BLOOD AND GUTS

For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. [Leviticus 17:11-12 (NLT)]

sacred daturaFor most of us, the meat we purchase arrives at the grocery store prepackaged. We’re not used to seeing animals slaughtered, skinned or butchered and, unless we’re phlebotomists, rarely see large amounts of blood. As a result, much of Leviticus makes for rather gory reading since the temple, a place of worship, also served as a ritual slaughterhouse. Perhaps it’s my vegetarian sensibilities but, when the Bible refers to the pleasing aroma of sacrifice, I wince when thinking of the stench of dried blood and burnt meat.

Biblical sacrifices go as far back as Cain and Abel but it is in Leviticus that we read of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites. The book gives complicated instructions for each of the sacrificial rituals: everything from the kind of animal offered and the draining of its blood to splashing that blood around the altar and what to do with the meat. Nowadays, these bizarre rites seem sickening and gruesome. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what they were supposed to be even back then. Watching one’s best lamb have its throat slit and seeing its blood pour out was probably as awful 3,400 years ago as it seems today. Seeing the animal’s life offered as a substitute for the sinner’s symbolized the high cost of sin and could not have been taken lightly. Moreover, as offensive as all that blood and butchering seems, think of how offended God is by our sins! Sin is far uglier and more repugnant than any abattoir.

My 21st century self has difficulty understanding why blood had to be shed in the first place and how blood—something that stains—could ever be considered cleansing. Caught up in picturing all of that blood, gore and smell, it’s easy to forget that the reason for those sacrifices was atonement. The Israelites sacrificed what was precious to them to satisfy God as atonement for their sins. A price had to be paid for mankind’s sins and, without blood, there could be no forgiveness. For God, the aroma was not that of blood and seared meat but of repentance. Those bloody offerings, however, were temporary substitutes. Even though the animal died rather than the sinner, the sacrifice had to be repeated again and again. It is those sacrifices, however, that foreshadowed the one true and everlasting sacrifice that took place on Calvary. Our sins against a holy and infinite God required a holy and infinite sacrifice: the flawless lamb, Jesus Christ. Our atonement is now found in our faith in Christ—the one perfect and final sacrifice.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. [Hebrews 9:12-14 (NLT)]

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. [Mark 7:21-22 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneI recently saw a play in which the only character, Lisa, presents a monologue about her life and family. The audience learns that her father, Walter, a German-born Jew, escaped to the U.S. as part of the kindertransport effort but that the rest of his family perished at Auschwitz. During her monologue, Lisa tells of taking her then 75-year old father to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. While touring the concentration camp, Walter tells his daughter about attending school with members of the Hitler Youth. Being a Jew, he couldn’t wear one of their uniforms but another boy in his school, a Gentile, refused to wear one. Her father then tells her that, in spite of the horror of Auschwitz and the loss of his family, he is glad he was born a Jew—because he didn’t have the option of becoming a Nazi! Unlike the Gentile boy who refused to join (and suffered because of it), Walter realized that, had he not been Jewish, he might have joined the Nazis. He knew that part of him could have been as merciless and evil as the men who rounded up and exterminated his family.

After the war, Walter returned to Germany as an interrogator of German personnel. In her soliloquy, Lisa tells how he admitted to callously browbeating one prisoner into confessing that he’d rounded up Jews from the Ghetto. Rather than turn the prisoner over to the allies for trial, Walter handed him over to the Russians, men he knew would summarily execute the German in the woods. Perhaps Walter was right; in other circumstances, he might have joined the Hitler Youth.

Hearing this story made me wonder what darkness lurks in my heart. In other circumstances, could I spew hate, inflict pain, ignore my conscience, turn my back on my brothers and sisters, or close my eyes to evil? Could I ever be like Haman (who plotted to exterminate the Jews) or Abimelech (who killed his 70 brothers)? Could I have worn a Hitler Youth uniform? Sadly, in another time, in another place, perhaps my heart could have deceived me to do just that.

Just because I’m capable of evil, however, doesn’t mean I have to be evil. Rather than betray Jesus as did Judas, I could be as faithful as John. Rather than the closed minds and murdering hearts of those who stoned Stephen, I could be as holy and forgiving as the martyred man. While I could be as scheming and immoral as Herodias, I also could be as obedient and fearless as her victim John the Baptist. Yes, I could have joined the Hitler Youth, but I also could have refused to be part of such evil and willingly suffered the consequences.

There is something terribly wrong with our hearts that, if allowed to grow, can become horrendous and unthinkably evil, but there also is something beautifully right with them. We are made in the image of God; deep inside us there is something of Him and He has written his law in our hearts. He gave us the gift of free will and, with every choice, we either become more or less like the person God made us to be. Because our hearts can be deceitful, corrupt, and self-serving they can lead us astray but they don’t have to! When led by the Holy Spirit, our hearts can be so filled with good that there is no room left for evil.

For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. … 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. [Psalm 51:5,10-11 (NLT)]

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. [Galatians 5:22-24 (NLT)]

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YOUR MISSION

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 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 28:19-20 (NLT)]

dahliaIn 1978, Merck Research Laboratories was approached by a scientist who thought a drug he was developing to treat parasitic infections in animals might be useful in treating a parasitic infection in humans. Called onchocerciasis or river blindness, it is transmitted through the bite of black flies and had no known cure. The pharmaceutical company faced a dilemma. Since onchocerciasis is found only in third world areas, the people needing the medication could never afford to buy it. How could the company expend money to develop a drug they’d never be able to sell? Nevertheless, they did and, in 1987, Merck announced that, for as long as was necessary, they would give away the drug (Mectizan®) for the treatment of onchocerciasis to any country that needed it. Eleven years later, they expanded their commitment and started donating Mectizan® for the treatment of Lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-transmitted disease which can develop into elephantiasis. Since 1987, more than a billion treatments have been donated to thirty-three countries and the World Health Organization forecasts that both diseases could be eradicated by 2020.

Typically, in business, if there’s no chance for profit, there’s no chance for the project. In the case of Mectizan®, however, Merck saw the company’s primary goal as getting the drug to the people who needed it rather than getting a return on their investment. This mindset goes back to a statement by George Merck in 1933 that the company’s mission was to develop scientific breakthroughs to benefit humanity. In 1950, he elaborated by saying, “Medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits.” Merck’s CEO in 1978, Dr. Roy Vagelos, further clarified the company’s mission by directing its scientists to put medical needs before profits and to think of their work as a quest to alleviate worldwide human disease and suffering.

Jesus gave us what’s known as the Great Commission; recently, our northern church wanted to clarify how it intended to fulfill that command. At a congregational meeting to formulate a mission statement, the story of Merck putting people before profit was shared to illustrate the importance of knowing our purpose and what we will or won’t do to achieve it. It’s not just churches, businesses or charitable foundations, however, that need to articulate their mission. “What is my objective? What have I been called to do and how will I do it?” are questions each of us should ask of ourselves and our families.

In that same 1950 speech, George Merck said, “The all-important question in research, which must be asked constantly, is: what is the right thing to do? … We cannot rest till the way has been found…to bring our finest achievement to everyone.” I’m not in medical research but Merck’s words apply to us all. What is the right thing to do? How can we bring our finest achievements to others? A good place to start is to ask two more questions: “What would Jesus do and how would He do it?”

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. [John Wesley]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. … Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. [Romans 12:2,21 (NLT)]

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HIS EYES AND EARS

Sandhill Crane FamilyAgain a message came to me from the Lord: “Son of man, you live among rebels who have eyes but refuse to see. They have ears but refuse to hear. For they are a rebellious people. [Ezekiel 12:1-2 (NLT)]

Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? “You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?” Don’t you remember anything at all? [Mark 8:17b-18 (NLT)]

While walking at the park yesterday, my husband pointed at something in the brush. As I zoomed in with my camera, I realized he’d spotted a sandhill crane foraging in the deep grass. They mate for life and, where there’s one, there usually are two so I kept looking until I spotted Mrs. Crane just before they disappeared into a thicket. A few minutes later, we turned a corner, looked hopefully toward the open meadow, and spotted the pair again, along with junior. These elegant long-necked birds are among my favorites in the park but, with their grey-brown bodies that blend into the colors of the prairie, they’re easy to miss. This morning, when I heard their unique rattle-like call, we stopped and scanned the meadow and finally spotted the distinctive red cap that meant a crane was in the grass. As I whispered a prayer of thanks for another sighting of these beautiful birds, I realized how easy it is to miss God’s blessings because we haven’t looked for them.

sandhill craneThinking of the maxim that blessings are hidden in every trial if only we’d open our hearts to them, I initially thought I’d write about hidden blessings. I then realized that we miss more than beautiful birds and blessings when we fail to look and listen; we miss God-given opportunities to be true disciples of Christ.

The gospels tell of when Jesus and the apostles, tired and hungry, just wanted to go off to a quiet place and rest but an enormous crowd pursued them. Rather than send away the people, Jesus had compassion on them. He healed the sick, spoke about the Kingdom of God, and fed the hungry with a picnic of massive proportions. Another time, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and, like other rabbis, He was probably teaching as He walked. Anxious to hear everything the rabbi said, people crowded around as they followed Him. When a blind beggar shouted out to Jesus, they yelled at the man to be quiet. Jesus, however, heard the cry for mercy, stopped what he was doing, and compassionately restored the blind man’s sight.

Blessings and sandhill cranes often go unnoticed; I only spotted those cranes because I wanted to see them. I’m rarely that anxious to see the needs and hear the cries of my fellow man and they are far more obvious. Compassion, witness, and service can be inconvenient. We justify our failure to act by turning a deaf ear and blind eye to what’s right in front of us. Jesus never failed to see those who needed to be fed spiritually or physically and He always heard their cries for mercy. As His disciples, we are called to serve those who hunger and thirst, welcome the lonely, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and visit the prisoner. We can’t be the hands and feet of Jesus unless we also act as His eyes and ears.

Now you, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out upon this world, and yours are the lips through which His love is to speak; yours are the hands with which He is to bless men, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good—through His Church, which is His body. [Mark Guy Pearce (Evangelical Christendom, 1881)]

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:35-36,40 (NLT)

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WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:10-12 (NLT)]

The question was asked, “How different would the world look if everyone got what they deserved?” and so I started wondering.

Zebra longwing butterflyWhen I was ten, I watched on television as nine black students tried to enroll in an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas; they were blocked by the National Guard and an angry mob of 400 angry whites. Two years earlier, on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. I grew up in Detroit and, while discrimination and segregation were more subtle than in the South, it existed. I lived in a large home with a big yard on a tree-lined street but any trip “downtown” told me that most children of color didn’t live in homes like mine and their dads didn’t get to wear a suit and tie to work or drive shiny new cars. There may not have been “colored” drinking fountains or “white only” bathrooms but there was a six foot high, foot wide, and half-mile long wall segregating one black community from a neighboring white one; many other invisible and more impenetrable walls existed within our divided city. Even as a child, I knew no one deserved prejudice, discrimination, injustice, or poverty. I saw that my color gave me advantages that I hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve. Seeing no children of color at dance class, theater school, or summer camp, I thanked God that I’d been born a white American so that I had those opportunities. I realized that I lived a better life than did most people of color in my country and the majority of people in the rest of the world. I also knew that I was no better than anyone else; I wasn’t prettier, smarter, more talented or more deserving than any other race or nationality. By an accident of birth, I simply was more fortunate.

I’m not sure what the rest of the world would look like if everyone got what they deserved but my first thought was that Detroit would probably look a whole lot better than it does right now. Then I remembered that the Christian way isn’t giving everyone exactly what they deserve. It’s not an eye for an eye or a slur for a slur. It’s not blows and counterblows, attack and reprisal, or forgiving only if we’ve been forgiven. It’s not helping only those worthy of help, squaring accounts, or turning the tables. It’s helping the undeserving, forgiving the reprehensible, loving the heartless, accepting apologies, and burying the hatchet. It’s going the second mile and giving more than we got, bearing no malice, and praying for our persecutors rather than evening the score.

When asked how they’re doing, many Christians reply, “Better than I deserve.” The answer may be a bit of a cliché but it’s true. Just as I did nothing to deserve the advantages my race gave me, mankind has done absolutely nothing to be deserving of God’s blessings. Regardless of color, as recipients of God’s unmerited grace, we all have gotten more than we deserve (our salvation) and, as recipients of God’s mercy, we haven’t gotten what we do deserve (God’s punishment)! Certainly, God didn’t give us what we deserved when Jesus paid the penalty for our sins!

Upon second thought, I realize that, if everyone got only what they deserved, Detroit would look different but not any better (and probably worse). The world won’t improve if everyone gets exactly what they deserve. It’s not until we give everyone better than what they deserve that the world will ever truly change for the good.

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. [Matthew 5:38-45 (NLT)]

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THE BARBER

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. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

 If God is, why is there evil? But if God is not, why is there good? [Saint Augustine]

Kuchenhof Gardens netherlandsThe story is told of a barber who vehemently denied the existence of God while cutting his customer’s hair. “Look at this troubled world,” he said. “School shootings, terrorism, wars, genocide, pain, poverty, hatred, prejudice, and deceit: they all prove your so-called God doesn’t exist!” The customer tried to reason with him but the atheist would have nothing of it.

When the customer left the shop, he saw a man sitting on a nearby bench. His hair was long, filthy and matted; his eyebrows were so shaggy they nearly covered his eyes; his face was so dirty his skin color was undistinguishable; and his mustache and beard were long, mangy, and disgusting. Returning to the shop, the customer announced to the barber, “There are no barbers; you do not exist!” The shocked man replied, ”But, I do; I’m right here in my shop. Here’s my chair and sink, towels and wash cloths, shampoo and shaving cream, scissors and razors, combs and brushes. How can you say I don’t exist?” The customer then pointed to the unkempt man sitting outside on the bench. “Well, that’s what happens when people don’t come to me,” said the exasperated barber. “My point exactly,” replied his customer. “This troubled sinful world is what happens when people don’t go to God!”

It’s been said that someone once asked Billy Graham how Christianity could be valid when there is so much evil in the world. The famous preacher replied, “With so much soap, why are there so many dirty people in the world? Christianity, like soap, must be personally applied if it is to make a difference in our lives.”

 A Christian is nothing but a sinful man who has put himself to school for Christ for the honest purpose of becoming better. [Henry Ward Beecher]

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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