IN ENEMY TERRITORY

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NIV)]

anhingaAnhingas are among my favorites of our lake’s birds. Unlike most birds, their bones are heavy and dense and, rather than waders like the herons and egrets or paddlers like the ducks, they are deep-diving swimmers. Lacking the oil glands that waterproof the feathers of other water birds, anhingas (and their cormorant cousins) become water-logged in the water. While making it difficult to remain afloat, that allows them to dive up to sixty feet deep, swim underwater for several hundred feet, and stay underwater for more than a minute. Eventually, however, the birds become so heavy they will sink unless they return to land to dry their feathers.

Every morning I find anhingas resting along the lake’s shoreline and spreading their wings to dry. The wettest ones get barely out of the water but, as they dry, they waddle further back until dry enough to get up onto a rock, bench, or low hanging branch. As their feathers continue to dry, they move higher up in the trees until they are dry and light enough to take flight.

Unlike the lake’s ducks who nest and sleep in the vegetation along the shoreline, anhingas remain on land only out of necessity. Vulnerable to predators, a soaking wet anhinga is like a “sitting duck.” With its stubby legs and large webbed feet, it can’t run; water-logged, the water isn’t a good option and yet it’s too wet to fly up to safety. While hissing, grunting, and trying to look intimidating by ruffling its feathers, raising its tail, lengthening and waving its long neck, and pointing its spear-like beak may deter some birds of prey, that behavior probably won’t dissuade hungry alligators or crocodiles.

Just as being vulnerable to a predator’s attack is part and parcel of being an anhinga, being vulnerable to our enemy’s attack is an inevitable part of being human in our fallen world. Rather than gators and crocs, that enemy is Satan and he can sneak up on us even more adeptly than the wiliest reptile in the Everglades. Rather than the weight of soaking wet feathers, it is the weight of things like pain, illness, betrayal, weariness, conflict, loneliness, loss, disappointment (and even hurricanes) that make us especially vulnerable to attack. The enemy will use every weapon in his armory including lies, half-truths, fear, despair, hopelessness, and (his favorite) doubt to assault our belief in the goodness of God. Fortunately, in His wisdom, God armed us for battle with more than the saber-sharp beak and intimidating appearance of the anhinga. We wage war with the weapons of our faith: God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

An anhinga, aware of its vulnerability when wet, only enters the water to hunt or bathe. With neck extended and eyes wide open, it remains watchful when drying along the shoreline and never dawdles there once dry. Like the anhinga, we must be alert to our vulnerability in our fallen world. Unlike the anhinga, however, we often act as if we’re not sitting smack dab in the middle of the enemy’s territory! A. W. Tozer warns us about thinking of the world as a “playground instead of a battleground.” May we never forget that we live in the enemy’s territory and he is as dangerous as a prowling lion or a hungry alligator!

Anyone who serves the Lord is going to be the target of Satan’s attacks. [Zac Poonen]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NIV)]

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SOWING

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of heaven is alike a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.” [Matthew 13:14-16 (NLT)]

p0rairie rose - rose hip
Our brief return north last June meant we again enjoyed walking among the Midwest’s summer wildflowers. I only stepped a few feet off the path for a photo and yet my pants were covered with sticky seedpods from the Tick-Trefoil. Sometimes called sticktights or beggar’s lice, their seed pods are covered with fine hooked hair that catches on anything it contacts—whether clothing or a passing squirrel. I spent the rest of the walk picking off the pods and scattering them along the trail. After carefully stepping over a pile of seed-studded raccoon poop, I was reminded that a flower’s purpose isn’t merely to look pretty; it’s to spread its seeds any way it can.

Like the Tick-Trefoil, some flowers have pods that attach to clothes and animals and ride through the forest on pants’ legs and fur until they find a good home. Flowers like the False Solomon’s Seal and Pokeweed, however, produce fruit that is eaten by animals and, like that raccoon, leave the seeds behind in their waste. Other wildflowers, like the Asters and Milkweed, have seeds attached to a feathery sort of “parachute” that is blown away by the wind to (hopefully) land on fertile soil. That the flowers are rooted into the ground doesn’t seem to keep them from spreading their seeds every which way to make more of their kind.

Looking at the colorful blossoms throughout the park, I saw that the native wildflowers have done their seed-spreading job well. Unfortunately, undesirable invasive species like Canadian Thistle and Purple Loosestrife also have been expanding their territory. The seeds of these invasive weeds are trying to defeat the native wildflowers in the same way Satan is trying to defeat us by planting his seeds of evil. So far, the flowers are ahead of the game; are we?

Jesus also told a parable about a farmer who planted seeds and the various kinds of soil on which his seeds fell. Types of soil, however, make no difference if the farmer fails to sow any seeds! Unsown seeds will never germinate! Would that we Christians were as determined to spread God’s word as the flowers are to scatter their seeds. As pretty as it is, the Prairie Rose knows that its job isn’t finished when it blooms into a beautiful flower. Its real purpose is to bear fruit (the rose hip) and spread its seeds far and wide. Unlike the rose, however, many Christians are quite content just looking good and give little thought to bearing fruit, let alone enlarging God’s garden by sowing His word.

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn! [Adrian Rogers]

He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” [Matthew 9:37-38 (NLT)]

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” [Mark 16:15 (NLT)]

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BUTTERFLY KISSES

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)]

dove squabs

In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes of being challenged by a friend to write a list of 1,000 things she loved. Interpreting the challenge as making a list of the day’s blessings or gifts, she began recording the seemingly insignificant things that brought bits of joy into her ordinary day. Like a gratitude journal, it included the more obvious things like a child’s escape from serious injury or an unexpected visit from a friend. There was, however, more as Voskamp deliberately set out to find the little gifts hidden in the day—things like jam piled high on toast, toothless smiles, moonlight on pillows, warm cookies, the whistle of the tea kettle on a winter’s day, and the earthy aroma of the woods. As she thanked God for the trivial inconsequential little blessings of the day, she discovered the joy hidden within them. While Ann Voskamp refers to them as gifts, I think of them as God’s “butterfly kisses.” Even though God doesn’t flutter His eyelids on my cheek, these blessings are like the nearly imperceptible kisses mothers have given their children for generations. In the midst of the busyness, trouble, and worries of the day, they are the subtle and easily missed reminders of our Father’s love.

Recognizing my need for an attitude adjustment after spending much of the past year fighting health issues and the glums and gloomies accompanying them, I’ve been reading Voskamp’s book. When what was to be more than a month-long road trip was cut short by half because of my medical issues, I knew I needed to start my own list if I ever hoped to get out of my funk. The first morning home, I looked out and saw that a pair of Mourning Doves had nested in the nearby bougainvillea. The hope that came with the nest’s promise of new life made it the first gift I listed. Several days later, upon finding the nest empty, I thought the chicks had fledged until I looked down at the ground to see their mangled remains. “Oh God, how could you?” I cried. After all, if He sees every sparrow that falls, He certainly saw the doves that brought me such joy. I took it as a personal affront that He allowed the first “gift” I listed to be taken by some predator.

Throughout the morning, I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Dove walked around the bougainvillea and among the shrubbery. By the end of the day, however, they were gone and, most likely, busy building another nest and laying two more eggs. The mortality rate for dove squabs is 69% so I suspect they are accustomed to loss and knew enough to get on with their lives.

Of course, I know that the birds’ unfortunate demise wasn’t directed at me; loss and death have been a part of life since the time Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden. Then again, their loss may have been a lesson for me—to accept that uncertainties, pain, disappointment, and death are an inevitable part of life. Just as the doves moved on with their lives, so should I! While life is gain, it also is loss. As mere players, we don’t get to write the script, rewrite the scenes we don’t like, direct the show, or know how or when the play will end.

Granted, sometimes it feels as if God is nowhere to be found, but maybe it’s simply because we haven’t slowed down and really looked for Him. On that Sunday morning after the crucifixion, two of Jesus’ followers were returning to Emmaus when Jesus joined them. It may have been because of their sadness, disappointment, fear, or even doubt, but they failed to recognize the Lord. It was only when they stopped, invited Jesus into their home, and shared the bread He blessed, that they finally recognized Him. Perhaps, when we do the same—when we are mindful of the moment and thankful for the blessings or bread we have before us (whether focaccia, Wonder Bread, saltines, or a few crumbs)—we will recognize God’s presence. Thankfulness is the soil from which joy sprouts and it is when we are thankful for His gifts (whether large or small) that we will find His joy.

God is the great I AM which means He is present not just in the past or in the future but in the here and now! It’s not always easy to see Him but, when we slow down, open our eyes, and deliberately seek Him, we will find Him in the little seemingly insignificant gifts of each day and feel his butterfly kisses on our cheeks. As Elijah discovered, God is present in the whisper as well as the shout!

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:24 (NLT)]

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WHICH CAME FIRST?

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. … Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. [Genesis 1:3. 2:7 (NLT)]

hen and eggs

Years ago, The Jerusalem Post published a joke about human arrogance. After considering all of humanity’s scientific progress, a group of scientists decided that God no longer was necessary. The chief scientist explained to God that man’s ability to clone people, manipulate atoms, build molecules, fly through space, create body parts with 3-D printers, and perform other miraculous feats meant God was unneeded and could be replaced by man. After patiently listening to the scientist, God suggested a human-making contest with only one rule: “We have to do it just like I did in the Bible.” Saying that was easy, the arrogant scientist bent over to pick up a handful of dust. “Put that down!” said God, while adding, “To do it my way, you have to make your own dust!”

Our vacation home in Idaho came complete with chickens and hen house. Every morning, the littlest grands would trek out to the hen house, check for eggs, and return with the makings of an omelet. I was relieved they never asked the age-old unanswerable question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We need a chicken (actually two) to have a fertilized egg but we need a fertilized egg to make a chicken. This seemingly futile question has been discussed for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Aristotle considered it but evaded the answer by saying that both egg and chicken went infinitely backwards and always existed. The oldest fossilized eggs are 190 million years old and the oldest fossilized birds are only 150 million years old so paleontologists might say the egg came first. A strict reading of Genesis, however, would lead us to conclude that the chicken came first because animals appeared on the 5th day of creation. It’s a silly question but people ask it because they want to understand how something can come from nothing.

When making the children’s omelets, we still needed the raw ingredients. Along with the eggs that came from chickens (that came from eggs), we needed butter and cheese from cows, salt from the sea, pepper from the drupe of a pepper plant (Piper nigrum}, and green peppers and onions that came from seeds sown by a farmer, as well as a frying pan, whisk, spatula, and gas stove. Although my seamstress friend creates stunning clothing, she needs the silk from the silkworm (that came from an egg) or the cotton from the cotton bush (that came from a seed) to do so. My wood-working friend creates beautiful furniture but he can’t do it without the wood that comes from an oak tree that comes from an acorn that originally came from the oak! This begs the question, “Which came first, the oak or the acorn?” As the arrogant scientist learned, mankind can’t create something from nothing!

God, however, created everything from nothing. He had no eggs for the chickens, acorns for the oaks, seeds for the apple trees, or pollen for the flowers. He had no hydrogen or oxygen for water and no sodium or chloride to add to the water for the sea! Simply put, God spoke all creation into existence. That’s a rather unsatisfactory answer for those who want a technical explanation but the Bible is a book of theology that tells us the who and not a book of science that tells us how. We’re not about to get any more details as to how chaos turned to order, a void came to be filled, and nothing became something. Whether it was the chicken or its egg that came first will always be a conundrum.

The Lord merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born. He assigned the sea its boundaries and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs. Let the whole world fear the Lord, and let everyone stand in awe of him. For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command. [Psalm 33:6-9 (NLT)]

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KNOWING HE’S THERE

And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. [Acts 13:52 (NLT)]

zebra longwing butterfly
Zebra Longwing butterflies (Heliconius charithonia) live in hammocks and damp forests. Unless they are resting on a plant, however, they are often difficult to spot. Unlike most butterflies, they don’t stay in the sunlight for long. I may see their shadows on the boardwalk but, when I look up, they quickly vanish into the shade they prefer. With their yellow and black colors, shallow wingbeats and languid flight, they float through the woods and often seem to be little more than flickering sunlight glimmering through the trees.

Oddly, I think of the Holy Spirit whenever I get a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. Just as I’ll probably never hold one in my hand, I have difficulty grasping the concept of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I know they both exist and bring me joy. There are times it’s difficult to catch sight of the winged zebras and, unfortunately, there are times I have difficulty detecting the Spirit. Nevertheless, just as I know the butterflies are in the woods, I know that He is present. Some days are better than others when it comes to spotting the Longwings and some days are better than others when it comes to sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence. If I’m jogging down a trail, I’ll never spot the butterflies and, if I’m rushing through life, it’s just as easy to overlook the Holy Spirit.

While I can blame the season, weather, light, or location for not seeing a butterfly, I have only myself to blame when I fail to perceive the Spirit. The times I feel devoid of His presence are when I neglect Scripture and prayer—the times I become so busy with the “me” and “my” of life that I don’t leave room for Him. They are the times I refuse to accept God’s control of my circumstances, ignore His direction, or don’t want to hear His conviction of my unacceptable behavior. Most often, however, I can’t feel the Holy Spirit because I’ve done something that grieves Him. Things like anger, resentment, jealousy, guilt and pride serve as barriers to feeling His presence. Fortunately, unlike the butterflies that disappear as they float through the woods, the Spirit will never leave me, even when I’ve disappointed Him.

In perfect unity with God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Spirit is the power of God that dwells within every believer in Jesus Christ. Just as it’s likely that I’ll catch a glimpse of Zebra Longwings on a certain boardwalk through the mangroves, I’m sure to feel the Spirit’s presence when I walk in His ways throughout the day.

You might as well try to see without eyes, hear without ears, or breathe without lungs, as to try to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. [D.L. Moody]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

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A WORK IN PROGRESS

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

juvenile ibis - juvenile little blue heronWhenever I see immature white ibis or blue herons, I recall a picture that hung in my daughter’s bedroom. Beneath a drawing of a little girl in a pink dress were the words, “Be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet!” These birds, however, don’t need a sign to tell us that God isn’t finished with them; their varicolored plumage makes that abundantly clear. You see, for their first few years, they look like a work in progress. Instead of being born white, the newly hatched white ibis chicks start out grey but quickly turn dark brown. As they mature, the young birds become a haphazard patchwork of brown and white. By the end of their second year, they’re mostly white but it’s not until the end of their third year that they finally molt the last of their brown feathers. Unlike the ibis, the little blue herons start out pure white. Were it not for their greyish-green legs and bill, they look more like snowy egrets than blue herons for much of their first year. They turn into a patchwork of blue and white as they gradually molt into the dark slate-blue plumage of an adult by the end of their second year.

Today, I thought of those words about patience and being unfinished after berating myself for making a foolish and avoidable mistake. I spoke to myself in a way I’d never (or hardly ever) use with anyone else and called myself something that I wouldn’t call others (at least not out loud). Sometimes, it’s easier to be patient with a child than it is with ourselves. Perhaps, we need to remember that God isn’t finished with us, either!

Even though it may be less obvious, I’m as unfinished as an immature ibis or little blue heron! The birds, however, don’t have to make any effort for their colors to change—that automatically comes with time. For us, it’s a bit different. When God brought us from death into life in Christ, He loved us with all of our imperfections and faults. Nevertheless, just as He doesn’t leave those birds looking half-done, He’s not about to leave us the flawed way we began. Our sanctification began at the moment of salvation but it didn’t end there. No matter how old we are, God continues to give us opportunities to learn and grow. He expects us to actively strive for holiness and obedience so that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more and more like Jesus. Unlike the birds, however, we remain works in progress until our last day on earth. Remembering that we still are mid-design and won’t always get it right, let us be patient with ourselves until that day comes.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are co-workers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R. C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)]

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