WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. [Proverbs 14:12 (ESV)]

hempvineThe book of Genesis is filled with thoughtless decisions that led to trouble. Although Eve knew the forbidden fruit would give her the knowledge of good and evil, I doubt she asked herself why she wanted it, what she’d do with it, or how God would react to her disobedience when she ate it. Look at Sarah with her bright idea to give Hagar to Abraham to make a baby. Did she pause and consider how she’d feel about sharing her husband with her maid or that Hagar and the child would be a constant reminder of her own infertility? Did Lot’s wife think to ask herself why she’d been told neither to stop nor look back at Sodom before she took that fatal last look?

What about Rebekah? When she helped Jacob steal Esau’s blessing, did she give thought to the ramifications of such deception? Did she think Esau wouldn’t be angry? She ended up losing both of her boys that day—one to safety in Haran and the other to anger and his desire for revenge. After Isaac discovered her part in the ruse, their marriage probably suffered as well.

Did Reuben pause to consider the consequences of sleeping with his father’s concubine? It was at his father’s deathbed that he learned his recklessness cost him his birthright blessing. His brother Simeon and Levi paid even more heavily for their deceit and violence against the people of Shechem when Jacob cursed rather than blessed them. Because of the brothers’ rash behavior, their people would be scattered throughout the land and without inheritance rights. And that’s just in Genesis! It goes downhill from there.

Every time I read through the Bible and see the consequences of people’s impulsive behavior, I ask, “What were they thinking?” What if David had taken five minutes to ask God about moving the Ark or summoning Bathsheba? What was Solomon thinking when he directly violated God’s law by accumulating 700 wives and 300 concubines and then worshipping idols? And he was supposed to be the wise one! What if Rehoboam had consulted God instead of his cronies when deciding whether or not to lighten the burden on his people? It’s bad enough that none of these people bothered to think through the effects of their rash decisions but, worse, they never bothered to consult with God about them. Unlike the people in Genesis, they even had the Torah to guide them!

Some people make their decisions by weighing alternatives and looking beyond the immediate results to the long-term effects, possible precedents, and potential complications. Other people are more gut-feeling emotion-driven choice makers. Most of us probably fall somewhere in-between. No matter how we approach a decision, however, we always want to stay in God’s will. While prayer is a good place to start, God is often silent as to our exact plan of action. Perhaps that’s because He’s already revealed His will in Scripture. It is in God’s Word that we find the wisdom and principles that should guide us in making our decisions: repent, believe, obey, forgive, love, be truthful, work hard, share, serve, trust in Him, and glorify Him in all we do. If we always do that, it’s unlikely someone will ask in disbelief, “What were they thinking?”

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (ESV)]

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HEIRLOOMS

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:20-21 (NLT)]

CamillaWe’re selling our northern home and, with limited space in Florida, I must winnow out our 52 years of accumulated possessions. “How can I give them away?” I wondered while looking at the beautiful hand-painted Bavarian dinner and dessert plates that belonged to my mother and her mother before that. My fondness for the plates, however, has less to do with their beauty than with their provenance.

When my mother died, I was only fifteen. I remember sitting with my older brother and sister as my father read her hand-written note to us. He tried to hold back his tears as he spoke her words of farewell that passed along various family heirlooms to each of us children. Mentioning her joy at never having broken a plate in the 23 years she’d used them, my mother gave her mother’s china to me. When I look at what is little more than clay, bone ash, flint, feldspar, glaze, paint, and gold gilding, I don’t see plates—I see my mother’s exquisitely set table, the two of us setting it, our family gathering together for a holiday dinner, and my father reading her farewell words to me.

Later, when sorting through books, I came to some that had been my mother’s. Inside the front covers, she’d carefully written her name and home address. “How can I give away these books that meant so much to her?” I thought. Many of them were written by C.S. Lewis and I suspect my affinity for the author comes from her. She belonged to a women’s guild at our church—sort of the 1950’s version of a small group. The women gathered twice a month for fellowship and service and often met at our house. They would sit around the dining room table and sew something called “cancer pads.” My mother couldn’t even thread a needle and her poor eyesight and clumsiness with a needle probably made her more of a hazard than a help in the women’s work. What she excelled at, however, was reading aloud, analyzing the written word and leading discussions. When the women realized that busy hands didn’t keep their mouths from minding other people’s business, my mother suggested that she read to them while they worked.

As I ran my finger over her name, I decided to save just one of her books. The rest of them will go to the church’s library so they can bring someone else pleasure and knowledge. Then, realizing that I don’t need the china to remember the beautiful woman who gave me life, I decided to keep just one of the dessert plates and give away the rest. Rather than hold onto things, I will hold on to my memory of a woman who, recognizing her limitations, wisely used the gifts God gave her.

While the Old Testament speaks of material inheritance and even gives guidelines to ensure the financial welfare of the family, the New Testament speaks of a spiritual inheritance. Rather than worrying about amassing things here on earth, Jesus told us to store up treasures in heaven. Granted, we want our families cared for once we’re gone but more crucial than passing along possessions is the passing along of good character, love, and faith in God.

The important thing is not to hold on to material possessions but to remember the people we associate with them, the love they offered, and the lessons they taught us. I think of the words of Morrie Schwartz (in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie) who said we continue to live on in the hearts of everyone we’ve touched and nurtured while we were here. “Death ends a life, not a relationship,” said the wise old professor. My children don’t need old china or books to know my mother; they know her through me!

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1:3-4 (NLT)]

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THE CANON

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

kildeerTwo days ago, when writing about the prodigal son, I used a scripture verse from Sirach found in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE). Also known as Ecclesiasticus, this book of wisdom was written by Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, between 200–175 BC and is part of the Apocrypha. Primarily written in the 400 years between Malachi and the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, the books of the Apocrypha include Sirach, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel. While the nation of Israel was familiar with these writings and treated them with respect (which is why I used the verse), they never considered any of them as true books of the Hebrew Bible.

Evidence that the Jews never considered these books to be “divine doctrine” is found in the writings of the Jewish priest and scholar Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD). Explaining that the contents of the Hebrew Bible were written between the time of Moses and the days of Persian’s King Artaxerxes I (465 to 424 BC), he listed the books considered to be divinely inspired by God and none of the apocryphal books were named. Since a typical Hebrew Bible combines books like the Minor Prophets, Ezra with Nehemiah, Jeremiah with Lamentations, and the two books each of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles into single books, Josephus listed only 22 books. Nevertheless, his twenty-two are the same as the 39 Old Testament books found in the Protestant Bible.

Because neither Jesus nor the Apostles made any reference to any of the apocryphal books, most Christians believe them to be far less significant than the 39 books of the Old Testament. Some, however, do contain valuable historical information. For example, the books of Maccabees give a detailed account of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers to free Judah from foreign rule (167 to 134 BC). It is in Maccabees, with the cleaning and dedication of the Temple and relighting of the menorah, that we learn why Jews celebrate Hanukkah every year. Unfortunately, there also is much in these books that is inaccurate (such as Judith naming Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar as the king of the Assyrians) and some false teachings (such as the forgiveness of sins through almsgiving and a command to use magic in Tobit).

The list of Biblical books accepted as authoritative for faith because they were divinely inspired by God is known as the canon. Since a wide assortment of writings circulated in the early church, many of which were counterfeit, inauthentic, and even heretical, it became necessary to determine which works were genuine and which mixed truth with fiction or were completely false. While there is no definitive date when church canon was determined, the effort to determine it began as early as 170 AD with the Muratorian Canon. By 250, there was nearly universal agreement on the canon of the Old Testament. In 363, the Council of Laodicea affirmed all but the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It was in 367 that Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, provided a list (including Revelation) of the universally accepted 66 books that we still think of as the Protestant Bible. Although the Bishop listed several Apocryphal books as worthwhile reading, he noted that none should be combined with the rest of Scripture.

While none of the Apocrypha is part of the Protestant canon, twelve of its books are considered canonical Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. It was at the Council of Trent (1546-1563) that the Roman Catholic Church ratified them as part of their canon. While some Bibles, such as the RSV, may include the Apocrypha in a separate section, the Catholic edition of the RSV has those same books mixed in with the Old Testament.

Since it is not the inspired Word of God, the book of Sirach, like the rest of the Apocrypha, is not part of the recognized canon of Scripture. Although the apocryphal books have some historical/cultural significance, they do not possess the qualities of divinely inspired Scripture. While it’s easy to think that the canon was determined by man, we must remember that no man determined what books belong in the Christian canon any more than any man determined what was written in those books. It was God who inspired their writing and it was God who gave men the ability to discern what words were God-breathed. It is those 66 God-breathed books of the Bible that equip us for a life of service and faith.

These are the wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away. [Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, regarding the 66 books of the canon]

Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. [Colossians 2:8 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL SON (Part 1 – Luke 15:11-32)

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. … At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance. [Sirach 33:19-20,23 (RSVCE)]

If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control. [Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra viii.7)]

great blue heronThrough His parables, Jesus related profound spiritual truths in stories that were easily understood and relevant to his listeners. Although Jesus’s original audience often didn’t like His message, they clearly knew what He was saying. Because of the vast cultural differences between our world and 1st century Palestine, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the impact His parables had on the people who first heard them.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across indulgent fathers and pleasure-seeking, selfish, and rude children but, when Jesus told the parable known as “The Prodigal Son,” honor and respect for one’s parents were of paramount importance as were the dignity and absolute authority of the patriarch of the family. Jesus’s listeners must have gasped in horror and unbelief when they heard Him describe behavior by both father and sons that defied acceptable conduct and cultural norms.

Although some fathers at that time might distribute their estates prior to death, they would continue to receive the income while their sons managed it. What is extraordinary in Jesus’s parable is that, by brashly demanding his inheritance, the younger son really is telling his father, “I wish you were dead so I could get on with my life!” Although the expected response would be to slap the boy and immediately disinherit him, the father does as his boy asks. When we read that the son “gathered together” his things, we think of it as packing up his belongings. The Greek word used, however, was sunago which, in this context means the son turned his inheritance into cash. Although preserving family property was of utmost importance to the Jews, the boy blatantly defies the Talmud by selling his share of the estate (thus depriving his father of its income). Since he leaves home within a few days, the implication is that he didn’t even try to get top dollar for the land.

By then squandering his entire inheritance, the son shows contempt for all that his father accomplished over the years. As if the story weren’t shocking enough, he compounds his sin and further dishonors his father by moving to a distant country (meaning Gentile land) and eating with pigs. Picture a son demanding part of his father’s business, selling it at a loss to a competitor, quickly squandering his money in wild living, and then going off to join the Taliban and you get a vague idea of how astonished Jesus’s audience might have been by this story. While the behavior of the father was baffling, the behavior of his son was absolutely unforgivable!

Both the Torah and Talmud were quite clear about one’s behavior toward parents and you can be sure Jesus’s listeners knew how this story was supposed to end. Jesus, however, had a way of turning people’s expectations upside down. This was the rabbi who spoke of the first being the last, praying for one’s enemies, walking by faith rather than sight, turning the other cheek, being weak to become strong, leading by serving, giving to receive, and losing your life to save it. If His audience was shocked at how the parable began, they were probably scandalized at how it finished.

“Cursed is anyone who dishonors father or mother.” And all the people will reply, “Amen.” [Deuteronomy 27:16 (NLT)]

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A WEAPON OF WAR

How long will you hurt me and crush me with your words? You have insulted me ten times now and attacked me without shame. [Job 19:2-3 (NCV)]

hot air balloon When writing about nitroglycerin yesterday, I realized there’s something else in our lives much like this strange chemical that can both hurt and help. Like nitroglycerin, man’s capabilities are a dichotomy between good and evil, building and destroying. The same mind capable of creating a vaccine that saves lives is capable of creating a bomb that can take those lives. While most of us have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and can’t destroy thousands with the push of a button, we all carry a weapon that can destroy one life at a time: our tongue!

Like nitroglycerin, our words can cause an explosion and major destruction. We can squash ambition with disparaging and demeaning remarks. We can shoot down someone with blame and guilt. While we’d never think of physically harming a person, with a few words, we can wound an ego. We’d never murder anyone but we certainly can manage to kill someone’s hopes and dreams. We’d never destroy a person’s home, yet we can destroy their reputation with just a few words! Ridicule and shaming can deflate self-esteem faster than an arrow can a hot air balloon. Our words, like nitroglycerin, can be devastating weapons.

Nevertheless, like medical nitroglycerin, our words also can help. Words of love, comfort, forgiveness, encouragement, respect, or sympathy can lift burdens and defuse situations better than any bomb squad. It is our choice as to whether we crush or nurture, rend or mend.

Father, forgive us for our thoughtless and often cruel words. Guide us to use our tongues with wisdom and love; show us how to heal, not harm. Let our words be ones of encouragement and support. Rather than destroyers, show us how to be builders; rather than combatants, let us be peacemakers; and rather than adversaries, let us be advocates.

Only speak words that make a heart grow stronger. [Ann Voskamp]

If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all! [My mother’s advice]

What you say can mean life or death. Those who speak with care will be rewarded. [Proverbs 18:21 (NCV)]

With words an evil person can destroy a neighbor, but a good person will escape by being resourceful. … Good people bless and build up their city, but the wicked can destroy it with their words [Proverbs 11:9,11 (NCV)]

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NITROGLYCERIN

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. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

crown vetchMy father had heart disease and often suffered from a burning chest pain called angina. When that occurred, he would stop what he was doing and place a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue. Medical nitroglycerin acts as a vasodilator by dilating or expanding the blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump blood through those vessels.

When I was a girl and my dad took one of his nitro tablets, I didn’t know how they worked. Having seen enough Saturday matinees to know that liquid nitroglycerin is so unstable that the slightest jolt can cause it to explode, I couldn’t understand how my father could safely carry it around in his pocket, let alone put it in his mouth. After all, Sylvester the Cat exploded when Tweety Bird put it in his medicine and I’m sure Wile E. Coyote tried to use it on the Roadrunner! Whether in its liquid form or stabilized with clay in dynamite, nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive there is. How could something capable of blasting a hole in the side of a mountain keep my father’s heart from exploding in a heart attack?

I suppose trials are a little like nitroglycerin—they can destroy or help us. The end result depends on what we make of them and how we use them. We live in an imperfect fallen world and, like it or not, every one of us will face ordeals and troubles. Some we bring on ourselves as consequences of our own sin. But, as happened with Job, many of life’s trials seem as random as a tornado and descend upon us without rhyme or reason. Without God, those trials can demolish our lives as easily as nitroglycerin can demolish a building. With God, however, like medicinal nitroglycerin, trials can help our heart for Him.

God’s purpose isn’t to give us easy comfortable lives; He wants us to grow into the image of his son, Jesus Christ (which is what sanctification is all about). Everything in our lives, both good and bad, is designed to help us reach that goal. Unfortunately, when all is going smoothly, we tend to forget about God, just as easily as my father forgot about his diseased heart when relaxing in his recliner. But, just as the pain from stress or strenuous exercise made him turn to his nitro, trials force us to turn to God.

I lose the parallel between trials and nitroglycerin here because, while those tiny nitro pills alleviated the pain in my father’s chest, they didn’t cure his heart disease. They were merely a temporary fix and he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 56. Trials, however, do more than ease the symptoms of what’s wrong with us; they can actually shape and fix us. Disappointment, despair, and disaster, unlike heart disease, don’t have to kill us. Faith is a muscle and, just like the heart, it grows stronger when it is exercised. Somewhat like a cardiac surgeon, God fixes our hearts with trials.

Whether our trials are as destructive as liquid nitroglycerin or as therapeutic as nitroglycerin pills depends upon our reaction to them. We can become bitter or we can consider them a blessing. We can rebel or choose to trust God and accept His grace to deal with our difficulty and pain. Fortunately, rather than a cardiologist, we have the Holy Spirit who will give us all of the comfort, strength and wisdom we need to endure our trials. Because of Him, we can emerge from our trials with mended hearts and a stronger, purer and more mature faith.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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