THE OWN GOAL

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)]

green heronUsed primarily in soccer and hockey, the term “own goal” or “OG” describes the moment a player accidentally (or deliberately) puts the ball or puck into their own net, resulting in the opposing team getting credited with the goal. OGs can arise from a player’s misjudgment or simply bad luck, as might happen when he’s the victim of a wicked deflection or freak incident. An “own goal” is probably one of the lowest moments for a player and the term has now become a metaphor for any action that backfires on a person. When I think of the way Paul’s imprisonment helped rather than hindered the growth of the early church, I can’t help but think that Satan made an own goal with that one and the point went to God’s team, not his.

The enemy scored another “own goal’ some 57 years ago when I was a freshman at Northwestern University. Although I’d been raised in a church-going family and considered myself a Christian, I was a troubled and confused young woman when I entered college. First quarter freshman year, I took a course in Methods of Discussion in which we studied group communication. On our first day, the class was divided into small groups for a major assignment. We were to select a campus organization that had discussions and observe several meetings. Our purpose was not to scrutinize the topic discussed but to analyze and evaluate the way in which it was considered—how decisions were made, conflicts resolved, understanding built, questions answered, and voices heard. Having been on campus for less than a week, we freshmen knew nothing about any campus organizations and when Dave, the group’s lone upper classman, assured us that Campus Crusade for Christ would make for a great term paper, we deferred to his wisdom. The fact they met Sunday nights and served supper when the dorms didn’t was the selling point for most of us.

What we didn’t know until after starting the project was that Dave’s purpose in choosing Campus Crusade had nothing to do with observing discussion methods or eating a free dinner. An angry atheist, his sole reason for choosing the group was to write a paper that denigrated and ridiculed Christians and this group in particular. The rest of us, however, insisted on sticking to the task and focusing on the method of communication rather than the topic discussed. When it became clear that our paper wouldn’t accomplish his purpose, Dave dropped the class.

While I remember getting an A on the paper, I remember nothing about the mode of discussion at the Campus Crusade get-togethers except that it was spirited and friendly. What I do remember is their message of God’s grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. This wasn’t the God of judgment and condemnation with whom I was familiar; this was a God of unconditional love and forgiveness, a God of relationship rather than religion. Jesus became real to me and I learned more about Him in a few Sunday evenings than I had in years of Sunday school and church. Even though I’d been baptized as an infant and confirmed as a young teen, it wasn’t until I knelt in the university chapel and asked Jesus into my life that I truly became His disciple. After our paper was submitted, I continued attending those Sunday meetings (and not just for the dinner) until I left university life.

Our Heavenly Father works in strange and wonderful ways and has no problem allowing evil people to accomplish His purposes. There’s a certain amount of poetic justice when Satan’s plans backfire as they did with the Apostle Paul and as they even did with me! Thank you, Jesus, for the atheist who brought me into your arms!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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NICODEMUS AND JOSEPH

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)]

station of the cross - 13 - golindrinas NMNot all of the Sadducees and Pharisees were disinterested in the truth. Consider Nicodemus, a man who was both a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Drawn to Jesus because of His miracles, the Pharisee visited Him alone during the night. That his approach seems furtive implies Nicodemus was hesitant to let others know of his visit. Nevertheless, he approached Jesus with respect, an open mind, and honest questions. Although some Pharisees said Jesus got His power from Satan, Nicodemus began by acknowledging that Jesus’ miracles testified He came from God. Recognizing that Jesus came from God, however, was not enough. Jesus’s response was, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Jesus, of course, was speaking of spiritual rebirth but Nicodemus’ response implies he took Jesus’ words literally when he pointed out the impossibility of an old man re-entering his mother’s womb to be born again.

While most of us are familiar with this verse as saying “born again,” the word used was anóthen, meaning “from above,” so Nicodemus could have understood Jesus was speaking figuratively of a spiritual birth. The Pharisee may have wondered how an old man, set in his beliefs, habits, position, and attitude, ever could make such a radical change and start fresh. Being stuffed back into the womb is impossible but spiritual rebirth can seem as unfeasible. Jesus acted surprised that Nicodemus, a respected Jewish teacher, didn’t understand the things about which He spoke. His reference to Moses lifting up a bronze snake on a pole to heal (found in Numbers) and His words about water and the Spirit that echoed words written by Ezekiel [36:25-27] may have prompted the Pharisee to go back and re-study Scripture.

The next we read of Nicodemus is during a meeting of the Sanhedrin when he pointed out the illegality of convicting Jesus without a trial. During the sham trial that followed, however, neither he nor Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower of Jesus, defended Jesus. Whether they still had doubts, were afraid, or simply thought no harm could come to the Messiah, they remained silent when others condemned Him. It may not have been until Calvary that the two Pharisees finally understood Jesus’ comparison of Moses raising the pole in the wilderness to heal the Israelites to the “Son of Man” being “lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” [John 3:14]

The next time we read of the two men, Jesus has been crucified. At great risk to position and reputation, Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. Rather than the disciples, it was Joseph and Nicodemus—men who once has been too afraid to speak for Jesus—who prepared His broken body for burial. They anointed the Lord with over 70 pounds of ointment, wrapped Him in sheets of linen, and placed Him in Joseph’s tomb. By doing so, the two men publicly declared their belief in Jesus. They were born anew!

While Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to Nicodemus and Joseph, we do know what would have happened to any member of the Sanhedrin having done what they did—he’d be kicked off the High Council, lose his position as Pharisee, and probably be banished from his synagogue. There’s little doubt that both men lost their power, wealth, and position but, in return, they gained eternal life! All in all—not a bad trade!

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” [Matthew 16:24-27 (ESV)]

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THE REASON FOR THE SEASON – Easter 2022

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. [1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (NLT)]

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. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

rabbitIn less than five minutes the house was ready for Easter. I’d hung out the spring wreath with its silk tulips, placed the resin Easter rabbit with his cart and eggs on the hall table, and put the three ceramic bunnies around the flowers on the table. With no grands visiting this year, I didn’t even have eggs to boil or baskets to fill! Since it took me days to ready the house for Christmas, I wondered why Easter doesn’t get the same amount of decoration and celebration. Granted, most of the holiday traditions for both holy days have pagan beginnings. Nevertheless, those customs have become part of our culture and Christmas seems to overshadow Easter by a mile.

Christmas has its own color scheme, its own genre of music, and its own beloved fictional characters, including a Grinch, a snowman, an elf on a shelf, and a red-nosed reindeer. We spend weeks decorating our homes, purchasing gifts, and preparing food. We have special Christmas attire ranging from Santa hats to candy cane jewelry and ugly holiday sweaters. People decorate trees, hang garlands and lights, dress up their dogs, and adorn their cars with reindeer horns. Every year sees at least one Christmas-themed movie release and we get a plethora of holiday-themed television shows throughout December. Christmas music is played from the first of November to New Year’s and our calendars are filled with dates for holiday parties and concerts. Easter traditions pale in comparison to Christmas. Even with Easter baskets and egg hunts, the Easter Bunny can’t hold a candle to Santa. The few Easter hymns are sung only a couple of Sundays and hard-boiled eggs and Peeps are second-rate when compared to the plethora of holiday treats, Christmas cookies, and peppermint bark! As far as celebrations go, Easter is sort of like the neglected step-child of holy days. Of course, it’s difficult to generate a festive spirit when Easter is preceded by a season of penitence and fasting and follows the darkest day in Christendom.

As much as I enjoy the traditions of Christmas (in spite of their pagan origins), Christmas really has nothing to do with decorating houses, baking cookies, hanging stockings, gift exchanges, sending cards, singing carols, or holiday parties. Although our sacred Christmas traditions emphasize Jesus’ birth with nativity scenes and pageants, that night in Bethlehem was just the beginning of a far greater story—the story of who Jesus was and what He did for us.

Granted, we usually consider a person’s arrival more reason to celebrate that his departure and we celebrate birthdays rather than dates of death but, in Christ’s case, it is just the opposite. The meaning of Christmas is actually found in the Easter story. Without Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension there would be no forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. Without Easter, the Christmas story would be no more than just a story. For me, the purpose of Christmas can be summed up in one word: Easter!

So, Merry Christmas and Happy Easter on this upcoming Resurrection Sunday!

Somehow we just don’t make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a holly, jolly Easter. … Easter may seem boring to children, and it is blessedly unencumbered by the silly fun that plagues Christmas. Yet it contains the one thing needful for every human life: the good news of Resurrection. [Frederica Mathewes-Green]

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1:3-4 (NLT)]

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26a (NLT)]

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NO SMALL PARTS 

Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. [Matthew 7:12 (MSG)]

gardeniaWhen the Academy Awards were held recently, Oscars were presented for things like best director, best lead and supporting actors and actresses, and even best make-up and hair styling. If it’s true (as my theater teachers claimed) that, “There are no small parts, only small actors!” how is it that no awards were given to the best small part players? Regardless of the perfection with which they may have fulfilled their “bit parts”, their screen time was too short to be nominated for anything. To add insult to injury, they may have been known only as Dog Walker or Nurse #2! The small role, however, doesn’t mean the character played an insignificant part in the story. Nevertheless, after moving the story forward, the bit part players just fade into the background. Even so, while their names may be forgotten, the story wouldn’t have been the same had they not played their roles.

When thinking of the people who passed through our lives, we know who the major players are but what of the others, the ones who left a small but indelible mark on us—the people with the bit parts in the scripts of our lives? We may have forgotten their names or never have known them at all. Perhaps it was a neighbor who always waved and smiled when you passed by, the teacher who said you weren’t “dumb,” the trucker who changed your flat tire, or the nurse who let you hold your stillborn baby until you were ready to let him go. It may have been the stranger on the plane who prayed with you as tears rolled down your cheeks, the woman who said “You’re beautiful!” when the scarf slipped off your bald chemo-head, or the stranger who listened when you desperately needed to talk. Whether it was a small kindness, words of encouragement, a little unasked-for (but much needed) help, prayers, a chat over coffee, or just a hug, the bit players in our lives played fleeting but pivotal roles and our interactions, while short-lived, changed us in unexpected ways. They listened, challenged, suggested, assisted, shared, taught, and demonstrated God’s love. They had only a few lines of dialogue in the script but the movie of our lives would be incomplete had their scenes been cut by the film editor.

Granted, there probably are a few unpleasant, painful, or upsetting encounters with bit part players we might prefer having been edited out of our lives, but we don’t need to dwell on those. Let’s remember, however, that we are the small part players in other people’s lives—whether it’s the bagger at the grocery, the receptionist at the doctor’s, the busser at the restaurant, the lonely widow down the street, the kid trying to sell over-priced candy or popcorn for his team, the person giving us technical assistance on the phone, the mom with the crying baby on the plane, or the annoying telemarketer. How will we play our role? Will it be worthy of a heavenly award?

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. [Augustine]

So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith. [Galatians 6:9-10 (MSG)]

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HOW WILL THEY KNOW US?

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22-23a (NLT)]

pomegranateThe culture of the 1st century was agrarian in nature so the analogies used by Jesus and the evangelists often were those of agriculture – seeds, soil, fruit, and vines. For example, when writing about the characteristics in the lives of those who follow Jesus, Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit. But, if Paul were writing to modern industrial society, he might have used a different metaphor. Instead of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, we might have the Spirit’s toolbox. Rather than fruit, we’d have God’s tools to help us to build His Kingdom. The saw in the box would be God’s peace that cuts worry and fear out of our lives. The sandpaper would be kindness as it smooths out life’s rough edges. Protective gear like safety goggles and steel-toed shoes would be the self-discipline that protects us from sin. Duct tape and WD-40 would be as essential as love, a flashlight would shine our joy, and we’d have clamps to hold us tight to the faith. God’s word would be our blueprint and, instead of being connected to a vine, the power tools would be plugged into the Holy Spirit’s power. Regardless of the metaphor, the Holy Spirit provides us with what we need to be more like Christ.

My son has a variety of fruit trees on his property but, when he moved to his new home, he wasn’t sure what they all were. It wasn’t until the large tree with the pretty red-orange blossoms and shiny green leaves bore fruit that he knew it was a pomegranate and, until the bushes with the oval leaves and small white flowers bore their fruit, he didn’t know he had lemons. Just as a tree is identified by its fruit, a good builder can be identified by his house. Someone could claim to be a master builder but, if the shutters on his house are hanging from the hinges, the windows shattered, the roof tiles missing, the wooden steps broken, the paint peeling, and the walls collapsing, we’d know his claim was false. Just as trees are identifiable by their fruit and builders by their work, it is our behavior that should identify us as Jesus’ followers. The fruit of the Spirit should be evident in everything we do and say and in the attitude we have when we say or do it.

If you were a fruit tree, would anyone recognize the fruit you bear as coming from the Spirit? If you were a builder, would your work resemble that done by a Jewish carpenter’s son from Nazareth? Whether we think of the characteristics of a Christ follower as fruit or tools, the important thing is to let His Spirit make those characteristics a part of our lives so that we end up looking more and more like Jesus! That’s the way we can build His Kingdom!

You will know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. … Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. [Matthew 7:16,18,20 (NLT)]

 Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. [Matthew 7:20 (NLT)]

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ON HIS HANDS

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us.” “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.” [Isaiah 49:14-16a (NLT)]

mehndiTo the delight of the girls who attended the party, my daughter-in-law hired a Mehndi artist for my grand-daughter’s birthday celebration. Using a red-orange paste made from the dried leaves of the henna plant, the artist adorned the girls’ hands or arms with assorted intricate floral motifs. Since all of the family on her mother’s side is from India, this ancient form of body art is familiar to my grand. Although she’s attended several Mehndi parties, most of her guests have not. A Mehndi party for close friends and family is an important pre-wedding tradition in any Indian wedding. Along with plenty of food and music, there are henna artists. While they take only a few minutes painting designs on the guests, they spend several hours painting intricate geometric shapes and floral and paisley motifs on the bride’s hands, arms and feet. Hidden somewhere among the elaborate patterns on her body is the groom’s name.

Tradition holds that finding the hidden name is a game the newlyweds play on the wedding night. If the groom manages to find his name hidden among all of the designs, he will be the boss of the marriage; if he doesn’t, his wife rules the roost! Determining the boss in the relationship, however, isn’t why God says He’s written Israel’s name on the palms of His hands. Nevertheless, having the name of the bride’s beloved written on her hands always reminds me of God’s words in Isaiah 49.

At the time of Isaiah’s prophecies, Israel was facing hard times and captivity. Although they were the ones who abandoned God, they thought God had forgotten them and no longer cared whether or not they existed. In these verses, God reassures Israel that He will never forget them and, as a sign of His commitment, He’s even written Israel’s name on the palms of his hands.

Assuring Israel that He loves them like a mother, God compares forgetting them to the impossibility of a nursing mother forgetting her suckling child. Having nursed my children, I guarantee a nursing mother can’t forget her infant. If her hungry baby doesn’t make his presence known with howling, her uncomfortably full breasts will remind her that it’s time to feed him. Nursing mothers aren’t likely to forget their babies but, even if they could, God says He won’t because Israel’s name is inscribed on His hand.

The Hebrew word used was chaqaq and meant far more than just applying dye to someone’s skin; it meant to cut in, carve, or engrave. Unlike Mehndi which fades in two to three weeks, Israel’s name was permanently cut into God’s hands. Used figuratively, these two analogies symbolized God’s eternal commitment to His people and His covenant promises.

As Christians, what do promises made to Israel mean to us? In the Old Testament, Israel is used in several ways: Israel is a person (Jacob), a people (the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons), the “promised land” (a mass about the size of Rhode Island), the northern kingdom after the kingdom divided, and sometimes even the southern kingdom of Judah. In the New Testament, however, Israel takes on a new meaning. Rather than a person, people, land mass, or political nation, Israel is a spiritual kingdom. Before Jesus, it was one’s bloodline that defined an Israelite; it’s different now. As the Apostle Paul explains, a true Israelite now is someone who believes in the Messiah Jesus Christ. It is faith, rather than things like circumcision and descending from Abraham’s bloodline, that makes us “sons of Abraham.” God’s promises to Israel are promises made to us because they’ve been received by faith rather than bloodline.

Fear not, no matter how dark the days, God will never forget us—our names are etched into the palms of His hands!

…for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children…. Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. [Roman 9:6b-7a,8 (NLT)]

The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. … God gave the promises to Abraham and his child.  And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. [Galatians 3:7,16 (NLT)]

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