FENCES

Stay away from every kind of evil. [1 Thessalonians 5:22 (NLT)]

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. [Misnha (Pirke Avot)]

tigerLast December, after breaching the barrier surrounding the tiger enclosure at our local zoo, a man stuck his hand into the tiger’s cage. A similar incident occurred a few months later at a nearby airboat attraction when a man improperly went through the first enclosure and put his arms into the tiger’s cage. Although both men survived, they suffered serious injuries to their hands and arms. Fences are placed to protect us and keep us from getting too close to danger but you can’t protect people from their own stupidity.

Just as those fences around the tigers’ cages were meant to protect people from the tigers (and the tigers from people), many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments of the Torah. It is in the Mishnah (the oldest collection of post-biblical Jewish laws) that we find the phrase “make a fence around the Torah.” It is this fence, not the Bible, that explains the hundreds of prohibitions we find in Judaism.

Those Rabbinic rules were supposed to prevent people from being tempted to break the law or unintentionally doing so. For example, items like hammers and scissors that were associated with prohibited work like building or cutting, were not even to be picked up lest handling them led to their use. Although the Sabbath officially begins at sunset Friday, a few minutes were added before its beginning and after its end to make sure no one accidentally worked too late or resumed work too early. Even today, for my Jewish friend, the Shabbat candles are lit and all work has stopped no later than 18 minutes before the sun officially sets. His Sabbath ends when three stars are visible, which can be about 30 minutes after sunset. Rather than additions to the Mosaic law, these fences were seen as a way of helping people remain obedient to the law; they were erected to keep people from giving into temptation or just cutting it too close! Sadly, through the years, the rules became increasingly complicated and, by Jesus’ time, they were the heavy yoke about which He spoke.

Nevertheless, Jesus gave us a New Testament version of building a fence when He equated the emotion of anger with the act of murder and the attitude of lust with adultery. Anger and lust are like stepping too close to the tiger’s cage—they’re dangerous territory! Just as picking up his cell phone on Saturday might lead my Jewish friend to break the Sabbath by using it, lust and anger can lead to something far worse! Sticking your arm in a tiger’s cage or stepping into sin never ends well and, rather than gouging out our eyes or cutting off our hands, we can erect spiritual boundaries to keep us and our loved ones safe. We may restrict our youngsters to G or PG movies or set specific rules about dating for our teens. We might use internet filters to screen out inappropriate content on our computers, abstain from alcohol, or avoid the appearance of inappropriate behavior by following the “Billy Graham rule” of never being alone with a person of the opposite sex except for one’s spouse. We each have our own spiritual fences.

Unless they’re found in Scripture, however, those fences are not doctrine. They are our personal rules and, as such, other people may have different ones, some of which may be closer or further from the tiger’s cage than ours. We are not in a position to judge other people’s spiritual barriers any more than they are to judge ours. Unfortunately, for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the fence around the Torah became more important than the law itself. We must never do that. Every fence we erect must comply with God’s simple law that we love Him with our entire being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

…he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” [Mark 12:28-31 (NLT)]

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LOOKING FOR “LOVE”

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)]

cardinalNormally, the Internet would be one of the worst places to search for love but, according to my favorite online Bible resource site, some people went looking for love on line and were successful. Of course, they were looking for it in one of the right places—the Bible. With nearly 3 million searches a day (which, in case you wondered, is more than 2,000 per minute 24/7), “love” was the keyword most commonly searched for by the 160 million visitors to their site in 2021. Appearing 759 times in the NLT Bible, “love” was easily found (even in the King James that only uses it 442 times)!

“Love” tops the keyword search every year and “peace” (appearing 362 times in the NLT) retained its second-place position. As expected, hope, joy, and faith rounded out 2021’s top five most popular word searches. With “hope“ used 190 times, 333 appearances for “joy,” and “faith” mentioned 507 times in the NLT, the Bible was the right place to find them all. Although the number of occurrences depend on the version searched, these favorite words are found in every translation.

The Bible certainly is the place to look for love, peace, hope, joy, and faith but, with nearly 7,000 mentions of “Lord,” almost 5,000 of “God,” and nearly 1,500 of “Jesus” in the NLT, the Bible is a good place to go looking for them, as well! Those names, however, were missing from the most popular searches, as were words like prayer, humility, righteousness, repentance, servanthood, surrender, worship, sanctification, sacrifice, justification, judgment, sin, obedience, and atonement.

2021’s most searched for Bible verse remained John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The perennial runner-up continued to be Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” As two of the most encouraging and heartening verses in the Bible, it’s easy to see why they are favorites.

Indeed, God’s Word is filled with words of comfort and reassurance, but limiting our Bible knowledge to only positive and uplifting words and verses is a bit like eating the croutons but not the salad beneath them, tasting only the crispy fried onions on top of the green bean casserole, or having dessert while skipping the main course! Some of those unsearched for words may be less tasty, but they are just as important as love, peace, hope, joy, and faith. It seems that many of us come to the Bible more interested in comfort than truth, affirmation than obedience, reassurance rather than correction, and inspiration rather than salvation. When we come to Scripture looking only for words of encouragement, we might miss the bigger message of salvation, redemption, and rebirth found in Jesus Christ. Let’s never settle for Scripture “Lite.”

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. [Hebrews 4:12 (NLT)]

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. [Joshua 1:8 (NLT)]

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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

lilacWe reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this. If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. [2 Corinthians 4:2-4 (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about John the Baptist, I said that doubt was not the same as unbelief. In John’s question to Jesus, we have the doubts of a godly man but we see trickery and unbelief in most of the questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Because the Sadducees interpreted Scripture literally and the Pharisees gave equal significance to their oral tradition, the groups frequently argued with one another over Jewish doctrine. They were, however, united in their hatred of Jesus. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not belief in an afterlife or the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, they asked Jesus a question dealing with resurrection. Jewish law said that, if a woman’s husband died without having a son, the husband’s brother had the responsibility of marrying her. Using this law as their starting point, the Sadducees set up a bizarre scenario in which one brother dies without having children and his widow, who never bears a son, ends up marrying and burying brother after brother until she’s married and buried all seven brothers. The Sadducees want Jesus to tell them which of the seven will be her husband in the afterlife.

Since they didn’t believe in any afterlife, theirs was not an honest question and they’re sure Jesus can’t answer without looking foolish, offending people, or being caught in an inconsistency. He’ll appear arbitrary if he picks one brother over another and immoral if He says they all can have her! His other choice (and possibly the one for which they hope) is to admit that resurrection is a preposterous doctrine. Not only would they score a point against the Pharisees but Jesus would look like a fraud since He couldn’t be the “resurrection and the life” if there were no resurrection!

Imagine their consternation when Jesus corrected them by saying they’d misinterpreted Scripture and had underestimated God’s power with their assumption that resurrection meant a continuation of the same kind of bodies we have in this life. Jesus explained that people would be raised into bodies unlike their present ones and marriage and procreation would be unnecessary. When Jesus added that people will have bodies “like the angels in heaven,” He dug the knife deep into their absurd question because Sadducees didn’t believe in angels any more than they did resurrection.

In His final thrust, Jesus asked the Sadducees if they’d read about resurrection in the Scriptures. He then repeated these words from Exodus: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” [3:6] Even though the patriarchs had been dead for more than four centuries, God’s words to Moses were in the present tense which showed that the men remained alive before Him. Jesus could have found scriptural support in words from Isaiah, Daniel, or Job but He chose a verse from part of the Pentateuch, the section the Sadducees found most authoritative. Having been out-argued by the Son of God, I imagine the Sadducees departed with their proverbial tails between their legs. The crowd that heard Jesus, however, was “astounded at his teaching.”

When comparing the questions posed by John’s disciples and the Sadducees, the differences between doubt and unbelief become clear. Where doubt seeks answers, unbelief isn’t interested in them. Doubt seeks enlightenment; unbelief prefers darkness. Doubt is receptive; unbelief is hostile. Doubt is straightforward; unbelief has ulterior motives. Doubt wants the truth; unbelief just wants to win.

There are those who insist that it is a very bad thing to question God. To them, “why?” is a rude question. That depends, I believe, on whether it is an honest search, in faith, for His meaning, or whether it is the challenge of unbelief and rebellion. [Elisabeth Elliot]

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. [Matthew 22:34 (NLT)]

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JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 2

On the following day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world! This is the man I meant when I said, ‘A man comes after me who is always in front of me, for he existed before I was born!’ It is true I have not known him, yet it was to make him known to the people of Israel that I came and baptised people with water.” [John 1:29-31 (PHILLIPS)]

mourning doveWe don’t know if John the Baptist recognized Jesus as his distant cousin when the two men met on the banks of the Jordan. Although they were the same age and their mothers were related in some way, with John in the desert and Jesus in Nazareth, it’s not likely they knew one another. If they did, Jesus probably seemed nothing more than an ordinary person to John at the time.

When Jesus walked toward him that day, however, John knew he was seeing someone who was more than a carpenter from Nazareth. In the same way that Elizabeth knew Mary was “the mother of my Lord” when the unborn John leapt in her womb, John recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. John seemed to have no doubt about Jesus when he testified to seeing the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and, throughout John’s ministry, he continued to point out Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

After Jesus’ baptism, the gospel of John tells us that both John and Jesus carried on baptizing ministries. Perhaps out of jealousy, some of John’s disciples complained that more people were going to Jesus than coming to John. Again, John made it clear that he knew their different roles when he compared himself to the best man and Jesus to the bridegroom. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” [3:30]

More than a year later, what happened to John’s confidence in Jesus’ identity? The man who once had been so sure about Jesus sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” [Mt 11:3] Languishing in Herod’s dungeon, John probably wondered why the conquering king from David’s line hadn’t released him. Why hadn’t Jesus taken the throne from Herod and Rome? Where was the end-time outpouring of the Spirit, the winnowing fork that would separate the chaff from the wheat, and the one who would burn the chaff with “never-ending fire”?

In truth, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that John and his disciples were expecting; nevertheless, He was the Messiah! John, however, didn’t understand that Jesus had to teach, heal, suffer, die, resurrect, and ascend before returning a second time and executing final judgment. At first, it seems that Jesus ducks John’s question with a summary of his miracles but John understood. The miracles Jesus listed fulfilled the messianic promises in Isaiah; they were proof that He was the Messiah. Jesus’ final message for John is a beatitude that encouraged the Baptizer (and the rest of us) not to stumble in our faith just because Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations.

While we may not be languishing in a dungeon as was John, we may be in languishing in grief, infertility, depression, illness, addiction, chronic pain, money issues, infidelity, or family problems. Just as Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, He doesn’t always meet ours. He didn’t free John from Herod’s prison and He may not free us from ours and, like John, we may have doubts. Faith and doubt, however, are not antonyms and doubt and unbelief are not synonyms! We can be people of faith and still have questions; like John, we never should be afraid to ask those questions. John went to Jesus for the answers and, like him, we should look to the words and works of Jesus Christ for our ours. We’ll discover, as did John, that the Lord’s credentials will hold up to the toughest of questions!

Jesus gave them this reply, “Go and tell John what you see and hear—that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being brought to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses faith in me.” [Matthew 11:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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RELISHING EVERY BITE

Then He said to me, “Son of man, eat what is in front of you. Eat this book, then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this book. And He said to me, “Son of man, eat this book that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. [Ezekiel 3:1-3 (NLV)]

strawberriesSince it was Easter, along with the oatmeal raisin cookies I made for Sunday treats, I brought a bowl of pastel-wrapped Hershey candy for the little ones. As I placed the candy on the hospitality table, I recalled the last time I had chocolates at church. It was several years ago at our Colorado mountain church. Even though it wasn’t Easter or Valentine’s Day, along with Bibles, the pew book racks were filled with chocolate kisses that morning.

When the pastor asked us to eat a candy, we all quickly and quite happily accommodated him. He then asked us to eat another one. That time, however, he instructed us to do everything deliberately and slowly. Rather than tearing off the wrapper, we were to look closely at it before pulling the plume and gradually unwrapping the candy. Instead of  immediately popping the kiss into our mouths, we were to examine it carefully before placing the chocolate gently on our tongues. Rather than a few quick bites, we were to savor the texture and flavor as it gradually melted in our mouths. Even though the second kiss was identical to the first, the experience of eating it was entirely different. Since this was church and not a chocolate tasting, our pastor went on to compare our two experiences with the way we can read the Bible. He suggested that we need to be as attentive in our Bible reading as we were in the second candy-eating experience.

Are we as unaffected by reading the Bible as we are by a quick bite of candy or do the words actually touch and change us? By pointing out that we can simply consume food and be done or dine and have an experience, the Slow Food movement tries to bring mindfulness to the table! Although both ways of eating will provide calories, only one will be a memorable and affecting experience. We need to bring that sort of presence and mindfulness to our Bible reading as well. We should savor God’s Word the way we would a Lindt bar of dark chocolate and caramel with sea salt, a full-bodied vintage Cabernet, a juicy ripe summer peach, or home-grown strawberries. God’s word should dissolve into our lives, fill us, and impact the way we live.

Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine reading”) is a fancy term for treating scripture not as a text but as the living word of God. An ancient exercise, it became a regular practice in monasteries by the 6th century. Not being Benedictine monks, we could think of it as the “Slow Bible Movement.” As with food, the quality of the Bible study is more important than the quantity consumed. A few verses read and reflected upon so that we respond to and rest in the message is far better than a whole chapter read and forgotten within a few hours. Unwrapping the meaning of a verse takes more time than tearing off a candy wrapper. Rather than quickly scarfing down verses, let’s slowly savor the words we read. We should reread them, ponder them, find something that speaks directly to us, and then respond to it. Our response then leads us to contemplation and prayer as the verses sink into us. In the Slow Bible Movement, we relish what we’ve read and allow it to refresh and renew us as we carry God’s word forward in our hearts.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God fed him a scroll filled with His message for the Israelites. Even though the scroll was filled with words of sadness, they were as sweet as honey to the prophet because they were God’s words. What food is to our bodies, God’s Word is to our souls and we can’t live well without either one. Moreover, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we’ll never be able to share the message of God’s Good News until we’ve consumed it and allowed it to change our lives. We can snack or dine, gulp or savor; the choice is ours.

Your words were found and I ate them. And Your words became a joy to me and the happiness of my heart. For I have been called by Your name, O Lord God of All. [Jeremiah 15:16 (NLV)]

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TEND THE GARDEN – EARTH DAY 2022

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” … The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 1:28,2:15 (NLT)]

It is terrible to hear the young birds calling for food after the old ones have been killed to get the feathers for rich women to wear. I am not going to have my birds sacrificed that way. [Rhett Green (Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Warden from 1912 – 1917)]

great egret - snowy egret - corkscrew sanctuaryThe wading birds of southwest Florida are absolutely beautiful, especially this time of year when they’re wearing their mating plumage. We’ve lived here eleven years and I still haven’t tired of their beauty as I encounter them daily in our ponds. 115 years ago, however, I would have been hard put to see any of these beautiful creatures anywhere. In the late 1800s, bird feathers became the fashion craze in women’s hats. Along with a plethora of plumes, some hats even featured an entire exotic bird! By 1900, more than five million birds were being killed every year and plume hunters had nearly wiped out the entire egret population. It wasn’t just the egrets with their white mating plumes—herons, roseate spoonbills, flamingoes, and peacocks were among the fifty North American species being killed for their plumage. No bird was safe.

After killing the birds and stripping them of their plumage, poachers would leave their carcasses to rot. They also left abandoned nests with eggs that would never hatch or baby birds unable to fend for themselves. For the hunters, poaching was profitable; they could easily bag 100 birds on a good day and the plumes sold for as much as $32 dollars an ounce. Merely for the sake of fashion, the bird population in rookeries was decimated throughout Florida and the southeast U.S. Fortunately, because of a grass roots campaign by two Boston socialites, organizations like the Audubon Society, and both state and national legislation, the carnage of these beautiful creatures has stopped.

We were called to be good stewards of the earth, but we still show little regard for God’s creation. Last fall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted 11 species of birds from the endangered species list—not because they no longer were at risk but because they had become extinct! In 2021, Birdlife International reported that nearly 1,500 of the 11,000 species of birds face the threat of extinction with another 1,000 species considered “vulnerable.” We’re not wearing fancy feathered hats but loss of habitat, climate change, wind farms, cell towers, pesticides, cats, and even windows pose threats to them. It’s not just birds that are in danger; our local papers are filled with reports of blue-green algae, red tide, fish kills, Florida panther loss, starving manatees, diminishing wetlands, and endangered sea turtles! Worldwide, we face plenty of other pressing environmental issues including oil spills, water pollution, global warming, fossil fuel dependency, a diminishing rain forest, and the loss of open land (to name just a few).

When I look at the birds with their beautiful plumage, I thank God for their creation and for the people who took action to save them. Although God did the creating, it is up to us to do the maintaining. In Genesis, we read that God gave mankind permission to govern the earth and reign over all the animals along with the responsibility of tending and watching over His garden. The Hebrew word used for “tend” was shamar and it means more than keeping the land cultivated and free of weeds. It means keeping watch, preserving, guarding, and protecting. Have we tended God’s beautiful garden and made it thrive or have we run roughshod over it without regard for His creation?

Today is Earth Day. Observed by over a billion people every year, it has become the largest secular observance in the world. Concern for our environment, however, is not a secular concern—it is a sacred responsibility given to us by God. Let us remember that every day is Earth Day!

Lord, grant us the wisdom to care for the earth and till it. Help us to act now for the good of future generations and all your creatures. Help us to become instruments of a new creation, Founded on the covenant of your love. [The Cry of the Earth]

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. [Psalm 24:1 (NLT)]

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