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A Gardener of Love

She turned to drugs and alcohol to dull her childhood pain.  The pain inflicted by an abusive, angry father.  Her body was being ravaged by anger, hatred and shame.  The feelings of worthlessness.  And Jesus met her one night in an incredible vision.  Upon waking she instantly accepted Him as her new, eternal, loving Father and set aside drugs and alcohol.  It was her offering, her gift back to the Lord, however, that most likely had Him dancing in heaven.  It wasn’t a payment because the Lord saves us without cost from us, without our need to do anything but say, “yes.”  No, it was the only thing she really had to offer – love.  Not just for the Lord but for her earthly father.

I met Julie* in a home Bible study.  During the next few years, I watched as this daughter of God set aside her anger and any need for retribution while she travelled out of state to help care for her ailing father.  Not once did I hear her speak ill of him again.  She didn’t seek platitudes for her service to this man who had emotionally and physically abused her.  She didn’t see it as an annoyance.  No, she tended to her father as Jesus’ bond-servant.  Sent in His name.  

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. Galatians 5:13-15

And what are the desires of the flesh? “Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;  idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” (Gal 5:19-21).  Placed right there in the middle could probably be seen as the root of the rest of those desires – selfishness.  Our need to receive retribution from those who have hurt us.  We want so much to cry out, “but, but, but!” and list our excuses as to why we can’t show someone love.

Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…… it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.  

C.S. Lewis

When we place ourselves as “better than” the root of hatred is sown.  “I would never do such a thing” when in fact we may do a version of such action daily.  It is a well-honed habit that is encouraged by the world.  While I may not ever murder a person as the Law warns I certainly have held murderous thoughts, which Jesus calls equal to the actual act.  

How does one reach the point of loving and maybe even helping those who we just want eliminated from our lives?  How do we till a blooming, beautiful garden in our hearts, not one filled with weeds?   Julie sought to worship God through her actions.  She knew that harboring ill feelings toward her father only hurt one person – herself.  When called by her stepmother for help she stepped forward in faith.  Faith that the Lord wanted her to show mercy and grace. 

As for me?  It’s taken me many years but I finally sought wisdom from the God who provides it generously (James 1:5).  The Holy Spirit has shown me it’s better to love than to feel hate and anger.  I call that hate the “Black Swirly Ball” that wants to spin around in my chest from time to time.  I’m listening to the Spirit when it allows me to feel out of balance.  I get quiet, turn off the tv, the music, the phone and say, “Reveal to me what’s going on, Lord.  Show me where my pride or my need to be in the right is shoving out love.  Help me to pray for that person, not about them.”  You see I want that Black Swirly Ball to unravel and loosen my chest.  Then I can breathe the fresh air of God’s beauty.  I give it up to God and I ask the Holy Spirit to help me not grab it back – ever.  I bring my raw emotions to the Lord and He clears my mind.  Often, He asks me to serve those I find difficult to serve.  When I do, I demonstrate to the people around me the work Christ has done in my heart.

My friends, if all we ever are able to do in the name of love is pray for the revealing light of God to enter into our “enemy” we’ve tilled the soil for something good to happen in us.  We’ve said to Jesus, “yes, I will love as you have loved me, a sinner for sure.”  We just need to be prepared for Him to ask us to take a step further and say, “Yes.”  In our real and true faith, we must believe without doubting that He will work it for our good and His glory.

“You have flaws, failures, and quirks that annoy and anger others.  In fact, you may be more like those whom you dislike than you’d care to admit.  But Jesus still loves you and died for you – just as He did for them.  What Christ did for you on the cross, He did for your worst enemy.  It’s when you humbly accept this fact that you can begin to love others as Jesus does.”  

Charles F. Stanley

Do you believe God?  Not just believe in God but have real faith in His words and promises.  If you do then you know He wants the best not just for you and your friends and family but for all people.  That person at work who is causing you so many troubles?  Show her love by seeing her as someone who has the weight of sin on her and needs your loving prayers.  The family member who speaks ill of you to the rest of the family?  He needs you to love him enough to ask God to intervene in his life.  The abortionist, false teacher, dictator, murderer, thief, liar all need you.  These people in one way or another are separated from God and I can’t think of a more terrible fate for which we should grieve.

Jesus commands us to love.  To love others as we are loved by Him, sinners one and all.  This week I encourage you to demonstrate your real faith and experience the greatest fruit ever to blossom from us – love. 

*Julie is not her real name

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Tilling Hatred from Our Hearts

I recently saw a video by Dennis Prager, a prominent Jewish conservative and president of PragerU.  In it he spoke with confidence how anyone who says they “love the Nazis” doesn’t know love at all.  He inquired, “How can a person who says they love evil people also say they love Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer?”  When I showed this to my Bible study groups they all agreed with that statement.  So, I then asked, who else in our lives has sinned and doesn’t deserve God’s love?  What level of sin does it take to be wholly rejected, never to even have the hope of forgiveness by God?

A few ladies relented and said, “Well if they asked for forgiveness on their deathbed then ok.”   Which brought the next question, “So God didn’t love you until you asked for forgiveness?”  And if God hated them why would He even give them a second chance, if not out of love?  Wouldn’t the entire message of Jesus be pointless if we really believed this?  God sent His Son to die for us, while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).  Not after we begged Him not to smote us.  He loved us first.  He’s commanding us to love first.  This doesn’t mean the unrepentant won’t be judged.  Far from it.  But the beauty of God’s love is that He provides that path toward redemption and the knowledge that final retribution is His purview.  

Which leads me to a second way this week to love as Jesus did.  You’ll notice throughout the Gospels that Jesus sees individuals.  The woman at the well was just another hated Samaritan to the Jews.  But to Jesus, she was a woman in distress.  A woman who had given in to a sinful lifestyle.  The bleeding woman who touched the edge of his garment was just another sickly, sinful, woman who the average person disdained and ignored.  She was “one of those people.”  He stopped his large entourage and saw her.  Saw her pain and sin and need.  

Jesus shows us it’s a mistake to pass judgement on a whole people.  Our propensity to group people into categories of who we like and don’t like is why there’s so much political ugliness today.  While I of course don’t “love” the atrocities that were committed by the Nazis, how easy is it for us to group all German men and women who were individuals with families, jobs, dreams, fears, etc?  Did too many of them hate another group of people they also saw as faceless?  Yes.  And the cycle went and continues to go around and around.  The Arabs hate the Jews,  Liberals hate Conservatives, Serbs hate Croatians, Americans hate the Russians, Protestants and Catholics hate each other, Hindus and Muslims hate each other, etc.  But each of those groups are made up of people; people created in His image, all descendants of one man and one woman.

Looking back over the COVID years we can see how many “ordinary” people get caught up in doing what those in power demand for fear of retribution.  Or going along because it seemed the right thing at the time. And now in the Western world we have the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated and the masked versus the unmasked.  We fall so easily in to Satan’s trap of erasing each other’s individuality.  He doesn’t want us to look at people as individuals because when we do, we can see ourselves.  We can see their failings just like our own.  We see their fears and their hopes.

Does that mean we should only hate the people in power?  Jesus loved the Pharisees too.  Of all the people He spoke to throughout the Gospels it’s the Pharisees on whom He seemed to spend the most effort.  Why would He do that?  He saw each of them as men with failings.  He didn’t turn Nicodemus away when he approached seeking answers.  He didn’t toss him out on his ear.  No, Jesus loved him as an individual man seeking the truth.  When He came, He came to save all of them too.

Mr. Prager, not having faith in Jesus, still lives in the eye for an eye world.  A world where there must be constant sacrifice to try and lighten the stain of sin.  He doesn’t accept how God loves us so much He sent the ultimate sacrifice to cleanse us.  He hasn’t the benefit of knowing Jesus will be the ultimate judge.  And that Jesus will be the one to send the unrighteous to hell.   No, unfortunately the person, no matter the faith, race or nationality that doesn’t know Jesus needs and wants earthly retribution.  And that equates hatred, not love.

During the time of the Holocaust, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the man mentioned by Mr. Prager, fled to America.  While in the United States he realized God was calling him back to Germany to help his fellow man.  He aided thousands of Jews and others in escaping death.  He spoke out against the atrocities being committed.  He was eventually arrested and in the waning days of the war was executed.  If there was anyone who could speak of hating the Nazis it was him.  

“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is not inner discord between the private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.”  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

My friends, if we want to live a life free of hatred, free of the turmoil it causes, Jesus has shown us what to till in our hearts – love.  Loving people enough to truly help them find real, eternal freedom.  To see God’s creation the way He does – as individuals loved by Him.  He didn’t say it was easy.  Oh no, it’s probably one of the most difficult requests put forth for us worldly creatures.  That’s why He didn’t leave us to figure it out ourselves.  Holding on to hatred and extreme anger is not the garden God wants as our home.

“The list of ways chronic anger can affect a person’s well-being – and even put the health of others in peril – is long, John Schinnerer, an anger management coach says. “It’s been linked to obesity, low self-esteem, migraines, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, sexual performance problems, increased heart attack risk, lower-quality relationships, higher probability of abusing others emotionally or physically or both … higher blood pressure and stroke,” he notes.

For our physical and spiritual health we need to release that anger and not leave that space empty for the devil to fill it up again with weeds.  Instead, Jesus, our good doctor, gave us the healing power of love.  When you find yourselves acting, speaking, thinking out of hatred or anger toward a group of people we must first choose to obey Jesus and seek another action, another perspective.  Call on the Holy Spirit.  Remind yourself that the fruit of that Spirit starts with Love.  For when you do, that little sprout of love will blossom into an unimaginable garden of beauty and shock those around you.  It will do what is promised by Jesus in the rest of John 13: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Coming up: The gardening tasks of Love

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The Fruit of Love: The Royal Command

In March of this year a young woman walked in to a Tennessee church’s school and shot and killed three 9-year old children and three adults.  She was described as  “transgender” and a person with emotional problems.  If you weren’t already aware of this terrible tragedy you are now.  And my question is, as a Christian, how will you do in loving her?  In showing her mercy and forgiveness?  I can be honest in saying it wasn’t my first or even second reaction.  As I was working on this new series about the fruit of the spirit I was challenged, however, to do just that – to love someone who seems unworthy of that love. 

You may be familiar with the stories of Jesus and the disciples coming face-to-face with what were called “demon-possessed” people.  Here’s one such story from Matthew 8:

“28 When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” 30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding.31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. “

You notice the line: “They were so violent that no one could pass that way.”  I imagine the townspeople hated and feared these men.  Yet, Jesus healed them.  He loved them, just as He loved the townspeople who didn’t know Him and were so frightened of His abilities they sought to drive Him out of town.  He loved these two men just like He loved the disciples standing next to Him.  These vile, dangerous, murderous men.  He loved them enough to not leave them sick and imprisoned with whatever demons had infested their brains.  He freed them to live the life God intended.  And although I cannot have hope for the Tennessee shooter’s soul – because the actions led to her death – I can grieve out of love that her heart, mind and soul had been twisted by this world.

As the vitriol around the world has increasedI can’t help but see the fertile ground we have tilled for Satan to blossom.  For modern demons to take root in people’s minds and hearts.  The angry faces on the news, the destruction of property, the glee people express when someone they don’t like is “brought down” – it’s all symptoms of a world turning toward fleshly pursuits rather than the eternal.  And love?  Even love has become distorted. 

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Luke 6:35

Loving our enemies has become, instead, love whatever people do and whatever they desire.  On the contrary, Jesus’ reaction to every single person He met, whether murderous or not, was that living sinfully led to eternal death.  The wordly version of “love”—do whatever feels good — was never His message.  When we hand out needles to drug addicts we aren’t loving them, we are helping them destroy themselves.  When we turn a blind eye to fellow Christians living sexually immoral lives, we aren’t loving them, we are giving them a fast track pass to slavery.  

This challenge to love one another as Jesus did faces us Christian almost daily.  What does this love look like?  How can we love a person who kills innocent children and adults, at a church, no less?  It seems too impossible.  And it is.  

I recently heard Pastor Wayne Barber say, “True faith, real faith results in an obedient person of God.  The obedience is the bloom, the fruit.” That fruit cannot be created by us just as I cannot make the lettuce grow in my garden.  God creates the seed, the soil, the water, the sun and the mystery of how it all comes to together.  All He asks of me is to plant what He provides.  To water it and then enjoy it.  As with all the fruits of the Spirit in us it’s a melding of the work the Spirit does in me and the actions I choose to take in order to fully enjoy those fruits.  Or put it this way: to do the one thing I have available to honor God’s provisions in my life – to glorify Him with my daily actions and worship.  So how does the impossible become possible?  This week we will look at three ways to live fully in bloom with the fruit of love.

Firstly, as a Christian seeking to do God’s will and live a life in full bloom, we need to accept this concept of love is not a choice.  It is a command.  It is the Royal Command from Jesus.  

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34

Jesus loved Judas.  Need we say more?  He loved the pharisees who hated Him.  He loves you.  Yes, you, who sins on a daily basis.  You grieve the Holy Spirit probably every day in some way or another.  Either by ignoring that person in need, holding on too tightly to your treasure, having an inner hatred for someone, not forgiving that relative, taking the Lord’s name in vain, being selfish, and more.  Yet He loves you.  You’ve stepped on His foot more times than He would want to count.  You’ve disregarded Him.  Ignored Him.  Falsely testified about Him or maybe even pretended you didn’t know Him.  And He loved you.  He loves you and me enough not to want us wallowing in our sinful chains but rather seeking Him to blossom and live in freedom.

I tell you my friend, the opposite of love is hatred.  And hatred kills.  It imprisons us.  It creates an ugliness that permeates into every pore of our being.  It is that hatred or anger I came to realize, along with my  pride, being the root of a very bad habit — my cursing.  I’ve tried for many, many years to stop.  It wasn’t until I realized the Spirit was already in me and I was fighting against it that the seedling of love for others began to sprout.  The Holy Spirit, sent to guide us until Jesus’ return, is living in every one of us who has accepted Jesus as our Savior.  It is there, showing us, guiding us, admonishing us.  It’s the tap on our shoulder saying, “Be kind.  Forgive her.”  It’s the great battle of whether we let the outer world rule our hearts or the inner world of the Holy Spirit take control.

When considering this command to love, especially those who have harmed us or others, take a moment to consider Saul. He hated the Jews and especially Jewish Christians.  He was murderous, feared and downright despicable.  He terrorized and destroyed communities.  And on his way to Damascus to do more damage, oblivious to God’s love for him, Jesus sought him out.  He brought light into the darkness of Saul’s heart.  The conversion of Saul to the ever-faithful disciple of Christ, Paul, might be the greatest love and rescue story in all history.  He was loved even in his blackest days.  Loved enough to be sought after by Jesus.  He didn’t have to accept this change – because the life path set before him would be the most difficult he would ever face.  But he did.  In doing so the Christians around him were also faced with a difficult decision – to love him as Jesus did.  To love him even though.  Imagine Paul coming into a community he had torn asunder.  They stood at the edge with a decision to make.  To show the world what real faith looks like or to turn their backs on God.

I once read that God is love.  He made us from His love to enjoy this world along with Him.  When He sent His Son for our final cleansing He was telling us, “I know you’ve messed up beyond belief.  I want you to be made righteous to stand next to me in all eternity.”  An eternal bond of love, never to be broken again.  He’s asking us to mirror that for all the world to see.  To live in the hope that Jesus can cleanse a blackened heart.  And in doing so the owner of that heart may take his or her place next to us as children of the One Most High.  So today, think of who you seem unable to love.  Ask God, ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse your heart and bring about a tender sprout of love.  Have faith, real faith, without doubting.  I know hard it sounds.  I’ve done it.  I love a few people who don’t seem to deserve it based on the world’s rules.  When I did as Jesus commanded it changed my life completely.

Coming up: Hatred breeds the weeds in our heart.

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Love Your Enemy

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Matthew 5:44

“That your enemies have been created is God’s doing; that they hate you and wish to ruin you is their own doing. What should you say about them in your mind? “Lord be merciful to them, forgive them their sins, put the fear of God in them, change them!” You are loving in them not what they are, but what you would have them to become.” St. Augustine

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Seek & Find

love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.

Proverbs 8:17

“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’ … concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring…” The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis

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Unfailing Love

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.

Psalms 6:4

“Best of all, He does it all Himself, personally, not delegating the task of love, but humbling Himself to rescue and preserve His most unworthy servant.  How shall I love Him enough to serve Him sufficiently?  I want to make His name known unto the ends of the earth, but what can my feeble efforts accomplish for Him?  Great Shepherd, add to Your mercies this one: a heart to love You more truly as I ought.”  Charles Spurgeon

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Obedient Love

And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

2 John 1:6

“Live on Christ’s love alone.  He seeks to make your heart His throne.  It is our loss to divide our limited love.  Give it all to Christ.  Lay your cares and your burdens upon God; make Him your beloved.”  The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Samuel Rutherford.

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The Sacrifice

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

“Weep not for me, but for yourselves. I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, no doubt, through the mediation of his blessed Son, receive me, though a sinner; where I hope we ere long shall meet, to sing the new song, and remain everlastingly happy, world without end. Amen.” John Bunyan

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Power, Love and Self Discipline

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7

“As he went out of court to be taken to prison, Bunyan said that he went “with God’s comfort in my poor soul.” When the magistrate warned Bunyan that if he ever got out of prison and preached in that realm again, he would hang for it, Bunyan replied, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Memoir of John Bunyan

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Speak For Those Who Can’t

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.  Proverbs 31:8

It’s interesting that in the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) equality between rich and poor is a major theme.  Not only are the wealthy on equal footing with the needy in God’s eyes but those who “have” are admonished to help those who “have not.”  And although God doesn’t challenge believers to eliminate poverty, He does challenge us to ease the suffering of those experiencing it.  Jesus, Himself, reminds us there will always be the poor.  He also gives us the great command to love one another as He loves us.  We are, ourselves, living in the full poverty of sin. Yet He loves us immensely.

This last proverb we are looking at in this series, 31 Days of God’s Wisdom, isn’t just about helping and loving those who are destitute.  It pushes us to speak up for those who cannot.  A person need not be poor in the traditional sense to require a champion.  A group of people who come to mind, especially these days, are children. They own nothing.  They have no power.  They have no influence.  

Prior to Jesus’ days many children were seen as property or even slaves.  They were used as pagan sacrifices and for sexually immoral acts.  They were traded and used like cattle.  When Jesus came He told those who would listen to be more like children.  To be innocent and curious.  He allowed the children to come forward and listen to His words.  He asked us to have a child-like faith.  These people who had nothing to their name, He wanted us to emulate.

God’s world, if you haven’t already discovered, always seems to be an upside down version of the world of the flesh.  He requires us to love the unlovable.  To be humble when challenged.  To speak up in the face of adversity for those who cannot.  To take courage in the unseen, not the seen.  

If there’s ever a time to heed God’s words it is now.  When I read and write about how children were treated in years gone by, I have to ask myself, “Are we really any better now?”  Are we protecting our helpless children from sexual immorality?  Are we providing for all of their basic needs when so many have been abandoned?  Are we protecting them from death starting even in the womb and then in the streets?

Friends, as we arrive at the end of the Book of Proverbs, we see chapter 31 in two parts.  The first tells us to stand up for those who have no voice.  The second, more famous part, describes the Proverbs 31 woman.  But Proverbs 31:10-31 could be about a man or a woman.  A person who takes the responsibilities of life laid out throughout proverbs seriously.  Who places protecting family front and center.  A person who works hard to keep from being on the poverty rolls.  A man or woman who respects their bodies and their relationships.  If we were to take on at least half the roles outlined in these last verses I’m sure we would have the beginning part covered.  Let’s look in the mirror today and ask the person looking back at us if we are doing our part to be upright enough to stand for those who cannot.

Gracious Lord, you remind me over and over that I live among equals.  Equally loved by you but not equally treated by this world of the flesh.  Help me to stand among those today who speak up for your children and others in need.  Amen