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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WOMEN IN THE CHURCH

And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life. [Philippians 4:3 (NLT)]

pale purple coneflower
From the beginning of His ministry, women were among the earliest followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna accompanied and financially supported Him and Martha and Mary offered their hospitality in Bethany. Women were witnesses to His death, burial, and the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene was the first to view the resurrected Christ! Because women get little mention in the New Testament, however, we tend to overlook the role they played in the early church.

Yesterday, when I wrote about the feud between Euodia and Syntyche, I didn’t mention Paul’s commendation of these same two women for diligently working beside Paul, Clement, and others in spreading the gospel. That Paul was troubled enough by their disagreement to ask a ministry colleague to intervene implies these women had influence in the Philippian church. What role did they and other women play in the early church?

Although Philippi was a Roman colony, Euodia and Syntyche are Greek names. It’s a possibility that, like Lydia (a Greek merchant of purple cloth), they were merchants originally from Greece. The two may have been some of the women who met with Lydia at the riverbank for prayer. [Acts 16] Although Lydia merits just a few sentences in Scripture, the Philippian church began with her baptism and the baptisms of the rest of her household! That Lydia was the only Philippian named by Luke indicates she played an important role in the early church. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke stayed at her home while in Philippi.

Along with Lydia, a number of other women served as leaders of the house churches that sprang up in the cities throughout the Roman Empire: among them were Priscilla, Chloe, Apphia, Nympha, Mary (the mother of John Mark), and possibly the woman John addressed as “the chosen lady” in his second epistle. While it is speculation, Euodia and Syntyche, like Lydia, may have led house churches. We know that Priscilla and her husband Aquila travelled with Paul to Ephesus and founded the church there. Both men and women could serve as deacons and Phoebe was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. In Acts, we learn that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses.

Paul even entrusted his epistles to be delivered by women and it was Phoebe who carried his letter to the Romans. In Romans 16, Paul specifically greeted Mary “who has worked so hard for your benefit” and a woman name Junia who, along with Andronicus, had been imprisoned for the faith. Among the 29 people he mentioned in this chapter, nine were women. Many of those mentioned, like Priscilla, traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. Whenever Paul referred to someone as a fellow co-worker, he used the same word, synergos, for both women and men!

There is extra-Biblical support of the important role women played in the early church, as well. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria wrote that women accompanied the apostles on their missionary journeys as colleagues. Acting as equals, not subordinates, Clement said they served as “fellow ministers in dealing with housewives…that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.” When writing about the “crime” of Christianity, Pliny the Younger mentioned torturing two slave women he called ministrae (or deacons) in the Christian community.

Understanding the important role played by women in the early church, it’s easier to understand Paul’s deep concern about the rift between Euodia and Syntyche. Moreover, it tells me that both the early church and Paul (who has unfairly been accused of misogyny by some) truly lived by the words found in Galatians that, in Christ’s family, previous distinctions like nationality, race, status, and sex no longer exist. In Christ’s body, we truly are one!

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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EUODIA AND SYNTYCHE

I have a special appeal which goes jointly to Euodia and Syntyche: please, please, come to a common mind in the Lord. [Philippians 4:2 (NTE)]

sandhill cranes
These words from Philippians are the only mention of Euodia and Syntyche in the New Testament. Personally, if someone is going to read about me 2,000 years from now, I would prefer something about how easy it was to get along with me rather than about any arguments I had. Because Paul urges the women to settle their disagreement, it seems that their dispute was personal rather than doctrinal. Had the issue been one of doctrine, Paul would have stepped in and corrected the error as he did in many of his letters to the early churches.

Bible scholars have a sense of humor and it’s been suggested that better names for these women would be “Odious” and “Soon Touchy.” Perhaps Euodia really was disagreeable and unpleasant and Syntyche was thin-skinned and quick-tempered. Then again, maybe they were just like the rest of us at our less than best—stubborn, indignant, tactless, resentful, short-tempered, uncompromising, or easily offended. We don’t know what their problem was nor do we know who was “right” and who was “wrong.” In this case, by holding a grudge, they both were in error!

Because people in conflict usually expect others to take sides, conflict affects more than those directly involved. The women’s behavior was threatening the existence of the church at Philippi and their dispute was hindering God’s work. To save the church, Paul didn’t tell them they had to become best friends or even agree with each other, just to be of the same mind as the Lord. For the sake of the church, he wanted them to find a way to live in harmony.

The letter to the Philippians was written to “all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the church leaders and deacons.” [1:1] In the early church, Paul’s apostolic letters were meant to be read aloud to the entire congregation. Less than 15% of men were literate and that number was less for women. The congregation sat in a circle or semi-circle around the reader so that everyone saw the speaker. This arrangement meant they also saw one another and their reaction to the words spoken. Can you imagine Euodia and Syntyche (and those who may have taken sides in their conflict) as they heard the apostle’s words? There probably was a fair amount of squirming in the seats that day!

Like churches, families can suffer because of quarrels. My friend Wendy’s two sisters have a long-standing feud and refuse to speak with one another. Whenever she returned to her hometown, each sister expected Wendy to spend time with her but got irate and offended if she spent time with the other sibling. Even though Wendy refused to be caught up in their animosity, she was in a no-win situation. Eventually, it became easier to step away from the drama altogether and not return home at all. The sisters’ vendetta impacted more than just Wendy; ten cousins were affected as were the women’s parents when they were alive.

Heavenly Father, knowing that we can’t agree with everybody all of the time, show us how to get along with them. Give us loving, forgiving, and understanding hearts. Toughen our hides so that we don’t take offense so easily. Show us how to have harmony in all of our relationships. Help us to acknowledge other people’s points of view and guide us to respectfully agree to disagree with one another when necessary.

Until the day that you become perfect, don’t expect others to be. [From “Hugs – Daily Inspirations for Grandmas” (Howard Books)]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Human anger, you see, doesn’t produce God’s justice! So put away everything that is sordid, all that overflowing malice, and humbly receive the word which has been planted within you and which has the power to rescue your lives. [James 1:19-21 (NTE)]

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UNQUALIFIED

That’s the kind of confidence we have towards God, through the Messiah. It isn’t as though we are qualified in ourselves to reckon that we have anything to offer on our own account. Our qualification comes from God. [2 Corinthians 3:4-5 NTE)]


The panic set in the moment I looked the calendar on our church’s website. Seeing the upcoming dates with my name beside them set my heart racing. Several weeks ago, I accepted our pastor’s request to act in his stead while he was out of town. I was to lead both Thursday night’s Bible study and the following Sunday’s worship. At the time, preparing a study and a sermon seemed far in the future, but seeing it in black and white made me question my decision. Did I actually think I was up to the task?

Is that what it felt like to Moses when, after accepting God’s assignment to free Israel from Egyptian slavery, he realized he would have to lead two million people across the Sinai Peninsula and into Canaan? When what should have been an eleven-day trip turned into a forty-year trek, did he question his ability to fulfill his role? After Gideon whittled down his 32,000 soldiers, did he question his obedience to God before leading his remaining 300 men into battle against 135,000 Midianites? After bolding saying he’d fight Goliath, did David have a moment of self-doubt when facing the giant with nothing more than a sling and five stones? What made him think he could save Israel from an army of Philistines? Think of the prophet Jeremiah who was just a youth when God called him. Not only did his family plot to kill him but, through the years, he was beaten, tossed into jail, attacked by a mob, put in stocks, accused of treason, thrown into a muddy cistern, and threatened by the king. Did any of them have a moment (or two) when they asked themselves things like, “What on earth was I thinking?” or “How did I get in this mess?” or “What made me think I could do this?”

When God called them, Jeremiah was just a youth (probably no more than twenty) and not a good speaker. Gideon was the least important in a family that was the weakest one in Manasseh. As the youngest boy in Jesse’s family, David’s father didn’t even consider the shepherd boy worthy of being invited to the sacrifice or being presented to Samuel. Moses was an old man with a speech impediment who was hiding in a foreign land when God called to him from a burning bush. None of these men were especially qualified to take on the tasks that God gave them. Nonetheless, they were the ones God called. The reason God chose them can be found in Scripture’s description of David—they all were men after God’s heart. [1 Samuel 13:14] They trusted in God!

Rather than focusing on our limitations and weaknesses by thinking we’re not smart, talented, educated, skilled, young or old enough, we should remember the old saying that, “God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the ones He calls.” We can have an outstanding resume of credentials but, without a heart for God, we have nothing! Rather than looking at our assets and abilities when calling us, God looks at our availability and willingness to serve. After saying, “Yes,” to His call, our responsibility is to do our best with what we have while trusting Him to handle the rest. Our all-powerful God is fully able to empower even the least qualified among us. It is what we do in our weakness that testifies to God’s power and strength.

Real true faith is man’s weakness leaning on God’s strength. [D.L. Moody]

And this is what he said to me: “My grace is enough for you; my power comes to perfection in weakness.” So I will be all the more pleased to boast of my weaknesses, so that the Messiah’s power may rest upon me. So I’m delighted when I’m weak, insulted, in difficulties, persecuted and facing disasters, for the Messiah’s sake. When I’m weak, you see, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NTE)]

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IT IS WELL

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright. [Psalm 20:7-8 (ESV)]

With Hurricane Ian bearing down on us, I finished this devotion in the wee hours of Wednesday morning while I still had power and internet. Whether Ian skirted by our area leaving little damage and minor flooding or left us with a major disaster of ruined homes and business, downed trees, flooded streets, and no power, cell service, or safe water for days, I don’t know. Even if we were left untouched, other Floridians will not be so fortunate.

We certainly were prepared—we stowed the lanai furniture, fueled the cars, had extra propane tanks for the grill, and stocked up with plenty of food and water. Our solar/crank weather-alert radio is ready, the boots and slickers are handy, new batteries are in the flashlights and lantern, the power banks for our phones are charged, and the 5-gallon water jugs are filled.

As for the house, we have aluminum roll-down or accordion shutters covering every window and door. The exterior of our house is made of steel-reinforced poured concrete walls, every roof truss is anchored to the concrete walls, and, with its extra-strong steel track system and twist-resistant framework, the garage door can withstand winds of more than 150 miles-per-hour. If the Three Little Pigs lived here, the Big Bad Wolf wouldn’t stand a chance, no matter how hard he blew!

Nevertheless, we know better than to put our trust in our concrete walls and storm shutters. The 6-feet thick/26-feet high walls of Jericho didn’t save it from Israel nor did Hezekiah’s 22-feet wide/25-feet high wall protect Jerusalem from the Babylonians. Throughout Scripture, we see how people and things can fail. Jeremiah warned against trusting in men and we certainly didn’t base our decision to remain here by trusting the forecasters. Like baseball players, they’re considered excellent when they get it right less than a third of the time! Isaiah warned Judah about putting their trust in Egypt, horses, horsemen, and chariots and Hosea warned the Northern Kingdom about trusting in their own military might so we knew better than trusting our ability to outsmart this storm.

Scripture warns us about putting our trust in people, riches, anything man-made, and even ourselves. Common sense, of course, told us to be prepared for the worst and, because the worst can happen, we did just that. Nevertheless, our trust isn’t in our preparations because our trust is in the Lord. While that doesn’t guarantee we’ll emerge unscathed from this storm, it does mean that whatever happens today, tomorrow, and every day after is in God’s hands alone. Because of that, we can join in Horatio Spafford’s hymn and sing, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul!” Indeed, in spite of the weather, it is well with my soul!

There is only one secure foundation: a genuine, deep relationship with Jesus Christ, which will carry you through any and all turmoil. No matter what storms are raging all around, you’ll stand firm if you stand on his love. [Charles Stanley]

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [Psalm 91:1-2 ESV)]

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