BUTTERFLY KISSES

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)]

dove squabs

In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes of being challenged by a friend to write a list of 1,000 things she loved. Interpreting the challenge as making a list of the day’s blessings or gifts, she began recording the seemingly insignificant things that brought bits of joy into her ordinary day. Like a gratitude journal, it included the more obvious things like a child’s escape from serious injury or an unexpected visit from a friend. There was, however, more as Voskamp deliberately set out to find the little gifts hidden in the day—things like jam piled high on toast, toothless smiles, moonlight on pillows, warm cookies, the whistle of the tea kettle on a winter’s day, and the earthy aroma of the woods. As she thanked God for the trivial inconsequential little blessings of the day, she discovered the joy hidden within them. While Ann Voskamp refers to them as gifts, I think of them as God’s “butterfly kisses.” Even though God doesn’t flutter His eyelids on my cheek, these blessings are like the nearly imperceptible kisses mothers have given their children for generations. In the midst of the busyness, trouble, and worries of the day, they are the subtle and easily missed reminders of our Father’s love.

Recognizing my need for an attitude adjustment after spending much of the past year fighting health issues and the glums and gloomies accompanying them, I’ve been reading Voskamp’s book. When what was to be more than a month-long road trip was cut short by half because of my medical issues, I knew I needed to start my own list if I ever hoped to get out of my funk. The first morning home, I looked out and saw that a pair of Mourning Doves had nested in the nearby bougainvillea. The hope that came with the nest’s promise of new life made it the first gift I listed. Several days later, upon finding the nest empty, I thought the chicks had fledged until I looked down at the ground to see their mangled remains. “Oh God, how could you?” I cried. After all, if He sees every sparrow that falls, He certainly saw the doves that brought me such joy. I took it as a personal affront that He allowed the first “gift” I listed to be taken by some predator.

Throughout the morning, I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Dove walked around the bougainvillea and among the shrubbery. By the end of the day, however, they were gone and, most likely, busy building another nest and laying two more eggs. The mortality rate for dove squabs is 69% so I suspect they are accustomed to loss and knew enough to get on with their lives.

Of course, I know that the birds’ unfortunate demise wasn’t directed at me; loss and death have been a part of life since the time Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden. Then again, their loss may have been a lesson for me—to accept that uncertainties, pain, disappointment, and death are an inevitable part of life. Just as the doves moved on with their lives, so should I! While life is gain, it also is loss. As mere players, we don’t get to write the script, rewrite the scenes we don’t like, direct the show, or know how or when the play will end.

Granted, sometimes it feels as if God is nowhere to be found, but maybe it’s simply because we haven’t slowed down and really looked for Him. On that Sunday morning after the crucifixion, two of Jesus’ followers were returning to Emmaus when Jesus joined them. It may have been because of their sadness, disappointment, fear, or even doubt, but they failed to recognize the Lord. It was only when they stopped, invited Jesus into their home, and shared the bread He blessed, that they finally recognized Him. Perhaps, when we do the same—when we are mindful of the moment and thankful for the blessings or bread we have before us (whether focaccia, Wonder Bread, saltines, or a few crumbs)—we will recognize God’s presence. Thankfulness is the soil from which joy sprouts and it is when we are thankful for His gifts (whether large or small) that we will find His joy.

God is the great I AM which means He is present not just in the past or in the future but in the here and now! It’s not always easy to see Him but, when we slow down, open our eyes, and deliberately seek Him, we will find Him in the little seemingly insignificant gifts of each day and feel his butterfly kisses on our cheeks. As Elijah discovered, God is present in the whisper as well as the shout!

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. [Psalm 118:24 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LIFE’S THORNS

So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. [2 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)]

roseThe prayer from The Valley of Vision read: “I am at a loss to know what thou wouldest have me do, for I feel amazingly deserted by thee, and sense thy presence so little…” In the margin of the book, I’d written “I feel this way sometimes!” while adding “I’m in need of grace!” For much of the past year, I’ve pondered the question of, “Where is God when you desperately need Him?” I’ve often felt abandoned and alone as if my prayers for relief were falling on deaf ears.

It’s easier to write about Paul’s acceptance of the thorn in his flesh, taking pleasure in our troubles, and finding strength in our weakness than actually doing it! While usually translated as “thorn” the Greek word used in 2 Corinthians 12:7 was skolops which meant anything with a sharp point that could produce pain—from a splinter to a stake upon which he could be impaled! We don’t know the exact nature of Paul’s thorn but there’s no doubt it caused him more distress than a mere splinter and, by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, it had afflicted him for fourteen years! Used figuratively, the thorn could have been his poor eye sight, another physical ailment, depression, persecution, or an enemy. His vagueness is purposeful since the verse is not about the thorn’s identity but its purpose and, at some time or another, we all will have thorns troubling us.

Although Paul knew he could only survive by depending on the Lord, he initially saw only two options. Either the Lord could remove the thorn so he could get on with his ministry or the thorn would remain troubling him and hindering his ministry. God, however, offered Paul a third option. God would leave the thorn but supply him with grace enough to continue—not on Paul’s strength but, by the grace of God, on His.

For more than a year, a series of painful physical issues have plagued me. Although I had some temporary relief, now they’re back and brought some thorny friends with them. For the past year, my prayers were about returning to what I called normal, which simply was the old routine to which I’d grown accustomed and liked. Like Paul, I saw only two options and it felt like my prayers fell on deaf ears as I pled for relief. Thinking of myself as sort of a super woman who, with enough grit, could power through every setback, it was pride that kept me from praying the right prayer. Finally, rather than pleading with God to remove my thorn, my prayer was one of acceptance; I asked God for grace enough to meet each day and to show me how to serve Him in what is my new normal. God hadn’t been deaf to me but my pride had caused me to be deaf to Him. Giving the same answer He gave Paul, He reminded me that His power works best in weakness and His grace is all I need. God told me to accept my thorns and to trust in His future grace.

Depending on God’s power and strength, I will continue in this ministry but, in acceptance of my limitations, rather than Monday through Friday, God willing, I will publish only twice each week: Monday and Thursday. Paul’s thorn didn’t stop him and, while mine will slow me down, it won’t stop me either!

O that all my distressed and apprehensions might prove but Christ’s school to make me fit for greater service by teaching me the great lesson of humility. [The Valley of Vision – A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions (Arthur Bennett, ed.)]

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  [2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GOD THE SON

The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, “Let us make man.” It was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man.” [J.C. Ryle]

African iris
When reciting either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds, we express our belief in God, the Father Almighty, who created heaven and earth, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. When thinking of God as the Father and Jesus as His son, however, it’s easy to think of Jesus as sort of a God, Jr. As the son, He’s a smaller, younger, novice, or apprentice version of God the Father—sort of like the son who’s learning the business so He can take over when His father retires. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When we read the first chapter of Genesis, God refers to “us” and “our image,” so the plural nature of God didn’t just happen two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. The Apostle John tells us that Jesus (the Word) existed with God in the very beginning. Our triune God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) exists beyond time—He always has been and always will be. Having no beginning, He will have no end. Although it was thousands of years between creation and Jesus’ birth, God the Son always existed. In the same way, the Holy Spirit wasn’t born on Pentecost; like the Father and the Son, He always has been!

That night in Bethlehem, Jesus didn’t come as an assistant God or as a lesser version of God the Father. Look at His names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Immanuel. Those are powerful names given to a baby boy but that baby boy was God Himself. He didn’t come as a god who looked like a man nor did He come as a man who looked like God. Both fully God and fully man, He was co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—they were one in nature, power, action, and will. Rather than God, Jr., Jesus was wholly God—only He was in clothed in flesh and chose to live as a man.

Let us never forget that it was God who came to be born as a man that night in Bethlehem. It was God who was baptized by John and called “the Lamb of God.” It was God who preached the Sermon on the Mount, threw the money changers out of the temple, and called Himself “the bread of life” and the “good shepherd.” It was God who spoke with the woman at the well, healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. It was God who was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and it was God who lived a sinless life as a man in a sin-filled world. It was God who was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, sweat blood in Gethsemane, and condemned to die between two thieves. Mocked, whipped, and nailed to a cross, that was God who suffered and died a criminal’s death. And it was God who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. It was God, in the form of a man called Jesus, who did it all just for us!

Our triune God is one in essence and yet three distinct persons. Understanding how each personage of the Trinity can be fully God while there is only one God is beyond my pay grade. Then again, I can’t understand things like quantum physics, the theory of relativity, string theory, or black holes. I can’t even fathom how I can be body, soul, and spirit in one person, so I shouldn’t be surprised at my limited understanding of the Trinity. As John Wesley aptly said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. [Nicene Creed]

Jesus said to them, “For sure, I tell you, before Abraham was born, I was and am and always will be!” [John 8:58 (NLV)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]
spiderwort

During our summer travels, we were seated with a young couple during breakfast at a rural B&B. Upon discovering they were PhD candidates at the University of Chicago, we asked for an explanation of their research. Our eyes glazed over as the man used words like photons, leptons, mesons, baryons, and hadronic interactions. By the time his wife explained her materials research and mentioned macromolecular interactions, microstructures, interface dynamics, nanoparticles and stress variations, I think we would have preferred a flippant, “We’d tell you but then we’d have to kill you!” response to the ones we got. As patient as they were and as dumbed-down as they made their explanations, we barely knew more about their studies at the end of our conversation than we did at the beginning.

Perhaps a better answer to our questions would have been, “You wouldn’t understand even if we told you!” Nevertheless, if they’d said that, even though they were right, we would have been offended by their answer and insisted we could figure it out. Their world, however, is so far removed from ours and their vocabulary so specific that it would have taken them hours (more likely days) of explanation before we could have a vague understanding of what they did and why they did it. Nevertheless, we managed to find common ground in our fondness for Chicago, the charm of the B&B, and the delicious breakfast we were enjoying.

Even though the Bible clearly explains that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, Scripture’s answer is neither satisfying nor comforting in the face of tragedy. Naturally, we want an explanation but God is strangely silent. Perhaps that’s just His way of saying, “Trust me, child, you really wouldn’t understand even if I explained it all to you!” While it’s not found in the Bible, the old maxim, “God works in mysterious ways,” is true. If the world of physics and materials science is beyond my limited understanding, I know I’m incapable of ever understanding what makes God run the universe the way He does. I’m still having trouble understanding a love so great that He gave His son as propitiation for our sins! I can’t fully grasp an all-powerful God who has always existed and always will—an all-knowing God, unconstrained by time or space, who can be everywhere at once—a God who can see yesterday, today and all the variations of tomorrow at one time. If I can’t fully comprehend God’s traits, what makes me think I could ever comprehend His reasoning?

We mortals want a detailed explanation of our lives from God but, even if He offered us one, we’d never understand it. Moreover, I’m not so sure I really want to know—the weight of such divine knowledge would be overwhelming. As we did with those grad students, however, we can find common ground—in God’s case, that would be His love for us and our love for Him. For now, that will have to suffice.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! [Romans 11:33 (NLT)]

The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. [Psalm119:130 (NLT)]

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
[William Cowper]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE MARK OF CAIN

The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [Genesis 4:15-16 (NLT)]

After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse and, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. The rejection wasn’t because one gift was animal and the other was crops—both fauna and flora were acceptable and represented each brother’s vocation. Abel, however, presented the “best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” and Cain merely offered “some of his crops” rather than the best and first. God rejected the offering because of Cain’s heart. While Abel made his offering whole-heartedly, Cain begrudged making the gift at all. Although Abel was not responsible for the rejection, he died at the hands of his angry jealous brother.

God punished Cain by banishing him and cursing the ground so that he would be unsuccessful in cultivating the soil. Having lost homeland, family, and livelihood, Cain was condemned to be a “homeless wanderer.” Cain protested that his punishment was too harsh—as a homeless fugitive without the protection of a community, he could be attacked and killed, perhaps in revenge by Abel’s family. Promising Cain that scenario wouldn’t happen, God pledged a seven-fold punishment for anyone who killed Cain.

To seal the deal, God gave Cain a sign or mark. Contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was a blessing not a punishment and may not have been a physical mark at all. The Hebrew verb typically translated as “set” or “put” in this verse was sum or sim which could mean everything from appointed, assigned, and established to attached, placed, or laid. The word typically translated as “mark” was ‘owth which referred to a sign, token, or mark and is the same word God used when giving Moses miraculous signs to convince Israel’s elders that God had spoken with him. Because we don’t know if this was an actual mark on Cain or some other sign, some Bibles translate the questioned verse as God giving Cain a sign or appointing a sign for him. Nevertheless, in one way or another, the sign or mark guaranteed Cain’s safety by indicating he was under God’s divine protection and warning of repercussions should the fugitive be killed.

More important than the mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who later says, “Anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” [Genesis 9:5] Cain’s banishment is an important lesson for us. After being with God, Cain had to leave the Lord’s presence and his departure from God’s presence demonstrates the way our sin separates all sinners from God. When we sin and reject God’s will, only spiritual isolation and wretchedness remain. Moreover, by God withholding the full penalty of death for Cain’s sin, we are introduced to His amazing grace and mercy—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation and culminates in Jesus! When Jesus took our punishment on the cross, rather than the death penalty we rightly deserved, like Cain, we were given life!

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:8 (NLT)]

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) [Ephesians 2:4-5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved

COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

orchard swallowtail butterflyHaving witnessed the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying their crosses, the people of Judea knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. The cross meant humiliation, indescribable pain, grief, anguish, and death! When Jesus spoke of cross bearing and cautioned His followers to count the cost of discipleship, it was clear He wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street. While He was offering a ticket to eternal life, it came with a price: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—be it loss of status, relationships, family, possessions, or even life. Rather than an abstract ideal, discipleship was a hard reality that included denial of self and promised to be a challenge.

Some of us, when looking at the cost, would prefer a watered-down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We want the blessings of a new life without giving up the pleasures of the old. We’re happy to bear His name, celebrate both His birth and resurrection, and wear a cross, but we’re not that anxious to bear one! Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved, but it cost God His only son. Accepting Jesus’ name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. We can’t just listen to a preacher; we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater—that we take up our cross and lose our lives in complete commitment to Him. For many, that loss is figurative but, for some like Bonhoeffer and most of the disciples, that loss of life was literal!

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Even though a Roman cross doesn’t await us as it did Jesus, Peter, and Andrew, taking up the cross for us today means that we willingly bear the cost of Christian discipleship as we sacrifice ourselves, our time, and talents in serving God and others. That cross doesn’t necessarily mean life will be easier, but it definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.