IT’S NOT OURS TO KEEP

When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them. I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus. I will give them fountains of water in the valleys. I will fill the desert with pools of water. Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground. [Isaiah 41:17-18 (NLT)]

giant swallowtail butterflyYesterday, I wrote of God’s provision, yet I can’t help but wonder. If God promises His divine provision, why are there still people in need?

There was to be no permanent poverty in Israel. In the Old Testament, we find complex laws and social practices that were meant to ensure that no one lived in need. To eliminate food scarcity, every third year there was to be a special tithe of crops for the Levites and those at risk like foreigners, widows and orphans. The Israelites were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and anything dropped during the harvest ungathered; this portion could be gleaned by the poor. There were laws against exploiting the vulnerable through usury or by demanding unreasonable collateral. Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year when loans were forgiven and Hebrew slaves were released from servitude. The land would lay fallow and any produce that grew by itself was free to all. Additionally, in the Year of Jubilee, celebrated every fifty years, economic disparity was further minimized by returning all real estate (whether sold, mortgaged or leased) to its original owner.

The poor in the Bible were not much different than today’s poverty-stricken: the people without land or the economic, legal, or political resources to be self-sustaining. A diverse group of the marginalized, they were day laborers, subsistence farmers, indentured slaves, beggars, prostitutes, widows, resident aliens, the disabled and infirm. God’s vision wasn’t a welfare state but rather one that allowed families to have the opportunity to provide for themselves. The Sabbath and Jubilee years were a fresh start for those who found themselves in poverty. Unfortunately, the reproachful words of the prophets to Judah and Israel tell us that God’s laws were not obeyed.

The story is told of two businessmen. Like me, the first was troubled by the abject poverty that exists in the world today and wondered about God’s promise of provision. He said, “Someday, I hope to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other man replied, “I’m afraid that God might ask me that very same question.”

Perhaps God has fulfilled His promise to provide by filling our wells with blessings. The problem is that we haven’t done our part by passing along His provision. Instead of letting His gifts flow through us to others, we’ve plugged the pipeline and are keeping His gifts for ourselves. We’ve been freed from the Old Testament laws but we haven’t been freed from the obligation to love our neighbors. Could we be holding the provision that God has promised? Could we be the answer to someone’s prayer? For those of us with water in our wells, perhaps it’s time turn on the faucet and let His blessings flow.

We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing. [Billy Graham]

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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ON A SLIDING SCALE

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. [2 Corinthians 9:7 (ESV)]

Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. [Deuteronomy 16:17 (ESV)]

mourning dovesIn the midst of all the tedious and repetitive regulations regarding sacrificial offerings in Leviticus, we find evidence of God’s love and mercy. For several sacrifices, a distinction was made between offering requirements for the wealthy and the poor. Called korban oleh v’yored, it was a sliding scale for sacrifice based on a person’s economic position. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we learn that Mary and Joseph brought two birds as their sacrifice after Jesus’ birth. Had the family been wealthier, they would have brought a one-year old lamb and a pigeon or dove and, had they been poorer, they would have brought only two quarts of choice flour.

The purpose of those sacrificial rituals in Leviticus was to strengthen man’s relationship with God, not to impoverish him. Our sacrifices are to be offered lovingly, humbly, obediently, joyfully, and willingly; that can’t be done if we can’t afford what we’re offering. When a Florida church embarked on a massive building program several years ago, the pastor asked the members to prayerfully reach deep into their pockets to pay for the new sanctuary. He then reminded them that the amount given would vary considerably among his parishioners. For one elderly woman, an extra twenty-five cents a week would constitute as great a sacrifice as a $25,000 check from a retired CEO. Each was asked to give only as he or she was able. This ancient sliding scale of sacrifice tells us that the pleasing aroma of sacrifice has nothing to do with the size of the sacrifice but rather with the heart that accompanies it.

The Magi arrived in regal robes and offered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. There wasn’t a little drummer boy at the nativity but, had there been, the child playing his best “Pa rum pum pum pum” would have been as valuable a gift as those lavish ones. God in His grace does not discriminate against the poor or the rich. Moreover, let us never forget that, even more than our sacrifices, God wants our love and obedience.

You can always give without loving, but you can never love without giving. [Amy Carmichael]

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV)]

And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. [Mark 12:33 (ESV)]

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KILLED WITH A SWORD

A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind. [Matthew 4:21-22 (NLT)]

James, along with his brother John and Simon Peter, was part of Jesus’s inner circle. The three of them knew Jesus the longest; they went with Him to Gethsemane, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead and were witnesses at His transfiguration. This James is often referred to as the son of Zebedee or James the Greater to distinguish him from the other Apostle named James who was the son of Alphaeus (James the Lesser) and the Epistle writer James who is thought to be Jesus’s brother (James the Just). Perhaps because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave James and John the nickname “sons of Boanerges” which meant “sons of thunder.” These brash brothers were the ones who wanted to bring disaster upon the inhospitable Samaritan village and asked Jesus for places of honor beside His throne.

Sunday’s reading, from Acts 12, included these words: “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword.” [v.1-2] Although the rest of the reading was about Peter’s arrest and the power of prayer, I kept thinking about James. “Killed with a sword” isn’t much of an epitaph for one of the original twelve.

Herod Agrippa ruled Judea from 41 to 44 AD so James died some eleven to fourteen years after Jesus’s ascension. Scripture is silent as to what James did during this time and we can only speculate. According to legend, he went to Spain and evangelized there for several years before returning to Jerusalem. It took eight centuries before this legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, his preaching was limited to Judea and Samaria. Nevertheless, many Christians believe his remains were miraculously transported to Spain. Even though the authenticity of the relics is suspect, every July 24th, people make a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela where his remains are said to rest below the altar.

“Killed with a sword” is just a polite way of saying beheaded and, according to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy. James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and the law for the false teachings of Christianity. Herod Agrippa, a supporter of conservative Jewish policies, repressed the Jewish Christians. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the Apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king.

We know little about this fisherman from Galilee: one of the first to be called and the first of the Apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded immediately and faithfully followed Him for the next three years. Without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions, they left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. James and John answered God’s call and the fishermen became fishers of men. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked the brothers if they could drink from the same bitter cup of suffering from which He would drink. Again, without hesitation or asking what that might entail, they said they could.

We don’t know how James spent those years after Pentecost. All we really need to know is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me, and that he always said, “Yes!” to Jesus. Can we say the same?

But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” [Mark 10:38-39 (NLT)]

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. [Mark 7:21-22 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneI recently saw a play in which the only character, Lisa, presents a monologue about her life and family. The audience learns that her father, Walter, a German-born Jew, escaped to the U.S. as part of the kindertransport effort but that the rest of his family perished at Auschwitz. During her monologue, Lisa tells of taking her then 75-year old father to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. While touring the concentration camp, Walter tells his daughter about attending school with members of the Hitler Youth. Being a Jew, he couldn’t wear one of their uniforms but another boy in his school, a Gentile, refused to wear one. Her father then tells her that, in spite of the horror of Auschwitz and the loss of his family, he is glad he was born a Jew—because he didn’t have the option of becoming a Nazi! Unlike the Gentile boy who refused to join (and suffered because of it), Walter realized that, had he not been Jewish, he might have joined the Nazis. He knew that part of him could have been as merciless and evil as the men who rounded up and exterminated his family.

After the war, Walter returned to Germany as an interrogator of German personnel. In her soliloquy, Lisa tells how he admitted to callously browbeating one prisoner into confessing that he’d rounded up Jews from the Ghetto. Rather than turn the prisoner over to the allies for trial, Walter handed him over to the Russians, men he knew would summarily execute the German in the woods. Perhaps Walter was right; in other circumstances, he might have joined the Hitler Youth.

Hearing this story made me wonder what darkness lurks in my heart. In other circumstances, could I spew hate, inflict pain, ignore my conscience, turn my back on my brothers and sisters, or close my eyes to evil? Could I ever be like Haman (who plotted to exterminate the Jews) or Abimelech (who killed his 70 brothers)? Could I have worn a Hitler Youth uniform? Sadly, in another time, in another place, perhaps my heart could have deceived me to do just that.

Just because I’m capable of evil, however, doesn’t mean I have to be evil. Rather than betray Jesus as did Judas, I could be as faithful as John. Rather than the closed minds and murdering hearts of those who stoned Stephen, I could be as holy and forgiving as the martyred man. While I could be as scheming and immoral as Herodias, I also could be as obedient and fearless as her victim John the Baptist. Yes, I could have joined the Hitler Youth, but I also could have refused to be part of such evil and willingly suffered the consequences.

There is something terribly wrong with our hearts that, if allowed to grow, can become horrendous and unthinkably evil, but there also is something beautifully right with them. We are made in the image of God; deep inside us there is something of Him and He has written his law in our hearts. He gave us the gift of free will and, with every choice, we either become more or less like the person God made us to be. Because our hearts can be deceitful, corrupt, and self-serving they can lead us astray but they don’t have to! When led by the Holy Spirit, our hearts can be so filled with good that there is no room left for evil.

For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. … Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. [Psalm 51:5,10-11 (NLT)]

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. [Galatians 5:22-24 (NLT)]

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HIS EYES AND EARS

Sandhill Crane FamilyAgain a message came to me from the Lord: “Son of man, you live among rebels who have eyes but refuse to see. They have ears but refuse to hear. For they are a rebellious people. [Ezekiel 12:1-2 (NLT)]

Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? “You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?” Don’t you remember anything at all? [Mark 8:17b-18 (NLT)]

While walking at the park yesterday, my husband pointed at something in the brush. As I zoomed in with my camera, I realized he’d spotted a sandhill crane foraging in the deep grass. They mate for life and, where there’s one, there usually are two so I kept looking until I spotted Mrs. Crane just before they disappeared into a thicket. A few minutes later, we turned a corner, looked hopefully toward the open meadow, and spotted the pair again, along with junior. These elegant long-necked birds are among my favorites in the park but, with their grey-brown bodies that blend into the colors of the prairie, they’re easy to miss. This morning, when I heard their unique rattle-like call, we stopped and scanned the meadow and finally spotted the distinctive red cap that meant a crane was in the grass. As I whispered a prayer of thanks for another sighting of these beautiful birds, I realized how easy it is to miss God’s blessings because we haven’t looked for them.

sandhill craneThinking of the maxim that blessings are hidden in every trial if only we’d open our hearts to them, I initially thought I’d write about hidden blessings. I then realized that we miss more than beautiful birds and blessings when we fail to look and listen; we miss God-given opportunities to be true disciples of Christ.

The gospels tell of when Jesus and the apostles, tired and hungry, just wanted to go off to a quiet place and rest but an enormous crowd pursued them. Rather than send away the people, Jesus had compassion on them. He healed the sick, spoke about the Kingdom of God, and fed the hungry with a picnic of massive proportions. Another time, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and, like other rabbis, He was probably teaching as He walked. Anxious to hear everything the rabbi said, people crowded around as they followed Him. When a blind beggar shouted out to Jesus, they yelled at the man to be quiet. Jesus, however, heard the cry for mercy, stopped what he was doing, and compassionately restored the blind man’s sight.

Blessings and sandhill cranes often go unnoticed; I only spotted those cranes because I wanted to see them. I’m rarely that anxious to see the needs and hear the cries of my fellow man and they are far more obvious. Compassion, witness, and service can be inconvenient. We justify our failure to act by turning a deaf ear and blind eye to what’s right in front of us. Jesus never failed to see those who needed to be fed spiritually or physically and He always heard their cries for mercy. As His disciples, we are called to serve those who hunger and thirst, welcome the lonely, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and visit the prisoner. We can’t be the hands and feet of Jesus unless we also act as His eyes and ears.

Now you, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out upon this world, and yours are the lips through which His love is to speak; yours are the hands with which He is to bless men, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good—through His Church, which is His body. [Mark Guy Pearce (Evangelical Christendom, 1881)]

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. … And the King will say, “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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WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:10-12 (NLT)]

The question was asked, “How different would the world look if everyone got what they deserved?” and so I started wondering.

Zebra longwing butterflyWhen I was ten, I watched on television as nine black students tried to enroll in an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas; they were blocked by the National Guard and an angry mob of 400 angry whites. Two years earlier, on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. I grew up in Detroit and, while discrimination and segregation were more subtle than in the South, it existed. I lived in a large home with a big yard on a tree-lined street but any trip “downtown” told me that most children of color didn’t live in homes like mine and their dads didn’t get to wear a suit and tie to work or drive shiny new cars. There may not have been “colored” drinking fountains or “white only” bathrooms but there was a six foot high, foot wide, and half-mile long wall segregating one black community from a neighboring white one; many other invisible and more impenetrable walls existed within our divided city. Even as a child, I knew no one deserved prejudice, discrimination, injustice, or poverty. I saw that my color gave me advantages that I hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve. Seeing no children of color at dance class, theater school, or summer camp, I thanked God that I’d been born a white American so that I had those opportunities. I realized that I lived a better life than did most people of color in my country and the majority of people in the rest of the world. I also knew that I was no better than anyone else; I wasn’t prettier, smarter, more talented or more deserving than any other race or nationality. By an accident of birth, I simply was more fortunate.

I’m not sure what the rest of the world would look like if everyone got what they deserved but my first thought was that Detroit would probably look a whole lot better than it does right now. Then I remembered that the Christian way isn’t giving everyone exactly what they deserve. It’s not an eye for an eye or a slur for a slur. It’s not blows and counterblows, attack and reprisal, or forgiving only if we’ve been forgiven. It’s not helping only those worthy of help, squaring accounts, or turning the tables. It’s helping the undeserving, forgiving the reprehensible, loving the heartless, accepting apologies, and burying the hatchet. It’s going the second mile and giving more than we got, bearing no malice, and praying for our persecutors rather than evening the score.

When asked how they’re doing, many Christians reply, “Better than I deserve.” The answer may be a bit of a cliché but it’s true. Just as I did nothing to deserve the advantages my race gave me, mankind has done absolutely nothing to be deserving of God’s blessings. Regardless of color, as recipients of God’s unmerited grace, we all have gotten more than we deserve (our salvation) and, as recipients of God’s mercy, we haven’t gotten what we do deserve (God’s punishment)! Certainly, God didn’t give us what we deserved when Jesus paid the penalty for our sins!

Upon second thought, I realize that, if everyone got only what they deserved, Detroit would look different but not any better (and probably worse). The world won’t improve if everyone gets exactly what they deserve. It’s not until we give everyone better than what they deserve that the world will ever truly change for the good.

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. [Matthew 5:38-45 (NLT)]

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