WHERE IS HE?

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?” [Psalm 42:1-3 (NLT)]

white-tailed deer - FloridaNot so long ago, it was hard to face my computer with any enthusiasm. Every beginning led to a dead end or took me down a rabbit hole of confusion. The paragraphs over which I’d struggled had come to nothing and my hours at the keyboard seemed an exercise in futility. It’s as if I had little scraps of useless fabric but couldn’t find a way to quilt them together. I wondered where God was when I so desperately needed His guidance.

The best place to go when feeling hollow or hopeless is God’s word and Psalms is where I usually begin. David certainly had plenty of times of downheartedness and he wasn’t afraid to express his exhaustion, frustration, or despair and yet there always seems to be a ray of hope in his words. I turned to Psalm 42 and, having hit a “dry spell,” I knew what the psalmist meant when comparing himself to a deer panting for water and thirsting for God. Like him, I felt like I was dying of thirst.

It was the psalm’s mention of enemies with their taunts of, “Where is this God of yours?” that really hit home. I don’t share David’s flesh and blood enemies but all of us share a common unseen enemy: the doubt and anxiety that comes from spiritual depression.

The palmist asks why God has forgotten him and I think we all know that feeling. While I can get it when I’m staring at an empty page, that sense of desolation may visit others as they wait for the return of a prodigal, sit in a hospital room, endure chronic pain, look at the empty chair once occupied by a spouse, or have too much month left at the end of their money. We’ve all had times when it feels like God has turned a deaf ear to our prayers or has closed His eyes to our situation.

“Where is this God of yours?” is the enemy’s voice. Wanting us to lose faith or wallow in despair, he causes us to question God’s presence in our lives. God hasn’t forgotten about us; even the psalmist, as depressed as he was, acknowledges that God pours out His unfailing love each day. Nevertheless, sometimes, it feels as if God is looking the other way. Feeling defeated, discouraged, lonely, weary, or insecure, it’s easy to forget that our feelings can’t always be trusted. God, however, always is steadfast and trustworty!

In a gentle reproach, the psalmist asks why he is so downcast and reminds himself of the hope he has in God. That we don’t sense God’s presence, feel His love, see His hand, or hear His voice doesn’t mean that our loving God isn’t there. When asked, “Where is this God of yours?” let us never forget that He dwells, not just in heaven above, but also in our broken spirits. There always will be dark valleys to traverse but we are never alone; we have hope in God and, for that, we praise him.

A loss of the present sense of God’s love is not a loss of that love itself; the jewel is there, though it gleams not on our breast; hope…expects the promised boon though present providence stands before her with empty hands. [Charles Spurgeon]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 42:11 (NLT)]

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IN ALL THINGS

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

Fireflag - Alligator FlagEven Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve. [2 Corinthians11:14b-15 (NLT)]

With its enormous leaves and delicate purple flowers, one of my favorite native Florida plants is the Thalia geniculata; its common name is Fireflag. The plant can be as tall as ten feet and its huge leaves are visible from a distance. Since it grows in standing water, the leaves can indicate or “flag” an area where one might find safety in case of fire. Fireflag has another name, as well: Alligator-Flag. Anyplace in Florida where there is enough standing water for Thalia geniculata to grow also has enough standing water for alligators! If one is ever caught in a fire in the Everglades, it would be wise to remember both names of this plant before seeking refuge amidst its leaves! We wouldn’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire or, in this case, out of the fire into a gator’s mouth!

This plant reminds us that we need to be cautious when a firestorm of trouble descends. In an effort to escape our problems, it’s easy to jump into even more difficulty. It’s not just alligators that lurk in what appears to be a safe refuge; Satan does too! He knows when we are most vulnerable and he’s right there to offer his version of safety and comfort. As we attempt to flee from our trouble, there will be temptations to seek solace in the wrong people, listen to poor advice, compromise our morals or abandon our faith. That “angel in disguise” offering comfort, assistance or easy answers may well be a fallen angel!

Rather than taking refuge in alligator infested waters or other treacherous places, we must turn first to God. With Him at our side, we are never alone nor is there a need to run away from our problems. He will comfort and guide us so we can face our troubles with confidence, hope, and even thanks.

Trust is not a passive state of mind. It is a vigorous act of the soul by which we choose to lay hold on the promises of God and cling to them despite the adversity that at times seeks to overwhelms us. [Jerry Bridges (Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts)]

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. [Isaiah 43:2 (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. [Psalm 91:14-15 (NLT)]

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BEAR-PROOF

When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came. [Luke 4:13 (NLT)]

black bearMany people are unaware that south Florida is home to more than 1,000 black bears. Highly intelligent animals with a sense of smell that is seven times greater than a bloodhound’s, they can easily sniff out and find food. Opportunistic creatures, they take advantage of whatever is easily available (often man’s garbage). It’s estimated that they can smell a food source from as far away as 20 miles and, once they’ve found a good source like a berry patch, a stand of beech trees, or a trash can, they will continue to return to the same location for years. Relocated bears have been known to travel as much as 120 miles to return to an abundant food source.

While people are smarter than bears, we’re impatient and rarely willing to inconvenience ourselves or spend time solving a problem. Because the bear-proof dumpster we had in Colorado was difficult to unlock, it often was left unlatched and, even though they know they should wait until morning, our Florida neighbors find it easier to put out their garbage the night before pick-up. Bears, while not as smart as humans, are tenacious and will spend hours solving a problem if food is involved. No dummies, after determined bears in our Colorado town learned they could open the doors of Subarus, no unlocked Subaru in town was safe.

Satan is as opportunistic and tenacious as any black bear. Rather than sniffing out the aroma of a garbage can, he has an uncanny way of sniffing out our vulnerabilities and spotting our weaknesses. Think of the story of Job. When Satan couldn’t get him to curse God by taking his wealth and livestock, servants, herdsmen, workers, and children, he came back and took his health. Although Job never cursed God, he lost perspective and cursed the day he was born. Determined and unwilling to admit defeat, perhaps Satan was behind the words of condemnation spoken by Job’s wife and friends. When the devil failed to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he departed “until the next opportunity.” The enemy does not give up easily. He may change tactics a bit but, like the Terminator, he’ll be back.

As for the bears that can open car doors: once they’re inside, the door often closes and traps them. Before they manage to make an exit, the car’s interior is wrecked and the bear has done what it usually does in the woods! When the enemy finds us vulnerable and attacks, he can do the same thing to our lives!

One of the ways to prevent Satan’s attacks is to be self-aware. Recovery programs often use the acronym HALT as a reminder. Standing for hungry, angry, lonely and tired, these feelings make us vulnerable to Satan. While we often think of hunger as that grumble in our tummies, it is more. Hunger is dissatisfaction, frustration, a desire for something more or different and often has nothing to do with food. Anger isn’t just being mad at someone; it’s holding on to unforgiveness, hostility, and resentment and often includes casting blame. While lonely seems self-explanatory, we can feel isolated, deserted, and desolate even when surrounded by people. Being tired can be physical exhaustion, but it also can be feeling drained by circumstances (or people) or wanting to abandon both hope and effort.

Being aware of these feelings helps us take extra precautions to protect ourselves. We redouble our efforts to worship with praise and thanksgiving, gather in Christian fellowship, study God’s Word, and pray; we may even need to seek Christian counseling. When we leave ourselves vulnerable with hunger, anger, loneliness, or tiredness, we’re little safer from the enemy’s attack than people who keep their food in their tents when camping, store garbage outside, don’t lock their Subarus, or fail to latch bear-proof dumpsters. Whether from bears or Satan, we’re just asking for trouble.

Satan loves to fish in the troubled waters of a discontented heart. [Thomas Watson]

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NLT)]

But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. [2 Thessalonians 3:3 (NLT)]

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FREEDOM OF RELIGION – Independence Day 2019

American FlagsWe are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

In 2014, I wrote about Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese mother of two who, at that time, was facing execution for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Eight months pregnant when she appeared in court on charges of apostasy and adultery, she was given three days to reject Jesus and accept Islam. Upon her refusal, she was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death under Sudan’s Sharia law. Meriam, however, had never rejected Islam; she’d always been a Christian. Although her father is Muslim (technically making her Muslim), he was absent during her childhood and she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother. Under Sharia law, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is illegal and Meriam, married to a Christian man, was also found guilty of adultery and sentenced to flogging (100 lashes). Muslim law did not allow her execution while was pregnant and the shackled woman waited in prison for her child’s life to begin and hers to end. When writing about her, I wondered if I’d be as strong as Meriam and reminded readers that Christian persecution did not end in ancient Rome.

Curious as to her whereabouts today, I learned that the time the pregnant woman waited for her execution saved her life. It allowed Meriam’s plight to be made public and, because of international pressure, she was eventually released and settled in New Hampshire. Later that year, however, two Christian pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church were charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system. Facing death sentences, they were imprisoned for eight months. In June of 2015, Christian girls walking home from church were charged with indecent dress and forced to strip out of their trousers and skirts. Five of the girls received fines and one girl had to suffer through twenty lashes. Since then, Sudanese Christians have continued to face discrimination and persecution; churches were demolished and Christians intimidated, attacked and arrested. Although Sudan’s brutal president Omar al-Bashir left office in April of this year, there is no assurance that his replacement will be any better. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Sudan where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punishable. Rounding out the top ten countries where human and religious rights are being violated are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India. According to Open Doors, 2018 saw 4,136 Christians killed for their faith; 2,625 Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 1,266 churches or Christian buildings attacked. They estimate that one in nine Christians experience “high levels of persecution worldwide.”

Many of our nation’s first colonists came here to escape religious persecution in their homelands. On this day, when we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” may we truly appreciate the freedom of religion we enjoy. In our nation, no one is a second-hand citizen because of religion, no regime tries to make any of us renounce our faith, nor must we conceal our beliefs to be safe. My Jewish friends can wear a Star of David pendant as openly as I wear my cross. As freely as I observe Easter and Christmas, my Muslim friends can observe Ramadan, my Jewish friends Passover and Hanukah, and my Hindu friends Diwali, while my atheist neighbors can choose to believe in nothing.

On this national holiday, let us thank God for the freedom we have to worship Him openly and without fear. May we never take that freedom lightly. As we count our numerous blessings, remember to pray for those who don’t enjoy the many freedoms we often take for granted.

Our prayers can go where we cannot… There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray. [Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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IN PREPARATION FOR THE JOURNEY

We broke camp at the Ahava Canal on April 19 and started off to Jerusalem. And the gracious hand of our God protected us and saved us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived safely in Jerusalem. [Ezra 8:31-32a (NLT)]

Bryce - Losee CanyonAfter years of exile, the Jews were finally returning home from their captivity in Babylon. Ezra assembled a group of 1,500 men and their families and led the second emigration back to Jerusalem. It would take about four months for the over 5,000 people to make the 900 mile journey across the desert. Since they were transporting about 30 tons of silver, gold, and bronze along with wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt, there was serious danger from marauding bandits.

When Persia’s King Artaxerxes offered Ezra an armed escort, he refused. Having assured the king that God’s hand of protection was all they needed, it would have been embarrassing and hypocritical to then accept military help. The Judeans couldn’t just “talk the talk” about the Hebrew God, they had to “walk the walk” and live as if they truly believed Ezra’s words and God’s promises.

Instead of trusting in soldiers, Ezra chose to trust in God. Although he was confident in God, Ezra did not take His protection for granted. He gave orders for the people to fast and earnestly pray that God would take care of them. Knowing the trip could be disastrous without God’s protection, they committed themselves to trusting in God alone. This choice was a strong test of everyone’s faith. It’s remarkable that two chapters in the book of Ezra are written about their preparation for the trip, but just a few sentences tell about the journey itself and their safe arrival. Perhaps, if we spent more time in prayer and faith preparing for our life’s journeys, they would be as free of difficulty as Ezra’s.

Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door;
Words are so easily spoken,
Prayer without faith is like a boat without an oar.
Have faith when you speak to the Master,
That’s all he asks you for.
Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door.
[Samuel T. Scott & Robert L. Sande]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

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