In Memory of My Sister

For Jodi, JoJo, Jodz, Black Bartz

Jodi: her birthname. In Hebrew it means “praised.”

JoJo: the name she chose to identify herself. In Scottish, the term “Jo” means “sweetheart.” That her name was JoJo just means she was a double sweetheart.

Jodz: my nickname for her. It means nothing, other than it was my pet name for her, and that I was fond of her.

Black Bartz: her nickname given to her by her family while she was growing up, because she had such a dark complexion.

I am going to miss Jodi. I got to know her pretty well over the years. She even adopted me as her sister. She’d start her text messages with her usual, bubbly, “Heya Sis!” Her last text to me was about how she made split pea soup and wanted Randy and I to have some, and that she’d leave a container of it outside her patio door in Jack’s kitty condo. My only comment to her was, “Just don’t leave it in his litter box,” to which I received a line of belly laugh emojis and her, “I’ll try not to mix those two up!”

(Talk about mixing things up: when Jodi told me about her new Maine Coon kitten named “Jack,” and her new sweetheart named “Rick,” I would get the two mixed up in my head. I’d tell Randy, “Yeah, Jodi’s got a new boyfriend named Jack.” Imagine my confusion when I’d talk to her and she’d say things like, “Jack is learning how to use his litter box!” I’s sorry Rick. I was born blonde. I’m so bad at names.)

Jodi was a good friend to me. When I stuggled with my bipolar illness, she’d talk and listen. Well, she talked more than listened, truth be known. She could talk the ear off frog, wherever frogs have ears. Somtimes it irritated me, like when I was busy, which was most of the time. Not as often, the Lord helped me see she was a bit lonely. So I let her chatter, knowing somehow that it was my turn to listen. And try to be patient. After 2 hours on the phone. Funny how I’ll miss that now.

There are many times when Jodi was a good friend to me. When I was in the hospital with pneumonia and a 104.7 degree fever, she came to visit. When she wanted to make up for some kindness we had done, she’d buy us groceries. When she would buy her favorite white and dark chocolate Zebra mochas, she’d always get this Starbucks addict a venti latte, too. When she really couldn’t afford it, she’d buy us Christmas gifts and host a small get-together at her apartment with Jeff, her mom, and Randy and I. She’d make her famous tuna salad pasta. Randy hated the peas, but usually ate them because Jodi was his sister and it was made with love. “They’re so good for you!,” she’d say.

The best thing about Jodi was that she was my spiritual sister. Someone had asked if Jodi had a faith preference or local church. From our long conversations, I know she believed in Jesus. She asked questions, wanted to go to church at Elmbrook, was confused on some points (like most of us are), but I know she had faith. I know she loved Jesus, however imperfect that looked. God knew her motives. Like he does with all of us. To him, we’re like 5-year-olds bringing our scribbled drawings to our Mommy or Daddy. The really cool thing about God is that he’s not an art critic. He puts it on the refrigerator. He’s our loving parent. He sees any desire to please him in some small way as our attempt at love.

Jodi was not perfect. She did not go to church every Sunday, or tithe, have it “all together,” or always say or do the right things. She was a lot like me. And that’s okay. Like any good parent, our heavenly Father does not look for perfection, but rather love. If we do something “wrong,” he gently corrects us because he knows we will either hurt ourselves or someone else. So often we imagine God is giving us a good whoopin’ or rejecting us, when all he is trying to do is love us. Protect us. Giving us something good for us. Like any loving parent. Or sister. Kind of like eating the peas.

I know that Jodi is in heaven right now, welcomed by her perfect Father, imperfect herself, but full of faith and love. I mean, how can you critique love? How can you criticize love? When it comes to love, the old adage, ”Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” does not waver with age, race, religion, intelligence, or life experience. We all see the beauty in love. The bible says, “God is love.” If you picture God in any other way, as angry, vengeful, spiteful, hurtful, fickle, demanding, or any other insecure thought we might have, it is a forgery. It is counterfeit. It is a lie. God is love. All his motives are rooted in love. Can you see his beauty? All he wants is for us to love him back like his little child.

Jodi was a good friend to me, a sister I never had. She made me feel loved by all the little stuff she did for me. I also think Jodi would want you to know how very much she loves you all. Despite. All has been forgiven, because she knows how God has forgiven her. So, if any of you would like Jesus to relay your love to her, I am confident he would do that. If you would like to tell him you’re sorry, or that you love him, I know he’d welcome you with open arms, too.

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:10-31)

10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Thank you, Jodi Lynn Vail, for being my friend.

Who is My Enemy?

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

While it is always good to ask ourselves the question, “Who is my neighbor?,” now is the time to ask ourselves, “Who is my enemy?”

With all that is going on in the world today, I can’t help but think this quote is timely. In this country, we are a dynamic group of people with disparate viewpoints. Our weakness can be wanting to fight for those beliefs so strongly for our own particular group, that we forget who the true enemy is. For the world right now, that would be terrorists groups like ISIS. I am chilled to the bone to think they are sitting back and just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of our current discord. In a 2004 article in Military.com (here), Oliver North made an appeal to our country to put aside the political infighting and focus on being united to fight terrorism. I repeat that same plea.

Every group wants its rights and privileges secured. When they become threatened, we scramble to prevent loss. This in and of itself is not bad if orchestrated in a peaceful manner. What is dangerous is to view the opposing group as completely evil simply because they don’t agree with us. This is what happened in the American Civil War. Our country split over a moral issue, and most everyone took a side. Each side felt they had the moral backing of religious principles to uphold their viewpoint, so much so that it became framed in apocalyptic terms in many psyches.

There is concern that we could be repeating the history of the rise of Nazism, but if that is a huge fear, we could be projecting it on current events and misinterpreting intentions. I am willing to pause briefly enough and assume a “let’s wait and see attitude,” keeping close tabs on events as they unfold. My concern is that things are so polarized with the new shift in power, that we miss who the real enemy is now. If we do, we are staged to repeat the history of our own civil war, and not that of the Holocaust in Germany. If we were plunged into a civil war, where in the world would the safety that we are seeking be? It is not logical to press the cause for safety, yet create a climate of war against each other.

Jesus said, “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” (Luke 11:17). If we fail to identify our common enemy, they will gain the upper hand. Is that what we want?

For God’s Church, I make the same plea. While we have a real-world physical enemy, we need to recognize humanity’s true enemy in the spiritual realm. We also must recognize the state of our own hearts.

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” –1 Peter 5:8-9

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” –Jeremiah 17:9-10

The world is inundated with lies. Why?

  • And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” –Revelation 12:9
  • Jesus tells us that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
  • What is the devil’s goal? To lead people away from the only way God provided for salvation: “Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

This is an attempt to cut through a lot of so-called wisdom these days, and see how it stacks up against God’s word. Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)

Lie #1: God is not real, or “God is dead” (taken out of context and misapplied as it is today).

Truth: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28)

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 53:1)

Lie #2: Satan is not real.

Truth: The bible records the devil’s first lie, “You will not certainly die.” (Genesis 3:1-4)

God tells us Satan is real: “One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” (Job 1:6)

Jesus knew he was real: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ (Matthew 4:1-11)

Lie #3: There is nothing after this life, no Heaven or Hell.

Truth: When we die, we must stand before our Creator: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many . . .” (Hebrews 9:27-28)

About the resurrection, Jesus said: “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:18-27)

Jesus related a parable about the poor man and the rich man showing their conscious state after they die: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire . . ..” (Luke 16: 19-31)

Lie #4: God is “mean” because he has consequences for disobeying him.

Truth: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

He is our Heavenly Father. He does all things out of love, and just like most parents who want the best for their children, he makes rules, not to deprive us, but to protect us from harm: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:5)

If government had no consequences to breaking the law, it would not be respected: “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” (Romans 13:3-4)

If consequences did not hurt, we wouldn’t be deterred from repeating the same mistakes over and over: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8)

Lie #5: Look at all the evil in the world. God, if he exists, doesn’t care.

Truth: God cares deeply and knows each of us intimately: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)

He proved his love by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18)

Lie #6: Salvation is hard. You have to be “good enough” to get to heaven.

Truth: Salvation is simple and easy: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

Salvation is a pure gift. All we need to do is receive it, like a child depending on and trusting in their parent: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)

Doing good works and being moral do not merit us heaven. If that were true, Christ would not have had to die. When we focus on our good deeds, we give glory to ourselves. God does not want us to draw attention to ourselves in that way. He wants and deserves all the glory because he alone is good, righteous, and holy: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)

Lie #7: Discipleship is easy.

Truth: Following Jesus is hard and costly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple . . . In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:26-33)

Persecution is a promise: “ In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12)

Lie #8: Hypocrisy seen in others justifies my lack of faith.

Truth: We are all guilty of hypocrisy at one time or another in our lives. This is especially true of our speech: “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” (James 3:2)

Our speech will reveal what is in our heart: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)

Just what is a hypocrite? “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see . . ..” (Matthew 23:1-33)

God is concerned with our motives. It is easy for people to be judgmental because we can’t know someone’s intentions or motives. But God sees the heart. If our sole motive is to look good in other people’s eyes, that is a wrong motive, and we will only do what is right when someone is looking. That is what religion does. God wants our motive to be to act and speak righteously to please him. That’s what faith does. He wants us to fear what God thinks of us, not what people think of us. If pleasing God is our motive, then we will act and speak in right ways whether we are in public or private: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Hypocrisy is also seen in judging others: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:41-42)

So, a hypocrite is someone who either judges another without mercy, without recognizing their own faults, or someone who is trying to please people without any regard for God’s heart. It is interesting that Jesus used this strong language toward the religious leaders of the day, not so much ordinary folks: “[Jesus] replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6-8)

Lie #9: Life starts after birth.

Truth: God knows us and ordains our life before we are born: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

Lie #10: I should not offend anyone by speaking the truth.

Truth: It is our duty as Christians to speak God’s truth, found in the bible, even if that means offending someone who has a differing viewpoint, as Jesus did: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Matthew 15:12)

We speak God’s truth in order to warn and save those who do not fear God: “When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 3:18)

Our goal in speaking truth should be love: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)

If you have found this message challenging, I have, too. The Lord has shown me my sin, and although it is painful, I know he means all discipline for our good: “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

I hope reading this helps you as much as it has helped me writing it. God is so good: “do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

Are You Looking for a Purpose in Life?

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” –Numbers 13:30

 

Have you ever been around someone who just exudes confidence and faith? They have a real gift of encouragement, if people are willing to listen. Not so with our dear Israelites. In this account of biblical history, twelve leaders, one from each tribe, are sent to spy out the land of Canaan and report back on what they see & hear. Out of the twelve, only Caleb & Joshua tell the community that the land is everything God promised, and that with God’s favor they will be able to possess the land the Lord will give them.

Have you ever been influenced by a group of people that is fearful? The other ten men in our little spy group were afraid of the people in Canaan, and emphasized to the other Israelites their physical size, saying, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33) Yet Joshua and Caleb tell the people, “Do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:9)

These ten men that spread the fearful report have the Israelite assembly so riled up and feeling defeated that they want to stone Joshua & Caleb, the men that are trying to encourage them to trust in their God! They grumbled against Aaron and Moses, whining: “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt? And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.'”

When we look at our circumstances and assume negative outcomes based on supposed facts stripped of faith, we would most likely come to a similar conclusion as the Israelites: if only I didn’t have to face this problem. I was better off before God’s intervention in my life. Let’s elect a different leader who will guarantee my safety and happiness.

Sound familiar? I know I have days where I struggle with the wrong outlook, and then the Lord reminds me I am forgetting about trusting him to do good for me. The only leader who can guarantee my safety and happiness is Christ. He is our Rock.

When I read the above account I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. I’ve been praying recently about the handling of Syrian refugees, whether or not they should be allowed to come to the U.S. or if we should close our borders to them. I have come to the conclusion that while proper security measures should be exercised, actions motivated by fear alone frustrate the will of God. God’ will is to love Him and other people as you would yourself. I know if I were a refugee, faced with homelessness, war, death, hunger–I would want someone to take me in and show me some kindness and mercy, not to fear me because of my ethnic or religious background.

Jesus told his disciples that when it comes to their own hides, they should fear God, not man. It is my duty as a follower of Jesus to love–both my neighbors and my enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 43-45) If you ever wonder what your purpose in life is, it is to love people and God. Like Jesus’ life illustrates, sometimes that means laying down our self-interest to focus on the benefit of another.