WHAT IF?

What if the Lord had not been on our side? Let all Israel repeat: What if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us? [Psalm 124:1-2 (NLT)]

butterfly on lantanaI looked down at my wedding ring and asked myself, “What if?” What if an odd set of circumstances hadn’t occurred and I hadn’t met the man I married when I did? What if he hadn’t relentlessly pursued me? What if we hadn’t gotten married less than a year after meeting? Since my father’s death occurred only a few months after our wedding, had I not been married, I would have been left completely on my own at the unwise age of twenty. I don’t think the “What if?” scenario would have been very good. I do know it wouldn’t have been as wonderful as the scenario God gave me.

“Whew, that was close!” Surely, you’ve had times like that—occasions when you’re sure God’s hand delivered you: that split second that kept you from being a traffic fatality, the chance encounter that led you to the solution for which you’d been searching, being one of the 5% who beat the prognosis, or the time your toddler’s close encounter with a car was only that—close. “What if…?” we ask ourselves. What if He hadn’t saved me from my enemies? What if God hadn’t stopped me when He did? What if He hadn’t saved me from myself? While I’m not much for looking back and regretfully asking that question, when asking it reinforces our confidence in God’s deliverance, it’s a good question to ask.

Monuments and holidays help us remember God’s deliverance. Moses built an altar of stones at the foot of Mt. Sinai to commemorate God’s covenant with Israel and representatives from the twelve tribes gathered stones to build a memorial to remind the Israelites how the waters of the Jordan River stopped flowing for them. Our Jewish friends celebrate Purim as a reminder of their deliverance from Haman’s murderous plot and Passover as a reminder of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter to remember what Jesus did for us with His birth and resurrection. We remember deliverance in other ways, too. A friend tattooed his sobriety date, his day of freedom from addiction, on his ankle. For over 75 years, my mother-in-law displayed four small faded Limoges plates. They were all that remained of her family’s china after their home exploded and burned in 1929; they reminded her of her family’s survival. Those plain plates now reside in my china cabinet to remind me that we can lose just about everything but, as long as we have God and family, we will have enough and can persevere.

We often forget what God has done for us. Worse, we often attribute it to good luck or to our own skill. David’s psalm asks the people of Israel to consider what might have happened if the Lord had not been on their side. He points out that the Egyptian solders and Israel’s enemies through the ages would have destroyed them. After reviewing God’s past deliverance, he declares his confidence in God’s future faithfulness.

While it’s not wise to dwell on the past, every once in a while it’s a good idea to ask ourselves, “What if?”

They would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger. The waters would have engulfed us; a torrent would have overwhelmed us. Yes, the raging waters of their fury would have overwhelmed our very lives. Praise the Lord, who did not let their teeth tear us apart! We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap. The trap is broken, and we are free! Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:3-8 (NLT)]

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I’M BUSY

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want, pick up their crosses, and follow me. [Matthew 16:24 (GW)]

campion“I’m so busy!” If there’s even a remote possibility we might be asked to do something we’d rather avoid, we can cut the request off at the pass by starting the conversation with those words. It’s the perfect out. On the other hand, when said to us, we can’t argue with it. I have a relative who has a variation on this strategy. After asking how she can help, without pausing for the response, she launches into a litany of the many exhausting demands on her time and challenges already facing her. Given how busy she claims to be, there’s no way anyone would dare ask for her help!

Mark tells the story of friends who carried a paralyzed man on a pallet to see Jesus in Capernaum. Unable to get him through the mass of people crowding into the house where Jesus was preaching, they hauled him up to the roof, dug a hole through the thatch, and lowered the man down to the room. Even though a quick trip to take their friend to see Jesus became a major undertaking and engineering feat, they weren’t too busy to help.

What of the blind man in Bethsaida? If his friends had been too busy to bring him to the Lord and beg Jesus to touch and heal him, he would have remained blind. Surely the Roman officer, a centurion who oversaw one hundred soldiers, was a busy man. Nevertheless, he took the time to find Jesus and plead for his young servant’s healing.

Consider Job’s friends—in spite of their business and family obligations, they weren’t too busy to drop everything and travel from their homes to offer him solace. These men didn’t just stop by to leave a covered casserole and offer quick condolences; they sat shiva, silently mourning, with Job for seven days. In spite of the errors in their theology, their intentions were good and they weren’t too busy to come!

No one is really too busy—we all manage to find time to do the things important to us; it’s simply a matter of priorities. While God doesn’t expect us to give an automatic “yes” to every request, He probably doesn’t want an automatic “no” either. Let’s face it; “I’m busy” is just an easier way to say “no!” Being busy, however, can hinder our relationships not just with people, but also with God! No matter what’s on our schedule, we must never be too busy for Him. Yet, we often start our prayers with that very complaint or answer His call with that response. He knows exactly how busy we are and how we spend (or waste) our time and energy. We need to listen and pray before deciding we’re too busy for friends, family or God. Even though He runs the entire universe, God is never too busy for us; how can we possibly think we’re too busy for Him?

Respect people who find time for you in their busy schedule, but love people who never look at their schedule when you need them. [Anonymous]

I encourage you to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, dedicated to God and pleasing to him. This kind of worship is appropriate for you. Don’t become like the people of this world. Instead, change the way you think. Then you will always be able to determine what God really wants—what is good, pleasing, and perfect. [Romans 12:1b-2 (GW)]

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SHED THE SHROUD

Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” [John 11:43-44 (NLT)]

red-spotted purple admiralWhen Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the once dead man emerged from the tomb with his face wrapped in a head cloth and his body bound in burial garments. Jesus commanded people to unbind him and free him from the trappings of the grave. Something tells me that, after four days in a tomb, Lazarus left behind more than some linen cloth soiled with the detritus of the tomb and death. While we don’t know what he experienced during those days, He must have returned to life with a new perspective. As he walked into the sunlight he never expected seeing again and inhaled the air he never anticipated breathing again, can you imagine how much he appreciated his new lease on life? Given a second chance, he probably wasn’t about to bring any regrets, resentment, anger, or guilt with him. Raised from the dead, he probably shed much of his past along with that shroud as he stepped from the tomb’s gloom.

Unlike Lazarus, we haven’t physically died. Our family didn’t wash us with warm water, rub us with spices and oil, wrap us in a burial garment, lay us in a tomb, and mourn our passing. Like Lazarus, however, we were dead before answering Jesus’ call. Born again into a new spiritual life, we are no longer spiritually dead and our grave clothes are no longer necessary. Lazarus shed his, why can’t we? We tend to carry the detritus and debris of our yesterdays with us when we come to Christ. Instead of putting on the new clothes of salvation and righteousness, we stay wrapped in the shroud of the past that’s stained with betrayals, anger, disappointment, loss, and hurt and embellished with remorse and disgrace. Even when we think we’ve donned the fresh clothes of a new life in Christ, we often tuck a pang of guilt or shame into a pocket. We can’t believe we’ve been forgiven, but we have; we can’t believe we’re good enough, but we are; we can’t believe He could possibly love us, but He does!

When Lazarus stepped into the light from that dark tomb, he shed his shroud. When we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we were given a new spiritual life; let us shed our past and clothe ourselves with joy and the presence of Jesus Christ.

And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. [Galatians 3:27 (NLT)]

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy. [Psalm 30:11 (NLT)]

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COMPASSION FATIGUE

Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” [1 Kings 19:4 (NLT)]

hibiscusMost of us think of sloth as laziness: a dislike of work or any physical exertion. Having watched the local zoo’s sloth in action (or, rather, inaction), I think the sluggish animal is appropriately named. Spiritual sloth, however, is far different than being a couch potato. Originally, the sin of sloth was two sins: sadness and acedia. Compiled by Evagrius of Pontius, 4th century monk, these two “capitals sins” were part of a list of eight he believed to the greatest threats to devout monasticism.

We know what sadness is and it’s important to remember that the sadness which Evagrius found problematic for his monks was not clinical depression; it was that despondency or gloom that easily came upon a monk living an ascetic life of prayer, fasting and labor in the middle of the Egyptian desert in the 4th century. It was unhappiness with one’s present situation and the melancholy that comes from longing for something different. It was distress at one’s circumstances and the inability to give thanks in all things. In this troubled world, we certainly don’t have to be monks to suffer that kind of sadness.

Acedia comes from the Greek and means without care or concern. Rather than laziness, it is apathy or a fatigue of mind and soul. A spiritual boredom or weariness, acedia results in listless prayers, study or service. In the midday heat, the monks were tempted to let their minds wander during study and prayers and then fall asleep causing Evagrius to call acedia the “noonday demon.” Seeing the correlation between sadness and acedia, in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory combined the two sins into sloth .

A few mornings ago, I fell victim to compassion fatigue and began to understand spiritual sloth. The previous night’s discussion in Bible study had been disheartening. We’d talked of the recent hurricanes (with yet another one on the horizon), Mexico’s earthquakes, Puerto Rico’s devastation, Korea’s threat, the horrendous carnage in Las Vegas, a polarized nation, and the unrest in the Middle East. As I added that night’s heartbreaking prayer requests to my already burgeoning and depressing list, I grew numb with grief. “What’s the point? I wondered as I listed a two-year old just diagnosed with metastasized stomach cancer, a woman who may lose her feet because of nursing home neglect, and a friend’s suicidal son. “What difference can I make? Why bother?” I cried. At that point, my heart was so weary with grief that I no longer wanted to care or pray. I probably felt as Elijah did when, while fleeing Jezebel, he sat down under that broom tree and said he wanted to die. That’s spiritual sloth and it’s not just monks and Old Testament prophets that can be afflicted with it. The enemy wants us all to become so downhearted and world-weary that we fall into spiritual inactivity or sloth.

Elijah was cured of his spiritual sloth by food, rest, and a talk with the Lord. Although I didn’t eat, I was nourished by Scripture. I didn’t sleep but I rested in the words I read and then, like Elijah, I had a prayerful chat with God. God whispered to Elijah and gave him new strength. He whispered to me and refreshed me with his words of love, comfort, reassurance and hope.

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer. [Psalm 94:18-19 (NLT)]

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. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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GOD’S BANKERS

wild geraniumThere are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors. [Deuteronomy 15:11 (MSG)]

The Hebrew word for what we call “charity” is tzedakah; its nature, however, is far different than acts of benevolence or generosity. Rather than being a magnanimous act by someone more fortunate, tzedakah is considered an act of justice and righteousness. It is remedying a wrong, doing what is right and just, and fulfilling a duty; in short, it is giving the poor what they deserve.

In writing about charity, Rabbi Yanki Tauber tells of a wealthy man who often supported his rabbi’s charitable activities. One day a letter requesting a large sum for a good cause arrived. At the time, money was a little tight and making a donation was inconvenient so the rich man ignored the request. Shortly after that, his businesses began to fail and the wealthy entrepreneur lost his entire fortune.

The distraught fellow went to the synagogue and berated the holy man for not warning him that he’d suffer if he ignored the rabbi’s plea. “I would have given you the money had I known what punishment I would suffer!” he said. The rabbi calmly responded that the loss of money wasn’t a punishment. “Nothing that was yours has been taken from you,” he explained, adding that God had allotted a certain amount of resources to the rabbi in his work. Since the time he spent in prayer, studying, teaching, counseling and helping others left him no time to manage finances or property, the rabbi’s resources had been placed in the trust of several people who acted as “bankers” for that wealth. In turn, those bankers recognized the value of the rabbi’s work and supported it. When the once rich man failed to carry out his banking duty, the money was simply transferred to another, more responsible, “banker.”

God loves all of His children but that does not mean that He allots equal portions of blessings or sorrows to each of them. Some are healthier, wealthier, smarter, more talented or more attractive than others. Some people seem to escape misfortune while others seem to encounter storms at every turn. Because of an accident of birth, we may live comfortable lives in a wealthy nation or suffer in poverty in a corrupt or war-torn land. Some people have power and are easily heard while others are powerless and often ignored. That we are not given equal portions, however, does not mean that we are not equally deserving. If we have been blessed with wealth, education, influence or opportunities, we should think of ourselves as God’s bankers. We’re just holding on to other people’s resources and it is our job to distribute those resources to their rightful owners. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, Christians should be dispensers of tzedakah. Unlike them, however, we don’t do it to buy our way into heaven (which it won’t). We do it because God tells us it is the right thing to do!

God does not need your good works, but our neighbor does. [Martin Luther]

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. [1 John 3:16-17 (MSG)]

Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (MSG)]

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THE BLESSING

As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.” And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. [Matthew 26:26-28 (NLT)]

columbineThe celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion has been central to our Christian worship since the early church. If asked the meaning of the word eucharist, most of us would probably respond that it is the Christian sacrament that commemorates the Last Supper with bread and wine. While it has come to mean that and often refers to the consecrated elements, especially the bread, the word eucharist originally meant something else entirely. Coming from the Greek words eukharistos, meaning grateful, and kharizesthai, meaning to offer graciously, it is a translation of the Hebrew word berekah which means a blessing or benediction. Acknowledging God as the source of all good things, a berekah would be similar to the grace or table blessing we offer before or after a meal.

When Jesus spoke the traditional Passover meal berakahot that night in the upper room, he gave them new meaning when he added the words, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” In thanks, He raised the bread just as his body soon would be raised on the cross. He took the matzah that symbolized the suffering of Israel, thanked God for it, and broke it, knowing that his body would be broken in less than a day. As He passed it to the disciples, the bread that once symbolized Israel’s suffering became the bread that would symbolize His. The disciples may have thought he was simply offering a blessing for the Passover bread but Jesus was offering thanks for the body which soon would be defeated by thorns, whip, nails and cross. He then thanked God as he poured out the wine that symbolized Israel’s redemption from Egypt and passed it around. The disciples may have thought he was giving thanks for Israel’s redemption from Egypt but Jesus knew it was for their redemption from sin. For something to be redeemed, however, a price must be paid and Jesus knew that price would be his blood. While pouring out the wine, He knew his blood would soon pour from his body and yet he still gave thanks. Knowing full well the torment he would suffer, He graciously offered himself for us and gave thanks.

Last week, when the Words of Institution were spoken before Communion and the bread and wine were consecrated, I realized I hadn’t fully appreciated the circumstances in which those words originally were spoken. Jesus knew He’d be betrayed, disappointed and denied within hours. He knew the agony that would soon occur. Jesus knew he would be broken and bleed. He knew the real sacrifice was not the lamb on which they’d supped; He was the sacrificial Lamb of God and yet He acknowledged God as the source of all blessings and thanked Him! Blessed be the Lord; let us give thanks!

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings bread from the earth. … Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. [Jewish prayers over bread and wine] 

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [John 1:29 (NLT)]

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