The great reward or the great taboo

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

John 3:14-16 (NKJV)

These past few months, many of us have been touched by the death of friends or loved ones. We’ve been surprised and dismayed at losing so many who were close to us.

While there was a time when death was referred to as the last reward, you seldom hear that expression today. It is almost as though our entire culture, Christians included, are in denial about the inevitability of death. When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease, we refuse to speak of it, tap dancing around the subject and even assuring the ill person that they will soon be well, even when the end of life is quite obviously imminent.

This may be understandable for non-believers who think this life is all there is, but for those who believe the Scriptures, who have faith in the everlasting life to come, the transition from this life should be the next great adventure. Of course, those of us left behind (for now) will miss our loved ones. Their passing will leave a hole in our lives. But acting like death isn’t real won’t keep them with us.

As I sat with a family member in the last stages of cancer, I yearned to speak of the Next Stage of life, to help her anticipate a reunion with those who had gone before, and to make these last days ones of hopeful anticipation rather than fear. However, my tongue was paralyzed by the ingrained taboo against even acknowledging her approaching death. I couldn’t even tell her how much I’ll miss her.

It’s only natural to be uneasy about the unknown, the unfamiliar experiences. Doubts come flooding in at such a time. What is needed is encouragment, and assurance of God’s promises, not denial, false optimism, or avoidance.

Shouldn’t we be able to at least discuss with our fellow believers what we and they hope to find in Eternity? While we don’t wish to shorten anyone’s time on Earth, once the end is in sight looking forward with joyful anticipation must surely ease the experience.

For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

2 Corinthians 5:7-9 (NIV)
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The blessing of pain

We have all heard stories of people who lose the ability to feel pain. These people tend to cause themselves injury because they don’t get the normal pain warnings. Rather than being a blessing, lack of pain is a curse.

About the time of the lockdowns, I began working out to improve my health. This experience has given me lots of opportunities to reflect on the nature of pain and my reaction to it.

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Pain is like a traffic light. When we are feeling no pain, that is the green light to continue with whatever we are doing. Mild aches and strains are the yellow light signaling caution, letting us know to slow down. Acute or stabbing pains are bright red stop signs. We can ignore the yellow and red lights at our peril.

When first exercising unused muscles we frequently feel the yellow warning aches and pains. If we respond to them by careful pacing, we get the green light to work out harder, building up our strength and stamina without injury. If we misinterpret the warnings as stop signs and give up, our abilities won’t grow. If we ignore them altogether we risk serious injury.

This is also true of our emotional and spiritual muscles.

Becoming vulnerable can be painful and beginning to feel sincere empathy for the first time can cause heartaches, but if we don’t pull away or force our feelings too far too fast, that initial empathy can grow into true compassion and love.

As the Apostle Peter learned in Matthew 14:22-33, the first time we accept the invitation to climb out of the boat and step out in faith onto the unknown depths can be extremely uncomfortable. If we rush ahead of God’s leading we can become painfully discouraged, but keeping safe and never testing our trust in God results in failure to grow spiritually.  We need to be aware of the Lord’s signals.

Sensitivity to pain is a gift and a tool to help us pace ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We simply need to learn to recognize the signals and react appropriately.

 I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you too are to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love and unselfish concern for one another.

John 13:34-36 (AMP)
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But that’s not what I meant…

I’ve been reading through 1 Corinthians in my daily devotion using a new study Bible. While reading the commentary and explanatory notes I realized for the first time just how often the Apostle Paul used sarcasm. My previous understanding of this letter to the church in Corinth was incomplete when accepting his words literally.

I started thinking about how hard it is to convey subtlety of meanings using only the written word. On more than one ocassion I’ve made what I thought was an inocuous comment on social media, only to be stunned by a critical response.

I think there are two lessons for us here.

The first, and most important, is to not simply skim the Scriptures, hoping to understand everything from our own limited perspective, but to study them using some of the readily available study guides and commentaries.

The second lesson is one I often heard as a child. To avoid misunderstandings and conflict, it is even more apropos in the realm of social media:

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue Keeps his soul from troubles.

Proverbs 21:23
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The little things are big things

Most of us are familiar with the slippery slope theory which warns that allowing small wrongs to go uncorrected can lead to big problems. We’ve seen that ignoring littering, vandalism, and petty theft can encourage more serious crime and make a neighborhood dangerous and unlivable for its citizens. Those small things can result in big problems.

Minor, seemingly insignificant things, when multiplied, can have a huge impact. Fortunately, this is true for good things, the small joys, as well as the unhappy events in life.

When we are bombarded by tragedy and turmoil, it becomes even more important to look for the little things which make life worth living.

Making it a habit to concentrate on the tiniest of His blessings and giving thanks to God for them can completely change one’s outlook, no matter the circumstances.

When I see crisp, white curtains billowing in a fresh breeze, that lifts my spirits and I am blessed. A grandchild’s smile, hearing from a distant loved one, flowers blooming in a neighbor’s yard, a good night’s sleep, laughing over a silly joke, or recalling a happy memory are all blessings for which I can be grateful and when I pause to give thanks, I begin to see the rich bounty that is mine.

In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NKJV)

The Bible admonishes us to be good stewards of those things God gives us. I think this includes our daily experiences. When we savor and share the joy of the small blessings, we are being faithful to God and sharing in His happiness.

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

Matthew 25:22-24 (NIV)

It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed by all the big, bad stuff around us. Looking for the little blessings is one way to restore our spirit and build up our faith.

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Light in a Time of Darkness

… Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12 (NKJV)

This Scripture (above) from the Gospel of John comes a few chapters after Jesus said this:

Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

John 3:19 (NKJV)

Even a quick scan of the news reveals many evil deeds being done in these dark days. Where is the light of Christ in all this? Jesus explains where this light needs to come from when He says, You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15 NKJV)

In this statement, the you He refers to includes each of His followers, from that day to this. You, is you and me.

Like me, you may feel inadequate to overcome so much darkness, but we need to remember that the darker it is, the greater the impact of even the smallest glimmer of light.

I remember driving through the lonely countryside one dark night and seeing a pinpoint of light in the distance. The source of that light was miles away, but it warmed my heart just to know it was there. And think of the stars, so many lightyears away and how brightly they shine on the darkest night.

Many of us remember happily singing the Sunday school song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” but since growing up we’ve forgotten its message. We’ve been hiding our Christianity for fear of standing out from the crowd, of not fitting in, or of being considered too religious, allowing darkness to reign, unchallenged.

Think what a difference even a few tiny lights gathered together can make. Light is a positive force, like heat. It radiates. Darkness, like cold, is simply the absence of that positive force. Therefore, darkness has no power of its own. Perhaps it is time to put your light on a lampstand and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

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Insults, smears, and persecution

When reviewing an article from a few years ago on the debate about building a mosque at the 9-11 Ground Zero site, I noticed that the writer referred to those who opposed the mosque as Islamophobes, ignorant, bigots, racists, haters, and Christians. This made me wonder when the term Christian had become an insult.

That led me to consider the lives of the first Christians in the early church. It seems that “Christian” was originally a label of derision and eventually became a criminal charge punishable by death. 

We’ve all heard about the horrendous treatment of those first martyrs; how they were used as human torches to illuminate the emperor’s nighttime revels. While I can’t imagine our recent cultural shifts leading to anything so extreme, I have to wonder just where things are heading.

As Christians we are told to rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted in Christ’s name.

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

James 1:2-3

Most Christians in the Western world have never suffered real persecution. I certainly haven’t. There have been times I’ve felt annoyed at the way we are portrayed in the media as either wild-eyed fundamentalists or low-IQ buffoons. But annoyance isn’t persecution. I’ve been angry when churches were attacked or shuttered during this on-going pandemic, but that perceived injustice doesn’t compare to early church persecution, either.

It’s hard to imagine finding joy in any mistreatment, but when the mistreatment comes about because of our faith, that is our mission.

While I don’t advocate becoming an alarmist, and I trust God to see us through whatever lies ahead, I do think it behooves us all to gird ourselves with the fruits of the spirit in order to be prepared when the time comes…it could be soon.

Rejoice and be glad…there’s good times a-comin’ 

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:12
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Are mothers really so special?

The writings of the Apostle Paul regarding women’s place in the church and home are often a point of contention, especially in these “liberated” times. The argument defending him is sometimes that his instructions were meant for a particular time and culture; a view that is often supported by what he wrote to the church in Galatia, emphasizing that all are equal in the body of Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

That being said, there are still innate differences between the sexes which give each gender unique abilities and challenges, especially when it comes to raising children.

Even Paul, whom many consider a paradigm of misogyny, wrote in praise of the power of women when he commended his protégé Timothy’s mother and grandmother by name.

 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

2 Timothy 1:5

While not every mother is a positive influence on her children, the fact remains that a mother has a powerful role in shaping her children for good or ill, and those children shape the culture.

If you were blessed with a loving, nurturing Christian mother, you are fortunate. Especially in a world where the family is increasingly under-valued, such a mother is special, indeed. She deserves a day of recognition.

Happy Mother’s Day, to the mothers and the children lucky enough to be able to share this special day them.

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This too shall pass

You won’t find the familiar quotation, “This too shall pass,” in the Bible, not in those words, anyway, but the meaning is woven throughout Scriptures. It is an important truth to cling to in times of turmoil and despair.

Our good Creator God, who cannot lie, has promised us eternal life (Titus 1:2, John 3:15). We know that our physical bodies wear out and die, but the promise is for our spirits and immortal souls. The Scriptures tell us that all that is material is temporary and will pass away.

Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.

1 Corinthians 7:30-31 (NLT)

When we are frightened or suffering it is hard to dismiss what is happening in our all too real material world and take hold of the promise of eternal life. We may believe with all our hearts in the promises of God, but find ourselves overwhelmed by those things we can see and feel.

How are we to make our unseen, never completely understood eternal life strong enough to resist the challenges to our faith and courage?

As in many of the struggles of our spiritual life, the answer is to do all you can to learn about the reality of God by diving deeply into His Word.

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;

1 Peter 1:13

Like a visit to the dentist, most of us can endure difficulties when we know they are only temporary. We get through the discomfort by casting our minds ahead to the time when the current experience is over and looking forward to the benefits we may see then.

Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

1 Timothy 6:12
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How delightful!

Delight yourself in the Lord

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.
Delight yourself also in the Lord,
And He shall give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him,
And He shall bring it to pass.

Psalm 37:3-5 (NKJV)

In times of turmoil, our faith can be stretched to the limit. How hard it can be in those times to do good, let alone find delight in our circumstances.

Now, the definition of the word delight is a high degree of gratification or pleasure : joy : extreme satisfaction. How and why should we be highly gratified or extremely satisfied, let alone find pleasure and joy, when everything seems to be going wrong?

The Psalmist was inspired to give us the incentive that if we manage to trust in God’s goodness and delight ourselves in whatever circumstances the Lord chooses to allow, committing ourselves to doing His will, then He shall give us the desires of our hearts. Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it?

I heard a message recently that suggested the promise, “He shall give you the desires of your heart,” actually means more than we usually think. Rather than promising to give us whatever we think we want like an overindulgent parent, this is God’s assurance that, if we trust Him and commit to finding our joy in Him, He will place within our hearts the desires we should have. He will give us the desires, not the objects of our desires.

How much more gratifying and satisfying could life be when we truly desire only those things which God wants us to have? The catch is, for that to happen, we must completely trust Him. To trust Him, we must know Him. To know Him, we must spend time in His Word. Only then will we find out just how delightful God, and our life with Him, can be.

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Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

Since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic life has changed for most of us. We have experienced a lonelier, less connected life as we shy away from gatherings and fellowship. This has been especially hard on those whose social lives have revolved around the local church. We have felt abandoned and isolated. While grieving our loss many of us could relate to the words of that poignant spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

Since at least the times of St. Augustine, “Mother Church” has been a term to refer to the Christian Church as a mother in her functions of nourishing and protecting the believer.  No wonder so many of us of all ages are feeling like orphans. We miss the presence and nurturing influence of our mother church.

We hear a lot about influencers these days, but the first and most powerful influencer in most of our lives is our mother. No mere social media celebrity, she oversees the formation of our personalities and values. The same can be said of the church.

24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25 (NKJV)

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42 (NKJV)

Especially in turbulent times like these, Christians need the influence of fellow believers in order to be stirred up to love and good works, to spiritual maturity, and Christlikeness.

Next month we will celebrate Mother’s Day in the USA. I pray that most of us will be able to mark that day in the bosom of our Christian family as we honor both our earthly mothers and the nurturing church fellowship that influences our daily lives.

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