TRUE LOVE

Love never gives up. Love never cares more for others than for self. Loves 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)]

8-19-1967When I married my husband, I was only twenty years old. Although I would never have admitted it then, I had no real concept of what true love actually entailed or the seriousness of the vows I was taking. Standing in front of a minister and 200 guests, I promised to “love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health” and to forsake all others. I vowed, from that day forward, to “have and to hold…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and to love and cherish him until we parted at death. I said those words without the vaguest understanding of just how bad “for worse” could get or how little money “for poorer” might be. I didn’t consider that sickness would mean much more than a case of the flu or how long it could be until death would separate us. Having known each other for less than a year when we wed, neither of us had any idea how difficult it actually is to cherish someone whose words or actions hurt us or with whom we disagree. I doubt we’re the only ones who entered into marriage so naively.

Today is our anniversary and, in the fifty-two years since our wedding day, we’ve experienced good and not so good times, periods of plenty and sparseness, illness and well-being, tragedy and joy, fullness and emptiness, anger and forgiveness, excitement and tedium, labor and leisure, turmoil and peace, discontent and satisfaction. We know from experience that it’s not always easy to love, comfort, honor, forsake, and cherish.

We used to joke that we only stayed together because of the children (neither of us wanted custody of them) and the grands (neither of us would risk losing them)! But, that isn’t it. Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were read at our wedding and those words have guided us ever since that day. Early in our marriage, we realized that love is more than a feeling; it isn’t something one falls into or out of. Love is a conscious choice and one we choose to make every day. None of us are loveable all of the time; we can, however, choose to be loving all of the time!

Father in heaven, let your love fill our hearts and lives. Thank you for giving us people to love, comfort, honor, and cherish. Thank you also for placing people in our lives who somehow manage to love, comfort, honor and cherish us, as well. Shower your blessings upon them.

O God … look mercifully upon these thy servants, that they may love, honour, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and of peace. [From the Solemnization of Matrimony in “The Book of Common Prayer” (1952)]

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13b (MSG)]

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BROKEN

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins..…Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me—now let me rejoice.…The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. [Psalm 51:1,7-8, 17 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailI showed the antique dealer the old silver tray we’d found at an antique store many years ago. Having just read Stephanie Kallo’s novel Broken for You, I’d been drawn to it. Hers was a story of secrets and redemption that told of how two women salvaged their brokenness, first by smashing priceless antique porcelain pieces that had been stolen from Jews during the Holocaust, and then by repurposing the fragments into beautiful mosaics. The novel was an homage to the beauty of broken people and broken things. The tray’s handle had been damaged and soldered back on and I imagine much of the silver plate had worn off its top. It was, however, a thing of beauty because it had been artistically covered with broken pieces of antique painted china. The dealer told me that artists often come into her shop looking for chipped pieces of decorative porcelain. Because they plan on breaking it to use in jewelry or mosaics like my tray, they don’t mind chips or cracks.

Since it was our anniversary weekend, my husband and I had purchased that tray as our gift to one another. The repaired tray, with its broken pieces of china, was a reminder that things don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. When I looked at the tray this time, however, the words from Psalm 51 telling us that God desires a broken spirit came into my mind. The psalm records David’s repentance regarding his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. By bringing his broken and contrite heart to God, he was made clean and whole again.

Seeing the value in old but damaged china, those mosaic artists won’t reject it when they see it in the antique store and, seeing our value (no matter how damaged we are), God welcomes sincere repentant sinners who come to Him. Knowing that, in spite of our many flaws, we are precious, He salvages and repairs us. Rather than hitting us with a hammer or tossing us at a wall, God chips away at our pride, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, stubbornness, rebellion, and other sinful habits with His word, Spirit, and circumstances. Then, instead of taking our fragmented bits and using solder, glue, and grout to reassemble us, God takes our broken, humble and repentant selves and restores us. Indeed, because of His mercy and grace, with clean hearts and right spirits, we can become things of beauty.

Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely. … He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. [Dieter F. Uchtdorf]

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:9 (NLT)]

“Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” [Isaiah 1:18 (NLT)]

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DINGS AND DENTS

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! [John 20:19-20 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtail - butterflyWe’re selling our northern home and, as I packed up assorted family heirlooms, I came across the little sterling silver salt and pepper shakers we used for so many years. I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others; it had distinct teeth marks on it. For reasons that are unknown, my eldest child tried to bite through it. In spite of its obvious imperfection (or, perhaps because of it), the shaker is still beautiful. I’d wondered which child should get these silver pieces but, after remembering their history, I lovingly wrapped them up and placed them in my son’s box. I only hope his family will find the impressions of his baby teeth as beautiful as do I.

As I sorted through other family silver, I came to the sterling candle holders that were a wedding gift to my parents some 82 years ago. Like the salt and pepper set, they show their age with a few dents and scratches. My parent’s marriage, like the candle holders, wasn’t perfect but it endured through every circumstance. I decided to keep the candle sticks with our things as a reminder both to forgive and appreciate the beauty in imperfection.

I thought of Jesus’s scars as I packed up the dented silver. Our resurrected Lord carried the scars from his wounds. Yet, since He could pass through a locked door, He easily could have removed those wounds in his hands and side. Jesus’s scars let the disciples know who He was and our scars are an essential part of our identity, as well.

Like Jesus, we all bear scars, both inside and out. Like my silver, we have dings and dents and are a little (or a whole lot) tarnished. Just as the imperfections on my old silver tell a story, so do our scars. The scar from a C-section tells of blessings received while the scar from a hysterectomy tells of the loss of possibilities. The scars from a burn tell the story of injury and pain while the scars from open heart surgery tell of getting a new lease on life. Some scars, like those left from a divorce, a loved one’s death, or addiction, are invisible but tell their own tale, as well. Scars, dings and dents are simply evidence of things that didn’t defeat us; they are our beautiful trophies of survival and healing. Death did not conquer Jesus and, though God’s grace, life’s challenges cannot conquer us.

My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. [Steve Goodier]

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus. [Galatians 6:17 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL FATHER (Part 2 – Luke 15:11-32)

Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]

When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.

The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?

Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.

From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!

When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL SON (Part 1 – Luke 15:11-32)

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. … At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance. [Sirach 33:19-20,23 (RSVCE)]

If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control. [Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra viii.7)]

great blue heronThrough His parables, Jesus related profound spiritual truths in stories that were easily understood and relevant to his listeners. Although Jesus’s original audience often didn’t like His message, they clearly knew what He was saying. Because of the vast cultural differences between our world and 1st century Palestine, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the impact His parables had on the people who first heard them.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across indulgent fathers and pleasure-seeking, selfish, and rude children but, when Jesus told the parable known as “The Prodigal Son,” honor and respect for one’s parents were of paramount importance as were the dignity and absolute authority of the patriarch of the family. Jesus’s listeners must have gasped in horror and unbelief when they heard Him describe behavior by both father and sons that defied acceptable conduct and cultural norms.

Although some fathers at that time might distribute their estates prior to death, they would continue to receive the income while their sons managed it. What is extraordinary in Jesus’s parable is that, by brashly demanding his inheritance, the younger son really is telling his father, “I wish you were dead so I could get on with my life!” Although the expected response would be to slap the boy and immediately disinherit him, the father does as his boy asks. When we read that the son “gathered together” his things, we think of it as packing up his belongings. The Greek word used, however, was sunago which, in this context means the son turned his inheritance into cash. Although preserving family property was of utmost importance to the Jews, the boy blatantly defies the Talmud by selling his share of the estate (thus depriving his father of its income). Since he leaves home within a few days, the implication is that he didn’t even try to get top dollar for the land.

By then squandering his entire inheritance, the son shows contempt for all that his father accomplished over the years. As if the story weren’t shocking enough, he compounds his sin and further dishonors his father by moving to a distant country (meaning Gentile land) and eating with pigs. Picture a son demanding part of his father’s business, selling it at a loss to a competitor, quickly squandering his money in wild living, and then going off to join the Taliban and you get a vague idea of how astonished Jesus’s audience might have been by this story. While the behavior of the father was baffling, the behavior of his son was absolutely unforgivable!

Both the Torah and Talmud were quite clear about one’s behavior toward parents and you can be sure Jesus’s listeners knew how this story was supposed to end. Jesus, however, had a way of turning people’s expectations upside down. This was the rabbi who spoke of the first being the last, praying for one’s enemies, walking by faith rather than sight, turning the other cheek, being weak to become strong, leading by serving, giving to receive, and losing your life to save it. If His audience was shocked at how the parable began, they were probably scandalized at how it finished.

“Cursed is anyone who dishonors father or mother.” And all the people will reply, “Amen.” [Deuteronomy 27:16 (NLT)]

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THE PARDON

The payment for sin is death. But God gives us the free gift of life forever in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NCV)]

Blessed are they whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. [Romans 4:7 (NCV)]

Storm Peak - SteamboatTo impress their students with the importance of commas, English teachers often tell an unsubstantiated story about Maria Fyodorovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Alexander, a harsh and repressive ruler, had exiled a suspected anarchist to imprisonment and death by writing these words on his warrant: “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Coming across the document, the Tsarina seized the opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out the comma. She re-inserted it so that the warrant read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia.” With the comma’s transposition, the prisoner’s death warrant became his pardon.

The story gives us no reason to think the prisoner was innocent; rather than saving an innocent man, the Tsarina merely chose to act mercifully toward a guilty one. Unlike the Russian prisoner, we’re probably not anarchists or thieves but every one of us is a sinner and we all fall short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. Whether it’s lying, envy, immorality, greed, pride, self-centeredness, anger, rebellion against God or our indifference to Him, like the Tsar’s prisoner, we are condemned because of our guilt. Because the wages of sin are death, we deserve death as much as that man probably deserved being sent to the unrelenting misery of Siberia.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, described his four years of exile in Siberia as being in a “house of the living dead,” a place of “inexpressible, unending suffering.” Rather than serve our sentence in the brutal conditions of a Russian slave labor camp, Jesus served our sentence on Calvary. By dying on the cross, He took the punishment we all deserve. With His one act, He moved the comma on our death warrants and paid the penalty for the entire world for all time. Like the Russian prisoner, we haven’t earned mercy or forgiveness and we certainly don’t deserve a pardon. Nevertheless, rather than a comma written in ink, our pardon was written in the blood of Jesus when He sacrificed Himself on the cross.

Thank you, Jesus!

It is not good for us to trust in our merits, in our virtues or our righteousness; but only in God’s free pardon, as given us through faith in Jesus Christ. [John Wycliffe]

Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard, and all need to be made right with God by his grace, which is a free gift. They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. [Romans 3:23-25a (NCV)]

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