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 ROAD TO HELL

PythonI don’t want Satan to outwit us. After all, we are not ignorant about Satan’s scheming. [2 Corinthians 2:11 (GW)]

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, is a series of letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, a demon-in-training. Screwtape, acting as Wormwood’s mentor, advises the novice tempter on ways to acquire the soul of a nameless young man known as “the patient.” Wormwood, like many young people, is both enthusiastic and impatient. He hopes to win the man’s soul quickly by having him sin on a grand scale with an act of deplorable wickedness. Screwtape, however, points out that the patient succumbing to the many little temptations of life are what will eventually corrupt him. The experienced demon points out that evil on a petty scale will seep into the man’s relationships, prayer life, and view of the church and that, says Screwtape, is the way to capture a soul.

Lewis’ book reminds us to keep alert regarding Satan’s plots. It’s easy to be confident about not becoming terrorists, murderers, blackmailers, bank robbers or kidnappers because we’d see those satanic schemes a mile away. It’s the little things like pique, exhaustion, fear, disillusionment, annoyance, disappointment, over-confidence, or boredom that can give Satan a foothold in our lives and blind us to his presence. Once he’s gotten in the door, he provides us with temptations to gossip, bicker, ridicule, lie, cheat or covet and nudges us with discontent, restlessness, and a dash of envy so we want bigger, better and more than our neighbor. He encourages unforgiveness, self-importance, jealousy, and intolerance and then tells us we’re not being boastful, selfish, petty, hypocritical, greedy, self-righteous or vain. He tells us what we want to hear—that the end justifies the means, the crowd can’t be wrong, or that no one will know! He subtly encourages us to put other activities before prayer or Bible study and to put other relationships before our relationship with God.

Make no mistake about it—Satan and his forces are out and about and we must never forget it. He knows our weaknesses, doesn’t play fair, and won’t announce his presence or tell us his plans. Whether the enemy crushes us with one blow from a wrecking ball, a few swings of a sledge hammer or patiently chips away at us with a chisel makes no difference to him; he just wants to defeat us.

You will say these are very small sins … The only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. [Screwtape to Wormwood, from “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis]

So place yourselves under God’s authority. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come close to God, and he will come close to you. Clean up your lives, you sinners, and clear your minds, you doubters. [James 4:7-8 (GW)]

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BITTERROOT AND BINDWEED

Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. [Hebrews 12:15 (NLT)]

bitterroot - hedge bindweedThe bitterroot plant was a staple in the Native American diet; just a few ounces of the dried root provided enough nourishment for a meal. Bitterroot could also settle an upset stomach, relieve the itch from poison ivy, and numb the pain of a sore throat. Unlike the bitterroot, however, the root of bitterness is anything but life-sustaining or healing.

With its large pink flowers, the bitterroot is lovely and welcome; the root of bitterness is not. Bitterness is more like bindweed, a wild relative of the morning-glory. Both look harmless enough at first but, before you know it, they take root. Bindweed wraps itself around every plant nearby and bitterness wraps itself around our hearts. The roots of both bindweed and bitterness can reach deep and spread wide. Gardeners often call bindweed the “zombie plant” because it’s nearly impossible to kill; the same goes for bitterness. Without continual effort to keep cutting down bindweed and cutting out bitterness, both may be here to stay.

It’s hard to avoid bindweed, and the same goes for bitterness. We’ve all had people who’ve hurt us in seemingly unforgiveable ways. When bitterness rears its ugly head, we may find ourselves wishing ill upon them or taking secret joy if adversity hits them. Their inexcusable behavior makes us feel justified in allowing this bitter root to grow. The longer bitterness and bindweed are allowed to grow, the deeper their roots go and the more they destroy the garden or life hosting them.

Forgiveness is the only way to eradicate the root of bitterness and it doesn’t come easily. A desire for justice, revenge, and retribution is the natural response to injury. While we think that someone should pay for the harm that’s been done to us, we forget that Jesus has already paid that debt. If we ask how we possibly can forgive those who’ve hurt us, we must also ask how God possibly can forgive us. When Jesus saved us from God’s condemnation, we lost any right to condemn other people; we are no less a sinner than anyone else.

It takes patience, perseverance, and determination to rid a garden of bindweed and the same goes for ridding our lives of bitterness. As with bindweed, whenever we spot bitterness sprouting in our souls, we need to prune it back to weaken its roots. Praying for our enemies kills bitterness in much the same way herbicide kills bindweed. We should improve our soil with God’s word and consider cultivating new friends—ones who won’t share our bitterness, feed our resentment, encourage our hostility, listen to our complaints, or tolerate our anger. It can take three to five years of concentrated effort to eradicate bindweed from a garden; ridding ourselves of bitterness doesn’t happen overnight either.

There is one similarity between the root of bitterness and the bitterroot plant. Bitterroot’s scientific name is Lewisii (in honor of Meriwether Lewis) and rediviva (meaning “reviving from a dry state”) because of its root’s ability to grow again after being dug up, dried whole, and stored for several months. Like the bitterroot, the root of bitterness often can find a way to revive when we think it’s dead and gone. Then again, we must remember that both bitterroot and the root of bitterness can only revive if we replant and water them.

Love keeps no record of wrongs, but bitterness keeps detailed accounts. (Craig Groeschel)

Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. [Luke 6:28 (NLT)]

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

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SPIRITUAL MALAISE

These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. [Isaiah 29:13 (NLT)]

queen butterflyA friend was on her way out the door when the CO (carbon monoxide) detector started beeping. Thinking the batteries needed replacing, she pulled it off the wall, removed the batteries, and departed for the day. Upon her return, she tried new batteries in the monitor but it started to sound again. She was faced with two options: either the detector was bad (they should be replaced every five to seven years) and she could ignore the alarm or her house was filled with an odorless, tasteless, colorless, and potentially fatal gas! Fortunately, my friend called the fire department. They detected a high level of carbon monoxide and discovered the cause: a chipmunk that got stuck and died in the gas water heater’s flue. With its carcass blocking the pipe, the heater couldn’t vent properly and deadly CO was backing up into the house. Had my friend gone to bed that night instead of calling the fire department, she probably would not have seen another day.

Spiritual malaise (what the early church called acedia) is nearly as undetectable and potentially fatal as CO; like that toxic gas, it can sneak up on us without our realizing it. While most of us probably won’t experience CO poisoning, I think we all, at some time or another, will experience a kind of spiritual malaise or lethargy. Rather than a blocked flue or a faulty exhaust system, its cause can be anything from being too busy to not being busy enough. It can occur when we feel defeated by our difficulties or too self-confident in our triumphs—when we’re disheartened by disappointments or become complacent in our blessings. Instead of nausea or drowsiness, spiritual malaise brings a subtle loss of purpose, an erosion of values, a wavering faith, a loss of hope, or a feeling of helplessness. Instead of replacing the oxygen in our red blood cells with carbon monoxide, it replaces the passion and joy in our worship with boredom, our desire for God’s word with disinterest, our fervor in prayer with listlessness, and our God-dependence with self-reliance. We grow drowsy in study, lethargic in worship, and sleepwalk through our prayers. Bible study, worship and prayer are seen as obligatory rather than the pleasure, privilege and honor they are. I think the enemy probably loves a passionless Christian almost as much as a passionate sinner!

When those passionless times come, and they will, we won’t have an alarm that beeps. We have to do our own self-monitoring and recognize the symptoms. Instead of opening windows or leaving the house, we need to turn to God, run wholeheartedly into His arms, and give ourselves fully to praise and worship. Rather than call the fire department, we must fellowship with other believers so that their enthusiasm can rub off on us. We must dig into God’s word and fill our minds with His truth, leaving no room for Satan’s lies. Most of all, we should pray for wisdom, strength, a rekindling of our faith, and the opportunity to use our gifts for His purpose.

Father in Heaven, remove our fatigue; renew, redeem, and restore us to your salvation. Fill us with the power of the Holy Spirit, transform our weariness into strength, and lift us on your mighty wings.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. [Psalm 51:10-12 (NLT)]

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:31 (NLT)]

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MINUTES PER DAY

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)]

sunset - vanderbilt beach - naplesFitbit recently notified me that I’ve logged 4,132 miles and awarded me a badge for having walked the length of the Nile River. And to think—I managed to do it all without ever leaving the country. With the aim of averaging 10,000 steps a day, I was curious to see how close to that goal I’ve gotten since getting the Fitbit. Some complicated math told me that, by now, I should have logged enough steps to be three-quarters of the way from the North to the South Pole. Granted, I haven’t always worn my pedometer and both foot and knee injuries temporarily benched me. Nevertheless, surprised to see how short I was of my goal, I realized how easy it is to think we’ve done far more than we actually have.

We don’t have prayometers to log our prayer time nor does God award badges for time spent talking with Him. If He did, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I should be. By my next birthday, I will have lived 26,280 days (not counting leap days) which is 37,843,200 minutes. If I spent even five minutes a day in prayer, that would be 131,400 minutes or 91 days of my life. While I would have received the Kim Kardashian badge for praying longer than her 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, I wouldn’t have prayed as long as the 98 days the Macarena was the number one hit song.  Even if I’d faithfully prayed ten minutes every day, I’d be short of the badge honoring James Garfield (who died 6 months and 15 days into his term). It would take twenty minutes of prayer every day to qualify me for the 365-day one year badge. One year out of 72 spent in prayer didn’t sound deficient until I realized that is a little less than 1.4% of my life. Although some of that time was spent in infancy when I was too young to pray, most of it wasn’t. Other than sleeping, what was I doing with the other 98.6% of my time? Then reality set in; days I spent twenty minutes in prayer were few and far between; on the average, five minutes is more like it.

Unfortunately, just as I over-estimated my steps, I’ve probably over-estimated even five minutes of daily prayer. We’re told to pray without ceasing but how? We don’t live in monasteries or convents, have servants to do our chores, or families we can ignore. Needing to eat, sleep, work, and serve family, church and community, how is it possible to pray continually? I suppose the answer is that our entire life should be a prayer—having our hearts open to the Lord’s leading, dedicating ourselves to being a blessing to others, and glorifying God in all we say and do. Nevertheless, in spite of saying grace or shooting out quick “please and thank you” prayers during the day, time needs to be set aside daily for daily chats with our Father in heaven.

God allots us twenty-four hours in a day; taking eight off for sleep, that leaves us sixteen hours (960 minutes) for eating, working, reading, Facebook, bathroom, television, talking, exercise, prayer and so on. If we gave God our undivided attention in prayer for only ten minutes each day, that would be a mere 1% of our waking time. I would venture a guess that we probably spend more than that on social media and email. As we move into this Lenten season of reflection, it might be a good time for us to consider our prayer life. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days; it would seem that we should be able to withdraw from the world and commune with God for ten minutes a day.

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [Romans 12:12 (NIV)]

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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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