LOST

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Trapp family chapel - Vermont
As devout Jews, every year Joseph, Mary, and their family made the seventy-mile trek from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After spending the week in Jerusalem, they gathered with others to make the three-day journey back to Nazareth. It wasn’t until making camp that first night that they discovered Jesus was missing. At first, Joseph and Mary appear to be neglectful and careless parents and little better than the absent-minded McCallisters (of Home Alone) who misplaced their son Kevin not once but twice! After God entrusted His only son to their care, can you imagine Mary and Joseph trying to explain to the Lord how they managed to lose Him?

Mary and Joseph’s error, however, is understandable. Jerusalem normally had a population estimated at 80,000 but, during the Passover, it would have swelled to around 400,000 as people crowded into the city for the festival. Entire villages often travelled together. Traditionally, the women and children would have been in the front of the caravan while the men followed in the rear. Being twelve, Jesus was neither a young child nor a grown man and could have been in either group. As the people gathered for their return trip to Nazareth, each parent probably assumed Jesus was with the other one. Once they discovered His absence, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem the next morning to search for the missing boy and eventually found Him.

While at a mall some 45 years ago, we lost our youngest child in the same way—I thought he was with his father while he thought the boy was with me! Once he and I reconnected and discovered that our child was with neither of us, we spent a frantic ten minutes until we found him enjoying a lollipop at mall security. I can’t imagine waiting days before he was found! No wonder Mary’s anxiety and fear turned into a little scolding when Jesus was discovered!

Bible scholars disagree on how long Jesus actually was missing. Some say it was a total of three days: one day to discover His absence, another day to return to Jerusalem, and the third day to find Him. Other scholars, however, interpret Luke’s words to mean that after the two days of travel, Joseph and Mary searched Jerusalem for three days. Whether three days or five, it appears that the temple was not the first place Mary and Joseph looked. Knowing Jesus as His parents did, shouldn’t it have been the first place they looked? When they finally found Him there, Jesus was surprised by their frantic search. We now understand Jesus’ rather impertinent words to his parents: “‘Why did you need to search?’ he said. ‘Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” [2:49]

Like Joseph and Mary, do we make incorrect assumptions about Jesus’ presence in our lives? Do we expect Him to follow us or us to follow Him? Do we make the Pharisees’ mistake of assuming that being religious is the same as being righteous? Do we assume pardon without any penitence or forgiveness when we won’t forgive? Do we assume we’re saved without having been transformed? Do we assume He’ll answer our prayers without our answering His call? Do we assume we’re living for Him without first having died with Him? Do we take Jesus’ presence for granted? Do we expect him to take our journey or are we taking His? It’s never Jesus who is lost but, without Him, we surely are!

As Joseph and Mary learned, if we discover Jesus is missing, a good place to start looking for Him is in His Father’s house.

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [1 Chronicles 16:11 (NLT)]

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WOMEN IN THE CHURCH

And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life. [Philippians 4:3 (NLT)]

pale purple coneflower
From the beginning of His ministry, women were among the earliest followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna accompanied and financially supported Him and Martha and Mary offered their hospitality in Bethany. Women were witnesses to His death, burial, and the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene was the first to view the resurrected Christ! Because women get little mention in the New Testament, however, we tend to overlook the role they played in the early church.

Yesterday, when I wrote about the feud between Euodia and Syntyche, I didn’t mention Paul’s commendation of these same two women for diligently working beside Paul, Clement, and others in spreading the gospel. That Paul was troubled enough by their disagreement to ask a ministry colleague to intervene implies these women had influence in the Philippian church. What role did they and other women play in the early church?

Although Philippi was a Roman colony, Euodia and Syntyche are Greek names. It’s a possibility that, like Lydia (a Greek merchant of purple cloth), they were merchants originally from Greece. The two may have been some of the women who met with Lydia at the riverbank for prayer. [Acts 16] Although Lydia merits just a few sentences in Scripture, the Philippian church began with her baptism and the baptisms of the rest of her household! That Lydia was the only Philippian named by Luke indicates she played an important role in the early church. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke stayed at her home while in Philippi.

Along with Lydia, a number of other women served as leaders of the house churches that sprang up in the cities throughout the Roman Empire: among them were Priscilla, Chloe, Apphia, Nympha, Mary (the mother of John Mark), and possibly the woman John addressed as “the chosen lady” in his second epistle. While it is speculation, Euodia and Syntyche, like Lydia, may have led house churches. We know that Priscilla and her husband Aquila travelled with Paul to Ephesus and founded the church there. Both men and women could serve as deacons and Phoebe was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. In Acts, we learn that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses.

Paul even entrusted his epistles to be delivered by women and it was Phoebe who carried his letter to the Romans. In Romans 16, Paul specifically greeted Mary “who has worked so hard for your benefit” and a woman name Junia who, along with Andronicus, had been imprisoned for the faith. Among the 29 people he mentioned in this chapter, nine were women. Many of those mentioned, like Priscilla, traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. Whenever Paul referred to someone as a fellow co-worker, he used the same word, synergos, for both women and men!

There is extra-Biblical support of the important role women played in the early church, as well. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria wrote that women accompanied the apostles on their missionary journeys as colleagues. Acting as equals, not subordinates, Clement said they served as “fellow ministers in dealing with housewives…that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.” When writing about the “crime” of Christianity, Pliny the Younger mentioned torturing two slave women he called ministrae (or deacons) in the Christian community.

Understanding the important role played by women in the early church, it’s easier to understand Paul’s deep concern about the rift between Euodia and Syntyche. Moreover, it tells me that both the early church and Paul (who has unfairly been accused of misogyny by some) truly lived by the words found in Galatians that, in Christ’s family, previous distinctions like nationality, race, status, and sex no longer exist. In Christ’s body, we truly are one!

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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DIVINE PROVIDENCE

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

The story is told of a Russian rabbi standing on a hillside with his student. As they looked down at the valley below, the men watched in horror as a band of Cossacks charged into their village. They heard the townspeople’s terrified screams as they were slaughtered and saw the smoke rise as their village was set afire by the marauders. With tears in his eyes, the rabbi looked up to heaven and cried, “If only I were God!” His troubled student asked what the rabbi would do differently if he were God. “Nothing,” replied the old man, “but then I would understand why!”

We always will have the age-old question of “Why,” and we always (at least in this world) will have deafening silence from God as our answer. Like the rabbi, I can’t understand why God allows things like the Holocaust, Chernobyl, Black Plague, the Crusades, the World Trade Center attack, Uvalde and Sandy Hook, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, 3 million children dying from hunger every year, human trafficking, and the many other evils that plague our fallen world.  Although I often write about hidden blessings and God’s higher purpose in our tragedies and troubles, my words bring little comfort when we see our friends and loved ones in distress, the misshapen bodies of malnourished children, or the faces of those who’ve lost loved ones to flood, fire, or violence. I look at my prayer list and can find neither rhyme nor reason for the sorrow and pain that is written on those pages and on so many people’s lives. While, with time, I’ve managed to find purpose and blessings in most of my challenges, I’m hard put to see any purpose or blessings in theirs.

I know better than to ask God why and, even if He gave me an explanation, I don’t think I’d find His answer satisfactory or comforting. I’d probably argue that someone’s repentance didn’t require such severe correction—that the same result could be achieved a less painful way and the same lesson learned with less heartbreak. I’d contend that someone’s faith didn’t need such severe testing, their character didn’t require such perfecting, nor did they need to be prodded so sharply to move in the right direction. Moreover, even if I understood the why of God’s plan, I wouldn’t understand the way He works it. We will never find a satisfactory explanation for the adversity, distress, and sorrow of our fallen world.

The presence of evil and suffering can challenge our faith. How can a loving God allow it? Good people suffer and our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. Yet, as Christians, we believe in Divine Providence—that our loving, all-seeing and all-knowing God is never out of control, even though Satan is trying his best to do his worst. We can’t see God’s purpose and we surely don’t understand it, but we must believe it and trust in Him.

When Jesus’ followers stood at the foot of the cross and watched Him suffer, I suspect they couldn’t see God’s purpose in His anguish and thought all hope was gone. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God because his plan seems so often seems so terribly wrong.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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UNQUALIFIED

That’s the kind of confidence we have towards God, through the Messiah. It isn’t as though we are qualified in ourselves to reckon that we have anything to offer on our own account. Our qualification comes from God. [2 Corinthians 3:4-5 NTE)]


The panic set in the moment I looked the calendar on our church’s website. Seeing the upcoming dates with my name beside them set my heart racing. Several weeks ago, I accepted our pastor’s request to act in his stead while he was out of town. I was to lead both Thursday night’s Bible study and the following Sunday’s worship. At the time, preparing a study and a sermon seemed far in the future, but seeing it in black and white made me question my decision. Did I actually think I was up to the task?

Is that what it felt like to Moses when, after accepting God’s assignment to free Israel from Egyptian slavery, he realized he would have to lead two million people across the Sinai Peninsula and into Canaan? When what should have been an eleven-day trip turned into a forty-year trek, did he question his ability to fulfill his role? After Gideon whittled down his 32,000 soldiers, did he question his obedience to God before leading his remaining 300 men into battle against 135,000 Midianites? After bolding saying he’d fight Goliath, did David have a moment of self-doubt when facing the giant with nothing more than a sling and five stones? What made him think he could save Israel from an army of Philistines? Think of the prophet Jeremiah who was just a youth when God called him. Not only did his family plot to kill him but, through the years, he was beaten, tossed into jail, attacked by a mob, put in stocks, accused of treason, thrown into a muddy cistern, and threatened by the king. Did any of them have a moment (or two) when they asked themselves things like, “What on earth was I thinking?” or “How did I get in this mess?” or “What made me think I could do this?”

When God called them, Jeremiah was just a youth (probably no more than twenty) and not a good speaker. Gideon was the least important in a family that was the weakest one in Manasseh. As the youngest boy in Jesse’s family, David’s father didn’t even consider the shepherd boy worthy of being invited to the sacrifice or being presented to Samuel. Moses was an old man with a speech impediment who was hiding in a foreign land when God called to him from a burning bush. None of these men were especially qualified to take on the tasks that God gave them. Nonetheless, they were the ones God called. The reason God chose them can be found in Scripture’s description of David—they all were men after God’s heart. [1 Samuel 13:14] They trusted in God!

Rather than focusing on our limitations and weaknesses by thinking we’re not smart, talented, educated, skilled, young or old enough, we should remember the old saying that, “God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the ones He calls.” We can have an outstanding resume of credentials but, without a heart for God, we have nothing! Rather than looking at our assets and abilities when calling us, God looks at our availability and willingness to serve. After saying, “Yes,” to His call, our responsibility is to do our best with what we have while trusting Him to handle the rest. Our all-powerful God is fully able to empower even the least qualified among us. It is what we do in our weakness that testifies to God’s power and strength.

Real true faith is man’s weakness leaning on God’s strength. [D.L. Moody]

And this is what he said to me: “My grace is enough for you; my power comes to perfection in weakness.” So I will be all the more pleased to boast of my weaknesses, so that the Messiah’s power may rest upon me. So I’m delighted when I’m weak, insulted, in difficulties, persecuted and facing disasters, for the Messiah’s sake. When I’m weak, you see, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NTE)]

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MAKING A DEAL

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

halloween pennant dragonfly
While my college mantra was, “Study like you don’t pray and pray like you don’t study,” I tended to wait until the end of the semester to do either one. While cramming for finals, my prayers always included a promise that, if God would help me pass my exams, I’d never again cut class or wait until the last minute to do the required reading.

It certainly is tempting to make promises to God in return for answered prayers. In the 1940s, when Danny Thomas was down and out, the young entertainer did just that. Turning to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, he prayed, “Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”  When his career took an almost immediate upswing, he envisioned a children’s hospital and started raising money to build and maintain it. In November of 1958, Thomas dug up the first spadeful of dirt at the groundbreaking for St. Jude Hospital! I’m not maligning Danny Thomas, condoning praying to saints, or disparaging the wonderful research hospital that resulted from Thomas’ promise. Nevertheless, in spite of the good that resulted, I don’t think prayers promising something to God if He fulfills our prayers are ones we should make.

When we pray “I’ll do this, if you’ll do that,” it seems like we’re asking God for something we don’t think we’ll get unless we “sweeten the pot” with a promise. It’s as if we don’t truly trust His intentions. The promise to do something for God seems like we’re asking Him to see it our way instead of us desiring His way. Yet, if we’re praying within God’s will, He promises we will receive.

Sometimes, sin is what causes us to make a promise to God. At finals’ time in college, forgetting that both repentance and facing consequences are an essential part of confession and forgiveness, I glibly promised a change in my behavior if I didn’t have to meet the consequences for my foolishness. Others, thinking their sins are just too great for absolution, make a promise to serve God in some way to merit His forgiveness, which seems a lot like bribing a judge for an innocent verdict. Such deal making is refusing God’s grace. Since Jesus already paid for our sins on the cross, paying God for forgiveness and absolution is an offense to Him!

Sometimes we make promises to God out of gratitude. Preferring to rely on ourselves rather than Him, we’re uncomfortable with feeling beholden or indebted to God. Rather than offering Him praise and thanksgiving, we make a pledge to do something as a way of thanking God for blessings received. Then, after fulfilling our promise, we’re the ones who feel praiseworthy for our good works! Trying to pay God for blessings received is another insult to Him; our good works should come from our love for Him rather than as a payment to Him.

Although God always keeps His promises, we humans aren’t so reliable and, more often than not, we break our promises to God. Granted, Danny Thomas kept his promise but perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule. When the next semester rolled around in college, because I’d failed to keep the previous semester’s promise, I again made the same conditional prayer while cramming for exams. Although I always ended up with decent grades, it had nothing to do with my promises. Those grades, like Danny Thomas’ success and every other good thing that comes our way, have nothing to do with our promises—they are received only by God’s grace!

Praying with conditional promises of any kind turns our prayers into a transaction. Moreover, because we think it was our promise that caused the prayer’s fulfillment, it robs God of his deserved glory and praise. May we always remember that following Christ isn’t about making promises to God, it is about depending on the promises of God!

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. [John Calvin]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

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NO GUILT

For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. [Matthew 5:45 (NLT)]

peony
50 years ago, mothers spent several days in the hospital before going home with their newborns. While sharing my hospital room with a young woman who’d given birth to her first child, I overheard the pediatrician explain that her baby had Down’s syndrome, was being examined by a pediatric cardiologist, and likely needed immediate surgery. Although my heart broke for that mother, I also felt a sense of relief his news wasn’t for me. Statistically, as the older woman with three children, I was the mother more likely to hear that diagnosis. Knowing I was no more deserving of a healthy child than was she, I felt a tinge of guilt for the healthy infant nursing at my breast.

Have you ever felt guilty for receiving blessings when others weren’t so blessed, for reaping a harvest of blessings that you didn’t sow, for catching “lucky breaks” that come from God’s hand, or for having the equivalent of manna from heaven when others go hungry? We’re no more deserving than anyone else and yet our fertility treatment worked, we beat the odds with the chemo, we survived the crash, a loved one got sober, or our prodigal child returned. While others are not so blessed, we have healthy babies, loving parents, successful children, a financially secure retirement, a booming business, or simply were in the right place at exactly the right time. Yes, we may have prepared well and worked hard, but so have others who never enjoyed those blessings! When hearing the horrific stories told by Ian’s survivors and witnessing the destruction this hurricane left in its wake, I felt guilty admitting that the worst we suffered was lack of cell service, 24-hours without TV, and a few hours of yard and lanai clean-up.

With so many others suffering or in need, I’m probably not alone in feeling some sort of guilt or shame for God’s blessings like better circumstances, answered prayers, and what seems like “dumb luck.” Job asked “Why me?” about his suffering and I can’t help but wonder “Why me, Lord?” about the incredible blessings He’s bestowed on me. But, just as Job never discovered God’s reasoning, neither will I! As the one who controls the universe, God knows exactly what He’s doing even though we don’t. Rather than understand Him, God asks us to trust in His infinite wisdom and love.

God is not sadistic, cruel, neglectful, incompetent, or capricious. He doesn’t scatter blessings and trials impulsively, haphazardly, or accidentally. Knowing the past, present, and future of the entire cosmos, His perspective is far wider than ours ever will be. Although He orchestrates events that frequently seem questionable, needless, tragic, or unjust, we must accept that God is God and we, most definitely are not. We will never know the reasons behind our blessings or tragedies.

As Christ followers, what we do know is that we are recipients of the most undeserved and greatest gift of all—Jesus! As sinful and undeserving as we are, I suspect none of us feel guilty about receiving God’s only son and the salvation and eternal life that He purchased for us! Why then should we feel any guilt for His other blessings (all of which are equally undeserved)?

Let us remember that guilt is a gift from the enemy. If he can’t make us envious of the blessings received by others, he’ll try to make us ashamed of the blessings God gives to us. Rather than questioning God’s reasoning, let us recognize His amazing grace and appreciate his lavish generosity. It’s an insult to the Giver of All Gifts to discount, disregard, squander, or fail to appreciate, enjoy, and use all that we’ve been given. While we should be humble when accepting God’s blessings, we must never be ashamed or embarrassed about them.

If God has bestowed a blessing upon us, it’s because others are in need and we are the means by which He fills those needs. The only reason for guilt or shame is when we’re not good and faithful servants who steward and share His gifts wisely and generously while giving God the glory!

All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors. [John Calvin]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:8-10 (NLT)]

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