Sunday, June 28, 2009

Yet Another Loaf

And He left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to the other side. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. Then He charged them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have no bread.” But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.” “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?” And they said, “Seven.” So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?” (Mark 8:13-21, NKJV)
* * * * * * * *
If we can safely assume that the Gospels are presented to us in chronological order (and I believe we can based on this passage and other reading), then I have come to the conclusion that the disciples were not just ignorant or slow, they were just plain dense. They had been first-hand witnesses to miracles, signs, and wonders since the wedding at Cana. They were willing to forgo their careers, meager as some were, to follow an itinerant rabbi from a backwards village in an extremely rural (read “unsophisticated”) province. Given that experience, you would think a little thing like limited resources while out on the lake wouldn’t faze them in the least.

Yet, we find the disciples and Jesus coming off another tiring round of meeting the needs of people and interacting with the Pharisees. Everyone, once again, wanting something from Jesus and giving little to no thought about ministering to Him. So the haggard band has escaped in one of their boats for a little trip on the lake.

You can just imagine how this plays out if you try. They shove off from shore for some other point across the lake and one of them says “Did you bring anything to eat?” They rummage through their limited collection of stuff and find they have only one small barley loaf among them. Jesus is still focused on His latest encounter with the Pharisees. He warns His disciples to guard their hearts and minds against the watered-down and altered religious teaching of the day and the pervasive nature and trap of politics. His warning speaks of avoiding “leaven”, symbolically the tendency to let something small sink in and grow until it permeates the entire loaf (or life in this case).

For whatever reason, the disciples miss Jesus’ point again and focus on themselves. They are still hungry (physically) and think the Master is talking to them because they have been discussing the lack of bread in the boat. Jesus, ever the patient Teacher, holds a brief history lesson, harkening back to the two great crowd feedings and the spread of leftovers that were a result of His miraculous provision of food for the crowd. His focus turns just a bit sterner as I read it when He asks, “How is it you do not understand?”

I’ll admit I chuckled as I read this passage a few times. While none of the twelve is presented as a scholar (they appear to run a fairly wide range of training), we have to think they would have “gotten it” by now. And, while I accuse them of being dense, I have to admit I’m often not a whole lot better at accepting God’s basic provision for me.

In our hurried and harried society, few of us truly know want or even delayed gratification. Certainly, we wouldn’t be found with a group of our friends on a trip saying “Did anybody pack lunch?” And even if we did, there is a food stop at the next exit. And while we will attend church and other functions regularly, we often forget the intimate nature of God providing for all our needs. In doing so, we open the gate for that leaven Jesus warns of in this passage. Once the gate is opened, other concerns rush in and grow until we have difficulty truly accepting just how real God’s promise to provide can be.
So while I accuse those disciples of being dense, how much more dense am I, especially given the fact that I have so much more revealed to me? May God help all of us to avoid troubling ourselves over the small stuff (or the big stuff for that matter) and rest in His provision for our well being. In doing so, perhaps we can pay better attention to the leaven and root it out before it has a chance to grow into something much bigger and more difficult to deal with. God knows about our crooked path and He will always make the proper provision for the journey.
* * * * * * * *
  1. When is the last time you took the opportunity to focus on God’s promise of provision for you? How well does that promise, especially in its most practical sense, connect with you?
  2. Have you gone on a “leaven hunt” recently? What have you found and what have you done about it?
  3. In our world of instant availability, do you find it difficult (or even unnecessary) to wait on God’s provision? How does this impact your guard against the leaven of the world and your ability to avoid it?

NKJV - Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Of Water, Well, and Promises

The Lord gave me another message. He said, “Go and shout this message to Jerusalem.” This is what the Lord says: “I remember how eager you were to please me as a young bride long ago, how you loved me and followed me even through the barren wilderness. In those days Israel was holy to the Lord, the first of his children. All who harmed his people were declared guilty, and disaster fell on them. I, the Lord, have spoken! … Has any nation ever traded its gods for new ones, even though they are not gods at all? Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols! The heavens are shocked at such a thing and shrink back in horror and dismay,” says the Lord. “For my people have done two evil things: they have abandoned me - the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!” Jeremiah 2:1-3, 11-13, NLT)

* * * * * * * *
How often do we take water for granted? If you’ve spent any time at all in an extended drought, maybe you think about it more, but I’d wager that you stop doing that once the drought eases. Whether we are on municipally supplied water or have our own well source, water is a basic necessity of life that we sometimes seem to think “just comes out of the faucet like magic” whenever we want it.

Throughout the Bible, water is a symbol of life and blessing, most specifically blessing that comes from God. In the Garden of Eden, God provided water for all life using some sort of dew or vapor. While the water in Noah’s flood was a source of punishment and destruction in that instance, it went on to represent God’s provision of life (Moses and the children of Israel) and His blessing (Elijah on Mt. Carmel).

So, when God, speaking through Jeremiah, accuses His people of digging out alternate cisterns to gather other blessings, I’d say He is taking the matter pretty seriously. Israel was again in the depths of betrayal and rebellion. Though they had pledged their undying love to Him in the beginning, they had willfully strayed time and time again to pursue other gods. God had promised to always protect and provide, but they said “No thanks!” and moved on to do it their own way.

We, in the 21st century are nothing like those Israelites, right? Then again, maybe we should read Jeremiah’s words again and do some self-examination to see just how much we actually rely on God’s provision. Oh, He’ll still give it and we will gain some benefit, but we end up trying to “supplement” what He gives with something else. We willfully dig our own wells and cisterns to catch things of our own design, all the while ignoring the Living Water.

I’m just as guilty as the rest when it comes to this point. We all are. Somehow, we’ve gotten the mistaken idea that God “expects” us to do these things – to provide for ourselves. After all, He gave us our minds and our talents. Why wouldn’t he expect us to use them? Nothing could be less Biblical, correct, or appropriate. Yes, God may have blessed us, but He expects us to rely on Him. And that includes His timing and source of provision as well.

It has long been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This really isn’t any different. Our hearts have the same independent bent that ruled the Israelites and we tend to make the same mistakes. It’s funny, really, when you think of how many examples are provided to us that we can learn from. Maybe we can change our perspective and actually adjust our own attitudes. After all, the crooked path is much easier to travel when my Father is holding my hand. And His water ALWAYS tastes better than what I can find on my own.
* * * * * * * *
  1. When was the last time you turned to God for direction and provision when there wasn’t a crisis either brewing or already at hand?
  2. Do you have promises you’ve made to God that you need to go back and revisit? Are you willing to examine and renew them?
  3. Are you guilty of digging your own well and searching for water other than what God has provided? If so, what are you doing about stopping that action and returning to drink deeply of the Living Water?
NLT - Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Appointment Calendar

Even the first plan required a death to set it in motion. After Moses had read out all the terms of the plan of the law—God's "will"—he took the blood of sacrificed animals and, in a solemn ritual, sprinkled the document and the people who were its beneficiaries. And then he attested its validity with the words, "This is the blood of the covenant commanded by God." He did the same thing with the place of worship and its furniture. Moses said to the people, "This is the blood of the covenant God has established with you." Practically everything in a will hinges on a death. That's why blood, the evidence of death, is used so much in our tradition, especially regarding forgiveness of sins… Everyone has to die once, then face the consequences. Christ's death was also a one-time event, but it was a sacrifice that took care of sins forever. And so, when he next appears, the outcome for those eager to greet him is, precisely, salvation. Hebrews 9:18-22, 27-28, The Message)

* * * * * * * *
Our planners, calendars, electronic devices, and such seem to house (and control) much of our lives. We put the smallest details in them as a reminder of something we have to do, somewhere we have to go, or someone we need to catch up with. We do this in a host of different ways, but we all share one thing in common. There is an appointment we will keep that is not on our schedules.

Back when I was in a college speech class, I chose the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by American poet Alan Seeger for one of my many projects. A couple of decades later, I still remember key elements from that poem, mostly about dying in war. Seeger talks about how Death might come in one form or another, on a deserted battlefield, in a burning town, and in any one of the four seasons. But the most poignant line is that with which he chooses to close the brief poem. Seeger simply writes, “And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.”

This reading is inspired by my late brother Mike, whose thoughts and writings planted the seed for the entire devotional in the first place. He had a book inside him that was trying to come out, but he ran out of time. Now, we all knew Mike would die, but we didn’t know when. So as the day dawned one Sunday in November 2000, we went about our business in one part of the country as we were accustomed to do. Meanwhile, God was gently but firmly calling Mike to his final home out of his place in the orphanage. The calls started back and forth that afternoon, ironically as we celebrated the first birthday of my youngest daughter. Before long, the final call came that Mike had slipped away into eternity with our Father God and Divine Brother Jesus. You see, we had the date on the calendar, just not for that particular event.

The writer of Hebrews notes that none of this should take us by surprise. God has always required a death to satisfy the penalty for our sin. He never promised us we would attain eternal life while we still reside in the mortal world. And, with the most notable exception of Jesus, everyone who has died in this world has stayed dead (even those who had to die twice like Lazarus). Paul clearly states in Romans that death is our paycheck for life in this sinful orphanage.

But the good news comes in the phrase that concludes the announcement of our impending death in Hebrews. Christ (as a man) died as well, but He did it in a way that makes our death a passage out of the orphanage and into a new Heavenly home. All those deaths and blood sacrifices required by Mosaic Law were only a picture of what would come. And not a single one of those animals ever stood back up on the altar and walked away. No, while their deaths were a necessary requirement, they were not the ultimate, full payment. That only happened in Christ.
I harbor no delusions of immortality. I’ve experienced too much death in family and friends around me to be tricked into that. I know I have some control over my mortality, and I do take the necessary steps to make sure I don’t fall victim to physical illnesses. But that doesn’t change the end game one bit. It is still a crooked path I travel and, barring the return of Jesus, I have an appointment on my calendar to die at the end of my journey. That is one appointment I will keep one way or another. I just thank God that Jesus’ death makes my own a passage rather than a payment.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Have you thought about your own appointment calendar lately? Have you considered the “missing” entry that you cannot avoid?
  2. If we truly believe that everyone will die (barring Jesus’ return for Christians), how should it make us live and face the world around us?
  3. When did you last pass on the Good News about Jesus’ death and how it changes our own deaths from payments to passages? What keeps you from doing it?

The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Life in the Orphanage

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also … I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. (John 14:1-3, 18-20, NASB)
* * * * * * * *
I’ve never lived in an orphanage. In fact, I’ve never visited one. I’ve worked and fellowshipped with people who have adopted children from various situations that included orphanages. But the only personal experience I have on this front is the “orphanage” to which Jesus referred in John 14.

Jesus had spent over three years with this group of rag-tag men who had given up everything else to be close to him. They had varying levels of education and social standing. Some of them maybe even had personal agendas based on what they thought Messiah was supposed to do. Never the less, they were with our Lord on this Passover evening in a rented upper room when he sprung the biggest news on them they had ever heard … He was about to leave.

No doubt, this announcement took all of them by surprise. They had just been through a harrowing couple of weeks, not to mention the past three plus years. They had most recently been “hiding out” when they received word that Lazarus had died. Jesus took the short trip to Bethany and one of the twelve (Thomas) said they might as well go along and “die also”, probably a nod to what he felt was an eventual public capture, trial, and execution of all of them.

They had ridden the emotional high that followed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem to cheers and waving palm branches. Those who thought the promised kingdom was about to be established must have been ecstatic. Here they were, tied to “THE Man” and about to be an integral part of something so big, it had taken several millennia for prophecies to be fulfilled. This was IT and they were in the thick of things!

And then He says, “I’m leaving.” The questions follow about where He is going, seeing the Father, and most likely a litany of other discussion not recorded for us. But then he adds what I believe is the most important principle for Christians in the passage. He is leaving them, but not leaving them as orphans.

To me, there is an implied situation and an explicit legal contract in these brief words. First, they were orphans and they were living (as orphans would be) in an orphanage. Second, all the adoption papers and legal filings had been completed. Even though they would continue to reside in the orphanage (while He completed their new home), they would be legally adopted by the Father. They were being left, but not as orphans.

How true this rings as we look at the world around us. Our surroundings, as pleasant as they may be, are transient at best. With other Christians, I often struggle with this. I like to “own stuff” and I do have some very nice things at my disposal. But if I am honest with myself and my God, I need to freely admit they are not mine. Nothing I can actually touch is of truly everlasting value. It’s all transient and perishable. It is all an orphanage.

Jesus clearly states that He and the Father have another plan in mind for us. As adopted sons and daughters, we have another home … one that will so far surpass where we now live that our minds cannot begin to comprehend it. In comparison, this life and all we can see are the trappings of an orphanage. The old Gospel song “This World is not My Home” couldn’t ring truer.

So, maybe I need to change my perspective on the whole situation. I need to keep my bags packed and my heart ready. My adopted Daddy is coming for me at any time. I may be reasonably safe and even comforted (that’s the rest of John 14) for the time being, but I should never forget that I am a former orphan, living in the orphanage called Earth. It’s not my final stop by a long shot … I am just passing through. It’s all just a part of the crooked path.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Are your adoption papers filed, signed, sealed, and delivered? That is by far the first order of business. Your Heavenly Father has plenty of room for one more “former orphan” in His house.
  2. Have you fallen into the trap of forgetting this is an orphanage? Are you willing to change your point of view and start living like an adopted child of the God of the Universe? How would that look different from the way you live and act today?
  3. Do the other “orphans” view you any differently since you are adopted? What are you willing to change in order to show them your Father and let them know He wants to adopt them as well?

NASB - Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Crooked Path

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Ecclesiastes 7:10-14, ESV)

* * * * * * * * *

Many of us have been taught since we were children about walking the straight and narrow path. From a Biblical perspective, that certainly is the way to salvation (straight gate and narrow way). Once that life event has happened (or the process has truly begun – pick your terms), I would venture to say we won’t see a whole lot of straight paths through the rest of our earthly journey.

When my brother Mike was diagnosed with cancer, he chose Ecclesiastes 7:13 as the verse to serve as his basis of understanding and perspective. Through his final five years, we talked often about life on the crooked path he was walking. I won’t say he welcomed death at the end. In fact, he fought very hard for many years and explored more avenues than most of us even think of during the course of our “normal” living. Yet, in the end, he was content to know that God was still God and fully in control. Life was not easy for him – in fact, breathing was not easy – but Mike understood that was part of the broader plan for him. He was content walking God’s crooked path and trusting him rather than seeking out some easier, safer way based in self reliance.

I realize it is a basic part of human nature to want life to be easy, or at least easier. Our parents most likely wanted to do things for us they could not do and to provide a “better life” than they had. We too want to pass on to our children the ability to exceed what we have accomplished. Yes, this is all a part of human nature. And, yes, you can hear the “but” coming on this one …

But … what about our willingness as sons and daughters of the Everlasting God to accept what He has in store for us, even if it doesn’t fit our ideals or plans? Given the choice, I’d happily have Mike around to talk with and visit. I have no illusions of immortality, but I would run things on my own timeline and in a fashion that made things easier for me. But (there it is again) what about what God wants and what He has planned? Can Solomon really be right in saying God makes the road crooked … intentionally … and I have no business wishing it were straight?

As hard as it is to embrace it, that’s exactly what I believe is being said here. We live in a fallen world and, while it is a result of sin, we know that God is still the Master Designer. There isn’t a road out there, straight or crooked, that He doesn’t know intimately and has not walked. If I am to believe what I’ve learned in terms of God’s unchanging nature and goodness, I have to believe the rest including his holiness and knowledge. He never promised us an easy life the way we define “easy”. He only promised to be the same God as He was when Solomon wrote the passage above, when He formed the Earth out of nothing, and when He concluded His ultimate plan of redemption in His Son. He promised never to leave us alone, to be as close as the whisper of a prayer. As Mike was fond of praying in his final years, “God, we know You’re here, and we know You’re You.” What a fantastic perspective when you are smack in the middle of another blind turn on the crooked path of life.

So don’t always wish for an easy life as you see it. Ask God to reveal Himself as especially near and close. And, while you are at it, thank Him for the crooked road He made. Without it, you might never understand just how good God can be to you. You will survive the journey, though you just might have your definition of survival altered a bit along the way.

* * * * * * * *
  1. When in your life have you experienced the crooked path and how has it impacted your relationship with God?
  2. Have you been one to wish for straighter paths in life? When that doesn’t happen, have you found yourself frustrated or confused?
  3. Are you willing to change your view/definition of survival and the “easy life” in light of what God says through Solomon in this passage? How?

ESV - Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A Word Upfront

The idea for this collection started shortly after we lost my brother Mike to cancer. In fact, the entry titled “My appointment calendar” is taken directly from a book he started to write but never had the opportunity to finish. As I’ve dealt with any number of happenings in my life, I’ve found that turning to my thoughts, conversations with others, the Word, and our God have provided a deeper solace than any other “trick” I’ve run across. It may not always explain it (it sometimes seems like it rarely does), but it does provide a center, a sense of balance that can only come from trusting in our Heavenly Father. The older I get, the fewer explanations I look for anyway.

This collection of thoughts, one I’ve tagged a “survival guide” is intended to provoke thought, conversation, and a deeper understanding of how much Jesus loves us. It came about through personal conflicts, listening to various sermons, and a host of other discussions I’ve had with fellow travelers on the crooked path. I owe this writing to some very close friends, my pastor, and most of all to my God who provides the insights when we seek His direction.

“Walking the Crooked Path” is dedicated to the memory of my late brother Mike and to all those who have lost someone on this side of Heaven and are working through the process of understanding it. For those who have yet to lose a close loved one, perhaps this can help prepare you for what lies ahead. Rest assured that we cannot escape our Father’s watchful eye and every turn and dip in the road is seen clearly by Him.