Thought for the Week

Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.  He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame (Proverbs 18:12-13)

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Spiritual Warfare from a Military Perspective

Over the years, I have read more than once The Art of War by Sun Tzu.  It is a staple at the Naval War College and so quotations from the book are forever showing up naval presentations and papers.  This is pretty remarkable since this Chinese philosopher and military strategist lived 544 – 496 B.C., just after the end of the Hebrew exile in Babylon.

On my walks between home and church, I recently listened to an audio version of this familiar book.  It is interesting how the book sounds a little different when I listen to it with my new pastor’s ears.  The first chapter, Laying Plans, made me reflect on spiritual warfare.  Although there are many Bible-based books on the topic of spiritual warfare, I appreciated the clean, clinical thoughts of Sun Tzu as they apply to the art of deception.  Since Satan is the Great Deceiver, I believe this writing may offer fresh insights, albeit abstract, on how the Evil One works to ensnare us.  To understand the application of Sun Tzu’s text to spiritual warfare, it must be understood that “we” is from the perspective of the Evil One (just as in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters) and “the enemy”/ “he” / “him” refers to humans.

Sun Tzu writes this:

“All warfare is based on deception.

Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him.  If he is in superior strength, evade him.

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.  If his forces are united, separate them.

Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

We are currently in a sermon series on the Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Spiritual warfare is prominent throughout the letter.  When we get to chapter six (6) of Ephesians, we shall look at putting on the full armor of God to successfully stand in battle against the schemes of the Evil One.  Much of what Paul has to say in Ephesians and in chapter 6, in particular, seems to be about being prepared, not being deceived, not falling for baits, staying united, and relying on the superior strength of God.

The Art of War is an easy and fun read.  The book is in the public domain and available for free on line in pdf form.

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As a church family, we often pray for revival in the valley and in our village.  Some of us are pleading with the Lord daily and asking “How long oh Lord?” (Psalm 13:1; Habakkuk 1:2)  We know that when the Lord pours out his Holy Spirit, whole communities are enlivened, healed, refreshed, and transformed.  We seek revival in the village for God’s glory and for the blessing of our neighbors and community.

I was encouraged this week in my morning devotions.  Two of my devotions brought to Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”  The promises of Jesus buoyed my conviction that we are not praying in vain.  Let us trust in the Lord’s perfect timing and remind ourselves that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness” (2 Peter 3:9).

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On 8 July 2018, as part of our SummerFest tradition, we worshiped in the park.  As advertised, it was a “community worship service.”  From beginning to end, I sensed that this worship service was especially blessed.  I am grateful to God for the awesome weather. I am grateful to our Friends of God praise band, for leading us so well in singing our praise and love for the Lord.   But much more than these, I am grateful for what I sensed was a heart of worship held by our gathering.  This heart for worship is a gift from above; it is not something we can create by our own efforts.  When an assembly has a heart of worship, it a sign of God’s grace and favor.  May God bless us again and again with a heart for worship.

[27 July 2018]

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Thought of the Week

It is Vacation Bible School (VBS) at Arkport Presbyterian Church.  So, it is a little hard to think deeply for any length of time.  Anyone who has worked in VBS knows full well what I am saying.  So my Tidbit will be on VBS, where my body, mind, heart and spirit are for at least 6 hours a day (counting prep time).

To be sure, it is really delightful to work with these wonderful children and with the volunteers.  The volunteers are really pouring themselves out.  It takes a special crew, since this hard work must all be done cheerfully.  God has kindly sustained our energy and attitudes.

Here is a word of encouragement.  I can see in their faces and by their participation that the children are having fun and they want their friends to join in.  It seems that there is at least one new student every day. Those are two strong encouragements.

Here is another encouragement.  Today’s subject is that God’s heroes have hope.  [Of course we know that expectation is a preferable translation for the Greek word translated as hope. ]  God’s people have expectations based on God’s many promises found in his Word and because God has demonstrated his faithfulness over and over again.  Today, our story-time lesson was on the Beatitudes.  My 5th grade and up class correctly matched the beginning and ending of the Beatitudes.   The beginning and endings were randomly strewn across the floor and they matched them up in about 5 minutes.  How well can you do in matching the left side to the right side?  You can check your answers by reading Matthew 5:1-12.

 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the meek, for they will see God.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will inherit the earth.

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An Encouraging Word From the Celebrity World

This week on the MTV awards, Chris Pratt, who starred in “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” was presented an award.  I do not normally find myself encouraged by celebrity award ceremonies, but this speech did encourage me.  Maybe it will encourage you as well. Below is his acceptance speech (6, 8 and 9 really encouraged me).

“This being the generation award I am going to cut to the chase and speak to you, the next generation. I accept the responsibility as your elder, so listen up,

Number one: breathe. If you don’t, you’ll suffocate.

Number two: You have a soul. Be careful with it.

 Number three: Don’t be a turd. If you’re strong, be a protector and if you’re smart, be a humble influencer.  Strength and intelligence can be weapons and do not wield them against the weak. That makes you a bully. Be bigger than that.

Number four: When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won’t even know they’re eating medicine.

Number five: Doesn’t matter what it is, earn it. A good deed, reach out to someone in pain, be of service, it feels good and it’s good for your soul.

Number six: God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that. I do.

Number seven: [I deleted Chris’s advice for going potty at a guest’s house.  You can find all the rules at the link http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2018/06/19/chris-pratt-at-mtv-awards-you-have-a-soul-god-loves-you-learn-to-pray/.]

Number eight: Learn to pray. It’s easy and it’s so good for your soul.

Number nine: Nobody is perfect. People are going to tell you you’re perfect just the way you are; you’re not! You are imperfect. You always will be, but there’s a powerful force that designed you that way. And if you’re willing to accept that you will have grace and grace is a gift. Like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.

God bless you. Please get home safely.”

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VICTORY IN CHRIST SOMETIMES HAS A SURPRISING APPEARANCE

I think most of us are inclined toward wishful thinking.  When an All-Powerful and All-Loving God promises victory to His Chosen People, we formulate rosy expectations about what that looks like.  Those expectations are reinforced when we encounter texts like Isaiah 54:17:

“…no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord , and this is their vindication from me,” declares the Lord” .

But life has taught us that victors in the faith often come out looking like Rocky Balboa.  Life has taught us that God’s Chosen People suffer divorce, substance abuse, financial ruin, cancer, social isolation, chronic pain and a panoply of other maladies.

Suffering notwithstanding, our victory through Christ is secure.  I lay hold of Romans 8:17-19:

16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Scripture teaches that Christ’s victory for us was gained through suffering.  So, in the here in now, suffering seems to be an inescapable part of our mortal journey.  Still, like Jesus, the faithful are to pray “Thy will be done.”

While I am always eager to pray for miraculous healings, I also pray, that until healing comes, the Holy Spirit will help us find new levels of fellowship with Christ through our suffering.

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I never cease to be surprised when I read a familiar Scripture passage and my mind is held captive by something that I never noticed before.  That happened to me this week in my personal devotions time.  I was reading James chapter 4 (the YouVersion Bible verse of the day came from that chapter).  James 4:5 reads:

…do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?  (NASB)

 

This verse has a variety of translations.  Many translations have a lower case “spirit,” but I think this makes little sense in light of the “which He has made to dwell in us.”

Accepting the NASB translation, I delight that God jealously desires the Holy Spirit to fulfill His purpose in our life, which is to guide us out of faithless living (see James 4:4) and to transform us ever more completely into the  image of Christ.   As the Called Children of God, we should therefore expect that tepid faith and careless living would be accompanied by dissatisfaction, because our jealous God will not reward our rebellion but rather chastise us in love.  I rejoice that God loves his children enough to shepherd our lives and chastise us a needed.

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“Living your best life.”  This is a current expression that has been highly commercialized to different ends, some of which I find disagreeable.  Still, at it core, this expression contains a great thought.  It calls us to live with thoughtful intentionality.  One has to really dig deep within in oneself to ask, “What is the best life I can lead?”  Is it the most adventuresome life?  Is the one that acquires the greatest wealth?  Is it one that is continuously filled with pleasant distractions?  Is it the one that has the most professional acclaim?  The world has many answers to that question that do not sound much like the teachings of Christ.

I find it ironic that “living my best life” sounds like it’s about self-determination and self-interest.  But, when the Holy Spirit speaks to me through the Word, “living my best life” is less and less about me and more and more about living in harmony with God’s will for my life and more fully taking on the image of Christ to be a blessing to myself and all those around me.

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Life in community has a lot of moving parts.  On 15 December, I attended a musical event sponsored by the YMCA and hosted by the Hornell Presbyterian Church.  I did not know it was going to be a recital by the YMCA music program students.  I thought it was going to be something a little more polished, as I knew that Orpheus would be opening the program.   While enjoyable, the recital went rather predictably with students playing stretch pieces on the piano, ukulele, guitar, clarinet, violin, saxophone, and singing.  Some of the performances were very rough.

I was blessed with this thought that would not let me go: Surely most of these students knew that they would falter in their performance in front of so many witnesses.  The courage and devotion to their craft deeply impressed me.  I kept thinking, how wonderful it would be if God’s children were equally courageous in sharing the Good News.  It just now dawns on me that even when we clumsily share the Good News, it is heard as sweet music in Heaven.

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Christian Metal Music and “It’s a Wonderful Life”

On 10 December, our Men’s Group enjoyed a very educational lesson on the genre of Christian music known as Christian metal.  For those who are not certain about the term, “metal” or “heavy metal” is a very “hard” version of rock music, with fast guitar playing, robust drumbeats, electronic sound distortion, and often the singing is punctuated with screaming.  Because its fans (sometimes called “metal heads”) respond to the strong rhythms by vigorously nodding their heads, metal is often called “head banging” music.  For folks who do not appreciate metal music, it is often hard to tell one genre of metal music from another.  Even so, there is a genre called Christian metal.

So what makes some metal music “Christian metal?”  From the lesson on Sunday night, I learned three things:

  1. The lyrics to Christian metal songs are not vulgar.  We looked at the lyrics of about a dozen Christian metal songs.  Clear and wonderful Scripture truths were conveyed in the lyrics of many of the songs.  Other songs were less grammatical and less elevating, but instead tapped into the emotions and angst of living in the modern age.  In none of the lyrics that we reviewed was Jesus mentioned by name, but more on that later.
  2. I was surprised to learn from the Christian metal songs that we heard, that there is quite a variety in their tone and presentation.  Some of them could have been so called cross-over songs that would be suitable for non-metal radio stations.  In other words, not every song was of the “head banging” form.  Our lesson leader told us that this is not by accident or coincidence.  The Christian metal bands are intentional about providing the sound energy and adrenalin that their audiences crave (head banging music), while also supplying deeper truths that may nourish the heart (cross-over music).  [Of course, one’s response to music is deeply personal, defying easy classification bins.]
  3. Our lesson leader, who is also a Christian metal music enthusiast, taught us that it is normal for Christian metal bands to take time out in a concert to give testimony and witness of Christ between song sets or to explain a particular song.

The bottom line is that what distinguishes a Christian metal band from another metal band is the same thing that distinguishes a true Christian congregation from a civics club.  There is the intention of glorifying Christ and making the truth of Christ accessible to others.

As I reflect on what I learned, I have come to think about the lyrics of Christian metal songs in the same light as I think about that movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The movie is not the gospel.  Yet, the movie is rich with life truths that can be used to point to the gospel.  More importantly, the gospel is rich with God truths that can elevate the meaning of the movie.

Now that I have read song lyrics and had Christian metal music outreach explained to me, I see it in an entirely new light.  While Christian metal music is not likely to become my preferred music genre, I now accept that Christian metal bands can be important co-laborers in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and his ministry of grace.  I give thanks to God for all those who take seriously the commission of sharing his gospel.

 

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It was a welcomed surprised that Gov. Brown of California vetoed a bill that would have further restricted churches and religious institutions in the exercise of their faith standards as they pertain to its employees.  The legal landscape has been shifting against the free exercise of religious freedom.  This veto represents a single speed bump, but so much more is needed if the intent of religious freedom found in the U.S. Constitution is to be restored.

http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2017/october/surprising-win-for-california-churches-governor-strikes-down-anti-faith-law

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Rainer Maria Rike’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo ends with this thought “…there is no place that does not see you.  You must change your life.”  In these words is a reminder to us to live a life of reflection and self-inspection.

Galatians 6:3-5 has this to say about living a self-inspected life: “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.  For each will have to bear his own load.”

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This week in Adult Sunday School, we are engaging with Question 27 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  In modern English, Question 27 has been rendered, “How was Christ humiliated?”  The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism identified six (6) distinct elements to the humiliation of our Savior.  They answer they crafted renews awe and wonder of our self-sacrificing Lord.

The question itself beckons us into a deeper understanding of what is meant by humiliation.  The linked article is very interesting read from Psychology Today that helps us understand how humiliation is different from shame, guilt, and embarrassment.  The article is also rich with historical anecdotes of humiliation.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201408/the-psychology-humiliation

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The spiritual exercise of prayer is a wonderful privilege, precisely because a loving God invites you and me into tender, honest and two-way conversation with him.   Prayer is not a matter of hurling requests heavenward in the same manner that one might write a letter for assistance to a  congressional representative.  God already knows the details of your situation.  In prayer, God seeks to talk with you and with me, not just about the problem at hand but about everything.  Some may find it surprising that God often initiates the prayer time.  Many  mature and spiritually sensitive Christ-followers might actually say that God usually initiates prayer time (several times a day).  Praying can be a difficult discipline to develop.  What do I pray about or for?  What do I do when I feel uninspired to talk to God about anything in particular?  Are there any so called ice-breakers to help start the conversation?  Well, here is one helpful tip; it’s called “praying the Scriptures.”  It is a matter of reading out loud the Scriptures while having a prayerful attitude.  And what is a prayerful attitude?  It is one in which we acknowledge that God is worthy of our praise and thanks and God is worthy of us living lives that reflect our honor of him and trust in him.  Scriptures are God-approved wisdom and truth.  Scriptures are a normal means of grace.   Praying the Scriptures is a great way to break the ice in starting a conversation with God.  The below link is to an 11 minute audio of John Piper introducing the discipline of praying the Scriptures  http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-do-i-pray-the-bible .   Best wishes to you.

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Ever wish you had given a snappy comeback after a conversation is over?  Me too!  Based on my educational and professional background (scientist at a Navy lab), I have a lot of scientists and academic friends.  Quite often I am on the receiving end of a smug discourse about how the general public should simply believe what the well considered and educated scientific community ordains to be true by consensus of their opinions.  Next time I hear this, I think I shall agree to terms as long as all the scientist are prepared to believe what the well considered and educated theological community ordains to be true about the existence of God.  Seems fair, right?

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Today’s thought is prompted by an article in The Presbyterian Outlook of 31 July 2017 entitled “Holistic healing: Faith, prayer and lament” by Judy Thompson.  What is the meaning of “healing?”  It depends on the lens you carry.  If one is a doctor, healing is related to the physical.  If one is a counselor, healing relates to the psycho-social and the emotions.  If one is a pastor, healing includes all the above plus spiritual well being.

It is the pastor’s lens that aligns best with the concept of Shalom, which encompasses completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace.  Shalom only comes from God and from relationship with God.

Miriam, the first wife of my friend Bill, was dying of cancer.  She asked that her pastor use the liturgy for healing in a Sunday worship service.  This was done.  During the service, Miriam was invited to come forward to receive prayer while the congregation witnessed.  Miriam was prayed over and blessed.  When she returned to her pew, Bill asked “Well?”  Miriam said something like, “I’m not really sure, but I know in my heart, like never before, that God loves ME.”  The miracle of physical healing did not take place and Miriam eventually succumbed to her cancer.  Yet, from this pastor’s perspective (and Miriam’s and Bill’s) healing did take place, at least in part, and God was praised.  For Miriam and Bill, God’s Shalom was found in the fulfillment of his promise that “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

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In chapter 10 of the Gospel According to Luke, we have this account of an encounter between Jesus and a questioner.

“… a lawyer stood up and put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’  And [the lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’  And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.’  But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

Jesus answered that question with the story of the Good Samaritan.  [You can read the entire account here.]  The point Jesus made is that your true neighbor is the one who expresses love in practical ways.  Similarly, to be a true neighbor, one must be prepared to serve, even a stranger.  It is not enough to wish someone well.

This is one reason I really love living in Arkport.  There is a higher level of care for one another in Arkport than I have encountered in any other other community in which I have lived.  I can see evidence of biblical neighborliness all around and my spirit rejoices.

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The NY Eagle News carried a well considered column by Linda Childs in its 27 July 2017 edition.  In it she writes, “To just about any nonbeliever or agnostic, being told, ‘Have you heard the good news? Jesus died for you!” unfortunately means nothing.  This is totally out of context. and the have no frame of reference.  To such people,…., this is, at best a vague, meaningless statement.”

Her column is reminder to all who have ears, that introducing people to their loving Creator will usually require that a sincere, supportive human-to-human relationship first be established.  Our motivation must be one of love, God’s love and our love.  We must fight against any impulse to accumulate “spiritual trophies.”  We must commit to loving and supportive relationships independent of visible results.

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Our Wednesday night Bible study series has been on the Gospel According to Luke.  Last night (26 July 2017) we encountered a very difficult verse, Luke 16:9.  We spent a fair amount of time trying to understand its meaning and application.  I do not have much conviction that we got it altogether correct.  That happens sometimes when translating two thousand year old Greek texts.  But here is the really good news; it really did not matter.  The meaning of the verse was unclear, but the meaning of story was very clear.  In fact, Jesus summarized it for us, “You cannot serve God and money.”  The next story  hit upon the same theme, money is to be used well to bless those around you.  The evil use of money has terrible consequences for our fellow human and for ourselves.  I am very grateful that the wisdom of God is attainable through the Bible even though some verses may be beyond our immediate comprehension.

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Today’s thought again comes from a book by David Kinnaman, You Lost Me.  ”…behavior management is a poor substitute for a whole, integrated, restored life with God.” (p.164)

Following church rules that fight against our nature will always be a struggle.  God’s way is more gracious than a life time of struggle spent pursuing standards of behavior that feel alien and repressive.  God’s way is one of relationship and inner transformation.  With a refreshed heart that comes from assurance of God’s love and with spiritual wisdom that comes as a gift of that relationship, we naturally develop an appreciation for the loving wisdom of God’s guidance.   An honest and open relationship with God is the key.

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The expression of these thoughts come from a book by David Kinnaman, You Lost Me.  ”…the way the church takes its stand in our culture is as important as the stand itself.” (p. 143) “…the tone of our disagreements matters.” (p. 145)  This is because the purpose of the earthly Church is to participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciling the world to God and we are “…Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us….” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).  Let our engagement be winsome and prayer and then allow the Holy Spirit to be the agent of force and conviction.

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Tolerance is a very poor substitute respect.  We obligated to respect our fellow human being.  After all, each of us is a child of the one true God, in whose image and likeness we are fashioned. (Genesis 1:26-27)  We are not called to “tolerate” people, that is too low a standard.  Neither are we called to tolerate every aberrant behavior that people, under the influence of sin, gin up.  Jesus’ instruction for being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) looks quite different from the world’s demand to be tolerant.

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“Because you are his [children], God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” Galatians 4:6  Life can be very busy and distracting, with family life, work, chores, housework, projects, and various commitments.  It a tremendous spiritual skill to balance all these demands on our time and keep first things first.  Most of us really are not very good at this.  It is a motto in my family household to say, “Do as you can and not as you can’t.”  As we prepare for Easter, please do not spend time lamenting that life is too full to experience this Easter the way you would like and perhaps the way you did in past years.  Rather than lamenting, spend what time you do have thanking the Father for his generous gift of his son; thanking Jesus for willingness to suffer horribly and die on our behalf; thanking the Holy Spirit for living within us that we might know the love God has for us.

 

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Thankfulness is perhaps the greatest single hallmark of having a heart that is aligned to the heart of God.  It is very easy to live thankless lives.  Hardships, suffering, and injustice abounds and the world groans.   And even the best of us are tempted to join in the chorus of griping.

It is precisely in this brokenness that God’s truth and grace can and do shine.  Consider this, the always-healthy individual has no need of powerful medicine and no reason to know his or her doctor.  God had the foresight and power to design a different world, one in which there was no sin and his Son would not have died on the cross.  But God thought THIS world was the best, even though it cost him dearly.  So in the hardships, in the suffering and in the context of pervasive injustice, believers seek God’s face and evidence of his gracious caring.  We seek him and we find him; our hearts sing and we give thanks and praise.   Consider 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18.

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The YouVersion Bible verse of the day for 16 February 2017 is Proverbs 18:21.  Eugene Peterson renders it this way in The Message:

Words kill, words give life;
they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

This very topic came up in conversation this week.  A bunch of us each reflected on some hurtful words we heard as a child that shaped our self-identity and our life journey.   We agreed that words are more powerful than we can even imagine.  We need to exercise grace, care and wisdom.  This is especially true when dealing with impressionable people (e.g., children), loved ones and those who are in our charge.

Prayer:  May our Lord, who has been gracious to us, teach us to be slow to anger and inclined to lavish love on those around us.  Amen.

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