HIS MEGAPHONE

We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. [Romans 8:28 (NTE)]

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. [C.S. Lewis]

columbineWhen we’re hurting, it’s not easy to reconcile how an entirely good, ever-loving, and all-powerful God can allow pain and suffering. The simplest answer is that, since He gave us free will, we can’t hold Him responsible for what mankind has done with that free will. We can’t blame God for global warming, tooth aches, concentration camps, genocide, cancer, red tide, wars, tornadoes, torn ligaments, or rising COVID cases. We alone are the ones responsible for mankind’s poor choices and the disease, death, destruction, and suffering that have accompanied us since we were evicted from Eden.

Pain tells us something is wrong and often begins with little nudges, ones that are easy to disregard. However, when the pain gets bad enough, it can’t be ignored. C.S. Lewis calls pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I don’t know how well the world is listening to Him but I know that my recent issues with neck and back pain got my attention!

While discerning the physical reason for my pain was relatively easy, I suspected there was more to it than arthritis, herniated discs, bone spurs, ergonomics, posture, and too many hours at the computer. God doesn’t haphazardly distribute pain and trials. If pain is God’s way of getting our attention, we need to understand what God is telling us with it—to discern God’s purpose so that we can get on board with His plan.

A little soul searching and prayer told me that it wasn’t just my body that had gotten out of alignment—so had my priorities. Like the busy Martha, I’d lost sight of Jesus while serving Him. I’d been busy asking what God wanted me to do for Him when I should have been asking what He wanted to do with me. My pain knocked me to my knees in such a way that I had to surrender to God, abide in Him, and trade self-sufficiency for God-dependence.

Pain and adversity in our fallen world can’t be avoided. Perfect health isn’t promised any more than are perfect marriages, spouses, children, weather, or jobs. When God gets out His megaphone, we must step back to get some perspective so that, instead of focusing on what is happening to us, we can discern how God is using the circumstances for us.

“If this is the worst thing that’s happened to me, I’m way ahead of the game,” said a friend who is enduring her own share of pain. That sort of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? One glance at the people on my prayer list tells me it could be far worse! In the meantime, may we always remember that it is God’s presence in our painful circumstances that gives them meaning.

God has no pleasure in afflicting us, but He will not keep back even the most painful chastisement if He can but thereby guide His beloved child to come home and abide in the beloved Son. [Andrew Murray]

Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes. Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left. [Isaiah 30:20-21 (NLT)]

In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. [1 Peter 5:10 (NLT)]

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MAKING THE MOST OF IT

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. [Genesis 50:20 (NLT)]

purple cone flowerOne morning, the self-assured Joseph went out to check on his brothers’ flocks and, by nightfall, Jacob’s favorite son had been stripped of his beautiful robe, thrown in a pit, betrayed by his brothers, and sold to Ishmaelite traders. That day seventeen-year-old Joseph found out how capricious life could be. For the next month, he journeyed through the desert before ending up in Egypt. Imagine how alone, frightened, and lost the young shepherd from Canaan was when, unable to speak, read or write the language, he found himself in the most advanced civilization of the time—one with monumental architecture, centralized government, papyrus, ship building, and a military force.

Rather than give up all hope, the wealthy man’s son adapted to the role of servant. As Potiphar’s slave, Joseph worked hard and became so essential to his master that he ran the man’s entire household. Loyal both to Potiphar and God, the youth rejected Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances. When she falsely accused him of rape, however, life threw another curve ball and the trusted overseer of Potiphar’s estate was tossed into prison.

Once again, the youth’s life turned upside down through no fault of his own, but Joseph adapted by becoming a model prisoner and serving as the warden’s administrator. Nevertheless, he still was a slave in prison, away from family and friends, without any rights, and considered guilty until proven innocent. Joseph had a glimmer of hope when Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his position, but it was two more years before the man remembered Joseph’s kindness and ability to interpret dreams.

When Pharaoh summoned the young man to interpret his dreams, another transition began. After giving Pharaoh a survival plan for the next fourteen years (and crediting God with his wisdom), the boy from Canaan moved from prison to palace and from slave to prime minister of Egypt. Joseph had been released from a cell but he wasn’t free. He served at the whim of Pharaoh, a capricious man who thought nothing of expressing his displeasure in the chief baker by impaling the man on a pole!

Joseph didn’t cause his life to crash at seventeen. Over the span of at least thirteen years, he was betrayed, mistreated, sexually harassed, falsely accused, punished unjustly, and forgotten. In spite of that, Joseph never gave up because he knew he was not alone. Because he knew God was with him, Joseph made the most of every situation. Throughout his story, we are told that the Lord’s presence was the reason for Joseph’s success.

Although we know the happy ending of Joseph’s story, Joseph didn’t know any of that when he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery! He didn’t know that he’d eventually be reunited with his family or that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. Nevertheless, he faithfully served God and others by adapting, adjusting, and making the most of every situation into which he was thrown. Let’s not forget that Joseph did more than save the lives of the entire population of Egypt. He saved Jacob’s family—the sons of Israel who were the seed of Abraham and the ancestors of Jesus.

Like Joseph, our lives are filled with upsets, shocks, setbacks, and disruptions; author Bruce Feiler calls these events “lifequakes.” While their purpose probably isn’t to save whole nations from starvation as did Joseph, they have a God-ordained purpose. We get no choice in experiencing “lifequakes,” but we can choose how we deal with them. The challenge comes with navigating our way through these upsets into the new normal of our lives. Do we resist, throw a pity party, complain, grow resentful, or give up? Or, like Joseph, do we take on the burden of climbing out of the pit and making the most of wherever life takes us? We won’t have to do it alone. Scripture tells us that God was with Joseph from pit to palace because, when serving Potiphar, the prison warden, and Pharaoh, Joseph always was serving God!

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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CHAPTER 43 (Job – part 2)

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. [Job 1:20-22 (NLT)]

mountain blue birdEven though all that he lost was restored to Job at the end of Chapter 42, did the ten new children remove Job’s memory of his first ten or his sorrow at their deaths? While the new ones may have filled Job’s home with laughter again, there still would be an empty place in his heart from his loss. Although Job’s health was restored, would the scars from his boils be a daily reminder of his past afflictions? Would double his livestock be enough to make him forget the original herds and servants who had perished? How would experiencing the precariousness of life—the inexplicable randomness of misfortune—affect Job’s next chapter, the Chapter 43 of his life? Would he be more affectionate, patient, or protective of his children? Would he better appreciate and cherish every precious moment with which he was blessed?

Even though he questioned God, Job is Scripture’s model for patience and endurance. I know some people who could give Job a run for his money if their stories were compared. People of faith, like Job, they have experienced more than their share of life’s tragedies first-hand—things like catastrophic loss, chronic disease, severe disability, heartache, betrayal, grief, poverty, divorce, addiction, abuse, disfigurement, ever-present pain, or the loss of spouse or children. Some have moved through their Job-like experiences while others are still in the midst of them. Like Job, their story didn’t end at Chapter 42 but unlike him, their next chapter wasn’t necessarily a fairy tale ending of complete restoration. I admire them—not because of their suffering but because of what they’ve made of it—because of how they’ve written the next chapter of their lives.

I think of one couple, both of whom lost their beloved first spouses to the ravages of cancer.  Perhaps because they know the fragility of life and the pain of loss, in their Chapter 43, they seem to listen better, cherish each other more, and complain less than do most couples. I think of a friend who was nearly destroyed by mental illness and came out the other side of her darkness stronger and wiser. Having experienced the depths of despair, she makes it a point to find joy and thanksgiving on each page of her Chapter 43. The mother who lost a child seems to grumble less about the tears, temper tantrums, mess and teen-age angst of her living children. The man who who once flat-lined values each moment more than those who never have been on the brink of death. I think of a friend, suffering from Parkinson’s, who enthusiastically seizes every today because she knows that she’ll be just a little worse tomorrow. I remember a couple who lost three of their children to drugs and yet they never lost their trust in the Lord and confidence in His goodness. I think of other friends whose Chapter 43 is a continuing battle with metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and chronic pain yet they still bravely face each day with courage, faith, and even joy. Does their experience of what truly defines a “bad day” give them a new perspective and help them know how little is necessary to make any day a great one?

I don’t admire these people simply because they are survivors of tragedy. Anyone can survive tragedy. I admire them because they managed not just to survive but to thrive, to become better not bitter, all while keeping their faith intact. I admire them because they are examples not just of faith, but also of determination, strength, wisdom, generosity, love, joy, and even optimism. I admire them because they are making the most of the 43rd chapter of their lives. Their examples remind me to thank God for every circumstance He throws at me and to savor every breath with which I am blessed!

I pray that 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. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NTE)]

Although the Apostle Paul seems to have mixed figures of speech by referring to the military with “fought” and “fight,” athletics with “race,” and religion with “faith,” all three references relate to athletics. The word used for fought was agónizomai (the root word for the English word “agonize”) which meant “to contend for a prize” or “struggle.” The word translated as “fight” was agōna, meaning “a gathering, contest, struggle.” Rather than a conflict or dispute, it referred to a gathering to see contests like the ancient games held at Olympia or the games themselves. Paul’s audience would have understood that he meant something grueling and, in their 1st century world, athletic competitions were so fierce and brutal that even the winners usually carried scars.

Continuing the theme of athletics, the word usually translated as race or course, was dromos and literally meant a race course or track and the word translated as faith, pistis, referred to a guarantee or warranty that the contender fulfilled his obligations honorably. When Paul spoke of the crown awaiting him, rather than diádēma, meaning a royal crown made of gold and precious stones, he used stephanos which was the circular wreath or garland awarded to victors in ancient athletic games. We could paraphrase Paul’s words as “I have competed well in the struggles of life. I followed the course God set before me, wasn’t disqualified, faithfully finished what I began, and won the victor’s wreath.”

When reading Paul’s words, I remembered the story of John Stephen Akhwari, a marathon runner representing Tanzania in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Having come from a nation with an average altitude of 2,769 feet, the over 7,300-foot altitude of the city caused the runner to cramp up early in the race. Nevertheless, Akhwari kept going. When jockeying for position at the 19K mark, however, he collided with another runner, fell down, injured his shoulder, and cut and dislocated his knee. Seeing his injuries, spectators assumed he would quit (as 18 of the original 75 runners eventually did). The Tanzanian runner, however, chose to fight the good fight and complete the course. After getting his leg bandaged, in spite of the altitude, heat, pain, and knowledge that he couldn’t even place in the race, Akhwari continued.

More than an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line and the medals had been awarded, when the sun had set and the stands were nearly empty, John Stephen Akhwari hobbled into the stadium to complete the 42K race he’d begun nearly three-and-a-half hours earlier. With the few spectators remaining in the stadium cheering him on, Akhwari stepped up his pace and finished the race by running the last hundred meters. When asked why he finished the course, he simply replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Akhwari didn’t receive a medal or a wreath at the 1968 Olympics, but he was the real hero of that race because he did more than start—he finished what he’d begun in spite of overwhelming obstacles. He kept the pistis. Do we have that same kind of determination to fight the good fight—against Satan, disappointment, discouragement, discomfort, and pain? Are we as determined as were the Apostle and Akhwari to finish the course that God has set before us? Will we keep the faith by finishing our course without fouling out or quitting? Of course, in an athletic contest, there’s only one winner—only one gold medal or wreath to place on the victor’s head. The crown of righteousness, however, is available for all who fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith!

Just as coaches use Akhwari’s story to inspire their runners, Paul is encouraging young Timothy to let the Apostle’s story inspire him. May both of their stories inspire us!

Life is a fight, and only the faithful will finish strong. [Brian Tome]

Don’t you know that when people run on the race-track everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don’t run in an aimless fashion! I don’t box like someone punching the air! No: I give my body rough treatment, and make it my slave, in case, after announcing the message to others, I myself should end up being disqualified. [1 Corinthians 9:25 (NTE)]

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THE SKINK

Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. How quickly I would escape—far from this wild storm of hatred. [Psalm 55:6-8 (NLT)]

five-lined southwestern skinkThe skink is a reptile that looks as if it can’t decide whether it’s a lizard or a snake. As one scampered away down the boardwalk, it looked more lizard-like than usual because it was missing the pointed end of his long tail. Like many lizards, if a predator manages to catch a skink by the tail, the tail will break off. Since the detached tail continues to wiggle, the predator gets distracted which allows the lizard to escape.  Even though a raccoon, snake, or hawk had appropriated its tail, that skink escaped to see another day. Although skinks don’t have much with which to defend themselves, with their detachable tails (caudal autonomy), God provided them with an effective mode of escaping trouble!

Like the skink, we all want to be able to escape when disaster occurs. The Department of Transportation designates evacuation routes in case of a hurricane and public buildings mark exits and stairwells so we can flee in case of fire, but we wish to escape from more than storms and burning buildings. We want to flee from things like chronic pain, stage-4 cancer, paralysis, Parkinson’s, or MS. We wonder where the emergency exit is when caregiving for a spouse disabled by stroke, an elderly parent with dementia, or a child with cerebral palsy. Where do we go to flee from a loved one’s addiction, the loneliness of widowhood, overwhelming debt, a troubled marriage, or the consequences of our failings? There are, however, no detachable tails or specially marked exits for those situations.

Adam and Eve ran from God after eating the forbidden fruit, the pregnant Hagar ran away from Sarai’s harsh treatment of her, Jonah ran the opposite way when God told him to go to Nineveh, and Elijah tried to escape Jezebel’s wrath by fleeing to Beersheba. Running and hiding, however, didn’t keep God from finding them and setting them back on the path He set for them. Unlike the skink, they couldn’t turn tail (or leave their tails behind) and run away; neither can we. Although some people try to flee their difficulties through abandonment, denial, addiction, or emotional detachment, their troubles eventually catch up with them. Instead of escaping like a skink, we have to turn around and face our troubles head on as did Adam, Eve, Hagar, Jonah, and Elijah.

While God doesn’t promise to fix our problems, He does promise we’ll not face them alone. Unlike the skink whose only defense is a detachable tail, God has provided us with His armor, the power of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Heavenly Father, when we want to flee, please give us the strength and courage to meet our challenges face to face. We know we can’t do it alone but, with you, all things are possible.

Don’t pray to escape trouble. Don’t pray to be comfortable in your emotions. Pray to do the will of God in every situation. Nothing else is worth praying for. [Samuel M. Shoemaker]

But I will call on God, and the Lord will rescue me. Morning, noon, and night I cry out in my distress, and the Lord hears my voice. He ransoms me and keeps me safe from the battle waged against me, though many still oppose me. … Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:16-18,22 (NLT)]

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ALEXAMENOS

“I’ve said these things to you,” Jesus went on, “to stop you from being tripped up. They will put you out of the synagogues. In fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will suppose that they are in that way offering worship to God. They will do these things because they haven’t known the father, or me. But I have been talking to you about these things so that, when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them.” [John 16:1-4 (NLT)]

Locarno-Madonna del SassowIn any cathedral or art museum, we’ll find many pictures of Jesus and even rather graphic depictions of Him on the cross. None of them, however, tell us anything about His appearance because they were created long after His time. Still, in a world where we seem to memorialize everything with pictures, you’d think one of Jesus’ followers would have sketched Him while blessing the children, giving the Sermon on the Mount, or feeding the multitude! 1st century rabbis in Judah, however, vehemently objected to the depiction of human figures because the second commandment prohibited making a “graven image.” With its Jewish roots, this prohibition carried into the early church and inhibited early Christian art.

At first, Jesus was represented indirectly by symbols such as the peacock, lamb, dove, and anchor. One of the most common was the ichthus (fish) because the Greek word served as an acronym “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” While making the sign of the cross dated from sometime in the second century, because of its connection with the horrific death of criminals, the cross did not became a symbol of Christianity until the 4th century; crucifixes and other depictions of the crucifixion did not occur until the 6th.

One earlier depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, does exist. Crudely scratched into a stone wall, it was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the Paedagogiumon (a school for the training of slaves) on Rome’s Palatine Hill. Dating from around 200 AD, it shows a man (or boy) worshiping a figure on a cross; the figure, however, has the head of an ass. The inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.” This derisive graffiti gives us an idea of the way early Christians were ridiculed for worshiping a man who had been executed as a criminal.

Along with claims of onolatry (donkey worship), the early Christians had to deal with several other disparaging, malicious, and false accusations such as incest, cannibalism, and drinking the blood of infants. Roman orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100-160) wrote that Christians were “initiated by the slaughter and the blood of an infant” and that Christianity was “foolish” because, “they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment” and “are said to worship the head of an ass.”

This was the world—a world that misunderstood, slandered, ridiculed, hated and persecuted them—of the early Christians. And yet, they proceeded in faith and spread the gospel. I wonder how the 21st century church would do in similar circumstances! As for Alexamenos, the fellow mocked by that ancient graffiti—more graffiti was found on a wall in an adjacent room. In Latin it said, “Alexamenos is faithful.”  In the face of opposition, we must be the same!

Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever. So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! [Hebrews 10:32-35 (NLT)]

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