HEAR AND UNDERSTAND

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. … The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. … The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted! [Matthew 13:9,19,23 (NLT)]

While there’s nothing wrong with my hearing, I can’t always understand what’s being said. For example, when my husband tells stories, he prefers pronouns to nouns. Yesterday, I didn’t know whether the “he” to whom he was referring was the newsman, Uber driver, passenger, angry motorist, shooter, or police officer. Without knowing which man did what, the story was confusing so I kept asking for clarification. As it turned out, the Uber driver, who was also a policeman, shot the gun!

With their heavy accents and unfamiliar cultural references, I sometimes have difficulty understanding my son’s Indian in-laws and must ask them to repeat or explain before I finally get their meaning. My brother-in-law has Parkinson’s and speaks slowly, softly, and often stops in the middle of a sentence. But, if I give him my undivided attention and am patient during his long pauses, I can follow what he’s saying. I even have trouble with friends from the deep South who manage to make a one syllable word have two, a two syllable word have one, and use a charming set of unfamiliar idioms! Nevertheless, these are people I love so I try to understand them.

I’m the first one to admit it’s not always easy to understand Scripture. Then again, it’s not always easy to understand my family and friends but I take the time to do it. Understanding Scripture is no different than trying to understand people’s voices and, as happens with people, sometimes it take a little (or a whole lot) of effort to comprehend what is being said. Admittedly, with family and friends, there are times (as with the newsman/Uber driver/passenger/angry motorist/shooter/police officer story) when all that effort really isn’t worth it. However, I’ve never felt that way about anything written in Scripture; there, the message is always worthwhile!

Admittedly, some days I finish my Bible study more confused than when I began and there are times I want to give up. Yet, if I’ll make an effort to understand the people I love, it only makes sense that I’ll do the same thing with the God I love. God was pleased when Solomon asked for wisdom so I’m sure He’ll give us the discernment, self-discipline, patience, and ability to understand His word if we ask. He’s already provided us with countless study Bibles, assorted translations, plenty of commentary, pastors, teachers, and study groups to help us on our way.

Jesus told us to hear and understand. The best place to hear Him is in Scripture but, unless we open our Bibles and read them, we won’t hear Him. If we don’t hear Him, how can we ever understand?

“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” [Mark 4:23-25 (NLT)]

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GRIEVING HIM

In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years. But they rebelled against him and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he became their enemy and fought against them. [Isaiah 63:9-10 (NLT)]

SQUIRRELMany years ago, my two boys were playing at their grandparents’ house. While Grandpa worked in the garden, the brothers climbed high up the apple tree and started to throw apples at him. A patient man, their grandfather told them to stop and, when more apples came whizzing at him, he offered a sterner warning. After briefly stopping their barrage, the rascals were unable to resist the temptation and chucked more apples at their grandpa. To their surprise, this gentle and loving man turned around, picked up some apples, and returned fire. Having played ball as a boy, Gramps had a strong throwing arm and excellent aim. He didn’t pull any punches as he pitched those apples back at his grandsons. The boys, unable to maneuver easily in the tree, quickly learned the meaning of “as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.” When they called, “Stop, Grandpa, it hurts!” he replied, “Yes, I know it does, but you needed to learn that!” It wasn’t until those hard apples hit their bodies that the boys understood how much their disobedience hurt their grandfather (both physically and emotionally).

This is one of my boys’ favorite stories about their Grandpa. They aren’t mad that he hurled those apples back at them; they’re proud of him for loving them enough to discipline them. They learned a variety of lessons that day and not just that being hit by an apple hurts or never to be caught up a tree. They learned to listen to and obey their grandfather, that disobedience brings reckoning, and that obedience brings rewards (like apple pies). They also learned that their naughtiness grieved their grandfather as much as their punishment hurt them.

We know that Jesus experienced both physical and emotional pain when He walked the earth but what does God the Father experience? As a spirit, without a nervous system, I doubt that He feels physical pain, but what about emotional pain? Does God have feelings? There are two opposing theological schools of thought about this question (the doctrine of impassibility vs. the passibility of God) and a whole lot of middle ground in-between. Not being a theologian, I’m not addressing doctrine. Nevertheless, throughout the Bible, we find examples of God expressing emotions like love, joy, compassion, hate, jealousy, anger and even grief. Like any parent, God’s heart is touched by His children; it seems that He can feel our pain and that we can cause Him pain.

Although Scripture tells us that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love, like the boys’ grandfather, God eventually will get angry. Moreover, Scripture shows us that disobedience aggrieves our heavenly Father as much as an apple on the noggin and my boys’ defiance hurt their grandpa. When we disobey God, disgrace His name, doubt His love, forsake our faith, reject His guidance, choose hate over love or callousness over compassion, we bring sorrow, grief and pain to God. Scripture tells us that God can grieve and the parables of the missing coin, prodigal son, and lost sheep also tell us that God can rejoice. Rather than bringing grief to God, let us always do what pleases Him, for it is in the joy of the Lord that we find strength.

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. … Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. [Ephesians 4:30a, 31-23; 5:10 (NLT)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

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)]

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SUZANNE FROM SINGAPORE

aster - nodding onion - deptford pinkWalk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. [Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)]

Revealing her roots with her English accent, Suzanne told me she lives in Singapore, is the CEO of a foreign corporation, and was taking a holiday at her beach home in southwest Florida. We had a few minutes before class started and, trying to find common ground, I asked if she had any children or grands coming to visit. Replying that her children were still single, Suzanne said she doesn’t much care for children and hoped to never have any grands. After telling me that a young family had recently visited her London apartment, she disclosed her annoyance at the small child who’d touched her priceless antiques and run across her valuable Persian rugs. When Suzanne added that she had no idea how anyone could host guests for more than a few hours without having full time staff, I realized how far her world is from mine and most of the other women present in the room. I’d have to dig deeper to find common ground!

Although dressed beautifully, Suzanne didn’t flaunt her wealth by wearing a Chanel suit, Manolo Blahnik heels, and Harry Winston diamonds to a lunch time Bible study. Her words, however, were equally as ostentatious. Clearly, she is a powerful wealthy woman who lives a privileged life but she seemed oblivious that most of the world doesn’t live her way. I think she would have been surprised to know that I’d just hosted guests for a week without having a maid or cook, that the elderly woman at the next table still works so she can pay for her health insurance, that the woman beside her has been single-handedly caring for her handicapped husband for the last eight years, or that the woman beside me is raising two grandchildren by herself.

While I’m pointing a finger at Suzanne, I’m also pointing three at me. My conversation with her made me realize how often I am unaware and insensitive to other people’s circumstances. Just as I assumed Suzanne would love small children, I often assume other people have the same politics, history, finances, family situation, interests and preferences that I do. Like hers, my words have been patronizing, oblivious, and tactless more times that I care to admit.

I thought about that conversation when reading Paul’s words about seasoning our conversation with salt. Salt makes food palatable and our words should be palatable to all who hear them. Suzanne’s insensitive words were heard by only a few Christian women at Bible study but what if they’d been heard by unbelievers who may not have been so forgiving? What if those unbelievers had judged Christians by her pretentious manner?

A popular piece of advice for speakers is to “know your audience” and businesses spend thousands of dollars in market research to do just that. This sage advice applies to us, as well. Let us remember that we are walking advertisements for Jesus; as His spokespersons, we must be respectful, tactful, kind, humble, and compassionate in our words. When we are finished conversing with people, they should feel that they heard something of value and, more important, that they are valuable both to us and to God.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel. [Carl W. Buehner]

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. … always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:8,15 (NLT)]

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]

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VAMPIRES

vampires and ghoulsBut the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! [Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)]

Tonight, we’ll probably see people costumed as skeletons, pirates, Disney princesses, super heroes, and Harry Potter characters. Although some people may dress as Dracula, no one ever dresses up as an emotional vampire. Unlike fiction’s vampires with their deathly white skin, blood red lips, high collared black capes and fangs, emotional vampires look just like everyone else. Instead of sucking our blood, they suck the life out of us with their self-absorption, selfishness, sense of entitlement, unending drama, defensiveness, lack of boundaries, and other toxic qualities. Once attacked, we’re drained: emotionally exhausted, anxious, depressed, and feeling used and abused.

Unfortunately, being Christians (people filled with the fruit of the Spirit) makes us excellent targets for these predators. Loving God and loving others as ourselves, however, does not mean we have to allow anyone to inject his or her poison into our lives. Turning the other cheek does not mean lying down and getting walked over or enduring unhealthy relationships.

In the old vampire movies, the victim had to invite the vampire inside and we must be wary of doing the same thing with emotional vampires. Jesus’s life was not taken from Him—it was His choice and He willingly gave it up for us. While we can choose to be martyrs for Jesus, we must never allow someone to turn us into martyrs for them. The cross we are asked to carry is ours alone; emotional vampires, however, want us to carry theirs, as well!

Although emotional vampires don’t recognize boundaries, it’s important for us to know and keep ours. Jesus did that when He refused to settle a legal dispute between a man and his brother. [Luke 12:13-14] Like Jesus, we need to know when a mess isn’t ours to fix, the responsibility isn’t ours to take, we’re not the ones at fault, or the demand on us is unreasonable. It’s not easy to deny these bloodsuckers but we must remember that carrying one another’s burdens does not mean taking the blame, getting taken advantage of or being victimized. While enabling people often seems easier in the short run, it is never kinder or wiser. As loving as Jesus was, His exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees tell us He didn’t tolerate or enable bad behavior; neither should we!

We can hand candy to the vampires that knock in our doors tonight but we must never hand our lives to emotional vampires. The only one to whom we are to surrender our lives is Jesus! The Apostle Paul told us, “For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” [Galatians 6:5] That also means we are not responsible for anyone else’s conduct. Rather than using garlic, silver bullets, or wooden stakes, we must remember that walking in love never means getting walked on like a doormat!

No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded. [John 10:18 (NLT)]

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (NLT)]

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LOST IN THE MAZE

All of us like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. [Isaiah 53:6a (NLT)

blue morning gloryWhen visiting my daughter’s family in New Mexico, a trip to the pumpkin farm and navigating through the dreaded corn maze is a fall tradition. I say “dreaded” because I’m so directionally challenged that I’d have trouble finding my way out of a box. Fortunately, my daughter did not inherit my poor sense of direction so, like a good shepherd, she carries the map and leads her flock through the maze. As long as the family is in eyesight, I pay no attention to where we are. Last time out, I saw some beautiful blue morning glories and stopped to take photos. Seeing prettier ones down a path, I went over to them, spotted a butterfly, and started following it through the corn. Before I knew it, my family was nowhere in sight and I was hopelessly lost. In a labyrinth of corn stalks, every path seemed to be a dead end and, having left my phone in the car, I couldn’t even call my daughter! Eventually, hearing someone call my name, I looked up and saw my family standing on a high viewing platform in the middle of the field. From their vantage point, they managed to direct me through the maze until I rejoined them.

In Jesus’s parable of the Good Shepherd, I’d often wondered how that one sheep got lost if the shepherd was properly shepherding; now I know. The shepherd was doing his job by leading and the flock was doing theirs by following, but that one lamb wasn’t paying attention to either of them. Perhaps it found some tasty red clover and, spotting a field of pink vetch, wandered over for a nibble. Maybe, like me, it followed a butterfly and, before the lamb knew what happened, it was all alone. It didn’t mean to stray; it just stopped following the flock and paying attention to the shepherd and, once on its own, the lamb was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the good shepherd went looking for it just as my family looked for me.

It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, not just in mazes and pastures, but in the complicated, bewildering and often perilous world in which we live. Jesus, our Shepherd, wants us to be safe by remaining part of His flock. Unfortunately, instead of morning glories or butterflies, we can get distracted by anything from busyness to boredom, from success to defeat. We don’t mean to stray but things like ambition, popularity, self-importance, doubt, worry, discontent, anger, guilt, or disappointment can sidetrack us. We start to wander and, before we know it, we’re lost and vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. Fortunately, we don’t need a phone to call our Good Shepherd; a simple prayer is all it takes.

Staying connected with other people of faith—people who follow the shepherd and will guide us when we’re lost, encourage us when we’re overwhelmed, and correct us when we make a wrong turn—is vital for our survival. As I discovered in the corn maze, it’s best to stay close to the shepherd and flock: they’re the ones with the map who know where they’re going! On the other hand, as members of the flock, it’s important to notice when a lamb has gone missing.

After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  [John 10:4,16b,27 (NLT)]

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