IN PREPARATION FOR THE JOURNEY

We broke camp at the Ahava Canal on April 19 and started off to Jerusalem. And the gracious hand of our God protected us and saved us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived safely in Jerusalem. [Ezra 8:31-32a (NLT)]

Bryce - Losee CanyonAfter years of exile, the Jews were finally returning home from their captivity in Babylon. Ezra assembled a group of 1,500 men and their families and led the second emigration back to Jerusalem. It would take about four months for the over 5,000 people to make the 900 mile journey across the desert. Since they were transporting about 30 tons of silver, gold, and bronze along with wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt, there was serious danger from marauding bandits.

When Persia’s King Artaxerxes offered Ezra an armed escort, he refused. Having assured the king that God’s hand of protection was all they needed, it would have been embarrassing and hypocritical to then accept military help. The Judeans couldn’t just “talk the talk” about the Hebrew God, they had to “walk the walk” and live as if they truly believed Ezra’s words and God’s promises.

Instead of trusting in soldiers, Ezra chose to trust in God. Although he was confident in God, Ezra did not take His protection for granted. He gave orders for the people to fast and earnestly pray that God would take care of them. Knowing the trip could be disastrous without God’s protection, they committed themselves to trusting in God alone. This choice was a strong test of everyone’s faith. It’s remarkable that two chapters in the book of Ezra are written about their preparation for the trip, but just a few sentences tell about the journey itself and their safe arrival. Perhaps, if we spent more time in prayer and faith preparing for our life’s journeys, they would be as free of difficulty as Ezra’s.

Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door;
Words are so easily spoken,
Prayer without faith is like a boat without an oar.
Have faith when you speak to the Master,
That’s all he asks you for.
Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door.
[Samuel T. Scott & Robert L. Sande]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

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LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY

For we live by faith, not by sight. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NIV)]

Lowdermilk Park rainbowAn early morning rainstorm left a rainbow over the Gulf. “Oh, thank you, Lord,” I said, “That’s just what I needed.” You see, I was suffering from a serious case of the glums and gloomies. Having recently undergone foot surgery, I knew some of my blues had to do with pain, poor sleep, the nuisance of immobility, undone tasks, and “cabin fever.” Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to fully explain my melancholy. Struggling to discern its underlying cause, I’d prayed that God would lead me to the root of the problem. In my darkness, I’d also asked Him to give me a little sign that He heard my pleas. God is big on rainbows—just ask Noah—and it felt like He hung that rainbow out just for me and hope was on the horizon.

Later that day, I came across an article listing the qualities of the prodigal son’s father. It included “willing to live with ambiguity” which struck a chord with me. Perhaps my prayers had been answered with that simple phrase. Preferring certainty to ambiguity, I knew that several unresolved issues, unanswered questions, and unclear courses were troubling me. Perhaps, my sadness was because, wary of living with the unknown, I wanted to walk by sight rather than faith!

Out of curiosity, I took an on-line test as to whether or not I’m a risk taker (someone willing to live with ambiguity). By this point in life, I knew the answer and the test results concurred with my assessment. “While you may take risks on rare occasions, you usually choose the well-traveled path,” it said while adding that I prefer a “stable environment in which changes are made gradually and with ample warning.” Telling me that I rarely seek out situations with uncertain outcomes was just another way of saying I don’t like to live with ambiguity. I’m not comfortable unless I know what’s around the next corner!

If I’d been Elisha, before joining Elijah as a prophet, I would have asked a neighbor to care for my plow and oxen rather than cooking the oxen over a plow-fueled fire. If I’d been Peter, I might not have stepped out of the boat. If I’d been Mary, I would have asked Gabriel a whole host of questions before saying I’d be the Lord’s servant. If I’d been Ruth, rather than go to Judah, I probably would have stayed in Moab. And, if I’d been Moses, I would have asked God for a detailed itinerary and map to the Promised Land. All of these people lived with ambiguity and answered God’s call without being given a step-by-step plan or knowing the outcome. They could live with ambiguity because they wholly trusted in the Lord.

Life is filled with unanswered questions and unknown outcomes. While I tend to think of risk and uncertainty as leading to things like loss, sorrow, weakness, insufficiency, insecurity, sickness, trouble, and failure, they also can lead to gain, joy, strength, plenty, confidence, health, opportunity, and success. Elisha, Peter, Mary, Ruth, and Moses all took risks and were blessed for it! Wanting a divine road map, I’d forgotten that I already have one in my Bible where I’m told to trust in God’s plan and reassured that He’s always with me.

Rather than seek to know what the future holds for us, we can seek God’s will and let Him show us where to go. We may not know what tomorrow brings but we know the One who holds our tomorrows in His hands. We can’t control every situation but, by the grace of God, we can control our attitude in every situation and learn to embrace the ambiguity of life.

It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear. [George Macdonald]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NIV)]

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WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GREAT COMMISSION?

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:15-16 (NLT)]

Masai - TanzaniaYesterday’s devotion made me do some hard thinking about my commitment to Christian missions. Unfortunately, there are large segments of the world’s population that have never heard of Jesus. According to the Joshua Project (an organization that gathers, integrates and shares information to facilitate the implementation of the Great Commission), 41.6 % of the world’s population is considered “unreached,” meaning they have little or no history of Christianity and the number of native Christians and available resources are so minimal that outside assistance is necessary if the Gospel is going to be heard.

Most of the people untouched by the Gospel live in what’s called the “10/40 Window:” an area of land stretching across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that is approximately between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude. Two-thirds of the world’s people live here; 61% of them are “unreached” and 90% are considered “unevangelized,” defined as having minimal knowledge of the gospel with no valid opportunity to respond to it.

When I looked at some of the figures, I began to wonder how committed we are to saving souls. In 2015, out of the $700 billion given to Christian causes (which is about what we Americans spend on Christmas), only $45 billion (6.4%) of that went to missions! That’s less than what we spend on gym memberships and weight-loss programs. Most of that money went to churches and missions in Christian nations. Only a little over $2.5 billion (less than .4%) of those funds went to serve the unevangelized and unreached peoples of the world.

In March of 2018, the Barna Group (a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture) released a rather shocking finding. When asked if they’d ever heard of “the Great Commission,” 51% of church-goers were completely unfamiliar with the term. Sadly, the other 49% weren’t much better! 6% weren’t sure if they’d heard the term and 25% said that, while it “rang a bell,” they didn’t know what it was. Only 17% actually knew what it said! Sadly, even knowing what the Great Commission is doesn’t necessarily equate with a commitment to it.

We all don’t have to pack up and go on a mission trip but I don’t think we can continue to do as little as we are doing. Because of government restrictions, open evangelism from the US and Europe is difficult in many 10/40 Window countries. Christian missionaries from South American and Africa, however, often are welcome in those nations. There are other ways to reach these people, as well. We can minister to refugees as a young woman from our church will do this fall. She is going to Germany to serve the 3.2 million unreached Arab, Kurd, Turk, Assyrian and other refugees from the Syrian civil war. Like most other missionaries, she is expected to raise 100% of her expenses. With one million international students coming to the US every year (64% of whom are from the 10/40 Window and will be returning to their homelands), campus ministries are another way to spread God’s word to the unreached. At least 1.5 million people are without a full Bible in their first language, one-third of the world can’t read the language they speak, and another third learn best through non-written methods.

Yes, we support missionaries with our prayers but now is the time to look closely at how we support them with our finances. We must start supporting mission ministries that reach out to the unreached and unevangelized and support Bible translation and oral learning Bible projects.  Moreover, since 85% of those living in the 10/40 Window are among the poorest of the world’s poor, we must also support efforts to provide health care, safe water, food, and clothing to them.

Rather than expressing concern over the exclusive claims to salvation found in Christianity, perhaps we could better use our energy and resources to reach those who are unreached! We have been called to care for the poor, strengthen other believers, and save the lost. I’m not sure Christians in the free world have done a very good job of any of those tasks. When we come face to face with God, the onus for so many people never hearing about Jesus will fall on us: the people who failed to live out the Great Commission.

Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now. [Teresa of Avila]

Don’t fail to do something because you can’t do everything. [Bob Pierce (World Vision founder)]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

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IT CONTINUES [THE HOLY WAR – Part 2]

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10 (RSV)]

Lucerne - city wallMankind falls within the first few pages of Genesis as does Mansoul within the first few pages of John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War. Resembling real life, Bunyan’s King Shaddai sends his son, Prince Emmanuel, to rescue the fallen city. Under Diabolus and his minions Lord Will-be-will and Misters Lustings, Forget-good, No-truth and Unbelief, Mansoul refuses to listen to Shaddai’s captains. The gates to the city are double-locked and Mr. Prejudice and his band of Deafmen guard Ear-gate (the most likely place the King’s forces will try to enter). Nevertheless, Prince Emmanuel delivers Mansoul from the tyranny of Diabolus, Mansoul repents, and Emmanuel forgives. The story, however, is far from over because Diabolus is not done with Mansoul.

Just as the Israelites failed to rid the land of Canaanites and idolatry, Mansoul failed to rid the city of the many Diabolonians who remained in strongholds after Emmanuel’s victory. Lords Blasphemy, Adultery, and Mischief along with Misters Profane and Deceit plot Mansoul’s destruction. Mr. Self-secure misleads Mansoul into thinking it is strong and invincible, beyond the reach of any foe, and not dependent on Emmanuel. Diabolus returns with his army of Doubters and assaults Ear-Gate with incessant drumming. Captains Brimstone and Sepulcher are placed at Nose-Gate; the grim faced Past-Hope at Eye-Gate; and Captains Cruel, Torment, and No-Ease at Feel-gate. Diabolus seeks to fill Mouth-gate, the voice of prayer, with dirt. The town resists but its gates are weak. Diabolus and his Doubters again take possession of the city; this time, however, they cannot take the castle, the heart of Mansoul. On the third day, Emmanuel returns to them and Diabolus and his Doubters are routed from the town. The city again seeks to rid itself of any remaining Diabolonians such a Misters Mistrust, Flesh, Sloth, Legal-life, and Self-love. Mister Unbelief, however, is far too nimble to be caught and Carnal-sense escapes from prison.

Bunyan’s allegory is more than a story of man’s fall and redemption; it tells of the continuing conflict between good and evil for the possession of man’s soul. Starting with innocence, followed by temptation, sin, and repentance, the story doesn’t end there. Sadly, there is more temptation and sin followed by more repentance. With Unbelief and Carnal-sense still at large, the reader is left to believe that will not be the last time temptation and sin rear their ugly heads.

In Emmanuel’s final commission to Mansoul, he warns them not to live by their senses but by his Word. When explaining why Diabolonians are allowed to exist, he says, “It is to keep you awake, to test your love, to make you watchful… My design is that they should drive you, not further off, but nearer to my Father, to teach you war, to make petitioning desirable to you, and to make you little in your own eyes.” He adds, “Love me against temptation, and I will love you notwithstanding your infirmities … I have taught you to watch, to fight, to pray, and to make war against my foes, so now I command you to believe that my love is constant to you.”

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. [2 Corinthians 10:3-6 (RSV)]

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BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE BEST WE CAN

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:19-21 (MSG)]

Thompson's gazelleAs a teen and young adult, it was easy to be critical of my parents and their parenting. Vowing I’d never say or do some of the things they did, I was sure I’d never make any of their mistakes. Once I became a mother, however, I became far more forgiving and sympathetic. I understood that, all things considered, my parents had done the best they could. Granted, they didn’t always make the right decisions but I believe they thought they were the correct ones at the time. Parents want to keep their children from heartbreak, disappointment and harm; they want more and better for their children than they had. As a result, in spite of their best intentions, they can be over-protective, judgmental, enabling, dictatorial or stubborn. And, yes, I made some of the same mistakes my parents did (and plenty more of my own). Yet, looking at the finished products, I did just fine! Now, as parents, my children have the opportunity to make their own share of mistakes.

The vast majority of people don’t wake each morning intending to be unforgiving, unsympathetic, intractable, or indifferent. We don’t plan on being selfish, temperamental, hypercritical or rude. Rather, most of us probably wake up wanting to be kind and loving people. Unfortunately, we’re not always good at doing that! None of us are perfect; being human, we all make plenty of mistakes. People hurt us and we hurt others, but rarely do we or they do it on purpose. I never started the day planning to yell at my children or lose my temper, yet I often did. I certainly never begin the day intending to be impatient, inconsiderate, or negative, but that happens far too often. My prayer each morning is simply to be a better person that day than the one I was the day before and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that is slowly happening.

When we remember that sometimes our best efforts are not nearly good enough, it becomes much easier to forgive others for their failings. Forgiveness doesn’t mean those actions are right or good; it doesn’t mean we approve of them or accept them. It simply means we forgive them. While we’re forgiving others, we should forgive ourselves for our shortcomings as well. Let’s release our regrets; we all could have done better, but what’s done is done. If God can forgive us, we ought to be able to do so, too.

Father, lift any hidden resentment and regret from our hearts and replace them with love and forgiveness. Help us accept that flaws, both ours and those of others, are part of being human. Show us how to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can be better people today than we were yesterday, and even better ones tomorrow.

Some days, doing “the best we can” may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect – on any front – and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else. [Fred Rogers]

I was wrong before. I’m smarter now. [Chris Bohjalian]

Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. [1 Peter 4:8 (MSG)]

If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped. [Psalm 130:3-4 (MSG)] 

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