NEIGHBORS

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:14 (NLT)]

The only way to have a friend is to be one. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

When the religious scholar asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which he made it clear that one’s neighbors can be strangers—even enemies. Sometimes, however, our neighbor really is the guy next door or the couple sitting in the pew behind us at church.

Many of the houses in our Florida community have beautiful front porches and nearly every one of those porches has a lovely set of wicker chairs sitting on it. Yet, in all of our years here, I never have seen anyone sitting in those chairs. There was a time many years ago when people sat on their front porches and chatted with their neighbors after dinner. Now, I guess we’re all inside in front of our computers or televisions. Have we all become so busy with our own interests and activities that we have no interest in anyone else? Have we become so afraid of getting involved that we don’t even want to know our neighbors? How can we love them if we don’t even bother to meet them?

I thought of neighbors last night while driving through a nearby community famed for their over-the-top Christmas lights. With all the Santas, elves, snowmen, gaudy lights, and music, it was incredibly colorful, tacky, and fun, but it had little or nothing to do with Christ or Christmas. It did, however, have a lot to do with neighbors and friendship.

As we drove down the brightly lit streets, residents were outside chatting with one another, driving friends around in golf carts, or gathering around fire pits in front yards. Older children in Santa hats collected money for the Cancer Society and the little ones were toted around in wagons and strollers. With each street having a theme, neighbors had to talk to and work with one another to erect arches across their roads, place giant angels on the mailboxes, put candy canes in every yard on the block, or help one another assemble their elaborate displays. They probably discussed who on the block would play the holiday music and I’m sure several extension cords were shared. The residents had to communicate, cooperate, and assist one another. In fact, they seem to enjoy decorating so much that they also bedeck the neighborhood for Halloween. Their little community isn’t just a group of homes with the same zip code and garbage pick-up day; it is a group of neighbors who share and care—both for the community and for one another.

Taking the Good Samaritan parable seriously, my husband and I care for our neighbors—or at least the ones we don’t know: the nameless faceless ones who benefit from our donations to good causes. While that’s loving our neighbor, it’s the impersonal and easy way to do it. Rather than simply writing checks for the neighbor we’ll never know, we should think a little closer to home and find ways to know the neighbors down the street. Maybe it’s time to meet the woman next door, make an effort to go beyond a quick hello to the couple with the schnauzer, invite the recently widowed man down the street to dinner, or introduce ourselves to that stranger at church. Perhaps, that neighborhood with the extraordinary holiday decorations had more to do with love, Christ, and Christmas than I realized.

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together we might as well say,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor? [Fred Rogers]

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:12 (NLT)]

Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:31 (NLT)]

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CUSTARD PIES

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. [James 1:2-4 (NIV)

When we lived in the north, we often walked a public path that meandered along the shoreline of a nearby lake. Running through both public and private properties, it crossed the front lawns of historic lakefront estates and stunning homes with beautifully landscaped yards and gardens. One such home placed a lakeside bench for tired walkers that said, “Sit-Pray-Mediate-Enjoy” under a sign that read, “You can trust me. Love, God.” A delightful white fence delineated their private property from the public path. Decorated with whimsey, “Expect a Miracle” was the message on the gate and assorted Bible verses and words of wisdom were painted on the fence’s horizontal slats.

I laughed at actress Lynn Redgrave’s observation that, “God always has another custard pie up his sleeve.” Having grown up watching the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and Soupy Sales, I knew exactly what she meant! Custard pies are the unplanned quirky episodes of life—the glitches, bugs, hitches, curve balls, obstructions, setbacks, and snags that seem to arise when we least expect them. While they’re not necessarily earth-shattering or tragic, they upset the apple cart of our lives and can throw us off our game!

Sometimes those custard pies come at us the way candy on a conveyor belt did in an old I Love Lucy episode called “Job Switching.”  Working in a candy factory, Lucy and Ethel’s job seemed simple enough: wrap candies as they came down the line. All went well until the line sped up and the candies came faster and faster. Knowing they’d be fired if any unwrapped candy reached the packing room, the women frantically grabbed the candies off the belt and ended up stuffing them in their mouths, hats, and blouses. “I think we’re fighting a losing game,” admitted Lucy.

Most of us can handle one or two custard pies at a time but, when they come flying at us as fast as the candy came to Lucy and Ethel, we feel like we’re playing a losing game and our faith is challenged! As Ms. Redgrave said, it does seem like God has an endless supply of custard pies up his sleeve. For many of us, the last twenty months have been a speeding conveyor belt of those pies and, with months of disappointments, complications, delays, and uncertainty, little went according to our expectations or plans. Before God tosses another pie my way, I wish He’d give me a warning so I could duck!

Nevertheless, as Christians, we know that those pies are part of God’s greater plan for us. Life is unpredictable at best and we need to accept its capriciousness with proper perspective, a positive outlook, a sense of humor, and faith in the One who is in charge. In the meantime, I’ll follow the advice painted by that home owner. Knowing that God loves me, I’ll trust in Him and expect a miracle (or two). I’ll sit, pray, meditate, and enjoy what God has put before me—even if it’s another custard pie!

Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. [Joshua J. Marine]

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. [Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NIV)]

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YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW

Lord, I trust in you. You are my God. My life is in your hands. [Psalm 31:14-15a (ERV)]

Going by the popular name of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” the Brunfelsia is one of my favorite Florida flowers. Three colors of pansy-like fragrant flowers can be seen on the one plant at the same time: the deep purple of the new flower, the pale lavender that appears shortly thereafter, and the pure white just before the flower falls off. Although we get to see what this flower looked like yesterday, looks like today and will look like tomorrow, we don’t get to see the past, present and future of our lives all at once. God, however can.

This lovely flower was brought to mind last week when I had my yearly exam at the dermatologist’s. In honor of Thanksgiving, one wall of the waiting room displayed brown, orange, red, and yellow construction paper leaves scattered under a banner that asked, “For what are you thankful?” While reminiscent of an elementary school classroom bulletin board, the answers written on those leaves by both patients and staff weren’t like those of the average grade-schooler who knows little of things like death, biopsies, addiction, loneliness, strokes, cancer, conflict, bankruptcy, job loss, homelessness, violence, or struggle. While a fourth-grader might have written her dog’s name on a leaf, only a mature adult would have said, “I’m thankful for the troubled times because, without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today!”

Indeed, I can’t say I was thankful for my troubles when they occurred but, like that person, I am thankful for what God did with them in my life. The hurdles, pain, injury, loss, and trouble that seemed so random and senseless at the time make sense in retrospect. I can see how God brought those difficult yesterdays together to bring me to a better and more beautiful today and how today’s challenges will lead me into an even more amazing tomorrow. Having no crystal ball to see how it all will come together at some point in the future, however, we simply must trust God with our tomorrows and settle on only seeing the past, present, and future at one time in the lovely flowers of the Brunfelsia.

Another name for the Brunfelsia is “Kiss Me Quick Before I Fade,” but I tend to think of it as the Carpe Diem flower. The phrase comes from the Roman poet Horace and was part of his injunction to “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” meaning “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” Horace, who died in 8 BC, was a pagan but, had he been born at a later date and become a follower of Jesus, the poet could have trusted in his tomorrows because he would have known they were in God’s hands.

As for me, while thanking God for the blessings of yesterday (even though I didn’t appreciate many of them at the time), I will pluck this day with enthusiasm and joy while trusting God with the next one. He planted us right here and at this time for a reason and He will faithfully cultivate, prune, water, and nurture us. Trusting that God knows what He’s doing, what He wants for us, where He’s taking us, and how He will get us there, let us release to Him all of our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.

God promises a safe landing but not a calm passage. [Bulgarian Proverb]

The Lord guides our steps, and we never know where he will lead us. [Proverbs 20:24 (ERV)]

So I saw that the best thing people can do is to enjoy what they do, because that is all they have. Besides, no one can help another person see what will happen in the future. [Ecclesiastes 3:22 (ERV)]

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MIMICRY

I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! [1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (MSG)]

Even though they have their own unique song, northern mockingbirds usually incorporate the songs of other birds into theirs. With their ability to sound like jays, thrashers, hawks, orioles, and robins (along with car alarms and frogs), rather than sounding like themselves, these masters of mimicry can sound like what they’ve heard.

While we often see people imitating the monkeys at a zoo, we’re as likely to see the primates imitating us! Along with being a way to learn, researchers have found this mimicry is a way of interacting and communicating with one another. The old phrase, “monkey see, monkey do!” actually holds true.

Even though it is unintentionally and unconsciously done, like mockingbirds and monkeys, we tend to mimic the voices, mannerisms, and gestures of the people we’re with because of something often called the “chameleon effect.” We find ourselves returning facial expressions like smiles and yawning, as well as accents, gestures, and tone or pitch of voice. Researchers say that such mimicry builds rapport and empathy and can have an impact on our social success.

In Romans 1, Paul wrote of his own willingness to emulate certain behaviors as a way of building rapport with the people he wanted to bring to Christ. Even though he knew Jesus had freed him from Judaism’s 613 laws, Paul abided by them when with Jews. When with Gentiles, however, he would disregard those same laws. Although he was willing to adapt his communication to the culture of his audience, he never changed the message of the gospel or compromised his principles.

Social success or not, not every behavior should be copied and yet we often find ourselves in situations where not joining in becomes problematic. To fit in with our classmates, neighbors, co-workers, small group, or friends, we may find ourselves mirroring behavior that shouldn’t be mimicked such as griping, gossip, coarse language, criticism, disparagement, rudeness, or complaint. Without realizing it, like the mockingbird, we start copying the voices around us.

There’s a fine line between finding common ground and losing our way. If we’re not careful, like the mockingbird, we may begin to sound more like what we’ve been hearing than who we actually are and, like the monkey, begin to act like those around us rather than Jesus. While it’s often easier to conform to the world around us than to remain in the world while staying true to our faith, our words and actions should never be compromised. If Jesus wouldn’t do or say it, neither should we!

At the end of the day, Paul knew he’d been true to Jesus whether or not he’d eaten dairy and meat at the same meal, had fringes on his robe, or wore phylacteries on his forehead and arms. At the end of the day, no matter what songs he’s sung, the mockingbird knows he’s still a mockingbird. At the end of the day, we need to be able to say that we are Christians who have sung our song in a way that honors God and reflects our faith.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. [Romans 12:2 (MSG)]

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ESCAPE

Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. How quickly I would escape—far from this wild storm of hatred [Psalm 57:6-8 (NLT)]

Good people must never expect to escape troubles; if they do, they will be disappointed, for none of their predecessors have been without them. [Charles Spurgeon]

mourning doveIt wasn’t Hagar’s fault; she really had no choice in the matter. It was the barren Sarah who offered her maidservant Hagar to Abraham like a brood mare to a stallion to provide him with an heir. Having been used by both mistress and master, Scripture tells us that Hagar began to treat Sarah with disdain once she became pregnant. Rather than accept her part in the tense situation, Sarah blamed her husband, grew jealous of her maid, and treated the girl harshly. Sarah wasn’t just unpleasant to her servant. The Hebrew word used was anah, meaning oppressed or afflicted; it is the same word used to describe the way Egypt’s taskmasters treated their Israelite slaves. In short, Sarah wasn’t just stern, she was vindictive and cruel. Since Abraham had washed his hands of the matter, Hagar saw no reprieve. Wanting to escape her merciless mistress and the household turmoil, Hagar did what many of us do when faced with difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances—she fled.

It’s thought that Hagar wanted to return to her family in Egypt, which meant crossing the desert in the Wilderness of Shur—a dangerous prospect for a lone pregnant woman. It was on the road to Shur that the weary Hagar stopped by a well and met the Angel of the Lord. Rather than aiding in her escape or promising to alleviate the situation at Abraham’s home, He told her to return and “submit” to Sarah’s authority! He then blessed her with good news about her future. Having heard her cries of distress, He told her to name her son Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” From then on, Hagar called the Lord El-Roi, meaning the God who sees me.

We probably don’t flee into the desert to escape our troubles but, like Hagar, we want to flee some way or another. Some try escaping with drugs, alcohol, infidelity, or denial while others run away with work, spending, lethargy, food, or exercise. Like Hagar, we would prefer to be rescued from our troubles than to face them. We want the God who hears and sees us to cure the cancer, fix the infertility, make the chronic pain stop, and free us from our grief. We want Him to bring the lost child home, get the loved one sober, replenish the empty bank account, fix the broken marriage, and make the dysfunctional family functional. Given a choice, we would prefer God to make everything right than to face our troubles. We join with the psalmist in his desire to escape by flying away on the wings of a dove.

Hagar’s story, however, tells us that’s not how it works—rather than flying away, God expects us to face our troubles. He told Hagar to return to Abraham and submit to her mistress. Rather than rescuing Hagar from her trouble, God sustained and blessed her in it. The good news found in Hagar’s story is that God is aware of our suffering. He sees and hears us in the hospital room, courthouse, morgue, homeless shelter, prison cell, rehab unit, living room, football field, workplace, doctor’s office, and even the desert. No matter where we are or what what kind of trouble we’re facing, we are never lost, alone, or abandoned. Our God is El Roi – the God who sees us! While He may not free us from our troubles, He will sustain and bless us in them!

Don’t pray to escape trouble. Don’t pray to be comfortable in your emotions. Pray to do the will of God in every situation. Nothing else is worth praying for. [Samuel M. Shoemaker]

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)]

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RED LIGHTS

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

tasslefloiwerBack in his college days, my husband and several friends were on a lonely stretch of road in what seemed the middle of nowhere when they stopped for a red light. Although the average red light lasts from 90 to 120 seconds, that seemed like an eternity to the impatient driver. After looking around and seeing no other cars, he proceeded through the intersection. There was, however, one other vehicle nearby—and it was a police car! Although that driver’s impatience cost him time and money, other drivers’ impatience can take lives! A typical commuter train, for example, usually passes through an intersection in two to three minutes. But, when we lived in Illinois, at least one or two impatient drivers tried (and failed) to beat the local commuter train across the tracks every year.

Patience has been described as the quality we admire in the driver behind us but can’t stand in the driver ahead! As impatient as we are while waiting for a red light to turn green or a train to get through the crossing, I wonder at our patience when waiting for God. When we bring our concerns to Him, do we expect His answer in a New York minute (said to be the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn)? Encountering God’s version of red lights and crossing gates doesn’t mean we can’t make progress; they simply mean that it’s time to wait.

Rather than trusting God enough to wait for His timing, we frequently barge ahead only to face the consequences. Sarah’s impatience while waiting for Abraham’s promised heir led to an enduring hostility between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. Esau was so impatient for dinner that he traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. The Israelites’ impatience when waiting for Moses to return from Mt. Sinai led to the golden calf and a plague while their impatience with the long journey around Moab resulted in an infestation of poisonous snakes. Moses’ impatience with them at Meribah Kadesh barred him from entering the Promised Land and Saul’s impatience while waiting for Samuel’s arrival caused him to lose his kingdom. The prodigal son was so impatient that he asked for his inheritance early and he ended up squandering it all. Impatience is costly in more ways than one and the consequences can be long lasting. Let us remember that it is God’s timetable we are to fulfill, not ours!

Waiting on the Lord is the opposite of running ahead of the Lord, and it’s the opposite of bailing out on the Lord. It’s staying at your appointed place while he says stay, or it’s going at his appointed pace while he says go. It’s not impetuous, and it’s not despairing. [John Piper]

Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord. [Psalm 27:14 (NLT)]

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. [Psalm 40:1 (NLT)]

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