Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Most Important Thing

Photo by Olybrius 2008

I had a dream in which I was kidnapped and taken to a hotel room filled with boxes and boxes of what appeared to be old junk. My captor told me that in this room were the contents of his relative’s estate. He had brought me here to find the single most important thing, and to tell him what it is was when he returned. If I had the wrong answer, I would die.

Without another word, he enigmatically disappeared. My heart pounded like a caged bird as I frantically scratched through the cartons.

The gleam of an antique bracelet first caught my eye – well made, and no doubt of historic value, but what was it worth? Perhaps the deceased had herself inherited it from her mother or grandmother, to be treasured as a legacy and now passed on to my captor.

Next I spotted a paper so fragile that it nearly crumbled in my hand. The ink writing was long since faded and worn away at the folds, but it appeared to be a love letter penned by a Civil War soldier to his fiancée awaiting him at home. Did he return from battle alive, I wondered, and if so, was she still faithful? The story that letter could tell might speak volumes to my captor’s heritage.

I recoiled as my grasping hand encountered sharp, pointed teeth, rooted in a tiger’s jaw – possibly a safari trophy? I shuddered as I put this aside, knowing I would not want this reminder of man’s needless cruelty to animals. Yet, given my kidnapper’s criminal tendencies, this might be exactly what he sought.

Eureka – a map! An island, near the equator, showing coordinates and a pathway leading to an X near the center. A treasure map leading to gold doubloons, or just a hoax?

Even in my panicked state, a faint smile curled my lips as I noticed a plaster-of-paris mold of a tiny handprint, embellished with “I Love U” in a child’s scrawl. Could it be that the little hand commemorated the bond between my captor and his mother, reminding him of a gentler time, her nurturing love and the promises of youth?

Another memento of childhood – a painstakingly embroidered, now yellowing, christening dress. Perhaps the kidnapper counted on his infant sprinkling to get him to heaven?

Then a nicely framed diploma, summa cum laude Masters’ degree from Harvard. No doubt that had opened many doors for this family. Or was it the reverse – the heir spurning the advantages of an expensive college education, and instead squandering his inheritance?

Hiding in the corner of one of the last cartons was an inobtrusive plastic bottle containing heart medication. If only the deceased had taken this in time, she might still be here, and I would not be in this awful predicament!

Aha! I exclaimed aloud in my half delirious state -- surely this was it – a safe deposit box key!  Everything else here was just debris accumulating on the journey of life, with merely sentimental value or clues to the path taken. But the real reward was surely the cash, securities, title deeds, and other valuables locked away for the rightful heir.

Confident that I had found the most important thing, I suddenly realized that days had gone by, and I was ravenously hungry. There was no food in the room, but to my surprise, the door to the hallway was unlocked. I ran out, elated to be “free” but then spotted the armed guards at the hotel entrances and exits. Apparently I could roam about inside but not leave the hotel.

With an ominous thud, the door to my room locked shut behind me. If I were not inside the room, how could I save my life when my captor returned by telling him the most important thing?

But if I fainted from hunger, there was no hope at all. First find food, then somehow get back in the room. There were stores and restaurants, but I had no money, and I could tell from the faces of the staff that they were hardly sympathetic to my plight. I was thrilled to find a nearly empty box of crackers on a room service tray, with a few crumbs still inside. I snatched it up and scurried into a corridor leading to the pool room, thinking I could eat there in peace.

Instead I found a little girl in a soaking wet bathing suit, shivering and sobbing, and all alone. She threw her arms around me, crying “I’m cold! I’m hungry! I want my mommy!”

There were no towels or bathrobes anywhere, so I wrapped her in my sweater, hugged her, and gave her what was left of the crackers. I knew I had to stay with her to comfort her, even if I would be killed once apprehended. As starved, wretched and terrified as I felt, helping her gave me a strange sense of joy and peace, and I remembered Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat… I was a stranger, and ye took me in…36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.…40 Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Jesus! My Savior! How had I forgotten Him as the only One Who could rescue me? (Romans 10:9,13; Acts 2:21; 4:12 ) Only He would never leave me, nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5).

As if the sun rose in my darkened mind, I suddenly knew that the most important thing in that hotel room was not the safe deposit box key, the jewelry, the diploma, the treasure map, the medicine, the childhood souvenirs, or the historic document. It was not part of the estate at all, but tucked invisibly in the nightstand drawer would surely be a Bible, left there by the Gideons in their mission to provide God’s Word to weary travelers on their journey through this planet that is not our true home (Psalm 119:19, Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11).

I awoke feeling so thankful for God’s promises recorded in His Word (2 Samuel 7:28; Acts 2:33,39; 13:23). Without them, life would have no meaning. Why had I plunged into the futile exercise of combing through boxes full of trash without considering the treasure of Bible wisdom – the secret to abundant, eternal life (John 3:16; 10:10) for all who place their faith in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)?

How often are we distracted by piles of junk accumulating in our life, while neglecting the riches found without fail in our Bible? Why do we worry about our “stuff” instead of storing treasures in Heaven, where we can enjoy them forever? (Luke 12:16-34; Matthew 6:19-21)

I felt blessed that my husband Richard recently became a Gideon, and that we had the privilege of handing Scriptures to students. I remembered a testimony shared at a Gideons’ meeting of a maid who was cleaning a hotel room and found a handwritten note carefully placed in the Gideons’ Bible to mark Psalm 23. The writer explained that he had checked in, feeling that his life was over and that to spare his family additional grief, he planned to kill himself. Then he started thumbing through that very Bible and read the verse that brought him newly found peace and hope:

Psalm 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

God alone can deliver us from all our fears and save us from all enemies, even sin, death and hell (Psalm 34:4-7; 2 Kings 17:39; Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:56-57). Truly the most important “thing” in this life is our Bible – God’s love letter to us that guides, comforts, corrects, and inspires us (Psalm 119:11,14.16, 105, etc.). But it is not a “thing” – just like Jesus, His Word is eternal and unchanging (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; Hebrews 13:8).

Without understanding its promise of eternal life through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Who reconciled sinful man to Holy God through His shed blood (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:22), we cannot know the all-important One. Christ alone is the Way (John 14:6) to abundant, eternal life. Trust and follow Him today!

© 2014 Laurie Collett
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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Whether in war, sports, or any other endeavor, we always love the happy ending sometimes known as “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.” We root for the underdog and are thrilled when he or she prevails against all odds, often at the very last possible moment, triumphing against the oppressor or against the ringer who was a shoe-in to win.

In Scripture, examples are David as a youth felling the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17), Gideon defeating the mighty Midianite armies with 300 men (Judges 7); and the repentant thief on the cross. Although the thief was no doubt a “loser” and a criminal, justly condemned, by his own admission, to an agonizing death, he had a totally unexpected blissful ending. Rather than spending eternity in hell to suffer everlasting punishment for his sins, he recognized Jesus as his Lord. Because of his faith and God’s grace, Jesus promised him that he would be with Him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:40-43).

This story in and of itself proves that we are saved not by our own merit or works, which are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) in God’s sight, but only by God’s grace through our faith. The thief had no time to do any good works or even to be baptized, yet Christ pardoned him immediately and accepted him into His Kingdom. Numerous other passages support salvation by grace, not works (2 Timothy 1:9; Acts 15:11; Ephesians 2:5-9).

No doubt the crowd that day could not appreciate the thief’s story, much less its significance. Crosses were tall structures erected high on the hillside, where they would serve as a severe warning to all who might be tempted to break the law. So when the unrepentant thief mocked Jesus and the other thief acknowledged Him as Lord, the onlookers may not have heard their faint cries, or their feeble, dying gasps. If they did, they probably dismissed the thief’s prayer and Christ’s promise as gibberish from oxygen-deprived brains.

Rather, the crowd probably thought that Barabbas was the one who had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Also a hardened criminal and even a murderer, he escaped a gruesome death when the crowd’s hatred for Jesus demanded that Pilate release Barabbas instead, as it was the custom at Passover for one on Death Row to be pardoned (Mark 15:7-15; Luke 23:17-25).

But was that truly a victory for Barabbas? Did he seize on this opportunity to turn over a new leaf, repent of his sin, trust God, live a dedicated life of service and helping others, and find abundant and eternal life? (John 3:16; 10:10) One would hope so, for to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). But there is no indication in the Bible that his reprieve accomplished anything other than an opportunity for continued sin against God and harm to others.

So I believe Barabbas did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Given this once-in-a-lifetime, totally unexpected and undeserved chance to start over, this time on the right path, I think he completely blew it, no doubt ending up in the hell he deserved. God’s mercies are new every morning, yet we do not always use this clean slate to ask Him to renew a right spirit within us and to transform our minds (Psalm 51:10; Ephesians 4:23; Romans 12:2).

Sadly, that is the result of our fallen sin nature (Romans 3:23), which is why snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is so much more common than the opposite. We see this all the time when lottery winners ruin their lives rather than using their newfound wealth to transform not only their own situation for the good, but to provide amazing benefit for others in need. Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and history proves over and over that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When we’re on top, there seems to be no place to go but down.

We see this even with great heroes of the faith and with those God blessed with extraordinary gifts and talents. Samson, raised to be a Nazarite priest set apart for God’s service, had legendary strength enabling him to tear apart an attacking lion with his bare hands, and to slay a thousand enemies with the jawbone of an ass. Yet his life was a downward spiral, breaking Mosaic law by eating honey from the unclean carcass of the lion, taking lovers of pagan nations, destroying property, stirring up strife, and ultimately killing himself as he pulled down the pillars of the palace on himself and his captors (Judges 13-16).  

Solomon was born to King David, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), and was gifted by God with the greatest human wisdom ever known and with wealth, power, and innumerable other blessings (1 Kings 4). He started out with countless advantages, yet at the end of his life he left God’s perfect will and followed after strange gods. To serve the idol of political power (and perhaps the idol of lust as well) he married many pagan wives. To keep the peace, he built altars and burnt incense to their false gods, and he may even have sacrificed his own children to Molech, the fire god. God punished him for his idolatry not only through the loss of fellowship with Him, but by taking away his kingdom (1 Kings 11:1-12)

As the saying goes, God is not so much interested in our location as in our direction. No depth of depravity is too low for His grace to reach (Psalm 139:8), and no pinnacle of our own achievement is so lofty that we do not need His grace even to take our very next breath (2 Samuel 1:19,25; John 15:5). So in God’s eyes, it is far better to be the thief on the cross who turned away from his sin and to Christ, than to be a privileged king who drifted away from God to false idols.

With Solomon, it appears to have been a relatively gradual wandering off from God’s plan, but what really shocks me is Elijah. After experiencing a superlative spiritual victory, calling upon God and witnessing His dramatic power in bringing fire down from Heaven to shame Baal and his false prophets (1 Kings 18), Elijah caves overnight. When the wicked queen Jezebel threatens to kill him, he seemingly forgets God’s great power and deliverance and runs away like a bullied schoolgirl, hiding under a juniper tree and begging God to end his life (1 Kings 19).

But thank God, He did not leave Elijah alone to wither away, or grant his prayer to end his life. He cared for him by sending the angel of the Lord to minister to him, and He spoke to Elijah with a still, small voice, preparing him for continued victories to come. Praise God that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Once we are born again (John 3:5-21) as His children, snatching the victory of eternal life from the jaws of everlasting death in hell, we can trust in His faithfulness to deliver us.

Even Jesus experienced great trials after mountaintop experiences – forty days of fasting and temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11) after His baptism and proclamation by God Himself (Matthew 3:16-17); the triumphal entry followed by false trial and crucifixion; death and burial followed by resurrection. Yet He realized that without the cross, we would have no crowns. He knew that these trials did not represent defeat, but the necessary seeds of victory itself.

Praise God that Jesus snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, not only for Himself, but for all who place their faith in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way (John 14:6) to eternal life! Because of His finished work on the cross, sin and death have no victory, and the grave has no sting!  (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)

© 2014 Laurie Collett
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