TRUE LOVE

Love never gives up. Love never cares more for others than for self. Loves doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first.” Doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel. Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

8-19-1967When I married my husband, I was only twenty years old. Although I would never have admitted it then, I had no real concept of what true love actually entailed or the seriousness of the vows I was taking. Standing in front of a minister and 200 guests, I promised to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health” and to forsake all others. I vowed, from that day forward, to “have and to hold…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and to love and cherish him until we parted at death. I said those words without the vaguest understanding of just how bad “for worse” could get or how little money “for poorer” might be. I didn’t consider that sickness would mean much more than a case of the flu or how long it could be until death would separate us. Having known each other for less than a year when we wed, neither of us had any idea how difficult it actually is to cherish someone whose words or actions hurt us or with whom we disagree. I doubt we’re the only ones who entered into marriage so naively.

Today is our anniversary and, in the fifty-two years since our wedding day, we’ve experienced good and not so good times, periods of plenty and sparseness, illness and well-being, tragedy and joy, fullness and emptiness, anger and forgiveness, excitement and tedium, labor and leisure, turmoil and peace, discontent and satisfaction. We know from experience that it’s not always easy to love, comfort, honor, forsake, and cherish.

We used to joke that we only stayed together because of the children (neither of us wanted custody of them) and the grands (neither of us would risk losing them)! But, that isn’t it. Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were read at our wedding and those words have guided us ever since that day. Early in our marriage, we realized that love is more than a feeling; it isn’t something one falls into or out of. Love is a conscious choice and one we choose to make every day. None of us are loveable all of the time; we can, however, choose to be loving all of the time!

Father in heaven, let your love fill our hearts and lives. Thank you for giving us people to love, comfort, honor, and cherish. Thank you also for placing people in our lives who somehow manage to love, comfort, honor and cherish us, as well. Shower your blessings upon them.

O God … look mercifully upon these thy servants, that they may love, honour, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and of peace. [From the Solemnization of Matrimony in “The Book of Common Prayer” (1952)]

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13b (MSG)]

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BROKEN

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins..…Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me—now let me rejoice.…The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. [Psalm 51:1,7-8, 17 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailI showed the antique dealer the old silver tray we’d found at an antique store many years ago. Having just read Stephanie Kallo’s novel Broken for You, I’d been drawn to it. Hers was a story of secrets and redemption that told of how two women salvaged their brokenness, first by smashing priceless antique porcelain pieces that had been stolen from Jews during the Holocaust, and then by repurposing the fragments into beautiful mosaics. The novel was an homage to the beauty of broken people and broken things. The tray’s handle had been damaged and soldered back on and I imagine much of the silver plate had worn off its top. It was, however, a thing of beauty because it had been artistically covered with broken pieces of antique painted china. The dealer told me that artists often come into her shop looking for chipped pieces of decorative porcelain. Because they plan on breaking it to use in jewelry or mosaics like my tray, they don’t mind chips or cracks.

Since it was our anniversary weekend, my husband and I had purchased that tray as our gift to one another. The repaired tray, with its broken pieces of china, was a reminder that things don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. When I looked at the tray this time, however, the words from Psalm 51 telling us that God desires a broken spirit came into my mind. The psalm records David’s repentance regarding his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. By bringing his broken and contrite heart to God, he was made clean and whole again.

Seeing the value in old but damaged china, those mosaic artists won’t reject it when they see it in the antique store and, seeing our value (no matter how damaged we are), God welcomes sincere repentant sinners who come to Him. Knowing that, in spite of our many flaws, we are precious, He salvages and repairs us. Rather than hitting us with a hammer or tossing us at a wall, God chips away at our pride, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, stubbornness, rebellion, and other sinful habits with His word, Spirit, and circumstances. Then, instead of taking our fragmented bits and using solder, glue, and grout to reassemble us, God takes our broken, humble and repentant selves and restores us. Indeed, because of His mercy and grace, with clean hearts and right spirits, we can become things of beauty.

Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely. … He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. [Dieter F. Uchtdorf]

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:9 (NLT)]

“Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” [Isaiah 1:18 (NLT)]

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SHUT THE DOOR (Elisha – 5)

And Elisha said, “Borrow as many empty jars as you can from your friends and neighbors. Then go into your house with your sons and shut the door behind you. Pour olive oil from your flask into the jars, setting each one aside when it is filled. [2 Kings 4:3-4 (NLT)]

naples doorwayHer neighbors probably thought she’d lost her mind when she sent her boys out to ask for empty containers. Shutting the door certainly kept out the creditors, naysayers, and doubters along with any talk of unbelief that could hinder the widow’s faith. That closed door shut out interruptions, distractions, anxieties, and whatever else that might have kept the widow from focusing on God. Because that shut door even kept out Elisha, there was no mistaking who was responsible for the flowing oil: God!

Not every miracle is meant to be as public and impressive as the parting of the Red Sea. With the door open, once others saw what was happening, they even may have brought their own jars to cash in on the widow’s seemingly unlimited supply of oil. The closed door meant that, rather than a public display of God’s power, this miracle was to be a private demonstration of God’s mercy and grace. There are many other private miracles throughout Scripture. When Elisha restored the Shunammite woman’s son to life, he did it behind closed doors. Elijah’s resurrection of the widow from Zarephath’s son also was done privately and only Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’s resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. Many miracles, like Jesus’s healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman or the Roman officer’s servant were done from a distance with no witnesses. While these instances of God’s miraculous provision and healing eventually became known far and wide (we still read of them today), at the time, they were a personal matter of one person’s faith and God’s amazing power.

Because it cut out other options, shutting the door showed the widow’s total trust in God. Leaving the door open would have implied that she wasn’t quite sure about Elisha’s promise. With an open door, once she saw the oil pouring, the woman could have sent her boys out for more jars; something tells me that the oil would have stopped flowing the moment she did. After the door was closed, the number of jars indicated her faith. Shutting the door meant she’d shut the door on other people and other options. Having opened her life to God, she was all in and committed to Him.

Do we truly trust God’s provision? When He calls us to do something, are we all in? Do we ignore the skeptics and pessimists? Do we focus on God or our fears? Do we give God credit for our blessings or do we tend to chalk them up to coincidence or good fortune. Do we trust in God even when what He tells us to do seems impractical or implausible? Do we put all of our faith in God or do we rely on ourselves and keep a backup plan handy? Peter certainly shut the door when (without a life-jacket) he stepped out of that boat onto the water!

I guess it comes right back to Monday’s message, “Any Bridges to Burn?” The widow trusted God enough to shut the door on her neighbors and any other options and Elisha trusted God enough to shut the door by burning his plow and cooking his oxen. Having faith is believing that God will do what He says He will. Do we have enough faith to shut the door?

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. [Hebrews 11:1 (NLT)]

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. [[Jeremiah 17:7 (NLT)]

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DOES HE OWE US ANYTHING? (Elisha – 3)

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.” [2 Kings 4:1 (NIV)]

roseate spoonbillWhen writing about Elisha, the widow, and the oil, I thought the first conversation between the prophet and distraught woman worth a deeper look. From their exchange, it is clear that the prophet either knew or knew of the widow’s husband. One of Elisha’s followers, the widow reminds the prophet of how much her husband revered and feared the Lord.

While Scripture doesn’t name her husband, other sources do. Both the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus and the Targum (an Aramaic paraphrase and explanation of the Hebrew Bible) identify him as the Obadiah mentioned in 1 Kings 18. Although he was in charge of Ahab’s palace, Obadiah remained faithful to Jehovah and hid 100 of God’s prophets in two caves during the time Jezebel was killing them. Both Josephus and Jewish tradition suggest that Obadiah sustained these men at his own expenses and, when his money was spent, the man borrowed money to continue to feed them. It was because of this debt, incurred in the Lord’s service, that the widow’s sons were to be taken as bondservants. Whether the woman was Obadiah’s widow or the widow of another faithful follower of Jehovah we really don’t know. Nevertheless, the widow appears to think that, because her husband faithfully served the Lord, Elisha should do something about his debt.

Does God owe us anything for our service? If we look at Luke 17, it would seem that Jesus is telling us that, even when we’ve done absolutely everything God commands, we should not expect an earthly reward. We are God’s unworthy servants and have only done our duty. He is our master and His job is not to make our lives easier; our job is to do His work and build His kingdom. Whatever the widow’s husband did for God, Elijah, or Elisha, he did as God’s servant; it was only what he should have done! Our good actions are never a favor for God. Righteousness, worship, generosity, forgiveness, sacrifice, and even suffering aren’t extraordinary; they are expected of us!

Fulfilling our duties and obligation to God is not a business transaction. God owes us nothing but we owe Him everything. We are to serve the Lord with gladness, out of love and gratitude. What He may or may not give us is from His grace; it is neither payment nor reward. While we’re on this side of the grass, we should never expect to profit or gain from serving Him. As God did with the widow, He may choose to fill our jars with oil but, never forget, He doesn’t owe us even one ounce of it!

Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NIV)]

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DINGS AND DENTS

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! [John 20:19-20 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtail - butterflyWe’re selling our northern home and, as I packed up assorted family heirlooms, I came across the little sterling silver salt and pepper shakers we used for so many years. I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others; it had distinct teeth marks on it. For reasons that are unknown, my eldest child tried to bite through it. In spite of its obvious imperfection (or, perhaps because of it), the shaker is still beautiful. I’d wondered which child should get these silver pieces but, after remembering their history, I lovingly wrapped them up and placed them in my son’s box. I only hope his family will find the impressions of his baby teeth as beautiful as do I.

As I sorted through other family silver, I came to the sterling candle holders that were a wedding gift to my parents some 82 years ago. Like the salt and pepper set, they show their age with a few dents and scratches. My parent’s marriage, like the candle holders, wasn’t perfect but it endured through every circumstance. I decided to keep the candle sticks with our things as a reminder both to forgive and appreciate the beauty in imperfection.

I thought of Jesus’s scars as I packed up the dented silver. Our resurrected Lord carried the scars from his wounds. Yet, since He could pass through a locked door, He easily could have removed those wounds in his hands and side. Jesus’s scars let the disciples know who He was and our scars are an essential part of our identity, as well.

Like Jesus, we all bear scars, both inside and out. Like my silver, we have dings and dents and are a little (or a whole lot) tarnished. Just as the imperfections on my old silver tell a story, so do our scars. The scar from a C-section tells of blessings received while the scar from a hysterectomy tells of the loss of possibilities. The scars from a burn tell the story of injury and pain while the scars from open heart surgery tell of getting a new lease on life. Some scars, like those left from a divorce, a loved one’s death, or addiction, are invisible but tell their own tale, as well. Scars, dings and dents are simply evidence of things that didn’t defeat us; they are our beautiful trophies of survival and healing. Death did not conquer Jesus and, though God’s grace, life’s challenges cannot conquer us.

My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. [Steve Goodier]

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus. [Galatians 6:17 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL FATHER (Part 2 – Luke 15:11-32)

Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]

When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.

The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?

Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.

From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!

When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:8-9 (NLT)]

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