COFFEE WITH GOD

Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray. Later Simon and the others went out to find him. [Mark 1:35-36 (NLT)]

Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.”… But many people recognized them and saw them leaving, and people from many towns ran ahead along the shore and got there ahead of them. [Mark 6:31,33 (NLT)]

brown pelicanWhen my “Weekly Wisdom” email reminded me that time is the price we must pay for intimacy with God, I thought of Cindy. A recent widow struggling to make sense of her new normal, Cindy wanted a closer relationship with God, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Rather than reciting the same prayers over and over again, she wanted to sit down and talk to Him, as she would with a good friend.

When a friend mentioned that she’d stocked a cozy corner with devotionals, Bible, encouraging books, and inspirational verses and dedicated it as a special place to read Scripture, reflect and pray, Cindy decided to do the same. In spite of preparing a peaceful spot in her house, however, her life was so chaotic and disorganized that she never found the time to use it!

No matter how well stocked it is with Bibles, devotionals, candles, or framed Bible verses, a dedicated space is pointless if it’s never used! For this to work, Cindy found she had to link her God time with something she did every day; for her, that was her morning cup of coffee while reading the newspaper. Thus began Cindy’s “Coffee with God!”

While continuing the requisite coffee, Cindy replaced the newspaper with devotions, Scripture, and prayers. Within a few days’ time, she and God were on regular speaking terms. She admits those conversations over coffee seemed rather one-sided but added that God’s responses came throughout the day. By approaching Him regularly and humbly, Cindy has become more attuned to His voice and presence in all things all day long. As for the newspaper, she knows that there’s time enough for that after she’s enjoyed her morning coffee with God and His Word.

If I neglected doing something I’d promised to do, my mother would remind me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Expanding on that, Aldous Huxley said, “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. …and furnished too.” As Christians, we are filled with good intentions, but being flawed people, we often fail to act on them. Like Cindy, until I set aside both place and time for Scripture, meditation and prayer, my relationship with God was pretty hit or miss.

Jesus wanted the disciples to understand the importance of a close relationship with the Lord: God first, everything else second. Even so, He had trouble finding quiet time with His Father. Sometimes, Jesus was interrupted and, other times, the crowds followed him. If God’s Son had difficulty finding time to pray, it’s understandable that we do, too. On the other hand, Jesus was busy doing His Father’s business while the busyness that keeps us from God is ours alone!

While yesterday’s message linked praying for peace with brushing our teeth, it’s pretty hard to build a relationship with God like that. As Christians, we won’t mature without deliberately spending time in God’s presence—reading Scripture, meditating on His word and talking with Him in prayer. Our quiet time with God needs to be a non-negotiable item on our calendars rather than an afterthought. As with any relationship, you’ve got to put in the time if you want it to grow! Tomorrow morning, why not enjoy your morning coffee with God!

Hear me as I pray, O Lord. Be merciful and answer me! My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.” And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.” [Psalm 27:7-8 (NLT)]

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PICTURING HIM

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When may I come to see God’s face? [Psalm 42:2 (GW)]

But you can’t see my face, because no one may see me and live. [Exodus 33:20 (GW)]

“He’s not at all what I expected!” I said after seeing a well-known radio personality in person. Nowhere near as attractive, suave and elegant as he’d sounded on the air, he was much better in my mind’s eye. Older, heavier, less stylish and bald, I was disappointed. The imagined was so much better than the reality.

Do you ever try to visualize God? Would he look like George Burns, the kindly white-haired old man in the movie Oh, God? whose first words to John Denver’s character were, “Eh, not what you expected?” He certainly wasn’t! Maybe God would sound and look more like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty and appear in an elegant white suit. Perhaps He’d be more like David Strathairn in Interview with God, who, in true rabbinic fashion, answered questions with questions of his own during three interviews. In The Shack, God was portrayed by Octavia Spencer, a heavy-set soft-spoken African-American woman who went by the name of “Papa.” Of course, none of these characterizations come anywhere close to personifying God.

Nevertheless, even though we know God is spirit and without a physical body, we continue trying to visualize Him. Even the most creative mind is incapable of clearly picturing a God, unrestrained by time or space, who can be everywhere at all times: a God who sees, hears and knows all, not just in the present, but in the past and future as well. Our limited imaginations can’t come close to comprehending such an unlimited being who always has been, is now, and forevermore will be. The enormity and power of God is incomprehensible. I’m overwhelmed even thinking about it. That, however, is what I think God wants: for us to be awed and overcome by His amazing presence.

Even though God walked on earth for thirty-three years, we have no physical description of Him and Scripture used few adjectives. While John, Peter and James saw Jesus’ face shine like the sun and His clothes become white during the Transfiguration, they had but a glimpse of His great God glory! Since Judas had to point out Jesus to the soldiers in the garden, when living as a man, Jesus must have looked quite similar to every other Jewish Galilean.

Fortunately, while we may not know exactly what God looks like, we can know Him. Scripture tells us what He was like and, even though we can’t see Him, we know He is there. Moreover, when we eventually do come face to face with our Heavenly Father, we won’t be disappointed (as I was with that radio personality). It’s a guarantee; the reality will be far better than anything we possibly could imagine.

The throne of God and the lamb will be in the city. His servants will worship him and see his face. His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night, and they will not need any light from lamps or the sun because the Lord God will shine on them. They will rule as kings forever and ever. [Revelation 22:3b-5 (GW)]

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COWBOY OR SHEPHERD?

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [Psalm 23:1 (NLT)]

cowboy - Losee Canyon - BryceIn A Gentle Thunder, author Max Lucado compares the hero of the Bible, the shepherd, with the hero of the American west, the cowboy. They both herd livestock, their home is the range, and they sleep under the stars. The difference, says Lucado, is that the shepherd knows and loves his sheep because he leads them to be shorn. The cowboy, however, doesn’t get attached to his cattle because he’s leading them to slaughter! While several cowboys drive a herd of cattle and know one another’s names, just one shepherd leads a flock of sheep and it is their names that he knows!

Lucado’s comparison got me thinking about the cowboy heroes of my youth: Marshalls Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp, widower Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), gunfighter-for-hire Paladin, and the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto. They were larger than life heroes. Along with being excellent shots, they lived by a strict moral code, fought for law and order, and only used their fists or weapons in the cause of justice. I seriously doubt those cowboys bore much resemblance to the real thing.

The masked Lone Ranger stands out in my memory. He and Tonto rode through the West, doing good deeds and fighting evil. The stories were formulaic and, when the townspeople were in dire straits, our heroes would save the day. With the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, they would ride into town, guns blazing, and rescue the good citizens from the forces of evil. Then without waiting for thanks, they’d ride off into the sunset with Rossini’s music in the background. We’d hear the Lone Ranger call, “Hi-yo, Silver” and someone would ask, “Who was that masked man?”

We no longer face the challenges of frontier life: desperadoes, stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, hijacked stage coaches, gunfights, claim jumping, or evil land barons. Nevertheless, we need to be rescued from more realistic problems: fear, worry, poor choices, illness, anger, broken marriages, estranged families, doubt, indebtedness, addiction, disabilities, loss, and the challenges of care giving. Sadly, no cowboy in a white hat is going to ride to our rescue and the solution won’t occur in a thirty-minute time slot. Nevertheless, sometimes we seem to think Jesus will do just that (only without the silver bullets and white hat).

Fortunately, as Lucado points out in his book, we don’t have a cowboy; we have a shepherd. Unlike the Lone Ranger, He doesn’t travel around until He comes upon someone in trouble and, unlike Paladin, we don’t have to hire Him. Moreover, He never rides off into the sunset after helping us. Like a good shepherd, Jesus is always with each and every one of us. Being the sheep of His pasture, however, doesn’t mean we won’t encounter predators, pests, harsh environment, storms, or sickness. We’ll occasionally stumble, wander off, or be tempted by poisonous weeds. Having a shepherd means that we’re never alone in those trials. We don’t need to wait for a hero to save the day because our savior is in the day with us! The few times the Lone Ranger was caught, he never was unmasked and no one except Tonto knew his identity. As Christians, however, we know the identity of our shepherd. If we truly follow Him, we’ll never need a cowboy to save the day.

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland. [Max Lucado]

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. [John 10:14-15 (NLT)]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (NLT)]

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WITH AUTHORITY

When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. [Matthew 7:28-29 (NABRE)]

water liliesWhen Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astounded at his teaching because, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, He taught with “authority.” When the people wondered at Jesus’ authority, they weren’t referring to His ability to speak confidently and persuasively. The Greek word translated as “authority” was exousia which meant power or right; the people wondered at Jesus’ authorization to say the things He said. Rather than teach on their own authority, most rabbis taught on the authority of earlier sages. The Moody Bible Commentary depicts them as virtual “walking footnotes” who merely cited famous teachers and repeated what had been said before by others.

While it’s usually translated as “Verily” or “Truly, I say to you,” Jesus often began His teaching with the words, “Amen, I say to you.” Meaning “truly” or “certainly,” the word “amen” was used at the end of a prayer to confirm its words. It also was said when affirming a pledge; saying “amen” at the end of an oath made the vow valid and binding. By saying, “amen” before He spoke, Jesus was guaranteeing the truth of His words: His distinctive power and right. In effect, Jesus was announcing, “I say this to you indisputably, unequivocally, and with the fullest authority.”

A perfect example of Jesus’ claim of authority is found in His lesson about building on a solid foundation (written about yesterday). His simile echoed one used by many Jewish rabbis but with one very important difference. In the rabbis’ version, the solid foundation was to be the Torah; in Jesus’ version, the unshakable foundation was His word! His audience must have been shocked by those words; it’s no wonder they marveled at the authority He claimed.

When we look at the authority with which Jesus taught and acted, we can see why the priests, teachers and elders felt their position threatened. When they demanded to know by whose authority Jesus acted and spoke, they weren’t interested in an answer; they just wanted to trick Him into saying something that would label Him as an eccentric fanatic or a blasphemer. Like a true rabbi, Jesus answered their question with one of His own and asked where John the Baptist got his authority. Instead of backing Jesus into a corner, He’d backed them into one. If they said John had no authority, the people would be angry and, if they said John’s authority was from God, they’d have to answer for not believing and supporting the Baptizer. When they refused to answer, so did Jesus.

It had been a long dry spell for the people of Palestine; before John, the last time God spoke was through the prophet Malachi more than 400 years earlier. When Jesus spoke, the people were again hearing the Word of God! The difference was that John and the other prophets knew they were mere messengers; the words they spoke were not their own. When Jesus spoke, he wasn’t God’s messenger; He was God’s Son. Jesus didn’t just have authority; He was the incarnate Authority of God!

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. [John 5:24 (NABRE)]

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NEVER A STRANGER

Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! [Hebrews 13:1-2 (NLT)]

butterfly weedThe story has been told of a shoemaker who dreamt that Jesus would come to his shop the following day. His dream was so realistic that he washed his shop windows and dusted every shelf in preparation for his holy guest. The man patiently waited at his bench for the Lord to arrive but the only person to come through his door that morning was an old man seeking shelter from the icy winter rain. When the cobbler looked down at the man’s wet feet, he saw toes poking out of his beat-up shoes. Selecting a new pair of shoes, the shoemaker sat the old man down, dried off his feet, gave him a fresh pair of socks, and fitted him with the new shoes. When the rain stopped, the old man went on his way.

Just about lunchtime, a shabbily dressed woman came into the store and asked if she could stay just long enough to get warm. When the cobbler opened up his lunch box, he saw the woman hungrily eyeing his sandwiches. “I’m not really hungry,” he said as he offered her his lunch. After the woman had eaten, warmed up, and departed, the shoemaker continued to wait for Jesus but no one else came through the door. As the disheartened man closed up shop that evening, he heard a child crying. Looking down, he saw a small boy huddled in the doorway. The tearful child explained that he’d gotten hopelessly lost while running errands. He knew his address but he didn’t know how to get there. Although the cobbler wanted to get home for dinner, he wiped the youngster’s eyes and nose, took his hand, and escorted him home.

After returning the boy to his family, the disappointed man turned back toward his shop and said a silent prayer of despair. “Lord, I was so sure you’d come—so sure that I’d see your face at my door! Where were you?” It was then that He heard a gentle voice tell him, “Shoemaker, lift up your heart. I was right there at your door three times today. You clothed me, fed me, and comforted me! Don’t you know that when you did those things to my children, you did them to me?”

The Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia, is a set of instructions for monastic living that has served as a guidebook to Christian discipleship for 1,500 years. Benedict opened chapter 53 with this statement, “All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’” Just as Benedict directed the monks to see Christ in their guests, so we must see Christ in the people we encounter. Like the cobbler’s visitors, that person may look like an expense, interruption, or inconvenience; nevertheless, he is Christ. Our fictional cobbler welcomed three strangers at his door and received Christ as his guest. While becoming Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others isn’t always easy, that’s what we’re called to do. Let us serve the Lord with gladness!

I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus. [Mother Teresa]

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me! [Matthew 25:35-36,40 (NLT)]

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LENTEN FASTING 

You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? [Isaiah 58:5 (NLT)]

monarch butterflyTraditionally, Lent has been a time for Christians of all denominations to refocus their hearts and minds on God through prayer, fasting and giving. As a way of fasting, many people deny themselves small indulgences, such as soda, candy, or their daily latte at Starbucks, but Lenten fasting isn’t limited to food. Other ways to observe this season include not making any purchases that aren’t absolutely necessary; donating or throwing away forty things during Lent’s forty days; giving up guilty pleasures like People magazine or binge-watching Netflix; refraining from complaint or gossip; not eating out or ordering in; saying three nice things to one’s spouse and children daily; reading the four gospels; doing a weekly service project; setting aside loose change for a charity; or forty days of letter writing, acts of kindness, or phone calls to special people. Some of those, like refraining from gossip or complaint, saying nice things to the family, and Scripture reading shouldn’t be limited to just these forty days!

Last week’s Abundance assignment was to give up something for Lent. Pointing out that Jesus gave up everything for us, it simply asked what we could sacrifice for forty days as a sign of gratitude for His incredible gift. Since this is part of a mission to experience the abundance of the Christian life, I had to ask myself how having less would make me experience more. Of course, if we love Oreos, Five Guys, or Downton Abbey, we will appreciate them all the more when we can indulge in them once again, but there must be more to fasting than that.

Looking at fasting in Scripture, we find that it was never supposed to be mere ritual. Fasting and sacrifice were to be a sincere way of growing closer to God through prayer and repentance. Isaiah wrote of God’s anger at Israel’s superficial fasting that wasn’t accompanied by repentance and the blessing of others. Skipping dessert, abstaining from social media, or not playing FreeCell or Spider on our phones is meaningless if we don’t link our sacrifice with prayer, a change of heart, and the blessing of others. True fasting replaces selfishness with selflessness. Giving up something (be it food, habits, money, possessions or time) should cause us to take our eyes off the things of this world and humbly and joyfully focus them on God. It is only when we look to Jesus that we truly discover the abundance of the Christian life. Whether Christmas or Lent, let us prayerfully remember that Jesus is the reason for the season!

Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:9b-10 NLT)]

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