SWIMMING WITH HOPE

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. [1 Peter 1:3-5 (RSV)]

sabatiaIn a gruesome experiment done back in 1957 (before PETA existed), Curt Richter put wild rats in an enclosed jar of water. When the rats realized there was no chance for escape, they gave up swimming and drowned in about 15 minutes. In a second experiment, other rats were pulled out of the water after a few minutes and then re-immersed several times. Later, when these rats were placed in the water jar and not rescued, they didn’t give up in 15 minutes as did the first group. Instead, they lasted 40 to 60 hours before dying. (I said the experiment was gruesome!) Having experienced previous rescues, these rats had hope of being rescued again and so they kept swimming. Unfortunately, they eventually drowned in exhaustion. I suppose Richter’s study applies to people as well as rats—if we have hope, we can survive (or at least survive longer) but, without hope, we will surely give up and drown.

In chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote of the great three: faith, hope and love. Frequently read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 could be called the Bible’s love chapter. Perhaps Hebrews 11 would be considered the Bible’s faith chapter. In it, Paul both defines faith (”the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen…assurance about things we cannot see”) and then lists numerous people in what could be called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

What then of hope; is there a definitive chapter on it? It could be 1 Peter 1. Directed to early Christians scattered throughout the world, Peter offers joy and hope in the midst of their many trials. He’s not writing about wishful thinking; he writes of a living hope—a confident expectation that our God is present, faithful and will do as He says. That hope is based on the facts and promises in the Bible. It isn’t just for today; it is for all time! Nevertheless, I don’t think there is a definitive chapter on hope—from the creation story through the last words of Revelation, the entire Bible is a message of hope (faith and love, as well).

After those preliminary rescues, the rats had hope. The scientists, however, were just manipulating them to see how they’d react. God isn’t toying with us and we aren’t subjects of a cruel experiment. He doesn’t give us hope only to snatch it away; the hope He gives us is both living and lasting. As Christians, we have good reason to keep swimming in the midst of our trials and difficulties. Even if we’re not rescued from our problems in this life, we still have hope. Whether we continue to swim or sink, we’ve already been saved and have another, far better life, yet to come!

Faith is not a contradiction of reality, but the courage to face reality with hope. [Robert H. Shuller]

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. … Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. [1 Peter 1:6-7,21 (RSV)]

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HE KNOWS OUR NAMES

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! [Psalm 139:1-6 (NLT)]

house sparrowRomper Room, a children’s program that first aired in 1953, was like a televised pre-school/kindergarten class. At the end of every show, the hostess would pick up her magic mirror and recite the words, “Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” Looking through an open frame shaped like a hand mirror, she’d then call out various children’s names: “I see Johnny had a special day today, Olivia had a special day yesterday, and I see Bonnie, Tammy and Gregory had special days, as well, and Brandon, you know I see you…” For forty years, small children patiently sat in front of their TVs hoping to hear their names called. While that illustrates the naiveté of youngsters back then, it also demonstrates how much we all want to be noticed and recognized.

When the man at the park asked me what kind of bird it was, I identified it as an LBB and explained that meant “little brown bird.” Chances are it was one of the twenty kinds of sparrows around here. Then again, it could have been some sort of wren or finch. Had it been a little larger, it would have qualified as the equally vague BBB (bigger brown bird). As much as I enjoy spotting the peepers in the trees and even taking their pictures when they remain still long enough, I don’t care enough about them to know their names or the songs they sing.

Fortunately, God knows not just our names but all there is to know about us: our hopes, needs, fears, and concerns. There are no LBBs (little boring biddies), LOLs (loud old ladies), BFMs (big fat men), TWAs (teens with attitude), TTs (troublesome tots), CCs (chronic complainers), or PWPs (people with problems) in His kingdom. To God, we all have distinctive names, faces, personalities and voices. Unlike me, He doesn’t need a field guide with our pictures or a CD with our songs to know who we are. Unlike the Romper Room hostess, He doesn’t pretend to have a magic mirror that allows Him to see us or know how we feel. The author of our days, He knows what today was like for us and what tomorrow will bring to us. God not only sees each and every one of us but He sees into us—into our very hearts and souls—and, somehow, He still manages to love and value us as only a father can.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)]

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TAKING THE LONG WAY

Tent Rocks - NMDon’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end—Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. [Isaiah 43:2-3a (MSG)]

When visiting New Mexico, we often drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The shortest route is north on I-25. If we’re not in a rush, however, the best way is the longer Turquoise Trail, a national scenic byway on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. In theory, this route should only add about a half-hour to the trip but it always takes longer. The whole point of going that way is to enjoy some breath-taking scenery, take a hike in the high desert hills, check out one of the bizarre roadside attractions (like the Tinkertown Museum), visit various art galleries along the trail, and stop for lunch (and more shopping) in the reborn ghost town of Madrid. Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination.

When the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh, God didn’t lead them the shortest way to the Promised Land; His reasoning, however, had nothing to do with sightseeing or shopping. The most direct route would have taken them northeast along a coastal road and directly into Philistine territory. Instead, God led them south southwest into the desert on the eastern edge of Egypt. Although they were armed for battle, the Israelites were anything but ready to face a military conflict. Having been oppressed for generations, rather than a mighty nation, they were a ragtag band of former slaves. While the longer route made sense, God’s next instructions certainly didn’t! He told Moses that Pharaoh’s men would give chase but that the Israelites should turn back and camp in such a way that they were exposed and trapped against the sea. Although God promised this strange tactic would demonstrate his power and glory, I can’t help but think that Moses was shaking in his sandals when reassuring the people that God had everything under control.

If the Israelites weren’t ready to face the Philistines a few days earlier, they were no more ready to face Pharaoh’s mighty army then. In fact, from a logistical point of view, by turning back, the novice warriors moved into an utterly indefensible position. That, of course, is exactly why God arranged it. Whether facing Philistines or Egyptians, the Israelites’ reaction to either would be panic. With the Philistines, they could have fled, even if that meant returning to Egypt. With Pharaoh’s army, however, they had no escape route. Although their sarcastic complaints to Moses revealed their lack of faith, pinned against the sea as they were, they had no choice but to trust in God. Since we know the rest of the story, that trust was well-founded. The people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry ground and Pharaoh’s army perished in its waters. After experiencing God’s miraculous deliverance, the Israelites no longer feared Pharaoh. They did, however, fear, trust, and believe in the Lord!

Sometimes God takes us the long way around for a reason; while it may be for the scenery, there’s a good chance it’s to take us away from trouble. On the other hand, sometimes God takes us on detours that seem to make absolutely no sense because they lead us into trials and difficulty. That usually happens when there’s something we need to learn. When we find ourselves between an army and the sea or a rock and a hard place, there’s no need to panic. We just need to trust in the Lord.

And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses. [Exodus 14:30-31 (MSG)]

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MAKE IT PERSONAL

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 8:38-39 NLT

white peacock butterflyI recently read a devotion that suggested substituting our own personal anxieties and concerns for the troubles listed by Paul in Romans 8. Perhaps your version would read: “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither old age nor loss of loved ones, neither cancer nor dementia, neither our fears for our wayward children nor our worries about finances—not even the powers of terrorism and hate can separate us from God’s love. No hurricanes or earthquakes—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.”

Then again, maybe widowhood, heart disease, migraines, foreclosure, floods, stroke, bullies, loneliness, crime, hunger, depression, fires, hard times, debt, anger, betrayal, homelessness, violence, or tornadoes would be on your list. However you fill in the blanks, Paul’s words remain true and bear repeating. Nothing—absolutely nothing—can separate us from God’s love as shown in Jesus Christ.

That God is for us, however, doesn’t mean we have no enemies. In fact, Paul’s words were written to the Roman church, a church that underwent tremendous persecution for the following 300 years. We encounter threats from both physical and spiritual enemies daily. What it does mean is that those enemies, no matter how powerful they are, can’t turn God against us. Because God gave His only son to save us, we can be sure, not just of his unchanging and everlasting love, but of our salvation.

What troubles would you substitute for Paul’s in Romans 8? No matter what they are, rest assured in the promise that the battle is already over and overwhelming victory is ours through Christ our Lord!

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? … overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8: 31b-32,37b (NLT)]

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THE SCARLET CORD

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. [Hebrews 11:1-2 (NLT)]

red roseRahab is one of the two women Paul lists in his “Hall of Faith.” This woman from Jericho married Salmon, was the mother of Boaz, a great-great grandmother to David, and one of Jesus’s ancestors. Oh—and she was a prostitute who collaborated with the enemy. Yet, Matthew makes specific mention of her in Jesus’ genealogy and both James and Paul speak highly of her in their epistles. Why?

From what Rahab had heard of the Israelites, she recognized their God as supreme. This perceptive woman anticipated Jericho’s defeat and judiciously aligned herself with the winning side when she protected two Israelite spies. After hiding them from the king’s men, she requested the same loyalty to her that she’d given them and negotiated for the safety of her family. As she lowered the men to safety on a scarlet cord, they told Rahab her protection was only ensured if she had that same cord visible on the day of their attack. True to their word, when Jericho fell, Rahab and her family were saved. Was it Rahab’s treason to Jericho that caused Paul to include her in his list or was there more?

After leaving Rahab’s house, the spies hid in the hills for three days before returning to camp and reporting to Joshua. After that, the Israelites broke camp and moved to the banks of the Jordan where they stayed another three days before crossing the river. Once across, the Israelites erected memorials to commemorate their crossing by God’s power. Four days later, the people celebrated the first night of Passover and, at some point, all of the men were circumcised. As the Israelites observed the eight days of Passover and the men recovered from their surgery, the invincible city of Jericho closed its gates and readied itself for battle. Meanwhile, Rahab had waited at least two weeks for the Israelites and her rescue. Did she begin to doubt the two spies and their God? Had she picked the wrong side to support? Did she consider bringing in that scarlet cord and making an alliance with a protector in Jericho? Was she tempted to lose faith in the God of the Israelites?

Eventually, the Israelites set off to conquer Jericho but they didn’t assault the town or lay siege to it. Instead, seven priests blowing rams’ horns led the Ark of the Covenant followed by 40,000 soldiers around the walled city before returning to their camp. For six days, Rahab watched from her window as the army silently marched around the city and then departed without lifting a weapon. Was Rahab’s faith shaken by this strange behavior? Were the men too afraid to attack? What kind of God used such a bizarre battle plan? On the seventh day, when she watched the Israelites parade seven times around the city, did she abandon all hope as she witnessed what appeared to be another day of even more pointless marching? Apparently not; that scarlet cord, the sign of her faith in the God of the Israelites, was still hanging from her window. When the army finally shouted, the walls of the unconquerable city collapsed and Rahab and her family were saved.

The walls of Jericho were leveled by faith in God. Rahab helped two strangers and kept that scarlet cord dangling from her window by that same faith. When God’s plan seems inexplicable or a long time in coming, do we exhibit a similar kind of faith? When things seem at a standstill, when we can’t see His plan, do we despair or do we hang out a scarlet cord of faith in God?

It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down. It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. [Hebrews 11:30-31 (NLT)]

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DISAPPOINTMENT

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

OrchidPeople disappoint. Consider Moses’ disappointment when, fresh off Mt. Sinai after a 40 day meeting with God, he returned to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Can you imagine David’s disappointment when Saul, the man he’d comforted with his songs, plotted his death? Picture Nathan’s disappointment in David when he confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. Think of Joseph’s disappointment in the brothers he thought loved him as they callously sold him into slavery. Consider Jesus’ disappointment in the denying Peter, the betraying Judas, and His sleeping disciples. For that matter, consider the disappointment of the disciples as they saw their hope for the end of Rome’s tyranny die a criminal’s death on the cross.

People let us down. I remember back to 1974, when the Watergate cover-up began to unravel. My in-laws were deeply disappointed and saddened when the president they’d supported resigned in disgrace. Today, that sort of public betrayal doesn’t surprise us. Every day we learn of another betrayal of the public’s trust, abuse of power or lack of integrity. Manipulation, deception, and falsehoods are daily events. Nevertheless, when they’re done by someone we actually know—someone in whom we believed—we’re shocked and hurt. Recently, I’ve learned that people I thought I knew—people I trusted and respected—are not worthy of that trust or respect. That some others, knowing of their duplicity, have chosen to tolerate or gloss over it adds to my disappointment. Yes, people can let us down.

When efforts at rectification and reconciliation failed, my initial response was anger and indignation. That’s when the one most hurt by this betrayal of trust reminded me that I must always lead with love. Resolution is not possible, anger and retaliation are wrong, so forgiveness, prayer and grief are all that remain. With a forgiving heart, I will pray for both the betrayers and betrayed and grieve for what has been lost. Then, putting this disappointment behind me and trusting in God’s guidance, I will move forward into tomorrow.

It’s been said, “People will let us down but God never will.” Indeed, people let down Moses, David, Nathan, Joseph, and Jesus and they will continue to disappoint us. Jesus, however, never let down the disciples. Their hopes were briefly dashed when He was laid in a borrowed tomb but, with His resurrection three days later, they saw the end of sin’s tyranny and the beginning of life eternal. God will never let us down. As I lay my disappointment before Him in prayer, I know He will take my sad heart and restore it with strength, confidence, faith, and love. He will never disappoint!

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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