FINAL HOURS

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” [John 3:3 (NLT)]

Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying. [Martin Luther]

ColumbineWhen Pat died, it was difficult to find words of comfort for her grieving husband. A non-believer, he has no faith in Jesus, no understanding of the soul, no hope of eternity, and no anticipation of Christ’s return. Distance and timing kept me from attending Pat’s Celebration of Life and, because we rarely saw one another, I’m not sure I felt her absence until today when I received a letter from her husband. With the letter was a bookmark made for her Celebration of Life. It had her picture and some sweet words about memories filling our hearts, time healing our souls, and the peace of knowing there’s one more angel in heaven. To a non-believer, those words may be comforting but, to me, they were empty (along with being theologically incorrect). I’ve never understood how non-believers find it so easy to believe in heaven and angels but so hard to believe in judgment, hell, God, or Jesus.

As difficult as I found it to find comforting words for Pat’s husband, I’m not finding words in Scripture that bring much comfort to me. Sadly, Pat seemed to share her husband’s lack of faith in Jesus. Although we grew up together, our lives went in different directions when I was fifteen and we lived more than 1,000 miles apart as adults. Except for an occasional wedding or funeral, our contact consisted mostly of emails, a shared interest in genealogy, a few phone calls, and Christmas cards.

Growing up, we attended the same church and I know Pat was baptized as an infant; that, however, doesn’t mean she was saved. Regardless of the age or the method, Baptism isn’t what saves us. We are saved by a proclamation of faith in Jesus. While she may have proclaimed her outrage at cold water sprinkled on her head, that wasn’t a statement of faith.

We both were confirmed in eighth grade but, like infant Baptism, Confirmation has no Biblical basis. At the time, Pat reaffirmed the vows her Baptismal sponsors made for her, but I suspect that was more about doing what was expected and getting a new white dress and gifts than declaring her undying faith in the work and words of Jesus. In spite of our Confirmation classes, I don’t think either of us truly understood the ritual’s meaning or knew what a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior really meant.

Undoubtedly, Pat was a good person but “Christian” is not an adjective nor is it a synonym for good. If good works were all it took for eternal life, Jesus’ death upon the cross wouldn’t have been necessary. Salvation is more than going to church, being raised in a Christian family, a sprinkle of water, a Bishop laying his hands on your head, a prayer, giving to charity, calling yourself a Christian, or even saying you’ve made a decision; it is becoming a new person in Christ. Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, involves putting our entire faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus, finding a new life in Him, and the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives.

Pat knew of my faith but let me know that Jesus was off limits when it came to our communications. Nevertheless, I look at that bookmark with the picture of her smiling face and wish I’d tried harder. If Pat didn’t do so earlier, I hope that, in her final days, she took God up on his offer of salvation. Waiting until the eleventh hour, however, is dangerous; after all, we might die at 10:30!

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life. [Titus 3:4-7 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LEADING THE HERD

sheepDo not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. [1 Corinthians 15:33-34 (RSV)]

You’ve probably heard of herd mentality or herd behavior: when people’s natural desire to be part of the crowd affects their decisions. When herd behavior occurs, rather than relying on their own judgment, values, or natural instinct, people allow themselves to be influenced by the behavior of those around them. While copying what others are doing can be useful at times (it gets our garbage out the right nights), challenges arise when our personal beliefs contradict what the crowd is doing.

A few years ago, when we were in Chicago, my husband wanted to purchase his favorite cheddar/caramel popcorn mix at Garrett’s. While he waited in line inside the crowded store, I remained outside. The queue of customers eventually extended out the door and partway down the street. When a couple visiting from France asked me why people were waiting, my reply of popcorn surprised them. Telling me they could understand lining up for chocolate or ice cream but certainly not popcorn, I expected they’d continue walking. Instead, they decided to follow the herd and joined the long line.

Even though that couple weren’t fans of popcorn, they joined the herd, but do we only follow the herd when there are more of them than us? According to an experiment done in 2008 at Leeds University, the answer is no. 200 subjects were told to walk in a totally random path around a large hall without communicating with one another in any way. Unknown to them, however, a group of walkers had been given detailed instructions on where to walk. In a short time, the “random” walkers started following the ones who seemed to know where they were going and a long snake-like line formed. When the experiment was over, those “random” walkers admitted not realizing that they’d become followers. The researchers found that it took only 5% of the people to walk purposefully to get the other 95% to follow. Apparently humans, like sheep and birds, will subconsciously gather in flocks and follow a minority if that minority appears to know what they’re doing!

Scripture warns that bad company can corrupt good character but, if we consider herd behavior, could good company improve bad character? Believing their findings could be used when planning traffic flow in emergencies and crisis situations, the Leeds’ researchers called the people who were followed “informed individuals.” The world appears to be in crisis and, as Christ’s followers, we are the “informed individuals.” Could this be our call to lead the herd?

Jesus left His church in the hands of just a few followers and yet there were over 3,000 believers by the first Pentecost and the church continued to grow rapidly. In those early years, Christianity was illegal, believers were persecuted, and there were no church buildings, public ceremonies, famed evangelists, or mass media. Nevertheless, the church steadily expanded in the first 300 years. It spread because people saw the lives of Christ’s followers: that Christians walked with a sense of purpose in a different and better way. Knowing the route to take, the informed minority led the herd to Jesus. Do we walk as “informed individuals” or like someone with a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t follow me—I’m lost, too!”  Let our lights shine brightly that we might lead the way to the Lord!

We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause. [Justin Martyr describing Christians to Emperor Antoninus Pius in 153 AD]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (RSV)]

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. [Philippians 2:14-15 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. [Proverbs 15:1 (NLT)]

mourning doveIn 2 Samuel 20, we find the story of the “wise woman from Able.” Even though David and his men had suppressed Absalom’s revolt, hostility remained between the people of Judah (David’s tribe) and the ten northern tribes of Israel. When a “troublemaker” named Sheba led the men of Israel in rebellion, Joab and an army of Judeans pursued him. After Sheba’s men found refuge in the town of Abel, Joab’s forces raised a siege ramp against the ramparts of the city and began to batter its walls. Knowing the city and all of its inhabitants would be destroyed once the walls were breached, a “wise woman” came to the wall and asked to speak with Joab. After reminding him that her city was famous for the wisdom of its inhabitants, she assured him of their loyalty and inquired what it was he wanted. Telling her that all he wanted was Sheba, the woman struck a bargain with him and traded the life of Sheba for the safety of the city. After she convinced the town to turn over the rebel leader, his dismembered head was thrown over the city wall, Joab and his army withdrew, and the city was safe.

Like many Old Testament accounts, this story is gruesome, but that shouldn’t keep us from its lesson. With famine, disease, destruction, and death threatening the besieged city, Able’s men wouldn’t stand idly by while their walls were under attack and some of Joab’s troops surely would fall before they conquered the city. When it comes to war, while one side eventually may lay claim to victory, no one ever wins. Instead of coming to the city wall armed with weapons as did Joab, the wise woman of Able came armed with reason. Simply by saying, “Let’s talk!” she discovered what he wanted, determined a solution, and saved lives on both sides of that wall.

It was this nameless woman who defused the situation but that’s what Joab should have done. When God gave the Israelites all those laws in Deuteronomy, He gave them some about warfare and, before attacking a city, they were to offer the inhabitants terms for peace. [20:10] Joab, however, immediately launched an attack (but we know from the rest of Joab’s story that he was a man of treachery and not of God). Wisdom, however, comes from the Lord and the wise woman of Able knew God and His word!

Unlike Joab, we’re not likely to be chasing a rebel army and, unlike this unnamed woman, we probably won’t need to save an entire city from death and destruction, but consider what might happen if we always sought peace before conflict? What if, the next time we’re in a disagreement or dispute, we were more interested in resolution than victory? Instead of trying to change someone else’s mind, what if we opened ours? What if we discussed rather than disparaged and negotiated rather than litigated? Instead of insisting we’re right, what if we tried to reconcile our differences? What would happen if we said, “Let’s talk!” and then really listened? What if we asked, “What can I do to make this right?” and then did it?

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NLT)]

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. [Romans 12:18 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

A LONG SABBATH 

Martha was frantic with all the work in the kitchen. “Master,” she said, coming in to where they were, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!” [Luke 10:40 (NTE)]

madagasgar periwinkleNo one has remained untouched by the trials and misfortune of this challenging year. That’s why my friend admitted feeling uncomfortable when acknowledging that she’s come to enjoy the downtime and slow pace of sheltering in place and social distancing. I had to agree with her. You see, pre-pandemic, we’d been more like Martha than Mary and our lives were filled with activities and obligations. I never seemed to have quite enough time and often felt overwhelmed by obligations. In an odd way, we both feel blessed by the slower pace of this quieter time.

When Jesus came to dinner, Martha was honored to host the famous rabbi. Fulfilling cultural expectations, she busied herself with her domestic duties. Wanting to impress her guests, she probably did whatever the 1st century equivalent was of setting the table with the finest tablecloth, Lenox china, sterling silver, Waterford goblets, flower centerpiece, and candles while preparing a four course gourmet dinner and baking a triple berry pie from scratch. Breaching society’s expectations, however, her sister Mary sat with the men at the feet of Jesus.

Translated as distracted or frantic, the Greek word used to describe Martha’s state of mind is periespato. Meaning drawn away, it indicates being pulled in different directions at once, just as a hostess is when she’s got meat on the grill, rolls in the oven, a pot boiling on the stove, water glasses to fill, and guests in the living room! Not knowing which way to turn and thinking Mary was the solution, Martha complained to Jesus. When He told her only one thing mattered, He may have meant one simple dish was all the men needed. It’s more likely that He meant spending time in His presence was the important thing, which was what Mary was doing. While busy Martha was working to feed Jesus, contemplative Mary was feeding on His words.

Life has taken on a simpler shape during this pandemic and I’ve learned that activity doesn’t necessarily mean accomplishment. Like Martha, I’d become distracted while trying to serve the Lord. Now, with my calendar cleared of concerts, plays, date nights, guests, fund raisers, lectures, assorted appointments, classes, tours, and get-togethers, I’m taking the time to be like Mary: to be with Jesus at His feet.

On the seventh day of creation, God rested from His work, blessed the day and made it holy. When He gave us the Sabbath, it was to be a day of rest, refreshment, and recuperation dedicated to the Lord. Sheltering in place is like a very long Sabbath. Requiring us to depend on God’s provision, it affords us a beautiful opportunity to step out of our normal routine and into God’s presence. Let us all make the most of this extended Sabbath. May it become a blessed opportunity to become less like Martha and more like Mary.

“Martha, Martha,” he replied, “you are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41-42 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TRUE FREEDOM – INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020

Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. [Romans 6:14 (NLT)]

fireworksTomorrow, as we commemorate our nation’s birthday, the celebration will be a little different. Beaches are closed and the brat fests, chicken roasts, band concerts, parades, fireworks, neighborhood picnics, rodeos, and ice cream socials typical of this national holiday have been cancelled. Friends and family won’t be joining us to light sparklers, have a water balloon fight or baseball game, catch fireflies, eat popsicles and watermelon, or enjoy s’mores around a campfire.

Restrictions because of this pandemic have made some people bristle at their loss of personal freedom and these last few weeks have put a spotlight on both the shortcomings of our nation and the imperfections of our national heroes. Nevertheless, regardless of our nation’s faults and problems, we have an incredible amount of personal freedom. Here, we are free to disagree but, in nations like Syria, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, North Korea, and even our close neighbor Cuba, those demonstrations would never have taken place. There we’d have suppression of political opposition, restrictions on internet use, a one-party political system, government controlled media, prohibitions on worship, and harsh authoritarian rule with even more injustice and inequalities. While we’re far from perfect, we’re better than most!

As thankful as I am for the statesmen and patriots (flawed as they were) who made this great nation a reality, I am even more thankful for Jesus and his small band of Apostles who made it possible for us to live in true freedom! True freedom has more to do with belief in Jesus than it does with a Declaration of Independence or a Bill of Rights. Without Christ we will never truly be free because, no matter where we live or what kind of government we have, we will still be in bondage to sin. The Liberty Bell rang out for our nation’s freedom but it was the cross and an empty tomb that gave us our spiritual freedom. Our nation’s freedom began with its Declaration of Independence 244 years ago; our spiritual freedom came when we accepted Jesus and learned to live in dependence on Him.

We lift up our hearts, O God, on this day of celebration in gratitude for the gift of being Americans. We rejoice with all those who share in the great dream of freedom and dignity for all. 

With flags and feasting, with family and friends, we salute those who have sacrificed that we might have the opportunity to bring to fulfillment our many God-given gifts. 

As we deny all prejudice a place in our hearts, may we also clearly declare our intention to work for the time when all people, regardless of race, religion, or sex, will be granted equal dignity and worth. 

Come, O gracious God, who led your children Israel from slavery, keep us free from all that might hold us in bondage. 

Bless our country and join our simple celebration that we may praise you, our Source of freedom, the One in whom we place our trust. [Edward Hays, “A Pilgrim’s Almanac”]

For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [2 Corinthians 3:17 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HE “HAD” TO GO THAT WAY (John 4:1-42 – Part 2)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:11 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJerusalem and Samaria may only have been about 40 miles apart but centuries of hostility separated them. Both politics and religion alienated the Jews from the Samaritans—much as they did Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland during the violence plagued decades of The Troubles. Because of the enmity between the people, even though the shortest path from Judea to Galilee was through Samaria, most Jews detoured east to avoid Samaria entirely. John 4:4, however, tells us that Jesus “had to” pass through Samaria. The word used was edei meaning “it was necessary.” Why?

We certainly know Jesus didn’t take that shortcut through Samaria because He was in a hurry. After meeting the woman at Jacob’s well, He lingered there for two more days. It would seem that route was necessary because Jesus and the disciples had a divine appointment in the Samaritan village of Sychar. The appointment wasn’t just with the woman but also with the townspeople who would hear His message and come to believe.

While Jesus rested at the well, the disciples went into town to buy food. Because the gospels aren’t in chronological order, we don’t know if this happened before or after another Samaritan village had spurned the disciples and James and John had suggested raining fire upon it. [Luke 9:53] This time, however, the Samaritans welcomed them. After the disciples successfully obtained food, the village begged Jesus and His men to stay. That divine appointment clearly prepared the disciples for the command Jesus later gave at His ascension: “You will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8] Did that divine appointment also include a valuable lesson about not judging an entire people by the bad actions of a few?

Whether it’s because of politics, history, language, race, religion, ethnicity, past grievances, or simply because we don’t know them, we tend to dislike people who are different from us. Thinking in terms of “them” and “us” we define others by our differences. Perhaps it’s time to start with our similarities: we all are children of God! We’re told to love our enemies but how can we do that if we don’t know them?  Animosity begins someplace but, then again, so does relationship. Maybe we’ll find “they” aren’t our enemies at all!

The best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend. [F.F. Bruce]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:27-31 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.