TWO MEN AND TWO CHOICES

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves, because you were bought by God for a price. So honor God with your bodies. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NCV)]

peonyAlthough Elijah had just won an amazing victory over Baal and his prophets, we find the prophet running for his life in 1 Kings 19. The journey of over 120 miles left him physically exhausted and, having endured so many setbacks and challenges, the disheartened prophet was emotionally exhausted, as well. Wanting what he saw as a hopeless situation to end, He begged the Lord for death and he’s not the only one of the Bible’s heroes to do so. Overwhelmed by the heavy burdens he carried, Moses cried to God, “If you are going to continue doing this to me, then kill me now. If you care about me, put me to death, and then I won’t have any more troubles.” [Numbers 11:15] A discouraged and frustrated Jonah told God it would be better for him to die than to live. Job, in his despair and agony, and Jeremiah, in his disappointment after decades of prophesying with no appreciable results, were so miserable that they cursed the day they were born! Even the Apostle Paul admitted having been nearly overwhelmed by his troubles. Yet, as hopeless at their situations seemed, none of them died when they wanted to and none took their own lives. God did not abandon them and they did not abandon life.

One week ago, in a Maryland hospital, 57-year-old terminally ill David Bennett, Sr. underwent open heart surgery and received a genetically modified pig’s heart as a replacement for his own severely damaged one. That same day, in Cali, Columbia, 60-year-old Victor Escobar chose to die by euthanasia. While Escobar suffered from intense pain, his condition was not terminal and he fought for two years in Columbian courts for the privilege of ending his life on his own terms. “I do not think God will punish me for trying to stop suffering,” he said. In stark contrast, Bennett, whose condition was terminal, said, “It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.” One chose to die while the other (who was well aware of the risks) chose to continue living for as long as possible.

I’m not going to enter into the controversy regarding assisted suicide, euthanasia, or the use of animal organs in transplants. There’s nothing I can add to what theologians, ethicists, physicians, and lawyers have already said. Nevertheless, I can’t help but ponder the choices made by these two men. If I were in Bennett’s shoes, knowing the risks and low probability of long-term survival, would I make such a last-ditch effort in hope of gaining of few more days, weeks or months?  On the other hand, were I confined to a wheelchair and suffering from diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and spasms as was Victor Escobar, would I beg God for death? If I felt like I were living in a torture chamber, would I consider suicide or euthanasia?

Looking to Scripture, we have Paul’s words that we belong to the Lord, body and soul. Just as we have no right to tear down our neighbor’s house no matter how dilapidated it may be, we have no right to destroy our broken-down bodies; they are not ours to destroy. We are the Holy Spirit’s temple, were purchased with Christ’s blood, and our bodies belong the Lord! While we may long to depart this world, the where, when and how of that departure is God’s choice, not ours. Although I’m not sure I would make Bennett’s choice of such radical surgery, I do know I will never make Escobar’s of euthanasia.

I suspect that, like those Biblical heroes, there will be times in every believer’s life when we dread waking up to another day—there certainly have been in mine. Wanting whatever is plaguing us to be over with and gone, we might even cry, “I wish I were dead!” Yet, as desperate and despondent as were Elijah, Moses, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Paul, none of them took their lives. God heard their cries of despair just as he hears ours.

A Christian will part with anything rather than his hope; he knows that hope will keep the heart both from aching and breaking, from fainting and sinking; he knows that hope is a beam of God, a spark of glory, and that nothing shall extinguish it till the soul be filled with glory. [Thomas Brooks]

Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person, because God’s temple is holy and you are that temple. [1 Corinthians 3:16-17 (NCV)]

We do not live or die for ourselves. If we live, we are living for the Lord, and if we die, we are dying for the Lord. So living or dying, we belong to the Lord. [Romans 14:7-8 (NCV)]

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THE PRAYER OF INDIFFERENCE

And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. [James 4:3 (NLT)]

santa rose de lima - NMWhen we pray about a decision, we often set the desired outcome we want rather than ask God to reveal His will to us. Instead of trusting our decision to Him and bending our will to His, we want God to bend His will to our desires. If His response to our pleas isn’t the one we want, we refuse to recognize it or complain that He never answered our prayers! Until we’re willing to step back and say, “Thy will be done,” we can’t truly discern God’s will.

When writing about discerning God’s will, Ruth Haley Barton suggests starting the decision-making process with a prayer of trust that acknowledges our need to trust in God. The second prayer, the one Barton calls “the prayer for indifference”, is far harder. In this prayer we ask God to free us from our personal stake in the issue or our attachment to a particular outcome so that we become indifferent to anything but God’s will. This prayer echoes the one of Jesus when He asked God to take away His cup of suffering: “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:31] It is only then, when we are willing to abandon our agenda and detach ourselves from the outcome, that we are ready for the third prayer in which we ask God for wisdom in discerning the answer.

Twenty-five years ago, long before I knew of this three-step process in discerning God’s will, the Spirit guided me through it. Our daughter was finishing up her post-graduate year of internship at a Chicago hospital when she received two good job offers at the same time. One was from the hospital where she was interning—meaning she could remain in her apartment and live no more than 90-minutes from any of the family. The other offer was from a hospital 1,400 miles west that wanted her to start work within two weeks. The thought of relocating in so short a time to a place she’d never been and a city where she knew no one was daunting. When my daughter called to ask for advice, I wanted to say, “Stay here near family and friends!” The Spirit put His hand across my mouth and reminded me that this was not my decision to make and filled me with wisdom I didn’t know I had. Rather than telling her what I wanted, I advised her to trust that God would handle the logistics if she decided to move and suggested comparing the jobs as if they both were in the same location. Promising our prayers that evening, I told her to trust in the Lord and ask Him for wisdom in making her choice.

Our prayers that night were difficult ones because my husband and I were not indifferent to our daughter’s decision. Although we’d raised her to fly from the nest, we didn’t want her flying across the country to New Mexico! We wanted her to be on her own but with the caveat that she be on her own while staying close to home! Nevertheless, putting our personal feelings aside, we detached ourselves from the outcome and fervently prayed not for what we wanted but for what God wanted and that our daughter would have wisdom enough to discern His plan and make the right decision—whatever that was!

The following morning, our daughter told us that, in spite of the challenges of moving, the right job for her was the one in New Mexico. I don’t think it was dumb luck that, with just a few calls, we found her an apartment there or that the first moving company we called happened to have a truck (with the right amount of space available) passing through Chicago the day before our daughter’s graduation, or that it was scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque the day she took possession of her new apartment! When we trust God and follow His plan, He has an uncanny way of making things come together.

We often complain that God hasn’t answered our prayers. Perhaps we should consider that He may have given us the answer but, because we’re vested in a particular outcome, we haven’t seen it. I wish I could say that I abandon my will and become indifferent to God’s answer whenever I pray, but I can’t. Nevertheless, remembering how well it works when I do, I continue to try!

Jeremiah replied. “I will pray to the Lord your God, as you have asked, and I will tell you everything he says. I will hide nothing from you.” Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord your God be a faithful witness against us if we refuse to obey whatever he tells us to do! Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God to whom we are sending you with our plea. For if we obey him, everything will turn out well for us.” [Jeremiah 42:4-5 (NLT)]

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. [Psalm 143:10 (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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LIGHT AND TEMPORARY

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)]

monarch butterflyNo matter what translation is used for the above verses, I find it difficult to picture something that is described as suffering, trouble, affliction, or tribulation as being small, little, or light. Moreover, while I’d like afflictions to be so, they rarely seem to be temporary or momentary. Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs but what exactly is “momentary” and “light” when it comes to suffering and affliction?

While Paul was writing about his persecution as a follower of Christ, what of other hardships and woes? Does “light and momentary” describe the twelve years of constant bleeding and painful treatments endured by the woman with the “issue of blood,” the thirty-eight years the man lying by the pool at Bethesda had been an invalid, or Job’s grief at the loss of his family and the agony of his illness? Is “temporary” the sixteen years Anthony Broadwater spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape or the thirty years Michael J. Fox has suffered from Parkinsons? Is “momentary, light distress” the three hours Jesus suffered on the cross, the nine months during which Elizabeth Smart experienced being raped by her kidnapper, or the six years John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war? Does “passing trouble” describe the mental anguish of my bipolar uncle who spent the last twelve years of his life in a mental hospital? Could the twenty years my brother-in-law struggled with Parkinson’s or the thirty my sister dealt with MS be described as “short-lived”? What of the nearly fifty-five years Joni Eareckson Tada has spent as a quadriplegic and the chronic stabbing pain, COVID complications, and two cancer diagnoses she’s endured? Is her suffering merely “momentary, light distress”? When we’re the ones hurting, even if only from an abscessed tooth or a pinched nerve, nothing about it seems light or momentary!

Paul knew what he was talking about; he’d been whipped, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked and his life was in continual jeopardy because of his ministry. He knew struggle, hunger, betrayal, hardship, persecution, pain, and affliction first-hand. Nevertheless, he also knew that every trial, no matter how he suffered, was just a prelude to the resurrection power of Jesus!

Regardless of its length or severity, for a believer, our suffering here on earth is light and momentary, especially in light of the many blessings we receive in the midst of our afflictions or the adversities suffered by others. Our suffering is small and momentary when compared to what we actually deserve or to what Jesus did for us. Most of all, whatever our afflictions may be, they are “but for a moment” in the light of eternity. No matter how long we live or how difficult our lives are, our years here are a mere dot on God’s eternal timeline. Though our afflictions may last a lifetime, they will not have the last word! What waits for us is eternal not temporary and, rather than light, it is heavy because it is the entire weight of God’s glory!

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18 (ESV)]

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (ESV)

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THORNS

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:7-9a (ESV)]

thistlePaul was speaking metaphorically of his thorn and whether it was a spiritual, emotional, physical affliction, or something else entirely, we don’t know. Since Paul dictated his letters, some speculate that that he had poor eyesight: perhaps cataracts or macular degeneration. Then again, severe arthritis in his hands may have prevented him from holding a stylus. Paul may have had a chronic medical problem such as gout, migraines, severe asthma, or spinal stenosis. It may have been a person: perhaps, Alexander the metalsmith who was harming his ministry. Considering the number of times the apostle was arrested, the thorn may have been an old injury from the many beatings inflicted upon him. Paul even may have suffered from bouts of depression or the 1st century equivalent of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The identity of his thorn (or even thorns) is unimportant to us. It is how Paul dealt with his thorn that matters.

This last year has been challenging for many of us; it certainly has been for me. Rather than a single thorn, I feel like I’ve fallen head-first into an enormous patch of thistles or spiny hawthorns. Along with a never-ending pandemic and the disruption Covid-19 has brought to our daily lives, I’ve been dealing with a variety of painful health issues, the deaths of several loved ones, and a recurring case of the glums and gloomies. There has been far too little sleep and laughter and far too many tears and pain.

Like Paul, in my initial prayers I pled for relief. Perhaps, he made the same argument as did I and patiently explained to God how much more effective he’d be in his ministry without that pesky thorn. Unlike Paul, however, I didn’t stop at a mere three times before understanding (and accepting) that God’s power “is made perfect in weakness.” Eventually, I understood that God’s denial of relief didn’t mean He failed a test of His love for me and realized that I was undergoing a test of how much I loved and trusted Him! Although I wanted the emotional, spiritual, and physical pain to go away, God had other plans; He was doing a bit of unwelcome “character building.”

Having just revealed to the Corinthians that he’d been caught up to Paradise where he saw and experienced such amazing things that he was incapable of expressing them, Paul explained that he’d been given the thorn to keep him from becoming proud, arrogant, or big-headed because of what had been revealed to him. Although I haven’t had such an extraordinary spiritual experience as Paul’s, I did need a lesson in Christ-like humility and a few thorns to keep me mindful of my need for God’s power!

Thorns drive us to acknowledge our weaknesses and make us depend on Christ for strength so that His power can surround and enable us! Accepting that God’s grace is sufficient for my needs, my prayers have become simpler and far less demanding. Trusting Him for tomorrow, I simply ask that He grant me grace enough to get through today! Indeed, His power is made visible in my weakness.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 (ESV)]

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Philippians 4:13 (ESV)]

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DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER

These people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’” [Isaiah 30 9b-11 (NLT)]

fireweedBeing a prophet was a calling from the Lord and probably an unwelcome one at that. Amos, a businessman from Tekoa in Judah, was minding his own business when God called on him. He probably would have preferred tending his sheep and cultivating his fig trees to pronouncing judgment upon the Israel, Judah, and other nations. Nevertheless, this layman accepted God’s call and denounced the nations’ sins with brutal frankness. It was at the height of Israel’s prosperity that he prophesied their end by singing a funeral song for the northern kingdom. Needless to say, the words of a Judean pronouncing judgment upon Israel were not welcomed. Even though Amaziah ordered him back to Judah, Amos continued to give God’s message to the people.

It never seemed to go well for God’s prophets. Having infuriated the priests by going to the Temple to rebuke the people for their idolatry and falseness, Jeremiah was banned from the Temple even though he was the son of a priest. Seeing him as a traitor and conspirator, the priests plotted his death and Jeremiah was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and thrown into a cistern to die. Although he was rescued from the cistern, he later was forcibly taken by rebels to Egypt and church tradition holds that he was stoned to death there.

It didn’t go any better for the rest of God’s prophets. Blaming Elisha for his troubles, the king of Aram wanted him beheaded and Elijah spent much of his time fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and Ahab. Micaiah was tossed into prison for predicting Israel’s defeat and Ahab’s death, Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den, John the Baptist was beheaded and, according to rabbinical tradition, King Manasseh executed Isaiah by having him sawn in half! If the prophets weren’t losing their lives, they were running for them!

These prophets were unpopular because they fearlessly told the truth instead of what the people wanted to hear. They revealed the people’s sins and warned of their consequences. Sent to confront rather than comfort, their messages often were unwelcome and ignored. What those who persecuted them failed to realize is that, while they may have silenced the men’s voices temporarily, the truth of their messages didn’t disappear!

Let’s face it—reproach, sacrifice, and repentance are never popular messages. Not everything we read in the Bible or hear from the pulpit is going to be comforting and cheerful; it does, however, need to be heard. Not everything the Holy Spirit tells us is going to be approving, but it will be edifying. Not everything God instructs us to do will be easy, but it will be worthwhile. Not everything said by our brothers and sisters in Christ will be appreciated, but it will be honest. God gives warnings so we won’t have to suffer his wrath. Rather than ignoring, persecuting, or killing God’s messengers, we’re better off listening to them and heeding their words.

This is the reply of the Holy One of Israel: “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly—like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. [Isaiah 30:12-13 (NLT)]

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