MAKE IT SPECIAL

Lowdermilk Park - Naples FLRemember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. [Exodus 20:8-10a (NLT)]

I’ve always thought of the first four commandments as being about our relationship with God and the next six about our relationship with people. The fourth commandment, however, seems to be a bridge between the two sections. It has as much to do with us as it does with God or our neighbor. Reminding us that we have six days in the week to work, it tells us to stop work on the seventh and to keep the Sabbath holy by setting it aside and dedicating it to God. Knowing how mankind loves to bypass rules, we’re told not to miss the point by expecting others to work for us either. Rather than a “thou shalt not” law, this commandment is a gift to us from God—the gift of rest!

As happened with many of God’s commands, the Israelites took a simple law and, by adding their own restrictions and interpretations, made what was a blessing into an inconvenience. Since His hungry disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath and Jesus had no qualms about healing on that day, He often came into conflict with the Pharisees about His Sabbath observance (or lack thereof). When criticized, Jesus made it clear that the Sabbath was made for man and should not be an onerous legal requirement.

While Christians aren’t bound by the Old Testament directives, Jesus never said to ignore the Sabbath. For most Christians, other than attending church, Sundays seem much like any other day. Parking lots are full at the grocery and mall, cell phones and the internet keep us in touch with work, the kids have sports and homework, and Sundays have become the day to complete everything that didn’t get done during the week. With families scattered every which way, even the traditional Sunday dinner (complete with cousins and grandparents sitting at the table) is but a distant memory.

Being retired, my husband and I have six Saturdays and one Sunday in our week so we can rest any time we want! The Sabbath, however, is more than taking a nap in front of the TV. God said to make it holy which means to set it apart. We can do that by taking something away (as did the Israelites with work) or by adding something to it (as we are doing).

On Sundays, we’re attempting to disconnect from the world and connect with one another, family, friends, and God by consciously doing something out of the ordinary. It can be as little as playing Rummikub or doing a jigsaw puzzle together to a bags tourney with our neighbors or a barbecue for church friends. Trusting God for enough hours in the other six days, we’re deliberately setting aside time for relaxation, laughter, fun, and fellowship.

How Sunday can be set apart from the rest of the week, in a way that both honors God and nurtures us, will vary from family to family. It’s probably naïve to think children won’t do homework and working moms and dads won’t have to play catch-up with chores. Nevertheless, we must remember why God gave us this commandment. He wants us to recharge our batteries: to rest from the week’s busyness, to take a break from our daily routine, to connect one another, and to rest in Him. When we neglect the Sabbath, we neglect ourselves and turn whatever it is we do the rest of the week into tedium and drudgery. God doesn’t need a Sabbath, but we surely do.

Thank you, God, for Sundays. May we make them days of worship, renewal, rest, peace, and joy.

A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like a summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the joyous day of the whole week. [Henry Ward Beecher]

Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” [Mark 2:27-28 (NLT)]

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SANCTIFIED

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NIV)]

This life, therefore is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on our way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the end but it is the right road. At present, everything is being cleaned. [Martin Luther]

great blue heronI looked at my two sons and wondered when the tow-headed youngster’s hair darkened, his brother’s brown hair turned gray, and they both got those wrinkles around their eyes. At what point did the children who once thought Kraft mac n’ cheese to be high cuisine become gourmet cooks? When did my reckless boys become so sensible and wise? They matured into men so gradually that I wasn’t even aware of the changes as they happened.

When I look in the mirror each morning, I can’t see how I’m any different than I was the previous day but one look at my old photos tells me that, like my boys, I am not who I once was. Transformation, whether internal or external, is a gradual process; it seems almost impossible to spot as it’s happening. Nevertheless, it takes place.

When we accept Jesus, we are justified: set free by the blood of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are spiritually reborn. Our work, however, has just begun because we still sin. Like babies who must learn to walk, we then begin the process of what is called sanctification and learn how to walk in the steps of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we gradually transform from newborn Christians into mature ones. Growing in grace, we become obedient to God’s Word, understand His ways and, little by little, become more like Christ.

Although challenges are often accompanied by spiritual growth spurts, for the most part, we transform gradually and may not be conscious of it. If we look back, however, we’ll probably see the difference our growing faith in Jesus has made in the way we conduct our lives. Somewhere along the line, we developed enough patience to deal with our tiresome neighbor, wisdom to counsel a troubled friend, self-control to step away from an argument, or peace in the midst of turmoil. We’ll realize how the Holy Spirit has steadily produced bountiful fruit in our lives and matured us from baby Christians into adolescents and beyond. We’ve come a long way; yet, we have a long way to grow!

At my age, I prefer the face and body I had twenty years ago to the one I have now. On the other hand, I prefer the woman I am today to the woman of decades past. While I don’t look forward to seeing more wrinkles in the mirror, I do look forward to the changes the Holy Spirit makes as I continue the process of sanctification. I’m not who and what I used to be but I’m still nowhere close to the woman God wants me to be.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” [John Newton]

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. [1 Corinthians 15:10 (NIV)]

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  [Philippians 3:12 (NIV)]

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MORE WAG, LESS BARK!

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (RSV)]

 My son, sweeten thy tongue and make savory the opening of thy mouth; for the tail of a dog gives him bread, and his mouth gets him blows. [Story of Ahikar]

dogLast month, my husband and I attended a “Sweetheart” dinner at church. The men were in charge of the entire event and there were a few rough spots in the night. Then again, at the risk of being accused of political incorrectness or gender bias, most of the men probably were novices at that kind of event planning. Unlike the men, we women have had decades of organizing (and attending) school parties, PTA fund raisers, charity galas, birthday parties, showers, weddings, anniversary bashes, and other assorted celebrations. In spite of the glitches, there was much that went right and the evening was enjoyable and entertaining. Unfortunately, the woman sitting beside me kept criticizing how things were done—from name tags and table assignments to flowers and dessert. Her nit-picking comments became as annoying as the yapping of a bad-tempered dog and I thought of a bumper sticker I’d recently seen: “Wag More, Bark Less!”

Bad tempered dogs (and people) are nothing new; a similar proverb dates back to 500 B.C. in an Aramaic papyrus found in Egypt called the Story of Ahikar. “Wag More, Bark Less!” may be bumper sticker philosophy, but I wish more people (including me) did just that. After reading the qualifications and concerns of the candidates for our property association board, I was struck by how many were unpleasantly barking and nipping at each other rather than wagging their tails and showing me how well they’d work with one another and our management company. An on-line community newsletter was so filled with bark (and bite) that we stopped subscribing. Rarely are the letters to the editor in the newspaper anything but bark in the way of anger and criticism. While waiting at the bakery counter yesterday, an impatient woman yelled at the harried clerk and stormed away in a huff. Sometimes, it feels like we’re in a kennel full of angry upset dogs—yapping, baying, growling and snarling! Worse, once one dog (or person) starts barking, other dogs (and people) tend to join in the unpleasant clamor.

Like the woman beside me at that dinner, there are times I bark or snarl in disparagement, annoyance or anger rather than wag in happiness, appreciation, or compassion. In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are responsible for what we put in our minds. Even in the bleakest of circumstances or worst of conditions, there is some small thing worthy of praise. Our job, as Christians, is to find it and think about it! Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us in that task. Moreover, as my mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” Thankfully, the Spirit gives us the self-control to do just that! If we can’t wag, at least we can muzzle ourselves so we don’t bark!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. … If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. [Galatians 5:22-23, 25-26 (RSV)]

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THE LUCK OF THE IRISH

Great blessings belong to those who don’t listen to evil advice, who don’t live like sinners, and who don’t join those who make fun of God. Instead, they love the Lord’s teachings and think about them day and night. So they grow strong, like a tree planted by a stream—a tree that produces fruit when it should and has leaves that never fall. Everything they do is successful. [Psalm 1:1-3 (ERV)]

wood sorrel - shamrockTomorrow we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and I’m inclined to think the revered bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century wouldn’t recognize this day in his honor. A once religious feast is now a day of parades, sales, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, corned beef and cabbage, music, dancing, and lots of green (including the Chicago River, milk shakes, and kegs of beer.) St. Patrick, however, would recognize the common symbol of this day: the shamrock. Of course, to Patrick, with its three leaflets bound by a common stem, the shamrock was a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. Those three leaflets also came to symbolize faith, hope, and love; luck is said to come only if a fourth leaflet is present.

We usually think “the luck of the Irish” means good fortune. Yet, it’s hard to see how a people who were invaded by Vikings, suppressed at the hand of England, suffered a potato famine, failed at every revolution, and were treated like third class citizens upon their arrival in the U.S. could be called “lucky.” According to Edwin T. O’Donnell of Holy Cross College, it originally was a demeaning phrase dating back to the 19th century. During the silver and gold rush days, some of the most successful miners were Irish or Irish/American. Saying a miner’s success was “the luck of the Irish” meant that it was mere happenstance and had nothing to do with the hours of drudgery he endured, the danger he faced, the sacrifices he made, the loneliness he suffered, or his skill with a pick and shovel.

A young mother in our small group told of her daughter’s recent school assignment in which the girl and her parents were to paste pictures of the things that made them lucky on a large green construction paper shamrock. A woman of faith, she didn’t want to be one of those parents who make a mountain out of every molehill encountered in public school. Nevertheless, she credits God (not luck) with their blessings so she and her daughter pondered how to proceed with the assignment in a way that honors God. They pasted photos of their family on their “Lucky Family” shamrock and then wrote these words: “No luck involved! We are blessed by the grace of God to be a happy family!”

Attributing their happy family to luck would be as insulting to God as “just Irish luck” was to a successful miner who’d struggled in difficult circumstances to stake his claim. That shamrock, however, does symbolize the things that enable their family to happily live with joy, peace, forgiveness, and confidence: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who govern and fill their lives. Moreover, the happiness of their family has much to do with their faith, hope and love (both for God and for one another). There was no”lucky” fourth leaflet on that shamrock. Indeed, luck has nothing to do with it; God, however, does!

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and it cannot be made angry easily. Love does not remember wrongs done against it. Love is never happy when others do wrong, but it is always happy with the truth. Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ERV)]

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HE KNOWS OUR NAMES

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! [Psalm 139:1-6 (NLT)]

house sparrowRomper Room, a children’s program that first aired in 1953, was like a televised pre-school/kindergarten class. At the end of every show, the hostess would pick up her magic mirror and recite the words, “Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” Looking through an open frame shaped like a hand mirror, she’d then call out various children’s names: “I see Johnny had a special day today, Olivia had a special day yesterday, and I see Bonnie, Tammy and Gregory had special days, as well, and Brandon, you know I see you…” For forty years, small children patiently sat in front of their TVs hoping to hear their names called. While that illustrates the naiveté of youngsters back then, it also demonstrates how much we all want to be noticed and recognized.

When the man at the park asked me what kind of bird it was, I identified it as an LBB and explained that meant “little brown bird.” Chances are it was one of the twenty kinds of sparrows around here. Then again, it could have been some sort of wren or finch. Had it been a little larger, it would have qualified as the equally vague BBB (bigger brown bird). As much as I enjoy spotting the peepers in the trees and even taking their pictures when they remain still long enough, I don’t care enough about them to know their names or the songs they sing.

Fortunately, God knows not just our names but all there is to know about us: our hopes, needs, fears, and concerns. There are no LBBs (little boring biddies), LOLs (loud old ladies), BFMs (big fat men), TWAs (teens with attitude), TTs (troublesome tots), CCs (chronic complainers), or PWPs (people with problems) in His kingdom. To God, we all have distinctive names, faces, personalities and voices. Unlike me, He doesn’t need a field guide with our pictures or a CD with our songs to know who we are. Unlike the Romper Room hostess, He doesn’t pretend to have a magic mirror that allows Him to see us or know how we feel. The author of our days, He knows what today was like for us and what tomorrow will bring to us. God not only sees each and every one of us but He sees into us—into our very hearts and souls—and, somehow, He still manages to love and value us as only a father can.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)]

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TAKING THE LONG WAY

Tent Rocks - NMDon’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end—Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. [Isaiah 43:2-3a (MSG)]

When visiting New Mexico, we often drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The shortest route is north on I-25. If we’re not in a rush, however, the best way is the longer Turquoise Trail, a national scenic byway on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. In theory, this route should only add about a half-hour to the trip but it always takes longer. The whole point of going that way is to enjoy some breath-taking scenery, take a hike in the high desert hills, check out one of the bizarre roadside attractions (like the Tinkertown Museum), visit various art galleries along the trail, and stop for lunch (and more shopping) in the reborn ghost town of Madrid. Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination.

When the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh, God didn’t lead them the shortest way to the Promised Land; His reasoning, however, had nothing to do with sightseeing or shopping. The most direct route would have taken them northeast along a coastal road and directly into Philistine territory. Instead, God led them south southwest into the desert on the eastern edge of Egypt. Although they were armed for battle, the Israelites were anything but ready to face a military conflict. Having been oppressed for generations, rather than a mighty nation, they were a ragtag band of former slaves. While the longer route made sense, God’s next instructions certainly didn’t! He told Moses that Pharaoh’s men would give chase but that the Israelites should turn back and camp in such a way that they were exposed and trapped against the sea. Although God promised this strange tactic would demonstrate his power and glory, I can’t help but think that Moses was shaking in his sandals when reassuring the people that God had everything under control.

If the Israelites weren’t ready to face the Philistines a few days earlier, they were no more ready to face Pharaoh’s mighty army then. In fact, from a logistical point of view, by turning back, the novice warriors moved into an utterly indefensible position. That, of course, is exactly why God arranged it. Whether facing Philistines or Egyptians, the Israelites’ reaction to either would be panic. With the Philistines, they could have fled, even if that meant returning to Egypt. With Pharaoh’s army, however, they had no escape route. Although their sarcastic complaints to Moses revealed their lack of faith, pinned against the sea as they were, they had no choice but to trust in God. Since we know the rest of the story, that trust was well-founded. The people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry ground and Pharaoh’s army perished in its waters. After experiencing God’s miraculous deliverance, the Israelites no longer feared Pharaoh. They did, however, fear, trust, and believe in the Lord!

Sometimes God takes us the long way around for a reason; while it may be for the scenery, there’s a good chance it’s to take us away from trouble. On the other hand, sometimes God takes us on detours that seem to make absolutely no sense because they lead us into trials and difficulty. That usually happens when there’s something we need to learn. When we find ourselves between an army and the sea or a rock and a hard place, there’s no need to panic. We just need to trust in the Lord.

And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses. [Exodus 14:30-31 (MSG)]

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