NOT FAIR

The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. [Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (NLT)]

With the back-to-back hurricanes that tore through Louisiana, two others that devastated Nicaragua and Honduras, and the consecutive typhoons that flooded the Philippines, a great many people must be asking, “Why us, Lord?” In spite of the meteorological explanations for the paths taken by those storms, there is something discomforting about the seeming randomness of such destruction. I can’t help but wonder, “Why them and not us?” In a universe of retribution and reward, we’d have a sense of being able to control our destiny; only bad things would happen to bad people and only good things to the good ones. If we did all the right things, life would go smoothly and, if we didn’t, we’d just be getting what we deserved! That, however, is not the way of the world and back-to-back hurricanes along with cancer, ALS, hit-and-run-drivers, stray bullets, and tornadoes hit both the deserving and undeserving.

If any man deserved blessings, it was Job. Described by God as blameless, he was a man of integrity who feared God and stayed away from evil. Even so, this righteous man gets hit with his own back-to-back hurricanes: he becomes penniless and loses children, livestock, servants, health, and social standing. When tragedy hits, Job’s friends come to comfort and console him and, for seven days, they sit silently with their suffering friend. During their week of mourning, Job wonders, ”Why me?” while his friends wonder, “Why him?”

Operating on the assumption that suffering, disaster, and adversity are always the result of serious sin, Job’s friend Eliphaz speaks of a world that operates on the law of cause and effect: a universe where those who plant trouble get more of the same. By claiming that the innocent don’t suffer, he implies his good friend is not an innocent man. After suggesting that Job’s affliction is God’s discipline, he tells him to acknowledge his sins and be delivered from his misery. Although Job claims innocence, Bildad echoes the words of Eliphaz. He even accuses Job’s children of sin and says their punishment was well deserved. Zophar joins his friends in confronting and accusing Job of some horrible sin to cause such severe punishment from God. Although Elihu rightly points out that suffering can be a tool of healing in God’s hands, like his friends, he is convinced that it is Job’s transgressions that caused his trouble.

A prominent man, Job was one of the city fathers who sat at the gate and settled disputes. Well respected by all, people listened intently when he spoke. The man assisted the blind and lame, stood up against the wicked, and was generous to the poor, widows and orphans. The men accusing Job were all long-time friends of his. They’d observed his behavior, respected his opinions, and enjoyed his hospitality, and yet they were sure he was guilty of sins deserving of such horrific punishment! I might have reacted as did they. It was more comforting for his friends to think that Job deserved his misery than to think he didn’t; a blameless Job meant that the same horrific things could happen to them! When Job eventually repents, it’s not of any sin that caused his suffering; he repents of falsely accusing God of injustice.

Faith, worship and works do not ensure our well-being or buy us a reward any more than sin guarantees earthly punishment or suffering. Just like back-to-back hurricanes, disaster can strike both the innocent and guilty! The evil can prosper and the righteous suffer. The book of Job never explains the why of his suffering, but it does tell us that our sovereign God is not cruel, capricious, or erratic. Nothing happens that hasn’t passed through God’s hands first and, while it makes sense to Him, it frequently seems incredibly random, unfair, undeserved, and arbitrary to us. Victim or onlooker, we must do as Job did: trust God in both the blessings and tragedies of life.

In this troubling time of disease, death, disaster, dissension, and destruction, let us continue to trust our loving and good God regardless of the storms assaulting us now. Job’s story ends with the restoration of all that he lost. Our story will end in restoration, as well; if not in this world, then in the life to come.

If I were to say “God, why me?” about the bad things, then I should have said “God, why me?” about the good things that happened in my life. [Arthur Ashe]  

He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. [Job 1:21-22 (NLT)]

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WHAT IS ENOUGH?

After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction.  [1 Timothy 6:7-9 (NLT)]

squirrel

The Bible is filled with stories of God’s provision for his people’s needs. In spite of their complaints about God’s provision, the Israelites never went hungry during their forty year journey. When Elijah was hiding from Jezebel during a time of drought and famine, he was fed by ravens. In Zarephath, God provided Elijah, the widow and her son with enough flour and oil to feed the three of them for three years! Later, God provided Elijah with food enough to sustain him during a forty day journey to Mt. Sinai. Sometimes, God even blesses us with even more than enough, as He did when thousands were fed with a boy’s lunch and several baskets of leftovers remained.

While we may receive more than we need, God doesn’t promise a surplus. Elijah and the widow didn’t have excess flour and oil with which to open a bakery and, if the Israelites tried to squirrel away their manna for anything but the Sabbath, it spoiled and got maggots. Just enough was exactly what God wanted them to have and what He gave them—no more and no less.

The problem for us is that mankind’s concept of “enough” isn’t the same as God’s; David is a perfect example of that weakness. Most of us would think David, the shepherd boy who became a hero and king, had more than enough. He possessed Saul’s entire kingdom and wealth, lived in a palace, and had seven wives along with an unknown number of concubines. Enough was no longer enough, however, once David laid eyes on Bathsheba. Solomon, with his 700 wives and 300 concubines and 25 tons of gold a year, never seemed to think he had enough either!

When is enough enough? God knows, but we don’t. Adam and Eve had all of Eden with the exception of the fruit of one tree, but that wasn’t enough for them! Whether it’s money, friends, time, status, opportunities, jewelry, health, strength, wisdom, or faith—we probably think we don’t have quite enough of something. Whatever it is, we’re sure that if God would just give us a smidgen more of it, then we’d be satisfied. Of course, we wouldn’t because, like Solomon, David, Adam and Eve, we’d want more than enough!

If we’re seeking the Kingdom of God and following God’s plan, He will make sure we have enough and all the resources we need. We may not see it but, if we dig deep enough, we’ll find that God has given us exactly what we need to do His work. If we’re seeking the Kingdom of Self, however, we’ll never be satisfied that we have enough.

Do you have enough?

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)]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

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PATIENCE

In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God in whom we trust, for whom we waited. Now at last he is here.” What a day of rejoicing! [Isaiah 25:9 (TLB)]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. [Charles Wesley]

giftMy daughter has become quite adept at hiding Christmas gifts from her husband. If she doesn’t, he will find the presents and open them early; patience is not one of his strong suits. It wasn’t one of Sarah and Abraham’s either. Although they’d been promised a son and many descendants, they grew impatient waiting and took matters into their own hands. Sarah gave Abraham her maidservant Hagar with whom to make a child. Although she made the offer, he didn’t have to accept—but he did. The boy Ishmael was the result of their rashness and the rivalry and strife that continue today in the Middle East came from that impatience. Like Sarah and Abraham, when my son-in-law knows a gift is coming, he just can’t wait until the correct time to receive it. Fortunately, while his wife may get annoyed when he takes matters into his own hands, his impulsiveness hasn’t resulted in centuries of international conflict.

Consider the people of Judah—they’d waited centuries for God’s promise to be fulfilled with the Messiah and most of them completely missed their gift. Tired of waiting, some lost faith and hope; they stopped looking for Him. Having anticipated royalty rather than an itinerant preacher, others didn’t recognize Him. Wanting someone to conquer Rome rather than sin, still others didn’t accept Him. Fortunately, my son-in-law isn’t like that. Even when he’s unsuccessful in his search for the gift, he never gives up. He knows it eventually will appear. Moreover, unlike the Judeans, he won’t ignore the package if it isn’t wrapped in fancy paper with an elaborate bow or reject it because it doesn’t fit his expectations.

David had to wait for God’s promise to materialize but, unlike Like Sarah, Abraham, and Judah, he waited patiently and never gave up hope. After being anointed by Samuel, he had to wait about fifteen years until being crowned king. He didn’t spend that time trying to force his kingship to happen nor did he sit idly and twiddle his thumbs impatiently. He wisely trusted God. The shepherd boy used his waiting time to prepare for the challenges of kingship by growing physically, intellectually, and spiritually so he was ready to receive his crown when God gave it to him.

Unlike David, Sarah, Abraham, and the Jews, my son-in-law knows exactly when his Christmas gifts will arrive—December 25! Unfortunately, when waiting on God to act, we rarely have a calendar marked with His delivery date and we certainly don’t know the date of Christ’s return. Needing patience, we can’t be like Sarah and Abraham who tried to make things happen before the appointed time. Needing faith, we can’t be like the Jews who stopped looking and believing in God’s promised provision. Instead, we must be like David who waited with patience and faith while readying himself for the receipt of God’s promised provision.

When He returns is not as important as the fact that we are ready for Him when He does return. [A.W. Tozer] 

Don’t be impatient. Wait for the Lord, and he will come and save you! Be brave, stouthearted, and courageous. Yes, wait and he will help you. [Psalm 27:14 (TLB)]

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THE SLANDERED (Psalms of Ascent – Part 2)

wild phloxRescue me, O Lord, from liars and from all deceitful people. … How I suffer in far-off Meshech. It pains me to live in distant Kedar. I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, they want war! [Psalm 120:2,5-6 (NLT)]

When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness he will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie. [Charles Spurgeon]

While many of the fifteen psalms designated A Song of Ascents display the sense of joy and pride in Israel that we’d expect from people returning to their homeland, a few express distress, looming peril, or trials. One such psalm is the first in the collection: Psalm 120. It is the individual lament of someone who seems to have become the victim of slander—the prayer of someone who is surrounded by warlike people.

While I’ve never been the victim of slander, I have a friend who was. His reputation was deliberately damaged by falsehoods, misrepresentations, and innuendo. Until I studied this psalm, I don’t think I truly understood how isolated and defenseless he must have felt. Like the psalmist, he longed for peace but felt like a stranger in the midst of a hostile nation.

The psalmist expresses his distress at such deceit and pleads for relief. He then describes the destiny of the liar’s tongue: being pierced by fiery arrows, like those used in sieges to set places on fire. This is a bit of irony since Scripture frequently likens deceivers’ tongues to a bow that shoots out harmful words. In effect, the psalmist is asking that his enemies receive a dose of their own medicine! Having shot their vindictive words at him, in a bit of divine justice, God will shoot his own flaming arrows of judgment at them!

What follows is a lament about living in both Meshech and Kedar among people who hate peace. The psalmist is speaking figuratively since these pagan nations were in opposite directions and he couldn’t be in both places at once. The people of both nations, however, were ferocious and aggressive barbarians. Living among the ungodly—people who prefer war to peace—the psalmist feels like an outsider. The psalm’s final line expresses the psalmist’s desire for peace and the deceitful people’s desire for war. Maligned and slandered by people who wanted to make his life difficult, the psalmist asks the Lord for peace, for His shalom.

It’s easy to wonder why such a psalm would be among this collection of hopeful and encouraging psalms until we realize that, unlike most psalms, this one is somewhat backwards. Instead of beginning by stating his plight and following with a plea for deliverance, the psalmist begins by telling us that God already has answered his prayer. From the first verse, we know that the Lord has dealt with the problem and delivered him from his enemies. Rather than a lament, this is a psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist found refuge and peace in a hostile world because God answered his prayers. Let us take comfort knowing that we have a God who answers our prayers!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

I took my troubles to the Lord; I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. [Psalm 120:1 (NLT)]

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OUR KEEPER (Psalms of Ascent – Part 1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. [Psalm 121:1-4 (RSV)]

zion - court of the patriarchsPsalms 120 through 134 have the superscription A Song of Ascents. What that means exactly, no one really knows. The original word translated as ascent was “stair” or “step” and some scholars believe the title refers to the temple’s fifteen steps leading from the Court of the Women into the Court of the Sons of Israel. Jewish tradition holds that Levites sang a different one of these psalms as they climbed the steps to the temple. Other scholars posit that the title of the psalms has to do either with the rising moods or thoughts in the psalms’ words or their rising pitch as they were sung.

Written by several different authors and ranging from the time of David to post exile, these fifteen beautiful psalms were at one point a separate temple songbook that later was incorporated into the Psaltery. Some scholars attribute the collection to King Hezekiah who, when laying on his deathbed, was granted another 15 years of life. He supposedly compiled these 15 psalms to represent those additional years. Psalm 126, with its reference to returning from exile, disproves that theory since it had to have been composed after Hezekiah’s death.

Because Jerusalem was on a hill, all roads leading to it went uphill and some scholars believe these psalms were sung during the journey back from Babylon as the exiles ascended the hill to Jerusalem. Another commonly held belief is that these psalms were brought together to be sung by Jews returning to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

One of my favorite psalms, Psalm 121, is in this collection. Perhaps giving credence to the theory of pilgrims walking up to Jerusalem’s gates, the psalmist looks to the hills and asks from where his help comes. When he asked that, was he looking at the hillside with its threats from wild animals, pagan enemies, and bands of robbers? Or, was he confidently looking up toward Mt. Moriah and the temple? With his answer of, “My help comes from the Lord,” I think he was looking beyond the mountains to the God who made them. The psalmist is so confident in the Lord, the one who “keeps” Israel, that he doesn’t even mention what is troubling him!

In this eight verse psalm, the Hebrew word shamar is used six times. Usually translated as keep or preserve, it meant to have charge of, protect and guard as would a watchman. For many pilgrims, the trip to Jerusalem was an arduous one taking several days. With its promise that the one who watched over them never slumbered, this psalm would have been reassuring to the pilgrims as they made camp in the wilderness each night.

We’re not Levites ascending the temple’s stairs nor are we pilgrims journeying up to Jerusalem and we’ll never know why these psalms are songs of ascents. Nevertheless, we’re all on a journey that often seems like an uphill climb. The psalmist’s faith and strong conviction that God will come to his aid certainly makes my spirit ascend. Let us take comfort in knowing the Lord is our keeper, watchman, and protector; He is the God who never sleeps!

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. [Psalm 121:5-8 (RSV)]

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KEEP CALM AND PRAY ON

Naples FL sunsetDon’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you. [Isaiah 41:10 (MSG)]

The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,” your love, God, took hold and held me fast. When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up. [Psalm 94:18-19 (MSG)]

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British government produced three posters to be used in the event of war. Printed with the goal of reassuring the public of the nation’s ultimate victory, the posters featured a plain background, a small crown logo on top, and simple block lettering. The two posters that were distributed said, “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might” and “Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory.” The third poster, with its message to “Keep calm and carry on” was only to be issued in the event of a German invasion. Fortunately, it never was needed. In 1945, most of the “Keep calm” posters were destroyed and forgotten until some were discovered and popularized sixty years later. In spite of the unsettled political climate in our nation, freedom doesn’t seem to be in peril but, if there ever were a time we need, pluck, optimism, determination, and composure, it is now!

Since we’ve been invaded by COVID, I’ve seen several memes with variations on the “Keep calm” posters. They suggest everything from keeping calm and washing our hands, quarantining on, masking up, and staying home, to drinking wine, baking brownies, eating chocolate, blaming someone else, and calling Batman. One simply said “Now panic and freak out!” When faced with a disaster, misfortune, or major mess up, I admit to having done nearly all of those things (except call Batman) but none did much to calm my troubled soul. Perhaps the Christian’s versions of the original poster would have a cross on the top and include suggestions to keep calm and pray on, remember God loves us, or trust in the Lord and His plan. At least, those suggestions would work!

Let’s remember: Jesus stilled the water and waves on the Sea of Galilee with just a word! If He can do that, He is more than capable of calming our troubled hearts and quieting every storm in our lives, even a global pandemic! In the face of life’s predicaments, troubles, uncertainties, and calamities, let us choose to carry on with courage, cheerfulness, and resolution by keeping calm and praying on!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed. Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan. [John Bunyan]

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (MSG)]

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