerusalem. When He lived as a man, Jesus was only Immanuel, “God with Us,” to those who were near Him.

When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t leave us alone the way the loved ones of so many of my friends have. When He ascended into heaven, Jesus didn’t move without a forwarding address, lose touch with us as happens with friends, and He certainly didn’t walk out on us the way my grandfather did to his family. Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven but He never really left us. Because of His Holy Spirit, Jesus is truly with every one of us, all of the time, no matter where we are. Moreover, unlike my grandfather who never came back for his children, Jesus will. No longer limited by time or space, He is, indeed, Immanuel: God with Us.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. [John 14:16-18 (NLT)]

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IT CONTINUES [THE HOLY WAR – Part 2]

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10 (RSV)]

Lucerne - city wallMankind falls within the first few pages of Genesis as does Mansoul within the first few pages of John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War. Resembling real life, Bunyan’s King Shaddai sends his son, Prince Emmanuel, to rescue the fallen city. Under Diabolus and his minions Lord Will-be-will and Misters Lustings, Forget-good, No-truth and Unbelief, Mansoul refuses to listen to Shaddai’s captains. The gates to the city are double-locked and Mr. Prejudice and his band of Deafmen guard Ear-gate (the most likely place the King’s forces will try to enter). Nevertheless, Prince Emmanuel delivers Mansoul from the tyranny of Diabolus, Mansoul repents, and Emmanuel forgives. The story, however, is far from over because Diabolus is not done with Mansoul.

Just as the Israelites failed to rid the land of Canaanites and idolatry, Mansoul failed to rid the city of the many Diabolonians who remained in strongholds after Emmanuel’s victory. Lords Blasphemy, Adultery, and Mischief along with Misters Profane and Deceit plot Mansoul’s destruction. Mr. Self-secure misleads Mansoul into thinking it is strong and invincible, beyond the reach of any foe, and not dependent on Emmanuel. Diabolus returns with his army of Doubters and assaults Ear-Gate with incessant drumming. Captains Brimstone and Sepulcher are placed at Nose-Gate; the grim faced Past-Hope at Eye-Gate; and Captains Cruel, Torment, and No-Ease at Feel-gate. Diabolus seeks to fill Mouth-gate, the voice of prayer, with dirt. The town resists but its gates are weak. Diabolus and his Doubters again take possession of the city; this time, however, they cannot take the castle, the heart of Mansoul. On the third day, Emmanuel returns to them and Diabolus and his Doubters are routed from the town. The city again seeks to rid itself of any remaining Diabolonians such a Misters Mistrust, Flesh, Sloth, Legal-life, and Self-love. Mister Unbelief, however, is far too nimble to be caught and Carnal-sense escapes from prison.

Bunyan’s allegory is more than a story of man’s fall and redemption; it tells of the continuing conflict between good and evil for the possession of man’s soul. Starting with innocence, followed by temptation, sin, and repentance, the story doesn’t end there. Sadly, there is more temptation and sin followed by more repentance. With Unbelief and Carnal-sense still at large, the reader is left to believe that will not be the last time temptation and sin rear their ugly heads.

In Emmanuel’s final commission to Mansoul, he warns them not to live by their senses but by his Word. When explaining why Diabolonians are allowed to exist, he says, “It is to keep you awake, to test your love, to make you watchful… My design is that they should drive you, not further off, but nearer to my Father, to teach you war, to make petitioning desirable to you, and to make you little in your own eyes.” He adds, “Love me against temptation, and I will love you notwithstanding your infirmities … I have taught you to watch, to fight, to pray, and to make war against my foes, so now I command you to believe that my love is constant to you.”

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. [2 Corinthians 10:3-6 (RSV)]

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BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

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)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

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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DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

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TO BE STILL

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. … Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world. [Psalm 46:1,10 (NLT)]

When we’re told to “Be still” in Psalm 46, we tend to think in terms of stopping movement—our busyness, frantic activity, or agitated actions. We associate it with a director yelling, “Cut!” the ref blowing his whistle, or a frustrated parent’s “Cut it out!” Being still can entail all of that, but it is much more. The root of the original Hebrew word used for “still” is the verb rapa which means to be faint, forsake, or sink down. When used as the imperative ra’pha’h, as it is in Psalm 46, it means to drop or release our concerns, to become weak, or surrender. While most Bible versions translate this as “Be still,” some translate as desist, stop fighting, cease striving, be quiet, or be at peace. In short, we’re being told to stop anxiously fighting a situation and leave the matter to God—to relax our grip on things, stop worrying and let it be.

Forgetting that we can’t save ourselves, we often base our self-worth on what we can do—our strength, self-sufficiency and independence. It goes against the grain to accept that we must become weaker so that God can become stronger and that we must lose our lives to find them. But, it is when we loosen our grip, release our hold, and admit our helplessness that we finally understand that God is God and we are not!

Do we come to God with clenched fists or open hands? Do we come with hands clutching things like worry, fear, possessions, expectations, wealth, plans and goals or with open hands that have relinquished those things to God? “Be still,” we’re told—loosen the grip and surrender to God. Remember, just as clenched fists can’t release anything, they also can’t receive God’s blessings! Today, instead of bringing my hands together in prayer, I opened them and turned my palms upward in a symbolic gesture both of surrender and acceptance. I was still and knew that He is God.

When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer. [Corrie ten Boom]

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. [Psalm 37:3-5,7a (NLT)]

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