RICH AND HEALED

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)]

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. [Matthew 19:29 (NIV)]

white peacock butterflySo, since God wants us to be prosperous, we’ll get 100 acres of land for every acre we give up or a return of $10,000 for every $100? Sounds too good to be true and it is. Logic tells us Matthew 19:29 can’t be taken literally—we can’t have one hundred fathers and none of us want one hundred children or wives! To make sure the disciples understood, Jesus made it clear that God is not our heavenly banker who dispenses gifts (especially monetary ones) to the most deserving with His parable of the Gracious Landowner. “Do I not have the right to do what I want to do with my own money? Does your eye make you want more because I am good?” asked the landowner. Jesus explained: “So those who are last will be first and the first will be last.” [Matthew 20:15-16] His message was clear: God’s grace can’t be earned or controlled. Moreover, the word often translated as “prosper” in Jeremiah 29:11 is shalom, meaning completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace rather than wealth. Biblical prosperity and prosperity theology are not the same!

Nevertheless, the health and wealth/name it and claim it/prosperity gospel movement would have us believe otherwise. Their distorted version of the gospel asserts that our words and actions can influence God with some sort of faith force so that we’ll get the health and wealth supposedly promised in today’s verses and others like it. Things like illness and financial troubles result from a lack of faith. If we just picture what we want, have enough faith, and ask for it in Jesus’ name, it’s ours! Thinking that we can somehow manipulate God to do our bidding, however, denies His sovereignty and God becomes more a heavenly vending machine than the ruler of the universe. Our hope is not in the power of our words or size of our faith; our hope is in the power of God alone!

 While we’d like the think that all we need for health and wealth is faith, Scripture tells us otherwise. Not everyone who deserved healing got it while some who didn’t deserve it did! Out of all the sick, blind, and lame people by the pool at Bethesda, Jesus asked just one man if he wanted to get well. Instead of answering the question, the man complained. Nevertheless, when Jesus told him to get up, pick up his pallet, and walk, the man was healed instantly. Censured by the Jewish leaders for carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he explained that he’d been told to do so by the man who healed him—a man whose identity he didn’t know! This sinner, who didn’t know Jesus, have faith in Him, and never asked for healing, was restored to health while the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh remained in spite of his faith, service, and devout prayers!

The gospels and epistles give us more guarantees of suffering and persecution than promises of health or wealth. Rather than a get rich plan, our sovereign God offers a plan for salvation. Our relationship with God is not a business transaction and giving us stuff or taking away our illness is not what makes Him good. God is good because He alone is God. He’s good whether we’re sick or healthy, in debt or flush with money, out of work or gainfully employed, infertile or pregnant, struggling in school or on the honor roll, have a child in rehab or one in seminary. God is good because, in Jesus, we are both rich and healed!

If you have everything but you don’t have Jesus. You have nothing. If you have nothing but you have Jesus, you have everything. He’s worth it. [Costi Hinn]

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)]

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 (NIV)]

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FEED THEM

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. [John 15:8 (NLT)]

He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. [John 21:17 (NLT)]

squirrelJohn 21 records Jesus telling Peter to feed His flock three times. The word translated as “feed” in verse 16 is poimaino which refers to the entire process of tending the sheep: feeding, leading, guarding, doctoring, and bringing them into the sheep fold. Although the food of which Jesus is speaking appears to be the word of God, in verses 15 and 17 the word translated as “feed” is bosko, which exclusively meant to feed. Jesus gave Peter these instructions immediately after He’d fed the disciples a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. Could He also have been speaking of providing actual food?

The people of Palestine were spiritually hungry for the message of the gospel but, on at least two occasions, they listened to Jesus so long that they were physically hungry, as well. In those instances, when Jesus told His disciples to feed the people, He meant to give them something to eat! Sometimes, feeding His flock is as simple as that.

Stately oaks line the streets in our community. Since autumn is acorn season, I’ve been thinking of Jesus’s command to bear fruit. Acorns are the fruit of the oak and come from the tiny flowers the trees produce in the spring. Within each acorn is a seed with the potential of becoming another oak tree. It’s been a good year for acorns and, if those oaks were followers of Jesus, our Lord would be pleased at the abundance of fruit they produced.

Next spring, any acorns cached away by an absent-minded squirrel or chipmunk could send up shoots, become seedlings, and eventually grow into trees capable of producing more fruit. Oak seedlings in our community, however, don’t stand a chance since the landscapers will pull them up or mow them down. Even though our acorns won’t grow into trees, they’re much appreciated by the squirrels, rabbits, ducks, crows, jays and woodpeckers who feast on them. The animals often congregate in the middle of the streets to take advantage of the nut-cracking capabilities of car, truck, and bike tires. If those oaks were believers, even without producing more of their kind, I still think our Lord would be pleased by them because they are feeding the hungry!

I apologize for mixing metaphors in my examples. If we bear fruit, as do the oaks, sometimes the seeds in our fruit will take root and grow and, if we tend the flock as a good shepherd, sometimes, the flock will increase. But, other times, like the oaks in our community or the disciples as they passed out loaves and fish, we simply provide physical nourishment for His flock.

This pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and vulnerabilities suffered by many throughout the world. As the economy spirals downward, the number of hungry rises. The United Nations has warned of “multiple famines of biblical proportions” resulting from COVID-19. They anticipate the number of people in crisis level hunger rising to 270 million by the end of the year (an 82% increase since 2019) and warn that more people may die of coronavirus-driven hunger than those who will die from the virus itself!

Like the oaks, let us be generous with our fruit and, as the shepherds of His sheep, let us feed His flock.

But Jesus said, “You feed them.” [Mark 6:37 (NLT)]

Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. [Matthew 7:20 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S YOUR ORANGE?

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich. [Luke 18:22-23 (NLT)]

orange“What’s your orange?” the teacher asked her remote learning class. Before having them answer, she explained the “monkey trap.” In Southeast Asia, hunters capture monkeys by drilling a hole in a pumpkin. The hole is just large enough for a monkey’s hand but too small for his fist. They secure the pumpkin to a tree, put a piece of sweet juicy orange inside the gourd, then retreat and wait. Eventually, an unsuspecting monkey comes along, smells the orange, and reaches through that small hole into the pumpkin. Once he’s grabbed hold of the orange, however, his fist can’t get back through the same hole. The monkey pulls and pulls but can’t free his hand. While he’s struggling to pull out his orange-filled fist, hunters easily throw a net over him. Not understanding that he can’t have both his freedom and the orange, he loses them both. After telling this story, the teacher again asked her students, “What is your orange? What is it you can’t release?”

This lesson was part of an expanded on-line curriculum at my grand’s high school. Its purpose is to address the emotional issues encountered by the teens in this strange time of social distancing and on-line classes. Whether the “monkey trap” is an actual technique or simply a parable, its lesson applies to Christians as well as pandemic teens. Do we have an orange (or two)?

We’ve all asked God to save us from one predicament or another but, after promising we’ll do anything He asks, we often add a condition to that prayer and tell God not to ask us to give up the “orange.” We’re deep in debt but we tell God not to ask us to sell the boat or downsize the house. When our marriage is in trouble, we tell God not to ask us to give up the internet flirtation or the nights out with the guys. We’re having ethical challenges at work but tell God not to ask us to give up the well-paid position. Like the orange, some things are a whole lot easier to grab than to let go!

Like the monkey, we’re often held hostage by whatever our “orange” is: whether it’s alcohol, drugs, food, gambling or another addiction; an unhealthy relationship, money, possessions, or prestige; or emotions like resentment, worry, anger, arrogance, remorse, pain from past hurts, guilt, or self-doubt. Whatever we’re holding tightly in our heart keeps us from being truly free to enjoy the abundance and peace Jesus offers. Until we let go of that “orange,” there’s no room for God’s blessings.

The gospels tell of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer that he must give away all his wealth makes us all uncomfortable. Does God really expect us to give away everything? Giving away all we possess, however, isn’t a universal requirement and Jesus didn’t ask that of anybody else. What Jesus asked the man to do was to give up the thing that possessed him: his orange. That’s what He asks of us, as well. Every person has his own “orange;” we must recognize it for the trap it is, open our hands, and let it go. The rich young ruler’s “orange” was his wealth; what’s yours?

If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead. [William Law]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

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ESTATE PLANNING

Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1: 3b-4 (NLT)]

giraffe family -Serengeti - TanzaniaBack in March, when this pandemic began, people began thinking seriously about worst-case scenarios. Looking at the death tolls in other countries and seeing them rise in ours, many began scrambling to write their wills and end of life directives. By late April, one on-line estate planning platform reported a 223% increase in customers. When schools announced plans to resume in-person classes, that trend continued as many teachers added will writing to their back-to-school tasks.

Since we’re well into our seventies, my husband and I didn’t need a pandemic to remind us of our pending departure dates. Wanting to be good stewards of our financial blessings in both life and death, we’ve made arrangements and written our wills. Our lawyer wisely suggested that our end goal should be to have everyone in the family still speaking to one another when all is said and done. Unfortunately, even with a pandemic, many people fail to plan ahead for what we know will happen eventually to all of us. Sadly, their families end up squabbling over money, Uncle Joe’s war memorabilia, Grandma’s ring, or Sue’s Beanie Baby collection! By the time everything is resolved, the lawyers are the only ones who come out ahead and no one is speaking to anyone. Money rarely brings out the best in any of us.

Other than our financial assets (or debts, as the case may be) and a few possessions, what do we really leave to our children? Money and property are not the only legacy about which we should be concerned. Some things are far more important than cars, houses, insurance policies, or jewelry.

Perhaps we should be as concerned about our spiritual estate planning as we may be about our financial one. Unlike money, the quality of a spiritual bequest is far more important than its quantity. Good memories, an example of Christian living, wisdom, morals, love and good will are all more valuable than money or property. If we leave our children with humility, confidence, courage, hope, self-respect, the ability to laugh at themselves, and the desire to give and serve, we’ll have given them far more than money can buy.

The one thing we can’t leave them, however, is faith; that’s something they’ll have to find for themselves. We may have laid the groundwork by raising them as Christians but the choices they make are theirs alone. We can give them our prayers, good example, guidance, and love but they’ll have to do the rest on their own.

Heavenly Father, we give you our children—our heirs—and pray that they will become your heirs, as well. May they become heirs to the richness of your kingdom and glory.

I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian Religion. If they had that and I had not given them one shilling they would have been rich; and if they had not that and I had given them all the world, they would be poor. [Patrick Henry]

For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. [Romans 8:16-17 (NLT)]

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HIS CLOAK (Part 2 – Mark 10:46-52)

So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. [10:50-52 (NSRV)]

eastern bluebird

There is so much packed into the seven verse story of Bartimaeus that it justifies a closer look. Let’s back up just a few verses in Mark 10 to when, after reminding Jesus that they’d given up everything to follow Him, James and John asked for a favor. When Jesus inquired what they wanted, the disciplines said they desired privileged places in His coming Kingdom. In stark contrast, Bartimaeus didn’t ask a favor; instead he pled for mercy and asked only for his sight. The blind man got his request but the selfish disciples didn’t. If we have unfulfilled prayers, perhaps we should consider what we’re asking—are they favors for our advantage or pleas for God’s mercy?

If we back up a few more verses in Mark’s gospel, we come to when Jesus was just starting his journey toward Jerusalem and a young rich man approached Him. While he was sure he’d kept all the commandments, the man sensed something was missing so he asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him, the man’s face fell in disappointment. Treasuring his possessions more than eternal life, he departed.

In another contrast, we have Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who followed Jesus immediately and without question. It’s easy to think the sightless beggar left nothing behind when he followed Jesus but we’d be wrong. Mark adds an interesting detail—when Jesus called to Bartimaeus, the man threw aside his cloak before jumping up and going to Him. That cloak, a wide vest reaching to the ankles, was far more than an outer garment worn during the day. A man’s cloak was so valuable that it could be used as collateral for a loan. Mosaic Law, however, prohibited a lender from keeping it overnight because a cloak often was the only shelter, bed, pillow, or blanket a man had at night. Bartimaeus’ cloak was more than a coat; it was his home. While begging, he would have been sitting on his cloak with its lower part spread out in front of him to collect any coins dropped his way.

Throwing aside his cloak was an act of faith. That piece of clothing (and whatever money may have been on it) was all Bartimaeus had and as valuable to the beggar as all the rich man’s possessions were to him. The moment Bartimaeus threw it aside, the cloak and money were as good as gone—either stolen or kicked aside along the road. Whether blind or sighted, any man would be in dire straits without a cloak, but Bartimaeus did what the rich man couldn’t and left all he had to follow Jesus!

Bartimaeus left his cloak, John and James left their father, Simon Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets, Matthew left a lucrative job as a publican, and Paul left a promising career as a Pharisee but the rich young man wanted to take his old life with him. Thinking that we can keep our old lives while following Jesus is a little like expecting to stay dry when we jump into the pool! It just can’t be done!

When God becomes your only source, you don’t need plan B or C. He is more than enough! [Buky Ojelabi] 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 16:24-25 (NSRV)]

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LEADING THE HERD

sheepDo not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. [1 Corinthians 15:33-34 (RSV)]

You’ve probably heard of herd mentality or herd behavior: when people’s natural desire to be part of the crowd affects their decisions. When herd behavior occurs, rather than relying on their own judgment, values, or natural instinct, people allow themselves to be influenced by the behavior of those around them. While copying what others are doing can be useful at times (it gets our garbage out the right nights), challenges arise when our personal beliefs contradict what the crowd is doing.

A few years ago, when we were in Chicago, my husband wanted to purchase his favorite cheddar/caramel popcorn mix at Garrett’s. While he waited in line inside the crowded store, I remained outside. The queue of customers eventually extended out the door and partway down the street. When a couple visiting from France asked me why people were waiting, my reply of popcorn surprised them. Telling me they could understand lining up for chocolate or ice cream but certainly not popcorn, I expected they’d continue walking. Instead, they decided to follow the herd and joined the long line.

Even though that couple weren’t fans of popcorn, they joined the herd, but do we only follow the herd when there are more of them than us? According to an experiment done in 2008 at Leeds University, the answer is no. 200 subjects were told to walk in a totally random path around a large hall without communicating with one another in any way. Unknown to them, however, a group of walkers had been given detailed instructions on where to walk. In a short time, the “random” walkers started following the ones who seemed to know where they were going and a long snake-like line formed. When the experiment was over, those “random” walkers admitted not realizing that they’d become followers. The researchers found that it took only 5% of the people to walk purposefully to get the other 95% to follow. Apparently humans, like sheep and birds, will subconsciously gather in flocks and follow a minority if that minority appears to know what they’re doing!

Scripture warns that bad company can corrupt good character but, if we consider herd behavior, could good company improve bad character? Believing their findings could be used when planning traffic flow in emergencies and crisis situations, the Leeds’ researchers called the people who were followed “informed individuals.” The world appears to be in crisis and, as Christ’s followers, we are the “informed individuals.” Could this be our call to lead the herd?

Jesus left His church in the hands of just a few followers and yet there were over 3,000 believers by the first Pentecost and the church continued to grow rapidly. In those early years, Christianity was illegal, believers were persecuted, and there were no church buildings, public ceremonies, famed evangelists, or mass media. Nevertheless, the church steadily expanded in the first 300 years. It spread because people saw the lives of Christ’s followers: that Christians walked with a sense of purpose in a different and better way. Knowing the route to take, the informed minority led the herd to Jesus. Do we walk as “informed individuals” or like someone with a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t follow me—I’m lost, too!”  Let our lights shine brightly that we might lead the way to the Lord!

We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause. [Justin Martyr describing Christians to Emperor Antoninus Pius in 153 AD]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (RSV)]

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. [Philippians 2:14-15 (RSV)]

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