PATIENT ENDURANCE

Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised. [Hebrews 10:36 (NLT)]

giesbach falls - switzerlandWhile France was in lockdown because of COVID-19, French marathon runner Elisha Nochomovitz ran a solo marathon on his 26-foot apartment balcony. Having to make around 3,000 laps meant Nochomovitz was unable to get momentum or gain any speed before he had to turn around again. Finding it harder than any other race he’d run, it took the runner six hours and 48 minutes (more than double his usual time) to complete the 26.2 miles. Struggling with self-doubt, he imagined an open window through which someone was telling him he couldn’t finish. Rather than listen, however, he closed that window. “In the end,” said the runner, “it’s only about the mind!” Nochomovitz showed endurance!

The book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians some time before 70 AD. Although they’d successfully weathered previous adversity, including public ridicule, beatings, seizure of their property and even imprisonment, they seemed to be facing another wave of even more severe persecution. Beginning to lose heart, the Hebrews were listening to their minds’ voices shouting from the windows and telling them to quit and these early believers were contemplating leaving the Messiah Jesus and returning to Judaism.

Two weeks after Elisha Nochomovitz ran that balcony marathon, he ran another one. The endurance and confidence developed in his first run helped him in the next and, in spite of adding five miles to its length, he cut his time by two hours. Instead of listening to the inner voice of discouragement, Nochomovitz heard his neighbors cheering him on from their balconies.

After warning the uncertain Hebrews that turning their back on Jesus came dangerously close to apostasy, the letter’s writer told them that, “We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved.” [10:39] Reminding his readers of the endurance they’d developed during their first trials, he gave them a rundown of more than a dozen examples of faith from the Hebrew Scriptures. After holding up Jesus as the prime example of faithful endurance, the writer assured them of a cheering section of Biblical heroes whose lives proved that perseverance and endurance in a believer are doable!

The Christian life is more like a marathon than a short sprint and every challenge is an opportunity to increase our endurance. When we hear the voices of discouragement, doubt or fear, like Nochomovitz, we must shut the window on them. Let us look instead to the examples of those who’ve gone before us and hear the witnesses of faith cheering us forward to finish the race!

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. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. [Hebrews 12:1-3 (NLT)]

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HE EXISTS

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. [Genesis 1:31 (NLT)]

The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation. [Psalm 145:9 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronPeople often argue against God’s existence because of evil and suffering. With so much that is wrong in the world, they question how there could there be a god. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was once an atheist who reasoned that such a cruel and unjust world proved the absence of God until he questioned where he got the idea of what was good or evil, just or unjust. He realized that something cannot be wrong or evil unless there is standard for what is right or good. In a universe with no God, there would be no standard for justice or injustice, good or evil, right or wrong: simply personal preferences. That standard, Lewis realized, is rooted in God. As a result, the very argument he used against God’s existence provided Lewis with proof of His presence!

Nevertheless, acceptance of God’s existence in a world with evil leads people to question how this loving God of ours could allow so much of it in the world. Unable to see how a loving, good and powerful God can coexist in world so filled with pain and suffering, people often ascribe any evil that befalls to God but none of the good. Granted, bad things happen but, if they’re used as evidence against a good God, then all of the good things that occur must be considered as evidence for Him!

The preponderance of the evidence tells us that there are more years of rain than drought, more harvests than famine, more fair weather days than hurricanes, more love than hate, and pandemics are not a regular occurrence. On a more personal level, I’ve encountered evil, injury and pain and, if I were asked to make a list of the suffering in my life, I could. But, if asked to record the good things I’ve experienced, I couldn’t—simply because there would be far too many to list! I’ve avoided more accidents than I’ve been in, favorable circumstances have aligned more often than not, more good people than bad have touched my life, my joys outweigh my sorrows, and God has accompanied me through every dark valley I’ve traversed. Moreover, I’d probably have to cross off most (or all) of the items on the list of bad things because God redeemed them by bringing good out of the pain and suffering.

When life feels anything but good, it’s easier to focus on evil and suffering than to remember that God is good. Yes, we live in a fallen world but it’s not the world God intended; our good God did not create evil and suffering. When man chose to disobey in Eden, both moral and natural evil entered into what was a perfect world. God may allow evil but it is our free will that has made it possible. We can’t hold God responsible for our mistakes.

Non-believers and believers alike wrestle with how a good loving God can allow the presence of evil and suffering. Nevertheless, the existence of suffering doesn’t negate God. In fact, it is God’s existence that gives meaning to our pain and suffering! We’ll never fully understand it. Nevertheless, when I think about those two lists and all that God has done for me, I know that God exists and that He is good!

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. [James 1:17 (NLT)]

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IT’S A PROMISE!

Jenny Lake - Grand TetonsIf we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is. [2 Timothy 2:13 (NLT)]

When I first read the above verse in a daily meditation book, I felt reassured; even if I’m unfaithful to Jesus, He’ll remain faithful to me. Wondering if my interpretation was correct and suspecting the verse might have been taken out of context, I looked at the preceding lines: “If we die with him, we will also live with him. If we endure hardship, we will reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us.” [2:11-12] Probably part of an early Christian hymn emphasizing the believer’s union with Christ, when put in context with, “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is,” we have a different meaning. Paul was echoing Jesus’ own words of warning: “But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” [Matthew 10:33] Jesus cannot deny who He is; if we deny Him, He will remain faithful to His word and deny us.

But what of Peter? He denied Jesus three times and Jesus certainly didn’t deny him! Again I looked to the context: “If we die with him, we will also live with him. If we endure hardship, we will reign with him.” Rather than speaking of Christ followers who may have a temporary failing like that of Peter, Paul is speaking of those who have rejected Jesus and denied Him, as did Judas. When Peter denied knowing Jesus that night so long ago, he hadn’t stopped loving the Lord or having faith in Him. Yes, he failed Jesus but let us remember that God’s grace is greater than our human weaknesses. We all have unwavering faith until it is tested and, like Peter, we may fail when it is sorely tested. God, in His mercy forgave Peter, and He will forgive us.

Rather than words of cheer, Paul’s words are a serious warning for those who reject Jesus as Lord! Jesus can’t be false to himself. For the unbelieving and unfaithful, Christ will remain true to his word; no matter their works or virtue, if people have denied Him, He will deny them. Just as Jesus makes good on all of his promises, He’ll follow through on his threats, as well. Not so comforting a thought after all!

Since no man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is open to all. There is nothing else to hinder us from entering, but our own unbelief. [John Calvin]

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16 (NLT)]

Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven. [Matthew 10:32-33 (NLT)]

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THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

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)]

In another Pearls before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), we see Goat, in the middle of the desert, on the phone with Rat. “My car broke down and I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere. Can you help me?” asks Goat. “Sure,” answers Rat, “I’m sending you thoughts and prayers.” In the last frame, Rat says to Pig, “It’s so much easier than getting up.”

Following Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in 2017, I saw a meme of an empty cargo truck with the words, “Don’t worry Texas! The first load of thoughts and prayers just arrived!” Let’s face it, thoughts and prayers don’t help people in the same way that donating blood, packing supplies, or sending money, clothing, food, or clean water do. But, as Rat said to Pig, sending thoughts and prayers is “so much easier than getting up!”

The old cliché doesn’t even make sense. Although we can think about someone, how do we send them our thoughts? Does it involve telepathy or clairvoyance? Sending anyone other than God our prayers seems an awful lot like idolatry and promised prayers frequently never materialize. I suspect that the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan told the injured traveler he was sending thoughts and prayers before departing and leaving the man half dead beside the road. Rather than promising thoughts and prayers, it was the Samaritan who compassionately served the man’s needs.

Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer but He also was a man who turned His thoughts and prayers into action! Rather than sending thoughts and prayers to the widow of Nain, He returned her son to life! Instead of sending thoughts and prayers to the man with the deformed hand, the ten lepers, or blind Bartimaeus, Jesus healed them! He didn’t send thoughts and prayers to His mother when she ran out of wine in Cana or to Martha and Mary when Lazarus lay in the tomb. When the disciples said the crowd was hungry, rather than telling them to send the people home with their thoughts and prayers, He said, “Feed them.” Whether an observant Jew, collaborating tax collector, Roman centurion, adulterer, demoniac, or Samaritan, Jesus never responded to their suffering simply by sending thoughts and prayers.

Since seeing that meme in 2017, I no longer say that I’m sending my thoughts and prayers but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about and praying for those who are suffering. It’s that I know I am called to do more. Prayer without action is as incomplete as faith without works. While we may not be able to reach out and personally impact the lives of those for whom we pray, we can pray for those who are serving them. As we pray for others, we find our hearts and eyes are opened not only to their needs but also to the needs of those right in front of us—the people whose lives we can change. We can reach out and touch them in some small way, even if it’s with cans of soup for the food bank, shopping for a neighbor, or talking with someone whose skin is a different color than ours.

Right now, our fallen world is filled with pain, anger, disease, hate, hopelessness, and sorrow. Economic wreckage, racism, a pandemic, and political unrest have come together in a perfect storm that is raining chaos, fear, frustration and violence. In Sunday’s Op-Ed for The Washington Post, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, said, “We must still choose love.” That love consists of more than sending thoughts and prayers. Instead of sending thoughts, I’m examining my own thoughts and attitudes to determine whether I am part of the problem or can become part of the solution. In addition to praying for the those who are hurting, afraid, angry, or troubled, I am praying that God will show us all how to participate in the healing so necessary in this troubled time. After asking what love looks like, the Bishop answered his own question: ”I believe that is what Jesus of Nazareth taught us. It looks like the Biblical Good Samaritan, an outsider who spends his time and money healing somebody he doesn’t know or even like.”

The following is a prayer for “the power of the Spirit among the people of God.” Written by a team of Lutheran and Episcopal prayer leaders, it is meant to unite believers in common prayer and revive us for a common mission. Let that mission be one of love.

God of all power and love, we give thanks for your unfailing presence and the hope you provide in times of uncertainty and loss. Send your Holy Spirit to enkindle in us your holy fire. Revive us to live as Christ’s body in the world: a people who pray, worship, learn, break bread, share life, heal neighbors, bear good news, seek justice, rest and grow in the Spirit. Wherever and however we gather, unite us in common prayer and send us in common mission, that we and the whole creation might be restored and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. [1 John 4:10-12 (NLT)]

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THE LEIDENFROST EFFECT

I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me? [Psalm 56:4 (NLT)]

leidenfrost effect

Two businessmen were touring a foundry. When they entered the smelting area with its vats of molten metal, their guide said it was possible to safely pour that hot metal over someone’s hand if the hand was first dipped into water. When he asked if either gentleman cared to give it a try, the first man said, “I’ll just take your word for it.” The second man agreed and dipped his hand in a tub of water. When the molten metal was poured over the wet hand, it streamed off without causing him pain or injury. Although the first man said he believed the guide, the second one showed his faith in the man by acting on his belief.

Because of something called the Leidenfrost Effect, you really can dip your hand into water and then pour a stream of molten metal over it without pain or injury; a tiny layer of steam would insulate and protect your damp hand from the hot metal. Just because we could do it, however, doesn’t mean we should. The effect is short lived and I don’t suggest trying it at home!

I understand the Leidenfrost Effect and have seen it demonstrated; in theory, I believe in it. In actuality, however, I’d never trust it enough to give it a try! I’m like the Israelites during the Exodus. Although they witnessed God’s power over and over again in the plagues God visited on Egypt and when they safely crossed the Red Sea, saw the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, drank sweet water that once was bitter, gathered both quail and manna from heaven, and saw water spring from a rock, they continued to doubt. In spite of God demonstrating the truth of His promises throughout their journey, the Israelites spurned the God of miraculous provision while camped at Kadesh by refusing to enter Canaan, the land He’d promised to them. How much proof did they need that God would be true to them? Sometimes, even seeing isn’t enough to truly believe and trust.

It’s easy to have faith when the outcome is known. Our challenge is to believe and trust when the outcome is unknown or there is an element of risk, such as third degree burns or formidable foes. Because the power to believe a promise depends on our faith in the one who makes the promise, I wouldn’t have trusted the factory guide enough to put my wet hand under molten metal and, without trusting that God would be true to His promises, the Israelites wouldn’t obey Him!

Unlike the Israelites, do we have faith in the One who guides us through life? In the end, the difference between intellectual belief and actual faith is a willingness to take action: to step out in obedience. We have more proof of God’s faith, love, and power in Scripture than all the YouTube videos about the Leidenfrost Effect. Yet, there are many who probably would place their damp hands under molten metal before trusting their unknown fate to a known God! Isaac Watts said, “I believe the promises of God enough to venture an eternity on them.” What about you? Who do you trust? In whose hands have you rested your fate?

God never made a promise that was too good to be true. [Dwight L. Moody]

For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. [Psalm 33:4 (NLT)]

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

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A TERRIBLE TEMPTATION

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

The BadlandsWhile some of us may have become couch-potatoes during his time of sheltering in place, that’s not truly the sin of sloth. Thought of as one of the seven “deadly sins,” sloth originally was two sins: acedia (meaning absence of care) and trisitia (meaning sorrow). A 4th century monk, Evagrius of Ponticus, listed them (along with gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vainglory, and pride) as the “terrible temptations” of life. Acedia and sadness were seen as particularly dangerous threats to the ascetic life of a monk living in the Egyptian desert, as was Evagrius. The monks easily could grow despondent, lonely, weary or discontented as they prayed, fasted, and labored in their harsh and isolated setting.

While not in a desert monastery, the new normal of COVID-19 can seem as desolate as one and tempt us with sloth’s spiritual lethargy. With the pandemic’s disruption of routine—the unstructured time, depressing news, monotony, isolation, financial challenges, uncertainty, and loss of purpose and community—acedia and tristia can set in as it did for those ancient monks. We may experience worry or fear, dullness to our prayers, emptiness in our hearts, unproductive study, an inability to give thanks in all things, and even apathy toward God’s word. Joy can seem but a distant memory.

Unlike wrath, lust or greed, sloth is subtle and difficult to spot until it has taken hold. During a dark time several years ago I struggled with sloth. Calling it compassion fatigue, I was emotionally spent and felt hopeless, discouraged, and despondent. I imagine I’m not the only person facing this “terrible temptation” again today.

Jesus told us the most important commandment was to love God but sloth keeps us from doing that. It makes us focus on ourselves and our emptiness rather than God and His abundance. When discussing this sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God.” Sloth’s rejection of God’s gift is like a slap in His face—it’s no wonder Evagrius called it a “terrible temptation.”

David’s psalms indicate that he frequently experienced spiritual emptiness. In Psalm 13, we find him asking God, “How long?” not once, but four times in a row! Having lost the sense that God was there, life felt like an endless struggle; troubled and discouraged, he’d begun to doubt God’s plan. Yet, after asking God to “restore the sparkle to my eyes,” [13:4] he finished the psalm with words of trust and even joy.

In times like these, the enemy tries to steal our zeal, keep us from experiencing the joy of the Lord, and sabotage our sense of purpose with spiritual lethargy and inner emptiness. Whether or not sloth will be allowed to linger, however, is our choice. Like David, let us trust in God (even when it seems He isn’t there) and persevere in praying for relief from our emptiness and despair. He will restore the sparkle to our eyes!

But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me. [Psalm 13:5-6 (NLT)]

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. [Psalm 28:7 (NLT)]

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