Saturday, May 30, 2020

Joy Unspeakable

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, persistent in prayer." ~ Romans 12:12
From nowhere came the sound of an old-fashioned telephone, so authentic that Cooper scanned the Pizza Hut for an antique, something that wouldn't look out of place in an old movie.  Glancing at a man wearing a puzzled expression, the old cell phone was easy to spot.
It wasn't wafer thin like the popular models, but probably a mid-90’s Motorola clamshell device he’d only seen in pictures.  Sensing his stare, the old man looked up.
“Young man, are you any good with cell phones,” he asked somewhat embarrassed.  “I’m trying to open a picture message that my granddaughter just sent.”
Cooper approached him for a closer look.  “I’m afraid your phone doesn’t have ability to view photos,” he said holding back a chuckle that his mind enjoyed.
The man’s shoulders slumped exposing the sort of broken heartedness akin to ice-cream melting on a steamy highway.  He explained that the photo was of his granddaughter and her new baby.  She lived far enough away that he’d likely not see the child in person any time soon … if ever.
“The name’s Elmer,” he said, his lower lip quivering as words slowly made their way out of his mouth.  “Thank you for trying.”
Now the sadness shifted to Cooper’s eyes.  “Mind if I try something,” he asked.  With some difficulty and a few earnest prayers, he was able to forward the message to his own phone and eventually managed to open the picture.
At seeing great granddaughter for the first time, Elmer’s smile extended from his eyes deep into his soul.  Cooper could see his love for them both through teary eyes.
“I never realized the true meaning of joy,” the old man opined, “until our first child was born and I held her in my arms.  she learned to walk, went through school, got married, and had children of her own, my understanding of joy amplified tenfold."
He offered Cooper a $20 bill for his effort before returning to his booth.  Cooper refused the gesture but Elmer insisted.  So, he stashed the bill in his shirt pocket and left the restaurant.
Cooper returned several minutes later after printing the photo at a nearby Walgreens and placing it in an inexpensive frame.  Elmer was just cashing out when he handed him the framed photo.
This author’s words are powerless to adequately express Elmer’s gratitude.  Let’s just say he could hardly contain his happiness.
Every small thing in life is a moment able to nourish the soul if we let joy in.  Live with awe, humbleness, present in each moment and the gifts of life will fill you to the brim, so much that your joy will overflow and make better the lives of all around you.
Joyful Spirit, I pray that You fill me with the joy of the Lord, that overwhelming joy.  Your joy is unlike anything this world has to offer.  It brings peace, trust and hope and with that a rest because I know You’re in control.  Amen

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Less Blessed?

“God chose you out of all the people on Earth as His personal treasure.” ~ Deuteronomy 14:2
Looking around the sanctuary, Madeline felt the familiar twinge of loneliness - a husband gently rubbed the shoulders of his pregnant wife, an engaged couple exchanged loving glances, a mother hushed her restless toddler.
I’m the only single person here, she thought to herself as she sat down.  A newly married woman met her eye from across the aisle and smiled.  Madeline detected a look of sympathy - a look that said, “Poor thing!”  On the edge of her 20s, being the only single person at church isn’t easy.
To some, you’re a problem that needs fixing, a source of sympathy for others.  Many try to pass on their own marriage formulas.  Still others (especially women) avoid you for fear that you might try and steal their husbands.
After years of singleness, Madeline no longer enjoyed socializing at church.  She opened her Bible and began hoping for something akin to a Divine revelation – mostly she was just killing time.  She read Proverbs 18:22, “He who finds a wife receives favor from the Lord.”
Does that mean that I’m less blessed compared to those who are married? she wondered.  Maybe He only answers the prayers of those who are wed; only wants to bless the married.  Maybe I don’t measure up in His eyes.
Convinced that God wouldn’t really bless her until she was married and operating on a deeper spiritual level, Madeline felt her spiritual self-worth crumbling.  Little did she know the Lord was about to move her life in a special way.
She felt God speaking to her heart.  It came in the form of a simple question.  “How do you view yourself?”
Quickly she replied, “God, Your Word says I’m perfectly made.”
Still, the question rang louder; He wasn’t satisfied with her answer.  “Do you value yourself?”
Madeline wasn’t being honest.   Sure, she studied Scripture, but she believed her own distorted self-image more.  As panic began strangling her chest, she felt an indescribably sweet presence wash over her.  The incredible power of God’s unconditional love surrounded her like sunshine.
Diving deeper into His presence, Madeline surfaced with hidden gems.  In God’s eyes, the Ruler of time and creation, you are cherished.  The depth of His love is proven by the wounds in His palms.  Singleness cannot reverse that.  Yes, you too are blessed.  (Deuteronomy 14:2)
In Christ, we are loved, chosen, redeemed, forgiven, freed, sanctified, and promised an everlasting inheritance with all the riches, splendors, and character of our Savior.  For the glory of God, we are blessed.  May we all proclaim how truly sanctified we are as we experience Christ working more intensely in us, even through situations that don’t seem like blessings at all.
Lord, in our desire-driven culture, thank you for setting each of us apart.  Help us fulfill Your purpose by living our lives as chosen vessels of honor.  Remind singles that our Lord hasn’t forgotten them; but has chosen them as His special treasures.  Amen

Friday, May 22, 2020

Reflections

“Gray hair is a crown of splendor; a blessing to be cherished.” ~ Proverbs 16:31
The morning was damp and dismal when Joan unlocked the door to her Aunt Florence’s house.  Aunt Flo left the house to Joan in her will, which was unexpected … yet touching.  She’d barely miss her deceased aunt though, since visits with Aunt Flo had been infrequent of late.
The home’s interior sat silent and even colder than the outside world, almost as if it were longing for its owner’s return.  It’d been some time since anyone had cared for the home.
After exploring the first floor, Joan climbed the stairs to an attic. Antiques crowded the stuffy space; the gems of times past, expressions of a life well lived.
As she scanned the clutter, a burst of sunlight broke through the grey clouds illuminating an ornate mirror in one corner; its pride and glory still intact.
Joan stepped closer, gazing at her own reflection.  Most people would do the same – looking for reassurance of their self-worth.  Sometimes however, the view had just the opposite effect.
Her eyes looked weary; her skin sagged.  The many and expensive anti-aging skin creams she’d collected over the last few years had been a total waste of money.
Her mirror face revealed a lifetime of pain.  Her hair was greying now; more age spots dotted her skin.  Her wrinkles were deeper, the enamel on her teeth was dulling.  She’d recently ordered a stronger pair of glasses and griped to God about it all.
"Why do our bodies start to wear out just when we finally learn how to live?" she questioned.
God, in His infinite patience and unconditional love, answered Joan immediately when a curious thought entered her consciousness.  "The car you drive isn't as valuable as the driver!"
Joan smiled at that.  She’d driven so many old, used cars in her life, each with their own, unique "personalities." They all had quirks, troubles, and problems.  Each one required patience and maintenance.  But they always got her where she was going.
Now that her body was starting to wear down, rattle, and backfire God was reminding Joan that she wasn't that body - she was the person behind the steering wheel.  She was the bright, shining soul within; an ageless, spirit.  And while her car wasn't going to last forever, the driver would.
Take good care of this body you drive around then.  Nurture it.  Keep it in good repair.  Make it last as long as you can.  But always remember it isn't you.  You’re the person behind the wheel; the loving soul within.  The image you see in the mirror was chosen for you by a God who’s very pleased with His creation, from the gray hairs on your head to the calluses on your feet.
Lord, help me to see the changes in my hair and the aging of my face, not as signs of my decline, but as the markers of growth, well-earned wisdom and a celebration of years spent walking with You.  Amen

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Where's God Now?

“God’s people must be gentle, patient teachers of those who are wrong." ~ 2 Timothy 2:24
Daniele started college with a roommate she hadn’t known before.  They became quick friends; it seemed their discussions never ended.  Rebecca said she was a “very spiritual person.”  She’d been to church a few times and “guessed she was a Christian.”
When Danielle revealed that Jesus Christ was the most important thing in her life, Rebecca appeared warmly supportive. “I think we’re kinda saying the same thing,” she reasoned.
Daniele silently disagreed.
Halfway through the semester the COVID pandemic forced the university to close down and empty the dorms.  When Daniele hadn’t heard from her roommate in several weeks, she sent a text message suggesting they reconnect on Zoom.  Only then did Daniele learn that her friend had lost both a grandfather and an uncle to the malicious virus.
In a brief, angry text, Rebecca said, “See – this is why I don’t and never have believed in your (expletive) god.  We didn’t deserve this.  I’m so bitter!”
Initially Daniele took the comments personally; an insult to her beliefs.  “How could my friend, someone I care deeply for, say such things, knowing my religious views?” she wondered.  Daniele had come to know God and trust His goodness despite, and often a result of, trials and adversities.  As she often did, she looked to His Word for guidance.
Paul suggested a “gentle, patient response.”  In the absence of faith, it’s almost impossible to develop trust when you’ve been beaten down.  In these situations, trying to make someone believe in God can have the opposite effect.
Her influence would be more powerful, not by what she intended to say, but how Rebecca would feel about the way Daniele listened.  Listening empathetically, Paul reasoned, was itself a witness.
She’d reach out and engage her friend in tolerant conversation; listening to her pain – sharing tears, grief and hope.  And when Rebecca’s anger (hopefully) subsides, she’ll be there for her.  Her witness will long be remembered.
People often question, “If God is a God of love why does He let people suffer?”  To be truthful, I don’t know.  I don’t know why children get cancer.  I don’t know why people suffer catastrophic trauma, why natural disasters happen, or why COVID is killing thousands of people?
One could argue that viruses are part of the natural world and in some way contribute to life, but this fails miserably when speaking to someone who’s lost a friend or loved one.  Father James Martin suggests that a better question for believers in times of suffering is: “Can you believe in a God that you don’t understand?”
If the mystery of suffering is therefore unanswerable, the answer even for nonbelievers may be found in the study of Jesus’ life on earth.
Lord God, it often takes painful circumstances to drive us to You.  Addiction, materialism, and other tragedies steal the hearts of those who need You most.  We pray for those unsaved; that You will be able to rip the bondage of what holds them back.  Amen

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Bitter Sweet

"The revelation of the Cross turned my bitterness into sweetness." ~ Rev. Cesar Castellanos
60 YEARS IN THE FUTURE
Jacob’s Grampa was a man who made and kept friends with ease.  Generous natured, he always found the best in people; a better listener than a speaker.  He succeeded at everything he tried because he approached each with dedication, persistence and rigor.
He’s gone now, but Jacob remembered one of the last conversations they shared before his passing.  They’d studied about the virus that changed everything back in 2020 in his 6th grade history class and wanted to get Grampa’s perspective.
"Wow.  That must’ve been horrible,” Jacob said.  “They told us the schools had closed and many parents lost their jobs.  People weren't allowed to visit each other, vacations got cancelled, stores shelves were empty, and thousands of people got very sick and died.”
"Well, that’s all true,” Grampa said.  “But to tell you the truth, I remember it differently ...”
“I remember quality time with my family - playing games with my sisters, fishing with Dad and baking bread with Mom.  We had movie night three nights a week; we were never too busy!”
“I remember taking long walks, breathing fresher air, and hearing sweeter bird calls.  We had time for simpler things.”
“I remember praying more passionately and consistently; thanking God for all we still had and the amazing people who worked hard to keep us supplied and healthy.”
Sensing Jacob was confused, Grampa changed tactics.
“Consider the sweetness of a chocolate bar,” Grampa continued.  “Its silky-smooth texture leaves you with an irresistible taste of heavenly bliss.  But cacao – the stuff that chocolate is made from is really quite bitter.  It takes a lot of processing – fermenting, drying, roasting, shelling, grinding, tempering and molding before it’s wrapped and ready to eat.”
Crises like depressions, wars and pandemics tend to mold us in similar ways.  The initial shock is scary and disappointing; even a little bitter.  But our faith is like the refining process of the cacao bean.  If handled properly – the result is sweet.”
“When things were back to more normal, I truly appreciated friends’ hugs.  When I entered a crowded restaurant, I thanked God for the smiling faces and boisterous voices.  I never again took for granted the spirit of worship at my church, the vast supplies of items at grocery stores, or the chance to hop in my car and visit a friend or a doctor’s office.”
“Those challenges helped me to pray more, love harder and really value the blessings that were so easily overlooked before that pandemic.”
Friends, remember how our children will remember these times.  Be in control of the memories they’re creating right now, so that through all the awful headlines and emotional stories they’ll read in future years, they can remember the happy times.
Dear Lord, bring smiles when bitterness intrudes, hugs when spirits sag, confidence where there’s doubt, comfort on difficult days, faith that we can believe, patience to accept the truth, and love to complete us.  Amen

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Rescue Business

“God frees us from the misery of darkness." ~ Colossians 1:13
Without warning, their apartment floor opened up and the building collapsed.  Everything went dark … until she woke to the frantic cry of her 2-year-old daughter.
Marta lay motionless; flat on her back.  They’d fallen into the basement, trapped by crumbling walls and tons of rubble.  A concrete panel inches above her kept the mother of six from standing.
"Mommy, I scared,” sobbed her daughter Gayany.  "I tirsty (thirsty) too!”
Fearing her own death, Marta promised Gayany, "No matter what, I'll be here for you!"  She reassured the girl with sweet Armenian lullabies and children’s prayers.
Barely within reach, Marta found a jar of blackberry jam that’d fallen to the basement.  She rationed that to her baby over the next few days until it was all gone.
The body can call on fat stores and eventually muscle protein.  But it can’t draw water from anything but external sources.
As the days passed, and Gayany's pleas for something thirst quenching became more intense.  Her mother remembered a program on TV about survival.  In toddlers, up to 90% of their bodies were made up of water, acting as a "natural storage" in cases of dehydration.  So she kept up her prayers and lullabies until she could no longer speak.
Losing track of time because of the unchanging darkness, Marta couldn’t recall how many days they’d been trapped under all the rubble.   But on the fifth day of their captivity, rescue workers opened a small hole that let in a shaft of light.
Moments later, frightened, hungry, and thirsty Mom crawled out from under the debris.  "My baby’s in there,” she cautioned, “please be careful not to hurt her!"
Mother and daughter were flown to Yerevan, Armenia's capital.  Gayany was placed in the ICU for five days, hooked up to IV fluids, but her blood was rich in protein and minerals.  She made a full recovery thanks to her mother’s promise to protect her.  Marta, also dangerously dehydrated, was given IV fluids and placed in a hyperbaric chamber of 100 percent, highly pressurized oxygen for treatment against exposure.
Later they’d learn that two earthquakes ravaged Armenia’s northwestern section killing 60,000 people, injuring another 130,00, and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless or without basic supplies.  The two tremors, only minutes apart, measured 6.9 and 5.8 in magnitude and destroyed nearly half a million buildings.
Moms seem to have a natural instinct to protect their young.  But rescuing people is part of God’s nature.  From the moment Adam sinned, He rescued humanity from eternal separation from God’s blessings.
Some assume salvation is something God gives automatically in His sovereignty.  But ultimately, the Bible says He won’t impose His will unless we ask for His intervention.  It’s our job to take it.
Father, please rescue me.  Don't let the floods come over me; don't let me drown in the depths or sink into the grave.  Answer me, Lord, in the goodness of your constant love; in your great compassion turn to me!  (Psalm 69: 15-16)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Passion for the Poor

“If you want to follow Jesus, deny yourself, take up His cross, and follow Him." ~ Matthew 16:24
Eva set her basket of flowers down in the alley and wiped her hands on her tattered skirt.  Blisters scarred her feet from secondhand boots and her back ached from walking.  She hadn't sold many flowers today, but she wasn’t discouraged.
The young girl noticed a well-dressed man approaching.  Hiding her basket behind a barrel, Eva smeared soot on her face and stepped out in front of the gentleman.
"Please, sir.  Can you help me?" she wept.
"What is it?" he asked, trying to see her face beneath her bonnet.  Eva kept her head down, her shoulders trembling as she cried.
"Someone stole my flowers!" she sobbed.  "I won't have any money to take home to my family!"
Feeling sorry for this poor girl, the man reached into his pocket for some loose coins.
At this, Eva could no longer contain herself.  She laughed out loud, startling the confused man.
"Don't you recognize me?" she giggled.  "Have I fooled my own father?"
Surprised, he lifted her chin and looked closely.  Under all that dirt smudged from real tears was his own daughter, as happy as could be.  Her eyes twinkled as Eva explained how she’d been mingling with the poor girls in the city and sharing the love of Christ with them.  Then, retrieving her basket, she hurried off down the alley.
William Booth smiled at the memory as he watched Eva go.  Such spunk and passion!  Just like her mother!  What a joy to see their children joining in ministry.
William and Catherine Booth abandoned the conventional concept of a church and a pulpit, instead taking their message to the ‘unsaved’.  They opened soup kitchens, helped those addicted to alcohol, and cared for the needs of society's outcasts.  Most importantly, they were leading people to Christ!
Still, they had their share of opposition, from angry pub owners to established church leaders to school bullies.  Their ministry was very much like a battlefield at times.  Despite sometimes violent opposition, their circus tent ministry quickly grew into a huge organization.
They began using military terms to describe their activities.  Their newsletter told about a new "battery of artillery" and a developing "regiment."  They soon began wearing uniforms with badges and calling their volunteers an "army."  Converts became soldiers of Christ and were known then, as now, as Salvationists.  Eventually they became known as the "Salvation Army," a group that’s still active today.
Established in 1865, the Salvation Army still helps needy people today through Christmas kettles, thrift stores and sharing God's love around the world in 80 countries - all because William and Catherine Booth loved the unlovable, just as Jesus did!
Lord, strengthen my heart for what lies ahead today.  Make me eager to lend my hands to all who are in need.  Help me to relieve their pain, and may they soon be freed.  Hear my prayers and raise me up to closer with You be. (original Salvation Army Prayer)

Friday, May 1, 2020

Faith Without Works

“Faith that doesn’t show itself by good works is no faith at all." ~ James 2:17
Ted’s love affair with Corvettes began in the late 60’s.  He was working part time at his father’s Sinclair gas station.  Back then they were called Service Stations, since ‘Pump Jockeys’ ran to your car with a smile and pumped your gas for 24.9 cents a gallon.
While the gas was pumping, they’d wash your windows, check the air in your tires and check your oil; sometimes all for less than $2.  It was a great time to grow up in a small Midwestern town where muscle cars dominated the streets - Hemi Cudas, Z 28 Camaros and of course Corvettes.
One day while Ted was working in a repair bay, the bell rang, signaling that someone had pulled up needing gas.  He turned and saw a beautiful 1968 Corvette Stingray: 327, 350 hp.
It was love at first sight!  Ted was more taken by the curves of that shark body than the pretty blond woman driving it.
Noting his admiration for the car, she asked if Ted knew anyone looking to buy her Corvette.  For $2,500, Ted bought his first car before he even had a driver’s license.
While 1960s Corvettes impressed with power and speed, they often came up short in handling precision.  It took Ted but one time to figure that out.  Just because you’re driving a car that can go 130 mph; you probably shouldn’t - especially when approaching a sharp curve.
Luckily, he walked away from what many don't.  But the car was a mess.  And since he no longer had a license or the money to fix it, it sat idle in his parent’s driveway for a long time.
He’d sometimes sit outside in the Corvette pretending to be cruising until his Mom would call Ted back inside.  She said it looked pathetic and he was embarrassing her in front of the neighbors!
Nothing more than a lawn ornament - the look of Detroit muscle without any punch.  Much like what’s spoken of in James Chapter 2 - like faith without works, because the car was unable to perform its intended purpose.  It wasn’t meant to reside in the driveway, unable to move.  It was built for speed; to roar down the road and growl at stops.
So, it is with our faith.  Our faith is not an end unto itself.  Faith that doesn’t work is as useless as a car which can’t drive, a plane which cannot fly, or a ship which can’t sail.  James says that real faith works.  The deeds we do are the natural outgrowth of our faith.  If there are no deeds, no works of the flesh, then there is no real faith without action.
“Use my hands, use my feet to make Your kingdom come.  To the corners of the earth until Your work is done.  'Cause faith without works is dead and on the cross Your blood was shed.  So how could we not give it away so freely?”      (Leeland 2009)

Saturday, April 25, 2020

When Old Becomes New

“Teach us to recognize how few our days; that we may gain a heart of wisdom." ~ Psalm 90:12
A year ago I celebrated my 100th birthday.  Charles Strite invented the world’s first automatic pop-up toaster in 1919 that heated both sides of a slice of bread simultaneously.  I turn regular bread into delicious, hot toast; evenly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
A gift for you after marrying your high school sweetheart in 1949, I was a more-refined, 2-slice machine.  I recall such intimate memories of your first years together.  Every morning I gave you pleasant aromas of cinnamon toasted bread mixed with fresh-brewed coffee.
I worked harder after the little ones came along – jellied toast in the morning, sandwiches for lunch and the occasional after-school, peanut butter snack.  They seemed enamored by me, seeing my coils heat up, admiring how I mysteriously turned a slice of white bread into delightful toast, ready for butter, jam or just about any other concoction.
Things changed when you moved into a new house.
Formica countertops, wood floors and new appliances.  Mr. Coffee took my place - all in the name of progress.  I was relegated to a dark cupboard where I still heard kitchen talk but would never be a part of your lives again.
Downsizing brought yet another move.  You gave away many possessions but hung onto me for some strange reason.  A new home in another dark space.
Soon I heard the sweet voices and scampering feet of grandchildren.  They never knew me, but I remained ready if the call came for my service.
Time passed . . . silent, deserted, irrelevant.  You don’t live here anymore.
One day I awoke from oblivion when one of your daughters opened the cupboard door and removed everything.  Surprised by my presence, she carefully set me on the counter next to a stained and bruised toaster oven.  I still looked almost new in my shiny, hard chrome case.
Did she remember me?
Before I realized what was happening, I took a short ride, placed a nice granite countertop in a spacious kitchen, and plugged in to a wall socket.
Perhaps I wasn’t abandoned after all!  But was I still up to the challenge?
After removing old crumbs, buffing my chrome and firing up my coils, I made my first piece of toast in decades.  It’s good to be alive again, making gluten-free English muffins now every morning.
Like all Christians, seniors need the friendship and inspiration from other believers for their faith to be nourished.  Unfortunately, the older they get, the more difficult it is for many of them to stay involved with the local church.  You can demonstrate God’s love by providing comfort and stability in this time of change and uncertainty, and help the entire family recognize the spiritual continuum stretching back for generations.
Loving God, let us pray for those who walk more slowly now.  May each step be made lighter and their joy be greater for seeing beauty the little things that those of us hurrying by tend to miss.  Amen

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Connect the Dots

“Don’t let anger gain a foothold." ~ Ephesians 4:32
Anger didn’t come close to describing Caroline’s current emotion.  It boiled deep in her gut as hot as lava; hungry for destruction.  She hoped the feeling would pass, but while it hadn't, she bolted out the door oblivious to the world around her.
It wasn’t the fear of dying that scared her - but the pain, the mutilation of her body, the loss of her youth.  Cancer – it pained her to even say the word out loud.  At 27, this should not be happening.  While her peers were getting married and having children, she’d be pumping just enough chemicals into her body to destroy the cancer and hopefully not her spirit.
Caroline had often heard people quote the Bible and say, “All things work together for good to those who love God.”  How was this working for anybody’s good?
While pondering this for the umpteenth time, Caroline flashed back to that afternoon in high school when she was similarly terribly upset.  Having been passed over for a spot on the volleyball team, she’d unloaded all her teenage angst.  “It’s not fair.  God doesn’t listen to any of my prayers.  Why me?”
“It’s just a dot,” her Mom said.
“What do you mean?”
Mom pulled out a worksheet with numbered dots all over it.  “What’s that?” Caroline asked cynically.
“It’s dot-to-dot,” Mom replied.  “What’s it a picture of?”
“I don’t know, they seem scattered over the page in no apparent shape,” said Caroline wondering what point her mother was trying to make.
“That’s how life is,” Mom began.  “God places things in our lives that seem confusing or out of order.  We often have no idea why things happen the way they do.”
“So … we’re the dots?”
“No, we’re the pencil,” her mother said, handing Caroline one.  “The pencil moves from dot to dot.  Only God sees the whole picture.”
Caroline started connecting the numbered dots.  Soon the lines came together to reveal a puppy.  Maybe now it made sense.
She’d changed jobs recently and her new employer couldn’t have been more supportive.  A recent urge to become more fit and eating healthier had resulting in her sheading nearly 25 pounds.
Her cancer was slow moving.  New treatments were highly successful in eradicating early-detected cancer.  God was there all along; He’d been preparing her for the battle.
Caroline stopped viewing all these events as blips of tragedy.  She needed to trust God to reveal the beautiful bigger picture.  All things could work together in our lives for good.
Anger is a valid reaction to adversity, but if left unchecked, it will lead to bitterness and hostility.  If you're angry with God, lay your heart open before Him.  Admit that while you don't understand all that’s happening, you trust Him to make everything work out … dot to dot.
Dear Lord, there is so much hurt and anger inside of me.  I'm tired of living this way.  I'm giving it to You to heal my hurt.  In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Ruby Ridge Redemption

“If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.” ~ Matthew 6:15
If ever a person deserved to be angry, Sara Weaver had the right.
She was just 16 when her father, Randy, was struck in the shoulder by a sniper’s bullet outside their home on Ruby Ridge, a mountaintop in northern Idaho.  Her 14-year-old brother Sammy and a deputy were both killed after officers tried to serve a warrant for weapons charges in 1992.
Sara raced back to the cabin just as her mother, Vicki, was shot in the head while holding her 10-month-old sister.  Mom died in a pool of blood.
For more than a week, the surviving Weavers holed up in the cabin while hundreds of federal agents laid siege in a standoff that helped spark anti-government protests that included the Oklahoma City bombing which took 168 innocent lives.
Randy Weaver was eventually acquitted of the most serious charges.  In 1995, surviving family members won a wrongful death lawsuit against the government.
In the years after Ruby Ridge, Sara Weaver, struggled with depression and PTSD, as well as what she called a "toxic bondage" of bitterness and anger.
She admitted to being ‘broken’ until a close friend revealed her positive relationship with Jesus Christ.  Something clicked for Sara.  He began earnestly reading the Bible, where she learned that "Jesus commands us to forgive (Matt 6:15)."  She described an evolving spiritual journey in her book, "From Ruby Ridge to Freedom” released in 2012.
“I’d been a victim for almost two decades,” she confessed, “but if you don’t surrender it to God, the bitterness sucks the life from you.
Forgiving the men who killed her mother and brother wouldn’t be easy.  “But I had to do so … as many times as it took.  I’ll never condone what they did to my family, but my faith helped me release the raging hatred the incidents retold.”
Then, during an agonizing divorce, she saw forgiveness from a different perspective.  “I realized that I’d also been a perpetrator: I’d inflicted great pain on my ex-husband.  The guilt and the shame I felt from that, was worse than the pain of being the victim.  I realized I must forgive as I had been forgiven.”
God doesn’t care if you’re a victim or the perpetrator.  He died for both.
Forgiveness makes better use of the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing open wounds.  It’s rediscovering our strengths and releases our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.
It comes more readily when we have faith in God and trust His Word.  Such conviction enables us to withstand the worst of humanity and allows us to look beyond ourselves.  Could there be someone in your life that needs your forgiveness today?
Merciful Lord, thank You for Your gift of forgiveness.  Your only Son loved me enough to come to earth and experience the worst pain imaginable so that I could be forgiven.  Help me demonstrate that kind of love today, even to those    who hurt me.  Amen

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Different Pandemic

“He’s not here; He has risen!" ~ Matthew 28:6
Times of illness and plague are not foreign to the Christ we worship.  Christians facing COVID-19 today would do well to remember how the selfless love of the early church helped spread the Gospel in a world much more hostile to Jesus' message than our world is today.
During the 3rd century, a smallpox-like plague killed as many as 5,000 people daily in the city of Rome alone.  As it was highly contagious, victims were often thrown half-dead into the streets, where unburied corpses lay like garbage in hopes of avoiding the ‘plague of death.’
Early Roman religion did not preach care for the sick.  Yet Christianity offered a distinct contrast.  The words of Bishop Dionysus, in one the most infected areas, reflected a period of unimaginable joy for Christians.
The epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.  The harrowing images of putrefying bodies and burning pyres of corpses influenced early Christian descriptions of hell and the afterlife.  Now that hell had become a place on earth, Christians were increasingly eager to avoid it in the afterlife.
Dionysus described the Christian community being transformed into a brigade of nurses, running toward those afflicted, “Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need; ministering to them in Christ.”
Persons briefly too weak to cope for themselves recovered instead of dying.  It’s entirely plausible that basis care (food, water and compassion) reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds.
Christian charity did not just save lives - it also spread the Gospel.  Historians have long struggled to understand how a small group of Christians after Jesus's ascension (Acts puts the numbers at several hundred followers), eventually outnumbered all other faiths in the Roman Empire.
For history to possibly repeat itself, we must adopt the same charitable spirit, though it may look entirely different in practice today.
First, respecting social distancing helps limit the spread of the COVID-19.  Christians should value the lives of others more than the comfort and social opportunities of daily life.
Second, share wisdom and hope, not panic.  The nature of God is to provide light from even the darkest places.  Listen to experts, to others in similar circumstances, and to God - pouring all information and emotion through a sieve, straining only the most necessary nuggets.
And finally, a faithful response to the coronavirus doesn’t mean that we should clamor to volunteer at overloaded hospitals.  We can communicate with the most isolated by phone and other media.  We can also financially support charitable enterprises doing God's work during this difficult time.
What the world sees is an instrument of death, we see as love and the faith behind it.
Almighty Father, as we face the unknown days ahead, let us be faithful.  Let us share the hope behind our faith, as we act in wisdom, as we serve others, and as we follow what the Spirit may want to create anew.  Amen

Friday, April 10, 2020

Beacons of Light

“Though death on the cross, He united us as one body." ~ Ephesians 2:16
The first day of spring arrived there but it didn’t feel like it.  Coronavirus was sweeping the globe with feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and even despair.  “Social Distancing” became the new norm overnight.  Schools closed, grocery store shelves lay bare of essential items, and people lucky enough to work were told to do so from home.
Nona shuffled around her cluttered apartment; her frame bent with age.  Watering can in hand, she tipped water onto already damp soil of the plants; talking to each of them kindly as if they were her children.  At her tea time she always sat near the old rotary phone just in case someone called; in case someone needed her.
With little else to do, Nona gazed out her window wondering how long the crisis would last.  It was then she noticed something that lifted her soul, animated her smile, and charmed her heart again. They’d been friends once, a lifetime ago – a teacher now for kids with special needs.
He was delivering school lunches door-to-door to hungry children stuck at home.  Watching him made her think of something Mr. Roger’s once said: “In the bad times, always look for the helpers.”
Outside on the sidewalk, Ray heard the door open to a once-familiar voice.  “Hello Ray,” she said in a caring, inviting tone.  “Stop by when you finish, I have some fresh scones and hot tea – a small gesture for your kindness.”
Create the next chapter in your own imagination.
Here’s the point.  Americans are putting their lives on the line to keep this country moving.  That includes many ordinary heroes who didn’t expect to find themselves on the front lines.
Friendly smiles from postal carriers, affable exchanges with supermarket cashiers, and glimpses from delivery people have taken on a deeper meaning today.  In addition to reminding us how much we depend on their consistent efforts, their presence gives us a much-needed, if only temporary, sense of normalcy; of humanity at its best.
Hopefully, the lessons we learn about caring for each other from a distance will last far beyond this quarantine … when we stayed home, meditated, read books, exercised, rested, and learned new ways of being still.
Maybe, we’ll listen more empathetically, pray more deeply, think differently.  And just maybe, in the absence of people living in selfish, dangerous, and callous ways, the earth will begin to heal.
And when the danger passes, we’ll join together again, grieve our losses, and make new choices, dream new images, and created new ways loving each other ... as if the polarity of our differences magically dissolved before our eyes.
Lord Jesus, death could not hold You.  Though faith, we have no doubt this crisis will pass.  But it’s our choice on whether it brings out the best or worst in us.  Use it to strengthen our faith.  Use it to free us from fear.  Use it to make us grow kinder, more giving, and more like You.  Amen

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Island of the Dead

“The Priests used the blood money returned by Judas to buy a Potter’s Field." ~ Matthew 27:5-8
As the ferry chugs across the water, the island’s withered brick of abandoned 20th century buildings came into view.  Its destination - a 120-acre site with stunning views of Long Island’s "Gold Coast."  Flocks of Canada geese patrol the island’s rich marsh grass and wild flowers.  In its prime, Hart Island had been home to a reform school, a TB hospital and an insane asylum.
Today, Hart is the final resting place for the unknowns, the discarded, and the forgotten.  Though its dead number more than the living in all but 10 U.S. cities, the graveyard remains unseen by all but the handful of convicts and guards who dig and tend its graves.
Potter's fields like Hart aren't just cemeteries for paupers and winos.  Roughly half of the Island’s dead are infants and stillborns; buried in a field reserved for babies, in shoebox-size coffins stacked five high and twenty across.
Michael is one of 28 inmates working on the island, short-timers who volunteer to ride a Rikers Prison bus to the ferry providing the only access to Hart Island each day.
The “Death Crew” is considered a plum gig, so far as Rikers options go; for 50 cents an hour they handle wooden coffins that often smell and occasionally leak.  Most welcome the change of routine and a chance to be outside.
But for Michael, the job is a blessing; an opportunity to make sure these lost souls get buried with respect.  He won’t tolerate fellow prisoners who joke or clown around.
The prisoners often know little about those they’re burying beyond their demographic data and the place where their bodies were found, scrawled on the sides of coffins (i.e. Hispanic Male, (42): found 241st Street, Inwood), and numbered to make it easier to locate and exhume them if a family comes calling (which rarely happens).
Before the coffins are lowered, one by one, from the back of a morgue truck into the hands of waiting inmates, Michael offers a brief prayer for each lost soul – always stating with the deceased’s first name.
He’d always been agnostic, but now he put all his faith in God to care for them and forgive them of any sins.  “Just because they’re poor, homeless or stillborn, doesn’t mean that we should forget them,” he promises.  “Strangers are our brothers and sisters too.”
After a final blessing, he resumes his sacred duties.
Many achieve great feats and never ask the world to see or admire them, yet instead toil day after day for others.  Instead of dining with kings, they blissfully sit with the broken, to pour love into places the privileged never witness.  It’s a pure humility to which we should all aspire.
Creator God, we ask Your presence as we honor our sisters, brothers and children.  Look over all those buried in a potter’s field, their families and friends, and those at risk of joining them.  May we acknowledge their lives and honor them.  Amen

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

When Life Shifts

“There’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others." ~ John 15:13
On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic sailed swiftly on the frigid North Atlantic heading unwittingly into the pages of history.  Its passenger list included a Who’s Who of the rich and famous.  Less celebrated passengers included Pastor John Harper and his beloved 6-year-old daughter, Nana.
About 11:40 pm, his and the lives over 3,300 other voyagers shifted when the unsinkable ship struck an iceberg.  Harper kissed his precious little girl; telling her that she would see him again someday before placing her safely in a lifeboat.
As the ship headed for its watery grave, he didn’t wait in line for a lifeboat, nor did he start rioting.  He headed toward the crowd of desperate humanity.
“Women, children and the unsaved to the lifeboats!” he shouted, knowing that believers were prepared to die but the unsaved were not ready.  Harper pled with people to turn to Christ.  With the ship sinking, he asked the Titanic’s 8-member orchestra to play, "Nearer, my God, to Thee."
As the gargantuan ship started breaking in half, 1,528 people plunged into the dark, icy, waters below; Pastor Harper among them.  He swam frantically from person to person leading them to Jesus.  One survivor later testified that Harper gave up his life jacket to a self-proclaimed atheist saying, "Here then, you need this more than I do."
As hypothermia set in, John Harper sank beneath the icy waters to and passed into the Lord’s presence; he was 39; just one of over 1,500 who perished that chaotic night.  But the man with Harper’s life vest was saved – both spiritually and physically after being pulled from the freezing water after nearly an hour.  Later, he professed to being ‘John Harper’s last convert.’
While other people were trying to buy their way onto the lifeboats and selfishly trying to save their own lives, that servant did what he had to - sacrificing his life for others’ salvation.  Especially during these times of disruption and chaos, we Christians have an extraordinary opportunity to shift our culture’s focus from self-protection to serving others; from crisis to catalyst.
This experience has and will change us; we will be different on the other side.  But remember that one day we’ll tell our grandchildren how we lived, how we loved, how we stepped-up during this outbreak by respecting others in such a way that we won’t be ashamed to tell them the truth.  Be accountable: stop hoarding, stay home, respect social distances, pray for those safeguarding us, and help redirect social energy from anxiety and panic to love and preparation.
It’s time for a new paradigm; a fresh perspective – one based on a new hospitality, deep spiritual healing, and authentic humility.
Loving God, our refuge and strength, we seek refuge in Your presence.  Protect our public servants, health care professionals, and every one affected by COVID-19. Enlighten us with Your Word – let it be a source of hope, healing, comfort and  wisdom.  Amen

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Prom

“Do to others as you would have them do to you." ~ Luke 6:31
Alex and his grandmother shared a unique bond; they were perhaps best friends.  He’d turn to Gram when needing advice, when depressed, or when he was at odds with his parents.  Gram always offered the best solutions!
As early as he could remember, Gram narrated bed-time stories of her own childhood.  She became a female Tom Sawyer.  Her tales sent Alex to a magical world, where everyone was a Winnie the Pooh, a Simba, or a Cinderella - where everything ended happily.
Still today, he’d spend hours with her, listening to Gram’s life stories.  She’d been a dancer, and had even taught Alex some popular dances from decades past - the Jitterbug, Hand Jive, Twist, and later the Hustle, Macarena and even BeyoncĂ©’s Single Ladies Dance.
Gram soaked in the rhythm of any music; echoing fond girlish memories.  With his Senior Prom drawing near, Alex asked about Gram’s own Prom experience.
“I dreamed about it a lot … what I’d wear, how I’d fix my hair, what kind of corsage my date would bring me, how I’d dance,” she began.  “I was so excited, the first time I’d ever had a reason to get all fancied-up.”
“But I never went … your Grampa didn’t like to dance,” she sighed.  “I thought about going with friends who didn’t have dates, but back then it seemed too embarrassing.”
With Alex’s big night approaching, Gram’s excitement swelled for him.  She watched him save money for months so that he could afford a tuxedo and even a limousine.  Gram couldn’t wait to see who he’d be taking to the dance.
But to her surprise, he told her that he’d be taking her to prom.  “Every woman deserves to go to prom, no matter if they’re 18 or 68.”
The story’s fictitious – the sentiments are real.  No matter the age, we all need love as much as food, water and air.  They nourished each other.
Alex understood what modern culture tends to doubt – the value of older Americans’ skills and experiences.  They’ve lived through horrific situations - like epidemics, aging, crushing poverty, and world wars.  Their unique perspective offers a valuable lens through which younger people can interpret their own lives.
Alex also had wisdom to share.
He jumped at any opportunity to have fun and be silly. Gram learned again how to enjoy herself and make the most of every minute; that it’s okay to relax and play every now and then.  And young people tend to be more socially tolerant and open-minded.
Regardless of age, we can all learn from one another.  Whether planting seeds with your niece or visiting seniors in your community.  Have the Talk of a Lifetime, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of the world around you.
Lord Almighty, Your love enfolds us all.  Thank You for all the seasons of life.  Open our eyes that we may see the unique gift of each person’s life, created out of Your love. Amen