NO PITY PARTIES (Elijah – Part 3)

But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” [1 Kings 19:9b-10 (NLT)]

paper kite butterflyWhen God asked Elijah what he was doing, the prophet’s answer should have been, “I’m having a pity party!” Having experienced the high point of life on Mt. Carmel, the prophet now found himself at an all-time low. Feeling abandoned, Elijah was bitter that, after serving God so zealously, he’d been rejected by Ahab and was running for his life.

Elijah was underestimating the power of God and over-estimating the power of his enemy; as long as God had work for him to accomplish, the prophet was invulnerable to Jezebel’s attacks. Moreover, when Elijah complained that he was the only faithful person remaining, he wasn’t. In his self-pity, he’d forgotten about meeting Obadiah, the man who’d hidden and protected 100 of God’s faithful and God told him that 7,000 others in Israel had not bowed to Baal.

Deep valleys of testing often follow our mountaintop experiences as they did with Elijah.  When life throws a curve ball like a pandemic or when it hits us directly with a bean ball like stage-4 cancer or paralysis, our first response often is a pity party like Elijah’s. He seemed to think the world revolved around him and that he was the only one encountering difficulty; we tend to do the same thing. Elijah wasn’t alone and neither are we.

Like Elijah, we don’t think we deserve our troubles, but we’re no more deserving or undeserving than the next guy. Difficulty, disappointment, adversity and disaster are inevitable in our fallen world. Despair, pessimism, gloom, and complaint, however, are not; they are a choice.

Elijah’s faith in and service to God did not protect him from hardship nor will ours. Living for Jesus will have both peaks and valleys. Let us remember: everything that touches us, whether we’re having a mountain top experience or trudging through a dark valley, has passed through God’s hands first and has a purpose. It’s only when we stop wallowing in self-pity, however, that we’ll find His purpose.

God told Elijah to get up and get to work. He was to anoint Hazael to be the next king of Aram, Jehu to be the next king of Israel, and Elisha to be his successor. Elijah had a purpose and so do we. When God asks us what we’re doing, as He did with Elijah, our response should not be one of complaint and self-pity. It should one of acceptance and joy that we are serving God and doing His work!

I must learn that the purpose of my life belongs to God, not me. God is using me from His great personal perspective, and all He asks of me is that I trust Him…. Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world. [Oswald Chambers]

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)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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STILL IN EGYPT

But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:20-24 (NTE)]

Abiquiu NMBack in 1963, Bob Luman sang “You can take the boy from the country, But you can’t take the country from the boy.” Along the same line, Brookes & Dunn sang that while you could take the girl out of the honkey-tonk, you couldn’t take the honkey-tonk out of the girl. I wonder if Moses thought about singing, “You can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people!”

When the Israelites departed Egypt, they brought more than their flocks, tents, matzo, possessions, and the Egyptians’ gold and jewelry. Egypt’s influence was still in their hearts and minds. After the ten plagues visited on Egypt clearly demonstrated Yahweh’s supreme power and the impotence of Egypt’s assorted gods, it’s difficult to understand how they still doubted Him. Nevertheless, even though God was guiding them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, they panicked at the first sign of trouble. Seeing Pharaoh’s army approaching, they complained that slavery in Egypt was preferable to dying in the wilderness.

After they’d safely crossed the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army drowned, they were free physically but not mentally! Within a month after departing Egypt, rather than trusting their powerful God for provision, they again longed for the meat and bread of Egypt. By the time they arrived in the Sinai wilderness the next month, along with the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, God had provided Israel with water, quail, manna, and victory over the Amalekites. Nevertheless, they still carried their 400 years of Egyptian bondage in their hearts and minds.

During the forty days Moses was receiving the Law from God, the people began to fear that he was lost. Remembering the gods of Egypt, they wanted a god with a face: one they could see and touch, one who could lead them on their way. Within forty days of their acceptance of God’s covenant that specifically prohibited idolatry, the Israelites were fashioning an idol of their own. While the choice of a golden calf seems odd to us, it wouldn’t have been to them. There were several bovine deities in Egypt. The Egyptian goddess Hathor, for example, was depicted as a heifer and her powerful son, Apis, as a bull. A golden calf was the obvious choice for people who’d brought their Egyptian bondage with them!

The purpose of all those laws God gave Israel was to take Egypt out of His people—to teach them a new and better way of living. Yet, more than a year later, we again find Israel complaining and craving the “good things” of Egypt. When the scouts returned from exploring Canaan, we see how little they progressed. These were God’s chosen people who had not suffered one defeat during their travels through the wilderness. Yet, with the mind set of slaves still in bondage, they were so afraid to cross the Jordan that they wanted to pick another leader to take them back to Egypt! It took forty years and an entirely new generation before the Israelites finally rid themselves of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.

What about us? When we became Christians, did we leave the old life behind and allow God to transform us into something new or, like the Israelites, are we still in bondage: bondage not to Egypt but to the past’s sins, habits, attitudes, and mistakes? Jesus brought us through the wilderness and set us free from our slavery to sin. Rather than looking in the rear view mirror at what has been and the way we were, let us look ahead to Christ’s promises of what will be!

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. [John 8:34-36 (NLT)]

We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. [Romans 6:6 (NLT)]

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FINAL HOURS

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” [John 3:3 (NLT)]

Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying. [Martin Luther]

ColumbineWhen Pat died, it was difficult to find words of comfort for her grieving husband. A non-believer, he has no faith in Jesus, no understanding of the soul, no hope of eternity, and no anticipation of Christ’s return. Distance and timing kept me from attending Pat’s Celebration of Life and, because we rarely saw one another, I’m not sure I felt her absence until today when I received a letter from her husband. With the letter was a bookmark made for her Celebration of Life. It had her picture and some sweet words about memories filling our hearts, time healing our souls, and the peace of knowing there’s one more angel in heaven. To a non-believer, those words may be comforting but, to me, they were empty (along with being theologically incorrect). I’ve never understood how non-believers find it so easy to believe in heaven and angels but so hard to believe in judgment, hell, God, or Jesus.

As difficult as I found it to find comforting words for Pat’s husband, I’m not finding words in Scripture that bring much comfort to me. Sadly, Pat seemed to share her husband’s lack of faith in Jesus. Although we grew up together, our lives went in different directions when I was fifteen and we lived more than 1,000 miles apart as adults. Except for an occasional wedding or funeral, our contact consisted mostly of emails, a shared interest in genealogy, a few phone calls, and Christmas cards.

Growing up, we attended the same church and I know Pat was baptized as an infant; that, however, doesn’t mean she was saved. Regardless of the age or the method, Baptism isn’t what saves us. We are saved by a proclamation of faith in Jesus. While she may have proclaimed her outrage at cold water sprinkled on her head, that wasn’t a statement of faith.

We both were confirmed in eighth grade but, like infant Baptism, Confirmation has no Biblical basis. At the time, Pat reaffirmed the vows her Baptismal sponsors made for her, but I suspect that was more about doing what was expected and getting a new white dress and gifts than declaring her undying faith in the work and words of Jesus. In spite of our Confirmation classes, I don’t think either of us truly understood the ritual’s meaning or knew what a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior really meant.

Undoubtedly, Pat was a good person but “Christian” is not an adjective nor is it a synonym for good. If good works were all it took for eternal life, Jesus’ death upon the cross wouldn’t have been necessary. Salvation is more than going to church, being raised in a Christian family, a sprinkle of water, a Bishop laying his hands on your head, a prayer, giving to charity, calling yourself a Christian, or even saying you’ve made a decision; it is becoming a new person in Christ. Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, involves putting our entire faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus, finding a new life in Him, and the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives.

Pat knew of my faith but let me know that Jesus was off limits when it came to our communications. Nevertheless, I look at that bookmark with the picture of her smiling face and wish I’d tried harder. If Pat didn’t do so earlier, I hope that, in her final days, she took God up on his offer of salvation. Waiting until the eleventh hour, however, is dangerous; after all, we might die at 10:30!

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life. [Titus 3:4-7 (NLT)]

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HE EXISTS

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. [Genesis 1:31 (NLT)]

The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation. [Psalm 145:9 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronPeople often argue against God’s existence because of evil and suffering. With so much that is wrong in the world, they question how there could there be a god. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was once an atheist who reasoned that such a cruel and unjust world proved the absence of God until he questioned where he got the idea of what was good or evil, just or unjust. He realized that something cannot be wrong or evil unless there is standard for what is right or good. In a universe with no God, there would be no standard for justice or injustice, good or evil, right or wrong: simply personal preferences. That standard, Lewis realized, is rooted in God. As a result, the very argument he used against God’s existence provided Lewis with proof of His presence!

Nevertheless, acceptance of God’s existence in a world with evil leads people to question how this loving God of ours could allow so much of it in the world. Unable to see how a loving, good and powerful God can coexist in world so filled with pain and suffering, people often ascribe any evil that befalls to God but none of the good. Granted, bad things happen but, if they’re used as evidence against a good God, then all of the good things that occur must be considered as evidence for Him!

The preponderance of the evidence tells us that there are more years of rain than drought, more harvests than famine, more fair weather days than hurricanes, more love than hate, and pandemics are not a regular occurrence. On a more personal level, I’ve encountered evil, injury and pain and, if I were asked to make a list of the suffering in my life, I could. But, if asked to record the good things I’ve experienced, I couldn’t—simply because there would be far too many to list! I’ve avoided more accidents than I’ve been in, favorable circumstances have aligned more often than not, more good people than bad have touched my life, my joys outweigh my sorrows, and God has accompanied me through every dark valley I’ve traversed. Moreover, I’d probably have to cross off most (or all) of the items on the list of bad things because God redeemed them by bringing good out of the pain and suffering.

When life feels anything but good, it’s easier to focus on evil and suffering than to remember that God is good. Yes, we live in a fallen world but it’s not the world God intended; our good God did not create evil and suffering. When man chose to disobey in Eden, both moral and natural evil entered into what was a perfect world. God may allow evil but it is our free will that has made it possible. We can’t hold God responsible for our mistakes.

Non-believers and believers alike wrestle with how a good loving God can allow the presence of evil and suffering. Nevertheless, the existence of suffering doesn’t negate God. In fact, it is God’s existence that gives meaning to our pain and suffering! We’ll never fully understand it. Nevertheless, when I think about those two lists and all that God has done for me, I know that God exists and that He is good!

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

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. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. [James 1:17 (NLT)]

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GRIEF IS PERSONAL

The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentation 3:19-24 (NLT)]

gardenias“Once, when my feet were bare, and I had not the means of obtaining shoes, I came to the chief of Kufah in a state of much dejection, and saw there a man who had no feet. I returned thanks to God and acknowledged his mercies, and endured my want of shoes with patience.” The Persian poet Sadi wrote those words in 1258 AD and his words are the source of the adage, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” When unsympathetic to what I considered my children’s trivial grievances, I often uttered those words or something similar.

While praying for a husband and wife who’d lost their son to COVID-19 and couldn’t even attend his funeral because they were hospitalized with the same virus, I remembered that old maxim. Thinking of all they’d suffered, I rebuked myself for the tears I’d shed over the small things I’ve lost to this pandemic. Then I remembered a book I read about loss that spoke of the importance of not comparing grief. We are one of a kind and the way we experience emotions, whether grief, love, or joy, differs from person to person. Our unique pasts, along with our hopes, dreams and expectations for tomorrow, profoundly affect how we experience today; what distresses one person may seem but a drop in the bucket to another.

What I’d missed when unsympathetic to my children’s complaints was that their grievances were real to them at the time. While missing senior skip, picnic and award days along with cancelled prom, parties and graduation seems heartbreaking for today’s high school seniors, it’s not the end of the world; but try telling that to an eighteen-year old whose prom dress remains unworn in her closet because of COVID-19. While some people grieve not being able to attend ball games or see their new grandbaby, others grieve not being able to visit their parent in a nursing home or attend a friend’s funeral. Some couples grieve the loss of their wedding and honeymoon, others grieve the loss of their jobs or homes, and still others grieve the loss of a loved one. We may grieve things like spontaneity, travel, feeling safe in stores, family gatherings, working as a team, worshiping together, or not seeing smiles because they’re concealed by masks. As we adjust to our incredibly abnormal “new normal,” we all grieve in one way or another and the things we grieve are as different as the ways we do it. While some grieve with tears, others are stoic; some grieve with busyness, others with lethargy; and some grieve with anger while others with dark humor.

Saying, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet!” helps remind us to appreciate the value of what we have but it fails to acknowledge our feelings. We must never compare the things we grieve or the way we do it with other people’s grief because grief is experienced at 100%, whether it’s over missing one’s senior year of high school, losing a breast to cancer, not being able to visit one’s family, or losing a child to COVID. Our feelings are ours alone and the way we handle them is as unique as our fingerprints.

Because grief of any kind is a personal journey, we should respect our grief as well as that of others, even if ours seems trivial by comparison. If you are grieving right now, your sorrow is real. Rather than berating yourself for it, accept it. It is only by experiencing our grief that we can come to terms with whatever we’ve lost and move on to our new normal, whatever that may be. We have a God who understands sorrow; after all, even though He knew He’d raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus wept at the man’s grave. We are told that there is, “A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” [Ecclesiastes 3:4] Let us not be hesitant to do both!

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! [Psalm 30:11-12 (NLT)]

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:3-4 (NLT)]

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MEMORIALS – Memorial Day 2020

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [John 15:12-23 (NLT)]

9/11 MemorialLast fall, when New York City was a bustling and untroubled city, our family gathered there to celebrate my son’s birthday. Only staying for a few days, we rushed to do the things tourists are expected to do in the “Big Apple.” When we walked onto the grounds of the 9/11 Memorial, however, the hubbub of the city disappeared and a hush descended. People’s silent tears fell on the bronze parapets inscribed with the names of the dead that edge the memorial as they reverently looked down at the twin waterfall pools disappearing into nothingness. According to their architect, Michael Arad, the pools represent “absence made visible.” Although the water flows continually into the voids, they never can be filled. Indeed, the loss of a loved one leaves a void that cannot be filled this side of eternity.

As we left the park, we passed six large low stone monuments. Inlaid with steel remnants from the World Trade Center, these monoliths recognize the courage, selflessness, and perseverance of the tens of thousands of men and women from across the nation and throughout the world who contributed to the rescue and recovery effort. This Memorial Glade honors the continuing sacrifice of those rescue, recovery, and relief workers (along with the survivors and members of the lower Manhattan community) who have died or remain sick from exposure to toxins at the site in the aftermath of 9/11.

Along with weddings, births, and deaths, there are certain dates that stand out in our memories—that mark the before and after of our lives. For many, it is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For my mother-in-law, it was Black Tuesday, October 29, 1919, and the start of the Great Depression. For others, it is the “date which will live in infamy”—December 7, 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For many in my generation, it is November 22, 1962, and John Kennedy’s assassination. While the exact date will be unclear, I don’t think there is a person alive today who will not see the spring of 2020 as another dividing line much like 9/11: a line between what once was and now is.

As I think back to that 9/11 Memorial, I wonder if eventually another memorial will be erected in New York City, this time dedicated to the police officers, first responders and medical personnel throughout the nation who put their health and lives on the line during this COVID-19 pandemic. While serving on the front-lines, they were over-worked, under-staffed, under-supplied, and under-paid; sadly, some lost their lives in the process.

Today is Memorial Day, a day traditionally dedicated to honoring the men and women who died while serving our nation in the armed forces. While not minimizing their military service or the loss of their lives, today I also will remember the police, first responders, and medical personnel who lost their lives (and continue to lose them) while trying to save ours from COVID-19. Like their fallen sisters and brothers in the armed forces, they lost their lives in a battle. They, too, were in combat; it’s just that their enemy was invisible and seemed unbeatable.

Because they selflessly chose to serve rather than be served, today is a day to remember all those who have fallen, whether to bullets, bombs, toxins, or disease. They were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and friends. Whether military or civilian; whether they wore scrubs, fatigues, combat helmets, hazmat suits, N95 respirators, isolation gowns, or turnout gear; whether they carried stethoscopes, AEDs, or weapons; whether they served in the desert, the ambulance, or the ER: we have been served and protected by them. Let us honor their sacrifice.

Lord, we remember and thank you for those who put the welfare of others ahead of their own and, in doing so, gave their lives to protect our freedom, safety and health. Please protect those who continue to serve us; may your loving arms keep them from harm. Grace them with your peace, provision, wisdom, and strength.

O God, you yourself have taught us that no love is greater than that which gives itself for another. These honored dead gave the most precious gift they had, life itself, for loved ones and neighbors, for comrades and country – and for us. … Though their names may fade with the passing of generations, may we never forget what they have done. Help us to be worthy of their sacrifice, O God, help us to be worthy. [J. Veltri, S.J.]

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. [1 John 4:9-12 (NLT)]

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