TWO LISTS

coreopsis-and-cowpen daisyLive wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

Last Friday, on All Saints’ Day, I asked who we would acknowledge in our spiritual memoir. Who were the people who helped us find our way to Jesus? In my morning Bible study, we actually wrote lists of the people who were our champions of faith. On her long list, Rachel wrote the name of one special teacher all in caps: MRS. HART. Rachel described her as a woman who seemed to exude Christian joy out of every pore of her body. The woman’s life wasn’t easy; a widow, she’d had her share of heartbreak and disappointment (especially when her daughter rejected Jesus and became a Buddhist). Nevertheless, in all circumstances, Mrs. Hart was filled with the joy of the Lord. One day she confidently declared, “I have a lot of questions for God and I’m looking forward to the day when I come face to face with him and can get some answers!” Until the older woman said that, it had never occurred to Rachel that, as a believer, one day she, too, would come face to face with God. It was then that she began to understand the reason for Mrs. Hart’s joy.

Among others on my list, I named my mother, the pastor at our mountain church who challenged his congregation to pray, a neighbor who ministered to prisoners and truly knew who the “least of these” were, and Marilyn, one of my college roommates, who showed me what it was like to live biblically in a non-biblical world. Not remembering their names, I also listed “the Campus Crusade couple.” Offering dinner and the gospel on Sunday nights, they opened their home and hearts to young searchers and believers on my campus. They never condemned me for my failings or pushed me to make a decision; they simply helped me find my way to a relationship with Jesus.

One of the women in class said she considered writing a second list on the opposite side of the page. This list would be for those “Christians” who’d turned her away from God. On it would be the nuns who’d spoken of love, forgiveness and compassion while ruthlessly inflicting verbal and corporal punishment on their students, the chuch-going parents who wouldn’t allow their children to play with her because her father was an ex-con, and the priest who called her “Honey” and told her to sit on his lap. While it gave her a sense of closure to see his name (along with nearly 40 others) in the paper last year, she wondered how many people had turned from Jesus because of behavior like his. One woman added that the same name could appear on both lists. When the pastor who had opened her eyes to the gospel message deceived his congregation and slandered his accusers, she questioned all she’d come to believe. Eventually, for both of these women, it was through other people’s sincere Christian examples of truth, love, forgiveness, and compassion that they realized it was Satan, not the church, who was their true enemy—with hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and abuse of trust and power being his weapons of choice!

If our names were to occur on someone’s list, we’d want to be recorded in the column of God’s ambassadors rather than the one of His adversaries. The difference wouldn’t be that one column was sinless and the other sinful. All of those who guided me on my journey were sinners (as am I) and the joyful Mrs. Hart was a sinner, as well. It’s just that none of them ever pretended they weren’t; they never hid behind a “holier than thou” façade. As imperfect as they were, they were living evidence of God’s work. His truth, mercy, grace, and unlimited love were evident in their walk and the lives they touched were better for it. Rather than just telling me about God with their words, they showed Him to me with their actions and brought His light to the dark corners of my heart.

Heavenly Father, guide us on our walk so that we never deliberately or accidentally cause someone to reject the gospel message. May we always be Christ’s ambassadors by bringing light to the world and glory to you.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. [Brennan Manning]

In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:16 (NLT)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 5:20 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

FOR ALL THE SAINTS

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…[1 Corinthians 1:2a (ESV)]

The early Christians often marked anniversaries of the martyrdom of Christ’s followers. By the fourth century, however, there’d been so many martyrs that there weren’t enough days to honor them all and the idea of one feast day honoring all the martyrs began. In 609, Pope Boniface IV established an All Saints Day in May. After Christianity came to Ireland, the Roman church attached the Feast of All Saints to the already established pagan holiday of Samhain (a celebration of the end of the harvest) and, in 847, Pope Gregory IV formally rebranded this Celtic festival as All Saints Day. Today is All Saints’ Day: a day to commemorate all of the saints, not as determined by a Pope, but as defined in the Bible.

Biblically speaking, what is a saint? The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios meaning “consecrated to God, holy, scared, pious.” Sainthood isn’t conferred by people; it is granted by God to all who trust in Christ. When Paul addressed his letter to the Corinthians, it was to “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Even though they were struggling with issues like immorality, jealousy, and divisiveness, those early Christians were saints because they’d been made holy when they united with Jesus.

Sainthood wasn’t reserved for the Corinthians; Paul also referred to the believers in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica as saints. Simply put, saints were and still are the Christian church—the body of Christ. All Christians (as flawed as we are) are called to be saints—not just in heaven but right here on earth. No martyrdom, miracles, heroic virtue, or canonization is required. Simply by being followers of Christ, you and I—everyday garden-variety believers—are saints! As His saints, like the Corinthians, we are called to grow more and more like Christ every day. Scripture, however, never tells us to revere, worship or pray to saints. Rather, it tells us that the saints (meaning us) are to revere, worship, and pray to God alone.

For Roman Catholics, the focus of All Saints’ Day tends to be on the “official” saints (those people canonized by the Pope). Nevertheless, regardless of denomination, this is a day for all of the living saints (that’s us) to remember the saints who went before us. We have never been alone in our journey of faith; along with the Holy Spirit, we encountered believers (saints) who demonstrated their faith, pointed the way, urged us on, answered our questions, and corrected us when we strayed.

If we were to make a list of those who influenced our Christian walk, there might be some big name champion saints like the Gospels’ writers and Paul, the Wesleys, Martin Luther, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, or Billy Graham. There are, however, many ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians who guided us on our journey: saints like our parents, grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, friends, co-workers, pastors, or even strangers, whose faithfulness encouraged us on our journey. Today, in honor of all the saints of God, let’s remember the life and witness of those people, both known and unknown, who were a part of our personal salvation stories—the people who strengthened our faith by their words and actions and led us to where we are today.

Who are the heroes in your individual Christian history? Who would you acknowledge in your spiritual memoir? Let their examples of faith spur you onward.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. [Ephesians 2:17-22 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TRANSFORMING PUMPKINS

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

The Food Network’s “Outrageous Pumpkins” features remarkable pumpkin artistry as it pits four pumpkin carvers against one another in a three-round competition. Competitors create traditional Jack O’Lanterns, 3-D pumpkin carvings, and then their own free-style pumpkin masterpieces. Using everything from melon ballers to huge saws, they make intricate designs and sculpt extraordinary and intricate works of art. As someone who is severely pumpkin-challenged (and eventually purchased a permanent Jack O-Lantern that came with an electric light), I am impressed by the skill of these pumpkin artists.

Watching those carvers transform what is nothing more than a large gourd into a work of art, I couldn’t help but think of another artist who is in the business of transformation: God. There are both similarities and differences between transforming pumpkins into Halloween décor and transforming people into Christians. In both cases, the finished product bears little resemblance to what it once was (but, instead of becoming something frightening and macabre, the Christian becomes more beautiful)!

Both carvers and God start by making a selection but, unlike the pumpkin artists, God isn’t looking for perfection. He’ll take any color, size, condition or age. Scratches, bruises, blemishes, a dried up stem, and even a little mold or rot won’t keep anyone from His workshop. Just as the carvers cut into the pumpkins and scrape out all of the slimy stuff inside, God opens us up but, rather than scooping out our guts, He scrapes away things like fear, anger, despair, doubt, hate, pride and greed. Instead of an X-Acto knife, vegetable peeler, saw, or drill, God’s tools consist of His word, the church, and both blessings and challenges. Just as those artists’ imaginative creations surpass the toothy smile and triangle eyes of the typical Jack O’Lantern, each one of God’s creations is a one-of-a-kind custom design. The pumpkin carvers, preferring something frightening or creepy, usually give their creations a menacing face. Although the Christian’s outward appearance may not change, God wants His handiwork to spread faith, hope and love rather than terror or dread so He gives us a far nicer demeanor. Occasionally, the carvers make small mistakes; when that happens, they either alter their designs or use a toothpick to reattach a piece. Unlike the carvers, God never makes a mistake; every one of His creations is a masterpiece.

Although the carvers leave their pumpkins hollow, God fills His people with the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Wanting their creations to glow from the inside out, both the carver and God insert lights. While the carver uses either a candle, light bulb or flashlight, the Christian’s light comes from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the pumpkin’s light will cease shining; God’s light, however, lasts a lifetime. While the “Outrageous Pumpkins” competitors perform their artistry in hope of winning $10,000 and a gold medal (along with bragging rights), God transforms His children out of love. Unlike carvers in the competition, God has no time limit and continues tweaking us until our dying day.

The “Outrageous Pumpkins” competition is held for a few weeks around Halloween, but God transforms people all year long. Although the pumpkins have no choice about being chosen, washed, and carved, we are free to reject God’s hand in transforming our lives. It’s wise to remember, however, that any pumpkins remaining in the patch after harvest eventually rot and decompose; the same goes for us. Alas, in spite of all their artistry, those fantastic pumpkin creations are temporary. Even when dipped in a mild bleach mixture, they soon will turn moldy and soft; eventually, they’ll end up in the trash. Not so with God’s handiwork! Unlike carved pumpkins, Christians tend to improve over time; in fact, they last forever.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LOT’S CHOICE

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. [Genesis 12:1-2 (NLT)]

Apple River, IL

When God told Abram (later called Abraham) to leave his native country, his nephew Lot joined him. The two men prospered and, by the time they left Egypt, both families had become wealthy. While we often think that our problems come from not having enough of something, Abram’s and Lot’s problems arose from having too much in the way of livestock. When camped between Bethel and Ai, disputes arose between their herdsmen, probably about water, grazing area and which animals belonged to whose flock. Without enough pasture for both herds, Abram realized that they needed to part to avoid any more disputes. Although God had promised Canaan to him, Abram pointed out there was plenty of land for both families and gave Lot the opportunity to pick whatever territory he desired.

Although Lot should have deferred the first choice to the elder Abram, he looked east at the fertile grassy plains of the Jordan Valley and greedily chose for himself what appeared to be the lushest and best land. Abram, however, chose to live by faith rather than sight. Trusting the Lord who had promised him both land and so many offspring that they couldn’t be counted, he settled in Hebron and immediately built an altar to the Lord. Rather than trusting God, Lot simply trusted what he saw and chose to pitch his tents near Sodom. Then, instead of building an altar, he moved into Sodom. If you remember your Bible stories, you know this was just about the worst decision he could have made. The valley may have looked beautiful but it was rotten to the core. Because of its wickedness, Sodom later was totally destroyed, Lot narrowly escaped the destruction, his wealth was lost, and his wife became a pillar of salt.

Lot said, “I will take,” while Abram said, “I will give!” Selfishly trusting himself and what he saw, Lot ended up with nothing; trusting the Lord, Abram ended up with a whole nation! One looked at the possible while the other counted on God for the impossible. What do we learn? Looks can be deceiving, don’t take the best for ourselves, and trust in God’s promises!

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE STORY CONTINUES 

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

mute swanYesterday, I wrote of those times when we’re blind-sided by challenges and difficulty. When that happens, it truly is difficult to accept and trust God’s love and wisdom. Unfortunately, while Jesus made many promises, an easy life was not one of them. In fact, we’re told that troubles are pretty much guaranteed.

Just as a book has several chapters, some happier than others, so it goes with our lives. Often a chapter filled with challenges is followed by a chapter of blessings. That happened for several of those people about whom I wrote. Three estranged adult children came together to help their parents during that series of medical crises. Better yet, their mother recovered from her stroke and her cancer treatment was successful. The man defrauded by his business partner paid off his debts and started over again; he has become a wealthy man. The woman betrayed by her husband met a widower and fell in love; the two married and she is now mother to his three children. God blessed the couple who lost their twin boys with a beautiful healthy little girl. Although she didn’t beat cancer, the fifteen extra years God gave the last woman allowed her to raise her children and hold her first grandchild. Her once heartbroken husband recently remarried and started a new chapter in his life.

Does this mean an end to all of their troubles? No; troubles will come and go. More chapters will be written, some better than others, but none of us should worry or be afraid while waiting for the next chapter to unfold. We must trust God’s plan for us and live each day, one day at a time, secure in the knowledge that God will provide us with all we need to meet every challenge. We can remain confident that the last chapter of our lives, the one when we enter God’s kingdom, will be the best one ever!

If God can bring blessing from the broken body of Jesus and glory from something that’s as obscene as the cross, He can bring blessing from my problems and my pain and my unanswered prayer. I just have to trust Him. [Anne Graham Lotz]

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever. Those who desert him will perish, for you destroy those who abandon you. But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do. [Psalm 73:26-28 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

CAUGHT IN THE HEADLIGHTS

He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. [Luke 22:41-43 (NLT)]

deer“It never occurred to me,” my friend said, “that I could outlive my wife.” Several years older than his spouse, overweight, diabetic and nearly blind, he always thought she’d be there to care for him. That, however, was before she suffered a stroke, had complications from carotid artery surgery, was diagnosed with cancer, had another surgery, and started a regimen of chemotherapy (all within a few months’ time.) Like a deer caught in the headlights, he was almost frozen in disbelief, bewilderment, and fear.

At some point in time, a “deer in the headlight” moment like that will happen to us all. Disease, disability, adversity and misfortune will slam into us and turn our version of life upside down. I think of a friend who was swindled by his trusted business partner and another one who was betrayed by her husband; neither of them ever envisioned such duplicity. When the young couple was told to expect twins, it never occurred to them that neither child would live to see his second birthday. When a friend’s wife beat cancer, her family never foresaw that, fifteen years later, it would return with such a vengeance that she’d be gone in less than a year. Such scenarios were never pictured by any of these people when asked about their hopes and dreams.

Although we are the main character in our life story, we eventually realize that we aren’t writing the script—God is the author and we don’t get consulting or editing privileges. We can’t choose the setting, rewrite the parts we dislike, dictate the ending, or decide the length of the tale. As Christians, we know that the play’s sequel will take place in God’s presence in heaven, where there will be no death, pain, crying or mourning. Nevertheless, sometimes that knowledge is of little consolation as we (or those we love) struggle to make it through the present act. All we can do is trust that our loving God will give His children the courage and strength necessary to get through it all, one day at a time.

Father, some of us are suffering and others of us are crying for those who are in the midst of difficult circumstances. If it is at all possible, please take away their cup of suffering. If not, help us all to accept what seems so unacceptable and to understand what seems so unreasonable. Strengthen our faith with trust and let us see hope on the horizon.

The truth is, in this world it’s a 100 percent guarantee that we will suffer. But at the same time, Jesus Christ is 100 percent certain to meet us, encourage us, comfort us, grace us with strength and perseverance, and yes, even restore joy in our lives. Your Savior is 100 percent certain to be with you through every challenge. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.