THE RAINBOW

chicago rainbowI will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent toward evil from childhood. I will never again destroy all living things. As long as the earth remains, there will be planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night. [Genesis 8:21-22 (NLT)]

Tears are the material out of which heaven weaves its brightest rainbow. [F.B. Meyer]

With everyone stuck inside because of the rain, the day had been challenging as my son and his wife tried to get in eight hours of Zoom meetings, conference calls, report writing and computer programming while keeping their two youngsters busy (and relatively quiet). The rain finally stopped shortly before dusk and, when my grand ran out onto the rooftop deck to celebrate her freedom, she stopped in amazement. There, above the city, a city plagued not just by COVID-19 but also by gang violence, shootings, racism, rioting, and poverty, was a beautiful ray of hope: a double rainbow.

Rainbows are among my favorite things. The glory of the Lord “looked like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day,” to Ezekiel and John described the Lord’s glory circling Him like a rainbow and glowing like an emerald in Revelation. The rainbow shows us God’s light in the darkness of our troubled world and is probably the closest thing we have to seeing His radiance while we’re on this side of the grass.

Scripture’s first mention of a rainbow is in Genesis 9. Once the floodwaters had receded and the earth was dry enough, God told Noah to leave the ark and release all of the animals. Even though God knew mankind’s heart was still inclined toward evil, He gave us another chance with His promises to never again destroy every living thing by flood and that the normal cycles of nature would continue as long as the earth existed. The rainbow provided Noah and future generations with a sign of God’s covenant.

After a rain storm, with its clouds, thunder, and lightning, we frequently are blessed with a rainbow: a beautiful reminder of God’s love, mercy and faithfulness. It reminds us of both God’s grace and our sinfulness; after all, it was mankind’s sin that caused the flood in the first place! Rather than saving us by putting us on an ark of cypress wood, God saved us by putting Jesus on a cross. The rainbow reminds us of our redemption and salvation; because of Jesus, we have an opportunity for a new beginning. God packed a whole lot of supernatural meaning into a natural phenomenon when He hung the rainbow in the sky!

Before Noah and his family left that ark, they’d been in close quarters with one another and all of those animals for a year. If we think sheltering in place is challenging, imagine doing it with four families and an enormous menagerie but without the internet, Amazon, Netflix or Door Dash. Today’s bad news, like rain, keeps showering down and we’re in a season that seems to have no end. The storm clouds of life can obscure God’s presence but, when we remember that He is in the storm with us, we might just see a rainbow! Like my grand, I love seeing rainbows; they remind me that God is faithful to His promises for “all generations to come.”

And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow. [G.K. Chesterton]

I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures. Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life. [Genesis 9:12-15 (NLT)]

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FORTITUDE

Let’s not get tired of doing what is good, for at the right time we will reap a harvest—if we do not give up. [Galatians 6:9 (ISV)]

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you are involved in various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But you must let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. [James 1:2-4 (ISV)]

Moraine Lake - CanadaYesterday, I wrote about the sin of sloth, a sort of spiritual weariness; fortitude is considered its contrasting virtue. Taken captive in 605 BC and forced to trudge the 500 miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, Daniel is an example of fortitude. He lost his home, family, name, language, culture, nation, and possibly his manhood but the one thing he never lost was his faith in God. From the moment he arrived in Babylon, Daniel refused to compromise his principles by refusing to defile himself with prohibited food. Sixty-six years later, he was still determined to stay true to God. In spite of knowing he would be thrown to the lions for his actions, he ignored the law prohibiting praying to anyone but King Darius. Instead, Daniel opened his windows and, as he’d “always done,” prayed to the one true God while offering thanks and asking for God’s help. [Daniel 6:10-11]

A pastor friend was in her fifties when God called her to the ministry. After completing her Lutheran seminary studies and internship, she met all the additional ordination requirements except one: she needed “a call” or placement in a Lutheran church. Although she’d received a call and felt confident it was God’s plan, a problem remained. Caught in a sort of “catch-22,” the call was from a Methodist church for an ordained minister but she couldn’t be ordained without accepting a call from a Lutheran church! Urging her to be patient, the bishop assured her that the Methodists and Lutherans soon would come to a “full communion” agreement so her position with the Methodists would qualify as the required call. The wheels of bureaucracy moved slowly and the Bishop’s promise of “soon” dragged into years. While she worked in Christian education for the Methodist church, my friend was not yet ordained and her dream of becoming a pastor had been put on indefinite hold. In God’s time, however, the Lutherans and Methodists became full communion partners which, among other things, meant they could exchange clergy. Four years after her seminary graduation, my pastor friend was ordained by a Lutheran bishop in the Methodist church. It would have been faster to leave the right church (but “wrong” denomination) in search of the “right” denomination (but wrong church), but she didn’t. Instead, she exhibited fortitude by trusting God and staying where He put her.

Fortitude is not a word we use much today. The Roman Catholic Catechism calls it “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life.” Our spiritual backbone, fortitude is a combination of endurance, courage, perseverance, strength, and faith. Simply put, fortitude is the grace God gives us when we so desperately need it.

As did my pastor friend several years ago, we’re probably asking, “How long?” We’re not the first ones to ask that question. It had to have been asked multiple times when a few years of refuge in Egypt turned into 400 years and slavery, an 11 day trek across the desert stretched into 40 years, 15 difficult years passed between David’s anointing and his kingship, Job’s suffering seemed to have no end, and Judah’s Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years. Rather than wondering, “How long?” let us pray as did Daniel: by offering thanksgiving and asking for God’s help. May God clothe us with fortitude and fortify us with His strength.

She clothes herself with fortitude, and fortifies her arms with strength. [Proverbs 31:17 (ISV)]

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A TERRIBLE TEMPTATION

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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PUSHING THE ROCK

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” [Luke 14:12-14 (NLT)]

utahI recently read about Derek Black, a young man who grew up immersed in white nationalism. The heir apparent to the WN movement, by the age of twenty, he’d already created a racist website for children and was co-hosting a national radio show advocating prejudice and hostility toward blacks, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. During college, Black gradually recognized the ugliness of his beliefs but it wasn’t confrontation, heated debate, or ostracism that led to his transformation; it was the hand of friendship!

One of those who reached out to Black was Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew, whose father had advised him to “reach out and extend the hand, no matter who’s waiting on the other side.” Each Friday night, Matthew welcomed friends at a Shabbat dinner. Only one other guest was Jewish; the rest were an assorted mix of faith, race, and nationality. Realizing the best way to enlighten Black was to introduce him to another way of thinking, the orthodox Jew invited this man—someone who regularly spewed anti-Semitism—to Shabbat dinner! Shunned by nearly everyone else on campus, Black accepted.

This was not an effort to ambush or “convert” Black and politics were not discussed. The group simply shared Shabbat prayers, wine, kosher food, and casual conversation. Derek Black’s thinking didn’t change overnight and, after more than a year of such dinners with no change in his views, one of the group suggested no longer inviting him. Matthew wisely responded, “The basic principle is that it’s our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock.”

White nationalism was embedded in all of Black’s childhood memories, his sense of self, and nearly every relationship he’d ever had. Extricating himself from all that he’d known, but gradually recognized as wrong, was not easy. Eventually, however, the rock was ready to move and Derek Black publicly disavowed white nationalism.

This message isn’t about white nationalism. It’s about extending our hand “no matter who’s waiting on the other side” in the same way that Jesus extended His hand to tax collectors, Gentiles, sinners and those considered “unclean.” Every person we meet has been made by God in His image and can teach us something about life. The only label we should use for anyone is that of “neighbor” because everyone (regardless of race, religion, or politics) is our neighbor and someone we are to love.

If we expect anyone to listen to us, we must be as willing to listen to them as the Shabbat group was with Derek. While we may consider some people’s beliefs to be in error, we must remember that they think them to be true and, most likely, find reassurance in them. We can’t berate or condemn people into belief and, if we expect our beliefs to be respected, we must respect those held by others. In light of the increasingly polarized political climate in our nation, we must learn to extend our hands “no matter who’s waiting on the other side.”

Looking beyond his label of white nationalist, Black’s dinner companions didn’t see him as a problem needing fixing and the non-believers we meet are more than projects needing salvation. The Shabbat group was patient, not pushy and, while they never were false to their own beliefs, they never condemned Derek for his. While the end goal of Christian evangelism is conversion, our job merely is to give the rock a push. Whether or not the rock moves is between that person and God. We may be the messengers but it is Jesus who saves!

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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GROUNDHOG DAY…AGAIN

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 [(NLT)]

ground squirrel - chipmunkWith each new day feeling like yesterday, we decided to watch the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. In it, the discontented TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is trapped in a time loop and keeps reliving February 2. At first, he takes advantage of never having to reap the consequences of his selfish actions but grows tired of his hedonistic life. When the predictability of the day causes boredom, depression, and cynicism to set in, he commits suicide several times—only to wake again and again on the same February 2. Eventually, Phil comes to grips with his situation and decides to make the most of it. Among other things, he learns to to play jazz piano, speak French, memorize the life story of everyone in town, sculpt ice, and master the art of flipping cards into an upturned hat. As he betters himself, he begins to better the lives of the people around him. The time loop eventually ends when the changed man finally gets the day right by caring more about others than himself.

Although many people have tried to estimate how many Groundhog Days Phil experienced, even co-author Danny Rubin wasn’t sure. He said the point of the movie “was that you had to feel you were enduring something that was going on for a long time… I don’t know. A hundred years. A lifetime.”  Psychologists actually have named the feeling that we’re caught in a rut the “Groundhog Day Syndrome” and, with this self-quarantining, we may feel as trapped as was Phil Connors.

Even though they can’t agree on what it means, people from various religious backgrounds view Groundhog Day as a spiritually meaningful movie. Buddhists see samsara or continuing rebirth and Hindus see reincarnation. With good deeds begetting more good deeds, Jews see the fulfilling of the Torah’s 613 mitzvoth while Roman Catholics see Phil’s situation as purgatory. Psychiatrists see it as a metaphor for psychoanalysis, soldiers as a film about boredom, motivational speakers as an illustration of transformational self-improvement, and one film critic saw the groundhog as symbolic of the risen Christ! Sometimes, however, a movie is just a movie.

Perhaps the meaning of Groundhog Day comes down to the words in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” After all, even though Phil changes, his circumstances and the people of Punxsutawney don’t. But, once Phil starts changing the only thing over which he does have control, which is himself, the weatherman finds that his circumstances eventually do improve.

Whether it was Max Lucado or Mark Batterson who originally said, “The circumstances we ask God to change are often the circumstances God is using to change us,” they’re right. Phil’s circumstances changed him for the better and God can use our circumstances to change us—if we let Him. Let us remember that, until our last day, we are works in progress; even though we can’t change what is happening around us, our hearts and minds can change. As they do, we may just find the world around us changing, as well. COVID-19 will still be here, just as Punxsutawney and the groundhog were still there for Phil. Nevertheless, Phil’s life changed and, just as he found joy in his circumstances, we can, too!

We have little control over the circumstances of life. We can’t control the weather or the economy, and we can’t control what other people say about or do to us. There is only one area where we have control—we can rule the kingdom inside. The heart of every problem is the problem in the heart. [Warren Wiersbe]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. [1 Peter 1:6-7 (NLT)]

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)]

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GOD’S WAREHOUSE

And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 (NLT)]

mute swanWith all the online shopping we’re doing during this time of sheltering in place, can you imagine how busy it is in Amazon’s various warehouses? Even though basic items like hand sanitizer, bleach wipes, disinfectant spray and face masks are on back order, we still can get a vast assortment of products like a package of 9,000 ladybugs (along with a ladybug life cycle poster), a “daddy saddle” for piggy back rides (complete with horn and stirrups), a potty putter for our favorite golfer, or even a talking toilet paper spindle.

As busy as Amazon must be, picture God’s heavenly prayer fulfillment center. Instead of going to customer service, our prayer requests would go directly to God. How He manages to keep those requests straight is a wonder; fortunately, He is in the miracle business. After being processed and approved, our prayers would get sent over to the warehouse for order implementation.  God’s warehouse would be larger than any of Amazon’s or Walmart’s and extend further than the eye can see. But, unlike our earthly warehouses, it wouldn’t be filled with sports equipment, electronics, clothing or books. Instead, there would be crates of courage and wisdom, shelves piled high with love and kindness, and bins of patience and forgiveness. Perhaps the angels would be in charge of shipping and receiving. They’d bar code and inventory items as they moved in and out of heaven and nothing would ever get lost or misplaced. Can you imagine an angel driving a fork truck around to various locations to get an extra-large box of faith, a package of humility, or a crate of joy especially ordered just for you? Unlike Amazon, God’s warehouse never runs out of anything and the spiritual needs of those in Jesus Christ will always be filled. Let us remember, however, that while we can give an order to Amazon, we only give requests to God!

Amazon’s warehouse is filled with stuff but God’s is filled with the real necessities of life. While we can’t expect a carton of bleach wipes or Lysol, we can expect that He’ll provide us with all that we truly need: things like courage, strength, forgiveness, faith, peace, wisdom, hope, compassion, self-control, humility, patience, guidance, and salvation. Nothing is ever put on back-order and shoddy substitutions are never offered. Best of all, returns are unnecessary since everything is exactly right. Moreover, on-time delivery is guaranteed; that perfect timing, however, is according to God’s schedule and not ours!

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? [Romans 8:31-32 (NLT)]

So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help. … He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. [Isaiah 30:18,19b (NLT)]

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