SWEET JESUS

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! [Psalm 34:8 (NLT)]

The religion of Jesus Christ is not ascetic, nor sour, nor gloomy, nor circumscribing. It is full of sweetness in the present and in promise. [Henry Ward Beecher]

tri-colored heronThe Synsepalum dulcificum is a West African fruit better known as the “taste berry” or “miracle fruit.” This almost tasteless red berry can make lemons, Dijon mustard, Brussels sprouts, pickles and even vinegar taste sweet. A protein in the berry temporarily binds to the tongue’s taste buds and causes sour or acidic foods to taste sweet. Miracle fruit tablets, powder, freeze-dried berries and plants can be purchased from several websites. Along with suggesting using the berry as a way to get fussy eaters to eat their fruits and vegetables, sellers suggest hosting “flavor-tripping parties” where guests get a berry and a strange buffet of foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, radishes, grapefruit, cheap tequila, goat cheese, vinegar, and Tabasco sauce. Why anyone would want to alter the delicious flavors of kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, grapes, or tomatoes is beyond me and I certainly have no desire to drink pickle juice or Sriracha chili sauce.

Miracle berries really aren’t miraculous because they don’t change anything; they merely change the user’s perception of a food. Although the berry neutralizes the flavor in the mouth, the food is still acidic as it goes down and the after-effects of indulging in hot sauce as if it were frosting or drinking straight lemon juice often include stomach upsets and mouth ulcers.

Rather than changing the taste of food, it would be nice to have something that miraculously could transform the bitterness, disappointment, and distress of life into something palatable and sweet. When I remember the words of Psalm 34 to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” I realize we already have it! When we taste of the Lord, we see His goodness, receive the power of His Holy Spirit, and experience the true sweetness of life. Jesus truly does perform a miracle—the miracle of changed lives. He transforms shame, sorrow, bitterness, resentment, meanness, hate, and rage into acceptance, joy, contentment, forgiveness, generosity, love and peace. The miracle berry’s effect lasts for only a few hours but the miracle of Jesus lasts into eternity. Taste and see.

Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Christ, the spirit of Christ interpenetrating ours, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. [Henry Drummond]

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness. [1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT)]

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THE GRATITUDE JAR

Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew swampEvery year a dear friend sends me a bayberry candle to burn on New Year’s eve. Legend has it that lighting a bayberry candle when the first star appears, burning it past midnight, and allowing it to extinguish on its own, will ensure a year of prosperity and good fortune. Since we can’t manage to stay awake to midnight, leaving a burning candle unattended seems more a guarantee of fire and disaster than good luck. A safer tradition is a “gratitude jar.” Little notes of thanks are dropped into it throughout the year and, on New Year’s eve, the jar is emptied, the messages read, and a new year of gratitude begins with an empty jar.

What sort of notes might go into your jar? There might ones written in thanks for finding things: the baby’s “binky” or favorite blanket, the car keys, or the money to pay the mortgage. There certainly would be mention of blessings received: recovery from COVID-19, technical assistance that spoke English, extra time to finish a project, or a stimulus check. There might be thanks for the ability to give: blood or convalescent plasma, food to the food pantry, an opportunity to a deserving person, or good advice to a friend. Gratitude would probably be expressed for the various people in our lives: exterminators, trash collectors, skilled surgeons, first responders, compassionate hospice volunteers, helpful sales associates, pastors, or a loving spouse.

In all likelihood, there’d be note of gratitude for our accomplishments and those of others: not burning the holiday pies, finishing chemo, a good report card, or learning how to use Photoshop. There might be mention of moments that took our breath away: a roseate spoonbill feeding in the swamp, a double rainbow, or seeing the green flash at sunset. Notes might be written for things we found: the solution to a problem, the right words, a lost locket, or a new friend. In addition, there would be thanks for things we received like a good biopsy report or words of encouragement, forgiveness, and love.

Of course, there would be thanks given for arrivals: the prodigal who returned home, spring daffodils, or a new baby. There’d be gratitude notes for things that happened, like the virtual holiday brass concert or your silver anniversary (even if it was just the two of you celebrating) and notes of thanks for things that didn’t, like a hurricane, being “downsized,” or getting COVID-19. Perhaps there would be thanks for surviving an experience: the terrible twos, working from home, or on-line schooling. There might be messages giving thanks for things as simple as purring cats, comfy shoes, a child’s giggle, NetFlix, curb-side pick-up, or pizza.

There is so much for which to be grateful—big things like Jesus, salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life, along with little ones like warm chocolate chip cookies, a phone call from a friend, or still fitting into your skinny jeans—that our gratitude jars need to be huge!

New Year’s resolutions are made and broken every year. Perhaps the best way to start this year is to start with the determination to look for our blessings and offer thanks for them daily. Although keeping a gratitude journal or filling a gratitude jar isn’t necessary, they might make us more mindful of the many blessings (both large and small) we receive. The notes will also make good reading come next New Year’s eve!

Happy New Year, dear friends. May 2021 be filled with a multitude of blessings and gratitude.

Give us, O Lord, thankful hearts which never forget your goodness to us. Give us, O Lord, grateful hearts, which do not waste time complaining. [St. Thomas Aquinas]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD

Men know about God. He has made it plain to them. Men cannot say they do not know about God. From the beginning of the world, men could see what God is like through the things He has made. This shows His power that lasts forever. It shows that He is God. [Romans 1:19-20 (NLV)]

alstromeria - Peruvian lilyIn one of his four-minute essays, Dr. Frank Crane posited that that the Seven Wonders of the World weren’t the most wonderful things in the world; the wonders of everyday life were! I have to agree. The seven wonders are man-made and, of the original seven, only the great pyramid in Giza remains. On the other hand, the night sky has been there since God created it when time began. Within our galaxy there are some 300 billion stars. The Milky Way, however, is just one of some 2 trillion galaxies (making for a total stellar population of roughly 70 billion trillion.) Since that’s just in the observable universe, there probably are plenty more that haven’t yet been detected. That those trillions of stars are orbiting around an ever expanding universe boggles the mind! Nothing made by man even comes close.

I look over at the Alstroemeria (Peruvian lilies) my husband brings me each week. How is it possible that no two of those flowers are exactly alike? Yet, there’s no duplication in them or in snowflakes, zebras, fingerprints, butterflies, and those 70 billion trillion stars either!

As wondrous as God’s creation is, I wonder if we appreciate it. In 2007, a young man exited the metro station in Washington, DC, took out his violin, and began to play. The violinist was virtuoso Joshua Bell and his instrument, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, was worth $3.5 million. Bell played for three minutes before anyone even turned a head, another half-minute before someone dropped a dollar into his open violin case, and six minutes before anyone stopped for a moment. Sure that people would notice and recognize Bell, crowd control had been the initial concern for this experiment. There was no need to worry. Although 1,097 people passed by Bell during his 43-minute concert, only seven stopped for at least a minute to listen to a man who easily commands $1000 a minute to play a concert and for whom standing ovations are the norm.

Later, when viewing a video of the experiment, Bell said he understood why a crowd didn’t gather—after all, it was rush hour and people had to get to work. What mystified the violinist was that people didn’t even notice him; it was if he were invisible. There was no applause or acknowledgement of his music until near the end when one woman passed by him. Having been to one of Bell’s concerts, she recognized the violinist and stopped to listen. When he’d played his last note, she thanked him before continuing on her way to work.

Those commuters in DC have become so accustomed to the noisy busy world around them that they totally missed seeing and hearing Joshua Bell. Like them, has the noise and busyness of our lives dulled our senses so much that we no longer see or hear the wonders around us? We don’t need to leave our homes to see the wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China doesn’t hold a candle to the sky on a clear night. As impressive as is Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue, it’s really no match for a field of summer wildflowers and the marble structure of the Taj Mahal pales in comparison to the structure of the human genome.

Because God hasn’t hidden His glory from our senses, the Apostle Paul says there is no excuse for not knowing of His existence. Yet, just as people were deaf and blind to Joshua Bell, even those who know God are often as deaf and blind to His glory. We have eyes and ears but, in our rush, we neither see nor hear. Like Bell, God is an artist whose handiwork is worthy of a standing ovation yet, like those commuters, we frequently fail to acknowledge His presence in the everyday wonders of the world. The next time you hear a bird sing, smell a flower, see a rainbow, or bite into a juicy piece of fruit, thank God for the intricacy, beauty, and wonder of His creation. He’s a virtuoso!

O Lord, how many are Your works! You made them all in wisdom. The earth is full of what You have made. … I will sing to the Lord all my life. I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May the words of my heart be pleasing to Him. As for me, I will be glad in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24, 33-34 (NLV)  

When I look up and think about Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in their place, what is man, that You think of him, the son of man that You care for him? [Psalm 8:3-4 (NLV)]

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PASS IT ON

Christmas lightsThe Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (NLT)

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s Love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on. [Kurt Kaiser]

Last year, our entire family celebrated Christmas in the Keys and we were able to worship together Christmas Eve. Typical of most Christmas Eve services, everyone received a small candle when entering the church. At the end of the service, the lights were dimmed and the first person’s candle was lit from an altar candle. As we sang Silent Night, the flame from that first candle was passed to the next person and continued to be passed from person to person until everyone’s candles were burning brightly. It was a tiny church with about one hundred worshippers. Nevertheless, even though each individual candle gave off only a little light, by the time the song was finished, the sanctuary was 100 times brighter than when we’d started.

While listening to praise music today, I heard an old favorite from my Girl Scout days: Pass It On by Kurt Kaiser. The words, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going,” got me thinking about those candles. When we light a candle, we can pass along the flame without our own light diminishing. In fact, as the light gets passed along, it only gets brighter! Just as the flame of a candle doesn’t weaken as it is spread around, neither does love—it simply grows larger and stronger. While having more children may lessen the amount of money we can spend on each child, it certainly doesn’t lessen the love we have each one of them. In fact, our love increases so that we still can love each child as if he or she were our only one. That’s how it is with our Heavenly Father’s love; His love is limitless and He loves each and every one of us as if we were his only child.

This year, my family was separated by thousands of miles and we only saw one another on Zoom. Instead of going to a church Christmas Eve, we attended church on our computers. No flames were passed from person to person and no candles illuminated a darkened church as we sang Silent Night. Nevertheless, it only takes a spark to get the fire going and we don’t need a candle’s flame to spread the blessings of God’s grace and love. Let us remember these words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” It can’t extinguish God’s love, either!

The candlelight from last year’s Christmas Eve service was limited by the number of people in the church but there is no limit to the brightness that can be brought into this dark world by Christ’s church. What if every one of us took the light of God’s love with us and passed it on to all who cross our path? Remember, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going!”

I wish for you my friend This happiness that I’ve found;
You can depend on God It matters not where you’re bound.
I’ll shout it from the mountain top;
I want the world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on. [Kurt Kaiser]

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:13-14 (NLT)]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. [1 John 3:23 (NLT)]

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DANCE FOR THE LORD

And David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing a priestly garment. [2 Samuel 6:14 (NLT)]

spiderwortMy day’s reading brought me to 2 Samuel 6 when David, accompanied by the blowing of ram’s horn trumpets and shouts of joy, brought the Ark back to Jerusalem. Having stripped himself of his kingly robes, he wore a linen ephod and unabashedly spun, leapt, and danced his way into the city. After observing her husband’s uninhibited dancing, Michal chided him for his un-kingly attire and undignified behavior. David replied that he was dancing for God, not her and his goal was not to please people. He was dancing to please God.

I thought about David, wildly dancing with joy for the Lord, while viewing a streamed dance production titled “Christmas Joy.” Unlike most holiday dance programs, this one didn’t have a Nutcracker, Sugar Plum Fairy, waltzing flowers, Santa, elves, or secular music. Telling the story of Jesus, a corps de ballet of more than 50 danced to both contemporary and traditional sacred Christmas music. Rather than simply sharing the joy of the season, they shared the joy of Christ! Their movements were choreographed rather than spontaneous like David’s but, like his, theirs was a sacred dance of worship, praise, and joy!

As a way of expressing joy and thanksgiving, music and dance appear to have played a significant part in ancient Jewish worship. We find Scripture’s first mention of dance in Exodus when, after the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, Miriam led the women in song and dance. Years later, after David killed Goliath and the Israelites routed the Philistines, women from all over Israel met King Saul. Accompanied by tambourines and cymbals, they sang and danced with joy over their victory. When prophesying the time of restoration, Jeremiah spoke of a time when young women would dance for joy and the men would join in the celebration.

Like many things, however, dance was not always used in a way approved by God. Not long after Miriam’s joyful dance praising Jehovah, the Israelites danced in pagan revelry around the golden calf they’d fashioned. In an effort to get their false god to set fire to their sacrifice, the prophets of Baal danced around their altar. Ezekiel passed along God’s curse on the Ammonites because they danced to celebrate the desecration of the temple and the exile of the Jews. The New Testament tells of the seductive dance of Herodias’ daughter that so enthralled Herod she was able to demand John the Baptist’s severed head on a tray!

Other than that dance for Herod and the mention of music and dancing at the celebration for the prodigal son, there’s no reference to dance in the New Testament. Because it isn’t specifically mentioned as a method of worship, some Christians believe dance should be prohibited. Most early Christians, however, were Jewish and it’s likely they would have incorporated Jewish forms of worship, such as dance circles, into their worship of the Messiah. In the 4th century, Methodius, bishop of Olympus, had this to say about dance: “Gladly join yourself to the heavenly host, which is celebrating magnificently your salvation. As once David did before the ark, so do you, before this virginal throne, joyfully lead the dance.” St. Basil asked, “Could there be anything more blessed that to imitate on earth the ring dance of the angels…?” Of course, like everything, dance could be misused and many of the early church fathers warned of worldly sensual dancing, like that of Herodias’ daughter.

Although dance is rarely included as part of formal worship nowadays, I think of David’s unmitigated joy in the Lord—a joy that filled him so much that he whirled and leapt in praise and worship. His only aim was to please God. May our worship be as authentic, uninhibited, and joyful as his!

Let us dance as David did. Let us not be ashamed to show adoration of God. Dance uplifts the body above the earth into the heavenlies. Dance bound up with faith is a testimony to the living grace of God. He who dances as David danced, dances in grace. [St. Ambrose]

Praise him with the tambourine and dancing; praise him with strings and flutes! Praise him with a clash of cymbals; praise him with loud clanging cymbals. Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord! [Psalm 150:4-6 (NLT)]

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LIKE A NEWCOMER

“Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14b-16 (NLT)]

pipevine swallowtail butterflyWhen we moved to southwest Florida several years ago, everything was new and strange—we didn’t know which farmer’s market had the finest produce, the best routes to avoid traffic, the amenities of each beach, the fun activities available, or where to hike or bike. Rather than be confused and discouraged, we got out the guidebooks and maps and enthusiastically started exploring—churches, parks, theaters, markets, beaches, and museums. Every day became an adventure and, as we got to know our community, we came to love it.

I continue to be amazed at the number of people we meet who’ve lived here for decades or more who haven’t been to the Conservancy, zoo, or free band concerts in the park. They’ve never gone to the county museum or walked the boardwalk through the mangroves, visited the nearby state parks, wandered the old town alleys, or hiked any of the land trust trails. They’ve missed seeing the orchids and butterflies at the Botanic Gardens, the spoonbills at the bird sanctuary, and the giant gingerbread house at the Ritz. Taking the local attractions for granted, many old-time residents have ignored the beauty and opportunities right in their front yard.

It’s not just our surroundings about which we can get jaded; it also can be our faith. While new believers are usually enthusiastic about prayer and Bible study and excited about getting to know Jesus, old believers may get blasé and lax in exercising their faith. Our Bible study can get humdrum, prayer time repetitive, meditation wearisome, and worship unexciting. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it can breed boredom. Jesus, however, is anything but dull and uninspiring

I’ve encouraged my neighbors to look at our town with the fresh eyes of a tourist or newcomer. Perhaps we should do the same with our faith and look at Jesus with the heart and mind of a new believer. Could that be what receiving the Kingdom of God “like a child” means—coming to Jesus with the unbridled enthusiasm of a youngster? Children, like newcomers to town, are fully aware of how little they actually know. Inquisitive and eager to learn, they want to discover all there is to see; they seek so that they can find!

When Mrs. Zebedee asked her boys about their day, I doubt that John and James responded with a bored, “Same old, same old—a big picnic lunch, several healings, and some parables.” Eager to learn more about Jesus, every day was an adventure in faith for them. It can be for us, as well.

If our faith has become lackluster or monotonous, it’s not God’s fault. We’ve just become unaware of His presence, blind to His works, and deaf to His voice. It’s time to open our hearts and minds, renew our acquaintance with Jesus, and experience His glory the way a child or new believer would. We wouldn’t want boredom or indifference to cause us to miss experiencing all that Jesus offers: direction, strength, peace, joy, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation, an abundant life today and an eternal life tomorrow.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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