FASTING THOUGHTS

You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! … You have heard the commandment that says, “You must not commit adultery.” But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:21-22a,27-28 (NLT)]

bue birdShortly before the start of Lent, I got an email advertisement for a Christian book that asked “What if you fasted regret? What if your friends fasted comparison? What would be the fruit of fasting stinginess?” Those questions certainly got me thinking about our thoughts.

The one place we have total freedom is our mind. Even though we have freedom of speech, we can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb” in the security line at the airport. We can, however, shout anything we want at anyone anywhere in the silence of our minds. The father of those three abused gymnasts was free to wreak all sorts of revenge on their abuser in his mind but he couldn’t touch the man in court. We can be charming and polite to the woman who stole our husband and amazingly civil to the man who betrayed our trust when, in our imaginations, they suffer every disaster and tragedy that can befall man or beast.

Since our thoughts are far less easy to control than our actions, we’d like to think of them as less important. When we entertain wicked thoughts, we think we’re not sinning because we’d never actually do the terrible things about which we’re thinking. Since we won’t burn down the house of the man who deceived us or climb in bed with the sexy hunk at work, we think we’re innocent of wrongdoing. But are we? Remember the words of Jimmy Carter that nearly cost him the 1976 election: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Upon reading Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, it would seem that Carter’s confession, while ill-advised, was true! While thoughts and actions can have different results, Our Lord made it quite clear that thoughts are as important as actions. Jesus knew the evil thoughts of the Scribes and he knows ours.

Fortunately, Jesus telling us to get rid of our hands or eyes if they cause us to lust was hyperbole or Jimmy Carter (and much of the rest of the world) would be minus both hands and eyes. He is, however, telling us that our evil thoughts can be controlled. We can renounce every one of them and replace them with godly thoughts. Max Lucado describes it this way: ”You can be the air traffic controller of your mental airport. You occupy the control tower and can direct the mental traffic of your world.” When we keep the runway filled with godly thoughts, the bad ones circling around have no place to land. Our thoughts are as much a part of whether or not we love our neighbor as are our actions.

What would our lives be like if we fasted from things like anger, lust, envy, animosity, haughtiness, disdain, revenge, irritation, and impatience, not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts and, not just during Lent, but all of the time?

We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. [2 Corinthians 10:4-5 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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MEMORY WORK REDUX

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. [Matthew 6:16-18a (HCSB)]

sunflowerA young pastor friend admits to not being good at reciting Bible verses from memory. A product of the computer/Internet age, he just taps in a key word or topic and, almost instantly, the verses are right in front of him in whatever translation he wants. There’s no need to memorize verses when, with just a few keystrokes, the words appear. I may read the Bible every day and predate the age of computers but I’m no better at knowing verses by heart than he. If I  remember my passwords for both computer and Internet, I can find whatever verses I need. While that works when I’m researching or writing, my desk is not where most witnessing opportunities occur. I could plead age as an excuse but I didn’t memorize Bible verses even when my brain was younger and possessed far less useless trivia than it does now. My pastor friend and I both profess to love God’s word and yet we don’t seem to love it enough to learn it by heart.

For decades, I have given up some thing or things for Lent, often sweets and alcohol. I know those minor denials have nothing to do with my salvation or righteousness. They are just a way to remind me Christ’s difficult days in the wilderness and what God gave up when He sacrificed His only son for my sins. Although Jesus told his followers that fasting should be private, I often found myself needing to explain my refusal to partake in the host’s decadent dessert or the great bottle of wine he purchased in Napa. I also admit to occasionally feeling a sense of self-righteous pride when I denied myself chocolate chip cookies or a glass of pinot noir. Since self-denial should be private and never lead to self-righteousness, God and I decided to rethink my Lenten practices.

Last June, in a devotion called “Memory Work,” I wrote about four-year old Tanner Hemness who memorized a Bible verse for every letter of the alphabet. At that time, I downloaded the twenty-six verses he memorized with the intention of doing the same thing. Somehow, my good intention got side-tracked and I stopped after “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7]

Rather than a season of fasting, this Lent will be my season of growth. There will be no need to worry about looking sad or explaining why I won’t eat someone’s homemade pie. Rather than a period of self-denial, it will be one of self-discipline. If four-year old Tanner could memorize those twenty-six verses in seven months, even with my neuron-challenged brain, I should be able to do it in the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. After all, I’ve already learned one! We are to put God’s word to work in our lives and the first place to start is by putting His word into our hearts. God’s word in my heart can only put a smile on my face and His promises on my lips.

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. [Dallas Willard]

This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. [Joshua 1:8 (HCSB)]

I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart. [Psalm 119:111 (HCSB)]

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OBSERVING LENT – Ash Wednesday 2018

“We have fasted before you!” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!”
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?” [Isaiah 58:3-5 (NLT)]

ibis - great egret - corkscrewEvery evening, a man went to the local pub and ordered three beers. When asked why three, he explained that he ordered the two extra beers in honor of his two dear brothers who lived far away. One evening, he ordered only two beers. Assuming the worst, the bartender extended sympathy for the loss of a brother but the man explained that both brothers were fit as fiddles. The beers he’d ordered were for them. “It’s me that’s not drinking tonight,” he added, “You see, I’ve given up beer for Lent!”

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a period of forty days (not counting Sundays) that commemorate those forty days of His fasting and temptation in the desert. Traditionally it is a time to repent, reflect, and prepare for the observance of both Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Some people fast or give up certain habits or behaviors during this season. Others add additional Bible study or prayer time. For those who observe it, Lent becomes a season of self-discipline.

While some denominations observe Lent, many others don’t. Since Lent’s observation isn’t founded in Scripture, the choice to observe Lent really is a personal one. What we must never do is make the mistake of thinking that God will love us more for our Lenten sacrifice or that giving up something like gum, candy, alcohol, meat or television has any bearing on our salvation. Jesus took care of our salvation on the cross and God’s love could never be greater than it is right now. No amount of sacrifice can earn God’s free gift of grace.

Although Jesus fasted, he never commanded us to do so. His words on fasting tend to focus on people’s hypocrisy when fasting—they often fasted to impress people with their holiness rather than grow closer to God. Self-sacrifice is not to be done ostentatiously but humbly, quietly, and privately. However we choose to observe Lent, unlike the man at the bar, it should be done sincerely. God sees into our hearts and knows when we’re repentant and genuinely seeking Him or just going through the motions!

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

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CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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ACCEPTING AMENDS

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. [Matthew 5:7 (NLT)]

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. [Luke 6:37 (NLT)]

beach sunflowerYesterday, I wrote about making amends; today, I write about accepting them. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the young man realizes the error of his ways, returns to his father, admits his failure, and is forgiven. Although the son offers to act as a servant, his father doesn’t ask for amends or acts of penance; rather, he welcomes him back as an honored son. It’s a beautiful story about God’s redeeming grace and forgiveness. Like any good story, however, there’s conflict—the prodigal’s older brother. When he returns from working in the fields to the feast celebrating his brother’s return, he becomes angry and resentful. The parable concludes with the father’s explanation that the celebration is because, “He was lost, but now he is found!”

If, instead of a parable, this was a true story, what would happen next? Even with his father’s forgiveness, the boy still would face the consequences of his foolishness; having already gotten and squandered his money, there would be no inheritance when his father died. Although making amends wasn’t necessary for the father’s forgiveness, a truly repentant son would want to find a way to make things better. Perhaps he would work extra hours in the fields, help the homeless or counsel rebellious young men. While the boy’s relationship with his father was restored, I doubt the relationship with his elder brother mended so easily.

The older boy rightfully resented all of the extra work required of him during the prodigal’s absence, but there was more to his anger. He’d watched his father walk out to the gate each morning to wait hopefully for his younger son’s return, only to see his father return crestfallen each evening when he didn’t show up. He’d heard his father’s sobs when news of the prodigal’s disgraceful life reached his ears. When famine hit the land, he saw his father pace in the middle of the night as he worried how his younger son would survive. He knew his father, having given so much money to his younger son, was having financial difficulties. He’d seen the toll his brother’s abysmal behavior had taken on the entire family and wanted to see his brother chastised rather than given a party. He wanted to see him in sackcloth and ashes rather than wearing the best robe in the house. His brother deserved punishment and humiliation rather than a celebration. Being forgiven just shouldn’t be that easy!

As sinners, we should try to make things right with the people we’ve offended. Yet, in the prodigal’s situation, whatever he did to make amends probably would never be enough for his elder brother. Unable to understand his father’s amazing grace, rather than apologies or amends, the older boy wanted retribution. Nevertheless, as offended parties, we don’t get to choose how apologies are offered or amends are made, nor do we get to withhold our forgiveness if we’re not satisfied. When someone comes to us with a repentant heart and asks forgiveness, we can’t demand the type and amount of humble pie he must eat before getting it. We just have to forgive.

We are to forgive so that we may enjoy God’s goodness without feeling the weight of anger burning deep within our hearts. Forgiveness does not mean we recant the fact that what happened to us was wrong. Instead, we roll our burdens onto the Lord and allow Him to carry them for us. [Charles Stanley]

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

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CLEAN IT UP

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today…” [Luke 19:8-9a (NLT)]

dogI laughed at the picture of a large dog, with what looked to be a smile on his face, on his hind legs, holding a poop pan with one paw, a rake with the other, and scooping up a pile of dog dirt. The sign read: “Pets, people and parks – When you pick up your pile, everyone smiles.” Yes, we all smile when people clean up the mess left behind by their dogs. Unfortunately, it takes more than a pooper scooper to clean up the mess we leave behind when we sin.

There’s an old Jewish tale about a loquacious businessman who learned a secret about another man in town. It was so sensational that he couldn’t help but pass it along to his family, friends, and neighbors. When the man who was the tale’s topic discovered how his personal life had been broadcast throughout town, he complained to the rabbi who then summoned the tale bearer to his office. At first, the gossiper defended his actions—after all, the story was true! True or false, responded the rabbi, the story was not his to tell and he’d done incredible harm to the man’s reputation. Asking how to make amends, the gossipy man was told to return the next day with his best feather pillow. Once back in the rabbi’s office, he was told to slit open the pillow and shake out all of the feathers. When the rabbi told him then to collect the feathers and put them all back into the pillow, the man protested. The window had been open and a breeze had taken the feathers all over town; getting them back was impossible. “That,” replied the rabbi, “is what happens whenever a secret leaves your mouth. It flies on the wind and can never be gotten back.” Aside from being a lesson about gossip and guarding one’s tongue, it also points out the difficulty of cleaning up the messes that we can make in the lives of others when we sin.

Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to make amends for our failings; other times, there’s no way we can ever make something right or undo what’s been done. Fortunately, making restitution is not a requirement for God’s forgiveness; for that we just need genuine repentance. Although making amends wasn’t a requirement for Zacchaeus’ salvation, his repentance led him to do just that. While the New Testament doesn’t specifically require us to make restitution for our wrongs, Jesus did tell us that if we’ve hurt or offended our brother in any way, we must go and be reconciled.

Unfortunately, while God will forgive us our sins, not everyone else is so willing or able. Reconciliation is not always possible and, unlike a pile of poop, not everything can be picked up or made clean again. The mess left from some sins, like the feathers in the wind, can never be made right. Other sins are best left buried in the past; making direct amends in those cases would only do more harm or bring more pain. While the sins of the past don’t affect our salvation, they do affect our present and often leave us with regrets and guilt. If we can’t make amends directly to the people we’ve hurt, we can prayerfully consider other ways, such as service or giving (as did Zacchaeus), to indirectly right our wrongs. While we may not be able to fix everything we’ve broken, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live new and improved lives and make the world a better place in which to live.

Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. [Matthew 3:8 (NLT)]

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. [Matthew 5:23-24 (NLT)]

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