WHAT IF?

What if the Lord had not been on our side? Let all Israel repeat: What if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us? [Psalm 124:1-2 (NLT)]

butterfly on lantanaI looked down at my wedding ring and asked myself, “What if?” What if an odd set of circumstances hadn’t occurred and I hadn’t met the man I married when I did? What if he hadn’t relentlessly pursued me? What if we hadn’t gotten married less than a year after meeting? Since my father’s death occurred only a few months after our wedding, had I not been married, I would have been left completely on my own at the unwise age of twenty. I don’t think the “What if?” scenario would have been very good. I do know it wouldn’t have been as wonderful as the scenario God gave me.

“Whew, that was close!” Surely, you’ve had times like that—occasions when you’re sure God’s hand delivered you: that split second that kept you from being a traffic fatality, the chance encounter that led you to the solution for which you’d been searching, being one of the 5% who beat the prognosis, or the time your toddler’s close encounter with a car was only that—close. “What if…?” we ask ourselves. What if He hadn’t saved me from my enemies? What if God hadn’t stopped me when He did? What if He hadn’t saved me from myself? While I’m not much for looking back and regretfully asking that question, when asking it reinforces our confidence in God’s deliverance, it’s a good question to ask.

Monuments and holidays help us remember God’s deliverance. Moses built an altar of stones at the foot of Mt. Sinai to commemorate God’s covenant with Israel and representatives from the twelve tribes gathered stones to build a memorial to remind the Israelites how the waters of the Jordan River stopped flowing for them. Our Jewish friends celebrate Purim as a reminder of their deliverance from Haman’s murderous plot and Passover as a reminder of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter to remember what Jesus did for us with His birth and resurrection. We remember deliverance in other ways, too. A friend tattooed his sobriety date, his day of freedom from addiction, on his ankle. For over 75 years, my mother-in-law displayed four small faded Limoges plates. They were all that remained of her family’s china after their home exploded and burned in 1929; they reminded her of her family’s survival. Those plain plates now reside in my china cabinet to remind me that we can lose just about everything but, as long as we have God and family, we will have enough and can persevere.

We often forget what God has done for us. Worse, we often attribute it to good luck or to our own skill. David’s psalm asks the people of Israel to consider what might have happened if the Lord had not been on their side. He points out that the Egyptian solders and Israel’s enemies through the ages would have destroyed them. After reviewing God’s past deliverance, he declares his confidence in God’s future faithfulness.

While it’s not wise to dwell on the past, every once in a while it’s a good idea to ask ourselves, “What if?”

They would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger. The waters would have engulfed us; a torrent would have overwhelmed us. Yes, the raging waters of their fury would have overwhelmed our very lives. Praise the Lord, who did not let their teeth tear us apart! We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap. The trap is broken, and we are free! Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:3-8 (NLT)]

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I’M FINE

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

snowy egretsWhen asked about her boys, a friend used to answer, “They’re doing their own thing.” Years later, I learned “their own thing” meant they were breaking her mama’s heart with their addictions and run-ins with the law. Because she kept her pain concealed, she carried the weight of that burden alone for many years. We often hear similar answers when we ask someone how they’re doing— brusque responses like, “I’m fine,” “It’s taken care of,” or “We don’t need a thing.” Maybe everything really is hunky dory but those answers are often used when life has gone seriously awry and things are anything but fine. Those vague but terse responses are conversation stoppers. Even best friends, who suspect something is amiss, won’t pry and the subject is politely changed.

We wrap ourselves up in a nice package on the outside when inside we’re a mess. We allow people into the vestibule of our lives but won’t let them in to see the messy kitchen or dirty floor. We refuse to expose our vulnerabilities and then we wonder where our friends are when we need them. No one knows we need them if we refuse to allow them into our lives. The same goes for God. “Where are you God?” we complain without being willing to admit life’s a mess and we need Him.

Think of the paralyzed man whose friends took him to see Jesus in Capernaum. What if he’d told his friends he was just fine and didn’t need a thing? While his friends went off to see Jesus, he would have remained paralyzed at home and there would be one less miraculous healing. What if the blind man in Bethsaida or the centurion’s servant had said they were fine? Scratch two more healings!

As for Job’s friends—he could have rebuffed them at the door, telling them, “I’m fine; this is just a little setback.” Instead, he allowed them inside to see his scabs, sores and misery. Even with his friends’ erroneous theology, Job must have found comfort when they remained at his side. Perhaps their discussions even strengthened his faith in God.

We tell people we’re okay when we’re not and we often tell God the same thing. We’re so used to replying, “I’m fine,” when a stranger says, “How are you?” that we forget our friends and God actually care about the answer. Most of the time, when people inquire about our lives or ask how they can help, they sincerely want to know. If they’re not really interested, their response to our answer likely will be, “Sorry, I’m busy!” Even though God knows everything about us and all that we need, He tells us to ask Him. He knows we’re not fine, but do we? Fortunately, with God, we can be confident that He’ll never tell us He’s too busy!

Refusing to ask for help when you need it is refusing someone the chance to be helpful. [Ric Ocasek]

You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy. [John 16:24 (NLT)]

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. [Matthew 7:7-8 (NLT)]

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I’M BUSY

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want, pick up their crosses, and follow me. [Matthew 16:24 (GW)]

campion“I’m so busy!” If there’s even a remote possibility we might be asked to do something we’d rather avoid, we can cut the request off at the pass by starting the conversation with those words. It’s the perfect out. On the other hand, when said to us, we can’t argue with it. I have a relative who has a variation on this strategy. After asking how she can help, without pausing for the response, she launches into a litany of the many exhausting demands on her time and challenges already facing her. Given how busy she claims to be, there’s no way anyone would dare ask for her help!

Mark tells the story of friends who carried a paralyzed man on a pallet to see Jesus in Capernaum. Unable to get him through the mass of people crowding into the house where Jesus was preaching, they hauled him up to the roof, dug a hole through the thatch, and lowered the man down to the room. Even though a quick trip to take their friend to see Jesus became a major undertaking and engineering feat, they weren’t too busy to help.

What of the blind man in Bethsaida? If his friends had been too busy to bring him to the Lord and beg Jesus to touch and heal him, he would have remained blind. Surely the Roman officer, a centurion who oversaw one hundred soldiers, was a busy man. Nevertheless, he took the time to find Jesus and plead for his young servant’s healing.

Consider Job’s friends—in spite of their business and family obligations, they weren’t too busy to drop everything and travel from their homes to offer him solace. These men didn’t just stop by to leave a covered casserole and offer quick condolences; they sat shiva, silently mourning, with Job for seven days. In spite of the errors in their theology, their intentions were good and they weren’t too busy to come!

No one is really too busy—we all manage to find time to do the things important to us; it’s simply a matter of priorities. While God doesn’t expect us to give an automatic “yes” to every request, He probably doesn’t want an automatic “no” either. Let’s face it; “I’m busy” is just an easier way to say “no!” Being busy, however, can hinder our relationships not just with people, but also with God! No matter what’s on our schedule, we must never be too busy for Him. Yet, we often start our prayers with that very complaint or answer His call with that response. He knows exactly how busy we are and how we spend (or waste) our time and energy. We need to listen and pray before deciding we’re too busy for friends, family or God. Even though He runs the entire universe, God is never too busy for us; how can we possibly think we’re too busy for Him?

Respect people who find time for you in their busy schedule, but love people who never look at their schedule when you need them. [Anonymous]

I encourage you to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, dedicated to God and pleasing to him. This kind of worship is appropriate for you. Don’t become like the people of this world. Instead, change the way you think. Then you will always be able to determine what God really wants—what is good, pleasing, and perfect. [Romans 12:1b-2 (GW)]

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SHED THE SHROUD

Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” [John 11:43-44 (NLT)]

red-spotted purple admiralWhen Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the once dead man emerged from the tomb with his face wrapped in a head cloth and his body bound in burial garments. Jesus commanded people to unbind him and free him from the trappings of the grave. Something tells me that, after four days in a tomb, Lazarus left behind more than some linen cloth soiled with the detritus of the tomb and death. While we don’t know what he experienced during those days, He must have returned to life with a new perspective. As he walked into the sunlight he never expected seeing again and inhaled the air he never anticipated breathing again, can you imagine how much he appreciated his new lease on life? Given a second chance, he probably wasn’t about to bring any regrets, resentment, anger, or guilt with him. Raised from the dead, he probably shed much of his past along with that shroud as he stepped from the tomb’s gloom.

Unlike Lazarus, we haven’t physically died. Our family didn’t wash us with warm water, rub us with spices and oil, wrap us in a burial garment, lay us in a tomb, and mourn our passing. Like Lazarus, however, we were dead before answering Jesus’ call. Born again into a new spiritual life, we are no longer spiritually dead and our grave clothes are no longer necessary. Lazarus shed his, why can’t we? We tend to carry the detritus and debris of our yesterdays with us when we come to Christ. Instead of putting on the new clothes of salvation and righteousness, we stay wrapped in the shroud of the past that’s stained with betrayals, anger, disappointment, loss, and hurt and embellished with remorse and disgrace. Even when we think we’ve donned the fresh clothes of a new life in Christ, we often tuck a pang of guilt or shame into a pocket. We can’t believe we’ve been forgiven, but we have; we can’t believe we’re good enough, but we are; we can’t believe He could possibly love us, but He does!

When Lazarus stepped into the light from that dark tomb, he shed his shroud. When we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we were given a new spiritual life; let us shed our past and clothe ourselves with joy and the presence of Jesus Christ.

And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. [Galatians 3:27 (NLT)]

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy. [Psalm 30:11 (NLT)]

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GOD’S BANKERS

wild geraniumThere are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors. [Deuteronomy 15:11 (MSG)]

The Hebrew word for what we call “charity” is tzedakah; its nature, however, is far different than acts of benevolence or generosity. Rather than being a magnanimous act by someone more fortunate, tzedakah is considered an act of justice and righteousness. It is remedying a wrong, doing what is right and just, and fulfilling a duty; in short, it is giving the poor what they deserve.

In writing about charity, Rabbi Yanki Tauber tells of a wealthy man who often supported his rabbi’s charitable activities. One day a letter requesting a large sum for a good cause arrived. At the time, money was a little tight and making a donation was inconvenient so the rich man ignored the request. Shortly after that, his businesses began to fail and the wealthy entrepreneur lost his entire fortune.

The distraught fellow went to the synagogue and berated the holy man for not warning him that he’d suffer if he ignored the rabbi’s plea. “I would have given you the money had I known what punishment I would suffer!” he said. The rabbi calmly responded that the loss of money wasn’t a punishment. “Nothing that was yours has been taken from you,” he explained, adding that God had allotted a certain amount of resources to the rabbi in his work. Since the time he spent in prayer, studying, teaching, counseling and helping others left him no time to manage finances or property, the rabbi’s resources had been placed in the trust of several people who acted as “bankers” for that wealth. In turn, those bankers recognized the value of the rabbi’s work and supported it. When the once rich man failed to carry out his banking duty, the money was simply transferred to another, more responsible, “banker.”

God loves all of His children but that does not mean that He allots equal portions of blessings or sorrows to each of them. Some are healthier, wealthier, smarter, more talented or more attractive than others. Some people seem to escape misfortune while others seem to encounter storms at every turn. Because of an accident of birth, we may live comfortable lives in a wealthy nation or suffer in poverty in a corrupt or war-torn land. Some people have power and are easily heard while others are powerless and often ignored. That we are not given equal portions, however, does not mean that we are not equally deserving. If we have been blessed with wealth, education, influence or opportunities, we should think of ourselves as God’s bankers. We’re just holding on to other people’s resources and it is our job to distribute those resources to their rightful owners. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, Christians should be dispensers of tzedakah. Unlike them, however, we don’t do it to buy our way into heaven (which it won’t). We do it because God tells us it is the right thing to do!

God does not need your good works, but our neighbor does. [Martin Luther]

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. [1 John 3:16-17 (MSG)]

Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (MSG)]

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DOWN BUT NOT OUT

No one lights a lamp and then hides it or puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house. Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when it is unhealthy, your body is filled with darkness. Make sure that the light you think you have is not actually darkness. If you are filled with light, with no dark corners, then your whole life will be radiant, as though a floodlight were filling you with light. [Luke 11:34-36 (NLT)]

broken lightTo avoid the southwest Florida heat, I waited until dusk to take my walk. Thanks to Hurricane Irma, most of the street lamps in my neighborhood don’t work. For a light to function, electrical energy has to be converted into light energy and both a source of electricity and a working connection are needed. For many of the lights, the connection was broken when blowing debris shattered their bulbs. For others, Irma’s 150 mph winds broke the connection when it blew off their tops, wrapped their poles around trees, or knocked them to the ground. Without a connection to their source of power, those street lights are useless—they’re just a tangle of wires and a pile of glass, plastic and metal. Even though they don’t work, people have been cautioned to remember that their exposed wires are live. It’s not the electricity that is missing; it’s the connection that is inoperative. Two poles, however, were down but not out. Even though they’d been flattened by the storm, neither wires nor bulb had broken. In spite of the storm’s violence, they remained connected and were beacons in the night’s darkness.

When the storms of life batter us and knock us down, like those street lamps, we can lose our connection, not to electricity, but to God. Our minds may get so caught up in anger, worry, fear, depression, or self-pity that we become separated from our true source of power—Jesus. He told us to let our lights shine but we can’t shine if we’re not connected to Him. When our lives go dark, we should remember that God hasn’t gone anywhere—like the electricity, He’s still there. We’re the ones who are broken. Unfortunately, no Florida Power & Light truck is going to arrive and reconnect us to God.

Reconnecting is a choice we have to make. Reconnecting is trusting God and ceding to His will. It is prayer and reading the Bible; it is praise, thanksgiving and worship. Reconnecting is turning to God and choosing joy over misery, light over darkness, love over hate, forgiveness over rancor, peace over anger and service over selfishness. Fortunately, we’re not alone in this. We may not have FP&L but we have something more powerful (and far more dependable)—the Holy Spirit! If we allow Him, He will reconnect us to the light of the world. We may be down, but we don’t ever have to go out! By His power, our lights can continue to shine.

Remember this. When people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold. When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself but they are in darkness. This is also the case when people withdraw from God. [Augustine]

And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven. [Luke 24:49 (NLT)]

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

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