WHAT IF?

What if the Lord had not been on our side? Let all Israel repeat: What if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us? [Psalm 124:1-2 (NLT)]

mottled ducks
My husband and I, our three children, their spouses, and the five grands recently spent a week together in Idaho and every minute of it was amazing and wonderful. During a quiet moment, I looked down at my wedding ring and asked myself, “What if?” What if an odd set of circumstances hadn’t occurred in October of 1966 and I hadn’t met the man who is my husband? What if his original date hadn’t gotten ill and what if my sorority sisters hadn’t insisted on fixing me up with him? I really didn’t want to go; what if I’d refused? What if he hadn’t relentlessly pursued me or called that one lonely night and asked me to go for ice cream? If a variety of events hadn’t come together in just the way they did, I wouldn’t have met him, let alone married him, and those children and grands wouldn’t have entered my life. What if we hadn’t somewhat foolishly (and hastily) gotten married while we both were in school? My father died only a few months after our wedding and, had I not been married, I would have been completely on my own at the unwise age of twenty. But, in God’s perfect plan, I wasn’t alone; He’d already given me a new family in my husband and his parents.

“Whew, that was close!” Surely, you’ve had times like that—occasions when you’re sure God’s hand delivered you—the split second that kept you from being a traffic fatality, the chance encounter that led you to the solution for which you’d been searching, being one of the 5% who beat the prognosis, or the time your toddler’s close encounter with a car was only that—close. “What if…?” we ask ourselves. What if He hadn’t protected me from my enemies? What if God hadn’t stopped me when He did? What if He hadn’t saved me from myself? I’m not much for looking back and regretfully asking “What if?” but, when asking it reinforces our confidence in God’s deliverance, it’s a good question to ask.

Think of the times you’ve been in the right place at exactly the right time and the times you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, the times everything miraculously fell into place, and the times you escaped trouble and tragedy by a fraction of an inch! That wasn’t due to happenstance, good luck, or even our own skill. Give credit where credit is due—that was God’s hand touching our lives.

In Psalm 124, David asked the people of Israel to consider what might have happened if the Lord had not been on their side. After reviewing God’s past deliverance, he declared his confidence in God’s future faithfulness. When I ask “What if?” I see a God who loves me and is committed to my welfare—a God who has been right beside me even when I didn’t know it—a God who put together the pieces of my life in an inexplicable but wonderful way.

As David found, when we ask, “What if the Lord had not been on my side?” the answer will reassure our confidence in God’s future faithfulness. Indeed, “Our help is from the Lord!”

They would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger. The waters would have engulfed us; a torrent would have overwhelmed us. Yes, the raging waters of their fury would have overwhelmed our very lives. Praise the Lord, who did not let their teeth tear us apart! We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap. The trap is broken, and we are free! Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:3-8 (NLT)]

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YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]
spiderwort

During our summer travels, we were seated with a young couple during breakfast at a rural B&B. Upon discovering they were PhD candidates at the University of Chicago, we asked for an explanation of their research. Our eyes glazed over as the man used words like photons, leptons, mesons, baryons, and hadronic interactions. By the time his wife explained her materials research and mentioned macromolecular interactions, microstructures, interface dynamics, nanoparticles and stress variations, I think we would have preferred a flippant, “We’d tell you but then we’d have to kill you!” response to the ones we got. As patient as they were and as dumbed-down as they made their explanations, we barely knew more about their studies at the end of our conversation than we did at the beginning.

Perhaps a better answer to our questions would have been, “You wouldn’t understand even if we told you!” Nevertheless, if they’d said that, even though they were right, we would have been offended by their answer and insisted we could figure it out. Their world, however, is so far removed from ours and their vocabulary so specific that it would have taken them hours (more likely days) of explanation before we could have a vague understanding of what they did and why they did it. Nevertheless, we managed to find common ground in our fondness for Chicago, the charm of the B&B, and the delicious breakfast we were enjoying.

Even though the Bible clearly explains that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, Scripture’s answer is neither satisfying nor comforting in the face of tragedy. Naturally, we want an explanation but God is strangely silent. Perhaps that’s just His way of saying, “Trust me, child, you really wouldn’t understand even if I explained it all to you!” While it’s not found in the Bible, the old maxim, “God works in mysterious ways,” is true. If the world of physics and materials science is beyond my limited understanding, I know I’m incapable of ever understanding what makes God run the universe the way He does. I’m still having trouble understanding a love so great that He gave His son as propitiation for our sins! I can’t fully grasp an all-powerful God who has always existed and always will—an all-knowing God, unconstrained by time or space, who can be everywhere at once—a God who can see yesterday, today and all the variations of tomorrow at one time. If I can’t fully comprehend God’s traits, what makes me think I could ever comprehend His reasoning?

We mortals want a detailed explanation of our lives from God but, even if He offered us one, we’d never understand it. Moreover, I’m not so sure I really want to know—the weight of such divine knowledge would be overwhelming. As we did with those grad students, however, we can find common ground—in God’s case, that would be His love for us and our love for Him. For now, that will have to suffice.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! [Romans 11:33 (NLT)]

The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. [Psalm119:130 (NLT)]

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
[William Cowper]

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THE GAME OF LIFE

“What does God know?” they ask. “Does the Most High even know what’s happening?” Look at these wicked people—enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply. Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain. [Psalm 73:11-14 (NLT)]

Even before my children could read, we played Chutes and Ladders, a simple board game for youngsters with a goal of moving around the board and being the first one to reach the final square. Players who land on a good deed space get to take a shortcut up a ladder to see their reward. Players who land on a naughty square, however, face the consequences when they lose ground and slide down a chute. Planting seeds, for example, leads up a ladder to a pot of flowers but eating too much candy sends the player down the chute with a tummy ache. The game is supposed to reinforce the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad behavior has consequences. While a good lesson, we grown-ups know that not every good deed is rewarded and not every bad one gets punished. Perhaps that other children’s game, The Game of Life, is closer to reality since, regardless of how virtuous the player is, he can still be fired, have a mid-life crisis, or experience a stock market slump. Yet, in that game, the player with the most money wins and, while we all like money, we also know that no amount of money makes us winners in this life (or the next).

Milton Bradley’s original game, The Checkered Game of Life, seems to reflect the unpredictability of life a bit better than either of the two games mentioned. A morality game pitting virtue against vice, Bradley’s 1860 version was not for preschoolers. Players moved ahead when landing on squares like Honesty or Influence but backwards on squares like Idleness. While School led to College and Perseverance to Success, Gambling led to Ruin and Intemperance to Poverty. Players earned points by landing on virtue squares like Wealth, Happiness, or Honor and lost them by landing on vice squares like Disgrace, Poverty, or Crime. If they had the ill-fortune of landing on Suicide, they were completely out of the game! Even the most virtuous of players had to navigate around or through those troublesome vice-filled squares before accumulating the 100 points needed to end the game at the final square: Happy Old Age.

We don’t have to play a game or read the Book of Job to know that life can seem as arbitrary as the spinner in a children’s game. None of us can control nature, time, chance, or other people. Like Job, we’ve all had had times when life seemed incredibly unjust—when we suffered from bad things we neither caused nor deserved. Like Solomon, we can’t understand how it is that bad people can have smooth sailing while good people often struggle to keep their heads above water. Nevertheless, there were times we benefitted from life’s capriciousness and escaped the consequences of our own poor behavior. Even though we should have, we didn’t slide back down the chute or take the trip to Disgrace.

When we play a game, once there’s a winner (or the kids get bored), the game is over. Fortunately, our game of life is not the sum total of our existence in this world—it is simply the prelude to the real one that will last forever. All that seems unfair or wrong here on earth is only temporary. In the end, something very bad will happen to those who don’t know Jesus and something very good will happen to those who do! Moreover, as Christians, we know that, no matter how the game ends in this life, we are winners in the next!

I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. [Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (NLT)]

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MEGA MILLIONS

For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. [1 Timothy 6:10 (NLT)]

Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time. [Proverbs 13:11 (NLT)]

St. Abune Teklehaimanot, I pray You help me win the Lottery today. I beseech, entreat and beg you who stood upon one leg that you may grant my fervent plea and the winner of the jackpot will be me! [Pete Crowther]

mountain bluebirdKnown for his extreme piety and for sprouting wings when he fell off a mountain, some people regard St. Abune Teklehaimanot as the patron saint of gamblers. The last years of his life, he chose to live in small deep cave that had spears sticking out of all the walls and remained standing the entire time, even after breaking a leg. While the wing sprouting and ability to remain standing seem to be lucky breaks, I find him an odd saint from whom to request help at winning the lottery. Nevertheless, some people do. Considering the size of tonight’s Mega Millions lottery (at least $530 million and counting), I imagine several ticket purchasers have been calling on God (and even Saint Abune).

I wonder what God thinks of the lottery. We’re told to be good stewards of our blessings, so does He approve of spending hard-earned money on a game of chance? I understand the odds of winning this lottery are 1 in 302,575,350 and, compared to those odds, getting struck by lightning (1 in 12,000) seems a near certainty! Since purchasing a lottery ticket is little better than tossing money out the window, I’m not sure God approves.

Moreover, because the ones who buy the most lottery tickets are the people who can least afford them, many believe the lottery actually exploits the poor. God, who tells us to care for the less fortunate, might disapprove for that reason alone. He also might object simply because the sole purpose of purchasing a lottery ticket is to win money. Jesus cautioned about the danger of riches getting in the way of faith and it’s in 1 Timothy that we’re warned about the love of money being the root of evil. Proverbs warns us about “get rich quick” schemes which certainly describes the lottery. I really don’t know where God stands on the lottery and, while I suspect He doesn’t much like it, I doubt that buying a lottery ticket occasionally is a sin. Nevertheless, we better remember that greed always is a sin!

Now we come to the question of praying to win the lottery. Personally, I think that’s not the kind of prayer God wants to hear and it will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, what if we promise to give it to God? What if we promise to build Habitat homes, Family Life Centers for churches, and schools and hospitals in third-world countries? What if we promise to fund church missions and missionaries, medical care for the indigent, mental health services, shelters for the homeless, day care facilities, food pantries, and seminary costs for aspiring pastors? Would asking God for the winning ticket be the right prayer then? Will God listen if we promise every cent to His work? As much as God wants us to do good works, I don’t think a winning lottery ticket is how He wants them done.

God promises to provide for our needs but He expects us to do the work and make some sacrifices along the way. Let’s face it—giving away money that hasn’t been earned is hardly a sacrifice. God expects us to appreciate His blessings and, if there’s been no effort on our part, there usually is little or no appreciation of the blessing. That’s why groups like Habitat for Humanity require some sweat equity from the families who receive a home. It is up to every one of us, not just the lottery winners, to have altruistic and unselfish goals and it is up to every one of us to do something about achieving them. Rich and poor alike, we all must do our part to fund those worthy causes, feed the hungry, and build those needed homes, hospitals, schools, and churches and all without lotto winnings.

If you win the Mega Millions tonight, I pray you use your money wisely and remember that the more we are blessed by God, the more He expects us to bless others. A word of caution for the winner—according the New York Daily News, nearly 70% of lottery winners end up broke or bankrupt within seven years!

Don’t love money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” [Hebrews 13:5 (NLT)]

And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. [Hebrews 13:16 (NLT)]

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THE MARK OF CAIN

The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [Genesis 4:15-16 (NLT)]

After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse and, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. The rejection wasn’t because one gift was animal and the other was crops—both fauna and flora were acceptable and represented each brother’s vocation. Abel, however, presented the “best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” and Cain merely offered “some of his crops” rather than the best and first. God rejected the offering because of Cain’s heart. While Abel made his offering whole-heartedly, Cain begrudged making the gift at all. Although Abel was not responsible for the rejection, he died at the hands of his angry jealous brother.

God punished Cain by banishing him and cursing the ground so that he would be unsuccessful in cultivating the soil. Having lost homeland, family, and livelihood, Cain was condemned to be a “homeless wanderer.” Cain protested that his punishment was too harsh—as a homeless fugitive without the protection of a community, he could be attacked and killed, perhaps in revenge by Abel’s family. Promising Cain that scenario wouldn’t happen, God pledged a seven-fold punishment for anyone who killed Cain.

To seal the deal, God gave Cain a sign or mark. Contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was a blessing not a punishment and may not have been a physical mark at all. The Hebrew verb typically translated as “set” or “put” in this verse was sum or sim which could mean everything from appointed, assigned, and established to attached, placed, or laid. The word typically translated as “mark” was ‘owth which referred to a sign, token, or mark and is the same word God used when giving Moses miraculous signs to convince Israel’s elders that God had spoken with him. Because we don’t know if this was an actual mark on Cain or some other sign, some Bibles translate the questioned verse as God giving Cain a sign or appointing a sign for him. Nevertheless, in one way or another, the sign or mark guaranteed Cain’s safety by indicating he was under God’s divine protection and warning of repercussions should the fugitive be killed.

More important than the mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who later says, “Anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” [Genesis 9:5] Cain’s banishment is an important lesson for us. After being with God, Cain had to leave the Lord’s presence and his departure from God’s presence demonstrates the way our sin separates all sinners from God. When we sin and reject God’s will, only spiritual isolation and wretchedness remain. Moreover, by God withholding the full penalty of death for Cain’s sin, we are introduced to His amazing grace and mercy—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation and culminates in Jesus! When Jesus took our punishment on the cross, rather than the death penalty we rightly deserved, like Cain, we were given life!

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:8 (NLT)]

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) [Ephesians 2:4-5 (NLT)]

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THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. [1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (KJV)]
variegated fritillary butterfly

At my age, I think I’d prefer a hazy mirror and blurred reflection to my bathroom mirrors that seem cruel with the clarity of what they reveal. Mirrors in Biblical times, however, were usually made of polished bronze and their reflections were blurred. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul wrote of seeing an unclear reflection in a mirror. When the first Bibles were translated into English, the words “glass” and “looking glass” were commonly used for the word mirror. Both words, however, are anachronisms since glass mirrors were not introduced until well after Paul’s letter was written. Nevertheless, as a result of the early translators’ use of glass, several later Bible translations turned that flawed mirror into a blurry window or a clouded windowpane. The Greek words Paul used, however, were dia spektrou which meant “by means of a mirror.”

Initially, I thought the proper translation was necessary to understand that verse. After all, when looking in a mirror, we are seeing ourselves; when looking through a glass window, we are seeing others. Then I looked at the more important (yet easily overlooked) word: “darkly.” Rather than speaking of a poorly lit room that would make it difficult to see in any sort of mirror, Paul was speaking of our human limitations. The literal translation of the Greek words used, in aenigmate, mean “in a riddle” or “an enigma.” Regardless of the translation, whether we’re looking at an imperfect mirror or through a smoky window, what we’re seeing is incomplete and distorted. Like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, it is incomplete. What we’re able to perceive is just an outline, a hint, a rough sketch, of what is to come.

Although God revealed Himself to us through His word and in Jesus, what we know of Him is neither easily explained nor clearly understood. Like the picture on a puzzle’s box, we have an idea of what it will be like once done but we don’t know exactly how it fits together. In spite of having numerous translations of the Bible and countless scholars through the ages who’ve offered interpretations, commentary, and clarifications, much is still left to conjecture. Because God and His plan are an enigma, there is a great deal we will never know, much less comprehend, this side of heaven. With our limited comprehension and flawed eyesight, we only catch a fleeting glimpse of Him now. Someday, however, we will see Him face to face and what was obscure will become clear when the darkness becomes light.

So, what do we do until then? How do we get through this puzzle called life with our incomplete knowledge and understanding? We do it with faith, hope and love!

The heavens shall be open, and I shall see the Son of man, the Son of God, and not see him at that distance…but see him, and sit down with him. I shall rise from the dead…for I shall see the Son of God, the sun of glory, and shine myself as that sun shines…and be united to the Ancient of Days, to God Himself. …No man ever saw God and lived. And yet, I shall not live till I see God; and when I have seen him, I shall never die. …As he that fears God, fears nothing else, so he that sees God, sees everything else. [John Donne]

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (MSG)]

The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. [Revelation 22:4-5 (MSG)]

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