FOLLOWING HIM

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Mark 8:34 (NLT)]

cross country skiingOur pastor recently did a sermon series called “Following Jesus” which reminded me of our first time backcountry skiing in Colorado more than forty years ago. As novices, we knew enough not to venture into the wilderness by ourselves so we hired Wyatt to be our guide. Insisting we delay our trek several days until we’d acclimated to the high altitude and were ready for such a trip, he gave us a long list of items we had to carry in our packs. When I asked why we needed all the survival gear along with additional food, water, and clothing, he said we had to be prepared to spend the night. Protesting that I didn’t want to spend the night out in the cold and snow, he explained, “Neither do I, but we better be prepared to do it.”

Before starting out, Wyatt examined our backpacks to make sure we had everything on his list. Our packs were heavy but his was much heavier with a tent, extra ski tips, ax, first aid kit, shovel, and more. Because falling in several feet of Colorado powder is far different than falling in a few inches of Midwest snow, Wyatt insisted on teaching us a new way of getting up after a fall and made us practice the technique several times before we began.

Once we got started, Wyatt did the hard part by breaking trail in the deep snow and keeping us clear of any slopes posing avalanche danger. To allow us to fully experience the wilderness, we waited until the skier ahead was just out of sight before starting out. Winding our way through both open meadows and woods in this great expanse of white, we would have been hopelessly lost if we hadn’t been following Wyatt’s tracks. Without seeing each other, I felt alone in the wilderness but I never was. Wyatt frequently stopped to check on us and made us rest and hydrate before continuing. We followed his tracks to a picturesque spot for lunch where he showed us how to stomp out a place for a fire and use our skis as chairs. As pleasant as our lunch in the forest was, Wyatt didn’t let us linger too long since he wanted us back to our car before dusk.

Late that afternoon, some tired but happy skiers made their way back toward the road. Just as we caught sight of our car, a winter storm blew in and, by the time we’d stowed our gear, our tracks were completely covered by snow. Caught in that unexpected whiteout, I finally understood why Wyatt had insisted we be prepared to spend the night in the mountains. Had we started out a half hour later, lingered over lunch, or skied back a little slower, we would have been caught in the blinding storm and might well have spent the night on the mountain. Without his guidance, what should have been a delightful day up on the pass could have had a bad ending but, because we followed a good guide, we returned safely home that night.

Even though Wyatt merely guided us on a high mountain pass and Jesus guides us through life, I can’t help but see parallels between following a mountain guide and following Jesus. In either case, we must recognize our inability to make the journey on our own and submit to the guide’s directions, requirements, and timeline. Both prepare us for the challenges ahead, point out hazards, teach us new skills, and never take us beyond our ability. Knowing we’ll fall, they show us how to get up again and, while we may carry a heavy pack, they carry the heaviest one and do most of the work. Keeping us from danger, both mountain guide and Jesus lead the way so we can follow in their footsteps. Even when we feel alone and can’t see them, we can have faith in both guide and Jesus, secure in the knowledge that neither will ever abandon us. Although they’ll make us rest, they’ll urge us on when we should get moving. Most important, just as our choice to follow Wyatt meant the difference between a good or bad outcome, our choice to follow Jesus means the difference between life and death.

There are, of course, some major differences between a mountain guide and Jesus. Even a guide as experienced as Wyatt can get lost but Jesus never will! To Wyatt, we were just paying customers but, to Jesus, we are beloved friends and children of God! Jesus wants us to follow Him, weather every storm, and arrive safely home not because it’s His job, but because He loves us! Through the years, we took several more backcountry tours until we learned enough to venture into the wilderness without a guide but we know that we’ll never be skilled enough to journey through life without following Jesus!

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. [Psalm 25:4-5 (NLT)]

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LOST AND FOUND

After three days they found Jesus sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. … When Jesus’ parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about you and have been looking for you.” Jesus said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2:46-49 (NCV)]

nativity

Last month, during my pre-dawn walks, I enjoyed seeing the bright holiday lights decorating many of our community’s homes. One morning, I passed by a beautifully lit arbor surrounding a nativity scene. Even though the twinkle lights and star didn’t fully illuminate the figures below them, I took a photo and hoped that a little Photoshop magic would result in a picture for a future devotion. When I finally got around to editing the photo, I discovered that Jesus was missing from the scene!

The missing baby reminded me of when my daughter’s family visited us several years ago. The young cousins were playing together at my son’s home. While the adults talked, the girls investigated the many toys in Mali’s toy chest. When Bree discovered parts from the Fisher Price Noah’s ark and nativity sets, she and Mali started rummaging through the box to find their various pieces. Bree started explaining the two stories to her younger cousin as they organized the figures. After digging to the bottom of the box, they realized one figure was missing. The girls jumped up and frantically dashed through the house toward Mali’s bedroom shouting, “We’ve lost baby Jesus!” Fortunately, after a thorough search, the missing baby was found among a few dust bunnies under Mali’s bed.

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus after they’d been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The city’s population had quadrupled as caravans of Jews from all over came to observe the holiday. Somehow, in the mayhem of people gathering to return to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lost track of their boy and left Jerusalem without Him. Perhaps the people with the missing figure in their nativity had overlooked Jesus in a dark corner of their attic or lost him in the confusion of cartons and crates when they came to Florida. Like Mary, Joseph, and the little cousins, they didn’t notice they’d lost Jesus until they wanted Him! The same thing can happen to us in the challenges and chaos of our busy lives. Sometimes, we forget to bring Jesus with us and don’t even notice He’s missing until we need Him.

It’s important to remember that even though Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they didn’t lose their relationship with Him. He remained their son but, by leaving Him behind, they lost His presence. The same thing can happen with us. When we lose Jesus, we don’t lose the salvation that comes with our relationship but we do lose His fellowship, our sense of His presence, and His peace and joy.

When the sheep can’t find the shepherd, it’s not the shepherd who is lost. The good shepherd is exactly where He belongs; it’s the sheep that have strayed. In actuality, Mary and Joseph were the ones who were lost, not Jesus. He was where He belonged—in His Father’s house studying God’s word. Our Lord promises He’ll never leave us but that pesky thing called free will allows us to leave Him and walk off on our own. When we feel empty or alone, when we wonder where Jesus is in our trouble, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are the ones who forgot and lost Him!

Yesterday, I walked by the house with the missing baby Jesus and was pleased to see that he’d been found and was in his rightful place. When Jesus is missing in our lives, like Joseph, Mary, Bree, Mali, and the people with the nativity scene, we must search until we find Him. Rather than looking in dark corners or under the bed, the first place to look might be where we’d expect to find Him—in His Father’s house and in His word.

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [Psalm 105:4 (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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THAT CHILD WAS GOD!

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. … So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:1-2,14 (NLT)]

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. [Colossians 2:9 (NLT)]

nativityHe came as a baby! God Himself humbly came into the world as a helpless infant. Our nativity scenes and Christmas cards portray a serene Mary holding her peacefully sleeping child but babies are anything but calm and peaceful. They are messy and incredibly noisy little creatures who, when not sleeping, are crying, eating, drooling, peeing, or pooping (often all at the same time). That was God sleeping in the feed trough and nursing at Mary’s breast but He didn’t have a gold halo around his head. Looking the same as every other newborn, he was doing and feeling the same things every human baby feels. On the eighth day of His life, He was circumcised just like every other little Jewish boy and I’m sure He cried in pain! That crying baby was God!

Jesus came into the world without benefit of a sterile hospital birthing room and Mary didn’t rock Him to sleep in a soothing-motion bassinet or rocking cradle. She didn’t sit in a cushioned glider chair or have a nursing pillow when she fed him. He didn’t have super-absorbent, ultra soft, hypoallergenic disposable diapers covering his bottom nor did Mary use warmed sensitive-skin baby wipes to clean that bottom. In all likelihood God had diaper rash and, with no special baby shampoo, He cried when the soap got in His eyes. Mary carried Him in a simple sling rather than an ergonomically designed carrier. It was God incarnate who had the runny noses, sore throats, tummy aches, stubbed toes, and bruises that came with childhood.

Jesus had to be fed and then learn to feed himself; he probably spilled more than once. He had to learn how to crawl, walk, and run and must have bumped his chin and skinned his knees frequently. He had to be potty trained and, in all likelihood, had more than one accident. The One who was the Word had to learn the Hebrew alphabet and how to read. Picture God singing the Hebrew equivalent of the ABC song: “Aleph, Bet, Vet, Gimel, Dalet, Hey…” At Joseph’s side, Jesus must have gotten a few splinters and sore thumbs as He learned the carpenter’s trade. Fully God and fully human, Jesus got tired, dirty, and hungry just like every other child!

God, being God, could easily have come into the world full grown. Jesus could have skipped the indignities of babyhood and challenges of childhood but He didn’t. When God came into our world, He experienced every human emotion and physical sensation. He knew cold, pain, sorrow, loss, toil, discomfort, fatigue, and temptation as well as love, joy, comfort, and encouragement. Jesus was there when time began and yet the One who created mankind humbled Himself and experienced humanity. That baby—that little baby boy was God Himself!

How can God stoop lower than to come and dwell with a poor humble soul? Which is more than if he had said such a one should dwell with him; for a beggar to live at court is not so much as the king to dwell with him in his cottage. [William Gurnall]

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (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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SEEING THE WHOLE THING

Every Scripture passage is inspired by God. All of them are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval. [2 Timothy 3:16 (GW)]

ELEPHANT - SERENGETIThe story is told of four blind men who, while walking together, collided with an elephant. The one who bumped into the elephant’s trunk concluded they’d run into a giant hose. The second man, feeling the elephant’s huge ear, disagreed and said it was an enormous fan. As he pulled on the tail, the third man assumed that it was a heavy rope. The fourth blind man, feeling the thick leg, pronounced them all to be wrong and declared they’d encountered a tree. Because none of them felt the entire animal, all of them were incorrect.

Jesus doesn‘t want His followers groping in the dark; He wants followers who can recognize Him. He doesn’t want faith that can’t see; he wants faith that comes from seeing the truth. Blind faith can’t answer the question, “Why do you believe?” nor can it stand firm when challenged. It can’t explain, “How do you know Jesus is the Son of God?” or “What makes you think the Bible is true?” Uninformed faith certainly can’t respond to difficult questions about evil, condemnation, redemption, and salvation. Blind faith can’t answer, “What would Jesus do?” if it doesn’t know what He said or did. It certainly can’t share the Gospel if it doesn’t know what the good news really says! Undiscerning faith can’t stand strong when Satan instills doubts nor can it recognize false teachings. Faith requires trust but how can we trust when we’re unsure of what and why we believe? Reason and intellect are not abandoned when we accept Christ; reason and intellect are what show us the truth of God’s way.

Without reading the Bible, we are like the blind men with the elephant. Depending entirely on what they felt at the time, they drew incorrect conclusions and missed the enormity of what was right in front of them. Let us never forget that the entire Bible is “God breathed” and not just our favorite verses. Without reading the whole thing, however, it’s easy to misunderstand what is right in front of us or to focus only on the concepts we like, such as love, mercy and God’s forgiveness, instead of other more demanding concepts, like sacrifice, humility, self-denial and obedience.

It has often been said that, “Knowledge is power.” Indeed, Biblical knowledge is powerful, but not because it gives us brute force. Biblical knowledge gives us the power to understand our lives as they relate to God’s plan, to discriminate between right and wrong, to resist evil and make the correct choices. It gives us the power to know our Lord, to share God’s word and, most of all, to stand strong in our faith.

Father, open our eyes and minds so that we grow in our knowledge of you. Let your truth grip our hearts and strengthen our faith.

We must not select a few favorite Bible passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. [A.W. Tozer]

So Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you live by what I say, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:31-32 (GW)]

But dedicate your lives to Christ as Lord. Always be ready to defend your confidence in God when anyone asks you to explain it. However, make your defense with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:15 (GW)]

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