ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME

Photo: Dennis Johnson

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. … Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:13-14,17 (NLT)]

Last week, I missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the longest lunar eclipse to occur in a span of 1,000 years. The last time a lengthy lunar eclipse happened was in 1440 and the next one won’t occur until 2669! Although I woke in the middle of the night and remembered the eclipse, I let the threat of clouds, the inconvenience of going outside in the middle of the night, and the lure of sleep deter me. Instead of seizing the opportunity, I rolled over and went back to sleep. Although it will be much shorter, I can always see another lunar eclipse next year. Then again, there’s no guarantee that the sky will be clear that night or that I’ll be awake (or even alive) between midnight and 3:00 AM on May 22! A missed opportunity is missed forever!

When pondering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, I think of the time Jesus passed through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. A blind man named Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that Jesus was passing by, he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Annoyed by his cries, the crowd following Jesus yelled at him to be quiet. Perhaps, like many of their time, they considered illness and disability God’s punishment for one’s sins and didn’t think the blind man deserved Jesus’ attention. In any case, Bartimaeus was not to be deterred. Taking the opportunity before him, he called out so loudly and persistently that Jesus heard the blind man’s voice, called to him, and restored the man’s sight.

As Jesus walked through Jericho, a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous rabbi. A little man, Zacchaeus was too short to see over people’s heads and couldn’t push his way to the front of the crowd. As the chief tax-collector, he probably was the most hated man in Jericho and no one was about to make way for the man. In fact, Zacchaeus probably was shoved around by the crowd and may have encountered a few deliberate pokes in his ribs. Like Bartimaeus, however, the publican was not about to be deterred. He ran ahead (a very undignified thing for a government official) and climbed up a sycamore tree to get a view of Jesus as He passed. Seeing his determination, Jesus called him down and invited himself to the tax man’s house.

That day, Jesus restored the sight of Bartimaeus and brought salvation to the home of Zacchaeus but what if those two men had allowed the opportunity to know Jesus slip past them? Like most, they thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem for Passover and would be passing back through town again. Thinking they’d catch Jesus next time He came through town, they easily could have allowed the crowd to deter them. Jesus, however, was on His way to the cross and that one day in Jericho was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Regretfully, I’ve missed far more important opportunities than seeing a six-hour lunar eclipse—opportunities to be kind, helpful, compassionate, and generous. I’ve allowed myself to be deterred from opportunities to witness, defend, advocate, assist, and support. Like Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus, we don’t know if today is the last day a particular opportunity will arise nor do we know what tomorrow will bring. Today, let us take advantage of all the God-given opportunities it offers.

If today were your last, would you do what you’re doing? Or would you love more, give more, forgive more? Then do so! Forgive and give as if it were your last opportunity. Love like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow comes, love again. [Max Lucado]

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

STATS

Does this sound as if I am trying to win human approval? No indeed! What I want is God’s approval! Am I trying to be popular with people? If I were still trying to do so, I would not be a servant of Christ. [Galatians 1:10 (GNT)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesA pastor friend who’s led dozens of mission trips used to evaluate his mission’s success by the number of new believers gained during the trip. If the latest mission’s altar call stats did not exceed the previous mission’s numbers, he felt it was a failure. Like him, we tend to be number people who measure our success or failure quantitatively. Business success is gauged by the balance sheet, bottom line, and price-earnings ratio; financial success by income, the value of our investment portfolio, and the size of our house or the price of our car. Regardless of the sport, with their assorted BAs, RBIs, Yds, Gs, PPRs, FT%s, and GOAT points, stats seem to evaluate every athlete’s success. Social success is assessed by the number of holiday cards we send or receive, how many “friends” we have on social media, and how many “likes” we got on our latest post. Intellectual success is measured by IQ, SAT, ACT and GPA numbers. A pastor assesses his success by Sunday’s attendance (or the offering), the teacher by the standardized test results of her students, and the author by his book’s ranking on the best seller list. I’m no different; I often check my website’s stats to see the number of followers, visitors, and views.

When we quantitatively assess our lives, it’s way too easy to find people with better numbers than ours. Moreover, when the numbers aren’t stellar, we often think we’re failures. God, however, isn’t an accountant or statistician. He measures success by standards completely different than those of the world. His standards are qualitative—the quality of our obedience, faith, and love.

That pastor friend eventually came to understand that God looks at a mission’s success far differently than man. Regardless of the number of new believers gained, when the pastor obediently follows God’s direction to lead a mission—to spread God’s word and share His love—he has been a good and faithful servant. When we hear God’s call and whole-heartedly respond to the best of our ability, regardless of the statistics, we have not failed. Success is when we go where He sends us and do what He tells us to do.

Let’s stop playing the numbers game and judging ourselves quantitatively by the world’s standards. Rather than comparing our scores to those of other people, there is only one person to whom we should compare ourselves and that is Christ. He sets the standard for our behavior and, while that standard is observable, it is not measurable. We’re successful if the fruit of His Spirit is visible in our lives—if we demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. In God’s book, we’re successful when we become the sort of people Jesus wants us to be.

We should do what we do in order to gain God’s approval instead of prestige and approval from other human beings. … Are we motivated by the approval of people or the applause of God? [Phil Harper]

You should each judge your own conduct. If it is good, then you can be proud of what you yourself have done, without having to compare it with what someone else has done. For each of you have to carry your own load. [Galatians 6:4-5 (GNT)]

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BAD EXAMPLES

Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life in your neighborhood so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives. [1 Peter 2:11-12 (MSG)]

laughing gullWe’d gathered for coffee when the conversation turned to tipping. Several who had been servers at one time or another mentioned what notoriously bad tippers church people seem to be. Rather than a tip, some only leave a religious tract. A barista admitted removing any she finds in the tip jar because her fellow workers find them incredibly offensive. Rather than bringing anyone to Jesus, they serve to further distance non-believers from any church!

I recalled my college days in the 60s when many restaurants and businesses had restroom attendants. Rather than money, my fellow Campus Crusaders often left religious tracts in the attendant’s tip jar. Believing that a woman who cleaned up other people’s messes in bathroom sinks and stalls for tips (and purchased gum, breath mints, hand lotion, and perfume to increase those tips) would appreciate the money more than a tract, I always left money.

Thinking that leaving a tract meant they could “chalk one up” for Jesus, my friends may have  congratulated themselves for sharing the Gospel but I thought they were taking the cheap and easy way out of witnessing for Christ. Religious tracts aren’t a substitute for sharing the Word; they are mere tools. While they may get a conversation going, explain a concept, or provide information, they don’t replace interacting with someone. Tracts are an extension of a relationship, not a replacement for one. Relationships, however, take time and effort.

Since we were discussing “bad” Christian behavior, the barista mentioned the incivility of some of the local clergy who frequent her shop. One minister is so notorious that the baristas play rock-paper-scissors to determine who has to wait on him! Doing nothing to promote the Kingdom with their short-tempers, supercilious manner, or brusque behavior, those rude clergy could take a lesson from my son.

While listening to him talk with an airline’s customer service agent, I knew why he’s such a good salesman. He sincerely cares about the people with whom he interacts. Rather than beginning with a complaint about the airline, he started out by asking the agent how she was doing, where she was located, and followed up by commenting on the location and asking about the weather. He sincerely tried to find some common ground before launching into the problem at hand. My son, however, doesn’t save his charm for people who can help him. He’s that way with baristas, butchers, bell hops, bus boys, cashiers, and supermarket baggers as well as neighbors, vendors, employees, customers, and bankers. Everyone he meets is treated with the same amount of courtesy and respect. As salesmen for Christ, we must do the same!

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Sadly, many people hold that same sentiment. Both believers and non-believers can be arrogant, nasty, and stingy but that doesn’t make it right! It’s not just the eyes of God that are upon us—the world sees us and judges Jesus by our behavior.

It simply comes back to how we treat people—not just the people we like, want to impress, or who can do something for us—but everyone from the homeless man, server, janitor, and landscaper all the way to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Remembering to reflect God’s grace and generosity in all things, let’s not further the stereotype that Christians are a rude, judgmental, and cheap lot! (And, if you want to leave a tract, be sure to leave a hefty tip, as well!)

The world takes its notions of God from the people who say that they belong to God’s family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. They see us; they only hear about Jesus Christ. [Alexander Maclaren]

Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. [Matthew 7:12 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SARAH SMITH (The Great Divorce – 2)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8 (ESV)]

Growing up, one of my favorite hymns was, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Its author, Lesbia Scott, wrote hymns for her children as expressions of the family’s faith. Not originally intended for publication, she wrote this song to emphasize that saints lived not just in the distant past but also in the present day. My favorite verse was the final one and I recall singing it loudly with childlike enthusiasm: “The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, In church, by the sea, in the house next door; They are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.”

It’s been years since singing that song but its words came to mind while reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy The Great Divorce. After the dreaming narrator, presumed to be Lewis, takes his bus ride from hell to heaven, he meets his guide—the author George MacDonald. Although MacDonald was dead before Lewis read any of his books, his writing had a direct impact on Lewis’ faith and work. Lewis believed there was “hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continuously close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” MacDonald’s writing was instrumental in causing the atheist Lewis to eventually become one of Christianity’s greatest apologists.

While conversing with his heavenly guide, the narrator sees a woman of “unbearable beauty” surrounded by a dazzling procession of angels, children, animals, and musicians. Although he’s sure she must be someone of great importance, perhaps even Jesus’ mother, MacDonald explains, “Fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.” Identifying her as “Sarah Smith of Golders Green,” he says she was “one of the great ones.”

Since MacDonald was a real person whose books I read as a girl, I thought Sarah Smith might have existed and immediately put down my book to Google her. Sarah Smith, however, was but a figment of the writer’s imagination—an ordinary person who loved children, was kind to people, and cared for animals. Nevertheless, explains MacDonald, like a stone dropped into a pool, Sarah had a ripple effect of love and joy on the lives of those she encountered and the “abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father” flowed over into the lives of all she met. As a result, children loved their parents more and men even loved their wives more. After knowing her and being loved by her, people were renewed, restored, and transformed in a meaningful and beautiful way. In short, ordinary Sarah Smith of Golders Green touched the lives of others as only a Christ follower can. She was, indeed, a saint of God.

Like the fictional Sarah Smith, the real Sarah (and Sam) Smiths of today humbly and lovingly shine the light of Christ on all whose lives they touch. Completely ordinary men and women, they are the kind of people about whom I sang as a child—and the kind of people Jesus call us to be. As followers of Christ, we are called to be the Sarah and Sam Smiths of our troubled world. May we all be saints of God.

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining—they just shine. [D.L. Moody]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

FARMA – Part 1

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

zinniaFound in Buddhism and Hinduism, the concept of karma is the idea that how you live your life now determines the quality of life you’ll have after reincarnation. Christians, however, believe that “each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment,” [Hebrews 9:27] which means that karma, with its continual opportunities to get it right, is not compatible with Christianity. Nevertheless, the karmic idea of good and bad actions yielding similar consequences—that “what goes around comes around”—is present throughout the Bible. Because many of the Bible’s metaphors about cause and effect have to do with agriculture and farming, a pastor friend likes to call this concept “farma.”

When a seed is planted, it will produce a harvest only of that particular plant. Apple seeds only produce apples just as just as corn seeds only yield a harvest of corn. It’s much the same with people—we usually get whatever we plant in our relationships. More often than not, the seeds of kindness produce more kindness and thoughtfulness, the seeds of patience yield a harvest of patience and perseverance and, when truth is planted, the planter typically reaps truth and trust.

If, however, we plant weeds, that’s exactly what we’ll get. Just as thistle seeds won’t yield roses, seeds of rage won’t produce peace, those of confrontation won’t yield harmony, and seeds of selfishness won’t produce generosity. The harvest from seeds of deceit will probably be more lies while disloyalty reaps betrayal. We can’t sow hate and expect affection and compassion won’t bloom where callousness has been planted. When we sow discord, we should expect a harvest of conflict in return.

Good farmers and gardeners think seriously about the kind of seeds they’ll plant. They not only look for seeds that will yield a bountiful crop but also for ones that are resistant to weeds, disease and pests. Perhaps we need to spend some time every morning determining the sort of seeds we will plant in our lives and the lives of those we encounter during the day. What kind of crop do we want? What can we plant in the garden of our lives that will blossom into a bountiful harvest of good?

We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all. [Dorothy Day]

My experience shows that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same. [Job 4:8 (NLT)]

Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. [Hosea 10:12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

PRAY FOR THEM – (Matthew 5:38-48 – Part 3)

You know that you have been taught, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek. If someone sues you for your shirt, give up your coat as well. If a soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When people ask you for something, give it to them. When they want to borrow money, lend it to them. [Matthew 5:38-42 (CEV)]

turk's cap lilyIn a sermon, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) called Matthew 5:38-48 “our Lord Jesus Christ’s rules for our conduct towards one another.” The Anglican bishop added, “They deserve to be written in letters of gold: they have extorted praise even from the enemies of Christianity. Let us mark well what they contain. The Lord Jesus forbids everything like an unforgiving and revengeful spirit.” Indeed, these ten verses describe a Christian as he or she is meant to be (which explains why I’ve spent the last three days writing about them).

When Jesus spoke of nonretaliation, He wasn’t speaking of criminal offense or military aggression but of personal nonretaliation—our relationship with our fellow travelers on this planet. He applied this principle of nonretaliation to personal insults and slights, lawsuits to gain your personal assets, interference with your personal rights, and intrusions on your personal property. His call to willingly surrender what we call ours and not to take revenge is radical but isn’t that what Christian love is all about?

Non-retaliation, however, is just part of Jesus’ radical call. It’s not enough to not hit back; Jesus calls us to love our enemies and even to pray for them. Now, praying for them is easy if it means to pray for their comeuppance—their just deserts or punishment—but vengeful prayers that ask God to give them some of their own are not what Jesus meant. When we love our enemies, we pray the same kind of prayers we do for our friends—unselfish prayers for their welfare and good. It’s not easy; nevertheless, blessings on those that curse, afflict, aggravate, take advantage, or just plain annoy us is what we are called to do.

The story is told of a monk in the desert who, upon returning to his hut, found it being ransacked by bandits. The monk simply knelt and prayed for them as the thieves looted the hut of his few possessions. Once they’d departed, the monk realized they’d not taken his walking stick so he pursued them for several days until he could give them the stick, as well. Seeing the monk’s humility and forgiving nature, the bandits returned the monk’s possessions and became followers of Jesus. Although I found this story in a Bible commentary on Matthew 5, I can’t vouch for its truth. Nevertheless, it could be and I’d like to think it is!

That story illustrates Bishop Ryle’s points that, “if the spirit of these ten verses were more continually remembered by true believers, they would recommend Christianity to the world far more than they do,” and, “if the spirit of these ten verses had more dominion and power in the world, how much happier the world would be than it is.” Indeed, it would.

You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong. If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that? But you must always act like your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-48 (CEV)]

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