COWARDS NEED NOT APPLY

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” [Jeremiah 1:7-8 (NLT)]

plumbago

One look at the Bible’s heroes makes it clear that obstacles and challenges are an unavoidable part of doing God’s work. While they knew doing God’s work wouldn’t be trouble-free, did they realize it would be so very hard? Consider Moses—he knew it would be challenging when he signed on to lead the Israelites, but he didn’t know that an eleven-day journey to Canaan would turn into a forty-year commitment. God never promised it would be easy but He also never warned Moses about the decades of complaints, rebellion, and continual disobedience of the “stiff-necked people” he’d be leading. Moses certainly wasn’t told that he’d never enter the Promised Land once he got there. If he had known what lay ahead, would Moses have accepted God’s assignment or would he still be arguing with God on Mt. Sinai?

Would David have told Samuel to go find another fellow to anoint if the young shepherd knew he’d spend most of the next fifteen years fleeing for his life before actually becoming king? If he’d been told about the trials, battles, responsibilities, betrayals, and challenges of being king or known of the tears that he’d shed during his life, would he have decided to stick to shepherding?

What about Mary? When she told the angel she was the “servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead—the finger pointing and whispers regarding her pregnancy, the difficult journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, and fleeing to Egypt to save her son’s life. Had she anticipated that or the anguish of watching her son’s torment as He died a criminal’s death, would she so willingly have accepted God’s plan? Would Elizabeth have welcomed her pregnancy if she knew her beloved son’s head would be served on a platter to Herodias? Although Paul and the Apostles realized their ministries would be demanding, would they have been as enthusiastic in their evangelism if they’d seen all the struggle, imprisonments, persecution and martyrdom that lay ahead for them? Would Isaiah have said “Send me!” to God if he knew, as tradition has it, that King Manasseh would order him sawn in half? If Jeremiah had known how he’d be despised, abused, beaten, put in stocks, cast into a muddy cistern, and continually preach to a people who refused to hear his words before being stoned to death in Egypt, would he have accepted God’s call?

When describing the lives of the Bible’s heroes and heroines, the book of Hebrews lists the sufferings: being destitute, homeless, afflicted, mistreated, mocked, flogged, tortured, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and being killed with a sword. Some of those heroes (like Moses, Jeremiah, and Gideon) hesitated about their ability to serve God but, once God assured them that they were up to the task, they signed on without knowing exactly what the future held for them. Putting their unknown futures into the hands of a known God, they trusted Him, followed His plan, and boldly did His work.

Like the Bible’s heroes, let us fearlessly go forth wherever God sends us and do whatever He calls us to do. As we faithfully place our unknown future in the hands of God, we can remain secure in the knowledge that He always is with us on our journey. If we trust God, we don’t have to know or understand!

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29-31 (NLT)]

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ONE OUT OF TEN

ducks
Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine?” [Luke 17:17 (NLT)]

In the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew word tsara’ath and its Greek equivalent of aphe lepras are translated as leprosy. In Biblical times, however, leprosy had a much broader meaning than the condition we now call Hansen’s disease. It included any skin condition that spread over the body. Along with Hansen’s, it could have been anything from psoriasis and dermatitis to impetigo, scabies, or alopecia and, unlike other ailments, it was believed to have been caused by sin. Anyone considered a leper was shunned as an outcast and required to live in camps outside the city. Lepers had to tear their clothing, leave their hair uncombed, cover their mouths, and warn people of their presence by shouting out “Unclean! Unclean!”

On His way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing between Galilee and Samaria when, rather than shouting, “Unclean!” ten lepers called out, “Master, have mercy on us!” In response to the lepers’ pleas, Jesus simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. While this seems odd to us in the 21st century, it made perfect sense to the lepers. It was the priests who inspected afflictions and decided whether someone was diseased or healed and could return to society. Being told to see the priests meant they were cured of their affliction. The healing, however, only began when the lepers showed enough faith in Jesus to depart and head into town.

All ten obeyed Jesus by starting out for the priests and they were blessed for their obedience by  healing. Unlike blocked arteries or diabetes, skin conditions like leprosy are recognizable so these men didn’t need to see the priest to know they’d been healed. Imagine their conversation as they walked down the road. After glancing at a fellow leper, one might have exclaimed, “Hey, Uri, wasn’t there a big abscess on your leg? I don’t see it now.” Perhaps Uri responded, “You’re right! And I can feel my toes again and my nose is no longer bleeding. Look at your arm, Asa, what happened to those scabs? Jacob, your eyes are clear and you no longer limp!” Although they needed a priest to officially declare them clean, their clear skin and strong limbs told them they’d been miraculously healed.

Nevertheless, before they could return to their community, they needed a priest to declare them clean and the process, described in Leviticus 13 and 14, would take over a week’s time. After the priests examined the men outside of town, an elaborate ritual involving two birds, a cedar rod, scarlet string, hyssop, a sacrifice, and the sprinkling of blood would be performed. Still not officially clean, the men needed to wash their clothes, bathe, shave, and stay away from their homes for seven more days. It was not until the eighth day, when they made five different offerings and were anointed with oil on the right earlobe, thumb, and big toe that the lepers would be declared clean!

The lepers had several days of rituals ahead of them before returning to society but Jesus and the disciples were just passing through the area. Jesus wouldn’t be around in eight days to receive their thanks. Instead of rushing to the priests, the healed lepers should have turned around and rushed back to thank their healer. It was only one leper, a Samaritan, who thought to return to Jesus and thank the rabbi from Nazareth who showed mercy on him. Anxious to enjoy their return to health and community, the other nine thought first of themselves and kept going.

I don’t know to what the nine attributed their miraculous recovery but the tenth rightly attributed it to God. Shouting “Praise God!” he threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him. Nine congratulated themselves on their clear skin but one gave all the glory to God. The Samaritan didn’t need a priest to declare him clean—Jesus did that when he said, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.” Moreover, it wasn’t just his leprous body that was restored to health—so was his very soul!

When our lives are blessed, do we thank God or do we just move on with our lives? Are we in such a rush to enjoy our blessings that we fail to thank the Giver of All Gifts? My mother never let me play with any of my birthday or Christmas gifts until I’d written a thank you note to the giver. What if God did the same thing?

What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday? [attributed to Max Lucado]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. [1 Chronicles 16:8-10 (NLT)]

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KNOWING HIM WELL

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

Mallards
After fifty-five years of marriage, there’s not much that surprises me about my husband. Even the surprise birthday weekend he gave me earlier this year wasn’t a surprise. Granted, bringing all three of our children together for a weekend here truly was a surprise but that he chose to do something special for me was not. I was sure that, true to form, he had something wonderful up his sleeve for my 75th birthday; I just had no idea what it actually was!

After over five decades of togetherness, more often than not, my husband and I think alike. When one of us makes a suggestion, the other usually admits to having the same thought and, with at least 97% accuracy, we know what the other will order at any restaurant. We recognize each other’s voice in a crowd and probably have a good idea what the other is saying! After more than half a century, we’ve seen one another at our best and worst. There’s nothing left to hide and any awkwardness, embarrassment, or shame is long gone. I know when he needs some nudging and he knows when I need words of encouragement. Appreciating each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we rest comfortably in the knowledge that we love, trust, and honor one another completely. The relationship is relaxed, pleasant, peaceful, and comfortable but never boring. As my birthday weekend proved, even though we know what to expect, we can still surprise one another in beautiful ways.

The covenant relationship of marriage is much like our relationship with God with one major difference. Through the last five plus decades, both my husband and I have changed so that we complement each other and accommodate one another’s likes and dislikes. God, however, is immutable. Since His characteristics and divine nature do not change, He is not about to accommodate our preferences; we are called to accommodate His! As in any relationship, however, the more time we spend in His presence, the easier it is to recognize His voice, to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper in our hearts, to discern the meaning of His words, to know what He expects, and to offer prayers in harmony with His plan. As we draw closer to the Lord, we become attuned to His rhythm and pace and we’ll even begin to walk like Jesus.

At its most basic, Christianity isn’t a doctrine, philosophy, code of ethics, or a way of life; it is a relationship with God. Just believing in Jesus is not the same as having a relationship with Him. As with any relationship, we have to spend time in God’s presence, praying, listening to His voice, and reading His word for our relationship to flourish and grow. No serious bond is developed overnight; it took decades for my husband and me to get to this point in our marriage. Fortunately, developing a deep relationship with our triune God doesn’t take nearly that long. Like marriage, however, it is a relationship that continues to mature and mellow through the years.

After fifty-five years, I can ask myself, “What would Bob do?” and pretty much know the answer. As we develop our relationship with God, we’ll be able to ask, “What would Jesus do?” and know that answer as well!

Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:6 (NLT)]

You must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All glory to him, both now and forever! Amen. [2 Peter 3:18 (NLT)]

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PUTTING OUT THE FLEECE

Then Gideon said to God, “Please don’t be angry with me, but let me make one more request. Let me use the fleece for one more test. This time let the fleece remain dry while the ground around it is wet with dew.” [Judges 6:39 (NLT)]

In Judges 6, we find the people crying out to the Lord after being oppressed by the Midianites for seven years. When we meet Gideon, he is hiding from the marauders in a wine press while threshing wheat. When an angel of the Lord appears, the angel addresses the frightened man as, “Mighty hero.” Instead of kneeling before the Lord’s messenger in awe, Gideon boldly questions him about the nation’s difficulties and protests being handed over to the Midianites. Instead of answering Gideon’s questions, the angel tells him that he is the one who will rescue Israel. Continuing to question the angel, Gideon immediately points out the difficulty of such an insignificant person as he ever gathering an army. After being reassured of both God’s presence and the army’s victory, Gideon asks for proof that he really is speaking with God. When his offering is miraculously consumed by fire at the angel’s touch, the doubtful man realizes he is speaking with the Lord and erects an altar to Him. At the Lord’s command, Gideon then destroys the town’s altar of Baal, cuts down their Asherah pole, and erects another altar dedicated to the Lord.

As the Midianites gathered for battle in Jezreel, the man who was sure that he couldn’t gather an army recruited 32,000 willing warriors. Nevertheless, Gideon’s faith continued to waver. He again doubted the Lord’s promise that he would lead Israel to victory and even had the audacity to demand that God again prove Himself by passing two more tests. In the first, Gideon put out a dry fleece and demanded that in the morning it be wet with dew while the ground remained dry. The next day, unsatisfied with dry fleece and wet ground, Gideon then demanded that the dry fleece remain dry when the ground became wet.

At this point, had I been God, I might have struck Gideon dead and found someone else to lead Israel to victory. Instead, God acceded to Gideon’s demand. That He did so says more about His incredible patience and love for Israel than His approval of Gideon’s impudence. That God didn’t rebuke Gideon, however, doesn’t mean He endorses this practice. In fact, Gideon knew he was treading on dangerous ground with his demands when he asked God not to be angry with him.

Remember, Gideon wasn’t asking God for a sign of what he should do—God had given him clear instructions as to his assignment. Filled with doubt, Gideon wanted a guarantee that the Lord was stronger than the pagan god Baal. God, however, proved His power when Baal couldn’t destroy Gideon for destroying both pagan altar and pole!

Whether Gideon was hoping to reassure himself of divine support or merely hoping the demanded miracles couldn’t occur so he wouldn’t have to go to battle, we’ll never know. Either way, what he did was wrong. Deuteronomy 6:16 tells us we are not to test the Lord—a command Jesus repeated when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness. Moreover, Deuteronomy 18:9-11 warned the Israelites about imitating the customs of the pagans with such things as fortune-telling or interpreting omens and Gideon’s demands did both!

Just because Gideon put out the fleece doesn’t mean we should follow his example when making decisions. After all, Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Him, Jacob deceived his father, David committed adultery and murder, neither Eli nor Samuel disciplined their boys, Samson broke his vows, and Jonah fled from God. No pastor ever says we should follow their examples! Nevertheless, there are some Christians who, like Gideon, “put out the fleece” by testing God’s will. Having made a decision, they demand a sign from God to confirm it. Be it a phone call, job offer, letter, opening the Bible to a random verse, or something else entirely, that’s putting God to a test and seeking omens! Neither is how we are supposed to determine God’s will.

We don’t need to put out a fleece to give us the answers only God can provide. Instead of looking for signs, we should be looking to the Giver of Signs and His word for our answers and reassurance!

One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.” But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. [Matthew 12 38-39 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 1

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]


Next weekend, my son will be participating in Chicago’s triathlon during which he’ll swim nearly a mile, bike 24.8 miles, and finish up with a 6.2-mile run. Because it’s a grueling race that requires stripping off extraneous equipment twice, it reminds me of Hebrews 12:1. After coming out of the water, my son rushes to the first transition area while stripping off swim cap, goggles, and wet suit. Having worn shorts and shirt under the wet suit, he drops off his swim attire and dons his race bib, socks, shoes, helmet, and sunglasses before mounting his bike. Then, after biking nearly 25 miles, he makes his second transition by changing into running shoes and leaving behind his bike, helmet, and bike shoes. At each transition, he strips off any unnecessary gear that can slow him down. After all, the wet suit would be extra weight when biking as would be the bike and helmet during the run!

Although my son is a seasoned triathlete, he wasn’t when he did his first triathlon a dozen years ago in rural Illinois. Not knowing that seasoned triathletes don’t wear wetsuits designed for water sports, he wore the same wetsuit he used when wake boarding and diving. Wet suits made for triathlons, however, are designed to be taken off quickly for an easy transition and made of thinner lighter neoprene with a slippery outer coating that reduces drag and provides optimal swimming dynamics and speed. He also made the mistake of wearing regular bike shorts under his wetsuit. While bike shorts have the extra padding necessary for long rides, in a triathlon that padding acts like a sponge and holds onto the wetness from the swim along with any sweat from the ride and run. My son ended up biking and running in what felt like a toddler’s very wet and heavy soiled diaper! Instead of conserving energy and swimming, biking, and running faster, he was weighed down by his poor choice of equipment.

The race referred to in Hebrews 12, however, isn’t a triathlon; it is our journey of faith. Nevertheless, it is like a triathlon because it requires strength, determination, and endurance. It’s long and strenuous, often grueling, and comes with a variety of challenges and difficult transitions. The epistle’s writer tells us that we must cast off anything that hinders us in order to complete the journey. Rather than stripping off water-logged bike shorts or leaving behind the bike when we start to run, the believer needs to strip himself of the extra weight found in things like unbelieving friends, questionable activities, greed, fear, anxiety, bitterness, unconfessed sins, or doubt. Those can impede our progress and cause us to stumble as easily as can running a race in bike shoes.

There will be times when even the best prepared Christian will tire, falter, turn the wrong way, or consider quitting. Unlike a triathlon, however, the time it takes to complete the course doesn’t matter; finishing is the only thing that counts. Moreover, there is no winner in the race of faith—staying true to the course, no matter how long it takes, makes anyone a winner!

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:7-8 (NLT)]

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