EUODIA AND SYNTYCHE

I have a special appeal which goes jointly to Euodia and Syntyche: please, please, come to a common mind in the Lord. [Philippians 4:2 (NTE)]

sandhill cranes
These words from Philippians are the only mention of Euodia and Syntyche in the New Testament. Personally, if someone is going to read about me 2,000 years from now, I would prefer something about how easy it was to get along with me rather than about any arguments I had. Because Paul urges the women to settle their disagreement, it seems that their dispute was personal rather than doctrinal. Had the issue been one of doctrine, Paul would have stepped in and corrected the error as he did in many of his letters to the early churches.

Bible scholars have a sense of humor and it’s been suggested that better names for these women would be “Odious” and “Soon Touchy.” Perhaps Euodia really was disagreeable and unpleasant and Syntyche was thin-skinned and quick-tempered. Then again, maybe they were just like the rest of us at our less than best—stubborn, indignant, tactless, resentful, short-tempered, uncompromising, or easily offended. We don’t know what their problem was nor do we know who was “right” and who was “wrong.” In this case, by holding a grudge, they both were in error!

Because people in conflict usually expect others to take sides, conflict affects more than those directly involved. The women’s behavior was threatening the existence of the church at Philippi and their dispute was hindering God’s work. To save the church, Paul didn’t tell them they had to become best friends or even agree with each other, just to be of the same mind as the Lord. For the sake of the church, he wanted them to find a way to live in harmony.

The letter to the Philippians was written to “all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the church leaders and deacons.” [1:1] In the early church, Paul’s apostolic letters were meant to be read aloud to the entire congregation. Less than 15% of men were literate and that number was less for women. The congregation sat in a circle or semi-circle around the reader so that everyone saw the speaker. This arrangement meant they also saw one another and their reaction to the words spoken. Can you imagine Euodia and Syntyche (and those who may have taken sides in their conflict) as they heard the apostle’s words? There probably was a fair amount of squirming in the seats that day!

Like churches, families can suffer because of quarrels. My friend Wendy’s two sisters have a long-standing feud and refuse to speak with one another. Whenever she returned to her hometown, each sister expected Wendy to spend time with her but got irate and offended if she spent time with the other sibling. Even though Wendy refused to be caught up in their animosity, she was in a no-win situation. Eventually, it became easier to step away from the drama altogether and not return home at all. The sisters’ vendetta impacted more than just Wendy; ten cousins were affected as were the women’s parents when they were alive.

Heavenly Father, knowing that we can’t agree with everybody all of the time, show us how to get along with them. Give us loving, forgiving, and understanding hearts. Toughen our hides so that we don’t take offense so easily. Show us how to have harmony in all of our relationships. Help us to acknowledge other people’s points of view and guide us to respectfully agree to disagree with one another when necessary.

Until the day that you become perfect, don’t expect others to be. [From “Hugs – Daily Inspirations for Grandmas” (Howard Books)]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Human anger, you see, doesn’t produce God’s justice! So put away everything that is sordid, all that overflowing malice, and humbly receive the word which has been planted within you and which has the power to rescue your lives. [James 1:19-21 (NTE)]

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DIVINE PROVIDENCE

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

The story is told of a Russian rabbi standing on a hillside with his student. As they looked down at the valley below, the men watched in horror as a band of Cossacks charged into their village. They heard the townspeople’s terrified screams as they were slaughtered and saw the smoke rise as their village was set afire by the marauders. With tears in his eyes, the rabbi looked up to heaven and cried, “If only I were God!” His troubled student asked what the rabbi would do differently if he were God. “Nothing,” replied the old man, “but then I would understand why!”

We always will have the age-old question of “Why,” and we always (at least in this world) will have deafening silence from God as our answer. Like the rabbi, I can’t understand why God allows things like the Holocaust, Chernobyl, Black Plague, the Crusades, the World Trade Center attack, Uvalde and Sandy Hook, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, 3 million children dying from hunger every year, human trafficking, and the many other evils that plague our fallen world.  Although I often write about hidden blessings and God’s higher purpose in our tragedies and troubles, my words bring little comfort when we see our friends and loved ones in distress, the misshapen bodies of malnourished children, or the faces of those who’ve lost loved ones to flood, fire, or violence. I look at my prayer list and can find neither rhyme nor reason for the sorrow and pain that is written on those pages and on so many people’s lives. While, with time, I’ve managed to find purpose and blessings in most of my challenges, I’m hard put to see any purpose or blessings in theirs.

I know better than to ask God why and, even if He gave me an explanation, I don’t think I’d find His answer satisfactory or comforting. I’d probably argue that someone’s repentance didn’t require such severe correction—that the same result could be achieved a less painful way and the same lesson learned with less heartbreak. I’d contend that someone’s faith didn’t need such severe testing, their character didn’t require such perfecting, nor did they need to be prodded so sharply to move in the right direction. Moreover, even if I understood the why of God’s plan, I wouldn’t understand the way He works it. We will never find a satisfactory explanation for the adversity, distress, and sorrow of our fallen world.

The presence of evil and suffering can challenge our faith. How can a loving God allow it? Good people suffer and our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. Yet, as Christians, we believe in Divine Providence—that our loving, all-seeing and all-knowing God is never out of control, even though Satan is trying his best to do his worst. We can’t see God’s purpose and we surely don’t understand it, but we must believe it and trust in Him.

When Jesus’ followers stood at the foot of the cross and watched Him suffer, I suspect they couldn’t see God’s purpose in His anguish and thought all hope was gone. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God because his plan seems so often seems so terribly wrong.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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SELFIES

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. [1 Peter 3:8 (NIV)]

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. [Romans 12:15 (NIV)]


I watched as the couple extended their selfie stick and posed. Focusing only on themselves, they were oblivious to others on the beach and the beautiful sunset behind them. In love and on vacation, for the moment the world revolved around them and nothing else mattered.

It’s not just when we’re in love that we think the world revolves around us. When encountering difficulties, we frequently get out an emotional selfie stick. Focusing on ourselves and our particular situation, we often end up throwing ourselves a pity party while whining things like, “Poor me…my life is so difficult…I hurt…it’s unfair…no one understands my situation…I’m miserable…nobody cares!” Fixated on what we’re feeling, we can’t see God let alone anyone else!

On the other hand, if we put aside the selfie stick and turn the camera around, we can move beyond our limited self-awareness and interest. By zooming out or using the panoramic setting, we get an entirely different perspective. When our view widens, we begin to see people with problems of their own, and, in many cases, those problems are far worse than ours. With better perspective, we cease being the center of the universe and our difficulties cease being the center of our lives.

According to NASA astronauts, seeing the earth from space causes a profound change in their awareness. When astronaut Ron Garan viewed his home planet from space, he was in awe of its overwhelming beauty. By viewing the earth without borders, he also was struck both by the oneness of the world and by the inequity existing on it. He felt a deep sense of sadness as he thought of the billions of people on earth who suffer from things like hunger, lack of clean water, social injustice, conflicts, and poverty.

We don’t need to be astronauts to step back far enough to realize how many people suffer and suffer far more than do we on even our worst days. The pain and problems in our lives are just a small part of the interconnected and continually evolving drama of life in this world. We are but one of more than 7.8 billion people on earth and only one of the nearly 335 million people in our nation. Those numbers are humbling—and a gentle reminder that life does not revolve around us!

Oddly, when we recognize the pain of others, our pain is lessened, not because they might hurt more than we do but because we become united with them in our anguish. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, widening our perspective allows empathy and compassion to emerge. No longer alone in our suffering, we become connected with others in this flawed and troubled world of ours. No longer isolated in our distress, we move from focusing on the “me” to caring about the “we.”

Father, open our eyes to you and to the world around us. Broaden our view so that we see the purpose in pain, the lesson in loss, and the meaning in misery. Give us compassionate hearts and peace filled souls. If we are to cry, let our tears be for others and, if we are to mourn, let our mourning be for all who grieve. Please strengthen and comfort us so that we can strengthen and comfort others.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. [Viktor Frankl]

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. [2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NIV)]

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THE SAD STORY

After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. … In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 2:10, 21:25 (NLT)]

tulipAs a history of Israel’s disobedience, idolatry, and moral depravity, Judges is one of the saddest books of the Bible; it also is one of the bloodiest and violent. After starting well with war against the pagan tribes of Canaan, it ends with civil war and Israelite killing Israelite. While some tribes obediently drove the pagan people from their land, others found it easier to tolerate sin than fully eradicate it. By the time of Gideon, altars to Baal and Asherah poles had been erected and people wanted to kill Gideon for destroying them. It only went from bad to worse after Samson. Micah sinfully set up a shrine for his idols, wrongly fashioned a priestly ephod, ordained his son into the priesthood, and then purchased the services of a Levite as his personal priest! After the Danites stole his idols, ephod, and Levite, they set up their own idolatrous shrine with the Levite as priest. Did no one remember God’s laws given to them by Moses that specifically covered priests, ephods, Levites, and the worship of idols?

As for violence—along with the carnage of battle, there’s a disembowelment, a tent peg hammered into a head, eyes getting gouged out, and a king’s thumbs and big toes get amputated to humiliate him. Thirty men are killed just to pay a gambling debt and a father’s foolish vow ends in the sacrifice of his daughter. After 300 foxes are set on fire in a vengeful act that destroys a town’s grain fields, vineyards, and olive groves, a father and daughter are burned to death as payback!

Instead of conquering the fertile land they’d been given, the Danites moved north, burned the peaceful city of Laish, and mercilessly killed its inhabitants. When the men of Gibeah raped and killed a Levite’s concubine, the Levite dismembered her body to summon the tribes of Israel. Then, after they nearly eradicate the entire tribe of Benjamin in retaliation for the concubine’s death, the men regret their actions. To right the wrong, they slaughter every man, woman, and child in Jabesh-gilead except for 400 virgins who are given to the surviving soldiers of Benjamin. Needing more virgins, another 200 young women were forcibly abducted from Shiloh. How did this happen? What happened to God’s law? How did Israel fall into such sin, violence, and mayhem?

Scripture tells us that one generation after Joshua’s death, the people forgot and, within one generation of the death of each judge, they forgot again! There was a reason God wanted his word passed on through the generations and a reason he commanded people to keep repeating the law to their children. Whether the command to put His words on hands, foreheads, and doorposts was literal or figurative, God wanted His word to be an inescapable part of His people’s lives and the lives of every generation that followed. Why? Because God’s Word means life!

When I look at the disobedience, idolatry, moral depravity, and violence in Judges, I can’t help but see parallels today. As my mother would say, it seems that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Indeed, it does! There’s a reason the world doesn’t seem much better in 2022 than during the 300 plus years of turmoil recounted in Judges. As they did nearly 3,400 years ago, people continue to do whatever seems right in their own eyes. We’ve allowed the full story of God’s redemption to be forgotten, disregarded, or never heard. The people of Israel didn’t need a king; they needed God. So do we! What are we going to do about it?

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:6-8 (NLT)]

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MIRIAM 

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. [Numbers 12:1-2 (NLT)]

roseThomas isn’t the only Bible personality who gets a bad rap. Consider Miriam, the resentful sister who, along with Aaron, attacked Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. The implication in their complaint is that it was a recent union; perhaps Moses’ wife Zipporah was dead. The Cushite woman may have been one of the many non-Israelites who joined the Hebrews in their exodus from Egypt. That she wasn’t an Israelite shouldn’t have been an issue to them since Zipporah had been from Midian. The land of Cush, however, was used to describe Black Africa and the siblings may have been disparaging the woman’s dark complexion. Moses’ new wife, however, wasn’t the real issue. Miriam and Aaron simply were jealous of their brother and, since they couldn’t find fault with his leadership, they spitefully chose to criticize his choice of wife.

Appointed by God as Moses’ spokesman, Aaron served as high priest and Miriam was God’s prophet. Although they assisted their brother, Moses was the indisputable leader. God spoke with him face-to-face and, as God’s spokesperson, he became Israel’s law-giver. Unsatisfied with their roles, however, the siblings wanted equal authority with their brother. When God heard their hostile words, He upheld Moses’ position as His chosen leader. As the instigator of the complaint and mini-rebellion, Miriam received the brunt of the punishment and was given a skin condition and required to stay outside the camp for seven days! (A Biblical form of “time out.”)

Whenever Miriam is mentioned, I first think of the jealous, spiteful, complaining, and possibly racist sister of Aaron and Moses. Miriam, however, also was the caring and concerned big sister who kept an eye on her baby brother as he lay in a basket floating on the edge of the Nile. It was she who approached Pharaoh’s daughter and innocently offered to find a Hebrew nurse for the hungry infant. It was her quick thinking that reunited the boy with his birth mother. She probably continued to be Moses’ link between Pharaoh’s palace and his Jewish family for several years. It was the prophetess Miriam who led the women in song and dance as they proclaimed God’s victory over Pharaoh right after the Israelites safely passed through the Red Sea. Loving sister, poetess, and prophet, and yet I remember her as an envious disgruntled woman.

Fortunately, we don’t define most of the Bible’s characters by their failures and shortcomings. Even though Aaron shared in Miriam’s complaint, we remember him as Moses’ right-hand man. We remember David as the giant killer rather than a murderer and adulterer, Rahab as the woman who saved Israel’s spies rather than a pagan prostitute, John Mark as the author of a gospel rather than the man who deserted Paul, and Solomon as a wise king rather than the man who disobeyed God by amassing horses, foreign wives, and a huge amount of wealth.

Church tradition holds that Thomas carried the gospel message to Parthia or India where he was martyred, so he didn’t define himself by his doubt. As the one who spoke powerfully on Pentecost, healed the lame, and preached before the Sanhedrin, the Apostle Peter didn’t define himself by his failures and I’d like to think that, when Miriam returned to camp, she didn’t define herself by hers either. I know God didn’t because, when He spoke to the people through the prophet Micah, He joined Miriam’s name with those of Aaron and Moses and said, “For I brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to help you.” [6:4]

From their accomplishments, it seems that, rather than defining themselves by their failures, they learned from them. What about us? How do we define ourselves? None of us are perfect and we probably have a long list of failures, missteps, and transgressions. God has forgiven us; have we forgiven ourselves? Each day, God gives us a clean slate—let us erase the past and confidently move forward to be better person today than we were yesterday and a better person tomorrow that we are today!

You must learn, you must let God teach you, that the only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. God will waste nothing. [Phillips Brooks]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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THE SORROWLESS TREE

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

sorrowless tree - ashokaEven though this last year has been one of sorrow and loss for us, I smiled when I recognized the Sorrowless Tree’s bright orange and yellow flowers at the botanical garden. Although its scientific name is Saraca asoca, the Ashoka is commonly called the Sorrowless Tree. Sometimes I wish such a tree actually existed. Even though the tree can’t prevent sorrow, its beautiful foliage and sweet fragrance were just what I needed to lift my spirits as I mourned yet another friend’s death. The flowers reminded me to find joy and gladness in the day God had given me.

A great deal of mythology and tradition accompany the Ashoka tree. Its common name comes from the Sanskrit word aśoka which means “free from sorrow.” In Hindu mythology, the tree is dedicated to Kama Deva, the god of love. Tradition holds that when someone drinks the water in which Ashoka flowers have been rinsed, they can attain an inner state of profound peace and joy. Once infused with the flower’s essence, the water is said to heal the suffering and sorrow caused by mourning, pain, burdens, trauma, disappointment, and loneliness. While it doesn’t change the root cause of the sorrow, the flowery water is said to change one’s perception of it—sort of a placebo effect.

The Ashoka is also considered sacred in Buddhism. Tradition holds that when Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, reached up to pick one of the tree’s blossoms, she gave birth to her son under the tree. It is said that people will forget all of their worries and concerns just by standing beneath the Ashoka’s beautiful and fragrant blossom because of the tree’s splendor. I have to admit that my heart felt lighter as I paused under the Ashoka’s blossom-laden branches. Rather than focusing on my sorrow, I thanked God for the gift of knowing and loving the beautiful people I’ve recently lost.

As Christians, we know there is no protection from grief and even a dozen Sorrowless Trees in our garden won’t protect us from loss, distress, disappointment, or sorrow. In both the Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, however, the tree’s essence and beauty don’t change the situation—they merely change the attitude and the perception of those circumstances. Like people everywhere, Christians often need an attitude adjustment when life goes seriously awry! When we’re sad, troubled or in pain, on what do we concentrate? Do we focus on our grief, difficulties, and suffering or on God? Do we lament, fret, or moan or do we concentrate on trusting our Heavenly Father? Do we let our negative feelings control us or do we control those discouraging emotions? Do we dwell on our misery or on our blessings? While we have no choice when sorrow and grief enter our lives, we always have a choice regarding the way we will deal with them. Unless we are clinically depressed, we don’t have to be at the mercy of our negative emotions. God has given us the power to do otherwise!

We will never live a sorrowless life. In fact, suffering often accompanies discipleship and our sorrow is neither futile nor unnoticed by God. Instead of drinking a flower’s essence, we can drink the living water of the Spirit—the essence of our God. Rather than standing under a tree gazing at lovely flowers, we can take refuge in the arms of God while pondering His love and trusting in a better life to come. As beautiful as the Ashoka’s flowers are, we will only find profound peace and joy in the Lord.

Should pain and suffering, sorrow, and grief, rise up like clouds and overshadow for a time the Sun of Righteousness and hide Him from your view, do not be dismayed, for in the end this cloud of woe will descend in showers of blessing on your head, and the Sun of Righteousness rise upon you to set no more forever. [Sadhu Sundar Singh]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

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