A MAN OF SORROWS

He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! 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 53:3-5 (NLT)]

angelWhen prophesying about Jesus, Isaiah called Him a “man of sorrows.” Indeed, Jesus carried a tremendous weight of sorrow upon his shoulders—the heaviest of which was the weight of the world’s sins, a weight totally undeserved by this man who was without sin. A compassionate man, Jesus also carried the burden of the world’s heartache. He knew the anguish of Jarius, the despair of the bleeding woman, the grief of Martha and Mary at Lazarus’ death, the self-reproach of the woman at the well, the centurion’s concern for his servant, the torment of the possessed man, and the distress of the lepers. He also knew the weight of the world’s rejection. He was scoffed at by people in his own hometown, many of his early disciples deserted him, and Judas betrayed him. Wanting none to perish, He wept upon his entry into Jerusalem because of the Israelites’ lost opportunity at salvation. The night of His betrayal, Jesus was filled with grief—indeed, He was a man of sorrows. But, He also was a man of peace, love, purity, holiness, eloquence and love.

Yes, Jesus was a man of sorrows but not a sorrowful man. Could a sorrowful man cause us to sing “Joy to the World!” or “Good Christian Men Rejoice!”? Could He fulfill the angel’s promise of great joy or cause us to sing of “tidings of comfort and joy?” And yet, comfort and joy are what this man of sorrows brought and continues to bring to all who believe.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the gift of your precious son—not only a man of sorrows but also a savior who brought us the joy of forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and knowing you.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
“Fear not,” then said the Angel, “let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour Of pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
[God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (author unknown)]

But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. [Luke 2:10 (NLT)]

I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! (John 15:11 (NLT)]

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GOD-INCIDENCES

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:9-10 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - milkweed

I suspect that most of us live rather ordinary and somewhat predictable lives that are occasionally interrupted by major life events (some of which are welcome and other which are not). For us, it is life’s little surprises—its happenstance and serendipity—that keep our lives from becoming humdrum.

We probably have no problem crediting God with the big blessings of life—things like the birth of a healthy child, a benign biopsy, a successful surgery, 10 years of sobriety, 50 plus years of marriage, the grand’s graduation, the better paying job, or God’s gifts of salvation and forgiveness. On the other hand, we tend to think of the little unexpected blessings—the butterfly or bluebird, the chance meeting, the out-of-the-blue phone call from an old friend, the sermon that spoke directly to our need, making the tight connection at the airport, or the humorous email that arrived when we were in the dumps—as mere coincidence or luck. After all, it seems that our Almighty God must be far too busy running the universe to deal with the minutiae of our everyday lives. Absolutely nothing, however, is unimportant to a God who sees every sparrow fall, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and has etched our names on the palms of His hands. Just as the universe is not run by random chance, neither are our lives!

God can multitask better than a one-armed paper-hanger or a mom with triplet toddlers! While God was keeping the stars and planets aligned back in 470 BC, He also orchestrated Persian King Xerxes’ insomnia and his attendant’s choice of what part of the king’s chronicles was read to him. For that matter, He is the one who placed the villains plotting the Xerxes’ death within ear shot of Mordecai. Rather than coincidences, all of the events in the book of Esther were part of God’s finely crafted plan!

Although we speak to God in prayer, we often chalk up His answer to luck or coincidence. God can speak audibly but He also speaks through seemingly random things—the day’s Bible verse, a chance meeting, a song on the radio, a casual comment, a wrong number, words in a book we accidentally open, and even a bout of insomnia. When we credit the little blessings of life to coincidence, we’re happy. When we credit them to their orchestrator, however, we become thankful. While we’re surprised by these seemingly random or capricious events, our God never is! Everything in our lives has passed through His hands!

Yesterday, we gave thanks for our food, family, health, homes, and all the major blessings of our lives. Today, let’s give thanks for the little blessings, the godsends, that make our ordinary lives so extraordinary—the things that encourage us when we want to give up, put smiles on our faces, fill our hearts with joy, answer our questions, or remind us how much we’re loved. Along with all the big things, let’s be sure to give God credit for the little ones—the God-incidences—that He scatters throughout our days. His fingerprints are everywhere we look!

You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail. [Proverbs 19:21 (NLT)]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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DAILY AFFIRMATIONS

For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

little blue heronThirty years ago, Al Franken played a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smalley. Host of a fictitious self-help show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” Stuart would look into in a mirror and affirm that he was good enough, smart enough, and that people liked him. A member of several twelve-step programs, Stuart often shared maxims like, “Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt!” along with affirmations that he was entitled to his share of happiness and (my personal favorite) that it is easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.

Even though we laughed at Stuart’s corny affirmations, what we say to ourselves is important. The word affirmation comes from the Latin word affirmare, which means to make steady or strengthen. Affirmations really do strengthen us because they can break the cycle of negative thoughts that lead to negative speech and actions. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

Last May, Jonathon Borge, Senior Editor of Oprah Daily, compiled 40 daily affirmations. It’s no surprise that most quotes came from life-coaches, motivational speakers, self-help authors, and Oprah. One notable exception was boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s: “I am the greatest!” First said in 1964, Ali may or may not have been the greatest boxer but, as Christians, we know that God is greater. Ali’s was a prideful affirmation bordering on blasphemy! Life-coach Tim Storey’s affirmation was, “Your life is about to be incredible.” That’s probably true as far as it goes since Storey never specified incredibly what. Incredibly difficult, confusing, boring, exciting, happy, painful, easy, or sad? We must never forget that, along with an abundant life, Jesus promised troubles so it will be all of those things at one time or another.

Self-help author Louise Hay’s affirmation was, “I am in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.” While that’s a great way to justify our situation and actions, it’s not true. While they may have been in the right place at the right time, Adam and Eve didn’t do the right thing when they disobeyed God, nor did Jacob when he impersonated Esau, Rachel when she stole her father’s idols, Aaron when he fashioned the golden calf, David when he bedded Bathsheba, Solomon when he amassed his enormous harem, Peter when he denied knowing Jesus, the Pharisees when they falsely accused Jesus, or John Mark when he abandoned Paul. Sadly, being in the right place at the right time doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing!

As Christians, what sort of things should we affirm? Rather than turning to Stuart Smalley, self-help authors, or talk show hosts, perhaps we should look to God’s Word to guide us. God’s promise found in Isaiah 41:10 tell us that we can face life with confidence: “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” We can affirm an attitude of thanksgiving with the words of 1 Chronicles 16:34: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.” With the words of Ephesians 4:32, we can affirm how we’ll treat others: “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” The words of 1 Peter 4:8 affirm our love for our neighbors: “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Because of Galatians 5:22-23, we can choose to be filled with His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The words of Psalm 118 affirm that we can know that God is good, His faithful love endures forever, He is our strength and song, and that His love endures forever. Perhaps my favorite affirmation of all is found in verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” It’s one with which I start my day.

We don’t have to look in a mirror to convince ourselves of our value or that we are loved. We know because the Bible tells us so!

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 3:16-17 (NLT)

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE (The Great Divorce – 1)

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.” [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]

sandhill crane - canadian gooseI thought of that great fixed chasm between heaven and hell again after reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. Lewis clearly warns his readers that the book is a fantasy, what he calls “imaginative supposal,” and should be read that way. He does, however, add that it does have a moral. The book’s unnamed narrator (presumed to be Lewis) describes what seems to be hell as a grey, dingy, and utterly joyless place where quarrelsome souls continually argue with one another and move further and further apart. Finding himself there, the narrator joins others as they take a bus ride from this grey world to a vibrant, beautiful, and substantial place that appears to be heaven.

Although they aren’t ghosts, his fellow travelers appear insubstantial, almost wraithlike, in comparison to this new world—a place more real than anything he’d ever known—and the solid radiant people they see there. Full of life, love, and joy, each vivid being tries to convince one of the ghostlike travelers to stay. Those who choose to remain may do so and are reassured that they will gradually become more substantial as they drink from the fountain and journey up the mountain. Those who choose to reject the offer are free to return to the bus and their joyless lives.

The narrator’s travelling companions are people like us. Some are self-absorbed or greedy while others are embittered or selfish. One traveler is sure he’s better than the “riff-raff” around him and another, sure that he’s earned his way there, demands his rights. One wants to be assured of his position before staying, another remains skeptical of its promise, and still another person refuses to stay because of shame. One refuses to forgive, one wishes to live in the past, and one prefers wallowing in misery and self-pity. When none of these choose to stay, the narrator’s guide explains that the choice of those “lost souls” is best expressed in the phrase, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He adds, “there is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…always something they prefer to joy.” Only one traveler chooses to give up the lust that controlled his life and stay. When he does so, the narrator watches as he solidifies into a new-made man.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” The contrast between the ghostlike non-believing souls with the vibrant solid people they meet is a perfect illustration of Lewis’ point. Indeed, it is only when we die to ourselves that we truly become alive and complete. Giving up oneself to follow Jesus is a real choice each person must make!

Even though the narrator takes a bus ride from hell to heaven, this fantasy really isn’t about heaven or hell. It merely answers the question so many people ask: how can a loving God send someone to Hell? The simple answer is that He doesn’t! Rather than being condemned to hell as punishment, each person freely chooses how they will spend both life in the here-and now and in eternity. The narrator is told by his guide, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

When the narrator wonders if he’d actually witnessed choices made long before death, his guide doesn’t answer. Instead, he explains it was just a dream and cautions the man to make that clear should he ever write of it. As Lewis said in the book’s preface, the story is just a fantasy but, as he promised in the preface, it does have a moral: our loving God never sends people to hell—they do that of their own free will!

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. [C.S. Lewis]

He then spoke to them all. “If any of you want to come after me,” he said, “you must say No to yourselves, and pick up your cross every day, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me, you’ll save it. What good will it do you if you win the entire world, but lose or forfeit your own self?” [Luke 9:23-25 (NTE)]

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BURNING COALS (Matthew 5:38-48 – Part 2)

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:17-21 (ESV)]

When Paul addressed a Christian’s relationship with his enemies, he said never to return evil for evil and to act honorably so we don’t reflect badly on the Gospel. Paul qualified his direction to live in peace with all by adding, “if possible, so far as it depends on you.” While some people don’t want to live in peace, as Christians, we must refuse to instigate, escalate, or participate in conflict. Since peace-loving people who won’t return evil with more of the same tend to be the sort of people who are taken advantage of, Paul then addresses the issue of revenge. Quoting Deuteronomy 32:25, he makes it clear that we are not to retaliate; vengeance is solely God’s department, not ours.

Telling us not to allow evil to overcome us but to overcome evil by doing good, Paul says our sincere kindness to an enemy is the way to do that. Moreover, by doing so, we’ll “heap burning coals on his head.” While this quote from Proverbs 25:21-22 actually sounds a little vengeful, those burning coals probably refer to an ancient Egyptian practice in which a person’s regret or repentance was demonstrated by carrying a pan filled with burning coals on his head.

In theory, our unexpected and sincere kindness will cause hot coals of shame and guilt in the wrong-doers’ conscience far more effectively than would hostility or spite. What those burning coals aren’t is a back-handed form of revenge—counterfeit kindness used to irritate, manipulate, or publicly humiliate them or a way to get in the last word. They’re certainly not a reason to gloat in self-righteousness. Our genuine kindness is the way to facilitate regret and repentance in the evil doers—whether or not they repent, however, is their choice. Nevertheless, as Christians, we must do our part.

As an illustration of this concept, Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee told a story about two Christian brothers who had a rice paddy located on top of a hill. Each morning, they drew water, climbed up the hill, and irrigated their rice paddy. One morning, they found their paddy dry but the neighbor’s paddy, just downhill from theirs, quite wet. While they were sleeping, he’d dug a hole in their irrigation channel and stolen their water. Rather than retaliate, they filled their paddy again but the same thing happened for several days. When they confided to a church elder that they didn’t have the sense of peace they expected from walking in obedience to God, the brothers were told they hadn’t done enough. The elder told them to fill their neighbor’s paddy with water before filling theirs. Strangely, as they did so, the brothers began to sense the peace they desired and, while continuing to water both paddies, they grew more joyful as they worked. The neighbor who’d stolen their water finally came to them, apologized, and said, “If this is Christianity, I want to hear about it.” Their kindness heaped burning coals on their neighbor’s head and he repented!

Simply not retaliating wasn’t enough for the brothers and it’s not enough for us. When someone slaps us, Jesus expects more from us than just silently walking away; He calls us to love and pray for our enemy. We are to go the extra mile by feeding him when he is hungry, giving him water when he thirsts, and even watering his rice paddy when he’s stolen our water! Admittedly, that’s not always easy; it certainly isn’t our natural response. Can we do it perfectly? Probably not, but we can try!

The world’s philosophy leads people to expect retaliation when they have wronged another. To receive kindness, to see love when it seems uncalled for, can melt the hardest heart. [Expositor’s Bible Commentary]

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [Matthew 5:43-46 (ESV)]

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THE RAINBOW’S END

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

rainbowDays bled into weeks, weeks into months, and every day seemed the same for much of the last eighteen months. Life became a series of postponements, rebookings, cancelations, setbacks, inconveniences, letdowns, and disappointments. Visiting Grandma meant waving at her through a window, final farewells were FaceTime calls on a nurse’s cell phone, and we mourned from a distance while attending celebrations of life virtually. Weddings were postponed, family reunions put on hold, shut-downs and travel restrictions kept loved ones apart, theaters and concert halls went dark, vacations were delayed, businesses closed, jobs were lost, and junior year abroad became junior year on Zoom.

Many of us had something specific to which we looked forward in the COVID-free future. It was anticipation of that reward that helped sustain us through the dreary months. When vaccines rolled out and numbers dropped, we began to think the end was in sight and we finally saw the end of the rainbow! Plans resumed for family reunions, the delayed semester abroad, or the cruise of a lifetime. Vacations were scheduled, wedding venues rebooked, businesses set dates for returning to the office, and nursing homes and hospitals again allowed visitors. With the surge in cases and the return of restrictions, however, many of those plans have been pushed back yet again or cancelled altogether. We’re frustrated and disappointed because the future we hoped for isn’t the one we got!

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape strategizes with his nephew Wormwood on methods of capturing a young man’s soul. The senior demon suggests using time as a weapon. Screwtape explains that the “enemy” (God) wants man to focus on only two times: eternity (which means attending to God) or the present in meditation, obedience, service, receiving grace, or giving thanks. Having found tempting someone to live in the past to be of “limited value,” Screwtape advises a far better approach is to tempt the man to attend to the future. God, he says, “does not want men to give the future their hearts, to place their treasure in it,” but the demons definitely do! He adds that, “We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end.” Rather than being faithful, kind, happy, or thankful in the present, the demons want people to miss the gifts of the present day while looking for them in the future. “Gratitude,” says Screwtape, “looks to the past and love to the present,” but, the demon adds, it is things like fear, desire, greed, materialism, and ambition that look to the future.

As Christians, we can’t let our disappointment in the future we’d anticipated dominate our life or cause us to lose hope. Keeping our eyes on the real hope found in eternity with God, let’s not allow our disappointment in tomorrow steal today’s joy. As followers of Jesus, we live with a hope that isn’t dependent on pandemics, positivity rates, restrictions, weather, or finances because we know how the story ends. Yes, we’re disappointed now but, ultimately, we won’t be disappointed by what God has waiting for us.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.  [Mother Teresa]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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