THE PAINTED LADIES

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

painted lady butterfliesWhen the headline described it as a “swarm of a ‘billion’ Painted Lady butterflies,” I thought that an exaggeration until I walked out into the garden where hundreds of them were flitting through the flowers. While visiting family in southern California last week, I saw more butterflies in a few days than I’ve seen my entire life. Having spent their winter in northern Mexico, the bevy of butterflies was the result of winter’s heavy rains that enabled the desert to come out in full bloom. With an abundance of plants on which to feast, the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) population exploded, resulting in this massive migration north.

Hoping to get the perfect photo, I staked out the flowers every afternoon. The problem wasn’t finding a butterfly; the problem was finding one that would stay still. Before I could get it in focus, the insect had fluttered to another blossom. “Why can’t you just find a sweet flower and stay? What makes you think the next flower is any better than the one you’re visiting right now?” I wondered.

The fickle butterflies reminded me of people who continually search for the next best thing: another product, idea, person, job, possession or diet that seems better than what they presently have. They’re only satisfied until what appears to be the next best thing comes along. But, before I started pointing fingers, I looked at myself. In three days, I’d taken several hundred photos. While most had been deleted, more than twenty-five had been deemed worthy of editing and saving. Yet, there I was on day four, taking even more pictures, hoping for an even better Painted Lady shot.

“Surely, this is the starting point for a devotion about discontent,” I thought, until remembering there is more to the butterflies’ story. Capable of flying faster than twenty miles an hour and covering more than 100 miles in a day, the Painted Ladies are speeding their way to the Pacific Northwest. With a life span of about two weeks, however, the butterflies I saw feasting in the garden will never get to their intended destination. They emerged from their chrysalis with a fat reserve enabling them to fly from dawn until dusk. When the fat diminishes, they stop, begin to feed (as were these butterflies), become sexually active, breed, and die. It will be their descendants who eventually get as far north as the Canadian border. Although flitting from blossom to blossom seemed fickle, it was just the butterflies doing their assigned task: eating and pollinating. While sipping nectar, they pick up pollen on their bodies which gets transferred from one flower to the next as they move through the garden. Flowers must be pollinated to bear fruit and, since about one-third of the food we eat is dependent on pollinators like bees and butterflies, I should be thanking instead of censuring them.

Perhaps we should be more like butterflies. Preferring the sunlight, they stay out of the shade; like them, we must prefer the Son’s light to the darkness of this world. They sought flowers and hungrily feasted on nectar; we should seek God and feast on His word. They spread pollen but we must spread God’s love and Good News. Their work bears fruit as should ours. While it is instinct that leads the butterflies on their journey, it is the Holy Spirit who leads us on ours. They were doing their best to bring another generation closer to their destination and I wondered if we are anywhere that committed to bringing the next generation closer to God’s Kingdom. Although the butterflies I saw will never get to their intended destination, they neither worried nor quit. They simply did what they could and made the most of the day given to them. While our lifespan is much longer than a butterfly’s, like them, we will pass this way but once; life is as uncertain for us as it is for them. Those Painted Ladies were on a mission to sip the sweetness of life and be fruitful; let us do the same.

Oh God, give me grace for this day, not for a lifetime, nor for next week, not for tomorrow, just for this day. Direct my thoughts and bless them, direct my work and bless it, direct the things I say and give them blessing, too. Direct and bless everything that I think and speak and do. So that for this one day, just this one day, I have the gift of grace that comes from your presence. [Marjorie Holmes]

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. [Matthew 6:33-34 (NLT)]

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HE LIFTS US

Save me, O God! The water is up to my neck; I am sinking in deep mud, and there is no solid ground; I am out in deep water, and the waves are about to drown me. [Psalm 69:1-2 (GNT)]

Great Blue HeronQuicksand forms in saturated loose sand and, when undisturbed, appears to be solid ground. If a person steps into it, however, there is a decrease in its viscosity which causes the water and sand to separate so the soil becomes liquefied. When I was growing up, a scene of someone sinking into the death trap of quicksand was a staple of adventure movies. Because of those Saturday matinees in the 1950s and 60s, countless children probably had a fear of plunging into quicksand while walking in the woods; I know I did!

Even though an Arizona man was recently stuck in quicksand at Zion National Park, the old Hollywood cliché doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and a person is unlikely to submerge completely. As that trapped man discovered, the real danger comes from hypothermia, bad weather, predators, dehydration, or even drowning from rising tides while stuck.

Without ever going near a swamp, beach or river bank, we can easily encounter quicksand-like conditions in our lives. Trusting ourselves rather than God, we think we’re on firm ground only to misstep and fall into a pit of problems. As we’re sucked into the muck of doubt, fear, worry, deceit, or depression, we start to panic. As happens in real quicksand, the more we struggle, the faster we sink.

Stuck in a quagmire of despondency or pit of despair, Satan finds us easy prey. Frightened, feeling alone, and thirsting for relief, we’re tempted to accept whatever comfort he offers. Feeling defenseless in the swamp of hopelessness, we reach for whatever seems easiest and, instead of rescue, a rising tide of more troubles sweeps over us.

Although I feared quicksand as a child, I’m not likely to be sucked into a bottomless pit of muck any time soon. Nevertheless, since quicksand does remain a minor threat wherever super-saturated sand exists, it’s reassuring to know that, if we step into quicksand, we don’t have to stay there. We don’t have to remain in situational quicksand, either. In both cases, we should get rid of anything that weighs us down, whether backpacks or negative thoughts and emotions. Frantic movement can agitate quicksand which further liquefies the soil but, by remaining calm, breathing deeply, and relaxing, it’s possible to float on top of the muck. In situational quicksand, the same rule holds. Knowing that God has not abandoned us, there’s no need for anxiety or panic. By pausing, praying, and following God’s direction, we can rise above our problems. Life’s challenges can’t sink us because our God will teach us how to float through them. Finally, in both situations, we must be patient. It usually takes a long time to move through both muck and troubles. In God’s time, He will lift us out of the pit and put our feet on solid ground!

I waited patiently for the Lord’s help; then he listened to me and heard my cry. He pulled me out of a dangerous pit, out of the deadly quicksand. He set me safely on a rock and made me secure. [Psalm 40:1-2 (GNT)]

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BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS

UtahThis is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:6a,9 (NLT)]

Joshua 1:9 was my Bible verse for the day but I decided to make it my verse for the week. To make sure I kept it in mind, I wrote it on a post-a-note and stuck it where I’d be sure to see it: on my phone!

Wanting to put this inspirational verse in context, I reread the first chapter of Joshua. The book of Joshua is about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham made four hundred years earlier. Its first chapter is one of my favorite chapters of the Old Testament narratives. To set the stage: Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight. Forty years have passed since the parting of the Red Sea. Moses is dead and only Caleb and Joshua remain of the adults who’d once been slaves in Egypt. The Israelites are standing on the edge of the unknown and the Jordan River is at flood stage. With no bridges or ferry boats, they must have wondered how they’d manage to get safely to the other side. Joshua is the new leader of the Israelites and God tells him to be strong and courageous.

Granted, God’s words were spoken to Joshua around 1400 BC in an entirely different setting but, because I’m standing on the edge of the unknown as well, God’s words to Joshua are both comforting and encouraging. Then again, we’re all standing on the edge of the unknown. None of us know what tomorrow (or even the rest of today) will bring: be it good news or bad, tornadoes or sunny skies, an accident or a near miss, the making of a new friend or the loss of an old one.

When Joshua is told to be strong, God wasn’t talking about working out at the gym. This strength had nothing to do with muscles unless, of course, we’re talking about spiritual muscles. It had to do with having the strength to prevail, withstand, and sustain. Being of good courage, is more than not being a fearful coward; it’s being alert both physically and mentally, steadfast, and determined. It wasn’t powerful foes or a lack of weapons, battle strategy, or seasoned warriors that threatened Israel; it was fear, discouragement, and weakness of faith.

Being strong and courageous is easier said than done. Nevertheless, God tells Joshua exactly how to do that: meditate on and obey the instructions in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible and the only scripture at the time). Authored by God through Moses, those books contained the people’s history and God’s law, promises and plan. If the Israelites had only done that, the Old Testament would be an entirely different (and far less violent) story! 3,400 years later, we’re no longer limited to a mere five books; we have both Old and New Testaments to make us strong and courageous. Just the same, knowing and obeying those words can be as much of a problem for us as it was for the Israelites.

At least for me, the best part of Joshua 1:9 is God’s promise that He is with us wherever we go. Whether we’re crossing a deep river or just going across the street, confronting an enemy army or a CT scan, or facing a walled city or the loss of a spouse, we know that, no matter what befalls us, God is with us. When we’re standing at an abyss, facing the great unknown, there is no need to be afraid or discouraged. We can be strong and courageous because we have his promise in writing; He is always with us, “even to the end of the age.”

If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable. [John Newton]

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

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WORRY AND PRIDE

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. [1 Peter 5:7 (NLT)]

tropical water lilyWhen the Israelites sent scouts out to Canaan, they were doing due diligence and getting the lay of the land. Let’s remember, Moses had only asked them to scout out the land, not to determine how or whether they should proceed. But, when they returned, ten of the twelve reported the Promised Land was the land of giants who were undefeatable. In spite of Moses’s leadership, the reassurances of Joshua and Caleb, and God’s promises and power, the Israelites pridefully decided they knew more than God and chose fear instead of stepping out in faith.

Right now, while I’m not looking over the Jordan to Canaan, I’m in the land of waiting—between tests and results, between diagnosis and treatment. On the plus side, at least I won’t be here for forty years as were the Israelites! Nevertheless, the land of waiting can turn into a land of fear and worry. Our “what is?” evolves into “what if?” Instead of scouting Canaan, we scour the Internet, sift through contradictory information, imagine assorted scenarios, try to make sense of medical terms, research, and recommendations without benefit of a medical degree, and turn unknown challenges into undefeatable giants.

It occurred to me that, to a great extent, my worry is the result of pride. The Israelites trusted themselves more than God and, apparently, I trust myself and my research more than either my doctors or God. Could I really think that I, whose only medical degree is that of Dr. Mom, am smarter than my doctors? There’s a fine line between understanding a condition and self-diagnosing or treating it, between concern about something and worry over it, and I’ve crossed that line. Having already researched the qualifications of my physicians, I was satisfied with their credentials, so why did I think I should second guess them? I must remember that God didn’t ask the Israelites for their opinion about Canaan; He asked them to trust Him. Not trusting our doctors can be a mistake but not trusting God is a sin!

I’ve been pridefully leaning on my own understanding when I should be leaning on God. He’s the one in control of my tomorrows and whatever they may bring. My prayer is no longer that I become more enlightened and better qualified than my doctors but that God leads me to the right doctors and gives wisdom to them.  We can worry or we can trust God, but we can’t do both! Let us cast our anxiety and cares on Him, our Great Physician.

Do what you can, and then trust God with what you cannot do. [Craig Groeschel]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

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MISTAKES HAPPEN

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:9 (NLT)]

golden mantled ground squirrel - YellowstoneIt was late Saturday night when one of our pastors glanced at the next day’s church program and saw that Sunday’s sermon was titled “Epithet.” Since he wasn’t speaking about insults on social media but about the way we’ll be remembered when we’re gone, it should have read “Epitaph.” After spending the next hour trying to figure out a way to tie epithets into epitaphs, he realized it made more sense to own up to his spelling error, which he did at all three services.

Life gives us an abundance of opportunities to make mistakes and, sometimes, it seems as if we never miss one! We mishear, misinterpret, misjudge, misread, misspeak, misspell, misunderstand and, yes, we sin. We take wrong turns, say the wrong things, and believe the wrong person. Sometimes, that wrong person is an over-confident self. Overly confident, the pastor didn’t proofread, the builders of the Titanic didn’t provide enough life boats, and Napoleon thought he could successfully invade Russia in the winter.

Like the pastor, as much as we hate to do it, we need to own our mistakes and admit our responsibility for them. Sometimes, we can make the best of them, in which case they cease being mistakes. For example, while 3M’s Patty Sherman was trying to develop a rubber that wouldn’t deteriorate when exposed to jet fuel fumes, she made a mistake and spilled a few drops of one failed test batch on her shoe. Later, seeing that those spots were clean while the rest of her shoe had gotten stained and dirty, she made the most of that mistake with a product we call Scotchguard!

Sometimes, we can fix our mistakes. When KFC discovered their motto “Finger-lickin’ good!” became “Eat your fingers off!” in Chinese, they quickly corrected their clumsy translation. Sometimes, though, we just plow on ahead in the face of our errors. The Leaning Tower of Pisa started to lean five years after construction began but, rather than admit and correct the problem, building continued for another for 192 years. They kept compensating by making the uphill side shorter but, because mistakes don’t correct themselves, the tower kept leaning.

Like that learning tower, many of our mistakes are ones with which we must live. Hopefully, we learn from our errors as I imagine NASA did when they accidentally taped over their video of the moon landing. Rather than dwelling on our mistakes, we have to move out of the land of “what if” into the land of “what is.” This, however, is where we encounter the hardest part of making a mistake: forgiving ourselves.

Consider the mistakes of Judas and Peter: Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and Peter denied Him three times. Realizing Jesus would die for his betrayal, could Judas have been trying to undo his mistake by giving back the blood money? Filled with remorse and unable to change what had been done, he killed himself. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if only Judas had waited three days. I know Jesus would have forgiven Him. Think of the testimony Judas could have given if he’d forgiven himself and waited as did Peter. Like Judas, Peter betrayed Jesus but, unlike him, he forgave himself, lived with his mistake, and was in the room when Jesus appeared! Think of the powerful testimony Peter did give!

We have a choice about even our most grievous mistakes. Like Peter, we can live with them, forgive ourselves, accept God’s forgiveness, and move on with our lives in service to Him. Or, like Judas, we can hold on to them and refuse to forgive ourselves. Our guilt may not take our lives but it will take our peace, joy, self-confidence, hope, and even our faith in a forgiving God. We’re told we must forgive to be forgiven; it would seem that command means forgiving ourselves as much as it means forgiving others. Let our guilt be washed away!

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. [Psalm 32:5 (NLT)]

And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. [Hebrews 10:21-22 (NLT)]

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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)]

grandchildIt was every parent’s nightmare; while the Dad was changing the toddler’s diaper, his four-year old daughter wandered away and disappeared in the zoo! We saw him as he was 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. As we walked her back to her father, I said a prayer of thanksgiving that she would be returning home safely that day.

I thought of that anxious father the next day when reading Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephan Pastis. Goat is extending sympathy to Pig for his grandma’s death when Pig carries him off. In the next few frames, Pig carts off his friends Duck and Cat. Next, we see all of Pig’s friends stuffed in a box under a sign saying, “SAFE PLACE WHERE I CAN KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE I LOVE SO NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO THEM.” The label on the box read, “Bad things stay away!” In the last frame, when Goat tries to explain that it doesn’t work that way, Pig just responds, “Don’t distract me. I’m standing guard.” Like Pig, I wish I could keep bad things from happening to those I love but I know I can’t. When my grands visit, determined that nothing bad is going to happen to them on my watch, I’m on high alert (and probably over protective). 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 from 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 and, 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 go further astray than just to the bears’ enclosure at the local zoo. 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 let them go. Although we provide them with God’s armor, we can’t make them accept or wear it.

We protect our gates, are cautious of what we allow into our homes, and stay alert to the dangers around us but what about when our loved ones leave home to lead their own lives? Many of the Psalms speak of God being a shield but that seems more figurative than literal. Although Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego exited that fiery furnace unscathed, others weren’t that fortunate. Consider the fates of Stephen, the prophet Zechariah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Paul, and James! Sadly, there is no fool-proof way to protect our loved ones from Columbines or Sandy Hooks any more than we can from 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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