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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BLIND (Samson – Part 2)

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. [Ephesians 6:10 (NLT)]

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

HibiscusWhile the Nazarites’ long hair was supposed to be a constant reminder of their commitment to God and a sign to others of their vow, I don’t think his hair was what gave Samson his strength. Three times Delilah asked Samson the source of his strength, three times he lied in his answer, and three times he woke to find himself incapacitated in the way he said he could be defeated. After being betrayed by Delilah three times, why would the man finally tell her the truth the fourth time she asked? He couldn’t possibly have been that foolish. Perhaps, his Philistine wife’s betrayal years earlier taught him a thing or two about deceit. When Samson finally told Delilah the source of his strength, could he have thought all four of his answers to be lies? Wanting to continue enjoying her favors in bed, he might have thought he’d given her an answer as outlandish as tying him with seven bowstrings or weaving his hair onto a loom. I’m not a Bible scholar but I suspect the boastful warrior thought that, in spite of having the long hair of a Nazarite, he alone was the true source of his strength.

What the proud man didn’t understand was that his strength wasn’t found in bulging muscles, six-pack abs, or even untrimmed hair—it was found in God. Samson didn’t lose his strength when he lost his hair. He lost his strength when he lost sight of God—when he decided his lustful desires were more important than his Nazirite vows. Nazarites’ hair was dedicated to God and their heads were shaved only when their vows came to an end. This was to be done publicly at the door of the tabernacle. Considered sacred, the hair was part of their offerings presented to the Lord and was to be burned with the peace offering. Because the hair was consecrated to the Lord, it was not be cast into any profane place—and there probably was no place more profane than the pagan Delilah’s bedroom. Samson’s strength didn’t leave him because his head was shaved. He lost his strength when he ended his Nazirite vows by choosing the pagan and treacherous Delilah over the God to whom he’d been dedicated.

Samson’s long hair was merely a symbol of his being set apart and it didn’t give him strength any more than wearing a cross or a clerical collar endows people with virtue or makes them Christian. Earlier in life, it wasn’t Samson’s hair that enabled him to break out of restraints and kill 1,000 Philistines with a bone—it was the Spirit of the Lord that had come upon him. Rather than thanking God, however, Samson proudly boasted of his personal triumph: “With the jawbone of a donkey, I’ve killed a thousand men!” After claiming the victory for himself, he complained to God about his thirst. When water gushed from a rock, rather than offering thanks to God, Samson called it “The Spring of the One Who Cried Out.” A better name would have been the “The Spring of the God Who Answers!”

Although Samson called to God to deliver him from thirst, he might have been wiser if he’d called to God to deliver him from temptation and desire. Sadly, there is no mention of Samson calling to God again until we find him blind, weak, and humiliated as he is paraded in front of the Philistine crowd in their temple. Thinking God’s purpose was to serve him rather than his purpose being to serve God, Samson was blind long before the Philistines gouged out his eyes. He’d been blind to the power of God throughout his life. As Craig Groeschel aptly said, “He lost sight of his blind spots, which ultimately cost him his sight.”

It was only when he was blind that Samson finally saw the real source of his strength and prayed, “O God, please strengthen me just one more time.” God heard his prayer and Samson killed more Philistines as he died than he ever did when he lived. Without God, no matter how good our eyesight, we are blind and, without Him, no matter how many hours we’ve spent at the gym, we will be weak. It is when we look to God that we see, when we admit our weakness that we become strong, and when we are humble that we can be great.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. [John Newton]

Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT]

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THE JUDGES

In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 17:6

red shouldered hawkWhen the book of Judges opens, Joshua is dead after leading Israel’s united force to military victory as they entered Canaan. The land has been divided among the twelve tribes and it became each tribe’s responsibility to clear any remaining enemies from their territory, which they failed to do. No longer a unified people, Israel lost its way spiritually and began to take on the pagan practices of Canaan. After the optimism in the book of Joshua, Judges is filled with immorality, political division, and spiritual decline. Angry at Israel’s apostasy, God turned His people over to their enemies and, when they went to battle, He fought against them.

Eventually, Israel’s suffering would be so great that the people would cry out and turn from their evil ways and idolatry back to the Lord. When Israel called out, God heard their cries. He would designate a judge and empower the person to deliver the people from their enemies. The book of Judges names twelve judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.

Although they occasionally settled civil disputes, the judges’ main purpose was to serve as political and military commanders who would lead an army against their enemies. Like a judge, they executed judgment, condemned, and punished but the justice they meted out was to their pagan oppressors. After their victory, a period of obedience and peace would follow during the judge’s lifetime. Sadly, it never lasted and, eventually, the nation would fall back into its sinful ways. When the people repented, God would call up another judge and another cycle of regeneration and degeneration would begin.

Following Samson’s death, the people again returned to their old sinful ways and the last chapters of Judges are filled with horrific stories of idolatry, sexual perversion, lawlessness, civil war, and senseless slaughter. That downward spiral continued in 1 Samuel where we find four others referred to as judging Israel: Eli, Samuel, and Samuel’s two sons. These judges, however, were more like civil magistrates than military leaders. Although previous judges had been called by God, Samuel erred by appointing his corrupt sons as judges. Fed up with their wickedness and wanting to be like the nations surrounding them, Israel demanded a king and God gave them what they wanted.

While Judges clearly reveals that, without a leader, people will go astray, the books of Kings and Chronicles show us that having an earthly king isn’t any better. From the time of the judges through the period of the kings, we see a cycle of rebellion, retribution, repentance, and restoration. What Israel never seemed to understand was that they didn’t need a judge or a king to deliver them from foreign oppressors—what they needed was a Messiah to deliver them from their sins!

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. [Isaiah 9:1-2 (NLT)]

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