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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OPEN DOORS (Hospitality – Part 4)

I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent. [Luke 5:32 (NLT)]

Let’s go back to the sixties—a time of “turn on, tune in, drop out”—a counter-culture of “flower power,” anti-war sentiment, and discontented disillusioned youth. When Chuck Smith saw these “hippies” on the California beaches, he said they needed a bath but, when his wife Kay saw them, she said they needed the Lord! Moving their message onto the streets and beach, they opened the doors of their church to those kids and anyone else who wanted to come in. Regardless of faith, background, attire, length of hair, addictions, political views, cleanliness, or finances, the church unconditionally welcomed everyone. While still preaching the uncompromising truth of the Gospel, what began as a congregation of 25, within eight years had to conduct three Sunday services in a 2,200-seat auditorium!

Although we’re not looking for growth like that, my church recently embarked on an outreach campaign to better establish our presence in the community. One of the phrases used in our mailings, flyers, and Facebook ads is, “You don’t have to believe to belong.” Some local pastors berated our pastor for the campaign and even accused him of heresy. Perhaps their complaints stemmed from fear that we were trying to poach their congregations but the message implied just the opposite—we were looking for people who didn’t belong! After all, there are more than enough unbelievers to fill every churches’ pews.

Apparently, the “heresy” part of the accusation was because our ads said belief was not a requirement for belonging. Just to clarify—we clearly identified ourselves as a non-denominational Christian church and never said that people didn’t have to believe to be baptized or didn’t need faith in Jesus Christ to be saved. Nothing implied a universality of beliefs, the lack of a Christian creed, or that what one believes doesn’t matter to God. In fact, a quick view of our website clearly outlines our fundamental Christian beliefs! Adding that we love God, love others, and follow Jesus, the advertisements simply said that people didn’t need to believe to belong. Nevertheless, some pastors disagreed and said that belief should be a prerequisite for belonging! While Scripture does warn of unbelievers in the church, it also calls us to share the gospel and to let our lights shine before men.

Saying you have to be saved before you can belong to a church family seems like saying you have to be physically fit before you can join a gym. When most out-of-shape people join a gym, they’re not too sure about the whole exercise thing. Granted, after trying out the elliptical, free weights, leg press, or spinning classes, some will quit because they don’t like it there. On the other hand, some people may realize how much better their health is because of the gym and enthusiastically embrace fitness, invite others to join, or become trainers themselves! But, if they couldn’t come to the gym because they weren’t fit enough to join, that can’t happen!

How can unbelievers or seekers become believers if we don’t welcome them into our churches? How can people be transformed by God’s word if they don’t hear it? How can they call on His name without knowing who Jesus is? How can they know Him if they haven’t met His followers? How can we preach God’s love if we don’t practice it? Granted, not everyone who comes will stay or choose to believe—but unless we welcome them into our church family, they may never become part of the body of Christ! What we must never do, however, is preach a modified, revised, or tweaked version of the Gospel to accommodate unbelievers. They must understand that, eventually, a decision has to be made—there is only one way into the Kingdom!

Our churches shouldn’t be private clubs where only believers know the secret handshake or password to get in the door! Jesus didn’t divide people into the washed and unwashed when He taught, prayed, healed, or ate—neither should we. When our Lord said He came for sinners, not those who thought themselves righteous, Jesus defined the mission of the church.

A local gym here claims to have a “non-judgmental” philosophy when it comes to joining—perhaps some churches around here need to adopt it, as well!

The church is not a select circle of the immaculate, but a home where the outcast may come in. It is not a palace with gate attendants and challenging sentinels along the entrance-ways holding off at arm’s-length the stranger, but rather a hospital where the broken-hearted may be healed, and where all the weary and troubled may find rest and take counsel together. [James H. Aughey]

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive[a] so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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GEORGE AND GRUMPY

A cheerful heart brings a smile to your face; a sad heart makes it hard to get through the day. … A miserable heart means a miserable life; a cheerful heart fills the day with song. [Proverbs 15:13,15 (MSG)]

A cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired. [Proverbs 17:22 (MSG)]

steamboat springs CORecently, long-time friends visited for a few days. They used to live across the street from us when we wintered in Colorado but, like us, their skis are long gone. The memories, however, are still fresh. As happens with old friends, we started reminiscing about blue bird days on the mountain, making first tracks down a slope of fresh powder, our favorite runs (for one person it was the “lunch run”), winter carnivals, and the people who made our mountain town so special.

Nearly every morning, we’d meet our friends at the bus stop for a short ride to the mountain. As we recalled packing like sardines onto the bus so one more skier could fit, we remembered the various bus drivers we had over the years. Without a doubt, our favorite was George. While he could have been the goodwill ambassador for our town, another driver I’ll call Grumpy did his best to make the ride miserable for everyone.

Grumpy never had a smile or a nice word to say to anyone. In fact, other than occasionally telling us to move back, we never heard him say a word. Believe me, we tried and made a point of greeting him by name, commenting on the weather, wishing him a good day, and thanking him when we got off. Determined to get him to respond, we’d ask him how he was doing that day, if he had a good weekend, or managed to get in any skiing. In the several years we were his passengers, we never got an answer or even a smile. The closest we ever got to seeing a grin was when Grumpy would take off from a stop even though he could see skiers running to catch the bus.

Both George and Grumpy were city bus drivers but their similarity ended with their occupation. No matter how crowded the bus, challenging the weather, or difficult his passengers, George always had a friendly greeting and a pleasant word. Whenever possible, he waited for any skiers hurrying to the bus and, when passengers got off the bus, he was sure to offer a cheery farewell and explain which bus to take back and where to board it. He exhibited great patience in a variety of challenging circumstances (and tourists can be very challenging) and showed true concern for his passengers. He wasn’t merely polite; George went out of way to be cordial and accommodating to everyone.

Both men had the same job and did what was required of them. One, however, clearly enjoyed both his job and life and the other, sad to say, just seemed determined to be miserable. From our conversations with George, we knew his life hadn’t been easy. As a single father, he struggled to make ends meet. We also knew that George was a man of faith and, as a man of faith, he was an ambassador for more than our ski town—he was one of Christ’s ambassadors! As for Grumpy—who knows? It’s hard to believe someone so disagreeable and grouchy knew Jesus. Perhaps, it was not knowing how much God loved him that made Grumpy unable to love his fellow travelers on this planet. He certainly couldn’t give away something he didn’t even know he had! Grumpy, however, seemed determined to stay in a desolate dull world of his own making.

One day while chatting with George on our way home, I mentioned the friendly demeanor, good humor, kindness, patience, and joy we saw whenever we rode with him. He responded, “Well, every morning I have a choice. I can rise and whine or rise and shine; I choose to shine!” George had a good point! We each have that same choice every morning with which God blesses us. What will you choose today?

There’s a decision we all have to make, and it seems perfectly captured in the Winnie-the-Pooh characters created by A.A. Milne. Each of us must decide: Am I a fun-loving Tigger or am I a sad-sack Eeyore? Pick a camp. [From “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow]

Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. [Philippians 2:14-15 (MSG)]

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SEEK YE FIRST

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval.” [John 6:26-27 (NLT)]

blue jay

It’s been said that whenever Alfred Hitchcock was asked by an actor about his character’s motivation, the famed film director’s answer was, “Your salary!” While that probably was the actor’s motivation for being in the film, what he wanted to know was the character’s motivation for his behavior. There is a reason behind all of our actions, both on and off the stage. As Christians, what’s our motivation for seeking the Kingdom of God? Is it a payoff like an actor’s salary or is it something else?

As evident from yesterday’s devotion, I’m not a proponent of prosperity theology; the Holy Spirit does not exist for our benefit and use. God’s goal is our salvation not our material wealth, physical health, or even our happiness. We can believe in Jesus, receive the Holy Spirit and faithfully act on God’s promises and still be poor as church mice or as rich as David Green of Hobby Lobby fame. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between those extremes (and probably closer to the church mouse than the billionaire). Our wealth (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with the size of our faith in God, the amount of our tithe, or the number of good works we do. After all, if wealth was God’s plan for us, Jesus would have been a rich man. Possessions and comfort, however, meant nothing to him. It’s wise to remember that the only disciple who seemed to care about money was Judas. God is not a heavenly vending machine where we drop in a prayer, financial offering, or an act of service and out comes a blessing.

If amassing blessings and getting something from God is our motivation for seeking Him, many of us will be sorely disappointed. If the size of our faith determines the size of our investment portfolio or 401(k), one look around tells me that God needs a new accountant. A great many devout and generous believers I know have skimpy bank balances and an abundance of trials while a great many sinners seem to be enjoying wealth and a trouble-free existence. As for health—the Apostle Paul certainly wasn’t short on faith or obedience and yet the “thorn” in His flesh was not removed. Today, we can look to someone like Christian author and evangelist Joni Eareckson Tada and see that her decades of deep faith, evangelism, and service have not been rewarded with a healed body. Not everyone in Judah received miraculous healing from the Lord and we have no reason to believe that those who were healed were any more righteous or deserving than those who weren’t.

Ours is a God of grace, not of works, and thinking of our faith, prayers, service, and tithes as something that earns us a reward on this side of the grass turns our relationship into a business transaction which brings me back to my initial question. What is our motivation for seeking the Kingdom of God? Is it that we love God or love the reward we hope to get? Do we want to honor and glorify God or be honored and blessed by Him? Are we seeking some sort of salary or recompense for faith and works from a God who will serve us or are we seeking His Kingdom because we want to serve Him? God sees into our hearts—He knows our motivation for all that we do.

In God’s Kingdom, the devout may not get everything they want but they will get everything they need. And what is it that we all need most? A relationship with God! Seeking God’s Kingdom also means that salvation, forgiveness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will be ours! That’s motivation enough for me! We seek the Kingdom of God to know Him, to love Him and to have a relationship with Him—anything else is merely frosting on the cake.

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:31-33 (NLT)]

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BONUS GIFT

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” [Acts 2:38-39 (NLT)]

dubbele late tulips "Freeman"

From the toy we found in the cereal box as kids to the televisions and cruises once offered by a car dealership north of here, everyone loves a bonus gift! When we were newly-weds, my husband and I collected glassware the gas station offered as a bonus for a fill-up. Those green glasses graced our table for many years as did the stainless-steel flatware we purchased with the S&H green stamps we’d gotten as a bonus from the grocery! I always wait until my favorite cosmetic brand offers a free bonus gift with a minimum purchase before restocking my moisturizer and DSW just offered a bonus tote bag with a minimum purchase. Restaurants like Outback Steakhouse frequently offer a $10 bonus card with the purchase of a $50 gift card. Even banks offer bonuses and Citibank recently offered up to $1,500 to customers opening a new checking account (to get that much, however, you had to maintain a $200,000 balance)!

I know of a bonus gift that is far better than glassware, a tote, or $1,500. No minimum purchase is required and we don’t have to spend money, go the mall, or change banks to get it. Although many bonus offers are exclusive for special customers, like those who’ve signed up for emails or spent a certain amount of money, this bonus offer is available to any who desire it. Unlike those restaurant bonus gift cards, there’s no expiration date on the benefits and there’s no fine print as there is for Citibank’s offer.

Since day one, mankind’s history hasn’t been good. It’s ranged from disobedience to deception, murder to theft, rebellion to jealousy, pride to cruelty, anger to revenge, and idolatry to avarice. Jesus was fully God but He also was fully human. Having encountered temptation, He knew the allure of sin and how tough it is to live in this fallen world. He had firsthand knowledge of disappointment, opposition, pain, loss, and betrayal and knew the dangers, pitfalls, and suffering of human life. Knowing how flawed we all are, Jesus didn’t want to leave us alone without a helper and so He gave us a bonus gift—the Holy Spirit.

The cereal toys of childhood were lost, the gas station glasses broke, S&H green stamps are no longer offered, and the kids took the stainless to college. Although the bonus lipstick and mascara are gone and the restaurant bonus gift cards are no longer valid, the life-changing Holy Spirit is forever! Like most bonus offers, however, Jesus’ offer comes at a cost but He is the One who paid the purchase price when he suffered and died on the cross.

We’ll often see an asterisk by the offered bonus and, if we bother to read the fine print, we’ll find there is a limited supply of gifts available. The Holy Spirit, however, is unlimited—there’s enough of Him to go around. Moreover, while most bonus offers have an expiration date, Jesus’ offer doesn’t. Instead, we are the ones with the expiration date which means we have a limited but unknown time in which we can claim His offer! The Holy Spirit is one bonus offer none of us should miss. Will you take Him up on it?

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.
Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.
[Augustine of Hippo]

But the helper, the holy spirit, the one the father will send in my name, he will teach you everything. He will bring back to your mind everything I’ve said to you. [John 14:26 (NTE)]

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TRY OR DO?

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

The best welcome I’ve had at any church was from a man named Luther. Handing us a program, he’d greet us with a broad smile before saying, “Jesus loves you and I do, too!” For several years, Luther greeted everyone who came to that church with his irresistible smile and warm heartfelt words. When age and poor health finally caught up to the nonagenarian, he reluctantly moved away to be closer to family.

I later learned that Luther didn’t save his message of love for fellow church-goers. He spread the news of God’s love everywhere he went. From strangers to neighbors, servers to sales clerks, and nurses to bus boys, everyone he encountered was greeted with those same loving words. Moreover, when Luther said them, he meant exactly what he said and radiated God’s love as he spoke them. His weren’t the words of a dotty old man; they were the words of a disciple of Christ and they spread Jesus’s message of love and joy everywhere he went.

I hadn’t thought about Luther for years until I ran across a friend who also knew Luther. He was wearing a tee-shirt printed with these words: “Jesus loves you and I’m trying!” My friend has a wry sense of humor and, inspired by Luther’s loving words, he had the shirt specially made. His words were brutally honest because loving our neighbor (especially the ones we don’t like) is far easier said than done! Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t tell us to try to love God or our neighbor—He said to do it!

Trying and doing are not the same thing. While there were no qualifications or limitations to Jesus’ or Luther’s words, there were to my friend’s. Trying is a state of mind while doing is action. While trying allows for a multitude of excuses for failure, doing doesn’t. Trying to love is doing so when it’s easy or convenient; actually loving is when it isn’t. It is only when we commit to really doing something that we have any chance of success. We don’t have to love perfectly and we’ll make mistakes; nevertheless, we must love! As Jedi Master Yoda said to Luke Skywalker: “Do. Or do not. There is no try!”

Unlike Luther, most of us probably wouldn’t feel comfortable greeting everyone we encounter with, “Jesus loves you and I do, too!” I don’t think Jesus expects us to do so.  Nevertheless, He does expect us to follow Luther’s example by sharing God’s love with all we meet. What do you suppose would happen if we silently said Luther’s words every time we encountered someone? By reminding us of God’s love and the love we are supposed to have for one another, could those simple words change us? Could they move us from trying to love to actually loving? Instead of getting upset or thinking something nasty when a driver cuts us off, a person pushes ahead of us in line, a salesclerk is rude, or we’re on the receiving end of some harsh words, what if we silently said “Jesus loves you and I do, too!”?  It would be difficult to remain angry or upset with anyone when thinking about the love of Jesus and His command to love one another. Those few words, even when said only in our minds, could defuse an argument, improve our tone of voice, ease anger and resentment, bring smiles to our faces, and show us how to love!

Remember, Jesus loves you and I do, too!

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. [C.S. Lewis]

Jesus 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 22:37-40 (NLT)]

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