PERSONALITIES – EARTH DAY 2018

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” [Genesis 1:28 (NLT)]

Until recently, I didn’t know that scientists have identified personality (distinctive behavioral traits) in animals as diverse as elk, fish, ferrets, spotted hyenas, spiders, sea anemones, rodents, lizards and birds. Introversion and extroversion have even been identified in octopuses! Of course, the same characteristic will present differently in various species. An introverted octopus, for example, will stay in its den while feeding and try to hide by changing color but an introverted human might stand alone at a party or have difficulty getting a date. As for a shy African penguin named Tubbs who’s wintering at our local zoo—he takes his food into the back corner of his den to eat it, usually stands with his back to the other penguins and zoo visitors, and, like many timid fellows, hasn’t had success with the ladies.

We recently became acquainted with Tubbs and his friends Missy, Squirt, and Sal when we met their keepers and went behind the scenes at their exhibit to feed them. Initially, the penguins all looked alike but, when we looked more closely, we realized their black chest spots are as unique as fingerprints on a human. Like zebras, jaguars, monarch butterflies and the rest of God’s creatures, even though we may not discern their differences, no two are exactly alike. God never repeats himself.

As we fed these fascinating birds, their distinctive personalities began to emerge. Along with the socially awkward Tubbs, we met the outgoing Missy who, unfortunately for Tubbs, has a crush on her human keeper. The hen-pecked Sal follows his domineering mate Squirt wherever she goes. Although the other penguins prefer eating their fish head first, Squirt insists on getting hers sideways. It is penguin instinct that makes Tubbs gorge himself in preparation for molting but it is his timid personality that caused the curious penguin to peek around a corner at us rather than stand at the doorway with the others.

That scientists have found personalities and emotions in everything from limpets and crabs to coyotes and water striders amazes me. Before meeting the penguins, I’d thought of personalities only in domesticated animals and attributed them to training and environment. I hadn’t considered the possibility of undomesticated animals having distinctive personalities and the ability to feel and express emotions. Scientists have found that even the Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm with only 302 brain cells, can learn and remember and that honey bees can exhibit optimism and pessimism. Animals may not be able to speak in a way that we can understand or exhibit emotions in a way we recognize, but there is nothing dumb or unfeeling about any of God’s creatures. Their complexity and diversity point to our unlimited Creator and His intelligent, imaginative and loving design. God created every living thing and none of His creation happened by accident.

Sunday is Earth Day and ending plastic pollution is this year’s mission. Plastic pollution endangers African penguins like the zoo’s delightful foursome but it also threatens the survival of every other kind of sea bird along with seals, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, whales and dolphins. God commanded us to keep and care for His creation, not to exploit or abuse it. As title holder to the earth, He will hold us responsible for the way we care both for it and the creatures with whom we share it. For the sake of Tubbs and the rest of God’s creatures who are unable to speak for themselves, let us be better stewards of God’s beautiful earth.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life. [Attributed to St. Basil the Great]

You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority—the flocks and the herds and all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, and everything that swims the ocean currents. [Psalm 8:6-8 (NLT)]

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MAKE IT SPECIAL

Lowdermilk Park - Naples FLRemember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. [Exodus 20:8-10a (NLT)]

I’ve always thought of the first four commandments as being about our relationship with God and the next six about our relationship with people. The fourth commandment, however, seems to be a bridge between the two sections. It has as much to do with us as it does with God or our neighbor. Reminding us that we have six days in the week to work, it tells us to stop work on the seventh and to keep the Sabbath holy by setting it aside and dedicating it to God. Knowing how mankind loves to bypass rules, we’re told not to miss the point by expecting others to work for us either. Rather than a “thou shalt not” law, this commandment is a gift to us from God—the gift of rest!

As happened with many of God’s commands, the Israelites took a simple law and, by adding their own restrictions and interpretations, made what was a blessing into an inconvenience. Since His hungry disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath and Jesus had no qualms about healing on that day, He often came into conflict with the Pharisees about His Sabbath observance (or lack thereof). When criticized, Jesus made it clear that the Sabbath was made for man and should not be an onerous legal requirement.

While Christians aren’t bound by the Old Testament directives, Jesus never said to ignore the Sabbath. For most Christians, other than attending church, Sundays seem much like any other day. Parking lots are full at the grocery and mall, cell phones and the internet keep us in touch with work, the kids have sports and homework, and Sundays have become the day to complete everything that didn’t get done during the week. With families scattered every which way, even the traditional Sunday dinner (complete with cousins and grandparents sitting at the table) is but a distant memory.

Being retired, my husband and I have six Saturdays and one Sunday in our week so we can rest any time we want! The Sabbath, however, is more than taking a nap in front of the TV. God said to make it holy which means to set it apart. We can do that by taking something away (as did the Israelites with work) or by adding something to it (as we are doing).

On Sundays, we’re attempting to disconnect from the world and connect with one another, family, friends, and God by consciously doing something out of the ordinary. It can be as little as playing Rummikub or doing a jigsaw puzzle together to a bags tourney with our neighbors or a barbecue for church friends. Trusting God for enough hours in the other six days, we’re deliberately setting aside time for relaxation, laughter, fun, and fellowship.

How Sunday can be set apart from the rest of the week, in a way that both honors God and nurtures us, will vary from family to family. It’s probably naïve to think children won’t do homework and working moms and dads won’t have to play catch-up with chores. Nevertheless, we must remember why God gave us this commandment. He wants us to recharge our batteries: to rest from the week’s busyness, to take a break from our daily routine, to connect one another, and to rest in Him. When we neglect the Sabbath, we neglect ourselves and turn whatever it is we do the rest of the week into tedium and drudgery. God doesn’t need a Sabbath, but we surely do.

Thank you, God, for Sundays. May we make them days of worship, renewal, rest, peace, and joy.

A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like a summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the joyous day of the whole week. [Henry Ward Beecher]

Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” [Mark 2:27-28 (NLT)]

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OUT WITH THE OLD – MAUNDY THURSDAY

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” [Jeremiah 31:31-33,34b (NLT)]

Gardenia

In a contract, both parties are expected to hold up their end of the bargain; if one or the other doesn’t, the contract is null and void. A contract has contingencies and failure on one side can negate the relationship. On the other hand, in a covenant, both parties agree to hold up their end of the deal even if the other party doesn’t; failure on one side or the other does not negate the relationship. God’s standard is perfection but, try as we might, we can’t be perfect. In a contractual relationship, He would have no reason to stay true to His word since we’re unable to stay true to ours. Out of necessity, we have a covenant relationship with God; fortunately, He will hold up His end even when we fail.

The old covenant was introduced by Moses to the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai over 3,400 years ago. When Jesus blessed the bread and wine in that upper room in Jerusalem 1,400 years later, the New Covenant with God began. It’s important to remember that Jesus did not negate the law—there was nothing wrong with the law. The problem was with the people who couldn’t abide by it.

In the old covenant, people were told what to do (and not to do) to get right with God but, in the new covenant, the getting right with God has been done for us. The old covenant required the blood of animals and yearly atonement; the new covenant is for all of eternity and was satisfied with the sacrifice of just one very special man. The old covenant was one of the law and works but the new one is one of grace and faith. Instead of the law being written on tablets, it is written on men’s hearts. The old covenant was signified by circumcision and the new by a change of heart. The old covenant found God in the temple in Jerusalem but the new finds Him in the temple of the spirit. The old covenant was one of bondage and the new is one of liberty. The old covenant was established on Mt. Sinai for Israel alone; the new was established on the cross and is for all of mankind. It was with Jesus that the old covenant ended and it was with Him that the new covenant began; what was the Last Supper of the old covenant became the First Supper of the new one!

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” [Luke 2:20 (NLT)]

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THERE WERE TEN

Moses remained there on the mountain with the Lord forty days and forty nights. In all that time he ate no bread and drank no water. And the Lord wrote the terms of the covenant—the Ten Commandments—on the stone tablets. [Exodus 34:28 (NLT)]

Moses - Meiringen - MichaelskircheI ran into trouble while writing yesterday’s devotion. To double check myself when referring to the commandment about honoring parents, I reached for my copy of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism which said it was the fourth commandment. Since that just didn’t seem right, today I reached for my Book of Common Prayer; there I found honoring parents at number five! Of course, the obvious solution was to check the source—the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. For once, however, the Bible didn’t have the answer! Three places in Scripture tell us there were ten commandments but nowhere in Scripture are they numbered. Moreover, since verse numbers were added in the 16th century, they’re of no help. Clearly, a little research was in order.

The assigning of numbers to the commandments developed over the centuries as a way of making them easier to teach and learn. Around 220 AD, the Biblical scholar Origen of Alexandria numbered the commandments in the way familiar to most Protestant and Orthodox Christians. “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” are two separate commandments and not coveting your neighbor’s wife or anything else that belongs to him are combined to form the tenth commandment. In the fifth century, Saint Augustine numbered them so that the prohibitions about other gods and idols are combined into the first commandment. He then split coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting his goods into two commandments. Generally, Roman Catholics and Lutherans follow Augustine’s system.

Since Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic monk before starting the Protestant Reformation, Augustine’s numbering was the way he’d learned the commandments which explains why honoring parents is number four in his Catechism. My Episcopalian prayer book uses the Origen numbering, making the commandment about honoring parents number five. Without the original tablets, we’ll never know which is correct. Far more important than how they are numbered, however, is what those commandments meant to the Israelites and what they mean to us today. The first three or four (depending on your denomination) have to do with mankind’s relationship to God. They lay out our obligation to honor our Creator. The next seven or six (again depending on your denomination) have to do with the obligations we have to one another in family and society and lay out the foundation for building a community. Rather than worrying about how to number the ten, perhaps we should make a greater effort to live the two spoken of by Jesus!

I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them. [C.S. Lewis]

“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:36-40 (NLT)]

P.S. In spite of attending a Lutheran church when we’re north, I was raised in the Episcopal church and am most comfortable with the Protestant/Orthodox numbering of the Ten Commandments. With apologies to my Lutheran and Catholic readers, when writing about them, I will number the Ten Commandments as I did when a girl.

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HONOR THY FAMILY

mute swans and cygnetsThey [the Pharisees] asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” [Matthew 15:1b-3 (NLT)]

When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples ignored tradition and didn’t wash their hands before eating, theirs was not a sanitation or health question. Rather than dirt, they were concerned about defilement. More interested in washing their hands than purifying their hearts, they believed hands could become ritually unclean even by touching someone as “unclean” as a Gentile or tax collector. Eating with unwashed hands meant that the sinner’s impurity was passed to the food which would defile the person eating it. Some Pharisees even considered eating with unwashed hands as sinful as sex with a prostitute. Although Salmonella and E. coli can be passed along on someone’s hands to their food, someone’s sins certainly can’t.

Jesus responded to their question with one of His own when He asked the Pharisees why they violated God’s commandments. After all, breaking a man-made tradition is hardly the same as breaking one of God’s direct commands. The Pharisees had a tradition called korban (meaning “a gift” or “offering”).  When a korban vow was made, the Pharisee transferred all of his assets to the temple but retained the use of them until his death (sort of a “life estate”). Those assets could not be transferred or used to benefit anyone else. As a result, while the Pharisee could live quite comfortably, he could not help the poor, disadvantaged or even his parents. The commandment they were neglecting was the fifth one—that of honoring one’s father and mother. A wealthy Pharisee’s parents could be in dire financial straits and yet he could self-righteously ignore their pleas for help. As so often happened with the Pharisees, they supplanted God’s command of honoring parents with a law that gave them prestige and honored only them!

Willing to neglect their family responsibilities in the name of religion, the Pharisees had misplaced priorities. I thought of them when one of our pastors proposed we ask ourselves what things we value the most, in what order we put them, and how we allot our resources to them. He then shared his experience of being called into a council meeting at another church several years ago. When questioned about the amount of time he gave the church, his response was that he lost one family when he put the church first and he was not about to lose his new one the same way. Family would always come before the church. Note—he didn’t say God but “the church” and there can be a big difference between the two.

In effect, the Pharisees put the church or religion before both God and family. If we look at those Ten Commandments, the first four have to do with our relationship with God; the rest have to do with our relationship to other people and parents are at the top of that list. It would seem that, after God, our next priority should be family; after all, once done with creation, God created the family unit (and not the church).

While we probably won’t pledge our entire estate to the church while watching our parents lose their homes or beg on the street, I wonder if, as our pastor once did, we occasionally misplace our priorities. Do we allow our church responsibilities to overshadow our family ones? There are lots of worthy causes and, sometimes, we’re torn as to where to put our resources. While we’re never too busy for God, God work and church work aren’t always the same; there is a fine line between the two. Although I don’t pretend to know where it is, I think the Holy Spirit will let us know when we’ve crossed it. The Pharisees turned a deaf ear to the needs of their families; we must never do the same.

If God cared only about religious activities, then the Pharisees would have been heroes of the faith. [Francis Chan]

But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers. [1 Timothy 5:8 (NLT)]

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MORE WAG, LESS BARK!

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (RSV)]

 My son, sweeten thy tongue and make savory the opening of thy mouth; for the tail of a dog gives him bread, and his mouth gets him blows. [Story of Ahikar]

dogLast month, my husband and I attended a “Sweetheart” dinner at church. The men were in charge of the entire event and there were a few rough spots in the night. Then again, at the risk of being accused of political incorrectness or gender bias, most of the men probably were novices at that kind of event planning. Unlike the men, we women have had decades of organizing (and attending) school parties, PTA fund raisers, charity galas, birthday parties, showers, weddings, anniversary bashes, and other assorted celebrations. In spite of the glitches, there was much that went right and the evening was enjoyable and entertaining. Unfortunately, the woman sitting beside me kept criticizing how things were done—from name tags and table assignments to flowers and dessert. Her nit-picking comments became as annoying as the yapping of a bad-tempered dog and I thought of a bumper sticker I’d recently seen: “Wag More, Bark Less!”

Bad tempered dogs (and people) are nothing new; a similar proverb dates back to 500 B.C. in an Aramaic papyrus found in Egypt called the Story of Ahikar. “Wag More, Bark Less!” may be bumper sticker philosophy, but I wish more people (including me) did just that. After reading the qualifications and concerns of the candidates for our property association board, I was struck by how many were unpleasantly barking and nipping at each other rather than wagging their tails and showing me how well they’d work with one another and our management company. An on-line community newsletter was so filled with bark (and bite) that we stopped subscribing. Rarely are the letters to the editor in the newspaper anything but bark in the way of anger and criticism. While waiting at the bakery counter yesterday, an impatient woman yelled at the harried clerk and stormed away in a huff. Sometimes, it feels like we’re in a kennel full of angry upset dogs—yapping, baying, growling and snarling! Worse, once one dog (or person) starts barking, other dogs (and people) tend to join in the unpleasant clamor.

Like the woman beside me at that dinner, there are times I bark or snarl in disparagement, annoyance or anger rather than wag in happiness, appreciation, or compassion. In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are responsible for what we put in our minds. Even in the bleakest of circumstances or worst of conditions, there is some small thing worthy of praise. Our job, as Christians, is to find it and think about it! Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us in that task. Moreover, as my mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” Thankfully, the Spirit gives us the self-control to do just that! If we can’t wag, at least we can muzzle ourselves so we don’t bark!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. … If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. [Galatians 5:22-23, 25-26 (RSV)]

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