LITTLE THINGS WITH LOVE

Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. [Isaiah 58:10 (TLB)]

food bankWhile tucking toothbrushes, dental floss, Band-Aids, and soap into shoeboxes already filled with pencils, notebooks, markers, tee-shirts, and toys, I thanked God, not just for the privilege of giving, but also that basic items like these are not a luxury in my world. In many parts of the world, however, they are! For example, our pastor just returned from Cuba where a sample-size tube of toothpaste costs the equivalent of $5 and is so sparingly squeezed that it lasts a family of four one month. The gifts he’d packed in his suitcase were simple drugstore items such as toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and pain relievers, but the people who received those basics were as appreciative as if he’d delivered a treasure chest of gold and diamonds.

Dwight Moody once told of a man at sea who was ill and confined to his cabin. Hearing that a sailor had fallen overboard and not knowing what he could do to help, the man picked up his light and held it against the port-hole. Upon hearing that the sailor had been rescued, the man returned to his bunk. When walking on the deck after his recovery, this gentleman met the fellow who’d fallen overboard that night. Recounting the frightening episode, the sailor said he’d been sure no one would see him in the darkness as he desperately tried to stay afloat in the churning waves. But, just as he started to go down for what he was sure was the last time, a light from out of a port-hole shone on him; finally seeing the drowning sailor, a man caught his hand and pulled him into the life-boat.

Our pastor’s suitcase of basics and the clothes he and his wife left behind in Cuba can’t stop the blackouts, ease the nation’s food shortages, or shorten the queues waiting for a bus or a few gallons of gas. The Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes our church filled won’t change governments, provide jobs, or feed the hungry. The meals packed for food banks, clothes donated to resale shops, gifts purchased for strangers whose names hang on a giving tree, food served at a homeless shelter, change dropped into the bell ringers’ buckets, checks written to the Salvation Army, or the animal purchased for Heifer International won’t solve the world’s problems. Nevertheless, while we can’t change the world, we all can do our part to change the world for someone, even if it’s just with a toothbrush or a tube of toothpaste!

“Let us take the torch of salvation and go into these dark homes and hold up Christ to the people as the Savior of the world,” said Moody as he finished his story of the light in the port-hole. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,” were the words of Mother Teresa. Few, if any, of us will pull a drowning sailor from the sea and we’re not likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize for our humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, in our own small ways, we each can make a difference by shining a light for those in despair. Let us be the light that brings Christ’s love into the world!

You are the world’s light—a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light! Let it shine for all; let your good deeds glow for all to see, so that they will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (TLB)]

Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (TLB)]

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AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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CAN WE CHANGE?

leopardCan an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. [Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV)]

What words of despair from Jeremiah! Yet, why would God send him to the people of Judah with the call to repent if there was no hope of change? Surely, He didn’t send His prophet on a fool’s errand!

We all have issues with sin. While it may not be theft or adultery, chances are it’s something like anger, envy, impatience, bigotry, hostility, selfishness, pessimism, or pettiness. “It’s just the way I’m built,” we say in way of excuse. While we may justify ourselves by saying our faults are simply our nature, they aren’t! Having recently gone through genetic testing, I didn’t see any genes for things like lust, short-temper, worry, nitpicking, intolerance, arrogance, discontent, or stinginess. When we confuse our learned behavior with innate behavior, we excuse the inexcusable. While we can’t change our skin color or blood type, we can change our habits.

The gift of habit is God given; indeed, we’re blessed that we can go through life without having to deliberately think through the details of every action. If we had to consciously consider how to brush our teeth, get dressed, tie our shoes, make coffee, or start the car, we’d never get anywhere in the morning. The gift of habit, however, can also be a curse when our habitual responses are not godly—when they entail things like bigotry, anxiety, deceit, pride, anger, self-centeredness, or jealousy. 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon likened the force of habit to a cobweb: at first, it’s easily broken. When it grows into a thread, however, it restrains us a bit and, when the thread changes into a cord, we find ourselves in a net. As the net hardens into iron and the iron into steel, we’re shut up in a cage of our own making with no way of escape.

In discussing Jeremiah’s question, Spurgeon emphatically states that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin but, he adds as emphatically, an Ethiopian’s skin can be changed. He explains that the God who turned “primeval darkness into light” and “changed chaos into order” can do everything and, should He choose to do so, He could easily change skin color and leopard spots. Far more important than changing appearances, however, God can transform human nature! The God who designed our hearts can make them new again. After all, change or re-birth is what Jesus is all about!

Jeremiah called the people to repent; the call to put off our old sinful nature and replace it with the new continues today. Although we can’t do it by ourselves, God doesn’t ask anything of us that we are incapable of doing. When we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  [Galatians 5:22-23] We may have to dig deep to find it but God’s fruit is there! Granted, it’s difficult to put away ingrained habits; change is neither easy nor fast. Nevertheless, though the power of the Holy Spirit, change is possible; we can take off the old and put on the new!

The God who made us also can remake us. [Woodrow Kroll]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)]

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:22 (NIV)]

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GETTING IT JUST RIGHT

Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor. [Proverbs 29:23 (NLT)]

brown bear - montana

In the story of The Three Bears, Goldilocks tasted porridge, sat in chairs, and climbed on beds in an attempt to find what was “just right” on the continuum between hot and cold, big and small, and hard and soft. When editing photos I do much the same thing as I adjust the brightness to find the setting where it’s neither too dark nor too light. As parents (and parents-in-law), we often struggle to find the right position between the extremes of meddling and total detachment. As Christians, we must find a proper balance between two other extremes: pride and humility.

Thinking either too much or too little of ourselves is equally wrong. Pride is insidious and can creep into our lives but so can false humility. When we’re prideful, we deprecate the gifts, talents and achievements of others but, when we’re falsely modest, we deprecate our God-given gifts, talents and achievements; both are dishonest. Healthy pride is a feeling of self-respect and confidence that acknowledges God’s gifts and isn’t threatened by the success of others. Healthy humility also acknowledges God’s gifts but with an attitude of genuine modesty and unpretentiousness. Both pride and humility exhibit delight in and gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed both on ourselves and others.

We need to know and recognize both our assets and our deficits. While our gifts vary from person to person, we are neither superior nor inferior to one another; we all are God’s children. It’s not just in the marketplace that God hates dishonest scales and deceit; He expects us to weigh and measure ourselves with honesty. Like Goldilocks, we must find the place that is “just right” between pride and humility: the place where we can both own our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. When we’re at that “just right” point, we can honestly give and take both praise and correction. Acknowledging the virtues and gifts of others as well as any with which we’ve been blessed, we can take joy in both our accomplishments and the accomplishments of others.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. [Rick Warren]

Too much humility is pride. [German proverb]

The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights. Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Honesty guides good people; dishonesty destroys treacherous people. [Proverbs 11:1-3 (NLT)]

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BE KIND

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailLast week, when Brandt Jean chose to offer his forgiveness and embrace the woman who killed his brother, he did it out of Christian love. Judge Tammy Kemp, moved by Brandt’s example, then handed the convicted murderer one of her personal Bibles and encouraged her to forgive herself. When the defendant asked her for a hug, the judge remembered a recent sermon about love and compassion and couldn’t deny her. Nevertheless, many people were outraged and turned their simple acts into political statements. They saw issues of race, civil rights, proselytizing, and something called “post-traumatic slavery syndrome” where there was only love, kindness, and forgiveness. Neither brother nor judge excused or absolved Amber Guyger of her crime; they simply extended compassion and forgiveness. Let us not forget that their actions were also in obedience to Christ!

This week, Ellen DeGeneres received backlash for sitting next to President George Bush at a football game. Responding to the outrage that a “gay Hollywood liberal” would sit beside “a conservative Republican president,” she pointed out that she is a friend to many who don’t have her same beliefs. The comedian added, “I think that we’ve forgotten that it’s okay that we’re all different.” In her own way, the comedian captured the essence of Jesus’s commands with her words, “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Last fall, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 80% of our population believes the nation to be either “totally” or “mainly” divided. Apparently, that’s just about the only thing Americans can agree upon except, of course, that most of those polled also believe that this divisiveness is the fault of the other side of whatever their ideology happens to be!

We are becoming a nation that views people through ideological eyes rather than the eyes of God. We see black or white, rich or poor, labor or management, rural or urban, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, friend or foe instead of seeing a human being. In his song Russians, Sting put it this way: “There is no monopoly of common sense on either side of the political fence. We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.” Whether or not we look like them, speak their language, come from the same background, believe the same things, or agree with their lifestyle doesn’t matter. They are people—people just like us, made in God’s image and precious in His sight.

The essence of Christian life is love and that love is active rather than passive. It isn’t just about turning the other cheek and not retaliating; it is about positive acts of kindness. As Christ’s followers, we must never hesitate to reach out in love to everyone (even those with whom we disagree). Moreover, as His followers, we must never be part of the divisive rhetoric that has become part and parcel of this day and age. The rules for conducting our lives were not written by man; they were written by God. The only side we should take on any issue is His!

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. [2 Timothy 2:23-25 (NLT)]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. …If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! [Luke 6:27-28,32-33 (NLT)]

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SOMEONE’S LOOKING

The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord sits on his throne in heaven. He sees what people do; he keeps his eye on them. [Psalm 11:4 (NCV)]

beach weddingWhen I was a little girl and got sick, my mother would dress me in a fresh pair of pajamas, tuck me into her bed, get out her hairbrush, and do my hair. “Why bother?” I’d ask, “No one is going to see me.” She’d always reply, “God sees you and you want to look your best.” I found it comforting, as I lay in bed, to know that both God and my mother were watching me.

It’s not just God, however, who watches—people do, too. While enjoying dinner on the patio of a local restaurant, we observed a couple exchange wedding vows on the beach. Although here were only five people present for the ceremony, when the groom kissed the bride, the entire patio applauded in joy. The couple beamed with delight and enthusiastically waved at the sixty uninvited guests who had witnessed their nuptials.

Their joy as being observed was a contrast to another al fresco dinner many years earlier. We were seated on a porch overlooking a well-lit boat launch. Two couples were trying unsuccessfully to get their boat back onto its trailer. With one attempt, the trailer wouldn’t be back far enough but, with the next, it would be too far back. The boat would drift, the trailer tires spin, or the boat motor would quit. As the evening wore on and the boat remained in the water, the boaters’ tempers flared. That they may have enjoyed too much liquid refreshment during the day didn’t help and there were angry words, cussing and name calling. We were finishing our key lime pie when their truck successfully pulled the trailered boat out of the water. In relief, the entire dining room broke out in applause. The four looked up at us, somewhat mortified that their poor behavior had been witnessed by so many.

Unlike the wedding couple, we’re not always in our best attire and on our best behavior. Our conduct, like that of the boaters, frequently leaves much to be desired. We’re told to let our lights shine so that people will see Christ in us but we’ve been known to let our lamps get so dim that Christ is nowhere to be seen in us. Whether we’re shining or not, however, a bright light may be shining on us (as it was on the boaters)! It’s not just the eyes of God that are upon us; people observe us, as well. Are we the shining light we’re called to be?

We are indeed the light of the world—but only if our switch is turned on. [John Hagee]

In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and will praise your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (NCV)]

You are God’s children whom he loves, so try to be like him. … In the past you were full of darkness, but now you are full of light in the Lord. So live like children who belong to the light. [Ephesians 5:1,8 (NCV)]

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