WHAT’S YOUR ORANGE?

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich. [Luke 18:22-23 (NLT)]

orange“What’s your orange?” the teacher asked her remote learning class. Before having them answer, she explained the “monkey trap.” In Southeast Asia, hunters capture monkeys by drilling a hole in a pumpkin. The hole is just large enough for a monkey’s hand but too small for his fist. They secure the pumpkin to a tree, put a piece of sweet juicy orange inside the gourd, then retreat and wait. Eventually, an unsuspecting monkey comes along, smells the orange, and reaches through that small hole into the pumpkin. Once he’s grabbed hold of the orange, however, his fist can’t get back through the same hole. The monkey pulls and pulls but can’t free his hand. While he’s struggling to pull out his orange-filled fist, hunters easily throw a net over him. Not understanding that he can’t have both his freedom and the orange, he loses them both. After telling this story, the teacher again asked her students, “What is your orange? What is it you can’t release?”

This lesson was part of an expanded on-line curriculum at my grand’s high school. Its purpose is to address the emotional issues encountered by the teens in this strange time of social distancing and on-line classes. Whether the “monkey trap” is an actual technique or simply a parable, its lesson applies to Christians as well as pandemic teens. Do we have an orange (or two)?

We’ve all asked God to save us from one predicament or another but, after promising we’ll do anything He asks, we often add a condition to that prayer and tell God not to ask us to give up the “orange.” We’re deep in debt but we tell God not to ask us to sell the boat or downsize the house. When our marriage is in trouble, we tell God not to ask us to give up the internet flirtation or the nights out with the guys. We’re having ethical challenges at work but tell God not to ask us to give up the well-paid position. Like the orange, some things are a whole lot easier to grab than to let go!

Like the monkey, we’re often held hostage by whatever our “orange” is: whether it’s alcohol, drugs, food, gambling or another addiction; an unhealthy relationship, money, possessions, or prestige; or emotions like resentment, worry, anger, arrogance, remorse, pain from past hurts, guilt, or self-doubt. Whatever we’re holding tightly in our heart keeps us from being truly free to enjoy the abundance and peace Jesus offers. Until we let go of that “orange,” there’s no room for God’s blessings.

The gospels tell of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer that he must give away all his wealth makes us all uncomfortable. Does God really expect us to give away everything? Giving away all we possess, however, isn’t a universal requirement and Jesus didn’t ask that of anybody else. What Jesus asked the man to do was to give up the thing that possessed him: his orange. That’s what He asks of us, as well. Every person has his own “orange;” we must recognize it for the trap it is, open our hands, and let it go. The rich young ruler’s “orange” was his wealth; what’s yours?

If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead. [William Law]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HANDS

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. [Psalm 134:2 (NIV)]

handsWhile social distancing has put an end to breaking bread with friends and holding hands while sharing a table blessing, I recall a dinner several years ago when I held the hand of our pastor’s wife during grace. For a small woman, her hands were larger and stronger than I expected. After grace, I looked at them and, comparing her youthful hands with mine, admit to feeling a twinge of envy. Like her, I played the piano but, unlike her, I could barely span an octave. Her sturdy hands had incredible reach and, unhampered by arthritis, there was power in her touch on the keyboard. I was overwhelmed by the strength of her hands and the beautiful way she uses them to praise the Lord as the worship leader at our mountain church.

As I pondered hands, I thought of a friend who used her hands to sign for the hearing impaired, the men whose hands set up chairs for Bible study, people who use their hands to pack meals for the food bank, and the ones serving soup at the homeless shelter. Some people’s hands warmly greet people as they enter church, bake cookies for Bible study (and lonely neighbors), fold programs or pass out communion. I thought of the preschoolers’ hands acting out “Zacchaeus” or “This Little Light of Mine” and the adult hands making a joyful noise in the bell choir and band. I thought of the calloused hands that mow the lawn and shovel the snow at our northern church, the patient hands that help the church’s children create sheep from cotton balls and tongue depressors, and the little hands that make those crafts. I thought of the hands that comfort the sick and hospitalized, baptize new believers, are raised in praise during worship, or enthusiastically clap during a spirited song. I considered the hands that prepare meals for families in need, hold babies in the church nursery so their mothers can have a few quiet minutes during worship, and fold in intercessory prayer for their church family. I thought of the hands that knit or crochet for the prayer shawl ministry and those that went from sewing colorful pillowcases for hospitalized children to making masks during the pandemic. What of the hands that so freely drop money into the offering baskets and those that carefully count the money and keep the books? They may not be leading worship while playing a keyboard or strumming a guitar but those hands are doing God’s work in their own unique way.

Today I looked at my wrinkled hands with their short fingers and knobby knuckles—hands that ache at night, are stiff in the morning, struggle to open jars and no longer fly over the piano’s keys. Nevertheless, they are hands that still can serve God. Mother Teresa often defined herself as “a little pencil” in the hand of the Lord. Indeed, we all are pencils in God’s hands and leave his mark on those we touch.

Thank you, God, for our hands; show us what you want us to do with them so they bring glory to your name. While this pandemic means we can’t hold hands with one another, show us how we can use our hands and hearts to reach out to your children. Bless our hands, O Lord, to do your holy work.

I don’t claim anything of the work. I am like a little pencil in His hand. That is all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used. [Mother Teresa] 

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands. [Psalm 90:17 (NIV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

BEING AN INSTRUMENT

tiger swallowtail butterflyBlessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NIV)]

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

We’ve come to know this prayer as “The Prayer of St. Francis” and usually attribute it to Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the founder of the Franciscan religious orders. The patron saint of ecology and animals, Francis often is portrayed surrounded by animals. Stories first recorded by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century tell of the gentle man taming a wolf that had been terrorizing the town and preaching to the birds, rabbits, and fish (who both listened and obeyed).

Francis, however, was much more than a man who loved animals; he loved Jesus above all things, preached a gospel of simplicity, repentance, and radical obedience to Christ’s teaching, and put into practice the gospel life he preached. His contemporaries claimed that Francis lived out the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount better than anyone other than the One who originally spoke those words. It’s easy to see how this prayer might have been penned by this godly man who endeavored to have the mind of Christ, but its origins are more recent.

Originally written in French and titled “A Beautiful Prayer to Say During the Mass,” the prayer was published anonymously in 1912 in a small French Catholic magazine. In 1915, a French marquis sent the prayer to Pope Benedict XV and, in 1916, it appeared in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s daily newspaper). In 1920, titled “Prayer for Peace,” its original French translation was printed on the back of a prayer card bearing the image of St. Francis. The prayer circulated through Europe and, in 1927, it was attributed to St. Francis in print by French Protestants. Translated into English in 1936, the prayer was widely disseminated and, wherever it went, the name of St. Francis went with it.

This peace prayer became popular in an era not much different from ours. We may be able to travel from New York to London in seven hours rather than five days but we still are without peace! In spite of advances in technology, science, communication, medicine, and transportation we continue to have wars, financial disparity, social inequality, prejudice, injustice, unemployment, poverty, and even a global pandemic. We desperately need to pray for peace today as much as they did a century ago!

The author of this prayer asked to be an instrument—a tool, implement, or conduit—of peace. He continued with the actions of sowing (not gathering) love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy. Rather than receiving consolation, understanding and love, he sought to console, understand, and love others and then finished with the acts of giving and pardoning. His prayer reminds us that it is the peace makers, not the peace experiencers, Jesus said would be called the children of God! Being a peace maker takes us out of our comfort zones and into the territory of conflict resolution, relationship restoration, and change. Yet, we can’t resolve, restore or change anything if we are part of the problem! What seeds are we sowing? Are we seeking to console, understand, and love? Are we willing to give and forgive? Let us be peace makers and instruments of peace!

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. [Psalm 34:14 (NIV)]

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. [Hebrews 12:14a (NIV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LIVING WATER (John 4:1-42 – Part 1)

“Everyone who drinks this water,” Jesus replied, “will get thirsty again. But anyone who drinks the water I’ll give them won’t ever be thirsty again. No: the water I’ll give them will become a spring of water welling up to the life of God’s new age.” … The woman said, “Give me this water! Then I won’t be thirsty any more, and I won’t have to come here to draw from the well.” [John 4:13-15 (NTE)]

Taos NMJesus was never one to follow man-made rules and, when He spoke with the woman at the well, He broke several. Jewish tradition considered it beneath any man’s dignity to publicly speak with a woman. Rabbinical writing taught: “Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no not with his own wife.” That a rabbi like Jesus did such a thing was scandalous. Those same writings considered women incapable of religious instruction with these words: “Rather burn the sayings of the law than teach them to women.” Jesus speaking of God with a Samaritan woman just made it more outrageous! But, we know from His interactions with women like Martha, Mary, and Mary Magdalene that Jesus wasn’t much for rabbinic tradition so His speaking with this Samaritan woman shouldn’t surprise us.

There’s one thing, however, that seems unlike Jesus in his encounter with this woman when, knowing she’s unmarried, He asks her to get her husband. She admits to having no husband but that’s not the whole truth. Jesus exposes her five previous marriages and her living with a man not her husband. The woman had to have been mortified that a stranger knew of her sordid history. While it’s possible she’d been widowed five times and was living with her brother, that seems highly unlikely. A Jewish man could divorce his wife with the slightest provocation but five marriages reflect badly on her character as do her living arrangements. Since she was drawing water at the hottest part of the day rather than the cool evening (when the village women normally would), she appears to be an outcast who’s gone from one man to another. Jesus never shamed the woman caught in adultery so why would He put this nameless woman on the spot when He knew her disgraceful history?

Prior to being asked about her husband, the woman told Jesus she wanted the living water about which He spoke. Her request was for earthly convenience rather than eternal life. It was then that Jesus inquired about her husband. His knowledge of her secrets established His credibility as a prophet and ultimately identified Him as the Messiah. Recognizing Jesus only as a prophet, she asked Him to clarify the dispute between Judah and Samaria as to the right place to worship. Jesus answered that the time had come when the location didn’t matter because true worshipers would worship the Father in spirit and in truth. She then realized that Jesus was the Messiah, the source of the living water she so desperately sought.

Jesus asked the woman about her husband so she would face her sins and own up to her immorality. It is only with a humble heart that we can come to Jesus and His question was the woman’s moment of humility. Salvation comes to those who confess and repent of their sins, but the woman had to acknowledge those sins before she could repent. The living water only comes to those who know they are spiritually thirsty and salvation only comes to those who see the need for a Savior!

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar, and his word is not in us. [1 John 1:8-10 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE “TERRIBLE PETITION”

Blessings on the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves. [Matthew 5:7 (NTE)]

Yes: if you forgive people the wrong they have done, your heavenly father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, neither will your heavenly father forgive you what you have done wrong.’ [Matthew 6:14-15 (NTE)]

large striped swordtail butterflyWhen our pastor did a sermon series on “Dangerous Prayers,” he didn’t mention one many of us pray regularly: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After giving the disciples “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus elaborated on this single petition by categorically stating, “If you don’t forgive people, neither will your heavenly father forgive you what you have done wrong.”  The parable of the unforgiving debtor told in Matthew 18 leaves no room for ambiguity on this point. After the servant refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, the angry king rescinds his forgiveness of the unforgiving man and sends him to be tortured in prison until the debt is paid. His debt (equivalent to several billion dollars today) was insurmountable and that torture would never end. Jesus warned his listeners that the same thing would happen to them if they withheld forgiveness.

Asking God to forgive us in the same way we extend forgiveness to others is dangerous. We are asking God to forgive us by the standard that we set—to deal with us as we deal with others! Called the “terrible petition” by St. Augustine, we’re actually asking God not to forgive us if we harbor any unforgiveness in our hearts! For some of us, could these words be a petition for condemnation rather than salvation, ones for death rather than everlasting life? If we’re unwilling to forgive, I suppose they are!

Paul’s words to the Ephesians tell us to get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, and harsh words and to “forgive one another, just as God forgave you in the king.” [4:31-32] Without a doubt, forgiveness is a difficult process and time is needed between our being hurt and our ability to forgive. The struggle to forgive, however, isn’t the sin; it’s the decision not to forgive, to hold onto our bitterness, that is!

Fortunately, forgiveness is a fruit of the Spirit! Jesus said that good trees produce good fruit and that every tree failing to produce good fruit would be cut down and burned. Clarifying that people are identified by their actions, Jesus warned that only those who actually did the will of the Father would enter the kingdom of heaven! From His words, it seems that profession of faith alone does not equal salvation. While salvation is not earned by works, our faith is evidenced by them: by our willingness to do the Father’s will! Can there be an unforgiven Christian? I don’t think so. But, if we refuse to forgive, are we true disciples of Christ or merely hypocrites who say we are?

No part of His teaching is clearer: and there are no exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything or that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own. [C.S. Lewis]

Actually, good trees can’t produce bad fruit, nor can bad ones produce good fruit! Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. So: you must recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, “Master, Master” will enter the kingdom of heaven; only people who do the will of my father in heaven. [Matthew 7:18-21 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.