A wise person is hungry for knowledge, while the fool feeds on trash. [Proverbs 15:14 (NLT)]

eastern tiger swallowtail butterflyEvery breakfast, lunch and dinner, a recent house guest consumed between five and fifteen supplements like flaxseed and fish oils, magnesium, vitamin D, calcium, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and resveratrol (among others). Annually, people like our guest spend around $35 billion on supplements, vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and other substances to enhance their health. It doesn’t stop there; every year, five million diet books are published, at least 17 million cookbooks are purchased, and $33 billion is spent on weight loss products. Add to that all of the magazines, food channels, websites, blogs, and podcasts dedicated to nutrition, recipes, and weight loss and you have a nation of people who seem obsessed with what goes into their bodies.

Recently, a several hours delay at the airport led me into one of the terminal’s newsstands. After browsing the magazine rack for something to read during the long wait, it occurred to me that our nation appears to be more concerned about what we feed our bodies than the material with which we nourish our minds. I’m no prude but just looking at the topics listed on the covers of many magazines caused me to blush and the exposed bodies on the covers should have made the models blush! Although the Bible is pretty clear about not gossiping, many of those magazines and tabloids were nothing but gossip about the private lives of various celebrities. Rather than being so concerned with the calories or fat grams we put in our bodies, we might want to give some consideration to what we put in our minds. Instead of going fat-free, we could try going trash-free!

If we go on a trash-free diet, however, we should give serious thought to the other things we consume. We have television programs with housewives unlike any I’ve ever met, bachelors and bachelorettes trying out one another the way King Xerxes did with Esther, and hook-ups instead of relationships. While I wouldn’t want to return to the 50s when Elvis’ gyrations meant he was televised only from the waist up, it seems that we’ve gone too far the other way as near naked entertainers twerk while singing disgusting lyrics like “Sex in the air, I don’t care … Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” As Christ followers, we should give serious thought to all that we consume, not just in print, but also on our phones, radios, iPods, computers, television, and movie screens.

The words and images we take in affect our spiritual well-being as much as food affects our physical health. If we want high-quality ideas and words to come out of us, we need first-rate ideas and words to enter into us. Are we looking at and listening to the media with the eyes and ears of Jesus or just mindlessly snacking on the equivalent of the empty calories found in junk food?

As for supplements—in actuality, the efficacy of many of my friend’s supplements is questionable; all they really do is create expensive urine. Supplementing our lives with daily Scripture, prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and church, however, is guaranteed to make us better, stronger, and happier than any pill could!

Today, let’s spend more time thinking about our spiritual food than our daily bread.

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food. Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life. [Isaiah 55:2-3a (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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Let all who fear the Lord repeat: “His faithful love endures forever.” In my distress I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free. The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? [Psalm 118:4-6 (NLT)]

chameleonWhen writing about mimicry yesterday, I thought of Esther and her cousin Mordecai. The book of Esther takes place between 483 and 473 BC but the story began about 120 years earlier when Mordecai’s great-grandfather was in the second group of Jews deported from Jerusalem to Babylon. Rather than treating these deportees as captives or slaves, they were more like immigrants. Although they were given new Babylonian names, the were allowed to keep their God as long as they also worshipped the Babylonian ones. After Babylon fell to Persia in 539 BC, the first Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem the following year. Perhaps because they’d become comfortable in their new homeland or feared the challenge of rebuilding Jerusalem, like many others, Mordecai and Esther’s family did not return.

Going by their pagan names, Mordecai and Esther blended in with their neighbors. His name was a version of Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, and Esther’s was a derivative of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of war and sexual love. Although most Jews lived away from the Persian capital of Susa, they lived in the city where Mordecai served as a government official.

When King Ahasuerus (better known as Xerxes) sent out the casting call for his new queen, Esther was one of several hundred women selected for this ancient version of “The Bachelor.” Mordecai’s motive for telling Esther to conceal her Jewish lineage is unknown. While he may have feared anti-Semitism, he also may have thought having his cousin share the king’s bed would further his career. Even though she would break Jewish law by sleeping with a man not her husband, marrying a pagan uncircumcised Gentile, and eating unclean food, Esther followed her cousin’s direction and did not reveal her heritage. Having integrated into Persian society and no longer observing Jewish law, Mordecai and Esther had become chameleons.

Esther pleased the king; she was made queen and her cousin became a palace official who served at the king’s gate. Since both commercial and judicial business took place at the city gates, Mordecai’s position was an important one, possibly that of judge. It was at the gate that he overheard a plan to assassinate the king but Mordecai intervened and the king’s life was saved. The new queen and her cousin, however, continued to conceal their ancestry until the king appointed Haman the Agagite as prime minister and second-in-command.

The proud Haman demanded that all of the king’s officials bow down to him. Although Jewish law did not prohibit bowing as a sign of respect, Haman wanted more. The word used was shachah which meant prostrating oneself by lying down flat, extending hands and feet, and placing one’s face in the dirt. Haman was demanding the sort of reverence that belongs only to God and Mordecai refused to do it. When officials asked why he wouldn’t bow, Mordecai simply replied that he was a Jew. While he may not have kept a kosher home or worn tassels on his robe, Mordecai drew the line at prostrating himself before anyone but God. The Jew’s refusal enraged Haman and set in motion his desire to exterminate the entire Jewish population in the empire. It was when Esther revealed both her heritage along with Haman’s evil plan, that the massacre was thwarted.

Unlike Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who continued to remain true to Jehovah while in captivity, both Mordecai and Esther chose to be pragmatic by compromising their faith and disguising their heritage. It was only when they stopped being chameleons and revealed their true identities that they served the one true God.

While we probably won’t be asked to save a nation, there will be times when God expects us to risk our status and security and step out in faith to serve Him. Real security, however, is not found in people, position, wealth, or power; it is found in God. When the time comes, will we be chameleons or show our true colors?

But when I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me? [Psalm 56:3-4 (NLT)]

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I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! [1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (MSG)]

Even though they have their own unique song, northern mockingbirds usually incorporate the songs of other birds into theirs. With their ability to sound like jays, thrashers, hawks, orioles, and robins (along with car alarms and frogs), rather than sounding like themselves, these masters of mimicry can sound like what they’ve heard.

While we often see people imitating the monkeys at a zoo, we’re as likely to see the primates imitating us! Along with being a way to learn, researchers have found this mimicry is a way of interacting and communicating with one another. The old phrase, “monkey see, monkey do!” actually holds true.

Even though it is unintentionally and unconsciously done, like mockingbirds and monkeys, we tend to mimic the voices, mannerisms, and gestures of the people we’re with because of something often called the “chameleon effect.” We find ourselves returning facial expressions like smiles and yawning, as well as accents, gestures, and tone or pitch of voice. Researchers say that such mimicry builds rapport and empathy and can have an impact on our social success.

In Romans 1, Paul wrote of his own willingness to emulate certain behaviors as a way of building rapport with the people he wanted to bring to Christ. Even though he knew Jesus had freed him from Judaism’s 613 laws, Paul abided by them when with Jews. When with Gentiles, however, he would disregard those same laws. Although he was willing to adapt his communication to the culture of his audience, he never changed the message of the gospel or compromised his principles.

Social success or not, not every behavior should be copied and yet we often find ourselves in situations where not joining in becomes problematic. To fit in with our classmates, neighbors, co-workers, small group, or friends, we may find ourselves mirroring behavior that shouldn’t be mimicked such as griping, gossip, coarse language, criticism, disparagement, rudeness, or complaint. Without realizing it, like the mockingbird, we start copying the voices around us.

There’s a fine line between finding common ground and losing our way. If we’re not careful, like the mockingbird, we may begin to sound more like what we’ve been hearing than who we actually are and, like the monkey, begin to act like those around us rather than Jesus. While it’s often easier to conform to the world around us than to remain in the world while staying true to our faith, our words and actions should never be compromised. If Jesus wouldn’t do or say it, neither should we!

At the end of the day, Paul knew he’d been true to Jesus whether or not he’d eaten dairy and meat at the same meal, had fringes on his robe, or wore phylacteries on his forehead and arms. At the end of the day, no matter what songs he’s sung, the mockingbird knows he’s still a mockingbird. At the end of the day, we need to be able to say that we are Christians who have sung our song in a way that honors God and reflects our faith.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. [Romans 12:2 (MSG)]

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Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

canoe - corkscrew swampWhenever I saw the swamped canoe at the swamp/bird sanctuary, I remembered the old aluminum canoe we had at our cottage. Because it remained down at the lakefront all year long, the canoe served as winter home to the chipmunks and mice. After decades of rodents taking refuge there, the critters eventually chewed up all the foam flotation blocks in both ends of the craft. Since a boat will float only as long as it weighs less than the maximum amount of water it displaces, those empty chambers didn’t affect the canoe if it remained upright and relatively dry. But, if the craft capsized, its empty chambers would rapidly fill with water and, with the extra weight, sink. Knowing how easily the canoe could sink made us extra cautious—it was used only when the water was calm, no one deliberately tipped it, and lifejackets were required.

Sometimes, however, we’re closer to sinking than we know. Several years ago, we were camping by a small lake when my son, husband, and father-in-law decided to rent a small row boat and go fishing. At noon, they pulled the boat ashore and returned to our campsite to eat. After lunch, the fellows returned to their boat and rowed out onto the lake. When their feet got wet, they realized the boat was taking on water and started bailing. The water poured in faster than they could empty it, the boat sunk lower into the water, and they quickly rowed back and pulled the boat ashore. While gathering their fishing gear, my husband discovered that the boat’s drain plug was missing. My father-in-law, who’d been hesitant to leave the boat unattended during lunch, had decided to outsmart any would-be thieves by removing its plug and sticking it in his pocket. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to reinstall the plug after lunch. Rather than any would-be thieves, they were the ones who got wet!

Boats don’t sink because of the water around them—they sink because of the water that gets into them. In the same way, Christians are meant to live in this sinful world without any of the world’s sins seeping into us. When the world finds its way into our lives, things like fear, anxiety, immorality, deceit, anger, pride, envy, selfishness, and greed do their very best pull us down and drown us. Like the boat’s plug, God’s word can keep the world from getting into our lives and affecting us. Like the buoyancy blocks in a canoe, our faith in Jesus will keep us from sinking even when our lives turn upside down. And, like a life jacket, the Holy Spirit will keep us afloat until we safely reach shore.

Let us always remember that Simon Peter only began to sink when he took his eyes off the Lord!

But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted. [Matthew 14:30 (NLT)]

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All of us like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. [Isaiah 53:6a (NLT)

blue morning gloryIn the years that followed our first maze experience, we continued the pumpkin patch/corn maze tradition but at a farm with a smaller and easier maze. While there were no arrows on stakes to assist the totally confused, there was a larger and better map. Since my daughter and husband have a far better sense of direction than do I, they carried the map and led the rest of us through the maze.

When grazing, sheep like to keep at least four or five other sheep in eyesight and I’m no different. As long as the family remained in view, I paid no attention to where we were. On one outing, after noticing some deep blue morning glories, I stopped to take photos. Spotting a butterfly near the flowers, I briefly turned away from the family to follow it down the trail. When I turned around, my family was nowhere in sight. With no map and in a labyrinth of corn stalks, I was totally lost. Every path seemed to be a dead end and, having left my phone in the car, I couldn’t even make a call! As I wandered in what I hoped was the right direction, I grew anxious. Eventually, I heard someone call my name. Looking up, I saw my family standing on a high viewing platform in the middle of the corn field. From their vantage point, they managed to guide me through the maze until I rejoined them.

Until I got lost in that maze, I’d often wondered about Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd. If the shepherd was properly shepherding his flock, how did that one sheep get lost? Now I know! By guiding the flock, the shepherd was doing his job and, by obediently following their shepherd, the rest of the flock were doing theirs. But, that one lost lamb wasn’t paying attention to either shepherd or flock. Perhaps it stopped for some tasty red clover and, after spotting a field of pink vetch, had wandered over for a nibble of it. Maybe, like me, it followed a butterfly and, before the lamb knew what happened, it was all alone. It didn’t mean to stray; it just stopped following the flock and paying attention to the shepherd. Once on its own, the lamb was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the good shepherd went looking for it just as my family looked for me.

It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, not just in mazes and pastures, but in the complicated, bewildering, and often perilous world in which we live. Knowing that predators go after the lone sheep that wanders from the herd, our Shepherd has given us His flock—the people of His Church. Unfortunately, instead of morning glories or butterflies, we can get distracted by anything from busyness to boredom, success to defeat, or prosperity to poverty. We don’t mean to stray from the Shepherd’s flock but things like ambition, popularity, self-importance, doubt, worry, discontent, anger, guilt, or disappointment easily can sidetrack us. We start to wander and, before we know it, we’re lost and vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. Fortunately, we don’t need a phone to call our Good Shepherd; a simple prayer is all it takes.

Staying connected with other people of faith—people who follow the Shepherd and will guide us when we’re lost, encourage us when we’re overwhelmed, and correct us when we make a wrong turn—is vital for our survival. As I discovered in the corn maze, it’s best to stay close to the people who have the map and know where they’re going! On the other hand, as members of His flock, it’s important to notice when one of His sheep goes missing.

After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  [John 10:4,16b,27 (NLT)]

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And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. [1 Peter 5:5-6 (NLT)]

salt marsh mallowBelieving that God’s spirit would not enter into something flawless, various Native American people intentionally strung a wrong-colored bead (the spirit bead) into an otherwise perfect pattern of beadwork so to create an opening through which God’s spirit could flow. In a similar way, believing that a perfectly woven rug or carpet would be an offense to Allah, followers of Islam would make an intentional small mistake in their weaving. Concerned that a perfect quilt would encourage pride, imperfect squares called humility squares or blocks, are said to have been deliberately placed in quilts by Puritan women as their acknowledgment that only God is perfect.

Whether these intentional errors were done for God as acts of humility, as a way to use miscellaneous beads or scrap fabric, or simply to explain away a mistake, I don’t know. Nevertheless, feeling the need to make a deliberate mistake to keep from perfection seems the height of pride to me. Having done needlepoint, quilting, and other handwork, I can guarantee that mistakes will always creep into anything we make (at least anything I make).

The Greek word most often used in the Bible for sin was harmartia. An archery term, it meant missing the mark—a failure to hit the bull’s eye. Having done a little archery as a girl, I didn’t need to deliberately miss the bull’s eye to remain humble since I frequently missed the target altogether! No matter how hard we try, when it comes to being sinless, we don’t have to concern ourselves with making deliberate errors to avoid pride. None of can be sinless; that was done only once—by Jesus—so there is no need for any of us to insert a “humility square” into our lives. We’ve made enough errors already and more are yet to come.

Humility, however, is a strange thing—the minute you think you have it, you’ve lost it! As C.S. Lewis aptly said in Mere Christianity, “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” True humility isn’t found in in bead work, weaving, or quilting mistakes; it is found in a deep sense of one’s own sinfulness, limitations, and unworthiness in the sight of God. It is found by looking up at Him—His righteousness and holiness—rather than down at our accomplishments or the errors made by others!

Being human, we won’t hit the mark every time. Nevertheless, even though we fail to live up to God’s perfect standard, like the Apostle Paul, we continue to aim for the bull’s eye. There’s no need to be discouraged; we are all works in progress and are forgiven for our errors. We just need to focus on Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to guide our aim.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. 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 3:12-14 (NLT)]

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