And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. [Philippians 1:6 (ESV)]

tiger swallowtailMany years ago, we did some major remodeling on our lake house. The original structure was gutted: carpets ripped up, paneling pulled off, decks knocked down, stairs demolished, walls cut open, and our landscaping ruined. Filled with fear and misgivings, I stared at the gaping hole in the hillside and what was left of the original dwelling. The architect/builder kept reassuring me that, having drawn the plans, he knew how everything would eventually fit together. Me? I just saw the ruined house, a deep pit and piles of dirt. I hadn’t expected this devastation; it had seemed so simple on paper. How this mess was ever going to become the house we’d pictured, I didn’t know. I simply had to trust the builder and leave it in his hands. Seven months later, I stood in the same spot, thrilled with the final result; it was better than I’d ever expected!

Life can be like that remodeling project. Change can be unpleasant; at times, it may even look downright ugly and hopeless. We can rest easy when God is in charge; we’ll find that all will be good in its proper time. When God is finally finished, everything will make sense. We have to trust Him and not judge His work before it’s complete. He is a master architect and builder; let Him do His job!

Father, thank you for the beauty and joy you can salvage from our messed up lives. Help us trust your plan and timeline; give us patience and faith as we grow and change into the people you want us to be.

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. [C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”]

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)]

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)]

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But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval. [John 6:27 (NLT)]

northern mockingbird

There once was a beautiful mockingbird who loved to sing from the branches of the forest trees. An old sly fox sat beneath the trees and licked his lips as he thought of devouring her. Every time he tried to snatch the bird, however, she would fly away to safety high in the oaks. One day he offered her a mouthwatering berry for the price of just one feather. Accepting his offer, she plucked out a feather, swooped down for the fruit and flew back up to the treetop before the fox could catch her. The next day, he made the same offer and the mockingbird, anxious to enjoy the sweet bite again, gave him another feather. The wise owl warned her not to play this foolish game with the fox but the bird, hungry for the tasty berries, ignored him. This went on for several days until one day, after giving the fox a feather and snatching the berry, the mockingbird tried to fly away only to discover that she couldn’t. Foolishly, in her desire for the passing pleasure, she had given away one feather too many. The fox had his meal and the mockingbird was no more—all for a perishable and momentary indulgence.

Berries won’t cause our downfall, but pursuing fleeting pleasures can. We don’t have a wise owl on a neighboring branch but we do have the Holy Spirit living within us. We must listen to his voice and live by his power. Best of all, even if we lose our feathers, all is not lost. Because of Jesus Christ, God’s final word is not punishment and death but grace, forgiveness, redemption and restoration.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) … Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. [Romans 8:9, 12-14 (NLT)]

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One-tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain from the fields or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord and must be set apart to him as holy. [Leviticus 27:30 (NLT)]

HibiscusTithe means ten percent and the Jews were required to give ten percent of all they earned or grew as part of their worship. Because there were three required tithes, the actual percentage given was more like 23%. One tithe went to the Levites, another was for the use of the temple and religious festivals, and a third one, required every third year, was for the poor. Although no tithes were collected from the land on the seventh (Sabbath) and 50th (Jubilee) years or when there was drought or famine, tithing was mandatory at any other time and the Israelites got in trouble with God when they didn’t fulfill this obligation.

With His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus fulfilled all of the requirements of the old law. As Christians, we’re no longer obliged to visit Jerusalem for the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot nor do we observe Yom Kippur. We don’t keep the Jewish dietary and butchering regulations, light Shabbat candles, refrain from work on the Sabbath, or require circumcision. Like tithing, those are the laws of the Old Covenant and Jesus brought us a New Covenant. Nevertheless, there are some Christian pastors who think that one specific Old Testament law remains: tithing.

In effect, the Old Testament tithe was an involuntary tax and no one I know cheerfully pays his or her taxes. Searching for every loophole, they may even employ some “creative accounting” to lessen their payment. When we think “tithe,” we can easily start nit picking and hair splitting like the Pharisees. Are we talking before or after income taxes? Can we take off tuition for a Christian school, medical expenses, property taxes or business expenditures? What about mileage to and from church? Is the tithe for our parish or the church at large? What about faith-based causes like World Vision, the Gideons or Samaritan’s Purse—are they part of the tithe? Can good causes that aren’t faith based, like the local food pantry or homeless shelter, qualify? Perhaps the greatest problem with tithing is that we begin to think that only 10% of our money is God’s when, in fact, it all belongs to Him! Moreover, He also owns our time and talents and how do we measure ten percent of those? The tithe can become what Randy Alcorn calls the “finish line” instead of the “starting block” for our giving.

If we don’t tithe, how do we decide how much to give? A pastor friend gives the perfect answer: we pray! We simply ask God exactly how much He wants us to give and how and where He wants us to give it. In obedience to Him, we then commit our resources—our finances, time, and talent—as He directs. What we don’t do is base our giving on feelings, recognition we may be given, or the entertainment value of the pastor’s sermons. Offering our first fruits rather than our leftovers, we don’t give thoughtlessly, randomly, or grudgingly. We base our giving on God’s principles of stewardship and use His gifts wisely to expand His kingdom. Whatever He tells us to give, we give joyfully and with thanks—remember, it’s all His!

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” [2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT)]

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:21 (NLT)]

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All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)]

African irisAt times, we can find reading the Bible rather disturbing. For me, Peter calling Lot “righteous” is upsetting; this man offered up his virgin daughters to be raped by a mob! Abraham’s willingness to hand over Sarah to other men’s lust is equally disquieting. Those are, however, real stories about real people and, among other things, they reflect the low status of women in the ancient world. The Bible’s words may have been God-breathed and intended for people of all times and places but they were penned by men thousands of years ago for their contemporaries and their words reflect a very different culture.

When we read the Bible, we tend to read it from our 21st century point of view. Picturing the cruel plantation owner Simon Legree and remembering our nation’s intolerable exploitation of a race of people, we find the Biblical acceptance of slavery repugnant. It’s difficult for any of us to picture a society where slavery was tolerated and people would willingly sell themselves into bondage to pay their debts. Then again, in our greedy nation, it’s hard to understand a culture where, every seven years, those slaves were to be freed and all debts were to be cancelled. When we read Paul’s admonishment to dress modestly, we think he’s writing about racy clothing but plunging necklines, mini-skirts, thongs, and see-through tops weren’t a problem in his day. He actually was telling women not to flaunt their wealth with extravagant attire and jewelry. Having multiple wives, requiring an unmarried brother of a deceased man to marry his widowed sister-in-law, rules about laying siege to a city, and Paul’s concern about hair length and food, are difficult to understand or find relevant in today’s society.

To a great extent, we don’t understand the times and people responsible for bringing us the Bible. Its words were written between 3,400 and 1,900 years ago and we’re neither nomadic shepherds nor 1st century Hebrews, Romans or Greeks. If we’ve not experienced exile, been persecuted for our faith or lived in an occupied country, we have difficulty understanding or appreciating the words of those who have. With our culture so removed from the original one, when we ask, “What does this mean to me?” the quick and easy answer is often, “Nothing!” Before we ask that question, perhaps we should ask, “What did this mean to the people of that day?” Once we understand how it applied to them, we will probably find the Bible far more relevant to our lives today.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. [Romans 15:4 (ESV)]

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. [James 1:5 (ESV)]

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As iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens [and influences] another [through discussion]. [Proverbs 27:17 (AMP)]

roserush wildflower

When I was growing up, the Sunday dinner roast would be placed in front of my father who would then reach for the bone-handled carving knife and honing rod. With dramatic flair, he would steel the slicing knife against the stropping iron before carving the meat. That steel rod really didn’t sharpen his knife; it merely realigned it. When a knife is used, its sharp edge begins to bend and catch on whatever is being cut. Running the blade along a honing steel pulls its edge back into an upright position so the knife can perform at its best. To actually sharpen a knife, a whetstone rubs away some of the knife’s metal and creates a brand new edge. The more often a knife is sharpened, the more it thins and the shorter its lifespan.

Just as there is a difference between a whetstone that grinds away part of a blade and a steel honing rod that realigns it, there is a difference between judging one another and offering constructive comments or correction. The conversation of good friends is more like a honing steel than a whetstone. It improves the person rather than wears him down. Sometimes, we’re called on to do a little honing of our friends. Rarely an easy task, we should proceed prayerfully and gently. Remember, we are merely smoothing out the rough edges, not grinding off any mettle.

While the knife has no choice about accepting that honing rod, we do. Solomon’s son Rehoboam received wise counsel about not burdening his people with heavy taxes. Not appreciating the honing, he chose to ask others until he got the answer he liked better. Unfortunately, his foolishness divided the kingdom of Israel. In contrast, when Moses’ father-in-law Jethro pointed out Moses’ error in thinking he could manage two million people by himself, he listened. Like a good honing steel, Jethro also offered excellent advice on how to delegate responsibility.

God puts wise people in our lives for a reason and it’s for more than encouragement. As Matthew Henry said, it is to “improve both others and ourselves…to provoke one another to love and to good works and so to make one another wiser and better.”

Like Rehoboam we can resist the honing and insist on doing it our way or, like Moses, we can accept the correction that comes from those who love us. Just as we are tested by the way we respond to praise, we are tested by the way we respond to constructive criticism. In both cases, we must remain humble and thankful.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the friends who realign us when we need some straightening!

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. [Norman Vincent Peale]

Better is an open reprimand [of loving correction] Than love that is hidden. Faithful are the wounds of a friend [who corrects out of love and concern], But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful [because they serve his hidden agenda]. [Proverbs 27:5-6 (MSG)]

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Then God said, “Let the land sprout with vegetation—every sort of seed-bearing plant, and trees that grow seed-bearing fruit. These seeds will then produce the kinds of plants and trees from which they came.” And that is what happened. The land produced vegetation—all sorts of seed-bearing plants, and trees with seed-bearing fruit. Their seeds produced plants and trees of the same kind. And God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:11-12 (NLT)]

Crowfoot grass - Dactyloctenium aegyptiumAs much as I enjoy the beauty of garden flowers, I search out the wildflowers. Recently, I spotted something that looked like it should be called “helicopter plant” since its florets look like a helicopter’s rotors. When I showed it to a naturalist, she quickly dismissed it: “Why, that’s just a weed!” Granted, what I call flowers may be weeds to other people but weeds are just flowers that tend to show up where they’re not appreciated. As it turns out, it was the floret of something called Egyptian Crowfoot Grass (officially Dactyloctenium aegyptium). While it may be just a weed to many people, it is a food in Africa and India. Although not a traditional crop, it is considered a “famine food” and provides valuable nourishment during times of famine. When its highly nutritious seeds are collected, roasted, ground into a flour, and used in a porridge, this unappreciated weed can sustain life.

Some people are a little like Crowfoot Grass and the rest of the unique and  unappreciated weeds I think of as flowers—they have hidden value and are worthy of love and respect. Like weeds, they don’t grow in rows like the rest of the garden plants and, being different, they don’t seem to belong where they’ve been planted. We could describe them as unorthodox, unconventional or quirky. Saying they march to a different drummer, we label them as odd ducks or eccentrics but we also use words that aren’t nearly so nice. We tend to define “normal” and “conventional” by the way we choose to live; someone else might think we’re a bit odd ourselves!

I think some of God’s best work is evident in his wildflowers and the same might be said for their human equivalents. Following God’s instruction, Isaiah went around naked and barefoot for three years, Jeremiah wore an ox yoke, and Hosea married a prostitute. John the Baptist strictly adhered to the asceticism of the Nazirites, wore camel’s hair garments, and ate locusts and wild honey. Odd ducks all, but they were some of God’s best.

Let’s never make the error of failing to appreciate the value and beauty of those special people who are out of the ordinary—the ones who, like weeds, aren’t like the others around them. Take the time to look for and appreciate the wildflowers growing in the ground and the wildflowers that you meet in this garden called life.

 A weed is no more than a flower in disguise, Which is seen through at once, if love give a man eyes. [James Russell Lowell]

Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. [A.A. Milne]

 O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. [Psalm 104:24 (NLT)]

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