THE MIDDLEMAN

Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Mark 11:23-24 (ESV)]

zinniaA pastor friend shared a story about a woman at a previous church who had an odd habit. Whenever the pastor announced a change of some kind, more often than not, she would say to him, “I’m so thankful. I’ve been praying you would decide to do that.” When curiosity overcame him, he asked “Instead of using God as a middle man, why don’t you just tell me what you’re thinking or want changed?” Revealing that she was a preacher’s kid, the woman told of the officious interference, meddling, criticism and complaint her father had endured during his ministry. In fact, the often unchristian fault-finding behavior of his parishioners nearly turned her away from the church. She vowed that, unless asked, she’d never tell a pastor what she thought he should do. Instead, she’d simply pray about it and, “if it is God’s will, then He will reveal it to the pastor.” Apparently, as she discerned, God makes an excellent “middle man!”

When hearing this story, I couldn’t help but wonder at my behavior. Do I see God as the Middleman—the conciliator, the peace-maker, the intermediary, the one who brings two opposing parties to the table and brokers the deal—or do I see Him as the court of last resort? Do I go to Him first or only when I can’t get the desired result on my own? Would I rather intrude, advise, instruct, complain or criticize than pray?

We say we believe in the power of prayer but do we really? Do we truly believe that God really hears us? Do we trust Him enough to put our concerns into His hands before taking them elsewhere? Do we really believe in a God who can make things happen—a God who can move mountains—or do we think He needs our help? If we believe God can move mountains, why is it so difficult at times to believe that He can move hearts? While going through a middleman often seems the indirect and a roundabout way to get things done, when that Middleman is God, both hearts and mountains can be moved!

Of course, there’s another more subtle lesson in the pastor’s story. Do we pray regularly for our clergy? I don’t mean those formal prayers for the church found in various liturgies. We consistently must pray for our specific pastors—not that they’ll do what we want them to do but that they will have the energy, strength, wisdom, and courage to do what God wants them to do!

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. [1 John 5:14 (ESV)]

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TRUE BLUE

Blue Morpho butterflySo now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

We recently visited a botanic garden that boasts a butterfly conservatory inhabited by a spectacular collection of tropical butterflies. There I was introduced to the shiny Blue Morpho. God outdid Himself with these enormous beauties so showy that pilots report seeing them from the air as they fly over the rainforest. When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, I’m thankful God didn’t make them leave the butterflies behind.

Hoping to get a photo of one of these spectacular creatures that were flitting about, I searched through the conservatory for one that was still. Although the Morpho’s upper wings are a vivid blue color, their undersides are a dull brown. When its wings were folded, I mistook the Morpho for another large brown butterfly: the giant owl. It was only when it spread its wings in the sun’s light that I recognized the Morpho by its vibrant blue color.

As Christians, we are called to love and, just as its blue iridescence identifies the Blue Morpho, our love identifies us as Jesus’s disciples. But, if we just sit in the shade and never move out in the world, we’ll look like everyone else. Wings are meant to be spread and Christian love is meant to be shared. If pilots can spot a butterfly from the air, people should be able to see evidence of a Christian’s love wherever we are!

What I later learned is that while the dreary colors of these butterflies’ undersides are produced by pigments that absorb and reflect light, the brilliant blue of their upper wings has nothing to do with pigment. That color comes from the way light reflects off transparent microscopic scales on their upper wings. There’s an involved scientific explanation but (in layman’s terms), when light hits ridges on those scales, something called “constructive interference” happens which cancels out certain wavelengths of light. As a result, when light hits the upper wings of the Blue Morpho, our eyes perceive them as being a shimmering blue.

Looking at my pictures, it’s difficult to comprehend that the Blue Morpho’s dazzling iridescence isn’t real. The blue is merely an optical illusion resulting from the architecture and arrangement of transparent scales on its brown wings. I guess we could call it a fake since it doesn’t show us its true colors. It’s a little like the Pharisees: those men Jesus criticized because they did everything for show. Their faith and righteous were but an illusion because their hearts were filled with hypocrisy and evil. Unlike either Blue Morphos or Pharisees, however, there should be nothing illusory or deceptive about a Christian’s love; we are expected to be true blue to Jesus and His command to love one another.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. [1 John 4:20-21 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SLOW THINKING

sliders - turtlesBut the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

Someone has a small rubber ball tucked into the palm of his hand and you have just one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball away from him. What would you do? If you were an inner city youth, chances are you’d start by trying to pry his hand open. Your efforts may even escalate into a wrestling match. I’m not sure you’d have to be an at-risk youngster to have that same response; my husband responded the same way. Imagine his reaction when learning that all he needed to do was ask for the ball and it would have been his!

That is just one of the exercises in a program called “Becoming a Man”®, a cognitive behavioral program offered in cities like Boston and Chicago. Knowing that small slights often can lead to pulling a trigger, the program is designed to help young men avoid life’s pitfalls and develop the social and emotional skills necessary for success: integrity, accountability, positive anger expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal setting. Young women are not exempt from needing life skills and a similar program called “Working on Woman”™ cultivates the core values of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting, and leadership.

Instead of life skills, as Christians, we might call these faculties “Christ skills”, as does a local Christian school in my town. Instead of a formal code of conduct, the school’s teachers make a covenant with the students to live up to ideals listed as Christ skills: trustworthiness, cooperation, truthfulness, courage, organization, curiosity, patience, effort, perseverance, flexibility, pride, common sense, problem solving, caring, resourcefulness, personal best, responsibility, no put-downs, sense of humor, active listening, initiative, friendship, and integrity. With the goal of growing more like Christ, students learn to evaluate their choices and their consequences based on these skills.

All of these programs teach youngsters that there is power in slow thinking—in living deliberately rather than impetuously. Automatic thinking, such as assuming we have to force the ball out of a person’s hand, can mean the difference between life and death in the inner city but it can have bad consequences everywhere. Our typical weapons of anger and irritation may be less lethal than a gang member’s Smith & Wesson but none of us are exempt from needing to learn to think before acting or speaking.

We don’t need to live in the inner city to know it’s an angry, rude, intolerant, and violent world: a world of road rage, air rage, middle finger waving, swearing, bullying, pushing and shoving, domestic violence, tweet rants, peaceful demonstrations that turn violent, school shootings, child abuse, heckling, bickering, heated arguments, fights between students in school, fights between fans at the game, indignant outbursts, name calling, and a “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of mentality. Perhaps we all need a course in cognitive behavioral therapy or a list of desired Christ skills to emulate.

Even so, under our own power, we still will tend to act impulsively and heedlessly. On our own, we’ll never be the people God means for us to be. Maybe, instead of a list, we need a whole lot more of Jesus and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and a whole lot less of self. Along with the power of slow thinking, let’s tap into the power of the Lord!

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

OFFENSE

Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults. … Overlook an offense and bond a friendship; fasten on to a slight and—good-bye, friend! … Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget. [Proverbs 12:16,17:9,19:11 (MSG)]

giant swallowtail butterflyOur sermon series was titled “Cage Fighting” but, rather than learning about fighting one another, we were learning about the ways Satan attacks and keeps us in his stronghold with things like shame, doubt, fear, and unforgiveness. While chatting with the pastor before church, I asked about the day’s topic. When he said offense, I immediately thought we’d learn how to take offensive action against the enemy.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the program and read the above proverbs. What did they have to do with spiritual weaponry? I was annoyed that I’d been misled until I realized I’d misunderstood the pastor. While I was thinking about taking the offense and attacking, the pastor would be speaking about taking offense and feeling attacked! He’d be talking about the kind of offense that leaves us feeling outraged, insulted, or (in my case) annoyed. My error that morning illustrates why we’re easily offended; I had a preconceived idea, misunderstood what I heard, and didn’t ask for an explanation.

In this day of political correctness — when BC (before Christ) has become BCE (before the common era), Christmas trees are called holiday trees, no one is quite sure how to refer to a disability, and The Journal of Animal Ethics says calling pets “pets” is demeaning (they’re now “companion animals” to their “human carers”) — mistakes are bound to happen.

Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity but never giving offense is nearly impossible. In reality, most people don’t mean to be racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, narrow-minded, impolite, or behind the times but sometimes they are. We can give offense inadvertently simply because words may have different connotations to different people, many words have changed their meaning over the years, or we don’t know the history of a symbol or phrase. For example, since my black postman wears a pith helmet, I didn’t know it was considered by some to be a symbol of white imperialism until Melania Trump was criticized for wearing one in Kenya.

Although wrong, rudeness and thoughtlessness are part and parcel of modern life. Today’s world offers an unlimited opportunity to both give and take offense and Satan loves it. To fight him, we must act and speak with love and do our best to never give offense, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Nevertheless, just as we must act and speak with love, we must listen and respond with love, as well. Knowing how easy it is to be offensive, we must work harder at not taking offense. Unfortunately, self-involved creatures that we are, we often choose to see bias, insult, or aggression even where none is meant. Taking offense just leads to anger, resentment, and retaliation (some of the enemy’s favorite weapons). Often translated as forbearance, patience is a fruit of the spirit and literally means “long temper.” Indeed, we should be slow to anger, give the benefit of doubt, not respond to provocation, turn the other cheek, love, and forgive.

I actually did learn how to fight the enemy that day, just not the way I thought. While some may say the best defense is a good offense, I learned that the best defense is not to take offense at all! As for me, I’m going to spend my time and energy being offended by the things that really matter: human trafficking, hunger, lack of safe drinking water for much of the world, poverty, homelessness, discrimination and injustice.

Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it. [Rene Descartes]

We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it. [Abraham Lincoln]

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. [Colossians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

NUMBERED, WEIGHED AND DIVIDED

Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. [Romans 14:12 (NLT)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn 539 BC, thousands of Medes and Persians were digging outside Babylon’s walls. Thinking they were futilely trying to undermine the city’s impregnable walls, Babylon’s King Belshazzar was unconcerned. While carousing with 1,000 of his nobles, he gave orders to bring out the gold and silver cups that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from Jerusalem’s temple 47 years earlier. The revelers were drinking to their false Babylonian gods with vessels dedicated to the one true God when a human hand appeared and started writing on the plaster wall. No longer so arrogant, the frightened Belshazzar called for his astrologers and diviners but, when the pagans were incapable of deciphering God’s message, Daniel was called to interpret the words.

The three words on the wall were MENE, meaning numbered, TEKEL, meaning weighed, and PARSIN, meaning divided. The words meant Belshazzar’s days as king were coming to an end, his reign had been weighed and found deficient, and that Babylon would fall and be divided. Even though I don’t rule an empire, I wondered if those three words might apply to me, as well.

Numbered—yes, our days are numbered. That we don’t know how many days are allocated to us doesn’t mean they are limitless. While Belshazzar’s number was up (he died that very night), he wasted his last day in blasphemy, idolatry, and drunken revelry. How will we choose to spend our remaining days?

Weighed—like Belshazzar, our lives will be weighed (on God’s scales, not ours). Of course, no mortal can ever balance on His perfect scales. Nevertheless, God will hold us accountable at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Have we been good stewards of His gifts? Have we served selflessly or selfishly? Belshazzar dishonored God with gold and silver goblets; have we dishonored Him with our own form of idolatry? Do we love fame, wealth, home, career, possessions or beauty more than Him? Would God find us wanting because we’ve been short on grace, forgiveness and love?

Divided—like Belshazzar’s, our personal kingdom will be divided when we’re gone. After the government and bill collectors get their share, our heirs will divide the rest. All of those possessions we worked so hard to obtain and thought so important in this life will be divided among those we leave behind. Much of what we thought so valuable will end up at flea markets, resale shops, on eBay or in a landfill.

I’m not a pagan king, hosting a drunken orgy and committing sacrilege while his nation is under attack but those three words—numbered, weighed, and divided—hit home when I read them this morning. They are a vivid reminder to look carefully at my priorities. Much of my life can be described as stuff and nonsense. How about yours? Are our days spent wisely? Do we appreciate every day with which we are blessed? Will we be found lacking? Do we honor God with our words and actions? What will remain of us when we’re gone? While things are meaningless and will disappear, memories of us and the influence we’ve had on others will continue. Will the kingdom we leave to others consist of stuff that’s divided or love that multiplies?

Numbered, weighed, and divided: what do they mean to you?

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LEARNING TO WALK

So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. [1 Peter 2:1-3 (RSV)]

toddlerWatching a friend’s video of her grandbaby’s first steps, I thought back to my children’s first faltering steps. They teetered and tottered, often fell, got up, and fell again. Eventually, the wobbly legs of my eldest became the confident legs that take him down mountain slopes on a snowboard, the awkward steps of my daughter became the graceful ones of a dancer in toe shoes, and the child who took forever to walk now runs marathons. It took time and maturity, however, before they could carry themselves with such strength and assurance.

A pastor friend told me of a young woman, Anne, who recently joined his church. Tuesday mornings, a group meets in the sanctuary to pray over the weekend’s prayer requests. Although Anne is a brand new Christian and self-conscious about offering prayers in a group, she feels called to come on Tuesdays and be a part of this ministry. One morning, she arrived late. With Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, Anne rushed down the aisle only to stumble. As the coffee spilled over her blouse and onto the floor, what came out of Anne’s mouth definitely was not a nice church lady, “Oops!” Having uttered words not typically heard in church, her face turned red with embarrassment. Mortified at her misstep, I imagine she would have given anything to rewind the previous sixty seconds. Instead of gasps of horror and scornful frowns, however, the prayer warriors in the sanctuary chuckled and reassured her. Like Anne, they once were baby Christians and experienced their share of missteps and lapses. They didn’t approve of her language but, having “been there and done that” (and probably much worse), they understood and reacted with love rather than judgment.

When we first accept Christ, we’re really just baby Christians. Babies aren’t born with all the knowledge and skills they need and we’re not reborn with all the knowledge and skills we need either. There will be stumbles and missteps as we learn to how to walk the Christian way. Like Anne, the new Christian is often torn between the old way of thinking, speaking and acting and the new Spirit-led way of living. Sometimes old habits and attitudes are hard to break. Nevertheless, the baby Christian welcomes the Holy Spirit, follows His lead, listens to His conviction, prays, studies Scripture, and gradually grows more like Christ. Like a toddler, when she falls, she just gets back up and keeps going and growing.

Babies don’t remain babies forever nor would we want them to. We want our children to mature and become all they’re meant to be. That doesn’t happen by being critical, judgmental and unforgiving whenever a child falls. Growth happens with encouragement, patience, love, and through example. While the prayer warriors at my friend’s church understood that, not everyone does.

When our Bible study leader announced that we’d be discussing Nicodemus the following week, the woman beside me asked who he was. I saw her shrink in embarrassment when another woman condescendingly replied, “How could you not know who Nicodemus is?” I quickly looked in my Bible’s index and, reassuring her that she wasn’t alone in her question, told her she’d find his story in John 3. I can only hope she’ll return next week.

Not everyone who attends a Bible study or church is a mature believer; some are brand new disciples while others are seekers or just testing the water. Let’s always be as reassuring, forgiving, and welcoming to baby Christians as we are to our little children and grands!

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. [1 Peter 4:8-9 (RSV)]

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.