COMFORT ZONES (Esther – Part 2)

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. [Daniel 9:3 (NLT)]

So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer. [Ezra 8:23 (NLT)]

orchidWhen writing about Esther yesterday, I thought how terrified she must have been when Mordecai asked her to step out of her comfort zone to save the Jews. Even though she was queen, her access to Xerxes was severely limited.  Living secluded in a private chamber in the women’s quarters, she didn’t regularly dine with the king. Powerless, she was the one to be summoned rather than the one who did the summoning and she hadn’t been summoned by Xerxes for a month. She was just one of many beautiful women in the king’s harem and perhaps someone else had caught his eye. The previous queen was banished when she defied the king and Esther could expect nothing less if her presence wasn’t welcomed. The young queen had a simple choice: comfort or courage. She chose courage and saved a nation!

Where did Esther get the courage to defy the law and approach the king? She got it from God! That may seem a strange answer since God isn’t mentioned anywhere in her story. After asking Mordecai to gather together all the Jews in Susa and fast for three days, however, Esther promised that she and her maids would do the same. The beautiful queen wasn’t fasting so she’d fit into her sexiest gown! She was fasting in prayer.

For a Jew, fasting and prayer went hand in hand and, while prayer is not specifically mentioned, it certainly is implied. Fasting combined with prayer was a customary practice in times of grief, distress or repentance. It was a way to seek God’s favor and demonstrate the sincerity of one’s prayers. Although fasting was only demanded on the Day of Atonement, Scripture tells us that the Israelites and people like Ezra, David, Nehemiah, Jehoshaphat, and Daniel all combined fasting with prayer. When Esther and the people of Susa fasted, I have no doubt their fast was accompanied by their heartfelt prayers. Only then did Esther have both a plan and the courage to step out of her comfort zone.

Unlike Esther, we may not be asked to save a nation. Nevertheless, God has a mission for each of us. Because He is far more interested in our growth and obedience than our comfort, God’s mission for us, like Esther’s, usually begins at the end of our comfort zone. How do we move from comfort to courage and from fear to faith?

Like Esther, we could choose to fast. The purpose of fasting is never to change God; its purpose is to change us. A fast helps us take our eyes off the world and focus them on God. While Esther probably fasted from food, a fast also can be from things like gaming, social media, alcohol, television or anything else that takes our mind off God. Although Scripture tells us that Jesus and the early church fasted, it does not demand that Christians fast.

The spiritual practice of fasting is a personal choice for a Christian but prayer is not. Prayer is an act of obedience to God; it is the way we demonstrate our faith. When faced with the choice of comfort or courage, whether or not we choose to fast, we must choose to pray. Prayer is what will enable us to step out of our comfort zone and courageously do God’s work.

Courage is faith that has said its prayers. [AA slogan]

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles. [Psalm 34:4-6 (NLT)]

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INDIFFERENCE (Esther – Part 1)

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]

snowy egretIn 1986, holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” That thought, however, has a longer history. In 1897, in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, these words were spoken: The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” The evil of indifference can be found as far back as 474 BC in the story of Esther and as recently as today in our newspapers.

It’s in the Persian capital of Susa that we find King Xerxes’ “prime minister” Haman (a descendant of Agag from the race of Amalekites) facing off with the Jewish Mordecai (a descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin). The two families had a long history of hatred between them and Mordecai continually refused to bow down to the powerful Haman. Although Jews were permitted to bow down to people out of respect, Mordecai did not respect Haman and no self-respecting descendant of Saul would ever bow before an ancient enemy like an Amalekite. The incensed Haman took their personal animosity to another level by convincing the king that a “certain race” in the empire posed a threat and should be killed. The king was so indifferent to these unidentified people that he never even asked who they were. Xerxes gave Mordecai free rein to do with them and their wealth as he wanted. Written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring, Mordecai sent out an order for the Jews’ extermination to take place March 7.

Although the Jews had their unique dietary laws and customs, they had integrated into the Persian culture. They lived throughout the kingdom and interacted with the Persians daily. Mordecai, for example, had been born in Persia, had a Persian name, was a court official himself, and had even saved the king’s life. The Jews reacted to their extermination date with mourning, but what of the Persians? Scripture tells us that the city of Susa was perplexed but nothing more. There was nearly a year between the edict and execution date but we never read of people approaching the king on behalf of their Jewish friends and neighbors. The nation appeared indifferent to the slaughter of an entire people!

Enlisting Esther’s help, Mordecai asked her to beg the king for mercy. While not exactly indifferent to the Jews’ plight, Esther was more concerned with her safety than theirs. She balked at his request until Mordecai pointed out that the Jewish queen was not exempt from the king’s edict. To quickly summarize: Esther took action, Haman was executed, Mordecai became prime minister, and the Jews were saved.

Xerxes’ indifference to the fate of an entire race, the Persians’ indifference to the massacre of their neighbors, Esther’s initial indifference to her people’s plight, the indifference of Elie Wiesel’s countrymen as Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, the world’s indifference as it looked the other way while millions were exterminated, and our indifference as we witness injustice, genocide, inequality, human trafficking, discrimination, slave labor, and repression in the world today—indifference to wrongs that don’t personally affect us—is, indeed, “the essence of inhumanity.” Let us remember that, like the beautiful queen Esther, we are not exempt from being touched by the world’s evil. Perhaps, like her, we are here “for just such a time as this!” [Esther 4:14]

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [Martin Niemöller]

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need. [Proverbs 21:13 (NLT)]

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ATTENDING TO THE PRESENT

dawnYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT

Jesus once said that Satan was a thief. Satan does not steal money, for he knows that money has no eternal value. He steals only what has eternal value – primarily the souls of men. [Zac Poonen]

C.S. Lewis’ religious satire The Screwtape Letters consists of 31 letters written by the senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of acquiring the soul of a young man. Screwtape’s suggestions of ways to cause the fellow’s damnation could be described as a self-help book in reverse. As the diabolical demon advises Wormwood in methods of temptation, the reader learns Satan’s assorted strategies and ruses and what not to let happen. While walking the other morning, I thought of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood regarding the young man’s focus of attention.

To beat the heat of Southwest Florida, I start my walk while it still is dark. When crossing one of our bridges, the previous night’s full moon was on my left and the coming day’s sunrise on the right. Caught between the day that was and the day yet to come, I thought of Screwtape’s words that God prefers man to be concerned with either the present or eternity rather than yesterday or tomorrow. When in the moment, he is “obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, [or] giving thanks for the present pleasure.”  When considering eternity, he is meditating on God. Wanting neither of those things, Screwtape advises Wormwood to get the young man to live in the frozen past or the unknown future.

Of the two methods, Screwtape prefers getting him to live in the future: either in perpetual anticipation of the rainbow’s end or in constant fear of the horrors tomorrow may bring. Clarifying his point about the future, Screwtape explains that God expects man to make plans but planning for tomorrow’s work actually is today’s duty. God, however, doesn’t want man to place his expectations in the future. Naïve optimism and unrealistic expectations inevitably end in disappointment while anxiety and distress rob the present of joy. Unlike God, the demons want man to be “hagridden by the future” and so obsessed by images of either a surefire windfall or a pending catastrophe that he will be willing to do anything to attain his pipe dream or prevent the disaster. If there ever were a time we’re tempted to live in a pre-pandemic yesterday, ignore reality and view tomorrow with rose-colored glasses, or be so fearful of the future we can’t face it, that time is now. When we focus on yesterday or tomorrow, we’re playing right into our enemy’s hands.

Standing on the bridge, I knew God wanted me to attend to the present—to leave yesterday behind and accept with faith what tomorrow brings. As I walked forward, however, I remembered that He also wants me to attend to eternity—to look beyond time to Him: the Eternal One who holds yesterday, today, tomorrow, and eternity in His loving hands.

God has set Eternity in our heart, and man’s infinite capacity cannot be filled or satisfied with the things of time and sense. [F.B. Meyer]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

mottled duck“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” the bumper sticker asked. That’s the sort of query that used to be posed to beauty pageant contestants. Their answers typically had to do with curing cancer, attaining world peace, or solving the problems of illiteracy, poverty and hunger. Of course, we’d all like to be able to wave a magic wand and solve the world’s difficulties. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

The question, however, continued to intrigue me. Is there something I would do if there was absolutely no possibility of failure? Would I even want to? Would there be joy in achievement if there were no struggles, no hurdles to jump and no problems to solve? There’s no sense of victory in playing a game when the opponent doesn’t present a challenge. The value of a diploma would be cheapened if we never had to study for final exams. The sense of satisfaction at a job well done would be diminished if we never had the possibility of failure. Failure is part of God’s training plan. The risk of failure brings us closer to God and reminds us that we can do nothing without faith in Him.

When Paul wrote the Philippians that he could do all things through Christ, did he mean he would be successful in every endeavor? Rather than a statement of self-reliance or guaranteed success, Paul was declaring his reliance on Christ. He wasn’t denying the possibility of adverse circumstances or failure; he was affirming his faith.

If we knew we couldn’t fail in an endeavor, we’d have no need for faith. Furthermore, the possibility of success or failure should never keep us from obediently following God’s direction. While the risk of failure should never stop us, lack of faith will.  As long as His Spirit is in us and we are walking in His footsteps, whether we succeed or fail, we will not fail the test of faith!

What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? Exactly what I’m doing now—sometimes successfully and other times not, but always in obedience to Him.

Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter. [Francis Chan]

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

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TWO MISTAKES

After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. [Luke 2:43-44 (NIV)]

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” [John 20:15 (NIV)]

spiderwortEvery year, Jesus and His family went to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Passover. Entire villages would travel together and the city was jam packed with worshipers when they departed for Nazareth. The men probably traveled apart from the women and children. Jesus, being twelve and no longer a little boy but not yet a man, could have been with either group. Perhaps Mary thought Him with the men while Joseph thought He was with the children. They didn’t know Jesus wasn’t there until they stopped that night. Moving with the crowd, his parents had mistakenly presumed His presence.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the crowd’s movement that we fail to make sure Jesus is with us on our journey. We forget that it is the sheep who follow the shepherd and not the other way around. It took Joseph and Mary three days before they found Jesus in His Father’s house doing His Father’s business. Let us learn from them and look there for Him first. Be reassured; it’s never too late to turn back. If we seek Him, He will be found!

On the other hand, some people thought Jesus was absent when He was right in front of them. Never expecting to see a risen Christ, the tearful Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was the gardener. The two walking to Emmaus were unable to recognize the risen Christ because they were in a heated discussion (the Greek word was syzetein  meaning “strong debate”) about the meaning of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. Focusing on their sorrow, fear, doubt and confusion, Mary and the travelers didn’t realize they were in His presence!

Even though Jesus is right beside us, there are times in our lives we can’t recognize Him because we’re not looking for Him. Rather than seeking a resurrected Jesus, Mary just wanted to anoint a dead body and the two travelers were looking for answers rather than the Savior. Let’s never settle for anything less than seeing the risen Christ.

There are two mistakes we can make about Jesus: we can think He’s present when we’ve gone off without Him and we can think He’s absent when He’s right beside us. Let’s not make either mistake!

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NIV)]

Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. [Psalm 9:10 (NIV)]

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)]

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THE ARTIST

And yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be?” [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

horseSeveral years ago, while spending the winter in the mountains, our morning walk took us by an art gallery. We frequently stopped to chat with the owner, look at the latest acquisitions and watch the progress of a local sculptor who had set up shop in the gallery. Working in clay, he was crafting the model for what would eventually be a cast bronze sculpture. As the final shape began to emerge, the artist continued to tweak it with small changes, a little pinch here or a small adjustment there, each time making it a better representation of a cowboy and his string of horses. Envisioning the final product and assured that it was nearly ready for casting, my husband and I made a pre-cast purchase of the piece.

We returned to our Midwest home and waited for the bronze to be completed. Nearly a year later, the gallery informed us that the piece remained a work in progress. They offered us a refund and, impatient and unsure of ever seeing the completed work, we accepted. Two years later, we walked into another mountain gallery and saw the finished piece. While the original concept was still recognizable, the beautiful final product was different (and better) than what we’d expected (and we regretted our impatience).

Works of art rarely are created overnight; they require time and fine-tuning. God, like the unhurried sculptor, doesn’t rush as He works on us. Wanting a masterpiece, He isn’t going to complete us in a few months and the process of sanctification goes on for a lifetime. There is always something in us that needs some modification, even if it means a little squeezing, twisting or pulling one way or another. Just as my husband and I couldn’t visualize exactly how the completed sculpture would look, we’re never quite sure what it is God has in plan for us or how He is going to accomplish it.

Although we didn’t trust the sculptor’s skill, we must trust in God’s heavenly artistry as His expert hands do their holy work on us. While the artist eventually was satisfied enough to cast his work in bronze, God is never quite finished with us; we remain a work in progress until our very last day.

Let us be clay in His hands!

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)]

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