CLOSED MINDS

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)]

killer whaleWhen discussing whales, the 3rd grade science teacher insisted that because of the whale’s small throat it was physically impossible for one to swallow a human. Disagreeing, the little girl told her that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale. When the teacher insisted it was just a silly story, the girl said that when she got to heaven she would ask Jonah. ”Well,” replied the teacher scornfully, “What if Jonah isn’t there? What if he went to hell?” The little girl politely answered, “Then I guess you can ask him!”

Last year, we took a bus tour of the Canadian Rockies and, at times, our tour guide and bus driver must have felt like they were herding cats. Although there were less than forty in our group, I compared us to the two million Israelites of Exodus and them to Moses and Aaron who led those “stiff-necked” people for forty years. When people weren’t ready on time, asked already answered questions, complained about the food, whined about accommodations, didn’t follow directions, wanted special treatment and misplaced their possessions, I appreciated the frustrations the brothers must have had leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. Overhearing my comment, a fellow traveler took me aside. After advising me that he didn’t want to disparage my faith, he added, “But really—two million people? Forty years? How can you possibly believe that? How could they all be fed?” My response was easy: “God provided manna!” Rather than continue the conversation, I smiled and walked away. This man didn’t want to talk miracles or God’s provision and, in spite of his words to the contrary, like the teacher in the joke, he really did want to disparage my faith.

As for that whale, according to several sources, including the Smithsonian, while most species of whales (like the killer whale pictured) couldn’t swallow a human, the exception is the sperm whale. Capable of swallowing a whole giant squid, it could easily swallow a man. In actuality, however, both the girl and the teacher were wrong. The Hebrew Bible says neither whale nor fish but rather dag gadôl  which means a great sea creature. The Greek translation was kêtei megalô, meaning a mega-sized ketos or huge sea serpent. The ketos was a sort of dog-headed sea dragon and several references to it are found in both art and non-Biblical literature from 700 BC through 500 AD. Whether the leviathan mentioned in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah is the same creature as that in Jonah and whether it was fish, reptile, whale, or some extinct form of sea monster, we really don’t know. Just because we don’t know, however, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Would the teacher have been interested in this answer? I think not. Like the man who spoke to me, her mind was already made up.

There always will be non-believers who are more interested in proving we’re wrong than hearing our answers. Wanting to display their cleverness and our naiveté, they ask questions like, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible? How did Noah get those animals in the ark? How did the penguins get to the ark from Antarctica?” and, “If God is so all-powerful, why did it take Him six whole days to create the world?” The Bible is filled with a slew of fantastic and extraordinary accounts that defy easy explanation and I’m not sure it’s worth getting into a debate about such things. In most cases, even if we answered these types of questions to the skeptics’ complete satisfaction, it wouldn’t make a difference to them. All we can do is decline to accept their challenge with a simple and gracious answer. Jesus told the disciples to shake the dust from their feet as they left any town that refused to welcome them. Sometimes, we must do the same thing.

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. [Ephesians 4:18 (NLT)]

Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. [1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)]

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THE HACKER

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. [1 Peter 5:8-9b (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkAfter asking us how we protect our personal safety, the cyber-security specialist asked how we protect ourselves from cyber attacks. One woman proudly told how Microsoft had recently saved her from a hacking attempt. After a message popped up telling her to call them, she gave them remote access to her computer. The necessary patch and technical advice only cost $700 and now her computer was secure. Until the speaker told her, she didn’t know the hack was the $700 she’d spent, access to her credit card, and possible malware now active on her computer. While she never would have allowed a complete stranger into her home, she unwittingly opened the door to a criminal and welcomed him into her life.

Following the seminar, I couldn’t help but think about Satan. Scripture describes him as a serpent, lion, liar, thief, and tempter with adjectives like prowling, cunning and crafty. Those same words describe a hacker rather well. Both Satan and the hacker want to take over our lives and they can do it without our even realizing it’s been done. The weakest link in both cases is the user—us. Outside consultants regularly try to hack into our bank and the good news is that their security software works. Unfortunately, in every test, someone (who clearly knows better) was conned into replying, hyperlinking, or opening an attachment. When Satan comes trolling, how often do we err by ignoring God’s guidelines, not examining the source of the message, going somewhere we shouldn’t, or letting curiosity get the best of us?

Our speaker spoke of maintaining the security of the devices and networks we use. Since new hacking techniques are developed continually, once secured doesn’t mean forever secure; software must be updated to stay current with new threats. Once saved doesn’t mean forever safe, either. We must keep updating our soul’s software with regular prayer, Bible study, and church. Where we use our devices and the sort of data we transmit and receive affects their safety and where we go and what we put into our minds affects our souls. We don’t hang around dangerous neighborhoods but, sometimes, that’s exactly what we do with our computers and phones or our friends and media choices! When the considering the importance of backing up data, I thought of the value of Christian friends who have our backs and both encourage and support us in times of trouble—times when we’re most vulnerable to Satan’s attack.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) was another security feature discussed. Although a website can use 2FA to make sure it is us, we should use 2FA to make sure those great ideas we get have come from God rather than the enemy. A little two-factor authentication in the way of seeing whether those thoughts match up with God’s word and Jesus’s actions could keep us out of a lot of trouble.

Good cyber-security habits include malware protection, virtual private networks, cloud storage, secure routers, password protection, 2FA, and common sense. None of those, however, will protect us if we fail to use them. The same goes for the armor of God. We’ve been given the best protection money can’t buy but God’s armor won’t defend us from the enemy if we don’t put it on!

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

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HEARING THE SHEPHERD

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice. [Ezekiel 34:15-16 (RSV)]

lambThroughout the Bible, there are many references to the Lord as our shepherd and mankind as His sheep. Sheep are not the brightest bulbs in the pasture and, considering the state of the world, it seems a fitting comparison! I came upon a true story that illustrates the need sheep have for a shepherd. In 2005, more than 400 sheep in Turkey died when they followed the lead sheep off a cliff and fell 15 meters. The death toll would have been greater except those first 400 cushioned the fall of the next 1,100 sheep that were stupid enough to follow them! Clearly, that herd of sheep needed someone to tell them when to stop. Unfortunately, mankind seems as willing to blindly follow the lead sheep wherever he leads us, only we call it belonging, accepting, keeping up, staying current, maintaining the status quo, or not rocking the boat, making waves or causing trouble.

I happened upon a cartoon by Mike Waters in which a sun-glassed sheep is relaxing in a lounge chair and wearing ear phones connected to the iPod at his side. The TV is on, a computer rests on his lap, the radio is blaring, and he’s got a copy of Sheep Digest in his hands. Hidden under the stack of magazines at his side is a Bible. In the background, a shepherd is calling. The sheep says, “I wonder why I don’t hear from the shepherd anymore!” The words in the caption beneath the comic are from John 10:27: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Of course, the sheep need to hear the shepherd to know his voice and nowadays we seem to be listening to everything but our shepherd’s voice (and reading everything but His word)! Worldly distractions, concerns, desires and possessions have drowned out His voice.

In the case of the unfortunate demise of the Turkish sheep, the problem wasn’t that they weren’t listening to the shepherd. The village’s shepherds had briefly abandoned the flock while they enjoyed breakfast. Unlike the Turkish shepherds, our Shepherd never takes a coffee break or goes off duty! He’s more like the shepherd in the cartoon—on the job and calling his flock. Like those suicidal sheep in Turkey, however, we rarely know enough to stop on our own. Fortunately, our Shepherd will step in and lead us. Of course, for that to happen, we have to be listening for His voice.

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. … My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. [John 10:14-15,27-28 (RSV)]

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THE SAMARITAN

Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. [Luke 10:33 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoAccording to the historian Josephus, around 9 AD, when Jesus was just a boy, some Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem on Passover and defiled the Temple with human remains. The hatred between Jews and the Samaritans, however, had been going on for centuries. In 930 BC, when Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) was king, the kingdom of Israel divided. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, eventually became known as Samaria. The southern kingdom, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, became known as Judah. Fearing a change of alliance if his people returned to Jerusalem to worship, the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam, set up his own worship centers complete with golden calves. After they were conquered by Assyria in 772 BC, most of the Jews were taken into captivity and foreigners, bringing their pagan gods and beliefs, colonized the land. The remaining Jews began to worship idols along with the God of Israel and the Samaritan religion became a mix of idolatry and Judaism.

Samaritans were a continual source of difficulty for the Jews of the southern kingdom. Insisting that Moses said they should worship on Gerizim, they erected a temple there. Recognizing only the five books of Moses, Samaritans rejected most Jewish traditions, interfered when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and offered safe haven to Judah’s criminals. Controlling the land between Galilee and Jerusalem, they regularly harassed pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem. Because of all the intermarriage between the Jews and Gentiles of Samaria, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds.” Seeing them as both racially and theologically contaminated, the Jews had a proverb: “A piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.”

This is the world in which we find Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan with the unlikely hero being a Samaritan (whose people were known to harass travelers). We know this parable was in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but let’s back up one chapter to see what preceded it. Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Rather than taking the longer walk around Samaria, they were walking right through it. When Jesus sent messengers into a Samaritan village to make sleeping and eating arrangements, they were not welcomed. Although Jesus had previously told the disciples to simply shake the dust from their feet if a town refused to welcome them, John and James suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Luke says Jesus rebuked them but we don’t know what was said.

Part of their rebuke may have been the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable could have been as much for His disciples (especially James and John) as it was for the legal expert who asked the question. Jesus easily could have made his point with a Roman soldier as the story’s unlikely hero, but He didn’t. Although the Samaritans had been unneighborly in snubbing Him, Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to teach a lesson about neighbors! That parable told the disciples that, even when our neighbor is inhospitable and slights us, we still treat him as our neighbor. Whether or not someone helps us, we are to help them and, when someone offends us, we’re not to take offense. We do unto others as we would like them to do to us and not as they’ve done to us!

Although there are about 800 Samaritans still living in Israel, for most of us the word “Samaritan” refers to someone who helps other people, especially strangers, when they have trouble. How ironic that the despised “pagan half-Jews of the Old Testament” (as one writer called them) took a place of honor in the New!

Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! [Luke 6:30-31 (NLT)]

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OUR PRAYERS

Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King over all the earth. Praise him with a psalm. [Psalm 47:6-7 (NLT)]

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer! Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer. [“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven]

ZINNIA“That’s more like it!” I thought as I read Psalm 47; I certainly preferred it to the curses of the previous set of Psalms I’d read. I’m reading the Bible in chronological rather than in canonical order which means that the various books and chapters have been divided and rearranged. As a result, the psalms of lament and complaint were grouped together during David’s trials and the praise psalms were placed after the chapters outlining the duties in the Temple. These psalms of worship, adoration and thanksgiving seem more appropriate for Israel’s book of hymns than the earlier ones about wickedness, treachery, calamity and vengeance.

Although I prefer the joyful psalms, there is a reason Israel’s prayer book has lasted over 3,000 years and continues to be our prayer book today. Rather than a sappy feel-good book of poetry, Psalms reflects the gamut of human experience and emotions. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, I’m surprised He didn’t tell them they already knew and direct them to the Psalms for guidance. The Psalms’ words are intense, raw and honest; they conceal nothing. If the Psalmist is suffering, fearful, angry, depressed, or exhausted, he says so as readily as when he expresses his elation, adoration and thanksgiving. Never pretending that all is well when it isn’t, he fearlessly lays out his emotions before God. Wretchedness and joy, pain and jubilation, wickedness and virtue, despair and hope, grief and thanksgiving, fear and confidence: all are articulated. It is in that depth of personal expression and experience that we find words of consolation, faith, trust, and hope.

When I seriously evaluate my own prayer life, I’m nowhere near as honest and bold as the psalmists. Of course, God knows my personal struggles but, unlike David and the rest of the psalmists, I’m not as willing to lay them so passionately or openly at His feet. When Joseph Scriven wrote the words, “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” he meant all of it, not just the pretty stuff. I’m sure God would prefer honest words of grievance to false words of praise any day.

A human heart is like a ship on a wild sea, driven by the storm-winds from the four quarters of the world. Here it is struck with fear, and worry about coming disaster; there comes grief and sadness because of present evil. Here breathes a breeze of hope and of expectation of happiness to come; there blows security and joy in present blessings. These storm-winds teach us to speak with earnestness, and open the heart, and pour out what lies at the bottom of it. … What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm-winds of every kind? Where does one find such words of joy as in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? … On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? … And, as was said, it is the best thing of all that they speak these words to God and with God. [Martin Luther, Preface to the Psalter]

The Lord is close to all who call on him, yes, to all who call on him in truth. [Psalm 145:18 (NLT)]

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)]

African irisAt times, we can find reading the Bible rather disturbing. For me, Peter calling Lot “righteous” is upsetting; this man offered up his virgin daughters to be raped by a mob! Abraham’s willingness to hand over Sarah to other men’s lust is equally disquieting. Those are, however, real stories about real people and, among other things, they reflect the low status of women in the ancient world. The Bible’s words may have been God-breathed and intended for people of all times and places but they were penned by men thousands of years ago for their contemporaries and their words reflect a very different culture.

When we read the Bible, we tend to read it from our 21st century point of view. Picturing the cruel plantation owner Simon Legree and remembering our nation’s intolerable exploitation of a race of people, we find the Biblical acceptance of slavery repugnant. It’s difficult for any of us to picture a society where slavery was tolerated and people would willingly sell themselves into bondage to pay their debts. Then again, in our greedy nation, it’s hard to understand a culture where, every seven years, those slaves were to be freed and all debts were to be cancelled. When we read Paul’s admonishment to dress modestly, we think he’s writing about racy clothing but plunging necklines, mini-skirts, thongs, and see-through tops weren’t a problem in his day. He actually was telling women not to flaunt their wealth with extravagant attire and jewelry. Having multiple wives, requiring an unmarried brother of a deceased man to marry his widowed sister-in-law, rules about laying siege to a city, and Paul’s concern about hair length and food, are difficult to understand or find relevant in today’s society.

To a great extent, we don’t understand the times and people responsible for bringing us the Bible. Its words were written between 3,400 and 1,900 years ago and we’re neither nomadic shepherds nor 1st century Hebrews, Romans or Greeks. If we’ve not experienced exile, been persecuted for our faith or lived in an occupied country, we have difficulty understanding or appreciating the words of those who have. With our culture so removed from the original one, when we ask, “What does this mean to me?” the quick and easy answer is often, “Nothing!” Before we ask that question, perhaps we should ask, “What did this mean to the people of that day?” Once we understand how it applied to them, we will probably find the Bible far more relevant to our lives today.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. [Romans 15:4 (ESV)]

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. [James 1:5 (ESV)]

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