Give me understanding and I will obey your instructions; I will put them into practice with all my heart. Make me walk along the path of your commands, for that is where my happiness is found. [Psalm 119:34-36 (NLT)]

Today we celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 246 years ago—when American colonists shed the tyranny of Great Britain and King George III to form the United States of America. Among the unalienable rights cited in this historic document are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During this long holiday weekend, Americans have been busy enjoying life, celebrating liberty, and pursuing happiness with a variety of activities that, among other things, probably include parties, picnics, flags, fireworks, parades, sparklers, and carnivals along with beaches, pools or sprinklers, and hot dogs, burgers, potato salad, and ice cream!

“The pursuit of happiness,” however, had a different meaning back in 1776 than it does today. When our Founding Fathers wrote of pursuing happiness, they weren’t thinking about 4th of July fireworks, fun, and games. Rather than a temporary emotion, they were thinking of a state of being and envisioning the kind of happiness that comes from having a government in which people can participate, their voices are heard, they can control their destiny, justice prevails, talents are nurtured, people can work and move ahead, the nation is tranquil, and its borders are defended. Pursuing happiness in 1776 wasn’t about self-gratification; it was about an individual’s contribution to society. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, “For them, happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Unfortunately, a prevalent attitude in our nation today focuses on individual needs and desires and the pursuit of happiness is interpreted as meaning, “Do whatever makes you happy!” We might want to exercise some caution when pursuing happiness while focusing only on ourselves. It didn’t end well in Eden when Adam and Eve decided to pursue happiness by eating the forbidden fruit nor did focusing on their own desires work for David or Sampson. A hungry Esau pursued happiness with a hearty bowl of stew and his brother pursued it by deceiving Isaac. Achan pursued happiness by keeping plunder from Jericho as did Saul when he kept the best spoils from Agag. Sarah foolishly pursued happiness by giving Hagar to Abraham and, like many of us, Noah sought happiness in too much wine. Yet, none of those pursuits brought happiness. In spite of his wisdom, Solomon pursued happiness by accumulating massive amounts of silver and gold, 700 wives, and 300 concubines and yet his words in Ecclesiastes are not those of a happy man. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.”

While we live in a free country and God has given us free will, we need to be sure we don’t ever use our freedom to fall into another kind of tyranny—a tyranny much worse than that of King George III—the tyranny of sin.

There are two freedoms—the false, where man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. [Charles Kingsley]

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. [Romans 6:15-16 (NLT)]

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Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief. [Matthew 13:57-58 (NLT)]

kurrajong hybridAlthough Jesus performed many miracles, when compared to the illusions performed by various well-known magicians, they aren’t all that impressive. Jesus emerged from the tomb on the third day but David Blaine buried himself alive in a plexiglass coffin under a 3-ton water-filled tank for seven days and nights! Calling Lazarus out of the tomb after several days was impressive but only his family and some mourners were there to see it. When David Blaine emerged from the 6-ton block of ice in which he’d been encased for over 63 hours, thousands in Times Square were there and even more watched it on television. Granted, Blaine fell short of his 72-hour goal but the man knows how to draw crowds! Couldn’t Jesus have done something similar?

The disciples saw Jesus walk on water but magician Criss Angel did the same thing on national TV. Jesus appeared in a locked room after His resurrection but Criss Angel has passed through a glass window (without breaking it) and both a metal door and an iron gate. Jesus had Peter take a coin out of a fish’s mouth but David Blaine turned a cup of coffee into a cup of money. Feeding several thousand with a boy’s lunch pales in comparison to David Copperfield making the 225-ton Statue of Liberty disappear. Quietly transforming water into wine isn’t nearly as impressive as illusionist Cyril Takayama removing his head or David Copperfield making an airplane disappear.

Of course, the difference between Jesus and those magicians is that the men are mere illusionists and Jesus was God. Those magicians and their tricks only seem miraculous because we don’t understand how they’re done. Miracles done by Jesus had nothing to do with misdirection, deception, trickery, or sleight of hand. Without worldly explanation, they truly were supernatural. Nevertheless, wouldn’t Jesus have gathered more followers if He’d been more of a showman?

Couldn’t Jesus have done something more dramatic and remarkable in Nazareth than a few healings and a display of wisdom in the synagogue? People unimpressed by his background might have been awestruck if He’d made a camel disappear, pulled shekels from children’s ears, or cut a disciple in half. No matter how spectacular the miracles, however, the people’s skepticism would have blinded them to His message. The lack of belief in Nazareth didn’t mean Jesus couldn’t perform miracles; it simply meant He wouldn’t because there was no point. Some people are unwilling to believe no matter what they see.

The magician’s end purpose is to create illusions for money, fame, and entertainment—none of which were Jesus’ purpose. He performed miracles only out of compassion, to illustrate a lesson, or to establish his credentials as God. Frequently, He even asked people to say nothing about them. Miracles were a small part of His ministry because Jesus knew that miracles alone make a poor basis for faith.

Jerusalem was filled with people that Passover week some 2,000 years ago. Surely some of the populace there had been fed by Him, received his healing touch, or witnessed Him perform a miracle or two. If they hadn’t been eyewitnesses, many more had heard about His miracles. Nevertheless, on that Friday when Pilate asked if he should release Barabbas or Jesus “who is called Christ,” we don’t read of anyone in the crowd trying to drown out those who called for the release of Barabbas. They weren’t calling for Jesus because seeing was not enough to make them believe.

Men can see the greatest miracles and miss the glory of God. What generation was ever favored with miracles as Jesus’ generations was? Yet that generation crucified the Son of God! [Tom Wells]

Jesus asked, “Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders?” [John 4:48 (NLT)]

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And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

church - old world wisconsinI grew up in a church with hymn boards in the front of the sanctuary that displayed the liturgical church date and the day’s hymns. I loved seeing “First Sunday in Advent” because that meant there were only three more Sundays until Christmas. While “Lent” meant six weeks of no candy, “Palm Sunday,” with its promise of Easter (and Easter baskets) in just a week was always welcome. For most of the year, however, that sign was uninspiring. The weeks after Easter were simply noted as the first through the seventh Sundays of Easter until the arrival of Pentecost 50 days after Easter.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday which commemorates the receipt of the Holy Spirit by the early church [Acts 2]. A mighty wind filled the house where the believers were meeting, what looked like tongues of fire settled on each person, and everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of the uproar, people gathered, Peter preached, and 3,000 new believers were added to the church that day. Pentecost was the day the Christian church was born! On the hymn board in our church, Pentecost also was the last notable event for the next six months!

From then on, that board marked time by how many Sundays it was after Pentecost until the church year started over again with the first Sunday in Advent. For a child, those months between Easter and Advent pretty much lived up to their church name: Ordinary. It felt like we were just marking time until something important, like Christmas or Easter, happened. What I didn’t understand as a child is that Ordinary Time in the church year doesn’t mean dull or commonplace. “Ordinary” comes from the Latin word ordinalis and refers to numbers in a series. It’s called “Ordinary Time” because ordinal numbers are used to count the Sundays as they relate to major church celebrations like Easter and Pentecost.

Granted, days like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost commemorate significant events in the life of Christ and the church but that doesn’t mean any other worship service is less special or significant. Rather than celebrating specific events such as His birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the season of Ordinary Time celebrates the presence of Christ in our lives throughout the year. It is during this in-between time that we learn, grow, mature, witness, and serve as we live out our faith in Christ. If we think about it, the really extraordinary events in our lives usually happen in ordinary times!

Nothing in Scripture demands observing the liturgical year—it just is a tradition followed by several denominations. Nevertheless, whether or not we observe Ordinary Time, our worship should never be ordinary, sporadic, or missing altogether. Too many of those who claim to be Christians are little more than “birth and resurrectionists.” The message of the resurrection doesn’t end once the eggs are found nor does the significance of the risen Christ stop when the last of the jelly beans and chocolate bunnies are eaten. The promise of our salvation doesn’t disappear when Easter dinner is finished only to reappear at Christmas and disappear again when the tree is taken down. Christ’s birth and resurrection bring us love, grace, peace, forgiveness, redemption, and salvation, not just on Easter and Christmas, but in every ordinary day of our lives. Following Jesus isn’t limited to two days a year and the gospel message isn’t limited to a few events in Christ’s life. None of the days He walked on earth were ordinary and every day with Him is extraordinary!

The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary, not in the spectacular and the heroic. If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find Him at all. [Richard J. Foster]

But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. [John 4:23 (NLT)]

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It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in people. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. [Psalm 118:8-9 (NLT)]

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,” And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. [Francis Scott Key]

quartersIn one of those viral, supposedly true but probably not, inspirational stories, a wealthy man is said to bend over and pick up any and every coin he spots on the ground. When asked why he bothered to collect mere pennies, the man explained he didn’t pick up coins for their monetary value; he picked them up for the value of the message on them: “In God We Trust.” He believed the penny’s words to be God’s way of reminding him to trust the Lord rather than his wealth and considered every coin he found an opportunity to acknowledge his faith in prayer.

Thanks to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase’s directive that, “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins,” the phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on a bronze two-cent piece in 1864. Our nation was in the midst of the bloody Civil War and those words were to profess the nation’s faith and trust in God during that turbulent time. The words were inspired by the fourth verse of our national anthem (written in 1814) that claimed “In God is our trust” as our nation’s motto.

In the 1950s, our nation was again embroiled in a war—the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In 1955, President Eisenhower signed a law requiring “In God We Trust” to appear on all U.S. paper and coin currency. The words were to differentiate us from the Soviet Union, a nation that promoted atheism and had passed anti-religion legislation. Unfortunately, there never seems to be a time when our nation is not in turmoil of some kind and we need to be reminded that our trust must be in God today as much as we did back in 1860s and 1950s!

Even though the front (or obverse) side of our nation’s great seal has the words E Pluribus Unum, meaning “Out of many, one,” that is not our nation’s motto. While it rightly reflects our country’s melting pot nature and how thirteen colonies came together to form one nation, “In God we trust,” became our national motto in 1956. Congress reaffirmed it as our motto in 2002, 2006, and again in 2011. The motto, explains historian Frank Lambert, “reclaims this notion that we’re a chosen people and that we were conceived under God and that we flourish under God, and we turn our backs on God at our own peril.” In spite of numerous legal challenges, the courts have upheld its use by saying that, rather than an official endorsement of religion, the motto is “ceremonial Deism.” As used by the Supreme Court, “ceremonial Deism” means that phrases like “In God We Trust” (or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance) are nominally religious statements and practices deemed to be merely ritual and non-religious through their long customary usage. For a believer, however, there should be nothing nominal or merely ritualistic about trusting God! We must never forget that this one nation exists under God and we must place our trust in Him! We should also remember Lambert’s warning, that “we turn our backs on God at our own peril!”

If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under. [President Ronald Reagan]

He will judge the world with justice and rule the nations with fairness. The Lord is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, O Lord, do not abandon those who search for you. [Psalm 9:8-10 (NLT)]

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Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” … The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 1:28,2:15 (NLT)]

It is terrible to hear the young birds calling for food after the old ones have been killed to get the feathers for rich women to wear. I am not going to have my birds sacrificed that way. [Rhett Green (Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Warden from 1912 – 1917)]

great egret - snowy egret - corkscrew sanctuaryThe wading birds of southwest Florida are absolutely beautiful, especially this time of year when they’re wearing their mating plumage. We’ve lived here eleven years and I still haven’t tired of their beauty as I encounter them daily in our ponds. 115 years ago, however, I would have been hard put to see any of these beautiful creatures anywhere. In the late 1800s, bird feathers became the fashion craze in women’s hats. Along with a plethora of plumes, some hats even featured an entire exotic bird! By 1900, more than five million birds were being killed every year and plume hunters had nearly wiped out the entire egret population. It wasn’t just the egrets with their white mating plumes—herons, roseate spoonbills, flamingoes, and peacocks were among the fifty North American species being killed for their plumage. No bird was safe.

After killing the birds and stripping them of their plumage, poachers would leave their carcasses to rot. They also left abandoned nests with eggs that would never hatch or baby birds unable to fend for themselves. For the hunters, poaching was profitable; they could easily bag 100 birds on a good day and the plumes sold for as much as $32 dollars an ounce. Merely for the sake of fashion, the bird population in rookeries was decimated throughout Florida and the southeast U.S. Fortunately, because of a grass roots campaign by two Boston socialites, organizations like the Audubon Society, and both state and national legislation, the carnage of these beautiful creatures has stopped.

We were called to be good stewards of the earth, but we still show little regard for God’s creation. Last fall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted 11 species of birds from the endangered species list—not because they no longer were at risk but because they had become extinct! In 2021, Birdlife International reported that nearly 1,500 of the 11,000 species of birds face the threat of extinction with another 1,000 species considered “vulnerable.” We’re not wearing fancy feathered hats but loss of habitat, climate change, wind farms, cell towers, pesticides, cats, and even windows pose threats to them. It’s not just birds that are in danger; our local papers are filled with reports of blue-green algae, red tide, fish kills, Florida panther loss, starving manatees, diminishing wetlands, and endangered sea turtles! Worldwide, we face plenty of other pressing environmental issues including oil spills, water pollution, global warming, fossil fuel dependency, a diminishing rain forest, and the loss of open land (to name just a few).

When I look at the birds with their beautiful plumage, I thank God for their creation and for the people who took action to save them. Although God did the creating, it is up to us to do the maintaining. In Genesis, we read that God gave mankind permission to govern the earth and reign over all the animals along with the responsibility of tending and watching over His garden. The Hebrew word used for “tend” was shamar and it means more than keeping the land cultivated and free of weeds. It means keeping watch, preserving, guarding, and protecting. Have we tended God’s beautiful garden and made it thrive or have we run roughshod over it without regard for His creation?

Today is Earth Day. Observed by over a billion people every year, it has become the largest secular observance in the world. Concern for our environment, however, is not a secular concern—it is a sacred responsibility given to us by God. Let us remember that every day is Earth Day!

Lord, grant us the wisdom to care for the earth and till it. Help us to act now for the good of future generations and all your creatures. Help us to become instruments of a new creation, Founded on the covenant of your love. [The Cry of the Earth]

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. [Psalm 24:1 (NLT)]

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He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” They didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant. [Mark 9:31-32 (NLT)]

Although crucifixion probably began with the Assyrians and Babylonians, the first historical record is of Persia’s King Darius I crucifying 3,000 political opponents in 519 BC. Alexander the Great adopted the practice when he crucified 2,000 survivors of the siege of Tyre in 332 BC. In 88 BC, the Hasmonean king of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, crucified 800 Jewish rebels after killing the rebels’ wives and children in front of them. Following a massive slave revolt against Rome in 71 BC, 6,000 rebels were crucified along the Appian Way. The crosses stretched for miles and the bodies were left there as a clear message that any rebellion would end in a violent death. After the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., a failed rebellion in Judea led to the crucifixion of 2,000 rebellious Jews.

While the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they had perfected it by the time of Jesus and the torture began long before the cross. The condemned were stripped naked, tied to a post, and flogged across the back, legs, and buttocks by Roman soldiers using whips called flagrums consisting of small pieces of bone and metal attached to a number of leather strands. The scourging left the victims’ skin ripped to the bone. If they survived the scourging, they were taunted and forced to carry the crossbar of their death instrument to the place of execution. According to Josephus, sometimes Roman soldiers further tortured the condemned by blinding them or cutting off a body part (like the tongue). Arms were nailed or strapped to the cross beam and feet to the upright. Once upright, a massive strain was put on the wrists, arms and shoulders often resulting in dislocated shoulder and elbow joints. The rib cage was constrained in a fixed position making it extremely difficult to exhale and impossible to take a full breath. While death came from suffocation, loss of body fluids, and multiple organ failure, it did not come quickly.

According to Josephus, crucifixion in Palestine was a common sight so Jesus’ disciples knew all too well what carrying a cross meant. They heard stories of Roman cruelty, saw the bloodied and battered condemned carrying their crosses, and passed by the dead bodies left decaying on crosses as a warning to those who dared challenge Rome. But, for all of their lives, these same men had been waiting for the promised Messiah to come and deliver them from Roman oppression.

Perhaps, when Jesus spoke of the cross, they thought He was referring to the many Jewish rebels who had carried their crosses for defying Rome. But, unlike those times, this time they had Jesus—the promised Messiah who finally would bring victory to the Jewish nation. Even though they believed Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t fully understand what that meant. They thought He came to defeat Rome, rather than death, and to save a nation, not the world. Even after Jesus spoke of His death on the way to Jerusalem, we have James and John ignoring that prediction and asking Jesus for positions in His kingdom. They still pictured a political victory!

The disciples abandoned Him at His arrest and, in spite of His repeated warnings, were not prepared for His death. Surely, the man who raised Lazarus from the dead wasn’t going to die a criminal’s death, but He did and there was no doubt that He was dead. When the Sabbath was over, two disappointed followers returned to Emmaus, the women went to the tomb to anoint a dead body, and the frightened disciples were gathered in a locked room. They weren’t proclaiming Jesus that morning and didn’t even believe the women when told the tomb was empty. They were a defeated, disappointed, and frightened group of men.

So, what happened to change this group of disheartened disciples? What turned them into enthusiastic evangelists? What turned them into men who willingly followed Jesus to their own equally horrific deaths? It was seeing the risen Christ! May we always remember the truth of this message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today. [Acts 2:32-33 (NLT)]

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