Category Archives: Life’s Struggles

Call me Mara!

Change.  Sometimes its good like vacations, graduations and weddings.  Other times it can be negative, unwanted even devastating.  Death of someone close to you would have to be the worst-case scenario.

Loss, no matter when it occurs, changes us forever. As much as we’d like to, we can’t go back to the way things were. Instead we have to figure out how we are going to deal with the change and move forward.

I recently gave a message to some folks in an assisted living center.  The message titled, “Call me Mara, because the Lord has made my life very bitter,”  was based on the story of Naomi found in the Old Testament book of Ruth.  Its a good lesson in continuing to trust in God even though we may feel abandoned by Him.

In her younger years Naomi experienced the joy of married life and motherhood in a little town called Bethlehem. At this time judges governed the land, because Israel had no king. As the book of Ruth opens, famine had come to the land. Naomi’s husband, Elimelek decides to relocate his family to Moab. Moab was a foreign land, a pagan country where its people worshipped fertility idols. During their stay there Naomi and her family stayed true to God.

Without warning Naomi’s life begins to unravel. Ruth 1:3 says, “Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband died and she was left with two sons.” Her family made the best they could of the situation. Naomi’s sons took Moabite wives and gave them the Hebrew names, Orpah and Ruth. For Naomi, things turned from bad to worse. Picking up in verse 4, “After they had lived there ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion died [these were Naomi’s only sons]. Naomi was left with no grandchildren and no children to care for her in her old agecemetery-2650712_960_720

Ruth 1:6 says, “When Naomi heard the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them [back in Israel], she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home [to Bethlehem].”

It was a difficult journey, returning to Bethlehem. The three widows had to climb steep rocky paths carved into the mountains. Their journey took them around the Dead Sea and through the barren wilderness separating Moab from Israel. As they traveled, Naomi’s heart seemed to fill with despair, imaging herself to be worthless. What kind of life could she offer her daughter-in-laws when she returned home?

Ruth 1:11, “Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?” [verse 13] “No, my daughters, it is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” Naomi was keeping it real. Life for her at this moment was not sunshine, smiley faces or roses.

Naomi insisted her two daughter-in-laws return home to Moab. They were young enough to start new lives, to remarry and have children. Naomi steeled figuring she would journey on alone but her daughter-in-law Ruth would not leave her. Ruth was committed to remain. [Verse 16] “But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” So the two women journeyed on together, while Orpah returned home to Moab.

When Naomi and Ruth reached Bethlehem, it wasn’t the homecoming Naomi expected. The women of the town gathered around her. [Verse 19] “the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” Naomi replied, “Don’t call me Naomi…Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Mara means bitter)  “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” It is certainly understandable that Naomi felt this way having lost so much.

wheat-1530321_960_720In those days the widows and the destitute were permitted to go into their neighbor’s fields during the harvest season and pick stalks of grain left behind by the harvesters. It’s a practice called “gleaning.” So Naomi sent Ruth out to glean in the fields so they would have something to eat.

In chapter 2, Ruth, “just so happens” to be gleaning in a field owned by a man named Boaz, who “just so happens” to be Naomi’s husband’s relative. The expression “it just so happens” is viewed by Jews as God working behind the scenes in the lives of his people.

Ruth returned home after a hard day’s work. Some Bible scholars say she returned home with more than a weeks worth of gleaning after just one day.  When Naomi learns of this she says in Ruth 2:20, “The Lord bless him!” … He has not stopped showing kindness.” She adds, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our family guardians.” The note in my Bible says the word “guardian” is a legal term for one who has the obligation to redeem a relative in serious difficulty. Naomi (and Ruth) indeed, were in serious difficulty.

Ruth continued to glean in the fields of Boaz for the rest of the harvest, which stretched from March through July. It is during this time Naomi finds a new purpose for the remaining years of her life. She believes she can play the role of matchmaker intent on joining Boaz (her family guardian), to her beautiful daughter-in-law, Ruth. She sits Ruth down and schools her on the Hebrew customs involved with properly presenting oneself to a guardian and convey a desire to be redeemed.

The plan called for Ruth to go to Boaz while he slept on the threshing floor, the place where he had just finished separating grain from chaff.   As instructed, Ruth lay at Boaz feet. When he awoke, her presence there startled him. One Bible commentator pointed out that it was common practice for prostitutes to show up on the thrashing floors where men worked.  In Ruth 3:9 “Who are you?” Boaz asks. “I am your servant Ruth,” she replies. Ruth continues, “Spread your garment over me, since you are my family guardian.” She is asking Boaz to redeem her as well as declaring her feelings towards him. In Verse 11 Boaz says, “I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”

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Boaz is a man of his word and in the end redeems not only Ruth but restores the life of Naomi as well. In this case, redemption meant buying back all the lands owned by Naomi’s deceased husband, which would have been handed down to her sons.  It also included Boaz agreeing to marry Ruth.  Boaz and Ruth have a child, which they name Obed.

Ruth 4:14 says, “The women [of the town] said to Naomi, “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a family guardian…He [the family guardian] will renew your life and sustain you in your old age.”

There are many lessons we can learn from the story of Naomi. I’ve chosen two in the interest of time.

First, we need to remind each other God is always with us. I think you would agree with me that life is indeed a journey. It’s full of ups and downs, peaks and valleys. Traveling through life can be difficult, and at times it may seem impossible to continue.   Like Naomi, it might seem like God has abandoned you, or His hand has turned against you.

Did you catch what Ruth 4:14 said? I’ll read it again, “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a family guardian…He [the family guardian] will renew your life and sustain you in your old age.”

You and I have a family guardian we can rely on. He is none other than Jesus Christ. Not only has He redeemed you, He is able to renew your life and sustain you in your old age.

Secondly, God has a plan for your life from the moment you were born to life’s very end. Yogi Berra, the great catcher for the NY Yankees once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” While we remain, there is always something we can do to help others.

My mother struggled to find meaning and purpose for her life after Dad passed away. She asked me many times why God took Dad and left her behind to journey on alone. After thinking a great deal about her question, one day I asked her could it be God still has things he wants you to do for him?

Because Mom remained with us she was able to witness to one of her dear friends as she lay in a hospital bed. Mom led her friend Jane to Christ. In her last days Mom was also a friend to many others in the nursing home where she stayed. She boldly witnessed to many caregivers and friends.

Could it be God still has things he wants you to do for him? Are there any caregivers, friends or family members you can minister to? If so, tell them God never leaves or forsakes the ones He loves.

May the peace of God fall on you this Lord’s Day.

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Be of good courage!

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Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!

Psalm 27:14 ESV

Where I Am

9781511300162I am told Where I am is the last book written by Billy Graham.  I decided to read this book after being reminded of the one year anniversary of his death. The book features short chapters encompassing the whole of Scripture, beginning with Genesis and continuing on to Revelation. In classic fashion, Graham gives insights into discovering who God is and covers subjects such as heaven and eternity.

Along the way, the book offers a concise history of the human race. Graham highlights each human life has a choice of two paths, to pursue one’s own selfish path leading to destruction or accept God’s gift of deliverance and follow the path leading to eternal life.

Graham’s book speaks often about death and life in the hereafter. It’s 36 chapters and wealth of scripture makes the book an excellent devotional. I found it to be an uplifting read.

Joshua 3: Crossing the Jordan

water-872016_960_720For people of God, the Jordan River carries heavy symbolism.  If you are a churchgoer, take a quick peek in your hymnal.  You will find songs revealing the Jordan as a symbol of death.  Crossing the Jordan and reaching the Promised Land meant  entering the gates of heaven.

Some time after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, baptism took the meaning of dying to your old self (upon immersion) and being raised to new life found in Christ (being drawn back up out of the water).

In Joshua chapter three we read the people of Israel needed to sanctify themselves before they could cross the Jordan River.  For this ancient people it involved devoting themselves completely to God and worshiping him.  God was about to perform a miracle and he wanted their undivided attention.

“Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”” Joshua 3:5

Unlike the Red Sea crossing found in the book of Exodus, crossing the Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land required an act of faith on their part–especially by the priests.  God wasn’t going to stop the flow of the Jordan River at flood stage until their feet were in the water.  The priests, however, didn’t go into the water alone.  God was with them in the form of the ark of the covenant, which they carried.

“The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.”  Joshua 3:17

Some thoughts for those who know God through his son Jesus:

  • God sometimes performs miracles at the most extreme times, often only after we step out in faith
  • How many miracles have we missed because we failed to take that first step of faith?
  • Every person passed by the ark (containing the Word of God) as they traveled through the dry riverbed. Much as every person today must encounter God to pass from death to everlasting life.
  • God will accomplish the impossible in our lives if we will trust Him.

 

 

Joshua 2: Rahab

I blogged about Joshua chapter 1 a while back, see my posts here: A Homily on Joshua Chapter 1 and here: Joshua 1: Be strong and courageous.

Joshua chapter 2 features two spies who are sent to Jericho to gather information about the city prior to the Israelite invasion.  Their job, blend in to a culture foreign to them, one in which they didn’t belong.  As Christians doesn’t life in the workplace sometimes seem just like this; different ethics, language, and temptations we’re not prepared for.

uruk5The spies encounter Rahab, a pagan prostitute and owner of the establishment.  Her house, an inn, was the best place to gather information, that is, until they were labeled spies.  In a startling turn of events, Rahab not only agrees to hide them from the authorities, she lies to protect them.  Her motivation: she fears God and believes He is the one true God of heaven and earth.  In the most unlikely of places the Israelites encounter a person of faith.

…for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.  Joshua 2:11 NLT

In exchange for harboring them, Rahab asks for a guarantee she and her family won’t be destroyed when the Israelites invade.  She is given a red cord to hang in her window, a symbol she has chosen to side with the God of Israel.

One has to wonder, how will Rahab be remembered after she is gone.  After all, she’s a prostitute and a liar.  Yet, the Bible chooses to remember her as a person of faith.

It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. Hebrews 11:31 NLT

D.R. Davis in his commentary on Joshua states, “Genuine faith never rests content with being convinced of the reality of God but presses on to take refuge in God.”

How will you be remembered?  Will people remember you by an occasional good deed or will you be remembered for your faith in God, your refuge?

Tis the Season of Hope

Here’s the transcript of my thoughts I shared at “The Service of Hope” held on December 16th, 2018.

img_0851I’m here this afternoon because like many of you I have experienced the loss of someone significant in my life. My father passed away in 2005 and my mother in 2016. The pain of loss is real and no one is immune to its effects—even those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus don’t need to apologize to anyone for their pain and sorrow in that regard. One of my favorite passages of scripture is the 11th chapter of John, which gives the account of the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. In that story Jesus is moved by the sorrow of Mary and Martha as they mourned the loss of their brother. The words, “Jesus wept,” serve to remind me Jesus knows and understands the pain and sadness we feel when we lose someone we love.

Dad was 69 when he died of prostate cancer. Growing up I idolized my father. By the time I graduated from college he didn’t seem that important to me. I had a life of my own. Yes, we gathered together at family functions but I wasn’t that connected to him anymore. When I reached my 40s, having established my family and a career, an unexplained desire emerged to get to know dad better. Looking back I see it was God who gave me that desire and I’m glad I acted on it. I recall praying God would show me something we could do together to connect with him.

Family genealogy turned out to be the vehicle that joined us together. Dad and I quickly became hooked on it. My wife Patty and I made a number of trips together with my parents to Pennsylvania as we researched our family tree. Not long after we connected dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It turned out to be the aggressive sort and 9 months later he died. I believe God wanted dad and me to be together as he struggled to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. When he could no longer pray, I prayed for him.

God prompted me to do something else when I learned dad wouldn’t be with us much longer. He inspired me to write down my thoughts as dad and I walked through this ordeal together. Perhaps some of you have read these thoughts in the book, Junior’s Hope. It was a book that almost wasn’t published. I figured it was my therapy, you know, something to help me cope with losing a father, my namesake and friend. I wanted to chronicle my life with him and create something to remember him by. But as time passed after his death I believed my writing had served its purpose and it didn’t need to be printed. Then one night, which happened to be exactly one year to the day after his death, I saw my father in a dream. In that dream I saw dad as a healthy man in the prime of life. We exchanged a few words and then he was gone. The dream was so real it filled me with hope and inspired me to get the book published. I remember thinking, okay Lord you made your point.

My life changed after dad passed away. I now had one more person to care for, mom. While I deferred to Patty to take care of mom’s physical needs, I focused on helping mom with whatever else she needed. As it turns out the book I almost never published became a source of hope for her. She was so proud of me that she had to tell everyone she knew about it. We can never fully understand the purposes of God. He accomplishes them on so many different levels.

Mom lived 11 more years without dad. Family, friends and Christmas were the joys of her life.  During her life, mom dabbled in writing poetry. I usually don’t dabble in poetry but the time I spent with her inspired me to write a handful of poems on her behalf. When I showed them to her she’d say, “Bill that’s exactly how I feel.” One of the shorter ones is printed on the back page of your bulletin.

Storms

During the closing months of her life we liked to exchange a couple of phrases. I wanted to reassure her she was truly loved so I would say to her, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” To this she’d reply, “I love you, I love you, I love you more!” The second exchange came about out of her concern as to how tired I looked attending to her various personal effects and financial affairs. She’d say, “Bill you don’t have to come see me tomorrow if you’re tired. Stay home and rest.” To this I would say, “I’ll rest when you rest.” We both knew what I meant by her resting. Mom passed away in the summer of 2016.

The pain I felt when dad and mom passed away was so overwhelming it’s hard to put into words. I miss them very much, especially at Christmastime. I have so many Christmas memories.

The reason we gather for a service such as this one is to hear how others have found hope in dark places. I’d like to spend the rest of my time with you talking about how I found hope in a dark place.

I have learned a few things as I struggled to cope with the loss of dad and mom. The first thing that became apparent to me is there is a strong relationship between hope and faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I hope you don’t mind me repeating that verse. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I wear a pendant I found in mom’s jewelry chest to remind me true hope can only be found in Jesus. Inscribed on it are the words, “In Christ alone my hope is found…he is my light, my strength, my song.”

Following the death of my father, I vowed not to be mad at God; I did not want to blame him for my loss. If there was one person who could help me, it was God. I found a scripture verse to remind me that God is always working on my behalf. Romans 8:28 declares, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Instead of being mad at God I chose to embrace him.

I think it was my widowed neighbor that first shared with me the significance of frog. Do you know what F. R. O. G. stands for? I didn’t. It means Fully Rely On God. Someone who fully relies on God is better able to stand on the promises of God with both feet firmly planted. So when a wave of despair wakes me up in the middle of the night, my soul can sing with all its might, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”

The last thing I’ll share with you is something I found in the book of Joshua as I was preparing to lead a study on the book Sunday mornings this past fall. Joshua was in the same boat I was in. The beloved leader of the Israelites, Moses, had just died. It was up to Joshua to pick up the pieces and journey on without him. God tells Joshua in chapter 1:8, “Be strong and very courageous!”

Brushing aside my first thoughts that this had something to do with physical strength and metal toughness, I believe God was telling Joshua that hope could be found in strong and courageous faith. God goes on to tell Joshua, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and later, “Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” With my whole being I believe these words to be true. God will not leave me and he will not forsake me in my hour of need. He will be with me wherever I go. He will do the same for you. Faith in God is a true source of hope.

In closing, I would add these words penned by the Apostle Peter:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.  In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  1 Peter 1:3-6

“Tis the season of hope!

A Homily on Joshua Chapter 1

Here are my notes on the homily I gave yesterday at an assisted living facility:

The message I want to share with you today comes from the book of Joshua. If you have your Bible, turn with me to Joshua chapter one. In verse seven we find these words, “be strong and very courageous.” These are God’s words to Joshua after the Israelites are devastated by the death of Moses. They all loved Moses. For forty years he led God’s  people. To give you an idea of how well loved he was, turn back one page to Deuteronomy 34:12. “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

Joshua had some tough shoes to fill. He had to step in to a leadership position and be responsible for well over a million people. The Israelites were surrounded by the Canaanites. It was clear where Joshua was going lead them—into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. BUT conquering this land was another matter. So many uncertainties lay ahead. How would they get across the Jordan River at flood stage? How would they overcome great walled cities and mighty armies? What about the giants they would have to face?

Are you facing giant obstacles in your life? Maybe your world has recently been turned upside down, having lost someone close to you? God’s words to Joshua apply to us today, “Be strong and courageous!”

You may be saying to yourself my situation is different. How can I possibly be strong and courageous? Look at verse five, “As I [God] was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not leave you or forsake you,” In verse nine God tells Joshua, “I will be with you wherever you go.”  You see, God is not sitting up in heaven dreaming up new ways to make us miserable. He’s not sleeping, nor is he distracted with other matters, leaving us to face our problems alone. God says He is with us every day as we journey through life, especially when we are facing difficult circumstances. You might say God sticks to us like glue!

Faith and obedience are two things that made Joshua a successful leader.  Joshua believed God is who he says he is.  We need to remind ourselves regularly this means God is God and we are not. Complete trust in God makes obedience a joyful, not tedious endeavor.  Obedience for or the Israelites meant being careful to obey God’s law given to Moses. Verse 7 says, “do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” We Christians demonstrate our obedience, by loving God with all our heart, soul and mind AND loving our neighbors as we would ourselves Matthew 22:37.

My Sunday school class is studying the book of Joshua. We have been learning how God worked mighty miracles over the course of Joshua’s life. The only reason the Israelites were able to conquer the Promised Land was because God fought for them. God dammed up the flooded river Jordan so the Israelites could cross on dry ground. He shook the mighty walls of Jericho as the Israelites shouted, causing them to collapse. God even stopped the path of sun and the moon for about a day so the Israelites could defeat their enemies in battle. God did these things for the Joshua and the Israelites because of their faith and obedience. Jesus, our Joshua, will do mighty things in our lives if we have faith and will just trust him to the point of being obedient.

Let me tell you a story of how God intervened in this one little thing in my life. If we are not careful to notice the little things God does for us they can easily be overlooked.

FullSizeRender 2We bought a new puppy a little over a year ago. His name is Brody. He is a crème colored short-legged creature called mini dachshund. One day not too long ago he was in some kind of stomach or intestinal distress. Every hour on the hour he would climb up into my wife’s lap and begin yipping loudly. This went on for several hours; every hour on the hour. You can imagine how stressful this was to Patty and I. After several hours of this, we decided to call the vet and take him in. But before we did we casually prayed God would touch his little body. Have you ever prayed one of those quick nonchalant prayers, “God help __________” (fill in the blank).

Was it silly to pray for a puppy? I don’t think so. I think that God cares about the things we care about. Anyway, we arrived at the vet and I readied myself as we closed in on Body’s yipping time. The time came and went with no yipping. I remember thinking maybe it would happen a few minutes later this time but it didn’t. Several minutes passed until it was time to meet with the vet. She probed and probed and could not find anything wrong with him so she sent us on our way.

Well, I paid the vet bill and caught myself grumbling, if we had waited another hour or two, then a trip to the vet wouldn’t have been necessary and we wouldn’t be out the money. It’s easy to grumble and complain about things that happen to us in life isn’t it.  Well, this time I stopped myself in the middle of my grumbling and thought, Hey, wait a minute, we prayed God would touch little Brody and he did! 

My grumbling almost cost me a chance to recognize God’s handiwork and the fact he does care about me. Folks, let me encourage you to not to be like the world around us and pass off the little things God does in your life as coincidence. Praise God for every little thing he does for you. Count your blessings when you pray. Each time you do you are thanking and praising God!

So, do you believe God still works in the lives of those who love and obey Him? Do you believe God will help you be strong and courageous in times of great difficulty? Look at verse thirteen, God promised the Israelites he would give them rest when they inhabited the Promised Land.

Does life leave you feeling tired?  Do you long for rest? I’ve begun to count down the years until my retirement. I won’t bore you with the exact number. Like most of you I’ve labored long and hard for a lot of years. I’ve worked in a plastics factory, for a packaging and assembly business and in an order fulfillment warehouse. I’ve sat at a desk doing computer work. My most job is with Pearce Church doing anything and everything they need me to do. You know what? I often go home tired and weary. I’m looking forward to the day I don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock anymore. I am looking forward to resting.

Have you found a place of rest in your journey? Do you want to find peace in the midst of your struggles? Let’s look at a couple of scripture passages about peace and rest.

In Matthew chapter 11 Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Hebrews chapter 13 says, “be content with what we have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

My friends hear the word of the Lord! Be strong and courageous! Have faith and trust God because He is with us—ALWAYS!