Blessed are those who fear to do wrong, but the stubborn are headed for serious trouble. [Proverbs 28:14 (NLT)]

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. [Romans 2:4-5 (NLT)]

Duluth MN lighthouseAn old maritime legend describes the conversation between a U.S. Naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland. The ship kept telling the Canadians to divert their course 15 degrees north to avoid a collision while the Canadians repeatedly responded with the suggestion that the Americans divert their course 15 degrees to the south. Finally, the Navy sent the following message: “This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this fleet.” It was only when the Canadian authorities responded, “This is a lighthouse. It’s your call,” that the American vessels stopped being so unyielding and changed their course! While this story of an aircraft carrier trying to bully a lighthouse out of its way is just fiction, it’s a lesson about stubbornness, inflexibility, and pig-headedness.

Hoping to catch Him breaching the law, Jesus’ adversaries watched Him closely. When He healed a woman who’d been crippled for eighteen years on the Sabbath, they were outraged. Healing was considered work and He’d broken the Sabbath by restoring her to health. The Pharisees were unyielding when it came to strict observance of the law—even when it made no sense. Carrying clothes out of a burning building on the Sabbath was prohibited but stopping, putting on as many as 18 garments, and wearing them out was allowed! Pointing out that the Pharisees worked on the Sabbath by untying and watering their animals, Jesus chastened the synagogue leaders for their lack of compassion on the woman. Like the aircraft carrier, they were so sure they were right, it never even occurred to them to rethink their position.

There are times we must be unyielding as a lighthouse and firmly hold our position. In fact, we specifically pray not to yield to temptation. [Luke 11:4] Things like obedience to God and our faith in Jesus are non-negotiable and may well place us in opposition with today’s world. There are times, however, when we’re more like the aircraft carrier and the Pharisees—unyielding to a fault. Like them, we’re often so sure we’re in the right that we fail to examine our course or consider the possibility that we could be in error. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine some of our positions to make sure we’re not on a collision course with God’s word. The aircraft carrier failed to see the light ahead of them just as the Pharisees failed to see the Light of World standing in front of them. Let’s not make the same mistake. If we’re headed toward a conflict, confrontation, or collision perhaps it’s time to rethink our course and surrender the controls to God!

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. [James 3:17 (NLT)]

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I have given them your word. The world hated them, because they are not from the world, just as I am not from the world. I’m not asking that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. [John 17:14-15 (NTE)]

wild geraniumAlthough we’d originally planned on a birthday dinner out with friends, we ordered a take-out lunch, did curbside pickup, and celebrated by ourselves at an isolated picnic table in the park. Coronavirus meant that disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer joined us instead of friends and family.

Yesterday was shopping day and my husband was at the grocery at 7:00 AM before most shoppers have gotten out of bed! He wore a face mask, observed social distancing guidelines, and frequently used hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. Upon his return, he showered while his clothing and mask were washed. I quarantined the boxed and canned goods on the floor of the spare bedroom, washed the produce, and disinfected the cold items before putting them into the refrigerator. Attempting to avoid contamination, there was a continual cycle of disinfecting and hand washing until everything was stowed. It’s probably overkill, but we don’t want COVID-19 to enter our home through carelessness. As I carefully disinfected the faucet, sinks, refrigerator, door knobs, kitchen counters and washed my hands yet again, I wondered if we’re as careful about keeping sin out of our lives as we are about this virus. While both are invisible, sin is even more devastating and deadly than any disease and, regardless of our age or underlying health, we’re all equally vulnerable!

We often hear it said that Christians are “to be in the world but not of the world.” Jesus wasn’t a recluse who spent the day exclusively in prayer and study. He walked, talked, taught, healed, and even socialized in the world with both the righteous and sinful, hypocrite and sincere, Jew and Gentile. Even though He was in the sinful world, however, Jesus was not of the world because He never allowed sin to contaminate Him. The vast majority of us are called to go out into the world as did Jesus rather than retreat to a contemplative monastic life. It is only when we are in the world that we can reach out to witness, teach, serve, share, heal, and love. It is only by being in the world that we can be Christ’s ambassadors: His hands and feet. But, once in the world, like Him, we are not to become part of it.

Some people describe being “in the world but not of it” like being in a boat on the water but making sure the water doesn’t get into the boat. I think it’s a bit like trying to function during a pandemic without getting infected. Of course, just as being incautious during a pandemic makes infection more likely, the more we splash around in the water, it’s more likely that some of that water will spill into the boat! It is only through God’s guidance that we can determine the line between in and of.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be contaminated by the sins of the world any more than we want to be contaminated by COVID! Are we as vigilant about avoiding dicey tempting situations as we are about crowds? Are we as wary of the media we allow into our homes as we are about packages and groceries? Are we as cautious about staying away from sin as we are about remaining six-feet away from our friends and neighbors? Do we shield ourselves from sin as readily as we don a face mask? Are we as careful about not contaminating ourselves with immorality as we are about not touching the grocery cart before it’s been disinfected? Do we wipe bad thoughts from our minds as thoroughly as we clean our kitchen counters? Are we as attentive to our prayers as we are about washing our hands?

Right now, we live in a hostile viral environment but we also live in a hostile sin-filled world. N95 masks, disinfectant wipes and hand washing won’t protect us from our most treacherous enemy: Satan. As careful as we might be about our exposure to COVID-19, what are we doing about reducing our exposure to the sins of the world? What kind of social distancing are we practicing when it comes to our real enemy?

What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable and complete. [Romans 12:2 (NTE)]

The warfare we’re engaged in, you see, isn’t against flesh and blood. It’s against the leaders, against the authorities, against the powers that rule the world in this dark age, against the wicked spiritual elements in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:12 (NTE)]

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Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. [Mark 4:7]

nodding - musk thistleSome of the farmer’s seeds fell among the thorns (probably what we’d call thistles). Prolific seed producers, thorny plants like thistles can grow in the harshest environment. While they may have been cut down and no longer were visible to the farmer, their seeds and roots remained. With their deep roots, thistles are masters of survival and can flourish in adverse conditions. Stealing the moisture and sunlight from the plants around them, they stunt their growth and, if allowed to grow, can overtake a field.

The farmer’s seed was good, it took root, and started to grow but, because of the thistles, it never developed into maturity. The thistles represent the material concerns of the world—the cares, riches and pleasures that distract us from God’s word and, like a thistle’s roots, are deeply seated in our hearts. Rather than robbing us of water, sunlight, and nutrients, they stunt our growth by keeping us from God’s living water, the light of Christ, and the nourishment of His church. The busyness, distractions, and cares of life; the challenges of work and tending a family; the pursuit of wealth; the desire for possessions, status, amusement, contentment, and even revenge: all of these distract us from letting God’s Word bear fruit in our lives.

The faith of Judas was like a field with thistles. He heard the word and followed Jesus as a faithful disciple and yet he betrayed our Lord. We never know exactly why. Perhaps, it was simply for riches. John tells us he was a thief who stole from the disciples’ purse and we know he received money for his betrayal. Judas also may have been distracted by politics and a desire to be among the elite when Jesus defeated the Romans. Disillusionment may have set in when he realized that wouldn’t happen. Whatever it was, like a field of thistles, those distractions allowed Satan to enter him

In God’s perfect plan, there were no weeds and He didn’t mean for thorns or thistles to be in hearts, either. Weeds and sin both came with the fall. Ridding a field of thistles and other weeds is nearly impossible but, with diligence and hard work, it can be done. It takes continual inspection of the field and, once spotted, the weeds must be eradicated. The questions we must ask are simple ones. What are the thistles or thorns in my life? What is holding me back? What is keeping me from bearing His fruit? Is my faith genuine?

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing. But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it. [Hebrews 6:7-8 (NLT)]

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O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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Be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. You must fear the Lord your God and serve him. [Deuteronomy 6:12-13a (NLT)]

They refused to obey and did not remember the miracles you had done for them. Instead, they became stubborn and appointed a leader to take them back to their slavery in Egypt. [Nehemiah 9:17a (NLT)]

grey catbirdMany of us have friends and relatives whose memories are declining (and some of us may be those people). As my mother-in-law’s memory started failing, she rewrote history with what we called “wishful memories” and “selective forgetting.” Since her memories became rosier and happier as time passed, it really didn’t matter if nearly a century’s worth of memories were accurate or not; they were good ones. Happy to see her enjoying her version of the past, we ignored faulty memories that were of no consequence.

Research conducted by Northwestern University, however, reports that, regardless of age, our memories aren’t nearly as accurate as we think they are. The memory isn’t like a video camera that preserves the past in perfect unedited detail. Instead, it’s more like a movie that is continually edited; information from the present gets added to the past and then re-framed in the light of present circumstances. Our situation today seems to affect how and what we remember about our yesterdays. If we’re happy, the memory might become sweeter and, if we’re distressed, the memory may get a dash of sour added to it.

In addition, every time we remember something, it gets less accurate; instead of the actual event, we simply remember the last time we recalled it. Any mistakes in our last recollection inadvertently become truths in our next one. Details may be omitted while others are added and a story can change over time without our consciously meaning to do so.

God didn’t need university researchers to tell Him that mankind’s memory is faulty. Eve couldn’t even remember His one rule for Eden! Perhaps that’s why God had the various Biblical scribes and prophets repeat His words and works over and over again throughout Scripture. He knew that, with time, the Israelites would do a little wishful remembering and selective forgetting of their own. In fact, only a month after escaping Pharaoh, their 400 years of Egyptian slavery didn’t seem nearly so terrible to them. Instead, the hungry Israelites chose to remember how well fed they’d been as slaves. Even though God’s miraculous deliverance of His people out of Egypt is repeated in at least sixteen books of the Hebrew Bible (from Exodus through Psalms and all the way to Micah, Amos and Hosea), as the years passed, the Israelites began to remember their part in winning battles and forgetting that God gave them those victories. As the memories of God’s deliverance and provision faded, they started to believe they’d achieved everything on their own power and strength.

Since we must remember complex combinations of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols for passwords and the names of pets, schools, and first grade teachers for security questions, we’ve probably written them down or safely stored them in the Cloud. Are we as diligent about remembering or safely saving God’s hand in our lives as we are those phrases and words? It’s not just for accessing our email or shopping on Amazon; it’s for our very lives that we need to correctly remember God and how His love, forgiveness, deliverance, and provision have saved and sustained us.

Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. [Psalm 103:2 (NLT)]

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“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” [Job 1:9-11 (NIV)]

armor - castle chillon - lake genevaYou’ve probably heard people pray for a hedge of protection around friends or family members. Is it an impenetrable bubble that keeps tragedy and trouble at bay or a substance that acts like kryptonite against Satan and protects us from his temptations and deceit?

In Biblical days, hedges of loosely packed stones or thorny bushes were built around livestock and crops to protect them from wild animals and thieves. A hedge in Scripture often represented God’s protective care and we find mention of such a hedge in the book of Job. A wealthy and godly man, Job’s righteousness was challenged by Satan. Questioning the motivation for Job’s blameless behavior, Satan complained that God put a hedge of protection around the man and all his possessions. Wanting to prove that Job only worshiped God because of the blessings he’d received, Satan suggested that once God removed the hedge and Job’s blessings disappeared, rather than worshiping God, the man would curse God to His face! When Job loses his ten children and their families, his workers, his livestock and wealth, and then his health, it becomes clear that no hedge protected him from tragedy.

Satan, however, was wrong about Job cursing God! His righteousness and integrity weren’t because of God’s gifts. Job worshiped God out of love and not as payment for the blessings of health, wealth, and family. Although the afflicted man questioned God’s reasons while trying to sort out his dilemma, he never cursed Him. A hedge didn’t make Job invincible to Satan’s ploy; it was his faith!

Today, COVID-19 is putting us all to the test and, like Job, we find life incomprehensible. Job didn’t know the why of his troubles and we’ll never the why of this pandemic but, like Job, we know who is in charge! Satan thought people believe in God only when they’re prospering under a hedge of protection, not when they suffer loss, pain, or defeat. Are we fair weather believers and only willing to follow God if the road is filled with blessings? Or, like Job, will we stay faithful while experiencing the devastation this disease will leave in its wake? Much will be lost before the crisis passes and it probably won’t be returned two-fold as it was for Job—at least not in this world! Let us rest assured: full restoration will occur in the life to come.

Rather than building a hedge of protection out of rocks or thorny shrubs, let us erect one out of our unshakable faith in a loving God and our confidence that His ultimate purpose will come to pass. While social distancing, sheltering in place, and washing our hands may serve to protect us from this virus, only the armor of God will protect us from Satan!

Anyone can rejoice when things are going reasonably well. But when we’re facing adversity or sickness or hardship or death and then we rejoice, we are obeying God. God is on his throne. He loves you and is watching out for you. So rejoice in the Lord. [Greg Laurie]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. … so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Ephesians 6:10-11,13-17 (NIV)]

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