CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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THY WILL BE DONE

Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:10b (RSV)]

zinniaIn our house, we have an unwritten agreement to accept each other’s choices when it comes to giving. God had laid it on my heart to help a young family in our church through some difficult financial times. When I told my husband I’d written a generous check to them, he said I didn’t need to ask him. “I wasn’t asking,” I replied, adding that I hoped he was in agreement with me. Although that check was not dependent upon my husband’s authorization or approval, I still wanted him on board with my decision to write it.

I thought of our exchange while praying, “Thy will be done.” I’d mistakenly thought I was merely consenting to or accepting God’s will with those words. God, however, certainly doesn’t need my agreement for His will to be done any more than I needed my husband’s permission to write that check. God is all-powerful and whatever He wants to do, He easily can do without my prayers, input or approval. Why then then did Jesus tell us to pray those words?

“Thy will be done”—are they simply words of resignation and surrender? While that sentence is one of humble submission, I think there is much more to it. We’re asking God to reveal His will and praying for the obedience, wisdom, guidance, and means to accomplish it. We’re asking God to reassure us so that we can trust Him and go about achieving His purpose in eagerness and joy. We’re not offering a prayer to authorize or strengthen Him; we’re praying that He will strengthen and empower us. With those words, we’re thanking God for knowing what is best for each and every one of us.

In our daily walk, we have a choice. God can drag us along (much I had to drag the dog into the vet’s office) or we can eagerly follow Him. Either way, whether we’re kicking and screaming or moving enthusiastically, God’s will shall be done. Nevertheless, in praying, “Thy will be done,” we fully commit our hearts to that will. It’s saying, “Here I am, Lord. Put on my armor, send me into battle and keep me strong in the enemy’s attack!” Heavenly Father, thy will be done!

Prayer is not so much the means whereby God’s will is bent to man’s desires, as it is that whereby man’s will is bent to God’s desires. [Charles Bent]

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23 (RSV)]

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NOAH AND THE RED TAPE

It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith. [Hebrews 11:7 (NLT)]

pikaWhat if God came to Noah in 2018 with his ark building orders? As the rain started to fall, God would probably find Noah sitting on a small pile of wood. When asked about the absent animals and missing ark, Noah would reel off a litany of excuses. Boat building wasn’t allowed in his neighborhood so he had to go before the planning commission, zoning board, and city council for rezoning. The ark building permit couldn’t be issued until the blueprints were revised to allow for the required sprinkler system, emergency lighting, additional bathrooms, handicap accessibility, and a commercial kitchen. After the electric company insisted he pay for the raising of several power lines for the ark’s passage to the shore, the Army Corps of Engineers said he had to get a permit to dredge the channel once there. Noah’s explanation that both were unnecessary since the sea would be coming to him fell on deaf ears. FEMA said Noah couldn’t start his work until an environmental impact study was done on the proposed flood. Although he countered that he wasn’t proposing a flood but was just preparing for one, he had to wait until the study was finished. Because of a threat to the hazel dormouse and the great crested newt, there was a logging moratorium and he couldn’t get any wood. After getting in a dispute with the CDC and USDA about importing and exporting animals, PETA and the ASPCA claimed Noah was collecting wildlife against their will and that placing them in pens on a boat was cruel. Even though he was trying to save rather than harm them, an injunction now prevented him from gathering or possessing any animals. Noah added that he’d also had run-ins with the EPA about using tar to waterproof the ship and the Coast Guard about the number of passengers and animals that could come aboard. “Lord, I tried, but what you asked was impossible!” he cried.

Fortunately, the deluge happened 5,000 years ago and long before man’s invention of bureaucracy. If the real Noah had allowed circumstances to deter him from God’s task, mankind’s story would have ended in the sixth chapter of Genesis. In actuality, however, it probably wasn’t a whole lot easier for him than this fictional Noah. Gathering the materials, building the ark, explaining the project to his family, dealing with skeptical neighbors, supplying the ship, assembling and loading the animals—all posed tremendous challenges. Noah, however, is called a righteous man; described as blameless, he was a man who walked with God. Even in the 21st century, a man like that wouldn’t let any amount of red tape keep him from doing God’s will!

What my fictional Noah didn’t understand is that we are to fear God above all others—even indignant neighbors, government bureaucracy, and angry protesters. There is an urgency in our obedience to God that has been lost in today’s world of red tape and excuses. The real Noah did everything that God commanded him to do when God told him to do it and God expects us to do the same. When God assigns a task, He doesn’t abandon us. He equips, enables, provides and qualifies us and will give us all the resources, skills, and direction necessary to do His work. Let us remember that the Jordan River didn’t stop flowing for the Israelites until the priests’ feet had touched the water! If we are doing God’s will, He will hold back the water when we bravely step into it or provide us with a giant pair of scissors to cut through the red tape when we get tangled in it. All we have to do is trust Him enough to take that first step.

Each of us may be sure that if God sends us on stony paths He will provide us with strong shoes, and He will not send us out on any journey for which He does not equip us well. [Alexander MacLaren]

May he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:21(NLT)]

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STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

Then the Lord said to Moses, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have now allowed you to see it with your own eyes, but you will not enter the land.” So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, just as the Lord had said. [Deuteronomy 34:4-5 (NLT)]

southern fogfruitWe all know the story: when she could keep him hidden no longer, Moses’s mother put him in a waterproof basket and laid him in the reeds of the Nile where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ sister appeared, offered to find a wet nurse for him, and Moses and his birth mother were briefly reunited. When he was older, the boy was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him. Logically that would have been when he was weaned (around two or three). Unfortunately, with only eleven verses of Scripture about his childhood, there’s no way of knowing how much contact he had with his birth family or what he knew of his Hebrew heritage. Nevertheless, Moses must have been torn by the knowledge that he was living a privileged life in the palace of the man who was mercilessly oppressing his people. A Hebrew boy being raised as an Egyptian prince, was Moses ever fully accepted by those in Pharaoh’s court? Did he feel he belonged or and was he too much of a Hebrew to be considered an Egyptian?

When he was grown, Moses went out “to visit his own people” but we don’t know why. Was he visiting his birth family, supervising some labor, or merely curious? Scripture only tells us that Moses killed an Egyptian he saw abusing a Hebrew slave. The next day, Moses returned again to his people and saw two Hebrews fighting. When he tried to intervene, he was sarcastically rebuffed: “Who appointed you to be our prince and judge? Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?” Apparently, Moses was too much of an Egyptian to be considered a Hebrew by his own people!

To escape Pharaoh’s wrath over the homicide, Moses fled to Midian. The man who was too much a Hebrew to be Egyptian and too Egyptian to be Hebrew was now a stranger in a strange land. Although his unique background was perfect preparation for the task given him, Moses didn’t know that. It’s easy to understand why he was so reluctant when God told him that he’d be the one to lead the Hebrews to freedom. What did Moses know of his people and God’s covenant with Israel? He hadn’t even circumcised his son Gershom!

Part of me finds the story of Moses incredibly sad. Having spent a third of his life as an outsider in Pharaoh’s palace, a third as an exile in Midian, and a third as a nomad in the wilderness, he was a man who never really belonged anywhere. Although he was the one who led his people to their home in Canaan, Moses never stepped into that Promised Land; he only viewed it from a distance. Yet, isn’t this what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he gave his examples of faith in Hebrews 11? He wrote of faithful people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who, like Moses, only viewed God’s Promised Land from a distance. True faith, however, allows us to see beyond what is right in front of us. We’re all strangers in a strange land because this world is not our home. The Promised Land is not a piece of soil; it is the Kingdom of God and a piece of eternity.

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. … But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11:13,16 (NLT)]

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EASY COME

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. [Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)]

little bue heron“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” asks the comedian. “Practice, practice, practice,” is his answer. “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work,” said Booker T. Washington, a man who truly knew the value of hard work. Most of us, having been raised with a strong work ethic, would agree with Washington’s words. If we want something we must work for it. If we want to be musicians, we practice; if we want to get on the team, we train; if we want a scholarship, we study. Success comes through determination and lots of hard work. We’ve heard all the maxims; there’s no elevator to success so we have to take the stairs. We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we must work our way up the ladder, and we’ve got to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Success is never handed to you and it’s only in the dictionary that success comes before work.

If we get to Carnegie Hall by practicing, the Olympics by training and Harvard by studying, how do we get to Heaven? What do we have to do? Here’s the rub—unlike just about everything else in the world, we can’t earn our way, practice our way, study our way, work our way or even buy our way into Heaven. All we really have to do is believe our way through those pearly gates but that just seems so un-American! Surely everything has a price—there’s got to be something noble we can accomplish, someone we can impress or bribe, some special words we can say, or a way we can pay to guarantee a spot. In fact, we’re just a bit suspicious of a deal that seems too good to be true. Surely, there’s a catch but, truly, there isn’t. Jesus paid the price long ago; all we have to do is accept His gift of salvation!

Religion is spelled ‘D-O’, because it consists of the things people do try to somehow gain God’s forgiveness and favor. But the problem is that you never know when you’ve done enough. But thankfully, Christianity is spelled differently. It’s spelled ‘D-O-N-E’, which means that what we could never do for ourselves, Christ has already done for us. To become a real Christian is to humbly receive God’s gift of forgiveness and to commit to following His leadership. [From “Becoming a Contagious Christian” by Bill Hybels]

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. [Acts 16:30-31a (NLT)]

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THE SCARLET CORD

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. [Hebrews 11:1-2 (NLT)]

red roseRahab is one of the two women Paul lists in his “Hall of Faith.” This woman from Jericho married Salmon, was the mother of Boaz, a great-great grandmother to David, and one of Jesus’s ancestors. Oh—and she was a prostitute who collaborated with the enemy. Yet, Matthew makes specific mention of her in Jesus’ genealogy and both James and Paul speak highly of her in their epistles. Why?

From what Rahab had heard of the Israelites, she recognized their God as supreme. This perceptive woman anticipated Jericho’s defeat and judiciously aligned herself with the winning side when she protected two Israelite spies. After hiding them from the king’s men, she requested the same loyalty to her that she’d given them and negotiated for the safety of her family. As she lowered the men to safety on a scarlet cord, they told Rahab her protection was only ensured if she had that same cord visible on the day of their attack. True to their word, when Jericho fell, Rahab and her family were saved. Was it Rahab’s treason to Jericho that caused Paul to include her in his list or was there more?

After leaving Rahab’s house, the spies hid in the hills for three days before returning to camp and reporting to Joshua. After that, the Israelites broke camp and moved to the banks of the Jordan where they stayed another three days before crossing the river. Once across, the Israelites erected memorials to commemorate their crossing by God’s power. Four days later, the people celebrated the first night of Passover and, at some point, all of the men were circumcised. As the Israelites observed the eight days of Passover and the men recovered from their surgery, the invincible city of Jericho closed its gates and readied itself for battle. Meanwhile, Rahab had waited at least two weeks for the Israelites and her rescue. Did she begin to doubt the two spies and their God? Had she picked the wrong side to support? Did she consider bringing in that scarlet cord and making an alliance with a protector in Jericho? Was she tempted to lose faith in the God of the Israelites?

Eventually, the Israelites set off to conquer Jericho but they didn’t assault the town or lay siege to it. Instead, seven priests blowing rams’ horns led the Ark of the Covenant followed by 40,000 soldiers around the walled city before returning to their camp. For six days, Rahab watched from her window as the army silently marched around the city and then departed without lifting a weapon. Was Rahab’s faith shaken by this strange behavior? Were the men too afraid to attack? What kind of God used such a bizarre battle plan? On the seventh day, when she watched the Israelites parade seven times around the city, did she abandon all hope as she witnessed what appeared to be another day of even more pointless marching? Apparently not; that scarlet cord, the sign of her faith in the God of the Israelites, was still hanging from her window. When the army finally shouted, the walls of the unconquerable city collapsed and Rahab and her family were saved.

The walls of Jericho were leveled by faith in God. Rahab helped two strangers and kept that scarlet cord dangling from her window by that same faith. When God’s plan seems inexplicable or a long time in coming, do we exhibit a similar kind of faith? When things seem at a standstill, when we can’t see His plan, do we despair or do we hang out a scarlet cord of faith in God?

It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down. It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. [Hebrews 11:30-31 (NLT)]

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