TEND THE GARDEN – EARTH DAY 2022

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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WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM?

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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THE REASON FOR THE SEASON – Easter 2022

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. [1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (NLT)]

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

rabbitIn less than five minutes the house was ready for Easter. I’d hung out the spring wreath with its silk tulips, placed the resin Easter rabbit with his cart and eggs on the hall table, and put the three ceramic bunnies around the flowers on the table. With no grands visiting this year, I didn’t even have eggs to boil or baskets to fill! Since it took me days to ready the house for Christmas, I wondered why Easter doesn’t get the same amount of decoration and celebration. Granted, most of the holiday traditions for both holy days have pagan beginnings. Nevertheless, those customs have become part of our culture and Christmas seems to overshadow Easter by a mile.

Christmas has its own color scheme, its own genre of music, and its own beloved fictional characters, including a Grinch, a snowman, an elf on a shelf, and a red-nosed reindeer. We spend weeks decorating our homes, purchasing gifts, and preparing food. We have special Christmas attire ranging from Santa hats to candy cane jewelry and ugly holiday sweaters. People decorate trees, hang garlands and lights, dress up their dogs, and adorn their cars with reindeer horns. Every year sees at least one Christmas-themed movie release and we get a plethora of holiday-themed television shows throughout December. Christmas music is played from the first of November to New Year’s and our calendars are filled with dates for holiday parties and concerts. Easter traditions pale in comparison to Christmas. Even with Easter baskets and egg hunts, the Easter Bunny can’t hold a candle to Santa. The few Easter hymns are sung only a couple of Sundays and hard-boiled eggs and Peeps are second-rate when compared to the plethora of holiday treats, Christmas cookies, and peppermint bark! As far as celebrations go, Easter is sort of like the neglected step-child of holy days. Of course, it’s difficult to generate a festive spirit when Easter is preceded by a season of penitence and fasting and follows the darkest day in Christendom.

As much as I enjoy the traditions of Christmas (in spite of their pagan origins), Christmas really has nothing to do with decorating houses, baking cookies, hanging stockings, gift exchanges, sending cards, singing carols, or holiday parties. Although our sacred Christmas traditions emphasize Jesus’ birth with nativity scenes and pageants, that night in Bethlehem was just the beginning of a far greater story—the story of who Jesus was and what He did for us.

Granted, we usually consider a person’s arrival more reason to celebrate that his departure and we celebrate birthdays rather than dates of death but, in Christ’s case, it is just the opposite. The meaning of Christmas is actually found in the Easter story. Without Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension there would be no forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. Without Easter, the Christmas story would be no more than just a story. For me, the purpose of Christmas can be summed up in one word: Easter!

So, Merry Christmas and Happy Easter on this upcoming Resurrection Sunday!

Somehow we just don’t make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a holly, jolly Easter. … Easter may seem boring to children, and it is blessedly unencumbered by the silly fun that plagues Christmas. Yet it contains the one thing needful for every human life: the good news of Resurrection. [Frederica Mathewes-Green]

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1:3-4 (NLT)]

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26a (NLT)]

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SONGS OF VICTORY – MAUNDY THURSDAY 2022

Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. For the Lord is high above the nations; his glory is higher than the heavens. [Psalm 113:1-4 (NLT)]

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. … Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 118:22-24,29 (NLT)

crucifixion - cathedral st. francis - santa feJesus knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all desert Him. He knew the people He’d fed, healed, taught, and loved—the people who just a few days earlier had greeted him like a king with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna”—soon would prefer a thief over Him. Because of His anguished prayers later that evening in Gethsemane, we know that He knew the suffering and torment that lay ahead for him. Nevertheless, he sang with the disciples during their Passover meal that last night and it wasn’t a sorrow-filled psalm of lament.

Because it was a Passover feast, at least twice during the evening they would have paused to sing the traditional Passover hymns commemorating Israel’s escape from slavery. Known as the “Egyptian Hallel” and consisting of Psalms 113 through 118, they are joyful hymns of praise and thanksgiving. Hallel literally means praise and the Hebrew phrase Hallelu Yah, meaning “praise the Lord,” is found frequently in these beautiful psalms. The sages understood that Psalm 118, the climax of the Hallel, was about the Messiah and that night in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Messiah Himself sang those very words. As the disciples gathered in that upper room celebrating Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt, did they realize they really were celebrating man’s release from bondage to sin?

The following day, after three hours on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After the praise and thanks of the previous night, did He now doubt God? The question was rhetorical because Jesus knew exactly why He was suffering—He was bearing the weight of the sins of the world. What the gospels don’t include is the rest of Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus probably was reciting. Although the psalm begins with the complaint of unanswered prayers and abandonment by God, it is followed by a statement of confidence in Him. A complaint of being forsaken by men comes next but it also is followed by an expression of trust in the Lord.

Although the psalm was written by David, rather than reflecting his experiences, it prophetically presented the future suffering of the Messiah and the next several stanzas clearly depict the crucifixion of Jesus: people mocked and scorned Him, He was in pain, His strength ebbed, His mouth was dry, His hands and feet were pierced, He was dying, and His clothing was divided and lots cast for it. These lines are followed by a cry for deliverance.

By the psalm’s 22nd verse, however, its tone changes and the plaintive cries turn to praise and words of faithful confidence: “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people. Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!” The praise and promises continue throughout the rest of the psalm. These are not the words of a defeated man but the words of the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, the one who fulfilled the promise made to Abraham in Genesis that, “through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Out of what seemed to be defeat came triumph.

The One who’d sung “Hallelu Yah,” the previous night with his disciples again praised the Lord with His last words as He hung on the cross. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

The cross was two pieces of dead wood; and a helpless, unresisting Man was nailed to it; yet it was mightier than the world, and triumphed, and will ever triumph over it. [Augustus William Hare]

I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him. All the families of the nations will bow down before him. For royal power belongs to the Lord. He rules all the nations. Let the rich of the earth feast and worship. Bow before him, all who are mortal, all whose lives will end as dust. Our children will also serve him. Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done. [Psalm 22:25-31 (NLT)]

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SLEEPING ON THE JOB – HOLY WEEK 2022

Jesus told them, “Tonight all of you will desert me. … Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” “No!” Peter insisted. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” And all the other disciples vowed the same. [Matthew 26:31,33-35 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoApparently, coffee was not served after dinner in the upper room that Thursday night. Granted, a nap is welcome after a big meal but that evening’s Passover meal was like no other and Jesus had predicted that the disciples would desert Him. After such a warning, you’d think the men would have been extra cautious. Scripture tells us Jesus was troubled and grief-stricken when He asked Peter, James, and John to keep watch with Him. Surely, that should have motivated His closest friends to keep awake, but it didn’t. Three times Jesus went to pray and three times he returned to find the men asleep. It was Jewish custom on Passover night to stay up late and talk of God’s acts of redemption so staying awake this night was something they’d all done on other Passover nights. Nevertheless, even after Peter specifically was cautioned to stay awake while praying to stand strong against temptation, the men slumbered. Shouldn’t the warning that he’d deny Jesus three times before morning been enough at least to keep Peter alert and deep in prayer? While the Lord was in anguish and prayed so intently that He sweat drops of blood, His most trusted friends took an after-dinner snooze. They were asleep on the job.

Perhaps the disciples’ biggest mistake was in their self-confidence. When told they’d abandon their beloved leader, they all protested that could never happen. Unfortunately, not one of them took the possibility of their deserting Jesus to God in prayer. Instead, they slept! They didn’t set out to deliberately desert Him but, by not praying, they failed the test before it began. Even the best of intentions won’t protect us in time of trial; for that we need prayer. Moreover, they failed a friend in need. Had the disciples stayed awake with Jesus, while they couldn’t have taken away the bitter cup He’d been given, they could have shared His pain. Sharing our prayers and strength with those in distress is what the community of faith is supposed to do.

The Jewish custom in Jesus’ day was to forgive someone for the same sin only three times. How fortunate for Peter that Jesus said we should forgive seventy times seven. Otherwise, with his three naps and three denials, he would have used his forgiveness allotment twice in just one night. Following Jesus’ resurrection, He didn’t berate the disciples for deserting Him, chastise Thomas for doubting, or rebuke Peter for his denials. In fact, He reinstated Peter and told the man to feed His sheep! From Jesus’ example we learn to love and forgive the human failings of those who disappoint us.

Like Jesus, we’ve all had friends fail us at one time or another and probably more than three times. Perhaps, like Jesus, we should come to expect them to disappoint us from time to time. After all, in spite of our good intentions, we flawed beings can be selfish, self-centered, inconsiderate, callous, inattentive, and worse. Thinking we’re invulnerable to the enemy’s attack is one of his favorite tactics and, like the disciples, we’ve been overly confident in our own abilities and self-control and, like the disciples, we frequently fail our Christian brothers and sisters. When comfortable, content, and well fed, like the disciples that night, we often become oblivious to the needs of others and stop being vigilant and prayerful. Do we pray with and keep watch over our friends during their times of suffering and difficulty or are we asleep on the job?

Why grow we weary when asked to watch with our Lord? Up, sluggish heart, Jesus calls thee! Rise and go forth to meet the Heavenly Friend in the place where He manifests Himself. [E.M. Bounds]

Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” [Mark 14:38 (NLT)]

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A DIFFERENT SORT OF FAST – Part 2

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

palamedes swallowtail butterflyAs I continued my Lenten fasting, Saturday’s fast was criticism. “A piece of cake,” I thought as I began the day. While criticism can be constructive, it usually is little more than complaint and, as it turned out, I’d blown it by 10:00 AM. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I caught myself being critical. Even though Sundays during Lent are a day free of fasting, I tried going without criticism again Sunday morning. Surely a day without any critical judgment shouldn’t be that hard! I hate to admit, I botched it by 8:00 while watching the news! Granted, I’d already made three hours without complaint but that wasn’t my last criticism of the day. Not every comment was verbalized but whether I said it to myself or to someone else, criticism still is criticism. I continued fasting from criticism yesterday and this fast may turn out to be a year’s work!

Another day’s fast was discontentment—the feeling of not-enough—the feeling that keeps us from being grateful for all that we do have. Like some of my other fasts, I thought this one would be a breeze until I received an on-line ad for a sale at one of my favorite stores. In spite of an over-full closet, I felt discontent creep into my heart as I scrolled through pages of beautiful clothes. I know I have more than enough and yet I still wanted something more! There’s another one to work on for the rest of the year!

Yesterday’s assignment was to fast “God-as-job.” Just because we don’t receive a paycheck to serve the Lord doesn’t mean we can’t slip into thinking of our service as a job rather than a calling or thinking of our prayer and Bible study as a task or duty rather than a blessing. Our relationship with God is no more a job that the relationship we have with our loved ones. Nevertheless, when concentrating on doing for Him, we easily forget about being with Him and, when working for Him, we often stop hearing Him. When God is a job, we’re present in body but absent in spirit.

These weeks preparing for Resurrection Sunday brought me a growing awareness of my spiritual weaknesses. Rather than giving up something I enjoy like chocolate, alcohol, or TV, this fast was about revealing the kinds of things that restrain or control me. Moreover, there were hidden blessings in each sacrifice I made. These last several weeks have been a time of decluttering my mind, sweeping the dust bunnies from my soul, and regaining balance. Of course, I remain a work in progress but, like the author of Hebrews, I’m trying to rid myself of the things that weigh me down.

Lent is a time of going very deeply into ourselves… What is it that stands between us and God? Between us and our brothers and sisters? Between us and life, the life of the Spirit? Whatever it is, let us relentlessly tear it out, without a moment’s hesitation.” [Catherine Doherty]

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. [Hebrews 12:1-2a (NLT)]

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