FLOWERS AND BIRDS

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? [Matthew 6:26-30 (NLT)]

cardinal - narrow-leaved sunflower - Corkscrew SwampI’ve never seen a field of lilies in blossom but they couldn’t be any more beautiful than the field of narrow-leaved sunflowers that surrounded me at the bird sanctuary recently. Standing in wonder as their yellow faces smiled down on me, I was reminded of Jesus’s words about the lilies of the field. When I came upon a cardinal pecking away at a large ripe berry, I remembered His words regarding the birds. While watching the bird enjoy his breakfast, the story of Elijah and the ravens that fed him came to mind and I thought about God’s promise to provide.

Having more than enough clothes in my closet and a pantry full of food, I’m not worried about food or clothing. I do, however, tend to worry about God’s provision of words for these devotions. Trust in Him doesn’t come automatically—it is a learned response. Nevertheless, even though God has provided me with fodder for over 1,600 devotions, I’m a slow learner and I still have trouble trusting Him to continue with His provision.

Throughout Scripture, God promises over and over again to provide and, over and over again, people don’t trust Him. Consider the Israelites; after being told there would be manna enough every day, they tried to save it. Even though stored manna turned rotten and maggoty, I would venture a guess that some people continued trying to save it. If I’d been there, I probably would have tried different types of containers, hoping that I’d eventually find the right way to preserve manna (just in case God missed a day)! Later, when God promised to provide the power and strength to take Canaan, the Israelites didn’t believe that God’s provision would be enough and refused to enter. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have trusted God’s promise any more than did the rest of them.

You’re probably not worried about words and maybe not even food or clothing. Even so, we’re all worried about whether God will provide enough of something we need, be it money, health, time, comfort, friends, faith, strength, wisdom, peace or patience. Remember, God promises to provide for the birds and flowers and they’re not even made in His image! Jesus didn’t die on the cross for them and the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell within them, yet God provides for them! God loves us—we’re created in His image, redeemed by His son, and given eternal life by Him. As His beloved children, we ought to trust Him enough to provide our necessities! When God brings us someplace, as He did with the Israelites and Elijah, He’ll provide us with a way to meet our needs, be it manna on the ground, ravens bringing us food, or wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

God looks at the anxious and says, I tore my Son to shreds for you, and you’re afraid I will not give you what you need? [Timothy Keller]

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. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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THE STRANGLER FIG

The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. [Mark 4:18-19 (MSG)]

strangler fig - corkscrew swampAs a rule, trees start as seeds in the soil, form a cylindrical trunk and observe proper forest protocol by not killing one another. The strangler fig, however, is the exception to that rule. Strangler figs tend to grow in dense forests where the competition for light is intense. When forest critters eat their fruit, fig seeds are left in their droppings. Although unable to survive in the darkness of the forest floor, these seeds thrive when deposited higher in the crevice of a tree. Starting out as what’s called an epiphyte or air plant, the seed gets its nutrients from sun, rain and organic material on the host. As the seedling matures, it sends out long roots that grow downward toward the soil. Once rooted, the fig grows rapidly, sending more roots down and new branches upwards. In time, its lush foliage and complex root system compete with the host for light, rain and ground water. Walking through the southwest Florida forest, you can’t help but notice the figs’ bizarre lattice work of roots and branches wrapped around the trunks of their hosts and it’s often hard to know where one tree ends and the other starts. Eventually, the fig assassinates its host by cutting off its nourishment; like a boa constrictor, it strangles its prey to death.

Just as a tiny fig seed can eventually destroy a giant cypress; if allowed to take root, worry can do the same to us. Like fig seeds, worries are opportunistic—when they find a niche, they move right in and start growing. They seem harmless enough at first but, once they take root, they dig into us and branch out into even more worries. Rather than wrapping around our trunk, worry wraps around our spirit and, like the fig, steals the light from our lives. The fig embeds itself into its host and worry entrenches itself in our hearts. A silent assassin like the fig, worry attacks our roots with doubt and tries to rob us of the living water of Jesus. At least the figs produce fruit to feed the residents of the forest; worry, however, keeps us from bearing any fruit and starves our spirit. The fig’s many nooks and crannies offer homes to critters like frogs, bats, and lizards but worries only offer hospitality to things like anxiety, fear, doubt, and tension. The strangler fig sentences it host to certain death and, like it, worry is a killer. It kills our joy, vitality, strength, spirit, and faith but it can also strangle the life right out of us with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related diseases.

The oaks, cypress and palms have no choice in the matter when a fig takes root. Fortunately, we have a divine Gardener who can rid us of worry but only if we trust Him to do His work. Without allowing worry to take root, we must prayerfully hand God our concerns as soon as they drop into our lives. It’s only by trusting God with tomorrow that we can bear fruit today.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:21 (MSG)]

But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

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LETTING GO

gulf fritillary - Monarch butterfliesBut blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers — Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

This morning, in a symbolic gesture of turning my worries over to God, I added a name to the “God box” that sits on my desk. Yesterday, I received a photo of my grand proudly holding a bowl of pasta with the text, “I have yet to set off the fire alarm with my cooking.” As I looked at her beautiful smile, I prayed, “Dear God, please let setting off that smoke alarm be the worst thing that happens to her this year!” She just started her freshman year of college, in a large city, in a foreign country, 5,500 miles from home. I know that drinking and drugs are pervasive on all college campuses and, having been a freshman once upon a time, I know how many foolish mistakes can be made when free from parental supervision. Yet, even if every decision my grand makes is a wise one, I know the statistics: with a more than a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted in her college years, she’s most vulnerable to attack her freshman year. Since the day my son left his daughter at her apartment, my concerns have weighed heavily on my heart. Nevertheless, I know that all the worry in the world can’t protect her from harm. Accepting that all I can do is give my concerns to God, I put her name in my box.

“Let go and let God!” is a favorite phrase in recovery but that doesn’t mean we let the troubles of this world run over us like a steamroller. When there’s a fire, we don’t stand idly by and say, “Let go and let God!” With God’s direction, we reach for a hose and do what is within our control. Letting go and letting God is refusing to worry about fires that haven’t started (and might never start) and recognizing when a fire isn’t ours to extinguish. It is, however, more than putting a name on a slip of paper and placing it in a wooden box. It’s surrendering the outcome we desire and letting God manifest His will for the outcome He wants. It’s releasing our concerns and fears to Him and trusting His plan for the lives of those we love.

I can’t protect my grand from poor decisions or the violence and sorrow that comes from living in a fallen world. But, by putting her name in that box, I’ve acknowledged that my job description as grandmother does not include running the world; I’ve relinquished that role to the One whose job it is! I will continue offering prayers on her behalf but those prayers will no longer be ones of fear, anxiety, or apprehension. They will be ones of faith and trust because I know that God loves her even more than I do.

You find no difficulty in trusting the Lord with the management of the universe and all the outward creation, and can your case be any more complex or difficult than these, that you need to be anxious or troubled about His management of it? [Hannah Whitall Smith]

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)]

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STILLING THE WATERS

Their ships were tossed to the heavens and plunged again to the depths; the sailors cringed in terror. They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. [Psalm 107:26-18 (NLT)]

sunset - Naples FLMark, Matthew, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus calming the sea. He and the disciples had started to sail the five miles across the Sea of Galilee when a fierce storm struck. Tired from a day of preaching, Jesus remained asleep in the stern while the storm raged. As the waves broke and the boat began to fill with water, the disciples were sure they would perish. After they woke Jesus by shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” He rebuked the wind and the storm ended.

Since we’ve probably heard more than one sermon on this story, we know that the presence of Jesus in our boat is no guarantee of a storm-free life and that, even when it seems like God is asleep on the job, He has the situation firmly in hand. But think about the storm and imagine the sounds that night: the howling of the wind, waves smacking the sides of the boat, rain pounding down, sails furiously flapping, the crack of thunder, and men shouting to one another as they tried to lower the sails, bail and row. With all that noise and the boat pitching and heaving as the waves tossed it about, even the soundest sleeper would have difficulty sleeping. Jesus, however, was undisturbed by the commotion and remained asleep. Although the storm couldn’t wake Him, the disciples’ call to Him did! Whether we are shouting over the sound of thunder or whispering to Him beside a loved one’s hospital bed, this story tells us God will hear our call.

My final take-away from this story is not to underestimate the power of Jesus, something I think the disciples did. When they spotted the first black clouds on the horizon, they didn’t wake Jesus and ask Him to send the storm elsewhere. They tried to sail through the storm on their own power. It wasn’t until they feared they were at death’s door that they finally called to Him. Did the men wake Him because they thought He could still the storm or because they needed His help bailing and rowing? In spite of the miracles they’d seen Jesus do, their shock and terror when He stopped the wind and calmed the sea instantly (something that normally took 24 to 48 hours after a storm’s end) makes me think they expected a helping hand rather than a supernatural solution.

I wonder how often we, like the disciples, underestimate God’s power to handle the crises in our lives and wait until we’re desperate before calling to Him. While we may not get a miracle, His power is enough to get us through any storm. Even if He doesn’t calm the waters, He will bring us safely into harbor.

He calmed the storm to a whisper and stilled the waves. What a blessing was that stillness as he brought them safely into harbor! Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. [Psalm 107:29-31 (NLT)]

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ALL FOR THE GOOD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge,” is a blessing often said by Jews when they undergo a death or tragedy. “This is all for the good,” or “Blessed is the true judge,” is often said by other Jews in response to their tragic news. Rather than being about God’s final judgment of a person, these words remind them that only God can judge whether events are good or bad. To illustrate this point, the Talmud has a story about the second century sage, Rabbi Akiva. One night, the rabbi, along with his rooster and donkey, arrived in a village. When no one would give Akiva a place to stay, the rebbe said, “All that God does, He does for the good.” He then walked to a field outside of town, set up camp, and lit his lantern. That evening, a gust of wind knocked over the lantern breaking it, a fox came and ate the rooster, and a lion came and killed the donkey. In spite of all that, Akiva said, “All that God does, He does for the good!” Just before dawn, marauders came and attacked the village but, camped in the field without light, crowing rooster or braying donkey to reveal his presence, the rabbi remained safe.

The Talmud explains this story by saying that we must bless God for the bad news that comes our way in the same manner we bless Him for the good things that befall us. Indeed, when Scripture tells us we are told to love God with our whole heart, soul and strength it doesn’t mention any exceptions for circumstances we don’t like. While it’s easy to love God with our entire being when all is good, we must also love Him that same way in our suffering, sorrow and misfortune. Rest assured, in the long run, whatever happens to us is for our good. That, however, does not mean everything that happens to us will be good. Indeed, even when we don’t know why, pain, grief and adversity are blessings. All that God does, He does for the good! Blessed be the true judge.

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:35,38-39 (NLT)]

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SEEING THE OTHER SIDE

Monarch buttefliesNow 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)]

“He’s so young!” said my husband when my brother died at the age of fifty-six. I reminded him that my dad was the same age when he died. “But he was old!” my husband exclaimed. The difference, of course, is that we were in our fifties when my brother died but only in our twenties when my father did. That the same thing can look so different from two viewpoints makes me think of those tilt or magic motion cards that used to come in Cracker Jack© boxes. Done by something called lenticular printing, one card holds two or more different images. Titled one way, there might be the traditional Mona Lisa but, tilted the other way, she would be winking with a goofy grin on her face. Just as whether someone seems young or old depends as much on our age as theirs, what is perceived on a tilt card depends on the angle at which it is viewed.

When we look at a magic motion card, we only see what’s right in front of us but, when God looks at one, He sees if from all sides. Looking at life from just our viewpoint, we only see what’s happening now and how it affects us and those we love. We see the delay and feel the frustration of waiting but, from His viewpoint, God also sees us learning patience. We see the task and protest that our work is too demanding but He sees that we’re learning determination. We see the unknown and hesitate in fear but He sees us learning to trust Him. We see the betrayal and feel resentment but He sees us learning to forgive. We see the burden of caregiving and grow tired but He sees us learning about sacrifice. We see the cranky in-laws and get exasperated but He see us learning about unconditional love. We see the failure and are disheartened but He sees us developing resilience. Rather than looking at circumstances from just our viewpoint, we need to tilt the picture and look at circumstances through the eyes of God.

One of my favorite Bible verses is 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.” Unfortunately, that’s about as specific as God gets in detailing those plans. So, just as I can’t see both pictures on a tilt card at once, I have no idea what is on the other side of today’s challenges. I will just have to settle for knowing that our loving God sees it all and His plans for me are good ones.

God allows us to experience the low points of life in order to teach us lessons we could not learn in any other way. The way we learn those lessons is not to deny the feelings but to find the meanings underlying them. [Stanley Lindquist]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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