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I saw my sister, Karen, the other day, and she shared some of her thoughts with me about the entire Charlie Hebdo massacre.  Initially both of us had tremendous sympathy for the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and the other members of the staff that were murdered.  I even was going to write about their heroism for standing up to their beliefs, even in the face of repeated death threats.

But then I researched and learned that Charbonnier was an avowed atheist, who hated any kind of religion, and used his magazine to mock all faiths. Charbonnier went beyond mocking, by ridiculing both Mohammed and Jesus in graphic, disgusting, pornographic images.  Muslims believe publishing images of Mohammed is offensive, so why in the world would the editor purposely publish such incendiary images.  But Charbonnier didn’t just attack Muslims; he was equally insulting to Christians and Jews.

Journalists carry a lot of weight and can influence millions of people; freedom of press is a sacred responsibility capable of inciting violence, as well as peace.  The staff of Charlie Hebdo allowed their distaste for religion to slant their judgment.  As my sister wrote “If Hebdo’s response to Muslim terrorism had taken a different tact, maybe it could have fostered some measure of positive change in this world of hate.”

Karen continues “real satire, by definition, is a ‘way of using humor to show that someone is foolish, weak or bad, and to show weakness or negative qualities of a person, government, society’.  Having previously received death threats, the staff could have anticipated the response these publications would provoke.”

“Freedom of speech can be used to belittle, demean, criticize, condemn, defame, hurt or destroy…but to what purpose…more destruction?  It is the peoples’ right according to American’s belief culture, and the very first amendment of our constitution.”

But what if the writers of this magazine had responded differently by nudging millions of peaceful Muslims to stand up and condemn terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.  Instead, this magazine viciously attacked their sacred beliefs by printing offensive and inflammatory pictures designed to provoke more hatred and pain.

Freedom of speech is precious, and should be used to bring truth into a world blinded by sin; instead it seems to be a weapon used to further one’s own agenda.  The purpose of journalism used to be to expose lies and corruption in our culture; now the main purpose seems to be for showing contempt for those whose beliefs are different.

Every person on this planet can choose to be a catalyst for fostering peace and improving society, or they can condemn, jeer and taunt, inciting antagonism and rage.  Consider carefully the tremendous impact your words can have on others.

Journalist Stuart Muszynski, from the Huffington Post, got it right in his article, when he said “Let me be clear — I support free speech.  I support Charlie Hebdo and the premise that freedom of speech is a fundamental right of democracy.  But I also support respect and its role as a fundamental ingredient of civility.”  He went on to say “Without being framed within a context of respect, it can inflame sentiments, fuel emotions, and hurt the psyche and mind”.

Ponder Jesus’ words in 2nd Corinthians 4:6 “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness’, has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.”, and choose today whether you are bringing darkness or light…

Related Articles:
Je Suis Charlie, but Can We Have a World of Respect?
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stuart-muszynski/je-suis-charlie-but-can-w_1_b_6583224.html

Courage

Recently Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired by Mayor Kasim Reed. Cochran is devout in his Christian faith, and wrote a small book reflecting his beliefs.  In his book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?”, Cochran expresses his Christian values, including the belief that homosexual acts and sex outside of marriage are morally wrong.

From the New York Times “At a news conference, Mr. Reed said that Mr. Cochran’s ‘personal religious beliefs are not the issue.’ But Atlanta’s nondiscrimination policy, the mayor added, is ‘nonnegotiable.’”

‘Despite my respect for Chief Cochran’s service, I believe his actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse work force,’ Mr. Reed said. ‘Every single employee under the fire chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions.’”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted Mr. Reed as saying the decision to fire Cochran had nothing to do with his faith: “His religious (beliefs) are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem.”  Yet there is no evidence that Chief Cochran discriminated against his employees in any way, nor did he show bad judgment in his leadership as Fire Chief.

The mayor doesn’t understand the paradox of his statements; Cochran was absolutely fired because of his “personal religious beliefs”.  In the mayor’s convoluted thinking, the Christian belief expressed in Cochran’s book that homosexual acts are defined by the Bible as “vile, vulgar, and inappropriate activities” that “dishonor God”, prevent the Fire Chief from effectively leading his employees and prevent him from fostering the feeling among his employees “that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions.”

It seems Mayor Reed is the one guilty of bad judgment; in seven years as Fire Chief, not one complaint was filed against Cochran for discrimination, or for failing to treat his employees with fairness, dignity and respect.  Even though the Fire Chief presented the Mayor with a copy of his book, submitted a copy to the city’s ethic officer and received permission to publish, Reed claims permission was never granted and claims the Chief exhibited ‘bad judgment’ by publishing the book.

Photographers, bakers, and wedding facilities have been fined, shut down and forced to undergo ‘sensitivity training’ because of their Christian views.  It seems Christians are on a rapidly escalating collision course with political correctness.  As those opposed to Christian values become more rabid and aggressive, it will take more and more courage to stand up for the truth.  One must be firmly anchored in their faith to be able to be a ‘living sacrifice’ and not back down when facing persecution.

I have distant relatives up north and went to visit them on the death of a beloved great-uncle. When it came time for services on Sunday, I asked my cousin if she would mind dropping me off at the Catholic mass, while they went on to their Presbyterian Reformed Church.  My great-aunt asked on the way if I would reconsider and attend their service.  I explained the importance of receiving the eucharist, and didn’t think anything more about it.

Apparently my great-aunt was highly offended, and called my sister vehemently stating that she never wanted to see me again.  And she hasn’t.  This stubborn, headstrong woman vowed to utterly reject me simply for wanting to attend mass.  To stand up for your values means risking your job, income, status, family, and sometimes your very life.

At least for now, in the United States, Christians have only been kicked out of colleges and lost their businesses, it is rare to be imprisoned or suffer martyrdom.  This certainly isn’t true of middle eastern Muslim dominated nations, or in Communist countries, such as China.  I was particularly outraged back in 2008 when the Olympics were held in China in spite of their atrocious oppression of religion.  Catholic priests, bishops, protestant ministers and other Christians have been imprisoned for decades under torturous conditions.

Since 2004 the Chinese government has been escalating persecution of Christians by launching raids of churches; consequently Christians are going underground to avoid the widespread arrests.  For several decades the number of Christians in China is growing; subsequently the government is trying to stamp out this perceived threat to their authority.  The heinous consequences of defying the Chinese government are fines, imprisonment, torture and death.

From St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr in the first century, to the thousands of martyrs in the third and fourth centuries by Emperors Decius and Diocletion,  to the present day, Christians are persecuted more than any other religion, according to a recent Pew Study.

CNS News recently reported that “North Korea remains the world’s most restrictive nation in which to practice Christianity,” followed by Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen.  More than ‘5.3 billion people (76% of the world’s population) live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion,’ Pew noted, ‘up from 74% in 2011 and 68% as of mid-2007.’  The Pew Research Center says that hostility to religion reached a new high in 2012, when Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 countries, almost three-quarters of the world’s nations.”

The Holy Spirit poured courage into centuries of martyrs who decided their faith was worth dying for.  A reminder of our history reminds us not to be surprised when we lose our job, or family, or are called vile names because of our Christian values, which are diametrically opposed to our culture.  Indeed, St. Peter reminds us in 1st Peter 3:12 “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.”  Persecution and suffering are interwoven with our faith.

Wikipedia explains that with the gift of courage “we overcome our fear and are willing to take risks as a follower of Jesus Christ. A person with courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm. The gift of courage allows people the firmness of mind that is required both in doing good and in enduring evil.  So Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.” (1st Corin. 16:13)  I can guarantee the road ahead is going to really get bumpy, so tighten your seat belt and ask the Holy Spirit for the supernatural gift of courage! 

Related Articles

Religious Freedom:  http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/01/12/religious-liberty-vs-erotic-liberty-religious-liberty-is-losing/

China’s Christians Suffer for their Faith
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3993857.stm

Christians are World’s Most Oppressed Religious Group
http://cnsnews.com/news/article/barbara-boland/pew-study-christians-are-world-s-most-oppressed-religious-group

Time Out

Several days ago the reading for the day was the story of Zechariah and the announcement of the pregnancy of his wife, Elizabeth, with John the Baptist. (Luke 1:12) Zechariah naturally doubted that his ancient wife would be able to conceive, so the angel Gabriel warned him that because of his doubt, he would be struck mute until the child was born.

For the next nine months Zechariah was unable to say a word, until his long awaited son finally arrived. Then, when friends and family asked for the boy’s name, Zechariah was able to proudly write on a tablet “John is his name”. “Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God.”

I love an interpretation of this verse by my friend John Harvey, who explained that God put Zechariah in ‘time-out’ for nine months.  Just as we put our children in time-out when they misbehave, or become obnoxious, so God sometimes gives us time to cool down, reflect on our mistakes and take a break from our daily activities.  Time-outs should be focused more on shaping behavior, rather than punishing, and I’m sure everyone has a pattern of behavior that needs modification.

Perhaps you have been experiencing a ‘holding pattern’, or feel as though God placed you in a time-out.  You may be stuck in a dead-end job, with no promotion in sight, or perhaps you are experiencing cardiac, lung or other health issues.  This is a great time to increase your prayer time and discern the changes God may be asking you to make.

Or you may have heard God’s promise as Zechariah did, and you are doubting His ability to perform a miracle.  And it is entirely possible God is answering your longings with a slight twist, such as when several friends who longed for children, but were unable to conceive, became parents by adopting foster children.  Their prayer was answered, but in an unexpected way.

My husband attends Epiphany Byzantine Church, in Roswell, and the week before Christmas a ATF agents were on the scene Sunday afternoondemented person set fire to the land and building in the wee hours of the morning.  Since the church is made from wood, the fire burned fiercely until a father who was out getting medicine for his sick child saw the flames and smoke, and called 911.

The rectory is smack dab right next to the church, so I am grateful that God answered the prayers of parishioners by protecting the pastor from harm.   He was in a deep sleep and only woke up when the firemen knocked on his door.  Also,  the building is a one of a kind Capathian architecture built completely by hand, so it would have been a real tragedy if it had burned to the ground.  Just one wall was damaged, and thankfully is in the process of being repaired. Many pray for Fr. Scott’s safety and well-being, but never anticipated it would come by way a sick baby!

We should never forget just how powerful, yet caring our God is, that he can untie any knot or solve any dilemma.  From sparring with a prickly neighbor, to a failing business, to a mysterious illness, trust that God does care passionately and will address your problems.  Your neighbor might unexpectedly move, someone may make you an offer to buy your business, or a friend may have the exact symptoms and be able to provide a diagnosis.

Don’t be surprised if things work out completely opposite of the way you had anticipated.  God reminds us in Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”, so don’t limit Him or put Him in a box.  Quit worrying and fretting, go deeper into prayer, and relish your time-out!

Time-Out Techniques
http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/10-time-out-techniques

Arson: http://www.13wmaz.com/story/news/local/georgia/2014/12/14/roswell-arson-suspect-arrested/20409469/

With the mad rush on Black Friday, and the frenzy on Cyber Monday, I don’t think Americans have gotten the message that material things aren’t what matter most. From standing in line all night to purchase the latest Iphone, to getting the best deal possible on Ipads, Xboxes or flat screen TVs, Americans are driven by materialism. China has their equivalent busiest shopping day of the year called “Single’s Day”; single people celebrate their singleness by buying themself something extravagant.  I would call this the epitome of selfishness.

Americans want to look trendy and fashionable and many update their wardrobe every year to get the latest ‘look’.  So of course last year’s old fashioned outfits are donated, adding up to a whopping 4.7 billion pounds of clothing donated annually.  The amount of clothing is so astronomical that the global trade of used clothing has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry in Africa.  The problem is that so many used outfits flooding the market has stymied manufacturing in Africa, helping to stagnate the economy.

Our culture is so consumer driven that our faith is often pushed to the back burner.   Many don’t go to church, or if they do make the effort, they are often too busy to pray.  Take a spiritual checkup today – how much do you spend on stylish clothing, fancy electronics or expensive cars?  Are you generous in tithing to your church, or donating to charity?  How much time do you spend praying daily, compared to the amount of time you spend surfing the net or watching television?

Now look at your circumstances in life; is your life challenging?  Are you pedaling as fast as you can to keep up with work and your family, yet you get further and further behind?  Perhaps you are undergoing painful chemo or radiation, or recovering from knee surgery.  You might be struggling to make ends meet financially because your income has dropped, and of course the price of groceries and utilities has risen dramatically.  There might be tension between family members or friends.

If your spiritual life is lagging, God could be trying to get your attention by allowing obstacles to pop up.  Just as God punished the Israelites by making them wander in the desert for forty years, He may be allowing you to toil through the wilderness to “test you and know what is in your heart, to know whether you will keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).  In Deuteronomy 8:3 God warned that He would “…let you be afflicted with hunger, and then feed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know it is not is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord”.  Echoing the phrase “seek first the Kingdom of God”, this verse means that everything is a gift from God, and if we draw closer to him every day, he will provide for our needs.

Perhaps you are faithful in your spiritual life, but are hanging on to anger or unforgiveness.  Perhaps pride and self reliance are impeding your relationship with God and you need to grow in trusting God’s providence.  Greed or avarice could be a problem and you might be obsessed with jewelry, stylish shoes or finally owning a Rolex.  If you are in the desert God may be trying to reveal those dead and barren areas in your heart, or He may simply be trying to strengthen your faith.

This advent is a great time to examine your heart for spots that need pruning or spiritual growth.  Take time to ponder your past and reflect on the ways God has been faithful in dark times.  Perhaps you were out of work and friends dropped by groceries or simply left a gift of a check; perhaps you were involved in a nasty lawsuit, which suddenly was resolved.  No matter how difficult the circumstances, God’s grace carried you through.  It is also a time to ponder the First Commandment and the importance of putting God first in your lives.

Related articles:

What Really Happens to Donated Clothing http://shannonwhitehead.com/what-really-happens-to-your-donated-clothing/

Bitter Roots http://maryscatholicgarden.com/2014/04/15/wild-onions-and-dandelions/

Faith Tested by Fire http://maryscatholicgarden.com/2012/10/14/faith-tested-by-fire/

Sometimes life can be prickly and hard, but we have God’s promise that “In place of the thornbush, the cypress shall grow, instead of nettles, the myrtle.” (Isaiah 55:13)  The study note in the New American Bible for this verse suggests the image of being in the desert, “symbolic of suffering and hardship”, since thorns cause pain, while the cypress and myrtle suggest fertile land, representing “joy and strength”.

We once had a thorny tree in our back yard, and when we cut it down it was an absolute nightmare to transport.  We used big, heavy gloves, and still got pricked by the pointy ends; the pain was excruciating as it pierced deep into our tender skin!  Throughout our lives we are ‘stung’ by traumatic events, whether we had divorced or alcoholic parents, or suffered physical or sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment.

The thorns are different for everyone; many today are struggling financially to make ends meet; some are grappling with health issues, either chronic arthritis or some other auto immune disease.  Others are grieving for the loss of a loved one, while some are going through strenuous and grueling rounds of chemo and radiation.  Perhaps you have a child fighting an addiction, or experiencing severe anxiety.

Thorns show up in the Old Testament after Adam and Eve disobeyed God; they were kicked out of the luscious Garden of Eden and consigned to find food “by the sweat of your brow”, tilling “cursed ground” filled with “thorns and thistles”  (Genesis 3:17).  Adam and Eve left us a legacy of hard work, pain and sorrow, but the new Adam, Jesus, “ransomed us from the curse”, taking the curse upon himself.  Unknowingly the Romans mocked their ‘king’, smashing a crown of thorns deep into his skull, piercing his flesh.  Through his crucifixion and death, Jesus ransomed us, restoring us into God’s covenant and giving us our full inheritance as sons and daughters (Gal. 3:13).  The ‘good news’ is that Jesus received the crown of thorns to take away our pain and shame, and instead fill us with his peace and joy, to take us out of the desert of suffering.

I went on my first retreat back in 1993 with several other adult leaders of the teen group.  Since then I have probably helped present forty retreats for both teens and adults, and I have both experienced and witnessed over and over the transformation as Jesus delivers his children from the chains binding them.

I was meditating one day and I heard God whisper tenderly into my heart the promise of a new life in him.  His promise to all those suffering from depression, loneliness, and abandonment “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and power.  Through these He has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” (2nd Peter 1:1)

No matter how many ‘nettles and thorns’ seem to be in your path, remember God’s extraordinary grace and power.  One day I felt as though I would never get past my grief and sadness, and then I received this tender prophecy based on Isaiah 35 “The desert and parched land will exult, they will bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song.  The desert of shame and unforgiveness will turn into streams bursting with love and joy; the burning sands of loneliness and despair will be turned into pools of refreshing warmth and tenderness.  The thirsty ground yearning for love, will spring into wells overflowing with mercy and compassion.  The place where the jackals of darkness and depression roam, will be turned into a rich marsh, where hope and happiness flourish.  We will be met with goodness and gladness, and grief and sorrow will flee.  A highway will be readied for those striving for holiness, where we will be safe and secure, free from harm, crowned with his glory.”

During this Advent take time to prepare for the coming of Christ; take time to let him soften your heart and remove the thorns.  Let Jesus whisper words of encouragement and inspiration and rest in his embrace, pondering his immense grace and unconditional mercy.  Let the flowers of virtue bloom in your heart and rejoice in being set free!

Related Articles:

What is the Meaning of the Crown of Thorns
 http://www.gotquestions.org/crown-of-thorns.html#ixzz3K0gnDhNH

Touching the Hem of His Garment
http://maryscatholicgarden.com/2012/08/12/touching-the-hem-of-his-garment/

Adopted By God
http://maryscatholicgarden.com/2013/11/08/adopted-by-god/

SS_R4.5_Consumer_Tiles_TW_0012_Georgia

Use your American Express card on Small Business Saturday at Mary’s Garden on November 29, and receive a $10.00 credit on your American Express Statement!

 

There seems to be a common, recurring theme among Christians living busy, stress filled lives.  We feel pressured to be the perfect mother or father, student or employee, and it seems there are always too many bills to pay from our shrinking income.  Our bosses insist we become more and more productive, while we are running a million miles a minute ferrying our kids from one activity to the next.

So many Christians feel alone and distant from God’s presence.  Yet over and over in scripture God reminds us He is right there, guiding and protecting us, rescuing us from danger with His ‘strong right arm’. Psalm 136 describes God’s never ending love and that He “… led Israel from their midst, for his mercy endures forever; with mighty hand and outstretched arm.” This doesn’t mean God literally reaches down with a physical arm from heaven; instead it represents his omnipotence and phenomenal power, and that He is always there to support us when we are ‘drowning’ in our problems.

In 606 B.C. the city of Jerusalem was ravaged by King Nebuchadnezzar II and the sacred temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.  As a result of turning away from God and worshiping idols, thousands of Israelites were exiled to far away Mesopotania and forced into servitude.  Shortly before the end of their seventy year long exile the chosen people felt alone and abandoned, so God reminded them in Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God.  I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

Eventually the Israelites repented of their sin, and God allowed Cyrus II of Persia to conquer the Babylonians.  Cyrus believed the words in Isaiah 44:28, written 200 years before, was a direct order from God “I say of Cyrus, My Shepherd! He carries out my every wish, saying of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt’, and of the temple, ‘Lay its foundations’.” He allowed the Jews to return to their ruined city and issued a decree authorizing them to rebuild the temple.

Our spiritual journey reflects the struggles of the Jews and their volatile, roller coaster relationship with God.  But instead of worshiping pagan gods, we ‘worship’ money, power, television, facebook, suggestive movies or books, and wallow in anger, self-reliance and laziness.  Then a job loss or illness reminds us of our need for a savior, and we turn back pleading for God’s grace and mercy.

Just as God rescued the Israelites after they repented, so too did Jesus rescue Peter when he started sinking in the waves right after he had proudly walked on water.  Instead of keeping his eyes on Jesus, he became intimidated by the storm surrounding him and doubted Jesus’ power to keep him afloat (Matthew 14:22).  Peter was terrified and called out “‘Lord save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?'”  When you are terrified and overwhelmed by your responsibilities, call out for help, and envision Jesus reaching out with his ‘strong, right hand’. Grab on with both hands and don’t ever let go!

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