MARA

He has filled me with bitterness and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink. [Lamentations 3:5 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailTo explain her sisters’ bitterness and sour outlook on life, my mother-in-law would say, “Well, their lives didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped.” Those women had no reason to complain when comparing their lives to Naomi (the mother-in-law in the book of Ruth).

Talk about things not turning out the way you’d hoped! Naomi endured famine, a move to an enemy nation, pagan daughters-in-law, no grandchildren, the death of her husband and then the death of her two sons. Poverty stricken, with no relatives to help her in Moab, Naomi decided to return to Israel. When her two daughters-in-law started back with her, she tried to deter them, telling them to go back to their parents where there may be another marriage in their future. While one woman returned home, Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law.

Widowed and childless, neither woman’s life seemed headed for a “happily ever after.” When the bereaved Naomi arrived back in Bethlehem, she told her old friends to call her Mara, meaning “bitter.” She explained that, “The Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord brought me home empty.” Like my husband’s aunts, Naomi was resentful that life hadn’t turned out as she’d expected. What she didn’t understand was that God was busy at work behind the scenes. Her bitterness even blinded her to fact that she didn’t come home empty—she’d come home with Ruth, a woman described by Naomi’s friends as “better to you than seven sons!”  Embittered, Naomi didn’t see her blessing in a daughter-in-law who loved and honored her and would labor in the fields for her.

You know the rest of the story. Ruth gleaned grain in the fields of Boaz. He took on the role of “kinsman redeemer,” purchased land that had belonged to Naomi’s husband, and married Ruth. The couple had a son, Naomi became a grandmother, and that little boy would be grandfather to the future King David.

We all have been given reason to call ourselves bitter. But, as followers of Jesus, we can become better rather than bitter and not because a kinsman redeemer buys our land, marries us, pays our bills, solves our problems, and takes us away from our troubles. We don’t become bitter because we have a Redeemer God who walks with us through our trouble and enables us to find joy in our new normal. We don’t become bitter because we know our life is better than we ever dared hope. We don’t become bitter because we know life, in the world yet to come, can only be better!

We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)]

HE’S NO CONCIERGE

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” [Hebrews 12:5 (NLT)]

Canadian geese and goslingsWe’ve heard of helicopter parents—those over-involved and over-protective parents who hover over their children, taking responsibility for their experiences and protecting them from failure. With the college admission scandal in the news, we now see helicopter parents on steroids. Called lawnmower, snowplow, or bulldozer parents, they don’t just hover over their youngsters. Not wanting to see their children struggle, they mow down challenges, plow through hurdles, and demolish any obstacles facing them.

Those parents are now reaping what they’ve sown. Having spent 18 years clearing the road for their children, they’ve failed to prepare them for the bumps in the road of adulthood! Instead of sitting in the backseat of their adult children’s lives, they remain in the driver’s seat. The New York Times and Morning Consult (a technology/media company) recently conducted a poll of a nationally representative group of parents of adult children (aged 18 to 28). It found that 76% of the parents remind their children of deadlines they need to meet, 74% make their appointments for everything from haircuts to doctors, 15% call or text them to make sure they don’t over-sleep, 11% will call their child’s employer if there is an issue at work, and 8% had contacted a teacher on behalf of their child! These aren’t first-graders needing guidance; they’re adults who should be able to accomplish these simple tasks on their own! 12% of those same parents even give their adult children more than $500 a month for rent or expenses. I have a neighbor who pays his grown son’s credit card bill. That might be understandable if he were a struggling student but this young man, out of law school for two years, is gainfully employed and totally debt-free! Apparently, with all that education, he hasn’t yet figured out how to budget! I know of another woman whose son had difficulty adjusting to dormitory life and waking up for class. Rather than letting him learn how to acclimate to new circumstances and reap the consequences of missing class, she moved to his college town so he could live with her and commute to class (after she’d awakened and fed him). Perhaps a better name for parents like these would be “concierge.” They provide the wake-up calls, get the reservations, arrange the transportation, solve the problems, make the phone calls, and figure out the logistics of their children’s lives.

All parents want their children to succeed but, when they repeatedly eliminate every obstacle and challenge, they’ve left their children unequipped for the challenges of adulthood. The prodigal would never have returned home if he’d had a concierge parent! Mom and Dad would have paid his bills, smoothed out any legal difficulties, provided groceries during the famine, and told the farmer their son was too good to slop pigs! Not having to experience the consequences of his profligate lifestyle, the son would never have seen the error of his ways.

When we read the exodus story, it becomes clear that our heavenly Father is no concierge parent. The God who parted the Red Sea certainly could have destroyed the Philistines with a snap of His fingers and taken his people on the direct route to the Promised Land. Instead, He took them the long way around and a three week journey took two years while He prepared the Israelites for the challenges of Canaan. Then, when they rebelled, rather than coddle and coax them, God let them suffer the consequences. For the next thirty-eight years, they learned the painful lesson of missed opportunities.

Believing in on-the-job training, God allows us to experience failure and frustration, not because He wants us to be failures but because He wants us to learn how to solve problems, make decisions, resolve differences, assess risks, and turn to Him. Like any parent, God wants us to be successful but He also wants us to understand the weight of our decisions and learn both humility and the importance of surrendering to his will. As Adam and Eve learned when leaving Eden, free will is not a gift to be taken lightly and there are consequences to our choices. Wanting us to grow in wisdom, discernment and strength, God lets us make mistakes, face opposition, lose battles, and experience His discipline. If He protected us from challenges, set-backs and trials, we’d think we were the ones responsible for our success. It is in our pain, disappointment, loss, and failure that we truly see how much we need Him.

When we come to Jesus, we come as baby Christians. While He lovingly accepts our imperfect immature selves, He doesn’t want us to stay that way! Let us thank God for the numerous opportunities (many of which we didn’t enjoy) that He’s given us to mature in our faith and grow more like Christ.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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PRAYERS FOR HEALING

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. [Isaiah 53:5 (NLT)]

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. [1 Peter 2:24 (NLT)]

rabbitWe know Jesus was capable of big miracles: twice He ended up with leftovers after feeding thousands with only a few scraps and He brought the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus back to life. Nevertheless, when Jesus was at the pool of Bethesda and surrounded by a crowd of sick, paralyzed, blind and lame people, He healed only one man before disappearing into the crowd! That crippled man didn’t even ask for healing. From his later encounter with Jesus, we know he was a sinner so he couldn’t have been more deserving than anyone else gathered at that pool! Jesus could have healed, not just everyone at that pool, but every malady in all of Palestine. Why just that one man?

Recently, three people, all with serious health concerns, gathered around the pastor and we prayed with them for strength, courage, wisdom for their doctors, and healing. I will rejoice if God provides healing for those people and I have no doubt that He can. We have a God of miracles and nothing is impossible for Him.

Last year I prayed equally diligently for two people facing stage 4 cancer. Neither was more deserving of life but, today, one is cancer free and the other is dead. When our prayers for healing are unsuccessful, does it mean we didn’t pray hard enough or with enough faith? There are some who would say so but I disagree. When we look at the Apostle Paul, we see a true prayer warrior: a man of deep and abiding faith. If anyone had a direct line to God’s ear, it would have been Paul. Yet, in spite of his prayers, his infirmity (whether physical, emotional or spiritual) remained and there was no relief for him.

People often claim that Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:28 are promises of God’s healing. Indeed, they are; but a look at their context tells us the promised healing is spiritual rather than physical. The verses are about sin, righteousness, forgiveness and salvation rather than sickness or disease. It is our troubled souls, not our ailing bodies, that will receive the promised healing.

It is never wrong to pray for healing but we should remember that physical healing is not promised. Some people will have healing and others will have an opportunity to share Christ’s suffering. If our prayers fail to bring healing, it’s not because our faith isn’t real enough, our requests not earnest enough, we’re not righteous enough, God isn’t big enough, or that He doesn’t love us enough. It’s simply because it’s not in His plan to offer healing on this side of the grass. Let us remember our hope in not in physical healing; it is in salvation.

When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced that fiery furnace, they knew the God they served was fully able to save them but they also knew that He might choose not to do so. Their faith was not limited to a God of miracles; their faith was in a sovereign God and they trusted their destiny, whatever it would be, to His hands. We must have that same kind of faith.

All physical healing is temporary—the crippled man from the pool eventually died, as did the man born blind, the woman with the bleeding issue, the ten lepers, Peter’s mother and even Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. Whether or not the three people for whom we prayed receive healing, at some time or another, they also will die. It only will be then that they truly receive God’s healing along with new bodies that are designed to last for all of eternity.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty.  But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up. [Daniel 3:17-18 (NLT)]

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RETRIBUTION THEOLOGY CONTINUED

The Lord curses the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the upright. [Proverbs 3:33 (NLT)]

The godly eat to their hearts’ content, but the belly of the wicked goes hungry. [Proverbs 13:25 (NLT)]

Backsliders get what they deserve; good people receive their reward. [Proverbs 14:14 (NLT)]

blue flag irisWhen writing about the faulty theology of Job and his friends, I thought of when Jesus’s disciples questioned why a man had been born blind. Showing their belief in retribution theology and never considering that sin might have nothing to do with it, they asked whether the man’s blindness was because of his sins or those of his parents. Jesus’s answer, however, makes it clear that no one’s sins were the cause: “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” [John 9:3] After Jesus restored his sight, the man testified before the Pharisees that, “If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” [John 9:33] Disliking that answer, retribution theology reared its ugly head again when the Pharisees accused the once blind man of being born a sinner and threw him out of the synagogue.

People made wrong assumptions about the Apostle Paul’s troubles when he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A snake bit him as he gathered sticks and laid them on the fire. Seeing the viper hanging from his hand, the islanders automatically assumed he was an escaped murderer and that dying from a snake bite would be exactly what he deserved. Paul shook the snake into the fire and, when the snake’s venom didn’t kill the Apostle, he proved their first assumption wrong. Then, because Paul survived unscathed, they assumed he was a god! Wrong on both counts: neither snake bite nor miraculous recovery indicate sinner or saint!

A quick reading of the blessings and curses in Proverbs can make us think that retribution theology is correct. Rather than God’s promises, however, Solomon’s proverbs give us wide-ranging wisdom on life. Generally speaking, godly living usually results in a good life and what goes around often comes around when it comes to wickedness, but there’s no guarantee of either on this side of the grass. That sightless man didn’t deserve to be born blind any more than Job deserved his suffering, Joseph deserved being sold into slavery, Jeremiah deserved getting thrown into a mud-filled cistern, Naomi and Ruth deserved widowhood, James deserved beheading, Stephen deserved stoning, or Paul deserved the snake bite, imprisonment, beatings, or the “thorn in his flesh.”

Although the concept of sowing and reaping is Biblical, we must be wary of being like the people of Malta, the disciples, and Job’s friends by judging people’s righteousness (or unrighteousness) by their external circumstances. There is no easy explanation for human suffering and we can’t possibly see into people’s hearts to know the depth of either their wickedness or righteousness. We must never presume guilt before innocence, assign blame without reason, assume people have caused their own troubles, or make presumptions based on stereotypes. Let us never forget that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to the bad. Someday, God will judge the world and there will be perfect justice. A day will come when every man will reap exactly what he’s sown but, until then, let’s be cautious in our assumptions about guilt and innocence.

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

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WHY? 

Bryce canyon - sunriseEverything I did was honest. Righteousness covered me like a robe, and I wore justice like a turban. I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame. I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help. I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth. I thought, “Surely I will die surrounded by my family after a long, good life.” [Job 29:14-18 (NLT)]

No one enjoys reading the book of Job; it’s difficult to read about someone who, through no fault of his own, loses family, wealth, reputation, and health in one fell swoop. Complicating matters is that, while six voices are heard, only God’s voice is completely correct and we don’t hear from Him until the end. As for the rest of the speakers, while there are nuggets of truth in every speech, much of what is said both by Job and his friends, is incorrect and based on faulty assumptions. Eliphaz, for example, is correct when he says it is a joy to be disciplined by God when we’ve done wrong, but his belief that Job’s troubles are because he’s done wrong is incorrect. Although they make different points, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu all base their arguments on the assumption that Job’s suffering is because he’s a sinner. Urging him to repent and turn back to God, Job doggedly maintains his innocence.

While Job is correct that his suffering is not because of his sinfulness, like his friends, he is operating on a retribution theology: that we get what we deserve. Because he’s been righteous, Job believes he doesn’t deserve his trials. Sure that his suffering is in error, Job is determined to speak with God to defend himself. Neither Job nor his friends have the right answer; good fortune is not necessarily because of righteousness any more than misfortune is necessarily because of sin. When Job eventually repents, he does not repent of any sin that led to his suffering because sin wasn’t the cause. Instead, Job repents of questioning God’s wisdom and falsely accusing Him of injustice.

Like Job, it is easy to question God when troubles rain down, but do we ever question God when blessings are showered upon us? Do we really think we deserve only the good and never the bad? God doesn’t owe us blessings for righteousness. Good times are undeserved and hard times often come to those who least deserve them. Just as we are unable to fathom God’s omnipotence and generosity in his blessings to us, we are incapable of comprehending why our almighty and loving Father allows evil to shatter lives. We no more deserve God’s grace and blessings than Jesus deserved to suffer on that cross!

Suffering and hardship happen because we live in a fallen world; God offers no more explanation to us or to Job. The only answer is to put our hope and faith in God, secure in the knowledge that He is in control. Evil wins only when we turn away from God in pain and confusion and stop trusting in His infinite power and wisdom.

If I ask, “Why me?” about my troubles, I would have to ask, “Why me?” about my blessings. … I take the good with the bad, and I try to face them both with as much calm and dignity as I can muster. [Arthur Ashe (tennis champion, winner of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, who died of AIDS after being infected by a blood transfusion)]

Then the Lord said to Job, “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” Then Job replied to the Lord, “I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say.” [Job 40:1-5 (NLT)]

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EASTER: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!

monarch butterfliesThe next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. [Matthew 27:62-65 (NLT)]

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia! [Charles Wesley]

Billy Graham told of when an entertainment network was doing a story on highlights of Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered a point of interest, the Billy Graham Library was visited by the show’s co-host, Kristy Villa, and her film crew. Seeing the many crosses displayed throughout the property, Villa asked, “I see all the crosses, but where is Jesus?” Her library guide replied, “He’s in Heaven, and He is also present in the lives of those who believe in Him and follow Him as their personal Lord and Savior.” Villa exclaimed, “Oh, that’s right! Some worship a crucifix, but Christians worship a risen Christ.” The journalist added, “I have been in church my whole life, but I have never heard the emphasis put on an empty cross.” Our emphasis is on the empty tomb, as well!

The bodies of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of Bahá’í faith, and Báb, a central figure in Bahá’í and the founder of Bábisma, are buried in Israel. The grave of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, is in his home town of Qufu in China and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is buried in the Mosque of the Prophet in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. The body of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was cremated and his remains were sent to eight different royal families. The Patna Museum in India displays a casket containing his sacred ashes and a temple in Sri Lanka possesses what is said to be his right tooth. When he failed to resurrect, the body of Cyrus Teed, founder of Koreshanity was buried on Estero Island; two years later a hurricane washed his tomb out to sea. As for Jesus? His grave was empty!

Let us never forget that the story didn’t end with the crucified Christ! The cross couldn’t stop Jesus and the tomb couldn’t contain Him. Pilate’s best efforts to secure the tomb were worthless. A Roman seal, large boulder and a sixteen-man Roman guard were not enough to keep Jesus shut in His tomb! Both cross and grave are empty! With His death and resurrection, Christ triumphed over both sin and death! Alleluia!

Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there. [Anne Lamott]

But the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” [Mark 16:6 (NLT)]

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