PROTECT THEM, LORD

I love you, Lord; you are my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. I called on the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and he saved me from my enemies. [Psalm 18:1-3 (NLT)]

mockingbird chick

Back when parks were open and the world seemed a safer place, we witnessed a parent’s nightmare. While the father was changing his toddler’s diaper, his four-year old daughter wandered away and disappeared in the zoo! We saw him frantically asking people, “Did you see a little girl in a pink bike helmet?” As he went racing down the path toward the alligators and lions, we went toward the lemurs and play area. Fortunately that pink helmet made her easy to spot as she stood watching the black bears lumber through their enclosure. While walking her back to her father, I said a prayer of thanksgiving that she would return safely home that day.

I thought of that anxious father the following day when reading Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephan Pastis. Goat was extending sympathy to Pig for his grandma’s death when Pig carried him off. In the next few frames, Pig carted off his friends Duck and Cat. All of Pig’s friends were stuffed in a box labeled “Bad things stay away!” A sign above them read, “SAFE PLACE WHERE I CAN KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE I LOVE SO NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO THEM.” In the last frame, Goat tried to explain that life doesn’t work that way but Pig said, “Don’t distract me. I’m standing guard.”

Like Pig, I wish I could keep bad things from happening to those I love. Of course, if parents and grandparents could, we’d erect a wall of protection around our loved ones to shield them, not just from death, but also from pandemics, heartache, injury, disappointment, and pain.

It would be a miracle if the worst that happens to that little girl is getting lost at the zoo. While her pink bike helmet may protect her when she falls off her trike, it’s of little use elsewhere! We live in a fallen world: a world with disease, defiance, pain, sorrow, falseness, mistakes, greed, betrayal, loss, violence, malice, and death. Chances are that our children and grands will wander further astray than to the bears’ enclosure at the local zoo.

We protect our gates, are cautious of what we allow into our homes, wear masks, sanitize, wash our hands, and stay alert to the dangers around us but what about when our loved ones leave home to lead their own lives? Unlike Pig, we can’t stuff those we love in a box and stand guard over them night and day. Instead, we teach, encourage, warn, guide, lead, love, discipline, forgive, pray, equip them, and then let them go. Although we provide them with God’s armor, we can’t make them accept or wear it. Sadly, there is no fool-proof way to protect our loved ones from Columbines or Sandy Hooks any more than we can from pandemics, disappointment, grief, cancer, mental illness, rejection, failure, or death.

I used to ask God to be with my children and grands until I realized how silly my request was; He’s with them always! I now ask God to guard them from evil by making His presence known to them and His voice heard by them. As I pray God’s blessing of protection over my loved ones, I give them to Him, trusting that He will bring them safely home, if not in this world, then in the next!

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy. For you bless the godly, O Lord; you surround them with your shield of love. [Psalm 5:11-12 (NLT)]

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FOLLOW ME

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. [Luke 9:23 (NLT)]

steamboat springs ski areaIt’s been five years since I’ve skied but I still remember that the three scariest words I ever heard when on the slopes were, “Follow me, Nonnie!” My grands loved to venture off the groomed runs into the bumps and through the woods. On my own, I never would have chosen to leave the main trail but, because I loved those little guys, I faithfully followed behind as they maneuvered between the trees and over the moguls.

Although my grands boogied joyfully off trail, I was far more hesitant. The children’s perspective was far different than mine. As they snaked through the trees, they saw the openings between them but my tendency was to focus on the pines blocking my path rather than the gaps between them. Seeing the moguls as fun friends rather than evil enemies, my grands stayed relaxed and loose and absorbed the bumps they encountered. On the other hand, seeing the moguls as adversaries, I stiffened in anticipation of trouble. Moreover, the little guys weren’t afraid of falling and, when they did, they just laughed, picked themselves up, and continued downhill. Although I rarely fell, my mind was filled with all the “what ifs” of falling: embarrassment, injury, or worse!

Life is a lot like skiing off trail into the heavy powder, bumps and trees. We can choose to see the difficulties in front of us rather than notice ways to get beyond them. If we keep our eyes focused on God, He’ll show us the way through, between or around the obstacles of life. Instead of stiffening up when we see the bumpy challenges ahead, we can choose to remain flexible and ready to absorb the impact when jolted around by life. When we trust God, He’ll give us the strength and ability to get through the moguls on life’s trail. We can be afraid of falling, humiliation or failure, or accept that missteps, disappointment, and loss are part of life. Resting secure in God’s love when we follow His ways, we won’t be afraid of crashing.

If I hadn’t followed my grands when they called, I would have missed some of the best times I’ve had with them. Enduring moguls, sore knees and occasional face plants in the snow were worth it. Our Heavenly Father has more in store for us than some thrills while skiing off trail. We certainly don’t want to miss all that He has to offer simply because we’re afraid of a few bumps and tumbles! Trust Him; He’s got a great plan. Just be sure to follow Jesus when he calls. Like skiing with the grands, it will be worth it when you do!

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:27 (NLT)]

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YES!

You see, my dear family, we don’t want to keep you in the dark about the suffering we went through in Asia. The load we had to carry was far too heavy for us; it got to the point where we gave up on life itself. Yes: deep inside ourselves we received the death sentence. This was to stop us relying on ourselves, and to make us rely on the God who raises the dead. He rescued us from such a great and deadly peril, and he’ll do it again; we have placed our hope in him, that he’ll do it again! [2 Corinthians 1:8-11 (NTE)]

blue flag irisI know I’m not invulnerable but I never thought of myself as particularly vulnerable until now. Since I am well over 65, I am officially vulnerable to COVID-19, as is my husband; that knowledge, along with the terrible toll being taken by this pandemic, has put me on edge. Knowing that it is just a matter of time before someone I love is taken down by this virus has unnerved me. That my prayer list is lengthening by the day doesn’t make it any easier. Before this, I rarely had been apprehensive about my health or that of my family, uneasy about our finances, or concerned about the family business. I’ve endured my share of trials, sorrow, illness, and uncertainty but this combination of circumstances is the “perfect storm” that has shaken me to my core.

As I prayed reassuring Bible verses this morning, I realized how much easier it is to talk the talk than actually walk the walk. I wondered if the Apostle Paul ever was shaken by circumstances. Throughout his ministry, he suffered trials and persecution. He was stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, beaten, betrayed, and abandoned and yet it seems as if God’s abundant grace sustained him throughout his life. In 2 Corinthians, Paul tells of a time he felt unbearably crushed by circumstances, so much so that he thought he’d die. As he came to realize his powerlessness, however, he stopped relying on himself and came to trust and depend on God. Delivered by God from whatever the trial was, Paul boldly stated that God would deliver him again.

Jumping ahead another ten years, however, we find Paul in a Roman prison. A few years earlier, he’d been released from his first Roman imprisonment (a house arrest) but now he was sitting in Rome’s Mamertine dungeon. Although he’d escaped a death sentence at his preliminary hearing, he fully expected to be found guilty at his final trial. Knowing his execution was imminent, there was no bold statement that God would deliver him. Nevertheless, in 2 Timothy, we don’t read the words of a man who is afraid or anxious; they are the words of a man who trusts God and lives by faith rather than sight. They are the words of a man who is calmly facing his future, whatever that may be, with confidence that God will bring him safely into His kingdom.

Rather than saying, “No!” to God, we see Paul saying an enthusiastic “Yes!” to all that will happen, whatever that may be. Like Paul, we must learn to rely solely on God and release our fears and anxiety to Him. To really do that, however, we also have to release our future – our hopes and dreams – to Him, as well. Let us trust in God: that He will give us the strength to endure whatever the future holds and that, in the end, He will bring us safely into His kingdom!

How to get through this? My prayer will be the words of former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld: “For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. … The Lord will snatch me clear from every wicked deed and will save me for his heavenly kingdom. Glory to him for the ages of ages, Amen! [2 Timothy 4:6-8,18 (NTE)]

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DESPERATE TIMES (Mark 5:21-43 – Part 1)

When he saw Jesus, he fell to his knees, beside himself as he begged, “My dear daughter is at death’s door. Come and lay hands on her so she will get well and live.” [Mark 5:23 (MSG)]

mottled duclJairus, the leader of the local synagogue, fell at Jesus’ feet. Telling Jesus his daughter was dying, Jairus begged Him to lay hands on her so she could be healed. Jesus went with him but, when He stopped to heal the woman with a blood disorder, news arrived that the girl was dead. Telling the distraught father not to be afraid and to keep believing, Jesus and Jairus continued on their way. Jairus had believed Jesus could heal his daughter; did he also believe Jesus could do something about her death?

A noisy crowd of friends and professional mourners had already gathered at Jairus’ home by the time the men arrived. When Jesus told them the child was sleeping and not dead, they scornfully laughed at Him. After clearing the room of all but her parents and three disciples, Jesus took the child’s hand in His and restored her to life. Astonishing everyone, the girl immediately rose and walked around!

As the synagogue leader, Jairus was one of the most powerful men in the community. Although a layman, he was responsible for the upkeep of the synagogue, ran the school, determined who would lead prayers and read Scripture in services, and probably had close ties to the Pharisees. Almost certainly, he was at the synagogue when Jesus restored a man’s hand on the Sabbath. Had he been one of those planning to accuse Jesus of working on the Sabbath? Until his daughter became ill, was he among those plotting against Jesus? It’s said that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and Jairus was desperate.

Sickness disrupts life in a way little else can; it can make us desperate. It made the woman with the blood disorder spend every shekel she had in search of a cure and then break Jewish law by touching Jesus’ robe. It made four men so determined they carried their paralyzed friend to be healed by Jesus. When they couldn’t get in the door, they carted him up to the roof, dug through the tiles and ceiling, and lowered him down to into the house. That a respected and powerful upper class Jew would risk his reputation by falling to his knees before an itinerant rabbi who challenged the Pharisees and threatened the status quo, tells us how desperate Jairus was.

In a letter to a friend, C.S. Lewis wrote of “the necessity…which God is under of allowing us to be afflicted [because] so few of us will really rest all on Him if He leaves us any other support.” Ours is not a “fair-weather” God, only there in good times, but often we seem to be “foul-weather” followers who only call on Him in stormy ones. God is with us in sunshine and thunderstorms and we should be desperate for Him in both.

Even though Jesus told Jairus not to tell anyone what had happened, didn’t he want to shout it from the rooftops? Perhaps not, since that would put him at odds with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Did Jairus become a faithful follower of Christ or, once he’d gotten what he wanted from Jesus, did his belief turn to skepticism? Did Jairus join with the Pharisees in plotting against the very one who saved his daughter? I’d like to think that having seeing Jesus resurrect his daughter, he believed Jesus was the Messiah and was one of the 120 believers mentioned in Acts 1. Since we never read of Jairus again, we can only wonder.

What about us? Are we desperate for a momentary rescue or a long-term relationship? Do we seek a miracle or a Messiah? Do we want to feed our stomachs or our souls?

Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. [John 6:26 (MSG)]

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COWBOY OR SHEPHERD?

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [Psalm 23:1 (NLT)]

cowboy - Losee Canyon - BryceIn A Gentle Thunder, author Max Lucado compares the hero of the Bible, the shepherd, with the hero of the American west, the cowboy. They both herd livestock, their home is the range, and they sleep under the stars. The difference, says Lucado, is that the shepherd knows and loves his sheep because he leads them to be shorn. The cowboy, however, doesn’t get attached to his cattle because he’s leading them to slaughter! While several cowboys drive a herd of cattle and know one another’s names, just one shepherd leads a flock of sheep and it is their names that he knows!

Lucado’s comparison got me thinking about the cowboy heroes of my youth: Marshalls Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp, widower Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), gunfighter-for-hire Paladin, and the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto. They were larger than life heroes. Along with being excellent shots, they lived by a strict moral code, fought for law and order, and only used their fists or weapons in the cause of justice. I seriously doubt those cowboys bore much resemblance to the real thing.

The masked Lone Ranger stands out in my memory. He and Tonto rode through the West, doing good deeds and fighting evil. The stories were formulaic and, when the townspeople were in dire straits, our heroes would save the day. With the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, they would ride into town, guns blazing, and rescue the good citizens from the forces of evil. Then without waiting for thanks, they’d ride off into the sunset with Rossini’s music in the background. We’d hear the Lone Ranger call, “Hi-yo, Silver” and someone would ask, “Who was that masked man?”

We no longer face the challenges of frontier life: desperadoes, stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, hijacked stage coaches, gunfights, claim jumping, or evil land barons. Nevertheless, we need to be rescued from more realistic problems: fear, worry, poor choices, illness, anger, broken marriages, estranged families, doubt, indebtedness, addiction, disabilities, loss, and the challenges of care giving. Sadly, no cowboy in a white hat is going to ride to our rescue and the solution won’t occur in a thirty-minute time slot. Nevertheless, sometimes we seem to think Jesus will do just that (only without the silver bullets and white hat).

Fortunately, as Lucado points out in his book, we don’t have a cowboy; we have a shepherd. Unlike the Lone Ranger, He doesn’t travel around until He comes upon someone in trouble and, unlike Paladin, we don’t have to hire Him. Moreover, He never rides off into the sunset after helping us. Like a good shepherd, Jesus is always with each and every one of us. Being the sheep of His pasture, however, doesn’t mean we won’t encounter predators, pests, harsh environment, storms, or sickness. We’ll occasionally stumble, wander off, or be tempted by poisonous weeds. Having a shepherd means that we’re never alone in those trials. We don’t need to wait for a hero to save the day because our savior is in the day with us! The few times the Lone Ranger was caught, he never was unmasked and no one except Tonto knew his identity. As Christians, however, we know the identity of our shepherd. If we truly follow Him, we’ll never need a cowboy to save the day.

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland. [Max Lucado]

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. [John 10:14-15 (NLT)]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (NLT)]

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WHY PRAY?

You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. [Psalm 139:4,16 (NLT)]

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

blue flag irisAs I offered prayers for a good biopsy report, it occurred to me that my prayer was too late. Already excised, the tissue had been sent to a pathologist; for all I knew, the report was written and waiting to be read by my physician. Was God going to rewrite the report? Any troublesome cells in my body had been there awhile. Most likely, the biopsy result was decided months ago so I probably should have been praying about it long before anyone knew a biopsy was needed. Since the pathologist’s report was determined long before my prayers, “Why bother to pray at all?” was the whisper of doubt in my mind.

I imagine I’m not alone in questioning the purpose and efficacy of prayer. When I question if my prayer right now can affect a report written two days ago, let alone a situation that probably has been months or years in the making, I am thinking in human terms: past, present, and future. While we can remember the past, we can only remember that which we know about, not what was hidden from us. We can see the present, but only that which is immediately in front of us and we are blind to the future. God, however, is infinite. Unlimited, He exists outside time or space. Omnipotent, He knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening now, and everything that will take place in the future. Before I was born, He knew the choices I would make, what those choices would mean, whether or not I would pray, and what I’d say in those prayers. He even knew I’d be having a biopsy, its results, and whether or not I’d pray about it. Having given me free will, He didn’t determine my choices; nevertheless, He knew the choices I’d make. Not only did He hear my prayers before I spoke them, He heard my prayers before I’d even thought about praying them.

While I know prayer changes people, I don’t know if prayer changes history. Rather than changing history, perhaps our history is already determined because God knows whether or not we will pray. Rather than changing history, perhaps prayer determines it. Did God change His mind about destroying the people of Nineveh because of their prayers? Or, even before sending Jonah to them, did He know that, having been warned, they would pray and repent so Nineveh would be spared?

Our vision is limited but God’s is not. Without twenty-twenty hindsight or a crystal ball allowing us to see the future, we’re not likely to understand the way He answers our prayers. Clearly, Jesus believed in prayer. He often prayed, taught the disciples to pray and we know of his anguished prayer in Gethsemane. God the Father knew every prayer Jesus offered, not because He determined them, but because He lives in a continuum of time and sees yesterday, today, and tomorrow as one. I think God already knows the prayers we’re going to offer tomorrow (even though we don’t) and that He has already set in motion whatever needs to be done to answer those prayers according to His will! I don’t understand how prayer works but I’m not going to allow uncertainty or doubts keep me from praying.

Let us pray!

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. [C.S. Lewis]

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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