INCREDIBLE CREATION

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

ring-tailed lemur - serval catAs a way of learning how to live the abundant life promised by Jesus, I am participating in a series of abundance exercises. In my first, I was to think of something God created and reflect on the different and incredible ways He expressed that creation. While at the zoo, I couldn’t help but notice God’s abundance in the diversity of His creatures: the speedy cheetah, the sluggish sloth, the crane’s sharp pointed beak, the giant anteater’s long tubular snout, the giraffe with its long legs and neck, and the python with neither legs nor neck! The gazelles’ long slender horns don’t resemble the muntjacs’ small antlers or the giraffes’ stubby ossicones; the zebras’ stripes were nothing like those on the bongo or ring-tailed lemurs; and the giraffes’ spots were different from those on the cheetah and serval. Even within each species, every animal had his own unique pattern of stripes or spots. The animals’ colors and coats ranged from the vibrant blue, gold and green feathers of the macaws to the brown-grey shell of the gopher tortoise and the heavy fur coat of the black bear. Because our zoo started out as a botanical garden 100 years ago, the setting was lush and we were surrounded by bright pink, yellow, blue, orange and white flowers along with mangroves, strangler figs, cypress, cactus, enormous banyans, and over 100 species of palm trees. God outdid himself when it came to flora and fauna. Having completed the week’s assignment in a matter of hours, it seemed too easy and I decided to notice God’s creativity throughout the week.

The next day, as we walked in the swamp, I used my ears. I can only recognize a few of the birds’ voices—the anhinga’s low grunt, catbird’s mew, fish crow’s uh-oh, egret’s squawk, woodpecker’s squeak, hawk’s plaintive call, and the jay’s raucous one—but plenty of other birds added to the avian symphony of chirps, whistles, warbles, tweets, and other sweet notes. God outdid Himself again with the variety of birds and songs!

At the farmer’s market later that week, we found fresh sweet corn, avocados, guava, eggplants, oranges, star fruit, grapefruit, tangerines, tomatoes, ginger, cauliflower, radishes, fennel, lettuce, and assorted peppers. I smelled paella cooking and popcorn popping and sampled five different types of jams, an “everything” bagel, fresh brewed coffee, olive tapenade, spicy mango salsa, and lemon-poppy seed bread. For the five basic flavors a human’s tongue can taste, God certainly provides an abundance of variations!

When picking out paint colors, I had to choose from a palette of over 800 samples (starting with eight different shades of black)! While my decision would have been easier with fewer choices, I realized how dull our world be if, like seals or whales, we only saw in shades of black, white and grey. Thankfully, God, in His extravagance of creativity, gave us millions of colors and three kinds of cones in our eyes so we can enjoy them all!

The purpose of the exercise was to open my heart and mind to the richness in our world and embrace the beauty and abundance of life by appreciating God’s amazing creativity. We probably don’t need over 5,400 species of mammals; 9,000 species of birds (each with its own song); 8,200 different kinds of reptiles; or some 2,600 species of palms. I don’t think we’d miss a few of the 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, being able to distinguish between “blue horizon” and “timid blue,” or not having a red Caribbean habanero from the more than 130 varieties of peppers, but God gave us all those things anyway! Ours is a more than enough God and, from the first moment of creation, He provided the world with beautiful abundance. It’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God—all of creation does!

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in. [George Washington Carver]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. [Psalm 104:24-25 (NLT)

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ENDLESS TREASURES

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10 (RSV)]

black swallowtail butterflyJesus said he came so that we’d have life abundantly and the Greek word translated as abundantly was perisson, meaning exceedingly abundant, beyond measure, or more than one would anticipate or expect. Jesus isn’t talking just ample or even plentiful; he’s speaking of something so fulfilling, so magnificent, that it’s beyond our wildest dreams! This abundance, however, has nothing to do with wealth, power, position, or possessions because none of those things will pass into eternity with us. Our new life in Christ is abundant by heaven’s standards, not ours and includes eternal life, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, salvation, purpose, wisdom, hope, mercy, spiritual gifts, the church, and the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In Ephesians 3:8, this abundance is translated as the “endless treasures” (NLT) or “unsearchable riches of Christ.” (RSV) Indeed, there is no bottom to our Lord’s treasure chest of blessings! Although this abundance will not be fully realized in our earthly lives, it begins at the moment of conversion but we can miss some of God’s treasures in the here and now when we don’t intentionally seek them. Jesus gives a whole new richness to our lives but, if we want to truly experience that abundance, we must give Him more than our Sundays—we must give Him our all. He must be present in every moment and all aspects of life—in the way we appreciate our surroundings, interact with people, treat the environment, deal with our emotions, take care of our bodies, apply our minds, select our entertainment, manage our money, utilize our talents, share our faith, spend our leisure time, and perform our work. It is only when there is more of Him and less of us that we will know how rich our lives really can be.

The abundant life given us by Christ isn’t found in what we already have or might get. It is found in the way we live: one day at a time, intentionally abiding in Him, choosing to be aware of His presence in all things, and by being good stewards of His many blessings.

Jesus set us free to live the abundant life by being all that He has created us to be and accomplishing all that He has planned for us to do. [Sharon Jaynes]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (RSV)]

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DON’T CRY OVER SPILLED MILK DAY

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [1 John 1:8-9 (ESV)]

red-bellied woodpeckerWhile “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” isn’t one of Solomon’s proverbs, that wise advice is several centuries old. “No weeping for shed milk,” appeared in a book of English proverbs back in 1659 and some historians believe the saying dates back to medieval days. Superstitious, people left spilled food for the fairies or elves to eat and drink. If someone cried over spilled milk, it was feared that the fairies might think the offering was begrudged and bad luck would visit the house.

For some unknown reason, today (February 11) is designated as “Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day” and is a day dedicated to not letting the little things get us down. We all have a long list of past mistakes, large and small, over which we’ve shed a few tears. While a dog or cat might lap up spilled milk, no elves or fairies are going to come along to correct our mistakes and our tears accomplish nothing! Rather than lamenting over our blunders and missteps, our job is to clean up the mess we’ve made before it starts to stink! Before we get out our mops and pails, however, we’ve got to forgive ourselves. If God can forgive us, we should be able to forgive ourselves!

In actuality, for most of us, spilled milk is the least of our problems. We all make mistakes; sadly, we’ll continue to make them. There’s no point beating ourselves up and reliving past errors. The milk can’t go back in the bottle, the words can’t return to our mouths, the money can’t get unspent, the email can’t be retrieved, and the expletive can’t be deleted! When possible, we make right what we can, as soon as we can, and then forge on ahead, hopefully more prudently. Learning from our mistakes makes more sense than crying over them!

Just as we mustn’t let the little things get us down, we can’t let the big ones take us down either. Perhaps every day should be dedicated to not crying over milk that has spilled as we take a positive attitude, forgive ourselves (and others), fix what we can, accept what can’t be changed, and move forward.

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. [Lamentations 3:21-13 (ESV)]

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:13b-14 (ESV)]

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GOTCHA!

Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence. [1 Corinthians 10:12 (MSG)]

peacock

Several years ago, my son’s family made plans to move out of state and sold their house faster than expected. Since their children had several weeks of school left in the semester, the four of them lived with us until the end of the school year. Don’t get me wrong; I loved having them and have no complaints. Nevertheless, the relationship between a mother and the woman her son marries can be a shaky one at best, regardless of how much they love each other. Going from two to six in our home was a major change for us empty-nesters and I’m sure it wasn’t any easier for them as they lived out of their suitcases. Needless to say, I prayed a lot during those weeks and, most of the time, I kept an imaginary roll of duct tape over my mouth.

One day, after mentally congratulating myself for being so tolerant, agreeable, and accommodating, I blew it! Without thinking, I made what I thought was a humorous comment about my daughter-in-law’s habitual lateness. Right after speaking, I realized that just because the words came into my head didn’t mean they should have spilled out of my mouth. But, by then, it was too late to retrieve a comment my daughter-in-law took as disparaging and judgmental. I’m sure I heard Satan’s voice in my ear chuckling, “Gotcha!”

Although my apology pacified hurt feelings, this episode points out the danger both of speaking without thinking and of pride. I’d been congratulating myself for my commendable behavior and patting myself on the back for keeping silent about scattered toys, messy bathrooms, dirty dishes in the sink, and the general chaos that comes with family. Focusing on what I considered to be my virtuous and exemplary conduct, I’d become proud of my restraint, tact, and patience. It’s said that “Pride goes before the fall,” and it sure did in that case.

Pleasure at being praised by others isn’t pride but pleasure at praising ourselves is and it leads to self-confidence rather than God-confidence. As far as the enemy is concerned, pride taken when congratulating ourselves for our self-righteousness is as good as any other sin! “Gotcha!” says Satan!

First pride, then the crash—the bigger the ego, the harder the fall. [Proverbs 16:18 (MSG)]

Pride lands you flat on your face; humility prepares you for honors. [Proverbs 29:23 (MSG)]

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COMPOUND INTEREST

Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. [Hosea 10:12 (NLT)]

sawtooth sunflowerIn a nutshell, compound interest is getting interest on interest; when it’s on money you have, your investment keeps growing. When it’s on money you owe, however, you pay interest on your interest and end up deeper in debt. The economics lesson is because of C.S. Lewis’s words that “Good and evil both increase at compound interest.” While Lewis then switches metaphors from the bank to the battlefield, Scripture often uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping for the same concept of the exponential growth of both good and evil.

After planting just one sunflower, for example, we’d get between 1,000 and 1,400 seeds per head. If each of those seeds were planted, we’d have between one and 1.96 million sunflower seeds the next year and, if we planted those, we’d have between one and 2.7 billion sunflower seeds the third year. If those were perennial sunflowers, we’d also get seeds from the previous years’ plants! Like compound interest, that’s exponential growth (which is what happens with good thoughts and actions).

Of course, if just one Canada thistle seed got planted in that field of sunflowers, it could produce as many as 5,300 seeds that first season! Those thistle seeds would get dispersed by the wind and sow themselves far and wide. Should those seeds take root, more than 28 million new thistle seeds could be blowing through our fields the second year, with the potential of more than 148 billion seeds the following one. With that kind of exponential growth, our beautiful field of sunflowers soon would be overrun by thistles. Worse, those thistles would have spread into our neighbors’ fields. Noxious weeds and evil have a way of doing that!

Since thistles also sprout from their roots, that one thistle could grow into a six-foot thistle patch in a year. Turning to Lewis’ battle metaphor, that loss of acreage is similar to a general losing an asset like a seaport. Worse, because thistle seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to twenty years, like an enemy who’s patiently waited for our troops to get careless, those weeds can spring up years later when least expected. Just as the farmer has to be vigilant in his fight to keep thistles from overtaking his fields, the general must keep his troops battle-ready.

The subject, however, is neither military science nor agriculture; it’s spiritual warfare. Generals and farmers don’t want to cede territory to their enemies, nor do we. Our battle isn’t against armed troops or thistles; it’s against evil. Rather than tanks or herbicides, we need obedience to God’s word and the power of the Holy Spirit! When we act as would Jesus, by sowing seeds of goodness, it’s like planting another sunflower in the garden of life. But, every time we follow our own sinful desires, instead of losing a field to thistles, we lose ground to Satan. In our every act, either a seed of good or evil is planted and, like a thistle seed, any seed of evil is one seed too many!

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible. [From “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis]

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

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ONLY ONE MASTER (Part 2 – Luke 16:19-31)

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Luke 16:13 (NLT)]

primrose willowBecause the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the only parable in which names are used, some people in the early church believed that it was a real-life incident. Whether a true story or a parable is of no consequence because its lessons remain the same.

What the parable doesn’t tell us is that the poor automatically go to heaven and the rich to hell. After all, Abraham was wealthy and yet he’s there in Paradise dining with Lazarus! The angels didn’t carry Lazarus to Abraham simply because he was poor. The name Jesus chose to give him tells us Lazarus is there because he was godly. His name means “whom God helps” and Lazarus knew his help was in God. He’s named in this story because, like Abraham, he was known to God.

Just as Lazarus wasn’t carried to Abraham simply because he was poor, the rich man wasn’t condemned to his fiery torment simply because of his wealth. Although the man dressed in expensive purple cloth and fine linen, lived in luxury, and ate sumptuously every day, there was no sin in that. There’s no reason to suspect that he was a dishonest tax-collector, a double-dealing business man, a corrupt judge, or a thief and we’re not told that he beat his wife or abused his servants.

That the rich man knew Lazarus by name is what convicted him of sin. He knew Lazarus and his plight and yet ignored the poor man every time he walked in and out of his house. It was not the man’s wealth that condemned him; it was his hardness of heart. Although the Torah was filled with admonitions to care for the poor and oppressed, the rich man deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering man at his doorway. We never know the rich man’s name because God didn’t know him and he didn’t know God!

To the first century Jew, riches were considered a sign of God’s blessings and poverty a sign of His judgment. Rather than a sign of blessing, however, Jesus taught that riches test man’s faithfulness in stewardship. Just a few verses before telling this story, Jesus gave a clear warning that we cannot serve both God and money. What isn’t said but is implied is that we can serve God with our money! Neither wealth nor poverty determine salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. Nevertheless, our faith is demonstrated by how we live and use whatever wealth with which we’ve been blessed.

Christ did not object to the riches of the rich man but to his impiety, infidelity, pride and cruelty. … [People] to not need to fear riches but vices. They should not fear wealth, but avarice. They should not be afraid of creaturely goods, but of greed. Let them possess wealth…with faith. Let them have it, and possess it, and not be possessed by it. [Augustine, Sermon 2999e.5]

When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:48 (NLT)]

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