IT’S CONTAGIOUS

With his great power the Lord warned me not to follow the road which the people were following. He said, “Do not join in the schemes of the people and do not be afraid of the things that they fear.” [Isaiah 8:11-12 (GNT)]

great blue heronKnowing that God’s people must be fully committed to their cause in battle, Deuteronomy 20 provided several exemptions from combat. An anxious man wouldn’t have his mind on battle and could make blunders that might endanger the entire army. Because men too preoccupied with concerns at home wouldn’t fight wholeheartedly, those who were engaged to be married, had built a house and not yet dedicated it, or planted a vineyard and not harvested it were released from service.  Moreover, anyone who admitted to being afraid was also sent home. This was done to keep their negativity and fear from infecting the entire army’s morale. A small army of faithful men was better than a large army of worried, frightened or fainthearted ones.

While the anxious and fearful soldiers were sent home, it’s not so easy to avoid those kinds of people in our daily lives. We all know people who seem to carry a dark cloud of pessimism over their heads. It doesn’t just rain on their parade—negativity pours down on everyone else’s, as well.

Several years ago, a friend’s husband had a slight cough. By the time she was done fretting about it to family and friends, she was sure it was bronchitis which would lead to pneumonia which would mean hospitalization. This led another family member to be sure the man’s death was imminent and funeral plans needed to be made. The wife’s negativity and fear were far more contagious than the man’s cough which, incidentally, never turned into bronchitis and is now long forgotten.

I’m not Pollyanna and I know that some coughs do lead to pneumonia, not all biopsies come out benign, bad things happen to good people, not everyone recovers from COVID, and not every story has a happy ending. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to put up my umbrella at the first cloud or focus on the storm rather than pray for a rainbow! Whether my glass is half empty or half full, I know that God will make sure I have all that I need in it.

The Old Testament advice is simple: stay away from the faint-hearted, pessimistic and fearful lest they infect you with their lack of faith. While we can be protected from measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, and even coronavirus, there’s no vaccine for panic, negativity or anxiety and they’re far more contagious than any virus! When dealing with a communicable disease, medical experts advise us to wear a mask, wash our hands, keep our distance, avoid crowds, and get vaccinated. Pessimism and fear are as infectious as COVID and, since there’s no vaccination for them, we can avoid exposure by washing our hands of doom scrolling, socially distancing ourselves from the “Debbie Downers“ of life, and avoiding groups of grumblers and faultfinders. Rather than being infected by pessimism, complaint or anger, let us prevent contagion by trusting in the Lord and choosing faith over fear and gratitude over grievance.

Fear is catching. He whose heart fails him makes his brethren’s heart to fail, like his heart. [Matthew Henry]

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (GNT)]

Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. [Ephesians 4:29 (GNT)]

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WORRYWARTS

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note,
Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy,
Don’t worry, be happy now. [Bobby McFerrin]

water lily“Don’t worry, be happy,” sang Bobby McFerrin. Right now, for many of us, that’s easier sung than done. This pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Between rising numbers of COVID cases and concern about on-line schooling, money troubles, closing businesses, political divisiveness, and quarantining, it’s hard not to worry!

The word “worry” comes from the old English wyrgan meaning “to strangle” which led to the Middle English meaning “to slay, kill or injure by biting and shaking the throat” (as a dog or wolf might to a lamb). By the 17th century, the verb “worry” also meant “to bother, distress or persecute” and, by the 19th century, the noun meant “anxiety arising from cares or troubles.” All of these meanings ring true. Worry can strangle us with fear and indecision or seize and tear us apart by destroying our confidence, health and relationships. With the ferocity of a wolf, it can intimidate us, attack our plans, shake our faith, and hound our every thought. Fretfulness, sleepless nights, stress, and angst—all come from worry.

While “worrywart” is often used to describe someone who worries excessively by dwelling on the possibility of trouble or difficulty, it originally meant something else entirely. In 1922, Out Our Way, a comic strip depicting rural American life drawn by J.R. Williams, made its debut and a recurring character was the Worry Wart, a young boy (who frequently was accompanied by his mangy dog). Worry Wart wasn’t a worrier; instead, he was a pest who frustrated and worried his parents. Oblivious to the world around him, his schemes and foolhardy actions annoyed others and caused them anxiety!

The term “worrywart” may have gotten its present meaning in 1956 when it was used by Ivan Belknap in a book outlining problems in state mental hospitals. “Worrywart” was used to describe a particularly delusional kind of patient who’d abandoned all reasonable thinking. We don’t have to be patients in an asylum to abandon reasonable thinking; all we have to do is worry! With worry, a simple problem can turn into a major disaster and fill our minds with all sorts of horrible and improbable scenarios. Worse, because our worry often causes those around us their own stress and anxiety, we become as disruptive and bothersome as the original Worry Wart. Worry doesn’t just drive us crazy; because it’s as contagious as measles or COVID, it drives everyone around us crazy, too!

Every day we have a choice; trust God or worry. When we’re unwilling to trust Him to handle things, worry is the inevitable result. Since worry does nothing but steal our joy and rob us of a good night’s sleep, trust seems the better choice. Trusting God with the future, however, means ceding control of tomorrow (and every day after) to Him. That’s difficult if we secretly harbor the belief that we are the ones running the universe. Fortunately, we’re not—that’s God’s job, and His alone. Today, let’s hand Him our worries and choose to trust Him with our concerns.

Father, keep us from worry and from causing others to grow anxious. Lighten our heavy hearts and the hearts of those around us. Help us all to surrender our concerns, burdens and fears to you. Fill us with your peace.

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength [Corrie ten Boom]

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. [Larry Eisenberg]

People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. [Matthew 6:32-34 (MSG)]

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HE CARES! (Cana – part 4)

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. [Philippians 4:6 (NLT)]

sunflowerIn spite of the theological reasons I gave for the miracle at Cana, providing wine for a wedding still seems an odd choice for Jesus’ debut miracle. Compared to the rest of His miracles, it almost seems frivolous. While the situation was embarrassing for the host, it wasn’t as grave as a demon-possessed child, thousands of hungry people, a crippled woman, a paralyzed man, or a dead friend. When considering Jesus’ reason for performing this miracle, Max Lucado had a simpler explanation than mine. He suggests that Jesus was concerned about the dearth of wine at the wedding simply because it concerned Mary; He cared because she cared! Pointing out that God is there for both the great and small, Lucado asked, “If Jesus was willing to use divine clout to solve a social faux pas, how much more willing would He be to intervene on the weightier matters of life?” Lucado certainly has a point; since it mattered to Mary, it mattered to Jesus.

Do we ever vet our concerns and only hand God the critical ones? Thinking our prayers must have a certain weightiness or urgency, do we pre-qualify them before we consider them worthy of God’s ear? Shouldn’t we present all of our troubles to God and let Him decide what is important?

Three years ago, following hurricane Irma, contractors were in short supply in Southwest Florida. A friend’s rental property had been damaged. When the tile man called to say he’d start work that day only if the stove and refrigerator had been moved out to the deck, she didn’t dare object. The appliances were still in place and this small woman, on the far side of 70, had no idea how they’d get moved. Nevertheless, knowing that the window of opportunity with her contractor was narrow, she agreed. Wondering how she’d move the appliances or find people for the drywall and painting she’d need once the floor was done, she prayed, “God help me! ”

At the time, Irma was considered the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in history. Leaving a string of Caribbean islands devastated, it affected nine US states, turned streets into rivers, ripped down power lines, uprooted trees, and demolished homes and businesses. In our state alone, Irma took 87 lives and did $50 million worth of damage. If prayers were ranked by urgency or direness of circumstance, she knew hers would be low on His list. Nevertheless, the situation was important to her and she prayed as she drove to the condo.

As God would have it, when my friend pulled into the parking lot, two young men were standing by a truck. Mustering up her courage, she approached them and asked if they could help her. With time to spare before they started working on another condo, they moved her appliances. As the men were leaving her unit, my friend asked what sort of work they did. You guessed it; they did drywall and painting! Her prayer had been answered in full!

Billy Graham said, “Heaven is full of answers to prayers for which no one bothered to ask.” If Mary hadn’t brought the wine problem to Jesus, the wedding celebration would have ended early and, if my friend hadn’t prayed about her dilemma, she might still be waiting for her condo repair! My point is simple: if it’s important to us, it’s important to God! Let us never limit Him by thinking we know what He can or will do.

Children do not find it difficult or complicated to talk to their parents, nor do they feel embarrassed to bring the simplest need to their attention. Neither should we hesitate to bring the simplest requests confidently to the Father. [Richard J. Foster]

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. [1 John 5:14 (NLT)]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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BENEVOLENT DETACHMENT

Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you. Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. [1 Peter 5: 7-9 (MSG)]

great blue heron“We’re just a big ball of frustration right now!” a public information officer for the San Antonio Police said while describing the rise in road rage and violent driver incidents in that city. Unfortunately that big ball of frustration isn’t limited to the road or San Antonio. Satan must be chortling in glee as he watches people’s virus-fueled anxiety spurring rising levels of aggression and hostility everywhere.

A Texas woman recently had a complete meltdown in the grocery store. After being asked to wear a mask, she went on an expletive-deleted tirade while flinging more than a dozen items out of her cart. Although she’d worn the mask while shopping, she’d removed it in the checkout line. While she chucked her pork chops, chicken, produce, and canned goods into the aisles with one hand, she held her mask in the other. Finally, abandoning the rest of her groceries, she stormed out of the store, screaming profanities and still waving her mask. The outburst gained her nothing but embarrassment as her outburst went viral and she still had to buy groceries (in a city with a mask mandate)!

Whether it’s fear, anger, depression, unease or frustration about health and safety, racial injustice, politics, government, cabin fever, unemployment, financial challenges, on-line schooling, working remotely, or isolation, tension is high and everyone is on edge. But, instead of dealing with our feelings, we seem to be lashing out at one another. While I haven’t thrown a tantrum or screamed at anyone yet, I admit to not liking my mind’s inner dialogue when I see people flaunting the mask order, hogging the sidewalk, wearing masks improperly, with a loaded grocery cart in the express lane, or committing numerous other minor social infractions that wouldn’t have aggravated me a few months ago.

People are wound tight and living that way isn’t good for our bodies or our souls. We need to let go of those petty annoyances along with our major concerns and give them all to God! Christian counselor and author John Eldredge calls this practice “benevolent detachment.” It’s a way to be kind to ourselves as well as to those around us. To practice this detachment, he’s developed an app called “One Minute Pause.” With soothing music in the background, it begins with a few deep breaths followed by God inviting us to give everyone and everything to Him. It continues with our response: “I give everyone and everything to you, God!” followed by a few Bibles verses and a brief prayer. Although I have the app, none of us need an app on our phones to benevolently detach from the world around us. We do, however, have to hit the pause button on our emotions! We need to unclench both physically and spiritually and release whatever is troubling us to God.

The request to put on her mask probably was the least of many things bothering that Texas woman but, as “the last straw,” it was what triggered her frenzy. What if she had made a practice of benevolent detachment—of regularly pausing long enough to hand her frustrations to God? Let us all make a concerted effort to let go of life’s minor vexations before they evolve into a complete meltdown or worse. Let’s regularly step back, take a deep breath, and redirect our attention to the One who is walking through this valley with us. We’re not in this alone! As we give God our fear, anxiety, irritation, exasperation, angst, and sadness, let us choose to trust Him.

Over time I’ve found no better practice to help clear out my cluttered soul than the practice of benevolent detachment. The ability to let it go, walk away — not so much physically but emotionally, soulfully. [John Eldredge]

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S YOUR ORANGE?

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich. [Luke 18:22-23 (NLT)]

orange“What’s your orange?” the teacher asked her remote learning class. Before having them answer, she explained the “monkey trap.” In Southeast Asia, hunters capture monkeys by drilling a hole in a pumpkin. The hole is just large enough for a monkey’s hand but too small for his fist. They secure the pumpkin to a tree, put a piece of sweet juicy orange inside the gourd, then retreat and wait. Eventually, an unsuspecting monkey comes along, smells the orange, and reaches through that small hole into the pumpkin. Once he’s grabbed hold of the orange, however, his fist can’t get back through the same hole. The monkey pulls and pulls but can’t free his hand. While he’s struggling to pull out his orange-filled fist, hunters easily throw a net over him. Not understanding that he can’t have both his freedom and the orange, he loses them both. After telling this story, the teacher again asked her students, “What is your orange? What is it you can’t release?”

This lesson was part of an expanded on-line curriculum at my grand’s high school. Its purpose is to address the emotional issues encountered by the teens in this strange time of social distancing and on-line classes. Whether the “monkey trap” is an actual technique or simply a parable, its lesson applies to Christians as well as pandemic teens. Do we have an orange (or two)?

We’ve all asked God to save us from one predicament or another but, after promising we’ll do anything He asks, we often add a condition to that prayer and tell God not to ask us to give up the “orange.” We’re deep in debt but we tell God not to ask us to sell the boat or downsize the house. When our marriage is in trouble, we tell God not to ask us to give up the internet flirtation or the nights out with the guys. We’re having ethical challenges at work but tell God not to ask us to give up the well-paid position. Like the orange, some things are a whole lot easier to grab than to let go!

Like the monkey, we’re often held hostage by whatever our “orange” is: whether it’s alcohol, drugs, food, gambling or another addiction; an unhealthy relationship, money, possessions, or prestige; or emotions like resentment, worry, anger, arrogance, remorse, pain from past hurts, guilt, or self-doubt. Whatever we’re holding tightly in our heart keeps us from being truly free to enjoy the abundance and peace Jesus offers. Until we let go of that “orange,” there’s no room for God’s blessings.

The gospels tell of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer that he must give away all his wealth makes us all uncomfortable. Does God really expect us to give away everything? Giving away all we possess, however, isn’t a universal requirement and Jesus didn’t ask that of anybody else. What Jesus asked the man to do was to give up the thing that possessed him: his orange. That’s what He asks of us, as well. Every person has his own “orange;” we must recognize it for the trap it is, open our hands, and let it go. The rich young ruler’s “orange” was his wealth; what’s yours?

If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead. [William Law]

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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ATTENDING TO THE PRESENT

dawnYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT

Jesus once said that Satan was a thief. Satan does not steal money, for he knows that money has no eternal value. He steals only what has eternal value – primarily the souls of men. [Zac Poonen]

C.S. Lewis’ religious satire The Screwtape Letters consists of 31 letters written by the senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of acquiring the soul of a young man. Screwtape’s suggestions of ways to cause the fellow’s damnation could be described as a self-help book in reverse. As the diabolical demon advises Wormwood in methods of temptation, the reader learns Satan’s assorted strategies and ruses and what not to let happen. While walking the other morning, I thought of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood regarding the young man’s focus of attention.

To beat the heat of Southwest Florida, I start my walk while it still is dark. When crossing one of our bridges, the previous night’s full moon was on my left and the coming day’s sunrise on the right. Caught between the day that was and the day yet to come, I thought of Screwtape’s words that God prefers man to be concerned with either the present or eternity rather than yesterday or tomorrow. When in the moment, he is “obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, [or] giving thanks for the present pleasure.”  When considering eternity, he is meditating on God. Wanting neither of those things, Screwtape advises Wormwood to get the young man to live in the frozen past or the unknown future.

Of the two methods, Screwtape prefers getting him to live in the future: either in perpetual anticipation of the rainbow’s end or in constant fear of the horrors tomorrow may bring. Clarifying his point about the future, Screwtape explains that God expects man to make plans but planning for tomorrow’s work actually is today’s duty. God, however, doesn’t want man to place his expectations in the future. Naïve optimism and unrealistic expectations inevitably end in disappointment while anxiety and distress rob the present of joy. Unlike God, the demons want man to be “hagridden by the future” and so obsessed by images of either a surefire windfall or a pending catastrophe that he will be willing to do anything to attain his pipe dream or prevent the disaster. If there ever were a time we’re tempted to live in a pre-pandemic yesterday, ignore reality and view tomorrow with rose-colored glasses, or be so fearful of the future we can’t face it, that time is now. When we focus on yesterday or tomorrow, we’re playing right into our enemy’s hands.

Standing on the bridge, I knew God wanted me to attend to the present—to leave yesterday behind and accept with faith what tomorrow brings. As I walked forward, however, I remembered that He also wants me to attend to eternity—to look beyond time to Him: the Eternal One who holds yesterday, today, tomorrow, and eternity in His loving hands.

God has set Eternity in our heart, and man’s infinite capacity cannot be filled or satisfied with the things of time and sense. [F.B. Meyer]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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