TRUE FREEDOM – INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020

Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. [Romans 6:14 (NLT)]

fireworksTomorrow, as we commemorate our nation’s birthday, the celebration will be a little different. Beaches are closed and the brat fests, chicken roasts, band concerts, parades, fireworks, neighborhood picnics, rodeos, and ice cream socials typical of this national holiday have been cancelled. Friends and family won’t be joining us to light sparklers, have a water balloon fight or baseball game, catch fireflies, eat popsicles and watermelon, or enjoy s’mores around a campfire.

Restrictions because of this pandemic have made some people bristle at their loss of personal freedom and these last few weeks have put a spotlight on both the shortcomings of our nation and the imperfections of our national heroes. Nevertheless, regardless of our nation’s faults and problems, we have an incredible amount of personal freedom. Here, we are free to disagree but, in nations like Syria, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, North Korea, and even our close neighbor Cuba, those demonstrations would never have taken place. There we’d have suppression of political opposition, restrictions on internet use, a one-party political system, government controlled media, prohibitions on worship, and harsh authoritarian rule with even more injustice and inequalities. While we’re far from perfect, we’re better than most!

As thankful as I am for the statesmen and patriots (flawed as they were) who made this great nation a reality, I am even more thankful for Jesus and his small band of Apostles who made it possible for us to live in true freedom! True freedom has more to do with belief in Jesus than it does with a Declaration of Independence or a Bill of Rights. Without Christ we will never truly be free because, no matter where we live or what kind of government we have, we will still be in bondage to sin. The Liberty Bell rang out for our nation’s freedom but it was the cross and an empty tomb that gave us our spiritual freedom. Our nation’s freedom began with its Declaration of Independence 244 years ago; our spiritual freedom came when we accepted Jesus and learned to live in dependence on Him.

We lift up our hearts, O God, on this day of celebration in gratitude for the gift of being Americans. We rejoice with all those who share in the great dream of freedom and dignity for all. 

With flags and feasting, with family and friends, we salute those who have sacrificed that we might have the opportunity to bring to fulfillment our many God-given gifts. 

As we deny all prejudice a place in our hearts, may we also clearly declare our intention to work for the time when all people, regardless of race, religion, or sex, will be granted equal dignity and worth. 

Come, O gracious God, who led your children Israel from slavery, keep us free from all that might hold us in bondage. 

Bless our country and join our simple celebration that we may praise you, our Source of freedom, the One in whom we place our trust. [Edward Hays, “A Pilgrim’s Almanac”]

For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [2 Corinthians 3:17 (NLT)]

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IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS

At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to. [Romans 8:26-27 (GW)]

sandhill craneAs a writer, I like to create with words. When writing a devotion, I carefully organize my thoughts, often cutting and pasting while moving sentences or entire paragraphs around. Supporting Bible verses are sought and various commentaries are consulted. Every word is carefully chosen (often after a synonym search). Grammar and spelling are double-checked and editing and rewriting continue right up to publication. All of that messing around with words, phrases and punctuation may be fine when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, but not when praying. Prayers would never get said if they required that amount of composing, revising and polishing!

God isn’t like an editor with a blue pencil telling us to shorten a paragraph, elaborate on an idea or find a better adjective before the prayer is worthy. He’s not like a teacher with a red pencil checking off our misspellings or grammatical errors. He’s doesn’t grade our prayers or refuse to listen if we’ve ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive. He’s more like a mother who reads and treasures her young child’s letter from camp with its smudges, messy printing, and misspellings. He’s just glad to hear from us.

We’ve all felt painfully inarticulate when it comes to prayer but that shouldn’t prevent us from praying. Although our words may be clumsy, being eloquent is not a requirement for prayer. The power of our prayers is not contained in words, sentence structure, or eloquence; the power of our prayers is found only in the One who hears those prayers! Fortunately, in God’s infinite mercy, He’s given us the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, living in us, intercedes for us in our hearts and it’s that heartfelt prayer that reaches God’s ears.

Don’t be so concerned about wrapping the gift that you never give it. … Better to pray awkwardly than not at all. [Max Lucado]

Dear friends, use your most holy faith to grow. Pray with the Holy Spirit’s help. [Jude 1:20 (GW)]

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THE “TERRIBLE PETITION”

Blessings on the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves. [Matthew 5:7 (NTE)]

Yes: if you forgive people the wrong they have done, your heavenly father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, neither will your heavenly father forgive you what you have done wrong.’ [Matthew 6:14-15 (NTE)]

large striped swordtail butterflyWhen our pastor did a sermon series on “Dangerous Prayers,” he didn’t mention one many of us pray regularly: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After giving the disciples “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus elaborated on this single petition by categorically stating, “If you don’t forgive people, neither will your heavenly father forgive you what you have done wrong.”  The parable of the unforgiving debtor told in Matthew 18 leaves no room for ambiguity on this point. After the servant refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, the angry king rescinds his forgiveness of the unforgiving man and sends him to be tortured in prison until the debt is paid. His debt (equivalent to several billion dollars today) was insurmountable and that torture would never end. Jesus warned his listeners that the same thing would happen to them if they withheld forgiveness.

Asking God to forgive us in the same way we extend forgiveness to others is dangerous. We are asking God to forgive us by the standard that we set—to deal with us as we deal with others! Called the “terrible petition” by St. Augustine, we’re actually asking God not to forgive us if we harbor any unforgiveness in our hearts! For some of us, could these words be a petition for condemnation rather than salvation, ones for death rather than everlasting life? If we’re unwilling to forgive, I suppose they are!

Paul’s words to the Ephesians tell us to get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, and harsh words and to “forgive one another, just as God forgave you in the king.” [4:31-32] Without a doubt, forgiveness is a difficult process and time is needed between our being hurt and our ability to forgive. The struggle to forgive, however, isn’t the sin; it’s the decision not to forgive, to hold onto our bitterness, that is!

Fortunately, forgiveness is a fruit of the Spirit! Jesus said that good trees produce good fruit and that every tree failing to produce good fruit would be cut down and burned. Clarifying that people are identified by their actions, Jesus warned that only those who actually did the will of the Father would enter the kingdom of heaven! From His words, it seems that profession of faith alone does not equal salvation. While salvation is not earned by works, our faith is evidenced by them: by our willingness to do the Father’s will! Can there be an unforgiven Christian? I don’t think so. But, if we refuse to forgive, are we true disciples of Christ or merely hypocrites who say we are?

No part of His teaching is clearer: and there are no exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything or that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own. [C.S. Lewis]

Actually, good trees can’t produce bad fruit, nor can bad ones produce good fruit! Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. So: you must recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, “Master, Master” will enter the kingdom of heaven; only people who do the will of my father in heaven. [Matthew 7:18-21 (NTE)]

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THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

In another Pearls before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), we see Goat, in the middle of the desert, on the phone with Rat. “My car broke down and I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere. Can you help me?” asks Goat. “Sure,” answers Rat, “I’m sending you thoughts and prayers.” In the last frame, Rat says to Pig, “It’s so much easier than getting up.”

Following Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in 2017, I saw a meme of an empty cargo truck with the words, “Don’t worry Texas! The first load of thoughts and prayers just arrived!” Let’s face it, thoughts and prayers don’t help people in the same way that donating blood, packing supplies, or sending money, clothing, food, or clean water do. But, as Rat said to Pig, sending thoughts and prayers is “so much easier than getting up!”

The old cliché doesn’t even make sense. Although we can think about someone, how do we send them our thoughts? Does it involve telepathy or clairvoyance? Sending anyone other than God our prayers seems an awful lot like idolatry and promised prayers frequently never materialize. I suspect that the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan told the injured traveler he was sending thoughts and prayers before departing and leaving the man half dead beside the road. Rather than promising thoughts and prayers, it was the Samaritan who compassionately served the man’s needs.

Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer but He also was a man who turned His thoughts and prayers into action! Rather than sending thoughts and prayers to the widow of Nain, He returned her son to life! Instead of sending thoughts and prayers to the man with the deformed hand, the ten lepers, or blind Bartimaeus, Jesus healed them! He didn’t send thoughts and prayers to His mother when she ran out of wine in Cana or to Martha and Mary when Lazarus lay in the tomb. When the disciples said the crowd was hungry, rather than telling them to send the people home with their thoughts and prayers, He said, “Feed them.” Whether an observant Jew, collaborating tax collector, Roman centurion, adulterer, demoniac, or Samaritan, Jesus never responded to their suffering simply by sending thoughts and prayers.

Since seeing that meme in 2017, I no longer say that I’m sending my thoughts and prayers but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about and praying for those who are suffering. It’s that I know I am called to do more. Prayer without action is as incomplete as faith without works. While we may not be able to reach out and personally impact the lives of those for whom we pray, we can pray for those who are serving them. As we pray for others, we find our hearts and eyes are opened not only to their needs but also to the needs of those right in front of us—the people whose lives we can change. We can reach out and touch them in some small way, even if it’s with cans of soup for the food bank, shopping for a neighbor, or talking with someone whose skin is a different color than ours.

Right now, our fallen world is filled with pain, anger, disease, hate, hopelessness, and sorrow. Economic wreckage, racism, a pandemic, and political unrest have come together in a perfect storm that is raining chaos, fear, frustration and violence. In Sunday’s Op-Ed for The Washington Post, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, said, “We must still choose love.” That love consists of more than sending thoughts and prayers. Instead of sending thoughts, I’m examining my own thoughts and attitudes to determine whether I am part of the problem or can become part of the solution. In addition to praying for the those who are hurting, afraid, angry, or troubled, I am praying that God will show us all how to participate in the healing so necessary in this troubled time. After asking what love looks like, the Bishop answered his own question: ”I believe that is what Jesus of Nazareth taught us. It looks like the Biblical Good Samaritan, an outsider who spends his time and money healing somebody he doesn’t know or even like.”

The following is a prayer for “the power of the Spirit among the people of God.” Written by a team of Lutheran and Episcopal prayer leaders, it is meant to unite believers in common prayer and revive us for a common mission. Let that mission be one of love.

God of all power and love, we give thanks for your unfailing presence and the hope you provide in times of uncertainty and loss. Send your Holy Spirit to enkindle in us your holy fire. Revive us to live as Christ’s body in the world: a people who pray, worship, learn, break bread, share life, heal neighbors, bear good news, seek justice, rest and grow in the Spirit. Wherever and however we gather, unite us in common prayer and send us in common mission, that we and the whole creation might be restored and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. [1 John 4:10-12 (NLT)]

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PROTECT THEM, LORD

I love you, Lord; you are my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. I called on the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and he saved me from my enemies. [Psalm 18:1-3 (NLT)]

mockingbird chick

Back when parks were open and the world seemed a safer place, we witnessed a parent’s nightmare. While the father was changing his toddler’s diaper, his four-year old daughter wandered away and disappeared in the zoo! We saw him frantically asking people, “Did you see a little girl in a pink bike helmet?” As he went racing down the path toward the alligators and lions, we went toward the lemurs and play area. Fortunately that pink helmet made her easy to spot as she stood watching the black bears lumber through their enclosure. While walking her back to her father, I said a prayer of thanksgiving that she would return safely home that day.

I thought of that anxious father the following day when reading Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephan Pastis. Goat was extending sympathy to Pig for his grandma’s death when Pig carried him off. In the next few frames, Pig carted off his friends Duck and Cat. All of Pig’s friends were stuffed in a box labeled “Bad things stay away!” A sign above them read, “SAFE PLACE WHERE I CAN KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE I LOVE SO NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO THEM.” In the last frame, Goat tried to explain that life doesn’t work that way but Pig said, “Don’t distract me. I’m standing guard.”

Like Pig, I wish I could keep bad things from happening to those I love. Of course, if parents and grandparents could, we’d erect a wall of protection around our loved ones to shield them, not just from death, but also from pandemics, heartache, injury, disappointment, and pain.

It would be a miracle if the worst that happens to that little girl is getting lost at the zoo. While her pink bike helmet may protect her when she falls off her trike, it’s of little use elsewhere! We live in a fallen world: a world with disease, defiance, pain, sorrow, falseness, mistakes, greed, betrayal, loss, violence, malice, and death. Chances are that our children and grands will wander further astray than to the bears’ enclosure at the local zoo.

We protect our gates, are cautious of what we allow into our homes, wear masks, sanitize, wash our hands, and stay alert to the dangers around us but what about when our loved ones leave home to lead their own lives? Unlike Pig, we can’t stuff those we love in a box and stand guard over them night and day. Instead, we teach, encourage, warn, guide, lead, love, discipline, forgive, pray, equip them, and then let them go. Although we provide them with God’s armor, we can’t make them accept or wear it. Sadly, there is no fool-proof way to protect our loved ones from Columbines or Sandy Hooks any more than we can from pandemics, disappointment, grief, cancer, mental illness, rejection, failure, or death.

I used to ask God to be with my children and grands until I realized how silly my request was; He’s with them always! I now ask God to guard them from evil by making His presence known to them and His voice heard by them. As I pray God’s blessing of protection over my loved ones, I give them to Him, trusting that He will bring them safely home, if not in this world, then in the next!

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy. For you bless the godly, O Lord; you surround them with your shield of love. [Psalm 5:11-12 (NLT)]

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TAKE A CENSUS

Mallard ducksHe will say to them, “Listen to me, all you men of Israel! Do not be afraid as you go out to fight your enemies today! Do not lose heart or panic or tremble before them. For the Lord your God is going with you! He will fight for you against your enemies, and he will give you victory!” [Deuteronomy 20:3-4 (NLT)]

The book of Numbers lives up to its name with two censuses commanded by the Lord. The first was taken a year after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, around 1444 BC, in the Sinai wilderness. Only men over twenty (not counting Levites) were counted and the total was 603,550. With the addition of women, children and Levites, the number of people in the exodus is estimated at two million. The purpose of the census was to assess Israel’s military strength, to keep an accurate record of genealogies, and to organize this enormous group into effective groups for both travel and battle. Family banners identified the tribal units so they could stay together as they moved and camped. A year later, convinced that the power of God and over 600,000 fighting men were not enough to defeat their enemies, the Israelites refused to enter Canaan.

Thirty-seven years later, when a new generation of Israelites was camped on the east side of the Jordan River, a second census was conducted. Like the first, this census ascertained military strength but also determined the amount of land allotted to each tribe. 601,730 fighting men were counted—slightly less than when they refused to enter Canaan the first time. Their opponents were no less formidable a generation later but this generation didn’t underestimate the power of God and the value of each man; they conquered the same people their parents had feared.

If we took a census of our assets, what would we list? Along with our faith in God, we might list things like bank accounts, investments, homes, possessions, education, experience, reputation, and even family. Would we list our sisters and brothers in Christ? I ask because I recently overlooked this valuable asset.

It had been a difficult week for me; writing had gone badly, the news was worse, loved ones were hurting, and a cloud of sadness enveloped me. While I’d been prayerfully bringing my concerns to God, I was trying to muddle through on my own. During our weekly church board teleconference, I reluctantly admitted my struggle and asked for prayers. Our pastor immediately led us in prayer before we continued our meeting. Immediately after its adjournment, my phone rang. On the other end was a fellow board member with words of encouragement—words I desperately needed to hear.

Sometimes we’re so determined to be good examples of faith that we let pride get in the way. We allow God to see the chinks in our armor but no one else. We’re told to share one another’s burdens and to encourage, pray for, and counsel one another but how willing are we to ask for help, encouragement, prayers, or counsel when we need it? We don’t have an army of over 600 thousand fighting men but we are blessed with an army of people who care: the prayer warriors, encouragers, comforters, helpers, and even correctors who are found the body of Christ. They aren’t, however, mind readers!

A Christian isn’t meant to go it alone. Jesus never compared us to solitary animals like bears or leopards; He compared us to sheep, creatures that follow a shepherd and gather in a flock. Take a census today and count the people in your life who give you strength—the people who will walk with you on your rocky road and prop you up when you weaken. Let us never be afraid to ask for assistance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike the Israelites, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of God and His army! Remember, it’s not the size of the army that’s as important as the size of their faith!

Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above. …
We share each other’s woes, Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows The sympathizing tear.
[John Fawcett]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

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