Starting Over

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.[a] Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.

This was the inventory:

gold dishes 30

silver dishes 1,000

silver pans 29

10 gold bowls 30

matching silver bowls 410

other articles 1,000

11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along with the exiles when they came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Ezra 1:1-11

Have you ever had to start over because of a life change, a disaster, or a relocation? I truly cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a refugee even though I have had the pleasure of knowing some refugees. Most of the start overs in my life have been due to choices which I have willingly made. In some cases, starting over may bring about new opportunities and a better life. This is not the case for everyone but the hope is this restart in life will result in positive changes. That is the definitely the hope of immigrants, people who change careers, and individuals who redefine themselves.

Today, our reading presents a starting over for the Jewish people. These people have lived in exile since King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took them captive and his army destroyed the temple, Jerusalem, and all the Judean cities.

Many years passed and now King Cyrus was in charge. King Cyrus states that God has told him to have a temple built in Jerusalem. Sobhe gives the decree that the Jewish people are to build the temple with assistance of their non-Jewish neighbors. He even orders that the gold and silver items taken from the original temple be returned. The Jewish people are being given the opportunity to start over.

Starting over can be rather difficult. Just as the Jews  had to work hard to build the temple again, we may have to work hard when given the opportunity at a new beginning. The  important point to remember is that we do not start over alone. God was the reason the Jews were rebuilding the temple. Every step of the way God provided them the necessary resources and the support which they would need. God does the same for us. When we need to start over, either by choice or not, turning to God for help will benefit our efforts.

The Intent

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’[a] you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

Matthew 12:1-14

A television show which premiered last year, All Rise, has become a show which I enjoy. The story line is about Judge Lola Carmichael, a former prosecutor, who is appointed as a judge in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. I think the reason I like the show so much is that while the character can be idealistic at times, she desires to uphold the intent of the law more than the letter of the law. She exhibits creative and compassionate ways in fulfilling the intent.

Today in our reading from the book of Matthew, we encounter Jesus attempting to educate the Pharisees on the intent of the Sabbath rules. The Pharisees are the “lawyers” of the Jewish Law. They are to understand and interpret the laws which God has given the Hebrew people through the voices of the prophets, priests, and leaders. This group of Pharisees take issue with the actions of Jesus and the disciples. They have interpreted the disciples nibbling on grain and Jesus healing the shriveled hand of a man in the synagogue as doing “work”. Since this “work” happened on the Sabbath, it is violating the Law which states that no work shall occur on the Sabbath. (See Exodus 20:10)

Jesus challenges the Pharisees on their application of the Sabbath rules. For Jesus, the purpose of the Sabbath is to make sure people are taking time to rest themselves and to focus on God. He would probably say that these two items are the intent of the law regarding the Sabbath. Doing actions which are necessary, i.e., feeding your body or saving a sheep from drowning, are not violations of the intent. Likewise, healing someone or providing for the needs of a person is not violating the intent.

The focus of Jesus is the intent of the Law, not the letter of the Law. This focus serves as a guide in our lives, how we understand Scripture, and how we apply God’s direction to us and others. Like Judge Carmichael and Jesus, we need to look at the purpose of these things. Our goal should be to ensure the intent is being followed. Striving to enact every word, dot, and crossing of t’s eliminates compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

Like a Child

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:25-30 (NIV)

This year our country was reminded that even though it has been 157 years since President Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation, the issue of race equality in the United States is not resolved. We have witnessed a season of civil unrest unlike many others since the 1960s. During this time I have seen many memes and videos on social media utilizing the images and actions of children as a lesson. The lesson being taught is hate and discrimination are not something we do from birth but something we are taught to do.

Throughout Jesus’s teaching moments, he would also use children to teach lessons. (See Matthew 18:3, Matthew 19:4, Luke 18:16, Mark 9:36-37) In the passage from Matthew 11, we get to hear Jesus praying to the Father. He points out that in order to see the true nature of him, and therefore the Father, we need not an approach of academia but one of a child. Children come at life with great curiosity and an openness that is accepting instead of closed and discrediting. For those who approach Jesus as a child, Jesus offers rest from the weariness of the world and a promise of helping carry the burdens.

The lesson here is our approach to discovering the nature of our Lord is key to what will be revealed to us. If we come to the Lord with all our learned views of the world and life, we will miss the true Jesus. But if we adopt the curiosity and openness of a child, we will find a Jesus who offers rest for our souls.

History Matters

This word came to Jeremiah concerning all the Jews living in Lower Egypt—in Migdol, Tahpanhes and Memphis—and in Upper Egypt: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They aroused my anger by burning incense to and worshiping other gods that neither they nor you nor your ancestors ever knew. Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’ But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods. Therefore, my fierce anger was poured out; it raged against the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem and made them the desolate ruins they are today.

“Now this is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Why bring such great disaster on yourselves by cutting off from Judah the men and women, the children and infants, and so leave yourselves without a remnant? Why arouse my anger with what your hands have made, burning incense to other gods in Egypt, where you have come to live? You will destroy yourselves and make yourselves a curse[a] and an object of reproach among all the nations on earth. Have you forgotten the wickedness committed by your ancestors and by the kings and queens of Judah and the wickedness committed by you and your wives in the land of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem? 10 To this day they have not humbled themselves or shown reverence, nor have they followed my law and the decrees I set before you and your ancestors.

11 “Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah. 12 I will take away the remnant of Judah who were determined to go to Egypt to settle there. They will all perish in Egypt; they will fall by the sword or die from famine. From the least to the greatest, they will die by sword or famine. They will become a curse and an object of horror, a curse and an object of reproach. 13 I will punish those who live in Egypt with the sword, famine and plague, as I punished Jerusalem. 14 None of the remnant of Judah who have gone to live in Egypt will escape or survive to return to the land of Judah, to which they long to return and live; none will return except a few fugitives.”

Jeremiah 44:1-14 (NIV)

I have always been a history buff. In fact, history was part of my college major. One of the reasons I enjoy history so much is because I subscribe to the words of the 19th century philosopher, George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston

Churchill paraphrased Santayana in his 1948 speech by saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately, history is too easily forgotten and/or not taught and we see a  repeat of wrong decisions with disastrous results.

In the passage from Jeremiah, we see God communicating the same message. God has a message for the Jews who fled to Egypt. Jeremiah shares this message. Here God reminds them of what happened when they lived in Judah and Jerusalem. The people had chosen to burn incense and worship gods other than God.  Despite continued warnings to stop, the behavior continued. This led to the destruction of the Temple and all the Judean cities, including Jerusalem. Now the remnants in Egypt are repeating the same behaviors. They have failed to remember their history so they will experience the same negative results.

Here is a lesson for us today. God may have put the words spoken into Santayana and Churchill’s mouths. We are to remember those events which occurred before us. It is important that we understand what led to the negative times in order that when we see or partake in similar behaviors, we stop. Only then will we not suffer the same outcomes or worse.

Feed the Birds

One of my favorite songs from the Disney classic, Mary Poppins, is the song Mary sings to Michael Banks entitled, Feed the Birds. Mary is trying to communicate with Michael about the importance of taking care of others with the resources he has been given. In this song, Mary tells of a lady who is on the steps of St Paul’s who calls to people to purchase bags of seed to feed the birds. Michael has a few tuppences which his dad, a banker, is trying to convince him to place in a bank account. Mary gives an alternative option for at least some of Michael’s tuppence.

The main story line in the movie is about relationships. If you have read any of my other blog posts previously, you know that I often impress upon others the importance of relationships. I believe that the whole of Scripture is about relationships. All of Jesus’ ministry was about relationships. Maybe this is why the melodic song which Mary Poppins sings resonates so strongly with me. This song speaks of relationships and the importance of using what we have for the well-being of others.

Some of you are aware that I enjoy having many bird feeders in my backyard. It brings me pleasure to see the various types of birds who come by throughout the day to eat some of the seed which I place in the feeders. I also have hummingbird feeders which contain sugar water which I change every few days. It thrills me immensely when I get to see a hummingbird come and spend time at one of my two feeders. Every time that I fill those feeders I am reminded of the passage of Scripture where Jesus is telling his disciples not to worry about so many things. (See Matthew 6:25-34) He reminds them that the birds of the air do not labor for food and yet God feeds them. When I watch the birds eat from my feeders, I believe I am one of the ways in which God feeds the birds of the air.

This concept also translates well in regard to caring for other people. I think Mary Poppins was wanting to make this point also with Michael and his sister, who was listening in. A major theme throughout Scripture is the Lord’s desire for us to care for one another, especially those who struggle to care for themselves due to society, health, or other circumstances. We are called to care for the orphans, widows, hungry, sick, poor, outsider, and aliens. Jesus tells us that when we care for others, we are caring for him. (See Matthew 25:34-40). Mary’s song might easily be entitled, Feed the Others.

In the movie, Michael Banks takes the words of Mary Poppins to heart. May we all listen to her song and not only feed the birds but care for one another as well.

Layers

One of my favorite lines from the Dreamwork’s movie, Shrek, is “Ogres are like onions! We both have layers.” Shrek tells this to Donkey during one of the moments when Donkey is irritating Shrek, which actually often happens in the movie. I like this quote because I think it applies to humans as much as it does to any ogre.

Humans have layers and those layers increase as they go through life. Experiences create these layers. Some layers are good because they provide protection. At other times these layers are created to hide behind. Whatever the cause of the layer, if you really are going to know and understand someone, you have to peel away the layers. The top layer of a person is never truly who that person is at the core.

God is able to get beyond the layers. At various points in Scripture we hear about God seeing the core of who we are with the layers removed. The story of the choosing of David is one example of this. The psalmist says, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” (Psalm 139:1, NIV) Jeremiah speaks of God in this way, “Yet you know me, Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you.” (Jeremiah 12:3a) Clearly the Lord is able to go past all our layers which life helps us to form.

I think it is very important for us to first of all acknowledge that what we see in a person is only the top layer. Some individuals will not let you go past that top layer. But knowing that there is more to a person than what we can see, allows us to realize there is potential in every person which may lay under the surface. God saw this in David when Benjamin and Samuel could not. Taking this viewpoint makes it difficult for us to write someone off.

When we acknowledge the existence of layers, then we can make an effort to peel those layers back. This may be resisted because some of those layers contain the scars of being hurt when the person has been vulnerable. Scars are the attempt to cover over the damaged tissue and provide better protection in whatever area has been hurt. Just as the human body creates this protective layer, our mental defenses do the same when we have been emotionally or mentally abused. Providing a safe environment built on trust allows these layers to be opened.

So the next time you are quick to judge a person or to discredit them in any way, remember that humans are like onions, we both have layers. Use the eyes of God to see beyond the layers to the potential of the person which lies under them.

Critics

One of the realities of life is that there will always be critics. It does not matter what your line of work is, someone will always stand at the ready to evaluate your work and point out where improvement is needed. This can be positive if the evaluation is fair and the manner in which the critic communicates the areas of improvement is intended to build you up and not tear you down. The attitude and goal of the critic is key in measuring the beneficial nature of what is presented to you. Critics of both types surround each of us on a daily basis.

Not only in the work environment do critics exist, but they also exist in our everyday life away from the workplace. Someone is always ready to comment on anything we post on social media. Neighbors, family members, and friends give “helpful” advice to us even when we do not solicit such advice. A person can easily feel they are constantly being evaluated in regard to choices which are made and actions which are taken.

What sadly is the case is that oftentimes our critics point out what they view as our weaknesses but are inconsistent with their thought process in regard to what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Jesus encountered this often during his ministry and life. In fact, he calls such critics out in the Gospel of Luke: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:33-34, NIV) Here the critics are not as concerned about Jesus’ actions but concerned about what Jesus represents. They were opposed to his new way of understanding God, faith leadership, and how to interact with one another.

There are critics all around us. Sometimes these critics provide helpful insight to us so that we can improve and grow. Sometimes the views are consistent with caring and wanting to help one another. Other times these critics have the intention of tearing us down. They may see in us something which they dislike in themselves. They may not even care what we are saying or doing but instead dislike what we represent.

When you encounter someone who is critical of you, examine what attitude and intention they bring to the table. Discuss it with a trusted friend. Discuss it with the Lord. Remember most of all that you are a beloved child of God who was created in the image of your Creator.

Making Mistakes

There is not a person alive who has not made at least one mistake over the course of their life. Mistakes are a part of the human experience. How we react when we make a mistake is the most telling part of who we are as a person. The human instinct when a mistake has occurred is to attempt to cover up the mistake. We want an endless supply of white-out. Okay, I realize that many young people have no idea what that product even is anymore. Maybe a better illustration would be our desire to have a backspace key on the ready at all times. The point is that we hope that no one else notices the mistake, and we can eliminate the evidence as soon as possible.

Times occur when we cannot eliminate the evidence of our mistake. So we may attempt to justify the mistake or blame someone else for it happening. We want to reduce our responsibility for the mistake as much as we possibly can. The mistake does not go away, but we feel better about ourselves if we can become a much smaller player in whatever has led to the mistake in the first place.

We deal with some mistakes by trying to repress it. Our efforts are directed toward hiding the mistake. We may choose to not talk about it with anyone and if they bring up the mistake in conversation, we change the subject as quickly as possible. Putting the mistake out of our thoughts becomes the goal. Max Lucado once described this approach in this way, “That’s like walking around with a pebble in our shoe—it causes us so much frustration that our whole body compensates for its presence, when all we have to do is take it out and toss it away.”

Some mistakes in life are minor and have little impact on others or life in general. Other mistakes have a significant impact. The key is stepping up and being honest about mistakes which we make. We have to take ownership of the mistake and where necessary apologize and seek forgiveness. This approach does not cover up the mistake but it can be a tremendous step in correcting the mistake. Healing can take place once the mistake is out in the open. We are able to move forward without having to hold on to the mistake.

God is aware of the mistakes we make whether we are willing to own them or not. God does not need us to admit our mistakes. Yet, God knows that if we are to heal after making a mistake, we need to admit it. The Church has come to term this as confession. The terminology we use is not important but the act is very important. If we do not admit our mistake, then it is just as Lucado states, it is like a pebble in our shoe which brings us discomfort, pain, and endless frustration. The promise which God gives to us is that our mistakes are forgiven and forgotten. They are tossed away as Lucado suggests.

Making a mistake is human, admitting it and then letting it be thrown away is the correct response.

The Gift of Dogs

If you have been reading my blogs on a regular basis, you know that we have two wonderful dogs in our home. There are times that having a dog is just like having a child. You have to clean up the messes that a dog can create, you have to make sure they are fed and let outside, you need to make sure that they get proper exercise, and you are to provide for almost all their needs. A dog can be the most adorable and loving creature on earth one minute and a frustrating trouble-maker the next. This weekend I told my husband that while I may at times think having our dogs can be a hassle, I could never imagine my life without a dog in our house.

As I have thought about the benefits which dogs bring into my life, I have come to truly see them as a true gift from God. I think that a dog is God’s way of giving us a very tangible demonstration of one of God’s greatest traits—unconditional love. I am not aware of any creature in God’s creation which demonstrates unconditional love like a dog.

At times when I have gotten angry at one of my dogs for doing something like knocking a lamp off and breaking it, my dog forgives my anger and comes to show me signs of affection. Dogs can sense our emotions and are always the first ones to attempt to provide comfort when we are sad. No one appears to be more excited to see me when I return home from either a short or long absence than my dogs. Cuddling next to me is the most important desire of my dogs. Through their actions, dogs demonstrate a love which has no bound.

God created dogs and equipped them to be messengers of God’s unconditional love for us. I have heard far too many stories of dogs who have been abused by their owners and yet keep returning to them. This reminds me of how many times God is ignored, blamed, lashed out at, and even denied, yet God returns to me over and over with affection, acceptance, forgiveness, and genuine love.

I give thanks to God for giving me dogs to fill my life with unconditional love. I give thanks to God for providing me a tangible example of what God’s unconditional love is like. I give thanks to God for the love that I experience daily from our two dogs.

The Wind

Yesterday, my home state was devastated by a storm which they are now calling a derecho. I had no idea that there was even a storm classification such as this one but my understanding is that it is like an inland hurricane. Wind gusts in the city from which we moved were 100 mph or higher. The pictures which people are posting of the damage is amazing. I am used to tornadoes having lived a large portion of my life in Iowa and the damage seems to me to be as bad as a tornado. Many people continue to be without power and limited cellular service. The power of wind is truly amazing.

Even before yesterday’s storm and the impact it has had on my friends and family, I had thought about writing a post on the wind and the Holy Spirit. Yesterday’s news seemed to make such a post even more relevant. There are many characteristics which wind and the Spirit share. It is little wonder that in both the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible the word used for Spirit is the same word used for wind or breath.

In the story of the creation found in Genesis. The second verse in the first chapter states that, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Hebrew word here translated as Spirit of God is ruha which is the same Hebrew word for wind, breath, and life. In the story of Pentecost found in Acts 2, it states in the fourth verse, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” The word translated here as Spirit is pneuma the original Greek. Again, this Greek word can also mean wind or breath. Clearly, both the Hebrews and the Greeks saw the Holy Spirit as having the characteristics of the wind.

Our experience with the Spirit can be as varied as our experience with the wind. Currently in Texas, we are in our hot period of the year. We typically are very dry in August and our temperatures quickly reach the high 90s and low 100s. Wind is a positive when it arrives on days such as these. We cherish the movement of the air which provides relief from the relentless heat. We see the wind as a blessing and our experience with it is very positive. The Spirit can be the same way in our lives. We can find refreshment and relief from the heat of life through the Spirit.

Sometimes the wind is just a quiet breeze which provides movement of the trees creating a beauty for us to enjoy. Other times the wind can be violent and life changing as the people of Iowa and other Midwestern states have experienced this week. The Spirit is the same. At times in our lives we experience the Spirit to be gentle and our eyes are opened to the beauty which surrounds us. Another time in our life the Spirit can be overpowering, almost violent, and bring about a radical change in our lives.

I am sure you can find other examples of how the wind and the Holy Spirit share characteristics. I encourage you to think about those experiences in your life which you have had with both. Like humanity has attempted to do with the wind in harnessing its power to generate energy, I challenge you to harness the power of the Spirit in your life to generate life itself.

Please keep all those affected by the wind in Iowa and other states in your prayers this week. May this life changing experience offer opportunities of new life and growth. May your experience of the Spirit also create life changing results.