STARTING OVER

When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream! We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy! [Psalm 126:1-3 (NLT)]

along Stagecoach trailWhen the first group of exiles returned from Babylon, they rebuilt the altar and celebrated the Festival of Shelters. Seven months later, after laying a new foundation for the temple, the people again gathered for a celebration. Trumpets blew and cymbals clashed. They sang responsively with one chorus chanting, “He is so good!” and the other answering, “His faithful love endures forever!” In the midst of the crowd’s great shouts of praise, however, weeping could be heard.

Those shouts of praise were from the younger people: the ones who knew nothing of the glorious temple that Solomon had spared no expense in erecting. They’d never seen the doors and walls decorated with carvings of cherubim, flowers, and palm trees and completely overlaid with gold. They’d never walked on the porch or gazed up at the two 27-foot tall pillars of bronze topped by 7-feet chapiters decorated with lilies and pomegranates. For the younger people, the temple foundation was a beginning but, for those who’d seen the once magnificent temple, it was a painful reminder of all they’d lost.

50 years earlier, all of Jerusalem had been looted and destroyed. To those who’d seen the thriving city, splendid palace, and ornate temple, the smaller foundation in the middle of Jerusalem’s rubble was a poor substitute for what once was. David had amassed 1,000 times more money for the construction of Solomon’s temple than they had for this one and they knew it could never come close to matching the first. Standing in the midst of the city’s remains, they were disheartened. I imagine those returning to their homes along the Louisiana coastline after Hurricane Laura feel much the same way as they look at the devastation surrounding them.

In the years that followed, the Judeans encountered opposition to rebuilding the temple from their enemies. The real enemy, however, was their own discouragement and apathy. Sixteen years after they celebrated the temple’s foundation, God’s house still was unfinished while their own homes had been built (quite possibly with the lumber initially meant for the temple). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah called for the completion of God’s temple. The Lord’s message through Haggai was simple and direct: “Now go up into the hills, bring down timber, and rebuild my house.” [1:8] The people obeyed and, four years later, the second temple was dedicated.

I suppose we could call COVID-19 the “great detour” of 2020. It’s been our exile to Babylon and, while it hasn’t lasted decades, it sure feels that way. This year’s events certainly caught us off guard. Unless we were epidemiologists, most of us thought things would be back to normal by now. We now understand that, when this pandemic eventually is over, the world to which we return will not look the same. While it won’t be the wreckage of an uninhabited and destroyed Jerusalem and a vandalized and demolished temple, it will be vastly different from the one we left in March. Like the Judeans, we will have to rebuild and, like them, we will have to fight our greatest enemy: discouragement. Let us “Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” [Haggai 2:4b] Let us remember, “He is so good! His faithful love endures forever!”

Restore our fortunes, Lord, as streams renew the desert. Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy. They weep as they go to plant their seed, but they sing as they return with the harvest. [Psalm 126:4-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

ENCOURAGING WORDS

Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you. [2 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)]

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day. [Brewster M. Higley]

pronghorn antelope - buffaloWouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where we’d never (at least rarely ever) hear a discouraging word? It shouldn’t be necessary to ride the range in Wyoming for that to happen.

When my eldest child entered adolescence, it frequently seemed like he’d decided his task in life was to annoy his mother as much as humanly possible. Regrettably, during those challenging years, there were lots of discouraging words. One evening, I realized that our communication consisted of me directing him (“Make your bed!”), correcting him (“Do it this way!”), disciplining him (“You’ve lost that privilege!”), criticizing him (“You can’t go out dressed that way!”), or denying him (“I said ‘No’ and that’s final!”). Admittedly, directions, corrections, and criticism are a necessary part of life as are discipline and denial. Nevertheless, realizing there was a room for improvement on my part as well as his, I made a concerted effort to keep my negative comments to a bare minimum.

Seldom speaking (or hearing) a discouraging word was not enough. Where, I wondered, were the words of love? Where were the words of encouragement so necessary for him to thrive and feel good about himself? One doesn’t need to take psychology 101 or even a dog obedience class to know about the importance of positive reinforcement (which is simply a fancy term for encouragement). I had to add positive and heartening comments to our interaction if he was going to flourish and bloom. With God’s guidance and a heavy dose of the Spirit’s patience, we managed to get through those trying years. In spite of my many parental failings, he blossomed into a delightful responsible young man. A wonderful father, he now has to deal with adolescents of his own (which is God’s payback)!

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” If we all followed that advice, the world would be a much quieter place and we’d never have to watch another campaign commercial! More, however, is needed. The Apostle Paul urged the early Christians to encourage one another and he truly practiced what he preached. Whenever he instructed and directed (even when he disciplined or corrected), Paul always seemed to add encouragement to his words.

Encouragement (or exhortation) is a gift of the Holy Spirit but that doesn’t mean those of us without this gift should fail to encourage! Those gifted with encouragement are the church’s cheerleaders, but the rest of us are the fans in the stands who join in supporting the team! In the Fruit of the Spirit, we find love and kindness (along with patience) which means all Christians are capable of encouraging the people we meet in our daily lives. It’s not enough to seldom speak a discouraging word; we need to speak encouraging ones!

Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know. [H. Jackson Brown]

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. [2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)]

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HIS CRAFTSMANSHIP

dawnThe heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. [Psalm 19:1-4 (NLT)]

As I looked at the morning sky, I had to agree with the psalmist: the heavens do proclaim the glory of God. My photo can’t do justice to the magnificence of today’s sunrise. Although I had a good night’s sleep, like many of us during this time of isolation, loss, and unrest, my soul was weary. Nature, however, has a way of restoring weary souls and the vibrant colors of the breaking day lifted my spirits. They reassured me of God’s eternal power and divinity.

It’s not just the skies that display God’s amazing craftsmanship. From the smallest insect to the largest mountain and the heavens above, God continually reveals himself through his amazing creation. His power and might are visible in oceans, mountains, blizzards, rainstorms, lightening, and even mighty hurricanes like Laura. Yet, one look at a spider’s web, butterfly’s wings, dandelion puff, or violet tells us He has a gentle touch as well.

Although life sometimes feels random, illogical, and unpredictable (as it does right now), nature assures us that God is not arbitrary, capricious, unthinking or careless. A Creator who made flowers that lure bees with nectar and pollen so they’d be pollinated and the bees could then make honey definitely had a plan. The God who gave every one of us a unique set of fingerprints and every zebra a distinctive design of stripes without repeating himself is limitless and certainly attentive to detail. A master at creativity, He gave us eggs that turn into chicks, legless tadpoles that become hopping frogs, acorns that grow into giant oaks, and enabled water and wind to wear away rocks. He knows what He’s doing!

Creation is more than a witness to God’s eternal power and divinity; it tells us about Him. Without a doubt, the designer who covered a rat with armor and made an armadillo, assembled the wildebeest from what appear to be spare parts, fashioned the long snout of the anteater, and provided kangaroos with built-in pockets has a sense of humor and believes in laughter. The One who gave us the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the smell of a pine forest, the feel of a gentle breeze, and the fragrance of sweet honeysuckle and gardenias wants us to enjoy His creation. When He decorated our world, God boldly used every color on his heavenly paint palette and His abundance is evident in the fall colors, rainbows, orchids, painted buntings, and glacial lakes He’s given us to enjoy.

Not every sunrise is as flamboyant as was this morning’s nor is every sunset as gaudy as was last night’s. Nevertheless, one look at the sky is more than enough to assure us of God’s existence. Rest assured that the One who painted spots on the ladybug, gave the peacock his showy tail, and put the sweet taste into strawberries has not forgotten His children. Let us open our eyes to His creation and sing the words penned by Maltbie Babcock more than 100 years ago: “This is my Father’s world; Oh let me not forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet!” As fallen and broken as the world seems, it still belongs to God! He’s at large and in charge!

Forbid that I should walk through Thy beautiful world with unseeing eyes: Forbid that the lure of the market-place should ever entirely steal my heart away from the love of the open acres and the green trees: Forbid that under the low roof of workshop or office or study I should ever forget Thy great overarching sky: Forbid that when all Thy creatures are greeting the morning with songs and shouts of joy, I alone should wear a dull and sullen face.

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. [Romans 1:20a (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

mottled duck“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” the bumper sticker asked. That’s the sort of query that used to be posed to beauty pageant contestants. Their answers typically had to do with curing cancer, attaining world peace, or solving the problems of illiteracy, poverty and hunger. Of course, we’d all like to be able to wave a magic wand and solve the world’s difficulties. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

The question, however, continued to intrigue me. Is there something I would do if there was absolutely no possibility of failure? Would I even want to? Would there be joy in achievement if there were no struggles, no hurdles to jump and no problems to solve? There’s no sense of victory in playing a game when the opponent doesn’t present a challenge. The value of a diploma would be cheapened if we never had to study for final exams. The sense of satisfaction at a job well done would be diminished if we never had the possibility of failure. Failure is part of God’s training plan. The risk of failure brings us closer to God and reminds us that we can do nothing without faith in Him.

When Paul wrote the Philippians that he could do all things through Christ, did he mean he would be successful in every endeavor? Rather than a statement of self-reliance or guaranteed success, Paul was declaring his reliance on Christ. He wasn’t denying the possibility of adverse circumstances or failure; he was affirming his faith.

If we knew we couldn’t fail in an endeavor, we’d have no need for faith. Furthermore, the possibility of success or failure should never keep us from obediently following God’s direction. While the risk of failure should never stop us, lack of faith will.  As long as His Spirit is in us and we are walking in His footsteps, whether we succeed or fail, we will not fail the test of faith!

What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? Exactly what I’m doing now—sometimes successfully and other times not, but always in obedience to Him.

Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter. [Francis Chan]

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TWO MISTAKES

After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. [Luke 2:43-44 (NIV)]

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” [John 20:15 (NIV)]

spiderwortEvery year, Jesus and His family went to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Passover. Entire villages would travel together and the city was jam packed with worshipers when they departed for Nazareth. The men probably traveled apart from the women and children. Jesus, being twelve and no longer a little boy but not yet a man, could have been with either group. Perhaps Mary thought Him with the men while Joseph thought He was with the children. They didn’t know Jesus wasn’t there until they stopped that night. Moving with the crowd, his parents had mistakenly presumed His presence.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the crowd’s movement that we fail to make sure Jesus is with us on our journey. We forget that it is the sheep who follow the shepherd and not the other way around. It took Joseph and Mary three days before they found Jesus in His Father’s house doing His Father’s business. Let us learn from them and look there for Him first. Be reassured; it’s never too late to turn back. If we seek Him, He will be found!

On the other hand, some people thought Jesus was absent when He was right in front of them. Never expecting to see a risen Christ, the tearful Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was the gardener. The two walking to Emmaus were unable to recognize the risen Christ because they were in a heated discussion (the Greek word was syzetein  meaning “strong debate”) about the meaning of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. Focusing on their sorrow, fear, doubt and confusion, Mary and the travelers didn’t realize they were in His presence!

Even though Jesus is right beside us, there are times in our lives we can’t recognize Him because we’re not looking for Him. Rather than seeking a resurrected Jesus, Mary just wanted to anoint a dead body and the two travelers were looking for answers rather than the Savior. Let’s never settle for anything less than seeing the risen Christ.

There are two mistakes we can make about Jesus: we can think He’s present when we’ve gone off without Him and we can think He’s absent when He’s right beside us. Let’s not make either mistake!

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NIV)]

Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. [Psalm 9:10 (NIV)]

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DEADLINES

The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. [Nehemiah 2:6 (NSRV)]

wiggens pass sunset“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law. Writing those words in 1955, Parkinson wasn’t talking about deadlines; he was taking aim at the British Civil Service and government bureaucracies that become less efficient as they increase in size. Nevertheless, later studies have shown that without strict time constraints, we tend to waste time and work takes longer than necessary to complete.

When this pandemic began, all sorts of obligations were cleared from my calendar and, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I was sure lots of writing would get done. How wrong I was! Like others who found themselves with excess time and no deadlines or sense of urgency, instead of getting more done, I’m accomplishing less.

When Jerusalem fell to Babylon, the Temple was destroyed and the city left in shambles. After Zerubabbel led the first group of exiles back, it took twenty years to rebuild the Temple. Seventy years after its completion, however, the city walls were still in ruins. When Nehemiah asked King Artaxerxes permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, the King asked how long he would be gone. Given Nehemiah’s weighty responsibilities in court, it’s logical to assume that the king would not agree to a lengthy absence. As the king’s cup-bearer, Nehemiah’s presence was essential to the king. His duties included being the chief financial officer and bearer of his signet ring. As the king’s wine taster, his job was to sample royal beverages to test for poison.

Before making his request, Nehemiah must have carefully considered both the amount of time necessary for such a task and the length of time the king would allow his absence. Although we don’t know Nehemiah’s answer, the king found it reasonable and the men agreed upon a time frame. With no target date, the wall hadn’t been repaired in over ninety years; with a deadline, the project was completed in a record 52 days!

Although Scripture mentions Nehemiah returning to Babylon twelve years later, it’s difficult to think the king would have agreed to be without his cup-bearer for that length of time. It’s more likely that a specific deadline, perhaps as brief as two months, had been set and Nehemiah returned promptly after the wall’s completion. Having shown his excellent leadership qualities, it probably was then that Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah Judah’s governor and sent him back to Jerusalem. If the King originally had agreed to a twelve year absence, I suspect the wall may have taken nearly that long to complete!

Deadlines motivate us; they keep us from growing lethargic or unconcerned. Let us never forget that we all live with two deadlines: our own personal expiration date and the world’s. Although we know that both cutoff dates will occur, we don’t know when. Let us never grow lax and apathetic or lose a sense of urgency about doing the Lord’s work. Viewing every day as a gift, we must use our time wisely and enthusiastically to glorify God and bring about His Kingdom. Let us live this day to the fullest as if it were our last. After all, it very well could be!

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. … Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. [Matthew 24:36,44 (NSRV)]

You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. [2 Peter 3:17-18 (NSRV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.