BEGGARS CAN’T BE CHOOSERS

Give us this day our daily bread… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Matthew 6:11,26 (RSV)]

BIG CYPRESS FOX SQUIRRELThere’s an old proverb, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” meaning don’t find fault with something received as a gift or favor. Another adage that goes along with it is, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” I thought of those sayings when a friend told of walking into a taco stand when a street person sitting near the entrance asked him for money. Instead of money, my friend offered to buy him a burrito. Once at the counter, he ordered two bean burritos only to hear his homeless dining companion complain, “I ain’t eatin’ no $%2#!* bean burrito—I want a steak one!” My friend has little money to spare but, since the man was getting vociferous, he ordered the steak burrito for his guest and a bean one for himself. Apparently, the man wasn’t familiar with the above proverbs or with the one about a half a loaf being better than none!

Recently, I came across a cartoon drawn by Lynch. It showed Jesus, with piles of loaves and fish, surrounded by a multitude of people calling out to Him: “Is it gluten-free? Is there a vegan option? Are there nuts in those loaves? Was the bread baked locally?” and “Does the fish contain mercury?” While it is just a comic, I imagine some people actually may have muttered things like, “Isn’t there any falafel? I wanted olives! Aren’t there any grapes or figs?” or even, “Is this the best He can do?”

Jesus’s miracles of feeding thousands reassure us that God cares for His people. Moreover, shortly after teaching us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” He reassured us that, since God cares for the birds, He surely cares for us. Although God is concerned about meeting our necessities, sadly, our vision of what is necessary is usually far different than His. We don’t understand what our daily bread is or isn’t. It’s not brioche, a gluten-free all-natural blueberry muffin, one of the $20 deluxe loaves found at New York farmers’ markets, or the £21 ($28) English Shepherd Loaf made from organic Somerset spelt flour, Cotswolds spring water and Cornish sea salt. Moreover, our daily bread probably doesn’t include the extras like Nutella©, honey, fruit preserves, pate or avocado spread. Daily bread is what’s necessary and nothing more.

The words, “We are beggars; this is true,” were written on a scrap of paper found in Martin Luther’s pocket when he died. We are no different than the homeless man at the taco stand or the hungry people gathered on a hillside and probably no more appreciative. Let us reach out and gladly accept God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, Holy Spirit, and daily provision on His terms, not ours. Perhaps, after asking God for our daily bread, we might want to add another prayer: “Help me recognize my needs and appreciate your provision.” Let us remember that beggars can’t be choosers.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. [Matthew 6:31-32 (RSV]

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LOVE NOTES

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice! Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise! Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy! Let the trees of the forest sing for joy [Psalm 96:11-12 (NLT)]

wireweed - sida acutaStopped at a red light, I glanced at the grassy median on my left and did a double take; the small yellow wild flowers (some would call them weeds) appeared to be dancing. Their petals seemed to be floating in a breeze—only the petals were still on the flowers and there was no wind. Another look told me that hundreds of dainty sulphur butterflies were flitting to and fro just a few inches above the grass. With both butterflies and wireweed (sida acuta) being pale yellow, it looked like the flower petals had managed to escape their stems and the field was bursting with joy! A glance at my fellow drivers told me they were oblivious to the butterfly celebration taking place on the roadside. I wanted to get out of my car and tell everyone to look at the beautiful frolic right beside them. Caution and common sense, however, kept me in my car and, when the light changed, I reluctantly made my turn while thanking God for His gift of an “Aha!” moment. Did He specially arrange that revelry in pale yellow to intersect with my drive that morning? I don’t know, but it sure felt like He did. It was just what I needed to encourage me on a discouraging day.

Although I know my husband loves me, I cherish the times he walks by and touches me affectionately, whispers something sweet, or grazes my cheek with his lips. I also know that God loves me; after all, He demonstrated that on the cross. Nevertheless, God’s “Aha!” moments are His gentle kisses, tender caresses, and love notes. They’re subtle reminders that He is there, He cares, and He loves me.

As I continued on my drive, I wondered about the other drivers. Was I the only one who saw the butterflies? Then again, how many times have I have been so self-absorbed or intent on my activity that I missed one of God’s love notes? It isn’t just butterflies; it can be a song on the radio, a child’s laughter, the aroma of jasmine, a weed growing through a crack on the sidewalk, a squirrel chattering in a tree, a finch on the windowsill, the mockingbird’s song, seeing a young couple caress or an old couple walk hand in hand, the smell of grass after a spring rain, a rose bud, or a stranger’s smile. Although God personalizes His love letters for each one of us, we need to slow down and be mindful enough to recognize them when they come our way.

There is an old Hindi poem, translated by Ravindra Kumar Karnani, in which a child asks God to reveal Himself. God responds with a meadowlark’s song, the roar of thunder, a star and the birth of a baby but, in her ignorance, the child doesn’t recognize His answers. Finally, in desperation, she cries, “Touch me God, and let me know you are here!” But, when God touches the child, she brushes away the butterfly and walks away unknowingly. It occurs to me that we are not much different. May we never thoughtlessly brush away one of God’s gentle kisses or fail to notice one of his love notes.

O Lord, your unfailing love fills the earth. [Psalm 119:64a (NLT)]

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

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DIVINE DISCIPLINE (Discipline – Part 1)

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” Hebrews 12:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaIn C.S. Lewis’ fantasy The Horse and His Boy, Aravis, a young noblewoman, is attacked by a lion. After her wounds are cleaned and dressed, she’s told that the cuts on her back are neither deep nor dangerous and no more serious than the cuts of a whip. Aravis later learns from Aslan, the lion who attacked her, that the gashes on her back, stripe for stripe, equal the stripes laid on the back of the maidservant she’d caused to be punished. At first, this seems more like the Old Testament retribution of “an eye for an eye” than something Lewis’ Christ-like character of Aslan would do. What if the maidservant had been hung or beheaded? What then?

I began thinking about God’s justice, judgment, mercy and correction and the difference between them. We have a God of justice and mercy and yet those two words seem totally incompatible. Justice is getting the deserved punishment for the crime and mercy is not getting it. Justice is about penalty and mercy is all about pardon and compassion.  Justice would be the judge finding us guilty of speeding through a school zone and his judgment would be a fine of $1000. Mercy would be the judge coming to the defendant’s table, getting out his checkbook and paying the fine for us. Justice is served because the penalty is paid—mercy is given because we weren’t the ones to pay the fine. That, however, doesn’t mean there might not be some much needed discipline to correct our behavior. The merciful judge might send us to traffic school or require us to do community service as a crossing guard at the school. Moreover,  he will not protect us from the consequences of our offense. The ticket may cause an insurance premium increase or even a license suspension. Nevertheless, we will have been treated mercifully.

Was what happened to Aravis justice or judgment for her past behavior or was it discipline and correction intended the future? While Aravis’ action was rash, it was defensible. She deceived and drugged the maidservant who was watching her so she could escape from a forced marriage to an evil man. Under those circumstances, Aravis’ receipt of those slashes seems like an injustice. It’s easy to miss that those cuts on her back were not because the servant had been whipped. Aravis wasn’t being punished for what her servant had endured. She was being disciplined for her wanton indifference to her maidservant’s fate. Earlier in the story, when asked about the fate of the girl, Aravis coolly replied that she’d be glad if the servant had been beaten. It was only after receiving similar wounds that the once spoiled and haughty Aravis realized her thoughtlessness and showed concern for the servant’s welfare and fate. Within the next few pages, she both apologizes to someone and shows concern for his welfare (something the unwounded Aravis would never have done). Aslan’s discipline helped her become a better version of herself.

Because it’s usually unpleasant, discipline can feel a lot like punishment. While it may look like divine retribution or payback, it isn’t. Its purpose isn’t to make things right; its purpose is to make us right—to turn us from rebellion to obedience. Divine discipline is disapproval, instruction, correction, and direction. As it did with Aravis, discipline causes us to change both our point of view and behavior; it is through discipline that we become the people God wants us to be.

But consider the joy of those corrected by God! Do not despise the discipline of the Almighty when you sin. For though he wounds, he also bandages. He strikes, but his hands also heal. [Job 5:17-18 (NLT)]

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TWO IN ONE – GOOD FRIDAY

Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now? [Matthew 26:52-54 (NLT)]

Good FridayThere is a fancy term for how God the Son, Jesus, took on human form and yet remained God: hypostatic union. Sounding like why my socks cling to my t-shirts in the dryer, knowing the term doesn’t help us understand it. I’m not sure anyone can wholly comprehend how Jesus always existed and yet was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, and became man. When pondering Christ’s incarnation, I can’t help but think of an ad for Certs. Both a breath mint and a candy mint, Certs had commercials that ended with the catch phrase: “Certs is two, two, two mints in one!”  Fully man and fully God at the same time, Jesus, like Certs, had two distinct natures in one.

When Jesus walked the earth, He was not a human who once had been God; He was God in a human body. When He put on skin and became a living breathing man, Jesus didn’t cease being God and set aside His godly attributes. For the most part, however, He voluntarily limited himself to the restrictions of humanity. As God, He could be everywhere at once but, as man, He was only one place at a time. God is eternal and transcends time but, as man, He had both a beginning and an end and was confined to a twenty-four hour day. There were, however, moments when Jesus exercised His omniscience, omnipotence, and authority. For example, He knew the scandalous history of the woman at the well, the thoughts of the Pharisees, and who would betray Him. He used His power and authority to cast out demons, walk on water, give sight to the blind, and forgive sins.

Nevertheless, Jesus never resorted to His godly attributes to make life easier for Himself. As God, He never experienced hunger or thirst but, when living in a man’s body, He did. When fasting in the wilderness, the man who fed thousands with a few fish easily could have turned stones into loaves of bread, but He deliberately chose not to do so. God doesn’t feel pain, bruise, bleed, or die but, as Jesus, He chose to do just that. The man who could still storms, change water into wine, and cast demons into swine could have stopped the flogging, mockery and beating he endured. The man who cured lepers, healed a bleeding woman, and raised the dead certainly had the power to endure crucifixion without agony or to survive it unscathed.

After tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Luke tells us Satan left Him “until the next opportunity came.” Without a doubt, an opportunity came that dark Friday and the enemy made a last ditch effort to stop God’s plan of redemption. He may have tempted Jesus with words like these: “Smite them; they dared to spit on you!” or “They’re beating you cruelly—show no mercy, strike the mortals down!” As Jesus suffered on that cross, Satan may have whispered, “You’re God, you don’t have to suffer like this. Break out and step down!” Being divine, Jesus easily could have broken free from the cross unmarked by His ordeal. Instead, our all-powerful God deliberately chose to limit Himself to the indignities and weaknesses of a mortal human body. Submitting Himself to God the Father, He chose to endure torture, suffer and die a miserable death as a man. Why? Because He loved us.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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OUT WITH THE OLD – MAUNDY THURSDAY

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” [Jeremiah 31:31-33,34b (NLT)]

Gardenia

In a contract, both parties are expected to hold up their end of the bargain; if one or the other doesn’t, the contract is null and void. A contract has contingencies and failure on one side can negate the relationship. On the other hand, in a covenant, both parties agree to hold up their end of the deal even if the other party doesn’t; failure on one side or the other does not negate the relationship. God’s standard is perfection but, try as we might, we can’t be perfect. In a contractual relationship, He would have no reason to stay true to His word since we’re unable to stay true to ours. Out of necessity, we have a covenant relationship with God; fortunately, He will hold up His end even when we fail.

The old covenant was introduced by Moses to the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai over 3,400 years ago. When Jesus blessed the bread and wine in that upper room in Jerusalem 1,400 years later, the New Covenant with God began. It’s important to remember that Jesus did not negate the law—there was nothing wrong with the law. The problem was with the people who couldn’t abide by it.

In the old covenant, people were told what to do (and not to do) to get right with God but, in the new covenant, the getting right with God has been done for us. The old covenant required the blood of animals and yearly atonement; the new covenant is for all of eternity and was satisfied with the sacrifice of just one very special man. The old covenant was one of the law and works but the new one is one of grace and faith. Instead of the law being written on tablets, it is written on men’s hearts. The old covenant was signified by circumcision and the new by a change of heart. The old covenant found God in the temple in Jerusalem but the new finds Him in the temple of the spirit. The old covenant was one of bondage and the new is one of liberty. The old covenant was established on Mt. Sinai for Israel alone; the new was established on the cross and is for all of mankind. It was with Jesus that the old covenant ended and it was with Him that the new covenant began; what was the Last Supper of the old covenant became the First Supper of the new one!

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” [Luke 2:20 (NLT)]

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MORE WAG, LESS BARK!

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (RSV)]

 My son, sweeten thy tongue and make savory the opening of thy mouth; for the tail of a dog gives him bread, and his mouth gets him blows. [Story of Ahikar]

dogLast month, my husband and I attended a “Sweetheart” dinner at church. The men were in charge of the entire event and there were a few rough spots in the night. Then again, at the risk of being accused of political incorrectness or gender bias, most of the men probably were novices at that kind of event planning. Unlike the men, we women have had decades of organizing (and attending) school parties, PTA fund raisers, charity galas, birthday parties, showers, weddings, anniversary bashes, and other assorted celebrations. In spite of the glitches, there was much that went right and the evening was enjoyable and entertaining. Unfortunately, the woman sitting beside me kept criticizing how things were done—from name tags and table assignments to flowers and dessert. Her nit-picking comments became as annoying as the yapping of a bad-tempered dog and I thought of a bumper sticker I’d recently seen: “Wag More, Bark Less!”

Bad tempered dogs (and people) are nothing new; a similar proverb dates back to 500 B.C. in an Aramaic papyrus found in Egypt called the Story of Ahikar. “Wag More, Bark Less!” may be bumper sticker philosophy, but I wish more people (including me) did just that. After reading the qualifications and concerns of the candidates for our property association board, I was struck by how many were unpleasantly barking and nipping at each other rather than wagging their tails and showing me how well they’d work with one another and our management company. An on-line community newsletter was so filled with bark (and bite) that we stopped subscribing. Rarely are the letters to the editor in the newspaper anything but bark in the way of anger and criticism. While waiting at the bakery counter yesterday, an impatient woman yelled at the harried clerk and stormed away in a huff. Sometimes, it feels like we’re in a kennel full of angry upset dogs—yapping, baying, growling and snarling! Worse, once one dog (or person) starts barking, other dogs (and people) tend to join in the unpleasant clamor.

Like the woman beside me at that dinner, there are times I bark or snarl in disparagement, annoyance or anger rather than wag in happiness, appreciation, or compassion. In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are responsible for what we put in our minds. Even in the bleakest of circumstances or worst of conditions, there is some small thing worthy of praise. Our job, as Christians, is to find it and think about it! Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us in that task. Moreover, as my mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” Thankfully, the Spirit gives us the self-control to do just that! If we can’t wag, at least we can muzzle ourselves so we don’t bark!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. … If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. [Galatians 5:22-23, 25-26 (RSV)]

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