Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (NET)]

magpieIn the story of Naaman, along with the faithful but nameless servant girl, we have a scoundrel servant in Gehazi. He worked for Elisha and it must have irked him to see the prophet refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth something in the neighborhood of $2 million today). I imagine he was thinking how foolish it was to send that wealth back to Aram. After eyeing those riches, Gehazi wanted some for himself. Elisha would never know, so what would be the harm?

Gehazi followed after Naaman and concocted a story that Elisha would like two talents of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. More than happy to find a way to repay Elisha, Naaman offered twice that amount; Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains and hid them. When Elisha asked where he’d been, he foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain, and that Gehazi would be afflicted with Naaman’s leprosy forever. Gehazi had believed those riches promised power, comfort and luxury; what they actually delivered was life as an outcast and untouchable.

Gehazi’s story reminds us that God’s miracles cannot be brought and that God’s power in our lives is not for personal enrichment or financial gain. Gehazi tried to serve both Elisha and avarice; his story illustrates that we are unable to serve both God and mammon.

 Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

 There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. [Matthew 6:24 (NET)]

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So Jesus healed many people who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons. But because the demons knew who he was, he did not allow them to speak. [Mark 1:34 (NLT)]

Great Blue HeronMatthew tells us that after Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee and landed near the town of Gadara, He was greeted by two violent demon-possessed men who’d been banished to live among the tombs. Upon seeing Jesus, they immediately started screaming at Him and called Him the “Son of God.” Recognizing Jesus’s divinity, they knew He possessed the power to cast them out and the authority to send them to their final torment. When the demons begged to be sent into a herd of pigs and Jesus obliged, it didn’t end the way they expected; the swine plunged into the lake and drowned.

Whenever Jesus encountered demons, He always silenced them. Since they acknowledged Him as the Son of God, why didn’t He let them speak? Demons don’t make good character references and allowing them to attest to His identity would be like asking Charles Ponzi or Bernie Madoff to endorse an investment company, Benedict Arnold to guarantee someone’s patriotism, or Al Capone to corroborate an alibi. Since demons can say whatever they want, their declaration of Jesus’s divinity would not help His case! If they told the truth, the Pharisees would say Jesus commanded them to lie and, if they lied, the Pharisees would say they told the truth! In a no-win situation, Jesus simply commanded them to be silent!

Long ago, one of my children tugged at a crowd control rope attached to a long series of stanchions. When they all fell like dominoes, I simply turned away and said, “I wonder whose child that is!” Lord, forgive me, but it had been a trying day with a series of toddler challenges and this was the frosting on the cake. That child’s behavior was not a testimony to my good mothering skills so I denied knowing him!

While we’re not demons (or difficult mischievous children), I wonder if, like them, we can be poor character witnesses for Jesus. Could there be occasions He looks at us and says, “Be quiet!” because our testimony is so suspect? Do we ever undermine God’s character by our poor choice of words or shoddy behavior? Does He ever want to say, “That’s not my child!”? The validity of our witness to the power of Christ is found in how we live our lives; let’s make sure He wants people to see and hear it!

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. … If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. [James 1:22, 26-27 (NLT)]

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)]

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But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval. [John 6:27 (NLT)]

northern mockingbird

There once was a beautiful mockingbird who loved to sing from the branches of the forest trees. An old sly fox sat beneath the trees and licked his lips as he thought of devouring her. Every time he tried to snatch the bird, however, she would fly away to safety high in the oaks. One day he offered her a mouthwatering berry for the price of just one feather. Accepting his offer, she plucked out a feather, swooped down for the fruit and flew back up to the treetop before the fox could catch her. The next day, he made the same offer and the mockingbird, anxious to enjoy the sweet bite again, gave him another feather. The wise owl warned her not to play this foolish game with the fox but the bird, hungry for the tasty berries, ignored him. This went on for several days until one day, after giving the fox a feather and snatching the berry, the mockingbird tried to fly away only to discover that she couldn’t. Foolishly, in her desire for the passing pleasure, she had given away one feather too many. The fox had his meal and the mockingbird was no more—all for a perishable and momentary indulgence.

Berries won’t cause our downfall, but pursuing fleeting pleasures can. We don’t have a wise owl on a neighboring branch but we do have the Holy Spirit living within us. We must listen to his voice and live by his power. Best of all, even if we lose our feathers, all is not lost. Because of Jesus Christ, God’s final word is not punishment and death but grace, forgiveness, redemption and restoration.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) … Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. [Romans 8:9, 12-14 (NLT)]

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As iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens [and influences] another [through discussion]. [Proverbs 27:17 (AMP)]

roserush wildflower

When I was growing up, the Sunday dinner roast would be placed in front of my father who would then reach for the bone-handled carving knife and honing rod. With dramatic flair, he would steel the slicing knife against the stropping iron before carving the meat. That steel rod really didn’t sharpen his knife; it merely realigned it. When a knife is used, its sharp edge begins to bend and catch on whatever is being cut. Running the blade along a honing steel pulls its edge back into an upright position so the knife can perform at its best. To actually sharpen a knife, a whetstone rubs away some of the knife’s metal and creates a brand new edge. The more often a knife is sharpened, the more it thins and the shorter its lifespan.

Just as there is a difference between a whetstone that grinds away part of a blade and a steel honing rod that realigns it, there is a difference between judging one another and offering constructive comments or correction. The conversation of good friends is more like a honing steel than a whetstone. It improves the person rather than wears him down. Sometimes, we’re called on to do a little honing of our friends. Rarely an easy task, we should proceed prayerfully and gently. Remember, we are merely smoothing out the rough edges, not grinding off any mettle.

While the knife has no choice about accepting that honing rod, we do. Solomon’s son Rehoboam received wise counsel about not burdening his people with heavy taxes. Not appreciating the honing, he chose to ask others until he got the answer he liked better. Unfortunately, his foolishness divided the kingdom of Israel. In contrast, when Moses’ father-in-law Jethro pointed out Moses’ error in thinking he could manage two million people by himself, he listened. Like a good honing steel, Jethro also offered excellent advice on how to delegate responsibility.

God puts wise people in our lives for a reason and it’s for more than encouragement. As Matthew Henry said, it is to “improve both others and ourselves…to provoke one another to love and to good works and so to make one another wiser and better.”

Like Rehoboam we can resist the honing and insist on doing it our way or, like Moses, we can accept the correction that comes from those who love us. Just as we are tested by the way we respond to praise, we are tested by the way we respond to constructive criticism. In both cases, we must remain humble and thankful.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the friends who realign us when we need some straightening!

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. [Norman Vincent Peale]

Better is an open reprimand [of loving correction] Than love that is hidden. Faithful are the wounds of a friend [who corrects out of love and concern], But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful [because they serve his hidden agenda]. [Proverbs 27:5-6 (MSG)]

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peony - red clover - common milkweed
Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. [Matthew 7:12 (NLT)]

 This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. (Hinduism: Mahabharata)

 Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Buddhism: Udanavarga)

In “Baby Blues,” drawn by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, the mother discovers Zoe, the bossy big sister, putting salt in her little brother Hammie’s milk. “What about the golden rule?” she asks her daughter. “I am following the golden rule!” Zoe responds, “Do unto brothers before they do unto you!” Having endured my share of brotherly aggravation, I sympathize with Zoe. Hoping to beat him to the punch, there were times I’d yell, “Mom, Steve’s hitting me again!” even before he managed to make a fist. “Do unto brothers before they do unto you,” however, isn’t what Jesus said; Zoe’s mother wisely says, “Let’s go read that again.”

Like Zoe, non-Christians tend to have a somewhat cynical view of life—do unto others before they can do to you. Of course, many also have another golden rule—whoever has the gold makes the rules. Neither interpretation is what Jesus had in mind when he gave us what has become known as the “golden rule” (although that term is found nowhere in Scripture).

This “golden rule” reflects the very character of God—His benevolent heart and grace regardless of whether or not it is deserved. We, in turn, are to mirror His love—a love that is not based on reciprocity but rather on God’s unconditional regard for all of mankind. Instead of looking out for the other guy only because we expect him to stab us in the back, we look out for the other guy out of love for him and obedience to God.

Many Eastern religions have a similar command regarding how to treat others. There is, however, a subtle but major difference between their philosophy not to do to others what we don’t want done to us and Jesus’s command. Jesus tells us it’s not enough to refrain from negative behavior; we are to act in a positive way to everyone. It’s not enough not to hurt someone; we are expected to act in love to everyone (even our enemies). Sorry Zoe: that even applies to troublesome little brothers!

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:27-31 (NLT)]

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And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest. [Luke 8:15 (NLT)]

thistleWhen Hurricane Irma uprooted trees here last September, the underground irrigation pipes throughout our 1,800 home community were wrenched out of the soil and the lines ruptured. Trees and stumps had to be removed before the process of finding and fixing the leaks could begin and we went more than seven months without irrigation. What with winter and spring’s hotter than average temperatures, receiving about half of our average rainfall since November, and no working irrigation system in our community, the once lush green grass became dry and brown, the flowers wilted, and the parched soil got hard. The only things that seemed to thrive were the weeds! Fortunately, the repairs were completed last week, the summer rain eventually will arrive, and our grass, shrubbery and trees will recover.

Seeing how our once good soil became so hard and dry made me think about Jesus’ parable of the four soils in which the soils represent the sort of people who receive the seed of God’s word. One was the hard dry soil of a footpath where the birds quickly snatched away the seed. Because the second soil was rocky, the plants’ roots were shallow and they withered and died in the hot sun. The third seed was sown among the weeds that crowded out the new growth. It was only in the fertile fourth soil that the seeds produced a good crop. Although this parable tells us that not everyone will be receptive to God’s message, perhaps, there’s more to it.

When looking at our parched ground, I realize that unless it is cultivated, watered, and fertilized, good soil will not remain that way. Like the fourth soil, we can receive God’s word with enthusiasm but, unless it is well tended, our faith will suffer. Worry, busyness, or discontent can crowd out our enthusiasm and commitment the way thorny weeds do in an untended garden. If we don’t keep feeding our soil with God’s word, like the plants sown on the rocky soil, our roots can wither and die because of things like regret, troubles, doubt or unforgiveness. When we let failure, complaint, anger, or temptation give the enemy a foothold, he can snatch away our faith faster than a sparrow can a sunflower seed on a footpath. We may have been good soil when we accepted Jesus but, at various times in our lives, we can become any one of those other soils. I’m not a gardener, but even I know that it takes work to keep a garden productive. We must continue to fertilize with prayer, cultivate with a community of faith, and water with God’s word if we want to bear fruit in God’s garden.

Although Jesus was explaining to His disciples why people responded as they did to Him, His parable is more than a lesson about evangelism or gardening. It’s a reminder that good soil can go bad. We must continue to tend the soil in our spiritual garden lest Satan steals the word, we stop believing when troubles arise, or the cares of the day leave no room for His word to grow.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (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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