A NEW HEART

pigsAnd I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

Last Friday, doctors in Maryland made history when they transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a human in a last-ditch effort to save the life of David Bennett, Sr. A medical first, Bennett was too ill to qualify for a routine heart transplant or an artificial ventricular assist device. The 57-year-old’s prognosis is uncertain and it will be months before doctors know whether the transplant can be deemed a “success.” As with any organ transplant, the main risk is that of organ rejection and Bennett will need potent immunosuppressing drugs for the remainder of his life.

I remember how astonished the world was back in 1967 when Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human-to-human heart transplant. The news that a surgeon had cut open someone’s chest, lifted out a diseased heart, and successfully replaced it with a healthy one from a dead donor was astounding. Although that first heart transplant recipient lived only eighteen days, today’s recipients have an 85% chance of living one year and a 69% chance of surviving five. The survival rate continues to decrease through the years with only 50% of heart transplant recipients living ten years and just 15% making 20 years. In spite of the risks, last year over 50,000 transplant candidates worldwide vied for the 5,000 hearts that were available. Sadly, there just aren’t enough hearts to go around.

54 years ago, the medical journals were wrong when they credited Dr. Bernard with the first heart transplant; God has been replacing hearts for ages! He takes our damaged hearts of stone, hearts unwilling to respond to Him, and replaces them with a new heart and spirit. After accepting His new heart, we have no need for immunosuppressive drugs because the new heart won’t be rejected. Unlike transplant candidates, we don’t have to meet specific criteria or put our names on a waiting list. Everyone qualifies and all we have to do is repent! The best news is that there’s no heart shortage and we don’t have to wait for someone to die; Jesus did that for us 2,000 years ago!

Even with a pig’s heart, Mr. Bennett won’t to want to live in a sty, cool off with a mud bath, snuffle in the soil, or start eating a mix of corn, soybeans, sorghum, and wheat. While his new heart will give him a new lease on life (at least for a short time), it will not change him. He will be the same man with the same favorite activities, world view, media preferences, attitudes, likes and dislikes, morals and principles he had before surgery. On the other hand, the new heart God gives us will make a huge change in us. We will have a new mind, new preferences, new spiritual gifts, new beliefs and morals, a new love for who and what we may have hated, and a new aversion to things we once might have loved. Rather than getting immunosuppressant drugs, we will receive an infusion of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control! Getting a new heart in God’s hospital also yields a far better survival rate—no death, only eternal life!

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live! [Ezekiel 18:30b-32 (NLT)]

I will give them hearts that recognize me as the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly. [Jeremiah 24:7 (NLT)]

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THE ESCAPE ROOM

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NLT)]

great egret - great blue heronWhen visiting our daughter’s family in New Mexico one October, stormy weather caused us to switch from the pumpkin patch/corn maze outing to an escape room attempt. With just an hour to solve a mystery and “escape,” we entered into a room filled with assorted puzzles, locks, props, and gadgets. Knowing we had to discover clues and complete a series of clever puzzles, we novices decided to divide and conquer. Each person worked on a different task speaking to their individual strengths. I worked on word puzzles while others worked on number challenges, dexterity puzzles, combination locks, or searched for hidden clues.

Silently working on our individual tasks, we missed important clues like the picture of randomly placed fruit. Had we counted the six apples, four lemons, two pineapples, and eight limes, we would have known the four numbers we needed to open a combination lock! Thinking the content of a letter was important, we missed seeing that it was an acrostic with the first letter of each line spelling the clue!

Wanting to prove our stellar problem-solving skills, we hesitated to ask our game guide for help. It wasn’t until we consulted her, talked with one another, and started working as a team that we made any headway. With less than five minutes left, we finally unlocked the kitchen door—only to find that it led into another locked room with even more hidden clues! Our guide is the one who finally released us. Even though we held a up sign saying “epic fail” in our post-game photo, we learned some valuable lessons about life.

Sure that we were as smart as the game master and wanting to get bragging rights for completing it on our own, rather than asking for help, we wasted time spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. Isn’t that what we do with God by only going to Him when all else fails? After all, if we do it by ourselves, we get the glory but, when we ask for God’s help, He gets the glory! Paul, however, tells us that God’s power works best in weakness: “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” [2 Corinthians 12:9-10]

Ignoring the wise words of Ecclesiastes, rather than help one another, we divided to do our own thing. No one, however, makes it through an escape room alone—it’s a team effort and so is life! Escape rooms require collaboration, cooperation, communication, and listening to one another (even when the idea seems crazy); so does life in Christ.

Although we each had our own particular gift set and abilities—it wasn’t until we appreciated the gifts of others that we made any headway. Being the shortest one in the room, my grand saw a code on the baseboard that we bigger people missed. Even though she wasn’t good with letters or numbers, she spotted what turned out to be the most important clue! No one’s gift is more or less valuable when it’s a team effort. Isn’t that what Paul is telling us in 1 Corinthians 12?

The final lesson we learned was a simple one—don’t be afraid to lose. Failure—even an epic one like ours—is an inevitable part of playing any game so it’s best to embrace the game rather than the outcome. As for our life in Christ—we too will experience failure. With the exception of Jesus, no one else in Scripture did life perfectly. Nevertheless, because we believe in Jesus, we know the eventual outcome is a win. In the meantime, let us find joy in our journey, regardless of its challenges and difficulties.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. … But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 20 Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. [1 Corinthians 12:12-22 (NLT)]

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INVESTING TALENTS – Matthew 15:14-30 (Part 2)

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen. [1 Peter 4:10-11 (NLT)]

great egretYesterday, I wrote about Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants, often called the Parable of the Talents. Although I used it as an example of excuse making, that’s not what the parable is about. This parable comes right after Jesus’ description of the end times and the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids in which He urged readiness for the Day of the Lord. Immediately following this parable about the talents, Jesus spoke about the final judgment. The story of these three servants makes it clear that, when that last day comes, the master will settle accounts: faith will be rewarded and the righteous servants separated from the false ones.

In this parable, before going away on a trip, the master entrusts his money to his three servants according to their individual abilities; no one receives more or less than he is capable of handling. When the master (Jesus) returns, his servants (Christ-followers) give an accounting for how they fulfilled their responsibilities and used the talents. While we think of talents as natural abilities or skills, in Jesus’ time, a talent was a unit of measurement used to weigh out gold or silver. A talent was the largest quantity at the time and a talent of silver was about the equivalent of an average worker’s income for twenty years. The master in this parable entrusted each of his servants with a fortune. Rather than bags of silver, however, the talents entrusted to us by God include our wealth along with our time, natural abilities (talents), spiritual gifts, and bodies. This treasure entrusted to us is no more ours to keep than were the bags of silver given to the servants theirs. The treasure belongs to the master; his servants are but caretakers of His gifts.

Instead of entrusting us with His investment portfolio, Jesus entrusts us with His ministry and the furthering of His Kingdom. Scripture tells us exactly what He expects us to do with the treasure He’s given us: spread the gospel, love God, love others (including our enemies), forgive those who have wronged us, be hospitable to outsiders, and be an example for the world by feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, imprisoned, and sick. How we achieve His purpose will be different for each one of us because a different sack of talents has been entrusted to each one of us. Whether the sack is filled with gold, silver, copper or iron, we each have been given exactly the right amount of what God expects to use. In writing about this parable, D.L. Moody said, “Many thousands of watch springs can be made out of a pound of iron. See that you improve faithfully the talent God has given you.”

When the master commends the first two servants for the return on his investment, he doesn’t say, “Well done, my good and successful servant.” He says, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” The third servant, however, is punished but not because he failed to give the master a good return on his money; he’s punished because he didn’t even try. Rather than invest the money or put in a bank and get interest, he simply buried it. He isn’t punished for being unsuccessful; he’s punished for his lack of faith! The master didn’t expect him to double the investment as did the other servants, but he did expect him to do something with it! The faithless and lazy servant squandered the opportunity given to him; we must not do the same!

God does not demand that we be successful. He only asks that we be faithful in using the treasure He has entrusted to us. We honor God by using our talents to work to further His Kingdom; the success of our endeavors, however, is up to Him!

We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful. [Mother Teresa]

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:23-24 (NLT)]

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USE THE GIFT

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. [1 Peter 4:10 (NLT)]

great blue heronWhile writing about the spiritual gift of healing these last two days, I recalled a conversation about this spiritual gift with a pastor friend. I asked if anyone in his church was gifted with healing. He said no with a caveat: just because he knew of no one didn’t necessarily mean that no one had it. Having a gift doesn’t guarantee it will be used.

Take our Aunt Margaret, for example. When she died, we found several boxes of brand new shirts and nightgowns stashed in the corner of her closet. The same size and style as the stained and threadbare ones she always wore, they were birthday and Christmas presents we’d sent her through the years. Aunt Margaret’s receipt of her gifts didn’t mean she used them and receiving a gift from the Spirit doesn’t mean we’ll use it either!

Unlike Margaret’s gifts, spiritual gifts aren’t mass produced or come in a box from Macy’s. They are individual gifts God designs expressly for each person that are given to us when we become Christ’s servant. His gifts are capabilities like wisdom, teaching, encouragement, helping, administration, pastoring, giving, hospitality, evangelism, leadership or healing that enable us to build God’s Kingdom. If we are going to be good stewards of these gifts, we must both recognize and use them by responding when the Spirit offers us opportunities to do so. Unfortunately, willfulness, fear, and lack of faith often keep us from doing that.

Several years ago, in our small group at church, I met a troubled young woman who needed encouragement. At the Spirit’s urging, I surprised myself by offering to email her each day with an uplifting Bible verse. Originally, I expected the emails to stop when our group study ended. God, however, had other plans and, before I knew it, I was adding a few words to the day’s verse and sending out messages to sixty people. When a friend (one gifted with encouragement) urged me to post my devotions on a website, I pushed back in fear. Like Moses, I thought of all the reasons I was unqualified rather than trusting God to qualify me! Eventually, in obedience, I stepped out in faith, started using His gift and fulfilling the purpose He had for me. Now, more than six years, 2,000 devotions, and 500 followers later, I know the ability to do this is a God-given gift; I couldn’t do it on my own.

In Sunday school, the children sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” before asking, “Hide it under a bushel?” and answering with a rousing shout, “No!” What about our lights—those special gifts designed just for us and given to us by the Holy Spirit? Are we letting them shine? I’ve been a follower of Christ for a long time but it didn’t take the Spirit decades before He gifted me. It just took me decades to shine my light and use His gift as He intended!

Only God knows if anyone in that pastor’s church is gifted with healing. One day, however, we all will be asked to account for the way we used our spiritual gifts, whatever they may be. Let’s not make the mistake of hiding them under a bushel or leaving them ignored and unused in the corner of our hearts.

Your spiritual gifts were not given for your own benefit but for the benefit of others, just as other people were given gifts for your benefit. [Rick Warren]

The master said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!” … To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. [Matthew 25:23,29 (NLT)]

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JEHOVAH RAPHA

Steamboat SkiThe same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:9,11 (NLT)]

Several years ago, what should have been my first ski run of the day became my last one of the season when a tumble down an icy slope left me with three broken ribs and tears in both my ACL and MCL. After the closing prayer at church that evening, the woman behind me said, “I see you’re in a lot of pain. May I lay hands on you and pray for you?” This woman believed she’d been gifted by the Holy Spirit with healing and I’d often seen her praying over others after church. Unsure about her supposed gift, I was in such pain and despair that I would have accepted any offer of relief. She accompanied me to the front of the church where a few others joined her as they laid hands on me and prayed.

I certainly needed prayer; my body hurt but so did my heart. Scheduled to depart in five days for a much anticipated tour of Belgium and the Netherlands, I suspected my injuries meant we’d have to cancel the trip. I also feared that I’d seen the last of my days skiing on the mountain.

While I can’t say whether those hands and prayers made an immediate difference, I know I felt far better leaving church than when I arrived. I still had torn ligaments and broken ribs, but my pain had eased and my spirits had lifted. The following day, we returned to the Midwest. Only time would heal my ribs but the orthopedic surgeon gave me a full leg brace and scheduled physical therapy. We took our trip and, in spite of my discomfort, had a wonderful time. Hoping to avoid the surgery that seemed inevitable, the next several months were spent in intense physical therapy. Fortunately, without needing surgical repair, I returned to the slopes and continued to ski, albeit with a leg brace and a little more caution, for several more years.

Was my excellent recovery because of the hands laid on me and prayers offered for me or the skill of my physician and physical therapist or both? Only God knows for sure, but I believe those petitions reached God’s ears and He acted on them. Through the healing prayers and touch of my brothers and sisters in Christ, God gave me the spiritual, emotional, and physical strength (along with good medical care) to recover fully.

Throughout the Bible we read of miraculous healings: Naaman was healed of leprosy, Elijah brought the widow’s son back to life, Peter and John healed a lame man, Paul healed the father of Publius, and physical healing was Jesus’ most common miracle.  We have a God who hears our prayers and has the power to heal: our Jehovah Rapha. Today, however, miraculous healings seem few and far between.

Before that evening, I’d questioned whether the Spirit still bestowed the gift of healing on believers. Could someone’s touch really serve as a conduit for God’s healing grace? I no longer doubt; while the spiritual gift of healing may not always manifest in immediate or inexplicable recovery, it does exist.

While few of us may be gifted with healing, every one of us should be engaged in intercessory prayers for the sick. Nevertheless, no matter how strong our faith, the faith of those who pray for us or of those for whom we pray, healing does not always occur. Let us remember that healing is more than the mending of broken bodies; it is the mending of broken souls. God is more concerned with our spiritual salvation than our physical well-being and the restoration of our bodies may have to wait until we enter God’s glory. The healing of our souls, however, can happen right now!

Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. [James 5:13-15a (NLT)]

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ENCOURAGING WORDS

Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you. [2 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)]

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day. [Brewster M. Higley]

pronghorn antelope - buffaloWouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where we’d never (at least rarely ever) hear a discouraging word? It shouldn’t be necessary to ride the range in Wyoming for that to happen.

When my eldest child entered adolescence, it frequently seemed like he’d decided his task in life was to annoy his mother as much as humanly possible. Regrettably, during those challenging years, there were lots of discouraging words. One evening, I realized that our communication consisted of me directing him (“Make your bed!”), correcting him (“Do it this way!”), disciplining him (“You’ve lost that privilege!”), criticizing him (“You can’t go out dressed that way!”), or denying him (“I said ‘No’ and that’s final!”). Admittedly, directions, corrections, and criticism are a necessary part of life as are discipline and denial. Nevertheless, realizing there was a room for improvement on my part as well as his, I made a concerted effort to keep my negative comments to a bare minimum.

Seldom speaking (or hearing) a discouraging word was not enough. Where, I wondered, were the words of love? Where were the words of encouragement so necessary for him to thrive and feel good about himself? One doesn’t need to take psychology 101 or even a dog obedience class to know about the importance of positive reinforcement (which is simply a fancy term for encouragement). I had to add positive and heartening comments to our interaction if he was going to flourish and bloom. With God’s guidance and a heavy dose of the Spirit’s patience, we managed to get through those trying years. In spite of my many parental failings, he blossomed into a delightful responsible young man. A wonderful father, he now has to deal with adolescents of his own (which is God’s payback)!

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” If we all followed that advice, the world would be a much quieter place and we’d never have to watch another campaign commercial! More, however, is needed. The Apostle Paul urged the early Christians to encourage one another and he truly practiced what he preached. Whenever he instructed and directed (even when he disciplined or corrected), Paul always seemed to add encouragement to his words.

Encouragement (or exhortation) is a gift of the Holy Spirit but that doesn’t mean those of us without this gift should fail to encourage! Those gifted with encouragement are the church’s cheerleaders, but the rest of us are the fans in the stands who join in supporting the team! In the Fruit of the Spirit, we find love and kindness (along with patience) which means all Christians are capable of encouraging the people we meet in our daily lives. It’s not enough to seldom speak a discouraging word; we need to speak encouraging ones!

Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know. [H. Jackson Brown]

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)]

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NLT)]

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