Anthill in a Sidewalk Crack

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is anthill_small.jpgI stepped over it, the anthill in the crack of the sidewalk. Then I stopped, giving the anthill a second look. I glanced up and down the street to make sure no car was near. What I planned on doing next would prompt the driver of a car to wonder what I was doing or whether this senior citizen needed help. No cars were coming either way so I got out my cell phone, knelt down on the sidewalk, and took a picture of the anthill.

Why? Because I was impressed with a colony of ants who chose to use a narrow crack in the sidewalk as the entry to their home. I know, it actually happens quite regularly; I’m sure you’ve seen it too, an anthill in the crack of a sidewalk.

Still, I was impressed. The crack was a narrow opportunity for the ants to dig a home, and they took advantage of the opportunity. Why they didn’t build their anthill in the grass nearby I have no idea. Who knows what goes on in the tiny brains of ants?

The ants’ crack of an opportunity is not much different from many of our opportunities. Many of our opportunities are also narrow. Yes, some opportunities that come our way are wide and inviting, no-brainers in terms of taking advantage of them. But many are narrow, slim opportunities that can be overlooked.

We greet a friend, “How are you?” and they reply, “Oh, so-so.” We respond by telling the person how our day is going, missing the opportunity to probe more deeply their answer, which would give them the opportunity to share why their day is only “so-so.”

We could read something worthwhile but opt to watch another TV sitcom instead, missing the opportunity to gain some worthwhile knowledge or inspiration. The narrow opportunity to spend that time productively is quickly gone forever.

We’re in a hurry when we see someone who could use a minute of our time to help them, offering a second set of hands to help. We don’t stop, driven by the tyranny of the urgent, missing the narrow opportunity of the moment to be helpful.

Walking that sidewalk who even notices the anthill, let alone reflects on the astonishing engineering process at their feet? Beneath the anthill mound that spills over the narrow crack in the sidewalk, an amazing maze of tiny tunnels branch out that make up the home of the colony.

Who knows what good can result from our taking advantage of a narrow, small, seemingly inconsequential opportunity? Only God knows, unless we take advantage of the opportunity. Then we can know, too!

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” Galatians 6:10a

Restaurant Menu Or Home Recipe?

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What do you tend to look at more, a take home restaurant menu from which you can order food already prepared or a recipe from which you prepare your own food? Ordering from a menu certainly is easier and often takes less time than pulling out a recipe and making a dish from scratch. There’s no judgment on my part here; it all depends on a person or family’s lifestyle and budget whether they more frequently use a take home menu or the recipe box as the method for getting a meal.

These contrasting two ways of feeding our bodies have a parallel in our spiritual lives. We can take the approach of enjoying the spiritual food others prepare for us. This is part of God’s design, that there are those who create sermons, Bible teachings, devotionals (like what I’m writing here), books, or share uplifting quotes (like what I try to do daily on my Facebook page). This is like ordering from a menu and having it delivered to your home or set before you at a restaurant.

It’s also important, however, that we work at preparing our own spiritual food, much like using a recipe to create something to eat. Our recipe box, cookbook, or internet recipe source for preparing spiritual food is the Bible. It’s the primary source for spiritual input; every other source is secondary.

What I’m getting at here is that the value found in reading something from the Bible far exceeds reading something that’s just based on the Bible. Yes, that means if you only have time to read either this short devotional or the Bible then go for the Bible! My writings, or that of anybody else, can’t compare.

We don’t have to read a lot of the Bible at a sitting, just a few verses, or even a single verse is an option. Just like when putting together items for a recipe, let the ingredients of God’s Word brew or stew, bake, cook, saute, or marinate in the mind. In other words, we’re to think about it, reflect on it, ask ourselves why God would have us read what we just read. The ancient Christians called this by a fancy name, Lectio Divina, meaning that the Bible isn’t a bunch of texts to be studied but the Word from God to be reflected on and responded to.

It’s convenient and even enjoyable to study a menu, order, and then eat the food someone else has prepared. But there’s also something rewarding about studying a recipe and taking the time and effort to prepare your own food, perhaps sharing the results with others who gather at your table.

So, I hope you continue to enjoy the spiritual tidbits I prepare each week in these thoughts. The same goes for what many others write or speak that’s about God, and especially something that comes from His Word. But I’ll be the first to admit it’s best to go to the original source, the Bible, on a regular basis. No doubt about it, God’s the best author of all!

The psalmist says to God, “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” Psalm 119:14-16

Al Sitting on a Bench

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Photo by MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Tampa Bay Times

Most mornings, from 6 to 8 am, Al watches the sunrise over the water from a park bench in St. Petersburg, Florida, before he heads off to work. He’s done so for years. I was captivated by his story in a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times (May 30, 2021) by Christopher Spata. The article stated that Al, 58, first came to the park bench years ago to sort out things in his life. It worked so he keeps coming back.

Early morning regulars at the park are used to seeing Al sitting on the park bench. Many greet him as they walk or run by, but every so often someone stops to talk, or sits to talk. Al realized his daily presence on the park bench was something important when, as reporter Spata writes, a woman told Al, “I know, when I see you sitting there, that everything is going to be alright.”

People often share their problems with Al, and Al says he just sits and listens, only giving advice when asked for it. He doesn’t consider himself especially smart, but he says he’s a good listener, stating to the reporter, “Mostly people want to be heard.”

Al’s onto something, something big. Al’s sitting on the park bench is a reminder that being a human being is more important than being a human doing!

The example in the Bible of Job’s friends is worth noting. Job experienced great losses and much suffering. When three of his friends heard of Job’s tragic state they came to visit. They sat with him seven days and never said a word; what a great example! They were three humans who were just being there with Job. Then, each in turn, started sharing their insights and advice with Job. They had been much more helpful to Job when they just sat with him, being with him! Even God was angry with their wordy ways of trying to help Job. When they transitioned from being with Job to doing for Job (by opening their mouths and giving advice) they stopped helping Job with his problems and began adding to Job’s problems. A footnote to the story in the NIV Study Bible states, “Their mere presence was of more comfort to him than their words of advice would prove to be.”

Yes, there’s a time to speak up and go into action. Sometimes, however, just showing up, just being with someone, just listening is what’s best. Al, sitting on his park bench, knows this. I want to know this too, know it so well that it’s what I do, be there for someone and listen!

The description of Job’s friends’ behavior, before they started giving advice, “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” Job 2:13.

Spreading Seeds of Different Kinds

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is seedfloatinghdrsmacl.jpgI’m always amazed how God has designed plants to spread their seeds in so many different, diverse ways. Some seeds are designed to float on the wind with fluffy gossamer filaments acting like parasails. Others also use the wind, spiraling downward like auto-rotating helicopters with one or two propeller-type blades creating the spin. Then there are the seeds that cling to whatever brushes against them, hitching a ride in animal’s fur or people’s clothes. Still other seeds are cloaked in fruit so that they’re eaten, and after a journey through the eater’s digestive system, are (how shall I say this delicately?) deposited on the ground surrounded by natural fertilizer to give them a kick start at germination and growth.

We humans also scatter and sow seeds, and it’s not just gardeners and farmers who do so. We all sow seeds of a different kind, other than those identified in botany; we sow seeds of ideas, words, and actions.

As we go about living our day we sow these seeds of influence in the lives of others. We float an idea by them. They eat up our words. Our actions stick stubbornly in their minds. All the time, everywhere, and to all those with whom we come in contact, whether physically and face-to-face or virtually using digital media, we spread seeds of influence.

Plants sow their seeds without consciously doing so (at least most of us believe plants can’t think). Plants spread only one kind of seed, seed of their own kind. We humans sow seeds of different kinds, seeds of encouragement but also of discouragement, seeds of kindness but also seeds of hate or indifference, seeds of help or seeds of hurt, and a huge variety of other seeds of influence that make the world a better place or a worse place. Like plants we may do the sowing of the seeds of influence unconsciously, but we also can choose to be conscious about how we go about sowing our seeds of influence. On the whole, it’s a good thing to be conscious of the fact that we’re sowers and that we leave a crop of good or bad behind us.

I personally take seriously Jesus’ teaching about sowing His seed of what He called the Gospel, the Good News. That Good News, in a nutshell (which is a type of seed), is that He came into the world to rescue us from our sin, offering to be our Savior in paying the price for our sin by dying on the cross. All we have to do is humbly accept what He’s done for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves, getting rid of our sin, forgiving it, and making us right with God. There! I just sowed the seed of the Gospel in the previous two sentences!

Just as there are varieties of seeds that plants spread so there are many ways we humans can spread seeds of kindness and goodness. God has made us all different so we’ll be sowing seeds of influence of different kinds. We just have to be ourselves, the unique self God made each of us to be, and we’ll have our own unique influence on the place where God has planted us. We just have to bloom where we’re planted and spread our seeds of influence from this our place!

“Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.”  2 Corinthians 9:10

Allowing for the Unscheduled in the Schedule

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is interuptionssmall.jpgWhile taking my morning walk I passed someone’s trash can that had been placed at the end of their driveway for the garbage truck to pick up. It was full, the lid pushed partly open by all the contents. Conspicuous on top was a book in the trash. “There Can’t Be a Crisis Today, My Schedule Is Already Full” was the title.

I’ve never read the book, but if I dare judge a book by its cover, I’m not surprised the owner pitched it. The title contradicts reality. In spite of our insistence otherwise, a crisis will often interrupt our schedule! In fact, it doesn’t even take a crisis to be an interruption. Many less serious circumstances than a crisis can disrupt our plans.

If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans” is an adaption of a Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs.” Yes, making plans is necessary and wise to do, but to insist they’ll not change is laughable. All of our plans are subject to change, without even a moment’s notice. God is sovereign (in ultimate control) and we’re not!

Now that I’m into my 70th decade of living I can look back on many plans I had that didn’t turn out the way I planned. Many of those plans I prayed over and believed were God’s will for me. I was wrong.

In spite of many of my plans not turning out the way I wanted I still make plans, seeking to be guided by God in doing so and praying boldly to Him that those plans will unfold. The reason I can pray boldly is that I trust God, who is infinitely wiser than me, as to whether He makes my plans happen.

So, each day we make our plans, but we also should plan for the possibility that God will interrupt or change those plans! He has His own plans for us, and many times that means an interruption to our plans.

Sometimes those interruptions are a crisis, painful, an accident, a shocking medical report, someone’s bad behavior, and we could go on. What we need to hold on to at such times is that God’s still on His throne and in control, and He has a plan! He’s a good God so ultimately His plan will be proven to be good. I know, it takes a lot of faith to believe that, and so part of our plan has to be asking God to help us trust Him!

Sometimes the interruptions aren’t horrendously bad, just annoying. “But I was planning to…” This can happen frequently in a single day! Again, it’s a teachable moment God wants to use to remind us that we’re to be yielding our lives over to Him.

God has His plans for us, and sometimes it’s difficult to know what those might be; He tends not to tell us beforehand. But one plan of God’s for us we can know for a certainty is that He’s planning on putting the unscheduled into our schedule!

“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Proverbs 19:21

God’s Refurbishing of Our Lives

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A piece of furniture I refurbished

I recently refurbished a matching set of three pieces of wooden furniture, a couch, a love seat, and a chair. Originally they were the living room set, complete with cushions, in the home of our daughter and her family. For years now they’ve been relegated to the porch, minus any cushions, as outdoor furniture.

Time and weather had not been kind to the set. The wood was faded and the frames wobbly. At the suggestion of my daughter and my wife (they seem to frequently join forces in determining God’s will for my life) I set about refurbishing them. It was no easy task. Old wood that formed the seats had to be removed and new boards installed, which first had to be cut, sanded and stained. Reinforcing with additional framing underneath was needed to take care of the wobble and to add strength. Each piece of furniture then needed staining and varnishing. It’s not an expert job of refurbishing but more than adequate to give the 15-year-old set another few years of life.

While working with my hands on refurbishing the furniture my mind also worked on something; given some of the mistakes I made with the project I should have assigned a greater part of my thinking to the work at hand! What I was thinking about was how you and I are to be God’s refurbishing projects.

None of us are at all the way God intended for us to be. We’re all worn, battered, and wobbly by the rough times life’s thrown at us and badly broken by the sin within us.

One of the roles God wants to play in our lives is to be our Refurbisher. The Bible’s term for this role is Redeemer, but with my recent experience with the dilapidated furniture I don’t think it does this role of God’s any injustice by also calling Him Refurbisher.

The metaphor of God refurbishing us like I refurbished the furniture does have its limitations. The furniture had no say as to whether I would refurbish it or not. After all, the three pieces of furniture are inanimate objects, and we are not. We have choices we can make.

The metaphor still works if you imagine the piece of furniture needing refurbishing being a character in an animated cartoon. Imagine the refurbisher approaching the dilapidated piece of furniture and saying, “I’d like to refurbish you, make you new again.” In one scenario imagine the piece of furniture running away on its four weathered and worn legs, “No, I’m not going to let you come near me!” It wants to stay the dilapidated way it is. Now imagine the story playing out a different way, the piece of furniture stretching out its wooden arms and saying, “Okay, I’m yours. Do your best with me!”

The refurbished furniture didn’t have a choice in the matter. When it comes to the ultimate Refurbisher, we do. We can decide to let Him get His hands on us so He can do His great work of refurbishing!

“Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” Psalm 80:19

The Gift from the Grandparents — A Faith Fable

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Grandpa and Grandma pulled up to Billy’s house; he saw them arrive through the window for he had been watching for their arrival. Billy was excited because it was his birthday, and he knew Grandpa and Grandma would come with a gift. They did not disappoint.

Billy greeted Grandpa and Grandma, giving each a quick hug, his eyes showing excitement as he kept glancing at the gift they brought. He couldn’t wait to open the gift. Within seconds he had decimated the pretty wrapping and saw what they had given him, something he had requested. He immediately set about playing with his new toy..

Billy had to be coaxed from playing with his gift when it was time for dinner. The birthday cake and ice cream held his attention better than the dinner, but after gulping down the dessert he asked to be excused to play some more with his new toy.

Time passed and Grandpa and Grandma left. As they drove off Billy’s mother asked him, “Did you enjoy your time with Grandpa and Grandma?”

Billy replied, “Well, I didn’t really talk to them much. Mostly I just played with the present they brought me.”

His father sighed and said, “I know they gave you a wonderful birthday present, just what you wanted. But I think you missed enjoying the best present of all that they brought.”

“What’s that?” Billy asked.

“The gift of themselves, of their love for you,” his father answered. Billy stared at his father for a moment, failing to comprehend, then went back to playing with the gift.

We’re all receivers of gifts from the best gift-giver ever. Everything we have is from Him, even that which we think we’ve worked for ourselves, for the Gift Giver has given us the ability to work for it. It’s good to use and even appreciate the gifts of the Gift Giver. What’s far better, however, is to appreciate the Gift Giver Himself!

We relate to His gifts when we eat them (food), when we wear them (clothes), when we ride in them (cars), when we play with them (electronics, hobby equipment, etc.), when we live in them (our homes), and on and on runs the list of His gifts that we enjoy. What’s far better, however, is to relate to the Gift Giver Himself!

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” Psalm 100:4

(Photo by Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

A Jar of Discarded Gum

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bubblegummachinehdrsmall.jpgIt’s amazing how an odd memory, heretofore stashed away on the forgotten shelf in the closet of things past, can come to light. A mason jar filled with discarded chewing gum is one such memory for me. I’m not sure what brought back the memory, ironically I’ve forgotten the circumstance: maybe stepping on a piece of sun-warmed gum on the sidewalk that then stuck to the sole of my shoe or finding a grandchild’s chewed piece on the back of a bench.

At any rate, I remember, from when I was a child, the mason jar filled with discarded chewing gum being held up in front of the congregation by our pastor, Rev. Nevin Haines. The ladies of the church had done a thorough cleaning of the sanctuary and found stuck to the bottom of the church pews a significant amount of gum. Apparently they decided all the chewed gum should be placed in a jar for the pastor to hold up before the congregation the following Sunday.

Rev. Haines was a soft-spoken, gentle, and kind man, so for him to hold up the jar of gum and speak as a prophet about the disrespectful practice of sticking your chewed gum to the under side of the church pews really made an impact on me. I don’t remember what he said, I just remember him holding up the jar of chewed gum.

I’m sure every kid in the First Congregational Church of Parkersburg, Iowa, who stuck their tasteless used gum under their pew thought little of it at the time, such a small action of seemingly little consequence. Rev. Haines holding up the filled jar and chewing out the chewers of gum undoubtedly re-framed the thinking of a lot of kids that Sunday morning.

The wrongful discarding of chewing gum is a lesson we try to teach kids once they’re old enough to chew, to chew gum that is. It’s a lesson that needs to be applied beyond chewing gum, however, and a lesson for adults too. So much hurt, so many problems, so much sin, starts out as something small and seemingly inconsequential. But, like the effort it took for a number of ladies in the church to be on their knees, bent over, and scraping for a long time at removing all the accumulated gum under the pews, our “little” mistakes, our white lies, or our slip of the tongue does more damage than is realized at the time.

Having spent a lifetime as a pastor working with people who’ve had broken relationships and broken lives, I can testify that major brokenness in the human condition doesn’t usually happen suddenly in one catastrophic event. Brokenness almost always comes on slowly, in bits and pieces, a slipping a little at a time in the wrong direction. It’s a cumulative process, as mentioned in the Song of Songs in the Bible, for instance, of how little things can threaten love between two people like little foxes ruining a vineyard.

Deciding what to do with chewed gum seems to be a small choice, and it is. Still, kids have to learn the proper way to dispose of their used gum. Otherwise they and everyone around them will be “stuck” with their bad choice. The reality is, for all of us, it goes way beyond the choice of how to dispose of used gum!

“Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.” Song of Songs 2:15

Prayer and Garbage Trucks

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is garbagetruck.jpgFrom our home in Florida I find myself taking my morning prayer walk with three garbage trucks making their weekly rounds. The quiet of the neighborhood with the chirping of the birds is displaced with the grinding and growling of the garbage trucks. My view of the sun streaking through the trees is distracted by glimpses of the garbage going into the trucks, and the aroma of the morning air is covered by a whiff of the smell of garbage.

This hardly seems a holy and sacred way to pray, but I came to realize it is. The presence of the garbage trucks is a metaphor on how to pray well! The truth is, the garbage isn’t just in the garbage cans and trucks, it’s in me too! I am often amazed, maybe shocked would be a better word, how often while I try to pray that I’m distracted by thoughts which aren’t at all holy.

I find myself struggling with a bad and wrong attitude about something or someone, tempting thoughts demand I think about them, fear about a situation floods in, and distracting thoughts capture my attention and keep me from concentrating on what I think I should be praying about. I feel like pausing and confessing to God, “But I digress.”

John Newton, the famous composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, wrote in a letter, “But I am sure, that were my outward life and conduct perfectly free from blame, the disorders and defilement of my imagination are sufficient to constitute me a chief sinner, in the sight of Him to whom the thoughts and intents of the heart are continually open—and who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity!” What a relief; even the great and godly John Newton had thoughts far worse than many of his actions, and I suspect some even sneaked into his prayers!

Here’s a secret to great and powerful praying that I’ve identified in such experiences as I just described. A secret to great praying is to pray honestly! Whatever comes to mind while we’re trying to talk with God, not just the good, but the bad and the ugly as well, make for good subjects for prayer. God has broad shoulders muscled with His grace and mercy and His love is unconditional; He can handle it. Go ahead and do some honest to God praying!

Whatever creeps into our minds while praying probably is something we need to talk about with God in prayer. Most certainly we’ll end up pleading for His help, asking for His forgiveness, and expressing gratitude that He does forgive. That’s all good!

Our practiced and often repeated routine prayers with the right sounding holy words and an insistence on getting through our list of prayer requests can be boring for us, and, I suspect, for God too! We need to get real in our praying.

Yes, it’s good to be intentional about what we bring to God in prayer, trying to have some balance between worship, requests, confession, and thanksgiving. But it’s also important to talk to God and deal with what happens to come to mind that seems to be distracting us from praying. Maybe, just maybe, those intrusive thoughts can help us to really pray!

“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.”  Psalm 73:21-23

Aim to Appreciate

Do you have any certificates or awards stashed away? They may be gathering dust or mold, but it’s hard to toss them out. Most of the time we decide we’ll keep them, at least for a while longer.

What were your certificates or awards for? People are awarded certificates for a variety of reasons. One of the most meaningful certificates has to be a certificate of appreciation. That’s because there are few feelings better than the feeling of being appreciated.

William James (1842-1910) was a philosopher and psychologist who said, “The deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated.” We all appreciate being appreciated!

One of the best ways to nurture a relationship with another person is by showing appreciation for who they are or what they’ve done. Sometimes a relationship is strained, alienated, or maybe just blah, but show a little appreciation and things start turning around for the good!

We can aim to appreciate not only what’s good in others but also what’s good in circumstances. Faith in God includes the faith that God can have good come out of any set of circumstances. There’s something in almost any set of circumstances that we can appreciate.

Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsy were prisoners in the Ravensbruck concentration camp during World War II. At one point they were reading the Bible and, inspired by the verse at the end of this piece, were trying to come up with reasons to give thanks to God. Betsy prayed, “Thank you for the fleas.” Her sister Corrie couldn’t see a good reason to appreciate the fleas. But sometime later, they found out that the reason the guards left them alone so much was because they didn’t want to spend anymore time than necessary in the flea infested barracks! Corrie and Betsy had a new appreciation for the fleas!

And how about finding reasons to express appreciation for that which is ordinary or just ho-hum? How about aiming to be appreciative for “ordinary” days? G. K. Chesterton wrote, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” Emerson wrote, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”