FORTITUDE

Let’s not get tired of doing what is good, for at the right time we will reap a harvest—if we do not give up. [Galatians 6:9 (ISV)]

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you are involved in various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But you must let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. [James 1:2-4 (ISV)]

Moraine Lake - CanadaYesterday, I wrote about the sin of sloth, a sort of spiritual weariness; fortitude is considered its contrasting virtue. Taken captive in 605 BC and forced to trudge the 500 miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, Daniel is an example of fortitude. He lost his home, family, name, language, culture, nation, and possibly his manhood but the one thing he never lost was his faith in God. From the moment he arrived in Babylon, Daniel refused to compromise his principles by refusing to defile himself with prohibited food. Sixty-six years later, he was still determined to stay true to God. In spite of knowing he would be thrown to the lions for his actions, he ignored the law prohibiting praying to anyone but King Darius. Instead, Daniel opened his windows and, as he’d “always done,” prayed to the one true God while offering thanks and asking for God’s help. [Daniel 6:10-11]

A pastor friend was in her fifties when God called her to the ministry. After completing her Lutheran seminary studies and internship, she met all the additional ordination requirements except one: she needed “a call” or placement in a Lutheran church. Although she’d received a call and felt confident it was God’s plan, a problem remained. Caught in a sort of “catch-22,” the call was from a Methodist church for an ordained minister but she couldn’t be ordained without accepting a call from a Lutheran church! Urging her to be patient, the bishop assured her that the Methodists and Lutherans soon would come to a “full communion” agreement so her position with the Methodists would qualify as the required call. The wheels of bureaucracy moved slowly and the Bishop’s promise of “soon” dragged into years. While she worked in Christian education for the Methodist church, my friend was not yet ordained and her dream of becoming a pastor had been put on indefinite hold. In God’s time, however, the Lutherans and Methodists became full communion partners which, among other things, meant they could exchange clergy. Four years after her seminary graduation, my pastor friend was ordained by a Lutheran bishop in the Methodist church. It would have been faster to leave the right church (but “wrong” denomination) in search of the “right” denomination (but wrong church), but she didn’t. Instead, she exhibited fortitude by trusting God and staying where He put her.

Fortitude is not a word we use much today. The Roman Catholic Catechism calls it “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life.” Our spiritual backbone, fortitude is a combination of endurance, courage, perseverance, strength, and faith. Simply put, fortitude is the grace God gives us when we so desperately need it.

As did my pastor friend several years ago, we’re probably asking, “How long?” We’re not the first ones to ask that question. It had to have been asked multiple times when a few years of refuge in Egypt turned into 400 years and slavery, an 11 day trek across the desert stretched into 40 years, 15 difficult years passed between David’s anointing and his kingship, Job’s suffering seemed to have no end, and Judah’s Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years. Rather than wondering, “How long?” let us pray as did Daniel: by offering thanksgiving and asking for God’s help. May God clothe us with fortitude and fortify us with His strength.

She clothes herself with fortitude, and fortifies her arms with strength. [Proverbs 31:17 (ISV)]

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A TERRIBLE TEMPTATION

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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FOLLOW ME

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. [Luke 9:23 (NLT)]

steamboat springs ski areaIt’s been five years since I’ve skied but I still remember that the three scariest words I ever heard when on the slopes were, “Follow me, Nonnie!” My grands loved to venture off the groomed runs into the bumps and through the woods. On my own, I never would have chosen to leave the main trail but, because I loved those little guys, I faithfully followed behind as they maneuvered between the trees and over the moguls.

Although my grands boogied joyfully off trail, I was far more hesitant. The children’s perspective was far different than mine. As they snaked through the trees, they saw the openings between them but my tendency was to focus on the pines blocking my path rather than the gaps between them. Seeing the moguls as fun friends rather than evil enemies, my grands stayed relaxed and loose and absorbed the bumps they encountered. On the other hand, seeing the moguls as adversaries, I stiffened in anticipation of trouble. Moreover, the little guys weren’t afraid of falling and, when they did, they just laughed, picked themselves up, and continued downhill. Although I rarely fell, my mind was filled with all the “what ifs” of falling: embarrassment, injury, or worse!

Life is a lot like skiing off trail into the heavy powder, bumps and trees. We can choose to see the difficulties in front of us rather than notice ways to get beyond them. If we keep our eyes focused on God, He’ll show us the way through, between or around the obstacles of life. Instead of stiffening up when we see the bumpy challenges ahead, we can choose to remain flexible and ready to absorb the impact when jolted around by life. When we trust God, He’ll give us the strength and ability to get through the moguls on life’s trail. We can be afraid of falling, humiliation or failure, or accept that missteps, disappointment, and loss are part of life. Resting secure in God’s love when we follow His ways, we won’t be afraid of crashing.

If I hadn’t followed my grands when they called, I would have missed some of the best times I’ve had with them. Enduring moguls, sore knees and occasional face plants in the snow were worth it. Our Heavenly Father has more in store for us than some thrills while skiing off trail. We certainly don’t want to miss all that He has to offer simply because we’re afraid of a few bumps and tumbles! Trust Him; He’s got a great plan. Just be sure to follow Jesus when he calls. Like skiing with the grands, it will be worth it when you do!

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)]

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:27 (NLT)]

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GOD’S WAREHOUSE

And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 (NLT)]

mute swanWith all the online shopping we’re doing during this time of sheltering in place, can you imagine how busy it is in Amazon’s various warehouses? Even though basic items like hand sanitizer, bleach wipes, disinfectant spray and face masks are on back order, we still can get a vast assortment of products like a package of 9,000 ladybugs (along with a ladybug life cycle poster), a “daddy saddle” for piggy back rides (complete with horn and stirrups), a potty putter for our favorite golfer, or even a talking toilet paper spindle.

As busy as Amazon must be, picture God’s heavenly prayer fulfillment center. Instead of going to customer service, our prayer requests would go directly to God. How He manages to keep those requests straight is a wonder; fortunately, He is in the miracle business. After being processed and approved, our prayers would get sent over to the warehouse for order implementation.  God’s warehouse would be larger than any of Amazon’s or Walmart’s and extend further than the eye can see. But, unlike our earthly warehouses, it wouldn’t be filled with sports equipment, electronics, clothing or books. Instead, there would be crates of courage and wisdom, shelves piled high with love and kindness, and bins of patience and forgiveness. Perhaps the angels would be in charge of shipping and receiving. They’d bar code and inventory items as they moved in and out of heaven and nothing would ever get lost or misplaced. Can you imagine an angel driving a fork truck around to various locations to get an extra-large box of faith, a package of humility, or a crate of joy especially ordered just for you? Unlike Amazon, God’s warehouse never runs out of anything and the spiritual needs of those in Jesus Christ will always be filled. Let us remember, however, that while we can give an order to Amazon, we only give requests to God!

Amazon’s warehouse is filled with stuff but God’s is filled with the real necessities of life. While we can’t expect a carton of bleach wipes or Lysol, we can expect that He’ll provide us with all that we truly need: things like courage, strength, forgiveness, faith, peace, wisdom, hope, compassion, self-control, humility, patience, guidance, and salvation. Nothing is ever put on back-order and shoddy substitutions are never offered. Best of all, returns are unnecessary since everything is exactly right. Moreover, on-time delivery is guaranteed; that perfect timing, however, is according to God’s schedule and not ours!

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? [Romans 8:31-32 (NLT)]

So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help. … He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. [Isaiah 30:18,19b (NLT)]

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THE SONG OF HOPE

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. [Psalm 62:5-6 (NLT)]

northern mockingbirdA family of mockingbirds has moved into a nearby bush and they frequently serenade us from their vast repertoire of songs. Hearing their exuberant and joyful warbles is a perfect antidote to the sameness of life during this pandemic. While being charmed by their avian concerts, I thought of Emily Dickenson’s poem “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”

What exactly is hope? In the world’s view, hope is like wishful thinking: an “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I hope it will be something good!” attitude. We hope for a cure, a job, a raise, or a phone call without knowing if we’ll receive them. Worldly hope can fail us—the cure isn’t found, the job falls through, the raise doesn’t materialize, or the phone doesn’t ring. We live in a fallen world where we will be disappointed and our hopes often are dashed.

Biblical hope, however, never disappoints because it is based on God’s promises; it is confident that something will come to pass because God has promised it! We may hope our circumstances will improve while knowing they might not but that uncertainty about our circumstances or how God will answer our prayers doesn’t mean we don’t have hope. Ours is a living hope; while it looks to the future, it is grounded in the present. We put our trust in God because His promises became a reality in Jesus. We don’t have to dream of a better life tomorrow because Jesus had given us a better life today. Our Christian hope is a confident expectation that God will work “for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” [Romans 8:28] It tells us that eventually God will deliver us and that our salvation is secure.

Although raised in a Christian family, Emily Dickenson never made a public profession of faith in Jesus, explaining, “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.” She was, perhaps, more honest than many of us. Nevertheless, several of her poems reveal her Christian roots. I think she understood a Christian’s hope in her metaphor of hope as a bird. Just as a bird perches on a branch, hope rests in our soul. Like a bird, Christian hope sings its pleasing song endlessly and, undeterred by hardship, hope’s song sounds sweetest in a storm. The bird’s song can be heard from the coldest land to the strangest sea and Christian hope can be found from the bleakest of conditions to the most inexplicable of situations. Even in the harshest circumstances, the bird never asked anything of Dickenson and our hope, the hope offered by Christ, asks nothing of us. We can’t earn it or buy it; it is there for the asking if only we believe!

For many right now, this is a time of darkness and fear and it seems like hope has taken flight. It hasn’t! God doesn’t change—He’s still there—the promises He made yesterday hold true today. God promises to be with us—both on the hilltop and in the valleys. Promising provision, His grace is sufficient for us. Promising to empower us, He tells us that, when we are weak, He is strong. As I listen to the mockingbirds’ songs, it seems as if they know God’s eyes are upon them and that He will take care of them. [Matthew 6:26,10:29] They remind me to live with hope perched in my soul.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
[Emily Dickenson]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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DUELING PROVERBS 

Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation. [Proverbs 26:4-5 NLT)

owlSince they’re not hard and fast rules, some proverbs are contradictory. Perhaps the most glaring contradiction (and one non-believers love to mention) is found in Proverbs 26:4-5. First, we’re told not to answer the foolish argument of fools but then we’re told to do that very thing!

Proverbs 26:4 reminds us never to stoop to the fool’s level, which can mean anything from answering vindictively or hurtfully to resorting to half-truths or misinformation. Foolish arguments often come from out of the blue. Unanticipated, we rarely are prepared with specifics, facts and evidence to answer intelligently. I recently had such a situation during a casual dinner conversation with a fervent global warming denier. I thought him a “fool” and his “facts” misleading and incorrect but, at the time, I wasn’t armed with decisive evidence of my own. Replying, “I’m not so sure about that,” I moved on to another, less controversial, topic. When we imitate the style of a fool, we become fools ourselves and, had I entered into a debate at that time, I would have looked as foolish as did he!

On the other hand, Proverb 26:5 tells us there are times when foolishness and absurdity must be brought to light and rebuked: that fools should be dealt with to prevent credibility being given to their words. While we can ignore the fool in trivial situations or on negligible issues, the fool should be answered on issues that matter, especially in a more public setting. For example, there were several of us together when one person made a sweeping and offensive generalization about a minority. In that case, his incorrect and offensive statement required an answer, both to correct him and to make clear his opinion was not shared. When remaining silent supports a fool’s position, his assertion should be answered, especially if there is a possibility of enlightening him.

The New Bible Commentary describes fools as “students who have accumulated knowledge but not acquired the ability to apply it: like someone who has a dangerous weapon but does not know how to use it.” We would be fools if we thought one proverb covers every situation. Life is complex and there is no one solution to every problem. How we respond to foolish, irrational, obtuse, fatuous, thoughtless, or futile arguments depends on the circumstances. The point of Proverbs is to teach discernment and the truly wise do more than recite proverbs; they know how and when to apply them. Regarding these two contradictory proverbs, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is “a time to for every activity under heaven.” If we’re not sure which time it is, the Apostle James reminds us to ask God for wisdom.

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. … A time to be quiet and a time to speak. [Ecclesiastes 3:1,7b (NLT)]

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. [James 1:5 (NLT)]

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