CHRISTMAS IS LOVE

mourning dovesLove never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything. Trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

I just received my first Christmas card and letter. While reading about the family’s year of stellar accomplishments and fantastic vacations, I was reminded of my all-time favorite holiday letter. Several years ago, a friend reported that his eldest boy had founded the Young Entrepreneur Club at his high school and was in the process of patenting an investment model based on quantum economics. The middle child had received an award from the Nevada Humane Society for his efforts to find homes for dogs deserted in the desert and the youngest boy had designed a Lego-themed online game and been granted a summer internship at Legoland in California. Amazed by his sons’ achievements, I read on. In the next paragraph, when I read that the boys’ mom had become a cheerleader for the Lingerie Football League, I finally realized the letter was all in fun. Indeed, in the last paragraph, my friend continued with a more accurate depiction of his family.

Remembering his letter got me thinking about the Christmas cards and letters we receive and the social media postings we see. Sometimes they’re no more accurate than my friend’s tongue-in-cheek missive. We’re led to believe that everyone else’s children and grands are future Olympians or Nobel Prize winners, that it never rains on vacations, families never disagree, everyone else’s child is on the honor role, they all entertain like Martha Stewart, pipes never break, toilets never back-up, nobody has any debts, and the family photograph didn’t require hours of preparation and several retakes!

Granted, none of us want to read the gruesome details of someone’s surgery or bout with shingles but let’s never make the mistake of comparing our lives to holiday letters or social media “reality.” It’s not the awards, triumphs, possessions, gourmet meals, or holidays that hold a family together; it’s love.

It’s love that endures a partner who snores, toddler temper tantrums, teen-age angst and rebellion, and gets us through a diagnosis of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, dirty bathrooms, harsh words, and the loss of a job. It’s love that helps us survive flooded basements, the in-laws, sleepless nights, dirty diapers, piles of laundry, muddy floors, broken arms and broken hearts. Love is what helps with homework, spends hours sitting on hard bleachers cheering a child who plays for three minutes, and forgives the forgotten anniversary or the over-drawn checkbook. That’s love teaching a boy to ride a bike, caring for a handicapped spouse, emptying bedpans, saying “No,” to an addicted daughter, refusing to write a child’s book report for him, waiting up for the high schooler, and grounding him when he’s late. It’s love that doesn’t complain about a scorched shirt, getting hopelessly lost, or a misplaced key. Love attends dance recitals and grade school band concerts, sits for hours at a hospital bedside, and patiently listens to the same story the umpteenth time.

While none of those things are Facebook or holiday letter worthy, they are far more important. As this holiday approaches, let us remember to look further than the cards and letters, decorations, Christmas tree, music, and gifts. Let us remember Christmas is about love: a God who loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that all who believed in Him would not perish but have eternal life!

Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas. [Dale Evans Rogers]

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

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NOT KEEPING MY PROMISE

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. [2 Corinthians 5:10-11 (ESV)]

Yesterday, I wrote about my infant nephew’s baptism at my mother’s hospital bedside. Because she was at death’s door, everything was arranged in a rush; at fifteen, I was recruited as the baby’s Godmother (or sponsor in Baptism).

As his Godmother, I made three promises for my nephew: that he would “renounce the devil and all his works…believe all of the Articles of the Christian Faith and…keep God’s holy will and commandments.” In a perfect world, he would have made those same promises again when he was old enough to personally know Jesus. But the world isn’t perfect and he didn’t.

That same day, as his Godmother, I made a promise of my own: I would make sure he learned the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and “all the other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health.” Sometimes promises are easier said than done and I did not keep my promise any better than did my nephew his. I can make all sorts of excuses for my failure: my youth at the time, that we’ve always had at least 1,000 miles separating us, and that I have only seen him a handful of times in his 57 years. Nevertheless, I did not try to keep those promises and I will answer to God for my failure.

When I stand at God’s judgment seat, my sins will not be an issue; they already have been forgiven and my ticket to heaven is secure. But I will be asked to give an accounting for what I have done (and failed to do) since becoming a believer. I squandered my opportunity, small as it was, to share God’s love and the good news of the Gospel with my nephew. I can’t say that anything I could have done would have made a difference in his troubled life but I should have tried. That weighs heavy on my heart—not because I may miss out on some heavenly reward, but because I missed an opportunity to be a disciple of Christ.

When believers stand before God, we will be judged. Since we each have been uniquely created and gifted, my evaluation will not be the same as yours; nevertheless, each one of us will give an accounting of ourselves. What did we do with the spiritual light we had, what did we do with the opportunities given to us, and what did we do with the time, talents, and property God entrusted to us?

My nephew is part of the reason I support recovery ministries as well as programs serving people who are homeless or mentally ill. I continue writing these devotions as a way of atoning for not keeping the promise I made 57 years ago. Older, wiser, and having more light, opportunity, time and ability, more is expected of me now. As for my nephew, I continue to pray for God’s protection, grace, and mercy on him. As for us, I pray that we will make good use of all that God has given us and that through our words and deeds we will live and teach the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and “all the other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health.”

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them. [Romans 12:6 (ESV)]

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. [Luke 12:48b (ESV)]

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A CHANGE OF HEART

beeding heartsFor you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. [Romans 2:28-29a (NLT)]

In 1962, my infant nephew was baptized after coming with his parents more than 1,300 miles to meet his grandmother. Because my mother was hospitalized (and would be dead in a few weeks), the sacrament took place at her bedside. This was the only time my nephew and his grandmother met and the last time my sister saw our mother alive.

My brother-in-law was opposed to infant baptism. Nevertheless, my father wanted my mother to see and hold her first grandchild (as much as he wanted that baby baptized). Because children were not allowed to visit hospitals at the time, Dad convinced my brother-in-law that a hospital baptism was the only way grandmother and grand could meet. The hospital was run by the Sisters of Charity so my father knew the nuns wouldn’t deny his request (especially since he neglected to mention that the priest was Episcopalian rather than Roman Catholic).

Unfortunately, other than the funerals of his grandparents, that probably was the last time my nephew came near a minister, church, Bible, prayer book, holy water, or even a nun (several joined us in my mother’s hospital room.) His parents are good people but non-believers and he had no religious education. By the time he was in his teens, my nephew was diagnosed as bipolar and, as often happens for people with his disorder, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. A vicious cycle began as the substance abuse exacerbated the mental illness and his disease increased the abuse. Truly a lost soul who, by now, has lost most of his mental capacity, when he’s not incarcerated or hospitalized, my nephew lives on the streets or couch surfs through the homes of other users. While I can’t know what is in anyone’s heart, I doubt that he believes in Jesus. Yet, he’s been baptized, leading me to wonder, “Does that mean he’s saved?”

As a sign of God’s covenant with Israel, all of Abraham’s descendants were to be circumcised. In Romans 2, however, Paul points out that, for the Jew, the true sign of belonging to God was not the ceremony of circumcision; it was a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. It was God’s spiritual surgery upon the heart rather than the removal of one’s foreskin that made a Jew right with God. While there are parallels between baptism and circumcision, they symbolize two very different covenants. Nevertheless, while studying Romans and rereading today’s verse, I replaced “Jew” with “Christian” and “circumcision” with “baptism.” Indeed, Christianity has nothing to do with parentage and baptism alone does not bring salvation; salvation requires a change of heart.

My childhood prayer book calls baptism an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Without that “inward and spiritual grace,” I fear it is just a ritual. External actions like baptism, communion or church attendance are not what make us Christians. Salvation doesn’t come by works or sacraments; it comes through God’s grace through faith!

Assuming he has never come to know Jesus and be filled with His Holy Spirit, I fear that my nephew’s baptism 57 years ago didn’t make him a Christian any more than his hospital circumcision made him a Jew. While baptism is a step of obedience for every Christian, it does not save us. Our salvation is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection and is available only through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us all beware of trusting that baptism alone will bring us to heaven.

Tragically, some people believe they are going to heaven when they die just because a few drops of water were sprinkled over their heads a few weeks after their birth. They have no personal faith, have never made a personal decision, and are banking on a hollow ceremony to save them. How absurd. [Max Lucado]

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:9-10 (NLT)]

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WORLD KINDNESS DAY

Don’t ever forget kindness and truth. Wear them like a necklace. Write them on your heart as if on a tablet. Then you will be respected and will please both God and people. [Proverbs 3:3-4 (NCV)]

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. [Leo Buscaglia]

world kindnessThe mission of the World Kindness Movement (WKM) is to “inspire individuals and connect nations to create a kinder world.” Having no political or religious affiliations, the WKM is an international coalition of like-minded kindness NGOs (non-governmental organizations typically set up to address a social or political issue). Since its introduction in 1998, “World Kindness Day” has been observed every November 13. The purpose of this day is to “highlight good deeds in the community because kindness is the common thread that unites us all.”

When I looked at one kindness NGO website, it asked participants to pledge a good deed for today. Another site, hoping to make kindness a norm, made a series of suggestions, not just for November 13, but for every day! They suggested things like sharing a compliment or letting someone merge into your lane with a smile and a wave (and I don’t think they were suggesting using your middle finger in that wave). Other sites’ suggestions for Kindness Day included extra big hugs, three random acts of kindness, writing a thank you note, spending ten minutes cleaning up a park or playground, sending flowers to a friend, wheeling out your neighbor’s trash bin, visiting with someone who’s lonely, hiding a love note in that special someone’s purse or pocket, providing donuts to your co-workers, and bringing cookies to a neighbor. In this day and age, I’d be rather cautious about those extra big hugs unless you’re absolutely sure they’d be welcome, but the other ideas are all good. What bothers me is that we seem to need a day dedicated to kindness and a list of ways to do it. As Christians, shouldn’t kindness be the norm? After all, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and we all should be bearing His fruit!

While working on this devotion, I came across a recent “Pearls before Swine” comic (by Stephan Pastis). In the first frame, Pig is adding the 37th hash mark to his whiteboard list of “Badness in the World.” In the next frames, he’s seen walking into the city and then down a dark alley where he gives money to a ragged man sitting by a trash can. In the final frame, we again see Pig’s whiteboard. While it still has 37 marks in the “Badness” column, a “Goodness” column has been added. Pig confides to his friend Goat, “I’ll even this thing yet.” “Good for you, Pig!” I thought, “We can make a difference.”

Curious about the comic strip, I did a little research. Pig’s creator, Stephan Pastis, describes him as a “gentle, sweet and naïve soul…a bit slow-witted…a living rebuttal to those people who say that swine are intelligent animals.” Based on his description of Pig, I don’t know if Pastis was encouraging acts of kindness or was saying that only the dim-witted think they’ll ever be able to change the world!

Perhaps I’m being as naïve and gullible as Pig, but I truly believe that kindness can make a difference. As individual Christians, while we may not be able to change the world, we can change the world for someone. Moreover, when we work together, we can help change the world for many! When Jesus told us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, He also told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. [Mark 12:30-31] In short, He told us to be kind—every day and in every way. We don’t need to make a pledge to do a good deed today; as the hands and feet of Jesus, we should be doing good deeds all day, every day! Let’s put some more hash marks on Pig’s “Goodness” list!

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. [Teresa of Avila]

We show we are servants of God by our pure lives, our understanding, patience, and kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by true love, by speaking the truth, and by God’s power. [2 Corinthians 6:6 (NCV)]

God has chosen you and made you his holy people. He loves you. So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other, and forgive each other. [Colossians 3:12-13a (NCV)]

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A ROOT OF EVIL

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. [1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV)]

red clover“He’s the ultimate solipsist – the guy who’d burn the world down to light his cigarette. He’s not cruel, particularly – although he’s capable of cruelty – he’s just so focused on his own goals and his own needs that nobody else exists for him.” That’s how Mike Carey, author of the graphic novel series Lucifer, describes his main character. I admit having to look up “solipsism” to learn that it’s the extreme preoccupation with self and the indulgence of one’s feelings and desires. A self-professed atheist, Carey went on to say, “I think total self-absorption is probably the root of most evil that we meet in the world.” While he may not believe in God, I think Carey has a good handle on the root of much of the world’s evil: self! Satan just loves to make us think of ourselves as more valuable and worthy than anyone else.

“Hold it,” you say. “I thought money was the root of all evil!” A careful reading of Paul’s words in this often misquoted verse tell us that’s not so. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil but it is not the only root of all evil. After all, money hadn’t even been invented when Eve ate the forbidden fruit! Focusing solely on herself, however, she thought of her desire as more important than obedience to God and his one rule. Self-absorption, not money, caused the fall. While Eve didn’t destroy the world to light a cigarette, she brought evil into it simply to satisfy her own curiosity.

There seems to be a lot of self-absorption going around nowadays and we’re all guilty! How many times do we act as if our opinions are the only ones that count, our words are more important than the words of the person with whom we’re speaking, or our needs are more pressing than those of the people around us? We want the best table, the closest parking place, the fastest line, the biggest piece of pie, the order at all costs, and the largest commission. If someone goes without, too bad for them; they should have been better, faster, or tried harder. We don’t care what kind of day the teller at the bank had, bother to look at the face of the sales clerk, or acknowledge the special-needs bagger at the grocery. Our dog can poop wherever he wants, we can water our lawns on water-restricted days, and recycling takes too much effort. We can carry full bottles of water when we start our walk, but find them too cumbersome to carry once they’re empty. We don’t pause to open the door for the bag-laden woman and we impatiently push ahead of the elderly man with the walker. “Ten items or less” doesn’t apply to us nor do slow zones by schools. Our thoughts are so important that we can text while driving and use our cell phones at restaurants and theatres. Where we’re headed is far more important than where anyone else is going so we can cut off drivers and honk at anyone who dares to be slow starting when the light changes.

Father, forgive us for being selfish when we should be selfless.

The difference between a good person and a bad person (and each of us, naturally, is a little of both) is really very simple at bottom: The good person loves people and uses things, while the bad person loves things and uses people. [Sidney J. Harris]

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)]

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NIV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TWO LISTS

coreopsis-and-cowpen daisyLive wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]

Last Friday, on All Saints’ Day, I asked who we would acknowledge in our spiritual memoir. Who were the people who helped us find our way to Jesus? In my morning Bible study, we actually wrote lists of the people who were our champions of faith. On her long list, Rachel wrote the name of one special teacher all in caps: MRS. HART. Rachel described her as a woman who seemed to exude Christian joy out of every pore of her body. The woman’s life wasn’t easy; a widow, she’d had her share of heartbreak and disappointment (especially when her daughter rejected Jesus and became a Buddhist). Nevertheless, in all circumstances, Mrs. Hart was filled with the joy of the Lord. One day she confidently declared, “I have a lot of questions for God and I’m looking forward to the day when I come face to face with him and can get some answers!” Until the older woman said that, it had never occurred to Rachel that, as a believer, one day she, too, would come face to face with God. It was then that she began to understand the reason for Mrs. Hart’s joy.

Among others on my list, I named my mother, the pastor at our mountain church who challenged his congregation to pray, a neighbor who ministered to prisoners and truly knew who the “least of these” were, and Marilyn, one of my college roommates, who showed me what it was like to live biblically in a non-biblical world. Not remembering their names, I also listed “the Campus Crusade couple.” Offering dinner and the gospel on Sunday nights, they opened their home and hearts to young searchers and believers on my campus. They never condemned me for my failings or pushed me to make a decision; they simply helped me find my way to a relationship with Jesus.

One of the women in class said she considered writing a second list on the opposite side of the page. This list would be for those “Christians” who’d turned her away from God. On it would be the nuns who’d spoken of love, forgiveness and compassion while ruthlessly inflicting verbal and corporal punishment on their students, the chuch-going parents who wouldn’t allow their children to play with her because her father was an ex-con, and the priest who called her “Honey” and told her to sit on his lap. While it gave her a sense of closure to see his name (along with nearly 40 others) in the paper last year, she wondered how many people had turned from Jesus because of behavior like his. One woman added that the same name could appear on both lists. When the pastor who had opened her eyes to the gospel message deceived his congregation and slandered his accusers, she questioned all she’d come to believe. Eventually, for both of these women, it was through other people’s sincere Christian examples of truth, love, forgiveness, and compassion that they realized it was Satan, not the church, who was their true enemy—with hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and abuse of trust and power being his weapons of choice!

If our names were to occur on someone’s list, we’d want to be recorded in the column of God’s ambassadors rather than the one of His adversaries. The difference wouldn’t be that one column was sinless and the other sinful. All of those who guided me on my journey were sinners (as am I) and the joyful Mrs. Hart was a sinner, as well. It’s just that none of them ever pretended they weren’t; they never hid behind a “holier than thou” façade. As imperfect as they were, they were living evidence of God’s work. His truth, mercy, grace, and unlimited love were evident in their walk and the lives they touched were better for it. Rather than just telling me about God with their words, they showed Him to me with their actions and brought His light to the dark corners of my heart.

Heavenly Father, guide us on our walk so that we never deliberately or accidentally cause someone to reject the gospel message. May we always be Christ’s ambassadors by bringing light to the world and glory to you.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. [Brennan Manning]

In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:16 (NLT)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 5:20 (NLT)]

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