ENTRANCE EXAMS

Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:61-62 (NLT)]

In Jesus’s time, rabbis weren’t the Jewish equivalent of a minister or employed by a synagogue. A rabbi simply was a teacher of the Torah—what we’d call a sage—and his students were called disciples. Jesus’s disciples often called him “rabbi” and there were more than just twelve of them. Although we know the identity of His inner circle, we don’t know the names of the seventy-two he sent out to prepare towns for his visit or the two with whom He spoke on the road to Emmaus that Sunday morning.

Disciples normally chose their rabbis and two of John the Baptist’s disciples (Andrew and probably John) left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Sometimes a disciple was called by the rabbi, as were Simon Peter, Philip, and Matthew. In either case, the decision to follow any rabbi meant a total commitment. Hoping to become like their teacher, disciples left their employment, home, and family for an extended time to learn from him. Wanting only those he thought could fully live up to his standards, the rabbi would examine his potential students carefully. By accepting the rabbi’s invitation to follow him, the disciple was totally submitting to his authority in all things. In that context, Luke 9:57-62 and Jesus’s curt response to three would-be disciples makes more sense.

When the first potential disciple promised his willingness to follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus quickly warned him of the privation encountered by an itinerant rabbi. Although the proper response would have been that he’d follow Jesus in spite the hardships, we hear no more from the man.

When Jesus called another man to follow Him, he asked to return home and bury his father first. Responding that the dead can bury the dead seems harder to understand until we realize that a funeral was not imminent. If the man’s father had just died, rather than talking with a teacher, he would have been home in mourning. Perhaps wanting to collect his inheritance before leaving, the man wanted to postpone his discipleship until his father was dead and buried (which could have been years). By telling him the spiritually dead could bury their own dead, Jesus made it clear that proclaiming the Kingdom of God was not to be delayed; it should be a disciple’s first priority.

When the third follower said he wanted to say good-bye to his family first, Jesus had another abrupt response. Reminding him that a plowman who looked back couldn’t plow a straight furrow, Jesus made it clear that a man who looked back was unsuitable as a disciple and would be of little use to Him. Nothing in life, not even family, was to have greater priority than following Jesus. If Jesus had been an ordinary rabbi, those would have been harsh words, but He wasn’t ordinary. The only One who has a greater claim on us than family is God and Jesus was God! He had every right to make such demands upon those who wanted to be His followers. He expected absolute and immediate, not conditional and delayed, trust and obedience.

These somewhat harsh exchanges tell us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is not interested in half-hearted discipleship; He demands our undivided attention. What are we willing to sacrifice to be His disciple and grow more like Him?

But the soul renounced shall abide in the boundlessness of God’s life. This is liberty, this is prosperity. The more we lose, the more we gain. [Watchman Nee]

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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INCREDIBLE CREATION

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

ring-tailed lemur - serval catAs a way of learning how to live the abundant life promised by Jesus, I am participating in a series of abundance exercises. In my first, I was to think of something God created and reflect on the different and incredible ways He expressed that creation. While at the zoo, I couldn’t help but notice God’s abundance in the diversity of His creatures: the speedy cheetah, the sluggish sloth, the crane’s sharp pointed beak, the giant anteater’s long tubular snout, the giraffe with its long legs and neck, and the python with neither legs nor neck! The gazelles’ long slender horns don’t resemble the muntjacs’ small antlers or the giraffes’ stubby ossicones; the zebras’ stripes were nothing like those on the bongo or ring-tailed lemurs; and the giraffes’ spots were different from those on the cheetah and serval. Even within each species, every animal had his own unique pattern of stripes or spots. The animals’ colors and coats ranged from the vibrant blue, gold and green feathers of the macaws to the brown-grey shell of the gopher tortoise and the heavy fur coat of the black bear. Because our zoo started out as a botanical garden 100 years ago, the setting was lush and we were surrounded by bright pink, yellow, blue, orange and white flowers along with mangroves, strangler figs, cypress, cactus, enormous banyans, and over 100 species of palm trees. God outdid himself when it came to flora and fauna. Having completed the week’s assignment in a matter of hours, it seemed too easy and I decided to notice God’s creativity throughout the week.

The next day, as we walked in the swamp, I used my ears. I can only recognize a few of the birds’ voices—the anhinga’s low grunt, catbird’s mew, fish crow’s uh-oh, egret’s squawk, woodpecker’s squeak, hawk’s plaintive call, and the jay’s raucous one—but plenty of other birds added to the avian symphony of chirps, whistles, warbles, tweets, and other sweet notes. God outdid Himself again with the variety of birds and songs!

At the farmer’s market later that week, we found fresh sweet corn, avocados, guava, eggplants, oranges, star fruit, grapefruit, tangerines, tomatoes, ginger, cauliflower, radishes, fennel, lettuce, and assorted peppers. I smelled paella cooking and popcorn popping and sampled five different types of jams, an “everything” bagel, fresh brewed coffee, olive tapenade, spicy mango salsa, and lemon-poppy seed bread. For the five basic flavors a human’s tongue can taste, God certainly provides an abundance of variations!

When picking out paint colors, I had to choose from a palette of over 800 samples (starting with eight different shades of black)! While my decision would have been easier with fewer choices, I realized how dull our world be if, like seals or whales, we only saw in shades of black, white and grey. Thankfully, God, in His extravagance of creativity, gave us millions of colors and three kinds of cones in our eyes so we can enjoy them all!

The purpose of the exercise was to open my heart and mind to the richness in our world and embrace the beauty and abundance of life by appreciating God’s amazing creativity. We probably don’t need over 5,400 species of mammals; 9,000 species of birds (each with its own song); 8,200 different kinds of reptiles; or some 2,600 species of palms. I don’t think we’d miss a few of the 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, being able to distinguish between “blue horizon” and “timid blue,” or not having a red Caribbean habanero from the more than 130 varieties of peppers, but God gave us all those things anyway! Ours is a more than enough God and, from the first moment of creation, He provided the world with beautiful abundance. It’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God—all of creation does!

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in. [George Washington Carver]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. [Psalm 104:24-25 (NLT)

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EVERYONE IS SPECIAL

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me! [Psalm 139:17-18 (NLT)]

white ibisWhen speaking of the late director Mike Nichols, actress Anjelica Huston said, “He had that incredible capacity for friendship that makes you think you’re absolutely unique, that nobody matters to him the same way that you do.” Huston’s words were extraordinarily high praise for a friend and probably something we’d all like to have said about us. I wondered if I make every person who passes through my life feel extraordinary and valued. After coming up short on that one, I wondered if I have friends about whom I could say that same thing. While some come very near, there is only one who has the capacity to make each and every person feel unique and that he or she is most important person to Him; that, of course, is our good friend Jesus!

Psalm 139 is one of my favorites and the majority of it is an intensely personal song of praise in which David affirms God’s active involvement in every moment of his life. From the instant of his conception, God was there, forming him or, as The Message  translates, sculpting him, “from nothing into something.” God’s eyes remained on David and He knew his every idea and action. God’s thoughts about David were so numerous they were impossible to count. If God knew David that well, it would seem that He knows all of us that well. Indeed, God cherishes and loves each one of us as if we were His only child! He would join Fred Rogers in singing: “You’re special to me. You are the only one like you…You are special.”

While we never have come face-to-face with God, the Psalmist’s words tell us that He sees the unique beauty in each one of us. Moreover, when we look at Jesus in the gospels, we see how God behaved while walking on earth. Even without knowing Jesus’s true identity, everyone who came in contact with Him would have experienced His incredible capacity for friendship. Each person would have felt unique, special, and precious in His presence. Jesus didn’t see the sores on the lepers, the mental illness of Mary Magdalene, the uncleanness of the bleeding woman or the shame of the adulterous one. He didn’t see the filth of the beggar, the dishonesty of Zacchaeus, or the immorality of the woman at the well; he saw their pain—their innermost being. Instead of seeing a skeptic, He saw Nathanael’s integrity; instead of seeing a fisherman, He saw Peter’s ability to lead; instead of seeing a Pharisee, He saw Saul’s love of God. Jesus saw beautiful extraordinary individuals, each of whom was precious in His sight.

When writing his gospel, the Apostle John referred to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” I think each disciple would have described himself that same way. Without a doubt, Jesus had an even greater capacity for friendship than did Mike Nichols. Everyone whose life He touched felt absolutely special. Each knew that no one else mattered to Jesus in quite the same way than did they. This is the God who formed us, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and has etched our names into the palms of His hands and He is our friend!

As disciples of Jesus, we are to be His hands and feet. To truly do that, we must look at people through eyes like His: eyes that see beyond what is right in front of us—eyes that see the essence and uniqueness of our neighbor. And we must love him or her as we love ourselves: with a heart that sings, “You are my friend. You’re special to me.”

I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. [John 15:15-16 (NLT)]

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THE RECORDS COMMITTEE

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” [Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)]

blue flag irisDozens of birders have been gathering at the local bird sanctuary to catch a glimpse of a Hammond’s flycatcher. Since these birds look similar to other flycatchers, prefer the mountains to lowlands, and are rarely found within 1,000 miles of Florida, the bird in question could be an imposter. It’s just another little grey bird to me but, to birders, its identification is important. Although they’ll report their sightings to the Florida Ornithological Society, just looking like a Hammond’s isn’t enough. When the Society’s Records Committee meets in August, they will evaluate the submitted sketches, photographs, videos, recordings and detailed accounts of the bird’s behavior along with reports of the surroundings, sky conditions, temperature, and times when the bird was spotted to determine whether it truly is a Hammond’s.

While the FOS Records Committee will be looking for evidence to authenticate whether the bird in question is a true Hammond’s, there is no official committee to authenticate Christians. If a Records Committee were to determine whether or not we’re true followers of Christ, calling ourselves Christian, sitting in a pew on Sundays, and occasionally reading the Bible wouldn’t be enough evidence. After all, I could put on a lab coat, sit in the hospital, regularly consult WebMD, and call myself “Doctor” but I wouldn’t be a physician! The Records Committee for Christ would look for the traits of a Christian described throughout the Gospel and Epistles. They’d start with love and then look for evidence of things like obedience, service, forgiveness, selflessness, humility, faithfulness, truth, compassion, joy, peace, restraint, gentleness, patience, kindness, devotion, and virtue. These, like nesting in high conifers and catching insects on the fly, are the behaviors that would be used to identify a true Christian from an imposter. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them,” [Matthew 7:20] and it would be by our fruit that a Records Committee would know us.

The Hammond’s flycatcher is named in honor of William Alexander Hammond, an enthusiastic birder who was the Surgeon General of the US Army (1862-1864). Of course, that grey bird doesn’t care if it’s called a Hammond’s or even a flycatcher; it knows who and what he is. I’m not so sure we’re that honest with ourselves! Do we truly know who and what we are? Would anybody else? Our name is in honor of Jesus; “Christian” means “follower of Christ” or “miniature replication of Christ.” Do our thoughts, actions and speech look anything like His? It will be Jesus rather than a Records Committee who makes that final determination. Will He recognize us?

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,  so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. [Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)]

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KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. Instead, fear the Lord and turn away from evil. [Proverbs 3:5-7 (NLT)]

white ibis - juvenileAfter his wife complained about the roaches that had invaded their garden and begged him to destroy their underground nest, a Brazilian man poured gasoline into the hole he believed to be the source of the infestation and then tossed in lit matches! Within seconds, a massive explosion destroyed his yard while his home security camera captured the entire thing. “I had no idea that this could happen!” he said. Although the man did destroy the roaches, he destroyed his yard in the process! I’m not sure where he got his bright idea but I would guess that his Smartphone was involved. A quick search with mine told me that pouring gasoline on a roach colony is an effective way to eliminate the pests. Assuming a certain amount of common sense among its readers, however, the site had no warning about the explosive nature of gasoline vapors!

According to Apple, we pull out our smartphones some 80 times a day; I suspect many of those times we’re consulting Google. While our phones give us easy access to an extraordinary amount of information, they don’t make us any smarter; they just make us think we’re smarter than we really are. Long before the internet, Solomon warned us about being impressed with our own wisdom. Nowadays, knowledge is abundant but true wisdom is scarce!

Proverbs is a treasure trove of Biblical wisdom. Written mostly by Solomon, the book stresses the importance of godly living so that people will ”live disciplined and successful lives” and do “what is right, just, and fair.”[1:3] At least six different Hebrew words are translated as wisdom in Proverbs and the first one of those is chokmah [1:2]. Used 41 times in Proverbs, this Hebrew word also referred to the technical skills and abilities used in doing things. God endowed the weavers, goldsmiths, architects, and other artisans who fashioned items for the Tabernacle with chokmah. Rather than theoretical knowledge, this wisdom is a practical application of that knowledge; it is making the right choices at the right time and in the right way.

The five other Hebrew words used in Proverbs are binah (understanding, comprehension) leb (heart), ormah (craftiness, prudence, shrewdness), sakal (prudence, common sense) and sekel (insight). None of those words have anything to do with the knowledge of facts—they are about understanding, evaluating, and discerning how to use knowledge. Wisdom is skill, expertise and competence in understanding how life really works and how to achieve positive results. It is a keen insight into life and the ways of dealing with life’s problems. It’s been said that “Knowledge knows that a tomato is a fruit but wisdom doesn’t put it in a fruit salad.” It could also be said that knowledge knows that both gasoline and fire will kill roaches but wisdom doesn’t mix the two! Let us be wise in our use of the vast array of knowledge that lies at our fingertips!

The decisions we make are either wise or foolish and Proverbs makes it clear that the beginning of wisdom lies in fear of the Lord. While it’s easy to get information on line, true wisdom comes from God! Granted, Scripture doesn’t specifically warn us about dropping matches into a gasoline-filled hole, but Proverbs 14:16 tells us, “The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence.” That the Brazilian man also posted his folly on line aptly illustrates two other proverbs: “Wise people think before they act; fools don’t—and even brag about their foolishness,” [13:16] and “The wise don’t make a show of their knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness.”[12:23]

Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom. [Charles Spurgeon]

Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold. Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. [Proverbs 3:13-15 (NLT)]

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THE PLEDGE

A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. [Numbers 30:2 (NLT)]

Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to me. The people will declare, “The Lord is the source of all my righteousness and strength.” [Isaiah 45:23b-24 (NLT)]

green heronEvery Tuesday, we begin our afternoon Bible study with prayer and by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible. The words we use are attributed to Homer Grice, a Southern Baptist minister, who wrote them for Baptist Vacation Bible Schools in 1925. He combined two verses from Psalm 119 into this simple vow and versions of it continue to be used by Vacation Bible and Sunday Schools, Christian homeschoolers, and even adult Bible studies. Because it reminded me of elementary school and standing by my desk with my hand across my heart, starting class with this pledge seemed rather childish at first. Once I carefully considered the words, however, I realized that saying this pledge always reminds me that the Bible is at the center of a Christian’s devotion to Jesus Christ. It was in Him that the Word became flesh and, through Scripture, God continues to speak to us today.

A pledge is a formalized promise but pledging allegiance to the Bible means more than simply promising to read it. The promise of allegiance indicates our loyalty and obedience to God’s holy word. The Bible is unlike every other book ever written—ones written to entertain, inform, explain, improve, or motivate us. Its author is God and its words are there to transform us! The Bible is more than words; it is the Word—the living breath of God. This simple pledge of allegiance reflects the importance of Scripture and its vital role in the life of a believer.

The pledge’s words mean that we honor and respect the Bible; we will let its words govern our thoughts, words, and actions. We vow that God’s words will be a lamp to light our way in this dark and difficult world so that we don’t get lost or step off His path. We promise to hide the Bible’s words in our hearts to keep us from sin (just as they did when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness). This pledge reminds us that studying God’s Word is a matter of the heart with these words: “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word. May it be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and may I hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”

I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. … Give me understanding and I will obey your instructions; I will put them into practice with all my heart. …Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. [Psalm 119:11,34,105 (NLT)]

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