FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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THE CROWN OF MARTYRDOM

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. [1 Corinthians 13:3 (MSG)]

yellow-crowned night heronWe all know drama queens (and kings) who don the crown of martyrdom. On occasion, we even may have worn that crown ourselves. Along with the crown, we put on a robe of selfishness and self-righteousness. Dressed for the part, we see outer circumstance only in the light of how they negatively affect our lives (ignoring how they may be affecting those around us). Rather than asking, “What can I learn from this?” we protest, “I don’t deserve this!” as if anyone else does! Forgetting that God only wants our best and there is purpose in our pain, we find our troubles the perfect excuse for resentment, complaints, bitterness, and an all-out pity party.

If anyone had the right to play the martyr; it was Jesus. He was born in a stable and slept in a feed trough! His parents couldn’t afford a proper offering at the purification ceremony and his family had to flee to Egypt for several years. Once they arrived in Nazareth, there probably were whispers among the neighbors. “That’s Jesus; he’s not really Joseph’s son, you know! That shameful Mary was already pregnant.” Jesus knew He was a king, but He didn’t live like royalty; instead, he lived and worked as an ordinary man. Rather than riding in a chariot, he walked the dusty roads. There was no bed in a palace for this Prince of Peace; he rested wherever he could lay his head. People pursued Him wanting miracles but forgot to thank Him for his healing. Angry crowds reviled Him and the religious leaders of His own town wanted to toss Him down a hill! He gave and taught, healed, blessed and loved, fully knowing where it would all end—on a cross at Calvary. He knew He would be martyred, yet he never complained; He never once said, “Pity me!” Brutally beaten and humiliated, Jesus wore his crown of thorns without complaint. Then, instead of being angry about His torture on the cross, He lovingly asked God’s forgiveness for those who were killing Him.

A few years later, Stephen, who is believed to be the first Christian martyr, followed Jesus’s example when, as the rocks rained down on him, he used his last few breaths to pray for his slayers’ forgiveness. Jesus and Stephen were real martyrs and no anguish we endure will equal theirs. Yet, rather than the crown of martyrdom, they wore the crown of love and forgiveness!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. … Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. [James 1:1,12 (MSG)]

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DAY ONE

DawnThe faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. [2 Corinthians 4:6 (NLT)]

I’m an early riser anyway but the three hour time difference between the east and west coasts had me up well before dawn. While sipping my morning latte, I looked out the window and watched the morning appear. As the sun began to rise, God got out his paints to color the sky and the horizon took shape. I slipped on my shoes and went out to greet the new day. While a rooster in the distance crowed his welcome to the sun, I silently shouted my good morning to God and thought of Matthew West’s song Day One of the Rest of My Life. “It’s day one and here comes the sun!” I sang to myself. Indeed, each morning brings day one of the rest of our lives—day one of the best of our lives! Thank you, God.

Seeing the sunrise shouldn’t just be saved for Easter morning services and I feel sorry for those who sleep through the day’s awakening. They miss experiencing that perfect moment when dawn breaks through: when today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today. Although saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is a cliché, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Telling us that yesterday does not have to repeat itself today, each dawn brings a new beginning.

Of course, we don’t have to arise while it’s still dark to enjoy a dawn in our lives. Our faith in Jesus takes us from the darkness of unbelief into a new beginning. Moreover, because of God’s grace, we’re assured that even when we mess up (and we surely will), there is another new beginning and plenty more after that. Nevertheless, seeing a sunrise reminds us both of God’s forgiveness and the new life in Christ we’ve been given. It tells us that this is the day we should live life to the fullest, honor and serve God the most, and be the best we can be. This is the day we can get back on the right path, realize our dreams, fulfill His will, and be wiser, better, and more forgiving. But, just as we don’t have the power to make the sun rise, we don’t have the power to become the person God wants us to be by ourselves. That power comes from the Holy Spirit within us. It is He who fills us with the peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to meet each day.

The Psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” [118:24] Indeed, each new day brings reason to rejoice. Yet, since every dawn inevitably ends in a sunset, the sunrise also serves as a subtle reminder of the brevity of life. Not a moment should be wasted in regret, anger, resentment, worry or fear. Lord, whether today is the first or the last day of the rest of our lives, fill us with your Spirit so that it is the best day of our lives!

Well, I wish I had a short term memory,
Wish the only thing my eyes could see
Was the future burning bright right in front of me;
But I can’t stop looking back.
Yeah, I wish I was a perfect picture of
Somebody who’s never not good enough.
I try to measure up but I mess it up
And I wish I wasn’t like that. …
Well, every single day Your grace reminds me
That my best days are not behind me.
Wherever my yesterday may find me
Well, I don’t have to stay there.
It’s day one of the rest of my life!
It’s day one of the best of my life! [Matthew West, Peter Kipley]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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TRAPPED

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” [Luke 12:15 (NLT)]

You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NLT)]

grey squirrel in bird feederI looked at the greedy squirrel caught in the bird feeder. He’d managed to get himself in but couldn’t get out and wasn’t even able to enjoy the seeds that enticed him there in the first place. Other squirrels, however, were gathered beneath the feeder feasting on the seeds he knocked out of the feeder with his frantic movements. That silly squirrel lives in a bird sanctuary where there is more than enough food in the way of fungi, nuts, seeds, fruit, caterpillars and insects (along with the bird seed that frequently spills from the bird feeders) to keep him plump and happy all year long. Nevertheless, unsatisfied with enough, he hungered for more. We’re not much different.

I thought about King Solomon; while best known for his wisdom, like the squirrel, he was greedy. Although God had warned against a king amassing great amounts of gold, Solomon collected 25 tons of it every year and, unlike those bird seeds, his wealth didn’t even scatter down to his people. After Solomon’s death, they begged King Rehoboam for relief from their labors and heavy taxes. Perhaps hungry for an even more extravagant lifestyle than his father’s, Rehoboam refused and lost it all to the king of Egypt within five years.

Some say wealth brings happiness but, if anyone should know about wealth and happiness, it would be wise King Solomon. His words in Ecclesiastes, however, are not those of a happy man: “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!” [5:10] Amassing money and possessions is like running on a treadmill: a never ending journey. We think that bigger, better or more will bring contentment but what once seemed a luxury soon becomes commonplace and a mere necessity. So, wanting something even more extravagant, we get back on the treadmill of acquisition. So rich that he considered silver worthless, Solomon got rid of his silver goblets and utensils and replaced them with gold. Had platinum been discovered in his time, I imagine he would have replaced the gold with it.

Wealth is not evil; in fact, it can do wonderful things. Wealth, however, is dangerous because loving it and all that comes with it can lead us into temptation and trap us in spots far worse than a bird feeder.

Don’t feel sorry for the squirrel; a naturalist freed him that afternoon. But, chances are, many of us are still on a treadmill of acquisition, foolishly striving for that elusive place over the rainbow where dreams come true, “troubles melt like lemon drops,” and that pot of gold is hidden. The squirrel’s desire for more held him hostage; we mustn’t let our craving for more do the same to us!

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 Spurgeon]

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.  But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. [1 Timothy 6:7-10 (NLT)]

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BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS

UtahThis is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:6a,9 (NLT)]

Joshua 1:9 was my Bible verse for the day but I decided to make it my verse for the week. To make sure I kept it in mind, I wrote it on a post-a-note and stuck it where I’d be sure to see it: on my phone!

Wanting to put this inspirational verse in context, I reread the first chapter of Joshua. The book of Joshua is about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham made four hundred years earlier. Its first chapter is one of my favorite chapters of the Old Testament narratives. To set the stage: Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight. Forty years have passed since the parting of the Red Sea. Moses is dead and only Caleb and Joshua remain of the adults who’d once been slaves in Egypt. The Israelites are standing on the edge of the unknown and the Jordan River is at flood stage. With no bridges or ferry boats, they must have wondered how they’d manage to get safely to the other side. Joshua is the new leader of the Israelites and God tells him to be strong and courageous.

Granted, God’s words were spoken to Joshua around 1400 BC in an entirely different setting but, because I’m standing on the edge of the unknown as well, God’s words to Joshua are both comforting and encouraging. Then again, we’re all standing on the edge of the unknown. None of us know what tomorrow (or even the rest of today) will bring: be it good news or bad, tornadoes or sunny skies, an accident or a near miss, the making of a new friend or the loss of an old one.

When Joshua is told to be strong, God wasn’t talking about working out at the gym. This strength had nothing to do with muscles unless, of course, we’re talking about spiritual muscles. It had to do with having the strength to prevail, withstand, and sustain. Being of good courage, is more than not being a fearful coward; it’s being alert both physically and mentally, steadfast, and determined. It wasn’t powerful foes or a lack of weapons, battle strategy, or seasoned warriors that threatened Israel; it was fear, discouragement, and weakness of faith.

Being strong and courageous is easier said than done. Nevertheless, God tells Joshua exactly how to do that: meditate on and obey the instructions in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible and the only scripture at the time). Authored by God through Moses, those books contained the people’s history and God’s law, promises and plan. If the Israelites had only done that, the Old Testament would be an entirely different (and far less violent) story! 3,400 years later, we’re no longer limited to a mere five books; we have both Old and New Testaments to make us strong and courageous. Just the same, knowing and obeying those words can be as much of a problem for us as it was for the Israelites.

At least for me, the best part of Joshua 1:9 is God’s promise that He is with us wherever we go. Whether we’re crossing a deep river or just going across the street, confronting an enemy army or a CT scan, or facing a walled city or the loss of a spouse, we know that, no matter what befalls us, God is with us. When we’re standing at an abyss, facing the great unknown, there is no need to be afraid or discouraged. We can be strong and courageous because we have his promise in writing; He is always with us, “even to the end of the age.”

If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable. [John Newton]

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

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STARS

who would you be for a day?Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known. [Jeremiah 33:3 (ESV)]

The bulletin board outside the auditorium posed this question: “If you could be someone famous for a day, who would you be?” People had written their answers on paper stars and pinned them to the board. Including both living and dead, the answers ranged from entertainment, royalty and sports to technology, government, and the arts. They included Thomas Edison, Beyoncé, Georgia O’Keefe, Chrissie Evert, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Maya Angelou, and Coco Chanel. Oprah received several stars as did Alexander Hamilton, Audrey Hepburn, and Michele Obama. Warren Buffet was the only entrepreneur listed but someone else was satisfied to be “any rich person;” one man wished to be Penélope Cruz’s husband.

I looked at the stars and pondered my answer. Although God had one star, He certainly wouldn’t be my choice. I have enough trouble running my life; running the universe, even for just a day, would be way too much responsibility for me. In the end, I had to agree with the one star that said “Me;” being me is all I can manage. This exercise, however, reminded me of a similar question asked in our small group: “If you could have a conversation with someone famous, who would it be?”

Even though I wouldn’t have much in common with sport stars like Joe DiMaggio or Bobby Orr and probably wouldn’t understand Giacomo Puccini or Leonardo DaVinci, I would enjoy being in the presence of nearly everyone whose star appeared on the board (with the exceptions of Christopher Hitchens, Hugh Hefner and whoever is Penelope Cruz’s husband). If I actually did have an opportunity to meet with one of those people, you can be sure I wouldn’t waste my time talking about me, my background, ambitions, needs and desires. A conversation with Bishop Desmond Tutu, Florence Nightingale, or even Lucille Ball would have no point if I never let them get a word in edgewise. I’d want to hear what they had to say: to ask about them, to know what was important to them, what made them tick, and what advice they’d pass on to me.

Alas, with one notable exception, most of us will never have the opportunity to converse with any of the people whose names were on that bulletin board. The exception, of course, is God, the greatest one of them all. Unlike all of those stars we’ll never meet, we can talk with God in prayer any time we want. Prayer gives us the opportunity not just to know about God but to actually know Him—to have a relationship with Him—and not just for a day, but forever!

I wonder why I’m so willing to jabber on when talking with God—the one who knows all things—when I’d quietly listen intently to a celebrity. The creator of the universe doesn’t require my guidance on world management any more than Ina Garten needs my cooking advice or Billie Jean King needs my tennis pointers. God doesn’t need me to tell Him what it is I need or want and He certainly doesn’t need me to list my concerns or register my complaints; He already knows all there is to know about me! In fact, He knows what I need before I know I even need it!

It is when we quiet our voices that we can hear the voice of God. Thomas Merton describes this listening or contemplative prayer as “not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in him whom we have found, who loves us, who is near to us, who comes to us to draw us to himself.” Let us bask in His presence; let us pray.

Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts. [Mother Teresa]

Be still, and know that I am God. [Psalm 46:10a (ESV)]

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him [Matthew 6:7-8 (ESV)]

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