SIFTING

rainbow over SteamboatSimon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers. [Luke 22:31-32 (NLT)]

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33 (NLT)]

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
And what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
And what if trials of this life-
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise? [Laura Story]

One of the benefits of my thrice weekly PT appointments for the last several months has been the time I spend alone in the car with the radio tuned to the Message on SiriusXM. Sometimes I uninhibitedly sing along with the contemporary Christian praise music and other times I quietly ponder the songs’ words. As I listened to Laura Story’s song “Blessings,” I pondered the many storms, tears, disappointment, and sleepless nights that turned out to be God’s “mercies in disguise.”

In 2006, just two years into her marriage, Laura Story nearly lost her husband to a brain tumor. Although he survived, disabilities remained from his surgery and the future once envisioned by the young couple changed significantly. Among other things, instead of being a stay-at-home mother, Story became breadwinner and caregiver. Her song “Blessings” was written as a reminder that God remains faithful even when things don’t turn out the way we envisioned. “Life is filled with things you don’t expect, but the Bible tells us to respond by trusting God and continuing to worship Him,” said the singer/songwriter. “God has grown us up, deepened our faith, our awareness of our great need for Him as a savior, daily.”

We’ve all experienced those unexpected and uninvited changes—the storms of life—that necessitate changing our expectations and revising our concept of normal. One such event happened in my life fourteen years ago. The details are unimportant but, as I listened to Story’s song, I saw how it was, indeed, a blessing in disguise. At the time, I mourned the end of a dream—the loss of what I envisioned in the future for myself and my family. But, as weeks stretched into months and months into years, the old vision was laid to rest. I wasn’t the only one affected and everyone in that storm lost something as it rained down on us. Nevertheless, just as Jesus was with the disciples in the midst of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, He was with me in that storm, and He will be with us in the storms to come.

When Jesus warned Peter that he’d be run through the sifter, He was telling the disciple that he’d be going through an ordeal and put to the test—a test that would separate the grain from the chaff—the good from the bad. For me, those years were a long season of sifting—sorting out priorities, persevering with what seemed like unanswered prayers, dealing with hardened hearts, accepting what I couldn’t change, learning to step back and allow God to do His work, and trusting the future to Him. It actually was a season of sifting for all involved as resentment and bitterness were separated from forgiveness, animosity from love, doubt from faith, weakness from strength, anger from understanding, excuses from accountability, fear from courage, and deceit from truth.

Years later, after plenty of sifting and what Paul would call character strengthening, the storm abated and we finally saw the rainbow at its end. Granted, life is not the same as it was but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good and probably even better because of that storm.

As it turns out, I now can call one of the darkest times of my life a true blessing and I think the others affected would agree. Of course, the end of one storm doesn’t mean there won’t be others. Nevertheless, we can face them with confidence because, like Laura Story, we’ve learned that the “trials of this life—the rain, the storms, the hardest nights” can be God’s “mercies in disguise.”

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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THE SORROWLESS TREE

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

sorrowless tree - ashokaEven though this last year has been one of sorrow and loss for us, I smiled when I recognized the Sorrowless Tree’s bright orange and yellow flowers at the botanical garden. Although its scientific name is Saraca asoca, the Ashoka is commonly called the Sorrowless Tree. Sometimes I wish such a tree actually existed. Even though the tree can’t prevent sorrow, its beautiful foliage and sweet fragrance were just what I needed to lift my spirits as I mourned yet another friend’s death. The flowers reminded me to find joy and gladness in the day God had given me.

A great deal of mythology and tradition accompany the Ashoka tree. Its common name comes from the Sanskrit word aśoka which means “free from sorrow.” In Hindu mythology, the tree is dedicated to Kama Deva, the god of love. Tradition holds that when someone drinks the water in which Ashoka flowers have been rinsed, they can attain an inner state of profound peace and joy. Once infused with the flower’s essence, the water is said to heal the suffering and sorrow caused by mourning, pain, burdens, trauma, disappointment, and loneliness. While it doesn’t change the root cause of the sorrow, the flowery water is said to change one’s perception of it—sort of a placebo effect.

The Ashoka is also considered sacred in Buddhism. Tradition holds that when Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, reached up to pick one of the tree’s blossoms, she gave birth to her son under the tree. It is said that people will forget all of their worries and concerns just by standing beneath the Ashoka’s beautiful and fragrant blossom because of the tree’s splendor. I have to admit that my heart felt lighter as I paused under the Ashoka’s blossom-laden branches. Rather than focusing on my sorrow, I thanked God for the gift of knowing and loving the beautiful people I’ve recently lost.

As Christians, we know there is no protection from grief and even a dozen Sorrowless Trees in our garden won’t protect us from loss, distress, disappointment, or sorrow. In both the Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, however, the tree’s essence and beauty don’t change the situation—they merely change the attitude and the perception of those circumstances. Like people everywhere, Christians often need an attitude adjustment when life goes seriously awry! When we’re sad, troubled or in pain, on what do we concentrate? Do we focus on our grief, difficulties, and suffering or on God? Do we lament, fret, or moan or do we concentrate on trusting our Heavenly Father? Do we let our negative feelings control us or do we control those discouraging emotions? Do we dwell on our misery or on our blessings? While we have no choice when sorrow and grief enter our lives, we always have a choice regarding the way we will deal with them. Unless we are clinically depressed, we don’t have to be at the mercy of our negative emotions. God has given us the power to do otherwise!

We will never live a sorrowless life. In fact, suffering often accompanies discipleship and our sorrow is neither futile nor unnoticed by God. Instead of drinking a flower’s essence, we can drink the living water of the Spirit—the essence of our God. Rather than standing under a tree gazing at lovely flowers, we can take refuge in the arms of God while pondering His love and trusting in a better life to come. As beautiful as the Ashoka’s flowers are, we will only find profound peace and joy in the Lord.

Should pain and suffering, sorrow, and grief, rise up like clouds and overshadow for a time the Sun of Righteousness and hide Him from your view, do not be dismayed, for in the end this cloud of woe will descend in showers of blessing on your head, and the Sun of Righteousness rise upon you to set no more forever. [Sadhu Sundar Singh]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

DARE TO LOVE – Valentine’s Day 2022

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. … Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13 (NLT)]

Back in 2008, my husband and I joined others from our church to see Fireproof, a movie by Alex and Stephen Kendrick. It was about Caleb Holt, a firefighter, who’s urged by a friend and his father to hold off on getting the divorce to which he and his wife have agreed. Counseling him to fight for his crumbling marriage, his father gives him a Christian self-help book called The Love Dare and urges him to go on its forty-day challenge. Having nothing to do with the game “Truth or Dare,” the book dares Caleb to improve his marriage, not by changing his wife, but by changing the way he treats her. After completing the forty day challenge, Caleb continues changing his behavior and he and his wife eventually reconcile. As I remember, the movie ends with them renewing their marriage vows. Several months after seeing the movie, I spotted The Love Dare book while browsing through a bookstore. Whether the movie gave birth to the book or the book gave birth to the movie, I don’t know. In any case, I purchased it and, without my husband knowing, took on its 40-day challenge.

With 1 Corinthians as its foundation, each chapter of the book was a quick and easy read; the challenges, however, often were not so quick or easy! Even though love “does not demand its own way,” I recall that my willingly yielding in an area of disagreement between my husband and me was especially difficult. Since my husband knew nothing of my challenges, the hardest part was not pointing out every time I conceded to his viewpoint, did him a special kindness, eased his burden, or made it through the day without saying anything negative to or about him. But, knowing that love is not “boastful or proud,” I did my best!

When my daughter happened to see The Love Dare in my office, she seemed surprised (and a little concerned) by its presence. Although our 42-year marriage didn’t appear troubled, did the book indicate otherwise? I reassured her that the book’s presence did not mean her father and I were on the verge of divorce. It simply meant that no marriage is so secure that it can’t grow stronger or so good that it can’t become better.

While The Love Dare is no longer on my bookshelf and Fireproof is a distant memory, their lesson remains. Love isn’t determined by the one being loved; it is determined by the one who chooses to love! Although my husband and I promised unconditional love for one another nearly 55 years ago, we were young and in the throes of passion and neither of us had any idea what unconditional love actually demands. Older and wiser, now we do.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a day supposedly dedicated to romance and love. Love, however, takes more than sexy lingerie, silk boxers, candlelit dinners, boxes of candy, jewelry, red roses, a bottle of wine, a romantic movie, or a weekend getaway. Love makes sacrifices, tries to understand, and even lets the other guy win (at least once in a while). It is patient, considerate, and unselfish. Love forgives, prays for, protects, respects, defends, encourages, and endures. Love admits when it’s wrong, won’t gloat when it’s right, doesn’t keep score, refuses to bring up past wrongs, makes allowances, isn’t affected by time or circumstances, and is unconditional and absolute. Rather than date nights or bouquets of flowers, these are the things of love. They are the glue that holds a marriage together.

How will you express your love for that someone special in your life today?

In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find, grounds for marriage. [Sir Robert Anderson]

Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. [Ephesians 4:2-3 (NLT)]

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DAILY PROVISION

That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? [Matthew 6:25a,27 (NLT)]

Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith. [Henry Ward Beecher]

hairy woodpeckerWhile I’ve been challenged by a scarcity of things like patience, endurance, and wisdom, I confess to never facing a bare cupboard, empty refrigerator, unfilled closet, or depleted bank account and never wondering where I would sleep at night or how I would feed or clothe my children. It’s not that difficult to trust God for His daily provision when we already have more than enough. Trusting Him when the cupboard is bare (or nearly so) is an entirely different story and a new experience for me. It’s not that I’m facing bankruptcy or foreclosure but that my supply of devotions is rapidly diminishing. It seems like I’m publishing faster than I can write and I can’t seem to get ahead. Watching my stockpile diminish, I envision blog bankruptcy and worry threatens my faith in God’s provision.

When God provided manna to the hungry Israelites, they were told to gather just what was sufficient for that day. More than enough was only permitted on the sixth day when a double portion could be gathered which allowed the seventh, the Sabbath, to be a day of rest. Had I been an Israelite, however, I’m the sort who would have tried to accumulate some extra manna rather than trust God to provide enough for the following day. Since any stored manna became worm infested and spoiled, that ploy didn’t work well for the Israelites and squirreling away devotions “for a rainy day” doesn’t seem to be working for me! No matter how hard I work, I only manage to replace the five devotions I’ve posted each week.

While I want more than enough, God really isn’t interested in what I want. He’s doing that character building thing again and showing me that “just enough” is all I need. Each morning I must trust God to provide me with inspiration, words, and time enough for that day’s work. Nevertheless, proceeding without having a drafts folder jam-packed with several weeks of devotions feels a bit like feeding a multitude with a few loaves and fishes. But, remembering that there were twelve baskets of left-overs after everyone ate, I will step out in faith and trust that, if it’s in His plan, my basket will be filled.

It’s a mistake, however, to think that God’s promise of provision frees us from an obligation to do our part. God may have provided the manna but the Israelites had to do the gathering and new devotions will not appear in my drafts folder each evening unless I’ve done the writing during the day. If we want to achieve anything of significance in life, we must expect to do the work required. While Scripture tells us to trust God for tomorrow, it also tells us to use our time and resources wisely.

Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.  [Attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola]

Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. [Psalm 37:5 (NLT)]

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WE WANT TO KNOW

Nobody can understand what God does here on earth. No matter how hard people try to understand it, they cannot. Even if wise people say they understand, they cannot; no one can really understand it. … I also saw something else here on earth: The fastest runner does not always win the race, the strongest soldier does not always win the battle, the wisest does not always have food, the smartest does not always become wealthy, and the talented one does not always receive praise. Time and chance happen to everyone.  [Ecclesiastes 8:17,9:11 (NCV)

Several years ago, author and apologist Lee Strobel commissioned a national survey asking people the one question they would pose to God if they could. As might be expected, the number one response was “Why is there suffering in the world?” Indeed, like Job, we want to know why, especially if the affliction directly affects us or the ones nearest and dearest to us. Why did he get Alzheimer’s? Why did she go into a coma? Why did his child get leukemia or hers have Down’s syndrome? Why was the surgery a failure? Why didn’t the driver stop? Why can’t I have children? Why was he at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why didn’t you stop the shooter from taking those children’s lives? Why couldn’t you save those who perished in that deadly tornado? Why do bad things happen to good people?

In reality, we already know the reason for pain and suffering since it’s found in Genesis. The world God created was a good one—one without misery and tragedy. Suffering entered the world when mankind abused their free will and sinned. That answer, however, just doesn’t seem adequate, especially since pain and affliction seem to hit randomly and unfairly. Logic tells us that the cruel and evil ones of the world should suffer more than the innocent but it rarely seems to work that way. The only sermons on this topic that made sense to me were the ones conceding that, while we’re in this world, the question of “Why?” will never be satisfactorily answered. Since Job asked God “Why” more than twenty times and never got an answer, an acceptable explanation for the suffering in this world isn’t likely. I suspect, however, that even if we knew the why of every terrible thing and how it all fit into God’s plan, we wouldn’t find the answer satisfactory. Like Job, our faith in God must be stronger that our need to know!

When the disciples passed by the man who’d been born blind, they wanted to know why he had no sight and they asked if it was it his sin or the sins of his parents that caused his blindness. Answering that it was neither, Jesus explained that it was part of God’s sovereign plan so that the power of God would be seen in him. Rather than a punishment or simply bad luck, the man’s suffering afforded an opportunity for Jesus to do God’s work in restoring the man’s sight. Jesus’ answer is about the best one we’re ever going to get while on this side of the grass. Perhaps, rather than asking God the reason for misfortune, pain, and anguish, we should be asking God how that suffering can be used to display His mighty work.

The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not. [C. S. Lewis]

Jesus answered, “It is not this man’s sin or his parents’ sin that made him blind. This man was born blind so that God’s power could be shown in him.” [John 9:3 (NCV)]

I told you these things so that you can have peace in me. In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world. [John 16:33 (NCV)]

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HE’LL EQUIP US

The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. [Acts 4:13 (NLT)]

queen butterfly

The 25th movie featuring James Bond was released last October and, as usual, secret agent 007 defeats an evil villain’s sinister plot to create a new world order. If we were picking someone to save the world from an evil mastermind, the fictional Bond appears to have the right qualifications: suave, sophisticated, brave, patriotic, physically fit, expert in martial arts and marksmanship, observant, intelligent, debonair, good looking, and seemingly invulnerable (at least until this last movie)!

Bond, however, is more than just qualified—he’s well-equipped. The Q-Branch of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) always furnishes him with an assortment of customized vehicles fitted with things like machine guns, smoke and oil dispensers, tracking devices, bulletproof screens and glass, mini-guns in headlights, and ejector seats. Along with his trusty Walther PPK, Q-Branch supplies him with other weaponry and ingenious gadgetry like booby-trapped attaché cases, jet packs, poison pens, homing beacons, a flying submarine, fake fingerprints, and various guns concealed in pens, cigarettes, and ski poles.

God, however, is neither fiction writer nor the British Secret Service and His heroes are much less likely than 007. Take Peter and John, for example—the two unschooled fishermen hardly seem qualified to found a church or preach the gospel. Then there’s the frightened Gideon who’s hiding from the Midianites while threshing wheat when God calls on him. Describing himself as the weakest link in the weakest of families, Gideon doesn’t appear a likely choice to defeat an army. Why would the Jews listen to Moses, a man raised in Pharaoh’s court, was an escaped felon with a speech impediment, and had spent the last forty years in Midian? Esther was just an orphan with a pretty face who married well. Unable to approach the king without risking her life, she hardly seems qualified to save an entire nation from extermination. Then we have the Pharisee Saul, a tentmaker by trade. What qualifications did a man who reviled unclean Gentiles, persecuted Christ’s followers, and wanted to destroy Christianity have to spread the gospel? Hardly as impressive as the fictional James Band, these ordinary people didn’t seem qualified to change the course of history or save anything or anyone and, yet, that’s exactly what they did! The British Secret Service may choose extraordinary men like James Bond for their secret missions, but God picks ordinary people for His and then makes them extraordinary!

Like Q-Branch, however, God equips those He calls. Rather than an Aston Martin, God gave those two Galilean fishermen courage, words, and knowledge enough to amaze even the Sanhedrin. Peter led the Apostles and provided the foundation for the new church while John wrote a gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Rather than rocket launchers, God gave Gideon confidence, guidance and a little band of 300 men who overturned an army 400 times their size. Rather than a jet pack, after God equipped Moses with the ability to perform miraculous signs, the words to speak, and Aaron to speak them, the runaway tongue-tied shepherd became the most important figure in Judaism. Because God supplied the beautiful Esther with courage, a shrewd plan, and a series of events that played into that plan, Jews throughout the world celebrate the way she saved them from extermination. Once God supplied Saul with a life-changing conversion and the Holy Spirit, the tentmaker we know as Paul was equipped to spread Christianity to Jews and Gentiles alike.

Like Gideon and the rest of this cast, we have more than our share of faults, limitations, doubt, and fear. Rather than calling the qualified and equipped, however, God qualifies and equips the ones He calls. Rest assured that when God calls us to a task, rather than sophisticated weapons or ingenious gadgets, He will provide us with whatever skills or tools we need.

Each of us may be sure that if God sends us on stony paths He will provide us with strong shoes, and He will not send us out on any journey for which He does not equip us well. [Alexander MacLaren]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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