The Thief Comes

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10:10-11 (ESV)

I know a very wonderful and kind-hearted woman who put out a table with several items she wanted to give away to anyone in need. She set up the table, taped a sign to the front, reading, “Free”, and went about her day. She returned to find that not only were all the items gone, but so was the table!

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I also know many other people (including my husband and I) who have been victims of theft, shoplifting, pick-pocketing, mugging, etc. The world is full of honest people, but it is also full of thieves. One of the worst things about theft is not the loss of “stuff.” It is the loss of security; the loss of trust; the loss of innocence and faith. Theft is invasive, even when it is non-violent and impersonal, like fraud or shoplifting. Theft is almost never random– a thief “comes.” A thief has a plan, and a target. Thieves tend to choose their targets based on two factors– the risk and the perceived “payoff.” A thief will target a person or place where the risk is worth the prize–if a target is low-risk, a thief may strike even for a small amount. A high-risk target may still attract thieves, but they will not take such a risk without a lot of planning.

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Thieves also come unannounced and unexpected. While thieves plan carefully, their victims have little or no warning. Theft is shocking and upsetting. We don’t set aside a time to be robbed, or items that are meant to be stolen. Thieves creep in, or distract and deceive us. It would be very foolish to leave valuables or cash around unattended or unprotected. As my friend found out, even a table left unguarded can be lost.

Most of us take precautions against theft. We lock our doors, put our valuables in a safe or in hiding, and even install security cameras and alarms to alert us to possible theft. We avoid dark alleys and dangerous places. We keep watch.

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We guard our valuables, but how well do we guard our hearts? Jesus compared us to sheep– helpless and vulnerable to predators, including thieves. He warns that the thief– Satan– comes only to steal and kill and destroy. Satan doesn’t want our money or our watch, though– he wants our time, our attention, our desires, and our worship. He wants to steal them, and kill us, and destroy our relationship with the Eternal Lover of our Souls. He wants us to be distracted by worry, greed, fear, pride, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, anger, abuse, emotional entanglements, empty pursuits, and endless doubts and questions.

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Satan doesn’t wait for us to seek him out. He doesn’t give us warning about his intentions. But he does come like a thief. He comes to steal our joy, our faith, our innocence, our rest, our security, our gratitude, our focus, our sense of purpose, and our hope. How much of an effort have we taken to stop him? How much effort do we take to guard what is more valuable than our money– our families, our character, our very soul? We wouldn’t walk down a dark alley with a wad of cash– but will we walk into temptation? Will we ignore warnings, believing it just “won’t happen” to us?

Luckily, we have a Good Shepherd. Even when we, like sheep, aren’t paying attention, and don’t see the enemy, God is still there, laying down His life, so that we can have a more abundant, more joy-filled life. The thief will still come– that’s not just an abstract warning, it’s a guarantee. There will be troubles in life that will threaten to steal all that God intends for us to enjoy. And, if we insist on going it alone, we will become victims of theft– our relationships, our character, our futures– we are at great risk. But if we trust in the Shepherd, we will have the best protection. The thief will still come to attack, but he cannot take what is in the Father’s hand– US!

The thief comes– to take; to destroy. The Shepherd comes– to give; eternal and abundant Life!

When We All Get To Heaven…

Last week, I attended the funeral of my mom’s cousin. It was a joyful funeral–not only was it a celebration of a life well-lived, and an acknowledgement of God’s grace, but it was a reunion of sorts. Not only were there cousins I hadn’t seen in awhile, but I met people I hadn’t known before, but we were connected through my cousin and through the legacy of a tiny country church and the faithful witness of those who have been blessed there.

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Friends and family spoke of my cousin’s generosity, his quiet and steadfast character, his diligence, and his love for Jesus Christ. We sang together, prayed together, and remembered. And some of the stories shared involved a small country church, once pastored by my cousin’s in-laws, and the site of many confessions of faith, prayer meetings, weddings, funerals, evangelistic services, pot-luck fellowships, Bible Schools, Easter services, Christmas programs, and weekly worship services. It was the church where I was introduced to the gospel. It was the church where I met my husband. It still stands, attended by faithful friends. It has, over the years, sent missionaries to Zambia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines. It has supported local rescue missions, and local families in need. It is a tiny country church; I can remember when it had hard wooden pews, no fans or air conditioning in the summer, a damp and leaky basement with the occasional toad or salamander on the stairs, and no indoor bathroom.

Bethel Church

After the funeral, Mom and I went to the fellowship meal at another local church. It was beautiful, with a small cafe, a large sanctuary, two sets of bathrooms, a fellowship hall, and all the modern conveniences– located in an old strip mall. A far cry from the church of my youth, but filled with caring and gracious people who were there to provide food and comfort for the family. I don’t know how many local or foreign missions are served by the congregation there, but I suspect it would look similar to the list above.

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As we found a seat for the meal, we were joined by a woman I had never met. As we made introductions, we realized two things– we were distantly related, and we had both attended Bethel Church as young children (though separated by a couple of decades). We both had fond memories of that small country church, and the wonderful people there.

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Over the next few days, I thought about all the amazing people I have known–family members like my cousin, and this distant cousin I was able to meet; the various families who came and went over the years at Bethel Church and other churches I have attended; missionaries and evangelists, pastors, teachers, and their families; the people I have met through mission trips and conferences–and how many more amazing people I have NEVER met, but whose lives are intertwined because we belong to God’s family.

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Someday, we will all be in the same place at the same time–HOME– with our Loving Father! When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! Until then, we are scattered by distance and circumstance. We worship in different ways, different languages, in different types of buildings, in small house churches, cathedrals, arenas, and strip malls. We have different outreach opportunities, different social challenges, different budgets, and different worship styles. But we are connected:

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There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV

Heaven will be incredibly diverse; and uniquely cohesive– brought together by a Love that transcends differences, disparity, and even death. And we will meet those whose lives paralleled ours, even if we never met on earth. We will meet those whose faithfulness brought about the little country church where I grew up, and those who planted churches in malls, and jungles, caves, hills, forests, and “underground.” All our amazingly diverse stories will be woven into one eternal “Hallelujah” as we praise the author of them all.

Funerals can be anguished events. But I was blessed last week to remember God’s incredible faithfulness. One of the verses quoted during the service was Psalm 116:15–“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Earlier in the same Psalm, the writer has this to say, “I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my supplications.  Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.” I have seen and experienced God’s faithfulness– through the lives of other saints, through the work of His church, and as He has personally “inclined His ear to me.” May I be faithful to all upon Him for as long as I live. As my cousin was blessed and blessed others, may we hold true to our “One faith” as we await that day when we all get to Heaven!

My Anchor Holds…

My husband and I like to go fishing. We have a small boat, and we take it out on a local lake, and spend many happy hours enjoying nature and casting about for fish. One piece of equipment we keep on the boat is an anchor. It’s a small anchor (for a small boat), but it is heavy and solid. The anchor stays within the boat while we travel, but once we’ve found the spot where we want to fish, out it comes. We “drop anchor”, and tie off the rope. The anchor sinks to the lake bed, where it digs in and holds the boat, keeping it from drifting with the water and the wind. The boat still moves a bit, but the anchor and the rope ensure that the boat will stay close to the spot where the anchor lies.

On calm days, it may seem as if the anchor is hardly necessary. The lake is still, and the boat doesn’t seem to drift at all. On windy days, the boat will be driven by the waves, unless the anchor is dropped and holds firm. But the waves still churn and batter against the sides.

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The author of Hebrews compares the hope we have in Christ to an anchor. ” We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:19a NIV) And as I thought of that, I was reminded of some key things about Hope (and its sister, Faith):

  • An anchor does no good unless it is IN the boat every time we leave shore. I have seen several anchors on display– in parks or at ports–huge and imposing. But they are useless to any vehicle out in the water. Similarly, we have to have the Hope of Christ IN US–we cannot “borrow” someone else’s hope or faith in moments of testing and suffering. We cannot leave our hope in the boathouse, or hang it up on display on shore, and assume that the waters will stay calm, or that our boat cannot drift.
  • An anchor is also useless unless there is a rope or chain or line attaching it to the boat. If I say that my Hope is in Christ, but I’m not in relationship WITH Him, the Anchor will still drop and hold, but my boat will be at the mercy of the waves and wind. If I know “about” God, but I have never spent time getting to “know” God, whatever hope I have will be detached and of little use.
  • An anchor is heavy. It is bulky. It sinks deep and isn’t easy to reposition. That’s how our Faith is meant to be. True faith isn’t lightweight, or convenient, or “cute.” Hope isn’t a balloon or a kite or a parachute. What will keep us from drifting in good times or bad is a faith that is heavy and unshakeable. And our Hope is not airy and wishful, based on wisps and popular philosophy; it is based on God’s eternal nature, and His enduring Word.
  • An anchor, while important, doesn’t make the boat move. Faith and Hope, by themselves, will not get us to our “fishing spot.” The Christian life isn’t about drifting or just staying still. There are times when we need to move out into deeper waters, or turn the boat around and head for home. For that, we need Love to be the motor, or the sail, or the oars to propel us. And we need the “chart”– God’s word, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit– to guide us to our destination. Only then can we get the most out of our Anchor and its ability to keep us firmly in the place we need to be.
  • An anchor, left dragging behind, will actually hinder or stop our movement. We can get so “anchored” on a certain doctrinal argument, or a certain job at church, or a certain tradition, that we fail to move where God would have us go next. Once again, the anchor does no good unless it is IN the boat as we travel. When God calls us to repent, to change, or to move, we have to trust Him enough to bring the anchor aboard and let His Spirit move us to our next destination.

There is much more that can be said about our sure Hope and Faith, but I want to stop and digest this much for now. I pray for wisdom to use the Anchor of Hope properly all my days.

I Just Want Them to Be Happy…

..but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3b-5 ESV via biblegateway.com
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I once had to drop out of a thread on social media. (Actually, I’ve had to drop out of a number of threads, but that is neither here nor there…) The thread was about parenting, and priorities. The main thrust was that, as a parent, one’s top priority was to make one’s children “happy.” If your child wanted a particular toy for her/his birthday, you would certainly do whatever you could to get “that” toy. If your child wanted the latest fashion in shoes, you would certainly try to buy them. If your child wanted to be successful, you would do whatever you could to see that he/she got into the “best” schools and had the “best” opportunities in life. And if they wanted to do something of which you disapproved, you would still encourage them to follow their dream– if it would make them happy. Of course, this didn’t include letting your child abuse drugs or become a criminal. But in general, it meant sacrificing and taking a back seat to your child’s emotional well-being.

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On the surface, this seems like good parenting. Of course, I don’t “want” my child to be miserable, or unsuccessful, or “left out.” And I don’t want to impose my dreams and wishes onto my child, or live my life through him/her. I would not wish hardship and suffering to come to anyone, especially those I love. Except…I want them to develop endurance, and character, and hope, and compassion, and wisdom, and humility, and faith. And all these things come from suffering, losing, and learning from difficult experiences.

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I dropped out of the thread for a couple of reasons: I have learned that whenever the subject of parenting comes up, my experience (or lack thereof) makes my opinion “invalid” to those who disagree. “You’ve never had children. You don’t know what it’s like.” But I know what it was like to BE a child, and to have parents. I’ve observed the results of parenting by others, both good and bad. I know that even good parenting can’t guarantee “happy” teenagers! And even “bad” parenting can produce children who break the cycle and become adults of integrity and joy. The other reason I held back was that, in my experience, those who post such threads only want their own opinions confirmed. The people posting on this thread were not “bad” parents–in fact, they probably would agree with me if we had the time to sit down and talk through the issue. But one of the downfalls of social media is that we want short, pithy advice, instead of long and serious discussions. We don’t want nuances; we want comfortable “likes.”

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I don’t want my family members– my step-children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and cousins, etc.–to be defeated by suffering. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I don’t pray for them to be hurt or frustrated, because “it’s for their own good.” But I do pray that they will learn strength and courage, faith and trust, hope and joy as they overcome struggles, conquer fears, fight life’s battles, and walk in obedience to the One who has won the final victory. I don’t “just” want them to be happy. I want them to find the lasting joy that comes from developing a Godly character. That may bring me to tears when I see them fighting illness and hardship, persecution, depression, and other setbacks. But it also keeps me on my knees and reaching out as they understand that I’m there whether they’re sad, or angry, or hurting– and so is the God who loves them forever!

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Shibboleth

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15 KJV)
Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent (harmless, guileless, and without falsity) as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 NKJV)

(All Bible references, including emphases, via biblegateway.com)

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Hucksters, charlatans, con-artists, false prophets– we’ve all seen or heard them. Some are easy to spot; while others seem sincere. They “talk the talk”–they “Praise the Lord,” they pray, they quote scripture. How can we tell if they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”

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In the Old Testament book of Judges, two tribal groups had a battle. Afterwards, the victors set up a “test” for soldiers trying to cross the Jordan River. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not contain the “sh” sound. When asked to say the word, Shibboleth, they could not pronounce it correctly, and so were unable to hide their identity as enemy soldiers, even though they looked just like the others waiting to cross.

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There is an old Irish prayer that says, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” God doesn’t always “turn their ankles,” but He will give us the wisdom to discern false prophets– If we ask and listen. Even those who “talk the talk” will speak with a worldly “accent” that gives them away. They will fail the test of “Shibboleth.” Their talk will be filled with spiritual-sounding words and phrases, but it will deflect honor away from the only One truly worthy of our worship. Their teaching is described in 2 Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV) Beware of teaching that proclaims the power of the Human Spirit over that of God’s Spirit; or speaks of God’s power being demonstrated only in terms of worldly success. They may not “limp,” but they will “lisp.”

When the Gileadites used the “Shibboleth” test, they were looking for a specific mistake in pronunciation to identify their enemies. When we are testing Christian teachers, we should also look for specific “mis-pronouncements.” And just as important, we should look for words that don’t match actions and attitudes. For example, anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian or Christ-follower, but won’t proclaim Jesus Christ– His ministry, life, death, and resurrection– should be suspect. Many people want to proclaim a Jesus who will appeal to the masses– a Jesus who will be your pal, your guru, your cheerleader, or your “life coach,” but NOT your Lord. Others will present Him as a Savior who is distant, whose love is conditional on abject obedience and blind trust. Neither of these are accurate pictures of the biblical Jesus Christ. We must also beware the teachers who present a Jesus whose lifestyle is nothing like the one they practice. None of us is perfect, but we should be living a life that testifies to God’s faithfulness, not our own popularity or power or purse.

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The best way to learn to detect imposters and false teachers is to spend time each day with “the real thing.” When I spend time reading scripture each day, it become easier for me to detect a “lisp” when someone misquotes it or takes it out of context. When I spend time asking God to reveal more of his character, I will learn to spot His character (or absence!) in those around me.

Father, may I have ears to discern Your voice and Your power today. May I be wise as I listen to those who speak of You. And may I not say, do, or write anything that doesn’t reflect Your Truth and Your Glory. Thank You for Your wise counsel, Your examples throughout Scripture and in those who desire to follow You faithfully, and for Your Spirit, who reveals Truth.

This Little Light of Mine…

Last Friday night, my husband and I watched fireworks in honor of Independence Day. They were spectacular– bright flashes of light, followed by loud, thunderous booms–red, green, blue, purple, orange, gold, and white. Some sizzled and screamed as they threw their light across the darkened backdrop of the night. Others were almost silent; just a “whizz” and a “poof.” Some were so bright, they lit up the whole sky, showing clouds and smoke trails.

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Fireworks are exciting and flashy. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world of continual fireworks. While their light is bright and exciting, it is not steady, and it is quickly swallowed up again by night’s darkness. We don’t even light fireworks during the day, because their light is not brighter or better than the sun.

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Sometimes, I try to be a “Christian” fireworks display–I try to be flashy and impressive, or sizzle, scream, and boom. That’s not entirely a bad thing– after all, we are to let out light shine, so that people can see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven (see Matthew 5:14-16). But we should be careful. Jesus never called us to be like fireworks; He spoke of our “light” being more like a lamp or a candle.

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Some thoughts to remember:

  • We are to let our light shine for a purpose greater than display. Our lives should be a reflection of the true Light of the World. Jesus was not flashy and bombastic. He was humble, gentle, and kind. People were not amazed and impressed by Jesus’ appearance. And He didn’t draw attention to many of His miracles– He often healed people “on the road” as He traveled between towns; some of His most spectacular miracles, like walking on water, were done in front of only His closest disciples. Jesus didn’t lead others by clever arguments and flashy displays– He led by example and service.
  • Lamps and candles are steady sources of light. Our lives should not be momentary flashes of brightness, followed by clouds of smoke and a return to darkness for those around us. A quiet life of integrity may not be flashy, but it can, over a lifetime, inspire others and leave a lasting legacy that shines far longer and brighter than any fireworks display.
  • Occasionally, God will put us in a place where our light can shine a little brighter or sizzle for a bit– for His Glory. We should not be afraid to sparkle. But we must not let ourselves “burn out.” And when we see others shine in this way, we should not be envious or try to quench the Spirit; however, we must continue to reflect God’s glory, rather than trying to bask in another person’s glow.
  • Far greater than any fireworks display is the promise of God’s glory, revealed in the fullness of time– an eternal display of pure light, with no darkness to follow!
  • Our “little light” is not insignificant– it is God’s purpose. It pleases Him to see us glow, not explode!
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Lord, help me to shine in ways that point others to You. Help me to reflect Your gentle, faithful, and righteous light, Your Love, and Your Grace as I travel through a dark world. Amen.

Praying for Happiness

A while ago, I was following a thread on Facebook. It was about good parenting, and the idea being discussed was about what a good parent would do to ensure their child’s happiness. Several of the people on the thread agreed that happiness was the highest priority, and that they would do anything to ensure that their child was happy.

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I disagreed, but I felt it was better not to argue as part of the thread. I never raised any children of my own, and threads on social media tend to pull out our gut reactions, rather than our studied ones. At first glance, it seems natural and good to want the people we love to be happy. I certainly don’t want my family and loved ones to be miserable! But is happiness the very best I can wish for– pray for? So often in life, true and lasting happiness is a process that involves going through struggles and periods of frustration and even failure. I don’t enjoy seeing loved ones struggling, but I want them to learn the life lessons that will help them become all they were designed to be.

I think of the life of Samson (Judges 13-16). Samson was set apart from birth to be a Nazarite. During his childhood, his parents followed the rules set aside for such a designation. The Biblical account makes much of the rule about never cutting his hair, but there were other rules his parents likely followed as he was growing up, such as keeping him away from grapes, wine, wine vinegar, or any other fermented drink, and keeping him away from defilement by dead bodies. It’s never easy to be “different” when you’re growing up. I’m sure Samson had many questions, and moments of unhappiness as a child. But somewhere along the way, his parents seem to have made Samson’s happiness more important than his character development.

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Samson grew to be petulant and spoiled. He seemed to think he was entitled to whatever whim took his fancy. Now the Bible is clear that some of Samson’s desires were part of God’s plan to confront the Philistines, but Samson’s parents put up only a token resistance when he told them he wanted to marry a Philistine woman. At the wedding feast, Samson posed a riddle which exposed his lack of respect for his Nazarite vows. Not only had Samson killed a lion; he had come back later and eaten honey taken from the lion’s carcass– a defilement that broke his vow. Later, of course, he would use the unclean jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines in a single incident. Samson could have made an offering and renewed his vow, but we have no record that he ever did.

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The most famous story of Samson is his infamous liaison with a prostitute named Delilah. Though she does little to hide her intention to learn the secret of his strength and betray him to his enemies, Samson toys with her, lies to her, and finally reveals his sacred secret. Once his hair is cut, Samson loses his great strength and is captured by the Philistines and tortured. Only when he is blind, imprisoned, and shamed does Samson seek the Lord and ask for God’s blessing.

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Samson pursued a life of pleasure, and gave full vent to his lust, anger, and other strong emotions. I’m sure there were many moments of happiness in his life, but there were also moments of pain, tragedy, betrayal, and shame.

I think the story of Samson is full of lessons for us today. One of those lessons is that even when we are not faithful, God can still use us for His good purposes. God used Samson to judge the nation of Israel, and to bring punishment on the Philistines for their cruelty toward them. God could have disqualified Samson for having broken his vows time and time again, but God used even Samson’s weakness to highlight His strength.

But another lesson, I think is that God showcased exactly what can happen when we place happiness, pleasure, and ease ahead of everything else. Samson caused his own unhappiness and torture. There is no record of Samson bringing happiness to anyone else– only shame, tears, violence, and retribution. God caused Samson to be a model of all that the book of Judges is about– at the end of the book, there is a significant verse, “In those days, Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.”

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I don’t want my family and friends to be “happy” at the expense of their character, or at the expense of others. I pray that they develop Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control (Galatians 5:22-23). In the end, this will bring them a level of happiness that surpasses anything the world can offer.

The Lord Does Not See Us..

In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man.  From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”

Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.

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I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.

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But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.

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And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

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In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.

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God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.

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The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.

And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.

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When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.

I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.

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Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.

Miniature Joys

Life is full of “big” things–birth, marriage, death, buying a house, losing a job… But it is also full of small moments– a quiet smile, a child’s laughter, the smell of new rain, a cup of cocoa.

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Often, we let the “big” things overwhelm us, and we miss the miniature joys all around us. I was reminded of this over the past weekend, as we were able to spend time with various family members– many of whom we had not seen in months because of the pandemic. Of course, some of the “big” topics came up in conversation– COVID-19, riots in cities around the world, frustrating job situations, ongoing health concerns, and so on. But the miniature joyful moments–sharing silly memories and laughter, noticing how much the teens have grown, sharing a meal, hearing familiar voices–these are the things that stay with us and sustain us through the “big” things.

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One of the weekend activities was a birthday party for our granddaughter. It was a smaller gathering, and limited to family members, so there were no young girls for her to play with. All her siblings and cousins are boys, and the grandparents outnumbered the children. We sat outside on the hottest day of the year (so far), and sang “Happy Birthday” and watched her blow out candles on a small cake. And we made a promise to phone our granddaughter on her “actual” birthday two days later.

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Two days later, we had a busy day– we were running errands, and spending time with my niece and nephew. We had appointments and important phone calls to make, and e-mails to answer. We almost forgot about our promise..but our granddaughter had not. When we stopped our “big” plans, sat down and made the promised phone call, the joy in her voice was enough to light up a hundred candles and shine brighter than the sun. Such a little thing. We had already wished her a happy birthday, given her gifts, and shared her birthday cake. But in keeping our “small” promise, we shared something priceless. There is a bond of trust and love that makes the small moments vitally important in our relationships, and in our own character development.

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And the same can happen in reverse. In the book of Jonah, God sent a gourd vine. Such a little thing, and Jonah had done little to deserve it. But God sent it just the same. A tiny bit of shade to comfort Jonah in his bitterness while he watched his enemies receiving God’s grace. Several thousands of Ninevites saved from destruction v. Jonah being saved from the heat of the mid-day sun–it seems like a ridiculous comparison. But in his selfishness and anger, Jonah missed the obvious. Yet God still provided–extravagant grace to Nineveh; the grace of a gourd for Jonah. When God caused the gourd vine to be destroyed, Jonah’s reaction was fierce and extreme. He could not find joy in Nineveh’s salvation; he couldn’t sustain joy in God’s gracious gift of the gourd vine. All he could feel was the anger and bitterness. After all, isn’t it possible that some of the very Ninevites who had been spared would have been glad to offer shelter to the prophet who had brought them a timely warning? What kind of joy and healing might Jonah have experienced in the company of his former enemies?

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Lord, please help me to rejoice in the small moments, and see Your glory in the miniature joys of life. Open my eyes to see past the “big” things in life, because I know that You are bigger than all of them. Thank you for restful moments, and fleeting pleasures; for glimpses of Glory, and poignant snatches of memory; for grins, and sips of cold water on a hot day; for old photographs, and new snapshots; for Your faithfulness, and Your mercies, which are new every morning!

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Going For the Prize

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. I Corinthians 4:24 (ESV)

I mentioned the other day that the county fair is on in our area.  Each day of the fair, young people from around the county (and some from neighboring counties) have been showing livestock.  The animals are judged on their general health and appearance, weight, height, and other factors that mark them as the best of their breed or class.  The young people are judged on their presentation, their knowledge of their animal (anatomy, breed, hygiene, health, etc.), and their ability to “show” the animal– to keep in still, to pose it, and, in some cases, to walk or trot it in a pattern.  Different shows and different judges will determine which animals are worthy of prizes and which of the youth deserve a prize for “showmanship.”  Both are coveted awards.

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The young competitors spend countless hours and work incredibly hard to get their animals (and themselves) ready for the judging.  Animals and their handlers are scrubbed, groomed, brushed, gussied, and polished.  They preen and pose for the judges, and the students answer questions, listening for instruction and correction, and show both self-confidence and respect for those in charge of the show.  They also show respect for each other, and often lend a hand (or a brush) to help someone else.

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What would happen if everyone showed up in ripped shorts or pajamas?  What if the animals were running loose, filthy and un-groomed?

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The Apostle Paul spoke of the Christian life as a race–one that we should run so as to receive the prize.  When we serve, when we worship, when we pray, when we study– we should be giving it all our passion, all our energy, all our focus.

Most of these competitors will not win the trophy or the purple ribbon– but most of them will still go home winners– because they gave it their all.  They did the work, and built the discipline, and came prepared to win or lose with grace.  The trophies and ribbons are wonderful and colorful, but the true prize is the discipline, the knowledge, and the character that are built long before the judgment day.

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May that be true for all of us as we travel through this life– may we grow in discipline and character to be more like Christ.  He is the prize for which we work and train and run and pray.  May we “show ourselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15).

And may we pray for a spirit that does not grow weary or apathetic; a spirit willing to listen for correction and instruction; may we show up ready to give our best, even if the prize (and the praise) goes to someone else today.

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