UP IN FLAMES

In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. [James 3:5-6 (NLT)]

great blue heronRecently, a pastor shared a troubling experience while at the annual conference for his denomination. Along with other ordained ministers, he was to vote as to whether or not candidates for the ministry would be ordained. While usually a gratifying experience as this ministerial board accepts people into their vocation, on occasion the vote can be heartbreaking. If a candidate receives a negative recommendation from his supervisor, he or she is permitted to offer a defense before the vote is taken. At the last conference, such an instance occurred and, sadly, one individual did not receive an affirmative vote for ordination.

In their deliberations of the ministerial candidates, the board considers qualities of faith including evidence of God’s grace in the candidates’ lives, their ability to communicate the Christian faith, their worthiness of people’s faith and confidence, and their accountability to the church, its standards, authority and discipline. Candidates are expected to take responsibility for their actions and exercise self-control, emotional maturity and social responsibility. Unfortunately, this candidate had responded to an unfavorable assessment by a superior with a social media diatribe and Facebook rant. Foolishly, he took a private evaluation into a public forum and launched an attack; as a result, his several years spent in university, seminary and the ministry went up in flames.

In the days before social media (or as this pastor calls it—“unsocial media”), James wrote of how an untamed tongue can set our world on fire. Nowadays, that applies to untamed fingers flying across a keyboard, as well. The pastor who shared this story of a future turned upside down added that he asks his staff to wait a full twenty-four hours before responding to negative comments and always to lead their response with an expression of appreciation for the other person’s words. He also admitted to not always following his own advice!

It’s not just potential candidates for the ministry, pastors, and their staff who should maintain high standards of holy living in the world—we all are called to do just that. Those in the ministry may lose their careers with untamed tongues, but we all can lose relationships, respect, reputations, and our ability to be effective witnesses for Christ. Simply put, if we can’t control the words we use and the way we use them, it appears that other areas in our lives are equally out of control. But, when we allow the Holy Spirit to control our behavior, we have no need to worry about seeing our hopes and dreams go up in flames.

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. … If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [James 1:19-20 (NLT)]

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)]

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FAREWELLS

DAISIESJesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; I would not tell you this if it were not true. I am going there to prepare a place for you. After I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” [John 14:1-4 (NCV)]

“Why can’t they be happy for us,” my daughter-in-law plaintively asked many years ago. “We’re going to where we want to be. This is our dream!” I certainly understood about her friends’ reaction to their news. My son, his wife and their two children (my precious grands) were moving to California. Instead of living a mile from us, they’d be over 2,000 miles away! I was no different from her friends except that, since taking Mother-in-Law 101, I’d mentally duct-taped my mouth and managed to silence my protests.

I felt her words in my heart. Why couldn’t I be happy for them? I was so blinded by my loss that I couldn’t see their gain: a beautiful new house, an ideal climate, a super school, and their dream location of surf, sand and sunshine. I asked God to change my heart: to take the sadness and replace it with gladness and to take my self-pity and replace it with encouraging words and enthusiasm. I knew this wasn’t the last time we’d see each other; after all, we only would be a plane ride apart.

It’s been several years since their move. When I see how happy they are in California, I can’t believe I ever allowed my sorrow at their departure blind me to their joyous arrival in a new location. Besides, my husband and I now have a wonderful place to visit.

Many of us are at the age when our friends and family are departing, not to live across the country, but to move from this world into the next. Why is it so difficult to be happy for them? That final move is the best one yet for them. They are leaving a place of pain, sin, anxiety, and sorrow and going to a new home: one where there is peace and joy and love. Moreover, they’re going to a place where, eventually, we all want to be! It’s just so difficult to stop focusing on our loss to see our loved one’s gain: a home in heaven – no pain, no tears, and the presence of God! Remember, this won’t be the last time we see them!

Heavenly Father, when our loved ones leave us, let it be less about us and more about them. Please lessen our sorrow at their departure and increase our joy at their destination.

Death is an incident, not an end. It is a transition for a Christian, not a terminus. [Billy Graham]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

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A MESSAGE IN THE SKY

skywriting - love godJesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-38 (NLT)]

After a lovely walk in the park, I looked up in the sky and saw a skywriter busy at work. The word “love” was starting to fade in the sky and, thinking a marriage proposal was in the works, I thought the pilot needed to work faster to get his message written. Curious, I waited to see what came next and was surprised to see the word “God” written in pale white smoke before the pilot flew off.

“Love God” – that’s the first and greatest commandment and we are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind. In other words, love Him with our entire being: our passions, prayers, thoughts, words, voices, skills, desires, reactions, appearance, finances, strength, desires, relationships, and possessions. With no punctuation, however, that wasn’t necessarily what was meant. Rather than the command “Love God!” those little two words in the sky could have been more like the closing and signature line to a letter, card, or love note: “Love, God.” Indeed, the sunny day had been a beautiful gift sent from Him.

Although God sends us love notes all of the time, they’re usually not done in skywriting on a blue sky day. A rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with His creatures to never again send an all-destructive flood, is one of His reassuring love notes reminding us that His love shines through all the storms of life. Rainbows, beautiful days, magnificent sunsets, butterflies, even the aroma of spring lilacs—all can say “Love, God” to us. Today, when I opened my email, I realized God sends His love another way—in the encouraging words and prayers of a Christian friend. Having mentioned my heavy heart for a loved one, she immediately responded with encouraging words and by lifting us both in prayer. The email may have come from her address, but it bore His signature: “Love, God.”

In church Sunday, I turned to a stranger and told her how beautifully her daughter had sung during the teen led worship service. She welcomed those words with such enthusiasm that you would have thought I’d offered her girl a recording contract. Telling me how thrilled her daughter would be to hear the compliment, she added that the teen had just been cut from a choral group and badly needed reassurance. I spoke the words but they came from one of His nudges and were signed “Love, God.” In the many ways we share God’s love, we fulfill the second, equally important commandment given to us: to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Love God!” or “Love, God” – in this case, the punctuation makes no difference. Each day brings opportunities to love and honor God by being one of His love notes with our prayers, an encouraging word, a quick text or email, a warm touch, a hand-written note, extra patience, a friendly smile or a helping hand. It is in the love we show to one another that we can fulfill both of His commands at once.

All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [1 John 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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HEARING THE SHEPHERD

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice. [Ezekiel 34:15-16 (RSV)]

lambThroughout the Bible, there are many references to the Lord as our shepherd and mankind as His sheep. Sheep are not the brightest bulbs in the pasture and, considering the state of the world, it seems a fitting comparison! I came upon a true story that illustrates the need sheep have for a shepherd. In 2005, more than 400 sheep in Turkey died when they followed the lead sheep off a cliff and fell 15 meters. The death toll would have been greater except those first 400 cushioned the fall of the next 1,100 sheep that were stupid enough to follow them! Clearly, that herd of sheep needed someone to tell them when to stop. Unfortunately, mankind seems as willing to blindly follow the lead sheep wherever he leads us, only we call it belonging, accepting, keeping up, staying current, maintaining the status quo, or not rocking the boat, making waves or causing trouble.

I happened upon a cartoon by Mike Waters in which a sun-glassed sheep is relaxing in a lounge chair and wearing ear phones connected to the iPod at his side. The TV is on, a computer rests on his lap, the radio is blaring, and he’s got a copy of Sheep Digest in his hands. Hidden under the stack of magazines at his side is a Bible. In the background, a shepherd is calling. The sheep says, “I wonder why I don’t hear from the shepherd anymore!” The words in the caption beneath the comic are from John 10:27: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Of course, the sheep need to hear the shepherd to know his voice and nowadays we seem to be listening to everything but our shepherd’s voice (and reading everything but His word)! Worldly distractions, concerns, desires and possessions have drowned out His voice.

In the case of the unfortunate demise of the Turkish sheep, the problem wasn’t that they weren’t listening to the shepherd. The village’s shepherds had briefly abandoned the flock while they enjoyed breakfast. Unlike the Turkish shepherds, our Shepherd never takes a coffee break or goes off duty! He’s more like the shepherd in the cartoon—on the job and calling his flock. Like those suicidal sheep in Turkey, however, we rarely know enough to stop on our own. Fortunately, our Shepherd will step in and lead us. Of course, for that to happen, we have to be listening for His voice.

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. … My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. [John 10:14-15,27-28 (RSV)]

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THE SAMARITAN

Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. [Luke 10:33 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoAccording to the historian Josephus, around 9 AD, when Jesus was just a boy, some Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem on Passover and defiled the Temple with human remains. The hatred between Jews and the Samaritans, however, had been going on for centuries. In 930 BC, when Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) was king, the kingdom of Israel divided. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, eventually became known as Samaria. The southern kingdom, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, became known as Judah. Fearing a change of alliance if his people returned to Jerusalem to worship, the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam, set up his own worship centers complete with golden calves. After they were conquered by Assyria in 772 BC, most of the Jews were taken into captivity and foreigners, bringing their pagan gods and beliefs, colonized the land. The remaining Jews began to worship idols along with the God of Israel and the Samaritan religion became a mix of idolatry and Judaism.

Samaritans were a continual source of difficulty for the Jews of the southern kingdom. Insisting that Moses said they should worship on Gerizim, they erected a temple there. Recognizing only the five books of Moses, Samaritans rejected most Jewish traditions, interfered when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and offered safe haven to Judah’s criminals. Controlling the land between Galilee and Jerusalem, they regularly harassed pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem. Because of all the intermarriage between the Jews and Gentiles of Samaria, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds.” Seeing them as both racially and theologically contaminated, the Jews had a proverb: “A piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.”

This is the world in which we find Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan with the unlikely hero being a Samaritan (whose people were known to harass travelers). We know this parable was in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but let’s back up one chapter to see what preceded it. Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Rather than taking the longer walk around Samaria, they were walking right through it. When Jesus sent messengers into a Samaritan village to make sleeping and eating arrangements, they were not welcomed. Although Jesus had previously told the disciples to simply shake the dust from their feet if a town refused to welcome them, John and James suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Luke says Jesus rebuked them but we don’t know what was said.

Part of their rebuke may have been the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable could have been as much for His disciples (especially James and John) as it was for the legal expert who asked the question. Jesus easily could have made his point with a Roman soldier as the story’s unlikely hero, but He didn’t. Although the Samaritans had been unneighborly in snubbing Him, Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to teach a lesson about neighbors! That parable told the disciples that, even when our neighbor is inhospitable and slights us, we still treat him as our neighbor. Whether or not someone helps us, we are to help them and, when someone offends us, we’re not to take offense. We do unto others as we would like them to do to us and not as they’ve done to us!

Although there are about 800 Samaritans still living in Israel, for most of us the word “Samaritan” refers to someone who helps other people, especially strangers, when they have trouble. How ironic that the despised “pagan half-Jews of the Old Testament” (as one writer called them) took a place of honor in the New!

Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! [Luke 6:30-31 (NLT)]

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ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL

Absarokas - Cody WyomingFor ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans 1:20 (NLT)]

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all.
[“All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil F. Alexander]

“When in doubt, trust your horse!” was the sign I’d seen earlier in the corral and so, as we slowly wended our way through the pinyon-juniper forest and up the mountain trail, I trusted my mount. After all, he didn’t want to fall down the ravine any more than did I. When we reached the ridge, I gasped—somewhat out of relief but more so out of wonder. The scenery was breathtaking! As I looked across the Wapiti Valley, I saw the incredible volcanic rock formations of the Absaroka Mountain Range and, when I looked down into the valley, I saw some of what Teddy Roosevelt called “The fifty most beautiful miles in America”. Surrounding us in the sage meadow on the ridge was an incredible array of wildflowers. An abundance of color, there were red Wyoming paintbrush, bright yellow mule’s ears and sunflowers, purple lupine, white snowbells, low pink bitterroot, tall green gentians, delicate bluebells, and a few pale yellow prickly pear cactus. Fritillaries and a white admiral red clover - beebutterfly flitted among the blossoms and a marmot peeked out from behind a rock. So as to not spook the horses or spoil the day for my fellow riders, I silently sang the chorus to All Things Bright and Beautiful.

Only able to remember the hymn’s chorus, I looked up the lyrics when I got home. The author is Cecil F. Alexander. An Irish woman known as Fanny to her friends and family, she lived in the mid-19th century and was married to a clergyman. It is said that she based her hymn on the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth.” She easily could have been inspired by Psalms 19 or 104. I doubt she ever visited a ranch in Wyoming so she wasn’t thinking of the Absarokas and a colorful mountain meadow. Nevertheless, I imagine the Irish countryside can be just as extraordinary; perhaps Fanny’s inspiration came from visiting some place like Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher where she stood in awe of God’s handiwork.

I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans; we see evidence of God everywhere in His amazing creation and there is no excuse for denying His existence or not knowing Him. It doesn’t have to be majestic mountains and spectacular scenery; God’s workmanship is just as evident in our backyards in the exquisiteness of things like red clover and the wings of a bumblebee. Indeed, “How great is God Almighty, who has made all things well!”

Each little flow’r that opens, Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.
The purple-headed mountains, The river running by,
The sunset and the morning That brightens up the sky. …
He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well.
[“All Things Bright and Beautiful” by Cecil F. Alexander]

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. [Psalm 104:24 (NLT)]

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