IT’S TERMINAL

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart. … A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. [Ecclesiastes 7:2,4 (NLT)]

ghost bikeIt’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. This maxim traces its beginnings back to 1914 and World War 1 when an English newspaper quoted a chaplain at a memorial service for a fallen soldier: “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.” When we joined our northern church, it was during the Viet Nam War. I remember a young man in our new member class who’d drawn a low number in the draft lottery. Expecting to be in combat within the year, he confessed wanting to “get right” with God before that time came. Apparently, even the threat of a foxhole is enough to cause some people to rethink their relationship with the Almighty.

Whenever we pass a roadside memorial or ghost bike like the one in today’s picture, I’m reminded of the precariousness of life. There’s a memorial at a corner near us for a young man who died there several years ago. Decorated seasonally by family and friends, it’s a poignant reminder of how unexpectedly a life can be extinguished and how much he is missed. Unlike the fellow in our church class, that young man, the victim of a drunk driver who ran a red light, didn’t have a low lottery number to warn him how near to death he was.

“A funeral provides an indispensable perspective on the universally terminal condition,” said the Reformation Study Bible notes for today’s verses from Ecclesiastes 7. Indeed, everyone is born with the incurable disease of death. I’m of an age where the many notes of condolence I’ve written these last few months make me think I should buy sympathy cards in bulk. These are dark thoughts for an early spring day, yet far too many of us choose to ignore our inevitable fate. Death is the one appointment that none of us will miss. While we have little control over the when of that day, we do have control over how we choose to prepare for the inevitable.

In both this world and the next, what happens after we die depends entirely on what we do now. Once laid out in the mortuary, it’s too late to write a will or accept Jesus. When we’re placed in a casket, we won’t be able to mend fences or make amends and we’ll have missed the opportunity to get right with God. By the time we’re on the other side of the sod or turned to ash in a crematorium, we can’t express our love and forgiveness or decide to accept God’s saving grace.

The problem with foxhole conversions, of course, is that once out of the trenches, they rarely last. Moreover, if we don’t make it out alive, by waiting until the very end to accept Jesus, we’ve missed out on the abundant Kingdom life He offers that begins while we’re here. Getting right with God long before we enter either foxhole or hospice care seems to be the wiser choice. The good news for the saved is that dying doesn’t mean departing from the land of the living. For those who know Jesus, death means departing from the land of the dying for the land of the living.

Depend upon it, your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death. It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall go no more down forever! [Charles Spurgeon]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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FIRM FOOTING

Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my plea! Answer me because you are faithful and righteous. … Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. [Psalm 143:1,8b,10 (NLT)]

sign on schilthornMany years ago, I was facing a difficult decision about a project. In spite of praying, pondering, searching Scripture for direction, and consulting with wise advisors, I was still in a quandary. Nothing brought me closer to a clear answer to my dilemma. Although it seemed like a good idea (at least in theory) and I felt like I should want to be part of it, doubts kept nagging at me. Wanting God to make known His will, I prayed the words of Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.”

The phrase “firm footing” reminded me of a sign I’d seen at the top of the Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps. Warning that high-heeled shoes shouldn’t be worn while hiking the mountain, the caution seemed to demonstrate a firm grasp of what seemed obvious. The steep slope was covered with scree and would prove precarious even for a properly equipped and skilled hiker! I realized the footing on this particular project felt anything but firm. In spite of its good intentions, it was as ill-considered as wearing a pair of strappy high heels while hiking the Schilthorn. While there’d been no cautions about prohibited footwear, I’d seen plenty of other warning signs about the venture; I just hadn’t wanted to heed them. It’s easy to confuse what we want to do with what God intends for us or to think we’re hearing God’s voice when it is only ours speaking louder than His!

Had I been reading any other Bible translation, rather than “firm footing,” the verse would have read level ground, land of uprightness, level pastureland, or good paths. Whether those words would have resonated with me the way “firm footing” did, I don’t know. But, as God would have it, I was using my NLT Bible and I finally understood the project was not right for me.

God has challenged, admonished, cautioned, and tested me but He has never steered me wrong. Even when I haven’t especially liked God’s task for me, He’s always given me a sense of peace along with His mission, even when it meant stepping into unknown territory. Admittedly, obedience often has upset my plans, meant more work, pushed me out of my comfort zone, or challenged my capabilities, but it always has led to peace. The sense of peace I had as soon as I declined this undertaking told me that I’d finally found and followed God’s will.

If we don’t have peace about a choice we’ve made, if we don’t feel confident in our walk, it’s time to stop, reconsider, and pray. We’ll only know we’re on firm footing and following His plan when God gives us peace about our decision.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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FILL THE TANK

Hungry and thirsty, they nearly died. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he rescued them from their distress. … Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. [Psalm 107:5-6,8-9 (NLT)]

Trumbull cemetery - OhioMy father had what’s often described as a Type-A personality. An impatient workaholic, he always took on more than he could handle. Life, for him, was one crucial task after another, none of which anyone else could do, at least not correctly. Always in a hurry, he never wanted to stop for anything, even when his gas gauge read precariously close to empty. Something more pressing always took precedence over a brief stop for gas. As a result, his car was often left on the roadside while he trudged off with a gas can to find the nearest service station. Instead of saving time, his refusal to stop cost him time. Living that way actually cost him his life; he died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-six. It’s often been said that your in-box still will be full when you die and, indeed, his was. None of us can accomplish everything on our to-do list and we may well destroy both our relationships and ourselves while trying.

Unlike my father, most of us will stop at a gas station when our cars need fuel. Having spent hours stranded on country roads waiting for my father to return with a can of gasoline, my gas tank is never less than half full. But, like my father, I’m not always so careful about keeping my spiritual tank full. No matter how organized I try to be, my to-do list seems to get longer while the days remaining get shorter. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just running on fumes and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Unfortunately, just as my father ignored his gas gauge, we often ignore signs like anger, worry, sadness, impatience, and temper that tell us our supply of spiritual fruit is dangerously low. It often takes a squabble, blow-up or crisis before we finally stop and refuel with God. Of course, the wiser choice is to top off our tanks with daily prayer and meditation so we never run low!

When asked about his plans for the following day, it’s been said that theologian, professor, author, Bible translator, reformer, pastor, husband and father Martin Luther replied: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If we’re too busy to stop for gas, we’re busier than we should be. Martin Luther knew that, if we’re too busy to pray, we’re busier than God wants us to be.

Heavenly Father, sometimes we allow the challenges of everyday life to keep us from spending time with you and we run precariously low of the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control your Spirit so graciously provides. Help us accept that we can’t do it all and that there will always be another task waiting right around the corner. Guide our priorities, Lord so that you’re on the top of our to-do list every day. Remind us that you are all we really need and help us see a brighter tomorrow in your promises. Lead us to that peaceful place of your presence. Refresh and renew us and let your Holy Spirit fill us up again.

No one ever said at the end of his days, “I have read my Bible too much, I have thought of God too much, I have prayed too much, I have been too careful with my soul. [J.C. Ryle]

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. [Psalm 23:1-3 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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FOLLOWING HIM

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Mark 8:34 (NLT)]

cross country skiingOur pastor recently did a sermon series called “Following Jesus” which reminded me of our first time backcountry skiing in Colorado more than forty years ago. As novices, we knew enough not to venture into the wilderness by ourselves so we hired Wyatt to be our guide. Insisting we delay our trek several days until we’d acclimated to the high altitude and were ready for such a trip, he gave us a long list of items we had to carry in our packs. When I asked why we needed all the survival gear along with additional food, water, and clothing, he said we had to be prepared to spend the night. Protesting that I didn’t want to spend the night out in the cold and snow, he explained, “Neither do I, but we better be prepared to do it.”

Before starting out, Wyatt examined our backpacks to make sure we had everything on his list. Our packs were heavy but his was much heavier with a tent, extra ski tips, ax, first aid kit, shovel, and more. Because falling in several feet of Colorado powder is far different than falling in a few inches of Midwest snow, Wyatt insisted on teaching us a new way of getting up after a fall and made us practice the technique several times before we began.

Once we got started, Wyatt did the hard part by breaking trail in the deep snow and keeping us clear of any slopes posing avalanche danger. To allow us to fully experience the wilderness, we waited until the skier ahead was just out of sight before starting out. Winding our way through both open meadows and woods in this great expanse of white, we would have been hopelessly lost if we hadn’t been following Wyatt’s tracks. Without seeing each other, I felt alone in the wilderness but I never was. Wyatt frequently stopped to check on us and made us rest and hydrate before continuing. We followed his tracks to a picturesque spot for lunch where he showed us how to stomp out a place for a fire and use our skis as chairs. As pleasant as our lunch in the forest was, Wyatt didn’t let us linger too long since he wanted us back to our car before dusk.

Late that afternoon, some tired but happy skiers made their way back toward the road. Just as we caught sight of our car, a winter storm blew in and, by the time we’d stowed our gear, our tracks were completely covered by snow. Caught in that unexpected whiteout, I finally understood why Wyatt had insisted we be prepared to spend the night in the mountains. Had we started out a half hour later, lingered over lunch, or skied back a little slower, we would have been caught in the blinding storm and might well have spent the night on the mountain. Without his guidance, what should have been a delightful day up on the pass could have had a bad ending but, because we followed a good guide, we returned safely home that night.

Even though Wyatt merely guided us on a high mountain pass and Jesus guides us through life, I can’t help but see parallels between following a mountain guide and following Jesus. In either case, we must recognize our inability to make the journey on our own and submit to the guide’s directions, requirements, and timeline. Both prepare us for the challenges ahead, point out hazards, teach us new skills, and never take us beyond our ability. Knowing we’ll fall, they show us how to get up again and, while we may carry a heavy pack, they carry the heaviest one and do most of the work. Keeping us from danger, both mountain guide and Jesus lead the way so we can follow in their footsteps. Even when we feel alone and can’t see them, we can have faith in both guide and Jesus, secure in the knowledge that neither will ever abandon us. Although they’ll make us rest, they’ll urge us on when we should get moving. Most important, just as our choice to follow Wyatt meant the difference between a good or bad outcome, our choice to follow Jesus means the difference between life and death.

There are, of course, some major differences between a mountain guide and Jesus. Even a guide as experienced as Wyatt can get lost but Jesus never will! To Wyatt, we were just paying customers but, to Jesus, we are beloved friends and children of God! Jesus wants us to follow Him, weather every storm, and arrive safely home not because it’s His job, but because He loves us! Through the years, we took several more backcountry tours until we learned enough to venture into the wilderness without a guide but we know that we’ll never be skilled enough to journey through life without following Jesus!

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. [Psalm 25:4-5 (NLT)]

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