AN AMBASSADOR IN CHAINS 

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. [Ephesians 6:19-21 (NLT)]

lupineSince the beginning, Satan has been determined to impede God’s plan. He started in Eden and continued by attempting to cut off the promised line of the Messiah with the killing of Israel’s infant boys in Egypt, Haman’s evil plans to exterminate every Jew in the Persian empire, and Herod’s slaughter of boys under two in Judah. When that failed, Satan sought to derail Jesus’ mission to mankind by tempting Him in the wilderness and Scripture tells us that wasn’t his last attempt to stop the Lord. Having failed with Jesus, Satan has been trying to interfere with the church’s mission to spread the gospel ever since.

Satan may have thought he’d found the perfect man to defeat the early church in the Pharisee Saul—a powerful man who hated both Christ’s followers and Gentiles. He rejected Jesus as the Messiah, approved of the stoning of Stephen, and devoted himself to persecuting and terrorizing Christians. That, of course, was before Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In a little bit of God-ordained poetic justice, the Saul who had been doing Satan’s work by persecuting the church transformed into the Apostle Paul whose mission became that of building the church!

Satan probably thought he’d obstruct Paul’s mission with an assassination attempt, several shipwrecks, assorted arrests, beatings, stonings, and floggings, along with several stints in prison. Paul, however, managed to turn every hindrance into an evangelism opportunity; he even preached to his guards! Once Paul was put under arrest in Rome in 60 AD, Satan may have thought he finally stopped the evangelist in his tracks. Rather than being imprisoned as a common criminal, however, Paul was confined to house arrest. Although he was chained and under guard, he was allowed to live in a rented house at his own expense. In spite of his captivity, Paul “welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Acts 28:31] Rather than discouraging other believers, Paul’s unstinting faith during imprisonment encouraged them and it was during these years that Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. When Paul wasn’t writing to the church, it seems that he spent his solitary time praying for it!

After a few years of freedom, Paul was re-arrested and imprisoned around 65 AD. Confined to a Roman prison that time, he was cut off from the world except for a few visitors. As the apostle faced death, he wrote his final epistle, 2 Timothy and, like his other letters, it is filled with faith, sound doctrine, encouragement, endurance, and love.

While Satan thought Paul’s hardships and suffering would stop him from preaching the gospel, Paul used his hardships and suffering to spread it. When Paul was free, he saw himself as an ambassador for Christ and, when imprisoned, he simply saw himself as an ambassador in chains. Moreover, knowing Paul’s situation, his words about forgiveness, rejoicing in suffering or trouble, and finding joy in all circumstances are all the more meaningful to his readers today. Rather than stopping his ministry, Paul’s imprisonments helped keep his ministry alive because of his letters. His words are as essential to the church today as they were when written nearly 2,000 years ago!

Satan couldn’t stop God’s plan for the Messiah, couldn’t stop Jesus from His mission as the Lamb of God, and couldn’t stop Paul. Satan can stop the church only if the church allows him. Paul didn’t. Will we?

And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. [Philippians 1:12-14 (NLT)]

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RELISHING EVERY BITE

Then He said to me, “Son of man, eat what is in front of you. Eat this book, then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this book. And He said to me, “Son of man, eat this book that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. [Ezekiel 3:1-3 (NLV)]

strawberriesSince it was Easter, along with the oatmeal raisin cookies I made for Sunday treats, I brought a bowl of pastel-wrapped Hershey candy for the little ones. As I placed the candy on the hospitality table, I recalled the last time I had chocolates at church. It was several years ago at our Colorado mountain church. Even though it wasn’t Easter or Valentine’s Day, along with Bibles, the pew book racks were filled with chocolate kisses that morning.

When the pastor asked us to eat a candy, we all quickly and quite happily accommodated him. He then asked us to eat another one. That time, however, he instructed us to do everything deliberately and slowly. Rather than tearing off the wrapper, we were to look closely at it before pulling the plume and gradually unwrapping the candy. Instead of  immediately popping the kiss into our mouths, we were to examine it carefully before placing the chocolate gently on our tongues. Rather than a few quick bites, we were to savor the texture and flavor as it gradually melted in our mouths. Even though the second kiss was identical to the first, the experience of eating it was entirely different. Since this was church and not a chocolate tasting, our pastor went on to compare our two experiences with the way we can read the Bible. He suggested that we need to be as attentive in our Bible reading as we were in the second candy-eating experience.

Are we as unaffected by reading the Bible as we are by a quick bite of candy or do the words actually touch and change us? By pointing out that we can simply consume food and be done or dine and have an experience, the Slow Food movement tries to bring mindfulness to the table! Although both ways of eating will provide calories, only one will be a memorable and affecting experience. We need to bring that sort of presence and mindfulness to our Bible reading as well. We should savor God’s Word the way we would a Lindt bar of dark chocolate and caramel with sea salt, a full-bodied vintage Cabernet, a juicy ripe summer peach, or home-grown strawberries. God’s word should dissolve into our lives, fill us, and impact the way we live.

Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine reading”) is a fancy term for treating scripture not as a text but as the living word of God. An ancient exercise, it became a regular practice in monasteries by the 6th century. Not being Benedictine monks, we could think of it as the “Slow Bible Movement.” As with food, the quality of the Bible study is more important than the quantity consumed. A few verses read and reflected upon so that we respond to and rest in the message is far better than a whole chapter read and forgotten within a few hours. Unwrapping the meaning of a verse takes more time than tearing off a candy wrapper. Rather than quickly scarfing down verses, let’s slowly savor the words we read. We should reread them, ponder them, find something that speaks directly to us, and then respond to it. Our response then leads us to contemplation and prayer as the verses sink into us. In the Slow Bible Movement, we relish what we’ve read and allow it to refresh and renew us as we carry God’s word forward in our hearts.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God fed him a scroll filled with His message for the Israelites. Even though the scroll was filled with words of sadness, they were as sweet as honey to the prophet because they were God’s words. What food is to our bodies, God’s Word is to our souls and we can’t live well without either one. Moreover, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we’ll never be able to share the message of God’s Good News until we’ve consumed it and allowed it to change our lives. We can snack or dine, gulp or savor; the choice is ours.

Your words were found and I ate them. And Your words became a joy to me and the happiness of my heart. For I have been called by Your name, O Lord God of All. [Jeremiah 15:16 (NLV)]

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GIVING WHAT IS DUE – TAX DAY

“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said.… “He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.” [1 Samuel 8: 11,14-18 (NLT)]

cardinalWhen the people of Israel demanded a king, Samuel cautioned them about the price they would pay. In spite of his warnings, they wanted a king and got the taxation that came with the government they wanted. Even without a king, government continues to reach its hand into our pockets and today is the deadline for filing our 2021 income taxes! We actually got three extra days this year because Emancipation Day, a public holiday in the District of Columbia, fell on the 15th. Security, protection, administration, infrastructure, and a legal system all come at a cost and taxes are the price we pay for the government we have chosen.

Although Ben Franklin said that nothing is certain except for death and taxes, some people actually do a pretty good job of dodging taxes. There is a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion and, as Christians, we must be careful not to cross it. Legally minimizing our taxes by taking all allowed deductions is fine. Hiding income, embellishing deductions, or outright deceit are not. We are called to be ethical and honest and that means no “creative accounting”! People who’d never pinch sneakers from Walmart, embezzle from their employer, or stick-up a 7-Eleven, often think nothing of stealing from the government (and their fellow citizens). Not paying our taxes is no less wrong than shop lifting, misappropriating funds, or armed robbery! A white lie is still a lie, petty theft is still theft and, no matter what we call it, a sin is still a sin.

We may not like the government or agree with the way they spend our money; nevertheless, because we are citizens of this nation, we’re obliged to pay for the services and benefits we receive. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, He responded that we must give to the government that which belongs to it. While rendering unto Washington, let’s not forget that there was more to Jesus’ answer. We may be citizens of this nation but we also are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are to give to God that which belongs to Him—our lives, allegiance, and obedience.

Like the IRS, the rabbis of old established an elaborate system of tithing. The Levites received the first tithe—a tenth of all agricultural products (with each crop counted separately). In turn, the Levites gave a tenth of what they received to the priests. Rather than tithing goods, people could tithe with a product’s cash equivalent plus a 20% penalty. This, however, was not allowed with livestock which were counted singly with every tenth one becoming part of the tithe. The second tithe, taken from what remained after the first one, was to be taken to Jerusalem to be consumed there during festivals. The third tithe, taken after the first two, was to be given to the poor. While no tithes were taken in the seventh year, the first two tithes were taken in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years and the first and third tithes were taken in the third and sixth years. Depending on the year, the total tithe ran anywhere from 19 to 27%!

We don’t have an elaborate tithing requirement in the Christian church but that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to render unto God His share. What we render unto God, however, isn’t a matter determined by the calculator; it’s a matter determined by our hearts. Moreover, it’s not just our material things that should be given to the Lord. Even if we’re penniless, we still have our time, talents, love, thanks, praise, worship, and testimony. If we wonder what or how much to give, all we have to do is ask Him. Whatever He lays on our hearts is what it should be—nothing more and nothing less. But, since we are to render unto God that which is His, let us remember that it all belongs to Him!

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” [Matthew 22:21 (NLT)]

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THE REASON FOR THE SEASON – Easter 2022

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. [1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (NLT)]

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. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

rabbitIn less than five minutes the house was ready for Easter. I’d hung out the spring wreath with its silk tulips, placed the resin Easter rabbit with his cart and eggs on the hall table, and put the three ceramic bunnies around the flowers on the table. With no grands visiting this year, I didn’t even have eggs to boil or baskets to fill! Since it took me days to ready the house for Christmas, I wondered why Easter doesn’t get the same amount of decoration and celebration. Granted, most of the holiday traditions for both holy days have pagan beginnings. Nevertheless, those customs have become part of our culture and Christmas seems to overshadow Easter by a mile.

Christmas has its own color scheme, its own genre of music, and its own beloved fictional characters, including a Grinch, a snowman, an elf on a shelf, and a red-nosed reindeer. We spend weeks decorating our homes, purchasing gifts, and preparing food. We have special Christmas attire ranging from Santa hats to candy cane jewelry and ugly holiday sweaters. People decorate trees, hang garlands and lights, dress up their dogs, and adorn their cars with reindeer horns. Every year sees at least one Christmas-themed movie release and we get a plethora of holiday-themed television shows throughout December. Christmas music is played from the first of November to New Year’s and our calendars are filled with dates for holiday parties and concerts. Easter traditions pale in comparison to Christmas. Even with Easter baskets and egg hunts, the Easter Bunny can’t hold a candle to Santa. The few Easter hymns are sung only a couple of Sundays and hard-boiled eggs and Peeps are second-rate when compared to the plethora of holiday treats, Christmas cookies, and peppermint bark! As far as celebrations go, Easter is sort of like the neglected step-child of holy days. Of course, it’s difficult to generate a festive spirit when Easter is preceded by a season of penitence and fasting and follows the darkest day in Christendom.

As much as I enjoy the traditions of Christmas (in spite of their pagan origins), Christmas really has nothing to do with decorating houses, baking cookies, hanging stockings, gift exchanges, sending cards, singing carols, or holiday parties. Although our sacred Christmas traditions emphasize Jesus’ birth with nativity scenes and pageants, that night in Bethlehem was just the beginning of a far greater story—the story of who Jesus was and what He did for us.

Granted, we usually consider a person’s arrival more reason to celebrate that his departure and we celebrate birthdays rather than dates of death but, in Christ’s case, it is just the opposite. The meaning of Christmas is actually found in the Easter story. Without Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension there would be no forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. Without Easter, the Christmas story would be no more than just a story. For me, the purpose of Christmas can be summed up in one word: Easter!

So, Merry Christmas and Happy Easter on this upcoming Resurrection Sunday!

Somehow we just don’t make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a holly, jolly Easter. … Easter may seem boring to children, and it is blessedly unencumbered by the silly fun that plagues Christmas. Yet it contains the one thing needful for every human life: the good news of Resurrection. [Frederica Mathewes-Green]

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1:3-4 (NLT)]

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26a (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

A DIFFERENT SORT OF FAST – Part 2

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

palamedes swallowtail butterflyAs I continued my Lenten fasting, Saturday’s fast was criticism. “A piece of cake,” I thought as I began the day. While criticism can be constructive, it usually is little more than complaint and, as it turned out, I’d blown it by 10:00 AM. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I caught myself being critical. Even though Sundays during Lent are a day free of fasting, I tried going without criticism again Sunday morning. Surely a day without any critical judgment shouldn’t be that hard! I hate to admit, I botched it by 8:00 while watching the news! Granted, I’d already made three hours without complaint but that wasn’t my last criticism of the day. Not every comment was verbalized but whether I said it to myself or to someone else, criticism still is criticism. I continued fasting from criticism yesterday and this fast may turn out to be a year’s work!

Another day’s fast was discontentment—the feeling of not-enough—the feeling that keeps us from being grateful for all that we do have. Like some of my other fasts, I thought this one would be a breeze until I received an on-line ad for a sale at one of my favorite stores. In spite of an over-full closet, I felt discontent creep into my heart as I scrolled through pages of beautiful clothes. I know I have more than enough and yet I still wanted something more! There’s another one to work on for the rest of the year!

Yesterday’s assignment was to fast “God-as-job.” Just because we don’t receive a paycheck to serve the Lord doesn’t mean we can’t slip into thinking of our service as a job rather than a calling or thinking of our prayer and Bible study as a task or duty rather than a blessing. Our relationship with God is no more a job that the relationship we have with our loved ones. Nevertheless, when concentrating on doing for Him, we easily forget about being with Him and, when working for Him, we often stop hearing Him. When God is a job, we’re present in body but absent in spirit.

These weeks preparing for Resurrection Sunday brought me a growing awareness of my spiritual weaknesses. Rather than giving up something I enjoy like chocolate, alcohol, or TV, this fast was about revealing the kinds of things that restrain or control me. Moreover, there were hidden blessings in each sacrifice I made. These last several weeks have been a time of decluttering my mind, sweeping the dust bunnies from my soul, and regaining balance. Of course, I remain a work in progress but, like the author of Hebrews, I’m trying to rid myself of the things that weigh me down.

Lent is a time of going very deeply into ourselves… What is it that stands between us and God? Between us and our brothers and sisters? Between us and life, the life of the Spirit? Whatever it is, let us relentlessly tear it out, without a moment’s hesitation.” [Catherine Doherty]

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. [Hebrews 12:1-2a (NLT)]

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A DIFFERENT SORT OF FAST – Part 1

What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? [Isaiah 58:4-5 (NLT)]

green heronWith nearly 20,000 tweets, the 2022 Twitter “Lent Tracker” revealed that the top Lenten fast for Twitter users was alcohol. Twitter and social networking took second and third places followed by Lent, sex, coffee, chocolate, swearing, men and meat. Using Twitter to give up Twitter seems somewhat counter-productive and giving up Lent for Lent makes no sense at all. Then again, since I don’t tweet, Twitter itself doesn’t make sense to me. In a survey by YouGov, people were asked what would be the hardest thing to abstain from for Lent and watching TV or using streaming services was the number one answer in all age groups except for ages 18 to 24. It’s no surprise that the hardest thing to relinquish for that group was social networking!

I tried something new for my Lenten observance this year by letting Alicia Britt Chole’s 40 Days of Decrease lead me through the season. Along with a daily devotion about Jesus’ life, an inspiring quote upon which to meditate, a tidbit about Lent’s history, Scripture reading and journaling, a specific fast was suggested for each day. Over the past several weeks, I’ve fasted from things like regret, avoidance, apathy, denial, leavening, and comparison.

Fasting from a meal one day was far easier than fasting from isolation the next. Since the pandemic, I’ve grown comfortable in isolation and gotten lax about making an effort to socialize. As God would have it, my fast from isolation was on a Tuesday, the day our pastor has an informal gathering at a local coffee shop. The day’s assignment was to, “Purpose to link and be linked…and intentionally nurture your God-given web of relationships.” Even though I was behind in my writing, the fast required me to join the others. It was a needed reminder that we are to “think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works,” and not to “neglect our meeting together… but encourage one another.” [Hebrews 10:24-25]

Another day, after reading about the woman who lavishly anointed Jesus with essence of nard, the fast was stinginess. I pondered which charity would get the benefit of the day’s fast but writing a check didn’t seem much of a sacrifice since we’ve never been stingy with our money to charity. When my husband asked me to walk the beach with him, my first thought was that I didn’t have the time. The day’s stinginess fast, however, reminded me that we can be miserly with time as well as money. Having been directed not to allow reason to “ration out your love in stingy portions,” I accepted the offer to spend quality time with him. The woman who anointed Jesus is remembered “as one who loved lavishly;” I’d like to be remembered the same way! Time is as precious as money or a flask of expensive perfume and we never should be stingy with it.

Thinking about these two fasts, I realized they both had to do with time. They made me question my willingness to share my time with others, to sacrifice my agenda for a better purpose, and to put relationships ahead of tasks. Like money, time is a precious commodity with a limited supply and, like money, time can be wasted or foolishly spent. Unlike money, however, we can’t gain more than our allotted amount nor can we save what we have for another day. Whether we use it or not, time is gone as fast as it came. May we always remember we have a limited time here and no real way of knowing when our days will end. Let us live each precious day as if it is the only one we have.

Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received. [C.S. Lewis]

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (NLT)]

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:14 (NLT)]

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