CARPE DIEM – THE NEW YEAR

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

Hibiscus trionum - Flower-of-an-Hour
Several years ago, a young woman with Parkinson’s told me, “Every day I wake up, I realize that I’m the best I ever will be and it’s only downhill from here.” Rather than complaining, she was explaining how that knowledge made her determined to seize and delight in each day. Unlike her, I’m not suffering from a degenerative disease (other than age); nevertheless, her words continue to haunt me. No matter how healthy or happy we may (or may not) be today, we have no guarantee that tomorrow will be any better. Life is precarious and our tomorrows are uncertain. Yet, we so often squander the hours and days we’re given.

We regularly called a friend whose remaining time was counted in weeks. Having exhausted all treatment options, he was painfully aware of being on a steep downhill run. Like the woman with Parkinson’s, however, he refused to let that knowledge steal his joy in the present. In fact, his awareness of life’s fragility seemed to give him more appreciation of every moment with which God blessed him. Thankful for every morning he saw, he was determined to make that day his best one by rejoicing in its simplest gifts. Of course, being a man of faith, he knew that death does not have the final word and had no fear of what lay ahead of him. Nevertheless, until that time came (as it did last week), he continued to seize the day with all the joy and gusto he could muster.

A new year is fast approaching and, as I started making plans for 2023, I thought about the uncertainty of our tomorrows, not just for my friend, but for all of us. Why do we waste a single breath with anger, regret, resentment, or complaint? Why do we fritter away even five seconds in self-pity or worry when they should be spent in thankfulness and joy? Why do we see the day’s imperfections with twenty/twenty vision when we’re blind to the day’s blessings? The old saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is only partially true. We all have expiration dates and today well could be the last day of our lives here on earth. Shouldn’t we make it the best one we’ll have?

Perhaps we can learn from the Hibiscus trionum. Called “Flower-of-an-Hour,” each flower blooms during a single sunny day and remains open only a few hours. Nevertheless, the flower makes the most of its brief time by turning to the sun, getting pollinated, providing pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies, and sharing its leaves with caterpillars and rabbits. Why don’t we make the most of our time in the sun? It shouldn’t take cancer or Parkinson’s to make us realize that today is the best day of our lives! It is the day the Lord has made—the precious day the Lord has given us in this precarious world—and we should rejoice in each and every moment of it!

Father, forgive us when we fail to make the most of the days with which you have generously blessed us. Help us to seize today with joy and thanksgiving and be glad in it. No matter what the future may bring, may each day be our best one ever!

The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today. [Harriet Beecher Stowe]

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:23-24 (NLT)]

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is. [Psalm 39:4 (NLT)]

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HANUKKAH (2) – FEAST OF DEDICATION

Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations. [Isaiah 42:1 (NLT)]

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (NLT)]
menorah

Most of us associate Hanukkah with Judaism’s menorah. Although the books of the Maccabees mention the relighting of the Temple’s lampstand/menorah, they make no mention of a miracle of oil. However, the Talmud (a collection of discussion and commentary on Jewish history, customs, law and culture) does. It claims that, while only one small flask of consecrated oil was found to light the menorah that first day, the lamp remained lit the entire eight days of celebration until new oil could be consecrated.

Although the Temple’s menorah had seven branches with wicks that burned fresh olive oil, Hanukkah’s menorah usually has nine branches with nine candles. Eight of those candles represent each day of the feast. The ninth candle, often placed in the center and slightly higher than the rest, is called the shamash, meaning servant. Rather than lighting each candle with a match, only the shamash is lit. It is this “servant” candle’s flame that is used to ignite the rest. Upon learning this, I couldn’t help but think of the Messianic prophecies of a suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. That servant was Jesus—He was the shamash who brought God’s light into the world and, like the shamash candle, He gave His light to our lives. By trusting in Him, Jesus said we become  “children of the light,” and, as His children, we are His servants. The Great Commission tells us that we are to be the shamash candles who continue to bring His light into our troubled world.

Thinking of Hanukkah merely as a festival of lights, however, misses the heart of this story—the rededication of the Temple. When a ragtag group of Jewish rebels retook the Temple from the powerful Seleucid army, the Temple had been desecrated and profaned. Before resuming worship there, the Temple had to be cleaned, the idols removed, the pagan altar dismantled, and a new altar consecrated. Only after they made it a fitting place for Jehovah to live did they re-dedicate the Temple to God.

For the people of Judah, the Temple was where God resided. For the people of Jesus, however, it is our bodies—our hearts, minds, and souls—that serve as a temple for God’s Holy Spirit. As believers, we are God’s temple individually and, as the body or church of Christ, we are His temple collectively. As His temple, we should be as holy and pure as were the Temple’s menorah and altar. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to walk through this sinful world and not have some of its filth contaminate us. Things like hate, anger, prejudice, envy, pride, deception, and greed defile us as much as that pig’s blood and idol of Zeus defiled Jerusalem’s Temple. Worse, as the collective temple of God, we’ve seen His church desecrated with things like corruption, exploitation, abuse, hypocrisy, bigotry, and shoddy, distorted and false doctrine. Like the Maccabees, do we need to do some cleaning of His holy temple?

The season of Hanukkah reminds us that Jesus is the servant whose light overcame the darkness of the world. My prayer for this Christmas season is that we allow Hanukkah’s story and traditions to inspire us so that we rid our lives of all that defiles His temple. Let us rededicate ourselves to the Lord and, as His servants, may we glorify Him in all we do.

He that chooses God, devotes himself to God as the vessels of the sanctuary were consecrated and set apart from common to holy uses, so he that has chosen God to be his God, has dedicated himself to God, and will no more be devoted to profane uses. [Thomas Watson]

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)]

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WHITE LIES

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [Leviticus 19:11 (ESV)]

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. … A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish. [Proverbs 14:5,19:9 (ESV)]

squirrel
In the movie Liar Liar, comedian Jim Carrey portrayed a glib lawyer who plays fast and loose with the truth. After his son wishes his father would tell the truth, the insincere and conniving man finds it impossible to lie and immediately gets himself into hot water. Many of his problems, however, don’t come from telling the truth as much as they do from his callousness and insensitivity when he does. The self-centered man doesn’t know the difference between brutal honesty and truthful tact, crudeness and candor, vulgarity and restraint, or rudeness and civility. Among other things, the comedy illustrates that lying, while wrong, is often far easier than telling the truth.

At one time or another (probably more if we sell used cars), we’ve all told what we think of as “white lies.” Deception of any kind didn’t exist until Satan, the father of all lies, brought it into the garden. The deceit continued as both Abraham and Isaac lied about their wives, Sarah lied to God about laughing, Jacob and Rebecca tricked Isaac, Laban and Leah hoodwinked Jacob, Joseph’s brothers lied to Jacob, and Potiphar’s wife lied about Joseph. The lies continued as Israel’s midwives lied to Pharaoh, Pharaoh lied to Moses, Rahab lied to the king’s men, Samson lied to Delilah, Saul lied to David, both Michal and Jonathon lied to Saul, David lied to Ahimelech, Gehazi lied to Naaman, Elisha misled the Syrian army, Peter lied about following Jesus, and Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter!

Some of those liars were good people and others were not. They all lied for different reasons and some of their falsehoods were less treacherous than others. Is there such a thing as an innocent white lie and, if so, when does it become a guilty gray? Since Rahab’s lie protected Israel’s spies, is there such as thing as a righteous lie? Can we lie to protect ourselves or someone else, to prevent needless worry, or to spare feelings? If all lying is wrong, can deception be less wrong in some situations?

Scripture, however, doesn’t appear to split hairs when it comes to lies. The Israelites were commanded to be truthful in all things and lying is condemned throughout Scripture. Jesus said he was the way and the truth and truth isn’t relative. Regardless of its size or intent, any lie is a deception and the Bible seems pretty clear about deceit; God doesn’t like it! The end never justifies the means if the means involves sin.

For the most part, a white lie is just the lazy way out of a sticky situation. It’s easier to spin off a lie than to find a way to be honest, tactful, and considerate. Nevertheless, when we tell people the dress isn’t too tight when it is, the check is in the mail when it isn’t, the procedure won’t hurt when it will, or we’re busy when we aren’t, we’ve done more than lie; we’ve given false witness and stolen the truth. Moreover, when people look in the mirror, see the postmark, feel the pain, or discover the duplicity, we’ve lost our credibility both as a friend and a Christian. While it may not be easy, it is possible to be loving and honest at the same time.

On the flip side, perhaps we also should be more willing to hear the truth. When we ask if the pants make our butt look big, do we look tired, were we wrong, or did the family enjoy the tofu casserole, we better not take offense when we get an honest answer.

Hang this question up in your homes – “What would Jesus do?” and then think of another – “How would Jesus do it?” For what Jesus would do, and how He would do it, may always stand as the best guide to us. [Charles Spurgeon]

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [Ephesians 4:15,25 (ESV)]

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REMEMBERING

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. [Psalm 103:1-2 (NLT)]


Any other Thanksgiving, we would have travelled to be with family or entertained friends and family here but my recent surgery meant neither of those options were feasible, so it was just the two of us. Thanksgiving, of course, really isn’t about a bountiful feast of turkey and the trimmings or even about family and friends (although it’s a blessing when we can share it with them). Thanksgiving simply is about giving thanks—and we can do that regardless of where we are, what we’re eating, or who we’re with!

My husband and I spent most of the day looking through old photo albums. Having been married over 55 years, there were decades of memories packed into those old pictures and, with every memory, came a reason to be thankful. From pictures of our first date to our family gathering this year, we had countless reasons for gratitude. We were most grateful for the many years we had with his parents (who lived to 96 and 102) and the years we continue to enjoy with our children and grands; many are not so blessed. Pictures of every holiday and celebration seemed to include our family around a table laden with food and we thanked God that we never went hungry or homeless. Seeing photos of friends who became family, many of whom are gone, made us thankful that God brought them into our lives. As we recalled the trips we took, the places we visited, the houses we owned, the amazing people we met, and the adventures we had, we were filled with gratitude for those opportunities. Red-letter days like graduations, birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries were memorialized in photos and we were thankful for the arrival of so many milestones. There also were countless photos of unremarkable times—everything from playing euchre with Grandpa, carving pumpkins for Halloween, walking in the woods with a little one, grilling burgers, and playing house with the grands to snow ball fights, baking cookies, shooting hoops, children running under the sprinkler, and enjoying s’more around the campfire. In retrospect, those ordinary moments were extraordinary and we were thankful for each one!

Of course, we laughed at many of the outfits, hairdos, silly expressions, and crazy situations we saw in those photos. When we weren’t laughing, there were sweet tears of nostalgia leaking from our eyes. All in all, our quiet day of Thanksgiving was a joyful day of giving thanks as we remembered how blessed we have been every moment of every day of our lives. Granted, we didn’t have any photos memorializing the tears, anguish, pain, affliction, hospitalizations, and grief of over 55 years. Nevertheless, evidence that God’s powerful hand was with us in both the good times and bad was in those pictures. They gave witness to answered prayers of things like healing, sobriety, health, achievement, provision, forgiveness, restored relationships, safety, protection, guidance, and success—and we gave thanks.

God told the Israelites to remember His word and commandments, His judgement, the ways He dealt with sin, and the way He tested them while safely leading them through the wilderness. God also told the Israelites to remember His goodness, all He did for them, His wondrous works, and His abundant provision! Yet, when it came time to claim Canaan—a land where they’d eat crops they hadn’t planted and live in cities they hadn’t built—the Israelites forgot God’s wondrous ways, grew fearful, and wanted to return to slavery in Egypt!

It’s in remembering God’s past faithfulness and bountiful provision that we learn to trust God with our unknown futures. Remembering God’s many blessings also leads to thanksgiving and it is the act of giving thanks that leads to us to joy. Indeed, in spite of missing our loved ones, our quiet Thanksgiving was one of the most joyful holidays we’ve experienced!

This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable. [Hannah Whitall Smith]

But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (NLT)]

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AT ALL TIMES, IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES (Thanksgiving Day)

Praise the Lord! I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty. His righteousness never fails. [Psalm 111:1-3 (NLT)]

Great Blue Heron
As we gathered for worship that Saturday night, it was just ten days after Hurricane Ian devastated our part of Florida and the mood was somber at best. Many of the regulars were missing and, for every story of hope, there were two more of unspeakable pain and unbelievable loss. Nevertheless, the pastor announced the theme of our service was gratitude and we began our worship singing Now Thank We All Our God, a hymn more associated with Thanksgiving Day than natural disasters. Indeed, as we thanked God “with heart and hands and voices,” my husband and I were thankful; for us, Ian was little more than an inconvenience in our lives. Most people, however, were not so blessed and I wondered how thankful they were.

The gratitude theme continued in the day’s Scripture starting with Psalm 111 and the words, “Praise the Lord,” followed by the miraculous healing of Naaman, the master’s lavish grace and mercy seen in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, and Jesus’ healing of ten lepers, a story familiar to most of us. Although ten lepers were healed, only one returned to thank Jesus. Naturally, we laud the example of the one who expressed his gratitude and find fault with the nine who didn’t. Nevertheless, as soon as the ten saw their clean skin, there’s no doubt they all were incredibly thankful. As lepers, they’d been pariahs from society and literally untouchable but Jesus gave them a new lease on life. Although only one returned to express his gratitude, can we honestly fault the other nine? The lepers were desperate to return to their families, friends, homes, and trades but that couldn’t happen until the priests declared them clean! Like children who want to play with their new toys before thanking the grandma who gave them their presents, they were so focused on reclaiming their lives that they lost sight of the One who restored them!

Are we that much different from those nine? Do we ever get so caught up in the here and now— hurrying hither and yon, coping with our challenges, pursuing our goals, attempting to make do with what seems like not enough, dealing with difficult situations and even more difficult people—that we fail to express gratitude to the Giver of All Gifts? Do we let life’s trials or tasks keep us from giving thanks?

I’m reminded of a story told by Ann Voskamp in her book, One Thousand Gifts. As a farmer’s wife and mother of six (now seven) children (all of them homeschooled), she clearly knows the chaos, turmoil, and busyness of everyday life that so often overwhelms us and takes our focus off God. One morning, she unknowingly stepped into a war zone between siblings and the boys she loves behaved in a distinctly unlovable way. A tossed piece of toast became the proverbial straw that broke this mother’s back and, as she slammed her hands on the table, the exasperated woman asked herself, “How do I see grace, give thanks, find joy in this sin-stinking place?”

Remembering how Jesus gave thanks that night in the upper room, she took a deep breath and, focusing on God, gave thanks out loud. She thanked the Lord for her boys, toast, the hope of forgiveness, and for being a God who wouldn’t leave any of them in their ugly mess. Like the one leper who returned to thank Jesus, she paused in the midst of all that was happening and offered thanks to the Giver of all things who was there with her in that kitchen.

Whether we’re dealing with a child’s temper tantrum, undergoing chemo, straining to make ends meet, burying a loved one, laboring in the kitchen to get the turkey on the table, tarping a leaky roof, or shoveling mud out of a flooded house, we must never be too busy, too intent on our task, too angry, too tired, too broken-hearted, too exhausted, or too focused on our circumstances to turn to God and express our gratitude for His blessings! The only way any of us can see grace, give thanks, or find joy in this “sin-stinking place” of hurricanes, war, rage, disease, and loss is with the eyes of gratitude. Even in the worst of circumstances, there always is something or someone for which to be grateful.

Nothing comes close to God’s gifts of unconditional love, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life and there is no way we can thank Him enough for those gifts. Thanksgiving shouldn’t be limited to the fourth Thursday in November; regardless of the circumstances, every moment of each day should be one of gratitude and giving thanks!

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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LOST

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Trapp family chapel - Vermont
As devout Jews, every year Joseph, Mary, and their family made the seventy-mile trek from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After spending the week in Jerusalem, they gathered with others to make the three-day journey back to Nazareth. It wasn’t until making camp that first night that they discovered Jesus was missing. At first, Joseph and Mary appear to be neglectful and careless parents and little better than the absent-minded McCallisters (of Home Alone) who misplaced their son Kevin not once but twice! After God entrusted His only son to their care, can you imagine Mary and Joseph trying to explain to the Lord how they managed to lose Him?

Mary and Joseph’s error, however, is understandable. Jerusalem normally had a population estimated at 80,000 but, during the Passover, it would have swelled to around 400,000 as people crowded into the city for the festival. Entire villages often travelled together. Traditionally, the women and children would have been in the front of the caravan while the men followed in the rear. Being twelve, Jesus was neither a young child nor a grown man and could have been in either group. As the people gathered for their return trip to Nazareth, each parent probably assumed Jesus was with the other one. Once they discovered His absence, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem the next morning to search for the missing boy and eventually found Him.

While at a mall some 45 years ago, we lost our youngest child in the same way—I thought he was with his father while he thought the boy was with me! Once he and I reconnected and discovered that our child was with neither of us, we spent a frantic ten minutes until we found him enjoying a lollipop at mall security. I can’t imagine waiting days before he was found! No wonder Mary’s anxiety and fear turned into a little scolding when Jesus was discovered!

Bible scholars disagree on how long Jesus actually was missing. Some say it was a total of three days: one day to discover His absence, another day to return to Jerusalem, and the third day to find Him. Other scholars, however, interpret Luke’s words to mean that after the two days of travel, Joseph and Mary searched Jerusalem for three days. Whether three days or five, it appears that the temple was not the first place Mary and Joseph looked. Knowing Jesus as His parents did, shouldn’t it have been the first place they looked? When they finally found Him there, Jesus was surprised by their frantic search. We now understand Jesus’ rather impertinent words to his parents: “‘Why did you need to search?’ he said. ‘Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” [2:49]

Like Joseph and Mary, do we make incorrect assumptions about Jesus’ presence in our lives? Do we expect Him to follow us or us to follow Him? Do we make the Pharisees’ mistake of assuming that being religious is the same as being righteous? Do we assume pardon without any penitence or forgiveness when we won’t forgive? Do we assume we’re saved without having been transformed? Do we assume He’ll answer our prayers without our answering His call? Do we assume we’re living for Him without first having died with Him? Do we take Jesus’ presence for granted? Do we expect him to take our journey or are we taking His? It’s never Jesus who is lost but, without Him, we surely are!

As Joseph and Mary learned, if we discover Jesus is missing, a good place to start looking for Him is in His Father’s house.

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [1 Chronicles 16:11 (NLT)]

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