SELFIES

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. [1 Peter 3:8 (NIV)]

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. [Romans 12:15 (NIV)]


I watched as the couple extended their selfie stick and posed. Focusing only on themselves, they were oblivious to others on the beach and the beautiful sunset behind them. In love and on vacation, for the moment the world revolved around them and nothing else mattered.

It’s not just when we’re in love that we think the world revolves around us. When encountering difficulties, we frequently get out an emotional selfie stick. Focusing on ourselves and our particular situation, we often end up throwing ourselves a pity party while whining things like, “Poor me…my life is so difficult…I hurt…it’s unfair…no one understands my situation…I’m miserable…nobody cares!” Fixated on what we’re feeling, we can’t see God let alone anyone else!

On the other hand, if we put aside the selfie stick and turn the camera around, we can move beyond our limited self-awareness and interest. By zooming out or using the panoramic setting, we get an entirely different perspective. When our view widens, we begin to see people with problems of their own, and, in many cases, those problems are far worse than ours. With better perspective, we cease being the center of the universe and our difficulties cease being the center of our lives.

According to NASA astronauts, seeing the earth from space causes a profound change in their awareness. When astronaut Ron Garan viewed his home planet from space, he was in awe of its overwhelming beauty. By viewing the earth without borders, he also was struck both by the oneness of the world and by the inequity existing on it. He felt a deep sense of sadness as he thought of the billions of people on earth who suffer from things like hunger, lack of clean water, social injustice, conflicts, and poverty.

We don’t need to be astronauts to step back far enough to realize how many people suffer and suffer far more than do we on even our worst days. The pain and problems in our lives are just a small part of the interconnected and continually evolving drama of life in this world. We are but one of more than 7.8 billion people on earth and only one of the nearly 335 million people in our nation. Those numbers are humbling—and a gentle reminder that life does not revolve around us!

Oddly, when we recognize the pain of others, our pain is lessened, not because they might hurt more than we do but because we become united with them in our anguish. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, widening our perspective allows empathy and compassion to emerge. No longer alone in our suffering, we become connected with others in this flawed and troubled world of ours. No longer isolated in our distress, we move from focusing on the “me” to caring about the “we.”

Father, open our eyes to you and to the world around us. Broaden our view so that we see the purpose in pain, the lesson in loss, and the meaning in misery. Give us compassionate hearts and peace filled souls. If we are to cry, let our tears be for others and, if we are to mourn, let our mourning be for all who grieve. Please strengthen and comfort us so that we can strengthen and comfort others.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. [Viktor Frankl]

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. [2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NIV)]

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IN ENEMY TERRITORY

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NIV)]

anhingaAnhingas are among my favorites of our lake’s birds. Unlike most birds, their bones are heavy and dense and, rather than waders like the herons and egrets or paddlers like the ducks, they are deep-diving swimmers. Lacking the oil glands that waterproof the feathers of other water birds, anhingas (and their cormorant cousins) become water-logged in the water. While making it difficult to remain afloat, that allows them to dive up to sixty feet deep, swim underwater for several hundred feet, and stay underwater for more than a minute. Eventually, however, the birds become so heavy they will sink unless they return to land to dry their feathers.

Every morning I find anhingas resting along the lake’s shoreline and spreading their wings to dry. The wettest ones get barely out of the water but, as they dry, they waddle further back until dry enough to get up onto a rock, bench, or low hanging branch. As their feathers continue to dry, they move higher up in the trees until they are dry and light enough to take flight.

Unlike the lake’s ducks who nest and sleep in the vegetation along the shoreline, anhingas remain on land only out of necessity. Vulnerable to predators, a soaking wet anhinga is like a “sitting duck.” With its stubby legs and large webbed feet, it can’t run; water-logged, the water isn’t a good option and yet it’s too wet to fly up to safety. While hissing, grunting, and trying to look intimidating by ruffling its feathers, raising its tail, lengthening and waving its long neck, and pointing its spear-like beak may deter some birds of prey, that behavior probably won’t dissuade hungry alligators or crocodiles.

Just as being vulnerable to a predator’s attack is part and parcel of being an anhinga, being vulnerable to our enemy’s attack is an inevitable part of being human in our fallen world. Rather than gators and crocs, that enemy is Satan and he can sneak up on us even more adeptly than the wiliest reptile in the Everglades. Rather than the weight of soaking wet feathers, it is the weight of things like pain, illness, betrayal, weariness, conflict, loneliness, loss, disappointment (and even hurricanes) that make us especially vulnerable to attack. The enemy will use every weapon in his armory including lies, half-truths, fear, despair, hopelessness, and (his favorite) doubt to assault our belief in the goodness of God. Fortunately, in His wisdom, God armed us for battle with more than the saber-sharp beak and intimidating appearance of the anhinga. We wage war with the weapons of our faith: God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

An anhinga, aware of its vulnerability when wet, only enters the water to hunt or bathe. With neck extended and eyes wide open, it remains watchful when drying along the shoreline and never dawdles there once dry. Like the anhinga, we must be alert to our vulnerability in our fallen world. Unlike the anhinga, however, we often act as if we’re not sitting smack dab in the middle of the enemy’s territory! A. W. Tozer warns us about thinking of the world as a “playground instead of a battleground.” May we never forget that we live in the enemy’s territory and he is as dangerous as a prowling lion or a hungry alligator!

Anyone who serves the Lord is going to be the target of Satan’s attacks. [Zac Poonen]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NIV)]

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SHOUT WITH JOY

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy. Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. [Psalm 100:1-3 (NLT)]

water lily
For those who wondered—I weathered Hurricane Ian with nothing more than minor inconveniences and some yard work. Sadly, most of Southwest Florida was not so fortunate. Frankly, it’s even worse here than the photos you’ve seen and the stories you’ve heard. The death toll is rising, rivers still are flooding, more damage is being revealed, the loss is astounding, people’s lives are shattered, nerves are frayed, and medical staff, first responders, repair crews, and volunteers are exhausted. Sunday morning, in spite of the day’s sunshine, things looked dark.

Even though my church meets outside at a beachfront park, like many other churches, we lost our place of worship. Park facilities were destroyed, the beach was decimated, and the area is closed because of hazardous conditions. In a return to Covid days, our Sunday service was online.

Early Sunday morning, however, I read Psalm 100. Perhaps because there is nothing somber or vengeful in this psalm, it is one of my favorites. Chanted by Jews on their way to the Temple thousands of years ago, this call to know and worship God is a perfect psalm for Sunday mornings. After reading its words to shout with joy, worship with gladness, and come into God’s presence, I felt a desperate need to worship with others. Wanting to make a loud and joyful noise to the Lord, we skipped the online service and came into His presence at a nearby church.

As the organist began with J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, I knew we made the right decision. When the trumpet joined the organ in this beautiful composition, tears of joy filled my eyes even though my heart cried for the hundreds of thousands affected by this horrific storm. Bach’s familiar melody reminded me that we have a God who loved us so much that He gave us His only son to die for us so that we could be saved—not from hurricanes, ruined homes, and flood waters, but from sin and death.

His Name is Wonderful was the first hymn we sang and, with its words, “His Name is Wonderful; His Name is Counselor; His Name The Mighty God, Jesus my Lord,” we accepted Psalm 100’s call to worship with gladness. Our joyful noise continued as we acknowledged the goodness of our God with the familiar words of How Great Thou Art: ”Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: How great thou art! How great thou art!” We offered thanksgiving as we shared His body and blood during Communion. We acknowledged His magnificence, unfailing love, and faithfulness when we closed the service with the hymn Majesty singing, “So exalt, lift up on high, the name of Jesus. Magnify, come glorify Christ Jesus the King. Majesty, worship His majesty. Jesus who died, now glorified, King of all kings!” My heart was lighter and the day much brighter after entering His gates with thanksgiving!

Curious about the inspiring music that opened the service, I learned that the composition we know as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a chorale in a much larger work called Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). Bach took the text for this song from two stanzas of a hymn by Martin Janus called Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne (Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss). It was only when Dame Myra Hess transcribed this portion of the cantata for solo piano in 1926, that we came to know this beautiful melody as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. You might find a hymn by the same name in your church’s hymnal. It’s words, however, were written by Robert Bridges who, rather than translating the original nineteen-stanza hymn, wrote a much shorter version.

I’m closing today with a translation of the two stanzas Bach chose to include in his awe-inspiring music. Indeed, even if we’re sick or sad, homeless or heart-broken, despairing or discouraged, frustrated or frightened, drained or disheartened, bewildered or broken—even then, we are blessed because we have Jesus! No matter the circumstances, may we always enter His gates with thanksgiving and His court with praise!

Blest am I, that I have Jesus! O how tightly I cling to Him,
So that He delights my heart when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me and gives Himself to me as my own;
Ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus, even if my heart is breaking.

Jesus shall remain my joy, my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow. He is the strength of my life,
The delight and sun of my eyes, the treasure and wonder of my soul;
Therefore I will not let Jesus go out of my heart and sight.
[Martin Janus (1661)]

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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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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NO EXPERIENCE WASTED

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

God has a plan for each and every one of us and no experience is ever wasted. All that happened in the past has prepared us for what happens today and what will happen tomorrow. For example, consider Moses; the first two-thirds of his life were merely preparation for what he accomplished during the last third. For forty years, he acquired a unique skill set while living as a member of Pharaoh’s household. Being the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, he received an education befitting a prince and came to understand the protocol and ways of the royal court. Moreover, since he also was cared for by his birth mother, he knew Hebrew and understood the plight of his people. With his Egyptian/Hebrew background, Moses could communicate with both Israelites and their Egyptian oppressors. Quite likely, he was the only person with access to both Israel’s elders and Pharaoh’s court and that royal education certainly served him well when he penned most of the first five books of the Bible.

Moses’ second forty years were spent as a shepherd in Midian. A stranger in a strange land, the pampered prince had four decades to learn how to live as a nomad and shepherd. He also had forty years to learn about controlling his temper (the reason he landed in Midian in the first place). The skills he developed while herding dumb animals in the wilderness prepared him for forty years of guiding over two million “stiff-necked” people and their livestock through the desert.

At eighty, Moses might have been thinking about taking it easy—maybe selling the sheep and relaxing in his hammock under a palm tree. God, however, wasn’t going to let those eighty years of experience go to waste. It was during the last third of his life that Moses fulfilled his God-given purpose by shepherding the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Our life experiences do more than develop character and spiritual maturity; they provide us with distinctive insights, strengths, and capabilities. Every one of our past successes, failures, sorrows, joys, gains, and losses prepared us to do God’s work today and every one of today’s experiences will become tomorrow’s assets. We know how the story of Moses finished but how will our stories end? Like Moses, will we use our assets to further God’s Kingdom or will we squander them while relaxing in the hammock under a palm tree or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair?

No experience is wasted. Everything in life is happening to grow you up, to fill you up, to help you to become more of who you were created to be. [Oprah Winfrey]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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HAVING FAITH

It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. [Hebrews 11:17-19 (NLT)]
lanceleaf arrowhead - duck potato

Since Sunday school days, we’ve read the story of Isaac and Abraham and we know it has a happy ending. Abraham, however, hadn’t read the end of the chapter when he set out for Mt. Moriah. During the fifty-mile journey, the father had three days during which he must have agonized over God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Did Abraham ask God, “Why?” Why would God finally provide the promised child and then take the blessing away? Did he ask God, “How?” How, with his son dead, was he going to have those countless descendants God promised? Did he ask God, “What next?” What would he tell Sarah if he returned home without their dear boy? True faith isn’t blind—it knows exactly what can happen but steps forward anyway and Abraham had seventy-two hours to agonize over the possible consequences of his actions. In his distress, he may even have been tempted to turn back home again.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew what happens to flesh in a fiery furnace, Daniel knew what hungry lions do to fresh meat, and, after the deaths of Stephen and James, the rest of the apostles knew what happened to Christians when they dared to share the gospel message. None knew whether they’d die or miraculously escape their fates and yet all boldly acted in faith. If we’ve peeked ahead and know the story ends well, we’re simply being obedient and cooperative. It’s faith when we know full well what could happen but not what actually will. Faith trusts God’s promises. It knows that stepping out in obedience to Him means the story will end, not as we would write it, but as God wants it written.

Scripture tells us Abraham thought God might bring Isaac back to life again but God made no such promise and this was centuries before another resurrection would occur. Abraham may not have known the outcome but the father knew his God so he faithfully obeyed. Him. With confidence, he told his servants that both father and son would return after worshipping on the hill and, when Isaac asked why they had no lamb for their offering, Abraham assured him that God would provide. Still, Abraham had no way of knowing if his words would prove true. As Abraham and Isaac built an altar and piled wood on it, there must have been tears in the father’s eyes. How anxious he must have been as he tied up his son and laid him on the altar and what anguish he must have felt as he picked up his knife and brought it to Isaac’s neck. Nevertheless, Abraham continued in faith and demonstrated that he loved God more than his own flesh and blood.

Faith takes steps knowing that a loving God has given the command and trusting that whatever the result, it is God’s plan. I’ve never been asked to exercise the kind of faith shown by Abraham and the rest of the Bible’s heroes and I pray I never have to do so. I wonder how my faith would stand up at the door of a fiery furnace, the mouth of a lion’s den, in front of a soldier’s sword, facing an angry mob of unbelievers, or if told to sacrifice one of my children. Would I trust God with the outcome or would my faith crumble? Father, forgive me, but I just don’t know.

Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. [Max Lucado]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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