FAIRY TALE ENDINGS

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?. [Romans 8:35,38-39 (NLT)]

blue flag irisAs a child, I loved the way fairy tales always ended with these words: “and they lived happily ever after.” Real life, however, is anything but a fairy tale. I suspect that after Cinderella and the Prince had two kids, she went right back to cooking and cleaning all day and never went to another ball. Prince Eric’s fondness for ahi tuna sushi and sashimi led to his divorce from Ariel for irreconcilable differences. Snow White ended up under arrest for dwarf exploitation and trafficking in blood diamonds while Barbie, who turned 60 last year, keeps undergoing plastic surgery in an unsuccessful attempt to regain her youth. Because of Ken’s bad investments, their dream house went into foreclosure and their dream cars, boat and motor home were repossessed. In real life, no fairy godmother shows up with a magic wand to turn pumpkins into carriages, mice into horses, and our sweetest dreams into reality.

The “grown-up” life we expected at age ten probably bears little resemblance to our present reality. Naively, we were sure that life would be easy for us. We envisioned a life that went according to plan, never expecting that circumstances beyond our control could leave a loved one dead or take away our business. If we anticipated marriage, we didn’t picture things like infidelity or “irreconcilable differences.” We certainly didn’t consider the possibilities of job loss, unpaid bills, or bankruptcy. Piles of laundry, dirty dishes, or having to work two jobs never entered our thoughts. If we imagined children, they didn’t have cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s or an addiction. If we even visualized ourselves as senior citizens, we’d be athletic, slender, healthy and as attractive as we were at twenty. We never imagined being alone, needing a walker, artificial hips or cardiac rehab. Nor did our mental picture have age spots, wrinkles, a bald spot or dementia.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that life doesn’t go according to our plan. It isn’t like a private train ride in which we set the destination, map the route, and schedule the stops. It’s more like we’re hitch-hiking across the country with all of the delays, detours, rejections, good and bad encounters, and unscheduled stops that come with thumbing a ride. Life is filled with the unexpected and, like a successful hitch-hiker, we just have to make the most of what comes our way.

Rest assured that we are never alone on this journey. Life doesn’t go according to our perfect plan but it does go according to God’s! As the Apostle Paul told the Romans: “Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.“ Rest assured, as a believer in Jesus, there really is a “happily ever after!”

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCES

How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery?” [Habakkuk 1:2-3 (NLT)]

bougainvilla

In Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephen Pastis, the gentle, sweet, and somewhat dim-witted Pig has been struggling to maintain his cheerful disposition during the pandemic. He tried ignoring it all with a good book and a bucket of cheese while sequestered in his “comfy corner” of pillows and then attempted to erase the year entirely by throwing out his 2020 calendar. In the belief that “the only way out of these difficult days is to hug our way out!” Pig recently went door to door offering hugs. After being told that hugging wasn’t allowed because of the virus, he lamented, “These are merciless times.” Indeed they are and we can’t change them with a bucket of cheese (or a bottle of gin), denial, or hugs.

It’s a bad situation and may well get worse before it gets better. We could do as Pig did in one comic—close our eyes, cover our ears, and sing “lalala” whenever there’s bad news but ignoring bad news won’t help. Eventually, we have to face reality and hear what it has to say. Recently, the naïve Pig asked the wise one on the hill, “When will things get better?” His response was, “When you decide they get better.” Pig questioned what he meant and the man answered, “That you can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to those events.” Disappointed, Pig said, “I was hoping he’d just say Tuesday.” Yes, the answer is disappointing but it’s true. The naïve Pig was told what we, as Christians, should know: circumstances do not have to determine our mindset!

This isn’t the first time life has presented us with circumstances beyond our control and it won’t be the last. The book of Habakkuk begins with a complaint much like Pig’s. Wanting to know when things will get better, the prophet cries, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help?” Looking at the troubles surrounding him, he wonders if God has everything under control and questions God’s goodness. God’s answer is to wait patiently and trust Him.

Like Pig, Habakkuk doesn’t completely understand. Nevertheless, he chooses to look beyond the difficult times and focus on God. His words conclude with a psalm of faith, trust, and triumph. The situation is still as bad at the end of the book as it was at the beginning and yet the prophet’s words go from those of gloom to ones of glory. The only thing that changed was his mind! Like us, Habakkuk still didn’t know why or when, but he knew that he would rejoice in the Lord regardless of his circumstances.

Rather than focusing on our circumstances—circumstances not of our choosing or liking—let us focus on the God who is with us in these circumstances. As Christians, we must remember that we’re not defeated by loss, pain, worry, grief, injustice, or insults and we’re not overpowered by trials, difficult people, or even a pandemic! Things will get better when we decide they will: by accepting what we can’t control, controlling what we can, and trusting in the Lord!

Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality. [Nikos Kazantzakis]

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights. [Habakkuk 3:17-19 (NLT)]

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LISTEN FOR THE WHISPER (Elijah – Part 2)

And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. [1 Kings 18:45-46 (ESV)]

dawn - apple canyon lakeWhen Elijah and the Lord proved triumphant over Baal, the man must have felt like he’d won the gold medal in the prophet Olympics. Rain stopped when he called for a drought, returned when he promised it would, fire poured down from heaven at his call, and the people had slaughtered Baal’s prophets. Fresh from his extraordinary victory at Mount Carmel and thinking that Ahab and Israel would return to Yahweh, Elijah ran all the way to Jezreel.

Although Ahab had witnessed the defeat of Baal’s prophets, Jezebel had not. After the king related all that had happened, the incensed queen vowed to kill the prophet. Neither Ahab nor Jezebel understood: it was God’s power that defeated Baal, not Elijah’s! They might be able to kill the prophet but they couldn’t defeat the one true God.

When Elijah sped to Jezreel, he probably expected a hero’s welcome rather than the death warrant that sent him fleeing into the wilderness. Doing God’s work doesn’t mean we won’t be frustrated or disappointed by the results; it certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be free from opposition or trouble. Let’s remember that all but one of the disciples died a martyr’s death and the hero’s welcome given to Jesus by Jerusalem’s population was replaced by calls for his crucifixion less than a week later.

Forgetting that God (not Jezebel) was in charge, the disheartened prophet prayed for death and fell asleep. He awakened to an angel who fed him and sent the man on a 200-mile journey to Mt. Sinai. Once there, Elijah found shelter in a cave where he once again complained to God. Having served the Lord in such an extraordinary way, he didn’t expect to be rejected and alone. God responded by promising the depressed man that He soon would pass by. After a wind so powerful it loosened the rocks raged, there was a terrifying earthquake followed by a fire. Although wind, earthquake and fire were signs of God’s arrival, the Lord was not found in any of those impressive phenomena. Finally, it was in the sound of a faint whisper that Elijah heard the Lord’s voice.

Sometimes we see or hear God in the impressive and spectacular but, more often than not, He makes Himself known in ways we least expect: the seemingly insignificant—like a hushed voice. God doesn’t have to shout because He always is near. Let us silence our complaint and draw close to Him so we can hear His gentle whisper.

God operates in the great and small, the remarkable and the ordinary. While He may call us to do spectacular things, as He did with Elijah, most of the time, He calls us to do ordinary mundane tasks. Those tasks won’t bring us honor or glory (nor should we expect them to). What they will do is glorify God! As Mother Teresa so wisely said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)]

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STARTING OVER

When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream! We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy! [Psalm 126:1-3 (NLT)]

along Stagecoach trailWhen the first group of exiles returned from Babylon, they rebuilt the altar and celebrated the Festival of Shelters. Seven months later, after laying a new foundation for the temple, the people again gathered for a celebration. Trumpets blew and cymbals clashed. They sang responsively with one chorus chanting, “He is so good!” and the other answering, “His faithful love endures forever!” In the midst of the crowd’s great shouts of praise, however, weeping could be heard.

Those shouts of praise were from the younger people: the ones who knew nothing of the glorious temple that Solomon had spared no expense in erecting. They’d never seen the doors and walls decorated with carvings of cherubim, flowers, and palm trees and completely overlaid with gold. They’d never walked on the porch or gazed up at the two 27-foot tall pillars of bronze topped by 7-feet chapiters decorated with lilies and pomegranates. For the younger people, the temple foundation was a beginning but, for those who’d seen the once magnificent temple, it was a painful reminder of all they’d lost.

50 years earlier, all of Jerusalem had been looted and destroyed. To those who’d seen the thriving city, splendid palace, and ornate temple, the smaller foundation in the middle of Jerusalem’s rubble was a poor substitute for what once was. David had amassed 1,000 times more money for the construction of Solomon’s temple than they had for this one and they knew it could never come close to matching the first. Standing in the midst of the city’s remains, they were disheartened. I imagine those returning to their homes along the Louisiana coastline after Hurricane Laura feel much the same way as they look at the devastation surrounding them.

In the years that followed, the Judeans encountered opposition to rebuilding the temple from their enemies. The real enemy, however, was their own discouragement and apathy. Sixteen years after they celebrated the temple’s foundation, God’s house still was unfinished while their own homes had been built (quite possibly with the lumber initially meant for the temple). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah called for the completion of God’s temple. The Lord’s message through Haggai was simple and direct: “Now go up into the hills, bring down timber, and rebuild my house.” [1:8] The people obeyed and, four years later, the second temple was dedicated.

I suppose we could call COVID-19 the “great detour” of 2020. It’s been our exile to Babylon and, while it hasn’t lasted decades, it sure feels that way. This year’s events certainly caught us off guard. Unless we were epidemiologists, most of us thought things would be back to normal by now. We now understand that, when this pandemic eventually is over, the world to which we return will not look the same. While it won’t be the wreckage of an uninhabited and destroyed Jerusalem and a vandalized and demolished temple, it will be vastly different from the one we left in March. Like the Judeans, we will have to rebuild and, like them, we will have to fight our greatest enemy: discouragement. Let us “Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” [Haggai 2:4b] Let us remember, “He is so good! His faithful love endures forever!”

Restore our fortunes, Lord, as streams renew the desert. Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy. They weep as they go to plant their seed, but they sing as they return with the harvest. [Psalm 126:4-6 (NLT)]

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UNDETERRED (Part 3 – Mark 10:46-52)

Lots of people told him crossly to be quiet. But he shouted out all the louder, “Son of David – take pity on me!” [Mark 10:48 (NTE)]

hibiscusWhen Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, the crowd surrounding him kept telling him to be quiet. Not about to be deterred, the blind beggar just shouted louder. Another man in Jericho was as determined as Bartimaeus: the short and much disliked publican named Zacchaeus. When the little man couldn’t shove his way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of Jesus, he climbed up a tree (an extremely unseemly behavior for a man of his position).

There are many other stories of such dogged determination to see Jesus. In spite of the disciples reprimanding them for bothering Jesus with their children, some parents persevered in getting their little ones blessed by Him. We have the sinful woman who followed Jesus into a Pharisee’s house so that she could wash His feet with her tears and anoint them with her perfume. That she hadn’t been invited to dinner didn’t stop her from worshiping the Lord. In spite of trying to keep His whereabouts in Tyre a secret, a Syrophoenician woman doggedly tracked down Jesus. When she fell at His feet and pled for her daughter’s healing, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Refusing to leave, she even dared to debate with Jesus about her request (inappropriate behavior for a woman of any nationality)! The woman with the bleeding disorder was so intent on touching the rabbi’s cloak that she broke Jewish law and risked public humiliation and severe punishment to get to Him. Two blind men were so determined to see that they followed Jesus right into the house where He was staying. Consider the four friends who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus only to find the doorway blocked. Unwilling to accept defeat, they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man down to the Lord.

Bartimaeus and the rest of these people were not about to be deterred from coming into the presence of the Lord. Are we anywhere that resolute in worship, study, praise, and prayer? Would we fight our way through a crowd, climb a tree, refuse to leave, risk humiliation or punishment, go where we weren’t welcome, or cut a hole in someone’s roof? They did and their determination was rewarded. Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ plea, visited Zacchaeus, blessed the children, forgave the sinful woman, and healed the Gentile woman’s daughter, the bleeding woman, the blind men, and the paralyzed man.

While questioning our determination to be with Jesus, we also might ask ourselves if we might be like the ones who hinder or discourage people from coming to Christ. Are we like those who shushed the blind beggar, elbowed Zacchaeus, scolded the parents, wanted to send away the Syrophoenician woman, reminded the sinful woman she wasn’t welcome, shut the door, or blocked the entryway? Do we openly welcome the very people Jesus came to save: the socially unacceptable, weak, troubled, different, disenfranchised, vulnerable, and unclean? Let us be like those who, upon hearing Jesus’ call, said to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up. Come on,” and led the blind man to the Lord!

Then they too will answer, “Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t do anything for you?” Then he will answer them, “I’m telling you the truth: when you didn’t do it for one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you didn’t do it for me.” [Matthew 25:44-45 (NTE)]

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RECIPE BASICS

I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too. [Mark 11:24-25 (NLT)]

But Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22 (NLT)]

While creativity is encouraged in both cooking and prayer, there are certain procedures for both that should be followed to ensure good results. For example, before a cook even begins, his work surface, utensils, and hands should be clean. In prayer, instead of starting with clean bowls and spoons, we should wash ourselves of any resentment or anger and start with a forgiving heart.

Even the most creative chef knows there are some cooking rules that simply can’t be broken: egg yolks can’t get mixed in with whites in a meringue, fudge needs to be cooked only to the soft ball stage, and poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees. Prayer has rules, too. For example, a willing, obedient and thankful heart is a necessity. In addition, just as leavening of some kind must be added to any bread recipe, we must have faith in God and the power of our prayers. Without leavening, no matter how delicious the rest of the ingredients, the bread won’t rise. Without faith, no matter what we’ve said or how nicely we’ve said it, our prayers won’t rise to God’s ears!

Some recipes, like risotto, require patience and persistence in preparation and others, like a 20-pound turkey, take a long time to bake. We have to be patient and persistent in prayer as well. The answers to our petitions aren’t like instant potatoes—they often take time. Just as pans should be greased so baked goods won’t stick, we need to lubricate our prayers with a large amount of humility if we want them to come out easily. Any good chef knows to use only fresh wholesome ingredients. Self-righteousness and pride will spoil any prayer and are as vile to God as rancid nuts in granola.

Anyone who watches cooking competitions knows that presentation is judged. God however, doesn’t score our prayers on their aesthetic appeal and extra points aren’t awarded for fancy words as they might be for fondant flowers or a strawberry fan. If God judges our prayers at all, it would be on things like sincerity, motives, repentance, obedience and willingness to submit to His will!

Finally, a good chef doesn’t offend a gastronome with bland or tasteless food; he honors him with bold flavors. A true connoisseur of prayers, our God is awesome and capable of anything and everything. Let’s never insult Him with insipid or weak petitions. Like a gourmet chef, we must be bold with our offerings. When cooking in God’s kitchen, let’s give Him everything we’ve got!

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. [Ephesians 3:12 (NLT)]

He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” [Luke 18:27 (NLT)]

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