TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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THE ANCHOR

So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. [Hebrews 6:18-19 (NLT)]

duluth MN harbor - anchorThe sign in front of a nearby church read, “Our hope is anchored in the Lord,” which got me thinking about anchors. I’d never given them much thought until we took a Windjammer cruise off the coast of Maine many years ago. Accompanied by four friends and a crew of two, we sailed for a week. At dusk, we’d lower the sails and anchor in a harbor for the night. After breakfast, we’d pull up anchor for another relaxing day of sailing by lighthouses, granite cliffs, fishing villages, and even a few seals. One day, however, gale force winds replaced the gentle breeze and the calm sea turned violent. The sky darkened as rain and hail poured down on us. We immediately pulled into the nearest inlet, lowered the sails, and dropped two anchors to keep from being blown into the rocks! If we’d had two more anchors (as did the sailors in Acts 27), I suspect we would have dropped them, as well. After donning my life jacket and slicker, all I could do was pray and hope those anchors held. You really don’t appreciate the worth of an anchor until you’ve needed one in a storm!

Since the anchor symbolized hope in the ancient secular world, the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews would have understood the author’s use of the anchor as a metaphor for hope. It is a vivid picture of what keeps us steady and safe in the storms of life—times of trial, danger, hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. An anchor, however, is only as secure as that to which it is fastened. The anchor of hope is not buried in sand or hooked onto a rock that might pull loose. The believer’s hope in Christ is secure, because it is fixed in the very presence of the Almighty.

When the epistle writer says that hope “leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary,” he’s referring to the Holy of Holies—the inner room of the Temple holding the Ark of the Covenant. Only the high priest could go into this holy place (anyone else would be killed). The priest entered just one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only to offer a blood sacrifice. The Holy of Holies was the special dwelling place of God and the curtain emphasized His inaccessibility because of man’s sins. When Jesus died, the curtain tore in half, symbolizing that the way to God was now open to all.

Just as a boat’s anchor holds it safely in position, a Christian’s hope keeps him safe and secure. Like an anchor, God will keep us steady in the storms of life—when the wind of fear blows, suffering rains down, opposition crashes into us, trials threaten us, and uncertainty rocks us to and fro. A boat’s anchor goes down and digs into the bottom of the sea but a Christian’s hope goes up to the heavenly sanctuary and attaches itself to God!

What an anchor is to a vessel in its tossings, so the hope is to us in our times of trial, difficulty and stress. The anchor is outside the ship, is connected with it, and keeps it secure. [W.E. Vine]

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. [Hebrews 10:23 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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JOB’S LAMENT (Part 2)

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest. [Psalm 22:1-2 (RSV)]

taos NMYesterday, I wrote about Job’s lamentation. 19th century bible scholar George Granville Bradley said this about Job 3: “Where in the world will you find a sadder strain of more hopeless, uncontrolled, and unbroken lamentation and mourning? … Filled to the brim, they run over with pain.” I have to agree.

Nevertheless, as sad as that chapter is, there is beauty in its words. Job’s anguished speech lets us know that it’s okay to express our emotions. It tells us that God doesn’t expect us to stoically maintain silence in the face of tragedy and pain. Job’s words, like those in the many psalms of lament, are the anguished cries of a faithful believer—someone who can uninhibitedly express his pain and grief to God.

Job’s lament, however, is not a laundry list of grievances. He’s not complaining about his sudden poverty, that no one will carry on his name, his loss of status, or going into gory detail about his physical maladies and grumbling that scraping his skin with potsherds brings no relief. Rather than an account of his misery, grief, and misfortune, his is simply a cry to escape his suffering. When God finally speaks to Job, He doesn’t take the man to task for his honesty in pouring out his deepest emotions; it is for accusing God of acting unjustly and questioning His wisdom.

Faith in God and despair in our situation are not incompatible. Out of the 150 psalms, one third are considered psalms of lament. Considered a man after God’s heart, David is credited with writing 73 psalms and many of those are laments. Clearly, ours is a God who allows us to be brutally honest with Him as we voice our anger, distress, fear, anguish, frustration, doubt, shame, heartache, and disappointment.

For some unknown reason, David felt that God has abandoned him in Psalm 22 and he echoed Job’s question of “why?” These same words were repeated by Jesus as He hung on the cross and, in His torment, cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Jesus was sinless, which means His anguished words were not sinful; feeling God is absent is not the same as believing it. Like Job and David, Jesus was calling out to God in His misery but their words of lament didn’t mean they’d lost faith in God. They wouldn’t have called out to God in their despair had they not believed their words would reach God’s ears!

As happened with Job, one moment it can seem like God is smiling down at our lives when, suddenly, life goes down the tubes and it seems like God has turned His back on us. Feeling abandoned and alone in our suffering and sorrow, we must never be afraid to express our heartfelt emotions to the God who created us with the ability to have those very emotions! Dark and silent brooding turns us inward and away from God while expressing our shock, grief, and despair turns us outward toward Him!

Let us never be hesitant to approach the Lord in our tears and despondency. A child instinctively calls out to a parent when he’s hurting, sick, frightened, or lost; we should be no different. Rather than a denial of our Father in Heaven, a lament directed toward Him is both a plea for help and an affirmation of His presence and power.

Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. [Psalm 55:22 (RSV)]

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. [1 Peter:5:6-7 (RSV)]

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CURSE THE DAY! (Part 1)

Curse that day for failing to shut my mother’s womb, for letting me be born to see all this trouble. Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? [Job 3:10-11 (NLT)]

baby feetAfter Satan took Job’s loved ones and wealth, the grieving man remained a pillar of patience and faith. Rather than blaming God, the stoic man acknowledged God’s sovereign authority saying, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” [1:21]

Things took a turn for the worse when Satan attacked Job’s body. With boils from head to foot, Job’s body was covered with scabs, pus oozed from his sores, his skin was black and peeling, and maggots fed on him. As if that weren’t enough, the man suffered from insomnia, nightmares, fever, and pain in his bones. His symptoms sound as horrific and deadly as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever.

When Job’s wife told him to curse God and die, the faithful man responded, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” [2:10] Although he seemed resigned to his fate, the despondent Job came dangerously close to falling into Satan’s trap when, in Job 3, he questioned God’s wisdom in giving him life.

I can understand someone like Job, someone suffering terribly who sees no end to the misery, wishing for a quick end to his life and praying for the release offered by death. What I find difficult to understand is Job’s wish that he’d never been born. Cursing the day of his birth and the night of his conception, the despairing man literally wished his life erased from its existence.

Until Satan’s attack, Job’s life appears to have been picture perfect for decades. With his many servants and more than 10,000 head of livestock, he was the richest man around. The father of seven sons and three daughters, he probably had numerous grandchildren. The family regularly gathered together for long feasts so they must have enjoyed each other’s company. A prominent man, well-respected in the community, Job was principled, generous and charitable. In spite of having everything his heart desired, Job’s heart remained set on God and the Lord called him, “the finest man on earth…blameless…a man of complete integrity.” [1:8] Yet, by cursing his very existence, Job wanted to obliterate all the blessings and joy that existed between his birth and his affliction.

In his pain, Job forgot about growing up in a loving home, playing with his brothers and sisters, the bliss of young love, the wonder of touching his wife’s belly and feeling his unborn child move, the delight of holding his children in his arms, the laughter of his family, the satisfaction that came from being able to right a wrong or help the poor, and the joy of bouncing a grandchild on his knee. If he’d never been born, he would have missed sunrises and sunsets, the taste of grapes, the sound of birds’ songs, the pleasure of a kiss, and the joy of praising the Lord. Although Job began his story as a sterling example of accepting of God’s will when disaster strikes, cracks developed in his spirit as his suffering intensified.

Job’s outburst of despair, however, does not mean that Satan won. While Job cursed his day of birth, he never cursed God. Moreover, even though he wondered why people who longed for death continued to live, Job never considered suicide. Because he operated on a false retribution theology, Job believed that God had forsaken him. Rather than losing faith in God, he lost faith in himself.

For many of us, these last several months have challenged our physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial resources and, like Job, we may feel overwhelmed by all that has beset us. Job lost perspective; let us not do the same. God did not forsake Job and He has not forsaken you! We must never forget our past blessings or rue the day of our birth. After all, had we never been given life, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know Jesus, be born again, or enjoy eternal life!

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 43:5 (NLT)]

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THE RACE (Hebrews 12:1-2 – Part 1)

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. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. [Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)]

peonyIn a recent Pearls Before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), Rat asked Pig if he would be getting out of bed that day. Replying no, the sweet little swine explained, “I fear the big bad world and want no part of it.” When Rat told him he couldn’t stay in bed forever, Pig disagreed. “I have a bed, a bathroom, and a food delivery app that I’ve asked to just throw my food through the window.” In the next frame, we see Rat snug in bed with his friend and asking to borrow a pillow. I understand. There certainly are days in this crazy world of ours that we’d all prefer to just snuggle under the covers and never have to get up to face the challenges of the day, especially if DoorDash would deliver bedside. That, however, is not an option.

In Hebrews 12, the writer compares the Christian life to a footrace. Agōna is the Greek word used for race and means contest or struggle. If the word looks familiar, it’s because agōna is the source of our English word agony, meaning torment, intense mental or physical suffering (and even torture). Our race is not meant to be a life spent safe in bed. Rather than a fifty-yard dash, the Christian’s life is more like one of those mud obstacle races in which people roll in muddy pits, wade through ice water, haul heavy sand bags, leap over fire, climb ropes and nets, scale giant walls, and army-crawl under barbed wire. There’s going to be some agony!

Unlike Pig and Rat, we don’t have to drop out of the race because we think it’s too challenging. We know that perseverance in trouble is doable because of the great cloud of witnesses who actually did it: people like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. None of them knew when their severe trials would be over and yet they continued their journeys in faith.

It’s not just in Scripture that we find these witnesses. Serving in India for 41 years without ever taking a furlough, missionary William Carey preached for seven years before he baptized his first Hindu convert. Then, after laboring twenty years translating Scripture into several Indian languages, all of his work went up in flames when a fire tore through his printing plant and warehouse. Yet, Carey faithfully endured as did Corrie ten Boom, who lived through the hell of a Nazi concentration camp but survived to tell her story of unfaltering faith and hope in God. In spite of being a quadriplegic for over 53 years and enduring chronic pain and two bouts of cancer, evangelist, author, and advocate Joni Eareckson Tada continues to run God’s race (only from a wheelchair). The many months of a pandemic, political unrest, and financial challenges seem like a walk in the park compared to what others have undergone before us.

Lord, as this new year begins, guide us so that we look not to the long course or rough track, not to our own strength or to the strength of the enemy, but to only to you and the examples of those who faithfully ran or continue to run the race you set before them. Rather than listening to the discouraging voices of the world around us, let us hear your voice of encouragement and hope. Give us strength to endure the race you’ve given us and the vision to see past our struggles.

 If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest. [Corrie ten Boom]

Dear brothers and sisters, 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. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

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