BEING GRATEFUL FOR WHAT WE HAVE – THANKSGIVING DAY 2019

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)]

great blue heron with snake“As an inmate on death row, I am under many restrictions,” began the writer of my morning’s devotion. Realizing that he’d constantly been asking God for more, the prisoner prayed that God would help him be more grateful for what he already had. Curious about the author, a quick internet search told me that thirteen years ago he was convicted on one count of burglary and two of first-degree murder. His brutal crime was premeditated, there was no question of his guilt and one could say he was “as guilty as sin;” then again, so are we all! It was in prison that he found Jesus.

I pondered how a man, awaiting lethal injection, would choose to pray that God would help him be more grateful. Having lost his appeal to the state Supreme Court, wouldn’t he have some more pressing requests? Nevertheless, after praying for more gratitude, the inmate wrote of smelling the aroma of soup and being thankful that he had soup to satisfy his hunger. Mind you, that was prison food for which he was thankful, not a gourmet dinner! Writing that he sensed God’s pleasure at his gratitude, he understood that God had given him all he really needed and would continue to meet his needs; he was content with that knowledge.

Recently, a friend told me of her morning’s prayers. Although she has plenty more for which to be grateful than an inmate on death row, she was far from content. Admitting to a litany of complaints and entreaties, she was in the midst of her petitions when she distinctly heard the Spirit’s voice: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Immediately seeing that her way clearly was not God’s, the tenor of her prayers changed. Realizing that she had all she truly needed, she stopped fixating on what she lacked; gratitude and praise replaced her grievances and appeals.

Perhaps, because there are so many restrictions on what he can do and have, the death row inmate truly understands the rest of today’s verse: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” His prison job earns him less than $3 an hour and he lives in a cell furnished with only a sink, toilet, bed, and wall-mounted writing table. With two officers monitoring him at all times, he has no privacy. Although he is allowed one visit (with no more than two visitors) per week, no physical contact is permitted. In prison until his execution or he dies of old age, he has already lost most of his life. There is little that he can hold on to but his soul. Perhaps, having so little, it was easier for him to give what little he had left to God.

If we took serious inventory, the vast majority of us are more like my complaining friend than the prisoner. Yet, even having more than enough and little about which to grumble, we tend to want more of something or a better version of what we already have. Our prayers tend to be more along the line of “My will be done” than “Thy will be done.”

Let our prayers today be ones of gratitude. May we join that prisoner in asking God to help us to focus on the gifts right in front of us rather than obsessing about what we lack. Let us find our contentment in Christ.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV)]

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A CHANGE OF HEART

beeding heartsFor you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. [Romans 2:28-29a (NLT)]

In 1962, my infant nephew was baptized after coming with his parents more than 1,300 miles to meet his grandmother. Because my mother was hospitalized (and would be dead in a few weeks), the sacrament took place at her bedside. This was the only time my nephew and his grandmother met and the last time my sister saw our mother alive.

My brother-in-law was opposed to infant baptism. Nevertheless, my father wanted my mother to see and hold her first grandchild (as much as he wanted that baby baptized). Because children were not allowed to visit hospitals at the time, Dad convinced my brother-in-law that a hospital baptism was the only way grandmother and grand could meet. The hospital was run by the Sisters of Charity so my father knew the nuns wouldn’t deny his request (especially since he neglected to mention that the priest was Episcopalian rather than Roman Catholic).

Unfortunately, other than the funerals of his grandparents, that probably was the last time my nephew came near a minister, church, Bible, prayer book, holy water, or even a nun (several joined us in my mother’s hospital room.) His parents are good people but non-believers and he had no religious education. By the time he was in his teens, my nephew was diagnosed as bipolar and, as often happens for people with his disorder, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. A vicious cycle began as the substance abuse exacerbated the mental illness and his disease increased the abuse. Truly a lost soul who, by now, has lost most of his mental capacity, when he’s not incarcerated or hospitalized, my nephew lives on the streets or couch surfs through the homes of other users. While I can’t know what is in anyone’s heart, I doubt that he believes in Jesus. Yet, he’s been baptized, leading me to wonder, “Does that mean he’s saved?”

As a sign of God’s covenant with Israel, all of Abraham’s descendants were to be circumcised. In Romans 2, however, Paul points out that, for the Jew, the true sign of belonging to God was not the ceremony of circumcision; it was a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. It was God’s spiritual surgery upon the heart rather than the removal of one’s foreskin that made a Jew right with God. While there are parallels between baptism and circumcision, they symbolize two very different covenants. Nevertheless, while studying Romans and rereading today’s verse, I replaced “Jew” with “Christian” and “circumcision” with “baptism.” Indeed, Christianity has nothing to do with parentage and baptism alone does not bring salvation; salvation requires a change of heart.

My childhood prayer book calls baptism an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Without that “inward and spiritual grace,” I fear it is just a ritual. External actions like baptism, communion or church attendance are not what make us Christians. Salvation doesn’t come by works or sacraments; it comes through God’s grace through faith!

Assuming he has never come to know Jesus and be filled with His Holy Spirit, I fear that my nephew’s baptism 57 years ago didn’t make him a Christian any more than his hospital circumcision made him a Jew. While baptism is a step of obedience for every Christian, it does not save us. Our salvation is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection and is available only through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us all beware of trusting that baptism alone will bring us to heaven.

Tragically, some people believe they are going to heaven when they die just because a few drops of water were sprinkled over their heads a few weeks after their birth. They have no personal faith, have never made a personal decision, and are banking on a hollow ceremony to save them. How absurd. [Max Lucado]

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:9-10 (NLT)]

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LOST AND FOUND

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. [Luke 15:4-6a (NIV)]

dahlia“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures [mankind] to persevere. …this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” So writes the demon Screwtape to his nephew, an apprentice devil trying to win a young man’s soul, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

A woman recently shared her story of Satan’s campaign of attrition. Since childhood, she dutifully attended church every Sunday and, once she had children, insisted that the family worship together. She’d taught Sunday school, volunteered for service projects, and attended churchwomen’s programs. Nevertheless, after her youngest left for college, she woke up one Sunday morning and, for no particular reason, decided to stay home. She skipped church the following week and the weeks after that. Before long, she returned the Bible on her bedside table to the bookcase and never picked it up again (not that she’d picked it up much before then). When she stopped praying, I’m sure Satan thought he’d won his campaign. None of this was because she was plagued with doubts or had experienced something that shook her faith. She just gradually stopped caring and, starved of fellowship, God’s word and prayer, her faith had withered away.

Fortunately, we have a loving Shepherd and, when one of his lambs goes missing, He will go in search of it, which is what the Holy Spirit did one Sunday several years later. The woman awoke that morning and, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to go to church. Once there, she learned of a church-wide challenge to read the Bible and committed to doing it. Realizing her need for a study group once she dug into her newly purchased large-print Bible, she joined one. Her faith again became active and alive; the good Shepherd had brought her home!

At one time or another, many of us have experienced similar experiences of having our faith grow dim and dusty; if you haven’t, chances are that you will. The enemy doesn’t quit when we accept Christ; he just changes his tactics. We must be alert to his methods and persevere in our faith as he tries to destroy our relationship with Jesus by making us complacent, neglectful, or simply bored. He nibbles away at things like church attendance, Christian fellowship, Bible study, and prayer so that, instead of growing spiritually, we begin to atrophy. When we take our eyes off the Shepherd, like the lost lamb, we wander into the wilderness.

Fortunately, we are never so lost that we can’t be found. Even when we think we’re finished with God, He’s never finished with us. God certainly wasn’t done with that woman. Shortly after her return to the church, she entered seminary at the age of 52! Now ordained, she is the pastor who teaches my Tuesday Bible study!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. …You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  [Hebrews 10:23-25,36 (NIV)]

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TRANSFORMING PUMPKINS

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

The Food Network’s “Outrageous Pumpkins” features remarkable pumpkin artistry as it pits four pumpkin carvers against one another in a three-round competition. Competitors create traditional Jack O’Lanterns, 3-D pumpkin carvings, and then their own free-style pumpkin masterpieces. Using everything from melon ballers to huge saws, they make intricate designs and sculpt extraordinary and intricate works of art. As someone who is severely pumpkin-challenged (and eventually purchased a permanent Jack O-Lantern that came with an electric light), I am impressed by the skill of these pumpkin artists.

Watching those carvers transform what is nothing more than a large gourd into a work of art, I couldn’t help but think of another artist who is in the business of transformation: God. There are both similarities and differences between transforming pumpkins into Halloween décor and transforming people into Christians. In both cases, the finished product bears little resemblance to what it once was (but, instead of becoming something frightening and macabre, the Christian becomes more beautiful)!

Both carvers and God start by making a selection but, unlike the pumpkin artists, God isn’t looking for perfection. He’ll take any color, size, condition or age. Scratches, bruises, blemishes, a dried up stem, and even a little mold or rot won’t keep anyone from His workshop. Just as the carvers cut into the pumpkins and scrape out all of the slimy stuff inside, God opens us up but, rather than scooping out our guts, He scrapes away things like fear, anger, despair, doubt, hate, pride and greed. Instead of an X-Acto knife, vegetable peeler, saw, or drill, God’s tools consist of His word, the church, and both blessings and challenges. Just as those artists’ imaginative creations surpass the toothy smile and triangle eyes of the typical Jack O’Lantern, each one of God’s creations is a one-of-a-kind custom design. The pumpkin carvers, preferring something frightening or creepy, usually give their creations a menacing face. Although the Christian’s outward appearance may not change, God wants His handiwork to spread faith, hope and love rather than terror or dread so He gives us a far nicer demeanor. Occasionally, the carvers make small mistakes; when that happens, they either alter their designs or use a toothpick to reattach a piece. Unlike the carvers, God never makes a mistake; every one of His creations is a masterpiece.

Although the carvers leave their pumpkins hollow, God fills His people with the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Wanting their creations to glow from the inside out, both the carver and God insert lights. While the carver uses either a candle, light bulb or flashlight, the Christian’s light comes from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the pumpkin’s light will cease shining; God’s light, however, lasts a lifetime. While the “Outrageous Pumpkins” competitors perform their artistry in hope of winning $10,000 and a gold medal (along with bragging rights), God transforms His children out of love. Unlike carvers in the competition, God has no time limit and continues tweaking us until our dying day.

The “Outrageous Pumpkins” competition is held for a few weeks around Halloween, but God transforms people all year long. Although the pumpkins have no choice about being chosen, washed, and carved, we are free to reject God’s hand in transforming our lives. It’s wise to remember, however, that any pumpkins remaining in the patch after harvest eventually rot and decompose; the same goes for us. Alas, in spite of all their artistry, those fantastic pumpkin creations are temporary. Even when dipped in a mild bleach mixture, they soon will turn moldy and soft; eventually, they’ll end up in the trash. Not so with God’s handiwork! Unlike carved pumpkins, Christians tend to improve over time; in fact, they last forever.

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)]

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TAKING DELIGHT

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. [Psalm 37:4 (NLT)]

jump for joyGreedy creatures that we are, when reading today’s verse, we tend to focus on the promise that God will give us our heart’s desires rather than the qualification: taking delight in the Lord. I usually think of a parent delighting in a child rather than a child of God delighting in his or her Heavenly Father. What does it mean to delight in God and how do we find our delight in Him?

When pondering delight, I thought of a recent weekend when six of the family met New York City (where my eldest grand attends university) to celebrate my son’s birthday. While I enjoyed the city sights, the high point wasn’t the Statue of Liberty or strolling through Central Park. My delight was in my family’s company. It wouldn’t have mattered where we’d met; that we had gathered together was all that counted! Every moment spent with them was precious and our joy in one another was unmistakable; we genuinely delighted in one another. When we delight in people, we’re no longer preoccupied with ourselves and our desires; instead, we concentrate on them and how to please them. We treasure them and their company and, because we value their presence, we make room in our busy lives to maintain our relationship. In short, we find joy in being with them.

Taking delight in the Lord is much the same thing: finding joy in His presence. We delight in Him: in His great love for us and in His power, goodness, wisdom, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, faithfulness, and grace. When the Psalmist tells us to delight in the Lord, He’s telling us to find our joy in God and to guard our time so that we spend it with Him.

Today’s verse isn’t about gratifying our desires. Although true delight brings contentment, it’s not in things; it’s contentment in the object of delight. This verse isn’t about getting what we want from God in return for lip service in prayers or praise. It’s about delighting in God so much that He becomes our greatest desire. Instead of expecting God to please us, we want to please Him and truly pleasing God means that our desires will conform to His will. When that happens, we will, indeed, get our heart’s desire!

The desires of God, and the desires of the righteous, agree in one; they are of one mind in their desires. [John Bunyan]

The one thing I ask of the Lord— the thing I seek most— is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord’s perfections and meditating in his Temple. [Psalm 27:4 (NLT)]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

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ASK

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6:7-8 (RSV)]

Our Father, whose predominant residence pattern is widely perceived as being in an exo-atmospheric environment, your name shall be treated, as a matter of course, in a reverential demeanor appropriate to existing protocol guidelines. It is to be hoped that, as an optimal result of the ongoing situational development, your form of governmental institution may be, in accordance with the appropriate procedures, finalized within the foreseeable future, in forms applicable to both bilateral and multilateral fora. [Anonymous]

climbing asterThese are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer as if they were written by a lawyer and, having recently met with our attorney to update some documents, I don’t think they’re much of an exaggeration. With all of their circumlocution, it’s difficult to know what lawyers actually mean. They use vague abstract nouns rather than concrete ones and seem to go around a subject rather than straight through it. Why can’t they use straightforward language and directly say what they mean?

While our prayers probably are not as convoluted as the above version of the Lord’s Prayer, they frequently are as indirect and vague. Of course, the lawyer uses all of that language out of caution. He’s writing so that his words can’t be misconstrued: so that anyone seeking another meaning to his words can’t find it. God, however, is not an adversary who is trying to trap us into saying something we don’t mean or attempting to find a loophole in our prayers. In fact, He already knows what we need before we say it. Nevertheless, He’s waiting to hear it from us.

When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind beggars called out to Him with a rather ambiguous request: “Have mercy on us!” Did they want forgiveness, food, clothing,  or money? Any of those would have been acts of mercy. Surely Jesus knew what they really wanted but He responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Only then were they direct and asked for what they really wanted: to see! It was not until they clearly asked that Jesus acted and they received sight.

We have been told to ask before we receive. Could it be that God answers our prayers based on our requests? Jesus promised that, if we ask for bread, we won’t get a stone and, if we ask for a fish, we won’t get a serpent. Unsaid, but certainly implied, is that, if we fail to ask for that bread or fish, we won’t get either one! Could receiving depend upon asking? Could there be blessings He has for us that we haven’t received simply because we never asked?

Like lawyers, perhaps we err on the side of caution: the less specific our prayers, the less likely it is that we’ll be disappointed. Vague prayers, however, don’t exhibit faith. If someone listened to our prayers, would they know what we mean or are our prayers filled with cautious language and ambiguous requests? I think of a child’s prayers and the long list of “God blesses” usually found at their end. Are our prayers as vague? How do we want God to bless those on our prayer list? What are their specific needs? What are ours? We don’t need a lot of words to be direct and specific with God. If Jesus were passing by right now, what would we call out to Him? What would we ask?

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. [Matthew 21:22 (RSV)]

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:7-9 (RSV)]

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