Having Truly Seen and Heard

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5)

No doubt you have at one time or another been criticized for not listening.  When you were a teenager – you were probably told when asked to look for something that you failed to see what was right in front of you. Even as adults we will sometimes overlook things, because we are preoccupied and not focused. Our brain meshes with our vision and hearing to create a conscious understanding, and when we lack regard for one or the other – we set ourselves up to be labeled as unthoughtful or inconsiderate. Along with the influence of the other senses, seeing and hearing combine to assist us in navigating through the world. Our personal history, however, shows that we are often led by misperceptions. Add to that the increasingly prevailing attitude that we are often expected to conform to the way others believe, we are afforded little tolerance when we attempt to develop our own sense of individuality or self-expression. “Blessed are those who don’t feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right” (Romans 14:22).

The religious leaders in Jesus’ time often acted with contempt. To contest their doctrines, Jesus gave indication that those many of those around Him were both spiritually deaf and blind. When asked by His disciples why He spoke to the people in parables, His answer was simply this: “To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand” (Matthew 13:12-13). It’s as if He was saying: “Those who reject me are spiritually blind because they automatically cast-off any understanding of who I am. The truth sounds foolish to them, and if they hear it – they do not comprehend that it is God’s truth and therefore fail to take it to heart.”

A good case in point is the relationship between King David and the prophet Nathan, who challenged his self-awareness. Having been sent by God, Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who took a prize possession from a poor man and used it for his own purposes (2 Samuel 12:2-4). Upon hearing the story, “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die!’” (2 Samuel 12:5). Although he heard the words of the prophet, he failed to hear the truth of those words. That is until Nathan confronted him. “You are that man! The LORD, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king of Israel and saved you from the power of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more. Why, then, have you despised the word of the LORD and done this horrible deed? For you have murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife” (2 Samuel 12:7-9). “Then David confessed to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ Nathan replied, ‘Yes, but the LORD has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin’” (2 Samuel 12:13).

Each of us have times in our life when we are blinded by and deafened to God’s truth because we have become subject to the deception that is in the world. The goal of the Great Deceiver (Satan) is to devour the weak who fall prey to temptation, fear, loneliness, worry, and depression. Jesus said: “Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!” (Matthew 6:22-23). Every day our thoughts and concentrations are bombarded with rather dark ideas from print, electronic and social media, as well as those around us. It’s easy to be deceived, unless we take the opportunity to renew our mind. God wants us to listen more intently for His voice and also to see with greater clarity the blessings He has placed right in front of us, including His Word. As we do this, our light will shine for the world (Matthew 5:16) and those around us will know, without a doubt, that we have truly seen and heard.

REFLECTION: Are there ways you might consider changing some of the sources of what you daily see and hear to better reflect God’s Word and consistency with His character?  How can we be challenged by one of Jesus apostles who said: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:9)?

Mother May I?

“When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instructions with kindness.” (Proverbs 31:26)

It’s hard to escape childhood without participating in at least one game of “Mother May I.”  More gender-neutral variations on the theme have included “father” or “captain” as the leader. The goal of the “Mother May I” game is for one of the players to be the first to reach the mother on the other side of the room or lawn. The mother faces away from a line of participants and distances far enough to make the game interesting but close enough that everyone can hear each other. Each participant asks a question starting with the phrase “Mother may I” followed with a statement of request for a suggested movement, such as, “Mother, may I take three steps forward?” The mother must reply “yes, you may” or “no, you may not” by providing another directive. If a child forgets to say “mother may I” before the question, they must return to the starting line.  The participant who reaches the mother first wins the game and is then designated as the leader for the next game. The child must do what the mother says, with the intention of leading them closer or farther away from the ultimate goal.

The premise of the game is fairly typical to what most of us experience in our growing up years. When we are determined to do something, it is often our mother who gives the go-ahead, makes an alternate suggestion, or shuts down our request entirely. Eventually we learn to ask permission, and she responds based on family values or out of consideration for what is socially acceptable or appropriately safe. While we do not always like her answer, we learn that mothers most often base their decision on what they consider to be right for us at the time. While the role of motherhood evolves over the life of a child – the love, care, and encouragement she gives never ceases. We know that mothers generally have our best interest at heart. Even when we are fully grown and she lends her unsolicited advice – we accept that fact that it comes from a good place. That is why a special occasion called Mother’s Day is set aside to honor, remember, and, if possible, to spend some time with her. It’s an opportunity to let her know just how much we appreciate all she has done for us. Regretfully, many grown children will have to visit remotely this year due to bans on travel, measures for social distancing, and government-imposed stay-at-home restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus. Many moms will only get a virtual hug.

When it comes right down to it – our mothers are one of those persons whom we take pride in pleasing. We all like to be recipients of caring, and for most of us – our moms are one of the best sources of doing so. There are all kinds of mothers: those who have given birth, those who have adopted, and those who have loved and supported the children of others. The gift of motherhood, therefore, isn’t necessarily a biological function; it comes from the heart and is placed there by God. God even described Himself as having a mother-like attribute. In Isaiah 66:13, we read: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” Likewise, Jesus told those who loved him that He would not leave them as orphans (John 14:18), but they would receive a Helper (John 14:26). When we affirm this relationship with His Holy Spirit, we can be like David who said: “I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content” (Psalm 131:2).

British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray once wrote: “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” Following Jesus’ example – mothers often display an attitude of self-sacrifice in order that their children might everything they need. With incredible patience, they give of themselves in such a way that those whom they nurture are pointed toward God. Recognizing that there will be a time when she will be separated from us, mother trusts that our access to His Holy Comforter will always be without restraint, subject to no other authority. An effective mother understands that she must “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old, they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). In doing so. they will never need to seek answers from any ‘Mother May I’ game. Their children will always be inherently guided, and each step they take will place them on the right path.

REFLECTION: Consider those persons who played important ‘mother roles’ in your life. How can you extend gratefulness to you mother when she appears to interfere with your wishes? In what ways do you learn to find great comfort from the Holy Spirit, knowing that separation from your mother is imminent?

Before It’s Too Late

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

In the storyline of an old Little House on the Prairie episode titled “If I should Wake Before I Die” – an 80-year-old widow feels lonely for her children and grandchildren who never visit her. At the funeral of another widowed friend whose family members failed to show up for her last birthday party – one of the main, young characters declares that it is not fair for loved ones to ignore a birthday but show up for a funeral.  This prompts the surviving widow to make a decision to have her funeral wake before she dies. Accordingly, she enlists the help of the town doctor and her neighbors to secretly plan the event. On the day of the reception, she attends incognito at first with a veil hiding her face. It is not long until she surprises those present, including a young priest and her son whom she had not known was still alive. The event provides an occasion for reuniting the lady’s family and hopefully serves as a ‘wake-up’ call for all the participants to love each other here and now . . . while there’s still time.

Consider this question: If you could share a meal with anyone, past or present – who would that be? It’s an interesting inquiry which was regularly posed on a food segment of a weekly variety program.  The answers varied, depending on the role of the person being asked.  Some of the responses included the desire to share that meal with famous persons in history as well as individuals who had mentored those being asked. Interestingly enough – the replies frequently listed loved ones who had passed on.  Occasionally it crossed my mind if some of these folks perhaps had regrets for not spending enough time together in days gone by which were now lost.  For when we lose someone to whom we should have paid more attention – we don’t get any second chances to fulfill those “should’ve, would’ve, could’ves.” When we permit our lifestyle to disrupt maintaining contact with those whom we say we love, then we are potentially allowing ourselves to one day be floundering in a sea of regret.

In providing a similar warning, Jesus told this parable: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ “The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet’” (Luke 14:16-24).

The Parable of the Banquet reflects the relationship that many of us have developed with others who care about us. We say we have something “better” to do with our time but in all actuality are simply giving way to bad excuses, taking the place of what we know is the appropriate thing to do. In many cases, we are forfeiting fellowship with one who deeply cares and longs to spend time with us. Those who ignore the invitation miss out on a special gift and will ultimately choose their own destiny. This can occur in our families, with our friends, as well as in our other social contacts.  It can also transpire in our relationship with God. He wants His table to be full, and there will always be an open invitation for a seat there. The anticipation is that we will come and share in His fellowship. This puts a responsibility on us to accept the offer and likewise participate in the banquet. Jesus extends an invitation to all who will listen and are willing to accept it. Consequently, if we decide to delay until that day when the funeral plans are occurring – we will have missed out. So, take your place at the table today and enjoy the feast of a lifetime. Do so now . . . before it’s too late.

REFLECTION:  Are you making mistakes in your own life similar to those portrayed in this week’s devotion? Whose invitation are you neglecting? Jesus has invited you to spend time in his presence, to spend time in his Word, and to spend time in fellowship with Him. Have you exchanged the good things God has planned for you at His banquet table for something that seems better or more important at the moment?

A Simple Trust

“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.” (Luke 16:10)

Let your mind wander back to the day you first learned how to ride a bike. You are nervous as you hop onto the seat of your shiny new Schwinn, but you trust the adult who stands at your side—and, of course, the training wheels which are in place as part of the purchase package. One day those wobbly wheels are finally removed, and you are confident that you are now prepared to ride a bike. With that adult figure running beside you holding onto the seat, they finally let go. You are either off and running or ready to face a few scrapes and bruises. Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for any kid, but the days when we first learned to rely on training wheels are fading as a part of the past. Enter the balance bike, sized so that a child can comfortably put both feet on the ground but high enough so that they can lift their feet and glide. Child experts say that it’s a more efficient way to learn the technique of bike balance, therefore providing the opportunity for riding more safely at a younger age. Who knew?

One might hope that teaching a child to ride a traditional bike might be a bonding experience that some parents might not want to miss. For the child, it is one of those occasions where they learn to appreciate the value of placing trust in another individual. Assured that even if he or she fell off the bike, that faithful adult would be there to pick them up and provide the necessary care. Perhaps that’s why Jesus identified so readily with children. Children are characteristically humble, trusting, and therefore teachable. They display an unpretentious faith, often referred to as “childlike faith.” Jesus promoted such genuine faith in God, and He used the innocence of a child to demonstrate His point. When He wanted to bless the children, Jesus said, “”Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).  While simple childlike faith is perhaps a good place to start, we must grow into a deeper faith hopefully leading us to a personal relationship with our Heavenly Father. This only comes from an assured confidence that we know with certainty who is the object of our faith. For . . . “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Mature faith is characterized by conviction, not by blind belief. We can sometimes be surprised by those who display this type of faith. “When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a Roman officer came and pleaded with him, ‘Lord, my young servant lies in bed, paralyzed and in terrible pain.’ Jesus said, ‘I will come and heal him.’ But the officer said, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed…’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to those who were following him, he said, ‘I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Then Jesus said to the Roman officer, ‘Go back home. Because you believed, it has happened.’ And the young servant was healed that same hour” (Matthew 8:5-13).

In The Message translation of verse 12 (above), a profound statement is made: “Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” Of course, Jesus was speaking of the religious elite who would have classified themselves as dutifully practicing their faith.  Identifying oneself as a member of “the faithful” are can be a spiritually dangerous undertaking. It can easily create circumstances where individuals are included or excluded. Those who make these judgements can quickly become self-righteous, for they would personally be included. One must wonder how many persons grew up in the faith but somehow lack conviction. When we are tested by circumstances that to us seem out of control, God will acknowledge the faithful for He knows their heart (Proverbs 21:2). With just a little faith, great things can happen. Whenever you give your faith to Jesus, it’s like riding a bike . . . you never forget. All it takes is just a simple trust in Him.

REFLECTION: Can you think of examples where you have been surprised by individuals whom you thought were strong in their faith but did not demonstrate it in times of crisis? In what specific ways might you serve as a positive example by exercising a simple trust in God today?  How can you help those who might be doubtful to understand that faith begins with small steps that become affirmed over one’s lifetime?

New Normal . . . New You

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”       (2 Corinthains 5:17)

How dramatic does an event have to be to bring about permanent change? It is a question often asked following a human tragedy or otherwise catastrophic occurrence which is accompanied by some form of imposed sacrifice. After such happenings, life as we know it is often altered for a while. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, experts tell us that on the other side there will be what some are referring to as a “new normal.”  No one, however, can tell us exactly what that will be, how soon it will arrive, or how long it will last. There are those who compare what they suspect life will be after the pandemic to what typically happens after a hurricane. People help their neighbors. They cut up one another’s fallen trees, drag waterlogged furniture to the curb, and grill food from powerless freezers. Sometimes, the bonds that form last forever; most times, however, they are fleeting. Life often returns to what it had previously been, and over time – the memory of the shared experience begins to fade.

Experiencing new life and implementing a new normal are inherent in the Christian faith. Following the death of Jesus, Paul told the early Christians they were a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that those who believed in Christ died with Him and would no longer live for themselves. Their lives would no longer be worldly; they were now more spiritual. The same is true for us, as our old sin nature was also nailed to the cross with Christ. It was buried with Him, and as He was raised by the Father – so are we raised to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Because of the new life that we have been given, there is an expectation that we will live a “new normal.”  Paul continues: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). It is then that our purposes, desires, and understandings are made fresh. We see the world differently with new feelings toward all people—a new love for family and friends, a new compassion never before felt for enemies, and a new respect for the world. 

A new normal can be experienced as either positive or negative, often dependent on the way we react to the change. New norms encourage one to deal with current conditions, rather than lamenting about what could have been or what was.  It is often dependent on our ability to exercise some degree of control over the situation in which we find ourselves. In those circumstances where social distancing is essential, perhaps a silver lining will occur awakening a better appreciation for the simple things. Maybe we will never again take for granted a hug from our grandparents, the roar of a crowd at a sports event, coffee with a neighbor, a walk with a friend, a taste of communion, a pot-luck supper, a packed concert hall, or a handshake with a stranger. Possibly it’s our turn to answer the question many of us have asked of the older generation: “What did you do during this time and how did it change you?”  When the pause from our old normal ends, we will hopefully find that we have become more like the person we were called to be. And it just might be that we will change for the better because of the worst we have seen.

A new creation can be an amazing thing. But if it is imposed by an outside force like a pandemic, it may not lead to any permanent change. If it is a conscious choice, such as a decision to follow Christ, it is given opportunity to result in a transformation and, yes, a new normal.  When we decide to walk with God, He will be by our side and not abandon us. His Word tells us, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). If you’re on the cusp of a new normal, you won’t always know exactly what to do, but those initial fumbling steps can be a sweet training ground. As you follow Jesus, you’ll learn how to trust and lean on your faith. So be faithful, my friend, and allow that new normal to form a new you.

REFLECTION: As you walk into a season of life challenged with uncertainty – how can you prepare yourself for acceptance of that new reality, if only for a time? The Apostle Paul wrote: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on …” (Philippians 3:12-14). When you are faced with a sudden change in your life, in what ways can you positively “press on” and embrace what lies ahead?

Gathering and Scattering

“A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away.” (Ecclesiastes 3:5)

Months ago, I bumped into a lady I had gotten to know through a local business which I frequented. She no longer worked there, and it had been awhile since I had seen her. Through our over-the-counter chats, she had shared that her father was up in years and had developed some health problems. It was natural then when I greeted her to ask how her dad was doing.  She looked down and sadly said, “Oh he passed away last week due to influenza.”  I moved toward her thinking maybe I should perhaps give her a hug in expression of sympathy, when she proceeded to say . . . “and now I think I have it too.” “It”, of course, referenced the flu. I found myself smiling and slowly backing away, continuing to say how sorry I was for her loss while strategizing how I might make a respectfully quick exit. As I reflect on this encounter, I believe how normal my response would have been for many others as well.  We gather to do the right thing but find ourselves scattering whenever things don’t seem to be so good.

Gathering and scattering are fairly commonplace. Throughout the history of cultures, we come together to assemble and then return again to our various scattered places.  Families and friends gather to recognize holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events. Classmates gather for reunions, and those who have a common interest such as hunting or football often gather to share in rivalry of these activities. I once worked with a lady who frequently talked about her monthly card club with a group of ladies. One day out of curiosity, I asked her what kind of cards they played. She snickered and said – “Oh my, we don’t play cards . . . we just get together to eat and enjoy each other’s company. Contained in God’s Word are regular references to gathering and scattering. We read in the Old Testament that there are times to gather and scatter stones. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, Joshua had them gather stones, stating – “These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:6-7).  On another occasion, however, Isaiah spoke of the need to scatter stones: “He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines” (Isaiah 5:2).

Evidence of gathering and scattering is prominent in that holiest of weeks before Jesus suffered and died a horrible death on the cross. As Jesus gathered with His disciples in the Upper Room on what Christian tradition has come to refer to as Maundy or Holy Thursday – it was the last time the chosen disciples would be together as ‘the twelve’. “Jesus said, ‘I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins. For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God’” (Luke 22:15-16). Then Jesus told them – “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matthew 26:31). As He broke bread with them, it was then that Jesus predicted one of His own would betray Him. It came to pass, for “as soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’” And He “left at once” (John 13:27,30).

Even though many of Jesus’ disciples were scattered at the time of His death and resurrection, Jesus gathered the remaining eleven at Galilee. There He commissioned them to scatter ‘and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Having gathered once more, those who followed Christ would now be equipped to do the other half of what they were called to achieve; that is, to scatter.  The Church is, therefore, is tasked with this mission: to gather for worship, instruction, and fellowship, but also to find ways to effectively scatter as demonstrated by the early followers. “But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). For you see, my friends – being part of a Christ-centered community not only means knowing about Jesus, but it also means sharing Him as a Living Presence and Personal Savior. It is only when we do this that we will have captured the true meaning of Easter.

REFLECTION: The women who went to Jesus’ tomb were asked “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive?” (Luke 24:5). How should Jesus’ resurrection prompt us to not only worship Him at our Easter gatherings but also prepare us as we scatter to serve Him in the days that follow?

How Easily They Forget

“This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

It’s always enlightening to me that whenever there is something novel, unique, or otherwise trending – people will be drawn toward it. When this occurs, we may be prompted to begin a new project or venture. For instance, you might start a diet after hearing that others have lost a lot of weight on it. But if your willpower is different than theirs or the food choices are unappealing, your level of interest might quickly regress. When the project or goal starts to wane in significance, becomes unappealing, or cannot stir enough motivation – it can be quite easy to move on with diminished enthusiasm. We humans are easily swayed when we allow ourselves to be sidetracked by whims or popular opinion.  There are times, however, when we encounter life-altering events that have the capability to hold our attention for a lifetime. But if we do not keep the memory alive, practice what we have learned, or strive to maintain an intense level of focus – it will not take long for our passion to fade.

The expression “Lest we forget” is commonly used in war remembrance services and commemorative occasions. It was first created in an 1897 Christian poem written by Rudyard Kipling called “Recessional”. The phrase occurs eight times and is repeated at the end of the first four stanzas in order to add particular emphasis regarding the dangers of failing to remember. As Moses spoke to the nation of Israel before they entered the Promised Land, he said: “But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren” (Deuteronomy 4:9). He went on to remind them that there had been a time when he had to issue a reprimand. On that occasion, he descended after forty days from Mount Sanai where God had provided the Ten Commandments: “There below me I could see that you had sinned against the LORD your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves. How quickly you had turned away from the path the LORD had commanded you to follow” (Deuteronomy 9:16).

We are a fickle lot when it comes to our following of religious practices. There is no better example than the event the church commonly refers to as Palm Sunday. As Jesus rode a donkey into the town of Jerusalem during the annual Passover – a large crowd gathered and laid palm branches and their cloaks across the road, giving Him royal treatment. Hundreds of people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9). But even as the multitudes waved the palm branches and shouted for joy, they missed the true reason for Jesus’ presence. They could neither see nor comprehend the salvation gift He would provide through His sacrificial death on a cross in just a few days. The masses quickly turned on Him when he did not lead a revolt against Rome. In fact, one must wonder how many who were in the crowds shouting “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday would be crying out “Crucify Him!” later that week (Matthew 27:22-23).  Palm Sunday was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ work on earth, the final seven days of His earthly ministry known to us as Passion Week. This day has grown to become a significant event to Christians throughout history.

When the crowds in Jerusalem used the word Hosanna, it served as an expression of joy and praise for deliverance granted or anticipated. We have the advantage of knowing and understanding what those who shouted that greeting during Jesus’ triumphal entry did not.  As Paul so aptly later wrote, “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). Slaves, hopefully not, but at times we certainly do regress – don’t we? On the other side of a life-altering crisis – we often fail to learn from its lessons, thereby becoming our old selves again. By moving closer to Jesus during and after the experience, these events can become life-affirming. When that happens – no one would dare look at us and say, “How easily they forget!”

REFLECTION: Consider a time when you offered a great deal of yourself to another, and then it appeared that they no longer remembered. How did you this make you feel? If you were to see yourself through the eyes of Jesus – what kind of life-altering event would affirm your relationship with Him? Are there ways you might consider using the events of Holy Week to create a lasting impression for others?

Leaning and Coping in Anxious Times

“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” (Proverbs 12:25)

It takes something rather dramatic to bring a society together. Certainly events like the Great Depression, the attacks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, as well as the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 are good examples where there was, for the most part, an effort toward a spirit of unity. During the latter – a group of residents in an apartment building in Dallas, Texas, stuck their heads out their windows joining in a chorus of quarantined voices led by one soulful tenor who began singing the Bill Withers’ lyrics:

“Sometimes in our lives we all have pain . . . We all have sorrow.
But if we are wise . . . We know that there’s always tomorrow.”

Little by little, other residents began to join in the refrain, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend; I’ll help you carry on.”  While some added harmonies, others simply peered outside or recorded the impromptu sing-a-long on their phones. This display affirmed that when we feel anxiety in uncertain times, “we all need somebody to lean on.”

Some authorities state that anxiety has overtaken depression as the leading mental health problem in the United States. To be sure, life is not without uncertainties—whether they come in the form of a major life transition, family issues, health scares, or financial trouble—and anxiety usually results. Anxiety has three main elements. The first is Insecurity, something bad is going to happen. The truth is that bad things do happen, but seldom does the “worst-case scenario” we imagine ever play out. Then there is Helplessness, there is nothing I can do to change this. The reality is that there is almost always something you can do, even if it just is a small step in making a positive difference in your life today. Add to that Isolation, there is no one to help me. While anxiety for most folks is temporary and can be brought under control with some self-talk and intentional reaching out, it must be recognized that there are indeed those who suffer from true anxiety disorder. There are professionals and organizations who can help, some of which are able to be accessed directly from one’s home.

In his book, Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado presents an acronym for helping those of us who subscribe to faith in God and feel anxious at any given time.  The abbreviated letters are remembered by the word CALM . . . the opposite of anxious, and just what we are seeking. Here is his advice: “Celebrate God’s goodness. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Phil. 4:4). How will you express your joy for God’s goodness today? Ask God for help. ‘Let your requests be made known to God’ (Philippians 4:6). If you don’t already keep a prayer journal, start one. Begin with today’s requests. Leave your concerns with Him. ‘With thanksgiving . . .’ (Philippians 4:6). At bedtime review the concerns you left with God this morning. Thank him for relieving you of your anxious thoughts. Meditate on good things. ‘Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8). Plan your day to include time alone with God.”

Do you have anxieties? The results may be costly, since anxiety drives our attention away from spiritual matters and drains our energy away from the important things of daily living. Scripture does not state specifically what causes anxiety, but in every case, it evidences itself as a crisis of faith. Throughout the Bible, almost all of the major players had the opportunity to experience anxiety. Each were confronted with a choice to be consumed by it or to relinquish it to God and recognize it to be part of His plan. Jesus asked His followers, “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27)  We must turn over whatever burdens us in exchange for the peace that only He can give. It takes humility to admit we can’t handle things ourselves, and it requires trust to allow God to work the situation according to His will. So, “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7). If you will surrender your burdens to Him, the only thing you have to lose is . . . you guess it, your anxiety.

REFLECTION:  What situations are causing you to be anxious at this time?  How might you make a conscious shift to focus on the blessings of today rather than on the worst-case scenario? Are there ways that you might be that “somebody to lean on” for someone you know going through an anxious time?

Social Distancing

“The LORD sustains them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness.” (Psalm 41:3)

It’s interesting to see how people react when life as they knew it yesterday is suddenly different today. When we have to experience confinement due to a recent surgery, because we are infectious, are facing an unsafe weather emergency, or responding to imposed restrictions intended to reduce the spread of a deadly disease like the Coronavirus – many of us become frazzled. The mantra from children and others who need some form of direction in their lives is . . . “So what do I do now?”  When our daily routine becomes interrupted, often times our coping skills do as well.  The disruption of the security of a familiar schedule makes us anxious for a norm that was but no longer is, at least for a while. It becomes worse when we are told to restrict our interpersonal contact with those outside of our immediate household. This practice has come to be known as “social distancing.”

You will recall times when you were young that you weren’t allowed to play with friends who were contagious with certain childhood diseases. If you are one of the millions of older Americans, you may remember a period when doctors made house calls and, if a quarantine needed to be imposed, visitation restriction signs were posted on the front doors of infected homes. The Bible contains many references to “uncleanliness.” Worshipers had to comply with the laws of the day, and if they were considered to be unclean – they could not approach God with reverence. A good case in point were persons who had become afflicted with leprosy. Those who had the disease were required to keep themselves apart from others until they were healed. Their clothes would be torn, and they had to cover their head and face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45). Also, as long as the serious disease lasted – they were considered ceremonially unclean and had to live in isolation outside of the camp (Leviticus 13:46).

In God’s Holy Word, Luke writes about ten lepers who collectively approached Jesus, while remaining at a distance as required by the law. They called out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13). Without seemingly doing anything to heal them, “He looked at them and said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests’” (Luke 17:14).  At the moment of His direction no physical change took place, but they did as Jesus had instructed.  As they began their walk, it was then that they were cured. However, only one returned to thank Jesus for the healing. Even though He had not withheld healing from the other nine, He made a point of remarking about their lack of gratitude (Luke 17:18). Note Jesus’ final words to the thankful Samaritan: “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you” (Luke 17:19). No doubt this man received the blessing of a spiritual healing, in addition to the cleansing of his skin.

It is important that we don’t become like the nine lepers who failed to give glory to God for the provision of His blessings. Having to socially distance by temporarily sheltering-in-place is not the end of the world. We have the luxury of maintaining contact with others by phone. Many are able to continue interaction by video applications such as Skype and Facetime. We should be using these to reach out to those who may be isolated and have basic needs for which we can offer support. If we are on the receiving end, we need to be grateful. Those of us who are fortunate to share a home should value this time of fellowship. In this day and age, we have no reason to feel separated from a spiritual connection. There are 24- hour broadcast TV and radio programs available, and worship services are streaming from various churches and spiritual leaders. Periods of isolation are a great opportunity to count your many blessings. Worry is counterproductive and indeed a sin against hope. There is no reason to be fearful.  I heard recently that “be not afraid” is mentioned 365 times in scripture. Why not begin to search and reflect on those daily? You will find encouragement and affirmation that you are, indeed, never socially distanced from God.

REFLECTION: In what ways does learning about the laws of physical uncleanliness contained in scripture help you understand more about Jesus’ ministry and His purpose to make us spiritually clean?  How can these lessons relate to us, especially during periods of confinement and social isolation? As you relate to those who need to socially distance, how might you apply these words contained in 3 John 1:2: “Friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.”

Living a Life of Excess

“Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

Years ago, I went to a birthday party for a young child. In attendance were several neighborhood children and some adult relatives. So, there were lots of presents.  Midway through opening his gifts, the guest of honor looked up and said, “No more.”  On what would normally be a festive occasion – the child had become so overwhelmed with all the attention directed at him and, no doubt the massive amount of stuff he received, that he just had to quit. Over the years we have resided on this earth, most of us have accumulated such a material abundance that we too would have every right to feel overwhelmed.  Forget those who could be labeled as hoarders or pack rats, we simply have far too many possessions. Indeed, if you have duplicates of certain items, have more than one junk drawer, or have regularly contemplated renting a storage unit – you should consider that you just might be living a life of excess.

Society tries to sell us on the idea that having more in our lives should be our goal. Restaurants serve ‘all you can eat’ buffets. Advertisements constantly push things we absolutely need to buy because, of course, what we now have isn’t good enough. We live in a culture where each of us is viewed as a consumer and what we buy impacts our social status as well as our self-image.  Professionals have stated that generations of over-indulged American kids are growing up seriously lacking in discipline, direction, and conviction. The common denominator here is excess. Without a doubt – we are out of control and will most likely never recover from an agenda that promotes every opportunity to binge. It’s hard to keep your eyes on heavenly treasures when so much value is placed on earthly ones. We have greatly distanced ourselves from the philosophy of Socrates who once stated, “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

The wise King Solomon once stated: “Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11). Jesus knew that worldly stuff could be enticing and that living with excess can take over your life. When He called His disciples into ministry, He told them – “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts–no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep” (Matthew 10:9-10). You see, Jesus didn’t want them to be anxious about stuff. God would provide what they needed . . . and just enough of it. This was later echoed by the Apostle Paul as he wrote, “Don’t love money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, ‘I will never fail you. I will never abandon you’” (Hebrews 13:5).

When accumulating stuff becomes our norm, attempting to live a life of moderation is an uphill battle. At times it can feel like our stuff owns us rather than the other way around. Eventually it robs us of the joy we can find when we are able to spend more time focusing on Heavenly things. Likewise it erodes our faith when we trust more in our stuff than we do in God, thus leaving us still desiring what our hearts really need—Him. The only area in which we don’t need to be concerned about moderation is in our relationship with God. We are to love Him without limits – with all our heart, soul, and mind (Luke 10:27). The more we ask Him to fill us and occupy our lives with His Holy Spirit, the easier it becomes to live in moderation in all earthly things. God’s Holy Word tells us: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). The Lenten season is a wonderful time to experience a spiritual journey of uncluttering. Be like my young friend those many years ago. Give yourself permission to let go of some of the things you are holding onto. You will find that your hands are now free to do some wonderful life-changing activities, as you suddenly move from saying “No More Stuff” to “More of You, Lord.”

REFLECTION: What is your definition of “enough”? How has holding on to all the stuff of this life been keeping God at a distance? What is stopping you from trying to find your own path to less by getting rid of the mindset that more is better? Are there some initial steps you can take this week to make this happen? How will you hold yourself accountable for doing so?