HE CARRIES US

Praise the Lord; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms. [Psalm 68:19 (NLT)]

carrying his childMy daughter-in-law sent photos of the family’s day at the apple orchard. The grands picked apples, pet the farm animals, climbed the tractors, raced the pedal karts, did the zip-line, raced through the corn maze, traversed the goat bridge, and enjoyed their fill of donuts and apple cider. It was a fun-filled but exhausting day. The last picture was of my son carrying the youngest grand (who’d fallen asleep on the ride home) into the house.

The photo brought me back to my childhood when, like my grand, I’d fall asleep in the car on the way home from a family outing. Once home, my father would scoop me up in his strong arms to carry me into the house and up to my room. I remember feeling safe and loved as he carried me in his arms.

The oversized La-Z-Boy in our den was my father’s chair but, when he wasn’t home, my mother and I would snuggle there and talk for hours. I’d pour out my troubles, questions, hopes, and fears. She would quietly listen and then comfort, guide, encourage and pray with me. Holding me in her arms, she’d dry any tears and reassure me that life would eventually work out for the best.

Those childhood days are long gone; my parents passed away more than half a century ago and all that’s left are fond memories. Nevertheless, there still are times I’d like to shed the duties of adulthood and be a child again: to be the one carried instead of the one doing the carrying—the one falling apart instead of the one putting it together again. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s ever wanted to resign from adulthood. The responsibilities that come with maturity can weigh on us all.

In these troubled times, today’s responsibilities feel especially heavy. Every day seems to bring another challenge. We may be grown up but we haven’t outgrown the need to be nurtured, encouraged, comforted and restored. Many of us, however, seem to have outgrown the willingness to stop and admit our vulnerability and need. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we can’t rest in the arms of our Heavenly Father and let Him carry us when we’re weary. Although we can’t return to childhood, we have a Father in Heaven who loves each of us as if we were His only child. He will hold and comfort us as only a loving parent can. Rather than bandaging skinned knees and feeding our bodies, He bandages wounded hearts and nourishes our souls. He may not carry us up to our rooms but He we will carry us close to His heart for the rest of our days.

Snuggle in God’s arms. When you are hurting, when you feel lonely, left out. Let Him cradle you, comfort you, reassure you of His all-sufficient power and love. [Kay Arthur]

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. [Isaiah 40:11 (NIV)]

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. [Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)]

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APPROACHING THE KING (Esther – Part 3)

I will exalt you, my God and King, and praise your name forever and ever. I will praise you every day; yes, I will praise you forever. … The Lord is righteous in everything he does; he is filled with kindness. The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. He grants the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cries for help and rescues them.  [Psalm 145:1-2,17-19 (NLT)]

maccawAfter Esther fasted and prayed about approaching the king, she had both courage and a strategy. From the way Xerxes was so easily manipulated by his Persian noble friends and Haman, it’s clear that he was a temperamental, weak, and foolish king; Esther used that knowledge to her advantage. When she dressed in her finest robes and approached the king, I imagine she made sure he was in good spirits and that she looked irresistible. Welcoming Esther and offering her half his kingdom, Xerxes invited his queen to ask for anything, but she knew better than to take the royal offer literally. Graciously, she only asked for his and Haman’s presence at a banquet that evening. Esther’s delay didn’t mean she’d lost her courage. Persian etiquette for making a request typically began with a small unrelated favor, which is what Esther did. After a pleasant evening, she beguiled Xerxes by simply inviting him to dinner again. Gaining one small concession at a time, she eventually worked her way up to the real issue at hand. By waiting to make her appeal, Esther aroused the king’s curiosity.

A banquet was the perfect setting for Esther’s request. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Persians typically decided important matters when they were drunk; once they’d sobered up, their decisions would be confirmed. That certainly was the case when the drunken Xerxes banished Queen Vashti. On the other hand, any decisions made while sober were suspect and were to be reevaluated when the parties were intoxicated (which may explain why Xerxes and Haman sat down to drink after their apparently sober decision to eliminate the Jews)! Esther understood the importance of alcohol in the king’s decision making and, after two nights of banquets, she finally made her request while they were drinking wine. When Esther asked the king to save her life and the lives of her people, she prudently put the blame for the wicked plot entirely on Haman rather than her easily manipulated husband.

By necessity, Esther made her plea to the king in a calculated and roundabout way. Fortunately, we don’t have to strategize or scheme when we approach our Heavenly King! Because we are His beloved children and know that He loves us, we don’t have to worry that God’s interest in us has waned. There’s no need to dress in our finest attire to entice Him nor must we wait until He extends his golden scepter before approaching His throne. God is far more interested in our hearts than our appearance and our imperfect selves can approach Him any time. We don’t have to pique God’s curiosity or manipulate Him into asking us what we want because God knows what we need even before we do! We don’t have to carefully phrase our words out of fear that He will banish us from His presence if we displease Him. We certainly don’t have to ply God with vintage wine, start with little favors before working up to our big request, or wait until He’s in a good mood before offering our prayers. God is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow. If we have no words, the Holy Spirit will speak for us.

Let us never approach God with subterfuge and apprehension as Esther did Xerxes. We should come to Him as candidly as did David and the other psalmists. With our Heavenly King, we can honestly sob in sorrow, shout in anger, plead in distress, stammer in confusion, whisper in fear, weep in regret, confess in repentance, shout in praise, sing in thanksgiving, and even dance in joy—all without fear of banishment from His presence!

O Lord, hear me as I pray; pay attention to my groaning. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for I pray to no one but you. Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly. [Psalm 5:1-3 (NLT)]

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COMFORT ZONES (Esther – Part 2)

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. [Daniel 9:3 (NLT)]

So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer. [Ezra 8:23 (NLT)]

orchidWhen writing about Esther yesterday, I thought how terrified she must have been when Mordecai asked her to step out of her comfort zone to save the Jews. Even though she was queen, her access to Xerxes was severely limited.  Living secluded in a private chamber in the women’s quarters, she didn’t regularly dine with the king. Powerless, she was the one to be summoned rather than the one who did the summoning and she hadn’t been summoned by Xerxes for a month. She was just one of many beautiful women in the king’s harem and perhaps someone else had caught his eye. The previous queen was banished when she defied the king and Esther could expect nothing less if her presence wasn’t welcomed. The young queen had a simple choice: comfort or courage. She chose courage and saved a nation!

Where did Esther get the courage to defy the law and approach the king? She got it from God! That may seem a strange answer since God isn’t mentioned anywhere in her story. After asking Mordecai to gather together all the Jews in Susa and fast for three days, however, Esther promised that she and her maids would do the same. The beautiful queen wasn’t fasting so she’d fit into her sexiest gown! She was fasting in prayer.

For a Jew, fasting and prayer went hand in hand and, while prayer is not specifically mentioned, it certainly is implied. Fasting combined with prayer was a customary practice in times of grief, distress or repentance. It was a way to seek God’s favor and demonstrate the sincerity of one’s prayers. Although fasting was only demanded on the Day of Atonement, Scripture tells us that the Israelites and people like Ezra, David, Nehemiah, Jehoshaphat, and Daniel all combined fasting with prayer. When Esther and the people of Susa fasted, I have no doubt their fast was accompanied by their heartfelt prayers. Only then did Esther have both a plan and the courage to step out of her comfort zone.

Unlike Esther, we may not be asked to save a nation. Nevertheless, God has a mission for each of us. Because He is far more interested in our growth and obedience than our comfort, God’s mission for us, like Esther’s, usually begins at the end of our comfort zone. How do we move from comfort to courage and from fear to faith?

Like Esther, we could choose to fast. The purpose of fasting is never to change God; its purpose is to change us. A fast helps us take our eyes off the world and focus them on God. While Esther probably fasted from food, a fast also can be from things like gaming, social media, alcohol, television or anything else that takes our mind off God. Although Scripture tells us that Jesus and the early church fasted, it does not demand that Christians fast.

The spiritual practice of fasting is a personal choice for a Christian but prayer is not. Prayer is an act of obedience to God; it is the way we demonstrate our faith. When faced with the choice of comfort or courage, whether or not we choose to fast, we must choose to pray. Prayer is what will enable us to step out of our comfort zone and courageously do God’s work.

Courage is faith that has said its prayers. [AA slogan]

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles. [Psalm 34:4-6 (NLT)]

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INDIFFERENCE (Esther – Part 1)

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]

snowy egretIn 1986, holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” That thought, however, has a longer history. In 1897, in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, these words were spoken: The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” The evil of indifference can be found as far back as 474 BC in the story of Esther and as recently as today in our newspapers.

It’s in the Persian capital of Susa that we find King Xerxes’ “prime minister” Haman (a descendant of Agag from the race of Amalekites) facing off with the Jewish Mordecai (a descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin). The two families had a long history of hatred between them and Mordecai continually refused to bow down to the powerful Haman. Although Jews were permitted to bow down to people out of respect, Mordecai did not respect Haman and no self-respecting descendant of Saul would ever bow before an ancient enemy like an Amalekite. The incensed Haman took their personal animosity to another level by convincing the king that a “certain race” in the empire posed a threat and should be killed. The king was so indifferent to these unidentified people that he never even asked who they were. Xerxes gave Mordecai free rein to do with them and their wealth as he wanted. Written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring, Mordecai sent out an order for the Jews’ extermination to take place March 7.

Although the Jews had their unique dietary laws and customs, they had integrated into the Persian culture. They lived throughout the kingdom and interacted with the Persians daily. Mordecai, for example, had been born in Persia, had a Persian name, was a court official himself, and had even saved the king’s life. The Jews reacted to their extermination date with mourning, but what of the Persians? Scripture tells us that the city of Susa was perplexed but nothing more. There was nearly a year between the edict and execution date but we never read of people approaching the king on behalf of their Jewish friends and neighbors. The nation appeared indifferent to the slaughter of an entire people!

Enlisting Esther’s help, Mordecai asked her to beg the king for mercy. While not exactly indifferent to the Jews’ plight, Esther was more concerned with her safety than theirs. She balked at his request until Mordecai pointed out that the Jewish queen was not exempt from the king’s edict. To quickly summarize: Esther took action, Haman was executed, Mordecai became prime minister, and the Jews were saved.

Xerxes’ indifference to the fate of an entire race, the Persians’ indifference to the massacre of their neighbors, Esther’s initial indifference to her people’s plight, the indifference of Elie Wiesel’s countrymen as Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, the world’s indifference as it looked the other way while millions were exterminated, and our indifference as we witness injustice, genocide, inequality, human trafficking, discrimination, slave labor, and repression in the world today—indifference to wrongs that don’t personally affect us—is, indeed, “the essence of inhumanity.” Let us remember that, like the beautiful queen Esther, we are not exempt from being touched by the world’s evil. Perhaps, like her, we are here “for just such a time as this!” [Esther 4:14]

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [Martin Niemöller]

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need. [Proverbs 21:13 (NLT)]

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ATTENDING TO THE PRESENT

dawnYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT

Jesus once said that Satan was a thief. Satan does not steal money, for he knows that money has no eternal value. He steals only what has eternal value – primarily the souls of men. [Zac Poonen]

C.S. Lewis’ religious satire The Screwtape Letters consists of 31 letters written by the senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of acquiring the soul of a young man. Screwtape’s suggestions of ways to cause the fellow’s damnation could be described as a self-help book in reverse. As the diabolical demon advises Wormwood in methods of temptation, the reader learns Satan’s assorted strategies and ruses and what not to let happen. While walking the other morning, I thought of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood regarding the young man’s focus of attention.

To beat the heat of Southwest Florida, I start my walk while it still is dark. When crossing one of our bridges, the previous night’s full moon was on my left and the coming day’s sunrise on the right. Caught between the day that was and the day yet to come, I thought of Screwtape’s words that God prefers man to be concerned with either the present or eternity rather than yesterday or tomorrow. When in the moment, he is “obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, [or] giving thanks for the present pleasure.”  When considering eternity, he is meditating on God. Wanting neither of those things, Screwtape advises Wormwood to get the young man to live in the frozen past or the unknown future.

Of the two methods, Screwtape prefers getting him to live in the future: either in perpetual anticipation of the rainbow’s end or in constant fear of the horrors tomorrow may bring. Clarifying his point about the future, Screwtape explains that God expects man to make plans but planning for tomorrow’s work actually is today’s duty. God, however, doesn’t want man to place his expectations in the future. Naïve optimism and unrealistic expectations inevitably end in disappointment while anxiety and distress rob the present of joy. Unlike God, the demons want man to be “hagridden by the future” and so obsessed by images of either a surefire windfall or a pending catastrophe that he will be willing to do anything to attain his pipe dream or prevent the disaster. If there ever were a time we’re tempted to live in a pre-pandemic yesterday, ignore reality and view tomorrow with rose-colored glasses, or be so fearful of the future we can’t face it, that time is now. When we focus on yesterday or tomorrow, we’re playing right into our enemy’s hands.

Standing on the bridge, I knew God wanted me to attend to the present—to leave yesterday behind and accept with faith what tomorrow brings. As I walked forward, however, I remembered that He also wants me to attend to eternity—to look beyond time to Him: the Eternal One who holds yesterday, today, tomorrow, and eternity in His loving hands.

God has set Eternity in our heart, and man’s infinite capacity cannot be filled or satisfied with the things of time and sense. [F.B. Meyer]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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JEHOVAH RAPHA

Steamboat SkiThe same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:9,11 (NLT)]

Several years ago, what should have been my first ski run of the day became my last one of the season when a tumble down an icy slope left me with three broken ribs and tears in both my ACL and MCL. After the closing prayer at church that evening, the woman behind me said, “I see you’re in a lot of pain. May I lay hands on you and pray for you?” This woman believed she’d been gifted by the Holy Spirit with healing and I’d often seen her praying over others after church. Unsure about her supposed gift, I was in such pain and despair that I would have accepted any offer of relief. She accompanied me to the front of the church where a few others joined her as they laid hands on me and prayed.

I certainly needed prayer; my body hurt but so did my heart. Scheduled to depart in five days for a much anticipated tour of Belgium and the Netherlands, I suspected my injuries meant we’d have to cancel the trip. I also feared that I’d seen the last of my days skiing on the mountain.

While I can’t say whether those hands and prayers made an immediate difference, I know I felt far better leaving church than when I arrived. I still had torn ligaments and broken ribs, but my pain had eased and my spirits had lifted. The following day, we returned to the Midwest. Only time would heal my ribs but the orthopedic surgeon gave me a full leg brace and scheduled physical therapy. We took our trip and, in spite of my discomfort, had a wonderful time. Hoping to avoid the surgery that seemed inevitable, the next several months were spent in intense physical therapy. Fortunately, without needing surgical repair, I returned to the slopes and continued to ski, albeit with a leg brace and a little more caution, for several more years.

Was my excellent recovery because of the hands laid on me and prayers offered for me or the skill of my physician and physical therapist or both? Only God knows for sure, but I believe those petitions reached God’s ears and He acted on them. Through the healing prayers and touch of my brothers and sisters in Christ, God gave me the spiritual, emotional, and physical strength (along with good medical care) to recover fully.

Throughout the Bible we read of miraculous healings: Naaman was healed of leprosy, Elijah brought the widow’s son back to life, Peter and John healed a lame man, Paul healed the father of Publius, and physical healing was Jesus’ most common miracle.  We have a God who hears our prayers and has the power to heal: our Jehovah Rapha. Today, however, miraculous healings seem few and far between.

Before that evening, I’d questioned whether the Spirit still bestowed the gift of healing on believers. Could someone’s touch really serve as a conduit for God’s healing grace? I no longer doubt; while the spiritual gift of healing may not always manifest in immediate or inexplicable recovery, it does exist.

While few of us may be gifted with healing, every one of us should be engaged in intercessory prayers for the sick. Nevertheless, no matter how strong our faith, the faith of those who pray for us or of those for whom we pray, healing does not always occur. Let us remember that healing is more than the mending of broken bodies; it is the mending of broken souls. God is more concerned with our spiritual salvation than our physical well-being and the restoration of our bodies may have to wait until we enter God’s glory. The healing of our souls, however, can happen right now!

Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. [James 5:13-15a (NLT)]

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