WE DON’T KNOW WHEN – Advent

Sandhill Canes - Moraine Hills State Pk.When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes. … So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. [Matthew 24:37-39,42 (NLT)]

The pleasant autumn, with temps in the 60s, suddenly took a sharp turn toward winter. The day’s high was 37° at 4:00 AM and, as the winds increased to over 25 mph, the temperature plummeted. Instead of enjoying the balmy weather of southwest Florida, we were visiting the Midwest and enduring an arctic blast. As we walked in the park that wintery December day, we observed hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese in the marsh. In preparation for their seasonal migration, they gather in the wetlands here. The birds are usually gone by now but, because of the mild fall weather and still plentiful food, they’ve recklessly delayed their departure. Colder temperatures and snow are predicted; soon the marsh will freeze and food will be scarce, not just here, but all along their migration route. Are they like the people of Noah’s day or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—having a rollicking good time right up until the weather changes and disaster rains down on them? By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late!

Jesus compared His second coming to the surprise arrival of a thief in the night and unbelievers have good reason to fear that day. As with the flood and Sodom’s destruction, swift and sudden judgment will accompany Jesus’ return. Like unbelievers, Christians don’t know exactly when the thief will appear yet they have no reason to worry. To carry the thief metaphor further, believers aren’t afraid of the thief because they are well insured. Their acceptance of Jesus gives them assurance of salvation; their sins are mercifully forgiven and they have everlasting life. There is nothing to fear!

Seventeen years ago, my granddaughter made her entrance into the world nearly two months prematurely. Not anticipating the early arrival, her unprepared mother was visiting family 1600 miles away from home and her father was 450 miles away from them both on a business trip. On the other hand, when that grand’s father made his entrance thirty-one years earlier, he was more than two weeks later than expected. Although worried and weary of waiting, even I was surprised when he finally made his presence known. While both my daughter-in-law and I had faith that our babies would arrive, neither of us knew the precise time and both of us were taken aback by the unexpected dates. Christians have faith in Christ’s second coming but, like a pregnant woman, we’re not quite sure when. Just as pregnancy’s morning sickness, swollen feet and expanding belly tell a woman her delivery day is approaching, there will be clear signs that Christ’s return is near. The date of deliverance, however, remains unknown.

As we spend Advent preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ first coming, let’s also use this time to prepare for His promised return. Just because we don’t know the exact date doesn’t mean we should be surprised when that day arrives. Three days after our walk in the park, we returned to find the marsh frozen and the birds gone. They’d seen the signs and made the right decision; we should do the same.

For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief. [1 Thessalonians 5:2-4 (NLT)]

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THE BUCK

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. [Psalm 23:4 (AKJV)]

deer - buckI have an elderly friend who tells me Psalm 23 is her favorite psalm but, when reciting it, she omits one troubling sentence. “You know the one,” she added, “the one about death!” In actuality, a better translation for the original Hebrew would be “darkest valley” but she learned “valley of…death” as a girl and it remains that way for her. Whatever translation is used, those words should be ones of comfort rather than fear.

I thought of our exchange when another friend shared the last days of her uncle’s life. An avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, he’d been by defeated heart disease. Two days before he died, he was resting in his hospital bed and surrounded by family. A three-point buck emerged from the woods and slowly approached his house. The magnificent creature stood by the window and stared in at him. Eventually, it lay down beneath the window and, like the rest of his family, kept him company as he awaited death’s arrival.

My elderly friend is a woman of faith but even the most devout believers have moments they fear death. It is our final surrender and there is absolutely nothing we can do to defeat it; that loss of control is frightening. Nevertheless, death is inevitable and as much a part of life as birth! Even though Scripture assures us that death take us home to the Lord, the moment of death remains a mystery. Will there be a flash of light, a heavenly chorus, or a dark tunnel? Lazarus didn’t say and neither Trip Advisor nor Yelp have posted any reviews.

I wonder why my elderly friend seems so afraid of what, at her advanced age, is right around the corner (more likely, in the next room). If she has unfinished business, it’s too late; by now she’s forgotten whatever it was. Is it fear of leaving family and friends behind? God loves our loved ones far more than we ever could and He’ll continue to watch over them in our absence. Has she forgotten that we are only temporary residents here? There’s a great deal wrong with our present home but everything is absolutely perfect in the future one. Death, however, is necessary for entrance to it. If she’s afraid of losing her earthly possessions, she should remember that, rather than losing anything when we depart, we gain everything when we’re gone.

The actual moment of death is probably the most terrible and yet the most beautiful moment of our lives. Perhaps my friend’s fear of it is because she chooses to omit that one sentence from her favorite psalm. Whether it’s the valley of death or merely a dark valley, those encouraging words tell us we are under God’s care and safe in His presence when we enter that shadowy valley.

Was the buck’s extraordinary extended visit just a coincidence or was it a gift from God? We’ll never know. It is my understanding, however, that its presence assured both the dying man and his family that the God who knows when every sparrow falls was with him; he would not be making that final journey alone.

Death is not the end of the road; it is only a bend in the road. The road winds only through those paths through which Christ Himself has gone. This Travel Agent does not expect us to discover the trail for ourselves. Often we say that Christ will meet us on the other side. That is true, of course, but misleading. Let us never forget that He walks with us on this side of the curtain and then guides us through the opening. We will meet Him there, because we have met Him here. [Erwin Lutzer]

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. [John 11:25-26a (AKJV)]

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ROOTS

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

sea oatsIt’s not just light poles that were destroyed by Hurricane Irma’s winds; many trees also met their end at her hands. As I looked at the upended roots of a once mighty oak, I thought of one of Aesop’s fables about an oak in a storm. A proud oak stood by a stream, and like this one, had survived several storms in its many years. One day, a hurricane the likes of Irma arrived and the great oak fell with a thunderous crash. As the water rose, it was carried down to the sea. When the oak eventually came to rest along the shore, it looked up at the sea oats that were waving in the now gentle sea breeze, “How did you manage to weather such a terrible storm?” it asked. “I’m a great oak and even I didn’t have strength enough to battle the wind.”

The sea oats replied, “That was your problem. You were too proud to bend and yield a little and so the wind knocked you over. I’m just an insubstantial sea oats plant but, knowing my weakness, I didn’t resist as the wind gusted. The harder it blew, the more I humbled myself and the lower I bent. So, here I am, still enjoying the beach. Aesop’s moral is that it is better to bend than to break. “Perhaps there a message here,” I thought and, yet, I wasn’t sure it was just about pride and humility.

The Apostle Paul was very clear about standing firm in the face of trials and temptation. He told the early church to stand firm and not to waver; he wanted them to be oaks and not sea oats. When facing one of life’s hurricanes, however, it’s pretty hard not to wobble, quiver and quake wildly. If we stand firm, will we be knocked down and end up a piece of drift wood or ground up into mulch? If that mighty oak couldn’t weather the storm, how can we?

The Apostle also said that growing roots in Jesus is what will keep us strong. That fallen oak’s upended roots were taller than me and yet they didn’t do the oak much good when Irma arrived. The roots of which Paul speaks are deep roots that grown down into our Lord. It is strong deep roots that will serve to anchor a tree in the ground. I’m not an arborist, but I could easily see that there was nothing deep about that oak’s roots (or the roots of the many other uprooted oaks throughout our community).

In Jesus’ parable about soil, he told of seed scattered on good soil that grew, seed strewn on a path that was eaten by the birds, seed that was crowded out by the thorns, and seed that fell on rocky soil. Those plants in rockyy soil grew quickly but, since their roots weren’t deep, they withered in the hot sun. If He’d been in a tropical climate like Florida’s, Jesus could have used sand and hurricanes instead of rocks and sun in His analogy. Good nutritious soil is necessary for a plant’s success and Florida’s soil is shallow and mostly sand. The many fallen oaks’ roots, while wide, were shallow and certainly not the kind of roots of which Jesus and Paul spoke.

Aesop’s fable was about pride and humility but the many uprooted oaks in town tell me something more. Granted, there may be times we need to bend a little, as do the sea oats, but we must never bend if that means compromising our faith. I think of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their roots were so deep that they were willing to die before they bent down to worship a false god or failed to worship the true one. While a miracle saved them, there was no miracle for Stephen, a man whose deep roots in Christ gave him strength enough to stand and testify before the Jewish high council knowing he’d die because of it. These men were willing to be sacrificed and broken before bending to the prevailing wind.

Given a choice, I would rather stand strong, like an oak with deep roots, than fall because of the wind. Nevertheless, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, like Stephen and other Christian martyrs, I would rather be broken and fall than bend and survive as do the sea oats.

I pray from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. [Ephesians 3:16-17 (NLT]

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MASTER WEAVERS

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

spider websIt rained last night. During our early morning walk, we looked out over the prairie and saw hundreds of sparkling spider webs. As the morning sun caught the water droplets on the silk, the master weavers’ work glistened in the mist. Although we take that trail several times a week, it was the first time this season we saw those arachnidan works of art. The spiders didn’t start spinning just the previous night; their webs have been there all summer but weather and light conditions kept us from seeing them. In fact, had we chosen to walk the loop in the other direction, we never would have seen them at all!

God, like his eight legged creations, is always busy weaving the strands of our lives. Much of the time, however, as with the spider webs, we don’t see or understand what He’s doing. “Where is God in all of this?” we ask. It is usually in hindsight that we recognize His presence—the way He moved, guided, protected, instructed, disciplined or provided for us. Nevertheless, whether or not we see His hand in our circumstances, we know that He, like the spiders, is ever-present and busy weaving.

I find those beautiful webs reassuring. They show me that God will give us beautiful gifts when we least expect them but that we must be willing to look for them in the most unlikely places. The webs remind me that we don’t need to see God to know that He is always there and always working. Moreover, God reveals himself in a variety of ways. While an angel or burning bush is dramatic and impressive, let’s remember that Elijah did not find God in the mighty wind, earthquake or fire. He found God in a gentle whisper. As for me, spiders’ webs on a misty morning are one of the ways God reassures me of His presence and His amazing plan; they are God’s gentle whisper of reassurance from the Master Weaver!

Our lives are but fine weavings
That God and we prepare
Each life becomes a fabric planned
And fashioned in His care.
We may not always see just how
The weavings intertwine,
But we must trust the Master’s hand
And follow His design,
For He can view the pattern
Upon the upper side,
While we must look from underneath
And trust in Him to guide.
Sometimes a strand of sorrow
Is added to His plan,
And though it is difficult for us,
We still must understand
That it is He who fills the shuttle,
It is He who knows what is best,
So we must weave in patience
And leave to Him the rest.
Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why
The dark threads are as needed
In the Weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned. [Author unknown]

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things. [Ecclesiastes 11:5 (NLT)]

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ON WINGS LIKE EAGLES

Like an eagle that rouses her chicks and hovers over her young, so he spread his wings to take them up and carried them safely on his pinions. [Deuteronomy 32:11 (NLT)]

He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s! [Psalm 103:5 (NLT)]

bald eagleThe eagle is mentioned more than any other bird of prey in the Bible. References are made to its swiftness of flight, ability to soar high in the air, excellent vision, the way it sets its nest in high places, and the strength of its wings. The above two verses about eagles, however, are more figurative than literal and have no scientific basis. Although mother eagles do hover over their young, they cannot carry them. A bald eagle’s lifting power is only about a third of its weight. An eaglet ready to fly is as heavy as its parents. If Mrs. Eagle tried to carry junior, they’d both fall! The second verse about being renewed like an eagle is probably connected to an ancient belief that every ten years the eagle disappeared into the sun, dove down into the sea with the setting sun, and emerged young again. There’s a similar urban myth that at 30 years of age, the eagle flies to a high mountain top and makes the difficult decision between death or the painful plucking out of all of its feathers and the destruction of its beak and talons. After waiting several months for everything to grow back again, it will be transformed and the refreshed bird will be able to live another 30 years. Not so; like the rest of us, when it’s time to grow old and die, the eagle has no choice. Like other birds, however, when the eagle molts, old worn feathers will drop and new ones will replace them.

The Bible’s figures of speech have more scientific basis when they refer to the eagle’s wings and ability to fly. Isaiah tells us that trusting in the Lord will allow us to soar on wings like eagles. An eagle’s wing span can be over seven feet and yet those powerful wings weigh less than two pounds. Nevertheless, pound for pound, an eagle’s wings are stronger than the wings of an airplane! By using the wind and updrafts that come off hills and mountains, the eagle’s wings can carry it as high as 10,000 feet and move it faster than thirty-five miles an hour. During migratory season, those wings can easily carry an eagle over 125 miles in a day.

Isaiah is correct: trusting in God truly will allow us to fly like eagles. With faith in God, we will have strength and stamina and, like the eagle, we can rise to great heights. Just as the eagle uses the wind to propel himself up and through a storm, we can use God’s power to fly through the storms of life. When we trust in the Lord, we can soar like eagles. May you soar today!

You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren. [William Henry Hudson]

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:31 (NLT)]

For he will rescue you from every trap and protect you from deadly disease. He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection. Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies in the day. [Psalm 91:3-5 (NLT)]

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AFTER THE STORM

compass plantThe terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. [Acts 27:20 (NLT)]

“Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He calmed the storm to a whisper and stilled the waves. What a blessing was that stillness as he brought them safely into harbor! [Psalm 107:28-30 (NLT)]

While walking this morning, I could see the toll last night’s hail storm took on the wildflowers. Many that yesterday stood tall and proud over the prairie were now bent and broken. These defeated looking plants made me think of a friend and the storm that overwhelmed and nearly defeated him.

Raised in a Christian home and once a believer, he lost his faith in a loving God years ago when a series of medical errors left his child with severe brain damage. Angry at God and then disillusioned by the hypocrisy he saw in his church, he decided to worship the god of achievement and wealth. All went well for him until one day it didn’t. The storm hit when the multi-national corporation for which he worked closed its doors. In spite of his stellar resume, nearly two years passed without employment. When the economy tanked, so did his investments and his savings dwindled to nothing. Upside down with his mortgage, his god of success and prosperity was nowhere to be found. It was at that point that this once proud man literally fell to his knees and humbly admitted his defeat and nothingness to God. He wanted to believe but needed to know that God really was there. He didn’t ask for relief; he asked for reassurance of God’s presence. “Show me that you exist, that you care, that you are good!” was his simple prayer.

Most of those drooping wildflowers along the trail will again stand tall when the sun shines. Like those flowers, my friend was raised up when he turned to God and allowed the Son back into his life. Within a day of his prayer, he received a call from a struggling Christian-based non-profit and, within a week, he’d started working there as the CEO. Several years have passed and he is happier and more content than he was in his previous life. Because of his business acumen, the organization he serves is now thriving and people’s lives are being changed in incredible ways. His child is still disabled and his standard of living is not what it was before the storm, but he lives joyfully in the knowledge of a loving and good God—a God who can still storms and lift a drowning man out of the sea.

A hail storm can knock down flowers and, sometimes, God knocks us to our knees with a storm of troubles. It’s when we’re on our knees, however, that the only place to look is up! When we ask God to reveal Himself to us, we shouldn’t expect Him to do it with a job or financial support. After all, God only promises relief from all of our troubles in the next world. In this life, we will be relieved only from some of them; other troubles He will enable us to endure. Nevertheless, when we humbly and sincerely ask God to reveal himself to us, He will.

If God seems far away, who moved? [AA slogan]

But whenever they were in trouble and turned to the LORD, the God of Israel, and sought him out, they found him. [2 Chronicles 15:4 (NLT)]

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