A NEW SYMBOL OF LOVE

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

Last week, I saw a video of a prayer service in the streets of a major American city. “Give a shout!” called the pastor and the crowd shouted back before raising their voices in song. In another time, I’d have been thrilled to see so many people gathered to praise Jesus, but these are not normal times. This was in a state where COVID-19 cases are on the increase and even those considered low risk have been asked to wear face coverings and refrain from gathering in groups greater than ten. Nevertheless, the crowd of several hundred stood tightly together and few wore face masks.

Franklin Roosevelt was wrong when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” There’s much we should fear; after all, Scripture tells us to fear God. Along with fearing God, the fear of both spiritual and physical danger can keep us safe. The minute David put his eyes on the naked Bathsheba, he was in spiritual danger but, instead of turning around in fear, he walked straight into the enemy’s trap. The good fear of physical danger is what gets us in the basement during a tornado warning or puts up shutters before a hurricane. It’s the fear that seeks shelter from lightning, looks both ways even after the light turns green, gets vaccinated, wears seat belts, and puts life jackets on toddlers when they wade in the ocean. It’s when we allow our fear of spiritual or physical danger to turn into preoccupation or obsession, when we lose perspective or faith, or when we become anxious, neurotic, hopeless, incompetent or incapacitated, that good fear goes bad.

Our bodies are not our own; like everything else we have, they belong to God. As His stewards, we are expected to take good care of them; a certain amount of fear helps us do that by assessing risks. There may be times we are called to risk our lives, as are firemen when entering a burning building. Needlessly risking health and safety, however, is not God’s intention for us. “You’re afraid!” is not an insult when it comes to COVID-19; we all should have a healthy fear of this virus. As Christians, we live by faith not fear, but that doesn’t mean we live foolishly or inconsiderately!

It’s not just the elderly or those with secondary conditions who are at risk. One of the mysteries of this disease is that relatively healthy young people, including small children and teens, can become critically ill or die. Everyone should have a healthy fear of this virus and respect it the same way we would a bear on the back deck: by keeping our distance! Moreover, our reckless actions have ramifications and can cause collateral damage. Every attendee at that prayer rally later interacted with family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers; their carelessness might cost someone else their health or even their life! Christians are called to love and that love should respect, honor, and value the lives of others as much as their own.

Ignoring scientific data, our state, like many others, is re-opening and some churches have followed suit. After all, empty pews often mean empty collection baskets. While our church, like many, wants to resume services, we readily admit to being afraid. We take the numbers and threat seriously and needlessly bringing ourselves or our church family into a risky situation is irresponsible. “Let the vulnerable stay home!” say some while other churches tell those over 65 they can’t attend. I don’t think the Lord who spoke of leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who was lost, would agree. Every single life mattered to Him and it is the most vulnerable God has called us to serve!  Believing that the church should be a place of sanctuary not infection, our church is not yet meeting in person. It’s not a popular choice, but Jesus was never about being popular. He was about love—about doing the right thing—about caring for the health and safety of others.

Face masks and social distancing aren’t about politics; they’re about love! When Bishop Michael Curry was on the Today show last week, he spoke of choosing to live in the way of love which, he explained, is seeking the good of others as well as of self. After placing his two hands in the shape of a heart, he said there was a new symbol of love: a face mask! “I wear it to protect you and you wear it to protect me,” explained the Bishop. Me doing all I can to protect you from harm and you doing all you can to protect me exemplify Christian love! Right now, for many of us, along with wearing a face mask, that means continuing to worship together from a distance!

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. … We love each other because he loved us first. [1 John 4:10-11,19 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

In another Pearls before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), we see Goat, in the middle of the desert, on the phone with Rat. “My car broke down and I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere. Can you help me?” asks Goat. “Sure,” answers Rat, “I’m sending you thoughts and prayers.” In the last frame, Rat says to Pig, “It’s so much easier than getting up.”

Following Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in 2017, I saw a meme of an empty cargo truck with the words, “Don’t worry Texas! The first load of thoughts and prayers just arrived!” Let’s face it, thoughts and prayers don’t help people in the same way that donating blood, packing supplies, or sending money, clothing, food, or clean water do. But, as Rat said to Pig, sending thoughts and prayers is “so much easier than getting up!”

The old cliché doesn’t even make sense. Although we can think about someone, how do we send them our thoughts? Does it involve telepathy or clairvoyance? Sending anyone other than God our prayers seems an awful lot like idolatry and promised prayers frequently never materialize. I suspect that the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan told the injured traveler he was sending thoughts and prayers before departing and leaving the man half dead beside the road. Rather than promising thoughts and prayers, it was the Samaritan who compassionately served the man’s needs.

Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer but He also was a man who turned His thoughts and prayers into action! Rather than sending thoughts and prayers to the widow of Nain, He returned her son to life! Instead of sending thoughts and prayers to the man with the deformed hand, the ten lepers, or blind Bartimaeus, Jesus healed them! He didn’t send thoughts and prayers to His mother when she ran out of wine in Cana or to Martha and Mary when Lazarus lay in the tomb. When the disciples said the crowd was hungry, rather than telling them to send the people home with their thoughts and prayers, He said, “Feed them.” Whether an observant Jew, collaborating tax collector, Roman centurion, adulterer, demoniac, or Samaritan, Jesus never responded to their suffering simply by sending thoughts and prayers.

Since seeing that meme in 2017, I no longer say that I’m sending my thoughts and prayers but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about and praying for those who are suffering. It’s that I know I am called to do more. Prayer without action is as incomplete as faith without works. While we may not be able to reach out and personally impact the lives of those for whom we pray, we can pray for those who are serving them. As we pray for others, we find our hearts and eyes are opened not only to their needs but also to the needs of those right in front of us—the people whose lives we can change. We can reach out and touch them in some small way, even if it’s with cans of soup for the food bank, shopping for a neighbor, or talking with someone whose skin is a different color than ours.

Right now, our fallen world is filled with pain, anger, disease, hate, hopelessness, and sorrow. Economic wreckage, racism, a pandemic, and political unrest have come together in a perfect storm that is raining chaos, fear, frustration and violence. In Sunday’s Op-Ed for The Washington Post, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, said, “We must still choose love.” That love consists of more than sending thoughts and prayers. Instead of sending thoughts, I’m examining my own thoughts and attitudes to determine whether I am part of the problem or can become part of the solution. In addition to praying for the those who are hurting, afraid, angry, or troubled, I am praying that God will show us all how to participate in the healing so necessary in this troubled time. After asking what love looks like, the Bishop answered his own question: ”I believe that is what Jesus of Nazareth taught us. It looks like the Biblical Good Samaritan, an outsider who spends his time and money healing somebody he doesn’t know or even like.”

The following is a prayer for “the power of the Spirit among the people of God.” Written by a team of Lutheran and Episcopal prayer leaders, it is meant to unite believers in common prayer and revive us for a common mission. Let that mission be one of love.

God of all power and love, we give thanks for your unfailing presence and the hope you provide in times of uncertainty and loss. Send your Holy Spirit to enkindle in us your holy fire. Revive us to live as Christ’s body in the world: a people who pray, worship, learn, break bread, share life, heal neighbors, bear good news, seek justice, rest and grow in the Spirit. Wherever and however we gather, unite us in common prayer and send us in common mission, that we and the whole creation might be restored and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. [1 John 4:10-12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

PROTECT THEM, LORD

I love you, Lord; you are my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. I called on the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and he saved me from my enemies. [Psalm 18:1-3 (NLT)]

mockingbird chick

Back when parks were open and the world seemed a safer place, we witnessed a parent’s nightmare. While the father was changing his toddler’s diaper, his four-year old daughter wandered away and disappeared in the zoo! We saw him frantically asking people, “Did you see a little girl in a pink bike helmet?” As he went racing down the path toward the alligators and lions, we went toward the lemurs and play area. Fortunately that pink helmet made her easy to spot as she stood watching the black bears lumber through their enclosure. While walking her back to her father, I said a prayer of thanksgiving that she would return safely home that day.

I thought of that anxious father the following day when reading Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephan Pastis. Goat was extending sympathy to Pig for his grandma’s death when Pig carried him off. In the next few frames, Pig carted off his friends Duck and Cat. All of Pig’s friends were stuffed in a box labeled “Bad things stay away!” A sign above them read, “SAFE PLACE WHERE I CAN KEEP AN EYE ON EVERYONE I LOVE SO NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO THEM.” In the last frame, Goat tried to explain that life doesn’t work that way but Pig said, “Don’t distract me. I’m standing guard.”

Like Pig, I wish I could keep bad things from happening to those I love. Of course, if parents and grandparents could, we’d erect a wall of protection around our loved ones to shield them, not just from death, but also from pandemics, heartache, injury, disappointment, and pain.

It would be a miracle if the worst that happens to that little girl is getting lost at the zoo. While her pink bike helmet may protect her when she falls off her trike, it’s of little use elsewhere! We live in a fallen world: a world with disease, defiance, pain, sorrow, falseness, mistakes, greed, betrayal, loss, violence, malice, and death. Chances are that our children and grands will wander further astray than to the bears’ enclosure at the local zoo.

We protect our gates, are cautious of what we allow into our homes, wear masks, sanitize, wash our hands, and stay alert to the dangers around us but what about when our loved ones leave home to lead their own lives? Unlike Pig, we can’t stuff those we love in a box and stand guard over them night and day. Instead, we teach, encourage, warn, guide, lead, love, discipline, forgive, pray, equip them, and then let them go. Although we provide them with God’s armor, we can’t make them accept or wear it. Sadly, there is no fool-proof way to protect our loved ones from Columbines or Sandy Hooks any more than we can from pandemics, disappointment, grief, cancer, mental illness, rejection, failure, or death.

I used to ask God to be with my children and grands until I realized how silly my request was; He’s with them always! I now ask God to guard them from evil by making His presence known to them and His voice heard by them. As I pray God’s blessing of protection over my loved ones, I give them to Him, trusting that He will bring them safely home, if not in this world, then in the next!

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy. For you bless the godly, O Lord; you surround them with your shield of love. [Psalm 5:11-12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

PERPETUAL

I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. [John 5:24 (NLT)]

monarch - caterpillar - butterflyDeath is the consequence of sin—of living in a fallen world—but Jesus promised that all believers have eternal life. In the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm our belief in this “life everlasting.” Eternal life, life in perpetuity, life forever and ever: how can that be? For centuries thousands of inventors have attempted to make a perpetual motion machine that will run indefinitely with no input of energy and have failed every time. Apparently perpetual motion violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics. If perpetual motion is an impossibility, perpetual life seems improbable, as well. It seems to violate all sorts of natural laws let alone human logic. God, however, isn’t limited by thermodynamics, any other law of nature, or human understanding; after all, He’s the author of them all!

The Greek word translated as “eternal” is aiónios which means eternal, forever, everlasting or perpetual. When combined with the Greek zoe (meaning life), it focuses not just on quantity of time but also on the quality of that time! The eternal life promised in the gospel isn’t just about the number of years; it is about the fullness of that unending life. Independent of time as we know it, eternal life is not something for which we need to hope. Jesus didn’t promise eternal life at some point in the future. Using the present tense, He said that “anyone who believes has eternal life” [John 6:47] For Christians, eternal life starts when we first believe in Christ. It has begun!

When our heart stops beating, our brain ceases functioning, and life has ebbed out of our body, we won’t stop existing. We will, however, change form. The caterpillar that wriggles along leaves and branches with its sixteen legs looks nothing like the butterfly whose beautiful wings enable it to flit from flower to flower. Nevertheless, they are the same creature with the same DNA. It will be much like that for us when we leave this dimension and enter into the next. While our bodies as we knew them will cease to exist in this world, our spirit or soul will continue into the next and (unlike a butterfly) last forever!

As a believer who is closer to the end of her years than the beginning, I find comfort in knowing that Jesus has already made good on His promise of eternal life. It’s mine already! When the time comes for my last breath, it simply will be like going to sleep as a caterpillar and awakening as a perpetual butterfly.

For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. [1 Peter 1:23 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TAKE A CENSUS

Mallard ducksHe will say to them, “Listen to me, all you men of Israel! Do not be afraid as you go out to fight your enemies today! Do not lose heart or panic or tremble before them. For the Lord your God is going with you! He will fight for you against your enemies, and he will give you victory!” [Deuteronomy 20:3-4 (NLT)]

The book of Numbers lives up to its name with two censuses commanded by the Lord. The first was taken a year after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, around 1444 BC, in the Sinai wilderness. Only men over twenty (not counting Levites) were counted and the total was 603,550. With the addition of women, children and Levites, the number of people in the exodus is estimated at two million. The purpose of the census was to assess Israel’s military strength, to keep an accurate record of genealogies, and to organize this enormous group into effective groups for both travel and battle. Family banners identified the tribal units so they could stay together as they moved and camped. A year later, convinced that the power of God and over 600,000 fighting men were not enough to defeat their enemies, the Israelites refused to enter Canaan.

Thirty-seven years later, when a new generation of Israelites was camped on the east side of the Jordan River, a second census was conducted. Like the first, this census ascertained military strength but also determined the amount of land allotted to each tribe. 601,730 fighting men were counted—slightly less than when they refused to enter Canaan the first time. Their opponents were no less formidable a generation later but this generation didn’t underestimate the power of God and the value of each man; they conquered the same people their parents had feared.

If we took a census of our assets, what would we list? Along with our faith in God, we might list things like bank accounts, investments, homes, possessions, education, experience, reputation, and even family. Would we list our sisters and brothers in Christ? I ask because I recently overlooked this valuable asset.

It had been a difficult week for me; writing had gone badly, the news was worse, loved ones were hurting, and a cloud of sadness enveloped me. While I’d been prayerfully bringing my concerns to God, I was trying to muddle through on my own. During our weekly church board teleconference, I reluctantly admitted my struggle and asked for prayers. Our pastor immediately led us in prayer before we continued our meeting. Immediately after its adjournment, my phone rang. On the other end was a fellow board member with words of encouragement—words I desperately needed to hear.

Sometimes we’re so determined to be good examples of faith that we let pride get in the way. We allow God to see the chinks in our armor but no one else. We’re told to share one another’s burdens and to encourage, pray for, and counsel one another but how willing are we to ask for help, encouragement, prayers, or counsel when we need it? We don’t have an army of over 600 thousand fighting men but we are blessed with an army of people who care: the prayer warriors, encouragers, comforters, helpers, and even correctors who are found the body of Christ. They aren’t, however, mind readers!

A Christian isn’t meant to go it alone. Jesus never compared us to solitary animals like bears or leopards; He compared us to sheep, creatures that follow a shepherd and gather in a flock. Take a census today and count the people in your life who give you strength—the people who will walk with you on your rocky road and prop you up when you weaken. Let us never be afraid to ask for assistance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike the Israelites, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of God and His army! Remember, it’s not the size of the army that’s as important as the size of their faith!

Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above. …
We share each other’s woes, Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows The sympathizing tear.
[John Fawcett]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE LEIDENFROST EFFECT

I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me? [Psalm 56:4 (NLT)]

leidenfrost effect

Two businessmen were touring a foundry. When they entered the smelting area with its vats of molten metal, their guide said it was possible to safely pour that hot metal over someone’s hand if the hand was first dipped into water. When he asked if either gentleman cared to give it a try, the first man said, “I’ll just take your word for it.” The second man agreed and dipped his hand in a tub of water. When the molten metal was poured over the wet hand, it streamed off without causing him pain or injury. Although the first man said he believed the guide, the second one showed his faith in the man by acting on his belief.

Because of something called the Leidenfrost Effect, you really can dip your hand into water and then pour a stream of molten metal over it without pain or injury; a tiny layer of steam would insulate and protect your damp hand from the hot metal. Just because we could do it, however, doesn’t mean we should. The effect is short lived and I don’t suggest trying it at home!

I understand the Leidenfrost Effect and have seen it demonstrated; in theory, I believe in it. In actuality, however, I’d never trust it enough to give it a try! I’m like the Israelites during the Exodus. Although they witnessed God’s power over and over again in the plagues God visited on Egypt and when they safely crossed the Red Sea, saw the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, drank sweet water that once was bitter, gathered both quail and manna from heaven, and saw water spring from a rock, they continued to doubt. In spite of God demonstrating the truth of His promises throughout their journey, the Israelites spurned the God of miraculous provision while camped at Kadesh by refusing to enter Canaan, the land He’d promised to them. How much proof did they need that God would be true to them? Sometimes, even seeing isn’t enough to truly believe and trust.

It’s easy to have faith when the outcome is known. Our challenge is to believe and trust when the outcome is unknown or there is an element of risk, such as third degree burns or formidable foes. Because the power to believe a promise depends on our faith in the one who makes the promise, I wouldn’t have trusted the factory guide enough to put my wet hand under molten metal and, without trusting that God would be true to His promises, the Israelites wouldn’t obey Him!

Unlike the Israelites, do we have faith in the One who guides us through life? In the end, the difference between intellectual belief and actual faith is a willingness to take action: to step out in obedience. We have more proof of God’s faith, love, and power in Scripture than all the YouTube videos about the Leidenfrost Effect. Yet, there are many who probably would place their damp hands under molten metal before trusting their unknown fate to a known God! Isaac Watts said, “I believe the promises of God enough to venture an eternity on them.” What about you? Who do you trust? In whose hands have you rested your fate?

God never made a promise that was too good to be true. [Dwight L. Moody]

For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. [Psalm 33:4 (NLT)]

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. [Hebrews 10:23 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.