THE STRANGLER FIG

The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. [Mark 4:18-19 (MSG)]

strangler fig - corkscrew swampAs a rule, trees start as seeds in the soil, form a cylindrical trunk and observe proper forest protocol by not killing one another. The strangler fig, however, is the exception to that rule. Strangler figs tend to grow in dense forests where the competition for light is intense. When forest critters eat their fruit, fig seeds are left in their droppings. Although unable to survive in the darkness of the forest floor, these seeds thrive when deposited higher in the crevice of a tree. Starting out as what’s called an epiphyte or air plant, the seed gets its nutrients from sun, rain and organic material on the host. As the seedling matures, it sends out long roots that grow downward toward the soil. Once rooted, the fig grows rapidly, sending more roots down and new branches upwards. In time, its lush foliage and complex root system compete with the host for light, rain and ground water. Walking through the southwest Florida forest, you can’t help but notice the figs’ bizarre lattice work of roots and branches wrapped around the trunks of their hosts and it’s often hard to know where one tree ends and the other starts. Eventually, the fig assassinates its host by cutting off its nourishment; like a boa constrictor, it strangles its prey to death.

Just as a tiny fig seed can eventually destroy a giant cypress; if allowed to take root, worry can do the same to us. Like fig seeds, worries are opportunistic—when they find a niche, they move right in and start growing. They seem harmless enough at first but, once they take root, they dig into us and branch out into even more worries. Rather than wrapping around our trunk, worry wraps around our spirit and, like the fig, steals the light from our lives. The fig embeds itself into its host and worry entrenches itself in our hearts. A silent assassin like the fig, worry attacks our roots with doubt and tries to rob us of the living water of Jesus. At least the figs produce fruit to feed the residents of the forest; worry, however, keeps us from bearing any fruit and starves our spirit. The fig’s many nooks and crannies offer homes to critters like frogs, bats, and lizards but worries only offer hospitality to things like anxiety, fear, doubt, and tension. The strangler fig sentences it host to certain death and, like it, worry is a killer. It kills our joy, vitality, strength, spirit, and faith but it can also strangle the life right out of us with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related diseases.

The oaks, cypress and palms have no choice in the matter when a fig takes root. Fortunately, we have a divine Gardener who can rid us of worry but only if we trust Him to do His work. Without allowing worry to take root, we must prayerfully hand God our concerns as soon as they drop into our lives. It’s only by trusting God with tomorrow that we can bear fruit today.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:21 (MSG)]

But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

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NOT REMEMBERING

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. [Matthew 18:21-22 (RSV)]

Several authors tell the story of a friend of Clara Barton who reminded the nursing pioneer and Red Cross founder of a spiteful act someone had done to her years earlier. When Barton acted as if it had never happened, her friend asked, “Don’t you remember it?” She vehemently replied, “No! I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Forgiveness isn’t easy and it requires real (and continued) determination on our part. Sadly, without our deliberate effort to put the offense aside, it’s easy for past hurts to weasel their way right back into our hearts and minds.

When Moravian missionaries first came to the Arctic, they found no word in the Inuit language that properly captured the Christian concept of forgiveness. Using Inuit words, they came up with issumagijoujunnainermik meaning “not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.” That’s what forgiveness is; it’s choosing not to let the thoughts of that harmful person or their harmful deeds consume our thinking. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting; it’s deciding not to remember.

In writing about forgiveness today, I came across another interesting word: ilunga.  Found in the Tshiluba language spoken by the Bantu of the Congo, it is considered by linguists to be the most difficult word to translate. Ilunga describes a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first offense, will tolerate it a second time, but will neither forgive nor tolerate it a third time. It’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of person whose attitude changes with each offense. Jesus, however, didn’t tell us to forgive only once; He said to forgive seventy times seven times (or endlessly)!

When asked if she was ever troubled by past offenses, either hers of those of others, an elderly Christian lady is said to have replied, “Never!” She explained that if Satan troubled her about her sins or other people’s offenses, she simply sent him east. If he returned, she sent him to the west. Recalling the psalmist’s words that God “has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west,” [103:12] she explained that by sending Satan back and forth, from east to west and back again, she never allowed him to stop at her house.

The choice is ours. Will we choose to be like an ilunga or like that Christian lady and Clara Barton, people who practice issumagijoujunnainermik?

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. [Lewis B. Smedes]

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (RSV)]

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LETTING GO

gulf fritillary - Monarch butterfliesBut blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers — Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

This morning, in a symbolic gesture of turning my worries over to God, I added a name to the “God box” that sits on my desk. Yesterday, I received a photo of my grand proudly holding a bowl of pasta with the text, “I have yet to set off the fire alarm with my cooking.” As I looked at her beautiful smile, I prayed, “Dear God, please let setting off that smoke alarm be the worst thing that happens to her this year!” She just started her freshman year of college, in a large city, in a foreign country, 5,500 miles from home. I know that drinking and drugs are pervasive on all college campuses and, having been a freshman once upon a time, I know how many foolish mistakes can be made when free from parental supervision. Yet, even if every decision my grand makes is a wise one, I know the statistics: with a more than a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted in her college years, she’s most vulnerable to attack her freshman year. Since the day my son left his daughter at her apartment, my concerns have weighed heavily on my heart. Nevertheless, I know that all the worry in the world can’t protect her from harm. Accepting that all I can do is give my concerns to God, I put her name in my box.

“Let go and let God!” is a favorite phrase in recovery but that doesn’t mean we let the troubles of this world run over us like a steamroller. When there’s a fire, we don’t stand idly by and say, “Let go and let God!” With God’s direction, we reach for a hose and do what is within our control. Letting go and letting God is refusing to worry about fires that haven’t started (and might never start) and recognizing when a fire isn’t ours to extinguish. It is, however, more than putting a name on a slip of paper and placing it in a wooden box. It’s surrendering the outcome we desire and letting God manifest His will for the outcome He wants. It’s releasing our concerns and fears to Him and trusting His plan for the lives of those we love.

I can’t protect my grand from poor decisions or the violence and sorrow that comes from living in a fallen world. But, by putting her name in that box, I’ve acknowledged that my job description as grandmother does not include running the world; I’ve relinquished that role to the One whose job it is! I will continue offering prayers on her behalf but those prayers will no longer be ones of fear, anxiety, or apprehension. They will be ones of faith and trust because I know that God loves her even more than I do.

You find no difficulty in trusting the Lord with the management of the universe and all the outward creation, and can your case be any more complex or difficult than these, that you need to be anxious or troubled about His management of it? [Hannah Whitall Smith]

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

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ACORNS

The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:19 (NLT)]

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

acornsOnce upon a time, when an acorn fell on Chicken Licken’s head, he thought the sky was falling. In a panic, he ran across the barnyard to tell Henny Penny. After the alarmed twosome told Turkey Lurkey the frightening news, the three sped off to warn the rest of the barnyard. Shocked at the scary news, Ducky Lucky and Goosey Loosey joined them in their panic. When the five distraught birds encountered Foxy Loxy, the sly fellow invited them into the safety of his den. Sadly, that was the end of Chicken Licken and the rest of the barnyard birds—all because they didn’t understand that acorns falling from oak trees are an inevitable part of life.

As Christians, we are tempted to think that faith in Jesus will protect us from the slings, arrows, and acorns of this life. We envision easy sailing, level paths, on-time delivery, clear skies, benign lumps, seamless transitions, successful endeavors, perfect fits, spot-on directions, and happy endings. Jesus, however, told us to expect trials and sorrow. The norm of life in our fallen world is that businesses close, jobs are eliminated, families disagree, people disappoint, bodies fail, lines are long, cars break down, cancer spreads, loved ones die, progress grinds to a halt, mistakes happen, grief is unavoidable and, sooner or later, we will step in a least one pile of doggy do!

While I take comfort in the promise of God’s continual presence and peace, I’m not so happy about knowing that Jesus will neither spare nor shield me from troubles. Yet, for even the most righteous believer, a trouble-free life is a myth. Consider the pain and loss experienced by the blameless and upright Job, the persecution and martyrdom of the disciples, and the trials suffered by the Apostle Paul.

At the first sign of trouble, Chicken Licken and his pals panicked and decided the world was coming to an end. Unlike them, we must never let the harsh realities of this fallen world shake our faith. The good news is that we will never walk through our trials alone. God is at our side—encouraging, strengthening, comforting, and guiding us as we mature in our faith. Although it’s a given that we won’t have a trouble-free existence here on earth, we can be confident that we do have one waiting for us in eternity. Jesus has already delivered us from sin, evil, judgment and death. Until then, the next time the sky starts falling, consider it par for the course. Don’t panic or lose faith; make the best of it by putting on a hard hat and gathering acorns with a thankful heart. Be wary of easy solutions offered by the enemy and know that God will see you through your trials.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

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THE GOOD SHEPHERD

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. [John 10:14-16 (NLT)]

lambIn Ezekiel 34, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel—not the caretakers of sheep but the prophets, priests, and leaders who were supposed to protect their people in the same way a shepherd does his sheep. He accused them of not searching for lost sheep and abandoning their flock to be attacked by wild animals.

Surely the people were familiar with Ezekiel’s words when they heard Jesus tell the parable we know as “The Lost Sheep” or “The Good Shepherd.” Told both in Luke 15 and Matthew 18, the shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness so he can search for a lost one. Although its point is to illustrate God’s overwhelming concern for saving His people and to explain Jesus’s conduct in associating with sinners, the shepherd’s behavior in abandoning ninety-nine sheep seems irresponsible. Who’s going to keep them from going astray, drowning in a pond of water (that wet wool is heavy), or being devoured by hungry wolves? Won’t the shepherd return with the one stray sheep only to find a dozen or more missing or dead? That’s hardly cause for celebration! Did that shepherd abandon his flock like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s prophecy?

If this was a true story, before heading off into the wilderness, the good shepherd would have entrusted his flock to another shepherd. Biblical scholars, however, remind us that Jesus’s parables weren’t meant to portray real-life situations any more than were Aesop’s fables. We know a tortoise won’t challenge a hare to a race, geese don’t lay golden eggs, and a fox can’t talk to a crow. Yet, in spite of their inconsistencies, both Jesus’s and Aesop’s stories make their points.

Nevertheless, Jesus always seemed to be very concise in His choice of words and I wonder if he deliberately omitted a second shepherd or caretaker for a reason. Perhaps there is only one shepherd because there is only one God. He is not about to share us with another god so the shepherd won’t entrust the care of his beloved flock to anyone else. God is omnipresent, unlimited by time or space, and can be in all places at the same time. When the good shepherd rashly goes into the wilderness for the one lost sheep, he hasn’t abandoned the other ninety-nine. Ever-present, while he’s off saving the stray, he also is there tending the rest of the flock.

The Pharisees never questioned Jesus about those abandoned sheep. Like their predecessors, they’d abandoned their flock and failed to seek the lost; Jesus’s parable made it clear that a new shepherd was in town. Perhaps the parable also helped prepare the disciples for a time when they would feel abandoned. Jesus soon would be leaving them but, like the good shepherd, He would return. His disciples, like the sheep left behind, would remain safe in His care. I’m no longer troubled by those abandoned sheep because I know God will never desert us. Indeed, the Lord is our shepherd and we will not be afraid. Whether or not we are aware of His presence, He is close beside us.

I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for He is right beside me. [Psalm 16:8 (NLT)]

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. [John 17:11-12a (NLT)]

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OUR STUFF

I had everything a man could desire! … Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. [Ecclesiastes 2:8b-10-11 (NLT)]

We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us. [Ecclesiastes 5:15 (NLT)]

chipmunkWhile reading Ecclesiastes, I thought of comedian George Carlin’s “Stuff” routine that was first performed for Comic Relief in 1986. In his monologue, Carlin made fun of our obsession with consumerism, the importance of stuff in our lives, and described our houses as places to keep our stuff while we go out and buy more even more of it! When we downsized eleven years ago, we got rid of all sorts of stuff. Yet, when I walked into our storage room recently, it looked like all that stuff had returned and brought along friends! Where did it come from and why did we ever think we needed it all?

The King of Israel, Solomon also was the King of Stuff. Denying himself nothing, he had 500 gold shields, an elaborate throne of gold and ivory, pure gold goblets and utensils, 12,000 cavalry horses and even more horses for his 4,000 chariots. Along with all of the gifts he received from other kingdoms, he took in the equivalent of over $1.1 billion a year in tribute and taxes. Every three years, his fleet of ships returned with more horses and mules, gold, silver, robes, ivory, apes and monkeys. He collected women as readily as the rest of his possessions and ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines. With 1,000 women in his household, I’m sure there was a vast amount of stuff in the harem, as well. Yet, in spite of all that stuff, Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes are not the words of a happy or contented man.

Having lots of stuff becomes a burden; we must take care of it, insure it, worry about it, and find a place to put it. Some people have so much stuff that they hire professional organizers to sort it all out. In fact, a few of us have so much stuff that we must rent storage units for some of it!

Apparently, retailers don’t think we’ve collected nearly enough of their stuff so they fill our mail boxes with catalogues and our in-boxes with advertisements for even more of it. They want us to think that the new stuff is better than the old and that we can never have too much of it. Then, since we can’t take our stuff with us, we must decide who gets it when we’re gone. We write wills and put labels under the figurines, behind the pictures, or on the boxes. What we don’t understand is that, while they’ll be happy to get our money, our heirs probably don’t want our stuff. It’s meaningless to them; besides, most likely, they have too much stuff of their own.

Wealthy and wise, Solomon had lots of stuff but lacked contentment. Money can buy many things but it can’t buy joy, meaning or purpose. Contentment is not found in stuff but rather in our confidence in the sufficiency of God.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Haddon Spurgeon]

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (NLT)]

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