STRONG MOTHERS – MOTHER’S DAY

So the Lord answers, “Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you. Jerusalem, I can never forget you! I have written your name on the palms of my hands.” [Isaiah 49:15-16 (GNT)]

While walking in the park, we came across a female snapping turtle by the side of the trail. Normally an aggressive species, she was too busy laying some thirty eggs to snap at us. Two days later, we walked past the same spot only to find that her nest had been destroyed. The empty shells scattered along the trail told us a raccoon (or some other predator) had enjoyed a turtle omelet soon after mama turtle’s departure. At first, I felt sorry for this mother who’d labored so hard just two days earlier until I remembered that she’d never know about the loss and really didn’t care. After laying those eggs and covering the nest, she returned to the water and wouldn’t be back until the following year when she’d dig another hole and lay more eggs. If any of those eggs hatch (and only about 5% of snapper’s eggs ever do), Mama won’t be there to help the tiny (1”) hatchlings find their way to water or to protect them from any land predators. If they safely make it into the water, she won’t be around to defend them from fish, snakes, and other turtles looking for a quick meal. In fact, she might even enjoy one of her own young for dinner! Ms. Turtle doesn’t deserve any Mother’s Day cards!

On the other hand, unlike most reptiles, alligators are good mothers. While 90% of turtle nests are destroyed by predators, because Ms. Gator carefully covers her nest and guards her eggs, less than a third of alligator nests get raided. When the mother hears her babies start to hatch, she uncovers the nest and gently carries each hatchling to the water. Mama Gator continues to watch over her young for more than a year. If a youngster is threatened, he just calls for mom and she comes! Few predators are daring enough to approach the little guys knowing mom can’t be far away. While cold blooded, Ms. Gator is anything but cold to her young.

While I’m not sure they’ll appreciate the comparison, most of us were blessed with women in our lives who were more like an alligator than a turtle. But, for those who weren’t so blessed, God provided us with foster, step and adoptive mothers, along with aunts, mothers-in-law, teachers, neighbors, and mentors, all of whom watched over us. They were like the Muscovy duck I saw at the zoo. Muscovies typically lay a clutch of eight to sixteen eggs but this mother was watching over more than thirty little ones; apparently, she was running the equivalent of ducky foster care. I watched as she chased off a large softshell turtle as it swam near in search of a duckling lunch. The softshell is an aggressive hunter but, fortunately for the ducklings, he was no match for Ms. Duck. She kept an eye on that turtle as it circled around the young ones and fearlessly snapped at it whenever it dared approach the youngsters. She kept nudging the ducklings along the shore into a more protected area. No matter whose babies they were, she seemed determined that not a one of those little guys would be lost on her watch.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking mothers only comfort and nurture. They’re as tough as mother alligators, muscovies, and even little mockingbirds. After giving a warning with their angry buzz, mockingbird moms will dive-bomb humans if they venture too close to the nest and bravely fend off crows, herons, hawks, and snakes. Mothers can be pretty tough when someone messes with their young! The only one who keeps a better eye on children is God!

Thank you God for the women you brought into our lives—women who not only comforted and encouraged us, taught us about love, and shared their faith with us, but also protected us when danger lurked. Thank you for those women who had eyes in the back of their heads, knew when we told a lie, stood up for us, taught us to stand up for ourselves, and cared enough to punish us when we misbehaved. Thank you for the women who watched over us, taught us how to navigate the murky waters of life, and kept us safe from harm.

You will be like a child that is nursed by its mother, carried in her arms, and treated with love. I will comfort you in Jerusalem, as a mother comforts her child. When you see this happen, you will be glad; it will make you strong and healthy. Then you will know that I, the Lord, help those who obey me, and I show my anger against my enemies. [Isaiah 66:12b-14 (GNT)]

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KEYSTONES – EARTH DAY (April 22)

God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind: cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.” And there it was: wild animals of every kind, cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug. God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:24-25 (MSG)]

When the grands visit, we usually take them to a nearby preserve where we walk the boardwalk and hope to catch sight of one of the more than 150 gopher tortoises living there. We watch them lumber through the sand, munch on prickly pear cactus, or sun on the apron of their burrows.

The gopher tortoise is what’s called a “keystone species,” meaning it plays a unique and crucial role in holding together a habitat. A keystone species can be a plant, animal, fungi, or even bacteria. It isn’t necessarily the largest or most plentiful species in an ecosystem but, if it were to disappear, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.

Gopher tortoises are considered keystones because they are ecosystem engineers capable of digging tunnels forty feet long and ten feet deep. Their burrows provide refuge for some 350 to 400 other species, including snakes, rodents, armadillos, rabbits, lizards, worms, spiders and bugs. Some animals use the burrows as homes and others hide there from predators. In the case of fire, animals can escape the blaze in the deep tunnels.

Although these prehistoric looking creatures have lived on the earth millions of years, their survival is now endangered by predators, herbicides, and habitat destruction (better known as “progress”). Their population has declined by 80% in the last century and the gopher tortoise’s extinction is a real possibility. Sadly, its disappearance would lead to the disappearance of those other species that share its habitat. The gopher tortoise carries more than a carapace on his back—he carries the future of his ecosystem!

Other keystone species include sea otters, mangroves, prairie dogs, wolves, salmon, saguaro cactus, and bees. Not all are ecosystem engineers like the gopher tortoise but each is essential to its specific habitat and fulfills a critical ecological role that no other species can accomplish. It’s amazing how intricate God’s creation is and how interdependent various species are. Every living thing seems to uniquely mesh with others, much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When a piece goes missing, however, the puzzle ceases to come together as it should.

Although mankind clearly has a huge impact on the environment, we’re not a keystone species. In fact, some scientists argue that, if we were to disappear, the environment would improve! With the cessation of so many human activities because of COVID lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, water quality improved, noise pollution lessened, air quality improved, and nature began healing. The break, however, was short-lived and now that many restrictions have been lifted, pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels in most areas.

After God created the world and everything in it, He found it all to be good. He then gave mankind the responsibility for His beautiful creation. I wonder if He is as pleased with the state of our world today as he was when He turned its care over to us. Let us remember that each one of God’s creatures (whether bee, gopher tortoise, or mangrove) is His handiwork and precious to Him. Today (and everyday), let us consider what we can do to keep His creation functioning as He meant it to do!

Father of all, Creator and ruler of the universe, You entrusted your world to us as a gift. Help us to care for it and all people, that we may live in right relationship—with You, with ourselves, with one another, and with creation. [From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops]

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” [Genesis 1:26-28 (MSG)]

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CONCEIT AND COMPARISON (Galatians 6:2-5 – Part 3)

Carry each other’s burdens; that’s the way to fulfill the Messiah’s law. If you think you’re something when you are not, you deceive yourself. Every one of you should test your own work, and then you will have a reason to boast of yourself, not of somebody else. Each of you, you see, will have to carry your own load. [Galatians 6:2-5 (NTE)]

sled dogs mushingThese last few days, I’ve been discussing Paul’s instructions both to carry one another’s burdens and to carry our own loads. In between those two directives, we find a warning about the things that can prevent us from doing that: conceit and comparison.

Conceit is thinking we’re better than we are. In carrying another person’s burden, we must never think ourselves too good to help nor should we think ourselves morally or spiritually superior to someone in their weakness and need. Comparison can lead to competition as we try to determine who is the better Christian by carrying his load better! The Lord has given each of us a task and equipped us with a specific set of skills and spiritual gifts to achieve it. The load given us is our responsibility just as the tasks and talents given to others are theirs. Moreover, we must never compare our virtues with other’s imperfections (leading to pride) or our flaws with others’ accomplishments (leading to jealousy). If we’re going to compare ourselves to anyone, it should be to Jesus!

Oddly, this reminds me again of the Alaskan huskies I wrote about on Monday. Like us, each dog on the team has his own strengths (and weaknesses) and is assigned a position and a specific task that fit his attributes. Because they must follow the musher’s commands, set the pace, and keep the gangline taut, the lead dogs are the most intelligent on the team. No less important, however, are the swing dogs behind them. After the lead dogs make a turn, their critical task is to pull the sled in an arc that keeps the other dogs on the trail. They’re responsible for getting the musher and sled safely around curves and corners. Next are the team dogs—the brawn of the team who pull the sled and maintain the speed. Last, but hardly least, are the wheel dogs. Often the largest members of the team, as the first to take on the sled’s weight when starting out or going uphill, they play a crucial role in pulling and steering the sled.

Like us, each dog has a different skill set and position. Nevertheless, regardless of their position, no dog is more important than another and each is essential to the team. Just as the dogs’ responsibility is to the musher, ours is to God. The Apostle Paul tells us to examine ourselves (not others) to make sure we’re doing the work given to us by God. Like the sled dogs, we must be committed to doing our task well without conceit or comparison, Let us faithfully carry our own phortions and always be willing to carry one another’s baros.

Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think. Rather, think soberly, in line with faith, the true standard which God has marked out for each of you. As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, and all the parts have different functions, so we, many as we are, are one body in the Messiah, and individually we belong to one another. [Romans 12:3-5 (NTE)]

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BURDENS (Galatians 6:2-5 – Part 1)

Carry each other’s burden; that’s the way to fulfill the Messiah’s law. [Galatians 6:2 (NTE)]

dog sleddingSince we tend to think of burdens as demanding and often unwelcome duties or responsibilities, we’re certainly not anxious to take on a burden, especially one that actually belongs to someone else! Yet, that is exactly what we’re told we must do if we are going to fulfill Christ’s mandate. And what is that command? To love one another in the way God loves us.

Nevertheless, the concept of carrying someone’s burden makes me think of beasts of burden like mules, donkeys, or oxen. I find it hard to associate the joy of Christianity with an image of myself as a pack animal lugging a heavy load for miles on rough terrain or an ox being poked with an ox goad while plowing a rocky field. Then again, recalling the Alaskan huskies kenneled just west of our favorite Colorado mountain town, I realize I might be thinking of the wrong beasts of burden.

For thousands of years, dogs like them have pulled people and goods long distances. Experienced mushers say that sled dogs are born loving to pull and it certainly seemed that way whenever we went dog sledding. When we arrived at their kennel, the dogs were quietly resting by their shelters or enjoying attention from their future passengers. Once the sleds and harnesses were taken from the storage shed, it was another story. The noise was nearly deafening as the dogs pulled at their chains and barked excitedly as if calling, “Take me!” While the teams were being harnessed and hooked up, the sleds had to be chained to posts to keep the eager dogs from pulling them out on the trail prematurely.

Mushers say teaching one of these dogs to pull is unnecessary—just put on a harness, hook him up, and the dog will do the rest! We barely needed to say “mush” to get them moving and it’s almost impossible to hold them back once they get started. For sled dogs, carrying a burden is joy rather than a chore; carrying one another’s burdens should be that way for a Christian, as well.

A non-believer tends to react to other people’s burdens the way a poodle would to the sight of a heavily loaded sled. Unlike a husky, it probably would whine about the cold and snow and resist being harnessed. If you managed to harness up a poodle, it probably would lie down and refuse to move and, if you ever got a team of them harnessed and moving, they’d certainly find no joy in running across the frozen tundra pulling a sled. Poodles probably can’t understand why huskies enjoy mushing but the love of sledding isn’t in their breeding. Non-believers can’t understand a Christian’s willingness to carry another person’s burden either but that’s because they’re not reborn in Christ. Rather than a genetic predisposition, it’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to love others enough to willingly and joyfully carry their burdens.

When thinking of those dogs so eager to pull us through the mountains, I realize that even substantial burdens can be borne without great difficulty, especially when it’s a team effort. Indeed, the burdens of our brothers and sisters are meant to be shared and, when shared, they cease to be a heavy load for anyone. For the Christian, carrying one another’s burdens isn’t a chore; it’s a privilege and a joy. One musher described his team this way, “They just live their life the way they love to live it…a life that they can be proud of.” Shouldn’t the same be said of us?

Whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others. We must all carry our share of the misery which lies upon the world. [Albert Schweitzer]

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other. [John 13:34-35 (NTE)]

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TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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SWEET JESUS

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! [Psalm 34:8 (NLT)]

The religion of Jesus Christ is not ascetic, nor sour, nor gloomy, nor circumscribing. It is full of sweetness in the present and in promise. [Henry Ward Beecher]

tri-colored heronThe Synsepalum dulcificum is a West African fruit better known as the “taste berry” or “miracle fruit.” This almost tasteless red berry can make lemons, Dijon mustard, Brussels sprouts, pickles and even vinegar taste sweet. A protein in the berry temporarily binds to the tongue’s taste buds and causes sour or acidic foods to taste sweet. Miracle fruit tablets, powder, freeze-dried berries and plants can be purchased from several websites. Along with suggesting using the berry as a way to get fussy eaters to eat their fruits and vegetables, sellers suggest hosting “flavor-tripping parties” where guests get a berry and a strange buffet of foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, radishes, grapefruit, cheap tequila, goat cheese, vinegar, and Tabasco sauce. Why anyone would want to alter the delicious flavors of kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, grapes, or tomatoes is beyond me and I certainly have no desire to drink pickle juice or Sriracha chili sauce.

Miracle berries really aren’t miraculous because they don’t change anything; they merely change the user’s perception of a food. Although the berry neutralizes the flavor in the mouth, the food is still acidic as it goes down and the after-effects of indulging in hot sauce as if it were frosting or drinking straight lemon juice often include stomach upsets and mouth ulcers.

Rather than changing the taste of food, it would be nice to have something that miraculously could transform the bitterness, disappointment, and distress of life into something palatable and sweet. When I remember the words of Psalm 34 to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” I realize we already have it! When we taste of the Lord, we see His goodness, receive the power of His Holy Spirit, and experience the true sweetness of life. Jesus truly does perform a miracle—the miracle of changed lives. He transforms shame, sorrow, bitterness, resentment, meanness, hate, and rage into acceptance, joy, contentment, forgiveness, generosity, love and peace. The miracle berry’s effect lasts for only a few hours but the miracle of Jesus lasts into eternity. Taste and see.

Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Christ, the spirit of Christ interpenetrating ours, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. [Henry Drummond]

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness. [1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT)]

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