ENCOURAGEMENT

When he [Barnabas] arrived and saw this evidence of God’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. [Acts 11:23 (NLT)]

One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own. [John O’Donohue]

irisNicknames were as common in Biblical days as they are now. Simon’s politics gave him the nickname of Zelotes (the Zealot) and the impetuous behavior of James and John probably earned them the nickname of “Boanerges,” meaning “Sons of Thunder.” While it was Simeon’s dark complexion that gave him the name of “Niger” or “the Black Man,” it was the heartening behavior of Joseph that earned him the nickname of “Barnabas” meaning “Son of Encouragement.”Although our knowledge of Barnabas is limited, we know he was an apostle in the early church who encouraged the Jerusalem church by selling a field and giving it the money. His encouragement, however, wasn’t limited to finances and, without his encouragement, we might not have much of what we call the New Testament.

In spite of Paul’s conversion, his reputation as a persecutor of Christians frightened the apostles and they refused to meet with him. Barnabas became the bridge between the two and he urged the apostles to accept the new convert. It was Barnabas who encouraged Paul to come to the Antioch church where the two spent a year teaching (and encouraging) before departing on Paul’s first missionary journey. Barnabas then encouraged his cousin John Mark to join them on this expedition. When John Mark lost heart and departed, Paul refused to give the deserter another chance. It was Barnabas who encouraged the young man to go with him on another mission while Silas joined Paul. Although both Barnabas and John Mark had differences with Paul, eventually they reconciled and Paul again asked John Mark to join in his ministry.

I thought of Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement” because my third “Abundance” exercise was to leave a surprise note of encouragement for someone. Coming from the Old French word encoragier, “encourage” means to make strong or hearten: to spur someone on and promote their progress or growth. Without encouragement, a person is like a flower trying to bloom without enough water or fertilizer; neither will reach their full potential. It was with Barnabas’ encouragement that the early church got planted and Paul and John Mark were able to blossom. Without Barnabas’ encouragement, Paul might never have been accepted by the church, taught in Antioch, traveled throughout the Roman Empire to reach Gentiles, or written the thirteen Pauline epistles. Not one to hold a grudge, Barnabas forgave John Mark and encouraged his cousin’s faith by including him on another mission trip. As a result, John Mark, the man who once deserted the Apostle Paul, became known as the Apostle Mark and the author of the gospel that bears his name.

At some point in our lives, we all need words that inspire courage, enthusiasm or confidence; validate, comfort, or console; bring strength, perspective, or hope. Paul told us to “encourage one another and build one another up,” but I wondered how doing that encouraging helps us live richer more abundant lives. To encourage someone, however, we first must appreciate them and it is by appreciating and valuing the people in our lives that we realize how truly rich we are. Barnabas appreciated the potential of both Paul and John Mark even when others didn’t see it. May we all be worthy of being called a Son or Daughter of Encouragement!

Your greatest pleasure is that which rebounds from hearts that you have made glad. [Henry Ward Beecher]

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are already doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NLT)]

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. [Ephesians 4:29 (NLT)]

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INCREDIBLE CREATION

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

ring-tailed lemur - serval catAs a way of learning how to live the abundant life promised by Jesus, I am participating in a series of abundance exercises. In my first, I was to think of something God created and reflect on the different and incredible ways He expressed that creation. While at the zoo, I couldn’t help but notice God’s abundance in the diversity of His creatures: the speedy cheetah, the sluggish sloth, the crane’s sharp pointed beak, the giant anteater’s long tubular snout, the giraffe with its long legs and neck, and the python with neither legs nor neck! The gazelles’ long slender horns don’t resemble the muntjacs’ small antlers or the giraffes’ stubby ossicones; the zebras’ stripes were nothing like those on the bongo or ring-tailed lemurs; and the giraffes’ spots were different from those on the cheetah and serval. Even within each species, every animal had his own unique pattern of stripes or spots. The animals’ colors and coats ranged from the vibrant blue, gold and green feathers of the macaws to the brown-grey shell of the gopher tortoise and the heavy fur coat of the black bear. Because our zoo started out as a botanical garden 100 years ago, the setting was lush and we were surrounded by bright pink, yellow, blue, orange and white flowers along with mangroves, strangler figs, cypress, cactus, enormous banyans, and over 100 species of palm trees. God outdid himself when it came to flora and fauna. Having completed the week’s assignment in a matter of hours, it seemed too easy and I decided to notice God’s creativity throughout the week.

The next day, as we walked in the swamp, I used my ears. I can only recognize a few of the birds’ voices—the anhinga’s low grunt, catbird’s mew, fish crow’s uh-oh, egret’s squawk, woodpecker’s squeak, hawk’s plaintive call, and the jay’s raucous one—but plenty of other birds added to the avian symphony of chirps, whistles, warbles, tweets, and other sweet notes. God outdid Himself again with the variety of birds and songs!

At the farmer’s market later that week, we found fresh sweet corn, avocados, guava, eggplants, oranges, star fruit, grapefruit, tangerines, tomatoes, ginger, cauliflower, radishes, fennel, lettuce, and assorted peppers. I smelled paella cooking and popcorn popping and sampled five different types of jams, an “everything” bagel, fresh brewed coffee, olive tapenade, spicy mango salsa, and lemon-poppy seed bread. For the five basic flavors a human’s tongue can taste, God certainly provides an abundance of variations!

When picking out paint colors, I had to choose from a palette of over 800 samples (starting with eight different shades of black)! While my decision would have been easier with fewer choices, I realized how dull our world be if, like seals or whales, we only saw in shades of black, white and grey. Thankfully, God, in His extravagance of creativity, gave us millions of colors and three kinds of cones in our eyes so we can enjoy them all!

The purpose of the exercise was to open my heart and mind to the richness in our world and embrace the beauty and abundance of life by appreciating God’s amazing creativity. We probably don’t need over 5,400 species of mammals; 9,000 species of birds (each with its own song); 8,200 different kinds of reptiles; or some 2,600 species of palms. I don’t think we’d miss a few of the 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, being able to distinguish between “blue horizon” and “timid blue,” or not having a red Caribbean habanero from the more than 130 varieties of peppers, but God gave us all those things anyway! Ours is a more than enough God and, from the first moment of creation, He provided the world with beautiful abundance. It’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God—all of creation does!

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in. [George Washington Carver]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. [Psalm 104:24-25 (NLT)

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STEAMING THANKS

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. [Psalm 136:1 (ESV)]

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. [Meister Eckhart]

dawnIn a letter to his brother, C.S. Lewis said that ”thanking the Giver” was the “completion of a pleasure” and expressed his sorrow that unbelievers had no place for the “steam” or “spirit…given off by experiences to go.”  As I walked early this morning and watched the sun come up over the pond, it looked like steam was rising off the water. It’s not really steam; called steam fog or evaporation fog, it has something to do with the warm moist layer of air over the water mixing with the cooler air from the land. Nevertheless, it made me think of Lewis’ words as I pictured our prayers of thanksgiving rising up like steam to God.

After ten men were healed of leprosy by Jesus, He told them to go and show themselves to the priests (the ones who could pronounce them free of the disease). In their rush to be declared clean, only one of them, a Samaritan, came back to thank our Lord. Although all ten certainly would enjoy being cured of this disfiguring disease that made them outcasts to society, did nine miss something of the joy in their healing and newfound health by failing to thank the Lord?

The occasion of Lewis’ thanks to “the Giver” was nothing special; he’d enjoyed dinner at a friend’s home the previous evening. Polite English gentleman that he was, I’m sure Lewis thanked his hosts. The capital “G” meant he was referring to God—the One truly responsible for the enjoyable dinner party, the food, his hosts, and the friendship he’d enjoyed. Like Lewis, I’m good about thanking my hosts at the time and often send a follow-up thank you note. Unlike Lewis, however, I’m not so good about then offering my thanks to God—the Giver who provided me with the fellowship of those friends. This morning, as I thanked God for an event I shared with church family yesterday, I thought of how that prayer really did complete the pleasure of the previous evening.

In all things, at all times, our thanksgiving should rise from us as steam does from a pond on a cool morning. Indeed, to be an unbeliever, to have no place to offer your thanksgiving, to have no God to acknowledge as the Giver of Gifts, must diminish one’s pleasure. Thanking God increases our joy; it’s like putting the whipped cream and cherry on top of a hot fudge sundae. Giving thanks is what completes the pleasure but what nine of those lepers missed.

To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.  (Johannes A. Gaertner)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Dear Lord, open my eyes to the many small blessings of the here and now. [Psalm 100 (ESV)]

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BEING GRATEFUL FOR WHAT WE HAVE – THANKSGIVING DAY 2019

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)]

great blue heron with snake“As an inmate on death row, I am under many restrictions,” began the writer of my morning’s devotion. Realizing that he’d constantly been asking God for more, the prisoner prayed that God would help him be more grateful for what he already had. Curious about the author, a quick internet search told me that thirteen years ago he was convicted on one count of burglary and two of first-degree murder. His brutal crime was premeditated, there was no question of his guilt and one could say he was “as guilty as sin;” then again, so are we all! It was in prison that he found Jesus.

I pondered how a man, awaiting lethal injection, would choose to pray that God would help him be more grateful. Having lost his appeal to the state Supreme Court, wouldn’t he have some more pressing requests? Nevertheless, after praying for more gratitude, the inmate wrote of smelling the aroma of soup and being thankful that he had soup to satisfy his hunger. Mind you, that was prison food for which he was thankful, not a gourmet dinner! Writing that he sensed God’s pleasure at his gratitude, he understood that God had given him all he really needed and would continue to meet his needs; he was content with that knowledge.

Recently, a friend told me of her morning’s prayers. Although she has plenty more for which to be grateful than an inmate on death row, she was far from content. Admitting to a litany of complaints and entreaties, she was in the midst of her petitions when she distinctly heard the Spirit’s voice: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Immediately seeing that her way clearly was not God’s, the tenor of her prayers changed. Realizing that she had all she truly needed, she stopped fixating on what she lacked; gratitude and praise replaced her grievances and appeals.

Perhaps, because there are so many restrictions on what he can do and have, the death row inmate truly understands the rest of today’s verse: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” His prison job earns him less than $3 an hour and he lives in a cell furnished with only a sink, toilet, bed, and wall-mounted writing table. With two officers monitoring him at all times, he has no privacy. Although he is allowed one visit (with no more than two visitors) per week, no physical contact is permitted. In prison until his execution or he dies of old age, he has already lost most of his life. There is little that he can hold on to but his soul. Perhaps, having so little, it was easier for him to give what little he had left to God.

If we took serious inventory, the vast majority of us are more like my complaining friend than the prisoner. Yet, even having more than enough and little about which to grumble, we tend to want more of something or a better version of what we already have. Our prayers tend to be more along the line of “My will be done” than “Thy will be done.”

Let our prayers today be ones of gratitude. May we join that prisoner in asking God to help us to focus on the gifts right in front of us rather than obsessing about what we lack. Let us find our contentment in Christ.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV)]

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STANDING ON HIS PROMISES

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. [John 6:11 (NLT)]

queen butterflyThe feeding of the five thousand is one of the more impressive of Jesus’s miracles. The gospels’ writers surely thought it important; other than the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four accounts. While small details vary, they all agree that Jesus had only five loaves and two fish when He said a blessing over the food. Although a typical Jewish blessing would have been something like, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” I think Jesus said something quite different. I don’t think He thanked God for five loaves and two fish and I don’t think He asked God for more provisions. In spite of not having sufficient food to feed even fifteen let alone more than five thousand, I think Jesus thanked our more-than-enough God for the more-than-enough food that would feed that multitude. I think the One who promised, “If you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours,” thanked His Father in Heaven for His abundant provision before that food ever appeared!

We don’t know exactly how this miracle transpired but none of the gospels’ writers describe anything impressive like fish and bread falling from heaven, Jesus staggering from the weight of the food that appeared in His arms, or needing extra baskets to distribute it (although twelve baskets were needed for the leftovers)! This extraordinary miracle occurred without drama or fanfare; as the food was distributed, it never seemed to diminish and, even though everyone ate until full, food remained.

Giving thanks in advance really isn’t so odd. Back in August, when we celebrated our anniversary, our children gave us play tickets and a night’s lodging in a nearby town. Our reservations, however, weren’t until October. Nevertheless, we didn’t wait two months to thank them. Even though we’d not checked into the hotel, enjoyed dinner and a comedy, or been assured at check-out that all expenses were paid, we thanked them in advance because we knew them to be good to their word.

A pastor recently shared his own story of giving thanks in advance. When he accepted a new job, he knew there had been some financial irregularities and questionable practices under his predecessor. Nevertheless, he was shocked to discover the church was so far behind in mortgage payments that the bank was considering foreclosure. He then learned that the church also was in debt to several church members. Sure it couldn’t get any worse than an insolvent church, the pastor received a notice from the city that, unless their gravel parking lot was paved within thirty days, services could no longer be held. That Sunday, as he delivered the disturbing news to the congregation, the pastor made one request. He asked everyone to say a prayer as they walked to their cars and felt the gravel’s stones beneath their shoes. They were to thank God for the smooth new asphalt under their feet and to praise Him for His timely provision of a parking lot! That was faith! Together, pastor and church stood on God’s promises of provision and, within thirty days, that parking lot was paved (and paid for). Eventually, through faith, prayer, good stewardship, and God’s provision, all of their debts were paid and the church got back on solid financial ground.

After the pastor told his story, I recalled the chorus to an old hymn, “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior…I’m standing on the promises of God.” I wondered if I only thank God after His provision, which is gratitude, or if I stand on His promises and thank Him in advance, which is faith. If I have enough faith in my children to thank them before receiving their gifts, I should be able to trust God enough to thank Him for blessings not yet received. Do I stand on the promises of God? Do you?

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.” [Mark 11:22-24 (NLT)]

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LITTLE THINGS WITH LOVE

Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. [Isaiah 58:10 (TLB)]

food bankWhile tucking toothbrushes, dental floss, Band-Aids, and soap into shoeboxes already filled with pencils, notebooks, markers, tee-shirts, and toys, I thanked God, not just for the privilege of giving, but also that basic items like these are not a luxury in my world. In many parts of the world, however, they are! For example, our pastor just returned from Cuba where a sample-size tube of toothpaste costs the equivalent of $5 and is so sparingly squeezed that it lasts a family of four one month. The gifts he’d packed in his suitcase were simple drugstore items such as toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and pain relievers, but the people who received those basics were as appreciative as if he’d delivered a treasure chest of gold and diamonds.

Dwight Moody once told of a man at sea who was ill and confined to his cabin. Hearing that a sailor had fallen overboard and not knowing what he could do to help, the man picked up his light and held it against the port-hole. Upon hearing that the sailor had been rescued, the man returned to his bunk. When walking on the deck after his recovery, this gentleman met the fellow who’d fallen overboard that night. Recounting the frightening episode, the sailor said he’d been sure no one would see him in the darkness as he desperately tried to stay afloat in the churning waves. But, just as he started to go down for what he was sure was the last time, a light from out of a port-hole shone on him; finally seeing the drowning sailor, a man caught his hand and pulled him into the life-boat.

Our pastor’s suitcase of basics and the clothes he and his wife left behind in Cuba can’t stop the blackouts, ease the nation’s food shortages, or shorten the queues waiting for a bus or a few gallons of gas. The Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes our church filled won’t change governments, provide jobs, or feed the hungry. The meals packed for food banks, clothes donated to resale shops, gifts purchased for strangers whose names hang on a giving tree, food served at a homeless shelter, change dropped into the bell ringers’ buckets, checks written to the Salvation Army, or the animal purchased for Heifer International won’t solve the world’s problems. Nevertheless, while we can’t change the world, we all can do our part to change the world for someone, even if it’s just with a toothbrush or a tube of toothpaste!

“Let us take the torch of salvation and go into these dark homes and hold up Christ to the people as the Savior of the world,” said Moody as he finished his story of the light in the port-hole. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,” were the words of Mother Teresa. Few, if any, of us will pull a drowning sailor from the sea and we’re not likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize for our humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, in our own small ways, we each can make a difference by shining a light for those in despair. Let us be the light that brings Christ’s love into the world!

You are the world’s light—a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light! Let it shine for all; let your good deeds glow for all to see, so that they will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (TLB)]

Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (TLB)]

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