NEVER A STRANGER

Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! [Hebrews 13:1-2 (NLT)]

butterfly weedThe story has been told of a shoemaker who dreamt that Jesus would come to his shop the following day. His dream was so realistic that he washed his shop windows and dusted every shelf in preparation for his holy guest. The man patiently waited at his bench for the Lord to arrive but the only person to come through his door that morning was an old man seeking shelter from the icy winter rain. When the cobbler looked down at the man’s wet feet, he saw toes poking out of his beat-up shoes. Selecting a new pair of shoes, the shoemaker sat the old man down, dried off his feet, gave him a fresh pair of socks, and fitted him with the new shoes. When the rain stopped, the old man went on his way.

Just about lunchtime, a shabbily dressed woman came into the store and asked if she could stay just long enough to get warm. When the cobbler opened up his lunch box, he saw the woman hungrily eyeing his sandwiches. “I’m not really hungry,” he said as he offered her his lunch. After the woman had eaten, warmed up, and departed, the shoemaker continued to wait for Jesus but no one else came through the door. As the disheartened man closed up shop that evening, he heard a child crying. Looking down, he saw a small boy huddled in the doorway. The tearful child explained that he’d gotten hopelessly lost while running errands. He knew his address but he didn’t know how to get there. Although the cobbler wanted to get home for dinner, he wiped the youngster’s eyes and nose, took his hand, and escorted him home.

After returning the boy to his family, the disappointed man turned back toward his shop and said a silent prayer of despair. “Lord, I was so sure you’d come—so sure that I’d see your face at my door! Where were you?” It was then that He heard a gentle voice tell him, “Shoemaker, lift up your heart. I was right there at your door three times today. You clothed me, fed me, and comforted me! Don’t you know that when you did those things to my children, you did them to me?”

The Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia, is a set of instructions for monastic living that has served as a guidebook to Christian discipleship for 1,500 years. Benedict opened chapter 53 with this statement, “All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’” Just as Benedict directed the monks to see Christ in their guests, so we must see Christ in the people we encounter. Like the cobbler’s visitors, that person may look like an expense, interruption, or inconvenience; nevertheless, he is Christ. Our fictional cobbler welcomed three strangers at his door and received Christ as his guest. While becoming Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others isn’t always easy, that’s what we’re called to do. Let us serve the Lord with gladness!

I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus. [Mother Teresa]

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me! [Matthew 25:35-36,40 (NLT)]

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NEVER THE EASY WAY

No one who is tempted should ever be confused and say that God is testing him. The One who created us is free from evil and can’t be tempted, so He doesn’t tempt anyone. [James 1:13 (VOICE)]

When the Apostle James tells us that God can’t be tempted by evil, we wonder how Jesus could be tempted to sin while in the wilderness. Christians agree that Jesus never sinned but some question whether He actually could. They hold the “impeccability” position: because Jesus was God, sin was impossible and He couldn’t have been tempted. Others hold the “peccability” position: because Jesus was a man, he could sin and was tempted. Still others, recognizing His dual nature, say that, as a man, Jesus could be tempted to sin but, as a divinity, He couldn’t.

Jesus was both God and man in one person. Rather than ceasing to be God while on earth, He added humanity to His being. At the same time, He was both divine and mortal, impeccable and peccable, immortal and mortal, infinite and finite. He didn’t have a multiple personality disorder with dueling personas; His fully divine nature was united in perfect harmony with his fully human one. While Jesus’ human nature was tempted by evil, His divine nature was not. Nevertheless, the temptation was real!

When in the wilderness, Satan tempted the hungry Jesus to make bread from stones. As the One who later fed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, we know Jesus could easily have done it; but He didn’t. Satan then tempted Jesus to prove himself by jumping off the highest point of the Temple. We know that the One who walked on water and passed unseen through an angry mob didn’t need angels to bring Him to safety. Jesus could have transported Himself safely to the ground effortlessly; but He didn’t. Finally, Satan tempted Jesus by offering Him kingdoms and glory if only He’d worship the enemy. We know the One who returned the dead to life, healed the sick, and turned water into wine didn’t need Satan to give Him kingdoms and glory. With a snap of His fingers, the One who was there at creation was capable of performing such an extraordinary spectacle that all of Jerusalem would have knelt immediately in worship; but He didn’t. When I look at those temptations, I see Satan tempting the Jesus to use His divine power to take the easy way out of the struggle and suffering that lay in His future as a man.

Satan left Jesus after that but his departure was temporary. He lay in wait for the next opportunity and I suspect he frequently tempted Jesus to take the easy way. As God, Jesus could be anywhere He wanted but, as a man, He had to walk to get there. God never gets tired, hungry, or thirsty but Jesus the man did When we look at the miracles done by Jesus, there was a unique purpose to each one and, while they helped to establish His identity, none were done to make His life easier. He deliberately chose to meet the challenges of life as a vulnerable human not an invincible God. Jesus never took a shortcut as God!

Satan is merely a fallen angel and was no match for the divine nature of Jesus. Satan, however, can overpower man and it was as a man that Jesus had to defeat him! Satan wanted to prove that no man could be obedient to God’s will but, by living as a man and resisting temptation, Jesus did just that. Out of love for us, Jesus defeated Satan by living sinlessly as a man and by dying as a man at Calvary.

Though He was in the form of God, He chose not to cling to equality with God; But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new; a servant in form and a man indeed. The very likeness of humanity, He humbled Himself, obedient to death—a merciless death on the cross! [Philippians 2:6-8 (VOICE)]

For Jesus is not some high priest who has no sympathy for our weaknesses and flaws. He has already been tested in every way that we are tested; but He emerged victorious, without failing God. [Hebrews 4:15 (VOICE)]

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LET IT GO (Part 2)

frost aster - northern cataulpaInstead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)]

After writing about forgiving ourselves as a step to experiencing the abundance of Christian life, I came across some classic Peanuts comic strips (drawn by Charles Schulz) that illustrate the importance of forgiving others, as well. In the first one (originally published Christmas Eve, 1972), Charlie Brown tells Snoopy that Poochie is coming for a visit. Snoopy responds that “it would be like getting the mumps twice! …You don’t forgive someone who does to you what she did to me!” The sulking Snoopy then whines, “Just what I didn’t need…a Poochie Christmas.”

A week later, Snoopy is lying on the roof of his doghouse when Charlie Brown tells him of Poochie’s arrival. “I don’t want to see her!” replies the dog. Saying that beagles have long memories, Snoopy relates his last encounter with Poochie. He was just a puppy when she tossed a stick for him to fetch. Eager to please the girl, he retrieved it just in time to see her walk away with an English Sheepdog. When Charlie Brown expresses amazement that Snoopy remembers the incident so vividly, the beagle replies, “How could I forget?” Showing the boy what he’s holding, Snoopy explains, “I still have the stick!” The following week, the story continues with Poochie’s visit. Wearing his sunglasses, Snoopy puts on his “Joe Cool” persona and snubs the little girl. Refusing even to speak with her, there is no reunion or reconciliation and a disappointed Poochie leaves.

Peanuts looks like kid stuff but Schulz’s characters show us what it’s like to live in a world of disappointments—where our baseball team never wins, the football is yanked away, kites get tangled in trees, big sisters boss around little brothers, people suffer from unrequited love, grudges are held, and a security blanket often seems like a good idea. Charles Schulz portrays the kind of world in which we live: one where we’re more likely to lose than win.

Almost certainly, the embittered Snoopy fretted about Poochie’s visit all through the Christmas holiday right into the new year and he probably spoiled another week or more reliving their unsatisfactory meeting. Although we don’t see it, I’m sure Snoopy still has that stick and continues to bears a grudge against the little girl who chose an English Sheepdog over him!

Snoopy is just an imaginary character, living in a comic strip, but he’s not much different from us. Granted, we may not keep a stick we fetched as a puppy but we often keep other mementos of heartbreak and disappointment, use social media to stay connected with the people who hurt us, or make ourselves miserable by replaying an offense in our minds or revisiting it in our conversations. Intentionally holding onto our grievances is like rubbing salt into our own wounds!

Being hurt by people, even people we love and trust, is part of life, but dwelling on what happened in the past can only rob us of today’s joy. If we ever want to experience the abundant life promised by Jesus, if we want to be filled with His joy, if we ever hope to enjoy His peace that surpasses understanding, we must love others in the same way He loved us. We have to let go of the stick and forgive!

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:10-12 (NLT)]

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LET IT GO! (Part 1)

But if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil. [1 John 1:9 (PHILLIPS)]

I’ve undertaken a series of “Abundance” exercises, the purpose of which is to take Jesus up on His promise of an abundant life. While my first assignment was to notice God’s abundance in His creation, the second was to let go of any guilt that I might be holding by asking God to forgive me (and believing that He truly has).

“Forgive yourself and let it go!” is easier said than done and this second exercise was more challenging than the first. Asking God for His forgiveness is less difficult than actually believing we’re forgiven and forgiving ourselves can be hardest of all. Sadly, the underlying guilt and self-reproach when we can’t let go of the past robs us of an abundant life.

I thought of Peter’s many failures that last night of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He protested Jesus’ washing of his feet, bickered with the disciples about their Kingdom status, boasted that he’d never desert the Lord, fell asleep in the garden, and then denied knowing Jesus! The lowest point of Peter’s life must have been when the Lord looked into his eyes after that third denial. By disavowing the man he loved, Peter did exactly what he promised he’d never do and, weeping bitterly, he left the courtyard. Peter’s despair and shame must have grown the following day when Jesus died after hours of suffering on the cross. Did guilt for his betrayal fill Peter’s heart?

Several months earlier, Peter had asked Jesus if forgiving someone seven times was enough. Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven meant there is no limit to forgiveness. While Luke tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, we don’t know how that first reunion went and what words were spoken. We do know that, when Jesus appeared on the lakeshore and told the men to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, Peter was so anxious to see Him that he jumped into the water and swam ashore. I can imagine Peter’s tears at their soggy embrace.

That morning, as the men stood around the charcoal fire while the fish cooked, did Peter remember warming himself by another charcoal fire when he denied Jesus the third time? We know that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him and that Peter answered in the affirmative each time. Although we never read of Jesus explicitly forgiving Peter, we know that man who preached unlimited forgiveness certainly practiced it! That He told the apostle to take care of and feed his sheep certainly implies the Lord’s forgiveness. Indeed, Peter shepherded His flock and became the Rock of His church.

While Peter probably remembered that Thursday night with regret, he also knew there was nothing he could do to change it; his words of denial couldn’t be unsaid. Yet, if he’d chosen to hold onto his guilt, he would never have been able to speak of forgiveness and lead 3,000 to Jesus on Pentecost! Fraught with guilt and shame, he may even have taken his life as did Judas. Instead of holding onto the past, Peter sought God’s mercy and forgiveness and reaffirmed his devotion to the Lord. Believing in Jesus’ power to cleanse him from his sins, he accepted God’s forgiveness and lived the abundant life promised by Jesus. Peter forgave himself and let it go; let us do the same!

If we live like this, we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own hearts make us feel guilty. For God is infinitely greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. And if, dear friends of mine, when we realise this our hearts no longer accuse us, we may have the utmost confidence in God’s presence. [1 John 3:19-21 (PHILLIPS)]

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YOU ARE LOVED – VALENTINE’S DAY 2020

Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, and always stand your ground in defending him. … There are three things that remain—faith, hope and love—and the greatest of these is love. [I Corinthians 13:4-7, 13 (TLB)]

clouded sulphur butterfly on asterToday is Valentine’s Day and, contrary to popular belief, this holiday was not invented by Hallmark cards. Named for one of three Christian martyrs called Valentine, its real origins are in a Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia. For an unofficial holiday of pagan origin, it packs an enormous economic impact with Americans spending about $20 billion on candy, cards, flowers, dining out, romantic get-aways, jewelry and clothing. $933 million of that money will be spent on cards and $886 million on pets! With the neighbor’s cat getting a gift, you might want to think about doing something special for the one you love! After all, over 50% of American women said they’d dump their boyfriends if they didn’t get something for Valentine’s Day. Besides, you married fellows don’t want to come home empty-handed and be met by a cold shoulder and hot tongue.

Although nine million marriage proposals are expected today, love has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day or cards, candy, and candle-lit dinners. Giving or receiving a dozen roses, theater tickets, a back rub, perfume or even a diamond necklace doesn’t mean we love or are loved. While it is nice to have an excuse for a romantic evening or a day at the spa, let’s not allow this holiday to define our concept of love. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul does a far better job of that than any gift ever could. A good man or woman is hard to find so let’s not get our undies in a bunch over whether or not we received a $5 card or a $50 bouquet of red roses. Jesus called on us to love, not just on one day of the year, but every moment of every day and that kind of love has nothing to do with chocolate-covered strawberries or sexy lingerie.

Back in elementary school, valentines were sent to everyone in the class so that nobody’s feelings got hurt. Real life, however, doesn’t work that way. Even with 15 million e-cards being sent today, there still will be many who won’t receive Valentine’s Day greetings or gifts. Even if we have no one special in our lives, let’s not allow this holiday to make us feel unloved or unlovable. We don’t need a card or flowers to know we are cherished. Reading our Bibles, thinking of Jesus on the cross, or even opening our eyes to the beautiful world God gave us tells us that we are loved and special in His eyes! The Bible is God’s love letter to us and Jesus is His gift. God sent His only son instead of flowers, candy or a Hallmark card and His valentine to mankind was sacrificed for our salvation. God truly “cared enough to send the very best!”

And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts, living within you as you trust in him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love; and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God’s children should, how long, how wide, how deep, and how high his love really is; and to experience this love for yourselves, though it is so great that you will never see the end of it or fully know or understand it. And so at last you will be filled up with God himself. [Ephesians 3:17-19 (TLB)]

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INCREDIBLE CREATION

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)]

ring-tailed lemur - serval catAs a way of learning how to live the abundant life promised by Jesus, I am participating in a series of abundance exercises. In my first, I was to think of something God created and reflect on the different and incredible ways He expressed that creation. While at the zoo, I couldn’t help but notice God’s abundance in the diversity of His creatures: the speedy cheetah, the sluggish sloth, the crane’s sharp pointed beak, the giant anteater’s long tubular snout, the giraffe with its long legs and neck, and the python with neither legs nor neck! The gazelles’ long slender horns don’t resemble the muntjacs’ small antlers or the giraffes’ stubby ossicones; the zebras’ stripes were nothing like those on the bongo or ring-tailed lemurs; and the giraffes’ spots were different from those on the cheetah and serval. Even within each species, every animal had his own unique pattern of stripes or spots. The animals’ colors and coats ranged from the vibrant blue, gold and green feathers of the macaws to the brown-grey shell of the gopher tortoise and the heavy fur coat of the black bear. Because our zoo started out as a botanical garden 100 years ago, the setting was lush and we were surrounded by bright pink, yellow, blue, orange and white flowers along with mangroves, strangler figs, cypress, cactus, enormous banyans, and over 100 species of palm trees. God outdid himself when it came to flora and fauna. Having completed the week’s assignment in a matter of hours, it seemed too easy and I decided to notice God’s creativity throughout the week.

The next day, as we walked in the swamp, I used my ears. I can only recognize a few of the birds’ voices—the anhinga’s low grunt, catbird’s mew, fish crow’s uh-oh, egret’s squawk, woodpecker’s squeak, hawk’s plaintive call, and the jay’s raucous one—but plenty of other birds added to the avian symphony of chirps, whistles, warbles, tweets, and other sweet notes. God outdid Himself again with the variety of birds and songs!

At the farmer’s market later that week, we found fresh sweet corn, avocados, guava, eggplants, oranges, star fruit, grapefruit, tangerines, tomatoes, ginger, cauliflower, radishes, fennel, lettuce, and assorted peppers. I smelled paella cooking and popcorn popping and sampled five different types of jams, an “everything” bagel, fresh brewed coffee, olive tapenade, spicy mango salsa, and lemon-poppy seed bread. For the five basic flavors a human’s tongue can taste, God certainly provides an abundance of variations!

When picking out paint colors, I had to choose from a palette of over 800 samples (starting with eight different shades of black)! While my decision would have been easier with fewer choices, I realized how dull our world be if, like seals or whales, we only saw in shades of black, white and grey. Thankfully, God, in His extravagance of creativity, gave us millions of colors and three kinds of cones in our eyes so we can enjoy them all!

The purpose of the exercise was to open my heart and mind to the richness in our world and embrace the beauty and abundance of life by appreciating God’s amazing creativity. We probably don’t need over 5,400 species of mammals; 9,000 species of birds (each with its own song); 8,200 different kinds of reptiles; or some 2,600 species of palms. I don’t think we’d miss a few of the 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, being able to distinguish between “blue horizon” and “timid blue,” or not having a red Caribbean habanero from the more than 130 varieties of peppers, but God gave us all those things anyway! Ours is a more than enough God and, from the first moment of creation, He provided the world with beautiful abundance. It’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God—all of creation does!

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in. [George Washington Carver]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. [Psalm 104:24-25 (NLT)

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