HARD HEARTS (Soil – Part 1)

A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. [Luke 8:5 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIn the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find Jesus telling the parable of the four soils in which the farmer’s seed falls on four types of ground and yields four different results. Although the same good seed is sown over the entire field, only one kind of soil will yield a good crop. Jesus isn’t giving a lesson about agricultural practices; the seed that is sown is God’s word and the soils represent the different responses we have to God’s word. The lessons taught are both for the sowers—those who teach, preach, or witness—and for the soil—the people who hear the Word.

Some of the farmer’s seed falls along a footpath. There the soil is packed down so hard that the seed can’t take root. At first, it seems like the farmer is at fault, but he was doing what farmers did at the time—sowing before plowing. In Jesus’ day, farmers’ plots were small and adjacent to one another’s plots. Wanting to avoid stepping on growing plants, there were pathways between the fields used by the farmers. As the farmer walked along the path, he’d scatter seeds with a broad sweeping motion of his hand. Inevitably, some seed would land on the footpath between the fields. Heavily used and neither plowed nor fertilized, its soil was hard packed and nothing would grow on it.

 It’s not enough for the word to be heard any more than it is for seed to fall on hard ground. In Scripture, faith and belief are products of the heart. Just as seed must germinate to grow, the Word must be accepted, but a hard heart, like hardened soil, cannot receive God’s word. Instead of birds, it is Satan who snatches the Word away.

We know what makes a footpath hard but what hardens hearts? I think of Herod Antipas who married his half-brother’s wife (forbidden by Mosaic Law). When John the Baptist denounced Herod’s illegal marriage, Herod arrested and imprisoned the prophet at his wife’s urging. Scripture, however, tells us that Herod respected John and liked to listen to him but, not wanting to recognize his own sin and repent, Herod didn’t allow John’s word to change him. Unrepentant sin caused both Herod’s and Herodias’ hearts to harden enough that John died a gruesome death.

In Pharaoh’s case, it was pride and arrogance that hardened his heart to the powerful God of the Israelites. It was setbacks and disappointments that hardened the heart of the Israelites when camping at Meribah. Ignoring God’s previous provision, the ungrateful people quarreled with Moses over the lack of water. Hearts can harden in times of prosperity, as well. God sent Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah to warn Israel and Judah about their hard hearts and the coming of God’s judgment but they didn’t change their ways. Distractions like fear and blame can cause hearts to harden enough for Satan to snatch away God’s word. Twice Scripture describes the hearts of the disciples as being “too hard to take it in” when they failed to let Jesus’ miracles of abundant provision grow into faith in His power. [Mark 6:52,8:17]

Hardened hearts dull our ability to perceive and understand God’s message, blind us to the value of the gospel, and keep us both ignorant of God and alienated from Him. As hearers of the Word, we must not let the enemy harden our hearts and, as sowers, we must keep spreading the seed; whether or not it is accepted is up to the soil! The good news, however, is that even the hardest soil can be broken and even the hardest heart can be softened.

Hardness of heart evidences itself by light views of sin; partial acknowledgment and confession of it; pride and conceit; ingratitude; unconcern about the word and ordinances of God; inattention to divine providences; stifling convictions of conscience; shunning reproof; presumption, and general ignorance of divine things. [Matthew George Easton]

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. [Ephesians 4:18 (NLT)]

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FAVORITE COLORS – MOTHER’S DAY 2020

tropical water lilies
Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

“Who has been the most influential woman in your life? Who encouraged you to be the best version of you?” was the question asked in a Mother’s Day devotion I read. Typically, one would reply his or her mother. My mother, however, died when I was fifteen. She certainly got me started in the right direction but, in the nearly sixty years since her passing, many women added to what she left undone.

I remember the camp counselor who gave me some tough (and much needed) words of correction; the widowed aunt who demonstrated that a woman alone can do anything; the acquaintance who shared her story of molestation when she recognized the signs of mine; the college roommate who proved one could be both godly, virtuous and popular; my husband’s aunt who embraced her difficult circumstances without complaint and lived her life with joy; my mother-in-law who taught me what it means to be a wife; my mother-in-law’s caregiver who defined compassion and patience; and my daughter who has shown true grace under pressure. I remember the many women who generously and patiently taught me new skills, those who challenged me to reach far beyond where I thought I could, and those who encouraged me when I thought I could go no further. I’ve been made better by women who remained calm in chaos and whose faith endured in overwhelming storms. I’ve been deepened by women who stumbled and got back up, who cried and smiled again, who gave when they had little to give, who loved the unlovable, forgave the unforgiveable and laughed in the face of tragedy. Out of all the women who have touched my life in such positive ways, who would I pick?

The women who influenced me are a bit like a fabulous collection of crayons. I can’t select a favorite from among the 120 colors Crayola offers, so how could I pick just one woman among the many who have made me who I am? Each woman colored the canvas of my life in her own unique way. While my canvas may have a preponderance of colors like Mountain Meadow, Turquoise Blue and Cornflower (with a touch of my mother’s Granny Smith Apple and sister’s Bittersweet), I have been enhanced by the Razzmatazz, Shocking Pink, Unmellow Yellow, Vivid Tangerine, Cotton Candy, Wild Strawberry, Razzle Dazzle Rose and Outrageous Orange that were added by other women who blessed my life. I’m nowhere near complete and colors keep being added that will make me a better version of myself.

While all of the women who’ve helped color me are unique, like crayons that share the same box, they have something in common; they all were women of faith—women who believed in the power of Jesus Christ. They saw His light and knew the truth of His words. There is, however, a huge difference between those who just see the light and those who become His light. Those who merely see the light may know the truth but don’t leave their mark; those who become His light, live the truth, color the world with their beauty, and cause us to be better versions of ourselves.

Thank you, God, for the women (and men) who shed your light on us and color us with their love, concern, wisdom, faith, and good examples. They help make us all that You mean for us to be.

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (NLT)]

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HE HAS FAITH IN US!

And I’ve got something to tell you, too: you are Peter, the rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t overpower it. [Matthew 16:18 (NTE)]

Kandersteg - SwitzerlandAfter Simon Peter professed his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord declared that he would be known from then on as Peter (Petros) meaning rock (petra). Yet, a short time later, the Rock became a stumbling block when he resisted all that being the Messiah required: Jesus’ suffering and death. When studying the man our Lord chose to lead His church, we find Peter had enough faith to climb out of the boat but not enough faith to trust Jesus when the wind started to blow. Impetuous, Peter immediately wanted to memorialize the Transfiguration rather than learn from it. Presumptuous, he hastily spoke for Jesus regarding paying tax to Caesar. Rash, he used his sword to wound the high priest’s slave. He resisted Jesus when the Lord knelt with a wash pan at his feet and, after boldly declaring his commitment to Jesus, denied him three times within a few hours! Yet, it was to this man that Jesus entrusted the job of shepherd and the task of feeding His sheep!

The rest of the disciples were no better. Along with Peter, they thought Jesus was talking about bread when He warned them about the yeast of the Pharisees, argued with one another about who among them was the greatest, fell asleep when asked to pray, abandoned Jesus following His arrest, and returned to fishing after the crucifixion.

Not a one was a scholar, aristocrat, or priest. Yet, it was to these common ordinary men, men who had sinned and who were likely to sin again, men who had failed Jesus while He was flesh and blood, to whom Jesus entrusted His church! Although the only thing extraordinary about the disciples was their faith in Jesus, He charged them with the Great Commission: the future of His church. Have you ever wondered at the tremendous faith Jesus showed in the disciples 2,000 years ago? Legions of angels could have spread the Good News wider and faster than any mortal and yet Jesus had faith that His band of ordinary men would obey His command and succeed!

Christ’s followers continue to be as unremarkable and flawed as were Peter, John and the rest of the disciples. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to have faith in us. It is through the power of His Holy Spirit that we carry on the good work begun by those first believers. Let us continue to have faith in the God who has such great faith in us!

A dozen ignorant peasants proclaiming a crucified Jew as the founder of a new faith; bearing as the symbol of their worship an instrument which was the sign of ignominy, slavery and crime; preaching what must have seemed an absurd doctrine of humility, patient suffering and love to enemies – graces undreamed of before; demanding what must have seemed an absurd worship for one who had died like a malefactor and a slave, and making what must have seemed an absurd promise of everlasting life through one who had himself died, and that between two thieves. [“The Divine Origin of the Bible” by B.B. Warfield]

Jesus came towards them and addressed them. “All authority in heaven and on earth,” he said, “has been given to me! So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NTE)]

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NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER – MAY 7, 2020

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” [John 17:1 (NIV)]

taos, NMThis pandemic may have may have postponed the Olympics but it hasn’t delayed the National Day of Prayer. Today’s observances, however, will look quite different from previous ones. There won’t be any prayer breakfasts or luncheons and large groups won’t assemble in parks, churches or on courthouse steps. Instead, churches will stream their services and religious leaders from across the county will participate in a national broadcast to be aired tonight from 8 to 10 PM ET (see their website or Facebook page for details). Because of the many “virtual” events planned, today’s observance actually could be this day’s largest prayer gathering.

The theme this year is “Pray God’s Glory across the Earth.” Since the Westminster Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever,” I understand why we’d want to pray God’s glory across the earth. Man was created to give glory to God and this year’s theme probably was chosen long before coronavirus so drastically impacted the lives of people throughout this nation. In all likelihood, prayer resources, promotional materials, and PSAs were finished and distributed by the time we’d heard of COVID-19. I wondered how we can pray God’s glory when our hearts are so broken but that’s precisely what Jesus did on the eve of His death and betrayal. John 17 tells us that Jesus didn’t pray with anxiety, doubt or fear. His prayer focused on the glory of God: the revelation of his character and presence. Jesus’ words show us that the purpose of prayer isn’t for us to get something from God; it is to give God the glory He deserves!

The National Day of Prayer task force asks us to pray today’s prayer together, yet individually, at noon your local time. Please join me today in saying the following prayer. Let us lift our voices as one people and pray God’s glory across the earth!

Lord, we exist to give You glory. We exist because of Your glory, and in Your glory, as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We give you thanks and praise for every breath and moment You have given to us. We repent of our sin; for the shameful things we have done against You and for our silence when we did not speak up to proclaim Your Name, profess Your Word, or protect and practice Your will. We ask Your forgiveness.

We pray that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will spread across our nation and the entire earth as we seek Your Kingdom and righteousness; as we walk in obedience to You, and in humble unity, love one another.

Jesus, the Bible says that You are “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” You have taught us to pray, commanded us to love, and commissioned us to share Your gospel of grace. Your glory fills our hearts and families, it overflows into our neighborhoods, workplaces, campuses, churches, entertainment, and media.

We give thanks for our military and ask that Your glory would spread to, and through them as they preserve freedom around the world. We pray for our government, that all of our leaders and laws would be filled with Your glory, that they would magnify Your Holy Word and honor Your will and ways. We pray that Your grace and glory would spread to bring hope to the hopeless, and love where there is hurt and hate.

God, use us as we pray your promise, that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In Jesus Name, Amen! [Kathy Branzell, President, National Day of Prayer Task Force]

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. [Habakkuk 2:14 (NIV)]

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. [Psalm 29:2 (NIV)]

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PUSHING THE ROCK

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” [Luke 14:12-14 (NLT)]

utahI recently read about Derek Black, a young man who grew up immersed in white nationalism. The heir apparent to the WN movement, by the age of twenty, he’d already created a racist website for children and was co-hosting a national radio show advocating prejudice and hostility toward blacks, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities. During college, Black gradually recognized the ugliness of his beliefs but it wasn’t confrontation, heated debate, or ostracism that led to his transformation; it was the hand of friendship!

One of those who reached out to Black was Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew, whose father had advised him to “reach out and extend the hand, no matter who’s waiting on the other side.” Each Friday night, Matthew welcomed friends at a Shabbat dinner. Only one other guest was Jewish; the rest were an assorted mix of faith, race, and nationality. Realizing the best way to enlighten Black was to introduce him to another way of thinking, the orthodox Jew invited this man—someone who regularly spewed anti-Semitism—to Shabbat dinner! Shunned by nearly everyone else on campus, Black accepted.

This was not an effort to ambush or “convert” Black and politics were not discussed. The group simply shared Shabbat prayers, wine, kosher food, and casual conversation. Derek Black’s thinking didn’t change overnight and, after more than a year of such dinners with no change in his views, one of the group suggested no longer inviting him. Matthew wisely responded, “The basic principle is that it’s our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock.”

White nationalism was embedded in all of Black’s childhood memories, his sense of self, and nearly every relationship he’d ever had. Extricating himself from all that he’d known, but gradually recognized as wrong, was not easy. Eventually, however, the rock was ready to move and Derek Black publicly disavowed white nationalism.

This message isn’t about white nationalism. It’s about extending our hand “no matter who’s waiting on the other side” in the same way that Jesus extended His hand to tax collectors, Gentiles, sinners and those considered “unclean.” Every person we meet has been made by God in His image and can teach us something about life. The only label we should use for anyone is that of “neighbor” because everyone (regardless of race, religion, or politics) is our neighbor and someone we are to love.

If we expect anyone to listen to us, we must be as willing to listen to them as the Shabbat group was with Derek. While we may consider some people’s beliefs to be in error, we must remember that they think them to be true and, most likely, find reassurance in them. We can’t berate or condemn people into belief and, if we expect our beliefs to be respected, we must respect those held by others. In light of the increasingly polarized political climate in our nation, we must learn to extend our hands “no matter who’s waiting on the other side.”

Looking beyond his label of white nationalist, Black’s dinner companions didn’t see him as a problem needing fixing and the non-believers we meet are more than projects needing salvation. The Shabbat group was patient, not pushy and, while they never were false to their own beliefs, they never condemned Derek for his. While the end goal of Christian evangelism is conversion, our job merely is to give the rock a push. Whether or not the rock moves is between that person and God. We may be the messengers but it is Jesus who saves!

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

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KOINONIA – FELLOWSHIP

pelicans - royal terns - clam passGod is faithful! And it is through God that you have been called into the fellowship of his son, King Jesus, our Lord. Now I must appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, through the name of King Jesus our Lord, that you should all be in agreement, and that there should be no divisions among you. Instead, you should be fully equipped with the same mind and the same opinion. [1 Corinthians 1:9-10 (NTE)]

Because there are various Christian fellowship associations, our churches have fellowship halls, and they sponsor fellowship meetings, meals, and events, we tend to associate Christian fellowship with friendship and socializing. Christian fellowship, however, is a great deal more than simply spending time with other believers. The Greek word commonly translated as “fellowship” is koinonia. While it does mean fellowship, association, community, and communion, it also denotes intimacy, participation, or a share which one has in something. No one English word fully captures all that koinonia encompasses.

Signifying more than merely associating with each other, the sharing of food and necessities, or even joining together in the celebration of the Eucharist, Paul used koinonia to include the fellowship Christ’s followers have both with one another and with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the church’s sharing of Jesus’ sufferings, and their combined effort both to serve one another and to spread the gospel with the funding of missions work. In that light, koinonia (Christian fellowship) is far more than filling a pew for an hour a week, gathering for coffee before services, or bringing a dish to a church potluck. Rather than a membership in a club, koinonia is more like the commitment a businessman makes when he forms a partnership and it was during a video Bible study with N.T. Wright that I first heard koinonia translated as “partnership.”

Perhaps, because my husband has been involved in several business ventures with partners, the word “partnership” resonated with me. His partners were more than just acquaintances, friends, or colleagues and their partnerships required an investment of some kind. In some cases that was a capital investment but, in others, it was sweat equity through a service that added value. Along with financial responsibility, his business partners shared the same vision and goals, were passionate about their venture, and motivated in pursuing it. Seeing themselves as a team, they didn’t base decisions on their individual wants but looked to what was best for the business. They knew and appreciated both their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their partners. Because his partners were committed, ethical, honest, and dependable, his ventures succeeded.

Sometimes, we mistakenly think of ourselves as customers and the church as a business we patronize; if we like the ambiance, approve of the message, and enjoy being with the other patrons, we continue to support it. That, however, is not koinonia! We may not get the minister’s or worship leader’s paychecks, but we are partners with them and with each other. If anyone is the customer in this scenario, it is God! He is the One we all serve and the one we are supposed to please. He is the One who matters and He, as the only customer, is always right!

Simply put, koinonia is the art of Christian community. In the spirit of koinonia, rather than “members,” many churches have what they call “partners.” With membership, people are inclined to ask, “What do I get from this group?” but, when we become partners, we ask “What do I bring to this group?” Partnership means a commitment (and not just to regular attendance). It’s a commitment to study, serve, and support. It means living an authentic Christian life both in and out of church, growing in God’s word, praying with and for others, focusing on commonality rather than differences, sharing spiritually and materially, and reaching out to others. In koinonia, our connection to Jesus connects us to one another and we become partners in Christ!

The winning word in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee was koinonia. Knowing how to spell it or even knowing what it means is useless, however, unless, as Christians, we live in koinonia!

My prayer is this: that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect, in realizing every good thing that is at work in us to lead us into the King. [Philemon 1:6 (NTE)]

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