FREEDOM OF RELIGION – Independence Day 2019

American FlagsWe are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

In 2014, I wrote about Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese mother of two who, at that time, was facing execution for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Eight months pregnant when she appeared in court on charges of apostasy and adultery, she was given three days to reject Jesus and accept Islam. Upon her refusal, she was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death under Sudan’s Sharia law. Meriam, however, had never rejected Islam; she’d always been a Christian. Although her father is Muslim (technically making her Muslim), he was absent during her childhood and she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother. Under Sharia law, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is illegal and Meriam, married to a Christian man, was also found guilty of adultery and sentenced to flogging (100 lashes). Muslim law did not allow her execution while was pregnant and the shackled woman waited in prison for her child’s life to begin and hers to end. When writing about her, I wondered if I’d be as strong as Meriam and reminded readers that Christian persecution did not end in ancient Rome.

Curious as to her whereabouts today, I learned that the time the pregnant woman waited for her execution saved her life. It allowed Meriam’s plight to be made public and, because of international pressure, she was eventually released and settled in New Hampshire. Later that year, however, two Christian pastors from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church were charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system. Facing death sentences, they were imprisoned for eight months. In June of 2015, Christian girls walking home from church were charged with indecent dress and forced to strip out of their trousers and skirts. Five of the girls received fines and one girl had to suffer through twenty lashes. Since then, Sudanese Christians have continued to face discrimination and persecution; churches were demolished and Christians intimidated, attacked and arrested. Although Sudan’s brutal president Omar al-Bashir left office in April of this year, there is no assurance that his replacement will be any better. Unfortunately, it’s not just in Sudan where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punishable. Rounding out the top ten countries where human and religious rights are being violated are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India. According to Open Doors, 2018 saw 4,136 Christians killed for their faith; 2,625 Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned; and 1,266 churches or Christian buildings attacked. They estimate that one in nine Christians experience “high levels of persecution worldwide.”

Many of our nation’s first colonists came here to escape religious persecution in their homelands. On this day, when we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” may we truly appreciate the freedom of religion we enjoy. In our nation, no one is a second-hand citizen because of religion, no regime tries to make any of us renounce our faith, nor must we conceal our beliefs to be safe. My Jewish friends can wear a Star of David pendant as openly as I wear my cross. As freely as I observe Easter and Christmas, my Muslim friends can observe Ramadan, my Jewish friends Passover and Hanukah, and my Hindu friends Diwali, while my atheist neighbors can choose to believe in nothing.

On this national holiday, let us thank God for the freedom we have to worship Him openly and without fear. May we never take that freedom lightly. As we count our numerous blessings, remember to pray for those who don’t enjoy the many freedoms we often take for granted.

Our prayers can go where we cannot… There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray. [Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHOSE ARE YOU?

You go before me and follow me, You place your hand of blessings on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand. [Psalm 139:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaI started Sunday morning with Psalm 139—a beautiful reminder that God was with us at our conception, is with us now, and will be with us at our end. “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous,” read the psalm. Those words reminded me of Joey. Chinese by birth, born without hands, and abandoned by his mother, he was adopted by an American family. In spite of his many visible and hidden challenges, Joey was a cheerful little guy until entering junior high school, encountering bullies, and asking the inevitable questions that come with adolescence. In spite of being part of a loving family, he feels he failed the birth family who discarded him like a piece of trash and, rather than feeling wonderfully made, Joey asks why God made him the way He did.

Scripture reading was followed by the newspaper where I found an interesting advice column. The writer has both birth and adopted daughters but her birth daughter refuses to allow her children to call her sister “aunt” because she’s not really “family.” In response, the psychologist noted that there are some deep seated jealousy issues in the girls’ relationship and pointed out that legally both girls have the same standing. He then added an interesting argument to show the absurdity of the birth daughter’s position. The adopted daughter could actually say she was more of a daughter than her sister because their parents deliberately chose her and had to go through a long involved process to get her. The other sister’s conception took but a few minutes and even may have been an accident! While I don’t think that argument will improve the girls’ relationship, he had an interesting point about adoption; it is a deliberate act of love!

In a strange juxtaposition, Sunday’s sermon was part of a series, “Faith at the Movies,” and The Lion King was the subject. Until Rafiki confronted him, the lion Simba forgot who he was—the son of the king—and that his father lived in him. Like Simba, we are the King’s children; He adopted us when we accepted Jesus. Just as Simba’s father was in him, our Father lives in us.

Our Heavenly Father was there when we were but a gleam in our birth fathers’ eyes. As the psalmist wrote, He made “all the delicate, inner parts” of our bodies as He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. Joey may appear flawed by human standards but he is perfectly made by God’s standards. When Simba saw his reflection in the water, he saw his father and Rafiki assured him, “He lives in you.” Joey and his family are working with counselors but, to truly heal, Joey will have to see the face of his Father, the King, when he sees his reflection. He will have to see his worth in being the adopted child of God and believe that God’s spirit lives in him.

Rafiki asks Simba, ”Who are you?” and Sunday’s sermon asked us the same question. Like Simba, we often forget that it’s not our circumstances that characterize us. Our sex, appearance, family, heritage, profession, assets, shortcomings, accomplishments, failures, and even our sins do not define us. It’s not what we are but whose we are that gives us value and worth. Because God adopted us into His family, first and foremost, we are children of the King.

Child of God, you cost Christ too much for him to forget you. [Charles Spurgeon]

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” [Romans 8:15 (NLT)]

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:26 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HIS GIFTS – OUR TOOLS

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. [Romans 12:4-6a (NLT)]

white-tailed deerLike a good house guest, when the Holy Spirit moves into our lives, He brings us a gift. Instead of flowers or a potted plant, He brings a custom-designed gift just for us – a spiritual gift! Unlike a hostess gift, spiritual gifts can’t be purchased on Amazon and, unlike scented soaps or candy, they are expressly designed for each one of us. They’re a little like a custom-made Craftsman tool—meant to last a lifetime and to be used for building. In this case, our spiritual gifts are the tools given to us by the Spirit that enable us to build God’s Kingdom.

Unlike the natural abilities and talents with which we were blessed at birth, Spiritual Gifts are given to us when we’re reborn! Since God is not about to waste anything, they often line up with our natural aptitudes. Lists of these gifts are found in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, but no two lists are identical and there are differences of opinion as to their number. From these three Epistles, there seem to be about twenty different Spiritual Gifts: exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy, prophecy, service, teaching, administration, apostle, discernment, faith, healings, helps, knowledge, miracles, tongues, tongues interpretation, wisdom, evangelism, and pastor. Mentioned elsewhere in the Epistles, are five other possible gifts: celibacy, hospitality, martyrdom, missionary, and voluntary poverty.

These Spiritual Gifts build God’s Kingdom in a variety of ministries including teaching, outreach, speaking, counseling, discipleship, serving, benevolence, practical assistance, visitation, shepherding, support and small group, and prayer. No gift is more important than another and all gifts are essential for the church. While the person gifted in service (the ability to see undone tasks in God’s work and get them done) is often unseen, the person gifted in hospitality (the ability to warmly welcome all people into home or church) may be front and center every Sunday at the church door as he welcomes people by name, introduces himself to visitors, and extends the hand of friendship by showing them around. The one gifted in pastoring (spiritually caring for, guiding, protecting, and feeding a group of believers) frequently needs those gifted in administration (the ability to steer people toward God-given goals by planning, organizing, and supervising).

Moreover, because He’s not a miser, in many cases, God blesses us with more than one gift and the lines often blur between one gift and another. The person gifted with knowledge (the desire to know as much as possible about the Bible) may also be gifted in teaching (the ability to instruct others for true understanding and growth). The gift of knowledge also might be combined with the gift of wisdom so that the person not only knows what God’s word says but also can see it’s application and relevance to real life situations. Since each gift is God-designed for each one of His children, it would seem that there aren’t just twenty or even twenty-five; there probably are as many gifts as there are people.

Just because we’re not gifted in something, however, is never an excuse for not doing it. Not being gifted with evangelism doesn’t mean we’re not called to share the Word or invite someone to church and not being gifted with hospitality doesn’t mean we don’t welcome visitors. We may not be gifted with intercession, but we still pray for one another and, while not gifted with giving,  we can still pack a Christmas box for Samaritan’s purse. In fact, it often is by doing God’s work that we discover what our gifts actually are.

Unfortunately, just because the Holy Spirit has given us a gift doesn’t mean we’ll use it; it can remain as unused as the bath bombs your last guest brought. Using our gifts is up to us. The important thing is to be a good steward of whatever gifts we’ve been given. As for me, when that last day comes, I hope to hear God say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. [1 Peter 4:10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GREAT COMMISSION?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LIKE IT OR NOT

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6 (NLT)]

monarch butterflyLast week, in That Was God, I wrote these words: “For those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, death means punishment and eternal separation from God,” but reminded readers that the exclusive truths of Christianity don’t mean that we are exclusive in our love; everyone is our neighbor and a person to be loved! Finding the devotion thought provoking, a friend forwarded it to the members of his small group. One man found the message contradictory and responded this way: “In other words, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born a Christian, you’re screwed. But, we still love you, neighbor!”

In actuality, none of us are born Christian; it is when we accept Christ that we are reborn as Christians. Salvation is not a birthright. Moreover, all are welcome in Christ’s Church. After all, the early church was made up entirely of converts!

Granted, it’s far easier to be a Christian in the US than in nations like North Korea, Sudan, or India. Nevertheless, in spite of facing great persecution, there are Christian converts in all of those countries. Jesus never promised His way would be easy; in fact, He said it would be difficult! Open Doors reports that eleven Christians lose their lives every day because of their faith. With John being the only Apostle not martyred, it wasn’t easy for the early Christians either; yet, look at how rapidly the Church grew!

I have no doubt that God loves all of His children. Jesus told us that God so “loved the world…” and continued with the promise that “everyone who believes” would have eternal life. He didn’t say God only loved some of the world or just the Jews, Romans or Greeks. God’s gift of His son was for everyone and for all time. As the Holy Spirit moves throughout the world drawing people to Christ, God has revealed Himself to people in ways we can’t understand.

In Matthew 7:7, we are told, “Ask and it will be given…seek and you will find…” Mark Mittleberg points out that anyone who genuinely seeks God will be led to Him. When people sincerely seek the truth, they will find it only in Christ. In his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi sought the truth about Mohammed; instead, he found Jesus! When skeptics Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and David Limbaugh went looking for the truth, they also found it in Jesus. God will reveal Himself to those who want to find Him.

“What about those who didn’t have the opportunity to hear about Jesus?” is one of those questions no Christian wants to be asked. Admittedly, not everyone has equal access to the gospel. Luke 12:48 tells us that from the one given much, much will be demanded. The inverse must also be true: from the one given little, little will be asked. We each are responsible for following whatever light God has given us.

When I think of infants like my nephew who never lived long enough to know his mother (let alone Jesus) or those people completely unreached by the Gospel, I am as disturbed as the man who didn’t like my words. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t leave much in the way of wiggle room when He said He was “the way” rather than “one of the ways” to the Father. While contrary beliefs are possible, contrary truths are not and there seem to be some undeniably exclusive truths in Scripture as to salvation and eternal life. Like them or not, we are neither to add nor subtract from God’s Word. It’s not a buffet where we can pick and choose only the things we like nor is it a potluck where we get to bring in concepts that make it more palatable. At some point, everyone will answer to God and He will separate the sheep from the goats. Scripture doesn’t elaborate on how that will happen but I’m sure our loving and merciful God has it worked out in a way that only He can understand.

And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:47-48 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

IMMANUEL – PENTECOST

”And be sure of this,” He promised, ”I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

oleanderMy mother’s father walked out of her life when she was a child and never made contact with her again. When I learned this as a girl, I couldn’t understand how someone could do that. How could he not care about the daughter he’d left behind? Didn’t he want to know the beautiful woman she’d become? I secretly fantasized that he would finally come to his senses, seek her out, and embrace both his daughter and his grands. He never did.

People come in and go out of our lives; some leave abruptly and others just fade away. We see that most clearly in December with Christmas cards. We remove names from our list because we stopped getting a card from someone we haven’t seen for twenty years or last year’s card was returned as undeliverable. Because of a death or divorce, some cards we receive are signed by only one when once there were two. In this world, people move, depart, and die and even our closest relationships are only temporary.

Relationships may be transitory, but there is one constant: Jesus. Isaiah called Him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” But, when Jesus lived as a man, He could be with only a few people at a time. Confined to a man’s body, even though he was God, He couldn’t be with everyone at once. When in Capernaum, He drove an evil spirit out of a man and healed both Simon Peter’s mother and the paralytic who came through the roof but He had to leave Capernaum to raise the widow’s son in Nain and heal the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda.

Because Jesus couldn’t be with people in Jerusalem, Gennesaret, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Cana, Bethany, Ephraim, and Samaria all at once, he journeyed from place to place. It’s estimated that He walked more than 3,000 miles during his three year ministry. Sadly, we don’t know what became of most of the people whose lives He touched. After Jesus left Samaria, did the woman He met at the well ever see Him again? Did she lose touch the way we lose touch with old friends? What of the ten lepers, the two blind men, Jairus, his daughter, or the bleeding woman? Jesus was with them for a time but then He left to preach and heal elsewhere. When confined to a human body, Jesus couldn’t be with both Martha and Mary in Bethany and with the disciples a day’s journey from Jerusalem. When He lived as a man, Jesus was only Immanuel, “God with Us,” to those who were near Him.

When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t leave us alone the way the loved ones of so many of my friends have. When He ascended into heaven, Jesus didn’t move without a forwarding address, lose touch with us as happens with friends, and He certainly didn’t walk out on us the way my grandfather did to his family. Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven but He never really left us. Because of His Holy Spirit, Jesus is truly with every one of us, all of the time, no matter where we are. Moreover, unlike my grandfather who never came back for his children, Jesus will. No longer limited by time or space, He is, indeed, Immanuel: God with Us.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. [John 14:16-18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.