A NEW HEART

pigsAnd I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

Last Friday, doctors in Maryland made history when they transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a human in a last-ditch effort to save the life of David Bennett, Sr. A medical first, Bennett was too ill to qualify for a routine heart transplant or an artificial ventricular assist device. The 57-year-old’s prognosis is uncertain and it will be months before doctors know whether the transplant can be deemed a “success.” As with any organ transplant, the main risk is that of organ rejection and Bennett will need potent immunosuppressing drugs for the remainder of his life.

I remember how astonished the world was back in 1967 when Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human-to-human heart transplant. The news that a surgeon had cut open someone’s chest, lifted out a diseased heart, and successfully replaced it with a healthy one from a dead donor was astounding. Although that first heart transplant recipient lived only eighteen days, today’s recipients have an 85% chance of living one year and a 69% chance of surviving five. The survival rate continues to decrease through the years with only 50% of heart transplant recipients living ten years and just 15% making 20 years. In spite of the risks, last year over 50,000 transplant candidates worldwide vied for the 5,000 hearts that were available. Sadly, there just aren’t enough hearts to go around.

54 years ago, the medical journals were wrong when they credited Dr. Bernard with the first heart transplant; God has been replacing hearts for ages! He takes our damaged hearts of stone, hearts unwilling to respond to Him, and replaces them with a new heart and spirit. After accepting His new heart, we have no need for immunosuppressive drugs because the new heart won’t be rejected. Unlike transplant candidates, we don’t have to meet specific criteria or put our names on a waiting list. Everyone qualifies and all we have to do is repent! The best news is that there’s no heart shortage and we don’t have to wait for someone to die; Jesus did that for us 2,000 years ago!

Even with a pig’s heart, Mr. Bennett won’t to want to live in a sty, cool off with a mud bath, snuffle in the soil, or start eating a mix of corn, soybeans, sorghum, and wheat. While his new heart will give him a new lease on life (at least for a short time), it will not change him. He will be the same man with the same favorite activities, world view, media preferences, attitudes, likes and dislikes, morals and principles he had before surgery. On the other hand, the new heart God gives us will make a huge change in us. We will have a new mind, new preferences, new spiritual gifts, new beliefs and morals, a new love for who and what we may have hated, and a new aversion to things we once might have loved. Rather than getting immunosuppressant drugs, we will receive an infusion of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control! Getting a new heart in God’s hospital also yields a far better survival rate—no death, only eternal life!

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live! [Ezekiel 18:30b-32 (NLT)]

I will give them hearts that recognize me as the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly. [Jeremiah 24:7 (NLT)]

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MAY WE NEVER FORGET

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. … Praise the Lord, everything he has created, everything in all his kingdom. Let all that I am praise the Lord. [Psalm 103:1-2,22 (NLT)]

little blue heronThe Bible is filled with evidence of God’s goodness and the great (and miraculous) things He’s done for His people. Daniel emerges unscathed from a lion’s den, David defeats Goliath and the shepherd boy becomes a king, wisdom and riches are given to Solomon, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t even scorched from a fire. Water is parted more than once, the walls of Jericho collapse, jail doors miraculously open, and storms cease at a word. Armies are led to victory, manna falls from heaven, fish and bread multiply, the barren give birth, the sick and lame are healed, and the dead rise. The Bible is full of marvelous accounts of miracles, majesty, and triumphs.

While probably less noteworthy, God’s hand has been as present in our lives as it was for David, Moses, the Apostles and everyone else in the Bible’s Hall of Faith. Although it wasn’t the Red Sea or the Jordan River, He’s kept us from drowning in the deep waters of life and, while it wasn’t a fortified city like Jericho, walls that blocked our way have tumbled down more than once. It may not have been 135,000 Midianites against only 300 of us as it was for Gideon, but He’s given us victory over foes just as formidable when the odds were just as bad. Instead of a fiery furnace, He’s gotten us out of hot water many times and, while it probably wasn’t lions or an invading army, He’s saved us from plenty of perilous situations. We may not have the enormous wealth or wisdom of Solomon, but God has given us more than enough of both.

Let us never forget that God didn’t stop working in people’s lives when the last words in Revelation were penned. Our stories may not be as exciting and astonishing as those in the Bible, nevertheless, they are every bit as wonderful and worthy of thanks and praise. We’ve emerged unharmed when we should have been hurt, been nourished when hungry, been loved and comforted in our anguish, and been helped when we lost all hope. Jesus freed us from the chains of sin and the prison of despair and gave us a new life and the Holy Spirit! Indeed, God is good!

The Psalmist tells us never to forget all the good things God has done and yet, considering these past two years, it’s easy to do just that. As we face what promises to be an equally trying 2022 and the various challenges of a continuing pandemic, flight cancellations and delays, a still broken supply chain, and extremes in weather (along with countless other troubles), let us remember the many blessings of the past and appreciate the little blessings of each day.

Praise the Lord, oh my soul; let all that I am praise the Lord!

Count your blessings instead of your crosses.
Count your gains instead of your losses.
Count your joys instead of your woes.
Count your friends instead of your foes.
Count your smiles instead of your tears.
Count your courage instead of your fears.
Count your full years instead of your lean.
Count your kind deeds instead of your mean.
Count your health instead of your wealth.
Count on God instead of yourself. [Author unknown]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. Remember the wonders he has performed, his miracles, and the rulings he has given. [Psalm 105:1-5 (NLT)]

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LAS POSADAS – NINE MONTHS (2)

And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. [Luke 2:4-5 (NLT)

Until learning about Las Posadas, I hadn’t given much thought to the difficulty of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem or to how frightened and desperate the couple must have been that night so long ago. As the crow flies, it’s only a 70-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem but Joseph and Mary weren’t crows and the route was not a straight one. Because of the hilly terrain, the most direct route south was the most physically challenging and, because it led right through Samaria, it also was the most dangerous. Wanting nothing to do with Samaritans, Jews typically detoured to the east before going south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, turning west at Jericho, going over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on south into Bethlehem—a trip of 90 to 100 miles. The trek from Jericho to Bethlehem would have been the hardest since it was an uphill hike with an elevation change of 3,500 feet! In good circumstances, people could walk about 20 miles a day so Mary and Joseph feasibly could have made Bethlehem in five 8-hour days. Mary, however, was about ready to give birth so a trip of seven to ten days is more likely.

Since the Bible quickly moves from the miraculous conception of Jesus to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and then to Jesus’ birth, we probably don’t give much thought to what those nine months of pregnancy were like for Mary. Each day of the nine days of Las Posadas, however, represents a month of Mary’s pregnancy. When Scripture says Mary “hurried to the hill country of Judea” to see Elizabeth, we assume she lived nearby. Rather than right around the corner, Elizabeth lived about five miles southwest of Jerusalem in Ein Karem, meaning the newly pregnant girl (who may have suffered from morning sickness) took a similar walk to the one she’d make nine months later! Three months later, she made the same 90 to 100-mile journey north back to Nazareth. Even if Mary traveled in a caravan, it was a dangerous journey for a young woman alone! Ancient travel was no walk in the park.

Pregnancy is a blessed thing but it is a life-changing event full of physical and emotional challenges. Along with the normal mood swings accompanying changes in estrogen and progesterone, Mary had the shock of an unexpected pregnancy, saw her wedding plans turned upside down, lost her reputation, and endured the whispers of the town folk about how she betrayed her fiancé. We know how Joseph reacted to her pregnancy but we don’t know about Mary’s parents or the rest of their family and friends. Were the couple shunned or snubbed? Pregnancy is a blessing but there’s a downside to growing another being in one’s uterus: fatigue, shortness of breath, discomfort as the growing child pushes against internal organs, trying to find a comfortable position in which to sleep, back aches, bloating, frequent urination, and swollen feet (to name just a few). Pregnancy isn’t easy—even when you’re carrying the Messiah!

Once Mary and Joseph found lodging, what of the baby’s birth? Because our nativity scenes focus on the lovely scene of the Holy Family after Jesus’ arrival, we tend to forget the hours of labor leading up to that scene. The conditions weren’t sterile, there were no epidurals, and Scripture makes no mention of a midwife’s presence. Without question, there was discomfort, pain, sweat, aching muscles, tears, fear, mess, and blood. Surely, giving birth away from family, in a cave, in a strange town, and placing her newborn in a feed trough wasn’t what Mary envisioned for the child who would be called “Son of the Most High.”

Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, people like you and me, people who hurt, worry, bruise, get tired, bleed, complain, cry, throw-up, get blisters, and suffer—people who can get upset, frustrated, troubled, doubtful, surprised, disappointed, and sad. Today, consider what those nine months were like for Mary, a girl barely into her teens who became the mother of God, and Joseph, the man who would act as the earthly and legal father to God’s son. They were two ordinary people who did an extraordinary thing! Thank you, God!

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. [Luke 2:6-7 (NLT)]

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GOD-INCIDENCES

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:9-10 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - milkweed

I suspect that most of us live rather ordinary and somewhat predictable lives that are occasionally interrupted by major life events (some of which are welcome and other which are not). For us, it is life’s little surprises—its happenstance and serendipity—that keep our lives from becoming humdrum.

We probably have no problem crediting God with the big blessings of life—things like the birth of a healthy child, a benign biopsy, a successful surgery, 10 years of sobriety, 50 plus years of marriage, the grand’s graduation, the better paying job, or God’s gifts of salvation and forgiveness. On the other hand, we tend to think of the little unexpected blessings—the butterfly or bluebird, the chance meeting, the out-of-the-blue phone call from an old friend, the sermon that spoke directly to our need, making the tight connection at the airport, or the humorous email that arrived when we were in the dumps—as mere coincidence or luck. After all, it seems that our Almighty God must be far too busy running the universe to deal with the minutiae of our everyday lives. Absolutely nothing, however, is unimportant to a God who sees every sparrow fall, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and has etched our names on the palms of His hands. Just as the universe is not run by random chance, neither are our lives!

God can multitask better than a one-armed paper-hanger or a mom with triplet toddlers! While God was keeping the stars and planets aligned back in 470 BC, He also orchestrated Persian King Xerxes’ insomnia and his attendant’s choice of what part of the king’s chronicles was read to him. For that matter, He is the one who placed the villains plotting the Xerxes’ death within ear shot of Mordecai. Rather than coincidences, all of the events in the book of Esther were part of God’s finely crafted plan!

Although we speak to God in prayer, we often chalk up His answer to luck or coincidence. God can speak audibly but He also speaks through seemingly random things—the day’s Bible verse, a chance meeting, a song on the radio, a casual comment, a wrong number, words in a book we accidentally open, and even a bout of insomnia. When we credit the little blessings of life to coincidence, we’re happy. When we credit them to their orchestrator, however, we become thankful. While we’re surprised by these seemingly random or capricious events, our God never is! Everything in our lives has passed through His hands!

Yesterday, we gave thanks for our food, family, health, homes, and all the major blessings of our lives. Today, let’s give thanks for the little blessings, the godsends, that make our ordinary lives so extraordinary—the things that encourage us when we want to give up, put smiles on our faces, fill our hearts with joy, answer our questions, or remind us how much we’re loved. Along with all the big things, let’s be sure to give God credit for the little ones—the God-incidences—that He scatters throughout our days. His fingerprints are everywhere we look!

You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail. [Proverbs 19:21 (NLT)]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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PRAISE HIM

Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy house of worship, praise him under the open skies; Praise him for his acts of power, praise him for his magnificent greatness; Praise with a blast on the trumpet, praise by strumming soft strings; Praise him with castanets and dance, praise him with banjo and flute; Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum, praise him with fiddles and mandolin. Let every living, breathing creature praise God! Hallelujah! [Psalm 150 (MSG)]

water lilyI’d gotten sidetracked taking pictures of the water lilies at the Botanic Gardens. I looked around for my husband and saw him sitting quietly on a nearby bench. Although his head was down, I knew he wasn’t snoozing. Sitting down beside him, I said, “He really is amazing, isn’t He?” We both spent a few minutes reflecting on how great our God is and thanking Him for using all 120 of the crayons in his heavenly box when he made the flowers. He’s an extraordinary artist!

Thanks and praise—we tend to lump them both together and, yet, they’re not really the same. Thanks are for gifts given; praise is for the giver of the gifts! For example, we thanked our children for the on-line cooking class that came with a box of all the necessary exotic ingredients shipped to our front door but praised them for finding such a unique, fun, and delicious present! A friend thanked me for writing this blog but it was her praise for my writing that put a smile on my face.

While it’s easy to thank God for his many gifts, I question, “Who am I to praise God for His splendor and works?” Perhaps it’s because I feel so insignificant and inept in comparison to our great and magnificent God. I tend to think we should have competency in an area for our praise to be of value. For example, while I would feel comfortable thanking virtuoso pianist Lang Lang for giving a concert, no matter how amazing I thought his performance, my lack of musical expertise would keep me from praising his interpretation of the piece or the amazing way he recovered from a career-threatening injury. While I take nature photographs, I can’t hold a candle to the work of a photographer like Thomas Mangelsen. While I could thank him for sharing his work, because I know nothing of f-stops, apertures, ISO, or shutter speeds, I question whether praise from someone who is an amateur like me would mean anything to him.

If I feel unqualified to praise mere humans, no wonder I’m hesitant to praise God. Yet, when I think about it, praise is praise, whether it comes from an expert or simply an appreciative fan. We don’t need to be accomplished in a field to know what we find inspiring, beautiful, remarkable, or impressive and something tells me that sincere praise is always music to someone’s ears.

My small brain can’t fathom the 4,500 stars I might see tonight let alone the 300 billion in the Milky Way and the estimated 70 billion trillion stars God scattered in the universe. I have enough trouble understanding the way bees make honey let alone how God managed to think up some 950,000 other kinds of insects. Try as I will, I can’t truly grasp how a cherry blossom becomes a juicy sweet cherry or how the 86 billion nerve cells in my brain make it possible for me to breathe, walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time. I have no idea how God managed to think up giggles, rainbows, bird songs, dolphins, water lilies, butterflies, peonies, strawberries, giraffes, snow, or sunsets. Nevertheless, I realize it’s not necessary to be an expert in astronomy, entomology, biology, zoology, botany, or any other science to appreciate and praise the work of our magnificent God. Our praise is music to His godly ears and surely will put a smile on His divine face.

On this day of Thanksgiving, let’s be sure to add a little praise to our thanks. Well done, God; well done!

Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out. Is there anyone around who can explain God? Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do? Anyone who has done him such a huge favor that God has to ask his advice? Everything comes from him; Everything happens through him; Everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise! Yes. Yes. Yes. [Romans 11:33-36 (MSG)]

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FOUR GENERATIONS

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. [Ephesians 1:4-6 (NLT)]

black skimmersSince there are about 25 genealogy lists in the Bible, genealogy must be important to both God and His people. Genealogies were important to the Jews since priests and Levites could serve only if they were of pure ancestry. In Chronicles we saw how genealogies provide a connection between generations and the promises made to their ancestors. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies were important to Jewish believers because they showed that Jesus came from the Davidic line and important to Gentiles because Jesus’ Gentile ancestry shows that God sent His son for all people. What do they mean to Christians today?

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) had an interesting take on genealogies in his book Good Thoughts in Bad Times, Together with Good Thoughts in Worse Times, Consisting of….Scripture Observations…. Published in 1659, the complete title is 34 words long so I took the liberty of shortening it along with bringing some of Fuller’s old English spelling into 21st century. When writing about our Lord’s genealogy found in Matthew 1:7-8, the churchman and historian observed the following:

“Lord, I find the genealogy of my Saviour strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations. (1) Rehoboam begat Abijam; that is, a bad father begat a bad son. (2) Abijam begat Asa; that is, a bad father, a good son. (3) Asa begat Jehoshaphat; that is, a good father, a good son. (4) Jehoshaphat begat Jehoram; that is, a good father, a bad son.

I see, Lord, from hence, that my father’s piety cannot be entailed [transmitted]; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.”

The power-hungry Rehoboam looked only to his desires rather than his people’s needs and his harshness in taxing the people excessively caused the division of the nation. During his troubled reign, he married foreign women and pagan practices flourished as Judeans set up Asherah poles, sacred pillars, and pagan shrines. 1 Kings tells us Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, was unfaithful to the Lord and committed the same sins as did his father. As Fuller pointed out—like father, like son!

Abijah was the father of Asa. Scripture tells us that, in spite of his sinful father and pagan mother, Asa “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight … [and] remained completely faithful to the Lord.” That Asa was one of Judah’s good kings shows that having a bad father doesn’t condemn one to being a bad man. While “like father, like son” doesn’t necessarily hold true, good king Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat, was like his father and “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight.” Sadly, we then come to Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram. 2 Kings compares him to the northern kingdom’s evil king Ahab. Jehoram “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” and even allied himself with Ahab by marrying one of his daughters. Clearly, as Fuller pointed out, a father’s godliness and virtue cannot be inherited. The good news, of course, is that neither can a father’s wickedness.

Fuller’s observation about these four generations reminds us that we each are responsible for our own actions. The good news of the gospel tells us that no matter who our ancestors are or what they did, we don’t have to be victims of our heredity, childhood, or circumstances. Although we inherit genes, we don’t inherit character. As Christians, our family is not determined by bloodline or the people with whom we grew up. We have a new family—God’s family! Because of Jesus, we were adopted by God, brought into His family, and became heirs to His kingdom. We have a good Father and, because of the Holy Spirit, we can be His good sons and daughters!

Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. [Romans 8:15-17 (NLT)]

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