BE PREPARED

When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes. [Matthew 24:37-39 (NLT)]

black vulturesLast Friday, there was hardly a spot in the parking lot of a local warehouse club, empty carts were at a premium, and the wait for gas was over 30 minutes. Inside, people were gathered around the fork truck bringing down more generators, packages of batteries were being grabbed by the handful, and cases of bottled water were being snatched right out of the stockers’ hands. The supply of things like toilet paper, garbage bags, bleach wipes, and paper towels was dwindling fast.

June was the official start of hurricane season and even though our Florida newspapers were filled with articles about hurricane preparedness and several days were set aside as sales tax holidays for hurricane supplies, most people did little to prepare until Friday. Up to then, the “spaghetti plots” of Tropical Depression 9 were all over the place but that morning’s weather report showed them coming together over our part of the state. By that afternoon, forecasters predicted a major Category 3 hurricane and warned us to be prepared. By Saturday, the storm had a name (Ian) and the governor had declared a state of emergency for 24 counties!

What part of being prepared didn’t we get back in June when the NOAA warned us to expect an “above average” year of named storms? Perhaps, we were lulled into a false sense of security by the season’s calm beginning and an August without any named storms. Until we see a storm heading straight at us, we tend to ignore the warnings. While better prepared than many, I’m not pointing any fingers; Friday morning, we were filling the gas tank and getting bottled water and batteries!

Thinking of the frenzied crowd at the store and gas pumps, I thought back to Noah. While Genesis focuses on the building of the ark and Noah’s obedience, such an enormous project couldn’t have gone unnoticed. Surely Noah’s neighbors wondered about the massive craft being built in his backyard. Genesis tells us Noah was righteous and blameless and 2 Peter 2:5 tells us that ”Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment.“ If he preached the need for repentance and cautioned that God would bring a flood and everything on earth would die, the people ignored his warnings and probably laughed at what seemed an impossibility. When the rain began and the water continued to rise, imagine their panic as the reality of what was happening set in.

In Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus warned of the arrival of another time of judgment and cautioned that the world would be caught off guard as it was in Noah’s day. When that day comes, there will be no spaghetti plots on the weather channel and no chance to run out and get bottled water or batteries. There simply will be two groups—those who are prepared and saved and those who are unprepared and lost.

By Sunday morning, Ian was expected to reach Category 4 intensity once it reaches the Gulf, the “cone of concern” broadened to include the Florida panhandle, and the governor declared a state of emergency for the entire state. With the latest news, the people north of us are now frantically filling gas tanks, water jugs, and sand bags. Jesus, however, wasn’t speaking about hurricane preparedness. He was speaking of His second coming. While many Floridians are fleeing out of the storm’s path, there will be no fleeing when that day arrives. Whether the Last Days or simply our last day here on earth, there will be no way to escape and no place to hide when it comes. Are we prepared?

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. [Matthew 24:42-44 (NLT)]

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JUDGING THE PUDDING 

sheep goatsAnd the King will say, “I tell you [the sheep] the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” … Then he will answer them [the goats] saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:40,45-46 (ESV)]

“The proof is in the pudding” is the shortened version of the original proverb: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, rather than what something claims to be, it must be judged by trying it yourself or seeing it in action. Regardless of its outward appearance or what the label states, the value, authenticity, and quality of something can only be determined by experiencing it or seeing the results!

Jesus probably never tasted the pudding to which the original proverb refers but we know that He frequently told parables illustrating its point. Rather than talking about a seasoned minced meat and grain dish boiled in a bag, He was telling us that the true evidence of our declaration of faith is not found in our words; it is seen in our actions. In His parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the King separated the sheep from the goats. After doing so, he said to the sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” [25:35] The goats, however, got a vastly different message: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” [25:41]

Since both species are Bovines in the subfamily Caprinae, roughly the same size, have cloven hooves, and chew the cud, the King couldn’t determine their identity with a quick look. Their difference, however, had nothing to do with their appearance: whether they had a groove in their upper lip or wool instead of hair. He wasn’t concerned with the shape of their horns or whether their tails hung down or pointed up.

The King judged the animals’ breed by their actions. While sheep graze and goats browse, their eating habits weren’t what determined their destination because Jesus really wasn’t talking about sheep or goats. He was speaking of the final judgment, specifically of those who claimed to be one of His flock. The parable’s sheep (like true followers of Jesus) fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner—the very people Jesus called “the least of these.” The goats, however, hadn’t. With His parable, the Lord made it abundantly clear that the way we love one another shows the way we love Him and that our actions have eternal significance.

Jesus wasn’t preaching salvation through works; He was telling us that our actions are evidence of the faith we proclaim! It’s not enough to hear or even to profess; we must obey! We can dress up as sheep and claim to be Christians, but, as the old proverb goes: the proof is in the pudding!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds. You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? [James 2:14-20 (NLT)]

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NO EXPERIENCE WASTED

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)]

God has a plan for each and every one of us and no experience is ever wasted. All that happened in the past has prepared us for what happens today and what will happen tomorrow. For example, consider Moses; the first two-thirds of his life were merely preparation for what he accomplished during the last third. For forty years, he acquired a unique skill set while living as a member of Pharaoh’s household. Being the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, he received an education befitting a prince and came to understand the protocol and ways of the royal court. Moreover, since he also was cared for by his birth mother, he knew Hebrew and understood the plight of his people. With his Egyptian/Hebrew background, Moses could communicate with both Israelites and their Egyptian oppressors. Quite likely, he was the only person with access to both Israel’s elders and Pharaoh’s court and that royal education certainly served him well when he penned most of the first five books of the Bible.

Moses’ second forty years were spent as a shepherd in Midian. A stranger in a strange land, the pampered prince had four decades to learn how to live as a nomad and shepherd. He also had forty years to learn about controlling his temper (the reason he landed in Midian in the first place). The skills he developed while herding dumb animals in the wilderness prepared him for forty years of guiding over two million “stiff-necked” people and their livestock through the desert.

At eighty, Moses might have been thinking about taking it easy—maybe selling the sheep and relaxing in his hammock under a palm tree. God, however, wasn’t going to let those eighty years of experience go to waste. It was during the last third of his life that Moses fulfilled his God-given purpose by shepherding the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Our life experiences do more than develop character and spiritual maturity; they provide us with distinctive insights, strengths, and capabilities. Every one of our past successes, failures, sorrows, joys, gains, and losses prepared us to do God’s work today and every one of today’s experiences will become tomorrow’s assets. We know how the story of Moses finished but how will our stories end? Like Moses, will we use our assets to further God’s Kingdom or will we squander them while relaxing in the hammock under a palm tree or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair?

No experience is wasted. Everything in life is happening to grow you up, to fill you up, to help you to become more of who you were created to be. [Oprah Winfrey]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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BUTTERFLY KISSES – Part 2

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 107:1 (NLT)]

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

red-spotted purple admiral butterflyAs I began looking for, listing, and thanking God for the little blessings hidden in each day (His “butterfly kisses”), I couldn’t help but wonder about the rest of the day. In a fallen world that all but guarantees loss, pain, misery, and trouble, does God just scatter these special moments of grace willy-nilly? Does He randomly send things like encouraging emails, the perfect worship song at just the right time, the aroma of gardenias wafting through the air, a hummingbird flitting through the garden, a shooting star, or doves nesting outside the window? What about the rest of our moments—the ones when we’re struggling with colicky babies, chronic pain, a severely disabled child, stage-4 cancer, betrayal, or abuse? As I look at my prayer list, I see prodigal children, financial woes, severe depression, food insecurity, parents who’ve lost two infants in less than two years, families dealing with Alzheimer’s, and a newly-wed who, less than an hour after sending her husband off to work with a kiss, learned that he died of an aortic aneurysm while on the train. Hearing children’s laughter while frolicking in the pool, a popsicle on a hot summer day, a rainbow, or seeing the elusive green flash at sunset only go so far in alleviating their anguish or sorrow. Where is God’s grace the rest of the time?

But wait! What do we know of God? Throughout Scripture, we are told that He is good and that He loves us as a parent loves a child. We know we have a loving God who gives us good gifts because, in Matthew 7, Jesus compared God’s provision to that of a loving father who wouldn’t deceive his children by giving them an inedible stone or a poisonous snake instead of bread or fish. Scripture also tells us that this good and loving God has a plan for us. So, if we believe that we are loved by a good God and that this good and loving God has set our lives in motion according to His plan, does it not follow that His entire plan is for our good (even when it includes sleepless nights, loss, hurt, pain, and tears)?

While we grab with gusto all that seems good to us, we’d prefer escaping the rest. While we find joy in the gifts we like, we feel cheated when it’s not the gift we wanted or expected. Nevertheless, every moment, even the ones that seem to break our hearts, are as much a part of God’s grace as are the little blessings of the day. Perhaps, God’s butterfly kisses are simply His way of reminding us of His loving presence in everything and serve as a way for us to see His hand in all things. It is in thanking Him for the little insignificant gifts of our day that we eventually find the ability to gives thanks in all circumstances!

Be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NLT)]

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BUTTERFLY KISSES

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)]

dove squabs

In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes of being challenged by a friend to write a list of 1,000 things she loved. Interpreting the challenge as making a list of the day’s blessings or gifts, she began recording the seemingly insignificant things that brought bits of joy into her ordinary day. Like a gratitude journal, it included the more obvious things like a child’s escape from serious injury or an unexpected visit from a friend. There was, however, more as Voskamp deliberately set out to find the little gifts hidden in the day—things like jam piled high on toast, toothless smiles, moonlight on pillows, warm cookies, the whistle of the tea kettle on a winter’s day, and the earthy aroma of the woods. As she thanked God for the trivial inconsequential little blessings of the day, she discovered the joy hidden within them. While Ann Voskamp refers to them as gifts, I think of them as God’s “butterfly kisses.” Even though God doesn’t flutter His eyelids on my cheek, these blessings are like the nearly imperceptible kisses mothers have given their children for generations. In the midst of the busyness, trouble, and worries of the day, they are the subtle and easily missed reminders of our Father’s love.

Recognizing my need for an attitude adjustment after spending much of the past year fighting health issues and the glums and gloomies accompanying them, I’ve been reading Voskamp’s book. When what was to be more than a month-long road trip was cut short by half because of my medical issues, I knew I needed to start my own list if I ever hoped to get out of my funk. The first morning home, I looked out and saw that a pair of Mourning Doves had nested in the nearby bougainvillea. The hope that came with the nest’s promise of new life made it the first gift I listed. Several days later, upon finding the nest empty, I thought the chicks had fledged until I looked down at the ground to see their mangled remains. “Oh God, how could you?” I cried. After all, if He sees every sparrow that falls, He certainly saw the doves that brought me such joy. I took it as a personal affront that He allowed the first “gift” I listed to be taken by some predator.

Throughout the morning, I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Dove walked around the bougainvillea and among the shrubbery. By the end of the day, however, they were gone and, most likely, busy building another nest and laying two more eggs. The mortality rate for dove squabs is 69% so I suspect they are accustomed to loss and knew enough to get on with their lives.

Of course, I know that the birds’ unfortunate demise wasn’t directed at me; loss and death have been a part of life since the time Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden. Then again, their loss may have been a lesson for me—to accept that uncertainties, pain, disappointment, and death are an inevitable part of life. Just as the doves moved on with their lives, so should I! While life is gain, it also is loss. As mere players, we don’t get to write the script, rewrite the scenes we don’t like, direct the show, or know how or when the play will end.

Granted, sometimes it feels as if God is nowhere to be found, but maybe it’s simply because we haven’t slowed down and really looked for Him. On that Sunday morning after the crucifixion, two of Jesus’ followers were returning to Emmaus when Jesus joined them. It may have been because of their sadness, disappointment, fear, or even doubt, but they failed to recognize the Lord. It was only when they stopped, invited Jesus into their home, and shared the bread He blessed, that they finally recognized Him. Perhaps, when we do the same—when we are mindful of the moment and thankful for the blessings or bread we have before us (whether focaccia, Wonder Bread, saltines, or a few crumbs)—we will recognize God’s presence. Thankfulness is the soil from which joy sprouts and it is when we are thankful for His gifts (whether large or small) that we will find His joy.

God is the great I AM which means He is present not just in the past or in the future but in the here and now! It’s not always easy to see Him but, when we slow down, open our eyes, and deliberately seek Him, we will find Him in the little seemingly insignificant gifts of each day and feel his butterfly kisses on our cheeks. As Elijah discovered, God is present in the whisper as well as the shout!

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:24 (NLT)]

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VASHTI

These events happened in the days of King Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia. [Esther 1:1 (NLT)]

deptford pinkWhile translations like the NIV and NLT call him Xerxes, he’s called Ahasuerus in translations like the ESV and RSV. When the king’s Persian name of Khshayârshâ was translated into Hebrew, it became Ahasuerus but, when it was translated into Greek, Khshayârshâ became Xerxes. Regardless of the translation, Xerxes and Ahasuerus are one and the same and we encounter him in the book of Esther.

Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) depicts Xerxes as a cruel, arrogant, incompetent, and fickle monarch known for his harsh temper, excessive drinking, extravagant banquets, and philandering (he pursued both his brother’s wife and niece). When we meet the king in the first chapter of Esther, his behavior matches history’s assessment of him. As one of the wealthiest (and probably one of the most pompous and arrogant) men in the world, he’d been hosting six months of celebrations for his nobles, officials, and military leaders as a way of displaying his great wealth and, perhaps, to assure them of his victory before setting out to conquer Greece. As the festivities wound down, the king held a lavish grand-finale seven-day banquet for all the men in the palace. In a different part of the palace, his wife, Queen Vashti, held her own banquet for the women.

After a week of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) realized he’d flaunted all of his treasures save one—his beautiful queen—and he commanded that she come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was instructed to wear the royal crown. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear the crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinic tradition interpreted this to mean only her crown. Regardless of whether the king meant naked or dressed, Persian modesty would have prohibited Vashti from presenting herself that way before a group of men. While it might be asked of a concubine or dancing girl, Vashti was a Persian princess and the queen. It wasn’t fitting for her to parade around like a piece of meat and be ogled by a group of drunken rowdy men. To wear her crown while doing so was even more demeaning. Knowing full well the consequences of denying her arrogant husband, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

This may have been the first time anyone dared deny Xerxes anything. As he always did when making any decision, the king immediately asked his advisors what to do. Fearing that all the wives of Persia might think they could defy their husbands if word got out that the queen successfully did so, they recommended immediately dethroning Vashti and banishing her from the king’s presence forever. Xerxes sent out an unprecedented and irrevocable decree ensuring that “husbands everywhere, whatever their rank, will receive proper respect from their wives” that proclaimed every man ruled his own home and could say whatever he pleased. Whether Vashti lived the rest of her life isolated in a corner of the harem or, as rabbinic tradition holds, was beheaded, her fate was meant to be an object lesson for all women to be submissive and obedient to their spouses.

Esther was Vashti’s opposite. A Jewish commoner, she was passive. Once in the harem, she continued to follow her uncle Mordecai’s directions “just as she did when she lived in his home.”  When it was her turn to go to the king, she “accepted the advice of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem and asked for nothing except what he suggested.” Perhaps Xerxes selected Esther as much for her submissiveness as her beauty.

When Esther balked at approaching Xerxes about the plight of the Jews, Mordecai asked if she might not have been made queen specifically for that task. Like Esther, perhaps Vashti was made queen for the moment she exhibited courage by standing up against her bully of a husband. In Vashti’s example, Esther saw a strong woman whose self-respect and character meant more to her than her crown or life. If Vashti risked everything by standing up for herself, could Esther do anything less than stand up for an entire race? The passive orphan girl garnered the strength and courage to confront Xerxes—even though it could result in her death. Vashti failed but Esther didn’t. Nevertheless, I wonder, would Esther have tried had it not been for Vashti’s brave example?

What about us? Could God have placed us in a precarious position for such a time as now? Perhaps, it’s time for us to make our voices heard—to speak up for sake of others, to take a stand for righteousness, or to refuse to take part in something that is wrong.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. [Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)]

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. [James 4:17 (NIV)]

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