TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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THE ANCHOR

So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. [Hebrews 6:18-19 (NLT)]

duluth MN harbor - anchorThe sign in front of a nearby church read, “Our hope is anchored in the Lord,” which got me thinking about anchors. I’d never given them much thought until we took a Windjammer cruise off the coast of Maine many years ago. Accompanied by four friends and a crew of two, we sailed for a week. At dusk, we’d lower the sails and anchor in a harbor for the night. After breakfast, we’d pull up anchor for another relaxing day of sailing by lighthouses, granite cliffs, fishing villages, and even a few seals. One day, however, gale force winds replaced the gentle breeze and the calm sea turned violent. The sky darkened as rain and hail poured down on us. We immediately pulled into the nearest inlet, lowered the sails, and dropped two anchors to keep from being blown into the rocks! If we’d had two more anchors (as did the sailors in Acts 27), I suspect we would have dropped them, as well. After donning my life jacket and slicker, all I could do was pray and hope those anchors held. You really don’t appreciate the worth of an anchor until you’ve needed one in a storm!

Since the anchor symbolized hope in the ancient secular world, the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews would have understood the author’s use of the anchor as a metaphor for hope. It is a vivid picture of what keeps us steady and safe in the storms of life—times of trial, danger, hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. An anchor, however, is only as secure as that to which it is fastened. The anchor of hope is not buried in sand or hooked onto a rock that might pull loose. The believer’s hope in Christ is secure, because it is fixed in the very presence of the Almighty.

When the epistle writer says that hope “leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary,” he’s referring to the Holy of Holies—the inner room of the Temple holding the Ark of the Covenant. Only the high priest could go into this holy place (anyone else would be killed). The priest entered just one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only to offer a blood sacrifice. The Holy of Holies was the special dwelling place of God and the curtain emphasized His inaccessibility because of man’s sins. When Jesus died, the curtain tore in half, symbolizing that the way to God was now open to all.

Just as a boat’s anchor holds it safely in position, a Christian’s hope keeps him safe and secure. Like an anchor, God will keep us steady in the storms of life—when the wind of fear blows, suffering rains down, opposition crashes into us, trials threaten us, and uncertainty rocks us to and fro. A boat’s anchor goes down and digs into the bottom of the sea but a Christian’s hope goes up to the heavenly sanctuary and attaches itself to God!

What an anchor is to a vessel in its tossings, so the hope is to us in our times of trial, difficulty and stress. The anchor is outside the ship, is connected with it, and keeps it secure. [W.E. Vine]

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. [Hebrews 10:23 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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CURSE THE DAY! (Part 1)

Curse that day for failing to shut my mother’s womb, for letting me be born to see all this trouble. Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? [Job 3:10-11 (NLT)]

baby feetAfter Satan took Job’s loved ones and wealth, the grieving man remained a pillar of patience and faith. Rather than blaming God, the stoic man acknowledged God’s sovereign authority saying, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” [1:21]

Things took a turn for the worse when Satan attacked Job’s body. With boils from head to foot, Job’s body was covered with scabs, pus oozed from his sores, his skin was black and peeling, and maggots fed on him. As if that weren’t enough, the man suffered from insomnia, nightmares, fever, and pain in his bones. His symptoms sound as horrific and deadly as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever.

When Job’s wife told him to curse God and die, the faithful man responded, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” [2:10] Although he seemed resigned to his fate, the despondent Job came dangerously close to falling into Satan’s trap when, in Job 3, he questioned God’s wisdom in giving him life.

I can understand someone like Job, someone suffering terribly who sees no end to the misery, wishing for a quick end to his life and praying for the release offered by death. What I find difficult to understand is Job’s wish that he’d never been born. Cursing the day of his birth and the night of his conception, the despairing man literally wished his life erased from its existence.

Until Satan’s attack, Job’s life appears to have been picture perfect for decades. With his many servants and more than 10,000 head of livestock, he was the richest man around. The father of seven sons and three daughters, he probably had numerous grandchildren. The family regularly gathered together for long feasts so they must have enjoyed each other’s company. A prominent man, well-respected in the community, Job was principled, generous and charitable. In spite of having everything his heart desired, Job’s heart remained set on God and the Lord called him, “the finest man on earth…blameless…a man of complete integrity.” [1:8] Yet, by cursing his very existence, Job wanted to obliterate all the blessings and joy that existed between his birth and his affliction.

In his pain, Job forgot about growing up in a loving home, playing with his brothers and sisters, the bliss of young love, the wonder of touching his wife’s belly and feeling his unborn child move, the delight of holding his children in his arms, the laughter of his family, the satisfaction that came from being able to right a wrong or help the poor, and the joy of bouncing a grandchild on his knee. If he’d never been born, he would have missed sunrises and sunsets, the taste of grapes, the sound of birds’ songs, the pleasure of a kiss, and the joy of praising the Lord. Although Job began his story as a sterling example of accepting of God’s will when disaster strikes, cracks developed in his spirit as his suffering intensified.

Job’s outburst of despair, however, does not mean that Satan won. While Job cursed his day of birth, he never cursed God. Moreover, even though he wondered why people who longed for death continued to live, Job never considered suicide. Because he operated on a false retribution theology, Job believed that God had forsaken him. Rather than losing faith in God, he lost faith in himself.

For many of us, these last several months have challenged our physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial resources and, like Job, we may feel overwhelmed by all that has beset us. Job lost perspective; let us not do the same. God did not forsake Job and He has not forsaken you! We must never forget our past blessings or rue the day of our birth. After all, had we never been given life, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know Jesus, be born again, or enjoy eternal life!

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 43:5 (NLT)]

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THE DRAWING ROOM

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:8-9 (NLT)]

Blackpoint - Lake Geneva WIMy grandmother lived in a beautiful large house. To the left of the foyer, behind closed French doors, was an elegant room she called the “drawing room,” but it wasn’t an artist’s studio where people drew. With its grand piano, silk draperies, formal furniture, and crystal chandelier, it was a room saved for entertaining special guests. Strategically placed near the front door, guests could go directly into it without passing through the rest of the house. As splendid as the room was, I never saw anyone in it; family and close friends always gathered in the “library.”

Instead of a drawing room, Aunt Ruby’s large farm house had a front parlor reserved for special guests (like the pastor). Close friends and family, however, always gathered on the front porch or around the farmhouse table in the kitchen. When I grew up, our special room for guests was called the living room even though we really lived in the den! Whether it was called a drawing room, parlor, living room, salon, or just the “good” room, many homes had a room set apart with the best furniture (sometimes covered in plastic) for company. This room was off-limits and kept pristine for special occasions and honored guests.

While we might conceal unfolded laundry or dirty dishes from guests, what do we keep hidden from God? Do we keep Jesus out of the dark corners of our lives and only allow Him into the “good” room? Do we hide our faults and weaknesses from Him the way we would unmade beds from a guest? Are we so ashamed of things both done and left undone or of the scars left by things done to us that we keep them hidden behind closed doors? Or, are we humble enough to open those doors, turn on the lights, and show Jesus everything there is, including our lapses, laziness, and lies? Do we trust Him enough to let Him see the mess left by our impatience, anger, and every stupid selfish decision we’ve made?

If our sins are forgiven, why do we need to confess them? Why do we need to let Jesus out of the parlor to see the real us? It’s not that He doesn’t already know what’s in the rest of our messy lives. Our sins were forgiven at the moment of salvation but it’s through confession that we lay claim to that forgiveness! By keeping Jesus in the pristine parlor, we’re denying, diminishing, concealing, excusing, or blaming others for our sins. Confession is trusting Jesus enough to let Him all the way into the house—into the dirty corners and locked rooms of our lives. Confession is how we build a relationship with Him and begin to be the people Jesus wants us to be. Don’t keep Jesus in the fancy drawing room; let Him into your heart!

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:17-19 (NLT)]

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FOLLOWING HIM

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Mark 8:34 (NLT)]

cross country skiingOur pastor recently did a sermon series called “Following Jesus” which reminded me of our first time backcountry skiing in Colorado more than forty years ago. As novices, we knew enough not to venture into the wilderness by ourselves so we hired Wyatt to be our guide. Insisting we delay our trek several days until we’d acclimated to the high altitude and were ready for such a trip, he gave us a long list of items we had to carry in our packs. When I asked why we needed all the survival gear along with additional food, water, and clothing, he said we had to be prepared to spend the night. Protesting that I didn’t want to spend the night out in the cold and snow, he explained, “Neither do I, but we better be prepared to do it.”

Before starting out, Wyatt examined our backpacks to make sure we had everything on his list. Our packs were heavy but his was much heavier with a tent, extra ski tips, ax, first aid kit, shovel, and more. Because falling in several feet of Colorado powder is far different than falling in a few inches of Midwest snow, Wyatt insisted on teaching us a new way of getting up after a fall and made us practice the technique several times before we began.

Once we got started, Wyatt did the hard part by breaking trail in the deep snow and keeping us clear of any slopes posing avalanche danger. To allow us to fully experience the wilderness, we waited until the skier ahead was just out of sight before starting out. Winding our way through both open meadows and woods in this great expanse of white, we would have been hopelessly lost if we hadn’t been following Wyatt’s tracks. Without seeing each other, I felt alone in the wilderness but I never was. Wyatt frequently stopped to check on us and made us rest and hydrate before continuing. We followed his tracks to a picturesque spot for lunch where he showed us how to stomp out a place for a fire and use our skis as chairs. As pleasant as our lunch in the forest was, Wyatt didn’t let us linger too long since he wanted us back to our car before dusk.

Late that afternoon, some tired but happy skiers made their way back toward the road. Just as we caught sight of our car, a winter storm blew in and, by the time we’d stowed our gear, our tracks were completely covered by snow. Caught in that unexpected whiteout, I finally understood why Wyatt had insisted we be prepared to spend the night in the mountains. Had we started out a half hour later, lingered over lunch, or skied back a little slower, we would have been caught in the blinding storm and might well have spent the night on the mountain. Without his guidance, what should have been a delightful day up on the pass could have had a bad ending but, because we followed a good guide, we returned safely home that night.

Even though Wyatt merely guided us on a high mountain pass and Jesus guides us through life, I can’t help but see parallels between following a mountain guide and following Jesus. In either case, we must recognize our inability to make the journey on our own and submit to the guide’s directions, requirements, and timeline. Both prepare us for the challenges ahead, point out hazards, teach us new skills, and never take us beyond our ability. Knowing we’ll fall, they show us how to get up again and, while we may carry a heavy pack, they carry the heaviest one and do most of the work. Keeping us from danger, both mountain guide and Jesus lead the way so we can follow in their footsteps. Even when we feel alone and can’t see them, we can have faith in both guide and Jesus, secure in the knowledge that neither will ever abandon us. Although they’ll make us rest, they’ll urge us on when we should get moving. Most important, just as our choice to follow Wyatt meant the difference between a good or bad outcome, our choice to follow Jesus means the difference between life and death.

There are, of course, some major differences between a mountain guide and Jesus. Even a guide as experienced as Wyatt can get lost but Jesus never will! To Wyatt, we were just paying customers but, to Jesus, we are beloved friends and children of God! Jesus wants us to follow Him, weather every storm, and arrive safely home not because it’s His job, but because He loves us! Through the years, we took several more backcountry tours until we learned enough to venture into the wilderness without a guide but we know that we’ll never be skilled enough to journey through life without following Jesus!

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. [Psalm 25:4-5 (NLT)]

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THE RACE (Hebrews 12:1-2 – Part 1)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. [Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)]

peonyIn a recent Pearls Before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), Rat asked Pig if he would be getting out of bed that day. Replying no, the sweet little swine explained, “I fear the big bad world and want no part of it.” When Rat told him he couldn’t stay in bed forever, Pig disagreed. “I have a bed, a bathroom, and a food delivery app that I’ve asked to just throw my food through the window.” In the next frame, we see Rat snug in bed with his friend and asking to borrow a pillow. I understand. There certainly are days in this crazy world of ours that we’d all prefer to just snuggle under the covers and never have to get up to face the challenges of the day, especially if DoorDash would deliver bedside. That, however, is not an option.

In Hebrews 12, the writer compares the Christian life to a footrace. Agōna is the Greek word used for race and means contest or struggle. If the word looks familiar, it’s because agōna is the source of our English word agony, meaning torment, intense mental or physical suffering (and even torture). Our race is not meant to be a life spent safe in bed. Rather than a fifty-yard dash, the Christian’s life is more like one of those mud obstacle races in which people roll in muddy pits, wade through ice water, haul heavy sand bags, leap over fire, climb ropes and nets, scale giant walls, and army-crawl under barbed wire. There’s going to be some agony!

Unlike Pig and Rat, we don’t have to drop out of the race because we think it’s too challenging. We know that perseverance in trouble is doable because of the great cloud of witnesses who actually did it: people like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. None of them knew when their severe trials would be over and yet they continued their journeys in faith.

It’s not just in Scripture that we find these witnesses. Serving in India for 41 years without ever taking a furlough, missionary William Carey preached for seven years before he baptized his first Hindu convert. Then, after laboring twenty years translating Scripture into several Indian languages, all of his work went up in flames when a fire tore through his printing plant and warehouse. Yet, Carey faithfully endured as did Corrie ten Boom, who lived through the hell of a Nazi concentration camp but survived to tell her story of unfaltering faith and hope in God. In spite of being a quadriplegic for over 53 years and enduring chronic pain and two bouts of cancer, evangelist, author, and advocate Joni Eareckson Tada continues to run God’s race (only from a wheelchair). The many months of a pandemic, political unrest, and financial challenges seem like a walk in the park compared to what others have undergone before us.

Lord, as this new year begins, guide us so that we look not to the long course or rough track, not to our own strength or to the strength of the enemy, but to only to you and the examples of those who faithfully ran or continue to run the race you set before them. Rather than listening to the discouraging voices of the world around us, let us hear your voice of encouragement and hope. Give us strength to endure the race you’ve given us and the vision to see past our struggles.

 If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest. [Corrie ten Boom]

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

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