WORDS AREN’T ADEQUATE

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NLT)]
butterfly

Last weekend my three children flew in from California, New Mexico, and Illinois to surprise me for my birthday. No words can express my absolute joy at their arrival. As we reminisced and laughed until it hurt, we realized the last time just the five of us were together was in 1992. After then, whenever we gathered, either someone was missing or our friends, grandparents, significant others, spouses, or children were with us. We now number thirteen and, while I love being with the whole gang, with all of our shared memories, there was something magical about gathering just the original five! Words failed me when I tried to express my appreciation for the way my husband and children juggled their schedules to make last weekend happen.

Even harder than finding words to thank my family was finding the right words to thank God—there simply are none that can encompass my gratitude. I can’t send Him flowers and He doesn’t need an invite to see the photos on Shutterfly since He was there. It’s not like I can return the kindness by surprising Him on His birthday! The question of how to properly thank God, not just for last weekend, but for all of His blessings has been with me all week. “How can I thank you?” I asked.

We thank God with our love, which begs the question, “How do we show our love?” We do it by remembering Him with gratitude in everything we do and all we encounter—not just in the big things like a family reunion or a good biopsy, but in all the little things of our day. It’s telling Him how we appreciate the strawberries in the garden, the smell of fresh mown grass, a summer breeze, or having milk for the coffee and jam for the toast. It’s being grateful while we wash the windows or mop floors simply because we have windows and floors to clean! It’s continually thanking him for things like “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and even for the inevitable dog bites, bee stings, and sadness that come with our favorite things.

We show our love and gratitude through action. While there’s nothing we can do for God, there’s plenty we can do for His children. When we serve others, we are serving (and thanking) Him! We thank God by expressing our appreciation to the people who serve us throughout the day. We can scatter seeds of gratitude and joy. We show our love for God through our witness. While it seems that we’re more than willing to tell people about the good things for which we’re thankful, most of us aren’t as willing to tell those same people about the Giver of those gifts.

Remembering James’ words that, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens,” [1:17] we show our love and thanks to God with humility. Those children of whom I am so proud are His, not mine. While I’d like to think they matured into the wise and wonderful people they are because of my husband’s and my stellar child-rearing skills, I know it was God’s wisdom that led us, His hand that protected them, His voice that led them, His love that covered them, and His forgiveness that showed them how to forgive. It was God who gave me people who cared enough to plan the visit and it was God (with a little help from American Airlines) who got them safely here.

We show God our love and gratitude with prayer, praise, and worship. If we’re truly grateful, however, we offer those things both in good times and bad and, most especially, in those mundane boring days that fill so much of our lives. We continually offer prayer, praise, and worship simply because every day we’re given breath is a day for thanks—whether we’re on the mountain top, in the dark valley, or somewhere in between.

While no words adequately express our gratitude to God, the way we live our lives certainly does!

Gratitude is an offering precious in the sight of God, and it is one that the poorest of us can make and be not poorer but richer for having made it. [A.W. Tozer]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. [Psalm 105:1-3 (NLT)]

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PROFILING

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

We know that four of the disciples were fisherman and one was a despised tax collector but have no idea what careers the others left behind to follow Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t carpentering, the fishermen weren’t fishing, the tax collector wasn’t collecting, and others weren’t doing whatever it was they did, how did these men support themselves? For the most part, they probably depended on the hospitality of strangers or friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus but we also know that the disciples were in Sychar purchasing food when Jesus had a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Like any ministry, the group needed money for everyday expenses and Scripture tells us that people like Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene provided for them out of their resources.

Accepting money, pooling resources, paying expenses, and giving to the poor necessitated the need for a common purse and someone to act as the group’s treasurer. At first, it would seem that the former publican, Matthew, with his bookkeeping experience, would have been the logical choice to carry the group’s moneybag, but it was Judas who carried the purse. It also was Judas who stole from it and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver!

We don’t know if it was Jesus or the disciples who gave Judas the position as the group’s banker. I suspect Jesus let the disciples work it out among themselves—it seems the sort of thing He would do. That Jesus allowed a thief like Judas to handle the money appears to be a poor example of stewardship but Jesus’ relationship with Judas may have been an example of another kind. Judas certainly proves Jesus’ point that one can’t serve both God and money. Moreover, in His relationship with Judas, Jesus lived out His words that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us!

Jesus could look into Judas’ heart and see the deceit but the disciples looked at appearances and Judas didn’t come to them with a tarnished reputation as did Matthew. The disciples probably were cautious about a tax collector in their midst and unwilling to give their money to Matthew—a man once considered an unscrupulous thief. They may have been afraid that their supporters would hesitate to place their money in the hands of a man who once collected their taxes. People may not have trusted Matthew but they never suspected Judas. That last night, when Jesus said someone sitting at the table would betray Him, they asked one another who it possibly could be. They never even questioned Judas’ abrupt departure from the upper room because they thought he was leaving to pay for their food or give money to the poor.

The people of Nazareth weren’t much better at assessing people than were the disciples. In spite of Jesus’ wisdom and miracles, His fellow Nazarenes disparaged the man who was just the son of a carpenter and whose family still lived in their obscure little village. Before meeting the Lord, even Nathanael scoffed at Jesus’ hometown and asked Andrew if anything good could come from Nazareth.

One of my Lenten fasts was profiling—the underestimating of people, especially when I might be dismissing people who would be welcomed by Jesus. I can’t help but wonder if I’m as guilty as were Nathanael and the people of Nazareth of dismissing people because of their background, upbringing, or family. Am I as guilty as I suspect the disciples were of holding people’s past mistakes against them? Jesus loved and welcomed flawed people like Matthew, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and even Judas. Do I? Will you?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. … So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. [James 2:8-9, 12-13 (NLT)]

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FROM TAX MAN TO SAINT – Part 1

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]

St. MatthewAlthough Mark and Luke call him Levi, there is no doubt that Levi and Matthew are the same man. He may have had two names, as did John Mark or was known by two different names as were Peter (Simon), Thomas (Didymus), Jude (Thaddeus), and Nathanael (Bartholomew). It simply may be that, like the Apostle Paul (Saul), he was known both by his Greek name of Matthew as well as his Hebrew one of Levi.

When considering how Jesus can change a life, I think of Matthew as the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the man who would become the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi the tax collector. In 1st century Judah, tax collectors (called publicans) were the lowest of the low and fiercely hated by their countrymen. Acting as revenue agents for Rome, Jewish tax collectors were considered collaborators. Since they could demand more than what was required, they also were thought of as thieves! Some even accepted bribes from rich businessmen to overtax their competitors and drive them out of business. Their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers and the people were at their mercy.

Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC-50 AD) vividly described why Jews hated their countrymen who became publicans. Philo explained that the Romans “deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely ruthless and savage, and give them the means of satisfying their greed. These people…leave undone no cruelty of any kind and recognize no equity or gentleness…as they collect the taxes they spread confusion and chaos everywhere. They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard of forms of torture.”

Even though the Torah prohibited borrowing, lending, or being a party to a transaction that involved charging another Jew interest, a favorite device of the tax-collectors was to advance money to people unable to pay their tax and charge exorbitant interest. The publican became a loan shark and the tax became a private debt to him, which may explain Philo’s mention of the injuries they inflicted.

While none of us like the internal revenue, put in the context of 1st century Judah, we can understand why publicans were despised in Jesus’ day. The Babylonian Talmud ranked them alongside “murderers and robbers.” Tax collectors weren’t allowed to exchange their money at the Temple treasury and were excommunicated from the synagogues. The rabbis taught that tax collectors were disqualified witnesses in court, society outcasts, and disgraces to their own family. They even considered it lawful for a Jew to lie in almost any conceivable way to avoid paying the tax collector! It’s no wonder that the religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ association with publicans.

Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) Matthew’s unsavory reputation and unpopularity, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! This was such a scandal that the 2nd-century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus actually used the fact that Jesus had “scum” like Matthew among his disciples as evidence against His divinity.

We don’t know if Matthew was as evil as some tax collectors; at the same time, we can’t reconcile his choice of career with being upstanding and righteous before meeting Jesus! While we’d love to know why he so readily deserted his tax booth, we don’t. We do know that by abandoning his business to follow Jesus, Matthew gave up wealth, job security, and his few friends and co-workers. The disciples who’d been fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them but Matthew had no Plan B. If he returned to Capernaum, he would be jobless and penniless. Already a pariah in the community, the publican couldn’t expect a warm welcome home from the people he once exploited! When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words.

Jesus says, “Follow me!” to everyone. Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NIV)]

Rocky Mountain National ParkThe Torah made it abundantly clear that adultery was punishable by death and, since adultery involves more than one party, laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy required the condemnation of both parties involved. Jesus was speaking to a crowd when some scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Him. Insisting that the law required her to be stoned, they asked Jesus what to do.

Rather than being concerned about a sin, this was another attempt to trap Jesus into saying something for which they could condemn Him. If He said to let her go, that would be a clear violation of Mosaic law. On the other hand, if He said to stone her, Jesus could be reported to the Romans for violating their law prohibiting Jews from carrying out their own executions. Moreover, if He condemned her, Jesus lay Himself open to accusations of hypocrisy since He spoke so often of forgiveness and mercy.

Before answering, Jesus stooped down and wrote something in the dust with His finger. He then stood and told them, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” He stooped again and wrote some more in the dust. Although He’d upheld the law, not one of the men could claim to be sinless and the woman’s accusers slowly slunk away. The condemned woman remained with the only sinless man who could, but wouldn’t, cast a stone.

All who read this story wonder what Jesus wrote in the dust. He may have been writing the exact words from the Torah that imposed the death penalty for adultery—words that demanded death for both the man and woman! If this woman actually was caught in the act, where was the man with whom she supposedly committed adultery? It was the scribes and Pharisees who sinned by only condemning her. Moreover, Mosaic law required a trial in which at least two witnesses testified before anyone could be put to death by stoning. There doesn’t seem to have been a trial and where were the witnesses? They were supposed to be the first ones to throw their stones! When Jesus asked for the first stone to be cast, was He asking for the witnesses to step forward? Perhaps there were none or the witnesses knew they were as guilty of sin as was the woman.

Perhaps Jesus was writing the names and secret sins of those present. Even though He walked in human flesh, Jesus also was God and knew what was in people’s hearts. Perhaps, seeing their names written in the dust, these scribes and Pharisees were reminded of the words of Jeremiah that, “all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” [17:13] Had they forsaken God by their abysmal behavior? Let us remember that the finger writing in the dust that day was the same finger that wrote the law on Moses’ stone tablets. Whatever they said, those words in the dust were powerful ones written by the hand of God!

In the end, while the only one without sin did not condemn the woman, He did not condone her sin either. In fact, we know that Jesus had a far narrower definition of adultery that did the scribes and Pharisees. While Jesus is gracious and merciful, He also is holy and calls us to a life of obedience and righteousness. Although He did not condemn her, He did tell her, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus tells us the same thing every time He forgives us; may we go and sin no more!

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? [Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)]

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PRAYING FOR OUR ENEMY

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)]

Of him that hopes to be forgiven it is indispensably required that he forgive. It is therefore superfluous to urge any other motive. On this great duty eternity is suspended, and to him that refuses to practise it the throne of mercy is inaccessible, and the Saviour of the world has been born in vain. [Samuel Johnson (1751)]

water lilyThe friend said, “I hate to admit it, but every night I pray that Putin will be dead by morning.” As we witness the genocide, violence, and horror in Ukraine on the morning news, I suspect he’s not the only Christian who is saddened to learn that Vladimir Putin didn’t die last night or that bombs didn’t destroy the Kremlin and the entire Russian army!

Like many, I struggle with what and how to pray regarding Russia, Putin, and this horrific war. More than 80 years ago, C.S. Lewis had the same dilemma regarding Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—the tyrants and murderers of World War II who, like Putin, were Godless merciless dictators who attacked human rights at all levels. The parable of the unforgiving servant, however, reminds us that if we expect God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are to extend that same mercy and forgiveness to others. That’s a hard pill to swallow when it comes to people like Vladimer Putin but Jesus didn’t mince his words when he commanded that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Believing that praying for others was obligatory for a Christian, Lewis wrote the following to his dear friend Dom Bede Griffiths in spring of 1940: “The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it? When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?” After pondering the problem, Lewis wrote to his brother about a month later and began his letter with Samuel Johnson’s words about forgiveness and mercy. After listing Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and three men he considered his nemeses at university, Lewis said he prayed “every night for the people I am most tempted to despise or hate. In the effort to make this real I have had to do a good deal of thinking.”

How do we pray for evil people in the first place let alone make the prayer real, rather than obligatory empty words?

Praying for our enemies doesn’t mean that we pray for their happiness, that we like the kind of people they are, or that we approve or excuse their behavior. As Lewis pointed out in his letters, praying for them is remembering that they are made of the same stuff we are, that Jesus died for them as much as He died for us, and that we are no more deserving of God’s sacrifice, grace, or mercy than are they. Assuming that these evil people can still be rescued, Lewis believed we can and should pray for their salvation.

As much as we hate the actions of evil people, we mustn’t hate the people. Nevertheless, we often do. Lewis admitted to his brother that he “tends to give free reign to hatred and to regard it as virtuous or normal.”  Reflecting on his own moments of cruelty, the theologian pointed out that his inclination to hate “might have blossomed, under different conditions, into something terrible. You and I are not, at bottom, so different from these ghastly creatures.” Indeed, as much as I hate to admit it, I know I’m not!

As we pray for our enemies (whether they’re our nemeses at work or people like Putin), there is no need to tell God what’s wrong with them or instruct God on the way to deal with such people. As for me, after simply asking Him to change the person’s heart, I leave the rest up to Him. In the same way, I can’t presume to know how this tragic situation can be resolved so I simply lift the people of Ukraine and Russia up to God—He already knows their names and their needs.

We must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves— to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not. I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. [C.S. Lewis]

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:14,19,21 (ESV)]

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ON HIS HANDS

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us.” “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.” [Isaiah 49:14-16a (NLT)]

mehndiTo the delight of the girls who attended the party, my daughter-in-law hired a Mehndi artist for my grand-daughter’s birthday celebration. Using a red-orange paste made from the dried leaves of the henna plant, the artist adorned the girls’ hands or arms with assorted intricate floral motifs. Since all of the family on her mother’s side is from India, this ancient form of body art is familiar to my grand. Although she’s attended several Mehndi parties, most of her guests have not. A Mehndi party for close friends and family is an important pre-wedding tradition in any Indian wedding. Along with plenty of food and music, there are henna artists. While they take only a few minutes painting designs on the guests, they spend several hours painting intricate geometric shapes and floral and paisley motifs on the bride’s hands, arms and feet. Hidden somewhere among the elaborate patterns on her body is the groom’s name.

Tradition holds that finding the hidden name is a game the newlyweds play on the wedding night. If the groom manages to find his name hidden among all of the designs, he will be the boss of the marriage; if he doesn’t, his wife rules the roost! Determining the boss in the relationship, however, isn’t why God says He’s written Israel’s name on the palms of His hands. Nevertheless, having the name of the bride’s beloved written on her hands always reminds me of God’s words in Isaiah 49.

At the time of Isaiah’s prophecies, Israel was facing hard times and captivity. Although they were the ones who abandoned God, they thought God had forgotten them and no longer cared whether or not they existed. In these verses, God reassures Israel that He will never forget them and, as a sign of His commitment, He’s even written Israel’s name on the palms of his hands.

Assuring Israel that He loves them like a mother, God compares forgetting them to the impossibility of a nursing mother forgetting her suckling child. Having nursed my children, I guarantee a nursing mother can’t forget her infant. If her hungry baby doesn’t make his presence known with howling, her uncomfortably full breasts will remind her that it’s time to feed him. Nursing mothers aren’t likely to forget their babies but, even if they could, God says He won’t because Israel’s name is inscribed on His hand.

The Hebrew word used was chaqaq and meant far more than just applying dye to someone’s skin; it meant to cut in, carve, or engrave. Unlike Mehndi which fades in two to three weeks, Israel’s name was permanently cut into God’s hands. Used figuratively, these two analogies symbolized God’s eternal commitment to His people and His covenant promises.

As Christians, what do promises made to Israel mean to us? In the Old Testament, Israel is used in several ways: Israel is a person (Jacob), a people (the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons), the “promised land” (a mass about the size of Rhode Island), the northern kingdom after the kingdom divided, and sometimes even the southern kingdom of Judah. In the New Testament, however, Israel takes on a new meaning. Rather than a person, people, land mass, or political nation, Israel is a spiritual kingdom. Before Jesus, it was one’s bloodline that defined an Israelite; it’s different now. As the Apostle Paul explains, a true Israelite now is someone who believes in the Messiah Jesus Christ. It is faith, rather than things like circumcision and descending from Abraham’s bloodline, that makes us “sons of Abraham.” God’s promises to Israel are promises made to us because they’ve been received by faith rather than bloodline.

Fear not, no matter how dark the days, God will never forget us—our names are etched into the palms of His hands!

…for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children…. Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. [Roman 9:6b-7a,8 (NLT)]

The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. … God gave the promises to Abraham and his child.  And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. [Galatians 3:7,16 (NLT)]

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