HE ALWAYS ANSWERS

Why do you accuse God of not answering anyone?  God does speak—sometimes one way and sometimes another—even though people may not understand it. He speaks in a dream or a vision of the night when people are in a deep sleep, lying on their beds. He speaks in their ears and frightens them with warnings to turn them away from doing wrong and to keep them from being proud. [Job 33:13-17 (NCV)]

monarch butterflyWhile sorting through comic strips I’d saved, I came across an old Beetle Bailey (written by Greg and Mort Walker). In it, the inept General Halftrack approaches the chaplain and says, “I’d like to talk to God like you do, but when I try to talk to him, He doesn’t answer.” Chaplain Stainglass replies, “Maybe you’ve been calling the wrong number!” Indeed, sometimes the silence seems deafening when we call on God but I don’t think it’s because we’ve called the wrong number. The general simply may have hung up too quickly! Abraham determinedly pled for the city of Sodom, Hannah untiringly prayed for a son, Elijah persisted in praying for rain, and the Syrophoenician woman stubbornly begged Jesus to heal her daughter. They continued to call and God answered them all! Then again, maybe the General was so busy talking, that he didn’t hear God answer him!

The General may have missed the answer because he didn’t recognize God’s voice. Perhaps he expected to hear an audible voice as did Moses in the meeting tent or Paul on the road to Damascus. Maybe the general imagined God’s words would come from an angel as they did to Mary and the shepherds long ago. Most of us, however, will have neither a face-to-face meeting with God nor an encounter with a host of angels. It’s more likely that God will use the voices of other believers when He talks to us as He did with the prophets to Israel and Judah, Jethro to Moses, Samuel to Saul, and Paul to Timothy.

Nature and natural events are another way God speaks. The thunder, lightning, quaking and smoke at Mt. Sinai certainly made God’s presence clear to the Israelites. He spoke through both a flood and a rainbow to Noah and a star to the Magi. Because God has a specific plan for our lives, we also will find God’s voice in our circumstances. When, like the Israelites, we find ourselves between an army and the sea or a rock and a hard place, He may be telling us to trust Him. If, like Jonah, we end up in the belly of a whale, He might be teaching us about obedience. Sometimes God’s even speaks through the supernatural as He did to Gideon with the fleece, to Moses with the burning bush, to Balaam with a talking donkey, and to King Belshazzar with writing on the wall.

Dreams and visions are another way God speaks. It was in a dream that God told Abimelech that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and a vision led Ananias to visit Paul. In one dream, Jacob saw angels ascending and descending from a ladder and, in another, God told him to return home. It was through Joseph’s dreams God spoke to him and through Pharaoh’s dreams that Joseph knew of Egypt’s future famine.

God also He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. While some refer to Him as that “still small voice,” the Holy Spirit is anything but still or small when He points out our sins or has an assignment for us. Speaking to our hearts and often through our conscience, the Holy Spirit helps us discern God’s will, convicts us when we go astray, and gives us a sense of peace when we’ve taken the right path.

Perhaps the General forgot that God already provided him with plenty of answers in the Bible. All of scripture is God-breathed and His word is filled with wisdom and guidance. The words of Jesus are as relevant today as they were over 2,000 years ago. We, however, have to do our part by reading those words!

Like the General, we all have times when it seems God is away from his desk and ignoring our calls. The problem isn’t with God; it’s with us. We’re just not listening with our ears, eyes and hearts!

And the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he brings all his sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:3-4,27 (NCV)]

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STAYING HUMBLE

And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. [1 Peter 5:5-6 (NLT)]

salt marsh mallowBelieving that God’s spirit would not enter into something flawless, various Native American people intentionally strung a wrong-colored bead (the spirit bead) into an otherwise perfect pattern of beadwork so to create an opening through which God’s spirit could flow. In a similar way, believing that a perfectly woven rug or carpet would be an offense to Allah, followers of Islam would make an intentional small mistake in their weaving. Concerned that a perfect quilt would encourage pride, imperfect squares called humility squares or blocks, are said to have been deliberately placed in quilts by Puritan women as their acknowledgment that only God is perfect.

Whether these intentional errors were done for God as acts of humility, as a way to use miscellaneous beads or scrap fabric, or simply to explain away a mistake, I don’t know. Nevertheless, feeling the need to make a deliberate mistake to keep from perfection seems the height of pride to me. Having done needlepoint, quilting, and other handwork, I can guarantee that mistakes will always creep into anything we make (at least anything I make).

The Greek word most often used in the Bible for sin was harmartia. An archery term, it meant missing the mark—a failure to hit the bull’s eye. Having done a little archery as a girl, I didn’t need to deliberately miss the bull’s eye to remain humble since I frequently missed the target altogether! No matter how hard we try, when it comes to being sinless, we don’t have to concern ourselves with making deliberate errors to avoid pride. None of can be sinless; that was done only once—by Jesus—so there is no need for any of us to insert a “humility square” into our lives. We’ve made enough errors already and more are yet to come.

Humility, however, is a strange thing—the minute you think you have it, you’ve lost it! As C.S. Lewis aptly said in Mere Christianity, “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” True humility isn’t found in in bead work, weaving, or quilting mistakes; it is found in a deep sense of one’s own sinfulness, limitations, and unworthiness in the sight of God. It is found by looking up at Him—His righteousness and holiness—rather than down at our accomplishments or the errors made by others!

Being human, we won’t hit the mark every time. Nevertheless, even though we fail to live up to God’s perfect standard, like the Apostle Paul, we continue to aim for the bull’s eye. There’s no need to be discouraged; we are all works in progress and are forgiven for our errors. We just need to focus on Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to guide our aim.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:12-14 (NLT)]

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FARMA – Part 3

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?” He said to them, “An enemy has done this.” [Matthew 13:24-28 (ESV)]

sunflowerWhile we usually reap what we sow, we also can receive unexpected and undeserved harvests! When we lived in the north, courtesy of God and nature, wildflower seeds took root in the field next to our house and Spiderwort, Sunflowers, Dame’s Rocket, and Wild Bergamot grew there without any effort on my part. Although I hadn’t sowed them, I never protested those beautiful wildflowers; I just thanked God for them. None of us are likely to complain to God about the many undeserved blessings He regularly bestows on us!

While we certainly don’t object when we get a harvest of blossoms, we’re sure to protest when we receive an unexpected (and seemingly undeserved) harvest of life’s thistles. Like the farmer who sowed high-quality seeds only to discover weeds growing in his field, we were distressed the year we discovered our beautiful field of wildflowers had been invaded by thistles. Although we hadn’t planted the invasive weeds, the unwelcome thistles were there!

Shortly before his eviction from Eden, Adam was told that the ground would yield thistles and thorns along with grain. That warning was both literal and figurative. Satan will spread his seeds wherever and whenever the opportunity arises and the enemy’s seeds of evil can invade people’s lives no matter how many good seeds they’ve sown. We can sow the seeds of love and fidelity but still be betrayed by an unfaithful spouse, we can work carefully and industriously but get downsized, we can drive cautiously and courteously but get hit by a drunk driver, and, even though we pray for and love our enemy, he may continue to hate us!

While we should expect more of the same when we sow thistle seeds, we’re perplexed when we’ve sown seeds of righteousness and get things like misfortune, difficulty, suffering, or loss. That’s the enemy assaulting us and we can’t allow his seeds of hatred, anger, resentment, doubt, or violence to take root in our hearts. Rather than wonder why, our job is simply to faithfully tend our fields and keep sowing seeds of righteousness. When the time is right, God will take care of the weeds and we’ll be part of a wonderful harvest.

If I ask, “Why me?” about my troubles, I would have to ask, “Why me?” about my blessings. … I take the good with the bad, and I try to face them both with as much calm and dignity as I can muster. [Arthur Ashe]

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (ESV)]

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FARMA – Part 2

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

Illisnois corn field - farmWhile we often reap what we’ve sown, farmers don’t plant on one day and expect to harvest the next and neither should we. No matter how good the soil, it usually takes about two weeks for a corn shoot to appear and two to three months before it’s ready for harvest. Spiritual farming is even less predictable than growing corn and we shouldn’t expect immediate results after sowing seeds of God’s love and Word. Rarely does an apology yield instant reconciliation, words of correction yield an immediate change, or our first witness produce an instantaneous conversion. It often takes considerable plowing and sowing to soften a hardened heart.

In both agriculture and “farma,” even with the best seeds, richest soil, and the farmer’s diligence in tending the field, not every seed sowed will survive to harvest. Between insects, wildlife, and weather, millions of farm acreage are ruined every year. For example, between 2020’s derecho windstorm and its late summer drought, nearly one million acres of crops in Iowa were destroyed. When seeds of God’s love and Word have been sowed, instead of animals or weather, it is Satan who ruins the crop. Just as wildlife steal soybeans and corn, he tries to steal every seed sown in God’s name. Just as hail and wind can break a cornstalk, by breaking down people with storms of his making, the enemy attempts to keep seeds of righteousness from maturing.

Sadly, not every seed will bear fruit and not every hand extended in love will be accepted. Not every person to whom we witness will respond, not every hearer will believe, and not every soul will be saved. Nevertheless, we are farmers in God’s world and our job is to cultivate His fields and sow His seed. Like the local farmers, we don’t give up when the crop is slow in coming or the enemy ruins the harvest. Even if we have to replough and reseed, we faithfully continue to do our part by sowing the seeds of God’s love and Word.

With nearly a third of the world’s population Christian, there are plenty of potential farmers. Unfortunately, that percentage has remained about the same for more than a century and appears to be dropping. Apparently, we haven’t been sowing anywhere near enough seeds to defeat the enemy and bring forth a bountiful harvest.

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)]

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NOTHING PERSONAL

I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind. [Luke 6:35-36 (MSG)]

great egret - breeding lores“There is nothing personal going on here,” were the words that helped author Jane Smiley get through her acrimonious divorce. Although no divorce is pretty, the circumstances surrounding hers were especially ugly. Realizing that her husband was acting out his own drama helped her to better understand and deal with his dreadful behavior and hurtful actions. Smiley explained, “This is a wiser way of understanding the people around you … how they have their own passions, motivations, and histories, that sometimes (always) grip them in ways, that even they do not grasp—ways you don’t have to respond to automatically.” Her words impressed me so much that I wrote them down after reading them several years ago. The author wrote that remembering the phrase, “There’s nothing personal going on here,” has helped her deal with other difficult people and situations in her life. I find them useful, as well.

When Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley writes fiction, she is the creator of each character. As such, she knows their back story, needs, fears, and issues. She invents the baggage they’re carrying and understands the reasons for their behavior. In real life, however, people have their own private history. Although people’s past hurts or present problems are never an excuse for thoughtless words or bad conduct, they do affect them. Carrying hidden scars, people have passions, fears, insecurities, prejudices, and forces that control them in ways that even they may not understand. We don’t know much about other people’s pasts (or their present circumstances) nor do they know ours. Realizing this makes it easier to step back and not take their hurtful words and actions so personally.

In this day and age of insults, boorishness, and unpleasantry, we have plenty of opportunities to take offense. More often than not, we’ve done nothing deliberately to deserve whatever nastiness has been dished out to us; nevertheless, let us remember than taking offense is a choice. We are accountable to God only for what we do, not for what is said and done to us.

It is hurting people who hurt people; remembering that hurtful behavior is more the result of other people’s issues than our behavior keeps us from retaliating. It certainly makes forgiveness much easier. Rather than taking it personally, let us pray for those who upset, offend, fail, or hurt us. Bearing in mind that everyone has a history and their own unique story known only by God, we can say, “There is nothing personal going on here,” and get on with our lives.

What can you ever really know of other people’s souls – of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. [C.S. Lewis]

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity. [Luke 6:37-38 (MSG)]

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THE MAIN THING

Martha was frantic with all the work in the kitchen. “Master,” she said, coming in to where they were, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!” … He replied, “You are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.” [Luke 10: 40-42 (NTE)]

great blue heronThe guest pastor shared an experience when he was an intern at a large church. Posted on the door leading into the senior pastor’s office was this quote by Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” At eye level and in large letters, anyone entering the pastor’s office was sure to see it. He’d given the sign little thought until one day, hot under the collar and ready to voice a complaint, he started to knock on his boss’s door. Seeing the sign, he paused, quietly returned to his desk, gave his complaint more thought, and asked himself if he was keeping the main thing main with his grievance.

Of course, to keep the main thing main, we must identify it first. Scripture, however, makes the main thing rather clear: love God, love others, and follow Jesus. Nevertheless, even when we’ve determined the main thing, it’s easy to get distracted and shift our focus. Like a reader who nitpicks over semi-colons and spelling while ignoring the significance of the words, we frequently cease focusing on God and His purpose to focus on ourselves and our interests.

Martha, for example, lost sight of the main thing when she complained to Jesus about her sister Mary. The mother of James and John lost sight of the main thing when she demanded special treatment for her boys and the disciples lost sight of the main thing when they squabbled over who was the greatest. Losing sight of the main thing, Elijah threw himself a pity party when things got tough, Jonah tried to escape his assignment in Nineveh, and the Pharisees carefully tithed their spices but neglected their parents and neighbors.

Our complaints to others (and to God) usually have little or nothing to do with God’s plan but rather with how it affects us. I’m busy, tired, bored, annoyed, angry, unappreciated, taken advantage of, better than him, too good for that, underpaid, or over-scheduled. Maybe some of our complaints are true. The question, however, remains—are any of them the main thing? If not, what is?

Father in heaven, help us keep our eyes on the main thing—you, accepting your plan, and furthering your kingdom. May we always remember that the main thing is never about us and always about you!

Let the king’s word dwell richly among you, as you teach and exhort one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God with grateful hearts. And whatever you do, in word or action, do everything in the name of the master, Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the father. [Colossians 3: 16-17 (NTE)]

Look at it like this. People whose lives are determined by human flesh focus their minds on matters to do with the flesh, but people whose lives are determined by the spirit focus their minds on matters to do with the spirit. [Romans 8:5 (NTE)]

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