MORE THAN HOT AIR

But I will come—and soon—if the Lord lets me, and then I’ll find out whether these arrogant people just give pretentious speeches or whether they really have God’s power. For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:19-20 (NLT)]

hot air balloonBecause we heard the fan running, we didn’t realize the AC wasn’t working until we returned home after being gone most of the day. By then, the inside temperature of 86 told us we were in trouble. A check outside told us the AC compressor wasn’t operating and the blackened grass near it told us why: a lightning strike during the previous night’s storm! Although the fan could still operate, without the power of the compressor, all it did was blow hot air!

Sure there was a lesson somewhere in all of that useless hot air, I thought of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians expressing his concern about eloquence without evidence. Even though some of their teachers were saying the right things, they weren’t living them out. Without God’s power, they were just windbags and, like our fan, full of hot air! Accustomed as they were to great orators, the Greeks were impressed by eloquent speeches but talk is cheap. Paul explained that the Kingdom of God isn’t speaking the right words; it is living them! He promised that, when he came to Corinth, they’d see the real power of God!

When Paul referred to the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t referring to Christ’s future reign but to Christ’s present reign in the hearts of His followers. The Kingdom of God is wherever the King is and His kingdom isn’t powered by words; it’s powered by the Holy Spirit and leads to changed lives.

John Calvin described a Christian’s task this way: “We must make the invisible kingdom visible in our midst.” That’s not done with flowery phrases, grandiose sermons, impressive words, or empty promises; it’s done by the way we live. As Paul said to the Corinthians: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” [13:1] The Kingdom is made visible by the evidence that our King rules us in every aspect of our lives: whether at work, school, church, or home; with family, friends, co-workers or strangers; when writing a check, browsing the internet, or posting on social media.

The power enabling our air conditioner to function is in its compressor; the power enabling us to function as citizens of the Kingdom of God is found in the Holy Spirit. If we find ourselves just blowing hot air; it’s time to check the connection!

We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. [2 Corinthians 6:6-7 (NLT)]

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ENCOURAGING WORDS

Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you. [2 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)]

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day. [Brewster M. Higley]

pronghorn antelope - buffaloWouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where we’d never (at least rarely ever) hear a discouraging word? It shouldn’t be necessary to ride the range in Wyoming for that to happen.

When my eldest child entered adolescence, it frequently seemed like he’d decided his task in life was to annoy his mother as much as humanly possible. Regrettably, during those challenging years, there were lots of discouraging words. One evening, I realized that our communication consisted of me directing him (“Make your bed!”), correcting him (“Do it this way!”), disciplining him (“You’ve lost that privilege!”), criticizing him (“You can’t go out dressed that way!”), or denying him (“I said ‘No’ and that’s final!”). Admittedly, directions, corrections, and criticism are a necessary part of life as are discipline and denial. Nevertheless, realizing there was a room for improvement on my part as well as his, I made a concerted effort to keep my negative comments to a bare minimum.

Seldom speaking (or hearing) a discouraging word was not enough. Where, I wondered, were the words of love? Where were the words of encouragement so necessary for him to thrive and feel good about himself? One doesn’t need to take psychology 101 or even a dog obedience class to know about the importance of positive reinforcement (which is simply a fancy term for encouragement). I had to add positive and heartening comments to our interaction if he was going to flourish and bloom. With God’s guidance and a heavy dose of the Spirit’s patience, we managed to get through those trying years. In spite of my many parental failings, he blossomed into a delightful responsible young man. A wonderful father, he now has to deal with adolescents of his own (which is God’s payback)!

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” If we all followed that advice, the world would be a much quieter place and we’d never have to watch another campaign commercial! More, however, is needed. The Apostle Paul urged the early Christians to encourage one another and he truly practiced what he preached. Whenever he instructed and directed (even when he disciplined or corrected), Paul always seemed to add encouragement to his words.

Encouragement (or exhortation) is a gift of the Holy Spirit but that doesn’t mean those of us without this gift should fail to encourage! Those gifted with encouragement are the church’s cheerleaders, but the rest of us are the fans in the stands who join in supporting the team! In the Fruit of the Spirit, we find love and kindness (along with patience) which means all Christians are capable of encouraging the people we meet in our daily lives. It’s not enough to seldom speak a discouraging word; we need to speak encouraging ones!

Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know. [H. Jackson Brown]

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)]

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NLT)]

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NOT SEEING THE CAMELS FOR THE GNATS

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! [Matthew 23:23-24 (NLT)]

camelJesus criticized the Pharisees for their meticulous tithing of herbs and spices while missing the more important aspects of the law. While both gnats and camels were forbidden food, in a wonderfully graphic hyperbole, He compared the way they poured their wine through a strainer to avoid accidentally swallowing a gnat (the smallest of prohibited “unclean” animals) while actually swallowing a camel (the largest)! Feeling self-righteous over their adherence to minor details, the Pharisees entirely missed the foundational principles of the Law: loving God and loving others.

Although the law demanded the tithing of produce, the Pharisees in Jesus day debated whether that applied to all the herbs and spices. One group determined it didn’t apply to black cumin but, in later years, the tithing of cumin was again required when the tithing of mint wasn’t. While this seems much ado about nothing, I’m not sure we’re that much different from the Pharisees. We’re probably not splitting hairs about herbs or accidentally ingesting a gnat, but it’s easy to become fixated on the details (tithing, attire, drinking, church attendance, rituals, sex, smoking) while missing the bigger issues like materialism, impatience, anger, pride, selfishness, callousness, lust, duplicity, and prejudice as well as justice, mercy, and faith. If we haven’t neglected church attendance, committed adultery, murdered anyone, robbed a bank, pummeled someone with our fists, or watched porn, we feel complacent and self-righteous. Like the Pharisees, we might not be doing the wrong things, but are we putting into practice the right ones?

It is in Christ’s character that we find the Christian virtues: things like humility, wisdom, self-control, courage, perseverance, patience, peace, joy, self-denial, gentleness, compassion, moderation, kindness, mercy, goodness, integrity, faithfulness, and love. Noting that “things will go swimmingly” for the first week, C.S. Lewis suggested making a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues for at least six weeks. By then, he noted, we’ll have taken “the first step toward true humility” and discovered some rather unpleasant truths about ourselves. “No one knows how bad he is,” said Lewis, “until he has tried very hard to be good.”

It didn’t cost the Pharisees much to strain out a gnat or tithe their herbs and it doesn’t cost us much to obey the letter of the law. Justice, mercy, and faith, however, came at a cost to the Pharisees as the Christian virtues do to us. What good was it for the Pharisee to tithe his dill to the priests but refuse a crumb to the destitute leper begging at the temple steps? What good is it for us to donate ten percent of our money when we won’t give ten minutes of our time to someone in need? Putting into practice Christian virtues is a great deal more difficult than putting ourselves into a pew in a Christian church.

Because they were more concerned about appearing pious than actually being men of virtue and integrity, Jesus continued his denunciation of the Pharisees by comparing them to a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy inside! Like the Pharisees, it’s much easier to avoid scandalous sins – to appear righteous to our neighbors – than to actually be godly people – to be clean both on the outside and inside! Just a week of consciously practicing Christian virtues can be humbling; that’s all it took for me to realize how dirty my cup actually is!

Now is the hour we should humbly prostrate ourselves before God, willing to be convicted afresh of our sins by the Holy Spirit. [Watchman Nee]

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!  You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. [Matthew 23:25-26 (NLT)]

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UNDETERRED (Part 3 – Mark 10:46-52)

Lots of people told him crossly to be quiet. But he shouted out all the louder, “Son of David – take pity on me!” [Mark 10:48 (NTE)]

hibiscusWhen Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, the crowd surrounding him kept telling him to be quiet. Not about to be deterred, the blind beggar just shouted louder. Another man in Jericho was as determined as Bartimaeus: the short and much disliked publican named Zacchaeus. When the little man couldn’t shove his way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of Jesus, he climbed up a tree (an extremely unseemly behavior for a man of his position).

There are many other stories of such dogged determination to see Jesus. In spite of the disciples reprimanding them for bothering Jesus with their children, some parents persevered in getting their little ones blessed by Him. We have the sinful woman who followed Jesus into a Pharisee’s house so that she could wash His feet with her tears and anoint them with her perfume. That she hadn’t been invited to dinner didn’t stop her from worshiping the Lord. In spite of trying to keep His whereabouts in Tyre a secret, a Syrophoenician woman doggedly tracked down Jesus. When she fell at His feet and pled for her daughter’s healing, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Refusing to leave, she even dared to debate with Jesus about her request (inappropriate behavior for a woman of any nationality)! The woman with the bleeding disorder was so intent on touching the rabbi’s cloak that she broke Jewish law and risked public humiliation and severe punishment to get to Him. Two blind men were so determined to see that they followed Jesus right into the house where He was staying. Consider the four friends who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus only to find the doorway blocked. Unwilling to accept defeat, they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man down to the Lord.

Bartimaeus and the rest of these people were not about to be deterred from coming into the presence of the Lord. Are we anywhere that resolute in worship, study, praise, and prayer? Would we fight our way through a crowd, climb a tree, refuse to leave, risk humiliation or punishment, go where we weren’t welcome, or cut a hole in someone’s roof? They did and their determination was rewarded. Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ plea, visited Zacchaeus, blessed the children, forgave the sinful woman, and healed the Gentile woman’s daughter, the bleeding woman, the blind men, and the paralyzed man.

While questioning our determination to be with Jesus, we also might ask ourselves if we might be like the ones who hinder or discourage people from coming to Christ. Are we like those who shushed the blind beggar, elbowed Zacchaeus, scolded the parents, wanted to send away the Syrophoenician woman, reminded the sinful woman she wasn’t welcome, shut the door, or blocked the entryway? Do we openly welcome the very people Jesus came to save: the socially unacceptable, weak, troubled, different, disenfranchised, vulnerable, and unclean? Let us be like those who, upon hearing Jesus’ call, said to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up. Come on,” and led the blind man to the Lord!

Then they too will answer, “Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t do anything for you?” Then he will answer them, “I’m telling you the truth: when you didn’t do it for one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you didn’t do it for me.” [Matthew 25:44-45 (NTE)]

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ASSERT ONLY LOVE

And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. [Ephesians 5:21 (NLT)]

 

While being in lockdown for months may have given some couples a chance to reconnect, that connection wasn’t welcomed by all. Once their mandatory 10-week lockdown was lifted, Italian lawyers reported a 30% surge in couples starting divorce proceedings and both China and Saudi Arabia showed a similar rise when couples emerged from quarantine. For some couples, 24/7 togetherness for weeks on end exacerbated typical martial issues like money, housework, drinking, child care, screen and phone time, and dirty dishes in the sink. With the additional stressors of homeschooling, job loss or working at home, apprehension about the future, and trying to navigate safely in a COVID-19 world, even the best marriages have been tested.

We may have married our spouses for better and worse, in sickness and health, but none of us expected this much togetherness for such an extended time. Before we complain, let’s remember our friends who live alone. With the exception of the pizza delivery man or the cashier behind a plastic shield at Walgreen’s, their contact with the outside world has been from a 6-foot distance. FaceTime or Zoom replaced visits from friends and family and it’s been months since they’ve gotten hugs from anyone. Their isolation puts our petty spousal complaints in perspective!

There always will be disputes in any relationship but, in a good relationship, both parties understand the importance of negotiation and concession. Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly polarized society and the world’s divisiveness seems to have crept into our homes. Lines get drawn in indelible marker (or even cement) and people often think of compromise, trade-offs, finding the middle ground and deference as signs of weakness.

Today, my husband and I celebrate our anniversary. Rather than the traditional romantic dinner, weekend getaway, or family party, we’ll celebrate with a Chicago-style pizza our children sent us and a feel good movie on Netflix. The one tradition we’ll keep, however, is reading 1 Corinthians 13: the same words that were read at our wedding 53 years ago. Paul wasn’t writing about romantic or eros love. As delightful as romantic love is, that’s not what gets people through cancer, job loss, financial worry, Parkinson’s, a disabled spouse, an addicted child, or months of sheltering in place. Paul was writing of agape love—sacrificial unconditional love: the kind of love that carries people through pandemics (and decades of marriage)!

We’re often told to assert ourselves. What if, instead of asserting ourselves, we asserted our love? What if we remembered (and followed) Paul’s words: “love does not demand its own way.” Our love for one another is far more important than almost anything about which we disagree. When faced with disputes, let’s allow love and God to be our guides.

 What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility. [Leo Tolstoy]

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. [1 Corinthians 13:4-5 (NLT)]

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THE ARTIST

And yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be?” [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

horseSeveral years ago, while spending the winter in the mountains, our morning walk took us by an art gallery. We frequently stopped to chat with the owner, look at the latest acquisitions and watch the progress of a local sculptor who had set up shop in the gallery. Working in clay, he was crafting the model for what would eventually be a cast bronze sculpture. As the final shape began to emerge, the artist continued to tweak it with small changes, a little pinch here or a small adjustment there, each time making it a better representation of a cowboy and his string of horses. Envisioning the final product and assured that it was nearly ready for casting, my husband and I made a pre-cast purchase of the piece.

We returned to our Midwest home and waited for the bronze to be completed. Nearly a year later, the gallery informed us that the piece remained a work in progress. They offered us a refund and, impatient and unsure of ever seeing the completed work, we accepted. Two years later, we walked into another mountain gallery and saw the finished piece. While the original concept was still recognizable, the beautiful final product was different (and better) than what we’d expected (and we regretted our impatience).

Works of art rarely are created overnight; they require time and fine-tuning. God, like the unhurried sculptor, doesn’t rush as He works on us. Wanting a masterpiece, He isn’t going to complete us in a few months and the process of sanctification goes on for a lifetime. There is always something in us that needs some modification, even if it means a little squeezing, twisting or pulling one way or another. Just as my husband and I couldn’t visualize exactly how the completed sculpture would look, we’re never quite sure what it is God has in plan for us or how He is going to accomplish it.

Although we didn’t trust the sculptor’s skill, we must trust in God’s heavenly artistry as His expert hands do their holy work on us. While the artist eventually was satisfied enough to cast his work in bronze, God is never quite finished with us; we remain a work in progress until our very last day.

Let us be clay in His hands!

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)]

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